Chapter 2 – Mancake


1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Dash of salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
3 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
Dash of pure almond extract (5 to 7 drops)

Pre-cooked and crumbled bacon and sausage
Another egg…two or three for hungry SEALs

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using a whisk or large fork, mix in the buttermilk and egg until well combined and smooth. Stir in the melted butter, vanilla, and almond extract. Heat a skillet, adding a touch of butter. Using a 1/4 cup, measure out the batter and pour into pan. When firm and golden brown on one side, sprinkle pre-cooked and crumbled meat mixture on the uncooked side and flip it. In a separate pan, fry an egg …or two (over-easy or sunny side up work best) while the pancake cooks on the other side. Top with maple syrup. Best served warm, wearing nothing but an apron, garter belt, stockings, heels, and a naughty smile. But not if’n the kids are around!

Daniel rolled over slowly in his bed. It took a moment for him to place where he was. It always did. His dreams were sometimes more vivid than reality, whether of smoke-filled battlefields or limp, lifeless blonds. This morning, in particular, the confusion hung over him. He ran a hand across his face as if to clear the cobwebs from his brain.

Pancakes? He smelled pancakes. But that made no sense; his mother had not made pancakes since he was in kindergarten. Eggs, bacon, toast, a hearty man’s breakfast that his father adored, but not pancakes.

Then he remembered. The woman. Jill was her name. The events of the previous day came flooding back like lava flow after a volcanic eruption. She had flown thousands of miles to marry him based upon emails he had not even written. The idea seemed ridiculous and flighty, but from what little he had seen of her, she seemed anything but the type of woman he would expect to do something so…crazy.

Rolling over, he looked at the digital clock on the nightstand next to his bed — nine thirty-eight.

“What the fuck?” he spat. He never slept past oh-six-hundred. Not in years. Not even on vacation. It was programmed into his mind and body. His alarm clock was more for show than functionality.

The girls. What about them? Where were they? Worse yet, what had they gotten into? Even if she was up and cooking pancakes, the girls did not know Jill. How could she manage three children under the age of six and make breakfast?

Daniel’s senses were immediately at attention, his mind racing with horrific images of disasters, each worse than the last. Three little girls could cause more trouble than a terrorist sleeper cell. He threw back the blankets and raced down the hall towards the kitchen, not even considering his attire.

Jill flipped another of the sweet breakfast treats in the small pan. This morning she had opted for the thicker American style batter that rose in the pan, a golden delight visually as well as its smell and taste.

Her brows creased in thought. It was amazing that two countries, which shared the same language and were, in fact, close relations, could have so many differences. She had barely been back in the United States for twelve hours, and already she had run across at least a dozen different words or customs. Pancakes that were so thin you could see right through them seemed inconsequential in the grander scheme of things, especially in the bright morning light.

The mess that she had made of her life by hopping on the first available plane and coming three thousand miles to marry a stranger – that was consequential.

“Bel, you ready for another?” She asked the little girl, playing quietly at the table with a Barbie doll. Turning around with another pancake poised on the spatula, she almost dropped the frying pan. The sight that greeted her gaze sent her heart into overdrive and pushed the air from her lungs.

Six foot plus of lean, muscular male filled the doorway between the kitchen and living room. His soft chocolate hair looked as if someone had just run their fingers through it. His matching beard was in disarray. His blue eyes held a sleepy, dream-like look that invited her mind to go places it should not. Most disconcerting of all, he wore nothing more than a pair of basic military issue white boxer shorts. Jill’s throat tightened further at the sight.

The man was beautiful. She knew that was not the correct word to describe this tough, macho-type man, but nothing else fit. She thought of the Greek gods that she had read about in high school. Ares, the god of war. The man before her was the modern-day reincarnation of Ares.

She tried to ignore the rush of heat that coursed through her blood and pooled distinctly between her thighs, wetness that begged to be relieved. She was a woman, after all. Any woman would feel the same. She almost jumped out of her skin at the girlish giggles, which echoed off the kitchen walls.

“Daddy,” Bel squealed. The twins, seated in matching Winnie the Pooh high chairs, simply hit their messy hands against the white plastic trays that surrounded them.

“I hope the girls didn’t wake you,” he said in a deep husky voice that caressed her skin and sent electric shock waves skittering along her spine.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she fumbled, waving her hands towards the countertop where eggs, flour, sugar, and milk sat among drippings of yellowish batter and white powder. “I suppose my body clock is still a bit off,” she smiled nervously by way of explanation.

“Mind? Lady, I woke to the smell of pancakes. Why the hell would I mind?” He paused and with a conspiratorial wink to Bel added, “As long as there are some for me.”

“Yes, Daddy. Jill saved you some, but she said not to wake you up,” the child explained through the gap where her front teeth had once been.

“I’ll put some more on while you get dressed,” Jill hinted as she turned back towards the low flame on the stove. The idea of sharing an intimate breakfast with him wearing nothing more than boxers might be appealing. Still, it was also more than a bit daunting, given the misunderstanding that had resulted in her current uncertain future.

Nonetheless, she doubted that the sight of this man in his bare feet and boxer shorts would quickly fade from her mind, if ever. More than likely, her brain would file it away and bring it forth to haunt her erotic dreams in an empty bed for months and years to come.

“If you’re sure the girls aren’t bothering you,” he questioned once more.

Jill giggled under her breath, but she could hardly tell the man, ‘It’s not the girls that are bothering me, commander.’ Over the years, British politeness had taught her to keep such thoughts to herself. “We have everything under control, commander,” she was careful to keep her back towards him and her eyes straight ahead.

