“Who usually wins the snowball fights?” Maria asked, amused.
Elizabeth sniffed. “It’s not much of a fair fight when it’s three against one—Bridget, Sam and Meggie against me.”
Maria laughed. “No, that doesn’t seem fair. How about if I joined too? I pack a mean snowball.”
Elizabeth looked surprised and then pleased at Maria’s offer. “Seriously? That would be great!”
“Hey, no fair!” Sam exclaimed. “Why do you get a grown-up? Uncle Matt, can you be on our team then?”
“Yes!” Bridget said excitedly. “Uncle Matt, please say yes!”
Matt coughed into his napkin. “Well, I have to work with your father tomorrow morning, but we’ll see after that, okay?”
“Children, just because school is cancelled doesn’t mean you don’t have schoolwork. I expect everyone to do at least an hour’s worth of study before anyone goes outside tomorrow, understood?” Gabriel said firmly, looking around the table.
The children’s enthusiasm immediately cooled, and they all mumbled “Yes, sir,” before silence descended on the table.
Gabriel stifled a sigh as the salad plates were removed and the grilled salmon served. He didn’t mean to cast a pall over the conversation, but he did want to instill the importance of education in his children. He ignored the sting that his children didn’t even seem to consider asking him to join in their snowball fight.
“Daddy?” Meggie’s little voice piped up from where she sat next to Maria.
“Yes, Meggie?” he prompted gently.
“Why do I have to study if I’m not even in real school yet? It’s not fair!” Meggie’s voice wobbled and tears filled her eyes.
Gabriel’s heart stuttered at the woebegone look on his youngest daughter’s face. “Well, I, uh—”
“Meggie, don’t you like reading?” Maria interrupted softly.
Meggie considered the question, then nodded. “Uh huh.”
“Well, what your father meant was that everyone should read a book or two before going outside. Since you all love to read, that hardly seems like work, does it? And for you, Meggie, that just means that you’ll get to practice your alphabet and to read out loud for a bit. Then you’ll get to listen to me read and you can choose the book too!”
Meggie’s face brightened considerably at Maria’s words. “Okay!” She then wrinkled her nose at her plate and poked at the salmon and the roasted baby carrots, beets and baby potatoes next to it. “I don’t want to eat this.”
Gabriel frowned. “Meggie, you know you have to eat what’s on your plate, or else there won’t be any dessert for you.”
Maria saw Meggie’s mutinous expression and decided to interfere again. “Meggie, is pink your favorite color?”
“Well, what color is the food then?”
“Um, it’s pink!” Meggie looked amazed at the realization.
“Yes, it is pink. Don’t you think you can try eating something that’s your favorite color? I’ll cut it up so it’s easier to eat, okay?”
“Oh, okay.” Meggie still looked dubious, but was willing to give the salmon a try now.
Gabriel looked at Maria gratefully, her head bent close to Meggie’s as she quickly cut up the salmon into bite sized chunks for his daughter. The bright coppery strands of her hair were next to Meggie’s ash blond, and Gabriel’s heart thumped hard at the picture they made together, they just looked right.
“Gabriel?” Matt said quietly.
“Yes,” he said absently, still absorbed with Maria and Meggie.
“Olivia called the house before dinner, looking for you.”
At the mention of Olivia, Gabriel’s attention was instantly on Matt. “What did she want?”
“She wanted to tell you that she’ll be stuck in Montreal for a few more days because of the storm, but that she should still be able to fly back by next Sunday and that she’s looking forward to seeing you and planning the engagement party.” Matt’s voice was carefully neutral as he delivered the message.
“I see. Thank you, Matt.” Gabriel’s voice was also neutral as he struggled to not display his reaction. Elizabeth, Bridget and Sam had looked up at the mention of Olivia’s name, their expressions curious, but they didn’t say anything.
Dear God, what was he going to do about Olivia? He felt guilty for wanting another woman when he was engaged to Olivia, but it wasn’t as if he was in love with Olivia or she with him—at least, he didn’t think she was in love with him. All he knew was that fond of Olivia as he was, the emotions she elicited in him paled considerably to the ones Maria aroused and had from the moment he met her.
He had no idea where his relationship with Maria—if they even had one!—was heading, but he abruptly realized that he couldn’t marry Olivia, no matter what happened with Maria. It simply wasn’t fair to Olivia. She deserved more than to be an afterthought, to be tied to a man consumed by another woman. He would have to break things off with her when he saw her—he owed it to her to do it in person, and not over the phone or email.
Maria glanced up as she could feel his thoughts, and their eyes met for an endless, intimate moment that literally made him lose all sense of time and place. All he could do was stare into the ocean blue depths of her eyes and remember their night together…
Matt coughed suddenly into his napkin and muttered, “Um, Gabriel? Hello?”
Gabriel blinked and dragged his gaze away Maria with an effort, glancing distractedly at Matt. “What?”
“How about so not the time or place?” was Matt’s tart reply, combined with a glare and a roll of his eyes.
Gabriel flushed and scowled, embarrassed at being caught gawking like a lovestruck boy and knowing that Matt was right. He turned to Elizabeth, determined to try to draw her out.
“Lizzie, I understand that there’s a Christmas dance coming up at school.”
“Yes, Daddy?” was Elizabeth’s guarded reply.
“Did you want to attend? Would you like to get a new outfit for it?” Gabriel prodded.
Elizabeth just stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. “Sure, thanks.”
Gabriel held back a sigh and turned to the twins. “Sam, Bridget? I think the dance will include your grade too, correct? Would you both like to attend too?”
