Sum of Us

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Ch.30: Rhys

“What has gotten into you today?” Trina continues to let me have it when I open the bathroom door.

“What do you mean?” I bypass her.

“The impulsivity. You’ve been doing this long enough to know that all moves must be calculated.”

“Today is all about patching up cracks I’ve made. I am. Chill.”

She grabs my arm to halt our return to the front of the store.

“The little stunt you pulled this morning worked out in your favor, but don’t get cocky. Your luck will run out and all that we’ve built will be for nothing.” She threatens in a hushed but ferocious tone of voice.

“I’ll take my chances.” I pry her talons out of my arm.

The large crowd that gathered to meet us goes wild when I come into view.

“Sorry, people. I had some ‘splainin’ to do to my mama.” I do my best Ricky Ricardo impression as I sit in my chair.

Taylor subtly turns to me with an eyebrow raised. ‘Poppy?’ He uses our twin telepathy to ask.

“We both know I’m the Lucy in our relationship.” I verbally answer through a smile as the line resumes moving.

“You are in ours, too.” He asserts.

“You’re not wrong.”

“But you refuse to say I’m right?”

“Bingo.” I shoot him with a finger gun.

Side-chatter ceases when fans are in front of us. For me, this part of the job is a close second to creating music. Chatting with people from all over the world is one more opportunity this life has afforded me. And the thrill of autographing things has yet to wear off.

A sudden scream stops me mid-signature. Looking up, I see the mob forming around the door. People are scrambling to pull out their phones. I know what is going on before Tyrone’s deep baritone comes through my earpiece.

“It’s her. Stay down. We’ll take care of it.”

“Why is Zara Slate here?” The fan whose poster I’m signing asks.

“Your guess is as good as mine, Dan.” I finish my last name.

“I wouldn’t peg you as friends. She’s so…”

“Artificial?” Taylor offers.

“Yeah, that.”

“She’s worse, actually.--” I start.

“That’s why we can’t stand her.” Taylor continues as I pass the poster to him.

“Stop it. Both of you.” Trina orders in our ears using the security team’s communication system.

“That’s a relief.” Dan tugs a smile.”I was worried one of you was dating her or something.”

“Nope.” I say.

“I’d beg you to lose respect for us if we were.” Taylor tacks on.

Dan laughs. “It’s cool to know you actually finish each other’s sentences and it’s not a gimmick.”

I say. “We only do it when we agree.”

“Which isn’t often.” Tay comments.

“He loves to crush my dreams. Never ask him about Santa.”

“What’s wrong with Santa?” Dan makes the mistake of asking.

“He—”

“A child’s present. You promised.” I nod to the little girl who is holding the hand of a woman who appears to be our age.

“I did. Just a second.” Taylor holds his index finger up to Dan. “Josie, I need you!”

She hurries over. “Yes?”

Tay gestures her closer and whispers something into her ear.

“Dan, meet me in the corner once you’ve collected all of their autographs.” Josie relays to him.

“We’ll finish our conversation about that monster later,” Taylor explains what’s happening.

“Seriously? You’re –”

“You’ll get us into trouble if you finish that sentence. See you soon.” I salute him with two fingers.

“Thanks.” He continues down the table with a massive smile on his face.

The little girl looks to be about Grace’s age. Her decision to hop instead of walk reminds me of Harper.

“Hi, I’m Rhys. What’s your name?” I ask when she is close enough to hear me.

“Zoe.” She sways, unable to stand still.

My smile spreads. “It’s very nice to meet you, Zoe. May I have a high-five?”

“Yeah!”

I lean across the table with my hand extended to her. She hits it with a grin.

“Are you having a good day today?” I ask once reseated.

“Uh-huh, I’m with Sissy and I like you.” She speaks her mind freely in the way only kids can.

“I like you, too. Can we be friends?”

She nods, her smile widening.

“Awesome.”

“You’re great with kids.” Her sister compliments.

“I’ve been around enough of them to know how it’s done. Since Zoe and I are friends, I should know your name too.” I add my signature to the magazine cover that Kyle as already signed.

“Bethany. I’ve followed you since ‘Bandits’ was posted online. Watching you blow up has been great. It’s well deserved.”

“That means a lot. We literally wouldn’t be here without you. What got you interested?”

“The music’s not only good, but you can tell you love what you do. Well…maybe not as much on Midnight Daydreams, but the rawness of it kept the magic alive. I hope you’re doing better.”

Touched, I smile softly. “I am, very much so. Thank you for asking.”

“No problem. Again, huge fan. I wouldn’t have dragged her along otherwise.”

My eyes shift to Zoe, who has moved on to Taylor and is talking his ear off.

I wish she could meet Harper. They’d be fast friends.

“Move the line along, Rhys. She’s not the only person here.” Trina complains in my ear.

“Are you always on babysitting duty?” I ask Bethany, ignoring Trina.

“No, my mom withdrew Zoe from kindergarten earlier this week. A boy has been picking on her all year. He bit her on Monday. The teacher didn’t do much about it and said he probably just has a crush on her. I take online classes. I’ll be watching Zo until my mom finds another school.”

I’d get myself arrested if someone touched my daughter like that.

I’m getting heated just thinking about it.

“That’s ridiculous. Your mom made the right call. Good on you for helping her out.”

“Like you’re always saying: family first.”

“Are you coming to the show tonight?”

“No. Tickets sold out before I could get online. The resale ones are absurdly expensive. I love you guys, but $400 for nosebleeds isn’t worth it.”

“I can take care of that. Do you see the lady over there in the black shirt?” I nod to Josie.

“Yes.”

“Go over to her before you leave and tell her Rhys sent you. Tell her I said to give you what we gave Dan. If she’s skeptical, say I said ‘Lovebug would help, follow her lead’. She’ll know I actually sent you.”

She tilts her head to the side, rightfully confused.

“Inside thing. She’ll get it. Is Zoe a diabetic?”

Now she’s looking at me like I’ve grown a second head. “No…”

“Kyle.” I hit the table to get his attention.

