Sum of Us

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Ch.51: Poppy

“AUNTIE ELSIE!” Harper eyes expand and her smile stretches to its full capacity.

“LOVEBUG!” Chelsea gets on one knee and opens her arms.

Harp’s little watering pail is dropped, flower garden playset abandoned, and she launches herself at Chelsea.

What she does can best be described as a forward-facing, airborne trust fall.

Though this is a standard Harper reaction to surprise visitors, it’ll never not make my heart thud and my breath catch.

Chels catches Harper with ease and swings her high before situating her on her hip.

“I’ve missed you, lovey dovey.” Chelsea kisses both of her cheeks and rubs her nose against hers.

“Iss you oh oh uch.”

“How’s your ear?”

“It all etter. I gets to pway wit fowers in my dwess.”

“That’s why I’m here. I’m going to take pictures of you playing with flowers in your dress.”

“Yay! You tay wit me all time now?”

“No, but I will see you super soon. We’re going to go to a big music time together when you visit my home.”

We don’t have another stop in Boston…

Harper gasps and her face lights up with glee. Mine falls with panic.

In preparation for the wedding tomorrow, Chelsea and I getting our nails and hair done. I wait until we are on our way to the salon to bring up my concerns.

“We won’t be able to make a pit stop in Massachusetts.” My eyes are secured on the road as I drive.

“I’m moving to New York next weekend. You’ll be there the week after.”

My stomach knots. “Since when?”

“After you and Rhys gave me my birthday present.”

She was in her senior year at Massachusetts College of Art and Design when I moved in with her. It was too expensive for her to live on campus, so she moved in an apartment near it. It was less expensive than dorm living and meal plan costs, but she still needed help with rent. A roommate ad was posted. I answered it. The rest is history.

For her birthday, Rhys and I paid off her student loans. I used most of the money I earned while living in Boston. Rhys covered the rest. Both of us wanted to say thank you for all that she has done for Harper and me over the years. What better way to do it than clearing out the debt she acquired getting her degree in photography? We never would have met if she did not take them out to pursue her passion.

“That was two weeks ago…” I draw out.

“I know.”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“I’m not manic.” She cuts to the chase without a hint of defensiveness or irritability.

“I don’t want to pry or get into your face. I’m not insinuate that you can’t take care of yourself. You can. Everyone knows that. I’m just worried. I worry. That’s what I do.” I also ramble.

“I know, babe. You’ve never treated me like that. You’ve only ever looked out for me. My move isn’t as impulsive as it looks. I’ve been traveling back and forth between Boston and New York for art shows and side gigs for months. Living in the city I like best makes sense. My lease is up. One of my roommate’s friends is going to replace me in our apartment when she renews the lease. I’ve got loads of college buddies who live in NYC. One of them has a pullout couch that I can crash on until I’m able to move in with my freshman year roommate, Abbi. Her current roommate is getting married next month. The stars aligning is why I’m moving.”

I thoroughly process her plan.

She has one. She’s in control. This is Baseline Chelsea recklessness, not a manifestation of the high end of the bipolar disorder spectrum.

She’s okay. She’s going to keep being okay.

Chels never lied to me about this part of herself. She told me about her disorder when I shared that I was pregnant during our perspective roommate meeting. She could tell I saw myself as a burden. Her admission and her control of the narrative put me at ease. That’s when we clicked.

“You’re not allowed to like Abbi more than me.”

Her smile stretches from ear to ear. “Never. You’re my sister. No one will ever come close to you.”

“And you better let me know if you need anything.”

“You are and forever will be at the top of the list of favorite contacts on my phone.”

“You’re mine too. Don’t tell Rhys.”

“He can’t talk. Taylor’s his. I know it for a fact, and I don’t even need to look.”

Her instant retort makes me smile. “And how is that?”

“They shared a cord for eight months. They’ll always be each other’s go-to. You must know.”

“Oh, yeah. Since day one. Their codependence is hard to miss.”

“It stares you right in the face.”

After getting pampered at the salon, we head to the mall. She helps me pick out a dress to wear tomorrow. Meanwhile, Taylor, Rhys, and Harper are rehearsing at the hotel where the ceremony will take place.

Later, all of us go to bed at Harper’s bedtime. The guys are groomsmen and performing during the reception. Chelsea will be all over the place as the photographer. And I have a Harper to keep up with. Jess and Chris’s wedding day is bound to be a long affair.

During a light sleep cycle, I roll over. My head and arm landing on the mattress instead of Rhys has me opening my eyes.

He’s gone and his side of the bed is cool.

He’s been gone for a while.

I put on my glasses, stretch, and set out to find him.

First stop, Harper’s room.

We like to watch her sleep from time to time. It’s relaxing; she looks so peaceful.

No Rhys. Only Harper, who is thankfully still asleep in her bed.

I tuck her in and plant a soft kiss on the top of her head. Their music room is my next stop. He gets most of his writing done at night.

It’s empty.

The kitchen, gym, and media center are too. I try the recording studio before venturing into Taylor’s wing.

There he is, in the booth, intensely concentrating on his fingers as he plays the baby grand piano. I’m unable to hear the music he’s creating, but despite his serious expression, I can feel how much he loves what he’s doing. Never removing my eyes from him, I sit in the chair in front of the soundboard and take in the display of raw passion.

The spell is broken when his fingers leave the keys.

I hold down the speaker button. “Hi,”

Startled, Rhys nearly falls off the piano bench. He motions me inside with a wave of his hand once he’s steadied himself.

“Mean.” A hand is on his chest as he takes calming breaths.

“I’m not sorry. You do that to me all the time.” I shut the door behind me.

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“I’m not the one that gets scared.”

With a smirk on my lips, I shake my head at him. “You’re up past our bedtime, mister.”

“I’ve got a good excuse.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Chris never asks for anything; he gives. He wants me to play the piano at the beginning and end of the wedding ceremony, including the song Jess walks down the aisle to. It has to be perfect.”

“Perfection doesn’t exist. Your best is what he wants.” I sit down beside him.

“It’s not there yet. I couldn’t practice the way I should have.”

“What did you do during rehearsal?”

“Mom played the demos I recorded over Christmas break though the speaker system.”

