PROTECTED BY A DEVIL
Ten Years Later
“I will have the first piece, won’t I, father?”
Michael glanced down at his daughter, who walked at his side. Heather swung his hand back and forth, her black curls bouncing as she moved. She appeared sweet-tempered and malleable. Everything she was not. At six, she had an extremely forceful nature. The youngest, Heather, was the child that gave her parents’ sleepless nights. Her sister said she had the face of an angel and the personality of Medusa.
“I think it is Bonnie’s turn to have the first slice, Heather,” Michael said, looking at his eldest daughter, who walked a few paces before them. At nine, she was showing all the signs of being like Michael and her Uncle Forrest. Serious and protective. She had his hair, was tall, and still growing into her legs. Thankfully, unlike her younger sister, she was not showing too many of her Uncle Zach’s wild tendencies.
“I want the first piece!” Heather shrieked.
“You will not get any if you speak like that,” Bonnie said before Michael could form the words. “Plus, it is father’s birthday and as such, he should get the first piece.”
“Yes, thank you for that, Bonnie, but I can deal with your sister.”
“Good luck,” she muttered.
The day was gray and while he enjoyed being with his children, it matched his mood perfectly. Freya had received word her mother was unwell and that she needed to come at once. She’d left immediately. That had been many long weeks ago, and he and the girls missed her desperately.
It was like a gnawing ache deep inside him. She was his soul mate. The woman he wanted to shake and hug at the same time. Freya challenged him when he tried to hide what he felt. Tried to be the calm, rational one. She told him regularly that expressing emotion was healthy, letting it build inside him was not. He’d made great strides since their marriage, especially as she did not hesitate to vent her spleen should it be required.
Just this morning, he’d yelled at Zach. Freya would have been proud of him. Of course, it had been because of her he had done so, but still.
His youngest brother had grown sick of him saying how much he missed his wife that he’d told him he was in danger of becoming both maudlin and boring. They’d argued. After several heated words, the youngest Deville threatened to punch him if he did not leave the house at once for a piece of Mr. Silac’s cake, which would surely revive his spirits on his birthday. Michael was sure his daughters had put their uncle up to that.
“She’s following again,” Bonnie said as they reached the corner of their street.
Michael watched the large ginger cat sit on her furry behind before his youngest daughter. One of Harriet’s kittens, Marriet, had filled the void left when her mother died five years ago.
“Go back, Marriet. We will return soon.” Heather bent to scratch behind her ear, just where she liked it. “Go on, you don’t like the rain, and I’m sure I felt a drop.”
It was one of life’s little miracles that his youngest daughter and the cat were best friends, and neither spat nor hissed at the other.
The cat wound around his legs, then left. Stalking off down the street.
They crossed the street, and then down another, and then they headed to the cart, which was not far. Mr. Silac was now a great deal older and usually leaning on his cane while his daughter served his cake.
“I wish Mother was here,” Heather sighed.
“So do I,” Bonnie’s sigh was loud.
“She will return soon, I promise,” he said, hoping his words were the truth. If he was being dramatic, which he rarely was, he would say it felt like having a limb severed with Freya gone. His world was made up of parts, and she was at least half of that, along with his children, and when she wasn’t there, he felt empty.
He loved his wife and daughters so much it sometimes terrified him.
“And if she doesn’t, we will go to her.”
“’Tis such a long carriage ride though, father,” Bonnie said.
She loathed traveling and usually had to empty the contents of her stomach more than once when they undertook a long journey, which was why they had stayed in London instead of accompanying Freya.
He saw the back of a woman’s head as he approached the cart, and his heart thudded hard inside his chest.
He was seeing her everywhere. Moving closer, he looked down the length of her deep blue coat. She was Freya’s height, but then many were.
“Freya?” Her name came out gruffly. When she turned, he braced himself to see someone else.
Her smile warmed all the places inside him that had been cold since she left. Their daughters shrieked and ran at her and he was literally rooted to the spot with shock as he watched her drop other knee and gather them close.
Michael shook himself out of his sudden inability to move or think and stepped closer. Freya was kissing every spot on her daughters’ faces she could reach.
When finally she let them go, he grabbed her and hauled her upright and into his arms. He then wrapped them around her and held on.
“How?” He whispered the words into her neck as Mr. Silac started chatting to Bonnie and Heather.
“Mother is better, and I told my family that I needed to go home to you and our girls.”
“I missed you,” he said, and the words seemed a massive understatement, but he could think of nothing else.
“As I missed you.”
He cupped her cheeks, looking into her lovely eyes.
“Welcome home, my love.” He kissed her softly.
“Happy birthday, my darling husband.”
“We will not be parted again, Marriet cannot stand it.”
Her smile filled his chest with warmth.
“My day has certainly improved in the last few minutes,” he said, tucking her hand under his arm as they moved to collect their cake. They then headed back to the town house they had bought just two doors down from the one his family had owned for years.
“I need to tell you something.”
“What have you done?” Michael asked as he watched Heather skip along beside Bonnie in a rare moment of solidarity.
