Sum of Us

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Ch.55: Poppy

….|| Two Years Later ||….

“I can’t believe her. How dare she think it’s okay to turn five? Do you know what she asked me during her bath?” Rhys rants as he holds the ladder I am standing on.

“No, what?”

“’Daddy, is there music time at ladybug parties?’” He does his Harper impression.

“The audacity.” I am smirking as I pin one side of a ladybug “Happy Birthday Harper” banner to the wall.

“This isn’t funny, Penelope. There’s a stranger sleeping upstairs. Our little girl, our BABY, knows her birth can’t be celebrated without music.”

“Harper has never had a birthday slumber party. She isn’t entirely sure what to expect. She asked you, her dad, for guidance because she’s still dependent on us. That’s a sign we can push back our quarter-life crises another year. You should be counting your blessings with me instead of complaining.” I console him as I step down the ladder.

“Compromise: let’s do both.”

“We enrolled her in pre-K. How does she repay us? By learning and making friends. She’s not supposed to love it. She should be begging us not to leave her. Who does she think she is?”

He carries the ladder to where I need it. “And we’re way more fun to be around than her best friends. Robin, Ensley, Ayo, and Madison don’t own VCRs. We have six.”

“I bet they don’t even know what they are.” I hike up the ladder once he has it placed.

“That’s what I’m saying. We should be enough for her.”

“Driving away a child’s friends to be the center of their universe creates supervillains and serial killers. We’re in the musical smartypants making business, Wilde. Harper has to keep her very sweet, age-appropriate best friends. Bright side: we love them, they adore us, and we get on well with their parents.”

He lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Our little girl has been around for six years. We’re getting old, Pop. We’re getting old.”

“We’re 24.”

“Getting – we’re getting old. We’re not there yet.” Rhys hands me the other end of the banner.

“That’s what I thought you meant, but it never hurts to be sure when it comes to you.”

“Right back at you. Speaking of which, how’s our marriage going on your end?”

“I can’t complain. We might just make it to our 1st anniversary.” I blatantly joke, fighting a smile.

Rhys and I waited until after I earned my master’s degree to get married. Earn a High school diploma, bachelor’s degree, graduate degree, enter a career in environmental science, get married, have babies, and living my life with those things was the plan for my life that I developed way back when. Pushing Harper to the second position in line made the rest of the tasks I hoped to complete in my lifetime seem inconceivable for a long while. Doing it on the same timeline was undoubtedly out of the question. The need to recalibrate schedules to accommodate unforeseen variables is a part of life. Harper happened, Rhys and I found our way back together somehow, my sense of self returned, and the rest reappeared too.

After I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Science with a minor in Environmental Science and Terrestrial Resource Management, I started working as a botany laboratory-greenhouse associate at an environmental conservation consulting firm. At Thrive Green, we help national parks, botanical gardens, and farms all over the country maintain their wildlife, crops, plants, and trees by providing them with techniques that enable growth in the world’s rapidly changing climate. I work within the testing division. Earning a Master of Science degree in Environmental and Forest Sciences qualified me to earn a promotion; I am now a botany lab-greenhouse manager.

Harper, Taylor, Chelsea, Rhys, and I were on a plane to Montana an hour after I completed my first full week with my new title. Rhys and I had a beautifully odd non-wedding that took place at the dividing line of our fields of dreams. Harper was our flower girl, ring bearer, and soloist. She sang a lovely original song about how much she loves Rhys and meand then proceeded to wander off in pursuit of a butterfly. Rhys caught her and we maintained tighter grips on her hands for the rest of the ceremony. Chelsea was our photographer and videographer.

Capturing our union digitally was a way to include our families without the pressure of a live audience. Taylor officiated in a very Taylor way. He kicked off our ceremony by explaining the sorted origin of marriage. He redeemed himself by saying what Rhys and I were doing is an exception to his stance because Rhys is a “miserable bastard at best” when he is not with me and Harper, and as his twin, he’s morally obligated to support his other half in all endeavors. That especially applies to the aiding in the achievement of their goals. Being with me in all ways for the rest of their lives, in the eyes of the law being one of those ways, is one of Rhys’s.

After Taylor was done crushing fairytale dreams, Rhys and I quoted songs at each other, rings were exchanged (Rhys had to wait until we returned to Seattle to get his tattoo), our marriage certificate was signed, and by the power invested in Taylor Thomas Wilde, Rhys and I were pronounced husband and wife.

Our new titles came with name changes. My legal documents now read “Penelope Elise James-Wilde”. Harper once again has James as a last name; hers is hyphenated like mine. Rhys hyphenated his middle name, it is now Michael-James, under the guise and running joke of a fear of missing out. The truth is he knows how much weight it carries for me.

My dad would have been the last James standing if I discarded my maiden name. We have had rough times, but we have made amends and he raised me to be the person I am today. And I want to retain as many links to my grandparents and mother was something I could not do either. My mom bounced around from foster family to foster family growing up. Marrying my dad gave her what she always wanted – a place to belong, feel wanted, and loved.

Rhys originally wanted to hyphenate his last name, but he changed his mind after much discussion. His last name factors heavily into his public persona. He would be pestered to explain such a drastic change to the world, and it would conflict with making our lives as private as possible. Altering his middle name in solidarity was a way for him to get the best of both worlds.

My husband, Rhys Michael-James Wilde, is as considerate and motivating as he is passionate, protective, and silly. So, yeah, I’m quite content in our marriage and make sure he knows how glad I am to be with him every day. We made a pact to share our true feelings four years before our marriage.

“This is awkward. There’s something major simmering under the surface on my side.” He continues my joke.

“Oh, yeah? Do share.” I ask as I guestimate whether the banner is level.

“You keep attending award shows with me. You’re perfectly content hanging out outside of the limelight most of the year. But every time award season hits, you just have to sit beside me during ceremonies. To make matters worse, you whisper words of encouragement and hold my hand while looking super sexy whenever Wilde Knights is up for an award. Stop supporting my career, wife. It’s suffocating.”

Establishing their own record label was Taylor’s solution to their management problem. Heart-Headed Records was his brainchild, but all the guys are shareholders – the only shareholders. The money they earned working with their first label and the wise investments they have made over the years make it possible. Kyle and Ian each own 25% of the company. Rhys owns 20.5% of it. Tay has the remaining 30.5%. Rhys bought 25% of the shares and gifted 5.5% of them to Taylor to say thank you for making sure their joint dream could continue. Why 5 ½? That is the number of minutes they existed apart. Ian and Kyle okayed making Taylor the majority shareholder to thank him as well.

With the largest amount of stock in the company, Taylor has the most control. If there is ever a disagreement and it comes down to a vote, he will always win, even if they took it to court. The guys trust him to look out for their best interest. He always has. Tay is the reason they own their songs’ masters, band name, image copyrights, and were only required to stay on their original label for four years.

They broke the news to their old label in a manner that was true to form. During a meeting with their old label’s representatives, Rhys and Kyle tore and tossed the contracts they were meant to sign while Taylor said f-you for as many reasons and ways as possible. Ian made sure they were out of there before security arrived and did not cause damage they could be sued for. For the past three years, my boys have been high fiving each other instead of trying to survive under other people’s thumbs.

They only produced and were featured in other artists’ work for the first two years. The third Wilde Knights studio album was released last year. Attending concerts of significance and award shows are the only time I venture into their world. It is still like visiting another planet, but I have developed a rapport with the aliens the guys have allowed on the Heart-Headed Records spaceship. They make it easier to tolerate.

“This has gotten even more awkward. I haven’t been going for you. I get my own invitations for having songwriting credits on nominated songs.” I pin the sign into place.

“We’re in worse shape than I thought.” Rhys tsks.

“I call dibs on Twigs the giraffe.”

Rhys and I started a Beanie Baby collection when we got married to take make another one of our inside joke references tangible. As an ode to that real-life divorced couple who took each other to court in the 90s to split their Beanie Baby collection under the supervision of a judge, we are accumulating a collection of our own. Some of our Beanie Babies are valuable, most are run-of-the-mill. All of them make us laugh whenever we look at their shelf in our bedroom.

“You can keep them. Hippity, Hoppety, and Floppity are the only ones I’ll fight you for.”

I hop off the ladder to survey my work. “There are plenty of bunnies in our bunch. You can have them.”

He dramatically sighs. “Great, now we can’t get divorced. A Beanie Baby custody battle the only way to dissolve our marriage. We’re stuck as husband and wife.”

“We have to be less compatible. Let’s work on that in year two.” I reply, smiling over at him.

“Our communication skills have to be the first to go.”

“Talk about an uphill battle. You love talking.”

“You reply and I’m not forcing you to do it. I certainly didn’t teach you how to do it so well. That’d be impossible. I’m often told I’m ridiculous by the most beautiful and gorgeous woman in the whole wide world.”

“You don’t need to try so hard, Wilde. Valentine’s Day isn’t until Saturday.”

“Who said I was talking about you?”

“This is working in favor of our Beanie Baby divorce proceedings. Keep up the good work.”

“As you wish, gorgeous.”

“Ha! Caught you.” I point at him.

“Damn.” He snaps his fingers. “We’re back at square one.”

“There are worse places to be. We’re good at redoes if we go all in.” I kiss his cheek.