“Yeah?”

“I need candy.”

“I only have to share my candy with one person.”

“I’ll consider upgrading you.”

“You better not be lying to me.” He digs into his pocket and produces a fun-sized bag of Skittles.

I take it. “I am, but thank you kindly.”

He hits me.

“Hit no nice.” I do my Harper impression.

His shove makes me laugh.

“Zoe?” I summon her.

She hops over to me. “Hi, Rhys! He’s Taylor and he looks just like you.”

“We’re twin brothers. I’ve known him since before we were born. Crazy stuff. Listen, I heard you got hurt.”

“Tanner bit me. It hurt really bad. He’s mean.”

“It sounds like it. I’ll have a long talk with him for you. In the meantime, here’s some candy to make it better.” I hand it to her.

“Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. I hope both of you enjoy the rest of your day.” I shift my gaze between her and her sister.

“I have a feeling we will. Seriously, thank you.” Bethany graciously replies.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Bye, Rhys!”

I wave. “Bye, Zoe.”

“Bye.” Bethany continues down the line with her.

I get through the other fans without Trina complaining in my ear. However, the frenzied energy Zara brought in with her remains and the fans aren’t leaving the store after they meet us like typically do. I hyperfocus on the task in front of me to keep from confirming my suspicions.

My eyes inevitably meet hers when she reaches the front of the line.

Audrey Hepburn is her style inspiration. Zara encapsulates her demure, classic 1950s aesthetic to a “T” today, wearing a beige wool peacoat over a black designer dress with nude pantyhose and black pumps. Her auburn hair is daintily curled and particularly pulled up. The portion that’s up is held by a black ribbon.

As if her ensemble wasn’t bashing everyone over the head with her “good girl” persona, her makeup is relatively muted, aside from the extra touches of pink blush on her cheeks and suspiciously thick and long eyelashes that draw attention to her blue cat eyes.

She’s currently batting them at me with a sickeningly sweet smile on her red-painted lips.

All the disdain I feel towards her is evident on my face as I sit back in my seat and recap my marker.

“Lose that face. Now!” Trina lashes out in my ear.

I don’t comply with her demand. Instead, yank out my earpiece and shove it into my pocket.

Unable to accept rejection or defeat, Zara ignores my glare and strolls up to our table with an elated expression reserved for long-lost friends.

Her security team reinforces the line, allowing the fans to spectate from a distance while allowing us to talk privately.

It’s as though she knows we will be hostile towards her.

*Note heavy sarcasm

“It has been way too long, you guys! How’ve you been?” Her greeting is as exuberant as it is insincere.

“Is there a reason you’re here?” Contempt is dripping from my every word.

She laughs it off as though I’m telling an inside joke. “To see you, of course.” She gives my shoulder a playful push. “I saw that you were here meeting with fans. I’m included in that group. Midnight Daydreams is flawless.”

“You have nothing to sign and we’re fresh out of pictures.” Kyle pulls the remaining few into his lap. “The door’s that way.” He nods to it.

I unabashedly smirk at his retort. “What he said.”

She removes our issue of Rolling Stone Magazine out of her purse and drops it on the table in front of Kyle.

He begrudgingly signs it.

“How’s your tour been going?” She opens the conversation up to the rest of the table.

“Great, until you showed up.” Taylor wryly states as he eyes her with disdain.

“I’ve missed your sense of humor.” She friegns obliviousness.

“If only I were joking.” Taylor flashes her a sarcastic grin.

“Our hatred is sincere.” Kyle gets in on it.

She completely ignores their jabs. “We have plenty to catch up on after the show. So much has happened since the last time we saw each other.”

“We can have that chat in the back right after this meet and greet. There’s no need to drag this out. We all know the real reason you’re here.” I half-assed scrawl my signature.

“Talking after this would be great.” She grits her teeth.

“We’ll be there.”

“Just you.”

“A true fan would want the full experience.” I volley as I slide the magazine to Taylor.

Her frustration grows. “As a fellow songwriter, I’d like a one on one discussion to better understand your process.”

“Top notch excuse. I have so much to learn from you.”

Zara puts her hands onto the table and leans into my personal space.

“Are you playing it cool or trying to be an asshole?” She says for only my ears with a pleasant expression.

“The latter.” I match her smile with one of my own.

“It doesn’t suit you.”

“I beg to differ.”

“You just gave candy to a baby.”

“I didn’t reply to any of your messages and you’re smart enough to take the hint. I’d appreciate it if you’d click your heels and go away.”

“Aw, you’re so cute.” She pats my cheek.

I turn out of her touch. “Don’t.”

She collects her autographed magazine and struts through the store like she owns it, signing autographs and taking pictures as she waits for me.

Internally, I’m boiling over, but I work my hardest to keep it off my face as the meet and greet wraps up.

I turn on my phone’s recorder and put it in my jacket’s upper pocket before approaching her.

“Ready?” She smiles.

I force a smile for the fans’ benefit. “As I’m ever going to be,” I say through gritted teeth.

The manager gives us her office to use. I take the desk chair. Zara sits on the desk. I scoot the chair as far enough from her legs as possible. I’m safely wedged between the wall and a filing cabinet.

“So…”

“You’re the one that keeps bringing up talking. The floor is yours.”

“I’m sure you heard about Donovan and me.” She flips her hair over her shoulder.

“That’s a bit presumptuous. What does your life have to do with mine?”

“He cheated on me. His excuse was that I’ve been on tour and he was lonely. I had only been on the road for two weeks. He couldn’t keep it in his pants for fourteen days?” She asks rhetorically.

“I’ve met the guy once. I know nothing about his bedroom habits, nor do I care to. Get to the point.”

“Both of us know better than to do the groupie thing. I need a release. You’ve been on tour for months. You must be—”

“No, thanks. I’m good.” I tactlessly shut her down.

“I’m offering you no-strings-attached sex. Look at me.” She opens her jacket to show off her body. “How can you turn this down?”

“For starters, your personality is a major turn off. Secondly, you wrote a tell-all the last time we hooked up. And most importantly, I don’t want you.”

