Kip: I know I haven’t been there for you, but I want to change that. I want to help. Summer told me about Rob. Please let me put you in touch with my family lawyer. She’s the best.
Winter: Of course Summer did. Why do you have a family lawyer?
Kip: Have you not spoken to your mom?
Winter: Ha. Seriously? I stopped speaking to Marina the day she suggested I pass Vivi off as Rob’s. Did she not tell you?
Kip: Well, we’re not on speaking terms either. Asking for a divorce went over poorly.
Winter: You’re getting a
Winter: And yeah, I’ll take that contact.
“Do you want me to throw these flowers out?”
Theo eyes the vase of red roses in the middle of the counter like he wants to pulverize them, not just throw them out.
“No. I’m keeping them.”
He scowls at me. He’s been in a bit of a funk since getting home. I know he planned to stay on the road between the two events, to immerse himself in the back-to-back weekend competitions.
But I told him I needed him, and he came back without batting an eyelash.
“For what reason?”
“They’re pretty.” I shrug. “Seems a shame to waste them, you know?” I point at him. “Is that what you’re wearing to court?”
He looks down at himself. Dark jeans hug his muscular thighs, and a white shirt with a deep V shows the chain that hangs over a light dusting of chest hair. He’s pulled the brim of his cap down low, but I see his brows knitted together and his expression of genuine confusion.
“What do you mean?”
I wave a hand over my sapphire blue pantsuit, feeling more like pre-baby Winter than I have in a long time. “Is that what you’re wearing in the courthouse? I mean, if you wear those unlaced boots with that, I’ll maul you after we leave. But I was just wondering.”
“I wasn’t planning to go in.”
My hand freezes over the glass of water I was about to pick up. “What?”
“I mean, the summons was for you, right? And Vivi?”
“Yes.” I say the word slowly.
“So why would I come too? Isn’t family court kind of small? Wouldn’t it be frowned upon if I walked over and beat the shit out of Doctor Douche? I’m trying not to be overbearing, but the truth is, Winter, I’m feeling really fucking overbearing about this. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my cool in there.”
My chest goes cold even as my heart accelerates. I’m nervous about coming face to face with Rob. I know he’ll be wearing some smug, condescending smirk, all pleased with himself for drumming this shit up.
I admit the truth, because there’s no way in hell I can do this without Theo at my side. “I’m scared. I don’t want to go alone.”
It’s his turn to go still, to stare back at me and turn my words over. Because it’s one thing for me to tell him I need him and another thing for me to show him. And today, I really need him. His presence beside me, his hand wrapped around mine. We both know what the results will be, but it’s still scary.
I babble on, feeling like I might literally get on my knees and beg him if he comes back with another reason he shouldn’t join me. “She’s your daughter. I need you there with me. All of us together.” There’s a tremor in my voice as I finish out the sentence. “Please.”
“Winter, come here.” He holds his arms open, and I go to him, breathing in that citrus and spice scent I associate with all feelings of home. With my head to the crook of his neck, he folds his biceps around me and nuzzles down into the side of my cheek. “I will go wherever you want. I will wear whatever you want. I will never turn my phone off again. I will always, always be there for you. For Vivi. You don’t need to beg, and you don’t need to say please. For as long as I live, for as long as you need me, you’ll have me. Okay? Never doubt that.”
I nod, but don’t say anything. I just squeeze him tighter, relishing the sensation of his strong arms wrapped around me.
“Because I’m your future wife?” I ask, trying to lighten the mood.
“Obviously,” he volleys back.
“Did you really call your mom and tell her that?”
He snorts. “Yeah, Tink. When you know, you know.”
He trusts himself so thoroughly. Doesn’t second-guess himself. No one’s ever proved to him he shouldn’t.
I love that about him.
“I love you, Theo Dale Silva.”
“I love you too, Winter . . .”
A wince moves my shoulders. I’ve been waiting for this to blow back on me. “Don’t laugh.”
“I would never.”
“Okay, it’s Peggy.”
“Shut up.” I nuzzle in, biting the sides of my tongue, so I don’t laugh.
“Little Winter Peggy has been making fun of Theo Dale for months now. It’s just interesting, that’s all.”
Unable to hold back my laugh, I tip my head and peer up at him. “Theo Dale sounds like somewhere elves live in Middle-earth!”
“Winter Peggy sounds like a farmer Barbie doll that comes with a snowsuit. Summer Peggy comes with a bathing suit and a pair of sunglasses.”
Silent laughter racks my body. It’s not even that funny, but it’s the stress release I needed.
Theo grins at me. “So fucking pretty when you laugh.” He kisses the apple of my cheek, then the other, and finishes with my forehead. “Let me go get changed so I can match my little Power Suit Peggy.”
And only a few hours later, after a simple swipe of Vivi’s inside cheek, Theo and I walk out of that courtroom. Me in my pantsuit, and Theo looking devastating in a stark black suit of his own. He holds my hand and keeps Vivi held tight against his side like the protective papa he is.
I don’t even spare Rob a glance as we pass. I keep my chin high and my shoulders back. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his presence.
However, I do glance up at the handsome man I get to call my own.
And as we pass my ex . . .
Theo winks at him.
Now that I’ve decided it’s okay to need Theo as intensely as I do, it’s hard to be as mature about letting him walk out that door to go on the road.
All it took was one shy, “You could always come with me?” to seal the deal.
