First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(15)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Lucy shrugged. “No big deal. Leave that alone, Butt.”

Nealy saw the baby had edged forward and was standing on her toes to reach for the gearshift. The infant turned toward her big sister, grinned, and plopped her fist into her mouth.

“I’m not calling her Butt,” Nealy said.

“Then how’s she going to know you’re talking to her?”

Nealy refused to get drawn into an argument. “I have an idea. Let’s give her another name. A nickname.”

“What kind of nickname?”

“I don’t know. Marigold.”

“That’s so lame. “

“It may be lame, but it’s better than Butt.”

“She’s doing it again. Move her.”

Nealy was getting tired of taking orders from a teenager. “Since you know her behavior patterns so well, it would probably be better if you watched her.”

“Yeah, right,” Lucy scoffed.

“I think it would be best. You’re obviously good with her.”

Lucy’s face reddened beneath her makeup. “I am not! I can’t stand the little brat.”

Nealy regarded the teenager closely. If she disliked the baby so much, why did she keep such a watchful eye out for her?

Baby Butt—Baby Marigold—reached for the gear-shift again. Nealy dashed forward, slipped her hands under the child’s arms, and carried her over to stand by the couch. The baby steadied herself with one hand and craned her neck toward her big sister, who was determinedly ignoring her. She let out a demanding squeal for attention.

Lucy bent her head and began picking at the blue nail polish on her big toe.

The baby shrieked again, even louder.

Lucy continued to ignore her.

Another shriek. Louder still.

“Stop it! Just stop it!”

The little one’s face crumpled at her sister’s anger. Tears pooled in her eyes. Her bottom lip quivered.

“Shit!” Lucy jumped up and stalked from the motor home, leaving Nealy alone with a heartbroken baby.

“Tell me it’s my imagination and that pinging coming from the engine isn’t getting worse.” Mat glanced over at Nealy, who was sitting in the passenger seat. They’d been on the road for about an hour, but he’d seemed occupied with his own thoughts, and it was the first time he’d spoken to her.

“I haven’t been paying attention.” She’d been too busy enjoying the rural scenery.

“Let’s stop,” Lucy said. “I want to go to a mall.”

“I don’t think there’s a mall near here,” Nealy replied.

“Like how would you know? And let me drive. I know how to drive this thing.”

“Quiet,” Mat said, “or you’ll wake up Butt.”

To Nealy’s relief, the baby had finally fallen asleep in her car seat. “Her name is Marigold.”

“That’s stupid.” He reached for the can of root beer he’d taken from the small refrigerator. She’d already noticed that he was something of a root beer addict.

“Butt doesn’t like it, either,” Lucy said, “but She doesn’t care.”

Nealy had been relegated to She twenty miles ago. “Well, that’s just too bad because it’s what I’m calling her.” She felt another surge of pleasure at her glorious rudeness. Imagine being able to talk to members of Congress like this. Sir, the only thing that smells more than your breath is your politics.

Quiet settled over the motor home, which Lucy had informed her was named Mabel. Even this broken-down Winnebago had a better name than that baby.

Mat glared at the road, his head cocked to the side as he continued to listen for engine noises. Nealy realized she was enjoying herself, despite the less-than-desirable company. A beautiful summer day with no receptions or formal dinners ahead of her. Tonight, she wouldn’t have to put ice packs on her hands to recover from another receiving line.

Soreness from too many handshakes was the bane of political life. Some Presidents had even developed their own systems for protection. Woodrow Wilson put his middle finger down, then crossed his ring and index finger above it so no one could get a good grip. Harry Truman grabbed the other person’s hand first and slid his thumb between their thumb and index finger to control the pressure. Ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley, held a bouquet so she didn’t have to shake hands at all. But Elizabeth Monroe, the beautiful but snobbish wife of the nation’s fifth president, had an even better system. She simply stayed away from the White House.

Public figures developed lots of little tricks to make formal occasions more tolerable. One of Nealy’s favorites came from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. When she wanted her aides to rescue her from a boring conversation, she simply switched her handbag from right arm to left.

“I want to go to a mall.”

Where was that handbag when you needed it? “Why don’t you listen to your Walkman?”

Lucy tossed down the bag of chips. “I’m sick of that. I want to do something fun.”

“Do you have a book to read?”

“I’m not in school. Why would I read a book?”

Mat smiled. “Yeah, Nell. Why would she want to do that?”

Books had been Nealy’s most faithful companions as a child, and she couldn’t imagine anyone not enjoying reading. She wondered how parents entertained children when they traveled. Although she was the First Lady of the United States—the symbolic mother of the country—she had no idea.

“Would you like to draw?” she asked.

“Draw?” It was as if Nealy had suggested she entertain herself by playing with a dead rat.

“Do you have some crayons? Colored pencils?”

She snorted and continued picking at her toenail polish.

Mat shot Nealy an amused glance. “It’s the millennium, Nell. Crayons and colored pencils are old-fashioned. Ask her if she wants drugs and a handgun.”

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s funny.” Lucy looked up from her toe. “The first funny thing I’ve heard you say, Jorik.”

“Yeah, I’m a regular Jim Carrey.”

Lucy got up off the couch. “We have to stop. I’ve got to pee.”

“We have a toilet. Use it.”

“Forget it. It’s gross in there.”