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© Rochelle Tyson 2022

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© Rochelle Tyson 2022

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.


As the elevator’s glowing red numbers ticked up at a snail’s pace, Daniel Russo decided, right then and there, that he would give his wife the head her life tonight. Until her screams shattered the windows. Until her back bent off the bed. Until she forgot how to pronounce her own name, let alone how angry she was at the man between her thighs. That would get her to forgive him, no question.

It always had before.

It was the reason she’d married him in the first place, after all. How good he was with his tongue. Among many other reasons, of course. The bouquet of red roses clutched in his sweaty palm, waving at him in the elevator’s mirrored reflection, were simply there to put some ice on the wound the moment he stepped through the door. To have something to hand to her right away when he was met with her blazing green eyes and tightly crossed arms, clutched over her ample, heaving bosom. A bosom he planned to free from the confines of her bra as quickly as possible so he could give them some attention with his eager tongue too. To get her naked and show her just how sorry he really was. 

His reflection drew his attention as the shining red numbers continued to climb. The kitchen had been a disaster all evening—as was often the case on holidays—leaving his double-breasted white jacket filthier than usual. Not even the gorgeous black calligraphy emblazoned on the breast of the jacket, ‘Daniel Russo, Executive Chef’, had been spared the wrath that evening, nearly disappearing under piles of yellow Mojo sauce and chunks of chimicurri—a chunky green salsa that had always reminded him of vomit as a child but had fallen madly in love with as an adult, with a flavor so magical his mouth watered just thinking about it.

Almost as much as his mouth watered thinking about his wife. About how much fun they were about to have making up once that elevator finally made it to the top floor. He swallowed thickly as he took in his jet black hair in the reflection—cut longer in the front and gelled into a gentle swoop—desperate to feel her long nails buried deep inside the strands, tugging at them and clawing at his scalp. His dick hardened in his loose white pants as he imagined those same long nails running down his tanned skin. Down his angular, heart shaped face. Along the naturally deep dimples that couldn’t help making an appearance whenever her heavenly hands were on him. He needed those hands caressing a blazing path across his bulky arms, whose muscular shape remained apparent even in his lose chef’s jacket. He needed them on his pulsing pecs and his six pack abs. Passed the deep V in his hips. He pictured those nails finally arriving at his hardness and held his breath, not even realizing his naturally long black eyelashes had fluttered closed over his brown orbs until the dinging of the elevator indicated that he’d reached the top floor.

His almond shaped eyes flew open just as the elevator doors parted, presenting him with the only door on the building’s top floor. The penthouse. Their home. 

The jingle of his keys bounced off the walls as he crossed the bright hallway to the door, the elevator dinging closed behind him just as he got the key in the door. He clutched the flowers even tighter as he unlocked the door. Flowers his florist had already pre-arranged for him before he’d even arrived at the shop in a haste that evening. The flowers his florist always had ready during holiday weekends.

His heart clenched at the thought. Even his florist knew his promises were shit. That he was bound to fuck up. To break his word on this special day just like he had many others. The only person alive who hadn’t wised up, it seemed, was the one person he loved the most. The one person who believed every new promise that spilled from his full pink lips, regardless how many false ones she’d heard leave them before. 

His chest tightened at the thought as he pushed open the door and stepped inside their penthouse, immediately greeted by the New York City skyline winking at him from beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the farthest wall.

“Baby?” he called, kicking the door closed behind him while dropping his keys on the mirrored catch-all foyer table.

No response. Usually, on nights like tonight, nights when he’d broken yet another promise, he could expect to be met with her exotic green eyes from the white sofa in the living room she’d decorated herself. To be met with her perfectly arched eyebrows, one raised high enough to fly right off her face. With the red silk scarf she always wore to bed to protect her 20-in Yaki. 

But tonight, silence.

He crossed the opulent living area to their bedroom, which she’d also just finished decorating, just a few months earlier and threw the door open. “Candice, I’m sorry, I got out as fast as I could, babe—”

Daniel froze in the doorway the moment he caught sight of his wife. Not because she was giving him the infuriated look he’d been expecting since the moment he’d walked in. Not because he was steeling himself for another argument that he’d have to somehow transform into mind blowing sex. Not even because she looked more beautiful in that moment than she’d ever looked to him before.


He froze at the sight of her sitting on the edge of the bed, tying a knot in her purple silk robe with trembling fingers. At the red flush that had taken up residence on her usually tawny cheeks. The wideness of her green eyes, which met his sheepishly across the room. He froze at the rumpled white bedsheets and duvet below her. At the all around disarray of a bedroom she usually went out of her way to keep utterly pristine. His nostrils flared at the carnal scent that wafted across the room and greeted him much sooner than he’d expected. The scent he knew only existed in the cavern between her shapely thighs—a fragrant grotto that had damn near become his second home.

His brown eyes seared into hers across the room, and his plush pink lips fell open.

Candace jumped up from the bed and smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Baby,” she breathed, running her quaking fingers through her waist-length, layered hair, in nearly as much disarray as the bedsheets. “I wasn’t expecting you…”

His jaw tightened. “Told you I’d be home before midnight.”

“Yeah, but… you always say that. And it’s Valentine’s day so…”

“Yeah.” He clenched his teeth. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?”

“I figured… figured the restaurant would be a madhouse.” 

“It was.” He held her gaze.

