Sum of Us

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Ch. 34: Rhys

Taylor helps Pop and me put all of Harper’s things onto our side of the house. Once it’s all been tucked away, we move on to our next tasks. Poppy is on food prep. I’m to take care of music and movies. Tay’s handling game setup. Poppy’s in the kitchen. Taylor and I are in the great room. I’m on the couch. He’s setting up the beer pong table.

Yes, we have a table solely dedicated to beer bong. We also have one for flip cup; it has a timer attached to it. Both were custom made by us. Woodshop was my best subject in school. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands. Taylor is a quick learner. We can take online directions for just about any project, tweak it to fit our needs, and bring it to life.

The tables are the only creations we don’t display for all to see. They are kept in the first-floor storage closet to keep Mom from seeing them. We weren’t exactly of age when we built them, and she’d be able to tell with one look. She wouldn’t even have to use her mom senses -- epic win dates are etched into the sides of the tables.

Our place was basically a frat house until Poppy and Harper moved in. Our full-time ranger hosting days are over. We’re a special occasions party house now, which means there’s more pressure to make it worthwhile.

But I’m too twisted up about Satan talking to the loves of my life to fully commit to the cause.

“Talk.” Taylor straightens the triangle of red solo cups in front of him.

“There’s nothing to say.” I scratch the back of my head.

“You’re right. Poppy is known for her midday kitchen crying.”

She shook like a leaf in my arms; my shirt is still damp from her tears; the pain as she talked –

“She saw him. He spoke to her – fucking spoke to her – twice! And I wasn’t there because I couldn’t be– again!”

“He? Satan? Where did she see him?”

“The grocery store.”

“Does the piece of shit cruise them now? We’ve had two run-ins. Seattle isn’t a small town in the middle of nowhere.” He abandons his job to sit on the ottoman in front of me.

“Poppy likes shopping at the same places. Knowing the layout helps her get in and out quicker. I’m sure she went to one near her old house instead of the one closest to ours.”

“What did he say to her?”

“He wants her back in his life now that he’s an orphan -- like she’s some kind of consolation prize. He brought up her dead mother to lure her over to his side. He’s the one person left that remembers her. What kind of person preys on their own daughter’s desire to connect with their mom?”

“His namesake. Nicknames are earned, not given. You know that.”

Poppy was two years old when her mother died from a brain tumor. She was too young to develop long-term memories. The things she left behind and her father’s accounts of her were all Poppy had. He snatched most of it away from her when she needed them most. Now, he’s dangling them like a carrot in hopes he’ll get what he wants.

He’s earned his name a million times over.

“Do I have your blessing to kick his ass?” I say through gritted teeth.

My hands are literally twitching to do it.

“No, it’d hurt her more than help.” He squashes my dream without taking a beat.

“She threatened to call the cops on him.”

“But she didn’t because it would’ve scared Harper. Watching you get arrested for hitting him would scare her even more. Even if Harp doesn’t see it and he doesn’t press charges, Poppy would still be pissed at you for being reckless. Is harming him worth hurting them?”

“Doing nothing isn’t an option.”

“I never said you can’t do anything. Does he still have her stuff?”

“I don’t know.” I run a hand through my hair.

“Find out. If he does, the two of you can petition to get it. If he tries to contest handing it over willingly, which he will because you’re involved, you’ll be within your rights to drag him to court.”

“He’s getting off easy.”

“A lonely existence is a punishment that fits his particular crime. Think of how good it’ll feel to big-league him with a high-priced lawyer after all the times he said you’d never amount to anything.”

“Have I ever told you how much I love that you’re a know-it-all?”

“No, you’re too busy bitching about it.”

“I’ll never do it again.”

“Yes, you will, but I appreciate the gesture.”

We get back to our jobs. I pick up the pace on my primary tasks and start drafting an email to our lawyer as soon as I’m done. All revenge plans are put on pause when I catch sight of Harper trying to climb out of her crib on the video baby monitor. I throw my laptop off my lap and race up two flights of stairs to get to her room.

She’s playing with Rue and Peppa Pig on the floor when I burst through the door.

“Daddy, wanna pway?” Harp extends Peppa to me.

“You can’t climb out of your bed.” I pant with my hands on my knees.

“It fun. I tall.”

“You could’ve hurt yourself. That’s not fun.”

Still huffing and puffing, I sit on the ground and engulf her in a hug.

I pull my phone out of my pocket when it starts ringing, still holding Harper.

“Yes?”

“Why’d you run out of here like that?” It’s Taylor.

“I saw Harper being my daughter.”

“Well, she’s not mine. By process of elimination…”

“She climbed out of her crib.”

“Is she okay?” His voice is urgent.

“She’s fine. I found her playing with her toys without a care in the world.”

“Am I allowed to laugh?”

“No.”

He does it anyway.

“What was the point in asking?”

“Courtesy. Does her baby monitor record or just stream?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“If it recorded it, I’m putting it in the group chat.”

“Why?”

“To prove once and for all she’s taken your place as the family wild child.”

“We’re all Wilde children.”

“Don’t be a smartass. I’m better at it.”

“Leo has me beat.”

“He follows or rages. You play exclusively in left-field, and it always yields interesting results.”

“Tell the other coach I’m taking care our rookie in the dugout. We’ll meet her at the concession stand soon.”

“Impart that wisdom, Pops.”

I hang up on him.

Harper’s smiling at me, doe-eyed and adorable, as though she didn’t just do something incredibly dangerous.

“Okay, Harp, I can’t let anything bad happen to you. I’m your daddy and I really want to be a good daddy. You’ve got to start working with me, kid. I need you to help me keep you in one piece. Got it?”

“Uh-huh, I help.”

“Thank you.” I kiss her before bringing her back to my chest.

“It’s time for lunch. What do you want to eat?”

“Yetti-os and occi, pweeze.”

Our weirdo is the only toddler that likes every single vegetable, even peas. To this day, I won’t eat peas on their own even if I were paid to do it. Her love of fruits and vegetables is all Poppy. Spaghetti-Os being one of her favorite foods is totally from me.

My warning must’ve sunken into her thick skull because she doesn’t try to base jump or roll off the changing table as I hook her up with a fresh diaper and she sits still as I redo her hair.

“I alk, Daddy.” She fights to get out of my arms as I carry her and Rue out of the room.

“You’re on a tight leash until I know you’re not going to do something to hurt yourself.”

“Wike pups?” She stops resisting.

“Yes, like puppies.” Whatever gets her to calm down is fine by me.

“Lovebug, Uncle Taylor showed me what you did. It was not okay. You know to call us when you’re awake. You could’ve gotten hurt.” Poppy tells her upon first sight.

“It o-tay, Mama. I esh now.”

“You’re what?” She asks her but looks to me for an answer.

“She understands she’s on a tight leash right now. She has accepted her punishment with dignity and grace.”

“Wike pups!” Harper proclaims.

“Does she think we’re putting her on an actual leash?”