“You’re different. What’s up with you?” She puts her hands behind her on the desk, inadvertently thrusting out her chest.

“It’s called growing up.” I cross my arms.

“What’s the real reason you postponed your tour in October?” She swings her legs as she analyzes my body language.

“Why would I share that information with you?”

“Rehab?”

“No.”

“You haven’t been seen out in months. I won’t judge you. It’s great that you got help.” She almost sounds like a person who is capable of caring about others.

“You’re way off base. Two weeks is barely enough time to detox, let alone be stable enough to go back on the road.”

“Labels always get what they want. I’ve performed while having a case of the flu so bad that I had to be hooked up to an IV backstage. They’ve invested too much money in us for the show not to go on.”

“I’ve honestly never been to rehab. The fact that you’d try to mess with someone who you think is a recovering addict says a lot about you.”

“Our night of fun would be a substance-free escape.” She shrugs a shoulder.

“That you’d exploit for a song.”

Zara lets out an exaggerated groan. “You used me to forget about your ex. You’re not innocent.”

“I apologized about it. You said you understood. A year later, you’re ranting and raving about how I did you wrong.”

“And I do understand, we’ve all been there.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“I was inspired by you. Changes had to be made to our story to make it really sing. I made them. The song’s success speaks for itself.”

“A heads up would’ve been nice.”

“I left in a few truthful positives. They know you’re hotter than hell and know what you’re doing in bed. You’re welcome.”

“How generous of you.” I snark.

“You did the same thing. I know I inspired ‘Wishing’. You used pieces of me alongside activities that are on-brand for you. The humble beginnings thing really works for you. People love watching an underdog succeed. I have to go out of my way to hide that my family is wealthy. It’s a pain.” She rolls her eyes. “You could help with that.”

“Never.” I grit my teeth.

“We don’t have to be in an actual relationship. We’ll simply take what we need from each other. It’ll be mutually beneficial. Our images would meld well together – the down-to-earth suburban girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s a tried and true combination.”

“‘Wishing’ is a sincere apology to the ex I failed to get over.”

“Who is she?” Her tone goes from lackadaisical to harsh.

“So that you can make up a story about her being the bitch that stole your man? Absolutely not.”

“It’s Lauren Guerrero, isn’t it? I’ve seen pictures of you together. She’s the only girl you’ve been seen with more than once.”

“You sound awfully jealous of someone who is supposed to be your new bestie.”

“Are any of us really friends? We’re always pitted against each other for accolades.”

“That’s a sad way to live.”

“So, it is her.”

“What if it were?”

I’ve met with Lauren three times. Music was the only topic of discussion. We’ve been trying to work together for years, but our schedules have never synced up. We’re not friends per se; I don’t know her well enough to call her that, but interacting with her is not exhausting. That is often not the case with people in our line of work.

“It’d be a waste. You could do better.” Zara tries too hard to keep jealous out of her voice.

I check my watch. “Have you said all that you need to say? I need to get to the arena for soundcheck.”

“We’ll finish up after your show tonight.”

“I won’t be talking to you. One conversation is all you get.” I rise from my chair.

She halts my exit by resting her hand on my chest. “Think about this.”

I step out of her touch. “You have nothing to offer that I want.”

“But she does?”

“Lauren? No.” On that note, I leave her.

The SUV that has been carting us around today is waiting in the alley behind the store. Once inside, I turn off my phone’s recorder, rest my elbows on my knees, and tangle both of my hands in my hair.

“Put your seatbelt on.” Taylor slides in beside me.

“Can’t you see I’m going through something?” I keep my head down.

“Safety first.” He reaches across me and manipulates my body in the way necessary to put my seatbelt on me.

“Why me?” I resume my position. “She has a whole roster to pull from.”

“You inspired her greatest hit and you do things like becoming friends with a little girl instead of catering to the people who support us financially. It makes good business sense on her end.” Taylor answers my rhetorical question.

“Her dad’s a CFO at a brokerage firm. She knows how finances and trends work.” Ian chimes in.

“In other words, she’s not afraid to cut a bitch to get her paper.”

Kyle’s contribution makes me snort. “Thanks for agreeing to get cut for me, bitch.”

“That’s not—no, I didn’t mean—”

“No take-backs. I still have a kid.” I call back to him.

“Whatever. At least I’ll go out in style. I’ve gotta hand it to her -- she looked hot in there. It’s a shame she’s a psycho.”

“Socio.” Taylor corrects.

“Same difference.”

“It’s not. You can’t use blanket terms when it comes to mental disorders. I take great pride in the accuracy of my diagnoses.”

“Do share more, Dr. Taylor.” Kyle goads him.

“If you insist.” Taylor mimes putting on a pair of glasses and opening a file folder.

He proceeds to prove just how much of a smart-ass he is by giving a full breakdown of Zara’s behavior in psychological terms.

When I’ve had enough of hearing about her, I insert my earbuds and watch videos of Harper and Poppy on my phone to unwind.

We’ve almost reached the arena when an incoming call from my mom interrupts Harper’s visit with Santa.

“I’m not with her. You’ll have to call Po—”

Her rapid speech and high volume make it impossible to make out more than the last two words, “--BE TRUE!”

“Be what? Slow down.” I adjust the volume to accommodate her shouting.

“I SAW THE PICTURES, RHYS MICHAEL!”

“What pictures? I haven’t –-“

“THE ONES OF THAT GIRL ALL OVER YOU! THEY’RE SAYING YOU TOOK HER TO A PRIVATE ROOM. IF YOU TOUCHED HER, I’LL—”

“Holy fuck.” Taylor scrolls through his phone with a look of horror on his face.

I snatch it away from him.

In the first image, Zara is leaned in suspiciously close to me and I’m grinning up at her. The next, her hand is on my face. In the last one, we’re walking into the back office. Together, they tell a story of the two of us being too excited to rip each other’s clothes off to wait until later.

