Sum of Us

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Ch.37: Poppy

Chelsea is due to arrive in Seattle in a few hours. Because she has a big sweet tooth, I thought it would be fun to bake something for her. Funfetti cake is her favorite boxed cake flavor. I let Harper pick out the icing during our trip to the grocery store. Shocker: it’s purple. She insisted on helping me make the cake too. The tools in her chef playset are being put to use in our real kitchen instead of her play one.

“Puple yummy.” Harp sucks frosting off of her fingers.

“Do you think Aunt Chelsea will like it?” I frost the cake as she takes her snack break.

“Oh, yes. Ots and ots.” She puts her hand in the small bowl that contains a dollop of icing.

It was either give her frosting for eating or wait until she slapped or poked the cake to taste the ‘puple’. It’s not my first baking rodeo.

“She is going to love that you helped make it.”

“Help fun.”

“What do you want to do with her while she’s here?”

“Sow home. We no gets ost. Oh much puple and usic and agic oors. And peeza. Gots to eat da peeza. See fammy and pups. She wove ’em. Pway all time. She no go bye-bye.”

“Those are great plans. We are going to have such a good time together. I think she will listen better if you’re the one that tells her she’s not allowed to leave.”

“O-tay. Eattle home now. Auntie Elsie too.” She says between licks.

I smile over at her. “The more, the merrier. Are you going to show her your big girl bed?”

Rhys converted her crib the day after Christmas. I may have cried. Our little girl is growing up too fast.

“Oh, yes. I wove it oh much. Run ’round and pway all time.”

That’s our new problem. Harper’s newfound freedom makes it easier to play whenever she feels the urge. And in her world, pwaytime beats seepytime every single time.

“Auntie Elsie sare it.”

“She’s going to have her own bed, Lovebug, but your offer to let her use yours is very nice.”

“Daddy!” Harp suddenly shouts.

“Harper!” Rhys runs to the kitchen island and gives her a hug.

“Careful. She’s a little messy.”

That’s an understatement. Harper’s hands, arms, and face are frosted.

“I’ll just eat it off. No worries. How are you today?” His arms are still around her as she rubs her face on his black shirt.

“The good kind of anxious.”

“What time does her flight get in?”

“3:15.”

“Are you going to bring her straight here, or are you going to pal around one-on-one first?”

“Straight here. I know better than to leave you two alone with the welcome cake for too long.”

“We’d be nice and save two slices for you.”

“I want her to be able to see the effort we put into decorating. It makes the welcome warmer.”

“I guess I’ll respect your wishes or whatever.” He kisses my cheek.

“Or whatever.” I smile into the kiss I press on his lips.

Rhys helps Harper shake circle sprinkles all over the cake. After scattering what she calls ’yummy spwakles”, I write ’Welcome Chelsea!” on the top in white icing. Rhys cleans up Harper as I take care of the kitchen.

Teamwork.

Sea-Tac is one of the busiest airports in the world. It would be an all-around bad idea to take a precocious toddler and an A-list celebrity. Harper would try to ride the luggage carousel, and Rhys would be hounded for autographs and pictures. As soon as Harp noticed her daddy wasn’t participating in her adventure, she’d join his by barging into the swarm of fans to make new ‘fwiends.’ Rhys would sit her on his shoulders, tell her to hold on tight, and multitask with a genuine smile on his handsome face. So, the mischief-makers remain at home, and I venture to the airport alone.

Standing in the baggage claim, I’m on tiptoes trying to spot her. When our eyes meet, we run into each other’s arms like leads in a rom-com. How tight we hold each other makes it hard to breathe; we have three months of hugs to make up for.

“Let me get a good look at you.”

She is holding my hands as she examines me. “My God, you’re gorgeous. A glowing angel is standing before me.”

Her high praise makes me blush and laugh. “You look far too good for a person who just six hours on an airplane. You should be a greasy crumpled napkin of a person like the rest of us.”

“It’s the toner I told you about.”

Chelsea Palmer has the type of beautiful that makes people on the street do a double-take. High cheekbones, captivating amber eyes surrounded by thick lashes, flawless golden brown skin, a body people shell out large sums to replicate, and a smile that could melt a snowman. The primping she does is recreational, but she does it with the rigor and finesse of a gold-medaling Olympian.

“Does it make heels appear on your feet?” I use my eyes to point to her high-heeled boots.

