Solid Ground

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Chapter 10

Jill was finishing up a batch of rocky road brownies for the girls' after school snack and cleaning the kitchen. Looking up at the clock on the kitchen wall, she would need to leave for the bus stop in another fifteen minutes. She washed the countertop for the hundredth time that day.

She had been distracted since her conversation with the commander that morning. Since Daniel's proposal would be more accurate. She had moved through the day like a robot on autopilot. She cared for the twins, made lunch, started dinner, and cleaned. But it all seemed like an old black and white movie set to play on slow motion.

She supposed she had a good reason. Most brides were nervous before their weddings, but she was not most brides, and this was not a 'normal' marriage. It was an arrangement. Pure and simple. Daniel needed a housekeeper and cook, someone he could depend upon. The girls needed a mother, even Jess, though Jill was sure she would deny it. And she needed…

What did she need? She was back in the good old U. S. of A. after all these years. She would have thought that the homesickness that she had felt for much of the past quarter of a century would have abated. But she continued to discover new ways that she no longer quite fit in here anymore. A hybrid. She had never adjusted to her life in England, but now she found that she was no longer quite American either. It seemed just another example of how she never truly fit in.

As for her other reason for this crazy plan. She still missed having her sons around; nothing could change that pain of the past couple of years. But the girls were more than she could have hoped for. It was just that, suddenly, what had seemed so logical and practical all those weeks ago when she responded to that first email seemed absolutely preposterous. Marrying someone you hardly knew. Someone that you did not love. At the moment, she would give anything to talk to Ubah.

She heard the doorbell and called out, “I’ll get it,” as she raced from the kitchen, looking for something more to do, any distractions from her turbulent thoughts.

She practically ran into Daniel in the living room. “Oh, sorry,” seemed a foolish response when the side of her breast brushed his arm. The man was going to be her husband in twenty-four hours. She shook her head and fought back the tears. It was just another sign of how wrong this all was, as she stepped aside, suddenly feeling like the stranger she was in his house.

He nodded to her as he opened the door. His face a perfect mask, devoid of any emotion. Any doubts. If he even had them. Jill shivered as she realized just how little she knew of this man. Not even those emails that they had shared over the weeks were real. Second hand, it was all only second-hand information. She knew nothing really of the man she was about to marry.

Simone burst through the door like a child on Christmas morning. “I told you de stars never lie, Danny, me boy,” as she wrapped him in a hug. Jill saw the glare that Daniel sent towards Samuel.

“What could I do?” the man replied in his defense.

Daniel did not have a chance to respond before Simone turned her attention to her. For a large woman, she moved fast, racing across the room and wrapping her in an embrace as well. Jill wanted, needed, to surrender to that contact, but she held herself back.

“Gurl, we’s got so much to do. Why’s tomorrow? We need at least a month to do this thing right.” The woman questioned. It was the same question that Jill had been pushing back from her mind all morning. But the truth was she did not want to examine it too carefully.

Turning back to where the men were chatting quietly by the door, Simone took control, “Aw, you two go do some man tings and leave us gurls to plan de whole ting.” Her dismissal was complete as she dragged Jill towards the kitchen.

The moment they were behind the kitchen door, Simone opened like a flood gate. “See, I told you everything would work out. I knew the moment I saw your profile that you were the one. And when I did a reading, well that only confirmed it, sweetie. This is going to be perfect. Now, we have to plan everything. What are you going to wear? The girls will all have to be in the wedding, of course. They will need new dresses too.”

Jill felt the tears scalding her eyeballs as the woman spewed forth like Mount St. Helen's. “Stop it,” she screamed. Those tears that she had held back for days began to pour down her cheeks. “I can’t do it. I can’t. This is crazy. It’s all a horrible mistake,” she broke down.

The woman stared at her for a moment. Then she wrapped her soft arms about her. “Sit down,” she commanded as she led Jill to the kitchen table. She placed Jill in a chair and went to the cupboards. Jill watched through the tears as the woman pulled two cups out of the cabinets and started the coffee pot.

The woman obviously knew this house well. Jill wondered how many times over the past months or perhaps years, the woman had taken charge like this. She was sure that she had done so after Rachel's death. Jill was just as confident that Daniel and his daughters would have been lost without her.

The woman's words rang in her head…'dis is all my doing.' Jill supposed in some ways it was, too. She thought of the hundreds of emails that she had unknowingly shared over the weeks with this woman. For a moment, she could empathize with Daniel. This woman knew things about her that few people other than her sons and Ubah ever had. One, in particular, haunted her.

By the time, Simone returned with two cups of strong black coffee; Jill had regained some of her composure, her sobs had weakened to a stray tear or two. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have screamed at you like that,” she apologized.

Taking the seat across from her, Simone shook her head that was now covered in thick rings of tight curls that hung past her shoulders. “It’s alright. You want to talk about it?”

