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Cross Your Fingers

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She smells it.

That’s what it always is – that first tug of it. The musty scent of the bag over her head, like it’s been left forgotten too long in the back of a linen closet, in a laundry basket, balled up in the trunk of a car. After the smell, the rest of it finds her, just like it had that night – the slightly too-cold chill of the car air conditioning, the thrumming, just-audible sound of top-40 hits on the radio, her own breaths – too loud, too fast, even to her own ears.

“Please,” she hears herself say, every sharp drawn inhale pulling the fabric of the bag into her mouth, every time leaving it a little wetter, from her breaths or her tears, she’s not sure. “I’m a mother, I have four children, I - - I’m not - - I’m not anyone, I’m not - -”

Then that low, rumbling laugh, unfamiliar, but - - but not quite, and she hadn’t been able to place it until he’d talked.

“Boss wants you,” the voice – Bullet, Demon, one of them, one of Rio’s boys, that much she knows – says. “Usually doesn’t want somebody who ain’t somethin’, lady.”

And it’s quicker than any knife, than any gunshot, that eruption of confusion, of anger, of grief, tearing through her chest, holding her hostage, and then the memory of the rest of it is flooding her senses too, fixing her arms, clutching at her throat and then it’s - -

Then its tiny, cold hands pushing at her jaw, and a little forearm crushing awkwardly at her neck, and Beth wakes up with a gasp, scrambling back against the bedsheets.

“Mommy!” Jane says with a grin, like she’s surprised to see Beth there, in her own bed, and it takes Beth too long to catch her breath again, to gently push Jane’s arm off her neck and root herself in the room, in the moment, in just right here. She looks past her daughter towards the alarm clock, blearing bright red numbers back at her through the dark – 4.42am.

“What are you doing up, bunny?” she asks, her voice hoarse with sleep, swiping blearily at her eyes as Jane wriggles against her side.

“You said we had to get up before the sun did!”

And well, Beth thinks, glancing out the French doors to where even her curtains can’t hide the first murky pull of morning.

“I did say that, huh?”

“You did, mommy,” Jane says solemnly, and Beth smiles, rolling over to face her daughter and reaching over to push her hair gently off her face, somehow avoiding a mouthful of dubby as Jane flails around on the mattress. “Are you going to work?”

“Yeah, bunny, we’re going to work.”

*

So it’s this.

It’s cherry and cream slab pies and cinnamon scrolls and pumpkin doughnuts dusted with nutmeg sugar. Banana and coffee oat muffins and pear and blackberry galettes and honey loaves and zucchini bread and lemon and raspberry danishes with fresh mascarpone. She decorates vanilla and chocolate cupcakes with farm animals and minions and smiling little snowmen, and sugar cookies with polka dots and gum drops and sprinkles.

She’d done most of it over the last couple of days, but makes neat work of finishing it this morning, wiping her floury hands down the belly of her apron after laying the finishing touches on a rainbow cake while Jane licks frosting off the spatula. The rest of the kids are up now too – Emma and Danny helping place cakes into containers while Kenny slumps sullenly in his stool behind the kitchen island.

“You don’t have to come with me, you know? You can go to work with your dad,” Beth says, stacking the finished containers up high on the bench. “You just can’t stay home alone.”

He scoffs, all teenage, boyish outrage, and god, she thought she at least had another year before puberty roughed Kenny’s edges.

“Josh stays home alone all the time!”

“Yeah, well, Josh and his mom live two houses down from a police station, so I think they kinda get a pass.”

It’s enough to make Kenny huff all over again, slumping further down in the stool until he’s almost melting off it, and Beth just rolls her eyes, already exhausted as she grabs a stack of containers and marches them out to the minivan. The crisp spring air finds the back of her neck, nips at her cheeks, kisses the tip of her nose pink, and she resists the urge to shiver. It’s still early, after all – barely six. Annie and Ruby should be pulling into the market now, starting to set up the stall, and in her head she does the math on how long it’s going to take her to get the rest of the baking and the kids in the car. Popping the trunk open, she slides in the containers and promptly checks the flap concealing the spare tyre, lifting it heavily and scooping out the wad of around $3,000 in unwashed cash. She thumbs the baggie of green rubber bands attached to it, tries to guess if there’s enough for the day, or if she needs to rifle more out of her craft table.

“You heading out? It’s a little later than usual.”

Dropping the flap quickly, Beth spins on the spot, and almost has to catch her breath again. It’s only Dean, of course it’s only Dean, standing at the front door of the house, coffee mug in hand, still in his flannel pyjamas.

“Just about,” she replies, clearing her throat. “The market’s pretty close. It’s at this elementary school on the corner of Hurston. Ruby said she almost sent Sara there.”

Dean makes a vaguely interested face like you don’t say, and Beth closes the trunk behind her.

“What time are you meeting Alan?”

“11,” Dean runs a hand back through his hair as he says it, shifting his weight a little on the spot. “He really thinks this new buyer might actually close. The guy’s seen the books, and seems happy with them, so it’s really just this last walkthrough, and you know, hopefully it’ll be a done deal.”

And sure, Beth thinks, biting the inside of her cheek. She’ll believe it when she sees it. Turns out selling a car dealership that’s been raided and closed for months by the FBI is easier said than done.

They’d had the go-ahead to re-open the place, the FBI not able to push the case against it through without Turner, but it had been harder to get the place back up and running than they’d thought. It had taken Beth almost a month to go back to the storage unit after the - - just - - after, and she hadn’t really been surprised to have found it emptied of both the cash and the furniture. It figures, she thinks, ignoring the twisting ache in her gut, that even in death he could still give and take with the same hand. Re-opening Boland Motors without capital hadn’t been an option – they had no income to buy new cars, nothing to backpay staff wages from the shutdown, or promote the re-launch in a way that would salvage any scrap of reputation.

It had been Dean in the end, who’d proposed selling it, the two of them half drunk in the living room and bitter with their own, personal griefs, and she’d been strangely relieved that losing the Boland family business (her fault, her fault, her fault) had given her an excuse to sob.

(“Hey,” Dean had said, rubbing her back, his touch clammy even through the fabric of her blouse. “You know, I never liked selling cars that much anyway.”

And Beth had nodded blankly at him, tears streaking her face, the pit of grief in her belly laying its roots between her hips.)

Still.

It’s been on the market for months.

At least Alan, their realtor, had seemed optimistic though, jubilant almost with salesman energy in a way that grated, and in hindsight it probably figures that Dean decided real estate was really perfect for his next chapter, shadowing Alan like a kid with a crush.

“You’ll be home tonight, won’t you?” Dean asks now, and Beth glances at him again, fiddling with her car keys.

“Should be. Why, what’s up?”

It takes Dean a minute to answer, to school his expression into one she knows too well, and Beth can feel her own lips thin right as she feels the mood change.

“Sooo,” and he drawls it out, rocking back on his heels, and god, Beth thinks, steeling herself. “I might have a date.”

Beth blinks.

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, shifting his weight, looking at her a little bashfully. “I mean, we’ve talked about it, right? And you know the divorce will be finalised in like, a week, and, I just. I figured it was time to get back out there, you know?”

The wind really is cooler than it should be at this time of year, she thinks, tugging her jacket a little tighter around herself, and she just - - she nods, maybe a little too sharply, a feeling she can’t name unfolding in her stomach, and she thinks about Amber, she thinks about Dean fucking Patti while Beth was home, in bed in the middle of the afternoon (Annie crying in the hallway outside, because it’s just like mom), Ruby beside her holding tiny, baby Jane because Beth just couldn’t, she thinks of - -

“Do I know her?”

Dean goes a little red around the neck of his pyjama shirt, and Beth somehow thins her lips even further, feels it, and forcibly exhales to try and release them. He takes a sip of his coffee, stalling.

“Actually, I mean. Kind of? You know. Like, I mean, you know her, but you don’t know her, if you know what I mean?”

Beth sighs, pushing out a hip and folding her arms over her chest.

Dean.

And it must be there in her tone, the demand, the exasperation, the exhaustion, because Dean flusters, but at least he answers.

“Well, you know Nicole?”

Wracking her head, Beth searches the catalogues of Boland Motors staff, PTA moms, friends of friends in her head, finally drawing one who fits the name and arches an eyebrow before she can help herself.

“Emma’s assistant ballet teacher?”

Dean just sort of shrugs.

“Isn’t she like, nineteen?”

“Twenty-three,” Dean says. “But she’s like, really mature. She’s retired already, from her dance career. That’s crazy, right? Retired in your twenties! Now she’s studying elementary school teaching at Wayne State. Plus, you know Emma loves her.”

And to be fair, she does, Beth thinks, nodding bluntly. She looks Dean up and down – can’t help it – scruffy in his flannel pyjamas and his dad sweater, coffee in hand, a little bit of sleepy drool dried at the corner of his mouth, and god. It’s not like she wants him. Someone should. Starting back towards the house, Beth slows as she walks past him, smiling as best as she can manage.

“She seems nice. You guys’ll have a great time.”

And the grin he returns her is blinding.

*

“So he’s dating someone closer to his children’s age than his own?” Annie says, grabbing some change from the tin and passing it over to Ruby for the customer.

Beth just gestures in a brief flick of both hands, and at least she’s swallowed the burn of embarrassment she’d felt the whole drive over, knowing she was going to tell them.

“I mean, are you really that surprised?”

“No, but it’s still gross,” Ruby supplies after the customer’s left, and Beth can at least give her that.

It’s almost midday, the sun having eased some of the morning chill, settling the day sweet around them. The markets have been thriving for most of it too, a bustle of families with arms full of local-grown fruit and vegetables – red cheeked apples and blueberries like blackened pearls, olives, jams and preserves. There’s even a kombucha stand which, as Annie says, really just brings the hippies in off the communes. Their stall had been thriving for most of the day too, and they’re already down to their last two containers of pastries.

Almost all of the $3,000 she’d brought to wash is clean too, re-banded and laid flat in the base of the money tin.

“I want to know how he manages to pull these chicks,” Annie says, flailing her arms in Beth’s general direction. “Like, no offence, but it’s Dean. It’s Deansy. He’s like if Gumby banged Chewbacca and had like, some weird, hairless man baby.”

Rolling her eyes, Beth looks out across the market. Being held in an elementary school carpark has definitely got its perks – namely the playground, and she can see Jane already at the top of the slide, Harry pressed into her side, waving her arms about trying to get Sadie and Sara to watch her.

“There’s a reason men like Dean go young, that’s all I’m gonna say,” Ruby says, holding up her hands, and it’s enough to make Beth look back at her, something twisting cool in her belly. She’s not sure how she looks, but it must be more sad than annoyed, like perhaps she intended, because Ruby’s expression quickly turns apologetic.

“I think that settles it though, B. We need to get you some dick.”

And well, at least that’s enough to snap her out of it.

“Oh, god, Annie.”

“No! I’m serious! I will not have your vagina seal up again. It’s suffered enough. Hell, the thing probably still has whiplash from the way you went from Dean to - -”

Annie stops dead, slapping her hands over her own mouth, and just - - just Beth can’t look at them, can’t quite breathe either. The air feels like it’s been sucked out of the space, which is dumb, she thinks, a bubble of something like hysteria forming in her throat, given they’re outside. How can there be no air? She just - - she feels suddenly breathless, that’s all, so much so that there are tears prickling at her eyes until she can barely see, and it’s just - - too much - - it’s - -

“You okay, B?” Ruby asks, her voice soft, cutting through the quiet, and Beth whips around to face them both again, Annie shifting her weight guiltily as Ruby reaches out to touch Beth’s arm.

Shying slightly back, away from the touch (she just - - maybe she should - - no, she can’t), Beth paints on the biggest grin she can manage, resisting the urge to swipe at her face. Her eyelashes are wet, pearling with tears, she can feel it, but prays Ruby and Annie can’t see it - - won’t, maybe, if Beth can manage not to draw attention to it.

“You know, I should probably check on the kids. Can you guys hold down the fort?”

Annie and Ruby exchange a look, but Beth doesn’t wait for a reply, ducking out and striding through the market away from them.

*

In the end, the whole thing had been Annie’s idea.

Or rather, Annie’s joke, and really, Beth seriously wonders why so many of their plans start that way.

Because the storage unit was empty again, and none of them had been able to make ends meet – not for Sara’s meds or Sadie’s hormone therapy, and not to salvage the husk of Boland Motors nor stop Beth and Dean from slipping further into debt, and so maybe Beth had thought about the fake cash, then maybe she’d done enough research into making it, then maybe - - maybe she’d done it, taking it out of her oven the first time she’d pulled it off with a wide and honest grin.

Because right then it had felt good. To have done it. To remember it. To remember she was good at this, that what he’d seen in her had been right and true, even if he was only ever playing with her, even if the rest of it had all been a lie. After that though, after that first rush of success, there had been a wall.

Rio had always pointedly avoided giving her the contact details of his networks outside of addresses for drops, even when their partnership was running smoothly (well, as smoothly as it ever did), and she highly doubted doorknocking would get her all that far. Still. She’d had a few numbers that he’d given her over those months though (generally wrangled on the very few occasions that he’d been suddenly unable to screen them and pass the information on – elusively out of range or on another job), but not one had actually replied to her messages requesting a meeting, nor picked up when she’d called. It had been weeks of silence before she’d given up, and then Annie’s joke one day, picking at the birthday cake batter Beth was whipping up for Danny –

“You really are Martha Stewart, huh? Baking, crafts, crime. We should get you your own show.”

And, well, not a show.

But maybe a business.

Still, washing the money through cash-only bake sales and markets had proven excruciatingly slow. It’s not like selling dozens of pastries and cakes really compared to washing it via TVs and appliances, and even branching out to Beth’s handmade blankets, hats and scarves, kids costumes and cushion covers hadn’t exactly helped them to wash more than a few thousand dollars a week, which split between the three of them barely covered the costs of stall bookings, ingredients and supplies, let alone really turn a profit. Plus Beth is pretty sure between the baking and the knitting and the physical creation of the fake cash, she hasn’t slept in weeks. Not like the sleep she does steal isn’t bogged down with nightmares anyway.

Beth groans, rolling over in bed, tangling the sheets up between her legs, ignoring the ache in her lower back from so long on her feet. After a minute, she bites the inside of her cheek, reaching for the drawer on her bedside table and pulling out her burner phone. She scrolls through her unanswered messages to Rio’s contacts, and thinks - - screw it.

Last chance. This opportunity will be worth your while.

She sends the message to all four of them, before dropping her phone back to the bed and pushing the heels of her hands against her eye sockets. It’s there at least, the tug of exhaustion pulling her to the brink, and she’s almost asleep when she hears the front door open and click shut, a tipsy stumble, and then a woman, giggling, and Dean’s voice:

“Shhhh, shhhhh, kids are sleeping.”

And then Dean’s hiccupping laugh, and his bedroom door opening and clicking shut, and it’s only a few minutes before there’s a stifled moan, and Beth’s fingers are white knuckled in the sheets, and she should be angry, or jealous, something, but all that’s left is humiliation.

*

“Don’t cut it. I like pushing it off your face.”

She can almost feel it. The ghost of his fingers, calloused, they were always calloused, the skin there almost a little rough, but his touch had never been, not when he touched her like that anyway.

“Beth? Bethie? You in there?”

Beth blinks, startling as Dean waves a hand in front of her face. The light suddenly feels too bright, too sharp, the memory having briefly dulled her senses, and she clears her throat, circling her hands around her coffee mug as she digs her aching lower back into the kitchen counter.

“Lost you there for a minute,” Dean says, and Beth paints on a smile, shrugging lightly.

“Sorry, just tired.”

“That’s okay. I was just talking about work anyway.”

And he grins a little, placating, and Beth can see it, the lax set of his shoulders, the ease in his gait. There’s a hickey peeking out from the neck of his shirt she kind of wants to scratch off for no reason more than to hear him squeal in that way she’s always hated. He’s fucked out, she thinks bitterly, but tries to swallow the thought.

“Right,” she says instead, nodding. “How’d it go with Alan and the buyer?”

At least it’s enough to tear the look off his face, his expression drawing a little glumly, and Beth knows the answer before he even talks.

“Oh, uh, not great. The deal fell through. Guy didn’t even show for the walkthrough.”

“God, that’s rude.”

“Right? That’s what I said to Alan.”

Taking a sip of her coffee, Beth glances past Dean back towards the family room, where the kids are blasting Sunday morning cartoons and arguing over the clicker. She should probably go break it up before it becomes a fight, but then - - maybe Dean can do it. She’s got at least two blankets and a T-Rex costume she has to make today to fill the back orders for next weekend’s market, and she’s wondering if she has enough canary yellow yarn when Dean’s voice chirpily cuts through her thoughts.

“But!” he says. “I might have found us a lead.”

The I feels about as loaded as it ever does with Dean, and Beth looks back at him, waiting for him to continue. When he doesn’t, she presses.

“For Boland Motors? How? With who?”

There’s always a battle with Dean like this – and she can see it, plain on his face. The urge to simultaneously brag and keep something a secret, and he hums a little, rocking his head side to side, considering it, before he finally caves.

“Remember Dominic from services? The guy who unloaded those Honda parts you, uhhh, acquired back at - - at what’s-her-face? Greg’s new girl’s?”

“Nancy’s,” Beth says, and Dean clicks a finger at her.

“Right! Well, you know, he’s got some connections. Thinks he might know someone who might be interested, who won’t really care about the - - the recent history, right? We won’t get what the place is worth, but we’re kind of over a barrel at this point. I’m worried the staff are going to go class action on us if we can’t pay them soon.”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, time seems to stop, and Dean’s still talking, about the dealership, about this deal, about sending paperwork through this afternoon and setting up a meeting, but Beth doesn’t hear another word of it. Something in her is sharpening, tightening in the best way, just - - just - - lighting up.

“Dominic from services,” she says, and God, how had she forgotten about him? “When are you talking to him again?”

“Probably Wednesday afternoon? He’s going to send me the buyer’s info this afternoon, and so I’ll give them a call and we’re going to go from there.”

She can’t fight it, the grin that splits her face in two, and Dean looks back at her, surprised, but then he’s smiling too.

“Dean, that is great,” she says. “You know, I’d just love to see you in action again. Do you mind if I tag along?”

*

It’s the headlights they see first, shining bright through the glass walls of the dealership, then the sleek body of the Audi pulling up into the otherwise empty lot. Beside her, Dean is jittery with energy, palms sweating, shoes tapping on the linoleum floor. Beth had dressed him for the meeting, putting him in one of his nicer navy suits, a white dress shirt and thin grey tie, and it was effective enough. He’d felt good then, and she’s sure he still does, if the square of his shoulders is anything to go by.

“Okay, it’s showtime,” Dean says, clapping his hands together as they watch a tall, slender woman step out of the car and start towards the dealership building.

“You’ve got this,” Beth tells him, and he gives her a nervous two thumbs up before disappearing out the door, and she watches him through the glass walls of his (her? Their?) office, striding out towards the woman and making quick work of slipping into his salesman mode. It’s all it takes for Beth to turn on her heel towards Dominic-from-services, currently hunkered down on the small couch by the window, thumbs tapping on his phone.

They’re both quiet for a moment, and Beth purses her lips, smoothing her hands down the line of her dress.

“Thanks for organising this. We really do appreciate it.”

Dominic’s younger than she remembers, but not exactly young. Maybe five or six years younger than herself with a healthy head of dark hair, tanned skin, and a fit, swimmer’s build still visible beneath his tight slacks and button-down shirt. He’s handsome in a way, and she’s seen him look at her enough to know to jut out her hip a little and widen her eyes just enough to play a touch coy.

Dropping his phone down to the couch beside him, he leans back, smiling up at her.

“Well, I figure I owe the guy,” Dominic says. “Not many people would hire someone with a criminal record.”

And god, the irony of it. Beth almost laughs, but moves to sit beside Dominic on the couch instead, close, but not too close. Not enough to be weird – at least she hopes not – but enough to be friendly, enough that maybe he can smell her perfume.

“Well, we really believe in second chances. I mean, you’re kind of giving us one by arranging all of this.”

It’s enough to make him chuckle, a little bashful, looking over at her. It’s almost too warm in the office, stuffy, with the air conditioning shut off and the lights dim (they hadn’t been able to afford to keep them on), and Beth’s briefly grateful for the forgiving softness of the dusky light that might be able to cover the bags under her eyes, and her exhausted, frayed nerves.

“I haven’t really arranged anything, Mrs. Boland. I’ve just set up a meeting.”

Widening her smile, Beth shifts, turning towards him in a way she hopes is disarmingly friendly.

“You can call me Beth, you know? God, haven’t we known each other long enough for that?”

Dominic laughs, and nods in concession, but Beth honestly has no idea how long they’ve known each other for. A few years, she thinks? She’d tried to probe Dean during the week, but he’d seemed suspicious of her sudden interest, and so she’d dropped it.

“You know, speaking of meetings,” she says. “I was wondering if you could set some up for me?”

And even with the poor lighting, she sees it all over his face, that sudden, clamped down suspicion, the new tightness to his formerly lax shoulders.

“What sort of meetings?”

Dominic’s tone is careful, but, screw it, Beth thinks. She’s tired of careful. And she can hear it, when she speaks, the sharpness in her voice.

“I have a business opportunity that I think some of your contacts might be interested in.”

Somewhere in the background she can hear Dean laugh and the clip of the woman’s heels down the linoleum of the dealership floors, she can hear the traffic outside and the thrum of afternoon cicadas, but all she can see is Dominic’s jaw, rocking sideways, not unlike - -

No.

Not now.

She can’t - -

She sucks in a breath.

Balls a hand into a fist at her thigh.

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea, Mrs. Boland,” Dominic says carefully. “Besides, I’m not really in those circles anymore, you know?”

“But you knew who to talk to for this.”

“Yeah,” he says it slowly, drawing the word out over seconds. “But that was a favour.”

“And this’ll be another one,” she says brightly, her voice a little too sweet. “I’ll owe you. Anything you want. And you can raincheck that.”

Dominic looks at her then, an expression she can’t quite interpret passing over his face, but she sees it, when it settles, and with a swelling sense of satisfaction, she knows that she has him.

“And it’ll just be a few meetings?”

“Right,” Beth reiterates. “I just need to get in front of people, that’s all. You don’t need to be there, you don’t need to do anything else. Just set up the meetings.”

He sighs, the sound hoarse in the quiet of the office, and Beth sits up a little straighter, a little prouder, can’t quite help herself.

“You got a number for this stuff?”

And Beth grins, bright, grabbing his phone out of his hands to punch in her burner number.

*

She spots Dean down the other end of the empty display floor, walking beside the tall, slender woman from the car. Closer like this, and with more time to observe her, Beth takes in her short-dark hair, angular features and the smart look to her in her black patent stilettos, wide-legged slacks and perfectly-fitted teal blouse. Beth’s more pleased than she’d like to admit that she’d dressed up herself a little for the meeting – a navy sundress to match Dean’s suit, presenting the united front for the sake of the sale and Dean’s image.

Still, she doesn’t really intend on going over until Dean waves her down, gesturing her closer.

Walking out, she smooths the skirt of her dress back down over her hips, only to falter, surprised, briefly, when the other woman’s eyes find her and don’t leave her, something discretely scrutinous in her gaze as Beth gets closer.

“And this is my other half,” Dean says when Beth reaches them, tossing an arm over her shoulders and drawing her into his side. “My wife, Bethie.”

And right, Beth thinks, pushing her shoulders back and deliberately softening her features. Dean needs Bethie right now, and what the hell, she figures, brightening as she slips into the role, she can do that today, for this, especially with Dominic’s number burning up her phone. She almost gleans with pride. Her own contact. Not one of his. Hers. She paints on a smile.

“Hi! It’s lovely to meet you. My husband tells me you’re interested in buying Boland Motors?”

“I’m actually representing a client,” the woman tells her, but returns the smile. “He couldn’t make it today unfortunately.”

“Oh! Working late?”

“On vacation actually.”

And Beth blinks, a little taken aback, although maybe she shouldn’t be. Something about this woman feels unexpected, but then, she has no idea what contacts Dominic has, not really, so Beth tries to smooth over her expression and aims for light.

“Couldn’t wait until he got back, huh?”

Lifting her shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, the woman keeps her expression neutral and unreadable.

“What can I say,” she says. “He knows what he wants. Plus, he’s got a real passion for local business.”

“Well, you don’t get much more local than this. Dean’s grandfather opened the place almost fifty years ago.”

“Yes, a family business. Your husband was just telling me. It must be hard seeing it on the market.”

“Yeah,” Dean jumps in, loosening his grip on Beth’s shoulder. “But hey, change is good, right? Gives you the chance to really build something up on your own.”

“Absolutely,” the woman says, her gaze only flicking briefly to Dean before settling again on Beth. She resists the urge to squirm under the weight of it. “I own my law firm. It’s only small, but I like it that way. I’d much rather split my time between a few big clients than on a hundred small ones. Plus being your own boss never hurts, although I’m not sure you ever really are when you’re in client work.”

“You can say that again,” Dean says, voice too loud, echoing in the empty lot. His grin is so goofy Beth resists the urge to cringe. “I took over this place when my dad retired. Nothing like it, y’know? Can’t ever imagine working for the man.”

And there’s a beat, maybe two, where the woman just looks at Dean, and Beth can see it – hell, has looked at Dean too many times like that herself. Complete and utter disdain. And no, Beth thinks, desperately scrambling to regain ease for the sake of the deal. She opens her mouth to speak, only for Dean to cut her off.

“Bethie’s recently become a business owner too. Tell her, honey.”

Beth’s mouth snaps shut, looking up at Dean who looks pointedly back at her before tilting his head to the other woman. Save me, he’s saying, and she was going to, but not like this. She can feel herself pink as she waves a hand out.

“Oh, no, it’s really nothing. Certainly not my own law firm. I mean, I haven’t even been to college.”

And god. Embarrassing. She inhales shakily.

“It’s like her own little bakery,” Dean fills in, taking her silence for humbleness instead of embarrassment (misreading her, always, and god, they’ll be divorced in two days, she thinks, briefly blissful with the thought of it). He grabs her shoulder, pulling her in again and shaking her slightly. “What did you call it again, honey?”

“Oh, um. Crafternoon Tea,” Beth says, finding her voice and staring up at the ceiling. “It’s – I mean, it’s a play on Afternoon Tea, but with crafts. Because it’s crafts and baking. My sister and a friend and I do markets, and my goddaughter actually just got me set up on Etsy, which is like, this online marketplace? It’s been fun.”

She can feel her blush deepen at the woman’s briefly weighted look – something between surprise and if she didn’t know any better, she’d say almost amusement, but before she can think about that anymore, Dean cuts in again.

“The Mommy thing is a whole industry now,” Dean tells her, and Beth wrinkles her nose, shrugging.

“Dean, come on, I don’t think - -” she pauses, wracking her head for a moment. “Sorry, I don’t think I got your name?”

The woman looks at her, blinks, before seeming to take Beth briefly in for the utmost time. She holds out her hand, and Beth takes it.

“Sorry about that. Gretchen. Look, I won’t keep us. My client’s actually ready to make an offer. Is there somewhere we might be able to sit down and I can take you through it?”

Dean’s grin is close to blinding in its smugness as he gestures Gretchen down the hall towards his office.

*

They’re quiet for almost a full minute after Gretchen slips out to see Dominic and make a phone call, and Beth swears she can feel it, the heat radiating off of Dean’s arm, the pit of realisation looming between them. Finally, Beth can’t take it any longer, and she breaks. Needs to, at least, before Gretchen gets back.

“I think we should take it,” she says, and watches Dean splutter at the desk beside her, affronted.

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“Dean - - “

“We were already lowballing, Beth, but this is less than half of what the business is worth.”

“I know that, but every other offer has fallen through.”

And he splutters again, the sound loud in the space between them, his arms flailing, his neck almost purple with anger, and god, Beth thinks, she’d walked out of this office on clouds less than half an hour ago.

“This is my father’s business. My grandfather started this company out of nothing.”

“I know that,” Beth repeats, guilt spiking in her gut. “And this is on me, I know that too, but I just don’t see any other options right now. She said that this guy might even keep on some of the staff, and we owe them that at least. We’ll be able to pay the back wages, we’ll be able to pay most of our bills. We can start to move on.”

“We’ll still owe money, Beth.”

And they will, she knows they will, but she can fix it. She knows she can fix it. She’ll book meetings, she’ll get her own partners, she’ll sell cakes, wash cash, knit blankets, whatever it takes. She’ll get them out of this. She opens her mouth to say it, to tell him, when the door clicks open and Gretchen strides back through, sliding back down into her seat at Dean’s desk.

“So, Mr and Mrs Boland. Do we have a deal?”

Chapter Text

“I mean, come on, sis, we can still drink to it, right?”

And at least it makes Beth huff out a tired laugh, nodding as Annie raises three fingers towards the bartender, gesturing for another round.

It had been Ruby’s pick – or rather, her demand – that they go out after Beth had called to tell her that Boland Motors was officially off their hands. Well, almost off their hands. Gretchen had insisted on honouring the thirty-day window – a necessity, she’d told them, to ensure that the deal went through as legitimately as possible.

(“There’s nothing unsavoury about a private sale,” Gretchen had said when Dean had, while scrambling, questioned her intentions. “But given the recent history of the company, surely you can understand my client wanting to keep this looking as clean and above board as possible.”

It had been enough for Beth to sit back in her seat, to look at the other woman – really look at her, and it had been a surprise – although perhaps it shouldn’t have been – to see something slightly predatory beneath the careful neutrality of her expression.

“Of course. And we’ll make sure that that won’t be a problem,” Beth had replied smoothly and perhaps a little too sweetly, speaking over Dean’s spluttering, and then it had been Gretchen looking at her, tilting her head until her cropped dark hair curled at her shoulder.

“I had a feeling you’d see it my way, Mrs. Boland. You must really leave your market competition quaking at their knitting needles.”

And Beth hadn’t let her smile slip, but neither had Gretchen, signing at the bottom of the contract and sliding it across the table towards them.)

“Ugh,” Annie says now, dropping her hand to slap down hard on the table. It’s enough to get them a few looks from surrounding patrons, even over the bass-heavy music blearing over the bar sound system, but not so much as a glance from the young guy at the bar who’s - - well, Beth thinks, with half a grin and a genuine eye roll - - who’s pretty pointedly ignoring them.

“What a dick,” Annie fumes, before promptly standing up, furiously adjusting the hem of her leopard print sweater and shifting her weight like a boxer before a match. “Gimme a minute.”

With that, she strides purposefully across the bar, and it’s not long before the determined, irritated sound of her voice echoes in Beth’s ears. She turns in her seat enough to look at her better, watching her sister’s platinum blonde hair illuminate pink, then teal, beneath the bar’s mood lighting, and the bartender, mixing a cocktail not for them, fixing his whole gaze straight back on Annie, too pleased at having her suddenly there and furious in front of him, and it sparks a too familiar feeling in Beth’s chest that - - no.

No.

She inhales a little shakily, pushing the thought down and turning back around in her seat. She presses a couple of fingers against the side of her untouched water glass, catching pearls of condensation beneath her nails.

“It really does feel like the end of an era,” Ruby says from across the table, polishing off the last of her drink. “God, will this be the first year in a decade without a Boland on TV trying to get the vroom vroom vroom back in my engine?”

And, god, Beth groans, lips twisting as she looks briefly up at Ruby.

“Almost two.”

The thought is enough to make her close her hands fully around her glass, palming the cold of it, the guilt stretching awake in her belly. Months ago, she’d gone with Dean to dinner with his mother to tell her they were putting the place on the market, and it had somehow made everything feel worse – Judith’s quiet understanding, her kind, soft rationality. Beth had found herself wishing for anger, for punishment, and had courted it over dinner, owning all parts of dismantling the Boland legacy, but Judith had patiently waited until Dean was in the bathroom to tell her she knew exactly how many times Dean had re-mortgaged their house.

And sure, Beth had thought bitterly, but what about what she’d done?

Tonight though, Dean had insisted on telling Judith about the sale alone (“We’re divorced in two days, Bethie. Got to start to get used to doing this stuff separately, right?” – and bull, she’d thought, although she’d been glad not to have to watch Dean puff out his chest and brag about selling the place on his own). He’d taken the kids at least too, like their bright eyes and rambling stories about schoolyard chaos might have softened the reality for poor Judith.

Beth sighs.

“Dean was right though, you know,” she says now, turning the glass in her hands. “It’s less than half what the place is worth. And it’s not enough to dig us out.”

It’s quick – the warmth of Ruby’s hand on her wrist, pulling her own from the glass and entwining their fingers across the table. It’s enough to make Beth look up again, to see Ruby leaning across the table towards her, her face open and too kind.

“So we figure out what is. We sit down, and we work out the number, just like we did for Sara, and we dig you out, just like you guys dug me out. I know the new hustle has been a little slower than we expected, but we’re at least breaking even. And if your boy comes through? We could be laughing all the way to the bank,” Ruby pauses, considering as she scrunches up her nose. “Or, well, not the bank. Have we even talked about where we’re going to put all this cash once it starts flowing? Your backyard did not do the trick last time, B.”

It surprises a genuine laugh out of Beth, and it’s almost overwhelming – the love and the fondness, warming up her chest, blanketing all that guilt. She tightens her grip on Ruby’s hand.

“It really didn’t, huh? Plus gardening makes me so paranoid these days. Like I might find a piece of Jeff.”

Ruby shudders dramatically in reply, but laughs all the same, and then Beth’s laughing too, just at the sheer absurdity of it all, at the stranger turn their lives have taken, and they only find their breaths again when the next round of drinks slams on the table between them.

“Guys, you know I hate it when you laugh without me, it gives me like, FOMO up to the eyeballs.”

Annie slides into the seat beside Ruby as Beth and Ruby disentangle their hands, reaching for their respective drinks.

“We’re just talking about what we’re going to do with all our stacks of cash when B’s new boy comes through.”

“Oh, our stacks on stacks,” Annie replies innocently, grabbing her own drink and taking a generous sip.

“Oh, our stacks on stacks on stacks.”

They’re feeding off each other now, thrumming with an energy that sets Beth alight – the feeling that they can - - that they are really doing this. And Ruby’s right, Beth thinks, smiling into her own drink. So what if it’s a little slower than they expected? They’re still getting there. It’s still theirs, all of it, and nothing can take that away.

Ruby holds her drink up for a belated cheers and they clink glasses before Ruby abruptly turns her attention on Annie. She nods over to the bar where the guy is perched behind a string of customers, mixing drinks.

“What was that about anyway?” she asks, and Annie grins, digging her free hand into her top and whipping a cocktail napkin out of her bra. She fans herself with it, slow enough that they can make out the black ink chicken scratch of a phone number.

“Oh, this?” Annie hums. “Just the result of all my hypnotising, seductive energy. The boys, they just can’t stay away.”

Beth rolls her eyes, but can’t quite stop her grin. It’s taken this long for Annie to even start to recover from Noah, to feel free enough - - herself enough - - to flirt again, and it soothes something deep and raw in Beth to see it, especially when Ruby yanks the napkin out of Annie’s hand, reading the number and the winking-face that’s been drawn at the corner of it.

“Girl, are you kidding me right now?”

“Apparently I’m just irresistible,” Annie replies. “Don’t worry. I’ll be trying my tricks out for B soon enough.” She gestures messily, flailing at herself. “Trying to transfer some of this unrestrained sexual energy to –” then, flailing at Beth. “This sex vacuum.”

Beth snorts, giving Annie a look.

“I honestly do not have the time right now. Between the markets and - - book club, and the kids, and getting all this to work, I barely find the time to sleep.”

Annie and Ruby both roll their eyes, and she can see them opening their mouths to quip about her needing to find the time to get some when she feels a buzzing coming from her purse. She grabs it off the floor, rifling quickly through it as Annie says something about a wham bam thank you ma’am over the loud bassline of the bar speakers, only to feel her heart suddenly quicken. It’s not her phone ringing, she realises, but her burner phone. She grins, dart sharp, answering it as she plugs her other ear.

“Dominic?”

“Mrs. Boland. You got a pen?”

*

She almost glides through the front door, buzzed from the drinks they’d had to celebrate and the high of what almost feels like success. Like things are finally in her favour. Finally working out.

Four meetings spread out across two weeks. That’s what Dominic’s set up. Four different enterprises of varying degrees of establishment, he’d told her, but all players in Detroit none the less.

(“I told you, Mrs. Boland, I’ve been square since I got out of Lakeland Correctional. I got contacts, but they’re old, you know? It’s a lot of dead ends for me these days, and not a lot of people really want to work with new players.”)

But she wasn’t a new player, that much she was sure. She’d worked for Rio, worked with him for more than a year, she’d flipped her game – from the secret shoppers, to Boland Motors, to the pills, to Crafternoon Tea. She had experience, and skills that she’d started to forge herself - - and maybe - - maybe people in Rio’s network knew that. It’s not like he had ever really worked alone, and she’d thought more often than she’d cared to admit about the places his boys might’ve gone. If they’d stepped up in the loss of Rio, smoothed the remnants of his business over and kept the wheels rolling, or if they’d dismantled and dispersed across other enterprises. God, how does that even work? Are there underground job boards? Do you have to interview?

She shakes her head, steels herself. Point is, maybe some of them will recognise her, will see her like he always did, and remember how she - - they - - deliver.

That is, she thinks with a clenched jaw and a wave of - - of something - - she tries to swallow, if they don’t know.

But how could they? Nobody else was there except the guy who’d picked her up, but he hadn’t stuck around.

And besides, she’s sure she’d be buried if they did.

She’d spent the first two months after she’d - - after the incident looking over her shoulder, waiting for one of his boys to take care of her, a vengeance that she was sure she deserved, only there had been nothing and no one – not anyone watching her or showing up in her kitchen or peeling into the passenger seat of her minivan, and eventually she had stopped jumping at shadows and her heart had stayed in her chest when big men with tattoos and bruised knuckles walked by her on the street.

She bites the inside of her cheek, tries to shake the thoughts from her head, and ends up dropping her purse on the couch and pouring herself a drink. Vaguely she can hear Dean on the phone in his room, laughing so hard he snorts, and she thinks only briefly of checking in to see how it went with Judith, before deciding on her bedroom instead. Humming softly to herself, she slips the cocktail napkin with the details of the meets out of the pocket of her dress, grinning a little to herself as she re-reads it, and wanders into her bedroom.

Pushing aside the balls of yarn on her bed, she flops onto her belly, careful not to spill her drink.

The first meeting is a week from today, a pencilled in time of 7.30pm, borderline respectable. No venue yet, but Dominic had passed on the number for her burner, and promised she’d get a text with the details, but added that it’d be somewhere inner city – likely a warehouse or an abandoned lot.

She’d need to make more cash. Need to make enough to look serious. Annie and Ruby could usually fit in a few thousand dollars a week around Fine & Frugal and Dandy Doughnuts, but Beth? Beth could do more. Then again, there’s a market on Saturday too. She sighs, sitting up in bed, clambering to get her book club calendar out of her pyjama drawer, already shuffling her schedule around in her head as she rifles below satin pants to pull out her poster board calendar.

Thing is, it’s already kind of full.

She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d told Annie she didn’t have the time to play the field. Between the markets and the bookings, and filling orders for the online store, and catering requests for birthday parties and school sales, and the regularly scheduled funny money manufacturing to cash flow all of it, not to mention all her regular mommy duties, she knows she’s burning the candle at both ends.

Just…she can’t quite seem to stop.

Biting the inside of her cheek, she thinks about dropping one of the markets, or maybe seeing if Ruby could cook more. They’d talked about bringing someone else in, but after everything with Mary Pat - -

Beth huffs, dropping the calendar back to her bed and getting down onto her knees. Lifting the edge of her mattress, she makes quick work of yanking out the bag of fake cash and starting to count it out. She’ll need to work out how much more they need, how much will make them seem legit at these meetings, how much - -

A light rattle, a click, a gust of cool, evening air, shivering at the soles of her bare feet.

Beth looks up, jerked from her thoughts. The French doors that open her bedroom to the backyard are suddenly ajar, the porch light switched on, casting an eerie glow into the entryway of her room.

She shivers.

“Hello?” she calls, heart starting to pound between her ears. She shoves the cash back beneath her mattress and clambers up to her feet, taking a few uneasy steps towards the door.

“Hello?”

She’s firmer this time, louder, but is only met with silence. Stepping out the door, she gasps, hand clutching at her chest.

It’s not that she sees anything – not so much as an unfamiliar shadow, or that she hears anything that could be thought unusual, it’s just - -

It’s the smell.

Too familiar, held too preciously in her memory – the clean, slightly cinnamon-y smell of his cologne, and just, no, she thinks, tears prickling at her eyes, the other memories finding her too quickly, of his hands and his smile and then the way he’d choked and then it’s her hands shaking as she stumbles back into her bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

It’s in her head, she thinks, that’s all, clutching a white knuckled grip on the edge of her bed. It’s in her head, it’s in her head, it’s in her head.

*

“Well, do you take cheque then?”

“Only cash, sorry,” Beth says, painting on the sweetest smile she can manage. The guy flusters a little, but opens his wallet to rifle through his notes. “We have plenty of change,” she adds, and Annie snorts beside her as she restocks the scarves on the stall display.

The market today is craft only, and it’d been nice to have the break from baking for the week to focus instead on finishing off the knit blankets, beanies, hot water bottle covers and stuffed animals to sell. Ruby had even started printing patterns onto plain aprons which had proven to be a big hit among the mommy crowd.

It’s a bright day again, the early springtime air starting to chase away the final tendrils of winter, and it’s brought with it a buzzing crowd. They might even be able to pack up early, most of the cash clean in the tin, and the bulk of the product moved. She rolls her shoulders, resists the urge to rub at the exhaustion catching beneath her eyelids.

“You should set up an account,” the guy says, handing over a couple of $100 bills and watching as Beth fumbles with the cash box for a couple of unwashed notes in change. “You know you can put banking apps on your iPad now? That’s how I do it. Really makes it a lot easier, plus stops you having to carry around all that cash, you know?”

Beth blinks up at him, briefly confused, but the guy just grins almost shyly, pointing out a stall three booths down from them.

“I do leatherwork,” he says. “Belts, shoes, wallets, briefcases, that sort of thing. It’s kind of a hobby. I mean, I’d love it to be more than that, but it’s not easy making a business of this sort of stuff. You’d probably know that. I mean, not that I think you’d be struggling.”

He gestures, bashful and quick, back to the aprons, blankets and stuffed animals he’s purchasing.

“What you make is amazing. I thought it when I saw you at the Maple Street Markets a few weeks ago, and seeing it all again, I just had to buy some of it.”

Beth passes him his change, smiling with a salesman ease and watching the guy fumble slightly with his wallet, pinking around the shells of his ears.

“They’re for my sisters,” he adds suddenly, gesturing to the aprons. “I’m not married. I mean, I was, but - - And these are for my daughters and my nieces. Lots of girls in the family.”

And this time when he looks at her, he grins, and Beth can’t quite help but smile back. He’s kind of handsome, she thinks, sweet faced and broad-jawed. He’s got to be as tall as Dean, square shouldered, but where Dean’s features turn doughy, this guy’s are well-defined – an angular nose, wide lips, bright blue eyes and a head full of gently styled blond hair. There’s a confetti toss of freckles across his nose that Beth finds, oddly enough, a little charming.

“I’m Tom,” he says, putting his wallet away and holding out a hand. Beth grasps it across the stall table.

“Beth.”

They shake hands amicably, and Beth glances over his shoulder, scoping the crowd behind him for the next wave of customers. There’s a woman who must have lapped the whole place three times, and she lingers by Ruby’s aprons a little longer each round. Beth shifts her weight, running through her salesman spiel in her head (100% cotton! Made local with love!) and it’s not until Tom starts scooping his purchases off the table that she realises she’s probably been rude.

“Well, I’ll see you around,” he says, voice overly chipper as he pulls her attention back to him. “If you’re ever in the market for leather goods, you know where to find me.”

With that, he walks back towards his stall, and Beth briefly watches him go before eyeing off the other woman again as she starts towards Ruby’s aprons. Vaguely, she can hear Annie clear her throat beside her, but it’s not until she kicks Beth’s foot that Beth looks at her.

“You okay?” Beth asks, voice dry as she arches an eyebrow, and Annie gives her about a million pointed looks in the space of four seconds. When Beth doesn’t bite, Annie groans, arms flailing around, gesturing towards Tom’s leather goods stall.

“Are you kidding? He was hitting on you.”

Beth rolls her eyes, busying her hands with tidying up the scarves Annie had just (badly) laid out.

“He was not. He was just being friendly.”

“Yeah? How often do you make a point of telling strangers that you aren’t married? Plus he bought like, two hundred dollars worth of knitting.”

“Okay, for starters, those blankets are actually crocheted, it’s a completely different technique.”

It’s enough to make Annie groan again, loudly, tossing her hands up into the air, but Beth powers through.

“And secondly, it doesn’t matter if he was hitting on me, I told you, I don’t have the time right now.”

The market’s starting to thin out – these sorts of ones often do over lunch, the crowds gravitating towards the food trucks parked along the surrounding streets, leaching paying customers. Beth’s glad for the break though, wiping a dribble of sweat from her neck as she starts counting the stock they have left.

“He was basically inviting you to sit on his face, Beth.”

And god, her hand drops, a blush rushing to her cheeks.

Annie.”

“Who was inviting you to sit on his face?”

Of course Ruby would choose that moment to get back, brandishing a tray of take-away coffees, cakes and a pair of highly raised eyebrows.

Beth says “Nobody,” at the same time that Annie says, “Hot Leather Tom.”

Ruby’s eyes widen dramatically, and Beth clears her throat, still trying to fight the mortified blush staining her cheeks.

“We need to talk about the meeting tomorrow,” Beth says instead, only slightly relishing in the way Ruby and Annie both groan. “I think we need to use aliases.”

She’d been thinking about it all week (Christopher, Rio, no, god, Beth, stop) and had settled on this, particularly after the bullet. The potential of Rio’s boys now working for one of these groups was obviously there, but that wasn’t necessarily a given, and the thought of keeping some distance between their homes and their - - this made more sense than it didn’t.

Ruby offers her one of the coffees and Beth gratefully takes it, savouring in the hot, slightly bitter taste of it on her tongue.

“Sure,” Annie agrees, taking her own coffee from Ruby. “But I also think we need to have a talk about protection.”

Beth groans, rolling her eyes over at Tom’s leather goods stall.

“Annie, I swear, if you start talking about condoms –”

“I’m talking about security,” she says, her voice uncharacteristically firm. She looks briefly at Ruby, who nods at her, and oh - - they’ve talked about this. “If we’re doing these meetings, like, for realsies, we need it.”

“I am not having a repeat of that drug dealer’s house,” Ruby adds, taking a sip of her own coffee, and Annie nods.

Beth looks between the two of them, suddenly feeling a little breathless. She rocks back on her heels, shifting her weight, blinking once, twice, three times, hard enough that the movement makes her slightly nauseous. She crushes the paper coffee cup in her hand enough she can feel the walls of it bend, and she’s not sure how long she’s been shaking her head for when she realises that she is.

“I can’t - - I won’t get a gun - - I - -”

“No one’s asking you to,” Ruby interjects quickly. “Annie and I were thinking we should hire somebody.”

Beth blinks, surprised, and glances over at Annie, who takes a long sip of her coffee, looking quickly between the two of them.

“I’ve been looking on some job sites and on CraigsList,” Ruby continues. “And I think we have some real options. Guys who are available, you know?”

“But we don’t,” Beth says. “Know them, I mean. I don’t want to bring strangers into this.”

And that’s enough to make Ruby double take. She pulls a face at Beth, somewhere between confusion and frustration, which only sparks the feeling in Beth too.

“Isn’t that what we’re doing with these meetings?”

“It’s different! We’re making - -” Beth fumbles a bit, flailing. “Professional relationships, not hiring a CraigsList security guard and expecting him to have our backs.”

Ruby sets her jaw, and Beth steels her legs, and she can feel it, the fight that’s about to brew in the middle of this damn market.

“I mean, we could ask somebody we know,” Annie’s voice interjects, faux casual and a little too sweet, and Beth and Ruby both swivel around to face her. “We know someone in security after all.”

“If Stan’s name is even on the belly-end of your tongue right now, Annie, I swear to God - -”

No,” Annie says hotly, and then a little bashfully. “What about Tyler? You know, from Fine & Frugal?”

As soon as the words leave Annie’s mouth, Beth swears she goes briefly deaf – all the sounds of the market leaking out the carpark and leaving them in their very own little bubble of nothingness. They just stare at her for a moment, for two, before Ruby’s voice finally shatters the quiet in Beth’s head.

“Are you kidding me right now?”

“Uh, why would I be kidding?” Annie gestures broadly between them, brow furrowed and lips drawn into a serious line. “He’s in security, he knows the protocol, he has like, first aid training, and sure, he’s not like, great at any of it, but he’s also not a snitch.”

Beth arches an eyebrow at that, but Annie powers through.

“I told you, Beth. He caught me, during the robbery. He knows the secret shopper stuff was shady,” she shrugs. “He’s never told. He’s never even asked us for anything, not like Mary Pat. Plus he has legal access to tasers, which at least kind of gets us around the whole gun thing.”

And god, Beth thinks, looking over at Ruby, are they really considering this? She folds her arms over her chest at the same time Ruby plants her hands on her hips, bracketing Annie.

“How do you know he’ll even want in?” Ruby asks, and Annie sighs.

“You guys know what Fine & Frugal pays. Besides, his mom has a tumour and his dad’s out on disability. He’s already been fishing for more hours at work and looking for a second job. I don’t think he’ll turn down a cut.”

Ruby sighs, and Beth looks back over her shoulder at the stretching market – at the array of stalls, at the bustles of people, and then that customer, buying somebody else’s apron, from somebody else’s stall, and god, how much longer can she do this?

“Be careful,” she says, not looking back at Annie. “When you ask him. No false steps, right? We can’t screw this up.”

*

The address comes from a private number, and Beth can’t say she isn’t surprised when it leads them not to some abandoned car yard or an unmarked factory like perhaps she’d expected, but rather to a bright, busy fruit and vegetable importer, the lights inside illuminating the already slow bleed of night across the parking lot.

“Are you sure this is it?” Ruby asks, pressing her face closer to the glass window of the passenger seat, and Beth nods, slowing into a park. She’s about to ask Annie to double check the address – just to be sure, when Tyler’s voice chimes in from the backseat.

“Isn’t this Todd’s place?”

“Who’s place?”

It’s Annie’s voice, sounding loud beside him, and Beth means to look back, but can’t quite pull her eyes away from the thrum of the workers loading up vans with crates of bruised apples and green bananas. She’s not really sure what she’s looking for – the glint of a gun handle? An airbag full of pills? The ruffled feathers of a neck tattoo (god, Beth, stop) – just anything that might tell her this is where they’re supposed to be.

“Todd’s place. You know Todd. He comes into Fine & Frugal all the time. We swapped to Todd’s supplying like, more than a year ago.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I was acting manager for almost two months,” Tyler puffs out his chest, his tone tinged with pride, and it’s enough to make Beth tear her gaze from the labourers back to Ruby, who’s giving her a look she can read clean and clear as anything.

After all, if Fine & Frugal had been a front for money laundering and a place to store dead bodies, any connection to it here is probably the sign she was looking for.

“Okay,” Beth says, pushing open the car door. “Everybody ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Ruby says a little dryly, getting out behind Beth. It’s not long before they’re all together, and Beth double checks the cash bag before passing it to Annie, straightening her black turtleneck, her green peacoat, her black jeans, and starting towards the warehouse docks.

It’s a cacophony of sound – of night birds, and men yelling – playful and frustrated and ordering each other around, of the scrape of metal doors on the backs of vans, or the drag of crates down the concrete. The air smells thick with fruit skins and dirt and sweat, but Beth inhales it all, tries to taste the promise of the night to quell her fraying nerves.

She’s almost at the entrance when she feels her burner vibrate in the back pocket of her jeans.

Loading dock 3.

Beth glances back at Ruby, Annie and Tyler, tilting her head for them to follow her. She squares her shoulders, tries to hold herself a little taller as she does it.

Loading dock 3 is almost at the other end of the warehouse, more poorly lit than the main stretch, with only a lone worker stretched out against the closed metal roller door. The guy is huge – must be close to seven-foot-tall, his head shaved and a heavy beard tugging down his face. He’s dragging on a cigarette, a thin ream of smoke escaping from the corner of his mouth, and he eyes them carefully as they approach. Beth swallows down her nerves, tries to step forwards a little firmer and is more than a little relieved when she hears Annie behind her telling Tyler to keep his hand ready on the taser.

She stops in front of the roller door, eyeing the guy, who just stares blankly back at her. After a beat, he plucks the cigarette out of his mouth, and gives her a quick, almost mechanical once over.

“Olivia?”

Beth nods, stepping forwards again, and the guy knocks back on the roller door before yanking it up, tilting his head for them to step in. She’s not quite sure what she expects, but it’s not this – a narrow little hallway leading down to a small door at the end. The air smells slightly damp, slightly potent with the unmistakable odour of off fruit and the liquid that forms on breaking down vegetables and Beth tries not to wrinkle her nose in disgust.

There’s another man standing out the front of the office, and he nods them through the doorway. Beth takes a breath and steps through.

The room is larger than it looks from the outside, slightly dank – with the mould sporing in the corner of the ceiling and the slight crunch to the crusty carpet under foot. There’s not a lot else to the space – a cabinet with shelves bowing under the weight of thick, heavy binders, a cash-check machine, and an empty fish tank. There’s a wilted fern in the corner, a patchy rug with a dubious looking stain poking out below, and, atop it, a wide wooden desk covered with paperwork.

