forum First chapter of a story of mine, please critique?
Started by @ElderGod-kirky group

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@ElderGod-kirky group

Title: How to Not be a Product of Your Environment
Synopsis: Selena Hines and Damien Valentina-Smith are bound to wed in just a year. It's already all over the news and magazines. "New York City's hottest couple," they say. Neither one of them can appear in public without people coming up to them to offer congratulations. Everywhere, people talk about the perfect couple, made of perfect people.

Harper, however, is a nobody. No one is taking his picture and plastering it all over social media. No one is eager to get a glimpse of him. He's simply the smiling waiter taking care of your table. The barista handing you your morning coffee. That night-worker over there stocking the shelves and handing you that box of pasta you need. He's there but not really.

Except what people see is just the surface, and these seemingly obvious evaluations and assumptions about their lives couldn't be farther from the truth. Only when these polar-opposites clash will they realize this for themselves.
Words: 2478, roughly
Warnings: Drinking alcohol, swearing, partial nudity

Selena slammed her glass down onto the counter, the sticky surface getting sloshed with yet another round of expensive booze. "I'm sorry, he did what?" she practically screeched. Nearby people shot her varying degrees of looks, but she ignored them as she leaned forward with wide eyes.

“Basically stole a third of my tips.” Harper stared blankly at the wall in front of him, then tipped his head back and took a heavy swig straight from the bottle. His face screwed up at the burning sensation, and he shook his head while setting the bottle down with a soft thunk. “Bastard claimed it was his cut from ‘filling in,’ whatever the fuck that means. All I remember him doing was sitting in the back and barking orders at us.” He rolled his eyes and stole Selena’s shot, knocking it back with barely a blink. The theft didn’t even faze her as she gaped at her friend.

“Either you need to quit, or I go over and beat him up. And then pay you what he owes you,” she concluded, grabbing the bottle from him just as he was about to take another swig. He leveled an unamused glare her way, but it hit just a bit off the mark—he’d already gone through another bottle before this one.

Harper watched her as she filled up her shot glass, then promptly swiped the bottle when she was do ne and knocked back a few gulps. He took a few seconds to let the burn of the alcohol course through him before he set the almost-empty bottle down and traced his fingers around the rim. “I can’t quit. I need the money—and no, I’m not taking any from you.”

“You have two other jobs—”

“And with that third one, it’s just enough to pay all the bills that need paid.” He shook his head and waved the bottle in her face, letting her down the rest of it without hesitation. She waved a perfectly manicured hand in the air, silently requesting yet another bottle.

“Fine, whatever.” Her words blended together slightly, and she leaned against his shoulder a fraction, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “My turn to bitch about assholes. Have you seen the guy I’m supposed to marry? Total douche.”

Harper rolled his eyes, a tiny smile tugging at his lips. “Please, you’ve talked about him before. You like him.”

“Lies,” she hissed obnoxiously, but perked up as their third bottle appeared before her face. She cooed to herself, or maybe the alcohol, and made quick work with the cap to pour herself yet another shot. It didn’t take long for her to start going on random tangents about assholes she had come across.

Harper listened and sputtered when necessary, but he couldn’t help but feel the eyes on the two of them.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Even under normal circumstances, the two noisy drunks would’ve drawn at least some attention—or perhaps just Selena, but he’d automatically be included by association. Harper glanced to the side, attempting to see his friend how the rest of the people saw her.

Light blonde hair spilled down her exposed tan and lightly freckled shoulders, the natural chestnut-brown peeking out from the roots. A short red strapless dress hugged her body, which accentuated every curve she wanted to show off and matched the red lipstick smudged over her full lips. Light green eyes peered up at him. They were glazed from drink but alight with fiery passion as she ranted. The bar’s grungy lighting bounced off her face, highlighting her pleasing bone structure, as well as the smattering of faint freckles on her nose and cheeks. Red stiletto heels laced all the way up to her knees; even with them on, her natural 5’6 height couldn’t match his towering height of 6’4.

She’s attractive, I suppose. But it doesn’t help that she’s a famous fashion designer about to get married to a billionaire’s son, and I’m a literal no one with the gall to drink with her in public.

Harper sipped from the bottle, having stolen custody of it for the time being. The thought of their class difference hit him, perhaps harder than it should’ve. It drove him to drink even more.

He sat at the very bottom of the barrel titled ‘society,’ licking at the droplets that slowly dripped down the ladder. But Selena? Selena was the queen that sat upon the rim, stirring her ocean with a silver spoon, blind to the troubles beneath her.

