Sum of Us

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Ch.46:Rhys

A sudden vice grip on my bicep jolts me awake.

I can’t say this is the first time Taylor has woken me up this way. His serial killer, “grab your victim while they’re defenseless and hover above them,” act is reserved for when I use one of his favorite things without asking and return it broken.

I have done no such thing…lately.

“Wasn’t me.”

“I know.” His somberness makes my heart pick up.

“Why are—?” Peripherally, I notice Harper and Poppy are gone.

Tay pins me to the headboard when I try to leave the bed. “Harp’s with Mom. Pop’s in the bathroom.”

“Why?” I bark.

“Someone sold you out. Truth-laced bullshit is all over the inter—”

I shove him out of the way and make a beeline for the bathroom door. Taylor tackles me to the ground before I can reach it.

“GET OFF!” I thrash.

“You’re angry. I’m fucking fuming too, but I can’t let you go in hot. Chels said Poppy was damn-near catatonic when she spoke to her. We don’t want to know what happens when your excess meets her nonexistent.” Sitting on my back, Tay has my wrists to the ground with his hands and my legs secured by straddling my thighs.

I’m still fighting him, but less so. “How bad is it?”

“Outsider looking in, it’s an 8.5 on a scale from 1-10. It’s a 3,000 for us.”

“She’s taking the brunt of it then?” It’s not really a question.

“The world tends to be the cruelest to the kindest people.”

I swallow the golfball-sized lump in my throat. “She chose UW.”

“I figured when I saw your shirt.”

“They can’t take it away from her. She’s worked so hard.”

“Pop’s a fighter, but don’t push her too hard right now. If you approach her guns blazing, she’ll swallow down her breakdown to keep you from blowing up.”

“All I’m going to do is hold her.”

“That’s amenable if you give me your phone and hers.”

“Wh--”

“You have a big mouth and people who like to listen to it. Nothing can be said until we know what the hell we’re talking about. By confiscating the phones, I’m removing temptation.”

“Mine’s on the nightstand. Her phone’s the last thing I’m going to be thinking of when I see her.”

“Womb-promise that you won’t touch it.”

“I womb-promise.”

He releases me at the speed a bomb squad member would use while handling an explosive.

Taylor’s still breathing down my neck when I reach the door. I give him a nudge before knocking.

“Baby, it’s me. Can I come in?” My voice is as close to a meditation coach's as I can make it.

Silence.

I try it again.

“We don’t have to talk. To be near you is all I need to do.”

Still nothing.

“I really don’t want to break down this door, Wen, but I’m running low on options. Let me in or it’s coming down.”

“I told you to stay calm,” Tay hisses, retaking hold of my arm.

“Open,” is her barely audible reply.

“Most of the door is frosted glass. You think she’d let me cut myself to get to her?”

He holds both hands up in surrender.

Poppy is curled into a seated ball with her head down when I step into the room. She doesn’t move out of her defensive pose when I shut and lock the door. She remains in it when I join her on the floor. Testing the waters, I scoot as close to her as possible. Deeming acceptance is a safe bet, I put my arms around her. My body stills when she begins to shift in them. I relax when she curls into me and her face gets buried in the crook of my neck.

The streams saturating my neck and shirt have me seeing red. Clenching my eyes shut and focusing solely on comforting her is what keeps me from charging out of this room and hunting down every last person who has ever said a bad thing about her and beating the ever-loving shit out of them.

It’d take a while, but she’s worth it.

Her occasional sniffs are the only sounds made for a long stretch. Kissing the top of her head is the closest I get to running my mouth.

“Where’s Harper?” Poppy croaks.

From the lack of talking for an extended period, I have to clear my throat before speaking. “Sleeping in Mom’s bed.”

“She’ll be up soon.”

“She’s in good hands.”

“I’ve been gone for a week. I should—”

I hold her in place when she tries to stray. “You’re not up for it.”

“She needs me.” Her watery-eyed plea for me to let her go breaks my heart into smaller pieces.

“She’d worry as much as you would if she sees you like this.” I tuck hair clinging to her face behind her ear.

She drops her head and resumes crying. My rage reaches a rolling boil as she trembles in my arms. Grinding my teeth and stroking her back prolong my rampage.

I’m sure as hell going on one later.

“Say the word, and we’ll go.”

“It’s everywhere.” Her voice is heartbreakingly soft.

I stroke her hair. “I’m so sorry, baby.”

“This can’t be for nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were apart and miserable. Both of us worked hard despite of it. All of it was done to be as happy we were yesterday. Leaving with our tails between our legs would be a waste.”

“So, you want…”

“We stay. You’re going on.”

“But you – I can’t—”

“Make it worth it, please.”

I guide her face to mine. Even tear-streaked, puffy-eyed, and red-nosed, she’s stunning – her strength is defiantly eclipsing her devastation.

“You’re so beautiful.” Cupping her cheek, I caress its skin with my thumb.

“I need you to be My Rhys.”

A lightbulb switches on in my head. My mouth takes the lead. “Will you delete my social media accounts? Taylor took my phone, and I womb-promised not to touch yours.”

“Deactivate?”

“No, I’m closing up my personal shop for good. They don’t deserve my nice things or access to my beautiful girls.”

A minuscule smirk twitches at the corner of her lips. “What would you like your goodbye to say?”

“What I owe them – nothing.”

The passionate kiss she initiates and controls catches me off-guard.

Poppy’s sitting in my lap, I’ve got my arms around her waist, and I’m watching over her shoulder as she logs into my accounts. The sensations of satisfaction and relief intensify with each delete button she presses.

“How’d I do?”

“You’re a natural.” I kiss her cheek. “Where to now?”

“I want to hold our ray of sunshine.”

“Stand up and turn around. Time for your check-up.”

She stumbles on her feet. I steady her with my arms up and my hands on her hips.