“These are the only sock-required shoes I own that are easy to get on and off.”

“It has nothing to do with the way they look with your fancy new trench coat?” I question dubiously.

“When you find a vintage Burberry coat at a consignment shop, you don’t disrespect your gift from above with sneakers.”

“How many suitcases did you bring for your four-day trip?”

“Two. I pick my outfits based on my mood, and I can’t predict the future.”

Giggling, I tug her into another hug. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

She takes one of her overstuffed suitcases; I have the other. We pile them into my car along with her carry-on of camera equipment and hit the road.

“How did Rhys manage to talk you into treating yourself to such a nice ride?” Chels untwists the cap of her water bottle.

“He threatened to get rid of his dream car if I didn’t get mine. He wasn’t bluffing.”

“Oh, he’s good. There’s no way you could’ve let that happen.”

“He knows all my buttons, and doesn’t hesitate to slam them to win.” I adjust my rearview mirror.

She sends a cheeky smirk my way. “He’s perfect for you.”

“He’s not perfect.”

“He is for you.”

“We’re going strong. Let’s leave it at that.”

“You’re welcome.”

A laugh bubbles out of me. “What?”

“I pushed you to face him. You did, and you’re happy. Harper is too. I’ll tell everyone about it during my maid-of-honor speech.”

This really gets me laughing. “We’ve been dating for less than a month. Wedding bells are not ringing.”

“I can wait.”

“It might be forever. I don’t want to be a bride. The thought of our friends and family knowing what we’ll be doing the night of our wedding makes me want to die of embarrassment.”

“We already know what you do. You have a daughter.”

“That’s different. Harper’s conception was a private affair. At weddings, guests get to watch as the betrothed seduce each other. Zero privacy or ambiguity. Love is made to seal the deal.”

“Why did you have to--? I paid for my coat with the money My Great-Aunt Esther gave me to photograph her wedding. I don’t want to attach my best thrift find to documenting 80-year-olds’ foreplay. You did, and now it feels dirty.”

“Will you stop wearing it?”

“I’m still going to be buried in it.”

“I didn’t ding your mind up too bad then. Wait until you spend time with Taylor. He can ruin anything. Give him a topic, and he can actually scar you with a fact.”

“Can he stay away from cake? I never want to stop associating it with happiness.”

“I’ll protect cake.”

“Thank you. Lovebug wouldn’t approve of me hating her boyfriend.”

“That stays in this car. Her crush on him has dissolved and Rhys doesn’t know it ever existed. It needs to stay that way. He’d be furious.”

“Who is Taylor’s replacement?”

“She’s single and focusing on her career.”

“Same. Does she still think she is helping Santa?”

“Yes, but she has transferred from the gift wrapping department to toy testing. Her new bed makes it easier for her to bury herself in her work.”

“Is Rue still in the picture?”

“He’s by her side every day. The story about the other reindeers mistreating him really bothered her. She promised him she would be a nice friend. Harp’s a girl of her word. He won’t be going anywhere any time soon.”

“She is so sweet.”

“And a handful.”

“Is Rhys carrying his fair share?”

“Yeah. His methods are unconventional, but Harper responds well to them. I hate myself for keeping them apart for so long. This could’ve been her life from the beginning.”

“She’s always known of him. He’s forgiven you for not letting him know. It’s time for you to forgive yourself. You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let you pin all of her joy on being around Rhys. Harper has always been the three S’s – sweet, smiley, and smart. You’ve worked your ass off to make sure of it. Raising her with Rhys is best, but she has always had a good life.”

I clear my throat to swallow the emotion that is daring to seep out.”Yeah, so, Harper said you’re not allowed to go bye-bye. I agree with her. Consider yourself kidnapped.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not going to try to fight it?”

“Nope. My suitcases are too full to smuggle you back to Boston. I have to be the one that stays.”

“Whatever it takes to be together.”

“Whatever it takes.”

We spoke on the phone yesterday, but there is no shortage of things for us to talk about today. Chelsea gives me the inside scoop about her daily dealings as a small business owner. A series of photographs she took while off the clock are going to be featured in an art exhibition in New York about the passage of time. And as of last week, she no longer has to work at Eclipse to make ends meet. Chels is making her living as a full-time artist. She may be two years older than me, but I still feel like a proud mama.

“Early 20th-century architecture? A heads up about your house being a structural wet dream would’ve been nice.” Chelsea half-heartedly complains when it comes into view.

