“I like her,” Daniel smiled at the quiet, understatement that had always been his father.
He nodded his head as he brushed the back of his hand across his eyes. “Me too,” as he turned to look at his father. He had spent the past ten minutes standing on the old porch watching as Jill and his mother played with Bel and the babies. Jess was hiding in the barn with the horses again.
“Just like, son?”
Daniel sighed, the action causing his shoulders to slump under the heavy weight of his mind. The truth was that he had thought of little else than his predicament over the past few days. The long drive had been the worst. Pressed against his wife, thigh to thigh, for hours as the girls laughed, played, and occasionally fought. It had driven him practically insane with need. But that need could not override the cold hard facts: he loved a woman who, if she knew the truth, would hate him. In the end, the only answer he had for his father was, “It’s complicated, Dad.”
“Sometimes, things seem more complicated than they are, Daniel.” He watched as his father’s faded grey eyes took in the woman that had been his love for close to half a century. “But let me tell you when the chips are down, son, loving is all that matters in this world.”
Daniel ached to confide in his father, to seek advice from him just as he had so many times before, but he knew he could not. It was the reality of the code by which he lived, so many things in his life were ‘classified.’ From his father and mother, and even from his wife.
No, this was a burden he would have to bear alone. Because, even if he wanted to cleanse his soul, tell her all that had happened that night, he knew that he could not. Security protocols of two nations and the lives of dozens of men prevented it.
He shook his head as she tickled Bel. The sound of laughter rang out across the dry, brown field. The farm lacked its usual lush greenness. “What about the farm, Dad?” It was a feeble attempt to change the subject.
“I’ve been thinking the same thing, son. I don’t want this place to become a burden to your mother. Hell, she’s been married to this land her whole life. Farmer’s daughter marrying a rancher. No, I want her to take that cruise around the world we always said we would,” Daniel saw the tears collecting in his father’s eyes.
He wanted to argue, demand that the man re-start the chemo, fight the cancer just as he had five years ago when he won and went into remission. But the lank man with the yellowish tinges to his skin ambled deliberately now, as if each step cost him precious energy, brought him more pain.
He could see the life draining from the man, who had once seemed such an immovable bear of strength. And he would not be selfish enough to add his own pleas to the burdens his father shouldered. He would do all he could to lighten them in the time they had left. “You’re thinking of selling?”
His father nodded. “Ranching ain’t much these days, but city folks, hell, even Hollywood types are buying up ranches and farms all over these parts. They want to escape the rat race and get back to nature, it seems.”
“A couple. One interesting one from this commune type group. They want to do something crazy, called wilding, where they return the land to prairie like it was before people settled these parts. The idea kinda appeals to me even though their offer is much lower than the one I have from a big agribusiness conglomerate.”
“Money isn’t the only thing, Dad. As long as Mom would be okay, don’t worry about us.”
His father smiled weakly, “Thing is, I don’t want to wait and make your Mama face that choice alone,” he placed his hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “But, I also don’t want to sell this place out from under you, son. It’s yours if you want it. It always has been.”
His father looked deep into Daniel’s eyes, “It’s just that I don’t think farming, cattle, this land ever really ran in your blood, boy. Not much excitement round these parts.”
Daniel watched his mother as she talked quietly with Jill. The two women had bonded instantly. As his wife said, shared secrets to which he was not privy. But this was no secret. His father was right; he had never felt the connection to this land that his parents and grandparents had. He was a soldier, not a farmer.
He spoke slowly, “No, Dad. You’re right. I don’t have the skills to run this place anymore than those city slicker. Tractors, milking machines, the business of farming, it’s as high tech and demanding these days as my work is. And the truth is that my knowledge is almost twenty years out of date.”
“I’m glad you see it that way, son. I didn’t want you to think we were selling off your inheritance or nothing.”
“No, Dad, you and Mama are my inheritance. The only one that matters. Growing up here with the two of you as parents gave me so much more than most people ever have in this world. And that won’t ever change.”
