Sum of Us

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Ch.32: Rhys

I need this break as much as my next breath. They say you can’t go home again – that if you return to a place you love after spending a significant amount of time away, it won’t be as spectacular as you recall. The opposite’s true for me. The familiar sights, smells, and sounds mean more now.

The real world is a cold, cruel place. Returning to Seattle never fails to recharge my batteries. Harper’s proclamation – without coaching, I swear -- that it’s her home hit me right in the heart. She’s been asking to return since we left.

As always, I’m more than happy to give my little girl what she wants.

~

I go outside for fresh air after getting showered and changed post-show. There’s not much of a view when seated on a curb behind a stadium at night, but a bit of peace and quiet after hours of shrieking fans and bright lights is enough of a reason to stay put.

“Great show tonight.”

I do a quick scan of my surroundings. “Me?” I point to myself when I see no one else that statement could I apply to.

“Yeah, you.” Gia meddles with the strap of her shoulder bag.

“But you hate me.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“You’ve spoken maybe twenty words to me in three months.”

“I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?” She joins me on the curb, keeping a respectful distance between us.

“Why?” I eye her with skepticism.

“Fair question. I wouldn’t trust anyone right now, either, if I were you.” She puts her hands into the pockets of her jacket.

“Then, answer.”

“You’re about to take on Goliath – several if you count Zara and her minions. I want to say that I’m rooting for you.”

“What do you want in exchange for your allegiance?” I narrow my eyes.

“Nothing.”

“There’s always a price around here.”

“I like Poppy. I don’t want this to break her.”

“Oh. I didn’t know you were close.” I don’t bother hiding the surprise in my voice.

“We don’t have slumber parties or matching friendship bracelets, but she’s grown on me. I see her appeal.”

“You didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon for her.”

“I was caught off guard. We were on the verge of doing whatever, and then all of a sudden, you show up with a wife and kid.”

“We started dating two weeks ago. She was only here for Harper three months ago.” I correct.

“You sat me down and told me you’ll only ever love her. You turned into a completely different person, a happy one.”

“What’s wrong with being happy?”

“I liked you because you were as lost and lonely as me.” She states simply.

“Misery likes company.” I connect the dots.

“That it does.”

“And that’s why you hate me? Because I’m happy?”

“I don’t hate you. I don’t know you. Trying doesn’t appeal to me anymore, so I don’t.”

“That’s flattering.” I volley sarcastically.

“Would you rather have me tripping all over myself to be with you?”

“No.”

“Well, there you go.”

There’s a beat of silence. “I’m sorry.” I use my apology to break it.

“I’ll elbow you again if you tell me you hope you find someone who will make me as happy as she makes you.”

I crack a smile. “What if I think it?”

“Same fate.”

“I tried. That should count for something.”

“For what it’s worth, I don’t believe what Zara sang about you. You don’t work that hard to get laid. You put out ‘come hither’ vibes and girls flock to you. The details don’t add up.”

“I told her I’d just gotten out of a long-term relationship and wasn’t looking for anything serious. She said it was cool. 'Oz' came out and added to my mountain of guilt.”

“Zara entered the funhouse at her own risk then. Don’t feel bad that she came out thinking things weren’t as they seemed.”

“You’re being very nice right now.”

“I told you I don’t hate you.” Gia raises and drops her shoulder.

“You were throwing out different signals.”

“And now, I’m not.”

“I’m still confused about what’s going on, but I’ll take it.”

“That’s good enough.” She uses her hands to push off the sidewalk. “Happy Holidays.” She says once she is standing.

I have to tilt my head to see her from where I’m still seated. “Happy Holidays.”

She swivels on her high-heeled boots and struts to her tour bus.

Back at the hotel, Poppy and Harper are asleep in our room. Harper’s nightlight helps me make it inside our room without tripping over anything. My first order of business is checking on Harp.

She’s curled on her side, Rue tucked beneath her arm. I lower the gate on her crib, press a feather-soft kiss to her cheek, and leave her be.

First stripping down to my undershirt and briefs, I crawl into bed behind Pop, who is also sleeping on her side. I put my arm around her. She pushes back into my chest and wiggles her bottom to get more comfortable. The intimate contact is pleasurably agonizing. A groan-moan escapes my mouth before I can stop it.

“Good show?” Poppy mumbles, half-asleep.

“Yeah. I didn’t mean to wake you.” I whisper for Harper’s sake.

“It’s okay. I like knowing you’re here.” She says on a sigh.

“I’m here.” I kiss her shoulder.

She breathes a laugh.

“How do you feel?” The near-darkness makes me brave enough to hear the truth.

“About what?”

“Going back.”

“Relieved.”

