Jill stretched as she looked around at the quiet, nondescript neighborhood. She had fallen asleep before they reached the highway, only waking up when Daniel shook her gently. They had stopped by his friend’s house to pick up his daughters, he explained.
While she waited, the same questions played through her mind. Loudest among them, what now. She had foolishly burned so many bridges behind her. She had quit her job without notice. Not that she wanted to go back there. Not after what happened. Not with Ubah, her only friend, gone. She had given up her flat. Even hired a removals man to come and take away most of her things, only putting a few pieces that she knew her sons might want one day in storage. Everything else was crammed inside those two suitcases in the boot of the car.
The trunk, she reminded herself as the front door of the house opened, the bright light of the porch lamp illuminated everything inside it. She fought back curiosity. She reminded herself that she would not be staying. That whatever Jess, Bel, Ashley and Britney were like, it was none of her business. She was just an unwanted houseguest for a couple of nights.
But it seemed a futile battle. She craned her neck to watch as Daniel took the two sleeping babies from the arms of a dark-skinned, stout woman. She could not hear what they said, but she could see from the scowl on the man’s face that he did not like it. A man joined them in the doorway. He held an equally sleepy little girl with an array of thick blond curls that spread across his shoulder. The two men headed towards the parked car with their bundles.
Daniel was in no mood for chit chat with Simone Jackson. She might be his best friend’s wife, but he knew in his gut that she was as deep in this mess as his mother. Suddenly, all those computer lessons and hours spent laughing made perfect sense. What would his mother know about internet dating sites, let alone ones that catered to lonely servicemen and women? No, this little trick had Simone’s fingerprints all over it.
The woman smiled as she carried his sleeping twins down the hall towards him. “You could have left them all for the night, you know.”
Daniel stared at her. A look that had sent enemy combatants scurrying and his men into immediate action. “Why would I want to do that, Simone?” he challenged as he took a sleeping baby from her arms.
“Well, if yous gots female company…” the woman offered in her thick Caribbean accent that she only used when it suited her.
“I know that you know damned well who that woman is and why she is here. And I swear, woman, if you meddle in this any further, I am going straight to Samuel with your part in all this. Do you hear me?” he threatened as he took his other daughter from her.
Her laugh was a deliberate affront to him. “Daniel, my friend, de stars, be favorable to ye. Don’t you be messin’ wid tings dats bigger dan you.”
Before Daniel could respond, his friend appeared carrying Bel. “Jess insists she has to stay, something she and Althea are up to on the computer. You know those two, my friend? I’ll bring her home tomorrow, right after soccer practice.”
Daniel simply nodded his dark head before glaring once more at the woman, who wrapped herself like a cat around her husband. “Of course, we’ll bring the girl home tomorrow. It will give me a chance to talk to your new friend,” she purred.
Both men stared at her coldly. “What? Us girlies have to hang together against you big bad wolves.”
It was her husband’s turn to stare. “Simone, I swear I’ll turn that sweet backside of yours red if you be messing in people’s lives again.”
She chuckled as she rubbed even closer to him, “Well, now dat’s reason enough for me meddlin’. But don’t you be makin’ no promises you ain’t gonna keep, big boy.”
Both men shook their heads and laughed at her words as they turned towards the car parked in the driveway.
“I’m sorry, man. I’ll talk to Simone tonight. But you know she never means any harm when she gets these ideas.”
“This isn’t some talisman for us to wear that itches and burns and smells worse than your god damned socks after two days of hiking through the damned jungle. This is a woman who came three thousand miles thinking I was going to marry her, so she could be a mother to my poor orphans. Sam, this isn’t harmless fun,” he tried to reason with his friend. But he feared it was futile. The man had been under the witch’s spell even before they met. He shook his head, more than a bit envious of the happiness that the couple shared.
His friend’s next words only confirmed his worst fears, “But you got to admit buddy, this will make a damned funny story in a few years.”
He shook his head in defeat, “I give up. You are as bad as she is. No wonder you two have been so damned happily married that it makes the rest of us sick for twenty years. You are just alike.”
“Thank you, commander. That is quite a compliment,” his friend smiled.
“Just open the damned door.”
Samuel followed orders as always. He gently placed the still sleeping little girl into her pink booster seat and fastened the straps that would keep her safe. Turning back to Daniel, he took one of the sleeping toddlers and repeated the action. Daniel walked around to the other side of the car, his load lightened. He opened that door and placed a sleeping Britney in the seat next to Ashley.
“Howdy, ma’am. I’m Samuel Jackson, his best friend, and N-C-O.”
“Hello, Samuel. I’m Jill…” Words hung in the air as if she searched for an explanation for her presence.
“Don’t worry. He knows the rest, and his damned meddling wife has a lot to answer for in this whole damned situation,” Daniel responded.
Turning towards Samuel, Jill spoke. “This situation, as he calls it, isn’t anyone’s fault except my own. Please don’t blame your wife for anything.”
