“Play with you? You mean, like a duet?” Elizabeth asked with a delighted grin, and her smile was so like Elle’s in that moment.
Gabriel nodded, suddenly feeling light and happy. “Yes, a duet. Do you remember your part to this?”
And he turned around so he was facing the piano and started the left part to “Heart and Soul.” Elizabeth giggled and his heart sang at the joyful sound. She tentatively picked out the melody and soon they were playing together, improvising and laughing at their mistakes.
Neither of them noticed the figure at the doorway who smiled tenderly at them before she quietly closed the door, giving father and daughter some much overdue private time together.
"IT SEEMS I OWE YOU many thanks, again. At this rate, the entire Trentham family will be in your debt for a very long time to come.” The words were said lightly but the look in his eyes was anything but.
Maria shook her head with a soft smile. “I didn’t do anything. All I did was to show you the metaphorical door—it was up to you to open it, and step through. Which you did and Elizabeth was on the other side waiting for you.”
“Nonetheless, you’ve made an enormous difference in all our lives and the children are already beginning to love you, I can tell. Are you sure you’re not really Mary Poppins with your practically perfect ways?” he drawled teasingly.
She choked on a laugh, and glanced quickly at the children to make sure the noise hadn’t woken them up. But they were all still fast asleep in their sleeping bags, laid out in the great room with the fire burning low in the fireplace.
The family Christmas tree—half the size of the one that towered in the entry hall but still a grand, glorious sight—stood tall in a corner of the room, and Maria’s heart warmed to see many ornaments obviously made by the children hanging proudly on the branches, while a beautiful, delicate angel graced the top of the tree. Despite the sheer size of the room—and it was called the great room with good reason—there was a warm, cozy feel to the room and she’d felt comfortable in here immediately.
When Bridget and Sam had first suggested during dinner of having a family sleepover in the great room, Maria had been sure Gabriel would immediately veto the idea. But he had surprised her when he considered it for a long moment, staring at the excited, hopeful expressions on the children’s faces before he agreed, but making sure they understood it was only because school was still cancelled for the next day.
Gabriel had also agreed to the children’s request that he spend the night with them in the great room, although he drew the line at sleeping on the floor—he would sleep on the big sectional sofa instead, where Meggie had also elected to curl up.
After dinner, they’d all washed up and changed into pajamas before coming back downstairs with pillows, stuffed animals and sleeping bags. Ironically enough, they’d watched Mary Poppins on the huge plasma TV in the great room before toasting s’mores and having warm milk. Maria had told them stories and taught them some songs she learned at the convent. It wasn’t too long before the children had fallen asleep, Meggie being the first to succumb.
Now it was just Gabriel and Maria who remained awake, facing each other but being careful not to touch on the sectional, and Maria shivered at how incredibly seductive the situation suddenly felt. With the children asleep around them and the only light from the fire, Maria could almost imagine that this was her family, especially with Gabriel speaking to her in such a soft, intimate tone.
“I think the sisters at Sacred Heart would strongly disagree with you about the practically perfect part,” she murmured.
He smiled crookedly at her. “Well, you might not be perfect for a nun, but I think you’re perfect for me—and for us.”
Maria’s heart starting pounding so hard, she was afraid he could hear it. She wished he wouldn’t say things like that—it made it so hard for her to remember that he wasn’t hers, that she wasn’t a part of this family, that she was supposed to leave in just a few days when leaving was the very last thing she wanted to do.
“Since you decided that you wouldn’t be a very good nun, why did you choose it then?” he asked, looking at her searchingly.
Maria hesitated, not sure how much to tell him.
“Well, when I was in college, I was a student teacher at the school associated with the nuns at the Sacred Heart, so I got to know them well. My parents were devout Catholics, and they’d raised me in the Church. They were older when they had me, so by the time I came along my grandparents on both sides were already gone. They were also both only childs, so it was just the three of us. After they died in a boating accident, the Church took me in since I had no family and I spent a lot of time with the nuns then, before I got placed in foster care. They were the most stable influence for me growing up. So I already had a lot of respect and affection for them.
The Sisters all seemed so serene and certain of their place in the world, and of their calling. This may sound odd, but the idea of having that certainty was…seductive, for the lack of a better word. Of course I had overly romanticized the Sisters and their way of life. Even as a novice that serenity and certainty eluded me and I was constantly admonished for not following the rules of the novitiate and trust me, there were a lot of them!”
“Did you know it was a mistake right away?” he asked softly.
She grimaced. “That would have been the smart thing to do, but no, I was determined to make it work. I’m nothing if not stubborn and my stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to realize the mistake I’d made, at least not for awhile.”
“What happened then?”
“I’d been at the convent for well over a year when the Mother Superior finally had a long chat with me about my suitability, or lack of it as it were. She was absolutely right of course—I would have made a terrible nun, if I’d been allowed to get that far.” But even knowing it was a mistake didn’t lessen the hurt that the Sisters hadn’t wanted her, irrational though it was.
Maria spoke lightly, but Gabriel frowned, obviously sensing that there was much she was leaving out.
“Did you feel that they rejected you?”
She winced at the direct hit—she’d been even more transparent than she realized. “A little, yes. I thought that they’d be my new family, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
“From what you told me before, I know you weren’t adopted. How many foster homes did you have?” he asked.
