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Alexis watched him from the doorway to the winery. Late afternoon sun slanted through the windows at the end of the room, illuminating tiny dust motes that floated on air redolent with the scent of fermented grapes. But she was oblivious to the artistic beauty of the setting- her focus solely on the man who worked on, unaware of her presence.
He'd changed. God, how he'd changed. He was thinner, gaunt even, and his signature well-groomed appearance had given way to a self-executed haircut, a stretched and faded T-shirt and torn jeans. His face obviously hadn't seen a razor in several days. But then grief was bound to do that to a man-to diminish the importance of the everyday tasks he'd done automatically and replace them with indifference.
How could she help a man who was clearly long past any interest in helping himself?
The weight of what she'd agreed to do felt heavy and uncomfortable on her shoulders. She, the one who always willingly stepped up to the plate when everything went pear-shaped, was now thinking that perhaps this time she'd bitten off more than she could chew.
Straightening her shoulders, she shook off her doubts. Bree had turned to her in her time of need-had written a letter that begged Alexis to take care of her husband and the child she'd been on the verge of delivering should something happen to her, as if she'd known what lay ahead. While her best friend had died before Alexis could give her that promise, in her heart she knew she couldn't refuse-couldn't walk away. Even if keeping that promise meant putting her heart back in firing range from the man she'd been magnetically drawn to from the moment she'd first met him.
Raoul stilled in his actions. His attention shifted from the table of wine samples before him, his pen dropping from his hand to the clipboard covered in hand-scrawled notes that lay on the stark white tablecloth. He lifted his head and turned toward her, his face registering a brief flash of surprise together with something else she couldn't quite put her finger on. It was gone in an instant, replaced by a tight mask of aloofness.
"Alexis," he said, accompanied by a tight nod.
"I came as soon as I heard. I'm sorry it took so long. I.. " Her voice trailed away. How did you tell a man that it had taken almost a year to hear about the birth of his daughter and the death of the love of his life because you'd severed ties with his wife, your best friend since kindergarten, when it became too painful to see her happiness with him? That you'd "forgotten" to give her your new email address or the number to the cell phone you bought when your work started requiring more international travel because you couldn't bear to hear any more about how perfect they were together? Because you had coveted him for yourself? Because you still did.
She took a deep breath and swallowed against the lump of raw grief that swelled in her throat.
"I've been traveling for a while, ever since my business " The words died at the expression on his face. Clearly Raoul could not care less about the success she'd been enjoying ever since her clothing line finally started taking off. "Bree's letter caught up with me at my father's house. It must have been following me around the world for the past year."
"To tell me about her pregnancy."
Should she tell him also that Bree had begged her to watch out for her husband and her, at that time, as yet unborn child? That she'd somehow known that the aortic aneurysm she'd kept secret from her family would take her life in childbirth? One look at his face confirmed he hadn't known of his wife's correspondence to her.
"So, you're back."
Finally. The unspoken word hung on the air between them, both an accusation and an acknowledgment at the same time.
"My mother was ill. I made it back a few weeks before she died at Christmas."
The platitude fell automatically from his lips but she sensed his shields go up even stronger. He didn't want to know, not really. Not when he was still locked tight in his own sorrow, his own grief.
"I only got Bree's letter last week and rang her mom straightaway. I'm here to help with Ruby."
"The child already has a carer, her grandmother."
"Yes, but Catherine needs surgery, Raoul. She can't keep putting her knee replacement off, especially now that Ruby is getting more active."
"I told her to find a nanny if she needed to."
"And I understand you rejected every résumé she presented to you. That you wouldn't even agree to interview any of the applicants."
He shrugged. "They weren't good enough."
Alexis felt her temper begin to rise. Catherine had been beside herself with worry over what to do. The osteoarthritis in her knee caused constant pain and made looking after a small child more difficult every day. She needed the surgery as soon as possible, but that meant Ruby absolutely had to have a new caretaker. By refusing to look at the résumés, Raoul was ignoring his responsibilities-to his daughter, to her grandmother and to Bree's memory. He looked at her again, harder this time. What on earth was going on behind those hazel eyes of his?