“We can’t start trying until next week. We’re busy this weekend.”

“What are you surprising Harper’s class with tomorrow?”

“Vanilla cupcakes with strawberry hearts on top. They are individually packaged and made with all-natural ingredients in a facility without common allergens. There’s a gluten-free one for Ari and a sugar-free one for Ross. She’s not winning this round, Penelope. She can’t. It’s not just about Valentine’s Day; it’s Harper’s birthday.”

The 6’2, tatted up, long-haired rockstar I am married to is entrenched in a battle with a monogram-wearing helicopter parent by the name of Mary-Ellen Spencer. Rhys was named Harper’s Pre-K class’s class parent. Being a guaranteed chaperone on all field trips is the reason he volunteered. He won the title by winning over the class and its teacher when Harper took him to school for show and tell; she wanted to show her new friends music time and Rhys was needed to give them the full experience. Rhys earned the title of Class Parent fair and square.

Mary-Ellen was the class parent of her other children’s Pre-K classes. Saying she was not too pleased when she discovered she would not be it for her third is putting it lightly. She has been passive-aggressively taking out her anger on Rhys and me for months.

There is a committee composed of parents from all three pre-kindergarten classes. Rhys is the representative for Mrs. Appleby’s collection of parent volunteers and is responsible for presenting their collective ideas at meetings. Mary- Ellen disregards the plans made by the group and shows up to Mrs. Appleby’s classroom and events unannounced with activities she has devised on her own.

It undermines Rhys’s authority and nullifies the democratic process. She mommy shames me because working full-time leaves me with less time to spend fussing over Harper. The combination of offenses is why Rhys declared war. Mary-Ellen did not expect him to rail against her. Boy, has he. It is reached Rhys-level ridiculous. He even runs attack plans by Taylor to ensure they have maximum impact. As his partner and a person with feelings, he has my full support.

“Don’t be surprised if she is there too with cupcakes of her own. It’s a common Valentine’s Day treat.” I sort through the pile of tree cutouts that are meant to go on the walls.

“When I asked Mrs. Appleby if I could bring something in for Harper’s birthday, she asked me to come before lunchtime and lead a singalong because the kids have been asking for an encore. I’d like to see Mary-Ellen beat that.”

“Do you think it would be okay if I come watch? I can take my lunch break a little early.”

“I already asked, boss lady. Mrs. Appleby said you are more than welcome to come. I want you there to speed up the divorce process. Supporting each other will be our downfall.”

“I want to be there to steal cupcake credit and watch how hyped up Harper and her classmates get during the singalong. Your littlest fans are the most rabid. I’ll be in for lunch and a show if I go.”

“Theft and mocking, both bode well for our goal. I look forward to seeing you.”

“I’ll be the tall one in the back.”

“Thanks for telling me which section to avoid.”

“You’re welcome. See you in court.” I turn to him.

“I’ll be the one not in a suit.” He accepts my prompt for a kiss on the lips.

Once we have the trees mounted, Rhys and I push the furniture to the perimeter of the living room. A large green area rug is unfurled and replaces our gray one. Rhys drags Harper’s plastic picnic table from the patio on our side of the house and places it on the living room’s “grass”. I clean it thoroughly with disinfectant spray before draping a white and red checkered tablecloth onto it. A child-sized camping lantern is the table’s centerpiece.

Together, Rhys and I pitch a triangular blanket fort and arrange six ladybug sleeping bags and pillows inside of it. A plush campfire set is near their tent. nine log stools are surrounding the fake firepit. String lights that are to stand in for stars were hung from the high ceiling by a maintenance worker earlier today. After putting 3D ladybug stickers on just about everything, Lovebug’s ladybug party location is ready for its campers.

Rhys takes the dogs out while I pack our lunches. We deposit the Buddy and Holly into Harper’s room, give her second kisses goodnight, and prepare for bed together.

“What time does Dad’s flight land again?” Rhys’s on his laptop when I climb into bed after picking out my outfit for work.

“3:15 PM tomorrow if the weather cooperates. He doesn’t need a ride to the house anymore. He finally figured out how rideshare apps work and wants to prove that he truly does understand.” I settled into the mattress.

My dad is living life as a cowboy in Montana these days. All the ranch renovations made him realize how much he missed his hometown. He was stationed in Seattle while he was in the Navy. He stayed after being honorably discharged because he had already established a home with my mother in Washington. Rhys and I bought my childhood home, freeing Dad to go where his heart desired without surrendering the home my mother picked out in the process. He stays in it whenever he visits, which is often. His Montana home is near the ranch, not on it. That still belongs to me. He, however, works on it by running the family farm. I pass along the knowledge I gain from my work research to do my part. Farmhands help him do the rest.

The move caused a bond to form between him and Rhys. Both of them like to work with their hands. My dad was surprised by his willingness and ability to assist with the farm’s woodworking and repair needs. They pass trade secrets back and forth. Whenever they are stumped on a project, the turn to each other. Dad just so happens to be a lifelong baseball fan as well. He and Rhys are borderline insufferable come baseball season.

Rhys chuckles. “I think I’m rubbing off on him.”

“You sure talk enough for that to be the case.”

“Now, now. You have no reason to be jealous, Penelope. We’re strictly platonic. Getting with an in-law is too close to incest. You know how I feel about incest.”

“Yes. The topic comes up more than it should.” I put my glasses on my nightstand.

“Blame it on society. Twin threesomes is a thing a lot of people are into and I should be able to vent my anguish to my wife. You’re failing me beautifully, smartypants.”

“I don’t try, babe. I really don’t.”

“It shows.”

“Are you doing home work or work work?” I lay on my side and rotate to face him, my head rested on my pillow.

“Work work. Answering these emails now will give me more time to party like a preschooler this weekend.” He keeps reading what is on his screen.

“Why you have received an influx of messages is a pretty big deal too.”

“There are bigger deals, like what will happen after Sunday. Hopefully. Have you changed your mind?” Rhys diffidently looks in my direction.

“I’m still all in and my IUD is out. A baby is possible if we forgo the precautions on your end.”

Our relationship is the most stable it has ever been. I am finished with school and have been at my job for almost two years. He is between albums and once award season is over, he will have nothing but free time. Harper is getting older, and we do not want the age difference between her and her siblings to be big. We would prefer them to be playmates rather than Harper be a babysitter, at least with the first one.

Harp has not been asking for a sibling directly, but she often tells us about her friends and classmates becoming big brothers and sisters. Much like Christopher, Harper has the temperament and personality to be the oldest child. Jealousy? Sibling rivalry? Difficulty sharing attention and things? Out of the question.

My and Rhys’s ages appear to be the only issue with our decision. Those who know us and are willing to look closely can see that what we have endured over the years forced us to grow up at an accelerated pace. And quite frankly, we could not care less about what outsiders think. Our lives are ours. We are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of our choices, not them. We want and can handle another little weirdo. It will do the polar opposite of harm to the one person we have to answer to. The rest is irrelevant.

Rhys completely disregards his laptop’s wellbeing, draws my body flush to his, and engages me in a mind-whirling kiss. I manage to gain a semblance of thought in the split second between the disconnect of our mouths and he’s relocation to the space beneath my jaw.

“W-wait, not like this.” I pant, pushing on his shoulder.

My hesitation immediately makes him stop. He raises his head enough to look me in the eye. Well, he attempts to, half of his hair has fallen into his face.

I clear it by tucking it behind his ear. “We’re not following our cool kid secret formula.”

Rhys move off of me and attempts to take my hand, most definitely with the intention of dragging me to the greenhouse down the hall.

“I want to make things interesting, switch it up a little bit to make them special.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Have you met our daughter?”

“A bet. I’m proposing a bet.”

My proposal makes the cogs in his head accelerate.

“You always speak my language. Keep doing your thing, gorgeous.”

“If we win a Grammy on Sunday, we can start trying to replicate our super cool kid secret formula. If we lose, we start Monday.”

“Does rushing the stage and ripping a Grammy away from someone else count as winning?”

“No.” I laugh.

“But I’d be up against other artists and I’d have to them beat and security to get away with the award. That’s winning a Grammy.”

“Technically, yes, but you have to earn it the old-fashioned way or we’re waiting until the next day to start trying for another musical smartypants. Either way, it will be a significant moment in time. Just like when we made Harper.”

“Is midnight considered the next day?”

“Yes.”

“Does winning Best Recording Package count?” Rhys continues trying to find loopholes.

“No, because that award is presented to the creator or creators of album artwork. The person responsible for Wilde Knights’ is Chelsea Palmer. Are you Chelsea Palmer? I think not, Rhys Wilde.”

“Ugh, we have to go to the televised ceremony? Those take for FOREVER. The Premiere one is guaranteed to be over by 3:30PM.”

“Alas, we do, Wilde. Those are the rules.”

The groan he produces in response is more dramatic than the previous. “Fine!” He flops onto his side in defeat.

“I love you.”

“I love you too. Get your rest. That’s supposed to be good for baby planting.” He presses a soft kiss to my forehead.

“I want to see if your laptop is broken first. The mystery will keep me awake.”

Rhys rolls over in the direction opposite of me, exits the bed, and proceeds to hunt for it on the floor.

“Found it!” He holds up the device in victory.