“I told you it was a converted factory.”

“You described it as modern industrial.”

“The inside is. The exterior is a restored 1920s boat warehouse.”

“My camera is in the trunk and my phone won’t do it justice.” She whole-heartedly complains.

“We can come outside later. You can shoot it then.”

“Harper will be with me, serving as my assistant.”

“She’ll break all of your very expensive equipment.”

“I bought her a camera for Christmas. It is intended for her age group. It doesn’t take pictures, but it’s purple and it makes camera sounds.

“She’ll have a ball with it and you.”

Chelsea marvels at our surroundings as we carry her bags to a guest room on my side of the house. Tracking down her tour guides isn’t hard. Train whistles lead the way.

Harper, Taylor, and Rhys are playing with the train set on the floor of Harp’s bedroom. Rhys and Taylor are building tunnels with wooden blocks. Harp’s flipping the switches that control the train’s lights and sounds at rapid speed. All of them are wearing train conductors’ hats. It is impossible to tell who is having the most fun.

I learned something about Rhys and Taylor when we set up Harper’s train on Christmas Eve. Both of them are really into model trains. They wanted one growing up, but the cost and size prevented it from happening. Harper has given them the perfect opportunity to buy and play with all of the toys they wish they had during their childhood. Her train is the main one. They talk her into playing with it every day so that they can join her. She’s none the wiser.

“This about sums it up.” I gesture to the scene unfolding before us.

“It’s even better in person.” She walks inside.

“Can I play, Lovebug?” Chelsea crouches down in front of Harper.

Harp abandons her station, flinging herself into Chels’s arms. “AUNTIE ELSIE!”.

“Did you miss me as much as I missed you?” Chelsea peers down at her, now standing with Harper on her hip.

“Oh, yes. Miss oh, oh much. You no go bye-bye.”

Chelsea laughs, “I love you, too, Lovebug.”

Harper kisses her cheek. “They Daddy and Nunckle Aylor.” The considerate person she is, she includes them.

They get off the ground to greet Chelsea properly.

“It’s great to see you again.” Rhys hugs her.

They’ve developed their own friendship over the past couple of months. It’s one in which she threatens to harm him if he hurts me again every time they talk, but it’s still a kinship.

“Is it true you slapped him as soon as Poppy introduced you?” Taylor asks, his eyes trained on hers.

“I had to. She wouldn’t.”

“Pleasure to finally meet you.” He shakes her hand with a broad smile.

“I’m glad to see there are no hard feelings.”

“Quite the contrary. I’m impressed. More so by your work. Your approach to portraiture is unique. Do you have your complete portfolio with you? I was only able to see what was on your website.”

Chelsea opens her mouth to reply.

“No.” Rhys glares at Taylor.

“What?” Tay returns the look.

“You can’t do what you want to do because of what could happen after you do it.”

“I can do what I want to do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Yes, I—”

“Hello, Person Who Has a Say, here. I can share my work platonically. I do it every single day.—” She starts with Rhys. “But, I have no rules against it.” She aims at Taylor.

Interest and intrigue flare in Taylor's eyes as he blatantly checks her out.

She’s his type – artistic, well-read, and outspoken. He’s complicated, intellectual, and a sharp dresser. She’s never been shy about discussing her opinions on Rhys and Taylor’s appearances. And If the way he’s eye-banging her is any indication, the attraction is mutual.

And I’m the biggest idiot for not realizing this could be a possibility.

“Auntie Elsie, wanna see ma puple?” Harper plays with Chelsea’s necklace.

“I would love to see your purple, Lovebug. Take me to it.” Chels sets her on the ground.

Harp tugs Chelsea to the purple tent in her reading nook as soon as her feet touch the ground.

“Stop it.” Rhys whisper-fusses, pointing an accusatory finger at Taylor.

“You heard her.”

“You’re Harper’s godparents. I thought you’re supposed to be the one that thinks things through. What are you doing?”

“Do I look like Leo?”

“No,” I answer as though the question is literal.

Rhys, Taylor, and Christopher have dark brown hair and green eyes like their mom. Becca, Lindsey, and Leo have blonde hair and hazel eyes like their dad. Leo’s broad and buff like a football player. Rhys and Tay, for the lack of a better comparison, are built like baseball players. They are lean but toned and tall.

“I am always open and honest about my intentions upfront. I don’t play mind games; I don’t spin fairy tales, and I’m an expert at determining whether or not a girl can actually handle casual fun. I’m the opposite of Leo.”