“You should go get dressed. Your pancakes will be ready in a couple of minutes.” She would need that time to wipe his mostly naked form from her mind if she were to continue with polite indifference.

Just as she noticed that the pancake in the pan was almost brown on one side, an old idea popped into her head. She reached for the bacon and sausage that she had cooked earlier. She crumbled them onto the uncooked side of the pancake before flipping it. She grabbed another frying pan out of the cabinet and put it to heat on another burner. She broke an egg into it, then another.

It had been years since she had made man-cakes as David had called them. She did not think she had made them since… But that was the past, and considering how uncertain her future was, she had no time to be contemplating her dead husband and the life they had once shared. And while Daniel made it plain that he had no interest in being caught, she figured a couple of special pancakes were the least she could do to repay his hospitality in this awkward situation.

Daniel sat at the oval table that dominated the small kitchen with its yellowish walls. His fork was laden with thick layers of pancake. The rich, brown maple syrup dripped to his plate below. The truth was that the smell had not done justice to the woman’s cooking. The pancakes were perhaps the best he had ever tasted.

The unique blend of the sweet pancake with the salty bacon and sausage worked better than he would have thought. And the sunny side up egg that dripped yellow yoke to mix with syrup each time he cut into them was… He could not come up with a word for it. If he were honest, the breakfast was even better than his mother’s, not that he was telling her that when she called to let him how his father was getting on.

“Want more?” the woman asked as she cleared Bel’s plate from the table.

He shook his head. “I really shouldn’t.” He had already consumed at least three. Any more and he would have to add an extra mile to his daily run. He watched as she used a damp cloth to wipe Britney’s hand. Ashley was content to shovel another bite-size piece of pancake into her mouth. Bel had run off to her room, her Barbie doll in tow.

His eyes came to rest on the generous curves of the woman. Her jeans clung tightly to round hips. He stared in fascination. Where this woman was soft and generous, Rachel had always been more angular. Even during her three pregnancies, she had carefully watched each thing she ate, afraid to gain too much weight. After the births, she had spent hours in the gym. Her need to lose it all quickly was almost obsessional.

Hell, Rachel had always been so small that some part of him had been almost afraid of breaking her. As a result, their lovemaking had never been especially good, tame by most standards. There would be no need for restraint with a woman built this solid, yet soft. Her full hips and round backside elicited forbidden thoughts of wild lovemaking, reckless comings together of flesh, softness that was ample enough to take whatever came.

Daniel cleared his throat and, with an iron will, pulled his mind back from thoughts that it had no business thinking. The woman was a guest in his home, a temporary if unexpected guest. In a couple of days, she would be gone, and his life would be back…to normal. Except nothing had been normal in their lives in a very long time.

As if sensing his gaze, Jill looked up at him. She fidgeted with the cloth, wringing it between her fingers nervously. “I really am sorry about all the mess. I tend to make a bit of a mess when I cook. And it is just that I cook when I think,” her giggle sounded as nervous as her fingers on the cloth. “To be honest, I cook when I’m happy. I cook when I’m mad. I cook when I worry. I guess I just cook,” she explained as she turned back to the counter, wiping and cleaning the last remnants of the morning feast.

“Think away then,” Daniel said as he patted his full stomach. If the way to a man’s heart was his stomach, this woman must have left a lot of broken hearts. He watched as she set to work rinsing syrup from the plates, loading the dishwasher, and wiping down already clean countertops. It was clear that this situation was making her as nervous as he was.

When she ran out of work at the sink, she turned back to the table. With a weak smile, she asked, “You finished?” as she stared at his empty plate. He nodded as she picked it up. She hovered for a moment, her eyes downcast, “Is there any way I can get online? I want to email my cousin in Houston.”

“Sure. I’ll set you up on the wireless this morning,” Daniel chastised himself for the poor host he had been. He should have realized that she needed to contact family and friends to let them know she was all right. “Sorry, I didn’t think of it sooner.”

“Thanks, it’s alright. It is just that the sooner I can email my family and check a few things out online, the sooner I can get out of your hair,” she said as she wiped Ashley’s hands and face.

Daniel frowned at her words. Of course, she would want to make plans, since the ones that had brought her here in the first place had fallen through. But it was at odds with the way she fit so perfectly, was so completely in charge, as if his kitchen were her battlefield and his girls her troops to command. It was more than a bit disconcerting how natural it all felt, he thought as she picked the child up in her arms.

“I’ll be back for you, sweetie, after I change your sister,” she cooed to the baby sitting in her clean high chair, chasing a cloth block across the tray.

“Ashley. After you change, Ashley,” he supplied.

Jill smiled weakly at him, “Thanks. I would ask how to tell them apart, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I won’t be staying that long.”

Her words, though true, stung for some unexplained reason. Rather than delve deeper into the whys of the situation, Daniel turned the conversation. “Britney is more demanding, and she has a dimple in her left cheek when you make her giggle,” he explained. “Ashley is laid-back. An easy baby and the dimple is on the right side with her. I just tickle them when I need to figure out which is which.”

She smiled and turned down the hall towards the nursery where she was staying. Ashley tucked naturally in her arms, babbled happily as if revealing secrets of her own. Her baby conversation made more sense at the moment than anything else about this situation. “Thanks,” she mumbled as she beat a quick retreat.

Daniel sighed as the woman left the room. “What now, buddy?” he asked as he shook his head.

As if in answer to his rhetorical question, Britney coo-ed.  “Yeah, well, don’t get used to the pancakes, sweet cheeks. You know I can’t cook worth a damn.”

The baby clapped her hands and drooled in response.

