Finally muttering, “Fine, go ahead and be pigheaded,” Matt returned to his laptop and started pulling up a report for Gabriel to read.
Relieved that Matt was letting it drop, Gabriel looked at his notes from the conference call, but the words blurred together. Matt didn’t understand that Gabriel couldn’t just go outside—not when his children clearly didn’t want him there, and his mere presence would just result in more silent resentment against him.
“Sir, I’ve been authorized by your second in command to tell you that we’re in dire need of reinforcements—if you don’t come out and help at once, both the flag and the fort will be lost!”
Startled, Gabriel looked up at Maria’s dramatic appearance at his office doorway. It was obvious she’d come here straight from the outside—she was still bundled up in her navy blue parka and snow clung to her snow boots. Her face was rosy with the cold, and her gray knit cap hid most of her bright hair, leaving only a little fringe peeking out below the edge.
Her words finally penetrated his surprise and he felt his heart lift and a smile curl his lips. “Are you saying that the children have asked me to come outside and play with them?”
Maria said earnestly, “Elizabeth told me that both Bridget and Sam have inherited your mind for strategy and that we’re being out-matched. I think you should come out and even the odds!”
Gabriel noticed immediately that Maria didn’t answer his question directly, but he was distracted by the mention Elizabeth had made of him—he remembered teaching her chess years ago, and patiently explaining the moves to her and having her burst into tears of frustration at not understanding the game. He’d brushed the tears from her face and given her a big hug, and told her it didn’t matter, if she still wanted to learn, he’d teach her. No matter how many lessons it took, he would always have time for her.
This had been shortly before Elle’s death, and then everything had changed.
He refocused back on Maria and the pleading look on her face. Even if his children hadn’t asked for him directly, Maria was giving him an opportunity that he would be a fool to pass up.
“I think it’s time for Bridget and Sam to be bested at their own game,” he said with a crooked smile.
He was nearly blinded by the brilliance of Maria’s smile and he turned abruptly to Matt, realizing that he should invite him as well, although a part of him didn’t want Matt to go outside with them.
But even as he opened his mouth, Matt said, “Go out and have fun! I’m going to take a coffee break with Mrs. Smith and make sure there’s hot chocolate waiting for everyone once the flag has been captured!”
And he walked out of the office, whistling cheerfully.
Gabriel closed his mouth, gratitude for Matt’s quick understanding welling up inside. He looked at Maria again and smiled. “Let me get my coat and boots and I’ll meet you outside.”
WHAT TOOK YOU SO long?” Elizabeth whispered as Maria joined her again at their fort. “I swear I could hear Bridget telling Sam that they should just attack me while you were away! Even Meggie was agreeing to the plan!”
“I was getting us reinforcements,” Maria murmured, hoping that Elizabeth wouldn’t just shut down when she realized who was joining them.
“What reinforcements?” Elizabeth asked, puzzled. “Did Daddy let Uncle Matt—“
“Uncle Matt is having coffee with Mrs. Smith, so I hope you don’t mind if I join you instead.” Gabriel slid into place next to them.
“Daddy?” Elizabeth gasped, her amazement clear. “You’re going to play with us? Don’t you have to work today?”
Gabriel cursed at himself. It hurt that his children obviously thought that he valued work more than spending time with them. It was his own fault, but no more.
“No, sweetheart, I want to spend time with you all instead. Is that okay?” He smiled at her.
Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Of course, Daddy.” She suddenly grinned and Gabriel caught his breath, for Elizabeth had inherited her mother’s mischievous smile. “You know Sam and Bridget are going to panic when they realize that you’re on my team.”
Gabriel grinned, relief and love a messy tangle in his heart. “Well you know I wanted to even the odds and it really did look like you needed my help the most,” he teased gently.
Elizabeth giggled. “Yeah, even with Maria we couldn’t outfox them. So what should we do?”
