Sum of Us

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Ch.53: Poppy

“Run this back for me one more time.” Chelsea’s on my phone screen, eyes squinted as she analyzes me.

“We’re going to his house tomorrow afternoon. I’m not doing it to punish myself. I’m getting what I want and defending my decisions once and for all. I see you don’t agree.” I stab a fork into the salad I’m balancing on my lap.

Videochatting with Chels in my car during my lunch break is far from abnormal. It is almost a daily occurrence.

“I’m conflicted. This is my conflicted face.”

“You don’t get conflicted.”

She is the second most self-assured person I know. The speed at which she can suss out a situation, pick a side, and develop arguments to defend her stances borders on supernatural.

“If he hadn’t been cruel, we wouldn’t have met. I wouldn’t have a sister and be a fun aunt. But he bent – didn’t break, bent – a person I love. He doesn’t deserve any of you or your time; you do deserve closure and everything he’s holding hostage. If there’s ever a time to start being conflicted, it’s now. This is a prime opportunity for him to ding you up again. I don’t know how to stand for it. You’re my person. And I’m not built for prison; I couldn’t wear the same outfit for the rest of my life.”

Her sentiment makes my heart sink, swell, and warm all at once.

I crack a smile as my eyes well with tears. “You may have a point.”

“I’m right. That I do know. You’ve endured too much over the last four years. Some of it was caused by me, and yet you always manage to forgive and move forward. Not everyone can do that. I know that for a fact too.”

“You couldn’t help it and the situation with Rhys was two-sided.”

“So? We still make your life more difficult. You’re special. The Bad Man better acknowledge it tomorrow or I’m flying over there. He needs to be held accountable for his actions like the rest of us. Don’t let him get high and mighty. Introduce him to his reality like the HBIC you are. Too much power is given to him when he’s called Satan. He’s not God or a fallen angel; he’s a man too cowardly to stand by his daughter.”

“I love you.”

“You’re my one and only. I want to see you happy.”

“I am.” The thought of what my life consists of makes me smile.

“You are. He needs to know that too.”

“Does Abbi get treated to your pep talks?”

“Babes, I’m not going to step out on you. Our love can’t be replicated.”

“That wasn’t a ‘no’.”

“I tried to coach her on how to breakup with her boyfriend. She didn’t have the ovaries to do it herself and begged me to do it.”

“Did you?”

“I have a gift. Why waste it?”

“Are you mad at her?”

“Peeved. She was with the dude for seven months. I shouldn’t have been the one to awkwardly hold him as he cried.”

“He cried?”

“Yes. The whole reason she wanted to leave him is because he kept asking her to meet his parents. The poor sap was in love with her. My respect for her is in the crapper of our shoebox apartment.”

“I’m sorry, babe.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m not. She knows how I feel. I told her. There are no eggshells for me to walk on.”

“And you spend most of your time out of the house working.”

“I’ll be starting an artist residency in the spring.”

“Why didn’t you tell me as soon as our call started?!”

“It’s months away. Your thing is this weekend.” She nonchalantly lifts and drops her shoulder.

“Where is it?”

“Paris.”

“Do you speak French?”

“I took French 101 in high school. I can already say, ‘bonjour, je m’appelle Chelsea’. I have time to learn the rest.”

“’Hello, my name is Chelsea’ isn’t going to get you far, but it’s a start. Your pictures speak for themselves.”

“I’ll still be at Harper’s birthday party and your graduation. Nothing could keep me from being there.”

“I don’t doubt it. Are you still conflicted?”

“Yes. One of my beautiful babies is all grown up. The other one’s not allowed to, but I have to pretend she can on February 14th every year. I shouldn’t complain and only be proud; I want to do both.”

“Such the dilemma.”

“It is.”

“You can do both to Harper. Rhys and I are already doing it.”

“I already planned to. She’s scheduled to call me soon. That’s when I’m going to start.”

“I’ll let you go. You have to answer on time, and she has to tell me all about it when I get home.”

“I’ll do my part. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She blows me a kiss. I kiss the air.

My last class of the week is like the rest of them – engaging and stimulating. Overloading hasn’t overwhelmed me thus far. I’ll probably be singing a different tune come midterms and finals, but for now, going to school and doing my coursework isn’t a means to an end. It’s an experience I’ll be savoring until the last second and a blessing for which I will be eternally grateful.

“Go, go, go, YES!” Rhys motivates digital football player he’s controlling from the couch.

“We dids it! Good ob!” Harper claps when a touchdown has been scored.

Whenever Rhys plays video games, Harper is by his side with a smile on her face. He removes the batteries from a spare wireless controller and gives it to her. “They” only play games with clean content – mostly sports and ones starring cartoons. Harper gets to push all the buttons she wants, talk to the television as much and as loudly as she likes, and celebrate or complain whenever the character Rhys is playing (and she thinks she’s playing) with does well. He encourages all of it. Rhys’s deception is a win for both of them.

“Are you winning?” I perch on the arm of the couch.

“Mama!” Harper exclaims, lifting her arms for me to pick her up. I do it, giving her a tight squeeze, before sitting on the couch with her in my lap.

“I missed you.” I cover her face with kisses.

Her giggle is music to my ears. “I iss you too. I aint you a itcher.”

I exaggerate a gasp. “You painted me a picture?”

She nods so vigorously that her favorite hat almost falls off.

“Thank you, Lovebug. I love your pictures. Will you help me figure out where to hang it?”

“Oh, yes, I help. I go gets it.” She shimmies off the couch and onto her feet.

She patters out of the living room in hot pursuit of her latest creation.

“Play the game you actually want to play. We’ll catch up later.”

Rhys and I share a lingering kiss before I run after Harper.

The piece of paper attached to her easel has five blobs of differing sizes and colors on it. Three of them have four lines sticking out of them; the smallest two have five lines.

“Oh, wow! Your picture is beautiful. I love it! Tell me about it.”

I have no idea what it’s supposed to be.

“That Daddy—” She points to the green blob, “—and that you” I’m yellow, “—that me”, she’s smaller than us and purple, “—and they pups,” two little balls of brown are at the end of the lineup.

“Are the dogs’ names Buddy and Holly Jolly Christmas?”

“Uh-huh! They comin’ to pway. Tay ever and ever. We wove ’em oh oh uch.”

“A picture of our family is exactly what I wanted. Thank you for making it for me.”

“My pwesent make you happy?”

On my knees, I give her a hug. “Very happy. I love you so so much.”

“And Daddy and pups.”

“Yes, them too.” I kiss her cheek within our embrace.

We break out clean sheets of paper, her paint set, and have Kevin play music. I supervise and encourage her as she makes pictures for Rhys, the dogs we don’t have yet, Taylor, Chelsea, and the other members of our “fammy”. She has more than enough supplies and energy to get their “pwesents” done. And Rhys gets a well-deserved break from being Super Dad. That’s not to say he stays away from us the entire afternoon. He visits at least once an hour, always bearing snacks and a smile.

