“Hello, how may I help you?” The chipper hotel clerk greets me with a megawatt smile.
A smile in response is compulsory. “Hello, a guest left a key at the desk for me.”
“May I have your name, the guest’s name, and room number?” The clerk begins to type on her computer’s keyboard.
“Poppy James. It might be under Penelope. The reservation is under George Weitzman. It’s room number 835.”
Her eyes shoot to mine and her mouth falls slightly agape. She quickly recovers and clears her throat. “ID, please. “
I hand my driver’s license to her, silently praying she maintains her professionalism.
She spends longer than necessary comparing me to the picture on my license.
I know she’s not trying to confirm my identity. She’s mentally comparing the pictures and videos she’s seen of me in the media to the way I look in the flesh. The review of my outward appearance will likely be posted online and surely share with her friends.
“Do you need a second form of identification? I have a debit card.” I politely remind her of the job she should be doing.
“No, the one works.” She quickly tucks my key card into its informational sleeve.
“Enjoy your stay.” Her cheery smile is noticeably gone as my ID and the pamphlet are transferred to me.
I’m officially back.
I regroup on my ride up to our suite. Excitement is all that remains when I insert my key into the door.
The first thing I see is Rhys standing on a dining chair with Taylor sporting him as he hangs a ‘Welcome Home’ banner.
“It’s still crooked. Start over.” Taylor observes as he holds steady the dining chair Rhys is standing on.
“Is too. I’m willing to put money on it.”
“It’s not crooked.”
“You’d take me up on the bet if you didn’t think I was right.”
“She’s my girlfriend. This is my sign. You’re not taking over.”
“But it’s crooked.”
“HAAAAAAARPERRR!” Rhys calls her with a song instead of disputing Taylor.
“You’re getting your cute kid to call it pretty? That’s low.”
My heart is whole the moment I lay eyes on my baby.
She’s chosen to wear her purple unicorn onesie for the day. The zip-up singlet’s hood that holds her golden horn. The bedazzled light-up tennis shoes on her feet are how I know the outfit I bought in the sleepwear section is what Rhys has approved for her to wear today.
Her sense of style being put on full display makes me smile that much harder.
“DAAAA—MAMA!” Harper exclaims.
She abandons Rue and bolts in my direction with her arms outstretched. I ditch my bags and meet her halfway. She clings to me like a koala when I pick her up.
I hold her flush to my body, supporting her head the way I did when she was an infant. “I’ve missed you so much, Lovebug.” My voice creaks.
“Miss you oh oh much.” She nuzzles her face in my neck.
A loud thud in Rhys and Taylor’s direction makes me open my eyes.
The chair is overturned. Rhys is on top of Taylor, tangled in the sign he was trying to hang. Taylor is groaning and flailing his limbs in hopes of getting his brother off of him.
Harper jerks her head to them as well, but she doesn’t loosen her hold on me in the slightest.
“Uh, oh! Daddy and Nuckle Aylor, o-tay?”
“Your daddy won’t be if he doesn’t get off me.” Tay grunts.
I shake with silent laughter as Harp and I make our way over to her.
“You had one job, Tay – keep him in one piece until I get back.” I grin down at them.
“I did it. You’re back.” He moves Rhys to the ground with a hard shove.
On his back, Rhys gazes up at me with a dopey smile and dazed eyes. “It’s you.” He sounds so mesmerized.
My heart jumpstarts. ”Check if he has a concussion.”
“That’s just his, ‘the woman I’m infatuated with is within reach after all this time’ face. I’ve seen it dozens of times over the past few years, every time he mistook someone for you, the night he found you, and right now. Creepy as hel-eck, isn’t it?”
I’ve heard the tales of Rhys’s worldwide hunt for me. They warm my heart every time.
A smile that mirrors Rhys’s morphs onto my face when my eyes meet his. “It’s me. What are you going to do about it?”
He shakes off his haze and the sign. Rhys tucks a stray hair behind my ear with such tenderness. He cups my cheek with his hand and presses a whisper-soft kiss on my lips. The affection zips through me like lightning.
“I’d be hugging you the way Harp is if she hadn’t beat me to you.”
“I can picture it vividly.” I’m giggling as I kiss his cheek.
“We ake itcher, Mama.” Harper notifies me.
“We can color pictures.”
“Itcher all done.”
“Oh, you made me a picture while I was away?”
Harper nods with a bright smile. “Real pwetty. Lots and lots. All fo you.”
“You made me a lot of pictures?”
“Uh-huh. Wove you pwesent. Pwize!”
