First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(10)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Just beyond the gas pumps, a hitchhiker held a battered cardboard sign that read, ST. LOUIS. The guy looked like a felon, and Mat doubted he’d have too much luck getting a ride, but he still felt a pang of envy for the man’s freedom. The whole day had been a bad dream.

Lucy climbed out behind him with another ten-dollar bribe in her back pocket. She’d tied a flannel shirt around her hips and had the smelly baby under the armpits so she could hold her as far away as possible. Lucy was small, and he doubted that she could carry the Demon very far that way, but he didn’t offer to take her himself. He’d carried around too many screaming babies when he was a kid to be sentimental about them. The only good thing about babies was getting them drunk on their twenty-first birthdays.

He smiled at the memories, then pushed another ten-dollar bill into the back pocket of Lucy’s cutoffs. “Buy yourself some lunch after you get her cleaned up. I’ll meet you here in half an hour.”

She gave him a long, searching look that hinted at disappointment. He wondered if she’d expected them all to cuddle up together to eat. Not a chance.

The woman he’d been envying got out of the blue Corsica. She had short light brown hair styled in one of those uneven cuts that was fashionable. The rest of her, however, wasn’t so fashionable: cheap white sneakers, navy shorts, and an oversized yellow top with a row of ducks marching across it. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. And she was heavily pregnant.

A Grand Am slowed down on the highway for the hitchhiker, only to shoot off as soon as the driver got a closer look. The hitchhiker flipped him the bird.

Mat glanced at the woman again as she walked past him. Something about her seemed familiar. She had fragile, finely carved features, a long, slender neck, and striking blue eyes. There was almost a patrician quality about the way she carried herself that was at odds with her bargain-basement clothes. She reached the door of the restaurant just ahead of Lucy and held it open for her. Lucy didn’t acknowledge the courtesy. She was too busy tossing him a dirty look.

Something caught his eye on the seat of the Corsica. He leaned down and saw an ugly ceramic frog. He’d always wondered what kind of people bought things like that. Then he noticed the set of keys dangling from the ignition. He thought about going after her to say something, but figured anybody stupid enough to buy that frog deserved what she got.

The interior of the truck stop was arranged in a large L. He selected a small table in the back corner where he had room to stretch his legs and ordered coffee. As he waited for it to arrive, he considered the fact that it was going to take him at least two days to reach Iowa. Maybe longer, if that ominous pinging coming from the engine got any worse. How was he going to tolerate those girls for another two days? The irony of letting himself be saddled with exactly what he’d worked his whole life to get away from didn’t escape him.

He should have left them both to foster care.

Nealy swabbed a thick, greasy french fry in catsup and watched the three people seated on the other side of the truck stop dining room. At first the man had been there by himself. She’d noticed him right away—his physical size would have made it hard not to. But it wasn’t just his size that had caught her attention. It was everything about him.

He had that hard-muscled look of a working man, and it didn’t take much imagination to picture him suntanned and shirtless, nailing shingles to a roof or wearing a battered hard hat over that crisp dark hair as he wielded a jackhammer in the middle of a city street. He was also drop-dead handsome, although not in that too-pretty way of a male model. Instead, his face looked lived in.

Unfortunately, he was glowering at the young girl who’d wedged herself in next to him, the baby propped in her lap. Nealy pegged him as one of those fathers who regarded his children as inconveniences, her least favorite kind of man.

His daughter was the girl she’d held the door open for earlier. Although she was overly made-up and had a maroon stripe in her hair, her delicate features gave her the potential of great beauty. The baby was adorable. One of those healthy, blond-haired, mischievous cherubs that Nealy avoided as much as she could.

The people-watching had been enjoyable, but she was anxious to get back on the road, so she forced her eyes away from the man and gathered up her trash as she’d seen others do. A middle-aged couple at an adjoining table smiled at her and she smiled back. People smiled a lot, she’d noticed, at a pregnant woman.

Her smile changed into a self-satisfied grin. Last night, before she’d gone to bed at the motel, she’d cut the long blond hair her father and husband had cherished and dyed it light brown, which was really her natural color, although it was so long since she’d seen it that she’d had to guess at the exact shade. She loved the shorter, tousled style. Not only did it make her look younger, but it was much too casual for an elegant First Lady.

Although maintaining her disguise as an elderly lady had been her first idea, she hadn’t wanted the encumbrance of a wig and all that clothing. The fake pregnancy padding had been the perfect solution. Even if people noticed a pregnant woman’s resemblance to Cornelia Case, they’d regard it as nothing more than a coincidence.

Last night she’d modified a small Wal-Mart pillow by reshaping its corners and adding some ties. With her short brown hair, discount store clothes, ring-free hands, and minimal cosmetics, she looked like a pregnant woman who was down on her luck. When she spoke, she completed her change of identity by reshaping her upper-crust vowels with the trace of a Southern accent.

As she left the truck stop restaurant, she fumbled for her car keys in the purse she’d left the White House with. She felt a packet of tissues, some mints, her new wallet, but no keys. Had she left them in the car?

She needed to be more careful. She’d grown accustomed to having a cadre of aides carrying things for her. This morning, she’d left her purse behind when she’d stopped at a diner for breakfast, and she’d had to run back to get it. Now it was her keys.

She stepped out into the parking lot and looked around for the Chevy, but she didn’t see it. Odd. She thought she’d parked next to that trail-worn yellow Winnebago. She was sure she had.

She hurried forward, but the car wasn’t there.

She stared at the empty parking place, then at the motor home next to it. Maybe she was mistaken. Maybe she’d parked somewhere else. Her heart raced, and her gaze swept across the parking lot. Even then she didn’t want to believe it. The car was gone. She’d left her keys inside and someone had stolen it.