The Arrangement Ch. 04byTara_Neale©
Jill looked out across the Jackson's packed backyard. When she and Simone had discussed a small get together for the unit, this was not what she had expected. Music was blaring from the speakers next to the back door. The large built-in barbeque pit was blazing and everyone from the chapel plus a few more were crammed into the yard, the house and pouring out onto the street. Thankfully, they did not have to worry about the neighbors complaining since most of them were at the party.
Althea, Jessie and a dozen other teens were crammed into the decent sized above ground pool, but it was still a tight squeeze. The teen had flatly refused to participate in the wedding, choosing instead to sit sulking on the front row. And that was only under duress, her father threatening to ground her for a month. No soccer. No television. It was not until he had said no Internet that she had acceded. But the moment the brief service was over, she had made her escape to hide in her room, her head bent over the computer as usual.
Jill remembered well how upset her youngest son, who had been just a couple years older than Jessie was now, had gotten when she began dating again two years after his father's death. Of course Darren happened to be right, at least about her choice in men. She sighed and brought the glass of wine to her lips. She had long since lost count of them, but she would worry about hangovers later.
The words to the old song, 'it's my party and I'll cry if I want to,' kept racing through her mind. And Jill did feel like crying. After her little run-in with Daniel in the laundry room, her deepest fears had been realized. She had lain awake until the sun began to rise, staring at the ceiling, counting and re-counting every doubt she had. She had weighed them all carefully on the scales of life against the love she already felt for Bel, Ashley, Britney and even Jessie. And despite it all, she decided not to run.
Of course, that would have been bad enough. But just as the dawn was approaching and the hour was decent enough for her to get out of bed and begin the day, her wedding day, she had finally fallen asleep. Even then it was filled with turbulent dreams. David smiling as he rose from the surf that first day. Shaking his dark curls and flinging water about as he and his mates laughed. Daniel's brown waves rumbled and his eyes dreamy as he stood in the kitchen doorway wearing nothing but those damned white boxers.
It only got worse from there. Taunts and jeers. 'Fat, obnoxious slut.' 'Old and worn out.' 'No man could ever really want you.' The words had rung in her ears until Simone had woken her late for the big event.
If that was not bad enough, the kiss that she had spent the whole morning worried about, as Simone and a couple of the other wives got her dressed, did her hair and make-up, it had turned out to be anti-climatic to say the least. After the flames that had flared between them in the laundry room, Jill had not known what to expect, but it certainly was not the brief and formal brush of Daniel's lips across hers. Signing the papers on a new car was more exciting than that kiss.
The kiss had only served to confirm Jill's worst fears. After her wanton behavior the night before, Daniel was having second thoughts about the whole thing. Hell, if he did not need a nanny so damned bad, he would have probably run from the church as fast as he could. And Jill could not blame him.
The sarong wrap that she wore tied between her breasts hid well the one-piece swim suit that was the official attire for this pool party, barbeque and wedding reception. But Jill was thankful to have the wrap. Its folds encompassed an array of sins; cellulite covered thighs and a not so flat tummy just to name a couple.
Of course, the assortment of beautiful younger women around her served only to fuel her insecurities and her drinking. The only good thing was the bright floral swim suit that Simone and all her 'big beautiful women' glory was parading around in. She envied the woman's confidence and acceptance of her body shape. She envied too the way that Samuel seemed to adore every single inch of his wife's character.
Jill looked around the yard once more. It had been so many years since she had done head counts as she called them with her sons. Once her third son was born, it had been simply easier to count heads at the parks than to call to each boy individually. She noticed that Jessie was still safely staring daggers at her from the pool.
Bel and a couple of other girls around her age were on the screened in back porch. Their Barbie’s and Ken’s dressed in wedding finery. Bel herself was still dressed in her prettiest pink dress. It was a present from a fancy shop in New York she had boasted to Jill as they curled her blond tresses. 'Only the finest' her Grandma Janice said for her girls. After the wedding, Daniel had tried to coax the child to change into her swim suit and shorts like her sisters, but Bel insisted that her dress was a-pro-pri-ate for the party as well as the wedding. In the end, both he and Jill had caved into the child's 'cute face' as she called it.
