The Arrangement Ch. 05byTara_Neale©
Daniel raced along the beach, the surf crashing about his boots, sucking them and him deeper into the soft sand. Neither the wet, squishing inside them or the ninety pound pack on his back registered. He was a man driven. Driven by demons that had haunted his dreams for over two weeks. Dreams of soft, welcoming flesh that turned suddenly still and icy cold. The dreams had even begun to invade the waking hours. And for a man whose job could cost him or his friends their lives, it was something he could not allow.
"What the fuck is your problem?" spat Samuel as he finally caught up with him.
It was after one. The sun was high in the sky. The soft breeze off of the Atlantic Ocean did absolutely nothing to mitigate the blistering summer heat. They had been at this since four in the morning. Daniel had always trained hard. Trained his men hard. But these past few days, he knew he had pushed them and him further than ever before. But demons were sometimes harder to outrun than even the enemy.
"If you're getting too old to keep up, maybe it's time to get out, old man," he accused his friend.
Samuel put out his arm, his hand resting on Daniel's shoulder as he stared at him. "I mean it. What's eating you, man? You weren't even this bad after..."
Daniel turned away. He knew what Samuel meant. He had not been this tormented, not even after Rachel's death.
He stared out at the rough ocean. It was as volatile as he felt, churning and pounding. In a moment it could wipe away billions of grains of fine sand that had taken millions of years to form. Just as he could without knowing how or why destroy the women in his life.
Sixteen days as a husband and except for a very awkward encounter in the kitchen the morning after their wedding, they had spoken less than three dozen words to one another. She was avoiding him.
Oh, she was always around; cooking, cleaning and caring for the girls. But he was cast off to the sidelines; doomed to watch the game. The hardest moments were when he caught her laughing and playing with his daughters. No, the hardest was when he watched her hug or kiss them with such soft, tenderness.
How could he be so fucking jealous of his own children? But he was. He would give anything for just one of those touches. If Jill would just brush her fingers across his cheek and give one of those smiles over some stupid accomplishment that no one else even noticed. If she would bend and kiss him good night, then perhaps the nightmares would disappear as surely as the mythical bed bugs that she dispatched with her reassurances each night.
But that tenderness and care was reserved for his daughters. For him, it was polite formality and stiff uncertainty that seemed to boarder almost upon fear. It was driving him insane. If he did not get out into the field soon, he knew he would explode.
But he just shrugged and said, "Nothing. I'm fine."
The blow to the side of his ribs came out of nowhere. It took the air out of his lungs in a single whoosh, just as the sight of her in that damned white lace and satin nightmare had. He went to the ground instantly. A large wave hit him, taking him under. The pack weighed him down as he struggled to the surface. He broke through gasping and gurgling to clear his lungs from the nasty salt water.
Samuel stood gloating over him. "No, buddy, you are not fine. Otherwise, I could not have done that and we both know it." He held out his hand and helped Daniel to his feet, "So spill it now. What's wrong? I mean shit we left you with your half naked wife and instead of thanking us, you try to drive us all to our deaths with training exercises that start hours before dawn and last past dark."
"Yeah, well, you guys have gotten soft over the past few months. Just because I could not go into the field or exercises, you thought you could fuck off and it shows," he justified.
Samuel held up his hands in surrender, "I think we both know that was not fair, man. We know what's at stake here. And we take our jobs seriously. You know that."
Daniel shook his head. He could not allow this. Even during the worst of his marriage to Rachel, he had always been able to compartmentalize. Home was home. And work was work. You left your shit where it belonged. So why was she different? Why did a few bad days with her have him taking his best friend's head off and unfairly accusing his men of the worst of sins in their eyes?
"I'm sorry," he said as they walked silently back to where the others were beginning to congregate near a pile of rocks. Looking at their sweaty faces, he knew that he could ask for no better group of men. Soldiers. Or friends.
"Go home. Day's over, guys. You did good," he said.
He smiled and chatted with a couple of them as they dispersed, taking packs and equipment back across the beach to waiting vehicles. Most headed home to the one thing he would not find, the smiling welcome of a wife happy to have them back after a short day.
