Solid Ground

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Chapter 13

Daniel was in no mood for games with his wife. Eight glasses. Two god damned bottles of wine in less than two hours. What was it about him? Why was it that marriage to him was enough to make a woman drink? They had been man and wife for less than four hours, and the customarily reserved Jill was tipping glass after glass. It only confirmed his worst fears. He just was not cut out to be a husband.

But a husband he was. Again. And right now, short of showing his wife exactly how ‘real’ things were between them, all he wanted to do was get her home and safely to bed. Alone. This night at least. That ship had sailed a bottle and a half ago. He guided her through the crowd towards the bar, but not for the purpose, she thought.

Jill smiled and held her glass up as they greeted Samuel, who was tending the bar for a bit while Simone helped Dwayne through the house so that his wheelchair did not get stuck along the way. Daniel had been pleased that even in the haste Simone had remembered to invite Dwayne and several other members of his unit that were no longer active. But Simone was always a team player like that.

She had even invited Chloe and her son, Thad. Daniel had been surprised to see the young widow but delighted too. Thad was beginning to look like his father, Zach, who had been killed on the same mission two years ago that left Dwayne with paraplegia. Daniel had hoped that Jill would be able to befriend the young woman, having raised her boys alone after her husband was killed. But that too would have to wait for another time.

“Great party,” his new wife screamed to Samuel across the bar. The music was loud, but not that loud. “Another glass of rosé,” she smiled.

Daniel shook his head as he handed his friend the empty glass he was holding. “Actually, I was just about to take Jill home. It’s getting late,” he made their excuses, although he knew his friend understood far more than he said.

Jill shook her head and was about to protest when Simone stepped up from behind them. “No way, buddy. You, of all people, know this party is far from over,” she pinned him with one of her looks.

Daniel was just about as much in the mood for Simone as he was for his wife’s drinking binge. “This party is over for my wife, Simone. O-V-E-R,” he spelled.

Jill wrapped her arms about her new buddy and ally. “I’m a big girl, and I’m staying,” she poked him in the chest with her finger. “Just because we are married does not mean you can boss me about.”

Daniel threw up his hands and passed his wife off to Simone, “Get her out of here.” Turning to Samuel, “Not another drop, I mean it.” It was an order that was painfully familiar to the men.

Simone nodded and wrapped her arms about Jill’s waist. “Come on, girlfriend. Let’s get a cup of coffee and something to eat from the kitchen. Then we can get you ready.” Jill nodded, and the two women turned back towards the house.

“Simone, one more thing,” Daniel called after them. The women turned and looked at him. “I mean it. This party is over for her. I know what you are up to, and I’m not having it.”

“Spoilsport,” Simone taunted him, sticking out her tongue. “It’s a tradition almost as old as this unit, and you damned well know it. It’s bad luck, too, if we don’t,” she nodded her head to where Chloe and Dwayne sat by the wading pool watching Thad splash and giggle. Their faces were both dark with sorrow that neither dared to speak of.

“That’s poppycock, and you know it, woman. This is the twenty-first century, and we live in America, not some damned developing country where superstition still reigns over everything,” he fumed. “I will not have you and the others making fools of us just to satisfy some stupid, perverse tradition. Do you hear me?”

“It’s up to her, commander,” Simone turned, dragging Jill back towards the house.

Daniel shook his head and took the bottle of beer that Samuel held out for him. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Your wife can barely stand. I doubt like hell that a cup of coffee is going to sober her up enough to dance in front of fifty people.”

“I sure as hell hope you’re right, but you know these crazy women. Did a little alcohol stop Trisha? Or Gail?”

Both men left her name unsaid. It was the one time that Rachel had ever attempted to fit in with his friends and comrades. And it had been a complete nightmare. The last thing he wanted or needed was a repeat of that night in front of his men.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I got your back, buddy. Remember, I’m the DJ, as well as the bartender. If anything goes wrong, I’ll simply switch the songs,” he said, raising his bottle of beer. “Just remember to make a big show of it. Rubbing against the little lady while you hold her drunk ass up and keep her from falling.”

“Gees, with a friend like you, who needs enemies?” Daniel sighed.

A cloud passed over Samuel’s face as he looked over towards the wooden gate that led to the street. A stocky blond-headed man entered, smiling and shaking hands with several people. “Speaking of which.”

Daniel turned and followed his friend’s line of sight. He gulped the bottle of beer and slammed it on the bar. “Just what I need right now. Clay Dodd. Who the hell invited his sorry ass?”

