Jill’s Cinnamon Raisin Buttermilk Scones
8oz self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1oz caster sugar
5fl oz buttermilk
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 cup of dried sultanas/raisins
1 free-range egg, beaten, to glaze (alternatively use a little milk)
Sift flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder into a large bowl. Work cold butter through until the mixture resembles damp sand. Slowly add buttermilk, mixing as you go. The final product should have the consistency of a woman’s breast – firm but spongy (natural ones, not those silicone imitations). Add sultanas/raisin, mixing thoroughly. Knead for a couple of minutes on a lightly floured surface then roll flat with a rolling pin. Cut into circles (or whatever shape you fancy…there are some really naughty cookie cutters out there). Place on a greased baking sheet and brush lightly with egg. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until risen and lightly brown. Serve with fresh whipped cream, butter, or your favorite jam.
Jill Smith stared out the kitchen window of her North London flat as the radio blasted ‘Only the Lonely.’ Its sad melody wrapped about her like an old worn jumper. It was going to be another rainy day, as she pulled a coffee cup from the cabinet. She turned on the kettle and spooned instant coffee and sugar into the cup. The weather matched her mood today. It was Sunday, so she did not even have work to distract her from this melancholy. But then again, not even that was working these days. Too many memories, good and bad.
Lost in thought, she poured the boiling water into the cup and stirred long past the point when the crystals dissolved. She knew that she needed to do something. Anything. She had to make a change. This was not good for her. The job that held so many painful memories. This flat, with its empty bedrooms, was just another reminder that her real job was done. Her sons were grown men; soldiers, with lives of their own.
Trouble was – Jill did not have a life of her own. She had work, empty rooms, and memories of a man and boys that were not here anymore. Sure, it was a common plight for widows, but she was barely forty-five. There was plenty of life left to live before she sat down in a rocker with her photo albums, although most of those had been replaced by USB sticks when her second son Declan decided to digitize everything for her Christmas present a couple of years ago.
She grabbed a scone that she had brought home from work, from the container on the table. She was not hungry, but the sweet British version of a homemade biscuit had become comfort food. She sighed as she looked down at her full figure. The thin cotton nightgown did little to hide the bulges of her tummy, thighs, and hips. Badges of motherhood that seemed more noticeable with each passing year. She bit her tongue as the sing-song litany of self-deprecation played through her mind. She swallowed back the metallic taste as she put the pastry back.
Instead, she reached for her laptop. Perhaps it would bring momentary distraction. Jill tapped her finger on the table as the older model hissed and came slowly to life. She opened the internet browser to check her email. Would her very British sons remember that this was Mother’s Day in the country of their mother’s birth?
America. It had been so long since she had even been there. It seemed more like a distant memory sometimes than the place where she had lived for a large portion of her life. But then again, these days lots of things were feeling like distant dreams: the man that she had loved for almost twenty years. Hell, the man she still loved in some sick, morbid way. The empty flat, full of laughter and fighting, with four loud and boisterous sons.
She had to stop thinking like this, as she focused upon her inbox. She frowned in disappointment that there were just two new ones. Opening the files, she smiled that one of them was from her youngest son Darren. At twenty-one, he was training to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He was the only one of her four sons that had not followed directly in their father’s footsteps and become a Royal Marine. Then again, her baby was the most like her. She doubted that he would have it in him to manage that kind of hand to hand combat, seeing the enemy that you killed face-to-face. No, Darren definitely belonged above it all.
She fought back disappointment that there was nothing from her other three sons. Her eldest D.J., David Junior, named after his father, and her third son Damien probably did not even have access to computers if they were in the field. Even in this modern, connected world, she could go months without hearing from either of them. She understood, their lives, careers, and friends consumed their time. As it should. But she had hoped that Dec would remember and drop her a quick email. Then again, just because he had taken the higher road and trained in computers, becoming an officer, did not mean that his career in Intel was any less dangerous.
She should be used to this by now. After almost twenty years married to a Bootneck, she should understand that Operational Security meant prolonged periods without communication., even now. Still, it was different when it was her babies.
Of course, their father’s death in a ‘friendly fire’ drone accident did little to alleviate her worries. David had promised her it would be his last deployment. With barely two years left before he could retire with full benefits, he assured her that their dream house on the sunny Costa del Sol of Spain was just around the corner.
It had been their favorite family vacation spot and reminded them of Cancun, Mexico, where they had met while he was on leave from his posting in nearby Belize. Jill had been traveling the world. Not that she had ever made it any further than Cancun. Then England, as she happily followed her first love. She would not want it any other way. Jill would not have traded the happy years they had together for anything, especially those last few as they explored their darkest fantasies together. She forced her mind back from even those pleasant memories. That woman was no more.
Concentrating on the computer screen once more, she frowned at the other email address. It was the dating site that her best friend Ubah had convinced her to try, just a couple of months before her death. The woman had been the only friend that she had managed to make in all her years in London.
Perhaps the decision to move her family from the small town, where their father had been stationed, and they had grown up, had not been the best. It certainly had not been an easy one. Being surrounded with military families, who did not know what to say or do around you, had been difficult on them all. She knew that was because she and the boys were a dark reminder of what could happen to any of them. But that did not lessen the pain when you ran into someone you had known for a decade at the store, and they simply turned their back and walked away.