“Why can’t she play them tomorrow?”

“They’re rough cuts I knocked out in a couple of minutes. Chris is getting better than that.”

“Play for me. I’ll help you smooth out the edges.”

“I’m rusty.”

“It’s just me.” I nudge him with my shoulder.

“Kiss me between critiques to soften the blows. I’m feeling extra needy tonight.”

“I can do that.” I press a quick to his lips.

He steals two additional kisses. “Extra needy.”

“Got it.” I kiss his cheek.

He poises his fingers on the keys needed to play the opening notes.

“Should I move?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I’ll stay close.”

I take a seat on a nearby stool. “I’m ready when you are.”

“I’ll play them in order. The precession’s walking out to First Day of my Life by Bright Eyes. I’m switching to I Knew I Loved You by Savage Garden when Jess arrives.”

“Are you singing?”

“Instrumentals only. We don’t want me to be a distraction.”

“I was going to suggest that for that exact reason. The song choices are great, by the way. Did you pick them?”

“Jess did. I made a playlist for her to choose from.”

“It was a secret sister-in-law test.” I accuse.

“Maybe.”

“Yes.”

“Chris is Chris. Not just anyone can be his wife.”

Something dawns on me. “All of you tested her.”

“We were too lax with Garbage. Beck’s declaration of love shouldn’t have been enough. Lesson learned. Problem prevented.”

“Jess couldn’t be less like him. She’s exuberant, compassionate, and ambitious. He’s his new name.”

“Better safe than sorry.” He plays a few notes to warm up.

All potential retorts and background thoughts evaporate when he starts the first song. My fixation continues as he seamlessly transitions into the second song. The haze isn’t lifted until his fingers are withdrawn from the keys.

“What needs to be fixed?”

I blink myself back to reality. “You’re accelerating the tempo of the bridges, but all the notes are there. The way you reworked Jess’s entrance selection into a medley of both songs is brilliant, simply stunning.”

“Kiss me.”

“Are you working that song into it?”

Rhys leaves the bench, stalks toward me, puts his hands on both of my thighs and stands between them as he kisses me. I melt into it and put my hands on either side of his face.

“Was I that mean?” I tuck hair behind one of his ears when he removes his lips from mine.

“You didn’t just hear. You listened. Kissing’s the only acceptable response to that.”

“Do you kiss Taylor too?”

“On the cheeks. He pretends to hate it. He loves it.”

“He loves you.”

“Same diff.”

“Kinda.” I smile.

“Will you keep breaking curfew with me until I’m finished not perfecting?”

“Yes, but don’t tell our spawn. She doesn’t take too kindly to people who don’t listen. That right is reserved for her.”

“It’ll be our dirty little secret.” He kisses my forehead.

“How is what we’re doing remotely dirty?” I talk to his back as he returns to the piano.

“You’re you and I’m shirtless. The tension in here? Downright filthy.”

“You’re playing an instrument shirtless. That detail makes all the difference.”

“What if I sing?”

“Hint: the guys would hate us forever if they were to find out about it.”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” He sits.

We stay on task, and don’t return to bed until he’s got the songs as perfect as humanly possible.

~

Chelsea, Rhys, and Taylor go to the hotel where the wedding and reception are being held early in the morning. Their absence give Harp and I the opportunity to get in some last-minute flower girl practice.

I don’t know what she learned at rehearsal, but what she’s currently doing can’t be it – throwing artificial petals as high in the air as she can, tilting her face to the ceiling with her eyes closed, and shaking her head as the falling petals pelt her skin. It wouldn’t be as bad if she were walking as she took her flower shower.

“Come here, Lovebug.”

“Fowers fun, Mama.” She’s donning a bright smile as she skips to me.

“I love them too.” On my knees, I take her hands. “Will you play with them a special way today? You know how Daddy and I say we love each other?”

Harper nods. “All time.”

“Well, Uncle Chris and Aunt Jessica are going to say it really loud today with lots of people around. Will you help our family make it extra special with your flowers?”

“Oh, yes. I help.”

“Here’s what you need to do: drop the flowers in your basket on the ground and walk to Uncle Chris. He’ll be waiting for you up front.”

“Fowers make Nunckle Cwis happy?”

“The flowers will make him and Jessica very happy. Would you like me to show you how?”

“Yes, pweeze. Do good ob.”

First, I show her how to walk and throw flowers. Then I act as a stand-in for Chris to make sure she understands how to get to her target. Lastly, I show where to go after she has completed her task.

There’s the occasional hop and leap as she makes her way down the imaginary aisle, but all things considered, she’s doing a good job, and I’m sure to make sure she knows it. She responds by asking for her dress.

For the sake of ensuring it’s still white when the ceremony rolls around, I keep her in the butterfly shirt and floral leggings ensemble she put together this morning. She said butterflies and flowers are buddies that need to be together. Her duck rainboots are tossed into the mix for the sake of making animal noises. I don’t know how a backward baseball cap factors into her clothing interpretation of environmental science, but her Smalls hat is firmly in place, nonetheless.

Harper listens to music and builds block towers with Rue on a blanket on the floor of the master bedroom while I get ready.

As she always does when we shop together, Chelsea dragged me out of my dark color comfort zone. She managed to talk me into a pale periwinkle dress with stemmed white and golden daisies embroidered all over its gauzy overlay. What it lacks in pockets, it makes up for with half-sleeves and a collarbone neckline. I would’ve moved right past it if I were at the store alone, but I did fall in love with it after she made me put it on. The light brown ballet flats I’m pairing with it are comfortable.

I break out my curling iron, create glamorous waves and pin back one side. My hair is easy to make half-decent; Quinn, the tour hairstylist, shared tips and tricks with me. A wedding guest makeup tutorial video is rigidly followed to keep from looking like a clown. It doesn’t look as good as it would’ve if Chelsea had done it for me, but she’ll be more than pleased with my best effort.

“Lovebug, it’s time to tame your mane.” I flip off the bathroom light as I step into the main room.

“ROAR!” She makes claws with her hands.

“ROAR!” I tickle her with mine.

Harper’s cooperation isn’t guaranteed, but her hair’s sure is. All I have to do is run a comb through it and pin her bangs out of her face with a light olive-green bow, and its photo and ceremony ready. The color of the bow brings out the green in her eyes and contrasts nicely with her dark chestnut hair, the ends of which daintily spiral curl of their own accord.