After an evening of playing as a family, watching a movie (on a VCR, of course), eating pizza, and going through Harper’s bedtime routine, Rhys and I retire to our bedroom.

“What about this?” I come out of our closet for the fourth time, wearing a new outfit. This time it’s a yellow sundress, white cardigan, and brown ballet flats.

Rhys separates his eyes from the baseball game he’s watching.

“Looks good.”

“You said that about the last three.” I smooth down the skirt of my dress.

“I meant it. You look good in everything.” He goes back to his game.

I use my body to block the TV. “I need an actual opinion.”

“You’re gorgeous. That’s my opinion.”

“Rhys.”

“Penelope.” He deadpans right back.

“I need help. Help me.”

“Babe, seriously, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to dress up for him. He’s lucky to be getting anything at all.”

“I want to look like I’ve got it all together.”

“You do. You always look it.”

“Contribute or I walk.”

“Where?”

“Back into the closet. I’ll stay there until I figure this out. Even if it takes all night. I will. Don’t test me, Wilde.”

“The jeans – the high-waisted ones that are cuffed at the bottom and a black shirt with the buttons.”

“Those weren’t opinions I showed you.”

“You like to wear dark colors and buttons are professional.”

“Okay, there’s a traceable train of logic there, but you spend half the day staring at my backside whenever I wear those jeans. How does wearing them to visit my estranged father make sense?”

“Looking at your ass will keep me from kicking his.”

I roll my eyes. “I’m calling Becca.”

“She or Chelsea should’ve been your first choice.” He speaks to my back as I walk to our closet.

“I wanted to give you a chance. I’ll remember to never do it again. I’m sorry.”

“Clothes. That only applies to clothes.”

“I guess we’ll see.” I look over my shoulder.

“We won’t because I’m a good boy now.”

“Not all the time.”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

“Stay that way or I walk.”

“Where?”

“To your face to slap some nonsense into you.”

“Yes, please.”

“You’re joking.”

“Barely.”

I’m shaking my head as I resume walking away from him.

“Well, hello, my darling. To what do I owe this pleasure?” Beck smiles on my laptop screen.

It’s propped on a shelf meant for shoes.

“I need fashion advice. I’m having trouble putting together an outfit for tomorrow.”

“You came to the right big sister. What’s the occasion?”

“Well, I’m, we – what sorts of things do you wear when you have to meet with Garbage?”

“What femme fatales in black and white movies wear after they’ve murdered their husbands and are sipping cocktails while the police take their witness statements.” She rattles without contemplation.

My lips wobble as I try not to laugh. “There’s are outfits for that?”

“There’s an outfit for everything.”

“What do they look like?”

“Black dresses, usually. I mix it up with chiffon blouses and pencil skirts every now and again. Heels, pin curls, and a bold lip are always featured. They drive home the film noir look I’m going for.”

“What kind of response does it get?”

“I feel sexy and powerful. He keeps his stupid mouth shut because the way I look disrupts his train of thought. The key to looking your best is wearing what boosts your confidence the most. Walking the walk helps you talk.”

“I’m meeting with my father tomorrow.” I admit with the full gravity of the situation.

Her earnest hazel eyes convey the sincere sympathy that I have come to expect from Becca.

She’s the most sensitive of her siblings. You would think she would be too busy ricocheting from her own emotions to consider others’. No. She’s in tune with ours and is the first person to offer a hug and shoulder.

“Dress for comfort. You’re going to be out of your element; do it in your own skin.”

“You don’t think I should go dressier?”

“Do you like to dress up?”

“Sometimes.” I shift on my feet.

“My advice is to wear what you would wear on a normal Saturday. Your casual style is relaxed and minimalistic, effortlessly cool. I would stick with it.”

“Cool? I usually put on the first thing I see in the morning.”

“I did say effortless, didn’t I? You buy staple pieces and you mix and match them. That is fashion-forward practice. The timeless of them will bode well for you in the future. You’ll be on trend in all our family photos. Have you seen the pictures of Mom from back in the day? Hilarious. I keep them on my phone for when I need a good laugh. Harper won’t be able to do that. It’s almost a shame that she’ll only be able to use you for style inspo.”

“I have a feeling she’ll go to you and Rhys for that. She is a big fan of your skirts and dresses and his everything else.”

“She’ll want to experiment from time to time and she’ll go straight to her mama. We talk about how wonderful you are during our Tuesday morning videochats.”

I breathe a laugh. “She’s a talker like you two too.”

“What can I say? We’ve got a gift for the gab. We show each other our hairstyling too. She’s good at Rhys and Taylor’s hair and vice versa. She’s my apprentice, not Rhys’s. You have to break the news to him. He’ll accept the truth quicker if it comes from you.”

“You have to share her. She has plenty of love to give and is determined to distribute it to everyone.”

“Is he going to meet her?”

“Yes. Rhys and I are going to speak to him first. Taylor is going to babysit her here. I’ll stay at my father’s house and talk to him one-on-one while Rhys goes to get her. Harper will be around Randall for an entire hour. Rhys and I will be supervising, obviously.”

“How did this get setup?”

“He requested it. Our lawyer said agreeing to it is the only way for us to get everything I want. I’m using it as an opportunity to show him everything he’s missing.”

“Aw, sweetie, I’m so proud of you.” She rests her hand on her chest. “With that being the case, I’m going to double down on my outfit advice. You should look like yourself while you’re telling him who you are.”

“How should I dress Harper? The things she picks out…you’ve seen them. I don’t want him to think I don’t know how to take care of her.”

“You are a good mommy – no, a STELLAR mommy. You allow your baby to express herself. If he sees something wrong with that, who cares? You’re the better parent. Harper’s happy and healthy. He had to negotiate to get his kid talk to him. He could stand to learn a thing or two from you.”

“Is leaving her alone with Taylor right before introducing them a good idea?”

“God, no. There’s no way the car ride to your dad’s house will be long enough to shake off the downers Tay will fill her pretty little head with. Bring her to me. She, Aiden, and Courtney can have a cute cousin playdate.”

“Don’t you have to work?”

“No, I’m off every other Saturday. There are plenty of perks to being your own boss. You caught me the right week.”

“She’ll need to be dropped off around 9:30 in the morning. Is that okay?”

“Perfect. Aiden wakes up around 8:00. We’re going to the park at 10:00. I’ll take pictures of them feeding ducks and playing on the playground for you.”

“That’d be great. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. We were going to do it anyway. The more the merrier. And anytime I can save a baby from Taylor, I will.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“Last week, he told Grace there’s such thing as the tooth fairy when she told him she visited her.”

