Sum of Us

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Ch. 22 - Rhys

Poppy’s in bed with her laptop in her lap when I walk into our hotel room after the show.

“You’re awake.” I shut the door behind me.

“Checking out MIT’s website.” She pushes up her glasses.

“Finally?” I smile.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d keep up with my streak of doing things for myself.”

I can’t keep a smile off of my face. “Are you reapplying?”

“I don’t think I need to. I already got in and departed on good terms. There’s a law that forbids them from discriminating against pregnant women. That’s why I left. I’ll have to call the admissions office to be sure, but I should be able to re-enroll without re-applying.”

“YES!”

“Shhhh. She’s sleeping.” She holds her index finger to her lips.

I rush to bed. “Can we call them now?”

“It’s after two in the morning.”

I sit on the edge of the bed beside her. “Call and leave a message. They’ll get back to you first thing.”

“I’m calling after Thanksgiving.” Poppy closes her laptop. “It’s not going anywhere. Breathe.” She coaches me through a deep breathing exercise.

“You’re going to be studying plants with other smartpantses soon.” My broad smile is back as soon as I’ve exhaled.

“Maybe. Hopefully.”

“Yes, and I’m covering the costs. Harp’s going to help you pick out a sick backpack and both of us are going to cheer you on as you try to heal the planet.”

“I thought I’d take out student loans, actually.”

“You had a full-ride then. You’ll have one this time too.”

“You make too much to qualify for financial aid. Full priced tuition is a major investment. About 50K a year.”

“I’ve got it.” I shrug.

“You own a home and a car. You bought them for your mom too. You have day-to-day living expenses. You insist on paying a generous amount of child support on top of that. You’re well-off, but you don’t have a bottomless pit of money.”

“Taylor and I paid for our house and cars in full. Same goes for Mom’s. Taxes are what we pay on them. We split the costs of Chris’s medical school loans, Becca’s salon, the down payment on Lindsey’s townhouse, and Leo’s Corvette. Most of my expenses are covered by the label when I’m on tour. Music’s not my only source of income. I get paid for brand endorsements and I’ve invested in promising tech startups. I’m good on funds.”

“You water Silicon Valley seedlings in your spare time?” Poppy adorably scrunches her face in confusion.

“What are you trying to say?” I fake offense.

“You once spent $78 to win me a teddy bear worth less than a dollar at a carnival. Rhys Wilde and fiscally responsibility aren’t exactly synonymous.”

“$77.99 was for the experience.”

“You’re driving my point home.”

“I learned my lesson. The experience to product ratio is much better this time. Come next fall, you’ll be watering actual seedlings with the money I earned watering my metaphorical ones.”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“It’s happening. Let it.” I kiss her on the cheek and stand.

The bedside lamp is still on when I get out of the shower. Poppy’s laptop is closed and she’s lying on her side in the direction of her nightstand. I climb beneath the covers and assume the big spoon position.

Poppy switches off the lamp. “Can I ask you something?” She speaks in the darkness.

“Anything.” I kiss her shoulder.

“Why didn’t you tell Taylor about the contract? He would’ve helped you find a workaround. What they did verges on prostitution.” She holds my hand.

“Pride.” I admit.

“Details, please. I’ve been under the impression that you ditched me to hang out with supermodels for years. I need help coming to terms with the opposite.”

“Tay’s been cleaning up my messes our entire lives. Dealing with the fallout of the biggest one to date was a way for me to prove I’m just as much of a man as he is.”

“Is that why you didn’t turn to him as soon as you found out about Harper?” She empathetically coaxes.

“She’s my daughter. I wanted a shot at being a whole dad, not the lesser half of one.”

“Rescind that comment.” She rolls over to face me.

“Huh?” I question in confusion.

“Take it back.”

“Oh. No.”

“Do it.”

“It’s the truth. He’s better at the adulting stuff. There’s nothing more grown-up than raising a child.”

“You put your heart and soul into all that you do. You have a special spark that was passed along to our daughter. You’re able to nurture it in ways no one else can.” She plays with my hair. “Do you know what I catch myself thinking a lot?”

“No, what?”

“I love that she has him.”

“I don’t deserve your faith in me.” I struggle to find my voice.

“Has any of what you said tonight been a lie?”

“No.”

“An exaggeration?”

“I would’ve taken out all the parts that prove I’m an idiot if it were.”

“Susceptible to manipulation, not an idiot.” She corrects.

“Same thing.”

“You were a teenager that was preyed on by a major corporation. That’s something they should be ashamed of, not you.”

“They went for me because they knew I was the easiest target.”