Ashley and Britney were in the small wading pool that one of the wives had insisted the guys bring over for the event. There were four or five young mothers, who were much more sober than she was at the moment, watching over a half a dozen toddlers.
That left only Daniel unaccounted for. Her husband, she thought as she drained the glass and headed off to the bar that Simone and Samuel had sat up opposite the barbeque bit. Jill knew that if she concentrated very hard, she could make it the fifteen or twenty feet from her plastic chair near the back door to the bar without stumbling or weaving or doing anything else that might embarrass herself or Daniel.
Of course, that was not counting on the five or six young boys that came barreling along out of no where, water guns blazing. One of them, who could not have been more than seven or eight, ran straight into her. Any other time, the impact would have barely been felt. But with that many glasses of wine in her, it was a recipe for disaster. She felt herself toddle and began to fall forward.
Until a pair of strong arms wrapped about her waist from out nowhere. Jill righted herself and shook her head, ready to make her apologies. When she looked up it was into the hazy blue eyes of the person she had been looking for, the one person she was trying hardest to avoid this night.
"Daniel," she whispered.
His hands about her waist steadied her, but they were also a painful reminder of the night before. The kiss. The real one.
"You all right?" he asked.
Jill could do nothing more than nod. Whether it was the wine warming her blood or the dreams or the man himself she did not know, but she swore that her skin beneath his hands was blistering from the heat.
Holding up her empty glass, she purred, "Just getting another glass of wine."
Daniel took the glass from her fingers. "You sure that's a good idea, sweetheart?"
His casual use of the term brought anger bubbling up inside her gut. After that weak excuse for a kiss in front of everyone. Then hours spent avoiding her at the party, she was in no mood for his patronizing.
"What do you care? Go, find your buddies again. I'm just fine," she said trying to pull out of his grasp, but he refused to let go of her now that he had found her it seemed.
The wine had loosened the sharp tongue that a quarter of a century of politeness had taught her to curb. Turning to him, she whispered, "What? Is it time to pretend to be a 'real' couple for our company, commander?"
Daniel was in no mood for games with his wife. Eight glasses. Two god damned bottles of wine in less than two hours.
What was it about him? Why was it that marriage to him was enough to make a woman drink? They had been man and wife for less than four hours and the normally reserved Jill was tipping glass after glass. It only confirmed his worst fears. He just was not cut out to be a husband.
But a husband he was. Again. And right now, short of showing his wife exactly how 'real' things were between them, all he wanted to do was get her home and safely to bed. Alone. This night at least. That ship had sailed a bottle and a half ago, he thought as he guided her through the crowd towards the bar, but not for the purpose she thought.
Jill smiled and held her glass up as they greeted Samuel, who was tending bar for a bit while Simone helped Dwayne through the house so that his wheel chair did not get stuck along the way. Daniel had been pleased that in the haste Simone had remembered to invite Dwayne and several other members of his unit that were no longer active. But Simone was a team player like that.
She had even invited Chloe and her son, Thad. Daniel had been surprised to see the young widow, but delighted too. Thad was beginning to look like his father, Zach, who had been killed on the same mission two years ago that left Dwayne a paraplegic. Daniel had hoped that Jill would be able to befriend the young woman, having raised her boys alone after her husband was killed. But that too would have to wait for another time.
"Great party," his new wife screamed to Samuel across the bar. The music was loud, but not that loud, he thought. "Another glass of the rose," she asked.
Daniel shook his head as he handed his friend the empty glass he was holding. "Actually, I was just about to take Jill home. It's getting late," he made their excuses, although he knew his friend understood far more than he said.
Jill shook her head and was about to protest when Simone stepped up from behind them. "No way, buddy. You, of all people, know this party is far from over," she said as she pinned him with one of her looks.
Daniel was just about as much in the mood for Simone as he was for his wife's drinking binge. "This party is over for my wife, Simone. O-V-E-R," he spelled.
Jill wrapped her arms about her new buddy and ally. "I'm a big girl and I'm staying," she said as she poked him in the chest with her finger. "Just because we are married does not mean you can boss me about."
Daniel threw up his hands and passed his wife off to Simone, "Get her out of here." Turning to Samuel, he added, "Not another drop, I mean it." It was an order that was painfully familiar to the men.
