The Arrangement Ch. 08byTara_Neale©
"I like her," Daniel smiled at the quiet, understatement that had always been his father. He nodded his head as he brushed the back of his hand across his eyes.
"Me too," he replied as he turned to look at his father. He had spent the past ten minutes standing on the old porch watching as Jill and his mother played with Bel and the babies. Jess was hiding in the barn with the horses again.
"Just like, son?" his father questioned.
Daniel sighed, the action causing his shoulders to slump under the heavy weight of his own mind. Truth was that he had thought of little else than his predicament over the past few days. The long drive had been the worst. Pressed against his wife, thigh to thigh, for hours as the girls laughed, played and occasionally fought had driven him practically mad with need. But that need could not override the cold hard facts; he loved a woman that if she knew the truth would hate him.
"It's complicated, Dad," was all he could manage to say in the end.
His father nodded. "Sometimes things seem more complicated than they are, Daniel." His faded grey eyes took in the woman that had been his love for close to half a century. "But let me tell you when the chips are down, son, loving is all that matters in this world."
Daniel ached to confide on his father, to seek advice from him just as he had so many times before, but he knew he could not. It was the reality of the code with which he lived, so many things in his life were 'classified.' From his father and mother, but even from his wife. No, this was a burden he would have to bare alone, because even if he wanted to cleanse his soul, tell her all that had happened that night. He knew that he could not. Security protocols of two nations and the lives of dozens of men prevented him.
He shook his head as she tickled Bel. The sound of laughter rang out across the dry, brown field. The farm lacked its usual lush greenness. "What about the farm, Dad?" he attempted to change the subject.
The older man nodded his head, "I've been thinking the same thing, son. I don't want this place to become a burden to your mother. Hell, she's been married to this land her whole life. Farmer's daughter marrying a farmer. No, I want her to take that cruise around the world we always said we would," Daniel saw the tears collecting in his father's eyes.
He wanted to argue, demand that the man re-start the chemo, fight the cancer just as he had five years ago when he won and went into remission. But the lank man with the yellowish tinge to his skin walked slowly, deliberately now, as if each step cost him precious energy, brought him more pain. He could see the very life draining from the man, who had once seemed such an immovable bear of strength. And he would not be selfish enough to add his own pleas to the burdens his father shouldered. He would do all he could to lighten them in the time they had left.
"You're thinking of selling?"
His father nodded. "Farming ain't much these days, but city folks, hell, even Hollywood types are buying up ranches and farms all over these parts. They want to escape the city and get back to nature, it seems."
Daniel nodded, "Any offers?"
"A couple. Thing is I don't want to wait and make your Mama face that choice alone," he placed his hand on Daniel's shoulder. "But I also don't want to sell this place out from under you, son. It's yours if you want it. It always has been. It's just that I don't think farming and the land ever really ran in your blood, boy. Not much excitement round these parts."
Daniel watched his mother as she talked quietly with Jill. The two women had bonded instantly, as his wife said, shared secrets to which he was not privy. But this was no secret. His father was right, he had never felt the connection to this land that his parents and grandparents had. He was a soldier, not a farmer.
He spoke slowly, "No, Dad. You're right. I don't have the skills to run this place anymore than those city slickers do. Tractors, milking machines, the business of farming, it's as high tech and demanding these days as my work is. And truth is that my knowledge is almost twenty years out of date."
"I'm glad you see it that way, son. I didn't want you to think we were selling off your inheritance or nothing."
"No, Dad, you and Mama are my inheritance. The only one that matters. Growing up here with the two of you as parents gave me so much more than most people ever have in this world. And that won't ever change."
His father smiled as he wrapped his arm about his shoulders, "You know your Mama and I wouldn't mind watching those girls for a couple of days if you wanted to take your wife up to the old fishing cabin by the falls for a bit. Can't imagine you two have had much time to ourselves since you got hitched."
Daniel laughed, "Hitched? Really, Daddy? Next you're going to call her the old ball and chain."
