Solid Ground

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Chapter 18

Simone, Trisha, and a couple more of the wives giggled around the kitchen tables as toddlers and babies scooted, crawled, and cooed on the floor at their feet.

“Damn girl, you still ain’t givin’ no details. Don’t make us use our interrogation skills,” smiled Trisha around the steaming cup of sweet black coffee.

The plate of homemade cookies and scones in the middle of the table was practically empty. Over the past two weeks, it had become common for the homemakers of the group to come back to the house after the morning school bus run. They laughed and gossiped over the continental breakfast before cleaning, cooking, and running whatever errands their days held.

Jill was wise enough to know that this frivolity would not last forever. Oh, the laughter might continue, but it would take a decidedly different turn in a few days or weeks. Anytime their husbands were away, she knew that the mood would change as well. It would become nothing more than a cover for the worry, loneliness, and pain that was the other side of their lives.

That was why it was so important to build these bonds now, during the good times, because in those darkest of hours, it would have to sustain them all through whatever lay ahead. Chloe and Thad’s occasional presence among them was a stark reminder of just how dark things could get. Jill’s memories only deepened her resolve…no woman left behind, she pledged. And this was part of it, part of her new/old role as the leader among the wives that kept it all going on the home front.

But how to answer that particular question still plagued her thoughts and dreams. She remembered little of that night after the intimate dance they shared. Just bits and pieces of an erotic fantasy. The truth was she did not know how it went, but it could not have been well. The cold shoulder that Daniel had given her since that night spoke volumes.

Looking back, she realized the embarrassment that she must have been for him. Prancing around in that naughty lingerie like one of these much younger, more beautiful, and thinner women. She must have looked like a clown. A proud man, a leader, Daniel had tried to save her from the embarrassment to them both. But in her drunken stupor, she had chosen not to listen.

So, now she was paying the price. His anger was wholly justified, and she had no idea what to do to get him to forgive her lapse in judgment. But she could not tell these women that, so instead, she smiled around the pain. It was something you got good at over the years, especially in this job. She laughed it all off with a simple, “I don’t kiss and tell.”

Trisha, though, was like the prize bull at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, she would not give up when she had her rider cornered. Bucking and jumping, she took Jill for a long ride, “Now, girl, don’t be shy. I mean, come on. We’re all green with envy. Oh sure, our hubbies might be hotties,” the woman looked around the table at her co-conspirators and made a big show of fanning her perfectly manicured hands back and forth. “But damn, yours is unforgettable. And that kiss. Holy hell, it was hotter than the West Texas Hill Country on the fourth of July.” Everyone laughed at the woman’s flair for drama.

Jill was searching for a comeback that would deflect this line of conversation, one that had been coming up over and over during the past couple of weeks. Thankfully, the woman that was rapidly becoming her best friend and confidant handled it for her.

“What girl? You having problems at home? You so desperate to hear all the naughty details cause your man ain’t takin’ care of bid-ness? Just send him to my Samuel. Dat man knows all the tricks for keepin’ it fresh like these two newlyweds.” All the others roared with laughter at Trisha’s friendly takedown.

Jill smiled her thanks to Simone as she began to clear the table. The last cinnamon bun winked its tempting smile at her, but she kept fast to her resolve. “Anyone for the last of my buns?”

Trisha’s wicked sense of humor still smarting from the put-down responded. “Is that how you get him going? With your buns? Must say there’s plenty of them.”

Simone reached over and took the sweet off the plate, taking a massive bite out of it. “Yeah, you know what my man always says, ‘more cushion for the pushin.’ Maybe I should give you this, Trisha, sweetie? With that skinny ass of yours, maybe that’s the problem, Travis getting stuck in all the wrong places. Ain’t nothin’ us real women have to worry bout.” She purred as she held out the bun to the other woman.

Jill stepped in between them, smoothly. “Trisha, you’ll have to take me with you to the gym sometime soon. I could use some pointers from you on how you keep your runway figure. I mean Miss Lubbock and all.”

The woman’s flaming red head turned from glaring at Simone with a smile, “Sure, suga. I know it can’t be easy. After four babies and all. That’s why I put my foot down. Trav got his son, and that’s it for me. One is definitely enough for this girl.”

Jill shivered at what she recognized was another dig at Simone, the couple’s difficulties conceiving another child after Althea was the only thing that marred their otherwise perfect marriage. She had already hugged Simone through a couple of PMS days with chocolate cake and an extra-large box of tissues.

