Theo: That fucking dress should be illegal.
Winter: Is that why you’re glaring at me from across the room? It’s a wedding. Act happy.
Theo: I’m undressing you with my eyes.
Theo: Fine. I’m trying to decide if I should rip those thin straps or even bother taking the dress off at all.
Winter: Who told you that you’d be taking my dress off?
Theo: You haven’t yet, but you will.
Theo: Rude is me telling you that if you wanted a pearl necklace, I could have given you one.
Winter: Extra rude.
Theo: I’ll stop being rude when it stops making you turn that pretty pink color.
Every person in the vintage-style barn has their eyes on Summer as she and Rhett exchange vows at the front of the aisle.
I have mine on Winter. And I can’t take them off.
Partly because of her clingy silky dress, held up by such dainty straps. Everything about the delicate garment is so easily lifted or ripped. And then she’s wearing this pretty choker-style pearl necklace, and I can’t help but wonder if she did it to test my control and my maturity. I can’t wait to whisper something dirty in her ear about pearl necklaces and watch her squirm.
But most of all, my eyes are stuck on her because every time her gaze meets mine, her skin turns this tulip-pink color, and she acts like she’s found something interesting in the rows of people watching the ceremony. Her lips will press together, her lashes will flutter, and her gaze will find its way back to me.
I shouldn’t eye-fuck her so blatantly at the front of her sister’s wedding, but I have been since we all met up in the back room. I couldn’t be more clichéd, the best man drooling over the maid of honor at a wedding. Especially since I’m only the best man because Rhett didn’t want to pick one of his brothers over the others.
Before I know it, the justice of the peace announces they can kiss and everyone in attendance cheers. When I hear a loud whistle, I turn and see Kip, Winter and Summer’s dad. I should find it endearing he’s here fervently supporting his daughter, but I saw the pain that flashed over Winter’s face when he walked Summer down the aisle to us.
Glancing over at Winter, I find her eyes on me. This time, I toss her a wink. Her cheeks flame and her lips purse as she looks away, trying to hide her smile.
The rest of the day passes in a blur of much of the same. Stolen glances. Posed photographs. A hand on her back, just a little too low. Family speeches. My foot pressed against hers under the head table. The first dance. Me wiping the icing off her lip from the cake.
The tension is so thick between us, I could cut it with a butter knife.
It’s when the dancing starts that my cheeky, happy little bubble bursts and I have my first run-in with a feeling I’m not well acquainted with at all.
Beau Eaton snags Winter for an upbeat two-step and all I can see is his hand on the small of her back. His fingers wrapped around where mine should be. And I hate it.
As the song changes into a slow dance and he doesn’t let her go, my agitation builds. I shift my weight on the spot. Her eyes search for me, and when she finds me, she smiles. I lean against the bar, bottle of beer in hand, burning lasers into a guy I generally like for daring to dance with the woman I’m in love with while I wait for her to decide if she might like to be in love with me too.
It’s when I feel an elbow against my side that I realize Harvey Eaton has moved in beside me. “Gonna tell you what I told Rhett a couple of years ago when Beau was putting moves on Summer right in front of him.”
I snort. “Brave.”
Harvey chuckles and takes a swig of his beer, watching them too. “Doesn’t much matter who she’s dancing with when her eyes are on you.”
“Yeah.” I scrub at my stubble, hoping to loosen some of the tension in my jaw.
“Plus, it’s not what it looks like. I told Beau to stop being a moody asshole and apologize to Winter. See how awkward they are? Was kinda getting a kick out of it myself, like two virginal teenagers at their first dance. Straight-arming each other’s shoulders. Not like you two feral cats on the procreation prowl.”
“Sorry, the procreation prowl?”
“I googled it after you lot made fun of my analogy. But I was right. You’re the tom and she’s the queen. Ya’ll were blowing shit up like Americans on the fourth of July and then going at it like it’s mating season.”
“This is truly the analogy that never ends.”
“I’m not wrong. Our southern neighbors love to celebrate their independence by blowing off their fingers with excessive fireworks. There are statistics.”