He straggled even after they were gone. He would go back to base, spend some time over paperwork that was more than caught up after almost a year of virtual desk duty. But it would give him an excuse, something to do until dinner time perhaps.
At least the thought of dinner time brought a smile to his face.
He smiled, definitely dinner time. If what the woman had said was true about cooking when she was thinking, she had been doing a hell of a lot of it lately. The menu had been unforgettable. Each night better than the last.
"You should go too," the voice said.
"I will," he lied. "Just have a few things to do back at the office first. Tell Simone not to get used to this though. Damned witch," he cursed.
"White witch," his friend smiled. His friend remained silently by his side for several moments, just watching the waves crash in and slink back. "She says that Jill fits right in with the others. Says that it's like the woman belongs."
Daniel sighed. Another thing to be jealous of. His wife's affection for the other spouses. Why was it that he was the only one she did not seem to have any real care for? He knew he was being a bit harsh there as well. She was polite to a fault, asking if she could get him something, if he needed anything.
But after that night, it was not like he could just say, 'Yeah, I need you.' No, it was pretty clear that while his wife might have enough love to instantly bond with his daughters and even the other wives, the woman was still very much in love with another man. There was simply no place for him. He was locked on the outside looking in.
"I mean it, man, if you ever need to talk about something, I'm there for you," his friend once more put his hand on his shoulder.
Daniel shook his head, "Some things just can't be fixed. Sometimes people just aren't cut out for a job."
Samuel frowned, "You talking about Clay Dodd? What that bastard do now?"
Daniel shook his head again, "Nothing that I know of, but that wasn't what I was talking about."
"Then what? I know it isn't always easy to talk about things. But man, if you don't do something you gonna explode soon."
Daniel picked up a stick and tossed it across the waves. It did not work the same as when he had skipped stones across the still pond on his father's ranch. But nothing was as simple as it had seemed back there.
Silence hung for several minutes. Daniel smiled. He knew what Samuel was doing. Wearing him down. He wanted to think it would not work, but truth was the man was right. If something did not give soon, he was not going to be fit for duty or anything else.
"Jill," he said but was uncertain what more to say.
Samuel laughed, "I figured out that damned much. It don't take a fucking genius like Dwayne to know that. What about her? When we left you things seemed to be going pretty damned well. Seemed your new wife was more than ready for the job."
"Yeah, well, certain parts of it maybe."
"Gees, man! You mean?" Samuel pinned him with a stare that would have done Simone proud. "You mean after all that you didn't seal the deal?"
"Seal the deal? What the fuck is that? This some fucking high school locker room now?" He accused, "If you mean, am I fucking my wife? The answer is no. Seems the missus still has a thing for her dead husband."
Daniel did not know what he had expected from his friend, but ruckus laughter that had the man doubled over was not it. Anger coursed through him that his pain should be the object of his friend's mirth. He repaid several debts with the round house kick to the man's head that sent him sprawling backwards into the sand.
Samuel quieted and rubbed the side of head. "All right, I suppose you owe me that one after Simone's meddling and what I did earlier." He stood up slowly. "But that's it, buddy, no more. If this isn't the locker room, you want to give me some Intel here? What makes you think that?"
Daniel was still reeling with bent up rage and frustration, "I don't fucking think. I know. She called out his name when..." his screams trailed off at the last.
Samuel stood and took several steps back, but the broad smile and chuckles that he could barely contain had his friend going after him anyway. He tried throwing up his hands in surrender once more, "I give, man. I give."
"You think it is fucking funny?" Daniel said as he ran at him, slamming into the larger man and taking them both to the ground.
The men were fairly equally matched. It had been one of the strengths of their working relationship. This wrestling match was made more intense because they knew one another so well they could almost anticipate the opponents next move. They tousled for several moments in the sand. When they rolled once more so that Daniel was atop his friend, he drew back his fist to deliver the final blow, but it stilled in mid-air.
What the fuck was he doing? Samuel was not the enemy. He had been until a minute before the best friend Daniel had ever had. And despite the crass behavior, he still did not deserve a beating.