But London had not worked out any better. The people here were not friendly, everyone seemed in such a rush, and even typical British politeness was hard to come by. She shook her head; maybe the move had been a bad idea. The past couple of years would seem to attest to that.
While she had managed to get training and find a job as a chef at a mental health center near them, she had not made many friends. Her neighbors, those who spoke English anyway, were older and considered any teenagers bad news. So, she and the boys were not especially welcome. At work, she had made more acquaintances than friends, but even those had been more distant since she broke off her engagement with one of the counselors there. In this mood, she certainly did not want to go down that road…again.
Only one good thing had come out of her first and only attempt at dating, her friendship with Ubah. As Jill retreated further and further inside herself with the pain of the break-up, the woman had reached out to her. Between the group sessions where Ubah taught music therapy, she would sneak into the kitchen for chats as Jill cooked.
The two women could not have been more different. Jill was the stereotypical loud-mouthed American, who had followed her heart and man across the ocean to begin a new life. And Ubah, the traditional Somali bride, her marriage was the product of an arrangement between their families. But despite their differences, the women became close. Close enough to carry Jill through the painful break-up of a relationship that was a mistake from the beginning and sufficient to comfort Ubah through her long battle with breast cancer. A fight that she was destined to lose.
Now Jill found herself totally, completely, and utterly alone in a city of over eight million people. She smiled through the tears as she looked at the email. Her fingers hovered over the delete button. What good could come of it? It had been a stupid idea, something she had agreed only to comfort her dying friend. Hadn’t she learned anything from the train wreck that was her engagement? But instead of hitting the delete button, she accidentally opened the email.
I know this is crazy and as wonderful as you sound I am sure that some other lucky guy has already snapped you up, but if by some chance they haven’t I’d like the opportunity to get to know you better. You sound just like what my girls and I need.
Commander Daniel Monroe, United States Navy
Curiosity goaded her on. Jill could not stop herself from opening the attached picture. The laughing man, with the faint lines about his eyes, had dark chocolate hair that was anything but regulation cut. It curled about his face that was covered mostly with a beard. His mouth was smiling, but it did not seem to reach the piercing eyes, whose color she could not quite make out in the grainy photograph. Like her David, he was tall and well-built, but this man showed none of the slight softening around the middle that her husband had battled after he turned forty.
If the man had not been enough to capture her attention, the young blond girls around him would have. Four of them. It seemed ironic or perhaps prophetic somehow: his four girls to her four sons. The oldest looked to be in her early teens with short hair and slight pout. Another girl, much younger, perhaps five or six, clung to the man’s leg like it was a buoy, and her life depended upon it. But the two babies that he held in his arms were what did it. They could not even be a year old. Their light blond curls made them look like little angels, identical little cherubim.
Her heart flooded instantly with a mother’s love. It seemed too good to be true. This email, when she had received less than a handful of responses to the unique profile that her friend had almost insisted she create at the site that catered to military singles. It had been months since she had even thought about it. And now this? On Mother’s Day? At that moment, it seemed as if her friend was looking over her somehow.
Commander Daniel Monroe observed as his oldest daughter, Jess, brushed the dirt from the bronze headstone. The dark shadows and moisture in her eyes ate like acid at his gut. It was yet another load of guilt to heap upon the pile that, at moments like these, felt too heavy for any man to bear.
He patted the blond curls of his six-year-old daughter Bel as he gave her sister time to say her good-byes once again to their mother. “Do you want to go over there with Jess, baby? Talk to your Mom?”
Even with the months of grief counseling that the military provided, he was still uncertain how to act around his daughters, how much to tell them, or how hard to push them. He was only thankful that he had gotten home before the school bus arrived that day. The last thing he would have wanted was for his daughters to discover their mother, dead from an overdose of anti-depressants and sleeping pills, he had not even known she was taking.
The way that his daughter shook her head and clung tighter to his leg only deepened the pain of loss. Even if his marriage had not been all that he wanted or anything like the loving partnership that his parents had shared for over forty years, he would have never wished Rachel ill. Despite their differences and her sometimes spoiled, selfish behavior, she was his wife and the mother of his children. For that reason alone, she deserved better than this. Better than him.
He fought back the tightness in his throat and blamed the bright, early May sun for the moisture that clouded his vision as Jess placed the bouquet in the pot. Some way for a twelve-year-old girl to spend Mother’s Day. Visiting the graveside of what just seven months before had been a vibrant, if increasingly sullen, woman. But that too was his fault. Her words were etched into his brain, just as her name was engraved on the tombstone.
There are no words to describe how much I hate you, hate the Navy, hate this life of poverty that the two of you have sentenced me and my girls to. I have begged and pleaded with you over and over again to take Clay’s offer, but you won’t listen to me. Now there are two more screaming kids for me to care for, without even a housekeeper, an au pair, a nanny, or something. Four children are too much for any one woman to care for alone. But you will not accept the job offer or allow my family to help. I can’t go on living like this. I always come last with you. Your country, the Navy, and your daughters leave no room for me. You are a lousy husband, and I hate you.