“How do you know I’ve done anything?” she protested.
“Because when you have you always start a sentence with, I need to tell you something.”
She exhaled loudly.
The years since they’d met had only enhanced her beauty to Michael’s mind. They argued, loved and lived their life together and he couldn’t imagine his life without Freya anymore.
“Just tell me, Freya.”
“Our house is now full of people.”
Freya had missed Michael and their daughters every minute of every day she’d been gone. When her mother had begun to improve, she’d decided it was time to come home. She’d arrived last night and stayed with Gabe and Dimity, to surprise Michael for his birthday.
Her love for this man had bloomed into a wonderful thing. He challenged her, loved and infuriated her. She did not admire anyone more than her husband.
His hair was graying and yet, unlike her, it made him look dignified and, if possible, more handsome. Freya never doubted the love he had for her and their children. He was the solid and comforting presence at their backs. The man who still made her heart flutter when he was near.
“Freya, what have you done?” He said as they approached the house.
“How do you know it’s something I have done?” She looked at him and blinked several times.
“You do know that after all these years, I won’t fall for your innocent look, don’t you?”
He dropped her hand and slid his arm around her waist. It lowered and soon he was stroking her bottom.
“Cease!” she hissed, color filling her cheeks.
“I love that I can still make you blush.”
She made a harrumphing sound the Duchess of Yardly would be proud of if she could still hear. Freya tried to use it whenever she could.
“You’ve perfected that sound.”
“I like to think so.”
“Getting back to what you’ve done. Why is my house full of people?”
“To celebrate your birthday.”
“So what you’re telling me is my brothers were all in on this? You returning and me being lured to purchase cake?” He stopped and looked at the backs of their children. “Were they in on this?”
“Heather could not keep a secret of that magnitude, Michael, as you very well know.”
Last year he’d told her he was purchasing Freya a ring and that if she kept silent on the matter until her mother’s birthday, he’d let her help him pick it. She’d told Freya that day.
“True. So just Bonnie then?”
“She is very much like you.” Freya sighed.
“Witty, intelligent, and highly regarded?”
“I’m not answering that. Now please act surprised. I have told you people are in our house because I know you don’t like to walk into something you are not aware is happening.”
“I do like to be prepared,” he agreed. “But I very much enjoyed the surprise of your returning home to us.” He turned her face and kissed her, and she felt the stirring inside her she always did. “Dare I ask who is in there and what I will find?”
“No. The fact I’ve told you something is happening is enough. Hello, Marriet.” She bent to pat the cat who was waiting for them where they’d left her earlier.
“Lead on then.” Michael sighed. “I would much rather have you to myself, but that can wait.”
“We have children, sir.”
“I’m sure we could have found someone to amuse them while we amused ourselves.” He raised his eyebrows.
Freya ignored him. Taking his hand, she gave it a squeeze, and they followed their children home.
“He looks older, don’t you think, Beth?”
Nathan Deville was standing on his doorstep with his wife and children.
“Happy birthday, Uncle Michael,” Edward, their eldest, said.
“Hello, Edward,” Bonnie sounded bored.
“I have new shoes, Uncle Nathan!” Heather shrieked.
“Well now they are splendid,” Nathan bent to inspect his niece’s shoes. “Do I get a kiss for being your favorite uncle?”
Heather may be the hell child sent to terrorize them on a daily basis, but she had a sweet loving nature when required. She puckered up and kissed her uncle. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she held on when he lifted her.
“Hello, birthday boy.” He grabbed his brother in a one-armed hug, and Beth kissed him.
“I suppose you are in on this, too?” Michael said.
“Of course. Now lead on, we have a surprise for you,” Nathan said, motioning Michael to go first.
“Oh yay,” Freya heard him mutter. Her husband did not like the unexpected.
Their house was filled with everything her family loved. Color, love and scuff stains on the walls from Heather, who rarely walked anywhere.
“Where am I walking to?” Michael said after they’d removed their outer clothing.
“Upstairs to the largest room in your house,” Beth said. “Ava, do not taunt Heather.”
“If I have to do this, you are with me,” Michael said, grabbing Freya’s hand as behind them the bickering started between the cousins.
When the entire Deville family was together, it was mayhem, and Freya had to say she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Excuse me.” Bonnie squeezed by them as they started up the stairs.
“Where is she going?”
“Wait and see,” Freya said.
“I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m not about to be humiliated, am I?” Michael added.
“You are part of a family who humiliate you constantly. I’m not sure why today would be any different,” Nathan said.
They heard the voices as he approached.
“How many people are in there?” Michael whispered.
“Dozens,” Beth said.
They entered the room to a chorus of Happy Birthdays. She saw all their family, and friends seated in rows.
“This is quite a production,” Michael said, tightening his hold on her hand.
“Because you are special, and this is our way of showing you how much we love you.”
“I already know that.” He gave her that special smile that was hers alone.
“It was actually Bonnie who planned this. Now, come, we get to sit at the front.”
