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Reckless (Chestnut Springs Book 4): Chapter 21

Winter

“What are you doing?” My sister’s dark brows knit.

“I don’t have a leash.”

Peter takes another bite of blueberry muffin from my fingers.

“But why do you have the dog standing on my front desk?”

“He’s so small. I don’t want him to get stepped on. And I don’t have a bowl. I’m not going to make him eat off the floor. That’s gross. This is a gym.” I wave a hand toward the main part of Summer’s fitness center. “There are gross, sweaty dudes everywhere.”

“Right. But that’s a dog. I bet he’s eaten literal shit in his lifetime. Why is he getting a blueberry muffin?”

My lip curls as I watch Peter daintily eat a cooked blueberry. “Please don’t ruin this newfound canine friendship for me, Sum. I let him sleep in my bed last night.”

“Theo?”

I start. “What? No. The dog.”

“Oh. Yeah, I’ve slept with Peter too.”

I can’t help but snort. “How very on brand for us.”

Summer’s eyes go wide, and I wish I could take back the joke. “It was a joke,” I blurt, internally berating myself because I came here to work more at mending my friendship with her and instead, I inadvertently insulted her. “I swear it was a joke. God. Fuck.” I scrub a hand over my face. “I’m sorry. I’m still so awkward around you.”

My hand is over my eyes when I hear a small chuckle. “I feel like being able to crack rude jokes about Rob is us leveling up, to be honest.”

I peek at Summer from between my fingers. “Yeah?”

Her lips roll together as she nods. “Yeah.”

I square my shoulders, emboldened by her softness. Sometimes, I still can’t believe she doesn’t hate me.

With that thought in my head, I blurt out what I came here to say this morning. “I’ve always loved you and I want you to know that. Even when it hasn’t seemed like it. I know you’ve told me you don’t need me to explain myself, but need to explain myself.”

My out-of-left-field statement catches her off guard, so I take a sip of my coffee to give my sister a moment.

“Of course. Do you want to go”—she glances around the public gym—“somewhere more private?”

It’s still early, so it’s quiet except for the clank of metal plates over the low beats that play through the speakers. Some guy who looks like he’s doing his best Drax imitation grunts while lifting heavy weights. He’s ridiculous.

“No. Here is good. If we go somewhere more private, I’ll cry.”

Summer’s brow furrows. “But you never cry.”

“Pfft. Apparently, it’s my new thing. It has to be some medical condition I don’t know about.”

I’m still staring at the man whose biceps must be as big as my head. His veins bulge, and his handsome face is all red as he struggles with the weight.

Theo is so much hotter.

I clear my throat and turn back to my sister, prepared to deliver this update in my I’m-a-doctor-with-bad-news way. “I vaguely remember when you were born. I was three, and I remember feeling excited. I wanted you to be a girl so we could play together. Especially with my dollhouse. I loved that dollhouse.”

Summer’s eyes twinkle and she crosses her arms over her torso, drawing my eye to the scar running down her chest.

“But it was never quite like I wanted it to be. Marina kept me away from you before I could even understand why, and then Kip was always busy tending to you on his own, so he didn’t truly have time for me. It felt like he chose you over me sometimes, but I think I know better now.” I wave a hand, not wanting to get into our dad right now. “One time, he had to run to the office while you were napping. Except you woke up and cried. And god . . .” I run a hand through my hair, frustrated at myself because this isn’t the delivery I planned. “I must have been four at that point, but I couldn’t handle listening to you cry. And Marina planned to just leave you there. She said you were safe in your crib, but I . . .”

I gaze out the window, making a mental note to research crying for no good fucking reason. If I wasn’t living the celibate life, I’d worry I’m pregnant again. “You didn’t sound safe. You sounded distraught. So, when she took a call and left me alone, I snuck into your room. I didn’t know what to do, so I crawled into your crib with you and held you. You still cried, but I felt like I was there for you all the same.”

Summer is crying again now, right out in the front of her business. Fat, silent tears slide down her cheeks as she stares into my eyes, listening intently. She doesn’t look away, no matter how badly it hurts.

I take a deep breath and forge ahead. “When Da—Kip—got home, he found us like that, and it turned into this big fight between him and Marina.” I sniffle, turning to give Peter more muffin. “I don’t remember all the details. Only that Marina took my dollhouse away as a punishment and it never came back because I”—I hold my fingers up in air quotes—“made her look bad.”