“Relieved?”

“I know what to expect. We can relax.”

“Will you stay off social media?”

“Mhmm.”

“I don’t want to lose you to them.” I strengthen my hold on her.

“I’ll stay unless you leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Now that that’s settled, go to sleep. We have an early flight and Harper’s going to be too excited to let us rest on the plane.” She rubs my arm.

“She slept last time. We took a nap.”

“She didn’t know what was waiting for her after the ride. She’s made plans this time.”

“What kind of plans?”

“Ask. She’ll tell you. For now, sleep.”

“Yes, hon.” I snuggle in closer to her and close my eyes.

--

Poppy wasn’t exaggerating when she said Harp was hyped about our trip. It takes an hour for her to get through her list of things she wants to do while we’re in Seattle. She only wanders off-topic five times – it’s an all-time best. Little does she know, I had already planned to do those things with her.

It’s a very good thing I sleep my best when Poppy’s in my arms. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the energy to keep up with Harper. She’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the entire four-hour flight. Harp’s eager to get home and ‘pway.’

“Bye-bye, couds.” Harper waves at them as the plane begins its descent.

“No tears.” Pop leans into me to note.

“Our little girl is growing up so fast.” I pretend to wipe tears from my eyes.

“We won’t be so lucky on the return trip. She’ll scream like a banshee when she found out your family wouldn’t be joining us on tour.”

“Our. They love you too.”

She looks at me, appreciation mingling with the playful pointedness in her eyes. “Our family.”

“They’ll be at her epic birthday party a few weeks later. We can distract her with details to ward off the waterworks.”

“Leo’s not going to wear the shirt you bought for him.”

The dress code for Harper’s party is a costume or the customized baseball tees I had printed for everyone. It’s lavender with dark purple sleeves. Her favorite Disney characters are on the front, along with the words “Happy 2nd Birthday, Harper!”. Each shirt has who we are to her on the back. For example, mine says ‘Daddy’ and Leo’s ‘Uncle Leo.’ All the words are printed with glittery dark purple letters.

She loves those things. It’s her day. The first one we’re spending together. I’m pulling out all the stops.

“He can either wear it or break the news to Gracie that she can’t go see Ariel.” I keep my voice down to keep Harper from getting involved.

“You’re not allowed to uninvite her. That’d be cruel.”

“I’d never do it. The threat will be enough for him to cave.”

“I still can’t believe you went through with the shirts.”

“It was matching outfits or renting out the park. You said I wasn’t allowed to get the park. I had no choice.”

“That logic is rock solid.”

“She’s going to love it.”

“Almost as much as she’s going to love giving them the shirts as Christmas gifts.”

“We’re going to wrap and pass them out together to take it to the next level.”

“Are you trying for a repeat of what happened before she met S-a-n-t-a?”

“I’ve failed if she doesn’t make that sound.”

“Space out the happiness overloads. I don’t want her brain to be deprived of too much oxygen.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I peck her lips.

“Gamma’s house. Gamma’s house. Time go to Gamma’s house.” Harper sings as I unbuckle her from her plane seat car seat after the flight.

“We’re going to our house first. We’ll see her at dinner time.”

“No now?” Her bottom lip’s poked as she frowns.

“Mama and I have surprises for you at home. You can’t see them if we go to Grandma’s.”

“Esent?” She perks up, eyes alight.

“Presents,” I confirm.

“We go Gamma’s ater.”

“You can keep singing your song about her. It sounded great.”

“Wike it?”

“I love it. You’ve got real talent, kid.” I smooch her cheek.

The sloppiness of the kiss makes her giggle and squirm. She promptly returns the favor.

An SUV large enough to carry Taylor, Poppy, Harper, me, and all of our bags is waiting for us at the airport. I install Harp’s car seat into the car myself and run my standard gambit of tests. The only person who bats an eyelash is the driver. It’s out of curiosity, not worry.

“Pups at our house?” Harp asks during the ride.

“No, Lovebug, we don’t have dogs. Do we, Rhys?” Pop looks at me pointedly.

“Not yet. I need your help picking them out, Harp.”

“I gets to help?” She kicks her legs to express her excitement. “Mama, I gets to help!”

As much as I would love to surprise Harper with puppies on Christmas day, online articles dashed my fantasy. Not all dogs can handle life with a toddler. Puppies have a tougher time with them. Human and canine puppies like to test their limits. They could hurt each other while pushing them. Introducing both parties and making sure they interact well before committing to pet parenthood is the only way to be sure they will live well together.

“I heard, baby. What do you want to name it?”

“Ummm…Buddy! We be buddies.” Harper proudly proclaims.

“If we get Buddy a buddy, can we name it Holly?” I suggest.

