It was a short drive, just under fifteen minutes, but the roads were curvy and with snow piled up high on the shoulders, cars going in both directions were forced towards the center, leaving very little room for drivers to pass each other. Maria was grateful that Gabriel had insisted on driving this morning—he was right, it was better for him to drive until she became more familiar with the roads here.
Soon they arrived at the exclusive academy and after hugging the children and walking a tearful, clingy Meggie to her classroom, they waved to the kids as they entered the building, all of them turning around and waving back wildly before disappearing inside.
As she watched each child head off, Maria felt a pang that reality had asserted itself. Yesterday had been another magical day. The children had asked if they could skate on the frozen pond behind the house and after carefully checking to make sure the ice was frozen solid, Gabriel had pronounced it safe to skate, and everyone including Matt had taken a turn on the ice. It had been years since Maria had last skated but she still remembered how and she loved just gliding around. Not surprisingly, Gabriel was quite a good skater—experience from playing hockey throughout his teen and college years, he said. He’d skated with all his children and then with Maria. She loved how skating allowed him to hold her in front of everyone, and she could tell Gabriel loved it too.
The past three days since the blizzard had been some of the best days of her life, and in a remarkably short time she’d fallen in love with the children and would miss them while they were at school.
She glanced at Gabriel, staring after his children with a faint smile on his face. Being here with him as they dropped off the children was giving her dangerous fancies—she could imagine doing this often in the future, she and Gabriel together, as if they belonged to each other and were a real family. It was a wonderful, captivating dream, and Maria was starting to believe that it could really happen.
Gabriel turned to her, giving her that crooked smile that she adored. “Ready to go home?”
She nodded, happiness filling her at the thought of the grand, enormous manor as home. More than anything, she wanted it to be true.
Gabriel took her arm and carefully led her back to the Range Rover on the icy path, and Maria shivered at his strong, protective touch. He touched her as if he had every right to, with a possessiveness that Maria found alarmingly arousing.
As they drove down the long, recently plowed drive leading to the manor, Maria spotted a red luxury SUV parked in front of the house.
“I think you have a visitor,” she remarked. She turned to Gabriel and stiffened.
Gabriel’s face looked as if it was carved from granite, and his lips were pressed together in a thin line. A muscle flexed in his cheek.
“Gabriel, is something wrong?” Maria asked. A fluttery feeling much like panic was starting to rise in her at his reaction to the SUV.
He finally looked at her, his expression unreadable. “It’s Olivia. She’s here.”
MARIA CLOSED HER EYES AS she leaned against the door in her bedroom, her body trembling uncontrollably. How could she have been such a fool?
Olivia Langley was an elegant, auburn-haired, sophisticated beauty who made Maria feel both awkward and unattractive. As soon as Gabriel parked the Range Rover behind the SUV Olivia rushed outside, Matt right behind her, a carefully neutral expression on his face. Gabriel descended from the vehicle and Olivia immediately flung herself into his arms, giving him a long and enthusiastic kiss.
Maria sat in the seat, frozen, unable to do anything but stare at the man she loved kissing his fiancée. A ball of cold fire burned in her chest, growing bigger and bigger, and the agonizing pain was almost more than she could bear.
“I was able to get an early flight out of Montreal this morning and couldn’t wait to surprise you!” Olivia murmured, twining her hands around Gabriel’s neck.
“Yes, I’d say you definitely succeeded,” Gabriel said, stepping away from the car and breaking Olivia’s hold on him.
Gabriel turned to Maria, but she refused to meet his eyes, not raising her gaze above his chin. She could see his jaw clench.
“Olivia, I’d like you to meet Maria.”
“Oh, hello, you must be the new nanny! Matt was just telling me about you. I hope the blizzard didn’t make things too difficult your first week here,” Olivia said with a laugh.
Maria belatedly realized that she needed to leave the Range Rover and stumbled out, giving Olivia a brittle smile and hoped it didn’t look as false as it felt. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you. And no, the blizzard wasn’t too bad at all. But if you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the children’s rooms and tidy them up.”
With that, she rushed past Gabriel and Olivia into the house, heading blindly for the stairs. She felt a hand on her wrist and tried to wrench it away, wanting only to get away from Gabriel. But it was Matt, not Gabriel.
“Maria, wait! Let me walk you to your room.”
Matt put his hand at her back and walked her upstairs, and leaning towards her he whispered urgently, “Maria, please give Gabriel a chance! I know he’ll fix the situation, don’t worry. Olivia wasn’t supposed to get here until Sunday—I know seeing her must be a shock, but trust Gabriel, okay?”
Maria nodded numbly, not really processing Matt’s words. All she wanted was to get to the safety of her room before she broke down. She could feel the tears burning at the back of her eyes and a rising tide of humiliation, pain and despair threatened to drown her.
Relief swelled as they reached her room—sanctuary was finally at hand. She thanked Matt for trying to help and closed the door firmly behind her. Slumping against it in despair, she realized she’d been a fool. A naïve, stupid, blind fool.
She loved Gabriel—she could now finally admit that to herself. She was utterly, completely, hopelessly in love with him, and had been since Boston.
That was why she’d run away that morning—she couldn’t bear facing him, knowing that the night that had transformed her didn’t have the same meaning for him. So she’d run away rather than face more disappointment, and then it seemed that God in His infinite wisdom was giving her a second chance.
Somehow, she’d ended up here, and miraculously, it seemed that Gabriel wanted her as well. No it wasn’t love, but it was something to build upon, something that could grow into love if nurtured, and she starting dreaming that they could be together and that his family would become hers as well.