“Winter, you don’t need to go back and relive this. It’s okay.” Summer steps closer and places her hand on my bicep, squeezing gently.

“No, I do. Because that day, I learned being close with you wouldn’t end well for me. And that once you were old enough, it wouldn’t end well for you either. I mean, I don’t think I knew the lesson at the time, but I learned it all the same. Learned we both could fly under the radar best that way. That Marina paid you less attention when I made her look good.” I can’t help but roll my eyes. “I think I always protected you in my own way. I got comfortable in my role as the evil stepsister, and it just didn’t feel worth changing.”

Summer nods, the tip of her nose pink from crying. “You’re not evil. I wish you’d stop thinking of yourself that way.” Her voice breaks and my throat thickens, stupid eyes stinging as they fill.

“Ah, fuck. Come here, Sum.” I toss the rest of the muffin down in front of Peter and wrap my arms around my little sister. “I’m just so sorry. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you for being here for me and Vivi. I don’t know if I deserve all the support, but I’ve taken it anyway. And you haven’t badgered me or asked questions.”

“That’s not how family works, Winter,” she whispers tearfully in my ear. “Plus, Willa told me she caught you sneaking into my hospital room during those years while I was asleep to read my chart and check on me.”

I sniff. “Willa has such a big fucking mouth. But yeah, I did that all the time.” Then I pull back and look my sister right in the eye. “I love you, Sum.”

More tears slide down over the apples of her cheeks, and I peer up at the ceiling like I can use gravity to my advantage and push mine back in.

“I love you too, Win. You really should get this crying thing checked out though.”

A laugh lurches from my chest, and it squeezes the tears from my eyes. “Fuck my life. I’m so soft now. What happened to me?”

Summer giggles, and she’s joined by another chuckle. One I know well. When I glance back, Sloane has emerged wearing leggings and ballet slippers. I didn’t realize she was here, but I should have known. She and Jasper might live at their new house on the ranch, but she still comes in to dance in the back studio. Even when she’s around, she and Jasper are constantly taking little vacations and road trips. I feel like I hardly see her these days.

“You’re happy.” She smiles. “Is it Theo? Does he make you happy?”

Summer smiles, still holding me. “Just don’t ask her about dream Theo. He’s the worst.”

“I’m melting.” I wipe my cheeks. “I’m like Frosty the Snowman.”

Summer presses her head back down on my shoulder. “Thanks for visiting.”

The door jangles, and Willa walks in, fiery mane glowing in the morning sunlight. “Why the fuck is everyone crying? Mondays aren’t that bad.”

“Sloane’s not crying.” But when I turn to my friend, I notice there is, in fact, a tear rolling down her face. “Jesus. I think my disease is infectious.” I continue to swipe at my face. “Everyone stop.”

“Yeah, seriously.” Willa looks between the three of us. “You’re supposed to make grown men cry at this gym, not have some weird Yaya Sisterhood cryfest at the front door. And why is there a dog on the front desk?”

Leave it to Willa to lighten the mood without trying.

“That’s Theo’s dog, Peter.”

She steps up to the desk and scratches Peter behind the ears. He licks his lips, small belly all round and full when he sits. “Like Peter North? Nice.”

“Willa. Please. No.” Summer scrubs at her face.

“What? It’s just that with the way he’s sitting, I can see that for his body size he has a pretty big—”

“Attitude,” I cut her off and let out a watery laugh. “He’s got a big attitude.”

My sister glances up at me, still pressed close. “Thank. You.”

“Willa, what are you doing here?” Sloane asks, trying to redirect the conversation.

“Cade told me to take the morning to myself. So here I am, ready to work out.”

“Work out?” I arch a brow.

“Yeah,” Summer says. “Willa has decided she wants me to train her.”

Willa gestures her chin in my direction. “Winter, you should join us. Summer is vicious. I’m ready for her to hurt me and come out with a killer bubble butt.”

I smile politely, but I don’t know if I’m ready to add that dynamic to Summer and me yet. I’m not sure if it’s what we need.

She must agree, because my sister says, “I could set you up with a different trainer. Might be good for you. I’ll watch Vivi and give you a break. If you do it at the end of the day, I can put her to bed.”

