Chapter 3 – Rocky Roads

Rocky Road Brownies

Two boxes of store-bought brownie mix
2 eggs
Oil and water (follow the instructions on the box)

Nuts (walnuts, pecans or almonds work best)
Glazed cherries (cut into pieces)
Chocolate chips/chunks (dark or white both are brilliant)

Mix up the chocolate brownie mix as instructed on the box with water, oil, and eggs. Then stir in the other ingredients. You decide proportions based upon your tastes…like cherries then add lots of those, prefer nuts, then more of those. The only thing to be mindful of is not to add too many marshmallows, or the brownies will be runny and need to be eaten with a spoon. Pour mixture into a greased pan and bake in the oven at the temperature and timings on the box, give or take a few extra minutes for the marshmallows and chips to melt.

Jill stared at Daniel, completely frozen as Britney splashed and babbled. Her heart pounded out a Texas two-step that would tire even the most experienced dancer. She must have heard him wrong. “What, commander?” Her voice sounded needy and unsure even to her own ears, and she cursed herself for it.

Daniel walked across the yard, carrying his daughter. He stopped barely two inches from her. At five foot ten, she was not a small woman, but he towered over her. The gentleness with which he held his daughter warred with the strength that emanated from him like an aura. At this distance, she could almost feel the heat coming off his body.

“I asked…if you would do me the honor of being my wife?” he smiled nervously as he shifted the child from one arm to the other. “I suppose that sounds more like it.”

Jill shook her head in disbelief. After their conversation on the steps the night before, this was the last thing she was expecting. “Is this some joke? You said last night that you didn’t need or want a wife?”

“I still don’t want one.” He paused and stared off at the clouds for a moment. She felt at a distinct advantage. While those emails might not have come from him, she knew decidedly more about his life than perhaps he would wish. His hurts ate at her soul.

He cleared his throat before he began again, “Well, more like, I’m not very good husband material.”

Jill could feel the pain behind those words. She wanted nothing more than to reach out her hand and brush his cheek, reassure him. Tell him that everything would be alright. But despite everything, she barely knew this man. Those words in the emails were not his. And she had no real right to feel this way.

He smiled weakly as he looked back at the baby in his arms and then at her. “I admit defeat. What you said last night made perfect sense. I do need one. The girls need a mother.” Tickling Ashley softly, “And you’re damned good at it.” Rubbing his stomach, he chuckled, “Besides, lady, your cooking speaks for itself.”

Jill laughed. His words reminded her of one of her favorite old musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The hero fell instantly in love with his soon-to-be bride’s stew. She could only hope their road would be less rocky, but the tight knots in her stomach that grew with each passing heartbeat warned her that this path was not without its risks. His words were too practical, so much less than what she wanted, even given their situation. She stamped those doubts down, as Ubah had said, those things came with time.

Jill felt the tug on her dress. She looked down into Britney’s smiling face. Jill knew what her answer must be. If before her mother’s heart had missed the laughter, the noise, and even the fights that a house full of children brought, the past few days she had fallen for these girls, Daniel’s daughters. There were not just images on a computer screen anymore. They were small people with minds of their own. And he was right. They needed her.

Picking the wet little girl up, she nodded slowly. When she finally found the courage to speak, it was in a throaty and needy whisper, “Yes, please.”

Daniel spent the rest of the day making arrangements. From his perspective, there was no need to delay things. The sooner they handled the formalities, the better. He admitted he had practically bullied Jill into a quick wedding. Protesting that the girls needed stability, and he wanted to get back to the field. They were arguments he knew would strike at the core of her too soft heart. If some part of him felt a tad guilty that he had rushed her, that there would not be time for her sons to join them for the wedding, he dismissed those concerns in favor of expediency.

The truth was some part of him wanted things settled quickly, before the woman had second thoughts, saw how inadequate he truly was as a husband. Perhaps the real truth was that he wanted this thing over and done with before all of the ghosts that resided in his nightmares could override common sense, and what he knew was the best option.

He had called the chaplain first. After more than his fair share of funerals and memorial services, the man was delighted at the prospect of a wedding. If he was a bit shocked when Daniel suggested the next day, he did not say anything. It would be simple, just the two of them and the girls. A few of his men and their families, but nothing large and fancy. Not like that other one. He shook his head and forced his fingers back to the phone, these numbers on speed dial.

He phoned his mother first. He wondered how he would bring this one up as the phone rang.

“Hi, Mom,” he began when she picked up. “How are you and dad?”

He could hear the worry and tiredness in her voice, “Nothing new, really hon. Your dad is as stubborn as ever. The chemo is making him sick, and he is tired all the time. Of course, he can’t stand the fact that he isn’t able to manage the ranch. But we’ll make it through all right.”

Daniel shook his head as another layer of guilt was added to the pile. His parents needed him, or at least a son to run the family farm, not a soldier that had long since forgotten all he knew of cattle and horses.

“How are you and my girls? You had any luck finding a nanny?” There was a momentary pause, but before he could begin to explain, she asked, “Did Jill make it back to London? I am sorry, Daniel. I know you must still be mad at me, but all I can say is I was trying to do what I thought was best for you and those children. Will you forgive me?”

He sighed with relief, thankful that his mother was the first to mention Jill. It was the opening that he needed. “Actually, Mom, that’s why I’m calling. I wanted to let you know that we’re getting married.”

“You don’t sound pleased about it,” he could hear the worry in her voice ratchet up a couple of notches.

