The Arrangement Ch. 02byTara_Neale©
Daniel awoke to the smell of pancakes. It took a moment for him to place where he was. It always did. His dreams were sometimes more vivid than reality, whether of smoke-filled battle fields or limp, lifeless blondes. This morning in particular the confusion hung over him. He ran a hand across his face as if to clear the cob webs from his brain.
Pancakes? His mother had not made pancakes since he was in kindergarten. Eggs, bacon, toast; sure, but not pancakes.
Then he remembered. The woman. Jill was her name. The events of the previous day came flooding back like lahar flow after a volcanic eruption. The woman had flown thousands of miles to marry him based upon emails he had not even written. The idea seemed ridiculous, but what little he had seen of the woman, she seemed anything but the flighty type of feminine creature he would expect to do something so...crazy.
Rolling over he looked at the digital clock on the nightstand next to his bed. Nine thirty-eight.
"What the fuck?" he spat. He never slept past oh-six-hundred. Not in years. Not even on vacation. It was programmed into his mind and body. His alarm clock was more for show than functionality.
The girls. What about them? Where were they? Worse yet, what had they gotten into? Even if she was up and cooking pancakes, the girls did not know Jill. How could she manage three children under the age of six and make breakfast?
Daniel's senses were immediately at attention, his mind racing with horrific images of disasters, each worse than the last. Three girls could cause more trouble than a terrorist cell.
He threw back the blankets and raced down the hall towards the kitchen, not even considering his attire.
Jill flipped another of the sweet breakfast treats in the small pan. This morning she had opted for the thicker American style batter that rose in the pan, a golden delight visually as well as its smell and taste.
Her brows creased in thought. It was amazing that two countries, which shared the same language and were in fact close relations, could have so many differences. She had barely been back in the United States for twelve hours and already she had run across at least a dozen different words or customs. Pancakes that were so thin you could see right through them seemed inconsequential in the grander scheme of things, especially in the bright morning light.
The mess that she had made of her life by hopping on the first plane available and coming three thousand miles to marry a stranger that was consequential.
"Bel, you ready for another?" She asked the little girl playing quietly at the table with a Barbie doll.
Turning around with another pancake poised on the spatula, she almost dropped the frying pan. The sight that greeted her gaze sent her heart into overdrive and pushed the air from her lungs.
Six foot plus of lean, muscular male filled the doorway between the kitchen and living room. His soft chocolate hair looked as if someone had just run their fingers through it. His matching beard was in disarray. His blue eyes held a sleepy, dream-like look that invited her mind to go places it should not.
Most disconcerting of all, he wore nothing more than a pair of basic military issue white boxer shorts. Jill's throat tightened further at the sight.
The man was beautiful. She knew that was not the correct word to use to describe this tough, macho-type men, but no other word fit. She thought of the Greek gods that she had read about in high school.
Ares, the god of war. The man before her was the modern day reincarnation of Ares.
She tried to ignore the rush of heat that coursed through her blood and pooled distinctly between her thighs, a wetness that begged to be relieved. She was a woman after all. Any woman would feel the same, she assured herself. She almost jumped from her skin at the girlish giggles which echoed off the kitchen walls.
"Daddy," Bel squealed. The twins, sitting in matching Winnie the Pooh high chairs, simply hit their messy hands against the white plastic trays that surrounded them.
"I hope the girls didn't wake you," he said in a deep husky voice that caressed her skin and sent electric shock waves skittering along her spine.
"I hope you don't mind," she fumbled waving her hands towards the counter top where eggs, flour, sugar and milk sat among drips of yellowish batter and white powder. "I suppose my body clock is still a bit off," she smiled by way of explanation.
"Mind? Lady, I woke to the smell of pancakes. Why the hell would I mind?" He paused and with a conspiratorial wink to Bel adding, "As long as there are some for me."
"Yes, Daddy. Jill saved you some. She said not to wake you up," the child explained through the gap where her front teeth had once been.
