First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(11)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Her throat constricted. One day of freedom. Was that all she would get?

She struggled against the despair that threatened to choke her. She could still salvage this. She’d brought thousands of dollars in cash with her. She could buy another car. She’d hitch a ride into the nearest town and find a dealer—

Her knees gave out beneath her, and she sagged down on a wooden bench. Her money had been locked in the trunk for safekeeping. All she had in her wallet was a twenty-dollar bill.

She buried her face in her hands. She’d have to call the White House, and within the hour the Secret Service would swoop down on this peaceful, ordinary place. She’d be whisked onto a helicopter and returned to Washington before dinner.

She saw exactly how it would unfold. Castigation from her father. Reminders from the President of her duty to the country. Suffocating guilt. By tomorrow evening, she’d be standing in a receiving line, her fingers aching from shaking another few hundred hands. And she had no one to blame but herself. What use was all her education, all her experience, if she couldn’t remember a simple thing like taking car keys out of an ignition?

Her throat closed tight. She wheezed as she tried to draw a breath.

“She’s heavy, and I’m not carrying her anymore!”

Nealy lifted her head and saw the young girl she’d been watching earlier set the baby she’d been carrying down on the sidewalk and yell at the Father of the Year, who was heading toward the yellow Winnebago.

“Suit yourself.” Although he wasn’t speaking loudly, he had a deep, carrying voice.

The girl didn’t move from the baby’s side, but neither did she pick her back up. The baby plopped forward on her knees as if to crawl, only to rebel at the midday heat coming from the sidewalk. She was a smart little critter, though, and she pushed herself up until only the minimal parts of her were in contact with the hot concrete—the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet. With her bottom shoved high in the air, she began to move forward in a spider crawl.

The girl spun toward her father. “I mean it, Jorik! You’re acting like an asshole!” Nealy blinked at the girl’s crude language. “She’s not poison, you know. You could at least touch her.”

“You’re in charge of the baby, and I’m in charge of driving. Let’s go.” The man named Jorik might be a lousy father, but he was smart enough to have taken his keys with him, and now he shoved one of them in the lock on the door of the motor home.

The girl slammed her hands on her small hips. “This is bullshit.”

“Yeah, well, so is ninety percent of life.”

They were so involved in their argument that neither of them noticed the baby, who was slowly and fastidiously spider-crawling down off the curb into the parking lot.

Nealy rose automatically. A baby in danger. The one thing in life she hadn’t been able to escape since she was sixteen.

“Quit complaining and get inside,” the man growled.

“I’m not your slave! You’ve been bossing me around ever since yesterday, and I’m sick of it!”

An elderly couple in a Cadillac began to back out of a space much too near the crawling baby. Nealy shot forward, bent down, and snatched her up.

The kind of anger she couldn’t ever express in her real life erupted. “What kind of father are you?”

Mr. Macho turned slowly and regarded Nealy with flint-gray eyes. She stormed toward him, the baby in her arms. The fact that holding babies terrified her made her even angrier.

She jabbed her finger toward the Cadillac as it drove away. “Your daughter was crawling right in the path of that car. She could have been hit.”

He stared at her.

The closer she got, the taller he seemed. She belatedly remembered that she was supposed to be speaking with a Southern accent. “How could you be so irresponsible?”

“He doesn’t care,” the girl said. “He hates us.”

Nealy glared at him. “Children need somebody watching out for them, especially babies.”

He tilted his head toward the empty parking space next to him. “What happened to your car?”

She was taken aback. “How do you know about my car?”

“I saw you get out of it.”

She refused to let him throw her off track. “Never mind about my car. What about your child?” She thrust the baby toward him, but he didn’t take her. Instead, he stared down at the little one as if he weren’t sure what she was. Finally he turned toward the teenager. “Lucy, take her and get in.”

“You got a broken arm or something?” the girl shot back.

“Do what I say. And feed her before we start moving again.”

His tone had grown so intimidating that Nealy wasn’t surprised when the girl took the baby from her arms. Still, Lucy had enough defiance left to shoot him a lethal glare before she jerked open the door of the motor home and hauled the baby inside.

The man named Jorik gazed down at Nealy. Although she was tall, he loomed over her, and he looked even tougher close up than he had been from a distance. His nose had a small bump at the bridge, as if he’d broken it falling off an I-beam he was welding.

“She’s not my kid,” he said. “Neither of them are.”

“Then what are you doing with them?”

“I was a friend of their mother’s. So tell me about your car.”

A yellow caution light flashed in her brain. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“It was stolen, wasn’t it?”

He was regarding her so intently, she was afraid he’d recognize her, so she tilted her head a bit to keep him from looking at her full on. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I saw you park it there, and now it’s gone. Besides, you left your keys inside.”

Her head shot back up. “You saw them?”

“Yeah.”

“You saw them, but you didn’t do anything?”

“Well . . . I thought about stealing your car myself, but I was afraid of your frog.”

If she hadn’t been so upset, she might have laughed. His speech marked him as an educated man, which was disconcerting considering his tough-guy appearance. His eyes had dropped to her bulging stomach, and she had to resist the urge to look down and make certain the padding hadn’t shifted.

“You’d better go inside and call the state police,” he said. “There was a hitchhiker out here earlier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got tired of waiting for someone to pick him up and decided to take advantage of that free transportation you were offering. I’ll stay around long enough to give them a description.”