The coup de grâce is a screenshot of an Instagram post she made this morning. She’s all dolled up and posing in one of the band’s t-shirts with a picture of us on it. The caption reads:

’ We danced like fools to our favorite songs. There are no such things as missteps or words sang wrong.′ Wishing - Wilde Knights. #CantWaitToDoItAgain #InForAWildeKnight

@WildeKnights @RhysesPieces @TTWilde @KyAndy47 @I_Brooks_It

All noise becomes muffled, my stomach knots, and I can’t pull enough air into my lungs as my brain tries to process what could very well ruin my life.

I’m still in a daze as I fumble with my phone, hanging up on my mom to call Poppy.

I try calling her three times in a row, each one going to voicemail. A surge of déjà vu overcomes me and my heart goes into overdrive. I don’t give up. I keep calling, leaving voicemail after voicemail, begging her to call me back so that I can explain.

Being yanked out of the car is what ends my calling ambush. Taylor pushes me to sit on the curb.

“Close your eyes, try to block everything out, and breathe.” He joins me on the ground.

“It’s happening again.” I pinch my eyes shut, tears pricking the back of my lids.

“It’s not. It’s Harper’s naptime. Poppy’s either putting her to sleep or resting with her. She’ll call when she’s done.” Ian reassures from the other side of me.

“What if – it’d be both of them this time. I can’t—” My breath hitches and my heart constricts.

“He’s having a heart attack. Someone call 9-1-1!” Kyle yells over his shoulder. His phone’s in his hand.

Yep. This is it. I’m dying.

“Don’t! It’s a panic attack. Get Miguel and have him bring oxygen.” Taylor takes over. “You’ll be okay.” He rubs my back.

I shake my head, sweating profusely, and on the verge of keeling over.

Someone removes my coat and jacket. The next thing I know, a breathing mask is being put on my face.

“In and out, Rhys.” Miguel, our tour medic, coaches.

All my focus is put into breathing. It takes a while, but once my nervous system’s fight or flight response is under control, all that remains is a headache.

“Take it easy. There’s no rush.” Miguel tries to halt my removal of the mask.

Clearing my throat, I say, “I feel better. Thanks.” I hand it back to him.

“You sure?” Tay double checks.

I nod and run a hand through my hair to get it out of my face.

“Good. We’re a little behind schedule, but we can get back on track if you hustle inside.”

“Get the fuck out of his face and do your fucking jobs! You were supposed to make sure she didn’t post shit like that! It’s been up for hours! Take care of it! The dating rumor bullshit too!” Taylor roars at George.

“You have been trending all day. It’s been good for—”

“I couldn’t give less of a fuck. Fix. It!” He cuts off Trina.

“I will. Where’s my phone?” I root around for my coat.

Ian fetches it for me and goes back to his seat on the cold, hard ground.

All of them love me enough to forgo warmth to make sure I’m okay.

“I love you, guys.” I say.

Kyle’s face scrunches. “Was he out of it long enough to get brain damage?” He consults Miguel.

“No, he was never unconscious.”

“But we never say that to each other. It’s just a thing we think. We gotta get him checked out. He needs an x-ray stat.”

“Dude, those only show bones,” Ian tells him.

“Why do they have to split up everything? There should be a one-stop-shop.”

“It’s impossible to do.”

I tune them out as they go back and forth.

“I love you, too,” Taylor replies as I’m unlocking my phone.

“I figured. You almost tore George and Trina new ones.”

“You’re my little brother. Protecting you is my job. Walking into battle with you no matter what is my duty as your twin. What’s our next move?”

I’m in the process of changing my Twitter password.

“Replying. I’m changing all my passwords first. The band one included. They won’t be able to take it down and claim I got hacked.”

“Don’t make it too easy. It can’t be anything like HarperPoppy214.”

“I know.”

It’s Squints_Wendy_&Lovebug_10-06. An inside joke between Poppy and me, our baby girl’s nickname, and the date I got them back. It’s us.

My first shot is fired after I’ve got my defenses in place.

RhyesPieces: @ Z_Lates17 You sing I’m a fraud yet you’re saying you’re my biggest fan. Pick one. #Oz

RhysesPieces: @ZLates17 Or will doing that prove you bend the truth for attention?

RhysesPieces: @ZLates17 I never said I could save you. I said I wasn’t ready for more and apologized for it. You said you understood. Funny how things change.

“You’re being too nice.” Taylor reads my rants on his phone.

“I’m baiting her. She’s the only one who can reveal her true colors. Her fans will come at me regardless.”

“That’s very tactical of you.”

“You hear that, Kyle? Taylor said I had a good idea. I don’t have brain damage.”

“He covers for you all the time. I still need receipts.” Kyle retorts.

“From an x-ray?” Taylor teases.

“Cat-scan. I’ll get the last laugh when I come up with a combo machine.”

“Who’s going to build that magical machine?”

“Ian or Poppy. The idea man gets the credit. Everyone knows that.”

“He’s got a point. There’s big money in patents and licensing.” Ian agrees.

“The schematics for the machine itself would be included in that patent, which would belong to you or Pop.” Taylor refutes.

My brother teaches a master class on patent law as I post variations of the same posts on all of my accounts. I save our official band page for last.

WildeKnights: I’m not dating Zara Slate. The pictures were taken out of context.– R

I try calling Poppy after I’ve completed my mission.

“Hello?” Her voice is raspy.

“I’m so sorry for making you cry. I didn’t—”

“Make me cry? When?”

“Today…”

“I haven’t cried. I just woke up from a much-needed nap.” She yawns. “Your daughter was all over the place at the children’s museum. I spent the morning chasing her from exhibit to exhibit. I looked away from her for two seconds to check the time on my phone. Next thing I know, she’s trying to leave with the preschool class she befriended. We couldn’t leave until she gave all of them a hug goodbye. One girl started crying about how much she’d miss her. Harp joined in and I had to sing her song to get her into the stroller. She fought sleep in the car. She succumbed to it during lunch, face-planting into her plate of mac and cheese.”

My sigh of relief comes out as a laugh. “Harp’s mine instead of ours when she’s a handful?”