For the next two weeks, I travel with him. So does Vivi. So does Peter. Most of the hotels are not dog-friendly, but I don’t ask permission, which means they never tell me not to bring him. We hit Fort Worth, Texas—where I realize Theo isn’t nearly as much of a cowboy as I thought—and then San Antonio.
We stroll the River Walk and dine out. He trains hard. I cheer like a lunatic every time he gets on a bull. We make love in the shower once Vivi’s down for the night. I fall asleep with Theo’s strong arms around me at the end of every single day.
And when we walk up the front steps to our little house on a tree-lined street in Chestnut Springs, we come face to face with the envelope we’ve been waiting for.
Plus one more. One he doesn’t know about.
The paper is cool in the palm of my hand as we head into the house with bags and car seats and strollers. Traveling with a child has given me a whole new appreciation for how blissful it is to travel alone.
And yet, the thought of traveling alone fills me with dread. I’d much rather schlep all our shit around and stay with this little family I’ve pieced together over the past few months. Vivi turns one in a week. I go back to work a week after that—something I’ve been trying to pretend doesn’t exist.
I’ve always loved my job. It’s always been the place where I can escape real life and throw myself into work I enjoy.
But I don’t want to escape my life anymore. I want to set up shop and stay right smack dab in the middle of it. Watching Vivi walk everywhere and learn new words, watching Theo kick ass every weekend.
Vivi is fussing, tired and irritated from the flight, so Theo scoops her up. “I’m going to go put her down for a bit. You open that. I’ll be back.” He barely looks at me as he gives her kisses and walks down the hallway.
His ass is phenomenal in those jeans.
“Okay,” I murmur, pulling out a stool to sit at the kitchen island.
The envelope addressed to me unraveled us in so many ways, but maybe it untangled us so we could braid ourselves back together. Tighter. Maybe this ordeal has brought us the sort of peace we never would have had without it.
My lips curve up because Theo is nervous about this envelope.
Ever since that one comment, he has never questioned me about Vivi’s paternity. In his heart, he knows, but Rob put a speck of doubt there and he hasn’t quite been able to let it go. He also respects me too much to put that question out again though.
Me? I already know what story these papers will tell. They’re going to tell me there is no possible way Rob got me pregnant through the walls of our separate rooms. It’s going to tell me that the hottest night of my life spent in a hotel with a man I barely knew lines up perfectly with the day Vivi was born.
Perfectly imperfect. That’s Theo and me.
Sometimes I wonder if we’d have ended up where we are today if things hadn’t played out the way they did. If he’d known about her right away, would I have taken my fresh start? Would I have cut people out of my life who needed cutting? Would I have found the sense of freedom I did in those months I spent living on my own? Or would I have dragged Theo into the maelstrom of my family drama? Would I have felt I went from being under one man’s thumb to another? Would Summer and I be where we are now?
So many what-ifs. But it feels like everything worked out exactly the way it was meant to.
“Well, she fell asleep in about ten seconds.”
“Figured as much.” The sight of him steals my breath like it did all those months ago. Rugged and handsome and sensual. He makes my mouth water and my stomach flip—he makes me feral in a way I’ve never felt for a man. He woke up a part of me I never knew existed, a little piece of myself I was living without.
“So? Did you open it?”
I tilt my head at him. “Did you really think I would open it without you?” He takes a seat beside me. His knee touches mine, and he moves his foot over to the bottom rung of my stool.
Then he tugs the stool closer so my legs fit between his.
Just like that night in the hotel bar.
“Okay, Tink. Let’s open it.”
“Them. I have two things here for you.”
His dark eyes are lightly hooded as he stares down at the counter, and I decide to put him out of his misery. If he’s nervous, I’m excited. This envelope means I can finally deliver that last killing blow to Dr. Robert Valentine.
The other means that Vivi can be his in a way she should have been from the very beginning.
I rip them both open and unfold the sheets. Laying them in front of Theo, side by side. I don’t bother reading them. Instead, I put my hand on his back and watch his face. His heavy brows, the stubborn set of his jaw, the straight line down his strong nose.
And the joy in his eyes when he hits the ink that confirms what we already knew.
He wasn’t there for Vivi’s birth, but he can be here for every moment after because he’s her dad.
Then his gaze shifts over, to the papers he wasn’t expecting. The ones that detail legal name change from Vivienne Hamilton to Vivienne Loretta Silva. My way of showing Theo that he’ll never be an interloper—he’s stuck with us for life.
He says nothing, but I watch his throat work. “This . . . this is . . .”
“If you want, we can get another DNA test done to officially match you with—”
He spins and kisses me, his hands tangling in my hair as he claims me with his mouth, brands me with his hands.
We don’t talk. There’s nothing left to say. We talk with our hands as each piece of our clothing gets discarded. We talk with our lips as he lays me on the couch and hovers over me. We talk with our bodies as we come together achingly slow and the most delicious tension unfurls between us.
It strikes me that perhaps I’m not an easy woman to love, but Theo does it so effortlessly that I feel like I could be. Like I deserve to be.
I come alive beneath his hands. I come apart beneath them too. And he puts me back together every damn time.
We lie here in the afterglow, bodies sticky with perspiration, hearts beating against each other, arms wrapped tight like nothing in the world could pull us apart.
“You ready to throw those flowers out now?” Theo’s husky voice pulls me from my thoughts. He glances over at the sideboard, upon which sits the vase containing moldy water and black, wilted roses. “Because now they’re more gross than they were in the first place.”
I rub my cheek against his toned chest and giggle, feeling lighter than I have in . . . well, maybe ever.
“No. I have a plan for those.”