“On Google, I presume?”
He scoffs. “Yes.”
“You are a national treasure, Harvey Eaton.” I chuckle and take a sip of my drink, eyes still plastered to the dance floor. Now that he mentions it . . . there is a leaden quality to the way they’re moving. “What’d he do to her?”
Harvey shakes his head, his humor leeching away now. “Bah. Acted like a sullen dickhead when she tried to help him. I’m sure she wasn’t warm and fuzzy about it. But still. This is the new normal for Beau, unfortunately.”
It’s been a tough road for Beau. I don’t know him well, but I know he’s not the same. Not after he spent days on end hiding in enemy territory with a hostage he freed. A Canadian journalist who’d been missing forever. It was plastered all over the evening news. The hero who walked through fire and knowingly missed his transport out to save a fellow Canadian.
The only person who doesn’t seem impressed by Beau is, well, Beau.
Harvey clears his throat. “He’s getting better though. Ya know? Takes time to adjust to civilian life. Ah—” Harvey gestures at the dance floor with his beer. “There he goes. Still a good boy at heart.”
And sure enough, between the two songs, he steps away from Winter, drops his eyes, and his lips move. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but Winter nods, looking more like the medical professional she is than the woman who keeps making fun of my middle name.
They shake hands and part ways. Winter turns and saunters toward me, that pink silk slipping against the outer curve of her hips. Beau crosses to the opposite side of the dance floor and leans against the bar where a pretty brunette is slinging drinks. She barely glances his way, but hands him a soda before he even says a word.
“And would you look at that. The queen coming back to her tom. Must be mating season.” Harvey cackles to himself as he moves into the crowd, presumably to make jokes that toe the line of appropriate to someone else.
I’m grinning like a fool when Winter finally gets to me.
“Hi.” She smiles back, instantly flushed again.
“Hi. Drink?” I tip my head toward the bar.
Winter takes a spot beside me while I turn and order her a champagne. With her drink in hand, we both stand and stare out at the crowd. The sun is dropping outside, but inside it feels like things are just turning up. The reception is being held in another outbuilding on the same farm, this one set up for events with a large dance floor, family-style tables down one side, two bars, and a DJ booth. Basically, everything you might need on one property to host a country wedding.
“What were you and Harvey talking about?” I glance down at Winter, lips on the rim of the glass as she tips the champagne into her mouth. Pink lipstick kisses the edge when her mouth comes away.
“The procreation prowl.”
Her brows knit together. “The what?”
“You don’t want to know. What were you and Beau talking about?”
Her nose wrinkles slightly, and I can tell she’s weighing her words. “Basically, he cornered me at a family dinner a while back, asking me to write him a script. I said no. He blew up, and I told him to watch his tone. Now he treats me like I’m the Grinch who stole his sleeping pills. I guess after several months of cooling down, he decided to apologize. Though I’m pretty sure his dad told him t—”
“I think it might be a good time to get this girl home.” My mom walks up, pushing a stroller with a passed out Vivi. “She’s partied hard for a ten-month-old. I told Winter I’d go on grandma duty so you guys could stay out. I’ll just watch Grey’s reruns at your house until you’re back.”
Ten months? God. She was nine months when I met her. It seems impossible that a month has passed. There’s a part of me that wants to say no and take her home myself. I want to watch her fall asleep and be there when she wakes up.
But Winter jumps at the opportunity. “Thank you, Loretta. That would be lovely.” She bends down to the stroller and presses a kiss to Vivi’s cheek. And I decide, fuck it, I’m doing the same. So, I place my beer onto the bar and with one hand on the small of Winter’s back, I bend into the stroller and give my daughter’s soft, pudgy cheek a goodnight kiss.
When I straighten, I’m immediately faced with Kip’s stare on me from the opposite side of the dance floor. His dark eyes bore into me as they narrow.
I glare back at him, my hand still firmly pressed to his forgotten daughter’s back. I graze my thumb over the silky pink fabric. This dress looks far too much like some sort of sexy nightgown. It really should be illegal.
“Bye, Mom,” is my absent acknowledgment of her departure.