As Gabriel looked at both of the eager, shining, happy faces turned to him, he felt a surge of emotion he could barely contain. He cleared his throat to ease the lump lodged there and said, “Here’s my plan…”
I STILL THINK IT’S UNFAIR that you had both Dad and Maria on your team. No wonder you won!” Sam was still complaining as they enjoyed their hot chocolate back in the deliciously warm kitchen, sitting at the large farmhouse table.
Elizabeth stuck out her tongue at her brother, a whipped cream mustache decorating her mouth. “Stop being such a poor loser. It was me who captured the flag!”
“Yeah, but only because both Daddy and Maria came after us and split us up!” Bridget argued. “You took the flag from Meggie—it’s not like she put up much of a fight!”
Maria hid her smile as she took another sip of the rich hot chocolate. The children had been squabbling good-naturedly since the end of the game. She still remembered the looks of surprised delight on the twins’ and Meggie’s faces when they realized who had come out to join their fun. She looked over at Gabriel, who was helping Meggie fish the marshmallows out from her hot chocolate so she could eat them first. “Because,” she’d announced seriously, looking at her father with her big blue eyes, “they taste better that way.”
Gabriel’s hair gleamed wetly in the soft rays of the sun, snow still melting in his hair, a victim of being pelted with snowballs from all of his children as they ganged up on him. Gabriel had laughingly finally called for mercy and surrendered when even little Meggie had managed a hit or two, and then all the kids had toppled him into the snow, climbing on top of him, shrieking with laughter.
He looked up at that moment and met Maria’s gaze, and Maria’s breath caught in her throat at the warm, happy expression in his eyes. He looked relaxed, content and so much younger than he usually did, the lines softened on his face. His happiness seemed to encompass her and Maria felt her heart swell at being included in this family so quickly.
Slowly, the warmth in his eyes started to heat as he continued to stare at her, his eyes dropping to her mouth. Maria unconsciously licked her lips, tasting a bit of chocolate, cinnamon and whipped cream at the corner of her mouth and nearly dropped her mug as the heat in his eyes suddenly flared into an inferno.
She quickly put the mug down on the table and looked down, breaking contact with his eyes. She could feel hot color in her cheeks, but the blush was nothing compared to the molten need now throbbing between her legs. Her mind scrambled for something to take her mind off of the desire burning within her.
“So children, why don’t we make a snowman after lunch? Maybe we can even convince your father to volunteer some of his clothing for the snowman.”
As the children cheered the idea, Gabriel grinned at Maria, a wicked glint in his eyes. “I have no issues with parting with my clothing if the right person asks,” he drawled and laughed when Maria’s face turned even redder.
THE SNOWMAN, IT WAS UNANIMOUSLY agreed, was the best snowman in the existence of snowmen.
With their father’s help and Matt calling out hilarious, occasionally snarky suggestions from the sidelines, the snowman was huge, nearly Gabriel’s height. Mrs. Smith had found big black buttons for his eyes and Mrs. Phillips had given them a carrot for his nose. Even Williams had contributed a pipe. Elizabeth and Sam found branches for his arms. At Maria’s urging, Meggie had asked her father for a hat and a tie, and Gabriel had searched his wardrobe until he came up with an old cap and a red tie, which he brandished with triumph.
He lifted Meggie up and she carefully placed the cap on top of the snowman, and Bridget insisted to be the one to put the tie on, so he showed her how to properly knot the tie around the snowman’s “neck,” his reward her delighted smile.
At last the snowman was finished, and they all stepped back to properly admire their creation. Maria glanced around, happiness bubbling inside her at the joyful expressions on the children’s faces. Gabriel had that same warm, tender and peaceful look as before as he looked at the beaming smiles on his children.
Meggie was standing next to him, her little mittened hand clutching his, her body and head leaning trustingly against his leg. The poor dear looked exhausted and Maria carefully nudged Gabriel, gesturing to Meggie quietly. He nodded quickly and bent, scooping her up easily in his arms.
“Daddy?” she said in a tired voice, yawning widely.