“Let me clean up before my evaluation. I’ll score higher.”

“You sound like yourself, smartypants.” I plant a kiss on her forehead.

We go through our morning routines at the same time.

The comfort with each other needed to do it and the domesticity puts me in a slightly better mood. It’s proof she hasn’t pulled away from me…yet.

Her eyes are understandably sad, but I clear Pop for interaction. Being around Harper will help her feel better. It’s impossible not to smile around her.

“I hate to leave you, but I’m unworthy of cuddles until I’ve hunted down everyone who has hurt you.”

“I understand. I, um, I know where you can start.”

“Go on.”

“On Harper’s birthday, before we left for breakfast, Rob came into our suite. He ignored Robby and me when he walked in. It made me angry. I confronted him about his shirt to keep the subject lighter. He called it stupid and refused to wear it. I tried to uninvite him to the party. He hinted that he’d talk if I went through with it. I dropped the matter, but I did text Leo and told him to get Rob away from me. He took it upon himself to punch him in the face.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Repressing my anger and not raising my voice at her is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

“It was your big day. I didn’t want to upset you. Leo took care of it. Rob put on his shirt and was too scared of Leo to look him in the eye or misbehave for the rest of the day. I thought it was over.”

I close my eyes and exhale as I mentally count backward from three. “Anything else?” I return my eyes to hers.

“Don’t be mad at me.”

“I’m not. I’m angry about what happened. Even if Rob didn’t betray us, he disrespected you. People doing that will always piss me off.”

“He’s always been all talk. Becca is fiercely protective of you and he’s terrified of Leo. Neither of them will be able to turn a blind eye if he did it. I really thought the matter was settled.” She fidgets with her hands.

I take them into mine. “It’s okay. I know now. I’ll get to the bottom of it.” I give her a quick smooch.

Ian, Kyle, Taylor, George, Josie, Trina, and Tyrone are in the living room. They are too consumed by talking and using their phones and computers to notice Poppy and I walk through the room to reach Mom’s room.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will. Love you.”

“I love you too.”

She kisses my cheek before stepping to the room and shutting the door behind her. Harper’s excitement about her mama’s arrival can be heard through the door.

It’s the only happy yelling that will be done today.

With a single thunderous clap, I get everyone in the room’s attention.

“Tell me what we know,” I order with my hands on my hips when all eyes are on me.

“You should have a seat.” Josie vacates her chair.

“Keep it. I’m too hyped to sit.” I shift on my feet, overloaded by energy.

“I’ll get you water. How about a few mimosas too? Perhaps some whiskey?” Jose keeps trying to cater to me.

“Tranquilizer darts fit for a rhino would be a better bet,” Ian says beneath his breath.

“Someone needs to start talking. I’m getting annoyed.”

“Bedroom.” Taylor stands from the couch.

“He needs to hear from the group. You could miss something.”

Taylor doesn’t humor Trina’s reprimand with a response and follows me into the bedroom as though she didn’t say a word.

He locks the door behind us. “Sit.”

“I can’t.”

“Do it or I’ll force you.”

I perch on the end on the bed. He does the same on the desk connected to the wall.

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it.” He sighs. “One of the main and more fucked up rumors swirling around is that Poppy had a side hustle at Eclipse as a prostitute. The dress she has in the pictures isn’t more revealing than the average dress a girl our age wears to a club. She’s curvy and tall. It’d be impossible for her legs and cleavage not show. Yeah, she’s smiling at the person she’s giving a drink to. That’s just good customer service. The call girl thing is a fucking stretch. But still, they’re saying it. They’re also saying it’s a good thing that you stepped in when you did because Harper was being subjected to a revolving door of dudes. The label dipshits asked me if there could be any truth to it.”

I lunge for the door. He has me pinned to the floor in an instant.

“We need all the allies we can get right now. They’ve got major pull. We can’t ax them until this over.”

“I can’t work with them. I can’t. They -- SHE’D NEVER DO THAT!” I scream at them.

“I’ve already torn them new assholes for suggesting she’d subject Harper or herself to that sort of danger. Especially Harp. She loves her more than life itself.”

“She’s an amazing mom and so strong. She -- I’D KILL YOU IF I COULD!” I can’t stay focused on Taylor.

“Whoa there, we can’t afford death threats on our rap sheet.”

“I don’t care. I really don’t. She doesn’t deserve this bullshit. I don’t even deserve her. She – AS SOON AS THIS IS OVER, YOU’RE OUT!” My mind and mouth go back to the overpaid idiots

He applies more pressure to my back. “They won’t work as hard. They know you mean it.”

“Do you think I care?”

“I know how few shits you give than anyone. People dared to be cruel to your girl. You’ll be cracking skulls, literally, if I don’t stop you.”

“You’ll have to go to the bathroom sometime,” I grumble.

“There are other people around to watch you.”

“Does Pop know?”

“Yeah, Chelsea told her.”

I sigh heavily, dropping my head to the carpet.

“She said she made a joke of it if that’s any consolation.”

“She self-deprecates when she’s her most hurt and wants to put the person she’s talking to at ease.”

“Did she do it when you broke up with her?”

“Yup.”

“Shit.”

“She’s going to pull away and hate me and go back to Boston. It’s only a matter of time.” I speak into the ground.

“Don’t make me the optimistic twin.”

“You’d leave if you could. We can’t—contracts. She’s free.”

“We love you too much to bail. I’ll break your clavicle if you don’t knock off the self-pitying.”

“I’m not, but don’t. She wants me to go on tonight.”

“Are you serious?”

“She doesn’t want the past to be pointless.”

“If I were her, I’d give you an ultimatum—music or me.”

“Same. I braced myself for the lawsuit and everything, but nope. She said the show must go on. I wouldn’t willingly face all this. She’s way braver than I could ever be.”

“Marry her or I will.”