“I…” Her voice petered away as she searched his eyes. She tried to smile, but again, it didn’t reach her shifty green orbs. Didn’t create the crows-feet at the corners of her eyes. The ones she’d always hated and he’d always adored. The ones he’d refused to let her get Botoxed, no matter how much she begged. The ones that had always made her more beautiful to him, not less.

She took a deep breath, still heaving like she’d just run a marathon, and crossed one arm over her stomach while motioning to the door of the master bathroom with the other. 

“I was just about to take a shower…” She cocked one of her legs across her body and tilted her head, giving him a flirtatious look. “Would you care to join me?” 

He searched her eyes.

Once upon a time, it was an offer impossible to refuse. 

But in that moment, silence.

Candace’s cheeks went ashen as the color drained away, her playful smile petering until it ceased to exist at all.

The flowers to fell from Daniel’s trembling hand. Petals broke away from their stems and fluttered down to the wood at his feet just as the bouquet hit the floor. Then he stomped through the door and into the room the with hard eyes, making a beeline for the closet in three long strides. 

Candace jolted and raced around the bed in pursuit. “Danny!”

Daniel threw open the double doors of the closet so violently they nearly came unhinged from the frame, making them slam against the walls. 


Candace raced up behind him and took hold of his arms but Daniel’s shrugged her away, moving to the second closet on the opposite side of the room. Her bare feet pattered against the floors as she followed, her long nails digging into his skin as she clawed at him from behind—a clawing much different from the one he’d been fantasizing about in the elevator, minutes earlier. His non-slip black shoes crunched on the fallen flowers as he stepped on them in his haste to get to the closet across the room, snatching his arm from his wife’s furious grip every time she reached for him.

 “Baby, listen to me!” she cried.

Blind, Daniel threw open the doors to the second closet as well, this time so hard that one of them slammed into the standing mirror situated in the corner of the room, shattering the glass with one swift strike. He imagined the glass would soon resemble the state of his racing heart and when he yanked his arm out of her grip once more, raced to the king sized bed in the middle of the room, fell to his knees and lifted up the white bed-skirt that hid the area under the bed from view, his suspicions were concerned.

As he locked eyes with the naked black man under the bed, clutching a heap of clothing in his hands, Daniel’s blood went cold. For the first time since he’d opened the door to their bedroom, Candace no longer reached for him. She no longer begged. Silence reigned. Nothing but the heavy breathing of all three individuals filled the walls. Walls that felt like they were closing in fast, so quickly that escape felt utterly impossible, leaving them all just waiting for their own tragic fate. Just waiting to be crushed alive.

Then, with a sharp breath through clenched teeth, eyes watery, Daniel went blind. 

Looking back, he wouldn’t remember reaching under the bed and seizing that man around the neck. He wouldn’t remember the primal scream that’d sliced through his bared teeth as he yanked him out from under it with all his might. He would remember the bone crushing right-hook he sent into the man’s jaw, making him stumble backward and onto the bed. He wouldn’t remember the countless other savage punches that had followed the first, each more powerful than the last, until the bastard’s blood had started to fly, staining the white sheets and duvet he’d spent all night getting good and rumpled with another man’s wife.

What Daniel Russo would remember, however, was going to the bedside table and seizing the pistol he always kept in the ready in the table’s top drawer. He’d remember cocking it and priming it at the the bastard’s bald head. He’d remember Candace’s terrified scream at the sight of that gun pointed at the asshole as he scrambled off the bed, racing for the bedroom door with a horrified scream of his own, tripping all over himself to escape just as Daniel pulled the trigger. Daniel would always remember the flash of white light that had exploded from the barrel as the bullet discharged. How that bullet had missed the asshole’s head by mere inches, shattering the white plaster next to the door just as he raced out of the room, still naked, and disappeared from sight.

Daniel would always remember that moment like it was yesterday. He’d remember it for the rest of his life. Because it would always be the moment when he’d nearly killed a man. When he’d nearly destroyed his entire life forever. All in the name of a cheating whore who’d never loved him as truly, madly, or deeply as he’d always loved her.



One Year Later


All day long Belle Grayson’s shoulders had been inches from touching her ears. Her teeth clenched just tightly enough to cage in the war cry bubbling in her stomach. Every bone in her body aching with each new breath that managed to escape her burning lungs. It wasn’t until she turned the key to her apartment and stepped inside that her shoulders relaxed, her jaw slackened, and the butterflies squalling in her stomach finally went down for a much needed nap. A nap that would only last until the following morning when the madness would re-commence and her body would turn on her once more.

As relieved as she was to be home, however, Belle found herself freezing in the foyer after kicking the door closed, her eyes riveted to sight greeting her from the living room of her loft. Her roommate, Tasha, sat cross-legged on the white couch that faced away from the door, so captivated by the television that she didn’t even turn her head to greet Belle. Biting back a chuckle, eyebrows pinched, Belle shuffled her briefcase from one hand to the other so she could remove her gray pantsuit blazer. She hung it—along with her keys—on the coat rack before returning her attention to the Tasha, tilting her head with a smirk.

With a crumpled handkerchief balled up in one hand and the other hand clapped over her heart, Tasha shook her head at the TV screen—making her afro-textured hair shake—her big hazel eyes blubbery as the last ten minutes of the biggest dating show in the country, The Vow, made good on it’s promise of being the most dramatic season finale ever.