She knew that this day was getting personal, and she had to step in. “Well, my ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid I have some errands to run myself. So, I’m afraid I’ll have to scoot you off today,” she lied.

They all nodded and hugged. Most headed off down the street in groups of two or three. Only Trisha struggled alone with her terrible two-year-old T.J., short for Travis Junior. Jill shook her head at the sight, remembering how hard little boys could sometimes be.

“You never cease to amaze me, girlfriend,” Simone put her hand on Jill’s shoulder. She held out the cinnamon bun. “Here, you should finish this. You didn’t eat a thing this morning.”

Jill shook her head as she walked over to the sink with the plate. “No, it’s alright. I’m on a diet anyway,” she replied as she put the plug in the sink and ran hot water, adding a few drops of washing up liquid, detergent, she corrected herself for the millionth time in three weeks since she had been home.

Home? She asked herself. Was this place truly home? Sure, she kept the house and loving the girls had come almost as naturally as it had each time they placed another of her pink-faced sons into her arms. Even this sometimes rowdy group of wives seemed to embrace and welcome her, accepting her as one of their comrades, a leader even. But that night still haunted her.

“What’s really wrong, sweetie?”

The tears flowed down her cheeks, adding to the growing pool in the sink, absorbed by it, becoming just as much a part of it as she was of these people. So, why was it all not enough?

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“I think you do. Something is bothering you, and I have my ideas. It’s him still, ain’t it?” The woman reached over and turned off the water. Taking Jill’s hands in hers, she led her back to the table and placed her in a chair before sitting down across the table. “Tell Simone all about it.”

Jill chuckled at the soothing voice that she would have used after Bel had a bad day. “No, really. The problem is, I don’t know. I don’t even know how to answer that woman’s damned question because I was so fucking drunk I can’t remember what happened after you guys left that night.”

Simone chuckled and shook her head, “Then I’m guessing not much. Because I’m purty damned sure if that man had made love to you, you’d be remembering it, girlfriend.”

“God, sometimes you’re as bad as she is, you know that?” Jill teased as she swatted at Simone’s hand. “But seriously, I remember the dance and parts of you girls getting me ready,” she blushed at the memory of some of the more ribald comments from that night. “And I remember…” her voice trailed off, and the blush deepened.

Simone fanned herself, “Oh yeah, that kiss was pretty unforgettable. Almost made up for that shit in the chapel, didn’t it?”

Jill chuckled that she and her friend thought so much alike. “Almost.”

“So, what? You just forget the rest? Don’t you remember anything? I mean, I know the guys call him Superman, but I never did buy that whole thing with a single kiss and Lois Lane forgetting the whole damned thing, Ice Crystal Palace, making love, even the fact that Clark Kent was Superman. Oh, come on, nobody kisses that good.”

“I don’t know about that,” Jill whispered in confidence.

“Shit, girlfriend. Now you have me curious.”

Jill giggled as she reached for her cup of coffee, even knowing that it would be cold by now. She needed something to hold on to, and the mug was as good as anything. “I woke up the next morning in his bed.” Simone’s brow arch at her words. “Alone,” she clarified. “I found him asleep on the couch with an empty bottle of Southern Comfort curled in his arms.”

Simone winced, “This ain’t good, child. But it sure as hell explains why he’s acting like an asshole and driving the guys mad right now.”

The guilt of Simone’s admission weighed on Jill like the world on Atlas’ shoulders. She knew her job: keep the home front quiet so her man could stay focused on all that it took to get his job done. And it was evident to her even before that slip that she was not doing it very well.

“Shit, I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I told you this wasn’t a good idea. I should have listened to those second thoughts. I mean, what guy like him would ever look at a woman like me,” she brought the cup to her lips. The cold liquid did nothing to extinguish the burning pain in her gut.

“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You know damned good and well that there is no faking a kiss like that. You had that man tied in knots all damned night long. When we left here, I was sure that everything was going to work out just perfect. All we got to do now is figure out what went wrong, then we can fix it,” she placed her hand over Jill’s. “You must remember something else?”

Jill shook her head. “No, really, I don’t. It is all a blur…” she blushed. “The only thing I could remember when I woke up that morning was having the most erotic fucking dream of my life.”

Simone threw up her arms, “That’s it then. Something did happen. I’ll just hypnotize you, and we’ll get to the bottom of this whole thing.”

Jill felt the heat rising in her cheeks once more. The last thing she wanted was to share that dream with anyone, even her new best friend. “It’s alright. You don’t need to do that. The dream I remember just fine.” What she did not say was that she could not stop having it.