“You’ve lost your train privileges until further notice.” Rhys snatches the hat off of his brother’s head.

“I’ll buy my own and build it myself.”

“Custom paint job?”

“Custom paint job. I might even construct a village to go with it. There’s a perfect spot in my den for it.”

“Damn you.” Rhys squints his eyes.

“I’ll catch up with you later. I have locomotive shopping to do.” Tay strolls past us.

My eyes meet Rhys’s. “That could be a problem.”

“And it’s all your fault.”

“How is it my fault?”

“You just had to go and find a super cool best friend. This never would’ve happened if you buddied up with a dud.”

“Excuse me for having taste.”

“You’re excused.”

I push him, fighting a smile. He puts his arm around me.

“I a big girl. This my bed.” Harp proudly points it out to Chelsea.

“How do you sleep on it?” Chels asks

“Wike this.” Harper crawls on top of it and lays down. “Pwetty fowers and friends.”

Peppa Pig, Rue, and Pascal (Rapunzel’s chameleon sidekick in Tangled) sleep with her every night. There is space for more of her buddies, but we had to draw the line to keep her from getting used to hosting a nightly stuffed animal slumber party. There’s not enough space to do it while we are on tour.

“Is it comfy cozy?”

“Uh-huh. Sare.” Harp pats the bed for her to join.

“I’m all icky from my plane ride. I’ll test it out later.”

“I wove pwanes. Oh fast. Cwouds pwetty.”

“I took pictures of them for you. Want to see?”

“Yes, pweeze.” Harper scoots off her bed.

They sit on the floor, Harper in Chels’s lap, scrolling through the cloud pictures on her phone.

Chelsea seamlessly falls into our house’s rhythm, to the point that it feels like she’s always been here. Even though she has been a Wilde Knights fan since before I met her, she doesn’t gawk at the boys or treat them like they are gods. She speaks her mind and only laughs when she finds what they say funny. I can tell they’re going to come to love her as much as Harper and I do.

“Did you try to find a house together, or did you fall in love with the same place and decide to share it?” Chelsea indulges in another slice of Vinny’s pizza.

We had a second order of it delivered after Harper went to bed. I underestimated how much we would need for dinner. Harper is in the middle of a growth spurt, the boys’ stomachs are bottomless pits, and Chels experienced love at first bite. Not to mention, pizza and wings are a great late-night meal.

Our spread is on the coffee table of the great room. We’re seated around it on the floor. Music is playing in the background as we chat.

“More of the second option than the first, but all of the above.” Tay starts.

“We look at it as having condos in the same complex. We have shared amenities, but our separate areas are entirely our own. We even have private entrances.” Rhys continues.

“We can go days without seeing each other,” Taylor concludes.

“I don’t know if I believe that. I’m sure I’ll find artisanal bunk beds hidden away somewhere if I search hard enough.” Chelsea teases.

Rhys smiles. “If you do, they were planted by Kyle as a joke. We don’t even share a bunk bed on the bus.”

“Oh, so you Burt and Ernie instead. That’s an effective use of space.” She playfully persists.

Taylor smirks at her.” “They’re partners. We’re brothers. Mimicking their behavior would be against the laws of the land and humanity. We have our own beds and a firm no-incest policy.”

“That takes threesomes off the table.” She says with a boldness I will never possess.

“It does. Is that an issue?”

“No. Seeing double in bed would be a mood-kill. I can’t play a ‘spot the difference’ game and clear my mind enough to have an orgasm. What’s the point of sex if that’s not the end result?”

“A connection?” Tay studies her closely.

“Connections established without pants are fleeting; and physicality and emotions aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a better time and place.”

If Taylor’s head were a slot machine, his eyes would be displaying ‘jackpot’ and coins would be spurting out of his mouth.

~

“I re row rike it.”

“Huh?” I continue to lather face wash into my skin.

Rhys spits the toothpaste in his mouth into the sink. “I still don’t like it.”

“Chelsea’s not looking for a boyfriend and Taylor’s Taylor. He’s still good friends with all his exes for a reason -- he pulls back before things get too deep. She’s kind of, well, like him in the sense that she's not a relationship person. The ones she's been in in the past lasted less than a month, and ending it was her call.”

“Why couldn’t you pick a boring bestie?”

