Sum of Us

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Ch.39: Poppy

The past couple of weeks have been turbulent. I don’t know what kind of reception I will wake up to, what will transpire during the day, or if I’ll spend the night tossing and turning. However, the plane Rhys and I are co-piloting is still flying on course. He has defended me at every turn, is understanding of the coping strategies I have to utilize to keep my anxiety in check, and has been no one other than himself. Having concrete proof that we’ve got each other’s backs has made it possible for me to really let myself fall, slide more of my chips into the ‘forever and always’ pile. I’m not brave enough to be all in just yet.

I have forgiven Rhys for abandoning our partners-in-crime pact the first time around, but I’ll never forget how it felt to be left standing in the downpour we summoned together by myself. Yes, I could’ve run after him and begged him to reconsider, but I was already coping with more than I knew how to handle. Learning to adapt to being his second choice would’ve been too much to take on while caring for someone who actually needed me.

Rhys Michael Wilde is infuriatingly easy to fall in love with, but his daughter is more so. I was madly in love with her the moment I saw her little heart pounding away on that ultrasound machine. Knowing she deserved way better than a clueless and heartbroken barely-eighteen-year-old as a mom is why I left my first appointment with an adoption pamphlet. But if I’m honest with myself, which I really need to be to grow, I wouldn’t have been able to go through with handing her over.

It would’ve devastated me beyond repair. That’s why Rhys’s regular proclamations that I’m selfless don’t ring true in my mind. I kept her from a stable home with a deserving family, and her father, who is capable of giving her the same, out of fear and pride.

Outsiders confronting me via Rhys about the decisions they think we made together have forced me to do the same to myself. What I’m undergoing is comparable to a deep tissue massage. Having the facts this ordeal has forced me to face kneaded into my skin is painful, but I gain a more profound sense of relief with each truth I accept. I have finally begun to do what Chelsea has been begging me to do for years – forgive myself for being human. The evaporating guilt is clearing the way for other things to occupy my mind.

With each passing day, the visions I used to have of a future with Rhys are coming into focus and regaining their vivid colors. I’m reaching for them; they’re not in my grasp yet, but we are getting there. The possibilities brimming in our private life make the public one he created tolerable. I will never get used to the attention, but I accept that it is a part of the Rhys package.

My commitment to my bet on him is why I’m doing something way outside my realm. I, Penelope Elise James, am attending an award show. Not just any award show, the one where the Rhys-Zara saga began. Wilde Knights is not up for a Grammy; Midnight Daydream’s release didn’t meet the voting deadline. It won’t be eligible for nominations until next year. The boys’ attendance is required because they were tapped to perform long before any drama started. The California tour stops were arranged around their LA obligation. Cali is the only state on the tour that has more than two stops. It has four – San Francisco, Fresno, Anaheim, and San Diego.

Lovebug’s life dream of meeting Rapunzel is days away from coming true. Rhys is undoubtedly more excited for her birthday than performing during the biggest night of the year for musicians. He has a binder – a physical 6-inch three-ring binder – filled with all the aspects of her party. It contains itineraries, seating charts, park maps, lists of ride restrictions and rides Harper will like, food menus, resumes and headshots of all of the character impersonators, and other unnecessary documents.

Rhys wasn’t studious in school. He never took notes, his homework was generally turned in late, and Taylor or I read the books he was assigned and gave him the highlights. Watching Rhys obsess over every little detail of Harper’s birthday party like he’s going to get graded on its success has become one of my favorite pastimes. I have never found him more attractive.

And he knows it.

~

We have to share a bed with Harper now that she has outgrown her crib. She’ll end up with a broken neck if she climbs out of her crib while the bus is in motion. So, she and Rue spend every night sandwiched between Rhys and me. All “alone time” Rhys and I share has to take place in hotel bathrooms.

Here we are in Los Angeles, in the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in, locking lips in a dry bathtub, fully clothed.

“I’m getting high school flashbacks,” Rhys says between kisses.

“It’s this or Harper recounting to a therapist how we traumatized her by making out in a bed while she was trying to sleep.”

“I’m not knocking it, just noticing.”

“Who are you? Taylor?”

“Don’t say his name while I have my hand on Beatrice.”

“I can’t believe you named my breasts.”

“Yes, you can.”

“I can.” I grin against his lips.

“Beatrice, Bellina, and I have a beautiful relationship. We’ve all blossomed over the years. Our bond is pure, special, and sacred. We’re in love, Penelope.”

“Okay, perve.”

Guiding his hand beneath my t-shirt, letting him touch one of his loves without a barrier, gets him to shut up. This is the first time he has done it in almost four years. Surprisingly, the time apart didn’t reset our familiarity. His skillful hand remembers precisely what to do to set me on fire. My body responds accordingly.

I strip off my shirt and discard it without thinking. I am so caught up in all that Rhys is making me feel that I don’t realize the significance of the action until he pulls back to look at me.

Shirt outside of reach, I use my arms to hide my midsection and break eye contact.

“Hey, ” He guides my face back to him. “It’s just me.” His gentleness hits me right in the heart.

It almost has me dropping my arms.

Almost.

“Yes, you are you. You’ve got dreamy eyes, abs, great arms, and sexy tattoos. And I—”

“Have breasts I’d marry if I could, an ass that won’t quit, and curves I love running my hands over. The best part is, you have them because you had a baby I get to love with all my heart. You’re the one getting the short end of the stick here. I’d say sorry, but I’m a little distracted. Beatrice and Bellina are out on the town.” His eyes are fixed on them the entire time.

One of the arms on my midsection moves to cover the girls.

He reaches out of the tub and can retrieve my shirt with one of his long arms. Like the gentleman he can be, he drapes it over me.

“I want you, obviously. Girls have it much better than guys when it comes to turn-on tells. But, I’m not going to push you. Show me when you’re ready.”

I worry my bottom lip with my teeth as I think.

“I’m going to show you, but you have to promise not to make a big deal about them. Don’t go on and on about how beautiful they are or study them like Sistine Chapel paintings. Subtly acknowledge and move on. By move on, I mean go back to doing what to what we were doing.”

“I’m not going to do something you’ll come to regret.”

“I won’t. If I can’t be vulnerable with my property, what’s the point of having a boyfriend at all?”

“I love you.” He cups one of my cheeks with his hand.

“I know.”

We share a short, soft kiss.

I scrape together all of my courage and confidence. His eyes remain on mine as I drop my shirt to the floor again. His gaze stays fixed on my face when I am fully exposed.

“It’s okay, babe. You can look.” I push his hair out of his face.

He does so timidly, swallowing hard before slowly scanning my torso.

His expression is utterly neutral until he settles on the last stop – my stomach.

Rhys’s eyes are shimmering when he lifts them to mine.

“She really used to live in there.” His voice cracks as his lips pull into a bittersweet smile.

The realization of one more milestone he missed hits me like a ton of bricks.

“She did, for nine whole months.” I take his hand and rest it on my belly.

The gesture comes nowhere close to touching it with the knowledge a person is growing inches beneath your palm. I can only hope it is enough to hold him over until he creates another little Wilde.

“Did she kick a lot?” He’s looking down at his hand as he caresses my skin with his thumb.

“All the time. I was worried she’d crack one of my ribs.”

“When did you start showing?”

“Four months, but I just looked bloated. It wasn’t clear I was pregnant until month five.”

“Did you have any weird cravings?”

“No. She only demanded crunchy peanut butter, veggies, and pasta. Separately, not together. Other than the power-kicking and pre-epidural contractions, she didn’t give me too much trouble. It was actually kind of nice always having someone to hold and talk to 24/7.”

“Were you one of those pregnant women that hated when people touched your belly?”

“Without my permission? Yes. Strangers made me uncomfortable, too, but it was soothing when Chelsea did it. Is that weird?”

“No. She made you feel supported. There’s nothing at all wrong with that.”

“Next time, are you going to be one of those expectant fathers that always has his hands all over their partner’s baby bump?”

“Yep. We’re going to have to sew special pockets on all your clothes.”

“That’s going to make walking interesting, but we’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

“You can expect tummy concerts, conversations, and kisses, too.”

“We’ll love that.”

“Practice makes perfect.”

He replaces his hand with his lips. My belly button is kissed first. My stretch marks get peppered next.

“How’d I do?” He looks up at me expectantly.

“Perfect.” I tug him up to me by the collar of his shirt.

We strip him out of it, allowing us to be chest to chest for the first time in what feels like ever. We celebrate our new level of emotional intimacy physically.

Love is not made. I’m not quite ready to go all the way. We stick to passionate kissing, topless groping, and grinding.

Okay, I see why he was getting high school flashbacks.

He takes a shower first. I watch Harper sleep as I wait for my turn. Rhys comes out of the bathroom in his pajamas, towel drying his hair.

“You’re up, gorgeous.” He throws the damp towel over my head.

“I’m so irresistible that you could no longer bear to look at my face?” I fold back the front of the towel and wear it like a hood.

“Yes. You just get me. I don’t know you do it.”

“Years of practice.” I give him a peck on the cheek on my way to the bathroom.

He and Harper are asleep when I return to the bedroom. She’s been moved to his chest. I remove my glasses and crawl into bed. I kiss both of their heads, drape my arm across them, and fall into a peaceful slumber.

--

“GAMMA!” Harper is on the verge of hyperventilating as she runs into Claudia’s arms.

“Lovebug!” She scoops her up and showers her with kisses.

She and Grams flew in this morning. Chelsea is on her way. The three of them came to California early to make attending the Grammys possible.

Mom will be attending the ceremony. It is not uncommon for her to serve as Rhys or Taylor’s plus one. They have a song about how much they love their mommy on their first and second albums. She is tagging along this time so that I have someone to sit with while the boys perform. Cameras are almost guaranteed to pan to me while they do, and Rhys is hell-bent on making sure I am as comfortable as possible.

Claudia is retiring for the evening when it comes time for the after-parties. Chelsea will be stepping in so that I have a bathroom buddy and someone to talk to when Rhys has to step away to schmooze. Grams will be babysitting Harper the whole night.

