Sum of Us

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Ch. 42: Rhys

Dear My Rhys,

After 13 exhausting hours of labor, on February 14th at 12:04 AM, weighing in 6lbs 7oz, she’s here. Harper Posy James, our person, exists. Everything is accounted for. I triple checked. And, I can officially confirm that she has your hair – color, quality, and quantity. She has your eyes too. It’s comforting and challenging to see so much of you in her.

I consider Harper a gift I get to love with my whole heart. I will look back on our good times with fondness, but our goodbye was a crushing blow. I thought we were forever and always. We didn’t come close. That’s a failure I have to literally face head-on for the rest of my life, but I refuse to walk away this time. I will fight for our daughter no matter what.

I’m terrified of parenting solo, of ruining her life. She’s tiny and innocent, the sweetest little thing. She deserves a mother whose life isn’t in disarray, but I can’t let her go. It would break my heart more than the end of our relationship. I’ll never know if taking on parenthood together would lower the likelihood of damaging her, but having you at my side had a way of making me feel like I could do anything. That security blanket is gone when I need it most. I can’t blame you entirely. I let go of the corner you tried to leave me and I have to lie in the bed I made.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy, and that all that I have done and will do alone proves to be the best decision for all of us. I want you to know that I will love Harper enough for both of us, forever and always, and I promise to make sure our little girl has all that she needs to build her field.

Until next time,

Poppy

~~

Pop has Harper in her arms, holding her close to her chest as the enthusiastic mob around us grows. I can see Harp’s mouth moving, but the swarm is making too much noise to hear her. Poppy is forcing a smile to hide her fear and appear calm for Harper’s sake. She tucks our daughter’s hair behind her ear as she replies to whatever she said. A clue as what was discussed is revealed when Harper waves at me as Pop carries her out of the crowd and away from me. Tyrone and Chelsea are quick to follow.

I’m relieved and frustrated.

Smiling through it is as I pose for pictures, sign autographs, and answer basic questions is akin to sticking pins in my heart. Pleasing the masses is my source of income. It’s how I’m able to support my family. But I am human, my needs and desires can’t be ignored.

“This is the last one!” I raise my voice to be heard over the hoard’s chatter as I hurriedly scribble my name on the back of a store receipt a fan presented me with.

He’s the only person in the crowd that doesn’t groan or complain. I can’t bring myself to care about their indignation. I don’t even bother with an explanation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why I’m here. It’s printed on my shirt.

Carter, of all people, is the primary guard preventing fans from following me in the direction of my girls.

From my research, I know Harper doesn’t meet the height requirements for the nearest rides. So, I check the gift shop. I spot them in the corner of the store. Harper is playing with the souvenir magnets arranged on a display wall. Poppy’s on her knees, attentively partaking in removing and reapplying magnets.

“That looks fun.”

They look at me at the same time.

“Go, Daddy. Pwesent pize.” Harper shoos me by flailing an arm.

“Why are you getting me a present? It’s your birthday.”

“Aly ties day.”

“Your birthday’s my Valentine’s Day present.”

“You made me accept my gift. You have to do the same to hers. It’s only fair.” Pop playfully argues as she stands.

Chelsea replaces her on the floor.

“Do I have to walk away? I missed you and Mama. How about I turn around instead?” I run my fingers through Harper's hair.

“O-tay. No ook.”

“No looking.” I turn my back on her.

Poppy comes to stand in front of me.

“I’m sorry.” I take her hands.

“It’s not like you ushered them over.” She raises and drops her shoulder, trying and failing to play it off as no big deal.

“Was she scared?”

“No. She asked if they were your friends. I said, ‘yes.’ She asked if she could play with them too. I told her they were there so that she could pick out a Valentine’s Day present for you. She knows gifts have to be surprises. She’s excited to do something nice for you.”

“What about you?”

“I’m a million percent on board with her getting you a present. I wouldn’t have been magnet testing with her otherwise.” She deflects.

“Babe.” I coax the truth.

“I’m a mom. I’ll never not be worried about my baby. Being encircled by strangers with unknown intentions wasn’t the best for my nerves, but I spun it into something fun for her. It’s one more birthday activity for her to do.”

I tug her to me and wrap both arms around her waist. “You shouldn’t have had to do that. I’ll wave them off for the rest of the day. I promise.” kiss her cheek.

“That’s not a vow you can keep. Don’t make it.” She’s hugging me back despite her mood.

“I will. Your opinion matters most. I’d rather they think less of me than you.”

“You are who you are. Your fans are going to do what they do. I can’t exactly get upset that they love you.”

“But you’re disappointed. That’s worse. It’s in the sad family. I never want you to be sad, especially today. Never again.” I squeeze her middle.

She takes a deep, shaky breath. “If they try to tug you away, just say no.”

“I’ll D.A.R.E. for you, darling.”

She tilts her head up with a tentative smile. “I’m holding you to that.” She plants a chaste kiss on my lips.