“I’m very surprised by my ‘I love you’ present. Thank you so much, Lovebug.” I’m grinning from ear to ear as I rub my nose against hers.
“Elcome.” She’s all smiles, happy to have done something nice for someone else.
“You’ve been sorely missed.” Taylor joins our circle.
“Poppy!” Mom comes from the room from which Harper came.
She rushes to me and gives me an all-encompassing hug. “It's so good to see you, sweetheart.”
“Thank you for holding down the fort for me.”
“Anytime. Did you have a nice flight? Let me take your coat.”
“My flight was the best kind --uneventful. I’ll keep my coat on for the time being. Thanks, though.” I adjust my hold on Harper.
The smile she gives me is all-knowing. “Things haven’t been the same without you.”
Kyle almost knocks me over with the power he puts behind the hug he gives me. He was in the middle of his weekly call to his grandparents when I arrived. The intensity of his affection is to make up for not being around when I initially arrived.
…at least that’s what he tells Rhys when he looks like he’s about to choke him.
Harper is showing me the coloring book pages she colored for me when Ian and Josie come through the front door. He’s carrying an assortment of fruit that is cut and arranged like flowers. The vase the flower bouquet is in reads, ‘Congratulations’.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I tried to get back before you got here, but I got caught in traffic on the way back from the store. It has started snowing.” Josie’s apology is profuse and sincere.
“Traffic. That’s what we’re calling it now?” Kyle pokes fun.
Ian shoots him a look. “I was in the gym. I ran into her on the elevator and offered to hold Poppy’s present.”
“I traded him for his water bottle.” She holds it up.
“Sure,” Rhys says dubiously.
“You’re safe and you are here now. That’s all that matters.” I make my way over to them.
Harper is on my heels. She hugs their legs as I hug their torsos.
“Is there anything I’ve missed?” I look between the two of them.
“No, have we? Which school did you choose?” He deflected the attention from himself.
“Harper showing me her pretty pictures is all that you’ve missed. Thank you for the present.” I accept the fruit.
Harper follows me to the nearest table.
“Are you going to tell us anytime soon or…?” Kyle bites into a gourmet chocolate cupcake.
Those were a personal room service order, but he did offer me one.
“There’s an information-share pyramid. Rhys is first. He and I will explain it to Harper. We’ll tell you. And then it will be informally passed along to friends and the rest of the family.” I unwrap the fruit.
Harper is bouncing at my feet for it.
“Have daddy wash your hands, Lovebug.”
She runs to him. Rhys tosses her over his shoulder and carries her to the nearest bathroom. She laughs all the way there.
“Sweetheart, this is me – Mom – you can go ahead and tell me.” Claudia saddles up to me.
“He’s got to be the first to know. It directly affects him. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Good girl.” She massages my shoulder.
“How was she?”
“Sweet, helpful, and cute as can be. I could watch her all day any day. Truly, just call and I’ll be there.”
“And my other one?”
“Frustrating. Not letting me help until the end can only be described as stupid, but it was nice seeing his intense dedication directed at her.”
“He's a great dad."
“They were inseparable this week, but she still missed you like crazy. The pictures were all her idea. She went through two coloring books. One of the books came with stickers. She said she wanted to wait until you got back from the boat so that she could share them with you.”
“I bought her a souvenir at each airport. Don’t tell Rhys. He’ll never let me live it down. I get onto him for buying her unnecessary things all the time.”
“Mum’s the word.”
Having Rhys and Harper glued to me for the evening was expected. Claudia remaining in the suite instead of going out was too. Kyle, Ian, and Taylor staying in on a Friday night on their day off to ask questions about my trip and the schools I visited is surprising. It’s not that they wouldn’t care about my trip. It’s that this is the type of conversation we have on the bus when we're trapped in one place and don’t have much else to do. They could go to a bar, the movies, the mall – plenty of other places, but nope, they put off getting away from their keepers until it is time for Rhys and I to go through Harper’s nightly routine.
They sure know how to make a girl feel special.
How happy I am to be back in mom-mode settles upon me as I bathe Harper. She looks forward to bath time every day. She has enjoyed it since she was a baby. Soothing her in the water and rinsing off the bits of the world she’s collected whilst discovering the world has been the highlight of my day every day that I am about to do it. Baths are rowdier when Rhys is involved, but I enjoy times like this too. The singing and splashing are as fun for me as it is for them and their playfulness is one of the traits I love most about my little and tall one.
A story and her lullaby put Harper to sleep. Pillows on either side of her act as bed guardrails. Rhys takes me by the hand and tries to lead me to the walk-in closet in which he has spent a suspicious amount of time.