“That’d be Kyle. I love him, but he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

“He comes from money, enough of it to intimidate them. My mom worked herself to the bone. We were still barely scraping by and my dad’s useless. You and Tay made sure I graduated highschool. My odds of making it anywhere, not just in the industry, were low.”

“You mowed lawns to buy your first guitar and keyboard and taught yourself to play them. You’re the one who asked the guys to start a band. You pen the first draft of every song. You perform your heart out on and off the stage, even at your worst. The label applies the most pressure to you because you make them the most money. “

“That’s not—”

“It is.” She rests a hand on my face. “They’re on your case because exploiting gifts is what people like them do.” She caresses my cheek with her thumb.

“What do I do?”

“We’ll figure it out.” She presses a kiss to my forehead.

“I love you.” I hug her.

“I love you too.” She rests her head atop mine.

“Is our trip to Seattle the reason you can’t sleep?” My head remains on her chest.

“Yeah.” She runs her fingers through my hair.

“We don’t have to go.”

“I want to. The unknown is what has me antsy. I never thought I’d go back, especially not with her.”

“Do you want to go see him? I’ll go with you.”

“No, assaulting an officer is a felony. I’d hate for the tour to be postponed a second time because you were arrested for defending my honor.”

A grin creeps onto my face. “It’d be worth it.”

“He’s not.”

“At least you know you are.”

“Sometimes. I’m still working on feeling it full-time.”

“A start’s enough.”

“We have a long day ahead of us. Better try to get some sleep.”

“Talk later?” My heavy lids fall closed.

“It’s a date.”

~

“Daddy, what dat?” Harper points to the private jet up ahead of us.

“An airplane; it’s going to take us high in the clouds and right to Grandma’s house.”

“It so big.”

“It goes fast too. So fast that you barely feel it moving.”

“Wow.” She gasps, her doe eyes fill with wonder.

Private jets are not the norm for us. We typically fly commercial when we go home. It was impossible to do it this time with Harper and Poppy in tow. Our situation would be revealed as soon as we stepped into the airport. Harp’s not exactly stingy with the words ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mama’. I didn’t want to take separate flights. I know returning to Seattle is hard for Pop, despite her claims of the opposite, and I don’t want to miss Harper’s first plane ride. Not being with my ladies was out of the question.

“Mama, it go fast!” Harp relays to Poppy as though she’s not standing right beside us.

“I heard. We’re going to have to buckle you in nice and tight, Lovebug.”

“Couds and Gamma house.” Harper continues.

“It’s going to take a while for us to get there. Good thing we packed lots of fun things to do in your backpack.”

“What are we going to play with on the plane, Harp?”

My question keeps her busy as we board.

“Hi!” Harper waves at the first flight crew member we encounter.

“Well, hello. You must be Harper.” The stewardess smiles at her.

“Yes. This Daddy.” Harper pats my shoulder.

“Are you Rhys or Taylor? I’m sorry I don’t already know the answer.”

“Rhys. It’s fine. Comes along with being a twin.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Rhys.” She politely offers her hand.

I shake it. “What is your name?”

“Janice.”

“That Mama.” Harper points to Poppy.

“Penelope, correct? That’s the woman listed on the passenger manifest.”

“Yes, but feel free to call me Poppy.”

“Poppy, it is.” They shake hands. “Welcome aboard. A carseat has been installed for Harper at the table in the back. I assume she has toys and games that need a surface. There are three other seats at the table that allow you to sit with her.“ Janice motions to it.

“Thank you so much.” I say.

I truly am grateful. The only other seating is a couch and single seats that line the length of the plane.

“If you need anything else, do not hesitate to let me know.”

“We appreciate it.” Poppy reiterates for us.

We make our way to our seats. I put Harper on the ground and allow her to stretch her legs before being fastened in her chair for seven hours. It allows me to run my safety checks.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Ian asks as he buckles his seatbelt.

“Safety check.” I continue tugging the main strap of Harper’s carseat.

“He does it before putting her in any device. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed.” Poppy’s taking a remote from Harper.

“Me too. He’s really going at that thing.” Ian’s expression verges on worried.

“I’m a dad. Protecting Harper from harm is a big part of my job.”

“Are you getting rid of your Range Rover? They don’t do well on safety checks. Rollover risks.” Taylor casually drops a major bomb on me.

I halt my hulking in shock.

“No. It’s his dream car. We’ll overcompensate with attentive driving and a top-notch car seat.” Poppy answers for me.

“I’m not risking it.” I state firmly.

“You’re keeping the Rover and getting a second car with all the safety features your heart desires.” She argues.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Not doing it gets you a mark in the ‘no’ column.”

“Unfair.” I frown.

