He collapsed on her, trying to keep most of his weight on his arms, utterly exhausted but strangely vitalized too. He let his head rest next to Ria’s and she turned her face toward his. He felt her comb her hand through his hair, petting him, and he relaxed into her touch. Her hand drifted to his cheek, caressing him there and along his jaw and she whispered, “Thank you.”
No, thank you, he thought, savoring the pleasure still coursing lazily through his body. He felt more alive, and at peace, than he had in years.
Welcome back, he thought in sudden whimsy, but it did feel like a homecoming of sorts, as if he’d found himself again. He waited, braced for the guilt and regret to come crashing down but all he felt was extreme physical satisfaction and a startling contentment.
He frowned and carefully brought Elle’s image into his mind’s eye. He saw her warm hazel eyes, her loving smile, her beautiful face. He felt lingering sorrow that she was gone but it was just a faint echo of the debilitating grief he’d lived with for years.
He took an unsteady breath. Was he finally ready to move on? He wasn’t sure how that made him feel, but he knew it was time.
Goodbye, my love. It seems I’m finally ready to let you go now. I know you would say, And about time too! and he could almost see Elle smile at him in return. Again, he was filled with that sense of peace and contentment.
All thanks to a chance encounter with a lovely stranger in a strange city. A chance encounter that would only last for one night, since he was scheduled to go home the next day.
He felt as if he’d been splashed with cold water at the reminder of how temporary this all was—a one-night stand, essentially. But why did it have to be just for one night? He could extend his stay—surely he could convince Ria to see him again. She couldn’t just want a brief hook-up, could she? Not for her first time. He knew he wanted to explore this connection between them—he’d never felt anything quite like this before and so fast too, and she must feel the same way or else she wouldn’t have propositioned him.
In any case, he had all night to convince her that what they had started was worth exploring, he quickly decided. He would spend the rest of the night giving her orgasms, and she’d be so exhausted in the morning that he’d have an easy time convincing her that this was more than a casual summer fling. He’d always been known as a man used to getting his own way and he saw no reason that would change now.
He raised himself up from Ria and gently withdrew from body. He was glad he didn’t see any obvious signs of blood or discomfort from her lost virginity, making a note to wet a towel with hot water from the bathroom to soothe any lingering pain, and turned towards the sitting room.
“Where are you going?” Ria asked sleepily.
“To fetch the condoms from your bag.”
“Oh!” All the sleepiness had vanished from her voice.
He smirked—he really hoped that she only had one condom in there. He couldn’t wait to come in her again.
December, six months later
“DRAT!” MARIA MUTTERED TO HERSELF, glancing anxiously at the sky. It looked like the meteorologists got it wrong—again. If the ominously heavy looking clouds and a lifetime’s familiarity with New England winters meant anything, the blizzard of the century was about to hit several hours early.
As if in warning, a few large flakes lazily fell against her windshield before melting away. At least she had some time before the snow really started to fall—when the wind picked up and the snowflakes became smaller and heavier, then she’d really be in trouble if she was still on the road.
But—she checked the GPS on her phone—it looked like she should be at the Trentham estate in about twenty more minutes. Thank goodness she’d been assured the final interview was more a formality than anything else—otherwise she’d be stuck in New York during a blizzard with no place to go.
She looked for a radio station with a weather update and to her frustration found instead countless stations playing Christmas music. Maria loved Christmas and Christmas music, but not when she was about to drive into a blizzard.
She sighed in relief when she passed the sign for the closest town, indicating that her trip was nearly over. The Trentham estate was about ten miles further, and at least there wasn’t much traffic to worry about.
She quickly reviewed her mental notes about her new family, whom she had yet to meet. She’d interviewed with Matt Drake, the executive assistant of Mr. Trentham twice, once over the phone and then in person in Boston. She was surprised that Mr. Trentham hadn’t been at the second interview, but Matt assured her that she would meet him and the family at the final interview.
The youngest Trentham, Meggie, technically was her new charge, although she was sure she’d be spending a lot of time with the other children too. Their previous nanny had decided to retire and move out west to be near her oldest daughter who had just given birth to the nanny’s first grandchild. Meggie had just turned five, and aside from attending a private kindergarten in the mornings, Maria would be completely responsible for her care and education until next year, when Meggie was old enough to attend first grade at the nearby exclusive private school her siblings attended.
The older siblings were Elizabeth, age twelve, and twins Sam and Bridget, age nine. Tragically, their mother died four years ago in a car accident and their father was G. C. Trentham, a venture capitalist. Matt had told her in their last conversation that Mr. Trentham had just become engaged, so at least the children would have a new mother shortly.
Although a new mother didn’t mean the children wouldn’t still need a nanny—nannies were highly valued among the affluent, which was why she’d decided to become one after leaving the convent. She still had a mountain of college debts to pay off and with the grim reality of public school budget cuts, she was unlikely to get a teaching job that would pay well enough to make a dent in those debts.
Since she loved children and was trained to work with them, she had decided to become a nanny for a few years, at least until her finances were in better shape. Lucky for her, a certified teacher with both a degree and working experience in childhood education as well as terrific references from the Sisters at the convent school made her a valuable nanny prospect, and the agency hadn’t had any problems finding her well-paying jobs.
Her most recent family, the Scotts, had been her first live-in situation. She’d been hesitant about being a live-in, but the amount of money she’d be able to save since room and board were included had finally decided her.