“Do you really want to critique my taste in best friends, bestest buddy?”

“Yeah, if it’ll prevent them from boning.”

I blush and swat his shoulder.

“Don’t hit me, Penelope. You lobbed them softballs. They’re probably knocking them out of the park as we speak -- running those bases, sliding into home, and the crowd’s about to go wild. You did that and things are bound to get weird.”

“I’m not going to think about it. I suggest you don’t either.” I bend over my sink to rinse my face.

“You’re not the slightest bit worried? You’re the worrier.”

“I’m choosing my battles. Our announcement is going live tomorrow. Chelsea flew across the country to add to the support circle. Taylor put aside his hatred of holiday capitalism to make sure Harper’s Christmas morning expectations were exceeded. If they want to use each other to blow off steam, I say we let them have at it.”

“What do you have to say about the scary part?” He hands me a towel to dry my face.

“I think it would be best said in a blanket fort.”

“Your wish is my command.” He presses a kiss to my bare forehead. My bangs were pinned back before I washed my face.

The blanket fortress is arranged when I walk into our bedroom. Rhys is already inside. I have Kevin turn off the overhead lights and remove my glasses before crawling into Rhy’s arms.

“Nice hoodie.”

“You’re never getting it back.”

Our freshman year of high school, Rhys played baseball on our school’s varsity team. He only played for one year, choosing to focus his time and energy on music, but he still has all of his gear and team apparel. He wears his letterman jacket is a part of his concert wardrobe. I commandeered his hoodie as soon as we started dating again. It was irresistibly comfortable seven years ago. It is more so now, and it is all mine.

“Can we share it?’

“Yes, but I get primary custody.”

“Do I get regular visitation?”

“I’ll allow it.”

“Thank you.” I can feel him smiling as he kisses the top of my head. “Talk to me.” He plays with my hair.

My head and hand on his chest, I sigh. “I’m worried about Harper. The paparazzi and extra fan attention could scare her. She is the loudest part of her life. I’d kill me if their intrusion into our lives changes her behavior. We’re the ones that made mistakes that need to be rectified. She’s done nothing wrong. She shouldn’t suffer.” I clench my eyes shut when tears collect in my lashes.

“You’re too fierce of a mama to let anything bad happen to our cub, and I will lay down my life for both of you. Harp is going to remain our bright ray of sunshine. We’re Wildes. We stick together, and that’s we’re going to get through this.”

“Last time I checked, James was still listed as my last name on all my legal documents.”

“That doesn’t matter. You know as well as I do that you’re one of us.”

“I do. I had to make sure you weren’t trying to gaslight me into thinking we’re married.”

“Like I told you, gaslighting is boring. Wearing you down is way more fun. I’ll stick to what I do best.”

“I love you.” I smile into his shirt.

“I’m so sorry you have to go through this because of it.”

“Prove me right about you, and I’ll consider it worth it.” I rub his chest.

“I will.” He tilts my face up to his and kisses me. “I kind of have to. A lot of people will be out for blood if I don’t.”

“Mhmm. Harper and I are thoroughly loved.” I tuck his hair behind his ear.

“Myself included. I’d be rooting for the angry mob to get the job done.”

“Here’s to hoping it never forms.” I press my lips to his.

He’s the one that initiates the use of tongues. I’m guilty of feeling up his arms and shoulders and hitching a leg on his hip.

“Permission to make you feel good?” His kisses migrate to my neck.

The light scratching of his stubble on my skin is tantalizing.

“What do you have in mind?” I’m breathless.

“Over-the-underwear heavy-petting.”

I swallow hard. “You too?”

“No. Tonight’s about you.”

“Are you sure?”

He props himself up on his elbow to look at me. “Yes. Relax, and let me take care of you.” He pushes my hair out of my face.

I nod. My eyes cross as Rhys lowers his face to mine.

To get a little closer, I shrug off my hoodie, but remain in my camisole. He tugs off his t-shirt. The ability to run my hands over so much of his bare skin does too many things to me. The touches and kisses cause my brain to short circuit, and all I can do is feel.

He manages to send my body soaring with ferocity within the set parameters. The euphoria gives way to satisfaction; contentment melds into sheer exhaustion. I surrender to it, and get one of the best night’s sleep of my life in Rhys’s arms.

~

Today’s the day – New Year’s Eve.

