“Oh Gabriel,” Maria exclaimed, reaching out with both hands and tenderly cupping his face. “Your children love you—it’s plain as day to me. Perhaps they don’t see your gestures to them as what they really are, but they will, I promise. It’s not too late. Just don’t give up.
You were terrific with them today, and they had a wonderful time with their father. I know tomorrow will be just as wonderful and soon, they’ll forget there was a time when they weren’t as close to you. Children are resilient and forgiving, and their hearts are so, so big—they’ve just been waiting for you to come back to them.”
“If my relationship with them is on the mend, it’s thanks to you,” he said softly, and when she started to protest he held a finger against her lips, silencing her. “No, it’s true. For six months, I’ve been fumbling around, trying to connect with them and failing miserably. Within twenty-four hours of your being here, I’m finally making some headway with them, even Lizzie, who’s been the hardest to reach.
It’s because of you—somehow, you’ve been able to bridge the distance between us and bring us together. I can’t thank you enough.” He grinned suddenly, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “For obvious, very personal reasons, I’m very happy you’re no longer a nun, but I can’t deny that you can work miracles.”
That startled a laugh from Maria, who shook her head in mock reproof. “Mr. Trentham, the nuns at the Sacred Heart Convent would be scandalized by your blasphemy and heartily disagree with you about my miracle-working abilities.”
His smile faded as he stared at her. “All I know is that I and my family are all for the better because of you.”
Maria’s heart nearly skipped a beat at the intense look in his eyes—it was something like passion, but that wasn’t it. She was actually afraid to examine it too closely—she didn’t want to believe something that couldn’t possibly be true. His children weren’t the only ones who had been hurt too many times in the past and were now too afraid to hope.
Except she suspected they were still braver than her.
Suddenly, realization hit. A wave of shame rushed over her and she nearly gasped. Dear Lord, she had completely forgotten about his fiancée, Olivia! Her desire for Gabriel had overwhelmed her completely—all she could think about was her own wild need for him and the way he made her feel. Could she have put a stop to it if Gabriel hadn’t listened to her token protest? Or would she now be in his arms, his c*ck driving deep inside her? She hadn’t even been thinking of Olivia when she’d said they couldn’t have sex—it had been more an instinctive attempt at protecting herself and her own vulnerable emotions. As it was, there was no doubt that emotionally and to some extent physically she’d been a party to Gabriel betraying his fiancée, and self-loathing rose in her. She’d have to come to grips with her own undeniable weakness.
Wanting desperately now to escape from him, from everything he made her feel, Maria said lightly, “Well I think you still give me too much credit—I think it was just a matter of time before you broke through to them. And if today was any indication, I think the children will want to spend another active day out in the snow tomorrow so I better go upstairs now. Goodnight.”
“Wait.” Gabriel’s hand shot out and caught her by the wrist as she tried to leave. “What’s wrong? I can tell something is off now where it wasn’t before.”
Maria faced him, shocked that Gabriel could read her so easily. His grip on her wrist was gentle but secure, and she knew he wasn’t going to let her go without an answer.
“Gabriel, what about Olivia?” she asked quietly.
His eyes widened, and she could tell that just as she had, he’d forgotten entirely about the existence of his fiancée. Which somehow made her feel worse, rather than better.
She tugged her hand free, rose from the bench and walked quickly to the door. Her hand on the doorknob she hesitated, unable to resist turning for one last look at Gabriel. He was standing, an unreadable expression on his face and his hands clenched at his sides.
“Maria. I know you don’t believe me, but we didn’t cheat on Olivia.”
Her hand tightened on the doorknob. “You’re right, I don’t believe you,” she said with a sad smile.
They stared at each other for a long moment before he said softly, “Goodnight.”
Maria nodded, whispered, “Goodnight,” and then slipped out of the room.
You can’t let yourself get even more involved, she told herself. You’ll end up falling in love with him and his family and it won’t end well. They don’t belong to you—they belong to Olivia! You’ve already sinned more in the past forty-eight hours than the last six months combined, and if you’re not strong enough to resist Gabriel it’s going to get a lot worse. You know you’ll be leaving at the end of the week!
Maria repeated this like a mantra all the way up to her room. If only it wasn’t already too late…
MARIA WAS RIGHT—AS SOON as the children woke up early the next morning, they dashed downstairs to find their father and started asking excitedly if they could go outside to play in the snow again.
Gabriel was alone in the kitchen having his first cup of coffee and had been staring out at the crystalline beauty of the snow-covered grounds, deep in thought, when his children burst into the room, still in their pajamas.
“Daddy! I just woke up and want to see Mr. Snowman! Can we please, Daddy?” Meggie asked eagerly.
Gabriel smiled and put down his mug, swinging Meggie high up in his arms before he carefully set her down in her chair, loving the sound of her giggles. “Good morning, darling. Good morning, Lizzie, Bridget, Sam. How about some breakfast first?”
“Good morning, Daddy,” Elizabeth greeted with a soft smile, and Bridget echoed her older sister.
“G’morning! Great, I’m starving!” Sam exclaimed as his sisters rolled their eyes at him. But Bridget and Elizabeth quickly retrieved their favorite cereals and set the boxes on the island and got the milk and juice out of the fridge.
“How about I scramble some eggs too?” he asked, knowing Sam would need more than just cereal.
“Oh yes, thanks, Dad!” Sam said happily and Bridget added hopefully, “And maybe some bacon too?”
Gabriel laughed. “All right, some bacon as well.”
