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better than a harmony

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Now, Rio’s not seeking her out.  Not really .  The ice cream had been all her--and, if he’s honest, he’d liked the way he flush crept up her neck and cheeks and how she hadn’t quite looked at him before trying to clean up the mess.  And he’d seen the brood she’d been dealing with, didn’t really hold her distraction against her.  It had been mildly irritating for a moment, max, before irritation gave way to amusement.  It’s not until the second time he sees her--the first time he meets her--that he realizes he must have seen her around.  Woman that looks like she does isn’t exactly forgettable , and he’s sure there’s something about her laugh or her smile or the flash of her hair that’s familiar, but he, pretty reasonably, doesn’t really socialize with the other parents.

Thing is, after he’s met her, he can’t not notice when she’s there.

And when he notices she’s there, he can’t not say something.

At first, he’s man enough to admit that it’s ego.  At first, he likes that thing he can see in her--that thing that makes her lean toward him and stare right back at him and flirt in a way that shouldn’t really work but somehow does.  There’s something in her almost-embarrassed pleasure in the moment he can see she’s caught herself, and she’s a little awkward, and he likes that, likes that she gets a little flustered and then looks at him like she’s daring him to call her out on it.

Anyway, regardless of how it starts, after a month or two it just becomes natural to take the bench next to hers, ankle on his knee--making conversation that isn’t quite small talk but doesn’t go further than surface-level.  It’s when he realizes he wants to go deeper than surface-level that he has to take stock.  He’s not entirely sure what the fact that that moment of taking stock happens in the produce section of Fine and Frugal says about this whole situation , but what can you do?  Elizabeth’s been staring at the same display of cantaloupes for the past few minutes, which he knows because he’s been staring at her for the past few minutes.  

She doesn’t seem to notice when he slides up behind her, and she jumps when he starts, “Hey, ma, can I ask you a question?”  Her mouth forms a silent O as she whirls on him before spreading into a slow smile.  “When are these things ripe?” he asks, knocking on a cantaloupe with one knuckle.

“Can I be honest with you?” she asks seriously, one hand on the edge of the display as she leans towards him conspiratorially.  “I don’t know--I don’t think anyone knows.” Corners of her mouth turning down thoughtfully, she picks one up and says, “My m--my ex-mother-in-law used to say you could tap them and know , but I could never figure out how she meant.”

“Lemme buy you dinner,” he says suddenly enough he may actually give himself whiplash.

Frowning, she asks slowly, “For… revealing that no one… knows when melons are ripe?”

“Yeah, it gets me goin’,” he rolls his eyes.

“I guess there are stranger things,” she muses, cocking her hip against the same spot she’d had her hand as she crosses her arms.  “You don’t wanna date me, I--”

“Nah, don’t do that,” he interrupts, waving her excuse off.  “You don’t wanna go out with me, don’t. But don’t pretend it’s ‘cause you think you know what I want.”

For what feels like a solid minute, she gapes at him before blinking several times and nodding with a faint, “I have the kids this weekend.  Does Thursday work?”

“Thursday works,” he smirks.  “You like Italian? There’s that little place on, uh, 40th and something, it opened like six months ago--”

“Giuseppe’s,” she cuts in.  “You know that was a brunch spot like seven months ago, right?”  As if she anticipates his next question, she says, “That wasn’t a no , I just think you should be able to make informed decisions.”

So, informed decisions made, they agree to meet there at seven, and after a pause that’s just this side of uncomfortable, they go their separate ways.  He fully expects to leave the grocery store without incident, and he nearly accomplishes that goal when he hears from directly behind him , “No, no --you are not going out with Daddy Gang Tats!”  

It’s followed by a familiar, horrified, “Oh my God .”

Shoving his tongue into his cheek to keep from laughing, he pays for the few things he’d picked up and shoves the change into the donation box before turning and holding up a hand with a cool, “Have a nice afternoon, ladies.”

Elizabeth has her fingers pressed to her forehead and is studiously not looking anywhere but the card reader, but the cashier--Annie, by her nametag and, oh , Rio knows that name on reputation alone--whips around and grimaces with a simple, “Awh, shit.

--

The first date was, to be honest, bad.

