Reckless (Chestnut Springs Book 4): Chapter 18

Theo

Mom: You’re telling everyone tonight?

Theo: The big reveal.

Julia: I’m a little surprised this is the first time this has happened.

Theo: Jules, don’t you have some homework to do or something?

Julia: I feel like you could be that guy who has kids cropping up left and right if you ever do one of those ancestry DNA tests.

Theo: It’s not my fault I’m so fertile that no barrier can stop me.

Julia: Gross. You’re my brother. That’s the line.

Mom: Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.


The sun is setting on the sprawling back deck of the ranch house when Rhett catches my eye. He tips his head toward the house, silently gesturing that I follow him inside.

I glance across the table at Winter. She’s sitting with her back straight, right beside a large standing heater with Sloane on the opposite side of her. Willa and Summer talk over them about something.

As if she can feel my eyes on her, Winter turns her head at a snail’s pace, like she’s resisting a force that’s overpowering her. Our eyes meet.

Vivi is asleep in my arms, but Winter’s attention is on me. I can’t quite place the look on her face, and I do my best to keep my features casually blank. Try to put on a smiling face and not give away to a lively group of happy people that being referred to as a business partner makes me want to flip the fucking table.

I stand at the same time as Rhett, and mouth to Winter, “Heading in for a minute.”

She nods tightly in response, arms gesturing out in an offer to take Vivi.

I shake my head. No chance am I giving up a single moment with this little girl asleep in my arms.

After following Rhett in, I prop against the island in the kitchen while he leans against the back of the big leather couch that faces into the living room. It’s like we’re both playing at being casual when we know this conversation is anything but.

He’s got a bone to pick.

And frankly, so do I. Winter can call me her business partner all she wants, but no one is going to accuse her of the things Rhett did earlier. I won’t allow it.

“How you doing?” His arms cross, and he glances between Vivi’s sleeping face and mine.

“Fine,” I bite back.

“This must have come as quite the surprise.”

“No shit.”

“How are you feeling about it?”

I give a single, rigid shrug. “Good.”

“No, really, Theo. You can’t have wanted this. Obviously, Vivi is amazing, but this isn’t what you signed up for, and we both know it. I didn’t hurl myself in front of a bull for you to throw everything away.”

“Rhett, I’m going to stop you right there. You have been my friend for a long time. My mentor for even longer. My dad loved you, and I do too. But so help me, if you keep talking about this current situation like it’s a burden, it will become difficult to stay friends with you.”

He flinches, his eyes widening. “Wow. Alright. It’s just that Winter is kind of—”

“What?” I cut him off. “Strong? Intelligent? A fantastic fucking mom? Because if you were thinking words about her that are anything less than positive, then you’ve found the line.”

Rhett chuckles. “I’ve never seen this side of you.”

“What side?” I mumble, staring down at Vivi’s serene face, studying the way her dark fringe of lashes fans delicately over her full rosy cheeks.

“This . . . this . . .” He waves a hand up and down my frame when I peek up at him. “This papa bear side of you. But you know it doesn’t mean you have to like Winter. She’s a complicated woman. I mean, she’s family, but she’s not always easy to—”

“I’ve always liked Winter. I liked her when you told me stories about her before I met her. I liked her the first time I laid eyes on her at the shitty gas station on the corner of Rosewood and Main. I liked her when she yelled I must have a small dick.” Rhett’s face is a mix of confusion and disbelief. “And I especially like her now. I’m not sad about Vivi. The only thing I’m sad about is not being there for Winter earlier. But that’s my cross to bear. So, if you’re looking for a person to commiserate with about how awful she is, you need to find someone else.”

With that, I push off the counter, open the back door and wave a hand at the only woman who has ever captured my attention. My new business partner.

I interrupt the quiet hum of conversation, done with being around everyone. “Tink, let’s go home.”

She blinks a couple of times, then says a few polite thank yous and excuses herself. When she gets to Vivienne and me, she grips my bicep and lets me lead her out of the house.


We drive home in strained silence. I tell myself it’s because Vivi is asleep in the back seat. But that’s a lie.

I know it. And I’m getting the sense Winter knows it too.

“That went better than I expected,” she says, her voice a little too bright for her personality.

“What were you expecting?” My hands clamp on the wheel, my voice low and quiet.

