Sum of Us

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Ch.31: Poppy

Rhys Michael Wilde is my boyfriend. If someone had told me that would be the case last year, I would’ve laughed in their face. As well as it’s going -- and it’s going very well -- we haven’t picked up exactly where we left off three years ago. Both of us walked in knowing that would be the case. Things are undeniably more complicated this time around.

We have a daughter who will bind us for life regardless of the trajectory of our relationship. Rhys and I have trust issues to work through. We didn’t inflict all of the emotional damage on each other; some of it was caused by people we encountered during our time apart.

We live together, on the road and in Seattle. Satan’s disapproval is no longer a part of the equation. Rhys’s record label is the judgmental parent now. His fame comes with all sorts of baggage. The bag containing his former bedfellows is the one I’ve been primarily concerned with as of late.

I know all of the others’ names, when and how they were together, and what their relationship was like afterward. Turning off my emotions and ingesting all that he admitted with a clinical mindset kept me from letting the truth affect my feelings towards him, but it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable. Acknowledging the past is rarely fun, but always beneficial. In this case, there will never be another blindsiding by a ghost.

Rhys’s recording is the only thing keeping Zara from singing our sorted tale at the top of her lungs – literally. Our daughter’s privacy being contingent on whether or not Zara decides to try her luck doesn’t sit well with either of us. We’ve been losing sleep for the past couple of weeks developing a strategy.

Here’s what we know:

1.) Fans obsessed with the fantasy of being with Rhys will deny Harper’s paternity.

2.) They’ll want to see what she looks like Harper to confirm their suspicions.

3.) When I eventually get seen, my appearance will be criticized.

4.) I should expect to hear “how did she land him?” regularly.

5.) My motives will be questioned -- “gold-digger,” “con artist,” and “liar” will be my adjectives.

6.) The attention will be swerved back to Rhys when Harper’s age is revealed. The timeline is damning.

7.) The public’s immediate thought will be that he cheated on me while I was at home raising our child. It would negatively impact his public image drastically.

8.) Revealing my actions will make him sympathetic. Everyone knows that family is significant to Rhys. Withholding his daughter will be seen as the ultimate betrayal of their hero.

9.) There is no such thing as a gray area to an angry mob. One of us will be seen as good, the other as pure evil.

10.) I’ll be cast as the villain no matter what.

We are going to rip a page out of Zara’s book and rewrite elements of our story to minimize damage.

Our revised tale is as follows:

Rhys and I have had an open relationship for the last three years. He has known of Harper’s existence all along. In fact, he was on the road during my pregnancy and shortly after Harp’s birth to contribute to our livelihood.

I worked because twiddling my thumbs and waiting for him to bring home the bacon isn’t my style. The jobs I had were what I was able to obtain with my level of education in the current job market. Harper and I lived in Boston instead of Seattle because that is where my family lives. They (Chelsea) made his absence easier on me.

His tour stop in Boston in October made it evident that separating would be too hard on Harper. The two-week break was taken so that I could leave my jobs on good terms. Living in such close quarters on the road has rekindled the relationship that Rhys and I once shared. We are dating exclusively again. Full-time domesticity is suiting him well and he has never been happier. I in no way ruined his life or stole his youth.

We waited this long to share the truth because being young parents is difficult enough without outside input. The knowledge that Rhys became a dad as a teenager could have affected his carefree image and rise to fame. His intention was never to mislead anyone. He has recently made peace with all that he is and is finally comfortable sharing that person with the world.

I’m not one for lying, but not telling these particular ones will result in us being eaten alive. Our fibs will be shared in January. It’ll give me time to come to terms with the publicity we’re sure to receive and make it possible for him to attend Harper’s birthday party as her daddy.

In the meantime, Harper and I are subtly being weaved into Rhys’s public image. It’s too early for us to be the stars of the show, but we will be featured in the photos he posts of himself with family members during the holidays. Rhys’s often pictured with his nieces and nephews all over him. It won’t be too jarring if Harp joins in on the fun.