“Okay, maybe he is that bad, but we still love him.”

“We do, but we still shouldn’t trust him with our kids’ fantasies.”

“There’s no arguing with that.”

“Or with anything else I’ve said today. Be yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you or the life you’ve created.”

“Can I have your opinion on what I want to wear?”

“Show me what you’ve got.”

Becca endorses the black t-shirt tucked into high-waisted jeans ensemble I present to her. It’s merely a coincidence I want to wear the pants Rhys suggested. They are comfortable. What they do to my bum is an added bonus he’s more than welcome to appreciate.

“All done?” Rhys inquires when I plop down on the couch beside him.

“All done.” I rest my head on his shoulder and hold onto his bicep.

He shifts his laptop to the coffee table and puts the arm I was holding around me.

“What do you want to watch?”

“It’s up to you.” Once I have rotated in my seat, I am able to drape my legs across his lap.

“Do you need to talk? We can do that.”

“Cuddling with you is what I want.” I snuggle further into his warm embrace.

“Let me know if you change your mind.” He rests a hand on my knee and kisses the top of my head.

I don’t.

-~

Neither Rhys nor Taylor has a single complaint about where Harper will be spending most of her morning. Tay gets to sleep in and Rhys doesn’t have to stalk Taylor via nanny cam and security system.

Rhys goes through her morning routine with her, allowing me to have the time I need to get ready to the best of my ability and panic in private.

My stomach is in knots and my tongue has been replaced with sandpaper. At least I’m in clothes that will let me breathe if I regain the ability to do it. The bun my hair is in and its bangs that Becca recut for me last week will give me less to fidget with; fidgeting is a sign of discomfort and he could construe as weakness. A little makeup makes me look older; I apply it in hopes that he won’t treat me like the impressionable child he still believes me to be.

“Rhys?”

“Yes?” He’s sitting on the floor of Harper’s room, supervising her as she dresses herself.

Harp’s focusing too hard on her task to notice me. I don’t try to get her attention. It takes her long enough to get herself dressed. She doesn’t need another distraction – her mind’s enough of one.

“When did you buy her shirt?” I join Rhys on the floor.

“Weeks ago.”

“Why haven’t I seen it before?”

“It was in the wash.”

“For weeks?”

“It was hiding at the bottom of a laundry basket in the laundry room. Same diff.”

“And you coincidentally found it today and she decided to wear it without coercion?”

“Heart is her favorite shape. It has a glittery multicolor one front and center. There’s even a little purple in it.”

“The text in the middle of the heart is why this is highly suspicious.”

“Why?”

“’My Mommy is Amazing’. I shouldn’t have to spell it out. She can.”

“She plans to wear her duck boots with it. Harper’s a strong independent girl who wants to feed hungry duckies with her mom in her heart. She shouldn’t be punished for that.”

“Babe.” I stare him down.

He quickly cracks. “We took a trip to the mall after Music and Me.”

“Did anyone recognize you?”

“Yes, but they were chill about it. We weren’t swarmed. I posed for a few selfies. Waving and saying ‘hello’ from her stroller is all that Harper did.”

“So, she did what she always when she’s around people?”

“Yep. We had a good shopping trip and nice daddy-daughter outing.”

“What else did you needlessly buy?”

“Things she needed. Tutus are a necessity in her world. It’s summer now and it’s been warmer than usual lately – her regular leggings have to be swapped out for capri and shorts ones. And she been burning through t-shirts like firewood. She’s found new ways to get messy.”

“It might be all the ‘pwesents’ she makes me and all the ‘umblin’ she’s been practicing on the floor with you.”

“Those things won’t be changing anytime soon. I’ve got to keep buying her shirts.”

“What does today’s backup shirt have on it?” My smile is of amusement.

“The same thing as the one she spent ten minutes putting on. Her backup’s backup does too. They’re already in her diaper bag.”

I kiss his cheek. He moves his arm around me.

“You can go get dressed. I’ll take her from here.”

“I was just going to wear this.” He looks down at his barefoot, shirtless, pajama pants wearing self.

“One of us needs to be able to focus.”

A Cheshire cat grin stretches across his handsome face. “You’re wearing the jeans?”

“Yes, go change.”

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” He kisses my cheek between thank yous and practically runs out of the room.

I wait a beat, watching the doorway as I do it.

“Lovebug, if you stand up it will make getting your shorts on easier.” I whisper the helpful hint after I have scooted to her.

“Mama, you up!” She falls onto her back due to her overexcitement and struggle to pull on sky-blue bike shorts.

“I am, but we’ve got to use our super quiet inside voices because I’m not supposed to help you.” I sit her upright.

“That no nice. We help. It booty-full.” She remains at full her fully, very loud, volume.

“You are very right about that. May I help you get dressed?”

“Yes, pweeze.”

I assist her in standing on her feet. She steadies herself by placing her hands on my shoulders as I work her elastic shorts over her pull-up.

“What else are you wearing today?”

“Fower too-oo and ox and duckie oots.”

“Where’s your tutu?”

I see it, but I want her to regain control of what she has been trying to do for herself.

Her bonafide Harper outfit consists of a denim jacket, her shirt about me, pink tutu with flowers and butterflies with blue shorts underneath, purple socks with silver stars, and yellow rubber duckie rainboots. Her Smalls hat will surely make an appearance at some point today, but for now, she’s pleased to have her hair in space buns and bows on said buns.

Harper is the daughter Rhys and I made –the one I kept and we’re raising together. This is how she dresses. She only knows how to be the person she is.

I considered taking a fraction of that away from her to please him.

What if he keeps bringing out the worst in me?

Dropping off at Harper is quick and easy. The drive to my father’s house is tense and quiet.

The 1920s-built one-story craftsman I grew up in looks exactly as I remember. The shingles and bricks are still stormy gray; the gables, windowpanes, and railings are starch white; a tall cedar fence encloses the backyard, and someone has been maintaining the front lawn’s landscaping to the degree I did. Solely based on the state of the house, he looks to be getting on just fine without me.

My frustration irrational frustration is taken out on the front door.

“Breathe, babe. You’ve got this.” Rhys kisses my temple as his arm remains securely around my waist.

My heart is still thundering when my father opens the door. His face is in the weathered condition it was in the last time I saw him. It makes empathy resume coursing through my veins.

“You are right on time. Come in.” He steps aside to grant us access to the house.

Following the house rules by force of habit, I remove my shoes by the front door. Rhys does the same to keep the peace. We are ushered to the living room and asked if we want refreshments during the short walk there.

Rhys and I are sharing the couch. My father is sitting in his favorite chair. He has yet to stop staring at me since he laid eyes on me on the porch.

“Where do you want to start?” I am the one to break the awkward silence the three of us are sitting in.