His father smiled as he wrapped his arm about his shoulders, “You know your Mama and I wouldn’t mind watching those girls for a couple of days if you wanted to take your wife up to the old fishing cabin by the falls for a bit. Can’t imagine you two have had much time to yourselves since you got hitched.”
Daniel laughed, “Hitched? Really, Daddy? Next, you’re going to call her the old ball and chain.”
“Nope, son, not that one. She’s nobody’s burden, any more than your Mama ever has been. So, what you say? A little honeymoon? Your Mama can make a few sandwiches in case the fish ain’t biting, and I’m sure we can manage to pry two horses off that oldest daughter of yours.”
Time alone with Jill. A few days ago, it would have seemed like a gift from heaven. But now? He had been carefully avoiding her since that night, or as much as was possible anyway. Of course, it was not easy, sharing the same room that he had grown up in. A double bed that forced their bodies to brush against one another constantly.
The nights reminded him of the torture training exercises that he had undergone. He had used every technique they had taught. Visualization usually ended up with him reliving the night where she had slowly stripped out of his shirt in the pale moonlight. Counting took on a new meaning as he would enumerate the thousands of ways he wanted to make love to his wife. And disconnecting, forget it. It was impossible to disconnect from her, not when she lay so impossibly close. His wife. His in all the ways except the one that mattered.
“I don’t know, Dad. The girls are a handful. They might be too much for you, right now,” he tried to make excuses.
His father shook his head, “Let me put this another way. I’d like some time alone with those grandbabies. I’ve hardly seen Jess and Bel over the years. I mean, this place wasn’t exactly that woman’s idea of a vacation, was it? And those babies, except for those couple of days after Rachel’s death when I came with your Mama, I’ve never even seen them. I want to get to know my granddaughters, son. Is that too much for a dying man to ask?”
Daniel felt his father’s word like Samuel’s sidekick to his ribs. It knocked the wind from him as surely as the physical blow would have. His father was dying. This place would be gone soon. The words opened wounds that ached and bled. He could not speak through the pain, so he merely shook his head.
“Good boy. Your Mama has some stuff packed already. Let’s go and tell them now.” He led his son down the porch steps to where the women and children were playing under the old tree.
Jill giggled as she tickled Britney’s tummy. “Cheeky little monkey,” she kissed the head of curls. The child pulled away from her embrace and toddled across the brown carpet of grass towards her sisters.
“You are everything we hoped you would be.”
Jill laughed uncomfortably, “Not you too?”
“Me too? What do you mean?”
“I hear that all the time from Simone.”
“Simone,” Esther sighed wistfully. “I miss that woman. She might be a touch crazy, but I ain’t met too many people with a heart as kind as that one’s.”
“She is pretty amazing.”
“Not any more than you are, sweetie. Those girls love you already.”
Jill watched them playing, and for the hundredth time since coming to this place, her eyes teared up. “I love them too.”
The older woman reached out and covered her hands with one of her own. “There was never any doubt in our minds about that one, sweetie.” Her eyes traveled to the porch, where her husband and son were talking. Jill’s could not help but follow.
She felt like someone had kicked her in the stomach when she saw the pain etched into his handsome features. She wanted, so profoundly, to run to him, wrap her arms about him, soothe and comfort him. But she couldn’t.
Their marriage was back to icy politeness. In the three nights that they had been sharing that impossibly small bed, not once had he willingly reached for her. Oh, they woke uncomfortably aware of one another’s presence. Her body practically ached with the physical need, and there was no denying he returned the feeling, his erection pressed tightly against her resolved any doubts on that subject.
She felt the other woman’s eyes on her as she turned and smiled weakly. “I don’t need to ask the question that’s been bothering me most this past couple of months. I can see it in your eyes when you look at my son,” she smiled as she squeezed Jill’s hand. “So, what’s wrong, sweetie?”
Jill lifted her arm and passed it across her face, using it to wipe tears from her eyes as she pretended to shield them from the bright sunlight. “What makes you think anything is wrong, Esther?”