Poppy taps my arm with the back of her hand for my proposal.

“Ha. Buddy Holly. Nice.” Taylor approves.

“Holly Olly Ismas!” Harper cheers.

“You promised you wouldn’t coerce her.” Pop says softly.

“She has no trouble saying no. She loves music and Christmas. Their names represent both. We have to respect her wishes.”

Harper’s driving my point home by singing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas."

“You are so lucky she is the way she is.”

“Right?” I grin.

Harper has more questions after her song break. She asks if there’s music, toys, and purple. These I can answer in the affirmative. By the time we are pulling up to the house, she’s practically bouncing in her seat. I can only hope it lives up to her expectations.

“This is it. What do you think?” Poppy holds Harper in front of the house as the driver, Taylor, and I collect bags from the trunk and put them inside the foyer.

“It so big. I gets ost?”

“You won’t get lost, Lovebug. Daddy, Uncle Taylor, and I will make sure of it.”

“No scawy?”

“It’s not scary. It’s very nice inside. Your surprises are in there.” Pop soothes.

“Ooh, go now?”

“We have to wait just a little bit longer. Daddy has to be with you when you see it.” Poppy rubs Harper’s back.

“Why?”

“It’s his turn to take you home for the first time.”

“Eattle home.”

“This is our house home. Taking their children to their house is a big deal to a lot of daddies.”

“Why?”

“It makes them feel like a good daddy.”

“Daddy a good daddy.”

“He is, and he loves you very much.”

“I wove Daddy.”

“I do, too, Lovebug. That’s why we have to wait for him.”

I sneak glances at them – my wonderful, beautiful, loving girls. I’m struggling to figure out what I did to deserve them.

It dawns on me that I don’t. All I can do is keep trying to better myself.

Harper waves with a sweet smile when she catches me looking at her. I blow a kiss to her. She mimics me with gusto.

“Go ahead. We can get the rest.” Tay nudges my arm with his elbow to get my attention.

“The remaining bags are Harper’s. That wouldn’t be fair.”

“I tried to talk you out of going up to Poppy at the club. Getting the bags will be my punishment for it.”

“Get to it.” I slap his back.

“Daddy, all done?” Harper questions when I walk up to them.

“I’m done. Let’s go.”

“I alk side, Mama.” Harp tries to wiggle out of Poppy’s arms.

Pop puts her on the ground before she manages to hurt herself. Harp promptly takes my hand and looks up at me expectantly.

“Time to go home,” I speak past the lump in my throat.

Pop touches her hand to my back. My eyes meet hers.

“It’s okay.” She rubs my back.

We agreed not to engage in too much PDA in front of Harp. I toss that rule out the window and hit her with a searing kiss.

Harper tugs on my hand. “Want go side.”

“Going.”

I walk slow enough for her to keep up with me. Poppy is a step behind.

“Home tall,” are Harper’s first words upon entering the house.

Her face is tilted up towards the three-stories-high ceiling.

“We can go to the top.” I strip her out of her coat.

“How?”

“The stairs.”

“Tares tall.”

“Your legs are going to make you tall one day.”

“Wike you?

“Mama’s tall too. You’ll be like both of us.”

“Yay!”

Harper follows me to the coat closet and emits a gasp when I glide open the wooden pocket door.

“Where or go?” She goes into the closet in pursuit of the door.

“It’s on a track like a train. It rolls into a hole in the wall.” Poppy answers as simple as possible.

She answers Harp’s follow up questions as I hang up all of our coats.

The door’s one of the many newly baby-proofed items in the house. It can only be moved if a button within its handle is pressed. Smashed fingers aren’t in Harper’s future.

It takes some coaxing to get Harper away from her latest object of fascination. She thinks it’s one of her presents. Revealing that there’s a Christmas tree nearby gets her to leave it alone.

“ISMAS!” Harper exclaims when we reach the living room.

Stockings with our names on them line the fireplace mantel. White lights are strung on the 12 ft Christmas tree; a spool of red ribbon trimmed with gold is wound around it. Silver and gold ornaments of varying shapes and sizes line its branches. A glittering gold star on top completes the arbor masterpiece.

Mom outdid herself this year.

Harp bolts to the tree and does the most Harper thing she could do it – she hugs it.

I had it anchored to the wall and ceiling, anticipating this would be her first move. She’s seen the movie Elf and cackled at the scene where Buddy the elf launches himself at a Christmas tree too many times not to go for it.

“So signy.” She pets a silver bulb.

“It’s very shiny. Do you want to try to find the ornament you made?” Pop’s by her side.

“Oh, yes. I finds it!”

I pick up Harper to increase her odds of doing it.

