Susan Elizabeth Philips
Copyright © 2000 by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
To Cathie Linz, Lindsay Longford, and Suzette Vann— dear friends and three of the finest romance writers ever to set foot in DuPage County. Thanks for keeping the faith!
The following people, big and little, were especially helpful as I wrote this book and I thank them all: Jill Barnett, Marlene Cerny, Mary Kilchenstein, Ernie Locker, Susan Nicklos, Mary Jo Putney, Tillie Phillips, and John Roscich. Also Mommy Katie, Granny Lydia and my darling nephew Caleb; Nancy Heller and her beautiful granddaughter Natalie; Cathie and her adorable nephew Joshua. My continued appreciation to Steven Axelrod, Carrie Feron, and everyone at Avon Books.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Cornelia Litchfield Case had an itchy nose. Otherwise, it was a very elegant nose. Perfectly shaped, discreet, polite. Her forehead was patrician, her cheekbones gracefully carved, but not so sharp as to
be vulgar. The Mayflower-blue blood that rushed through her veins gave her a pedigree even finer than that of Jacqueline Kennedy, one of her most famous predecessors.
A French twist contained her long, fair hair, which she would have cut off years ago if her father hadn't forbidden it. Later her husband had suggested—oh-so-gently, because he was always gentle with her—that she leave it long. So there she was, an American aristocrat with a hairstyle she hated and an itchy nose that she couldn't scratch because hundreds of millions of people all over the world were watching her on their televisions.
Burying a husband sure could take the fun out of your day.
She shuddered and tried to swallow her hysteria as she crept another inch closer to falling apart. She forced herself to concentrate on the beauty of the October day and the way the sun gleamed on the
rows of grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery, but the sky was too close, the sun too near.
Even the ground felt as if it were pushing up to crush her.
The men on either side of her moved closer. The new President of the United States gripped her arm. Her father clasped her elbow. Directly behind her, the grief of Terry Ackerman, her husband's closest friend and advisor, rolled over her in a great, dark wave. They were suffocating her, stealing the air she needed to breathe.
She beat back a scream by curling her toes in her neat black leather pumps, biting the inside of her
bottom lip, and mentally launched into the chorus of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." The Elton John
song reminded her that he'd written another song, one for a dead princess. Would he now write one
for an assassinated President?
No! Don't think about that! She'd think about her hair, her itchy nose. She'd think about the way she hadn't been able to swallow food since her secretary had broken the news that Dennis had been assassinated three blocks from the White House by a gun fanatic who believed his right to bear arms included the right to use the President of the United States for target practice. The assassin had been killed on the spot by a Washington, D.C., police officer, but that didn't change the fact that her husband of three years, the man she'd once loved so desperately, lay before her in a gleaming black casket.
She broke her father's grip to reach up and touch the small enameled American flag she'd pinned to the lapel of her black suit. It was the pin Dennis had worn so frequently. She'd give it to Terry. She wished she could turn around right now and hand it to him, perhaps ease his grief.
She needed hope—something positive to cling to— but that was tough even for a determined optimist. And then she hit on it...
She was no longer the First Lady of the United States of America.
A few hours later, that small bit of comfort was snatched from her by Lester Vandervort, the newest President of the United States, as he regarded her across Dennis Case's old desk in the Oval Office.
The box of Milky Way miniatures her husband had kept in Teddy Roosevelt's humidor had disappeared, along with his collection of photographs. Vandervort had added no personal touches of his own, not
even a photograph of his deceased wife, an oversight she knew his staff would soon correct.
Vandervort was a thin man, ascetic in his appearance. He was fiercely intelligent, almost entirely humorless, and a confirmed workaholic. A sixty-four-year-old widower, he was now the world's most eligible bachelor. For the first time since the death of Edith Wilson eighteen months after Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, the United States had no First Lady.
The air inside the Oval Office was climate-controlled, the three-story windows that rose behind the desk bulletproof, and she felt as if she were suffocating. As she stood by the fireplace, staring blindly at Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Washington, the new President's voice seemed far away. ".. . don't want to appear insensitive to your grief by broaching this now, but i have no choice. I won't be remarrying, and none of my female relatives is remotely capable of handling the job of First Lady. I want you to continue in that role."
As she turned to him, her fingernails bit into her palms. "It's impossible. I can't do it." She wanted to scream at him that she was still wearing her funeral clothes, but excessive displays of emotion had been leached out of her long before she'd come to the White House.
Her distinguished father rose from one of a pair of couches covered in cream damask and assumed his Prince Philip posture—hands clasped behind his back, weight toward his heels. "This has been a difficult day for you, Cornelia. You'll be seeing things more clearly tomorrow."
Cornelia. Everyone who mattered in her life called her Nealy except her father. "I'm not going to change my mind."
"Of course you will," he countered. "This administration has to have a competent First Lady. The President and I have considered it from every angle, and both of us agree this is the ideal solution."
She was an assertive woman, except when it came to her father, and she had to steel herself to challenge him. "Ideal for whom? Not for me."
James Litchfield gave her the patronizing look he'd been using to control people for as long as she could remember. Ironically, he had more power now as chairman of the party than he'd had during his eight years as Vice President of the United States. Her father was the one who'd first spotted the presidential potential of Dennis Case, the handsome bachelor governor of Virginia. Four years ago, he'd capped off his reputation as a kingmaker by escorting his daughter down the aisle to marry that very same man.
"I know better than anyone how traumatic this has been," he continued, "but you're the most visible link between the Case and Vandervort administrations. The country needs you."
"Don't you mean the party needs me?" They all knew that Lester's lack of personal charisma would
make it difficult for him to be elected President on his own. Although he was an able politician, he lacked even a kilowatt of President Dennis Case's star power.
"We're not just thinking of reelection," her father lied as smoothly as new cream. "We're thinking of the American people. You're an important symbol of stability and continuity."
Vandervort spoke briskly. "As First Lady, you'll keep your old office and the same staff. I'll make sure you have everything you need. Take a month to recuperate at your father's place on Nantucket, and
then we'll ease you back into the schedule, beginning with the white-tie reception for the diplomatic
corps. Keep mid-January blocked out for the G-8 summit, and the South American trip is a necessity.
All of this is already on your schedule, so it shouldn't be a problem."
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.
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.
Nealy's throat worked as she swallowed, and she had to resist the urge to tug on the wig she'd ordered through a catalogue. Another catalogue had supplied the polyester dress, shoes, and stockings. To preserve her privacy, she'd always relied on catalogue shopping, using the name and address of her chief of staff, Maureen Watts, plus the phony middle initial C, so Maureen would know it was Nealy's order. Maureen had no inkling of the contents of the packages she'd recently delivered to the White House.
Nealy stayed with the crowd as it crawled from the Red Room with its American Empire furnishings into the State Dining Room. Video cameras were recording everything, and her fingers felt cold and numb. She tried to steady herself by gazing at the portrait of Lincoln that hung over the fireplace. The mantelpiece beneath was inscribed with the words of John Adams that she'd read so often. I pray
heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none
but honest and wise men ever rule under its roof.
A female tour guide stood near the fireplace politely answering a question. Nealy might be the only
person in the room who knew that all the White House guides were members of the Secret Service. She waited for the woman to spot her and sound the alert, but the agent barely glanced in her direction.
How many Secret Service agents had she gotten to know over the years? They'd accompanied her to
high school and then college. They'd been with her on her first date and the first time she'd had too
much to drink.
The Secret Service had taught her how to drive and witnessed her tears when she'd been rejected by
the first boy she'd ever liked. A female agent had even helped her pick out a prom dress when her stepmother had caught the flu.
The group headed into the Cross Hall and from there, out through the north portico. It was muggy and hot, a typical July day in Washington. Nealy blinked at the bright sunlight and wondered how many
more steps she could take before the guards realized she wasn't an elderly tourist, but the First Lady.
Her heart rate kicked higher. Next to her, a mother snapped at her young son. Nealy walked on, growing tenser with each step. During the dark days of Watergate, a tortured Pat Nixon had disguised herself in a scarf and sunglasses. Accompanied only by a single Secret Service agent, she'd escaped the White House to wander the streets of Washington window-shopping and dreaming of the day it would all be over. But, as the world had grown angrier, the time when First Ladies were permitted that kind of solace had disappeared.
She struggled for another breath as she reached the exit. The Secret Service code name for the White House was Crown, but it should have been Fortress. Most of the tourists passing by didn't know there were microphones located along the fence so that the security detail inside could monitor whatever was said around the perimeter. A SWAT team appeared on the roof with machine guns whenever the President entered or left the building. The grounds were armed with video cameras, motion detectors, pressure sensors, and infrared equipment.
If only there were a less complicated way to do this. She'd thought about holding a press conference
and simply announcing that she was retiring from public life, but the press would have dogged her every step, and she'd have been no better off than she was now. This was the only way.
She reached Pennsylvania Avenue. Her hand trembled as she slipped the guidebook into her plastic purse, where it bumped against an envelope that held thousands of dollars in cash. Looking straight ahead, she began walking along Lafayette Park toward the Metro.
She spotted a policeman crossing toward her, and a trickle of perspiration slid between her breasts. What if he recognized her? Her heart nearly stopped as he nodded to her, then turned away. He had no idea that he'd just nodded to the First Lady of the United States.
Her breathing slowed. All members of the first family wore tracking devices. Hers, as slim as a credit card, rested under her pillow in the bedroom of the private apartment she kept on the fourth floor of the White House. If she were very lucky, she'd have two hours before her disappearance was discovered. Although Nealy had told Maureen Watts, her chief of staff, that she wasn't feeling well and needed to lie down for a few hours, she knew Maureen wouldn't hesitate to wake her if she thought a matter was urgent. Then she would find the letter Nealy had left along with the tracking device, and all hell would break loose.
Nealy forced herself not to hurry as she walked into the Metro. She headed toward one of the fare card machines she hadn't even known existed until she'd overheard a conversation between two of her secretaries. She needed to change trains, and she calculated the fare. After she'd slipped in her money, she pushed the correct buttons and received her fare card.
She managed to make it through the turnstile to the platform. Then, with her nose tucked into her guidebook and her heart pounding, she waited for the train that would begin her journey into the Maryland suburbs. When she got to Rockville, she intended to pick up a taxi and head for one of the
used car dealerships along Route 355. There she hoped to find a salesman greedy enough to sell an old lady a car without seeing her driver's license.
Three hours later, she was behind the wheel of a nondescript four-year-old blue Chevy Corsica heading toward Frederick, Maryland, on 1-270. She'd done it! She'd made it out of Washington. The car had
cost more than it should have, but she didn't care because nobody could link it with Cornelia Case.
She tried to relax her cramped fingers, but she couldn't. The alarm would have been raised at the White House by now, and it was time to make her call. As she got off at the next ramp, she couldn't remember how long it had been since she'd driven on a freeway. Sometimes she took the wheel when she was on Nantucket or at Camp David, but seldom otherwise.
She spotted a convenience store on her left, pulled in, then got out of the car and made her way to a pay phone mounted on the side. She was accustomed to the efficiency of the White House operators, and she had to read the directions carefully. Finally, she punched in the number of the most private of the Oval Office telephone lines, the one she knew couldn't be intercepted.
The President himself answered on the second ring. "Yes?"
"For God's sake, where are you? Are you all right?"
The urgency in his voice told her she'd made the right decision by not delaying this call. Her letter had obviously been found, but no one at the White House could be certain she hadn't written it under duress, and she didn't want to raise more of an alarm than she had to.
"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.
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.
Once again, the worm glanced down at the folder. "You sent her money for a number of years."
No matter how hard Mat tried to hide it, sooner or later people figured out that he was a soft touch, but he didn't believe a kid should have to suffer for her mother's bad judgment. "Sentiment. Sandy had a good heart; she just wasn't too discriminating about who she slept with."
"And you contend you haven't seen her since the divorce?"
"There's no contention about it. I haven't seen her in nearly fifteen years, which makes it really tricky
for me to be the father of that second baby she had last year." Naturally it was another girl. His entire
life had been haunted by female children.
"Then why is your name on both children's birth certificates?"
"You'd have to ask Sandy that." Except no one was going to ask Sandy anything. She'd died six weeks ago driving drunk with her boyfriend. Since Mat had been on the road, he hadn't learned about it until three days ago when he'd finally gotten around to checking his voice mail.
There'd been other messages as well. One from a former girlfriend, another from a casual acquaintance who wanted to borrow money. A Chicago buddy needed to know if Mat was moving back to the Windy City so he could sign him up for their old ice hockey league. Four of his seven younger sisters wanted to talk to him, which was nothing new, since Mat had been in charge of them from the time he was a kid growing up in that tough Slovak neighborhood.
Mat had been the only male left after his father had walked away. His grandmother had kept house while his mother had worked fifty hours a week as a bookkeeper. This arrangement had left nine-year-old Mat in charge of his seven younger sisters, two of whom were twins. He'd struggled through his childhood hating his father for being able to do what Mat couldn't—walk away from a house that held too many females.
The final few years before his escape from the Hell House of Women had been especially bad. His father had died by then, putting an end to the fantasy Mat had entertained that he'd come back and take charge. The girls were growing older and more temperamental. Somebody was always getting ready to have her period, going through her period, getting over her period, or sneaking into his room late at night in quiet hysterics because her period was late, and he was supposed to figure out what to do about it. He loved
his sisters, but being responsible for them had suffocated him. He'd promised himself when he finally
got away that he'd turn his back on family life forever, and except for the short, stupid time with Sandy, that's exactly what he'd done.
The last call on his voice mail had come from Sid Giles, the producer of Byline. It was another plea for Mat to come back to the L.A. tabloid television show he'd left last month, but Mat Jorik had sold out his credibility as a journalist once, and he'd never do it again.
".. . first step is to bring me a copy of your Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. I need proof that
you were divorced."
He returned his attention to the attorney. "I've got proof, but it'll take me a while to get my hands on it." He'd left L.A. so fast that he'd forgotten to empty out his safe-deposit box. "It'll be quicker if I get a
blood test. I'll do it this afternoon."