Jill stared at the computer screen. She had written and re-written the email to her cousin three times. Drawing a deep breath, she shook her head. “The truth is, Jill, you just don’t want to go back to Houston,” she announced to the empty room.

She had also responded to emails from her youngest son Darren and her former boss. Both were worried about the suddenness of her trip. She was too. ‘A little too late, my girl.’ She opened another browser window and checked the status of her AmeriCorps’ application. Still pending.

In desperation, she checked the prices of unlimited bus travel. A two-month ticket would cost her six-hundred dollars. What then? Why didn’t they sell tickets good for a whole year? A lifetime even. It wasn’t like she had anything to go back to.

Jill fought back the tears. Things had been hard after David died. Some nights, missing him was so deep that it physically hurt, like someone had driven a knife into her gut and ripped out a piece of her. But they had one another. She and the boys against the world it seemed sometimes. They had kept one another going, her and her little Marines.

Now it was just her. Staring at the picture of her sons that was her screen saver, she reminded herself that was how it was supposed to be. Children grew up. They started lives of their own. Her sons had done particularly well. All were successful in one way or another. 

The weight of the last couple of years pressed upon Jill’s shoulders. It felt as if this load was more oppressive than any she had faced before. Loss and death hung about her as she looked into the unknown. She recognized that the problems were not more significant than the ones she had faced in the past, but there was no one to share the weight of the burden this time. It all just seemed too much.

Daniel felt like an intruder in his own home. He did not know how long he had stood in the doorway to the nursery, watching the woman. Jill, he reminded himself. She had a name, but somehow it was easier to think of her as ‘the woman.’ The impersonal nature of it offered protection.

He did not want to like her. Admire her gumption, as his dad would call it. But whether it was the delights of waking to the smell of the world’s best pancakes, the natural way that she had with his daughters, or simply her full figure that had his hands itching to cup and feel things that he ought not to even think about, he could not seem to get her out of his mind.

He called a halt to his musings. Nothing could come of it. She came here to get married, and that was one thing he swore at Rachel’s grave-side he would never do: subject another helpless woman to his failings as a husband.

He reminded himself that he had come here with a purpose. Clearing his throat to warn her of his presence, “Jill, I’m going to take the girls down to the park to watch Jess practice. Would you like to join us?”

When she looked up from the computer screen, he could see the unshed tears glistening in her bright green eyes. He had no idea what to say or do to help her. The deep stabbing pain in his gut was a reminder that he hated tears. He was no good at stopping them. Why should this time be any different?

With a lame brush of her hands across her face, she offered a weak smile, “Practice what?”

“Soccer. Football, I guess you would call it,” he tried an inviting smile.

“Actually, I don’t. That was one of those Americanisms that I hung onto. It used to drive David and our boys mad sometimes,” she laughed. Its warmth seemed to burrow deep into his mind.

“Wow, you are a brave woman. Calling football soccer in England? I’m surprised the Queen herself didn’t boot you right out of the country,” he chuckled. It felt good. Genuine mirth had been missing from his life for a very long time.

“What can you say? Some things are worth fighting for, and the truth is one of them,” she shrugged and returned his weak smile with a matching one of her own.

He felt something inside him shift at her words. How many times had he used similar ones to encourage and motivate his men? This woman truly possessed that most elusive of human traits…depths of the soul. He fought back the sudden urge to ask about other things worth fighting for. Reminding himself once more that this was all just a temporary situation, he repeated the invitation, “So, you want to come with us?”

“Sure, it’s been a couple of years since I watched the theatrics of kids kicking a ball around.”

“More drama on the sidelines. Don’t know about England, but around here, all the action is with the parents.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about them. Or at least, we all try to. I’ll just grab a jumper,” she said, reaching for a sweater from the suitcase at the foot of the bed.

“Sweater,” he reminded her. “We’ll see you in the car then. Five minutes? I have to round up the troops.”

He found himself whistling an old tune as he walked back down the hall. Why did her agreement to go with them to the practice matter? Why did his gut knot a bit in excitement at the prospect of spending more time with her? Why did this woman elicit responses in him that he thought long dead, needs he wanted desperately to deny? It was probably a good thing that she would be leaving in a few days because one thing he was confident about – his track record with women sucked.

He stopped cold just outside of the nursery as the name of the tune suddenly came to him. He should have recognized it from the beginning. How many times growing up had he watched as his father came in from the fields, dusty and tired, to wrap his arms about his mother and draw her close for a hug as he sang it? The words of the old Elvis tune came rushing unbidden to his mind. ‘Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you.’ Daniel closed his eyes as he gripped the door frame and tried to push it all away.

Jill screamed again as she watched the children race down the field. The black and white ball danced in front of Jess as she approached the goal. Jill held her breath as the girl swung her leg in an arc that would do David Beckham proud.

“Yes,” she yelled at the top of her lungs. Her arms flung up in the air, the universal symbol of a goal.

She looked down the sideline to Daniel and the girls. Just to check that they had not missed the action as they stood in line to purchase drinks and food. She was rewarded with Daniel’s conspiratorial grin and wink. She held her thumbs up in response. Her heart pounded more quickly against her ribs. “Ares,” she whispered beneath her breath at the sight of his dark head bent near Bel’s blond as if planning a military campaign rather than merely ordering snacks.

“You are as perfect for them as we thought you might be.”

Jill was startled by the heavily accented voice that came from behind her. She turned to the woman, whom she recognized from the night before. Her hair hung in dark braids to her shoulders, and large golden hoops dangled like wind chimes from her ears. She wore jeans that clung to her round figure and did not attempt to hide the extra pounds her short frame carried. She wore the team t-shirt that stretched so tightly across her chest that Jill feared it would burst.