It takes her a few minutes. The tree has too many sparkly objects for her to stay exclusively focused on her task.

“Mine!” She points to the plaster imprint of her hand.

“Are you sure? It looks like mine.” I ask.

“Mine.”

“I don’t know…”

“Ook.” She presses the palm of her hand to the ornament to prove that it fits.

“Oh! You’re right. It is yours. It looks good on our tree.”

“I no know. Make spwakly?”

“You don’t know. You want to make it sparkly?” I try to confirm her question.

“Yes, pweeze.”

“We can get glitter paint to put on it.”

“Yay!” She claps.

“Silver or gold?”

“Siver.”

“You’ve got it, Lovebug.” I kiss her cheek before putting her on the ground.

Harper goes to explore the rest of the room. Poppy and I give her the space to feel independent, but keep an eye on her.

“She likes it so far.” Pop puts her arm around my waist.

“What you said to her about taking her home was…” I fail to find the words. “Thank you.” I kiss her temple.

“You’re not the only one with a list of things you want to make right.”

Harper ends her self-guided tour on the couch. She climbed onto it by herself and is now pressing the buttons on the remote control.

“Are you hungry, Lovebug? It’s almost lunchtime.” Poppy asks her.

“Yes.” She remains fixated on her new toy.

“Are there groceries in the fridge?” Pop consults with me.

“Yes, Ma stocked it with our favorites.”

“I’m going to whip up something for us. You can keep showing her around. I’ll call you when the food’s ready.”

“I’ll save her room for when we’re with you.”

“Thank you.” She places a quick kiss on my lips.

“Have fun exploring with Daddy.” Poppy kisses the top of Harper’s head.

Harp hugs her neck and frees her to make lunch.

“Do you want to see more of your presents?” I join Harper on the couch.

“Mo’ esents?”

“More presents. There’s a lot to see.”

“I alk?”

“You can walk, but I’d like to hold your hand.”

“O-tay.” She scoots off the couch.

Harper collects Rue from where she abandoned him on the floor on our way out of the room.

Our journey through the first floor rooms is slow-moving. She has to touch every piece of metal, pet every rug, and marvel at the pocket and barn doors. We reach the kitchen before Poppy calls.

She’s humming to Christmas music as she stirs a pot on the stove. She looks as I hoped she would -- like a person in their home.

“Mama!” Harp runs to hug her leg.

“Careful, Lovebug, we’re by the stove.”

“Tove hot. Give owies.”

“Let’s wash our hands. We can sit and watch Mama cook after we’re clean.” I gesture for Harp to follow me to the sink.

“I’m almost done,” Poppy tells us.

“What are we having?”

“Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“A comfort food classic combo.” I turn on the water.

“It’s easy to make.”

“The best ones usually are.”

We eat our lunches at the kitchen table. Taylor joins us midway through. Poppy had the hindsight and consideration to make enough food for him. Our first communal meal as housemates is effortlessly successful. Tay and I take care of the pot, pan, and dishes as Poppy helps Harp “feed” Rue.

Harper shows none of her post-meal signs of tiredness. We continue on with our tour, hoping the walking will wear her out enough to take a nap. Just when Poppy and I think she’s starting to slow down, the music room on our side of the house gives her a new surge of energy. She makes “the noise” and has to relearn how to breathe before we let her touch her new instruments.

“Usic wit Daddy!” She blurts using the small reserve of air in her lungs.

“Whenever you want, Lovebug. Just tell him and he’ll play.” Pop giggles, happy tears gleaming in her eyes.

“Pway all time.”

“Do you want to start now?”

“Yes, pweeze!” Harper claps her hands as she bounces up and down.

I help her play her piano. She’s in a chair, her fingers splayed on the keys the way they should be. I’m behind her, guiding her fingers to the correct keys to play her favorite songs.

Poppy’s seated on the couch across the room, watching the two us as she used to watch me. I catch her using her sleeves to subtly wipe away tears during one of my boredom checks. Just as I’m gearing up to go to her, she smiles and mouths ‘keep playing’.

‘Sure?’

Her smile strengthens as she nods.

‘I love you.’

She makes a heart with her hands.

I listen to Poppy and give my jam session with Harper my full attention. Harper helps me tinker with melodies I’ve been developing in my head. She doesn’t follow all of my instructions when we play together. Her steps out of bounds push me out of my comfort zone in the best way. I’ve got out my notebook of blank sheet music. I’m jotting down what works and making notes in the margins. Harper will be credited for whatever we use.

Will I be called crazy for citing a toddler as a collaborator?

Yep.

Do I care?

Not in the slightest.

My musical genius is going to get the recognition and royalties she deserves.

