Sum of Us

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Ch. 25: Poppy

The culinary arts are not my area of expertise, but Claudia and Georgina Wilde deserve all the Michelin stars for the Thanksgiving meal they prepared. Everything’s out of this world delicious. It made me wish every day was Thanksgiving. Harper’s request for more ‘urkey and 'mushy atoes’ after eating all of the food on her plate at record speed leads me to believe she shares my sentiments. Rhys and I announce to the table that we do, in fact, feed her regularly after Harp asks for a fourth serving.

Chloe and Grace’s mothers drop them off towards the end of dinner. To my surprise, Leo has his kids the same amount of time as their mothers. He’s actually a good dad in his own little way. He’s very patient with them, especially Grace. Never in a million years did I think I would witness Leo Wilde discussing My Little Pony and The Little Mermaid with expert-level knowledge. His boasting about Chloe’s soccer stats and Kevin’s pee-wee football ones were much more on brand, but touching nonetheless.

Rhys can’t help but talk about Harper’s musical abilities. This leads to her being asked her favorite songs. “Wo-wall” aka "Wonderwall" is her first pick. She surprisingly goes on to name Wilde Knights songs instead of the Oasis, Beatles, and Radiohead ones she typically lists. Rhys’s promptly accused of coaching her answer. I defend him by stating Harper has a mind of her own. Taylor proves it by asking her to say her favorite color is yellow instead of purple. She’s quick to say ‘no’ and stays strong.

Cleaning the dining room is a group effort. It’s picture time once we were done. The sitting room is the location Claudia chooses. The ones featuring the kids are slotted first. Harper’s still on her concert schedule and will soon be ready to go down for nap number two. The room couldn’t be more picture-perfect – a fireplace, ample lighting, beautiful couches and chairs, and free of kids’ toys. It’s the type of place Chelsea looks for when she does family portraits.

“Leo, stand next to Rhys.” Georgina orders as she manually arranges the children.

“I can’t. I’ll strangle him.” His menacing stare never leaves Rhys.

“I thought the beef between you two was squashed.” Taylor adjusts his suspenders.

“It was until I found out what he did,” Leo growls.

“It was three years ago. Move past it.” Rhys calmly replies.

“How would you like it if I STOLE your car and fu--”

“Language!” Claudia cuts him off.

“Made a baby in it and left the mess for you to deal with?! That car is like a kid to me and you molested it!”

“Okay, take it down a notch, DiCaprio. You already won your Oscar. Your Mustang’s not your only car. It’s not even your main one. Let. It. Go.” Rhys remains nonchalant to provoke him further.

All of their siblings snicker at this false revelation. The glass of wine I had with dinner keeps me from dying of embarrassment. I still blush and shield my face with my hand.

Leo lunges for him. Taylor catches him before he takes a step in Rhys’s direction.

“He’s kidding. He’s totally kidding. We never did it in your car.” I intervene. “I’m 5’8. He’s 6′2. Your Mustang’s a two-seater stick shift. Magic would be required to make that work.” I verbally intervene.

“Now, we’re even,” Rhys confirms.

“Swear?” Leo stops struggling to free himself from Tay.

“Cross my heart, but we did make out in it. A lot.”

That’s true.

“I don’t like it, but I’ll accept it.” Leo resigns.

“You have to. What’s done is done.” Rhys manages to get the last word.

Leo pulls him into a headlock and gives him a noogie. It’s one done out of love, not revenge. It marks the official end of their disagreement. I’ve watched them end fights this way countless times.

“You actually did it,” I say to Rhys once he’s free from his brother’s grasp.

“You knew I would.” He does his best to fix his hair with his fingers.

“You have zero shame.” I help him.

Rhys drops his hands and lets me take over. “I have some around others, never with them.”

“Are you happy you listened to me?”

“Maybe.” He tries his best not to smile.

“Yes.” I finish his hair.

I’m asked to move to the row in front of Rhys and beside Lindsey. As the youngest and smallest, Harper’s in the middle of the front row. Most of Georgina’s organizing efforts are spent trying to keep Harp from wandering off to pet Widget and Gizmo. Claudia’s promise to let her feed them treats after the photoshoot is what gets her to cooperate.

Georgina’s new boyfriend takes full family photos. Claudia and Georgina are the photographers for the smaller groups – Rhys and his siblings, them with their mom, all of the kids, the kids with the dogs, Claudia, her brother, and Georgina, and each couple with and without their offspring.

Claudia takes care of the ones of Rhys, Harper, and me.

Seated on the floor in front of the fireplace, Rhys and I are side by side with Harper in between us on his lap. I shift positions and work to rearrange my top when I notice it looks like we have a second baby on the way.

“Relax, gorgeous. You look incredible.” Rhys slips his arm around my waist and speaks into my ear. He follows up his sweet words with a kiss on the cheek. I melt into him, a natural smile forms on my face.

“Smile really big for Grandma, Lovebug.” Claudia’s request reminds me that we have an audience.

“Den I gets to pway with da pups?”

“I need you to take a few more pictures with your parents. You’re free to spend as much time with Gizmo and Widget as you want after that.”

“Yay!”

I don’t have to look to know Harper’s smiling from ear to ear.

“Perfect. Keep doing what you’re doing, everyone.”

Mama Wilde takes several shots of us in this pose. A few of us standing in front of the fireplace with Harper on my hip. And lastly, one of us on the couch.

“All done, Harper.” Claudia moves on to Jess and Christopher.

Harper quickly scrabbles off the couch and runs to be with the dogs. They enthusiastically greet her with licks and tail wags.

“I’m gonna go get a cookie. Do you want to come with me?” Rhys stands from the couch and offers me his hand.

I take it. “How can you still be hungry?”

“Eating’s fun.” He doesn’t let go of my hand though I am standing.

“High metabolism, got it.” I interlock our fingers.

“But I’ve got taste. I’m not a garbage disposal like Kyle.”

“His eating habits fascinate me. All the sugar he consumes should’ve deteriorated his teeth by now, but his smile is pristine. Extra flossing? A water pick? Veneers? Prescription toothpaste? I want answers.”

“Regular dental floss, a ridiculously expensive electric toothbrush that syncs to his phone, and toothpaste that isn’t technically legal in the US. Taylor investigated.”

“How does one smuggle toothpaste or even think to do it? Is there that big a market for non-FDA approved dental products?”

“You’re asking the wrong person.”

“Remind me to consult with him later.”

Rhys compiles a plate of food dinner food instead of merely taking a cookie. Sipping a glass of water, I stay with him in the kitchen as he eats.

“Would you judge me if I serve leftovers to you for dinner tomorrow?” He stabs green beans with his fork.

“Nope. It’s convenient and saves time, money, and energy. You can even warm it up in the microwave if you want. It’ll still be delicious.”

“You’re the best.” Rhys gives me a quick peck on the lips and promptly goes back to eating.

“You probably would’ve served them anyway.”

“On our second date? Absolutely, but not on our first. I have to bring my A-game.” He stabs green beans with his fork.

“What does that entail? I’m wearing the nicest outfit I packed. I don’t want to be in jeans while you strut around in a tux.”

“I love you, babe, more than life itself, but I have to draw the line somewhere.”

“A jacket and tie in your own home cross it?”

“Limits are healthy. That’s why safewords are a thing.” He inserts the loaded fork into his mouth.

Caught off guard by his train of thought, I inhale my drink into my lungs.

“You okay?” He pats my back as I cough.

“Point A to point B. It took a strange turn.” I croak once I’ve worked through my fit. “Is there something I should know?”

“About what?” He looks legitimately confused.

“New preferences that require the utilization of safewords.”

“No, I know why they are used and how. I don’t partake myself, like meth.” He goes back to eating his food.

I snort, thankfully without water in my mouth. “How did you get from BDSM to crystal meth?”

“How did you not get there?”

“Oh, I don’t know. One is completely fine if done correctly and the knowledgeable consent of both parties. The other will destroy your life and body no matter what. You can’t make BDSM out of cough syrup, Rhys, you just can’t.”

“It sounds like there’s something I need to know.” He quirks an eyebrow and his lips contort into a smirk.

“You didn’t know that I’m a meth-dealing dominatrix? I thought it was obvious.”

“I saw it from a mile away.” Taylor walks to the kitchen. “She’s into science and unassuming. It’s always the ones you least expect.” He opens the refrigerator without sparing a glance in our direction.

“Please say everyone else is far, far away.” My cheeks redden.

“They’re on their way down to the basement. I was sent to tell you it’s ‘family fun time’.”

“Where’s Harper? Does she need anything?” I hop off the barstool.