Her hair may be ready for the big show, but I she remains in her play clothes when I buckle her into her car seat. A white dress wouldn’t stand a chance without supervision. For its preservation, it’s in a garment bag, hanging from a hook in the backseat. Her white Maryjanes are safely tucked in her diaper bag.

Harp takes a cat nap as I drive to the downtown Seattle hotel venue.

“Did you have a good nap, Lovebug?” I open Harper’s door in front of the hotel.

“Big wove time yet?”

“Almost. We’ve got to put on your dress first.”

She reaches for it with both arms, whining with frustration because the straps of her car seat are restraining her.

“Calm down. I’ll get it. We can’t have you hurting yourself before you get to help.”

“No owies.”

“No owies.”

A bellhop gathers our overnight bags from the trunk; a valet takes my car to the parking lot, and I’m able to get to our room with only a few second glances.

Harper’s care and keeping needs are met before I grant her access to her coveted garment. The sleeveless white empire waist dress has a green sash that matches the bow in her hair. Its tulle-padded skirt makes Harp’s regularly scheduled twirling a grand affair. Her requesting to wear it every day from now on is a very real possibility.

Harp gets along well with all members of the wedding party. The ones at the meeting spot shower her with the affection and adoration as soon as we arrive. Grace, Courtney, and Jessica’s six-year-old goddaughter, Lula, are Harper’s fellow flower girls.

Court gets ahold Harper’s hand in hers as soon as she can. She started asking for a little sister the day she met her Harper. If or until Lindsey fulfills her wish, my little girl will be serving as her stand-in. She takes the responsibility she’s given herself seriously. Courtney telling me she’s going to take care of Harper while they walk before I have the chance to ask is proof of it. Lula’s mom is one of Jess’s bridesmaids; she lets me know she’ll keep an eye on all of them as soon as the girls run away to play together. I give her a hug for the reassurance, relay that all of Harper’s needs (food, potty, energy, and hydration) have been met, and dip out of the room after giving Harper a kiss good luck.

Chloe and Kevin run at, not to, me when I reach the main doors of the ceremony space.

They’re in charge of passing out wedding programs.

They deemed themselves too old to be a flower girl and ring bearer, likely after one of them made fun of the other for considering it. My money’s on Lo. Claudia and Becca didn’t let them get out of wearing outfits that make it obvious they’re a part of the wedding. Chloe’s top appears to be a blouse conversion of the flower girls’ dresses, and the capri pants she is the same color green as the sash. Kevin’s in the exact outfit he would’ve worn if he agreed to be a ring bearer – a white button dress shirt, olive bow tie, navy blue suspenders and slacks. It’s all for the sake of pictures. They know better than to argue with their grandma’s photographic wishes.

Making the task they agreed to take on a competitive race was undoubtably a decision made entirely by the kids, motivated by their dedication to contributing to their uncle’s big day…and the competitive nature fostered by their father.

“Welcome, Aunt Poppy, you look lovely today.” Kevin edges his sister out by a millisecond and gets the program into my hand with a dimpled, victorious smile.

“Thank you. You look very handsome, but you need to nice to your sister.”

“She’s the mean one. She pushed me to get to Great Aunt Joy. I had to get you. You’re a ten-pointer. We’re tied now. “

“Ten-pointer?” I tilt my head.

“It’s nice to see you, Tim!” Lo says louder than necessary for Kevin’s benefit.

“Gotta go! “He hugs my waist.

And then he’s off, hunting for more victims –I mean, greeting guests.

The most familiar faces are in the wedding party. Tim is a more than acceptable pre-ceremony seat buddy. We make small talk, but not much. The majesty of the transformed event space is tugging our attention.

The glass ceiling is intersected by silver beams, strings of Edison bulbs are laced on a ceiling panel that hovers above the majority of the white runner that leads to the arch, which is composed of fallen tree branches woven with white flowering currants and buttercup winterhazel. Other Seasonal and regional flowers I suggested when asked for recommendations are hanging or in vases around the room. Small bouquets of them are tied to the outer side of the white chairs on either side of the aisle with twine. White sheer curtains over select portions of the floor to length windows keep the lighting ratio just right. Soft instrumentals are filtering through the speaker system.

A brief moment of silence followed by hushed exchanges of excitement on Jessica’s side of the aisle indicate half of my wait is over. I feel him before I see him; anticipation sizzles my skin. When I finally give in to the pull, Rhys is waving at me from the piano bench with the subtly of a rodeo clown.

Giggling, I blow him a kiss. He catches and pockets it with a wink.

Butterflies sprang to life the moment I felt him, but they don’t make me feel jittery until he becomes the Rhys I share with them. How striking he looks in a gray suit and navy tie should be outlawed. I almost kick the bucket when he runs a hand through his hair and begins to play the piano; that feeling being felt by people that don’t fully appreciate what they are looking at is what gets me. Not out of anger. It’s the actualization that I’m the intended recipient of one of his goofy grins.

Though Rhys is in the corner being downright delectable by exceling at his gift while wearing a tailored suit and tie, I angle my body toward the aisle and watch the processional migrate to their rightful places.

The grandparents and parents of the bride and groom go first. Claudia is the picture of elegance, even as she dabs away tears of joy. Tim producing a tissue from his suit jacket and holding her hand once she has had the opportunity to use it is a sweet gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed by those of us in the front row.

Christopher stands out in his navy suit. He’s what the others are set out to compliment and it’s working. His ensemble is well-fitting, his haircut is crisp, and he’s not displaying a hint of nervousness or insecurity. He’s the epitome of calm when he takes his place beneath the wedding arch.

In order of height, the bridesmaids and groomspeople walk down the aisle in pairs. Chris wanted Lindsey and Becca to be on his side; they girls are wearing structured gray cocktail dresses with thin navy belts that match Leo, Taylor, Rhys, and best man Grant’s suits. The bridesmaids are in floor-length chiffon gowns in assorted pastel colors – mint, powder blue, blush, lavender, and pale yellow.

Little Aiden is the ringbearer, wearing the same outfit as Kevin.