There will always be at least three buffers in pictures that Rhys and I are featured in together. He, Harper, and I can only be all together in full-family photos. Harper looks like the perfect combination of Rhys and me. If we are surrounded by the rest of his family, reasonable doubt will be created. Wilde genes are strong.

Harp blends in seamlessly among the hoard of model-pretty children, especially Chloe. They could be sisters. Who knew Leo’s fast-track to populate the Earth would make our lives easier?

It’s not a full-proof plan by any means, but it’s all we’ve got.

~

“Mama? Daddy? ” Harper whines from her crib, right on schedule.

Rhys lifts his head.

I push him back down.“My turn.”

He groans. “But I want one of her crack of dawn hugs.”

“I’ll put her on the bed. You can give her one really quick before going back to sleep.”

He nods, his head still on his pillow. I tuck his hair behind his ear and kiss his forehead.

Before I can leave the bed, he pulls me close and lays a passionate kiss on me.

“Duty calls.” I steal one more kiss before putting on my glasses.

“Morning, Lovebug.” I lift her from her crib.

“Mama.” She nuzzles her face in my neck.

“Do you feel sick?” I rub her back.

She’s clingier than usual.

She shakes her head.

“It’s okay if you do. We can still play.” I use my hand to check her temperature.

“I wanna to go Gamma’s. We go bye-bye now?”

Ah, she’s using me to get to grandma’s house. Cute, but manipulative.

I’ve got to limit her time with Leo and Grace. They know all of the tricks of the trade.

We’ve been video calling them a lot lately. Having Harper interact with other children has helped me curb her crush on Taylor. He’s not the only super cool kid on her block anymore. Gracie and Harper share many of the same interests.

They gab like old pals about their shows and favorite mythical creatures. Leo closely supervises as Grace uses his phone and computer to make sure she doesn’t see something that could scar her for life. (I know better than to ask). Gracie manages to talk him into getting her a new toy or a sweet treat each time she and Harper talk.

The girl has skills.

We see Becca and Lindsey often too. Our little ones love catching up and virtually playing with each other. Harp has always been a happy child, but she’s been operating on a higher frequency since being introduced to Rhys’s side of the family.

“We’ll see Grandma tomorrow, Lovebug.”

“O-tay.”

“But we’re not spending the night at her house this time. We’re staying at Daddy’s house.”

“Our house.” Rhys interjects.

“Is my name on the deed? I don’t think so.”

“Do all of us have rooms? I know so.”

“We have rooms at your mom’s house, too.” I lay Harper on the bed to change her diaper.

“Only she does. We slept in a guest room. We can’t abandon Harper at Ma’s house for four weeks. We’ll never get her back.”

“That’s a valid argument.” I give Harper a package of wipes to play with to keep her from crawling over to Rhys while I collect the necessary supplies.

“Do you want your name on the deed? Done. As soon as you pick a school, we’ll have a second house and you can put your name on that one day one. Case closed. I win.”

“You don’t. I can’t afford them.”

“The Seattle house has been paid off. Taxes and utilities are all that we pay for. It’ll be the same deal with the other house. You can chip in when you get your fancy-schmancy smartypants science job. Until then, love and friendship are the only currency I’ll accept.”

“That was disgustingly cheesy.”

“You think I care? I wore you down. You knew I can be gross when you signed on. There’s no going back now. You’re stuck with me for life.”

“What have I done?”

“Love you, too, babe.”

“I wove you, Daddy,” Harper replies to what was aimed at me as I remove her red footie pajamas.

“I missed you while you were sleeping.” He scoots down to where we are.

“You’re supposed to be sleeping.” I remind him.

Harp turns her head in his direction. “We pway?”

“Ye—”

“You can as soon as he’s done resting. It’s his sleepytime. He’s being mean by not going.”