“Damage. That is my concern.”

He examines the outer shell as he rejoins me in bed.

“What are a few dents? Yours has them too.”

“Let’s see the screen.” An amused smile creaks onto my face.

He opens it, his eyes briefly expand. His surprise is quickly blinked away.

“I like spiderwebs. They saved Wilber’s life in Charlotte’s Web.” He downplays the conjoined cracks that overtake his laptop screen.

I snort. “Dead pixels accompany literate spider messages on computer screens. Use my normal dented one.”

He kisses me to say thank you when I return to bed with my laptop and charger.

“Goodnight.” I say with a residual smile from his casual display of affection.

“Sleep tight.”

He is logging into my laptop as I shut my eyes.

~

“Good morning, Mama. I was born soon.” Harper is jumping to work black leggings onto her legs.

Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy nearly trip me trying to return to their queen’s feet.

She was still sleeping when I came in here to take them outside for a walk.

“You started being born today. I had to wait until early tomorrow morning to see you.”

“Did I hurt? Ezra said his mom yelled really really loud when his sister was born because she hurt her really really bad.”

“You did, but I didn’t mind. It was the only way for us to be together, and I love being with you, Lovebug.” I kneel before her.

“I love being with you too!” Her face lights up with a smile.

I give my sweet baby a kiss.

“I know you’re a big girl who is getting bigger, but would it be alright if I help you get dressed for school today?” I request as I hold both of her little hands.

“Yes, you may.” She removes her hands from mine to fetch her clothes. “Here you go.” She proudly presents a gray wool ladybug sweater and a red skirt covered in white hearts.

“This will be perfect to wear to your ladybug slumber party.” I accept the ball of clothes.

“Ladybug sounds like lovebug. I’m Lovebug. Ladybugs help by gobbling up mean bugs that hurt people’s plants. I like to help too.” She holds up her arms, to make it easier for me to put her sweater over her undershirt.

“Did you know baby ladybugs look like tiny alligators?”

“They do?” She gasps. “Are they still nice?”

“They are. They start helping when they are little, just like lovebugs.”

Her muscles relax and she sighs in relief. “Oh, good. I want nice parties.”

“You have nothing to worry about. Focus on having fun. Daddy and I will take of the rest.”

Harper is raring to go to Pre-K after we have completed our morning routine.

“Are you valentines in your backpack?” I zip her coat.

“They’re in my folder. Mrs. Appleby said they have to be in our folder.”

“Is your folder in your backpack?”

“Daddy had it.”

“Stay put. I—” It dawns on me that there is no way she will remain in one place if left unsupervised. I put her on my hip prior to rushing to the elevator and run to the master bedroom with her still in my arms when we reach the third floor.

“Wake up, Daddy!” Harper yells when we enter the room.

“What’s going on, Lovebug?” Rhys yawns and stretches in bed.

“Mama needs my valentimes.”

“They’re in your folder. Mrs. Appleby said—”

“Where’s the folder? We’re running behind.” I hastily interrupt, still trying to catch my breath.

“Her backpack. It’s on its hook.”

“Yep! I put them there all by myself.” Harper confirms with grin.

I swallow a groan and start for the door. “Go back to sleep, babe. We’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Daddy. I love you!” Harper waves from within my arms.

“Love you too, ladies.” Rhys buries his face in the pillow I left in my place.

Harper’s cheery lion backpack is just were Rhys said – on one of the Harper-height hooks beside the garage door. I verify its contents and add her lunch box to it before throwing on my coat and loading Harper and our bags into my car. My stress levels significantly decrease when we hit the road.

We have not been late to school and work yet, but close calls are a common occurrence. Harper being late would be more disruptive than if I were. The fanfare that accompanies her entering class rivals what happens when Rhys arrives at a meet and greet. All her classmates drop everything to greet and hug her. She returns the gesture tenfold by telling each person that she missed them and how much she is looking forward to learning and playing with them.

Mrs. Appleby tried and failed to speed along their bizarre ritual. Rhys and I ensure their school days begin on time by getting Harp to school early. That way, she can greet each kid as they walk through the door. The show can get on the road as soon as the last student arrives. Harper loves her job as door greeter. She takes it as seriously as Rhys does class parent.

“Gooooood Morning, Mrs. Appleby!” Harper sings as soon as we walk into the classroom.

We sing in the car on the way to school. She remains in musical mode until another activity captures her attention.

“Good morning to you too, Harper.” Her teacher stands from her desk and crosses the room. “How are you today?” She rests her hands on her knees to make direct eye contact with her.

“I am so so happy. Tomorrow is my birthday and Valentimes Day. I have my valentimes in my folder. I remembered.”

“Guess what? There will be a birthday surprise for you during school today.”

“There will?!” Harper hops, unable to contain her excitement.

“There will. Everyone else in class will be able to share with you.”

“YAY!”

Mrs. Appleby chuckles at her enthusiasm. “How about we put your coat and backpack in your cubby? The rest of class will be here soon, and your mommy has to go to work.” Mrs. Appleby holds out her hand for Harper to take.

Harp lets go of my hand and opens her arms to me. “Bye, Mama.”

“Goodbye, Lovebug. Have fun learning.” I give her body a tight squeeze.

“Have fun with the plants.”

“Okay, I will. I love you.” I give her a kiss.

“I love you too.” Harper gives me a kiss before putting her hand into her teacher’s.

“Enjoy your day as well, Mrs. Appleby. I will be seeing you sooner rather than later.” I rise to my feet.

“It will be real treat.” She winks at me.

I wave to them both a wave on my way out the door.

The path I took to get to get to where I am has paid off in unexpected ways. The animosity I faced for years has made brushing off the occasional snide remark made about me being unworthy of my position because of my age. I worked hard to obtain all the knowledge necessary to perform the duties that come with my job title. The year I was born does not make me less deserving. The life skills I gained struggling in the “real world” prevented me from behaving like a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed recent grad when I first entered the workforce.

The naivety that accompanies only existing in sheltered academic environments makes it more difficult to apply information gathered from textbooks to real-world problems. I could fast-track school by overloading. A state of mind can only evolve over time. I would not be at the management level, albeit entry-level management, in my mid-twenties if I had not accumulated and retained knowledge from both worlds at an earlier age. That said, the novelty of having my very own office with a nameplate on the door that reads, “Penelope E. James-Wilde” has yet to wear off. I have had it almost a year and I still internal squeal each time I enter it…and think about it.

Decorating is not one of my strong suits. Rhys and Taylor are responsible for what is in our home. Chelsea and Rhys handle Harper’s birthday parties. Aiding in setup is my contribution. Chelsea was appalled when she discovered that four 4x6 photos taped to the wall in a cluster with transparent tape was the extent of my office’s customization. She rectified what she believed to be a problem by coming to my job under the guise of delivering dinner on a day I was scheduled to work late and gave the room a total makeover with a suitcase of supplies.

Chels kept my minimalistic style in mind. Most of her bag contained organizational supplies in black, white, and gray. My diplomas are framed and hanging alongside experimental photographs of nature created by hers truly. They are reprints of the originals she gifted me for graduation. A cork board is mounted beside my desk for my post-it-notes and assignment reminders. The pictures I previously had taped are in vintage frames on my desk and angled toward me. The potted succulents beside them were added by me after she left. What can I say? My sister inspired me to spruce.

I get to work as soon as I take a seat. My eagerness has nothing to do with the early lunch I plan to take.

“Penelope James-Wilde, how may I help you?” My desk phone is pinned to my ear to be able to continue translating data I have collected into a report.

“Hello, Mrs. James-Wilde. My name is Chelsea Palmer. I’m calling to ask if there is anything I can do prepare for our daughter’s party.”

I smile into my phone. “You could’ve texted, you know?”

“If I did that, I would’ve missed out on my mid-morning cup of cuteness. How are you?”

I roll my eyes, still smiling. “I’m doing well. How about yourself?”

“Same as you. I saw the slumber party setup. I’m loving it. Buddy and Holly do too. I found them in the tent. Don’t worry. I ushered them out and sequestered them to the third floor.”

“Thank you for helping us out.”

“Don’t mention it. Circling back to why I called. Is there anything else I can do before the party? Rhys is in Mary-Ellen Mission Mode and Sailor is still asleep and there is no telling when he’ll wake up.”

“You are a Godsend. If you could go to Mom’s house and pick up the food that she made, that would be phenomenal. Don’t worry about setup yet. Rhys will be out of his competition haze by the time it is time to do it.”

“You’ve got it, madame. Text me if you think of anything else I can do to help.”

“I would, but I won’t. That’s the only thing on the list.”

“Okay, then. Get back to work. You have stylish supplies to use.” She teases.

I pick up the pace and hyper-focus on my entries.

Fierce determination to prove myself is another side effect of my past. I have to be considered a force to be reckoned with; I have worked too hard to settle for anything less. Temporarily working remotely after giving birth is how I plan to stay on top between children.

Rhys is in his SVU and drumming on its stirring wheel when I pull into a parking spot beside him. I take it easy on him and call instead of honking on his window.

“Hey, babe, where are you? It’s almost show time.”

“Look to your right.”

He does. I exit my car and greet him with a kiss when I reach his car.

“Do you want me to carry Gage or the cupcakes?”