Rhys and Harper start it off right by bringing me breakfast in bed. It was my morning to wake up with her, but he beat me to her. Claudia cooked the food. She had always planned to come by early to cook the food for the party we’re hosting for the family, but Rhys sweettalked her into arriving sooner to ensure the food they served me was edible.It was more than; all of my favorite breakfast foods were made to perfection.

Rhys wearing his bait shirt and Harper’s ‘Roaring in the New Year’ lion sweatshirt and sparkly gold tutu made the gesture than much more enjoyable. Atmosphere can make or break a meal. They brought it all, just for me. They were the happy recipients of thank you kisses.

After getting dressed and showering Mom with the praise her food so rightly deserves, Rhys and I fulfill Chelsea’s dream of photographing us with Harper. She takes full advantage of the opportunity, even going as far as to set up her studio equipment. We told her of her gift ahead of time and had all of it shipped to Seattle prior to her arrival. The first photoshoot site is Harper’s room.

“There’s something different about you.” Chels notes as she tightens a knob on a light reflector’s tripod as I hold the fixture upright.

“I’m one day older. Other than that, no changes to report.”

“Is that why you’re blushing?” She moves to the next knob.

“It’s a little toasty in here.”

“Rhys and Lovebug are downstairs snacking. It’s just you and me. There’s no reason you can’t share that you got laid.”

“I didn’t. We didn’t. But there was…digital stimulation.”

“Manual?”

“No. He got the job done, and I didn’t have to reciprocate.” My face burns as I recount.

“Good for you, babe. A release can work wonders. It explains why you’re so calm today.” She rises to her feet. “Is it true?” She asks as she opens another fixture trunk.

“Is what true?” I let go of the one I am holding.

“Musicians are good with their hands.”

“Can confirm.”

“That bodes very well for Taylor.”

“You didn’t…?”

“No. He let me use the dual monitors in his den to catch up on my editing. We talked while I worked. After I made a solid dent in my workload, I taught him a few Photoshop and Lightroom tricks as we killed what was left of the cake you made. Then we called it a night.”

“So, nothing happened?”

“We became friends. Taylor asked to pretend we added benefits to mess with Rhys. We are; play along.”

I grin. “Gladly.”

“I have an idea I want to run by you before Rhys gets here.”

“Get a move on. He is really looking forward to these pictures. Snacktime will probably be cut short.”

“I was thinking maybe I could doctor a few of Harper’s early days photographs to include him, just in case someone tries to call you out. They don’t need to be tossed out right out the gate, but they could be useful in an emergency.”

“It’s a great idea. You’re stellar at what you do. The changes would be undetectable. You have my permission to go for it.”

“But do you think it’ll bother Rhys? He wasn’t actually there. I don’t know how he’ll respond to seeing himself shoehorned in with you. I don’t want to suggest anything that’ll trigger something. He’s got enough weighing on him.”

“He’ll like the ide, and agree to it. But it’d probably be best that we see them for the first time by ourselves. If anything does come up, we can hash it out and put it behind us.”

“That’s about what Taylor said, but I had to be sure. He only thinks he knows everything. You actually do.”

“What else did you talk about?”

“A little bit of everything – our families, jobs, horror stories from our jobs, and pet peeves. You can learn a lot about a person by finding out what they don’t like.”

“What’d you think?”

“I want to be his drunk dial. He’s already pretty unfiltered. I want to hear what he says when the top’s all the way off.”

“He can hold his liquor. He only loses control when he’s in the midst of a competition with Rhys.”

“Do you know where I can find a board game?”

“There’s a closet of them in Tay’s arcade room.”

“We’ll be playing one after Harper’s bedtime before I leave.”

“They’re always game. Get your whistle ready.”

Harper comes running into the room.

“Mama, Auntie Elsie, Gamma ookie!” She bounces at my feet.

“Was it yummy?” I put my hands on my knees.

“Uh-huh. You ookies too. Daddy gots ’em.”

“They survived the trip.” Rhys gives Chelsea and I with a cookie wrapped in a paper towel.

“Thanks, babe.”

“Harp’s idea.”

“I help.” She chirps with a bright smile.

“Thank you, Lovebug. This was very nice of you.” I lean down and kiss her cheek.

“Auntie Elsie wove ookies.”

“I sure do, and the ones your grandma makes—” Chels hums with her eyes closed after taking another bite. “They give me life.”

“I’m proud of you for not taking a bite of mine.” I compliment Rhys.

“I licked it instead to spice things up.” He jokes with a straight face.