“I want what I want.” She shrugs.

“Fine, but I’m getting you one too. If you reject it, you’re getting a strike.”

“I get to pick it out.” Poppy attempts to compromise.

“It has to be new.”

“No.”

“It’s brand new, straight from the factory, or the Rover gets it.”

“What happened to fiscally responsible Rhys?”

“He works hard. He should get to ball sometimes. A balance is healthy.”

“Fine.” She narrows her eyes at me.

“It’s been a pleasure negotiating with you.” I go back to my safety check.

“What just happened?” Ian looks between the two of us.

“Co-parenting.” We say at the same time.

“What happens if you get too many strikes? Grown-up time-out?” He’s still trying to figure it out.

“Kind of.”

“Pretty much.”

“Huh. Interesting.” That seems to be enough for him

Taylor’s observing with a knowing look. Kyle is obliviously asleep in his chair, wearing a hood and sunglasses.

Poppy has the hindsight to change Harper’s diaper before strapping her into her seat.

“Are you comfy, Lovebug?” She’s securing the straps of Harper’s carseat.

“Uh-huh.”

“Here’s Barry.” Poppy hands him to her. “This is apple juice.” Poppy puts her sippy cup in the chair’s cupholder. She then rotates Harper’s chair in the direction of the table and locks it in place.

I’m in the seat across from Harp. Poppy takes the one beside her.

Pop and I talked about our seating arrangement. I want to see Harp’s face during take-off and her excitement at seeing clouds for the first time. Poppy agrees.

Harp emits a giddy squeal when the plane starts down the runway.

“Look.” Poppy points to the window.

Harper turns her head to look out of it. She was given the window seat for this very purpose.

I capture every expression and sound of joy with my phone. Harper’s bangs and bun give me an unimpeded view of her face.

“Want go outside.” She puts a hand on the window.

“We have to stay in here, Lovebug. It’s not safe out there.” Poppy answers her request.

“Couds fuffy.”

“They look soft, but they’re not. They’re actually balls of fog. They’ll get you all wet.” Poppy corrects.

“No baff time.”

“It’s not. That’s why we need to stay on the plane.”

“Couds pwetty.”

“Nature is pretty.” Pop agrees.

Poppy proceeds to explain why clouds exist, how they make rain, and why the sky is blue. Harper holds onto her every word and asks relevant questions.

All I can do is watch both of them in awe.

“Usic, Daddy.” Harper requests at the end of her science lesson.

“Cloud watching music or playtime music?”

I’ve made playlists for both. Poppy was not joking when she said that she has to keep them on deck. Harp’s not an easy customer. She will call you out if you put the same songs on several playlists.

She makes me so proud.

“Couds.”

“You’ve got it.” I remove her headphones and tablet from her backpack. in the seat beside me.

I updated its library yesterday between soundcheck and dinner.

“What’s the vibe of this playlist?” Poppy accepts the electronics from me.

“Happy but chill. Dancing along isn’t an option, but she’s more than welcome to hum and sway along.”

“Name a few of the artists in the lineup.” She syncs Harper’s Bluetooth headphones and tablet.

“Air Review, Belle & Sebastian, Book Club, Tame Impala, The Japanese House, and Alvvays.”

“Can you send it to me?”

“It would be an honor.” I pretend to get choked up.

Poppy wards off a smile.

“What do you say to Daddy for putting together this playlist for you?”

“Tank you, Daddy.”

“You’re welcome. I hope you like it.”

“Wove usic.” Harper’s beaming at the mere thought of it.

I couldn’t have handpicked a better daughter.

“Look at me, Lovebug.” Poppy requests.

Harper listens.

Her headphones are placed on her ears, and they are adjusted to stay on her head.

“Tank you, Mama.”

“You are very welcome.”

Harper’s humming shortly after Poppy presses play on the tablet. Pop turns Harp’s chair towards the window and locks it in position. Our little lady’s now able to watch clouds without developing a crick in her neck.

“I think she is a fan of flying.” Pop smiles at me.

“Yes, which makes our lives a million times easier.”

“We’ll be able to harness all of our patience and energy into potty training her.”

“That’s the one first I’m not looking forward to.”

She sighs and nods. “There will be a lot of tears.”

“What if we make her a potty playlist?” I suggest.

“What would we put on it?”

“No idea, but we have time to figure it out. She’s not showing readiness signs. Most parents don’t start trying until 2 ½.” I recall what I’ve read on parenting websites.

“What should we do for her birthday? It’s around the corner.”

“We’ll be in Anaheim. Disneyland, of course.”

I’ve been researching birthday venues too.

“What if we get seen together?”

