First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(14)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

But how could anyone detach from the tragedy of watching innocents die? Images of their swollen bellies and crippled limbs haunted her dreams. These babies had become both her cross and her crusade, and she’d ordered her staff to look for as many opportunities as possible to showcase their plight. It was the only way she could honor the memory of the Ethiopian baby she hadn’t been able to help.

First Ladies traditionally had a cause. Lady Bird had her wildflowers, Betty Ford fought substance addiction, Nancy Reagan Just Said No, and Barbara Bush wanted everyone to read. Although Cornelia hadn’t planned it that way, she became the guardian angel of the world’s most vulnerable victims.

Now, as Nealy gazed down at this healthy, screaming, golden-haired little girl with bright blue eyes and peas smeared all over her face, she felt only dread. The dark side of her crusade was her panic when she saw a healthy one. What if her touch brought this beautiful child harm? The notion was illogical, but she’d felt like the Angel of Baby Death for so long that she couldn’t help it.

She realized Mat was watching her, and she managed a shrug. “I’m—I’m not good with babies. Maybe you’d better do it.”

“Afraid to get your hands dirty? In case you forgot, helping out is your ticket to ride.”

He had her over a barrel, and he knew it. She took in the messy motor home, the surly teenager, and the fussing infant. Then she gazed at the big, roughneck of a man with his broad shoulders and devil’s smile. Did she want to stay on the run badly enough to put up with all this?

Yes, she did.

With grim determination, she picked up the gooey spoon, dipped it into the jar, and brought it to the baby’s mouth. The baby devoured the peas, then opened up for more, her eyes glued to Nealy’s face. As Nealy brought the next spoonful to her mouth, the baby grabbed her fingers.

Nealy flinched, barely able to resist the urge to shake off her touch. “What’s her name?” she managed.

“You don’t want to know.”

Lucy lifted one earphone. “Her name’s Butt.”

“Butt?” Nealy gazed down at the adorable pea-smeared face with its soft features and healthy skin. Her straight blond hair rose like dandelion fluff around her head. The baby smiled, exhibiting four small teeth, then blew a green-flecked spit bubble.

“I didn’t name her,” Lucy said, “so don’t look at me.”

Nealy looked at Mat instead.

“I didn’t name her, either.”

She quickly fed the baby the last spoonful of peas. “What’s her real name?”

“Got me.” He began folding the map.

“I thought you were a friend of her mother. Why don’t you know her name?” And how had he come to be on the road with two children who weren’t his?

Instead of responding, he turned the key in the ignition.

“I wouldn’t take off yet, Jorik,” Lucy said. “Butt needs a good half hour for her food to settle or she’ll hurl again.”

“Damn it, we’re never going to get out of here.”

Nealy didn’t think he should be using that kind of language in front of a teenager, no matter how foul-mouthed she might be herself. Still, it wasn’t her concern.

Lucy yanked off her headset. “Turn on the air-conditioning. It’s hot.”

“Have you ever heard the word please?”

“Have you ever heard the words I’m hot as hell?”

Lucy had pushed him too far. Instead of turning on the air-conditioning, he shut off the engine, got up from the driver’s seat, and calmly pocketed the keys. “I’ll see you ladies in half an hour.” He let himself out of the Winnebago.

It was warm inside, and Nealy lifted an eyebrow at the teenager. “Nice going.”

“He’s an ass.”

“He’s an ass who just left us without air-conditioning.”

“Who cares?”

When Nealy had been Lucy’s age, she’d been expected to dress neatly and carry on polite conversation with world leaders. Discourtesy would never have occurred to her. The teenager was beginning to fascinate her.

The baby had begun to smear her gooey fists into her blond fuzz. Nealy looked around for some paper towels, but didn’t see any. “How am I supposed to clean her up?”

“I don’t know. With a washcloth or something.”

“Where are they?”

“Someplace. Maybe in that drawer.”

Nealy found a dish towel, wet it at the sink, and, under Lucy’s watchful eyes, began wiping up the baby’s hair, only to discover that she should have started with her hands. As she worked, she tried not to notice the drooly smiles coming her way. Finally, the child was reasonably clean.

“Take her out of her seat and let her crawl around for a while.” Lucy sounded thoroughly bored. “She needs some exercise.”

The rug didn’t look very clean. Thoughts of typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, and a dozen other diseases ran through her mind, and she glanced around for something to set her on. She finally found a machine-made quilt in one of the overhead bins at the back of the Winnebago, and she spread it on the floor, between the couch and the table. Her hands fumbled with the straps on the baby seat before she got them to release.

She braced herself, just as she always did when she had to pick up an infant. Don’t die. Please, don’t die.

The child kicked and let out a happy squeal as Nealy lifted her from the car seat. She felt warm and solid beneath her hands, blissfully healthy. Nealy quickly set her on the floor. The baby craned her neck to look up at her.

Lucy had stopped making even a pretense of listening to her Walkman. “You shouldn’t have bothered with the blanket. She won’t stay on it.”

Sure enough, the baby shot forward on her hands and knees. In seconds she was off the blanket heading for the front of the motor home.

“If you know so much, why don’t you take care of her?” Nealy enjoyed the novelty of being rude. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to snap at everyone who offended her?

The baby pulled herself to her feet, using the driver’s seat for support, and began cruising on two wobbly feet balanced by one small hand smeared with dried green peas.

“What do you think I’ve been doing since my mother died?”

Nealy felt terrible. “I didn’t know about your mother. I’m sorry.”