Solid Ground

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Chapter 3

Jill fumbled with the blue passport that she held in her fingers. The United States of America embossed in gold on the front. She smiled as she stepped forward to hand it to the security agent. She was home. Well, on American soil, at least. She sighed as she stepped up to the counter.

“Business or pleasure?” the man behind the counter repeated the question that had plagued her for hours on the plane.

“I’m returning home,” she smiled.

The man looked up from the screen and smiled. “Welcome home then. How long were you away?”

“Twenty-six years.”

“That’s a long time. What brings you back?” He asked with what appeared genuine interest as he typed away at the computer.

“I’m getting re-married,” she answered a bit reluctantly. It just seemed so surreal at that moment as she stood on American soil for the first time since she and David had taken the boys to Disney World over fifteen years before. There had never been anyone, other than a couple of cousins, to visit. Now here she stood…home. But was it?

“Lucky man,” he pronounced with a broad smile as he stamped a page in the document. “You can collect your luggage through those doors,” he pointed. “And good luck to you both.”

Jill nodded and made her way across the floor. The heels of her flats tapped with each step. She stood in the queue, the line, she corrected herself, and waited for the carousel to start. Time dragged by. She watched the older woman that had been across the aisle from her. She was going to meet her new grandbaby. The young couple, who had been in front of her, struggled to keep their son from running away. His father grabbed him and lifted him high into the air. Giggles echoed through the baggage hall. Jill guessed that he was only slightly older than Ashley and Britney.

She could easily imagine Daniel doing something similar to distract the girls from trouble. She knew from his emails that he loved his daughters. Even more than the country he had served for almost twenty years. It was one of the things that had made this whole thing feel so right. Well, when it was just an idea, when she was tucked safely inside her flat three thousand miles away. And now?

The loud bell drew her attention as the carousel began to turn. She focused on the luggage as it moved by slowly. Her whole life was crammed into two suitcases, and the battered laptop bag slung over her shoulder. Finally, she spotted the first of her bags. She struggled to lift it onto the trolley, just in time to notice the second one arrive.

It occurred to her then that perhaps she should have stopped by the loo before she collected her bags. After hours on a plane, she was confident that she neither looked nor smelled good. She berated herself for the oversight. There was nothing she could do about it now. Instead, she pushed the cart towards the double doors to the arrivals area and the man that would soon be her husband.

Daniel rushed across the airport from one terminal to another. He hoped that he would make it before the woman finished with customs and collected her bags. He might not know her, but his mother had told him enough about Jill Smith, who had left her life to marry a soldier, raise four sons through numerous deployments, and then all alone as a widow with teenage sons. A woman that would leave everything she had known for a quarter of a century and travel half a world away to begin a new life. He was not sure whether to admire her spirit of adventure or shake sense into her at the sheer lunacy of it all.

He arrived just in time to watch the first of the passengers push through the double doors. He looked at the picture his mother had given him, along with the account name and password information for the dating site where she had found the woman. Jill, he corrected. She was as innocent a victim in this sham as he was.

He located her as she struggled with the trolley, piled high with two large bags. His gut tightened. The picture did not do her justice. She might not be the typical beauty that Rachel had been, but there was something utterly captivating about the woman. Her curves in the jeans were womanly and soft. Despite the bulky sweater, he could tell that her breasts were full and lush. They would more than fill his hands. Her dark blonde hair fell about her shoulders and upper back, framing a face that might appear plain, but the smile on it was anything but. Welcoming, genuine, comforting, the words drifted through his mind.

Shaking his dark head, Daniel reminded himself that he was not interested in the ‘arrangement’ as his mother called it. He was picking the woman up from the airport, explaining about the misunderstanding, and offering her whatever hospitality he could until plans could be made for her to return home.

He noticed her scanning the crowd and waved his arms to catch her attention. That smile broadened as she caught sight of him; it seemed to light her face from within. It took his breath away. Her step quickened as she approached him.

“Daniel, it’s so good to meet you finally,” she exclaimed as she wrapped her arms about him.

Daniel was not sure what to do. He knew next to nothing about this woman, whose embrace stirred something deep in his gut. Those soft, full breasts pressed against his chest were awakening needs that he had tried to keep under tight control. But that was not what bothered him most.

Comfort, safety, what was it? He was not sure. The feeling was such a distant memory of childhood that it defied description. What worried him most was how right it felt. He could almost imagine how it would feel to come home to this. Yeah, that frightened the hell out of him. He wanted no part in this little ‘arrangement’ of his mother’s; he reminded himself again.

But still, he allowed the woman, Jill, to hold him. He was too much of a gentleman to push her away. Instead, he patted her back. “Here, let me get those bags for you,” he offered as she drew back.

