Sum of Us

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Ch.47: Poppy

“How are you doing?”

The answer to that question is complicated. My past mistakes have circulated globally. People who have never witnessed me caring for my child are saying I’m unfit to raise her. Even at my most desperate, I never contemplated doing such an intimate act with strangers to turn a profit. I have to be in love to surrender all of myself. And I would never, ever put my daughter in such an unsafe environment. Harper’s the center of my universe. Hurting her in such a way is unthinkable. Being perceived as a person capable of doing such a thing based on misconceptions of what I have done is my greatest source of shame. Shower sobs on the nights Rhys works are becoming a habit I’m trying my hardest to kick.

Clearing my name by collecting provable factual information and saturating the media with it is the band’s PR team’s course of action. I’ve been in their world long enough to know the truth isn’t want reporters want. They’re out for blood because carnage sells. The rise and fall of people in the spotlight is an universal pastime that transcends all boundaries and barriers. Winners and losers, heroes and villains – it’s a tried and true narrative. I’m not naive enough to think I can escape it. All I can do is take it. Each piece of slander I hear or see is a punch to the gut and a kick in the teeth. Coincidentally, Rhys did that to a bodyguard a few days ago.

The investigation team in charge of finding all involved parties discovered the pictures of me working at Eclipse in Anton’s inbox. He was on duty the night Rhys found me and took photos for “personal reasons” prior to learning my identity. We’re going to zoom past why he kept them after he met me. Anton swore the only reason he sent them to the mysterious email address is because Carter told him how much money he’d make if he did. Maliciousness was never his intent. He likes me as a person and feels bad that he contributed to their massive smear campaign. Josie let this development slip and Rhys got to him before he could be escorted off the premises.

My recklessly dutiful boyfriend also took down a crew member responsible for building sets when he overheard an offhanded comment about hoping I was still open for business. Taylor escalated the situation by punching the crew member the guy Rhys’s was fighting was having the degrading conversation with. Every fight that has been initiated by them has been swept under the rug by their lawyers. While that is good in one sense, it’s not when it comes to his impulse control. There’s little need for it when he’s able to walk away from everything with no repercussions and it doesn’t take much to set him off these days. He gets worked up when someone looks at me the wrong way. In those instances, all I have to do is touch his arm and he calms down, but I’m not able to be around him 24/7. The fights go down only when Harper, Mama Wilde, and I are away.

It’s one thing to say, “I’ve got you, babe” and another to watch the person who has said it confront the person hurting you without hesitation. My babe’s got me. He also keeps all of his anger and retaliation away from Harper. She and Rhys still do their daily father/daughter things. He’s as energetic and patient with her as always. They have taken to playing “docker” on the days he sustains battle wounds. Harp listens to his heart with her plastic stethoscope and puts band-aids on the “owies” the EMT has already dressed. That’s how I justify being turned on by his irrational behavior.

I’ve never felt more loved. Not just by Rhys, but by everyone in our inner circle. Their loyalty and the lengths they are going to prove it is overwhelming. That’s why my answer to the question I’m asked hourly is complicated.

Overall, the situation is bleak, but there are significant points of light. Fixating on them is giving me the ability to smile, to move forward on the path that I was on before the world knew my greatest regrets and devoured cruel lies. The ability to celebrate Rhys and Taylor’s birthday with them for the first time in years is certainly a bright spot.

~

Being home has never felt so good. Seattle’s home – no fears, no questions. It’s where most of my family lives. With them is where my heart lies.

The tour schedule put us in Seattle the day before, on, and the day after their birthday. They always play two shows whenever they’re in Seattle. One is at the club they started out. The other is at the main stadium. The club one was yesterday. The stadium one is tomorrow. Today, the day Taylor Thomas Wilde and Rhys Michael Wilde were brought into this world, has to be a good day.

Rhys grumbles when I leave my warm little spoon cocoon. He’s still asleep when I look over my shoulder. Kissing him presents too high a risk of waking him. I replace my body with a pillow and tuck the covers around him instead.

I put together a gift worthy of my baseball-loving, custom shirt creating, matching family outfit-enthusiast boyfriend. Rhys, Harper, and I have matching emerald green baseball jerseys. There is “RT” on the right side that is outlined in navy blue, the same as the Seattle Mariners logo. The piping on either side the buttons that go down the middle is navy like the Mariners as well. The player last name on the back is Wilde, of course. The number beneath it is two. Rhys is Thing Two in his twin paring. Our hats are the same colors as our jerseys. Instead of a team logo, they bear our respective Sandlot names—Squints, Wendy, and Smalls. Caps are to be worn backward; it’s our little family’s way.