He sighed as the weight of it all settled on his shoulders, the muscles there, tightening in knots. He felt the single tear spill from the corner of his eye, but even that was not for the woman that had made his life hell for over thirteen years, but for the beautiful daughters she had given him. The fact that he could not manage even a single tear for the woman only deepened the guilt. Rachel had been right. He was a lousy husband, but she did not have to worry about that anymore, and he swore neither would any other hapless woman. Women were off-limits from now on. Other than his girls, of course.
He watched as his mother sat Britney and Ashley down on the grass next to the car. She had been a lifesaver, arriving only a couple of days after Rachel died. He was not sure what he would have done without her. She had shooed off Rachel’s family, the Thomas brood had never been among his favorite people, but they had arrived just hours after he called them. Not that they had been much help or comfort during those dark hours.
No, it was his mother and his best friend’s wife, Simone, who had held him and the girls together. They had cooked and cleaned the house, cared for him and his daughters. Hell, his mother had even managed to get a brush through Bel’s tangle of curls somehow. But then again, she always had been a remarkable woman, the one against whom he measured all others. A standard against which Rachel had fallen woefully short, but then again, so would most women.
It was yet another reason to keep the vow he had made as he stood here over that open hole in the ground all those months ago. No, he simply was not cut out to be a husband. Anyone’s husband, he thought as he laughed with glee and watched his mother film the twins’ first steps on her phone. Rachel should have been here to see that, but it was just a lifetime of firsts that his wife would miss, because of him.
“Happy Mother’s Day wherever you are. I’m truly sorry I wasn’t a better husband, more of the man you needed me to be,” he whispered as he watched Jess walk towards him with her shoulders slumped and head down.
Six Weeks Later
“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 sagged under the weight of worry, as the frame fell onto the bed next to her. Tears streamed down her weathered cheeks as she bowed her head in prayer. “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.”
For several long moments, she remained bent in silent prayer. She sighed heavily as she finally lifted her grey head and wiped the wetness from her face. Esther opened her grey-blue eyes. She stared across the room at her two sleeping grand-daughters. At barely a year old, Britney and Ashley would never even remember the woman that gave birth to them, or the pain she caused. They were probably the lucky ones.
She stood slowly, uncertain, but determined nonetheless, as she crossed the room to the corner where the computer screen glowed softly on the nightstand. 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,” she pronounced with the finality of amen as she turned back to the bed. The open suitcase lay open with clothes surrounding it. She began to fold and place them inside one by one.
Jill 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 her age, she felt an utter fool to be expectantly awaiting an email from a man half a world away. Yet, over the past six weeks, she had felt a growing excitement about Daniel Monroe and his daughters.
She looked out the kitchen window, 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, she checked her email. There was still no word from her boys, and that worried her, even though she knew it should not. She smiled, and 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, coping with 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 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, she did not show it. Powering down the computer, she placed her cup in the sink. Little more than twenty-four hours from now, she would be at Heathrow and on the way to a new life.
Daniel leaned into the back of the Explorer. It was an older model, but he made sure 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 bright blue eyes. “She might be a tad unusual, but that girl has a heart of gold.”
He shook his dark head and chuckled, “Heart of gold is one way to put it, but whatever you call her craziness, 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.”
Daniel studied his mother. She was unusually quiet. He knew that she was worried about his father’s cancer, but it felt like there was something else she was not telling him. He hesitated to put the feeling to words, “Mama, how bad is it really?”
Her grey head dropped to stare at her hands neatly folded in her lap. His mother fought back the tears, “Bad, Daniel,” was her only response.
He wanted to press for more information, but he could see the pain in her face. He hated it when women cried, especially the ones he cared about. He always wanted to fix it, make everything all better, but except for his young twins, it rarely worked that way. He squared his shoulder and made a strategic retreat. “You’ll be home tonight.”
“I know, but I still worry about you and the girls,” he could hear the trembling in his mother’s voice, felt the truth in her words. Honestly, so was he. Memories of those couple of days after Rachel’s death still haunted him, the chaos that had reigned in his home, before his mother and Simone took over like Admirals commanding the battle.
But he reminded himself that it would be only a few days until he found a nanny. This time, he knew his daughter’s schedule, where everything was, and had a list of the best take-out places in town. For all her meddling, he knew that Simone would step in if he needed her, and in a pinch, he could count on Jess to help out. They would be fine. He tried to reassure himself before attempting to convince his mother of something about which he still had doubts. “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.
His mother shook her head and gave him that same stare that she used when he messed up as a child, “Daniel, those girls don’t need a nanny. Nannies quit all the time. Those girls need stability, someone that is going to be there no matter what. Someone that’s gonna love them through these bad times and the ones to come.”
Daniel gripped the steering wheel tighter. He knew what was coming. They had been having this same argument for the past couple of weeks. “Mama, they have me. I might not know much about hair and Barbie dolls, but I love my girls.”
His mother reached over and gently squeezed his forearm, “I never said you didn’t, Daniel. But they need a woman. They need a mother.”
There it was. Anger rose inside Daniel as he thought about that Indian summer afternoon, the red and orange leaves falling all about him, as he stood over that bronze box, and stared into the deep hole that his failure as a husband and man had dug. “Yeah, Mama, well, they had one of those and look how that turned out,” he exploded.