“So I will not be forced up there to say anything?” Michael pointed to the stage.
“You like talking in public. Gabe always says you pretend you don’t, but in fact you revel in it.” Freya urged him into a seat. “I will return shortly. Behave.” She bent to kiss his cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he whispered back, as he always did.
Michael watched his wife walk away from him. She wore lavender today, and it hugged her lovely breasts, and fell in a full skirt to the floor. Age had only enhanced her beauty, that and happiness, he thought. She smiled a great deal. He wanted to get her alone in their bed, but knew that would have to wait until tonight.
“I’m sitting with you, Papa.” Heather arrived with Nathan and his family.
“Well now, I have to say I’m happy about that.” He helped her onto the seat. “Do you know what’s about to happen?”
“She does not, because unlike Bonnie, your youngest cannot keep secrets,” Gabe said, arriving with his family. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said to Heather. “Give your favorite uncle a kiss.”
They all said this to her, and she loved it.
“Do I need earplugs?” he whispered to Gabe while shaking his hand.
“This is your concert, brother. You must suffer through it without aids.”
They had set a small stage up, and a curtain hung from the ceiling.
“How on earth did they manage that?” Gabe’s eyes tracked upward to where it was fixed to the ceiling.
“Welcome.” Freya appeared on stage, smiling. “As you all know, today is Michael’s birthday, and we, his family and children, wished to do something special for him. My husband is a wonderful man. A man who many of you call brother and friend.” Her eyes held his. “We love him very much.”
Michael swallowed the lump in his throat and felt Heather’s hand slip into his.
“So today we are performing a short concert in his honor. We hope you enjoy it. After, refreshments will be served and birthday cake,” Freya said, she then blew him a kiss.
“Mama is very pretty.”
“She is.” He leaned down to kiss his daughter on a soft, pale cheek.
Lord Sinclair and Lord Ryder opened the curtains.
On the stage was Bonnie. She played the flute. Abby was at the piano, and her husband, Daniel, also played the flute. Zach was playing the violin, and there was a Sinclair who he had no hope of naming, as there were so many of them and most looked alike, about to sing. He found his nieces and nephews up there also, each playing an instrument.
Freya joined him once more. Michael lifted Heather onto his lap so she could take her seat beside him. He put an arm around her and the other around his daughter and watched the performance.
“We, the Merry Musicians, will now perform a selection of music for you entertainment,” Zach said. “It will, of course, be a performance that will go down in history and be spoken of for many years to come.”
“I worry about him sometimes,” Gabe drawled. “So shy and retiring. It is a wonder he can leave the house each day.”
“They certainly saved the loudest and most obnoxious for last,” Michael said, looking at his youngest brother.
“And that’s jealousy talking because we could never hope to have half his confidence,” Gabe said.
“Agreed.” Michael nodded. “Daniel looks as uncomfortable as he did last time they forced him to do this.”
“Makes a person happy they don’t play an instrument,” Nathan said.
“We all learned the piano, badly, from memory, and stopped when we were old enough to say no to father,” Michael said.
“As Freya has said, this is for Michael. A man, it is truly an honor to call brother,” Zach continued. In his hands, he swung his bow back and forth between his thumb and forefinger.
“Awww, that was lovely,” Beth whispered.
“Wait for it,” Nathan said.
“I have had a gift specially made for you, Michael, so you do not miss out on a second of today’s performance.”
Nathan produced a box. Opening it, Michael pulled out an air horn. Michael lifted it so those behind him could see it. There followed plenty of laughter.
“Thank you, I shall treasure it always,” Michael said with a straight face.
“Right.” Dimity moved to stand before the musicians. “Let’s begin.”
They played the occasional wrong note, but what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm.
“Bonnie has been practicing relentlessly lately. I wondered why,” Michael said, watching his eldest daughter. She had her tongue between her teeth. Her face was screwed up in concentration. It was always a marvel to him when he looked at his children how strong his love was for them. They were an extension of him and Freya.
“Don’t force it into your ear, Heather,” Freya said to her as the little girl attempted to use the air horn.
When the concert finished, the applause was loud and long. Michael went up on stage and thanked everyone, and most especially the musicians.
“I am here because your sister, who happens to be my wife, said if I didn’t play, I would sleep in another bed,” Daniel said.
“I’m here for the cake,” Zach added.
They ate cake and drank champagne and when it was all done, and everyone had gone home. Michael and Freya put their children to bed and then found theirs.
He stripped her clothes off her lovely body, then worshipped every inch of her. Holding her eyes, he then slid deep inside her, taking her in a slow, tantalizing rhythm.
“Do you sometimes wonder what we did to deserve this?” Michael whispered said when after she lay on his chest.
She knew exactly what he meant.
“The love and happiness sometimes chokes you, doesn’t it,” she whispered back. “Our family and friends are all a part of it too.”
“Yes. My brothers I can’t get rid of, but the rest, well they’re just…” His voice fell away as he struggled to find the words.
“Perfect,” Freya whispered.
He couldn’t have worded it any better.