“I’m trying. Back off. Get off my back too. The sadness and admiration are watering down the anger.”

“There’s more I need to tell you. Better safe than sorry.”

“On with it then. You’re heavy.”

“There’s more than one source. Different outlets have different types of information. Some only have logistics – the when, where, and how. Others have things only a person who knows you could know.”

“Rob hates us. Prime suspect. Tim’s new, loyalty could be questionable. I’ve been riding Trina lately. --”

“You just want a reason to fire her early.”

“That’d be a perk, but she honestly has been getting annoyed by me.”

“She’s used to difficult clients. Speaking of firings, it’s no secret you would’ve fired Carter a long time ago if ‘he looks at my girlfriend ass too much’ were an acceptable reason.”

“Why would he hurt her if he wants to get her in the sack?”

“He knows he doesn’t have a shot and money’s the best incentive. Zara hates you more than anyone.”

“Put them down. Who else?”

“A paparazzi-hired private investigator. Harper’s birth certificates are circulating. An average Joe wouldn’t think of collect those. “

“Her birth certificates?! Is that legal?”

“Don’t know yet. We’ll sue them regardless.”

“What else do they have on Harper?” My blind rage is back.

No one touches my kid.

“They think because of how advanced she is, she might be mine instead of yours. We’re identical. There’s no way of telling. A paternity test couldn’t even prove it. It’s fucking ludicrous.”

“You better be kidding.”

“I wish I were. Harp's brilliant and selfless like Pop, but honestly, she’s more of your clone than I am. We’d never do that to you.”

“I know! What else?”

“The truth, unfortunately. Poppy didn’t tell you she was pregnant when you broke up, she blocked your number, and made it impossible for you to contact her. You were devastated by it and fell into a deep depression. And while you’re deeply hurt by all of it, especially missing key moments in Harper’s life, you’ve chosen to look past Poppy’s wrongdoings. The only lie is they’re saying you’re forcing your relationship for Harper’s sake. They’re predicting and hoping your relationship doesn’t last long. People are pleading for you to go for full custody.”

“Get me a pillow. I need to scream.”

“Don’t run.”

“Where can I go?! Everyone thinks they know my business!”

“That’s nothing new.” He releases me.

Seated upright with my knees drawn to my chest, I glare at the door. My heart’s violently thudding.

I know deep down inside of if that I would do a lot more than pass out subpoenas if it wouldn’t land me in jail. I’m not missing another moment of Harper’s life and I wouldn’t be able to function that long without her and Poppy.

“Scream.” Tay tosses the pillow at me.

It doesn’t do much good. It still sounds like someone is being murdered in here.

My self-control is holding on by a bare thread. My eruption volume is lowest on my list.

“I need my phone.” The warpath I’m on can be heard in my voice.

“Call order?”

“After I allow the piece of shit to not be a coward, I’m sending Leo to waterboard him. Once he squeals, Beck’s going to make her choice once and for all – him or us. Enough is enough.”

“Put it on speaker.” He returns my cell.

Rob’s phone rings once and goes to voicemail.

“Hey, asshole, I know it was you. Your days aren’t numbered. Your time’s up. Expect a visit from your favorite person. You can try to hide, but he’ll find you. You’re going to run to your mommy and daddy, but guess what? He’s got nothing to lose. I can get him out of jail and the charges dropped with a snap of my fingers. You’re about to get the ass-kicking of a lifetime. I wish you the worst of luck.”

Taylor and I send sideways glances at each other.

“I tried to do this the easy way.”

“Sending into voicemail was an admission of guilt in my book. He flew too close to the sun.”

“He needs to own up. It’s the only way she’ll let go, “ I tap Leo’s name.

“What’s up?” He answers on the second ring.

“A lot. Are you up for kicking Rob’s ass?”

“Always. What’d he do to her this time?”

“He ratted me out to the press. They’ve run with it. Horrible things are being spread about Pop. I need you to get the whole truth out of him. He worked with people. I want names.”

“I’ll call you when I’m done.” He hangs up without warning.

“Are we calling her now or later?”

“Later. She’ll try to interfere.”

“What’s next?”

“I’m going down the rest of the list.”

“That’s a collaborative project. The others could have new developments.”

“I’m not in a group project mood. I’ll lose it if I see their faces.”

“I’ll get my laptop.”

“Take Jose up on her drink offer too.”

“You’re getting a mimosa.”

“Make it a double.”

“There’s no such thing as a double mimosa.”

“Ask.”

“They’re going to say no.”

“Still ask.”

He rolls his eyes and leaves the room. I immediately text Poppy.

Me: I love you.

Wendy: I love you too

Me: you’re amazing

Wendy: …

Me: you are. You should leave. Please don’t

Wendy: Not without my best friend

Me: Say the word. It’s not too late to go

Wendy: …

Me: 😘

She replies with a picture of Harper feeding herself oatmeal.

A spoonful’s worth of it is around her mouth and on her cheeks. In one photo, she’s holding her spoon with her left hand. She’s using her right in the other. She has yet to decide which hand she favors. I’m almost 22, and I still haven’t done it. Both of us can use each of them with the same level of dexterity. Determination is on her face too. Without fail, she fights to feed herself at every meal. When we let her do it, she puts all of her focus into doing the best job she can. Her independence is all Poppy. She got a scoop of stubbornness from both of us.

Wendy: She’s being extra you-ish today.

Me: Is that a good thing?

Wendy: The best when you’re yourself.

Me: Am I?

Wendy: It’s why I’m still here. I go if you do

Me: I’m yours

Wendy: I’m demanding a ring refund if you bail, Squints

“Leo got him to confess already?”

The suddenness of Taylor’s voice makes me jump. “No.”

“How are you smiling?”

“Pop’s doing better. Harper’s working her magic.”

“I’m happy to hear that.”