“Don’t look at me! I told Simone not to call that one,” Samuel held his hands up in surrender before he passed Daniel another bottle.

“Yeah, like your god damned wife listens to anything you say,” he cursed.

“Come on, Daniel. You know that isn’t fair. If Simone did invite him, it’s our fault. We’re the ones so damned worried about how what he did would affect the unit that we covered it up.” Lifting his bottle of beer, Samuel took a long drink, “Sometimes I wonder if we ain’t as dirty as that bastard. The way we left that poor girl out to dry.”

Daniel sighed. It was not one of his prouder moments as a commander, but sometimes there simply were no-win situations. Then you made the best choice; the best of a bad lot. Clay Dodd was one of those times. “What is it about a little money that spoils people?”

Samuel chuckled. “Not like we would know, buddy. Not with what Uncle Sam pays us.”

Daniel smiled and raised his bottle, clinking it against his friend’s. “I’m surprised you ain’t accepted one of his daddy’s kind offers.”

“Nay, man. Something ain’t right about that outfit. I’ll take my chances with you and the other guys. At least, I know you got my back and won’t sell me out to the highest bidder.”

“Thanks for that, man. Don’t know what I’d do without you, especially tonight.” Turning, Daniel watched as Clay approached Dwayne and Chloe. “I better go see what that snake is up to this time. But I mean it, keep our wives away from the PA system. I don’t want to hear that god damned song tonight.”

Samuel saluted. Something they both knew was a joke in a group where skill meant more than rank. “Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.”

“You just remember who has your back next time.”

Samuel laughed, “Yeah, buddy, but you remember what side our bread is buttered on. And I don’t know about you, but I like the butter spread nice and thick on my buns.”

“T-M-I,” Daniel spewed beer at the image of Samuel’s butt covered in butter. “If that’s one of your ‘tricks’ do me a favor and keep them to yourself.”

Both men laughed and raised their bottles one more time before Daniel turned to face the unpleasant task of dealing with this gate crasher. Daniel walked over to where the man was chatting with Dwayne Richmond, Chloe Johnson, and a half dozen other wives and girlfriends. For a moment, he thought of a Bible story from his childhood, the apple in the Garden of Eden. This man was as wily as that snake for sure.

Clay Dodd had served in his unit for only a couple of years. The Annapolis graduate was the only son of one of the country’s wealthiest men. Clay Dodd, Senior, had founded his security firm, Storm Breakers, back in the early eighties. He had used his expertise as a former Army Ranger to craft a line of personal and electronic security systems that were among the most innovative and sought after of their time.

Over the years, he had grown from security details for the rich and famous to protecting some of the world’s most influential leaders and some of its most precious resources. The problem was that to build his wealth and power; the man had chosen not to be too picky about who he worked for. Rumor had it that some of the world’s most wanted men were among his client list, hiding from the same United Nations that was also a client of Storm Breakers.

Clay Junior had inherited his father’s weak moral compass. Rumor also had it that Dodd Senior had purchased his son’s nomination to the Naval Academy with a large donation to a senior Senator, a man that also served on the Department of Defense’s oversight committee. A man that it was said had used his influence once again to guide the young man’s career path into the highly prized SEAL unit. It was a path that had been unobstructed until he joined Daniel’s unit.

“Hey, Clay,” Daniel extended his hand towards the man. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

The man smiled, just as Daniel imagined that snake would to an unsuspecting Eve. “It’s always nice to see you too, commander,” he took the extended hand. “And on such a joyous occasion. So soon after Rachel’s suicide too. I spoke with Heather Thomas, just this morning. Seems that they knew nothing about your nuptials. How odd?”

Daniel cleared his throat and looked the man in the eyes, “Yes, well, I see no need to inform Rachel’s family of my private affairs.”

“Was it, commander?” the man laughed as he raised a bottle of beer to his lips. “I mean the timing does beg the question. Less than a year and you have replaced your dead wife with someone new. Makes one wonder how ‘new’ she really is.”

Daniel ignored his comment, turning to Dwayne. “It’s good to see you again, my friend. How are things going with the new job?”

Dwayne took the hand that Daniel held out and smiled. “Pretty good, commander. How’re things around here?”

“Same as usual,” the men exchanged pleasantries without revealing the sensitive nature of their partnership. Daniel had helped arrange Dwayne’s new job with one of the computer firms working closely with the Department of Defense and his team.