"DNA test results take several weeks. Besides, there'll have to be proper authorization before the
children can be tested."
Forget that. Mat wasn't going to have those birth certificates come back to bite him in the ass. Even though it wouldn't be hard to prove he was divorced, he wanted the blood tests to back him up. "I authorize it."
"You can't have it both ways, Mr. Jorik. The girls are either yours or they're not."
Mat decided it was time to go on the offensive. "Maybe you'd better explain why this is such a mess. Sandy's been dead for six weeks, so why did you just get around to letting me know about it?"
"Because I didn't find out myself until a few days ago. I took some diplomas into the frame shop where she'd been working and heard what had happened. Although I'm her attorney, 1 hadn't been informed."
Mat considered it something of a miracle that Sandy'd had an attorney, let alone that she'd bothered to make out a will.
"I went to the house right away and spoke to the older girl. She said a neighbor had been watching them, but there was no neighbor in sight. I've been back twice and still haven't seen any sign of adult supervision." He tapped his yellow pad and seemed to be thinking aloud. "If you're not going to take responsibility, I'll have to call Child and Youth Services so the girls can be picked up and put into foster care."
Old memories sifted over Mat like steeltown soot. He reminded himself that there were lots of wonderful foster parents, and the chances of Sandy's kids ending up with a family like the Havlovs were slim. The Havlovs had lived next door when Mat was growing up. The father was chronically unemployed, and the family survived by taking in foster kids, then neglected them so badly that Mat's grandmother and her friends had ended up feeding and bandaging them.
He realized he needed to concentrate on his own legal entanglement instead of past history. If he didn't get this paternity issue straightened out right now, it could hang over his head for months, maybe longer. "Hold off on that phone call for a couple of hours until I check things out."
The attorney looked relieved, but all Mat intended to do was grab both kids and take them to a lab
before they got turned over to social services and he had to deal with red tape.
Only as he followed the directions the attorney gave him to Sandy's house did he remember his ex-wife's mother. She'd been relatively young, as he recalled, and a widow. He'd just met her once, but she'd been impressive—a college professor out in Missouri or someplace who seemed to have little in common with her wild daughter.
He picked up his cell phone to call the attorney back, then caught sight of the street he was looking for and set it back down. A few minutes later he was parking the Mercedes SL 600 two-passenger sport convertible he'd bought with his sell-out money in front of a dingy bungalow in a run-down neighborhood. The car was too small for him, but he'd been deluding himself about a lot of things at the time, so he'd written the check and squeezed inside. Getting rid of it was the next item on his agenda.
As he approached the house, he took in the peeling paint, crumbling sidewalk, and well-used yellow Win-nebago 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 baby-care 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?"
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.
"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."
"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 Lau-rents College, in Willow Grove, Iowa. He gazed down at the neat script.
depending on airlines. Will call as soon as I get in and make attangentents 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."
"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."
"Get the baby."
Some battles weren't worth fighting, so he headed down a hallway with a worn gray carpet and a bedroom opening off each side. One had obviously been Sandy's. The other had an unmade twin bed
and a crib. A whimper came from behind the bumper pads.
Although the crib was old, it was clean. The carpet around it was vacuumed, and some toys were tossed in a blue laundry basket. A rickety changing table held a small stack of neatly folded clothes, along with an open box of disposable diapers.
The whimpering turned into a full-fledged yowl. He moved closer and saw a pink-clad bottom wiggling
in the air. Then a head covered with a few inches of straight blond hair popped up. He took in a furious, rosy-cheeked face and a wet, down-turned mouth that was open and yowling. It was his childhood all over again.
"Quiet down, kid."
The baby's cries stopped, and a set of gumball-blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. At the same time he grew aware of an unpleasant smell and realized his day had taken one more turn for the worse.
He sensed movement behind him and saw the Winona lookalike standing in the doorway chewing on another fingernail and watching every move he made. There was something distinctly protective about
the glances she kept shooting at the crib. The kid wasn't nearly the hard ass she pretended to be.
He jerked his head toward the baby. "She needs her diaper changed. I'll meet you in the living room
when you're done."
"Like, get real. I don't change shitty diapers."
Since she'd been taking care of the baby for weeks, that was obviously a lie, but if she expected him to
do it, she could think again. When he'd finally escaped from the Hell House of Women, he'd promised himself that he'd never change another diaper, look at another Barbie, or tie another frigging hair bow. Still, the kid had guts, so he decided to make it easy on her. "I'll give you five bucks."
"Ten. In advance."
If he hadn't been in such a foul mood, he might have laughed. At least she had street smarts to go along with all that bravado. He pulled his wallet from his pocket and handed over the money. "Meet me by
my car as soon as you're done. And bring her along."
Her forehead creased, and for a moment she looked more like a soccer mom than a sullen teenager.
"You got a car seat?"
"Do I look like somebody who's got a car seat?"
"You got to put a kid in a car seat. It's the law."
"You a cop?"
She cocked her head. "Her seat's in Mabel. The Winnebago. Sandy called it Mabel."
"Didn't your mother have a car?"
"The dealer took it back a couple of months before she died, so she drove Mabel."
"Swell." He wasn't going to ask how she'd come into possession of a battered motor home. Instead, he tried to figure out how he was supposed to get a teenager, a baby, and a car seat in his two-passenger Mercedes. Only one answer. He wasn't.
"Give me the keys."
He could see her trying to figure out if she could get away with mouthing off again, then wisely concluding she couldn't.
Keys in hand, he went outside to get acquainted with Mabel. On the way, he picked up the cell phone from his Mercedes, along with the newspaper he hadn't found a chance to read.
He needed to duck to get into the motor home, which was roomy, but not roomy enough for six feet six. He settled behind the wheel and put in a call to a doctor pal of his in Pittsburgh for the name of a nearby lab and the necessary authorization. While he was on hold, he picked up the newspaper.
Like most journalists, he was a news junkie, but nothing unusual caught his attention. There'd been an earthquake in China, a car bombing in the Middle East, budget squabbles in Congress, more trouble in
the Balkans. Toward the bottom of the page was a picture of Cornelia Case with another sick baby in
Although he'd never been much of a Cornelia watcher, she seemed thinner in every recent photograph. The First Lady had terrific blue eyes, but they'd started to appear too big for her face, and nice eyes couldn't make up for the fact that there didn't seem to be a real woman behind them, just an extremely smart politician programmed by her father.
When he'd been at Byline, they'd done a couple of puff pieces on Cornelia—her hairdresser, her taste in
fashion, how she honored her husband's memory— bullshit stuff. Still, he felt sorry for her. Having a husband assassinated would put a crimp in anybody's happy face.
He frowned at the memory of his year in tabloid television. Before then, he'd been a print journalist, one of the most highly regarded reporters in Chicago, but he'd thrown away his reputation to make a pile of money he'd soon discovered he had little interest in spending. Now all he wanted out of life was to wipe the tarnish off his name.
Mat's idols weren't Ivy League journalists, but guys who'd used two fingers to punch out hard-hitting stories on oid Remington typewriters. Men as rough around the edges as he was. There had been nothing flashy about his work when he was writing for the Chicago Standard. He'd used short words and simple sentences to describe the people he met and what they cared about. Readers had known they could
count on him to shoot straight. Now he was on a quest to prove that was true again.
Quest. The word had an archaic quality to it. A quest was the province of a holy knight, not a steeltown roughneck who'd let himself forget what was important in life.
His old boss at the Standard had said Mat could return to his former job, but the offer had been begrudging, and Mat refused to go back with his hat in his hands. Now he was driving around the
country searching for something to take with him. Wherever he stopped—big town or small—he picked up a paper, talked to people, and nosed around. Even though he hadn't found it, he knew exactly what
he was looking for—the seeds of a story big enough to give him back his reputation.
He'd just finished his calls when the door swung open and Winona climbed into the motor home with
the baby, who was barefoot and dressed in a yellow romper with lambs on it. She had a peace sign tattooed on one chubby ankle.
"Sandy had her baby tattooed?"
Winona gave him a look that said he was too dumb to live. "It's a rub-on. Don't you know anything?"
His sisters were grown up by the time the tattoo craze had started, thank God. "I knew it was a rub-on," he lied. "I just don't think you should put something like that on a baby."
"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
"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?"
He shot her his street fighter look.
"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 coining 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."
"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.
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.
The commercial ended and Tom Petty began to sing. Nealy laughed again, then joined in. She was free-falling.
Mat was the world's biggest chump. Instead of being behind the wheel of his Mercedes convertible with only the radio to keep him company, he was driving west in a ten-year-old Winnebago named Mabel on
a Pennsylvania back road with two kids who were as bad as all seven of his sisters combined had been.
Yesterday afternoon, he'd called Sandy's attorney to tell him about Joanne Pressman, but instead of guaranteeing that the girls would be turned over to her as soon as she got back in the country, the
attorney had equivocated.
"Child and Youth Services will have to make sure she can provide a satisfactory home for them."
"That's ridiculous," Mat had countered. "She's a college professor. And anything's better than what they have now."
"She still has to be investigated."
"How long will that take?"
"It's hard to say. It shouldn't be more than six weeks. Two months at the outside."
Mat had been furious. Even a month in the foster care system could chomp up a kid like Lucy and spit out her bones. He'd found himself promising to stay with the girls that night so Child Services wouldn't have to get them until morning.
As he tried to fall asleep on Sandy's lumpy couch after his aborted attempt to get the blood tests done, he'd reminded himself how much better the foster care system was now than it used to be. The background checks were more thorough, home visits more common. But the image of all the kids the Havlovs had abused kept coming back to him.
Toward morning, he'd realized his conscience wouldn't let him out of this one. Too much early influence from nuns. He couldn't let either the Teenage Terrorist or the Demon Baby spend months stuck in foster care when all he had to do was baby-sit them for a couple of days, then turn them over to their grandmother on the weekend.
Joanne Pressman's Iowa address had been in Sandy's date book. He needed to get the girls out of the house early, so he decided they'd catch a morning flight to Burlington. When he got there, he'd rent a car and drive to Willow Grove. And while he was waiting for Joanne Pressman to get home, he'd have the blood tests done, even if he had to carry Lucy into the lab.
Unfortunately, his plan had fallen apart when he'd discovered needles weren't Lucy's only phobia.
"I'm not getting on a plane, Jorik! I hate flying! And if you try to make me, I'll start screaming to everybody in the airport that you're kidnapping me."
Another kid might have been bluffing, but he'd suspected Lucy would do exactly as she said, and since
he was already skating on the thinnest edge of the law by dodging Child Services, not to mention taking the kids out of state, he'd decided not to risk it. Instead, he'd grabbed a pile of their clothes, some food he'd bought last night, and shoved them into the motor home. He had four or five days to kill anyway,
so what did it matter if he spent it on the road?
He wasn't certain how aggressively the authorities would be looking for him, especially since Sandy's attorney would surely figure out where he was heading. Still, there was no point in taking chances, so
he was staying off the interstate for a while where tollbooth operators and the state police might already have the Win-nebago's license plate number. Unfortunately, between the Demon Baby's screams and Lucy's complaints, he couldn't enjoy the scenery.
"I think I'm going to hurl."
She was sitting in the motor home's small banquette. He jerked his head toward the rear and spoke over the sounds of the baby's howls. "The toilet's back there."
"If you don't start being nicer to me and Butt, you're going to be sorry."
"Will you stop calling her that?"
"It's her name."
Even Sandy wasn't that crazy, but he still hadn't been able to pry the baby's real name out of Lucy.
The howls subsided. Maybe the baby was going to sleep. He glanced over toward the couch, where she was strapped in her car seat, but she looked wide awake and grumpy. All wet blue eyes and cherub's mouth. The world's crankiest angel.
"I thought you said you were feeling sick."
The howls started again, louder than before. Why hadn't he brought somebody along to take care of
these little monsters? Some kindhearted, stone-deaf old lady.
"I feel sick when I get hungry. And Butt needs to eat."
"Feed her. We brought bags of baby food and formula with us, so don't try to tell me there isn't anything for her to eat."
"If I feed her while Mabel's moving, she'll hurl."
"I don't want to hear another word about anybody hurling! Feed the damn kid!"
She glared at him, then flounced out of her seat and made her way to the sacks of baby food and diapers.
He drove for another fifteen miles in blessed silence before he heard it. First a baby's cough, then a gag, then a small eruption.
"I told you so."
Nealy backed out of the driveway from her first garage sale and pulled onto the highway. A huge green ceramic frog perched on the seat next to her. The lady who'd sold it to her for ten dollars said it was a garden ornament her mother-in-law had made in a craft class.
It was supremely ugly, with an iridescent green glaze, protruding eyes that were slightly crossed, and dull brown spots the size of silver dollars across its back. For nearly three years, Nealy had lived in a national shrine decorated with the very best American antiques. Maybe that was why she'd known instantly that she had to have it.
Even after she'd made her purchase and tucked the heavy frog under her arm, she'd stood talking to the garage sale lady. And she hadn't needed a gray old lady's wig or elastic stockings to do it. Her wonderful new disguise was working.
Nealy spotted a sign ahead for a truck stop. There'd be hamburgers and french fries, thick chocolate shakes and slabs of pie. Bliss!
The smell of diesel fuel and fried food hit Mat as he stepped out of Mabel into the truck stop parking lot. He also caught a whiff of manure from a nearby field, but it beat the smell of baby puke.
A blue Chevy Corsica with a woman driving whipped into the parking place next to him. Lucky lady. Alone in her car with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company.
Just beyond the gas pumps, a hitchhiker held a battered cardboard sign that read, ST. louis. The guy looked like a felon, and Mat doubted he'd have too much luck getting a ride, but he still felt a pang of envy for the man's freedom. The whole day had been a bad dream.