“It’s not that, Mom. Honestly, you were right. I spent days going through a stack of resumes and could not find a single qualified nanny. But from the moment Jill woke up that first morning, she just sort of,” he paused as he sought the right word. She just fit, but that was not something he could explain to his mother. In the end, he settled for, “She just sort of took over. I woke up to the smell of pancakes, and she had all the girls dressed and eating away merrily in the kitchen with her. She’d even told them not to wake me up.”

He could almost hear the smile in his mother’s voice when she spoke again, “Simone and I thought so. You know it wasn’t easy for us either. We looked through hundreds of profiles on dozens of those sites before we found hers. But something about her complete openness,” his mother sighed, and he could hear the rustle of tissue. He could almost see her reach into the pocket of her old house dress for a fresh one. 

“I honestly am happy for you, sweetie. I know that you have been hurt, but I hope you will give her a chance. Sometimes friendship is the best place to start.”

Before Daniel could confide more, she replied, “I have to go, sweetie. The nurse is knocking, but we both love you, and I’ll share the good news with your father. I know it will make him as relieved as I am. We love you. Give my girls hugs and kisses from Grandma. Darnation, I’m coming. Give me a minute here,” she yelled at what must have been the nurse, or perhaps his father was cantankerous again.

Daniel wanted to keep her on the phone. Had hundreds of questions racing through his mind, needed his mother’s advice and guidance. And perhaps reassurance that he was making the right choice – this time.

But before he could say any of that, she was breathlessly back, “Honey, I do have to go but give Jill a big kiss for me too. Tell her I can’t wait to meet her. She truly is an amazing woman, but I guess you know that better than I do. This is the perfect solution, Daniel.”

“I know things were hard. You know, with Rachel, but Jill is nothing like that woman. Just give her a chance, baby, I think you will find the happiness that you deserve. If I didn’t, then Simone and I would have never sent that first email.”

Daniel nodded his head, a bit shocked that his mother had known precisely the words that he needed to hear the most. Knew each of his worries, and even amid the chaos and worry back home, she had taken the time to share those reassurances with him. “Thanks, Mom. I love you,” was all he could choke past the dry lump in his throat.

He stood listening to the dial tone for a moment after she hung up. His parents never ceased to amaze him. Forty-one or was it forty-two years now? Theirs was the fairytale happily ever after that had kept him from attorneys and the divorce court no matter how tough things got with Rachel.

He always reminded himself that they had seen rough times together. Floods, droughts, and blizzards that destroyed whole herds. The sorrow of a half dozen or more miscarriages as they tried to give him the baby brother or sister that was never to be. And now this demon called cancer. But they had made it through all that, together, as friends and lovers. That was the solid ground that he had always dreamt of.

Lovers. His mother’s other words echoed in his head. ‘Give Jill a big kiss.’ “Fuck,” he cursed. In less than twenty-four hours, he would stand before god and friends, and swear to love, honor, and cherish a woman that he had never even kissed. The idea left him shaking his head. Not that the idea of kissing Jill was all that horrid.

He smiled as images of her walking out of those doors at the airport, the gentle way that those jeans hugged and cupped her round bottom. His cock stirred to life in his jeans at the thought. But the image that fully awoke his body from its long slumber was the way that stupid dress had clung to her full breasts when Britney splashed water on it. Her nipples had hardened instantly from the cold water, although some part of him wanted to believe that part of it was in reaction to him, his presence.

But thirteen years of a lousy marriage, worse sex, and accusations that Rachel had flung about so easily had undermined his confidence as a man. If his wife was to be believed, all of their sexual problems were his fault. He shook his head as he picked up the phone again. He froze before it even reached his ear.

Sex. Was that a part of this deal that Jill had brokered with his mother and Simone at all? This was, after all, an arrangement for the children’s sake. One that gave them the mother they needed and Jill the family she missed. So, where the fuck did that leave him? Besides back in the field with his men, of course. It wasn’t like he had not already lived through a mostly sexless marriage, but damn, it was not something he wanted to do again.

He thought about pressing the redial button, but his mother was busy with his father and the nurse, besides he would not know exactly how to broach the subject with his mother. Not that his parents had ever been prudes. Public displays of affection were standard in the home where he grew up. Everything from the morning kiss that his father always gave her when he came in for breakfast after feeding the livestock to the playful swats that the man bestowed on his mother’s bottom from time to time. But asking his mother, ‘Oh, by the way, did you happen to discuss sex with Jill in those emails?’ was not something that he relished.

That led him to his other option and by far the hardest call to make, Samuel. Not Samuel really, but Simone. He knew that the woman would gloat. This would only fuel her meddling. But he also knew as her husband and his mother had said, she did not mean any harm. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number. Simone answered on the second ring.

“So, hot stuff, how it goin’ over there? Has Jill decided what she is doin’ yet?” Simone asked.

He considered taking the bull, well the heifer in this case, by the horns or udders, and asking Simone the question that was now plaguing his thoughts. But she would have enough to prance and preen about soon enough, he did not need to add fuel to the fire, or bonfire was more like it. “Is Samuel around?”

“Sure, out in the garage. Tinkering. Speaking of which, you been doing any tinkering lately?” she giggled.

“Simone,” he warned. He could hear her laughter as he waited for her to get his friend from his workshop in the garage.

“Hey, buddy, what’s up?” Samuel asked when he came on a moment later.