He had tried blaming her, hating her. He really had. At one point he had hated her, long ago. But the more she inserted herself in his life, the less he could hold onto that hatred. She could flaunt her money and fame all she’d like, and he could have her obvious superiority shoved into his face, but there was more to her. He knew that now. He also knew that there was no getting rid of her at this point, even if she was the bane of his existence. Like a disease.

And so they drank and exchanged stories. They drowned themselves in the sweet nectar of booze while easing their shoulders with drunkenly obnoxious retellings of unfortunate happenings in their lives. They kept things neutral, as always. They never talked about what the other didn’t already know. He didn’t talk about his home life. She didn’t talk about her mysteriously absent past.

A rule they always upheld, even when shitfaced.


Sunlight streamed through the window and hit Harper directly in his face, drawing him out of his heavy drink-induced slumber rather rudely. He groaned and attempted to flop onto his stomach, but quickly found himself weighed down by an obnoxious and snoring load. Instead, he cracked an eye open and scanned his surroundings.

Well, they had made it to her place. At least he had that bit of good news.

The familiar room stared back at his squinted gaze. Billowing white curtains, drawn away the elaborately framed window, danced in the morning breeze. He didn’t remember opening the window last night, but there was a lot he didn’t remember. Along the opposite wall of the king-sized bed stood a grand armoire next to an open walk-in closet, which—somehow—both of their sets of clothes managed to miss entirely. On the other side of the wall stood a dresser littered with makeup products, opened and closed, new and used.

Mannequins of all kinds sat half-dressed in corners and the middle of the room. Fabric samples and polaroid photos and design sketches covered the otherwise white walls, adding splashes of random colors. Blue, pink, and purple fairy lights hung from the ceiling, having taken over the chandelier that had used to dangle ominously just a few months ago. An abundance of plants—fake, seeing how she could never be trusted to remember to take care of real ones—added yet even more color to the white room. Some decorated the windowsills, others branched over and around the frames. More wrapped around the fairy lights, and even more sat in pots along the walls and on mismatching stands.

Next to the king-sized canopy bed was a bookcase, steadily being filled with notebooks and design portfolios. Somewhere in the room there were two kinds of stashes: a snack stash and an alcohol stash. He hadn’t yet sniffed out where, exactly, she stored those things after the last time he raided both.

“Selena Hines, gorgeous and perfect in every way,” Harper droned dramatically, rolling his eyes and lifting himself enough to jostle the girl sprawled atop his body, “snores like a fucking lawn mower.”

“Oh shut up, I’m the sexiest woman you’ve ever met,” Selena mumbled, shifting groggily and propping her chin on his chest. He didn’t miss the wince she tried to hide, and nor did he attempt to hide his shit-eating smirk. The woman scowled and poked his neck with her salon-done nails. Perfect was damn-near the perfect adjective for her life. Money and fame did that to someone.

“Unfortunately,” he shot back, only getting another jab to the neck in return. He moved again and pushed on her. “Get off, you fat ass. I can’t feel my everything.”

Selena stuck her tongue out at him and made no such move to get off him. She folded her arms and rested them on his chest while using them as a prop for her chin. “Why don’t you ever sleep with me when we’re both drunk?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.

“First of all, you look ridiculous.” Selena pouted at that. He ignored her. “Second of all, maybe because I don’t want to?”

“But why?

“Has it ever occurred to you that not everyone wants to sleep with you?”

“Harper, we’re both literally half-naked, on my bed, recovering from getting blackout drunk—which, by the way, I’m going to need about a thousand ibuprofen after this. In what scenario would we not have sex?”

He rolled his eyes yet again and accepted his fate, draping his arms over her back. “The scenario where I don’t want to sleep with you.”

Selena wasn’t accepting that as an answer. Her lips jutted out in a deep pout just before she buried half her face in her arms. “But why? That’s all I wanna know. Most men, and girls, would love nothing more than to be in this situation we are in right now, which happens to be a frequent situation we get into. But you, Mr. Charity Case, are less than thrilled. Why.”

He pretended to think long and hard about that, then slowly drew out his answer. “Well, there’s the fact that you are due to be married in a year. And the fact that we’ve been friends for nearly a year and nothing has changed that fact. And this little thing you do in the morning afterwards where you snore like a freight train right in my fucking ear.”