Darkness settles around us, and the dull hum of the tires on the back road fills the void of her not responding. I try to keep my eyes on the road, but she’s quiet for so long that I can’t help but glance over at her. Her posture is straight, but her hands are twisting in her lap, giving away her inner distress.

“I didn’t expect you to defend me.”

I shake my head, a bit irritated she thinks I wouldn’t.

“I’ll always defend you, Winter.”

My statement must shock her, judging by the way her head snaps in my direction. After a few beats, she clears her throat and relaxes back in her seat.

“I’m not surprised by Rhett’s take, because that’s mostly what I expected. I can’t blame him for painting me as the villain. I can understand why he would perceive me that way.”

“Why?”

“Because my relationship with Summer is new. And he holds a grudge better than she does, I guess.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“No.” She sighs heavily and her gaze drifts out the window. “I’ve been brutal to Summer almost my entire life.”

“Why? Did she do something to you?”

Winter snorts, like we both know it’s out of character for Summer to do something mean. “It sounds stupid when I say it out loud.”

“I say lots of stupid stuff.”

She focuses on me now. “Well, that’s true. I think you barked at me once.”

My lips twitch, but I just shake my head. “Continue.”

“I think I figured out at a young age that if I mirrored the way Marina treated Summer—and my dad—she sort of . . . left them alone? Like if she felt like I was on her team, she would care less about what they did because she could turn all her attention to me. On priming me to be the perfect mini-me surgeon version of her. I leveled the playing field for her. In taking me away from them, she felt like she won and, in turn, didn’t terrorize my little sister.”

“Have you told Summer this?”

Winter’s body heaves under a weighty sigh. “No. We just started fresh. Hashing this out will only hurt her. And I don’t want to hurt her more than I already have.”

“You should tell her.”

“Why?”

“It would make you feel better.”

“And her worse. She’ll feel like she needs to fix me. That’s just how she is.”

“You don’t need fixing, Winter.” I swallow the ache in my throat. That seems like too much for a child to process, let alone bear. “But what about you?”

She waves me off. “I’ll survive.”

“And what about the child you once were?”

Her tongue darts across her lips, covering for whatever anxiety she feels right now. “I was fine. They fed me, watered me, and clothed me in designer everything and I did any extra-curricular activity I wanted.” She shrugs. “I wanted for nothing.”

“But what about love?”

She twists to look over her shoulder at Vivi, her voice taking on a thicker quality when she says, “What about it?”

“Did you have it?”

I watch her throat work as her attention stays fixed on our sleeping daughter. “No. I don’t think I ever had it until her.”

Without thinking, I press the heel of my hand to my chest, willing the ache away. I wish my mom were here. She’d know what to do or say.

“It’s funny,” Winter continues, as though she’s in a trance. “I took an oath as a doctor. It’s my job to save people’s lives. And somehow, that doesn’t feel heavy or oppressive. It’s more of a challenge I can rise to. But with her? God. It’s consuming. Sometimes, I’m so consumed with loving her I can’t even sleep. I’d use an innocent stranger as a shield for her if there was gunfire. I’d shove others into the flames to get her out of a burning building. I’d swim through boiling water for her. I wouldn’t even blink, Theo.”

“So, you love her? That’s normal. I mean, your descriptions are a bit . . . dark. But I follow,” I say, as I pull into her driveway.

“Is it?” She turns her crystal blue eyes on me. They twinkle in the dark cab of the truck, reflecting every speck of light around us. “I’ve never loved anyone like this before. And no one has loved me like Vivi does. It feels so foreign.”

Jesus Christ. This woman.

I itch to touch her, to soothe her. So I reach out and cup her head, combing my fingers through her hair like I did in the elevator. I lean across the console and she holds my gaze. “Yeah, Winter.” Her irises drop to my lips. “That’s normal. And you shouldn’t settle for anything less.”

Her breath fans across my cheek when she sighs. I could so easily turn my fingers into a fist in her hair and kiss her. Give her a taste of not settling. But she pulls away before I can, one hand coming up to give my forearm a platonic squeeze.

I can’t tell if this is a one-sided attraction sometimes. Can’t tell if I spend every day in the shower jerking off while thinking about a woman who doesn’t think of me at all. Winter is almost impossible to get a steady read on.

And tonight is no different.

She gives me a flat smile before we part ways, without another word exchanged between us. I watch her carry Vivi’s bucket seat up into the dark house before I pull out and drive to the one right next door.

When I go inside, it feels like I’m entering the wrong house.

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