“Go seep, Daddy. No nice to Mama.” She reprimands.

“I need a hug and a kiss first.”

She reaches for him.

“Once Mama’s finished with you.” He plays with her hair.

It relaxes her, just as it does him.

I leave them to shower each other with affection to throw away her diaper, wash my hands, and hustle through my early morning care and keeping routine.

“No,” comes out of my mouth when I walk in to see both of them beneath the covers.

“Yes.” He maintains his hold on her.

“She’s not tired. We’ll get comfortable, perhaps even fall back to sleep, and she’ll crawl off the bed when she gets bored and trash the room. She does it every time. I can’t get my hopes up again.”

“Harp, are you sleepy?” Rhys asks her.

“No.” She’s perched on his chest, petting his five o’clock shadow.

“You have to say ‘yes’ if you want Mama to let you stay.”

“No.” She repeats.

“You’re stubborn at the wrong times, baby girl. Gracie and I have work to do.”

“He’s just kidding. Let’s go eat breakfast and watch Peppa Pig’s holiday special, Lovebug.”

“Bye-bye, Daddy.” She doesn’t hesitate to jump ship.

“We’re working on your loyalty too.”

“I hungey.” She braces herself with one arm around my neck, the other is used to hold Rue.

“I can’t fault you, then. Enjoy your food. Say ‘hi’ to Peppa for me.” He blows her a kiss.

She kisses the air. Her hands are full.

“You got your hug and kiss. Go back to sleep.” I tell him.

“Yes, dear.” He returns his head to his pillow.

“Daddy’s silly, isn’t he?” I shut the door behind us.

“Daddy silly.” Harper giggles.

Harp and I have been able to have much more mother/daughter time since joining the tour. I’ve been making excellent use of it. There is plenty of playing done, but I sneak in educational elements.

Harper can now count to seventy-five without relying on her counting song. She can recognize words in children’s books and identify all of the objects within them. We water my plants together. When asked, she can explain why they need water, how they get their energy, and name the basic parts of a plant (roots, stem, leaves, and flower).

And for the past two weeks, we have been doing mommy and me yoga. The exercise shaves down a bit of her energy and the deep breathing and slow stretches keep me from fixating on all the ways my new-ish relationship with her father can come to an end.

“Mama?”

I stop typing on my laptop to look at her. “Yes, Lovebug?”

She continues working on a puzzle as she asks, “Anta go our house?”

“Will Santa know to come to our house?” I confirm my translation.

She nods, lifting her eyes to mine.

“Yes, he’ll know you’re there. Why do you ask?”

“We go bye-bye all time.”

My heart sinks. “Do you like that we travel a lot?”

“Oh, yes. Real fun. Usic and ots and ots of fwiends.”

I inwardly exhale. “What if we stopped going bye-bye and stayed in one place? How would you feel about that?” I push her hair over her shoulder.

“Home?”

“Where’s home?” I question.

“Eattle.”

My eyes widen in surprise.

Where we live is one of the things she has known since she was fifteen months old. When asked, she would always say, “Oston.“

“I thought Boston was home.”

Harper adamantly shakes her head. “Eattle mo’ fun.”

“What makes it fun?”

“Pwane go fast. Couds pwetty. Fammy and pups. Peeza yummy. Puddles splashy and twees real big.”

I fight a smile. “What about Aunt Chelsea and all your daycare friends? They live in Boston.”

“They go Eattle.” Harper goes for a new puzzle piece.

“Where will they stay?” I play along with her impractical idea.

“Gamma’s house.”

“Do you think she’ll let them?”

“Uh-huh, Gamma real nice.”

Her logic makes me smile. “Aunt Chelsea is staying at our house for a few days after Christmas. That leaves more room for the others.”

“Yay!” Her signature jolly grin is on her face.

“Do you like Seattle more than bye-bye?”

“Uh-huh. There pups.”