As he quickly prepared the eggs and bacon, he looked over at his children, nearly overwhelmed by a fierce, protective love for them. The love had always been there, just swamped by his grief for far too long. But no longer.
“Good morning, everyone.”
He looked up quickly at Maria standing hesitantly in the doorway. She smiled shyly at him and again he was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion as he stared at her. He knew she was still determined to leave at the end of the week, and he was just as determined to get her to stay—permanently, if he had his way.
“Miss Maria!” Meggie cried out and ran over to her, grabbing her hand. “Can you sit next to me? Daddy’s making us scrambled eggs and bacon! Do you like bacon?”
Maria laughed. “I do, very much. But your father didn’t know I was coming down—he may not have made enough for me too, and that’s fine, I can just have some toast.”
Meggie frowned at Maria not getting any eggs or bacon. “But Daddy made a lot of eggs and bacon, right, Daddy?”
“Indeed I did, Meggie. Besides, Miss Maria is part of the family now, right?”
Maria blushed at his words and dropped her eyes to the table as he brought over the platter of food and placed it on the table. She reached over and scooped some eggs and bacon for Meggie and as she did so the high collar of her shirt shifted a little, exposing a familiar red bruise on her neck. Gabriel’s mouth went dry as he stared at it, a volatile mix of possessiveness, pride and lust surging through him at the sight.
Not wanting to be caught staring inappropriately by his own children, he dragged his eyes away and carefully put food on his own plate. A comfortable silence descended on the table as everyone concentrated on eating, and Gabriel glanced around, contentment swelling in his chest. Everything just felt right, as if things were finally clicking into place, and there was nothing he wanted more than to have many more such mornings in the future.
Sam, not surprising, was finished first, although he ate twice as much as the girls. “Dad, can I go outside now?”
“Sam, remember what I said about doing some schoolwork first before playing outside,” Gabriel said firmly.
At the disappointed looks on all the kids’ faces, Gabriel reminded them, “I’ll be working too, in my office while you study. But it won’t be for too long, I promise. And I have a special surprise for you once we do go outside.”
“A surprise?” Bridget asked in delight. “What is it?”
Gabriel chuckled. “What kind of surprise would it be if I told you now?”
“Please, Daddy! I can’t wait!” Meggie begged and Sam clamored to know as well. Even Elizabeth couldn’t refrain from asking, although she tried to look nonchalant about it.
Gabriel shared a look of amusement with Maria at the children’s excitement. It had been so long since he teased the children like this and he was enjoying himself immensely.
“Nope, I’m not going to tell you,” he announced, “and don’t try to get Maria to tell you, because she doesn’t know what the surprise is.”
“That’s true,” Maria confirmed. “This is something your father planned completely by himself. And the sooner you finish your schoolwork, the sooner you’ll find out, right?”
Gabriel laughed at the resigned sighs from the children. “Don’t worry, time will pass soon enough. I do want you to enjoy this time off—they’re going to start clearing the roads today, and you’ll probably be back in school either tomorrow or Thursday.”
Elizabeth frowned, which surprised Gabriel since he knew she actually enjoyed school. But then he realized it wasn’t school she was thinking about.
“If the roads are getting plowed and it doesn’t snow again, then the airports will probably be opening up too, right? Does that mean you’ll be leaving on one of your business trips soon?” Elizabeth asked quietly.
The table suddenly became very still as everyone, even Maria, seemed to be holding their breath for his answer. Gabriel looked around and saw hope shining on his children’s faces, a hope he knew he could dash with just a few careless words.
“I’ve actually decided to stop travelling so much now. There may be occasions I have to travel, but there will be far less of them. So you’ll just have to get used to having me around more,” Gabriel said with a crooked smile.
The pure joy that lit his children’s faces was enough to humble him. Never again, he vowed to himself as he swallowed the lump in his throat. Maria was smiling nearly as brightly as the children, and he again felt a surge of gratitude towards her for being the catalyst.
Thank you, Lord, for bringing her into my life. Now he just needed to convince her to stay.
“HOLD ON, MEGGIE!” MARIA CALLED as she wrapped her arms more securely around the five year old and pushed off on the sled, laughing in delight as they flew down the slight hill. Meggie shrieked in glee, screaming, “Faster, faster!” before they slowed down as they reached the more level area.
The sleds had been Gabriel’s surprise—three of them, each large enough to hold two passengers. Gabriel had murmured to Maria that the sleds had been in storage in the garage for years—another thing that the children had missed out on. The children had been beside themselves with excitement when they’d seen the sleds placed by the snowman, and had wanted to use them immediately.
Which is what they’d been doing for the past hour—sledding down the long, sloping grounds that led to the frozen pond behind the house. They’d also been racing each other in pairs, with the Sam-Bridget pairing winning the most races, not surprisingly.
“Dad, Miss Maria!” Bridget called out as Maria trudged back to the top, one hand holding Meggie and the other leading the sled. “We want to race again!”
Gabriel groaned. “Bridget, you know you and Sam will probably win again.”
Sam grinned smugly. “Yup, we probably would, which is why we want to change it up this time. Bridget and I are going to split up, and everyone needs to ride with someone they’ve haven’t ridden with before. So I’ll ride with Lizzie.”
“And I’ll ride with Meggie,” Bridget added.
“But that means…oh,” Maria said, not daring to look at Gabriel.
“Yeah, that means you and Dad will ride together. This way, when I win I’ll know that I beat everyone!” Sam boasted.
“Hey, what do you mean ‘when I win,’” Elizabeth protested and narrowed her eyes. “You’re not on the sled alone, you know!”