I wrap things up when the thread we’d been pulling comes to its natural end. Harper protests. The promise of more presents curbs her objection to leaving our creative space.

My heart is thudding more than it does before the start of a show when I open Harper’s bedroom door. Her eyes are closed, per my request, and I guide her inside by the hand.

“Okay, Harp, you can open your eyes now.”

She blinks them open. Worry sets in when she’s uncharacteristically quiet and stays at my side instead of bounding forward with tenacity.

“Lovebug, this is—”

Harper’s shrillest screech to date expelling from her lungs cuts through Poppy’s intervention. Harp dives into the book nook fort before we can remind her how to make human sounds. Removing our shoes and joining her beneath the canopy of purple is the only acceptable course of action. Inside, Harper’s seated cross-legged with Rue in her lap, looking around in wonder.

“Mama! Daddy! Puple! It so pwetty!”

“Guess what?” I put my arm around her.

“What?”

“It’s all yours.”

“Puple?!”

“Yes, and everything else in here.” I rub her shoulder.

“ANTA?!”

“No, Daddy did—”

“And Mama.” I insert before Poppy can exclude herself.

I give her a look that tells her I’m prepared to argue until my last breath if she tries to deny her hand in us being able to afford to give her all of this.

Poppy clears her throat and diverts her eyes. “This is your room.” Her voice cracks.

“Mama, sad?” Harp crawls into her lap.

“Oh my goodness, not at all, Lovebug. It took us a while to make your room special. I’m so happy you love it.” Poppy giddily laughs between sniffles.

Harper hugs her. I join in and kiss both of them. Poppy tickles Harper to cheer her up. I tickle Poppy. A full-fledged tickle fight breaks out. I don’t let up until both of them are laughing so hard that they’re crying. Harper’s far too riled up to sleep. The three of us play with her new toys and listen to music.

Harp doesn’t crash until 3 PM. It’s well past naptime, but an exception is made. It’s sure to be a late night. It would be a shame for her to be fussy during her anxiously-awaited trip to “Gamma’s” house.

She’s asleep in her crib as we unpack her bags.

Taking one half of the video baby monitor with us, we leave our baby bird to rest in her new nest. Poppy suggests that we unpack our bags. I usually live out of a suitcase until I use up all the clean clothes in it when I’m home, but I’m willing to change the habit for her.

“You didn’t have to clear this much space for me.” She comments on the empty half of the walk-in closet in our bedroom.

“I wanted to. Sharing is caring. Just ask Harper.” I lean on the doorframe and cross my arms.

“You have way more stuff than me. You actually need the space.” Poppy turns over her shoulder to look at me.

“Everything fits on my side.”

“Barely. Take at least half of it back. I won’t fill an eighth of this on my own.”

“We can have the contents of your Boston storage unit shipped here. Your spring and summer clothes will help with the space issue.”

The lease on her apartment ended last month. Chelsea graciously supervised as a moving company transferred all of their clothes and furniture to a storage unit.

Poppy stays quiet instead of hurting me with the truth – keeping those things there guarantees she’ll be left with something if our relationship fails.

I retreat to the bedroom to get my suitcase and escape the awkward tension.

“I’m in this.” She stalks after me.

“Mostly.” I throw over my shoulder.

She grabs my arm and forces me to turn around. “You know I have to have a plan to feel comfortable.”

“Why does it have to be one where you go back to Boston and pretend none of this happened?”

“It’s not. I’ll uphold the contract we signed. We’ll have joint custody. You and your family can see her whenever you want. I’ll keep accepting child support. I’ll still go back to school. I’ll just take out a loan like everyone else. We’ll be friends. In the worst-case scenario, we’ll be cooperative co-parents.”

“You think I’ll be okay with living across the country from you? Only talking to you about Harper, only seeing her on holidays and a few weeks here and there?” I fire back.

“You can see her whenever you want.”

“It won’t be enough.”

“It’s what I know I can do. Maybe we’ll be able to come up with something better if it comes to that, but this is what I’ve got. It’s my fire escape. It gives me peace of mind.”

“What’s it going to take to get you to trust me? I’m trying. You see me trying!” I vent.

“I’m here. I’m doing this. It terrifies me, but here I am – with you, for you – again! I love you. I’m able to say it. Can that be enough!?” Her jaw is set and her fists are clenched.

I respond with an embrace to keep from saying something stupid. Her hyperextended muscles slowly contract to their normal state as we hold each other in silence.

“You were being an ass.” She grumbles within the crook of my neck.

“I am one. I’m sorry for it.”

“You’re not one all the time. I wouldn’t be with you if you were.”

“I’m scared of losing you.” I softly admit.