Becca reintroduced Robby’s middle name to him, but didn’t apply any real pressure to him take it on as his primary name. One day, he started naming things, most notably the newest addition to his fish tank, Aiden. Beck went out on a limb and asked if he wanted to be called Aiden too. He did, and now is. It’s made banning Garbage’s name from our vocabularies possible. And Becca’s right – he does look like an Aiden. It suits him as well as Poppy does me.

He does his job successfully. Beck gives her little man a smiling thumbs up and silently reminds him to sit beside Grams.

The flower girls are up. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope Harper decides to do exactly what she’s supposed to too.

Harper, Lula, Grace, and Courtney are met with the same ‘awes’ that Aiden was. Lula is timidly walking a step behind the rest of the girls. Gracie’s eating up the attention with smiles and waves. Harper’s being…well, Harper.

Instead of tossing petals out of her basket as she walks to the front of the room, Harper is picking up the petals being thrown by the other flower girls and adding them to her basket. If the flower petals were replaced with breadcrumbs and Harper had a sister named Gretel helping her, she’d look like she wandered out of another fairytale.

Court’s fighting an uphill battle by trying to reign her in by leading by example. Harp just keeps on with what she’s doing, ignoring what her older cousin is saying to her. The room is laughing at the scene unfolding, all of us curious as to where this is heading.

When they finally reach the end of the aisle, Harper marches right up to Christopher like a girl on a mission.

“Sapwize! I wove you!” She thrusts her basket it into the air and looks up at him with a megawatt smile.

A present.

She thinks she’s giving him a present.

Rhys. I wish I could blame it all on Rhys.

Chris returns her joyous expression tenfold. “I love you too. Thank you for the flowers.” He accepts her offering.

“Elcome!” She hugs his legs.

The microphone hanging from the ceiling guarantees that everyone heard their exchange. They’re all good sports about it, getting a kick out of her disruption instead of feeling that it takes attention away from where it belongs.

Harper gets an unmistakable glint in her eyes when she spots Rhys playing the piano. He smiles his encouragement and she makes a break for it. Taylor intercepts her quicker than I can and passes me the ball of energy. Harper’s still trying to sweet talk me into releasing her as I settle back into my seat with her.

“We have to be quiet, Lovebug. It’s Jessica’s turn to make Uncle Chris happy.” I whisper into Harper’s ear as I situate her on my lap.

“Where Eska?”

“She’s going be where you came from.”

The music changes to Jess’s entrance song soon thereafter. Harper serves as my eyes at the back of the room; my actual ones are firmly on the front of it.

Chris’s patient, easy expression transforms into one of blinding elation. A crooked, closed-mouth smile has taken over 50% of his face. His deep green eyes are shimmering with unshed tears.

Watching such an emotional display is violatingly intrusive, but I can’t look away. Seeing him at his most human is mesmerizing.

I’ve stepped into the stratosphere of the people that stalk Rhys; it’s unsettling.

The tension in my stomach tightens when Jessica joins him beneath the arch. Chris’s back is now to us as he holds her hands. Her dress is impeded from view; her face is what I’m consumed with anyhow. She’s looking at her soon-to-be husband as though he hung the moon and stars. Her look of devotion intensifies as the ceremony progresses. She’s recited her vows several times over with her eyes by the time they’re called to do it for the room; it’s a formality.

All of this is, albeit a beautiful one.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your spouse.”

They are treated to claps, hoots, and hollers as Chris and Jess follow the officiant’s directions. We stand as the bride and groom walk up the aisle together. Harper is still in my arms and thunderously claps for both of us.

“Just when I think you can’t get any better, you outdo yourself. Come here, my cub. You’ve made Daddy so proud,” are Rhys’s first words when reaches me and Harper.

Harp extends her arms to him. He cradles her close, pressing her cheek to his as he squeezes her tight and turns her to and fro.

“We held up the wedding.”

“She gave Chris and the crowd what they wanted. Someone said our best is what was asked of us. She did it, Pop. Our baby girl gave all she had into being the best flower girl ever.” He settles her onto his hip.

“I big girl, Daddy. I use totty.”

“Do you need to go or did you already use it?” I ask.

“No potty. Mo’ fowers fo Nunckle Cwis. He real happy.”

“And here she is, overachieving just like her mama. How did I get so lucky?” Rhys sighs.

“Ridiculous is more accurate. Let’s see how you two do taking pictures. It’s only a matter of time before we start getting phone calls.” I check my phone for the time.

“Can a guy get a kiss first? I missed out on my scheduled good morning one.”

Harper kisses his cheek. “All etter?”

“How could I say ‘no’ to you?” He kisses plants a kiss on her forehead.

She rests her head on his shoulder and hugs him with one of her arms. “Wove you.”

“I love you too.” He rubs her back with a smile.

“So, what’s up?” Rhys flicks his eyes back to mine.

“You played the piano like I knew you could and wearing a suit and tie the way it’s meant to be worn. Good afternoon, I love you, and you exceeded in making your big brother and new sister’s musical dreams come true. I’ll cut you some slack for trying to include your protégé. It’s a special occasion.” I compliment him first, give him a quick peck suitable for our very young audience, second.

“There you go, being the best girlfriend who ever lived without breaking a sweat. I’d feel terrible about myself if you weren’t so supportive. I love you too, by the way. I’d say something about the way you look, but I’d get into trouble.”

“Probably.”

Definitely.” Contrary to his insinuation, Rhys plants a chaste kiss on my cheek.

Harper wants to walk to the area where we will be taking pictures. Rhys and I take one hand each. Harp would go flower picking otherwise.

“Untie Elsie!” Harper exclaims.

Rhys and I tighten our grips on her hands to keep her hands. “Aunt Chelsea is taking pictures for Uncle Chris and Aunt Jess. We have to wait until she’s finished to give her a hug.”

Chels’s on the other side of the hotel’s outdoor patio, exuding confidence and command of her craft as she snaps photographs of Christopher and Jessica interacting. It’s a sight to behold, as is always the case when she’s in the zone.

“Auntie Elsie itcher wit ama.”

“She does take pictures with a camera.” I translate for Rhys when he looks to me for help.

“I ama too. I help.”