“Her birthday is on a Wednesday in February. Attendence to the park will be low, which lowers the odds of being recognized.” I do my best to put her at ease with the truth.

“We can only go if we acknowledge that Walt Disney was a garbage person.”

I nod, smiling at her request. “That’s number one on the itinerary. Second is getting personalized mouse ears for all party-goers.”

“Who’s on the guest list?”

“Our families. We’ll do something backstage at the concert the next day and invite all of Harper’s performer and crew friends.”

“She’s going to love it.” Poppy smiles at Harper, who is still blissfully cloud watching. “Let’s do it.”

“Do you want to start finalizing party plans? The plane has Wi-Fi and I’ve got my laptop.”

“You know how I feel about planning.”

My backpack and Harper’s are transferred to Poppy’s seat after my laptop is taken out of it. She joins me on my side of the table.

“The Disney Princess Breakfast is a must.” I click on the internet icon.

“Do you know this from experience?” The amusement in Poppy’s tone is clear as day.

“Yes. Taking my nieces to the one in Disney World is how I became their favorite uncle.”

“Aw, when did you take them?”

“Last summer. It was our first annual family vacation. We haven’t decided where we want to go this year, but you and Harper are definitely invited.”

“We accept.”

I take Poppy’s hand beneath the table. She intertwines our fingers.

“Did Taylor get to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?”

“We dedicated a whole day to it. He and Chris were like kids in a candy store.”

“Did you get sorted into Gryffindor like I said you would?”

“Yep.” I say, popping the ‘p’. I bought Ron’s ‘R’ sweater to get in the spirit.”

“Please say you didn’t wear it in the Florida summer heat.”

“Believe me, I wanted to rub the fact that Ron and I share an initial in Tay’s face, but wool and humidity don’t mix. I bought a Gryffindor quidditch shirt to wear at the park and put the sweater on as soon as we got back to the hotel. I wore it to bed for the rest of the trip.”

Poppy laughs. “Did you get Ron’s wand too?”

“Yeah. The interactive version. Worth every penny. I cast all sorts of spells that day.”

“Thank you for your honesty. I now know not to leave you unsupervised in any of Disneyland’s gift shops.”

“I get to go in them. That’s all that matters.”

“I don’t think fiscally responsible Rhys exists.”

“He does. This is a very special occasion. Our genius princess is turning this many.” I hold up two fingers using my free hand.

Poppy smiles and nudges me with her shoulder.

We research the rides, restaurants, and events and take note of the ones she will enjoy most. I buy her a sequin-sleeved t-shirt that features Mickey Mouse wearing a party hat in front of a pile of presents. We are going to give it to her for Christmas. That’s when we’re sharing the news.

“No, Mama. Usic.” Harper whines, reaching for the headphones Poppy removes from her ears.

“It’s time for lunch, Lovebug. You can go back to watching clouds and listening to music with Barry after you eat.” She turns Harper’s chair to the table.

“Are you hungry?” I ask her.

Harper nods, rubbing her eye with the back of her hand.

“I think you’re sleepy too.”

“No seepy.” Her yawn says otherwise.

Harper puts up a good fight against sleep as she eats a well-balanced lunch. She goes back to sky-gazing after I change her diaper. Poppy rejoins me on my side of the table when Harper has fallen asleep.

“I’m sleepy.” I announce.

“Me too.” She angles herself towards me, her head on the chairback. “Our napping schedule has definitely synced.”

I request blankets and pillows from Janice. Poppy and make ourselves comfortable in our seats. I doze off holding her hand.

Seven hours on an airplane with Harper was a walk in the park. The novelty of the clouds never wore off for her.

“Why top?” Harp’s little face is scrunched in confusion.

“We’ve made it to Seattle, Lovebug.” Poppy answers with a smile.

“B-but want couds.” Her lower lip trembles.

“You’ll get to revisit the clouds on Sunday.”

“Couds.”

“Our plane ride is over today. We will take another one very soon.” Pop begins to unbuckle her from her car seat.

A piercing wail and crocodile tears rip from Harper. Everyone aboard the plane stops what they’re doing to watch her epic meltdown.

There’s a staggering amount of power in her little lungs.

I assist Poppy in trying to talk down our flight enthusiast. Harper’s having none of it.

Kyle offering her candy doesn’t work.

Ian’s silly faces go unnoticed.

Taylor tickling her just makes the crying louder.

Poppy playing Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis on her phone does absolutely nothing.

“May I?” I extend my arms to her.

Poppy hands Harper to me without hesitation.