Mine are paired with form-fitting dark wash jeans and navy Converse. I leave my hair down. And after applying a little makeup, I head to Harper’s room.

“Harper?” She’s out of bed and nowhere in sight.

She pokes her head out of her purple tent. “Mornin’, Mama!”

“Good morning to you too, Lovebug.” I breathe a sigh of relief.

She has crawled out of her play space by the time I reach her. She holds up her hands for me to lift her. I put her on my hip.

“Were you comfy and cozy in your big girl bed?”

“No seepytime. We pway.”

“We are going to do extra playing today. It’s Daddy and Uncle Taylor’s birthday.”

She gasps, her already large eyes expanding with excitement. “Unzel and Ene?”

“Rapunzel and Eugene won’t be attending their birthday party, but our family and the puppies are.”

“Yay! Wove ’em.”

“They love you too.” I tuck her hair behind her ear. “Do you like my shirt and hat?”

“Wike it ots and ots. Sare?”

“Guess what? You have your own. Do you want to wear yours with me?”

“Oh, yes. Real pwetty.”

“Daddy’s going to love it.” I kiss her cheek. She kisses mine as I carry her to the changing table.

The jersey, white long-sleeved undershirt, and backward hat are a big hit with Harp. She gets opinionated about what to put on the bottom half of her body. A sparkly silver tutu, pastel rainbow tie-dye leggings with white hearts, and rhinestone-toed light-up sneakers are her selections. The only modification I make is tucking her shirt into her skirt.

Only the two of us go downstairs for breakfast. He needs his rest to recover from the show. Taylor unexpectedly walks into with kitchen while we’re eating. He’s still in pajamas, an indicator he’s not awake for the day just yet.

“Happy bird-day, Nunckle Aylor!” Harper chirps.

“Thanks, Lovebug. Morning, Poppy.” He musses his bed head as he walks to the refrigerator.

“Are you sleepwalking?” I ask.

“No.” He opens the fridge door.

“Why are you here and barely awake?”

“Consideration.”

“That explains absolutely nothing.”

“Bingo.” He takes one of Harper’s juice boxes out of the refrigerator.

“Am I allowed to guess?”

“No, it’s my birthday. What I want goes. Speaking of which, may I have some of these?” He points to the scrambled eggs I left on the stove.

“Yes.”

“Much appreciated.”

“Do I know her?”

He tuts with a shake of his head.

“Do you know her?” I continue.

“I believe we came to the agreement that you wouldn’t analyze my actions on my birthday. Harp, will you please tell Mama she’s wasting her time?”

“Nunckle Aylor bird-day. Aste time, Mama.” She recites.

Taylor makes a breakfast sandwich using scrambled eggs, bacon, and two slices of toast and puts it into a plastic sandwich bag. It along with the orange juice box and an apple are put into a paper bag. The disposable cup with a lid that is filled with coffee is the cherry on top.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I don’t know if it’s hilarious or horrible.” Not commenting would be unacceptable.

“Neither. It’s none of your business.”

“Do you keep those things stocked for the morning after?” I continue to pick with him in Rhys’s honor.

“No.” He leaves the kitchen with breakfast to go.

I chuckle to myself at the absurdity of it. Harper laughs at my laughter.

We play in her room and watch educational cartoons until 10:30 AM. Harper gets to do the honors of waking Rhys. To accomplish it, I put her on our bed and allow her to do what comes naturally.

“DAAAAAADDDDY!” She squishes his face with her tiny hands.

He squints an eye open.

“HAPPY BIRD-DAY!” She beams down at him.

“It’s a very happy birthday.” He raises enough to kiss her cheek.

“Ood dweams?”

“The best dreams. You and Mama were there.”

“We ing ongs?”

“Yes, we danced and rode a train too. I like your bye-bye clothes.” He checks them out with sleepy smile.

“Tank you. You bird-day. Wike ace-ball. Me and Mama pway wit you.” She explains as best she can using the information I provided her.

He turns to me for a translation. The lust that flares in his eyes when he sees me for the first time is intense enough to make me blush.

“It’s your birthday. You like baseball. You’re a part of a twin team. We’re wearing your jersey because you’re our favorite player.”