“All that she has done today was ripped straight from the Rhys Wilde playbook. I’ll take full responsibility the next time she digs holes or picks grass.”

“I’ll hold you to that. Those stains are tough to get out.” I smile.

“Big time. Why’d you think I’ve been crying?”

“Your voice is deeper than usual.”

“You apologized. Have you done something that could make me cry?”

“Yes and no. Zara showed up at the meet and greet shortly after I spoke to you. I didn’t touch her. I swear. I kept saying over and over that I want her to leave me alone, but there are pictures of us that make it look like we’re in a secret relationship.” I tangle a hand in my hair.

“Are they online?”

“Yeah.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

“Give me a second to look at them.”

“Should I call you back?”

“No, I can do both at the same time. Continue your explanation.”

“She showed up unannounced after she posted online about us. All of us were tagged in it. Trina didn’t say a word to us or address it on our behalf. Taylor and I distracted Josie from her social media monitoring by asking her to hook fans up with tickets. She would’ve told us. When Zara showed up and started paying me extra attention, it stoked the flame. Pictures were taken of us interacting. You can see what happened next for yourself.”

“People looked at these pictures and came to the conclusion that you’re dating?” Her question is incredulous.

“Yeah.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“The smile in the first photo is the one you used to make when Satan would say something condescending. Your posture’s stiff when she’s touching you and in the picture where you’re walking together. All I see is contempt.” She accurately interprets.

I sigh in relief. “You gathered all that after glancing at them for less than a minute?”

“Why is that hard to believe? I know you.”

“My own mother called me screaming. My sisters have been blowing up my phone, too.”

“They must have been too angry to look past the surface. The titles and captions don’t help either.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“Not even a little bit. I’m worried. You sound stressed.”

Tears well in my eyes. “I feel a lot better now that I’ve spoken to you. You weren’t answering. I thought it was over. I had a heart attack that turned out to be a panic attack.” A few slip free. I wipe them away before anyone can see.

The guys must catch on to the severe tone shift because everyone heads inside to give me privacy.

“I wish I could say way more than ‘sorry’ for the way I ended our first relationship’s last conversation. What I can do is promise to never do it again. My big girl pants are permanently fastened. I’m not going to cut and run this time.”

“Thank you.” I sniffle.

“Do you know what your panic attack means?”

“No.”

“A few of my tally marks need to be erased for traumatizing you.”

“I did much worse to you. A few moments of distress is nothing compared to surviving pregnancy and single parenthood while battling depression. You know what? I think I’m going to give you a few extra points. You’re a total boss, baby.”

“Keep it up and I will cry.”

“Happy tears?”

“Big, fat ones. I’ll be a heaving, snotty mess. You won’t even want to kiss me.”

“I’ll always want to kiss you.”

“Seriously, stop it. You’re being too understanding when you have every reason to hate me.”

“The same could be said about me.”

“I thought about not having Harper. I almost gave her away. I didn’t tell you about her for years. Those are horrible things to do to a person.”

“My mom considered the same things when she was pregnant with Chris. I don’t think less of her for it. Whether or not to become a parent is one of the toughest decisions a person can make. Harp’s with us and she’s always had a good life. That’s all that matters at the end of the day. You included me in her life in your own way. I’ll forever be grateful for that. Being unable to be by your side as you took it on is the only issue I have with this. We made her. It should’ve been you and me tackling the aftermath. I would’ve held your hand during and taken care of you afterward, regardless of which door you chose.”

“And...I’m crying.” She breathes a congested laugh.

“I don’t regret it this time. I’m speaking my mind.”

“You’re on a roll today.”

“My Wendy wants me to share my feelings with her.”

“You’re damn right, I do. It’s healthy and builds trust. And guess what?”

“What?”

“We just had our Harper conversation.”

“Does that mean…?” I sit up straight.

“You’re going to Hollywood.”

My laugh is elated as I sniffle and clear my face with my free hand.

“I’ll only go if my girlfriend and daughter come with me.”

“We’ll be there.”

“I love you.”

“I know. You’ve been going out of your way to prove it for months.”

“I have to. Dream girls are not easy to woo.”

“It’s always about wooing with you.”

“I’ve got a playlist dedicated to it, Penelope. The wooing is here to stay.”

“If it makes you happy, go forth, babe.”

“Oh, I will.”

“It should go without saying that I love you, too. Our social butterfly does as well. She painted a purple picture for you at the museum’s art station. It’s a blob that she says is a puppy. Play along.”

“I will. Is she awake?” I ask, still grinning.

“No, she’s passed out and snoring.”

“Can I watch her for a bit?”

“Always. I’ll call you right back.”

Poppy blows me a kiss when she appears on my phone screen. I pretend to catch it and put it in my pocket.

“Are you outside without a coat? It’s December, mister.” She whispers with an adorable scowl.

“I had my freakout here. I was burning up. The coat was ditched to keep from overheating. I’m still cooling down. Flip that frown, missy.”

“That’s an acceptable answer. How do you feel physically?”

“My head hurts, but there’s no more need for an oxygen mask.”

“They had to supply you with oxygen?” Poppy’s face falls further.

“I literally thought I was dying. I’m good now, though, as you can see.” I gesture to myself.

“I hurt you that bad, huh?”

“You promised you’re not going to leave again. I believe you. I’m not going to do what I did to you either. We’ve grown up a lot since then.”

Poppy nods, a soft smile playing on her plump lips. “I’ll turn it over to Harper. She’s looking extra cute right now.”

She flips the camera’s view. Harp’s once again on the bed instead of her crib. She’s lying on her side, hugging Rue to her chest. Her hair is separated into two French braids. She’s wearing purple overalls; a white long-sleeved shirt with dinosaurs is underneath them. It might be one of her tamest outfits to date.

“No tutu today?” I ask.

“She went straight to the overalls. They’re purple. It makes up for their inability to flare when she twirls.”

“She knows what she’s doing. Our girl’s got style.”