“If you buy a kid leash, I will disown you, even it’s one of the ones that look like an animal backpack.” Taylor butts into our conversation.

“What he said.” Poppy agrees.

“Amnimals? I wike amnimals cwakers.”

“After lunch, Lovebug. What do you want?” Pop asks her.

“Yetti-os and occi, pweeze.”

“I already told her I’d make them. You can keep doing what you’re doing.” I let Poppy know.

She’s cutting fruit at the moment.

“What kid asks for broccoli?” Taylor thinks aloud.

“Ours.” I put Harper in her bar-height highchair and buckle her in.

She’s got one for the dining table and one for the kitchen island.

“Do you want your broccoli crunchy or soft?” I ask her as I wash my hands.

“Unchy.”

I give her a wooden spoon to play with as all the adults are busy preparing food. She uses it to hit the table like a drum. Makeshift toys make her just as happy as manufactured ones.

I enjoy a bowl of Spaghetti-Os alongside her. Passing up a childhood favorite was impossible, but I go without the raw broccoli because ew. Harp is all too happy to eat all of it.

If she didn’t have a smock on and her sleeves rolled, her clothes would be destroyed. I watch in fascination as she makes noises of enjoyment as she eats the broccoli without dipping it in ranch dressing. Harp chooses to consume the dressing by spooning it into her mouth like soup.

“Rhys, take her spoon. That’s disgusting.” Poppy frowns in dismay.

“She’s fine. I do the same thing every time I eat Buffalo wings.”

“Can confirm.” Taylor vouches for me.

“That doesn’t make it any less gross.” Poppy replies.

“It’s too late. She’s almost done.” I remark.

“No, she’s going to lick the plate.”

“She’s not—”

Harper lowers her face to the plate and starts lapping at the remaining dressing like a dog does a bowl of water.

“He’s definitely done that before.” Taylor lifts his phone, poised to record her latest quirk.

Poppy covers his camera with her hand. “Rhys.” She warns.

I confiscate Harper’s plate.

“Noooo! Yummy.” She reaches for it.

“I know, baby girl, but Mama said no. I’m at her mercy too.”

“I want oup.” She doesn’t stop fighting for it.

“That’s the thing, Lovebug. It’s not soup. It’s a sauce that goes on food.” Poppy tries to reason.

“Oup.” Harper stands her ground.

“I’ll let you eat it later, okay?” I whisper into her ear.

“O-tay.” Her bottom lip is poked; the space between her eyes is scrunched.

“We’ll have pizza with it.”

“Peeza?” Harp immediately perks up.

“The yummiest pizza. The kind we had last time.”

“Now?” She’s already smiling.

“Later. You’ll get to share it with your aunts and Courtney.”

“Oh, yes. I sare.”

“That’s my girl.” I kiss her chubby cheek.

“Did you bribe her with pizza?” Poppy’s back to chopping, an amused smile playing on her lips.

“I already planned to buy it for her. It wouldn’t be fair if we had Vinny’s and she didn’t.”

“And Lindsey threatened to do something to you if you didn’t supply their slumber party with pizza.” She correctly assumes.

“Becca added wings and breadsticks after she invited herself. Is it cool if they paint her nails? Beck has been keeping baby-safe polish on hand since Chloe was born.” I make my way to the sink to rinse our plates and utensils.

“How sure is she that it’s safe?”

“Completely. I had Beck send me a picture of the bottle she plans to use. All ingredients checked out online and received Dr. Chris’s stamp of approval.”

“Is it purple?”

“I would’ve said no if it wasn’t.”

“They can have at it. Harp will surely love having colorful fingers and toes.”

“Cool. I’ll send them the ‘all clear’ text.”

“I appreciate the consultation. You were well within your rights to approve it solo.”

“That wouldn’t be very co-parenty of me.”

“You’re nailing the whole dad thing. I’ll be sure to make sure all our party guests know that.” Poppy nonchalantly states.

“We’re going to tell them?” This is news to me.

“They’re going to find out soon enough. I’d rather they hear it from us. Reporters will turn to the people who have known you for years to corroborate our story as soon as it breaks. Blindsiding them would blow up in our faces. Besides, it’d be a little hard to explain what I’ve been up to post-graduation without mentioning our daughter.”

“The whole truth?”

“They’ll know you were down because we weren’t what we once were and you couldn’t spend as much time with Harper as you would’ve liked. I was in Boston because Satan highly disapproved of the whole situation. We started reconciling in October. As of now, we’re a couple again and full-time parents.”

“None of that’s a lie.” I voice my thought.

“It’s what Mama Wilde told Tim. I thought it would work well in this instance too.” Pop shrugs a shoulder.

“Well, if it’s good enough for Tim...”

Poppy socks Taylor in the shoulder for his sarcastic remark.

“I’m so proud of you, baby.” I smile at her.

“For hitting him?”

“Not acting ashamed of where you’ve been -- of where we’ve been.”

“I’m not ashamed of her or you, even if both of you think it’s okay to eat ranch dressing straight.” Poppy playfully quips.

“It’s delicious.”

“It’s not.”

“Agree to disagree. You’re stuck with us for life.” I kiss her cheek.

“I figured. You’re both very tenacious.”

“She’s adding to the shame-list.”

Taylor’s addition makes us look at Harper.

She’s lathering her face and neck in tomato sauce and ranch dressing. Her splattered smock and placemat are the goop supply sources.

“No, that’s not where food goes.” Poppy pulls her out of her highchair and runs her to the sink.

“Feels nice.” Harper keeps rubbing her face.

“Someone get me a wet paper towel.” Poppy takes her hands in hers to get her to stop.

I do it and use a couple to clean Harper’s hands, face, and neck. Pop is then able to remove her smock without risk of ruining the clothes it’s protecting.

“She needs a bath. She’s got it in her hair and down her back.” Poppy is inspecting the damage.

“It no baftime yet.” Harper argues.

“An early bath time is what happens when you make a big mess.” Poppy retorts.

“Ubbles?”

“It wouldn’t be a bath proper bath without bubbles,” I answer.

“Baftime.” She extends her arms to me.

“Don’t make it too fun. She’ll make big messes on purpose.”

“I won’t.”

“Uh-oh! A big tidal wave is coming in!” I use my hand to push a ripple of water in Harper’s direction.

She screams with delight and slams both hands on the water’s surface to disrupt the wave’s path.

“Oh, man! That was a close one. It almost got you.” I pretend to wipe sweat off my brow.

“Oh cose.”

“So, so close, but you did it. You kept Dudley safe.”

“O-tay, Duddy?” She pets the top of her rubber duckie’s head.

“I’m okay, Hero Harper. You saved the day.” I use the silly voice I always use to narrate him.

She always gets a real kick out of it. There’s nothing I won’t do to make her laugh.

We sing "Car" Wash by Rose Royce as I wash her hair. The word “car” is replaced by “hair.” We do it so often that I don’t think she knows those aren’t the actual lyrics.

“Close your eyes and hold your breath.” I show her how.