Behind the desk is a small man, broad-jawed with sandy hair and dull grey eyes, and he’d look almost ordinary if it wasn’t for the unmistakable tail of a scorpion curling up his neck beneath the collar of his shirt, and god, what is it with these guys and neck tatts?

Somewhere behind her, she hears Tyler whisper “Uhh, that’s not Todd,” and Annie quickly shush him.

It’s enough for the guy to glance up, take her in for a second, before gesturing her forwards, deeper into the room, and Beth makes quick steps forwards to stand opposite him at the desk, bracketed by Annie and Ruby, with Tyler coming up just behind.

Within seconds, the man from the hallway is in the room too, leaning back against the far wall, while another appears seemingly out of thin air, rounding the desk to stand behind the man sitting there. It’s Tyler both of them clock, sharing a quick smirk that Beth refuses to think too much about.

And right, Beth thinks, standing up a little straighter. She opens her mouth to speak, only the guy at the desk holds up his hand to stop her, continuing to scratch in his chicken scrawl across the paper in front of him, and it’s not until he finally sighs, content, capping his pen, that he sits back in his chair and actually looks at her.

“So,” he says, holding his hands out, smiling at her in a way she doesn’t particularly like. “Tell me about yourself.”

Beth sucks in a breath.

“I have a business proposition,” she starts, and the guy shakes his head, waves his hands at her until she stops.

“No, come on, miss - - Olivia, was it? “

At Beth’s nod, he smiles again, all teeth.

“There’s plenty of time for business. Tell me about yourself.”

His tone is light, friendly even, and Beth’s eyes search his face for any broader intent, and it’s there – she can see that much, an agenda, but she doesn’t know him, and can’t read what it says. She rocks her jaw, feeling Annie and Ruby wind tighter either side of her, as she tries to decide how to play this.

“What would you like to know?” she asks, keeping her face carefully neutral as she tries to buy herself some time.

“Oh, I don’t know. Where you grew up, what your family is like, where you went to school, where you worked, whatever you fancy. Paint me a picture. Let me know who I’d be getting into business with before we talk that shit through, you know?”

Beth blinks, feels the rapid flutter of her eyelashes until she thinks enough to slow them. She glances at the man over the guy’s shoulder, but he’s barely paying attention to her, and right, Beth thinks. Right. She paints on her most pleasant, mommy playdate smile.

“Well, that’s fair!” she beams, ignoring Annie’s suddenly sharp look behind her. “I grew up local, three brothers – two older, one younger. I went to Wayne State Community College, and worked as a secretary for a while at a mechanics where I met our, uh, mutual friend. The rest is history, I guess.”

She shrugs, still smiling, and the guy meets her gaze, a placid smile on his own face.

“Husband? Any kids?”

Beth shakes her head. “Haven’t been quite that lucky. Two cats though, who are pretty cute, if I do say so myself.”

The guy barks on a laugh at that, and seems to take her in all over again.

“You going to return the favour?” Beth asks, gesturing at him, and he shrugs, before leaning back in his chair.

“Sure. Moved from Florida, got three kids, oldest just started highschool, ran a McDonalds for ten years before moving on to bigger and better things. No cats, but I do have a dog. Name’s Lance by the way. Mine, not the dog’s.”

He stares at her easily, folding his hands over the slight paunch at his belly, and Beth just stares back at him. He doesn’t offer anything else, doesn’t move them along, and the space between them would almost be relaxed if it didn’t feel so loaded, and just - - she thinks about letting it slide, but - -

Fuck it.

“Any of that true?”

The grin that spreads across his face is perhaps the first genuine thing she’s seen from him, and it makes her stand up a little straighter, makes her reset the hinges on her own careful mask. The act of it makes him laugh a little, lean back into his chair, maintaining eye contact all the while.

“Tell me what you’re offering, Olivia.”

She just stares at him for a minute, maybe two, before gesturing to Annie for the bag of fake cash. She places it on the table between them, watching as he opens it, pulling out a bundle. He inspects it himself before passing it over to the man behind him to check over and run through the machine on the cabinet.

She doesn’t wait for the green light she knows is coming before she starts talking.

“We can offer a quarter of a million a month,” Beth says, ignoring Annie and Ruby’s sudden sharp looks behind her. “With the potential for an increase after three if everyone’s still happy. You’ll get a 30% cut. Our product is good, undetectable by both those pens and those machines. We rolled out months ago, and we’ve been in circulation ever since with no hitches. We’re ready to expand.”

Lance looks only briefly surprised by Beth’s spiel before he quickly covers it, leaning forwards slightly in his seat.

“You’re green as fuck, you know that, right? Nobody knows you.”

“See, I don’t see that as a bad thing,” Beth counters. “Nobody knowing us means there’s no trail to us.”

Lance concedes this, flopping back in his chair.

“Nobody to vouch for you either.”

“So you’ll be taking a chance,” Beth says, holding her hands out to Ruby and Annie. Then she tilts her head. “What I think could be a very lucrative chance.”

It takes Lance a moment to respond to that, and Beth chances a look over his shoulder and feels oddly pleased when she realises she has his offsider’s full attention now. The room feels alive with tension, with promise, and she can see it, the moment Lance folds.

“Okay,” he says, and Beth has to bite back the grin.

“Okay?” she asks, and he nods, gesturing for his guy to return the stack of cash to the bag. Beth’s mostly expecting him to look through it, to count it, but he doesn’t. He just zips it up, before sitting back in his chair and staring at her again.

“So do we negotiate the other stuff now?”

Beth blinks then quickly tries to cover it.

“Excuse me?”

The guy behind Lance is laughing now, softly, under his breath, and when she glances back at Lance, he’s smiling, something smug and unkind. Beth almost adjusts her coat before she catches herself, forcing her hands still.

“Look, I heard you come to the table with perks. I mean, I’m open to whatever you might be offering. Any - - ” and his gaze skirts towards Annie and Ruby. “Package deals.”

And god, how are they here again? Beth squares her shoulders, exhales a little sharply and then shakes her head, keeping her expression neutral.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He arches an eyebrow at that, leans forwards a bit in his seat.

“You don’t?”

And he’s talking again before she can even shake her head.

“See, word on the street is your husband tried to organise a hit on Rio Vela for fucking you, which, gotta say, your husband’s either got balls of steel or he shares half a brain cell with those idiot kids he tried to hire to do the job. Judging by the pig suits we usually see him on TV in, I’m kind of thinking it’s the latter, huh, Mrs. Boland?”

Beth hears Annie keen in fear and quickly suppress it, rock back, like maybe she’s heading towards Tyler, but Lance’s boys aren’t moving. Even Lance isn’t, still pressed slightly forwards in his chair behind his ugly desk. He drags his gaze up her body, making a production of undressing her with his eyes, and Beth shudders out a breath.

“And look, I gotta say you aren’t really my type, but I can see the appeal. And Jesus, not to be crass, but you must have a real world class pussy to keep a guy like Vela throwing rocks at your window for so long.”

The guy behind him tilts his head, like he’s agreeing, and Beth can feel how red she is – with anger, with humiliation, with - - with what, she can’t even begin to process, and she tries to steel herself, shifts her weight, tries to reclaim her wits.

“You really want to lose this deal because you’re thinking with the wrong head?”

And he laughs at that, briefly surprised, but just shakes his head in the end.

“See, the thing is, I don’t really give a fuck about your little start-up, Mrs. Boland. The cash is okay, and you aren’t wrong about being your own little island in this business, but there are a million of you. Or well, there’s a million guys out there doing what you do. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing you’ve got that they don’t.”

Beth frowns at him, and she can feel it, the second her mask slips, the second Lance gets a peak below, only he doesn’t care enough to look. It doesn’t stop his eyes dropping to her chest though, his head tilting side to side.

“Can’t say I’m not curious about it either to be honest.”

It’s all it takes for Beth to reach out to the desk, grabbing the bag of cash from the table and lugging it over her shoulder.

“I’d thank you for your time, but I think you did a pretty good job of wasting it yourself,” she bites, turning on her heel and ignoring Ruby and Annie’s wide-eyed gazes back at her. She storms past them, past Tyler and the guy at the door, and she can hear Lance laughing behind her, calling out if you change your mind, but she won’t look back, can’t.

Her hands are twitching, her body stiff, and she’s more relieved than she cares to admit when the roller door is lifted for her without a second thought, when she’s able to stride out, the cool night air nipping at her hot skin, her legs moving her on autopilot to the car where she climbs into the driver’s seat, tossing the bag of cash into the back. And she just sits there, her grip white knuckled around the steering wheel, her eyes fixed on nothing, her skin still blotchy and red.

It’s only a few seconds later when the other doors are sliding open, Ruby slipping into the passenger seat while Annie and Tyler get into the back. Everyone is silent, but she feels all their eyes on her, and it’s Annie – of course it’s Annie – who breaks it.

“At least your vagina’s getting a world class reputation?” she tries. “Silver linings.”

And Beth spins in her seat to glare, watching her sister recoil against the back seat.

“And we still have three meetings, right?” Ruby interjects quickly. “That guy was an asshole. We don’t want to work with him anyway, right? We have three more opportunities, so let’s not stress, okay?”

It’s enough to make her turn around, to sag back in her seat, try to catch her breath. Ruby’s right. It was one meeting, that’s all. She breathes out a shaky breath and starts up the car.

*

“Can’t I just watch the movie?”

Beth sighs, elbow deep in cake batter as Kenny flops onto the stool at the kitchen island, sending her the biggest puppy dog eyes he can manage.

“You can watch the movie after you’ve read the book. Don’t you want to be surprised?”

“The movie could surprise me,” he says hopefully, and Beth rolls her eyes, quickly cleaning off her hands to grab some vanilla pods from the pantry.

“Surprise you right out of reading the book, I’m sure. You know, I read Bridge to Terabithia for school too when I was your age? I could help. Oh! Or maybe we could read it together?”

He just gives her a pubescent, judgemental look at that, rocking back on the stool, and Beth meets his look, scraping the vanilla pods out into the cake batter.

“I’m not a baby, mom.”

“Did I say you were?”

Kenny opens his mouth to reply, to say something probably outright rude and vaguely offensive, but they’re both saved from the moment with Dean striding in, making awkward work of doing up his tie. Beth blinks, wiping her hands off on her apron and moving across the kitchen to help him with it.

“What are you so dressed up for?” she asks, and Dean grins at her.

“Gretchen asked for another meeting. Just wants to go over a few things in the books again, a couple of the staff files. I think they want to open the place pretty quick after the window closes and her guy is back in town.”

Beth hums, making nimble work of fixing Dean’s tie, ignoring the pang of irritation in her gut at not being looped in. It’s not for her to know anymore, she reminds herself, not now that the two of them are divorced.

“Did I tell you Alan thinks I’ll be ready for my real estate exam in a few weeks too? I’ll be fully licensed!” He laughs, folding down his collar as Beth finishes with his tie. “Not that I even need the thing. I mean, look at me, selling my first place before I’m even qualified.”

He laughs again, louder this time, shaking his head as he steps around Beth. He dips his finger into the cake mix, licking it off and ruffling Kenny’s hair with his free hand, before he grabs the lunch she’d made him off the bench.

“Things are really coming up, huh?” he grins over at her, and she puts on her best smile to match it.

“They really are,” she says, and Dean fidgets happily on the spot before turning on his heel, calling out to all the kids who scramble suddenly into the kitchen, grabbing their lunches and disappearing in a flurry of the usual chaos.

Beth leans back against the counter, briefly relieved to see them all gone, before moving to check on the muffins in the oven. There’s a buzz from the counter, and Beth looks up, surprised to see it coming from her burner phone. Moving quickly, she grabs it, seeing a text from Dominic.

Meeting with #2 cancelled.

Beth resists the urge to throw her phone.

*

The third (well, second) meeting is as much a bust as the first. The guy, who goes only by Spike, might not leer as much as Lance, but makes it clear within minutes that the only reason he’d met with her is because he’d wanted to see the woman Rio had been so involved with in person, going so far as to mention not just Dean’s failed hit, but Jane’s blanket, and god, Beth thought, chest clenching, it’s just - -

She exhales, moving them out of the park and back towards the carpark. They’re barely out of earshot when Annie starts to rant.

“He didn’t even look at the money,” Annie hisses as they clamber into the minivan, and Beth just - -

“Let’s get a drink.”

*amp;

“There’s still one meeting left,” Ruby says hopefully, grabbing her latest drink off the bartender’s tray. “Lucky last and all that shiz.”

“You did not just say shiz,” Annie replies, taking a long slurp of her own cocktail, and Beth only musters enough energy to briefly twitch her lips up.

She’s slumped, exhausted, in the booth of their new favourite bar. Some little dive which somehow manages to be within a ten-minute drive of all their homes, making it a pretty neat little collective spot. It’s not cool exactly, but it doesn’t make Beth feel like somebody’s grandmother either, which is basically the most she feels like she can hope for these days. Tyler had stayed for the first couple of drinks and been sweeter than Beth feels like she deserves these days (“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Boland. These guys seem kind of like jerks.”) before heading home (he had to be up early to take his mom to treatment) and it had only given Beth more of an excuse to drink, because god, how were they gonna pay him.

“It’ll probably go the same way,” Beth says glumly, drunk enough to fail to find her straw. She sighs, letting Annie lean over to help her get it into her mouth. “They only care about Rio anyway.”

As soon as she says it, she regrets it - - the thing it all unlocks in her, because god, is that the first time she’s said his name since - - in - -

She clenches her eyes shut, and she can’t put words to the deep, tangled mess of feelings in the darkest, deepest drawer of her – the unwieldy grief and the guilt and the bitterness and the anger and the humiliation that she’d thought she was ever something more to him than - - what was it Spike had said, only hours before? Somewhere to park his cock.

It’s not long before a hoarse sob wracks her chest, the tears finding her eyes, and she wishes they weren’t there, wishes she couldn’t feel their eyes on her, wishes she couldn’t feel Ruby’s hand, catching her elbow, pulling her closer.

“You’re allowed to feel it,” Ruby tells her now. “You’re allowed to feel all of it, you know that, right?”

And Beth’s eyes startle open, looking at Ruby looking too intently back at her, at Annie, who’s own eyes are glassy, who’s lips are red from where she’s bitten them, and no, Beth thinks, no, stupid, you’re supposed to take care of them.

She sits up a little straighter, tugging out of Ruby’s grip, looking between them and painting on a grin, resisting the urge to swipe the tears off her cheeks.

“There’s nothing to feel,” she says, and Ruby just looks at her, a pained expression on her face.

“Beth.”

“Seriously, I’m fine, okay? Don’t worry about me.” She slurps up the last of her drink, making a production out of checking her watch. “God, is that the time? I should get home anyway, I’ve still got a few orders to fill before Saturday’s market.”

“Beth,” Ruby says again, and Beth just waves her off, lurching to her feet and stumbling out the door.

*

She’s too drunk to drive.

That much she knows, so she opts instead to walk home, letting the cool evening air sigh at her neck, and the distant sound of traffic and cicadas and people jeering across the road lull her into thoughtlessness.

Or not thoughtlessness. Into - - into something.

Because she’s not sure what the next step is.

That’s the real problem, she tells herself.

She can’t keep doing the markets forever. Not with just them at least, and they don’t earn enough to bring other people into the fold, not like they did with the secret shopping, which means until they do, she’s got to do it herself – the cash, the cakes, the crafts. All of it. And god, she’s just - -

She’s just really tired.

She stumbles up the steps of her house, in the front door. Vaguely, she can hear Dean still up, pottering around his bedroom on the phone, but the last thing she wants is to talk to him, so she pours herself a drink as quietly as she can manage it before stumbling down into her bedroom.

Maybe they can squeeze in another market. She’d cleared their schedule a little for the end of the month, figuring one of these deals would’ve gone through, but it just doesn’t seem like an option anymore. She sighs, kicking off her boots and wandering over to her chest of drawers to pull out her calendar, only - -

Beth blinks, feeling her pulse thunder in her ears as her fingers find the bare bottom of the drawer.

Only - - it’s not there. Her calendar of manufacturing timelines and markets and order dates and product deliveries - -

It’s gone.

She thrusts her glass onto the top of the chest of drawers and uses both hands to empty the drawer of her pyjamas, tossing them all onto the floor, and when it’s done, she yanks open the drawer below it, pulling out her t-shirts and leggings and all her folded home clothes, and when that’s empty too, she does the one beneath it, and the one beneath that, hands shaking, her breathing coming so hard that her nostrils sting, and it’s only when she goes back up, to the very top drawer, yanking it open and pulling out her bras and panties does she catch herself.

Because there it is, bright coloured and stickered with her own private coding system, slipped neatly beneath her underwear. She huffs out a sigh of relief, rubbing at her forehead and grabbing her glass for another quick drink. Only - -

Only she didn’t put it there.

Her hand stills as she leans back a little, looking around her bedroom, and now that she’s noticed it, she can’t not. The fact that the clock on her bedside table has been tilted sideways, that the blankets she’d made for the markets are sitting slightly differently on the chair in the corner, as if somebody had unfolded them to look at them, before re-folding them somehow neater and more perfectly than before. The fact that the latch on her jewellery box is slightly lifted, like it hasn’t quite been closed.

Beth frowns, striding out of her bedroom and heading straight towards Dean’s, slamming open the door. It’s enough to make Dean yelp from where he lies on top of the covers on his bed, yanking his hand out of his pants as he does it and telling whoever over the phone that he’ll call her back.

“Beth!”

“Were you in my room?”

Dean just blinks at her, head reeling back in confusion.

“What? No!”

Staring at him, eyes unblinking, Beth rocks her jaw forwards, glowering and waiting for him to inevitably continue.

“I’m serious,” he says, waving his hands around before finally splaying them out on his chest. “Why would I go in your room?”

“Some of my things have been moved.”

“Well, it wasn’t me. Why would I even want to? Maybe you just forgot. Maybe the kids went in, I don’t know.”

Folding her arms over her chest, she waits for him to cave, but he doesn’t – he just glowers back, defensive and furious in his own right, and god, she realises, glancing down, he’s still half hard in his pyjama pants. It’s enough to diffuse her, to embarrass her, to disgust her, something, she doesn’t know, but whatever it is, she turns on her heel, closing the door shut behind her and starting back towards her own room.

Maybe he’s right, maybe she is imagining it. After all, nothing’s really moved she thinks, just - - just been adjusted, and she’ll be the first to admit she’s a little drunk. She bites her lip, shaking her head at herself and goes about the process of carefully putting away the clothes she’d emptied out, turning the clock back, adjusting the blankets, before heading over to her jewellery box.

Without thinking, she pulls the latch further up and opens the lid, only to have the breath ripped from her lungs.

Nothing is missing, like perhaps a small part of her expects, but rather, something has been added.

Not amongst her necklaces or by her earrings, but there, nestled between her old wedding ring, the class ring Dean had given her, her grandmother’s ring and the friendship one her and Ruby had swapped, is a single, shining bullet.

Chapter Text

It rolls when she puts it down – backwards and then forwards on her kitchen island, catching the late afternoon light and glinting. The sound is metallic, heavier than it looks, and yet somehow it seems so much smaller here than it had in her jewellery box – like a playable piece in a game of monopoly – be the dog, or the thimble, or the bullet. Beth has to swallow the near hysterical laugh building behind her teeth at the thought.

“And you’re sure it wasn’t there before,” Ruby tries, and Beth blinks up at her, flailing briefly.

“Yes, believe it or not, I don’t think I would’ve forgotten a bullet in my jewellery box.

“Maybe you like, found it on the street somewhere after a girls’ night and put it in there and forgot?” Annie tries, her voice a little high, a little desperate, her leg jittering underneath her, and Beth sighs, shaking her head.

She almost hadn’t told them, hadn’t planned on it last night when she’d picked it up with trembling fingers, letting it rest, cool to the touch in her palm as she tried to make sense of it, but she’d slept so poorly after she’d put it back – not with worry for herself, but worry that whoever had left it for her might be knocking on their doors next.

“It’s got to be one of those guys, right? Lance or Spike?”

“But why?” Annie asks. “They don’t need to freak us out anymore than they already have. Besides, they made it pretty clear that they weren’t going to work with us. At least not without, you know…”

She gestures loosely to Beth’s body, earning her a scowl in reply.

“Well, who else could it be?”

“Dominic?” Annie suggests. “Or like, maybe the guy who bailed on the meeting?”

And they all turn the thought over, the silence twisting uneasily between them, and its Ruby who eventually breaks it, her mouth curving into a frown, her eyes darting carefully to Beth.

“Or one of gangfriend’s guys.”

Beth rears her head up so quickly she almost throws her neck, heart lodging itself in her throat, and it must be on her face, must be plain for Ruby to read, because she gives her an apologetic shrug, gesturing back to the bullet.

“I mean, it’s his whole ass vibe, isn’t it?”

And yes, Beth thinks, biting the inside of her cheek trying to swallow her heart back down, but finding it too big, too firm, too sore, to dislodge. The thought had occurred to her too, had woken her with a sob from her briefly stolen sleep, but it couldn’t be him, never would be again, and she doubted his boys would bother messing with her head like this, at least not this long after the fact of it all. She sighs, dropping her hands to her hips.

“It might not mean anything,” she tries. “It might just be someone’s idea of a joke.”

“Not a particularly funny one,” Annie replies dryly, and Beth is about to agree when they hear the front door open and shut. Practically launching herself across the kitchen island, Beth grabs the bullet, shoving it down into the pocket of her jeans as Dean swaggers in, sweaty in his jogging gear, giggling into the mouthpiece of his cell phone.

“No, you are,” he coos, voice thick and cloying, and Annie and Ruby both reel back, their expressions twisting in disgust.

It’s enough to make Beth sigh again, willing any embarrassed blush from her face as she juts her hip into the kitchen island, waiting for Dean to acknowledge them, but he doesn’t – just heads to the fridge and peels open one of the containers, dipping his fingers in to pull out one of the chocolate crackles she’d made that morning.

Darting over, Beth tries to close the container on his stumpy fingers, but he’s too quick, yanking out the treat and shoving it into his mouth.

Dean, those are for the market,” she hisses, her chest flushing in fury, but Dean just flashes her a half-assed innocent face as he laughs at something over the phone, chocolate crisps still visible at the corners of his mouth.

“Oh my god, I think you might just be the cutest,” he says over the line, his tone cloying all over again, and Beth scowls as he licks chocolate off his fingers and starts off towards his room, finally waving Annie and Ruby a quick hello.

He’s barely two feet down the hall when Annie turns on her, her arms folded across her chest, her forehead deeply furrowed, and her lips curled.

“Ew, is he always like that now?”

Resealing the container of chocolate crackles, Beth’s silence seems to be all the confirmation that Annie needs. She makes a thickly disgusted noise in the back of her throat before asking:

“Is he sticking it to her? Emma’s ballet teacher?”

“Assistant ballet teacher,” Beth says, the words out of her mouth before she can stop them, and god, like it even matters, and Annie says, “Oh my god, he is? Ewwwwww,” and then pauses. “Wait. Please tell me he goes back to hers?”

Studiously avoiding both their gazes, Beth focuses her attention on reorganising the shelf in the fridge for nothing more than to have something to do with her hands, but she can feel Ruby’s eyes almost popping out of her head as Annie makes a series of sounds that can definitely not pass for any sort of human language.

She knows she’s red, can feel it in her cheeks, at her neck, in the hot flush of blood coursing through her, and god, the last thing she wanted was for them to know this.

“We’re divorced, he can do whatever he wants,” she says, because they are, and he can, but Annie just scoffs, loud, gesturing towards the door.

“And he needs to do it here? What does he think this is? A frat? Does he put a sock on the door handle? Does he make sure to be loud so his bro - ” she gestures broadly at Beth. “- can hear him getting his dick wet?”

Annie,” she hisses, spinning around to look at Ruby for help, but Ruby just holds up her hands in a way that makes something in Beth shrivel up.

“You need to turf his ass out of here, sis, seriously,” Annie says. “This is like, beyond. I seriously - - I have no words.”

“If only,” Beth grits, and Annie just arches an eyebrow, folding her arms furiously over her chest again.

“Look,” Beth adds, trying to get them back on track, just - - trying to regain control. She smooths her hands over her jeans, feeling the lump the bullet makes in her pocket. “I wanted you guys to know about the - - you know, but I don’t think we should worry about it right now. I think we should do the Pillsbury Market on Saturday, and then I think we need to focus on the meeting on Tuesday night. It’s the last one, we can’t blow it.”

Annie and Ruby make vague noises of agreement, and Beth exhales, drawing the attention back to the pastries and cakes they still need to make for the market.

*

“This weather seems to do a good job of scaring away the crowds, huh?”

She almost misses the voice, she’s so lost in her own thoughts – the sound of the rain on the make-shift tarp above them impossibly loud. It’s done the job of saving most of the market’s stalls, but it sags ominously above them, weighed down with caught water, and she’s seen more than a few of the other stallholders eyeing it with worry. Beth’s half of a mind to pack up herself, but while the candies and the scarves will keep, she can’t exactly say the same for the cakes and pastries.

“I can’t say I’d be out to shop in it,” Beth agrees, and it’s only then that she really sees him – Tom, the leatherwares guy. He’s got a neat flush on his cheeks, likely from the cool wind that the rain has brought with it, and the shoulders of his t-shirt are speckled with wet spots, his hair damp. She hadn’t seen him around, so he must’ve found her from one of the other covered sections of the market, darting through the briefly uncovered spots while he explored.

She’s on her own right now. Ruby having taken the kids to dry off after Jane and Harry had had a little too much fun stomping in puddles, and Annie off trying to find something for lunch. It’s not like she hadn’t been able to hold the stall down on her own anyway.

“Sold much?” Tom asks, like he’d read her mind, and Beth sighs, shaking her head. As soon as she’d seen the weather forecast, she’d known the day would be a slow one, but they’d already paid for their stall, and the cash wouldn’t exactly wash itself. Still, it had been even slower than she’d expected, and she thinks she’s made maybe $300 all morning.

“Me neither.”

Beth blinks over at him, and he smiles a little softly back at her, pushing his slightly damp, blond hair back off his face. Then his forehead suddenly creases.

“I swear I’m not stalking you too,” he says, like he’s afraid she might have thought it, and Beth could almost laugh at the irony of it. “I just wanted to say thanks again, and tell you how much my daughters loved your stuffed animals. I don’t think Bella has slept without hers since I gave it to her. She called it Pinky, because of the colour.”

Smiling, Beth rolls her eyes in good nature, her gaze skirting over the marketplace again. It really is pretty empty. There’s a bedraggled family looking at a plant stall at the end of the row, an elderly man leaning heavily on a cane as he checks out Jan’s Jellies, but other than that, the whole day looks like a bust.

“You know, every mommy book I’ve ever read tries to tell me about the creativity of children, but I’m yet to be convinced,” she says, glancing back at him, and then promptly blushes, remembering herself, embarrassed at her own familiarity. “God, I’m so sorry, that was rude. I’m thrilled that she likes it so much.”

It’s enough to make Tom laugh, a melodic sound below the shatter of rain above them, and Beth can’t help the way her smile rolls out into something slightly less saleswoman and into something a bit more her.

“I think you were right the first time. My eldest – Chloe – her school had this art show, and they wanted to make it authentic, so they did this full auction where they presented the works, and all the parents got these bidding paddles, which, you know, is all really cute, but I mean. They’re nine, you know?”

Beth laughs, cringing on his behalf, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the kiss of damp air.

“No Van Gogh’s in the mix?”

“I’d have settled for a Rothko.”

It’s enough to make her blink, surprised. She rocks back on her heels, squinting a little as she takes him in.

“You know your painters.”

“So do you,” he says, amused, and Beth shrugs, wrinkling her nose.

“Not really,” at his curious look, Beth grins, a little bashfully. “I was a stay at home mom for a really long time. I watched a lot of daytime TV, including many, many badly narrated documentaries on The History Channel.”

Most of the time she’d just have it on in the background. It had felt almost like adult company while she’d changed diapers, cleaned up vomit, and fixed dinners that Dean would miss. All those nights he worked late. She shakes her head, feeling herself flush, even internally. How could she have been so naïve?

She thinks about him on the phone to Nicole, his hand down his pants, just down the hall.

How could she still be?

Living together was never going to work.

“Seems like a good way to a cheap education,” Tom says now, and Beth snorts, pulled back to the moment.

“That’s one way of putting it. Do you like art?”

“I minored in it at NYU,” he says with a shrug, and Beth eyes him with a new sort of interest. She wonders if he has paintings in his house, if he collects, like - - she blinks, digs her fingernails into her palms. God, stop, she thinks, ignoring the heat in her cheeks, the pressure building behind her eyes.

She clears her throat, pivoting the subject.

“And you majored in…?”

“Law. Was pretty good at it too on the outside of college, but I don’t really practice anymore. I work in the non-profit sector, mostly as an advisor. I’m on a few boards. Do some mentoring. That sort of thing.”

Beth blinks, impressed, her lip curling in amusement.

“And make high quality leather goods on the weekend?”

“My true passion,” Tom says with a self-deprecating laugh, and Beth can’t quite hide her grin. “Did you go to college?”

She shakes her head.

“I mean, I got into Wayne State,” she says, suddenly feeling the need to say it. “But you know - - sometimes things don’t go the way you planned.”

And she’s used to the spiel by now, has gone through it enough times with people at the PTA, but the truth is harder to dig up. That college hadn’t been an option with her dad gone and her mom in bed, and Annie seven-years-old and prone to launching herself off things even under the strictest supervision, and Dean had seemed like an option to get them both out of that house, and just - -

“No, they don’t,” Tom agrees now, his voice loaded, like he gets it, and Beth blinks at him again, surprised. Somewhere, she thinks she hears Jane’s loud, squealing laugh, Emma’s voice scolding, and then Ruby soothing, can hear the chatter of stall holders, and still, the rain, but she can’t quite stop looking at Tom, who shuffles a little awkwardly, a look on his face that she can’t read.

He opens his mouth to add something, what, Beth won’t ever know.

“Okay, so they didn’t have soy milk, but weirdly they had pea milk? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Also I feel like you shouldn’t be able to call something milk unless you can actually milk it, you know? Like, call me when soy beans and peas have like, beautiful girl fleshy bits that produce delicious, nutritious liquids, you know?”

Annie clambers over to the stall, her hair wet and her mascara clumping, clutching a coffee tray and about three grocery bags full of soggy sandwiches. Sighing, Beth gives Tom a briefly long-suffering look who, to his credit, looks more amused than embarrassed (but still a million percent embarrassed), and it’s only when Annie blinks up to realise that Beth isn’t looking at her that she notices Tom at all.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry,” she says. “Ignore me. Annoying little sister here.”

She gives Tom a pair of finger guns around all her bags and coffees, and Beth rolls her eyes, opening her mouth to say something, only Tom dramatically pretends to take Annie’s finger bullets in the sort of dorky good nature that somehow still manages to steal Beth’s breath. Because suddenly that golden gun is hot in her hand, her arm tingling from the blowback of the shot, Rio, spluttering on his own blood, and she’s gasping for breath as she fumbles with the cloth they’d laid over their stall.

“You okay, B?” Annie asks tentatively, jerking her back to the moment, and Beth wobbles a little on the spot, looking over at Tom who’s gone nervous and confused across the other side of the table, and Annie who’s hovering at her shoulder, and she just - - she nods, paints on a grin.

“Yeah, sorry, just - -” she fumbles for an excuse. “Cramps. Speaking of fleshy girl bits.”

She tries a weak laugh, and, just, god, embarrassing. She clenches her eyes shut, wills her heart to slow.

“I should probably head back to my stall anyway,” Tom says, a little uncertainly. “I left my nephew in charge, and let me tell you, that’s a risk in itself.”

Beth tries to shoot him a smile, but she’s not really sure what look crosses her face, not when she still feels so unsteady. Either way, Tom tentatively smiles back at her, burying his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He looks like he might say something else, but finally just nods his head goodbye and disappears back out into the rain. It’s only then that she turns back to Annie, trying to steel herself by gently pulling the bags of sandwiches off Annie’s rain-wet arm.

“Must be some cramps,” Annie says, her voice oddly furious, and Beth blinks up at her, surprised by the tone, only to wish she hadn’t. Annie’s eyes are glassy with tears, her brow dipped, her cheeks flushed. “Are we ever gonna talk about this? I can’t -”

She lets out a hoarse breath, dropping the coffee tray to the table and scrubbing furiously at her face, and Beth can feel her own eyes prickling, can feel the weight in her chest spread to her gut, to her legs, until there’s not an inch of her that doesn’t feel this.

“Annie,” she starts, but Annie cuts her off.

“I love you,” she says. “And this fucking sucks, seeing you like this, and I just - -”

“I love you too,” Beth says quickly. “And honestly, Annie, I’m fine. I promise.”

Annie scoffs, tearing her coffee out of the cardboard tray, and taking a long swig, swearing when she burns her tongue, and Beth quickly grabs a bottle of water from her handbag, swapping it out, and just. Stupid, Beth thinks to herself, watching a tear streak down Annie’s face as she tries to sooth her mouth.

She can’t keep doing this to them.

*

It takes her three trips from the car in the (still) pouring rain to get all the unsold cakes, pastries, candies and knitwear back into her house, the weight of failure making itself known in every step, as well as in the thickness of the red-banded cash in her purse. And sure, it was the weather, like both Tom and Annie had insisted, but it was more than that too. It was the entire business. It was the plan.

It wasn’t just a slow start. It wasn’t working.

Swiping a few errant raindrops off the sliver of chest her blouse exposes, she sighs, resisting the urge to collapse back on the couch and heading for the bar cart instead. They still have the one meeting, Beth reminds herself, but despite her insistent positivity with Annie and Ruby, she really can’t imagine it going much better than the others had – these guys don’t know her enough, and they know (knew) Rio too well, and the reality of it aches too sharply in a place she can’t name.

Still, there’s Dominic, she tells herself, distracts herself. Maybe he knows someone else, maybe they can use him, maybe - - maybe - -

Beth rolls her eyes at herself, grabbing her bottle of bourbon off the bar cart and a glass off the second tray, only to stop when she hears a clink.

And it’s there, that familiar, uncanny dread, twisting at her gut, because she doesn’t even have to look to know what it is.

But still.

She looks.

Holds it near to her face and exhales slowly as she sees the lone, narrow bullet swimming in the bottom of her bourbon.

*

“We just need you to look scarier,” Annie insists, and Tyler nods, standing up a little taller, squaring his shoulders, drawing his features into a boyish scowl. It has all the effect of making him look like a toddler on the brink of a tantrum, but Beth smiles at him anyway, touched by the unquestioning effort, even as Annie groans. “Come on, big guy, you can do better than that.”

They’re waiting in Beth’s minivan for the signal from the last meeting Dominic had arranged. Whereas the other two had been at active sites – a produce importer and a flatpack furniture warehouse, this final place is almost eerie in it’s quiet. Not that it’s abandoned exactly either. She’d been surprised when they’d pulled up into the centre of town to a towering highrise building, apartment suites, that were still waiting on their fit out. It means that the outside is sleek in its modern completeness, but through the windows, she can see the place is hollow. Despite that, a For Sale sign sits erect on the footpath, a sticker slapped across a range of what it could look like interior pictures saying ‘Already 80% Sold!’

“Does he even know we’re here?” Ruby says cautiously, squinting out the window of the car, searching for any signs of activity and Beth nods, checking her phone again for a message.

She’d texted when they’d arrived, and the guy had replied, telling her to wait, that he’d send someone down for them, and Beth had obliged. It wasn’t like they could storm the place anyway – they don’t even know what floor he’s on, but still. She can’t say she doesn’t think this is some sort of power move, leaving them dangling.

As if on cue, a guy appears in the foyer of the building, and Beth smarts, unbuckling her seat belt and getting out of the car. He’s a big guy, younger than she expects, younger than both Lance and Spike’s muscle, younger than Rio’s, and he nods when he sees them, his eyes lingering – first on Beth and then on Tyler, who puffs out his chest when Annie tells him to, hissing it beneath her breath.

“Here we go,” Beth says, double checking that Annie’s grabbed the bag of cash before following the guy through into the empty high rise.

If it’s sleek on the outside, in has all the personality of a cinderblock inside, a mass-produced architecture that reminds Beth of factory lines – the walls still primer white, the floors a long, cold marble, some of the window frames are even still taped up. The guy takes them through into the elevator, punching in a number somewhere halfway up the building, and Beth feels the familiar tightening in her gut of anticipation, even as Ruby and Annie shift nervously behind her.

The elevator pings to a stop, the doors sliding open to reveal a wide hallway, complete with construction lamps set up along the floor, shining fluorescent against the walls, giving everything an unforgiving glow. Stepping down the hall, the guy leads them to the final apartment among the string of doors, knocking sharply before opening the door for them, gesturing them in with a tilt of his head.

Cautiously, Beth steps inside.

She’s not sure what she’s expecting, but it isn’t a lush inner-city apartment, spacious and set up, a direct parallel to the starkness of the rest of the building. The walls have been painted a softer white, electronic blinds fitted around every window, two long silver-toned sofas set opposite each other in the middle of the living room, tall indoor ferns sighing in the space beside them.

She can hear the whir of a coffee grinder, and follows the sound to the small kitchen, and just - - god, it takes her a moment to place him, the familiarity hitting her like an arrow to the chest. He’s taller than her, but not unusually so, maybe six foot, dressed in a perfectly tailored navy suit. He’s handsome, his hair cropped close to his head, not quite shaved, and he smells like good cologne – ginger, and cedarwood, and as soon as she places him, she finds herself back there. That first time she’d seen Rio’s operation, before she’d left him her pearls, dropping that wrapping paper off after Canada, Rio, talking to this guy – she sucks in a breath.

And she feels it, the energy shifting behind her, the moment Ruby and Annie realise it too.

Beth adjusts her weight, watching him work the coffee machine with a practiced ease – emptying ground beans into the filter, filling the back of the machine with water.

“I don’t suppose there’s much point in telling you my name’s Olivia,” she says, because it feels right, and it’s enough to make the guy look over, fitting the water tank back onto the machine, and switching it on. His face is neutral, but not unkind as he takes her in.

“Probably not, Mrs. Boland. Coffee?”

He’s so unlike Lance, so unlike Spike, that it takes Beth a moment to find her breath, to remember herself, until Ruby nudges her back and Beth clears her throat, nodding sharply.

“Yes, thank you.”

He tilts his head in acknowledgement, then glances at Annie, Ruby and Tyler, who all nod too, and then the guy’s making quick work of pouring them each an espresso. He doesn’t ask how they take it, just serves it like that, no milk, no sugar, and she figures his courtesy might have its limits.

“I don’t think I ever got your name,” she says, watching as he places the five coffees onto a mirror-bottomed tray and strides past them back towards the living room. He gestures the three of them to sit down, sliding the tray onto the glass coffee table, and sitting on the sofa opposite them, folding one leg so his ankle rests across his knee. He grabs one of the espressos, sipping on it neatly, a picture of relaxed elegance that makes Beth shift in her seat, suddenly self-conscious, even in one of her neater, more professional dresses.

He waits until the three of them have sat down, Tyler staying standing at the edge of the couch, to answer her.

“AJ,” he replies easily, seeming to take them in all over again, and she tries to ignore the amused twist to his lips when his gaze lingers on Tyler. “Can’t say I ever expected to see you here. Then again, I can’t say I expected you to still be kicking around these sorts of scenes either.”

Beth shrugs, thrown a little by AJ’s apparent ease.

“I guess I’m full of surprises,” she says, passing Ruby, Annie and Tyler their coffees before grabbing her own. “Thank you for meeting with us.”

He doesn’t respond to that, and Beth clears her throat, takes a sip of her coffee and smooths a clammy hand down the thigh of her dress, straightening herself out.

“We’re here with a business proposition,” she starts, gearing herself up, and Annie grabs the bag off her lap on cue, putting it onto the coffee table between them, unzipping it. AJ leans forwards in his seat, peering inside, a look of surprise quickly crossing his face before he covers it, pulling out one of the stacks of cash.

Beth immediately launches into her spiel – the same one she’d given Lance and Spike, and AJ gives her the courtesy of listening, his face carefully neutral as he pulls out a note to inspect. She’s almost finished when AJ slips the stack back into the bag, leaning back into his seat and watching her accommodatingly as she finishes.

There’s a beat, maybe two, where all Beth can hear is Annie and Ruby’s breathing and the hum of the air conditioner, and then heels on the tiles as a woman appears out of a room down the hall, effortlessly elegant in a forest green suit, a cell phone glued to her ear. She sees them, glancing curiously across them, before ducking into one of the other rooms.

“It’s not a bad product,” AJ says, pulling Beth’s attention back to him. “It’s just small trade, and I don’t really see it paying off for me short term. This’d be an investment.”

“Right,” Beth says, blinking, nodding sharply. “We do have the resources and the potential to really expand though.”

And she ignores Ruby’s piercing inhale beside her, planting her feet a little firmer on the floor as she sits forwards on the sofa. AJ rocks his head from side-to-side, and she can almost see him thinking, but not in a way that she likes. Finally, he sighs, leaning back.

“That might be true, Mrs. Boland, but honestly? And I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but this doesn’t seem like it would be particularly beneficial to either of us. I mean, a side hustle is one thing, but this is a pretty brazen step into your boss’ business. Similar product, poaching partners…I can’t remember a time he’s taken this sort of thing lightly.”

Beth sits up straight, feeling Annie and Ruby shoot each other looks behind her back.

“Excuse me?”

And then it’s AJ’s turn to react – his forehead furrowing, his lips parting. It takes him a moment to say anything, and when he does, it’s not exactly what she expects.

“I mean, you work for Rio, don’t you?”

Beth gapes for a second, feels the familiar clench in her chest at the mention of his name, but swallows the feeling as best she can. She shifts in her seat, eyes taking AJ in, the clean line of him, the carefully schooled expression on his face.

“Not for a while,” she says, clearing her throat, and AJ looks briefly surprised again, his head jerking ever so slightly back, his eyes widening, before he smooths it all over again. He uncrosses his legs, planting them both flat on the floor as he looks her over, considering her.

“Maybe you should be.”

And it can’t - - he must mean - - he can’t mean - -

“What do you mean?”

AJ works his jaw just slightly, and it takes him a moment to reply, but when he does, he goes all in:

“Product like this, distribution like you’ve got, it’s not a bad start, and look, I know you said you had the resources to expand, but come on. You’re obviously capable. If you had the resources, you wouldn’t be hitting up operations’ like Lance and Spike, and you certainly wouldn’t be doing it through Dominic Arnold. Fastest way to get resources is to partner with a similar venture or be absorbed by one. Rio’s cash has been off the market for a while, since all that shit with the feds, but resources are something he’s never been short of, not as long as I’ve known him. This’d probably be up his alley. You could pitch it. Get him to buy you out, keep yourself a percentage of the overall profits. What I hear it’s not exactly like the two of you aren’t on - -” for the first time since they’d arrived, he stumbles, a wry grin crossing his face before he covers it again. “It sounds like you two have a certain type of relationship. Besides, Rio’s always open to ideas.”

AJ shrugs, and Beth has to forcibly close her mouth from where it had been gaping. She sits up a little straighter, ignoring the heat in her belly, ignoring - - ignoring a lot, and she feels it, the moment Annie breaks behind her.

“But Rio’s - -”

Beth leans over, gripping her hand tight on Annie’s thigh, hard enough Annie yelps, because it sounds like he doesn’t know, and Beth has no intention of being the messenger.

“Thanks for the suggestion,” Beth says, blinking up through her lashes at AJ, hoping it smooths over any curiosity in what Annie was going to say, and it seems to mostly work, even if AJ is looking at them a little bemused now.

“We’ll keep in touch though, Mrs. Boland.”

And Beth blinks at that, surprised, resisting the urge to reel back.

“Why?”

And it’s off her tongue before she can help herself. AJ just shrugs, good natured.

“Like I said, you seem capable, and I trust Rio’s judgement.”

The words leave her cheeks warm, and something in her chest aching, and she almost says it – almost says what she just forced Annie not to. That Rio’s dead, that she killed him, that his judgement let them all down in the end, that she - -

Beth blinks, sucking in a breath, watching as AJ gets to his feet, gesturing them up too. Annie quickly grabs the bag, and they all turn to leave, back towards the entrance of the apartment. They’re almost at the door when AJ stops them again.

“Oh, and a word of advice?”

Beth turns back to look at him, and AJ’s face is suddenly drawn, suddenly serious.

“You’re setting up meetings through Dominic Arnold?”

Beth nods, which only draws AJ’s face a little more.

“Be careful.

It’s enough to make Beth pause, to look at him, to wonder why on earth she should trust this guy, but - - but she can’t help but think that Rio had, as far as she’d known, and that - - that matters to her still.

Still, she has to ask:

“Why?”

AJ shifts a little on the spot, reaching for the door handle, and pulling it open.

“His loyalty is only to himself.”

“Isn’t that everyone in this business?”

It’s enough to make AJ smile, make him shake his head as he tilts his head towards the open doorway.

“It was a pleasure.”

And it’s as clear of a dismissal as anything, and Beth nods, hoping the gesture returns the sentiment as she steps out into the hall, Annie, Ruby and Tyler on her heels. They’re barely two steps away when AJ closes the door, and they have the benefit of the hallway to themselves – or, most of it at least, AJ’s guy lingering down by the elevator.

The brief private is enough for Annie to turn on her, her face pale and her eyes wide.

“They talk about him like he’s still alive,” Annie says, and Ruby makes a face of nervous agreement, glancing over at Beth as they take slow steps towards the elevator.

“Maybe his boys are still in business? Pretending that he’s around calling the shots? What is it that they say about power vacuums? Maybe him being gone would like, start a turf war or something?”

“Do we even know where he sat? Like his rank, or - - or whatever? Was he like The Godfather or was he like - - oh, god, I can’t even think of a terrible gangster right now. Kronk?”

“From The Emperor’s New Groove?”

Annie flails, and Ruby’s eyes bulge as she stares at her.

“No, Annie, I don’t think he was like Kronk.”

Beth bites the inside of her cheek, stepping down the hall until they’re at the elevators. She smiles tightly at AJ’s guy, who nods back, but stops her from hitting the button.

“Someone’s coming up,” he says, and Beth nods, adjusting her strap on her handbag and trying to ignore Annie and Ruby bickering behind her. Because god, where do they go now? She’d be out of her mind to try and get in touch with Rio’s boys, and now apparently Dominic is someone to avoid too, but then, what other contacts do they have? Darren from Fine & Frugal? Beth almost laughs.

Vaguely she can hear the elevator ding, and the doors slide open, and it’s just - - it’s the smell of him, unmistakable, curving through the gap like a spell, and her heart is catching at her teeth and her stomach has careened down to the ground floor, and everything falls apart just as everything clicks into place and just - -

She knows it’s him even before she hears Annie gasp.

The doors slide open, and then it’s Rio there, bracketed by Dags and Demon, and it’s not fair, how he can look exactly the same – handsome and leonine, somehow stronger though than she remembered, taller, dressed in a maroon button down and his black jeans, and he seems to glide out of the elevator, gaze slipping over to her like he’d known she’d be there and just - - of course he did.

“That bad?” he says, when he catches her wide-eyed look, her ghost-white face, her open mouth. “Damn, you just can’t close ‘em, huh?”

And it’s like all the air’s been sucked out of the corridor, and she feels her eyes widen even further, feels lightheaded, but she can’t take her eyes off the way he can’t take his off hers, his mouth pushing into a slow, predatory grin.

He turns as he strides past her, his boys staying straight either side of him, until he’s walking backwards down the hallway towards AJ’s apartment (his office?) his gaze never leaving her, committing every breath to memory, and it takes Beth a moment to realise she’s doing the same to him.

Annie and Ruby are almost flat against opposite walls, Tyler oblivious beside Annie, but Rio doesn’t even seem to see them, not even when he gestures loosely to Beth from down the hall.

“You and me got business to discuss, yeah? I’ll swing by.”

Beth blinks, the words settling like a pit in her chest, and she opens her mouth to say something, what, she has no idea, but then the apartment door is opening and AJ’s there, grinning wide, drawing Rio into a one-armed hug.

“My man, it’s been a while,” AJ says, and Rio grins, returning the embrace before starting into the apartment.

“Yeah, took some time off. Gotta recharge, you know? How’s yo’ girl?”

What AJ replies, Beth doesn’t hear. She just stumbles, jelly-legged into the elevator, crashing bodily against the far wall, and suddenly - - suddenly she can’t breathe, her hands are shaking, her body weak, and she sees Ruby shove Annie and Tyler into the elevator behind her, wave AJ’s boy off, and quickly shut the doors, pressing the button to the ground floor. Vaguely Beth can hear Annie calling her name, but Beth just - - she can’t feel anything, or maybe she’s feeling too much? She can’t tell the difference, can’t figure out if she’s crying or laughing, if she’s full or empty, if she’s too hot or too cold, if she’s - -

There’s a crack of a hand against her cheek.

She gasps, blinking wide eyes up at Ruby.

“You need to breathe,” Ruby says, her voice firm, leaving no room for arguments, before turning her around to Tyler, who blinks gormlessly up at her, his mouth set in a little line.

“Mrs Boland? Do you know what’s happening right now?”

She blinks back at him, heart thrumming in her chest, her hands shaking.

“You’re having a panic attack, Mrs. Boland. Do you think you can breathe with me? In through your nose, out through your mouth, can you do that?”

Beth blinks, red cheeked, still trembling, but nods, and then all she can see is Tyler, his slow breaths, guiding her own, and Ruby’s hand around her waist, keeping her upright, and by the time they’re at the ground floor again, Beth has reclaimed herself, at least mostly, even if she does still feel exhausted.

“Tyler, I could kiss you,” Annie says behind her, his voice worn with relief, and Tyler smiles over Beth’s shoulder at her.

“I did a mental health first aid course,” Tyler says proudly, and Annie reaches over to punch him lightly in the shoulder.

“You are killing it, my friend.”

He grins happily at Annie, before casting a slightly worried look at Beth, and glancing up at Annie again, and when he speaks, it figures:

“Who was that guy?”

And god, they owe him an explanation, but Beth can’t find the words. In the end, she lets Annie fill him in, and Ruby drive her home, her forehead pressed against the glass, the last few months of markets and mothering and cooking and making cash and selling Boland Motors, and Dean, and guilt, and grief hitting her like a train, and she just…

She sleeps.

*

She’s woken up to a slice of light, cutting through her curtains, and Beth rubs blearily at her eyes, her whole body throbbing and her face puffy from tears she doesn’t remember crying. She swipes angrily at her face, rolling over in bed. They’d gotten her inside last night after the meeting with AJ, after Rio, and Beth had basically collapsed into bed, asking to be left alone, and Annie and Ruby had obliged, promising to come by this afternoon after their respective shifts, and Beth had been more relieved than she could say, left to stomach the root of it all on her own.

Checking her phone, she’s relieved to find that it’s after nine, meaning Dean’ll have taken the kids to school and scurried off to bother Alan about his realtor exams, and Beth should really get up and start on the orders that have come through off Etsy. It’d be a neat way to keep her mind off - -

Off the obvious.

She catches her breath, frowns, pushing the covers off, surprised to find herself only in a purple t-shirt, a pair of candy-striped, full-cover panties, and some fuzzy pink bedsocks. She can’t even remember getting changed last night, and when she looks down at her hands, finding them smeared with yesterday’s make-up, she pulls up the hem of her t-shirt, wiping her face off with it as best she can.

There’s almost too much to think about. That’s the problem. She doesn’t know where to start. Her body exhausted, her mind fraying at the seams, the fabric of her days torn. It’s like she’s spent the last few months wearing somebody else’s skin without even realising it, and there are so many questions rumbling through her head not one can be heard through the crowd of them.

A shower would probably help.

Yes, she thinks, trying to stop her hands from trembling.

A shower.

She slides to the edge of the bed and pads tenderly to her feet, feeling bruised although she isn’t, as she grounds herself. Shower, coffee, finish the order on the Toothless dragon costume somebody ordered off the Esty store. If she can get it done by lunch, she might even make today’s post. And it’s a plan, she thinks, something to keep her distracted before Annie and Ruby get here and she has to actually think about all of this, and she starts towards her en suite only to stop.

There, visible through the sliver of her open curtains, she can see him, lying down in the sun on her picnic table, his legs dangling off the end, his hands knitted at his belly, and she is just, she is suddenly - -

Furious.

It ignites in her so quickly she can barely fathom it, let alone cap it, control it, and before she knows it, she’s storming over to her jewellery box, yanking out the two bullets, unlocking her back door and shoving it open. She storms out across the yard, spring breeze nipping at her bare thighs, dew soaking through her bed socks, but she doesn’t care, can’t care, because she’s careening towards him like she always is – a one way track to him, and he must hear her coming, but he doesn’t so much as look at her until she slams the bullets on the table by his head.

He blinks lazily up at her, taking her in, and god, she must be a sight, in her panties and her socks, her chest red and heaving in fury beneath her t-shirt, and Rio smothers his grin, looking at the bullets.

“I’d have given you the third one too, but it’s still in me,” and Beth swallows hard, her lower lip wobbling, her fury ebbing as quickly as it had come, and he clocks it, swivelling to sit up, feet finding the bench beneath the table, and snatching her hand, yanking her closer. “You wanna feel it?”

She tears her hand away with such force she staggers backwards, almost hitting the tree, and Rio laughs at her, his lips pulled wide, but his eyes dark.

“Why are you here?” she asks, because it’s easier than the other questions, easier than asking how.