Relief washes over me because it does appeal. Maybe I could make the time.

“That might be good. I could ask Theo to watch Vivi too,” I say, stepping away from Summer to give her a grateful glance. She’s intuitive. She knows.

“Where is Vivi?” Sloane asks, and I sigh, sounding a bit like a lovesick teenager.

“She’s with Theo. We traded for the night. Actually . . .” I pull out my phone and hold it up so they can see the photo of Theo and Vivi in her crib.

There is a communal intake of breath before a resounding chorus of “Aww.”

“Yeah, you should definitely bang him again,” Willa says.

Summer reaches for my free hand, squeezing tight and staring up at me, even though I don’t look back.

Did seeing Theo in the crib this morning take me back? Yes.

Did my conversation with him last night make me want to talk to her? Yes.

Do Theo and Vivi make me want to be a better person? Also, yes.


I swing by Le Pamplemousse, my favorite coffee shop in Chestnut Springs, and grab Theo a coffee. After days on end of him bringing me coffee with a smile on his face, I should return the favor.

But when I walk up to our matching bungalows, a flurry of butterflies erupts in my stomach. Last night we kissed. I yanked him down on me. He got an eyeful and walked away.

This is finePerfectly normal. I repeat positive sentences. I manifest that shit.

“Theo is a mature man. This is fine. We will be fine. It was just a pussy. He’s seen lots of pussies.”

The last part doesn’t actually make me feel better, so I bite down on my inner cheek to shut myself up. Peter trembles under my arm like he thinks I’m full of shit.

“Shut up, Peter,” I mumble as I open the gate into my front yard. From here, I can hear music coming from the house. The nearer I draw, the more the song takes shape. “Mystify” by INXS blares from inside, and I’m pretty sure I can hear Theo’s deep voice singing along.

With a shake of my head, I place Peter on the ground and unlock the front door. I step in and stop in my tracks.

Theo has on the same clothes he wore last night. A smiling Vivi is strapped to his chest in the floral-patterned Tula baby carrier I bought.

He’s singing to our daughter. And dancing. And cleaning.

One hand rubs the back of her head like she’s some sort of crystal ball, while the other wipes at the white cabinets in the cottage-style kitchen.

The house smells like lemon Lysol. He’s cracked the windows, letting the summer morning breeze waft through. I’ve been out sipping a coffee while reading the newspaper and then visiting my sister and friends. A part of me feels guilty I haven’t been here helping.

Vivi stares up at him like he’s the most impressive man in the world. And fuck, she might be right.

But me? I’m just slack-jawed.

Frozen.

But Peter isn’t.

He trots right into the kitchen and yaps at Theo’s feet, surprising him right as he belts out another, “Mistifyyyyyy.”

Theo spins to take us in as he pulls his phone out of a back pocket to drop the volume. “Jesus, Peter. Warn a guy.”

“What are you doing?” My voice is full to the brim with disbelief as I look around my sparkling clean house.

Theo rolls his eyes at me. “Cleaning.”

“Why?”

He grins, gives me a wink, and blesses the side of my ass with a playful slap. “I just felt like it. That coffee for me, Tink?”

I glance down at the cup in my hand. “Yeah. I figured you’d need it after last night.” I’m acutely aware of the way his eyes blatantly rake over my body, trailing down and back up.

My cheeks heat as I wonder if he’s thinking about how I don’t look like I did the last time he saw me naked. I push those thoughts away, because none of that matters. We are just . . . not business partners, apparently.

Teammates? Co-parents?

Co-parents could work.

“Here.” I shove the coffee at him. Up close, he’s even hotter. His stubble has grown a little longer than the perfectly groomed shadow he usually sports, but it suits him. Even with a bit of darkness under his eyes . . . he’s just more rugged somehow. More masculine.

It’s annoying that I look like trash when I’m tired and he looks like this.

The fact that he’s got our child strapped to his chest enhances the appeal by a million. But it doesn’t matter in the least what Theo looks like. I could see him carrying Vivi, singing a song, cleaning my goddamn house, and I wouldn’t notice his physicality at all.

I’d just see a man so deeply dependable that I’d want to rip my clothes off and suck his dick in thanks. It’s a biological loophole, I swear. Because for the life of me, I can’t hold a grudge against Theo when he’s done nothing but show up for me, no matter how much I’ve snarled at him.