“Are you busy tomorrow?” Daniel stammered nervously, uncertain how to begin this conversation. Even more so than with his mother. For all her craziness or perhaps because of it, Samuel and Simone had the only other ‘perfect’ marriage that he had seen. After almost twenty years of marriage, only one cloud hung over their world.

“No plans. Just gonna putter around with some wood. Making Simone a new table for her readings.”

Daniel screwed up his courage, “I was wondering if you would be my best man.”

“What the fuck?” The voice on the other end faded, followed by a thump. Daniel waited a moment. Silence and then a squeal filtered through the phone. A distinctly feminine squeal at that. A moment later he heard his friend pick up the phone. “I’ll be right over.”

“Don’t bring,” but before Daniel could say Simone, the line went dead.

Jill was finishing up a batch of rocky road brownies for the girls’ after school snack and cleaning the kitchen. Looking up at the clock on the kitchen wall, she would need to leave for the bus stop in another fifteen minutes. She washed the countertop for the hundredth time that day.

She had been distracted since her conversation with the commander that morning. Since Daniel’s proposal would be more accurate. She had moved through the day like a robot on autopilot. She cared for the twins, made lunch, started dinner, and cleaned. But it all seemed like an old black and white movie set to play on slow motion.

She supposed she had a good reason. Most brides were nervous before their weddings, but she was not most brides, and this was not a ‘normal’ marriage. It was an arrangement. Pure and simple. Daniel needed a housekeeper and cook, someone he could depend upon. The girls needed a mother, even Jess, though Jill was sure she would deny it. And she needed…

What did she need? She was back in the good old U. S. of A. after all these years. She would have thought that the homesickness that she had felt for much of the past quarter of a century would have abated. But she continued to discover new ways that she no longer quite fit in here anymore. A hybrid. She had never adjusted to her life in England, but now she found that she was no longer quite American either. It seemed just another example of how she never truly fit in.

As for her other reason for this crazy plan. She still missed having her sons around; nothing could change that pain of the past couple of years. But the girls were more than she could have hoped for. It was just that, suddenly, what had seemed so logical and practical all those weeks ago when she responded to that first email seemed absolutely preposterous. Marrying someone you hardly knew. Someone that you did not love. At the moment, she would give anything to talk to Ubah.

She heard the doorbell and called out, “I’ll get it,” as she raced from the kitchen, looking for something more to do, any distractions from her turbulent thoughts.

She practically ran into Daniel in the living room. “Oh, sorry,” seemed a foolish response when the side of her breast brushed his arm. The man was going to be her husband in twenty-four hours. She shook her head and fought back the tears. It was just another sign of how wrong this all was, as she stepped aside, suddenly feeling like the stranger she was in his house.

He nodded to her as he opened the door. His face a perfect mask, devoid of any emotion. Any doubts. If he even had them. Jill shivered as she realized just how little she knew of this man. Not even those emails that they had shared over the weeks were real. Second hand, it was all only second-hand information. She knew nothing really of the man she was about to marry.

Simone burst through the door like a child on Christmas morning. “I told you de stars never lie, Danny, me boy,” as she wrapped him in a hug. Jill saw the glare that Daniel sent towards Samuel.

“What could I do?” the man replied in his defense.

Daniel did not have a chance to respond before Simone turned her attention to her. For a large woman, she moved fast, racing across the room and wrapping her in an embrace as well. Jill wanted, needed, to surrender to that contact, but she held herself back.

“Gurl, we’s got so much to do. Why’s tomorrow? We need at least a month to do this thing right.” The woman questioned. It was the same question that Jill had been pushing back from her mind all morning. But the truth was she did not want to examine it too carefully.

Turning back to where the men were chatting quietly by the door, Simone took control, “Aw, you two go do some man tings and leave us gurls to plan de whole ting.” Her dismissal was complete as she dragged Jill towards the kitchen.

The moment they were behind the kitchen door, Simone opened like a flood gate. “See, I told you everything would work out. I knew the moment I saw your profile that you were the one. And when I did a reading, well that only confirmed it, sweetie. This is going to be perfect. Now, we have to plan everything. What are you going to wear? The girls will all have to be in the wedding, of course. They will need new dresses too.”

Jill felt the tears scalding her eyeballs as the woman spewed forth like Mount St. Helen’s. “Stop it,” she screamed. Those tears that she had held back for days began to pour down her cheeks. “I can’t do it. I can’t. This is crazy. It’s all a horrible mistake,” she broke down.

The woman stared at her for a moment. Then she wrapped her soft arms about her. “Sit down,” she commanded as she led Jill to the kitchen table. She placed Jill in a chair and went to the cupboards. Jill watched through the tears as the woman pulled two cups out of the cabinets and started the coffee pot.

The woman obviously knew this house well. Jill wondered how many times over the past months or perhaps years, the woman had taken charge like this. She was sure that she had done so after Rachel’s death. Jill was just as confident that Daniel and his daughters would have been lost without her.

The woman’s words rang in her head…’dis is all my doing.’ Jill supposed in some ways it was, too. She thought of the hundreds of emails that she had unknowingly shared over the weeks with this woman. For a moment, she could empathize with Daniel. This woman knew things about her that few people other than her sons and Ubah ever had. One, in particular, haunted her.

By the time, Simone returned with two cups of strong black coffee; Jill had regained some of her composure, her sobs had weakened to a stray tear or two. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have screamed at you like that,” she apologized.

Taking the seat across from her, Simone shook her head that was now covered in thick rings of tight curls that hung past her shoulders. “It’s alright. You want to talk about it?”