“I told you, we got business.”

His tone is little more than a lazy drawl, like she knows it, like she’s playing, but she isn’t playing, and honestly? She doesn’t know. She can see his gun in his belt, glinting gold in the light, and she sees it on his face, the moment he knows she’s seen it.

“What? You afraid of it all of a sudden?”

Beth sucks in a breath, diverts her gaze, and he just snorts unkindly, and Beth just - - she can’t look at him, not now, not like this, but something in his tone bristles at her too, and it’s not long before the fury is sparking in her belly all over again.

“I don’t owe you anything,” she says, her voice firm, and when she looks up at him, his gaze is only amused, his eyebrow arched, his back curved.

“No?”

“No,” she repeats. “I quit, remember?”

Rio just smiles at that, tilting his chin towards her room where he’s - - where she knows now he’s been going through her things.

“Doesn’t look like you quit. Looks like you got your own lil’ thing goin’.”

“You,” she insists. “I quit you

He laughs again, watching her attentively in a way that curls her toes, that lights a familiar match in her belly, and his eyes drop the second her fingers do, trying to tug her t-shirt further down. He sucks in his lower lip, gaze flicking darkly back up to her own.

“Your shop’s cute. You’re washin’ what? A few g a week? Ain’t bad while you still got your trainin’ wheels on. A lotta work though for slim returns.”

Beth blinks, surprised in a way she wishes she wasn’t.

“You spoke to AJ about me?”

“Sure, but not about this,” his brow briefly furrows, like he’s a little surprised she even asked, and then adds: “I keep an eye on you, you know that.”

To even begin to untangle that would be - - Beth has no idea, her gaze darting away from him, looking out across the yard at where Danny had kicked off his soccer cleats over the weekend, the mud forming a neat little mound on the back deck. A little further down, Jane had tried her hand at digging a hole for no greater reason than she was a kid and liked to dig, but it had driven Beth briefly insane – the thought that she might find a part of Jeff or loose cash, or any matter of things Beth has buried in this yard, and god, is this really what her mind thinks is a better topic than this, right now? She steels her aching chest.

Her eyes flick back to Rio.

“Imma need you to do better though, yeah? A few g a week, you know,” he shrugs, like he’d been waiting for her attention again, burying his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he slides off her picnic table. “It’s the minor leagues, and I don’t fuck with minor leagues.”

Beth exhales sharply, glaring at him.

“I don’t care what you fuck with, or what you think about my business,” she hisses, and Rio just gives her an innocent look.

Your business?”

“Yes.”

It’s enough to make him shake his head, take a broad step closer to her, and Beth resists the urge to stumble back, and just - - god, she hates that she can smell him.

“Ain’t we partners?”

Beth scowls, staring up at him. She squares her jaw.

“No.”

At her word, he shifts his weight, making a show out of turning it over, his forehead furrowing, his plump lips parting, and Beth sucks in a breath all over again, trying to straighten, refusing to be embarrassed that she’s in underwear and bedsocks of all things, and Rio’s voice is light, considering when he speaks.

“Hmm, yeah, you know, I think you’re right. I don’t think we’re partners,” he gestures at her then, loosely, his face twisting in a too-gentle grin. “I think I fuckin’ own you.”

Reeling back, Beth tries to catch her breath.

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, see, you in the red, darlin’,” he says, his voice light and far too sweet. “You racked up a lotta debt, between the money your girls lost me, and the money they spent, and y’know, shootin’ someone three times in the chest, lotta medical bills involved.”

And just - - god, her chest is heaving. She looks disbelievingly up at him, shaking her head.

“You want me to pay your hospital bills?”

Rio just shrugs, still smiling.

“Yeah, the insurance ain’t great in this industry, y’know? And seein’ how you shot me and all…”

She swallows the sob in her throat at the thought, because god - - this is not the time, but she can’t help the way her gaze dips to his chest, covered this time in a black t-shirt, and it’s stupid - - she can’t see anything, but her she can feel it, the exact moment he relishes her guilt.

He tilts towards her, and Beth turns her face.

“Fine,” she says, before he can say anything. “I’ll pay you back. But my business is mine.”

He rocks his head side-to-side, like he disagrees, and Beth powers forwards.

“Look, Dean and I are selling the dealership and - - ”

She stops, because - - no, the thought hitting her too quickly – all the fallen through deals, Dominic, Gretchen, the unnamed buyer – it couldn’t be. She squints, staring back up at where Rio is grinning wide in front of her, and that furious match in her is reignited.

“It was you. You bought it.”

He laughs, shrugs almost bashfully, and Beth shakes her head, reeling. She flails briefly, trying to catch up to the deluge of information, and just - -

“So what? You want me back there?”

And that just makes him laugh.

“Why would I want that? Darlin’, my business runs a lot smoother when you ain’t nowhere near it.”

“That was my business, not yours,” she hisses, flushed all over again, and Rio just keeps laughing.

“With how many times your dumbass husband re-mortgaged it, I think it was the bank’s business, sweetheart. But you got good ideas. You know I know that.”

She scowls at him, trying to summon an argument from the depths of her head, but Rio just looks at her, his gaze nothing if not darkly amused, and Beth flounders briefly, exhausted, relieved, something, she doesn’t know, her gaze seeking him out again. She hates him, she - -

She shakes her head.

“What do you want with my business anyway?” she tries. “I’m selling cakes and aprons to other mommy’s, it’s not - - ”

She exhales, and Rio just watches her, barely a foot away from her.

“Ain’t you spent the last two weeks meetin’ this city’s finest?”

Beth squares her shoulders, her gaze flicking back up to him, steely.

“I have.”

“Didn’t go so well, huh?”

Beth glares at him.

“See, you ain’t got no one to vouch for you,” he continues. “Ain’t no one gonna buy in as long as you don’t.”

Squaring her jaw again, Beth looks up at him, firming her stance.

“You could.”

“’Scuse me?”

“You could vouch for me,” she insists, and he just stares at her, jaw dropped, genuinely surprised for half a beat, before he throws his head back and laughs.

“I can’t pay you back if I can’t work,” she insists, her tone desperate even to her own ears. “If I can’t expand.”

It takes him a moment to pull himself back together, and even still, he’s still smiling, amused by her in a way that just makes her furious, because she - - she – and oh, there’s the guilt again. She shivers, turning her gaze away from him, and it’s enough to make him answer.

“Yeah, it’s a problem, huh? You’ll figure it out.”

And she sucks in a breath, hears him start to walk away before she actually sees it. Before she looks up, and when she does, the words are out of her mouth before she can stop them:

“Rio, wait!”

And he just - - he does. Halfway across her backyard, stock still, turning back to her, and they’re metres apart, facing each other, and she has so much still to ask him – how much money he wants, when she’ll see him again, what he’s planning, how he survived, where Turner is, but - - but all she can see are the lines of him, all she can see are his eyes, boring into her own, the angles of his cheekbones, his lips that she - - all she can see is him, and it makes her feel - - just makes her feel in a way she hasn’t in too long, and maybe he sees it, or maybe he doesn’t, all she knows is that he scoffs, looking suddenly furious at her, before he darts out the back gate and out of sight.

*

She almost crawls back into bed after Rio leaves, exhausted in a way she can’t even think about, but steels herself instead, afraid of what too long in her own head might invite. So instead she scrolls through her orders on Etsy, deciding to finish that Toothless costume and maybe start on the owl one too, making a coffee as she tries to work out if she has enough brown felt to finish it. She’s still fixated on it when she pulls open the fridge door for milk to realise that one of the containers of caramel she was setting for next weekend’s market has leaked over the rim, spreading over the back shelf of the fridge and solidifying against the bottom.

She groans, rubbing angrily at her face, before finding a bucket and a scouring pad, filling the former with soapy water and white vinegar, drenching the pad in it before directing her attention to the bottom shelf of the fridge.

And just - - maybe she’s a little more furious than she needs to be, maybe a hoarse sob escapes her throat, maybe she can’t tell why parts of her hurt anymore, or where the blurred line between her guilt and her relief start and end, maybe she just wants to think about his eyes, looking at her, no matter how cold they’d been, just - -

She sucks in a breath, leaning back onto her haunches, choking back a sob.

She scrubs furiously at her forehead, clenching the scouring pad at her leg, leaking caramel-soapy water down her thigh, because god, now, the debt, and she just - - it’s too much, and she’d be crying if the back door didn’t suddenly open.

Beth starts, thinking it might be Rio again, back to - - to whatever, only it’s not him.

It’s Dean.

“Hey, Bethie,” he says, grinning down at her as he plods into the kitchen, leaning over her at the fridge to pull out the leftover pizza she’d ordered for him and the kids the night before when she’d been with AJ, and his shin hits her back, pushing her forwards, sloshing the soapy vinegar water bucket as he does it and she’s just - - that fury is back, burning suddenly, bigger in her gut.

He steps away from her, shoving the pizza into the microwave and flopping back onto one of the stools at the kitchen island while Beth is on her hands and knees, face red with tears, in her fucking underwear, and she sucks in a furious breath.

“Oh my god, did I tell you what Nicole said yesterday? Okay, so - -”

Dean holds his hands out, preparing a story, and Beth just - -

“I want you out.”

She turns back around, takes in his face, the cartoonish confusion on it, and Beth keeps her own features drawn, serious, fixed on him.

“What?”

“I want you out of the house,” she repeats, and then, clarifying: “I don’t want to live with you anymore.”

Spluttering, Dean stands up only to sit down again, and he just - - he flails at her, and Beth feels nothing.

“Bethie.”

“You can have a week,” she decides. “To pack up your things. I’m sure Judith will take you in until you find somewhere, and you can have the payout from Boland Motors. All of it. I don’t want any of it. Use it to buy a house or an apartment, or a - - a realty office, I don’t care. I just want the house. We can split up the furniture. And we can work something out with the kids. You just need to go.”

For a moment, there’s no sound but the microwave whirring behind them and the hum of the open refrigerator, the cool air of it freezing Beth’s skin, but she just. She really doesn’t care. Her gaze is fixed on Dean’s open mouth, his crowded teeth, his blinking eyes. Has he always looked this stupid?

“Is this about Nicole? Because Beth, I can, you know, dial it back or whatever.”

“No, it’s not about her,” and she shakes her head, because it’s not - - really. She feels something in her shift, and she means it when she says: “And you shouldn’t have to. I’m happy for you. I just think us trying to do this was a mistake.”

Dean blinks at her, and he’s so quiet for so long that she drowns the scouring pad in the soapy-vinegar-water again, returning her attention to the fridge, but she can’t say she’s surprised when Dean lets loose a coarse, offended breath.

“I thought we were working this out for the kids, I thought we were trying - - I thought we were friends.”

And he’s so firm with it, so certain, and Beth turns around from her spot on the floor and just stares at him for a moment, her mouth dry, a clenched fist holding her heart firm, and suddenly it’s the easiest thing in the world.

“You told me you had cancer.”

The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them, and she hears Dean suck in a wet breath, and then he’s flushed around the neck, his lips thinning even more than they usually are.

“Yeah, well, you got me shot,” he hisses, and she did, she knows that she did, but she’s done her penance, she’s nursed him, she gave up something she loved for him, and she just - -

“Did you ever feel guilty about it?” she asks him, openly, honestly. “For even a second? When I was crying, when I was comforting you, when I was freaking out about how we were going to pay for the surgeries you were going to be having, when I bought all those cancer diet cookbooks and put us all on that awful chicken-brown-rice diet so you wouldn’t be eating it alone. When I lost weeks researching supplements and therapies and alternative medicine that could help. When I was doing everything for you. Did you feel anything but pleased that you’d won?”

He blinks, gormless up above her, opening his mouth, but she doesn’t give him time to answer.

“And what was the plan? A miraculous recovery? Would we have celebrated your successful, make believe treatment? Would you have cried in relief with me? Would you have victory fucked me and pretended we were making love?”

Dean’s silent now, staring at her, and she’s vaguely aware that she’s there in filthy socks and her underwear, face wet from crying over Rio, her arms raw from scrubbing caramel off the bottom shelf of their fridge. That he’s in a suit, towering above her. She’s aware of what it looks like. Who’s the mess in this scene, but then she just - - she doesn’t care.

“That last one can’t have been a stretch anyway, right?” she says, her voice lower and calmer than she feels. “I mean, you were getting your dick sucked by every Amber, Patti and Kate in a five-mile radius for how much of our marriage? Must’ve felt pretty good, huh? You had your trophy wife at home, but you were still in the race.”

Dean finds his tongue.

“It wasn’t like that,” he says, his voice low, and Beth looks at him, sees the twitch in his cheek, his puppy dog expression, and she nods.

“No. You’re right,” she concedes. “What it was like was that I was hurting, and you didn’t care. What it was like was that that for the first time in our relationship, I wasn’t at your beck and call, and so you found someone who would be. What it was like was that I needed you, not as my husband, not as the father of my children, just you, to make me laugh, and to love me, and you couldn’t do either. Maybe I was stupid. Maybe you never could’ve, I don’t know. What I do know is that you stopped wanting me, and you stopped wanting to know me, but didn’t want anyone else to want me or know me either. You didn’t care if I was happy. I wasn’t happy, Dean. I haven’t been happy in a really long time.”

Dean opens and closes his mouth, gapes like a fish, and Beth gives it a second, she does, before she says:

“We’re not friends, Dean, and we won’t ever be. I don’t like you.”

With that, she turns back to the fridge, grabbing the scoring pad again out of the bucket, fixing her gaze back onto the fridge and scrubbing up the last, leaking drops of caramel.

Chapter Text

Her hands make stiff work pinning the eggplant-coloured felt as she tells Annie and Ruby about Rio. About the second bullet in her bourbon, about the way she’d given them both back to him, his back flat against her picnic table, languid in his control and his certainty. She tells them about what he’d said about their debt, about him being the Boland Motors buyer, about - - about all of it, and by the time she’s finished, her throat feels as raw as her insides do, the sheer reality of him stripping the veneer off her in the way it’s done since the moment that she’d met him, only - - only now - -

Clearing her throat, she lays the final pins in the felt, marking up the guide for the dragon’s face to try and steel her trembling fingers.

Vaguely, she can hear the kids playing outside, yelling something only almost intelligible as Sara bosses the younger ones into some semblance of order. She can hear the spray of the neighbour, hosing her lawn, and the delight of another, pleased about something Beth couldn’t hope to know from her spot in her own house, at her craft table, a pile of unwashed money burning a hole through her ego, and Annie and Ruby’s silence echoing in the shell of her head.

She’s not sure how long they stay like that, Ruby resting back against the garage wall, Annie sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor, and Beth lets out a wobbling breath as she briefly abandons the dragon costume to fiddle with the bobbin on her sewing machine.

“So what?” Annie says finally, breaking the silence. “We’re working for him again?”

Beth exhales a little too sharply, her eyes darting up to look between Annie and Ruby’s worried faces.

No,” she insists, moving on to thread the machine. “We work for ourselves. He just…he wants a cut, that’s all.”

“A cut? Of our three-grand a week?” Ruby asks, eyebrow’s disappearing into her hairline, and Annie laughs a little hysterically. “He can’t be serious. That guy must find that between his couch cushions.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say! He still wants the money from the lost drugs in Canada, and the money taken into evidence during the FBI investigation,” Beth’s eyes dart to Ruby at that which promptly shuts her up, and then, adds a little more uncertainly. “Plus he wants me to pay for his hospital bills.”

She studiously avoids eye contact with either of them at that, slipping the bobbin into place before grabbing her fabric scissors off the table and cutting a square of white felt into the circle of a dragon’s eye.

“How much even is that?” Annie asks, and Beth blinks up at her, opening her mouth to gape for a second. She racks her head for a number, but finds herself briefly floundering.

“I don’t know,” she says, realising that she doesn’t. “He didn’t say.”

It’s a quick way to get Ruby her voice back, her tone terse when she speaks.

“Nuh-uh. We need a number. I don’t want the bottom line changing because he wants to renew his Netflix subscription.”

“Like he watches Netflix.”

“He doesn’t even have a TV,” Beth adds, offhand, and it’s enough to make Ruby and Annie both stare. A heat finds Beth’s cheeks, and she quickly turns her attention back to the dragon costume in her hands, lining up the parts.

“I mean, the number doesn’t matter anyway,” Annie says, despite being the one who’d asked for it in the first place, getting both of their attention again, her features drawn, her tone something between pissed off and terrified. “We can’t pay it. Not with nobody willing to partner with us and no way to expand. And I mean, Jesus, if we sell to gangfriend like AJ suggested, we’ll be right back where we started.”

“Worse,” Beth says, because that much at least she’s sure of. “We’ll be worse off, because we’ll have lost any bargaining power. He’ll be calling all the shots again, we’ll still owe him money, and we’ll - -”

Beth trails off. She’s not really sure what they’ll be except useless to him, and she’s not really sure what that means. She shuffles a little in her seat, fingers hovering over the felt at the table, and after a moment, she pushes it beneath the tooth of the sewing machine. She’s about to start it up when Ruby moves closer, resting her hip against the edge of Beth’s craft table.

“Do we really have any bargaining power now?” she asks gently, her voice soft and genuine, and Beth glances over at her, her hands tightening at the sewing machine as she squares her shoulders.

“I think we do,” she decides, projecting as much confidence into her voice as she can. “I mean, look, he obviously wants our product, so…”

“Does he obviously want our product?” Ruby asks, voice still gentle, but now laced with disbelief, and Beth blinks a little too hard, unsure in the moment of how to reply to it. She’s oddly relieved when Annie makes a humming noise in the back of her throat, her hands going out behind herself, letting her lean back to look better up at Beth.

“Yeah, B, I mean…the guy gave you the bullets you shot him with like some sort of Bronte-ghost.”

And at least that’s enough to make Beth snort, twisting a look down at Annie.

“Who knew you could make literary references that were even remotely accurate.”

Annie widens her eyes and opens her mouth in mock outrage.

“Contrary to popular belief, I did finish highschool.”

“Barely.”

Rolling her eyes, Annie leans forwards again, closer to Beth and Ruby, and she seems to be weighing up whether or not to say something, and Beth steels herself when she sees the deciding look pass her sister’s face. Annie rocks a little on the spot, and when her eyes fix on Beth again, they’re unblinking, and thick with worry.

“Come on, Beth. You know that if it had been Ruby or me who’d shot him those bullets would be in our heads, not left out for us to find like some fucked up treasure hunt.”

It’s enough to make Beth look away, out across the garage towards the dusty shelves lining the walls, at Dean’s tools and the kids’ outdoor, summer toys, and her favourite beach parasol. She bites her lip, thinking about the bullets. He hadn’t taken them with him, so they were back in her jewellery box, clinking between her rings.

“There’s no guarantee they won’t still end up in mine,” she says after a moment, because god, could she even blame him? Just like that, she can see it all over again – the look of shock on his face, the blood spat from between his teeth. The guilt curls it’s fingers around her ankles, pulling her into the mouth of it. Beth’s hands clench over the dragon’s eye.

“So what do we do?” Ruby asks, pulling her back to the moment, and Beth avoids their gazes, holding her hands up in something akin to surrender. Because at least this? This she’s thought about. She sits up a little straighter.

“We do what we’re doing now. We keep working. I’m going to try and meet with Dominic again too. See if he knows anybody else.”

And maybe have a conversation, but they don’t need to know about that right now.

“AJ didn’t make that sound like a good idea,” Ruby says, her voice thick with worry, and Beth shrugs.

“He said to be careful. I can be careful.”

It earns her two disbelieving looks in reply, and Beth clears her throat again, fiddling with the settings on her sewing machine.

“He’s the only connection that we have, unless we want to try Spike or Lance again.”

“You know we don’t,” Ruby says at the same time Annie says: “And Rio?”

Beth exhales, glancing between them and trying to stimmy her own worry, her own uncertainty. She gestures broadly out with one hand, hoping it portrays a steadiness she’s not entirely sure that she feels.

“He’s going to do whatever he’s going to do, right? But I’m not going to let him dictate our lives again. We’ve come too far for that. Once he decides what he wants, we can - - negotiate,” she says, putting on her brave face. “Until then? We just keep moving forwards.”

Annie and Ruby shoot each other tentative looks at that, their gazes catching, and Beth sucks in a breath, her foot tapping lightly on the floor as she tries to find the words.

“There’s something else too,” she says, and Ruby and Annie both go pale, their eyes wide and their expressions naked.

“Of course there is,” Annie says with a groan, and Beth gives her a half smile before looking back down at the costume on her crafting table. Taking a deep breath, she just says it:

“I told Dean he needed to move out.”

She’s not sure what she was expecting, what response, but it wasn’t the silence from both of them. She carries on, oddly nervous.

“I told him he can have all the money from the dealership sale, as long as I can keep the house. It’s Rio’s money anyway, and I just - - I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it right now. It should be enough to get Dean set up somewhere, and we’re going to do joint custody, and I just - -”

She’s not sure how to say it, but she thinks she just wants to be on her own. Wants to shed the weight of it all, the grief and the bitterness and the baggage that seems to pass between them, but maybe she doesn’t have to say it, maybe they understand. Maybe she just hopes that they do as Annie crawls across the floor to cuddle into Beth’s side like she’d do when she was little.

“We’re going to have so many drinks to celebrate,” Annie says. “A party of three. We’re going to be so happy, and so drunk that we’ll need days to recover.”

Beth exhales a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding in, and she laughs, her hand stroking Annie’s hair, as she makes a noise of agreement, and she glances up and just, god, she can see it on Ruby’s face – the mountain of questions that Beth can’t answer yet – about how she’s hoping to pay for any of it – for the house and the kids, and the business, and about the timeline, and about custody arrangements, but Ruby holds her tongue, dropping her hand to grasp Beth’s, and right, Beth thinks, inhaling.

Right.

*

“And how much was the beret again?”

Beth smiles, all teeth, as the woman shifts her weight, glancing back at the knitted hats at the corner of the stall for what feels like the hundredth time. She swears she’s been talking to this customer for the last half hour, even if it’s probably been half that at best. The cool morning air nips at the back of her neck, at her ankles through her socks, and Beth resists the urge to rub at her arms to will some heat back into them.

“Twelve dollars.”

The woman hums, pursing her lips into an ugly little kiss. Her lipstick has mostly rubbed off, but it’s kept in the groves of her dry lips, a deep mauve that reminds Beth of eighties night at the PTA fundraiser.

“And the gloves?”

“Fifteen dollars. The same price as the last time you asked,” she snaps, and the woman shoots startled eyes up at her. Beth blinks, cringes internally at herself, and tries to smooth it over with an innocuous look. “You know, I’d be happy to offer you a deal. How about twenty for both?”

It takes the woman an absurd amount of time to concede to it, pulling out a fifty-dollar bill that Beth happily changes with thirty in unwashed notes before slipping the knitted gloves and beret into a bag for her. The woman’s barely out of ear shot when Annie lets loose a long whistle beside her.

“Now I get why you haven’t worked a service job since highschool. See the key, Bethie, is to just cut any respect you have for yourself off like a gangrenous arm. That way it becomes a lot easier to deal with the fact that the customer has no respect for you either. You can’t be annoyed at people for not acknowledging what isn’t there in the first place.”

Rolling her eyes, Beth reaches for her coffee cup, taking a long drink and pouting slightly when it hits her tongue tepid. She reaches for her handbag below the stall table, pulling out her purse, careful not to bump Ruby who’s deep in conversation with a customer herself.

“I think I’m going to need another coffee to get through today,” she decides, raising her voice to speak over the bustle of marketgoers to Annie. “You want anything?

“Oooo, a matcha latte?”

Beth gives her a look she hopes fully conveys just how much she doubts that the tiny, shitty market coffee cart will be stocking up on matcha powder, and just how much she should be happy with whatever generic coffee Beth gets her, as she ducks around the stall table. She waves her empty cup back at Ruby, who widens her eyes and tilts her chin in affirmation, and Beth grins, striding out through the market for the coffee cart by the entrance.

The day’s at least been marginally productive, Beth thinks, hand finding the back of her neck to rub at a tender spot. A relief, given how much energy she’d put into bulking up their stock all week. It’s one of the busier markets of the season, meaning there’re more customers, but also more competition. She’d used it as an excuse to whip out her more complicated recipes too – her more unique ones – Sri Lankan Love Cakes and Sour Cream Doughnuts and Brown Butter and Rum Cannoli. It seems to be a hit, which means they might take home closer to four grand than three which would be - -

It’d be good. She exhales a little tenderly, exhausted already, finding her way to the coffee cart and ordering their drinks, before moving aside to wait for them. She battles a blossoming crowd of active customers, people loud and keen, and Beth keeps her most demure, hopeful smile in place as she watches them chatter about seasonal fruit and baby bonnets. She’s barely had time to think on it though when a familiar voice sounds behind her.

“Refuelling?”

With a blink, Beth turns on the spot, a new tension holding her steady, and just - -

She can’t quite stop her shoulders from relaxing, nor her face from softening, when she’s met with Tom.

“Something like that.”

He grins at her, something warm and open, and Beth clocks the cup in his hand, gesturing to it with her free one.

“Looks like you beat me to it.”

Laughing a little, he shrugs, almost bashfully, raising the cup to his mouth to drink as if in acknowledgement. He pulls a face at the taste.

“You know, I don’t usually drink it? But man, something about today. I’ve needed the boost.”

“It’s the return of the crowd,” she says, nodding. “The last few dates have been so quiet, I think I forgot how exhausting actually having customers is.”

It’s enough to make him laugh, nodding in agreement, and he looks good today. Usually does, with his sandy hair and his broad jaw. He looks a little like a character from one of Kenny’s comic books, and the thought is enough to make her grin, something just so wholesome in the set of him. Something good.

“That’s true. With more customers comes variety too, right? I had the strangest conversation with somebody about my belts earlier. I think they might have intended them for a - -” he wrinkles his nose up briefly, his cheeks flushing. “A different purpose than what I intended.”

Beth barks on a laugh, surprised, her own cheeks pinking a little with the innuendo.

“Oh my god,” she says, still laughing. “I guess that’s the risk you run with leatherwares.”

He hums in agreement. “I might have to incorporate the chance of fetish customers into my risk management procedures.”

“Or start catering to them directly,” she says with a shrug. “Seems like a built-in customer base, after all. Tom’s Leatherwares After Hours.”

And that only makes him laugh, his eyes crinkling shut, his ears pinking bright at the suggestion. It takes him a moment to find his breath, to blink up at her, his face warm and open.

“You know,” he says, still swallowing his laughter. “That’s some fine-tuned business acumen right there. Although I don’t know how I could expect anything less from the founder of the best bake-and-craft stall in Detroit.”

Beth feels herself shutter, a part of her close, ready to bristle at the mockery of it all, or the patronising tone, but she looks up and it’s just - - he’s not making fun of her at all, nothing in his face or his tone suggests anything but genuineness. She finds herself blushing, bright and pink, and she’s - - she’s pleased, but she also feels the familiar thread of embarrassment uncurling in her gut, because god, isn’t he a lawyer? And she’s just - -

Beth looks away, unsure what to do with it. After a moment, she tilts her head from side to side, shuffles her weight, and laughs a little, self-deprecating, before pivoting the subject.

“Can’t say there’s a lot of risk in that regard for people misusing knitted hats and aprons.”

“Depends on their level of creativity, I guess.”

And that makes her wrinkle up her nose, a giggle bubbling in her throat again, and she looks over at him, something on her tongue, when the coffee cart employee calls out for “Bess.”

She blinks, looks at the fellow customers waiting for their order, and when no one steps forward, she sighs.

“I’m assuming that’s me,” she says, and Tom laughs, nodding in agreement. Heading towards the cart, she grabs a cardboard tray, picking up her order. It takes her so long to get the cups into the holders on the tray that she’s a little surprised when she turns around to see that Tom has waited for her, the bustle of the crowd thick behind him, the mid-morning light casting his hair gold.

She gestures briefly up with her tray, before tilting her chin back towards her stall, as if to say goodbye, but before she can turn on her heel to go, Tom has said her name once, then twice, and Beth turns again to see him.

“Okay, so, I hope I’m not being too forward or anything,” he starts, and then fumbles a bit on the spot before he steels himself, his arm still flailing. “And I could be really out of turn here, but I was - - I was wondering if maybe you’d like to get dinner sometime?”

It’s enough to make Beth blink hard in shock, reeling back a little on the spot, and Tom pinks all over again, his shoulders sloping a little, and he gestures emptily again with the hand not clenched around his coffee cup.

Beth’s voice cracks more than she’d like when she says, “What?”

“Dinner,” Tom repeats promptly, and when Beth doesn’t run for the hills or instantly shut it down, he stands up a little straighter again, finding his bearings. “I know a great French restaurant in town. Or if you don’t like French, I can suggest at least six other types of cuisine.”

And Beth laughs a little, still shell shocked.

“At least six?”

He grins, bashful.

“At least,” he promises. “I might need to go home and have a chat with my good friend, Google, but those suggestions will be - - just - - flooding in.”

Beth can’t quite help the grin, watching Tom shuffle nervously on the spot, her hands getting loose from the heat radiating off the paper cups in her hands, and there are just - - there are a million reasons she should say no. She’s only just divorced after all, is still kicking her husband out, is building up her business, and - - and Rio. Something in her chest seizes at the thought. Something in all of her does, but she pushes it down.

She pushes it aside.

Tom is - - he’s sweet.

“No need to bother your friend,” she says, trying to find her breath, steady her racing heart. “French sounds nice.”

The smile on Tom’s face is close to blinding.

*

“I’m sorry, a date?”

Beth blushes, shrugging as she reaches for the Tupperware of earl grey and rosewater cupcakes beneath the table to refill the display. She tries to avoid Ruby’s jubilant gaze even as she restocks it, grateful for the brief relief from pawing customers to make neat work of tidying up the stall again. There’s a salt to the air that surprises her now, something that sets her bitterly, and she thinks the root of it is the cured meat and olive stall a few tables down, the smell of it curling in her nostrils, holding her hostage.

“It’s probably a terrible idea,” Beth says, because it is. God, the only person she’s ever been on a date with is Dean. Plus - - “It’s not like we don’t have enough on our plates at the moment.”

Annie makes a strong sound of disagreement at that.

“Sure, if we’re talking about the drama plate, or the work plate, or the mom plate, but your dating plate has been like, depressingly empty for about a million years.”

Shooting her a glare, Beth pushes out the last of the cupcakes, dropping the empty container to their pile of them behind the stall.

“I still haven’t even seen Hot Leather Tom,” Ruby moans, and Annie makes a humming noise of appreciation.

“Well, my friend, I can tell you he is totally hot. Like Captain America had a baby with Thelma and Louise-era Brad Pitt, and that baby went on to age like the finest of upper-middle-class wines.”

“Ooo,” Ruby practically purrs. “Okay, I’m imagining, I’m imagining.”

“God, you shouldn’t even have to! We should do a stall drive-by later. You can pretend Stan needs a new wallet or something.”

“You know, Stan could actually use a new wallet.”

“Do not go over there,” Beth gripes, adjusting the basket of multi-coloured knitted scarves when a body casts a shadow across the stall, a hand reaching out to turn one of the sweets plates. Beth fiddles with the Ruby-designed apron she’s wearing (it really is the best way to sell), her saleswoman spiel on her tongue, only to find the words gone as soon as she makes eye contact.

“What’re these?”

And of course it’s him, she thinks, catching her suddenly lost breath. Of course it’s Rio, glancing up at her, his eyes innocent and wide. She can feel Annie and Ruby’s petrified silence behind her, and squares her shoulders, looking over his to see one of his boys, instantly recognisable, looking across that stall of cured meats and olives, testing samples on toothpicks, and just they can’t be here, they - -

Beth inhales sharply, glancing up at Rio.

“They’re dates stuffed with peanut butter and dipped in dark chocolate.”

He looks vaguely impressed by that, and before she can stop it, something in Beth’s chest warms and stutters at the thought, and just - - god, no. She shivers, trying to collect herself.

“What are you doing here?” she hisses, and Rio doesn’t even give her the courtesy of a look, plucking one of the dates from the display plate and popping it into his mouth. He almost purrs in approval, and Beth tries to twist the warmth in her chest at the sound back into fury.

“Can’t I check on my investment?”

And that at least is enough to help. She feels herself scowl, her lips curling in irritation, in self-righteousness. She stands up a little straighter.

“Usually you have to put something up to be considered an investor.”

“Put up wit’ you, don’t I?”

Beth just gives him a look at that.

“Funny,” she says, and Rio’s own expression twists in a cruel sort of amusement, before he lowers his gaze back to her stall’s offerings.

It’s enough to make her shift uncomfortably, to find herself short of breath, her chest reddening, his calculating, calculated looks across the best business she could offer suddenly presenting like a judgement, and it shouldn’t be, she reminds herself. She doesn’t work for him anymore, and her worth is - - she’s worthy. She’s good, she’s done - -

She wipes her clammy hands on the stomach of her apron.

“How’s sales?” he asks suddenly, and Beth stands a little taller.

“Good.”

Rio tilts his head at that, running his thumb down the pile of Ruby’s printed aprons, before fiddling with the hats and scarves and gloves Beth’s knitted, with the almost too-sweet quilts that look out of sorts when his calloused hands touch them.

He just - -

He takes his time.

And Beth hates it, hates the looks he gets from passerbys, hates the weight in his silence, hates the uncertainty of it all, but most of all the way he revels in letting it linger. They’re quiet for so long, Ruby serves another customer, sells one of Beth’s Love Cakes, and it’s enough at least to make Rio watch, to make him wait until the woman is out of earshot before he says:

“Yeah, so Imma need 200g by next week.”

Beth startles, reeling back on the spot.

“Excuse me?”

He blinks lazily up at her, mouth slightly open, but he offers nothing else, and Beth fumbles in response, trying to think of something, anything, to say.

“You said it yourself, we’re not making that much, we can’t - -”

But Rio clicks his tongue, cutting her off.

“You love tellin’ me what you can and can’t do, huh? See, the thing is, I ain’t askin’. 200g, next week.”

Sprawling his hands out either side of him, like this is a generous offer, Rio lifts his chin to meet her gaze, and she finds herself staring back at him, breathless, the sounds of the crowd around them dulled to a thrum, the sharpness of everything but him blunted. She inhales, her breath hoarse, even to her own ears, and Rio just smirks at her, grabbing one of the brown paper bags from the front of the stall, filling it with the dark chocolate, peanut butter dates. He holds it up once he’s filled it to the top.

“I’ll take these off the tab, yeah?”

And with that, he turns on his heel, moving sleekly through the crowd, and Beth blinks, hard, looking back at Ruby and Annie, their foreheads creased, their eyes glassy with fear, and - - and god, they’re clutching at each other, and - - and - -

Something sparks in Beth, deep in her chest, and she’s tossing off her apron and darting around the stall, storming through the thickening crowd, away from Ruby and Annie, towards him. Battling bounding children and elderly women dragging little trolleys, limp winged mosquitoes and the off-key notes of a busker, her gaze never leaving him through it all.

And she can’t control it, the way fury sparks up her legs with every step, the way she gains speed as he slips through the mass, the way she hones in on him, feeling electric with being the predator for once, instead of the prey. When she finally reaches him, she grabs his arm, ignoring the warmth of it when he turns around to look at her, his face open and pissed off, like he’d simultaneously expected her to follow, but hadn’t expected her to catch up, and it takes a minute for the air of performance to find him again.

She opens her mouth to speak, but his face shifts into something dead-eyed, expectant, giving her nothing, and Beth finds the words dry up in her mouth. He’s - - he’s just - -

He’s alive, and she knows this, but the fact of it is suddenly so overwhelming, the air between them so thick, Beth can hardly breathe, and there’s so much she needs to say to him, so much that she wants to, but when she opens her mouth, what comes out is:

“We can’t pay it.”

Rio just looks at her at that, his expression drawing colder. Beth trembles before she catches herself, before she straightens, before she grounds herself again.

“We can’t,” she repeats, gesturing wildly around her, her voice growing desperate. “I know that we owe you, that I - -” she stumbles over the words, looking away. “I can cut you in, I can give you that, but you’ll be getting a percentage of something that must be nothing to you. I just - - this can’t be worth your while.”

It’s not what she intended to say, but then - - she doesn’t really know what she intended to say. Just that she wanted to say something, and she’s surprised at least to find that this? This she means.

Tilting his head at her, Rio at least seems to clock it, his gaze fixed on her like she’s a book he knows too well, so well that she’s boring, and Beth tries not to think about what that means.

“You couldn’t pay me before,” he says. “You still got me 200g to take care of that body you couldn’t.”

And god, if she thought her mouth was dry before.

She licks her lips, has to stop herself from diverting her gaze from him.

“That was different.”

“Was it?”

Beth inhales sharply, trying to find her anger again, to get her head straight, but finds she’s just - - exhausted, raw, something else that she can’t name. She shakes her head a little, her hand lowering to clutch in the fabric of her sweater at her stomach.

“Fine. 200. But you need to - - we need a figure. A total figure,” she says, squaring her shoulders again. “For what we owe you.”

He quirks a thick eyebrow at her at that, leaning down a little so that he’s almost at eye level with her.

“Why? You wanna rob another grocery store? Another Quik Cash?” He laughs. “Gotta say, you’ll need to knock over a few.”

Beth flushes, her breath hitching as her eyes dart around the crowd, checking to ensure nobody has heard, and Rio just follows her gaze, a smirk searing across his face at her anxiousness. He waits until her gaze finds him again to lean a little closer, to tell her, face taut and serious:

“The number don’t matter, yeah? Not anymore.”

Beth blinks up at him, her belly twisting.

“Of course it matters,” she insists, because it does. Because it has to. Because the alternative is - -

“Nah,” he says, shaking his head, and Beth wonders if he even knows one. If he has one in mind, or all of this is just a game of winning until all of this is just - -

She sucks in another breath, finding that thread of anger in her again and clutching it tight.

“So what? You’re just going to keep taking and taking and taking until all this gets old, or until I have nothing left, and then what? You’re going to handle me? Is that the plan?”

And it’s enough to make him laugh, like anything she’d said was funny, and then he’s stepping closer to her, so close she can smell his cologne, that she can feel the heat, radiating off his body, and she hates the way her own responds to it, hates that she can’t stop herself from tilting closer, her feet rocking almost onto her tiptoes to just get - - get closer. And he watches all of it, clocks every shift in her, her body mirroring his as quickly, as easily, as his does hers.

“You ain’t gotta worry about my plans, darlin’,” he tells her, voice deceptively soft. “You just gotta worry about gettin’ me my money. In the meantime, why don’t you just keep playin’ Betty Croker, sellin’ your cakes and shit, and play house with that dumbass husband of yours, and keep pretendin’ you ain’t what I know you are.”

Somewhere behind her somebody laughs, one of the food stalls burns something, the smell of charcoal and ash spreading thick in the air, a kid races by with a metallic pinwheel, the light catching the sheen of it and bursting across the crowd, but all Beth can see is Rio, is his face, and his eyes, his lashes thick, the angle of his nose sharper than she remembers. And she thinks maybe he’s taking her in too, the intensity of his look, and it’s just - - it’s so sudden, but also more welcome than Beth could ever hope to say, his fingers, brushing a barely there line at her temple, pushing her hair too-gently off her face, and then just as suddenly, he’s dropping his hand and he blinks, hard, stepping back and away from her like he’s - - like he’s surprised at himself, and Beth can’t quite breathe as he disappears back through the crowd, the echo of his touch tingling against her temple.

*

It only takes a phone call to get Dominic to agree to meet her, and she’s surprised by the address that he sends her, and even more surprised to find herself at what can only be a chop shop down in one of the rougher pockets of town. He steps out to meet her when she pulls up in her minivan, and she can’t help but stare at his hands, grimy with motor oil and his hair unwashed. He looks a far cry from what he did those few weeks ago at Boland Motors, something not helped by the heavy, aging bruise against the side of his face. Beth clocks it, but instead of staring, lets her gaze drift to the surrounds of the garage, taking in the rummaged car parts, the calendar of topless women behind the corner desk, the truck parked, wheelless, in the corner.

It stinks of petrol and body odour, and she’s not sure she could sit down on the few chairs scattered around without leaving with her jean-clad ass covered in grime. So she stays standing, staring at Dominic who, in spite of everything, looks pleased to see her.

“Mrs. Boland.”

“Didn’t I tell you to call me Beth?”

It’s enough to make him shrug, his lips twisting in a wry grin that sets her teeth on edge, AJ’s warning echoing through her head.

“Heard the meetings were a bust,” he says, reaching for his wrench on the bench, before grabbing his beer with his other hand, taking a neat swig, and Beth nods, leaning her ass back against the other bench, careful to avoid the filthier spots. He adds: “Sorry.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” she replies, careful to keep her tone light. “If anything, I should be thanking you. For trying to help with the meetings. For finding the buyer for Boland Motors.”

Her gaze flicks up at that, and if she didn’t know any better, she could swear she sees a look of stark amusement flicker across Dominic’s face.

It’s only been a day since the market, which makes it three since she found out that Rio had been the buyer, and the thought hasn’t strayed far from her mind since. She’d practiced what she was going to say, but all her internal notes had strayed the second she’d seen him, the desperation of her situation weighing heavy on her shoulders. She rolls them back.

“Do you work for him?” she asks, cutting to the chase, and Dominic looks back at her, taking another sip of his beer.

“For who?”

“Don’t insult me,” she says, her voice tight, even to her own ears, because if AJ’s right, if Dominic is a wildcard, if he knew who he was selling Boland Motors to - -

If he’s still their only contact.

200 grand, Beth thinks. She folds her arms across her chest.

Dominic just keeps watching her, like he could hear her internal monologue, his face twisted in something between curiosity and empathy, before finally he just shrugs.

“No.”

“But you knew him well enough to give him the keys to my ex-husband’s business?”

“Yes,” Dominic agrees, and he laughs, which is all she needs to know that he knows, about her and Rio, about poor Dean. Beth sucks in a breath, tasting the petrol in the air on her tongue. She resists the urge to wrinkle her nose, instead carefully schooling her features.

“How do you know him?”

“We’ve got different roots, but we’ve sprung from the same soil.”

Beth snorts.

“Profound.”

It’s enough to make Dominic laugh, to tilt his beer at her in concession before taking a long, finishing gulp of it. He tosses it in a neat arc into the bin, the glass shattering loudly, before he strides over towards the fridge behind the desk, pulling out a fresh one. He holds up a second to Beth, who doesn’t so much as twitch, and Dominic sighs, closing the door of the fridge and uncapping his beer.

“Look, it’s not a conspiracy or whatever. I’ve been around the traps a long time, so has he. Detroit’s a big place, but it’s not really that big, at least not in these circles. I’ve never worked for him, not directly. He’s never really dealt in cars, which is kinda my thing, but he knew I worked at Boland Motors before he became your partner or whatever. We talk, that’s all. Or, his boys talk to me, more than him. He doesn’t really slum it, y’know?”

The amount of information – the offhand way that Dominic had delivered it, is enough to startle her, but Beth tries to school herself, to not let it show.

“Did you offer Boland Motors to him, or did he ask?”

Dominic laughs a little at that, thumbing the label on his beer, and his voice is dry when he speaks.

“Does Rio ever really ask?”

And sure. Beth can’t quite help the way the question eases something in her shoulders, offers a familiarity, a camaraderie, a point of relation. She sees it, the moment Dominic clocks it, his own expression softening, and no Beth thinks, steeling herself. Don’t lean into this.

“Did he pay you?”

Dominic nods, but doesn’t offer anything else, and Beth’s toes curl in her boots, her voice a little more tentative than she intends when she says:

“And those meetings you set up for me, did he do that too?”

She’s not sure what she’s expecting, but it’s not for the genuine look of shock that passes over Dominic’s face, the surprise that etches into his features. He leans back, briefly taking her in again, before quickly, determinedly drawing his own features.

“No, I mean. What would he have gotten out of that?”

Control, she thinks.

Power.

“So you really don’t work for him?”

“I’m kind of a free agent,” he says, his voice slipping into something cocky, and Beth almost rolls her eyes, her gaze drifting back over the chop shop, at the truck, blatantly stolen – its plates off, and its bonnet open, being pillaged for parts.

“I thought you were clean,” she replies dryly, remembering their first conversation, and Dominic’s cocky grin widens.

“I mean, I’ve been dirtier? I wasn’t lying when I said that I’d lost a lot of my connections though.”

And right, Beth thinks, things clicking into place as AJ’s warning echoes in her head all over again.

“You were just lying about the reason for it.”

He doesn’t even try to deny it, and Beth genuinely wonders how it’s possible for someone to look so smug and so guilty all at once.

“I’ve got a rep. Everyone does.”

“Do I?” she asks, the words off her tongue before she can stop them, and then she pauses, surprised at herself. She hadn’t even entertained what Spike and Lance and even AJ had said about her - - relationship with Rio, their assumptions about her because of it, hasn’t really had the time to, but suddenly she finds herself genuinely curious, the thought that she might have a reputation in this underground world as appealing as it is repulsive. She’s not sure what Dominic thinks of it, but he looks briefly surprised by the question, before he quickly conceals it, taking her in all over again.

“Not yet,” he says eventually, taking a sip of his beer, and god, Beth hates that she’s almost offended, until Dominic continues.

“Someone kept your name out of peoples’ mouths for a long time.”

The words give her pause, and Beth rocks her jaw a little, processing the words as Dominic starts to visibly lose his interest or his patience, what, Beth isn’t sure, just knows that he starts to shuffle, starts to play again with his beer label, his hands itching for something to do.

“Why?” she asks quickly, and Dominic shrugs.

“Probably to keep you on the teat.”

“Excuse me?”

He huffs out a little laugh, rolling his eyes in a way that makes her grit her teeth before he looks up at her again.

“You know how hard it is setting up meetings for somebody when nobody knows who the fuck they are? It’s a pretty good way to make sure you can only work through him.”

Beth reels back a little at the thought, her toes curling again, her fingers gripping the bench behind her in quick and sudden anger, and she thinks about Rio - - in her kitchen, at Kenny’s swimming and Jane’s recital, in her bedroom (no, Beth, not that time), she thinks about him yesterday, at the market, and about how easily he can slip into her space while forcing her out of his- - but - -

But it’s not his anymore, she thinks certainly, swallowing that matchstick of rage for later, and the chaser of guilt that follows it (his hand at his chest, clutching, what Marcus must have felt, not now, not now, not now).

“I need half a million dollars,” she says instead, her voice firm and blunt, and both of Dominic’s brows shoot up. “Who do you know who’s going to help me get it?”

*

By the time she gets home from Dominic’s garage, all her feelings have petered out to a bone deep exhaustion. She toes off her shoes by the door and beelines for the kitchen, grateful that Dean had taken the kids to his mom’s tonight with a suitcase full of his first round of things.

They’ve barely spoken since she told him to leave, since she told him she didn’t like him, their behaviour courteous at best, but otherwise pretty cool, even if they both try not to be in front of the kids. Still. He’d told her yesterday that he would move into his mom’s next week while he found a place, and despite her decidedly telling him not to, he actually had gotten more discrete with Nicole, not bringing her back to the house, and even taking her calls outside on the back porch to save Beth from hearing them, and she can’t say that she doesn’t appreciate the belated respect.

She rubs the back of her neck again, heading towards the bar cart and pouring herself a drink, blinking when she sees a bright pink scrap of a post-it note on the cart, and there, in Dean’s unmistakable scrawl, is scribbled Beth. Blinking, she steps back, taking in the wider room and is surprised to see slips of paper stuck to almost everything in the living room, all either bright pink for her (the lamps, the couch, the bookcase), blue for Dean (the TV, the TV cabinet, the matching coffee table), or yellow with a scratched in for discussion (the side table, the pot plants, the deep bottomed chest for throws), and just, she pushes her tongue into the side of her mouth in irritation.

Striding over to the lamp, she almost rips off the post-it note, before catching herself, taking a deep swig of her bourbon instead and drawing in a deep, calming breath.

It’s fine.

It is.

This is what she wants.

She exhales, moving instead back to her (blissfully) post-it note free bedroom and dropping her bourbon glass to the top of her chest of drawers. She pulls open her pyjama drawer, tugging out her calendar before moving over towards her bed, grabbing a pen and her glass again in the process.

Dominic had agreed to put his feelers out for her half a million dollars, which lets a bubble of excitement rise in her throat. She hadn’t gone in intending to ask for it, but the second it had come to her, it had felt right. 200 for Rio, then 100 each for herself and the girls. Enough to make them comfortable a little while longer while they figured this out. Enough for her mortgage, and Sadie’s hormone therapy, and Sara’s meds, to say nothing for all their other bills too.

They can make it work, she thinks, taking a swig of her bourbon, and grabbing her pen, ready to scribble in her next meeting with Dominic (they’d agreed on a time next week), and her - - her date with Tom, she feels something in her warm tentatively, only to drop her gaze to her calendar, and - - and stop.

It takes her a moment to take it all in – a quarter of the markets having been crossed out, dates replaced, timelines moved, new meetings inked in black pen, her entire month re-written, and Beth, she blinks hard, fury sparking in her gut in a way she can’t control, Rio’s unmistakable scrawl behind every amendment, rearrangement, cancellation and new thing.

Springing off the bed, Beth grabs her burner phone, furiously dialling the first number she had for him, like she hasn’t called it before, and then the second number, the third, getting the same disconnected message every time, and just - - fuck it, she thinks, grabbing her car keys and pushing back into her minivan.

She’s halfway there before she even realises where she’s going, pulling into an illegal park outside the - - their - - bar, and striding in, boundless in her fury. She scans the place, desperate for any sign of him – looking for him in every set of dark eyes and behind every shaved head, every long and narrow frame, but he’s not there in any one. Finds instead a mass of kids Annie’s age, laughing into each other’s necks, or toasting bosses being fired, or pushing hands up each other’s skirts, and just - - they fade into nothing as she tries to still her heaving chest, her fingers twitching at her sides when a drink is slid in front of her at the bar.

Bourbon.

Neat.

Beth blinks up, surprised to find that familiar bartender looking back at her, like he’s surprised to see her after all this time. She glances down at the drink, briefly confused.

“You looked like you were having a moment,” the guy says with a shrug. “And he said to keep you on his tab.”

The sounds of the bar suddenly erupt all around her, the clinking of glasses, the laughter, the too loud conversations of people a few drinks in. Somewhere outside, tires screech, somewhere in here, a glass shatters. Someone with a thick and nasal accent yells taxi.

Because of course he did. Because of course he let her think he was dead for months, let her - -

But kept this.

Here.

For her.

Beth exhales, anger sparking in her again in a way that she can’t explain – that she refuses to, grabbing the bourbon and downing it like a shot. She slides it back over to him, but stops him from pouring her another.

“Can you give him a message for me?” she asks, leaning close, her voice dripping with syrup. When the guy nods, she grabs her handbag and gets ready to leave.

“Can you tell him to go fuck himself?”

Chapter Text

Despite Annie and Ruby swinging by before dinner, she leaves it until late to bring it up. Leaves it until the kids are tucked into bed, and Dean’s even texted to let her know he’s planning on staying over at Nicole’s. Leaves it until the chicken pot pie she’d made for dinner has settled in everyone’s stomachs and a few drinks have eased the day’s frustrations from the knots in their tired heads.

And even then, maybe she doesn’t bring it up so much as she brings it out.

“I don’t get it,” Annie says, squinting down at Beth’s calendar, newly laid down on the dining room table before her. “We’re pulling back on the markets?”

“The timelines have moved too,” Ruby adds over her shoulder, considering, and then she widens her eyes, turning to look at Beth. “Dominic pulled through? Do we have ourselves a distribution partner?”

“I wish,” Beth says, grabbing a stack of the printed fake cash, straightening the pile to get it ready to slice. “No, look at the handwriting.”

It’s enough to invite an odd look from both of them, and the flush finds Beth’s cheeks before she can stop it – the realisation that neither of them are familiar with Rio’s chicken scratch scrawl in the way that she is suddenly hitting her both too quickly, and not quickly enough. Clearing her throat, she busies herself with the task at hand, willing the embarrassment from her cheeks.

“It’s Rio’s,” she says after a moment, and both Annie and Ruby’s eyes widen, heads spinning to look at her. “He broke into my bedroom again, and is trying to – to – ” she frees up a hand just to wave it out at them. “Control our schedule.”

“Jesus,” Annie says, flopping back in her chair, a line of worry making itself at home between her eyebrows. Beside her, Ruby grabs the calendar, sliding it closer to herself, looking over it with fresh eyes, running a hand down the line of squares for this week.

“He’s scribbled out both of the weekend’s markets,” Ruby says, her tone shifting uncertainly, and then she squints, trying to make out what’s written underneath. “But he wants his cut on Sunday. His cut of what? Nothing?”

Levelling Ruby with a look that says right?, Beth sighs, shaking her head a little to herself as she adds:

“He doesn’t want a cut. He wants his 200 grand on Sunday. Cancelling the markets is his way of telling us we won’t make it there.”

Or at least it’s what she thinks he means by it. After getting home from the bar last night, she’d spent too long interrogating all the changes he’d made to the calendar, trying to read intent and meaning in every shift and cancellation and addition, but the only answer she’d really been able to summon was that he was changing it mostly for the sake of changing it.

And for the sake of fucking with her.

She hits the stack of papers on the table a little harder than necessary, the irritation sparking alight in her gut all over again.

“And he wrote in a meeting for today, three o’clock at - - ” Ruby squints. “Some bar? I can’t make it out.”

The words pull Annie closer again, leave her squinting down at the square on the calendar, trying to decipher the name of the bar in Rio’s terrible handwriting, mumbling the letters she can make out beneath her breath. Ruby though seems to have realised the implication of her first point though, because she shoots a worried look to Beth.