“I’m Simone Jackson. You met my husband, Samuel, last night,” the woman said as she held out a pudgy hand that was covered with half a dozen or more gaudy rings.

Jill shook it and returned the smile. “I hope you didn’t get into any trouble. He and Daniel seem to blame you for…”

“Nuttin’ I can’t handle, girlfriend,” Simone cut her off before she could finish the sentence.

“Why do they blame you?” Jill could not hold back the question. Something about this woman made her want to open up, to share. It was not something that she had felt since Ubah’s death. It was something that she missed almost as much as she did her sons and husband.

“Because you is all my doin’,” the woman replied simply, her dark eyes never leaving the game on the field.

Jill screwed her face into a scowl. “What do you mean…all your doing? I thought Daniel’s mother wrote those emails.”

Simone’s face lit up as she continued, “She did. But whose idea did you think it was to look on the internet in the first place? Dat sweet ole’ woman didn’t even know what email was until I showed her. No, it was me dat be helpin’ the stars along wid dis one,” she said proudly.

Jill had to laugh. Despite the pride that she heard in the woman’s voice, it was evident that fate had a strange sense of humor. “I hate to tell you this, but the stars made a mistake.”

Simone frowned. “De stars never make no mistakes. Only people make mistakes.” Her dark eyes turned towards Daniel, who had been joined in line by her Samuel. “Sometimes people can fight what’s good for dem, but make no mistake. De stars is always right.”

Jill shifted uncomfortably on the metal bleacher as she tried to change the subject. “Which island do you come from? I can hear the West Indian accent but can’t figure out where it comes from.”

“West Indian. I haven’t heard dat word in years. Around here, they call it Caribbean,” she said. “Montserrat,” she answered with another of those smiles that made Jill want to believe in her and her crazy stars.

“How long have you been here?” Jill asked, trying to keep the conversation to safe topics.

“Since I was six years old.”

Jill drew her head back in shock. “Sorry, I just thought that with an accent like that, you hadn’t been here long.”

“Oh, that. It is just useful,” Simone explained in perfect English. “I do readings on the side. People are just more inclined to believe in the arts when they hear the accent.” She nudged Jill, “Besides, de men can’t resist a good-lovin’ Caribbean woman.”

Jill cackled out loud. The laughter felt as if the weight of the world had lifted from her shoulders. Genuine joy danced within her for the first time in a very long time.

“Dare I ask?” the deep voice caressed her skin like velvet. Jill immediately stopped laughing and sat up straight. She stiffened at the words whispered from behind, just inches from her ear. So close that she could feel his warm breath against the side of her face.

“I was just talkin’ wid my new friend,” Simone responded, looking at Daniel and her husband. Both men stared at her as if neither believed her profession of innocence for a single minute.

New friend, Jill considered the words. A dark look crossed her face, and her eyes misted a bit as she remembered her best friend. As much as she wanted to cling to the woman’s casual proclamation, she knew she could not. Her best friend Ubah was dead, and she would not be around long enough for any real friendship to develop with this lively character. She was as alone as she felt at that moment.

Daniel took a seat on the metal bleacher next to her. “Your nachos,” he said as he passed her the plastic bowl piled high with chips, chili, and cheese. “Extra jalapenos, just like you wanted.”

Jill focused on living in the moment as she took the cardboard box from his hand, careful to avoid even the slightest brush of fingertips. Live in the moment and enjoy small luxuries that her quarter of a century exile across the pond had long denied her, like the smell of melted nacho cheese and fresh corn tortilla chips.

“It’s nice hearing them called hal-e-pen-yos and not jal-e-pen-yos,” she said as she brought a chip dripping with the orange cheese and piled high with the small green circles of pepper to her lips.

“What?” Daniel asked.

“Just another of the odd things they say,” she moaned after biting into the delicacy that never tasted quite the same in England. “Damn, that is good.”

“You love your food.”

His tone was flat, casual, but there was nothing casual about the tightness that his words brought to her throat or the tears that gathered in the corner of her eyes, tears that had nothing to do with the heat of the peppers that burned her mouth. Tears that had everything to do with the bad script of insults running in her mind at the reminder.

She stopped with cheese dripping off the next chip, poised inches from her mouth. She looked at her full figure. His words stung as if he had slapped her. “I might not be a size zero model, but I’m not exactly fat either,” she replied defensively.

Daniel shook his head. “I’m sorry. I did not mean it like that at all.” His voice was almost a whisper. He stared down at his hands that she noticed were clenched nervously.

She regretted her harsh words. She did not know this man. It was not his words that caused the sharp pain near her heart. Not his fault. And she had no right to make him feel bad about something so inconsequential. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so sensitive,” she apologized as she sat the bowl of chips down next to her. It suddenly no longer tasted quite the same.

He looked back up and gave her another of those half-smiles that she was coming to suspect meant he was as uncomfortable with this situation as she was. It was a camaraderie of sorts. “It’s kind of nice,” he replied with a blush that forced pink to his ears.

Simone broke in then, saddling her robust bosoms up against her husband’s arms. “That’s right — just more of us for the lovin’. Ain’t dat right, Sammy? More cushion for da pushin’.”

Everyone laughed at her forthright words. Even as her husband blushed and slapped lightly at her bottom. “Watch your mouth around the kids, woman.”

Jill turned back to watch the game before anyone could see the tears that still glistened in her eyes. It was not his fault. It was not his words that ricocheted through her mind at night. “What man could possibly want you? You’re fat, and what’s more, you don’t even try to take care of yourself.”