“I need to get something. I’ll meet you inside.” I tug out of his grasp.
“We have to enter Narnia together. Mr. Tumnus sorta freaks me out. I’m going to use you as a human shield if we run into him.”
I breathe a laugh, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ve missed you.”
“All a part of my scheme to lock you down.”
“Is that why you’re wearing your bait shirt?” I pluck the black Henley he’s wearing.
“I’m not above using my body. You should know that too. Your ring is supposed to help you remember me. I’m going to demand a refund.”
“The ring’s doing its job. I made a point to forget you want to be a cheap hooker.”
“Free, not cheap. Get it right “
“You love it.”
“I do. Boom! Married.” He whisper-yells.
“Our custody battle for the baseball hoodie will be ruthless. I won’t leave that courtroom until I get it AND half of our Beanie Baby collection.”
“We don’t have a Beanie Baby collection.”
“Oh, we’re getting one and it’s going to better than that one couple’s. We’re going out with a weird bang.”
I stifle a belly laugh and playfully shove him in the direction of the closet. “Go before I wake Harper.”
“Miss you already.” He picks with me by kissing my cheek instead of listening right away.
I meet him in our childhood trauma prevention chamber after I collect his gift.
He had created a fort by tying a sheet on hangers. A duvet is spread out within it. Pillows add additional comfort. Fake candles flicker for ambiance (I had to get on my hands and knees to confirm that they were fake. He takes his wooing seriously. Potentially burning down an absurdly expensive hotel in hopes of seducing me). There is a bottle of champagne on ice accompanied by two glasses. Ever resourceful, he brought in what was left of my fruit bouquet.
“This is about right.” I scan our surroundings, smiling.
“It would’ve been better if I was allowed to use real candles. ‘Candles? You’ll start a fire, Rhys Michael. I’ll pick up fake ones. They’ll work just fine’.” He does his best Claudia impression. “I wouldn’t have ACTUALLY gotten real ones. I just told her I wanted to.”
“I love scented candles as much as the next person, but risking lives, property damage, and mass evacuation while its snowing isn’t my thing. Fakes were a good call.”
“Enough about me. Share the big news, babe. I’ve been super patient. That’s not easy for me.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“Uh, yeah, I know that. I wouldn’t be with you right now if it didn’t. Lesson already learned. I need to know if we get to start house hunting.”
“GET to start? You love your house.”
“Our. And I’ll still own it. Taylor will just live in it solo most of the year. I’ve been into HGTV’s House Hunters lately. Asking a realtor to perform a miracle by requesting super specific things in a location that doesn’t have those things within a hard-set budget looks like it’d be a good time.”
“Are you just saying that for me?”
“Check my streaming service search histories. I don’t like House Hunters International as much, but I’ll watch it if it’s on.”
I plant a firm kiss on his lips. “The answer’s in the bag,” I mumble against his mouth.
“Pause on this.” He gives me a quick peck and tears into his gift like a kid on Christmas.
“For us?” Rhys’s voice cracks as he stares at the t-shirt in his hands.
“Me. I didn’t think I’d be welcome home again. This is my shot to go back on stellar terms. Why not take it?”
“Shot? The admissions office broke all their computers drooling when they read your application. They’re pissed they have to wait until they send their answers to the normals to give you yours.” He remarks as he replaces his bait shirt with the University of Washington one I bought him.
“You’re not going to try to talk me out of it?” My eyes mist over.
“How can I argue with what you said. Do they have one of these in a 2T? Harp and I need to wear matching outfits when we drop you off on your first day of school.”
“Check the bag.” I turn my head to subtly wipe away the tears that are threatening to fall.
He moves it aside and draws me into his arms. “My dream of asking for an ocean-front cottage in Illinois or an 18th-century brownstone in California are dashed, but I have it in me to forgive you. Don’t beat yourself up.”
He successfully makes me laugh.
“In all seriousness, I trust your judgment more than my own. If home is where you want to go, we will. I’ll back whatever you believe is best for yourself.” He holds me tighter while continuing to steadily run a reassuring hand up and down my back.
“Your tune was a little different at Disneyland.”
“I run my mouth and think later. Did you forget everything about me while you were away?”
“Never.” I tilt my head up to make eye contact.
We gravitate toward each other like magnets. As we’re falling to the floor in each other’s arms with our lips still ravaging one another’s, the ice bucket containing the bottle of wine tips over. I yelp from the sudden chill. Rhys shifts me out of the frozen chips.
