The Arrangement Ch. 03byTara_Neale©
Jill stared at him. Frozen to the spot, her heart pounded out a Texas two-step that would tire even the most experienced dancer. She must have heard him wrong, she thought in surprise. "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. "I suppose that sounds more like it."
Jill shook her head in disbelief. "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. "Well, more like, I'm not very good husband material." Jill could feel his pain in those words. She wanted nothing more than to reach her hand up and brush his cheek, reassure him. Tell him that everything would be alright. But she reminded herself that she barely knew this man. That the words poured out in those emails were not his. That 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. "But I admit defeat. What you said last night made perfect sense. I do need one. The girls need a mother" Tickling Ashley softly, he continued. "And you're damned good at it." Rubbing his own stomach, he added, "Besides, lady, your cooking speaks for itself."
Jill laughed. His words reminded her of an old musical, 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. If his words were too practical, so much less than what she wanted, she stamped those doubts down. Like Ubah had said, those things came with time.
Jill felt the tug on her dress. She looked down into Britney's smiling face. She knew what her answer must be. If before her 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 little people with minds of their own. And he was right. They needed her.
Picking the wet little girl up, she nodded. "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 the stability and he needed to get back to the field. They were arguments he knew would strike close to her 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.
He justified his actions. Truth was some part of him wanted things settled quickly, before the woman had second thoughts, saw how inadequate he really was.
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.
The next two calls were more difficult. He phoned his mother first. He could hear the worry in her voice when he began by asking about his father. Thankfully, she was the first to mention Jill. When she asked if she had returned safely to London, it was the opening that he needed. He explained the situation as best he could.
"I really 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," she had said. But before Daniel could confide more, she had to go. A nurse had come by to check on his father.
By far, the hardest call was 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 said she did not mean any harm.
Picking up the phone, he dialed the number. Simone answered on the second ring. He waited as she got his friend from his workshop in the garage.
"Hey, buddy, what's up?" Samuel asked a moment later.
"Are you busy tomorrow?" Daniel stammered nervously.
"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 moment later he heard his friend pick up the phone. "I'll be right over," he replied.
"Don't bring," but before Daniel could say Simone the line went dead.
Jill was finishing up dinner and cleaning the kitchen. Looking up at the clock on the kitchen wall, she noted that she would need to leave for the bus stop in another fifteen minutes.
She washed the countertop for the hundredth time that day. She had been distracted since her conversation with the commander that morning. Since Daniel's proposal would be more accurate she supposed. She had moved through the day like a robot on autopilot. She cared for the twins, made lunch, started dinner and cleaned. But it all seemed so surreal.
She supposed she had good reason. Most brides were nervous before their weddings. But she was not most brides and this was not a 'normal' marriage. It was an arrangement. Pure and simple. Daniel needed a housekeeper and cook, someone he could depend upon. The girls needed a mother, even Jessie, though Jill was sure she would deny it. And she needed...
What did she need? She was back in the good old U. S. of A. after all these years. Sure, she had missed having her sons around the past couple of years. And the girls were more than she could have hoped for.
But suddenly, what had seemed so logical and practical all those weeks ago when she responded to that first email seemed absolutely preposterous. Marrying someone you hardly knew. Someone that you did not love. At that moment, she would have given anything to talk to Ubah.
She heard the door bell and called out, "I'll get it," as she raced from the kitchen, looking for something more to do, any distractions from her turbulent thoughts.
She practically ran into Daniel in the living room. "Oh, sorry," seemed a foolish response when the side of her breast brushed his arm. The man was going to be her husband in twenty-four hours. It was just another sign of how wrong this all was, she thought as she stepped to the side, suddenly feeling like the stranger she was in this house.
He nodded to her as he opened the door. His face a perfect mask, devoid of any emotion. Any doubts. If he had them. Jill shivered as she realized fully how little she knew of this man. Not even those emails that they had shared over the weeks were real. Second hand, it was all just second hand information. She knew nothing really of the man she was about to marry.
Simone burst through the door first. "I told you de stars never lie, Danny me boy," she said as she wrapped him in a hug. Jill saw the glare that Daniel sent towards Samuel.
"What could I do?" the man replied in his defense. Daniel did not have a chance to respond before Simone turned her attention to her. For a large woman she moved fast, racing across the room and wrapping her in an embrace as well. Jill wanted, needed, to surrender to that contact, but she held herself back.
"Gurl, we's got so much to do. Why's tomorrow? We need at least a month to do this thing right." The woman questioned. It was the same question that Jill had been pushing back from her own mind all morning. But the truth was she did not want to examine it too closely just then.
Turning back to where the men were chatting quietly by the door, Simone said, "Aw, you two go do some man t'ings and leave us gurls to plan de whole thing," Her dismissal was complete as she drug Jill towards the kitchen.