“Neither. You can handle the doors, buzzer, and office sign-in.”

“I’m not pregnant. I’m fully capable of carrying things.”

“We’re not on that yet. Mary-Ellen will have something to say if she sees me using you as a pack mule.” He pops the trunk with the remote as we walk to it.

“I don’t know if I should be relieved or offended that winning an unspoken war is why you don’t want me to do any lifting.”

“You’re more than welcome to be both. I’ll uphold my proposal promise and stand by you.”

Harper’s school has ample security measures that are unfortunately required for peace of mind. We have to be buzzed into the building, write our names and reasons for being in the building, and have our driver’s licenses xeroxed. As the receptionist makes copies of our IDs, I have the opportunity to snoop. Sure enough, Mary-Ellen’s name is in the slot above mine, she arrived fifteen minutes ago, and her reason for coming is to deliver goodie bags to Mrs. Appleby’s pre-kindergarten class.

“She’s here.” I whisper to Rhys.

“Good.”

“Welcome, Wildes. I – weve been anxiously awaiting your arrival.” Mrs. Appleby is donning a smile, but her eyes are pleading for help.

“We couldn’t be happier to be here.” Rhys is all too pleased by our initial reception. His mischievous energy is palpable.

“Look at who is here, class.” Mrs. Appleby opens the door further and steps aside to grant us entry.

All twelve children whip their heads in our direction. They are shrieking when they clamor off the brightly colored rug on which they were sitting. Our names, Harper’s Mom and Harper’s Dad, are shouted in hopes of gaining our undivided attention when they have us swarmed. It quickly becomes a safety hazard, as they are all fighting to hug our legs.

Mrs. Appleby claps her hands three times. “Hands on top!” She says the first half of their call and respond attention getter.

The twelve of them put both hands on their head. “Everybody stop!” The children recite in unison and freeze.

“Great job, class! Please return to the reading rug. Mr. Wilde is going to lead us in another sing-along. He and Mrs. James-Wilde brought tasty treats for Harper’s birthday that we will eat after lunch. Let’s show our special guests our listening skills.”

Harper is the only straggler.

“Hi, Mama!” She hugs my legs. “Hi, Daddy!” She does the same to Rhys. “I’m going to listen. Watch!” She hurries to the rug in the back of the room waves at us once she is seated cross-legged.

The smile and thumbs-up I give her makes her beam and sit up just a little bit straighter.

“I’ll finish their story while you collect yourselves.” Mary-Ellen snips through a smile from the chair at the head of reading mat.

“By all means. I’ll need the chair to play my guitar.” Rhys retorts with the same amount of venom.

The news that Gage will be a part of music time causes the kids to giddily talk about it amongst themselves as Mary-Ellen resumes reading. Mrs. Appleby allows them to remain distracted. It makes what transpired before we arrived evident:

Mary-Ellen showed up announced, “suggested” that she take over story time, and Mrs. Appleby agreed because she is too polite to kick her out, which is something she well within her rights to do.

I am telling you – the woman must be stopped.

Rhys and I make our way to his mini-concert area together. Mary-Ellen has plastered herself to my side before Rhys has reached the recently vacated chair.

“I am surprised to see you too. Friday is a workday.” She condescendingly remarks.

“We all have to eat. I’m free to do so thanks to labor laws. Now, please excuse me. I’ll be spending this one doing something special for my daughter’s birthday.” I walk away before she has the chance to reply.

Harper’s in my lap as soon as I sit on the reading rug. I arrange us in a kangaroo hug for old time’s sake. My arms wrapped around her waist, I give her middle a squeeze and kiss her cheek.

Rhys strums his guitar once. It instantly silences his little kid crowd.

“Well, hello, Mrs. Appleby’s class. How are you doing this morning?” He addresses them the way he would any other audience.

They answer with variations of, “well”.

“You have no idea how happy I am to hear that. Singing songs is always better when you’re in a good mood. How about we kick music time off with a song about a farmer with lots of animals?”

The children cheer and clap in response.

“I need everyone’s help singing ‘Old McDonald’. Will you do if with me?”

They respond even louder.

Rhys chuckles. “Alrighty, then. ‘Old McDonald’ on three. 1-2-3…”

I have yet to uncover something more attractive than Rhys sharing his gift with children. He engages their minds, keeps them smiling and laughing, and it is not something he does by force. It comes naturally, and he genuinely loves doing it. If I were not already eager to have his babies, his latest performance would have sold me on the idea.

After singing classic nursery rhymes with a few verses of Disney songs peppered in, Rhys closes out the show with Happy Birthday. It is the reason we are here, after all. Harper sings it too. How could she not? Rhys gets a well-deserved round of applause and both of us get several invitations to stay for lunch. Mary-Ellen gets none.

Because Harper rattles on and on about music time with Rhys and how I can answer all her nature questions, an argument about which table we will sit at breaks out amongst the children. We both choose Table 2, Harper’s table. We sit on either side of her assigned seat. Ensley and Ari are her tablemates. I am beside Ensley; Rhys is with Ari.

“That’s my name. I wrote it.” Harper points to the pencil nametag tapped at the top of her work area.

“H-a-r-p-e-r. Yes, that’s Harper. Good job, Lovebug.” I unzip her lunch box.

“I did mine too.” Ensley shows me hers.

“E-n-s-l-e-y. It is very nice to meet you, Ensley.” I offer her my hand.

She’s giggling as she shakes it. “You knows me, Mrs. Poppy.”

“Are you sure?”

Her smile grows as she nods her head. “I go to your house.”

“Oh! That’s right. You do. Will I be seeing you again soon?”

“Uh-huh, at the ladybug party.”

“Baby ladybugs looks like ally-aters. Tell her, Mama. Tell her!” Harper urges.

The mention of the reptile makes Ari’s ears perk up. “Ally-aters!?” He asks louder than necessary.

“Yes, alligators.” I proceed to tell them all that I can recall off the top of my head about baby ladybugs as we eat our lunches.

Mrs. Appleby and the children at tables 1, 3, and 4 listen to my lesson too. I have to pause my ladybug chat often to answer other nature questions the preschoolers have like, “why is the sky blue?”, “why does it rain?”, and my personal favorite – “how do I be a dinosaur when I grow up?”. Harper takes care of that one by showing him proper roaring techniques.

Rhys and my fans lose their little minds when they see their cupcakes. Mary-Ellen pipes up about potential health hazards. Rhys shuts her down with bakery paperwork and signed permission slips. I was unaware he gave Mrs. Appleby permission slips to distribute, but they are a nice touch that was likely Taylor’s idea. Mary-Ellen son Brighton’s permission slip is the only one unsigned, which she undoubtedly refused to do after seeing Harper’s name on the sheet of paper. She changes her stance in the classroom with his classmates’ eyes on her. They would not want to accept goodie bags from a “meanie”. Not celebrating a birthday is a punishable offense in a preschooler’s eyes.

Little kids love to party.

“We are going to bow out now.” Rhys tells Mrs. Appleby, and Mary-Ellen as well due to their proximity, as the children clean up their lunch messes.

We have already given Harper hugs and kisses goodbye. We did have to watch her clean for a little while first. She was excited to show us her skills.

“Yes, they need their rest and their Valentine’s Day festivities would be done best amongst themselves. Telling us about it when she gets home will be part of the fun for Harper.” I add for more for Mrs. Appleby’s benefit than Mary-Ellen’s.

Mrs. Appleby has spent weeks, if not months, planning an exciting afternoon for our children. She should not be boxed out of it by a backseat teacher.

“Good point. We should leave them to it.” Rhys addresses his nemesis directly.

Again, refusing out of spite would make her look bad. Being perceived poorly by onlookers is the worst thing imaginable to people like Mary-Ellen Spencer. She is disgruntled as we exit the classroom together. Mrs. Appleby, Rhys, and I are living our best lives.

“I’ll see you at the next committee meeting!” Rhys calls to Mary-Ellen with a wave and smile once we are in the parking lot.

She stamps to her car and slams its door in response.

“Well, that was satisfying.” He drops his arm and exhales.

“That it was.”

“Do you have to go straight back to work?”

“I do. I’ll be home earlier than usual, around 4:30. Chels is already putting in work for the party. Thank her thoroughly for me.”

“As you wish. Love you.”

“I love you too.”

We go our separate ways after a quick hug.

The remainder of my workday is as productive as I hoped. I am able to leave for my three-day weekend without fear that I am neglecting any responsibilities, and the people on my team know how to reach me if something unanticipated arises.

I nearly bump into Taylor when I enter the house via the garage door. “Are you trying to escape?”

“While that’s tempting, I’d have hell to pay if I followed through. Rhys ordered a children’s nature scavenger hunt game five minutes ago for no apparent reason. It’s not like we don’t have a closet full of games. I was tapped to handle in-store pick up.”

“When did you wake up?”

“Two hours ago.”

“There’s your reason.” I pat his shoulder.

He hits me with a pleading expression that is an exact replica of the one Rhys uses most. “Will you please go for me? You still have your coat on. I bet your car has retained warmth as well.”

His unfair attack almost works but I stay strong.

“Letting you use my car is the only thing I can do to help. Even that might get me in big trouble.”