“I’m surprised you were able to come.”

“Are you insinuating that I am busy or that Rhys dictates what I’m allowed to do?”

His gaze goes to Rhys before it quickly darts back to me. “He’s here.”

“I asked Rhys to come with me. He’s my boyfriend and Harper’s father. Much of what needs to be hashed out pertains to him.”

Rhys gives my shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

“Rhys was out of the picture when you were pregnant.” My father keeps his eyes locked on mine.

“He was. Our current relationship and our daughter’s paternity remain the same.” I knot my fingers in my lap but keep my eyes secured on his, determined not to be the one that breaks first.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was the father?” He fires first.

“I assumed you knew.”

“You could have made sure I knew. Were you trying to protect him?”

“From what?”

“How old were you the first time you were together?”

I scoff. “No laws were broken.”

“How old, Penelope?”

“Sixteen, Washington’s age of consent.”

“When did he start pressuring you?”

Rhys’s body stiffens and I can hear his teeth grinding, but he manages to keep his mouth shut.

“Never. How can you accuse him of doing that? You don’t even know him! If you did, you’d know that he respects personal boundaries, that he loves me and goes out of his way to make sure I feel comfortable.” I drive home the truth with conviction.

“I’ve always known enough about him to be concerned about you. Tell me: how old was his mother when she had her first baby? How many times has his father been to jail? He has how many siblings? Didn’t his mother raise them alone? Oh, and how many of the children she raised had children of their own before their 21st birthdays?”

Rhys’s posture has slumped. I don’t even have to look at him to know his gaze has shifted to the rug.

He has no reason to be ashamed.

“You had to have misused police databases to obtain all of that private information. Answer me this: how does your supervisor feel about it?”

“You are my daughter. I was trying to protect you.”

“What about when I needed you most, huh? I was alone and vulnerable and you knew it. Where were your protective instincts then?” Tears are streaming down my cheeks before I can stop them. I angrily push them away.

Rhys pulls me closer to his side and kisses my temple.

“You were supposed to use that fear and your savings to come home.”

“You tried to scare me straight?” I say, laughing incredulously. “You thought I would run here with my tail between my legs and follow all of your demands?”

“You would’ve if it weren’t Rhys’s. He’s always had some sort of spell over you. Everything was going according to plan until he came around.” His teeth are gritted and he’s speaking through them.

I’m shaking my head ‘no’ before he’s even got the first sentence out. “He had no idea I thought I was pregnant. We broke up before I knew for sure. He learned of our daughter’s existence eight months ago when I talked to him for the first time in three years. How could he have coerced me into keeping her? Subliminal messages through his music? If I listen to his first album backward will I hear, ‘ooo, Poppy, you must bear my baby, do whatever it takes’?” I spit with heavy sarcasm.

“If not for him, why did you throw away your future, everything you wanted and worked to get?”

“I was doing what you wanted, every last thing you asked of me. You didn’t ask for my opinions. You wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell them to you. Everything changed when I heard her heartbeat; it flipped some sort of switch in me. Making you proud stopped being what mattered most.”

A light switch visibly goes off in his head. “You lied to me during that call.”

“Oh, I did? I didn’t realize. Please enlighten me.”

“You were never going to put her up for adoption.”

“Yes, I was. Why else would I have applied for a leave of absence instead of dropping out of school? Perspective parent interviews were scheduled.”

“You wouldn’t have followed through. The way you’re talking about her – you wanted to be a mother. Was this done on purpose?”

“No, no. It was an accident. Rhys, I didn’t do— I wasn’t trying to trap you. I swear.” I separate myself enough from Rhys to guide his face to mine.

“I know, baby.” He offers me a soft smile. “You’re a natural nurturer. You can water the heck out of a plant. Wanting to water our surprise sprout isn’t a stretch.”

He lingers after pressing a sweet kiss to my forehead. “You need to work on your trapping skills, though, at least stop complaining when I buy you things. That’s gold-digging 101.” He playfully whispers into my ear.

I nudge him with a hint of a smirk playing on my lips. He tightens his hold on me.

My attention is redirected back to my dad. “I love being Harper’s mom but becoming a mother at eighteen was unimaginable until I was faced with it. Does knowing that honestly make a difference?”

“All I wanted was the best for you.”

“I did try to be all that you wanted. I gave it my all, but I’m not perfect. No one is. One accident shouldn’t have been all it took for you to stop loving me.”

“I still love you.”

“You left me!”

“I couldn’t find you!”

His words make me recoil. “What?” My voice is barely audible, even to my own ears.

“I took the tough love approach because I thought you would come home as soon as you realized how difficult life on your own would be. Two months, I waited. Nothing. Your phone was off – not my best idea –, my parents were unaware, and MIT wouldn’t release your forwarding address. You don’t have a criminal record. I couldn’t report you missing. You technically weren’t. I don’t have private investigator money. Hoping you were okay was all I could do after a certain point. And then you reappeared years later, with a daughter of your own, and wanting nothing to do with me.”

“I don’t go where we’re unwanted. You took almost everything away from me. I swore to protect Harper and she—” I fold myself into Rhys when I lose my second battle to tears.

He lovingly cradles my head and comforts me as I sob into his shirt.

“Poppy, I—” My father’s voice is the gentlest I’ve heard it in an eternity.

“Please give her a minute.” Rhys respectfully interrupts.

“I’ll get her tissue and water.”

It takes way more than a minute to recalibrate myself. Both of them are patient with me. They don’t speak to each other to refrain from stressing me out further. And neither party looks irritated when I return from cleaning myself up in the bathroom.

With my glass of water, I settle back onto the couch. Rhys puts an arm around me.

“The past four years for me have been…” I take a cleansing breath and have a sip of water. “They’ve taken a lot out of me. I’ve been hurt – not just by you, by this whole situation – in ways I don’t fully understand. I have to protect myself to be able to care for my daughter. For a long time, that meant closing myself off people and opportunities that would most likely end in rejection. I only did what I knew I could handle. I’m working on myself and trying to move forward. That needs to be reciprocated by you if we can have any sort of relationship.”

“How do I do that?” My father appears genuinely open to the idea.

“Admitting to your mistakes is a start. Respect my decisions – this is my life, not yours. Accept Rhys’s role in my life and Harper’s. Treating him like the scum of the earth and blaming him for things he didn’t do isn’t going to fly this time. And don’t try to make me forget what happened. It did. Sweeping it under the rug to make yourself more comfortable would be belittling to me.”

“If I did all that, what would happen?”

“We’d get to know each other. I’d call you ‘Dad’ and Harper would call you ‘Grandpa’. There would be conversations and visits.”

“What about Rhys?”

“We already covered him.”

“He doesn’t like me, and it shows. Is that staying the same?”