Chelsea was at one point considered for Mom’s job, but that idea was dismissed quickly. If she went with Taylor, it would spark dating rumors. The “Wilde Boys Find Love” articles would write themselves. Kyle was a little too into the idea of Chelsea being his date. Now that Mama Wilde is in love, Kyle has moved on to flirting with Chelsea to pick with Rhys. She finds it funny. Rhys does not.

Ian was ruled out because he has recently started seeing someone. We don’t know who -- he’s extremely shy when it comes to his love life -- and the relationship is too new for him to bring her as his date. He’s up for having her be his exclusive parties plus one, though. Chelsea is ecstatic. Not to meet celebrities, but wear an outfit appropriate for high profile events. She doesn’t do starstruck; she reserves excessive enthusiasm for art, clothes, shoes, and cosmetics.

“Someone has a birthday coming up. Do you know who?” Mom has Harper situated on her hip.

“Me! We see Unzel!”

“How old will you be?”

“Two!”

“How many fingers is that?”

Harper holds up two fingers.

“You will be such a big girl. We are going to have so much fun celebrating it.”

“Wit Unzel and fammy.”

“That’s right, princess. The whole family will be here for your big day.”

“Pups?”

“Hmmm. I don’t know.” She plays coy.

Grams chooses that moment to walk into our suite, Gizmo and Widget are tugging her in Harper’s direction.

“GAMS AND PUPS!”

Mom puts her on the floor to let Harp greet them properly.

A Harper birthday party would be incomplete without dogs. Rhys pulled some strings and got special permission from Disneyland to bring them into the park. Their park permits and vaccination records are the only necessary items in his absurd binder.

“Did you have a good flight?” I hug Claudia.

“Yes. The boys spoiled us, first-class seats for us and the dogs.”

“That sounds like them.” I’m laughing as I release her.

Rhys and the rest of the guys had to leave at the crack of dawn to hit the media circuit and prepare for their performance. I won’t see them until they sit down at the ceremony because I’m not walking the red carpet.

Rhys was wonderfully understanding when I opted out. He stood up for me when the label tried to push it.

“How have they been to you?”

“Nothing short of amazing. Zero complaints here.”

“They better keep behaving themselves.”

“I have faith in them.”

“Taylor questions everything, and I never know what Rhys is going to say or do next, but they have always been good boys when they want to be.”

“That also sounds like them.”

The dogs follow Harper everywhere she goes, just like they do when we’re at home. They end up on the blanket I laid on the floor of the living room. Widget and Gizmo are on either side of her, their heads rested on her folded legs. She is petting them and singing an original song about puppies playing in the sunshine as she does it. She glances up at Peppa Pig every once in a while, but the pups have most of her attention.

Grams is taking a nap in her room down the hall to recuperate from their early flight. Mom and I relax on the couch. She's on her tablet. I'm on my laptop. An unexpected knock has us looking at the front door.

“Did you order anything?” I rise from the couch.

“No, but that sounds like a good idea.” She stands up to hunt for the room service menu.

Harper and her furry friends follow me to the door. The people I see through the peephole are wearing matching uniforms and hotel name tags. Tyrone is in the hallway. If they posed any sort of threat, they wouldn’t be anywhere near this door.

“Stay back, Lovebug.” I hold my arm out to block Harper’s hall access as I open the door.

“Will you come over here, Lovebug? I need help deciding what to eat.”

“I help!”

Harper and the dogs run to Claudia, making it possible more me to open the door without the three of them making a break for it.

“May I help you?”

More people than I expected are standing in front of our door than I expected. All of them are carrying supplies –makeover ones. An esthetician, who is identifiable by the wax warmer, removal strips, scissors, and wooden stirrers in her caddy, the person I saw through the peephole.

The nail technician has standard salon tools, as does the hairstylist. There are other employees holding furniture required for the others to do their jobs – foldable massage table, waxing table, and footbath. The only people not in uniforms is one band’s stylists and his assistant. They come equipped with a rack of garment bags and boxes of shoes. The only appealing visitor is the masseuse.

A massage sounds mighty nice about now.

“It’s showtime in a few hours. We need to get you ready.” Xavier invites himself inside the suite.

One breached our oasis, might as well let the others get in on it too.

I step aside.

Valerie, Xavier’s assistant, dutifully drags the intimidating rolling rack past me. The other members of the makeover fleet parade in behind her.

“What’s all this?” Claudia takes in the circus unfolding before us.

“Gifts from the overlords.” I shut the door.

Harper works the room, making friends with as many people as possible. Some of them ignore her to focus on their jobs, but most introduce themselves and tell her why they are here.

The esthetician, Yvette, explaining what a full-body wax is to my almost-two-year-old, accelerates my heart rate. Xavier telling her all of them are here to “make your mama beautiful” snaps me out of my personal panic.

“In the dining room, all of you.” I point in the direction of it.

This suite’s twelve-person dining room should be an indication of how ridiculously expensive this penthouse is. My distaste for the extravagance is escalating with each passing second.

I kneel down in front of Harper when all of the employees have left the room and take her little hands into mine.

“Lovebug, what makes someone beautiful?”

“They nice.” Her joyous smile is stretched from ear to ear.

“And they help other people. The people here are going to change the way I look. They’re not going to make me beautiful.”

“You bootyful, Mama.”

“You are, too. You’re the most beautiful person I know.” I hug her tight.

The giggles Harper emits when I cover her face in kisses balms my troubled mind.

“I will be in the potty for a little while. Will you keep Grandma and the pups company for me?” I smooth down her hair.

“Yes. We pway.”

“Have lots and lots of fun.”

She nods, her bright smile and sunny disposition firmly in place.

I plant one more kiss on her cheek before standing.

Claudia crushes me in a hug as soon as I step away from Harper.

“You are such a good mom, sweetheart. I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too. Send me an SOS text if they step out of bounds again. I will get them out of here so fast their heads will spin, and Harper will help.”

“She loves to help.”

“She cares. It’s why she’s gorgeous like her Mama.” She rubs my biceps to comfort me.

I puff out the air in my lungs. “Can you order me a hot fudge sundae and French fries? I need them.”

“With nuts?”

“Yes, please.”

“On it.”

“Thank you.”

My trek to the dining room would be death march if it weren’t for the sense of control I obtained from Harper’s answer and the impending arrival of a snack I will love that I’m sure they’ll hate.

They don’t own us. I’m determined to make sure it stays that way.

“Who’s up first?” I walk into the room with my head held high.

“We are. The dress you choose will need to be treated and accessorized.” Xavier steps forward, unfazed by my combativeness.

He has dealt with many a diva in his career. I’d be ashamed of being lumped in with them if I weren’t fighting to set a good example for my daughter.

“I don’t want anything low-cut and I’m not the best at walking in high heels I’ve never worn before. It takes me at least a couple of weeks of practice to adjust.”

“Your shoes won’t be higher than four inches. We don’t want your height to compete with Rhys’s.”

“Three inches max. I will fall over in anything higher.”

“Three inches is doable.”

“All of the dresses we have pulled for you are red. It is almost Valentine’s day – Harper’s birthday. Field poppies are red. You need to embody the song 'Field', remind people of your adorable daughter and make a statement.”

“Black is my go-to.”

“You are happy and madly in love. I can’t let you dress like Wednesday Addams.”

“Make sure I’m the Christina Ricci version, and Rhys will be one happy camper.”

“Red. That’s what we’ve pulled for you.”

“Low-cut red? I’m not budging on that. It’s a bra support concern, not a public perspetion one. I like to wear clothes I can forget about. I’ll have to keep an eye on myself if I wear something braless as a D-cup.”

I was a B-cup before Harper. The new attention I gained from the arrival of my cleavage earned me more tips at Eclipse and unsolicited gazes in everyday settings. I shooed off the former- frat-boys-turned-finance-bros at the nightclub by telling them I have a kid. Thet bolted like bats out of hell.

In my day to day life, I pretend not to notice. The only eyes I appreciate on my girls belong to the weirdo that named them. He has an uncanny way of making me feel sexy and cherished at the same time. And he asks for my permission before exploiting them to win games. That’s true love right there – our version of it, anyway.

“I have two dresses with somewhat modest necklines. If they don’t work, it’ll be a problem. Keep an open mind.”

“Two options are plenty. One would be enough.”

Xavier eyes me skeptically.

“You’ve seen the way I dress. It’s for comfort and function. I’m not picky.”

“They all say that.”

“I mean it. Fashion’s not my forte. Show me the one you think will look best on me.”

“#6, Val.”

I take a seat at the table. Val carries a garment bag to me. She doesn’t unzip it until she is close enough to give me a clear view.

The poppy-red gown she reveals not only meets my coverage requirements, but it appeals to the little taste that I do have. The delicate lace flower appliques on the short mesh sleeves and bodice call to me. The flowers on the bodice have tiny pearls in the center. The fabric has a subdued sheen; it has enough of a pop to add drama, but not enough to make the garment reflective. The gown is sewn to conform to the wearer’s body until just above the knee, the rest of the falls to the ground, just long enough for a small circle to pool on the floor.

It looks like a dress that belongs in The Great Gatsby. Until this moment, I didn’t know I longed to dress like a 1920s flapper.

“May I try it on?” My fingers trace the pearl embellishments.

“That’s why we are here. Valerie will zip you in. Put on this underwear, and don’t bother putting your clothes back on. You’ll just have to take them right back off. We have a robe for you.”

Xavier is the one to present me with a red piece of lace dental floss, a matching bra, and one of the hotel’s plush robes.

I take the robe’s and bra’s hangers, but I leave the thong untouched. “I’m a boy-shorts gal.”

“You’re not tonight.”

“I have to be if you don’t want me pulling wedgies all night.”

He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose to collect himself. “I cannot let you wear cotton briefs beneath a $5,000 gown.”

“Do you have something in the $100 range? I’d be more comfortable in something I could afford to replace if it gets damaged.”

“No. I have a reputation to uphold. Top designers are tripping all over themselves to dress you, the modern-day Cinderella. You will be filmed and photographed wearing a department store dress over my dead body. Drink clear liquids only and avoid foods with sauce and oil. Wear your robe while you hug Harper. The underwear we purchased for you is mandatory.”