“Sicko.” I push him.

He laughs off the minor assault.

I don’t get in trouble with Harper for my actions. She’s on her way to her kitchen playset to make her ‘fwiends’ ‘ookies’ like ‘Gamma’s’.

Not wanting to disturb her as she feeds her pals, the first pictures of the photoshoot are of Rhys and I joining in on our game of pretend. She happily serves us at her pint-sized table, preparing and putting more and more plastic food in front of us to make sure we’re not “hungey”.

We work off the imaginary calories by dancing. Storytime in her book nook fort follows our dance-a-thon. That somehow transitions to practicing animal noises. By the time they have roared their hearts out, it is time for Rhys and Harper’s daily jam session. Chelsea’s camera equipment is moved to his happy place to do it properly.

My guy and girl sit down with their instruments, and perform the way they do for me every day. They don’t seem to notice the camera at all. It’s just the two of them doing what the love together. It brings tears to my eyes, as it always does. I no longer shed them, but there’s something about watching them that hits me right in the heart.

The last location is my greenhouse. It’s not entirely because of my love of plants. Years ago, I made the mistake of disclosing to Chelsea that Harper was conceived in my old greenhouse. She believes the pictures taken in my new greenhouse with Rhys and Harper will be impactful artistically and humorously – AKA finding it hilarious that a person as reserved as me had a reckless romp outdoors.

Taylor agrees. He articulates it by becoming Chels’s assistant artist director and giving us on the nose posing instructions. Me sitting on a work table with Harper on my lap and Rhys’s arms around us from behind? Not happening. We ignore them, and go about our business instead.

Harper is wearing her gardening lab coat. Rhys and I are donning aprons. Harp and Rhys dig holes in planter boxes as I prepare herbs for translation. Neither of them are neat workers; Harper ditched her little purple shovel early on and is digging with her gloved hands. Rhys isn’t much better, shoveling dirt out the box instead of shuffling it around. Soil is all over the floor and table, but they are having too good a time for me to see it as a bad thing.

I’m doing what I love with the ones I love most. Few things top this.

“Gow big and stong wittle fowers. Gamma need you fo yummy food.” Harper gently pets the plants after they have been watered and put in the window.

“Have fun pway in sun-sign. I wove you.” She blows the basil, parsley, and thyme sproutlings kisses with her bare hand.

“I think they love their new home.” I rub her back.

“Uh-uh. See water. Water pwetty. And twees. I wike twees.”

They do have a spectacular view. My greenhouse overlooks Puget Sound. Pine trees and mountains can be made out in the distance. Harp wasn’t cursed with my terrible eyesight.

Harper leads us in the clean up song as all of us, including Chelsea and Taylor, do our share to return my sacred space to it’s former glory.

We are more than ready for lunch when we get the job done.

“How did the pictures turn out?” Claudia asks Chels as all of us help ourselves to the midday meal she prepared.

“Surpassed my expectations. Chemistry and cuteness for days. There’s very little retouching to be done. A little shadow removal here and there. That’s it.”

“I want to see them as soon as you are done.”

“I won’t be able to get to it until I have filmed and edited Rhys’s video, but you’ll be the first person to see them once they’re polished.”

“Before us?” I raise an eyebrow.

“I have to keep Mama Wilde happy to get my sugar fix. You understand.”

“I do. I’m not even a major sugar person and I get it.”

“Give me your address, I’ll mail you a tin of something every week.”

Chelsea drops her plate on the table, and runs around the kitchen counter to hug Mom. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Name it and I’ll bake it, sweetheart. You put in a lot of work around here.” Claudia holds her tight.

She does. Chels was there when I had no one. Her hands and feet are on deck to make sure I get to keep all that I’ve gained. All the cookies and photoshoots in the world wouldn’t come close to adequate repayment. Knowing her, she wouldn’t accept anything that did.

The world needs more Chelseas.

For quality’s sake, the video is being filmed in the music studio. Chelsea’s DLSR camera has a video function. She has it mounted on a tripod in the recording booth. Rhys is seated on the piano bench. Taylor, Harper, and I are on the other side of the glass, in the chairs in front of the soundboard. She’s asleep in my arms and has her noise deluting concert muffs on. Tay and I have on headphones to hear what is going on in the booth.

I run my shaking hands through Harper’s hair, trying my best to ground myself by focusing on why we’re doing this.