"Nope, son, not that one. She's nobodies burden anymore than your Mama ever has been. So what you say? A little honeymoon? Your Mama can make a few sandwiches in case the fish ain't biting and I'm sure we can manage to pry two horses off that oldest daughter of yours."
Daniel frowned. Time alone with Jill. A few days ago it would have seemed like a gift from heaven. But now? He had been carefully avoiding her since that night, or as much as was possible anyway. Of course, it was not easy, sharing the same room that he had grown up in. A double bed that forced their bodies to brush against one another constantly it seemed.
The nights reminded him of some of the training exercises that he had undergone, how to resist torture techniques if captured. He had used every technique they had taught. Visualization usually ended up with him reliving the night where she had slowly stripped out of his shirt in the pale moonlight. Counting took on new meaning as he would enumerate the thousands of ways he wanted to make love to his wife. And disconnecting, forget it. It was impossible to disconnect from her, not when she lay so impossibly close. His wife. His in all the ways except the one that mattered.
"I don't know, Dad. The girls are a handful. That might be too much for you, right now," he tried making excuses.
His father shook his head, "Let me put this another way. I'd like some time alone with those grandbabies. I've hardly seen Jesse and Bel over the years. I mean this place wasn't exactly that woman's idea of a vacation, was it? And those babies, except for those couple of days after Rachel's death when I came with your Mama, I've never even seen them. I want to get to know my granddaughters, son. Is that too much for a dying old man to ask?"
Daniel felt his father's word like Samuel's sidekick to his ribs. It knock the wind from him as surely as a physical blow. His father was dying. This place would be gone soon. The wounds bled and ached. He could not speak so he merely shook his head.
"Good boy. Your Mama has some stuff packed already. Let's go and tell them now," he smiled as he led his son down the porch steps to where the women and children were playing under the old tree.
Jill giggled as she tickled Britney's tummy. "Cheeky little monkey," she said as she kissed the head of blond curls. The child pulled away from her embrace and toddled across the brown carpet of grass towards her sisters.
"You are everything we hoped you would be," her mother-in-law said.
Jill laughed uncomfortably, "Not you too?"
"Me too? What do you mean?"
"I hear that all the time from Simone."
"Simone," Esther sighed wistfully. "I miss that woman. She might be a touch crazy but I ain't meet too many people with a heart as good as that one's."
Jill nodded, "She is pretty amazing."
"Not anymore than you are, sweetie. Those girls love you already."
Jill watched them playing and for the hundredth time since coming to this place her eyes teared up. "I love them too," she whispered.
The older woman reached out and covered her hands with one of her own. "There was never any doubt in our minds about that one, sweetie." Her eyes travelled to the porch where her husband and son were talking. Jill's could not help but follow.
She left like someone had kicked her in the stomach when she saw the pain etched into his handsome features. She wanted so deeply to run to him, wrap her arms about him, soothe and comfort him. But she couldn't.
Their marriage was back to icy politeness. In the three nights that they had been sharing that impossibly small bed not once had he willing reached for her. Oh, they woke most mornings uncomfortably aware of one another's presence. Her body practically ached with the physical need and there was no denying he returned the feeling, his erection pressed tightly against her.
She felt the other woman's eyes on her as she turned and smiled weakly. "I don't need to ask the question that's been bothering me most these past couple of months. I can see it in your eyes when you look at my son," she smiled as she squeezed Jill's hand. "So what's wrong, sweetie?"
Jill lifted her arm and passed it across her face, using it to wipe tears from her eyes as she pretended to shield them from the bright sunlight. "What makes you think anything is wrong, Esther?"
"A Mama's gut. So don't bother fibbing to me, girl. We both know that those don't lie," she pronounced with conviction.
Jill lowered her arm and gazed at the dry grass beneath her legs. Dead, just like the hopes and dreams she had once had of this man growing to love her. "He doesn't feel the same," she whispered.
His mother's chuckle felt like a knife as it sliced through her. Jill wanted to stand up and run, but the woman's hand held her in place. So she merely looked away to hide the pain she knew anyone could see in her face.