“Compromise: I wear a pair of lace boy-shorts that my best friend bought me. She’s very fashion-forward. The pair I have in mind is red. They’ve got a cute little bow in the front. You’ll love them.”

Chels bought me three sexy bra and underwear sets for Christmas. She is not subtle about her desire for me to get laid after my dry spell.

“Let me see them.” He crosses his arms, doubtful.

“Be right back.” I scurry out of the room.

Harper is watching Tangled and singing for Claudia and the dogs. She is too busy performing to notice me. Mom is preoccupied with recording her. I’m able to get in and out of the bedroom with my undies without being stopped.

Xavier examines the garment with the intensity of a diamond appraiser. He even goes as far as to check the seams.

“They’re nowhere near comparable to the Agent Provocateur ones you should be wearing, but they’ll do. And I want to meet your friend. I can tell she has taste. The choice of pattern says it all.”

“I’ll pass along the message, but how our interaction goes will dictate whether or not she’ll talk to you. She doesn’t care who people are. They have to be nice to me.” I hold my hand out for my panties.

“You are more vocal than I thought you would be.”

“I’m no Cinderella. If I’d been given a gown like hers, I’d request a slimmer dress for mobility and non-glass heels for practicality. There’s no way she was comfortable. How was she able to fit in the carriage wearing that much tulle? She should’ve ended up with glass shards in her feet that would’ve gotten infected while she ran barefoot.”

“I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Rhys would say he doesn’t have a foot fetish. He wouldn’t have waded through a kingdom’s worth of feet for someone whose face he couldn’t remember. Because, you know, no foot fetish.”

Everyone in the room looks at me like I’ve grown a second head.

It’s a necessary reminder that I’ve got to reign in my quirks around them. It is easy to forget how to interact with the general population when you spend all your time with people who are as out there as you.

“I’ll go change. Val?” I leave the room without verifying that she is following me.

She is there when I reach the nearest bathroom. The half-bath is twice the size of the full-size bathroom in my old apartment.

“Can you wait in the hallway while I get changed? I’ll call you in when I need to be zipped.”

“Take your time. Give me a shout when you’re ready.” She hangs the garment bag containing the dress on the towel rack.

“Thank you.”

“Sure thing.” She closes the door behind her.

I splash cold water on my face to regroup. My phone vibrates in my pocket as I am patting my skin dry with a paper. Glasses back in place, I read the notification.

Squints: Did your surprise come yet?

Me: What surprise?

Squints:..nothing

Me: Too late for take-backs.

Squints: I ordered an in-room massage for you to help you relax. They’re supposed to be there by now.

Me: They are. I thought they were from someone else. I would’ve texted you ASAP if I knew it was a present. Thank you, babe

Squints: A secret admirer?

Me: The puppet-masters sent a crew to spruce me up. I thought the masseuse was here to balance out the torture.

Squints: Torture? What are they doing?

Me: They’re going to make me dolphin smooth, squeeze me into a gown, have me walk in stilts, buff and polish my nails, and do their best to make my hair as pretty as yours. I have a hunch that a face painter will show up at some point.

Squints: You look gorgeous just the way you are. If they bother you, kick them out. If they complain, page Tyrone. He’ll haul them out, no problem. You don’t have to put up with their BS.

Me: I’ll be fine. I’m on a power trip. It’s a good time.

Squints: Agreed. That’s why I’ve been on one for months. Am I allowed to make an appearance request?

Me: Depends. Will I want to slap you after I read it?

Squints: You shouldn’t

Me: Lay it on me.

Squints: Don’t wear your contacts. You hate them. I love it when you look like the smoking-hot scientist that you are. We both win if you keep on your glasses.

A goofy grin stretches across my face.

Me: The nerd girl gets hot AFTER she takes off her glasses in the movies you like.

Squints: Hey, I never said 80s and 90s movies were perfect. They’re wrong when it comes to what makes your kind sexy.

Me: Wish you were here

Squints: Ditto. I miss you and Smalls

Me: You’ll see me later. Text Mom for a video of Harper’s latest performance. She’s putting on quite the show

Squints: Just like her old man

Me: She’s working. Be like your little girl, Wilde

Squints: Cracking that whip. I’m into it.

Me: OMG. Bye!

Squints: Love you too, babe!

Me: I love you too…I guess

Squints: 😘

Me: 😜

I strip out of my clothes and fold them in a neat pile with my shoes on top. The underwear I fought for make me feel as sexy as they do comfortable. My confidence is at an all-time high as I step into my dress. I don’t ruin the full effect by looking in the mirror before it has been zipped.

“Come in!” I call for Val, clutching the front of the dress to my body.

“I think this might be the one. It looks great on you.” She scans me from head to toe as she closes the door. “That shade of red is not one everyone can pull off, but it works well with your skin tone. It’s bringing out the gold tones.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I want to wait for it to be all the way on before I take a look.”

“I like to do that too. Turn around for me.”

I transform my ponytail into a bun to prevent a painful snag. Valerie glides the discreet zipper up my spine with ease. My ability to breath is still intact when it reaches the top. The fabric is breathable and smooth. I’m bubbling with anticipation as I turn to face the mirror.

It’s not a dress I would have chosen it for myself, but it looks and fits as though it was made for me. And I can’t wait to wear it.

“I don’t even need to see the other one.”

“Xavier needs to see you in it, but I know he will approve it. It hits all the right notes.”

I raise the hem of the gown to keep it from dragging on the floor as we exit the bathroom. Xavier greenlights my dress before I am all the way in the room. He douses me with compliments as he takes pictures to pass along to the stylist in charge of dressing Rhys to ensure we don’t clash.

I eat my gloriously unhealthy snack as my highlights are touched up. My food is gone by the time my hair needs to be rinsed. Rollers cover my head as I sit beneath a dome hairdryer. The nail tech gives me a gel manicure and pedicure. My finger and toenails are painted beige.

Xavier is dismayed when he learns I refuse to remove my mother’s locket and my promise ring from Rhys. They match my dress, but he had more dramatic jewelry in mind. They mean too much to me to swap them out, even if it is for only one night. I give him permission to choose my other accessories for me as a consolation.

He’s not a bad guy. He just takes his job, one he excels at, seriously; I can’t fault him for that.

My gift from Rhys alleviates all tension from my body. I’m as loose as a car lot inflatable once Inna is done with me. I’m not one to pass out hugs freely, but I lay one on her like she’s my long-lost sister. She transformed me into a new woman in thirty minutes. Physical gratitude is a must.

It’s smooth sailing until I am face to face with the jar of hot wax I repressed from my memory. Yvette has set up shop in the bathroom. Her torture supplies are on the counter. A cushioned folding table is waiting for me to climb aboard.

“How much of me are you ripping off?”

“Underarms, legs, arms, eyebrows, and upper lip.”

“Won’t I look like a lobster if you do all of that to me?”

“Hydrocortisone cream will take care of the redness and itching. You will be receiving a facial after your massage. Makeup will take care of any residual discoloration.”

“I can leave my robe on for this?”

“Yes. I will have you lift it when it interferes with the areas I need to get to.”

“On a scale from 1 to 10, how badly is this going to hurt?”

“Depends.”

“Do you mind elaborating on that statement?”

“Your pain threshold, thickness and length of hair, size of your pores, etc. It depends.”

“If you had to take a guess, what would it be for me?”

“Four. Maybe seven.”

“Those numbers are not near each other. They’re supposed to be near each other.”

“Did you have a difficult childbirth?”

“You’re comparing this to having a baby? That’s not reassuring.”

“It’ll help me gauge your pain threshold.”

“It took thirteen hours, and I cursed Rhys during most of it, but it wasn’t awful enough to swear off having kids.”

“Four. Seven if I were still required to give you a Brazilian.”

“Excuse me?”

“The change in underwear made it unnecessary.”

“For Rhys’s safety and the sake of the show, that wouldn’t have happened.”

“You don’t…?” Her eyes fall to my lady bits.

“I met you two hours ago. We’re not there yet.”

“I’ve seen it all.”

“Still.”

“Word of advice: a clean slate is preferred by partners.”

“Rhys is a-okay, thanks.”

He knows better than to try to dictate what I do with my body. His glasses request was more about me, to make sure I know that he doesn’t want me to become an entirely different person to blend into his world. I’m not a violent person, but I would be inclined to punch him in the face if he had the gall to tell me how to maintain my bathing suit area.

You know what…

“I think I’ll just get my brows and lip done.”

“But—”

“Shaving’s a thing. I’ll do that instead.”

“I have orders from—”

“It’s my body, not theirs.”

“Shave well. If anyone asks, I did what I was told.”

“Fine by me.”

“You’ve got a mouth on you.” She shoots me an amused smirk as she snaps on her gloves.

“I have to use it now more than ever.” I remove my glasses and lay on the table.

“Most of the women I work with would be thrilled to be in your position.”

“I was raised by a single father. I wasn’t introduced to dresses and makeup until much later in life. They’re still foreign to me.”

“That explains a lot.”

“I don’t consider myself a true tomboy. I know next to nothing about sports, and I find it fun to dress up from time to time.”

“What do you consider yourself?” She smooths warm wax around my eyebrows.

The temperature is nice.

“Poppy. I like what I like, do what I do, and wear what I wear. I haven’t always been this way, but Harper changed everything. I had to become more for her, be worthy of being her mom.”

“She’s a sweetheart.”

“Always has been. She’s growing up too fast. I can’t believe she’s almost two. It feels like we took her home from the hospital just yesterday.”

Chelsea and I are the ones that took her home, but the sentiment is factual regardless. Rhys was there is spirit. His sweatshirt was there in person; it comforted both of us.

I’d rate the waxing as a three on the pain-o-meter. The plucking that took place after it was a five.

The cream and facial she applied after it soothed the stinging sensation. Missing Harper and in need of sustenance, I take a break from the prodding to eat lunch. The team takes a break too. The ones with remaining work to do are due to return in two hours.