When he takes the coffee, I try to pull away, but his hand is too big. Too sure. His fingers wrap over mine and he gently guides me closer to them.

“Vivi, look how sweet your mom is, bringing me a coffee.”

I glance down at her and a sudden surge of longing hits me. I haven’t been away from her overnight before. And suddenly I want nothing more than to pull her out of the carrier and nuzzle into her neck where there are still traces of baby smell.

I drop my forehead against hers. “Good morning, sweet baby,” I say as I press a kiss to her soft, pudgy cheek.

When I glance up, Theo points at a familiar stack of envelopes. “Those from your ex? I wasn’t snooping. I just found them underneath a pile of magazines.”

I swallow, deciding how to play this off. For some reason, I don’t want Theo and Rob intersecting. Rob isn’t welcome here, sullying this happy little bubble.

Looking around my house, I can’t help but feel like Theo has already stepped into a colossal mess. I don’t need to add to that burden with drama from my ex.

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. He keeps sending bills for things like our wedding or house, as though I owe him something when I don’t.” I swipe a hand between us like it doesn’t bother me at all. But it does. Rob did this same thing with Summer. He could never let her go. Her disinterest became some sort of slight to him, and now I’m getting the same treatment.

The man won’t give me peace, even though I specifically took nothing in our divorce to get rid of him. But it still wasn’t enough.

“There’s no postage on them though. Is he dropping them off here? Is that why you have the cameras up?”

It is, but not because I think he’d do anything violent. Just because if I see him at the door, I don’t want to answer.

“Mama.”

That one word instantly changes the subject.

I freeze and stare down at my daughter, and then I glance up at Theo. “Did she just say . . .”

“Mama?” Theo quirks a brow at me and slides a palm down the center of my back, stopping when he hits the waistline of my yoga pants. Then he . . . leaves it there. His big, warm palm at the small of my back. Sure, and steady, and supportive.

“That’s her first word.” I stare at her in wonder.

“Of course it is. What else would it be? And she’s been saying it all morning.” He turns his gaze back to Vivi. “Haven’t you, baby girl? Been talking about your mama nonstop. And who could blame you? Look at her.” They both turn their big brown eyes on me, and suddenly I’m aware of how close we’re standing. My hand on Vivi. Vivi’s hand on Theo. Theo’s hand on me.

Connected.

We will always be connected.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Theo carries on, blissfully unaware of the turmoil this moment stirs in me. “Just like you. Imagine how beautiful she’ll look when she gets back from getting her nails done.”

“What?” My brows knit and my head flips toward Theo.

He removes his hand from my back to check his watch. “Yeah. I booked you a manicure for ten.”

“But you’ve been with Vivi all night. All morning.”

He shrugs, a gentle smile stretching over his too-handsome features. “I don’t need a special trophy for parenting. I love it, Winter. Don’t worry. Go enjoy your manicure while you can still get one.”

His hand returns to my back as he nudges me toward the door. “But I—”

“No buts. You go. I’ll be here. I got this.”

I turn and give him a stern stare, one finger up. “I’ll be back before lunch.”

He chuckles and winks. “No, you won’t. I booked your massage right after the manicure. Sloane is meeting you there and for lunch. See you later, Mama.”

He leans forward, maneuvering around my hand to drop a light, friendly kiss right beside my mouth. I’m pushed out the door before I can even speak. The music cranks back up before I’ve even moved off the front step.


At the salon, my nails finally have their day. I select a pretty shade of pink and Sloane picks a bright purple. After our massages, we fill our faces at our favorite spot in town, chat, and laugh until our cheeks hurt. It is truly the perfect girls’ day out.

I feel more myself than I have in months. I feel more relaxed than I have in years.

And when I get back that afternoon—all pampered, and rested, and sane—I walk into a spotless house. A happy little girl plays with wooden blocks on the carpet. Theo builds them up, and she knocks them down, laughing hysterically while he acts offended that she could do that to him. On the stove, a delicious aroma wafts from a large pot. Theo calls it “Brazilian Stroganoff” and says it’s something his dad used to make for his mom.

And when I go to bed that night, the hinges on my door don’t squeak at all.


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