“Mom has her. She’s probably the proud owner three ponies by now. Sit back and relax.”

I comply. “What’s ‘family fun time’?”

“Karaoke, games, and meddling. Mom blacklisted your situation, so you’ll just spectate while the rest of us suffer.”

“What could they possibly have on you?” I ask.

Rhys shakes with silent laughter.

“You’re really one to talk, ‘Daddy’.” Taylor retorts as he pops the cap off a bottle of beer.

“I didn’t say a word.”

“He didn’t say a word.” I pick up my glass.

“But if I did, I’d say Grams isn’t the best person to call after you’ve taken peyote at a music festival in the desert.” Rhys adds.

“Psychedelic drugs and grandmothers don’t mix.” I tsk.

“I gave him my phone to prevent something like that from happening.” Taylor defends.

“I kept your phone. You wrestled mine away from me when you got the bright idea to ‘commune with an elder to continue the quest’.” Rhys quotes.

“You could’ve fought harder.”

“You sounded so sure of yourself. What if I had actually held you back from discovering the meaning of life?”

“That would have been the real travesty.” I immediately tack on before having a sip of water.

“What is this?” Taylor looks between the two of us.

“What’s what?” Rhys says between bites of food.

“Your current level of synchronization.”

“You’re not allowed to ask that, so we’re not required to answer.” I retort.

Rhys holds put his hand for a high-five. We manage to do it successfully without looking at each other.

“My money’s on you to win the Newlywed Game,” Taylor tells us.

“We’re not married, engaged, or dating. We don’t qualify to play.” I reply.

“You’ve procreated and obviously well on your way to being a full-time duo again. Close enough. Mom thinks it’ll be a cute thing to do for Chris and Jess.” Tay rolls his eyes.

“You don’t think so?”

“She’s more excited about their wedding than they are. They’re a courthouse couple. They're putting together this big show for their families. It’s silly. It’s their relationship. Let them do what they want in it.”

“Sometimes, I think we are the same person and it makes Rhys’s interest in me problematic.”

“No! Don’t spin this into something incestuous. We get enough of that already.” Rhys rebuts with a frown.

“What? Ew. From who?” My face sours in disgust.

“Fans--” Rhys starts.

“--We get plenty of threesome prepositions.” Taylor finishes.

“No.” I shake my head.

“Yes. A lot of them are really into the idea of doubling down. We’re not.” Rhys elaborates.

“Because it’s incest. Incest-lite, but still incestuous. There’s no way you could do that without accidentally touching each other. Would I ever want to be a part of that? Nope. Never. Gross.”

“That’s an A+ answer right there,” Taylor says.

“Do I get extra credit if I add that you’re not interchangeable? I could never do the things I have done with Rhys with you.”

“Yes.”

“You get all the points.” Rhys answers.

“Awesome.”

Rhys finishes his food. I drink the last of my water. Taylor takes his beer to-go.

Their basement should be referred to as a subterranean bar/lounge/movie theater. The boys didn’t skimp on the furnishings for their mom’s place.

Rhys and Taylor have gone on record saying “only assholes wouldn’t take care of a mom like ours”. They bought her house and car with their signing bonuses.

I scan the expansive room for Harper. I find her playing fetch with Georgina, Widget, and Gizmo. Grams throws a toy and Harper tries her best to get to it the dogs do. She laughs in the face of defeat and pets each of them for their accomplishments.

Rhys charges over there. I’m quick to follow. Taylor tags along to spectate.

“Why is my daughter being treated like a dog?” Rhys crosses his arms.

Even though he’s totally overreacting, I still can’t help but find it sexy when he goes into protective-dad-mode.

“She’s playing. It started out as both of us throwing them toys. Harper started racing them and I let the little angel go for it.” Grams dismisses his outrage.

“It was clearly Harper’s idea. Look at how happy she is.” I gesture to Harper.

She’s currently barking on all fours and being treated to doggy kisses from Gizmo and Widget.

“Take it down a notch, Witherspoon. You already won your Oscar.” Taylor teases him using his own joke.

“I was not named after her.”

“Yes, you were.” Grams and Taylor say at the same time.

I start laughing before I can think to stop myself. Rhys turns to me with narrowed eyes.

“I’m sorry, but come on. How could I not find that funny?”

“Swallow down the laugh. Unified front.”

“Next time. I promise.”

“You can’t talk, Taylor Thomas. Reese has a thriving career. Jonathan Taylor Thomas hasn’t done much of anything since Home Improvement ended in 1999.” Rhys fires at Taylor.

“He was a 90′s heartthrob and Young Simba in the original Lion King. He’s a legend in his own right.” Tay retorts.

“Voice only. He didn’t sing.” I point out.

“Yes! What she said.” Rhys holds up his hand for me to high-five without looking.

I hit it.

“Why didn’t you stop her from doing this to us?” Taylor turns to Grams.

“You could have gone your whole lives without knowing the origins and been perfectly happy with them. Hush.”

“She’s not wrong.” I think aloud.

“United front, Pop. You promised.”

“I gave you the Young Simba assist.”

“Still.”

Harper crawls over to us and barks what I assume to be ‘hello.’ I lower myself to my haunches.

“Hi, Lovebug, are you having fun?”

She barks.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. Keep trying your best. You’ll catch up one day.” I smooth back her hair and give her forehead a kiss.

She licks my cheek.

“I love you too, little pup.” I pat the top of her head.

She’s a product of Rhys and me. Of course, she’s a little weirdo. I’m always going to encourage her to let her freak flag fly. Rhys asking her to give him a puppy kiss too lets me know he intends to do the same.

“It’s game time. Do you want to play on Daddy’s team?” Rhys asks her.

“Is that such a good idea?” I’m leery despite his promise.

“With or without her, I’m only playing games with the little kids. They haven’t been corrupted by their lying, cheating parents yet.” He answers in a sugary sweet tone and a big smile. “What do you say, Lovebug? Up for a game of Candyland?”

“Andy?!” Harp morphs into a human right before our eyes.

Courtney, Robby, and Gracie come running.

“Candy?”

“I want some!”

“Me too!”

The four of them have swarmed us in a matter of seconds.

“You two have fun.” Grams parts with a soft chuckle, leaving us alone with the miniature mob Rhys created.

“I hope you have a plan,” I say through gritted teeth and a forced smile.

If you show fear, they’ll pounce on it until you give in to their demands.

“Put your phone down.” Rhys snaps at Taylor.

“It’s content is up to you. This could be a heartwarming video of you bonding with children or one of you crushing their dreams. I’m down with either possibility.”

“You could help instead.”

“The only one that likes me is Harper. I’d make things worse.”

It isn’t that the new generation of Wildes dislike their Uncle Taylor; they love him. Tay lives in the realm of reality and refuses to leave. When compared to their Uncle Rhys, who loves playing make-believe just as much as they do, Taylor’s not as much fun in their little eyes. Harper is the exception.

She loves talking and Taylor questioning her logic gives her ample time to do it. They’re a match made in heaven, just like Rhys and Taylor.

“Auntie Poppy, I want the candy.” Grace takes my hand.

She pins me with her almond eyes. Her bottom lip poked just the right amount to be cute instead of obnoxious.

I need to keep her far away from Harper. If she learns that trick, the word ‘no’ will be eliminated from my vocabulary.

“Uncle Rhys was talking about a game of Candyland. It is about candy.” My voice’s shaking. Her gaze is hypnotic.

I now understand why Leo has never been without a bed buddy despite his obnoxious personality. With enough charm, you can rule the world. His little girl inherited that dangerous skill from him.

“Did he eat it all?” Courtney demands an explanation.

I somehow manage to tear my eyes from Grace.

“No, there was never any candy.” I offer her an apologetic smile.

“I want candy!” Robby stomps his foot.

“You can chime in at any time, Rhys.”

“Will cookies work?” Rhys tries to sway them.

“They would be asking for cookies if they wanted cookies,” Taylor interjects from behind his phone’s camera.

Rhys looks over his shoulder. “Feel free to share the better idea you have.”

“Mom bakes with chocolate.” He actually offers a solution.

“Semi-sweet and dark. Their pallets will reject it unless it’s baked into something.” That much, I do know.

“Maaaa!” Rhys yells her name the way Harper often does his.

“Yes?” Mama Wilde doesn’t leave her seat on the couch or looks in his direction.

“Your grandbabies need candy to play Candyland.”

This makes her look at him. “Them or you?”

Rhys whispers into Harper’s ear.

“I wants andy, Gamma. Pweeze.” Harper’s likely parroting him.