Daniel rolled to the side. "It wasn't fucking funny, man."
His friend sat up next to him. "I'm sorry, Danny boy. I didn't mean it like that." He turned and looked at his friend, "I just see things a bit differently from where I'm sitting."
His friend stared out at the waves for a moment. His voice was deeper when he spoke again, "You know we all face the truth sometimes. We know each time that this might be it. That this time we might not be coming back. We don't talk about it, of course, but we all live with it."
"Truth is that I long ago faced those facts. And I've told Simone that I expect her ass to find another good man to love." He turned and looked at his friend then. Daniel could see the mist in his eyes, as he chuckled, "It beats the hell out of the woman having a string of boy toys." Daniel joined in the painful laughter with his friend at the image of the big beautiful woman surrounded by a bevy of beefy young studs.
"But my friend, let me tell you this. After twenty years of the best loving of my life, that same thing damned well better happen once or twice at first. Or I swear I'll haunt every fucking séance that woman gives," he smiled.
"Now I don't know what happened exactly and I don't want to. But I know from what Simone has told me that those two had just about as happy a marriage as we do. So have you thought for even half second that this might just be a good thing? That if when she's drunk off her ass, she confuses the two of you, maybe, just maybe things could be heading in the right direction for you?"
"Cause I can tell you one thing, it wasn't just the alcohol and old memories going on that night. Even a blind man could see that you had your missus more than a little hot and bothered that night?"
Daniel sat in silence for a moment. His friend's words washed over him like the waves. It was not a perspective that for a second had entered his mind; not one that would enter most men's in the situation. But as Samuel said, he could see it more from David's point of view.
Daniel paused for a moment. A thousand questions about the other man ran like a marathon through his mind. But the cold hard fact was that none of them mattered. He was dead and Daniel was the one left holding his wife. Their wife, he supposed.
"So where the fuck does that leave me? What the fuck do I do now, smart ass?" he asked as he continued to stare across the ocean that separated his wife from her old life.
Samuel chuckled again, "Well, first of all, make sure she ain't drunk next time."
They both laughed then. "Yeah, I suppose that would be a good idea."
"I think that given some time and a hell of a lot more patience than you've been showing lately, the rest will work itself out, my friend." He turned and stared at Daniel, "You really do have an amazing wife. Second best woman I know in fact."
"At least mine don't meddle in things she shouldn't," Daniel said boldly.
Simone, Trisha and a couple more of the wives giggled around the kitchen tables as toddlers and babies scooted, crawled and cooed on the floor at their feet.
"Damn girl, you still ain't givin' no details. Don't make us use our interrogation skills," smiled Trisha around the steaming cup of sweet black coffee.
The plate of homemade cookies and scones in the middle of the table was practically empty. Over the past two weeks, it had become common for the mothers, although Jill still found herself calling them 'mums,' to come back to the house after the morning school bus run. They laughed and gossiped over the continental breakfast before cleaning, cooking and running whatever errands their days held.
But Jill was wise enough to know that this frivolity would not last forever. Oh, the laughter might continue, but it would take a decidedly different turn in a few days or weeks. Anytime their husbands were away, she knew that the mood would change as well. It would become nothing more than a cover for the worry, loneliness and pain that was the other side of their lives.
That was why it was so important to build these bonds now, during the good times, because in those darkest of hours it would have to sustain them all through whatever lay ahead. Chloe and Thad's occasional presence among them was a stark reminder of just how dark things could get. Jill's own memories only deepened her resolve...no woman left behind, she pledged. And this was part of it, part of her new/old role as leader among the wives that kept it all going on the home front.
But how to answer that particular question still plagued her thoughts and dreams. She remembered little of that night after the intimate dance they shared. Just bits and pieces of an erotic fantasy. Truth was she did not know how it went, but it could not have been well. The cold shoulder that Daniel had given her since that night spoke volumes.