She stands beside me. I wrap my arm around her waist. “Would you like a redo Valentine’s Day gift?”

“No, it’d be a letdown. Nothing will top Harper and my very own VCR.”

“When you’re right, you’re right.”

We peruse the store anyhow for something to do.

“Put it back. If Taylor sees it, he will not stop trying to bribe her until she trades it for another toy. “

“And I’ll make sure he never accomplishes his goal or has children. She needs this. She loves Chip.” I add a Beauty and the Beast tea set to my handheld shopping basket.

“He could always adopt.”

“You and your logic need to let me get my baby girl a Valentine’s Day present.”

“We talked Mickey and Minnie into moving in with us. That’s our joint gift to her.”

“That was all you. She’s getting this tea set from me.”

“And a Maximus the horse figurine and Moana’s magical oar?” Poppy incredulously questions.

“She needs those too.”

“Right. It’s not like she has more dolls than she knows what to do with," is her sarcastic retort. "And she's most definitely going to hit someone with what is essentially a bat."

“Pascal needs a friend, and you know she’ll nurse whoever she hits back to health. She’s a healthcare professional. She got a doctor kit from real doctors. There’s nothing more legit than that.”

“You know this is ridiculous, right?”

“Yup.”

I find Harper’s size on the rack of Lilo’s dress. She’s moved up to 2T. My little girl is growing up.

I hate it.

“We said no more costumes. Her new Rapunzel dress is supposed the last one until she grows out of one of the other ones.”

“She may love Rapunzel’s hair, but Lilo is Harper’s kindred spirit. She’s late to dance practice because she needs to feed a fish a peanut butter sandwich to control the weather. She wanted the oddest dog in the kennel and stood by her decision when Nani tried to talk her into getting another dog. The doll she made herself is as ugly and horrifying as Harper’s nutcracker. Lilo loves a music legend and she loves her unconventional family with all that she is. Ohana means family, Penelope. No one gets left behind.”

She narrows her doe as at me. “Don’t use that heartbreaking scene against me.”

“Too late,” I add the dress to my collection.

“…We kinda have to get her the Stitch plush now.” She bedrudgingly states.

“That’s the spirit.” I kiss her cheek.

Having learned our lesson, we pick out the doll that is the correct size.

“Daddy!” Harper tugs on my pant leg.

“How’s it going, birthday girl?” I look down at her.

“Pwize.” She holds up a magnet.

It’s glittery, purple, and has Daisy Duck on it. The best part: it bears the name ‘Ashley.’

It takes everything in me not to laugh at her sincere present.

“Wow! It’s beautiful. I love it. Thank you so much.”

“Elcome. I wove you!” She hugs my leg.

Poppy takes all of the gifts from me so that I can return the hug.

“I love you, too. We need to visit the person in the front of the store. After we buy our presents, we can get back to playing.”

“O-tay!” She gives me her brightest smile.

One of the perks of our suite is the ability to have our store purchases delivered to our room instead of having to carry them around the park. I have Harper’s presents gift wrapped. She’ll have a blast shredding the paper and playing with the boxes and scraps of gift wrap.

“What do you want to get Mama for Valentine’s Day?” I whisper to Harper as I carry her out of the store.

“Ummm…” She scans our surroundings. “Loon!” She points to a cart of balloons.

“Good job. Everyone loves balloons. Let’s pick one out while she’s still talking to Aunt Chelsea.”

She doesn’t make our departure subtle. She waves goodbye as we leave. Tyrone accompanies us to the balloon stand.

“Which one do you think she’ll like?”

“Dat one.” She points to a purple Mickey Mouse head suspended in a transparent bubble covered in multicolored confetti.

“Excellent choice. Do you want one too?”

“No, it Mama esent.”

“You can have one too.”

“No, it Mama esent.” She repeats firmly.

“Mama is the only one that gets it. Got it.”

“It’s very nice of you to want to want her gift to be special.” Tyrone smiles at her.

“I nice.”

“You are very nice.”

“Is it your birthday?” The cashier directs her question at Harper using kid-friendly enthusiasm.

“Uh-huh. I two!”

“Happy birthday! Which balloon would you like?”

“Puple fo Mama.”

“The one with confetti on it,” I add.

“Oh my God, it’s really you! I thought, ‘wow, this guy really looks like Rhys Wilde.’ Then I thought, ‘it can’t be. Why would he be here?’. But here you are! Can we take a selfie? My friends will never believe me.” The young female cashier switches to her real voice as she rushes her request.

“No, I’m taking a personal day. Can you get the balloon, please?”

“Loon fo Mama, pweeze. It real pwetty.” Harper reiterates.

“Oh! Better idea: we can take one of the three of us. Harper’s even cuter in person. I am OBSESSED with her.” The stand attendent doesn't take the hint.

“The answer is still no. Sorry. Balloon, please.”

All her excitement about a celebrity sighting fades. She has a scowl on her face for the duration of the transaction. I’m willing to bet she wouldn’t have given me the balloon at all if it would result in her getting fired.

