The Arrangement Ch. 01byTara_Neale©
"Lord, I know you say that you'll never give us more than we can handle, but right now, it sure seems that way. Them girls need more than just a Granny. And Lord, that boy of mine has more wounds on his soul from that woman than the Seals ever put on his body."
Esther Monroe gently rubbed the glass on the silver picture frame, outlining the faces beneath. Her shoulders slumped as the frame fell onto the bed next to her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she bowed her head.
"Now Jeb too. I know some people would say forty-three years is too long with one man, but Lord, I ain't ready to give him to you yet. I just don't know what to do no more. Daniel and the girls need me here, but my husband needs me home. With the cancer back, I just don't know what I'm going to do."
Wiping the wetness from her weathered cheek, Esther opened her grey-blue eyes. She stood slowly as if uncertain, but with determination. She crossed the room to the corner where the computer screen glowed softly in the night. Squaring her shoulders, she reached out and pushed a single button.
"It's done now, Lord. For good or for bad, it's all in your hands now," she pronounced with finality as she turned back to the bed, the open suitcase and clothes lying on it. She began to fold and place them inside one by one.
Jill Chambers placed the cup of steaming black coffee on the table and opened the battered laptop. Her fingers hesitated before pressing the power button. She listened to the soft whir of the fan as she brought the cup slowly to her lips.
At forty-five, she felt an utter fool to be expectantly awaiting an email from a man half a world away. But over the past six weeks, she had felt a growing excitement about Daniel Monroe and his daughters.
Looking out the kitchen window, Jill watched the rain fall. Another rainy day in London. The weather would be one thing that she would not miss about her adopted home. If this arrangement with Daniel worked out.
Opening the Internet browser, Jill checked her email first thing. Her fingers trembled as they pressed the key that would open the latest email from Daniel.
My mother is packing this evening. The news from the doctors back home isn't good. My dad's cancer that we thought was in remission has spread. She wouldn't say it, but I don't think there is much they can do this time.
I know this may seem sudden, but it isn't like we haven't talked about it. The whole arranged marriage thing. Besides as Mama points out the girls need more than a grandmother and I'm not too damned proud to admit I need some help here. Four daughters to care for, even without considering Rachel's death. Hell, give me an IED in Afghanistan any day.
I know I'm rambling, but it's late. Anyway, I've purchased a plane ticket for you. Your flight leaves Heathrow day after tomorrow at 11.15 and arrives in Washington Dulles at 14.20. My mother's plane back to Omaha leaves an hour earlier, so I'll pick you up after she takes off.
I guess I'll be seeing you shortly...or I sure hope so.
Jill ran her hand through her shoulder length dirty blonde hair. Tomorrow. There was a plane ticket for her back to the states tomorrow. After twenty-six years in a country that had never felt like home, despite her husband and sons, she would be going home.
If the idea of traveling three thousand miles to marry a man that she had never met gave her pause, Jill did not show it. Powering down the computer, she placed her cup in the sink. Less than twenty-four hours from now, she would be at Heathrow and on the way to a new life.
Daniel Monroe leaned into the back of the Ford Explorer. It was an older model, but he made certain that it was well maintained. Re-adjusting the last of the luggage in the storage compartment, he slammed the window shut and walked around to the driver's side door.
He crammed his six foot four inch frame behind the wheel and turned to face his mother. "Simone said that she would call you tonight to let you know how things went. I got the feeling she wasn't talking about your flight either."
Esther fidgeted in the front seat, avoiding her son's clear blue eyes. "She might be a tad unusual, but that girl has a heart of gold."
"Well, you two have certainly become thicker than thieves these past few months, that's for sure. All those computer classes she gave you better pay off when you get home. I expect an email every day with updates on Dad."
Her face paled at the mention of computer lessons. She patted the laptop that sat on the seat next to her. "You have my word."
Daniel hesitated "Mama, how bad is it really?"
Her grey head dropped to stare at her hands neatly folded in her lap. Esther fought back tears, "Bad, Daniel," was her only response.