Looking back, she realized the embarrassment that she must have been for him. Prancing around in that naughty lingerie like one of these much younger, more beautiful and thinner women. She must have looked like a clown. A proud man, a leader, Daniel had tried to save her from the embarrassment to them both. But in her drunken stupor, she had chosen not to listen.
So now she was paying the price. His anger was completely justified and she had no idea what to do to get him to forgive her lapse in judgment. She could not tell these women that, so instead she smiled around the pain. It was something you got good at over the years, especially in this job. She laughed it all off with a simple, "I don't kiss and tell."
Trisha though was like the prize bull at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, she would not give up when she had her rider cornered. Bucking and jumping, she took Jill for a long ride, "Now, girl, don't be shy. I mean come on. We're all green with envy. Oh sure, our hubbies might be hotties," the woman looked around the table at her co-conspirators and made a big show of fanning her perfectly manicured hands back and forth.
"But damn, yours is unforgettable. And that kiss. Holy hell, it was hotter than the West Texas Hill Country on the fourth of July." Everyone laughed at the woman's flare for drama.
Jill was searching for a comeback that would deflect this line of conversation, one that had been coming up over and over during the past couple of weeks. Thankfully, the woman that was rapidly becoming her best friend and confidant handled it for her.
"What girl? You having problems at home? You so desperate to hear the naughty details cause your man ain't takin' care of bid-ness? Just send him to my Samuel. Dat man knows all the tricks for keepin' it fresh like these two newlyweds," she said as all the girls roared with laughter at Trisha's friendly take down.
Jill smiled her thanks to Simone as she began to clear the table. The last cinnamon buns winked its tempting smile at her, but she kept fast to her resolve. "Anyone for the last of my buns?"
Trisha's wicked sense of humor still smarting from the put-down responded, "Is that how you get him going? With your buns? Must say there's plenty of them."
Simone reached over and took the sweet off the plate and took a huge bite out of it, "Yeah, you know what my man always says, 'more cushion for the pushin.' Maybe I should give you this, Trisha, sweetie? With that skinny ass of yours maybe that's the problem, Travis getting stuck in all the wrong places. Ain't nothin' us real women have to worry bout." She purred as she held out the bun to the other woman.
Jill stepped in between them, smoothly. "Trisha, you'll have to take me with you to the gym sometime soon. I could really use some pointers from you on how you keep your run way figure. I mean Miss Lubbock and all."
Her red head turned from glaring at Simone with a smile, "Sure, suga. I know it can't be easy. After four babies and all. That's why I put my foot down. Trav got his son and that's it for me. One is definitely enough for this girl."
Jill shivered at what she recognized was another dig at Simone, the couples difficulties conceiving another child after Althea was the only thing that marred their otherwise perfect marriage. She had already hugged Simone through a couple of PMS days with chocolate cake and an extra large box of tissues.
She knew that this day was getting personal and she had to step in. "Well, my ladies, if you'll excuse me, I'm afraid I have some errands to run myself. So I'm afraid I'll have to scoot you off today," she lied.
They all nodded and hugged. Most headed off down the street in groups of two or three. Only Trisha struggled alone with her terrible two-year old T.J., short for Travis Junior. She shook her head at the sight, remembering how hard little boys could be sometimes.
"You never cease to amaze me, girlfriend," Simone said as she put her hand on Jill's shoulder. She held out the cinnamon bun. "Here, you should finish this. You didn't eat a thing this morning."
Jill shook her head as she walked over to the sink with the plate. "No, it's alright. I'm on a diet anyway," she replied as she put the plug in the sink and ran hot water, adding a few drops of washing up liquid, detergent she corrected herself for the millionth time in three weeks since she had been home.
Home? She asked herself. Was this place really home? Sure, she kept the house and loving the girls had come almost as naturally as it had each time they placed another of her pink faced sons into her arms. Even this sometimes rowdy group of wives seemed to embrace and welcome her, accepting her as one of their comrades, a leader even. But that night still haunted her.
"What's really wrong, sweetie?" her friend asked.
The tears flowed down her cheeks, adding to the growing pool in the sink, absorbed by it, becoming just as much a part of it as she was of these people. So why was it all not enough?