Daniel cradled his daughter’s hand as she slept. They were still waiting to see the doctors. But they had started an IV almost the moment they arrived and administered medications that brought his Bel some relief from the vomiting and fever.
Through it all, she had been there. Her voice soothed and calmed even when the nurses had poked the child’s tiny veins, three times. Daniel had turned away. He might know how to start one himself should he or any of his men need it, but he would be damned if he would watch them torturing his baby girl.
Hell, she’d even managed somehow to find Cindy, the damned bear that had been his daughter’s favorite for as long as he could remember. The teddy was clutched tightly in her tiny arms as she slept peacefully now.
The gentle hand on his shoulder came as a surprise. He chuckled as he turned and looked up into her face. He saw his own worries reflected there as he brought her soft hand to his lips. “Are you taking lessons on sneaking up on people, Missus Monroe?”
“Well, there is this uber hot SEAL that I know. Think he might give me a few?”
Her attempt at humor touched him. How did she do it? Bel? Jess? Him? She seemed to know exactly what to say and do to bring each of them the care their hearts yearned for. He kept her hand in his as he drew her to sit on his lap.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a dick the past couple of days,” he whispered. “It’s just,” his voice trailed off. It is just that I am fucking green with envy for a dead man. But there was no right way of admitting that.
She did not give him time to think of some plausible lie. “It’s alright, Daniel. Your father. The deployment. I understand.” She looked over at Bel, “Now this. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You’re doing it already, sweetheart. Just being here. For her. For me. It’s all we need right now.” He bent to brush a kiss across the frown that marred her perfect features.
He fought back the need to take it further, to deepen the kiss. But he knew how quickly things could flare between them. And the last three days of self-enforced abstinence was not helping at the moment. Despite his worry for his child, the trip that would have to be canceled, the bright lights and sounds of the hospital, he was rock hard in his jeans. His body cried out for her; the rest be damned.
He was thankful for the metal on metal squeak of the curtain being pulled aside. A young lieutenant in scrubs stepped into the room. He recognized the man from another visit to the Emergency Room. That one for far different reasons. He blushed at the memory of things that were said that night.
“Commander, Missus Monroe,” the man nodded towards them with a smile. “Well, we are still waiting for some test results to come back to confirm it, but it looks like your daughter may have food poisoning.”
“Food poisoning?” Jill’s hands covered her mouth. He could see her mind clicking over the possibilities.
“But none of the rest of us got sick?” Daniel quizzed.
“She could have picked it up anywhere. School. The playground. Anything. It could have even been something she ate days or weeks ago. There is no telling with these things. But you did the right thing. Bringing her in quickly like this. These things usually work themselves through, but especially in little ones like her, well, things aren’t always so good,” he tried to reassure them. “We’d like to keep her overnight just to be sure. But I think the worst of it is over. She should be fine in a couple of days. Weak, but fine.”
Jill stood up, “We had a family trip planned tomorrow.”
The man shook his head, “Afraid you’re going to have to re-schedule it, ma’am.”
Daniel nodded. His heart tightened in his chest, but as much as he loved his father, he knew his priority lay here in this hospital bed.
His wife, though, was tenacious, “I’m sorry, lieutenant. But you don’t understand. The commander’s father is ill,” she smiled softly at him. “Terminal. Daniel’s team is deploying next week. Is there any way?”
The man shrugged, “Normally, I wouldn’t recommend it, but I understand what you are saying. Let’s keep her here tonight. Then if there is no more vomiting or diarrhea, you can take her home tomorrow morning. If she can manage to keep some liquids down without any problems, then maybe we can think about it. A day, maybe two,” he looked sympathetically at Daniel. “I’m truly sorry, sir. But it is the best we can hope for.”
“Thank you, lieutenant,” he replied as the man walked out, pulling the curtain closed.
His wife walked back to him. She knelt on the floor and wrapped her arms about his shoulders, pressed her forehead against his, “Take Jess and go tomorrow. I’ll stay here with Bel, Brit, and Ash.”