Rhys can be her daddy in public. We can be our version of a normal family.

Taylor drapes an arm across my shoulders.

“W-which one is the talk button?” My voice trembles.

He extends the microphone to me and presses the button for me.

“Smalls and I love you, Squints, no matter what.” I speak into the microphone.

Tay let’s go of the button so that Rhys’s response can be heard.

“I’m going to hit it out of the park for you, Wen. We’ll tell the rookie about it when she wakes up.”

I blow him a kiss. He pretends to catch it like a fly ball.

Chelsea counts down from three and points to Rhys once she has pressed record.

“Hey, Internet; it’s me, Rhys. A glittery ball has fallen from the sky, people were consensually kissed, fizzy liquid has been poured, and it's officially a new year. Unless midnight hasn’t struck in your time zone, in which case, hello from the future. You’ll get to hear my New Year’s resolutions early.—” His voice and facial expressions are charismatic. Using his left hand to rotate the promise ring on his right is the only indication of nervousness.

Chels has cropped the tick out of the line of sight by zooming in.

“In the past, I have forgotten my resolutions by the second week of January. Not this time. I’m sticking with them for good. I’m going to be more open and honest, starting now – I have a daughter. Her name is Harper Posy Wilde; she’ll be two soon, and her mother is the very real dream girl I sing about. If you follow me on my socials, you’ve seen the loves of my life. Harp decorated Taylor on Christmas Eve. Poppy is the family friend a lot of you were trying to ‘get to know’” He makes air-quotes.

“Pop’s so much more than her beauty. She’s got brains, brawn, and a killer sense of humor. She’s the second nicest person you will ever meet, the first being Harper, who she made sure was the greatest kid imaginable while I was on the road. Poppy’s not just the mother of my child, she’s my best friend and hero. I don’t like being worshipped by you guys because the pedestal you put me on is too high, but Poppy is worthy of all the praise in the world. She kicks ass at all that she puts her mind to. I don’t know why she’s giving my dumb ass a second shot after our three-year relationship hiatus, but she’s willing to come along for the ride with our little girl in tow.” He smiles over at us with reverance.

“She picked up their life in Boston and joined me on tour in October. Harp’s a music fiend. She’s eaten up every moment of life on the road. Pop loves it too, but she’s not one for crowds or attention. She’s made it her life because wants us to be a family, and my life currently revolves around you. I love you and my job. Performing every night is a dream come true. I want to keep doing it for years to come, but I can’t do it without them again. They’re what make living out my fantasies every day worthwhile. This year and the rest to come, I resolve to be the best dad and partner I can be. I need to be a person worthy of the phenomenonal ladies I’ve been blessed with. I know it’s not standard to ask for help achieving your New Year’s resolutions, but I’m going to need you to help me out with mine.” He runs his hand through his hair.

“Please don’t try to make me choose between you and them by trying to tear them down. I’ll side with them and leave everything else behind. Not because Pop asked me to, honestly, she’s probably going to be mad I’m giving you this ultimatium because she’s selfless like that. I’m doing this because the entire time I was away from them, I was miserable at best. Poppy’s my ride or die. She has been since before 'Bandits' was written. Harper’s our pride and joy. We’re a package deal. You don’t have to kiss their asses, but you do need to respect their place in my life if this is going to work. Rant-declaration-announcement over. Happy New Year. I love you, guys. I’ll see you soon.” He ends on a wave and a nonchalant smile, like he didn’t just issue a career-altering statement.

“How was that?” He looks at me after Chels has called cut.

Taylor once again hits the talk button for me.

I quickly wipe my tears and sniff down my congestion. “Homerun.”

Tay angles the microphone towards himself. “Just like me. Twinsies.”

“Screw you!” Rhys barks.

“Yeah, that’s what I said. No need to reiterate. Thanks for teeing it up by making us Harper’s godparents. Lots of interaction, plenty of opportunities.”

Rhys flips him the bird.

I snort a laugh, trying my best not to disturb Harper. Chelsea turns her head over her shoulder, shaking her head at Taylor with an amused smirk.

Only all-stars know the right way to support the members of their team during tough games. Sometimes you need pep talks, other times you need levity to get your mind off of the odds against you. Rhys and I have a roster full of them, but Chelsea and Tay are tied for MVP. Harp’s the bat girl. She’s not ready to play, but she’s a world-class helper.

At the stroke of midnight, we’re playing ball.

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