I hold her to my chest. Harper’s hot tears soak my neck. She’s white-knuckling my t-shirt as her little body wracks with sobs. Swaying and rubbing her back, I sing Don’t Look Back in Anger directly into her ear. Harp tantrum is reduced to quiet sniffles by the song’s end.

“Time to dry those eyes, Lovebug. We have cookies to make with grandma.” I clear moisture from her chubby cheeks.

“Ookies wit Gamma?” Her watery eyes are hopeful.

“Yes. All different types.”

“Wike ookies.”

“You’re in luck because your grandma makes the best cookies in the whole wide world.”

“Want see Gamma.”

“That’s more like it.” I give her a kiss.

My mom honestly does make the best cookies. She’s an amazing cook. She’s gained a pretty big following posting cooking videos online. She’s recently ventured into photo blogging.

“You just earned yourself a checkmark, mister.” Poppy takes Harper from me.

“Parenting does it for you?”

“Big time.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” I send a wink her way.

Ian, Kyle, and Taylor use taxis to get to their homes. Tay’s avoiding mom’s house to keep from being asked to go to the grocery store. I can’t exactly blame him. Few places are worse than grocery stores the day before Thanksgiving.

I rent a car to drive for the duration of our stay. I’m sure to check and compare the safety ratings of all available vehicles. Driving with Poppy in the passenger seat and our child in the back is an experience I thought I lost the chance to have three years ago.

But here I am.

How right it feels to be able to call them my family makes it difficult to keep a goofy grin off my face.

“This place is beautiful.” Poppy muses as we walk the stone pathway that leads to Mom’s front door.

“What do you like most about it?”

“The landscaping – all the trees, shrubbery, and stone. It’s peaceful.”

“Just wait until you see the backyard. There’s even more greenery. You missed most of the flowers, but a few of them are still hanging on. There’s a stone patio with a fireplace. There’s a retractable awning to cover it when Seattle’ lives up to its sterotype. There’s a little duck pond. It’s fenced in to keep the kids from wandering in on their own, but there’s a bench and flowers inside of it.”

Harper starts making duck noises.

“We’ll visit the ducks later. We can even feed them.” I vow to her.

Harper gasps. “See duckies?”

“See duckies,” I confirm.

“You don’t feed them bread, right? It’s lethal for them.” Poppy goes into scientist mode.

“My mom started keeping duck feed in the house after Chloe told her the same thing.”

She sighs in relief. “Good. We’ll get a repeat of the plane meltdown if one of the ducks kicks the bucket.”

“Duly noted.”

“Did you and Taylor Property-Brother this place too? If you did, you accidentally created my dream backyard.”

“No, but we’ll recreate it in Boston.”

“That’s not what I meant. I--” Poppy starts.

“Harp clearly needs 24/7 access to duckies to be happy. Parks close at sundown. The rest of the backyard has to be on its level for the full effect. My hands are tied.” I shrug and press the doorbell.

“Now you’re just playing dirty.”

“Whatever it takes to win, babe.”

My mom immediately whips open the door, shamelessly revealing that she was waiting in the foyer.

“GAMMA!” Harper reaches for her.

My mom’s rendered speechless. She takes Harp into her arms, holds her flush to her chest, and kisses the side of her face repeatedly.

“How are you even more precious in person? I might just have to keep you.” Smiling, Mom rubs her nose against Harp’s.

“She’s ours. Get your own.” I remind her of our presence.

“I had my tubes double-knotted after you and your brother were born. The last thing I needed was a third set of twins.”

“I feel so loved right now.”

“I’ve missed you too, baby.” A hint of a smile plays on her lips as she gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“Daddy big boy.” Harper corrects.

“He’s my baby. I’m his mom, Lovebug.” Mom tells her.

“That my mama.” Harper points to Poppy.

“She sure is and I love her very much.” Mom lovingly replies. “Come here, sweetheart, I need a hug from you too.” She extends an arm to Poppy.

“Hi, Mom. How are you?” Pop gives her a hug.

“Never been happier. Come on in.” My Mom kisses both of her cheeks.

“Where are your bags?” She asks.

“The car. I’ll get them later.” I answer.

“That’s your car? I thought it was some sort of rideshare.”

“Rental. I--”

“PUPS!” Harper exclaims when my mom’s dogs scamper into the room. She dives for them.

My mom puts Harper on the ground to keep her from hurting herself.

The set of mixed-breed lap dogs lick her cheeks as their tails whip rapidly. Harp squeals with delight as she pets them.

“You’re not getting her a dog.” Poppy stares me down.

“Fine.”

I’m getting her two.

“You said that too quickly.”

“I. Will. Not. Get. Her. A. Dog.” I drag out each word.

They are happier in packs.

