Solid Ground

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Chapter 6

Jill stared at the computer screen. She had written and re-written the email to her cousin three times. Drawing a deep breath, she shook her head. “The truth is, Jill, you just don’t want to go back to Houston,” she announced to the empty room.

She had also responded to emails from her youngest son Darren and her former boss. Both were worried about the suddenness of her trip. She was too. ‘A little too late, my girl.’ She opened another browser window and checked the status of her AmeriCorps’ application. Still pending.

In desperation, she checked the prices of unlimited bus travel. A two-month ticket would cost her six-hundred dollars. What then? Why didn’t they sell tickets good for a whole year? A lifetime even. It wasn’t like she had anything to go back to.

Jill fought back the tears. Things had been hard after David died. Some nights, missing him was so deep that it physically hurt, like someone had driven a knife into her gut and ripped out a piece of her. But they had one another. She and the boys against the world it seemed sometimes. They had kept one another going, her and her little Marines.

Now it was just her. Staring at the picture of her sons that was her screen saver, she reminded herself that was how it was supposed to be. Children grew up. They started lives of their own. Her sons had done particularly well. All were successful in one way or another.

The weight of the last couple of years pressed upon Jill’s shoulders. It felt as if this load was more oppressive than any she had faced before. Loss and death hung about her as she looked into the unknown. She recognized that the problems were not more significant than the ones she had faced in the past, but there was no one to share the weight of the burden this time. It all just seemed too much.

***

Daniel felt like an intruder in his own home. He did not know how long he had stood in the doorway to the nursery, watching the woman. Jill, he reminded himself. She had a name, but somehow it was easier to think of her as ‘the woman.’ The impersonal nature of it offered protection.

He did not want to like her. Admire her gumption, as his dad would call it. But whether it was the delights of waking to the smell of the world’s best pancakes, the natural way that she had with his daughters, or simply her full figure that had his hands itching to cup and feel things that he ought not to even think about, he could not seem to get her out of his mind.

He called a halt to his musings. Nothing could come of it. She came here to get married, and that was one thing he swore at Rachel’s grave-side he would never do: subject another helpless woman to his failings as a husband.

He reminded himself that he had come here with a purpose. Clearing his throat to warn her of his presence, “Jill, I’m going to take the girls down to the park to watch Jess practice. Would you like to join us?”

When she looked up from the computer screen, he could see the unshed tears glistening in her bright green eyes. He had no idea what to say or do to help her. The deep stabbing pain in his gut was a reminder that he hated tears. He was no good at stopping them. Why should this time be any different?

With a lame brush of her hands across her face, she offered a weak smile, “Practice what?”

“Soccer. Football, I guess you would call it,” he tried an inviting smile.

“Actually, I don’t. That was one of those Americanisms that I hung onto. It used to drive David and our boys mad sometimes,” she laughed. Its warmth seemed to burrow deep into his mind.

“Wow, you are a brave woman. Calling football soccer in England? I’m surprised the Queen herself didn’t boot you right out of the country,” he chuckled. It felt good. Genuine mirth had been missing from his life for a very long time.

“What can you say? Some things are worth fighting for, and the truth is one of them,” she shrugged and returned his weak smile with a matching one of her own.

He felt something inside him shift at her words. How many times had he used similar ones to encourage and motivate his men? This woman truly possessed that most elusive of human traits…depths of the soul. He fought back the sudden urge to ask about other things worth fighting for. Reminding himself once more that this was all just a temporary situation, he repeated the invitation, “So, you want to come with us?”

“Sure, it’s been a couple of years since I watched the theatrics of kids kicking a ball around.”

“More drama on the sidelines. Don’t know about England, but around here, all the action is with the parents.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about them. Or at least, we all try to. I’ll just grab a jumper,” she said, reaching for a sweater from the suitcase at the foot of the bed.

“Sweater,” he reminded her. “We’ll see you in the car then. Five minutes? I have to round up the troops.”

He found himself whistling an old tune as he walked back down the hall. Why did her agreement to go with them to the practice matter? Why did his gut knot a bit in excitement at the prospect of spending more time with her? Why did this woman elicit responses in him that he thought long dead, needs he wanted desperately to deny? It was probably a good thing that she would be leaving in a few days because one thing he was confident about - his track record with women sucked.

He stopped cold just outside of the nursery as the name of the tune suddenly came to him. He should have recognized it from the beginning. How many times growing up had he watched as his father came in from the fields, dusty and tired, to wrap his arms about his mother and draw her close for a hug as he sang it? The words of the old Elvis tune came rushing unbidden to his mind. ‘Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you.’ Daniel closed his eyes as he gripped the door frame and tried to push it all away.