Simone nodded and wrapped her arms about Jill's waist. "Come on, girl friend. Let's get a cup of coffee and something to eat from the kitchen. Then we can get you ready." Jill nodded and the two women turned back towards the house.
"Simone, one more thing," Daniel called after them. The women turned and looked at him. "I mean it. This party is over for her. I know what you are up to and I'm not having it."
"Spoil sport," Simone taunted him, sticking out her tongue. "It's a tradition almost as old as this unit and you damned well know it. It's bad luck too if we don't," she nodded her head to where Chloe and Dwayne sat by the wading pool watching Thad splash and giggle. Their faces were both dark with sorrow that neither had the courage to speak of.
"That's poppy cock and you know it, woman. This is the twenty-first century and we live in America not some damned third world country where superstition still reigns over everything," he justified. "I will not have you and the others making a fool of us just to satisfy some stupid, perverse tradition. Do you hear me?"
"It's up to her, commander," Simone said as she turned, dragging Jill back towards the house.
Daniel shook his head and took the bottle of beer that Samuel held out for him. "I wouldn't worry about it. Your wife can barely stand. I doubt like hell that a cup of coffee is going to sober her up enough to dance in front of fifty people."
"I sure as hell hope you're right, but you know these crazy women. Did a little alcohol stop Simone? Or Trisha? Or Gail?"
Both men left her name unsaid. It was the one time that Rachel had ever attempted to fit in with his friends and comrades. And it had been a complete nightmare. The last thing he wanted or needed was a repeat of that night in front of his men.
"Hey, don't worry about it. I got your back, buddy. Remember I'm DJ as well as bartender. If anything goes wrong, I'll simply switch the songs," he said raising his bottle of beer. "Just remember to make a big of show of it. Rubbing against the little lady while you hold her drunk ass up and keep her from falling."
"Gees, with a friend like you, who needs enemies?" Daniel sighed.
A cloud passed over Samuel's face as he looked over towards the wooden gate that led to the street. A stocky blond headed man entered, smiling and shaking hands with several people. "Speaking of which."
Daniel turned and followed his friend's line of sight. He gulped the bottle of beer and slammed it on the bar. "Just what I need right now. Clay Dodd. Who the hell invited his sorry ass?"
"Don't look at me! I told Simone not to call that one," Samuel said holding his hands up in surrender before he passed Daniel another bottle.
"Yeah, like your god damned wife listens to anything you say," he cursed.
"Come on, Daniel. You know that isn't fair. If Simone did invite him, it's our fault. We're the ones so damned worried about how what he did would affect the unit that we covered it up." Lifting his bottle of beer, he took a long drink, "Sometimes I wonder if we ain't as dirty as that bastard. The way we left that poor girl out to dry."
Daniel sighed. It was not one of his prouder moments as a commander, but sometimes there simply were no win situations. Then you made the best choice; the best of a bad lot. Clay Dodd was one of those times.
"What is it about a little money that spoils people?" he asked.
Samuel chuckled. "Not like we would know, buddy. Not with what Uncle Sam pays us."
Daniel smiled and raised his bottle, clinking it against his friends. "I'm surprised you ain't accepted one of his daddy's kind offers."
"Nay, man. Something ain't right about that outfit. I'll take my chances with you and the other guys. At least, I know you got my back and won't sell me out to the highest bidder."
"Thanks for that, man. Don't know what I'd do without you, especially tonight." Turning Daniel watched as Clay approached Dwayne and Chloe. "I better go see what that snake is up to this time. But I mean it, keep our wives away from the PA system. I don't want to hear that god damned song tonight."
Samuel saluted. Something they both knew was a joke in a group where skill meant more than rank. "Yes, sir. I'll do my best."
"You just remember who has your back next time."
Samuel laughed, "Yeah, buddy, but you remember what side our bread is buttered on. And I don't know about you, but I like my butter spread nice and thick on my buns."
"T-M-I," Daniel said as he spewed beer at the image of Samuel's butt covered in butter. "If that's one of your 'tricks' do me a favor and keep them to yourself."
Both men laughed and raised their bottles one more time before Daniel turned to face the unpleasant task of dealing with this gate crasher.
