Solid Ground

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Chapter 7

Jill wiped Britney’s face. The baby giggled, revealing the dimple in her left cheek.

“You are a cheeky little monkey, sweetheart,” she tickled the baby’s side.

Ashley began to whimper uncharacteristically in her high chair. “Alright, sweetie, you’re next. Just let me get your sister’s hands clean,” she ran the damp cloth across the baby’s hands as well. She placed Britney on the kitchen floor, which she had just swept. The baby crawled towards the box of toys in the corner.

“Your turn now, angel.” She reminded herself once more not to get too attached to the babies, but over the past couple of days, it was a fight that she feared she had already lost. The girls, even sulking Jess, had been a delight. Jill had played dolls and read books with Bel. She had also attempted to engage Jess in conversation about soccer with some limited success. The tween had grudgingly admitted that she knew quite a bit about the sport ‘for an old lady.’

But it was the twins for whom the fight was the hardest. She had insisted that Daniel allow her to care for the babies while she was here. After all, it was the least she could do to repay his hospitality. It had been over twenty years since she cared for babies. She had forgotten the softness, the warmth, and the unconditional love that they exuded.

She would miss it when she left this place, but she had come to a decision. She was going to purchase an older car and begin her tour of America. Even her limited funds would get her quite a ways if she camped out and stayed in hostels, where possible. Besides, she could always pick up money in any café that had a help wanted sign. If she felt a bit let down by her decision, there was not much she could do now. It was the best of her options.

“All done, my girls,” she pronounced as she placed Ashley on the floor. She promptly tottled straight to where her sister sat playing with a plastic worm. Jill used the damp cloth to clean the high chairs. She tried hard to keep thoughts of him from invading her mind.

***

Daniel growled as he tossed the paper upon a growing pile on the coffee table. How hard could it be? Finding one qualified, responsible, and caring person to look after four girls. But over the past couple of days, it was as daunting a mission as any he had ever undertaken. This one was too old to manage four active girls. That one too inexperienced. This one too strict and unloving. That one too lenient. This one didn’t speak enough English. That one didn’t drive.

He growled again in utter frustration as Jill entered the room. He stood up and took the heavily laden tray that she carried. “Here, let me help you with that.”

She handed it over with a smile, “I just thought you could use some lunch. How’s the search going for a nanny?”

“Finding terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan is easier,” he replied weakly.

“I hope you find the right person.” She turned to leave with another of those weak smiles that did not reach her eyes.

What he would give for even one of the genuine ones that caused the fine lines around those bright green eyes to crinkle just a bit at the corner. But those seemed to be reserved for his daughters. Playing Barbies with Bel or laughing at the latest antics of the twins, even talking soccer with Jess. Never for him. Polite nervousness reigned, but then again, he supposed it was a two-way street. The situation made them both uncomfortable. What the hell was his mother and Simone thinking, he asked himself for the thousandth time.

“How about you? Any word from your cousin?” he continued the polite charade.

“Actually, I’m thinking about buying a used car and just hitting the road,” she stopped in the doorway.

She was wearing some sort of long dress that was stylish this year. It should have hung formlessly about her body, but the way that its deep v-cut neckline framed her breasts begged to have his hands brush it aside, freeing the ample swell beneath. And it did nothing to hide the gentle sway of her hips either. The damned thing was a new form of torture. One, he was not sure he could withstand for much longer. So, her words should have brought relief, instead of the sudden welling of panic that rose from deep inside his gut. He frowned at the thought, “Isn’t that a bit dangerous for a woman alone?”

Jill shook her head, “I’ll manage…probably better than you will if that stack of papers is the reject file.” She gestured towards what was, in fact, the reject pile.

“Thanks a lot for the reminder.” His laughter filled the room as she headed back into the kitchen to make some other delightful concoction for dinner. Patting his tummy, ‘I’d better get back to the field soon, or I’m going to be out of regulation with that woman’s cooking.’ A low moan came from his lips as he bit into the thick sandwich rich with beef left over from the night before and a dressing that was unlike anything he had tasted before.

“Damn, that woman can cook,” he said around a large bite.

Why was it that in the hundreds of resumes he had read and a dozen interviews, there was not a single woman to be found that could cook, clean, and take care of the girls like this one had? She stepped off the plane and simply took over, making everything look easy. His brows furrowed deep with thought as he finished off the sandwich.

***

Jill washed the pot as she stared out the kitchen window. The street was bustling with young families out for walks and bike rides. In the middle of summer, the sun would not go down for another couple of hours. The house was quiet, too quiet. Jess had asked to visit Althea, and Bel was with the little girl next door. It reminded her for the moment of her lonely existence back in London. A solitude that she would be forced once again to embrace all too soon.

But just outside, it seemed as if the world mocked her emptiness. From the window, she could see the commander entertaining the twins in the wading pool. The man looked way too good in khaki shorts and a t-shirt. Not as good as in those white boxers, of course. Turning to wipe down the table, she reminded herself not to ogle the man. She finished off with sweeping and damp mopped the floor underneath the high chairs.

She pondered what to do now. She could watch some television she supposed. She had always been partial to American shows. Crime dramas were her favorites. She could almost hear David’s laughter when he accused her of studying up so that she could off him for his pension the moment he retired, and they moved to Spain. She inhaled deeply as if to hold onto the precious memories that were slipping further and further from her each day.

With a slight shake of her head to send the ghosts away, she headed into the living room. She stopped just inside the doorway. A picture caught her eye. It was a family portrait. The commander and a devastatingly beautiful blond woman with a much younger Jess. The other little girl must be Bel, but she could not have been much older than the twins were now. They were all giggling in the picture as Daniel and the girls attempted to tickle the woman, Rachel.

Jill had spent the past two years working in a day center for people with mental health issues. She had even received some basic counseling training. She knew people who suffered from depression. She had even known a couple, who had attempted suicide. The laughing blue eyes that looked at her from that picture showed no signs of sadness. Certainly not of depression so deep that it would drive her to take her own life.

Of course, she understood that many with depression masked. Then too, this photograph was taken years before the woman’s death. Had Post Partum Depression after the birth of the twins been the culprit? Still, the woman had so much to live for. Rubbing her finger across the glass, she whispered her thoughts aloud, “Why?”

“If I knew that don’t you think I would have done something…anything to stop her,” came the deep growl of a wounded animal behind her.

She jumped, startled by his presence. The man seemed almost another ghost, moving about without making the least bit of noise. She was confident it was a skill that made him very good at his job, but it made her more than a little uncomfortable. “I’m sorry.” It was a weak and inadequate response, she knew that, but it was all she had to offer to the hurt and defensive tone of his voice.

“I need to get some more towels. The other ones are wet. Would you mind going outside with the girls?” he commanded in a flat, cold tone that brooked no disobedience.

Jill nodded and brushed past him as she headed outside. It was clear from his tone that she had overstayed her welcome, prying, as it were, into things that were not her business. But it was hard for her to disconnect from the girls. From him and the pain that he wore like his uniform. And each day she stayed, it would only get harder. Her resolve grew firmer; she had to get out of here - before it was too late.

As if to validate her thoughts, she caught his smell, soap and man, nothing more. It was intoxicating. It washed across her senses like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. If she did not leave soon, this man would be her undoing.

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