“No way, Missus Monroe. This is a family trip. Besides, it isn’t just me that dad wants to see. He wants to see his grandbabies and meet you too.” He chuckled, “Mom would make me sleep in the barn if I showed up without you. She’s been dying to meet you since…”
Jill giggled, “I’m not sure I’m ready to meet her. Simone and your mother know things about me that no one else does.”
His eyebrows shot up, “Such as?”
Jill swallowed hard. He watched pink spread from her cheeks to her ears and down her neck. She just shook her head. “Nothing important. Just girl stuff.”
But Daniel had the feeling that he needed to pull that damned password out of the drawer and give those things a more thorough read. Perhaps they could explain it. Explain why his giving and caring wife pulled back every time he tried to get her out of her clothes. But not this night. This night would be spent in the hospital, again. “I’ll take you home, sweetheart. Then come back here, so someone’s here when Princess wakes up.”
She shook her head, “No, if we have any chance of still making this trip, you need your sleep. It’s a long drive from Virginia to Omaha. You go home and relieve Simone. I’ll stay here with Bel.”
He tried to argue, “No way, that bed’s too damned big and cold without you.”
“You men are such wimps. How do you think we feel when ya’ll are gone for months? I always told David that women were the stronger sex. We keep it all together while you boys pound your chests.”
He could hear the teasing tone in her voice, but even the mention of the other man had him on edge. He fought to keep his jealousy under control. He reminded himself that it was his bed that she slept in. His arms that she filled. And his chest that she used as a pillow every night.
But all the pep talks in the world could not erase those blue lines of another man’s mark on his wife’s body. Or his memories from her mind. Worse, they could not push him aside in her heart. No, the truth was that he was the one left out in the cold in this marriage, at least in the only way that mattered.
He simply nodded, “Alright, you win. I’ll head home.” He lifted her reluctantly from her place on the floor. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and kiss her senseless, but what would it solve?
There was no doubt in his mind that he could have his wife’s body any time he wanted. He even had her loyalty, and this night proved that as much as anything. But each day, it got harder to take the crumbs of affection from the other man’s table. Instead, he simply kissed her nose. “See you first thing tomorrow, sweetheart.”
Jill sat on the edge of the bed. She brushed back the golden hairs, thankful that Bel’s forehead was cool. She had still been asleep when Daniel arrived that morning. The young doctor had smiled as he checked her out and told them to play it by ear, but as long as there was no more vomiting or diarrhea, he did not see why they could not leave tomorrow morning for their trip.
It was the news that Jill had hoped for. Bel had even managed to keep some of her homemade chicken soup down this evening. It was the final green light for the trip in her mind.
She stretched and yawned. She was tired, bone tired. She had not gotten much sleep last night in the stiff chair at the hospital. Then, she had spent the day caring for Bel, cleaning, and packing. Thankfully, she had come home to find that the worst of the mess was already gone. Simone and Daniel had cleaned the bathroom and bedroom, including several loads of laundry, but there was still more packing to do. Most of it was done now, just a few more of her things to pack tomorrow morning.
She bent and kissed the child, “I love you, Bel,” she whispered as she stood to leave. Looking down, she saw Cindy bear and smiled. The threadbare stuffed toy could use a wash as well. She brushed her fingers across the tummy of the toy and felt something sticky there.
Moving closer to the hall door and its light drifting into the room, she brought it closer to her face. She saw the dark red stains there. Smelling it, she recognized the scent of strawberries. But that could not be right. She had not made anything with strawberries recently, and it could not be from school either since Cindy was not allowed to attend.
Warning bells were once more ringing in her head, her gut clenched in tight knots. She was probably mistaken. The stain could be the spaghetti sauce from a couple of nights ago. It was likely nothing, but since no one else in the family had gotten ill and the school assured her there were no other reports of food poisoning, Jill’s mind could not just let it go. She reminded herself to mention it to the child tomorrow.
Tomorrow, she thought as she walked back to the sleeping child and tucked the toy back under her arm. A long two-day drive in the tight confines of the car, squeezed between an angry pre-teen and a man, she could not stop lusting after. Although that was not entirely accurate, if it were merely lust, she could handle it all much easier.