The car was silent for a couple of moments. He was not certain if his mother was using the time simply to regroup for another assault, or if she was ready to surrender. He doubted very much that it was the latter. Finally, he could not take the suspense any longer. Looking over to his mother, he saw love and concern written all over her face. He knew that her intense loyalties were torn now, and he wanted nothing more than to reassure her, make this all right. “We’ll do fine,” he smiled.
“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.
He inhaled deeply and prepared for the next round of the same battle that they seemed locked in. It was grating on his nerves. His mother of all people should understand why he would never marry again. He slammed his palms against the steering wheel as frustration boiled over, “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.”
His jaw dropped open as he stared at the woman, who had given birth to him, like her skin had turned green and antenna sprouted from her forehead.
“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 with the polite aloofness that marked the culture she had lived in for most of her adult life. Politeness that lacked sincerity or any real depth of caring.
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 traveler. It only confirmed her assumptions and deepened the sense of loneliness inside her.
Jill turned back to look at the clouds passing by her window as she pondered the man’s 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 few 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 sons were grown, so 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 her sons had outgrown, love that she yearned to give once more.
Arranged marriages were common, she had told herself. Ubah had always extolled the advantages of a relationship built on the solid ground of shared values, goals, and respect. She had spoken often of the happiness that she had found with her arrangement. It was far more stable than a marriage built upon the turbulent tides of passion that ebbed and flowed with time, Ubah had pointed out repeatedly. As proof, she pointed to the lower divorce rates in countries where the practice was still prevalent.
Of course, was it 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 this decision from many angles over these past weeks.
She pulled 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. She knew so much about each of them from his emails.
Jessica or Jess, 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, called Bel, was six and could play for hours in her room with the dozens of dolls 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 chocolate hair from his beard. But she could see, despite the poor resolution of the picture which was probably taken on a mobile phone, that his lips were full. But it was his eyes. She could not look away from them. They hid so much pain. “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
“What the hell have you done, Mama?” Daniel demanded. His voice was 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,” she replied with equal anger as she crossed her arms and set herself for this next battle.
“Mama, they call those women nannies, and I am looking for one.” Daniel was not ready to have this conversation with his mother. He needed time to think as he slammed the car into gear and drove off. Silence filled the air.
Daniel knew his mother meant the best. He was one of the lucky ones in this fucked up world. He grew up in a home where his mother and father loved him and one another. They were not afraid to show it either. Until he was almost ten, Daniel awoke each morning to a kiss on his cheek and a song. It was a tradition that he carried on with his daughters, though Jess was beginning to complain, as he once had. He still found himself humming ‘Arise and shine,’ in the darkest of moments. And there had been enough of those these past few years.
Still, there was not a day went by, when he was home, that he did not hug his girls and tell them he loved them, just like his own childhood. That was probably what had gotten them through the past nine months since Rachel’s suicide.
Things were hard; he admitted that. He honestly 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 were 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 blonde 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 told himself one more time that he would manage. Until he could find a nanny, that was.
His mother’s pleas broke through his thoughts as they entered the freeway that would take them north towards Northern Virginia, D.C., and the airport. “Daniel, I’m sorry. You have to know I was just thinking of those girls and you.” He could hear the pain as his mother’s voice cracked under the stress of the past couple of weeks.
Daniel saw tears glistening in her eyes. He never was any good at handling a woman’s tears. His daughters’. His wife’s. Or especially his mother’s. “I know, Mama. I know.”
His mother began to wring her hands in her lap as the tears slipped from the corner of her eyes. “And Jill 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 as 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 waiting at that airport.”
“Jesus, Mama, of course, I won’t leave her at the airport,” he spat with shock. “Did you even have to ask?”
Sighing, she smiled weakly as she 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. He and the girls. His dad. Everything must have seemed to be closing in on her. It was a familiar feeling. In the end, he asked, “What did you expect me to say or do, Mama?”
Shaking her grey head, his mother stared out the window 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 invest real time and love in them, not someone who just sees them as a paycheck. 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 our girls could use some of it.”
Daniel hated to admit it, but her words sounded perfectly logical. “Mama, she’s a perfect stranger,” he argued in his defense.
“She doesn’t have to be. Give her a chance, sweetie. That’s all I ask,” his mother pleaded.
He shook his head, “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 a Royal Marine that she met while on leave in Cancun.”
“She was on leave in Cancun?” he asked, even more confused.
“No, silly, he was.”
Daniel gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Alright, we have a couple of hours, at least, with this traffic. How about you brief me on this whole damned thing? But only the basics,” he asserted. He did not want his mother to get any foolish ideas – any more than she already had 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, sending another silent prayer towards heaven.
Jill fumbled with the blue passport that she held in her fingers. The United States of America embossed in gold on the front. She smiled as she stepped forward to hand it to the security agent. She was home. Well, on American soil, at least. She sighed as she stepped up to the counter.
“Business or pleasure?” the man behind the counter 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?” He asked with what appeared genuine interest as he typed away at the computer.
“I’m getting re-married,” she answered a bit reluctantly. It just seemed so surreal at that moment as she stood on American soil for the first time since she and David had taken the boys to Disney World over fifteen years before. There had never been anyone, other than a couple of cousins, to visit. Now here she stood…home. But was it?