“Did you meet with him this afternoon?”

“No, I didn’t go,” Beth replies a little stiffly, pulling at the edge of the guillotine to line up the printed cash, and ignoring the way both Annie and Ruby drop their jaws looking back at her. “Guys, I told you the other day, he can’t just swan back into our lives and dictate our schedules. Yes, we owe him, but we don’t work for him anymore.”

It’s enough to make Annie and Ruby exchange a look, but they don’t say anything for a minute, and Beth is oddly relieved for it as she slices the first row of cash, sliding it across to Annie who tidies up the edges, a disbelieving laugh escaping her lips as she does it.

“I can’t believe you stood up a violent gangleader.”

Beth squares her shoulders, tilting her chin up a little proudly. Not that she’d felt it earlier that day. After her fury at discovering the calendar had worn off, after she’d given the bartender the message for Rio, after a night of restless sleep, she’d found herself almost paralysed with just the weight of it all, of the frustration and the uncertainty and the tangled mess of it, the way it seemed to catch like a cobweb, stick her like a fly, and that really wasn’t something she wanted to spend too long thinking on. All in all, it just meant that the thought of seeing him so soon again had made her feel physically ill, and even though she wasn’t lying – the reason she hadn’t gone hadn’t just been to prove a point.

Because the thing is, she has no idea what she would’ve said to him beyond still not having his money for him, and the idea of him sitting opposite her in the bar she can’t help but think of as theirs after everything that’s happened just made her want to - - to - -

She doesn’t know what it makes her want to do. Something.

And sure. She knows it’ll piss him off, knows it’s only a matter of time before he shows up in her kitchen or in the school pick-up line, his eyes dark and his jaw rocking, asking of her things she can’t give, but she figures she can cross that bridge when she comes to it.

“If he wanted me to tell him that I couldn’t make it, he should’ve given me a way to contact him. This communication system he’s set up right now is one-way, and so it’s not my fault if he’s left out of the loop. Besides, we don’t have the money,” Beth says finally, slicing the second row of cash. “We’d just be repeating the conversation we had at the market, and it’d be a waste of everybody’s time.”

It’s enough to sober Annie and Ruby pretty much immediately, sucking the energy out of them, even as Annie grabs the new row of cash from Beth, and Ruby lurches up from her seat, heading into the kitchen to check the money in the oven.

“How much do we even have?” Ruby asks while she walks, her voice suddenly thick again with worry, and Beth’s gaze flicks to Annie.

“Well, at last count, it was about six and a half out of the two hundred, which gives us about…” Annie squints, holding her hand up like she’s air writing equations on an imaginary chalkboard, and Beth rolls her eyes, lining up the next row of cash. “Fuck all, which I believe is the technical term.”

Sighing, Beth pushes through another two rows of cash, only glancing up when she hears the clang of the metal baking dish on the stove, Ruby waving the steam off a few of the notes with an oven mitt before she starts back towards them.

“And I don’t know about you guys, but it’s not like my own bills have suddenly started paying for themselves,” Annie adds. “I still have to pay for rent and like, groceries, and Sadie’s hormones, and my lawyer for those bogus drug charges. And that’s not even getting started on all the other stuff. I swear Sadie’s growing like, five inches a week at the moment, and Nancy and Greg are buying him the lamest stuff, you have no idea.”

She drops her stack of cash enough to polish off her drink, waving the now-empty glass at Ruby before she can sit down, redirecting her back to Beth’s bar cart for the whiskey.

“I’m right there with you,” Ruby says, grabbing the bottle and topping up all three of their drinks. “Stan might be back on the force, but we’re still playing catch-up. Plus it looks like Sara’s debate team might make nationals, and if it does, we’ve gotta fly that little heffer to New York on our own dime.”

Beth exhales, the sound something between a laugh and a groan, because it’s not like they’re wrong. Not like she isn’t in a similar boat. Hell, not like she doesn’t know just how much the one she’s in is sinking. Like she’s read her mind, Ruby plants the bottle of whiskey on the table for easy access and slides back into her seat.

“And when’s your next mortgage payment due?”

Beth blinks up at her, surprised at Ruby’s read (although god, she really shouldn’t be). Reaching for her drink, she avoids both of their gazes when she says:

“Next week.”

“And that is?” Ruby drawls, her hand finding her own glass, and Beth flushes, bright and pink, at being so easily found out.

“Four and a half thousand dollars.”

“Great!” Annie says, tossing up her hands. “Well, we can just add that to the list, right beneath cashflowing a criminal kingpin.”

Ruby holds up her own hand, immediately silencing Annie, her gaze never having left Beth.

“Take your mortgage payment out of the six and a half grand we do have,” Ruby says. “Pay it tomorrow, so it’s done before gangfriend decides he’ll take whatever pocket change he can shake out of us.”

Beth jerks her head up, staring wide-eyed back at Ruby, because that’s just - - it’s not how this goes, and she’s shaking her head before she can stop herself.

“No, guys, it’s not all mine, and I mean, we’ll - -”

“Nuh-uh, we ain’t playin’ it like that, B. You need it the most right now, so you’re the one who gets it, just like I got it when Sara was in hospital, and Annie’s been getting more than her share to pay her lawyer for that dumbass drug charge. It’s your turn. Besides, we can’t think of a way to pay the rest of it if you’re stressing about being out on your ass with the kids.”

“Plus we don’t want you to have to go crawling back to Deansy,” Annie says with a look, immediately agreeing with Ruby, and Beth blushes because that thought hadn’t exactly escaped her. It was the last thing she wanted to do, especially after kicking him out again, but the reality was the reality. Dean was looking at a future of steady income again, Judith spreading herself thin behind him like a security net, and Beth had - -

Well, she thinks with a small, loving grin, she had Annie and Ruby, who offer her so much, but financial support isn’t ever a given, just like it isn’t from her either. They can only ever do what they can do. After a moment, she exhales, nodding in a way that seems to relax both Ruby and Annie’s shoulders.

“Speaking of, when’s he moving out?”

“We decided on two weeks,” Beth says, tapping the next stack of papers onto the table to get them as even as possible before sliding them into the guillotine. “Just into Judith’s for now, but he’s started to look for places. He said Alan was putting him in touch with somebody.”

“Alan couldn’t help him himself?” Ruby asks, and Beth shrugs.

“He only does commercial properties, I think,” Beth says, although she thinks he probably would be helping more if he didn’t think Dean had cheated him of his commission on Boland Motors. Still, that’s neither here nor there.

“And you’re sure you want to stay here?” Ruby adds, a slightly disbelieving tone to her voice as she says it, and Beth sighs.

“I don’t really have a choice,” she says, slicing through a new row of cash. She passes it to Annie, who tidies it up, counts it out and bundles it. Glancing up, she sees Ruby’s disbelieving look grow, and sighs all over again. “Selling the dealership made sense, you know? We’d make something off it to settle a few debts. But we’re so far under with this house, we’d still owe money at the end of it, and we’d be homeless.”

“Not we anymore, Beth, you. You gave Dean an out.”

The words hit harder than Ruby probably intends, a blunt truth that Beth’s been trying to dull in her own head. It’s not that it hadn’t occurred to her, just - - what does she have if she doesn’t have this house? No liveable income, no real job, and certainly no job history worth the mention (even Boland Motors is tarnished by the fact that it was raided by the FBI during her time as manager). At least the house is as much an asset as it is a burden. Still, Beth finds herself squirming a little in her seat, focusing hard on the fake cash.

“I know that,” she says, and before she can say anything else, Annie cuts in.

And you gave him the whole payout from the dealership,” she adds, a hint of judgement in her voice, and Beth scowls.

“I told you why I did that.”

“What? So you weren’t taking gangfriend’s money? God, Beth, does it matter? We already owe him all of our internal organs anyway.”

“Plus paying him back with his own money has a certain irony to it,” Ruby adds, before taking the fake cash from Annie and recounting it.

Flushing to the roots of her hair, Beth stares hard down at the fake cash in front of her. At her fake cash. She sets her jaw.

“I don’t want his money. I don’t want it ever again,” she insists. “And this way at least, Dean won’t fight for the house.”

“Why would he?” Ruby asks. “It’s a financial sinkhole. Even Dean’s not that stupid.”

And she knows Ruby doesn’t mean it that way, but the implication that Beth is is still enough to make her flash a slightly betrayed look up at Ruby before she shakes her head and powers through.

“He’ll still be paying child support.”

“Oh, he better be,” Ruby says, her tone a little pissed, but Beth just keeps going.

“Plus, I spoke to Dominic again, and I really think he’s going to come through for us.”

“Wait, you went there alone?” Annie asks in disbelief, leaning bodily across the table towards Beth. “After what AJ said about him being like, a monster creep?”

“He did not call him a monster creep,” Beth replies, rolling her eyes. “Look, he’s our only connection right now.”

“Who’s still connected to Rio,” Ruby adds, looking at Beth in exasperation, and sure, Beth thinks furiously, fine. She flops back on her chair, throwing her hands up.

“I don’t see you guys coming up with any alternatives!”

“Hey, I have ideas,” Annie yelps, suddenly looking offended at the implication that she doesn’t, and Ruby and Beth both stare back at her.

“Do those plans involve ski masks and toy guns?” Ruby asks dryly, like she’d read her mind, and Annie glances at them, a look on her face that more or less confirms Ruby’s exact suspicions. Ruby pulls a face.

“I mean, kind of?” Annie says, before adding, “Or we could try and be a little more white collar with it and find some local businesses who are open to putting our cash in circulation.”

“Like Fine & Frugal?” Beth asks, and Annie nods.

“I mean, we know they’d be up for it at least, right? Gangfriend stopping trade while he was fake dead must’ve hurt them.”

Beth tilts her head, considering, but Ruby looks disapprovingly between the two of them.

“We’ve talked about this before, and I thought we agreed that it was too risky. We don’t exactly have like, a shadiness detector we can run over the managers of grocery stores and strip malls. What’s to stop Mr. Bob Post Office from hearing us out and then taking a midday stroll down to the nearest police station?”

“We did, and we don’t,” Beth says. “But I mean. We’re better at it now than we were then, and we haven’t had any problems at the market, or buying the ingredients or yarn or fabric paint with the fake cash, right? Maybe if we like, come up with a script to feel them out...”

“Or we could just…not…ask,” Annie says slowly, interrupting Beth’s train of thought, and Beth and Ruby both spin on the spot to face her.

“What?”

Annie shrugs, folding her arms over her chest.

“Neither Noah or the new manager ever changed the passcode for the safe,” she says. “I know it. Tyler’s already working for us, right? So I can get him to turn a blind eye. I could just open up the safe on a close, and swap out the real cash in there for ours. Make sure our cash is what’s aside to go into the registers, not to the bank, so it would be circulated all week with customers, and then it would be like, out in the world and basically untraceable, right?”

And…yeah, Beth thinks, blinking, surprised, over at her sister, her reaction seeming to give Annie confidence – to make her sit up a little taller, pivoting around in her seat towards Ruby.

“And aren’t you basically alone on the overnight shifts at Dandy’s?”

Ruby gives her an incredulous look in reply.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What? It’s a victimless crime!” Annie says. “They won’t know to look for anything because nothing will be gone.”

“Sure,” Ruby says. “And what happens when our old pal Jimmy Turner find out that large amounts of fake cash is coming out of the places we work again, huh? You don’t think he’s going to swing by for another slice of Beth’s buckle?”

Annie shrugs.

“I mean, maybe, maybe not. Do we even know what’s happened to that guy? Besides, we’ve robbed Fine & Frugal twice now,” she says, then throws up her arms, exposing her wrists. “Cuff free, baby. And I’m still cashing their cheques.”

Beth tilts her head, glancing over at Ruby.

“Do you know what the security’s like at Dandy Donuts?”

“Bad,” Ruby admits with a snort. “They have cameras, but they’re not plugged into anything. Apparently it’s twice the price to get them hooked up, and management figures the deterrent factor in seeing them will be enough to stop kids holding up the place.”

Annie grins, flopping back into her chair, holding up her hands, and Beth can feel her mind reeling, looking between the two of them, something sharp and thrilling spiking through her gut.

“The PTA’s quarterly fundraiser is in a few days,” Beth adds, thinking it over. She hadn’t volunteered this month, but it’s not like it would be suspicious for her to suddenly offer a helping hand. Not like she hasn’t done it a million times before. “They usually make a bit. I could swap out the earnings.”

“Nice. How much do they usually bring in?”

“Almost twenty grand,” Beth says. “It’s for school supplies too – chalk, soccer balls, number two pencils. They don’t bank it so they don’t have to pay tax on it, and if it’s just cash, we already know it’ll clear at Staples, right?”

Ruby nods slowly, and Beth’s grin only widens.

“This is not a long-term solution.” Ruby insists, and Beth nods, folding her arms across her chest as she leans forwards across the table.

“Very much agreed,” she says. “But for right now?”

She leaves the question in the air, her gaze skirting over Annie, who’s sitting up tall, a pleased, proud expression on her face, before sliding her look over to Ruby, who’s visibly gnawing at her lower lip.

“We don’t even know if it’ll be enough,” Ruby says, and Beth shrugs.

“But it’ll be more than what we have right now.”

Sitting back in her chair, Ruby throws back her drink, her eyes sliding shut as her face runs the gamut of emotions, before finally settling on one: resignation.

“The stuff I let you bitches talk me into,” she groans, and Beth grins toothily back at her.

*

Beth doesn’t think she’s ever been so happy to see a runaway balloon as she is watching Asmita clamber up onto a wobbly elementary school desk, reaching for the dangling string of the balloon as it bobs against the classroom ceiling.

“Oh, honey, just leave it,” Beth calls, knowing there’s not a chance in hell Asmita will. “Once the helium starts to leak, it’ll come down on its own.”

“I know we all like to live by that Bless this Mess motto, but it really should be saved for the home, Bethie, you know that. My husband always tells me the first rule of medicine is do no harm, and honestly I just think that is a motto for life we would all be better off adopting,” Asmita trills a little breathlessly, still trying to reach for the balloon string as Beth packs up the last of the fundraiser baked goods, and shoves the used raffle ticket stubs into the nearest trashcan.

This is usually Emma’s classroom, but with the kids out in the library for the afternoon, they’d been able to use it for the fundraiser. It had been a modest success, dominated by stay-at-home mom’s swapping pocket change for raffle tickets, but they’d had enough people from the surrounding area come through to donate that they’d managed to raise the almost-twenty-grand that Beth had hoped for. And maybe she did push it a little hard, but she figured it was a win-win anyway – sure, she was making sure that she made money, but she was making sure the school did too.

“I thought Ed worked for that rubber company in Oakwood?” Beth adds offhand, eyeing the cash tin on the teacher’s desk. She’s got the money to swap it with in her purse. If she can just keep Asmita distracted long enough…

“Yes, and that company is the number one manufacturer of the rubber that they use on stethoscopes in the greater Detroit area,” Asmita says, scoffing at Beth’s ignorance. “He’s an essential part of the healthcare system in this country. Can you imagine a stethoscope without the rubber?”

“Wow, I guess not,” Beth replies, walking innocently back towards the desk. She opens up the cash box, makes a production out of counting out what they made, eyes flitting back to where Asmita is still struggling with the balloon, and just - - Beth really doesn’t have to. She doesn’t think it would even occur to Asmita to be wary of her with the money. Beth huffs a little, eyeballing the cash, and finally just thinks screw it. She knocks the cashbox off the desk, letting it break open with a metallic clang against the linoleum classroom floor, spilling out the notes and coins.

“Oh my gosh,” Beth moans, pretending to reel back in shock as Asmita spins on the spot, wobbling a little on the desk. “I’m so sorry – I’m such a klutz.”

“Oh no, don’t worry, Bethie, I’ll help.”

Beth quickly holds up a hand before Asmita can climb off the desk.

“No, seriously, my mess. Like you just said, do no harm right?” Or - - well, kind of, Beth thinks. She paints on her most innocuous grin. “If you can get that balloon down, I think I can manage this.”

It’s enough to make Asmita laugh and strike a power pose, saying something about Beyoncé that Beth doesn’t quite hear, before she diverts her attention back to the wayward balloon.

“Do no harm,” she trills for maybe the hundredth time today, and Beth echoes it back, rolling her eyes internally as she crouches down on the floor, grabbing her own handbag from where she’d stashed it below the desk earlier. She makes quick work of collecting the real cash again, counting it out and replacing it with the fake cash in her bag. When she’s done, she tidies up the last of her section, only glancing up when Asmita suddenly cheers, finally having grabbed the balloon string. She teeters awkwardly on the desk before clambering off it.

“Knew you could do it,” Beth says, and she can’t help the slightly pitying smile that spreads across her face at Asmita’s genuine pride at having gotten the balloon down. God, was Beth ever like that? She shakes her head. “I’m done over here too, so I might head out.”

“Oh no!” Asmita cries. “Lauren and me were going to see if you wanted to get frappuccinos at that new place off Bloom Street.”

“Oh, I wish you’d asked me earlier,” Beth says, sinking her shoulders in deliberated disappointment. “I promised Annie I’d pick her up from work.”

The words are enough to make Asmita frown, flashing a pointed look at Beth as she grabs a pencil from one of the desks and pops the balloon with a loud bang, the sound of it making Beth grit her teeth – it’s too close to, no. She blinks, hard. Adjusts her grip on her purse, roots herself in this moment, doesn’t let herself get pulled back to that one.

“She can’t catch the bus?” Asmita asks now, dropping the scraps of balloon into the bin, and then adding with a loaded tone: “I’m sure she’s used to it.”

And there it is, Beth thinks, tightening the hinges of her mask, any sympathy or pity she had for Asmita disappearing.

“I’ll see you at the next PTA meeting,” she says, nodding a firm goodbye and heading out the door. She’s barely a few steps out before the familiar thrill of a done job finds her again, adding a spring to her step (and a pace) as she walks swiftly down the hall, smiling at a pair of kids clutching hands and a bathroom pass as they scurry by her, and Beth’s almost at the exit when a voice sounds at her side.

“Bethie!” Lauren calls, materialising in front of her like a ghoul, and Beth stumbles back a little at the suddenness of it. She hadn’t even seen her coming.

“I’m just going to say it,” Lauren enthuses, pushing her blonde hair off her shoulder and reaching out a spidery hand to clasp Beth’s arm. “You are this school’s lucky charm.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Beth says, discretely tugging her arm out of Lauren’s grip, eyeing off her car parked on the street, not even ten metres away. “I’m basically a part of the scenery around here.”

“Oh, don’t undersell yourself. You were on fire with those raffle tickets today.”

“What can I say? I’m passionate about school supplies.”

And her tone is dryer than she intends, her arm not being held in Lauren’s grip shifting to clutch her purse full of cash tighter against her side, but Lauren doesn’t seem to notice. Not that Lauren ever notices much – she always seems almost anxious, buzzes with a nervous, bird-like energy, a flitting, fleeting presence.

“You know, a friend of mine has started this new club, where we find a local cause every month and host like, a cute little fundraising event for it. This month, my friend Kourtney – that’s with a K, like the Kardashian – she’s doing Golf for Gallbladders. It’s like an awareness thing, but also a little bit of a party. You should come!”

Once the words are out of her mouth, she let’s go of Beth’s arm, like she’d had to hold onto her to make sure she wouldn’t disappear before she could tell her, which - - isn’t exactly wrong these days. Her tolerance for Lauren and Asmita tends to vary, but lately it’s been even thinner than usual. Beth rocks back on her heels, glancing over Lauren’s shoulder again to her teasingly close minivan.

“Do…gallbladders need awareness brought to them?” she says offhand, and then thinks on it, squinting a little back at Lauren. “I mean, what charity is that?”

Lauren stares blankly at her for a second, as if the thought had never occurred to her, and she opens her mouth to reply only to promptly close it again.

“She’s even gotten a winery to sponsor it,” Lauren says after a moment, powering through, and Beth resists the urge to roll her eyes. “I think all the sitters will be booked up that night, if you know what I mean.”

Beth nods, smiling through her teeth.

“You should’ve seen us at Lemons and Lymes last month. It was a citrus-themed party to raise money for the fight against Chronic Lyme Disease. That’s what the Hadid sisters have. Yolanda’s daughters, you know, from Real Housewives. She has it too, of course. Isn’t that clever? The fundraiser, not the disease. Oh gosh, the disease sounds awful. Don’t tell Asmita I told you, but Ed got a little tipsy at the party and kept looking at the slideshow Kourtney had made of the Hadid girls, and he donated five thousand dollars cash, all on his own. Wild, huh? Poor Asmita was so upset, gosh.”

And Beth nods in faux sympathy, but she can’t take her eyes off Lauren all of a sudden, checking her face for any hint of exaggeration or dishonesty, any implication that this gossip is fuelled by anything other than the truth.

“Five thousand dollars? In cash?” she asks, and Lauren nods enthusiastically.

“Right? I would’ve killed David if he’d pulled something like that. Then again, I think there’s a bit of money in rubber. Besides, it’s not like he was the biggest spender there, and Kourtney likes it to be cash only. She sets up these cute little clear displays so people can see the money and take pictures for their social media of what we donate, it’s so fun. Kourtney is just clever like that though. I keep trying to get her to help with the PTA, but I think she’s too trendy for that.”

Lauren shrugs, and it takes Beth a moment to react – to even fully process it – the premise of a cash-only fundraiser with drunk yuppy parents lighting up in her head, and maybe it’s her own criminal inclination, but these do not sound like real charities. Beth blinks slowly, considering, at Lauren, before painting on a grin.

“You know what? Golf for Gallbladders sounds like a lot of fun. You should email me the details.”

“Oh! Yay!” Lauren says, surprised, a wide smile spreading across her face, and Beth meets her tooth for tooth.

*

She’s barely back in the car when her phone vibrates in the back pocket of her jeans. Dropping her purse to the passenger seat, she tugs it out, expecting a message from Annie, Ruby, maybe even Dean, but it’s not from any of them. It’s from Tom.

And it’s a photo of a deep, plum-coloured tie.

Does this go with what you’re wearing Friday night? I don’t want us to clash.

Followed rapidly by:

Is that weird?

Then:

I haven’t been on a first date in about twelve years.

And then:

Okay, regaining control of my impulses and realising I’ve definitely just made this weird.

Beth grins in spite of herself, and she’s not sure if it’s the flurry of the heist she’s just pulled off or the promise of Lauren’s friend’s fundraisers for what Beth is pretty sure are non-existent charities, but she wriggles back into her seat, clipping on her seatbelt before she replies with:

What might be weirder is that you’ve settled on an outfit before I have. At least now I know what colors to go with.

She hits send and then, after a beat and a slight moment of panic when she thinks what she sent could be read as an insult, sends the winking face emoji too, before dropping her phone into the cupholder. Pushing the keys into the ignition, she’s about to turn the car on when her phone vibrates again.

My sisters have often described me as ‘metrosexual’.

And then:

Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m being ridiculous. Wear whatever you want. It won’t matter. I can never take my eyes off you anyway.

Beth blinks, lips parting as she re-reads the message, and something in her belly shifts a little uncomfortably because maybe it’s just - - a bit much? She’s not sure. Biting the inside of her cheek, she drops her phone back to the cupholder without replying, going to start the car again when she hears her phone buzzing. Only this time it’s not Tom. It’s not even her regular phone.

It’s her burner.

She grabs it out of her handbag, steeling herself when she sees Dominic’s number glowing up at her. She answers it.

“Hey,” he says. “You free to meet?”

*

She’s not sure if it’s the stress of the morning, the weight of the day - - hell, the weight of the year - - but it takes her a moment to really work out what she’s looking at. Even after she knows it for sure, she still has to ask.

“What is this?”

“Half a million dollars,” Dominic says. “It’s what you asked for, isn’t it?”

It’s enough to make her tear her gaze away from the duffel bag of cash resting on Dominic’s desk in the back corner of the chop shop, to find him instead, dressed only in a pair of light-wash jeans and a white tank stained with black car oil. His lip is split, which it wasn’t a few days ago, and she feels her jaw tighten as he nods back to the bag of cash on his desk.

“The money’s clean, promise.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“That’s not important. You asked me to find half a million dollars, I found it for you.”

He moves over enough to lean back against the desk, crossing one leg over the other, a picture of relaxed, and Beth frowns, shifting her weight from a few feet away.

“I didn’t ask you to find me half a million dollars. I asked you to find me somebody who would help me get it. I was looking for a business connection, not a loan,” she says, her voice firm. “And I definitely was not looking for a loan from somebody I don’t know.”

“You know me,” Dominic replies easily, and Beth arches an eyebrow at him, folding her arms across her chest, resisting the urge to fix her hair when the oscillating fan in the corner of the chop shop musses it. It’s warmer today than it’s been all week, a sure-fire sign that spring is stretching itself awake, and she finds herself flushing, the heat settling in her cheeks and at her chest, and she’s glad at least she can blame it on that.

“That’s debatable,” she says, a little dryly, and she gestures to the duffel bag. “Take it back to wherever you found it. I don’t want it.”

“I thought you needed it?”

“I do,” she says with a shrug, because there’s no point lying. Besides, she can almost hear Annie yelling at her in her own head you won’t take gangfriend’s money, now you won’t take Dominic’s either? “But I wasn’t born yesterday. This is a fast track way to get myself on the hook with somebody I know nothing about, and I have no interest in going there again.”

Dominic seems to consider this, and Beth straightens herself back up. She can’t really imagine anything worse than shifting her debt with Rio to a debt with somebody else, even if the appeal of a clean slate with somebody new isn’t something she can entirely ignore. A fresh start. A chance to build a new history with what she’s learnt. Away from him. She bites her lip, and Dominic clocks it instantly.

“If knowing him is the issue, I can tell you whatever you want to know about Slav.”

Beth files the name away for future reference, but right now, she just pushes out a hip, staring carefully back at Dominic.

“How?”

“I work for him.”

“I thought you were a free agent?”

“I am,” Dominic says. “When I say that I work for him, I mean that I’ve done jobs for him before. And you know, he’s not the worst guy around. Smart – a good head for business. Got three kids. A nice wife. Runs a similar operation to Rio Vela’s.”

And god, it’s more than she knows about Rio now, let alone when she started working for him. Beth blinks, thinking over what Dominic has said – a business man, with obviously enough behind him that separating from half a million dollars isn’t a big deal. Runs a similar operation to Rio, so - -

“So he’s Rio’s competition,” Beth asks slowly, and Dominic shrugs.

“Isn’t everyone who’s not working directly for him?”

Beth looks down at the duffel bag again, turning the thought over in her head. She supposes it makes sense, but she can’t help the strange tightening in her gut at the thought of getting into bed with somebody that Rio views as a competitor, like she’s betraying a loyalty of some sort, which is stupid, she reminds herself. She doesn’t work for him anymore, and besides, it’s not like she hasn’t been actively trying to work with other people already. Just…up until the last of those meetings, she’d thought Rio was dead.

No, she reminds herself, frowning. He’d let her think he was dead after she’d shot him.

He’d let her think she’d killed him.

Her hand twitches at her side, and she blinks, a little too hard, suddenly desperate to distribute the pressure building behind her eyes, at her temples. Just - - move it.

“Okay,” she says, clearing her throat, then nods back at the bag. “What do you want?”

The question seems to surprise Dominic, who’s head jerks back a little as he looks at her.

“Excuse me?”

“I assume you’re not doing this for free,” Beth says, rolling her eyes a little. Surely he can’t think she’s that naïve? “Dream scenario, I take this deal you’re offering. What do you get? Why are you setting this up? Do you want a cut? Do you want a - -” she laughs, more to herself than anything. “A house in the Hamptons? A chance to find yourself a Real Housewife? What do you want?”

It takes Dominic a moment to reply, his gaze fixed on her in a way that Beth can’t read, and she finds herself standing up a little straighter, a flutter of nervousness suddenly making itself known in her stomach, because god, what does she even really know about this guy? What’s stopping him from - - from - -

Beth swallows thickly, wishing suddenly she’d brought Annie or Ruby or even Tyler, setting her jaw, hoping that Dominic can’t see her sudden doubt, but then, he breaks.

“I want to be a broker.”

Beth blinks, reeling a little.

“A broker? Like a middle man?”

Dominic nods, pushing up off the desk to stand up a little taller, shrugging.

“I’ve been on a certain level for a long time, and this is a chance to move up the chain.”

Rocking his head a little from side-to-side, as if debating whether or not to say something, it takes him a minute to continue, and when he does, it’s not with what Beth expects.

“I like you, Mrs. Boland,” he says, a boyish look on his face. “I think you’re smart, and word’s getting around you’ve got potential to be something in this business. I know I’ve stretched the truth on a few things, but I really haven’t forgotten what you and your husband did for me by giving me the job at Boland Motors after I got out of prison. I want to work for you. Again, I guess.”

And he laughs a little, almost bashfully, and Beth bites the inside of her cheek, unable to stop the flattered warmth spreading in her chest, even as AJ’s words echo in her head that Dominic only cares about himself, about his own interests, but maybe - - maybe it really is different with her. She knows it was different with her for Rio, even from Annie and Ruby, and maybe she can hear Rio’s words in Dominic’s voice (I really think you could be somethin’) even if maybe he didn’t really mean them in the end, and just maybe - - maybe she can identify too easily with someone wanting better than what they have too.

“Take this back,” she says again, making a split-second decision, gesturing to the bag. “But get him to meet with me.”

“Mrs Boland - - ” he starts, closing his eyes, but Beth holds up a hand.

“I won’t tell you again. Call me Beth. And you want to be a broker? Be one. This is how you do it for me. You set this up - - we can talk.”

*

“Jane, no,” Beth says with a sigh, abandoning her knitting, and grabbing her daughter’s wrist after she rubs the ball of slime she’d made in her Junior Chemistry Kit up the wall, leaving a thick ooze of green against the wallpaper.

Even stopping Jane’s motion is enough to make her daughter toss her head back and howl until Beth pries the ball of sludge from between her fingers, dropping it back to the mat and lifting Jane up to settle her on her hip.

“That’s got to stay on your little mat, remember?”

Beth had bought her a little waterproof mat covered in cartoon cats a few months back, when it became clear that this obsession with wet, sticky and oozing things wasn’t going to be a short-lived phase, and Jane had seemed to instantly develop an intense desire to play with her slime anywhere but.

Checking the clock again, she carries Jane over to the kitchen sink, washing her hands before dropping her back down to the floor, dampening a sponge and handing it over to her.

“Clean it up please,” she tells her, and Jane scowls, snatching the sponge and stomping over to the wall to clean it off, and Beth rolls her eyes, somehow managing to resist the urge to bang her head on the counter in exhausted frustration. Between Dean’s petulance over moving (and the post-it note explosion over her house, claiming items of furniture, homewares and appliances), and Jane’s tantrums, it’s a borderline miracle she hasn’t lost her mind.

I think it’s yucky, mommy,” Emma says a little too sweetly from the family room couch off the kitchen, an Angelina Ballerina book open in her lap, and Beth opens her mouth to reply when the back door bursts open, and Annie swaggers through, tossing her duffel bag onto the kitchen island and sliding into one of the stools, dropping what looks like a pile of loud, bedazzled fabric over the seat beside her. Beth tears her gaze away from her sister long enough to tell Emma to go help Danny pack up all their bathroom toys upstairs, waiting until she’s hopped off the couch and is skipping towards the stairs before she turns on Annie.

“How much did you get?”

“Sixty G, baby,” Annie says with a grin, slinging the bag towards Beth, before sitting back and watching her sister pull it open and rifle through the cash. “How much did you swing from the school yesterday?”

“Nineteen and a half,” Beth says, and she’s proud in the moment of it before the reality dulls the shine. Her shoulders slump as she rezips the bag, pushing her hip sideways into the kitchen counter.

“We don’t even have half,” she groans, slipping a hand into the neck of her robe and rubbing at her bare chest. “I shouldn’t be going on this date.”

The week has simultaneously seemed to dash and crawl by, losing itself in their mini heists and funny money making and filling orders for the Etsy store, and Beth feels like she’s barely slept between it all. Even now, she feels like she’s wearing more concealer than foundation to hide the bags beneath her eyes for tonight.

“What are you talking about? You should definitely be going on this date.”

“We have two days before Rio’s coming to collect, Annie, and we still need to find more than $100,000.”

Annie purses her lips in annoyance, before she grabs the duffel bag off the kitchen counter, dropping it to the floor at her feet.

“Chill, sis. We don’t even know how much Ruby’s gonna get yet anyway. Plus, what about that like, Limbo for Legs thing you told me about?”

“Golf for Gallbladders,” Beth says, rolling her eyes. “It’s not for another two weeks.”

Turning around, she fiddles with the settings on the oven, pulling open the door to stir the casserole she’d made for Annie and the kids’ dinners, the smell of thyme, chicken and mushroom curling at her nose. Of course it’s not just worry about Sunday’s meeting that makes her want to stay home - - there’s worry about the one she missed too. She hasn’t heard from Rio at all since she stood him up at the bar, and that feels - - she doesn’t know how it feels, she thinks, tucking her hair behind her ear as she closes the oven door, putting the heat down to low. Maybe he doesn’t care, she thinks, although that seems unlikely, particularly with the message she’d left him. She’s been expecting him to show up all week, but there hadn’t been so much as a whisper, and the last thing she wants is him materialising when Annie’s here alone with the kids.

Beth bites her lip. Especially if he knows things. She’d decided against telling Annie or Ruby about meeting with Dominic again – figuring they’d take the half a million dollars he’d tried to hand her as another red flag after what AJ had said, and - - besides, there was nothing to tell yet, she reasons. She’d wait and see how he did talking to Slav.

“Well, you know, sis, in my experience, getting a little something-something can be good for getting the creative juices flowing. I mean, among other juices,” Annie says now, jerking Beth out of her thoughts so fast she flushes, bright and pink.

“Annie!”

“What? I’m just saying,” Annie says, jumping down off her stool and reaching for the pile of gaudy fabric she’d brought with her. “Bee-tee-dubs as someone very familiar with your wardrobe, I brought you some dress options for tonight so that we can take your chances of getting laid from a negative a billion to like, a solid hundred.”

Without further ado, she holds up a strappy black sequined dress with a plunging neckline and a hemline that Beth would genuinely be surprised if it covered her vagina. She stares at it long enough in something close enough to abject horror, that Annie hums in the back of her throat.

“I’m going to take that look and your silence as a maybe,” Annie says, tossing the dress on the stool and showing off the next one – a leopard print sweater dress that Beth thinks she’d be lucky enough to get over her shoulders, let alone her chest. She rolls her eyes, dropping her hands to her hips and giving Annie a look.

“You know, this might be news to you, but we do not share a body shape.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Annie says, waving a hand out at Beth and rolling her eyes. “Don’t worry about me, I dealt with all my titty-envy years ago. Honestly though, you spend so much energy trying to pretend they’re not there, half the time I think you don’t even deserve them. You in this dress though? You’d deserve them. Huh, what do you say?”

“No,” Beth says, like Annie’s apparent - - titty-envy was remotely close to the point Beth was trying to make. “That’s what I say.”

With a loud, frustrated sigh, Annie dumps her dresses back onto the stool and eyes Beth off.

“Well, what were you planning on wearing?”

It’s how they end up in Beth’s bedroom with Beth in the dress she’d picked out – a modest, pastel-pink dress with a boat neck and a darker pink rose print. At Annie’s request, she gives a spin, trying to ignore the irritation building in her gut at the way Annie circles her like some sort of fashion vulture.

“Hmmm,” Annie says after a minute. “Do you want to fuck him, or do you want to fix his school lunch and judge the girl he is fucking, because this is giving off some real Mommy, Dearest vibes, B.”

Annie,” Beth groans, and watches as her sister beelines for her closet, her short form almost disappearing amongst the canopy of Beth’s hanging clothes. “There’s nothing wrong with this dress.”

Because there isn’t. In fact, she’d gotten multiple compliments on it at the PTA Easter Brunch fundraiser last year, and - - right, okay, Beth thinks with a sigh. Maybe date dresses shouldn’t be transferrable with spring-themed, pastor-attending brunches where your now ex-husband dressed in a giant Easter bunny costume. Beth sighs, smoothing out the waist of her dress.

“This is pretty hot,” Annie says suddenly, voice muffled through the wall of Beth’s clothes as she stumbles back out of the closet with a svelte, figure-hugging canary yellow dress that tapers just below the knee and ruches a little around the waist. Beth blinks, shocked at Annie’s find.

“God, I haven’t worn that in at least - -” she fumbles for the word, waves her arms around. “Two-children-ago. It probably won’t even fit.”

In fact, she’d even forgotten she owned it.

“Just try it on,” Annie says, unzipping the back of it, and passing it over to Beth. “With a red lip, that thing is gonna pop, I promise.”

Gnawing on her lower lip, Beth debates just outright rejecting it, insisting on the dress she has on, but maybe - - maybe mixing it up isn’t the worst idea. Maybe things are getting back on track, between Dominic and Lauren, maybe she wants to feel good, and besides, it’s maybe the third first-date she’s ever been on in her life, so it’s not exactly like she’s an expert, and god, isn’t that sad?

With a sigh, she takes it from Annie’s hands, ignoring Annie’s triumphant look as she heads into her en suite.

And as soon as she has it on, she remembers why she bought it. It had been an impulse purchase – something decidedly not her, but something she had liked on at the time. The brightness of it a cover for the gnawing post-partum blues that had settled thick in her bones after having Danny, and she’d thought maybe it would be enough to make Dean stay out with her for the night, instead of ‘working late’. Enough to hold his attention and make her feel like she wasn’t failing at the life she had chosen. To remind herself that she wasn’t her mother. That she could pull herself out, keep her man interested in the way her mother couldn’t keep her father, that she could keep Dean, like his company was any sort of prize, and she had eventually pulled herself out of it, but not with this dress, which had sat untouched in her closet, and certainly not with Dean.

It leaves her shaky handed now, even as she rubs her hands down her belly, smoothing out the fabric of the dress. It fits her perfectly, like buying it all those years ago was really buying it for tonight, the thick yellow straps being enough to support her, the square neck line revealing enough cleavage – more than she’s truly comfortable with (but isn’t that just par of the course?), but not too much that she’s too worried about it, the fit and the ruching being enough to emphasise the dip and swell of her hourglass shape.

She’s barely had time to catch her breath when the door bursts open, Annie storming in with all her chaotic energy and she says something about that being plenty of time only to stop dead in the doorway, her mouth open and her thick eyebrows raised almost to her hairline.

“Holy shit, Beth, I know you’re my sister, but I would fuck you in that dress.”

“Gross,” Beth says, wrinkling her nose at her sister, but she can’t help but look at herself in the mirror again, hold herself a little taller, and think, yeah, okay.

*

Despite offering to pick her up, Beth had insisted on meeting Tom at the restaurant (or rather: Annie had insisted Beth insist. “Rule numero uno of casual dating,” she’d said. “Always drive yourself so that if he ends up being a serial killer or, worse, really boring, you can just leave.”) which means Beth inevitably arrives first at Montrachet, an elegant French restaurant in the heart of one of the trendier inner city districts.

And it really is elegant – with its long, polished timber floors and exposed brick walls, its warm lighting and its pressed white tablecloths, and red velvet chairs. The air is fragrant with the smell of French herbs and rich meats – lamb and rabbit and quail, the sounds of glasses being clinked together, the thrumming chatter of couples out for date nights and anniversaries and celebrations echoing off the tall ceilings.

She adjusts her dress, teeters a little on the heels Annie had insisted that she wear, and she’s about to head towards the small bar in the corner when a familiar voice sounds behind her.

“Wow.”

It’s almost a little breathless, a little reverent, and Beth is blushing even before she turns around to see Tom, his eyes bright as they travel down her body, snapping back up to her face when she catches him staring, and Beth grins a little shyly back at him. He really is handsome, she thinks, with his square jaw and his sandy hair, slicked into a Cary Grant-esque style. Then again, he embodies the Cary Grant look more broadly than that too, with his tailored grey suit and that thin, plum-skin coloured tie and his polished black shoes. He’s a far cry from how she’d seen him at the markets, but then again, she thinks, the air nipping at her bare arms, so is she.

“Ditto,” she says, flushing lightly, and Tom smiles, a little bashful as he steps up to the waiter, gives his name and lets them be led to their table. He holds her chair out for her, and Beth takes a seat.

“You really do look incredible,” he tells her, sliding into his own across from her, and Beth’s flush only deepens, shifting herself uncomfortably on the spot.

“Thank you,” she says, resisting the urge to pull up the bust of her dress, instead reaching into her handbag to pull out the grey and white floral shawl she’d packed with it (the one Annie had adamantly opposed of “Please don’t Grandma this dress, Beth, I’m begging you. Don’t pull a you.” She’d done it anyway. She was still her after all.) Her eyes go up to Tom’s again, where he’s smiling docilly at her, and Beth squirms a little, unsure what to say.

“Are you going to be at Mount View Markets tomorrow?” she asks, because it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and Tom blinks, lips parting, a little surprised.

“Um. Yes. I am. How about yourself?”

“Yes,” Beth says, because she is, despite Rio trying to cancel it. It’s her business, after all. “No baking though, just crafts tomorrow.”

She plays a little with the edge of her napkin, biting the inside of her cheek awkwardly until Tom opens up his menu opposite her and Beth thinks to do the same, mirroring his movements, and god, this just feels weird. Her eyes scan the menu, but she doesn’t seem capable of taking any of it in.

“Do you want to get a bottle of wine?”

“Sure.”

“Red or white?”

“Oh, I don’t mind. Whatever you prefer.”

Tom nods, shifting back a little in his seat, maybe feeling the awkwardness of the moment as much as Beth is, and she tries to make herself focus, but all the meal names on the menu are in French, and Beth’s twenty-year-old memory of studying it in highschool is failing her more than she cares to admit.

“All their wines come from these two wineries in Burgundy. Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet, hence the name of the place. I went a few years ago with my wife. It really is like nothing else in the world. Puts Napa Valley to shame.”

It’s enough to bring Beth back to the moment, her gaze finding him over the top of her menu, taking in the slant of his nose, his large hands, the Rolex on his wrist. She shifts a little on the spot, the confidence she’d felt after the school fundraiser, after Dominic, after putting on the dress, having seemingly disappeared in a fraction of the time it had taken her to find it. She feels suddenly a little out of breath. She bites the inside of her cheek.

“You’ve been to France?”

“A few times,” he replies easily, eyes still on the menu. “You?”

Beth laughs a little, feeling herself blush, her stomach twisting at the question.

“My travel basically extends as far as Canada,” she replies, trying to keep her tone light – on the playful side of self-deprecating instead of the pitiful one. Her eyes scan down the menu again. There are no prices on it, she realises, shifting a little awkwardly, redirecting her attention back to the words, trying to distract herself from the fact of it. Lapin à la moutarde. That’s rabbit something, she’s sure. She tilts her head.

“There are definitely worse places to go. I’ve got to say, I love Vancouver. Just a great energy, you know? And a fantastic art gallery,” he adds, and Beth looks up again, blinking, and he’s trying, she knows that, but it’s just - -

“I - - yeah, I guess so. I actually - - I didn’t get a chance to see it.”

She stumbles over it, suddenly plagued with the memories of it. She’s been to Canada three times – once on that trip for the fake cash, once to bail Annie out after she’d crossed the border and somehow lost her passport, and once with Dean for what was supposed to be a romantic weekend getaway but ended up being three days at a car show he said he couldn’t miss for work. Beth had spent most of the time pretending to listen to some of Dean’s associates talk about engines and anti-reflective windshields while she watched Dean leer at floor girls in gold bikinis handing out flyers.

“You’re a lawyer, right?” Beth asks, changing the subject to try and jerk herself out of the memory of it. She can feel herself spiralling, and she just needs to - - she needs to refocus.

“Used to be,” Tom says, flagging down one of the waiters. He orders a wine she’s never heard of in perfect French, before turning his attention back to her. “The evil kind,” he jokes. “I used to represent big business chains. Did a bit of work for Coca Cola, Cloud 9, Walmart. I was even at Apple for a bit, before I saw the light.”

“It’s a pretty impressive resume though. What made you change course? A near death experience?” she jokes, aiming for playful, glancing up at him over the menu, and he looks a little embarrassed then, a little uncertain, and he clears his throat.

“Um. My wife died.”

The words sit like a stone between them, heavy on the table, too big, and they almost - - almost seem to grow, the longer Beth is quiet, the longer she finds herself paralysed with her own mortification and she keeps looking at Tom, who just looks back at her, uncomfortable and sad and embarrassed for some reason, when she should be the one who’s embarrassed and just - -

“I am so sorry,” she says finally, earnestly, and Tom laughs a little awkwardly, waves a hand at her.

“Don’t be. I’m sorry. I’m sure this is the last thing you want to hear on a first date.”

“No - - it’s - - I mean, I don’t mind. I’m just. I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine raising kids on my own, let alone going through something like that, and - -” she flusters, watching as Tom holds a hand up again.

“Beth, seriously, stop. It’s fine.”

And god, it’s really not. Beth blushes, plays a little with the edge of her napkin again, glancing up at Tom through her lashes. He’s looking away from her, out across the restaurant, his gaze unfocused, and Beth just - - she’s gone this far.

“Can I ask what happened?”

He blinks back at her, but he doesn’t look surprised that she’s asked. Like he’s used to it.

“Ovarian cancer. It was…” he pauses then, as if trying to find the words, and when he says: “Slow.” It’s loaded with too much – with pain and history and love, and Beth finds she has to look away from him.

“I didn’t handle it as well as I probably should have. Buried myself in work, kept telling myself people survive cancer all the time, right? And I could afford it. But what’s that saying? We’re all equal in death. She was Stage 4 by the time they found it. The survival rate is 17%.” He shrugs, but it’s heavy, ashamed. “Like I said, it’s why I stepped away from law. She used to work in the non-profit sector, so I continue her work there where I can, and with the markets - she’d loved how much I’d loved doing it, always said it was our retirement plan, and after she passed – well, you know, I can work from home mostly, so can be there more for my daughters. I guess you find your own ways to remember them, don’t you?”

Do you? She wonders. She feels like she did everything in her power to not remember Rio, and then she glances up at Tom and feels almost physically ill at the thought. To equate her brief, false loss to his very real one feels cruel, even if the thoughts don’t leave her own head. Her fingers find the stem of her empty wine glass, her other hand clenching in the knee of her dress.

“You’re a really good guy,” Beth tells him, because he is, and Tom flushes a little.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he says, half joking. “I think I just loved my wife.”

And then he blinks at her, his own cheeks flushing. He seems to lean back in his seat a little, curl in on himself, embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry. You know, my sisters were so adamant that I keep all talk of Abby to a minimum. I just. I don’t want you to feel like - - actually, I have no idea what I want you to feel like.”

He looks at her so shyly, so earnestly, that Beth suddenly wants to crawl out of her skin, feels a little breathless, because she doesn’t know what she wants to feel either, but knows that none of what she feels sitting here opposite Tom is what she should be.

“It’s okay,” she says, reaching a hand out across the table before she can stop herself, briefly touching his wrist. “We’re just getting dinner, right?”

“Right,” he says gratefully, and Beth smiles softly at him, and she hates the way he looks at her suddenly, like she’s kind, gentle, like she’s worthy of any of this from him when she’s - - she’s - -

Hell.

She doesn’t know what she is.

*

After that it’s easier, at least.

They talk about their kids and about where they grew up, about their families (or about his family, and about Beth’s Annie and Ruby). Beth briefly tells him about her divorce, and he gives her some free tips on what to look out for in the custody negotiation (“I can give you the name of a good custody lawyer,” he tells her. “I wish I could help more, but it’s not my area of specialty, sorry.”) and Beth finally admits to not being able to decipher the menu, and it’s with a soft laugh that Tom waves down the waiter and orders for them both.

“I really hope you didn’t just order me the lamb brains,” Beth says, wrinkling her nose (the couple two tables over had after all, and she’d cringed when Tom had explained it), and Tom just laughs, opening his mouth to reply, when suddenly a waiter stumbles, spilling a whole glass of red wine into Tom’s lap. With a start, they both leap to their feet.

Fuck,” he curses as the waiter babbles apologies, grabbing his napkin to start to mop it up when Beth reaches for his wrist across the table.

“Don’t. That’ll only make it worse.”

Turning to the waiter, Beth asks:

“Do you have any club soda out the back? A little white vinegar?”

The waiter quickly nods, jerking his head to the side, and Tom moves to follow, but before Beth can do the same, Tom shakes his head, gesturing for her to stay where she is.

“No, stay here. It’s not exactly the way I want a beautiful woman to see me pantsless for the first time,” he jokes, and Beth blushes, but smiles in concession, watching him head down the restaurant behind the waiter, and she hates it, but she’s oddly glad for the respite. Tom’s nice, he is, and handsome, but he’s just - - he’s not - -

She sighs, cutting off the thought in her own head, and sliding back down into her seat when there’s a blur of black before her, Tom’s chair being jerked out from beneath the table. Beth turns quickly to tell whoever it is that the chair isn’t available only to reel back when she sees Rio drop into it, pulling himself up to the table.

Beth gapes at him, eyes darting around the restaurant, but it feels like no one else has even noticed, everyone too distracted poring over their own meals, their own conversations, their own nights, and Beth feels a familiar spike of adrenaline course through her as she leans across the table towards him, her hands gripping the edge of it.

“What are you doing here?” she hisses, keeping her voice low as she takes him in – lean and unfairly handsome, his eyelashes thick, his lips parted, his neck tattoo stark over the top of his black button-up shirt.

“Got your message,” he tells her, picking up the menu still on the table and looking it over, and it takes Beth a minute to collect herself, to realise what it is he’s talking about. The go fuck yourself she’d left him at the bar that night, almost a week ago, and she can feel her pulse flutter close to the surface of her skin.

“A little late replying,” she says, trying to keep her voice steady, her eyes darting down past the other diners towards the kitchens.

“I was busy,” he says, before following her gaze down across the restaurant, his movements languid, almost lazy, like he has all the time in the world for this. “Don’t worry, he won’t be out ‘til we done talkin’,” he replies, and Beth jerks her head back around to stare at him as he lifts the menu again, taking in the full implication of what he’s saying. “Little white bread for you, ain’t he?”

“Pouring a drink on someone is a little juvenile for you, isn’t it?” she retorts hotly, and Rio grins at her over the top of the menu, before he adopts a faux innocent expression.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetheart, date not goin’ well? Rather I handled him some other way?”

The tone is loaded – god, the tone is always loaded with Rio, and Beth feels her breath hitch, her fingers still holding the edge of the table in a white-knuckled grip as she schools her expression into a glare.

“You’re hilarious,” she says, and he makes a humming sound of agreement, his gaze lowered again to the menu.

“Know what ain’t hilarious? You not showin’ up for meetin’s.”

And at least this? This she was ready for.

“I could say the same about you thinking you can come into my house whenever you want and mess around with my business and my schedule, and my - - ”

“Yours?” he interrupts, dropping the menu back to the table, leaving it open in front of him as he knits his fingers together, planting his hands on top of it. He levels her with a wide, unblinking stare. “I thought we agreed all you got is mine.”

Beth scowls, opening her mouth to disagree, but Rio doesn’t give her the air to.

“Think of it like collateral, yeah? You ain’t got no money to guarantee I’ll see mine, so I take what you can offer,” he says it easily, lightly, like he’s explaining math problems to Kenny in her backyard again, and Beth blinks, feels a pressure in her face at the implication that she can’t shift, and when he sees that she’s clocked it, he arches an eyebrow at her, his tone growing sharp and pointed. “And all you ever been able to offer is what you can do, darlin’.”

Beth exhales a little too loudly, folding her arms under her chest as she leans back in her seat. She’s so unused to wearing dresses this lowcut that she doesn’t even notice it has the effect of enhancing her cleavage until Rio drags his gaze there, biting back a smirk. She promptly drops her arms, clearing her throat as she glares at him again.

“If that’s the logic you’re going with, I don’t know why you even bothered buying Boland Motors instead of just taking it as collateral.”

“My business wit’ you, ain’t it? Didn’t think you was a Boland anymore,” Rio replies easily, releasing his hands and leaning back in the seat, and Beth blinks, the words shocking her.

“Excuse me?”

“What? You surprised I know you and that dumbass husband of yours ain’t together no more? Baby, you on a date.”

He’s laughing at her now, loud enough the couple at the table next to them look over, shooting curious glances between them, and Beth flushes to the shells of her ears.

“Why did you want to meet the other day anyway?” she asks, changing the subject while she can, putting aside the fact that she and Dean weren’t divorced yet when Rio bought Boland Motors – she doesn’t think that train of conversation is going to get her anywhere, at least not tonight. “According to your schedule, we’re not doing the drop until Sunday.”

The words are enough to make Rio shrug, his eyes back on the menu, and she finds herself briefly wondering if he knows French. Nothing would really surprise her about him anymore. She shifts in her seat, waiting for him to reply.

“Figured we could talk.”

And that’s - - not what she expected.

Beth blinks at him, unable to help the way her expression shifts into curiosity, her gaze flitting across his face, trying to get a read on him. When she gets nothing, she asks:

“About what?”

Rio opens his mouth to reply, but what he was about to say, Beth won’t ever know.

“Beth?”

Her name cuts through the tension, through the space, and Beth is suddenly hyper aware that they’re in the middle of a restaurant - a crowded one at that, and she blinks, suddenly overwhelmed by the smells or garlic and sage and thick, burnt butter, of the sounds of a spitting stove, and chatter and champagne corks popping, and just - - by Tom, who is suddenly hovering over their table. It’s enough to make Beth blush bright and pink, her gaze flicking back to Rio, who looks nothing if not amused, and won’t be out til we’re done talking her ass. She glares, and his grin only widens, her gaze moving quickly back to Tom as she gets to her feet.