But now she knew that she had to face the truth—there was no way Gabriel would ever choose her over someone like Olivia.
His desire for Maria may be real, but it would be fleeting, transitory. He may not love Olivia, but he could over time—she seemed like a genuinely lovely person, and it was plain to Maria that Olivia loved him. Maybe Gabriel didn’t realize the depth of Olivia’s feelings for him yet, but to another woman in love with him, Olivia’s feelings were crystal clear.
A tear trailed down her cheek, and Maria dashed it away, suddenly angry. She had no one but herself to blame for weaving such stupid, juvenile fantasies about Gabriel. She just had to accept that she didn’t belong here with Gabriel, that Olivia did. She should be used to getting her heart broken—she’d had plenty of practice since her parents died.
Stepping away from the door, she grabbed her luggage out of the closet and opened her drawers, tossing her clothes haphazardly into the bag. There was no way she could stay here and witness Gabriel with Olivia. Already it felt as if her heart had been cut open with a jagged knife. All she knew was that she had to get away, to put as much distance between herself and Gabriel as humanly possible.
And maybe then the pain would start to dull.
GABRIEL WATCHED OLIVIA’S SMILE FALTER, the light in her eyes dim and hated himself for causing her any pain. But it had to be done—there was no way he could stay engaged to Olivia when he was in love with Maria.
The realization that he was utterly in love with Maria had hit him when Olivia had thrown herself into his arms and kissed him. It had taken every bit of his self-control not to push her away immediately, but he hadn’t wanted to embarrass Olivia with his knee-jerk reaction. But it had felt so wrong to hold another woman and every single fiber of his being rejected Olivia, screaming that the only woman he wanted in his arms was Maria.
He nearly staggered under the avalanche of the truth of his feelings for Maria—he hadn’t wanted to label the desperate desire and near obsession he felt for her, but he could no longer deny it—he loved Maria, and she was the only woman he wanted as his wife, the mother of his children, his lover, his love.
One look at Maria’s tortured expression and her unwillingness to meet his gaze, no matter how much he silently willed her to look up, made it imperative that he break things off with Olivia immediately. He’d already planned on ending the engagement, but now he was desperate to do so and didn’t want to delay a single moment.
But he felt like a heel for hurting Olivia, however necessary it was. He’d believed that her feelings matched his, but as he saw her try to mask the emotion, the hurt his words, however gently delivered, caused her he realized that he’d been badly mistaken.
“I’m so sorry, Olivia. All I can say is that a marriage between us would have been a mistake, and I was stupid to propose in the first place. You should have smacked me up the head instead of humoring me. You deserve someone who loves you every bit as much as Charles did, and not just someone looking for a mother for his children.”
Olivia swallowed and nodded, smiling bravely. “I have to admit I’ve been having doubts as to whether or not I could be the mother your children deserve, when I’ve never had much experience with children. I think you’re right—it’s best we realize now before we make an even bigger mistake. Neither one of us wants—or deserves—to be second best.”
Gabriel nodded silently, grateful for Olivia’s graciousness and understanding.
She turned to leave his office, saying, “I came here straight from the airport, and I really should get home. I’m sure my housekeeper has been holding down the fort since the blizzard but I know she’ll be glad to have me back.”
At the door she paused, her hand on the knob, and turned to him. “Just tell me something—is there someone else?”
Gabriel hesitated, but decided he owed her the truth.
“Yes,” he admitted. “It happened in the summer, and I didn’t think I would ever see her again. But she’s back in my life now, and it’s not fair to you when I’m in love with someone else.”
Olivia nodded, a resigned expression on her face. “It’s hard enough to fight Elle’s ghost, I would be a real masochist to want to battle a living woman as well. I wish you much luck, Gabriel. I do want you to be happy.”
“Thank you, Olivia,” he said softly. “I want you to be happy, too.”
Olivia gave him another fleeting smile, but this time, the smile was real, and left the room. He heard her speak briefly to Matt in the hall and then her footsteps faded away. He waited another minute for her to say goodbye to Williams at the front door and then to drive away, and then he sprinted out of his office, determined to go to Maria immediately.
He ran into Matt in the hallway, and Matt grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop. “Hey, wait a minute! Are you still engaged?”
Gabriel shook his arm free, his mind already on Maria. “No, I just broke it off with Olivia.”
“Oh thank God.” Matt heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay, I assume you’re going to Maria now, then. Good, because she’s in her room in a terrible state and I think seeing you with Olivia hurt her badly.”
“I know,” Gabriel replied distractedly. “I have to go to her now!”
“Well good luck!” Matt called out to his retreating back. Under his breath he muttered, “I’m sure you’re going to need it.”
GABRIEL TOOK THE STAIRS TWO at a time and nearly ran to Maria’s room. Without bothering to knock he opened the door, and his heart nearly stopped at the sight of Maria’s bags open on the brocade-covered bench at the foot of the bed, filled with clothes. She was sitting on the bed, a pile of crumpled blue silk in her lap and he recognized the dress she was wearing the night they met.
Her gaze flew from the dress to him at the sound of his entrance into the room, and he slowly stepped in, closing the door behind him. Desperation rose in him at the evidence that Maria was planning on leaving him—again. Anger started to curl inside, mixing with the desperate fear.
“Running away again, I see. Tell me, were you planning on sneaking out or were you actually going to tell me this time?”
Maria’s face flushed but she didn’t deny his accusation, which infuriated him.
“It was obvious that it was time for me to go.”
“Obvious to whom?” he growled. “Not to me, and not to my children. Were you even going to say goodbye to them? You promised me you’d stay, dammit!”