The rest of the little ones say something to the same effect. Claudia’s on her feet and walking to the kitchenette area in a matter of seconds. She comes to where we are with bags of different types of candy and brightly colored plastic bowls.

“Would you have done all this if it were for me?” Rhys asks her.

“Yes, but I would’ve finished my wine first. Follow Grandma if you want candy.” She tells the kids once she’s finished with Rhys.

They clamor to be as close to her as possible in hopes of being the first one to get their beloved candy. Harper argues with Rhys as he carries her in the direction of the bathroom instead of towards the candy.

“Pop, grab Robby. He needs to be scrubbed too.” He tightens his hold on Harp to keep her from breaking free.

Robby kicks and screams when I pick him up.

“Candy!” He repeats, stretching in its direction.

I take quite a few blows to the torso to get him to the bathroom. I close its door to keep him from escaping. After I set him on the floor, he bangs on the door and yells as though he’s been kidnapped.

“There better be a good reason I was told to take him. He’s a fighter.” I push my hair out of my face.

“He plays in toilets. I don’t want us to be blamed when he gets E.coli.”

My face screws in disgust. “Please say you’re joking. I’m begging you.”

“I wish. He’s why we’re only having girls.” He’s wiping Harper’s cheeks with a soapy hand towel.

The casual mention of future offspring has a warm feeling spread in my chest.

“Who’s to say a daughter of ours won’t have an affinity for toilets?”

“No potty! I no wike it!” Harper wails.

“Daddy will protect you from the scary potty. I promise.” He kisses her forehead.

“I no wike it.”

“I know, Lovebug.” He rubs her shoulder. “I’ll keep you safe.” He replies with equal parts sweetness and sincerity.

“She’s how I know.” He goes back to cleaning her face.

Once he has cleared Harper’s face of dog saliva and her hands of dirt she’s collected from crawling on the floor, he swaps her out for Robby.

“Keep it up, and we won’t be playing horsey while I’m here.”

Rhys’s threat immediately silences Robby’s shouts for candy.

He puts his hands beneath the running water and allows his uncle to wash them.

“When you say ‘playing horsey’, do you mean getting on the ground and crawling around on all fours as he rides on your back?”

“What else would I be talking about?”

“You don’t care about playing it cool in front of me at all, do you?” My smile grows.

“It’d be impossible to re-earn your trust if I bothered with pretending.”

“What about the whole A-game first date thing?” I run my fingers through Harper’s hair as she hugs my legs.

“I will be holding doors and pulling out chairs for you, of course, but if you think the evening itself is going to be remotely close to normal, you’ll be greatly disappointed. The knowledge that microwaved leftovers are what’s on the menu should’ve clued you into that.”

All I can do is smile.

Rhys Wilde is one of a kind.

Grace and Courtney are chowing down on candy when Rhys and I return with the dirty duo.

Taylor’s in the process of setting up the Candyland board game one of the coffee tables. The girls are seated on pillows around it. Counting and recalling directions is still tricky for the younger players. Rhys serves as Harper’s partner; Taylor teams up with Robby, and Courtney requests me as soon as she learns she needs to play with a buddy. As a kindergartner, we deem Grace as being capable of flying solo. She runs to tell her daddy the good news before we start the game. Leo gives her the ecstatic reaction she was hoping to receive.

The rules of Candyland are straightforward. Players take turns removing the top card from a stack. The card they draw will have a color on it. The player has to move their game piece ahead to the next space of that color. The deck of cards has one card for each named location; drawing one of those cards means you get to move directly to that board location. This move can be either forward or backward. The first person to reach Candy Castle wins.

You’d think the children ages five and under would be the ones requiring special attention. No such luck. It’s Taylor and Rhys. Both of them are guilty of trying to create rules that give their team an edge. The kids and I are subjected to six rematches. I’m happy to report that Grace wins the majority of the games. The sore losers groan when she skips off to tell Leo the good news.

“Both of you should be ashamed.” My scolding is undercut by an amused smirk begging to be unleashed.

“No one got hurt. I kept my promise.” Rhys reminds me.

“We’ve come a long way,” Taylor adds.

“Deplorable.” I shake my head.

“Gracie wiped the floor with you. What’s her prize?” Leo carries Grace to our table.

“Our companionship.” Rhys sends a big smile his way.

“We’re playing for real, for something tangible.” Leo joins us on the floor.

“What are we talkin’?” Taylor leans on the armchair behind him and crosses his arms.

“$25 buy-in for each team. Winner takes all.”

Rhys’s face lights up at this development.

“Nope, absolutely not,” I say before he agrees to his brother’s terms. “We’re not tainting the game of Candyland by teaching them to gamble with it.”

“We’ll ditch the kids and play.” Leo proposes.

Rhys and Taylor rumble their approval.

“You, three men in their twenties, two of which are fathers, want to put down money on a game of chance created for small children?” I can’t believe my ears.

They unanimously agree.

“Doing things like this with their toys and shows is how I stay sane. The last time they were here, we turned watching My Little Pony into a drinking game. Now, I know all of the characters and their backstories.”

“Wouldn’t drinking make it harder for you to learn?” I tilt my head to the side.

“You’d think so, but his brain defies logic. I think all the keg stands he’s done in his lifetime have scrambled it.” Taylor’s all too happy to report.

I see that the kids have left us to go to their play area. Hopped up on sugar, they are buzzing from toy to toy, activity to activity, happy as can be. Grams is supervising.

“Does it have to be cash?” I ask.

“Check, all money apps, and good ole’ fashioned IOUs are accepted when playing any of our games,” Leo answers with a lascivious smile.

“But if you do select the IOU option, do expect to have it dangled over your head at all possible times.” Taylor clarifies.

“He got salt in his cookies because he wouldn’t pay up when he lost the March Madness bracket.” Rhys references.

“That tactic is one of the reasons you are banned from your mom’s kitchen.” I remind him.

“I would have been kicked out eventually. I figured I might as well get money out of it.” Rhys shrugs.

“I’m going to regret playing with you later, aren’t I?” I ask no one in particular.

“Probably,” Taylor answers truthfully.

“But you’ll have fun in the meantime.” Rhys's smile sells it.

The cards are shuffled, the bowls of candy are refilled, and alcohol is added to the mix. The boys have beers. I pour another glass of the wine I had at dinner.

An hour. That is how long it takes for me to get tipsy enough to reach Wilde-level of competitiveness. I make as many absurd calls and argue as much as the rest of them. And it pays off, literally.

The logical part of my brain recognizes that I won by chance and no sort of strategy can be applied to the game, but the side that wants to let go of all the “shoulds” and “have to” really enjoys pinning my wins on ridiculousness. Yes, I did say wins. There’s no way we would have allowed a winner to be named after one round.

“Cough it up, fellas. I won. Chris and Jess said so.” I point to our referees.

The graciously stepped in when the profanity and threats of violence started flowing freely. I’m just as guilty of it as the boys are.

Taylor and Leo pay me using money transfer apps.

“I would like an IOU.” Rhys requests.

“Veto. He wants to pay you back by being a prostitute.” Taylor objects.

“Don’t shame them. They make an honest living.” Rhys defends them instead of himself.

“If he wants to be a cheap hooker, I say we let him.” Leo takes a drink of his beer.

“I have to side with Taylor on this one.” I make my decision.

“United front, Penelope. You double promised.” Rhys complains.

“$25 is too low. I don’t want a bargain basement escort. High-end is the only way to go when it comes to them.”

Leo cackles at my response. Jess and Chris chuckle. Taylor is failing miserably at not smiling.

“My body, my price.”

“And I’m not paying it.”

“Fine.” Rhys begrudgingly pulls his phone out of his pocket.

The karaoke time announcement made by Becca prevents us from desecrating another children’s game.

“Lovebug, it’s music time.” I fetch her.

“Usic?!”

“Music,” I confirm, offering her my hand.

Harper drops the doll she was playing with and puts her little hand in mine. We head to the part of the room where the karaoke machine has been set up. More accurately, she runs and drags me along with her.

“Daddy, we ing ongs.” Harper climbs onto his lap.

“We have to share with everyone else. We can do one song. Want song do you want to sing with me?” He lifts her onto his lap.

“Wo-wall.”

“We can do that one. If you want me to play the guitar, I need you to do something for Daddy. It’s very important. Will you help me?”

“I help.”

He pulls her close and whispers his special request into her ear.

“Will you do that for me?”

She nods with a bright smile."I wove mama.”

“Shhh. It’s a surprise.”

“I already knew you would be using her to wear me down.”

“You’ve already been worn down. We’re going on a date. Harp and I are discussing something private. It has nothing to do with you.”

