Solid Ground

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Chapter 8

Daniel sat on the back steps. He could hear Jill singing a lullaby to the twins. Her voice was horrid. Each note flatter and more off-key than the last. At least she wasn’t perfect.

How could someone insinuate themselves so entirely into his family in just a few days? But this woman had. Whether it was her cooking that was definitely putting weight on him and the girls, the easy way that she managed the house, multi-tasking until everything and everyone shone bright and clean, or the relaxed and genuine love and care that she gifted on each of his girls, love and care that made him a bit jealous and ache for even a smidgeon of her affections; this woman fit. Fit into their lives like a missing puzzle piece.

If she left now, he knew that Bel would be devastated. The two of them had formed a close bond, playing dolls for hours as the babies crawled about. It had made him realize exactly how badly his middle child was starved for feminine attention, taking her mother’s death and emotional abandonment more deeply than he had known. The twins, too, had taken to the woman, although they were easier to please; milk, food, clean diapers, and a few toys, anyone could be their friend.

Of course, Jess would probably be happy to see her go, but he could sense that even she was melting just a bit, responding to the interest that Jill showed to her activities, especially soccer. Given time, he was sure that she would come to accept the woman, who had taken a bit of the burden her young shoulders were too thin to manage alone.

“What about you, buddy? You happy to see the woman go?” he asked the darkness. Besides the obvious, cooking, cleaning, and the genuine care that she showed his girls, he admitted that there was something else about her. The few conversations that they had the past few days had been both oddly awkward and comfortable. The combination was decidedly unusual. Comfortable might seem an odd word in this situation, but he was not accustomed to conversations with women that were anything other than contentious, angry even.

When he had seen Jill looking at that picture, it had been a reminder of one thing; his vow and what a miserable failure he was as a husband. How could he have not seen the depression? Oh, he knew that Rachel was not happy with their life. She made that damned clear. He had thought that they might even get a divorce, but he never had for a moment thought she would commit suicide.

‘Why’ had haunted his life for most of the past seven years and probably would for the rest of his life. It was not an easy enemy to confront. He knew that from his career as well as his marriage. The burdens he bore as a leader weighed as heavily, sometimes, as these: the lost lives, the mistakes, the what-ifs, and should-haves.

But this failure as a husband was a different kind of burden. Why had he not seen the truth? Why had Rachel thought everything so hopeless that she would leave the girls? Him, he could understand. They had long since stopped loving one another. The Navy and his country, his mistresses and true loves, as she had accused thousands of times over the years.

And Rachel was never one to play second fiddle to anyone. She craved center stage like the spoiled, youngest child of the wealthy family that she was. He chuckled almost fondly; she would have been at home on one of those television reality shows where all the women did was shop and go to parties. She certainly was not cut out for the long absences and responsibilities that marriage to a Navy SEAL brought with it. Even though Simone and some of the other wives had reached out to her, Rachel had never really fit in with this lifestyle that required self-sacrifice.

His senses trained over the years to be at constant alert, he heard the creak of the screen door as it opened. Silence hung in the crisp, clean air, the slightly musky smell of the ocean carried on the light breeze that cooled the summer night. The whole thing wrapped about them like a snug blanket, setting the stage for what he knew would not be an easy conversation.

The woman stood in the doorway as if uncertain how to proceed. It was a feeling that he could sympathize with at the moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were out here.”

“The girls asleep?” He lifted the bottle of lukewarm beer to his lips. She nodded as she turned back to go inside. “Don’t go.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she shifted nervously from one foot to the other. The movement caused those gorgeous tits to bounce just a bit within the tight confines of her dress. He fought to lead his mind away from that dangerous path. If this was going to work, he had to stop having those kinds of thoughts about the woman. About Jill.

He sighed and cleared his throat before launching into the unknown. “I was going to come looking for you anyway. There is something I wanted to discuss.”

***

Jill reluctantly took a seat on the step next to him but declined the bottle of beer when he passed it to her with a polite excuse, “Never liked the stuff. More of a wine girl.”

He nodded and brought the bottle back up to his lips. His profile shone proudly in the soft moonlight. Up close, she could see the fine lines around his eyes, lines drawn by time and responsibility. He was a man with plenty of those that was for certain.