The original plan had been to drive the twenty hours straight through, but with Bel still weak, they had decided to break the long drive into two days, spending one night in a hotel along the way. It would shorten their stay from a week to four, maybe five, days, but it was better than not going at all.
Standing in the hall, she stared for a moment at their closed bedroom door. She steeled herself for whatever awaited her this night. Would she find the sweet welcome that she craved in his arms? He had been more than solicitous all day as he went about the tasks of caring for the twins, helping with the packing and making sure that the car was in top mechanical order. He must have stopped to check on them two dozen times or more as she read to Bel or they played with her Barbie dolls.
It was better than the cold shoulder and avoidance that he had employed for the past few days. She still did not understand what precipitated these changes in his behaviors. The other night had been amazing, at least as far as she was concerned. His body’s dominance of hers had sent her soaring to new heights like a kite caught on an updraft. She had thought he enjoyed it just as much.
The doubts that held court unchecked in her fertile imagination would not be quieted. Whether it was her less than model-perfect body or her whorish behavior, she had clearly done something wrong that night. She just wished she knew what. She sighed heavily and built her courage as she opened the door.
What she saw there took her breath away. The room was lit only with a couple of candles on the nightstand. The bed was covered with rose petals. And he was lying in the middle of it, the white cotton replaced with red silk. She swallowed hard as she lifted her eyebrows. “What’s this?”
He moved to kneel at the foot of their bed. Reaching out, he drew her hands to his soft lips. She smiled at the slight roughness of his whiskers. He was once again growing a beard, in preparation for the deployment. “My way of showing you how fucking amazing I think you are.”
His blue eyes met hers, and she saw her insecurities reflected there. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his forehead as she squeezed his hands.
“Do you like?” he whispered with his face buried in her hair.
“I love it, but you shouldn’t have. The trip,” her voice trailed off as he brushed her hair aside and nibbled at the juncture of her neck and shoulders, the exact spot that had born his mark that first time. “Daniel,” she whispered as she pulled her hands from his and brought them up to lace through his soft hair.
He pulled back, “It’s not what you think, Jill.” He leaned back and grabbed a bottle from the bedside table.
“Massage oil. I know you are exhausted after last night and today. So, I thought a nice bubble bath and massage might help you to relax.”
Jill panicked. Bubble baths and massages usually involved being naked. As tired as she was, she could not think quickly enough. How could she divert him this time? The panic reached a crescendo quickly as she sought some excuse.
“I’ve filled the tub already. You soak for a bit while I grab the champagne and some glasses from the kitchen. When you’re done, just wrap up in the towel, and your masseur will be awaiting your every desire, madam,” he purred as he brought her hands up to his lips.
She smiled at her reprieve and hurried quickly down the hall. She would figure out how to hold onto that towel while she soaked.
Daniel watched his wife scurry out the door. It just did not make any fucking sense. If her marriage had been so damned great that seven years later, she was still in love with the man, why the apparent insecurities?
He understood viscerally how a lousy marriage and worse sex could wound your confidence. And his wife showed every god damned sign of that being the case. As much pain, regret, and guilt as he felt at Rachel’s death, he most definitely did not romanticize their life together or even pretend that he still loved her.
Yet what he saw in his wife was not pretend; he knew that she genuinely still loved that a fucking ghost. So, why the fuck would she if their marriage had left her so insecure that she clung to any scrap to cover far more than her naked body, but her wounded soul as well.
Her words, spoken the night before, echoed in his mind as he padded down the hall to the kitchen. He would find the time to talk with his mother about these secrets that she and Simone knew. And if she would not, then he would god damned well beat it out of the little witch when they got back.
One thing was for sure he was not going back there with any secrets between him and his wife. Not this time. Not with her. Not with someone he…the word stuck in his mind. He could not force it out, but neither could he force it away. Instead, he compromised, not with someone he truly cared about.