Sophie had been against her being a live-in—she claimed that her social life would be severely limited and that there would be no opportunities to meet any men. Maria had realized the truth of that, which was why she’d decided to do what she did in the summer. She hadn’t realized what kind of impact that night would have on her, or the regrets she’d have. Maria sighed—it was all in the past now and she’d learned to live with her decision.
While she’d been with the Scotts in Connecticut, her social life had indeed been quite limited, but she hadn’t minded it. She was used to a quiet life at the convent although, ironically, she’d been one of the more boisterous novices there—another sign that she didn’t fit there, no matter how much she wanted to and tried to make it work.
She’d been with the Scotts for five months and she would miss them all dearly. Although she’d been tempted to join them when they’d asked her to accompany them to Japan for Mr. Scott’s job transfer, she didn’t have any regrets about saying no. She absolutely wanted to travel and see the world, but she wanted to start with Europe first. She was English on her mother’s side and Austrian on her father’s—they’d been generations removed from the mother countries and both only childs to boot, but she’d wanted to see if she could track down any distant relations.
Maria knew a part of her yearned for family—that was why she’d been drawn to the Church, although it became obvious that she had no true vocation for it. And why she’d liked working with children and families—it helped quiet the yearning a bit. Her biggest fear was getting too attached to the children and believing herself to be part of the family, but so far, that had not been an issue.
That was another reason she’d hesitated about being a live-in at first, despite how well it paid—the fear of getting too attached. It had happened to her more than once as a child in foster homes. Thankfully, though she’d grown very fond of the six-year-old twin boys and their baby sister and they to her, it hadn’t been a problem remembering that she wasn’t truly family.
Maybe Sophie was right, Maria mused, fondly thinking of her best friend back in Boston. Maybe she never felt as if she’d belonged anywhere and that kept her wary of relationships, especially with men. Maybe she really was just too scarred by her childhood abandonment issues.
Maria snorted and mentally rolled her eyes. Obviously it was time to call Dr. Phil. She had yet to meet anyone—Sophie included—who didn’t have a truckload of issues.
She slowed down and squinted through her windshield—yes, that was the gated turnoff that would lead directly to the house. She sighed in relief—and none too soon, since the snow had started falling much faster and heavier now.
She contacted the house from the security panel with a video monitor and camera next to the gate and was buzzed in, the gates opening silently to let her pass through. Even though she was on Trentham property, she still drove for at least half a mile on the long driveway before spotting the house.
She gasped as it came into view—it was absolutely stunning, a grand, stately residence that wouldn’t look out of place in Europe. It had a classical stone façade and its imposing three stories looked more like an English manor house than something just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan.
Maria gulped, suddenly feeling very nervous. The Scotts had been wealthy, but not on a scale like this. This house—mansion, really—reeked of money, both old and new, and a whole different world than any Maria had ever been exposed to before.
She said a quick prayer as she parked the car in the circular drive in front of the house. Taking a moment to calm her nerves, she breathed deeply before getting out of the car. With shoulders back and chin lifted, Maria walked up to the door decorated with an elegant wreath and rang the bell. Maria Berger, the Reverend Mother would be so disappointed that you’re intimidated by a display of wealth, so snap out of it!
Feeling marginally better, Maria felt her assurance flag a little when the door was opened by someone who looked just like a butler straight out of a British period drama. Of course a house like this would have a butler.
Feeling like she should apologize for coming to the front door and not the back, Maria said hesitantly, “Hello, I’m Maria Berger, and I believe you’re expecting me.”
“Yes, of course, Miss Berger. Please do come in,” the butler said with a small smile, stepping aside to let her enter.
Maria stepped through the door and nearly gasped—if she thought the house was gorgeous from the outside, it didn’t compare to the interior. The large entry hall had a soaring ceiling from which hung a beautiful Venetian crystal chandelier, and a wide, marble imperial staircase led to the second floor. Light streamed in from skylights built into the high, beautifully molded ceiling; the skylights combined with the light-colored walls gave the entire space an even airier feel.
The floor was tiled in black and white polished marble in a checker pattern. Stunning artwork hung on the walls and elegant antiques were carefully arranged around the hall, including a towering grandfather clock. A massive, fifteen-foot Scotch Pine Christmas tree dominated the space, trimmed with exquisite, delicate-looking ornaments. It did not look like a tree decorated by a family with four children. The overall effect was grand, beautiful and cold, more like a museum rather than a family home. She wondered if the cool grandeur of the entry hall was to deliberately intimidate—if so, it was definitely effective.
“Maria, I’m so glad you beat the storm!” a cheerful voice called out. It was Matt Drake, and Maria was glad to see a familiar face and smiled at him brightly.
“Mr. Drake, it’s lovely to see you again. I am too—I’m glad I decided to leave Boston right after mass this morning. I was afraid traffic would be heavy and I didn’t want to be late.”
She reached out and shook Matt’s hand. She immediately felt more relaxed—Matt had an open and friendly manner that had come across even on the phone during her first interview. His warmth and friendliness had been even more apparent when they met in person. She guessed him to be in his early thirties, with light brown hair and warm brown eyes, and good-looking in a non-assuming way. She was sure his boyish charm was the perfect mask for his shrewd mind.
“Call me Matt, please—you’ll be a member of the household soon enough,” Matt said with a disarming grin.