Jill clasped her hands in her lap to keep from reaching up and touching his beard. What would it feel like? Would it be as soft as it looked? His dark brown hair, too, was longer than she was accustomed to. She knew, of course, that the U.S. military had loosened its once stringent regulations on such things. Fitting in with local cultures and camouflage were more important than tradition.

Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered David in his dress uniform. Hair cut short in keeping with customs, his olive cheeks shaved clean. Even after seven years, it still hurt a bit to remember the man that had been her first lover, best friend, and husband for almost twenty years.

But the past was not something she could change. And while her future might not be the one she had dreamt of, it would be one of her choosing. She watched this man in silence as he lowered the empty bottle, resting it on his knees. Resolve welled up inside of her. “So, what did you want to talk about?”

“Are you serious about buying some old clunker and just going?” His words stung. While it might not seem the most logical option to someone like him, or even to most people, Jill had always been someone who followed her heart.

If it had not worked on this particular occasion, it had when she had given up her home and country to follow a man she loved. Their happy marriage and the four sons they had produced attested to her instincts. Still, his words made her feel defensive. “Is it any of your damned business?”

“Yeah, it’s my mother’s fault you came on this damned wild goose chase, to begin with. So, hell yeah, I’d feel like shit if anything happened to you. I have enough fucking blood on my hands as it is.” He sat tall and straight as a board as he stared straight ahead at the moon as if seeing ghosts that were not there.

Jill fought the urge to wrap her arms about those broad shoulders that bore more pain and responsibility than any human ought. His pain was one she knew well. One she had battled for almost twenty years, one she ached to try and soothe in him as she once had in David. If things had been different, she thought. But they were not. He had made his choice. He did not want to risk hurt or share the burdens that he carried. And she would do well to remember that.

“Well, don’t worry about me, Commander. I’m a big girl.” She stood and turned to leave. There was no point in continuing this conversation. It would only deepen the pain of rejection that she was already feeling. The might-have-beens that haunted her dreams as she slept in the bed just across the hall from him each night. It was a pain she had no right to feel at all.

His hand grabbed hers. She could feel the callouses as they rubbed against her palm. She froze at the heat. Her heart stuttered in her chest with an old familiarity. She shook herself as for a moment she too felt ghosts pass over this place, even if for her, they brought comfort. Something she doubted this man had felt in a very long time.

“No, please don’t go,” he pleaded. “I always screw these things up.” His other hand ran across his face as he sighed deeply.

The battle waged in her mind. She knew that she ought to run, seek out the safety of the room that she shared with the twins. Pull up the edges of the quilt that seemed made with such loving care, and try to forget this man, the girls, and the longings of her betraying heart.

But the quiet strength of this man touched a part of her that she thought long since dead. A portion of her that ached to soothe and comfort just as much as she would his crying twins. It had been a long time since she felt that protective of a man. In the end, it was not his words that she responded to, but the unspoken needs that they hid. She returned to her seat next to him. Their thighs brushed against one another once more.

“You know I’ve been looking for a nanny,” he said after a long moment of silence that was punctuated with only the lonesome song of the crickets. Jill simply nodded. If a friendly ear was all he sought from her, it was certainly something that she would offer freely. “It isn’t going as well as I hoped.”

“I’m sorry for the girls’ sake and yours,” Jill knew that her voice carried the genuine concern that she felt inside. David had always said she wore her heart on her sleeve. It was a characteristic that did not always serve her well.

“I was thinking. You are good with them. The house is cleaner than it has been in…ever. And your cooking is amazing. You don’t have any place to go or anything.” Jill frowned at his last words. They seemed so cold and logical as if a computer were analyzing the situation and calculating the best possible outcomes based upon nothing more than strings of zeroes and ones.

It reminded her of how different they were. The man who followed his sense of duty and the woman who followed her heart. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I?” he asked when he saw her looking up at the moon once more.

“Yes, you are, commander. Are you saying that you have reconsidered the marriage idea?” She inquired, trying to keep the note of hope from her voice.

Daniel drew back as if scalded with hot water. “No, God, no.”

Jill fought back the tears. His words cut across her like a bayonet. Feeding insecurities that she thought were buried. Of course, a guy like him would never be interested in someone that looked like her. She sat in stunned silence.

