After a slightly early arrival, exacerbated by a postnatal infection, Ruby had spent the first few weeks of her life in an incubator, crying for the mother she would never be able to meet. Catherine had shared with Alexis her theory that the pitiful cries, piled on top of his own grief, had been too much for Raoul to bear. He’d withdrawn from his newborn daughter, leaving her care to his mother-in-law. Catherine had been Ruby’s sole caregiver ever since.
Transplanting her to her father’s house and into the care of someone else would have its challenges. Getting Raoul to acknowledge and interact with his daughter would be the hardest—and the most necessary.
They needed each other, Alexis was certain of that. Even though she could do nothing else for Bree, she’d make sure that Raoul stepped up to his responsibilities to his late wife’s memory and to the child she’d borne him.
* * *
She was here. He’d known that one day she’d come and he’d dreaded every second. Seeing her had cracked open the bubble of isolation he’d built for himself, leaving him feeling raw and exposed. He was unaccustomed to having to share this place with anyone but Bree—or, for the past year, Bree’s memory.
Two years ago, returning with Bree after their marriage to his roots here in Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula of New Zealand’s South Island, had felt natural and right. He’d bought out his father’s boutique vineyard operation, allowing his parents to finally fulfill their lifelong dream of traveling through the wine-growing districts of Europe and South America, and allowing himself to settle in to what he’d seen as an enjoyable new stage in his career.
At the time, it had been a fun and exciting change of pace. Raoul had gone as far as he could go as Nate Hunter-Jackson’s second in charge at Jackson Importers up in Auckland. While he’d loved every minute of the challenges working in the wine purveyance and distribution network built up over two generations, his heart had always been locked in at the source of the wine.
After settling in following the wedding, Raoul had dedicated himself to the vines. Meanwhile, Bree had project managed the building of their new home, seeing to the finishing details even as Ruby’s anticipated arrival had drawn near.
At the start of his marriage, what he did here, wrapped in the science of blending his boutique wines, had been an adventure, almost a game. His work had been filled with the same exuberant hopes for the future as his marriage.
Losing Bree had shaken the ground under his feet, and his work had gone from a pastime to an obsession. Life was filled with twists and turns that were beyond his abilities to predict, but this...this was something he could control. He was working with known quantities, with wines that had been made in the stainless-steel vats behind him from the very grapes grown on vines that snaked down the hillsides to the harbor—terroir that had become as much a part of him as breathing. Work was stable, steadying. And when he’d finished for the day and returned to the house, he could sink back into his memories and his mourning. He’d never shared this home with anyone but Bree—and now he shared it with her ghost.
Alexis’s arrival changed all that. She was so vibrantly alive and in the moment that she made living in the past impossible. Even their brief conversation had been enough to make him feel self-consciously alert, keenly aware of the disheveled appearance he usually couldn’t be bothered to notice.
And aware of her in a way that filled him with shame. He hadn’t been the husband Bree had deserved, not entirely, not when—even though he’d kept it fully under wraps—he’d desired her best friend. Was it infidelity when a person only thought about another? He’d loved Bree, there’d been no doubt about that. Adored her, idolized her. Cherished her. But deep down inside, there’d been a primitive part of him that had craved Alexis Fabrini on a level so base he’d had to jam it down deep inside.
He’d been relieved when he’d heard Alexis had headed overseas—how, after her last contract as a nanny had neared completion, she’d changed career direction and had begun pouring herself into fashion design. Some of Alexis’s designs still hung in Bree’s closet. Bree had been so excited for her, albeit a little hurt and puzzled when Alexis let contact drop between them.
Living with Alexis would be hell. He gave a humorless laugh. What else was new? Just living was hell. Each day a torture. Each day a reminder that he’d failed in that most basic tenet of keeping his wife safe. Of ensuring her needs were put before his own.
He’d never made it a secret that he’d wanted a large family—and because he’d been so outspoken, so determined in his plans for the future she’d felt the need to keep a secret that would have made him change his mind. Given a choice between a family and Bree, he’d have chosen Bree every time. Yet she’d hidden the news about the aneurysm that killed her until it was too late, putting the baby’s life ahead of her own.