He wouldn’t go so far as to say fucking awful, but it was real bad.

It had started off fine--she’d smiled at his inspection of the wine list and had pointedly but not rudely ordered water, had asked idly what his thoughts were on bruschetta, had pulled but not jerked away when their fingers brushed over breadsticks.  She’d flushed at his mention of Daddy Gang Tats and choked on a laugh when he asked if that was his nickname.  The small talk over the menu options wasn’t painful, wasn’t so dull he wanted to drive his salad fork into his eye, innocuous and safely boring.

But then the orders had been taken and the questions had started and they hadn’t stopped .  On the one hand, he thought it was probably nerves--but it really bears repeating that she didn’t really stop asking questions .

“What do you do?”

“I’m in pharmaceuticals.”

“That sounds like a euphemism for selling drugs.”  A laugh, she’d only been half-serious. “How long have you been doing that?”

Where did you grow up?  Do you have any siblings?  How many? How old are they?  Any family in the area? Did you go to school?   And on and on and on until he’d leaned back, pushing his half-empty plate away from him, and asked, “Not for nothing, but is this a date or a job interview?”

“I--sorry,” she’d winced.

From there, the conversation had been stilted, uncomfortable, and he had watched, in real time, how her face had closed off and shut down, turning inward.  By the time dinner was paid for and they were outside, it was almost a relief. On the short walk to her car-- you really don’t have to, I’m good, honestly it’s not even necessary --he thinks she may have apologized a dozen times.  Looking back, he doesn’t even think she really meant to slam the car door in his face.

--

It’s not until about a week later that he sees her again.  She’s alone on a park bench, which is good because if she were with her friend or her sister this wouldn’t work.  Her back is toward him as he approaches, and he thinks he can make out some of her kids on the jungle gym. When he reaches her bench, he props his elbows up on the back and stares forward.

“Nice weather, huh?” he observes innocuously.

“Ugh,” she groans, which isn’t generally the response he hopes for from her.

“Yeah,” he nods.  “Anyway, I was thinkin’, since Italian food didn’t agree with you, maybe we could give the new sushi place a shot.”

“God, didn’t you get enough last week?” she laughs without humor, looking at him with something like wide-eyed horror.

“Guess not.”  He turns his gaze back towards the jungle gym, screaming kids not far off, but out of the corner of his eye he can see her shoulders sag.  Silence rests between them, easier, he thinks, on his end than on hers, but he’s nothing if not a man aware of how effective silence can be.

Clearing her throat, she doesn’t look at him as she says, “I haven’t been on a date--a real one--since… high school, I think.”  When he looks over, her eyes are distant as she continues, “I met my husband in high school, so around then.” Lips twisting, she turns toward him but doesn’t quite meet his gaze.  “I don’t really know how to do this… whole thing.”

“Aight, noted,” he shrugs.  “So, you wanna go out again or not?”

“You wanna go out again?” she asks, baffled.

“Nah, I asked because I thought it’d make this,” he gestures quickly between them, “Less uncomfortable.”

She shakes her head, just a little, not even enough to stir her hair, and lets out a huff that’s not quite a laugh before demanding, “Why?”

Moving slowly, he reaches forward to do what he’s wanted to do since roughly the third time they met.  He gives her plenty of time to back away, but she doesn’t, and he doesn’t even think she breathes, not until the edge of his little finger strokes over her temple.  Her exhale stutters, and if he weren’t so keyed into her, if he weren’t watching her for every minute change, he probably wouldn’t even notice. He strokes down from her temple to the hinge of her jaw, eyes on hers.

A kid’s happy scream yanks them both out of the moment and back into reality.

“Where’s Marcus?” she asks suddenly, looking around, and he’s fascinated to find he can tell the exact moment her eyes land on each of her own children.

“With his mom,” he shrugs.  When she whips back around to him, he smirks, “I ain’t got your number--it was come here on your usual day or stake out a grocery store.”

Her eyes narrow.  “I can’t decide if that’s weird or not.” she says.  She stares at him, and eventually he hears, “Not sushi, though.  What about O’Malley’s?”

Propping his chin up on one hand, he replies, “That’s pub food, Elizabeth.”

The corners of her mouth pull down.  “I can’t like pub food?”