“They got the stain out,” she says, her voice soft and too sweet, ignoring Rio’s snort from his chair. Tom’s eyes dart over, taking Rio in, and she can see it – the way he clocks the tattoo, the rings, the shaved head. Beth flushes, shifting her weight as her mind reels, trying to think of any way to get out of this that doesn’t end terribly. At least Rio doesn’t seem to have a tire iron this time, she thinks, almost hysterically, and Tom seems to pick up on it in her expression.

“Everything okay here?” he asks slowly, his eyes leaving Rio for Beth. “Who is this guy?”

“Kinda an ex, kinda not,” Rio drawls, rolling his shoulders back, his gaze not leaving Beth, and Beth blinks over at him, startled, because - - ex? Is that what they are? Her eyes dart over his, but Rio keeps his face carefully neutral.

Tom’s own eyes skirt from Beth to Rio to Beth again, trying to make sense of what’s happening, and finally, he just asks: “’Kinda’ as in kinda still together, or ‘kinda’ as in kinda never were?”

And Beth can’t say that she wouldn’t like to know the answer to that too, after all, the last time she’d tried to clarify, Rio had only confirmed her as work, and the thought leaves an ache in her gut, right before it’s swallowed by the guilt of what happened after that. She blinks, hard, teeters a little on the spot as she turns towards Tom, because Rio isn’t confirming or denying anything, and at Tom’s look, Beth’s own lack of reply seems enough to answer the question for him anyway.

“I didn’t think you were seeing anyone.”

“I’m not,” she insists, finally finding her voice, and Rio shakes his head a little, still sitting in his chair. He rolls a hand out at the wrist, as if in thought.

“Yeah, but she ain’t exactly available neither,” he supplies, and Beth scowls down at him, fury etched into her expression, but Rio doesn’t so much as flinch. Instead, he pushes Tom’s wine glass aside, and reaches for Beth’s, taking a sip of her wine and pulling a face at it. He swirls it a little in the glass, sniffing it, like he’s a connoisseur and Beth doesn’t think she’s ever wanted to hit him more. The feeling seems to be mutual, because she doesn’t even see Tom move until he’s suddenly stepping into Rio’s space, jerking on the back of the chair to yank it out from beneath the table.

“Look, buddy,” Tom starts, and before Beth can get between them, Rio’s on his feet, leaning heavily into Tom’s space, forcing the other man to take a step back, startled into speechlessness suddenly, and Beth can relate. The full weight of Rio’s attention isn’t something she’d wish on anyone.

“Nah, you look, yeah?” Rio says, his voice low and gravelly, and Beth knows everyone in the restaurant is watching now, can feel the heat in their expressions, the nervousness, but no one makes a move to break them up.

“You gonna go to that bar, you gonna pay for this shitty, fancy ass wine you thought would impress her, and then you gonna go home and you gonna lose her number. You hear me? Coz trust me, I’m doin’ you a favour.”

Rio,” Beth hisses, but Rio’s not looking at her, and neither is Tom. Their gazes are fixed steadfastly on each other’s, like this is some sort of pissing contest, and Beth a prize that neither of them really want, and Beth’s hands are shaking with urgency, and she needs to find someone before they hurt each other, needs to stop this, but then - - then Tom looks at her, and it’s only then that she realises she’s been watching Rio, not him, and - - and maybe Tom realises that too.

He steps back.

“I’ll see you around, Beth,” Tom says slowly, heading back to the bar to do exactly what Rio had said, and Beth exhales a harsh breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding in, her gaze whipping back around to Rio.

“What the hell was that?” she hisses at him, and he gives her a dark look as he slides down into the chair, leaving Beth standing over him again.

“Figure you ain’t really got the time to date, what with everythin’ else you got goin’ on,” he says, and Beth’s glare intensifies. “You wanna follow him or you wanna talk?”

The words are enough to startle her, to make her look down at him, try to gauge his expression, but his face is blank, the only shift in his look in the slight, questioning raise of his eyebrows, and she looks out across the restaurant, at where Tom is settling the bill, and likely cancelling their meal order, and Beth feels a flush of shame erupt across her chest and she grabs her shawl from the back of her chair, covering herself as she sits down in the futile hope that Rio won’t have seen.

Like it matters.

She stares at him across the table, watching his lips twist a little smugly, knowing that he’s won.

“You want to talk?” she asks. “Fine. Tell me what happened with Turner.”

Because she’s been thinking about it more and more, ever since he’d shown up, sure, but even more since Ruby had brought him up the other day, wondering if he’d reappear along with Rio, and she feels her leg start to jitter, and forces herself to stop it.

Rio just laughs though, opening up the menu again and flicking back through to where he left off.

“You wanted to know that, you should have stuck around.”

And she can’t say she expected him to answer any other way, but his words still make her breath hitch, still makes red blossom across her chest, and she’s grateful at least now for the cover of her shawl. She holds it a little tighter.

“I - - he told me to go.”

“Mmm,” Rio hums in agreement. “You tried the rabbit?”

“What? No, I haven’t, I - - ” she blinks furiously before she finds the strength to stop, to square her jaw again, and Rio finally drops the menu, stretching a little, catlike, in his seat.

“It’s a problem.”

“The rabbit?”

“You don’t see anythin’ through,” he tells her, leaning back and folding his arms loosely across his chest. He opens his mouth, looks at her, but his eyes are a little glazed, a little unfocused in a way that makes Beth think he’s thinking about something else or - - or that he’s bored. “Not that night, even though I bet you thought you did. Not any other night neither, huh? Not with that grocery store manager o’ yours anyway.”

Beth stares at him, at the lazy disinterest of his expression, and she suddenly feels a spike of anger again at him, overwhelming the guilt that always unravels in her at the mention of that night, of what she did, but - - she won’t be guilted for what she didn’t do too.

Not handling him is what saved my butt,” she hisses. “Boomer showing up was the only reason Turner let me go, and you know it. Because god knows you didn’t want to help me.”

He raises both eyebrows again at that, but he otherwise doesn’t move, doesn’t so much as shift.

“Yeah? Where he at now?”

Beth reels back a little in her seat, hand loosening on her shawl in surprise.

“Excuse me?”

“Where’s your boy at? Your rotten egg. He knows an awful lot, don’t he? You got eyes on him? You should. Boys like him got big mouths on ‘em, and you think you your own boss now, right? He’s yours to handle. What about that girl o’ yours? The one who’s husband you got feedin’ worms in your yard? You know where she at?”

And the thing is - - the thing is she’s not sure. She hasn’t heard boo from Mary Pat since they untied her – agreeing to keep Mary Pat’s secret if she’d keep theirs, and all Annie knew about Boomer was that he hadn’t come back to Fine & Frugal. He could be on the other side of the planet for all they knew, and Beth had honestly been glad to cast him far from her mind.

“That’s over,” she insists now, squaring her shoulders like it really is, and Rio exhales a laugh, knits his hand together on the table again, leaning over towards her. He looks darkly amused more than anything, and the thought leaves Beth cold.

“Don’t play dumb, darlin’, it don’t look good on you. You know nothin’ is ever really over, not until you finish it.”

There’s a gasp suddenly as the lights dim, and it’s enough to make Beth jump, to turn in her seat to see a collection of tiny flames down the end of the hall as a table a few feet away bursts into an offkey rendition of happy birthday. She’s not sure what it is about it – the innocence of it, the affection of it, the elderly woman blushing at the end of the table, a man who can only be her son fixing an ’80 today’ ribbon to her blouse, and just - - Beth looks back at Rio, at where he’s watching her watch them, and suddenly everything just feels wrong.

“You know what? I’ve changed my mind,” she says, at the song descends into cheers and a family trying to get to eighty claps, and Beth is tossing her napkin down on the table, grabbing her purse off the floor and getting to her feet. “You can finish the wine.”

Striding out across the dimly lit restaurant, Beth walks steadfastly down to the bar, only half-looking for Tom there, and when he’s not, she veers out into the small carpark at the back of the restaurant, staring at the eight or nine cars there before she realises she doesn’t know what he drives. She breathes out a shaky breath, catching her shawl as the wind tries to take flight with it, shoving it haphazardly down into her purse.

It can barely be eight-thirty, but the night has well and truly set, the air thick with the sound of humming cicadas and distant traffic. Of boys and girls twenty years younger than Beth, just beginning their evenings. Beth inhales sharply. Tom’s long gone, and she’s not sure if she’s relieved or disappointed, still trying to organise her thoughts, collect herself, when Rio’s voice sounds behind her.

“Damn, looks like he gone already, huh? At least he knows how to take direction.”

She’s slow to turn around, deliberately, suddenly just exhausted - - he exhausts her, and she almost tells him that, but doesn’t think she knows how anymore, and she thinks he probably knows anyway, if the way he’s looking at her is anything to go by. He’s leaning sideways, shoulder-first into the wall of the restaurant, not unlike how he’d stood after he’d found her in his loft, all that time ago, right when everything was still just going to shit, as opposed to really in the shit, and she hates that he still makes her breathless, that in spite of it all, there’s something about him that wakes something up in her that she’d never known was asleep.

“Where you meet him anyway?” he drawls when she doesn’t reply. “Car pool? Wife Swap Night at the Cracker Barrel?”

“He’s a widower,” Beth snaps, before she can help herself, and she hates that she can feel it already – the way saying it isn’t about defending Tom, the way it’s about her, that desperate need in her to not be what he thinks she is always just below the surface.

It’s enough to make Rio push up off the wall, to take a step or two towards her, starting to close the distance between them in the carpark. He holds a hand to his chest in faux sympathy, his forehead creasing, his eyes widening, to complete the picture.

“Yeah?” he asks. “Damn, poor guy. That how you two connected? Comparin’ stories about dead partners? You let him cry on your shoulder? You cry your crocodile tears on his? Pretendin’ you as sweet as him? I bet you did, huh?”

And she hates it, because the second she’d found out, she had compared them, hates that he knows it, hates that she did, because if he’s right about her with this, he’s right about the rest of it, but he’s also not fair, because - - because - -

She doesn’t know how she got this close to him, but somehow she’s dropped her purse, her shawl, her body thrumming furiously as she shoves him back, her hands at his chest, pushing, pushing, pushing, and Rio grabs one of her wrists, but otherwise barely moves, and so she surges up towards him, hisses:

“That’s not funny.”

And Rio’s staring down at her suddenly, his face darkly amused, his eyes unblinking, as he says, “Am I laughin’?”

“I mourned you,” she hisses, the words out of her mouth before she can stop them, before she even realised that she’d thought them, and something in his face shifts, breaks open, but then it’s gone and he’s surging forwards, up into her space, grabbing her jaw and yanking her up to him, so that he can look her in the eye, so close she can feel his breath on the bitten skin of her lips.

Good,” he growls, and she’s not sure if it’s the proximity, if it’s the force of his look, the way he holds her face, the look in his eye that tells her this is about so much more than just fucking with her, and there are tears building at her eyes, and he won’t stop looking at her and she can’t stop looking at him, and suddenly the need to touch him is urgent, the need to remind herself that she isn’t dreaming, that she didn’t kill him, that he’s here, in front of her, furious and spiteful, but alive, and she - -

“Get a room!” a guy yells to them, laughing, stumbling slightly tipsily past, his arm slung around his cackling girlfriend’s waist, and Beth blinks, startled, a blush erupting across her face, and then Rio’s letting her go, stepping back, and he calls something back to the guy that Beth can’t hear over the blood thundering in her ears. She staggers back, grabbing her bag from the ground, feeling wobbly, unbalanced.

Off kilter.

“You got my 200g?”

The words are sudden, but they’re said in a low drawl that takes a minute to compute in Beth’s head, and she glances back up at him across the space, watching him put distance between them again. Beth looks away, wrapping her arms around herself, suddenly blisteringly raw.

“We have half,” she says weakly, and she knows what he’ll say before he even says it.

“I don’t want half.”

“I know, we’ll get it. I’m - - I’m trying, okay? And your schedule says Sunday, and it’s not Sunday yet, so.”

She says it like she has a plan to magic up the other half in the day she has left, and Rio looks at her like he knows she doesn’t, but - - but also like he doesn’t really doubt that she’ll get it somehow either, and she’s not sure what that means. The air between them feels too thick, too heavy, too hot, and there’s not a way that she can slide through it – towards him or away from him – without catching on everything between them, and she wonders if he feels it too.

“You want back on the drop schedule?”

His words cut through the space between them again, and Beth finds herself reeling back, her forehead creasing, her lips parting.

“What?”

Rio shifts his weight a bit, the light from the restaurant dipping, warming his skin. He looks away from her, kicks the ground with his foot.

“Re-openin’ the dealership next week. You and your girls want to do drives and drops, I’ll take it off what you owe.”

“Why?”

“I told you before, darlin’, all you ever had to give is what you can do.”

And it’s the same as what he said before, only it doesn’t sound like an insult this time. She looks at him. Knows he’s thinking of her as free labour, knows he’s thinking that he can keep them on the hook, knows this is a way to at least get what they owe him in some way, and hell, is probably thinking of the irony of getting Beth to pick up and drop off cars for free from a dealership that used to be hers in a job she used to be his partner in, and it hurts, but it also is just - - It just is.

After a second, she nods.

“Cool,” Rio says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Swing by on Monday. Four-thirty. All three o’ you. Bring the 200g then too. No point doin’ two trips.”

Beth blinks, surprised, but she nods, grateful for the extra day, and she wonders if he knows she’ll still be at the markets on the weekend, still working. Always working, and it’s silly, that the first thing she thinks is that at least he’d get it. He always seems to be working too.

“Is that what you wanted to talk about the other day?” she asks, the words out before she can stop them. “At the bar?”

And it seems maybe she can surprise him after all, if the way he looks up at her then is anything to go by. He rocks his jaw briefly, watching her across the car park, and in the end he just shrugs.

“Guess you’ll never know, huh?”

And then he’s gone.

Chapter Text

“You gonna hold it like that? Like you from the hood?” he’s almost laughing as he says it, voice ringing out behind her, amused, and Beth can feel the heat build in her cheeks despite the nip in the air, feel herself uncertainly changing the angle of the gun, trying to hold it the way she’s seen him do it too many times before.

She tries it again, the gun heavy, leaving her hand clammy from where she holds it, from where she keeps adjusting her grip, and she looks over at him, as if to ask like this? but the words die on her tongue. He’s grinning at her, a smile that could cut glass, like this is entertaining for him, and something inside of her just snaps.

With a huff, she throws the unloaded gun to the grass at his feet.

“If watching me try to - - to - -” and she lowers her voice, despite herself. “Shoot somebody is so funny to you, maybe you should just do it yourself.”

He’s a few feet away from her, but it feels so much closer in the darker reaches of her yard, the yawning stretch of night holding them both in it’s maw, and if it weren’t for the dulcet thrum of his voice or the cedar smell of his cologne, she thinks his black shirt, black jeans, black hair, would make him near invisible. As it is, Beth is sure she’s the opposite – pale enough to be almost luminous, like the glean of Emma’s nightlight back in the house.

“Told you, darlin’, it’s your mess, you gotta clean it up.”

“You did,” she agrees, voice higher pitched than she intends, something close to a whine. “You also told me you were going to teach me, and I don’t think that just giving me this thing and then making fun of me is exactly a - - a conducive educational method.”

She can’t help the way her chest is heaving, breathless with frustration and embarrassment and the ongoing, ebbing horror of what it is he’s asking of her, and god, she doesn’t even like Boomer, doesn’t think the world would miss him, but still, this is. She blinks, feels tears wetting her lashes, and tries to will them away as Rio gives her that same amused look right back (although if she didn’t know any better, she’d swear its edge was gone).

Striding across the grass, Rio’s gaze stays with her as he moves to pick the gun up, wiping down the handle of the evening’s dew, checking it for any damage. When he finds none, he steps closer again, grabbing her wrist, pulling her a little towards him.

“C’mon,” he says. “You got this.”

He moves his hand down her wrist, cupping the back of her hand instead, his fingers warm, calloused as they smooth across her knuckles, his thumb moving down between her own and her forefinger, finding her palm. Beth’s breath hitches, watching his large hand swallow her own, his touch making her tremble, despite herself and she looks at him and his face is open, and then he’s pushing the hilt of that pearl handled gun into her hand, and she looks down again only - -

Only now it’s golden.

Now it’s his.

Now the grass beneath her feet is hardwood floors, her garden changed for his empty loft, and he’s leaning in darkly, his gaze dragging over hers, and her cheeks are wet and her breath is coming in sharp and Turner’s on the floor behind her, his face bruised, his eyes wild and Beth’s cheeks are wet with tears and she’s stumbling back and Rio’s there still, but he’s different, and he says:

“Just like we practiced.”

And - - and Beth wakes up gasping, her hands shaking, her cheeks wet in this reality too, and she’s somehow managed to throw her bedsheets off, has writhed to the very edge of the mattress, and she’s still trying to catch her breath when the door knocks.

“Beth. You okay in there?” a voice asks through the closed door, and Beth scrubs furiously at her face.

“I’m fine, Dean, just a bit of a weird dream.”

Or not a dream, she thinks, still catching herself. Two memories, knitted together like Frankenstein’s monster, and the thought alone makes her shiver. Before she even realises she’s doing it, one of her hands is coming up to cup the back of the other, her fingers stroking the back of her own knuckles, but her hand is too small, her touch too soft and just - -

God.

What is she doing?

She quickly moves her hands, bringing one up to slip into the neck of her pyjama shirt, rubbing at her freckled chest, willing her heart to slow.

“Can I - - I mean. Can I come in?”

Beth blinks over at her still closed bedroom door, and leans down to grab the blankets, pulling them back up over herself as if to cover her scattered self.

“Sure,” she calls, and the door cracks open, Dean stepping in, already dressed in a suit for the day.

“You slept in,” he says, squinting a little, and Beth clears her throat, nodding. After Rio had left the restaurant last night, Beth had gone home, only stopping long enough to get a bottle of bourbon on her way. She’d spent the night furiously crocheting scarves and hats for the weekend’s markets, turning over every single word that he’d said, and it had only been as she had knocked on the door of sleep that she’d thought of Tom, and been startled back awake by her own blistering shame.

With a groan, Beth rubs her face, and it’s only when she sees Dean rock his weight forwards, stepping closer to the bed that she tries to collect herself.

“You sure you’re okay?”

And she looks at him, her mouth open, and she realises that her lips are sore, knows that if she touches them they’ll be swollen from where she’s bitten them in her sleep. She nods again, tries to smile, and Dean looks like he doesn’t quite believe it, but he continues all the same.

“Well, I’m ready whenever you are. Alan wants me at the realty office by 8.30 though, so if we’re going to do it this morning, we need to do it soon.”

And right, Beth thinks, organising her thoughts. They were - are - going to tell the kids about Dean moving this morning. So it won’t be a surprise to them when he’s out of here next week. Beth nods again, sliding to the edge of the bed to get up.

“Just let me shower, and I’ll be ready.”

Then it’s Dean nodding, staring at her, like he wants to say something else, but in the end he just leaves, and Beth sucks in a breath, slipping her hand into the top of her pyjama shirt again, feeling her thrumming heart. She gets to her feet, moving over to her jewellery box before she can help herself, flinging it open.

They’re still there of course, those two bullets she’d shot into his chest, nestled amongst her rings where he’d put the first one, where she’d added the second.

She scowls to herself, and slams the lid shut.

*

“Do you have any questions?” Dean asks, and the kids all look gormlessly back at them, their eyes wide and their lips tugged into uncertain little frowns.

“I thought you were both going to live here?” Kenny asks after a minute, and Dean turns to look at Beth, his eyebrows raised as if to say so did I. It’s enough to make Beth sigh, to scoot towards the edge of her seat, closer to where the kids are on the couch, her hands smoothing down the belly of her shirt as if to calm the guilt twisting in her gut.

“We were going to try it out, sweetie, and we did, and - - unfortunately it just didn’t work out. This way though, you guys are going to get two bedrooms, like your cousin Sadie, and you can decorate them any way that you want.”

“I don’t want two bedrooms,” Emma says with a whine, and Beth sighs, resisting the urge to fold backwards into the hardwood dining chair. Why did they think doing it this way again would be okay? As soon as she’d seen Dean pull the chairs out and line the kids up on the couch, she’d seen it on their faces – the bracing for bad news. God, why did she think it was a good idea to do it today at all? The night after her - - after Tom. And Rio. Not that she knew Rio would be a part of her night, but still. Her phone buzzes in the back pocket of her jeans, and she resists the urge to check it – she’s sure it’ll be Annie or Ruby checking in. They should be at the markets already after all, and just - - she doesn’t think any part of her is ready for that interrogation.

“Well, there are lots of other cool things about two homes,” Dean says, stepping in, keeping his voice light, goofy, a big, playful grin on his face, but she can see the scrambling behind his eyes, the need to find something to make them happy. To ease the reality of this. “Like - - you know - - you know how your mommy doesn’t like guinea pigs?”

Beth blinks, failing to recall a time when she’s ever had an opinion on guinea pigs, but Dean gives her a look like play along and Beth does, scrunching up her nose. It’s not a huge stretch. They really do smell.

“Yuck,” she says, and Dean gestures to Beth like see, before holding both hands back to his chest.

“Well, I so happen to love guinea pigs and would be open to us ge- - having a conversation about getting one. Just like how, you know, I don’t really like those peanut and caramel cookies your mom makes, but I know you guys all really love them and - - and maybe your mom will make them more if she doesn’t have to worry about me.”

And the kids do all perk up at that, Jane in particularly chirping a little on the spot, clutching her dubby to her chest, and Beth glances over at Dean, taking him in, her forehead creasing, and something almost warm blanketing the twisting guilt in her belly. She turns back to the kids, clapping her hands together.

“Okay,” she says. “Who wants pancakes?”

The kids all hoot in affirmation, darting up from the couch and Beth stands too, heading towards the kitchen as Dean packs up the chairs behind her. It’s not long before he’s in the kitchen too, pottering behind her, flicking on the coffee percolator as she pulls the baking soda, flour, cinnamon and sugar from the pantry. She glances sideways, starting to mix the dry ingredients as the kids flip on the TV for Saturday morning cartoons.

“Cookies and guinea pigs,” she says, careful to keep her voice quiet, and Dean shrugs bashfully, still tinkering with the coffee machine and grabbing a travel mug from the cupboard.

“So I’m not the best at thinking on my feet,” he says, tone self-deprecating, and Beth shakes her head, sifting the flour.

“No, I - - that’s not what I meant. It worked, didn’t it?”

He looks over at her then, surprised by the compliment, and his eyes seem to trace over her face, searching for something, and she doesn’t know what he finds – god, she doesn’t know what she feels, but he laughs, wrinkling his nose.

“I think I might have shot myself in the foot,” he says, moving to grab a second mug, not a travel one this time, from the cupboard for Beth, and at Beth’s questioning look, he adds: “I do not want a guinea pig at my new place. I do not like my chances of keeping it alive while the kids are with you.”

Beth laughs at that, and while Dean makes them both coffees, she moves to the fridge, grabbing out the milk and eggs for the pancakes.

“Maybe you can develop a sudden allergy,” she says, and Dean grins over at her, opens his mouth to reply, and then, just like that, it’s as if he suddenly remembers – remembers what he did or what she did, or what she said, she has no idea, but the smile falls from his face and his shoulders wind tight. He looks away from her, the mood almost instantly chilling.

“Maybe. Hey, when I get back from meeting with Alan, I’m going to start packing up my room, and then maybe some of the stuff from the rest of the house we’ve already decided on. Mom’s cleared out the garage for me, so there’s room to start storing it.”

Beth blinks, glancing over at him, but he doesn’t look back, just keeps making their coffees – milk and a sugar for Beth, cream and four sugars for him, and just - -

“Right,” Beth says. “Do you need a hand with any of it?”

Shaking his head, Dean fixes the lid onto his travel mug and passes Beth her own coffee. Stepping around her, he goes for the top drawer on the kitchen island, pulling out a stack of the multi-coloured post-it notes and sliding them across the countertop towards her. At Beth’s stuttering look, he shrugs, not unkindly.

“It’s one of the last rooms of the house to do,” he says, gesturing with his travel mug around the blissfully post-it-note-free kitchen. “Figure most of the stuff in here is yours anyway, right?”

“Right,” she agrees, her throat a little tight, her gaze fixed, unblinking, back on him, and Dean opens his mouth to reply, but nothing seems to come out. He stops, clears his throat, then ducks out of the room to say goodbye to the kids.

*

“And then what did gangfriend do?”

“Well, then he left,” Beth says, gesturing briefly, turning her stiff shoulders back towards the playground across the market. She can just make out Emma standing at the top of the slide, nervously teetering there before Jane pushes her out of the way, leaping so she can sail headfirst down it in a way that still makes Beth’s heart leap out of her chest. She stands up on her toes, doesn’t let herself inhale again until she hears Jane’s wild laugh from the playground floor.

It’s only then that she realises neither Annie nor Ruby have replied, and Beth blinks, turning back around to look at them.

“I thought you’d both be happy for the extension,” she says, half-joking. She fiddles a little with the scarf display at their stall, smiles at an elderly woman, eyeing off the aprons.

“I think I speak for both of us when I say we are,” Ruby interjects, her tone low and tight. “But B, he date-crashed you - - ”

“Cock-blocked,” Annie promptly corrects, but Ruby keeps going:

“- - and then what? Just offered you our old job back?”

And okay, maybe she’d been a little stingy on the details. It just had been easier to tell them Rio had shown up to the restaurant offering them drops, rather than mention anything about what he’d said about Boomer and Mary Pat. Anything about what he’d said about her.

“I mean, that’s what he said,” Beth says, faux casual, shrugging back at them, and they both stare at her.

“That’s it?” Ruby asks, and Beth looks away, casting her eyes back out across the market.

“That’s it,” she confirms, shifting her weight. As soon as she says it, she can feel his hand on her jaw again, pulling her closer, the way he’d said good, his breath hot on her face, the sounds of the restaurant a distant thrum behind them. Her chest tightens and she clears her throat, sets her shoulders back a little straighter.

Behind her, she can feel Annie and Ruby exchange a look, knows that they know there’s more to it than that, but before they get a chance to probe any deeper, Beth powers through.

“How much do we have left to get anyway?” she asks, and it’s Annie who does the math, whipping out her phone and opening up the calculator app.

“With what Ruby got from Double-D’s? We’ve got 136gs, so 64 left to get,” Annie glances back up at Beth, shrugs. “I mean, it’s not bad.”

“But it’s not the 200,” Beth replies, sucking in a breath. Her gaze swims through the crowd, catching the bustle of trade, the smell of churros and chilli hot chocolate bleeding out from one of the food trucks parked by the road, and it’s odd – and she can’t entirely say how she knows it, or what makes her think it, but it feels like there’s someone looking at her. She frowns.

“Well, we should make about four over the weekend here,” Ruby says, smiling at a passer-by. “So that’d get us to 140.”

Beth’s eyes dart back to the playground, where Sadie’s showing Kenny something on his phone, where Sara is reading, the younger kids still clambering over the jungle gym. It’s not them then, Beth thinks, her frown deepening.

“I’ve been thinking I might be able to swing something at Sara’s school,” Ruby adds. “Pull a Freaky Friday with the money like you did at yours, but I don’t think I’d be able to do it by Monday.”

“I could try it at Sadie’s too,” Annie says. “But I’ve like, never volunteered there so it’d probably be suspicious as hell.”

“Yeah, I don’t think anyone at that fancy ass school is letting your teen mom ass near the cash box.”

Annie makes a high-pitched sound of outrage, and it’s all it takes for Annie and Ruby to descend into squabbling, and Beth’s thinking of turning to break it up when her eyes finally lock with the person who’d been staring at her.

Tom’s stall is closer than usual, and she thinks it’s probably the first time she’s seen it properly. It’s sparsely set up, clean, well-organised, with a range of leather samples on the table and belt buckles that glint as they catch the midday sun. A sign sits at the front, fashionably designed, saying Custom made, custom fit! and behind it stands Tom, clean-shaven, his hair unstyled for a change, leaving it fair and soft. When she catches his gaze, he give her a half-smile, before fiddling a little with one of the buckles, and she blinks and sees him here, she blinks and sees him looking at her, looking at Rio, and god, there’s the guilt again. Or - - worse than guilt. Something else. Something closer to shame. She tears her gaze away.

“I’ll be right back,” Beth says, ducking around their stall and crossing the crowd towards Tom. She can feel Annie and Ruby watching her, their own stares fixed, and Beth tries to steel herself, tries to summon up the energy for this, reminds herself just how used to grovelling she is. Her steps slow as she gets to his stall, her hands smoothing down the apron she’s wearing (one of the one’s Ruby’s made again – it always increases sales when they wear them). She opens her mouth to say something, but nothing comes out, no words seeming enough, and Tom appears to clock the fact of it instantly, offering Beth a grin instead.

“Could I interest you in a belt?” he asks, and Beth blinks, a little surprised, but before she has the chance to reply, he adds: “Maybe for your boyfriend?”

And there it is.

She has to bite her tongue to stop herself from saying He’s not my boyfriend, because the conversation that that might open up is not one she wants to have with anyone, let alone Tom of all people.

“I probably deserve that,” she says, trying to keep her voice light, like this is all something silly, and not - - whatever the hell this is, and maybe that’s not fair either. She exhales a tired breath. “I am so sorry. I had no idea he was going to do that.”

Tom grins a little self-deprecatingly, shrugging.

“Kind of got the impression that nothing about the two of you is particularly predictable.”

And god, if only he knew. A bubble of laughter crests in Beth’s throat, but she swallows it as best she can, shifting her weight.

“You didn’t deserve that,” she continues. “I just wanted to say that. And that I’m sorry. Again.”

It takes Tom a moment to nod, and when he does, his forehead creases, his eyes darting away, and he looks like he wants to say something else, is debating whether or not to even mention it, but they’re interrupted suddenly by a frazzled looking woman with deep-set eyes and a handful of cash barrelling up to the stall.

“Tommy, I know you don’t carry a lot of notes, but any chance I can swap you for some smaller bills? Everyone’s paying in big notes today. I have like, no change left.”

They both blink over at the woman in surprise, and Beth vaguely recognises her from a junk jewellery stall a few spots down, but Tom quickly collects himself, his old, innocuous grin resurfacing on his face, the one he’s too often flashed at her.

“Sure, Christine.”

Stepping back, Tom reaches for the cash tin underneath his stall, taking the offered notes from Christine’s hands, counting out the three hundred dollar bills and swapping it out for a mix of fifties, twenties, tens and fives. Christine practically beams at him, and Beth finds herself smiling too, eyes attentively on the money swapping hands in front of her.

“You’re a god-send, thank you!”

And yes he is, Beth thinks, waving Tom a quick goodbye before he can say another word to her, stepping back and away from the stall, beelining back through the market, eyes casting over the stalls. There must be at least a hundred of them, she thinks, striding back towards her own, and she’s barely there a minute before she’s grabbing a couple of unwashed notes from the cash tin, ignoring Ruby’s questioning look as Annie chatters to a customer, and walking to a nearby pickle stall.

She paints on her best PTA mom smile.

“Hi,” she says, watching as the man running it turns to meet her, his caterpillar-thick eyebrows raising, his eyes briefly darting over her. Beth sets her shoulders back, lowering her chin a little sweetly. “I run Crafternoon Tea, just down there,” Beth points. “All our customers have been paying in big bills today, I don’t suppose I’d be able to swap you this hundred for two fifties?”

“Oh, no problem,” the guy says, breezily, taking her offered bill and swapping it out.

“Thanks so much,” Beth says, her body thrumming, her smile tugging into something real. She spins on the spot, turning back towards Annie and Ruby, who are watching her across the short distance, and she knows, somehow just knows that they heard. She almost skips behind the stall, opening up the cash tin and adding the two fifties to the pile of clean cash.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Annie says, laughing

“So it’ll take a bit of leg work, but we have all weekend…”

“A bit? You seriously want to wash 60g that way?” Ruby asks with a disbelieving look on her face, and Beth shrugs, not quite able to push the smile from her face.

“Let’s start with ten and see how we go.”

*

It’s more than a little strange, pulling her minivan into the lot that used to be Boland Motors, and she’s not sure if it’s due to the muscle memory of it, or the fact that so much of it has changed. The gorilla’s gone, which isn’t exactly a shock, but the canary yellow Boland Motors sign has been taken down too, replaced with a sleek black type reading Capital Auto, and Beth snorts, biting the inside of her cheek.

The whole lot looks sleek though – the concrete freshly washed and the directional lines re-painted; the thin plastic blinds visible through the glass walls of the building replaced with dark wood ones. She can see Linda across the lot, walking a couple down towards the family cars out back, and she can’t help the slight buzz of pride that she feels at the fact that at least that he hadn’t changed.

From the back seat, Annie lets out a low whistle.

“Talk about an upgrade,” she says, and Beth pulls the car into a park, glaring at Annie through the rear-view mirror as her sister just holds up her hands defensively. “Oh, come on, B. You really want to argue that Dean has better taste than gangfriend? Like, that’s the hill you want to die on?”

Beth rolls her eyes.

“Just pass me the bag.”

Shuffling around the backseat, Annie lurches the duffel over to Beth, almost taking poor Ruby out in the process. She can’t really fault them anyway – they’re all exhausted. Somehow they’d managed to wash that last sixty – a combination of the market earnings, swapping out notes with other stalls, and doing a few smaller returns-for-cash at local stores (they’d avoided the big box chains – Beth was pretty sure they were still banned anyway). It had worked, at least, but it had taken almost every minute of the weekend – hell, she’d done her last couple of returns just a few hours ago, and Beth had had to have an extra two coffees and one of Annie’s caffeine pills to keep herself on her feet.

A fist raps against her window, and all three of them jump, spinning around to see one of Rio’s boys – she’s pretty sure his name is Dags – standing beside her minivan. He gestures for them to step out of the car, and they quickly do, following him when he instantly starts to stride away, back into the dealership.

If outside had looked different, inside is almost unrecognisable. From the new wooden veneer on the floor, to the lurching ferns, settled in heavy white pots, lined up by the windows, creating a shielding canopy from the glare of the lot. There’s art up too – expensive looking canvases with elegant, modern designs, leading towards the open planned show floor with the more prestigious cars – all dark, sleek models. She would hardly recognise the place if it wasn’t for the staff – most of whom were hires at Boland Motors (there are a few new faces, peppered among the crowd), and at least Rio kept them on too, like Gretchen had said that he would.

And he kept that too, Beth thinks, unable to entirely swallow her smile as she walks past a children’s nook with toys and books, a day care attendant smiling as she offers a plate of sliced apple to a golden-haired little girl who must be the kid of the couple Linda’s showing around outside.

“Weird that the gangleader you popped listens to you more than that guy you were married to for twenty years, huh?” Annie mumbles beside her, and Beth jerks her head around to look at her, her chest red and that too-familiar twist of horror at the memory spiking in her gut. Annie looks at her, instantly apologetic, like she hadn’t even meant to say it aloud, but Beth just keeps walking, adjusting the strap on the duffel bag on her shoulder, trying to re-centre herself.

Dags finally pulls them to a stop, and Beth makes a sound somewhere between annoyance and resignation, because of course it’s this office, of course it’s the one that was Dean’s and then hers. Of course it’s now his. She sighs as Dags pushes the door open, gesturing the three of them inside.

The office has been renovated very much to be in style with the rest of the place. The wooden blinds, floors, lush green ferns, a large, modern canvas behind him that ties the room impeccably together, a short-backed, suede chair, and - - and Beth double takes, because that’s - -

“You kept my desk,” she says, unable to stop herself, and Rio looks at her, briefly amused as he leans back in his chair behind the desk, and it’s enough to make her blush. She can feel Annie and Ruby exchanging strange looks behind her, and Beth clears her throat, swinging the duffel bag off her shoulder and walking it over to the desk, holding it out to him.

He takes it, gesturing with his free hand for them to sit down on the small leather sofa at the other side of the room, and Beth can feel Annie and Ruby’s gazes wandering, taking it all in, but Beth can’t peel her eyes away from Rio. She wonders if this is his only office now? And stupid, she thinks, there’s no way it can be. He doesn’t even have a name plaque, so maybe he’s just using it today, for this. Maybe he just wanted to see the look on her face when she saw the way he’d taken something that was hers and turned it into his.

She frowns, resisting the urge to fidget. He’s focused on counting the cash, but she feels like he’d notice, like he’s taking this long because he’s somehow watching her without watching her at all, like he’s saying what he told her the other night – that everything that’s hers is his. That she has nothing more to offer than what she can do for him, but, she thinks, she can offer this. Sitting up a little straighter, she feels Annie squirm beside her.

But then just like that, he seems to be done, zipping up the bag and dropping it to the floor beside him. He pulls open one of the desk drawers, taking out three car keys and dropping them onto the top of the desk before he moves to stare back at his laptop screen, the glow lighting up his jaw, illuminating the sharpness of his cheekbones and a slight puffiness around his eyes, and god, he looks tired, Beth thinks, frowning.

“Got a pen?” he asks suddenly, the words cutting through the quiet, his voice gravelly, and Beth almost jumps, surging forwards to grab her purse off the floor at her feet, rummaging for a pen.

When she has it out, he rattles off three addresses for the drops and a brief description of which car goes where, and Beth nods, a strange coldness uncurling in her belly, because he’d been an asshole at the restaurant, but at least that had been better than this hard edged professionalism. Like they aren’t what they are, but then - - he’s often like this when she’s with Annie and Ruby, she reminds herself. Any intimacy scrubbed from their interactions when they aren’t alone.

“You don’t fuck around with the cars, you don’t hang around, you don’t go in the houses,” he adds, and Beth blinks up at him, pulled back to the moment. “You park ‘em outside, you put the keys in the mailboxes, you go home. You don’t even look at these guys, yeah?”

“We know the rules,” Beth says shortly, and Rio finally looks at her, his eyebrow raised, his eyes hard, even as his lips pull into a smirk.

“Oh, I’m sorry, you do?”

“Yes,” she insists, staring at him, ignoring the way Ruby stiffens beside her and Annie reaches over, digging her nails into Beth’s thigh, because suddenly this feels important. “We know how this works, we don’t need you protecting us.”

And as soon as she says it, she regrets it, because Rio’s closing his laptop screen, leaning forwards over his - - her desk, and knitting his hands together on the top of it, his eyes skirting over her face, dipping down to where her floral blouse gapes a little at the top of her chest.

“Who said anythin’ about your protection? You think I want your trigger-happy ass poppin’ off on my clients?” He lowers his tone, his expression growing patronising, mocking her. “It’s bad for business.”

Beth’s breath catches, but she covers it quickly with a scowl, trying to hold onto the dwindling flame of her anger, stoke it, as she holds herself a little taller.

“Well, I don’t even have a gun, so I think your clients are safe.” She replies snidely, tilting her chin up, like this is a trump card, another way he doesn’t know her, and Rio’s eyes widen briefly before a look she can’t read passes over his face.

“You don’t have a - - ” he scrunches up his face, catching himself, and letting loose a hoarse, furious breath. “You been runnin’ around meetin’ up wit’ whatever bottom feeders your boy can hook you up wit’ and you ain’t got a gun.” He laughs a little to himself, but it’s not an amused one. “What were you gonna do when one of those boys put one between your teeth, huh? Play lamb and cry those crocodile tears o’ yours? Darlin’, you askin’ to show up to your next date in a body bag.”

And she can feel it, the surprise and the horror radiating off Ruby and Annie beside her, but Beth squares her shoulders, wills down the humiliation she feels clawing up her chest at the tone in his voice, and the authoritative anger on his face, because she had thought this through, because she’s not stupid or naïve, like he’s looking at her like she is, she’s better than that, she’s smarter.

“We have security now,” she says. “And he’s armed.”

“With what?” he asks, the T tutting at his teeth, and Beth’s flush deepens, because god, how can he see through her this easily? She stumbles with the words for a moment, not quite willing to tell him it’s a taser, and she scrambles inside of herself for the anger again, almost relieved when she finds it.

“I don’t think that that’s any of your business,” she hisses furiously, because it’s not she reminds herself, and Rio’s jaw rocks forwards, and for a second she thinks he’s going to spit something else at her, but in the end he just leans back in his chair, dropping his arms, his features smoothing out.

“Okay,” he tells her with a shrug, and Beth blinks back at him, surprised, her own posture relaxing as his does. “Get through these drops, I’ll have more for you.”

It takes her a moment to find the words, the mood shift rocking her more than she cares to admit, and in the end she clears her throat, redirecting her attention to the implication of his words.

“How many more?” she asks, thinking over her calendar in her head.

“More,” he replies easily. “Don’t worry, I’ll be keepin’ you busy. Idle hands and what not.”

He lurches to his feet suddenly, grabbing the keys off the desk as he goes, and walking around to stand over them. Beth can feel Ruby and Annie shifting nervously either side of her, but he only stops in front of Beth, casting a long, lean shadow across her as he drops the keys down into her lap.

“When do we meet next then?” she asks, standing up, and she hates that he doesn’t move back, even though she knew he wouldn’t. They’re so close they’re almost chest-to-chest, and that just reminds her of that afternoon in her bedroom, all those months ago, and then it reminds her of where she shot him, and she sucks in a dry breath before she can stop herself.

It’s enough to twist his lips into something that could almost be a grin as he holds his arm out, gesturing to the door as Annie and Ruby stand up beside her.

“I’ll be in touch,” he says, which isn’t an answer, but feels like about as much as she’s likely to get. She gives him a look, stepping away from him, and she’s surprised when he walks ahead, opening the door for them, letting Annie and Ruby slip out ahead of her. She’s still got her back foot in his office when he leans in close, his breath warm against her temple.

“You wanna know why I kept that ugly ass desk o’ yours?” he hums, and before Beth can turn around, he says. “See, I figure you and me? We got unfinished business with it.”

Heat explodes across her chest, as she spins on the spot, and she can see him biting back a smile, his eyes drifting down to watch the colour flood up the neck of her blouse as he steps back into the office, closing the door on her.

*

“Those chairs were a gift from Bonnie and Devon,” Beth says, tapping her foot, her cell phone pressed against her ear.

“Yeah, for my birthday,” Dean says over the line, his voice testy and slightly slurred. She can hear his friend, George, in the background, laughing and probably calling her The Shrew, as she knows he nicknamed her years ago. She doesn’t really care. She’s called George much worse with Ruby and Annie, and she can happily say that they are much more creative.

“Not your birthday. For our fifteenth wedding anniversary,” Beth counters. “That’s why there were two of them, remember?”

Dean’s quiet over the line for a minute, and Beth preens a little, knowing it means he’s realised she was right. She’d gotten home from a debrief with Annie and Ruby (where they’d asked about a million variations of what the hell was that?) at a bar to find half the contents of her bedroom gone, including her favourite set of reading chairs.

Topping up her bourbon at the bar cart, she storms back down the hall into her bedroom, glad at least that Dean had dropped the kids at Judith’s earlier. She’s sure he’s at a bar himself now, if the sound of pool cues and bad seventies rock and George in the background is anything to go by.

“Well, I’m better friends with Bonnie and Devon, so I think I should have them,” he tells her, and Beth snorts.

“Neither of us are particularly good friends with them, but I guess you’re right, you are better friends. Tell me, did you screw Bonnie before or after they celebrated our anniversary with us?”

“Before,” Dean replies snidely and a little too easily, and Beth glowers, hanging up on him and throwing her phone across the room in anger. She flops back onto the bed, sloshing her bourbon on the sheets, but struggling to muster the energy to care. If the weekend hadn’t completely demolished her, she thinks the combination of Rio’s take-over of the dealership, and Dean more or less emptying her house might have. She looks sideways out the French doors into the yard, taking in the tug of night, the hum of cicadas in the otherwise quiet, but looking out there only makes her think of Rio again. Groaning, she rolls over, is about to get up and try and find something for dinner when her burner phone buzzes on her bedside table.

Beth leans over, fumbling with it before pressing it to her ear.

“I’ve got you a meeting with Slav,” Dominic says, in lieu of hello, and Beth sits up quickly in the bed, the words hitting her like Annie’s caffeine pill had this afternoon, waking her up. She stutters briefly, eyes darting around the room as she pushes her hair back off her face.

“Really? When?”

“End of the week.”

“He’s interested?” Beth asks, trying to keep the excitement from her voice. She scoots to the edge of the bed, standing herself up and walking to her tallboy, pulling her calendar out of her pyjama drawer.

“That’s what he says. Guess your product really is that good,” he says, voice warm over the line, and Beth smiles to herself, biting her lip as she heads back to the bed and sits down again. She casts her eyes over her calendar, sucking in an irritated breath at all of Rio’s scratched in amendments, following the line of squares to this week.

“Okay, so Friday? I’ll need to see if my - -” she stumbles, what are Annie and Ruby in this? She settles on: “Associates are available.”

“Oh, no,” Dominic says over the line, interrupting her train of thought. “He’ll only meet you alone. He’s really not into the whole entourage thing – likes meeting boss-to-boss, you know?”

And just like that, the air is gone from her lungs. Beth blinks, scrambles in her tired head for what to say, for a response to that that doesn’t make her seem - - seem what? Afraid? Green? Like a woman in a man’s business? She doesn’t know, just nothing about meeting alone seems like a good idea either.

“That’s not an option,” she says finally, rubbing a little at her chest, willing her heart to slow.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I won’t meet alone with anyone in this business.”

“You met with Rio alone, didn’t you?”

“That was - -” she almost wants to say different, but she’s not sure that it was, and even if it actually was, she’s not sure that it would work in her favour. The last thing she wants to do is draw even more attention to the fact that she and Rio were - - were whatever it was they were doing. “We didn’t start off that way,” she says instead. “We got there after we’d built a degree of mutual trust.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“No,” she replies, a little dryly, and to his credit, Dominic laughs, the sound crackling over the line between them.

“Fair. Look, I’ll be there, brokering, and Slav’ll be on his own too. Honestly, Beth, he just prefers it one-on-one. Gets a better vibe, I guess. And I mean, it’ll work both ways, won’t it? You don’t think you’ll get a better sense of him without his muscle standing behind him? Without having to worry about your associates?”

And she thinks about it then – about the way that it is different when it’s just her and Rio, the way she gets more answers (and usually ends up with more questions too), but the way they can talk to each other, the way he listens to her ideas more, the way that he seems to really see her when they’re on their own together in a way he hides when there are other people around. The way maybe she does the same thing. She’s not sure she ever could’ve negotiated the partnership she did with him over the pills with Annie and Ruby sitting nervously behind her, and certainly not with his boys hovering over his shoulders. And what’s stopping Rio from asking for another 200g next week? It’s not like it’d be out of his wheelhouse, and god, Beth is so tired. She can’t keep doing this.

All you got is what you can do. His words echo in her head, but she’d have more than just what she could do if she had Slav. She’d be able to pay Rio back. She could show up at that dealership with all the money he could ever ask for, she could get out from underneath him, she could make him look at her the way he had before, the way he had when he’d told her she was a boss, she could - - maybe she could stop feeling this guilty.

And besides, it’s not like any of these guys have ever really threatened her before, and the one who had was one of Rio’s associates in the house with the dubby, and she hadn’t needed a gun or anyone else to get herself out of that situation.

More than any of that though, she could pay for her house, take care of the kids, she could get Ruby and Annie comfortable. Better than comfortable. She could keep them safe.

“I’m telling you, Beth, I’ve worked with Slav before. He doesn’t meet like this with just anyone. I really think this could be big for you. For us.”

And what is this if not a chance for all of that?

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

“And then you just press the button?”

Tyler nods, pointing a broad finger down to the button on the side of the taser, watching as Beth touches it lightly – not enough to set it off, but enough to feel the weight and the pressure of it.

“That’s it,” Tyler confirms. “Pretty easy, huh? My trainer said anyone can do it.”

“I’m sure not just anyone,” Beth replies, still adjusting her grip to the weight of it in her hands. It’s surprisingly light – much lighter than the gun had been, but a stranger shape too. She’s seen some that look like toy guns, but this reminds her more of an electric razor – something flat-topped and a little chunky. Biting the inside of her cheek, she wonders where will be best to hide it. Her purse would be the easiest place, but useless if she got separated from it, and tucked into the waistband of her pants would be bulky and obvious on even the most cursory glance. “You must have a pretty good aim to be able to use it.”

“It’s just practice,” Tyler says with a shrug, and Beth looks up at him, trying deliberately to soften her face, to widen her eyes a little, keep herself looking the right side of impressed.

It’s been a few days since she’d agreed to meet Slav alone with Dominic, and her sleep has been restless with some cocktail of anticipation and anxiety – a sense of forebodingness that Beth hasn’t felt since robbing the very room she sits in now, and she’s been trying to wrestle the feeling down into something productive – into the sharpness of planning and the preparedness of her actions, and she thinks she’s at least half successful. After all, it had been in one of those moments that she’d remembered Tyler’s taser.

“Do you know what sort of range it has?” she asks, turning the taser over in her hands, and Tyler nods, scooting his rolling desk chair a little closer towards her.

“It can go up to fifteen feet, but my trainer said seven is where it’s best. If somebody’s real close though, you can just like - - ”

He grabs Beth’s hand, the one holding the taser, and guides it towards himself until she’s pushing the disarmed taser against his chest. He yelps, making Beth startle, but he’s only pretending as he fakes being electrocuted, his body shaking comically, before he flops back into his chair.

Beth tries for a smile, but she knows it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, even as she drops the taser down into her lap. They’re sitting in the back room of Fine & Frugal, the air a little too warm, gasping out of the rattly air conditioning, leaving everything oddly musty.

She’d specifically found a day that Annie wasn’t working to come in and visit, a wad of the washed cash in her bag to pay Tyler his - - salary? She guesses it’s his salary. (God, there should really be a guide to crime lingo.) It had been too easy to ask him for discretion in the handover, getting him to take the reins, guide her into the backroom (he’d checked to make sure the new manager had been on break, and overly apologised, a flush to his cheeks, when Beth had seen the screensaver on the manager’s computer – a slow crawl of bikini models and celebrities in lingerie, which had remained in his stead) and almost as soon as she’d handed him the cash she’d batted her lashes and asked him if he could show her his taser.

“Do you think maybe I could borrow it?” she asks now, before she can think any more of it, and Tyler blinks hard in reply, straightening a little in his seat, surprise crossing his face before his features draw into a slightly uneasy expression.

“Why?”

He almost stumbles over the word, caution weighing heavy in his tone, and Beth looks up at him, careful to look a little bashful. A little more Big Sister than Boss. It seems to work, if the way Tyler’s own expression softens is any indication.

“Do you swear not to tell Annie?”

The wheels of the desk chair rattle across the linoleum floor as Tyler shifts in his seat, his eyes going past Beth towards the manager’s desk, the message bank light on the phone glowing red. After a minute, Tyler shakes his head.

“I don’t know, Mrs. B. Annie’s my friend, and you’re her sister, and I think she’d want to know if you were going to do something dangerous,” he says, and then, his expression brightening a little. “Besides, I can come. I mean, that’s why you hired me, right?”

Beth blinks, surprised, but maybe she shouldn’t be. Annie had told her he was loyal after all. It was one of the reasons they’d brought him in. She quickly pivots, reaching out a hand to touch Tyler’s, shifting from big sister to motherly.

“Right,” she agrees. “And you’re a really good friend, you know that?”

Tyler practically glows with pride at the compliment, and Beth keeps going before either of them can think more on it.

“And it’s not anything dangerous, I promise. I’m not even really going anywhere. I’ve just been thinking, you know, what if we were separated? Or you got hurt? I just think having two of us who can use it would be a good thing.”

She smiles softly at him, and Tyler seems to turn the thought over, his gaze drifting across her face as he thinks it over.

“I think Annie would understand that if you told her,” he says, a little slowly, and Beth shakes her head.

“You know how Annie is. She’d want to be the one who got to use it,” she shrugs, deliberately looking down at her hands again. “And I’m the big sister, right? I’ve got to take care of her.”

Her features soften too easily, because while her reasons for wanting the thing might be a lie, none of the rest of it is, and maybe Tyler can read the honesty in her expression, his face shifting into a smile and god, she almost feels bad. Or, more than almost. Does. It’s not exactly a full-proof plan after all, but after she’d agreed to meet with Slav and Dominic alone, after the way Rio had snapped at her at the dealership, she figured going in armed would at least give her some more peace of mind. She’s not sure she can stomach the thought of a gun still, but…a taser? She thinks she can manage that. But then her only real options to getting one were Tyler and Stan, and telling the latter was almost a surer way of getting that information into Ruby’s head than it was in just telling Ruby directly.

“Just for a few days,” Beth tries, seeing Tyler waver. Just until after Friday, she thinks. Just until after the meeting. She won’t even use it, she tells herself, shifting her weight. It’s insurance.

It’s security.

“Just for a few days,” Tyler concedes finally, and Beth can’t quite swallow her grin.

*

Two skinny little legs splash out of the water, only just missing Beth’s chin. It’s enough to make her fall backwards onto the bathroom floor, her shampoo-covered hands slipping on the already wet tiles. Before she gets the chance to reprimand them, Emma and Jane are both giggling, jumping up and down in the bathtub, sloshing even more water out onto the bathroom floor, soaking into the mat and the legs of Beth’s jeans.

“Look, mommy, I’m a mermaid!” Emma calls, sliding further down into the bathtub until the water’s lapping at her shoulders, her legs flailing as she tries to hold them together in the air to make a mermaid tail.

