First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(6)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

As he approached the house, he took in the peeling paint, crumbling sidewalk, and well-used yellow Winnebago parked next to the overgrown lawn. Leave it to Sandy to spend her money on a motor home when her house was crumbling around her.

He stalked up the sidewalk, climbed one crooked step to the porch, then banged his fist against the front door. A sullen-faced, very young version of Winona Ryder appeared. “Yeah?”

“I’m Mat Jorik.”

She crossed her arms and leaned against the door-jamb. “Hey there, Pop.”

So that’s the way it was going to be.

She was small-boned and delicate beneath the makeup she’d applied with too heavy a hand. Brown urban-decay lipstick smudged her young mouth. Her lashes were coated with so much mascara, they looked as though black centipedes had landed on them, and her short dark hair had been sprayed maroon at the top. Tattered jeans hung low on her thin body, revealing more than he wanted to see of her ribs and stomach, and her small, fourteen-year-old breasts didn’t need the black bra that showed above the low neckline of her tightly cropped top.

“We need to talk.”

“We got nothing to talk about.”

He gazed into her small, defiant face. Winona didn’t know there wasn’t anything she could dish out that he hadn’t already heard from his sisters. He shot her the same look he’d used on Ann Elizabeth, the toughest of his siblings. “Open the door.”

He could see her trying to work up the courage to defy him, but she couldn’t quite manage it, and she stepped aside. He brushed past her into the living room. It was shabby, but neat. He saw a tattered copy of a babycare book lying open on a table. “I hear you’ve been by yourself for a while.”

“I haven’t been by myself. Connie just left to go to the grocery store. She’s the neighbor who’s been taking care of us.”

“Tell me another one.”

“You calling me a liar?”

“Yeah.”

She didn’t like that at all, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

“Where’s the baby?”

“Taking a nap.”

He couldn’t see much resemblance between the girl and Sandy, except maybe around the eyes. Sandy had been big and bawdy, a gorgeous handful with a good heart and a decent brain she must have inherited from her mother, but never bothered to use.

“What about your grandmother? Why isn’t she taking care of you?”

The kid began nibbling on what little was left of a thumbnail. “She’s been in Australia studying the aborigines in the Outback. She’s a college professor.”

“She went off to Australia knowing her granddaughters didn’t have anybody to take care of them?” He didn’t try to hide his skepticism.

“Connie’s been—”

“Cut the crap. There isn’t any Connie, and unless you shoot straight with me, Child and Youth Services will be here to pick you up in an hour.”

Her features contorted. “We don’t need anybody taking care of us! We’re doing great by ourselves. Why don’t you mind your own damn business?”

As he gazed into her defiant face, he remembered all those tough foster kids who’d appeared and disappeared next door to him when he was growing up. A few of them had been determined to spit in the world’s eye, only to be swatted down for their efforts. He softened his voice. “Tell me about your grandmother.”

She shrugged. “Her and Sandy didn’t get along. Because of Sandy’s drinking and everything. She didn’t know about the car crash.”

Somehow he wasn’t surprised to hear her call Sandy by her first name. It was exactly what he would have expected from his ex-wife, who seemed to have fulfilled her early promise of turning into an alcoholic. “Are you telling me your grandmother doesn’t know what happened to Sandy?”

“She does now. I didn’t have a phone number so I could call her, but a couple of weeks ago I got this letter from her with a picture of the Outback and everything. So I wrote back and told her about Sandy and the car accident and Trent.”

“Who’s Trent?”

“My baby sister’s dad. He’s a jerk. Anyway, he died in the accident, too, and I’m not sorry.”

He’d known Sandy’s current boyfriend had been with her, but not that he was the baby’s father. Sandy must have had a lot of doubts about him or his name would have been on that birth certificate instead of Mat’s. “Did this Trent have any family?”

“No. He was from California, and he was raised in foster homes.” She thrust her small chin forward. “He told me all about them, and me and my sister aren’t going to any, so you can just forget it! Anyway, we don’t have to because I just got this note from my grandmother and she’ll be back soon.”

He regarded her suspiciously. “Let me see the note.”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“Let’s just say I’d like some proof.”

She regarded him sullenly, then disappeared into the kitchen. He’d been certain she was lying, and he was surprised when she returned a few moments later with a small piece of stationery imprinted with the seal of Laurents College, in Willow Grove, Iowa. He gazed down at the neat script.

I just got your letter, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. Am flying home to Iowa July 15 or 16, depending on airlines. Will call as soon as I get in and make arrangements for you girls. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.

Love, Granny Joanne

He frowned. Today was Tuesday the eleventh. Why hadn’t Granny Joanne packed up her notebooks right then and caught the first plane back?

He reminded himself this wasn’t his problem. All he cared about was getting those blood tests without having to jump through hoops for some bureaucratic busybody. “Tell you what. Go get your sister. I’ll buy you both some ice cream after we stop at a lab.”

A pair of streetwise brown eyes stared back at him. “What lab?”

He made it real casual. “We’re all having some blood drawn. No big deal.”

“With needles?”

“I don’t know how they do it,” he lied. “Go get the kid.”

“Fuck that. I’m not letting anybody stick a needle in me.”

“Watch your mouth.”

She gave him a look that managed to be both condescending and contemptuous, as if he were the stupidest man on earth for objecting to her language. “You’re not my boss.”