Harper is eating a grilled cheese sandwich at the small table in the living room, seated on Claudia’s lap as she does so.

“Is your lunch yummy, Lovebug?”

She looks up at me and smiles at me with her mouth closed, mouth still filled with food. I remind her to swallow before trying to talk.

“It so yummy. Sare?” She extends it to me.

“I’ll order my own, but thank you for asking.”

“Elcome.” She takes another bite of the sandwich.

“I already have. Egg salad sandwich with spinach and a fruit salad on the side. We were just about to come get you.”

“That’s exactly what I wanted. Thanks, Mom.” I side-hug her.

“It’s my job to know these things.” She rubs my arm. “And you need the protein for energy. They aren’t being too hard on you, are they?”

I sit down in the chair in front of my food. “They tried, but didn’t get far.”.

“Did Rhys call?”

“No, I swatted them off on my own. What have you gotten up to?”

“Pups and Unzel and Auntie Ecca and fashards and pups potty owside.” Harper rattles off quickly.

“You played with the puppies, watched Tangled, talked to Auntie Becca, learned with your flashcards, and took the dogs to potty outside?”

“Uh-huh. Ots and ots of fun wit Gamma. We pway.”

“We will play as much as you want, Lovebug.” Claudia kisses the top of Harp’s head.

“After naptime.” I remind them.

“No seepy.”

“Widget and Gizmo are. They need you to nap with them. They are in a new place, and they are scared.”

“No scway, pups. I ere.” She throws a piece of crust from her sandwich on the floor for them.

“What did we say about feeding them people food? It hurts their tummies.”

“They wike it, Mama. Look.” She points to them.

“They won’t like it later. Only feed them their food and their treats, okay?”

“O-tay.” Her bottom lip is poked in disappointment.

“Are you going to help them sleep?” I change the subject.

“I help.” She immediately perks up.

“Way to be beautiful, Lovebug.”

“I nice.”

“You sure are. What else do you like to do other than help?”

She goes through her usual list: playing, playing with dogs, music, playing music with daddy, growing plants with me, eating pizza, dancing, making friends, flying on planes, seeing clouds, being with family in Seattle, and purple.

I don’t know what it means to be purple, but it’s her world, and it is lovely just the way it is.

After we have all finished eating and Harper has been cleaned, I cradle her to my chest, the shades are drawn in our bedroom. I gently sway as I play the exclusive recording of "Field" Rhys made for her. He says, “Mama and Daddy love you, Lovebug. Sweet dreams” at the end of the song.

It gets me every time.

Harp is knocked out by the end of the song. I remove her shoes and tuck her into bed. Pillows are put on either side of her to prevent her from rolling off. The baby monitor is on the nightstand, Rue snuggled up with her. The dogs, however, are shooed back into the living room. They’d surely wake her with kisses.

I thoroughly shave in the master bathroom. Donning a shower cap, I take a quick shower to rinse the shaving cream residue from my swim team-ready skin. Post-shower moisturizing takes my skin’s level of silkiness to the next level.

The hairstylist creates a hairstyle that belongs in the same era as my dress. My hair is parted on the side, and elegant finger waves are created using a curling iron. The longer strands of my hair are pinned back in a low bun to give the illusion of a bob haircut. The hair on the same side of my head as the part is pinned behind my ear, revealing one of the pearl teardrop earrings that Xavier selected.

The cosmetologist chooses not apply the heavy makeup that was the norm during the Roaring Twenties. Worn with my glasses, it would overwhelm my face. So, she goes the opposite route – subdued and regal. My eyes are lightly lined and one coat of mascara is applied. Shimmer eyeshadow the same color as my skin is swept onto my lids. Concealer and foundation are applied. My cheeks are contoured with blush and highlighter suitable for my olive complexion. Dusty rose lipgloss with a pearl finish complete the look. All of it is sealed in place with a thorough misting of finishing spray.

Chelsea has arrives just as I have begun to get dressed.

“Are you seriously crying right now?” I am seated on the edge of the bed, slipping on my heels.

She is standing in front of the closet, overcome with emotion was she gawks at my dress.

“Shut up.” Chels snips, wiping her eyes with a waded up tissue. “You’re finally wearing a bold color, the one I have told you would look amazing on you for years. I just—it been such a long time coming, and --. ” She holds up her index finger when she needs a moment to collect herself.

Chelsea is still having her fashion breakdown when Claudia steps into the room. She’s pulling the drama queen into her arms as soon as she notices her tears.

“Sweetheart, what happened?” Mom rubs her back.

“Pop, she -- she—”

“Chelsea taught herself to fake cry to take pictures wherever she wants without proper permits. She’s doing it now because she likes the dress I chose.” I interrupt.

“Oh, like Becca. She does it to get out of paying parking tickets. Nice work. I thought they were real.” Claudia goes to the bathroom get more tissues for the Oscar winner.

“They haven’t failed me yet.” Chelsea is back to normal.

I shake my head at her.

“I was right. I knew red was your color. Now, I have indisputable proof. So many doors have been opened.” She dabs her eyes with the new tissue Claudia gives her. “You did it. We finally did it.”

“I worry about you sometimes. This is one of those times.’

“Oh, you know you love me.”

“I do. That’s why I worry.”

“These are tears of joy. I will do the same on our daughter’s birthday.”

“She’s your goddaughter.”

“That’s what I said, daughter, and she’s turning two. You’ll have a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day for the first time in a long time. It’s going to be a big day for me.”

Mom chuckles. “I might have to adopt you too. You already act like most of mine.”

“Will you? I could live off of your baked goods, I’ve watched all of your videos at least three times.”

“Welcome to the family.”

“This day keeps getting better.”

The ladies help me into my dress. Chelsea catcalls me when she me she sees my lingerie; Claudia, like the protective mother she is, tells me to make sure Rhys wears a condom. Beneath my makeup, my face is as red as my dress by the time they’re done giving me their “peptalks”.

All talking ceases when my dress is in places. They stand before me, shock and awe clear as day on their faces. It’s on Claudia’s too, in the form of tears. Her hand is over heart, and she is looking at me the way Moms look at their daughters on their wedding day in movies.

“Sweetheart, you -- “ she shakes her head, genuinely choked up.

My feet move of their own volition, and I’m hugging her before I realize I’ve taken the necessary steps.

She takes a tiny step back after a we have thoroughly embraced, and puts her hands on my biceps. She can’t quite reach my shoulders or face while I’m in heels.

“My son is going to say something wildly inappropriate in front of me, and I can’t even blame him. I’m still going to fuss, but I understand. You’re stunning and you still look like yourself because you fought for it. So beautiful. Simple gorgeous.”

Tears well. “Don’t you dare make me cry. It took Angie over and hour to get my makeup just right.”

“My new daughter can fix it. Let them out if you need to.”

“Give me what she used and you’ll be good as new.” Chelsea agrees.

“Becca’s going to try to steal you from me. You better stay faithful.” I get away from them before I give into peer pressure.

I pack my clutch with trial sizes of the makeup Angie used, the slender wallet Xavier provided me with that contains my ID, a bit of cash, my debit card, room key, and my cell phone – the essentials.

Chels holds off on getting dolled up until closer to party time. When Claudia and I are told the town car we are riding to the theater is almost here, we finally leave the room.

Grams has Harper in her arms and the dogs trapped in the bathroom before the three of them can pounce on us.

“Mama, you dwess so pwetty and wed and spwakly! I wove it! Sare?” Harp is reaching for me.

“When you are a little older, Lovebug. It is still a little too big.”

“Nu-uh. I big girl now. Sare nice.”

“I’ll get you one just like it, Lovebug.”

“Tank you, Gamma.”

“You are the sweetest thing.” Claudia kisses her hair, as to not get lipstick on her.

“You’re going to spoil her.”

“That’s my job.”

“Have fun with Auntie Chelsea, Grams, and the pups. Grandma and I are going to go to the potty.” I tell Harper.

“Wit Daddy and Nunckle Aylor and Nunckle Ian and Nunckle Lyle?”

“Yes. We will be back when you wake up tomorrow. We love you so, so much.” I cover her with kisses, disregarding my lipgloss.

“I wove you!”

I clean her face as best I can with my thumbs.

“Thanks for watching her.” I hug Grams once Harper is given to Chels.

“Time spent with that little lady is time well spent. She’s no trouble at all, unlike her daddy at her age.” She shakes her head at them memory. “You are one hot tamale today.”

“Thank you.”

“Keep making my grandson work for it. It’s good for him. Builds character. And give all of ’em hell tonight.” She lowers her voice and winks at me.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“What should I expect tonight?” I ask Claudia once we are in the car.

She takes my hand into hers to get me to stop fidgeting with my promise ring. “We’ll be escorted in through the non-press entrance after our names are verified on the list of guests. An usher will escort us to our seats and then we’re done.”

“What about when the cameras turn to us during the ceremony?”

“Pretend that they are not there. If their invasiveness get to you, pretend that you are saying something into Rhys’s ear. It’ll shield your face and give them something to talk about. Whatever you do, don’t look directly at the camera.”

“Anything else?”

“You can hold his hand, even give him a chaste kiss on the cheek before he leaves to preform. Do not, under any circumstances, let him give you a lips to lips kiss. He’s going to try. Turn your head with a smile. His lips will land on your cheek, and the write-ups will be kind instead of accusatory. Your image has improved, but there will always be someone waiting for an excuse to call you a slut.”

“That’s just peachy.”

“I’ll be there, ready to shoo away the bastards that try to get to you. Chelsea will take over for me after hours. You’ll be fine.” She pats the top of the hand she’s holding.

The scene that is unfolding outside of the Staples Center is a madhouse. There are photographers behind metal barriers. Reporters, event photographers, and cameramen stationed along the red carpet that appears to stretch for miles.

There’s a slight sense of relief felt when we ride past the chaos and the car stops at an entrance that only has security guards.

The driver opens the door closest to the curb and helps both of us out of the car. I graciously thank him for the ride and assistance before heading for the door. He seems thrown off by the gesture. It makes me dislike the world I am stepping into that much more.

“Claudia Wilde and Penelope James.” Mom speaks to the gatekeeper on my behalf.

