* * *
Over the next few days Raoul remained pretty scarce, which served as a source of major frustration. Alexis wanted to gently include him in more of Ruby’s routine here and there, but he always managed to duck away before she had a chance. On the bright side, the brief interaction Ruby had shared with her father seemed to have piqued her curiosity about the stern-faced man who hung around the fringes of her little world. Instead of crying every time she saw him she was more inclined to drop everything and barrel forward on all fours toward him if he so much as made a step into her periphery.
It was both highly amusing to see him realize that Ruby had fixated on him, and a bit sad, as well, that he distanced himself from her again so effectively afterward.
One step forward at a time, Alexis reminded herself. She and Ruby fell into an easy daily routine, helped in no small part by the fact that Catherine had enrolled the baby into a playgroup down in town where she happily interacted with other children her age and slightly older. It was good for both of them to get out of the house and interact with other people. Despite having been born a little early, Ruby was only marginally behind her peers when it came to developmental markers, Alexis observed.
One of the young mothers came over to Alexis and sat down beside her.
“Hi, I’m Laura,” she said with a bright smile. “That’s my little tyke, Jason, over there.” She pointed to a little boy in denim jeans and brightly colored suspenders busily commando crawling toward the sandpit.
“Alexis, pleased to meet you,” Alexis replied with a smile.
“Have you heard how Catherine is doing? We all have been wondering but didn’t want to be a nuisance.”
“The surgery went well. She’s at her sister’s home in Cashmere, recuperating. If you’re heading into Christchurch at all, I’m sure she’d love it if you called by to visit.”
“Oh, thanks, that’s good to know.”
Laura sat back and watched the kids playing for a while. Alexis sensed she was trying to drum up the courage to say something but was perhaps figuring out the best way around it. Eventually, though, she seemed to come to a decision.
“We were surprised when we heard that Ruby was staying with her dad. Especially given...” Her voice trailed off and she looked uncomfortable. “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m prying but is everything okay at the house? We were, most of us, friends with Bree during our pregnancies and our partners and Raoul all got along pretty well. We had our own little social group going. Aside from missing Bree, we really miss Raoul, too. All the guys have tried to reach out to him since Bree died, but he’s just cut ties with everyone.”
Alexis nodded. It was hard to come up with what to say, when it wasn’t really her place to say anything.
“Things are going well at the house. We’ve settled in to a good routine,” she hedged.
The fact that routine didn’t include Ruby’s father went unsaid. Raoul continued to spend the better part of most days in the winery. He’d made his displeasure clear on the few occasions when, at the beginning, Alexis and Ruby had walked down to bring him his lunch.
“Oh, oh, that’s good,” Laura said with a relieved smile. “Better than I expected to hear, anyway. You were friends with Bree, weren’t you?”
“Since kindergarten,” Alexis said, swallowing against the bitter taste of guilt that rose in her throat. “We went through school together near Blenheim and kind of drifted apart a bit when she went up to Auckland for university. We used to catch up whenever she was home, though, and stayed in touch until she married and I went overseas.”
Even as she said the words, she was reminded again of how she’d jumped on the opportunity to leave the country rather than remain and witness her friend’s happiness. Shame shafted a spear through her chest, making her breath hitch and a sudden wash of tears spring to her eyes.
“We all miss her so much,” Laura said, misunderstanding the reason behind Alexis’s distress.
Laura reached for her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Alexis felt like a fraud accepting the other woman’s sympathy. She hardly deserved it when she’d been the one to abandon Bree. She hadn’t been here, hadn’t even known what was going on, when her friend had needed her most—and all because she hadn’t been able to keep her wretched hormones under control. She owed Bree a debt. It was why she was here now, and why she would stay as long as Ruby needed her, no matter what Raoul chose to throw at her.