“Oh-“ Selena huffed and pushed herself up just enough to chuck a pillow at Harper’s face. Not satisfied with her assault, as he still remained breathing, she straddled his waist and proceeded to hold the pillow down even more.

“If you want to suffocate me,” he drawled with a hint of humor, his voice muffled by the fabric, “then try to at least put a little more strength into it.”

She rolled her eyes and dramatically rolled off of him with a groan onto her back, an arm flopped over her eyes. “You’re an ass.”

“Actually, I’m Mexican. But nice try.” Harper shot her a smirk and quickly scrambled off the bed before she could launch her assault on him.

Half-buried in a lump of white comforter and pillow, Selena peered up at him, presumably attempting puppy eyes. “And Indian, but we’ll apparently gloss over that. Harper.” Her voice drew out in an obnoxious whine, and he knew what that meant. “Why won’t you stay with me?”

“Selena,” he started while gathering his clothes. He could feel her gaze as he walked around the room, retrieving his shirt from the knob of the closet door. “It’s Native American. Crow, to be exact.” His pants from a false palm tree. “And I have to get home. Mom’s probably high off her ass, and I have to make sure Bri is dressed and fed before I go to work.” He stopped, eyes scanning the room. “And where the hell are my socks and shoes?”

A lazy hand flung itself in the direction of the closet from beneath the covers. “Inside, I think. That’s all well and good, I love how sweet of a big brother you are, but I am a damsel in distress, Harper. I require aid in my time of need.”

He huffed a short laugh through his nose and strode into the closet to search for his remaining clothing. “You’re hungover, not dying.”

“My skull feels like it’s splitting itself in half with a dull ax. I think that qualifies as dying.”

The shoes and socks were found, so he dressed himself and combed a hand through his curls. “For someone that can hold her liquor better than I can—”

“You’re such a fuckin’ lightweight dude.”

“—you sure suck at dealing with your hangovers.” He leaned against the closet doorframe, arms crossed, and cocked a mocking brow at Selena. At this point, she had buried herself completely beneath her comforter and stacked pillows over her head. The sight was one for the magazines. With a lip-bitten grin, Harper pulled out his phone from his jeans pocket and snapped a photo, only a few chunks of her light blonde hair visible.

“Which I despise your immunity to them.”

“No immunity. I do have a touch of a headache.” He took a few more photos, getting closer and getting multiple angles of her misery while grinning like a maniac.


“Mexican Crow.”

“I see no difference.” She popped her head out from the blankets, putting her static-ridden bedhead on display with her smudged makeup from last night. He snapped another photo.

“I’m leaking these,” he declared, straightening back up and going through his gallery to look through the photos.

She waved a dismissive hand in front of her nose, as if smelling something foul. “Just make sure it’s a local newsletter. I don’t want Fox News spinning a story of how I was brutally assaulted or something. I’d rather my security team didn’t get a heart attack.”

“I believe that would be cause for a lawsuit.” He turned his phone to show her a particularly unflattering photo. She snorted and started swiping through the others as well.

“Maybe. Speaking of lawyers, don’t you have a job to get to? You were just complaining about needing to leave me. How rude, by the way. I’m still mad at you.”

Harper pulled his phone away, much to her displeasure, and tucked it back into his pocket. “Not a lawyer, but yes, I do.” Bending down to her level, he placed a quick kiss to her cheek. “I’ll see you later.”

She pouted, reaching out to lamely grab at him like a baby grabbing for its favorite toy. “Noooo, don’t leave meeeee,” she whined.

With yet another roll of his eyes, he pulled away and patted her head. “You have designing to do. Te quiero.”

“Awww, I love you too. Except you’re leaving me. So I don’t think you do.”

“There will be pain killers on the counter, don’t take more than needed, and some coffee to go with it,” he said, turning around and flicking a two-finger salute in goodbye.

“I love you!” she sang, her voice horribly off pitch.

“Yeah, yeah.” Harper shook his head and fought back his smile as he walked out of the bedroom.

@ElderGod-kirky group

((I am attempting to write a book. it is very much gay, but i'm also sprinkling in fancy events where Harper is dragged into it, Native American culture being represented as best as I can through Harper, Damien being a gay mess, and Selena being wholesome with her split fashion industry. oh, and also a to-be-introduced nb character that's totally not involved with the mafia))

@ElderGod-kirky group

Second Chapter because why not. Get a look at our local gay disaster
Words: 4753

Damien would've had Selena tag along with him to get his morning coffee, but she texted him saying something about dying from a head wound, so he chalked it up to a hangover and decided to brave the public on his own.