"What makes you think that, child?" she asked.
Jill swallowed hard. It was not exactly like she could share the intimate details of her marriage with her mother-in-law, hell, Simone's nosey meddling was bad enough. "I just do," she whispered defensively.
Her mother-in-law nodded. "How much has Simone told you about her?"
Jill looked back over at the older woman. As always, the mention of Rachel piqued her curiosity. Some part of her felt as if by understanding the other woman, her death, she could heal old wounds, perhaps even break down some of the walls that stood between them.
"Enough," she replied.
"All right. Then let me tell you about him," she said as her gaze drifted back to the porch. "My son keeps everything inside. He always has. Even as a little boy that child would never cry," she looked up at the huge weeping willow under which they sat in semi-shade. "He was six when he fell out of this tree. Broke his arm in three places. The damned bone was sticking through the skin and he walked calmly into the house and said he thought we needed to go see the doctor."
As the mother of four tough sons, it was something with which Jill could empathize. She simply nodded as the woman continued, "But that does not mean the boy doesn't feel the pain. I slept in the chair next to his hospital bed that night. He tossed and turned and cried out all night long."
"I always told Gerald that boy has more scars from that woman on his soul than the Seals ever put on his body. Add that to the burdens he bears as a leader, the lives of his men and even those he's been forced to kill, and it's no wonder my son finds it hard to trust anyone. But let me tell you one thing, when he does...there is nothing on this earth or heaven and hell that will keep him from taking care of what's his. His men and their families. Those girls. Me and his daddy," her blue eyes looked over Jill carefully. "And you, sweetie."
Jill automatically shook her head in denial. Words of protest dripped from her lips as Daniel and her father-in-law approached them.
"Esther," the man called. "I've convinced the fool to take us up on our offer," he smiled conspiratorially to his wife. "We're going to the barn now to saddle up a couple of horses. Why don't you two go into the house and make a few sandwiches? After all these years, I'm not sure the boy can manage to catch his own supper, let alone enough for two," the man slapped his son's back.
"What are you talking about?" Jill asked.
She saw the discomfort on Daniel's face as he replied, "My parents want some time alone with the girls. So we're being shuffled off to the old fishing cabin on the other side of the property," he explained.
Jill frowned, "How far is that? I mean we'll be back for supper, right? I need to get the girls ready for bed and all."
Her mother-in-law squeezed her hand, "Oh, don't worry about that, sweetie. Gerald and I can manage tonight. The cabin is a good two or three hour horse back ride. Nice and secluded," the woman winked at her.
Secluded away with her husband was not what Jill had in mind at that moment. What might have once seemed like a dream come true took on nightmarish qualities given his icy coldness these past few days. "I don't think we should. I mean what if something happens. You might need us. Bel is still recovering from the food poisoning and the babies are used to their routine," she rambled on looking for any excuse.
"Nonsense. Esther and I managed this little tornado. How hard can four girls be?" dismissed her father-in-law.
Her eyes looked up at his, pleading for his support. But he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, resigned it seemed to his fate.
"Aw, come on. It will be fun," said Esther. "There's a beautiful waterfall just a short walk from the cabin and the stream beneath it should be perfect for swimming this time of year. Not too cold, but just cool enough on a hot day like this."
They might make the place sound like paradise but this was not a trip that Jill was looking forward too. And from the dark scowl on his face, neither was her husband.
Daniel was alone in the barn. His father had excused himself only a few minutes after they came to the barn, saying he would check how the women were coming in the kitchen. But the truth was that Daniel could tell he was not up to the task.
He saddled up the old Palomino. He did not know if Jill had any experience riding horses, but the old nag was perfect for even a novice. He had chosen her as Bel's first mount when he had taken the older girls out riding the day before. Of course that had just been a short ride along the trail that snaked through the woods and fields close to the house.
