Laura continued on. “Look, weather permitting, the playgroup is having a family lunch at the beach this Sunday afternoon. We’re not planning to swim or anything, it’s far too cold already this autumn, but there are barbecues and a playground and tables and it’s so much easier to clean up afterward with the little ones. You and Ruby should come. And bring Raoul along, too, it’ll do him good to mix with his mates again.”
“I—I’m not sure. Can I confirm with you later on?”
It was one thing to accept an invitation for herself and Ruby, but quite another to do so for a man who’d clearly chosen to remove himself from his social circle.
“Sure,” Laura said with an enthusiastic smile. She gave Alexis her cell number. “Just fire me a text if you’re coming.”
When Alexis got back home, Ruby was already asleep in her car seat. She carefully lifted the sleeping infant and transferred her into her crib, taking a moment to watch her. Her heart broke for the wee thing. No mother, barely a father, either. Alexis’s hands gripped the side rail of the crib, her knuckles whitening. She had to try harder. Somehow, she had to get Raoul to open his life, to open his heart again. If she didn’t she would have failed everyone, but most of all this precious wee scrap sleeping so innocently in front of her.
Sunday dawned bright and clear. Raoul eyed the cloudless sky with a scowl. He’d been adamantly opposed to attending this thing today. Adamantly. Yet Alexis had barreled on as if he hadn’t said no. In fact, when he thought about it, she hadn’t so much asked him if he would go along, she pretty much told him he was going.
For a fleeting moment he considered disappearing to the winery, or even farther into his vineyards. Not that there’d be many places to hide there as the vines headed into their seasonal slumber, the leaves already turning and falling away. It was a shame it was still too early to start pruning. He could have lied and said that the work absolutely had to be done and right away, but he knew Alexis had grown up on a vineyard, too. She’d have known he wasn’t telling the truth the instant he opened his mouth.
His stomach tied in knots. He really couldn’t do this. Couldn’t face the well-meaning looks and the sympathetic phrases people trotted out—as if any of it would change the past. And he really didn’t need to be within fifty meters of Alexis Fabrini for the better part of an afternoon.
Each day she was here he was reminded anew of how his body had reacted to her ever since the first time he’d seen her. About how his wife might now be dead and gone but his own needs and desires certainly weren’t. After losing Bree, he’d believed that part of himself to be dormant to the point of extinction, until the second Alexis had walked into his winery. The discovery that all his body parts still worked just fine was a major, and often uncomfortable, inconvenience.
“Oh, good, you’re ready!”
Alexis’s ever-cheerful voice came from behind him. Instantly, every cell in his body leaped to aching life. Since that incident in the nursery the other day, he’d struggled to maintain a semblance of physical control. Even now the vision of her long legs and the curve of her pert bottom filled his mind. He slowly turned around.
Ruby was in Alexis’s arms. Dressed in pink denim dungarees with a candy-striped long-sleeve knit shirt underneath and with a pale pink beret on her little head, she was the epitome of baby chic. She ducked her head into the curve of Alexis’s neck, then shyly looked back at him, a tentative smile curving her rosebud mouth and exposing the tiny teeth she had in front.
His heart gave an uncomfortable tug. God, she was so beautiful, so like her mother. Ruby’s smile widened and he felt his own mouth twist in response before he clamped it back into a straight line once more.
“Should we take your car or mine?” Alexis asked breezily.
His eyes whipped up to her face. She looked slightly smug, as if she’d just achieved some personal goal.
“I—I’m not sure if I’m going—I need to check something in the winery,” he hedged. “How about you go ahead and I’ll join you later in my own car if I have time.”
Alexis’s lips firmed and he saw the disappointment mixed with determination in her eyes. Eyes that reminded him of melted dark chocolate, complete with all the decadence and promise that brought with it.
“You’re chickening out, aren’t you?” she said, her voice flat. “You don’t want to go.”