“We will be with them in Seattle for a while. We’re going bye-bye again, but once we’re done, we’ll go back.”

“Home?” The expression on her precious face is hopeful.

Only a person with a heart of stone could deny such a sweet request.

“Yes. Home.” I smooth down her hair and kiss the top of her head.

Harper returns the majority of her full attention to her puzzle. The remainder is given to The Muppets Christmas Carol, which is playing on her tablet. They free me up to get back to social media surveillance.

I broke down and joined the major sites, strictly for tactical purposes. My handle on the ones that require usernames is Poppy_of_Field. I figured I might as well make it clear why I’m on there – defending my position as Rhys’s muse. I’m jealous that his username is so much cooler. How can I compete with an ET reference?

I go by Penelope Elise on the ones that utilize given names. My profile photo on all of them is of a field of poppies. My posts are pictures of plants and trees we’ve encountered while on tour. I do full write-ups on their features, climate requirements, and rarity. I get to have a bit of fun while watching the forecast for signs that the sky is about to fall.

I follow the guys’ personal pages and the band’s. I’ve subscribed to all of Rhys’s “exes’” as well, including Zara’s. The urge to punch her in the face grows with each passing day. She has always come off as insincere, but now that I know how vindictive she is firsthand, her cutesy posts make my skin crawl. To keep from looking like the stalker I am, I follow a bunch of other celebrities as well. Rhys’s family is sprinkled into my feed too. Their posts are the only ones I look forward to seeing.

Sympathy pangs of pain pelt my chest when I read post upon post of cyberbullying that a co-star of Zara’s ex-boyfriend is enduring.

People are accusing her of the It-couple’s demise simply because she played his love interest in an upcoming movie. They have no other proof. There are actually clues to the contrary. She lives in Paris. Neither of them has left their respective countries in months.

The only pictures of them that exist were taken on set or at marketing events. The facts are being disregarded because Zara has spent the last couple of days creating cryptic yet melodramatic heartbreak posts that hint towards Donovan’s infidelity. Her fans are playing detective to try to figure out who he cheated with. Julianne is a prime suspect for merely doing her job.

“Lovebug, never hurt people’s feelings to feel better about yourself.” I impart today’s lesson while scrolling through the comments left beneath a recent vacation picture Julianne posted.

“I nice.”

“Be extra nice to everyone you meet. You never know what they are going through. Treat them like you treat Daddy and me.”

“Hugs and kisses?”

“Ask them if they want those first. If they say ‘yes,’ give them all that you’ve got. But you can always say kind words.”

“O-tay, Mama.”

“Always be my sweet girl, okay?”

“I nice all time.” She vows with determination.

Celebrities’ kids are born with clout. Fame + money = power. That’s a fact of life. I’m going to do all that I can to make sure Harper uses her platform for good.

I shower her with kisses. She hugs me. I rub her back.

“I wove you.” She nuzzles her face in my neck.

Boy, did I need one of her hugs.

“I love you, too.” I give her an extra squeeze.

I analyze the type of backlash I am bound to receive for as long as I can. My neck and shoulders are riddled with knots. My stomach is in a chokehold. My minuscule breakfast feels as though it’s on the verge of making a reappearance.

I close my laptop. “Can I play with your puzzle too?”

“Yes. We pway.” Harp gives me the piece in her tiny hand.

“Thank you.”

“Elcome.”

~

San Antonio, Texas is our final stop before the month-long break. We arrive at the arena midmorning. The atmosphere backstage is comparable to a classroom the day before vacation. The extra zing of energy is palpable. There’s an unspoken understanding that all we have to do is get through the next couple of hours and we’ll be free.

“No aircut! I wanna be wike Unzel!” Harper sprints from me when I try to put her in a styling chair.

“Quinn is only taking off a little bit. It’ll help your hair grow faster.” Rhys goes for her.

“No!” Harp zigs when he zags, escaping his grasp.