He types our names on his tablet.

“IDs, please.” He holds out his hand after he has found us.

The guard standing beside him verifies their validity with a special handheld light.

“Clear.” She hands them back to us.

“Do people really try to use fake IDs to get it?” I return my ID to my purse

“All the time. Right this way.” The name checker grants us access to the door.

Just as Mom said, we are guided to our seats by a member of the event staff. She didn’t warn me about the whispers and stares I receive from most of the people we pass. I keep my posture straight and try my best to ignore them.

There are sheets of paper with our names taped on them on our chairs. We are on the aisle, likely to make it easier for the guys to get to us after the perform. The usher removes our name tags and returns to his post.

I sit down in my seat beside Rhys’s empty chair. Claudia sits in his instead of her assigned one on the other side of Taylor.

“How are you feeling?” She leans in my direction.

“Like a zoo animal. I feel like everyone’s staring at us.”

“They are. You’re a hot topic and they’re trying to figure out whether or not I like Rhys’s newish girlfriend/mother of his child.”

“Is silently answering their question why you’ve commandeered his seat?”

“No, I genuinely love being around you. You are a sweetheart who listens to me. Most of the ones in my brood don’t until it’s too late.”

“Christopher listens.”

“The only one before you. Both of you have a nurturing nature. I tried to keep him from standing in for Harris, but that’s the one-time he didn’t listen to me. He as a strong sense of responsibility. You do too.”

“So, what you’re saying is I’m more of a Chris than a Taylor?”

“You’re a Poppy -- our Poppy.”

“Rhys will be so happy he’s not dating one of his brothers.”

“Some of his fears don’t make sense to me. The one you’re referring to and a second Titanic being the main ones.”

“It comes down to Rose not saving Jack. He swears she could’ve made space, despite MythBusters proving otherwise. He’s also bitter about DiCaprio’s Oscar loss.”

“That I understand. He should’ve gotten one for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? He’s so talented.”

“Did you name Leo after him?”

“Don’t tell them. I don’t need one more in the name argument.”

“What about the others?”

“Lindsey and Becca’s names came from a baby book. When I decided to keep Chris, my mom passed down the Winnie the Pooh baby blanket I used as a baby. Naming him Winnie would’ve been mean, so I went with Christopher Roger. Roger was my granddad’s name, anyhow. I was very close to him up until he died. Chris will never figure it out…unless you tell him.”

“My lips are sealed.” I giggle. “The real-life Christopher Robin married his cousin, so learning that bit of information would traumatize Rhys. I love him too much to do that to him.”

“There was a real Christopher Robin?”

“Yeah, he was the author’s son. The books’ popularity impacted his childhood. He was one of the first child stars.”

“You might be a Taylor after all.” She pulls out her phone to read up on it.

A dark shadow suddenly looms over me as I am continuing my text conversation with Chelsea. I slowly lift my head to meet the figure’s gaze. My heart stalls and butterflies are wreaking havoc on my stomach when our eyes meet.

Rhys’s tailored pale gray suit belongs to the same time period as my dress. The thin lapels are lined with black piping that matches the pitch-black t-shirt he’s wearing underneath it, leather belt, and glossy dress shoes. The most delectable scent is wafting off of him. The coup de grâce is his effortlessly tousled hair.

I can’t tear my eyes away from his. His mouth is moving, but I’m too transfixed to hear a word of what he is saying. I’m snapped back to reality when he takes my hand and kisses the back of it, breaking eye contact to do so.

He takes his seat beside me, still holding my hand, and leans in my direction.

“Let’s get out of here.” His breath on my ear has goosebumps pricking my skin.

“No, everyone would notice.” My voice is unacceptably breathy.

“So, what?”

“It’s not happening.”

“You’re worth a shot.” He kisses my cheek.

“How was your day?” I inquire after he has settled back into his seat.

“Long.”

“Tired?”

“Not even a little bit. I drank so much caffeine and ate so much sugar that I got the shakes. Trina made me eat a foot-long sandwich and drink two bottles of water before she’d let me go outside walk the red carpet. Something about not wanting me to look like I’m soaring from more than just happiness.”

“Just now?”

“Yes,” A small laugh bubbles out of him. “I’m good now. See.” He lifts his free hand and holds it parallel. There’s not the slightest tremor.

“You’re going to crash.”

“Nah, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Kyle has dark chocolate espresso-covered almonds in his breast pocket. They’ll fix me right up.”

“He does not.”

“Kyle!” Rhys calls down the row.

“Already, lightweight?” Kyle bends forward enough to make eye contact with Rhys.

“I am not, and no. Show Pop they’re real.”

Kyle reaches into his jacket. Out of it comes a sandwich-sized plastic bag filled with balls of chocolate. He dangles it in the aisle to keep one of the ushers from noticing.

“What if they melt?” I lean to see his face.

Kyle squints his eyes and cranes his neck backward like he can’t believe I asked that question. “We’re not above licking chocolate off our hands in public.”

Ian releases an exasperated sigh. “They’re not.”

I’m grinning once I’ve finished giggling. Rhys is smiling at me when I look over at him.

“What?”

“I can’t believe you’re here.” His playful air is gone, but he is still smiling.

“You’re not hallucinating. It’s me. I’m real.”

“Exactly.” The brush of his lips on my forehead is one of the most intimate kisses he has ever given me.

The click of a camera disrupts our sacred moment.

“Ignore them.” His voice is whisper soft as he reassuringly rubs the back of my hand that he is holding with his free one.

I nod, lost in his eyes.

“You and me.” He speaks directly into my ear.

I subtly scoot my folding chair closer to his. He drapes his arm across the back of my chair.

We engage with the people around us. Rhys introduces me to everyone that stops by to say ‘hello’ to him. Most of them ask about Harper. Rhys and I have more than enough antidotes about her. In response to the question of her whereabouts, we answer “she’s with her great-grandmother, playing with puppies, and singing songs to all of them. She’s probably forgotten all about us”. The accurate yet playful retort is a hit with all of them…seemingly. I know better than to take what they say and do at face value.

The dimming of overhead lights alerts us that the actual show is about to start. It is not easy to ignore a television camera angled at you, ready to capture your reactions to whatever unfolds onstage, but I do my best.

Zara is here. A song of another artist’s that she co-wrote and is featured on has been nominated for Song of the Year. Most media outlets have been speculating that she would be a no-show, especially with Rhys performing. But, nope, she’s here and she looks spectacular.

Chelsea texted me a picture and short video clip of her stroll down the red carpet to give me a heads up. Zara did not stop at any of the reporters’ posts and ignored the questions being shouted at her. Instead, she smiled, waved, and posed with her childhood best friend like they were having a blast during a girls’ night out.

If I didn’t know she was angry enough about the recording’s existence to break Rhys’s phone upon hearing it, I’d think she was unaffected by the leak. The plus one choice of a non-celebrity, who she has known since middle school, humanizes her. It also says “I’m taking a break from men to focus on what matters most – the people who love me despite my mistakes”.

Sound familiar?

The major difference is Rhys means it. Even though I didn’t walk with him, he had three people at his sides that have been with him since this was just a dream.

Zara’s PR team is working overtime to clear up the first and biggest blunder of her career. Trina and Josie are trying to do the same for Rhys, but he’s over here unremorsefully quoting Pretty Woman as Taylor drops every curse word in the book, Kyle is posting Mean Girls movie stills he’s had Chelsea photoshop their faces into, and Ian’s going the extra mile to help them pull all of it off without looking like assholes.

My boys will go to the ends of the earth for each other. I’m lucky to have breached their inner circle. None of their other girlfriends were able to.

Most of Rhys’s others are here as well. There’s only one of them who is not seeing someone else at the moment, but it doesn’t make me any less uncomfortable. They didn’t connect on the emotional level that we do, but they spent time with him when he was at his most physically vulnerable. And one little hole or lapse in birth control could’ve changed everything.

He loves being a dad. He would have at least tried to make it work with them, formed some sort of family unit.

Would he have given up on his dream of getting back together with me to give them his all? Probably. He’d have ignored the girl in the club he thought was me. We wouldn’t have met me for coffee. Harper wouldn’t have met her daddy. They wouldn’t have formed an unbreakable bond. His birthday binder wouldn’t exist. Chelsea and I would still be the only members of her family. Rhys and I wouldn’t be—

“Stop it.” He yanks me out of my downward spiral.

“Stop what?”

“Overthinking.”

“That’s one of my main personality traits. You said you love all that I am. No takesies backsies.”

“I can’t let you deflect this time. No more ‘what ifs’. We’re together. That’s our reality.”

“How am I supposed—”

“I hired a new Rapunzel today.”

“You what?” I shift in my seat to get a better look at him.

“The one in the park doesn’t sound enough like Mandy Moore, especially when she sings. I’ve watched videos of her performing all of the songs from Tangled. Josie found a Broadway singer who is an exactly sound-a-like and looks like Rapunzel. The only problem is she’s a brunette. The wig takes care of her hair, and she was willing to dye her eyebrows blonde. Problem solved.”

“You can’t make people dye their eyebrows.”

“I didn’t MAKE her. I paid her.”

“She’s putting peroxide on her face to impress a two-year-old?”

“She’s an actress. Embodying characters is what she does.”

“The park’s FREE Rapunzel would’ve been perfectly fine.”

“Nu-uh, our musical genius will be able to tell she’s a fraud. And having our own means she can walk around with us all day. Think of how happy Harp will be to have puppies AND Rapunzel attend her birthday party?”

“What happens when we run into the park’s Rapunzel? Harper knows she doesn’t have a twin.”

“I’m having her tracked all day. Our ride guide will make sure we steer clear from her all day.”

“Tracked? You mean stalked.”

“No. The park makes sure that they are in their spots all day, anyway. The shift manager’s just going to page us if they move.”

“Other kids are going to run up to us all day to meet your replacement.”

“Even better. Harper will get to make friends with common interests. Making friends is one of her hobbies. There are no holes that can be poked in this, Penelope.”

