Solid Ground

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Chapter 9

Rocky Road Brownies

Two boxes of store-bought brownie mix

2 eggs

Oil and water (follow the instructions on the box)

Marshmallows

Coconut

Nuts (walnuts, pecans or almonds work best)

Glazed cherries (cut into pieces)

Chocolate chips/chunks (dark or white both are brilliant)

Mix up the chocolate brownie mix as instructed on the box with water, oil, and eggs. Then stir in the other ingredients. You decide proportions based upon your tastes…like cherries then add lots of those, prefer nuts, then more of those. The only thing to be mindful of is not to add too many marshmallows, or the brownies will be runny and need to be eaten with a spoon. Pour mixture into a greased pan and bake in the oven at the temperature and timings on the box, give or take a few extra minutes for the marshmallows and chips to melt.

Jill stared at Daniel, completely frozen as Britney splashed and babbled. Her heart pounded out a Texas two-step that would tire even the most experienced dancer. She must have heard him wrong. “What, commander?” Her voice sounded needy and unsure even to her own ears, and she cursed herself for it.

Daniel walked across the yard, carrying his daughter. He stopped barely two inches from her. At five foot ten, she was not a small woman, but he towered over her. The gentleness with which he held his daughter warred with the strength that emanated from him like an aura. At this distance, she could almost feel the heat coming off his body.

“I asked…if you would do me the honor of being my wife?” he smiled nervously as he shifted the child from one arm to the other. “I suppose that sounds more like it.”

Jill shook her head in disbelief. After their conversation on the steps the night before, this was the last thing she was expecting. “Is this some joke? You said last night that you didn’t need or want a wife?”

“I still don’t want one.” He paused and stared off at the clouds for a moment. She felt at a distinct advantage. While those emails might not have come from him, she knew decidedly more about his life than perhaps he would wish. His hurts ate at her soul.

He cleared his throat before he began again, “Well, more like, I’m not very good husband material.”

Jill could feel the pain behind those words. She wanted nothing more than to reach out her hand and brush his cheek, reassure him. Tell him that everything would be alright. But despite everything, she barely knew this man. Those words in the emails were not his. And she had no real right to feel this way.

He smiled weakly as he looked back at the baby in his arms and then at her. “I admit defeat. What you said last night made perfect sense. I do need one. The girls need a mother.” Tickling Ashley softly, “And you’re damned good at it.” Rubbing his stomach, he chuckled, “Besides, lady, your cooking speaks for itself.”

Jill laughed. His words reminded her of one of her favorite old musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The hero fell instantly in love with his soon-to-be bride’s stew. She could only hope their road would be less rocky, but the tight knots in her stomach that grew with each passing heartbeat warned her that this path was not without its risks. His words were too practical, so much less than what she wanted, even given their situation. She stamped those doubts down, as Ubah had said, those things came with time.

Jill felt the tug on her dress. She looked down into Britney’s smiling face. Jill knew what her answer must be. If before her mother’s heart had missed the laughter, the noise, and even the fights that a house full of children brought, the past few days she had fallen for these girls, Daniel’s daughters. There were not just images on a computer screen anymore. They were small people with minds of their own. And he was right. They needed her.

Picking the wet little girl up, she nodded slowly. When she finally found the courage to speak, it was in a throaty and needy whisper, “Yes, please.”

***

Daniel spent the rest of the day making arrangements. From his perspective, there was no need to delay things. The sooner they handled the formalities, the better. He admitted he had practically bullied Jill into a quick wedding. Protesting that the girls needed stability, and he wanted to get back to the field. They were arguments he knew would strike at the core of her too soft heart. If some part of him felt a tad guilty that he had rushed her, that there would not be time for her sons to join them for the wedding, he dismissed those concerns in favor of expediency.