Taylor’s Rhys replication comes to an end when he rolls his eyes.

“Will you at least set aside a cookie for me?”

“I’ll make it two.”

“Much appreciated.” He continues out the door.

The heartwarming sounds of children’s squeals and laughter infiltrate my ears as I make my way upstairs. I leave the ladies and their ladybug camp counselors be to change into my party clothes.

To blend the camping and ladybug theme, all adults are required to wear red and black checkered shirts, jeans, camping appropriate shoes, ladybug wings, and antenna headbands with hearts on the tips. The girls have been given wings and headbands as well. Taylor understandably left the house without his ladybug bits on, but if he knows what is good for him, he will put them on as soon as he returns.

“Did I miss the ladybug slumber party?” I ask to get the girls’ attention when I step into the living room.

They come running, elatedly calling my name.

“MAMA!”

“MRS. POPPY!”

Robin and Harper have been best friends since they met in swim class. The go on frequent playdates and take the same gymnastics class. That is where they met Madison and became an inseparable trio. They play on the little league baseball team Rhys coaches together – the Wilde Wonders. Last spring, Ayo joined the team, and the girls’ group of three became a bestie bundle of four. The real wonder is how Rhys and Taylor did not scare away all of Harper’s friends with their competitive coaching style. Ensley and Harper met at school in September. Ensley was painfully shy and had trouble approaching the other kids when they first started. According to Mrs. Appleby, Harper went to her everyday with toys for them to share and invited her to do activities with her. One day, Ensley approached Harper first. My social butterfly has helped Ensley out of her cocoon over the course of the school year, and she engages as much as Harper does these days. She met Robin, Ayo, and Madison during a playdate Harper hosted a few months back. They gelled instantly and became fast friends in the way only little kids can.

Rhys and I have come to know their parents well. We are as fond of each other as we are each other’s kids, which is very. They know how young we were when we had Harper, who Rhys is, and all that transpired in our pasts, and they still do not judge or treat us differently. In their eyes, we are simply the parents of a little girl their daughters cannot get enough of and two people who look after their children as we would our own when they are in our care. Our girls give us plenty to talk about when we are together, which is often. Rhys and I have parent friends. We are more excited about this fact than we should be.

“Hello, lovely ladybugs!” I crouch down and welcome their hugs.

“What have I missed?” Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy receive head scratches while I await the girls’ answers.

“We’re love ladybugs now.” Harper speaks first.

“We don’t look like all-aters because we’re big girls.” Ensley applies what I told their class today.

“And we’re practicing flying ’cuz that’s what love lovebugs do.” Ayo goes next.

“Mr. Rhys and Miss Chelsea are teaching us.” Madison informs me.

“Mr. Taylor said bye. I miss him.” Robin sadly laments with a frown.

She has the biggest crush on him. Her reason is unknown. Taylor behaves as he always does around her. His word choices are the only things censored. Nonetheless, she plasters herself to his side whenever they are in the same vicinity and smiles whenever he talks. It makes him wildly uncomfortable, rightfully so, and Rhys is all too happy to make fun of his predicament.

“Will ladybug snacks make you feel better, Robin?”

“Oh, yes!” She perks right up.

“I want some!”

“Me too!”

“Keep love ladybugging with Mr. Rhys. Miss. Chelsea and I will get the snacks.”

I blow Rhys a kiss before leaving the room with Chels.

“Are they truly having a good time?” I wait until we are around the corner to inquire.

“The best time. Harper did her murder scream when she saw how you and Rhys transformed the living room. The girls and their parents oooed and ahhhed when they walked in. Getting them settled and doing a few jumping jacks is all that you’ve missed. I recorded it all.”

“You’re amazing.” I put my arm around her.

“It was done as much for me as it was for you. It’s our baby’s first birthday slumber party. We have to able to reflect on it properly.”

“Did you get footage of Taylor being ambushed by Robin?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s going straight into my collection. Lately, I’ve been thinking about creating a short film comprised entirely of clips of him being super awkward. It’d be pretty easy. I already edit her out of my footage.”

“I say go for it. If you overlay the right music, you could have an indie hit on your hands.”

“I know just the person to go to for that.”

“Rhys would come to you if didn’t approach him.”

“I respect that about him. He goes after what he wants.”

Taylor gets a plate of appetizers compiled for him; it is covered in aluminum foil and stowed in the back of the refrigerator. If the snacks are a hit, which they likely will be because they were made by Mom, Rhys’s gut instinct will be to locate Taylor’s and eat it. Tay would do the same if the situation were in reverse.

Chels and I were swarmed by ladybugs when we reenter the living room with snack platters. They go to the picnic table when instructed. Each of them gets a ladybug paper plate with sweet and savory snacks and an apple juice box.

Rhys, Chelsea, and I are eating our food on stump stools.

“Are we actually going to play the game you sent Taylor to get?” I keep my voice down.

“Nope, our schedule is jampacked. Maybe next visit.” He bites into a sugar cookie iced to look like a leaf.

Real ladybugs snack on leaves. We must do it too.

“He’s going to be so pissed.” Chels snickers.

“Consider it a gift to you. I was told express extra gratitude for what you did earlier. I wasn’t given instructions on how to go about it.”

“A wild goose chase is what you settled on?” I crack a smile.

“A Wilde – with an ‘e’ – ladybug chase. We’re love ladybugs now, Penelope.” He points to his antennas. “Get with it.”

“I know what we are.” I playfully bat his wings with my own. “I needed your account of events. Our stories have to align just in case he finds a way to take us to court.”

“I love the way you think.”

We start things off slow when the girls are done eating. It would be a shame if someone were to get a tummy ache. Chelsea and I paint the girls’ toenails red with black spots; we received prior approval from all the parents to give them ladybug pedicures. Ferngully is playing on the television via VCR as we do it. Rhys’s VCR demonstration was an activity in and of itself. Watching the entire film ensures our toes are dry before we continue. Rhys agrees to have his done too; the girls asked, and he could not resist their cuteness. Taylor got out of it by going to pick up our Vinny’s Pizza order.

Musical chairs is played using the stump stools and snippets from Harper’s favorite songs. There is not a single nursery rhyme on the birthday playlist Rhys curated for her. Wilde Knights, Oasis, The Beatles, Queen, Cindy Lauper, and Prince are just a few of the artists on the list. The winners get a sticker. We play until every little ladybug wins. Ring around the Rosie is played next. Harper loves it because of the line “Pocketful of Posies”. She thinks the song is about her and other people named Posy who love to dance around rose bushes in a circle. Rhys and I are hyper-vigilant to make sure Taylor does not correct her sweet assumption with the dark truth whenever she sings it around him – The Plague is a real downer.

Pizza is an almost guaranteed hit with children. Vinny’s pizza? They cannot get enough of it. We have to remind them that there is cake to eat and give them the option to hold off on eating their cake to eat more pizza. More sugar is something they are unable to turn down.

Mama Wilde made a nature-themed birthday cake that is almost too pretty to eat. Hand-painted grass and leaves adorn the sides of the whipped vanilla frosting two-layer cake. The top has edible winter flowers and ‘Happy Birthday Harper!’ pipped in forest green icing. The cake is red velvet flavored and heart-shaped to incorporate Valentine’s Day. There are no ladybugs on any of the food because according to my husband, that would be cannibalism. He made Mom well-aware of this when we meal planned with her. I vowed to support him and did.

“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday, Dear Harper. Happy Birthday to you. How old are you? How old are you? How old are you?” We sing to her.

“I’m four years old. I’m four years old. I’m four years old. I’m foooooooour years old!” Harper sings at the top of her lungs before blowing out her “5” candle.

“You’re supposed to sing five this year, Lovebug. Do you want to blow out your candle again?” I gently remind her after everyone is finished clapping.

“Tomorrow Valentime’s Day. I’m four.”

“Yes, but—”

“Lying is bad, Mama. I won’t get my wish if I do it and I really REALLY want my wish.” Harper overexaggerates the second “really”.

“You’re right. Wait until tomorrow to sing five.” I kiss the top of her head.

“Daddy, I wanna help. May I?” She asks when Rhys goes to cut the cake.

“That’s a wish I can grant.”

He has her put her hand over his on the cake handle of the cake spatula. They slice and serve her birthday cake together; she loves every second of it. A smile never leaves her face, even as she eats.

Harper has more than enough toys, so when asked by the girls’ parents what buy her as a gift, we told them to get her a book. A person can never have too many of those, and she truly does enjoy them. We read together every night. On the rare occasion we cannot do it, we make it up the next night by reading two books. She is the one that insists we do it. Her murder screams and the tackle hugs she gives us and her friends prove our instincts about whether or not she would be pleased by her presents correct.

After a coloring post-meal cooldown, a rousing game of Monster is played. The rules are very simple – Rhys, Chelsea, Taylor, and I take turns pretending to be a monster. The girls fly (flee) from us. All of them catch cases of the giggles as they run around screaming. We play the game until the early signs of sugar crashes surface, Chels and I ready the girls for bed.

Once their teeth are thoroughly brushed, pottying has been done, and their antennas and wings have been traded in for matching ladybug pajamas, we convene around the fake firepit and sit on the stump stools. Rhys leads us in campfire songs; Taylor accompanies him on the guitar. I read a comforting bedtime story in lieu of telling a scary story.

