Winter: You ready?
I hear the shuffle of three other sets of feet behind me as I walk up the winding brick pathway to the house I used to call home. Now, compared to where I live with Theo, it feels gaudy and overdone. Big and empty. It takes up every square inch of space on the lot. The trees are too small and new, and I can hear the rush of traffic from the nearby freeway.
It’s not Chestnut Springs.
It’s not home.
When I near the three marble steps that lead to the massive door, I peer over my shoulder. Summer is grinning almost maniacally. Rhett is standing behind her, hands on her shoulders.
But it’s Theo who keeps me staring. Like always.
He’s leaned up against the side of the garage, arms crossed. Plain white tee stretched over his biceps. Jeans hugging his long legs in a way that makes my mouth water.
Combat boots tugged carelessly over the top.
Laces not tied.
I remember thinking once that the very last thing I needed in my life was a man who didn’t tie his laces.
It makes me laugh now, a light little chuckle that bubbles up from somewhere near my heart.
How wrong I was.
I feel like he rolled up and loosened my laces when I didn’t realize I was tied up far too tight.
“You’re gawking, Tink!” he calls out and I flush. Of course, I’m gawking. Theo Silva was the hottest man I’d ever seen back then, and he still is now.
He winks at me.
I roll my eyes.
And then I turn, march up to the door and ring the doorbell. I know Rob is home because I called the hospital and asked my favorite charge nurse to confirm. It takes him a while to get to the door because the house is obnoxiously large.
When he answers, he’s wearing a pink polo shirt and a pair of white shorts. His hair is perfectly coiffed to cover his receding hairline.
I almost recoil at the sight of him, but it’s not just physical. Rob has shown his true colors in recent months, and they’re ugly.
This man is rotten to his core.
Just like the vase of dead, musty flowers I’m holding.
“Winter.” He looks smug until his eyes trail behind me and he notes the audience.
This is a man who thrived on me being isolated, having no one. And here I am, with people who love and support me. Who show up for me even when I’m not at my best.
His grin melts away, like a pretty mask slipping from his face to reveal all the ugliness beneath.
“Hi, Rob.” I hold the flowers out to him.
He takes them before glancing down and realizing they’re decaying. A dry, curled leaf falls at his feet.
“I really enjoyed these. They were beautiful. Then I went out of town with my family for a bit. Came back and saw them like this, all moldy and rotten. Reminded me of you, so I figured I would hand-deliver them.”
“You came here to give me dead flowers?”
I smile. It’s a fake, practiced smile, one I use when a patient is pissing me off. “No, I came to deliver the envelope that’s taped to the front.” I point at the vase. “Right there.”
His face scrunches, but he doesn’t make a move to touch it.
“Summer and I put a lot of work into our affidavits, so I hope you enjoy them. I know the hospital administration and the medical board will.”
A normal person would go white. They’d be terrified. But Rob goes from red to a deep purple. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him so angry.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
His voice is pure venom, but he doesn’t scare me anymore. I step closer to him, lifting my chin and narrowing my eyes as I pluck a dead petal off one rose and drop it, watching it fall away like all my loyalty to this man.
I thought I loved him once, but I didn’t know what love was.
I do now though.
“Oh, but I would.” My tone is cool and controlled. It bites. “Because you didn’t just come for me this time, you slimy fucking weasel. You came for my daughter. You came for the man I love. You came for my family. You went too damn far this time.”
“I’m going to—”
I don’t let him get a word in at all. “I haven’t fucked you since the day I found out you were a predator. And now everyone is going to know it.”
I turn and walk away from him, ignoring his curses and threats. The smashing sound of the glass vase does nothing but make me smile. I feel like I tossed a grenade into that depressing house and walked away.
I feel free.
Vivi’s birthday party is perfect.
Everyone has pitched in to make turning one a special occasion for her. She looks precious in her sundress, covered in a print of oranges and leaves. The decorations are hysterical. Custom printed—compliments of Willa—with photos of Vivi’s favorite thing in the world . . . Peter. And the setting at Wishing Well Ranch is perfect, just like the weather. Our end-of-summer heat is warm but not unbearable, and the smell of freshly cut hay permeates the air.
Rhett set up the big white tent on the back field near the main ranch house, and everyone who’s here is family, in some way or another.
Loretta. The Eatons. Theo, who keeps trying to carry Vivi around with him, but she went from walking to running pretty damn fast and gets a thrill out of making her dad chase her. His mom gets a kick out of it too. Tells him it’s payback for the way he was as a toddler.