Daniel ushered Jessica towards the car. He could see Jill struggling with the fastener on Bel’s booster seat. It was the soft curve of her backside that stuck out of the car door that led his mind and his body down some old and familiar pathways. He felt his cock stir in his jeans and reminded himself of his vow. This woman was off-limits. All women were.

The whiny voice of his forever petulant pre-teen brought him back to reality quickly enough. “Who is she anyway?” Jess demanded sullenly, dragging her equipment bag, even as she dragged her feet.

He searched for the right answer. Jess would not be satisfied with the simple solution of a ‘nice lady’ that Bel had. Of course, the babies needed no explanation, just cuddles and pancakes. This one clearly demanded more tact, a more substantial reason, but without revealing the whole sordid mess. He sought for such a response for a moment before answering. “She’s a friend of gran’s, who is going to help out until I can find a nanny,” he assured himself it was not a complete lie.

His daughter scowled, “We don’t need no one. I told you I can manage. I took care of the babies when mom was…” Words hung in the air. “I took care of the others even when she was alive.”

Daniel felt the knife to his gut. “I know, sweetie, but you shouldn’t have to.” Guilt nibbled at his heart. How had he not seen how bad things had become those last couple of years? Alright, he had always known that Rachel was not the domestic type. His beautiful wife had never reformed from the spoiled, rich party girl that she had been when they met. But the house was always passable, the girls clothed and fed, even if it was mostly take-out. How long had Jess been bearing the burden that was never hers, he wondered now?

He hit the button on his key ring. The click told them that the glass window on the back of the car was open. Jess was still pouting as she tossed her gear bag into it. He noticed that Jill had finally conquered the cursed fastener. She was now rising to her full stature, a triumphant look upon her face. That smile did as many funny things to his gut, and lower, as her bottom or those full breasts. Of course, his gaze would have to travel to where they strained against the jumper, as she called it. Cold shower. He needed a cold shower when they got home.

“Jessica, this is Jill,” he said by way of introduction. “Jill, the sulking pre-teen is my daughter, Jessica.” He offered apologetically.

The woman extended her hand towards his oldest daughter. “It’s nice to meet you, Jess. Your grandmother told me a lot about you. But not how good a soccer player you are. That goal was magnificent.”

The young girl looked at the ground. “Yeah. Whatever,” she mumbled as she held open the door.

Jill climbed in first and buckled the seat belt. Jess took the seat on her right, next to the window. She promptly pulled out her phone and plugged it into her ears. Daniel climbed into the driver’s seat. His legs brushed against Jill’s as he folded his tall frame into the car.

He had forgotten how packed and intimate even his Explorer could be. He tried to remember the last time that Rachel had gone with them on one of their family outings. But he failed. Those last couple of years, she had begged off so many things. She said that she needed some time alone, but he had always wondered.

There was nothing he could do about the past, as much as he might like to. Turning the key, he smiled at his girls. “Next stop home.”

Jill wiped Britney’s face. The baby giggled, revealing the dimple in her left cheek.

“You are a cheeky little monkey, sweetheart,” she tickled the baby’s side.

Ashley began to whimper uncharacteristically in her high chair. “Alright, sweetie, you’re next. Just let me get your sister’s hands clean,” she ran the damp cloth across the baby’s hands as well. She placed Britney on the kitchen floor, which she had just swept. The baby crawled towards the box of toys in the corner.

“Your turn now, angel.” She reminded herself once more not to get too attached to the babies, but over the past couple of days, it was a fight that she feared she had already lost. The girls, even sulking Jess, had been a delight. Jill had played dolls and read books with Bel. She had also attempted to engage Jess in conversation about soccer with some limited success. The tween had grudgingly admitted that she knew quite a bit about the sport ‘for an old lady.’

But it was the twins for whom the fight was the hardest. She had insisted that Daniel allow her to care for the babies while she was here. After all, it was the least she could do to repay his hospitality. It had been over twenty years since she cared for babies. She had forgotten the softness, the warmth, and the unconditional love that they exuded.

She would miss it when she left this place, but she had come to a decision. She was going to purchase an older car and begin her tour of America. Even her limited funds would get her quite a ways if she camped out and stayed in hostels, where possible. Besides, she could always pick up money in any café that had a help wanted sign. If she felt a bit let down by her decision, there was not much she could do now. It was the best of her options.

“All done, my girls,” she pronounced as she placed Ashley on the floor. She promptly tottled straight to where her sister sat playing with a plastic worm. Jill used the damp cloth to clean the high chairs. She tried hard to keep thoughts of him from invading her mind.

Daniel growled as he tossed the paper upon a growing pile on the coffee table. How hard could it be? Finding one qualified, responsible, and caring person to look after four girls. But over the past couple of days, it was as daunting a mission as any he had ever undertaken. This one was too old to manage four active girls. That one too inexperienced. This one too strict and unloving. That one too lenient. This one didn’t speak enough English. That one didn’t drive.

He growled again in utter frustration as Jill entered the room. He stood up and took the heavily laden tray that she carried. “Here, let me help you with that.”

She handed it over with a smile, “I just thought you could use some lunch. How’s the search going for a nanny?”

“Finding terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan is easier,” he replied weakly.

“I hope you find the right person.” She turned to leave with another of those weak smiles that did not reach her eyes.

What he would give for even one of the genuine ones that caused the fine lines around those bright green eyes to crinkle just a bit at the corner. But those seemed to be reserved for his daughters. Playing Barbies with Bel or laughing at the latest antics of the twins, even talking soccer with Jess. Never for him. Polite nervousness reigned, but then again, he supposed it was a two-way street. The situation made them both uncomfortable. What the hell was his mother and Simone thinking, he asked himself for the thousandth time.

“How about you? Any word from your cousin?” he continued the polite charade.