“Lucky man,” he pronounced with a broad smile as he stamped a page in the document. “You can collect your luggage through those doors,” he pointed. “And good luck to you both.”
Jill nodded and made her way across the floor. The heels of her flats tapped with each step. She stood in the queue, the line, she corrected herself, and waited for the carousel to start. Time dragged 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 had served for almost twenty years. It was one of the things that had made this whole thing feel so right. Well, when it was just an idea, when she was tucked safely inside her flat three thousand miles away. And now?
The loud bell drew her attention as the carousel began to turn. She focused on the luggage as it moved by slowly. Her whole life was crammed into two suitcases, and the battered laptop bag 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 the loo before she collected her bags. After hours on a plane, she was confident that she neither looked nor smelled good. She berated herself for the oversight. There was nothing she could do about it now. Instead, she pushed the cart towards the double doors to the arrivals 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 Smith, who had left her life to marry a soldier, raise four sons through numerous deployments, and then all alone as a widow with teenage sons. 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 was not sure whether to admire her spirit of adventure or shake sense into her at the sheer lunacy of it all.
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 located her as she struggled with the trolley, 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 utterly 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. Her dark blonde hair fell about her shoulders and upper back, framing a face that might appear plain, but the smile on it was anything but. Welcoming, genuine, comforting, the words drifted through his mind.
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 plans could be made for her to return home.
He noticed her scanning the crowd and waved his arms to catch her attention. That smile broadened as she caught sight of him; it seemed to light her face from within. It took his breath away. Her step quickened as she approached him.
“Daniel, it’s so good to meet you finally,” she exclaimed as she wrapped her arms about him.
Daniel was not sure what to do. He knew next to nothing about this woman, whose embrace stirred something deep in his gut. Those soft, full breasts pressed against his chest were awakening needs that he had tried to keep under tight control. But that was not what bothered him most.
Comfort, safety, what was it? He was not sure. The feeling was such a distant memory of childhood that it defied description. What worried him most was how right it felt. He could almost imagine how it would feel to come home to this. Yeah, that frightened the hell out of him. He wanted no part in this little ‘arrangement’ of his mother’s; he reminded himself again.
But still, he allowed the woman, Jill, to hold him. He was too much of a gentleman to push her away. Instead, he patted her back. “Here, let me get those bags for you,” he offered as she drew back.
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 the bathroom. He placed one hand on her elbow and guided her down the hall as he used the other to push the cart. “I saw a restroom back this way.”
“Sorry, restroom. 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,” she chuckled nervously.
Stopping in front of a door that bore the image of a stick figure wearing a dress, he smiled nervously, “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,” 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 is not interested.’ Jill was not sure what she expected, but the polite and 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 unflattering ones too.
Putting her brush back into her bag, Jill pulled the clear plastic case from its pocket. Bank cards, phone numbers, and cash. It was her back up plan. It looked like she was going to need it. She was not sure what she was going to do now, but she had options. She had not come all this way without at least considering this possibility.
She still had her cousins in Houston. She would contact them on social media as soon as she got to a computer. Perhaps one of them had a couch for a couple of weeks. There was her AmeriCorps application too. She had been working on that plan for a couple of months before that fateful email that changed everything. She had thought, perhaps, to utilize her skills as a chef at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen just as she did at the mental health day center. The job she had loved so much until…
But thinking of that now would only make this rejection harder. Jill did not have time to feel sorry for herself. Come what may, this was an opportunity to start afresh, to build a life for herself. She had done her duty to David and their boys, who no longer needed a clingy mother that waited at home for every email and prayed for each leave, so she would have someone to cook and care for again, if only for a few short days.
She straightened her shoulders and brushed the moisture from her eyes. She would make the most of this, no matter what came. Just as she had once made a new life in another country with the man, she loved.
Which reminded her of another option, the possibility of just traveling. It was a journey she had begun twenty-six years ago as a fool-hardy teenager before she met her handsome Bootie on the beach in Cancun. She could purchase a bus or train ticket and just go. See America. She could always find work in cafes and restaurants. A good chef was never without a job for long.
Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she inhaled deeply and plastered a smile on her face. “The important thing, my girl, is that you are home,” she said to the empty bathroom. “The rest will take care of itself.” With one final inspection, she turned towards the door. She would handle this with calm and composure, a stiff upper lip that would do David proud. Then, whatever happened, happened.
Daniel watched the woman finish off the plate of tamales. She had practically squealed when they found the Tex-Mex restaurant hidden in the corner of the terminal. She loved her food, that was certain.
Rachel had always picked at everything, afraid that it all went straight to her petite figure. Looking back, he suspected that his wife might have suffered an eating disorder as well as the depression that led to her suicide, but he had been too busy with his work to notice he supposed. The words of her note echoed in his mind again, “I always came last with you. Your country, the Navy, and your daughters leave no room for me. You are a lousy husband, and I hate you.”
“Wow! That was good.” The woman’s enthusiasm was a stark contrast from the morose pathway his mind had taken. He nodded silently, reluctant somehow to begin this conversation that he knew would only bring more pain. But that was all he seemed capable of doing as a man, hurting the women he cared for. Not that he cared for this one, liked maybe, admired for certain.