She keeps us on our toes.
Willa baked the cake. Summer and Sloane decorated. Cade is manning the barbecue. Jasper is playing a game of field hockey with Luke, who just yelled, “Oh, fuck off!” when he thought he was going to score on Jasper, but didn’t. Harvey made a bowl of punch that tastes like fruit juice, but I suspect contains far more alcohol than necessary for a one-year-old’s birthday celebration.
Beau has yet to show up.
“Harvey, how much booze is in what I’m drinking right now?”
He grins over at me from where we’re leaning against the fence. “Enough to take the edge off for you.”
“What edge? I’m relaxed. If you take too much edge off me, I might spill your beans just to get even.”
His brows lift as he takes a sip out of his red Solo cup. “What beans?”
I smirk and drink again. “The you and Cordelia beans.”
He chokes on his drink, and I slap his back while he thumps a fist on his chest.
“Oof. Okay, well, no one would forgive me for killing you, so maybe I’ll just keep that one to myself. Though I’m really not sure how no one has noticed.”
Harvey clears his throat and glances around at the group of family and friends. Music plays. Burgers get flipped. Everyone carries on in the most comfortable sort of rhythm. “Same way they never noticed Vivi is a tiny version of her dad. They weren’t looking.”
I nod, staring at Theo holding his mini-me as they cheer Luke on to get a ball past Jasper.
“I’m not ready to tell them yet,” Harvey says after a few beats of silence.
“I was joking.”
“It feels off-limits. Her being who she is. But sometimes—”
“Sometimes things just happen, and you don’t realize how right they are until you’re in the thick of it.”
He gives me a grunt and a nod from where we stand, propped against the fence.
I break the tension with, “Is there a geriatric version of the procreation prowl?”
This time, he doesn’t choke. He tips his head back and howls. “Girl, did you really just say that to me?”
“Hey, if you’re gonna dish it out, you gotta take it.” As we laugh, I hear tires crunching on the gravel driveway behind us.
The black Suburban SUV is one I recognize only because Kip Hamilton has driven the same vehicle for my entire life. Every couple of years he gets a new one, of the same make and model.
“That’s what I figured you might need to take the edge off for.”
“Hmm.” I arch a brow. “You knew he was coming?”
Harvey shrugs. “Summer may have mentioned it to me while setting up. That’s why I used two bottles of bourbon in Harvey’s Special Drank rather than the usual one.”
My nose wrinkles. “Did you just say Drank?”
Harvey cackles, clearly living to confuse the hell out of everyone around him. “Yeah, that’s what I call it.”
I’m shaking my head as I watch my dad step out of his vehicle. And then Theo is there, jogging up the short hill to shake Kip’s hand.
Summer sidles up beside me, holding Vivi. “You okay, Win?”
I nod, feeling a splash of nerves roiling in my gut. So, I have some more drank. Hopefully, it will chase them away. I watch Theo and my dad open the back hatch of the SUV and pull out . . .
Because what my dad and Theo are carrying down to the party is something I never thought I’d see again. Something I swore was long gone, sold, or rotting in a landfill.
But within moments, they set it right in front of me, rendering me speechless.
It doesn’t just look like the dollhouse from when I was a little girl.
It is the dollhouse from when I was a little girl.
Tears spring up out of nowhere, and my hand covers my mouth. In many ways, it’s just a dollhouse. But in others, it’s so much more.
Harvey’s hand lands on my shoulder, and Summer’s rubs at my back.
“I hope it’s okay that I told him,” she whispers.
Theo smiles at me like the cat who caught the canary while my dad is having a hard time meeting my tearful eyes.
“I thought Vivienne might like this.”
I sniff, staring at my father, who is proud, and stubborn, and flawed. Today, he looks humbled.
“Years ago, I found it in the back alley when I was taking the trash out. And I put it in storage. I wanted to give it back to you, but I didn’t know how.” He glances up at me, and I stand here at a loss for words. My dad has made many mistakes but showed up today anyway. He helped me find a lawyer. He left my mom. He’s never fought for me before, but he is now.
And I’ve learned a lot about forgiveness in recent years.
Especially how hard it is to forgive yourself.
“I just wanted you to have it. Consider it a peace offering. I haven’t been good enough for you—Theo here gave me a real wake-up call on that—but I want to be. If you ever think you’d like that too, you’ve got my number.”
With a pained smile, he turns to leave. I feel kindred with him somehow. The old version of me was here once too. I glance at my sister, the one who forgave me so wholly that I was able to start fresh.