With an elaborate eye roll, he straightens and holds out a hand, “Lemme see your phone.”

“Please,” she chides, handing it over.

By the time he’s back in his car, he’s already got a text from an unknown number, See you around .

--

“You’re late,” is how she greets him in front of the bar--and, really, it’s more of a bar that serves shitty food, and he’s still surprised this is what she chose.

“You sure about that?” he asks as he makes a show of checking his watch.  “‘Cause I’m thinkin’ you’re early.”

A smile blooms slowly across her face, and her eyes flicker slowly from his own to his lips, a bit lower--his throat, he thinks--before she pushes herself away from the wall and steps closer until they’re only inches apart.  She tilts her head and says, “Maybe.” And then, “So, are we going inside, or…”

“Okay,” he gives her a lazy once-over, and he sees her confidence falter as she turns on a heel and leads the way inside.  As he catches the door, his free hand presses to the space between her shoulder blades, fingers spreading wide, and she favors him with a quick not-quite-smile.  When the hostess approaches with a couple menus, he directs his half-question of, “Bar?” more to Elizabeth than to her.

“Bar,” she nods definitively.  Once they’re perched on barstools, she bites her lip and orders bourbon and looks back at him and says, with mocking judgement, “You’re not actually a white wine guy, are you?”

“Make it two,” he says to the bartender.  The look she gives him is considering but he can’t quite interpret it before she also orders a couple waters.  When their drinks come, she stirs her straw around absently, and he asks casually, “So, what do you do?”

Smacking her lips, she leans forward on her elbows and looks at him sideways and says, mournful, “I guess it couldn’t have lasted forever.  My ex-husband’s last name is Boland, as in--”

“You sell used cars?” he laughs.  “Isn’t that that place with the corny commercials?  ‘What are you waitin’ for, a pig to fly?’”

“The very same,” she replies dryly, tipping her tumbler to her lips and taking a generous drink.  “The pig would be my ex-husband,” she continues, voice artificially light.  “And the blonde is, well…” Suddenly, she straightens and winces, “God, I’m sorry, I’m pretty sure the rule is that you’re not supposed to talk about your exes on a date.”

“I dunno about any rules ,” he starts, swirling his own glass, “But I think they’re a little different when you had kids with the ex.”

“Yeah,” she breathes, shoulders dropping.  Her nose wrinkles and she seems to steel herself before saying, “Technically, I got half of the business because there wasn’t really a…  Anyway, I realized I couldn’t just be a silent partner before the divorce, so I’m there, for now, I’m--”

“Babysitting?”

Tossing him a look, she snorts.  “I didn’t say that.”

“Nah, nah, I did,” he concedes, holding up his hands.

“Well, since I’ve already broken the exes rule,” she smiles, pushing the tumbler away to pull her water forward and looking over at him slyly.  “Marcus’ mom?”

Letting his head fall, he shakes his head and doesn’t quite look at her as he says, “We’re better as, uh, coparents.  Wanted different stuff.”

“And you work in pharmaceutical sales.”

There’s a distinct disbelief in her voice and her eyes and the set of her mouth, but it’s more playful than anything else, so he corrects, “Distribution, really.”

“Uh-huh.”  The bartender comes through again, and they both order refills, and she says, “I could go for some Irish nachos, do you want some Irish nachos?”

“Yeah,” he says.  Then, when the bartender leaves, “The hell are Irish nachos?”

“Uh, bad bar nachos but with potato chips instead of tortilla chips,” she smiles, looking at him through her lashes almost shyly.  “Do you regret this yet?”

He doesn’t.

--

He walks her to her van again, and this time she doesn’t shut the door in his face, doesn’t even make a move to get out her keys.  Instead, she steps up close and starts, “Do you mind if I--” just before her lips meet his and he doesn’t mind at goddamn all .  It’s too quick and he catches himself chasing her when she pulls back--she catches him, too, if the soft chuckle he feels against his lips is anything to go by.

--

“Does this count as our third date?” Elizabeth teases from across the desk as she stabs her fork into the burrito bowl he brought.

“This counts as a polite gesture,” he waves her off, softening it with a private smile.  “Since I was in the neighborhood.” Which they both know was a lie, but the fact is is that with five kids between them, scheduling that third date has been somewhat problematic.

