Episode 182 – Problems in Germany

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

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

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

“What now?” asked Yesmenia with a sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

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

“You both were,” Mark said, chuckling.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More’s the pity,” grumbled June.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not perfect, you know.”

“Yeah. I figured that one out.”

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

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

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

Sharon nodded and picked up her glass.


Episode 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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

Episode 165 – Warmonger has a Problem

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

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

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

“You think that’s what got to Al?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wanda?” Sharon asked.

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

“I don’t think I’ve met her.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good,” said Mark.

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

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

Episode 164 – Text Chat

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romanceText message chat:

Matt – Hey.

Tiffany – Hey back.

Matt – What are you doing?

Tiffany – Homework.

Tiffany – Writing an essay for American History. You?

Matt – Algebra Two word problems. Blech.

Tiffany – Do you want me to get Jodi?

Matt – Nope. Deshawn’s hel

Matt – Sorry. Deshawn’s helping me and Tony just threw a pillow at me.

Tiffany – Jodi’s trying to hack the school server. You think they’re okay with us having a thing?

Matt – They seem to be. I mean, it’s all been chats and hanging with them so far.

Tiffany – I guess. It’s getting late and I’ve still got a lab to write up.

Matt – ‘K. Love you

Tiffany – Love you.

Episode 151 – Fireside Conference

Sometime later, most of the group had gone to their respective tents, leaving June, Carla, Michael, and Inez sitting around the embers of the fire.

“So?” Michael asked June softly.

“What?” June asked, then giggled. “Seriously. I don’t get what you’re asking.”

“I don’t know,” sighed Michael. “It just seemed like things were pretty tense between Sharon and your brother up until a little while ago. Is Sharon in trouble or something?”

“Or something,” sigh Carla. “And it’s my fault.”

“No, it’s not,” June said, swatting at her. June looked at Michael. “You heard about Carla’s miraculous escape from Nigeria, right?”

Michael frowned.

Inez nudged him. “Yes, you did. I read you the story on the plane to London.”

“Oh, that!” Michael looked at Carla. “That was you?”

“Yes,” said Carla.

“She actually left with us on Air Force One,” June said. “The catch was my brother wasn’t supposed to know until we were in the air. That way he could honestly deny knowing what was going on.”

“Plausible deniability,” said Inez. “Okay.”

“Well, Sharon was part of it and Mark got a little annoyed,” June said. “He was also worried that we were letting our emotions get the better of us. Which we weren’t.

“Right,” said Carla. “I just hope I didn’t get Sharon in trouble.”

June groaned. “Not that much in trouble and it looks like they cleared the air a little while ago.”

“Yeah,” Michael said. “I found her at the edge of the village and him coming from that direction. She said she couldn’t talk about it.”

“Maybe she didn’t think she could,” June said.

“Or maybe she didn’t want her big brother to know what was going on,” said Inez, nudging Michael.

Michael just looked at June. “So, does she have a thing for your brother? Matt seems to think so.”

June laughed. “Actually, they both have it bad for each other. But they’re not going to do anything about it. I’m not sure what Sharon’s reasons are. She says she doesn’t want to be a public figure.”

“She really doesn’t,” Carla said. “It scares the snot out of her.”

“Then why does she keep falling for guys in the limelight?” Michael asked.

Inez shoved him again. “It was only that one time with your drummer. Her other boyfriends have been fairly low-profile.”

“Not that kid she was dating while in grad school. The one that became the big tech CEO,” Michael said. “He was all about the publicity and that’s when Sharon dumped him.”

Carla shoved Michael from his other side. “Her past history is irrelevant. It’s what’s going on now and June is right. Sharon has it bad for Mr. President and definitely does not want to be the First Girlfriend.”

“And Mark is equally hung up on her,” June said. “I’m serious. Half the West Wing staff is in on the conspiracy to get those two together because they can tell they like each other. And really, they just fit. You can tell.”

“Really?” asked Carla. “This could be fun. How do I get in on this?”

“Wait,” Michael said. He paused. “You sure they really like each other? I mean, I’ve had that vibe from her for a while now, but after the past day or two, I was getting worried.”

“They’ve definitely worked it out,” said June. “I caught them glancing at each other before Mark went to his tent. I mean, I know she isn’t in there, but I saw the look.”

“I did, too,” said Carla. “And it said she wanted to be in that tent with him.”

“Voice of reason here,” said Inez. “Maybe we ought to let them work it out.”

The others groaned.

“That’s no fun,” said Carla.

“We’ll just have to be subtle, that’s all,” said June.

“That lets Michael out,” Inez said, getting up. “Which means it’s time we were in bed. Come on, honey.”

“But,” Michael looked up at Inez and sighed. “You’re right. Good night, Carla, June.”

“Good night,” Carla said.

“Good night,” June echoed then got up, herself. “And really I need to go to bed, too. You coming, Carla?”

“Sure.” Carla got up and followed June.

Episode 149 – Mark and Sharon Make Up

Sharon continued her avoidance maneuver the next day as both parties got arranged in the small buses and SUVs that would take them out to the village where the newest well had been built.