He listened as she continued, “You can’t get good Mexican food in England. Hell, you can’t even find the right ingredients to make it. And growing up in Texas, I was raised on the stuff. Turkish food is about as close as you can get. I was a regular at the kebab shop down the street from my flat,” the woman explained.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He inhaled and leaned back in the booth. “Jill, there’s something I need to tell you,” he reached for words. “There’s no easy way to say this, but this whole thing has been a mistake. Well, not a mistake. A lie. Not a lie exactly either. I am Daniel Monroe. I am a widower with four daughters, and I am a SEAL.”
He could tell from the cold and confused look on the woman’s face that he was screwing things up. He had practiced this speech over and over in the car on the drive up, as they waited for his mother’s plane, even as he raced across the airport to meet her. He knew what he wanted to say, but none of it was coming out right. He supposed it was just another example of how inadequate he was with women.
Drawing a deep breath, he stared at his hands folded in front of him on the table and tried again. “I didn’t write those emails. I did not even know you existed until a few hours ago. My mother wrote them.” He explained, unable to look at her. “I’m sorry you came all this way, but I don’t need…I don’t want a wife.”
Silence hung about them. The air seemed actually to chill. He waited. And waited. He was not sure how long, but it seemed too long. For a man accustomed to passing long stretches of time while on reconnaissance, it was hell. In the end, he broke down, looking up from the table, he saw the brightest green eyes, like spring meadows on his family’s ranch. But they were flashing with anger. It was an emotion he knew well in women, one that he had seen thousands of times with Rachel.
“I don’t know what I expected. But that was a shitty excuse, bud. Alright, so I’m not some slim, trim beauty queen after four kids, but I deserved better than that.” Jill stood and walked away.
Daniel was right behind her, throwing a wad of bills on the table as they left. “Honestly, it isn’t an excuse. I didn’t have any part in this.”
The woman stopped outside the restaurant. She glanced from side to side as if looking for the quickest exit. It was a feeling he could understand. “Jill, I understand. I was as shocked by this as you are. Why don’t we talk about this on the way back to Virginia Beach?” He searched for something more to say, something to convince her of his sincerity.
“If you think I’m going anywhere with you, buddy, you’re crazy,” she exclaimed as she pushed past him. She grabbed the cart and began pushing it the wrong way, back towards the arrivals hall.
Daniel tried to wrestle the cart from her grip but noticed a TSA guard watching them closely. He did not want to attract more attention. “Please, my mother left you a letter. Just read it.” He held out an envelope with a distinctly feminine scrawl across it. “Please,” he begged.
“What will a letter prove? Anyone could have written it for you,” she argued.
Daniel knew they were at a stalemate in their negotiations. He could see it in the stubborn set of her chin. He was getting nowhere with this. He changed tactics. It was a skill that had served him well on the battlefield and one he hoped would prove useful in this battle of wills. “So, where will you go now? There isn’t another plane back to London until tomorrow. I checked. I suppose you could get a cab to a hotel, but that costs money. How much did you bring with you? I don’t imagine a chef in a mental health day center makes all that much.”
He watched the play of emotions across her face. The woman wore them on her sleeve as his mother would say. It was another sucker punch to his gut, the unexplainable need to protect her, to wrap this stranger in his arms and keep her safe. He shook his head. Like he was any damned good at that shit. His marriage proved it was one job he was not cut out for.
He forced those thoughts aside as he continued, “Would you rather spend a couple of days in a safe, relatively clean house with people you know a lot about or alone in some grimy hotel room with cable TV and not much else?” he reasoned coldly.
He could see the dejection his strong words caused. The proud woman’s shoulders slumped at their harshness. He swallowed back the self-loathing that was growing in his gut as he softened his voice before continuing, “Please, Jill, I promised Mama that I would take care of you. She would box my ears if you went to some flea-bitten hotel room.”
“Always honor with you guys, isn’t it? Is it some kind of a god complex?” she chuckled nervously as she shook her head.
It was back with a vengeance, the unexpected need to brush, hell no, kiss away, the tears that glistened in those deep green eyes that had already been doing shocking things to his libido. Daniel tried to hide his nervousness with laughter, “We live by a code, ma’am. You know the officer and the gentleman thing.”
Jill smiled weakly, “Yes, I know it. Better than you think. Remember, my husband was military too.”
Daniel nodded as he remembered his mother’s tale about this woman, following the man across an ocean. Jealousy was added to the growing list of feelings that he had no business having for her. What would it feel like…to truly inspire that level of love and loyalty? Damn, his mother, and those emails. Damn, Simone Jackson too. Her hand was all over this one. But no matter how much he damned them both, he could not fight back the voice in his mind that kept whispering, ‘What if?’
He used all his skill to control those and all the other emotions boiling inside of him, pushed them aside. It was something he had gotten good at over the past few years, pushing aside feelings and ‘what if’s.’ But they always came back to haunt him at the most inopportune times.
Like now as he thought of another man, another British soldier, and the family he left behind. He thought too of that man’s blood upon his hands as he spoke, “Then please, for his memory, allow me to offer our hospitality. Would he want you alone in some questionable hotel? Let me do this, one officer and gentleman to another,” he pleaded as he waited.