"I'll put some more on while you get dressed," Jill hinted as she turned back towards the low flame on the stove. The idea of sharing an intimate breakfast with him wearing nothing more than boxers might be appealing, but it was also more than a bit daunting given the misunderstanding that had resulted it her current uncertain future.
Still she doubted that the sight of this man in his bare feet and boxer shorts would quickly fade from her mind, if ever. More than likely her brain would file it away and bring it forth to haunt her erotic dreams in an empty bed for months and years to come.
"If you're sure the girls aren't bothering you," he questioned once more.
Jill giggled as she thought, 'It's not the girls that are bothering me, commander.' Over the last quarter century British politeness had taught her to keep such thoughts to herself. "We have everything under control, commander." She assured, careful to keep her back towards him and her eyes straight ahead. "You should go get dressed. Your pancakes will be ready in a couple of minutes." She would need that time to try and wipe his mostly naked form from her mind if she were to continue with polite indifference.
Daniel sat at the oval table that dominated the small kitchen with its yellowish walls. His fork was laden with thick layers of pancake. The rich, brown maple syrup dripped to his plate below. The truth was that the smell had not done justice to the woman's cooking. The pancakes were perhaps the best he had ever tasted.
"Want more?" the woman asked as she cleared Bel's plate from the table.
He shook his head. "I really shouldn't." He had already consumed at least half a dozen. Anymore and he would have to add an extra mile to his daily run.
He watched as she used a damp cloth to wipe Britney's hand. Ashley was content to shovel another bite-size piece of pancake into her mouth. Bel had run off to her room her Barbie doll in tow.
His eyes came to rest on the generous curves of the woman. Her jeans clung tightly to round hips. He stared in fascination. Where this woman was soft and generous, Rachel had always been more angular. Even during her three pregnancies, she had carefully watched each thing she ate, afraid to gain too much weight. After the births, she had spent hours in the gym. Her need to lose it all quickly was almost obsessional. Hell, Rachel had always been so small that some part of him had been almost afraid of breaking her. As a result, their lovemaking had never been especially good, tame by most standards in fact.
There would be no need for restraint with a woman built like this. Her full hips and round backside elicited forbidden thoughts of wild lovemaking, reckless comings together of flesh, ample enough to take whatever came.
Daniel cleared his throat and with iron will pulled his mind back from thoughts that it had no business thinking. The woman was a guest in his home, a temporary if unexpected guest. In a couple of days, she would be gone and his life would be back...to normal. Except nothing had been normal in their lives in a very long time.
As if sensing his gaze, Jill looked up at him. She fidgeted with the cloth, wringing it between her fingers nervously. "I really am sorry about all the mess. I tend to make a bit of a mess when I cook. And it is just that I cook when I think," she chuckled. "To be honest, I cook when I'm happy. I cook when I'm mad. I cook when I worry. I guess I just cook," she explained nervously as she turned back to the counter wiping and cleaning the remnants of the morning feast.
"Think away then," Daniel said as he patted his full stomach. If the way to a man's heart was his stomach, this woman must have left a lot of broken hearts, he thought. He watched as she set to work rinsing syrup from the plates, loading the dish washer and wiping down already clean counter tops. It was clear that this situation was making her as nervous as he was.
When she ran out of work at the sink, she turned back to the table. With a weak smile she asked, "You finished?" she stared at his empty plate. He nodded as she lifted the plate.
Hesitating for a moment, she asked "Is there any way I can get online? I want to email my cousin in Houston."
"Sure. I'll set you up on the wireless this morning," he offered with a smile. Daniel chastised himself for the poor host he had been. He should have realized that she needed to contact family and friends to let them know she was alright. "Sorry, I did not think of it sooner."
"Thanks, it's alright really. It is just that the sooner I can email my family and check a few things out online, the sooner I can get out of your hair," she said as she wiped Ashley's hands and face.
