“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, that’s all,” he muttered.
“Wrong idea? Oh, like romance and candles?” Alexis laughed. It was a brittle sound that plucked at something deep inside him—made him feel unexpectedly ashamed for putting that sarcasm in her tone. She was the kind of woman who deserved both romance and candles—and more.
There was a cynical twist to her mouth as she continued. “Don’t worry, Raoul. I know where I stand. I don’t care so much for myself, but your withdrawal and your mood this week has been really bad for Ruby. Whether you like it or not, she’s your daughter. When are you going to accept your responsibilities toward her?”
He bristled. “She’s fed, isn’t she? She’s clothed and sheltered. What else does she want?”
“Love. Your love.”
He got up from his chair and pushed a hand through his hair. “She doesn’t need me. She has you, she has Catherine. I make sure she has what she needs, it’s your job to provide it.”
“It’s not enough, Raoul.”
“It has to be. That’s all I have to offer her.”
“Really? You think you know me better than I know myself?”
“I think I know what you’re capable of, and this ice-man act isn’t you. It isn’t the real Raoul Benoit.”
“Oh, and just who is?” he answered scathingly.
She stepped forward until she was directly in front of him—so close he could feel the heat of her body. It was as if his own sought and craved it, as if deep down he longed for her warmth. He pushed the thought away. It would be a cold day in hell before he ever admitted to needing someone again. Alexis held his gaze as she lifted a hand and put it on his chest, over where his heart suddenly did a double beat at her touch.
“He’s the man inside here. The one you won’t let out. I don’t know why you’ve felt the need to lock him away the way you have, but it’s time to let him out. Don’t you think he’s done enough penance now? Don’t you think you deserve to live your life?”
He pushed her hand away but the imprint of it had already seared through his clothes and into his skin. She had that effect on him. She could get beneath the layers and slide deep inside.
“Penance? You think that’s what I’m doing?”
“Sure. What else would you call it? It’s as if you’re punishing yourself for something you had no control over. You didn’t kill Bree. You weren’t responsible for what happened to her.”
He spun away from her, determined to make sure she wouldn’t see the way that the anguish her words had wrought reflected on his face. She was wrong. So very wrong.
“Raoul?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged her off. He didn’t want her touch, her comfort.
“I was responsible,” he said in a dark low voice. “My expectations killed Bree. I failed her.”
“That’s not true.”
“If I hadn’t been so determined to have a family, to fill the rooms of that house up the hill with our kids, she’d still be here today.”
“You can’t know that. Besides, that was her dream, too. In her letter she told me she was prepared to do anything, risk anything, to have a family with you. The aneurysm—”
“She died, Alexis, and it’s all my fault!” he shouted, his words echoing around them.
* * *
Alexis looked at him in shock. He really truly blamed himself for Bree’s death.
“It happened, Raoul. It wasn’t something you or she could control or quantify. Not even the doctors could say if or when the aneurysm could bleed out.”
“I know, it was a time bomb. But you know what the kicker is? I didn’t even know it was there until it ruptured. She never told me about her condition or the risks to it from her pregnancy. She kept it a secret, hiding it away from me. If I’d have known, if I’d have had the slightest inkling that her health would be compromised by her pregnancy, I would have taken steps to make sure it never happened.”
“But that would have been taking her choice to have a family away from her,” Alexis protested. “She wanted your child.”
“I wanted her.”
His voice was bleak, so sad and empty and filled with loss. Alexis didn’t know what to do. What he’d just told her explained so much—his withdrawal from society, his reluctance to have anything to do with Ruby. Which brought her full circle to why she’d come to talk to him today.