“Right. I forgot that she has the proclivity to call loads of people ‘Mama’.”

“I don’t know what that word means, so sure. Why not?”

“Habit or tendency.”

“She grows and changes every day. It could be her new thing. We have to accept that about her.”

“Harper, who is Mama?” I quiz her.

“You my mama. I wove you!”

“I love you too, baby.” I give her a kiss. “She doesn’t understand the concept of secrets. I think you’re going to have to go back to Taylor being your wingman.” I direct at Rhys.

“Nah. She’s much cuter. People are more likely to go along with what she says.”

“I can say no to her.”

“But you’re not completely immune to her charm. No one is. It’d be easier for you to shut down Tay than her.”

“Maybe.”

“Yes.”

I can tell Harper is on the verge of a sugar crash when she chooses to stay in Rhys’s lap and watch people perform instead of dancing. That said, she’s not too tuckered out to hum and move to the music. I fill a sippy cup with water to make she’s adequately prepared for her duet with her daddy.

She shares her drink with him. They have done it often enough for me to stop reminding him of his age in hopes of getting him to stop drinking from her cups.

Harper’s transferred to me when Rhys runs upstairs to get his guitar. The music distracts her enough not to complain about his absence.

“I have a huge favor to ask.” Jessica sits on the arm of the couch to be next to me.

“Ask away.”

“May Chris and I borrow Harper for our wedding? We think she’ll make a fine flower girl.”

“She’s all yours. Tell me where, when, and what to do and she’ll be there.”

“Thank you!” Jess accomplishes the impossible feat of giving me a side hug at an angle without spilling a drop from the drop of red wine in her hand.

“You’ll need to sit in the front row during the wedding. I hope that doesn’t change your answer.”

“It doesn’t. I would feel bad if someone else had to wrangle her. She can be a handful.”

“Great. I’ll have Claudia send you everything you need to know. She and my mom are in charge. My dress has been picked out. The wedding party has been composed. Chris and I are letting them have fun with the rest.”

“I know Claudia was over the moon.”

“Beyond the stars is more like it. We were happy to give that to her. After what she endured to get him to where he is today, I’d happily hand over my firstborn child if she asked.”

My excitement dwindles. “Did she ask you to include us?”

“No.” Jess adamantly shakes her head. “We told her this is what we planned to do. You’re apart of Chris’s family. You will be becoming mine that day.”

“She is,” I say in a small voice.

Jess takes my hand in hers. “You may not have their last name, but anyone can see from a mile away that you belong with this crazy bunch. You’re a calming presence in all the chaos. Rhys wasn’t the only that missed it. Chris and Taylor said as much after the punch heard ’round the world that occurred last Thanksgiving. There’s no way I could’ve witnessed something like that and not ask a million and one questions. That was my official introduction to the legendary Poppy. I am happy to say everything they said was spot on.”

“You have no idea how much that means to me.” I give her hand a light squeeze for support.

I’m not going to cry today, not even happy tears.

“G-tair! G-tair!” Harper exclaims.

“It’s showtime, Lovebug,” Rhys responds to her cheers.

“Usic?”

“Usic.” He repeats.

Harper escapes my arms as quickly as she can. Rhys takes her hand and walks her to where the karaoke machine is set up. He drags a chair to it. Becca eagerly volunteers to hold the microphone for Harper.

“Harp has selected her favorite song to sing. She has also decided to dedicate it to someone very special.” Rhys has settled into his seat and his guitar is in place. “Who are you singing this song for, Lovebug?”

“Pups!”

Everyone in the room laughs.

“Anyone else?”

“I inging songs fo' da pups, Daddy.” She reiterates.

“Throw me a bone here, baby girl, you’re supposed to be helping me out.” He whispers loud enough for all of us to hear.

“Oh, no! Pups hungey? I help!”

“They’re fine. I’m the one that needs you.”

“Ong, Daddy. We ing ong fo' pups.” Harper pleads.

“After this, they are going to sit down and have a long talk about your priorities, young lady.” He adjusts his guitar in his lap and puts his fingers on the necessary strings.

There’s still chuckling throughout the room when he begins to play.

Harper waits the correct number of measures before starts to sing. Rhys is right there with her. Many of Harper’s words are incomplete and at times nonsensical, but she stays on beat and harmonizes with Rhys at all of the appropriate times. She’s too caught up in her performance to look at anyone in particular. Rhys’s alternating between looking at her with pride and me with reverence.

A song written before we were born, one that I have heard a million times during my twenty-one years of life, feels as though it was created to narrate where we currently stand.

The audience erupts with cheers and applause when they are done with their duet. My smile is painfully wide as Rhys teaches her to bow. Rhys lets Harper pluck a few of his guitar’s strings before returning it to its case and placing it on the bar counter. Harper trails after him like the puppy she wishes she was. I abandon my seat on the couch to be with them.

“You did such a good job, Lovebug!” I pick her up.

“I ing ong wit Daddy.”

“You sure did and I loved every second of it.”

“I wove you, Mama.” She gives me one of her signature warm hugs.

“Oh, so now you can say it.” Rhys pretends to be upset with her.

“I love you too.” I rub my nose against Harper’s. “Do you want to see if Gizmo and Widget liked your song?”

She nods vigorously. I give her a kiss before putting her on the ground.

“How’d I do?” Rhys asks as he returns his Gibson to its case.

“You tried your best. Just keep practicing. You’ll get to her level one day.” I move to be closer to Rhys.

He wards off a smile. “It’ll be the day you outrank dogs on her love list.”

“The heart wants what it wants. Hers chose cute goofballs that seem to love her as much as she loves them.”

“More.” He presses a tender kiss to my forehead.

Jessica manages to talk me into singing Elton John’s "Benny and the Jets" with her. I’m comfortable enough in their company to have fun despite being in the spotlight. Leo uses his turn poke fun at Rhys by selecting a Wilde Knights song and doing an impression of him. His other siblings follow suit, even Christopher.

They make it a competition to see who can do the best job of mocking him. Rhys’s a good sport about it. The two of us plus Jessica judge the Rhys-alike contest. He critiques everyone using his terrible attempt at a British accent for “talent competition authenticity”. His words, not mine.

Chris’s unexpectedly the winner.

All of the kids are put to bed before the more adult activities begin. Rhys and I give Harper a quick bath before putting her down. She spent a bit too much time on the ground being and playing with animals not to do so.

Rhys and I destroy the competition during the Newlywed Game. One of the game questions is, “how would your partner react if you surprised them with an all-inclusive cruise?’. I write down the response that I know I would hear from Rhys if I sprang that on him – “What? No! Have you seen Titanic? I don’t want that to be us. If we go, it could be!”. And that’s almost precisely what Rhys says when it is time for him to reveal the correct answer.

He goes on a brief tangent about how Rose and Jack should’ve taken turns on the door. I knew he would, but there’s only so much room on a handheld dry-erase board.

Winning by a large margin at a game that’s essentially a test of how well we know each other bodes well for our likelihood to stay together if we get back together.

The duration of the night is filled with laughter and positive energy. I go to bed feeling happier than I have in a long time.

~

I expect to see Rhys in bed the next morning. Instead, his side of the bed is made and a piece of paper is on his pillow. I narrow my eyes to read what he wrote without my glasses.

I set the alarm on my watch to wake up before Harper. Better luck next time, gorgeous.

I get ready for the day with a goofy smile plastered on my face.

Christmas music grows louder as I descend the stairs. The aroma of cinnamon and spices waft through the air. I follow my ears and nose to the kitchen.

Chloe, Kevin, Grace, Robby, Courtney, and Harper are seated around the kitchen table, working diligently on holiday crafts appropriate for their respective age groups. All of them are wearing elf hats as they do it. Mama’s checking on what’s baking in the oven donning a red apron and matching Santa hat.

“Did I stumble upon the North Pole?” I playfully inquire.

“This is the Seattle branch, but we work just as hard down here. We have a strict schedule to keep.” Claudia closes the oven door.

“What’s on the agenda today?”

“They are working on ornaments, snowflakes, and pictures while the gingerbread house and people bake. We’re going to decorate them once they cool. Their artwork is going on the family tree or near it. Things my kids made when they were their ages will be there too. The formal tree will be put up by Becca and me when she’s done Black Friday shopping.”

“May I help?”

My dad was never into decorating. Lights were the only thing on our mini Christmas tree. He saw doing more as a gratuitous waste of time. He regarded all of the arts that way. All of the artwork I brought home from school was discarded after he saw that I earned a high grade on it. He didn’t go to college. He pushed me hard academically to make sure I had opportunities that were unavailable to him.