Lucy climbed out behind him with another ten-dollar bribe in her back pocket. She'd tied a flannel shirt around her hips and had the smelly baby under the armpits so she could hold her as far away as possible. Lucy was small, and he doubted that she could carry the Demon very far that way, but he didn't offer to take her himself. He'd carried around too many screaming babies when he was a kid to be sentimental about them. The only good thing about babies was getting them drunk on their twenty-first birthdays.
He smiled at the memories, then pushed another ten-dollar bill into the back pocket of Lucy's cutoffs. "Buy yourself some lunch after you get her cleaned up. I'll meet you here in half an hour."
She gave him a long, searching look that hinted at disappointment. He wondered if she'd expected them all to cuddle up together to eat. Not a chance.
The woman he'd been envying got out of the blue Corsica. She had short light brown hair styled in one
of those uneven cuts that was fashionable. The rest of her, however, wasn't so fashionable: cheap white sneakers, navy shorts, and an oversized yellow top with a row of ducks marching across it. She wasn't wearing any makeup. And she was heavily pregnant.
A Grand Am slowed down on the highway for the hitchhiker, only to shoot off as soon as the driver
got a closer look. The hitchhiker flipped him the bird.
Mat glanced at the woman again as she walked past him. Something about her seemed familiar. She
had fragile, finely carved features, a long, slender neck, and striking blue eyes. There was almost a patrician quality about the way she carried herself that was at odds with her bargain-basement clothes. She reached the door of the restaurant just ahead of Lucy and held it open for her. Lucy didn't acknowledge the courtesy. She was too busy tossing him a dirty look.
Something caught his eye on the seat of the Corsica. He leaned down and saw an ugly ceramic frog.
He'd always wondered what kind of people bought things like that. Then he noticed the set of keys dangling from the ignition. He thought about going after her to say something, but figured anybody
stupid enough to buy that frog deserved what she got.
The interior of the truck stop was arranged in a large L. He selected a small table in the back corner where he had room to stretch his legs and ordered coffee. As he waited for it to arrive, he considered the fact that it was going to take him at least two days to reach Iowa. Maybe longer, if that ominous pinging coming from the engine got any worse. How was he going to tolerate those girls for another two days? The irony of letting himself be saddled with exactly what he'd worked his whole life to get away from didn't escape him.
He should have left them both to foster care.
Nealy swabbed a thick, greasy french fry in catsup and watched the three people seated on the other
side of the truck stop dining room. At first the man had been there by himself. She'd noticed him right away—his physical size would have made it hard not to. But it wasn't just his size that had caught her attention. It was everything about him.
He had that hard-muscled look of a working man, and it didn't take much imagination to picture him suntanned and shirtless, nailing shingles to a roof or wearing a battered hard hat over that crisp dark hair as he wielded a jackhammer in the middle of a city street. He was also drop-dead handsome, although
not in that too-pretty way of a male model. Instead, his face looked lived in.
Unfortunately, he was glowering at the young girl who'd wedged herself in next to him, the baby propped in her lap. Nealy pegged him as one of those fathers who regarded his children as inconveniences, her least favorite kind of man.
His daughter was the girl she'd held the door open for earlier. Although she was overly made-up and had a maroon stripe in her hair, her delicate features gave her the potential of great beauty. The baby was adorable. One of those healthy, blond-haired, mischievous cherubs that Nealy avoided as much as she could.
The people-watching had been enjoyable, but she was anxious to get back on the road, so she forced her eyes away from the man and gathered up her trash as she'd seen others do. A middle-aged couple at an adjoining table smiled at her and she smiled back. People smiled a lot, she'd noticed, at a pregnant woman.
Her smile changed into a self-satisfied grin. Last night, before she'd gone to bed at the motel, she'd cut
the long blond hair her father and husband had cherished and dyed it light brown, which was really her natural color, although it was so long since she'd seen it that she'd had to guess at the exact shade. She loved the shorter, tousled style. Not only did it make her look younger, but it was much too casual for
an elegant First Lady.
Although maintaining her disguise as an elderly lady had been her first idea, she hadn't wanted the encumbrance of a wig and all that clothing. The fake pregnancy padding had been the perfect solution. Even if people noticed a pregnant woman's resemblance to Cornelia Case, they'd regard it as nothing more than a coincidence.
Last night she'd modified a small Wal-Mart pillow by reshaping its corners and adding some ties. With
her short brown hair, discount store clothes, ring-free hands, and minimal cosmetics, she looked like a pregnant woman who was down on her luck. When she spoke, she completed her change of identity
by reshaping her upper-crust vowels with the trace of a Southern accent.
As she left the truck stop restaurant, she fumbled for her car keys in the purse she'd left the White House with. She felt a packet of tissues, some mints, her new wallet, but no keys. Had she left them in the car?
She needed to be more careful. She'd grown accustomed to having a cadre of aides carrying things for her. This morning, she'd left her purse behind when she'd stopped at a diner for breakfast, and she'd had to run back to get it. Now it was her keys.
She stepped out into the parking lot and looked around for the Chevy, but she didn't see it. Odd. She thought she'd parked next to that trail-worn yellow Win-nebago. She was sure she had.
She hurried forward, but the car wasn't there.
She stared at the empty parking place, then at the motor home next to it. Maybe she was mistaken. Maybe she'd parked somewhere else. Her heart raced, and her gaze swept across the parking lot. Even then she didn't want to believe it. The car was gone. She'd left her keys inside and someone had stolen it.
Her throat constricted. One day of freedom. Was that all she would get?
She struggled against the despair that threatened to choke her. She could still salvage this. She'd brought thousands of dollars in cash with her. She could buy another car. She'd hitch a ride into the nearest town and find a dealer—
Her knees gave out beneath her, and she sagged down on a wooden bench. Her money had been locked in the trunk for safekeeping. All she had in her wallet was a twenty-dollar bill.
She buried her face in her hands. She'd have to call the White House, and within the hour the Secret Service would swoop down on this peaceful, ordinary place. She'd be whisked onto a helicopter and returned to Washington before dinner.
She saw exactly how it would unfold. Castigation from her father. Reminders from the President of her duty to the country. Suffocating guilt. By tomorrow evening, she'd be standing in a receiving line, her fingers aching from shaking another few hundred hands. And she had no one to blame but herself. What use was all her education, all her experience, if she couldn't remember a simple thing like taking car keys out of an ignition?
Her throat closed tight. She wheezed as she tried to draw a breath.
"She's heavy, and I'm not carrying her anymore!"
Nealy lifted her head and saw the young girl she'd been watching earlier set the baby she'd been carrying down on the sidewalk and yell at the Father of the Year, who was heading toward the yellow Winnebago.
"Suit yourself." Although he wasn't speaking loudly, he had a deep, carrying voice.
The girl didn't move from the baby's side, but neither did she pick her back up. The baby plopped forward on her knees as if to crawl, only to rebel at the midday heat coming from the sidewalk. She was
a smart little critter, though, and she pushed herself up until only the minimal parts of her were in contact with the hot concrete—the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet. With her bottom shoved high in the air, she began to move forward in a spider crawl.
The girl spun toward her father. "I mean it, Jorik! You're acting like an asshole!" Nealy blinked at the girl's crude language. "She's not poison, you know. You could at least touch her."
"You're in charge of the baby, and I'm in charge of driving. Let's go." The man named Jorik might be a lousy father, but he was smart enough to have taken his keys with him, and now he shoved one of them in the lock on the door of the motor home.
The girl slammed her hands on her small hips. "This is bullshit."
"Yeah, well, so is ninety percent of life."
They were so involved in their argument that neither of them noticed the baby, who was slowly and fastidiously spider-crawling down off the curb into the parking lot.
Nealy rose automatically. A baby in danger. The one thing in life she hadn't heen able to escape since
she was sixteen.
"Quit complaining and get inside," the man growled.
"I'm not your slave! You've been bossing me around ever since yesterday, and I'm sick of it!"
An elderly couple in a Cadillac began to back out of a space much too near the crawling baby. Nealy
shot forward, bent down, and snatched her up.
The kind of anger she couldn't ever express in her real life erupted. "What kind of father are you?"
Mr. Macho turned slowly and regarded Nealy with flint-gray eyes. She stormed toward him, the baby
in her arms. The fact that holding babies terrified her made her even angrier.
She jabbed her finger toward the Cadillac as it drove away. "Your daughter was crawling right in the
path of that car. She could have been hit."
He stared at her.
The closer she got, the taller he seemed. She belatedly remembered that she was supposed to be speaking with a Southern accent. "How could you be so irresponsible?"
"He doesn't care," the girl said. "He hates us."
Nealy glared at him. "Children need somebody watching out for them, especially babies."
He tilted his head toward the empty parking space next to him. "What happened to your car?"
She was taken aback. "How do you know about my car?"
"I saw you get out of it."
She refused to let him throw her off track. "Never mind about nay car. What about your child?" She thrust the baby toward him, but he didn't fake her. Instead, he stared down at the little one as if he weren't sure what she was. Finally he turned toward the teenager. "Lucy, take her and get in."
"You got a broken arm or something?" the girl shot back.
"Do what I say. And feed her before we start moving again."
His tone had grown so intimidating that Nealy wasn't surprised when the girl took the baby from her arms. Still, Lucy had enough defiance left to shoot him a lethal glare before she jerked open the door of the motor home and hauled the baby inside.
The man named Jorik gazed down at Nealy. Although she was tall, he loomed over her, and he looked even tougher close up than he had been from a distance. His nose had a small bump at the bridge, as if he'd broken it falling off an I-beam he was welding.
"She's not my kid," he said. "Neither of them are."
"Then what are you doing with them?"
"I was a friend of their mother's. So tell me about your car."
A yellow caution light flashed in her brain. "There's nothing to tell."
"It was stolen, wasn't it?"
He was regarding her so intently, she was afraid he'd recognize her, so she tilted her head a bit to keep him from looking at her full on. "Why do you say that?"
"Because I saw you park it there, and now it's gone. Besides, you left your keys inside."
Her head shot back up. "You saw them?"
"You saw them, but you didn't do anything?"
"Well... I thought about stealing your car myself, but I was afraid of your frog."
If she hadn't been so upset, she might have laughed. His speech marked him as an educated man, which was disconcerting considering his tough-guy appearance. His eyes had dropped to her bulging stomach, and she had to resist the urge to look down and make certain the padding hadn't shifted.
"You'd better go inside and call the state police," he said. "There was a hitchhiker out here earlier. I wouldn't be surprised if he got tired of waiting for someone to pick him up and decided to take advantage of that free transportation you were offering. I'll stay around long enough to give them a description."
She had no intention of calling the police. "That's all right. You don't have to wait."
"1 don't mind."
He seemed to be trying to place her face. She began to feel nervous. "I don't want to hold you up. Thanks anyway." She turned to leave.
"Stop right where you are."
Where had he seen her? Mat studied the woman more closely as she looked warily back at him. There was something about her bearing that reminded him of royalty, but her thinness, along with that long, fragile neck, and hands that bore no sign of a wedding ring, spoke of hard times. Her arms and legs were almost comically slender in contrast to her heavy pregnancy, and there was a world-weary quality in her blue eyes that made him suspect she'd seen more of life than she wanted to.
Those bright blue eyes . . . they were so familiar. He knew he'd never met her, but he felt as if he had. Her reluctance to cail the police piqued his journalist's curiosity. "You're not going to report the theft,
He watched a small pulse pound on the side of her neck, but she remained cool. "Why do you say that?"
She had something to hide, and he had a good idea what it might be. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe you
can't report it because the car didn't belong to you."
Wariness flickered in her eyes, but not fear. The lady was down on her luck, but she still had a backbone. "None of this is your concern."
He was definitely on to something, and he took a wild stab. "You're afraid that if you call the police, they'll figure out that you stole the car from your boyfriend."
She narrowed her eyes. "Why do you think I have a boyfriend?"
He glanced down at her bulging abdomen. "I'm guessing it wasn't a girlfriend who did that to you."
She looked at her stomach as if she'd forgotten it was there. "Oh."
"You're not wearing a wedding ring, and you're driving a stolen car. It all fits." He wasn't exactly sure why he was giving her such a hard time. Habit, he guessed, born out of his professional curiosity about people who tried to hide the truth. Or maybe he was stalling because he didn't want to get back into the Winnebago.
"I never said the car was stolen. You're the one who decided that."
"So why don't you want to call the police?"
She gazed at him as if she were the Queen of Egypt and he was a stone-hauling slave building her a pyramid. Something about her attitude got his goat.
"You could just go back to him," he said.
"You don't give up, do you?"
He noted the combination of intelligence and aloofness in her expression. This lady had developed the knack for keeping people at a distance. Too bad she hadn't used it on her boyfriend.
Who did she look like? The answer was right there, but he couldn't quite grab hold of it. He wondered how old she was. Late twenties, early thirties? Everything about her manner and bearing screamed class, but her situation was too precarious for a member of the upper crust.
"I can't go back," she finally said.
She paused for only a moment. "Because he beat me."
Was it his imagination, or did he detect a certain amount of relish in her words? What was that all about? "Do you have any money?"
She still had her pride, and he admired her gutsiness. "Thank you for your help, but this really isn't your concern."
She turned to walk away, but his curiosity wasn't satisfied. Acting on the instincts that had made his reputation, he snagged the strap of her ugly plastic purse and pulled her to a stop.
Ignoring her outrage, he lifted it from her shoulder and pulled out her wallet. As he looked inside, he
saw no credit cards, no driver's license, only a twenty-dollar bill and some change. "You're not going
far on this."
"You have no right!" She snatched her wallet and purse back and started to walk away.
He had more than enough problems of his own, and he should have just let her go, but his instincts were on full alert. "So what are you going to do now?" he called after her.
She didn't answer him.
A crazy idea hit him. He mulled it over for all of five seconds before making up his mind. "Do you want to hitch a ride?"
She stopped walking and turned. "With you?"
"Me and the kids from hell." He moved toward her. "We're heading west to Grandma's house. Iowa.
We can drop you off if you're going that way."
She regarded him incredulously. "You're inviting me along?"