“I don’t think I can go through with this," she began as she stared at the cup in her hand. "I know it is a little late now to be having second thoughts, but…” she trailed off, uncertain what to say. How to explain.

“But what, sweetie? I thought you wanted to have a family again. You were tired of the quiet of your empty nest, you said. You wanted to be part of something bigger, a community that fought for what was right. What’s changed?”

Jill heard her own words written all those weeks ago pour from Simone's lips like murky floodwaters. She could not deny the truth of them. “I know, but…” She sought for words. Words to explain the self-doubts inside of her.

“I know you care about those girls already. I could see that on Sunday at soccer practice." Simone reached across the table and covered Jill's trembling hand with one of her own, "You have your family," Simone reassured her as she squeezed her hand. "Trust me; you are gonna fit right in with the wives’ club. So, why the cold feet?” She pressed again.

“Him,” the answer sprung forth from Jill's heart like the first flower of spring bursting towards the truth of the sun.

Simone laughed. The sound was deep and rich as it echoed off the walls of the kitchen. “Aw, dat.”

Jill stared at the woman in disbelief. How could she of all people not understand the angst of this situation? She, who knew her secret. “Yes, that. He’s nothing like what I thought he would be.”

“How so?" The woman pinned her with a knowing stare. "Everything his mama and me put in those emails is true. He’s a man of honor. We both know that is a dying breed. Men who believe in right and live by a code. Men willing to give their lives for what they believe.”

Shaking her head, the woman continued her sermon, one that would have done the hellfire and brimstone preacher that she had grown up with proud. “The only thing that man loves more than this country and the Navy is those girls. For the past nine months, he has stayed here for them."

Her dark eyes bored into Jill's soul. "You know how hard that is for a man like him. Sending his men off to face god knows what danger while he watches from some damned satellite feed? But his daughters needed him.”

Squeezing Jill's hand tighter, she implored, “I thought you could understand all that? I thought you could see past the code to the man. I thought, no, I felt that just maybe you could heal some of the pain that man carries. I thought that you could give him the love he needs.”

Jill looked at their hands, entwined on the table. The other woman's was just a couple of shades darker than Ubah's had been. How many times over the past few months had she yearned to touch and talk with her friend just one more time? Simone might not be Ubah, but something told her that she could be that same solid ground to turn to in times of trouble. If she let her.

“What made you think that he would want someone like me?" she whispered. Confiding her deepest fears, "You’ve seen Rachel. Look at me. Hell, look at him. The man’s drop-dead gorgeous."

Jill looked around the kitchen that gleamed in the afternoon sun, "I don’t want someone who sees me only as a cook, cleaner, and nanny. Alright, so maybe it was crazy, but I thought, I hoped, that someday real feelings could grow between us.”

Simone’s abundant laughter filled the small kitchen. “Dat man is purty. Dat is for sure. But don’t you be tellin’ my Samuel I said dat or I swear I’ll have to curse you.” Jill noted that the woman had taken up the thick accent that she used only when it suited her purposes, “But don’t let those pretty-boy looks and I don’t need no one attitude fool you. That man is hurting. He hurting bad."

The woman sighed, "That woman you think is so pretty had a heart of darkness. And I should know." Jill wanted to question Simone more about the woman, who had been Daniel's first wife. So, many things about her, about their marriage, about her death, just did not make sense. She had been here only days, but something just did not add up. She could sense it instinctively.

But before she could speak, Simone barreled on, "She did a real number on that boy’s head too. I promise you, sweetie, you a more beautiful woman than she ever was. Because your beauty comes from within.”

Jill laughed sardonically as shook her head, “And men are so good at seeing that.” She could taste the bitter bile in her throat as a litany of harsh words danced through her mind. 'Fat.' 'Ugly.' 'Cow.' The words cut like a knife through old scars that were barely healed even after almost two years.

The woman squeezed her hand and held her gaze for a moment before she spoke, “The good ones are. And I’m placing my bets on the stars, that’s a good man in there." Jill shook her head at how easily the woman dismissed her fears.

The woman pierced her with a glare that she was sure would have even the strongest of Royal Marines quaking in their boots, "Are you gonna let a few nerves stand between you and what you want? Cause if you is then you ain’t the woman we thought you were.”

Her eyes pinned Jill's soul as if searching for some unseen flaw…as if the ones she could see were not enough. Jill looked away at the clock. “I better go get the girls from the bus stop,” she hoped to avoid the answer.

Simone shook her head, “Let 'dem boys do it. They ought to be good for something other than looking purty. You and I have a wedding to plan.” She pronounced with finality, deciding for her.