She goes for the door. Before she can reach it, she trips and falls to the ground.

I brace myself for tears as I rush to her aid. Harper doesn’t shed a single one. Instead, she wriggles out of my grasp and takes shelter beneath an armchair.

“There’s a bright side to this. We now know she won’t be afraid to dive for plates when she plays baseball.” Rhys joins me in front of the chair.

“If she plays.”

“Harp, do you want to play baseball?” He asks her.

“Yes, pweeze.” She answers from her hiding spot.

“Told you so.” He grins at me.

“She responded to the word ‘play.’”

“Harper, how do you play baseball?” He responds to my quip indirectly.

“Hit ball wit tick. Go real far. Run real fast. Home. Ever-body cap.”

I look at Rhys, dumbfounded by her answer.

“You’re not the only one that teaches her things.”

“We’ll dive into that later. For now, we need to stay focused. We’ve put this trim off long enough.” I get on my hands and knees.

“What’s the harm of waiting a little longer?”

“Her bangs fall in her eyes. She flips them so often that she’s starting to look like a member of a boy band.”

“Point made.”

On my stomach, I’m eye to eye with our daughter-turned-cat. “I’ll give you a cookie if you come out.”

“Gamma ookie?”

“No, but it’ll be a Christmas one.”

“I no want.”

I sigh heavily. “Harper, I need you to—”

“Step aside and watch and learn.” Kyle says from behind me.

“Children aren’t your area of expertise.” I remain on the ground.

“I know c-a-n-d-y. She will do just about anything for it.”

“Give it to me. I can do it.”

“Too high a risk that you’ll eat it. Roll aside, Mama.”

“What did I say?” Rhys snaps at him.

“I’ll do my time. The crime’s worth it.”

“How many timeouts have you been sentenced to this week?” I work my way off the ground.

“Seven. He’s still on his power trip.” Kyle lays out a towel.

He pulls a mini bag of gummy bears out of his pocket. Starting just outside the chair, he uses them to create a line. If followed, Harp will be out in the open and too busy eating to move out of the way.

“Look at all the candy, Harp. They’re gummy bears, our favorite.” Kyle verbally tries to lure her out.

Harper tugs on the end of the towel closest to the chair. She’s got it, along with the candy, in her hiding spot before we can engage in a game of tug of war.

“Okay…was not expecting that.” Kyle stares, stunned.

There’s a bit of smacking before Harper says, “Tank you, Nunckle Lyle.”

Rhys bursts out laughing. I can’t help but join him.

When our laughter comes to an end, I pull out my phone to research a new tactic. Moving the chair is too risky. If she moves, a leg of the chair could hit her on the head.

Armed with the necessary knowledge, I return to the ground. Harp’s happily finishing the last of her candy.

“Lovebug, guess what? Rapunzel got her hair cut in the movie, but it came back in her TV show. It’s stronger than ever now. Yours will be too.”

“Pwomise?”

“I promise. I know how much you like your hair.” I tuck it behind her ear to look into her eyes.

Harper crawls out and extends her arms to me. I put her on my hip.

“Sorry about all the theatrics, Quinn.” I set Harper in the booster seat that’s been placed in the styling chair.

“Don’t worry about it. She’s not my most difficult client by a long shot.”

“I still can’t believe she conned me out of candy.” Kyle studies Harper as though she’s some sort of wizard.

“Outsmarted. She didn’t ask you to Hansel and Gretel her,” Rhys replies as he buckles Harper into her seat.

“Witch mean,” Harper flaunts her story knowledge.

“She is.” Rhys agrees.

“They want go home.”

“Did they get there?” He quizzes.

“Yes.”

“You make me so proud.” Rhys kisses her cheek.

“Keep an eye on that one. She’s dangerous. ” Kyle points to Harper with his thumb.

“I’ve been on high alert since day one.” I smile at him.