Chatting with Poppy as we watch our beautiful creation sleep allows me to escape the outside world and the mayhem that’s on the horizon.

I face the trouble I kicked up head-on as we finally make our way into the stadium, reading comment after comment left on my posts.

The responses range from death threats to undying love and unwavering support. There are a surprising number of people who are open to hearing my side. The succubus’s response is the only one that matters.

ZLates17: @RhyesPieces – I’m extending an olive branch. It’s time to let bygones be bygones and get back to what we were.

RhysPieces: @ZLates17 -- I’m not following. Explain.

My phone goes back in my pocket.

“You need to delete your posts. They are way out of line. They could affect booking offers. Take them down.” Trina catches up to me in the hallway.

“Too late. I’m sure they’ve been screenshotted.”

Trina struggles to keep up with my long strides in her skyscraper high heels. “You should’ve consulted me. That’s what I’m here for.”

I stop mid-step and turn to look at her. “You let this problem fester for hours. You spent the entire day breathing down my neck instead of making sure she stays off my back. You’re supposed to be on my team.”

“I am. Being positively associated with Zara would work wonders for your career. People who enter the ring with her never make it out victorious. The fight you picked with her could end everything. Do you not understand that?”

“She’d ruin my personal life.”

“You would be able to do more for them if you play nice with her. Harper will—”

“My daughter is off-limits. Trying to use her to manipulate me will end badly for you.”

”You don’t think that’s what Zara will do when she finds out?”

“I’ve got it handled.”

“Do you? From here, it looks like you’re engaging in a petty social media battle that’s sure to ruin your reputation.”

“I’m doing what’s best for me as a person. What I do as an artist will soon be none of your concern.”

Her hands fly to her hips. “What is that supposed to mean?” Her voice is alarmingly shrill.

“What you think it means.”

“You don’t have the power to fire me!”

“You’re free to believe that.” I continue my journey to the dressing room.

“Rhys, wait!”

“Yes?” I turn over my shoulder.

“It’s been a long day. You’ve got a lot going on and you’re frustrated. I see now that I may have been pushing a little too hard lately.”

“May?”

“Have. I will loosen my grip a bit. Our working relationship will improve. There’s no need to do anything drastic.”

“You’re on probation. If you go against our wishes one more time, you’re out. Got it?”

“Yes.” She humbly nods.

“I don’t feel like figuring out how to fire you, so do try to get it together.”

“I will. May I have your new passwords?”

“Nope. You’ve permanently lost post privileges.”

“How am I supposed to do my job, then?”

“Notify me when something circulates and issue the public statements we provide you.”

“That’s a part of Josie’s job.”

“She deserves to have her load lightened. I bet you regret acting like you’re better than her, huh?”

She purses her lips. “I’m far above her pay grade.”

“I do feel like fixing that. She’s the real rock star around here.”

Her mouth gapes open and closed like a fish on land. “Are you going to raise her salary or lower mine?”

“Haven’t decided yet. It’ll likely be the latter, though.”

“We talked about hasty actions. This is—”

“It feels right. I’m going for it. Now, excuse me. I’ve got to get back to work. I suggest you do the same.” I resume my confident stroll down the hall.

I spot Josie right outside our dressing room. She’s typing rapidly on what I know to be her work phone.

“Hey, Jose.”

“Hi, sorry I’m in the way.” She steps out of the doorway.

“It’s no problem. You’re getting a raise, by the way.”

“What?” Her voice raises five octaves. “Did George tell you that?”

“I’m going over his head on this one. You’re a real asset to the team. And, you helped me talk to my girlfriend and Harper.”

“You’re officially together?” Her face illuminates.

“Yep, as of 15 minutes ago.”

“I’m so happy for you!” She gives me a hug.

“You seem happier about my news than your raise.” I chuckle.

“I have been deeply invested. You’re great, Poppy is fantastic and Harper is too stinking cute. You’re actually a little family now. I love it. I absolutely love it. More money is awesome too, though.”

“That enthusiasm right there is why you’ll soon outrank Trina.”

“What?!”

“I’m doing what I want today. It feels fan-freaking-tastic.”

“Whatever it is you’re on, keep taking it.”

“Pure, uncut love. You should try it sometime.”

“I’ll look into it when I have more time.”

“10/10, highly recommend. Welp, it’s time for me to get back to the old grind.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“You’re the best.”

I shut the door when I’m finally inside the dressing room.

“I did it. I wore her down!” I throw my hands into the air.

“Your stalking skills have finally paid off.” Taylor looks up from the guitar he’s tuning.

“Can I still call her ‘Mama’?” Kyle bites a cord of licorice.

“Since when have you been calling her that?” Ian looks at him, dumbfounded.

“I’ve been saying it in my head all day. Rhys got to do it in front of a group of strangers. I should be able to do it to her face and around family.”

“You’ll call her that over my dead body,” I growl.

“You have a real shot at being able to do it. Linds and Beck have a murder pact.” Taylor reassures him to pick with me.

“Right on.” Kyle nods to himself.

“Can one of you support me and keep your poaching plans to yourself?”

“I’m happy for you, man. It’s been a long time coming.” Ian offers me a kind smile.

“Thank you. At least someone’s loyal around here.”

“You know we’re on board with the two of you being together. We’re just messing around.” Taylor says.

“Kind of,” Kyle adds with a smirk.

“Harper’s replacing you in the band as soon as possible. Tay, you’re safe until Pop and I have another musical genius.”

“That could be never.” Tay points out.

“It’ll be as soon as we decide to have more kids. We have a secret formula.”

“Ooh, sounds dirty. Care to share details?” Kyle teases.

“Go sit in the corner and think about what you just said!” I boom, pointing to the nearest one.

“Oh, come on.” Kyle whines.

“Now!”

He groans and shuffles to it with his bag of candy.

“Yet you wonder why you will never be upgraded to godfather,” Taylor calls over to him.

Kyle holds up his middle finger.

He respects my time out demand, sitting on the floor in the corner with his face to the wall. I plop down in the seat he previously occupied. I nurse a bottle of water as I monitor my social media accounts on my phone.