“Pwize, Mama! I wove you.” Harper holds out her wrist, which I tied the balloon’s ribbon into a bow to keep it from flying away.

“What a lovely surprise! Thank you, Lovebug. I love you” Poppy gives her a kiss.

Chelsea transfers the balloon to Poppy’s wrist and knots it to make the move permanent.

“Uncle Rhys, I want a balloon like Auntie Poppy’s.” Gracie cozies up to me and turns up the charm.

“I want one!”

“Me too!”

Robby and Courtney join her plea.

“The balloon lady hates me. You’ll have to shoot those puppy eyes at grandma to get one.”

They run to her without questions. Harper goes with them for the sole purpose of seeing Mom and Tim and petting the dogs.

“She’s not a Wilde Knights fan?” Pop remains at my side.

“She was until I told her Harper and I weren’t going to take a picture with her. I tried to let her down easy, but she took the rejection hard.”

“Do you want me to go over there and rough her up for you?”

“You’d already be over there if you loved me.”

“I do love you. I’m getting my plan of attack ready to make sure I inflict as much damage as possible.”

“You better.” I’m smiling as I press a kiss to her forehead.

Harper is the only member of the little kid crew that doesn’t have a balloon tied to their wrist. She holds to her desire to make her mom feel special.

Naptime is skipped. None of the children are showing signs of tiredness. No one is fussy, slowing down or rubbing their eyes. So, we continue following schedule A. Schedule B has a naptime incorporated.

Harper is going the strongest. Our little Energizer Bunny is bouncing from attraction to attraction (sometimes literally), singing and dancing whenever she gets the urge (which is often), and is beating her hugging record by hugging the characters she loves and the children who are waiting to meet them. It takes next to nothing to make Harp happy, but seeing her at such a high level of it brings me more joy than I’ve ever experienced.

Holding Poppy’s hand as we watch our daughter being her truest self is fulfilling a dream I never knew I had. It makes me impervious to the backlash fans are pelting at me each time I decline their requests for my time and energy.

My arm around her waist, I look at Poppy. “Do you know how beautiful you are?” The words fall from my lips before I can stop them.

Her cheeks twinge pink as she rolls her eyes. “Laying it on thick today, huh, Wilde?”

“I haven’t been able to spend this much time with you in weeks. Your witchcraft is working on me more than usual. You have yourself to blame for my affection. You’re a master of seduction.”

“That’s me – master seductress. I ooze sensuality. Introverted nerds get the job done.”

“Truer words have never been spoken. You make me work for access to your inner circle. And you know just about everything. I barely have to Google. It’s so hot.”

“Most of that can be said about Taylor.”

“Take it back.”

“Never.”

“Feisty too. Take it easy on a guy.”

“When I’m this close to killing you? No way.”

“I knew it.” My cheeks hurt from smiling too hard.

“TAYLOR!” Linds roars, stomping over to him.

She made the mistake of leaving Courtney in his custody while she took a trip to the bathroom.

“Yes?” He continues to hold Courtney’s hand, who is now wearing Merida from Brave’s dress and shoes.

“What did I say?!”

“She asked for a new costume. Out of the goodness of my heart, I obliged. And now I’m getting chastised for it? That hardly seems fair.” He has always been terrible at playing dumb.

“She loves Sleeping Beauty. She has only seen Brave one time. Why would she trade the dress of a character she loves for one she struggles to understand because of her thick Scottish accent?”

“Ask her. She’s the one that made the decision.”

“Court, sweetie, what did Uncle Taylor tell you?”

“Merida’s brave. I’m brave too. Boys kissing you while you’re sleeping’s icky. Princess Aurora got cooties ’cuz of the gross prince. I don’t want cooties, Mommy.” Courtney sticks out her tonuge in disgust.

Linds glares at Tay, still fuming. “She’s four!”

“That’s why I called it cooties instead of assaulted by a predator.” He deadpans.

“Mommy, what’s assy-alted by a purder?” Courtney innocently blinks up at her.

Lindsey knees Taylor. He bows over in pain, coughing.

“Lindsey Louise!”

“Do you know what he did?” Linds takes Courtney’s hand and storms over to Mom.

“Oh, no! Owie, Nunkle Aylor? It o-tay. I ere.” Harper pets his hair.

He pulls himself together as best he can and manages to make eye contact with Harp by putting his hands on his knees.

“I saved a life. I regret nothing.” His voice is gravel.

“Would you like me to get you ice, Sailor?” Chels joins Harp in trying to tend to his self-inflicted wounds.

Lindsey is a woman of her word. He pushed her. His injury’s on him.

“As an adult male, drawing attention to my crotch in a place overrun by children is the quickest way to get thrown into a cop car.”

“At least let me help you walk. I dressed her in the outfit after you bought it.”

“That’s a suitable punishment for a co-conspirator.” He stands as straight as his pain will allow and drapes his arm across her shoulders.

“You were making good points. It’s never too early to teach kids about real monsters.” She supports him by putting her arm around his waist.