Sam and Bridget looked at each other in that wordless communication that seems to exist between twins, and then looked at him and gave the same shrug Elizabeth had given.
“Yeah, I guess,” Sam said. “Can I have another roll?”
Gabriel decided to try again. “Since you’ll all be home for the next couple of days, do you want to invite any of your friends over after the roads are plowed? Lizzie, Sam, Bridget?”
They all looked at him blankly and then at each other. Elizabeth mumbled, “Maybe.”
Trying to get his children to talk to him was like pulling teeth, except they would rather go to the dentist, Gabriel thought, exasperated. He fervently wished he had something stronger to drink than wine at the table.
He glanced up and met Maria’s gaze again and this time, her eyes were filled with sympathy. She obviously can tell that my relationship with my children leaves much to be desired, he thought with a touch of bitterness.
As the dinner plates were cleared away and the dessert of chocolate mousse cake brought out, Maria pondered at the strained relationship between the children and their father. It hurt her to see Gabriel trying to reach out to them, however awkwardly, and the children not responding to his overtures. She couldn’t figure out what was going on, but she was determined to do all she could to help bring the children closer to their father.
She ignored her internal voice yelling at her that she was only supposed to be there a week, to not get even more involved with the Trentham family that she already was. And what about his fiancée? Maria had heard Matt mention “Olivia” and “engagement party” to Gabriel and she’d nearly lost her appetite despite the delicious food, Meggie’s nose wrinkling notwithstanding. Even though she’d been too far to hear anything specific, it was obvious what they were discussing. She doubted that the children’s new mother would thank her for interfering in a family matter. But still, Maria knew she simply couldn’t not do something, not if she could help somehow. She’d do it for any family in need, she told herself.
Just don’t risk your heart! her inner voice warned.
She ignored it—she knew it was far too late for that warning.
“SAM, I’M GOING TO GET you!” Elizabeth screamed, running after her younger brother with a snowball in her hand as he laughed maniacally, scrambling behind a tree. “You won’t be able to hide from—oof!”
Maria giggled as Bridget landed her snowball right on Elizabeth’s face. Elizabeth sputtered, blowing snow out of her mouth, and narrowed her eyes before retreating to the hastily constructed fort where Maria was stationed. Sam took the opportunity to run to the other fort where Bridget and Meggie were sheltering behind, and she could hear them whispering madly, obviously planning their next attack. This game of Capture the Flag was perilously close to turning into a rout, despite Elizabeth and Maria’s best efforts. Sam and Bridget combined had guerilla combat skills to rival Che Guevara.
Elizabeth wasn’t about to be bested, however. “We’ve got to go on the attack,” she muttered to Maria. “You create a diversion and I sneak over there and grab their flag.”
Maria raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You mean like the previous three attempts? Those didn’t exactly go as planned, did they?”
Elizabeth pouted. “Well, you come up with an idea then! It’s not fair—both Sam and Bridget got all of Daddy’s strategy genes—they always find a way to win!”
At the mention of Gabriel, Maria glanced in the direction of his office, and caught her breath when she saw him at the window watching them. He was too far away to see the expression on his face, but there was something almost profoundly lonely about his figure, a solitary quality that reminded her of the first time she saw him at the piano in Boston. And what was understandable in Boston was definitely not the case here—it was so wrong for Gabriel to seem so alone when he was at home, surrounded by his children.
A sudden impulse had Maria calling out, “Time out! I need a potty break!”
She turned to Elizabeth and whispered, “I have an idea, okay? Stay here and I’ll be right back!”
Elizabeth nodded, looking at her curiously but she didn’t say anything. Maria wasn’t sure her idea would work, or that anyone would thank her for interfering, but she couldn’t stand by and not do anything—it literally hurt her heart to see Gabriel so alone. She refused to dwell on why it was so important to her to try to bring this family together—she just knew that she had to try, and she told herself that she’d do the same for anyone.
If only she believed it.
GABRIEL WATCHED MARIA AS SHE trudged through the snow back to the house, fighting her way through drifts that were at least two feet high. The snow had finally slowed after breakfast and the kids had rushed outside as soon they’d done an hour of schoolwork, whooping gleefully and throwing themselves into the drifts, making snow angels. He’d been amused when Maria had dropped into the snow and made an angel as well, and he couldn’t help but think how fitting that was.
They’d been outside for nearly an hour now, and he’d been distracted during his video conference with glimpses he’d had of them laughing and playing in the snow. When the conference call ended he’d moved to his window so he could watch them without interruptions.
He’d chuckled when it became clear that Bridget and Sam were out-maneuvering Elizabeth and Maria, and he’d cheered when Meggie had lobbed a wobbly snowball and managed to hit Maria. He’d been so absorbed in watching he didn’t even notice Matt clearing his throat repeatedly to get his attention until Matt finally gave up being subtle.
“Gabriel, you’ve been watching them for over ten minutes now. Why don’t you just go outside and join them?” Matt asked exasperatedly.
“What?” Gabriel turned and after another lingering look out the window, shook his head and walked back to his desk. “Of course not, Matt. We have a lot of work to do today, despite the snow.”
“Gabriel, the entire Northeast—including Manhattan—is shut down because of the blizzard and you already did the most important thing, the conference call with Burton in Chicago. I don’t think things will go to hell in a handbasket if you take some time off to have fun with your family,” Matt declared.
“Well, you’re wrong, Matt. Now let’s get back to work, shall we?” Gabriel said coldly, and glared at Matt when he opened his mouth to respond.