“Actually, I’m thinking about buying a used car and just hitting the road,” she stopped in the doorway.

She was wearing some sort of long dress that was stylish this year. It should have hung formlessly about her body, but the way that its deep v-cut neckline framed her breasts begged to have his hands brush it aside, freeing the ample swell beneath. And it did nothing to hide the gentle sway of her hips either. The damned thing was a new form of torture. One, he was not sure he could withstand for much longer. So, her words should have brought relief, instead of the sudden welling of panic that rose from deep inside his gut. He frowned at the thought, “Isn’t that a bit dangerous for a woman alone?”

Jill shook her head, “I’ll manage…probably better than you will if that stack of papers is the reject file.” She gestured towards what was, in fact, the reject pile.

“Thanks a lot for the reminder.” His laughter filled the room as she headed back into the kitchen to make some other delightful concoction for dinner. Patting his tummy, ‘I’d better get back to the field soon, or I’m going to be out of regulation with that woman’s cooking.’ A low moan came from his lips as he bit into the thick sandwich rich with beef left over from the night before and a dressing that was unlike anything he had tasted before.

“Damn, that woman can cook,” he said around a large bite.

Why was it that in the hundreds of resumes he had read and a dozen interviews, there was not a single woman to be found that could cook, clean, and take care of the girls like this one had? She stepped off the plane and simply took over, making everything look easy. His brows furrowed deep with thought as he finished off the sandwich.

Jill washed the pot as she stared out the kitchen window. The street was bustling with young families out for walks and bike rides. In the middle of summer, the sun would not go down for another couple of hours. The house was quiet, too quiet. Jess had asked to visit Althea, and Bel was with the little girl next door. It reminded her for the moment of her lonely existence back in London. A solitude that she would be forced once again to embrace all too soon.

But just outside, it seemed as if the world mocked her emptiness. From the window, she could see the commander entertaining the twins in the wading pool. The man looked way too good in khaki shorts and a t-shirt. Not as good as in those white boxers, of course. Turning to wipe down the table, she reminded herself not to ogle the man. She finished off with sweeping and damp mopped the floor underneath the high chairs.

She pondered what to do now. She could watch some television she supposed. She had always been partial to American shows. Crime dramas were her favorites. She could almost hear David’s laughter when he accused her of studying up so that she could off him for his pension the moment he retired, and they moved to Spain. She inhaled deeply as if to hold onto the precious memories that were slipping further and further from her each day.

With a slight shake of her head to send the ghosts away, she headed into the living room. She stopped just inside the doorway. A picture caught her eye. It was a family portrait. The commander and a devastatingly beautiful blond woman with a much younger Jess. The other little girl must be Bel, but she could not have been much older than the twins were now. They were all giggling in the picture as Daniel and the girls attempted to tickle the woman, Rachel.

Jill had spent the past two years working in a day center for people with mental health issues. She had even received some basic counseling training. She knew people who suffered from depression. She had even known a couple, who had attempted suicide. The laughing blue eyes that looked at her from that picture showed no signs of sadness. Certainly not of depression so deep that it would drive her to take her own life.

Of course, she understood that many with depression masked. Then too, this photograph was taken years before the woman’s death. Had Post Partum Depression after the birth of the twins been the culprit? Still, the woman had so much to live for. Rubbing her finger across the glass, she whispered her thoughts aloud, “Why?”

“If I knew that don’t you think I would have done something…anything to stop her,” came the deep growl of a wounded animal behind her.

She jumped, startled by his presence. The man seemed almost another ghost, moving about without making the least bit of noise. She was confident it was a skill that made him very good at his job, but it made her more than a little uncomfortable. “I’m sorry.” It was a weak and inadequate response, she knew that, but it was all she had to offer to the hurt and defensive tone of his voice.

“I need to get some more towels. The other ones are wet. Would you mind going outside with the girls?” he commanded in a flat, cold tone that brooked no disobedience.

Jill nodded and brushed past him as she headed outside. It was clear from his tone that she had overstayed her welcome, prying, as it were, into things that were not her business. But it was hard for her to disconnect from the girls. From him and the pain that he wore like his uniform. And each day she stayed, it would only get harder. Her resolve grew firmer; she had to get out of here – before it was too late.

As if to validate her thoughts, she caught his smell, soap and man, nothing more. It was intoxicating. It washed across her senses like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. If she did not leave soon, this man would be her undoing.

Daniel sat on the back steps. He could hear Jill singing a lullaby to the twins. Her voice was horrid. Each note flatter and more off-key than the last. At least she wasn’t perfect.

How could someone insinuate themselves so entirely into his family in just a few days? But this woman had.  Whether it was her cooking that was definitely putting weight on him and the girls, the easy way that she managed the house, multi-tasking until everything and everyone shone bright and clean, or the relaxed and genuine love and care that she gifted on each of his girls, love and care that made him a bit jealous and ache for even a smidgeon of her affections; this woman fit. Fit into their lives like a missing puzzle piece.

If she left now, he knew that Bel would be devastated. The two of them had formed a close bond, playing dolls for hours as the babies crawled about. It had made him realize exactly how badly his middle child was starved for feminine attention, taking her mother’s death and emotional abandonment more deeply than he had known. The twins, too, had taken to the woman, although they were easier to please; milk, food, clean diapers, and a few toys, anyone could be their friend.

Of course, Jess would probably be happy to see her go, but he could sense that even she was melting just a bit, responding to the interest that Jill showed to her activities, especially soccer. Given time, he was sure that she would come to accept the woman, who had taken a bit of the burden her young shoulders were too thin to manage alone.