Still lingering in the foyer, Belle side-eyed the television. “Please tell me that isn’t a grown ass man crying hysterically on my TV?”

Tasha didn’t even look at her, sniffling softly. “He’s not hysterical, he’s emotional. Two whole months of chasing the girl of his dreams, watching her make out with other men, competing for her love, and she just throws him away like trash! Men are allowed to have feelings too, you know. I think it’s sexy that he loves her enough to cry.”

Or he loves being on TV enough to squeeze out a few crocodile tears to placate the overweight men surrounding him with cameras. This was probably their third or fourth take of this nonsense. It’s a real challenge, you know, getting the lighting to bounce off those fat tears just right. If I had an Oscar I’d hand it to him right now.”

Tasha swiveled on the couch with her top lip curled high, eyes and nose puffy, and glared at Belle.

Belle cocked her head back, eyes wide. “Whoa, tough room. If I’d known you were this protective over the Oscar winner I’d have kept my mouth shut.”

“He’s not acting. No one’s that good of an actor. He really loved her.”

“Well, looks like the feeling definitely wasn’t mutual since she just get his ass packing, huh?”

“She’s such an idiot!”

Belle moved into the kitchen with another smirk and a shake of her head, dropping her briefcase on the island before going through the cabinets to pull out all the condiments she’d need to make a sandwich.

Tasha craned her neck to speak to Belle without taking her entranced eyes off the TV. “How was work?”

“A nightmare.”

A commercial break commenced, freeing Tasha up to sling her arm over the back of the couch to look into the open kitchen at Belle. “Damn. Lost the trial?”

“No. I won.” 

“How is it a nightmare if you won?”

Belle froze in the midst of making herself a PB&J, tilting her head while motioning between them with the jelly clad knife. “Oh, I guess you and I are meeting for the first time. It’s a nightmare because my job is a nightmare. The exorbitant student loans keeping me saddled to said job are a nightmare. My father’s medical bills—also keeping me saddled to said job—are a nightmare. Being the only divorce attorney in Manhattan who can’t afford a Harlem loft without a roommate is a nightmare. My entire life… is a nightmare.”

Tasha chortled. “Oh, right. It’s all coming back to me. You and I have definitely met before. I remember now.”

“Of course I won the case.” Belle rolled her eyes, mumbling under her breath. “How is it possible for one to be so damn good at something she hates so passionately?”

“Well, as it turns out, Belle, you and I are not meeting for the first time. And I’m well aware of how much you’ve been hating your job—and your life—lately. So, as your friend who knows you so well and wants nothing more than for you to be happy…” Tasha squared her shoulders. “I decided to do something about it.”

“If ‘doing something about it’ involves paying off my astronomical student loans and fronting me the cash for the surgery my dad desperately needs to keep breathing, then awesome! If not… please don’t get my hopes up.”

“Just listen. Listen, but don’t hate me, okay?”

Belle’s eyes shot up. “Don’t give me a reason to hate you.”

Tasha nibbled her bottom lip, eyes narrowing.

Bella cocked her head to the side, waiting.

Drawing in a deep breath, Tasha spoke in rapid fire. “I-nominated-you-to-be-The-Vow’s-first-black-bachelorette-and-the-producers-called-and-said-they-wanted-to-meet-you.”

The knife fell from Belle’s limp fingers and clattered onto the granite counter top. “You did what?”

“They’ve been looking for a gorgeous, well-to-do black woman because of all the heat they’ve been getting over never having a black female lead before. They’re trying skirt all that racist smoke before it becomes a full alarm blaze.”

“They are racist. Isn’t this the same show where the black women are always sent home on the first night? You nominated me for this humiliation? And you call yourself a friend…”

“No one would be eliminating you, because you’d be the lead. You’d be doing all the eliminating.”

“What is it about me that makes you think I would ever be this desperate, Tash? Honestly. Please tell me so I can change it right away. Like, tonight.”

“You never stop complaining about how much you hate your job and your life so why not do something about it? God, you’d be a sensation! You’re one of the most beautiful black women I’ve ever laid eyes on. Every time we’re on the street you’re stopping men dead in their tracks. So much so that they’re afraid to even approach you. Which is why you’re still single and will be for the rest of your life if you don’t stop playing…”

Belle pulled a face, wondering this this monologue was a compliment or an insult.

“And on top of that, you’re brilliant!” Tasha beamed. “A top attorney in Manhattan’s largest and most illustrious firm! You’re a total catch. The caliber of men you’d pull on that show would be unrivaled. I’m talking doctors, lawyers, business owners. The moment NBC releases your photo they’ll be flooded with applicants, mark my words.”

“Tasha, I don’t want a man…” Belle motioned to the TV, where The Vow had returned from commercial. “Like that. That grown ass man is still crying. After ten minutes and a commercial break!”

Tasha rolled her eyes. “You don’t get it. I’m not saying you should go on the show to find love. Hell, if you do, it’ll be just be the icing on top of an already delicious cake. Do you know how much this seasons lead got paid just to be the lead? 250k!”

Belle’s eyes shot up as she paused in the midst of making her sandwich once more, squinting at Tasha.