“I don’t think I can go through with this,” she began as she stared at the cup in her hand. “I know it is a little late now to be having second thoughts, but…” she trailed off, uncertain what to say. How to explain.

“But what, sweetie? I thought you wanted to have a family again. You were tired of the quiet of your empty nest, you said. You wanted to be part of something bigger, a community that fought for what was right. What’s changed?”

Jill heard her own words written all those weeks ago pour from Simone’s lips like murky floodwaters. She could not deny the truth of them. “I know, but…” She sought for words. Words to explain the self-doubts inside of her.

“I know you care about those girls already. I could see that on Sunday at soccer practice.” Simone reached across the table and covered Jill’s trembling hand with one of her own, “You have your family,” Simone reassured her as she squeezed her hand. “Trust me; you are gonna fit right in with the wives’ club. So, why the cold feet?” She pressed again.

“Him,” the answer sprung forth from Jill’s heart like the first flower of spring bursting towards the truth of the sun.

Simone laughed. The sound was deep and rich as it echoed off the walls of the kitchen. “Aw, dat.”

Jill stared at the woman in disbelief. How could she of all people not understand the angst of this situation? She, who knew her secret. “Yes, that. He’s nothing like what I thought he would be.”

“How so?” The woman pinned her with a knowing stare. “Everything his mama and me put in those emails is true. He’s a man of honor. We both know that is a dying breed. Men who believe in right and live by a code. Men willing to give their lives for what they believe.”

Shaking her head, the woman continued her sermon, one that would have done the hellfire and brimstone preacher that she had grown up with proud. “The only thing that man loves more than this country and the Navy is those girls. For the past nine months, he has stayed here for them.”

Her dark eyes bored into Jill’s soul. “You know how hard that is for a man like him. Sending his men off to face god knows what danger while he watches from some damned satellite feed? But his daughters needed him.”

Squeezing Jill’s hand tighter, she implored, “I thought you could understand all that? I thought you could see past the code to the man. I thought, no, I felt that just maybe you could heal some of the pain that man carries. I thought that you could give him the love he needs.” 

Jill looked at their hands, entwined on the table. The other woman’s was just a couple of shades darker than Ubah’s had been. How many times over the past few months had she yearned to touch and talk with her friend just one more time? Simone might not be Ubah, but something told her that she could be that same solid ground to turn to in times of trouble. If she let her.

“What made you think that he would want someone like me?” she whispered. Confiding her deepest fears, “You’ve seen Rachel. Look at me. Hell, look at him. The man’s drop-dead gorgeous.”

Jill looked around the kitchen that gleamed in the afternoon sun, “I don’t want someone who sees me only as a cook, cleaner, and nanny. Alright, so maybe it was crazy, but I thought, I hoped, that someday real feelings could grow between us.”

Simone’s abundant laughter filled the small kitchen. “Dat man is purty. Dat is for sure. But don’t you be tellin’ my Samuel I said dat or I swear I’ll have to curse you.” Jill noted that the woman had taken up the thick accent that she used only when it suited her purposes, “But don’t let those pretty-boy looks and I don’t need no one attitude fool you. That man is hurting. He hurting bad.”

The woman sighed, “That woman you think is so pretty had a heart of darkness. And I should know.” Jill wanted to question Simone more about the woman, who had been Daniel’s first wife. So, many things about her, about their marriage, about her death, just did not make sense. She had been here only days, but something just did not add up. She could sense it instinctively.

But before she could speak, Simone barreled on, “She did a real number on that boy’s head too. I promise you, sweetie, you a more beautiful woman than she ever was. Because your beauty comes from within.”

Jill laughed sardonically as shook her head, “And men are so good at seeing that.” She could taste the bitter bile in her throat as a litany of harsh words danced through her mind. ‘Fat.’ ‘Ugly.’ ‘Cow.’ The words cut like a knife through old scars that were barely healed even after almost two years.

The woman squeezed her hand and held her gaze for a moment before she spoke, “The good ones are. And I’m placing my bets on the stars, that’s a good man in there.” Jill shook her head at how easily the woman dismissed her fears.

The woman pierced her with a glare that she was sure would have even the strongest of Royal Marines quaking in their boots, “Are you gonna let a few nerves stand between you and what you want? Cause if you is then you ain’t the woman we thought you were.”

Her eyes pinned Jill’s soul as if searching for some unseen flaw…as if the ones she could see were not enough. Jill looked away at the clock. “I better go get the girls from the bus stop,” she hoped to avoid the answer.

Simone shook her head, “Let ‘dem boys do it. They ought to be good for something other than looking purty. You and I have a wedding to plan.” She pronounced with finality, deciding for her.

Daniel stared at the ground. Sprigs of green grass, weeds, and dandelions sprang from between the cracks in the concrete sidewalk. He did not mind being shuffled off to pick up Jess and Bel from the school bus. It gave him a few moments to think. To re-evaluate his decision.

Logically, this situation was the perfect answer to the dilemma that he had faced for months. In Jill, he had found someone that he could trust to care for his daughters. Hell, better than Rachel ever had. He could get back where he belonged, in the field with his men. But Daniel had never been a man of pure logic. His gut, that he trusted just as much as his mind, told him that this was the best option, too. The right battle plan. So, why was he so fucking nervous?

It was not like him. Once he had the Intel, he considered the options. Choose the one most likely to accomplish the goals of the mission, then put everything else aside and focus on executing that mission. But this time, he was torn up with doubt and second-guessing.