To this day, I do not fault him for that for raising me to be a realist. That said, a part of me has always wished I had grown up with a second parent that believed in self-expression. That’s why I am the way I am with Harper and why Claudia is the type of mom I have always wanted.

“You will have to stop a little early on account of your date, but we’d be happy to have you in the meantime.”

My giddy smile is back. “I’ll help you with the kiddy tree too.”

“Great. I don’t trust any of them with a needle and thread and I need someone to string popcorn and cranberries.”

“Is Lindsey partaking in the biggest shopping day of the year with Beck?”

“Yes. Leo too. He and Linds are the ones that get the most into it. She printed store maps this year. Leo drew on them like a football coach does a playbook.”

I giggle. “Strategy gets you far. Do you know where Rhys is?”

“If I had to guess, I would say he went home to prepare for your date. He fed Harper, raided my refrigerator, gave us kisses goodbye, and left with bags of food and without an explanation.”

“That sounds like him.” My smile expands.

“Mama!” Harper chirps when she finally notices me.

“Good morning, Lovebug. Working on something pretty?” I go to the table. A trayless highchair has been pulled up to it for her.

“Ismas pitcher.”

Using a thick green crayon, she has scribbled all over a coloring page with a picture of reindeer on it.

“Wow! Your picture is beautiful. Keep up the good work.” I kiss her cheek.

“Look at mine, Auntie Poppy.” Courtney holds up the construction paper ornament that she has drawn on.

“Stunning. I love it.”

All of the kids end up asking for my approval, referring to me ‘Auntie Poppy’ or ‘Aunt Poppy’ as though that’s the only acceptable name for me. I love it more and more each time I hear it.

Children lack a filter. If they didn't see me as part of their family, they wouldn’t be treating me as such to please people. The question of whether or not acceptance is being shoved down the family’s throats dissipates.

My day is spent doing all of the holiday preparation activities Claudia described while eating festive goodies. It’s better than I hoped it would be. Harper gets into it just as much as I do. She learns a litany of new songs. She sings them with gusto as we decorate.

Harp’s crafting highlight is being able to press her hand into plaster to make two ornaments -- one for the family tree and one for the tree Claudia’s going to put up in Rhys and Taylor’s house. Each ornament has her name and date of birth etched beneath her hand and a red ribbon threaded through a hole at the top to secure them to the trees.

Harper’s cousins had their handprint ornaments created when they were newborns. We have to keep them from seeing her make hers to keep them from begging to do it a second time. We manage to pull it off without a hitch.

Nerves infiltrate my rose-colored haze the closer it gets to my date. I try to re-frame what we are doing as a low-key night as friends. It proves futile. Palms sweating, I prepare for my second first date.

I packed just enough outfits to get me from Thursday to Sunday. Becca and Claudia offer to let me borrow clothes from them, but I choose to stay in what I put on this morning. Both for my comfort and to keep Rhys from going on another incest rant. I do let Becca to my hair and makeup, though. Two professional styling appointments in one week – Chelsea will be so proud.

Playing with Harper and Robby’s how I pass the time until Rhys arrives. Their simplistic toddler world offers a great reprieve from the complicated jumble that has become my life.

The doorbell rings and the dogs dart out of the room to inspect the visitor. Robby and Harper are right on their tails.

“Sounds like your gentleman caller is here.” Becca congers up her best southern belle impression.

“Do all of you get together and work on different accents?”

“There’s no need. A flare for theatrics is in our blood.”

“The only person who does anything quietly around here is Chris.” We make our way towards the foyer.

“Hospitals are filled with drama, especially operating rooms. He chose to be a surgeon. He enjoys being extra just as much as the rest of us.”

“Interesting take.”

Rhys is holding Robby and Harper when we reach the front door. The influx of butterflies can be felt in the back of my throat.

“Time to play horsey,” Robby demands.

“This will have to do for today, little man. I have to stay fresh for my date.” Rhys tells him.

“What’s that?” He innocently inquires.

“A big kid playdate. You’ll be able to go on them one day if you stop putting your hands in toilets. No one likes a person that gives them pink-eye.”

“I pway.” Harper chirps.

“Never. No one’s good enough for you.” Rhys shuts down her proclamation.

“Hypocrite,” Beck calls him out.

“How? The same goes for Poppy.” He fires back.

His eyes shift to me. His expression grows soft, and a radiant smile slowly forms on his handsome face. “Are you still willing to slum it with me tonight?”

“I’ve got nothing better to do, so…”

“That’s the spirit.” His smile broadens.

He kisses Harper on the cheek and carefully lowers her and her cousin to the ground.

“Up!” She raises her arms over her head and bounces.

“I have to give Mama a hug.”

“We can have a group hug. It’ll save time.” I articulate with my eyes that we’ll use this to say goodbye to her without actually saying the word.

“Good thinking.” He answers aloud.

I go to them as he gathers her in his arms. Once he’s secured her on his hip, I wrap my arms around both of them. His free arm goes around me. My tense muscles relax at his touch.

“You look gorgeous.” He breathes into my ear.

Goosebumps prickle my skin. “Thank you.” I kiss his cheek.

Our goodbyes to Harper are unbeknownst to her. We kiss her and tell her we love her. She agrees to keep behaving for Grandma and Aunt Becca. Beck says that Widget and Gizmo are hungry and she needs help feeding them. Helper Harper is on the case. She leads the way to the kitchen to fulfill her mission.

Rhys helps me into my coat. He gives me a choice as to whether or not I want to take his hand by silently extending it. I seize the opportunity to be closer to him by taking it.

The passenger-side door of the rental car is opened and closed for me. I quickly check my hair and makeup in the visor mirror. Corrections are needed, of course. I make them with haste and flip up the visor.

“It’s just me. You have no reason to be nervous.” Rhys clicks his seatbelt.

“Did you forget who you are talking to?”

“Did you forget who you’re talking to? We were stone-cold sober and the lights were on when we lost our virginity to each other. There’s nothing left to be shy about.” He quips with ease.

Our first time was a slightly painful short-lived experience that took place the summer before our senior year. Our parents were working late shifts.

Rhys “borrowed” Leo’s car and drove to my neighborhood. He parked a street away from my house just in case my dad drove by to check on me. Rhys crept into my backyard through the broken slat in the fence. I sneaked him into the house through my bedroom window. We had executed those maneuvers so many times that it was a choreographed dance.

Neither candles nor rose petals were present. The only frill we had was music; that was just because we rarely hung out without it. We wanted our first time to be ours, not a forced replication.

The laughs we shared as we fumbled, sweet smiles and gazes of sheer passion, his fear of hurting me, and the complete surrender of ourselves to one another are why it remains one of my favorite memories. I revisited that night on my darkest days.

I swallow down the heavier side of the memory. “It was a respectable first effort. We certainly got better at it.”

“All of those are going to be real soon.” He sees right through my forced smile.

I lean out of reach when he moves in for a kiss.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, mister. This first date just started.”

“You kissed me less than ten minutes ago.” He whines.

“On the cheek and it was pre-date. Doesn’t count.”

“My apologies, madame.” He takes my left hand and kisses the back of it as he holds my eyes hostage with his.

“Miss. I am unwed, good sir.”

“Praise my good fortune.”

A bit of silliness is all it takes to lighten the mood. Music and hitting the road gets us back on track for an enjoyable date.

There are no words spoken as he drives. The silence’s comfortable -- reassuring, even.

The ability to feel connected merely existing in the same space is a sign of compatibility. The freedom to look at the window and reacquaint myself with places I never thought I’d see again is something I’m grateful for. Rhys’s refrain from talking after spending a day away from me lets me know he knows that I need this time. That’s knowledge gained from being friends first and foremost.

“I bet I can guess the PIN.” I wager once we reach the mechanic gate outside of his home.

“By all means.” He reclines his seat.

“Are you going to make me reach over you?”

“I’ve typed it in so many times that now I do it relying on muscle memory. My hand will give it away as soon as it’s near it.”

“It has absolutely nothing to do with me practically crawling into your lap.” I retort sarcastically.

“Your knee could very easily end up there too. This isn’t a guaranteed win for me.”

“Excellent point.” I unclick my seatbelt.

He supports my body with his hands to keep my limbs from inadvertently going someplace that’ll cause him excruciating pain.

With my head and about half my torso out the window, I punch in a phone number I should have long ago forgotten.

Vinny’s Pizza was a staple of our young lives. It was the go-to fast food choice when hanging out in Kyle’s basement. Wilde Wingz, Taylor and Rhys’s annual buffalo wing eating competition, was established as a means of celebrating their ability to consume an inhuman amount of Vinny’s wings in one sitting by challenging others to do the same. The restaurant’s 2 AM closing time made it the perfect spot to go to after all of their shows. And it just so happened to be the location of our first date.