I rinse her hair with her bathtub’s sprayer attachment once she’s followed directions. I tickle her to make her stop following them after I’ve got the conditioner out of her hair. Not wanting perfectly good bubbles to go to waste, we have water playtime.

We give each other bubble beards, sing songs about water, and play a few more rounds of deep-sea rescue with Dudley. She stays in the tub until the bubbles have dissolved. She gets a full-body hose down by the sprayer to get all the soap off. My jeans and shirt are soaked, but I ignore their state as I bundle her up in one of her many hooded animal towels. She’s a purple bear today.

“You had fun.” Poppy’s packing Harper’s overnight bag in her room.

“No.”

“Yes.” Harper contradicts with a smile.

“You’ve got to be chill if you want to get away with stuff,” I tell her out the side of my mouth.

“I no code.”

“Let’s preserve her innocence for as long as possible, shall we?” Poppy takes her from me. “Daddy’s being silly, Lovebug, he doesn’t want you to be cold.”

I don’t want to refute Pop’s cover-up for once. Harper finds it funny for some reason or another and laughs all the way to the changing table.

“How’s the food coming along?” I put Harper’s clothes in her hamper.

“The drink garnishes are cut, dips are made – cold ones are in the fridge, hot ones are in the crockpots Mom let me borrow; cheese and relish trays are prepared and chilling, and Vinny’s orders have been placed.”

“Wow, efficiency at its finest. We’re ahead of schedule.”

“Six hands are better than four.”

“I help.” Harp’s playing with a package of wipes.

“You already did, Lovebug. You helped me get the groceries. Eight hands.” Poppy appeases her.

“Oshie tor fun.”

“Did you find it fun this time?” I need to know how much she noticed.

“Uh-huh. Olors and ount. Rue scward. It o-tay. Eos wike floor. Mama wove me ots and ots.”

“Yes, colors and count. Rue got scared when the cheerios fell, but it was okay. They like the floor. Mama loves me lots and lots.” Poppy translates.

I never would have gotten there on my own.

“I’ll have to go with you next time. It sounds like you had too much fun without me.”

“Yes, we pway.”

“You’ll have to teach me. I hear you’re very good at it.”

“You and Nuncle Aylor obble all up.” She makes herself crack up.

“Am I missing something?” I catch her case of the giggles.

“I told her she did such a good job grocery shopping that you and Taylor are going to gobble up all the food.” Poppy informs me.

“Oh, the truth. Our girl likes observational humor. Sophisticated.”

“I don’t think that word can be applied to her. You saw what she did downstairs.”

“Be awesome? Yeah, I saw.”

“You get to take care of all the extra baths she’s going to need now that she knows you like her messes.”

“Is that supposed to be a punishment? I love bathtime.”

“You say as you stand in soaking wet clothes.”

“I planned to change anyway. Doing it earlier’s not a problem.”

“Do it now. I don’t want you to catch a cold.”

“No code, Daddy.”

“Yes, ladies.”

I blow raspberries on Harper’s bare tummy. It draws my favorite sound out of her. I steady her with my hand before moving on to Poppy. I hit Pop with a sneak attack hug. A bit of the water on me transfers to her before she can bat me away.

“Rhys.” She adorably whines.

“That’s for the picture.”

“I regret nothing.”

“Neither do I.”

I walk backward as we have a playful stare down. I’m forced to break eye contact to exit the room, but I don’t count it as a loss. I’m sure to announce just that from the hallway.

A jean jacket over a vintage Weezer t-shirt, black skinny jeans, and matching Vans sneakers is what I swap into.

It’s in keeping with what I’ve worn since my mom gave me the freedom to choose what I wear. She’s had no issues with most of it – I’m an avid thrift store and flea market shopper. The band’s stylist shops at them for me now. The neon pink baseball cap covered in pineapples that currently rocking backward would be frowned upon by all of them.

It’s the gift Poppy gave me for our first anniversary. We have an inside joke about pineapples – it’s a long story and impossible to understand if you weren’t there – Taylor didn’t even get it when I tried to explain to him. It made the event and gift mean that much more. I never considered throwing it away after we broke up. As much as it hurt, I wanted to remember. Now that we’re back together, I get to do it with her.

“You kept it!” The smile on Poppy’s face and the light in her eyes has me grinning from ear to ear.

“How could I get rid of my party hat?” I join her and Harp on the floor of her room.

Poppy was in the process of dressing Harper when I walked in, but she stopped to get a good look at my hat.

“A very valid reason.” She touches it as though she trying to confirm that it’s not a mirage.

“I’m nothing if not nostalgic. You haven’t lived a life if all memories are good ones. This has both swirled into one.”

She rests her hand on my cheek and gives me a swift but sweet kiss. “It still looks absurd.” She teases with a straight face.

“I still don’t care. My girlfriend got it for me.”

“Pwetty hat, Daddy.” Harper uses my shoulder as a means of steadying herself.

“Thanks, Lovebug. Mama got if for me.” I put my arm around her.

“Sare?”

“You can borrow the one with a slice of pizza on it. Mama got that one for me too.”

For my fifteenth birthday.

“Peeza.”

“I need you to pick a new shirt before I go get it. My sisters will make fun of me if I let you wear a shirt with my face on it.”

She's currently wearing one of the tour merch shirts. I could perhaps get away with letting her wear one with the Wilde Knights logo on it. A picture of us? No way. Siblings are ruthless.

“Big usic time.”

“There’s no concert tonight, Lovebug. I already told you that.” Poppy hikes Harp’s leggings over her diaper.

“I want usic.”

“There won’t be any big shows while we’re home. Daddy needs a break. How about we sing in the car on our way to Auntie Lindsey’s house?”

“Um, o-tay.” Harper looks down as she sways back and forth.

I take her hands. “We’ll still have fun and make lots of music. I promise.”

“Our escial room?” She lifts her eyes to mine.

“Yes, in our special room.”

“Yay!” Her smile is back.

“Now, will you change your shirt?”

“No.” Her smile remains.

“What if I pick out one even better?”

“I no know…”

“I can do it. Watch.” I kiss the top of her head and stand.

Harper has a walk-in closet. Her costumes and tutus made it a necessity. There’s no need to wade through her sea of clothes. A popular children’s store sells a shirt that says, “My Daddy’s a Rock Star.”The words are in gold, and it has glittery stars.

It was probably designed as another way of announcing, “My Dad’s Cool.” I had to buy it for both reasons -- two of them in all the sizes. Harp’s too messy not to have backups. She’ll have it in her wardrobe with until she’s five.

“What do you think, Harp?” I display it to on its hanger.

“Ooo, signy.” She’s seated cross-legged on the floor. Poppy is brushing her damp hair.

“Will you wear it?”

“Uh-huh, it pwetty.”

“Pop, you heard the lady.” I hand the shirt to her.

Poppy changes her as I fetch her loaner hat. It’s black and has a slice of pizza embroidered on the front. It’s more understated than my cap, to say the least, but the picture of pizza is all Harper needs to smile. I tighten the hat’s strap as much as I can. It’s still loose, but it’ll stay put. And she’s all too happy to wear it.

