“Right,” Alexis agreed numbly.
Happiness. Could she bring that elusive ingredient back into Raoul’s life? While her aim had been to reunite father and daughter, could he find room in his broken heart to consider love again?
She pushed the thought away. If he could accept Ruby into his life, she’d be satisfied. She had no right to hope for anything more.
After everyone had eaten, the group of adults sat around watching their kids at play. Alexis kept her eye on Ruby as she crawled a couple of meters across the grass toward the playground where Laura and some of the other parents had taken their babies for a turn on the swings. The grass would be hell on those pink dungarees, she thought ruefully, but it was good for Ruby to be out in the fresh air and interacting with everyone else. It wouldn’t be long before tiredness would set in—she was already overdue for her nap—but Alexis wanted to prolong the fun for as long as possible.
A cry of anguish from behind her dragged her attention off the little girl, distracting her for the moment it took to return a clearly much-loved piece of tatty muslin to its stroller-bound owner. She turned her eyes back to where Ruby had been, only to feel her stomach drop. She lurched to her feet, her eyes anxiously scanning the crowd for the little splotch of pink. Her feet were already moving, taking her over the grass and toward the playground. Ah, there she was. Relief flooded Alexis with the force of a tidal wave and she covered the short distance between them as quickly as she could.
Ruby sat on her little padded butt, chewing on something she’d picked up from the ground. A small stick by the looks of it, Alexis thought as she reached her.
“What’s that she’s got?”
Raoul appeared beside them to stand over his daughter, an expression of distaste on his face as he reached down and extricated the twig from Ruby’s fingers. The baby voiced her disagreement with his action, loudly.
“I thought you were supposed to be watching her,” he accused, holding the stick out for Alexis to see it.
“I was. I—”
“Not closely enough, it seems. God only knows what else she could have picked up and put in her mouth while you weren’t looking.”
“Raoul, you’re overreacting. It’s just a twig, and off a nontoxic plant at that. Babies learn by putting things in their mouths. Don’t worry, she’s fine.”
“And if it had been a toxic plant? Or if she’d toppled over and the stick had gone into her throat? What then? Would she learn that you can die from something like that?”
There was a note of harsh censure to his voice that made her blood run cold in her veins. She should have kept a closer eye on Ruby, she knew that. It still hurt to hear Raoul speak that way to her. She reached down and gathered the little girl close to her, taking comfort from Ruby’s closeness as she soothed the baby’s cries, rubbing her back and automatically rocking gently from one foot to the other until she settled. Raoul threw the offending twig onto the ground with a sound of disgust.
“I knew this was a mistake. We’re leaving now,” he said, and turned on his heel to stride away before Alexis could answer.
“Are you okay?” Laura said as she came up beside Alexis. “I don’t mean to pry but I couldn’t help overhearing. Protective, much?”
“Yeah, he’s right, though. I should have been keeping a closer eye on Ruby.”
“He’s paranoid about losing her, isn’t he? I mean, we’re all a bit off the scale when it comes to our own kids, but with him it’s more, isn’t it?”
Alexis sighed as she watched Raoul say goodbye to his buddies and then gather their picnic bag and Ruby’s diaper bag together. His movements were short and jerky, a clear indication of his foul temper.
“Yeah, it’s definitely more.”
“He’ll come around. Y’know, we all thought that maybe he didn’t, or couldn’t, love Ruby after Bree died. That maybe he blamed her somehow. But after seeing that, I think he possibly loves her too much—that he’s afraid he’ll lose her, too.”
“I was thinking the same,” Alexis agreed. “Hey, thanks for asking us along today. Sorry it kind of ended on a sour note.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re just glad you managed to talk him into coming. Maybe we can all get together again sometime soon.”
Alexis gave her a thin smile and said her goodbyes to the others before joining Raoul over by the picnic table where he waited with ill-concealed impatience.