"Why not? But the ride's not free."
Her expression grew wary, and he knew exactly what she was thinking. But pregnant women weren't
high on his list of turn-ons. "You have to keep Lucy off my back and take care of the baby. That's all."
He'd expected her to be relieved, but the moment he mentioned the baby, she seemed to stiffen. "I don't know anything about babies."
"Don't you think it's time you learned?"
It took her a moment to remember she was pregnant. He was getting the idea that she wasn't exactly overjoyed about her little bundle of joy. She only thought it over for a few seconds before her eyes
began to sparkle with something that looked like excitement. "Yes. All right. Yes, I'd like that."
Her reaction surprised him. There was more to this lady than met the eye. He reminded himself that he didn't know anything about her, and he wondered if too much contact with Sandy's kids had shorted
out his brain. But driving one more mile with Lucy's sullenness and a screaming baby was more than he could tolerate. Besides, if it didn't work out, he could give her some money and dump her at the next truck stop. He turned back toward the Winnebago. "One warning."
"They both have delicate stomachs."
"What does that mean?"
"You'll find out." He opened the door for her. "What's your name?"
"N-Nell. Nell Kelly."
Her hesitation made him wonder if she was telling the truth. Her boyfriend must be a real loser. "I'm
She gave a nod of acknowledgment that looked almost regal, and right then it hit him. Cornelia Case. That's who she looked like.
He must have celebrities on the brain. First he'd decided Lucy looked like Winona Ryder, and now this lady reminded him of a pregnant version of Cornelia Case. Even their voices were similar, but he couldn't imagine the nation's aristocratic First Lady ending up broke, pregnant, and abandoned at a roadside truck stop in rural Pennsylvania. "Anybody ever mention that you look like Cornelia Case?"
She blinked. "All the time."
"You even sound alike, but you've got an accent. I can't quite place it. Where are you from?"
"The Carolinas. Alabama. Michigan for a while, then California. My folks moved around a lot. It
affected my speech."
"Yeah, I guess it did." The sunlight hit the top of her head, and he saw a small brown stain on the skin near her temple, as if she'd recently colored her hair and hadn't gotten off all the dye. He automatically filed the detail away. Nell Kelly might be down on her luck, but she still had enough vanity left to take
the time to color her hair. It was the kind of observation that used to set his newspaper stories apart.
She smelled good, and, as he moved aside to let her into the motor home, he felt something odd. If
she hadn't been pregnant, he would have chalked it up to desire. It had been a while since he was in a relationship—he thought of the flying copy of Bride magazine—and his sex life had suffered. But it
hadn't suffered enough to make him respond to a skinny pregnant lady. Still, there was something
about her . . .
"After you, princess." He dipped his head.
"Princess?" Nealy's own head shot up, and she was met with a lady-killer grin that made her wonder
if she'd lost her mind. Not only had she just hitched a ride with a stranger, but the stranger was a foot taller and a lot stronger than she was. And that smile . .. Although it wasn't lecherous, it had a
challenging quality that she found unnerving.
"Somehow it seems to fit," he said.
She had no idea how to reply to that, so she slipped past him—not that easy to do—and stepped inside. Her decision had been impulsive, but not completely foolish, she decided, as she gazed around the
interior of the motor home. Although there was definitely something dangerous about him, it wasn't a naked-female-left-dismembered-in-a-ditch kind of danger. He'd offered to stay and talk to the police, hadn't he? And, best of all, her excellent adventure wasn't over.
She hoped he'd bought her explanation about her accent, and she reminded herself to be more careful
so it didn't keep fading in and out. She also reminded herself that she was now Nell Kelly, the first name that had popped into her head.
The baby was perched in a car seat sitting on a couch with worn blue and green plaid upholstery. Across from the couch and immediately to Nealy's right was a small banquette. The table held an open bag of potato chips, the remnants of a donut, a hairbrush, and a Walkman. A small refrigerator stood to her left, and beside it, a peeling veneer door led to either a closet or a bathroom. There was also a tiny kitchen with a three-burner stove, a microwave, and a sink littered with some Styrofoam cups and a Dunkin' Donuts box. At the very rear of the motor home, a sliding door that was only partially closed revealed a double bed piled with clothes and some towels. There were two bucket seats at the front, one for the driver and one for a passenger.
A challenging voice interrupted. "What are you doing here?"
Reluctantly, she turned toward the surly teenager named Lucy, who was sitting on the couch feeding the baby green peas from a jar. The girl definitely wasn't pleased to see her.
Nealy remembered seeing something needy in her eyes when she'd been arguing with Mat. Maybe she didn't like the idea of another woman horning in on her territory.
"I'm hitching a ride," Nealy replied.
Lucy stared at her resentfully, then looked toward the driver's seat. "What's the matter, Jorik? You couldn't go without sex so you had to bring her along?"
"Ignore her." Mat picked up a road map and began to study it. "Lucy thinks if she talks dirty she'll
make me cry."
Nealy gazed at Lucy and thought about the dazzling group of teenagers she'd hosted at the White House just last week. They were all National Merit Scholarship winners, and their contrast with this girl couldn't have been more pronounced. Well, she'd wanted a glimpse of ordinary life, and she'd found it.
Lucy set the jar of baby food down on the couch. The baby, whose mouth was rimmed in green, immediately let out a demanding shriek. The teenager rose and went to the banquette, where she
slouched down. "She's not done eating, but I'm done feeding her." She reached for her Walkman,
slipped the headset over her ears, and leaned back into the corner.
Mat glanced over his shoulder at Nealy and shot her a pointed smile. "Time to earn your keep, Nell."
For a moment Nealy couldn't think whom he was addressing.
"Finish feeding the baby so we can take off," he said.
Lucy was shaking her head to the music coming from the Walkman, but the watchful eye she kept on
the baby indicated she was listening to every word. Nealy had the distinct impression she was being put
to some kind of test.
She turned to the baby and felt the familiar dread. Although she related well to children, being around babies was torturous. It was one of her most closely guarded secrets, especially ironic in light of the disguise she'd adopted.
She didn't need a shrink to figure out why she had a problem. The famous Time magazine cover photo taken when she was sixteen didn't show that the starving Ethiopian baby she'd been holding had died in her arms moments after the photographer had walked away. The memory had never left her.
Although she picked up a lot of healthy, smiling babies for photo ops, those contacts were always brief. Instead, it was the desperately ill babies her job so frequently required her to spend time with. She'd gazed at dozens of crack babies in isolettes, cuddled a hundred HIV babies, cooed to babies suffering from unspeakable diseases, and brushed flies from the empty eyes of those who were starving. In her mind, babies and suffering had become inexorably linked.
"You have to distance yourself," Dennis had said before their marriage when she'd tried to explain it to him. "If you want to be of any use to those children, you have to detach."
But how could anyone detach from the tragedy of watching innocents die? Images of their swollen bellies and crippled limbs haunted her dreams. These babies had become both her cross and her crusade, and she'd ordered her staff to look for as many opportunities as possible to showcase their plight. It was the only way she could honor the memory of the Ethiopian baby she hadn't been able to help.
First Ladies traditionally had a cause. Lady Bird had her wildflowers, Betty Ford fought substance addiction, Nancy Reagan Just Said No, and Barbara Bush wanted everyone to read. Although Cornelia hadn't planned it that way, she became the guardian angel of the world's most vulnerable victims.
Now, as Nealy gazed down at this healthy, screaming, golden-haired little girl with bright blue eyes and peas smeared all over her face, she felt only dread. The dark side of her crusade was her panic when
she saw a healthy one. What if her touch brought this beautiful child harm? The notion was illogical,
but she'd felt like the Angel of Baby Death for so long that she couldn't help it.
She realized Mat was watching her, and she managed a shrug. "I'm—I'm not good with babies. Maybe you'd better do it."
"Afraid to get your hands dirty? In case you forgot, helping out is your ticket to ride."
He had her over a barrel, and he knew it. She took in the messy motor home, the surly teenager, and
the fussing infant. Then she gazed at the big, roughneck of a man with his broad shoulders and devil's smile. Did she want to stay on the run badly enough to put up with all this?
Yes, she did.
With grim determination, she picked up the gooey spoon, dipped it into the jar, and brought it to the baby's mouth. The baby devoured the peas, then opened up for more, her eyes glued to Nealy's face.
As Nealy brought the next spoonful to her mouth, the baby grabbed her fingers.
Nealy flinched, barely able to resist the urge to shake off her touch. "What's her name?" she managed.
"You don't want to know."
Lucy lifted one earphone. "Her name's Butt."
"Butt?" Nealy gazed down at the adorable pea-smeared face with its soft features and healthy skin. Her straight blond hair rose like dandelion fluff around her head. The baby smiled, exhibiting four small teeth, then blew a green-flecked spit bubble.
"I didn't name her," Lucy said, "so don't look at me."
Nealy looked at Mat instead.
"I didn't name her, either."
She quickly fed the baby the last spoonful of peas. "What's her real name?"
"Got me." He began folding the map.
"I thought you were a friend of her mother. Why don't you know her name?" And how had he come to be on the road with two children who weren't his?
Instead of responding, he turned the key in the ignition.
"I wouldn't take off yet, Jorik," Lucy said. "Butt needs a good half hour for her food to settle or she'll
"Damn it, we're never going to get out of here."
Nealy didn't think he should be using that kind of language in front of a teenager, no matter how foul-mouthed she might be herself. Still, it wasn't her concern.
Lucy yanked off her headset. "Turn on the air-conditioning. It's hot."
"Have you ever heard the word please?'
"Have you ever heard the words I'm hot as hell?"
Lucy had pushed him too far. Instead of turning on the air-conditioning, he shut off the engine, got up from the driver's seat, and calmly pocketed the keys. "I'll see you ladies in half an hour." He let himself out of the Winnebago.
It was warm inside, and Nealy lifted an eyebrow at the teenager. "Nice going."
"He's an ass."
"He's an ass who just left us without air-conditioning."
When Nealy had been Lucy's age, she'd been expected to dress neatly and carry on polite conversation with world leaders. Discourtesy would never have occurred to her. The teenager was beginning to fascinate her.
The baby had begun to smear her gooey fists into her blond fuzz. Nealy looked around for some paper towels, but didn't see any. "How am I supposed to clean her up?"
"I don't know. With a washcloth or something."
"Where are they?"
"Someplace. Maybe in that drawer."
Nealy found a dish towel, wet it at the sink, and, under Lucy's watchful eyes, began wiping up the baby's hair, only to discover that she should have started with her hands. As she worked, she tried not to notice the drooly smiles coming her way. Finally, the child was reasonably clean.
"Take her out of her seat and let her crawl around for a while." Lucy sounded thoroughly bored. "She needs some exercise."
The rug didn't look very clean. Thoughts of typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, and a dozen other diseases ran through her mind, and she glanced around for something to set her on. She finally found a machine-made quilt in one of the overhead bins at the back of the Winnebago, and she spread it on the floor, between the couch and the table. Her hands fumbled with the straps on the baby seat before she got them to release.
She braced herself, just as she always did when she had to pick up an infant. Don't die. Please, don't die.
The child kicked and let out a happy squeal as Nealy lifted her from the car seat. She felt warm and solid beneath her hands, blissfully healthy. Nealy quickly set her or, the floor. The baby craned her neck to look up at her.
Lucy had stopped making even a pretense of listening to her Walkman. "You shouldn't have bothered with the blanket. She won't stay on it."
Sure enough, the baby shot forward on her hands and knees. In seconds she was off the blanket heading for the front of the motor home.
"If you know so much, why don't you take care of her?" Nealy enjoyed the novelty of being rude. Wouldn't it be wonderful to snap at everyone who offended her?
The baby pulled herself to her feet, using the driver's seat for support, and began cruising on two wobbly feet balanced by one small hand smeared with dried green peas.
"What do you think I've been doing since my mother died?"
Nealy felt terrible. "I didn't know about your mother. I'm sorry."
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 gearshift 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.
"1 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 nee."
"We have a toilet. Use it."
"Forget it. It's gross in there."
"Then clean it."
Lucy's lip curled with disdain. "As if."
Mat looked over at Nealy. "Clean it."
Nealy looked back at him. "As if."
Lucy giggled and Nealy smiled at the sound.
"Sit down," he ordered Lucy. "And buckle up. There are belts on that couch. Use 'em."
She grabbed her Walkman and carried it to the rear of the motor home, where she flopped down on the double bed, shoved the headset back on, and banged her fists against the wall to the rhythm of the music.
"Nice kid," Nealy said. "I'm sure she'll do well for herself in prison."
"If she wakes up the Demon, I'm going to kill her before she can get there."
Nealy studied him. "I've never traveled with kids, but I think you're supposed to plan frequent stops to keep them from getting bored. Scenic areas, playgrounds, zoos."
"If you see a sign for a snake farm, tell me right away so I can drop off all three of you."
"You're a very cranky man."
"And you're awfully cheerful for a woman who only has twenty dollars in her wallet and just had her stolen car stolen."
"It wasn't stolen, and earthly possessions are nothing but obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual enlightenment."
"Is that so?"
"Lucy said her mother died. When was that?"
"About six weeks ago. The woman never had any sense. She was driving drunk."
"What about the girls' father?"
"Fathers. Lucy's father was a one-night stand. The Demon's father was Sandy's last boyfriend. He died with her."
"That must be why Lucy's so hostile. She's trying to cope with her mother's death."
"I don't think so. My bet is that Sandy died for Lucy a long time ago. I think she's mainly scared, but doesn't want anybody to see it."
"It's nice of you to watch out for them, especially since you don't seem too fond of children."
"Nothing wrong with those little girls that some good concrete blocks and a real deep lake won't fix."
She smiled. People always put on their best faces for her. It was nice to be around someone so cheerfully perverse. "What do you do for a living? When you're not driving around children who don't belong to you, that is."
He took another sip from his root beer and set the can back down before he answered. "I work in a steel mill."
She settled back into the seat, thoroughly enjoying the novelty of chatting like an ordinary person. "Is it interesting? Working in the steel industry?"