I’m sure the stare down is obvious, but I don’t give a fuck. Kip might be her dad, he might even be a nice enough guy, but he hurt Winter and hasn’t done shit to show up for her.
Which puts him in the asshole column as far as I’m concerned.
“Wow. This champagne is great.” Winter sidles closer to me, turning her body toward mine as she holds the glass up to assess it. “Like not too fizzy, you know?”
I’m sure she’s aware of who I’m watching, but I wonder if she understands how territorial I’m feeling. “I’m glad. You okay?”
She nods, top teeth sinking into her bottom lip. Finally, she gives me her eyes for more than a few seconds for the first time today. “Yeah.” Her teeth go back to working at her lip, like she’s trying to clamp down on words she wants to say.
I ghost a finger over her lip and it sends a jolt of lust to my groin. “If you want to be bitten, I can help you with that.”
Her eyes widen and she quickly covers by taking a sip of champagne.
Then the questions come.
“Why did you keep that coaster? My phone number?”
“Because I knew I was coming back. You were a mess—respectfully—and I was out of control. We both needed time.”
A thin laugh spills from her lips. “I’m still a mess now.”
I splay my fingers lower on her back, trailing them over the top seam of her underwear as I gaze out over the packed dance floor. “Maybe I don’t care. Maybe I want to be messy with you forever.”
Her body jolts, and I smile before taking a swig of my beer. It feels like several minutes before she says another word.
And they aren’t the words I want.
“Truly, this champagne is superb. Like not too sweet. Not too dry. I’ll have to ask Summer for the name so I can get a bottle.”
“I’ll buy you literal cases of it if you stop avoiding the conversation at hand.”
She sighs and follows my gaze out onto the dance floor where Rhett is spinning Summer. Her full dress trails around behind her, cast almost as wide as the grin on her face. Jasper has Sloane pressed against him like every person in their vicinity might try to remove her from his grip. And Willa is dancing with Luke, doing the most insane moves until they both laugh uncontrollably.
“I don’t know how to react to you when you talk like that, Theo,” Winter says in a soft voice. “Like . . . what was it then? Love at first sight? I just . . . that makes me uncomfortable. That’s a movie thing, not a real-life thing.”
“When you saw Vivi for the first time, did you know you loved her? Did you need time and space to come around to the idea? Or did you take one look at her and just know?”
A deep sigh lifts her shoulders. “I just knew.”
I pull her closer, feeling her stomach press against my hip, her breast against my ribs, as I drop my voice and splay my fingers over her ass. “When I saw you . . . I don’t know. I don’t want to call it love at first sight. Maybe need at first sight? Want at first sight? A connection. It was knowing I’d never get sick of your eyes wandering over my body with that slack-jawed feral look on your face.”
“You should really try this champagne. I think you’d like it.”
“Winter, seriously with the champagne again?”
Her body melts against mine even as her words stay conflicted. “I just . . . That’s crazy. That makes no sense.”
A laugh rumbles in my chest. “I ride bulls for a living, so it’s not the first time I’ve been called crazy. I guess I’m just crazy enough to want my eight seconds on the frigid ice-queen sister too.”
Winter stiffens for several beats and then yanks herself away with a violence that clashes with the peacefulness we had moments ago.
“Are you kidding me?” she hisses right as her eyes go dark and turn glassy.
“Winter . . .”
It was a joke.
A bad one.
“You are the only person in my life who has never referred to me that way. Sorry, you were the only person.” Her mouth pops open and I can see the way I’ve hurt her; it’s written all over her face.
She transforms from raging to heartbroken right before my eyes. A shaking hand places the champagne glass on the bar top, and her quivering lips try to form a polite smile. Her voice comes out watery when she says, “Thank you for the drink.”
Then she’s practically jogging in her high heels across the wooden floor, skirt fisted to keep it from tangling in her legs. I’m too stunned to move for a few beats.
We were just talking, laughing. Heading in a good direction. And she’s going to run away from me now? After everything?
Nah. Not today, Tink.
I stride after her.
And fucking done with Winter Hamilton running from me.