“Yep,” Tasha nodded at Belle’s stunned face. “Quarter mil. I don’t think you understand the come-ups these people experience just from appearing on this show. Tens of millions of viewers drinking in your gorgeous face every day? Your social media followers would skyrocket. Hell, that guy crying his eyes out right now? He went from 300 followers to 500,000 in less than a month. Do you have any idea the kind of money he’s about the make? How many sponsors are tripping all over themselves just to get him to post their products on his page? I hear some sponsorship ads can go as high as 10k!”

Belle cocked her leg out and gnawed her bottom lip, examining the blubbering baboon on her television screen in a whole new light. “The amount of women in this country being fooled by those crocodile tears right now must be incredible.”

“Hook. Line. Sinker.”

“I bet he’ll go from half a million followers to a million by morning.”

“That’s what I’m saying! Why not you? If you take this meeting and the producers choose you, you’ll be set once filming wraps. You’ll have it all, Belle. Everything any woman would need to explode on social media. A beach body to die for that’ll reel in all the thirst-trap men. A bodacious brain that’ll warm you to the Middle American women who’d otherwise be threatened by you. An amazing sense of style that’ll attract all the young fashionistas. And a no nonsense attitude that’ll draw in all the rest—all the normal people. Worst case scenario, you get to make-out with a bunch of hot guys for two months.”

“Sounds like a Valtrex prescription that would write itself.”

“Nope. Everyone is testing before filming starts. A full STD blood panel.”

“How do you know all this?” 

“You know I’m an avid fan.”

“So why don’t you apply?”

“Because I’m an out of work actress with a low fade whose built like a box. The producers want bombshell, not tomboy.”

Belle poked her lips out. “Tash, you’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful. Please be kind to yourself.”

Tasha smiled softly. “So you’ll do it?”

“No!” Belle laughed. Her smile fell away instantly, however, and she lowered her head, making the face-framing layers of her waist length hair shade her face. “I can’t leave my father.”

“I’ll look out for your father.”

Belle’s eyes shot up, softening. “I can’t ask you to…”

“You didn’t. I’m offering. You can leave his life alert monitor with me and I’ll check on him every single day, scouts honor.”

Belle hesitated.

Sensing this, Tasha leaped in like a leopard. “It’s time for you to stop living your life for everyone else and just start living for you. This is the easiest fortune you’ll ever make and it’ll leave you and your family set for life. It’ll free you up to go after your real dreams. The things you really want. On top of that, you could even fall in love. What the hell do you have to lose?”

“I could never fall in love on a fake ass, cheesy ass, over-the-top ass show like The Vow. Never. Tash, I’m a divorce attorney! I watch actual marriages—real partnerships that have spanned decades—fall apart at work everyday. You expect me to believe real love can be had on a show like this? How many relationships have actually survived this nonsense, post filming?”

Tasha pressed her lips together. “Two.”

“Two!” Belle beamed. “And we’re on what season now?”

Tasha’s lips drew even tighter, making the skin around them lose color. “Nineteen.”

Nineteen seasons. Two successful relationships. Which is exactly what is supposed to happen when two strangers get engaged after spending almost zero real time together.”

“Filming is two months long, actually.”

“Tasha, I’m not taking that meeting. Still can’t believe you did this without asking me first.”

Tasha scoffed, shoulders deflating as she turned back to the TV. “Fine. Remain miserable and alone for no good reason, then. Miserable and saddled with student loans for the rest of your natural born life, working a job you hate, and waiting for your dad’s surgery to bankrupt you once he finally moves up on the transplant list. All because your heart is black as stone and refuses to let you believe in love.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Be single and broke forever, girl. I guess…”

Belle went to respond but her words were cut short when her cell phone vibrated in the side pocket of her briefcase. The moment she took her phone out and saw the text message shining up at her from the screen, the knife tumbled from her hand once more. 


Carly: 911


The clattering of the knife on the granite for the second time that evening, coupled with the sound of Belle cursing under her breath, caused Tasha to turn on the couch once more. Just in time to catch Belle abandoning her sandwich on the island and racing back into the foyer.

“Your dad?” Tasha’s eyes followed her, voice laced with concern. “Is he okay?”

Belle snatched her keys from the coatrack in the foyer without responding before throwing open the front door.

Tasha shouted at the top of her lungs, “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!” just as Belle slammed the door closed behind her.




Even though she’d slammed the door on her best friend in mid-sentence, Tasha’s shouted reminder had played on repeat in Bella head for the entire cab ride to the Bronx. 



Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Enough to pay her father’s medical bills and her law school loans with money to spare. All in exchange for making out with a few random guys, all of whom would apparently undergo a full STD screening beforehand, for eight weeks. It really wasn’t an even trade, the more she thought about it. Sure, dating a bunch of strange men wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time, and she’d never be able to show her face at the law firm again if she did, but with an extra quarter million in her pocket she wouldn’t have to. She could chuck the deuces and never look back. Might even be able to realize her fantasy of cussing out her boss—whom she hated with a passion—without worrying about how she was going to eat the following day.

Bella tried to blink the thoughts away, but the more she fought them, the harder they came. They pursued her like a curse for the entire cab ride. They pursued her still when she abandoned that same cab several blocks away from her destination, when traffic proved too packed. They pursued her even as she raced down three grimy, menacing blocks in the heart of Morris Park to her father’s apartment building—where he’d lived for nearly two decades. The only thing that washed the magic number from Belle’s head—250k—was the text message that’d sent her racing out of her apartment in the first place. 