“That’s it. Chris and Becca are Harper’s new godparents.” I break the news to them.

“We will keep her safe and knowledgeable. That’s what the godparent gig comes down to. We shouldn’t get axed for doing our jobs.”

“What she said.” Taylor seconds Chelsea’s assertion.

“You’re on probation.” I narrow my eyes at them.

The rest of the day is a raving success if I do say so myself. Harper doesn’t cry when it is time for her Rapunzel and Eugene to leave. They told her they have to return to their kingdom to help the citizens.

She buys the fib gusto and wishes them well. They depart after a final hug and a song. Pop and I pull them aside and thank them profusely for all their hard work. This day wouldn’t have been as special without their commitment to their roles.

Disney after dark feels like an entirely different place. The lights make it a bit more magical. They make the Ferris wheel a must.

Six people can ride in one capsule. As arranged, Mom, Tim, and Tyrone are with Harper, Poppy, and me. Leo, Lo, Kevin, Gracie, Jessica, and Christopher are together. Lindsey gets to be with her other half; Robby and Courtney get to play, and fingers crossed that Rob will go to hell. Ian, Josie, Kyle, Taylor, Chelsea, and a security guard are grouped. Grams went back to the hotel with the dogs. She’s not one for heights, and the three of them are ready to turn in for the night.

“We’re going to see all the lights from up high, Lovebug.” Poppy settles Harper into her lap once we have sat on one of the two benches.

I have my arms around them, one is pinning Harp in place, the other is across Poppy’s shoulders.

“Anterns?!”

“No, but close. We can pretend they are our lanterns.”

“They pwetty.”

“Very pretty.” Pop kisses her cheek.

“You’re such a great mom.” I breathe into Pop’s ear.

She shivers.

She’s wearing my favorite jean jacket. Her reaction is not from the brisk night air. There’s sick satisfaction in knowing I affect her as much as she affects me.

“You answered my question from last year.” She retaliates by speaking identically intimate.

“What was it?”

“If you’d like the way I’m raising her.”

“I couldn’t love it more.” I kiss her cheek.

She rests her head on my shoulder.

Harper goes on and on about how “pwetty” our lanterns are, and she and I sing ’I See the Light’ (the song Rapunzel and Eugene sing when they see their lanterns) four times.

Tyrone, Tim, and Ma are not the slightest bit discrete about discussing our parenting. Tyrone gives us a good report card. In his opinion, from all that he’s seen, we’re naturals. Mom accepts his word as gospel.

She’s been a big fan of his for years. They keep in contact when we are on tour. For some reason, she doesn’t fully trust our recounting of events. Something about Taylor and I always covering for each other. I have no idea where she got that idea.

Tim’s still proving himself to be a good guy by saying she shouldn’t be surprised I’m a good dad. She raised my siblings and me well. I really wish I could give him a hard time because he’s dating my mom, but he’s too likable and supportive. It’s flat out frustrating.

I’m not proud of this, but I pull the celebrity card so that we can ride the Ferris wheel twice. Harp loves it. Seeing the lanterns was Rapunzel’s birthday wish. Seeing the lights is Harp’s; fulfilling her dreams is the whole reason we’re here.

The Main Street Electrical Parade starts at 8:45 PM. We get there early to get spots in the front row. Harper is in her stroller, holding her Rue plush. She’s kicking her legs as she recounts her day to him, still brimming with energy.

Meanwhile, Gracie’s knocked out in Leo’s arms. She wore herself out almost getting us kicked out of the park for her stalker-level response to seeing Ariel. She tried to kidnap her -- grabbed the actress’s hand, tried to drag her away from the other children, and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer (which fake Ariel said several times). Leo had to intervene. Gracie kicked, screamed, and cried harder than she did last year.

Robby and Courtney are fighting hard to stay awake, but I doubt they’ll make it to the fireworks. They’re drained because of the time and all the excitement they experienced today, not by narrowly escaping a disorderly conduct charge.

“What if she doesn’t go to sleep?” Pop tilts her head up to look at me from within my arm.

“She’s getting babysat by Aunt Lindsey no matter what. She’s doing it in exchange for a new pair of tap shoes and a dollhouse for Court. They’ve already been ordered.”

“Is it binder official?”

“It sure is. It’s under the ‘Wendy Wooing’ tab.”

“I expect to be thoroughly wooed, then, Wilde.”

“You will be, babe. So wooed that you won’t know what to do with yourself.”

“Please say you’re not going to try to cook for me.”

“That wouldn’t woo you. It’d kill you. And unlike some people, I’m not trying to kill my significant other.”

“It never hurts to verify.” She kisses me.

The grand finale of Harper’s Disneyland doesn’t disappoint. The parade and the fireworks are Valentine’s Day themed. It makes the shows more significant and gives Poppy and I the ability to tell Harper – our lovebug – that they did it for her. Heart is her favorite shape.

