“I didn’t want to be vulnerable again. When Bree died it hurt so much. It left me feeling so empty inside that every breath was agony. The idea of loving anyone again scared me into telling myself I couldn’t love again—that I didn’t deserve to.”
“Everyone deserves love,” Alexis said softly.
“I know that now.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “For so long I was angry—felt so helpless. I hated having choice taken from me the way Bree did when she didn’t tell me about her aneurysm. I’ll never know whether, knowing the risks, she believed she’d get through Ruby’s birth okay or whether she had some kind of premonition that she’d die and thought it would be worth it regardless, but either way she made choices that should have involved me and instead she shut me out. Doing that went against everything we’d promised one another, and if I couldn’t trust her anymore, how could I trust anyone?”
Raoul leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and lifted one hand to his face, rubbing at his eyes.
“When Ruby was born I was too afraid to let myself love her. At first she was so ill that the doctors said her survival was touch and go, especially in the first few days. Even after she battled past that, I wouldn’t let myself feel anything for her. She was so vulnerable, so dependent. I knew nothing about babies, nothing about being a father. We were supposed to have done all that together, Bree and me. The very idea of taking Ruby home and caring for her, alone, made me sick with fear.”
“You would have had Catherine, your friends, your extended family,” Alexis reminded him.
“I know that now, but I couldn’t think rationally then. And there was something else, too.” He made a sound of disgust. “I resented her. Can you believe it? I resented my tiny newborn daughter because her mother had chosen Ruby’s life over her own. Rather than see her birth as a gift, I saw it only as a burden. So, instead of stepping up to my responsibilities I ignored them. I let Catherine take over Ruby’s care, telling myself it was okay because I was grieving. But then it became easier to simply let things keep on going the way they always had. The more distance I had from Ruby, the closer she grew to her grandmother, the less I needed to worry that I might have to assume my obligations toward her as her father, any opportunities to fail her, hurt her or lose her.”
“Ruby’s lucky to have Catherine in her life,” Alexis said, not minimizing in any way Raoul’s desertion of his daughter. “She could have done worse.”
“Yeah, she could have been forced to spend all of her first nine months with a father who saw her as a constant reminder of his failures as a husband and as a father. Every minute I spent with her, and Catherine would insist on bringing her around from time to time, she just forced me to remember that my big dreams for a family had taken her mother from us both. That, ultimately, I was responsible for everything that happened.”
Alexis shook her head. “You’re taking rather a lot on yourself. You weren’t the only one involved here.”
“It seemed like it at the time. Unreasonable, I know. Self-centered, definitely. I put myself in a loop where every day would be the same with work as my panacea, my catharsis. Even so, until you arrived, I was just going through the motions. Living only half a life.”
“Until I arrived?”
“You made me remember what happened the first time I saw you, the way you made me feel. For months I’d imprisoned anything remotely like sensation. I thought I’d finally purged that from my existence, and then, there you were. A golden light just pulsing with warmth. And you wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Alexis frowned, remembering their meeting when she arrived at the winery. “The first time you saw me...you mean back in April?”
“No, I mean the very first time. There were sparks between us the day that we met, when Bree introduced us. I know you felt them, too. It’s why you pulled away from Bree, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
Alexis closed her eyes in shame. He’d seen the way she’d felt about him even then? Did that mean Bree had seen it, too?
“I loved my wife, but for some reason I couldn’t help but be attracted to you, too. When you came back, that all came rushing back with you. It left me not only hating that you’d roused emotions from deep inside of me again but also hating myself for what I saw as a betrayal of Bree.”
His voice cracked on his words, making Alexis’s heart squeeze in empathy. She searched in vain for the right words to say. Raoul turned to her, his face a tortured mask of pain.