“He’s a good boy when I ask him to be. It’s why he’s been well behaved today. He’d have said more than one sentence to you if left to his own devices.”

Rhys silently nods.

“Let him talk. We have things to say to each other.”

“I don’t know about that. It could get messy.”

“This is. You said you didn’t want to sweep it under the rug. I’m listening.”

“Yes, I—” I sigh in defeat. “Go ahead, babe.”

I brace myself for the worst.

“Fuck you. My mom is incredible. She has done everything for my brothers and sisters and me. You should wish you could be half the person and parent she is. I haven’t seen or heard from my piece of shit father in a decade. I love Poppy. I have always loved her. I knew how important you were to her, so I didn’t let what you do or my family influence my feelings towards you. You hated me before I walked through the door. I didn’t start until I did. So again, fuck you!” Rhys vents at rapid-fire.

“Put yourself in my shoes. You can do it as a father of a daughter. Wouldn’t you do everything you could to keep Harper safe? From getting hurt? You left Poppy as soon as something new and shiny came along, just like your father, just like I thought you would. We spoke after you broke up with her. Did you know that? I listened to her cry over the phone. Her heart was broken and there was nothing I could do to fix it. She gave you a chance instead of taking my warning seriously. To this day, I only want the best for her. Being a single mom at eighteen wasn’t it. I tried to make her realize that. I went about it the wrong way, but I tried my best.”

“I don’t want Harper to live her life like the Bubble Boy. She’s going to screw up, she’s going to get hurt by people. Pop and I are going to try our best to make she has the tools to make it to the other side. What I did to Poppy is not okay. It was horrible. I hate myself for it. I’m not going to make excuses. I messed up. We all do. It’s a part of growing up.”

My dad looks between Rhys and I, studying us closely.

“Have you always been like this?” He changes his tone, switching to one of neutral realization.

“Be specific.” Rhys is the one to respond.

“Mature.”

“Not even close. I’m still young and dumb. You asked me about Harper. Everything changed for me too when I found out I made a person. I knew I needed to be better for her, all that she needs. I never want her to wonder whether or not her father loves her, to doubt that I wanted her. I know how that feels. I live it. It sucks. I’m doing all that I can to make sure my little girl never experiences that. And I’m not trying to impress you. I stopped caring about what you think a long time ago.”

I father thoughtfully nods. “What about Penelope? What are you doing for her?”

“I don’t know why she puts up with me. She could do better.” Rhys lightly jokes.

“He’s kidding. He does that.” I nudge him.

“Not now. You could.”

His self-deprecation makes me roll my eyes. “He’s silly method of thoughtfulness and affection makes me smile. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which helps me loosen up when I coil myself too tight. He’s passionate about the things that manage to hold his attention, and he works hard to be his best at them. Family is one of those things. He couldn’t be a better dad. He says I’m his best friend, but I think Harper might have me beat. They’re inseparable. He’d go to the ends of the earth for her without a second thought if she asked him to. He’d do it for everyone he loves, me included.” My eyes drift to Rhys after my improvised sentiments.

He’s already looking at me, my favorite smile playing on his lips.

His smile makes me smile.

“I don’t have to do anything other than be myself and he thinks I’m the best. He makes me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to.”

“You can.” He whisks away the moistures collecting in my eyelashes with his thumb.

“—that.”

“Huh?” I only catch the end of what my dad is saying.

“I’m not looking to get in the way of something like that.” He repeats himself once I have reangled myself toward him.

“Oh. Well, good. It would be a waste of time.” I retort though taken aback.

“I want to be a part of your lives, a part of Harper’s life. How much or long it takes doesn’t matter. Life’s short. Something is better than nothing.”

“Did Nana and Pop-pop ever ask about me?” My mood sombers.

“All the time. You were their pride and joy. My mom told me to pass along that they love you and how proud they were of how hard you are working during our last conversation.”

“I should’ve called them. I didn’t want to hear that they were ashamed of me too, but I should have.”

“They would’ve taken you in. Mom loved babies. I expected you to go there. For months, I kept thinking, ‘any day now, I’ll get a call from the ranch’. We would’ve had a lot of explaining to do, but everything would have been sorted out.”

All I can do is nod.

We can’t go back.

“What should I have Harper call me?” He charts the conversation into calmer waters.

I clear my throat to find my voice. Rhys gives a single, subtle nod when I look to him for final approval.

“Grandpa. Though, she’ll say ‘Gampa’.”

“It was going to be ‘Mr. Randy’ until Taylor pointed out that it sounds like the name of a children’s show host who turns out to be a pedophile. We changed it to Mr. James after that. It would’ve come out as ‘Mizzer Aims’. ‘Grampa’ is your best bet.” Rhys vocalizes his approval.

Taylor gave us his name's opinion after being told his babysitting services would no longer be needed. Becca helped us dodge a giant bullet.

“Gampa. I like Gampa.” My dad nods with a soft smile.

Rhys checks his watch, “I should probably go get her soon. How close it is to naptime makes a difference.”

“Yeah, go ahead. I’ll walk you out.” I reply.

It’s not a long trek. The door can be seen from where we are sitting. I hold his hand on the way there, nonetheless.

He asks if I think I’ll be okay alone with him with mere a look. I respond the same way.

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

He leaves a chaste kiss on my cheek. I shut and lock the door behind him.

“He’s different in person.” My dad commentates once I have returned to the couch. “I mean that in a good way.” He quickly picks up on my souring mood.

“He’s a good person.”

His face falls with defeat. “Did I do anything right? Have you always hated me?”

“I’ve never hated you. Furious with, yes. Hate? No. You raised me on your own. You taught me to walk and talk and everything else I’m currently teaching Harper. If you hadn’t pushed me in school, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have in it. You noticed I loved flowers and were the first person to call Poppy. Heck, you built a greenhouse in our backyard with your own hands for my eleventh birthday. I wouldn’t be all that I am today if it weren’t for you. For that, I thank you. Our relationship didn’t disintegrate because of a boy. We didn’t know how to communicate; it became harder and harder as I got older, and it came to a head when you learned I was pregnant. Rhys was involved in Harper’s conception, but the fallout from it was between you and me. You’d have known I wouldn’t come home on my own if you knew me. I’d have called your bluff if I knew you.”

The room falls silent. “You remind me so much of your mother.” His soft musing breaks the thick cloud of tension.

“I do?”

“Yes. She was strong. So strong. And brave. She fended for herself most of her life. How could she not be? Jill loved being a mom, being your mom.” He recalls with reverence.

“You hardly used to talk about her.” I knot my fingers in my lap.

“It has too hard. She’d have known how to handle all the things I didn’t. You look like her too.”

“I wish I remembered her.”

“Do you want to sort through her things? You can still take whatever you want.” He kindly suggests in consolation.