We get Harper to leave the park willingly by truthfully telling her surprises are waiting for her in our room. Those of us still awake gather in the suite’s living room to watch her open her birthday presents. Grace, Courtney, and Robbie are sleeping on our bed.

And it is a good thing they are asleep. They would’ve accepted Harper’s ‘Aly Ties Day esents.’ After expressing her love for each gift, she carries it to a member of the family and says ‘pwize! Wove you’.

Though we try to explain to her that the gifts are her birthday presents, she won’t stop passing them out. She gets fussy when we try to give them back, the first indication of the day that she’s tired. All of us appease her by thanking her for our presents with a silent understanding that we’ll force her to keep them by sneaking them into her suitcase.

Harper yawns through her bath. She barely has the energy to tell Pearl (her new mermaid toothbrush) about her birthday party. It’s lights out before I finish the first verse of "Field." I continue to sing anyhow, rocking like my toddler like a baby as I do so.

“I love you, baby girl,” A soft kiss is pressed to her forehead.

She sighs in her sleep and wiggles closer, plastering herself to me.

“We can have family cuddles instead of our date.” Poppy rubs my back.

“We need alone time. She’s not why we’re together. I don’t want to act like it.”

“You want to be with her tonight. It’s her birthday. Your first one. We can reschedule our date.”

“This is our first Valentine’s day we’ve spent as pre-fiances. We’re doing it up.”

“I didn’t propose to you.”

“PRE-fiances. Pre. I know you know that means before, smartypants.”

“Girlfriend and boyfriend are the terms you’re looking for.”

“No, they’re not serious enough. We have rings, a house, and a baby. We’re on a higher level than fourteen-year-olds who have to get dropped off and picked up from dates.”

“Your term is relegated to only being spoken in private. It’ll get blown out of proportion otherwise.”

“Ooh, an inside joke. My favorite kind.” I waggle my eyebrows.

“Date?”

“Date.”

Poppy kisses Harper goodnight. She stays in the suite to prepare for our date as I carry Harp and her overnight bag to Lindsey’s room.

“You’ve got a full house.”

Kevin, Grace, and Chloe are asleep in one of the queen-size beds. Robby and Courtney are sleeping in the other.

“It’s Valentine’s Day. People leave their kids with you if you’re single and trustworthy.”

“Becca I get, but Leo’s single.”

“He’s on a date with the Park’s Jasmine. No magic carpet innuendoes were one of my babysitting conditions. Same goes for you.”

“What were the others?” I tuck Harper into bed beside Robby.

“Babysitting Court the next time I have a date and delivering a second punch to Rob’s face.”

“Can punching Rob be one of my conditions too?”

“Sorry, baby brother, you can’t. The bitch would press charges against you for attention. Your life is complicated enough as it is.”

“When are we going to split them up? Is there an intervention scheduled, or are we going to put pressure on him until he runs for his life?”

“The latter is most likely. You punching Leo in the face during your intervention makes me want to steer clear of direct confrontation. She may not look it, but Beck is scrappy. I don’t know who she’d lunge for if put on the spot.”

“Mine was different. Poppy is Poppy; Rob is Rob -- Apples to that one fruit that is too rank for most people to eat. You can’t compare them.”

“But we thought you’d never see her again. We wanted you to move forward with your best life instead of living in the past. It’s the same in that respect. Part of the reason she doesn’t want to divorce him is she doesn’t want Robby to have the same relationship with Rob that we do with our dad. If they remain married and under the same roof, he’s in his life.”

“That’s some bullshit.”

“It is. We’ll put our heads together and come up with something to solve the Rob problem soon.”

“Keep us in the loop. Taylor was made for interventions.”

“I’m surprised he wasn’t the one you punched. He was blunter than usual.”

“He felt my heartbreak in his bones, the same way you’re picking up on Beck’s.”

“Twin problems.”

“We’re better together. That’s why we came in a matching set.”

I tuck Rue beneath Harp’s arm and situate the covers over them.

“Sweet dreams, baby girl. Daddy and Mama love you.” I give her and Rue kisses.

She asks me to do it whenever she puts him down for a nap.

“You are the cutest dad. Enjoy your date.” My sister hugs me.

“I will. I’m going to pull out all the stops.”

“Don’t cook for her.”

“I’m not. Why does everyone think I’m going to cook for her?” I say with exasperation.

“It’s a classic romantic gesture. You’ll lose her if you give her food poisoning.”

“You serve people barbecue chicken you made in the microwave one time, and suddenly everyone’s a critic.”

“It was raw chicken. I shouldn’t have to explain salmonella to you. That’s Taylor’s job.”

“I’ve ordered room service, happy?”

“Yes. She can’t be my sister-in-law if you kill her.”

“Aw, you like my baby mama.” I pinch her cheek.

She swats my hand away. “I’m with Taylor – I don’t know how she puts up with you, but I guess the heart wants with the heart wants. I’m not complaining. She’s a sweetheart.”

“It pains me to agree with you, but I do. She can do so much better. I’m trying to lock her down before she realizes it.”