He studied her features as his words played upon her emotions. He could see the uncertainty still in her vibrant green eyes, but he knew that he had won the battle even before she nodded her blonde head.
What he did not want to face was why that victory felt so damned good? He could have and probably should have purchased her return ticket before he even picked her up. It would have been simple to book and pre-pay for a decent hotel until her flight. But he had not. He wondered then why, why he had not taken that easy route?
“Alright. But just until I figure out what I want to do now,” she whispered.
“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled as he took the baggage cart from her once more and turned it in the other direction. “The exit is this way.”
Jill stretched as she looked around at the quiet, nondescript neighborhood. She had fallen asleep before they reached the highway, only waking up when Daniel shook her gently. They had stopped by his friend’s house to pick up his daughters, he explained.
While she waited, the same questions played through her mind. Loudest among them, what now. She had foolishly burned so many bridges behind her. She had quit her job without notice. Not that she wanted to go back there. Not after what happened. Not with Ubah, her only friend, gone. She had given up her flat. Even hired a removals man to come and take away most of her things, only putting a few pieces that she knew her sons might want one day in storage. Everything else was crammed inside those two suitcases in the boot of the car.
The trunk, she reminded herself as the front door of the house opened, the bright light of the porch lamp illuminated everything inside it. She fought back curiosity. She reminded herself that she would not be staying. That whatever Jess, Bel, Ashley and Britney were like, it was none of her business. She was just an unwanted houseguest for a couple of nights.
But it seemed a futile battle. She craned her neck to watch as Daniel took the two sleeping babies from the arms of a dark-skinned, stout woman. She could not hear what they said, but she could see from the scowl on the man’s face that he did not like it. A man joined them in the doorway. He held an equally sleepy little girl with an array of thick blond curls that spread across his shoulder. The two men headed towards the parked car with their bundles.
Daniel was in no mood for chit chat with Simone Jackson. She might be his best friend’s wife, but he knew in his gut that she was as deep in this mess as his mother. Suddenly, all those computer lessons and hours spent laughing made perfect sense. What would his mother know about internet dating sites, let alone ones that catered to lonely servicemen and women? No, this little trick had Simone’s fingerprints all over it.
The woman smiled as she carried his sleeping twins down the hall towards him. “You could have left them all for the night, you know.”
Daniel stared at her. A look that had sent enemy combatants scurrying and his men into immediate action. “Why would I want to do that, Simone?” he challenged as he took a sleeping baby from her arms.
“Well, if yous gots female company…” the woman offered in her thick Caribbean accent that she only used when it suited her.
“I know that you know damned well who that woman is and why she is here. And I swear, woman, if you meddle in this any further, I am going straight to Samuel with your part in all this. Do you hear me?” he threatened as he took his other daughter from her.
Her laugh was a deliberate affront to him. “Daniel, my friend, de stars, be favorable to ye. Don’t you be messin’ wid tings dats bigger dan you.”
Before Daniel could respond, his friend appeared carrying Bel. “Jess insists she has to stay, something she and Althea are up to on the computer. You know those two, my friend? I’ll bring her home tomorrow, right after soccer practice.”
Daniel simply nodded his dark head before glaring once more at the woman, who wrapped herself like a cat around her husband. “Of course, we’ll bring the girl home tomorrow. It will give me a chance to talk to your new friend,” she purred.
Both men stared at her coldly. “What? Us girlies have to hang together against you big bad wolves.”
It was her husband’s turn to stare. “Simone, I swear I’ll turn that sweet backside of yours red if you be messing in people’s lives again.”
She chuckled as she rubbed even closer to him, “Well, now dat’s reason enough for me meddlin’. But don’t you be makin’ no promises you ain’t gonna keep, big boy.”
Both men shook their heads and laughed at her words as they turned towards the car parked in the driveway.
“I’m sorry, man. I’ll talk to Simone tonight. But you know she never means any harm when she gets these ideas.”
“This isn’t some talisman for us to wear that itches and burns and smells worse than your god damned socks after two days of hiking through the damned jungle. This is a woman who came three thousand miles thinking I was going to marry her, so she could be a mother to my poor orphans. Sam, this isn’t harmless fun,” he tried to reason with his friend. But he feared it was futile. The man had been under the witch’s spell even before they met. He shook his head, more than a bit envious of the happiness that the couple shared.
His friend’s next words only confirmed his worst fears, “But you got to admit buddy, this will make a damned funny story in a few years.”
He shook his head in defeat, “I give up. You are as bad as she is. No wonder you two have been so damned happily married that it makes the rest of us sick for twenty years. You are just alike.”
“Thank you, commander. That is quite a compliment,” his friend smiled.
“Just open the damned door.”
Samuel followed orders as always. He gently placed the still sleeping little girl into her pink booster seat and fastened the straps that would keep her safe. Turning back to Daniel, he took one of the sleeping toddlers and repeated the action. Daniel walked around to the other side of the car, his load lightened. He opened that door and placed a sleeping Britney in the seat next to Ashley.
“Howdy, ma’am. I’m Samuel Jackson, his best friend, and N-C-O.”
“Hello, Samuel. I’m Jill…” Words hung in the air as if she searched for an explanation for her presence.