“I lived in five different homes, not counting the orphanage. Some of the stays were for just a few months, while the longest stay was for two years.” She tried to keep her voice matter-of-fact, but she was afraid he was too observant to fool.
“Did you ever get close to being adopted?” he asked, his voice compassionate.
She swallowed. “Once, I thought that maybe my foster parents were thinking about adopting me, but it didn’t work out.”
She didn’t mention that the hope had never died, until she finally aged out of foster care. Like the Trentham children, she knew what it was to hope for the impossible—the big difference being that the Trentham children still had a father who loved them, and they just had to be patience enough to wait for him to come back to them. Their hope had born fruit, while hers…
Maria shook her head, determined not to dwell on the past. “In any case, I was a good student and the nuns at the orphanage helped me apply for a scholarship to Holy Cross in Worcester. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college. Still, the scholarship didn’t cover everything, and like a lot of students I had to take out loans to pay for the rest. But I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for the nuns.”
Gabriel smiled faintly. “Well, then the good sisters have my eternal gratitude as well.” His smile slowly faded, replaced by an intense, determined look. “Please say you’ll stay past the week. The children would be devastated if you left, they’re already attached to you.”
She caught her breath, wanting so much to say yes. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to keep away from you if I stay, and it’s so wrong to be involved with you if I’m to be your nanny as well.”
Pure masculine satisfaction blazed in Gabriel’s dark blue eyes at her honest admission. “We both know that there’s no way I’ll be able to keep my hands off of you either, and nor do I want to. But I won’t rush you, I promise. Just tell me that you’ll stay and we’ll work everything else out.”
Maria bit her lip, needing to know about one last, vital thing, but terrified to hear the answer. “What about your fiancée? Gabriel, I feel awful about what we did last night—as soon as you touched me, the fact that you’re engaged flew from my mind immediately, and all I could focus on was my desire for you. I did nothing to stop you and in fact, encouraged you. I hate that I’m not strong enough to stay away from you and that we’re betraying her even just by sitting here together!”
“No! I won’t let you feel guilty about last night, or today or right now or anything that happens between us in the future. The truth is that I’m ending the engagement when I see Olivia on Sunday. I want to do it in person, which is the only reason it hasn’t happened yet. So Olivia won’t be an issue for much longer. I wasn’t lying to you when I said we weren’t cheating. I won’t be breaking any vows or promises, and neither will you.” Gabriel stared at her, willing her to believe him.
She nodded slowly, still not sure if what they were doing didn’t constitute cheating, but knowing that she wouldn’t be the other woman helped to assuage some of the guilty torment she’d been feeling. “Don’t you love her though?”
He sighed deeply. “Olivia and I have been friends for years. Her husband and I were college roommates and Olivia was his girlfriend. He died of a heart attack a couple of years before Elle died, so she understood what I was going through.
After Boston, when finding you seemed hopeless, I thought it would be best if I gave my children a new mother, and Olivia was the logical choice. I proposed to her last month before Thanksgiving, and we were both of the same mindset about basing the marriage on practical grounds.
I’m fond of her and care for her, but no, I don’t love her.”
Maria felt her heart lift at his words, as well as a huge sense of relief. If he didn’t love Olivia then she would have a chance—he may never love her either, but more than anything she wanted to be with him and the children, for as long as he wanted her.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I’ll stay.”
Elation, desire and relief all flashed across his face before he crashed his mouth down on hers, his hands stroking urgently along her back. His lips nibbled hungrily at her bottom lip, coaxing her mouth open and she moaned at the feel of his tongue sweeping in, caressing hers. They kissed deeply, feverishly for endless moments until the need that burned between them threatened to burst into an inferno and rage out of control.
Slowly, reluctantly, Gabriel gentled the kiss, sipping at her mouth when he wanted to devour it, to devour her. He finally raised his head, and the dazed look in her blue eyes combined with her swollen, wet mouth was nearly enough for him to damn the consequences and carry her to the nearest room empty of children where he could finally make love to her once again. She made a needy whimper of protest at the loss of his lips and the sound was like an electric bolt straight to his groin.
“Ria,” he nearly growled.
“Um, yes,” she said breathlessly.
“If you don’t get the hell out of this room in the next ten seconds, you’re going to make a liar out of me and I’ll be deep inside you before you even think to worry that we’re rushing things.”
Her eyes widened at his bluntness and her cheeks pinkened. But she definitely got the message—she quickly hopped off the sofa, straightening her clothes. “Well, I better go upstairs then.”
Thankfully, their kiss hadn’t disturbed Meggie, who was still fast asleep on another section of the sofa. She scrambled carefully around the other sleeping children, making her way to the door. She stopped and looked at him, a shy smile trembling on her lips. “Goodnight, Gabriel.”
“Goodnight, Maria,” he said softly as he watched her leave the room. Despite frustration riding him hard, he was incredibly content and he knew why.
Mine. She’ll finally be mine again. And this time, I’m not letting her go.
“DADDY, ARE YOU GOING TO pick us up after school as well?” Elizabeth asked Gabriel as he drove carefully on the icy roads.
“Yes, I’ll be here with Maria at two, it’s early dismissal today,” Gabriel replied absently, not wanting to take his attention off the slick conditions of the roads. Although the roads were clear and schools had resumed Thursday, Gabriel didn’t want Maria to drive the kids when she wasn’t familiar with the way to the school yet. So he’d insisted on driving, with Maria coming along so she’d know how to get there.