"Oh, yeah. Real interesting." He yawned.
"What do you do?"
"This and that."
"It's incredible the way the industry is reviving despite competition with the Japanese. It's strange, though, to realize Indiana is our leading steel producer now instead of Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania isn't even in second place."
He was staring at her, and she realized she'd revealed too much. "I read about it in the National Enquirer," she said quickly.
"The National Enquirer!"
"Maybe it was the Philadelphia Inquirer."
A stab of resentment shot through her. She'd spent too many years watching every word she said, and she didn't want to have to do it now. "I have a photographic memory," she lied. "I know all kinds of trivia."
"Too bad you couldn't remember your car keys." He took another swig of root beer. "So Pennsylvania's number three?"
"Number four, actually, after Ohio and Illinois."
"Fascinating." He yawned again.
"Would you like me to drive so you can nap?"
"You ever drive one of these things?"
She'd driven tanks, both American- and Russian-made. "Something similar."
"Maybe I will. I had a lousy night's sleep." He slowed and pulled off onto the shoulder.
"What's going on?" Lucy called out from the back.
"I'm taking a nap. Come up here and torture Nell for a while so I can have the bed. You can teach her
all the dirty words you know."
"Quiet, both of you. You'll wake up B—Marigold." Lucy came forward as Mat vacated the driver's seat, and before long, they were back on the road. The miles slipped by, but instead of enjoying the scenery, Nealy found herself wondering exactly what was happening at the White House.
The late afternoon sunlight slanting through the tall windows of the Oval Office fell across the polished shoes of Secret Service Director Frank Wolinski. He took a seat in one of the Duncan Phyfe chairs that sat near a nineteenth century landscape. The President's chief advisor stood near one of the inner office doors, all of which had shell-shaped niches above them, while James Litchfield had taken a chair by a pediment-topped outer door.
Wolinski's counterparts at the FBI and CIA sat next to each other on one of the couches. Their direct superiors, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, had positioned themselves at the
edge of the seating group as if they wanted to distance themselves from the proceedings.
Harry Leeds, the FBI director, and Clement Stone, Director of the CIA, already knew what was in Wolinski 's report. The three men had been in constant contact for the past twenty-eight hours, ever
since Cornelia Case's chief of staff had discovered she was missing. It was the President who had called this meeting.
As Lester Vandervort walked across the presidential seal that covered the rug in front of his desk, Wolinski shifted in his seat. The tension in the room was almost unbearable. He'd only been appointed Secret Service director six months ago, part of the sweep that had taken place at the agency following the Case assassination, but now his job was in jeopardy. He didn't like to think about going down in history
as the first agency director to have lost a First Lady.
"Let's hear it," the President snapped.
Everyone in the room knew Wolinski was sweating, and they were all waiting to see how he'd handle it. "Two hours ago we picked up a report that the Pennsylvania State Police pulled over a felon named Jimmy Briggs. There's a warrant out for his arrest for armed robbery. At the time of the arrest, Briggs was driving a blue Chevy Corsica registered to a Delia Timms. The Chevy had temporary plates from a used car dealer in Rockville."
At the mention of the Washington, D.C., suburb, the men in the room who weren't yet familiar with Wolinski's information grew even more alert.
"As far as we can determine, Delia Timms doesn't exist," he said.
"But you don't know for certain."
Clement Stone, the CIA director, knew damn well they needed more time before they could be sure, and this was his way of insulating himself from any blame. Wolinski hid his irritation. "We're still checking. The dealership has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the law, and the salesman didn't see a driver's license. We've questioned him, and he's described Timms as a thin, elderly woman with curly gray hair and unusually smooth skin."
He paused for a moment, giving them time to draw their own conclusions before he went on. "We know Mrs. Case used some kind of disguise to get out of the White House, and the timing's right."
"You think she used a disguise," Litchfield snapped. "We still have no way of being certain my daughter wasn't coerced."
Wolinski had never liked James Litchfield, but now he felt a pang of sympathy for him. Everyone in Washington knew how close the former Vice President was to his daughter. "All the evidence points to the fact that she left voluntarily."
The President gave Wolinski a hard stare. "You think she may have disguised herself as an old lady, sneaked out of the White House, somehow made it to Maryland, and bought a car. You'd better have more than that."
"I do, sir. The Pennsylvania State Police found an envelope in the trunk of the Chevy with fifteen thousand dollars in it." Wolinski dreaded the next part of his report. "They also found a sack of women's clothes and some toiletries. One sack had a gray wig in it."
"Jesus." Litchfield shot to his feet, his expression agonized.
"There might not be any connection," Wolinski said hastily, "but we're going over the White House security tapes right now to get a closer look at all the older women who came through on the tours that morning. We should have the results in another hour."
The President swore, and Litchfield lost what little color was left in his face. Wolinski knew exactly what was on their minds, and he spoke quickly. "There were no signs of violence. Jimmy Briggs said the keys were in the ignition when he took it, and that he never saw the driver. The car's heading for the lab right now."
"What did you tell the locals?" The President's chief advisor, a man who was known to be paranoid
about White House leaks, spoke up for the first time.
"We've said that we're doing a routine investigation. That we've gotten some crackpot mail threatening
the President and we think it might have come from the car's former owner."
"Did they buy it?"
"They seemed to."
The President's advisor shook his head. "So far there haven't been any leaks, but we won't be able to keep this quiet for long."
Litchfield erupted. "We have to keep it quiet! If the press finds out that my daughter has disappeared ..." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't have to.
"I have agents heading for Pennsylvania right now," Wolinski said.
"Not good enough." The President's gaze took in both Wolinski and Harry Leeds, the Bureau director.
"I want a task force of special teams put together for this, with Bureau agents and Secret Service agents assigned as partners. Your best people."
Wolinski didn't know who sounded more alarmed at the idea of pairing the agents this way, himself or Harry Leeds. "But sir—"
"Sir, if I might suggest—"
"You'll do as I say." The President's gaze took in the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury before he returned his attention to Wolinski and Leeds. "I know how you men work, and I won't let anybody build a private kingdom on Mrs. Case's disappearance. I insist on complete cooperation between agencies. Setting up the teams this way guarantees that I'll get it. Does everybody understand?"
"Good." The President's eyes narrowed. "Now I suggest you all get busy because, I promise you, if Cornelia Case isn't located quickly, some people in this room are going to be out of a job."
Mat dreamed he was cleaning out a latrine. As the dream progressed, a malevolent-looking kitten appeared and sank its sharp claws into his arm. Gradually, he worked one eyelid open and then the
other. He blinked. No kitten. Instead, a pair of baby blue eyes peered angelically at him over the edge
of the bed.
"Ma-ma-ma-ma-Ma!" She dug her fingers into his arm. Her wispy blond hair was matted to one side
of her head, and her chubby cheek bore a crease. Otherwise, she was bright-eyed, smelly, and ready
to party. "Ma!"
"Wrong person, kid." He extricated himself, rolled to his back, and stared up at the roof of the motor home. They weren't moving, which explained the fact that the Demon was roaming. "Nell! Lucy! Butt needs her diaper changed."
That brought him up off the bed fast. He shuddered and ran his hand through his hair. Then he shoved one side of his T-shirt back in his jeans and made his way to the front of the Winnebago. His neck was getting a crimp from having to keep his head ducked.
Lucy was nowhere in sight, but Nell sat in the passenger seat with her feet propped up on the dashboard and an expression of pure contentment on her face. He found himself pausing, just to watch her. A shaft of late afternoon sunlight had turned her skin to porcelain, and there was something almost ethereally beautiful about her.
She turned and caught him staring at her. He glanced down at the dashboard clock and saw that he'd
been asleep for quite a while. "The baby's on the loose."
"I know. She needed some exercise."
The door swung open and Lucy came back in. "That's the last time I'm peeing in the woods."
"Then clean the bathroom," Nell countered.
Mat felt something clutch his leg, caught a whiff, and looked down to see the Demon hanging on to his jeans. She looked up at him, all drooly grin. Then, using his leg to balance herself, she began to bounce.
Maybe he'd died without realizing it and gone straight to hell.
"Don't say that." Lucy took her sister's arms and drew her away, then knelt down and caught her small face between her hands to get her attention. "Say jerk, Butt. Jerk. Jerk. Jerk."
Nell didn't even have the decency to hide her amusement as she gingerly picked up the baby and carried her over to the couch for a diaper change. "You've got quite a fan club."
He needed some fresh air. "I'll be back in a few minutes, but don't hesitate to take off without me."
When he returned, the Demon was safely fastened in her car seat and Nell sat behind the wheel.
"I'll drive," he said.
She pulled back onto the road. "Soon. Right now I'm looking for a place to stop for dinner."
"It's not even six."
He tilted his head toward the teenager. "Eat potato chips."
"I'm hungry, too," Nell said. "And Marigold needs a decent meal."
"Stop calling her that!" Lucy exclaimed. "She hates it! She really does."
"Pull over," he ordered.
"Right up ahead. The sign says one-point-five miles. Grannie Peg's Good Eats."
"I just bet that'll be four-star cuisine."
"What does a steelworker know about four-star cuisine?"
"I don't type at all. That's why I'm unemployed."
She looked awfully pleased with herself for someone who was supposed to be desperate. He wondered how she'd react if he told her the truth about what he did for a living. He used to love telling people he was a journalist, but during the past year, he'd grown evasive. That alone had been a good reason for quitting. A man should be proud of his work.
"Oh, look! They're having a picnic!" Nell slowed to gaze at a family of four that had stopped by the side of the road to eat sandwiches off the tailgate of an old station wagon. Her blue eyes danced with delight. "It looks like so much fun. That's what we can do for dinner! We can have a roadside picnic."
"No way. I've got my heart set on Grannie Peg's fine cuisine."
"Picnics blow," Lucy grumbled.
"Both of you could use a happy pill," Nell said firmly.
"I feel sorry for your kid if you're going to make it eat dirt sandwiches off the back of some ghitty station wagon."
Nell fixed her gaze on the road. "I can't hear you. I can't hear anything but happy words."
Mat smiled. The pregnant lady sure was good for entertainment.
Grannie Peg's flamingo-pink T-shirt, black leggings, and gleaming silver earrings delighted Nealy. All that on a plump, brassy-haired woman just past forty. Her restaurant had fake pine paneling, plastic flowers
in a wall divider that separated the restaurant entrance from the dining area, and a long Formica counter with black vinyl stools. Exactly the sort of place she never got to see.
She was glad she'd been able to maneuver Lucy into carrying the baby. Feeling that healthy, vigorous wiggling beneath her hands as she'd changed Marigold's diaper had been difficult enough. She'd been terrified she'd somehow bring harm to her.
Grannie Peg stepped out from behind the register and nodded at them as they entered. "Hey, there,
folks. Smoking or non?"
"Smoking," Lucy said.
"Non," Mat said.
Lucy's look indicated how pathetic she thought he was.
Nealy watched Mat studying the restaurant's counter, a purposeful gleam in his eyes. "Don't even think about it," she said quickly. "You're sitting with us unless you want Marigold strapped on the stool next
The baby squealed in delight. "Da da Da!"
"Will you make her stop doing that?" Mat growled.
"Jerk. Jerk. Jerk!" Lucy said to the top of the baby's head.
Nealy laughed. Considering how unpleasant her traveling companions were, she shouldn't be having such a good time, but being with them felt like being with a real American family. They were all so gloriously dysfunctional. Except for Marigold. She was gloriously functional.
Mat sniffed. "Didn't you just change her?"
"I guess she enjoyed it so much, she decided to do it again."
One look at Lucy's face told Nealy she didn't have a chance of convincing the teenager to handle this diaper change. Reluctantly, she carried the baby back to the motor home.
When she returned, she found Mat and Lucy in a booth, with Lucy glaring at him. She had no intention of asking what was wrong, but Lucy told her anyway.
"He won't let me order a beer."
"The depth of his cruelty leaves me speechless." Nealy frowned at the high chair that had been placed at the end of the table. Who knew how many children had sat in that chair and what diseases they might have had? She looked aroand for a waitress to ask for disinfectant.
"What's wrong?" Mat asked.
"The high chair doesn't look too clean."
"It's clean," he said. "Put her in."
Nealy hesitated, then forced herself to gently lower the squirming baby into the seat. Don't get sick, sweetheart. Please don't get sick.
Nealy fumbled around trying to fasten the tray in place until Lucy pushed her out of the way and did it herself. "You're so pathetic. I feel sorry for your kid. I really do."
"Shut up." Although she hadn't put much heat behind her words, Nealy still enjoyed them. "Just shut up," she repeated for good measure.
"Like you've got room to criticize," Nealy countered. Oh, this was too much fun.
Mat looked amused. Marigold slapped her hands on the high chair tray, demanding her sister's attention. "Ma ma Ma!"
Lucy's face crumpled. "I'm not your mother. She's dead!"
Nealy glanced over at Mat, but he'd begun studying the menu. "Lucy, I'm really sorry about your mother. I lost my mother, too, when I was very young. Anytime you want to talk about her—"
"Why would I want to talk to you?" Lucy scowled. "I don't even know you."
"She's got you there," Mat said.
A gray-haired waitress appeared, pencil and pad poised for action. "Are you folks ready to order? Hey, sweetie. What a cute baby. How old is she?"
Nealy had no idea.
"Forty-seven," Lucy retorted. "She's a dwarf."
"Ignore her," Mat said to the waitress. "She's annoyed because we're getting ready to lock her up in an institution for the criminally bad-mannered."
The waitress nodded knowingly. "Teenage years are hard on parents."
Mat began to correct her, then seemed to decide it wasn't worth the effort. "I'll have a cheeseburger and fries. And whatever you've got on draft."
"That's so not fair!" Lucy sputtered. "How's come you can have a beer and I can't?"
"Because you're too old to drink." He discarded his menu.
Nealy smiled, then turned her attention to her own order. She realized she was famished. "I'll have the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Blue cheese dressing on the salad."