Validation of my Rhys and Taylor trivia knowledge is gained when the red LED light on the keypad changes from red to green.

“So…what did I win?” I plop back into my seat.

“We created a monster.” He gasps with mock horror.

“One that knows how to get good pizza.”

“The best pizza.” He corrects. “Making you the best kind of monster.”

“Does the shop still look the same?” I pull my seatbelt across my body.

“The only difference is an autographed picture of the guys and me hanging in our usual booth. Louis said business has picked up since they put it up. It’s a good thing, too. I wouldn’t have handled their closing well.”

“Can we visit before we leave?”

“We can go now.”

“Private first date, remember?”

“Tomorrow.”

“With more people.”

“It’s a date.”

“Potentially. If tonight goes poorly, it’ll be a friendly outing.”

“You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”

“Nope.”

“And that's why I love you.”

“So, if I give in the spell will be broken?”

“The curse will be broken.” He emphasizes the difference.

“Is this a Beauty and the Beast situation? It would make a lot of sense, actually. The tour is your castle. I’ve liked traveling the country on a bus more than I thought I would. I could have succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome.”

“I don’t think you can self-diagnose Stockholm Syndrome. Being unaware is a big part of it.”

“That wasn’t a ‘no’ on the tower-trapping plan, Wilde.”

“It’s complicated.”

“If this is your A-game, I don’t want to see your F-game.”

“I don’t talk to the furniture in my house, so I have that working for me.”

“You named your instruments.”

“That’s a musician thing, not a kidnapper one.”

“Who said it is impossible to be both?”

“I’m not both.”

“Which one you are is where the question lies, then.”

“Would you like to think it over inside?”

It takes his question for me to notice that the car has been parked. I was too caught up in playing with him to notice.

Point one – Rhys.

Their home looks exactly like what it once was, a brick warehouse that was build in the early 20th century. It’s square with large black framed windows. Warm light is filtering through them; it lets me know they are lightly frosted for privacy.

I hadn’t pictured what his future house would look like while we dated, but sitting here, seeing this, I can’t imagine him living anywhere else.

“I love it.” I smile as I study it in pursuit of the more intricate details.

“More than my mom’s house?”

I nod, zero hesitation. “It’s so you.”

“That’s a good thing?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t.” I press the seatbelt release button. “May I have a tour of your castle?”

“Only if I can get in writing that I’m not holding you against your will.”

I sigh heavily. “I guess I can text you a declaration of consent. It won’t be notarized, though. I could refute it later.”

“One call to Linds and it will be.”

“She has to be here to witness the texting. And what would she stamp? My phone screen?”

“The back of your case. It’d look pretty cool.”

“Hm. That could work.”

“It will.”

“Too bad she’s at her house sleeping off the hardcore shopping she did this morning.”

“I can dream. Let’s do it together.”

I try to kiss the adorable smile off his face.

“Whoa.” He swerves it and my lips land on his cheek. “What kind of man do you take me for? This is our first date, Penelope.”

“Way to slut-shame yourself, which is very ironic considering you wanted to be a prostitute yesterday.”

“I am still very willing to do that if you change your mind. My prices are low, but they are not a representation of my work. I will take pride in what I do to you.” He dramatically vows.

I push him away from me. As he chuckles, I open my door.

“No!” He cries as he rushes out of the car.

“You’ve stolen my thunder, Pop. I’ve been cut to my core.” He continues the theatrics once he reaches me.

“You’ll heal eventually.” I pat his shoulder.

“I will if you’ll be my guest.” He holds out his hand for me to take.

“I forgot my yellow ballgown. Is that okay?”

“I’ll let it slide this time.”

“How gracious of you.” I put my hand in his.

“I try.” He bows and kisses the back of it.

He unlocks the front door with the wave of a key fob.

“So high tech.”

“Our home is smart, especially the security part.”

“Precaution or requirement?” I remain on the porch, the idea of stalker break-ins putting a significant damper on things.

“It’s for peace of mind. We’re gone a lot, but we still get visitors. Our family comes and goes as they please. Maintenance people and construction workers need access to it to work. The system lets us control everything from the gates to the temperature from afar.”

“Oh, okay. Cool.” My rigid spine relaxes.

“I wouldn’t escort you into danger.”

“You’re gesturing for me to walk in first. I’d be in the prime position to be a human shield.”

“Follow me, miss. I’ll lead you to safety.” He tugs me behind him. “Or would you prefer that I carry you to it?” He looks at me over his shoulder.

“Both. I fancy a piggyback ride.”

He squats to make it easier for me to get on his back. “Your chariot awaits.”

I hop on, grinning from ear to ear. My arms are tied around his broad shoulders and his hands on my thighs to ensure I stay on board. He shuts the door with his foot instead of letting go of my legs.

“We’re safely inside. You can put me down now.”

“It’s best you stay up there. I forgot about our bear problem. A couple dozen of them ended up in the pantry every night.”

“Bears, you say?”

“All mothers and cubs. It’s extra dangerous. “

“I have to be put down even more now. I need to run and witness the epic black bear slumber party you’re hosting as soon as possible.”

“These bears don’t hibernate. They don’t even sleep. All they do is eat.”

“I’ll take my chances. If I do go out, at least I’ll do it battling mutant bears.” I wiggle out of his arms.

“I’ll share your tale of heroics with everyone I meet.” He turns around to face me.

“I’ll haunt you from beyond the grave if you don’t.”

“I’ll shout it from the rooftops. Your haunting skills are next level.” The honest undertone tone doesn’t go unnoticed, but I decide to put off confronting the ugly truth for now.

“You passed up a prime opportunity to make a Ghostbusters reference. Are you feeling okay?” I hold the back of my hand to his forehead, pretending to check him for a fever.

“I ain’t afraid of MOST ghosts. “

“I’ll accept paraphrasing this time.” I withdraw my hand.

“Would you like me to take your coat?” He unzips his.

“Yes, please.”

I hand it to him once I have stripped out of it. That’s when I notice his shirt -- the black Henley I’m fond of.

“You banked on me saying ‘yes.’” I gesture to his torso.

“Nah, I considered a date to be a long shot. I packed it to play the long game. I’m not above using my body as bait to lure you in.”

“Yet you say you’re not a kidnapper.”

“I’m not. You’re free to come and go as you please.”

“That’s debatable.”

“Can we do it over dinner? I’m starving.” He hangs our coats in a closet.

“How? You snack all day long.”

“I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I had a strict deadline to meet.”

“A music one?”

“You’ll see.”

“You could tell me now instead.”

“What would be the fun in that?” He takes my hand. “Kevin, lock the front door and play ‘Poppy Wooing Playlist’ in the common areas at convo volume.” He projects his voice.

The door clicks and music plays at a level suitable for background music.

“You named your home management system after Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone and told it to play one of your activity-specific playlists. I think that’s the most Rhys thing you have ever done.” I look at him with amused astonishment.

“What you see is what you get, baby. No false advertisement here.”

“Serious question: how do you avoid confusion when your nephew Kevin is here?”

“Person Kevin goes by Kev. Kevin remains Kevin.”

“Who you make rename themselves is telling.”

“Kev Kevin has never been home alone. It’s a logical choice.”

“Your idea of logic never ceases to baffle me.”

“You like it enough to go out with me. Why change what’s working?” He shrugs.

“That is a very valid point.”

I take in my surroundings as we walk hand in hand. Looking up, I can see all three stories and the wooden beams supporting the building’s structure. Most of the walls are composed of exposed brick instead of plaster. The few that are made of standard drywall are painted white. The touches of concrete and metal make it the epitome of industrial style. Their furniture is in keeping with their vintage building’s aesthetic.

When we reach the kitchen and dining area, he escorts me to the table in the corner. A large mason jar of field poppies is in the center of it. Candles I recognize from Claudia’s living room are on either side of it, unlit.

“This is some top-shelf wooing.” I smiled at him.

“I’m just getting started.” He pulls out my chair.

I take my seat. He pushes me to the table once I am settled.

“Thank you.”

“Happy to do it.”

Rhys retrieves a lighter from a kitchen drawer and lights the vanilla-scented candles.

“Would you like red or white wine?”

“Red, please.”

A fresh bottle of the wine that was served with dinner yesterday is uncorked. He carries the bottle and two pint glasses to the table.

“Did you forget to steal wine glasses?” I grin to keep from laughing.

“My kitchen ban extends to her dishes. Taylor keeps his on his side of the house. I’m making do with what I have.”