***

Jill screamed again as she watched the children race down the field. The black and white ball danced in front of Jess as she approached the goal. Jill held her breath as the girl swung her leg in an arc that would do David Beckham proud.

“Yes,” she yelled at the top of her lungs. Her arms flung up in the air, the universal symbol of a goal.

She looked down the sideline to Daniel and the girls. Just to check that they had not missed the action as they stood in line to purchase drinks and food. She was rewarded with Daniel’s conspiratorial grin and wink. She held her thumbs up in response. Her heart pounded more quickly against her ribs. “Ares,” she whispered beneath her breath at the sight of his dark head bent near Bel’s blond as if planning a military campaign rather than merely ordering snacks.

“You are as perfect for them as we thought you might be.”

Jill was startled by the heavily accented voice that came from behind her. She turned to the woman, whom she recognized from the night before. Her hair hung in dark braids to her shoulders, and large golden hoops dangled like wind chimes from her ears. She wore jeans that clung to her round figure and did not attempt to hide the extra pounds her short frame carried. She wore the team t-shirt that stretched so tightly across her chest that Jill feared it would burst.

“I’m Simone Jackson. You met my husband, Samuel, last night,” the woman said as she held out a pudgy hand that was covered with half a dozen or more gaudy rings.

Jill shook it and returned the smile. “I hope you didn’t get into any trouble. He and Daniel seem to blame you for…”

“Nuttin’ I can’t handle, girlfriend,” Simone cut her off before she could finish the sentence.

“Why do they blame you?” Jill could not hold back the question. Something about this woman made her want to open up, to share. It was not something that she had felt since Ubah’s death. It was something that she missed almost as much as she did her sons and husband.

“Because you is all my doin’,” the woman replied simply, her dark eyes never leaving the game on the field.

Jill screwed her face into a scowl. “What do you mean…all your doing? I thought Daniel’s mother wrote those emails.”

Simone’s face lit up as she continued, “She did. But whose idea did you think it was to look on the internet in the first place? Dat sweet ole’ woman didn’t even know what email was until I showed her. No, it was me dat be helpin’ the stars along wid dis one,” she said proudly.

Jill had to laugh. Despite the pride that she heard in the woman’s voice, it was evident that fate had a strange sense of humor. “I hate to tell you this, but the stars made a mistake.”

Simone frowned. “De stars never make no mistakes. Only people make mistakes.” Her dark eyes turned towards Daniel, who had been joined in line by her Samuel. “Sometimes people can fight what’s good for dem, but make no mistake. De stars is always right.”

Jill shifted uncomfortably on the metal bleacher as she tried to change the subject. “Which island do you come from? I can hear the West Indian accent but can’t figure out where it comes from.”

“West Indian. I haven’t heard dat word in years. Around here, they call it Caribbean,” she said. “Montserrat,” she answered with another of those smiles that made Jill want to believe in her and her crazy stars.

“How long have you been here?” Jill asked, trying to keep the conversation to safe topics.

“Since I was six years old.”

Jill drew her head back in shock. “Sorry, I just thought that with an accent like that, you hadn’t been here long.”

“Oh, that. It is just useful,” Simone explained in perfect English. “I do readings on the side. People are just more inclined to believe in the arts when they hear the accent.” She nudged Jill, “Besides, de men can’t resist a good-lovin’ Caribbean woman.”

Jill cackled out loud. The laughter felt as if the weight of the world had lifted from her shoulders. Genuine joy danced within her for the first time in a very long time.

“Dare I ask?” the deep voice caressed her skin like velvet. Jill immediately stopped laughing and sat up straight. She stiffened at the words whispered from behind, just inches from her ear. So close that she could feel his warm breath against the side of her face.

“I was just talkin’ wid my new friend,” Simone responded, looking at Daniel and her husband. Both men stared at her as if neither believed her profession of innocence for a single minute.

New friend, Jill considered the words. A dark look crossed her face, and her eyes misted a bit as she remembered her best friend. As much as she wanted to cling to the woman’s casual proclamation, she knew she could not. Her best friend Ubah was dead, and she would not be around long enough for any real friendship to develop with this lively character. She was as alone as she felt at that moment.

Daniel took a seat on the metal bleacher next to her. “Your nachos,” he said as he passed her the plastic bowl piled high with chips, chili, and cheese. “Extra jalapenos, just like you wanted.”

Jill focused on living in the moment as she took the cardboard box from his hand, careful to avoid even the slightest brush of fingertips. Live in the moment and enjoy small luxuries that her quarter of a century exile across the pond had long denied her, like the smell of melted nacho cheese and fresh corn tortilla chips.

“It’s nice hearing them called hal-e-pen-yos and not jal-e-pen-yos,” she said as she brought a chip dripping with the orange cheese and piled high with the small green circles of pepper to her lips.

“What?” Daniel asked.