“Good luck.” He pats my shoulder and heads out of the room.

Rhys moves to stand near me as Quinn preps Harper for her haircut.

“You said you’d go to rehearsal after we caught her.”

“I can put off going for a little while longer.” His arm slithers around my waist.

“Okay.” I lean on him, absorbing his warmth and taking in his intoxicating scent.

Harper talks to Quinn as though she’s a regular at a beauty salon. Quinn responds to all of her insights as though they make perfect sense. They don’t, but Quinn’s a good sport.

“You are all done, Little Wilde. Do you like your hair?” Quinn angles Harper towards the mirror.

“It pwetty! Tank you.”

Her bangs are out of her eyes. The shoulder-length portion is cropped evenly and styled into two ponytails.

Two ponytails with bows has been Harp’s favorite style lately. She calls it “pup hair” because it resembles floppy dog ears. Widget gets bows on her ears when she goes to the dog groomer. Rhys matches Harper’s bows to her outfits, as did Quinn. She gave the style a little extra pizzazz by plaiting the hair underneath. Rhys recorded her doing it on his phone. I know he’ll ask to practice it on me later.

That’s how seriously he takes his daily styling duties.

“You’re welcome. Visit me anytime.” Quinn removes the styling cape and shakes hair off of it.

Rhys lifts Harp out of the chair, holds her high, and dotes on her new do. They practice their roaring, of course.

“How much do I owe you?” I ask Quinn.

“You ask every time. The answer will always be nothing.”

“I have cash. I can send money through an app if you’d prefer. I don’t want to wear out our welcome.”

“That’ll never happen. You’re angels. Besides, Rhys just gave me a raise. Taking money from you seems wrong.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

“Are you still passing out raises like c-a-n-d-y?” I ask Rhys as we walk to his dressing room.

“I give them to the deserving. It only seems like a lot of people because the ones getting them are the people who are nice to you.”

“It sounds like you’re gunning for S-a-n-t-a’s job.”

“He’s got some good ideas. The way he goes about it is all wrong.”

“Interesting perspective. Too bad I’m telling Taylor.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“I have to make sure what you’re doing is above board. Who better to turn to for quality assurance?”

“Anyone else.”

“I beg to differ. This is for your own good.” I rest my hand on his arm.

“You’re wrong, but I still love you.”

“Blasphemy.”

“Reality.”

Harper is put into her playpen once we reach their room. Pinky the unicorn’s presence is what keeps her from trying to escape. She climbs aboard and rides with Rue in front of her.

“Off to work, sir.” I tug him away from her.

“I need to say one more thing.”

“Make it fast.” I step aside to give him access to her.

He steps closer to me instead. “Take a break from social media. Other people are watching it for us.”

“I have to prepare. Researching what they do is the only way to do it.”

“You haven’t been eating much. You’re tense more often than not. It’s not healthy. You need to lay off it, at least for a little while.” His arms encircle my waist.

“I’m scared. When I’m scared, having an idea of what will happen next helps.”

“In my humble opinion, playing with Smartypants Jr., looking at plant pictures and goldendoodle videos, and making out with me would be more effective.”

“Has this been scientifically proven?” I quirk a smirk.

“It’s in beta-testing. You could make science history by taking part in the study.”

“You make a compelling argument. I’ll mull it over and get back to you.”

“Try not to take too long. I’m honestly really worried about your stress level.”

“Don’t worry about me. You’ve got enough things on your plate.”

“We’re doing this so that we can openly have a life together. Letting you have a nervous breakdown as we try to get it kinda defeats the purpose. Help me help you.” He places a chaste kiss on my lips.

“Okay.”

“Now, where are we on the make-out front?” He cranes his neck to look me in the eye.

“You just had to go and ruin it, didn’t you?”

“I’m learning to plan for you, Penelope. Excuse me for trying to adapt to your way of life to make you comfortable.”

I fight a smile as I shake my head.