The thought of that text sent Belle’s heart racing faster than the three-block sprint she’d just finished ever could. She found herself gasping as she entered the apartment building and hurried across the broken down lobby. Turning a corner toward only elevator, she barreled to a stop when she caught sight of two men struggling to cram a sofa into the elevator. The sharp look that passed between the three of them told Belle that this would be a battle hard won, and she didn’t have time, so she swiveled on her heel and raced to the stairs without another word, taking two at a time.

It wasn’t until she reached the fifth floor that she began to worry that her lungs might come flying straight out of her throat. That she might collapse before she made it to the tenth floor. Regardless, she trudged on, bent at the waist and heaving violently once she made it to the top floor. Barely able to move to the door of her father’s apartment on her wobbling legs, she winced against the pulled muscle in her side, sending a sharp pain racing through her body that was working hard to take her to her knees.

Dragging in each heaving breath, she made it to the door moments before the exhaustion claimed her for good, using her key to unlock it and barging into the small two bedroom unit.

The moment the door flew open, sixteen-year-old Carly Grayson looked up from where she was bent down on the floor, her long, skinny legs tucked under her body, still donning the plaid uniform she was forced to wear for school. Her brown eyes were wide as saucers behind her shoulder-length black curls, which were fanning down over her ebony face. She was breathing just as hard as Belle, making her curls dance where a few strands had fallen across her lips. Carly, however, wasn’t out of breath because she’d just cleared ten flights of stairs in under a minute, but instead because of the six foot eight, three hundred pound mountain man lying on the tattered wood floor before her.

“Daddy!” Belle dropped to her knees on the floor as well, sliding to join Carly on the other side of her father’s fallen body and covering his chest with both hands.

“I came home and he was just lying here. He just fell,” Carly breathed. “For a minute he wouldn’t even wake up. God, I was so scared.”

“Did you call the doctor?”

“Yeah, he said vertigo is inevitable at Daddy’s stage. Said as long as his heart rate stays even he should be fine but to keep an eye on him.”

Belle exhaled heavily, and cupped her father’s face. The moment they locked eyes, he smiled sheepishly at her, making her heart do a somersault.

“Man, Tyrone Grayson.” Belle smiled back at him. “You’re just determined to cut my life expectancy by several million years, aren’t you?”

Too weak to respond, all her father could do was smile broader, and even though the simple act of lifting the corners of his lips seemed to take a ton of exertion on his part, the pleasantry still somehow managed to reach his eyes. A pair of big brown orbs with more fight and life in them than every other organ in his body combined.

“Where were you?” Carly cried, removing her own hands from where they’d been cradled on her father’s chest to push her hair out of her face. “I text you almost thirty minutes ago. You know I can’t move him by myself.”

“I got here as fast as I could, Car. Traffic was terrible and I had to run three blocks and climb ten flights of stairs. Which has pretty much left my heart in the same state as Daddy’s at this point.”

Tyrone chuckled below them, a strangled, wheezy sound that still managed to warm both their hearts.

“That’s not funny,” Carly mumbled, her full lips pouting as she tried to fight a smile.

Belle smirked. “That pout on your face is just as unconvincing as the grown ass man that was blubbering on my TV right before you text me. Come on, you get his legs, I’ll get his arms.”

Carly gasped as she followed Belle’s orders, taking hold of her father’s ankles while Belle tucked her hands under his armpits. “You were watching the finale of The Vow too?”

“Unfortunately,” Belle mumbled as they both lifted him with a grunt and began trudging across the small apartment toward their his bedroom. “Came home just in time to catch sight of the Oscar winner giving the performance of his life on national TV.”

Carly’s eyes widened. “Jeremiah was not acting. He loved Kelly. He would’ve given her the world.”

“Right before he fell victim to his newfound fame, cheated on her six months into their sham of an engagement, and sold their breakup story to the highest paying tabloid. Careful.” Belle beamed when her words infuriated Carly so much than the teenager nearly tripped over her backward walking feet.

“Jeremiah would’ve never cheated on Kelly. Ever! Not everyone is a cheater, you know. Not everyone is a PUA.”

It was Belle’s turn to pause in mid-step as her heart exploded, speeding up to a neck-breaking pace. Grinding her teeth, nostrils flared, she tilted her head at Carley and shot her a look of warning.

Carly recognized the look and wisely bit her tongue, shutting down the rest of that conversation before they beginning shuffling toward the bedroom once more. “Anyway, Jeremiah was one of the good ones. So perfect and sensitive and sincere. So full of integrity. If Kelly would’ve just opened her stupid eyes and saw what was right in front of her… Actually, you know what? If she couldn’t see that he was perfect in every way then he’s too good for her anyway.”

“God, you sound just like Tasha. Has the entire world gone mad?” Belle rolled her eyes. “Still can’t believe she nominated me for that trash.”

Carly froze in mid-step and dropped Tyrone’s feet from her grasp, making them clunk to the floor. “What?”

“Carly, his legs! Jesus.”

Carly continued to gape at her older sister. “You’re gonna be on The Vow?

“No. My idiot roommate nominated me the me to be on it because apparently she doesn’t know me, at all. I guess the producers want to meet me but obviously that’s never going to happen. Will you get his legs? He’s so heavy, Car.”

Car did no such thing, still gaping at Belle. “You have to take it.”

