First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(8)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“She likes it. She thinks it makes her look cool.” Winona carefully placed the baby in the car seat, fastened the straps, then plopped down in the seat next to him.

After a couple of tries, the engine sputtered to life. He shook his head in disgust. “This thing is a piece of crap.”

“No shit.” She propped her feet, which were clad in thick-soled sandals, onto the dash.

He glanced into Mabel’s side mirror and backed out. “You know, don’t you, that I’m not really your father.”

“Like I’d want you.”

So much for the worry he’d been harboring that she might have built up some kind of sentimental fantasy about him. As he made his way down the street, he realized he didn’t know either her real name or the baby’s. He’d seen copies of their birth certificates but hadn’t looked any farther than the lines that had his own name written on them. She probably wouldn’t appreciate it if he called her Winona. “What’s your name?”

There was a long pause while she thought about it. “Natasha.”

He almost laughed. For three months his sister Sharon had tried to make everybody call her Silver. “Yeah, right.”

“That’s what I want to be called,” she snapped.

“I didn’t ask what you wanted to be called. I asked what your name is.”

“It’s Lucy, all right? And I hate it.”

“Nothing wrong with Lucy.” He consulted the directions he’d gotten from the receptionist at the lab and made his way back to the highway. “Exactly how old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

He shot her his street fighter look.

“Okay, sixteen.”

“You’re fourteen, and you talk like you’re thirty.”

“If you know, why’d you ask? And I lived with Sandy. What did you expect?”

He felt a pang of sympathy at the husky note in her voice. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry about that. Your mother was . . .” Sandy had been fun, sexy, smart without having any sense, and completely irresponsible. “She was unique,” he finished lamely.

Lucy snorted. “She was a drunk.”

In the back the baby started to whimper.

“She has to eat soon, and we’ve run out of stuff.”

Great. This was just what he needed. “What’s she eating now?”

“Formula and crap in jars.”

“We’ll stop for something after we’re done at the lab.” The sounds coming from the back were growing increasingly unhappy. “What’s her name?”

Another pause. “Butt.”

“You’re a real comedian, aren’t you?”

“I’m not the one who named her.”

He glanced back at the blond-haired, rosy-cheek baby with gumdrop eyes and an angel-wing mouth, then looked over at Lucy. “You expect me to believe Sandy named that baby Butt?”

“I don’t care what you believe.” She pulled her feet from the dash. “I’m not letting some jerkoff stick a needle in me, so you can forget about that blood crap right now.”

“You’ll do what I tell you.”

“Bullshit.”

“Here are the facts, smart mouth. Your mother put my name on both your birth certificates, so we need to straighten that out, and the only way we can do it is with three blood tests.” He started to explain that Child Services would be taking care of them until her grandmother showed up, but didn’t have the heart. The lawyer could do it.

They drove the rest of the way to the lab in silence, except for the Demon Baby, who’d started to scream again. He pulled up in front of a two-story medical building and looked over at Lucy. She was staring rigidly at the doors as if she were looking at the gates of hell.

“I’ll give you twenty bucks to take the test,” he said quickly.

She shook her head. “No needles. I hate needles. Even thinking about them makes me sick.”

He was just beginning to contemplate how he could carry two screaming children into the lab when he had his first piece of luck all day.

Lucy got out of the Winnebago before she threw up.

4

NEALY WAS GLORIOUSLY invisible. She tilted back her head and laughed, then flipped up the radio to join in with Billy Joel on the chorus of “Uptown Girl.” The new day was exquisite. Puffs of blue clouds floated in a Georgia O’Keeffe sky, and her stomach rumbled with hunger, despite the scrambled eggs and toast she’d wolfed down for breakfast in a small restaurant not far from the motel where she’d spent the night. The greasy eggs, soggy toast, and murky coffee had been the most blissful meal she’d eaten in months. Every bite of food had slid easily down her throat, and not a single person had spared her a second glance.

She felt smart, smug, completely happy with herself. She had outwitted the President of the United States, the Secret Service, and her father. Hail to the Chieftess!

She laughed, delighted with her own cockiness because it had been so long since she’d felt that way. She rummaged on the seat next to her for the Snickers bar she’d bought, then remembered she’d already devoured it. Her hunger made her laugh again. All her life she’d fantasized about having a curvy body. Maybe she was finally going to get it.

She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror. Even though the old lady’s wig was gone, not one person had recognized her. She had transformed herself into someone blissfully, sublimely ordinary.

A commercial came on the radio. She turned the volume down and began to hum. All morning she’d allowed herself to dawdle along the two-lane highway west of York, Pennsylvania, which happened to be the nation’s first capital and the place where the Articles of Confederation were written. She’d detoured through the small towns that lay along the route whenever she’d wanted. Once she’d pulled off the road to admire a field of soybeans, although she couldn’t help but ponder the complexities of farm subsidies as she leaned against the fence. Then she’d stopped in a ramshackle farmhouse with a sign outside that read ANTIQUES and browsed through the dust and junk for a wonderful hour. As a result, she hadn’t traveled far. But she had nowhere specific to go, and it was glorious being absolutely aimless.

It might be foolish to feel so happy when the President was undoubtedly using all the power and might of the United States government to track her down, but she couldn’t help herself. She wasn’t naive enough to believe she could outwit them forever, but that made each moment more precious.