Beth can’t quite curb her smile as she gets back onto her tired knees, reaching over to massage the last of the shampoo on her hands through Jane’s hair.

“You are!” she agrees. “Do you have a special mermaid name?”

She knows the answer even before Emma says Ariel, and Beth’s grin only widens as she let’s go of Jane’s hair long enough to grab the jug of warm water on the floor beside her. It turns out to take just long enough to send Jane surging up onto her feet in the bathtub, sending water all over the floor again, saturating Beth’s blouse.

“And I’m a sea monster!” Jane yells, holding her hands into talons and baring her teeth.

Nooooo, we’re not playing sea monster, we’re playing mermaids,” Emma insists, glaring over at her sister, who’s now standing over her in the bathtub, a mess of dripping water and bubble bath and shampoo.

“No standing in the bathtub, baby,” Beth says, helping her daughter sit back down. She presses a hand against Jane’s forehead and grabs the jug again, rinsing the shampoo out of her hair, catching the suds that try to fall into her daughter’s eyes with a cupped hand.

Both of the girls pout at her at that, their eyes wide up at her, and Beth sighs, rolling her shoulders back, the tension of the day sitting tight at the base of her neck, and she resists the urge to find the spot with her fingers, massage the knot of it out.

After leaving Tyler that afternoon, she’d run out to the craft store, replenishing supplies of yarn and threads and buttons, buying it with some of her dwindling unwashed cash, before she’d done the last of the car drops for Rio, catching a cab to the kids’ school for pick-up and then taking them home. She still had so much to do – making new cash for the meeting with Slav and the weekend’s markets, a ton of orders to fill on the Etsy store, cookies and slice’s and cakes to start to prepare too, to say nothing of preparing for Friday’s meeting in her head. She’d hoped to get some of the market work done this afternoon at least, but Dean had decided to go out again with George, and without him there to at least keep the kids distracted, her afternoon had been swallowed with homework and laundry, prepping dinner and bath time.

She groans internally, washing the last of the shampoo from Jane’s hair, only to be yanked out of her thoughts by another heady splash of water colliding with her neck and her chest. Emma gasps loud, but Jane just laughs and just - - of course. Beth looks over at Jane, still soapy in the tub, a smug grin on her little face.

“Okay, I think that means it’s time to hop out,” Beth says, wiping the bubble bath off her shirt, and both the girls cry out, but Beth grabs their towels anyway, lifting them out of the tub, one after the other, and drying Jane off while Emma tries to wrap her long, dripping hair in a fuzzy pink towel by herself.

It takes way longer than it should to get them both dry and warm in their pyjamas – Emma her favourite nightie, and Jane an animal onesie that makes her look like a particularly petulant fluffy rabbit – and get them back into their room playing with Emma’s dollhouse. She can hear a crash from the other room, a gasp from Danny, and Beth pinches the bridge of her nose.

“You okay in there?” she calls from the hall, and when he yelps a nervous, “Yup,” in reply, she figures that really does seem like a problem for after she’s checked on dinner and changed into something dry.

Ducking downstairs, she turns in the hall towards her bedroom, tugging open the door and wondering if she’ll have time to practice using the taser after the kids go to bed, only to catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. With a gasp, she turns on the spot, hand balling into a fist, only to drop it when she sees Rio sitting cross legged on her bed, the fake cash she keeps beneath her mattress bundled up on the bed in front of him.

She’s not sure if it’s her exhaustion, if it’s just the picture of it, but it takes her a minute to process it, to catch her breath, because god – he’s sitting there for all the world like he belongs there, and it just unearths the memory of the last time he was in it too quickly, and she feels the flush spill at her chest, feels her breath catch all over again, and - -

“This all you got?” he asks, and Beth blinks, her lips parting as she looks down at his hands, folded in his lap, at the small piles of her fake cash in front of him. She feels her jaw set, irritation sparking too quickly in her gut.

“I’ve been busy,” she says, like he’s not the reason she has been. Without a second thought, she strides towards the bed, grabbing the stacks of cash from in front of him. She almost holds them to her chest before she remembers how wet her shirt is, so instead she drops them to the floor, then herself to her knees, lifting the bottom edge of the mattress awkwardly to shove the cash back where he found it. “What are you doing here?”

“You ain’t gonna get less busy,” he replies, ignoring her question, and Beth glances up at where he’s watching her still, a lazy expression on his face as he uncrosses his legs, stretching them out on her bed and crossing them again at the ankle. He leans back into her pillow, lacing his fingers at his belly as he watches her, and Beth’s breath hitches again at the image of it, and god, it’s just because of that stupid comment he’d made about keeping her desk, she thinks. Just because she really is that pathetic. She quickly looks away, willing the heat away, shoving more of the money back beneath her mattress.

“I worked that one out on my own,” she says, forcibly keeping her voice dry. She doesn’t even look back at him as she pushes the last of the cash in. “Are you going to answer my question?”

And clearly the answer is no, because he sits up a little straighter, looking down his nose at her as he says:

“You can’t sell a product you don’t have.”

Beth sucks in an irritated breath.

“Believe it or not, I know that too,” she says, dropping the mattress back down and resting back on her haunches. Her thighs ache from so long crouching over the bathtub, but she doesn’t think she has the energy to stand up just yet. “I’m going to make some more tonight when the kids are asleep.”

“Yeah? How much?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“We gotta talk again about how it is?”

She scowls up at him, but Rio keeps his face carefully neutral, his eyes taking her in again, and it’s like - - like the other day, like somehow she’s boring him, and she doesn’t know what that means, doesn’t know why it settles so uncomfortably in her belly, why it expands so quickly in her chest. It doesn’t help that he looks so good – always looks good, she knows that, but he looks almost casual in a black hoodie and jeans. He’d even kicked his shoes off before he’d sat on her bed, and the image of his long feet in – of course – black socks, would almost make her laugh if perhaps the circumstances were any different.

“Yeah, see, I don’t like repeatin’ myself,” he says, his voice lowering in annoyance at her silence, and Beth blinks up at him, at the way his lips curve, his dark eyes fix on her. She sucks in a breath, tries to refocus, re-centre, working through the math in her head.

“I can make about five thousand tonight,” she concedes after a minute. She could – it’ll mean she’ll be lucky to get any sleep, but hell, she’s used to that these days.

“Five g?” Rio asks, arching an eyebrow over at her, and when Beth squares her jaw, stands by it, he shakes his head at her, finally lurching up to swing his legs over the side of the bed, hanging off the edge of it. It’s enough to make Beth quickly stand up too, trying to find some equal footing, and she ends up almost chest-to-chest with him when he stands up the rest of the way, looking down at her.

“Five g ain’t worth your time, and it sure as hell ain’t worth mine.”

Beth stares up at him, gestures, arms flailing out either side of her, suddenly feeling hot with irritation.

“Well, maybe there’d be more if we hadn’t spent the last two weeks running around after you. Finding you your 200 grand, doing your drops for you, for free, I might add –” and he snorts at that, sucks on his teeth. “I don’t have a machine that magics me up more time.”

“You had time for dates though, huh? For PTA meetin’s? Wine night with your girlfriends?”

Beth reels back, rocks her jaw up at him. God, the only PTA event she’s been to this month was to wash the cash for him, the only date the one he’d interrupted with Tom. Even her wine nights with Annie and Ruby are now at least partially devoted to work.

“What are you talking - -” she stops herself, inhales sharply, as she looks up at him, hardening her face. “Why are you here, Rio?”

He looks at her then, and she sees it again, the exhaustion on his face too, just like she’d seen it the other day at the dealership, and she just - - she doesn’t know what any of it means. After a minute, he shoves a hand into the pocket of his hoodie, pulling out a car key, and Beth’s shoulders sag. She doesn’t take her eyes off it when she says:

“I can’t do a drop tonight.”

The look he gives her is hard and pissed off, but Beth holds up both her hands in surrender.

“I - - Dean’s - - He’s not here. I have the kids, I can’t. I can do it in the morning, after I drop them at school.”

For seemingly the first time, Rio seems to step back a little, to really look around her room, his eyes going to where her reading chairs are gone (despite her efforts, Dean had opted not to bring them back), one of her chest of drawers too, her bedside lamps. He rocks his jaw, but doesn’t look at her when he asks:

“Car man move out?”

The words are deceptively light, casual almost, and Beth looks up at him. Barefoot, and still this close together, she’s eye-level with his collarbone, with the zipper of his hoodie, and when she tilts her head up, all she can see is the line of his jaw and the soft curve of his mouth. His eyes are directed away from her, still looking at her half-emptied room, and she waits for him to look back at her, but he doesn’t. Beth sighs.

“Next week.”

And it’s quick, the snap of his look down at her, his gaze suddenly heavy, fixed, and Beth shifts her weight beneath it.

“He moves out next week,” she repeats, more to herself than to him, almost mentioning that the amount of nights he already spends with his mom, George or Nicole, he may as well be out already, but a look passes across Rio’s face that she can’t quite place, and it dries up any other words in her mouth.

“You gotta find a fix then,” he tells her, his tone hardening again. “For those kids o’ yours. When a job needs to be done, the job needs to be done. This ain’t a business that takes bath time into consideration.”

And she’s not sure why it makes her think about it so quickly, but she’s saying, “Didn’t think it took dubbies into consideration either,” before she can stop herself, her chest clenching at the thought. Her gaze darts up, nervous almost, but Rio gives her a strange look, like he has no idea what she’s talking about, and of course he wouldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t, because they never talked about it, because there’s no way he’d know that that was the name of the blanket he’d gotten back for her, and without thinking, she almost clarifies, only to practically swallow her tongue trying to stop herself.

She shakes her head a little, and Rio watches her closely and suddenly she thinks of Marcus, wants to ask him what it is he does then, what his fix is for his son, but the second she thinks it the room closes in on her.

Suddenly she can’t look at him, has to tear her gaze off him. Her eyes are glassy, her throat raw, because there would be no fix for what she’d done, if she’d - - when she’d - -

A sound escapes her throat before she can stop it, and she turns quickly around, so that Rio can’t see her face, tries to steel herself, calm herself down again, because the last thing she wants to do is cry in front of him. She moves towards the chest of drawers, opening it and rifling around for the dry leggings and t-shirt she’d come in here to get in the first place, hoping he can’t hear the hoarseness of her breath, the shake to her shoulders. She wants him to leave, she wants him to stay, she wants him to - -

She has no idea what she wants him to do.

And she hears it, the shuffle of his socked feet across the floor, the hit of his shoes against it as he slips them on, the sound of the key being placed on her bedside table, and then he’s walking towards her only to - -

Only to stop.

The moment sits weighted and quiet between them, and she can vaguely hear the sounds of the kids playing upstairs, of Buddy’s tail beating down against the patio, of Rio’s breaths, soft and hoarse behind her.

“Tomorrow mornin’ then,” he rasps after a minute, and Beth clenches her fingers into the looped handle of her drawer.

“Thank you,” she says, still staring down at her drawer, and she hears her French doors open and close with a click.

*

Fumbling with the key, she pushes it into the slot of the mailbox, a strangely nervous crick to her neck as she looks up and down the street, checking to make sure nobody’s lurking nearby.

Which is probably silly, she thinks, particularly in this neighbourhood. She’d been surprised when she’d finally summoned the strength to look at the note Rio had left with the key on her bedside table and found this address – hell, even the suburb had surprised her. It’s a far cry from the rough roads and shrunken, dilapidated houses she’d taken cars to back when she and Rio were partners. This area is nice. More than nice – it reminds her of the times she’d picked up Sadie for Annie from Greg and Nancy’s, driving up the pristine streets in her minivan, eyeing off the staggering houses with their manicured lawns, inhaling the air of wealth that had seemed to sit thick in the air like pollen in the spring.

She sniffs now, unable to help herself, and god, if she can’t smell it here too.

Glancing back down the road towards the car, past all the gated houses, she wonders how soon it’ll be picked up. It’s not that it’s particularly old or battered, just that it sits small and out of place among the Audis and Cadillac’s that otherwise line the street, and it’ll be fine, she tells herself. People will probably assume it’s a delivery or something, and she snorts to herself, rolling her eyes – it’s not exactly like they’d be wrong.

Grabbing her phone out of her coat pocket, she texts a quick thumbs up to Ruby, thinks of following it up suggesting they get take out for lunch themselves, only to stop when she hears a slight whir above her head.

She looks up, and her blood runs cold.

Hanging off the top of the gate for the house where she’d slipped in the key is a security camera, it’s red light flashing as it points down at her.

She quickly steps back, thinks about - - about what, she’s not sure. Waving? Nodding? Her pulse flutters too close to the surface of her skin, and she turns on her heel, striding quickly down the street, struggling to breathe.

Is that what Rio had wanted? Was it why he’d sent her? Wanted to get her on another camera? She jitters nervously, tries to push it from her mind, because so what? She’s delivering a car. That’s all. Sure, a car full of drugs, or at least, what she thinks are drugs. Her eyes skirt the street again.

Has he flipped his game again? Or has he just secured a better clientele?

Suddenly she wishes she’d looked in the airbag compartment. That she’d confirmed it, because god, how stupid can she be? This is what he does, this is how he keeps his hook deep in her, the way no matter how much she doesn’t work for him, he’ll always have something on her, and she breathes out a shaky breath, trying to slow her palpating heart.

She’s jerked from her thoughts by a sharp beep, her gaze tearing up to find Ruby’s car down the end of the street, and she quickens her pace, beelining for the car. Jerking open the door, she practically collapses into the passenger seat, yanking the seatbelt on as Ruby lets out a slow whistle, her gaze taking in the enormous houses bracketing the street.

“Damn,” Ruby says. “He’s really flipped his game, huh?”

“He’s flipped something,” Beth says, more than a little dryly, still trying to catch her breath. She pushes back into the seat, tries to steel her expression. “Different, right?”

Ruby nods, pulling the car out of park and starting to drive them back towards Beth’s house. Beth drums her fingers on her knee, her toe tapping, her teeth biting hard into her lower lip. Maybe he didn’t know, she thinks. Maybe he didn’t realise, maybe he - -

She huffs out a breath, fingers clenching, and it’s just the usual with him, right? How he can break into her home, that he can insist on knowing every part of her business, but he doesn’t even have the decency of letting her know his, even when he’s asking her to do it for him.

Vaguely she’s aware of Ruby talking beside her, but it’s not until Ruby’s looking at her expectantly that Beth realises she’s asked her a question.

“What?”

Ruby gives her a curious look.

“I asked when did he even give it to you?” Ruby repeats, and Beth glances back at her, her mind still reeling.

“Give what to me?”

“The drop. We did the three he gave us at the dealership days ago, so unless you’re suddenly magicking keys outta somewhere, I’m guessing you’ve seen him again.”

There’s something in the weight of Ruby’s tone that makes Beth sit up a little straighter, that makes her fingers curl again at her thighs, her thumb rubbing over a loose puckered thread there. It’s not that she deliberately hadn’t told them, it’s just - - it happened so quickly. Everything feels like it happens so quickly when it comes to Rio.

“He came by last night,” she says finally, trying to ignore the way that Ruby arches an eyebrow back at her.

“He came by? Came by where? Your house?”

Beth nods, shifting her weight in her seat, and Ruby sighs, curving her hands around the steering wheel of the car.

“Okay,” Ruby says slowly, her eyes going back to the road. Her jaw rocks suddenly, and she opens her mouth, like she’s going to add something else, but promptly closes it again. Beth frowns over at her, raising her eyebrows expectantly. She still feels on edge from the camera, feels on edge from last night, from - - just from all of it, really.

“What?” she asks, and when Ruby shakes her head, Beth laughs, frustrated. “What?” she repeats impatiently, and Ruby glances back at her, finally sighing.

“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I mean, it kind of feels like you’re falling back into old patterns with him, and I just don’t know how to feel about that.”

Her voice is loaded, some cocktail of worry and judgement that Beth can’t swallow, and she blinks, her head reeling back. She looks out the windscreen at the car in front of them, and then back to where Ruby is pointedly staring out it too.

“I’m not,” Beth says, her tone slightly miffed, and Ruby just arches an eyebrow, snorts a little.

“You are,” she insists. “He says jump, you ask how high. He gives us a job, you clear your schedule.”

Beth scoffs, flailing her arms out, her legs settling tense beneath her.

“In case you forgot, we kind of owe him.”

Her tone is pointed – and she almost mentions the failed drug run in Canada by name when Ruby interrupts her.

“What do we owe him? We still don’t have a number, unless you guys worked that out when he came by.”

It’s enough to make her pause, bite her lip, because that’s another thing she hasn’t told them – that day at the market, when he’d asked for the 200 grand and she’d asked for a total figure. The number don’t matter, yeah? Not anymore. She sucks in a breath, fingers clenching in her shirt. She can make it matter again, she’s sure she can, if she can get enough out of the meeting with Slav. She’s dreamt of it – dropping a bag of cash on Rio’s desk, him looking at her – really looking at her again, and - -

She clears her throat.

“We haven’t talked about it,” she says instead, because they don’t need to know that yet, and Ruby laughs, but it’s not a particularly amused one.

“What a surprise.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you don’t talk about anything, and he doesn’t seem to be much better. God, Beth, have the two of you even talked about what happened that night?”

As soon as she says it, Beth’s eyes widen, her gut clenching, and she wants to crawl back into the seat, out of her skin, anywhere but here. She can feel the weight of the gun in her hand again, can smell the residue of the shot in the air, can see Rio, hitting the ground.

She lets out a shaky breath, trying to calm herself down, and she can hear Ruby sigh into the silence. Its sudden then, Ruby’s hand reaching out, grabbing one of Beth’s and holding it tight against Beth’s thigh. Beth jumps at the contact, her eyes twisting over to look at where Ruby’s still watching the road, her face twisted in worry.

“I’m sorry, B. I just - - we have no idea what’s going on. Has he said anything at all about what he wants? He’s got to have something in mind, right? He has to have an endgame beyond getting us to line his pockets and do random drops whenever he decides he’d rather do something else.”

Beth exhales, her free hand going up to cover Ruby’s, her thumb rubbing against her knuckles.

“Look, I’m figuring it out,” Beth says after a minute, sighing out a hoarse little breath. “I’m still talking to Dominic, and he-”

“Who AJ told us was shady,” Ruby interrupts, and Beth gives her a look before she powers through.

“I’m still talking to him, and I really think he’s going to get us somewhere,” Beth insists, ignoring the twist of guilt in her belly at lying to Ruby. Not a lie, Beth tells herself. Just a slight pivot of the truth. If she can get this deal through, they’ll be out. They’ll have their own business, with a new partner. A partner without baggage or history or - - or any of the other stuff. She just needs them to be patient for a few more days.

Ruby sighs, the sound loud over the quiet of the radio, and she waits until they pull up at a set of traffic lights before she turns to Beth, looking at their hands together, entwined in Beth’s lap.

“You know we can’t help you if you won’t talk to us,” she says gently. “I really feel like you think you gotta tackle all of this on your own, but you don’t.”

Beth looks at Ruby, holds their hands a little tighter.

“I’m fine, honestly,” Beth says. “And you do help. You help so much.”

And she means it, just - - she got them into this mess.

She can get them out.

*

Still, Ruby’s words echo in her head well into the night, and even more in the morning when she drops the kids at school, leaving the small suitcase with the administration staff for when Dean picks them up in the afternoon for a sleepover at his mom’s.

She hears the words loudest in the shower, ricocheting off the tiles, and again as she finds a dark plum blouse just long and loose enough at the back to hide the taser tucked into the waistband of her black jeans.

Maybe she should’ve told them. Maybe it would be good, for them to know where she was in the case anything did go wrong, but then again, there’s no way they’d let her go alone if they did know, and Slav won’t meet her with them anyway. Besides, maybe the thought of that isn’t unappealing anyway – the thought of them at home, safe, while she handles this. While she bosses. She stands up a little straighter and ends up pouring herself a drink to calm her frayed nerves, toying with the zip on the bag of fake cash to take to the meeting, pacing back and forth in her increasingly empty house for any word from Dominic at all.

He’d insisted on meeting at her house – a fact that had left a bad taste in her mouth until she’d reminded herself that he already knew where she lived – had even come to Dean’s luau-themed fortieth birthday a few years ago, and really, if he’d wanted to do anything, he would’ve done it already. Still, she wasn’t stupid – she’d pressed the point, and when Dominic had insisted it would give them time to plan their course of action before they met Slav, she’d found herself agreeing.

Rio had never wanted to plan anything with her after all.

A light blears through her living room windows, and Beth peers out through the curtains, watching as a sleek black Dodge pulls up outside her house, Dominic climbing out of the driver’s seat and stepping out into the street. Polishing off her drink, Beth grabs her coat off the chair with one hand, her duffel bag with the other, and heads outside to meet him.

“Nice car,” she says, firming up her shoulders, striding down her driveway. If Dominic is surprised by her coming out, he hides it well, grinning back at her.

“What can I say, I know my cars.”

He flashes her a boyish grin as she draws closer, still half shucking her coat on over her shoulders as Dominic steps back to hold the passenger side door open to her. It’s enough to make her slow her own step, surprised when Annie’s voice sounds in her head Rule numero uno of casual dating. Always drive yourself so that if he ends up being a serial killer or, worse, really boring, you can just leave.

She blinks, surprised at the voice, at the weight of it, her gaze tearing back to her minivan before she can stop herself, and stupid, she thinks. This isn’t a date, and Dominic certainly isn’t Tom, and the whole point of Dominic picking her up is to plan for the meeting.

But - -

“I might drive myself,” Beth says suddenly, and Dominic looks at her, then follows her gaze up to the minivan.

“Okay,” he replies easily, closing the door behind him. “You want to talk here then?”

Beth glances up and down the street, but it’s already late enough that most of her neighbours are asleep, or at least trained on their televisions, watching Top Chef or Desperate Housewives re-runs, and Beth grounds her feet.

“It’ll just be the three of us?”

Dominic nods, folding his arms across his chest.

“That’s what Slav’s said. He has another meeting before us, but it should be done by the time we get there, so we should head right in. I’ll introduce you, you’ll do your pitch. A bit of luck, and we all leave the room a lot richer.”

It sounds almost too simple, too straight forward, but then on paper, wasn’t it always? It had been when they’d pitched washing the cash at the big box stores. Had been even when she’d met with Rio alone about the pills back when the dealership was still hers. She’s not naïve, she knows it’ll be harder in the meeting itself, that even pitching to Rio at Cloud 9, she’d at least known him.

She doesn’t know Slav at all.

But she knows Dominic, she reminds herself, eyeing him across her driveway.

And she has the taser.

“Okay,” she says, reaching into the pocket of her jacket for her keys. “Do you want to text me the address, or should I just follow you?”

Dominic shrugs, and then wrinkles his nose, looking back at her minivan with a considered attention he hadn’t spared it before.

“Are you sure you want to drive yourself?” Dominic asks. “I’m just thinking, y’know, while I trust Slav, there might be other guys around the area, and your licence plate is - - it’s really yours, y’know?”

Beth blinks, eyeing off his car.

“And yours isn’t?”

He laughs, shaking his head.

“I have a few in circulation.”

And should she do that? Because the implication is loud and clear – her car is traceable. More than that, it sticks out like a sore thumb beside Dominic’s car, always had beside Rio’s too. Beth bites the inside of her cheek, glancing back at her minivan. She can see Jane’s car seat in the back, the My Family stickers covering the gunshots in the trunk door, and god, what is she thinking?

“You’re totally right,” she says, shaking her head. “Sorry. Jitters.”

Dominic shrugs, a wry grin on his face as he turns to open the passenger seat door again, and Beth smooths down the waist of her shirt, feeling the taser dig into the small of her back as she slides right in.

*

The drive was never going to be a short one.

An hour, maybe closer to two, Dominic had told her after he’d set the meeting up in the first place. Slav might work inner city, but he liked to do business outside of it – less pricked ears, more privacy, Dominic had told her, putting on a bad, Eastern European accent that Beth could only assume was meant to be Slav’s. It had made sense at the time, but as the city becomes a blip on the horizon behind them, Beth finds herself shifting in her seat, that stranger bleed of foreboding she’d been trying to hold at bay slowly spilling into her chest.

She tries to focus on Dominic’s idle chatter – the stories of his mom, and the guys he works with at the chop shop, on programs he worked on in prison, and even one about getting drunk with Dean after a particularly good sale – but it gets harder and harder the closer they get to their destination.

Outside the windows, the roadside diners and outer-suburb homes start to give way to strip malls and abandoned shopfronts, to neon signs blearing GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS and truck stops and grim, unmarked warehouses. She can’t help the way she fiddles with the buttons on her blouse, doing one more up than she normally would, until it’s almost up to the collar. If Dominic notices, he doesn’t comment, just keeps babbling until he indicates off the main road into an industrial lot, making Beth sit up a little straighter.

There are only warehouses here – broken up by thin, wire fences. A pair of security guards stand outside of one, sharing a cigarette, but the rest are vacant, the only activity among them the flutter of insects below the street lights.

“You guys really love a warehouse, huh?” Beth asks, aiming for a joke, but her voice is thick even to her own ears. Still, Dominic laughs, slowing the car to a stop outside of one. Beth pivots in her seat, eyeing it carefully, searching for any point of difference, anything she might be able to gauge from it, but the only difference is in the few cars parked around the side of it, all black and shadowed by the lurch of the warehouse.

“You ready?” Dominic asks beside her, unclipping his seatbelt, and Beth sucks in a breath, swallowing any nerves, and slipping out of the passenger seat, clutching the bag of fake cash to her chest.

The air is cold, colder than she thought it would be, and almost wet to the touch. Before she can stop herself, she’s looking up, surprised to see the heavy weight of grey clouds thickening above them. She hadn’t thought it was forecast to rain, much less storm, and her thoughts drift quickly to the kids, wondering if she has time to text Dean to remind him to put Danny’s nightlight on.

She’s pulled from her thoughts by Dominic striding forwards ahead of her, beelining towards the warehouse, and Beth quickly picks up her step, almost having to jog to catch up with his long stride.

“Hey! Slow down,” she says, and Dominic turns back to look at her, nods, stopping in his tracks to let her catch up, but there’s a look to his face she hasn’t seen before, almost like he’s antsy, and suddenly she wonders if maybe all his chatter in the car hadn’t been to quell her nerves but his own.

“You okay?” she asks, reaching out to touch his arm, and Dominic looks at her, really looks at her, his expression torn in a way that almost makes her take a step back. He opens his mouth to reply, only suddenly the metallic lurch of one of the warehouse roller doors pulls open, and three figures step out into the night.

Beth quickly glances back at Dominic, because that’s not one-on-one at all, only Dominic hasn’t looked back at her, his gaze still fixed on one of the figures leaving the warehouse, and Beth’s own eyes skirt him and just - - it can’t be, it - -

Her breath catches, and it’s too loud, because then the figure is turning towards her, and it’s Rio, of course it’s Rio, and she straightens up her back, squares her shoulders, and she swears she sees a look of shock cross his face as he stops in his tracks to look at her, the two guys he’d left with – and she recognises them now as two of his boys – slowing down beside him.

The roller door pushes up a bit more, the light from inside bleeding a path across the lot, and maybe someone gestures on the inside, because Dominic is saying, “That’s our cue,” behind her, but Beth can’t tear her eyes off where Rio’s staring back at her. At least, not until his eyes flick across to Dominic, Rio’s jaw setting tight in a way she’s never seen before. His gaze finds Beth again, and it’s almost imperceptible, but she thinks he shakes his head at her, as if he’s saying Don’t.

“Come on, Beth,” Dominic reiterates, grabbing her elbow, and Beth quickly falls into step beside him, her mind reeling as she tears her gaze away from Rio because - - because screw him, she reminds herself. He’s the one who sent her on a drop where she’d be photographed without any warning, he’s the one holding all of this over her head, he’s the one who abandoned her, then kidnapped her, then - -

Who she then - -

She sucks in a breath.

She doesn’t need him anymore.

God, she doesn’t want to need him anymore.

Up the steps behind Dominic, they both have to duck beneath the roller door to get into the warehouse, only to have it closed promptly behind them by an enormous guy with tattoos covering every inch of his exposed skin.

“You know where you goin’?” the guy asks, and Dominic nods, gesturing Beth forwards down into the body of the warehouse. Picking up her step, she strides forwards, clutching the duffel bag at her side, feeling the warm plastic of the taser at her lower back.

The warehouse itself isn’t so unlike many of the others she’s been in since her career started – open brick walls and a long, cold floor. The air holds a certain dankness, a mustiness from age and disuse, and the space is remarkably empty – only - - only not quite as empty as she’d been assured, she thinks, trying to quell the sick feeling uncurling in her gut as they pass a pocket of men huddled around a table, dividing pills between them and chattering in a language she doesn’t understand. One eyes her off, his gun glinting beneath the lights, heavy on the table beside him, and Beth quickly averts her gaze, following Dominic’s directions down the hall.

Somewhere in the distance she can hear a car drive off, and right, she thinks, blinking hard, trying to ignore the spike of terror in her that tells her Rio has gone, and god, had seeing him really reassured her that much? From the set to his shoulders, Dominic seems to have heard it too, only where it’s tensed her own, it seems to have relaxed his as he steps ahead of her, coming to a closed office door.

He knocks, before tugging the door open to reveal a small office not unlike Lance’s from all those weeks ago. It’s small and tired – wallpaper starting to peel in the uppermost corners, a grey, linoleum covered desk that looks straight out of the eighties taking up the bulk of the room, and behind it, a man who can only be Slav.

She’s spent too much of the last few days contemplating what he must look like – a man who can seemingly part from half a million dollars like it’s loaning coffee change, a real competitor to Rio (and just - - he’d been here - why?), but she can’t say the man in front of her is what she expected at all.

Oddly enough, he’s older than she’d thought he’d be – at least ten years older than Beth, if not almost twenty. He’s white, with closely cut silver hair, a well-groomed beard and a body tapestry of tattoos. He’s both slighter than she expected, and unusually tall – at least as tall as Dean, although probably two-thirds the weight, but that weight seems, like Rio, to be deceptive. His arms tightly corded muscle, the set to his body somehow strong.

“Slav,” Dominic says, tone light, and Slav tilts his chin his way, but doesn’t take his eyes off Beth. At least he really did seem to be alone in here, Beth thinks, eyeing off the rest of the room. There’s only the one chair in front of his desk too, and he gestures for Beth to sit down in it.

“Let me introduce the two of you,” Dominic starts, stepping forwards, but Slav holds up his hand to make him stop, watching Beth closely. She shifts her weight before straightening up again, striding over to the chair and sitting down where Slav had gestured her.

“I think Ms. Boland can introduce herself, yes?” Slav asks, his accent thick, his grey eyes never leaving Beth, and something in her recoils a little at the coldness of his look. She tries to shake it off, loosening her hand from the strap of the duffel bag and offering it across the desk towards him.

“I usually go by Beth,” she says, and Slav takes her hand, and just - - he’s cold there too, she thinks, in a way that settles uncomfortably in her head. He looks her over, his gaze skirting her face, her neck, her chest, and she resists the urge to fidget until he finally settles on the bag at her arms.

Quirking his long, spidery fingers at it, he gestures to see it, and Beth looks sideways at where Dominic is watching them intently, a look on his face she can’t read. She sucks in a breath, aims for a smile as she unhooks the strap at her arm, passing it across the table towards him. He tugs it open with an easy hand, sliding out a wad of the cash and slipping out a note from the middle, inspecting it with a quick and careful eye.

“We can offer a quarter of a million a month with the potential to grow,” Beth says, pulling up the spiel she’d rehearsed for the first round of meetings. “We’ve really perfected this product – it’s good, undetectable by all the cash testers currently operating in Detroit. We rolled out months ago, and –”

“It’s fine,” Slav says, cutting her off as he slips the note back into the stack and then the stack back into the duffel. He zips it up. “Dominic here has introduced you around?”

It’s enough to make Beth blink, surprised at the question. She glances back at Dominic, who looks back at her, a neutral expression on his face, giving her nothing, and Beth turns back to Slav.

“Yes,” she says carefully. “To a few people.”

“Who?”

She stops, swallows heavily, trying to read into Slav’s expression, but he gives her less than even Dominic had. Beth rolls her shoulders back, tilts her head as she looks at him and tries to keep her voice steady.

“That’s not really any of your business.”

Arching an eyebrow at her, she thinks Slav might look mildly impressed before he turns to Dominic, who folds his arms across his chest.

“Lance Pollock, Spike V, AJ Carter. She was supposed to meet with Orion, but I was…” Dominic trails off, a biting look crossing his face. “Encouraged to cancel it by our mutual friend.”

And he says it so easily, so casually, and Beth can feel her pulse fluttering in her throat, AJ’s warning sounding loud again in her head, but across the desk Slav hums a noise Beth can only interpret as amused. He turns his attention back to her, his cold gaze fixed.

“For someone so fresh faced to this business, you’ve certainly proven connected,” Slav says, and Beth tries to slow her breaths, tries to keep her gaze as fixed on Slav as his is on her.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“No? What would you say then?”

A few, heavy raindrops start to sound on the roof above them, quickly picking up in volume and intensity, until it’s shattering above them, breaking up the quiet of the room, and Beth watches Slav watch her, and god, she’s just tired of games.

“Why don’t you just ask me what it is you want to?” she says, and Slav laughs, looking almost delighted by Beth’s audacity. He leans back in his seat a little, folding his arms across his chest.

“You’re connected to Rio Vela.”

She’d heard the words even before he’d said them, but the sound of his name still makes her exhale sharply.

“I wouldn’t say that either.”

At that, Slav arches an eyebrow, shaking his head in faux surprise. He continues the act as he looks over at Dominic, but Beth doesn’t take her eyes off Slav, so she has no idea what he gets from that.

“No?” he says after a minute, his gaze finding Beth again. “Perhaps you’re more connected to him when he’s Christopher Velasquez?”

It’s enough to make her reel back in her seat, for her breath to catch, for her leg to twitch almost uncontrollably beneath her, but she schools her expression as quickly as she can, opening her mouth to reply, but Slav doesn’t give her the chance to.

“His son is sweet, yes? Almost as sweet as your little ones. Four, isn’t it? I heard about Christopher retrieving that blanket for your daughter. A kind gesture between parents, or perhaps,” he tilts his head back and forth. “Something more.”

“We worked together for a while,” Beth says finally, trying to slow her fast-beating heart. She can feel both their eyes on her. “I was upset. He got my daughter’s blanket back as a favour.”

Slav nods, his lips pursing.

“You work together still?”

“No,” Beth says, and Slav looks at her.

“Oh? I heard you dropped one of his cars off yesterday? A friend told me, she was surprised, see, to have seen the woman from the Boland Motors commercial dropping a car off for a dealership that was no longer hers.”

“I don’t know what you’re wanting me to say,” Beth says, trying to buy herself some time, to find excuses, covers, fixes. “Like I said, we worked together. He did me a favour, I did one for him.”

“You could do a few more favours for him,” Slav says easily, promptly, like the story was one he’d thought of, like he’d known what she was going to say. He uncrosses his arms, rolling his hand out at the wrist, tilting his head to the side. “Stay close to him, keep your hand in his business, your voice in his ear,” he rocks his head to the other side. “And I keep mine in yours.”

The rain is getting louder above them, sitting heavy in her ears as she looks Slav over, because surely he can’t be asking her what she thinks he is. She opens her mouth to reply, closes it, and then thinks - - screw it.

“Are you asking me to play him?”

Slav snorts, shrugging in what basically amounts to a confirmation. He grabs the end of her bag of cash on his desk, holding it up briefly before letting it fall back down, landing it with a light thud.

“You do that, I’ll help you move this.”

And it’s what she wanted, she knows that, help moving her product, a new partner, a business of her own, but this is - - it’s - - she’s - -

“No,” she says, the word out of her mouth before she can stop it, and Slav’s eyebrows disappear up his forehead. His gaze darts, almost imperceptibly quick to Dominic, before landing back on Beth.

“Excuse me?”

“No,” she says, firmer this time, words forming too quickly, leaving her mouth too honestly. “That’s not the sort of business I operate. I’m not a - - a double agent or a honey trap or whatever it is you’re asking of me. I’m here with a good product and a good business opportunity for both of us. And honestly?” she squares her shoulders, sucking in a breath. “I’m loyal to former associates. And I think that is something you should be thinking of as an asset, looking at me and my operation as a potential partner.”

She clears her throat a little when she finishes, and Slav looks at her, really looks at her.

“You want money?”

“Obviously,” she says, because there’s no point pretending she doesn’t – this whole thing had been set up because she’d asked for help getting half a million dollars, and it’s not like her next mortgage payment isn’t due in three weeks, but - - but she doesn’t want it like this. “And we can talk about that, but I won’t spy on him for you. That’s not negotiable.”

Slav makes a sound suddenly, like he’s both surprised and impressed, and Beth doesn’t break eye contact, which only seems to impress him more. They sit in silence for a minute, the only sound the rain above them and the unintelligible chatter of the men outside this room, and Beth’s already on edge when Slav suddenly stands up, striding around his desk to be on the same side of it as her, leaning back against the top of it.

She sucks in a breath as he stands directly in front of her, his height looming over her like a dark shadow, and she presses her back into the chair, feeling the weight of the taser there.

“I think I get it now,” Slav says, and Beth opens her mouth to ask what when suddenly he’s on top of her, shoving her backwards so hard the chair falls back, slamming hard into the floor. Beth gasps, winded, trying to scramble up, but then Slav’s on top of her, using the chair to cage her body in as one of his hands grabs her flailing wrists, pinning them to the floor above her, while the other comes down to hit her hard in the face.

The pain hits sharp and fast, unlike anything she’s ever felt before, stinging around her eye socket, smarting at her cheek, blood roaring in her ears, and she can’t help the hoarse sound that erupts from her throat, her eyes desperately skirting around the room for Dominic, but he’s disappeared from sight.

The sound is enough to make Slav rest some of his weight off her, to look down at her still reeling form.

“Have you ever been hit before?”

And she doesn’t know how she looks at him, but he seems almost giddy at the confirmation he sees there that she hasn’t been. He brings the hand not gripping her wrists up to stroke at her cheek.

“Ah, you are sweet. I never took him as one for sweet.”

He hits her again, and Beth cries out, head reeling as she tries to kick her legs up underneath her, but they’re pinned by his weight and trapped within the chair, and there’s a bubble of urgency growing in her throat, her fight or flight being triggered somewhere deep inside of her, and she’s scratching at the floor, scrambling back against it, trying to find some purchase, her bearings, just - - something.

“Perhaps you’ve changed your mind?” he asks her, almost gently, and Beth looks up at him and somehow between it all, she suddenly feels too lucid – feels the weight of what he’s proposing and it’d be too easy to agree, to dig that hole, to bury herself in another debt, only - - only Annie and Ruby would have no idea, only her children wouldn’t. Only she won’t let this guy get anywhere near them, even if it’s the last thing that she does, and if it is - -

If it is - - she can’t explain it, but somehow, despite it all, she just knows Rio would never let him near them too.

“No,” she hisses, tasting blood at her teeth, and she spits at him, a glob of her bloody saliva hitting Slav in the cheek, and he seethes down at her before he laughs, his cold, free hand coming to press hard into her throat, his long fingers digging in there, and she can’t breathe, she can’t, and he finally lets go of her wrists to press the other hand into her throat too, and she’s seeing stars as she tries to move her arms, tries to get to the taser pressing into her lower back, but she’s just - - she’s so slow, sluggish with lack of air, and then Slav is leaning close, his coarse lips brushing over her cheek, moving towards her ear.

“What memento do you think he’d like the most?” he asks, his voice hoarse against her skin. “Your finger? Your ear? Ah, I think I know. One of those pretty eyes, yes?”

The air in the room is suddenly too tight, her vision greying, her hand scrambling behind her, and if Slav clocks it, he doesn’t acknowledge it, his hands too occupied with choking her, but - - but then the taser is in her loose grip and she’s summoning her last bit of strength, yanking her arm back around and pressing it into his side, and then she’s pushing the button, the electric volt making him hiss, shift his weight off her and she’s rolling sideways as best she can, and just - - just - -

Bang!

The sound is loud enough to jar, to ricochet through her aching head, but it’s the feel of Slav collapsing beside her that jars her the most, his eyes rolling back as something wet and warm hits Beth’s face and neck – soaks into her loose blouse, and she’s still gasping for breath when Rio’s face appears, hovering above her, his golden gun firm and still smoking in his hand.

“Come on,” he rasps down at her, and Beth tries to move, but she just - - she’s still just trying just to breathe, but then his hand is hooking at her arm, tugging her up out of the fallen chair. Her legs give under her, and he pulls her harder.

“Elizabeth, come on. We ain’t got time.”

She staggers up to her feet, almost collapsing into his side, but he catches her with an arm around her waist, and almost instantly, they’re moving. He’s practically dragging her out of the room, his free arm still gripping the gun, and she thinks he might shoot somebody else, but Beth can’t see, can barely think, feel anything, beyond the rapid rasp of her breath and the weight of her throbbing limbs, the only anchor to the moment in Rio’s arm wrapped tight around her waist, his chest at her side, pushing her forwards.

She tries to follow his steps, tries to find her pace along the floors of the warehouse, and there’s another gunshot behind her, and this time she turns her head to look, but Rio’s shoving her forwards still, running them out the now open roller doors of the warehouse.

The rain shatters over her the second they’re outside, pelts down across her shoulders, freezes her legs, and she thinks maybe, hopes, it’s washing what can only be Slav’s blood from her face and neck. She gasps at the chill of it, at the weight, her throat raw with the night air, and Rio’s still there beside her, dragging her towards his car, only the second they’re there, he swears profusely, his grip on her tightening as more gun shots sound in the warehouse, and she looks at his car, her senses recovered enough to see that his tires have been slashed.

“Where’s Dominic?” she rasps back, her gaze skirting over the darkened lot, searching out his car, and Rio doesn’t even look at her as he starts to drag her back around the side of the warehouse, covering them behind the building walls.

“Gettin’ his last rites if he ain’t so dumb he don’t know what’s comin’,” Rio growls, stumbling forwards. There are more cars parked here, and he bypasses two of the sleeker ones for an older model, fiddling with the lock, and when he gets it open, he dumps her in the passenger seat, tearing around the other side to get into the driver’s seat. He drops his gun in her lap, and Beth sucks in a breath at the too-familiar weight of it, but Rio doesn’t have the patience for that now.

“Wind the window down. Cover us,” he snaps, and Beth’s eyes widen at him, and she’s shaking her head, but then he’s reaching over, picking the gun off her lap and forcing it into her hands.

“Come on,” he says again, tone short as he lets go of her and redirects his attention to the column below the steering wheel of the car. He yanks off a part of the plastic cover, digs his hand into the part of the column he’s revealed, and it takes her a moment to realise that he’s hot wiring it.

A voice yells behind them, and Beth fumbles, turning around to wind the window down, her heart in her aching throat as she watches one of Slav’s boys appear around the back of the warehouse, holding his gun up towards them, and he shoots, hitting the back light of the car, glass shattering onto the grass. Beth is shaking as she fumbles with the gun, sticking it out the window and pulling the trigger, shooting back and missing him by a mile, and the guy’s getting ready to shoot again, and she’s trembling as she tries to remember Rio’s lessons, but - -

But then the car is revving to life beneath her, and suddenly Rio’s tearing out of the lot, grabbing her head and shoving it down between her knees, below the window and out of sight, as he drives them out into the black night.

Chapter Text

The tires are low.

She can feel it, in the roughness of the drive, the way the car seems to judder over every speed bump, every rock, every crushed hunk of rubbish, every dragged and rotting animal littering the street. Can smell the burn of the rubber against the road as Rio pushes his foot down, the tires screeching with the strain of it, can hear the rain colliding with the windshield, with the roof, the windscreen wipers batting back and forth to clear the way. It’s good to focus on, she thinks, over the startling bullets behind them, the yells, the hollers, the cries. She’s still just trying to catch her breath, her throat and her face aching, her nostrils raw, her chest heavy against her thighs.

She has no idea how long they’ve been driving (although she suspects it isn’t actually that long) before she starts to shift, starts to push up against Rio’s hand, still firm on the back of her neck, suddenly desperate to get her bearings. But he won’t let her up yet, keeps her folded in half in the passenger seat until all she can see is the rainwater dripping from her hair onto Rio’s gun in her lap, and somebody else’s fast food wrappers, scrunched up on the floor at her feet.

She pushes again, and Rio lets her go this time, moving his hand back to the steering wheel, briefly lifting himself off the seat before pushing himself back down, the only sign that he’s as jittery with energy as she is – was – she’s not sure. She feels as desperate to move as she does to collapse, and the second she heaves her body back up, she turns in the seat, looking out the back windshield, trying to work out if they have a tail, if Slav’s boys are behind them, if Rio’s are, but the night is thick, the rain heavy enough to obscure the little that the car backlights illuminate, and when thunder cracks above them, she jumps.

It’s all it takes for Rio to push his hand out again and a weight to disappear from her lap, and Beth turns back just enough to realise that he’s taken his gun back, shoving it into the plastic pocket of the driver’s side door.

She opens her mouth, to say what, she’s not sure.

“Don’t,” he bites instantly, furious, and Beth promptly shuts her mouth, tearing her gaze away from him almost as quickly as she’d found him, her hands still shaking. Tries to get her bearings instead. Tries to focus on everything that isn’t the pain in her face and Slav’s blood, staining the collar of her shirt.

She’s lost Tyler’s taser, must have dropped it somewhere between tasing Slav and getting into the car. The bag of her fake cash is gone, left somewhere in the warehouse (and god, all that hard work gone to waste), her phone - - she blinks, fumbling back suddenly, reaching for her burner in the back pocket of her jeans. She hadn’t brought her real one – had learnt that much at least from that time with the dubby – and all this one has on it really is Dominic’s number.

The thought clenches something inside her – at the prospect of Dominic having betrayed her or being hurt or killed, she’s not sure. Doesn’t let herself think much more on it yet as she pulls the phone out of her pocket, already dialling Ruby’s number in her head, why, she’s not sure exactly, only - -

Only it’s all for nothing.

Her breath hitches at the black screen.

That can’t be right – she’d charged it before she’d come out. She wipes the rainwater from the screen, toggles with the button at the top, but every time she pushes it, it flashes the empty battery symbol back at her. It’s enough to tear a desperate sound from her throat, something between a cry and a hiss, and she shakes the phone hard, like it might dislodge some secret battery power or something.

Beside her, Rio snorts, the sound almost amused, and Beth sucks in a breath, biting back her own anger as she looks over at where he sits behind the steering wheel, the plastic still pulled from the column of the car, exposing a bright twist of wires underneath. He doesn’t offer so much as a look at her as she tries to collect herself, licking her lips and tasting blood and just - - god, she hopes it’s hers.

“Can I borrow your cell please?” she asks, her voice a little raw still, her throat aching, and Rio does look at her then, his eyes half-lidded, cast dark beneath the shadows of the car.

“Why?”

His voice is lax, almost to the point of calm, and Beth frowns over at him, takes in the lazy, careless expression on his face, then the tight twist of his neck, the too-firm set of his arms, and knows it’s an act. She sits up a little straighter, adjusting in her seat.

“Why do you think?” she bites, and it’s the wrong answer, because she sees it, the way his lips stretch into a furious smile.

“Nah, see, you’ve had your privileges revoked,” he tells her, his grip suddenly going white knuckled around the steering wheel of the car, voice tight and too loud, even over the rain shattering against the road outside.

Beth blinks, her eyes growing owlish.

“Excuse me?”

Rio hums, hitting the windscreen wiper lever up a notch, making the blades slide so hard, so fast, that the old rubber squeaks against the glass – smearing the rain against it more than clearing it, but he doesn’t seem to care.

“Just give me your phone,” she repeats, holding her hand out, and Rio laughs, tightening his grip on the steering wheel, so firm his fingers wrap around, his nails digging into the heels of his hands.

“What you not gettin’?” he asks, and when she doesn’t move her hand, he loosens one of his just enough to bat her hand away, pushing it back towards herself. “No. Who the fuck you gonna call anyway?”

“I don’t know,” she flails, her voice a little shrill. “It’s none of your business.”

“It’s my phone!” he yells back, and then blinks hard, adjusts again on the seat, jittery with energy. “It don’t matter anyway, you ain’t callin’ nobody. All that shit is over.”

“What? Calling people?” she asks, raising her voice, laughing at the sheer absurdity of it, the adrenaline from the meeting with Slav somehow running hot again in her, but Rio ignores her, keeps talking, his tone pissed off, but somehow almost fluid too, like he’s picking up on a conversation they’ve been having, or continuing one he’s been having in his head.

“All of it,” he tells her. “You always been pullin’ at the leash, I know that, and I figure it’s good to put a little give in it, y’know? Wanted to see what you dug up, what got your tail waggin’, what tree you pissed on, who’s ass you sniffed. Told myself it was a’ight, you still wearin’ the collar, you still got your tags.”

He snorts on a laugh, more to himself than anything, and Beth just stares at him, and he seems almost frazzled with energy, with fury in a way she’s never really seen before, and he’s up again in his seat, readjusting, his foot landing a little heavier on the accelerator.

“But see I think you forgot what you are, because you like that retriever o’ yours, baby, you ain’t no pit bull, but you still yappin’ up to ‘em like you one of ‘em, like you forgot you even got a leash, let alone whose holdin’ onto the end of it, and so it’s time to shorten it, yeah? So you ain’t got privileges no more. No more length.”

And maybe it’s the weight of this night, maybe it’s the fog in her head from Slav’s fists, maybe it’s the fact that it’s got to be the most she’s ever heard Rio say at once in any conversation, but it takes a moment for his words to cut through, for her to really hear him, but when she does, her hands are twitching all over again, her blood pulsing hot from her toes to her chest, to the new flush on her pale cheeks.

“There is no leash. I don’t work for you anymore, remember?” she hisses. “And if this is your roundabout way of calling me your bitch, you’ve got another thing coming.”

It’s enough to make him laugh, something gravelly and darkly amused, and he opens his mouth to say something, only for the car to suddenly lurch, making them both sail forwards in their seats. Rio manages to catch himself in time, but Beth only manages to get her hands out to brace herself, hitting them against the dashboard hard enough to bruise.

Fuck,” Rio grits, the car suddenly rambling too slow beneath them, almost vibrating. He pushes hard on the accelerator, making it rev, but Beth’s shaking her head, about to tell him to stop, to let the car rest, when a rattly noise starts to sound loud from the hood. The car pushes forwards again, speeding ahead a few feet, only to shutter suddenly to a stop, the rattle giving way to a hiss as thick, grey smoke erupts out from beneath the hood of the car.

A string of curses tear out of Rio’s mouth, and she’d probably blush if the circumstances were any different. As it is, Rio just slams his hands hard on the steering wheel, before he ducks one into the open column of it, fiddling with the wires again, but it’s no use. The car won’t start.

“Stay here,” he tells her, grabbing his gun from the side door, before shoving it open and stepping out into the pouring rain. He hasn’t even slammed the door shut behind him before Beth’s scrambling out of her side too. The rain hits like a shower faucet the second she’s out in it – soaking her through instantly, and Rio gives her a briefly furious look all over again as he pops the hood of the car, smoke billowing up between them, the rain sizzling against the hot, exposed engine.

“Get back in the car,” he says, batting the smoke away with his free hand, and Beth shakes her head, moving to step to his side. The heat from the engine is warm at least, she thinks, the rain pelting still at her back, freezing her through.

“I can help,” she insists, almost yelling to be heard over the shatter of the rain. “I ran a car dealership, remember?”

Because she did, because she might not have known a thing before she started, but she’d always been a quick study, and she’d picked up more than a little about the literal mechanics of the cars while she was there. Still, looking at the engine over Rio’s shoulder - she doesn’t think you’d need to be one to know that this one was fried.

Rio doesn’t seem particularly inclined to take that for an answer though, his attention fixing under the hood, checking the different components over scrupulously, careful not to burn his fingers on the parts still hot, and after a moment, Beth bites, frustrated.

“Just let me look at it,” she says, even though he technically isn’t stopping her, and Rio opens his mouth, probably to say exactly that, when a dusty light suddenly blears between them. They both pivot quickly, spotting a couple of headlights, shining in the distance.

Sucking in a breath, Beth’s heart is twisting in her aching throat, but before she’s had time to think, Rio’s slamming the hood back down, pulling his gun out of his jeans and grabbing her arm, tugging her off the road, down into the long grass beside it, leading her towards the scrub, the rain and the wind whipping through them as thunder cracks above.

She tears her gaze back, her eyes searching, and breathes a sigh of relief, pulling her arm back, and when Rio ignores her, keeps pulling her forwards, she digs her heels in.

“Wait,” she calls, and Rio stops, looking back at her, but Beth only points back to where the car has turned down another barren side road, showing no signs of stopping as it disappears from view.

It takes a moment for Rio to react, but when he does, he just drops her arm, exhaling a little sharply – or at least, she thinks so – it’s hard to hear anything over the rain, and then they’re just standing there, staring at each other, drenched and bruised, two hours from home and no way to get there, and Beth would almost laugh if she didn’t think it would inevitably lead to crying.

God, Slav had - -

And if Rio hadn’t - -

The breath stutters out of her, hoarse and uncertain, and when she looks back, Rio tears his gaze away from her, like he’d been watching her and didn’t want to be caught doing it. He shoves his gun back into his jeans and pulls his cell out of his back pocket, shielding it as best he can from the rain, only to swear. Stepping a little closer, Beth can see the marker at the top of the screen reading:

No service.