That doesn’t stop me from trying until the ceremony starts. Rhys keeps me from dwelling during the show by whispering random thoughts into my ear. Very few of them pertain to what is unfolding on stage. Trying to follow his train of thought keeps my mind busy.

Too soon, it’s time for them to go backstage. Rhys goes for a good luck kiss on the lips. He gets one on the cheek. He’s jokingly pouting as he leaves, grumbling beneath his breath that I need to go ahead and fess up to trying to kill him. Ian enables his ridiculousness by giving him a consoling shoulder pat and nod of camaraderie as they walk away.

Claudia doesn’t waste any time switching seats. She’s in Taylor’s before he’s left the aisle.

“Bathroom break? Drinks? Snacks? All three? There’s time. It’ll be at least thirty minutes until they perform.”

“Stretching my legs would be nice.” They are almost asleep.

“Off on an adventure, we go.”

The stares are back as Mom and I walk through the venue. After our visit to the restroom, we head to the VIP lounge. I thought the area was exclusively for celebrities, and only non-ones could enter with one of them. But nope, we’re let in after another ID check and receive the same star treatment as the people with recognizable names.

I try almost all of the finger foods being carried around by waiters on trays. The fried macaroni bites are by far my favorite. I have about eight of them. Don’t worry, I have plenty of napkins.

I’m not much of a drinker, but I indulge in a glass of white wine at the open bar. I know next to nothing about wine, so I just repeat the order of the person beside me. It’ll make things easier for the bartender – only one bottle to open.

“Nice dress.”

“Thank you.” I turn to face the complementor with a smile.

My smile slightly falters when I see that she is Zara’s best friend. She looks just as surprised to see me.

“You’re Poppy, right?” She is the first to compose herself.

I have no choice but to do the same. Weakness can be smelled.

“Yes. What’s your name?”

“Shelby.”

“Nice to meet you, Shelby.” I extend my hand for her to shake.

She ignores it.

Okay…

I return my arm to my side.

“What was it like auditioning for Sixteen and Pregnant?”

“I was this close to getting the gig—” I pinch my fingers. “But the producers found out I was eighteen and decided to go a different direction.”

She is visibly thrown off by my retort but does a decent job of playing it off as distaste for me as a person.

“Your parents must be so proud.”

“My mom is. In fact, she told me just this morning.”

“It must’ve sucked to drop out of high school.”

“I didn’t. I graduated top of my class. My PSAT score earned me a National Merit Scholarship. I ended up at MIT, but it wasn’t a good fit. I’ve recently applied to a few of the top schools for environmental science in the country. Fingers crossed that I’ll get in.” I hold up both hands and cross my middle and index fingers.

“You’re such a bitch.”

“Aw, thank you!” I rest my hand on my chest. “My daughter and I love dogs.”

She storms off without her drink.

I thank the bartender when she puts the drinks on the counter, put a tip in the bowl, and take both of them with me to Claudia.

“Thanks for the drink, sweetheart.” She gives me a side-hug after taking a glass.

“Thank Shelby.” I have my first sip of wine.

“Who?” She turns to face me.

“Zara’s ‘down to earth’ bestie.”

“She spoke to you?” She steps in closer.

“We had a fun chat. She complimented my dress, discussed my personal and scholastic achievements, and I was equated to a female dog.”

Mom tries to take off in pursuit of her. I grab her arm before she can take a step.

“We have rules to follow, remember?”

“NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE, gets to speak to one of my babies like that. I didn’t birth you and actually adopting you would derail Rhys’s plans, but you are mine. If I see her, she will feel all of my wrath. My boyfriend is a personal trainer. I’m strong enough to snap her in half.” Her eyes are blazing.

I’m not sure she won’t do it. There’s no question where the Wildes get their intensity.

Her eyes dart around as we walk back to our seats, not unlike a lioness hunting her prey.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m fine.”

“The nerve of her. Where does she get off? You don’t bother anyone. You are one of the sweetest people, and she—”

“I gave her hell, just like Grams said to. She helped me listen, just like you wanted.”

She huffs. “I still want to claw her eyes out.”

“This passion makes me feel so loved.”

“You are, sweetheart.”

My body trembles from nerves when Wilde Knights’ performance is introduced. Claudia holds both of my hands and angles herself a touch in my direction. The crowd, myself included, cheer when the lights come up and the guys immediately jump into their hit song Karaoke. My ability to breathe returns when Rhys hits the high note a few measures into the song with no signs of struggle.

"Wishing" was the first single dropped from their second album. It is also the one most people are familiar with. It was originally supposed to be the song they performed tonight. The “feud” they are having with Zara forced them to change courses. Though planned months in advance, it would be perceived as direct shots fired at Zara, it being the song she assumed was about her.

"Karaoke" was chosen because someone – I’ll give you one guess as to who – calls it her favorite “big usic time’ song. It’s a danceable song with several layers.

The first one is a reference to the Wilde’s family tradition of doing it during special gatherings. They didn’t have much in terms of entertainment growing up; most things were too expensive for them to afford, but they did have a CD player and karaoke CDs. They bonded as a family as they sang songs without fear of making a fool of themselves.

I credit it to why all of them are as confident as they are close. It’s how Rhys discovered his love of music, and his family noticed his knack for it. It helped all of them forget their circumstances, and enjoy what they have an abundance of – family.

The next layer of the song is about improvising lyrics (what to do next in your life) after you’ve forgotten your original plan. When you don’t know the lyrics of a song, it’s best to make up your own and pretend you meant to do it, instead of standing there like a deer in headlights.

The next meaning is a two-parter. It’s hard for him to believe that he has reached this level with his music. He sometimes feels like a fraud, just a guy on a stage singing someone else’s songs. The band, like all musicians, are compared to other artists. They don’t rip off beats or rework anyone else’s lyrics, but influence connects are made. And again, he feels like a person who got famous impersonating someone else.

He’s wrong about the last part. His lyrics have a unique flair, and he and the guys come up with music that highlights it and their talent.

Currently, charisma and joy are radiating off of them. Rhys is moving around the stage like he owns it. All of them are holding the audience captive with their passion and talent. All of them have changed into outfits that they would wear during their concerts – clothes that they wear when the spotlight is off of them, and you can tell. They look completely in their element in them, not like their wearing costumes for the sake of a spectacle.

Rhys looks downright delectable in his favorite denim jacket, plain white V-neck, and black jeans, and a backward baseball cap. It’s not until he turns around that I notice it is the pizza hat I got him for his fifteen birthday, the one he loaned Harper so that she could dress up like her daddy.

It puts a goofy smile on my face. And it remains firmly in place as I groove in my seat to the music, not wanting to embarrass myself on international television by dancing on my feet in heels.

Mom and I, and many of the other people around us, stand and clap when the song comes to an end. Ian, Kyle, and Taylor played their instruments with recording-level precision. Rhys conquered the vocally challenging song without breaking a sweat or switching up his bouncy dance moves.

As rest of the guys bow, Rhys blows a kiss in my direction. I doubt he can see me, but that doesn’t stop me from pretending to catch it like a fly ball.

With a wave, the band leaves the stage. I plop down in my seat, pulling air into my lungs as though I was the one up there performing my heart out.

“You look like you could use another drink,” Claudia remarks playfully.

“I might need a resuscitator too.” I rest my hand over my heart, hoping that it will soon stop pounding out of my chest. “They did so well! They nailed everything. It might be better than the album version. How do they keep getting more talented?” I babble a mile a minute.

“Deep breaths, sweetheart.” Mom rubs my back, chuckling at my response to them.

I listen. Once I am mostly back to normal, I take her up on her drink offer. This time I go with a bottle of water instead of wine. Mom gets another glass of Chardonnay. We take our beverages back to our seats. Unfortunately, the boys aren’t back yet. What’s more unfortunate is the Song of the Year category gets announced during their absence.

“Put your water down. Pictures of your innocent sips will end up side by side with the Kermit the Frog tea-sipping meme if you drink while her name is called.” Claudia subtly alerts me, barely moving her mouth for the sake of cameras.

Both of us sit our drinks on the ground.

I keep my posture relaxed and face in it’s resting state, (Chelsea tells me all the time that I have ‘resting nice face’) when the nominees are introduced. I maintain it when Zara is named the winner. My hands are in my lap and I am turning my ring back and forth as she makes her way to the stage, unsure of what she’ll say when given the most significant platform she has had since the story broke.

Mom is holding my hand in both of hers when it’s Zara’s turn to speak.

She follows standard protocol by thanking her loved ones, fans, and the song’s production team. She zips through them too quickly for them to be her only talking point.

“Songwriting is my creative outlet. All creators should have the freedom to build castles in their minds. No one has the power to demolish them without your consent. Fight back when you are violated, don’t let someone else – especially a man, ladies – keep you from achieving your wildest dreams. Thank you for listening.” She smiles, does a cutesy curtsy, and exits the stage with the confidence of a person who thinks they are one move away from checkmate.

The audience claps.

Mom and I do not. We know cameras are snapping and recording our silent rebellion, but loyalty trumps appearances.

Sociopath pointed an accusatory finger at Claudia’s baby in an attempt to save her own. She called my man, a guy who has the utmost respect for all the women in his life and has no qualms about identifying as a feminist (because *gasp* he actually knows what that word means), is a toxic misogynist for telling the truth to defend his family as best he could.

“I need something stronger. I’ll be right back.” I start to stand.

“I’ll come with you.” She does the same.

I halt her with a hand on her arm. “Someone needs to be here if they return before I do. Stay. Can I get you anything?”

“A shank.”

“I’ve got you.” I pat her hand.

It is highly improbable, but it feels as though everyone in the VIP lounge falls silent and tracks my every movement from the moment I step into it. One thing is for sure, they part like the Red Sea when I reach the bar.

“Vodka gimlet, please.” I force a smile.

The bartender’s eyes are riddled with sympathy as he nods. “Double?” He leans in to keep the vultures from hearing.

“No, thank you.”

“Coming right up.”

I fold and unfold the corners of the cocktail napkin he put in front of me to busy myself to resist the urge to check out the damage on my phone.

“Are you Poppy?”

