“Listen, you know I don’t have your kind of faith in God’s will, but even I think this is waaaaaaay too much of a coincidence. I’m just hoping it won’t be God’s will to teach you some kind of horrible life lesson where you end up miserable but wiser.”
Maria winced but appreciated Sophie’s frankness—Sophie was always blunt and never shied away from telling Maria the truth, even when it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
It had been Sophie’s idea originally for Maria to find someone to sleep with, reasoning that it didn’t have to be true love or even a relationship when Maria had no experience whatsoever, and didn’t want her conflating orgasm with love.
Although it had gone against everything Maria had been taught about premarital sex, she reluctantly did see the sense in what Sophie advised, and besides, she really had been curious about sex. She hadn’t dated either in high school or college though she’d had crushes on a few of her fellow students from time to time. She’d been shy and her shyness had translated to seeming stuck-up to guys. And then she’d seriously started considering becoming a nun in her junior year which had squelched any interest in romance.
Of course, nothing had turned out to be simple—her sexual introduction had not only been a shattering experience, but Maria was deeply afraid that she had done exactly what Sophie had warned against—she had conflated good sex with love. She had never told Sophie about her burgeoning feelings for Gabriel, but she suspected Sophie knew—otherwise, why else would Maria have panicked and run the morning after?
“Me too, Sophie. I’m just scared to hope for anything more—I don’t want to set myself up for heartbreak,” Maria admitted in a small voice.
Sophie sighed. “Just take it one day at a time, Ria. You only committed for a week—see how you feel at the end of the week. Remember, he’s engaged now and maybe seeing him with his fiancée will allow you to get over him, once and for all. I know that you haven’t been able to stop thinking about him even though you haven’t said anything. Maybe it won’t be weird at all and you’ll decide to stay—just give it a chance. Okay?”
“Okay, I promise to give it a chance. But Sophie, seeing him with his fiancée, I just don’t know if I can handle it. But you’re right—maybe if I do, I’ll finally be able to get over him and move on. Thanks for the talk—I promise I’ll let you know how it goes. Now I better go—I should unpack and freshen up before I meet the children, and I don’t have much time left,” Maria said, glancing at her watch.
After ending the call, Maria stared at her phone for a moment before impulsively calling up a web browser and typing. There it was—the engagement announcement of G. C. Trentham and Olivia Langley. She scrolled quickly through the text—Olivia Langley was a widow, and all indications were that she was both wealthy and Gabriel’s social equal, as well as being a successful lawyer, the in-house counsel for a well-known cosmetics company. No children from her first marriage, so no doubt she was happy to have Gabriel’s children to mother right away.
She was also very beautiful, Maria thought at she looked at a photo of Olivia, feeling a leaden lump grow in the pit of her stomach. Even in the small black and white photo, Olivia exuded polish and sophistication. It was more than apparent that Olivia Langley was everything Maria was not.
Slowing putting down the phone, Maria closed her eyes. If a part of her had harbored a secret, ridiculous hope that Gabriel would suddenly decide to end his engagement now that Maria was back in his life, that hope was now thoroughly dashed. Somehow, she just had to convince her heart that Gabriel was merely a temporary employer—she was here for his children, no more. The silly, unspoken longings in her heart would have to stay buried, permanently.
She started unpacking her clothes. Admittedly, it didn’t take long—although she enjoyed pretty things she wasn’t exactly a clotheshorse since she was trying to save and pay off her college debt, and most of her wardrobe was on the practical side, working as she did with children. But she did have some nice dresses at least, which should be suitable for dressing for dinner.
She hesitated when she got to the blue silk wrap dress she’d been wearing the night she met Gabriel—she was tempted to wear it just to see if he recognized the dress, but that would be playing with fire—for both of them, she decided. So she regretfully hung it in the closet and pulled out a classic, black, ponte knit dress instead. She really had to hurry now if she wanted to be ready when Gabriel came for her.
A KNOCK SOUNDED ON HER door, and Maria took a deep breath before opening. It was Gabriel of course, who smiled appreciatively at her clad in her simple black dress, her only jewelry her mother’s pearl stud earrings and a delicate chain with her mother’s gold cross around her neck. “You look lovely. Ready to meet the children?”
Maria blushed and smiled back. “Thank you. Yes, I’m ready.”
He led her just down the hall to another room and opened the door, gesturing for Maria to enter. Maria stepped inside and found herself in a spacious, airy room that was obviously used as the children’s playroom. Bookcases lined one wall and the other walls had large cabinets that she guessed were filled with toys and other entertainment. At the far end were two tall, paned windows with window seats built in below. There was a large, low table with several small chairs arranged around it, and the four children sitting at the table immediately stood up and faced them as Maria and Gabriel entered the room.
“Children, I’d like you to meet Maria, your new nanny.”
Maria smiled at the four uncertain faces in front of her. “Hello everyone, I’m glad to meet you.”
Gabriel motioned to the tallest girl, who was very pretty with long brown hair and dark blue eyes much like her father’s. “This is Elizabeth, the oldest at twelve.”
Elizabeth nodded politely at Maria, and said, “Hello, Miss Maria.” Elizabeth definitely seemed to regard Maria with a certain wariness. As the oldest, Maria was sure that Elizabeth was protective of her younger siblings, and probably resented the need for a new nanny.
“These are Bridget and Sam, who are twins. They’re nine.” Identical hazel eyes brimming with mischief looked up at Maria and they smiled, looking quite angelic with their light blond hair and dimpled, rosy cheeks. She was sure many a teacher had been manipulated by those dimples.