There is not a single complaint when the girls are told to get into the tent and climb into their sleeping bags. It is another source of entertainment. All ten of their eyes are closed by the time the main overhead light is switched off. The twinkle lights are all that remain and serve as nightlights. Ambient nature sounds are played through the sound system at a low volume to give them the full camping experience. Chelsea and I will be sleeping in the living room with them on couches just in case they need something during the night. We have cleaning to do before we can give in to sleep too.

The kitchen is our first site to tackle.

“Do you have to record all my reactions to Robin?” Taylor pops the cap off a bottle of beer.

“You know I do.” Chels steals his drink, has a single sip, and returns it to his hand.

“Now you know how it feels.” Rhys interjects as he returns what is left of the cake into its box.

“You do what you do voluntarily. I’m fighting my damnedest not to end up on a list. There’s a difference.” Taylor retorts.

“Watching you squirm is no less entertaining, Sailor.” Chelsea carries used utensils to the sink.

“It might just make you the star of a film festival favorite.” I pile on as I wrap the fruit platter in aluminum foil.

“I want full creative control.” He looks over to Chelsea to address her directly.

“Not a chance.” She quips.

“Consulting producer?” Taylor tries again.

“We’ll talk.”

“Yes or I’m not signing the release wavier.”

“There are workarounds and I know them all. If I decide to make it and include you, it’ll only be out of the kindness of my heart.” Chelsea gets the last word.

After we have gotten the house in order, Chels and I go to the living room to go to sleep. The boys go to Taylor’s side of the house to hangout.

Sleep comes to me instantaneously. It has been a long week. Most of our weeks are long, but goodness can be found in all of them.

“Maaaama! Maaaaama! I was borrrrrrn!” Harper sings and jostles me awake at the crack of dawn.

“Inside voice, Lovebug. Everyone else is asleep.” I sit up. “Are you five yet?” I whisper to set an example for how she should talk.

She nods vigorously. “And it’s Valentime’s Day.”

“Happy birthday and Valentine’s Day, Lovebug.” I mirror her excitement by covering her face in kisses and give her a tight hug.

“Where’s Daddy?”

“He’s in our room. Should we wake him?”

“Yeah!” She bounces with a huge grin.

Holding hands, we run to ambush Rhys. I put her on the bed and allow nature to take its course.

“Dadddddyyyy! Dadddddyyyy! I’m five!” She jumps on the bed until he captures her, drops her onto the bed and tickles her.

He does not let up until tears are streaming down her face and she can hardly breathe from laughing so hard.

“Why do you think you’re five?” He waits until she has caught her breath to ask.

“It’s Valentime’s Day!”

“I don’t know. Are you sure?” He eyes her skeptically.

“Yes, Mama said Happy Birthday and Happy Valentime’s Day.”

“Ahhh, okay. I better get with the program then. Happy Birthday and Valentine’s Day. Do we have any special plans today?”

“Oh, yes, very special. We’re having a love ladybug party at Gramma’s. It’s not a slumber party. It’s a tea party. It’ll be lots and lots of fun too.”

“What are you going to do tonight?” I comb Harper’s hair with my fingers.

“Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy and me are going to go to Grampa’s Seattle house for two slumber parties. I’m having so many birthday slumber parties. It’s so fun.”

Dad does not get to see Harper in person as much as he would like. Rhys and I do not want her missing school to spend a day cooped up in a hotel room while we get ready for and attend an award show. Leaving her with him kills two birds with one stone. As much as we would love to have her with us at all times, doing so would be selfish of us. She would have to miss out on childhood experiences to do it. Stripping those away from her would go against what Rhys and I are striving for most – to give her and her future siblings the best lives possible. We are taking the last flight to LA tonight to spend all of her birthday with her. She will be asleep before we leave the room.

“Yes, but before we can get back to partying, we have to get ready for the day.” Rhys tells her.

“I finally get to be a fancy lovebug ladybug?!” She cries, her already large eyes expanding.

“It’s finally time. Special outfits are saved for special days. Those are the rules. Your birthday is a very special day.” Rhys replies, smiling at her glee.

“I need help getting it down. Let’s go. We’ll do it together. It’s more fun.” She works her way onto the ground without assistance.

“I told you she still needs us.” I tell Rhys as Harper tugs both of us to her room.

“I stand by my growth stunting stance.”

Harper’s birthday ensemble is as ostentatious as one would imagine a “fancy lovebug ladybug” outfit to be. A long-sleeved black dress with a sequin red heart on the chest and a voluptuous tulle-padded skirt is to be worn beneath a red cape speckled with large black polka dots. There is a red heart on each knee of her black tights and the toes of her black ballet flats. The heart antennas she wore last night will be reused. And she will be equipped with a little black heart-shaped crossbody purse to hold the ladybug valentines she is looking forward to passing out today.

Rhys, Becca, and Chelsea are responsible for Harper’s functional yet fabulous birthday outfit. Harp has been chomping at the bit to wear it since she laid eyes on their creation.

Harper truly does need our help getting ready today. She is too excited to stay still and focused long enough to brush her teeth and put on her clothes and accessories by herself.

I take care of myself while Rhys does her hair. He has accomplished wizardry by the time I return. The two ponytails that he was separating her hair into when I left have been transformed into two buns twisted into hearts.

Rhys and our cub still take special care to maintain their manes. Roaring while they do it together has remained a necessity as well.

Harp and I tend to the dogs while Rhys readies himself for the day. He is downstairs in time to help me prepare breakfast; I cook, he plates and pours. Harper’s best friends enjoy her favorite breakfast foods alongside her. The girls are dressed, packed, and well-fed by the time their parents come to collect them. Distracting Harper with tasks keeps her from mourning their absences for too long. The house is back in order by the time we are due at Dad’s house. He is carpooling with us to Claudia’s house, and the dogs need to be kept at his house during the party to save us a trip back to our home to fetch them after it.

Mama Wilde is hosting Harper’s second ladybug shindig at her house. The Wildes, Chelsea, and my dad are on the guest list.

Integrating our families certainly did not happen overnight. There were years of animosity to overcome. My dad’s decision to leave Washington a year and a half ago to run our family’s ranch in Montana fast tracked the building of the bridge. The reason was a huge factor. Though a state away from us, he puts significant time and effort into building and maintaining a relationship with me, Harper, and Rhys. It was a neon-lit example of his dedication to turning over a new leaf. Wildes’ and Chelsea’s fierce protectiveness of me and Harper is what won him over. They took us under their wing when he did not. He is extraordinarily grateful for it.

My dad is not quite an honorary Wilde, but he has been folded into family events. Despite what has transpired in the past, no one wants him to spend days dedicated to togetherness alone. He receives invites to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. My birthday is exclusively spent in Montana; it was tradition prior to the fallout, It was picked up the year we came back together; the guest list is the only difference. The three days after my birthday are spent entrenched in an intense family baseball tournament on Rhys’s field. I comfortably and blissfully watch the games from mine.

Today, Harper’s birthday, is a regularly scheduled event that I do not have to walk into on eggshells or riddled with anxiety. Our little girl’s special day is sure to be what it should be – pleasant and all about her.

“Grampa!” Harper flings herself at Dad when he opens the front door.

He gives her a hug on her level before lifting her onto his hip. “Happy birthday, Harper. How does it feel to be five?”

“I feel big. I love it! I love being a lovebug ladybug too. I made valentimes for everybody. They’re in my purse. Wanna see them?”

“I do. You always make the most beautiful things. Show them to me at your birthday party. Other people need to see them too.” He places her on the ground.

“You’ll get to see my birthday clothes too. I had to wait FOREVER to wear them.”

A week. That is how long she has known of the clothes existence.

Harper is her father’s daughter.

“She likes being big. How are you holding up?” Dad kisses my cheek as I take my turn hugging him.

“I’ve got a grip on it. It’s a loose one, but I’ve got it.”

“And you?” He gives Rhys a quick, back-slapping hug.

“Better today than I was few days ago, but not by much. At least breaking my heart is making her happy.”

“There’s no denying that she is enjoying herself.” Dad comments, drawing our attention to her.

Harper has discarded her coat and is twirling, which is making her cape and dress billow. Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy are her audience. They are worshipping at her feet, just as they always do.

“Lovebug, we need to leave. Will you help us get to Grandma’s house on time by leading Buddy and Holly to your room?” I redirect her attention.

“FOLLOW ME!” Harper speaks loud and clear enough to be heard by Holly, and slowly walks to her bedroom to give Buddy time to mentally map her surroundings.

Dad has already filled the water and food bowls within the dogs’ playpen. Harper pats their beds to tell them to lie down. They listen, and she treats them to the affection she would have dished out regardless of their cooperation. I make a much less involved contribution to our timeliness by putting Harper’s overnight bags onto her bed. The family party is scheduled to commence at 3:00PM. We are in the car in time to be punctual.

“How did you beat us here?” Rhys asks, flabbergasted, when Chris opens the front door with his daughter in his arms.

“We never sleep. There’s more time to do things.”

As though she is voicing her opinion, Scarlett, his 9-month-old, begins to chant “da-da!” with fingers in her mouth. Drool trickles down her wrist; its destination will undoubtedly be her dada’s shirt.