"Bacon sandwich," Lucy said. "No lettuce. No tomato. No mayonnaise. And white bread. And red Jell-O."
"We only have lime."
The baby slapped the tray and let out a demanding shriek. Clearly liking the sound of her own voice,
she did it again.
The waitress nodded indulgently. "What's the little angel going to have?"
Nealy didn't know what the baby ate other than jarred food, and she was once again forced to look to Lucy for help.
"You can mash up some of your green beans and chicken real small with a fork. Don't put butter on the beans," she told the waitress. "And bring her some crackers to keep her busy until the food gets here,
then some applesauce."
"How about scrambled eggs or something easy to eat like that?" Nealy said, trying to be helpful.
"Babies can't have egg whites until they're a year old. Don't you know anything?"
The waitress stared at Nealy for a long time—obviously pegging her as the worst mother of the
century— then she turned away.
"Buh-buh-buh!" the baby shouted at the top of her small lungs. "Gah!"
Mat looked longingly toward the counter with its row of stools.
"Don't even think about it," Nealy said.
"She's so loud," he grumbled. "Why does she have to be so loud?"
"Maybe she's imitating you." Mat's voice wasn't really loud, but it was big, just like the rest of him.
Lucy smiled slyly and handed the baby a spoon, which she immediately began whacking on the high chair. A young couple in a neighboring booth looked over and frowned at the noise. Nealy gently took
the spoon away.
Lucy looked pleased with herself.
Nealy hurriedly returned the spoon to the baby.
"Don't cuss, Butt," Lucy said. "It upsets Jorik."
"Would you hurry up with that beer?" Mat called out to the waitress.
It didn't take long for the food to arrive. Nealy dug in, refusing to let the children spoil her enjoyment
of Grannie Peg's. She'd eaten at the most famous restaurants in the world, from Tour L'Argent to the Rainbow Room, but not a single one of them was as atmospheric as this. Only when the check arrived
did she remember she had a problem.
"Mat, I'd appreciate it if you could lend me some money. Just for a little while. I want to pay for my
own food, and I'm going to need some clothes, a few incidentals. I could probably manage with five hundred."
He stared at her. "You want me to lend you five hundred dollars?"
"I'll pay you back. I promise."
Imagine anyone doubting Cornelia Case's word. Except she wasn't Cornelia Case. She was a pregnant drifter named Nell Kelly, and she could see his point. "Really I will. I have the money. I just can't get
my hands on it right now."
This was going to present a problem. She had no credit cards with her, since she couldn't have used
them without blowing her cover, but she needed to get her hands on some money.
"I can loan you fifty," Lucy said.
Nealy was surprised by Lucy's generosity. "Really? Thanks."
"No problem." Too late, she saw the calculating look in the teenager's eyes. "All you have to do is whatever I tell you."
So much for the fifty dollars.
"I'll lend you fifty," Mat said begrudgingly.
Lucy sneered. "You should borrow from me. I won't make you take off your clothes."
"Did anybody ever mention that you're boring?" Mat said.
"I saw the way you were watching her today when she didn't know you were looking," Lucy countered.
"I was watching her because she looks like Cornelia Case."
"She does not."
A devil prodded Nealy. "A lot of people think I do."
"You wish," Lucy said.
"I hate to put an end to the good time we're all having." Mat stood. "But we need to hit the road."
"Butt just ate," Lucy reminded him.
"We'll take our chances," he snapped.
Easy for him to say, Nealy thought less than half an hour later as she tried to clean up the mess from the baby's latest episode of motion sickness. For the first time since her escape, she yearned for the efficient White House staff that took care of every kind of domestic unpleasantness.
By the time the baby was bathed, her car seat was swabbed down, and they'd found a discount store where Nealy could buy a few clothes to replace those she'd lost, it was dark, Marigold was screaming again, and Nealy had begun to feel as frantic as the baby. "We need to find a doctor! There's something wrong with her."
Lucy gave up trying to distract her sister with a Beanie Baby walrus. "Butt doesn't need a doctor; she's scared of doctors. She's hungry and she's tired, and she wants out of her car seat, and she needs her bottle. That's all."
Marigold held out her arms toward her sister and sobbed with frustration.
Nealy sat down in the empty passenger seat. "I think we should stop at the campground we saw advertised on those billboards."
"I'm not stopping," Mat said. "We're driving through the night. One of us can sleep while the other takes the wheel."
Although he sounded determined, she suspected he knew his plan wouldn't work but hadn't gotten around to accepting it. "We won't be able to sleep with the baby screaming," she said reasonably. "If we stop now, we'll get plenty of rest and we can make an early start."
His sigh was as long-suffering as Lucy's. "We should be halfway through Ohio by now. We've barely crossed the West Virginia border."
"But we're having such a good time."
The corner of that steelworker's mouth quirked. "All right, we'll stop. But we're pulling out at daybreak."
Hoolihan's Campgrounds was a small RV park, with not more than a dozen vehicles angled in among the trees. Mat backed into the spot they'd been directed to, turned off the ignition, then got up to retrieve another can of root beer from the refrigerator. Within seconds, he'd left her alone with the children. Even though she knew that was why he'd let her come along, she resented his hasty exit.
Lucy gave Nealy the frantic baby. Nealy waited for her to follow Mat outside, only to watch the teenager make her way to the sink and fix her sister's bottle. When she was done, she took the baby back.
"I'll give it to her. She doesn't like you. You'll make her get sick all over again."
And then she 'II die. . . . The awful, illogical thought flew through Nealy's mind. "I'll—I'm just going to take a little walk."
Lucy was feeding the baby and she didn't respond.
The night air felt like velvet as Nealy stepped outside. She gazed around and saw that the campground was set in a small clearing beneath a rim of foothills faintly visible in the moonlight. She heard the muted sound of a radio coming from the next campsite, smelled an old charcoal fire. Dim yellow bug lights mounted on crude poles threw spots of weak illumination over the gravel road. She walked toward it,
only to hesitate. Something was wrong, and it left her feeling unbalanced and disoriented.
Then she realized what it was. There were no soft footsteps behind her, no quiet murmur of voices whispering her whereabouts into a two-way radio. For the first time in years, she was by herself. Contentment seeped through her, right down to her bones.
She'd barely gone ten yards, however, before a familiar voice intruded on her solitude. "Already running away from our happy home?"
She turned to see a dark figure sprawled at a picnic table set into the trees. He was sitting backward on the bench, leaning against the table with those long legs stretched out and the root beer can in his hand.
Even as she felt herself drawn to him, she realized she knew nothing about him other than the fact that
he disliked children and worked in a steel mill. There were questions she needed to ask, ones she hadn't been able to pose around Lucy.
"Am I likely to get myself arrested for being with you?"
He rose and began to walk beside her.
With his height and muscular build, he might have been Secret Service, but he didn't feel safe like the agents she was used to. Instead, he felt like danger.
"What makes you ask that?"
"For a man who wants to travel quickly, you did a good job of keeping us off the turnpike."
"I don't like turnpikes."
"You love them. You're a turnpike kind of guy. Be honest, Mat. What's going on with you and those kids?"
"I'm not kidnapping them, if that's what you want to know."
She'd been fairly certain of that. Lucy complained about bumpy roads and warm Coke—she'd hardly keep quiet about being kidnapped. "So what are you doing with them?"
He took a sip, looked off into the distance, shrugged. "A long time ago, I was married to their mother. Sandy put my name on both girls' birth certificates, even though neither one of them is mine."
"So you are the girls' father."
"Aren't you listening? It's only on paper. I didn't even know Butt existed until a few days ago."
"Please stop calling her that."
"Anybody who screams like she does deserves a crummy name."
"She may scream, but she looks like a cherub."
He was clearly unimpressed.
In the distance, an owl hooted. "I still don't understand. You obviously don't want them, so why do you have them? It shouldn't be hard to prove you're not their father."
"You try getting Lucy to a lab for a blood test." He slid one hand into the pocket of his jeans. "You're right, though. It won't be hard, and as soon as we get to Grandma's house, I'll take care of it."
"You still haven't explained why you dodged the turnpike."
"Sandy's mother isn't due back in the country till the end of the week, and child services was getting ready to take them. The baby'd probably be all right, but can you imagine Lucy in a foster home, even if it was only for a little while? She'd end up in a juvenile detention center before she ever made it to Iowa."
"I know she's awful, but there's something about her I like. And I'm sure she could have survived."
"Maybe, but... I don't know ... it seemed safer to get them to their grandmother."
As he told her about Joanne Pressman, the letter she'd sent, the red tape involved in turning the girls
over, Nealy realized there was a lot more to Mat Jorik than that crusty macho exterior. "So you decided to sidestep the local authorities."
"Not from any affection for the little brats," he said dryly. "But despite what Sandy did to me, I have some good memories of her, and I figured I owed her a favor. At the same time, I didn't think the local authorities would be too happy about having me take them out of state before this was cleared up."
"So you did kidnap the girls."
"Let's just say I didn't have the patience to wait around until somebody got the legalities figured out. Originally I'd planned to fly, but Lucy took strong exception to that."
"Underneath the crusty exterior, you're a real softie."
"You just keep right on thinking that."
She had to admit that he didn't look much like a softie. He looked more like a man who'd been seriously inconvenienced. Still, since his need to keep to the back roads coincided with her desire to see small towns, she wasn't going to protest.
His eyes skimmed over her, lingering for a moment on her mouth, then moving to her eyes. "Now it's your turn to answer a few questions."
She felt slightly breathless. "Me? I'm an open book." God was currently off duty because lightning didn't strike her.
"Then why are you using a phony Southern accent?"
"How do you know it's phony?"
"Because half the time you forget."
"Oh. That's because 1 lived in California."
"Give it up, Nell. You're obviously well educated, and I didn't see anybody else at that god-awful restaurant eating their drumstick with a knife and fork."
"I don't like greasy fingers."
"Save it for somebody stupid."
Nealy thought fast. "All kinds of women get caught up in bad relationships."
"Bad enough that I don't want to talk about it."
"Do you think he might be following you?"
"Not now," she said carefully. "But he might have been."
"Don't you have any friends who can help you out? Any family?"
"Not right now."
"I had to quit."
"Have you gone to the police?"
She was getting herself in deeper by the minute. "Restraining orders aren't always effective."
"What's his name? The baby's father?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"If somebody's on our ass, I don't want to be taken by surprise."
Only one name sprang to her mind, maybe because she'd recently pulled out her old video of Titanic. "Leo." She swallowed. "Leo .. . Jack."
"Probably an alias. That's the kind of guy Leo is."
"If he's so bad, why did you hook up with him?"
"I have codependency problems."
He stared at her.
She'd thought it was a good response, but he obviously wasn't satisfied, so she embellished. "He's quite good-looking. Light brown hair, great eyes, nice body. Bad swimmer. A little young for me, but..." For God's sake, what was she doing? "I didn't realize until too late that he was psychotic," she said hastily.
"How does he feel about the baby?"
She tried to imagine Leonardo Di Caprio's reaction if she told him she was carrying his baby. She imagined he'd be quite astonished.
"He doesn't know."
"So you haven't seen him for a while?"
This time she didn't forget she had a wad of padding sticking out in front of her. "Not for a while. He wasn't around when I borrowed his car. I'd really rather not talk about this. It's quite painful."
He gave her a long, searching look that made her wonder exactly how much of this he was buying. He seemed to have an extremely agile mind.
"It's hard for me to imagine you getting mixed up with a psychotic."
"That's because you don't know me."
"I know enough. I'd even hazard a guess that you're a blue blood. Episcopalian, I'll bet."
"Same thing. You're obviously intelligent and well educated, even if you don't have a lot of street smarts."
That annoyed her. "Lots of people have their cars stolen. And my mammy and pappy sure would love hearing me described as a blue blood."
"Did you know that the corner of your mouth scrunches up when you tell a lie?"
She deliberately tightened the corner of her mouth. "You're a kind and sensitive human being."
He laughed. "All right. I'll back off. But remember, you've only got a ride for as long as you keep the
girls out of my hair, and you did a lousy job of it today."
Blackmail could work two ways. "You'd better be nice to me, or I'll leave you on your own. Just you, Lucy, and little baby Butt. Isn't it cute the way she says da da. With what she very much hoped was
a saucy smile, she picked up her steps and left him behind.
Saucy. It was so un-Cornelia-like. She loved it.
He smiled as she walked away. The lady had attitude, he'd give her that. From the rear, it was impossible to tell that she was pregnant. He didn't want her pregnant, he realized. He wanted her in sexy lingerie.
It wasn't often he shocked himself, but this time he'd managed it. His smile faded. Pregnant women represented everything he didn't want in his life, yet he'd just mentally undressed one. The idea made
His relationship with the female sex had always been complex. Growing up surrounded by so many women had made him crave the masculine. He loved smelly locker rooms, rough contact, and no-holds-barred political debates. He enjoyed gruff voices and a little blood at hockey games. He liked shampoo that only had shampoo in it—no flowers, vegetables, or fruit salad. He loved having a bathroom to himself. No pink barrettes on the basin, no underwire bras hanging from the shower head. A cupboard beneath the sink that held shaving cream instead of boxes of mini pads, maxi pads, tampons of every size and shape, products for light days, heavy days, bad hair days, and I'm-too-fat days. He was a guy! He wanted to be surrounded by guy things. Unfortunately, the best guy thing of all was having sex with a great woman.
It was a dilemma he'd solved in the only way he knew how, by being up-front. He let women know at the beginning that he'd served his time as a family man, and he didn't ever intend to do it again. Then he laid out the rules—great sex, mutual respect, lots of personal space, and no permanent commitments.
Still, there were always women who had a death wish that attracted them to a man who set hard boundaries. A few of them had convinced themselves they could get him to the altar, although he
couldn't imagine why they'd want to drag a commitment out of someone with such a deep-seated
aversion to family life. As bad a husband as he'd be, he'd make an even worse father.
