* * *
A weariness that can only come from long-distance driving pulled at his muscles as he drove slowly along the road Catherine had given him as Alexis’s address. She’d warned him the driveway was hard to find and she hadn’t been wrong; he was almost past the shrub-surrounded entrance before he realized it. Braking heavily, he turned off the road and into the driveway.
His heart began to hammer in his chest and nerves clutched at his stomach. Should he have called ahead? What if she refused to see him?
“A fine time to be thinking about this now,” he said under his breath as he traveled up the lane and pulled to a halt outside a quaint turn-of-the-twentieth-century cottage. The skies opened as Raoul got out of the car, releasing a deluge of bone-chilling rain that forced him to run toward the wide covered veranda out front.
Even though he’d run, he was wet through when he got to the front door. He dragged a hand through his hair, skimming off the excess of water that threatened to drip in his eyes and down his face. He caught sight of his reflection in one of the front windows. Drowned rat. Not exactly the best foot to be putting forward when hoping to appeal to the woman you loved, he thought. Still, there was nothing else for it but to push forward.
He stepped up to the door and knocked. Inside, he heard steps coming toward him and he braced himself, both fearing seeing Alexis again and yet yearning for her so strongly that it was almost his undoing. His throat clogged with all the words he wanted to say but he was forced to swallow them back as the door swung open to reveal an older man with gray hair and the type of tan and deep lines on his face that spoke of a lifetime in the outdoors.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked in lightly accented English.
“I was wondering if Alexis was home,” Raoul said awkwardly.
In all the ways he’d imagined this, he hadn’t pictured seeing her father first. He felt about as nervous as he had as a teenager going to pick up his new girlfriend on their first date.
“I am her father, Lorenzo Fabrini,” the man said, his dark eyes full of questions as they narrowed at him from under grizzled brows.
“Raoul Benoit,” Raoul said, putting his hand out in greeting.
Alexis’s father flatly ignored it and Raoul let his hand drop. His stomach clenched up another notch. This was not going well.
“So, now you come to see my daughter?”
“Mr. Fabrini, I apologize it’s taken me this long, but yes. May I see her?”
The older man shook his head. “That is not up to me. If it were up to me you’d be back on the road and back to your miserable existence, where you belong.”
He was right. Raoul’s existence had been miserable—until Alexis had come along. And even then he’d been too trapped in his cycle of unhappiness to see how much better his life was with her in it.
“Please, sir, I beg of you. I know I was wrong, I know I hurt her badly—”
“Hurt her?” Anger flashed in Lorenzo’s eyes. Eyes that reminded Raoul so much of Alexis. “You didn’t just hurt her. You broke her. When she left here she was full of hope, full of purpose. When she returned she was empty, dead inside. Destroyed by you!”
He punctuated the air with his finger, making his point and with it, making Raoul awfully glad Lorenzo hadn’t answered the door with a shotgun in his hand.
“I was wrong.”
“Wrong! Pah! Wrong is denying your child your time and affection. Wrong is taking my daughter’s love for you and belittling its worth. Wrong is using her for your own satisfaction and then sending her away when things got too hard. You call yourself a man?” Lorenzo muttered a curse in Italian. “I call you a worm. You’re a disgrace.”
“I know, you’re not telling me anything I haven’t learned already. I’m deeply ashamed of what I’ve done, of how I’ve hurt Alexis. Please, let me talk to her. Let me explain—”
“No, let me explain,” Lorenzo interrupted, his finger once again pointing in Raoul’s direction. “I am a humble man, a man who has worked hard all his life. I didn’t finish school, I don’t have all the fancy letters after my name that you all find so important these days. But I know what is important—that above all else, you honor life, you honor family, you honor love—and most of all, you honor the woman who brings them all into your life. You don’t hide from her like a sniveling child.”
“Sir, I respect how you feel, and I agree. I’m sorry for hurting her, truly sorry.”