“It’s my birthday, Scarlett! Can you say ‘Harper’?” Harp excitedly engages with the youngest member of the family.

Scarlett blows a raspberry and rips Harper’s headband off her head by the antenna. A heart remains in her chubby fist; the rest of be the headband lands on the floor.

“It broked!” Harper exclaims as she fetches the fallen half.

“Oh, Lovebug, we can fix it. Grandma has a hot glue gun. It’ll be good as new. Scarlett didn’t mean any harm.” I comfort her.

“She wants to be a lovebug ladybug too. We can’t share if it’s broked and we can’t play together if we don’t share and I want to play with her.” Harp remains worked up, her big green eyes welling with tears.

“Let me take off my coat and I will put it back together. You can share your valentines while I’m gone, okay?”

She nods, her face still distraught.

“It’ll all be okay.” I give her a kiss.

My dad coat from me. Chris pries the heart out of Scarlett’s hand while Rhys distracts her with silly faces. I depart the foyer with Harper’s half of the headband in my hand after giving her a second comfort kiss.

“Hi, Mom, may I use your glue gun?” I blurt lightning fast as soon as I am in the kitchen, showing her the two halves of what should be a whole.

“Always ‘yes’. It’s in the top drawer of the first cabinet in my craft room.” She answers just as quickly, having plenty of experience with broken toy meltdowns.

Sprinting to the craft room would be too excessive for me on any other day, but today is my little lovebug’s birthday. I want it to be celebrated to its fullest. She feels she needs her antennas to do it. That is a more than reasonable request. My baby is getting them.

The second degree burns on my fingers that I sustain on my fingers while restoring her headband to its former glory is a back massage in comparison to labor and recovery. Powering through them is a cinch, and the gracious reception Harper gives me when I present her with her refurbished antennas makes it all worthwhile; being with her always is.

I tell Harper giving Scarlett the headband to hold or wear could hurt her. Unwilling to risk her baby cousin’s wellbeing, Harp changes courses; she sings the ladybug facts song she wrote with Rhys and does the accompanying chorography to entertain Scarlett. Harper tries to include Booker in her performance but in typical 20-month-old fashion, he hears what she says but does what he wants. A set of blocks call his name, and he follows his toddler instincts.

Harper does more than put on a show for her baby cousin. She helps Jess change her diaper by handing her supplies and dries Scarlett’s face whenever slobber drips from her mouth. Rhys has been just as involved with Scarlett today. He carries Scarlett around so that Harper can pass out her valentines with her. I catch him smelling the top of Scarlett’s head to savor her baby scent and smiling down at her too much for toting her around to be done solely for Harper, Chris, and Jess’s sakes.

The time of day and people’s romantic dinner plans this evening has dictated the party’s type. It is a ladybug tea party fit for a lovebug. A long table is comprised of three rectangular tables is covered by a spring green tablecloth and in the sunroom. It is pretty gray outside at the moment, but natural light beats artificial any day and the large windows in the room give us plenty of it. A red and white checkered runner stripes the middle of the table, making it look like a picnic table is on a patch of grass. In the middle of each section of the table is a ladybug teapot; there are three pots total and all of them are on a thin slice of a tree trunk.

Black, green, herbal, decaf – all sorts of teabags are on the teapot stumps. The teacups and saucers have varying patterns. Some have leaves, others feature flowers, a few have butterflies, and Harper has the only ladybug ones. Finger sandwiches, mini cheesecakes, and macarons are on platters atop the runner, each section has the full assortment. The ladybug “Happy Birthday Harper” banner that we hung for Harper’s slumber party has been rehung on the wall behind her seat at the head of the table. Vases of red winter roses are in glass vases covered with hearts. Accompanying the black number ‘5’ balloon is a ladybug balloon, two red heart-shaped balloons with black polka dots, and two black heart-shaped balloons with white polka dots. The birthday cake that is to be brought out will be a larger version of the one we had yesterday.

Wildes know how to throw a party. Their toughest critics could not even deny that. My dad is no longer one of those people. It makes all of it that much better.

“Mama, if make the same wish, will I get two of them or will it for sure happen?” Harper consults with me before blowing out her lit birthday candles.

“Nothing is guaranteed, but there is more of a chance that your wish will come true if you make it twice.” I air on the side of caution.

I do not want to be responsible for leading her to believe she will get a pet unicorn or something to that affect.

“Will I get two if I wish harder?” She persists.

“How do you wish harder?” Rhys asks.

Harper closes her eyes, purses her lips, puts both of her hands into fits and clenches all of them as tight as she can.

“Yes, do that.” Taylor laughs.

“Okay, I’m ready to be really five now.” Harper turns back to her cake and audience.

“I’m fiiiive years old! I’m fiiiive years old! I’m fiiiive years old! I’m five years old!” She resings her Happy Birthday solo before taking Taylor’s advice.

She is a little red in the face by the time she blows out her five candles. I rub her back as Rhys has her cool down with sips of water.

Rhys lets Harper slice her cake with him. I distribute the plates.

“Do you know what her wish is?” I whisper to Rhys as he puts a slice of cake on the plate I am holding.

“No, but whatever it is, Tay’s getting it for her.” He replies under his breath to keep the conversation between us.

“That’s a tall order when it comes to her.”

“He fulfills it or else.”

“He could fire you from Heart-Headed Records.”

“He does that at least once a week and he always comes crawling back. I’m not afraid of him.”

After cake and ice cream, we go to the living room to watch Harper open her presents. Leo puts a box that is not book shaped in front of Harper.

“They said books.” Lindsey reminds him.

“She’s five. Books are boring.” Leo defends his purchase.

They argue about whether or not books are appropriate for her age group as Harper shreds wrapping paper off a construction site excavator toy.

“Oooo, an excavator! I have a book about building stuff. This is the cab. It's where people sit." She points to the operator's seat. "The part that looks like a claw, right here--" She moves her finger to it. "That's the bucket. It holds dirt not water, though. The wheels are rollers. They can't go in your hair. They too big. I like hair rollers too.” Harper scratches at the tape keeping her toy sealed.

“She likes both, which is healthy for her development.” Chris puts an end to their pack and forth.

“Thank you, Uncle Leo, Chloe, Kevin, and Grace! I love you.” Harper leaves her seat to give each of them a hug.

“Can I do a gift takeback? I want to give Harper a toy too.” Becca requests.

“Harper’s a smartypants like her mama. Knowledge is more than power to them. It makes them happy. Find it in your hearts to accept them as they are. Let my ladies keep their books.” Rhys jokingly dramatically pleas, resting his hand over his heart.

“A Schoolhouse Rock reference? That shows synonymous with the seventies.” I zero in on the sole surprising element of his response.

“The OG run ended in the eighties. The revival was in the nineties. It pains me to say we have the complete series on DVD.” He replies.

“DVD? I don’t even know who you are anymore.” I tease.

Between gift unwrapping, hug distribution, singing breaks, and hosting storytime with one of her new books, Harper spares a bit of time to push her new toy back and forth.

Her attention span is not much better than Booker’s. Harper is of the “so much to do, so little time” mentality. She puts the pedal to the metal all day long. The times she is unable to sleep through the night are few and far between.

Displaying the cleaning skills she learned in school is the final activity Harper chooses to do during her birthday party. Mrs. Appleby grabbed Harper’s interest in it by teaching the class a song that is to be sung while cleaning. We all sing it as we clean with her. All the excitement she has experienced the past two days have her nodding off on the way back to Dad’s house.

Harper fights her exhaustion to enjoy the birthday festivities her grandpa arranged for her. Pre-packaged art supply Valentine’s Day crafts are right up Harp’s alley and he knows it thanks to all the creations she has made and asked us to mail to him. She gifts her completed Valentine’s Day projects to us. She has written our names on them – Mama, Daddy, and Grandpa, making us feel as special as she hoped.

As Harper plays with Rhys and Dad in the living room, I make one of her favorite meals for dinner – black bean stuffed baked sweet potatoes with spinach side salads. The sugar and junk food we have eaten the past couple of days needs to be counteracted. I meal prep roasted veggie penne, another one of Harper’s favorites, for Dad to serve for dinner tomorrow for the same reason. He is notorious for letting her eat whatever she wants. Her first choices are typical for those in her age group – cheese and ketchup would be food groups if she had her way. Princess Harper reigns supreme whenever she is in her grandpa’s care. They can have their fun during breakfast and lunch.

Dinner is a hit. Harper hums in delight and smiles as she eats. Dad compliments me nonstop. Rhys is the reason there are no leftovers. He and Dad clean the kitchen and take the dogs out while I give Harper a bath.

“Did you have a happy birthday and Valentine’s Day, Lovebug?” I wash her back.

“Oh, yes. It was so fun! And I still have a whole other day. Grampa and I are going to have a slumber party.”

I smile at her excitement. “You will have to show him how it is done. He has never had a birthday slumber party before.”

“I’ll teach him. He’ll have fun too.”

“I know you will take good care of him.”

“How long do wishes take?” She stops in the middle of a bathtime song to ask.

“Um, it depends on what they are. What is yours?”

“I can’t say. It won’t come true if I do and I want it really bad.”

“Can I at least know why you want it so badly?”

Context clues can go a long way.

“I love them.”