“What about you, buddy? You happy to see the woman go?” he asked the darkness. Besides the obvious, cooking, cleaning, and the genuine care that she showed his girls, he admitted that there was something else about her. The few conversations that they had the past few days had been both oddly awkward and comfortable. The combination was decidedly unusual. Comfortable might seem an odd word in this situation, but he was not accustomed to conversations with women that were anything other than contentious, angry even.

When he had seen Jill looking at that picture, it had been a reminder of one thing; his vow and what a miserable failure he was as a husband. How could he have not seen the depression? Oh, he knew that Rachel was not happy with their life. She made that damned clear. He had thought that they might even get a divorce, but he never had for a moment thought she would commit suicide.

‘Why’ had haunted his life for most of the past seven years and probably would for the rest of his life. It was not an easy enemy to confront. He knew that from his career as well as his marriage. The burdens he bore as a leader weighed as heavily, sometimes, as these: the lost lives, the mistakes, the what-ifs, and should-haves.

But this failure as a husband was a different kind of burden. Why had he not seen the truth? Why had Rachel thought everything so hopeless that she would leave the girls? Him, he could understand. They had long since stopped loving one another. The Navy and his country, his mistresses and true loves, as she had accused thousands of times over the years.

And Rachel was never one to play second fiddle to anyone. She craved center stage like the spoiled, youngest child of the wealthy family that she was. He chuckled almost fondly; she would have been at home on one of those television reality shows where all the women did was shop and go to parties. She certainly was not cut out for the long absences and responsibilities that marriage to a Navy SEAL brought with it. Even though Simone and some of the other wives had reached out to her, Rachel had never really fit in with this lifestyle that required self-sacrifice.

His senses trained over the years to be at constant alert, he heard the creak of the screen door as it opened. Silence hung in the crisp, clean air, the slightly musky smell of the ocean carried on the light breeze that cooled the summer night. The whole thing wrapped about them like a snug blanket, setting the stage for what he knew would not be an easy conversation.

The woman stood in the doorway as if uncertain how to proceed. It was a feeling that he could sympathize with at the moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were out here.”

“The girls asleep?” He lifted the bottle of lukewarm beer to his lips. She nodded as she turned back to go inside. “Don’t go.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she shifted nervously from one foot to the other. The movement caused those gorgeous tits to bounce just a bit within the tight confines of her dress. He fought to lead his mind away from that dangerous path. If this was going to work, he had to stop having those kinds of thoughts about the woman. About Jill.

He sighed and cleared his throat before launching into the unknown. “I was going to come looking for you anyway. There is something I wanted to discuss.”

Jill reluctantly took a seat on the step next to him but declined the bottle of beer when he passed it to her with a polite excuse, “Never liked the stuff. More of a wine girl.”

He nodded and brought the bottle back up to his lips. His profile shone proudly in the soft moonlight. Up close, she could see the fine lines around his eyes, lines drawn by time and responsibility. He was a man with plenty of those that was for certain.

Jill clasped her hands in her lap to keep from reaching up and touching his beard. What would it feel like? Would it be as soft as it looked? His dark brown hair, too, was longer than she was accustomed to. She knew, of course, that the U.S. military had loosened its once stringent regulations on such things. Fitting in with local cultures and camouflage were more important than tradition.

Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered David in his dress uniform. Hair cut short in keeping with customs, his olive cheeks shaved clean. Even after seven years, it still hurt a bit to remember the man that had been her first lover, best friend, and husband for almost twenty years.

But the past was not something she could change. And while her future might not be the one she had dreamt of, it would be one of her choosing. She watched this man in silence as he lowered the empty bottle, resting it on his knees. Resolve welled up inside of her. “So, what did you want to talk about?”

“Are you serious about buying some old clunker and just going?” His words stung. While it might not seem the most logical option to someone like him, or even to most people, Jill had always been someone who followed her heart.

If it had not worked on this particular occasion, it had when she had given up her home and country to follow a man she loved. Their happy marriage and the four sons they had produced attested to her instincts. Still, his words made her feel defensive. “Is it any of your damned business?”

“Yeah, it’s my mother’s fault you came on this damned wild goose chase, to begin with. So, hell yeah, I’d feel like shit if anything happened to you. I have enough fucking blood on my hands as it is.” He sat tall and straight as a board as he stared straight ahead at the moon as if seeing ghosts that were not there.

Jill fought the urge to wrap her arms about those broad shoulders that bore more pain and responsibility than any human ought. His pain was one she knew well. One she had battled for almost twenty years, one she ached to try and soothe in him as she once had in David. If things had been different, she thought. But they were not. He had made his choice. He did not want to risk hurt or share the burdens that he carried. And she would do well to remember that.

“Well, don’t worry about me, Commander. I’m a big girl.” She stood and turned to leave. There was no point in continuing this conversation. It would only deepen the pain of rejection that she was already feeling. The might-have-beens that haunted her dreams as she slept in the bed just across the hall from him each night. It was a pain she had no right to feel at all.

His hand grabbed hers. She could feel the callouses as they rubbed against her palm. She froze at the heat. Her heart stuttered in her chest with an old familiarity. She shook herself as for a moment she too felt ghosts pass over this place, even if for her, they brought comfort. Something she doubted this man had felt in a very long time.

“No, please don’t go,” he pleaded. “I always screw these things up.” His other hand ran across his face as he sighed deeply.

The battle waged in her mind. She knew that she ought to run, seek out the safety of the room that she shared with the twins. Pull up the edges of the quilt that seemed made with such loving care, and try to forget this man, the girls, and the longings of her betraying heart.