“What I’m trying to ask is…would you consider staying as our nanny?” he finished with a deep sigh.

Jill thought that she had grown immune from rejection over the past year. But his proposition was so much less than what she had once hoped that it was impossible not to draw back from the pain. Pain, she would not let him see. She gathered her words carefully about her like a Kevlar vest to protect her heart from word bombs.

“Daniel, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. As I said in an email, I had considered the possibility of caring for other people’s children, but I don’t want to become attached to them and then have to move on.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. The girls adore you. Well, except for Jess, but she’s just a typical teenager. I can see that you already care for them. This could work. I know it could,” he tried almost desperately to convince her.

“No, Daniel, it couldn’t. Your job is dangerous. We both know that. What if something happened to you? I know from personal experience that the military isn’t exactly kind to its widows and orphans. But at least the boys and I had one another. A nanny has no legal standing… whatsoever,” she punctuated the last word.

She hesitated to say more. She realized that she knew far more about this man, his daughters, and even his marriage than he realized. But for some reason, she needed him to understand why it could never work. “I know that Rachel’s sister has already tried to get custody of those girls once. If something…” she trailed off slowly.

The familiar tightness squeezed her heart until she found it almost impossible to breathe. She recognized that feeling, knew it well. It was fear. The fear that all military families learned to live with every time their soldiers faced another deployment. But what shocked her was how strongly it gripped her. She shook her head. She had no right. It did not make sense.

But she would examine those feeling another time when she was long gone from this place and this man. For now, she needed to make him understand how impossible what he asked was. Impossible for all of them. “If anything happened, I wouldn’t stand a chance as the hired help. So, no, Daniel, the answer is no,” she answered with finality, as she stood and turned back towards the house. The slamming of the screen door punctuated her remarks in the dark, silent night.

***

Daniel stared at the computer screen. His eyes hurt. He had barely slept at all last night. And when sleep did finally come, it was filled with images of lifeless blond bodies and cold, blue lips. The nightmare was a frequent visitor these past months. But this time, when he looked back, the dead form was not Rachel, but Jill.

He hated to admit it, but everything she had said last night made perfect sense. She was right. Even widows and children were rapidly erased from the minds of the country that they had served. And of course, even if he made a will giving her custody of his daughters, it would probably not be enough. A nanny would have little standing in a custody battle, especially when faced with the best lawyers money could buy. He knew just how vicious things could get, especially with his former sister-in-law.

He was a bit shocked that she knew about that, though. What else might she know about him and the girls was what had kept him up most of the night. He had pulled the piece of paper with the account name and password from his desk. He spent hours pouring over the emails that she had exchanged with his mother and Simone. He still was not anywhere near the end of them all. Over the weeks, there were hundreds. Two-hundred and twenty-seven to be exact. And those were just her responses.

He had finally given up trying to read them all around four in the morning. He might not know everything about this woman who had invaded their lives and home, but he was a man accustomed to making decisions based on limited intelligence. Decisions that could cost him and others’ lives. He knew enough to come to a decision.

He closed the laptop and stood. He knew where to find her. After she walked Jess and Bel to the bus stop and saw them off to school, her mornings were spent in the backyard as Ashley and Britney toddled and played on the plastic gym that had seen over a decade of proud service.

He held open the screen door. He saw them immediately, laughing and playing in the pool. Jill was wearing another knit dress that clung to her lush covers. The halter-style top accentuated those full breasts. He swore that he could see the dark outline of her nipples through the thin fabric. ‘Enough of that, buddy,’ he chided himself. This was not that sort of an arrangement.

Clearing his throat, he waited. Jill looked up with a smile plastered on her face. Britney giggled and splashed water on her dress. The knit material clung to her soft breasts. In self-defense, he turned his eyes towards Ashley as she waddled towards him. He lifted her into his arms when she reached the steps. Finding the woman sexually attractive would only complicate an already muddled situation.

Even with the decision made, his mind and his body were battling. He did not need this complication. It was not a duty that he was any damned good at. But it was the only choice. He dove in, knowing that he was probably messing this one up too. He forced the words out before he could second guess himself out of it. “Jill, are you still interested in this arranged marriage thing?”


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