He wanted to press for more information, but Daniel could see the pain in his mother's face and made a strategic retreat. "You'll be home tonight."
"I know, but I still worry about you and the girls."
"I told you already. Simone will help out for a few days and I have already called a couple of agencies about nannies. We'll be fine," he bluffed.
"Daniel, those girls don't need a nanny. Nannies quit all the time. Those girls need someone that is going to be there no matter what. Someone that's gonna love them through the bad times."
"Mama, they have me. I might not know much about hair and Barbie's, but I love my girls."
"I never said you didn't, Daniel. But they need a woman. They need a mother."
"Yeah, Mama, well they had one of those and look how that turned out," he spat with vitriol.
Looking over to his mother's concerned face, he reassured her. "We'll do fine."
"Daniel, I know Rachel was your wife, but that woman didn't have a motherly instinct in her body. God rest her soul," she said as she made the sign of the cross.
Slamming his palms against the steering wheel in frustration, "Mama, we've been through this before. So unless you got a wife and mother in one of those bags in the back, this subject is closed."
"Well, she isn't exactly in my luggage. You have to pick her up at the airport."
"May I bring you another drink?" smiled the steward.
Jill's fingers trembled a bit as she passed the empty wineglass back to him. "I'd better not."
"Business or pleasure?" the man inquired.
Jill furrowed her brow as she considered the question. What was this 'arrangement' anyway?
"Business, I suppose."
"Well, best of luck to you then," he offered before pushing his cart further down the narrow aisle to the next weary traveller.
Jill pondered the question. The bravery or fool-hardiness of the past thirty-six hours melted away from her as the reality of the situation set in.
For the past six weeks, it had all seemed so completely logical. She wanted to go home. She missed the military life that she had once shared with her husband. And her arms and heart ached with love. Her own sons grown, she had no one to whom she could give it all.
Daniel's wife was dead. Widowhood was just one of their common bonds. He had four daughters, just as she had four sons. Except that his daughters desperately needed the love that she had to give.
Arranged marriages were common, she had told herself. Her best friend, Ubah, had always extolled the advantages of a relationship built on common values, goals and respect. It was far more stable than a marriage built upon the tides of passion that ebbed and flowed with time, she pointed out repeatedly. As proof, she pointed to the lower divorce rates in countries were the practice was still common.
Of course, there were similarities with Western practices as well. Was it really any different than dating sites that boasted of finding the perfect match based upon shared principles and goals? What too of the many men that practically bought foreign brides? She had reasoned and justified the decision.
Pulling the grainy picture printed on cheap computer paper from the pocket on the chair back in front of her, Jill stared at the laughing man and the four beautiful girls surrounding him. Jill knew so much about each of them.
Jessica or Jessie as she preferred to be called was almost thirteen. Her blonde hair was cut short for the sake of the many sports that were her passions.
Isobel was six and could play for hours in her room with the dozens of Barbie's that her sister had long since abandoned.
But it was the two youngest Monroe girls that tugged at her heart. Ashley and Britney were barely a year old. They had started to walk since their email correspondence began. Daniel had even sent a video of their first steps that his mother had taken.
Her eyes danced across the figure of the man holding a baby high in each arm. The lower part of his face was covered with layers of soft chocolate hair from his beard. But she could see, despite the poor resolution of the picture which was probably taken on a cell phone, that his lips were full. But it was his grey-blue eyes. She could not look away from them. They danced with laughter and hid so much pain.
"What the hell have I gotten myself into?" she whispered.
"What the hell have you done, Mama?" Daniel demanded to know. His voice louder and firmer than it had ever been to the woman whom he loved deeply.
"What you should have done yourself, looked for a good woman that will love those babies and take care of them like they ought to be cared for."
"Mama, they call those women nannies and I am looking for one," Daniel slammed the car into gear and drove off. Silence filled the air as they drove off.
Daniel knew his mother meant the best. He was one of the lucky ones in this fucked world. He grew up in a home where his mother and father loved him and one another. They weren't afraid to show it either. Until he was almost ten, Daniel awoke each morning to a kiss on his cheek and a song. He hummed 'Arise and shine,' in the darkest of moments.