Growing up as the son of David Smith had its perks and downsides, but it has never been as bad as it's been recently after the announcement of his engagement to Selena. High school put him at the school's version of middle class, with him not being part of the unpopular nor the popular cliques. He'd simply been a local rich kid, floating around and existing, as one does.

But the production of a life-saving medical device—Damien didn't bother with learning everything his father did—drew attention to his father's other businesses in separate industries, and their popularity practically exploded overnight. Damien found himself and his parents in magazines. He became a highly sought-after bachelor, his father had become a handsome modern superhero, and his mother's modeling agency couldn't keep up with all the calls requesting her.

They had become society's prized ants beneath their magnifying lens.

"Maura, I'll be fine," Damien insisted while he grabbed his coat. The head maid huffed and flitted about him, chubby little fingers snagging the fabric and smoothing it down to be useful in some way. "Ma. I'm serious. It's just a coffee."

"Yes, just coffee," she repeated, though her tone matched the sour face scrunching her nose. "A trip to get a cup of coffee right after your engagement announcement, which is still being obsessed over." The old woman finished with fussing over his coat lapels and rather aggressively hooked her hands over her hips. "Can't you order in?"

With a roll of his eyes but a kind smile, he bent down to her level and kissed the side of her head. "I'll be fine, Ma. I promise. I just need some fresh air." Before she could interrupt, he pinched her nose. "If things get too much, I'll call Selena, alright?"

Maura narrowed her eyes in challenge. Despite technically working for Damien, she never pulled punches or let herself be treated as dirt. That’s what drew him to her—her attitude. He could remember meeting her at a supermarket, listening to her mutter hatefully to herself in rapid Spanish. Later, she admitted to him that she had been cursing her old employer. Not once during that confession did she look regretful.

That’s what he needed from an employee. Someone not afraid to speak their mind, even if it wasn’t exactly all praises. He needed to know what she expected from him, just as she needed to know what he expected from her. If things weren’t working out, he could count on her with telling him straight to his face.

“Oh, stop making that face and get out of here,” Maura relented, swatting his shoulder and shooing him out the door. “Be back soon, though, or I’ll think you’ve fallen victim to the fangirls.”

Damien grinned and kissed her on the cheek, “I’ll be careful, I promise,” then grabbed his wallet and keys and headed out the door.

Living in a penthouse, just as being his father’s son, had its pros and cons. He had privacy, and a gorgeous home. His room could fit a whole apartment, with room to spare. Every window had a view overlooking the city, high above everyone and the world. No one uninvited had the gall to show up unannounced.

But it also meant taking an elevator all the time, or the stairs whenever it stopped working. He really hated it when the elevator stopped working, which unfortunately happened a lot.

Including today.

An eternity and two dead legs later, he took to the streets. Almost immediately he could feel the stares, but he pretended to not notice, pulling out his phone and connecting his Bluetooth earbuds. He didn’t want to deal with people, and music was the way to go.

The city treated him good for the most part, and he really did appreciate the privileges he had been given at birth. He knew that the silver spoon he had been born with was paid for by those less fortunate than him. He couldn’t change that fact, couldn’t go back in time and tell the doctors ‘no thanks,’ but he tried to do everything he could to keep himself from coming off as an arrogant and pretentious ass.

Not that it meant much now, with his face plastered everywhere. His eyes tracked a bus rolling by, sporting his face and the latest advert his father had starred him in.

Yeah, I’m probably an ass. His disappointed sigh morphed into a bored stare, hiding his thoughts from the world as the coffee shop came into view. Yup, definitely an ass. This time he withheld his sigh—now fully aware of how hypocritical he was being—and nudged his way into the busy coffee shop, hoping to blend in with the crowd as much as possible.

Le Bistro was owned by a tightly wound Frenchman who constantly got after anyone who changed the ‘Le’ to a ‘the’, but otherwise posed no threat to any of his customers and stayed in everyone’s good graces. It helped that he owned perhaps the best coffee shop in town, with the crowd to prove it, and his baristas tended to be charming and friendly.

The shop itself never displayed its grandeur, instead opting for a cozy atmosphere with a warm color palate and simple setup. Two levels made up the shop. The entrance housed the counter where people could order and the baristas did their magic. The lack of chairs and stools on this level discouraged people from lingering and mudding up the already chaotic order in which people stood.