His lips quirk into a smirk. “RT – Rhys and Taylor?”

I nod.

“What’s our mascot?”

“Wild Twoes – it’s not grammatically correct, but roll with it. Wild’s spelled without the ‘e’. I didn’t want to step on the band’s toes. I was thinking the appearance of the mascot would be a two-headed monster.”

“I’m very on board. The colors work too. Close enough to the Mariners’ to be awesome, far enough way not to be sued. What’s my number?”

I turn to let him see it for himself.

His uncontainable, happy-speechless, ‘this is something I will reference forever’ laugh is music to my ears.

“Do I have team gear too?”

“You know what? You might. Lovebug, will you help me get something from the closet?”

“I help.” She crawls over Rhys and extends her arms to me.

I place her on the ground. She follows me to the closet to get Rhys’s gift. I kid you not, Rhys runs to the bathroom to get dressed as soon as gets the box.

His excitement hits a fever pitch when he sees us as a complete set. “Does Taylor have one?”

“Kind of. He’s into soccer the way you’re into baseball. I had one of those jerseys made for him. No hat. It wouldn’t make sense.”

“I love you. I love you. I love you.” He gives me a peck between each sentence.

He swings Harper into the air. Once she’s on his hip, he kisses her cheeks, alternating between them as he tells her he loves her. She returns the gesture.

“We should wear these every day.” He checks himself in our in the mirror.

Harper mimics him his actions. The only difference being her shoes and skirt are her articles of focus.

“That’d make them less special. We have to preserve their sacredness. You’re our favorite team player even when we’re not wearing your name and number.” I lean on the wall with my hands in my pockets.

“You can’t say things like that in front of our child, Penelope. Completely inappropriate.”

“How is what I said remotely wrong?”

“You’re going to k-i-l-l me. She is too pure to witness a m-u-r-d-e-r. Look at her.”

Harper’s laughing joyously as her skirt billows when she twirls.

“My presents almost got me.”

“My apologies.”

“I’m feeling generous on my birthday. I guess I can forgive you.”

“Thank you.” I peck his lips.

He takes advantage of Harper’s preoccupation and drugs me with a toe-curling kiss. He concludes his drive-by seduction maneuver with a soft brush of his lips on my neck.

“It’s breakfast time for you, snack time for us.” I put the necessary distance between us.

“We have to take Tay his shirt first.”

“You don’t want to do our cub’s hair? I saved it for you.”

“You’re the best.”

“I do what I can.”

He picks up Harper without giving her prior warning. She cracks up the entire ride to his torso. “Time to tame our manes.”

“ROAR!”

“ROAR!” He does it right back with a smile that matches hers.

They thoroughly groom each other’s hair in Harper’s room.

The braided pigtails Rhys has created are manufactured doll-neat. It’s a shame Harper’s busy playing schedule will damage his hard work in a matter of hours.

“It’s time to hit the field, ladies.”

I accompany Rhys and Harper to Taylor’s wing of the house with his gift. Rhys doesn’t bother with Tay’s doorbell. He types in the pin code without contemplation. Harper skips through the door ahead of us. We follow her to Taylor’s room. She and Rhys harass him enough to know the way. She knows his entire wing’s layout because of it.

“NUNKLE AAAAAAYLOR, BIRD-DAY!” Harper bangs on the door with an open hand.

“TAAAAYLOR! IT’S OUR BIRTHDAY!” Rhys hits the door the same way she does.

“You yelled?” Taylor comes around the corner holding a basket of folded laundry.

“Pwesent. Wove you!” Harper scurries to him.

“I love you too. I’ll open my present as soon as I put this in my room, kiddo.” He pats her shoulder as she hugs his leg.

“I help?” She blinks up at him.

He gives her a folded pillowcase to carry.

I open the door for the two of them. Harp goes in first, making herself at home.

Taylor’s bedroom is a two-story loft. The main area that you walk into is a living space. It is defined by a large worn brown tweed sectional. A salvaged wood coffee table with rod iron legs is in the middle of it. The brick fireplace-looking fixture is actually his entertainment center. A television with speakers on either side of it are built into where the fire would go. There are family pictures on the mantel. And rusted boat propeller mounted on black plexiglass is hanging above them on the chimney as a work of art. Industrial bookshelves are lined with books. Vinyl records are in crates beneath a console holding several record players. He’s got guitars, some for playing, rare ones are hanging on the brick walls as decoration.