The truth was some part of him wanted things settled quickly, before the woman had second thoughts, saw how inadequate he truly was as a husband. Perhaps the real truth was that he wanted this thing over and done with before all of the ghosts that resided in his nightmares could override common sense, and what he knew was the best option.

He had called the chaplain first. After more than his fair share of funerals and memorial services, the man was delighted at the prospect of a wedding. If he was a bit shocked when Daniel suggested the next day, he did not say anything. It would be simple, just the two of them and the girls. A few of his men and their families, but nothing large and fancy. Not like that other one. He shook his head and forced his fingers back to the phone, these numbers on speed dial.

He phoned his mother first. He wondered how he would bring this one up as the phone rang.

“Hi, Mom,” he began when she picked up. “How are you and dad?”

He could hear the worry and tiredness in her voice, “Nothing new, really hon. Your dad is as stubborn as ever. The chemo is making him sick, and he is tired all the time. Of course, he can’t stand the fact that he isn’t able to manage the ranch. But we’ll make it through all right.”

Daniel shook his head as another layer of guilt was added to the pile. His parents needed him, or at least a son to run the family farm, not a soldier that had long since forgotten all he knew of cattle and horses.

“How are you and my girls? You had any luck finding a nanny?” There was a momentary pause, but before he could begin to explain, she asked, “Did Jill make it back to London? I am sorry, Daniel. I know you must still be mad at me, but all I can say is I was trying to do what I thought was best for you and those children. Will you forgive me?”

He sighed with relief, thankful that his mother was the first to mention Jill. It was the opening that he needed. “Actually, Mom, that’s why I’m calling. I wanted to let you know that we’re getting married.”

“You don’t sound pleased about it,” he could hear the worry in her voice ratchet up a couple of notches.

“It’s not that, Mom. Honestly, you were right. I spent days going through a stack of resumes and could not find a single qualified nanny. But from the moment Jill woke up that first morning, she just sort of,” he paused as he sought the right word. She just fit, but that was not something he could explain to his mother. In the end, he settled for, “She just sort of took over. I woke up to the smell of pancakes, and she had all the girls dressed and eating away merrily in the kitchen with her. She’d even told them not to wake me up.”

He could almost hear the smile in his mother’s voice when she spoke again, “Simone and I thought so. You know it wasn’t easy for us either. We looked through hundreds of profiles on dozens of those sites before we found hers. But something about her complete openness,” his mother sighed, and he could hear the rustle of tissue. He could almost see her reach into the pocket of her old house dress for a fresh one.

“I honestly am happy for you, sweetie. I know that you have been hurt, but I hope you will give her a chance. Sometimes friendship is the best place to start.”

Before Daniel could confide more, she replied, “I have to go, sweetie. The nurse is knocking, but we both love you, and I’ll share the good news with your father. I know it will make him as relieved as I am. We love you. Give my girls hugs and kisses from Grandma. Darnation, I’m coming. Give me a minute here,” she yelled at what must have been the nurse, or perhaps his father was cantankerous again.

Daniel wanted to keep her on the phone. Had hundreds of questions racing through his mind, needed his mother’s advice and guidance. And perhaps reassurance that he was making the right choice - this time.

But before he could say any of that, she was breathlessly back, “Honey, I do have to go but give Jill a big kiss for me too. Tell her I can’t wait to meet her. She truly is an amazing woman, but I guess you know that better than I do. This is the perfect solution, Daniel.”

“I know things were hard. You know, with Rachel, but Jill is nothing like that woman. Just give her a chance, baby, I think you will find the happiness that you deserve. If I didn’t, then Simone and I would have never sent that first email.”

Daniel nodded his head, a bit shocked that his mother had known precisely the words that he needed to hear the most. Knew each of his worries, and even amid the chaos and worry back home, she had taken the time to share those reassurances with him. “Thanks, Mom. I love you,” was all he could choke past the dry lump in his throat.