That’s where the second level came in, just a step up from the ground level and stretching beyond the foyer—what everyone called the first room. The dining area housed tables and chairs and stools for anyone who wanted to hang around the shop for whatever reason, even if they didn't buy anything. So long as they stayed out of the foyer, the owner didn’t care.

Damien quite liked this place. It felt as though the moment anyone stepped foot into the Bistro, they stopped caring who stood among them. The President of the United States could walk in, and he’d be treated as anyone else in the shop.

Smiling to himself, Damien found the back of the line and slipped in, apologizing to the woman he bumped into. She waved him off dismissively, offering a small smile, then turned towards the front of the line and sighed wistfully. “Jean always hires the cutest baristas. And he’s so tall. Too bad he’s so dense.”

He chuckled and shifted to the side to look at who had caught her eye, humoring her.


His mouth nearly betrayed him with the urge to agree with her, but he bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood.

Damien had seen this barista before. Many times, in fact. It’s why he always made sure to show up on Wednesday mornings. He didn’t know what other days the barista worked, but he knew for a fact that Wednesday was one. Somehow it had slipped his mind that he would be the one the woman continued to swoon over.

His almond skin somehow matched his black hair, which even from here he could see how messy the slight curls were. Warm chocolate brown eyes almost resembling a puppy’s darted about, intently focused on his task when working and sparkling when directed at a customer. He’d be perfect, in Damien’s opinion, if not for the seemingly permanent eye bags and lanky build. Not enough food, he thought to himself as his eyes trailed over the prominent joints and high and jutting cheekbones.

Too late, Damien realized he hadn’t responded to the woman while he blatantly stared at the barista. I don’t even know his name. With a cough, he turned to her with a friendly smile. “I would say he’s got a certain appeal to him.”

She laughed, head thrown back and everything, and patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m sure there are some cute girls in the back for you to ogle.” He laughed along with her because he had to, sparing one last guilty glance at the barista while he had the freedom to.

Damien had caught on a while ago that this particular barista didn’t completely follow the dress code for the workers. He never wore his nametag on his apron, and the clothes underneath were usually casual and worn. That alone prompted Damien to give him high tips in an attempt to help him in some way.

He meant to only look for a second, but it was long enough for the two to catch eyes. The barista paused the moment he noticed Damien’s gaze. For a heart-wrenching moment, he hoped for… something. Anything to hint at a possibly reciprocated crush.

But no, the barista only tipped his head and tapped the tip jar, then went about his business. Damien released a sigh and shuffled back in line, removing the man from his sight.

Time slid off to the side, speeding up his surroundings but leaving Damien to mull over his own stupidity in real time. Wishing for someone else while newly engaged was stupid in of itself. Wishing for someone that not only wasn’t female, but he knew nothing about? Incredibly stupid. This crush is going to get me in trouble one day.

Sooner than Damien wanted, he stood face-to-face with the cute barista. He could dimly remember the woman ahead of him attempting to flirt and getting promptly but nicely shooed away. Now, as those chocolate brown eyes stared at him expectantly, he decided to do one last idiotic thing today.

“What’s your favorite thing off the menu?”

The barista blinked in confusion, his friendly customer-service smile faltering. “I—What?”

“Your favorite thing off the menu. What is it?” Damien leaned on the counter, angling his head curiously. The man seemed to flounder for a bit, confusion evident on his face. “Come on, please?”

“Iced caramel macchiato.”

Damien’s grin lit up almost instantly, even if the barista started to look a tad grumpy at being forced out of routine. “Great. I’ll have two of those.” He chose to ignore the look of confusion in favor of leaning against the counter and blatantly watching the man get to making the two drinks. “What’s your name?”

“I believe I’m supposed to be the one asking for yours.” Knobby hands skillfully worked on the drinks, even if his eyes pointedly ignored Damien.

A grim smile tugged at his lips. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t know it by now.”

“Hm.” The barista continued to work, not encouraging conversation or offering his name. Please. This is the most I’ve had you talk to me. After an unbearable moment of silence, Damien tried again.


“’So’ what?”

“I asked you a question.”

“And I chose not to answer.” He grabbed the two finished drinks and set them on the counter, eyes staring directly into Damien’s. “Two iced caramel macchiatos for Damien,” he said, voice low. It sounded like a challenge.

With a smirk, Damien grabbed one of them, then tossed two hundreds onto the counter. “Keep the change.” His eyes flicked to the other drink in the barista’s hand, “And enjoy your macchiato.” He winked and turned away before he could consider his actions.