The moment they were behind the kitchen door, Simone opened like a flood gate. "See, I told you everything would work out. I knew the moment I saw your profile that you were the one. And when I did a reading, well that only confirmed it, sweetie. This is going to be perfect. Now, we have to plan everything. What you going to wear? The girls will all have to be in the wedding, of course. They will need new dresses too."
"Stop it," Jill screamed. Tears that had been held back for days began to pour down her cheeks. "I can't do it. I can't. This is crazy. It's all a horrible mistake," she said as she broke down.
The woman stared at her for a moment. Then she wrapped her soft arms about her. "Sit down," she commanded as she led Jill to the kitchen table. She placed Jill in a chair and went to the cupboards. Jill watched through the tears as the woman pulled two cups out of the cabinets and started the coffee pot.
This woman obviously knew this house well. Jill wondered how many times over the past months or perhaps years, the woman had taken charge like this. She was certain that she had done so after Rachel's death. Jill was just as certain that Daniel and his daughters would have been lost without her.
The woman's words rang in her head...'dis is all my doin.' Jill supposed in some ways it was too. She thought of the hundreds of emails that she had unknowingly shared over the weeks with this woman. For a moment, she could empathize with Daniel. This woman knew things about her that few people other than her sons and Ubah ever had. One in particular haunted her.
By the time, Simone returned with two cups of strong black coffee, Jill had regained some of her composure, her sobs had weakened to a stray tear or two.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have screamed at you like that," she apologized.
Taking the seat across from her, Simone shook her head that was now covered in thick braids that hung past her shoulders. "It's alright. You want to talk about it?"
"I don't think I can go through with this," she began as she stared at the cup in her hand. "I know it is a little late now to be having second thoughts, but..." she trailed off, uncertain what to say. How to explain.
"But what, sweetie? I thought you wanted to have a family again. You were tired of the quiet of your empty nest, you said. You wanted to be part of something bigger, a community that fought for what was right. What's changed?"
Jill heard her own words written all those weeks ago pour from Simone's lips like flood waters. She could not deny the truth of them. "I know, but..." She sought for words. Words to explain the self doubts inside of her.
"I know you care about those girls already. I could see that on Sunday at soccer practice." Simone reached across the table and covered Jill's trembling hand with one of her own, "You have your family and trust me you are gonna fit right in with the wives' club. So why the cold feet?" Simone pressed again.
"Him," the answer sprung forth from Jill's heart like the first flower of spring bursting towards the truth of the sun.
Simone laughed. The sound was deep and rich as it echoed off the walls of the kitchen. "Aw, dat."
Jill stared at the woman in disbelief. How could she of all people not understand the angst of this situation? She, who knew her secret. "Yes, that. He's nothing like what I thought he would be."
"How so?" The woman pinned her with a knowing stare. "Everything his mama and me put in those emails is true. He's a man of honor. We both know that is a dying breed. Men, who actually believe in right and live by a code. Men willing to give their lives for what they believe."
Shaking her braids, the woman continued her sermon, one that would have done the hell fire and brimstone preacher that she had grown up with proud. "The only thing that man loves more than this country and the Navy is those girls. For the past nine months, he has stayed here for them."
Her dark eyes bore into Jill's soul. "You know how hard that is for a man like him. Sending his guys off to face god knows what danger while he watches from some damned satellite feed? But his daughters needed him."
Squeezing Jill's hand, "I thought you could understand all that. I thought you could see past the code to the man. I thought, no I felt, that just maybe you could heal some of the pain that man carries. I thought that you could give him the love he needs."
Jill looked at their hands entwined on the table. "What made you think that he would want someone like me?" she whispered. Confiding her deepest fears, "You've seen Rachel. Look at me. Hell, look at him. The man's drop dead gorgeous."
Jill looked around the kitchen that gleamed in the afternoon sun, "I didn't want someone who saw me as a cook, cleaner and nanny. Alright, so maybe it was crazy, but I thought, alright I hoped, that someday real feelings could grow between us."
Simone rich laughter filled the small kitchen. "Dat man is purty. Dat is for sure. But don't you be tellin' my Samuel I said dat or I swear I'll have to curse you." Jill noted that the woman had taken up the thick accent that she used only when it suited her purposes, "But don't let those pretty boy looks and I don't need no one attitude fool you. That man is hurting. He hurting bad."
The woman sighed, "That woman you think is so pretty had a heart of darkness. And I should know." Jill wanted to question Simone more about the woman, who had been Daniel's first wife. So many things about her, about their marriage, about her death, just did not make sense.
But before she could speak, Simone barreled on, "She did a real number on that boy's head too. I promise you, sweetie, you a more beautiful woman than she ever was. Because your beauty comes from within."