It’s enough to make Rio cuss again, shoving it back into his pocket as he jerks his head back towards the car, then promptly makes his way there.

Beth can’t quite contain the shiver, not now that her heart has slowed, that the heat of adrenaline has left her veins, leaving her cold and hollow. Pushing a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the rain, she looks around them, trying to take in their surroundings as best she can with the lack of light and the wall of rain in their way.

The thing is, there’s not a lot around to take in – the area is remarkably barren – far more so than she remembers it being on the drive in with Dominic, but then - - maybe Rio’s brought her a different way. She looks back at him, where he’s somehow already made it to the car, already has the hood car up again and is fiddling with something she can’t see beneath it. It’s still smoking – the rain somehow amplifying instead of dampening it, the hazy glow of the moon making him look almost like a sorcerer, embroiled in something magical or dangerous or both. His black shirt is saturated and clinging to the deceptively narrow line of his body, and she can’t help the way she watches his shoulder blades shift beneath as he leans over the car – almost like wings, straining.

She sniffs, blushing, weirdly embarrassed by the line of thought. Forcing herself to look elsewhere, she takes in the rest of their surroundings again – noting the scrub he’d almost run them down into, the few wilting trees, peppering the grass. The only building in sight is a squat, boarded up house with heavy graffiti and what looks like a partially-torn-off roof, and just - -

God, it really is the middle of nowhere, she thinks, more than a little desperately. She looks behind them towards the hill they must’ve come down – back the way they came, wonders how far away Slav’s warehouse is, how quickly they could be found, racks her head for anything she might have seen between there and here that could help, but then - -

(She can feel it.

Rio’s hand on her neck, holding her down and out of sight.)

She shivers.

Before she can think much more of it, she turns back to Rio, cupping her hands around her mouth, hoping to make the sound travel over the rain.

“I think I saw a shop up there,” she yells, and is it a lie if she doesn’t know if she saw a shop? Rio straightens, turning around to look at her.

“So?”

“So, I’ll go and get help,” she calls, and even through the distance, through the veil of the rain and the night, she can see Rio shake his head, his lips twist into a grimace. He gestures back to the car, to the passenger seat.

“Nah, you gettin’ back in there.”

She frowns, suppressing another shiver as she looks up the hill then back towards him. By the time her gaze finds him again, his head is back beneath the hood of the car, back to ignoring her, and fine, Beth thinks, finding enough steel in her legs to start up the hill to see over the reach of it. She wouldn’t mind finding a bathroom too, she thinks, legs burning as she walks up the incline. She doesn’t need to pee, but she wants to see what she looks like, what damage Slav did, just - - needs to know more than she cares to admit.

“Elizabeth!” Rio yells behind her, voice gravelly, and Beth turns around, suppressing a gasp at Rio being far closer than she thought – long legs making quick work of striding up the hill behind her. “Get back in the car.”

She scowls back down at him.

“Why? You get it started?”

Rio stops short at that, still a few feet away from her, water running down the long point of his nose, and the irritation is plain on his face, but so what? She thinks. She’s irritated too.

And cold, and wet, and lost, and hurt and just - -

She squares her shoulders to avoid shuttering another breath.

“Because there ain’t no shop up there. There ain’t nothin’,” Rio tells her, gesturing an arm back behind her, up the hill. “And I don’t need you wanderin’ around talkin’ yourself into any more trouble.”

She balks at the insinuation, thrusting out a hip as she gestures back towards the car.

“So what then? You think a bit of elbow grease is going to fix that? You chose the worst of the lot of them – ”

“I chose the fastest to hot wire,” he interjects. “It’s a thing, baby, don’t worry, I wouldn’t expect you to know nothin’ about it.”

“Yeah, well, it looks like hot wiring was about the only thing it was any good for, wasn’t it?”

Rio rocks his jaw at her, his gaze sparking, before he shakes his head, sending droplets of water flying from his face, steadying himself again.

“There ain’t no shop,” he repeats, his voice slow and firm. “So what you gonna do then? Stick out your thumb? Show a little leg? It’s three in the mornin’ and we’re five miles from Slav’s joint. Who the fuck you think you gonna meet on this road?”

And that’s enough to make her suck in a breath, looking at the nothingness all around them, at the dark maw of night at the top of the hill. There’s not even a reflection, not so much as a promise of a streetlight, and she shivers a little, rocking unsteadily back.

“There was that other car,” she tries weakly, and then adds: “Your guys are probably looking for us too.”

“The only guys lookin’ for us right now are Slav’s. And that other car? Fluke. You willin’ to risk seein’ if tonight will bring you another one?” he tells her, his voice terse, like he’s losing patience. “Come on.”

She breathes out a shaky breath, wishing she could see his eyes better, wishing she could just see him better, but the rain is relentless, the night thick, and it eats everything in its path. He starts to turn back towards the car, expecting her to follow, and Beth just - - she can’t stop herself, turning on her heel and starting up the road again, away from him, away from the car, and she hears him yell out a sound that can’t be a word, turns enough to see him throw his hands up, pick up his step back down the hill, and good, she thinks, squaring her jaw.

This is probably for the best anyway – separating – after all, she didn’t kill Slav, and she doesn’t even know how much Dominic was involved – he might’ve - -

And god, there was no might.

He fucked her. That’s all it was. Fed information straight to Slav, and handed her over to him on a silver platter, a lamb to the slaughter, just like Dean had always thought she was, and just - - Beth clenches her eyes shut, feels the first onslaught of tears, and no this is not the time, although if nothing else, the rain would hide her tears.

The wind whips through her as she keeps striding up the hill, her body aching, thunder crashing above her, but she keeps going, finally crests the hill and looks down it and sees - -

Nothing.

Just like Rio had said.

Just more barren highway, a few trees, a gas station with its lights off and its windows smashed in.

She sucks in a breath, looking back at where Rio stands low on the hill in the distance, almost camouflaged by the cover of night. He opens the trunk of the car, pushes the back seats down and pulls something out before closing it again. She squints, trying to see what it is and she realises it’s a tire iron at about the same moment she sees him swing it back and smash the rest of the bullet-holed tail light. Beth jumps, even from the distance, and before she can stop herself, she’s tearing back down the hill, as quick as she can without falling, the momentum of gravity and the wind steering her all the faster, and she gasps as he turns towards the other one, smashing that one too.

Glass erupts into the night, shattering across the road, and Rio lifts his arms to hit it again when Beth grabs a hold of him.

“What are you doing?” she hisses when Rio looks back at her, rain almost rivering down his face.

“What’s it look like?” he asks, moving easily beneath her grip. He gives up on the light, instead forcing the tire iron behind the licence plate. He pushes a foot up on the back bumper, starting to leverage the thing off. He glances back at Beth when she doesn’t let go of his arm, huffing out an annoyed breath.

“They know the car,” he tells her, and she waits for him to add something else but he doesn’t, and she just watches him pry off the plate with a metallic schink. When he’s done, he throws the tire iron back in the trunk before gesturing to the front of the car.

“Get in the driver’s seat,” he tells her. “Put the car in neutral, I’m gonna push us off the road. Need you to steer and brake.”

Beth looks at him, and then at the car, opens her mouth to question it, but thinks better of it, ducking around to the driver’s side and climbing in. It takes her a minute to collect herself, the cold coursing through her in a way that chills her very bones. She rolls her shoulders back, pushing her dripping hair back off her face, finding the gear stick and pushing it into neutral.

After that, it happens surprisingly quickly, Rio’s strength nudging the car into movement as Beth steers it clear of the trees towards the scrub, and there’s distance between them, but she thinks it somehow camouflages it with the boarded up house, the smashed up gas station – something else left forgotten on the highway’s edge. Then again, she figures that was probably the point. When it’s far enough in, Rio hits the top of the trunk a few times, and Beth puts the car into park. She’s just starting to pull up the will to get up and get out again when the passenger side door pulls open and Rio climbs in, swiping the water off his brow as he adjusts.

She looks over at him, her forehead creased, sucking in a breath. A flash of lightening suddenly pulses in the sky, briefly illuminating the space between them, and she’s surprised to see a bruise at Rio’s cheekbone, like he’d been hit, and the thought immediately spikes pain at her own cheek, makes her tongue dart out, to taste the still weeping cut at her lip. God, she must look a mess.

“What now?” she asks, and Rio doesn’t even look at her when he says:

“Now you give me your phone.”

Beth blinks.

“It’s out of battery,” she reminds him, but when Rio holds his hand out, she finds herself fumbling in the back pocket of her pants anyway, pulling out her cell and passing it over. She watches him fiddle with it, getting the same empty battery symbol that she had, and finds herself oddly smug for it – like he thought that he’d get this over her somehow too, and she finds herself looking around, glancing down, trying to figure out what the plan is.

“So what?” she asks after a minute, coming up with none. “We’re just going to stay here?”

Rio pulls the back cover off her phone, pulling out the battery, before doing the same with his. He swaps them, then tries to turn her cell on again, but gets the same empty battery symbol. He tries a factory reset and when that doesn’t work either, his lips twist in annoyance.

“You got a better idea?” he asks, and Beth opens her mouth, but nothing comes out, so Rio just keeps talking.

“Your phone’s fucked,” he tells her easily, swapping the batteries again and tossing her phone into her lap. “And my phone either ain’t got service because we’re in the middle of ass fuck nowhere, or because of the weather. Won’t know for sure until this storm passes. So in the mornin’, it’ll either be workin’ again, or it won’t be, and if it ain’t at least Slav’s guys’ll be dead or lickin’ their wounds somewhere, and we can walk outta here.”

And that - -

Makes sense, Beth thinks. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe tonight’s just catching up to her. She shifts down in the driver’s seat, trying to press as much of her back and neck against the chair as possible – use it for warmth, to dry her shirt, she really has no idea at this point. Just anything to stop her hands shaking this much. As soon as she thinks it, a whole body shiver rips through her.

It’s enough to spring her into action – to try and dry herself off. She tries to ring out her hair as best she can then starts swiping the water off her face and chest, tries to peel the cold off herself, and Rio drops his phone into the cupholder, and seems to start doing the same, only - -

Only he just takes his shirt off.

Beth’s eyes widen, her gaze finding him, then looking away, then finding him again, her heart suddenly in her throat, a heat at her cheeks, and she’s holding her own saturated blouse to her chest like she can wrap it around herself ten times over.

What are you doing?” she hisses, scandalised, and Rio blinks up at her, shaking out his shirt and hanging it over the back of the passenger seat. It’s dark enough she can barely see anything but the faintest details, but it still makes her look away, just in case she sees - -

She sucks in a breath.

“Figured you were a journey scout,” he tells her. “What, you miss a few badges?”

And that’s enough to snap her back. She has to bite her tongue to stop herself from telling him she has all the badges, thank you very much.

“Sittin’ around in this cold in wet clothes? You gonna catch your death, sweetheart,” he croons, like somebody’s grandmother, and Beth scowls at him – not an easy feat when she’s trying to not look at him at all.

“Sitting in this cold in your birthday suit isn’t exactly a way to avoid it either,” Beth says, looking over at him in time to see him pull his pants down. “Rio,” she hisses, turning about eight shades of red, and Rio just laughs.

“Why do you care so much? Ain’t nothin’ you ain’t seen before.”

With that, he kicks off his wet shoes, peels off his socks, and shucks out of the remainder of his jeans and, only in a pair of dark grey boxer-briefs, promptly climbs into the back of the car, his gun in hand. She glances back, and then forwards again, and then back, and just - - she blinks, suddenly realising why he’d pushed the backseat down before.

She hadn’t paid much attention to the type of car that Rio had taken from Slav’s beyond that it was older (apparently a perk for hot wiring), but now that she can see it properly, it’s pretty big – not quite a station wagon, but close. The inside has that strange, almost felt-like interior that was so popular in the nineties, the seats all a stained, ugly grey. Still though, it’s big, and with the back seats down, Rio only has to bend his knees a little to fit the length of himself down it.

He puts his gun in the back pocket of the passenger seat, just beneath the hem of his hanging shirt, and then briefly disappears one of his arms down below the folded seat, trying to get a grip on something and, with a flourish, pulls out a long, green-plaid, moth-eaten picnic blanket.

Beth blinks as he shakes it out, her eyes widening in horror.

“You can’t put that over yourself!”

“I can’t?”

“You don’t know where it’s been,” she whisper-hisses, like the original owner might be around to hear them, and Rio looks back at her, pointedly takes in her shivering body in her soaked clothes, and shakes his head. He unfolds the blanket, tossing it out a little, before draping it over himself.

“I’ll take my chances. Good luck with this,” he gestures towards her and Beth flushes, suddenly feeling self-righteous. She sits up a little straighter, twisting in the seat to give herself a better position to scowl at him in.

This is fine,” she insists, gesturing to herself, and Rio snorts, still bundling himself up in the picnic blanket.

“Yeah? Ain’t you just full o’ bad judgement tonight?”

Her scowl only deepens at his words, her forehead creasing, her lip curling.

“I’ll take a bit of cold over scabies, thank you,” she says dryly. “Because actually I have excellent judgement.”

“Oh, you do?” he asks her, leaning forwards a little, eyes suddenly fixed on her. “So why you end up in the middle of deep sea nowhere with some bottom feeder like Dom and a fuckin’ shark like Slav? Why you playin’ with no gun, and no back up like you got that clout? Because, baby, let me be the first to tell you, you ain’t got none.”

A flash of lightning seems to almost tear open the car between them, illuminating the twist of Rio’s wiry body sitting up against the trunk door, and the intensity with which he looks at her, the relentless focus of him, and just - - the rain is suddenly too loud, the thunder above them sounding like a groaning god, and Beth tries to remember how to breathe.

“I didn’t - - I just - - ” she stutters over the words, and it’s not fair, because she’s still trying to make sense of the night in her head, trying to process it, but it’s impossible with Rio staring back at her like that, even now that the darkness has settled over them again, even with him all wrapped up in that horrible, ugly picnic blanket.

“You trusted him,” Rio says, impatient with her, furious at her, and Beth can’t explain why the words tear something inside her. “You trusted Dominic fuckin’ Arnold.”

“I didn’t trust him,” she insists quickly, urgently, because she didn’t, and Rio just shakes his head, exhaling a disbelieving breath.

“No? Why’d you let him drive you out here alone like that then”

“He said that Slav would only meet me alone.”

And that just makes Rio laugh, the sound rolling in the darkness, and Beth shifts back in her seat, suddenly feeling too hot, her chest tightening.

“And that sounded like a good idea to you?”

The judgement is thick in his voice, and Beth tries to sit up a little taller, tries to ignore the ache at her throat (God, Slav’s hands had been so firm, so - -), because she hadn’t, because she’d been careful, or she thought she’d been careful, and anyway -

“I met with you alone.”

“You know that ain’t the same.”

The words sit heavy in the air between them, taking up more space than they should, and Beth wishes for another flash of lightning, enough to be able to see him or - - or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe this darkness between them is only the thing keeping her sane.

And she wants to ask - - wants to ask wasn’t it? Isn’t it?, but they dry out her mouth, cling to her teeth, and so instead she says:

“I had a taser.”

And it’s weak, even to her own ears, but it’s enough to break the tension, to make Rio huff out a laugh, adjust beneath the picnic blanket, his head shaking. He opens his mouth, as if to reply, only to promptly close it again, as if he’s decided that this isn’t the time, and Beth’s glad for it. The weight of the day, the time of night, suddenly twisting her inside and out. She’s just - -

She’s really tired.

She can’t quite bring herself to turn around though – hangs halfway off the driver’s seat, staring at Rio in the back, swaddled almost in the picnic blanket, and the thought makes her snort internally – reminds her of the time she’d told him he was like a newborn, right before he’d told her he was going to teach her, before - -

(“Just like we practiced.”)

She sucks in a breath too sharply, tightening her aching throat, her eyelids fluttering shut, and she’s still trying to bury the memory when Rio’s voice cuts through the shatter of rain.

“Can we fast forward this bit?”

Beth blinks her eyes back open, looking at where Rio’s looking at her, and she frowns over at him, confused.

“What?”

Shifting beneath the blanket, Rio uncurls one of the sides from where it was wrapped around his body, leaving it out - - open.

“We both know you gonna get back here, so can we just get to that point already? I’m tired of watchin’ you shake like you a chihuahua or somethin’.”

“What is it with you and the dog metaphors tonight?” she snaps, because the mention of the thing only reminds her of Rio earlier (you like that retriever of yours, you ain’t no pit bull). She scowls over at him, but Rio makes a show of stretching out beneath the disgusting picnic blanket, a picture of dryness and warmth, and she can’t exactly suppress the shiver that shakes through her bones. She frowns. If she could maybe take it and undress underneath it - -

She nods at the blanket.

“Can I borrow it quickly?”

“No.”

The word is so quick that Beth reels back a little, surprised, stares back at the smug twist of his mouth, her own lips twisting into a snide look in response.

“Always the gentleman, huh?” she replies dryly, and Rio shrugs, amused.

“You can come over here. I don’t want you gettin’ it all cold and wet and shit though.”

“Fine,” she says, lifting her aching legs and twisting around to kneel in the seat. She’s about to crawl over the centre console when Rio holds up a hand, stopping her in her tracks.

“You deaf or somethin’? You get rid of the wet shit over there.”

Beth gapes and then immediately blushes, bright and red – mortified.

Rio,” she hisses, still half crawled over the console, and Rio just drops his chin a little, raises both his eyebrows at her, faux inquiring, and she knows he’s going to say something terrible before he even opens his mouth.

“What? You shy all of a sudden? Way I remember, you the one pullin’ your dress up and stickin’ out your lily ass in public bathrooms.”

And okay, it was worse than she expected, she thinks, almost hysterically. She’s suddenly way, way too grateful for the cover of night, prays it’ll cover the ways she’s about nine different shades of red, and god, how the hell did they get here?

“Fine,” she says, squaring her jaw, unwilling to show weakness, dropping back in the driver’s seat enough to angrily yank off her shoes and her socks. She tries not to think about him watching her as she pushes off her soaking jeans and fiddles with the buttons on her blood-stained blouse – a hard thing to do, when she can practically feel Rio’s gaze on her, her body blossoming pink with the heat of it. After a minute, she bites the bullet, taking it off and draping it over the back of the driver’s seat, just like Rio had done on the passenger side.

And the embarrassing thing is, she’d bought the underwear for the day – a floral, black lace set with subtle gold threading that had made her feel strong and sexy and – as much as she hated to admit it – a bit like Rio. It’s so out of her usual wheelhouse though that she doesn’t think there’s a way he doesn’t know it (after all, he’s only ever torn colourful pieces off her, and it’s not like he hadn’t made a point of taking her calendar out of her pyjama drawer and slipping it beneath her rows of pastel-coloured panties back when she still thought he was dead).

She turns on the spot finally, facing him, holding her arms out and refusing to squirm under his gaze.

“Well?” she asks. “Do I pass?”

And she hates the way his eyes are dancing – hates the amusement there, plain on his face, but hates the heat even more, and she just - - she doesn’t understand how this can happen, how they can be so mad at each other, and just - - so this too. He drags his gaze down her body, then slowly back up, finally meeting her eye again, and then, with a slight flourish, he lifts the edge of the picnic blanket.

She scrambles over the seat (almost braining herself on the centre console in the process), and into the back, sliding beneath the blanket while trying to keep as much space between her and Rio in the process (not an easy feat given how small the blanket is).

He just laughs softly beside her, the sound almost lost beneath the shatter of the rain, as Beth desperately tries to suck up his body heat beneath the blanket without touching him. A whole body shiver racks through her again, and she curls her toes, pulls her knees up a little against the stained, folded seats (and god, she needs to just not think about that), and in the process of it accidentally pushes her knee against Rio’s bare thigh. She quickly straightens her legs again.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, and he just shrugs at her, his gaze drifting out the window, up towards the dark sky.

And okay, so maybe the back of the car wasn’t as big as she previously thought, or at least - - maybe they just feel big in it, the pressure between them almost suffocating, the air damp with their wet clothes over the front seats, with the rain outside of here. The car stinks too – musty from age and disuse, from months old McDonald’s wrappers, a vague smell she knows from Not-Boomer’s-body is death.

She scrunches up her nose, but tries not to think about it. Instead, she looks at Rio, and god, is this the closest she’s been to him since - -

No, since longer than that.

Suddenly the image hits of him over her in her bed, lips soft against her neck, his hands on her - - almost - - almost reverent - - touching her in a way she’s never been touched - - and just.

God, Beth. Stop..

She wriggles further away from him, feeling the blanket prickle against her skin, rolling back in a way that exposes a patch of skin at her calf to the cold air before she jerks it back beneath the blanket. She’s desperate for something to talk about, to fill the silence, to distract from their closeness, from their nakedness, from the sheer absurdity of this moment, and she wishes there was a way out, a way home, and just - - she pauses, biting the inside of her cheek, her gaze flicking up to Rio.

“Why wouldn’t your boys be looking for us?” she asks, and at his questioning look, feels the need to clarify. “You said before the only guys looking for us would be Slav’s. Why not yours?”

She’s not really expecting an answer. He seems more relaxed than before, but she knows its an act, can see the tension still in his bare shoulders, in the strained line of his set jaw, can see all the ways he’s sorted, bottled and labelled the fury he feels towards her, kept it in arms reach to be reopened when the urge hits.

Suddenly there’s a sound of peeling rubber above her and then the spray of freezing rain at her head, and she yelps a little, shifting back beneath the blanket to see the seal of the backseat car window come apart, letting some of the rain stream through the uncovered gap between glass and metal. She shifts sideways to get away from it, straight into Rio’s side, and then quickly squirms back again, more willing to brave the water than his touch.

It’s enough to make Rio sit up, the blanket falling off his naked chest (and god, Beth clenches her eyes shut, willing the red out of her face), practically climbing over her to shove the rubber back into the gap.

“Slav’s guys’ll want me dead after tonight,” Rio says, not looking at her as he tries to fix the window, and Beth squirms underneath him, trying to avoid looking at him. “I hit their boss, they got duty. They also know I - -” he pauses then, snorts to himself. “Got somethin’ weighin’ me down right now. Ain’t at the top o’ my game. Makes sense to try somethin’ – a good chance to capitalise on their dead boss, get me too. Make a nice lil’ power vacuum for one of ‘em to fill. My boys know lookin’ for us is just gonna lead ‘em to us. We’re better off on our own until they get it handled.”

Beth considers this. Tries to think if she and Ruby and Annie could do something like that, but - - there’d been a reason she hadn’t even told them about the meeting with Slav. Knew neither of them would be able to stomach letting her do it alone. Knows she wouldn’t be able to let them out of her sight if they’d been here either. She frowns as Rio finishes up with the window, dropping back down to the seat beside her again.

“Aren’t you worried about them?” she asks. “They could get hurt. They could already be hurt.”

Or worse, she thinks, guilt uncurling in her gut.

“It’s part o’ the job.”

“Getting hurt?” she asks, forehead furrowing, and Rio just shrugs beside her.

“Yeah, that too,” he tells her, and she blinks, startled (because god, is this him worried?), turning back to look at him, but he’s got his eyes closed now, his lashes fanned out, still damp with rain water, and she thinks about running her thumb beneath them, to catch it, but closes her hands into fists at her belly instead.

“Why were you there anyway?” she asks, and she is curious, honestly is, but she can’t say she isn’t hungry for the distraction, for something to fill this pulsing silence too. “I thought he was - - I mean, Dominic told me he was your competition?”

Rio looks over at her again at that, an eyebrow arched, as if this proves that she really did trust Dominic, but she doesn’t take the bait, and after a minute, Rio just sighs.

“He was,” he allows. “But we had things the other wanted.”

“Like what?”

“He got territory, I got product.”

“What’s that mean?”

He gives her a look an irritated look at that, but she feels like he can’t really fault her for asking follow up questions when he’s finally answering them for a change, and Beth tries to sit up a little taller, look a little more serious, but it’s hard with the fuzzy green picnic blanket up around her ears. Also sitting up seems to expose her skin all the more, to the cold, so she promptly falls back to how she was sitting before.

She thinks Rio might be done with this impromptu Q&A session when suddenly he sighs, something long and hoarse, like he already regrets saying anything.

“You want some other Martha Stewart-type washin’ her cash like you through all those markets?”

She ignores the implied insult, and thinks it over. On the one hand, she thinks she probably shouldn’t care, not really. Who’s she to tell another business what they can and can’t do? Only, it puts more fake cash into circulation, she thinks, runs the risk of her washing her cash for somebody else’s product instead of the real thing, plus the more money being washed, the more potential for a slip up, the more attention it draws, and hell, she thinks, a strange, possessive feeling uncurling in her gut. She doesn’t want any other operations there. It was her and Annie and Ruby’s idea after all. It belonged to them.

“No,” she concedes finally, and Rio nods, agreeing with her.

“Because it’s your territory. You run that scene, yeah?”

And she blushes a bit, expecting a joke or a jab, but there’s none there when she looks up at him, and her blush only deepens with the seriousness with which he treats it.

“You don’t need someone else messin’ around in your sandbox, but if they gonna play in it, you better be gettin’ somethin’ out of it to make it worth your while.”

Beth looks at him, takes in the seriousness of his expression, the blanket high around his neck, almost making it look like the bird at his throat is springing from the earth.

“Like a cut,” she says slowly, and Rio nods.

“Right, or a trade. We were…” he snorts. “Havin’ a conversation about our options.”

Not that Slav had any options anymore, Beth thinks, her hand reaching up to touch her neck, skimming over the bruises she’s sure are there. She glances back at Rio, but he’s watching her hands, watching her fingers prod gently at the ache there, and a look passes his face she can’t read. She clears her throat.

“What happens to his territory now then?”

And it’s quick – the sharkish grin that swims across his face, before he catches it, pushes it back beneath the surface.

“I’d say it’s on the market, huh?” he drawls, and Beth blinks up at him, trying to get a read on him, wondering if he feels anything beyond the opportunity of the moment. It sounded like they’d been in the - - what? Scene? Industry? World? - - whatever together for a long time, but then, it hadn’t seemed like there was any love lost between them either.

“So you’re just going to take it?”

And he seems to consider that, turn it over in his head, tilting his head sideways, his gaze flicking back out the window.

“Dunno yet.”

“Weren’t you just trying to bargain with him for it?”

“Ain’t that simple. His boys’ll make a claim. Orion will. All the other bottom feeders too. Slav had held it for a long time, so it’s gonna get messy. Gotta figure out if it’s worth it.”

Beth blinks at him, briefly confused until she thinks it over, eyeing him off carefully.

“You mean if it’s worth you getting involved or if you can just make the deal you were going to make with Slav with whoever winds up on top?”

“You catchin’ on,” he agrees, scooting further down the seat until he’s almost lying down, and Beth has to shift closer towards him to keep herself fully covered by the blanket. It’s still cold, although she thinks she is starting to warm up – between the stuffiness of the car, their chatter, the heat radiating off the both of them, it’d be hard not to. She lets her own gaze fix out the window – at what, she’s not sure. There’s nothing to see out there beyond the veil of the rain and the blanket of night, a few sticky, glimmering stars in the distance.

“I really didn’t trust Dominic, I swear,” she says, because suddenly it feels important. “I thought I was being careful. I didn’t bring him in on my business – he doesn’t even really know what I do, and I didn’t tell him anything about - - you know. He just - -”

Reminded me of you, she almost says, and the words are as much a shock to her as they’d be to anyone else, in no small part because they’re not true. Dominic didn’t remind her of Rio at all - - rather, sometimes he’d do something that would make her feel a little like the way Rio used to make her feel. It was never enough, an imitation, but - - but it was an imitation she was hungry for. A something that she missed.

She looks down at him, wonders if it’s on her face, because Rio’s looking up at her, a look she can’t read passing across his features before he lets his eyes drift shut, shaking his head.

“Forget it,” he says, voice gruff. “He’s a dead man walkin’ anyway.”

And she knew that was what he was going to say at some point, knew that that was always going to be what he built to, but something in her lurches, feels suddenly - - feels something, what, she’s not sure.

No,” she insists, watching his eyes snap open beneath her. “I don’t want you - - I mean - - it’s not your business. He’s mine to handle.”

Rio blinks lazily up at her, considering her, then suddenly thrusts both arms out from underneath the blanket.

“See, you handlin’ things,” and did he seriously push his arms out into the cold purely to air quotes her? Asshole. “I don’t really trust that shit, y’know? You ain’t got a track record worth nothin’.”

Beth scowls at him, unable to help herself, but Rio takes it in his stride, folding his arms over his chest on top of the blanket and letting his eyes slip shut again. He shrugs.

“Besides, me and him have business.”

And Beth reels back a little at that – Dominic had made it seem like he and Rio were tangentially connected at best, in no small part brought together briefly through the deal for Boland Motors, and even then, it had seemed like he’d mostly dealt with Rio’s boys and Gretchen.

“What business?” she asks, and Rio blinks one eye back open at her, taking her in.

“He was working for me,” he says, and Beth frowns, forehead furrowing as she shakes her head.

“He was working for me more,” she insists. “I know he tipped you off to Boland Motors being on the market, but he and I had made an ongoing arrangement.”

“Elizabeth,” he says, both eyes open now, gaze steady on her, and Beth’s breath hitches. “He was workin’ for me.”

It takes her a minute to read the implication of his words, to understand what it is that he’s telling her, and it’s quick as anything, the match it lights in her again.

“On what?” she grits out, and Rio stares back at her, and she can see it, the defences in him rising, preparing himself for a fight.

“What do you think?”

And Beth’s hands are trembling at her sides, her face suddenly aching, her throat raw, and she stares hard down at Rio, knowing exactly what he means. Her, he was working on her.

“He was my contact.”

“Yeah, he was,” Rio agrees. “Which is why he made sense. I don’t work with guys like that usually, but he was easier than gettin’ you all cozy with some new schmuck. Plus he got dry hands,” at Beth’s confused look, he adds: “Likes ‘em greased. Ain’t loyal, which means he wasn’t about to go catchin’ feelin’s for your big ol’ Bambi eyes. You knew that – AJ told you as much, didn’t he?”

And he did, all those weeks ago, and she wonders if that had all been set up by Rio too – Lance and Spike and AJ. If he’d settled in and handed them a script. She breathes sharply through her nose, eyes on Rio, still lying down on the floor of the car. The blanket’s only half around her now, exposing too much of her skin to the cold, but she feels suddenly too hot anyway, fury licking in her belly.

“Since when?” she bites, and Rio looks easily up at her, his jaw rocking slightly before he laughs a little to himself.

“You know he didn’t even believe me when I told him you’d come sniffin’ around, askin’ for shit. Shoulda heard him. Not Mrs Boland,” he puts on an affectation, something soft and scandalised, before he snorts, amused. “Talkin’ about you bakin’ cookies and knittin’ baby booties for folk at the office.”

Beth flushes, looks away from him, gaze twisting back. Since before she even thought to talk to Dominic, that’s what he’s telling her. She sucks in another breath, a crack of thunder tearing open the silence between them, and she keeps twisting back, seeing her blouse hanging over the driver’s seat, sees the smear of blood on the chest of it, and another thought sails through her.

“With Slav - -”

But she doesn’t even get the words out.

“Nah, Dom went off book,” Rio says. “You weren’t ever supposed to meet him. Bottom feeder, like I said. Slav must’ve offered him somethin’ real good for you.”

Beth sucks in a breath, looking away from him, the humiliation burning up her chest, and Rio seems to clock it. His jaw rocking in a way she thinks means - - she doesn’t know what it means, but when he says: “He played us both,” she thinks he means it to make her feel better.

“No, he played you,” she says, an ache in her chest worse than the one in her head. “Apparently I was never actually in business with him at all.”

He huffs out a frustrated sound at that, finally sitting up again to face her, the blanket falling down his chest, and god – she can’t look at him, not like this. He holds his hands out in front of himself, like he’s trying to explain it.

“It ain’t like that. I wasn’t organisin’ those meetin’s, he was. He was just keepin’ me informed, tellin’ me who you were talkin’ to, that sorta thing. He probably would’ve talked to you even if he weren’t gettin’ a bit of extra cash from me, but not in a way you would’ve wanted. There’s - -,” he pauses then, tries to get her to meet his eye, but she won’t, so he sighs, annoyed, rubbing at his face with his hand. It takes him a moment to continue, and Beth’s not sure if he’s waiting for her to interrupt, but she’s not, and she won’t, too focused on prodding the bubble of anger in her chest, hard enough to bruise.

After a minute, Rio huffs out a breath.

“Look, words out about us, don’t matter how, it just is. Coz of that, guys like him, they look at you and they see a way to get to me. They ain’t buyin’ what you’re sellin’, they’re buying you.”

“Because of you,” Beth says flatly, her gaze finally flicking back to him, and she can’t name the feeling uncurling in her gut – if it’s fury or hurt or hopelessness or exhaustion or humiliation or some ugly cocktail of all of it. Rio looks at her, his jaw firming, eyes narrowing, like he isn’t quite sure how she’s taking it, and at least that makes two of them.

He opens his mouth to speak, but Beth cuts him off.

“So, what you’re saying is that there is no possible way for anyone to want to work with me unless it’s some roundabout way to get to you?”

Rio sucks on his teeth.

“No, that’s not – ”

“That my ideas aren’t good enough for other people to be interested in, that I’m not good enough to warrant at least a meeting with these people unless it’s somehow about getting to you, that - - ”

“Who do you think I am?”

The words are sharp, pointed, exasperated, and Beth blinks over at him, opens her mouth but she’s saved from immediately responding as a loud crack of thunder sounds above them, ricocheting through the hollow of the car. It’s enough to make her blink, to catch her breath, to look at him again.

“What?”

And Rio just holds his hands up at her, gesturing between them, a maddening pace to his arms.

“Tell me, darlin’, coz I don’t know what the hell you’re thinkin’.”

Beth blinks at him again, swallows thickly, pulling the blanket back up around herself from where it had slipped halfway down her back, trying to stoke the flame of her anger as she looks at him, and she leans forwards, hisses:

“Maybe if you told me anything,” she starts, like he hadn’t just told her a lot, and Rio holds a hand out to stop her.

“Nah, that ain’t what we talkin’ about right now. Who do you think I am? What do you think I do in this business?”

She just stares at him for a minute, her eyes wide, her lips parted as she flails, and when he snorts back at her, the thread of her anger tightens again in her gut. She squares her shoulders.

“Well, you’re the king, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you love to tell me?” she says, her voice coy and girlish and riddled with mockery. “Or a dog walker? It’s hard to tell after tonight.”

His jaw rocks at that, an unamused look crossing his face, and Beth finds it enough to hold onto, to keep her going, spitting and furious and just - - still - - humiliated. All that work, all these months, for what? To be not even a joke, but inconsequential. Tears burn at her eyes.

“Is this the part where you tell me you’re the monster at the end of this story?” she says, voice hoarse with anger. “That I’ve gotten into bed with the big bad wolf? With the wicked witch? That I shouldn’t be surprised when people only see me as one of your - - ” she flails, voice getting louder. “One of your flying monkeys. That you’re dangerous? Because I’m not afraid of you, Christopher, hell, I shot you,” she tells him, and he lurches back, eyes widening, genuinely shocked, like he hadn’t been expecting her to say it, and it’s just - -

It’s all it takes for the flame in her to go out.

“Oh my god, I shot you,” she whispers, clenching her eyes shut, covering her face with her hands, the blanket sliding off her shoulders. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and then once she starts, she can’t stop: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” pouring out of her mouth like a pipe in her has burst, the tears leaking hot from her eyes, and then she’s sobbing, like all the tears and all the guilt and all the grief from all these months have finally erupted in her, all that energy put into never saying it suddenly dispersed.

And she’s still saying it, I’m sorry, over and over and over, says it until she can’t breathe, until her throat’s raw, her chest heaving, and Rio doesn’t try to comfort her, and she’s glad for it. Not sure her guilt would be able to survive it, and she’s not sure how long she’s been crying when his hand suddenly tilts her chin up towards him.

“That’s enough now, yeah?” he tells her, his voice not warm, but not quite cold either, and Beth is still sucking in breaths, trying to find her bearings, and when she looks over at Rio, he just stares back, his expression as closed as hers is open, and they just - - they just look at each other, the rain shattering against the roof of the car, the wind howling outside of the little bubble they’ve found here. And just - - god, she’s so tired.

She waits for him to say something else, but when it becomes clear he has no intention of it, Beth breaks the silence.

“How’d you survive?” she asks after too long of nothing, her voice still hoarse with tears, and his expression doesn’t so much as shift.

“Luck,” he tells her. “Probably a bit o’ spite too.”

“For me?”

He hums in affirmation.

“Not just you though,” he allows. “Heat was on, few people flipped.”

Beth considers this, her head fuzzy with grief and guilt and everything else, but ends up just filing it away for later, asking the other question, the one she hasn’t been able to get out of her head lately.

“What happened with Turner?”

Rio looks at her better then, squints a little, seems to debate whether or not to tell her, and in the end concedes.

“He tried it on,” Rio says with a snort. “Tried to get me under his thumb, but he ain’t as good as he thinks he is, and he underestimated the - -” Rio pauses, considers it. “Strength of my connections. Somebody mighta heard he’d put himself in a firin’ line or two. He was puttin’ himself at risk,” he lowers his voice in faux concern, before he grins a little, whip fast, his mask promptly slipping back on. He shrugs. “He’s in protective custody. Sittin’ pretty with a 24-hour watch, his calls monitored and everythin’.”

Beth frowns, unsure how that would be having him handled exactly, until she looks at him, sees the casual confidence on Rio’s face, the control in it.

“And the people controlling that protective custody…” she trails off, leaving it for him to fill.

“Are some of the last people wantin’ my business goin’ under. Or me snitchin’,” Rio says with a shrug, and Beth snorts, looking away. Figures, she thinks, wrapping her arms around her belly, and she’s surprised when his question echoes in her head again - who do you think I am? - the result only making her wrap her arms a little tighter.

“What’s going to happen to him?”

“Oh, he’ll disappear eventually,” Rio says. “When there’s less…outside eyes on him. He didn’t make waves exactly, but he sure was loud, splashin’ around.”

“I thought you’d killed him,” she admits, and Rio nods.

“I know.”

There’s a weight to his tone that she can’t make sense of just yet, and she’s not sure if it’s because of how she feels right now, or if it’s just the way she never can quite read him, can never quite untangle the hundreds of meanings from everything that he says. In the end, she figures screw it, because she’s not sure when – if – they’ll ever talk about this again.

“You scared me,” she says. “I’m not - it’s not an excuse, I’m not saying that it is, but… ”

She trails off, uncertain, the memory of that night spiking too sharply in her head, and she hears for the first time, perhaps ever, something in Rio’s tone that’s almost bashful, almost - - almost regretful.

“It wasn’t supposed to go down that way. My usual guys were occupied movin’ product before the feds raided some of my other operations. Sent someone I shouldn’t have to pick you up. He - - misunderstood. Couldn’t call him on it then – Turner would’ve heard, seen weakness, it wouldn’t have looked good.”

Beth looks at him, acknowledging it, and when she tilts her head sideways, says, “Didn’t really work out for you though,” she swears he almost smiles.

“Nah,” he agrees. “It didn’t.”

Looking down, Beth blinks, eyelids swollen from crying, surprised. She’s not sure how it happened, or when, but they’re both sitting cross-legged, opposite each other on the folded-down backseat, their knees almost touching, the blanket wrapped around both their shoulders, cocooning them together almost. It means that they’re practically naked to each other, the blanket around them, not between them, and she sucks in a breath, looks up at him, stops herself from looking at his chest.

“So what now?” she asks, and Rio arches an eyebrow at her, and god, he looks as tired as she feels.

“Now what?”

She lifts her chin, tilting it over to his golden gun, weighing down the back pocket on the passenger seat, the outline unmistakable through the old, sagging fabric. He follows her gaze to it.

“Are you going to kill me?”

His other eyebrow lifts at that too as he turns back to look at her.

“Thought you weren’t afraid of me?”

“I’m not,” Beth says, and she’s surprised still, every time, to find she means it. “But it would be nice to know. Besides, I’m a rotten egg now, aren’t I? A few times over.”

“Don’t know many rotten eggs who don’t turn with a guy like Slav on top of ‘em.”

He says the words lazily, easily, and Beth blinks, turning back around to look at him, her eyes darting over his face, like she has to check to make sure she heard him right.

“You saw that?”

He makes a noise of affirmation, and suddenly she has a million questions burning through her head – if he’d ever even left, how long he’d watched, what he’d heard, but the only one that leaves her lips is:

“Would you have let him kill me if I had agreed to his deal?”

“He wouldn’t have killed you if you’d agreed,” Rio points out, and Beth huffs, because of course he chooses now to be pedantic.

“What if I’d wavered then? If I’d thought about it? What about then?”

Rio looks at her, unblinking, and then, almost like he can’t help it, his eyes drift to her neck, to where she knows Slav’s handprints still are. After a minute, he sighs, so deep and so long, she feels the exhale of it on her chest, warming up the space between them.

“No,” he says finally. “But I would’a had to think about it.”

Beth looks at him, her eyes searching, and Rio keeps talking.

“You almost left my son growin’ up without a father. You knew you were doin’ that. Besides, what’s that sayin’? Fool me once. You got me twice already, darlin’.”

He doesn’t see it cruelly or even coldly, but it’s enough to make her suck in a wet breath anyway, to bring tears to her eyes, her apologies burning up her tongue all over again, but Rio holds up his free hand.

“Thought I said enough of that.”

Beth nods, trying to pull herself back together, tries to steady her breaths, to slow her skittish heart, and she’s almost there when she feels the rough pads of his fingers brushing over the bruise at her cheekbone. She flinches, not because of his touch, but because it hurts, but still – it’s enough to make him drop his hand.

“He was gonna kill you, you know that, right?” Rio asks her, his voice loaded. “He coulda set you up nice, got me outta your hair.”

And god, that’s enough to make her snort. She’s not sure getting Rio out of her hair is even possible at this point. She looks up at him, sees the corner of his mouth twitch, like he’s read her mind, and he opens his mouth to say something, add something, but closes it instead. They just sit for a moment, listening to the rain on the roof of the car, when Beth finally thinks to reply.

“I turned you in once already, it didn’t get me very far,” she says, and Rio nods, conceding to it, and she could leave it there, she knows she could, but if she doesn’t say it now, she’s not sure she ever will again.

“You would take care of my kids,” she tells him simply, because she’d felt it then, with Slav’s hands around her neck, and she thought maybe she would’ve felt silly later, for thinking it, but right now she’s never been more sure of it. “That’s what I was thinking. If he killed me, you’d take care of them. If I turned you into him, I’d lose everything again, sooner or later,”

I’d lose you again, she thinks, but she doesn’t know how to say that.

“You’d take care of Ruby and Annie too, in your own way,” she continues, and when he opens his mouth, like he disagrees, she keeps going. “They still owe you money, right? And you’d make them earn it back, and god knows they need money too. You’d give them jobs, but never things they couldn’t do.”

He scoffs at that, but that just makes her more sure than ever on this point too.

“And you’d let them go, if they really wanted out,” she says with a shrug, the blanket prickly against her naked shoulders.

“Oh, is that right?” he asks her, seemingly amused. “I thought I was never cuttin’ you any breaks? Always keepin’ you on the hook?”

“That’s me, not them. It’s not the same,” she says, echoing his words from earlier, and he stares at her for a minute, taking her in, and finally breathes out a laugh, a ghost of a smile on his face.

They’re quiet again after that, and Beth can’t quite take her eyes off him. Off the deep set to his dark eyes, the sharp lines of his face, of his body, the softness that always surprises her – there in the twist of his plush lower lip, in his nearly-buzzed hair (she hadn’t expected that softness, the first time she’d touched it), and he’s just looking at her too, and she wonders what he’s thinking, but then she thinks - - she thinks there’s something else - -

“I tried, you know. For your son,” she says. “I thought maybe I could send food, or something to play with at the park. I was going to send him money, when I made enough, and I know that wouldn’t - - but I - -” she inhales hoarsely. “And there was nowhere to look, because I know nothing about you.”

She’d even repeated the trip she’d followed him on all those months ago, drunk on grief and guilt, and a little bourbon too – to the park and the little league building and that woman’s house (she’d moved, which was an awkward conversation to have), and even back to his building – not to his loft – never there again, but to his neighbour. Had tried to play it like she’d still been with Christopher, that she’d forgotten where his son went to school, trying to find any scrap of information, but the girl had just looked at her like she was insane, and maybe Beth had been.

Hell, maybe she still was.

“I don’t even know his name,” she says. I don’t know yours she wants to say, not which one is real, if either of them are, and Rio just keeps looking at her, an unreadable expression on his face, and Beth shakes her head suddenly.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I told you that,” and she doesn’t. She didn’t want a prize for it, or pity, just - - just wanted him to know she hadn’t forgotten him, hadn’t forgotten any part of him, and just, she blinks, suddenly embarrassed all over again. She swipes at her face, feeling a wayward tear roll down her cheek again, and when Rio starts to talk, it’s not with what she expects.

“It ain’t just about me,” he tells her, then his face twists. “I mean it is, it just - - you ain’t got time for a come up, yeah? You ain’t some gangsta kid, thirteen or fifteen or seventeen, ain’t got debts that can be paid in slingin’ a few dime bags after fourth period, ain’t got the time to pay those dues, or get yourself affiliated.”

“What are you - -” she starts, confused as to where the hell all this is coming from, but Rio doesn’t stop.

“You’re skippin’ steps because you’re comin’ to the game late and because you got those four little mouths to feed, and I don’t know much, but Gretchen went over all those papers on your dumbass ex’s business, and it don’t sound like he had much of a head for it. Don’t imagine that’s put you on firm ground. Only ladies I know robbin’ grocery stores like you are ladies who don’t have a lot of options. So you goin’ to those meetings and you ain’t startin’ out needin’ a few hundred dollars to stop your ma’s water getting’ cut off, you’re needin’ a lot more, and you ain’t got the history or the connections that make a guy like Slav take a chance on you, so you walk in and all these guys see are the steps you skipped and the way you skipped ‘em. That’s what I was sayin’ before, not that you ain’t shit. I’m sayin’ they ain’t gonna see you, not now, not yet.”

For a moment, Beth can hardly breathe, her mouth gaping, her eyes wide, and she shakes her head at him, but Rio keeps talking.

“You’re good at it. I wouldn’t work with you if you weren’t, and that hustle you got at the markets, it’d be a good business if you had the time to build it, but you don’t, and that’s always gonna make you desperate.”

“So what do I do then?” she asks, her voice hoarse, and Rio looks at her.

“So you stick with me,” he tells her, like it’s that simple, and Beth’s breath hitches. “One thing you always got with me is time.”

And it’s loaded, she knows it is, knows that he means it in the amount she owes him, in the value he can wring out of her, in what he’s still going to put her through, but - - but it doesn’t just feel like that either, and she nods at him, licks her lips.

“Okay,” she breathes, and he nods, suddenly lurching sideways and lying down, ending the conversation, shifting the blanket on top of them, and Beth lies beside him, her head still reeling, and god, she’s so tired, her chest raw, her bones aching, and she’s not sure if it’s the suddenly meditative pour of the rain or the weight of this night, but it’s not long before she’s asleep.

*

She wakes up to a bright light, a heat at her face, and something soft and warm and a little clammy beneath her cheek. Blinking her eyes open, Beth has to stop herself from surging back, her fingers trembling a little as she finds herself staring at a puckered scar. Rio’s scar. The scar she gave him.

Sucking in a breath, she leans slightly back, her gaze flicking up to look at his face, but Rio’s still asleep, his lips lightly parted, his eyelashes fluttering as the sun hits his tanned features through the car window. She was right last night, she thinks, almost aimless in her still-groggy state. He does have a bruise at his cheek.

It takes her a moment to orient herself, to work out how they’ve moved, to realise that sometime in the course of the night they’ve both curled onto their sides, facing each other beneath the thin, scratchy weight of the picnic blanket. His arm is draped around her waist, and her face must’ve been pushed into his chest, and she can’t help the flush that blooms across her face, her chest, that pinks the soft curve of her ears, because he’s so close, she thinks, almost in a dream. So perfectly near, and she can’t help but move a little closer, can’t help the way that her chin tilts up towards him, the need suddenly to truly have him something she can’t quite contain.

Still, her eyes shift down again, for the first time seeking out the scar, her breath hitching when she sees it, and she raises here thumb, touching it gently, feeling the rise of it, the slight glean to it, and she just - - she can’t help it. Can’t help the way she leans in, hands at his chest, pressing her lips to it, then sits back, eyes darting up to his face at where he’s still asleep above her. she seeks out the second, the one close to his sternum, dips a little lower, to press a kiss to that one too.

It’s the third one when she feels his grip tighten around her waist, and she looks up to see him looking down at her, his gaze fixed, and they just stare at each other until his hand is raising off her waist, tracing a line up her body to hover over Slav’s handprints at her throat. She sucks in a breath as he raises his hand further to brush the hair out of her eyes, just watching her watching him, and then he touches the bruises on her face, so gently, too gently, like a ghost, and she strengthens her own touch in response – doesn’t want him to slip through her fingers again. He trails his thumb across her lips, pushing gently on the cut, and when she gasps at the shock of it, he slips his thumb into her mouth, watching her carefully, and it just - - the moment feels - - she just - -

She grazes her teeth along his knuckles, enough to make him hiss, and then he’s pulling it out of her mouth, pushing his hands beneath her legs, yanking her up, shoving her back into the felt walls of the car. She gasps, and Rio growls, his voice sounding in a sharp jab, and Beth’s hands scramble at his back as his find their way around hers, unhooking her bra in a quick and easy motion. Beth keens, tightening her legs around his waist, and she thinks she might be shaking a little as he tears her bra off her the rest of the way, but then he’s kissing her, and Beth’s hands are around his neck, and she’s rolling her pelvis against his, making him hiss on a groan. She’s jittery all over again, but it isn’t like last night, it’s not like any night, something urgent in her touch to him, some desperation just for him to be so much closer.

“I - - I need - -” she starts, and Rio kisses her again, harder this time.

“Me too,” he breathes against her mouth, and Beth keens, feeling him yank at her panties, but her legs are tied around his waist so he tears the fabric, tugging them off her as he kicks down his own underwear, and then he’s inside her, and god, when had she even gotten that wet? But he just - - he won’t stop kissing her, his lips never leaving hers as he fucks her hard there, and the car door handle is digging into her back, the felt interior leaving carpet burn at her back, and he can’t get momentum until his feet are scrambling against the driver’s seat chair, and then the whole car is shaking with him, with them, and Beth gasps when he grabs her breast hard, his other hand coming down to find her clit, and then Beth is almost crying against his mouth, but he swallows every sound.

Vaguely, she’s aware of a bus trundling down the highway, but she can’t think of anything except the rapid deep thrust of Rio inside of her, the way he holds her, the way she wants him everywhere – wants him deeper, wants him harder, wants him beneath her skin and in her veins, wants him, and from the way he holds her, she thinks he might just want the same.

And this is a mistake, she knows it in her head, knows that whatever is holding them together right now is as precarious as it is unshakable, but with his mouth on hers, his weight against her, her body igniting beneath his touch, she’s not sure how any mistake could make her feel this whole.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, after he - - after she - -

Just afterwards, time seems to slow. To limp it’s way forwards, like this moment between them was a trap that needed wriggling out of, and god, she shouldn’t think that way, not now, not with her nails still digging into his shoulder, not with him still inside of her, the mess of both of them wet between her thighs. Even the thought makes her shiver, loosen her grip (or at least – try to), but even that slightest movement only makes her zero in on Rio’s breath, hot and damp and uneven at her chest, pooling in her clavicle, makes her remember his hand, still firmly gripping her ass.

There’s a heat on the side of her bruised face too, on the top of her head, and she blinks and realises that it’s the reflection of the sun, blearing bright through the car window behind her. The other one too, behind him, all the light suddenly making her aware of the time of day, of the tiredness of the car interior – the torn carpeting, the stained roof, the picnic blanket, now tossed aside to the floor of the car, tangled up with his underwear and her bra, the remnants of the panties he’s just torn off her.

And making her aware of him too, of course, her breath hitching, her hand gently cupping the back of his neck, the long line of his tanned body stretched atop her ghost-pale one, the way she can see his shoulder blades shift as he moves almost imperceptibly against her, his legs tangled in her own.

All this light – it’s unforgiving – like it wants them to see this, and Beth sucks in a wet breath, her throat aching, her eyes blinking hard, hand tensing at the back of Rio’s neck, and just like that, he snaps. Jerking his head back hard enough her arm jerks with it, until Rio pries her fingers off him with his own, letting go of her, and then sliding out of her too fast, too rough, enough that she gasps. He looks briefly apologetic before his jaw rocks and he averts his gaze, rolling properly off her, clambering, stark naked, into the front seats and grabbing his phone from the cupholder.

Beth blinks, watching the line of his body hunch over his phone, the screen lighting up and then a couple of messages flashing across the screen. He makes a noise in the back of his throat that she doesn’t quite understand, and it’s enough to make Beth push herself away from the door of the car, grabbing the picnic blanket again to cover herself, before finding her underwear.

Quickly slipping on her bra, she then fumbles with her panties, her cheeks flushing when she realises there’s not really a lot she can do with them. She’d hoped maybe she could’ve tied a knot in the torn side, could’ve found a way to wear them, but the lace is ripped in two places, and there’s not enough fabric for that sort of give.

Instead, she uses them to clean herself up as best she can, wiping away the smear of their cum from the insides of her thighs, when Rio suddenly hisses in the front seat.

Fuck.”