Daniel frowned at her words. Of course, she would want to make plans since the ones that had brought her here in the first place had fallen through. But still she seemed so completely in charge, as if his kitchen were her battlefield and his girls her troops to command. It was more than a bit disconcerting how natural it all felt, he thought as she picked the child up in her arms.
"I'll be back for you, sweetie, after I change your sister," she cooed to the baby sitting in her clean high chair chasing a cloth block across the tray.
"Ashley. After you change, Ashley," he supplied.
Jill smiled weakly at him. "Thanks. I would ask how to tell them apart, but I suppose it doesn't matter. I won't be staying that long."
Her words stung for some unexplained reason. Rather than delve deeper into the why's of the situation, Daniel sought solace in mundane conversation. "Britney is more demanding and she has a dimple in her left cheek when you make her giggle," he explained. "Ashley is laid-back. An easy baby and the dimple is on the right side with her. I just tickle them when I need to figure out which is which."
She smiled and turned down the hall towards the nursery where she was staying. Ashley tucked naturally in her arms babbled happily as if revealing secrets of her own. Her baby's conversation made more sense at the moment than anything else about this situation. "Thanks," she mumbled as she beat a quick retreat.
Daniel sighed as the woman left the room. "What now, buddy?" he asked.
As if in answer to his rhetorical question, Britney goo-ed. "Yeah, well, don't get used to the pancakes, sweet cheeks. You know I can't cook worth a damn."
The baby clapped her hands and drooled in response.
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 said to the empty room.
She had also responded to emails from her youngest son and her former boss. Both were worried about the suddenness of her trip. She was too. A little too late, my girl, she thought.
Opening another browser window, she 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 tears. Things had been hard after David died. Some nights, missing him was so deep that it actually hurt, like someone had driven a knife into her gut and ripped out a piece of it.
But they had one another. She and the boys against the world it seemed sometimes. 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 nine months pressed upon Jill's shoulders. It felt as if this load was heavier 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 bigger than ones she had faced in the past, but there was no one to share the weight of the burden this time. It seemed too much.
Daniel felt like an intruder in his own home. He didn't 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 any of it. The woman 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, he began. "Jill, I'm going to take Bel, Ashley and Britney down to the park to watch Jessie practice. Would you like to join us?"
When she looked up from the computer screen, he could see the unshed tears glistening in her clear 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, at least not when it came to women that mattered to him away, he thought. Why should this time be any different?
With a lame brush of her hands across her clear green eyes, 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. I used it to drive David and our boys mad sometimes," she laughed.
"Wow, you are a brave woman. Calling football soccer in England? I'm surprised the Queen herself didn't boot you out right out of the country," he chuckled.
"What can you say? Some things are worth fighting for and truth is one of them."
He felt something inside of 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 feminine traits...depths of the soul. He fought back the sudden urge to ask about the others 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," he replied.
"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?" he asked. "I have to round up the troops."
Jill screamed again as she watched the children race down the field. The black and white ball danced in front of Jessie 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 in the arm, the universal symbol of a goal.
She looked down the side line to Daniel and the girls. She checked 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 simply ordering snacks.
"You really 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 last night. She reminded Jill of Aunt Jemima, her round fullness evoking a comforting sense of home.
"I'm Simone Jackson. You met my husband, Samuel, last night," the woman said as she held out a pudgy hand.
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.
"Because you is all my doin'," she said simply.
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 with a conspiratorial wink she said, "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 at fate's sense of humor. "I hate to tell you this, but the stars made a mistake."
Simone frowned. "De stars never make no mistakes," she assured her. "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 tried to change the subject. "Which islands 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."
"How long have you been here?"
"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."
Simone winked, "Oh that. It is just useful," she 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 danced across 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 the innocence of her profession 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. But Ubah was dead and she would not be around long enough for any real friendship to develop with this lively character, she reminded herself. She was as alone as she felt at that moment.