There’s a knock on our door. The person on the other side answers before we have the opportunity to give them the green light.

“Are you doing better, Rhys?” George waltzes in with Josie following closely behind.

“I have a bit of a headache. Can we skip the small talk and get right down to what brought you in here?” I lock my phone to give him my full attention.

“I have some ibuprofen.” Josie sifts through the satchel that she is always wearing.

There are very few things in this world that she doesn’t carry in that bag. I’m pretty sure if one of us asked her for a chair, she’d ask how many and whip out whatever number we ask for and a matching table.

“There has been a change of plans. We are going to Wisconsin directly after the show. Snow is in the forecast in several of the cities we’ll pass through in route to Milwaukee. Leaving tonight will guarantee that everyone and everything will get there safely.” George states.

“Will we have time to go back to the hotel?” Ian asks.

“After soundcheck, you will be taken there to pack your bags.”

“Are we picking up Poppy and Harper on our way out of town?” I pop painkillers into my mouth.

“A car will bring them here after the show.”

“Does she know?” I follow up once I’ve swallowed a gulp of water and the pills.

“I just talked to her. She said she’ll have everything packed before their trip to the aquarium.” Josie assures.

“Aw, no fair. They’re going to the aquarium?” Kyle whines from his corner.

“What are you doing over there?” George addresses him.

“Rhys put me in time out for asking a simple question.”

“You’re right where you should be. You know what you did!” I bark back.

“You wouldn’t be getting this fussy if you didn’t think there was a chance I’d steal your girlfriend.”

“I know you can’t. I’m protective of her and you have this habit of—”

“You’re dating Poppy?” George interjects.

My eyes snap to his. “Yes, and?”

“Oh.” He adjusts his watch and shifts on his feet.

“Do you have something you want to say?” I coax.

“The weather is the only news I had to share. You are due on stage in ten minutes.” He bows out. Josie remains.

“What was that about?” I direct my question to her.

She shuts the door. “The higher-ups see Poppy and Harper as distractions. He’s not looking forward to relaying that your relationship has gotten more serious. Trina told him what you said to her. He knew better than to say something to upset you too.”

“They’re scared of me?” A Cheshire cat grin stretches across my face.

“Yes, congratulations.”

“Don’t say that just yet, not until we know how they’ll respond.” Taylor rains on my parade.

“Do you think they’ll give us the boot?”

“Doubtful. Trying to pay Poppy to disappear is more likely. She won’t do it, but they’ll try to plant seeds of doubt in your mind. We can’t trust them. You know that now.” He continues to crush dreams.

“I do.”

“Do you know what we have to do?”

“Yes, I’ve been doing it all day.”

“Just making sure.”

Our soundcheck goes well. Lunch is eaten on the way back to the hotel. I’m texting Poppy between work obligations and online monitoring. Zara’s uncharacteristically quiet. Not only has she not replied to my challenge, but she also hasn’t posted a picture of herself since this morning.

I’m on edge all afternoon. A part of me half-expects her to jump out of the shadows and attack me. The rational side, however, knows she’s carefully planning her next move.

~

Performing without Poppy and Harper in the wings reduces the high it brings me. That’s not to say we didn’t put on a good show. We did. People got their money’s worth.

“Has she replied?” I take the bottle of water Josie is offering me.

“No. She’s not backstage either.”

“Is she in one of the suites?”

“Not that I know of. If you hurry, you should be able to get on the bus before she emerges from the deepest circle of hell.”

“Do you have an ETA on Poppy?”

“I spoke to her maybe fifteen minutes ago. She said they were about to checkout of the hotel. More motivation to hightail it. I’m sure you miss them.”

“That’s putting it lightly.”

I follow Josie’s advice and rush through my shower. I say goodbye to Dan and Bethany before boarding the bus. Taylor, Ian, and Kyle dally. Josie and George will likely be shoving them along soon. I’m too wound up to stay still. I fiddle with my phone as I walk to the bus.

Poppy: Should be there in 5.

Me: FINALLY! Is our spawn asleep?

Poppy: She surrendered as soon as I put her in her car seat at the mall. Children’s museum, aquarium, and theme park combo for the win!

Me: She’s been a busy gal the past couple of days.

Poppy: Good thing she has an energy surplus.

Me: Is it good? We have to keep up with her.

Poppy: She’ll keep us on our toes. Our minds will stay sharp as we grow old.

Me: Looking forward to it.

Kicking rocks, I wait for them outside the bus.

The clacking of heels getting closer and closer sends a chill up my spine.

“Now, you’re trying to hide from me? What happened to the bravado you’ve been showing off all day?”

“We’re leaving for Wisconsin tonight.” I look Zara straight in the eye.

“I heard. Taylor, Ian, and Kyle are stuffing their faces at the craft services table. We have time to talk about what the hell you think you’re doing!” We stand toe-to-toe.

“I’m being honest.” I shove my hands into my coat pockets.

The alley we’re staying in is gradually filled with light. My stomach drops when I hear a car’s door open and close.

“I’ll knock it off if you leave me alone.” I rush out.

“There’s no turning back now. People are demanding answers. They’ll keep doing it until we give them.”

“I’ve had my turn. It’s your move.”

“Will you make another one?”

“No, just go.” I’m craning my neck to see if I can see my girls.

“What are you looking at?” Zara follows my gaze.

“Nothing.” I return my eyes to her face, praying she does the same.

“Hi, are you lost?” Zara asks in her fake-cheerful voice as she takes a step in the SUV’s direction.

My heart ceases in my chest when I catch sight of Poppy holding Harper.

“I, um, yeah -- I’m not from here. I’ve gotten a bit turned around and my phone’s dead.” Poppy hikes a sleeping Harper further up on her hip.

“I can help. Where are you going?” Zara removes her phone from her pocket.

“The W Minneapolis hotel.”

“You’re so close. It’s right down the street.” Zara stands by her side and shows her the map on her phone.

Poppy politely nods along as she gives detailed directions.