I know that voice. Everyone does. It belongs to vocal powerhouse Hailee McGuire, one of the others.

Turning to face her with a smile takes a lot out of me, but I do it. “Yes.”

“You are way prettier than I expected. Usually, when people go back to who they were with before they were famous, they’re usually…let’s just say their personality is their best feature, but you – I would’ve gone after you in high school too. Don’t tell Rhys or my girlfriend.” She lets out a lighthearted little laugh.

Hailee’s bisexuality is another thing everyone knows about her. Until this conversation, I had respect for her openness and trueness to herself.

Backhanded compliments change perceptions.

I’ve got to remember to impart that on Harper later.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“I’m glad I ran into you. I was hoping I’d be able to tell you you’ve been doing a stellar job of handling all of this Zara bullshit. I’d be flying off the rails more than Taylor if I were in your shoes. You’re one classy broad. I can definitely see why Rhys is obsessed with you.”

Okay, maybe she’s not all bad.

“Thank you.” I flash her a tiny but sincere smile.

“What she did up there – petty as hell. Rhys is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. None of the Wilde Knights guys have ever made any of the women in the industry feel uncomfortable, which is super rare, unfortunately. I’d be saying this publicly if Zara and I weren’t on the same label and shared producers. It’d escalate quickly, and I’ve got a new album dropping soon. I don’t want the drama to overshadow my work, you know?”

“I understand.”

And I do.

“She’s jealous of you.”

“Why would she be jealous of me?”

“She saw Rhys as a shiny toy. He’s now the best selling one on the market and she can’t get her hands on him. She’s gotten whatever she’s wanted her entire life. She doesn’t know how to handle rejection. It kills her that he did it, and he did it for something else she can’t buy – love.”

Okay, I like her.

“That’s a highly probable hypothesis.”

“It’s the truth. I’ve been around her a million times. Not fun, I’ll tell you that much. I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by what was on that recording. That’s who she is. None of us could prove it, but Rhys did it. Welp, that’s all I wanted to say. Enjoy your drink, don’t let her ruin your night, and don’t forget to pick up a gift bag on your way out. They’ve got some really good stuff this year. The voucher for a weekend at a resort and spa in the mountains is the one I’m most excited about.”

“They’re passing out getaways in goodie bags?”

“The ones performers get are worth 30k. Rhys probably got a trip for four to Tahiti. Hey, you’ll be able to make a family vacation out of it.”

“$30,000? That’s a brand-new car.”

“Welcome to our world. Free stuff keeps us quiet and compliant.”

“I don’t even know what to say.”

None of them need this. There are so many people struggling to live, to keep a roof over their heads, to be able to afford to eat. That was me a few months ago, Claudia years ago, and millions of people right this second. Meanwhile, they’re being showered in cash and gifts for providing entertainment to numb everyone.

“I wish I could take a picture of your face right now. The gold-digger rumors would be tossed right out the window.” Hailee laughs.

“Excess makes me uncomfortable. I’m big on sharing.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m actually going to walk away now. Lilly’s giving me the jealous glare. A fight might break out if I don’t get away from you right this second.” Her eyes are on the model across the room.

“Go. I’m maxed out on drama at the moment.”

“Nice chat.” She gives me a smile and little wave and leaves to return to her girlfriend.

Once I turn back to the counter, I see that my drink has already been placed on my napkin.

I wave the bartender over. “Did anyone…?”

“I kept an eye on it the whole time. You’re in the clear.”

“Thank you.”

I tip him and leave the lounge without so much as glancing at the table of gift bags.

“You were gone a while,” Claudia notes when I sit in my seat.

She is still in Taylor’s. None of the boys are back yet.

“I had an informative conversation.” I sip from the black straw.

“Who do else do I need to ‘speak’ to?”

“No one. She as actually helpful. I learned some vital information from her.”

“Who?”

“I know better than to answer. Don’t forget, I know your sons very well. None of them fear confrontation. The middle two thrive on it and they get it from their mama.”

“You might be a Christopher.”

“I’m happy with either. I love them both.”

“Always such a good sport.”

The guys never return from backstage, which is massive derailment number three from Sociopath. Unsure of where to go, and worried about Rhys’s mental state, I call Ian.

“I’ve been trying to call you. It kept going straight to voicemail.” He answers almost immediately.

“I turned my phone off before the show started. Where are you? How is he?” I plug the ear not against my cell phone with my index finger.

“Our dressing room. Stay in our row. Josie’s on her way to get you. He’s quiet and seated, but he might be bald soon if he keeps running his hands through his hair.”

“Let me speak to him.” I pace the space in front of our chairs, unable to sit still.

There’s shuffling on his end of the line.

“Rhys?” I try when the muffling stops.

“What’s it going to take for this to end?” He sounds defeated, the exact opposite of what he should be after the performance he just gave.

“As soon as I see you, I’m going to give you the tightest hug of your life and let you kiss me the way you wanted to earlier. You’re going to get sick of me congratulating you on a job well done, but you’re going to accept it, Squints. Your Wendy loves you. She’s going to dive into whatever pool she needs to in order to keep you safe and sound.”

His silence worries me.

“Jose needs to pick up the pace. I’m ready for my prize now.” A piece of My Rhys comes back. “IAN, TELL YOUR GIRL TO HURRY UP!” Thankfully, his demand is not yelled directly into my ear, but I can still hear it clear as day.

I can’t hear Ian’s response, but Rhys’s gives me the gist of it.

“OH, WE ALL KNOW. ADMIT IT ALREADY!”

“They’re together?” I tug Rhys’s attention back to me.

“Neither of them will say it, but Taylor’s seen the looks. I’m too distracted by your hypnotism to see it for myself, but I trust my big brother’s judgement. He’s yet to steer me wrong, so…”

“Regardless of whether or not it is true, leave them alone. Not everyone is as obnoxious about their love as you. You almost love me too much, but I digress. Also, stop pulling your hair out. Your cub will be crushed if you yank out your mane right before you meet Rapunzel. Your binder will be rendered more unnecessary than it already is.”

I use his distraction technique on him. It works as well as it did on me. He’s so determined to prove me wrong about his “Book of Wonder” that he doesn’t notice when I walk into their dressing room. I hang up on him, not wanting to give myself away by talking.

“Pop? Poppy? You still there?” Rhys’s seated on the couch, his elbows on his knees. He cheeks out the phone screen with a frown when I don’t respond.

“Ian, your phone failed me. Can I break it?”

“No. I need it.”

“But, I wannnnaaa.” Rhys finally looks in my direction. (I’m beside Ian).

“Break his phone, I break your binder.”

“My Hulk Smash feelings are gone. Poof. I got you, babe.” He drops the phone on the cushion beside him and walks to me with his arm extended.

“Sonny and Cher. Interesting choice. The sixties isn’t your usual era.” I step into his embrace.

He’s holding onto me like he’s afraid I’ll vanish at any moment. “I dabble.”

My hands are on his back, and my face is on his shoulder – the same as him.

Our heights are highly compatible; we have always interlocked like two puzzle pieces. At the moment, it is making it easier to cling to each other and block out all the rest.

“The melodies are typically calming. The lyrics of that particular song are fitting.” My voice is too soft to be heard outside of our cocoon.

“We’re all about relatable lyrics people in this family.”

“Smalls wrote a masterpiece about puppies playing in the sunshine today for Widget and Gizmo. If that’s not proof, I don’t know what is.”

I feel him smiling.

“You were brilliant out there. I don’t know how you did it. My nerves were shot merely watching you. I don’t think my heart could handle watching you perform from the audience every night. The experience was that intense, in the best way.” I put a hand in his hair and massage his scalp just the way he likes it.

It always relaxes him. Harper is the same way.

“I can’t have you keeling over on me yet. I wouldn’t technically be a widower.”

“That’s the way to convince someone to marry you.”

“I have to get crafty with you. A diamond, fireworks, and a string quartet won’t cut it. You’re so difficult, Penelope.”

“I try. I really do.”

He sighs heavily. “Let’s go home.”

“To Seattle?”

“To Harper. We’ll steal her from Grams and have our nightly family cuddle time. We can switch up the location and build a fort.”

“We have to show our faces for a little while longer. We’re not ashamed. We can’t act like it. We go to the party. Do a quick wave, take a picture or two, and then we can return to our real world.”

“It is has been such a long day. I don’t know if I have it in me.”

“I know, babe, and it’s almost over. We’ll do the last part together.”

“Not all of it.”

“Yes, all of it. I’m diving deep for you. You’re not really drowning, but I’ll yank you out of the pool anyway and do my best to help you breathe.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I do, actually. Someone hurting you hurts me. There’s no reason we have to lay down and take it.”

“And then can we kidnap our daughter and snuggle?”

“Yes.” I kiss his stubbled jaw.

He turns his head and captures my lips with his. Rhys claims the kiss he was promised in his prize package.

“Rhys Michael!” Claudia scolds him.

That is when I recall we are not the only people in the room and one of his hands his migrated to the ass he declared ‘doesn’t quit’.

Whatever that means.

He tries to ignore her. I listen and pull away.

Rhys groans loudly. “Blame, Penelope, Ma. This is all her fault.”

“How?” I argue.

“You’re you. Tone your amazingness down a touch. Take it easy on a guy during his time of need.”

“That seems a little counterproductive, don’t you think?”

“Thinking is more of your thing. Let’s stick to our respective roles.”

“What about the binder?”

“Sometimes you’ve got to make exceptions for the ones you love. You know that, smartypants. You do it all the time. You did it just now.”

“I’m here because you’re cute. Nothing else.”

“I’ll take it. I still get you.” He presses a kiss to the exposed skin on my forehead.

We take a limousine to our hotel to change. Rhys and I snag seats by each other, of course. His arm is around me, and we are sharing a pair of earbuds. We listen to I Got You, Babe all the way to our destination.

Chelsea hugs us as soon as we walk through the door of our suite.

“I better not see her. I will go full-on Real Housewives -- splash wine in her face and scream about how awful of a person she is until security separates us to keep the situation from escalating.”

I giggle as I pull her into another hug. Rhys quirks a smirk.