A set of metal stairs leads to the fenced-in sleeping area. A baby gate currently at the foot of said stairs for Harper’s sake. The headboard of his king-sized bed and the bedside shelves that serve as nightstands are made of black-stained wood. Taylor’s missing bedspread and sheets are taupe and white respectively. Significant time was spent curating and arranging the framed black and white images and relevant typography of varying sizes behind his bed. The warehouse windows in both spaces pull everything together.

The room I share with Rhys is a cozy accumulation of history and happy accidents. Taylor’s well-thought out and artfully curated space matches his personality as much as ours does.

Taylor puts his basket of laundry by his closet door. Harper returns his pillow case to the top of the pile. Tay sits on his couch. He helps Harp onto it when he notices she’s trying to hoist herself up. I hand Harper the gift box.

“Sa-pize!” She passes it to him.

“Thank you.”

“Elcome.” She beams.

“Thank you too.” He looks at me.

Taylor and Rhys exchange gifts privately each year. I’ve always found the tradition to be sweet.

“You’re welcome. There’s no pressure to do what you could with it. It’s an option, not mandatory.”

“I know.” He peers down at Harper. “Do you want to help me open it?”

“Uh-huh!”

She gleefully rips the wrapping paper off of the box and throws the layer of tissue paper covering the shirt onto the floor.

Taylor unfolds the shirt and holds it in front of himself. “Poppy likes me more than you.” He’s cracking a smile as he turns his head in Rhys’s direction.

“She does not.”

“She would’ve copied the same shirt a fourth time if she didn’t. She made me a special shirt.” Tay continues to tease him.

“You’re hatless. The personalized hats are for the coolest of kids.”

“I don’t like wearing hats. She knows it and adapted to my taste for a second time. The truth is staring you in the face, baby bro.”

Rhys narrows his eyes at him.

Taylor smiles wider. “I’ll wear it to Mom’s. Whether or not we wear them tomorrow is up to you.”

“You’re too good to wear it when you go out tonight?”

“It won’t make sense without you. Wearing it in public is a group activity.”

“That’s an acceptable answer. You’ve got a quality PR team.”

“I’m flying solo. I should be ours.”

“We’ll see what we can do.”

Harper gives Taylor a hug for no reason other than feeling like hugging him. I give him a hug to slyly make sure he doesn’t feel peer-pressured.

“You can hate it and keep it in the back of your gigantic closet forever.”

It’s not two stories high, but’s spacious and organized.

“It’s a nice shirt. Wearing it for him isn’t hard.”

“Happy birthday.” I give him an extra squeeze.

Rhys, Harper, and I leave Taylor alone to get dressed and get back to what he was doing. Rhys serves Harper her snack and supervises as she eats it. Meanwhile, I’m cooking his favorite breakfast. It consists of toast, bacon, a spinach and mushroom omelet with Swiss cheese and diced tomato, and cranberry juice.

“Can I eat it already? It smells delicious.” Rhys’s arms are around my waist from behind and his chin is on my shoulder.

“I’m not finished plating. Presentation is important. Every cooking show says so. Sit down and stop distracting me from making your food look as pretty as you.”

“Ugh, fine.” He plants a single kiss on my neck.

Butterflies are still fluttering in my belly when he is back in his seat on the other side of the kitchen island. Their wings flap harder as he interacts with Harper.

“Happy birthday, babe.” I place his completed meal in front of him.

“Thank you.” He lays a quick kiss on my lips.

“You’re my favorite. Don’t tell Taylor.” I loudly whisper.

“Don’t worry. I will.”

“Eat your food first.”

“Yes, dear.”

I smile into our next kiss.

His breakfast ends up being shared with Harper. I try to get her to leave his food alone by making her a much smaller portion of his meal. That only leads to her insisting on sharing it with him. Harper feeds Rhys her food. He feeds her his. I shake my head as I film it. They clean each other while I clean the kitchen.

We’re due at Mom’s at 3:00 PM for Rhys and Taylor’s family-friendly birthday celebration. Taylor is going out in the name of their birth with Kyle, Ian, and other friends from school. Rhys and I will be skipping the party bus-transported, booze-fuel St. Patrick’s Day-themed bar hop.