“I think someone is ready for a little rest before dinner. How about if we all go in and rest up?”
At the chorus of groans, he added, “I’m going to start a fire in the fireplace in the great room and I bet I can convince Mrs. Phillips to give us the fixings for s’mores and more hot chocolate, as long as you all don’t spoil your appetites for dinner.”
“Yes! S’mores, awesome! Last one in is a rotten egg,” Sam yelled and then took off, running as fast as his short legs and the snow drifts would allow.
“Sam! You cheated!” and “No fair!” were his sisters’ responses as they took off after him.
Gabriel chuckled as he and Maria started walking back to the house. “I can always count on Sam to think with his stomach,” he said fondly.
Maria laughed. “Yes, I’ve noticed that about him too. I better go on ahead and warn Mrs. Phillips not to give you the evil eye that you suggested s’mores before dinner.”
Gabriel was unrepentant. “Well, it worked, didn’t it?”
His hand reached out and caught hers as she started to quicken her pace. “Wait.”
As Maria looked back at him questioningly, Gabriel hesitated, glancing at Meggie in his arms, drowsy but awake, and said, “Thank you. Just…thank you.”
Maria smiled at him, feeling her heart expand in her chest. She gave his hand a soft squeeze and said simply, “You’re welcome.”
THEIR APPETITES WEREN’T QUITE RUINED for the roast chicken dinner, but it was clear the children were exhausted from their active snow-filled day. They didn’t speak much at dinner, but it was a different kind of quiet than the previous night, which had been filled with the tension of things unsaid. This time, contentment, punctuated with the occasional smothered yawn, filled the air.
Matt, Maria and Gabriel spent much of the dinner suppressing smiles and outright laughter as it became obvious that someone would soon fall asleep at the table. When even Sam started to nod off in the middle of his trifle, Gabriel threw aside his napkin and announced, “All right, it’s off to bed for the lot of you. Let’s go upstairs now.”
There was a token protest from Elizabeth—as the eldest, she was used to staying up later than her siblings—but it was clear that even she was eager for her bed tonight.
Meggie held out her arms for Gabriel to carry her and he obliged her, gathering her into his arms, pressing a tender kiss to her forehead as he carried her out of dining room.
As everyone bathed and changed into night clothes, Maria gave Meggie a quick bath.
“Miss Maria?” Meggie asked suddenly.
“Will you read me a story tonight?”
“Of course, but only one story since you need to sleep, all right?”
“Okay. Will Daddy read me a story too?” Meggie asked in a hopeful voice.
“I bet he will if you ask. Let’s get you all ready for bed first, okay?”
Maria had no doubt that Gabriel would read to her—she thought that he’d read all night, if his children asked him to. She wondered again what went wrong when it was plain as day that Gabriel adored his children and they clearly adored him back.
Her belief in their love for each other was reinforced when upon hearing that Gabriel would be reading a story to Meggie, the older kids all demanded to hear the story too, a fragile hope shining on their faces. So they all crowded onto Meggie’s bed as Gabriel read one of the fairytales that Meggie liked, staring at their father with their heart in their eyes.
Maria felt herself tear up at the sight, and quietly closed the door, wanting the family to have their own private moment. She walked slowly downstairs and found herself in the main hall again. Spotting double doors off the hall with one door slightly ajar, she impulsively decided to explore.
She opened the door and gasped—she felt as if she’d wandered into a previous century.
It was a ballroom, and the most glorious, beautiful room she’d ever seen. The room was decorated in the Rococo style, the walls made up of panels of gilt-edged mirrors and exquisite, delicate paintings. Two huge crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, which was painted using the trompe l’eoil technique with mischievous cherubs looking down from among the clouds. The beautiful oak floors had been polished to a high sheen and Maria could practically see her reflection on it. There were French doors at the far end which she was sure must open onto gardens or a terrace. A gleaming grand piano sat in one corner of the room. She could almost hear the strains of a waltz lilting from the piano, the keys dancing under Gabriel’s talented fingers.