“You watch that shit?” Taylor is taken aback.

“Sometimes. It’s a good way to feel better about myself when I’m down. I may not be where I want to be yet, but at least I’m not that.”

“Your Sexiness, I would like to ask for your hand in marriage.” Kyle proposes.

“I’m in the bridesmaid, fun aunt stage in my life. Maybe I’ll take you up on your offer later. We’ll see.”

“That means ‘never going to happen’.” Taylor fires at Kyle with amusement.

“Be nice, Sailor. We’re all friends here.” Chelsea jokingly reprimands.

Chels has been referring to him exclusively as Sailor since the day he went on his profanity riddled social media rants. All of Tay’s tattoos – he has twelve – are all American traditional aka the original ones that sailors are known for, gives her another reason to do it. It’s a little flirty, but Chelsea is a natural flirt. She does it without realizing it most of the time.

“What are you wearing tonight?” She asks me.

“This…” I scrunch my eyebrows, confused as to why she thinks I wouldn’t.

“No.”

“It’s what they gave me to wear for the night. I’ve got nothing else.”

“Thank goodness you have me. Come on.” She takes my hand and practically drags me to my bedroom.

Harper is in Grams’s room. She knew we’d be going in and out during her bedtime. Rhys goes to check on them.

“I don’t have party outfits.” I remind her once she has shut the door.

“Again, thank goodness you have me. I can whip something up using your clothes and mine.”

“Can you do something with my Wendy top?”

“There’s plenty I can do with that. Where is it?”

“My suitcase.” I fetch it.

“Perfect color. I have just thing to match this.” She holds it up to the light. “Now, we need Rhys’s letterman jacket. Please say he has it instead of his wardrobe stylist.”

“They have it, but I think Josie can get it for us. It’s on the wardrobe bus. She has access to everything.”

“Yes! Call her. This is an emergency.”

“An emergency? Really?”

“A fashion one. The term exists for a reason. Now, call her!”

I give Chelsea the phone once I’ve got Josie on the line. She explains the “fashion emergency” way better than I could.

“The bus is in a nearby lot. She is getting it now. Part two will take place in my room. Grab your makeup and strapless bra, and follow me.”

I let the expert lead the way.

She has four massive suitcases for this trip.

“A week, seven days -- that’s how long you’re doing to be in California. I have half this amount of clothes, and I’ll be on the road for a few more months.”

“Outfits reliant on moods. Can’t predict the future. Case in point. You’re welcome.” She unzips the teal polka-dotted one I had to help her haul onto the bed.

After a bit of sifting, she pulls out a red pencil skirt that is an exact match to my halter tank top.

“I knew it. The color is spot on.” She arranges them on the bed together.

If I tuck the top, it’ll look like a dress. And that’s the order she has it layered – top on bottom.

“I’ve got just the heels to pair with it.”

“Your foot is smaller than mine.”

“By a half size, and they’re peep toe. You’ll survive. I believe in you.”

The suitcase she opens next contains only shoes. The high heels she presents me with are indeed semi-sandals, made of black leather, have a strap that goes across the ankle, and are at least 4-inches high.

“I struggle with new heels. Falling would be very bad right now.” I protest, already being to change into the outfit she whipped together.

“Hold onto Rhys or me. Problem solved.”

“…I don’t know.”

“Pop, --” she rests her hands on my shoulders. “You know I would never let you face plant. Rhys knows I’ll murder him if he lets you do it. Trust us.”

“Okay.” I exhale.

She rubs my biceps reassuringly. “Time to play dress-up, doll.”

She dressed me and did my makeup before every shift at Eclipse – my tips were contingent on how good I looked. I really needed the money, and she always made sure I looked my best. She would say, ‘time to dress-up, doll’ before starting every single time.

Hearing it now is comforting, a quick reminder of all that we’ve been through together and all that we can accomplish together.

I have a feeling she’s got me looking very Wendy-esqe by the time Josie arrives.

“Holy moly! You look – wow! Wow! This might actually be a problem.” Her eyes are at their maximum circumference.

“Why?” I adjust my top, thinking perhaps she’s referring to the amount of cleavage that is on display in my top.

“Rhys is going to get arrested for indecent exposure, and I’ve sunk so much time and effort into helping him make party arrangements.”

“I already have a solution to that problem – his jacket.” Chelsea wiggles the fingers of her outstretched hand, silently requesting that Josie hand her Rhys’s letterman jacket.

“Arms out, babes.”

I follow her instructions. She proceeds to put the jacket on me the way I dress Harper in hers.

Josie examines me from head to toe. “I actually like it better this way.”

“Cute, right? Very Sandy from Grease.”

“The message in that musical is awful. Change everything about yourself to get a partner? Terrible.” I grumble.

“Quiet, Sailor. This is some of my best work to date.”

She halts me when I try to check myself out in the bathroom’s full-length mirror.

“Finished product. You know better.” She uses my shoulders to push me into a seated position on the bed.

She uses most of the makeup that was used on me earlier today. However, she applies more of it to make the look bolder and more nighttime party-appropriate, and the pink lipgloss is replaced with red lipstick from her collection.

She removes my hair from it’s pinned low bun and transforms it into a curly high ponytail, similar to the one I wore on Christmas Eve. The front of my hair remains parted, and my bangs are pinned back using the bobby pins pulled from the back of my hair.

“My work is complete. You may take in its splendor now.” Chelsea wipes her brow as though she broke a sweat.

“You, Rhys, and Harper, man, always performing.” I rely on her to stand.

“It’s a part of our charm.” She walks me to the bathroom.

I burst out laughing when I initially take myself in.

“What is remotely funny about the way you look?”

I heave a deep breath to contain myself. “This is his ultimate fantasy, and he has to behave himself. It actually looks like I’m trying to kill him.” I snort.

“Okay…”

“Inside thing. Don’t worry about it. You did the best job. I knew you would. I love it.” I hug her.

She did. It’s Poppy meets Wendy Peffercorn meets Supportive Girlfriend of a High School Athlete.

I’ve got my glasses, jewelry, and ponytail, Wendy’s outfit (kinda), lipstick, and era-appropriate shoes, and a jacket with Rhys’s name, number, and our high school’s logo.

Wearing all of it tonight feels right.

There’s nothing I can do to help Chelsea get ready, but I do keep her company as she works her magic. Josie takes pictures of us for us, and leaves when she is called back to work.

Visiting Harper is done quickly and quietly. She is sleeping soundly between “Gams” and “Gamma”, and the “pups” are at the foot of the bed.

Stealing her in the middle of the night might be a cruel thing to do. She’s almost got the perfect setup. I’ll circle back to this moral dilemma later.

One at a time.

You know that thing that cartoon characters do when they fall in insta-love with another character because they find them extraordinarily attractive – the jaw-dropped, heart visibly beating out other chest, hearts in their wide eyes thing? Well, Rhys is doing the real-life version of it right now. I’m quick to take a picture of it, because how could I not?

My snap snaps him out of his monetary loss of sanity.

“I KNOW you’re trying to kill me now. Why else would you--? We can’t go. I don’t want to go. I want you in that.”

“Rhys!” My cheeks are on fire as I swat his chest.

“Don’t ‘Rhys’ me, Penelope. You know what you have done, and it is one of the greatest and most hurtful things you have ever done to me.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“If I answer that in front of them, you’ll do more than tap my chest.”

“Nothing else?”

“N—oh.” What I'm trying to get at dawns on him.

“Both worlds are strange, but I think ours is better. Would you like to join me?”

“Be right back.” He kisses my cheek and jogs to our room.

He comes back wearing an open white and light gray flannel shirt with black buttons, a white crewneck t-shirt beneath it, another pair of black jeans, all-black converse, and same hat he wore on stage.

Our school colors were black, white, and gray. His letterman’s jacket is too. Squints wore button downs with t-shirts underneath throughout The Sandlot; a backwards black hat was one of his signatures too.

We don’t look like we’re wearing costumes, thought. Rhys wears things like this all the time. My outfit complies with current trends. To them, we’ll be a couple in complimentary clothes. I’m a girlfriend declaring her loyalty to her boyfriend during a time of trouble. We’re showing up to one of the biggest parties of the year as walking inside jokes. It’s quintessential Rhys and Poppy.

“Ready to play ball, babe?” I offer him my upturned hand.

“Nope. Let’s go.” He clasps my hand and uses it to draw me close.

He throws his arm across my shoulders, and it stays there all the way to the main party’s venue.

We’ve – Rhys and I – have decided to attend one party, the one with the most press. The plan is to least after we have made an impression. An hour -- that’s all their getting.

Trina is the nicest she has ever been to me when she sees the way I look and learns I’m willing to walk the red carpet with Rhys. We make her PR dream come true.

“RHYS, HAVE YOU SPOKEN TO ZARA?” One reporter shouts when we have made it to our first mark.

Rhys forces a smile instead of answering as he moves his arm from my shoulders to my waist.

I angle myself towards him. “Guess what?” I whisper through my teeth.

“What?” He quirks a smirk.

“Hi.”

Their Rhys’s smile transforms into mine. “Hi.”

“Finally saying that out loud – liberated, I’m feeling it.” I continue.

His chest vibrates as he tries to repress a chuckle.

He helps me walk to the next concentration of photographers without making it too obvious. Rhys plays it off as being unable to keep his hands off me.

“POPPY, WHAT ARE YOU THOUGHTS ON TONIGHT?” A question cuts through the yelling of our names.

“Guess what?” Rhys breathes into my ear.

“What?”

“I bought Leo a second party shirt. He’s going to say he forgot his at home. I’ll whip it out. Boom. Party saved.”

“His shirt makes or breaks her birthday.”

“Same page. Finally. I was startin’ to think we were losing our spark.”

“Is this about the binder?”

“All of this is. Without it, what’s the point?”

I snort. It can’t look cute, but I can’t bring myself to care.

We pose for them, but smile for each other. The distraction strategy gets us to the end of the line in one piece.

Blinders on, and one foot in front of the other – that’s the only way to survive in their world. Face to face and sharing our minds -- that’s how we have to walk through ours.

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