She nodded, “Thanks. I am a bit tired. And could we find a loo before we go?”

Daniel smiled at the distinctly British term for the bathroom. He placed one hand on her elbow and guided her down the hall as he used the other to push the cart. “I saw a restroom back this way.”

“Sorry, restroom. It will take me a while to get used to the American words again. One of the first things I learned when I moved to England was that English and American are two different languages,” she chuckled nervously.

Stopping in front of a door that bore the image of a stick figure wearing a dress, he smiled nervously, “It’s fine. Perhaps after you freshen up, we could have a drink or something to eat,” he offered as an entry point to the conversation they needed to have.

“Sure. I’ll just be a couple of minutes,” as she disappeared.

Jill ran the brush through her hair once more. Her reflection in the mirror scowled. What was wrong?

‘What’s wrong, stupid! You came three thousand miles to marry a man you have never met, and he is not interested.’ Jill was not sure what she expected, but the polite and stiff hug he had returned spoke volumes. Of course, she was not the beauty that his wife had been, but she had been honest about that. She had sent pictures, some unflattering ones too.

Putting her brush back into her bag, Jill pulled the clear plastic case from its pocket. Bank cards, phone numbers, and cash. It was her back up plan. It looked like she was going to need it. She was not sure what she was going to do now, but she had options. She had not come all this way without at least considering this possibility.

She still had her cousins in Houston. She would contact them on social media as soon as she got to a computer. Perhaps one of them had a couch for a couple of weeks. There was her AmeriCorps application too. She had been working on that plan for a couple of months before that fateful email that changed everything. She had thought, perhaps, to utilize her skills as a chef at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen just as she did at the mental health day center. The job she had loved so much until…

But thinking of that now would only make this rejection harder. Jill did not have time to feel sorry for herself. Come what may, this was an opportunity to start afresh, to build a life for herself. She had done her duty to David and their boys, who no longer needed a clingy mother that waited at home for every email and prayed for each leave, so she would have someone to cook and care for again, if only for a few short days.

She straightened her shoulders and brushed the moisture from her eyes. She would make the most of this, no matter what came. Just as she had once made a new life in another country with the man, she loved.

Which reminded her of another option, the possibility of just traveling. It was a journey she had begun twenty-six years ago as a fool-hardy teenager before she met her handsome Bootie on the beach in Cancun. She could purchase a bus or train ticket and just go. See America. She could always find work in cafes and restaurants. A good chef was never without a job for long.

Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she inhaled deeply and plastered a smile on her face. “The important thing, my girl, is that you are home,” she said to the empty bathroom. “The rest will take care of itself.” With one final inspection, she turned towards the door. She would handle this with calm and composure, a stiff upper lip that would do David proud. Then, whatever happened, happened.

Daniel watched the woman finish off the plate of tamales. She had practically squealed when they found the Tex-Mex restaurant hidden in the corner of the terminal. She loved her food, that was certain.

Rachel had always picked at everything, afraid that it all went straight to her petite figure. Looking back, he suspected that his wife might have suffered an eating disorder as well as the depression that led to her suicide, but he had been too busy with his work to notice he supposed. The words of her note echoed in his mind again, “I always came last with you. Your country, the Navy, and your daughters leave no room for me. You are a lousy husband, and I hate you.”

“Wow! That was good.” The woman’s enthusiasm was a stark contrast from the morose pathway his mind had taken. He nodded silently, reluctant somehow to begin this conversation that he knew would only bring more pain. But that was all he seemed capable of doing as a man, hurting the women he cared for. Not that he cared for this one, liked maybe, admired for certain.

He listened as she continued, “You can’t get good Mexican food in England. Hell, you can’t even find the right ingredients to make it. And growing up in Texas, I was raised on the stuff. Turkish food is about as close as you can get. I was a regular at the kebab shop down the street from my flat,” the woman explained.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He inhaled and leaned back in the booth. “Jill, there’s something I need to tell you,” he reached for words. “There’s no easy way to say this, but this whole thing has been a mistake. Well, not a mistake. A lie. Not a lie exactly either. I am Daniel Monroe. I am a widower with four daughters, and I am a SEAL.”

He could tell from the cold and confused look on the woman’s face that he was screwing things up. He had practiced this speech over and over in the car on the drive up, as they waited for his mother’s plane, even as he raced across the airport to meet her. He knew what he wanted to say, but none of it was coming out right. He supposed it was just another example of how inadequate he was with women.

Drawing a deep breath, he stared at his hands folded in front of him on the table and tried again. “I didn’t write those emails. I did not even know you existed until a few hours ago. My mother wrote them.” He explained, unable to look at her. “I’m sorry you came all this way, but I don’t need…I don’t want a wife.”