He watched as a robin hopped quickly across the sidewalk. He could see its wing hanging at an odd angle from its body. He smiled as the word of a favorite song flitted through his mind. Like the tiny creature, when it came to matters of the heart, he most definitely had Broken Wings. The only question was, did he have the strength to…take these broken wings and learn to fly again.

“What’s bothering you, buddy?” said the one man that knew him better than anyone else. The man that had been his non-commissioned officer for more years than either of them wanted to count. The man he considered his best friend.

“What if I screw this up too?” the words were out of his mouth before he had time to think them through. But suddenly, it all made sense. That was what was bothering him about this situation. Not the Intel. Not the decision itself, but the execution. He just did not have the knowledge or skills for this mission. He never had. He was the problem. Unlike Samuel, he just was not cut out to be a husband.

Samuel chuckled as he slapped him on the back, “It ain’t as hard as you think it is, Danny, my boy. You already halfway there.”

The two men knew one another so well, thought so much alike that Samuel continued with Daniel’s analogy. “It’s just the same as any other mission we face. The biggest challenge is in the planning, picking the right battle plan.”

Looking Daniel in the eye, he continued. “You did that this time.” He put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder, “You were just a kid when you married Rachel, and that girl was never cut out for this lifestyle.”

He confided. “I hate to admit it, almost as much as you do, but my wife and your mama did a hell of a job this time. That woman might, and I said might just be as right for this job as Simone is,” he winked conspiratorially.

With a shrug of his shoulders, Samuel finished, “The rest is pretty much getting the hell out of their way and letting them manage.” He spoke in hushed tones as if imparting enemy secrets, “Of course, good loving and few kind words here and there never hurt anything either.”

“That’s what I’m worried about. I’m not very good at that,” Daniel scuffed his shoe against a lone dandelion, uprooting it. He felt instant regret. Empathizing with the plant, himself uprooted for so long now.

Samuel bellowed with laughter. “Oh, don’t give me that shit. I remember the women you had chasing you before Rachel. They didn’t seem to be complaining none. If I remember right, we needed an extra Marine guard at the base just to keep them off you.”

Daniel laughed at the reminder of another lifetime. “That’s different, and you know it.”

Samuel stared at him for a moment, “Is it? You think a wife wants or needs something different than a woman you just screwing?” The question hung in the air, bold and blunt like the two of them.

“Then, buddy, you do have problems. Trust the man that’s been married almost twenty years; a wife is just as kinky as any of the girls you pick up in a bar. And they want your ass just as bad too. Why else would they marry you?”

“Difference is the work that goes into keeping it that way in the long haul. But you ain’t got to think about that for another year or so.” With a nudge, he added, “But don’t worry, when that time comes I’ll show you all the best tricks to keep things going in the bedroom. It’s the least I can do considering Simone’s meddling.”

Daniel was pondering his words when the big yellow bus pulled up to the curb next to them. Any questions he might have, would have to wait for another time. Right now, he had other things to worry about. Like how he was going to tell his daughters about their new ‘mother.’

Bel with her smile was the first one off the bus. She danced over to where he stood with Samuel. With her quiet beauty, his middle daughter had a way of bringing out things from deep inside of him. Her optimism and natural smile brought comfort, even in the darkest of times.

“Where’s Jill? She promised to sew Cindy up for me. She’s been torn for a long time, but Jill said she could fix her, so she was good as new,” the child said, referring to the favorite teddy bear that she had had since she was a baby.

Daniel smiled. The woman sewed too. Damn, was there anything, besides singing, that she could not do? He reflected on his earlier conversation with Samuel. The image of Jill, bent over that pool as Britney splashed water all over the front of her dress, played like a video feed of battle through his mind. His palms itched as he thought of those lush breasts that had almost spilled from that wet halter top. There was indeed one thing he was more than anxious to find out about.

He drew a steadying breath. Right now, he needed to focus on other things, though.  “Jill’s been kind of busy today, sweetie. But you can ask her when we get home,” he soothed as he watched his eldest daughter and Althea slink from the bus, the last ones to get off, of course. Their heads bent in a secretive whisper. “There’s something I need to talk to you two about.”

Jill was on her second brownie and third cup of coffee. She never drank it after noon. She was confident that the double kick of caffeine and sugar would keep her up all night. Not that she needed another excuse to be up this night. Marrying a man you barely knew was reason enough for a sleepless night. Despite the past half hour of Simone’s reassurances, her doubts still ate like a worm at the apple of happiness that should be this day.

The back door burst open, and Jess ran through the utility room to the kitchen, standing in front of the chair where Jill sat. The teen’s face was bright pink, and her blues eyes were flaming. “You will never be my mother,” she screamed before racing down the hall. The slamming of another door punctuated her remarks.

Daniel, Samuel, Althea, and Bel followed behind through the open door. Jill looked at Daniel, but he only shrugged. She stood up, ready to go after Jess. Uncertain what she should say or do, but her motherly instincts told her someone should do something.

Before she could follow, Bel ran over. Her face shone with a light on par with her sister’s dark countenance. “This means you’re my forever friend. You won’t leave me ever? Promise?” pleaded the little girl as she wrapped her tiny arms about Jill’s waist.

Jill’s eyes filled with tears that she held back as she returned Bel’s embrace. “I promise, sweetheart.” At that moment, she found the answer that she sought and the resolve she lacked. Oh, doubts still niggled at her mind, but they took back seat to the needs that she felt in this unique child. She would cling to them as she clung to the little girl.