“Real candles would’ve taken care of this cleanup. Just saying.” He shoves the ice back into the bucket.
“There’s such a thing as too much wishful thinking. Fire and ice canceling each other out in a flammable environment isn’t a risk worth taking.”
“Want to see if bubbly can change your mind?” He proposes with a playful glint in his eyes.
“Trying to talk me into endorsing something too irresponsible to humor isn’t very romantic.”
“It’s a dumb thing best friends do, smartypants. It’s not every day mine gets into her actual dream school. Who would I be if I didn’t make sure we celebrate properly?”
“Not someone I love.”
“Right, and that’s my second favorite thing to be.”
My smile grows. “What did you and your sidekick get up to today?”
“We went to a Toddler and Me music class this morning. To brag, especially to Taylor, our prodigy blew everyone’s minds.”
“Did her outfit have anything to do with it?”
“No, it was just an icebreaker. She stayed on beat and pitch while dressed as a unicorn. The teacher was impressed and she made friends with everyone in her class. That’s just life as a genius. I'm sure you understand.”
“Did anyone recognize you?”
“Nope. I was just another dad. There were two of us. Both of us were unrightfully fawned over for it.”
“I bet they were.”
“Hey, sassy, none of the yoga moms compared to the MILF who lounges before me.”
“What happened to best friend time?”
“Stop being yourself and I’ll be able to focus better. Do you know how much I got done while you were done? Loads.”
“I can go.” I start to get up.
He tugs me back down and into his lap. “Kidding. Totally kidding. Don’t leave me.”
“So needy.” Turning over my shoulder, I peck his lips.
“Yep.” He nips at my lips.
Somehow, he manages to pop the cork on the bottle of sparkling wine. I hold the glasses as he pours it. Drinking in our back to front position takes strategic maneuvering. Moving doesn’t cross my mind. The confining arm across my waist illustrates that the feeling is mutual.
We have one of our classic nonsensical conversations as we drink and snack. The closeness and his familiar scent, the ease at which we can talk, the frequency of our laughter – it’s more of a turn-on than a moonlit stroll after a three-course meal at a three-Michelin-star restaurant that leads to making love on a luxuriously plush bed covered with rose petals as smooth jazz plays and a fireplace crackles.
Refraining from doing everything with the person who makes doing nothing fun is growing more difficult by the second.
“Hm?” I hum around the strawberry I’m biting.
“Will you wash my back?”
His question makes me inhale at the wrong time. Strawberry juice gets sucked into my windpipe. He pats my back to help me breathe.
“What?” I wheeze.
“Okay, hear me out. We had a bit of a whoopsie the last time we celebrated a big life moment. If you have a set task, you’ll focus on doing the best job you can more than me. Cold water on tap will keep us from taking things too far. Best part: the space between my shoulder blades will be clean when it’s all said and done.”
“Do I get to wash your hair too?”
He rears back his head. “Are you trying to make Harper a sibling?”
“She’s going to be an incredible big sister in the distant future.”
“Bold the word ‘distant’. I almost crashed and burned this week and you’ve got sciencing to do.”
“Consider it bolded, capitalized, and italicized.”
Medical professionals, Chelsea, and Harper are the only people who have seen me naked in almost four years. Those peep shows were unavoidable. Stripping down and standing at my most vulnerable is a choice, a terrifyingly exhilarating one.
Wrangling Harper every day and the animal noise version of yoga we do on days I’m feeling particularly anxious are the closest things I do to exercise. Rhys’s body is as ridiculous as his personality. He’s genetically gifted and his weekly workout regimen has yielded glorious results. He’s a regular frontrunner in most attractive Male celebrity polls. Intimidation was anticipated.
The boyishly panicked, ‘oh my gosh, my dream girl is over there. She’s naked. What if I make a fool of myself?’ look he’s giving me dissipates all body consciousness on my part.
“You okay over there, Wilde?”
He huffs. “You couldn’t take it easy on me just this once? I mean come on.” He motions to me from head to toe.
I use my hair to cover Beatrice and Bellina. “Is this better?”
“Yes.” His bottom lip is poked out.
“It doesn’t look like it.”
“I miss them, but it’s for the best.” He dramatically sighs.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Bellina gets to touch your heart. I can’t and it’s not fair.”
“Your attachment to them is alarming at times.”
“They’re attached to you. Also unfair.”
With a shake of my head, I take his hand and guide him to the waiting shower.