“Your camera is at home. You can’t help her this time. What you can do is help me get some of Uncle Taylor’s snack.” He comes up with the perfect distraction.

“Oh, no! You hungey, Daddy? We get yummy nack.”

Harper leads the way to Taylor.

“Nunckle Aylor?” She blinks up at him expectantly.

“What’s up, kiddo? Did you miss your godfather?” Tay abruptly ends his conversation with Leo to cater to her.

“She does, but Chris is busy.” Rhys sends a wicked grin his way.

“I took care of her in there.” Taylor uses his thumb to point to the building. “All he did was get married.” He points in Chris’s direction.

“You kept her from her destiny. That is the most ungodfatherly thing a person can do. He accepts all her gifts with a smile.” Rhys argues.

“Harper, do you love me?” Tay disregards the light shade of his pants and gets down on one knee to talk to her.

“Oh, yes. I wove you oh oh uch.”

“She loves Chris too.” Rhys points out.

Tay sears him with a sneer.

His expression transitions to the exact opposite end of the spectrum when he redirects his attention to Harp. “And am I still your favorite uncle?”

“No.” Leo interrupts.

“You’re not in this race. Sit down.” Tay throws over his shoulder.

“Harp, we’re best friends. I let you brush my hair. We share toys. You’ve doctored me back to health. I went to Disneyland -- Disneyland –without complaining. –”

“You did, and you bought my daughter a new costume.” Lindsey interjects.

Song of the South need not be forgotten. Splash Mountain is modeled after it. And, yes, I upgraded Court’s party dress. Problematic princesses shouldn’t be idolized. I regret nothing.”

“You didn’t touch Gracie’s,” is her follow up.

“I saw what she did to Leo. I wasn’t trying to get my ass kicked by a kindergartener too.”

“Sass.” Harper attempts to repeat.

“You threw away your shot, Sailor. I’m vindicated and disappointed.” Chels jokingly chastises, making her appearance known.

“I still regret nothing. If Rhys can wear Poppy down, I can definitely get him to cave and take me back.” Tay dusts off his pants as he stands.

“Stain!” Leo, Rhys, and Lindsey eagerly point to the moist spot on his knee.

“Backup pair.” Taylor smugly retorts as he saunters away to go get them.

“Make it fast for your sake!” Chels calls after him.

“What happened to your pants, Taylor Thomas?” Mama Wilde’s voice carries across the patio.

They’re too far away to hear his response.

“Partial group pictures until he gets back.” Chelsea motions for us to follow her.

“I believe this belongs to you. Thank you so for the flowers. Uncle Chris and I love them.” Jessica leans down as much as a person can in an off-the-shoulder mermaid-cut wedding gown to return Harper’s empty basket to her.

“Tank you, Eska! You elcome fo fowers.” Harp lets go of our hands to get her basket.

“It’s Aunt Jessica, Lovebug. Big love time is over.” I gently remind her.

“Hi, Untie Eska,” Harper hugs her as though they’re meeting for the first time.

“Hello to you too, Niece Harper.” Jess reciprocates her display of affection with a warm smile.

“Congratulations. You’re glowing, you look gorgeous, and I honestly can’t imagine a better wife for Chris.” I compliment once Harper has detached herself and Jessica is standing.

“What she said.” Rhys attaches himself to my comments.

“Awe, you’re going to make me cry.” Tears well in Jessica’s eyes as she rests her hand on her chest. “That’s the ultimate compliment. I still can’t believe I get to call him my husband.”

“We apologize from the bottom of our hearts for interrupting your wedding. Harper and I practiced this morning. I thought we were in the clear, but she went rogue and there was only so much Courtney could do,” is my quick follow-up.

“We wanted everyone to be themselves. Harper did just that. She helped her cute little butt off. I’ve got to be sure to tell her. Where’d she run off to?” She scans the ground around us.

“She’s over there, showing your husband her dress, probably asking if he needs more flowers.” Rhys directs. “I’ll go make sure she doesn’t go for it.” He does what I was thinking.

Jess giggles, giddily watching the scene unfold.

Chelsea expertly corrals us into the best location and positions for optimal pictures. Like some sort of miracle worker, she gets everyone, children included, to cooperate without a single gripe. Transitioning to different groupings, poses, and surroundings is pulled off seamlessly. The finished products are sure to be even more impressive.

The addition of a bar, dining tables, dancefloor, DJ booth, and stage platform with a microphone the ceremony space has been transformed into a reception one. Dinner will be served soon. Rhys didn’t get us relegated to the children’s table like he did at Becca’s wedding. Table three only has one minor, the one that wants to feed as many of the six adults as she can.

“Okay, ladies, I have a very important job for you.” Rhys has rotated in his chair to face Grace and Courtney, who he rounded up from the children’s table.

“Can Harper sit with us?” Court changes the subject.

“No, she has to feed me.—”

“Yes, Daddy hungey.” Harper contributes.

“And she’ll get her dress dirty. If she gets her dress dirty, we’ll have to change her into a new one.—” Rhys continues.

“No-no, Daddy, no-no. Dwess real pwetty. I wike it.” Harp gets worked up.

“I know, Lovebug. I’ve got you covered.” He leans back in his chair enough to kiss her on the cheek.

He rights himself in his chair. “I’ve got to keep her happy and I want you to be happy. Feeding me is her thing and you love being dressed alike.”

“Oh, okay. We’ll play later.” Courtney accepts his answer with a smile.

“Now, pay very close attention. I need both of you to keep your eyes and ears open for big news. If you hear or see something, run over here as fast as you can and tell me.”

“Why?” Gracie questions with a hand on her hip.

“I’ll give you extra dessert if you do it. You’ve got to earn it, though. I don’t care about the color of someone’s shoes. I want fights, cheating, babies – the good stuff. Ask Lo if you don’t know if it’s good. She was the best gossip-getter I’ve ever worked with. I’d have her doing this if I knew how to talk her out of retirement…” Rhys reminisces as though what he’s saying is in any way important. “Girl’s got a gift.” He shakes his head and sighs. “Do what you can. I believe in you. Go earn your sugar.” He holds up his hand.

The girls give him a high-five and scurry off to work.

“Really?” I ask once he is facing the table.