“Gee acket.” Harper tugs on mine once we’ve got her looking sharp.

“Do you want yours, or are you naming mine?”

“Mine.”

“Don’t let them change you.” I hold her precious face in my hands as I bestow my wisdom upon her.

“The theatrics.” Poppy shakes her head.

“You will never be bored.”

“You’ve got that right, especially now that there’s two of you.”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I’m making my way to Harper’s closet.

“You should've just let her keep the shirt on. They’re going to make fun of you for dressing her up as you.” Poppy’s taking pictures of Harper and me in our coordinating ensembles.

“I did no such thing. She asked for the hat and jean jacket. My shirt doesn’t have glitter on it, and she is the only one wearing a tutu.”

It’s black to match her hat. The black leggings Poppy had already put on her are underneath it.

“You have on the exact same shoes.”

“That couldn’t be helped.”

“You picked them out.”

“They match her outfit.”

“Harp, do you like your shoes?” Poppy asks her.

“Uh-huh, they wike Daddy’s.”

Poppy turns to me with a satisfied smirk.

“We look pretty.”

“We ook Pwetty.” Harp repeats.

“You always do.”

We don’t head to Lindsey’s house until Harper’s hair is dry, which doesn’t take long. All we had to do was remove her hat, have Kevin play danceable music, and it's air-dried in a flash.

My car is the one we use for the journey – a black Subaru Forester Touring. It’s got all the safety features I wanted plus ones I didn’t know existed. And I didn’t have to forfeit style to get them. I prefer my Rover’s looks, but I’m still proud to call it mine.

Linds and Courtney live in a townhome thirty minutes from us. It’s a nice place – two bedrooms and bathrooms, hardwood floors, a garage, and a fenced-in backyard. Becca’s car is already in her driveway when we arrive.

I juggle Harper’s overnight bag, diaper bag, and backpack of toys. Poppy’s carrying Harper and Rue.

“Push the circle, Lovebug.”

Harp leans forward and presses the doorbell. She emits a gasp of excitement when she hears it ring. She gets a few more presses in before Poppy can pull her hand away.

“Rhys, I told you to stop playing with my door.” Lindsey whips open the door.

“Excuse you. It was her.” I nod to Harper, my hands are full.

“Hi, Auntie Indsey!” She waves.

“Hello, Lovebug, we’re going to have a slumber party. Are you excited?” Linds holds her arms out for a hug.

Poppy hands her over but keeps Rue.

“I so cited.” Harp hugs her.

“Courtney, guess who’s here?” Lindsey yells into the house.

She gives Poppy and I a side-hug before letting us into the house.

Courtney comes bounding into the room at full speed. She almost slips on the hardwood floor in her socks, but Pop’s there to catch her before she falls.

“Auntie Poppy!” Court uses it as an opportunity to hug her.

“It’s good to see you too.” Poppy giggles at her enthusiasm.

“Harper!” Courtney moves right along.

Lindsey puts her on the floor so that the two can embrace.

“Wanna play dolls?”

“Yes, pway! Rue come!”

“Let me take your coat off first, Lovebug.” Poppy halts their escape.

Harper assists her in stripping her out of it. “Okay, now you can play.” Pop stands up straight and folds Harper’s coat over her arm.

“Wait! Court, you forgot something.” I pause their exit once more.

“What’d I forget?” She takes Harper’s hand.

“Me. I brought you Aunt Poppy and Harper just like you asked. And how do you repay me? By running out of the room without saying ‘hello’. Uncool, dude. We used to be close.”

“Bye, Uncle Rhys.” She cheekily giggles as she tugs Harper and Rue to the living room.

“She is out of control,” I complain to Lindsey, pointing after the girls.

“Why is Harper dressed like you?” She asks instead of replying.

“She’s got taste and we collaborate on more than just music.” I hand her Harper’s bags.

“I can’t take you seriously in that hat.” Lindsey stares at it instead of looking me in the eye.

“You're jealous. It's okay. I would be too.” I invite myself further into her home, following the aroma of cookies.

Becca’s at the island in the middle of the kitchen. Clashing ingredients are spread out on the counter. She’s stirring some sort of concoction in a plastic bowl.

“I’m not much of a cook, but I don’t know of any recipes that call for cocoa, avocado, and eggs,” I comment as I walk in.

“They’re for different face masks. What is on your head?”

“A hat. What’s on yours, Ghost of Christmas Present?”

Her naturally blonde strands are paler than platinum.

She stops stirring to put her hand on her hip. “Silver is an on-trend hair color.”

“For the elderly.”

“You know nothing about style – clearly.” She gestures to my head.

“I kid. You look beautiful as always,” I wrap an arm around Beck and kiss her temple.

“Your hat still makes my eyes burn.”

“If the people in this house don’t start playing nice, I’m taking my toys and going home.”

“I take it all back. I’ve seen the errors of my ways. Please don’t take my sweet pea away.”

“Ha! You’ve finally admitted you think my daughter’s a doll.” I point an accusatory finger at her as I make my way to a barstool.

“You said it first. I was simply agreeing.”

“She brought our toys. I was talking about them.”

“Sort of, not 100%.”

“Where’s Robby? Is he here to objectify?”

“He’s at his grandparents’ house. Yvonne and Steve jumped at the chance to have him for the night. Mostly Yvonne, but Steve will be there too.”

“Why couldn’t Rob watch him?”

“Don’t say his name like that.”

“How’d I say his name?” I tilt my head to the side, playing innocent.

“He’s my husband, your nephew’s father, your brother-in-law – you’re not supposed to say his name like you hate him.”

Robert Tillermen is a grade-A douchebag of the spoiled rich boy variety. He and Becca met at a bar. Rob was twenty-seven and living in his parent’s poolhouse. She was twenty-one with her life together -- a steady job in a field she loves, an apartment, a car, savings – the whole nine-yards. She fell hard and fast for him because that’s what she does.

He snatched her up and locked her down to get his parents to stop pestering him about taking life more seriously. Getting married to a beauty who’s madly in love with him despite his complete lack of ambition was a quick and easy way for him to do it.

His parents bankrolled the wedding. Becca and Ma planned the fairytale extravaganza Beck has always dreamed of living. All Rob had to do was show up and repeat a few words. He went back to lounging around with his feet up as soon as the ceremony was over.

He’s always “between jobs” , but refuses to let Robby stay home with him during the day. He laughed -- full-blown belly-laughed -- when Mom suggested he be a stay-at-home dad, as though devoting his time to raising his son is beneath him.

I’m honestly looking forward to the comment he’s going to make when he learns I’m going to be a stay-at-home dad. I’ve been holding my tongue for years. Becca won’t be able to stop me from laying into him, and I’m not holding back. She deserves so much better, and he’ll hear it – my gift to him.

“Haven’t you heard? I’ve retired from pretending to like people.”

“I love him. You love me. Will you make an exception?”

“I more than love you. That’s why I can’t like Rob.”