“Yes. I won’t take all of it, though. You should have pieces of her too.”

He leads the way to the back of the house. When we stop in front of my old bedroom door, I feel sick to my stomach.

The door his held open for me; I tediously step inside after the overhead light has been flipped on. What lies ahead takes my breath away.

Everything is exactly as I left it. My plaques and framed certificates are mounted to the room’s pastel yellow walls. The books I didn’t have enough space to bring to college are in their bookshelf; my trophies are still serving as bookends; my medals are hanging on them. Old post-it-note memos, concert ticket stubs, and a strip of photobooth pictures of Rhys and me are thumbtacked to the corkboard above the desk I spent countless hours working at. The full-sized bed I graduated to when I turned twelve is in the spot all of its predecessors were in, and it’s made with the covers and sheets I had all throughout high school. My Ferngully blanket is folded at the foot of it, just as it always was.

He didn’t try to erase me.

My hug catches him off guard. He has to steady himself (and me) by bracing himself against the door. His awkward patting of my back is oddly comforting.

We were never a touchy-feely family. Being swarmed by physically affection people has started rubbing off on me. Here he is, trying to adapt to it.

I return my hands to myself. “Is Mom’s stuff in here?”

“Yes, in the dresser, the bottom two drawers.”

An oversized cream cable knit cardigan, two t-shirts, half of the contents of a photo box, and a pair of earrings are what I limit myself to from the drawers dedicated to her belongings. As we pack it and my personal effects that I want to take home into boxes, Dad and I talk about my mom and his parents. My furniture and children’s books are left behind. My old room will be where Harper sleeps when she is babysat by her grandpa. I’m not assuming. He asked. I answered.

Dad’s body goes rigid and he looks panic-stricken when there is a knock on the front door.

“She's 3ft tall and her favorite thing to do is help. You should be okay.” I tease in hopes of putting him at ease.

“What if she doesn’t like me?”

“She loves everyone and almost everything. She’s afraid of toilets.”

“What are you going to do when you potty train her?

“We’ve started. We call it a totty, put her on it with her eyes closed, and give her stickers after she goes. She has taken to it.”

“What else should I know?” He asks as we are walking to the front of the house.

“Doing people’s hair is another hobby of hers. If she asks to brush yours, humor her. Fixing it as soon as her back is turned is totally fine. It’s what the rest of us do.”

Using both of his hands, he messies his hair.

It is one of the sweetest things I have ever seen him do.

“Mama!” Harper goes in for a hug as soon as I open the door.

“Lovebug! Did you have fun at the park?” I guide her inside.

“Uh-huh! Ots and ots of hungey duckies. I feeds ’em. All etter. Runs round and pway and pway in sunsign and gowned wit Courtie and A-in.”

“Emergency bath time was the hold up.” Rhys confirms her account of events.

It explains her new outfit and hairstyle. The buns that were on the top of her head have been transformed into pigtails and her Smalls hat is on backward. Her backup ‘My Mommy is Amazing’ shirt is in place. A unicorn tutu has replaced the one she had on earlier. Her duck boots have been retired for the day; her light-up rhinestone tennis shoes have been subbed in for them.

“Hi! I’m Hawper.” She smiles up at my dad when she notices him.

He gets on his knees to see her face to face. “Hello, Harper. I’m your mom’s dad. That makes me your grandpa.”

“That my daddy, Gampa.” She points to Rhys.

“I know. I saw him earlier while you were at the park. What happened to your arm, sweetheart?” My dad’s displaying a gentleness I’ve never seen before.

“Courtie fall on gowned.”

“Did you get an owie too?” I crouch down to examine her.

“No, Auntie Indsey sare and-aid. Real pwetty. I use totty wike a big girl.” Harp points to the three stickers on her shirt.

“Wow, good job. What else can you do?” My dad asks her.

He has no idea what he has gotten himself into. You can see it in his eyes, but he smiles and nods along to her ramblings.

Dad and Harp’s conversation has been moved to the living room. She can’t stay in one spot for too long. As she talks, she explores the room, touching everything in reach. Dad keeps up with her without signs of getting upset.

“How dirty did she get herself?” I ask when I’m comfortable enough to let him handle her alone and sit beside Rhys on the couch.

“Beck had to line Harper’s car seat with plastic bags to get her back to the house. You are to blame.”

“Oh, yeah? How?”

“I’m not the one who plays in dirt every day. That’s all you, babe.”

“No comment.”

“She made a worm friend while digging like a gopher. She was this close—” He pinches his fingers. “—to taking it home. Aiden just had to ask Becca for one too. The kid has no chill. Our girl knew to hide it.”

“Where?”

“Her fist.”

I sigh. “Becca’s never going to offer to babysit again.”

“She will. I let her braid Harper’s hair. Besides, our cub is too cute to resist. Look at what she’s doing to him.” He nods to my dad.

He’s crawling on all fours and roaring with her.

“I want to record it, but I don’t want to risk getting back on his bad side.” Rhys adds.

“I’ll do it.” I withdraw my phone from my pocket.

He’ll appreciate the capturing of this moment. Mom’s drawers and my room are proof of sentimentality I never knew he had.

“She really likes animals.” Dad takes a breather while Rhys takes Harper to the totty.

“Obsessed is more accurate. Her first word was ‘pup’.”

“Are you going to get her one?”

I nod. “Two. She already has their names picked out – Buddy and Holly Jolly Christmas, Holly for short. We won’t be able to get them until October. We will be in and out of town until then.”

“I can dog sit.”

“You don’t like pets. It’s why I never had one.”

“It’ll make her happy. Her happiness will make you happy. I need to start doing that.”

“You, I, yeah. Thank you.” I’m on the verge of crying for what feels like the millionth time today.

“You are an amazing mommy. Yours and mine would be proud.”

“Are you?” My voice trembles.

“Very.” He offers me a small smile.

The tears fall; I wipe beneath my glasses to quickly clear them as quickly as possible.

He’s the one to initiate our second hug. It is still awkward and still comforting.

“I’m sorry.”

“M-me too.” I sniffle.

My face gets washed and dried in the kitchen before Harper and Rhys return. Both of them would’ve been concerned and angry if I hadn’t.

Harp spends time with "Gampa" while Rhys and I load my boxes into the car. I dare to look into the backyard. Rhys’s hand is taken and he’s yanked outside when I see my greenhouse.

The handle is rusted over, there’s not a plant in sight and cobwebs and dust have taken over, but my place is still standing.

There’s potential to start over.

“Man, this takes me back.” Rhys stuffs his hands into his pockets as he looks around.

“It’s the room where Harp happened.”

“I know our awesome kid secret formula backward and forward. I’ll never need reminding.”

“What if something falls on your head and you get amnesia?”