“Getting the lowdown on everyone’s lives is what family gatherings are about. I’m busy, so I’ve got to outsource. Besides, they know everything there is to know about my life.” Rhys picks up his glass of water.

“Think of it as leveling the playing field.” Taylor chimes in.

“You’re in on this too?” I direct at him.

“It’s an educational tradition.” He shrugs.

I learn about another tradition during dinner – Wilde children interrupt one wedding before the age of four. Rhys and Taylor regale me, Chelsea, Kyle, and Ian with tales of their nieces and nephews fulfilling their destinies.

Aiden ran down the aisle as fast as he could and threw the ring pillow at the best man (who just so happens to be his garbage father) at his uncle’s wedding last summer. Courtney made it halfway down the aisle, laid down in the middle of it, and refused to continue her journey to the alter as the flower girl for one of Lindsey’s friends. While flower girling for a second cousin, Grace loudly proclaimed, “I pooped” during the brief pause for objections. During his godmother’s wedding, Kevin left his seat to launch himself at the back of her princess ballgown because it looked as though it possesses the buoyancy of a moon bounce (it did, but he got tangled in her veil). Chloe took off her dress just before it was her turn to walk down the aisle; she performed her flower girl duties in just a pull-up at her mom’s sister’s wedding.

Harper’s “pwesent” barely qualifies, but she partook in the rite of passage. Jess did have to postpone her walk until Harp finished.

Speeches by significant people in Jessica and Chris’s lives are given towards the end of our meal. Most kept me misty-eyed. There is no shortage of heartwarming things that can be said about them. My eye-dam didn’t break until Claudia stepped up to the microphone.

The way their journey began doesn’t just hit close to home – it’s on my doorstep. They’ve endured a seemingly insurmountable amount at each other’s sides. Today, the person she developed her “us against the world” mentality for has gotten married. The happiness that Christopher and Jessica have found in each other and have yet to create is what most parents hopes for their child. That is true in Claudia’s case, and she makes it abundantly clear. Her request for another grandchild is too.

It’s common knowledge that becoming parents is the next step they want to take as a couple. That’s the logic I use to validate my participation in the baby conception bet Leo started via group chat.

“Why aren’t you eating cake? Your mommy made it.” I ask Rhys as I feed it to Harper.

Chelsea hums around her fork. “This Earl grey with lemon curd buttercream perfection?” She points to the triangle of sponge with her mouth-cleaned fork. “I’d marry it.”

Harper loves the cake as much as her aunt. The moment she’s swallowed a bite, her mouth is open, ready for more and she gets fussy when it doesn’t get there fast enough. And by fussy, I mean she talks about how “yummy” the cake is and aggressively offers to share it with me as she begs for more. I decline because I know the situation would escalate if I ran out of cake. At the rate they’re going, Chels and Harper might finish the entire four-tier cake themselves.

“I don’t need convincing. I’ve got a hefty slice on layaway. I want to eat it now, but I have to hold off until we perform. The sugar would hurt my voice.” He sips lemon water.

“Kyle and I aren’t just here for love and free food. We’ve got to earn our keep.” Ian kids.

“I’m checking out Mama Wilde and playing the guitar and violin too.” Kyle adds.

“Watch it. Tim could take you down without breaking a sweat.” Taylor shuts him down.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were supporting their relationship without coercion, Sailor.” Chels pokes fun.

“I’d choose him over Kyle any day.” He swirls the amber liquid in his tumbler glass before taking a gulp. “Tim’s got his s-h-i-t together. Kyle keeps more c-a-n-d-y than clothes in his suitcase.”

“If Kyle’s willing to share his sugar, I don’t see why his packing habits should be considered a negative attribute.” Chels plays devil’s advocate.

“I would. I would for you too. If you the cake get divorced, hit me up.” Kyle raises his glass of beer to her.

“Your respect of our union says a lot about you.” She treats herself to a mouthful.

“All cellphones must be checked at the table by the door. There will be a live performance in ten minutes.” The DJ announces from behind his table of sound equipment.

“And that’s our cue to leave.” Rhys uses the table to stand.

“No go bye-bye, Daddy. No done yummy cake.”

“It’s big music time. You can’t dance if I don’t play for you.”

“Big usic time?! Wove big usic time!”

“Uncle Chris and Aunt Jess do too. Is it okay if I go do it for you? We can share my cake later.”

Harper nods adamantly. “Go pway wit nunckles.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He leans down and kisses the top of Harper’s head. “I love you.”

“Wove you.” She hugs his neck.

He moves to my chair. “And I love you too.”

I tilt my face upward to make it easier for him to kiss me. “No backflip.”

“No backflip.” He confirms his understanding between our first and second peck.

Rhys’s hands are back in action, but they are still on the mend. The acrobatic stage trick in question doesn’t require the use of them, but recovering from one gone awry would, and we’d be right back at square one.

“Oh, and I love you.”

“You wouldn’t worry as much if you didn’t. Would you like me to take your phone?”

“Yes, please.” I fetch it from my crossbody purse.

“I can take yours too, Chels.”

“You’re working overtime. I like to see it.” She approves as she lifts her phone from its facedown position on the table.

“You’d take them back if I weren’t giving this my all.” He shoots her an easy smile.

“Good on you for still taking my threat seriously.”

“I’m kept from getting too cocky.” He puts her phone and mine into his pants pockets.

He long ago ditched his jacket and tie. I helped him roll up his sleeves when I caught him struggling. Why didn’t he ask me in the first place? He’s stubborn.

“You’re welcome.” Now standing, Taylor buttons the top button of his two-button suit jacket.

“Who takes care of you, Sailor?” Chelsea scoops a new piece of cake.

“Being called a ‘dream crusher’ on the reg regulates a person.”

“You take pride in that title.”

“It means my facts are being retained. Being effective gives me the warm and fuzzies.”

“Warm and fuzzies? Wow, that’s major.”

“That doesn’t leave this table.” He imparts as he departs.

Kyle and Ian do the same. Rhys gives Harper and I another kiss each before doing it.

“Was that your subtle way of making plans with ‘Sailor’?” I redirect my attention to Chelsea once I’ve treated Harp to another forkful of cake.