“Any new developments?

“A member of our legal team is contacting Satan. It’s a long shot that he knew enough to talk, but he has motives. He’s always had it out for you and he was notified last week that he’ll be facing legal repercussions if he doesn’t forfeit Poppy’s belongings and the ranch her grandparents left her.”

I stand.

“Where are you going?” He looks at me from the ground.

“Bathroom.”

“No, you’re not.”

“We have a mental connection, not a bladder one.”

“The mental one is giving me an inkling that you’re about to do something extraordinarily stupid.”

“I’m a big boy. I get to make my own decisions.”

“I’m begging you. Don’t make this one. It’ll make everything exponentially worse. He could make a case for intimidation if you call him.”

“This is long overdue.”

“Stay in here at least.”

“You’ll be too tempted to fill in for me. I’ve got to be a man and own up to this by myself.”

“Now’s not the time for that.”

“It’s not your call.”

I bolt to the bathroom and lock the door before he can physically intervene. The fan gets turned on to keep Taylor from being able to eavesdrop. I legitimately have to use the toilet. I do prior so to dredging up what is hopefully still his cell number.

After Poppy’s bowling slip that resulted in a concussion, she gave me his number just in case she sustained another injury during one of our hangouts. I’ve since switched phones and changed my number, but my contacts are linked to my email address and all of them transferred. And that’s the boring story of why and how I have his cell number.

I pace the room, my fingers mentally crossed as his phone rings.

“Hello?”

The contempt that has always accompanied his voice comes to the surface. I swallow it down to be a mature adult.

“Don’t hang up.”

“I’m on the do not call list. It is illegal for you to call me. I’m--”

“I’m not a telemarketer. This is Rhys – Rhys Wilde.”

“You have some nerve calling me.” His voice falls flat.

“I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have to.”

“I received the letter from your attorney. I plan to attend the arbitration.”

“I heard. I’m calling to hear directly from you whether or not you spoke to reporters about us. In exchange for your valuable time, I’ll let you tell me how little you think of me for old time’s sake.” Sarcasm slips out at the end.

Here’s to hoping he’s to aggravated by my voice to pick up on its tone.

“I’ve seen her one time in three years. She wouldn’t so much as tell me my granddaughter’s name when I did. I have nothing to share with anyone.”

“Just to be clear, you had nothing to do with this?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Last I saw, you were a perfect little family. I reckon that’s changed.”

“They’re calling names similar to the ones you called her. That’s how you made the suspect list.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“It feels like yesterday to her.”

“Do you know where she would be right now if she had listened to me and stayed away from you?” He defensively diverts.

“About to graduate from one of the top schools in the country, awaiting her grad school acceptance letter, and well on her way to having her dream job,” I state the facts plainly.

“Yes. Instead, she had a baby at eighteen and is making her living as a groupie. She squandered everything we worked for to be your permanent plaything.”

“She primarily uses the money she saved up working two jobs. I have to beg her to let me buy her things. The plan is for her to return to school in the fall. Grad school is on deck. Her job is on the horizon. Our daughter’s the person Poppy’s dedicated her life to. She’s made it very clear that she’ll leave me if I didn’t treat her as I should. She’s way more than you’ve ever given her credit for.”

“I’m well aware of how smart she is. You were her mistake.”

“You knowingly turned your back on her--”

“She needed to face the consequences of her actions. If she--”

“No, don’t try to spin what you did into a tough-love life lesson. Own up to the damage you did. I have. You told – not asked – Poppy to abort who you think you can call your granddaughter. When she didn’t do things your way, you made sure she knew she was no longer welcome in your family. You’ve always steamrolled over her. You have no idea who she is or what she is capable of because you’ve only been around the version you could walk all over.”

“You may have knocked her up, but that doesn’t mean you know the first thing about Penelope. I made her. I raised her by myself. I knew exactly who she was until you corrupted her.”

I can’t help but breathe a laugh at his absurd assumption. “You’re deadset on pinning all this on me, huh?”

“I knew with one look that you were just like your father—a reckless, destructive lowlife with a knack for dragging everyone else down with you. You turned her into your mother. You’re addicted to attention, so you had to destroy Penelope on a larger scale. The whole world is calling her a slut, not just the people who meet her.”

That hits me hard, but I manage to recover.

I swallow hard. “You left her when she needed you most.”

“So did you, apparently.”

My heart begins to ache. “I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have – you did. I—”

“The truth remains the same. He came and went when he found something he rather do than be with his family. It was committing crimes in his case, but you get the idea. Jail kept him away. Record deals can keep people pretty busy, I heard.” He presses my sore spot harder.

“I hate you. You still hate me. We’ve reached a stalemate. I think we should wrap this up.”

“I’m not responsible for whatever mess she’s in now. You find trouble, and she follows you. That has been and seems to still be the case. Harper--”

“Don’t you dare say her name. You gave up that right.”

“You shouldn’t have told everyone about her for more attention if you wanted that to be the case. I know exactly who she is thanks to you. Penelope is old enough to exploit herself for you, but a real father would’ve spared their child.”

“You know nothing about being a father.”

“I had 18 years of success. 18 instead of 19 because her birthday is in late June, and given Harper’s birthday, Penelope had to have been 17 when you conceived her. You were 18. You’re very lucky Washington’s age of consent is 16. If only we were in Oregon…”

She was 17, but I’m in the clear. I know I can’t be hit with a statutory rape charge, but the idea alone is enough to make the temperature in the room spike. She wouldn’t have gone to the cops. He would’ve arrested me at the stroke of midnight on my birthday if given the opportunity.

“Due dates are guesses. Most babies aren't born on them. You don't know whether or not she was born early. You would’ve if you stuck around.” I fight to keep my voice steady as I put a shaky hand in my hair. “Are you done?”

“For now. I’ll see you in arbitration.”