“A Mama’s gut. So, don’t bother fibbing to me, girl. We both know that those don’t lie,” she pronounced with conviction.
Jill lowered her arm and gazed at the dry grass beneath her legs. Dead, just like the hopes and dreams she had once had of this man growing to love her. “He doesn’t feel the same,” she whispered.
His mother’s chuckle felt like a knife as it sliced through her. Jill wanted to stand up and run, but the woman’s hand held her in place. Instead, she merely looked away to hide the pain she knew anyone could see in her face.
“What makes you think that, child?”
Jill swallowed hard. It was not exactly like she could share the intimate details of her marriage with her mother-in-law. Hell, Simone’s nosey meddling was bad enough. “I just do.”
“How much has Simone told you about her?”
Jill looked back over at the older woman. As always, the mention of Rachel piqued her curiosity. Some part of her felt as if by understanding the other woman and her death, she could heal old wounds, perhaps even break down some of the walls that stood between them.
“Alright. Then let me tell you about him,” her gaze drifted back to the porch. “My son keeps everything inside. He always has. Even as a little boy, that child would never cry,” she looked up at the vast weeping willow under which they sat in semi-shade. “He was six when he fell out of this tree. Broke his arm in three places. The damned bone was sticking through the skin, and he walked calmly into the house and said he thought we should go see the doctor.”
As the mother of four tough sons, it was something with which Jill could empathize. She smiled as she practically pictured D.J. doing something as ridiculous, but she simply nodded as the woman continued. “That does not mean the boy doesn’t feel the pain. I slept in the chair next to his hospital bed that night. He tossed and turned and cried out all night long.”
“I always told Gerald that boy has more scars on his soul from that woman than the SEALs ever put on his body. Add to that the burdens he bears as a leader, the lives of his men, and even those he’s had to kill, and it’s no wonder my son finds it hard to trust anyone.”
“But let me tell you one thing, when he does…there is nothing on this earth or heaven and hell that will keep him from taking care of what’s his. His men and their families. Those girls. Me and his daddy,” her blue eyes looked over Jill carefully. “And you, sweetie.”
Jill automatically shook her head in denial. Words of protest dripped from her lips as Daniel and her father-in-law approached them.
“Esther,” the older man called. “I’ve convinced the fool to take us up on our offer,” he smiled conspiratorially to his wife. “We’re going to the barn now to saddle up a couple of horses. Why don’t you two go into the house and make a few sandwiches? After all these years, I’m not sure the boy can manage to catch his own supper, let alone enough for two,” the man slapped his son’s back.
“What are you talking about?” Jill looked from her father-in-law to her husband.
Daniel kicked at the grass. The discomfort on his face was palatable as he replied, “My parents want some time alone with the girls. So, they are shuffling us off to the old fishing cabin on the other side of the property.”
“How far is that? I mean, we’ll be back for supper, right? I need to get the girls ready for bed and all.”
Her mother-in-law squeezed her hand, “Oh, don’t worry about that, sweetie. Gerald and I can manage tonight. The cabin is a good two or three hour horseback ride. Nice and secluded,” the woman winked at her.
Secluded away with her husband was not what Jill had in mind at that moment. What might have once seemed like a dream took on nightmarish qualities given his icy coldness these past few days.
“I don’t think we should. What if something happens? You might need us. Bel is still recovering from food poisoning, and the babies are used to their routine.”
“Nonsense. Esther and I managed this little tornado. How hard can four girls be?” dismissed her father-in-law.
Her eyes looked up at Daniel’s, pleading for his support. But he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, resigned it seemed to his fate.
“Aw, come on. It will be fun,” said Esther. “There’s a beautiful waterfall just a short walk from the cabin, and the stream beneath it should be perfect for swimming this time of year. Not too cold, but just cool enough on a hot day like this.”
They might make the place sound like paradise, but this was not a trip that Jill was looking forward to. And from the dark scowl on his face, neither was her husband.
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