“Is that a ‘no’?”

“It’s a ‘not now.’ It’s not even noon.”

“What are you thinking? 1 o’clock, maybe? She’ll be asleep. I’ll be on my lunch break.”

“At least after five. I’ve got a lot to do today.”

“A happy hour sort of deal. I can dig it.”

“You really have to go. I have playing to do.”

“Love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He places a tender kiss on my lips and leaves without saying another word.

“Harp, do you want to watch videos of puppies?”

“Pups! I wove pups!” She leaves Pinky behind to jump up and down in front of me.

We cuddle on the couch and watch puppies play and get groomed with ridiculously gleeful smiles. It’s yoga time when Harp gets fidgety.

Downward dog is done between each move.

Harper’s idea.

We bark while in position.

Also, her idea.

All of our sessions end with a kangaroo hug.

My idea.

Both of us have fun.

“Am I interrupting snack time?” Josie pops her head in the door sometime later.

“We’re just finishing up. What’s up?” I dust cracker crumbs off of my hands.

Crackers with slices of cheese, grapes, and water were on the menu today.

“You have been invited to soundcheck.”

“What that?” Harper stops crushing crackers to ask.

I take her plate from her when she’s too distracted to rebuttal.

“It’s when your daddy and uncles play on stage to make sure they will sound good during the show tonight.”

“Big usic time?!”

“Big music time,” Josie confirms.

Harper scrambles off of our picnic blanket.

“It time go, Mama.” She tugs my hand. “Usic time.”

I make quick work of our trash. We follow Josie out of the room with haste.

There’s no reason for us to hide backstage. The only people in the building are authorized workers sworn to secrecy. Harper and I can watch from the audience for the first time ever in the standing room only section that’s closest to the stage.

The test show has yet to start. Crew members are still on stage, helping the guys make adjustments to their instruments and microphones.

It’s surreal seeing them on the stage of a vast stadium, prepping for a sold-out show that they’re headlining. It’s a far cry from the cramped clubs and dive bars that let them perform if they promised to stay away from the alcohol. When they gained a following, the venues paid them pennies under the table because they were underage.

My boys made it.

I take pictures of them working like a proud parent.

“DAAADDDYYY!” Harper sing-yells, one of her hands on a bar of the security gate. Her other arm is being used to hold Rue.

Rhys’s face lights up when he sees her.

“Yes, HAAAARRRPERR!?” His voice filters through the sound system, confirming that his mic is on and operational. He removes his microphone from its stand and walks to the edge of the stage. Once seated, his legs are dangling over the side.

“Pway!” Harper adorably demands.

“Soon, Lovebug. Our friends aren’t done making sure your uncles will be loud like me.”

“O-tay!” She has no trouble making sure she’s heard.

“What have you and Mama gotten up to today?”

“Um, Pups! And oga and Fozen and eat!”

“Were Anna and Olaf funny?”

Harper nods adamantly, giggling.

“Do you want to build a snowman?” Rhys sings, prompting her to join him.

Harper takes the bait – it’s her favorite Frozen song, after all. She sings her little heart out with him, staying on pitch. Rhys’s microphone is able to pick up her vocals because she’s projecting her voice like a Broadway pro.

I’m recording it like the proud mama I am.

Everyone claps when they’re done. Harp bounces with joy, feeding off of the praise.

Energized, she runs laps in the floor section. I confiscated Rue before she started her run. I can’t have her tripping on concrete.

The audience lights fade down to adjust the ones on stage. The light-up tennis shoes Harper’s wearing makes it easy to keep tabs on her.

“Stay close, Lovebug.”

“Yes, Mama.” She runs past me.

Harper returns to my side when the music starts. No hand-holding is required. She’s able to sing and dance freely. I’m too mesmerized by Rhys’s stage presence to join her party.

There’s no denying that he was born to be up there. Watching him shine is getting my engine revving.