This trip would be much longer, a fact he was not looking forward to. Guilt ate at him, just as it had since that night. It gnawed and twisted his gut. It was not like this guilt had ever real gone away, not in the past five years. Not even the exoneration of his team by the joint task force made up of senior officer from the United States and United Kingdom's special forces command had managed to lessen the load.
He had relived those days and hours so many times over the past few years, looking for some mistake, some explanation of what went wrong that night. But like that task force, he could find none. Technical failure was the final ruling, some error in the computer programming that caused the drone to drop its load a half a mile short of its target, hitting the contingent of Royal Marines that had along with his own troops been shadowing the convoy that was their real target. The convoy that they had been following for days across the mountains. The convoy that they believed held top targets.
Knowing that the mission was aborted and their presence known to the enemy then, he and his men had still taken the risk, making their way across the two miles that separated them from their colleagues in only a matter of minutes. But it had been too late. At least for the man that was his peer, the other commander had died almost instantly. Blown away as he shoved and pushed his men towards the safety of a nearby cave. The others were injured as well. Two of them badly burned from the explosion. One had lost his leg from shrapnel.
The irony was that when the investigation was finally concluded Daniel and several of his men were given a medal for valor, another fucking piece of metal. The men that sat in Washington and London and moved men around the world the way some people moved pieces on a chess board might think their actions, going back for their comrades was heroic that day, but it had been years, decades since those men had faced the realities of war, if some of them ever had. No, they were just doing their duty. Doing what they knew the other men would do if things had been reversed.
Duty. Daniel played the word over and over in his mind. What was his duty? His father was dying. Selling the only place that had ever been home to him. His mother would be alone for the first time in her life. His daughters were growing up so fast. Too fast. Each time he left and returned he had to get to know them all over again.
And now her? His wife. He hated to admit it, but the word still seemed strange somehow on his tongue. Every time he said or thought it, the words of Rachel's note rang in his mind, "I always came last to you. Your country, the Navy, your daughters left no room for me. You were a lousy husband..." And truth was as much as he wanted things to be different with Jill, they were not. It was not even like he had any right to want more. Not after...
"Penny for your thoughts, son," his mother said from the doorway.
He shrugged, "It's nothing really, Mama. Nothing you need to worry about. You have enough on you as is," he replied as he cinched up the saddle. Standing up he reached for straws, "Which is why Jill and I don't think this is a good idea. You have enough to handle with Daddy. You can't manage the girls by yourself," he protested.
"Fiddle sticks and you know it. Jesse will help out with the little ones, like she always does. And your father might be dying, but since they stopped the chemo, the man has gotten back most of his energy. I hate to admit it, but he made the right choice. I'd rather whatever time we have left be like this than him being sick and tired all the time," she said as she crossed the barn carrying a sack.
"Jill and I made those sandwiches. I really like that girl, even more now that I've met her," she said as she passed him the bag.
He just nodded his head. He did not want a repeat of his earlier conversation with this father.
"So what's wrong? And don't tell me nothing I need to worry about. I'll worry anyway and you know it. Probably make things worse than they really are too," she laughed.
In the guilt that had ridden him these past few days, Daniel had practically forgotten his resolve to question his mother about Jill's odd behavior when it came to being naked with him. But now as he sought some diversion, some answer to her question, he remembered and clutched it as the perfect straw.
"Mama, what do you know of her marriage?" he asked.
His mother scrunched up her brow and tilted her head. "I know it was damned good. Why do you ask?"
Daniel shook his head, "I don't get it."
"Don't get what, son?"
He placed the sack inside the saddle bag on the horses flank before turning back to his mother. As hard as this conversation was going to be, it beat the hell out of the real problems he was facing. So with a silent prayer, he plunged in, "If it was so all fire great, why the fuck is my wife so damned ashamed to show a bit of skin?"
His mother coughed at his blunt words, then she laughed. "I take it I don't need to ask if this will be a real honeymoon then."
Daniel rolled his eyes at her question. "No, please don't, Mama."
His mother was quiet for several moments. He saw her squint her eyes in the dim light of the barn as if taking measure of him, of the situation before she answered.