He still winced when he remembered all those sucker punches he'd thrown at his sisters when he was
a kid and he hadn't known any other way to keep them in line. It was a miracle he hadn't hurt them.
He pitched his root beer can into a trash barrel and stuffed his hands in his pockets. At least one good thing was coming out of this misadventure—he didn't have time to brood about the way he'd screwed
up a professional life he'd worked so hard to build.
Not long after he'd put himself through college, his mother had died. With more financial responsibility
for his family, he'd worked harder than ever to build his career, and it had paid off as he'd moved from
a smalltown paper to the Chicago News Bureau and finally to the Standard. He'd had everything he'd wanted: a high-profile job in a great city, money in the bank, good friends, and enough leisure to play some ice hockey. And if he sometimes thought a man who'd accomplished all his goals should be
happier. .. well, nothing in life was perfect.
Then Sid Giles had come courting. Sid had been developing a television news program called Byline,
and he wanted Mat as his head producer. Although Mat had no experience in television, his journalistic credentials were impeccable, and Sid needed him for the credibility he'd lend the show. In addition to offering Mat an astronomical amount of money, Sid promised that he'd be able to do quality work.
Mat initially turned him down, but he couldn't stop thinking about the offer. Maybe this was what was missing from his life, he'd thought. A chance to push himself in a new direction. He'd finally accepted
the job and set off for L.A.
At first Sid had kept his promise, and Mat had been able to do some good work. But Byline's ratings didn't grow fast enough, and before long he found himself producing stories on cheating husbands,
lesbian wives, and clairvoyant pets. Still, he held on, fueled by pure stubbornness and the inability to admit he'd made a mistake. Finally, as the stories had grown sleazier and his old newspaper friends
started ducking his calls, he'd known he couldn't do it any longer. He'd turned in his resignation, put
his luxury condominium up for sale, and walked away.
Now he wanted to find a couple of great stories to redeem his pride before he went back to Chicago.
He'd already stumbled on some good stuff—a group of street kids in Albuquerque that'd tear a reader's heart out, a small-town bank making a fortune off farm foreclosures. But neither story was enough. He wanted something bigger.
Until two days ago, finding that big story was all he'd been able to think about. Now, however, he'd
been distracted by a pair of kids who weren't his, along with a pregnant lady who had skinny legs, a quirky sense of humor, and an allure he didn't understand. Even though he wasn't much of a drinker,
he decided he deserved to find a little oblivion in that pint of Jim Beam he'd spotted in one of Mabel's overhead bins.
"I'M NOT SLEEPING WITH YOU!" LUCY DECLARED. "HOW do I know you don't have lice or something?"
"Fine," Nealy sighed, pulling down the spread on the bed. "Then sleep up front."
"You said Mat was going to sleep up there."
"He probably will."
"Make him sleep in the back."
"Think for a minute, will you? Marigold's sleeping on the floor by the double bed because it's the only place to keep her contained, so it's not hard to figure out that Mat will make sure he sleeps in the front. The banquette makes up into a small bed. The couch makes up into another bed. You can either sleep back here in the double bed with me or up there with him."
"That's so gross. How do you know he's not one of those kiddy porn creeps or something?"
"Yeah, well, that's easy for you to say. You're not the one who might get overpowered."
Why did the idea of being overpowered by Mat Jorik not seem all that awful? But sex was one thing
she absolutely never let herself think about, so she looked around the kitchen for some cleanser.
"Let him sleep with you," Lucy said. "He wants to."
Spray bottle in hand, Nealy turned back to the hostile teenager with the small, perfectly proportioned features.
"You have no idea what you're talking about. He only likes me marginally more than he likes you,
which isn't saying much. Now I'm taking a shower. Sleep anywhere you want."
Nealy didn't have much experience cleaning, but she couldn't stand using the bathroom as it was. It
took her a while, but when she was done, she felt reasonably satisfied with the result. Afterward she showered, then reluctantly fastened the padding back around her middle. It would be uncomfortable for sleeping, but in such close quarters, she didn't have much choice.
She'd picked up the inexpensive long blue cotton nightgown she'd bought at the discount store. She was accustomed to silk, and the fabric felt strange as she settled it over her head.
When she emerged from the bathroom, she was relieved to see that Lucy had fallen asleep. Still wearing her clothes, she lay sprawled across the double bed. The smeared makeup formed a mask over her delicately innocent face.
Marigold lay on the bed Nealy had made for her on the floor. She was curled on her side, her plump, baby lips parted, fragile lashes lying in dainty half-moons on her cheeks, the Beanie Baby walrus under one knee. For the first time Nealy noticed that all ten of her tiny toe-nails were painted iridescent blue.
She smiled down at Lucy, then opened one of the back windows. As the night breeze touched her skin, she instinctively gazed toward the shadows outside for the guards who were always there. But tonight
she saw only the gentle sway of tree branches. She felt completely isolated from the rest of the world
and absolutely safe. Cornelia Case had vanished.
Lucy felt something poke her, heard a soft noise. It was too early to get up, and she didn't want to open her eyes, especially when she knew exactly what she would see.
The word was soft, almost whispered. Lucy forced open one eye and then the other. For a moment, she simply stared at her sister as she peeked over the edge of the mattress. Little blond tufts stuck out here and there, most of them stiff from yesterday's meals, and a big smile, full of love and trust, was spread like peanut butter over her face. It made Lucy's stomach hurt.
"Gah," she whispered back.
The smile beamed brighter. Lucy lifted her head and saw a purple stain on her pillow from the color
she'd sprayed in her hair. She also noticed a wet spot where she'd drooled while she slept. Gross.
Nell was asleep, and Lucy felt a stab of jealousy as she saw how pretty she looked lying against her pillow. Now that Nell was here, Jorik was paying attention to her instead of Lucy.
She didn't like thinking about how much she wanted him to pay attention to her. It reminded her of all those years she hadn't been able to get Sandy's attention. The only things her mother had cared about were booze and her boyfriends.
As Lucy sat up, she caught sight of Jorik sprawled face down on the couch, legs hanging off the end,
one arm dragging on the floor. Fourteen years worth of resentment against Sandy churned inside her. Why couldn't Jorik have been her dad instead of some drunk Carnegie Mellon fraternity guy Sandy'd never seen again?
Sharp little fingernails dug into her legs. She gazed at those dirty blond curls and grubby knees. Nell and Jorik thought they were so smart, but neither one of them seemed to know that babies needed a bath before they went to bed.
Freeing herself from her sister's grip, she stood up and began pulling some clean clothes from the pile she'd tossed on the floor yesterday morning before they'd taken off. When she had everything, she
leaned down and grabbed the baby, too.
The digital clock on Mabel's dashboard read 6:02. Just one time Lucy'd like to sleep in late like other
kids her age, but she never got to.
Her sister was heavy, and Lucy banged into the table on her way to the door, but Jorik didn't move.
Then she saw the half-empty whiskey bottle lying on the floor. Betrayal burned inside her. Was he going to turn out to be a drunk, too?
The only time in the past four years when Sandy hadn't gotten drunk was when she was pregnant.
Lucy's eyes filled with tears. That had been a pretty good time. Even though Sandy'd been with Trent
a lot, sometimes it had just been the two of them laughing and talking about stuff.
Sometimes Lucy felt guilty for not being more sad about Sandy dying, but in a lot of ways, she felt like Sandy had died right after her little sister was born, when she'd started drinking again. All she was interested in from then on was partying. Lucy had sort of started hating her.
Outside it smelled like bacon and fresh air. She'd been to a place like this once with Sandy and Trent,
and she knew there was usually a rest room with a shower for people who didn't want to use the one in their motor homes. She had to set the baby down in the grass a couple of times so she could rest her arms. Finally, she spotted a wooden building painted green. She hoped it wasn't too crappy inside.
She picked the baby back up. "You'd better start walking soon. I mean it. You're getting too heavy for
me to carry. And stop poking me in the eye, will you?"
Babies were always doing crap like that. Waking you up real early in the morning when you wanted to sleep, poking you in the eye, scratching you with their fingernails. They didn't mean to be jerks. They
just couldn't help it.
Nobody was in the rest room when they got there, and Lucy was glad to see that it wasn't too scummy. Her arms felt like somebody was trying to pull them right out of her shoulders, and she barely made it
into one of two big shower stalls before they gave out. She plopped her sister on the concrete floor and dumped all their stuff on the wooden bench.
That was when she remembered that she'd forgotten soap and shampoo. She looked into the shower stall and saw that somebody'd left a little piece there, but it was green, and she didn't like green soap because of the way it smelled. Still, she'd have to use it because she didn't have any choice, just like she didn't have a choice about anything that had happened to her.
Her stomach started hurting again. It had been hurting a lot lately, mainly when she got scared about things.
The baby babbled while Lucy undressed her, and those soft, happy sounds made up for having to get up so early. While the baby crawled around, Lucy pulled off her own clothes and carefully tested the water to make sure it wasn't too hot. She stepped inside, then knelt down and held out her arms, but her sister was scared of the running water and didn't want to come in.
"Nuh!" She puckered up her face and crawled backward.
Lucy tried not to get mad because she was just a little baby, and she didn't know water wouldn't hurt
her. But it was hard not to be mad with her stomach hurting and everything.
"Get in here right now!"
Her bottom lip stuck out, but the baby didn't move.
"I mean it! Get in here!"
Oh, shit. The baby's face crumpled and her eyes filled with tears. She didn't even make any noise, just started to shake, with her lip all quivery, and Lucy couldn't stand it. She stepped out of the stall and, naked and cold, squatted down to hug her.
"I didn't mean to yell at you. I'm sorry, Button. I'm really sorry."
Button buried her face in her neck, just like she always did, and hung on because Lucy was the only person she had left in the world.
That was when Lucy started to cry, too. With goose bumps breaking out all over her skin, and Button hanging on, and her heart hammering. She started to cry until she was shaking because she didn't know how she was going to take care of Button, and she didn't know what Jorik would do when he found out about her grandmother.
She told herself she wouldn't be so scared if she was by herself. She was fourteen, and she was smart, the smartest kid in her class, although she made sure none of those losers she went to school with knew about that. A few of the teachers had figured it out, and some of them made Lucy come up to their desks after class to talk about how she should apply herself and crap like that. But with a mother like Sandy, and never having any money, and moving from one ugly, run-down house to another, Lucy already felt like a freak. She didn't need everybody knowing she had a smart brain, too.
Except her smart brain hadn't figured out how she was going to take care of Button. Right after Sandy'd died, she'd cashed her mother's last paycheck and used it to pay the rent and phone and stuff. Then she'd started baby-sitting one of the little kids in the neighborhood while his mom went to work. She'd been doing okay until that lawyer had found her.
If it was just her, she'd run away to New York City or someplace like Hollywood, and get a job and
make a whole lot of money. But she couldn't do that and take care of Button, too.
Right now, she only knew one thing. She had to be tough. That was about the only good thing Sandy
had ever taught her. When somebody gets in your face, just spit right in their eye. If you don't stand up for yourself, nobody else is going to do it.
So that's what she was doing. Being tough, standing up for herself, and trying to slow down this trip
while she figured out how to take care of her baby sister.
Button started sucking on Lucy's neck. She did that sometimes when Lucy hugged her, and it made Lucy's stomach hurt so bad she wanted to start crying again because she knew Button couldn't tell the difference between her sister and a grown-up. Even worse, she knew Button didn't understand that Lucy wasn't her mom.
It had come to this, Nealy thought. The First Lady of the United States was traveling toward the heartland with a drunk, a teenage hellion, a baby she was terrified to touch, and an unborn Wal-Mart pillow.
"Where the hell are we?" Mat's big, booming voice bounced off the walls of the Winnebago.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw him uncoiling from the couch like a bear coming out of hibernation. Except he looked more like a gorgeous, rumpled pirate with his unkempt hair, wrinkled
black T-shirt, and jaw covered in dark stubble.
He levered himself up, winced, and rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth. "I know that. Where
in West Virginia?"
"This is the most beautiful state. Mountains, rivers, bucolic woodlands, winding roads." She thought
about singing a little "West Virginia, mountain mama," but decided that might be pushing a man with a nasty hangover too far.
"The tollbooths are behind us for now, and we're not supposed to be on a winding road. We're supposed to be on a four-lane highway." His voice sounded gravelly, as if he might have swallowed dirt.
"We're near it," she said. "That's all that's important. Please go back to sleep. You're only causing trouble awake."
Lucy smiled. She was sitting in the banquette putting on makeup. Her eyelashes were already so heavy with mascara, it was a wonder she could lift them. The remains of their McDonald's breakfasts were scattered around her, along with a newspaper Nealy had picked up at the campground before they'd pulled out. While they'd been waiting at the drive-in window for their Egg McMuffins, Nealy'd glanced through it and found what she was looking for, a short item on page three announcing that Cornelia Case had been stricken with the flu and forced to cancel her scheduled activities for the next week.
Nealy had wedged the car seat into the booth this morning, and the baby, wearing a pair of candy pink overalls and blue sneakers with worn toes, was strapped into it looking increasingly unhappy. Nealy was fairly certain they'd have to stop soon, and she didn't look forward to sharing that information with Mat. "I made some coffee. It's a little strong, but your taste buds are probably pickled anyway, so I doubt it'll make a difference. Oh, and I took some money from your wallet for breakfast. I'm keeping a record of everything I owe so I can pay you back."
She'd eaten two Egg McMuffins all by herself, along with an orange juice. It was wonderful having an appetite again, even more wonderful being able to swallow.
Mat grunted, rose, and headed for the coffeepot, only to change his mind at the last moment and disappear into the bathroom.
"Do you think he's going to hurl?"
"I doubt it. He strikes me as the cast-iron stomach type."
Lucy outlined her lips with brown lipstick. "When Sandy was choosing a father's name for our birth certificates, I don't know why she couldn't have picked somebody like Mel Gibson."
Nealy laughed. "You know, Lucy, for the world's most obnoxious teenager, you're fairly amusing."
