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


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“I’m fine. Never been better. And the letter’s genuine, Mr. President. Nobody was holding a gun to my head.”

“John is frantic. How could you do this to him?”

She’d been expecting this. Every member of the President’s family was given a code to use in the event they were being coerced in any way. If she uttered a sentence with the name John North in it, the President would know she’d been taken against her will.

“This has nothing to do with him,” she replied.

“Who?” He was giving her another chance.

“I’m not being coerced,” she said.

He finally seemed to realize she had done this of her own free will, and his anger crackled over the line. “Your letter is filled with rubbish. Your father’s frantic.”

“Just tell him I’m taking some time to myself. I’ll call in occasionally so you know I’m all right.”

“You can’t do this! You can’t just disappear. Listen to me, Cornelia. You have responsibilities, and you need Secret Service. You’re the First Lady.”

It was useless to argue with him. For months she’d been telling both him and her father that she needed a break and had to get away from the White House, but neither would listen. “You should be able to hold the press off for a while by having Maureen announce that I’ve got the flu. I’ll call again in a few days.”

“Wait! This is dangerous! You have to have Secret Service. You can’t possibly—”

“Good-bye, Mr. President.”

She hung up on the most powerful man in the free world.

As she walked back to the car, she had to force herself not to run. Her polyester dress seemed to be permanently glued to her skin, and the legs beneath her elastic stockings no longer felt as if they belonged to her. Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe. She had too much to do to fall apart.

Her scalp itched as she turned back onto the highway. She wished she could take off the wig, but that had to wait until she’d purchased her new disguise.

It didn’t take her long to find the Wal-Mart she’d located last week through the Internet yellow pages. She’d only been able to escape with what fit into her purse, and now it was time to do some serious shopping.

Her face was so familiar that, even as a child, she’d never been able to go into a store without people watching her every move, but she was too tense to appreciate the novelty of shopping anonymously. She finished up quickly, stood in line to pay, and headed back to her car. With her purchases tucked safely in the trunk, she returned to the freeway.

By nightfall, she planned to be well into Pennsylvania, and sometime tomorrow, she’d get off the freeway permanently. Then she’d begin roaming the country that she knew both so much and so little about. She was going to travel until her cash ran out or she was caught, whichever came first.

The reality of what she’d done sank in. She had no one looking over her shoulder, no schedule to stick to. For the first time in her life, she was free.

3

AS MAT JORIK shifted in the chair, he bumped his elbow against the edge of the attorney’s desk. Mat frequently bumped into things. Not because he was ungraceful, but because most of the indoor world had been built too small to accommodate a man of his size.

At six feet six inches tall and two hundred and ten pounds, Mat dwarfed the small wooden chair that sat across from the desk of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, attorney. Still, Mat was accustomed to chairs that didn’t fit and bathroom sinks that hit him just above the knees. He automatically ducked when he walked down a set of basement steps, and the coach section of an airplane was his idea of hell. As for sitting in the back seat of nearly every car on the road—fuhgetaboutit.

“You’re listed on the birth certificate as the children’s father, Mr. Jorik. That makes you responsible for them.”

The attorney was a humorless tight ass, the kind of person Mat Jorik most disliked, so he uncoiled a couple vertebrae and extended one long leg—more than happy to use his size to intimidate the little worm. “Let me spell it out. They’re not mine.”

The attorney flinched. “So you say. But the mother also appointed you their guardian.”

Mat glared at him. “I respectfully decline.”

Although Mat had lived in Chicago and L.A., the blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood where he’d grown up still clung to him like factory smoke. He was thirty-four years old, a steeltown roughneck with big fists, a booming voice, and a gift for words. One old girlfriend said he was the last of America’s Real Men, but since she was throwing a copy of Bride magazine at his head at the time, he hadn’t taken it as a compliment.

The attorney pulled himself back together. “You say they aren’t yours, but you were married to their mother.”

“When I was twenty-one.” An act of youthful panic that Mat had never repeated.

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a secretary with a manila folder. She was the no-nonsense type, but her eyes started crawling all over him the moment she entered the room. He knew women liked the way he looked, but, despite having seven younger sisters, he’d never figured out exactly why. In his eyes he looked like a guy.

The secretary, however, saw things a bit differently. When he’d walked into the office and announced himself as Mathias Jorik, she’d noticed that he was both lean and muscular, with broad shoulders, big hands, and narrow hips. Now she took in a slightly crooked nose, a killer mouth, and bluntly aggressive cheekbones. He wore his thick brown hair in a short, serviceable cut that couldn’t quite subdue a tendency to curl, and his tough, square jaw had just-try-and-punch-me written all over it. Since she generally found outrageously masculine men more annoying than appealing, it wasn’t until she’d given her boss the folder he’d requested and returned to her desk that she figured out what was so compelling about this one. Those flint-gray eyes reflected a sharp, unsettling degree of intelligence.

The attorney glanced at the folder, then looked back up at Mat. “You admit your ex-wife was pregnant with the older girl when you married her.”

“Let me run it by you one more time. Sandy told me the kid was mine, and I believed her until a few weeks after the ceremony, when one of her girlfriends told me the truth. I confronted Sandy, and she admitted she’d lied. I saw a lawyer, and that was it.” He still remembered the relief he’d felt at being able to leave behind everything he didn’t want.