“I really don’t, actually.”

“You literally have to take it.”

“Throwing the world literally in the middle of an incorrect statement doesn’t make it any less incorrect, Car. His legs!”

With a scoff, Carly bent down and reclaimed their father’s legs, moving backward towards his bedroom with another pout crossing her young face. This time they made it into the bedroom with eased their father, who was watching the two of them in amusement as they eased him down onto the mattress.

“Sorry, Daddy,” Belle said, getting him situated on the bed. “Apparently the world really has gone mad.”

Tyrone blinked softly up at Belle, his smile softening. He hadn’t been able to speak for nearly a year, but it always amazed Belle how much his eyes spoke for him. For the first few months she’d barely been able to hold back tears when she’d speak to him and he couldn’t speak back, but now she almost appreciated the way she found herself able communicate with him in an entirely new way. It was almost like meeting her favorite man in the world—her favorite person in the world—all over again.

“No, seriously?” Carly cocked her head from the other side of the bed, where she’d yet to help her father get situated, both hands on her hips. “This is huge. You’re taking that meeting. You have to take it. You don’t have a choice.”

“I don’t?” Belle smirked, raising her eyebrows at Tyrone. “Is that comfortable, Daddy?”

Tyrone swallowed thickly, and raised his pointer finger from where his hand rested next to his leg on the bed, which meant ‘yes’.

“Stop ignoring me,” Carley’s voice floated in. “You’re not getting out of this.”

With a roll of her eyes Belle kissed her father’s forehead. “Get some rest. I love you.”

Tyrone blinked his shining eyes twice, his code for ‘I love you too.’

Belle’s heart swelled at the sight. When she looked up at Carly, however, the warm smile on her face fell away and she stood tall, making her way toward the bedroom door without a word.

Of course, the squeak of her sister’s white school sneakers was right behind her. “Daddy just got moved to the top of the transplant list. That means he could receive a new heart any day now. Do you have any idea how much money the lead on The Vow can make once she finishes filming the show? It would be enough to pay Daddy’s medical bills twenty times over.”

Belle stopped walking in the middle of the living room, swiveled the face her sister and pinched her cheek as if trying to pull her skin from the bone. “Tasha, is that you in there? Where did you find this Carly skin suit? It’s amazing. Uncanny.”

Carly swiped her hand away crossed her arms tight. “He’s really sick, Belle.”

Belle’s playful smile collapsed. “You think I don’t know that?”

“Getting worse every day. I’m… I’m scared.”

Belle cupped her cheeks. “You have nothing to be scared of, Carly. I promised you that I would take care of everything and I am, aren’t I? Do you and Daddy not have a roof over your head? Are you not still zoned for the best school in the Bronx? Is there not food in the fridge? Does Daddy not see the doctor whenever he needs to? He’s going to be just fine.”

Carly’s eyes softened. “It’s not just Daddy I’m worried about.”

Belle’s hands fell from Carly’s face and her head fell back with a groan.

“I want you to be happy, sis.”

Belle’s head fell forward again. “I am happy.”

“No, you’re not.”

“And you think subjecting myself to that farce of a show—humiliating myself for the whole world to see—is going to make me happy?”

“I think finding someone to love, and who loves you back, would make you happy.”

Belle let those words linger in the air before speaking through teeth clenched. “People don’t love. They leave.”

“That's not true. You haven’t left me and Daddy.”

“That’s different. You, me, and Daddy will never leave because we understand how painful it is to be left. Especially by the woman who’s supposed to love us most.”

Carly pressed her lips together.

“Not everyone gets that kind of wake up call we got as early in life as we did. We should be thankful that we learned it early so we’re more immune to the crash when it inevitably happens again and again.”

A lump moved down Carly’s throat. “Fine, be cynical. Be miserable. But I still think you should do the show.”

Belle groaned.

“That asshole president just repealed the bill that covered Daddy’s pre-existing condition. Without it, he doesn’t qualify anymore.”

“I know that, Car. I was sitting right beside you the day that monster got elected.”

“So why are you still in denial? Why won’t you jump at this chance for easy money that’ll help take care of Daddy?”

“Because I can take care of him on my own.”

“But you don’t have to do it on your own!” Carly’s voice rose, trembling at it’s core. “God, Belle, you’re falling apart the seams. Every time I see you you look more tired. More rundown. More unhappy. I want you to be happy. I want Daddy to be healthy. I just want everything to be easy… for once. To wake up in the morning not sick to my stomach because I’m so worried about everything that could go wrong.”

Tears tried to sting the back of Belle’s eyes, but she fought them away. “Do you really wake up sick to your stomach?”

“Every morning.” Carly swallowed thickly. “Every morning when I wake up. And I’m sick of it.” She shook her head, softly. “Aren’t you?”

Searching her little sister’s eyes, Belle already knew the answer, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. 




“I’m not optimistic, but I’m hoping against hope that somewhere amid this seemingly endless pile of dirty clothes, crushed beer cans, and empty pizza boxes, I’ll eventually find my twin brother Daniel.” Sam Russo froze in the midst of trudging through the piles of trash on the floor of his brother’s apartment, a feigned look of shock lighting up his face as he pointed toward the living room couch. “Oh shit, there he is!”