“Their names are Gizmo and Widget.” My mom’s on the floor with them.

“Izmo and Widit fwiends.” Harper hugs them.

“This is going to be awhile. Wanna go get the bags?” I propose to Poppy.

“Might as well.”

“What’s your favorite kind of dog?” I ask once we are outside.

“I’m reluctant to answer that.”

“It used to be goldendoodles. I’m just curious as to whether or not you still watch videos of them when you feel overwhelmed and gardening’s not an option.”

“You remember that?” She looks at me with a soft smile.

“You watched them from the time you submitted your MIT application until you received your acceptance letter. It’s hard to forget weeks of puppy videos. I had to compete with them.”

“They look like live teddy bears. Watching them frolic makes me happy.”

“I must admit they’re pretty cute “ I relent.

“Is yours still golden retrievers?” She asks.

“Is Air Bud still awesome?”

“He’s got kids now. They have their own movies.”

“And Harper and I will be watching all of them as soon as possible.” I pop the trunk with the remote.

“I see you are still primarily influenced by eighties and nineties movies.”

Space Jam is the only reason I go to pro basketball games.”

“That’s great motivation right there. Who doesn’t want to sit court-side during an alien invasion?”

“Finally! Somebody gets it.”

My mom and Harper are no longer in the foyer when we return to the house with the bags.

“They’re probably in the kitchen.” I shut and lock the front door.

“Hungey pups, hungey pups, hungey pups.” Harper sings her two-word song as she transfers kibble from a plastic container into the dogs’ bowls with her hands.

“You’ve already put her to work?” I complain.

My mom’s filming her instead of helping.

“She asked to feed them. I couldn’t say no to that little face.”

Harp has a jolly pep in her step as she continues to haul dog food.

“Carry on.”

“You’re still not allowed to buy her a dog.” Poppy follows me up the stairs.

“I know.” I let out an exaggerated groan.

“First stop is room one of the two kids’ rooms.” I open the door.

The large room houses a bunk bed, a toddler bed, and a crib. A framed calligraphy print of each girl’s name is above their assigned bed. Their bedding and space around their beds reflect their interests.

Chloe’s a beast on the soccer field. Grace loves mermaids. Courtney has really taken to her tap and ballet classes. Harper’s area contains animals and instruments. A little pink Peppa Pig guitar is even on a guitar stand in the corner.

“Harper’s never going to leave when she sees this room. All of her favorite things are here at Grandma’s house.” Pop scans the room with a smile.

“We’ll have nothing to worry about if we get her a puppy and a duck pond.”

“We talked about spoiling her.” She puts Harper’s bags near her crib.

“You saw her downstairs. She asked to feed the dogs. A brat wouldn’t care about the welfare of others.”

“Rhys, if I board the tour bus on Sunday and see a dog on it, you will be in a world of trouble.” Poppy warns.

“There will never be a dog on the bus. There’s not enough space and all the driving would be tough on its stomach. I’m not a monster.”

“I’m glad to hear we are on the same page.” She crouches on the floor. “Are there any hangers? I don’t want her dress for tomorrow to get too wrinkled.” She unzips the proper suitcase.

“Yeah.” I drop our bags.

I open the double doors of the walk-in closet, unveiling a boatload of princess gowns, occupational garments, mermaid tails, and much more in varying sizes.

I step into Narnia with caution. The mountains of glitter, tulle, and flashy fabrics verge on blinding. They make the newly added everyday clothes stand out that much more.

“She didn’t.” I utter as I shift through the rack.

“Who didn’t what?” Poppy pokes her head into the room.

“What does this look like to you?” I hold up the outfit that best illustrates my point -- a long-sleeved cream blouse with a faux fur vest.

“No way.” She snorts with a huge grin.

“This is not funny, Penelope. She’s trying to dress our daughter up as her clone!”

“They look a lot alike. Might as well fully commit.” She says on a giggle.

“She’s never done this with any of her granddaughters. Just Harp. I’m the baby of the family. I get hand-me-down experiences. I don’t know where this bizarre road leads. We could be feeding a beast.”

“There’s no such thing as monsters. Your mom certainly isn’t one of them.”

“She has a blazer.” I hold it up. “A baby blazer. What has the world come to?”

“You had a custom denim jacket made for her.”

“What’s your point?”

“Babe, you’re being ridiculous. Those clothes are adorable. I’m sure they will look even cuter with the accessories she bought to go with them.”

“B--”

Poppy silences my rebuttal with a smooch.

“Let your mom have her fun. Her reaction to Harper’s existence exceeds my wildest dreams.” A tint of sadness undermines her smile.

I ditch the clothes and wrap my arms around her waist.