“Never means never. It’s nestled nice and deep in my brain. I remember everything. EV.ER.E.THING.”

“What color shirt was I wearing?”

“You don’t even know that.”

“I didn’t say I remember everything.”

“I remember what needs remembering and all of it was piping hot.”

My cheeks engulf in flames. “Shush it.”

“That’s how it was burned in my brain. It’s a good thing.” He rests his hand on my shoulder and the smile he pins me with is jokingly devious.

I pry his fingers off of me. Handling his right hand with my left one, I use it to remove the forget-me-not promise ring on my right hand.

“I was kidding. I didn’t—”

“Shhh. You’re interrupting a thing.”

“What thing?”

“Be quiet, watch and you’ll see.”

His mouth is open before the ring breaches my left ring finger.

“You’re making me put a ring on it?! It was supposed to be my ring! My surprise during a candlelit dinner—”

“Do you want to get engaged or not?”

“Ugh, fine. You’re the love of my life or whatever.”

“You’re my ‘or whatever’ too. Now, will you shut up and let me use you to propose to myself?”

“One more thing.”

“What?”

“We’re only going to be half-engaged because you’re proposing to yourself. I get to do it back to make it official. It won’t be right now, and you won’t know when it’s coming.”

“Hawaii.”

“You won’t know which day or what time, so ha! I still double win.”

“This is so weird.”

“It’s us.” He shrugs.

Rhys dips and kisses me as soon as my the ring is securely in place. We’re laughing too much for his move to be romantic.

I wait until I’m upright to remind him of reality. “Attention on us has finally started to die down. I’ll have to flip my ring in public, but we’ll still be what we are. Okay?”

“Fine by me. In my heart, I know I’ve almost worn you down for good. That’s what counts.” He leaves a quick peck on my lips.

“You’ve got to give me trapping lessons. You’re good.”

“Can do. Whatever it takes to keep you around. Jot that down. It’ll be on the test.”

“After Harper’s nap, how about we swing by a shelter and pick out some pups?” I play with the hair at the nape of his neck.

“Yes, but someone said we can’t get Buddy and Holly until festival season is over and we’re back from vacation.”

“Circumstances have changed. A free dog sitter has volunteered his services. He’s eager to impress his granddaughter and please me. We’ll never be imposing. He wants to put in his time.”

“Better idea: we skip naptime and get our dogs now.”

“Even better idea: she stays here with my dad while we go buy dog supplies. We go home. She sleeps while we prepare for them. Buddy and Holly Jolly Christmas join our family as soon as the best friend they will ever have rises and shines.”

“Better than the best idea: we do what you said before you come to your senses.”

“Hold on. You think I’m incapacitated? That makes my proposal portion invalid.”

“Dogs. I’m talking about the dogs. The engagement ball is in my court and I’m hogging it.”

“Until you give it back to me.”

“Until I share it with you.”

“That was smooth, Wilde.”

“I do aim to woo.”

Grinning as I move in close, I kiss him.

My dad jumps at the opportunity to babysit Harper for the first time. She has Peppa Pig backpack full of toys, a diaper bag with her necessities, and copious amounts of love to give. Rhys and I tell Harper we are leaving to get her a present, and she doesn’t put up a hint of a fight. She knows they are supposed to be surprises.

Yes, ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ is engraved in its entirety on one of the dog’s tags. The other is simply ‘Buddy’. If one or both of them are unable to have their names changed, it’s no big deal. We’ll fasten them to one of Harper’s plush dogs. She has plenty of them and she plays with them daily. Wilde Knights fans do recognize Rhys while we are shopping, but they leave us alone; they’re content to take pictures of him from afar. He’s able to stay in the moment the with me without feeling guilty.

Harper has been fed and is asleep in what once my bed when we return to my dad’s house. After I make a sincere promise to be in touch soon and give him a quick hug, and he and Rhys share a truce handshake, we go home.

You can get a lot done when you are running on a closure high and on the cusp of making one of your daughter’s (and your) dreams come true. The house was toddler proofed before Harper and I moved in. Dog proofing wasn’t needed, but everything needs to be just right for the dogs Harper and I have always wanted.

To keep all of the dogs from cowering in fear, we tell Harper we are going to pickup Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy at home. She shrieks. We reteach her how to breathe. She forgets again and screams some more. Telling her the animal shelter has a closing time and we have to leave immediately if we want to get our dogs is what it takes to make her no longer a threat to our hearing. She talks about how much she loves them and all that they do together during our car ride. Taking them outside to use the ‘pup totty’ and feeding them is included in her gigantic list. She might be ready for this.

Harper would beg us to adopt every animal in the kennel if she were given free range. Rhys would give in first. I’d cave soon after. After our adoption application has been approved, which takes about an hour (we watch dog videos to pass the time), one of the volunteers kindly prevents us from taking home a zoo by only showing us the dogs that have undergone behavior evaluations and have been deemed suitable to be around young children.

“This is Peanut. We think she is around five or six years old. She was a stray. We’re unsure about her breed, but there’s definitely some poodle in her. Maybe some lhasa apso and golden retriever too. She’s been vaccinated and spayed. Peanut’s been with us for a couple of months. She does have special needs: she’s hard of hearing. She is intelligent, though. A little extra time to process what you are saying is all she needs. She’s a sweet girl too. All of her kennel mates have taken to her quickly. You want to get two dogs, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put her in the running.”

“Harper and I are loud and Harp loves giving hugs and kisses. Peanut might be a good fit for us.” Rhys reassures.

“Open your eyes, Lovebug.” I encourage.

We’re taking the totty approach.

Harp listens to me. The screeching is back when she lays eyes on the medium-sized golden-brown dog in the back of the cage. Her inhuman noise draws Peanut’s attention away from the squeaky toy she is chewing.

“HI, PUP! I’M HARPER!”

We don’t even need to tell her that she needs to do something special because dog can’t hear well. Harper’s too excited to use her inside voice. Peanut responds by galloping to us and trying to stick her snout through the cage’s chain links. She licks Harper’s fingers when she reaches for her. The giggles it draws out of Harper are contagious.

“Can she be let out? I think they like each other.” Rhys asks for us.

Harper and I are pressed as close to the fence as Peanut is, trying our hardest to adequately pet her.

“I’ll set you up in the play area.”

Peanut is on us as soon as she’s leashed up and out of her cage. Her tail is whipping fast enough to propel a boat and she’s accepting all of the petting and head-scratching Harper and I dish out with zeal. We’re in love before we get to the play area. The only question once we are is, “is her name Holly Jolly Christmas or Buddy?”.

Holly. Not because she’s a girl, because she’s jolly.

