“Why not?” Alexis asked, feeling her joy at seeing them together dim a little at his lack of pleasure in Ruby’s behavior. “You are her father and she ought to know that, don’t you think?”
“It would be no different if she called me Raoul. She only mimics what she hears you say,” he said repressively.
Provoked, Alexis returned with, “I prefer to think she knows you are her dad. I think she deserves that, don’t you? Or would you rather she grow up calling you Raoul? As if you were some stranger who just happened to live alongside her?”
He waited until Ruby was closer to Alexis before extricating his fingers from the baby’s clutches. Beaming a toothy smile, Ruby continued to take steps unaided. Alexis opened her arms and Ruby walked straight into them.
“Look at you, you clever girl!” she laughed as she hugged the child and smothered her neck with kisses, eliciting yet more baby giggles. “I’m seriously going to have to keep my eye on you now, aren’t I?”
She looked up and caught the expression in Raoul’s eye. Was that longing she saw there? Did he wish he could express the same spontaneous love for his daughter that she did? Alexis gave Ruby another cuddle before setting her loose. Bit by bit she felt as if she was beginning to break through the shell he’d built around himself when it came to Ruby. The thought brought her to an idea that she wanted to suggest to Raoul.
Drawing on a liberal dose of courage, and buoyed by the fact that he’d stayed in the room rather than withdrawing again quickly as he was in the habit of doing, she launched into speech.
“Raoul, I’ve been thinking. Catherine is due home this weekend and I thought since it also ties in with Bree’s birthday, the first time dealing with that date for both of you since she’s gone, that it might be nice to have a bit of a get-together here—you know, invite a few of your friends, make it a potluck dinner kind of thing. I think it would be nice—partly to celebrate Catherine’s recovery to date and partly to remember Bree.”
“I don’t need a gathering to remember her. It’s not a good idea.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” she said, dragging in another deep breath and refusing to be cowed by his rejection, “which is why I kind of went ahead and organized it anyway. Catherine was really eager to participate and she’s just aching to see Ruby again, and Laura and Matt and the others were equally keen.”
“You had no right to do that,” Raoul said, a sharp edge to his voice that all but sliced through the air between them.
“Look, I know you’re still struggling to get back to normal—”
“Normal? Normal died along with Bree. I don’t think you quite understand just what that has meant to me.”
His voice was quiet, yet filled with emotion and anger. Sensing the change in mood in the room, Ruby crawled onto Alexis’s lap, turned her face into her chest and uttered a whine of protest.
“Which is exactly why we should honor her memory and have a get-together in remembrance of her. Catherine needs it, your friends need it. I truly believe you need it, too, and you’d agree with me if you could just let yourself believe that you don’t have to face all your grief alone.”
His hazel eyes narrowed as he stared down at her. The air between them thickened, filled with his unspoken words and met by her equally silent but no less adamant challenge.
“Fine,” he uttered through clenched teeth. “But don’t expect me to be involved.”
“Just be there, it’s all I ask.”
“Sometimes, Alexis Fabrini, you ask too damn much.”
He left the room, taking her heart with him. It was hard to feel a sense of victory when she knew how much this was hurting him.
“Dad-dad?” Ruby said, lifting her face away from Alexis and looking around the room.
“He’s gone off again, poppet. But he’ll be back. Bit by bit, he’ll be back.”
At least she sure hoped so.
* * *
Raoul looked around the gathering in his house. This was exactly the kind of thing Bree would have loved to have organized for her birthday. All their closest friends, her mother, some of his cousins who lived locally, Alexis...people he knew and should feel comfortable with. And yet, he felt like an outsider. A stranger in his own house. Sure, he went through the motions—made sure everyone had a drink, asked some opinions on his latest blend—but he felt as if he didn’t belong. As if he was a mere onlooker, not a participant.