“I’m here.” I murmur into her ear.

She holds me tight.

“Tell me if being here is too much for you. There’s no shame in it. We can visit Chelsea in Boston or take a mini-vacation somewhere.”

“This is what we are doing. Harper gets to be with her loving family. It’s all going to be okay.” She takes a deep breath, remaining in our embrace.

“You do too.”

“I know you mean well, but don’t try to spin me a fairy-tale. You, your mom, and Taylor are the only ones that want me here. The others will smile to my face because you asked them to. They’ll continue to think what everyone thinks -- that I’m taking advantage of you.”

“They haven’t seen you in years. Recognition will kick in as soon as you’re in the same room. Hold on just a little bit longer, baby. Everything’s going to work out.” I run my a hand up and down her back in comforting pressured strokes.

She cranes her neck back to look at me. “What if it doesn’t?” Tears well in her eyes.

“No idea. Good thing it will.”

She breathes a laugh as a few droplets escape.

“I love you.” I clear her cheek with my thumb.

“I love you too.” She grumbles, rolling her eyes with a hint of a smile.

“We better hang up Harper’s dress and get downstairs before Mom figures out a way to kidnap her.”

“They might already be gone.”

“I’m only half-joking. Let’s speed this along, gorgeous.” I plant a swift kiss on her lips.

Harper’s Thanksgiving outfit is hung alongside my mom’s purchases. We put our bags in the guest room that used to be my bedroom. Poppy and I hold hands as we make our way to the kitchen.

“As soon as you’re done, we’re going to start cooking.” My mom’s leaning on the kitchen island, sipping from a mug.

Harper’s in a highchair with animal crackers on its tray.

“Bahhhh.” Harper does her best imitation of a sheep before eating the corresponding cracker.

“Woof. Woof.” Harp drops cookies onto the floor. Widget and Gizmo immediately pounce on them.

“Cookies are for people, not for puppies, Harp.” Mom tells her.

“Sare nice. Izmo and Widit fwiends.” Harper drops more cookies.

“Listen to grandma, Lovebug. The cookies will hurt their tummies.” Pop pulls her hand from mine to clean Harper’s mess.

“Oh, no!” Her little face falls. “I sowy.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t know, but remember for next time.” Poppy collects the fallen cookies that the dogs have yet to eat.

“I saw the purchases you made. Do you care to explain?” I join my mom at the counter.

“I saw the hand holding. Do you?” She rapidly retorts.

“Nope. I’m good.”

“Me too.” She goes back to her tea with a satisfied smirk.

“Daddy Ookie.” Harper holds it one out to me.

“Are you sure it’s a Daddy cookie?”

Her eyes go from me to the cookie and then back to me. “Uh-huh!” Her smile never falters.

“What’s it say?” I ask.

“Roar!”

“ROAR!” I gobble the lion out of her hand.

Harper squeals, giggles, and squirms.

“That was a Daddy cookie. Good job, My Cub.”

“Roar.” She gives me a hug.

“Do you have enough milk to finish your animal crackers?” I check upon seperating myself from her.

“Yes. Want ’ome?” She holds her sippy cup to my mouth.

“I’ll get my own. Thanks, though.” I kiss the top of her head. “Want anything, Pop?”

“Water, please.”

“Thank you.” She accepts her glass.

“You are quite welcome,” I say in a British accent.

“How has it gotten worse over the years?”

“Worse? Are you mad? It’s bloody brilliant!” I fully commit to it.

“Oh, it’s awful. Truly terrible. Feel free to keep going, though.”

It takes all I have not to kiss her smart mouth.

“All done!” Harp announces, breaking the spell. “Cook!”

“You need a fresh diaper and washed hands first. Chefs have to be nice and clean.” Poppy puts down her glass of water.

“I’ll take her.” My mom goes to them.

“Are you sure? Her diaper bag is all the way upstairs.”

“I want to spend as much time with my little princess as possible.”

“By all means.” Pop transfers Harper to her. “It’s in the girls’ room.”

“We’ll be back soon.” My mom warns us and tells Harp.

“We’re not going to—”

“Soon.” She gives me a stern look over her shoulder.

“Understood.”

“Let’s go, Lovebug. I’ve got something extra special to show you.” The two of them leave.

“So…she thinks we’re going to jump each other.” Pop turns to me.

“Yep.” I stroll to her.

“Kind of embarrassing.” Her cheeks tint pink as she looks at her shoes.

“Harper makes it pretty obvious what we’ve been up to.”

“Not helping.” She pushes me.