“So, I was thinking--” she stops as the door behind him opens.  Her back straightens, smile stiffens, and her voice goes businesslike in an instant as she says in a way that implies a question more than asks it, “Hi, Maggie.”

“Uh, hi, Mrs.--Ms. Boland,” when Rio turns to look at the mousy woman at the door, her eyes just slide away from him, “These need you, when you can,” she steps forward to hand Elizabeth a stack of files, giving him an unreasonably wide berth.  Then, “And Mr. Boland needs to speak with you.” Her eyes flick between the two of them. “When you can.”

With a smile that’s everything professional and polite, she thanks her in a clear dismissal, and he bites back a comment about her being the boss.  As soon as the door closes, her posture changes again, and she says as if there had been no interruption, “I was thinking that--I mean, Dean’s coming to get the kids Friday afternoon.  Maybe you could come over, if you don’t have, I mean--”

“I think the kids call it Netflix and chill ,” he interrupts before she can swallow her own tongue.  Then, pretending to be affronted, he grabs his chest and gasps, “Elizabeth!  Are you suggesting--”

“I am not, and I want you out of my office,” she says flatly.

Huffing, he sits back and takes another bite.  “So, about eight? Could grab food on the way.”

“Been meaning to try Taj,” she replies.

He starts to say something, to snark about how she’s been meaning to try a restaurant that’s been open the better part of a decade, but his phone pings in his pocket.  Work has to take precedence, it’s not like the people he deals with will casually accept he decided to take a long lunch.  It’s not that it’s not something he can handle, but it’s a complication he doesn’t need right now. “I gotta head out,” he says instead, standing and tossing his half-eaten bowl into the garbage next to her desk and leaning over the corner.

She obligingly sits up and smiles into his lips before sitting back down and shoving her food away from her to drag the files forward and say, “Good, I have work to do, you should definitely go.”  Then, just as he’s reaching the door, as if she can’t leave it at that, he hears her say in a rush, “Thanks for lunch.”

If this were a romance novel, one of the cheesy harlequins his baby sister likes, the wait to Friday would be fraught--he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.  He wouldn’t be able to tear himself from his phone, waiting for the next text or call or FaceTime--never mind they don’t call, never mind he would only FaceTime under duress.  However, the fact of the matter is that they’re both parents with jobs--that their jobs are pretty dramatically different doesn’t diminish that fact--and their individual obligations leave little room for that level of too-early devotion.  And since this is real life, which is much less frantic in general, what he finds is that he makes it to Friday without the fact that they have a date driving him to distraction or something equally ridiculous.  There’s--there’s work , and he has Marcus half the week, and he knows she’s got the kids this week, so they text when they’ve got a free minute and he doesn’t bring her lunch again. On Friday morning, she sends him her address--as if he doesn’t know, as if that’s not standard due diligence in his line of work--and he sends back, sorry, what’s this for again?  Her response is one eye-rolling emoji, to which he nearly responds asking how old she is.  But then Marcus announces he’s finished brushing his teeth and the day really starts.

Now, Friday does drag.  There’s plenty to keep him busy, but he keeps checking his phone and his watch and--

Jesus , man, is he in high school or something?

At around six thirty, he asks what she wants so he can call in their order.  He picks it up at exactly 7:37PM, and he rolls up on her house, sun setting and front porch warmly lit by the lights outside, at 7:58PM, about the same time as another car does from the opposite direction.  Grabbing the takeout off the passenger seat, he gets out at the same time the other guy does--if he didn’t already know who he was, he thinks he’d be able to tell just from the way he straightens, takes stock of Rio, glances at the house, glances at the bag in his hand and the make of his car--and Rio, because getting his laughs in where he can keeps his blood pressure low, doesn’t say a damn thing and opts for a smirk.  They walk up to the front door at the same time, and he keeps his peace. He checks his phone and sees that Elizabeth actually texted him like ten minutes ago--damn AT&T DriveMode--saying Dean was late.

At the front door, there’s a pause.  Only natural, who should knock? The ex-husband or the date (stranger, delivery guy, probably).

Rio feels himself being eyed, huffs, steps forward, and knocks.