“You won’t, actually. Getting what’s hers is something Poppy wants to do for herself. I’ve never controlled her. You’re free to mosey back to hell now.”

I hang up and tangle both hands in my hair.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been sitting like this when I hear, “Rhys?”

Poppy’s sweet voice drives a stake through my heart.

‘I don’t deserve her or her comfort. She’s going to give it anyway because that’s who she. I should’ve left her alone. I’ve never been good enough for her. If I weren’t so damn self, she’d be—’

“Squints, I will actually go through with breaking this door if you don’t unlock it.”

I don’t move an inch.

There’s a loud pop moments later. She walks through the door unscathed and the glass is still intact.

“If you put all your weight on the handle, the lock gives. The wood around it is cracked, but what can you do?” She crouches down in front of me.

She crouches down beside me and cups my cheeks and guides my face to hers. I drop my hands to my sides, completely drained.

“Don’t believe a word he said. He doesn’t know us.”

“He knows enough because of me.”

“He knows details out of context. Context matters.”

“He had strong arguments.”

“He’s a sad, lonely man. He cut you down to feel better about his pathetic life.”

“Your ability to have a calm, uncomplicated life is the latest thing I stripped away. All I do is take.”

“That’s not true.”

“What’s happening is your worst nightmare. I created it.”

“I don’t want to do this without you at my side and Harper needs you. We’re happiest when we’re together.”

“Mom thought so too. It took her way too long to realize he’d hurt her more than help.”

“You’re nothing like your father. You made a mistake. Humans do that. I make them too. We’ve taken our second chances and run with them.”

“Your mistake doesn’t warrant what you’re being subjected to.”

“The word on the street is you’ve already summoned our muscle.”

“I had to. Rob needs to be dealt with ASAP. How are you doing?”

“As well as a person can in this situation. I’m still breathing and I’m not crying. I might be a little ahead of the curve, actually.”

“Have you cried since you’ve been in here?”

“I made it to the bathroom before Harper saw.”

“Baby,--”

“I don’t want your pity, just your support.”

“It’s not pity. It’s guilt. You shouldn’t be attacked like this.”

“Same difference. I don’t want it.” She wedges her fingers beneath her glasses to wipe the moisture collecting.

I draw her to my chest and cradle her head with my hand. “Shhh. I’ve got you.”

She hugs me. I run pressured strokes up and down her back.

Taylor opens the door a touch and pops his head through the crack. I try to shoo him away with an inconspicuous nod.

“We’re due at the stadium.”

“You can’t do workarounds for a couple of hours? I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

“If you’re going on tonight, you need to come. We’ve got to make sure you’re operational. You’re upset and understandably volatile. Postponing warmups makes you a greater liability.”

I crane my neck down to find Poppy already looking at me.

“I’d still like you to perform, but I understand if you can’t.”

“I’ll go if you stay here. I need to know no one is bothering you.”

“I’ll stay in the suite, not the bathroom.”

“The suite’s not our somewhere, but it’ll work.”

She kisses my forehead and both cheeks before pressing one to my lips. I can’t help but smile when she rubs her nose against mine.

Poppy stands first and helps me to my feet. She lovingly helps me get ready for the day, taking care of me in the ways only she can. Harper is hugged, held, and covered in kisses. Poppy gets the same treatment. Leaving them behind is excruciating nonetheless.

My phone vibrates in my pocket on the way to the venue. I remove my head from the window it’s pressed to and answer the incoming call without checking the caller.

“Yeah?” My voice is as flat as I feel.

“I-I I didn’t kn-know.” Becca hiccups. “It’s over. It’s over. I promise. I--” She sobs into the phone, snapping me out of my pity party.

“Beck, calm down. None of this is your fault.”

“N-no one l-liked him. You told me to leave. I-I didn’t listen. Now this!” She wails.

“Are you by yourself? I don’t--”

“Leo and I are here.” Lindsey assumingly takes her phone.

“So, he did this?

“Kind of. Apparently, he overshared while talking to one of your bodyguards at Disneyland. Leo gave him two black eyes, a broken nose, and bruised ribs for the offense. Rob’s being treated at his parents’ house instead of a hospital. He did coke last weekend at a bachelor party and is afraid it’ll show up in his bloodwork. He promised not to press charges if Becca doesn’t tell his parents about the drugs. It affects his trust fund payout. He called it a boxing injury, said hospitals are too uncomfortable, and they bought it. They've called a doctor to treat him in-home.”

“How did he get to their house?”

“His brother. Beck called before going on her rampage.”

“Rampage?”

“She took a hammer to the classic Corvette his parents bought him for his birthday. She moved on to cutting up all of his clothes. Leo called me when she tossed the first scraps into the fireplace.”

I stifle a laugh. “She set his clothes on fire?”

“She wanted to do his shoes too. I warned her about the smell. She poured bleach on them instead. She was on a roll, screamed at him for every stupid thing he has ever done while she destroyed what he actually cares about.”

“Do you think she’s going to leave him for good?”

“This was the final straw. Practicing what she’s going to say to Robby when she picks him up from preschool is what made her start crying. She thought apologizing to you would make her feel better. I thought it was too soon. You know what happened.”

“I don’t blame her for this. Make sure she knows it.”

“It’ll take time, but it’ll sink in eventually.”

“I hate that it had to end this way.”

“Honestly, I think she would’ve put up with him forever if her feelings were the only ones he was hurting. Her freedom is something positive that comes from this disaster.”

“We can cancel the intervention.”

“When are you coming home?”

“After the tour. We’re sticking things out and going back the right way. I left it for Poppy to decide. This is how she wants to do it.”

“Do you have a show tonight?”

“Yeah, we’re pulling up to the stadium now.”

“Is Poppy with you?”

“No, she and Harper are at the hotel with Ma.”

“I’m going to check in with them. I love you, baby brother.”