And Theo, the man who didn’t hold the shitty things I’d done over my head as some sort of proof of what kind of person I was. He took me at face value and allowed me to start fresh too.
“Dad.” He stops but doesn’t turn. “Why don’t you stay? Try some of Harvey’s drank. It’s uh, good for taking the edge off.”
Quiet confusion fills the space for a beat.
My dad faces me now, a small tug on the corner of his lips. “Why did you just say drank?”
I burst out laughing. The stress, the pressure, the confusion . . .
It all feels more bearable when I’m with my family.
Later that night, when the sun gets low in the sky, Theo curls his hand around mine and walks me to the other side of the ranch house. Our feet crunch on the gravel driveway and the hum of friendly conversation grows quiet as we get further away from everyone.
We left a cake-covered Vivi in Kip’s arms. Her grandfather is so taken with her he didn’t seem to mind the mess.
“Where are we going?”
“To be alone for a minute.”
“Are we sneaking away to fuck?” I whisper, as though anyone could hear us.
Theo chuckles, the rumble in his chest warm and comforting. The press of his black dress shirt slides like silk against my bare arm.
His head turns, his eyes tracing me up and down while his tongue darts out over his lips. “I hadn’t planned on it, but you look very fuckable in that red dress, Doctor Hamilton.”
“How much farther? My feet are tired from standing in these boots all day.” I sound whiny, but I don’t care. I don’t have to be at my best with Theo.
He’ll love me at my worst, and at my whiniest. Today I’m tired, overwhelmed, and feeling a little wrung out.
He turns suddenly, scooping me into his arms as I squeal and reach for his neck. “Heading to that same spot in the pull-through where you dressed me down almost two years ago.”
I laugh and let him carry me until we’re standing in front of the ranch house.
Right where I shoved my keys between my fingers and lost my shit on him.
Right where it all started.
Theo places me on my feet as I peer around the property. It was cold, dark, and snowy that night. And I was stressed out.
But tonight it’s warm and golden. The sky is a pale pink. My feet are killing me, but I’m content.
And when I look back at where Theo was standing—he’s now down on one knee.
Holding a little blue velvet box with a stunning teardrop solitaire ring glinting off the rosy sky.
And I freeze.
Theo chuckles. “I know this might feel soon, but hear me out.”
I nod woodenly. It doesn’t feel soon. It feels like a dream.
“I was in this exact spot when you gave me the best and hottest verbal lashing of my life. You were all wild eyes and fighting words. I thought I’d never seen a more heart-stopping fiery woman in my life. You were . . . well . . . you were mean. But I appreciated your spunk. That was the night I knew I wanted you.”
Fucking tears fill my eyes again.
“That was the night I told my friend I thought I was in love with you. And I had no idea how right I was.” He shyly lowers his gaze for a moment. “I was being an obnoxious little shit disturber. I was egging you on because I liked the way you scratched back. I liked you.”
A tearful giggle ripples out of me. Only Theo Silva could have liked me that night.
“That night, all the best things in this world came into existence. You. Vivi. Us.”
A tear spills down my cheek, and I reach up, nodding as I swipe it away. He’s right. That night changed the world.
“That night I realized I’d never get over you. Time, distance, none of it mattered. That night, I knew there would be no one like you for me. I was so sure of it. I could feel it in my bones. I still do.”
I can’t keep up with the tears anymore, so I just let them fall. Accepting this isn’t some disease I have.
I drop to my knees, wanting to look into this man’s face. The one who never treated me like I needed saving but saved me all the same. I cup his cheek and he presses a kiss into my palm before forging ahead.
“That night we were reckless.” His voice cracks. “But god, I’d be reckless with you over and over again if it means ending up here.”
That sentiment. This man. It’s like there was something missing inside me. Like I wasn’t whole, until he came along.
“Yes.” I reach for the ring.
“I haven’t even asked yet.” His corresponding laugh is thick. Tearful too.
“You don’t need to. The answer is yes.”
He drops the box and slides the ring onto my finger with shaking hands.
We stare at my hand for a moment. Just the two of us.
“Winter Hamilton, will you marry me?”
I smile through the tears. “Would hate to make a liar out of you after how long you’ve been telling people you’re going to marry me.”
He winks at me. “When you know, you know.”
And this time I don’t roll my eyes. I kiss him.
I kiss him until there’s nothing else but his lips on mine, his hands in my hair, and his ring on my finger.