“Yes, I was just telling Dwayne that despite his disability, Storm Breakers could use a good man with his computer expertise,” Clay inserted himself into their conversation.

“Did they ever figure out what went wrong with that helicopter? Damned shame about it, though. Zach dead, and you ended up in a wheelchair for life. Seems like the least this country could do is get to the bottom of it all. Don’t you think, Chloe?” Clay addressed Zach’s young widow as he drained the bottle of beer.

The smile, that had been on the woman’s face as she played with her son, was gone in an instant. The pained look that replaced it spoke volumes. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late. I should take Thad in and change him. We should be heading home soon,” she stood, preparing to make a hasty retreat.

“I’m pretty tired too, Chloe. Mind giving me a lift?” asked Dwayne.

The girl nodded as she took Daniel’s hand. “I want to get going before,” her voice broke, unable to finish her sentence.

“If that’s why you’re in such a hurry, don’t be. That particular tradition is not happening this night,” he asserted.

A shadow crossed the woman’s fresh face, as she gripped his hand tighter. “No, she has to. You know that. You know what happens if…” she trailed off before reaching down, scooping her son out of the pool and running into the house.

“Oh, yes, I forgot about that. Nice timing on my part. Arriving just in time for the big show,” Clay grinned.

“I said it is not happening tonight,” Daniel replied with finality as he stared after the retreating woman. Her pain was his own, another burden, the guilt of his command.

“Too damned bad. I hear that Rachel’s performance was unforgettable. Besides, I’m kind of curious now to see if the new Missus Monroe is as hot looking as the Ice Queen was,” Dodd’s reptilian smile broadened.

Daniel took a swig of his beer. He gripped the bottle tightly. Too bad, it was only his third. He might have enjoyed knocking the bastard over the head with it, if he had been drunker. Not that he had been that drunk in a very long time. He added it to his growing list of fantasies, right alongside watching Jill do the one thing that he had virtually forbidden her to do.

He held out his hand to Dwayne, “I’m really glad you came. It’s always nice seeing old friends.” He nodded to the four remaining wives that had strategically retreated to the edge of the pool upon Clay’s arrival, “Ladies.”

Turning to Clay, he replied simply, “It is always interesting seeing you.”

“Yes, well. Here’s to hoping we see lots more of the new wifey,” the man raised his bottle.

Daniel’s palm itched, this time with the need to curl it into a fist and slam it into the man’s face. He could not help smiling as he overheard Dwayne say, “You always were a real asshole.”

But he was more than a little tempted to turn back at Clay’s low blow response. “At least I was smart enough to get out while I could still walk away.”

Daniel fumed at the cruel words. The man had not walked away. Not exactly. He had slunk away like the snake he was when one of the female interpreters that worked closely with their unit came to Samuel and him in confidence. She had been virtually raped by Clay, who had used threats that came with his officer rank and his father’s wealth to intimidate her into having sex with him.

She probably would not have come forward at all had it not been for the fact that she found herself pregnant with a child she did not want. Despite the gravity of the woman’s charges, it had been a case of he said, she said. While they did not doubt her claims for a moment, they knew that a court-martial panel might not believe her, especially in light of his father’s influence.

So, he and Samuel arranged a transfer back to the States for the young woman and confronted the man. They offered him a simple choice…transfer out of their unit or face that court-martial. It was an empty threat, but the man did not know that. With the disgrace of transferring out of the prestigious unit, Clay had chosen to leave the Navy altogether. As fathers and leaders, he and Samuel had sighed with relief.

But that was not the end of their troubles. Like a bad apple, the man seemed to show up everywhere the unit went. Thanks in large part to the sensitive contracts that his father held to protect local officials in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse yet, the man had chosen to remain in the Virginia area rather than return to the bright lights of New York City.

He had also taken to poaching men from Daniel’s unit. Offering them lucrative contracts, vast sums of money that the Navy simply could not compete with. The bastard had even had the balls to try and buy him and Samuel as they called it.

The offer had become one of the biggest arguments between him and Rachel in those final months. His first wife simply could not understand how his duties to his country could be more important than money. Money, she felt that she deserved after a decade of their bad marriage. Money that would pay for a nanny, her shopping addiction, and private school for their daughters.

Daniel wanted to turn back and reveal the truth of who and what this man was before everyone. Instead, he chose prudence once more, as he simply walked away towards the large pool from which he saw his eldest daughter finally climb out.

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