Silence hung about them. The air seemed actually to chill. He waited. And waited. He was not sure how long, but it seemed too long. For a man accustomed to passing long stretches of time while on reconnaissance, it was hell. In the end, he broke down, looking up from the table, he saw the brightest green eyes, like spring meadows on his family’s ranch. But they were flashing with anger. It was an emotion he knew well in women, one that he had seen thousands of times with Rachel.

“I don’t know what I expected. But that was a shitty excuse, bud. Alright, so I’m not some slim, trim beauty queen after four kids, but I deserved better than that.” Jill stood and walked away.

Daniel was right behind her, throwing a wad of bills on the table as they left. “Honestly, it isn’t an excuse. I didn’t have any part in this.”

The woman stopped outside the restaurant. She glanced from side to side as if looking for the quickest exit. It was a feeling he could understand. “Jill, I understand. I was as shocked by this as you are. Why don’t we talk about this on the way back to Virginia Beach?” He searched for something more to say, something to convince her of his sincerity.

“If you think I’m going anywhere with you, buddy, you’re crazy,” she exclaimed as she pushed past him. She grabbed the cart and began pushing it the wrong way, back towards the arrivals hall.

Daniel tried to wrestle the cart from her grip but noticed a TSA guard watching them closely. He did not want to attract more attention. “Please, my mother left you a letter. Just read it.” He held out an envelope with a distinctly feminine scrawl across it. “Please,” he begged.

“What will a letter prove? Anyone could have written it for you,” she argued.

Daniel knew they were at a stalemate in their negotiations. He could see it in the stubborn set of her chin. He was getting nowhere with this. He changed tactics. It was a skill that had served him well on the battlefield and one he hoped would prove useful in this battle of wills. “So, where will you go now? There isn’t another plane back to London until tomorrow. I checked. I suppose you could get a cab to a hotel, but that costs money. How much did you bring with you? I don’t imagine a chef in a mental health day center makes all that much.”

He watched the play of emotions across her face. The woman wore them on her sleeve as his mother would say. It was another sucker punch to his gut, the unexplainable need to protect her, to wrap this stranger in his arms and keep her safe. He shook his head. Like he was any damned good at that shit. His marriage proved it was one job he was not cut out for.

He forced those thoughts aside as he continued, “Would you rather spend a couple of days in a safe, relatively clean house with people you know a lot about or alone in some grimy hotel room with cable TV and not much else?” he reasoned coldly.

He could see the dejection his strong words caused. The proud woman’s shoulders slumped at their harshness. He swallowed back the self-loathing that was growing in his gut as he softened his voice before continuing, “Please, Jill, I promised Mama that I would take care of you. She would box my ears if you went to some flea-bitten hotel room.”

“Always honor with you guys, isn’t it? Is it some kind of a god complex?” she chuckled nervously as she shook her head.

It was back with a vengeance, the unexpected need to brush, hell no, kiss away, the tears that glistened in those deep green eyes that had already been doing shocking things to his libido. Daniel tried to hide his nervousness with laughter, “We live by a code, ma’am. You know the officer and the gentleman thing.”

Jill smiled weakly, “Yes, I know it. Better than you think. Remember, my husband was military too.”

Daniel nodded as he remembered his mother’s tale about this woman, following the man across an ocean. Jealousy was added to the growing list of feelings that he had no business having for her. What would it feel like…to truly inspire that level of love and loyalty? Damn, his mother, and those emails. Damn, Simone Jackson too. Her hand was all over this one. But no matter how much he damned them both, he could not fight back the voice in his mind that kept whispering, ‘What if?’

He used all his skill to control those and all the other emotions boiling inside of him, pushed them aside. It was something he had gotten good at over the past few years, pushing aside feelings and ‘what if’s.’ But they always came back to haunt him at the most inopportune times.

Like now as he thought of another man, another British soldier, and the family he left behind. He thought too of that man’s blood upon his hands as he spoke, “Then please, for his memory, allow me to offer our hospitality. Would he want you alone in some questionable hotel? Let me do this, one officer and gentleman to another,” he pleaded as he waited.

He studied her features as his words played upon her emotions. He could see the uncertainty still in her vibrant green eyes, but he knew that he had won the battle even before she nodded her blonde head.

What he did not want to face was why that victory felt so damned good? He could have and probably should have purchased her return ticket before he even picked her up. It would have been simple to book and pre-pay for a decent hotel until her flight. But he had not. He wondered then why, why he had not taken that easy route?

“Alright. But just until I figure out what I want to do now,” she whispered.

“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled as he took the baggage cart from her once more and turned it in the other direction. “The exit is this way.”

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