"It's not funny. How'd you like it if you had a last name like Jorik, and it came from him?"
Despite Lucy's words, Nealy thought she heard a touch of yearning in her voice. "Really? Jorik is your last name?"
"Like duh. What did you think it was?"
"Your mother's name, I guess."
"Jorik was her name. She never changed it back after they got divorced. She always liked him."
Nealy heard the shower go on. She waited a minute, then deliberately jerked the wheel to the left, back to the right, then to the left again. A bang, then a muffled curse came from the bathroom.
Lucy laughed. It was a good sound.
Nealy smiled, then returned her attention to the subject at hand. "So Marigold's a Jorik, too?"
"Stop calling her that!"
"Then give me another name. And not you-know-what."
"Shit." A long, put-upon sigh. "Call her Button, then. That's what Sandy did. And I know it's stupid, but I'm not the one who named her."
"Button?" So that's where Butt had come from.
Lucy slapped the lipstick tube down on the table. "Call her whatever you want, okay?"
"I like Button. It's cute."
They crested a hill, and Nealy devoured the view. She'd seen so many vistas throughout her life: Mount
McKinley on a crystal-clear day, the Grand Canyon at sunset. She'd seen Paris from the steps of Sacre Coeur, gazed out over the Serengeti from the front seat of a Range Rover, and watched a school of whales in the North Atlantic from the deck of a naval destroyer. But none of those sights seemed quite
as glorious as these green West Virginia hills. This might be a poor state, but it certainly was beautiful.
The shower shut off. A minute ticked by.
"He might be shaving now," Lucy said, a vaguely hopeful note in her voice.
Nealy smiled, but kept the wheel steady. "I'm not that mad at him."
"He got drunk last night, didn't he?"
"He must have."
"I hate drunks."
"I'm not too fond of them, either."
"They think they're funny and sexy when they're drunk, but they're just pathetic."
Nealy had the feeling she wasn't talking about Mat. She wanted to ask about her mother, but she knew Lucy would lash out if she did.
The sound of an electric shaver penetrated the thin wall, and then the baby started to fuss. It wasn't safe to take her out of the car seat, but Nealy couldn't imagine how they were going to keep such an active child confined for another day. Apparently Lucy couldn't, either, because she got up and made her way over to her sister. In the rearview mirror, Nealy saw her get ready to unfasten the straps. "Keep her in the seat. It's too dangerous while we're moving."
"Then you got to stop soon so she can play for a while."
Nealy could just imagine how that would go over with Mat. The bathroom door swung open. "Gross!" Lucy exclaimed.
Nealy looked into the mirror and nearly drove off the road as Mat ducked through the door wearing only a baby-blue towel. He was anything but gross. His hair was damp and straight, but she suspected the hint of curl would spring back as it dried, and the electric shaver had temporarily tamed his pirate's stubble. She took in that long expanse of tan, muscular male. He was so oversized for their small space that he should have looked ridiculous. He didn't.
"I have to get my clothes," he grumbled. "If you don't like it, don't look."
"Mel Gibson's got a lot better body than you," Lucy said.
"And that's supposed to bother me, why?"
Not better at all, Nealy found herself thinking, and Mat was taller. She didn't have her mind on the road, and she had to swerve to avoid a pothole.
He grabbed the doorframe. "Will you watch where you're going?"
"You're all over the road."
"The scenery is distracting me." All six feet six of it.
"Well, pay attention to what you're doing."
As Mat headed for the back, Button held out her arms toward him and shrieked. He winced. Her pick-me-up message was unmistakable, but he closed the sliding door. She let out a howl. Lucy managed to distract her with the Beanie Baby walrus.
Nealy decided to enjoy the scenery before Mat insisted they get back on a bigger road. Sure enough, as soon as he emerged, he grabbed a mug of coffee, then told Nealy to pull over so he could drive.
She took in his worn jeans and gray athletic T-shirt. "I want Lucy to see the covered bridge first."
"What are you talking about?"
"This part of West Virginia has one of the best collections of covered bridges in the state. The brochure I picked up at the campground said so. A lot of taxpayer money has gone into maintaining these bridges, and I think it's important to her education that she see at least one of them."
"I don't care about Lucy's education."
"That's exactly the kind of attitude that's put this country's public school systems into jeopardy."
He stared at her, and she found herself wishing she'd kept her mouth shut. Then he shook his head.
"Will you just pull over?"
"Stop being such a grouch. Lucy needs to broaden her horizons."
"She's going to spend her life as a convicted felon. What difference does it make if she sees a covered bridge?" He slouched down in the passenger seat.
"You're not funny, Jorik," Lucy retorted. "And She promised me I could see the bridge."
"It's not far," Nealy said. "Why don't you settle back and enjoy the ride? Or at least enjoy it as much as someone with a colossal hangover can."
"You got something to say, just say it," he grumbled.
"All right. Lucy and I don't fancy traveling with someone who gets drunk."
"Fancy? You don't fancy?"
"She means you're gross and we hate it."
"Pull over," he snarled. The baby started to fuss again.
"Here's the turnoff for the covered bridge." As Nealy made a left onto a narrow country road, she
decided it might be best to change the subject. "Do you know why these were built, Lucy?"
"No, and I don't care."
"Some people say it was to keep horses from being spooked by the water, but it was probably done to protect the bridges from the elements so they'd last longer. Nobody knows for sure."
"You're a regular walking encyclopedia," Mat drawled.
"I told you I have a photographic memory." The baby's howls of protest were getting louder.
"Then what did that sign we just passed say?"
"I wasn't paying attention."
" 'Jesus Saves,' " Lucy offered.
Mat ignored her. "What about the big sign at the campground office? Right next to the front door?"
"It didn't interest me, so I didn't bother to read it."
Once again, the teenager piped up. " 'No open fires.' "
Nealy shot her a glare. "Don't you have something better to do with your time?"
"No." Lucy handed her sister an empty paper cup, but Button threw it to the floor with a yowl.
They rounded a bend and an old bridge came into view spanning a narrow ribbon of water at the bottom of a gentle hill. Built of weathered brown wood, it had a faded tin roof that might once have been painted red, and a pockmarked metal sign warning away vehicles over ten feet high. Even though this was West Virginia instead of Madison County, Iowa, the bridge was so picturesque she expected to see Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep emerge from the dark interior. It was Americana at its very best, and she sighed. "Isn't this wonderful?"
When neither of her traveling companions responded, she chose to believe the bucolic beauty had left them too moved to speak.
"Let's stretch our legs." She parked Mabel on the shoulder. "Lucy, you can get your sister."
"She's not poison, you know. The two of you could carry her once in a while."
Nealy pretended not to hear.
"We're not staying long," Mat declared. "Two minutes, and then we're heading for the highway."
"Two minutes it is." There was no way two minutes would do it.
Outside, everything was drowning in sunlight, and the warm, humid air carried the fragrance of dust, grass, and country road. The river was low, as if it hadn't rained for a while, and the sounds were pure music: water lapping over rock, birdsong, the chirp of crickets and buzz of bees. On each side of the bridge a grassy bank covered with wildfiowers sloped down to the water. Lucy set the baby in the grass.
"Gah!" She chortled and clapped her hands.
"It's your turn to watch her." Lucy took off for the interior of the bridge before Nealy could protest.
"Gah!" The baby made an unsuccessful lunge for a bumblebee.
"Watch it, Button. Those things aren't friendly."
"I thought her name was Marigold." Coffee mug in hand, Mat emerged from the Winnebago.
"Lucy says her mother called her Button. Bring the quilt that's in the back, will you?" She probably wouldn't stay on it, but it might keep her from getting too dirty.
Nealy hadn't failed to notice that Lucy had bathed her early that morning. Sunlight glinted in her
dandelion hair, and her worn clothes were clean. She found herself wondering if any of the National
Merit Scholarship winners she'd hosted at the White House would have taken such good care of a
pesky baby sister.
Mat reappeared with the quilt. Nealy took it from him and tossed it down on the slope. She set the baby on it, but Button immediately headed for the open range. Her overalls protected her from the prickly grass, and she grew entranced with a butterfly hovering over a clump of buttercups. She sped toward it, then settled back on her bottom to issue an indignant protest as it flew away.
Nealy sat on the quilt and was surprised when Mat sprawled down beside her. She sighed and breathed deeply, savoring every moment of this stolen summer day.
"I don't usually get drunk, you know."
She closed her eyes and tilted her face into the sun. "Uhm."
"I mean it. I'm not much of a drinker."
"Good, because I don't think the girls should be exposed to that sort of thing."
She opened her eyes and saw that he was watching her. Something in his gaze made her feel as if she were being bombarded with a shower of sparks. He took his time before he looked away.
"They were probably exposed to a lot more when Sandy was alive."
Nealy realized she didn't want to hear about Mat's ex-wife, and she stood up. "Watch the baby, will you? I want to walk through the bridge."
"Hey! You're the nanny here, not me."
"I'm taking a coffee break."
Just like that, she left him behind and headed for the covered bridge. Mat glared at her back as she disappeared inside. It would serve her right if he dropped her off at the next truck stop and let her fend for herself. But he knew he wouldn't do it. She might not be the devoted child-care provider of his dreams, but she was the best he had. She was also an enigma.
It was hard to reconcile that upper-crust, Presbyterian bearing with her abundant good nature and boundless, almost childlike enthusiasm. She certainly was entertaining. Or at least she'd entertained him yesterday. This morning's hangover had pretty much put a damper on fun.
A flicker of movement caught his attention. Something pink. He looked up in time to see the Demon crawling backward down the grassy bank, heading directly for the river. His coffee flew as he threw
down his mug and shot to his feet.
The baby was moving with lightning speed and fierce determination. The soles of his shoes slipped in the grass as he scrambled after her.
Without warning, her arms flew out and she began to slide. Her sneakers hit the water, and, a heartbeat later, the rest of her followed.
The river wasn't high, but it was too deep for a baby, and he watched in horror as her blond head immediately disappeared. He lost his footing, righted himself, and waded in after her.
The water hit him just above the knees. It was muddy. Too muddy to see anything. Then he caught a flash of pink traveling in the current and grabbed for it.
She came up with open, startled eyes, arms and feet dangling. He'd caught her by the back straps of her overalls.
She blinked, gasped for air, then coughed. He set her in the crook of his arm while she got her breath back. As his own heartbeat tried to return to normal, he felt the muddy river bottom sucking at his shoes. He barely managed to pull them free as he made his way out of the water.
She finally stopped coughing. For a few seconds she was still, and then he felt her chest expand as she took a deep breath. He knew exactly what was coming and tried to forestall it.
Nell and Lucy were still inside the bridge, but he'd never hear the end of it if they found out he'd almost let the Demon drown. He looked down at the baby. River water dripped from her hair into her eyes. Her mouth was opening, her forehead puckering in outrage. The first chord of what was guaranteed to be a symphony of outrage began to emerge.
"Stop right there!" Shifting his hands so they were beneath her arms, he drew her up so she could look right in his eyes and know he meant business. "You just took a little water. It's no big deal. You didn't even come close to drowning."
The fierce pucker between those two small eyebrows eased. Her eyes widened, and she released the breath she'd been holding.
"No big deal," he said more quietly. "Got it?"
She stared at him.
Her pink overalls would never be the same, and she'd lost one of her sneakers. He quickly slipped off the other and pitched it into the trees.
Bickering female voices were coming from the covered bridge. Now he was in for it. He thought fast. "We're going back in that water."
He stepped out of his own sodden shoes, returned her to the crook of his arm, and walked back into the river.
She buried her face in his shirt.
"Don't be a pansy."
She looked up and gave him a four-tooth grin.
"That's more like it, you little she-devil."
But when he tried to lower her into the water, she stiffened and dug her fingers into his arm.
"Relax, will you? I'm not going to put your face in."
It didn't take a degree in child psychology to translate that one. He realized he was going to have to do this with her, just as he'd done it with all his sisters. With a sigh of resignation, he put her to his shoulder and sank down into the muddy river.
She drew back and beamed at him. Oh, man, she was going to be a killer someday, with those baby blues and melty smiles. "Yeah, yeah. Save it for somebody who cares."
She smacked his jaw with the flat of her hand, then turned and smacked the water. It splashed in his face. He blinked it away and lowered her into the current.
"What are you doing?" Nell came charging out of the bridge, a pregnant commando wearing khaki shorts, a blue maternity top trimmed with daisies, and small white sandals. Tendrils of hair as golden brown as summer wheat flew around her flushed cheeks, and those amazing blue eyes, exactly the same color as the sky, were blazing. "Get the baby out of that dirty water right now!"
She flew down the slope. "Children can get typhoid from river water!"
He glanced down at the Demon, who seemed to be having a pretty good time as long as he didn't let her sink too low. "I don't think typhoid is too common in West Virginia."
Lucy emerged from the bridge and stared down at them.
Nell stopped at the edge of the river, hand to chest, face pale. He realized she was genuinely upset and wondered how she'd react if she knew he'd almost let the baby drown. "Will you calm down, for pete's sake? She's fine."
"She's fully dressed!"
"Yeah, well, I'm a guy. Guys don't think about things like that."
"You're fully dressed!"
"The whole thing was sort of an impulse."
She looked down at his muddy shoes lying on the bank. "I'll say."
He went on the offensive. "I slipped and got my shoes wet. Then I figured, what the hell?"
"She's going to catch cold."
"It's got to be eighty." He pulled the baby from the water and stood.
"Nuh!" She gave a shriek of protest, then began to twist, trying to get back in the water.
"Distract her, or you're really in for it." Lucy called down from the top of the slope.
Her shrieks were building in volume. "How am I supposed to do that?" he asked.
"She likes animal sounds, especially cows. Moo."
He shot Lucy a disgusted look, then shoved the screaming baby toward Nell. "Here. Distract her."
Nell clasped her arms behind her back and stepped away. "I don't know how."
The Demon's fists were going everywhere and she'd started to kick. Shit. He turned around and carried her back into the water.
He'd be damned if he'd moo.