First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(13)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

She gave a nod of acknowledgment that looked almost regal, and right then it hit him. Cornelia Case. That’s who she looked like.

He must have celebrities on the brain. First he’d decided Lucy looked like Winona Ryder, and now this lady reminded him of a pregnant version of Cornelia Case. Even their voices were similar, but he couldn’t imagine the nation’s aristocratic First Lady ending up broke, pregnant, and abandoned at a roadside truck stop in rural Pennsylvania. “Anybody ever mention that you look like Cornelia Case?”

She blinked. “All the time.”

“You even sound alike, but you’ve got an accent. I can’t quite place it. Where are you from?”

“The Carolinas. Alabama. Michigan for a while, then California. My folks moved around a lot. It affected my speech.”

“Yeah, I guess it did.” The sunlight hit the top of her head, and he saw a small brown stain on the skin near her temple, as if she’d recently colored her hair and hadn’t gotten off all the dye. He automatically filed the detail away. Nell Kelly might be down on her luck, but she still had enough vanity left to take the time to color her hair. It was the kind of observation that used to set his newspaper stories apart.

She smelled good, and, as he moved aside to let her into the motor home, he felt something odd. If she hadn’t been pregnant, he would have chalked it up to desire. It had been a while since he was in a relationship—he thought of the flying copy of Bride magazine—and his sex life had suffered. But it hadn’t suffered enough to make him respond to a skinny pregnant lady. Still, there was something about her . . .

“After you, princess.” He dipped his head.

“Princess?” Nealy’s own head shot up, and she was met with a lady-killer grin that made her wonder if she’d lost her mind. Not only had she just hitched a ride with a stranger, but the stranger was a foot taller and a lot stronger than she was. And that smile . . . Although it wasn’t lecherous, it had a challenging quality that she found unnerving.

“Somehow it seems to fit,” he said.

She had no idea how to reply to that, so she slipped past him—not that easy to do—and stepped inside. Her decision had been impulsive, but not completely foolish, she decided, as she gazed around the interior of the motor home. Although there was definitely something dangerous about him, it wasn’t a naked-female-left-dismembered-in-a-ditch kind of danger. He’d offered to stay and talk to the police, hadn’t he? And, best of all, her excellent adventure wasn’t over.

She hoped he’d bought her explanation about her accent, and she reminded herself to be more careful so it didn’t keep fading in and out. She also reminded herself that she was now Nell Kelly, the first name that had popped into her head.

The baby was perched in a car seat sitting on a couch with worn blue and green plaid upholstery. Across from the couch and immediately to Nealy’s right was a small banquette. The table held an open bag of potato chips, the remnants of a donut, a hairbrush, and a Walkman. A small refrigerator stood to her left, and beside it, a peeling veneer door led to either a closet or a bathroom. There was also a tiny kitchen with a three-burner stove, a microwave, and a sink littered with some Styrofoam cups and a Dunkin’ Donuts box. At the very rear of the motor home, a sliding door that was only partially closed revealed a double bed piled with clothes and some towels. There were two bucket seats at the front, one for the driver and one for a passenger.

A challenging voice interrupted. “What are you doing here?”

Reluctantly, she turned toward the surly teenager named Lucy, who was sitting on the couch feeding the baby green peas from a jar. The girl definitely wasn’t pleased to see her.

Nealy remembered seeing something needy in her eyes when she’d been arguing with Mat. Maybe she didn’t like the idea of another woman horning in on her territory.

“I’m hitching a ride,” Nealy replied.

Lucy stared at her resentfully, then looked toward the driver’s seat. “What’s the matter, Jorik? You couldn’t go without sex so you had to bring her along?”

Definitely proprietary.

“Ignore her.” Mat picked up a road map and began to study it. “Lucy thinks if she talks dirty she’ll make me cry.”

Nealy gazed at Lucy and thought about the dazzling group of teenagers she’d hosted at the White House just last week. They were all National Merit Scholarship winners, and their contrast with this girl couldn’t have been more pronounced. Well, she’d wanted a glimpse of ordinary life, and she’d found it.

Lucy set the jar of baby food down on the couch. The baby, whose mouth was rimmed in green, immediately let out a demanding shriek. The teenager rose and went to the banquette, where she slouched down. “She’s not done eating, but I’m done feeding her.” She reached for her Walkman, slipped the headset over her ears, and leaned back into the corner.

Mat glanced over his shoulder at Nealy and shot her a pointed smile. “Time to earn your keep, Nell.”

For a moment Nealy couldn’t think whom he was addressing.

“Finish feeding the baby so we can take off,” he said.

Lucy was shaking her head to the music coming from the Walkman, but the watchful eye she kept on the baby indicated she was listening to every word. Nealy had the distinct impression she was being put to some kind of test.

She turned to the baby and felt the familiar dread. Although she related well to children, being around babies was torturous. It was one of her most closely guarded secrets, especially ironic in light of the disguise she’d adopted.

She didn’t need a shrink to figure out why she had a problem. The famous Time magazine cover photo taken when she was sixteen didn’t show that the starving Ethiopian baby she’d been holding had died in her arms moments after the photographer had walked away. The memory had never left her.

Although she picked up a lot of healthy, smiling babies for photo ops, those contacts were always brief. Instead, it was the desperately ill babies her job so frequently required her to spend time with. She’d gazed at dozens of crack babies in isolettes, cuddled a hundred HIV babies, cooed to babies suffering from unspeakable diseases, and brushed flies from the empty eyes of those who were starving. In her mind, babies and suffering had become inexorably linked.

“You have to distance yourself,” Dennis had said before their marriage when she’d tried to explain it to him. “If you want to be of any use to those children, you have to detach.”