“Rhys.”

“Becca.”

We stare at each other, trying to get the other to break. Too bad we’re both the same amount of stubborn – incredibly—and it goes nowhere.

“Does Harper have any allergies?” She changes the subject.

“I’m afraid to answer that.”

“Tell me. It’s important. I don’t want to hurt her.”

“What are you trying to put on her?”

“A face mask that has strawberries, ground almonds, and yogurt in it.”

“Yum. Sounds like breakfast.” Poppy joins us in the kitchen.

“I didn’t know you were coming.” Becca abandons her project and hugs Poppy with both arms. “Are you staying for the slumber party?”

“Not this time, I’m afraid. I have another soiree to attend this evening.”

“We have another one before you go back on tour. Maybe we’ll be able to get Mom, Jess, Grace, and Chloe to come too.” Becca goes back to the counter. “Does Harper have any allergies? Rhys won’t answer.”

“No, and you have my permission to put a face mask on her as long as it is edible. She will eat it off her face as soon as you apply it.”

“Eating is definitely allowed. I’ve already been sampling.”

“What’s your vote, babe?” Pop consults with me as she takes the chair beside me.

“Masks and fingernail polish are fine, but I don’t want her in makeup.”

“What if I only use the tinted all-natural lip balm Mom makes?” Becca tries.

“Still, no. I want my baby girl to look like a baby for as long as possible.”

“Boo.” She frowns, poking out her bottom lip.

“Her hair is freshly washed and ready for you to play with.” Poppy tries to soften my blow.

“Now, it’s a party. Well, it will be when we have food. Where’s our Vinny’s, Rhys?”

“It’ll be delivered within the hour. I called it in myself.” Pop answers.

“What she said.”

“Do any of those masks help with inflammation? Tonight is the first time in a long time I’ve seen our high school friends. I don’t want to be puffy and blotchy.” Poppy transitions.

The reason she feels she needs such a thing has me grinding my teeth.

She takes my hand in hers.

Poppy should not be the one comforting me, but that’s the kind of person she is.

I lift her hand to my lips and kiss the back of it.

“This one – plain Greek yogurt and mashed bananas. Leave it on for fifteen minutes and rinse it off with warm water. I’ll put this batch in a to-go container for you.” Becca shows the little bowl of mush to her.

“What about eyes?”

“Makeup? What look do you have in mind?”

“Actual eyes, not makeup.”

“Chill wet green tea bags in the fridge. When they’re nice and cold, put them on your eyes for 10 to 15 minutes. Works for me every time.”

“Thank you.” Poppy breathes a sigh of relief.

“Don’t mention it. This is what are sisters for. Do you need anything else?”

“Nope. That’ll do it.”

The girls scurry into the kitchen.

“Auntie Becca, are the cookies ready?” Courtney asks on behalf of both of them.

“Not yet, honey bunny, but very soon.”

“Hi, Auntie Ecca.” Harper hugs her legs.

“My little sweet pea, oh, how you’ve grown!” Beck swings her in the air before propping her on her hip.

“No yet. I no tall wike Mama and Daddy.”

That’s not a realistic standard to hold herself to at her age. Pop’s 5 ft 8. I’m 6 ft 2. Harp’s bound to be tall, she’s already a little tall for her age, but I’d be freaked out if she were already pushing 5 ft.

“You’re getting there. Besides, being little makes you extra cute.” Becca tickles her tummy. It makes her squeal and smile.

“And your outfit. I am in love with this look. Well done.” My sister fixes the collar of Harp’s jacket.

“Wike Daddy’s.”

“No, honey, like me. Don’t believe anything he’s told you. Your love of tulle and all things shiny come from me.” She boops Harper’s button nose with the tip of her finger.

“Take it back or I’ll take her home.”

“Shhh, let me have this.” She whispers loudly once she has turned to me and is cheek-to-cheek with Harper.

“For the NIGHT. We will be back for her in the MORNING.” I emphasize the last word of each sentence.

“These hours are mine. I’ll say and do as I please with my daughters.” Beck wraps an arm around Courtney to draw her into a group hug.

Poppy leans onto me, laughing softly.

“At least Linds has a reason to be on high alert too.”

“I what?” Lindsey opens the oven to check on the cookies.

“She’s claiming Courtney as her child.”

“That’s nothing new. We claim each other’s kids all the time.”

“She knows how to share.” Becca chides me.

“Sare nice.” Harper contributes.

“Listen to my sweet angel,” Beck tells me as she kisses her cheek.

The time goes off as I’m opening my mouth to reply.

“COOKIES!” Courtney jumps up and down.

Poppy and I stay until the batch of chocolate chip cookies is safe to eat. I inhale three of them as Courtney overzealously shows Poppy and Harper her room.

Harp’s not the slightest bit distraught by the news that we’re leaving. She gives us hugs and kisses, says ‘bye-bye,’ and helps Lindsey shut the front door.

“We may never get her back,” I say as Pop and I walk to the car.

“But we’ll be able to rest easy knowing she’ll be happy and well-groomed.” Pop smiles over at me.

I open and close the car door for her before doing the same to my own.

“Do you think you’ll be able to let go tonight?” I ask during our ride home.

“Maybe. Harper is in great hands, which helps tremendously, but I’m worried I’ll be unable to get out of my head.”

“I’d tell you not to be nervous, but I know that wouldn’t help. I think I should shut up and let you vent instead. Thoughts?”

“I think you’re onto something. You have my endorsement.”

I pretend to zip my lips and toss the imaginary key out of the closed window.

“My relationship with parties has never been a close one. I haven’t been to one since the summer after high school."

“You didn’t go to any start of the semester parties at MIT?”

“You always talk when you say you’re going to be quiet.” She quips instead of answering.

“You didn’t feel well.” I guess based on her decision to deflect.

“The morning sickness hadn’t set in yet, but I felt…off. I hadn’t planned on going to any of them anyhow. You’re what makes parties fun for me. Going without you –” She shakes her head. “Playing the, ‘I think I’m coming down with something’ card and meaning it was easier to say than ‘I’m not one for going out’.”

“You always sounded so optimistic on the phone.”

She looks out the window. “I’m an introvert by nature. Holing up in my dorm room, studying and watching TV was fun for me. But, I may have added extra sprinkles of sugar in the bowl of cheer flakes I was pushing you toward the end. The issues I did have grated on me more as my hormones heightened. I didn’t want you to worry. It would’ve taken away from your big adventure.”

I wring the leather on my steering wheel. “What about yours?”

“I considered slaying my own dragons to be a part of it.”

“Some of those were ours.” I swallow the lump in my throat.

“I didn’t know that at the time, and I didn’t want to derail the plans we were following.”

“Those were drafts. All life plans are.”

“Not yours. You fly by the seat of your pants day-to-day, but for as long as I’ve loved you -- and I’ve loved you a long time – you’ve known who’d you come to be. You saw it in the distance and ran full-force. You got there -- just like I hoped you would.”