Althea slowly stepped forward, turning to her mother, “I’ll go talk to Jess.” The reserved young beauty smiled at Jill, “Excuse me, please. But I’m glad you came. Honest, I am,” she said before following her friend’s trail down the hallway.

Jill nodded after the girl, “Thank you, Althea.” The words seemed inadequate, but she did not know what else to say.

Bel stirred in Jill’s arms. She had had enough reassurance, it seemed, as she turned to her father. “Can I wear my pretty pink dress that Grandma Janice bought me this time? You said it was,” the child fumbled for the word.

“Inappropriate,” Jill and Daniel said at the same time. The small group laughed at the faux pas.

“That’s right. That big word. You said it was in-a-pro-pri-ate,” Bel pronounced each syllable carefully, “when they took Mommy and put her in that box. But it isn’t for a wedding, is it?”

Jill choked on the pain in the child’s simple words. Jess might be angry, but one thing was certain; this little girl needed her. She needed a woman, a mother. To pick out dresses. To play Barbies. To mend torn bears. To love her…unconditionally.

Looking at the man who would be her new husband in less than twenty-four hours, she saw him smile weakly. As Simone had said, the children were not the only ones that could use some unconditional love. The question was, would this proud man bend enough to share the heavy load he had shouldered alone for so long? And how the hell did she reach him?

With David, it had all been so easy. They were young. She was barely nineteen to his worldly twenty-five. And he had seemed so worldly then. His accent. His career as a Royal Marine. The glamor of his home in faraway England, foreign land that had been the setting of so many of the romance novels she read as a young teen. Looking back, she had probably been as in love with the romance of it all as she had been the man himself.

Of course, the reality of being his wife had come soon enough. They had been married less than a month the first time he had one of ‘those’ dreams, nightmares. It had taken her almost two years to pry the briefest of details from him – the Falklands. His friend torn to pieces by an exploding missile just yards from where David hunkered with the anti-aircraft gun against his shoulder. In all their almost twenty years together, she had never gotten anything more from him.

But it was enough. Sometimes words did not matter as much as the feelings they conveyed. The two of them, over the years, grew into their love. Grew up together. She had learned when to hold and when simply to give him space. Staring at Daniel, she wondered. While she could not deny the similarities between the two men, there were differences too.

Perhaps the most significant difference was in her. Gone was the care-free young beauty with the boundless confidence that she could conquer anything. Jill had her own secrets. Her own pain. And at that moment, she wondered if it was not too big. How could she ever be any kind of wife to this man if the very idea of being naked with a man, any man, let alone this Adonis, scared the ever-loving shit out of her?

She was about to bolt at the thought of it, when Bel tugged at her top once more, “So, can I wear the pink dress?”

Jill smiled weakly. “You may wear whatever you like, Isabella.”

Simone stood up, “Lordy me; we have so much to do. You men make yourself useful and go out for some chicken for dinner. Take the child with you too. Us girls have more planning to do.”

Jill was exhausted as she folded the last of the laundry. It was after ten. She knew that she should take a shower and head to bed. But she knew too that it would all be futile. She was confident that sleep would not come this night. Why torture herself by lying in bed and staring at the ceiling with every question and insecurity racing through her fertile imagination? No, better to keep herself busy. Hell, perhaps she could even exhaust herself out so much that she would simply drop into sleep in the early hours of the morning. 

Folding the last item, a pair of white boxers, she ran her hand across the warm cotton. The image of Daniel standing in the kitchen doorway wearing nothing but these boxers danced through her mind. Her nipples pebbled instantly at the memory. She had not lied when she told Simone the man was beautiful.

Hell, he belonged on the cover of one of her cheesy Mills and Boone romance novels. Harlequin, she corrected herself again with a chuckle.  Actually, he was too sexy for those. Something more in line with the racier ebooks that she bought these days. Too hot to handle, sprang to mind.

In some ways, he reminded her of David when they had first met. She smiled at the memory of her first husband, rising like Poseidon from the clear Gulf waters of Cancun. But even at twenty-five, David had not looked half as good as Daniel did that morning. David had been… She searched for the word. Comfortable. From the moment they met, David had been comfortable like a pair of old jeans. Sure, he was good looking, but he was also easy to talk to and approachable. Things that Daniel was not.

But more than that, the two of them had been equals. At nineteen, Jill had been a late bloomer. After a horrible experience of high school, braces, glasses, and acne, she was finally maturing into a beautiful young woman, and she knew it. Over the years, as time and pregnancies had taken their toll on her body, so too had the years softened her husband’s once firm muscles and added a touch of padding about his waistline that despite all he and the Marine’s attempts to combat it seemed destined to remain.

Yes, she and David had grown up together. They had grown together as individuals and as a couple. But they had also been growing old together. Before. Before that day, seven years ago. Now was not the time for those demons that sometimes still haunted her.

She had enough other worries right now. She looked down at the sundress she had worn all day, the one that hid the soft jiggle of the muffin top that came with four pregnancies in less than five years. The rolls of flesh that never went entirely away no matter how much weight she lost or how many sit-ups she did.

Of course, that was not all of it. She knew that the breasts, which might look so lovely in the tight confines of the halter top of this dress, sagged a bit too much. Another side-effect of her pregnancies and breastfeeding four hungry sons. But her pregnancies were not to blame for the wide hips or slightly dimpled softness of her thighs. The cooking that Daniel seemed to love so much was totally to blame for that cellulite.