“I love you too.”

“Hang in there.”

“Doing my best.”

“Bye.”

“See ya.” I tap the end button on my phone.

Paparazzi unsurprisingly hauled ass to Idaho to get pictures of my first steps in public post-scandal.

I shove on my sunglasses onto my face with irritation.

“Smile and wave, gaslight the shit out of them. They won’t know what to do with themselves.” Taylor recommends.

“You think I can smile right now?”

“You forced it before. Keep the glasses on. You’ve got kicked puppy eyes, but we’ve got good teeth and you’ve got a functional hand. You’ll do it my way if you want control of the narrative.”

“Know-it-all.” I say through an artificial smile.

“I take that as a compliment.”

I’m the last to exit the SUV. Tyrone and the other members of my personal security team keep the jackals away from me. They can’t stop he vultures from barking infuriating questions and accusations at me, though. Channeling my inner beauty pageant contestant, I smile, wave, and graciously greet them as though I’ll be graded on my congeniality.

The confused looks on their faces?

Priceless.

My switch is flipped as soon as I’m behind closed doors. My coat is literally thrown into the dressing room with my sunglasses in their pocket. I charge down the hall, my heart pounding as hard as my strides as my fury builds with each passing second. And then I find him, standing in front of a side door and talking on his walkie talkie like it’s business as usual – like he didn’t just try to blow up my life.

I ball the back of his t-shirt in my fist and use it to throw him into the cinderblock wall. Panic flits through Carter’s eyes when they meet mine. Panic transitions to fear when I use my forearm to choke him as well as pin him in place.

“WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?”

He gapes for air like a fish on land. I apply less pressure to let him speak.

“You.” He coughs.

I go back to choking him. “I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY. I WILL UNTIL YOU FESS UP!”

“You’re doing a mafia shakedown? Why wasn’t I invited?” Taylor strolls up with his hands in his pockets, making no moves to stop me.

“He’s mine!”

“I’m content to enjoy the show. Word of advice, though. Don’t cut off his air supply for too long. He can’t talk if he passes out.”

“Don’t micromanage this!”

He holds up his hands in surrender.

I do loosen up some to give the asshole a chance to breathe again.

“TALK!” I scream into Carter’s face.

“What are--?” he sputters.

I go right back to squeezing his windpipe.

“LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN – WHO DID YOU HELP?”

He gulps air. “N-o one.”

I deliver a swift punch to his ribs with my left fist as my right forearm goes back to his neck.

“YOUR FAMILY SOURCE GABBED. THE JIG IS UP. NAME NAMES!”

“I don’t – I don’t know. A suit came up to me, didn’t give a name. They left me a card with an email address.”

“Do you still have it?”

“No.”

“How much did they pay you?”

“75k.”

“Did they transfer it already?”

The traitor nods.

He’s freed from the wall. Before he can catch his breath or find his bearings, I put all of my weight behind the right hook I land on his jaw. Blood and saliva spew from his mouth, but I don’t let up. I lay it on him with all I’ve got. He gets a few punches in, but it’s clear who is dominating the fight. I rightfully and wrongfully take out all the anger that’s accumulated today on him.

My fit of blind rage is brought to an end when Tyrone restrains me.

“HE DID IT!” I violently thrash in an attempt to get back to him.

“I’m taking you for everything you’ve got, Wilde!” Carter spits blood onto the linoleum tile.

I fight hard to get to him.

“You can’t. He acted in self-defense.” Tyrone calmly contradicts.

“He came up to me! I didn’t--”

“Rhys, did you feel threatened?”

“He feared for his life. I did too.” Kyle vouches as he eats jelly beans like pieces of popcorn.

Ian nods. "We saw the whole thing."

“Do you still feel threatened?”

“Yes.” The guys say.

I'm too busy trying to get back at him.

Tyrone unleashes me to get to Carter. Tay holds me back when I try to join him.

My complaints die in my mouth as I watch Tyrone do a military-grade maneuver that results in Carter facedown on the ground with his arm pinned behind his back.

“You’re going to hand over everything you submitted to their legal team. For your sake, I hope you were paid enough to pay the half-million-dollar fine you’ll get for breaching your NDA. You’ll be out of a job. It’ll be tough finding another security gig with this on your record and a broken arm.”

There’s no time to ask what he means by the last part. A slight twist of his wrist has Carter wailing at the top of his lungs. Tyrone helps him to his feet but maintains a death-grip on his uninjured arm’s bicep.

George pushes to the front of the crowd that has gathered. “What is going on here?!”

“He put the fellas in harm’s way and provided insider information to a third party. I neutralized a threat.” Tyrone explains diplomatically.

“Get the medic. Rhys needs to be checked out.” George assigns Josie. “Carter, you’ll be taken to the hospital. A lawyer will meet you there.”

“Will you accompany him? The last thing we need is him to start talking again.” Trina directs at Tyrone.

“Do you think you can manage until I get back?” He checks with me.

“Yes, you’ll be taking the bad man with you.”

Tyrone shifts his jaw instead of laughing to keep our version of events somewhat believable.”I’ll return as soon as possible.”

An EMT carefully examines my injuries as she cleans them. My knuckles are scraped and sore, but there’s minimal swelling. I’ve got full mobility and no numbness. Tears, fractures, sprains, and severe bruising are ruled out. She cleans the raw skin with hydrogen peroxide. A thin layer of antibacterial ointment is applied; sterile gauze bandages seals it in place.

The small gash on my left cheekbone requires more extensive treatment – four stitches, to be exact. I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit I have Taylor hold my hand while I get them.

“Mom’s never going never going to leave when she sees your battle scars.” Taylor has one of my hands in both of his.

“YES! Thank you!” Kyle cheers.

“You know that means our dry spells have to carry on, right?” Ian points out the truth.