***

Daniel stared at the ground. Sprigs of green grass, weeds, and dandelions sprang from between the cracks in the concrete sidewalk. He did not mind being shuffled off to pick up Jess and Bel from the school bus. It gave him a few moments to think. To re-evaluate his decision.

Logically, this situation was the perfect answer to the dilemma that he had faced for months. In Jill, he had found someone that he could trust to care for his daughters. Hell, better than Rachel ever had. He could get back where he belonged, in the field with his men. But Daniel had never been a man of pure logic. His gut, that he trusted just as much as his mind, told him that this was the best option, too. The right battle plan. So, why was he so fucking nervous?

It was not like him. Once he had the Intel, he considered the options. Choose the one most likely to accomplish the goals of the mission, then put everything else aside and focus on executing that mission. But this time, he was torn up with doubt and second-guessing.

He watched as a robin hopped quickly across the sidewalk. He could see its wing hanging at an odd angle from its body. He smiled as the word of a favorite song flitted through his mind. Like the tiny creature, when it came to matters of the heart, he most definitely had Broken Wings. The only question was, did he have the strength to…take these broken wings and learn to fly again.

"What's bothering you, buddy?" said the one man that knew him better than anyone else. The man that had been his non-commissioned officer for more years than either of them wanted to count. The man he considered his best friend.

"What if I screw this up too?" the words were out of his mouth before he had time to think them through. But suddenly, it all made sense. That was what was bothering him about this situation. Not the Intel. Not the decision itself, but the execution. He just did not have the knowledge or skills for this mission. He never had. He was the problem. Unlike Samuel, he just was not cut out to be a husband.

Samuel chuckled as he slapped him on the back, "It ain't as hard as you think it is, Danny, my boy. You already halfway there."

The two men knew one another so well, thought so much alike that Samuel continued with Daniel's analogy. "It's just the same as any other mission we face. The biggest challenge is in the planning, picking the right battle plan."

Looking Daniel in the eye, he continued. "You did that this time." He put his hand on Daniel's shoulder, "You were just a kid when you married Rachel, and that girl was never cut out for this lifestyle."

He confided. "I hate to admit it, almost as much as you do, but my wife and your mama did a hell of a job this time. That woman might, and I said might just be as right for this job as Simone is," he winked conspiratorially.

With a shrug of his shoulders, Samuel finished, "The rest is pretty much getting the hell out of their way and letting them manage." He spoke in hushed tones as if imparting enemy secrets, "Of course, good loving and few kind words here and there never hurt anything either."

"That's what I'm worried about. I'm not very good at that," Daniel scuffed his shoe against a lone dandelion, uprooting it. He felt instant regret. Empathizing with the plant, himself uprooted for so long now.

Samuel bellowed with laughter. "Oh, don't give me that shit. I remember the women you had chasing you before Rachel. They didn't seem to be complaining none. If I remember right, we needed an extra Marine guard at the base just to keep them off you."

Daniel laughed at the reminder of another lifetime. "That's different, and you know it."

Samuel stared at him for a moment, "Is it? You think a wife wants or needs something different than a woman you just screwing?" The question hung in the air, bold and blunt like the two of them.

"Then, buddy, you do have problems. Trust the man that's been married almost twenty years; a wife is just as kinky as any of the girls you pick up in a bar. And they want your ass just as bad too. Why else would they marry you?"

"Difference is the work that goes into keeping it that way in the long haul. But you ain't got to think about that for another year or so." With a nudge, he added, "But don't worry, when that time comes I'll show you all the best tricks to keep things going in the bedroom. It's the least I can do considering Simone's meddling."

Daniel was pondering his words when the big yellow bus pulled up to the curb next to them. Any questions he might have, would have to wait for another time. Right now, he had other things to worry about. Like how he was going to tell his daughters about their new 'mother.'

Bel with her smile was the first one off the bus. She danced over to where he stood with Samuel. With her quiet beauty, his middle daughter had a way of bringing out things from deep inside of him. Her optimism and natural smile brought comfort, even in the darkest of times.

"Where's Jill? She promised to sew Cindy up for me. She's been torn for a long time, but Jill said she could fix her, so she was good as new," the child said, referring to the favorite teddy bear that she had had since she was a baby.

Daniel smiled. The woman sewed too. Damn, was there anything, besides singing, that she could not do? He reflected on his earlier conversation with Samuel. The image of Jill, bent over that pool as Britney splashed water all over the front of her dress, played like a video feed of battle through his mind. His palms itched as he thought of those lush breasts that had almost spilled from that wet halter top. There was indeed one thing he was more than anxious to find out about.

He drew a steadying breath. Right now, he needed to focus on other things, though. "Jill's been kind of busy today, sweetie. But you can ask her when we get home," he soothed as he watched his eldest daughter and Althea slink from the bus, the last ones to get off, of course. Their heads bent in a secretive whisper. "There's something I need to talk to you two about."

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