He insists that he rather have a quiet night in with Harper and me instead of going out, but I know being separated from Taylor for a large chunk of their birthday will be hard for him. They have an incomparable bond. All that is swirling around about me is coming between it on their shared day. It’s a rotten feeling knowing my misdeeds and the misconceptions about them are keeping him from doing what he wants.

Harper’s naptime gives us a chance to talk about it. Video games are a nice buffer. Unlike when he is with Taylor, he’s nice to me when we play games. Even when I win.

“A handful of babysitting offers have been made. We have our pick of the bunch.”

“Hopefully they’ll still stand when we need one.” His eyes remain on our wing’s living room’s television.

“Rhys.”

“Penelope.”

“It’s your birthday.”

“A quiet night in with my girls is how I want to spend it.”

“I’ll go out with you. People will be too drunk to recognize us.”

“All it takes is for one person not to be. I won’t be able to hold back if someone says the wrong thing. The mess won’t be able to be cleaned and everything will get much worse for us.”

“I’m sorry.” My voice creaks as I swallow a lump in my throat.

He pauses the game and puts his arm around me. “None of this is your fault. Partying used to be a big part of my job. I’m honestly over it. All it does is remind me of when I was miserable. Spending time with my Wendy and Smalls never fails to make me happy. That’s what birthdays are supposed to be.”

“Promise?”

“Harper and I have already made plans. We’re going to ‘pway’ with our ’twain, feed each other yummy cake, and ‘pway usic’ in our happy place.” You’re welcome to join, I guess.”

“I might if I have nothing better to do.”

“I can respect that.” He kisses me.

“Maybe we can wash each other’s backs and watch your favorite movies on VHS after your sidekick goes to sleep.”

“My birthday is going to be so much better than Taylor’s. I wish I could rub all of it in his face.”

“I believe he had a visitor last night and he’s been looking forward to your birthday parties. Your birthday weekend might be on the same level.”

“Nah, sexy times with my girlfriend is better than him going all the way with one of his vetted hookups.”

“His what?”

“He screens girls before he sleeps with them. It limits his pool to ones in Seattle, LA, and New York – the places we’re guaranteed to go a couple of times a year – but he’s all about his system.”

“You know you can’t leave it there. I have to know all about this.”

“The first meeting, they’ll flirt, maybe even do some light messing around. Nothing major. He’ll tell them he doesn’t want anything serious, but wouldn’t mind getting together the next time he’s in town. He checks their social media accounts to see if they’re all about status. He’ll block their number if they are. He’ll also block them If they blow up his phone. It’s proof they can’t handle causal. If they pass his tests, it’s on.”

“Are packed breakfasts a part of his plan?”

“You saw that, huh?”

“It’s what tipped me off.”

“It’s room service to go when we’re on the road, but, yeah. I think he thinks of it as ending their one-time thing on good terms.”

“He does all that work and doesn’t see them more than once?”

“Don’t worry, we’ve made fun of him plenty of times for it.”

“Wow is all I can say.”

“It’s weird. Borderline creepy. You can say it.”

“I wouldn’t say all that. It’s responsible to a pathological extent. I can’t fault him, though. He knows what he wants and rules out liabilities. No risk, all reward. It’s very Taylor.”

“And Taylor’s a freak of nature.”

“He’s not.”

“It’s my birthday. Give me this one.”

“It’s his birthday too.”

He gasps dramatically. “You do like him more.”

“I love you.”

“That’s not enough. My feelings are all sorts of hurt. I thought what we had was special!” He dramatically proclaims.

I guide his face to mine. “You’re ridiculous.” I intimidate the first kiss.

“You love it.”

I nod. Smiling has to be done mentally due to the depth of our kisses.

Next thing I know, I’m straddling his lap. My fingers are tangled in his hair and his hands are all over me.

Harper’s voice filters through the baby monitor in the nick of time. Things between Rhys and I were escalating to an altitude that’s a bit much for early in the afternoon.

“She’s singing, probably playing. She’s fine.” Rhys nuzzles my neck when I pry my lips from his.

“Her diaper needs to be changed and we need to get ready to go to Mom’s house. We’re supposed to be there soon.” I lean out of our embrace but rub his chest.

“You and your logic burn me every time.”

“To be continued.” He gets a kiss on the cheek as I vacate his lap.

“I’m going to hang here for a bit.” He runs a hand through his hair.

“Good call.”

Harper is brushing her stuffed puppies’ fur when I reach her room. She’s still singing her song about ‘pwetty pups’. As invested as she is in grooming her fake pets, helping me pack for grandma’s house appeals to her more.

