First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(12)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

She had no intention of calling the police. “That’s all right. You don’t have to wait.”

“I don’t mind.”

He seemed to be trying to place her face. She began to feel nervous. “I don’t want to hold you up. Thanks anyway.” She turned to leave.

“Stop right where you are.”

5

WHERE HAD HE seen her? Mat studied the woman more closely as she looked warily back at him. There was something about her bearing that reminded him of royalty, but her thinness, along with that long, fragile neck, and hands that bore no sign of a wedding ring, spoke of hard times. Her arms and legs were almost comically slender in contrast to her heavy pregnancy, and there was a world-weary quality in her blue eyes that made him suspect she’d seen more of life than she wanted to.

Those bright blue eyes . . . they were so familiar. He knew he’d never met her, but he felt as if he had. Her reluctance to call the police piqued his journalist’s curiosity. “You’re not going to report the theft, are you?”

He watched a small pulse pound on the side of her neck, but she remained cool. “Why do you say that?”

She had something to hide, and he had a good idea what it might be. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you can’t report it because the car didn’t belong to you.”

Wariness flickered in her eyes, but not fear. The lady was down on her luck, but she still had a backbone. “None of this is your concern.”

He was definitely on to something, and he took a wild stab. “You’re afraid that if you call the police, they’ll figure out that you stole the car from your boyfriend.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why do you think I have a boyfriend?”

He glanced down at her bulging abdomen. “I’m guessing it wasn’t a girlfriend who did that to you.”

She looked at her stomach as if she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh.”

“You’re not wearing a wedding ring, and you’re driving a stolen car. It all fits.” He wasn’t exactly sure why he was giving her such a hard time. Habit, he guessed, born out of his professional curiosity about people who tried to hide the truth. Or maybe he was stalling because he didn’t want to get back into the Winnebago.

“I never said the car was stolen. You’re the one who decided that.”

“So why don’t you want to call the police?”

She gazed at him as if she were the Queen of Egypt and he was a stone-hauling slave building her a pyramid. Something about her attitude got his goat.

“You could just go back to him,” he said.

“You don’t give up, do you?”

He noted the combination of intelligence and aloofness in her expression. This lady had developed the knack for keeping people at a distance. Too bad she hadn’t used it on her boyfriend.

Who did she look like? The answer was right there, but he couldn’t quite grab hold of it. He wondered how old she was. Late twenties, early thirties? Everything about her manner and bearing screamed class, but her situation was too precarious for a member of the upper crust.

“I can’t go back, “ she finally said.

“Why not?”

She paused for only a moment. “Because he beat me.”

Was it his imagination, or did he detect a certain amount of relish in her words? What was that all about? “Do you have any money?”

“A little.”

“How little?”

She still had her pride, and he admired her gutsiness. “Thank you for your help, but this really isn’t your concern.”

She turned to walk away, but his curiosity wasn’t satisfied. Acting on the instincts that had made his reputation, he snagged the strap of her ugly plastic purse and pulled her to a stop.

“Hey!”

Ignoring her outrage, he lifted it from her shoulder and pulled out her wallet. As he looked inside, he saw no credit cards, no driver’s license, only a twenty-dollar bill and some change. “You’re not going far on this.”

“You have no right!” She snatched her wallet and purse back and started to walk away.

He had more than enough problems of his own, and he should have just let her go, but his instincts were on full alert. “So what are you going to do now?” he called after her.

She didn’t answer him.

A crazy idea hit him. He mulled it over for all of five seconds before making up his mind. “Do you want to hitch a ride?”

She stopped walking and turned. “With you?”

“Me and the kids from hell.” He moved toward her. “We’re heading west to Grandma’s house. Iowa. We can drop you off if you’re going that way.”

She regarded him incredulously. “You’re inviting me along?”

“Why not? But the ride’s not free.”

Her expression grew wary, and he knew exactly what she was thinking. But pregnant women weren’t high on his list of turn-ons. “You have to keep Lucy off my back and take care of the baby. That’s all.”

He’d expected her to be relieved, but the moment he mentioned the baby, she seemed to stiffen. “I don’t know anything about babies.”

“Don’t you think it’s time you learned?”

It took her a moment to remember she was pregnant. He was getting the idea that she wasn’t exactly overjoyed about her little bundle of joy. She only thought it over for a few seconds before her eyes began to sparkle with something that looked like excitement. “Yes. All right. Yes, I’d like that.”

Her reaction surprised him. There was more to this lady than met the eye. He reminded himself that he didn’t know anything about her, and he wondered if too much contact with Sandy’s kids had shorted out his brain. But driving one more mile with Lucy’s sullenness and a screaming baby was more than he could tolerate. Besides, if it didn’t work out, he could give her some money and dump her at the next truck stop. He turned back toward the Winnebago. “One warning.”

“What’s that?”

“They both have delicate stomachs.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’ll find out.” He opened the door for her. “What’s your name?”

“N-Nell. Nell Kelly.”

Her hesitation made him wonder if she was telling the truth. Her boyfriend must be a real loser. “I’m Mat Jorik.”