It was a full day’s ride out to the village, and it was almost dark by the time the group arrived. The villagers had prepared a welcoming party with dancing and music around a roaring fire. There was a small banquet and Michael took great pains to explain to the reporters and the President’s party that because of the new well, the villagers were able to grow enough food to host the party.

After that, the party grew relaxed and noisy. Sharon noticed that Mark had slipped away. She found him at the edge of the huts, gazing into the night sky.

“It’s usually me who takes off for a breather,” she said, quietly.

Mark turned his head to look at her, then shrugged. “I suppose we should change it up occasionally. Besides, I had some business to do.”

“Oh, dear.” Sharon backed away. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“I’m done.” Mark’s gaze went back to the sky. “I was just appreciating the quiet for a moment.”

Sharon waited for a moment. “Are we okay?”

“I don’t know. It’s been a rocky week.” Mark glanced back at her, then sighed. “I just can’t help wondering what else you haven’t told me in the cause of plausible deniability.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“The worst of it is, I know damn well Warmonger has been playing that game with me, and I made it clear from the start that I don’t want anyone hiding stuff or whatever for any reason, especially that one.”

Sharon frowned. “You did? I don’t recall you saying anything about that.”

“I did. At the very first Advisory Board meeting.” Mark stopped. “Which you weren’t at.”

“Still, I suppose I could have figured it out that’s not your style.” Sharon said. She took a deep breath. “The irony is, I have a terrible time getting some of my CIA contacts to tell me things because they know I’ll turn right around and tell you. Makes it damned hard to get you good information.”

“I’ve got to trust you, Sharon,” Mark said.

“I know. I didn’t think I was breaking faith. But I’m sure that doesn’t help.”

It was Mark’s turn to frown. “It does and it doesn’t.”

“So what do we do if something similar comes up, where the only way I can get the right intel is to give you plausible deniability?”

“I can’t imagine…” Mark shook his head. “You know what? It’s going to happen again. Silly me. I keep thinking I’m in control of this game.”

“You are, at least in terms of the big picture. It’s some of the minor skirmishes that are the issue.” Sharon walked a little closer. “I think the idea will be to let you know there’s something going on along those lines and see if you think it’s dire enough that it’s worth playing along.”

“That’s reasonable. I hate it, but it’s reasonable.”

“And now that I know the policy, I promise not to make those kinds of decisions without checking in with you, first.”

“Thanks.” Mark smiled softly at her. Once again, he felt his breath catch at the sight of her, her brown eyes glistening in the starlight, her voice soft and low. He looked up again, not wanting to feel what he was feeling. “It’s something else out here, isn’t it?”

“It’s beautiful.” Sharon smiled. “It’s my first time out in the bush. It’s austere, but it is gorgeous.”

Music and laughter roared from the fire ring. Sharon looked back at the group.

“Um, I don’t know if I should be asking this, but…” She bit her lower lip. “Things have been pretty tense between you and my brother. Did he say something?”

“No, he hasn’t.” Mark ducked his head. “That may have been my fault. I just got this vibe that he was going to go all protective on me and I probably over-reacted.”

Sharon shot a quick glare back at the fire. “Hm. He didn’t exactly under-react. I think I’ve got an older brother to thump.”

“We’d better get back,” Mark said suddenly. “And, uh, I’m glad we had this chat. I feel better.”

Sharon nodded, smiling softly to herself and Mark strode back to the party. Even as she was glad he’d pulled away at that moment, having him so distant had felt even worse. She didn’t need either feeling. She lingered a few minutes longer and was just about to turn back to the party when she heard someone coming toward her.

Episode 111 – An Assassination Attempt

romantic fiction serial, romance fiction, The levity and good feeling lasted through the next morning as the U.S. party loaded themselves into a limo motorcade that was joined by President Mendoza’s own motorcade. Mark later was hard pressed to remember where the group was headed. All he remembered was that as he got out of the limo and bent to help Sharon out, he was flattened and shoved back in by body guards. He never even heard the gun shots.

An American Secret Service agent, unnamed, was later credited with spotting Pablo Tomenco’s gun and calling it out in time for one of the Columbian agents to knock the gun askew and send the bullets skyward. Somehow, no one was hit in the attempt on both the Columbian and American presidents.

In the U.S. presidential limo, Mark realized that Sharon was underneath him and as he slowly got up, he saw that she was unconscious.

“Are you all right, sir?” asked the ever-present Riff Butler, an imposing African American man with a buzz cut and a perfect Secret Service demeanor.

“I’m fine,” Mark snapped.  “Sharon’s out.”

Mark glanced around. Calvin Whitecross was in the facing seat next to Matt. Sharon groaned and tried to pull herself up. Riff reached around the tight space and helped her up as he let out a stream of Spanish, directing Tomas, the Columbian driver, to head to the nearest hospital. Sharon responded, her Spanish far too fast for Mark to follow in spite of her grogginess, but Riff not only glared her down, he repeated the order.

At the hospital, the limo screeched into the emergency bay. Doctors, nurses and orderlies were ready with several gurneys.

“Sir, come with me,” Sharon ordered as she was lifted onto a gurney.