‘Jill, my friend, you need a crash diet and six months at the gym…before tomorrow,’ she thought as she caressed the cotton one last time before turning to leave the cramped laundry room that was off the kitchen. Her mind was preoccupied with the thoughts of quick liposuction and miracle diets as she stared at the brown stone tiles of the floor.

The woman had a way of making him feel like an intruder in his own home. As he watched from the doorway, Jill smoothed invisible wrinkles out of his shorts. His mind immediately went places it should not go.

He imagined her caressing those same wrinkles out of his boxers, but this time he was inside them. His cock hardened immediately at the thought. Needs and desires that he had thought long since conquered seemed to rise to the occasion as quickly as his penis. He gave into them then, closing his eyes and letting the fantasy take over.

How would those hands that so lovingly cooked, cleaned, and cared for his daughters feel caressing his hard cock? Were they soft or slightly roughened by her work? Would she hold him as tightly as she had clung to Bel that afternoon? And those breasts? What would they feel like to pillow his head on after a long night of making love?

He was jarred back to reality when the object of his fantasies slammed directly into his chest. His reaction was automatic. His arms wrapped about her waist to steady her. But his natural reaction brought their bodies into perfect alignment. If he was half-hard from the fantasies, his cock sprang to life entirely at this seemingly innocent contact.

“I’m sorry. I should look where I’m going,” she stammered.

“No, it’s my fault. I was so caught up in,” his voice trailed off. He could not say erotic fantasies about you. “The girls are all down for the night,” he stammered as a diversion while he tried to regroup. To come up with a plan, a way to broach the subject that had lingered in his mind all day, that consumed his mind and his body.

Of course, Jess had insisted on staying with the Jackson’s, refusing to stay in the house with ‘that woman’ as she called her, but Jill did not need to worry about that right now. He would deal with it all after tomorrow. Right now, he had other things on his mind.

He knew he was screwing it all up again, but talking with women had never been easy for him. When he was younger, things just seemed more manageable. He and a few friends went out to a bar. The women were more than happy to make the first move and often more because they were SEALs. Rachel had been no different; she had most definitely done the picking. He had just followed along…until it was too late. And after over thirteen years of marriage, he was more than a little rusty.

The woman smiled. Jill smiled; he corrected himself. He had to quit thinking of her like that. In a few hours, she would be his wife. The word stuck in his mind, his second wife. And he hoped like hell, Samuel was right. That this worked better than it had the first time.

“That’s good.” Her green eyes went to the pile of clothes that she clutched tightly to her chest. “I was just doing a bit of laundry. Tidying up.”

Daniel could tell that she was as nervous as he felt. He wanted somehow to reassure her, to comfort her. But he had no idea what to say or do. His mind had continued to battle all evening long. After dinner, he and Samuel had once again been kicked out of the house by Simone, retreating with the children to the beach. They had walked and talked for some time as the girls played in the sand and surf. But Daniel had been uncertain how to broach the question that taunted him the most. Then, with his best friend, or now with the one person that could honestly answer it.

“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Well, ask you, I guess would be a better way of saying it.” He stuttered over his words. Reaching out for the pile of clothes like a security blanket, “Here, let me take those.”

Jill nodded her head, “Yes, commander. What is it?” She reluctantly surrendered her burden.

Daniel clutched the warm clothes, bringing them to his chest. He studied them, uncertain how to proceed. “About this marriage thing,” he pushed the words that had been bothering him all day past the lump in his throat, “is it a ‘real’ marriage?”

“Are you trying to ask about sex, commander?” she asked bluntly.

Daniel felt the heat rising up his neck, spreading across his face to the tips of his ears as he fumbled, “Yeah, sort of.”

She shook her head, “I keep forgetting that you did not write those emails. I’m sorry.” She drew in a deep breath before continuing, “Just because this situation is,” she paused for a moment, “unconventional, does not mean it can’t work, commander. I know that, as Americans, we are raised on the ideals of love and romance. But I know you have seen enough of this world to know that is not the only way. In fact, we are probably in the minority in our illusion that love conquers all.”

She stepped back into the laundry room and leaned against the washing machine before she continued. “My best friend for the past couple of years was an amazing woman. She was also Muslim and had fled the civil war in Somalia. It was Ubah that first introduced me to the whole arranged marriage thing.”

She laughed again, “And given the fact that it was your mother and Simone that wrote those damned emails, I guess this is more of a traditional arranged marriage than even I had realized.”

She shrugged her shoulders, “Anyway, I’m sure that you can figure this one out, commander. We don’t have to rush things or jump headlong into it, but in the end, most arranged marriages are very much ‘real’ as you say.”

Daniel watched as this time, pink stains spread up her neck and face from that ample chest. Her eyes were glued to a spot on the floor as she stammered through the speech. “We are both adults, commander. If this thing is going to work, we need to recognize the power of certain needs. It would probably be best for everyone if we kept those needs…” She sighed, “If we…” She paused again.

“I know I’m not beautiful like Rachel was, but I also know enough about men to know that certain,” the stains deepened to bright scarlet, “urges make those things less…essential.” She finally raised her eyes to his face, “So, the answer, commander, is while there is no need to rush things, yes. Over time I hope that we become friends…and more.”

Daniel nodded. “Thank you. I suppose I should have waded through a few more of those damned emails, as you called them before I put you on the spot like that. I’m sorry.”