Every time she closed her eyes, it was there again. Lips and hands were moving over her. Her body on fire like it had never, ever been before. Never. And that to her was the worst. How could she respond like that? Like a slut and slag, begging and pleading for the touch of a man she barely knew. Alright, so that man was her husband. It did not excuse her behavior. Her betrayal of David.

“So, what aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing really,” Jill lied.

“Oh, there is plenty you ain’t saying, honey. You got that boy’s balls in a vise. And as much as I love you, this shit’s got to stop soon. I’m tired of seeing what’s he’s doing to those guys. Hell, even after that bitch offed herself…good riddance and god rest her soul…that boy weren’t this bad.”

Seizing the opportunity to learn more about the mysterious ghost that fueled her demons, and more than a bit happy to divert her friend away from the other topic, “Tell me about her.”

Simone shook her head that was tied in a scarf between hairdressing appointments. “I know what you doing, girlfriend. You ain’t getting away with it that easy.”

Standing up, she walked across the kitchen to the window and picked a couple of leaves from the planters of herbs that Jill had growing in the window. She reached into the utility drawer next to the sink and pulled out a lighter.

“What’s that for?”

Putting the leaves on one of the empty plates, Simone lit them until they smoldered, filling the room with a musty warmth. “Sage clears bad spirits away,” she explained as she took her seat. “You know I’m not one of the gossips, and usually I wouldn’t do this. But one thing I know. The past is forever entwined with the present…and the future.”

Reaching across the table, she took both of Jill’s hands, enveloping them in one of hers. “What I’m about to say stays between us, do you understand me? Not even our husbands. I want your word.” She held out her other hand, little finger extended. “Pinky swear.”

“Pinky swear,” Jill noted that Simone’s usual smile was nowhere to be seen.

“You get that stupid reality television show about those spoiled rich girls over there?”

Jill laughed, “Which one?”

“Suppose you right, ain’t much else on the damned thing anymore. But I’m talking about the one with that crazy chick that married and divorced that sport’s star in the space of a breath.”

“Never watched it, but who can help but read the headlines on the internet or in the newspapers. So I know the basics. What’s that got to do with Rachel, though?”

“Like Esther and I said in those emails, she was a spoiled, rich girl that never grew up. Daniel’s marriage to Rachel wasn’t much different than that.” Simone sighed as she stared at the burning incense.

“She was not yet twenty. A bunch of her friends was slumming it for the summer in Ocean City instead of the Hamptons.” Jill smiled at the sarcastic note in her friend’s voice. “Anyway, he met her at one of the bars. He and the guys had gone out for a few. Like you say, the boy is drop-dead gorgeous, and that one noticed quick enough. The rest as they say…”

Simone waved her chunky hand over the herbs, fanning the embers. “By the end of the summer, she was pregnant. Me, I always said she did it on purpose, to keep the one guy that could not be bought with her daddy’s money. Those first couple of years were pretty tough. That one was high maintenance and liked to be the center of attention. Not the best attributes for this type of life.”

A frown creased Simone’s forehead as she continued, “Actually, they were right on the edge of divorce when 9/11 happened. And of course, everything changed then,” she smiled weakly and squeezed Jill’s hand, realizing how much it had transformed her own life as well.

“But it suited that one’s purposes real fine. She took off back to New York with Jess still in diapers. Said she needed to do what she could to help out too. And of course, over the past decade, our guys have been away more than they been home.”

“So, Rachel holed up in her daddy’s penthouse in Manhattan while Daniel was off fighting. Anytime the team had downtime, he’d store his gear at ours and catch a red-eye up there to see his little girl. Of course, that couldn’t have suited Miss Perfect any better. Nannies, Daddy’s money, and the big hero husband around just enough to make all her friends green with envy.”

She paused for a long moment as if gathering the courage to go on, “Then she got pregnant with Bel. Daniel was pretty tired already of watching the way that lot was spoiling his oldest child. There was no way he was having two of them up there. So, he put down his foot. Demanded that Rachel move back here.”

Jill nodded as Simone brought her cup of coffee to her lips. “But she hated it here. I mean, really hated it. There was this guy from Daniel’s unit. His daddy owns one of those private security firms, mercenaries, if you ask me. Anyway, he offered Daniel and a few others big money to come to work for his daddy.”

“Of course, Daniel and Samuel said no, but that was not the answer that one wanted to hear. For over two years, she made that boy’s life living hell going on and on about how he didn’t owe this country, the Navy, or his team anything. About how she and his daughters should come first. Like they didn’t already?”