“She did. That’s why she dumped you the first time around.”

“Too soon.”

“I’m still right.”

“Call if Harper needs anything. That includes Poppy and me. Her care and keeping supplies are in her Peppa pack. Play 'Field′ or 'Don’t Look Back in Anger if she wakes up. They should put her back to sleep. And--”

“I’ve watched her overnight before and I’ve been a mother for four years. I’ve got this. Go seduce Poppy with your dorky charm.”

“Oh, I will. I will.”

I stashed my date clothes in the guys’ room. My retinas are assaulted by what I walk in on.

“UGH, what is this?!” I cover my eyes with my hand.

“Oh, don’t act like you don’t like what you see.” Kyle taunts.

“We’re playing strip poker. They overestimated themselves.” Chelsea is only missing a single sock, whereas the guys are well on their way to being naked.

Kyle is Winnie the Poohing it because he’s Kyle. I will be forever thankful he has arranged his t-shirt to cover the part of him that I never want to see. I did peep some side-ass. It will forever haunt my dreams.

“You have an unfair advantage. You worked in a casino, which you didn’t disclose until Kyle took his fucking pants off. I wouldn’t have agreed if I knew you’re a ringer.” Taylor furiously fires at Chelsea.

He is in better shape than the others; only his shirt and socks are missing.

“I was at the blackjack table or roulette wheel, never poker. This is blind luck, Sailor.” Chelsea nonchalantly replies as she examines her hand of cards.

“You couldn’t find something else to do? Where’s Josie?” I turn to the wall.

“Sleeping. She’s back to the ole grind tomorrow.” Her boyfriend answers.

He’s down to a t-shirt, boxers, and socks.

“And she’s okay with this?”

“She was watching and laughing until she received her first email from George. She’s went to sleep to get away with not answering. No girl code violations here. I pulled her aside to check. Bras before bros.” Chel confirms.

“You didn’t answer the ‘why’ question?”

“We’ve been doing kiddy things all day. Getting real adult with Mickey Mouse playing cards and drinking balance it out.” Kyle answers.

“And you’re okay with this Chels? I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable or--”

“It was my idea. I had to work with nude models all throughout art school. The shock factor of the human form wore off years ago. Strip poker’s a good way to build lasting friendships. You learn a lot about a person when they strip for sport.” She eliminates all worry. “Never Have I Ever is Next.”

“You couldn’t start with that one?” I ask.

“Don’t you have a date to go on?” Taylor retorts.

“Stay in the room and try to keep the noise down.”

“Right back at ’cha, bud.” I know Kyle well enough to know he’s winking at me.

“There are some things we rather not know. Harper makes it clear what you’ve been up to. It’s hard to look at her sometimes. You’re like a brother and sister to me. Ew.” He continues.

“Says the guy free-balling it by choice.”

“It’s called cutting to the chase. You could learn a thing or two from Papa.”

“Call yourself my papa again and see what happens.” I feel my way to the bathroom.

“You’d be calling me it for real if you didn’t stab me in the back! A real friend would’ve told me his MILF was into younger dudes!” Kyle yells after me.

“Ow!” He yelps as I shut as I’m closing the door.

First, I shower. Next, I blow dry my hair. Third, I cross my line in the sand and don a shirt and tie in what has been my home for the last two nights. The sleeves are rolled, but I’m still dressed relatively nicely behind closed doors – a first for me.

Pop agreed not to leave our bedroom until I text her the all-clear. Wooing requires work.

I move a small dining table to the balcony with the fireplace. I drape and smooth the red tablecloth I ironed onto the table. A tea candle inside a Mason jar serves as the table’s centerpiece. Poppy petals are sprinkled around it. Once I’ve got the scene set and the fireplace on, I call room service and tell them I’m ready for the first course of the meal I special requested before our arrival.

The drinks for the evening will be fancy-schmancy champagne recommended by a person that knows what wine names mean. I know the difference between red, white, and sparkling; that’s it. A charcuterie plate is the starter.

The wine was the most expensive part of the meal, everything else isn’t too flashy. She won’t get too mad at me for treating her to nice things tonight. A little tiff is all a part of the plan. It’s sexy when she stands up for herself. Her humility is too. I know she will never use me for my money. She’s undoubtedly here for me. The consistent confirmation takes a giant load off.

When all pieces are in place, myself included, I shoot her a text. It takes longer for me to do it than it should because my hands are shaking from nerves.

Why am I so nervous? She was my first and only girlfriend. I lost my virginity to her. We have a kid together.

The heart begins to thunder when I lay eyes on her.

She’s back in her Wendy outfit, sans jacket. I unapologetically drink in her delectable curves. The tops of Beatrice and Bellina are peeking out of her top. The high-waisted skirt singes in her waist and accentuates her hourglass hips and thighs.

The heels she’s got on work wonders for her long legs and pert behind; I got to check it out as she shut the door. And then there’s her face, her always stunning features have been intensified by a light touch of makeup. And, her glasses are where they should be.