She started in Spanish again and the doctor motioned for Mark to join them as they rushed Sharon into the emergency room, with Riff on their heels. Matt swallowed and looked at Calvin.

“Now what?” Matt asked.

“Get out of the car?” Calvin asked.

Fortunately, an orderly who spoke English appeared in the doorway and took them to a waiting room.

“Your driver, he is parking the car someplace else,” the young Columbian said. He was short and slight, but had a firm demeanor.

Matt swallowed. “I heard shots. Did anyone else get hurt?”

“I don’t think so,” the orderly answered. “The radio for emergency, it does not say anyone is coming. I will come for you if it calls.”

“Thanks,” Matt replied.

“So I guess we wait,” Calvin said as the orderly left.

“Yeah.” Matt sighed. “Hope she’s okay.”

Calvin smiled softly. “In my experience, when they’re yelling like that, they’re okay.”

The waiting room could have been anywhere, with green and blue plastic chairs strung together in tight rows and gray walls with supposedly soothing framed pictures on them. Except that the voice coming from the TV mounted on a wall in the corner was speaking in rapid Spanish. Matt watched the images from the shooting site and tried to deduce what had happened.

Tomas, the short and fat limo driver, waddled into the waiting room. With a worried frown, he approached Matt and spoke rapidly in Spanish. All Matt caught was “La Senorita” over and over again and guessed that the driver was asking about Sharon’s condition. Matt’s mind went blank.

“No es muerto,” he finally said.

“Ay! Pero la senorita?” Tomas asked.

“No es muerto,” Matt said again, trying to remember how to say Sharon was mostly okay, especially since he knew that he knew that much Spanish.

It didn’t help. With a loud cry, Tomas went running off out of the hospital. About 20 minutes later, Matt noticed a head shot of Sharon on the TV screen with the caption “Muerta.” Dead.

An obscenity dropped from his lips. “Calvin, it’s saying Sharon Wheatly is dead.”

“What?” Calvin came over and looked at the screen. “You think?”

“Why wouldn’t they have told us?” Matt cried belligerently. “What the hell happened? Where’s that guy?”

He left the waiting room with Calvin on his heels, looking for someone to who could speak English and who knew how Sharon was doing. The two didn’t find help right away, but they found Mark and Riff waiting in an empty room.

“Oh, no!” Matt sobbed.

“Matt? What’s the matter?” Mark asked.

“Aunt Sharon… The TV said she’s dead,” Matt blinked back tears. “And she’s not here.”

“They’re doing an x-ray on her head,” Mark said. “She has a concussion, probably. They’re checking just to be sure there’s no skull fracture.”

“But the TV,” Matt gasped.

“Are you sure you understood what they were saying?” Mark asked.

“Pretty sure,” Matt said.

Mark glanced at Calvin, then glared briefly at Riff. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialed out.

“Yesmenia -” he began, but was cut off. “What? No. She’s fine. I mean, she probably has a concussion, but she’s alive and cranking…  Seriously? Crap…. Even the U.S. news?…. No, no. Get out the retraction. Now. I’ll call Wheatly’s folks…. Yes, I’ve got her phone…. Just get on it, okay?”

Mark swiped off, then rolled his eyes as he dug through the plastic bag holding Sharon’s belongings. He pulled Sharon’s Blackberry free and started scrolling through her contacts.

“Her mother is Madeleine Fauvrillet,” Calvin said. “Father Robert Wheatly.”

“Here it is.” Mark connected through as Matt elbowed Calvin.

“How’d you know that?” Matt hissed playfully at Calvin, who shrugged.

Mark waited as the phone rang in California.

“Allo?” asked a worn female voice.

“Madeleine Fauvrillet?” Mark asked, stumbling over the last name a little.

“Yes. This is she.” Her voice was firm, but she sounded upset.

“This is Mark Jerguessen. It sounds like you may have heard about your daughter on the news.”

“Yes. It is kind of you to call.”

“Ma’am, it’s a false report. I was just with your daughter, and it’s no more than a concussion, maybe a skull fracture at worst. But she is most definitely alive and likely to stay that way.”

“False? She is alive!” There was a sigh, then the sound of her crying and shouting at someone in French. “Oh, grace a Dieu! Merci. I mean, thank you so much. Thank you for calling. I must call the others. Merci. I mean, thank you!’

She hung up. Mark looked at the phone. A second later, orderlies wheeled Sharon into the room.

“Why do you have my phone?” she asked.

“It’s a long story,” Mark said.

Sharon frowned at Mark as he, Matt and Calvin exchanged guilty looks. Matt suddenly sniffed and soundly hugged Sharon.

“Easy!” she yelped, then hugged him back. “What was that for?”

“I’m sorry,” Matt gasped. “I know you’re hurt, but I’m just so glad you’re alive.”

“Of course-” Sharon suddenly stopped and listened. Rapid Spanish floated over from another television elsewhere in the emergency department. “You have got to be kidding me! Oh, my god, my parents!”

Mark showed her the phone. “I just called them. Sorry to use your phone, but it was the fastest way.”

Sharon eased herself back down onto the pillows. “How the hell did this happen?”

Mark just shrugged.