Another dark look came across Simone’s face, and she made the sign of the cross, “She got pregnant again. This time I know, it was on purpose. Told him that now he would have to take up the Dodds’ offer. That they could not afford another baby.” Simone smiled weakly, “Of course, fate pulled a big joke on her. It was not one more baby but two.”

Simone reached across the table and squeezed her hand gently, “What I’m about to say, no one on this earth knows except me and Daniel. She was about six months along when she got drunk one night, took some damned pills too. Daniel asked me to come over and take care of Jess and Bel so he could take her to the hospital. Have the doctors check her and the babies out to make sure everything was all right.”

“The things that woman screamed at the poor man in her drunken stupor would chill your blood. She told him that if he wasn’t quitting the Navy, she didn’t want any more of his bastards.”

Jill’s hand flew to her mouth in shock at the cruelty of the woman. But the tale only got worse when Simone spoke again. “She told him not to bother coming home from the next mission. Then she would at least have a nice little paycheck from the insurance company. But that he should make sure he did it right because she didn’t want to be left with half a man to take care of like Dwayne.”

“Oh my god,” Jill breathed around her hand. “How could she?”

Simone shook her head, “Thing is I always felt sorry for her. Until that night, anyway. She was like some lost child, who just could not handle not getting her way. Except for Daniel, no one had ever said ‘no’ to her.”

“Why didn’t she just get a divorce if she hated it here so much? Hated this life?” Jill wondered aloud.

“Like I said, a couple of times, I thought for sure that was the way things were going. But I think in some perverse way, Rachel liked having someone say ‘no.’ It gave her boundaries.”

Jill’s brow furrowed, “Why didn’t he? I mean, divorce her.”

“The girls mostly. He knew he was not always around, but at least me or one of the other wives would always check in on them. Besides, sweetie, in case you ain’t figured this one out, your husband is an old fashioned country boy to the core.”

“Nothing he’s seen in this crazy world has managed to change the fact that his parents, who been married almost as long as we been alive, raised that boy to take those vows seriously. Raised that boy on truly solid ground,” she tightened her grip around Jill’s hand once more.

“So, that brings us back to the other. What we gonna do to make sure that those vows don’t bite him in the ass again?”

Jill swallowed past the foul taste in her mouth. The story that Simone had shared raised as many new questions as the ones they answered, maybe more. Some piece of the puzzle was still missing. The woman that Simone described seemed far too selfish to take her own life, too self-centered. But Jill pushed those thoughts aside for now in favor of more pressing matters. She stared at the bottom of the empty cup. “I acted like a fool,” she whispered.

Simone giggled softly, “We all do that. What do you mean exactly?”

“In the dream, we’re…” Jill blushed, unable to continue. “Let’s just say doing things that I would not do back in High School unless I were going steady with someone. Going steady…for a long time,” she stretched out the words.

“Don’t need to ask if it was good. Look on your face answers that one, girlfriend.”

“That’s the problem. It was too good,” Jill confided in a whisper.

Her friend looked at her in shock, “Too good? There ain’t no such thing.”

Jill sought answers at the bottom of the empty cup again. “There is if you barely know someone. I mean… It wasn’t that good…even with David.”

Simone’s loud laughter chimed about the room. “So, that’s what’s bothering you. Guilt?”

“Not guilt, I suppose. It all just seemed to be happening too fast. And of course, well, there’s the other. You know?” She frowned, thinking about her insecurities.

Simone rolled her eyes, “I think we can safely put those worries aside, sweetie. If things were moving so damned fast that you got scared, I don’t think there’s much doubt that your husband is into you.”

Jill shook her head. Simone could afford to be so sure of herself, her beautiful full figure. She had known nothing but the loving support of her husband for almost twenty years. Jill had faced other things. And despite her friend’s reassurances, the idea of exposing herself to another man was terrifying.

“Besides, right now, the question is more about what we gonna do to get things back to moving too fast?”

“Moving forward at all would be nice. Slow and steady wins the race, they say.”

“You think that man knows shit about slow and steady?” Simone chuckled.

Jill brought her fingers up to her lips as if she could still feel the scalding heat of his kisses, “I suppose you’re right.”

“No, the thing we got to plan, for now, is how to release these floodwaters from behind that dam without taking out all those downstream.”

“How do we do that?”

“Aw, sweetie, that one’s easy. You just have to seduce your husband.”

Jill choked on the air in her throat. That idea alone was enough to send her scurrying like a mouse when you turned on the kitchen light.

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