But the quiet strength of this man touched a part of her that she thought long since dead. A portion of her that ached to soothe and comfort just as much as she would his crying twins. It had been a long time since she felt that protective of a man. In the end, it was not his words that she responded to, but the unspoken needs that they hid. She returned to her seat next to him. Their thighs brushed against one another once more.

 “You know I’ve been looking for a nanny,” he said after a long moment of silence that was punctuated with only the lonesome song of the crickets. Jill simply nodded. If a friendly ear was all he sought from her, it was certainly something that she would offer freely. “It isn’t going as well as I hoped.”

“I’m sorry for the girls’ sake and yours,” Jill knew that her voice carried the genuine concern that she felt inside. David had always said she wore her heart on her sleeve. It was a characteristic that did not always serve her well.

“I was thinking. You are good with them. The house is cleaner than it has been in…ever. And your cooking is amazing. You don’t have any place to go or anything.” Jill frowned at his last words. They seemed so cold and logical as if a computer were analyzing the situation and calculating the best possible outcomes based upon nothing more than strings of zeroes and ones.

It reminded her of how different they were. The man who followed his sense of duty and the woman who followed her heart. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I?” he asked when he saw her looking up at the moon once more.

“Yes, you are, commander. Are you saying that you have reconsidered the marriage idea?” She inquired, trying to keep the note of hope from her voice.

Daniel drew back as if scalded with hot water. “No, God, no.”

Jill fought back the tears. His words cut across her like a bayonet. Feeding insecurities that she thought were buried. Of course, a guy like him would never be interested in someone that looked like her. She sat in stunned silence.

“What I’m trying to ask is…would you consider staying as our nanny?” he finished with a deep sigh.

Jill thought that she had grown immune from rejection over the past year. But his proposition was so much less than what she had once hoped that it was impossible not to draw back from the pain. Pain, she would not let him see. She gathered her words carefully about her like a Kevlar vest to protect her heart from word bombs.

“Daniel, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. As I said in an email, I had considered the possibility of caring for other people’s children, but I don’t want to become attached to them and then have to move on.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. The girls adore you. Well, except for Jess, but she’s just a typical teenager. I can see that you already care for them. This could work. I know it could,” he tried almost desperately to convince her.

“No, Daniel, it couldn’t. Your job is dangerous. We both know that. What if something happened to you? I know from personal experience that the military isn’t exactly kind to its widows and orphans. But at least the boys and I had one another. A nanny has no legal standing… whatsoever,” she punctuated the last word.

She hesitated to say more. She realized that she knew far more about this man, his daughters, and even his marriage than he realized. But for some reason, she needed him to understand why it could never work. “I know that Rachel’s sister has already tried to get custody of those girls once. If something…” she trailed off slowly.

The familiar tightness squeezed her heart until she found it almost impossible to breathe. She recognized that feeling, knew it well. It was fear. The fear that all military families learned to live with every time their soldiers faced another deployment. But what shocked her was how strongly it gripped her. She shook her head. She had no right. It did not make sense.

But she would examine those feeling another time when she was long gone from this place and this man. For now, she needed to make him understand how impossible what he asked was. Impossible for all of them. “If anything happened, I wouldn’t stand a chance as the hired help. So, no, Daniel, the answer is no,” she answered with finality, as she stood and turned back towards the house. The slamming of the screen door punctuated her remarks in the dark, silent night.

Daniel stared at the computer screen. His eyes hurt. He had barely slept at all last night. And when sleep did finally come, it was filled with images of lifeless blond bodies and cold, blue lips. The nightmare was a frequent visitor these past months. But this time, when he looked back, the dead form was not Rachel, but Jill.

He hated to admit it, but everything she had said last night made perfect sense. She was right. Even widows and children were rapidly erased from the minds of the country that they had served. And of course, even if he made a will giving her custody of his daughters, it would probably not be enough. A nanny would have little standing in a custody battle, especially when faced with the best lawyers money could buy. He knew just how vicious things could get, especially with his former sister-in-law.

He was a bit shocked that she knew about that, though. What else might she know about him and the girls was what had kept him up most of the night. He had pulled the piece of paper with the account name and password from his desk. He spent hours pouring over the emails that she had exchanged with his mother and Simone. He still was not anywhere near the end of them all. Over the weeks, there were hundreds. Two-hundred and twenty-seven to be exact. And those were just her responses.

He had finally given up trying to read them all around four in the morning. He might not know everything about this woman who had invaded their lives and home, but he was a man accustomed to making decisions based on limited intelligence. Decisions that could cost him and others’ lives. He knew enough to come to a decision.

He closed the laptop and stood. He knew where to find her. After she walked Jess and Bel to the bus stop and saw them off to school, her mornings were spent in the backyard as Ashley and Britney toddled and played on the plastic gym that had seen over a decade of proud service.

He held open the screen door. He saw them immediately, laughing and playing in the pool. Jill was wearing another knit dress that clung to her lush covers. The halter-style top accentuated those full breasts. He swore that he could see the dark outline of her nipples through the thin fabric. ‘Enough of that, buddy,’ he chided himself. This was not that sort of an arrangement.

Clearing his throat, he waited. Jill looked up with a smile plastered on her face. Britney giggled and splashed water on her dress. The knit material clung to her soft breasts. In self-defense, he turned his eyes towards Ashley as she waddled towards him. He lifted her into his arms when she reached the steps. Finding the woman sexually attractive would only complicate an already muddled situation.

Even with the decision made, his mind and his body were battling. He did not need this complication. It was not a duty that he was any damned good at. But it was the only choice. He dove in, knowing that he was probably messing this one up too. He forced the words out before he could second guess himself out of it. “Jill, are you still interested in this arranged marriage thing?”

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