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.

Episode 110 – Sharon Gets Good News

romantic fiction serial, romance fiction, sweet romancePresident Mendoza arrived just as Air Force One touched down. Tony and Matt, who had previously been bouncing off the walls, suddenly settled down and got their ties tied and suit jackets on. Sharon smiled to herself. They were technically there as the president’s personal assistants. It was a heady job, but Mark had chosen well in spite of their youth, with both boys having just enough youthful joie de vivre to be excited about opening doors for the President but enough gravitas to behave appropriately.

Mark made his way down the airplane’s stairway to the podium and red carpet set up nearby. There was a decent-sized crowd gathered on the airport tarmac, and plenty of press, both American and Columbian. Mark greeted Mendoza, a broad-shouldered man who Sharon thought resembled Omar Sharif more than a little. Mendoza made a little welcome speech in excellent English, then Mark made his way through his speech in Spanish. Mark didn’t speak Spanish very well, but Sharon had coached him extensively, and if she was not thrilled with his accent, at least his Spanish didn’t sound forced.

After the welcome speeches, there was an early evening car tour of the city, then dinner in the presidential palace. That went late. Nonetheless, the U.S. party was up again early for tours and talks and much-needed fence mending with local farmers who had suffered at the hands of American soldiers who had been trying to take down the drug cartels. Mark strongly suspected that more than a few of the government officials and citizens they met were members of said cartels, if not the heads of such groups. Sharon didn’t say for sure, but she hinted.

She spent her day mostly observing. Her staff member who oversaw research on South America, Leonidas Bertonetti, had been in Bogota since late the week before and had made a goodly number of contacts even apart from the ones President Mendoza had set up.

The day was a whirlwind, finishing up with a particularly rowdy party with dancing and a decidedly free-flowing bar. Sharon didn’t think she’d had that much to drink, but she was feeling pretty happy.

The news from home was exceedingly good. First, Karen Tanaka, Sharon’s colleague on the president’s Advisory Panel and Sharon’s good friend, had called. Karen, also known as Tanks, had been recently sued by her ex-husband, George Watanabe, for custody of their two daughters, Kira and Allie.

Then Sharon’s sister Susan had called with her news, followed closely by their brother Michael, whose parting advice, while unsolicited (as so much of Michael’s advice was), Sharon had to concede had merit. Which turned out to be fairly convenient, since Mark suggested the two take a light walk around the grounds of the Columbian presidential palace, where the party was taking place.

Sharon was acting as Mark’s “date” that night – a frequent arrangement that made it look like Mark was bowing to the demands created by the social expectations of couplehood. But since Sharon spoke Spanish almost as well as a Mexican native, it also made her readily available as a translator when needed.

Sharon left the party first and found the walkway around the outside of the palace gardens without trouble. She was wearing a long, straight black dress with a sheer beaded overlay. Mark smiled as he saw her standing on a low retaining wall, looking out over the garden with a happy smile on her face. Her hair was pinned up.

“Hey!” she said, turning and seeing him. She lightly hopped down, took a deep breath and spun around once.

“You look exceptionally happy,” Mark said.

“I am,” she replied. “It’s been an unusually fun party and right before we left the hotel, I got some terrific news from home.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis are making nice?”

She scrunched her face. “I wish. Nope, this was on the more personal front. Has Karen talked to you about the custody suit?”

“Not much,” Mark said. “But she’s been keeping me up to date. Last I heard, her ex got an emergency order to enforce the girls’ visit this summer.”

“Boy, did that backfire on them.” Sharon laughed. “I’m not sure how it worked out in legal terms. But Karen was going to send the girls to their dad’s for the summer and had it set up before the suit was even filed. And since she was able to prove that the emergency order was anything but an emergency, the judge got annoyed. Then Karen’s lawyers petitioned him to stop the visit based on George’s history of abusive behavior and the judge okayed it. Well, at least for the time being. There’s another hearing next week, where George’s lawyers get to respond.”

“That sounds pretty good,” Mark said. “But why stop the visit?”

“Kira’s refusing to go.”

“She’s barely fifteen. How can she refuse?”

Sharon grimaced. “Well, she can’t, technically. But remember when Matt made his unauthorized arrival in DC?”

Matt had, in fact, run away from his very unhappy home, and thanks to the plan he’d put together with Kira, Sharon’s niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany, along with Tony Garces and Rebecca Cooper, the daughter of one of Sharon and Karen’s other colleagues on the Advisory Panel, he’d arrived safely in Washington, DC.

Mark sighed. “Right. They were originally planning Kira’s getaway. They’re not still up to something, are they?”

“I have no idea. I’m trying to play it cool on the off chance someone will confide in me. In any case, with luck, the judge will keep the order in place and Kira and Allie won’t have to go to their dad’s.”