Jill laughed sardonically and shook her head, "And men are so good at seeing that." The words cut like a knife through old scars that were barely healed even after almost two years.
"The good ones are. And I'm placing my bets on the stars that's a good man in there." The woman dismissed her fears casually. "Are you gonna let a few nerves stand between you and what you want? Cause if you is then you ain't the woman we thought you were." Her eyes once more pinned Jill's soul as if searching for some unseen flaw...as if the ones she could see were not enough.
Jill looked at the clock. "I better go get the girls from the bus stop," she said to avoid the answer.
Simone shook her head, "Let them boys do it. They ought to be good for something other than looking pretty. You and I have a wedding to plan." She pronounced with finality, making the decision for her.
Daniel stared at the ground. Sprigs of green grass, weeds and dandelions sprang from between the cracks in the concrete sidewalk. He really did not mind being shuffled off to pick up Jessie and Bel from the school bus. It gave him a few moments to think. To re-evaluate his decision.
Logically, this situation was the perfect answer to the dilemma that he had faced for months. In Jill, he had found someone that he could trust to care for his daughters. Hell, better than Rachel ever had. He could get back where he belonged, in the field with his men. Daniel had though never been a man of pure logic. But his gut that he trusted just as much as his mind told him that this was the best option too. The right battle plan.
So why was he so fucking nervous? It was not like him. Once he had the Intel. He considered the options. Choose the one most likely to accomplish the goals of the mission. Then he put everything else aside and focused on executing that mission. But this time, he was torn up with doubt and second guessing.
"What's bothering you, buddy?" said the one man that knew him better than anyone else. The man that had been his non-commissioned officer for more years than either of them wanted to count. The man he considered his best friend.
"What if I screw this up to?" the words were out of his mouth before he even thought about them.
But suddenly it all made sense. That was what was bothering him about this situation. Not the Intel. Not the decision itself. But the execution. He just did not have the knowledge or skills for this mission. He never had. He was the problem. Unlike Samuel, he just was not cut out to be a husband.
Samuel chuckled as he slapped him on the back, "It ain't as hard as you think it is, Danny my boy. You already half way there."
The two men knew one another so well, thought so much alike that Samuel continued with Daniel's analogy. "It's just the same as any other mission we face. The biggest challenge is in the planning, picking the right battle plan."
Looking Daniel in the eye, he continued. "You did that this time." He put his hand on Daniel's shoulder, "You were just a kid when you married Rachel and that girl was never cut out for this life style," he confided.
"I hate to admit it, almost as much as you do, but my wife and your mama did a hell of a job this time. That woman might, and I said might, just be as right for this job as Simone is," he winked conspiratorially.
With a shrug of his shoulders, he continued, "The rest is pretty much getting the hell out of their way and letting them manage." He spoke in hushed tones as if imparting secrets, "Of course, good loving and few kind words here and there never hurt anything either."
"That's what I'm worried about. I'm not very good at that," Daniel scuffed his shoe against a lone dandelion, uprooting it. He felt instant regret. Empathizing with the plant, himself uprooted for so long now.
Samuel bellowed with laughter. "Oh, don't give me that shit. I remember the women you had chasing you before Rachel. They didn't seem to be complaining none. If I remember right, we needed an extra Marine guard at the base just to keep them off you."
Daniel laughed at the reminder of another lifetime. "That's different and you know it."
Samuel stared at him for a moment, "Is it? You think a wife wants or needs something different than a woman you just screwing?" The question hung in the air, bold and blunt like the two of them.
"Then, buddy, you do have problems. Trust the man that's been married almost twenty years, a wife is just as kinky as any of the girls you pick up in a bar. And they want your ass just as bad too. Why else would they marry you?" he explained.
"Difference is the work that goes into keeping it that way in the long haul. But you ain't got to think about that for another year or so." With a nudge he added, "But don't worry, when that time comes I'll show you all the best tricks to keep things going in the bedroom. It's the least I can do considering Simone's meddling."
Daniel was pondering his words when the big yellow bus pulled up to the curb next to them. Any questions he might have would have to wait for another time. Right now, he had other things to worry about. Like how he was going to tell his daughters about their new 'mother.'
Bel with her smile was the first one off the bus. She danced over to where he stood with Samuel. With her quiet beauty, his middle daughter had a way of bringing out things deep inside of him. Her optimism and easy smile brought comfort, even in the darkest of times.
"Where's Jill? She promised to sew Cindy up for me. She's been torn for a long time, but Jill said she could fix her so she was good as new," the child said referring to the favorite teddy bear that she had had since she was a baby.
Daniel smiled. The woman sewed too. Damn, was there anything, besides singing, that she could not do?