It was a tradition that he carried on with his daughters, though Jesse was beginning to complain as he had once. Still, there was not a day went by when he was home that he did not hug them and tell them he loved them. That was probably what got them through the past nine months since Rachel's suicide.
Things were hard, he admitted that. He really did not know what he was going to do now that his mother was going home. He knew that Simone and the other wives would help out as much as they could. The closeness of his unit extended beyond the battlefield to the home front; wives and children encompassed in the bands of their brotherhood.
But Daniel remembered well those first few days following Rachel's death before his mother arrived. He had burnt everything, even food he microwaved. Bel's hair was a mass of blond tangles because he could not bear the tears if he tried to comb it. The only thing he had successfully managed was changing the babies' diapers and at times he had been tempted to break out the gas masks for that chore. He did not even want to think about what their small three bedroom house must have looked like when his mother came through the door.
He shuddered at the thought of going back to that. But the shock of the situation had worn off. Now he was more familiar with the girls' routines. He told himself that he would manage. Until he could find a nanny that was.
His thoughts were broken as they entered the freeway that would take them north towards DC and the airport. "Daniel, I'm sorry. You have to know I was just thinking of those girls and you."
Daniel saw tears glistening in his mother's eyes. He never was any good at handling a woman's tear. His daughters'. His wife's. Or especially his mother's. "I know, Mama. I know."
"And Jill really is special. She raised four teenage boys all by herself after her husband was killed in Afghanistan. She works as a chef at a mental health center now that her sons are all grown." Her eyes pleading with him, she continued, "Daniel, she's come all the way from London. I know you are mad at me. And I deserve it. But, son, your dad and I raised a gentleman. Promise me you won't leave her standing at that airport."
"Jesus, Mama, of course I won't leave her at the airport," taking his eyes from the road for just a moment, "Did you really have to ask?"
Sighing, Esther continued. "No, Daniel, I guess not. I just feel so responsible for this mess."
Daniel was tempted to let his mother off the hook. He could see the worry etched in her face. Him and the girls. His dad. Everything must have seemed to be closing in on her. It was a familiar feeling these past couple of years.
"What did you expect me to say or do, Mama?"
Shaking her grey head, Esther stared at the tall trees that ran along the side of the highway. "I don't know. I guess I just hoped that I could make you see how practical it was. You need someone to manage the house, cook, clean and look after the girls. They need someone that will actually invest real time and love in them, not someone who just sees them as a pay check. And Jill is so alone over there now. Her husband dead. Her sons grown. She just has so much love to give and I figured those girls could really use some of it."
Daniel hated to admit it, but her words did sound perfectly logical. "Mama, she's a perfect stranger," he argued in his defence.
"She doesn't have to be. Give her a chance, sweetie. That's all I ask," his mother pleaded.
"Considering the alternative is to leave a woman stranded at the airport, alone in a foreign country, what choice do I have?"
"It's not a foreign country. Jill is American."
"But I thought you said she was from London," Daniel was confused.
"She is, but she's American. She moved over there twenty-six years ago when she married an officer in the British Marines that she met while on leave in Cancun."
"She was on leave in Cancun?"
"No, silly, he was."
Daniel gripped the steering wheel tighter.
"Alright, we have a couple of hours at least. How about you brief me on this whole damned thing? But only the basics," he asserted. He did not want his mother getting any foolish ideas...any more that was. "I am not making any promises here. I just want enough information so I can make the lady comfortable until we can get her back to London. Understand me, Mama?"
Esther smiled and nodded as another silent prayer was sent towards heaven.
Jill fumbled with the blue passport that she held in her fingers. United States of America embossed in gold on the front, she smiled as she stepped forward to hand it to the customs agent. She was home. Well, on American soil at least.
"Business or pleasure?" the man repeated the question that had plagued her for hours on the plane.
"I'm returning home," she smiled.
The man looked up from the screen and smiled. "Welcome home then. How long were you away?"
"That's a long time. What brings you back?"