“I want this to work as much as you do. I’m not itching for an excuse to break and run.” She cranes her neck to look at me.

“Promise?”

“I promise.” We kiss.

Together, we go back to making our house a home by unpacking our clothes. The conversation is steered in a lighter direction. We go over our schedule for the week and decide which toys of Harper will be from Santa and which will be from us.

Once we’re done settling in, we cuddle on the couch in our bedroom and watch The Sandlot.

“Where did you manage to find a VCR?” Poppy’s head’s on my shoulder as I play with her hair.

“Flea market. 4 bucks. Ma gave me all the VHS tapes we had growing up. Can you believe she was about to throw them out?”

“Yes. They’re obsolete.”

“How dare you? They’re in their golden years. As you can see, they’re working just fine.” I gesture to the TV.

“We had to wait ten minutes for the tape to rewind. You could’ve pressed a button and had it streaming in seconds.”

“The stream would’ve been too high def. I honor my 80s and 90s faves by watched in their original form.”

“And I’m sure you’re going to instill that in Harper.”

“Would I be myself if I didn’t?”

“No.”

“And you like me.”

“I love you.”

“She’ll be getting her VCR training right before we start playing catch.”

“You’ve gotta start building up her pitching arm if she’s going to be a little league champion.” She teases.

“If? She will be. She’s got speed. She ran from us like she was stealing bases yesterday.”

“All you have to do is threaten her with a haircut and she’ll take off like a bat out of hell.”

“I might have to coach her team to make sure it happens.”

“Please do. It’ll be much less embarrassing watching you from afar than sitting next to you while you argue with umpires.”

“No, it won’t. I’ll announce before each game that you’re with me and have all my players point at you.”

“You better not.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

She swats my chest.

“Hit no nice.” I use Harper’s words against her as I intertwine our fingers.

“Neither is dragging me into your shouting matches with people facilitating a recreational sport for children.”

“I’ll let you take the lead at Harp’s parent/teacher conferences and fully support any argument you have with her teachers.”

“Even if it’s disputing homework grades or teaching style complaints?’

“I will double down on everything you say. United front no matter what.”

“Deal.”

We seal the verbal contract with a peck on the lips.

Harper wakes up right before we’re due at Mom’s house for dinner. I help her pack toys into her Peppa Pig backpack as Poppy restocks her diaper bag. Taylor drives us to dinner in his car. I’ve yet to replace mine.

It’ll be done over the break.

“GAMMA!” Harper runs into her outstretched arms.

Mom scoops Harper into her arms and hugs her tight. “I’ve missed you so much, Lovebug.”

“I wove you, Gamma.”

“I love you, too.” She kisses Harper’s cheek.

“Pups want pway.” Harper looks down at Widget and Gizmo. They’re jumping and wagging their tails at Mom’s feet.

“They’ve missed you, too. I’ll share you with them for a little while, but you’re playing with me later.” Mom gives her two more kisses before putting Harper on the ground.

The brown poofballs pounce on her and shower her in doggy kisses. Harp’s musical laughter from the onslaught brings a smile to my face.

“All of my babies are home.” Mom gives each of us hugs and kisses on both cheeks.

“You get us for a whole month.” I give her an extra squeeze before she can pull away from me.

“It’ll go by way too fast. It always does. Coats. Give me coats.” She goes to the closet.

I have to wrestle Harper’s off of her. She refuses to stop barking on all fours to be cooperative. Eventually, all coats are off and in the closet.

“Is anyone else coming to dinner?” Poppy asks as she sits on a barstool at the kitchen island.

The two of us followed Ma to the kitchen. Taylor’s supervising Harper and the dogs in the family room.

“Just my boyfriend.” Mom’s voice’s even and casual as she checks on whatever’s cooking in the oven.

I choke on the sip of Coke I just took. “Your what?” I rasp post-coughing fit.

“Tim. We’ve been dating for six months. I think it’s about time you meet him.”

“Six months?! You’ve been with him for six months?” My lungs are burning from the carbonation.

“I wanted to wait until we were serious before I introduced you.”

“Serious? What does that mean?”

“We see a potential future together.”

“Where did you meet this guy?” I sit back in my seat and cross my arms.

“The gym. He’s a personal trainer.”

“A personal trainer? You’re dating a ’roided out musclehead?”

“He owns his own business. He’s intelligent and driven. It’s just a bonus that’s he’s got a great body.”

“I’m happy for you.” Poppy gives her an approving smile.

“How old is he?” I continue my interrogation.

“He turns forty this weekend.” Mom answers.

“He’s 39? Chris’s 33!”

“I had your brother when I was sixteen. Tim’s mature and treats me well. I’m not filling in for his mother.”