Grabbing two glasses out of the cabinet and the cold bottle from the refrigerator, he headed back down the hall. He stopped outside the bathroom. His hand on the doorknob. He wanted so badly to open it, step inside and draw her out of the tub. He wanted to hold her wet, naked body against his. The image of taking her fast and hard against the cold, hard tiles had him instantly hard inside the damned silk boxers. He gritted his teeth as the material rubbed softly against his erection, but not as softly as her touch.
He settled this night for tapping lightly on the wood, “Hurry up in there. Champagne and I are waiting down the hall, Missus Monroe.”
“I’m coming,” rang out her voice on the other side of the barrier. Daniel thought once more about kicking the damned thing in, just as he wanted to kick down the barriers that stood between them. But those were far greater than a simple piece of wood. So, he turned and walked back down the hall to their room.
He poured two glasses of bubbly and sat them next to the bottle of oil on the nightstand. Then he flicked through his tablet until he found the playlist he had created, plugging in the speakers, he hit a button, and soft music filled the empty room.
He felt nervous. More nervous than he had since… Well, since that morning, he had approached her in the backyard. Her dress clinging wetly to those perfect tits as he stammered out his proposal.
Had it ever been as fucking simple as the arrangement that his mother and Simone brokered with her? From his first glimpse of those round hips encased in denim and those high breasts hidden beneath the too-large sweater, had he ever had any real chance of resisting the web of his wife?
Bringing the glass of champagne to his lips, he drank it down in a single gulp and poured another. The truth was, he was that fucking fly caught firmly in her spider’s web. Its mystical, shimmering strands of love had encompassed his daughters, the other wives, and everything she fucking touched. His heart included, he finally admitted as he swallowed another glass of the sweet liquid.
He swore he needed something far more potent when he looked up to see her standing in the doorway wearing nothing but a towel. Her long hair held up off her neck with a clip, had soft tendrils falling about her face. He watched the pink stains spread across her cheeks in the pale candlelight. “You look beautiful.”
Jill froze in the doorway. His words washed over her like the soft caress of the water had in the bathtub. She could see the honesty in those misty blue depths, but she could only look away as the doubts battered her once more.
She reached out, “Is one of those for me?” She needed the false courage of the alcohol if she was to make it through this night. She willed herself to follow through with the plan that she had formulated in the warm depths of those sweet bubbles. She would not have her new life burst like they had, popping one by one until the water was chilly, and there was barely enough left to make a thin film across the surface.
He handed her one and watched as she gulped it down. She held out the glass, “More?”
“How about you slow down on this one? I don’t want you falling asleep on me like you did that first night.”
Jill blushed; whether from the memory of that first disastrous night, or his almost psychic guess about her secret plans for this evening. She brought the glass to her lips and drank more slowly this time as she looked deep into his eyes.
He smiled and held out his hand, “How about that massage I promised you, sweetheart?”
She returned his smile as she allowed him to arrange the pillows upon the bed and guide her down to the mattress. The sweet smell of the rose petals crushed beneath their bodies assaulted her nostrils. She inhaled the musky fragrance as she closed her eyes.
She almost jumped when she felt the slight shift of his weight upon the bed and then felt the warm oil poured across her shoulders. She moaned when his fingers began to knead softly at the tight muscles of her neck and shoulders. “Screw Dodd’s offer. When you finally decide to retire, I’m putting you out as a masseur.”
He chuckled as his fingers dug deeper into the tender flesh near her spine. “It would be more honest work.”
“No doubt about that.”
“But I don’t want to talk about that man tonight, sweetheart.”
“Then what do you want to talk about?” she teased as she sank deeper into his touch. The light massage should have relaxed her muscles after the hard night and long day. She had honestly thought it would not take much for her to feign sleep.
But the way he had her skin tingling at each stroke undermined her confidence in the plan. If she allowed him to keep this up much longer, she might well throw off the god damned towel and push him back onto the bed, maybe even rape her husband, so quickly was her need for him growing.