"I'm getting re-married," she answered.
"Lucky man," he pronounced as he stamped a page in the document. "You can collect your luggage through those doors," he pointed.
Jill nodded and made her way across the floor. The heels of her pumps tapped against the floor with each step. She stood in the queue, the line; she corrected herself and waited for the carousel to start. Time drug by.
She watched the older woman that had been across the aisle from her. She was going to meet her new grandbaby. The young couple, who had been in front of her, struggled to keep their son from running away. His father grabbed him and lifted him high into the air. Giggles echoed through the baggage hall.
Jill guessed that he was only slightly older than Ashley and Britney. She could easily imagine Daniel doing something similar to distract the girls from trouble. She knew from his emails that he loved his daughters. Even more than the country he served for almost twenty years. It was one of the things that made this whole thing feel so right.
The loud bell brought her back from her thoughts as the carousel began to turn. She focused her attention on the luggage as it moved slowly by. Her whole life was crammed into two suitcases and the battered laptop bag that was slung over her shoulder. Finally, she spotted the first of her bags. She struggled to lift it onto the trolley, just in time to notice the second one arrive.
It occurred to her then that perhaps she should have stopped by a restroom before she collected her bags. After hours on a plane, she was certain that she neither looked nor smelled good. She berated herself for the oversight. There was nothing she could do about it now, she thought as she pushed the cart towards the double doors to the arrivals waiting area and the man that would soon be her husband.
Daniel rushed across the airport from one terminal to another. He hoped that he would make it before the woman finished with customs and collected her bags. He might not know her, but his mother had told him enough about Jill Chambers to respect a woman that would leave everything she had known for a quarter of a century and travel half a world away to begin a new life. He admired her spirit of adventure that was for certain.
He arrived just in time to watch the first of the passengers push through the double doors. He looked at the picture his mother had given him, along with the account name and password information for the dating site where she had found the woman. Jill, he corrected. She was as innocent a victim in this sham as he was.
He caught site of her as she struggled with the trolley, which was piled high with two large bags. His gut tightened. The picture did not do her justice. She might not be the typical beauty that Rachel had been, but there was something completely captivating about the woman. Her curves in the jeans were womanly and soft. Despite the bulky sweater he could tell that her breasts were full and lush. They would more than fill his hands.
Shaking his dark head, Daniel reminded himself that he was not interested in the 'arrangement' as his mother called it. He was picking the woman up from the airport, explaining about the misunderstanding and offering her whatever hospitality he could until arrangements could be made for her to return home.
He noticed her scanning the crowd and waved his arms to catch her attention. The genuine smile that lit her face when she saw him took his breath away. She quickened her step as she approached him.
"Daniel, it's so good to finally meet you," she exclaimed as she wrapped her arms about him.
Daniel wasn't sure what to do. He knew next to nothing about this woman. He certainly wanted no part in this little 'arrangement' of his mother's. But he was too much of a gentleman to push her away. So instead he patted her back.
"Here, let me get those bags for you," he offered as she drew back from the embrace.
She nodded, "Thanks. I am a bit tired. And could we find a loo before we go?"
Daniel smiled at the distinctly British term for bathroom. He placed one hand on her elbow and guided her down the hall as he used the other hand to push the cart. "I saw a bathroom back this way."
"Sorry, bathroom. It will take me a while to get used to the American words again. One of the first things I learned when I moved to England was that English and American are two different languages."
Stopping in front of a door that bore the image of a stick figure wearing a dress, "It's fine. Perhaps after you freshen up, we could have a drink or something to eat," he offered as an entry point to the conversation they needed to have.
"Sure. I'll just be a couple of minutes," she offered as she disappeared.
Jill ran the brush through her hair once more. Her reflection in the mirror scowled. What was wrong?
What's wrong, stupid! You came three thousand miles to marry a man you have never met and he isn't interested, she thought. Jill wasn't sure what she expected, but the polite but stiff hug he had returned spoke volumes. Of course, she was not the beauty that his wife had been, but she had been honest about that. She had sent pictures; some unfaltering ones too.