Well, that’s not much help. She loves just about everything.

“Okay, well, just be patient. Things worth having take time.”

“Like my pretty lovebug ladybug clothes?”

“Yes, like those.”

“But that took forever.”

“It made wearing them more special, though, right? You did it. You waited, and you got exactly what you wanted.”

“I run fast.”

“You do run fast.”

“It’s better than going slow.”

“Okay…”

“Wishes need to run fast too. I’ll teach them.” She scrunches her adorable face in determination.

I breathe a laugh. “How about you sleep on it? How to make it work could come to you in a dream.”

“I’m not sleepy.” She contradicts herself by rubbing her eye.

“Laying in bed and closing my eyes after reading a book is how I get my best ideas.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Uncle Taylor does it too. Plenty of big people do. Since you’re a bigger girl now, I thought you would like to try our trick, but I guess not. I—”

“I change my mind. I wanna do it.”

“Changing your mind after learning new information is a part of being a big girl too. You really must be a year older.” I kiss her temple.

I hand Harper off to Rhys after helping her take care of everything that requires the use of the bathroom. He takes care of hair maintenance and makes sure she gets into her pajamas while I clean the bathroom; she often gets distracted by a toy or the dogs when left unsupervised. Harp is in the middle of the full-sized bed and beneath the covers when I enter her bedroom. Rhys is sitting beside her with one of her new books in his lap. I sit on the opposite of her, my back rested on the headboard like theirs are.

“Time to read, birthday girl.” Rhys hands her the book we gifted her, “Biscuit Loves School” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.

It is a story about a golden retriever puppy named Biscuit who goes to school and spends the day playing, learning, and exploring. Books about dogs doing human activities are still her favorites.

Harper gets extra hugs and kisses, tucked in, and has her lullaby sung to her. We leave the room once she is in a deep sleep. Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy are resting at the foot of the bed; her star nightlight is switched for an extra layer of comfort.

After Rhys and I give Dad unnecessarily thorough Harper instructions, our mad dash to catch our flight begins. We go home to drop off our car and collect our suitcases. A car service takes us to the airport. Our luggage is taken curbside in the drop-off area. Rhys is either holding my hand or has his arm around me as we make our way to our plane’s gate. The security checkpoint is the only time we are separated.

Our commitment to staying connected has nothing to do with the holiday or declaring our relationship status. It keeps us grounded in spaces where the likelihood of his recognition is high; he worries about my anxiety and I want to keep him relaxed. Rhys has an expressive face. All his emotions are visible, and the articles that looking tense and grumpy will produce will disrupt our peaceful existence.

We have learned what works for us through years of trial and error. The rare pictures of us out and about together can only be construed as loving. Publications would look like idiots if they attached negative headlines to them. People looking happy is not nearly as interesting as a couple on the outs. Our photos typically go unused in favor of clickbait ones other celebrities create accidentally or on purpose. We go into the public side of his life with our eyes wide open.

The special treatment we are given by the flight crew is more embarrassing than pampering. We get early access to the plane which draws loads more attention to us. Pilots leave the cockpit to shake Rhys’s hand and often get autographs and pictures for bragging rights. They shake my hand to be polite. Flight attendants bend over backward to cater to us, and when the other passengers are allowed to board, they act as pseudo-security to keep passengers from lingering in first class in hopes of having a special one-on-one moment with Rhys. And then they are right back to offering us all that they have on a silver platter as soon as everyone is seated. Rhys always gives me the window seat to keep me out of the chaos as much as possible.

“How are we doing, wife?” He gives my hand a tender squeeze after the tsunami of fanfare has died down.

“Well, but ready for bed. We’ve been busy. A cupcake war and two lovebug ladybug parties? It’s a miracle we’re still on our feet.” I return his squeeze to reassure him.

“Do you want me to spoil your Valentine’s Day gift? That way we can shower and pass out as soon as we get to the hotel.”

“No way. I like our weird at full opacity. We’re doing our gift exchange properly, husband.”

“Yes, dear.” He smiles against my lips after pressing a quick kiss to them.

We officially enter the realm of the rich and famous when we reach LAX. Paparazzi track our movements from the moment we get past the security checkpoint until we get into the car we scheduled ahead of time to take us to the hotel. Said hotel is 5-star because of the extra security measures they have in place for their famous clientele. Special entrances, exclusive elevator access, rooms on restricted floors – I have been a part of this world for almost four years and it still boggles my mind.

The garment bags containing our outfits for tomorrow evening are hanging in our needlessly opulent closet when we reach our room. An enormous gift basket with a personalized note from the hotel’s manager attached is waiting for us as well. The snacks in it hit the spot after our 3-hour flight; the champagne does too.

Our gift exchange is done in bed after we shower.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, babe. May my gift ensure we have many more as husband and wife.” Rhys puts a small gift bag on my lap.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here.” I smile at him as I break the tape seal.

Out of the tissue paper I pull out a grizzly Bear Beanie baby.

“Welcome to the collection, Cubbie.” I read the Beanie Baby heart tag, giggling.

“Another one to fight over will give us more time to reconcile our differences.”

“I love it. Thank you, honey.” I give him a tender kiss before fetching his present from the nightstand on my side of the bed.

“What’s this? I thought another musical smartypants was my gift.” He skeptically eyes the bag in my hands.

“It is. They must look the part to acclimate to our way of life. I feel you should be the one to bestow this sacred garment upon them.”

“Always overachieving.” He kisses my cheek as he takes the bag from me.

It is a newborn onesie version of the Smalls baseball tee that Harper has. Both she and the new baby will be the Smalls Rhys’s ’You’re Killing Me, Smalls” shirt refers to.

“Can this be the first thing they wear?” Rhys speaks through a lump in his throat as he holds it in his hands.

“You’ll be the one dressing them. The choice is yours to make.”

“I love you.” His words are a whisper.

“I love you too.” I draw him into a tight hug. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

We go to sleep after exchanging a few kisses. I am the big spoon, Rhys is the little spoon, and Cubbie wearing our yet-to-be-created baby’s onesie is the littlest spoon.

A note written on hotel stationary is on Rhys’s pillow when I wake up.

Dearest Wife and Bestest Friend,

My morning will be spent talking. Poor me. Enjoy your morning of being majestic. I will see you this afternoon. Warning: I will rush the stage if Wilde Knights has not won an award by the time Album of the Year is announced. Sorry not sorry. It is my duty as Smallest’s father to do whatever they need me to do. They have to be made, Pop. Being blacklisted from the industry is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. If you love us, you will let it happen.

Love you,

Your Rhys

P.S. Dad and Smalls were making blueberry pancakes when I called. He can barely cook better than me and you know she likes adding special ingredients. Please check on them and text me your findings.

P.P.S. I love them too

I fumble for my phone as quickly as possible.

“Good morning, sweetheart.” Dad nervously chuckles when he answers the phone.

“Morning. What have you gotten up to so far?”

“We have kept to her schedule.”

“Mhmm, and what did you have for breakfast? Rhys mentioned pancakes.”

Shortly after I say this, Harper’s shrieking laughter can be heard in the background.

“Oh, that. Yes, we made pancakes. The blueberries you grew were delicious.”

“Dad.”

“She put those Valentine’s Day hearts that taste like chalk and have words into the batter. She was so proud of her idea. They melted down in the pan. They looked awful, but she ate every bite.”

“She’s running around the house, fueled by sugar, and the dogs are following her?” I guess.

“I had her eat a little of my steel-cut oatmeal and drink water. She should come down any minute now. Don’t you worry.”

“She won’t, but I’m not worried. Harper has Rhys’s coordination and vision. She won’t run into things or fall the way I did as a kid. And if she does, she still thinks she is a doctor-in-training. She will help you tend to any wounds she sustains. Her personal first-aid kit is in her duffle bag. She packed it herself. You’re in good hands.”

He sighs in relief. “Thank goodness. She is a different kind of handful than you were. Do you want to speak to her?”

“I always do.”

“Hiya, Mama!” Harper speaks at hyper speed.

“Hi, Lovebug” I chuckle. “Were your pancakes good?”

“Deeeeelicious! And so pretty. Do you wanna see ’em? You should see ’em. Grampa!” She fires through her response before calling for him.

“Yes, sweet pea?”

“Mama needs to see my pancakes. You have pictures. She needs to see ’em. They’re so colorful! Like crayons!” Harper zooms through her sentences.

“I’ll send them as soon as you are off the phone. Is there anything else you want to say to her?”

“I love you, Mama! I love you! I love you! I loooooooooove you!” She sings to me. “I’m gonna run some more. Bye!”

“I love you too. I’ll send you the pictures and keep a close eye on her.” My dad responds as soon as she hands him the phone.

“I know you will. Call or text if you need anything. Love you. Bye.”

“Goodbye.” He ends the call.

I text Rhys a full rundown of what is going on and forward him a picture of Harper’s colorful pancakes.

The days of being poked and prodded by people without my full consent to be transformed into someone else’s ideal are over. I make all my appointments. All that is done is mine to decide. My body feels the way it should – like it belongs to me.

Saying I am looking forward to tonight is too strong a statement, one that would likely come back to bite me. This weekend has been off to a good start. The stage has been set for the streak to continue.

I guess we shall see.

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