His lips caressed the side of her cheek as he pushed the towel further down her back, “I don’t want to talk. I want to feel.” His hand left her shoulders, and she moaned. But a moment later, she felt the mattress shift once more and his calloused hands moving firmly over the heel and arch of her foot. When she moaned again, it was the sound of joy that the angels made in heaven.
“Oh, yes,” she groaned as he worked his way down each toe. She thought she would die from the intense pleasure of his touch until she felt the wet sucking upon her big toe, then she knew that she would. “If you keep that up much longer, I’m gonna come,” she purred against the pillow.
“That’s the idea, Missus Monroe. The massage. A couple of orgasms. A couple of dozen more like it with you, sweetheart,” he teased as he moved on to the next toe. “Then, you should sleep like a baby.”
Jill raised her head from the pillow and looked over her shoulder, “But what about you? I thought…” It was what she had planned. What she supposedly wanted? Why then did it seem so inadequate?
He kissed the arch of her foot as he massaged it more firmly. “Tomorrow morning before we pack up. I’ll wake you up early, sweetheart. But tonight is about you. All you. So, lay back down and just enjoy.”
Jill reluctantly obeyed. He made good on each of his promises as he moved slowly up her legs, kneading and massaging each tense muscle and setting fire to the last of her reserves. She was moaning and pleading by the time that his hands reached the soft globes of her buttocks. He lifted the towel and poured oil into the small of her back and between the crack of her ass. She was half afraid and half hopeful that he would change his mind as his fingers and hands worked the tender flesh.
She felt him tracing something on the small of her back. For a moment, she did not make the connection. But his soft voice brought it all together.
“How long have you had it?”
Jill frowned as she realized what his fingers had been tracing. Memories flooded her. “Seven years. It was going to be an anniversary present.”
“Going to be?”
“David didn’t make it home from that tour,” she fought back the clouds that threatened her vision. How could it be so easy to talk to him…even about this? Especially about this.
“What happened?” his lips blew the words across the mark.
“You know they never tell you everything. The Ministry of Defense. It’s a reality I lived with from the beginning. Sometimes we just don’t ever know the truth,” she choked on the words.
Fear ate at her gut. This was not the reminder she needed at this moment. The reality of her world then and now was too stark beneath his touch. But it was a reminder nonetheless. Could she do it? Could she live through that again? If she lost him as she had David, could she survive? She fought back the bile in her throat.
“Friendly fire was all they said. Some damned drone that hit the wrong target. David was killed and the three others with him seriously injured.”
She felt his hands still on her back, perhaps it was too close a reminder for him as well. She clutched the towel about her chest tightly and turned over. “He never got to see it.”
He nodded as he rolled over. “Are you relaxed enough to sleep?” Daniel blew out the candles.
Jill was not sure what to say. What had she said wrong? But once again, it was back to the cold shoulder. She nodded as she clutched the towel and reached for the shirt that lay on the dresser.
His hand on hers stilled it. “Forget that. I want to hold you tonight. Skin to skin,” he whispered as he brushed a chaste kiss across her lips.
As confused as she was by his words and his actions, she simply nodded as she lifted the covers and crawled beneath them. Only then did she loosen the towel and throw it out from under the sheets. She opened her arms and held them out for him as his dark head came to rest over her heart.
“Good night, Daniel.”
His heavy sigh that blew heat across her breast was the only reply.
Daniel listened to the soft beat of her heart. He felt the gentle rise and fall of her chest beneath his cheek. And he hated himself more with each soft pitter-patter.
It was not bad enough that he was jealous of a dead man. No, fate had to have a final laugh. Because the harsh reality was that man’s blood stained his hands. If it had not been for his mistake, the man would have come home once again to this miraculous woman. She would be spending this night and all those others for the past seven years in the arms of the man she loved. Not an ocean away with a stranger she barely knew.
He cursed himself for the hundredth time in the past couple of hours. How had he failed to make the connection before now? Her dead Royal Marine husband. The mysterious David. And Sergeant Major David James Smith, Four-Two Commando.
Life sucked sometimes, and this was one of those times. Sleep finally overtook him, only to be filled with the sound of explosions, the smell of bombs and burnt flesh.