"And what about me? Am I good enough?"
"No," he answered emphatically. "Definitely not."
She pushed aside the hurt his blunt refusal triggered.
"Why? You know I'm qualified-I have experience caring for little ones."
"You're a dressmaker now, though, aren't you? Hardly what the child needs."
Wow, he was really on form with the insults, wasn't he, she thought. Dressmaker? Well, yes, she still made some of her signature designs but for the most part she outsourced the work now. She'd trained as a nanny when she'd left school, and had completed a full year intensive academic and practical experience program because her parents had been opposed to her trying to make a career following her artistic talent alone. But three years ago, when her last contract had finished, she'd realized it was time to follow her dream. That dream was now coming to fruition with her clothing label being distributed to highend boutiques around the country and in various hot spots around the world. But Raoul didn't care about any of that.
"I've arranged cover for my business," she said, sending a silent prayer of thanks to her half sister, Tamsyn, for stepping into the breach. "Catherine's already hired me, Raoul."
"I'm unhiring you."
Alexis sighed. Bree's mom had said he might be difficult. She hadn't been kidding.
"Don't you think it's better that Ruby be cared for by someone who knew her mother, who knows her family, rather than by a total stranger?"
"I don't care."
His words struck at her heart but she knew them for a lie. The truth was he cared too much.
"Catherine is packing Ruby's things up now and bringing them over. She thought it best if she settled here from tonight rather than having me pick up Ruby in the morning."
Raoul's face visibly paled. "I said no, dammit! No to you as her nanny, and definitely no to either of you living here."
"Her surgery is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Ruby can't stay at her grandmother's house any longer. She needs to be home, with you."
Raoul pushed shaking fingers through hair cut close to his scalp-shorter than she'd ever seen it before. His hand dropped back down again and she watched as he gathered himself together, his fingers curling into tight fists as if he was holding on by a thread.
"Just keep her away from me."
Alexis blinked in shock. Catherine had said Raoul had little to do with his nine-month-old daughter aside from meeting the financial requirements of her care. But despite the warning, Alexis couldn't come to terms with what she'd been told. Ruby had been born out of love between two wonderful people who'd had the world at their feet when they'd married only two and a half years ago. She'd attended their wedding herself. Seen with her own eyes how much they'd adored one another and, to her shame, had been stricken with envy. That Raoul virtually ignored Ruby's existence was so terribly sad. Did he blame the little girl for her mother's death? Or could he just not bear the constant reminder of how he had lost the love he and Bree had shared?
Alexis forced herself to nod in response to his demand and started back up the unsealed lane from the winery toward the house-a large multiroomed masterpiece that sprawled across the top of the hill. Catherine had already given her a key along with a hefty supply of groceries and baby products. She'd need to put everything away before Catherine arrived with Ruby.
Ruby. A sharp pain lanced through her when she thought of the baby's cherubic face. A happy, healthy and contented child, she was obviously closely bonded with Bree's mom. To look at her, one would never guess that she had faced so much trouble in her short life.
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 care-giver 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 Fab-rini 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.
Ruby. He could barely think about her without being reminded of failure yet again. Drowning in his own grief, he hadn't been able to bear the weak sound of her cries- or the bone-deep certainty that he would lose her, too. She'd been so ill at birth It was better this way, he'd decided. To keep his distance and not risk the pain that would come if he got too used to having her in his life.
Raoul turned back to the table, to the wines he'd been sampling and assessing for what was his favorite part of wine production-the blending. He forced himself to settle back down in his chair, to study his notes and then to reach for another glass of wine.
Sour. He grimaced and took a sip of water, rinsing the bitter tang from his mouth before reaching for another glass. Again, sour. He threw himself against the back of his chair in disgust. He knew the flavor of the wine had little to do with his skills as a vintner and far more to do with his current state of mind. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, his working day was over-which left, what exactly? Time to go up to the house to reminisce about old times with Alexis?
His gut twisted at the very thought. Even so, he pushed himself upright and cleared away his work, neatly filing away his notes for tomorrow and rinsing out all the glasses, leaving them to drain on the rack before he started up the lane.