The stars align and we make it to Mama Wilde’s house on time. We’re met by more enthusiastic fanfare than usual when we step inside of her house. That’s saying something. It’s a Wilde tradition to embrace the newest arrival like they just returned from war. The extra attention isn’t only paid to the birthday boys and the baby of the family. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, expresses that they love me in some fashion. Widget and Gizmo even get in on it by reacting to me the way they do Harper.

The attention is equal parts endearing and embarrassing. I don’t like being the center of attention in general. People I will never meet expressing their intense negative feelings towards me being the reason has my cheeks burning a bright shade of red.

I mask it by prolonging my hug with Christopher by asking for a favor.

“I know you’re not allowed to treat family, but--”

“I already planned to evaluate him. He’s never been a compliant patient.”

“Visibly bruised knuckles can’t be a two on the pain scale.”

“I’ll get the truth out of him. You have nothing to worry about.”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.” He pats my back and releases me from our hug-versastation.

“Rhys?” Chris calls to him.

“Busy.” Rhys is on his knees, unzipping Harper’s coat.

“You won’t be forever.”

“I’m fine. Dr. Harper cured me.”

“And-aids and kisses for Daddy’s owies. All etter.”

“You’ve got to check on your patients after you give them band-aids to make sure they’re still okay. Do you want me to show you how?”

“Yes, peeze.”

“Get your patient. I’ll teach you everything I know, Dr. Harper.”

“Time go, Daddy.”

“I have to put--”

“No, no. You owie. Have to get all etter. Dockers help.” Harper stamps her foot to punctuate her point.

“Hold your puppies, young lady. We have to put our coats away before we can play. Those are Grandma’s rules.”

“O-tay.” She pokes out her bottom lip in defeat.

The bathroom is where I flee to regroup after seeing they’re settled and hanging my coat.

‘Today’s not about you. His life has become all about you. It’s his birthday. Give him a break’

After deep-breathing and drinking several scoops of cool water, I exit the room.

Robby is standing on the other side of the door, holding one of his boats.

“Where are you going, sweetie?”

“Boats go in water. It’s mine’s turn.”

This is a half-bath. There isn’t a shower or tub. He’s too short to reach the sink without assistance. The toilet is undoubtedly his intended destination.

“You’ll miss the party if you go sailing.”

“That’s okay.” He raises and drops his shoulder.

“There’s cake at the party.”

“Cake?!”

“Two of them. It’s Uncle Rhys and Uncle Taylor’s birthday.”

“I want cake. My fishies too.”

“The cake will get squished on it’s way to the farm where Flip lives. How about you tell him about it instead?”

“Flip ran home. He’s still real fast.”

“He’s back at your house?”

“Uh huh, his friends too. I like them. We’re buddies.”

He proceeds to tell me about his fish and their tank as we walk to the living room. There are six of them – Flip, Flop, Splish, Splash, Swimmy, and Wiggle. Their aquarium has a pirate ship, caves, and colorful rocks.

“There you are, silly billy. I’ve been looking for you. I came back with your juice and you were gone.” Becca comes up to us soon as we are within sight.

“I get cake.” Robby trades his boat for a sippy cup.

“We all are soon as we eat. Grams has a surprise for you.”

Robby runs to her without further instruction.

“Did you have to pull him out of the toilet?” Becca stands upright to speak to me.

“No, he didn’t even make it into the bathroom.”

“Thank God. That’s too gross a mess for you to clean and I know you’d do it. I was hoping he’d finally grow out of it. He’s only been sailing in the bathtub lately. No such luck. It’s the locks.”

“You got new ones?”

“No need. Now that the toilet seats aren’t being left up, the ones I bought can do their jobs.”

“How are – do you – when’d you change your hair?” I stammer in discomfort.

Her once mid-back length hair has been cropped into a sleek bob that barely passes her chin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Beck’s hair its natural color, but here she is – blonde. Ironically, it’s jarring. If she and Robby were no longer wearing photoshoot-appropriate clothing, I’m sure we’d be in the middle of an intervention.

“We need to talk.” She takes my hand and is leading me out of the main area before I can formulate a rebuttal.

Becca drags me to the enclosed sunroom just off the more formal living room. She doesn’t relent her hold on me after she shuts us in the glass room. Beck doubles down on her hold on me when we sit on a loveseat by taking my left hand into hers and angling herself towards me.