“It meant absolutely nothing without you. And then there’s Harper. Kids weren’t at the forefront of our minds -- we were kids ourselves. I didn’t see you two coming. You’re the best things that have ever happened to me.”

“Some erasing did take place.” She verbally mulls over.

“You bet your fine ass it did. The revisions are really starting to pay off.”

“You talk about my ass A LOT more now than you did the last time we dated.”

“You have always had a beautiful body, don’t get me wrong, but your curves post-baby—” I kiss my fingers. “Perfection. I’d thank Harper if it weren’t highly inappropriate.”

“Yeah, it’s best we keep this between the two of us, perve.”

“If I’m a pervert, what are you?”

“Excuse me?”

“This is a two-way lusting street, Penelope. My physique has changed and you take notice. Two-way street.”

“Or perhaps – now, hear me out – I haven’t gotten laid in years and you’re always around, being Rhys-brand charming and looking at me like I’m the last drop of water in the desert.”

“Are you finally accepting my escort offer? If so, you’re in luck, my price has been reduced by 100%.”

“Is this an exclusive offer or can any ole gal step up to your counter and slip you $0?”

“I’m only on the table for you. I will lounge on it, on top of a silver platter, in my bait shirt until you’re ready for a full-course meal.”

“Geeze, the things that come out of your mouth. I never know what’s coming next.” She laughs.

“I don’t either most of the time. Keeps things spicy.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“How would you phrase it, smartypants?”

“How I always do – ‘you’re ridiculous.’”

“But you like that, right? I don’t need to tone it down?” I look at her as we wait at a stoplight.

“I love that you’re a goofball. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously. I don’t know if you know this, but I get caught up in my head sometimes.”

I gasp dramatically. “You don’t say.”

“I love you just the way you are.”

“Even when I’m an ass?”

“I could do without it, but you’re human, as am I. You keep me guessing, Wilde, and I’m into it.”

“That’s what makes you so special.” I lean over and kiss her.

It has to be quick, unfortunately, because of the light changing. Poppy rests her hand on my leg after I have returned my hands to the wheel. Not to be seductive, but because it’s a safer alternative to holding my hand.

It’s so her that it has me smiling all the way home.

We take a nap because we have time, and we both need it. Life’s been a lot lately. Sleeping for two hours proves just how much.

I wake up first but remain in bed to hold her.

“Do you want me to run you a bath?” I slide her glasses onto her face.

“Do I smell?” She lifts her arm to check.

“No, it’s relaxing. I figure you could use some downtime to charge your social battery. You can do your face mask and eye patches as you do it.”

“That sounds heavenly.”

“Is that a yes or a no?”

“Yes, please.”

“Wait here while I set everything up.”

“Everything?”

“My girl deserves the best. My best is all I have to give, but I’ll give it my all.”

“Come here.” She motions me down to her.

I comply and am treated to one hell of a kiss.

“I love you.” She rests a hand on my cheek.

“I love you, too.” I smile into another lip lock.

Against my body’s wishes, I leave her and the bed to fulfill my promise. First stop, downstairs to collect supplies – candles leftover from our second first date, a lighter, the tea bags she put in the fridge as soon as we got home, champagne, and a champagne flute courtesy of Taylor. I get all of it to the master bedroom using tote bags.

She’s still on the bed when I get back, doing something on her phone.

“You better not be on social media.”

“I’m looking at the pictures your sisters sent. Harper’s had her ‘peeza.’ She ate ranch and blue cheese dressing. Her face washed once she was done with her ‘oup.’ Becca deemed it the perfect time to apply her face mask. It served as her dessert. Mani-pedis are next.”

“They’re not keeping her. Make sure they know that.”

“It’s the first thing I said.”

“Atta girl. You’re finally catching on how to put up a united front.” I continue into the bathroom.

“I told everyone you suffer from memory loss earlier. I’ve already grasped it!” She yells to be heard from the other room.

“You’re getting there. Practice makes perfect!” I reply before turning on the bathtub faucet.

Body wash acts as bubble soap. The candles are lit once I’ve got a good bubble to water ratio going. I lay folded towels near the tub and arrange the stuff she got from Becca on it. She doesn’t get called in until the tub’s full, the water temperature has been checked, champagne has been popped and poured, and Kevin takes care of the music and dims the lights.

I did a pretty solid job if I do say so myself.

“Is this what you meant when you said you’d be presenting yourself on a silver platter?” She looks from my creation to me.

“No. There’s not a table in sight. I’m not even wearing my bait shirt.” I gesture to myself.

“If not to get into my pants as soon as possible, you did all this because…”

“You look after me more than you realize. Subtlety has never been my thing, so I decided to be really in your face about it. Does this scream, I’M TAKING CARE OF YOU TOO!’, loud enough? I want it to be just right.” I walk to stand in front of her.

Her laughter fills the room. “You’re cute. I like you.”

“As are you, hon, slight difference, though. I love you instead of like you. I get to be with you all the time, so I win.” My arms encircle her waist.

“It’s a good thing, too. You’re a very sore loser.” She wraps her arms around my neck.

“Why fix what isn’t broken?”

“Your competitiveness has gotten you far.”

“To you and Harper. It’s here to stay.”

She connects her lips to mine. It’s a sweet and simple kiss, but it still has my heart thudding in my chest.

“I love you, but it’s bathtime. Private bathtime.”

“Say no more. I’ll get out of your hair.” I ruffle hers with my fingers.

She bats my arms away, still smiling.

“Champagne’s on the counter. You know how to work Kevin and everything else in here. Call me if you need me.” I kiss her cheek before exiting.

I kill time watching TV and checking out the pictures and videos Becca and Lindsey sent. As much as I’m dying to call them to hear from Harper, I know how much they have been looking forward to spending time with her. I want to make sure they have it.

Pop comes out of the bathroom sometime later, carrying the bottle of champagne in one hand and the glass in the other.

I sit up straight when I get a good look at her.

Poppy’s olive skin is clear and radiant. Light makeup excentuates what she has to offer. Her deep brown eyes are as bright as they should be; she’s wearing her glasses. Her black hair is down and tousled with soft waves. Skinny jeans, a loose-fitting black sweater and boots are the epitome of her simplistic style. The changes in her body added welcome adjustments to the way it fits – her jeans fit her luscious curvy hips like a glove and her top unveils a delectable sliver of cleavage.

The composite image is beyond words.

“Say something. The staring’s making me self-conscious.” She adjusts her sweater.

“B-beautiful -- that – a lot.”

“You good, buddy?” She chuckles at my expense as she joins me on the couch.

I have a long swig from Poppy’s bottle of champagne. “No, my girlfriend is trying to kill me.”

“Do you want me to have a chat with her? Get her to change her ways?”

“Don’t you dare.”

“Do I look pretty like you?”

“No. You’re gorgeous.”

“You are very biased.”

“Feel my heart right now.”

She rests her hand on my chest. Her eyes widen when she feels the thudding through my shirt.

“Does that hurt?” Ever the caretaker, she rubs the spot.

“In the best way.”