“Just another of the odd things they say,” she moaned after biting into the delicacy that never tasted quite the same in England. “Damn, that is good.”

“You love your food.”

His tone was flat, casual, but there was nothing casual about the tightness that his words brought to her throat or the tears that gathered in the corner of her eyes, tears that had nothing to do with the heat of the peppers that burned her mouth. Tears that had everything to do with the bad script of insults running in her mind at the reminder.

She stopped with cheese dripping off the next chip, poised inches from her mouth. She looked at her full figure. His words stung as if he had slapped her. “I might not be a size zero model, but I’m not exactly fat either,” she replied defensively.

Daniel shook his head. “I’m sorry. I did not mean it like that at all.” His voice was almost a whisper. He stared down at his hands that she noticed were clenched nervously.

She regretted her harsh words. She did not know this man. It was not his words that caused the sharp pain near her heart. Not his fault. And she had no right to make him feel bad about something so inconsequential. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so sensitive,” she apologized as she sat the bowl of chips down next to her. It suddenly no longer tasted quite the same.

He looked back up and gave her another of those half-smiles that she was coming to suspect meant he was as uncomfortable with this situation as she was. It was a camaraderie of sorts. “It’s kind of nice,” he replied with a blush that forced pink to his ears.

Simone broke in then, saddling her robust bosoms up against her husband’s arms. “That’s right — just more of us for the lovin’. Ain’t dat right, Sammy? More cushion for da pushin’.”

Everyone laughed at her forthright words. Even as her husband blushed and slapped lightly at her bottom. “Watch your mouth around the kids, woman.”

Jill turned back to watch the game before anyone could see the tears that still glistened in her eyes. It was not his fault. It was not his words that ricocheted through her mind at night. “What man could possibly want you? You’re fat, and what’s more, you don’t even try to take care of yourself.”

***

Daniel ushered Jessica towards the car. He could see Jill struggling with the fastener on Bel’s booster seat. It was the soft curve of her backside that stuck out of the car door that led his mind and his body down some old and familiar pathways. He felt his cock stir in his jeans and reminded himself of his vow. This woman was off-limits. All women were.

The whiny voice of his forever petulant pre-teen brought him back to reality quickly enough. “Who is she anyway?” Jess demanded sullenly, dragging her equipment bag, even as she dragged her feet.

He searched for the right answer. Jess would not be satisfied with the simple solution of a ‘nice lady’ that Bel had. Of course, the babies needed no explanation, just cuddles and pancakes. This one clearly demanded more tact, a more substantial reason, but without revealing the whole sordid mess. He sought for such a response for a moment before answering. “She’s a friend of gran’s, who is going to help out until I can find a nanny,” he assured himself it was not a complete lie.

His daughter scowled, “We don’t need no one. I told you I can manage. I took care of the babies when mom was…” Words hung in the air. “I took care of the others even when she was alive.”

Daniel felt the knife to his gut. “I know, sweetie, but you shouldn’t have to.” Guilt nibbled at his heart. How had he not seen how bad things had become those last couple of years? Alright, he had always known that Rachel was not the domestic type. His beautiful wife had never reformed from the spoiled, rich party girl that she had been when they met. But the house was always passable, the girls clothed and fed, even if it was mostly take-out. How long had Jess been bearing the burden that was never hers, he wondered now?

He hit the button on his key ring. The click told them that the glass window on the back of the car was open. Jess was still pouting as she tossed her gear bag into it. He noticed that Jill had finally conquered the cursed fastener. She was now rising to her full stature, a triumphant look upon her face. That smile did as many funny things to his gut, and lower, as her bottom or those full breasts. Of course, his gaze would have to travel to where they strained against the jumper, as she called it. Cold shower. He needed a cold shower when they got home.

“Jessica, this is Jill,” he said by way of introduction. “Jill, the sulking pre-teen is my daughter, Jessica.” He offered apologetically.

The woman extended her hand towards his oldest daughter. “It’s nice to meet you, Jess. Your grandmother told me a lot about you. But not how good a soccer player you are. That goal was magnificent.”

The young girl looked at the ground. “Yeah. Whatever,” she mumbled as she held open the door.

Jill climbed in first and buckled the seat belt. Jess took the seat on her right, next to the window. She promptly pulled out her phone and plugged it into her ears. Daniel climbed into the driver’s seat. His legs brushed against Jill’s as he folded his tall frame into the car.

He had forgotten how packed and intimate even his Explorer could be. He tried to remember the last time that Rachel had gone with them on one of their family outings. But he failed. Those last couple of years, she had begged off so many things. She said that she needed some time alone, but he had always wondered.

There was nothing he could do about the past, as much as he might like to. Turning the key, he smiled at his girls. “Next stop home.”

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