“We’re Wildes. Awkwardness isn’t allowed around here. We can be mad, jealous, happy, or whatever, but we’re always comfortable being what we are around each other. You and I are sisters. That’s a bazillion more times true for us. We’re outnumbered. Things will even out after Jess officially joins the family, but for now, it’s us against them. We’ve got to stick together, babes.” Her soft smile reaches her captivating hazel eyes.

“I know you were unhappy with R--”

“He has a new name. It’s Garbage.”

“He looks like a Garbage.”

“His parents missed the mark. Back to what you were saying.”

“Right, um, I know you were unhappy with Garbage, but you shouldn’t have been pushed to end your 5-year relationship because of us.”

“There weren’t just warning signs of a toxic relationship; there were sirens and flashing lights. Do you know what Robby asked when I told him Garbage wouldn’t be living with us anymore?”

“No, what?”

“If Flip could live with us again. The goldfish I replaced six times before telling him it moved to a farm is who he wanted to see instead of his father.”

“Maybe he doesn’t understand.”

“I made the info toddler-friendly. He’s grasped it well enough to answer questions. The Flip before the farm swam to the top of the tank whenever Robby’s there with food. Garbage has made no moves to call or see him since he left.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

“Yes, to tell him I’m filing for divorce and going for full custody. He griped about how his family will react to the divorce. There was no, ‘I love you. Please consider’ or ‘you can’t control when I see my son’. It was, ‘they’re going to be pissed I could only stick it out for a couple of years’. Those were his exact words. That day, I surprised my baby with the best aquarium I could find on such short notice and started researching divorce attorneys.”

“Good for you.” I squeeze her hands.

“I cut and dyed my hair on a whim. The other chop was a long time coming. I don’t want that type of person around my son and I don’t want someone like that as my husband. You didn’t wreck my home. Garbage is the only person I resent. I wish I had more of his things to burn and I fought harder to make Robby’s first name Aiden instead of his middle one.”

“He looks like an Aiden.”

“I’ve always thought that too, but I got guilt-tripped. The firstborn son in Garbage’s family has been named their name for four generations. His mom made a point of stressing the importance of tradition as soon as she found out we were having a boy. I wanted to be on good terms with my mother-in-law, so I gave in and it doesn’t even matter.”

“Plenty of people go by their middle names, you know? And I was Penelope until I was four. He’s three.”

“He likes the name. I asked. He’s starting preschool this year. His teachers and new friends won’t be confused by it. I’ll have to hold out until everything is said and done. Garbage’s mom is going to raise enough hell as it is.”

“How long do you think it’s going to take?”

“I don’t know, but Rhys and Tay offered to cover my legal fees. I’ll be able to afford a good lawyer who can fast track things and keep up the lawyer Garbage’s parents hire.”

“I’m so glad to hear that.”

“How many times Garbage cheated on me and my proof of it will work in my favor when it comes to the prenup. Because his family put in a fidelity clause, I’ll get the house and more than enough money to pay the boys back.”

“He cheated on you? You?! You’re the total package and then some! You’re--”

“Babes, it’s okay. I found out a few days ago and I’m already over it. I know how out of his league I am. Only the scum of the earth cheats because their spouse is busy juggling their own business and being the best mom they can be. I’ll get the last laugh when he has to hand over what he loves most.”

“How did you find out?”

“The idiot accidentally uploaded the unfortunate souls’ nudes to his cloud drive. I hacked into his social media accounts and snooped through his DMs. He uses the same password for everything—his initials and birthday. The dirty details were there with dates. I screenshotted all of it.”

“I would’ve been devastated.”

“Garbage is no Rhys. I’m going to destroy him in every way I can with the biggest smile. When I’m done with a guy, I make a point to become their worst nightmare. I always win because I’ve got the best backup.”

“Has Leo beat up all of them?”

“Most. He’s terrible with romance, but he’s a great big brother.”

“He’s nothing if not protective.”

“Christopher is too. He takes care of you while Leo hunts down the bad guy.”

“That’s true too.”

“Some parts of this are tough on me. I’d be lying if I said otherwise, but it’s for the best. I’m hurt, but I feel like a giant weight has been lifted. If that makes any sense.”

“It makes perfect sense.” Tears well and I divert my gaze.

“I showed you mine. Now, show me yours. This is a safe and secret place.”

