Ruby picked up on her change of mood and gave a little whimper.
Chickening out? He instinctively bristled, programmed to instantly deny her accusation, but he had to admit she was right about him not wanting to go. If she insisted on putting it that way then sure, he was chickening out. Personally, he preferred to think of it as more of a strategic avoidance of a situation that would only bring him pain. Only a fool sought pain at every juncture, right?
“No, I don’t.”
“Fine,” Alexis said with a sigh. “We’ll go on our own. I just thought you were a better man than that.”
“Better man? What do you mean?” he retorted, his pride pricked by her words.
“Well, I know you’ve been busily wallowing in your solitary world for at least nine months now, but you weren’t the only person to lose Bree. I’m sorry to be this blunt, but you have to remember, all your friends lost her, too, and it was a double whammy for them when you shut them all out at the same time. I know they miss you and they’re your friends, too, Raoul.”
He let his voice trail off. He wanted to refute what she’d said but he knew she told the truth. He had cut all ties deliberately. At the time, he hadn’t wanted platitudes or sympathy or help, particularly from people who would advise him to “move on” or “embrace life again” when he had just wanted to be left alone with his memories and his regrets. And that hadn’t changed.
Or had it? He missed the camaraderie of his mates—the beers and insults shared over a game of rugby, the discussion between fellow wine enthusiasts over one varietal trend or another. But he wasn’t ready to get back out there, to reconnect with people...was he?
The idea was pretty terrifying. He’d been insular for so long now. Even if he could muster the energy to try, would his old friends even want to talk to him again? He had been outright rude on occasions. When he’d surfaced from abject grief he’d been filled with resentment instead, especially that their lives could go on unsullied while his had fallen into an abyss. And once he’d fallen, it had become easier to remain deep down inside the abyss rather than to claw his way back out and into the light.
Clearly Alexis had had enough of his excuses because she picked up the picnic bag she’d obviously packed earlier and headed to the door. He stood there, frozen to the spot as she blithely walked away.
The sound was more of a croak than a word. She stopped in her tracks and half turned toward him.
“We’ll take the Range Rover,” he said, stepping forward and reaching to take the picnic bag from her.
The bag was heavy and made him realize just how strong she was. She’d already shouldered the baby’s diaper bag as well, and had Ruby on her hip. It seemed to simply be Alexis’s way. To do whatever needed to be done—to bear whatever burden had to be borne without resentment or complaint. He almost envied her the simplicity of that.
“Thanks, I’ll transfer Ruby’s seat over from mine.”
“No, it’s okay. There’s a spare still in its box in the garage. I’ll get that.”
Alexis gave him a nod of acceptance and he was grateful she’d said nothing about his change of mind.
Twenty minutes later, as they approached the picnic area at the local beach, he felt his stomach clench into a knot and a cold wash of fear rushed through his veins. He started as Alexis laid her hand on his forearm.
“It’ll be okay, Raoul, I promise. They won’t bite. They’re your friends, and they understand how hard this is for you.”
Understand? He doubted it but he forced his thoughts away from Bree and to the here and now. To the vista before him, peppered with people he knew. People who knew him. And then, to the woman who sat beside him in the passenger’s seat. The woman whose hand still rested warmly on his arm. A woman who’d put her own life and, he knew, her career on hold so she could look after Bree’s daughter.
His gaze flicked to the rearview mirror. His daughter.
The sensation in his gut wound up another notch and he hissed out a breath.
“C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
He pushed open his door and turned away from Alexis, letting her hand drop. He stalked around to the back of his SUV and lifted the hatch, purposefully grabbing the diaper bag and the picnic bag out before lifting out the stroller. He tugged at the handles to try to unfold the thing but it remained solidly shut.
“I’ll do that if you like,” Alexis said, coming around the car with Ruby.