Harper…okay, me too…don’t want to be away from our new addition to the family. Holly comes with us as we look for her pup pal. The totty trick doesn’t work when Harp is unwilling to close her eyes. Expecting her to after being united with her very own “pup” was unrealistic. Her vision leads to her discovering a dog with limited vision – i.e. missing an eye – and latching on tight to the idea of being its “fwiend”. It puts Rhys and I in a tough position.

How does a person tell their child they can’t befriend a one-eyed rescue dog?

“Rita was taken from an abusive household and very shy when she arrived in our facility. Almost a year in foster homes has done her a world of good. She’s comfortable around people, housebroken, and ready for a loving forever home. The behavioral assessment she was given this week was passed with flying colors, and she’s a three-year-old terrier mix. The only reason she wasn’t on my list is I thought your daughter would be afraid of the way she looks."

“What about her health?” I address the elephant in the room and hold Holly’s leash while Rhys wrangles Harper.

“Vision is her only challenge. We had to remove her left eye. It was too damaged to save. The surgery went well and the socket has fully healed. Give her a chance to memorize her surroundings and she’ll be able to get around just fine. She’s a smart cookie like Holly. Vaccinations and spaying have been taken care of too. She should be able to live her full lifespan.”

“Do you think it would be safe to take her for a spin?”

“She’s sure up for it.”

Rita is jumping on her hind legs, reaching for Harper, who is fighting to escape Rhys’s hip.

The five of us spend close to an hour getting acquainted in the playpen. Holly is a bundle of joy on the verge of bursting; a volunteer had to take her for a quick bathroom break to keep it from happening. Holly will be the perfect playmate for Harper. Buddy is gentler and quiet, but just as friendly. She crawled into my lap halfway through playtime and became putty in my hands the longer I pet her. Buddy’s a stress reliever who will appreciate me as much as I appreciate her. We unanimously agree the fluffy misfits belong with us.

“I wanna ip too, Daddy.” Harper already knows who to go to first when she wants something bought for her.

In this case, it’s an identification microchip. Both of the dogs already have them. The front desk volunteer explained the logistics of them and I’m currently filling out the forms to have the information on them corrected.

“They’re only for dogs. I’d love to get you one, but I can’t, Lovebug.”

“But I no wanna gets wost. Wost scway.”

“Don’t run from Mama and me and you won’t get lost.”

“Runs fun. Ip.”

“We have chips at home. They taste yummy. You can have a whole bowl of them after dinner.” I tell her as I write our address.

“YAY!” She starts jumping up and down. Holly is quick to join her celebration. She does the doggy version of jumping, prancing in place.

“How do you always know how to talk her down?” Rhys asks me.

“I don’t. I wing it hope for the best. She’s just easy to please.”

“Nah, her amazing mommy is just a smartypants.”

“Why even ask?”

“I wanted to give you a chance. I’ll try again next time. You’ll be worn down one of these days.”

After all the paperwork has been completed, Rhys and I are pet parents and Harper is the big sister of Buddy and Holly Jolly Christmas. All three girls are in the backseat of Rhys’s car, safe and sound in their car seats. He and I are upfront, content with all that we’ve done today.

“Why haven’t you been answering your pho—it’s about time. I was starting to think he lost his touch.” Taylor walks into Harper’s room with amusement written all over his face.

Rhys and Harper are preparing the dogs' bathwater in the guest bathroom. I’m helping the girls get acquainted with the room they’ll be spending most of their time in.

“I proposed to him, actually.”

His smile vanishes. “I was talking about the dogs. He’s been talking about them for months. You got engaged?” His voice is somber. “You’ve been through a lot today. You should take a beat and think on—”

“I know what I’m doing. We’re only half-engaged anyhow. We’d have eloped if I had lost my mind.”

Taylor sits on the floor in front of me and ties his arms around his bent knees. “What happened with Satan?” He’s still analyzing me.

“He’s my dad. We’re going to call him that from now on. He apologized to me and Rhys. I have every item I wanted; it’s all here, including the deed and keys to the ranch. We talked about my mom and my grandparents. He met Harper. She loves having a grandpa and he rose to the occasion. Rhys was there the whole time, supporting me in the way only he can. I knew exactly what I was doing when I moved my ring.”

“Wait, you put on your engagement ring by yourself? Ha. Way to steal his thunder.” His smile is back.

“I used his hand and he’ll get his time to shine in a few months. I’m positive it’ll be as ridiculous as he is.”

“Is that what you want?”

I can’t help but grin at the thought of what Rhys could have in store. “Yes. He knows to perform the theatrics in private. I’ll get a front row seat to all that he is. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Great, now I’m going to be roped into helping.” He kids, rolling his eyes.

“You’ll love it.”

“I plead the fifth. Which one is which?” He uses his chin to point to the dogs.

“Buddy is the brown, black, and white one. The gold one is Holly Jolly Christmas. They’re both females.”

“Does Buddy’s hair need to be brushed or is she missing an eye?”

“Like Harper could’ve left the room if her fur needed to be tended to. She grooms her fake dogs daily.”

“Harp went right for her, didn’t she?”

“Yep.”

“And Holly?”

“Partially deaf.”

“Also on brand.”

“You won’t need to help out with them. We have enough hands to take care of our ladies.” I’m treating Buddy to a belly rub.

Holly is sniffing Taylor to determine if he will be a friend or foe.

“I’m game to pitch in every once in a while. They don’t seem like assholes.” Tay responds to Holly licking his fingers by petting her back.

“Far from it. They’re sweet as—”

“Nunckle Aylor! Nunckle Aylor. I’m a big ister!” Harper charges into the room without Rhys.

Tay’s eyes bulge.

“To the dogs! Not a baby. I’m not pregnant. It’d be impossible!” I abruptly interrupt his stammering.

“Holly olly istmas and Buddy wittle sissies.” Harper clarifies as she gleefully accepts the affection they’re dishing out.

“Congratulations. They seem really nice. You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to younger siblings.” His muscles relax.

“We’re like a box of chocolates.” Rhys does his best Forrest Gump impression. “You lucked out.” He switches to his regular voice.

“Sure. Let’s go with that.” Taylor dryly retorts.

“Don’t be painfully honest in front of my future wife. I still haven’t locked her down for life yet.” Rhys joins our sitting circle.

“We’re normal. Please don’t leave us.” Taylor amends to me.

“Take it back. Strange is what I signed up for.” I smirk.

“Thank God.” He lets out a sigh of relief. “There’s no way we would’ve have been able to keep up that façade. Wilde Wingz is in two weeks.”

Their annual buffalo wing eating contest.

“It’s already on my calendar.”

“Are you going to participate?”

“No, who would take care of Rhys after he takes it too far?”

“If you run her away again, I’ll follow through with killing you this time.” Taylor directs at Rhys.

“My name is Rhys Wilde and I approve that message.” Rhys gives him a thumbs up like a politician in a campaign ad.

That’s my man.

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