“We’re in a glass box.”

“You know what I mean. I won’t even pass along what you say to Linds. This stays between you and me.”

I spill my guts to the person who’d understand them most. She’s not living a lie anymore either. She knows how Rhys gets when he gets fixated on something negative. The impact of extremely public ridicule is foreign to her, but Becca is one of the most emphatic people I know.

After all is said, Becca gives me a soul-balming hug.

“We have a party to get back to.” She rubs my arms. “Your outfits are too cute by the way. I know he asked if you could wear them everyday.”

“He did.”

“And Taylor’s agreed to wear his onstage tomorrow.”

“Yes, again.”

“And my darling angel channeled her Auntie Becca and made hers absolutely fabulous.”

“You’ve got them pegged.”

“And you, my absolute sweetheart of a little sister, made it possible for them to do all of it. You’re getting the super deluxe supportive treatment because you’re one of us, not because you’re someone we feel sorry for. Get that through your giant brain, honey bunny.”

I nod, fighting a smile.

Becca kisses both of my cheeks and takes my hand again. She doesn’t need to drag me to the living room. I’m clasping her hand to fully appreciate the display of love.

Rhys and Harper have lollipop sticks hanging out of their mouths as the brush Gizmo in the living room.

“How is your patient, Dr. Harper?” I join them on the floor.

“Daddy’s owies gettin’ wittle. Nunckle Cwis want etters. Daddy ood boy. Get icker. I help. Get em’ too. Look!” She points to the purple smiley face sticker adhered to her shirt.

“Wow, a pretty sticker for your beautiful work! You must’ve done a great job helping Uncle Chris make Daddy all better.”

“Uh-huh. We dockers. Real fun. Wanna share my icker?"

“Your ‘icker’ is all yours, Lovebug.”

She gets back to brushing the dog.

“What letters does he want you to get?”

“An x-ray and MRI. My sticker and lollipop aren’t enough to make me want to do it.”

“You are. They’re checking for hairline fractures and organ swelling. Either is dangerous. Having both would--”

“Wendy, I know I’m okay. I’d feel it if I were that dinged up. I move nonstop on stage.” He reaches for me.

I scoot within the space he’s made for me at his side.

“You’ve been wrapping your ribs before going on and icing them after.”

Someone’s making me.” He nuzzles my neck to lighten me up.

“After I saw you wince picking up Harper.”

“You’re caring for me as I age. We might just make it, babe.” He hits me with my favorite smile.

I narrow my eyes at his sweet-talking attempts. “You’re getting every single test and then some. I’m driving you to the hospital myself. I’ll be the one fighting if one of the evils tries to tug you to work instead of getting evaluated.”

“My appointment has already set. Dr. Chris’s intern beat you to fussing at me for complaining.”

“What did our very good girl say?” I ward off a smile.

“No isten no nice’.”

“And listening is how you earned your good boy rewards?”

“I don’t know. I also played the birthday card.”

“You’ve got to milk it while you can.”

“You get me.”

“You’re lucky I like you.”

“I know.” He kisses my forehead.

I cuddle with him until Harper gets restless. Rhys is forced to relax by yours truly as I make sure Harper doesn’t wreck the house while playing with her equally rambunctious cousins.

Later, fun is had perusing the pages of Rhys and Taylor’s childhood scrapbook with Grams. She explains the story behind each one and provides commentary only a grandmother can. Instead of eating their slices of cake on their first birthday, they smeared it on each other. They gave gummy smiles to the camera when Claudia gained their attention by pressing the paw of their ‘I love you’ bear. They can be playing tug of war with it in a nearby photo. All of their baby pictures follow this theme – they’re either all smiles and inseparable or fighting over something. I score high on the who’s who test, but their newborn pics keep me from getting a perfect score. Expressions and mannerisms are the only way to tell on the spot before they established their own styles. Rhys’s smile is an instant giveaway.

Rhys and Taylor’s favorite foods are served for dinner. Their birthday cakes are dessert. Tay’s is double chocolate fudge. Rhys’s is strawberry cheesecake. Both were made and beautifully decorated by Mama Wilde. Harper puts her heart and soul into singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them. Rhys has her help him blow out his candles and unwrap his gifts. She gives her all to those tasks as well.

Being around the entire family lifts Rhys’s mood higher than it’s been in too long. His smiles are relaxed and his laughter falls freely. Seeing him this way is helping me get there too.

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