“Or wherever.” Mark smiled. “That is good news, but not normally the sort of thing that has you dancing.”

“That’s the even better news.” Sharon smiled and spun again. “My sister Susan has been commissioned to choreograph a new dance for the Artists with Disabilities Festival at the end of August, and she’s going to use my brother’s music.”

“Susan? Oh, she’s the one in the wheelchair. I mean, uses a wheelchair.”

Sharon chuckled. “Michael and I are thrilled. We didn’t think she’d go for it. It’s been barely two years since the accident and she’s been going through a really bad patch the past few months. The best we can figure is that it’s finally sinking in that her injury is permanent. She’s been pretty angry lately.”

“Wow. Wasn’t she some sort of dancer?” Mark asked.

“Lead ballerina with the Pacific Ballet, although she was getting ready to retire when the accident happened, being over 30 and all. The good news is that she can still choreograph and since the dance will be about her own journey as someone with a disability, it might help her confront some of her own issues.” Sharon smiled. “She’s really excited about it and happier than she’s been since the accident happened.”

Mark smiled. “It sounds great.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Sharon spun very, very close to him. “Better yet, my brother suggested I get a little of my own happiness, too, and I thought why not?”

She reached up and kissed him full on the mouth. Mark felt himself rejoicing, even as he worried about the two of them being seen.

“I like that kind of happiness,” he whispered as their lips parted.

Sharon’s lips were still slightly open and her breathing was just a touch heavy. “As much as I’d like otherwise, the good news is that this will go absolutely nowhere since we cannot risk being seen and someone is bound to be headed our way soon.”

Mark kissed her again, starting softly, then stronger and stronger as she responded, melting into his arms and holding him tightly against herself. However, it was he who gently pulled them apart.

“What are we going to do, Sharon?” he sighed. “This distance thing is not working. I can’t lose you as an employee. And I don’t want to lose you.”

“I don’t either.” Sharon blushed, then looked at him, her soft brown eyes almost piercing him to his soul. “And you’re not going to. We’re friends, good friends. Your sister and I are just as close. Your nephew is my buddy and he’s best friends with my niece. Our lives are so freaking tied up together that we’re sort of stuck. We just have to try to stay friends and hold out as long as we can.”

The sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel forced Mark to pull away from her. Leonidas appeared on the path with one of President Mendoza’s aides on his arm. Leonidas was young, dark and smooth, although Sharon couldn’t help wonder if he was finally getting played by the lovely young woman with the very shrewd dark eyes.

They didn’t quite notice Mark and Sharon as they slipped into the garden. Mark nodded back at the building and Sharon went ahead of him.

“I’d better stay out here a bit longer,” Mark said somewhat more loudly than he needed to. “I think I see Matt headed this way. I overheard him and Tony talking about practicing their Spanish with some of the younger ladies here.”

“I did, too,” Sharon replied. “Do you want me to take the outer loop of the garden and see if we can flush them out?”

“Sure. Why not?” Mark turned and headed away from the building as Sharon headed around the other way.

If Mark was hoping that he and Sharon would meet on the far side of the garden, it was not to be. Never mind that their “search” was actually intended to throw Leonidas off, Sharon did actually encounter Matt and Tony and three obviously over-age-eighteen young women near the entrance to the palace.

In rapid Spanish, Sharon not so gently convinced the young women that they might be better off inside back at the party.

“Aw, come on, Aunt Sharon,” Tony groaned as the women left. Tony called Sharon “aunt” simply because her niece Jodi and Jodi’s best friend Tiffany did.

“Uh-huh,” said Sharon.

“We weren’t going to do anything,” Matt complained.

“And what were you guys going to say when not doing anything turned into an international incident?” Sharon asked, her grin belying her serious tone.

“Since when does a casual snog in a garden constitute an international incident?” replied Matt, pulling himself up and acting way more confident than he felt.

Sharon laughed. “Let’s see. All three of those girls are over eighteen. You guys are not. One of them is President Mendoza’s daughter and the other two are nieces.”

“And your point is?” Tony said, trying to imitate Matt, which didn’t entirely work since after a poignant pause, he, Matt and Sharon were all doubled up with laughter.

“Seriously, Aunt Sharon,” Matt said finally. “We weren’t going to do anything, well, serious.”

“I’m sure that was your intention,” Sharon replied. “But let’s be real. Those ladies had serious written all over them. And besides, as the nearest available grown up, I have a sworn duty to keep you two from having any real fun.”

“And speaking of fun,” Tony said, “Matt’s uncle left the party right after you did.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nice try. I have no idea where he is or what he’s up to.”

Which, she had to admit, was the truth, even if it was misleading. Still, the boys each took one of her arms and went with her back to the party.