“And this is your primary charge, Meggie, who is five years old.” Maria knelt and smiled gently at Meggie, who giggled and smiled shyly at Maria. She was simply adorable, with long blond curls and the same dark blue eyes as her oldest sister and father, and the same dimpled smile as the twins. “Hello, Meggie. I’m very happy to meet you.”
Meggie nodded at Maria, but seemed too shy to say anything. Wanting to put Meggie—and the others—at ease, Maria said, “I can see you were reading when we came in. What were you reading?”
Elizabeth said stiffly, “I was reading a story to Meggie. Meggie knows her alphabet and can read a little on her own, but she still likes to be read to.”
“Oh, how lovely! Do you want to finish reading the story before dinner?”
At that, Meggie finally spoke, exclaiming, “Oh yes, please finish, Lizzie!”
Elizabeth hesitated, darting a glance at her father and Maria before she shrugged and picked up the book, sitting back at the table with the others. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth was reading a fairytale to Meggie, and Meggie beamed as the prince broke the curse and woke up the sleeping princess with a kiss.
As she finished, Meggie grabbed another story book off the table and went to Maria, holding the book out to her. “Can you read this to me?”
Maria smiled, delighted that Meggie was losing some of her shyness already. “Of course, Meggie.”
Maria took the book and Meggie by the hand and moved to where a thick round rug was placed on the floor and sank gracefully to the rug, tucking her pump-clad feet under her. Meggie immediate sat in front of her, and Bridget and Sam also came over and sat down. Only Elizabeth seemed to hold back slightly, but she did turn in her chair to face Maria.
Gabriel felt a strange tightness in his chest as he watched Maria read to his children, changing her voice for each character and truly bringing the story alive, making the fairy tale feel as fresh and new for them as if it was the first time they were hearing it. They were as drawn to her natural warmth as he was and he could see them falling quickly under her spell.
He darted a glance at Elizabeth—well, everyone but Elizabeth, who always took longer to warm up to strangers. He felt a pang at the memory of his Lizzie boisterous with laughter and fun when Elle was alive. Elle’s death had affected Elizabeth the most deeply, turning his firstborn into this reserved, quiet girl who he couldn’t quite reach, no matter how he tried.
Maria came to the end of the story with a flourish, changing her voice again, and Meggie giggled in delight. “Miss Maria, can you read another story please?”
“Miss Maria will read to you again at bedtime, but now it’s time for dinner,” Gabriel announced. “So please go wash up and head down to the dining room.”
As the children went to wash their hands, he held his out to Maria, silently offering to help her stand up. After a moment’s hesitation, she slowly placed her hand in his and he nearly shuddered at the flash of heat that went through him at her touch. He tightened his grip and brought her to stand, her nearness tempting him to bring her even closer for a kiss. He stared at her rosy lips, slightly parted and glistening. It would be so easy…
Maria cleared her throat and took a step back, slipping her hand from his. “Well, I’m certainly hungry.” She blushed and hastily added, “Whatever Mrs. Phillips was cooking earlier smelled delicious. Shall we go down to the dining room? I’m sure the children are already there and waiting.”
Without waiting for a response she quickly headed for the door, hoping he couldn’t see how much she was trembling. He’s not free–I can’t forget that this is just for a week and he’s not free.
IF MARIA HAD WONDERED IF she’d imagined the strained tension between Gabriel and his children in the playroom, then dinner provided plenty of evidence as to its existence. Conversation between the children and their father was limited to occasional queries from Gabriel that were answered in monosyllables by the children. If it wasn’t for Matt Drake’s cheerful presence, she rather thought dinner would be nearly silent.
Matt had been waiting for them with the children in the elegant dining room, which Maria quickly gathered was considered the smaller, more intimate family space even though the table was big enough to seat eight and could be expanded to fit sixteen in a pinch.
“Maria!” Matt had exclaimed warmly, giving her a quick hug. “I’m so glad you decided to take the position, especially with the blizzard of the century raging outside. The job contract is ready for your review and signature, just come by my office in the morning. I’m stuck here for the duration as well—I have a condo in White Plains and usually commute either here or to the Manhattan office every day, but I also have a room here for the odd blizzard or two.”
She hesitated, not wanting to tell him it was just for a trial week in front of the children, so she merely smiled and nodded. “Have you seen the latest weather report? What’s the current forecast?”
“Over two feet in Westchester, a little less than that in Manhattan by the time it’s all over, which won’t be until tomorrow it looks like,” he reported. “Gabriel, since all flights in the Northeast are grounded for the next couple of days at least, I scheduled a ten o’clock video conference tomorrow morning with Burton, as you requested.”
Gabriel nodded his acknowledgement and thanks, and led Maria to her chair opposite him at the table.
As they all settled in their seats, Williams began serving the salad course. Usually they ate family style, but Sundays were more formal.
As they ate their salads, Maria asked, “So how long do you think school will be cancelled?”
“If it snows as much as predicted, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s out all week,” Gabriel said with displeasure, not happy at the children missing so much school only a couple of weeks before Christmas break. “Definitely for the next two days at least. Even after the snow stops and the roads are plowed, if the roads are too icy for the school buses all the area schools will be cancelled.”
“So are you all happy about your snow days?” Maria asked the children with a smile.
Meggie nodded excitedly and after sneaking a quick look at their father, Sam and Bridget also smiled and nodded.
“Oh yes! We didn’t have much snow last winter so I’m really looking forward to building a snowman!” Sam said.
Bridget giggled. “Don’t forget building our forts for the snowball fights!”