“Calm down, honey.”

“I can’t. I told you my girlfriend is trying to kill me.”

“Am not. I’m just trying to put my best foot forward.”

“You’re putting the best everything forward.” I kiss the corner of her lips.

“I have a confession to make.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’m still nervous.”

“They’ve missed you.”

“Who I used to be.”

“New and improved Poppy is coolest. They’ll love her too.”

She takes the bottle of champagne from me and pours herself a glass. “Will you promise to be an irrational, overprotective boyfriend if someone is mean to me?”

“No one’s going to hurt you on my watch.” I play with a strand of her hair. “Am I allowed to require them to bow to you? That’s the level of respect I want them on, but I know you’re modest or whatever.”

She smiles as she raises her glass to her plush lips. “Cordial, not royal – that’s the type of treatment I’d prefer.”

“Can I at least make Kyle do it?”

“You can, but you should know that he’s going to call me ‘Mama’ as he does it.”

“He might be the first person I kick out.”

“You’re the only one that minds that he calls me ‘Mama’.”

“It doesn’t make you uncomfortable?”

“Nope. I’m a mom and I enjoy being one. He’s giving me my mama props.”

“How much of that have you had?” I nod to her glass.

“Not enough to get loopy. I say odd things in my right mind too. You don’t corner that market.”

“What kind of cocktails do you know how to make?” I drink straight from the bottle.

“The ones with the ingredients in the title, classics, and all of Eclipse’s specialty drinks.”

“You know I have to quiz you.”

“Naturally.”

“I’m going to name a drink. You tell me what’s in it, and I’ll consult with Mr. Google to see if you should be awarded points.” I pull out my phone, one-handed.

“Bring it on, Wilde.”

“A Manhattan?” I ask once I’ve got a recipe pulled up on my phone.

“Bourbon, vermouth, bitters, orange rinds, and cherries.”

“One point. Sidecar?” I scroll to the next cocktail ingredient list.

“Lemon juice, brandy, and triple sec. We had to garnish rims with sugar at Eclipse, but that’s not standard.”

“Two points. Gimlet?”

“Gin, lime juice, and simple syrup.”

“Three points. An old-fashioned?”

“Sugar, bitters, rye whiskey, an orange wedge, and maraschino cherries.”

“Will you make me one later?”

“Was this a way for you to find out if I could make your favorite drink?”

“I thought we could have fun with it. Judging by how quickly you answered, you had a good time studying those recipes.”

“Memorizing those was the most fun I’d had in ages.”

“How’d you start working at Eclipse?”

“Chels worked there first. She brought home huge tips after each shift. I was fed up with the diner but still needed the extra income. She helped me get a job at Eclipse as soon as I turned twenty-one.”

“Where was Harper on your worknights?”

“Chelsea’s cousin babysat Harper at Chels’s apartment while we worked. I repaid Dani by helping her with her school work. She was in college and needed to keep her grades at a certain level to maintain her scholarship.”

I have a much-needed drink. “You got off late, right? The early hours of the morning. How did you get home?”

“We always spent the night at Chelsea’s when I worked. She would drive Harper and me home in the morning after brunch. We were safe. Your retroactive concern is sweet.”

“You’re my girls.”

“And you’re our boy. We’re here with you and we’re doing well. No need to dwell.”

“Well said, Dr. Suess.”

“Is it too late ask that green eggs and ham be served at the party?” Poppy seamlessly plays along with my joke.

“You want eggs? I can get you eggs. Sunnyside up, scrambled, over-easy – how do you want them?”

“I’m absolutely joking. You better not bring me eggs.”

“And ham. The ham has not been forgotten. How do you want it cooked?”

“I’m not going to tell you in hopes that you won’t find a way to actually pull it off.”

“Are you underestimating me, babe? I asked to give you the chance to switch it up. I know how you like your food.”

“Oh, yeah? How would I like my green eggs and ham?”

“You would like the eggs cooked over-hard and meat-alternative ham, Sam I Am.”

“I don’t want eggs and ham. You’re the Sam I Am.”

We debate who is, in fact, Sam I Am as we finish the bottle of sparkling wine.

Oh, the strange places our minds go.

Becca calling a little after 8 o’clock disrupts our fake argument.

“What happened?” I instantly sober.

“Fun things. Calm down, papa bear. Courtney talks to Trey on the phone every night before bed. Harper wants to say goodnight to her Mama and Daddy.” She is heard by both of us using the speakerphone feature.

“We would love to hear from her. Put her on.” Poppy rubs my back as I exhale the breath I was retaining.

“Hi, Mama and Daddy!” Harp couldn’t sound more awake.

“You sound like you’re having a good time. What have you done at the slumber party?” A smile can be heard in Poppy’s voice.

“Dollies and ookies and peeza and mushy face and puple fingies and toesies and air and pway.”

“Wow, that does sound fun. I hear it’s time for bed.”

“I no seepy. We 'till pway.”

“Do Aunt Becca and Aunt Lindsey know?” I smirk at her being more than they bargained for.

Harp is creative, smart, thoughtful, and so many other positive adjectives, but she is also the energizer bunny in human form – far from the dainty doll Beck has been describing for weeks. She may live in tutus and glitter, but she also digs holes in mulch like a gopher and climbing is one of her favorite hobbies.

She’s ten handfuls.

“Um, I no know. Courtie lay down.”

“What are you doing?”

“Talk you. You silly, Daddy.” She giggles.

“What are you going to do after this?”

“Pway!”

“You play as hard as you can, my cub. You are the new wild one. Make Daddy proud.” I encourage.

“O-tay!”

Poppy nudges me with her elbow. “Make Mama proud, Lovebug. Be good for your aunts. It’s the nice thing to do.”

“Oh, I be nice.”

“You can do both. Aren’t I nice?”

“Uh-huh. Real nice.”

“Stop it.” Poppy growls at me beneath her breath.

“I am doing my part to keep her from getting kidnapped,” I whisper back.

“Be yourself, baby girl. They love you as you are.”

“I wove em too.”

“We love you the same way, Lovebug,” Poppy tells her.

“Wove you ots and ots. Night-night.”

“You’re going to bed now?” I widen my eyes in surprise.

“Time pway. You seepytime.”

“That’s my girl.” I egg her on.

“Play quietly if your cousin is sleeping and be good for your aunts. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I love you. Sweet dreams.” I add to Poppy’s goodbye.

"Wheat dweams. Bye-bye.”

“I heard everything you said, and mark my words, Rhys, we will have civilized fun.” Beck’s voice replaces Harper’s.

“Fat chance. She’s probably licking Courtney’s cheek to tell her she loves her as we speak.”

“She would never—Harper, no–” Her quick hang up proves me right.

“That was your fault. You unleashed her.” Poppy looks at me pointedly.

“They need to know who they’re dealing with. Harper is extra sugar, ample spice, and all things nice with buttloads of puppy dog tails.”

“She does love pups an awful lot.”

“Are you admitting I’m right?”