“Mom’s found herself a hot young piece. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Poppy taunts.

I glare at her. “Uncalled for.”

“I’m not asking you to call him ‘Dad.’ I just want you to be respectful and try to give him a chance. He makes me happy.”

“Who’s met him?” I remain unconvinced.

“You are the only ones who haven’t.”

“Does he know the truth about Harper?”

“He knows she exists and Poppy’s her mother. He doesn’t have the murkier details. He hasn’t pushed for more or told a soul. He respects your right to privacy.”

“He sounds like a great guy. We can’t wait to meet him.” Poppy positively interjects.

“You and who?” I side-eye Poppy.

“Us.”

I scoff. “No, I can already tell I’m not going to like him.”

“Why?”

“Something’s off.”

“A 50-year-old and a 40-year-old engaging in a relationship is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s not like she’s with an eighteen-year-old. We both know she could snag one without trying. Count your blessings.” Poppy reasons.

“You’re not helping.”

“Not you, perhaps.”

“Do the others like him?” I ask my mom.

“Your sisters do, but your brothers are still warming up to him.”

“Who’s harder on him – Chris or Leo?”

“It’s a draw. Christopher’s very protective of me. Leo likes to butt heads with people just for the hell of it.”

“Put me down for Chris’s team. Taylor can link up with Leo – keep things even.”

“Support her or I’m sleeping in the guest bedroom.” Pop threatens.

“Can there be a third option?”

“No.”

I groan loudly at the ceiling. “Fine. He gets one shot. One.”

“A real one.” Poppy stares me down.

“I’ll be nice.”

“You better be.” She pokes bicep with her index finger.

“I will.”

Taylor will have to grill him twice as harsh for me.

Tim shows up an hour later. To my surprise and slight disappointment, he’s not the muscle-piled monster I’d conjured in my head. He can get through the door without turning sideways and his head is the correct size for his body. He’s not wearing a too-tight t-shirt and gym shorts. He opted for a casual button-down shirt and jeans this evening. And instead of a protein shake in his hand, he came in with a bouquet of calla lilies – Mom’s favorite flower.

Dammit.

Taylor openly scowls as Tim kisses Mom’s cheek and gifts her flowers. I plaster on a smile and approach them with Poppy. Harper beats us to him.

“I Hawper. Who you?” She peers up at him with a sweet smile.

He squats to her level. “Tim. I’m your grandma’s boyfriend.”

“We fwiends? I nice and sare.”

“I would love to be your friend.” He smiles at her, a genuine smile, not one forced to appease his audience.

Dammit.

Harper flings her arms around his neck. He rises with her still in his arms when she maintains her grip longer than is acceptable for a first time meeting. And he doesn’t seem put off by it at all.

Dammit.

“Mama and Daddy and Nunckle Aylor.” Harp points to us within his arms.

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.” Still holding Harper, he extends his hand to us.

Poppy’s the first to accept the gesture. “You as well. I’m Poppy. I’ve heard good things about you.”

“I hope the flowers weren’t for our benefit.” Taylor shakes his hand but doesn’t bother with pleasantries.

“I usually send her flowers on Wednesdays. This dinner invitation spared me shipping and handling fees.”

“Fowers pwetty. Real nice. Mama and me wikes ’em whole ot.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that for next time.” He directs a warm smile at Harper.

“Rhys.” I snip as I shake his hand.

Even his handshake is impressive – confident and firm without being overbearing. I swallow down the frustration of being unable to find a legitimate reason to dislike him as we make our way to the dining room.

“We need to talk.” Poppy tugs me in the direction of Mom’s office.

Harper is still growing acquainted with her new friend. She’s chatting away in his arms as though he’s not a stranger off the street.

We need to start teaching her about stranger danger. She’s too trusting. It’d be way too easy to kidnap her.

“Don’t be short with him. Harper gets her love of talking from you.” Poppy lays into me as soon as she has shut the door.

“It’s weird. You have to admit that it’s weird.”

“He has been nothing but kind and thoughtful. You said you’d give him a chance.”

“What 30-something wants to be a grandpa?”

“He’ll be in his forties in a matter of days. He’s clearly a guy who accepts his partner’s past and doesn’t think less of her because of it.”

“Try to see this from my point of view.”

“Try to see it from hers. She found a man who treats her like a queen. She finds him interesting and being with him makes her happy. She shouldn’t have to give him up because her adult children are acting like babies. Be nice to him. It’ll tell Mom you think she’s worthy of love.”

“She is.”

“Don’t say it. Prove it.”

It takes a moment for the full impact of Poppy’s impassioned plea to hit me. “You see yourself in her.”