“This jar isn’t his?” I point to the one holding my flowers.

“He left it in the communal kitchen. It was fair game.” He pours wine into my beer glass.

“What did you do to make him stop sharing his wine glasses with you?”

He clears his throat and diverts his eyes. “Kyle and I, we uh, used forks to create beats on them.”

“You hit fragile glass objects with a metal fork on purpose?”

“It made sense at the time.”

“Who ended up needing stitches?”

“No one. Ian got Kyle’s bleeding under control with towels and grip tape.”

“His drumstick grip tape and Taylor’s towels?”

“We used what was readily available.”

“How long ago was this?”

“I have learned from the experience. Harper will never be allowed to use wine glasses as drums on my watch. That’s what matters.” He deflects.

I use my fingers to massage the tension out of my forehead. “Rhys, --”

“I couldn’t pull a stunt like that now, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. The thought of Harper putting herself in as much danger as I have makes my blood pressure spike. I almost locked her in a tower for safekeeping yesterday when she jumped off the bed.”

I drop my hand and look up at him with a genuine smile. “Your mom calls Harper’s rambunctiousness karma for all you put her through growing up.”

“What do you call it?”

“One of the many pieces of you that I’ve always seen in her. However, watching both of you throw caution to the wind will give me an aneurysm. She’s going to stop being afraid of toilets soon. I need you to tone down your fearlessness to help me keep her from skydiving.”

“Can we pause our first date really quickly?”

I nod.

“Your wish is my command.” He leans down and presses a soft, sweet kiss to my lips. I rest my hand on the side to prevent him from pulling away from me.

“You are doing a spectacular job thus far. Keep up the good work.” I caress his cheek with my thumb.

He flashes me the same tender smile he gave me the day we created Harper. I can’t resist giving him one more kiss.

“Resuming date.” He says after pressing a final kiss to my forehead.

“Kevin, preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Wow, you’re warming our leftovers in the oven.”

“Only the best for my girl.” He pours my wine.

I’ve missed his possessiveness too much to correct it.

“What’s up, Poppy?” Taylor strolls into the kitchen.

“Hey, Tay.”

“You said you were going out.” Rhys glares at him.

“I am.” Taylor opens the freezer side of the refrigerator. “Bar prices are too expensive not to pregame.” He pulls out a bottle of whiskey.

“I know for a fact that you have scotch in your den.”

“Thirty-year scotch. It’s meant to be savored, not tossed back like a shot.”

“You’ve got what you need. Get out.”

“You can’t use pint glasses with wine.” Taylor checks out our table set-up instead.

“I don’t have access to wine glasses and I couldn’t go to the store. It’s Black Friday. It was pint glasses or nothing.”

“She can use one of mine and my aerator. I trust her to use them properly.”

Rhys rolls his eyes.

“What did you do to his aerator?” I direct my head and question to Rhys.

“He poured vodka in it and didn’t wash it.” Taylor answers.

“I read that vodka is a cleaner.” Rhys defends himself.

“His explanation speaks for itself. I’ll be right back.” Tay leaves the room with whiskey and a six-pack of beer.

“Who else is here?” Rhys calls after him.

“Ethan, Jamal, and his girlfriend. Don’t worry; they’re on my side!” Taylor yells back.

“Won’t they hear his reply?” I ask.

“There are metal sliding doors that separate our sides of the house from the communal spaces. The music helps cover our voices too.”

“Are there locks on these doors?”

“Yeah, and everything is divided evenly, so we basically have our own homes under one roof. Neither of us is into cooking enough to warrant two kitchens. This, the garage, gym, great room, media room, backyard, and music studio are the places we can go without an invite.”

“What type of rooms do you have on your side?”

“I can tell you what Taylor has on his.”

“Why the secrecy?”

“It’s part of my seduction method. You’re a woman who enjoys intrigue. It’s my duty to deliver.”

“You sound mighty confident.”

“I had some time to prepare.”

“I’ll let you preserve your precious pick-up strategy. What does he have?”

“Four bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a den, living room, laundry room, and an arcade.”

“Do you think he’ll let us venture into his side of the castle? It sounds awesome.”

“We can sneak in while he’s gone. Kevin will rat us out, but Taylor won’t get too upset because I’m doing it for you.”

“Can you tell Kevin not to tell on us?”

“I tried that once. He alerted Taylor immediately. I think he reprogrammed it after the tech left. Kevin’s not supposed to defy orders.”

“That’s most certainly what he did. I also have a theory about your poppy tattoo.”

“Go on, share your answer with the class.” He transfers Thanksgiving food from Tupperware containers to glass cooking pans.

“Kyle dared you to get a tattoo. You’re incapable of backing down from a challenge when you’re drunk. Ian enabled it by being his agreeable self. Taylor made sure you reached every destination without dying and chose a good design because he loves you.”

“That’s—yeah, that sounds about right “

“Yep, that’s exactly what happened.” Taylor rejoins us.

“Asshole.” Rhys sneers.

“You wouldn’t shut up about how much you missed her, but wouldn’t heed my advice. You’re lucky I gave you an assist. If I left Kyle in charge, you would’ve ended up with a smiley face on your ass like Leo.”

“How did that happen?” I laugh.

“He came to Vegas to celebrate our 21st birthday with us. Kyle was back at it with the dares. Leo went for it the same way Rhys did. The night before, I prevented him from marrying a bride-to-be that was in Vegas for her bachelorette party. He used his one save.”

“Did you keep them from sleeping together?”

“One save. That’s all anyone got during our birthday weekend.”

“Even Rhys?”

“He gets as many as he needs for life. Exhibit A.” He holds up a wine glass and an aerating wine bottle attachment.

I spare a glance in Rhys’s direction, recalling one of our recent late-night confessionals. “You know what? I think I’ll stick with what I have.”

“Are you sure?” Tay’s eyebrows knit in confusion.

“The wine tastes the same way that it did yesterday and this cup is easier to grip.” I illustrate my point by taking a sip.

“I’ll leave them in here just in case you change your mind.”

“Returning them to their home would be safest. I can’t guarantee that he won’t touch them.”

“You won’t be held accountable.”

“I’ll feel accountable.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll catch you guys later,” He gives us a nod goodbye.

I mouth ‘I love you’ to Rhys once Tay’s back is to me.

An eclipse-rare phenomenon occurs – he blushes. The pink twinge on the tips of his ears and the vulnerable smile on his face earns him three points.

“I’m supposed to be romancing you. That’s what this playlist is equipped to handle. “ He says when Taylor’s out of earshot.

“You’re going to have to ask Kevin to make some adjustments. You’re woo-worthy too, Wilde, and I don’t plan to take it easy on you.” I have another sip of wine.

“That right there is how I know you don’t have Stockholm Syndrome.”

“Belle had a little fight in her.”

“You, on the other hand, will battle until your last breath. You’ve always been scrappy, but now you’re a heavyweight champ.”

“How many championship titles do I have?”

“All of them. There’s a worldwide shortage of boxing belts because of all the asses you’ve kicked in the last three years.”

“Can’t they just make more belts?”

“No. You’d just win them all and that metal and leather are needed elsewhere.”

“Like your house?”

“Do you like it or not?”

“I love it.”

“Enough to let me strip your belts of parts so I can finish my renovations?”

“I think so. I’ll give you my final decision once I’ve had an in-depth tour.”

As our food heats in the oven, we share the remainders of yesterday’s cheese and relish tray. It pairs nicely with our wine and music.

“What was your last date like?”

I raise an eyebrow. “You want to go there?”

“I would like to know what I’m up against.”

“You’re not allowed to make faces.”

“I’m not.” He swirls the wine in his glass.

“You are.”

“I have an expressive face. I can’t change that, but I can keep my thoughts to myself.”

“Remember that you asked for this.” I refill my glass.

“Whatever you tell me can’t be any worse than the scenarios I’ve conjured in my head.”

“Tell me the worst one and I’ll share what actually took place.” I buy myself a few more moments of light-heartedness.

His eyes fall to his drink. “You met a guy in one of your classes at MIT. Your first date was at an arboretum. He did more than just listen to you talk about the plants; he taught you a thing or two. A few months and many dates later, your relationship progresses to the meet-the-parents level. Your dad loves him. His parents adore you. The two of you visit museums and farmers’ markets when you manage to find the time. You cook with the all-natural ingredients you pick up, feeding each other and joking around. After you make love, your pillow talk is about your hopes for the future. Little did you know, he’s trying to work up the nerve to propose to you. When he finally does it, you say ‘yes’ without hesitation. You’re too happy and in love to overthink it.” After he has finished his highly detailed description, he downs what is left of his wine and pours more into his glass.