Daniel smirked from where he was slumped low on the living room couch, which was piled just as high with take-out containers and debris as every inch of his neglected studio apartment. The couch was teeming with almost as many grease stains as the only piece of clothing Daniel donned on his taut body—a pair of wrinkled black sweatpants hanging from the deep V on his hips by a prayer. The drawstring he hadn’t bothered tying was caked in a red sauce as well, which appeared to have been there for days.

Sam sighed heavily. “Look like shit.”

“That’s nice, bro. Feels good.”

“If I don’t tell you, who will?”

As the twins watched each other, they didn’t see a mirror image of themselves reflecting back. Fraternal through and through, Daniel’s classic features were sharper—more streamlined—often prompting strangers to ask what his ethnicity was, while Sam’s features went darker, softer, and rounder, leaving no question to their Spanish heritage on first glance. Their did, however, share a head of thick dark hair, brown eyes, and full lips, though Daniel’s were a paler pink than Sam’s, as was his milky skin.

“Look man—shit!” Sam nearly leapt out of his work suit when he felt something crawling up his ankle, kicking his leg out to get rid of it, which caused a pile of rubbish next to him to topple over, revealing a newspaper article lying on the floor. Tilting his head, Sam bent down to pick up the article, cursing under his breath as he reclaimed Daniel’s eyes once more. “You still have this, man? You promised me you were going to toss it.” He paused. “Look. Bro, I’m sorry, I really am, but it’s over. The paper’s are signed months ago.You gotta stop torturing yourself like this. ”

“Piece of shit took my wife and my restaurant…”

“Nah.” Sam let the paper fall from his hand to the floor, leaving the headline of the article “Daniel’s Cuban Restaurant Sets a New Benchmark for Overpriced Mediocrity” screaming up at him. “He might’ve written a scathing review on the restaurant, he might’ve narrowly dodged a bullet on his way out of your martial bed, he might’ve even taken your last shred of pride with him on the way out, but nobody… nobody is responsible for the demise of the restaurant but you Daniel. At some point you’re going to have to start taking some responsibility for yourself—look at yourself.”

Daniel blinked slowly, barely able to keep his brown eyes open as he ignored his brother completely and focused on the TV screen where a football game was on. He lifted his arm lazily and tapped at the remote in his hand without responding, changing to a basketball game.

Cursing under his breath, Sam stomped across the room toward the couch and snatched the remote from Daniel’s hand.

Daniel chuckled softly, showing two rows of perfectly white teeth, as his brother changed the channel. “You serious right now?”

“Dead serious. Enough is enough,” Sam mumbled as he changed the channel.

Daniel curled his lip at the sight that met him the moment Same switched the TV to NBC.  Then, he smirked. “Every preview showed this fool crying like a bitch on national TV but I’d hoped it was down editing. For his sake. But nope…” He motioned to the TV where The Vow’s season finale was playing. “There he is… crying like a bitch. On national TV. Damn.”

Sam motioned to the TV. “You’re next.”

Daniel looked up at Sam, lifting one eyebrow in question.

Sam responded to that eyebrow. “I nominated you. The producers like you. They want to meet you and you’re going. If you get the gig, shooting starts in a month.”

Daniel chortled. He couldn’t even respond.

Sam’s shoulders collapsed. “Bro, Gina just hit 38 weeks and the restaurant is still in the red. Deep in the red.”

Daniel sat up with a groan and bent forward on his knees, letting his head fall as if his stomach had just gone sick.

“We gotta make some money and we gotta make it now,” Sam said. “We put our house on the line for you, D…”

Daniel’s head shot up, cheeks crimson red as he held his clawed fingers out in front of him. “I know that. I fucking know that, Sam. You swore to me you wouldn’t hold that over my head until you had no choice, so don’t. That makes me sick to my stomach, bro, so please don’t. I told you I’m handling it and I am.”

“Sitting around half-naked in piles of your own hoarded trash all day, every day, is you ‘handling it’? Is this was ‘handling it’ looks like? Really?”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed, cracking his knuckles.

Sam bent forward at the hip, begging for his brother’s gaze. “You know what makes me sick to my stomach? The idea of Gina giving birth to our first child—your niece—without a house waiting for us when we take her home from the hospital. Without a nursery that’s hers and a crib for her to rest in every night when she goes to bed. I hate this, D. I hate that it’s come to this but I can’t bite my tongue anymore. The restaurant is on it’s last leg because you’re on your last leg. And you’re on your last leg because everyone is too terrified to tell you the truth. But I’m done. We can’t see another negative quarter. We need money and we need it right now.”

“Don’t worry about the money. Don’t worry about the house.”

“I’m worried.

Daniel clenched both his teeth and his fists. “I’ll get you your money.”

“When? How? How many times have I heard same sentence that over the last year? Too many to count.” Sam stood tall, his chest heaving after spewing the words he’d been holding in for months—words that hurt both of them—before motioning to the TV. “A co-worker of mine is obsessed with this stupid ass show and gave me the idea to nominate you. Apparently the contestants clean up from social media sponsorships alone. They call it ‘shilling’. 5k per post, minimum.  All in exchange for dating some chick for a few weeks.  And don’t get me started on the exposure. I’m your brother, okay? You might’ve forgotten but I haven’t. I was there when the girls were lining up and tearing each other’s hair out just to know the pleasure to sucking your dick one time.”

Daniel shook his head.