No wonder so many people think they’re in love with him.

I haul-ass backstage with Harper on my hip when the mini-show is over.

“You pway!” Harp reaches for Rhys as soon as he’s within sight.

He takes her from me. “I did. Did you like it?”

“Uh-huh. Pway ’gain.”

“Later. We can play with your toys until then. How’s that sound?”

“Fun.” She runs her fingers through his hair.

“Can we reschedule our 5 o’clock appointment?” I ask.

Rhys eyes shift to me. “What time?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Taylor!” He yells.

“What?” Tay walks to where we are standing.

“Be a godfather.” Rhys holds out Harper.

“This is why the ban exists.” Taylor situates Harp on his hip. “The guys and I are going to play Xbox. Will you help me win by pressing buttons on their controllers?” Taylor asks Harper.

“Rue help?” Harper inquires.

“Sure. He can help too.”

“We pway.”

“The ban’s reinstated after the holidays.” Taylor calls over his shoulder as he carries Harper away.

My cheeks inflame.

“Don’t let his hating get in the way of our happiness.” Rhys practically drags me down the hall.

“Where are we going?” I giddily jog to keep up with him.

“Empty dressing room. I found it earlier and checked to make sure the lock wasn’t broken. We’re golden.”

“We could just go to the bus, you know.”

“I thought we’d sneak around for old time’s sake.” He looks both ways before opening a door in an ill-lit end of the hallway.

We opt to leave the overhead and mirror lights off. Instead, we rely on Rhys’s phone’s flashlight to keep us out of the dark. Light beneath the door would alert people of the room’s occupancy.

It’s not our first rodeo. Rhys has always brought out the rebel in me.

Still holding my hand, he leads me to the couch. Rhys extends his hand to the end table to put his phone on it. I scoot close to him, guide his face to mine and press my lips to his. He deepens the kiss, simultaneously pulling my chest to his.

What starts as a slow burn builds to a frenzy of tongues, teeth, and desperate grasps. The grazing of his fingertips on bare skin beneath my shirt yanks me out of our fit of passion. I pry my lips from his and put some distance between us.

“What’s wrong?” Rhys uses the hand that was once on my hip to tuck messy hair behind my ear.

“I need a second.” I tug down the risen hem of my shirt.

“Did I do something?” He searches my eyes, donning a guilty expression.

“No, I promise. It’s just – it’s been a while…”

“How long?” He caresses my reddening cheek with his thumb.

“Before Harper.” I divert my eyes.

“Baby, you’re—”

“Gorgeous?” I finish. “You say it because you mean it and hearing it does make me feel good. This has more to do with me than you.”

I’ve grown used to the sight and feel of my stretch marks, but anxiety still accompanies the idea of a lover uncovering them, even if it’s Rhys.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Be patient with me.”

“Of course.” He presses a sweet kiss to my forehead.

I rest my head on his shoulder. He wraps both arms around me.

“Can I say something?”

“No, you’ll ruin it.” I say from within his neck.

“They’re proof Harper didn’t just fall out of the sky and of how brave and strong you are. You have no reason to be ashamed.” He soothingly rubs my back.

“You’re getting grosser by the second.”

“Yet you’re still here -- literally in my arms.”

“What can I say? You wore me down.”

“You bet your fine ass I did.” He rests a hand on it.

I crane my neck to look at him. “What is wrong with you?”

“No idea. Are you filing an official complaint?”

“Not yet.” I kiss the smirk off of his lips.

Cuddling and talking are all that take place for the remainder of our alone time. Straightening ourselves out is a bit of a struggle in the near-dark, but we do a decent enough job of it. The swollen state of our lips is a lost cause.

Rhys gets back to work after we eat lunch. I put Harper down for her nap. On the bus with Harp and not particularly tired after my steamy tryst with Rhys, I research colleges with exceptional botany programs.

Happy future prep beats doomsday planning by a longshot.

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