“Before I found out about Harper, I learned that the guys in my classes were pretentious douchebags. They were the smartest kids in their elite private schools. Boys are socially conditioned to fight for dominance. They spoke over people and expressed their opinions as facts. If anyone came at them with proof of the contrary, they’d attack until they backed down. As a girl from a lower-middle-class family who attended public schools her entire life, all of the factual information and ideas I expressed were dismissed with condescension.”

“Did you make any friends?” He studies me with a hint of a frown.

It’s my turn to downcast my eyes. “I had acquaintances. My roommate drove me to the pharmacy to get my pregnancy tests. She told her friends about our trip. I couldn’t exactly hide my morning sickness when they visited our room. Word got out about the pregnant freshman. A few weeks of stares and whispers were all I could take.” I speak slowly and swallow hard to keep from crying.

“You left campus before your dad cut you off.” His tone is gentle.

“Some things just aren’t worth sticking out.” I shrug a shoulder. “Going home to Chelsea after classes made attending them possible, even if it meant I needed to get a part-time job at a diner to do it.”

“Baby, I’m so--”

“Don’t you dare apologize to me. Every time you do, it’s like you’re saying what I’ve done with my life isn’t as good as my original plan. If raising Harper to be a good person is all that I go on to do, I will be more than okay with that.”

“I don’t want you to be ‘okay,’ I want you to be happy. I stripped that from you.”

“It was my choice to walk away.”

“Yeah, but I could’ve followed you and fought. Calling and texting aren’t the only ways to get in touch with a person.”

“Why didn’t you?” I dare to look at him.

“The same reason you didn’t fight for me.”

I have way more than a carry-on’s worth of baggage. And given what he’s like at his best, I thought it would take no time at all for him to find someone better, someone suited for the life he was destined to lead.

“Things never would have worked out with Dave and me.” I break the tense silence between us.

“How long did you date?” His eyes are as glassy as mine feel.

“You tell me. He starred in your nightmare.” I offer him a reprieve.

His smile is back. “Why Dave?”

“It’s a solid name, but super generic. I imagine all stock photo men have the name Dave.”

“No Rhyses?”

“Not a one.”

“What about stock photo women?”

“Jane.”

“You had that answer ready to go.” He chuckles.

“Those are things I think about too. Dave doesn’t sound like the type to understand those random musings.”

“I think you’re taking it easy on me.”

“No, I’m not. The first couple of times I saw you photographed with other women, I was barely able to contain the urge to mow you down with a car. I owe it to hormonal Poppy to refrain from pulling punches.”

“Which Poppy chose to keep drinking out of a pint glass?” He picks up an olive, eyes sparkling with amusement.

“The one that would’ve gotten bored with Dave.”

“Do you have any first-hand experience with one?”

“Sort of.”

“I have all night, Pop.”

“A few months ago, I met a guy at the public library. I went there every Saturday to get books for Harper. He was always there studying. One day, Harp dropped a toy. He picked it up and returned it to me, recognizing it to be one of hers. --”

“He sounds like a stalking pedophile.” Rhys interrupts.

“You sound like a person who said they wouldn’t talk.”

He mimes zipping his lips, locking them, and throwing away the key.

“As I was saying, he returned Harper’s toy to me. We got to talking. Eventually, he invited us to join him on his coffee break. There was a shop right around the corner. He paid for my drink and Harper’s muffin, and we found a table to chat. I found out he was finishing up his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Boston University.--”

“Why wasn’t he at their library?”

“Why are you still speaking?”

“It sounds like you and our daughter went on a date with a serial killer that preys on MILFs and their adorable kids in the children’s section of libraries. I want to make sure I have all the facts straight when I go to the Feds.”

“We survived the date. Why involve them?”

“To give other grieving families peace.”

“You’re not grieving,” I argue with exasperation.

“Yes, I am. He got send time with you and took that sacred gift for granted, the sicko. Did he touch you? If you touched you, I’ll take him out myself.”

I can’t help but smile at his conviction. “He didn’t touch either of us, drama king. Our ‘date’ lasted about fifteen minutes.”

“How did you escape his clutches?”

“He asked how I became a nanny. It dawned on me that he thought Harper was calling me ‘Mama’ because she bonded with me instead of her actual mother. I set the record straight. He made up an excuse about needing to get back to studying. He said he’d text me later and bolted.” A drink of wine softens the pain caused by my public rejection. “I didn’t see him the next week at the library or the subsequent ones, disproving your theory about his motivation for coming up to me.” I breathe a self-deprecating laugh.

“Asshole,” Rhys grumbles beneath his breath.

“Your face fell when you found out I’m a mom too. You’re young. Helping me raise a child that belongs to someone else wasn’t something you were willing to take on at this stage of your life, regardless of how much you like me. Both of you have hearts; you felt bad about it and it showed. You asked questions to be polite. You had a valid excuse to dip out early and planned to use it as soon as you waited a respectable amount of time. A courtesy promise of contact would’ve been made. I’d have played along. We never would’ve spoken again.”

What happened with Joe wasn’t a new experience. Not to say that guys express interested in me often, but it does happen. They all react the same way. I used it to my advantage while I worked at Eclipse. It always sent my drunken suitors running for the hills.

“How do you expect me not to apologize when you say stuff like that?” Rhys’s voice cracks.

“There’s no malicious intent. I know you’re sorry. I hope you know that I am too. It’s just that...I’m not who I was the first time we did this. I don’t think you fully grasp what I mean when I say that, but I want you to. I want you to understand why I react to things the way I do and why I’m terrified to be back here with you.”

He lifts both of my hands from the table to his lips and kisses the backs of them. “Keep sharing. I’ll listen quietly.”

“No, you have to interrupt. I love that you have something to say about just about everything.” I hold onto his hands.

“Way to apply the pressure.” His soft smile’s a sad one.

“We’re staying in this kitchen, so you better take the heat.”

“It’ll pain me to do it, but I’ll give you what want.” He playfully rolls his eyes.

“And I’ll still pretend to be annoyed by it. We have a whole song and dance, you know?”

“And we practiced it for ages.”

Once the air is cleared, we banter in the relaxed and playful way that I love. We continue our streak of ridiculousness over the course of dinner. The bottle of wine we deplete makes all of it that much funnier. I help him clean the kitchen to speed up the process.

“What is the first stop on our tour?” I close the dishwasher.

“Where would you like to go?”

“Your favorite place.”

“Me, me, me -- can this be about you?” He jokes.

“I want you to share the favorite parts of your new life with me.”

“I like the sound of that.” He takes me by the hand.

He tells Kevin to move the music to his wing of the house. I swing our conjoined arms and hum along to our date soundtrack as we trek to the mystery location. It takes a flight of stairs and a short trip down a hallway to reach our destination.

He twists the knob and pushes the door open. He motions for me to walk in first. The eco-friendly lights go from dim to cozy.

The vinyl record sleeves of his favorite albums are framed and hanging on the room’s red brick walls. The worn-out couch from his mom’s old apartment is paired with a set of brown leather chairs. They are atop a faded, traditional-style rug. A wooden coffee table is in the middle of the furniture trio’s u-shape arrangement. The couch faces the instruments on the other side of the modest-sized room. What I know without a doubt to be his first keyboard and guitar are accompanied by Harper-sized replicas.

We were watching a movie on that couch the first time he put his arm around me. Each month, we would rank our top ten albums. I sat in on most of their band practices. My time was spent doing my homework and reading. Co-existing in his creative space was a relaxing reprieve from the pressure placed upon me to excel and the intense routines put into place to ensure that it happened.

A collection representative of those memories tied to the ones that have yet to be made with our daughter is pretty impossible to beat.

I clear my throat to remove the frog in it. “Is this what you’ve been doing all day?”

“I was in and out of here in under twenty minutes. All I had to do was unpack and set up her gear. Breaking down the boxes took the most time.”

“So, everything else…” I trail off.

“Has been in here since we moved in.” He completes my sentence. “This is where I come to write and think. You and Harp are the only other people allowed in here.”

“Taylor, too, of course.”

“He’s never set foot in here. I set it up as a place to take a break from our crazy life. His presence would make it harder to escape long enough to regroup.”

“Speaking on behalf of Harper and myself, we are honored to be incorporated into your happy place.”

“I’m happiest when I’m with you. It was a no-brainer.”

“Kevin, play Silver Soul by Beach House,” I say to the sky. “May I have this dance, sir?” I smile over at Rhys.

“You may.”

I tug him to the center of the room. He gives me a twirl. We come together for a slow swaying dance within each other’s arms.

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