“Don’t worry. He knows the rest, and his damned meddling wife has a lot to answer for in this whole damned situation,” Daniel responded.
Turning towards Samuel, Jill spoke. “This situation, as he calls it, isn’t anyone’s fault except my own. Please don’t blame your wife for anything.”
Daniel growled as he clicked the seat belt fastened. “Let’s get going.” Taking his friend’s hand in his own, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Samuel joked with a salute.
Jill tried not to stare at the sleeping heads. Bel with her blond curls and thumb stuck between full pink lips could have been a child model for books and movies. The babies, too, were beautiful. It was not the first time in the past couple of years that Jill felt her heart and womb brooding for children. But it was following those feelings that had gotten her into this mess, to begin with. “Where’s Jess?” She asked with familiarity before she could stop herself.
“She’s staying the night with Sam and Simone. Their daughter, Althea, is her best friend,” he frowned as he kept his eyes straight ahead on the road.
“I know. They have been since they were babies. Born on the same day at the same hospital and inseparable ever since,” she practically quoted the emails that she had reread time and time. She watched a dark scowl deepen on the man’s handsome face.
“I’m sorry. I keep forgetting that it wasn’t you that wrote all those things. It must seem strange for me to know so much about you and the girls while you know practically nothing about me.” She played nervously with her hands in her lap as they pulled into another driveway, a house not that different from the other one. “Can I help?” she asked as he turned off the engine.
“Sure, if you get Bel. Then I can manage Ashley and Britney,” he replied, palming the keys as he opened the car door.
Jill opened her door and stepped into the night air. “I can smell the beach,” she said in surprise. It was oddly comforting somehow — a reminder of the seaside town where she and David had lived for so long.
He smiled, the moonlight played across his features, softening them. “The beach is less than a mile from here.” He unbuckled the babies from their car seats.
Jill breathed deeply as she opened the door on her side of the car and unfastened the complicated mechanism that held the sleeping child safely. Her heart caught in her throat as she lifted the Bel. The little girl was a reminder of what she had always missed. A daughter, how she had longed for one. It was what kept them trying, but it had always been sons. Not that she did not love her boys, but there was something so different about how this tiny treasure felt in her arms.
The thought evoked memories of another little girl and all they had done to try and protect her. She sent a silent prayer to heaven that it had not all been in vain as she lifted this other child in her arms, “Shhh, baby girl, you’ll be in your bed with the dream fairies soon.” The child stirred against her shoulder, cuddling closer against the cold night air. Jill felt the tears burning the back of her eyes and pushed them away as she fell into step behind the man. By the time she reached the door, he had unlocked it with a baby in each arm.
“Follow me. We’ll put Bel in her bed first. You can sleep in the nursery. I brought a bed in there for my mother. I’m sure she would have changed the sheets and gotten everything ready for you.”
She recognized the voice of command in his tone. She was confident that no one dared disobey this man, and as weary as she was, she certainly had no desire to. Not that submission was not the most natural feeling to her anyway, but something about his tone only tightened the longing and sadness that was eating away at her gut. How damned easy it would have been to follow this man’s every command, to anticipate and fulfill his every need. She shook her head and sighed as she pushed those thoughts aside.
Instead, she simply nodded as she followed him down the dim hallway. He opened a door on the right with a sign that read, ‘Secret Ops, Keep Out.’ Inside were two twin beds. The left side of the room was utter chaos, with clothes, books, and sports equipment thrown about it. On the right side of the room, everything was pink and adorned with Barbie dolls. The centerpiece was the four foot high, three-story dollhouse; pink too, of course. Daniel did not have to tell her which bed belonged to Bel. The Barbie blanket announced its owner as Jill pulled it back and placed the sleeping little girl beneath its warmth. She pulled the covers up and could not stop herself from bending to place a kiss on the top of soft curls. “Sweet dreams, Bel.”
Standing and crossing the room, she held out her empty arms and took one of the sleeping babies. “Lead the way, commander,” she replied with another weak smile plastered on for effect.
Daniel nodded his head silently as he turned and walked back the way they had come, pausing before opening another door. Inside were two cribs and another twin bed. This one boasted a patchwork quilt with every color in the rainbow. He placed the sleeping baby in his arms in one crib and motioned for her to do the same in the other. Jill followed the unspoken order, although she was reluctant to release the softness and sweet baby smell that was her only comfort in this mess that she had made of her life.
“I’ll get your bags from the car. The bathroom is next door if you want a shower or anything. The girls will be up early, but we’ll try not to wake you. I know you must be exhausted from the flight and jet lag,” he said with polite stiffness.
“I’ll be fine. Thanks.” She was anxious for the man to leave so she could be alone with her thoughts. She needed to ponder what was next for her.
“Alright, then. Good night.” He paused just inside the doorway for a long moment as if tempted to say more, but then he simply turned and made a hasty retreat. Then he stopped, just outside as he turned back to her. “Jill, I honestly am sorry about all this. You seem like a nice lady. I’m sure any man would be lucky as hell to have you as a wife.”
Jill could hear the sympathy in his voice. It only deepened the rejection that she felt at the moment. She nodded silently as she turned away before he could see the tears glistening in her eyes. She did not need or want this man’s pity.