She pushed the baby at him, much like she’d done the other day. Stiffly, he accepted the child’s weight into his arms. Ruby looked at him with solemn blue eyes and then reached up to pat him gently on the cheek. Alexis had the stroller up in two seconds flat and she put the diaper bag in the basket on the underside before placing the picnic bag in the seat.
“Shouldn’t she go there?” Raoul asked.
“Nope, she’s fine right where she is. Aren’t you, precious?”
She reached out to tickle Ruby under her chin and was rewarded with a little chuckle. The delightful sound made Raoul’s heart do a flip-flop in his chest and ignited an ember of warmth deep inside. He rapidly quashed the sensation. He couldn’t afford to soften, it just laid you open to so much pain. He wasn’t going there again. Not ever.
“No,” he said emphatically, reaching for the picnic bag and putting it on the ground before buckling Ruby firmly into her stroller. “She’s safer here,” he said, once he was satisfied she was secure.
“She was fine with you, you know, Raoul.”
“I know what you’re trying to do, Alexis. It’s not going to happen. You can’t make me fit into the mold you want to squeeze me into.”
Heat flashed in her eyes and her lips drew into a straight line. Something he’d noticed she did whenever she was annoyed with him—which was pretty darn often come to think of it.
“Is that what you think I’m trying to do? Squeeze you into a mold? For what it’s worth, I’m not attempting to do any such thing. You’re Ruby’s father and it’s about time you stepped up to your responsibilities.” She softened her tone slightly as she continued. “Look, I know you miss Bree, I know how much you loved her. But rejecting your child isn’t going to bring Bree back. If anything it’s only pushing her memory further away.”
The permanent ache that resided deep within him grew stronger and he dragged in a breath.
“I’m dealing with this the only way I know how. The only way I can,” he said quietly. “Just leave me be, okay?”
With that he picked up the picnic bag and walked toward the gathering group. This was hard enough as it was without fighting with Alexis every step of the way at the same time. Deep down he knew she had a point. Bree wouldn’t have wanted this, wouldn’t have been happy that he’d left Ruby with Catherine. After the amount of time the baby had spent in hospital, he was terrified to even hold her and it had seemed that Catherine needed her daughter’s baby about as much as Ruby had needed a confident and loving touch. It had appeared to be the best choice for everyone for him to withdraw, to confine his contact with his daughter to financially providing for her care. After all, what did he know about babies? What if he did something wrong or missed some vital clue that could lead to illness or, even worse, death? Wasn’t it better for him to take the time to mourn in his own way, safely alone where there was no one he could hurt—and no one who could hurt him?
Better or not, Alexis was dragging him out of the dark, and he wasn’t happy about it. Her presence alone had been enough to spark a part of him to life he’d thought would be dead and gone forever. Basic human instinct, human need, had unfurled from where he’d locked it down, hard. She had a way about her—a warmth, a casual touch here and there—that had begun to thaw out the emotions he’d denied himself and that he knew he no longer deserved.
Emotions were messy things. They insidiously wrapped themselves around your mind and your heart and then when everything went to hell in a handbasket they squeezed so tight you could barely draw breath. He wasn’t ready to risk that again. Not for anyone. The pain of loss was just too much. It was much easier to simply lock it all out, to prevent it happening.
He lifted a hand in greeting as one of the guys over by the barbecue area shouted a hello and began to walk toward him. Raoul steeled himself for what he anticipated would be an awkward reunion , but to his surprise he found himself relaxing under the onslaught of his friend’s warm and simple greeting.
“Good to see you, mate,” his friend Matt said, clapping his back in a man hug. “We’ve missed you.”
Raoul murmured something appropriate in response and accepted the icy bottle of beer being thrust in his hand. Before long others joined them and, to his immense relief, no one mentioned Bree or his absence from their circle over the past nine months. He was just beginning to relax when one of the guys gestured over to where Alexis was sitting with the other women and the little ones.