All I can do is stare.

“How warm is the fireplace? Should I get a jacket?” She’s oblivious as usual.

I shake my head.

“No, it’s not warm or no, I don’t need a jacket?”

Swallowing hard, I answer with a sandpaper tongue. “It’s plenty warm. You don’t need a jacket.”

“I’m good to go then.” Poppy walks to me with the coordination she lacked the last time she wore those shoes.

“You look quite dashing this evening, Squints. You can wear the heck out of a shirt and tie.” She cuffs my sleeves the way I tried to do myself.

“You’re – I can’t even – words. I said those. Smooth ones.”

“Is my chatterbox speechless?” She smiles softly at me.

Again, all I can do is nod.

“Your actions are smooth. I feel attractive.”

“You’re gorgeous. Always.” I press a soft kiss to her plush lips.

“There he is.” Her mouth a breath away from mine.

I take advantage of our closeness and draw another kiss from her.

She’s the one who deepens the kiss. My arms snake around her waist. A hand tangles in my hair.

Obnoxious laughter interrupts our heated exchange.

“What’s going on in there?” Pop looks in the direction of the guys’ bedroom.

“You don’t even want to know. My eyes still burn. Ready to go on our date?”

“As soon as you tell me what they’re doing.”

“They were playing strip poker when I went in there. They’re probably on ‘Never Have I Ever’ now. Chelsea had basically won before I left.”

“You don’t think Taylor would demand a rematch?” She raises an eyebrow.

“They’re still playing poker.” I amend.

“They’ll never get to ‘Never Have I Ever’. Chels is a card shark.”

“She said she didn’t work the poker table.”

“She didn’t. Her ex did. She got good at it during the month they dated. She’s won tournaments.”

“She’s lived a life.”

“You have no idea.”

One arm still around her waist, I escort her outside. Shutting the sliding glass door gives us privacy.

“This is a romantic set up for a sophisticated date. Is that what we’re having?”

“The tie says it all. Brace yourself for a classy affair.” I pull out her chair.

“But we’re still going to joke around, right?” She sits.

“We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t.” I scoot her to the table.

“That label looks expensive. You know I can’t tell the difference between a $10 bottle of wine a $200 one. There was no reason to splurge.”

“I wanted to treat my amazing girlfriend to the finer things in life. The seal has been broken, and the cork is out. There’s no way to return the wine. It’ll go to waste if we don’t drink it.”

“You’ve got me this time. I’ll get you next.” She holds up her champagne flute.

“Sure.” I fill her glass.

“I mean it. No more needless spending.”

“Mhmm.”

“You better listen to your girlfriend if you want her to make out with you at the end of the night.”

“That was below the belt, Penelope, absolutely ruthless.”

“A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.” She sips her drink.

We contentedly talk about nothing in particular as we eat our appetizers. I don’t initiate future talk until the main course of eggplant parmesan with marinara sauce and angel-hair pasta. It’s her favorite meal, of course.

“So…”

“So…” She repeats with a playful smile.

I have a swallow of liquid courage. “Have you narrowed your school list to your top three?”

“Yes.” She dabs her mouth with a cloth napkin.

“Come on. Lay it on me. We need to start house hunting.”

“You have to stay quiet until I’ve finished talking.”

“No talking. Understood.”

“And you’re not allowed to try to talk me out of my choices.”

“I won’t, babe. Wherever you want to go, I’ll support it.”

“You say that now.”

“I already told you I’m cool with going overseas. The only place Harper is unhappy is the toilet. There will be no problems moving her if we keep hiding them. The world is the limit. Unless there’s a space university I don’t know about. If there is, the universe is your oyster.”

“I don’t want to leave the country. I think I want to go home.”

“Boston is very doable.”

“Seattle.”

My face falls as my heart sinks. “I can’t let you settle, not again. Harper’s far from a mistake, but your life was derailed. Mine wasn’t. I need to make it up to you. Let me.” I plead.

“The University of Washington has one of the top environmental science programs in the country. It ranks higher than MIT’s. Seattle is one of the most environmentally sustainable cities in America and known for its greenery. It’s the perfect place to study botany and get a job in it. All of the credits I earned taking college courses during high school didn’t transfer into MIT, but UW will allow me to count all of them towards my degree. I can start this fall as a junior. I verified it with their admissions office. That puts earning a graduate degree back on the table.”

“MIT is out. Cool. That’s fine. Some schools rank higher than UW, and you could get into all of them. One of them will probably take your credits too. You can go to grad school no matter what.”

“I love learning, but I’m ready to work. I won’t be able to until I’m 26 if I start over. That’d be with only a bachelor’s degree.”

She’d be working in her desired field with a Ph.D. at 26 if things had gone according to plan or I was there from the beginning to make it possible for her to stay in school.

I stay silent.

What is there to say when you’ve ruined the love of your life’s life, and there is nothing you can do to repair all the damage you’ve caused?