Oh my god. Oh. My god. I just did that. His freaking out did nothing for his sanity, as he soon found himself in the less crowded dining room. Well this was a dumb idea.

He had promised Maura that he’d be fine, unnoticed, and home before long. But here he sat on the couch in front of the crackling fireplace, sipping his macchiato—it actually tasted pretty good—and feeling as if he were holding his breath and waiting for something to happen.

Time ticked by, his worst enemy. People came and went, thankfully ignoring him where he sat staring at the dancing flames. Eventually, Damien pulled out his phone and texted Maura that he’d be late, but productive at the very least. She threatened to smack him with a shoe if he came home without some work to show for it.

Probably one of the benefits of being a successful shop included having the money for loaner laptops. Le Bistro offered a small selection of up-to-date laptops for people to use. Damien had never used them before, and they weren’t familiar to him, but he powered through the slight anxiety and set one up at the couch in no time, settling back and pulling up the browser.

Wedding planning. Ugh. The only solace in this hell happened to be the fact that he would be marrying Selena. As his best friend, she understood that he didn’t want to be doing this, even if she didn’t know why he had been uncomfortable with the idea of getting married. She knew that they wouldn’t be anything more than what they are now, albeit with a flimsy false title attached and a tale to weave for the public eye.

Flowers. Tablecloths. Napkins. Color schemes. Wedding themes.

Damien typed one thing into the browser, scrolled through the options, then typed in another and repeated the process. He didn’t even know where to start.

“You’re an idiot.”

His fingers froze, hovering over the keyboard. Swallowed. Resumed typing into the browser as if unbothered. “Oh?”

A body threw itself back into the couch right next to him, and nimble fingers stole the laptop from his lap. “First of all, paying me two hundred bucks for two drinks—one of which you have oh so kindly refused to drink, by the way. You never know what kind of a person I am.”

Damian finally turned towards the barista, who now sat cross-legged on the couch and typed with a mission on the stolen laptop. “Second of all,” he continued, ignoring the stare on the side of his face, “for someone who’s been on the news the past three days, you’re pretty unconcerned about getting spotted making wedding plans.” He tipped his head to the side, and Damien could see a smirk wanting to worm its way over the man’s lips. “Well. More like failing to make wedding plans. Your search history is a disaster.”

It took a minute to get his voice back, and another to decide on what to say. “This is my first wedding, and I haven’t been spotted yet. And I’d like to think you’re a decent person.” He arched a brow and leaned back into the cushioned couch as he eyed the laptop. “Does this mean I get your name?”

The smirk won the battle. It was sly, slow, and almost hostile. So unlike the friendly grin given to every customer. “No.”

He rolled his eyes and leaned over to look at what the man was doing on the laptop. Multiple tabs were open, and even more were being created and opened. “When you’re not behind the counter, your customer service sucks.”

“Not my problem.” The barista held out a hand and wiggled his fingers, sparing a fleeting glance over to Damien. “Phone.”

“I’m quite sure it is.” He glanced dubiously at the outstretched hand. “Why?”

“And I’m quite sure it’s not. I’m on break. I don’t have to be friendly.” Another wiggle of his fingers. “How else are you going to know where to look for your precious party?”

Damien was beginning to realize this crush was questionable concerning manners. He huffed and handed over his phone. “No password. Humor me this: why are you helping me?”

“I happen to have a certain policy when it comes to working for what I gain.” The barista took no time in finding the camera on Damien’s phone, and soon started taking pictures of the different websites. “I figured helping a poor unfortunate soul such as yourself would make up for the gap I’ve accumulated with you.”

“Poor unfortunate soul? Quoting Little Mermaid? Really? Are you two?”

“Oh look at that, Mr Bachelor of the century knows a Disney movie. He is human.”

Despite himself, Damien bristled at that. Again with the assumption that just because he’s rich, he’s different. Before he could bite something back, the computer got shoved into his lap, and he just barely caught his phone as it was tossed to him.

The barista stood and swiped a hand through his hair while he stretched. “Welp, my work is done.” He side-eyed Damien with a knowing smile. “See you next Wednesday, Damien Valentina-Smith.”

He said nothing as he watched the man leave, eyes tracking him and only leaving when he reached the counter and took up post next to a girl. His gaze went back to the computer.

All the tabs had been closed, with just the desktop open. One look at his phone showed multiple new photos of websites.

