He took one step back, then another. No, he couldn’t feel this way. He couldn’t afford to love and lose another person the way he’d lost Bree. Ruby was still small, so much could go wrong. He forced himself to ignore the tug in his chest and the emptiness in his arms and dragged his gaze from the little girl now staring back at him, wide-eyed as she bent her head into Alexis’s chest, the fingers of one hand twirling in Alexis’s shoulder-length honey-blond hair.
“Are you absolutely certain she’s all right?” he asked gruffly.
Alexis smiled. “Of course, she’s fine, although she might be a bit cranky later this morning and need a longer nap than normal thanks to this early start today.”
“Don’t hesitate to take her to the doctor if you’re worried.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
Her voice softened and his eyes caught with hers. Was it pity he saw there reflected in their dark brown depths? He felt his defenses fly back up around him. He needed no one’s pity. Not for anything. He was doing just fine by himself, thank you very much. And that was just the way he preferred it.
Except he wasn’t by himself anymore, was he? He had Ruby and Alexis to contend with, and goodness only knew they both affected him on entirely different levels. Feeling overwhelmed he turned around and strode from the room, determined to keep as much distance between himself and them as possible.
* * *
Alexis watched him go, unable to stop herself from enjoying the view, finally letting out a sigh and turning away when he hitched up his pajama bottoms before they dipped any lower. He’d always been a beautiful man and it had almost hurt her eyes to see him nearly naked like that. His weight loss had only given his muscled strength more definition, particularly the long lean line that ran from his hip down under the waistband of his pants. Oh, yes, he still pinged every single one of her feminine receptors—big time.
She’d been glad for the distraction of settling Ruby or she might have done something stupid—like reach out and touch him. She might have followed that line to see what lay beneath it. To see whether she’d imagined his reaction to her own body before he’d so valiantly controlled it back into submission. Her mouth dried and her fingertips tingled at the thought. She closed her eyes briefly in an attempt to force the visual memory of him from her mind but it only served to imprint him even deeper.
No, acting on her ridiculous impulses would only complicate things beyond control. Her attraction to him was just as pointless as it had always been, and dwelling on it wouldn’t do either one of them any good. She was here to do a job and she was doing it well—no matter how often he’d already managed to suggest otherwise in the short time she’d been here.
She’d taken a risk making him hold Ruby like that but it had given her the answer to a question she’d been asking herself all week. And just as she’d suspected, big, strong, successful Raoul Benoit was scared. Terrified, to be exact. Not so much of his own daughter—although, there was something of that, too—but for her.
Alexis hummed as she collected a few toys for Ruby to play with while she took the baby to her room so she could get dressed for the day. As she did so, her mind turned over her discovery. It all began to make sense. His reluctance to be in the same room as Ruby, to hold her or to interact with her in any way. His near obsession with her safety. Obviously he’d felt she was secure in her grandmother’s care, somewhere where he could ensure she was out of sight and out of mind. Someone else’s problem.
But when she was close enough for him to hear her cries, all his fears took over. His instincts as a father had clearly propelled him into Ruby’s room when she had woken this morning, but once there he had hardly any idea of what to do with them. She could help with that, could teach him—if he’d let her.
“Bree, it’s going to be a hard road getting him back but I think we’ve made the first step,” she said out loud to the photo of her friend that she’d put on the bedside table in her room.
Warmth bloomed in her chest and it was almost as if she felt her friend’s approval slide through her before disappearing again. Dismissing the thought as being fanciful, Alexis quickly dressed for the day and scooped Ruby back up off the floor.
“C’mon, munchkin. Let’s go find us some breakfast!”
She spun around, the movement making Ruby chuckle in delight. Yes, everything was going to be all right. She just had to keep believing it was possible.