He stood listening to the dial tone for a moment after she hung up. His parents never ceased to amaze him. Forty-one or was it forty-two years now? Theirs was the fairytale happily ever after that had kept him from attorneys and the divorce court no matter how tough things got with Rachel.

He always reminded himself that they had seen rough times together. Floods, droughts, and blizzards that destroyed whole herds. The sorrow of a half dozen or more miscarriages as they tried to give him the baby brother or sister that was never to be. And now this demon called cancer. But they had made it through all that, together, as friends and lovers. That was the solid ground that he had always dreamt of.

Lovers. His mother’s other words echoed in his head. ‘Give Jill a big kiss.’ “Fuck,” he cursed. In less than twenty-four hours, he would stand before god and friends, and swear to love, honor, and cherish a woman that he had never even kissed. The idea left him shaking his head. Not that the idea of kissing Jill was all that horrid.

He smiled as images of her walking out of those doors at the airport, the gentle way that those jeans hugged and cupped her round bottom. His cock stirred to life in his jeans at the thought. But the image that fully awoke his body from its long slumber was the way that stupid dress had clung to her full breasts when Britney splashed water on it. Her nipples had hardened instantly from the cold water, although some part of him wanted to believe that part of it was in reaction to him, his presence.

But thirteen years of a lousy marriage, worse sex, and accusations that Rachel had flung about so easily had undermined his confidence as a man. If his wife was to be believed, all of their sexual problems were his fault. He shook his head as he picked up the phone again. He froze before it even reached his ear.

Sex. Was that a part of this deal that Jill had brokered with his mother and Simone at all? This was, after all, an arrangement for the children’s sake. One that gave them the mother they needed and Jill the family she missed. So, where the fuck did that leave him? Besides back in the field with his men, of course. It wasn’t like he had not already lived through a mostly sexless marriage, but damn, it was not something he wanted to do again.

He thought about pressing the redial button, but his mother was busy with his father and the nurse, besides he would not know exactly how to broach the subject with his mother. Not that his parents had ever been prudes. Public displays of affection were standard in the home where he grew up. Everything from the morning kiss that his father always gave her when he came in for breakfast after feeding the livestock to the playful swats that the man bestowed on his mother’s bottom from time to time. But asking his mother, ‘Oh, by the way, did you happen to discuss sex with Jill in those emails?’ was not something that he relished.

That led him to his other option and by far the hardest call to make, Samuel. Not Samuel really, but Simone. He knew that the woman would gloat. This would only fuel her meddling. But he also knew as her husband and his mother had said, she did not mean any harm. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number. Simone answered on the second ring.

“So, hot stuff, how it goin’ over there? Has Jill decided what she is doin’ yet?” Simone asked.

He considered taking the bull, well the heifer in this case, by the horns or udders, and asking Simone the question that was now plaguing his thoughts. But she would have enough to prance and preen about soon enough, he did not need to add fuel to the fire, or bonfire was more like it. “Is Samuel around?”

“Sure, out in the garage. Tinkering. Speaking of which, you been doing any tinkering lately?” she giggled.

“Simone,” he warned. He could hear her laughter as he waited for her to get his friend from his workshop in the garage.

“Hey, buddy, what’s up?” Samuel asked when he came on a moment later.

“Are you busy tomorrow?” Daniel stammered nervously, uncertain how to begin this conversation. Even more so than with his mother. For all her craziness or perhaps because of it, Samuel and Simone had the only other ‘perfect’ marriage that he had seen. After almost twenty years of marriage, only one cloud hung over their world.

“No plans. Just gonna putter around with some wood. Making Simone a new table for her readings.”

Daniel screwed up his courage, “I was wondering if you would be my best man.”

“What the fuck?” The voice on the other end faded, followed by a thump. Daniel waited a moment. Silence and then a squeal filtered through the phone. A distinctly feminine squeal at that. A moment later he heard his friend pick up the phone. “I’ll be right over.”

“Don’t bring,” but before Daniel could say Simone, the line went dead.

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