“Aaaaahhh, it’s Poppy and Little Wilde!” XO’s keyboardist, Troy, drunkenly slurs as he stumbles out of the stage door.

“You know them?” Zara rapid fires, her real personality peaking out.

“Yeah! Poppy – she’s – well, I don’t know...with Rhys, I think. Whatever. But Little Wilde – Little Wilde is a little Wilde!”

Zara’s head snaps to me. “Is she your daughter?” She seethes, pointing to Harper.

“She—”

“I hate kids, but Harper’s the shit. She--”

“GET ON THE DAMN BUS!” I snap at Troy.

He grumbles under his breath as he complies.

“It too oud, Mama, it too oud.” Harp whimpers, snuggling closer to Poppy.

“I know, Lovebug. I’m taking you someplace quiet. Go back to sleep.” Poppy rubs her back and kisses the top of her head. “I need to put her to bed, excuse me.”

Zara jerks Poppy back by her arm. “We’re not done here.”

“Back off!” I aim at Zara.

Pop snatches her arm away. “I don’t care who you are. If you grab me again, your life ends. You could’ve hurt her. ” She hisses as she strengthens her hold on Harper.

God, she’s so sexy when she’s in mama bear mode.

Wrong time.

But still, damn.

“Are you okay?” I guide Poppy away from Zara with my hand on the small of her back.

“Yeah, fine.” She flips her bangs out of her face.

“Daddy, done potty?” Harper lifts her head from Pop’s shoulder, scrubbing her eye with the back of her hand.

“Almost. We’ll play tomorrow, Lovebug. Mama’s going to take you inside and put you and Rue in your bed.”

“O-tay, I wove you.” She sighs, dropping her head back onto Poppy’s shoulder.

“I love you, too. Sleep tight.” I kiss the side of her head.

“And you’re sure you’re alright?” I rub Pop’s back.

“A little shaken, but not stirred. Thanks for asking.” Kissing my cheek is a bold move, but she plants one anyway.

I watch as she boards the bus to make sure they make it. Zara shoves my chest as hard as she can when they’re out of sight.

“What is your problem? You don’t even want me!” I shout.

“How old is she?”

“No.” I’m not giving her that kind of amunition.

“Did you have her before or after us?”

“There was never an ‘us’. We shared a bed one time. It was two years ago.”

“How did you meet her -- Poppy?” She sneers her name.

“I don’t owe you answers.”

“She’s your ex.”

“No.” It’s not a lie.

“You love her. It’s written all over your face. Who is she?” Zara gives my chest another shove.

“My girlfriend, okay? Harper’s our daughter. And if you tell anyone about them, I’ll release the recording of the conversation we had this morning. Everyone will know the truth about you.”

“It pales in comparison to your news.” She smugly boasts.

“Do you really want to test that theory? People can focus on more than one thing at a time.”

“You’re bluffing.”

I open the necessary app and press play.

“So…”

“You’re the one that keeps bringing up talking. The floor is yours.”

“I’m sure you heard about Donovan and me.” She flips her hair over her shoulder.

“That’s a bit presumptuous. What does your life have to do with mine?”

“He cheated on me. His excuse was that I’ve been on tour and he was lonely. I had only been on the road for two weeks. He couldn’t keep it in his pants for fourteen days?”

“I’ve met the guy once. I know nothing about his bedroom habits, nor do I care to. Get to the point.”

“Both of us know better than to do the groupie thing. I need a release. You’ve been on tour for months. You must be—”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“I’m offering you no-strings-attached sex. Look at me. How can you turn this down?”

“For starters, your personality is a major turn off. Secondly, you wrote a tell-all the last time we hooked up. And most importantly, I don’t want you.”

Zara slaps my phone and it clatters to the ground. She stomps on it with her heel until it stops playing our conversation.

“It’s already uploaded to my cloud. All of the members of my family have it too and there are A LOT of Wildes.”

“How much of it did you get?” She recoils.

“All of it. If you talk, it plays.”

She looks at my destroyed phone with a pensive expression. “What if I don’t say your name? I can change—”

“If you exploit them, I’m killing your career, even if it ends mine.”

I see the indecision on her face. It worries me, but I don’t show it.

“Okay.” She concedes.

“Okay, what?”

“I won’t tell anyone.” She mutters.

“I need you to dig deep, deep inside, and use the speck of humanity you have to not shove a toddler into a scandal.”

She flicks her eyes to mine. “I’m not a monster.”

“You can be.”

“You really are an asshole, aren’t you?”

“When I need to be.”

“I’ll reply to your post saying what we were was friends. We’ll leave it at that.”

“Deal.”

“If you change your mind, I’ll change mine too.” She intentionally crushes my phone with the ball of her foot as she struts to the door.

I breathe a partial sigh of relief and collect what’s left of my cellphone.

Poppy’s in our bedroom. She’s on the bed, above the covers, and Harper’s laying on her chest.

“Is she going to tell everyone?” Pop whispers to keep from disturbing Harper’s slumber.

“She said she wouldn’t. I have leverage.”

“Do you think she’ll go back on it?”

“Maybe.”

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

I remove my shoes and join them on the bed.

“I’ll protect you, okay? I promise.” I wrap my arms around both of them.

“I trust you.” She melts into my chest.

“I’m sorry you had to be around her.” I run my hand up and down her arm and kiss the top of her head.

“I hate using this word to disparagingly describe other women, but there’s no other word that’s applicable -- she’s a bitch, a stone-cold, two-faced, self-centered bitch. If she’d hurt Harper, you would’ve had to drag me off of her.”

I guide her face upward. “I would’ve cheered you on instead. Watching you defend our daughter like that would’ve been the biggest turn on.”

“Enabler.”

“Supporter.” I correct.

“Whatever you say, boyfriend.”

“I wore you down, girlfriend.”

“You sure did and you came home to us.”

I lower my head and capture her lips with mine. We don’t get too hot and heavy --Harper is nestled between us, after all-- but we do commemorate our reunion with kisses that say more than we ever could.

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