"You want me to do what?" Jill practically screamed at Simone and the half dozen other wives and girlfriends that were huddled in the kitchen. "Are you fucking nuts? I might be drunk, but I ain't that drunk. You want me to prance half naked before Daniel." She stared at Simone, "With everyone watching?"
The buxom young red head from Texas, who had introduced herself as Trisha, stepped forward. "It's tradition, honey. You a Texas gal. You know how important these things are," she looked around to the others for support. "We all did it. I promise you, another glass of wine and it'll all be good fun."
Jill could not expect this girl, who looked like she stepped directly off the Miss Texas USA ramp, to understand so she turned to Simone.
"You know why I can't do this, Simone. Please," she pleaded in a whisper.
The woman nodded her head of braids and turned back towards the others. "It's her choice, girls. You know that."
The petite brunette who had just entered the kitchen carrying a toddler stopped. A horrified expression on her face, as tears threatened to brim over her green eyes. "You have to," she cried out. Looking at Simone, she begged, "You have to tell her. She has to do it. I don't want this happening to anyone else."
Simone tried to wrap her arms about the younger woman, "Chloe, you have to let this one go, honey. It wasn't your fault. Daniel's right, it is all just a superstition. You refusing to dance had nothing to do with that copter going down. You aren't to blame for Zach's death anymore than Dwayne is."
The woman clutched tightly to the toddler as the tears spilled down her innocent cheeks. "Maybe you are right. But I'll never know for sure, will I?"
Her eyes bore into Jill, who in that moment felt remarkably sober. She knew those eyes. They had stared back at her from a mirror for over two years. They were the eyes of grief.
"It's a dance. Just a dance. Trust me, it isn't worth the pain of never knowing," Chloe choked out the words before she turned and ran from the room, clutching the little boy so tightly that he began to cry.
Jill stood up and went to follow after her. Her heart brimmed over with the shared pain of losing a soldier, husband and father. It was the worst of nightmares, suddenly made real.
But Simone held out her hand. "I'll go after her, sweetie. And don't let this lot pressure you. It is your decision. The tradition began as a special gift freely given by a bride to her groom. If that ain't what you want, then don't do it."
Jill nodded and squeezed her friend's chunky hand. "Thank you. Now go after her. And call me if you need me. I might be drunk, but I ain't so drunk I don't still know those feelings. Tell her I'll call her next week too, will you?"
Simone brushed a stray hair back from her face, "I meant it. You are as perfect as we thought you were. You are everything that man and this unit needs. And don't you forget that, girl. Size zero or size twenty-four don't matter half as much as what's in here," the woman thumped her ample chest. "And that you got in spades."
Jill hugged her. "Go, damn it. If I'm gonna do this thing, I don't need black mascara smudges on my cheeks on top of everything else."
Simone squeezed her back, "You go, girl. I knew you would come through in the end. Don't you dare do nothing before I get back," she said.
"You have my word on it," Jill said. "And no matter what Daniel says bring me another bottle of wine. I'm gonna need it for this one."
Simone winked before she disappeared through the back door. Jill sighed and joined in with the other wives as they chattered about the night's main event. Or what for all of them had been the prelude to the main event. She hoped like hell that Simone was right. That she could do this. Or at the very least she hoped that bottle of wine was enough to make her forget it all.
Daniel walked over to where the man was chatting with Dwayne Richmond, Chloe Johnson and a half dozen other wives and girl friends. For a moment he thought of a Bible story from his childhood, the apple in the Garden of Eden. This man was as wily as that snake for sure.
Clay Dodd had served in his unit for less than a year. The Annapolis graduate was the only son of one of the country's wealthiest men. Clay Dodd, Senior had founded his security firm, Night Walkers, back in the early eighties. He had used his own expertise as a former Army Ranger to craft a line of personal and electronic security systems that were among the most innovative and sought after of their time.
Over the years, he had grown from security details for the rich and famous to protecting some of the world's most powerful leaders and some of its most precious resources. Problem was that to build his wealth and power, the man had chosen not to be too picky about who he worked for. Rumor had it that some of Africa's most wanted men were among his client list, hiding from the same United Nations that was also a client of Night Walkers.