Deep kisses are exchanged and heavy petting occurs, but the task I have been called to do and vivid memories of the worst battles I’ve fought to get to where I’ll be in the fall keeps us in bounds. Rhys’s back is the cleanest it’s ever been, he returns the favor, and there is a 0.00% chance Harper has a little sister or brother on the way. Best part: the culmination of it sends us to bed satisfied and smiling.
“I think she’s trying to tell us something.” I speculate softly.
Harper is starfishing in the middle of the bed. Rue is at her side but untouched.
“She’s ready and waiting to cuddle. Lie down.” He folds down the covers on my side of the bed.
After toeing off my slippers, I crawl in beside her. Like a heat-seeking missile, she rotates on her side in my direction and scoots until she is plastered to my side and her head is on my shoulder.
“She globs on, just like her old man.” Rhys nods his approval.
“I understand her neediness.”
“You should understand stand mine too. Wildes are physically affectionate. Why do you think there are so many of us? Honestly, Penelope, it’s like you have amnesia.”
“Easy. Freak of nature.”
“I’m going to tell him.”
“Do it. I already have. He does the same to me.”
“His argument makes more sense.”
“United front. We’ve been over this so many times. That’s it. I’m getting a ring refund tomorrow.” Rhys jokes as he makes his way over to his side.
“I’d like to see you try to take this promise away from me.” I place my glasses on the nightstand nearest me.
“Never again.” He pecks my lips after putting his arm around me.
I fall asleep cradling our daughter in my arms and encased in his warm embrace.
My phone vibrating on the nightstand drags me out of my peaceful slumber. I begrudgingly vacate the bed and shuffle to the bathroom to answer the call.
It must be important if Chelsea is contacting me at 3 AM.
“What’s going on?” I sit on the floor, my back against the tub.
Her response sounds like high-speed gibberish.
“Slow down. Words. I need simple ones this early.” I rub an eye with the heel of my head to defog my brain.
“I set an online alert for your name. My phone started blowing up. Someone leaked the truth. It’s all over the internet. I called you as soon as I read a few articles.”
My stomach plummets, my heart pounds and my hands tremble violently. “What are they -- what--? I--”
“They know you didn’t tell him, where you worked, how you reunited– just about everything. One site even put together a timeline of pictures of what Rhys was doing on and around Harper’s birthday as proof. All of the stories are citing an 'inside source'.”
I grit my teeth to retain tears. “What else? I want the worst of it.”
“No, I can’t hurt--”
“Tell me.” I bark.
“They, um -- you’re a knockout, doll. I tell you all the time. I do. I made you wear my dress. It looked great on you. Still would. We had to wear heels too. You’ve legs for days, so—”
“Just say it!”
“There’s a picture of you at Eclipse. There’s talk you served up more than drinks while you worked there.”
Numbness begins to take hold of my body.
I remain silent as I stare blankly at the door.
“It’s all going to be okay. This exactly what the ’shopped pictures are for. I shoot them to you for final approval. After that, I’ll forward them to--”
“Don’t. They’ve always hated me. Why bother?” My voice stripped of all emotion.
“Because you don’t deserve this.”
“I did most of it. Being mistaken for an escort isn’t the worst thing in the world. What’d they say is my going rate?”
“We can get this sorted. It’s not over. We--”
“Go back to sleep. I’ll call Taylor and--”
“Bending the truth is okay if--”
“I was and will always be selfish and wrong for what I did to him. Warranted hatred might be a nice change of pace. I’ll fill you in when I know.”
“You won’t because you’re not. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Things are crystal clear over here. It was my mistake. I’m done running from it. Stopping is my choice.”
“Please don’t do this.”
“Joan Jetting is the way to go, you know? It just makes sense.”
“You’re not and it’s seriously scaring me.”
“Her song Bad Reputation. Rhys would’ve gotten it.”
“You sound like a drunk robot. Don’t do anything rash or go online while I call Tay.”
“There’s no need to check out what they’re saying. There’s nothing they could write that I haven’t thought about myself. I’m all out of baby daddies’ numbers to block. Sitting all that’s left to do.”
“Can you move? He won’t go in there out of courtesy.”
“I don’t want to wake Harper or Rhys. They need their sleep and I need time to breathe.”
“That’d be well and good if your voice had some sort of inflection. You sound like you’re not blinking. Are you blinking?’
I make a point to do it.” Yeah.” My voice, however, doesn't lift from its flat tone.
“You can breathe while I call in reinforcements. You’re legitimately deranged if you think I’m not.” She hangs up before I can refute her.
My phone falls to the wayside as I draw my knees to my chest. Resting my forehead on my kneecaps and wrapping my arms around my legs, I create a safe space to breakdown.