What the hell just happened?


Maura hadn’t taken too kindly at his brief and half-true reiteration of what he did at the coffee shop. Truth: he didn’t know what he was looking for, but now he has somewhat of an idea of what to look for in the future. Lie: he had done it all on his own.

Damien didn’t know why he had lied about the barista helping him. Maybe because he didn’t want her to know that someone had recognized him, and that someone knew him before the wedding went public. Well, ‘knew’ in the loosest of terms. He had simply been a regular Wednesday face.

Maybe he didn’t want to start gushing with a hint of complaining.

“Oh! Hey, Damien!”

He looked up at the sound of his name being called, pausing with his coat partially slipped off.

There were some people who questioned her legitimacy, as most people do with celebrities. But Tia Valentina kept her head held high and ignored them while living her life how she wanted without asking for permission from others—even her own husband.

Denying her obvious qualification for being a model would be pointless. Tall and lithe, with the grace of a cat but the bright green gaze of a viper, Tia proudly sported a well-loved mane of gorgeous blonde hair and near perfect facial structure, with nicely toned skin that got waxed and polished on the regular. However, she refused restricting diets and often cooked for herself and her family, and typically worked off excess calories with daily morning runs and yoga.

So it was no surprise to see her fresh from a run—nose and cheeks blushed from the brisk November morning air, airy tank top, sports leggings, barefoot—and standing in the kitchen. She smiled over at her son and beckoned for him. “Just set your coat on the table, you can get it later. I need your help with something.”

Damien nodded, shucking off his coat before setting it on the table, and walked over to her. His curiosity must’ve been obvious, since she chuckled and waved a hand over the stove. “Nothing’s out to eat you, don’t worry. It’s just breakfast.”

“So I’ll be eating it instead.” He gave his mother a greeting kiss, murmuring a 'Good morning,' then stood off to the side of her to scan the stove. Bacon and eggs, and an empty skillet presumably heating up, from the looks of a flame. “Pancakes?”

“Precisely.” Tia grinned up at Damien and waved him off to gather the ingredients. “Go on. Get to it. We have other matters to talk about and I’d like to be done by breakfast.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed but had a smile on his face as he moved away to get the items for the pancakes. “Let me guess. The wedding?”

She didn’t answer right away, and he looked over his shoulder in question. Catching his look, she smiled kindly and tipped her hand side to side. “Yes and no. I want to confirm that you are okay with this, firstly. But there’s something else I want to talk about with you.”

It was his turn to hesitate. In theory, yes, he had no issue with the wedding. It benefited both parties. Selena’s fashion company would merge with his father’s line of businesses, and she would benefit from his connections and advertisement companies. A win-win for both families.

However, him getting married wasn’t ideal. He didn’t want to get married, not yet, not to someone he didn’t love or would ever love. Selena was his best friend, sure, and he loved her dearly, but he would never love her, and that’s what he wanted out of a marriage. Not a business arrangement.

“Yes, I’m okay with this,” Damien lied with a smile, turning back to his task. “Dad’s going to get more business and Selena’s going to benefit. Why wouldn’t I be fine?”

“Because it took you a while to answer me, and you’ve conveniently left out how you benefit from this arrangement.” Tia arched a delicate brow his way. “Should I be worried, Damien?”

He grabbed the ingredients and delivered them to his mother, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “No. Promise.” To please her, he painted on a cheeky, boyish grin. “I benefit by having a gorgeous and amazing woman by my side for the rest of my life. I thought that’d be obvious?”

That seemed to do the trick. She scoffed and playfully nudged his head away. “You men. I’ve been hoping that Selena would train you to be more respectful, but I don’t think she’s any better than you.”

“Correction: she’s worse than me.” He shook his head and grinned to himself as he got busy with getting the pancake mix ready. “Quite sure her body count is higher than mine by a long shot.”

Tia barked an incredulous laugh. “Body count. You two are terrible.”

“If we’re talking dead people, it definitely is.”


The two lapsed into a comfortable silence, swapping sides randomly to share duties despite him being the designated pancake maker. Damien felt comfortable, at ease, with his mother. For as long as he could remember, she had been there for him no matter what.

Got sick at school? She dropped an important job to pick him up and take care of him at home. Bad grade? She personally tutored him in his worst subjects with kind words and endless patience.

A fight in school, a week-long suspension, a fellow student with a broken arm, a mother who fought to keep him in school and the incident away from the press.