“Claudia’s worth it. All I need is her smile to get me through the day.”

“She’s our mother.” Taylor rebuts.

“We get along. I don’t know why you’re griping about the possibility of me being your stepdad.”

I’m grateful for the normalcy of this conversation. It’s a welcome break from all the drama swirling in my head. They’re doing it because they know it.

Unfortunately, their consideration for my feelings doesn’t make getting stitched up like a quilt any less uncomfortable.

Andrea, our image consultant/makeup artist, is not too pleased when she sees what she’s responsible for concealing. All I do is nod along as she maps out what she’ll have to do to me to make me presentable.

Well…I try to keep quiet. I suggest that I wear fingerless gloves to cover my hand wraps. She doesn’t find my joke funny. Poppy would’ve gotten it.

My vocal coach tries to express her condolences and articulate her support as soon as she sees me on my computer’s webcam. I deflect it entirely with pop culture references, having reached my coping capacity. It doesn’t take long for her to take the hint and let it go. She lets me go as soon as I complete my vocal warmup successfully, which I do on the first try. Who knew I could channel my need to scream into hitting high notes?

If I had my way, I’d wear sweatpants and a hoodie during our performance. I default to whatever Xavier wants for one less thing to do. But I do focus as much attention as I can muster when it comes time for soundcheck. If the show’s going to go on, it has to sound good.

The guys tried to warn me – in the gentlest way possible – when we were creating our second album that most of the lyrics I wrote are deep-sea dark and slightly (very) soul-crushing. I told them upbeat instrumentals will tone down the intensity. We all got what we wanted. I could continue wallowing in my misery, they could experiment with different sounds, and our fans applauded the “realness” wrapped up in dance beats.

Today, I don’t have it in me to sing the most revealing parts of my diary. I’ve been overexposed. I’ll collapse into a pile on stage if I pour more of my heart and thoughts out. Completely redoing our setlist is an undertaking that requires practicing songs we haven’t performed in a while. The lighting engineer and projection designer whip together last-minute cues and coordinating imagery. The guys and I hog the stage for most of the day doing it.

I’ve turned into the difficult divo that I vowed I would never become. Outsiders aren’t entirely to blame for it. I was warned. My hardheadedness is why we are here, why most of those around me as suffering.

“Hey, Rhys, how—” Gia approaches me as I’m walking back to my dressing room.

“I’m beyond pissed off. I’m barely keeping it together. Now is not the time to ask me questions.” I fully commit to being a dick.

“It’s a shame what they’re saying about Poppy. She’s a sweetheart. I’ll tell anyone who will listen.” She defies.

“No one will. They’re hell-bent on hating her.”

“If there’s anything I can—”

“There’s not.”

She puffs out a breath. “Is this your last show?”

“We’re powering through. She wants what I’ve always wanted.”

“Is it true – she didn’t tell you she was pregnant?”

“She took a bullet for me to get here.” I defend.

“That’s how I read it. I had to be sure I was right about her.”

“It should be me they’re going after.”

“It should. It would be if people didn’t suck. The girl is always a hoe and the boy is applauded for the bare minimum. You stepped up to something you put there. You don’t deserve a medal. She sure as hell does.”

“It sounds like you want to slap me.”

“Nah, I saw the ass-kicking you gave Carter. We’re still cool.” On that note, she struts away.

I excuse myself to the bathroom once I reach the dressing room. I video chat Poppy because I might as well get my tongue-lashing over with. It’ll be given by Ma instead of Pop, but it’s one in the same when they’re together. Being a big boy and calling now is one less thing I’ll have weighing on me.

“What happened to your face?” Poppy’s voice rises an octave when she registers my face.

“I got into a fight. If you think this is bad, you should see the other guy.” I try inserting humor.

“Who was the other guy?” She raises her voice farther.

“Carter was an errand boy for someone he claims not to know. Regardless, he provided info about us to people unafraid to use it. I acted.”

Tears well in her eyes. “H-how badly are you hurt?”

“You’re worth it.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better. You’ve got what looks like stitches on your face. Your hands have to hurt. Did you break anything? Did you—”

“I look rugged. The bad boy look is very in this season.” I wink at her. The action as me inwardly cringing in pain.

“Rhys.” She states firmly.

“I lost it, okay? One minute I was interrogating him, the next I was pummeling him. I don’t know if I would’ve stopped on my own. Tyrone and Taylor had to get me off him.” I can’t look her in the eye.

“You’re not you’re not your dad.” She sees right through me and proves it by switching to her gentlest voice.

“He’s good with his hands and lacks self-control. He missed Christopher’s birth because of it.”

“That’s not why you missed Harper’s. I don’t condone violence, but you fought defending someone you love. He got mixed up with the wrong crowd and got hauled to juvie for aggravated assault for something that had nothing to do with his vulnerable girlfriend.”

“It’s close enough. I—”

“Look at me.” She demands with more force than I’ve heard her use in a long time.

I do it.

“Whatever Satan said to you is certified nonsense.”

“Are you a nonsense diagnosis professional?”

“I am. I’ve been in love with a ridiculous human being for eight years and I gave birth to one three years ago. I’ve got credentials.”

“What’s she doing?” Harper’s a cure-all.

“You’ll see as soon as you give me a rundown of your injuries.”

I relay all that the EMT told me and show her their repair job. She makes me promise to ice my hands and face as soon as we’re done talking. I agree to her terms. It earns me my prize.

Poppy switches her phone’s camera from front to back. I watch as she exits a room and goes to the living room. The shaky documentary footage settles on our little weirdo.

Harper’s at the dining room table. A sheet of white paper is in front of her, pieces of newspaper are beneath it. She’s smearing green paint all over the white paper with her hands. Purple paint is streaked on her face. As she works on her finger-painting masterpiece, she’s singing along to one of the songs on the most recent playlist I made for her.