Jill smiled, but he could tell it was forced. “Forget the damned emails. How about we just agree to take this thing one day at a time and get to know one another the old fashioned way, by talking?”

Daniel smiled, a genuine one. “I’d like that very much, Jill.”

She held out her hand, “It’s a deal, then?”

Daniel shifted the clothes he held and took the hand she offered. “Deal.” His heartbeat increased when he saw the genuine smile light those green eyes at his words. He knew that he had made her uncomfortable. And he knew that he should make a strategic retreat just then. But he did not, “Tomorrow…”

She sighed, “Yes? What about tomorrow?”

“When the minister pronounces us man and wife, it’s traditional,” he felt his palms getting sweaty and wondered if she noticed it as well, their hands still intertwined as they were. “It’s just; I’m not sure I want our first kiss to be in front of three dozen or so rowdy SEALs and their WAGs as I think they call them in England.”

She giggled, “They do call them that. And I see your point, commander. What are you proposing then?”

“Nothing as drastic as this morning’s for sure. Just this,” he said as he closed the distance between them. Laying the neatly folded clothes on the dryer next to her, he lifted the hand that he had been holding for the last minute until it rested on his shoulder. His hand wrapped about her waist as he bent his head slowly, giving her every chance to stop him. But he hoped like hell she would not.

Their eyes held a heated gaze for several heartbeats before he watched the lids of hers close slowly. He felt her chest arch just slightly towards his. Her breasts that he had been itching all day to touch brushed against him. It was all the welcome he needed.

He had never been one to wade into anything. Storming the gates was more his style, and this kiss was no different. His lips captured hers. His hand about her waist tightened as he drew her body entirely against his. His fingers bit into the soft flesh as his tongue traced her lower lip. When she moaned a bit, he grabbed the chance to deepen the exchange. His tongue breached her defenses, tasting and teasing her depths.

His other hand came up to lace through the long, blond hair that hung about her shoulders. He used it to hold her in place as he drank deeper from her lips. When her tongue accepted the challenge and began a slow, erotic dance with his, it was Daniel that found himself moaning into her mouth.

His hips pinned her against the cold, hard metal of the washer as his fingers sought the prize they had coveted all day long. His hand slowly moved up her side from her waist until it trailed softly along the outline of her breast. He could not deny himself any longer. His hand encircled the underside of it, the heat of her skin permeated the soft, thin material of the dress. Daniel’s other hand found the knot that held up the halter top and began to toy with it, tugging impatiently at it. 

He felt Jill’s hand on his shoulder softly pushing him away. His mind recognized that she was right. Things were moving too quickly. What had begun as a simple first kiss had too quickly become an all-out frontal assault.

But Daniel’s body wanted something very different. It wanted to push the god damned top aside and feel those gorgeous tits filling his hands to overflowing. It wanted to lift that round ass until it perched on the edge of the washing machine. Then it wanted him to push her dress up those long legs. In his wildest fantasies, he would find nothing beneath the dress except hot, wet woman. He would unzip his jeans that were already way too tight and plunge inside her warm, welcoming body until nothing else in this fucked up world mattered. 

This night Daniel’s mind won. Even as his body protested, he loosened his hold on her neck and slowly retreated the way he had come until his other hand was softly draped about her waist. His tongue took one final long taste of heaven before he slowly lifted his head.

He watched her for a moment. Her eyes were still closed, and he could not help but notice that her chest rose and fell as quickly as his own. His fingers pleaded to trace her chest, seeing for himself that her heart beat rapidly in time with his own. He saw her bite her lower lip that was already swollen and reddened from his kisses.

Some primal part of him roared in triumph with the knowledge that she was as affected by their little interchange as he was. His eyes sought confirmation to this assumption and were rewarded with the hard nubs that strained impossibly tightly against the confines of that damned halter top. For this night, that telltale sign of arousal would have to be sufficient, but Daniel swore not for long. He wanted to feel and taste for himself the arousal of this woman, who was to be his wife.

He smiled broadly. This little arrangement of theirs was getting more interesting by the minute. He wondered for a moment what she would say if he suggested they continue this in his bed. But the shocked look in her green eyes when she opened them halted the brash words halfway up his throat.

“Yes, well, I guess it is a good thing that we did not have an audience for that,” her voice was deeper and more throaty. Another sign of his effects on her, he hoped.

Daniel chuckled and leaned his forehead against hers. Even though the erotic spell was broken, he was reluctant somehow to give up the close contact of his hand about her waist, their bodies touching intimately. It was just as well, the woman knew how strongly she was affecting him.

Because after two years of celibacy and despite her words earlier, he had every intention of ‘rushing’ certain things. In for an ounce, in for a pound. If he was going to be married, well, the sooner this marriage was real, the better as far as he was concerned. And from the looks of things, Jill had no real objections to his touch either.

“We should probably go to bed,” she stammered. Her cheeks flamed a deep red, and her free hand flew to her mouth. “I didn’t mean. I mean…” she stammered.

Daniel chuckled as he brought her hand from her mouth to his. He brushed a gentle kiss across her knuckles. “I know what you meant.” With a devilish grin, he could not stop himself from adding, “But the other has real possibilities too. Don’t you think?”

Jill blushed before twisting to the side and escaping his grasp. “Tomorrow is a big day. We should both try and get some sleep,” as she practically raced from the confines of the small room.

“Sweet dreams,” Daniel could not help himself from teasing as he watched that generous backside retreat, swaying softly beneath the clingy material of the dress. Oh yes, this little arrangement was most definitely looking up.

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