“Just a few weeks of your handsome ass face on their TV screens,” Sam said, “and chicks will be lining up around the block to eat off your plates. You could re-brand and re-market the restaurant and get it back on its feet within the month. If you can squeeze out a few tears like the simp behind me you could have it back on it’s feet within a week. You know how women love a sensitive man. It’s a win-win, D. Don’t let the asshole who destroyed your marriage destroy your livelihood too. Don’t let him have the last word with the article. Don’t let your niece be born without a home. Take back your power. Take back what’s yours.”

“I would never cry on national TV.”

“Then don’t. Show up and show your face. That’s all it’ll take. You’ll be putty in America’s hands and probably the lead’s hands too. She’ll be the first black lead by the way and we all know how you feel about black women.”

Daniel smiled again, this one even brighter than the last, as he shook his head.

Sam held his arms out. “Hell, it’s not just the perfect way to revive the restaurant but to revive your sorry ass too. Finally start the process of moving on. You haven’t dated anyone since the divorce.”

Daniel motion to the TV.  “Don’t these simps have to get down on one knee and propose to the girl if they win? I’m never getting married again, bro. Ever. Going on that show wouldn’t be fair to that girl knowing damn well I have no intention of proposing to her. Or anyone.”

“You won’t have to propose. You just have to get far enough in the game to raise your profile. Pursue her like hell and then pump the breaks just before the finish line. Cool off just enough that she’ll dump you instead.”

“Sounds callous. And selfish. And ugly. Who the fuck am I to take a spot that could’ve gone to a guy who’s actually interested in her?”

“Who are you to let your niece be born without a nursery to sleep in every night, D?”

Daniel’s jaw clenched as if he were on the verge of screaming.

“Common, man.” Sam’s voice lowered as he tilted his head. “What’s the worse that could happen? You get a free vacation? Whisked away to dozens of beautiful, exotic locations while making out with an equally beautiful woman? Get dumped and come home to all the pity pussy you could dream of from countless gorgeous women who’ll be nipping at the bud to heal your broken heart? All while swimming in piles of money that pity pussy can’t help but throw at your dying restaurant?” Sam’s eyes widened, voice rising. “Shit, if you don’t do the show, I will.”

“Yeah, right before Gina cuts your balls clear off.” A smirk lifted the corner of Daniel’s lips but when Sam didn’t smile back he collapsed back onto the couch cushions, running a hand down his face as the thought of his brother and sister-in-law losing their house raged through his cut like a typhoon.  “Who’s to say she’ll even keep me?”

Sam barely contained a leap of joy at the surrender he heard in his brother’s voice. “She’ll keep you, D. Trust.”

“You said it yourself, I don’t chase women because I never had to. What makes you think I’m suddenly going to learn now, when I’m up against a bunch of other guys?”

“Twenty-nine years together, including the one we shared a womb, and still underestimating how well I know you, huh?” Sam went into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a small black booklet with gold trim on the edges of all the pages. On the front of the book, in the same gold trim licking all the pages, The Game: A PUA Handbook.

“PUA?” Daniel’s eyebrow cocked so high it nearly came detached from his face. “Fuck is a PUA?” 

“Pick up artist.”

When Sam tossed the book at him, Daniel didn’t bother ungluing himself from the couch to try and catch it, letting the leather bound handbook plop onto his six pack abs instead. The sound reverberated through the apartment.

A moment later, Daniel hissed and swiped up the book. On cursory flip through the pages and he slammed it closed again, unable to take it any more. “A handbook on how to talk to women, Sam? There are actual bullet points in here. Something like this actually exists? Really?”

“Hey, not all of us were born with a pretty face and a staunch air of indifference that apparently attracts hot women like superglue, alright? Believe it or not some of us actually have to try. And that…” Sam’s voice softened, a hint of red rising to his cheeks as he motioned to the book. “That’s the truth, man. That book is how I got my wife. Don’t let the smarmy title throw you off. It’s legit. Follow it to the letter and the lead will keep you to the end, trust. Every guy you’re up against will cease to exist to her on night one.”

“You know, a truly loving brother would tell me to just be myself. That if she can’t accept me for who I am then she was never right for me to begin with.”

“Yeah that bullshit lie might fly in the real world when you’ve got nothing but time but it won’t fly on network TV when you’re at war with twenty other guys who all want the same thing you want. Twenty other guys who’ve grown accustomed to the very chase you never had to deal with. Not even your looks will carry you when you’re not chasing in a room full of chasers. You’ll need reinforcements and that book is it.”

Daniel let his head fall to the side, groaned, and slammed his eyes shut. There was no solace behind the tightly closed lids of his eyes, however. Only the vision of his niece being born without a nursery to go home to. Of the tears in his sister-in-law’s eyes as she packed up the house she’d planned on living in forever. Of the anxiety soaking his own brother’s eyes that very moment. Eyes that had once stayed overflowing with playfulness and joy until everything had fallen apart.

All because of him.

Daniel squeezed his closed eyes even tighter before speaking through clenched teeth. “Fine.”

His own teeth bared, Sam’s sucked in a breath that made a hissing sound as the air whizzed through them. “You’ll do it?”

“Yeah, man, I’ll do it. Fuck.” Daniel opened his eyes and gave his brother a pained look even as he was met with nothing but naked glee on his brother’s face looking back. “What time’s the meeting?”

Chapter End Notes:

Just for fun, more soon.

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