“I’m responsible for this.” She breaks the deafening silence.

I shake my head as I push around my food with my fork.

“I gave you the green light in the greenhouse and I didn’t tell you what came of it. All of this isn’t on you.” She reaches across the table and rests her hand on mine.

With a deep breath, I lift my eyes to meet hers. “You’re still trapped. I never will be. I’ve taken so much from you. The--”

“Rhys--”

“I need to say this. Please.”

She nods her compliance.

“The worst part about all this is if I were given the opportunity to go back in time and not get you pregnant, I wouldn’t. That makes me the worst kind of person, definitely not one someone like you should be with. Here, I am, getting everything I want again. This isn’t how it should be.”

“I wouldn’t go back either.” She tightens her hold on my hand.

“You haven't been able to get what you want.”

“No one gets it all. That’s life.”

“I have. You should have the same opportunities, more even. You sell yourself short all the time. It guts me. I want you to be happy. More than happy, I just--”

She lets go of my hand. I’m left stunned when she leaves her seat, and pleasantly surprised when she sits on my lap.

Pop rests a hand on one of my shoulders and her head on the other. I wrap both arms around her and hug her as close to me as possible.

“I am.” She kisses my cheek. “I wish we did it all together, but I got Chelsea out of the deal. She’s so much more than a best friend. She’s family. UW was on my list the first time around, but Satan pushed for a brand name school that he could brag about his daughter attending. I gave it to him to make him proud. I convinced myself that I made the decision for myself, spun it as my opportunity to go on my own big adventure away from home like you were. Who I was going to MIT for crept in during our last day together. Saying goodbye with baby hormones wasn’t the only reason for the waterfall of tears.”

“Why didn’t you tell me the truth about MIT?” My voice cracks.

“I didn’t want to give you one more thing to rail against Satan for. I wanted to keep the peace. Both of you were important to me. You can see how well that worked out.” She breathes a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not considering Seattle for you. Adventures don’t have to be had far away from home. I missed mine the entire time I was away. What’s so wrong with liking where you are?”

“Nothing, baby.” I kiss the top of her head.“Tell me more about UW.”

Her major would be plant biology. Her minor would be environmental science and terrestrial resource management. The dorm she wants to live in is incredible. It’s a renovated factory with an indoor greenhouse, a music room, and TWO VCRs. Her roommates are a little strange, though – two of them spend most of the day singing and brushing each other’s hair; the third one is a know-it-all.

Poppy would receive hugs and kisses every day from the singing hairdressers; the dream-dashing roommate can be her study buddy. She’s got a strong feeling that she’ll have a close-knit group of friends in no time. There’s a pizza shop nearby that is perfect for late-snacking during all-nighters.

It sounds like it could be a good fit. University of California-Berkeley and Northwestern University, choices two and three, seem like they could be as well.

Campus visits are the only way to be sure. Poppy’s going to Goldilocks without Harper and I hovering. It’s what she’s requested and getting it. Being without Pop during the days she spends exploring her options will be difficult, but Harp and I will be okay. We have each other. Lovebug and I will support her in all ways we can. Plenty of purple pictures will be colored for her when she returns home to us.

Poppy and I barely make it through our lemon sorbet dessert before we start kissing. Finishing a bottle of champagne, a crackling fire, and breakthrough conversations are working well aphrodisiacs. It’s not the best situation to be in, all things considered, but some things can’t be helped. Our magnetic attraction is one of them.

Now seated on the balcony’s loveseat, her hand is on the nape of my neck, controlling the kiss as I run my hand up and down her outer thigh.

“Inside?” Her lips shift to my jaw.

My response is given by throwing her over my shoulder. She squeals in surprise. As she laughs at my eagerness, she reminds me to turn off the fireplace. And I do it. Her responsibility is such a turn on.

Poppy smiles up at me from the mattress after I toss her on it. I make a big show of unbuckling and removing her shoes. She’s particularly giggly. It has me pumping the breaks.

“Are you drunk, babe?”

She sits upright. “I’m a little tipsy and a lot happy.” She tugs my face to hers using my tie.

“Promise?” I separate my face from hers and hold it in place with both hands. “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“All thoughts are coherent. We had a grown-up date that won’t end in a bathtub. All the wooing’s left me giddy.“ She locks her lips with mine. “What about you?” She winds her arms around my neck.

“Drunk on love.”

“Are you sure that’s the line you want to go with, Wilde?” She separates her face furth enough from mine to look me in the eye.

From the massive grin on her face, I know she loves it.

“I want to keep you, so yeah, it is.” I smooch her lush lips.

She slides my tie out of my collar as we pick up from where we left off.

The mad dash to get down to our underwear is reminiscent of our past life. A sizzling current runs between us with each slide of our skin. Lip locks are fortified by years of longing. All of it makes my head spin. My body wants to do more than touch and taste, but I draw from my small reserve of self-restraint. I take the breaths I need to maintain our steady pace.

It’s what wins the race.

…and keeps her newly laid plans possible.

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