“Nope. I don’t do anyone on people’s wedding days. Even when we both go in with the mindset of a one-nightstand, the deed carries weight – I’ll be able to remember its exact date and associate it with something other than what it is. It’s basically a relationship. Been there, done that, never going back.”

“Interesting. It makes sense, but I never would’ve thought of it that way.”

“From experience comes wisdom.”

“That is a department in which I deeply lack. The embodiment of absurdity I’m dating only person I’ve been with.”

“And that’s okay too. We’re programmed differently. You need a connection and you have a very special one with him. Exploration’s not a requirement, and his isn’t something you should worry about.”

I shoot her a side-eyed glance.

“Yes, I know. I’m your sister. I’d be failing if I couldn’t read you like a book. No one’s got anything on you, my dear.” She boops my nose with her frosting-covered index finger.

“That’s what we’re doing now?” I swipe my finger on Harper’s plate and do the same to her.

Our actions, unfortunately, inspire Harp. She slams her hand on top of the cake and has it on her face before I can stop her.

“Look at what we did.” I’m holding Harper’s wrist as I push the plate away.

“We added to our swell day. We love to help each other. Don’t we, Lovebug?” She takes a small packet of baby wipes out of my purse.

“Oh, yes. Help real fun. And cake. Wove cake.”

“Our village is raising her right.” Chels approves with a grin.

We’ve got each other cleaned, Harper’s on my lap and my and Chelsea’s chairs are facing the dancefloor when the boys take the short stage.

Ian’s drumset is now on it. Kyle’s got his violin. Taylor has traded his bass guitar for his acoustic one. The piano Rhys was playing during the ceremony has been pushed near the stage; it’s too big and heavy to go on it. His keyboard is on the stage, though. Rhys is standing on the floor in front of the stage behind a microphone.

“Hey, everyone—” He starts.

All conversations end.

“My name is Rhys. I’m Chris’s brother. The guy back there that stole my face is too—”

“I was born first.” Taylor interrupts, using the microphone that is in front of him.

“Don’t care. I still said what I said and meant it. Neither of us can argue that Chris was born before both of us and has relentlessly supported us from day one. I don’t know how he finds the time to be everyone’s rock and save lives, but he does. He makes time to do it all. –” Rhys resumes.

Taylor picks up his thought, “He wants to make extra time for Jessica, and we’re all for it. You’ve got 100% Wilde approval, Jess, and that’s hard to come by – we’re protective of our own. You’re a doctor who knits hats for the babies you deliver. If anyone can take care of the person who is always taking care of everyone else, it’s you.—”

“To welcome you to the family and be the ones taking care of Chris for once, Tay and I have commissioned Ian—” Rhys gestures to him.

Ian waves.

“—And Kyle,”

Kyle does the same.

“—, members of our family and band, to help us put on a private show for you. Performing a song about the love of my life for your first dance as husband and wife would be—” Rhys resumes.

“Narcissistic--” Taylor completes the sentence.

“Yes, that. That’s why we’ve written you your very own song. It’ll never end up on an album or released online. It’s your choice as to whether or not you want us to record it. You two will be the only ones who will get a copy of it. It’s yours—” Rhys starts.

“It belongs to you—” Taylor chimes in.

“You belong to each other.” Rhys continues.

“Congratulations.” They complete their speech together.

All fifty guests clap.

“They’re good speechwriters, Love of Rhys’s Life.” Chels speaks into my ear to be heard.

“Shush it, and they’re not. They never prepare statements. One starts talking, the other rolls with it, and eventually it evolves into a coherent thought.” I reply to her the same way.

“Well, they’re good at it.”

“They’re jacks of all traits.”

Rhys moves the microphone to the piano and lowers the stand to a height suitable for sitting.

Chris and Jess thank the guys. She blows them kisses. The newlyweds then make their way to the center of the vacant dancefloor.

“This exclusive slow jam’s titled Marvel. I hope Dr. Mr. and Dr. Mrs. like it. The rest of you will be welcomed bonuses.” Rhys poses his fingers on the piano’s keys.

Christopher and Jessica hold each other and sway as a lovely string and piano-heavy melody infiltrates the room and Rhys seductively croons about what makes their relationship miraculous.

The song’s superb. It would undoubtably fare well on the charts and skyrocket their record sales. Their decision to forfeit clout and money is what makes them spectacular people.

Harper’s on her feet and dragging me in the direction of the stage when the rest of the guests are given the greenlight to join Chris and Jess on the dancefloor. She fights her way through the crowd like a general admission champion and gets us front row center spots.

What does she do as soon as we’re there?

“Hi, Daddy!” She jumps as she waves.

“Hey, Lovebug, are you ready for more music?” Rhys is now on stage with the rest of the band.

“YEAH!” Harper exclaims.

She tugs my hand. I bend over to hear her.

“It big usic time. We gots ta ance.”

“I know, baby.” I kiss her cheek.

I can hardly breathe by the end of the boys’ set.

Harper has been a dancing queen since her days in the womb. She’s a fiend when she’s hopped up on sugar. Rhys replaces me as her partner when the DJ takes over the music.

“I think I just saw a Norse god.” Chelsea joins me at our table with our phones in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

“How much wine does one need to drink for Thor to appear?” I sip my ice water.

“None. I haven’t had any yet. I saw him on my way back from the bathroom.”

“Is there a protocol as to be done after these encounters?” I smirk in her direction.

“Check out and report, which I just did.”

“I’m learning all sorts of things today. You—” The man sauntering into the room sucks all of the air out of it.

His reminiscent striking features could have been ignored. When it comes to the self-possessed way in which he carries himself, the easy smiles he sends to the people whose eyes his magnetic presence attracts, his air of impulsivity, there’s no mistaking who he is.

“Bathroom. Be right back.” I bolt out of my seat.

My feet carry me across the room. I have him cornered before he can draw more attention to himself.

“You need to leave,” I say with conviction when I’m standing face to face with the person who makes Rhys question his worth.

A tiny placated smirk forms on his face once he has finished his short appraisal of me. “Rhys has done better than I thought. I’m getting the impression you know who I am too.”

“Yes, Harris, and you should go before I call the police. This is a private event, and you are trespassing.”

“I’m not. The security guard at the door let me inside.”