“Never.” She kisses me. “We should head downstairs. Party starts soon.” She scoots off the couch.

I get a prime view of her ass as she stands.

Yep, it’s official – she is the hottest woman I’ve ever seen, without question.

Taylor and I bought enough alcohol to stock a bar. All of it is laid out on the kitchen island, along with glasses and solo cups, fruit, garnishes, and mixers.

Kyle’s standing behind the counter, stirring a batch of jungle juice in the 50 qt cooler we bought for it.

Pop leaves me to hug him. “Are you making homemade anti-freeze?”

“Jungle juice. It’s a family recipe.”

“What’s in it?” She picks up the bottle closest bottle to him and starts reading its contents.

“Vodka, white rum, triple sec, gin, peach schnapps, apple schnapps, moscato, orange juice, cranberry juice, lemonade, and pieces of fruit.”

“I think you forgot the kitchen sink.” She jokes.

“Don’t knock it until you try it.”

“I’ll stick to milder poison, thank you.” She pats his shoulder.

“Do you want some?” Kyle lifts the ladle to me.

“Nah, a legit bartender promised to make me an old-fashioned.”

“Who?” He pours the pink liquid into a red solo cup.

“Hi.” Poppy waves.

“No shit, you were a bartender?”

“You saw me working.”

“I saw you holding a tray in a dress. Can you do bottle tricks?”

“You were there when I gave myself a nosebleed trying to twirl a pool cue. I knew better than to try.” She puts ice cubes into two lowball glasses.

“Are you going to try to be on our flip cup team?” Kyle samples his work.

“No. We would die of alcohol poisoning if I played. Taylor and Rhys would call for rematch after rematch until we won. We’d perish before they got their victory. I crumble under the pressure every time.”

“You can play with us. We bought non-alcoholic beer for rematches.”

“A sore loser who plans ahead. I didn’t stand a chance.” Poppy pours whiskey into the first glass.

She concocts picture-perfect cocktails, as expected.

Pop’s the real overachiever of us.

“Cheers.” I hold up my glass.

“Cheers.” She clinks hers with mine.

“You’ve ruined other people’s drinks for me too. Thanks a lot.” I gripe after my first swallow.

“You’re welcome.” She smiles over the rim of her glass.

Kyle silently gestures me over when Poppy’s rooting around in the refrigerator.

“Howard, we have a problem.” He speaks softly.

“Who is Howard?”

“The rocketship guy. The astronauts always tell him their problems.”

“Houston. They tell Houston.”

“Who names their kid Houston?”

“It was the name of the launch base they were communicating with during the Apollo 13 mission. Tom Hanks says the line in the movie about it.”

“I’ve seen Forrest Gump. Jenny did the dude dirty.”

“That’s not – what’s the problem you called me over here for?”

“Pop’s looking extra fine tonight. I didn’t check her out as much as I wanted to because of bro-code, but not everyone is as rule-following as me. People are going to try to move in on your girl.”

“No one’s going to be that stupid. It’s my house.”

“This right here--” He jiggles his cup. “Is bad decision fuel.”

“Then dump it out.”

“No, I worked really hard on it. I measured and shit.”

“Really? I thought you shrugged and poured.”

“I take pride in my J-juice. People count on it to be the best.”

“You’ve got to give the people what they want.”

“You’re the expert.” He drinks.

“Eh. I dabble.” I use the ice in my glass to stir my drink before taking a sip of it.

Taylor calls Kyle into the next room to help with something. I help Poppy unwrap appetizers.

“POPPY!!!” Delilah exclaims.

The suddenness of her appearance and outburst makes me jump.

She runs across the kitchen -- high-heels be damned -- to give Pop a hug.

Poppy lets go of the clump of aluminum foil she just removed from one of the platters and wipes her hands on her pants as she braces for impact.

“I MISSED YOU!” Dee tackles her in a bear hug.

Delilah Clarke is one of Taylor’s ex-girlfriends. He’s still good friends with all of his exes. I kid you not. And all six of them will be at the party tonight. They come every year, and there is zero animosity between any of them. Again, not joking. Dee is the one I like most. The loud pixie grows on you.

“I missed you, too.” Poppy timidly returns her embrace.

“Where have you been? I thought you fell off the face of the earth.”

“Boston.” Pop grabs for her drink as soon as she’s set free.

“School’s kept you that busy?”

I hurry to where they are and put my arm around Poppy, who is drinking to stall.

“Hi, Dee.” I raise my glass to her.

“Sorry for ignoring you. It’s good to see you.” She gives me a quick hug. “Are you back together?” She’s sporting a giddy grin as she looks between Poppy and me.

“We are. My heart is now whole.” I jest.

“I had a baby – Rhys’s baby – in Boston, not school.” Pop blurts.

Delilah laughs. Her laughter dies down when she notices we’re not so much as cracking a smile.

“Really?” Her reproach is meek and apologetic.

“A girl. Harper Posy Wilde. She’ll be two in February.” I pull Poppy’s body closer to mine.

Dee’s mouth falls open. “Why didn’t – I had –two? Is she here? Can I meet her?” Oddly enough, tears spring to her eyes.

“You want to meet her?” Emotion gets caught in Poppy’s throat.

“Duh, my friends have a freaking baby! An actual human being! I can barely take care of myself and you’re parents! I have to see her. Is she upstairs? Oh, is she sleeping? I’ll be really quiet. I just want a peek.”

“She’s at a slumber party at my sister’s house. Will videos and pictures work?” I answer.

“For now. I want a thorough explanation as to why I wasn’t invited to the baby shower.”

“We didn’t have one.” I let go of Poppy to pull out my phone.

“Rhys was on the road and we didn’t have the time.”

“Why were you in Boston?”

“My dad wasn’t too thrilled when he found out. I have family there.”

“Did you actually break-up or was the relationship just hidden?” Dee asks.

“Rhys and I did separate. The distance and our new circumstances were too much for us to handle at the time, but we’ve grown up since then. We started patching things up in October.”

“That’s why the tour was paused. I stayed in Boston until they could join me on the road.” I hand my phone to Dee, having opened one of the many albums I have dedicated to Harper.

“I knew it! I knew she’d be a stunner. How could she not be?” Dee’s smiling from ear to ear at the screen. “She is the cutest little thing! She looks like both of you, but she definitely has her daddy’s hair.” She swipes to the next picture. “…and his clothes too, apparently.” She shows us one of the pictures from earlier.

“She’s a total daddy’s girl.” Poppy relays.

“Is this from today?”

“Yes, right before we dropped her off at Lindsey’s. She saw Rhys’s hat and asked for one of her own.”

“Don’t forget the ‘gee acket’. It adds a lot to the look.” I contribute.

“Watch just one video and see how alike they are.” Pop smiles up at me.

“I’m watching all of them. Arianna is going to lose it when she finds out.”

“You can tell her and anyone else at the party, but we don’t want the news public yet.” I rub Poppy’s back.

“I won’t make a peep. Scout’s honor.” Dee presses play on a video.

One down, nineteen more to go.

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