I step in her space. “I have five siblings. All of us were born before our parents’ 30th birthdays.” My arms encircle her waist. “Leo had his first kid at 18. Lindsey was 20 when she had hers. Becca was 21 when Robby arrived. There are no stones in this glass house.”

“Wildes are very fertile.”

“That we are.”

She breaks eye contact with me. “Is it uh – possible that you—”

“No.” I quickly shut down her worst nightmare.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You’re the only one I’ve been with unprotected.”

“Birth control can fail. The perfect example is upstairs.”

“I haven’t been with anyone in seven months. I’ve seen a recent photo. There’s no way she’s pregnant.”

“What about someone before her? You didn’t know about Harper.”

“You don’t do social media. All of them post everything they do.”

“Oh.”

“Are you disappointed you’re my only baby mama?” I quirk an eyebrow.

“No. no. Relieved, obviously. It’s just – you keep in touch with them – the others.

“Not actively. They’re in my feeds. I can unfollow them. No problem.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It makes you uncomfortable. I’ll fix it.” I withdraw my phone from my pocket.

“I trust you.” She lowers it with her hand.

“Seriously, it’s no trouble.”

“The number. That’s all I want.”

“Pop, I – I wasn’t in a good place. I was doing whatever it took to feel something. I—”

“Please.” She asks in a small voice.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Not giving a number is worse than giving one. You know how my mind works.”

“Seven.” I can’t look her in the eye.

“Including me?”

I shake my head.

“It’s okay. We weren’t together.” There’s a very subtle crack in her voice.

“I was able to do whatever I wanted with whomever I wanted while you were raising our daughter on your own.”

“I made major decisions concerning her without consulting you.”

There’s a prolonged silence as it all sinks in.

“These are our first ‘no’ marks, aren’t they?” I gain the courage to meet her gaze.

She nods.

“But I’m still in this. Are you?”

“Yeah.” She breathes a laugh and smiles. “Things were going suspiciously well for us.”

“Perfection is wrong.” I play along.

“And all of our shoes need to clatter to the ground for this to work.”

I pull her close and sear my lips to hers. Her arms wind around my neck. We begin to fight for control of the kiss. My phone falls to the wayside during our languid lip locks.

“Your—” She initiates separation.

“First drop.” I rope her right back in, and we’re off to the races.

“TIME TO COOK NOW, LOVEBUG!” My mom projects from down the hall for our benefit.

We quickly get ourselves straightened out.

“See. Told you it didn’t break.” I wait until Mom, Harp, and the dogs into the room before showing Pop my phone.

“Special case or screen protector?” Poppy keeps up the ruse by examining my unscathed screen.

“Both. A protection plan too. I’m in a very dangerous line of work, you know.”

“Harp is quite fond of texting random letters to random contacts.”

“Exactly. We can’t have our girl cutting her fingers on the glass.”

“The only person you are fooling is her.” My mom points to Harper.

Harper’s running around in a circle, laughing as the dogs follow her.

“We’re not dating. We’re just…”

“Getting to know each other again.” I complete Poppy’s thought.

“Be careful. That’s how Leo and your sisters happened.”

“Your vote of confidence goes a long way, Ma.”

“I say it because I want what’s best for you. Both of you.”Her eyes settle on Poppy.

“Thank you.” Poppy smiles softly.

“But I will say that you make beautiful, sweet, and smart children. I wouldn’t mind having more of them to spoil. Later. Not now. In the future. The distant future.”

“We here you loud and clear, Ma.” I tell her.

“Poppy, I’ve got an apron with your name on it. Rhys, you’re still banned from my kitchen.” She walks to the pantry.

“Why did you do?” Pop giggles.

“You accidentally use salt instead of sugar one time—”

“You did it on purpose. I saw you and Kevin giggling and high-fiving when Taylor took a bite.” Mom interrupts.

“I was asked to babysit him. It kept him occupied.”

“Breaking my standing electric mixer trying to make peanut butter was your second offense.”

“You ran out. Grace was hungry. I found a recipe online.” I shrug.

“One that surely mentioned a food processor.”

“Couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. Mixers are supposed to mix.”

“Ruining my toaster by making a grilled cheese sandwich in it was the third strike.”

“If you hadn’t turned the toaster upright before it popped, it would’ve worked. That’s the only way I know how to make them. Robby asked for one.”

“I’m not going to let you use them to talk your way out of this. You’re banned. End of story.”

“I forgot he can’t cook.” Pop muses.

“I can order in like nobody’s business.” I put a positive spin on the truth.

“You’d starve to death otherwise.” She retorts.

“Survival skills deserve a ‘yes,’ not a ‘no.’”

“That’s to be decided.” Poppy looks at me with a little grin.

“I’ll be waiting.”

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