“Lovebug?” Poppy gets her attention.

Harper looks up, smiling as brightly as she always does. “Pwetty pitcher fo Daddy.”

“I know. He is going to love it. Do you want to see him?”

“All done potty?” She sits up as straight as possible, lighting up even more.

“He’s not, but he’s on my phone. See.” Poppy flips her camera once she has sat down beside Harper.

“Daddy!” Harp grins from ear to ear, waving with excitement.

“Harper! Are you making me a picture?”

“Uh-huh! Really pwetty. Gween!’ She tries to pick the sheet up to show me.

My mom stops her.

“You still know my favorite color. I can see my picture from here. You did a great job.”

“Tank you!” She maintains her bubbliness after being deterred from what she wanted to do. “No mo potty. We pway.”

“We will play later. It will be so much fun.”

“Twain?”

“We have to play with our train. It’s what we do.”

“Uh-huh. Wike it ots and ots.”

“It’s hard not to like trains a lot. Do you think you could make Auntie Becca a picture right now? She has an owie.”

“Oh no! I help. Real Pwetty. And-aid. “

“She’ll be over the moon when she gets her band-aid and sees her picture.”

“Moooooo!”

Harper is very fond of the nursery rhyme ‘Hey, Diddle Diddle’. Cats play fiddles, pups laugh, utensils run, and cows leap into outer space – what’s not to love?

Harper giggles when I moo back at her.

“Auntie Becca’s favorite color is purple.”

“Wove purple!”

“I’m sure you’re going to make her a beautiful picture with it.”

She nods eagerly.

“What else have you done today?”

She doesn’t hesitate to tell me every last detail. I know how she played, what she’s eaten, what she’s seen, and what songs she has listened and danced to. She sings the songs for me to make sure I know which ones she’s talking about. Hearing somewhat sensical ramblings is the highlight of my day by a long shot.

My deep soul rejuvenation dulls when Poppy has taken Harper away for a diaper change and handwashing. Not because of our brief time apart, but because it allows Mom to get a good look at me. She doesn’t yell when she learns about what I have done. She cries.

Few things hurt more than watching your mother cry knowing you had something to do with it.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter softly.

She wipes her eyes. “I hate seeing you this hurt.”

“I’ll be good as new in a week or two. The medic said so.”

“You’re sad and angry. It’s making you act out. There’s not much I can do to make it all better. All I can do is watch all of my kids suffer.”

“It’s my fault.” My voice cracks.

“It’s not, sweetie. You didn’t ask for this. Someone dug for it. Things will get worse before they get better, but we’ll get to the other side.”

I nod as I sniff.

“Ice everything until showtime. Let the boys help. Eat and stay hydrated. Take it easy on stage. Say no more than you absolutely have to. You owe them songs, not your life.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You and Poppy are strong enough to make it through this. She’s expressed nothing but love for you all day. I know you feel the exact same way. You could be blaming each other. You’re not.”

“Do you see dad in me?” I ask while I have the nerve.

“Not today and never again.”

“But before?”

“You’re my least predictable child. I never knew what Harris was going to do next. It drew me to him; he was exciting. He’s a charmer who is good at saying the right things to get what he wants. That’s why I kept taking him back. He’d proved why I couldn’t trust him whenever he felt cornered. He acted out or walked away. There are similarities, yes, but you’ve grown up. He never did.”

“Thank you,” I say solemnly in a soft voice.

“You’ve always had a good heart. You’ve recently started using your head a little more. You’re there when they need you. You’re doing it as yourself. You may have helped send someone to the hospital today, but I am still very proud of you.”

“I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too.”

Harper and Poppy return. Harp asks me to watch her paint her new picture. I do it for as long as I can. We end our chat with a song.

Andrea returns my face to its former glory with a clear plastic bandage to smooth the surface of my stitches, and applying full coverage foundation to it. Lighter makeup is applied to the rest of my face to blend it. Setting powder and sealing spray top it off. If it weren’t for the pain, I’d be able to forget about that injury all-together. There’s nothing she can do about my knuckle bandages.

Trina feeds me the official story that I’d been overdoing it with the keyboard and guitar planning and my knuckles are wrapped to relieve pressure.

I’m in relatively solid shape when the guys and I are herded to the room where the meet and greet is taking place. The room is as full as it typically is. The fans cheer when we enter like they always do. For a second, it feels like an ordinary day. That is until the first fan talks to me.

I smile as I deflect each question, statement, and concern that is lobbed at me. They are all responded to with, “thank you for coming out tonight.” I sign whatever they present to me and send them on their way with an, “enjoy the show”. The guys do variations of the same thing. The crowd’s frustration can be felt.

Yesterday, I would’ve bent over backward to make sure they had everything they wanted. Today, lifting a finger literally hurts and the little that I have left to give needs to go to my family.

I do a preshow shot for the first time in a long time. Drinking room-temperature water while I ice my hands and watch videos of Poppy and Harper is what I do until I’m due on stage. When we do go on, I’ve got my mind squarely on the task at hand – keep it together, do my song and dance, return to my girls.

The lights go up and I morph into the person they are entitled to. No outbursts are made – they don’t get these thoughts, my emotions. They’re mine. The satisfaction of defiance is the reason for my smile.

Poppy and Harper are cuddling in bed when I get to our room. Harp’s sound asleep in her mother’s arms. Pop flickers her eyes from the television show she is watching on mute to me.

‘Hi’, she mouths.

‘Hi’, I do it back.

Having gone through my bedtime routine at the venue, all I have to do is take off my shoes and coat to join them in bed. Pop rests a hand on my cheek as soon as I’m within reach. She presses a feather-soft kiss to my facial injury.

“Am I still pretty?” My voice is hushed.

She breathes a laugh. “I’m still here, so…”

My heart is too heavy to give her my fullest smile, but I give her all I have.

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