“I plan to stick with you, but that could very well be me in there. I’d hope Harper would support my pursuit of happiness. It’d be a testament to the way I raised her; it’d prove she’s as accepting and empathetic as I hoped she would be.”

“I’ll apologize to Mom and be nice to Jim--”

“Tim.”

“Tim. I’ll give him a real chance.”

“And you’ll stop being an ass?”

“Yes.”

“Good boy.” She steals a kiss.

“I can’t be held responsible for Taylor’s actions. He lives for asking questions.”

“I’ll handle him. Being cordial and supportive is your only concern.” She runs her hands up and down my biceps.

It feels way better than I wish it did.

“Can we make out later?”

“Do as I say and we will.”

“Deal.” I trail kisses down her neck.

She indulges for a moment before pushing my chest.

“Best behavior.” There’s a fire in her eyes and sexy smirk playing on her lips.

I’m going to be a saint.

The dining room table is extendable to accommodate a large number of guests. It’s in its most compact form to accommodate the six of us. Harp’s seated in the middle of Poppy and me in a trayless high chair. Both of us can get to her if she needs something.

“How did you get into personal training, Tim?” I cut into the chicken filet on my plate.

“I went to college on a baseball scholarship. I knew the pros weren’t in my future, but I still wanted to do something athletic. I always liked the training part of sports and figured out how to make a career of it.”

“What’s your favorite team?”

“Mariners. My dad took me to games all the time as a kid.”

“Daddy woves aseball.” Harper tells him.

“Always have. They’re my team too.” I supplement her snippet of information.

“Have you ever been to—”

“Have you ever been married, Tim?” Taylor interrupts our bonding moment.

“No.”

“Gotten close?”

“No.”

“Any particular reason that’s the case?” He presses.

“I wasn’t looking for anything serious.”

“But now you are?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“The timing and opportunity are right.”

“Do you have kids?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Taylor Thomas.” Mom disrupts his interrogation.

“I am trying to get to know him. That’s the point of this, right?” He stabs a green bean and puts it into his mouth.

Poppy abruptly pushes out of her chair. She charges over to Taylor and drags him out of the room.

“So…that just happened.” I try to inject levity.

“Where they go?” Harper looks at the space they just exited from.

“Probably Grandma’s office.”

“Uncle Aylor in twouble?”

“Big trouble. He was being mean to your new friend.”

Harper gasps in outrage. “No nice.” She drops pieces of chicken on the ground for the dogs.

“Stop feeding Widget and Gizmo.” I take the fistful of meat out of her hand.

“They hungey. I help.” She scoops food using her other hand and drops it onto the floor for them.

“They have kibble in their bowls, Lovebug. We can top it with chicken after you are finished eating. The food on your plate is for you.” Mom reminds her.

“O-tay, Gamma.” Harper picks up her fork.

I supervise as she puts the next piece of meat into her mouth. To make Harper has enough to eat, I cut a bit of my chicken into small pieces and transfer it to her plate to replace what she threw.

“What’s it like touring with a toddler?” Tim asks as he observes us interacting.

“There’s never a dull moment. Sleep’s not much a thing anymore, but I love having her with me. She and Poppy keep me sane. Few things feel better than going home to them after a long day.” I keep my eyes on Harper as I answer to make sure she’s still eating.

She’s humming as she chews and her chipmunk cheeks working overtime as she does so.

“I’m sure.” The smile he responds with is genuine.

“What do you do when you’re not working?” I ask with sincere interest.

From the corner of my eye, I can see my mom smiling at me. The gratefulness radiating off of her makes me glad I listened to Poppy.

I’m doubly glad when Taylor returns to his seat with his tail between his legs and delivers a stiff apology.

The rest of the dinner goes well it could given the situation. Taylor says more with his face than he does with his mouth, but he’s silently hostile instead of openly. Poppy, Harper, and I compensate for his skepticism.

I like Tim. His fondness for my mother is plain to see. We share many of the same interests and he treats me like a person. He hasn’t made it onto Harper’s birthday party guest list, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll earn himself an invite. He might even get a shirt. We’ll see.

Harper falls asleep on the car ride home. Mom gave her a bath before we left (she asked. Harper answered for us). All we have to do is put her in her crib when we get to our place.

Poppy and I cozy up in bed after changing into our pajamas. We share more than a goodnight peck. A full-on makeout session is in process. Every brush of her lips sends me reeling – her scent, warmth, touch, the little noises that escape her throat. Kissing Poppy is on a whole other level.

No one has ever come close to driving me crazy the way she does. As much as I’d like to drop to my knees and worship her with all that I’ve got, I hold back. I let her set the pace and steer our lust ship in whichever direction she wants.

Accepting what she’s ready to give is the only way this will work.

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