He hadn’t been an easy child, which is why he tried so hard to be good now. It might not make up for everything he put his parents through as a kid and teenager, but he could do his best. He didn’t want to be any more of an issue.

Which meant that this wedding shouldn’t—couldn’t—have any hiccups or issues. Even if he wanted to curl up into a ball and pretend it didn’t exist.

They stayed in silence as they gathered their plates, his mother checking her phone and muttering around her stolen bacon that his father would be late. Damien felt as though he could relax and not worry about what his mother wanted. But the moment they both settled down, his mother hooked her fingers over the lip of his plate and pulled it away.

“Food doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what I want to talk about.”

Staring at the empty spot on the table seemed really appealing at the moment. However, he pulled his gaze up to her face and leaned against a hand. “What’s up?”

Tia drummed her fingers on the table, not speaking right away. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it. “Your father and I have been talking,” she started.

“By that face, I’m assuming it’s more him talking and you trying to talk some sense into him.”

That broke her seriousness, summoning a snort and a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh hush. But yes.” She cleared her throat and folded her hands together, sending a sympathetic look his way across the table. “As I was saying… Your father is setting up another business, but this time is a little different. Instead of him making all the decisions—“

“He wants me.” Somehow, Damien’s heart rejoiced and plummeted at the same time. She didn’t know his secret, but his father wanted him to head a company. I don’t think I’m ready. I’m not ready. Please, no.

Her smile didn’t exactly reassure his nerves. “He does. But Damien,” she reached out and took his hand, squeezing lightly, “you know this is your choice, right? You’re already helping the family as it is.”

Helping. Right. By marrying Selena, he would be giving his father yet another company and his best friend more money. If he had the freedom to be brutally honest, he’d say that they didn’t need the help. I can’t do this while in a bad mood.

He bit the inside of his cheek before he could voice his thoughts and nodded, eyes finding his plate of food and wishing he could grab it back from his mother. “I’ll talk to him later. Right now I’m just hungry for your amazing cooking.”

Tia tsked and pushed his plate back over to him. “Flattery is cheap, but I suppose I’ll take it. Eat up. Today you and I are going to get things for a dinner party at a friend’s.” A malicious smile spread over her lips as she stabbed at her pancake, and Damien sat up a little more at the sight. “We need to be the best-looking people there, and that requires pampering and tailored clothing.”

Two seconds and he had an idea of who she wanted to outdo at their own party. “Brenda?”

A bob of her head. “Brenda.”

A smile of his own slid over his lips, and he covered his mouth to hide it. “Isn’t she your rival?”

His mother hummed innocently and bit into her bacon, smirking at him. “Archnemesis.”

Son and mother exchanged matching scheming faces, then dug into their breakfasts with gusto now that they had a mission for the day. As much of a sweetheart Tia could be, her family knew just how spiteful she could get, especially when she got her hands on specific items. That side of her, the side that would show up to a party with all smiles and a bottle of hardcore vodka in her purse, filled Damien with a rush of adventure and rebelliousness he didn’t get too often.

“When is it?”

She paused, twirling her fork in the air in thought. “Tomorrow night, I believe. Lots of prudes that don’t know how to have fun. Politicians. Pampered ladies that need to get laid.”


Tia fixed a confused expression onto her face. “What?”

Damien groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“You’re no fun,” she mumbled with a scoff. “But anyway, I want to get the stuff today because I have to work tomorrow, and I want to spend the day with my boy. Objections? Suggestions?”

He shook his head. “No objections. I miss hanging out with you.” That earned him a surprised but happy smile. “The classic exchanging water with vodka, maybe. Would they notice the difference?”

“They’ll likely be too busy puffing out their feathers to notice a slight flavor change.”

“Hm. Brownies?”

His mother slanted an unimpressed stare his way. “Damien. I do hope you’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting.”

It was his turn to feign innocence. “I only said brownies. I know Maura makes excellent brownies that everyone loves. They seem to just… make you relaxed and carefree.”

For a moment, as she stared at him in silence, he feared he had gone too far. But then a wicked grin lit up her features, and she had to cover it quickly. “Then in that case, why don’t we offer our good friends some of Maura’s wonderful brownies?”

“They’re going to hate us when they sober up.”

“Yes, they are.” Simultaneously, the held their hands up and high fived, both grinning like dorks. “Ah, how I missed doing this in college with my girlfriends.”

“Now you’re just stuck with me.”

“Such a shame.”