“They made a mistake. You’re not on the list.”

“It’s my son’s wedding day. My mother, his grandmother, is right over there.” He nods to her with his chin.

“She was invited. You weren’t. This is your final warning. You have priors; I recommend leaving willingly.”

“You like the police about as much as I do.” His demeanor remains cool and collected.

I wordlessly unlock my phone. He stays in place, silently calling my bluff. I dial 9-1-1 and tap the call icon. My phone’s out of my hands and the call has been ended prior to the first ring.

“Okay, okay. I’m going.” He extends my phone.

I snatch it back with narrowed eyes.

There is no message relayed to me to pass along to his kids or passing comments that pertain to them. He just walks out.

Throughout our entire conversation, he never regarded them as people. Rhys’s life was something he found amusing. Chris was labeled a possession. And it hurts my heart. All six of his children have beautiful souls and are worthy of the love their mother has relentlessly given them.

“I saw that.”

Christopher’s voice from behind me makes me flinch. I tepidly turn over my shoulder to face him.

“Did I overstep? I got caught up in the moment. I saw him and I just—”

He silences me with a hug.

He takes a step back to look at me. “You kept him from doing what he came here to do – upset us.”

“You think that was what he intended to do?”

“I know it. He waited until most of us had consumed alcohol. All of us keep in touch with Nan, including Mom. If he wanted to reach us prior to tonight, he could have with ease. He wanted to bait one of us into hitting him, preferably Rhys, for a payout.”

“That why he looked happy to see me.” I guess.

He nods with pursed lips. “He’d have to be living under a rock not to know Rhys would do anything for you.”

“He didn’t say anything mean.”

“That’s not his style. He would’ve slowly chipped at your resolve until you got agitated and lashed out. In would’ve come Rhys with Taylor and Leo not too far behind. It would’ve been a mess.”

“On your wedding day.” I sympathetically frown.

“What I wanted to do happened hours ago – I got married. He wouldn’t have taken that away from me.”

“You looked so sure of yourself up there.” I convey with a soft smile.

“I wasn’t. That was me anxious to start trying to make permanence work.”

“What’s next on the agenda?” I transition.

“I know about the bet. Leo already lost. She’s not pregnant. We want to be able to go to Hawaii in the fall. Waiting until now to start trying will make it possible. Jess says a babymoon is a thing. I’m taking her word for it.”

“Am I allowed to pass this information along to Gracie and Courtney? Rhys hired them to snoop. They won’t get paid in dessert if they come up empty handed.”

“Yes, and tell Leo I didn’t, ‘join the club’, while you’re at it.”

“You got it. I’m going to get to it.” I hug him. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” He pats my back.

The news is relayed to Leo first. His next course of action is trying to restructure the bet. I leave him and Taylor alone to hash it out.

Rhys, Harper, Courtney, Grace, and the other reception attendees under the age of six have composed a dance circle. I don’t know how or why he and Harper summoned them, but they are breaking out all sorts of dance moves.

Luckily, Court and Gracie are side by side and my weirdos are busy doing hair shake-centric choreography. I tap the girls’ shoulders and motion for them to follow me.

“Want to dance with us, Auntie Poppy?” Gracie adorably inquires.

“It’s really fun.” Courtney extends just as warm of an invitation.

“I do, but first I want to help you get extra dessert from Uncle Rhys.”

They’re all ears. Rhys is swarmed as soon as they’ve grasped my intel. I’m the captain of the dance squad when he recuses himself to hold up his end of the bargain.

Having to deal with the man who has inflicted lasting damage on my loving family still has me shaken, but I put on a brave face for the people too young to understand.

A slow song is kicking off shortly after Rhys has made his way back over to me. He makes me his sole dance partner. Chelsea calls upon Harp to be hers.

Our embrace is close as we move to a classic ballad about love. My head is on one shoulder. One hand is around his waist, the other is on his other shoulder. Both of his arms are around my waist.

“You’re nothing like Harris.” I breathe into his ear.

He tries to pull away; I tighten my hold on him.

“You’re not. You would never show up in the middle of Harper’s wedding reception with the intention of hurting us.”

“So, he showed.”

“Yeah.”

“He couldn’t be bothered when Beck invited him to her wedding, in hopes that he’d give enough of a shit to walk her down the aisle for appearance's sake, but he can make it to a party with an open bar.” He thinks aloud.

“I’m sorry, baby.” I squeeze him closer.

“Who had to send him packing – Mom or Chris?” His voice wobbles.

“Me.”

He sniffs once. “Yeah?” A smile can be heard.

I lift my head from his shoulder and my hand to his cheek. His eyes are glassy, but tears have not been shed.

“You’re not the only one that gets to slay dragons. This is an equal opportunities relationship, remember?” I caress his skin with my thumb.

My favorite smile forms on his lips. “You’re the best.”

“I’d hold off on saying that until you’ve heard another realization I’ve come to.”

“Okay, I’ll bite.”

“I don’t want this – a wedding,” I add the last bit when his face begins to fall.

“Are you telling me that if I stay with you, I won’t get another day where I’m told what to do, wear, and say? You’re right. I don’t know if locking you down forever with our daughter as our witness would be enough for me.” He can barely get through his response without laughing.

“I’m serious.”

“Me too. I want to be stared at when we put our hearts on the line, and Harper doesn’t have the charisma of an entire wedding party and guests combined. Can you say ‘snoozefest’?”

“You have had loads of fun today. It is still written all over your face. It’s not inconceivable for me to think you want a day like this of your own.” I plow through with sincerity.

“We’ve spent the entire day with our family. I look the same way on holidays and vacations. There’s no telling what my face will do when you give into my pestering once and for all. I rather not have them there to witness it. They’ve got enough embarrassing pictures of me.”

I crack a smile. “I always like your version of your face.”

“Is this it? Is it happening? Are you proposing to me, Penelope?” He teases.

“No, but I love you. You love me. We’re together. Can that continue to enough for now?”

“It will be for as long as you need. I’ve got my girls. I’m good. Besides, it’d be rude of us to steal the bride and groom’s thunder, and we would because I’d spend the rest of the night and brunch tomorrow shouting about your proposal.”

I draw his face to mine and savor his ridiculousness as much as our kiss.

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