Daniel growled as he clicked the seat belt fastened. “Let’s get going.” Taking his friend’s hand in his own, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Samuel joked with a salute.
Jill tried not to stare at the sleeping heads. Bel with her blond curls and thumb stuck between full pink lips could have been a child model for books and movies. The babies, too, were beautiful. It was not the first time in the past couple of years that Jill felt her heart and womb brooding for children. But it was following those feelings that had gotten her into this mess, to begin with. “Where’s Jess?” She asked with familiarity before she could stop herself.
“She’s staying the night with Sam and Simone. Their daughter, Althea, is her best friend,” he frowned as he kept his eyes straight ahead on the road.
“I know. They have been since they were babies. Born on the same day at the same hospital and inseparable ever since,” she practically quoted the emails that she had reread time and time. She watched a dark scowl deepen on the man’s handsome face.
“I’m sorry. I keep forgetting that it wasn’t you that wrote all those things. It must seem strange for me to know so much about you and the girls while you know practically nothing about me.” She played nervously with her hands in her lap as they pulled into another driveway, a house not that different from the other one. “Can I help?” she asked as he turned off the engine.
“Sure, if you get Bel. Then I can manage Ashley and Britney,” he replied, palming the keys as he opened the car door.
Jill opened her door and stepped into the night air. “I can smell the beach,” she said in surprise. It was oddly comforting somehow — a reminder of the seaside town where she and David had lived for so long.
He smiled, the moonlight played across his features, softening them. “The beach is less than a mile from here.” He unbuckled the babies from their car seats.
Jill breathed deeply as she opened the door on her side of the car and unfastened the complicated mechanism that held the sleeping child safely. Her heart caught in her throat as she lifted the Bel. The little girl was a reminder of what she had always missed. A daughter, how she had longed for one. It was what kept them trying, but it had always been sons. Not that she did not love her boys, but there was something so different about how this tiny treasure felt in her arms.
The thought evoked memories of another little girl and all they had done to try and protect her. She sent a silent prayer to heaven that it had not all been in vain as she lifted this other child in her arms, “Shhh, baby girl, you’ll be in your bed with the dream fairies soon.” The child stirred against her shoulder, cuddling closer against the cold night air. Jill felt the tears burning the back of her eyes and pushed them away as she fell into step behind the man. By the time she reached the door, he had unlocked it with a baby in each arm.
“Follow me. We’ll put Bel in her bed first. You can sleep in the nursery. I brought a bed in there for my mother. I’m sure she would have changed the sheets and gotten everything ready for you.”
She recognized the voice of command in his tone. She was confident that no one dared disobey this man, and as weary as she was, she certainly had no desire to. Not that submission was not the most natural feeling to her anyway, but something about his tone only tightened the longing and sadness that was eating away at her gut. How damned easy it would have been to follow this man’s every command, to anticipate and fulfill his every need. She shook her head and sighed as she pushed those thoughts aside.
Instead, she simply nodded as she followed him down the dim hallway. He opened a door on the right with a sign that read, ‘Secret Ops, Keep Out.’ Inside were two twin beds. The left side of the room was utter chaos, with clothes, books, and sports equipment thrown about it. On the right side of the room, everything was pink and adorned with Barbie dolls. The centerpiece was the four foot high, three-story dollhouse; pink too, of course. Daniel did not have to tell her which bed belonged to Bel. The Barbie blanket announced its owner as Jill pulled it back and placed the sleeping little girl beneath its warmth. She pulled the covers up and could not stop herself from bending to place a kiss on the top of soft curls. “Sweet dreams, Bel.”
Standing and crossing the room, she held out her empty arms and took one of the sleeping babies. “Lead the way, commander,” she replied with another weak smile plastered on for effect.
Daniel nodded his head silently as he turned and walked back the way they had come, pausing before opening another door. Inside were two cribs and another twin bed. This one boasted a patchwork quilt with every color in the rainbow. He placed the sleeping baby in his arms in one crib and motioned for her to do the same in the other. Jill followed the unspoken order, although she was reluctant to release the softness and sweet baby smell that was her only comfort in this mess that she had made of her life.
“I’ll get your bags from the car. The bathroom is next door if you want a shower or anything. The girls will be up early, but we’ll try not to wake you. I know you must be exhausted from the flight and jet lag,” he said with polite stiffness.
“I’ll be fine. Thanks.” She was anxious for the man to leave so she could be alone with her thoughts. She needed to ponder what was next for her.
“Alright, then. Good night.” He paused just inside the doorway for a long moment as if tempted to say more, but then he simply turned and made a hasty retreat. Then he stopped, just outside as he turned back to her. “Jill, I honestly am sorry about all this. You seem like a nice lady. I’m sure any man would be lucky as hell to have you as a wife.”
Jill could hear the sympathy in his voice. It only deepened the rejection that she felt at the moment. She nodded silently as she turned away before he could see the tears glistening in her eyes. She did not need or want this man’s pity.