First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(2)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

He finally seemed to remember these events were on her schedule because she’d been planning to do them at the side of her charismatic, golden-haired husband. Dropping his voice, he added belatedly, “I know this is a difficult time for you, Cornelia, but the President would have wanted you to go on, and keeping busy should help ease your grief.”

Bastard. She wanted to shout the word at him, but she was her father’s daughter, schooled from birth to hide her emotions, so she didn’t. Instead, she regarded both men steadily. “It’s impossible. I want my life back. I’ve earned it.”

Her father came closer, crossing the oval rug with the presidential seal, stealing even more of the oxygen she needed to breathe. She felt imprisoned, and she remembered that Bill Clinton had once called the White House the crown jewel in the federal correctional system.

“You have no children to raise, no profession to pursue,” her father said. “You’re not a selfish person, Cornelia, and you’ve been raised to do your duty. After you spend some time on the island, you’ll feel more like yourself. The American people are counting on you.”

And how had that happened? she wondered. How had she managed to become such a popular First Lady? Her father said it was because the country had watched her grow up, but she thought it was because she’d been trained from childhood to be in the public eye without making serious missteps.

“I don’t have the popular touch.” Vandervort spoke with the bluntness she’d frequently admired about him, even though it cost him votes. “You can give it to me.”

She vaguely wondered what Jacqueline Kennedy would have done if LBJ had suggested something like this. But LBJ hadn’t needed a surrogate First Lady. He’d been married to the best.

Nealy had thought she’d married the best, too, but it hadn’t worked out that way. “I don’t want to do this. I’ve earned a private life.”

“You gave up your right to a private life when you married Dennis.”

Her father was wrong. She’d given it up the day she was born James Litchfield’s daughter.

When she was seven, long before her father had become Vice President, the nation’s newspapers had run a story telling how she’d turned over the Easter eggs she’d found on the White House lawn to a disabled child. The story didn’t say that it was her father, a United States senator at the time, who’d whispered to her that she must give up those eggs and that she’d cried afterward because she hadn’t wanted to.

At twelve, her mouth gleaming with braces, she’d been photographed ladling up creamed corn in a Washington, D.C., soup kitchen. At thirteen, green paint smeared her nose while she helped repair a home for seniors. But her popularity had been sealed forever when she’d been photographed in Ethiopia at the age of sixteen holding a starving infant in her arms as tears of rage ran down her cheeks. The picture had run on the cover of Time and established her as a symbol of America’s compassion.

The pale blue walls were closing in on her. “I buried my husband less than eight hours ago. I won’t discuss this now.”

“Of course, my dear. We can finish making arrangements tomorrow.”

In the end, she managed to buy herself six weeks of solitude, but then she was put back to work again, doing what she’d been raised to do, what America expected of her. Being the First Lady.

2

OVER THE NEXT six and a half months, Nealy grew so thin that the tabloids began printing stories that she was anorexic. Mealtimes became torture. She couldn’t sleep at night, and her sense of suffocation never went away. Despite that, she served the country well as Lester Vandervort’s First Lady . . . until one small event brought it all crashing down.

On a June afternoon, she stood in the pediatric rehabilitation facility of a Phoenix hospital and watched a little girl with curly red hair struggling with a new set of leg braces.

“Watch me!” The chubby little redhead gave Nealy a bright smile, leaned on her crutches, and began the laborious process of taking a single step.

All that courage.

Nealy hadn’t often felt shame, but now it overwhelmed her. This child was putting up a gallant fight to regain her life, while Nealy was watching her own pass by.

She wasn’t a cowardly person, nor was she incapable of standing up for herself, yet she had allowed this to happen simply because she hadn’t been able to give either her father or the President a good reason why she shouldn’t continue to do the job she’d been born to perform.

Right then, she made up her mind. She didn’t know how or when, but she was going to set herself free. Even if her freedom lasted only for a day—an hour!—she would at least make the attempt.

She knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted to live the life of an ordinary person. She wanted to shop in a grocery store without everyone staring at her, to walk down a small-town street eating an ice-cream cone and smiling, just because she felt like it, not because she had to. She wanted the freedom to speak her mind, to make mistakes. She wanted to see the world as it really was, not polished up for an official visit. Maybe then she would finally be able to figure out how to live the rest of her life.

Nealy Case, what do you want to be when you grow up? When she was very little, she’d told everyone she wanted to be President. Now she had no idea.

But how could the most famous woman in America suddenly become an ordinary person?

One obstacle after another sprang up in front of her. It was impossible. The First Lady couldn’t simply disappear. Could she?

Being guarded required cooperation, and contrary to what people thought, it was possible to get away from the Secret Service. Bill and Hillary Clinton had stolen away in the early days of his administration, only to be reminded that they had given up that kind of freedom. JFK had driven the Secret Service crazy with his disappearances. Yes, slipping away was possible, but there would be no point if she couldn’t move freely. Now all she had to do was find a way.

A month later, she had her plan in place.

At ten o’clock on a July morning, an elderly woman slipped into a White House tour group that was making its way through the rooms on the State floor. She had snowy white hair in tightly curled corkscrews, a green and yellow patterned dress, and a large plastic purse. Her bony shoulders were bowed, her thin legs encased in elastic stockings, and her feet encompassed in a pair of lace-up brown shoes. She peered at a guidebook through a large pair of glasses with pearly gray frames and a bit of swirled goldwork at the stems. Her forehead was patrician, her nose aristocratic, her eyes as blue as an American sky.