Her head darting up, Beth looks over in time to find Rio sliding back into the backseat, his phone in his mouth, and their clothes and shoes in his hands. Passing her her still-damp jeans and her blouse, he quickly pulls on his underwear, jeans, shirt, while Beth fumbles with her own clothes without dropping the blanket. The action is enough to garner her a look from Rio, make him snort as he pulls his phone out of his mouth and types something rapidly into it.

She watches him do it, pulling up her jeans beneath the blanket, shoving her panties into the front pocket of them, and grabbing her blouse. The air feels too thick – sluggish almost, stinks of their damp clothes, of the blood still dried at his cheek, at her lip, of sex, and she just - -

She opens her mouth to say something, but no words will come out. Her face and her throat ache from last night, her back and her legs from this morning, and she just - - she doesn’t know what any of it means. Inhaling a little shakily, Beth blinks back tears, and just, god, why is she crying? She scowls to herself, swallows the lump in her throat, swallows the ache in her as best she can, and finishes doing up the buttons of her blouse.

“You good?”

His voice isn’t exactly soft, but it’s not harsh either, or playful, or really any of the things she’s used to from him, and she looks up at him, surprised by the question at all, and she opens her mouth again to speak when he clarifies:

“I mean, to go. There’s a bus not far from here.”

And right, Beth thinks, blinking again, and Rio just watches her, an unreadable expression on his face as Beth slips on her heels.

“I don’t have any change for the fare,” she says, and god, is that really her voice? It’s hoarse, shaky, even to her own ears, and enough, apparently, to make him tear his gaze away from her.

“I got it,” he tells her easily, grabbing his gun from the seat pocket in front of him and shoving it into the back of his jeans before he’s moving down the length of the car, popping the trunk from the inside and clambering out into the harsh light of the morning. Hurrying behind him, Beth drags her tired body down and out, trying to ignore the feel of her jeans on her bare, bruised ass, the still-too-slick feeling chaffing against the denim on the insides of her thighs.

By the time she’s the whole way out, Rio’s already walked back to the road, shielding his eyes from the glare of the morning sun, squinting into the distance. Beth finds herself mirroring him, even as she closes the trunk of the car behind her. The place looks different in the day, without the veil of rain distorting their vision, the canopy of the evening like a spell. Now everything just looks sort of bright and wet, and, if anything, even more run down – that abandoned building decrepit nearly to the point of collapse, the few roadside trees dry and dead, their leaves gone and their bark almost black.

Where even are they, she thinks, a little more desperately than she cares to admit, and she might even have asked if she didn’t think it would only inspire another lecture. Instead, she asks:

“Is your cell working?”

Rio hums in affirmation, starting to walk, and Beth’s breath catches. She hurries to be in step beside him, trying to meet his gaze. Given his response last night, she doesn’t really think he’s going to let her borrow it, but she hopes maybe - - if she looks earnest enough.

“Don’t even ask,” he bites, like he’s read her mind, and Beth blinks, watching as Rio just shakes his head. “There ain’t enough battery for you to play mama with.”

And at least the spike of annoyance makes that lump in her throat easier to swallow, somehow gives her enough energy to stride forwards and match his pace. She can already see the bus stop in the distance, the wobbly little signifying sign propped beside a heavily graffitied bench, and at least that’s its own sort of comfort. She needs her own bed. She needs to shower. She needs to clean up her split lip and ice her cheek. She needs to check in with Annie and Ruby and her children.

She needs to not be able to feel Rio still inside her, needs to not be able to feel him here, beside her. Her fingers twitch, her breath wobbles, so she folds her arms across her chest, digging them into her sides.

“How long’s it going to take us to get home from here?”

Keeping a brisk pace beside her, Rio looks at her out of the corner of his eye.

“You ain’t goin’ home yet,” he tells her easily, then at the startled look on her bruised face, he seems to take pity, “Soon. We got another stop first, yeah?”

He poses it almost like a question, but it’s not one, Beth knows, and so she nods, resisting the urge to prod at the bruise on her cheek, to ring out her damp clothes, her hair, to steel her aching legs.

If she had more energy, she thinks maybe she’d ask him more questions – about where they’re going, what they’re doing, what this other stop even means, what the hell last night does, but exhaustion is wrapping it’s hands around her throat (god – Slav’s hands had been - - no, not now), making itself comfortable in her sluggish head, and so the rest of the walk passes in quiet, as does the half hour wait for the bus.

When it arrives, it’s practically empty, Rio paying their fare with a single too-crisp-to-be-real note, and Beth half-expects him to deposit her in one seat and then settle in somewhere on the other side of the bus, only she slides into a window seat and Rio promptly drops into the chair beside her. Her bones twitch when he spreads his legs a little, just enough that one of his thighs is pushed up hard against hers, and then, like it’s nothing at all, he dips a hand into the front pocket of her jeans, finding the lace of her torn panties, yanking them out and shoving them into his own pocket instead.

And just - -

What?

Beth stares at him, taking in the slant of his nose, the graze at his cheek, his dark eyes fixing back on her, a spark of something playful in them that she hasn’t seen since god knows when, and when she opens her mouth to say something - - what, she has no idea, Rio interrupts her:

“What are you gonna do with ‘em?”

Throw them out, obviously, Beth thinks, and she almost says it when she changes her mind, squinting at him.

“What are you?”

He laughs suddenly, softly, the sound of it stealing her breath and it’s almost too much – the warmth of him beside her, the feel of this moment, and it’s wrong, she thinks, all of it’s wrong, and maybe Rio thinks it too, because he slumps a little lower in the seat, pulling out his phone again to text somebody – who, she has no idea, and Beth just doesn’t have the energy to think any more of it and maybe it’s the lull of the road or the weight of Rio’s thigh, pressed against hers, but it’s not long until she’s asleep.

*

It’s the smell of it that does it.

It’s always the smell of it.

That moth-bitten mustiness. It fills her nose, holds her hostage to it, until the rest of it follows – the rough texture of the bag over her head, the fabric dampening with her breath, with her tears, the nip of the car air conditioning, prickling at her aching fingers.

“Please,” she hears herself say, and she’s waiting for Rio’s boy’s voice again, knows this dream, has lived this memory, over and over and over again, but it’s not Rio’s boy’s voice that greets her this time, telling her the boss wants her, it’s Slav’s, and Beth can feel the heat explode in her chest, her legs twitch as he says:

“Ah, you are sweet. I never took him as one for sweet.”

And then there are hands around her neck, the jagged joints fitting like a clasp at her throat, and Beth can’t breathe, can’t see, the bag covering everything, the dull sound of the radio on behind, and she’s gasping, and just - -

“’Ey, come on, mama, wake up.”

Beth’s eyes tear open, her head reeling around, arms coming up, lashing out, only to have her wrist caught, held in a warm grip, lowered gently back down to her lap.

It takes her a moment to realise where she is, and when she does, her face and chest bloom a dark, mortified red.

She’s still on the bus. A few passengers eyeing her off uneasily, watching her twitching fingers, her cheeks wet with tears, and she blinks around, sees Rio looking at her, his hand still on her wrist, an unreadable expression on his own face.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, and Rio just shakes his head.

“Come on,” he repeats, letting her go as he stands up, and when she wobbles to her feet, still a little breathless, Rio promptly drops back to be behind her, getting her to lead them off the bus, his hand finding her lower back, gently guiding her forwards. She hasn’t even realised the bus has stopped until Rio’s helping her off it, and she looks around and just - - god, how long was she asleep for?

They’re back in Detroit, in the inner city, standing neatly by a string of trendy bars and restaurants, the air full of the sound of chatter and the smell of coffee, cooked breakfasts, the bustle of post-peak hour traffic, and Beth blinks, surprised, knowing where they are in her head but still trying to root herself there all the same.

Like he can feel her disorientation, like he knows her feet won’t carry her on their own yet, Rio moves to stand beside her, wrapping an arm around her waist and walking her forwards. Together, they dodge a few other pedestrians who pointedly eye Beth’s bruised face, and then Rio’s too, but make no move either way. Still, Rio picks up the pace, moving them more briskly, more urgently, until Beth’s being half-dragged down the street, and she’s just - - she doesn’t know where they’re - -

“Where are we going?” she asks, her mouth still dry, and it feels small, she feels suddenly small, and the feeling hits her harder than Slav had last night, and suddenly she’s trying to stand up straighter, find her feet, to adjust beneath Rio’s firm arm, find herself and regain any sort of semblance of control.

“It’s a meetin’ point,” Rio allows, and when she tugs again, he lets her out of his grip, striding briskly beside her. “I need to talk to some of my guys.”

Beth nods like it means anything to her, letting Rio pivot them down an alley and lead them up to a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant. He takes her into the back, via the service entrance, and Beth follows, taking in the tidiness of the place as Rio pulls her into the kitchen, the rich smells of cumin and ginger, garlic and turmeric sitting thick in the air.

The room itself is small, sleek, dominated by stainless steel countertops and a distinctly sterile vibe. It’d look catalogue neat if it wasn’t for the hulking forms of a couple of Rio’s boys leaning against the counters. One of them is joking with the single chef in the place, who laughs as he prepares marinades in glass bowls, but all it takes is a look from Rio before the guy is grimacing, snaking out of the room to give them their privacy.

It’s quiet for a minute then, and Beth clocks the two boys she’d seen with Rio at Slav’s – both well, if not unharmed. The guy she’s pretty sure goes by the name of Demon has his upper arm bandaged and a bruise on his face that must rival her own, while Mr. Cisco stands by the stoves, a blood-stained patch on his shirt at his stomach and a lump beneath that must be dressing.

Rio nods at them, immediately leaning back against one of the counters, and she wonders if he’s as exhausted as she is when Mr. Cisco promptly twists, leaning down to grab at a bag at his feet. She’s not sure if it’s just the day she’s had, the last few days, or if maybe she’s more injured than she initially thought, but it takes her a minute to realise that the bag is hers.

She blinks, taking it when Mr. Cisco thrusts it out towards her, and she unzips it just enough to see all of her bundled notes, banded in red, seemingly untouched but for Slav’s hand the night before, and she just - -

She looks up at Mr. Cisco, a lump in her throat. Grateful.

“Thank you,” she says, and he just nods back at her, gaze drifting back to Rio, but Beth keeps talking, the gesture of it all somehow making her want to do more, say more.

“You didn’t have to –” she starts, pulling Mr. Cisco’s gaze back to her, and she’s still organising her thoughts when Rio promptly cuts her off.

“He did,” Rio drawls, and Beth’s gaze swings around to meet his. He pops an eyebrow at her, pushing easily back against the kitchen bench (but god, she knows him well enough to know it’s not with his usual ease – not so much about looking relaxed as it is about being propped up by something). “You been shoppin’ it around, haven’t you? So it’s recognisable as your product.”

The words are enough to make Beth blink, and her gaze darts back across to Demon and Mr. Cisco, who are both now watching her with carefully neutral expressions, and Beth finds herself tugging the bag a little closer to herself, schooling herself.

“People already knew I was there,” she replies, and Rio shakes his head.

“Yeah, that ain’t what I’m talkin’ about. You leave your product lyin’ around, anyone can pick it up and anyone can use it. Use it to set you up, use it to blackmail you, if they dumb enough, just use it instead of washin’ it, you get me? All roads lead back to you, darlin’.”

The way he says it, it’s so matter of fact. Like this is something she should just inherently know and it’s enough to make her flush, but she nods all the same. She clears her throat, feeling suddenly silly again, but refuses to show it. She stands up a little taller, setting her jaw, and Rio clocks it, a look she can’t read passing over his face before he turns back to Demon and Mr. Cisco.

“Slav’s boys?”

“Got three of ‘em, two still out there. Bullet’s got eyes on one, but the other one,” Demon huffs out a breath and Rio frowns, but rocks his jaw, nods sharply.

“Dom?”

And that’s enough for something to slam through Beth’s head, her gaze dragging quickly up, finding Rio, finding Demon, darting between the two of them. Neither spare her so much as a glance though.

“Gone underground. Mongrel and Jax are puttin’ feelers out to their old circles now, seeing if anyone’s heard from him, but you know Dom.”

Rio snorts, rocks his jaw.

“Talk to AJ?”

“Figured you’d want to do that personally.”

Rio nods again, opens his mouth to say something, what, Beth will never know, because the backdoor peels open and one of Rio’s other guys steps through – Dags – one of the first ones Beth had ever met – the one who’d bailed her up in the carpark at the grocery store that very first time, helped her load up her trunk, passed her that first duffel bag of cash. Rio tilts his chin up at him in acknowledgement, and then jerks his head towards Beth.

“Take her home.”

And just - -

What?

Beth swivels on the spot to face Rio, her forehead furrowed – for a moment, not computing the weight of his words.

“What?”

And Rio looks back at her.

“You goin’ home. Ain’t that what you wanted?” he punctuates easily, shrugging, turning his attention back to Demon, who only looks sort of - - amused by the whole thing, and Beth stands up a little straighter.

“I’m staying with you,” she insists. “I got us into this, didn’t I? I mean, I can help. We’ve got to find Dominic, and then we can - - ”

She trails off, not really sure what they can do and ends up gesturing vaguely, hoping Rio makes an assumption that’s more than what she’s actually thought of. It’s enough to give Rio pause, to pivot a little, angle his hips towards her, really face her for the first time since they stepped in here. The movement alone prickles hot at her skin, hooks something in her chest, and she hates it when his eyes trail over her, hates the way she reacts, hates the way she likes it, now, of all times.

Pushing off the counter, he closes the distance between them in two easy steps, lifting a hand to brush her frizzing hair off her face, the rough pads of his fingers brushing against her temple.

“Go home,” he tells her. “Get dry, call your girls, call your kids,” his fingers trail down the bruise at her eye, feather soft, his thumb gently nudging at her split lip, making her suck in a breath. “Take care of this.”

When she opens her mouth to respond, he steps in so they’re chest-to-chest, leans down, until his voice is little more than a breath, an exhale against her ear. “Put some panties on,” he leans in impossibly closer, the heat pooling low in her. “Or don’t. I’ll come by later.”

He moves his hand up again to push her hair back, and she hates that her heart flutters, hates that – from the look on his face – that’s exactly what he’d wanted it to do.

She can feel Rio’s boys watching them, wonders if they can feel the coiling tension like she can, how earnestly she wants to kiss him, how mad she is at herself that she does, how hot she feels, at his words, at his voice, at his closeness, and maybe that’s a sign.

Because maybe a little bit of space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she thinks, clearing her throat, averting her gaze from his. She can’t think straight around him, and she does want to check in with the girls and the kids, but more than that - - she wants to talk to Dominic. Needs to. Not sure how, just a feeling she can’t name is sparking in her gut, something not quite anger or betrayal, something sharper, more pressing, and something in her needs to get to him before Rio does.

“Fine,” she says, and Rio brushes her cheek again before he drops his hand, taking a step back. His eyes don’t leave her as she pulls herself together, grabbing the bag of her fake cash and heaving it up over her shoulder. She turns towards Dags and Rio does too, and before she can even say anything, Rio’s voice sounds behind her.

“Stay with her until I tell you otherwise, yeah?”

Spinning back on the spot, Beth gapes at Rio, her eyes wide, but he just looks back at her, carefully considering her.

“Excuse me?” she asks, and Rio pops an eyebrow, looking at her like she’s the one being silly, like she’s the one playing.

“Oh, so you ain’t gonna run around schemin’ the second you out of sight?”

The words sink like a stone in her chest, and she flails a little, breathless, alarmed at how easily he read her mind when he’s such a closed book to her.

“I - -” she starts, but he cuts her off, a look that’s almost pissed off suddenly, and something sparks in her chest all over again, something between fury and suffocation.

“No more length, mami, remember?” then he looks at Dags. “Take her home. Now.”

And she opens her mouth to reply, but Rio turns around towards Demon and Mr. Cisco, putting his back to her, forcing her out of the conversation. Beth blinks, sucks in a breath, that lump back in her throat as Dags leans over, grabbing her bag of fake cash off her and gesturing her out of the restaurant, out the back towards his car.

*

The ride passes mostly in silence, and Beth has to resist the urge to press her forehead into the glass window as Dags drives them down the curling streets towards home. The mess of the last two days is sitting uncomfortably in her head, stomping its feet there, demanding to be heard, but god, Beth can’t think of any of it, not now, just wants to let this numbness blanket her, curtail her wandering thoughts.

By the time they pull up into her driveway, all she wants to do is to shower, clean herself up, wash the last of Slav’s blood off her and Rio’s - -

Just all of it, so that she can collapse into bed and pray for a dreamless sleep.

Getting out of the car, she grabs her bag of cash and pushes through the front door of the house, Dags on her heels, only to be met by a loud and desperate gasp.

And of course it’s Annie, her lip wobbling, her eyes wide – a smudge of mascara and eyeliner beneath each of her eyes, like she hasn’t slept, like she’s rubbed them, like she’s - - like she’s been crying. She watches her take her in, seeing the bruises on Beth’s face, the ones around her neck, her messy hair, her own exhaustion, the wet-dog-smell of her still damp clothes, and then Dags behind her.

She opens her mouth once, twice, three times, gapes like a fish, until Beth just pads over to her, dropping the bag of fake cash on the floor in the foyer, and folding Annie immediately into her arms. Somehow it’s easier, Beth thinks, letting her eyes drift shut as Annie collapses into sobs of relief and fear against Beth’s chest, to do this – to find control and purpose again in her little sister’s comfort, the stress and the pain and the confusion of the last day and a half folding neatly into a box in her head.

*

It’s hard to know what to do first, so in the end they do it all at once.

Leaving Dags in the living room, Beth pulls Annie through into her bedroom and then her bathroom, turning on the shower and shedding her clothes as Annie sits on the closed toilet seat and tersely shares her own story. Of how Tyler had slipped last night while Annie was working at Fine & Frugal – how he’d told her about Beth borrowing his taser, how Annie had spent half the night leaving her angry voicemails (“Yeah, maybe just delete those,” Annie says over the sound of the water pelting down against Beth’s body - - and god, it feels like the rain had last night, soaking through her bones, and just - - stop, Beth) and then come over after work, using her spare key, and spiralling when she’d found Beth’s house empty and her cell phone on her bedside table.

She hadn’t slept, hadn’t known how to contact anybody – not Dominic, not Rio, and the only thing that had stopped her calling the national guard (and Ruby) was the fact that it didn’t look like she’d been kidnapped.

Stepping out of the shower, Beth wraps her towel around herself, glancing over at Annie, and sees her sister’s lip wobble again.

“I should’ve called the police or something, huh?” she says, her voice shaky, looking at Beth, and for the first time since all of this happens, Beth looks at her reflection in the mirror.

Funnily enough, it’s not actually as bad as she’d expected. Her lip is swollen, cut, like she knew it would be, and there’s another at her eyebrow, above the heavy bruise at her eye, the ones around her neck like a collar of black pearls, darker in spots, where Slav’s hands had held her tighter and then one – just beneath it, pinker, softer, from Rio’s mouth, and Beth shivers, feeling his lips there all over again.

“No, you did the right thing,” Beth tells her, glancing over at Annie and starting to dry herself off. “I mean, what would you even have told them?”

And she intends it as a comfort, but Annie scowls, folding her arms across her chest, her leg jumping rapidly against the floor.

“Right,” Annie hisses. “Because that would’ve required you having to tell us like, a single thing about last night. Jesus, Beth, you talked to Tyler.”

“Just to get his taser,” Beth insists, making quick work of drying herself off and grabbing a clean pair of panties and a bra. She thinks about putting on some jeans, a blouse, but can’t quite gussy up the motivation, instead settling on one of her softest cotton pyjama sets – cream with green flowers, the feel of them making her exhale in a way she hadn’t thought she was capable of today. She grabs the antiseptic cream from the bathroom cabinet, making quick work of dabbing it against her lip, her eyebrow, sucking in a breath at the sting.

“Beth.”

She turns then, glancing at her sister, still sitting on that toilet seat, her face torn open, bottom lip wobbling, and just - -

Beth tells her everything.

Tells her about going back to Dominic, about the bag of money he’d tried to give her from Slav, about the proposed meeting, about needing it to be alone (something that makes Annie’s eyes glassy, her face red in anger or panic, Beth doesn’t really know).

They head out of the bathroom, back into Beth’s bedroom, and they’re sitting on her bed when Beth tells her about the taser, then about the meeting, about seeing Rio there beforehand, about talking to Slav and how quickly it had gone wrong. About him hitting her and then choking her (and Annie does start crying then, swiping the tears angrily from her face).

And then how Rio had killed him.

How he’d grabbed her, hotwired the car, gotten them out into the middle of nowhere. How they’d fought, then talked about it all, about the shooting, about Turner, about all of it, and then - - sort of worked it out, carefully leaving out the part where they’d slept together again.

Once she’s done, Annie sits back on the bed.

“So what? We’re back in business with him?”

Beth bites her lip, instantly regretting it when her tooth catches on the cut.

“Yes, I guess so.”

“What’s that even mean? Like, are he and his boys going to start wearing Ruby’s aprons and helping us move cakes for cash? Or are we setting up a pop-up at the dealership?”

Beth snorts at the image of it, resting back against the pillows of her bed. She’s so tired, and her body just aches. Vaguely, she can hear Dags pottering around in her kitchen, turning on the tap, and she thinks that’s a funny image too – this big guy, knowing just where everything is. How many times has he been in there anyway? Not as much as Rio, sure, but he’s not exactly a stranger either.

“I don’t know yet,” Beth says after a minute. “He’s coming by later, so…”

She trails off, pursing her lips a little, can’t help the strange feelings at war in her belly at the thought of seeing him again so soon, and Annie just looks at her, her forehead furrowed, her cheeks still wet with tears and then she just - - sort of pauses, her eyebrows pushing down as she takes Beth in, and she knows it’s coming even before Annie gasps.

“You boned again? Holy shit, Beth.”

Groaning, Beth shakes her head, standing up off the bed and heading for her dresser, pulling out her schedule really just for something to do, while Annie laughs emptily on the bed behind her.

“Was it before or after he straight up murdered a dude for you?”

“Annie - -”

“I can’t believe you shot the guy and he still wanted to put it in you. Lance was right, you must really have a world class vagina. God, and to think you wasted it for so long on Deansy.”

“Annie,” she hisses again, but it’s hard to be angry when Annie’s finally smiling at her, even if it is tempered by her still watery eyes, and the mask slips too quickly, the smile falling away, and god, Annie looks as exhausted as Beth feels.

They’re quiet for a minute, as Beth slowly pads back to the bed, pushing the calendar onto the sheets, looking at her timelines and just - - do they even matter anymore?

Yes, she thinks decisively. It’s still her business, even if it’s Rio’s again now too.

“What does that mean exactly anyway?” Annie asks tentatively, and Beth looks up at her. “Are you and him - - I mean. What are you?”

Beth opens her mouth, but promptly looks away, her hand clasping in the sheets. She’s still trying to navigate how to answer that when Annie’s voice cuts in again.

“Is he gonna kill Dominic?”

And Beth looks up at that, surprised at that spike again in her belly. That feeling she doesn’t quite understand.

“I don’t know,” Beth says, and Annie opens her mouth to reply, but then seems to really see Beth again, and promptly closes it. She looks down at Beth’s schedule, then snorts, and Beth arches an eyebrow at her.

“At least we don’t have to go to that fake-ass yuppy fundraiser now, right?” Annie jokes. “Do you reckon they’re swingers? I bet they’re swingers. Asmita has a total vibe.”

Beth blinks down at her calendar, and jeez, how could she have forgotten about it? The Golf for Gallbladders fundraiser is in three days, and now that she’s got her bag of fake cash back…

Beth shifts on the bed, dusting off her old plan in her head.

*

The timer dings on her stove, and Beth promptly crouches down to pull the baking tray of cash from the oven, checking it over to make sure the chemical print has set. It looks pretty good, she thinks, dropping it onto the stovetop, and pulling off her oven mitts, and funnily enough, from the look on Dags’ face, she thinks he agrees.

“Well?” she asks, and Dags rocks his head from side to side, stepping closer to eye off the notes.

This day has been weird, to say the least.

She’d sent Annie home not long after they’d talked everything through, promising to do lunch tomorrow with Ruby too to have a serious discussion about how they went about things (Beth was already preparing herself for another lecture or three about getting herself into these situations alone), and called Dean to check in on the kids. After that, she’d tried to nap, she had, just every time she’d closed her eyes she’d seen Slav on top of her or, somehow worse, Rio on top of her (albeit in a very different way), or she’d thought about Dominic, and that strange, hot feeling had uncurled in her belly again that Beth really had no idea what to do with at all.

So she did what she did best.

She’d gotten to work.

And funnily enough, she thinks Dags had mostly just been bored, alternating between checking out her windows for any hint of a stranger, looking over her bookcases and playing Candy Crush on his phone. He’d ended up watching her make one, two, three batches of the cash before he’d shoved his phone into the back pocket of his jeans, grabbed her paper guillotine and taken over the process of cutting the notes up for her.

“How you going with the fluorescents?” he asks her now, and Beth drops her hands to her hips. It had been a surprise, in her research, to find that all bank notes had a fluorescent threading, detectable under UV lights, and it had been one of the more complicated things for them to manufacture.

Still, they’d figured it out.

Tugging open her junk drawer, she pulls out a UV pen (what can she say? This kitchen is her office in more ways than one these days), and holds it out to Dags.

“See for yourself.”

Taking the pen with an arched eyebrow, Dags runs it over one of the cooled-down notes, and when it passes, he looks almost impressed in a way that makes her stand up a little straighter, pleased at his sort of untainted approval.

She’s not sure why, but something in the ease of his practice, the confident set of him, reminds her of what Rio had told her last night. About her lacking the time most of them have put into this life, and she bites the inside of her cheek, her forehead furrowing, almost bites her tongue too but then figures - - what does she have to lose?

“How long have you been doing this?” she asks curiously, and Dags shrugs, running the pen across a second note to check that one too.

“Long time. Jacked a car in highschool, spent a couple of years in juvie. Met people,” he shrugs, then steps back from the notes, gesturing to them with the pen before he passes it back to Beth. “That’s not half bad.”

“Thanks,” Beth says, taking the pen back and dropping it into the junk drawer. Leaning back against the counter, she watches Dags step around her, grabbing another row of the fake cash to slice. She starts to prepare the next batch of cash for the oven, her forehead furrowing as she thinks of Dags in highschool, somehow deciding on the rest of his life, but then, god, hadn’t that been what Beth had done too when she’d started going out with Dean?

“Did you ever try to get out? I mean, highschool must’ve been almost as long ago for you as it is for me.”

Dags arches an eyebrow at her, a little surprised by her line of questioning, but in the end he answers, gaze moving back to his work.

“Yeah, when my girl had our first kid. Not a lot of straight options though for guys like me. And her pregnancy was - - ” he shrugs. “She’s good now. They’re both good, but it was rough, and rough means costly. Not a lot of straight jobs that pay what she needed, but I figure you know that.”

Beth’s thoughts pivot quickly to Sara and Ruby, her chest aching for them, as it too often does, so she nods, her gaze turning back down to the money she’s preparing, lining it up on the tray to dry.

“I’m glad your - -” she blinks. “Family are okay.”

It’s enough to make his gaze find her again, a slightly surprised look on his face, and Beth meets it, something in her twisting at his surprise, because gosh, how long have they known each other now? How little has she let herself know them? After a minute, he nods.

“The kid starts highschool soon,” Dags allows, slicing another row of Beth’s fake cash, and Beth grin.

“Are you terrified yet?”

Dags snorts, the sound of it loud in the hollow of her kitchen, but he nods, and Beth hums, amused, until the sound of it trembles in her bruised throat and she has to rub gently at it to ease the ache. Clocking the movement, Dags looks away, back down at her counters.

“You got four?” he asks instead of anything else, like he doesn’t already know, and Beth nods. “Shit, I find two hard.”

With a laugh, Beth opens the oven, waving off the low steam and pushing in the tray. She resets the timer, getting back to her feet, and grabbing her glass of bourbon she’d poured earlier, having a draining sip.

“I think it was the only thing I knew how to do,” she says, and she hadn’t ever thought about it like that, but the second she says it, she knows that it’s true. “And I love them, I really do, but I just - - I didn’t have anything else for a really long time. It’s funny, you make a choice, and before you even know it you’re driving down this road and there are turn-offs, intersections, but it’s like they’re hidden until you choose to see them, and half the time you don’t until it’s too late.”

Somewhere outside of her house, she hears a car pull into a driveway, hears somebody’s dog barking, hears the afternoon birds, chattering in the trees. Despite herself, it makes her feel at home, makes her feel like herself, and it’s a relief, after last night, after this morning, to feel like her skin is her own again. She reaches for a bundle of the notes Dags has sliced, sorting them, and just - - that feels like her too.

“How do you know Rio?” she asks, before she can stop herself, and that’s a question Dags doesn’t look surprised by at all.

“We came up together,” he tells her, a little carefully. “Worked for the same guy.”

It’s hard to picture Rio working for anyone else, deferring to any opinion that’s not his own, but it’s like he said last night, she thinks, like he said all those months ago in the playground, when he’d first lectured her about flipping games and dime bags. She scrunches up her nose a little.

“And what? You branched out together?”

“Somethin’ like that. Rio was always gonna be a boss, everyone knew it. Too smart. Could play people without them even knowin’ it. And shit, I wouldn’t want to fight him – he knows what he’s doin’ – but he’s never been the biggest guy. Back then, even smaller.”

“And baby faced,” she guesses, a little more amused than she cares to admit, and Dags snorts. “So what? You were the muscle?”

Dags nods, grabbing the beer Beth had gotten him when she’d gotten her bourbon, taking a sip, and Beth looks at him, biting her own lip. She tries to picture it. Rio at eighteen, twenty-one, thirty (god, how old even is he?) lean and sweet-faced, Dags hulking behind him like some sort of bodyguard, like the pit bull Rio insisted she wasn’t last night.

The thought makes her blink, makes her look back at Dags.

“Did you know Slav?” she asks tentatively, and Dags looks at her, considering, and then nods.

“Was he - - I mean, what was he like?”

“You feelin’ guilty?”

The words are slightly mocking in the way that Rio’s often are, and she finds herself standing up a little straighter, thinking about it, and she is - - always - - but…not really about him. So she just sort of shrugs, and Dags shakes his head.

“Don’t be. He was a real piece of shit.”

The way he says it is loaded with history, and Beth finds herself looking away, unsure of how to respond to that.

“Dominic,” she starts, and Dags barks on a laugh, finishing off slicing this round of notes and reaching again for his beer.

Definitely don’t feel guilty about him.”

She looks at him, taking him in again, and Dags meets her gaze, watching her carefully as she takes a sip of her bourbon.

“He’s played a lot of people,” Dags tells her. “So don’t feel shit about that either.”

It takes her a minute to realise that the words are meant as a comfort, as a conciliation, not as a dig, and she finds herself oddly grateful, even if it does pull up that strange, sharp feeling in her gut again. Dominic. She needs to find a way to talk to him. That is, if he’s even still around.

“Thanks,” she says finally, and she bites the inside of her cheek as Dags nods at her, head reeling. “Is Rio gonna - - ”

Dags looks at her then, his eyes dark and considered.

“If he hasn’t already,” he allows, diverting his attention back to Beth’s money, and that feeling spikes, the one she can’t name, and she doesn’t really know what to do with that at all.

*

Her eyes are closed as she lathers on the last of her night cream, stepping out of her en suite towards bed, when she feels a smells him. His cologne, that clean, cedarwood sort of smell that invades her dreams, her fantasies, for too long her nightmares too, so she knows he’ll be there before she even opens her eyes again.

“I sent Dags home,” Rio tells her in lieu of hello, and Beth blinks over at him. He’s standing on the other side of her bed, just inside the French doors. He’s gotten changed since this morning into one of his dark denim shirts, a pair of black jeans, and he looks cleaner, more together, but there’s a new bruise on his jaw, like he’s been on the receiving end of an uppercut, and her gaze drifts to his hands where his knuckles are bruised too, one or two of them split.

“Okay,” Beth replies, and Rio looks at her, rocking his jaw.

“He’ll be back in the mornin’,” he says, and Beth looks at him, and instantly knows he means to stay tonight, and just - - god, it sets something off in her belly, makes her strangely nervous, her toes curling in her slippers.

“Okay,” she repeats, and Rio pauses, like he was expecting her to argue, to fight it, but then promptly nods. He runs a hand back over his head at that, feeling out the curve of his skull, through his cropped hair, and just - - he looks exhausted, like he’s running on empty, and Beth exhales, padding around the bed to meet him.

When she gets to him, she reaches a hand up, gently touching his jaw, pushing it up, so that she can look at the new bruise there. Is this okay? She wonders. Are they allowed this? She tries to curb the thoughts, to just go with what he lets her do.

“Are you okay?” she asks gently, and Rio drops his chin into a sharp nod, but doesn’t move out of her grip. “Where’d you go today?”

Briefly, he opens his mouth, like he might reply, but then he promptly steps back, out of her grip, out of her space, and Beth fumbles, following his step before she can stop herself. Suddenly all the questions that have occupied her head all day are rushing to get out, bumping into the backs of her teeth, urgent in their need to escape her mouth, in their need to be answered.

“What happened with Slav’s guy? The one you couldn’t find?”

It’s enough to make Rio look back at her quickly, jaw rocking, before he keeps walking, heading over to her dresser, yanking open her pyjama drawer and jerking out her calendar.

“You got a pen?”

And that sparks something in her, gets her back up, and she shifts her weight, beelining to his side, trying to pull the calendar out of his hands, to put it back in her drawer, but he quickly turns away from her, blocking her reach from it, and she rocks back on her heels, annoyed.

“Rio, I’m being serious. Put that back. Talk to me about today.”

Rio doesn’t reply to that, instead almost dances out of her reach, spotting her purse by the bed and walks over to it, rifling through it for a pen, and when he finds it, he drops her calendar onto her bed and gets to work scribbling things out, rearranging her days all over again.

“Did you find Dominic?” Beth asks, watching the curve of his back over her bed, and when he doesn’t reply, irritation sparks in her gut. “Are you going to tell me anything about today at all?”

“You don’t need to know anythin’,” he tells her lazily, gaze not leaving her calendar, and Beth scowls at him, storming over behind him and jerking the pen from his hand.

“I need to know if it’s all over,” she insists, and Rio blinks up at her, face marred with disbelief and then he just - -

He laughs at her.

“Over?” he says, voice raised and hoarse, shocked almost, and Beth blinks at him, suddenly breathless as he turns on her, stands over her, tall and firm. “For someone so smart, you sure love playin’ dumb. Don’t you get it? I took out another boss. I took him out because of you, and baby, that ain’t done neither of us any favours. You think that word won’t travel? You think it ain’t puttin’ a nice, round target on your back? People were already checkin’ for you because of that dumbass husband of yours, but this? It ain’t ever gonna be over.”

He shakes his head, breathes out a hoarse breath, and Beth blinks up at him, her eyes wide as she tries to process what he’s saying, what he means, because he can’t be serious, he can’t be - - he must mean - -

But then she thinks about Dominic, she thinks about Dags, she thinks about her and Annie and Ruby, how much all of this has always felt like quicksand. She blinks and she sees Rio, she blinks and she sees Slav on top of her, his hands around her neck. She swallows thickly.

“So what then?” she says, throwing her arms out to either side of her. “You gonna keep me locked up? Telling me I don’t need to know anything while telling me people want to kill me? God forbid I know enough to protect us.”

“Protect us?” and Rio laughs again. “What? You gonna up the voltage on your taser?”

Beth’s mouth drops open, her eyes wide and unblinking before she scowls at him, shaking her head. She throws her hands up, anger sparking harsh and hot in her gut, because he doesn’t get to do this. He doesn’t get to save her and then yell at her and then say things to her and then fuck her and then go back to not telling her anything about anything.

“You know what? Screw you,” she says. “You should go home, send Dags back if you have to. At least he talks to me.”

And Rio laughs again, something dark, arching an eyebrow down at her.

“Oh, he talks to you now?”

“Yes,” Beth bites. “What? You jealous of him too? Gonna crash our dinners together like you crashed my date with Tom? Or my life with Dean? Gonna - - ”

And she’s not sure who closes the distance between them, but suddenly they’re kissing – a mess of teeth and hands and urgency, and her feet are off the ground and then she’s being dropped heavily back onto the bed, the crinkle of paper loud beneath her ears as she accidentally rolls onto her calendar, and she means to move away, but then his hands are yanking at the waistband of her pyjama pants, her pants and her panties being yanked off her in one fell swoop, and god, when did she get this wet?

She groans, arching her back, and she thinks maybe she says his name, because then he’s kicking off his jeans too, clambering up over her on the bed, pulling her legs up around his waist and pushing inside of her again.

Gasping, desperate, her hands ball in the back of his shirt, and it’s not - - she wants his skin, and so she’s yanking the fabric of it up, trying to get it off him as he thrusts into her, her own hips rocking to meet his rhythm. He’s biting her lip, reopening her cut, until they can both taste her blood on their tongues, but Beth doesn’t care, can’t believe how urgently she needs this, needs him, finally getting his shirt off enough to run her hands up his back, nails scratching up his vertebrae in a way that makes his hips stutter.

One of his hands is holding himself up over her on the bed, but the other drops to her clit, circling it roughly in a way that makes her clench hard around him, makes her keen against his mouth, squirm up against him, and he drops closer to her, thrusts harder, and it’s almost embarrassing, how quickly they both climax, the moment tearing open as Rio sags a little on top of her, his mouth pausing on hers as they both shudder through their orgasms.

And it’s strange then, the way he keeps kissing her, softer now, the way her hand stays on his back, flattening there, rubbing softly at the scratch marks she’d so quickly left behind. Stranger still how long it takes them to stop, for him to pull out and roll off her, collapse back onto the bed beside her, and Beth’s still trying to catch her breath when he shifts imperceptibly closer, until his arm is pressed against hers, the backs of his fingers bumping the backs of hers.

They’re quiet then, nothing to break the silence but their deep breaths and the sound of the wind chimes on Beth’s back patio, catching in the nighttime breeze, and she doesn’t know how she can feel simultaneously so exhausted and so wired, the nerves in her raw, close to the surface, her heart like a bruise in her chest.

“We found Slav’s boy,” Rio says suddenly, breaking through her thoughts. “Took care of it, but he talked already. Fuckin’ loud mouthed dumbass.”

Beth blinks over at him, but Rio’s gaze is carefully trained on the ceiling, and he really does look tired, she thinks, and now as bruised as she is. God, what a picture they must make, lying sideways on her bed, both of them naked from the waist down, battered. She shakes her head.

“Did you find Dominic yet?” she asks, and Rio does look at her at that, his jaw rocking, taking her in.

“Why? You missin’ him?”

“Just tell me.”

Rio stares at her like he’s trying to read into her look, trying to make sense of her, but after a minute, shakes his head no, gaze drifting back to the ceiling. The thought of it, the confirmation, it unlocks something inside of her, that strange, spiking feeling that’s haunted her all day suddenly cresting in her, breaking through, and suddenly - -

Suddenly she know what it means.

“I want to be the one to handle him,” she says, and Rio jerks his head around to look at her again, eyebrows raised, lips parted. He looks at her thoughtfully, gaze skirting over her face, considering her, and when he speaks, his tone is low and careful.

“He played me too, ma, I told you that.”

“I know,” Beth says softly. “He messed you around, but he - -” she sucks in a breath, something in her hardening. “If he couldn’t use me, he was happy to pass me off to somebody who would kill me. He knows my family. He knows me, and he doesn’t care.”

Rio doesn’t so much as blink, and she exhales sharply.

“He’s a climber, right? That’s what you and AJ kept telling me. I can’t say I’ll kill him, but I promise you when I’m through with him he won’t even be able to think about climbing anymore. I’ll make sure he’s done. One way or another.”

That feeling in her stomach grows all the sharper at her words, the thoughts forming faster than she can curb them, the knowledge that this is right, that this is what she wants. Rio blinks slowly at her, his jaw rocking a little, and when he speaks, it’s not with what she expects.

“You take care of your grocery store manager?” he asks her, his voice low and drawling. “Your rotten egg?”

She sucks in a breath, shakes her head.

“This is different,” she says, and Rio just looks at her.

“How?”

And she guesses it’s not, not really. She looks away from him then, biting her lip. Boomer and Mary Pat, they feel like a lifetime ago when really it’s been barely six months, and she wonders now more than ever where they are, what they’re doing, who they are now, if they’ve changed as much as she has, and she’s still thinking when Rio’s voice cuts through the quiet.

“Two weeks,” he tells her. “You handle ‘em, you can be the one to handle Dom too.”

Her head reels around as she looks at him, her forehead creased as he looks back at her.

“I can’t kill them,” she insists, and Rio looks at her, and after a minute, slowly nods.

“Okay. So think of somethin’ else.”

The way he says it, the words drawled almost too easy, even though Beth knows they’re not, and she swallows heavily, her gaze tracing over his face, and then she nods sharply, and there’s so much left to say, so many questions, burning on the tip of her tongue. But they can wait, she thinks.

Like he told her last night.

All they’ve got is time.

Chapter Text

“So let me get this straight,” Ruby says, her eyes wide, her face pinched as she stands up at the far side of Beth’s living room, her hair swept back, her grip white knuckled around the handle of her coffee mug. “Not only did you lie to us - -”

“I didn’t lie,” Beth insists, a hand up to correct the point. “I just didn’t - - tell you everything.”

The words earn her an eye roll from Annie and a pair of pursed lips from Ruby, and really, she probably should let them have that one, but still. Beth was careful not to tell them anything that wasn’t true – she just also omitted certain truths. Okay, a lot of truths. 

Not only did you lie to us,” Ruby repeats, a little more venom underscoring her words this time. “But you somehow thought going to meet with a criminal kingpin on your own with a taser was a good idea, and then when that criminal kingpin tried to kill you, you thought it was a good idea to run off with the criminal kingpin you tried to - -”

Beth’s eyes widen, and Ruby’s dart behind her to where Dags is sitting on a chair in the dining room, only half listening while he plays Words with Friends on his phone, which is - - weird, to say the least. Vaguely, Beth wonders if he’s playing with the guys – with Bullet or Demon, or, god. Does Rio play? Is that what he’s doing when he sits there on his phone when she’s trying to talk business with him?

“Who you tried to leave behind,” Ruby says instead, her voice strained, and Beth jerks her head back around to look at her.

“It’s not like I had a whole lot of options,” Beth insists, and Ruby holds up a hand to stop her.

“Do I look like I’m done? Because you sure weren’t, huh? Not when you clearly showed the guy a good enough time he apparently felt the need to give you a personal bodyguard.”

She throws her free arm out to gesture broadly at Dags, who only snorts on a laugh, his gaze lifting just enough to dart between Ruby’s pacing form and Beth and Annie, who are seated on Beth’s couch. His lip curls in amusement before his gaze drops back to his cell, and god, is he going to report on this to Rio? She squirms a little in her seat, resisting the urge to touch the bruises on her neck – the ones Slav’s fingers left there and the ones Rio’s mouth did too, and just - - no, Beth. The last thing she needs to do is draw any more attention to that. 

“Sounds like the rumours are true,” Annie says, taking a sip of her coffee. “World class vagina. Just like old Lance-y boy said.”

Beth scowls, because trust Annie to draw attention instead, but before she can open her mouth to reply, Ruby keeps going.

“And then to top it off,” she continues ignoring Annie. “When given the option of taking care of nobody, and taking care of three bodies, you picked the three. Am I missing anything?”

Beth just stares at her for a minute, words stuck in her throat before finally she rolls her eyes, tossing up her hands in surrender.

“Personally I’d call Dags more of a babysitter than a bodyguard,” she says a little dryly, her eyes darting back to Dags who gives her a lopsided smile in reply before returning to the game on his phone.  

“Well, I can’t say I disagree that you need one,” Ruby says tartly. “I mean - - god, Beth - - ” whatever else she was planning on saying is exhaled hoarsely, painfully, and Beth bites her lip, the guilt blossoming in her gut like the spring. She sighs, her gaze flicking over to Annie on the other side of the couch, where her sister stares resignedly at the coffee table, her hands curled around her mug. It’s strange to think that she’d only told Annie all of this yesterday morning – the last few days have felt simultaneously like seconds and years, the sheer weight of them on her shoulders leaving her hunched like Atlas.

It probably wasn’t helped by Rio last night, fighting with her and then fucking her and then - - well. He’d been gone by the time Beth had woken up this morning, and she’d left her bedroom to find Dags in her kitchen, fixing himself a coffee and cleaning his gun, and she wasn’t sure if she was more relieved or resigned to see him there in Rio’s place.

“Look, I messed up,” Beth admits. “But it’s done now, I won’t do it again.”

And Ruby and Annie exchange a look at that, like they don’t believe her, and it just reminds her of Rio again, of him saying those words to her in that car, before he’d - - before they’d - -

She flushes, clearing her throat, redirecting the conversation to the matter at hand.

“And anyway, we need to focus on finding Boomer and Mary Pat.”

“So that you can kill Dominic,” Ruby adds flatly, and Beth shakes her head, huffs out a breath.

“We’re not killing anybody. We’re just - - handling them. Our way.”

“And that way is?”

And well – isn’t that the million dollar question? Beth bites her lip, shifts her weight a little on the couch, tries to widen her eyes and smile, as innocently as she can.

“I was actually hoping you guys might have some ideas.”

It’s enough to make both Annie and Ruby just - - stare at her, their expressions open, gormless, and god, Beth can even feel Dags looking at her now too, and it’s not that she hasn’t been trying to think of something, just every time she did, it wouldn’t seem like enough. Dominic had tried to commit her fate to the grave – one way or another, Mary Pat had robbed them, betrayed them, put Turner back on them, to say nothing of everything Boomer had done.

The best thought she’d had was to get them arrested, but Boomer would turn them in in a second and Mary Pat had all those kids…

She’s pulled from her thoughts by Ruby laughing – almost too loud, almost hysterical, and Beth jerks her head up to look at her, but she just turns away, walks to the far wall of the living room, away from Dags, away from Beth and Annie, until she’s almost at the window, peering out into the street. She rubs at her face with her hand, and Annie and Beth both watch her for a minute, until Annie turns to face Beth.

“Can we please not pay them off again?” Annie says, breaking the quiet. “It never works, for starters, but we’re barely earning enough to get by ourselves and we’re still paying back gangfriend. If we’re going to rob anywhere again, I want the full cut.”

“Very much agreed,” Beth says. “We need to set limits.”

It feels like a million years ago – Rio telling her that on the table in her backyard, surrounded by dug-up holes, his tone easy, still underscored by the mirth he’d found in the idea of Dean being robbed by his own hire, gagged by Beth’s panties, and god, she hates that she blushes at that now too, the way he’d laughed at her embarrassment, before everything between them had gotten so complicated. Or, well, more complicated, she thinks a little wryly.

“Limits, she says,” Ruby tells the window, still not looking at them, her tone veering into hysteria. “Limits!”

Beth bites her lip, tries to sit up a little straighter, her eyes meeting Annie’s briefly, when she sees her sister’s gaze flick to the bruises still on her neck. She’d tried to cover them up with make up as best she could, but she knows they sit there, stark and ugly still underneath. After a minute, Annie tears her gaze away from her, pulling the sleeves of her leopard print sweater down over her hands, hiding them from view.

“Has that ever worked for us?” Annie asks, and Beth sighs. “We tried talking to Deansy’s hitmen, and they totally blackballed us. Plus we never got that money back.”

“We did handle them though,” Beth reminds her, because they did get them arrested, but Annie just laughs.

“I mean, kind of? They didn’t waste any time telling everyone with ears that you and gangfriend were bumping uglies.”

Beth frowns at her, gaze darting back to Dags, but he doesn’t even lift his gaze from his phone, like this isn’t news to him, and she knows Rio’s not exactly subtle, but god - - how does everyone know about them when Beth doesn’t even know what they are?

She shakes her head, taking a sip of her coffee to try and refocus her nerves.

“Well, Boomer and Mary Pat don’t know about Rio, so,” she says, rolling her free hand out at the wrist, gaze flicking sideways when Ruby finally turns back around to face them.

“They know we’re associated with somebody though,” Ruby supplies. “And wasn’t Boomer talking to Turner? How much does that guy even know? I mean, outside of us robbing Fine & Frugal and gangfriend washing cash there.”  

Beth exhales, gestures out, uncertain, and she’s still summoning a response when Dags’ voice breaks through the quiet.

“He knows you, and that’s enough.”

All three of them turn around to look at him, and Beth opens her mouth a little in surprise.

“Excuse me?” Ruby asks, and Dags shrugs, still tapping away at his phone.

“He knows you. Knows your names, how to find you, at least some of what you’ve done, and in this business, if he’s not with you, or under your thumb, he’s against you, and he’s a threat.”

Suddenly he swears, face curling in a grimace, and all three of them stiffen until Dags suddenly blinks up at them, sniffing a little apologetically.

“Sorry, my man just dropped a seven letter word.”

And - - right.

Beth rolls her eyes, looking back over at Annie who’s expression sits somewhere between disbelief and intense amusement, and she already knows Annie’s never going to let this go when a coarse sigh sounds behind them. Beth turns to see Ruby looking right back at her.

“We’re really talking about this, huh?” Ruby says, and Beth sucks in a breath, watching as her friend’s face sags with resignation, with the slip of all of this, and Beth is shaking her head before she can stop herself.

“You don’t have to be involved,” she says. “I shouldn’t have asked. This is my mess, I can clean it up on my own, I - -”

“Stop,” Ruby says, shaking her head with a sigh. “We’re either all in or we’re all out at this point, I think we’ve learned enough to know that. Besides, last thing I want to hear about is you getting choked in some nasty ass warehouse on your own again.”

The words are enough to make Beth huff out a breath, a sound that could almost be a laugh, only it’s something rawer than that. Something aching, and when she looks up at Ruby again, she’s got a look on her face – like she’s got an idea she’s been holding back. Beth sits forwards on the couch, watching as Ruby shifts her weight, watching as she goes through something in her head, just - - watches her, until finally Ruby sighs.

“Maybe your boy over there is onto something,” Ruby says, nodding over at Dags. “I mean, after all, we’re still breathing, aren’t we?”

Beth blinks, forehead furrowing, and glances quickly at Annie, who doesn’t seem to have any clearer idea of what Ruby’s saying than Beth does.

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, between Fine & Frugal and Mary Pat and Canada and - - look, we’ve messed up a lot and we may be alive, but I’d say I’ve felt pretty handled by gangfriend.”

Annie opens her mouth at that, but a glare from both Beth and Ruby stops what was no doubt a quip about just how gangfriend has handled them on her tongue, and before Beth can turn back, Ruby adds:

“I say we take a page out of his book.”

At Beth and Annie’s questioning looks, Ruby sighs.

“Boomer and Mary Pat both basically extorted us and we caved. We gave them more money than either of them deserved. Hell, it’s fair, we were on the hook with both of them, but it’s different now. We’ve still got Jeff. We’re the only reason that bitch is still cashing in her dead husband’s disability cheques. We know for a fact that that grocery store’s been washing cash way longer than we have, we know that Boomer was letting people store bodies in the meat locker. Jeff’s body, as it turned out. What do they have left on us but their word? And after everything with Turner, how much is that word even worth? Plus Annie’s right – we do still need the money.”

Beth blinks, feels a familiar spark of something in her chest, of an idea, of something falling into place, and it’s Annie who sits up a little straighter behind her, her eyes wide, her lips splitting into a grin.

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

Ruby just looks at them both.

“Two birds, one stone. I say we play company collect, and hand those assholes their debt.”

 

*

 

“I think I can manage a trip to the grocery store on my own,” Beth says, rolling her eyes as Dags drops heavily into the passenger seat of her minivan. After they’d made a loose plan on how to proceed with Boomer and Mary Pat (and Annie and Ruby taking up the responsibility of tracking the two of them down), they’d talked about tomorrow’s Golf for Gallbladders event and organised a bit of a plan around the cash. It would mostly be a scouting trip, Beth had decided, to see if washing cash through these monthly events was a viable option, but still. They’d take some cash to wash should the opportunity present itself. Mostly though, Beth was glad to have the excuse to put aside any thoughts of Dominic or Slav or Rio, despite Dags’ presence making it overall nearly impossible to do so.

“Not how this works,” he replies easily now, and Beth frowns at him, turning on the car and pulling out of the driveway. She needs to pick up some ingredients for next weekend’s markets, but more importantly, Dean’s bringing the kids home tomorrow afternoon from his mom’s place, and she needs the house stocked for them.

At the thought of the kids, her heart leaps in her chest, only to quickly stutter when she catches a glimpse of her reflection in the rear-view mirror. She’ll need to go to the drug store to get more make-up, she thinks, to keep her bruises covered, and then - - hm.

She’ll need to talk to Rio about reassigning Dags too, she thinks, glancing briefly back over at him as she indicates to change lanes. After all, she doesn’t really want him hanging around and confusing the kids and giving Dean any reason to think Rio’s back in her life or that her market job is anything other than what it seems.

“How does this work?” she asks curiously. “I can’t imagine following me around all day is what you signed up for.”

The bright light of the afternoon spills out in front of her, making everything appear warm and crisp, and Beth is surprised by how much she likes it, how much it feels good, particularly after the heavy, relentless rain of the other night at the warehouse, of their time in that car, in the middle of nowhere. It’s like a welcome home, she thinks, a little wistfully, looking down at her bruised hands on the steering wheel. She frowns, shakes her head.

“Protection detail is probably a bigger part of the job than you think.”

“Protection detail?” Beth asks, wrinkling her nose a little, amused, and Dags nods beside her, pulling out his phone, shooting off a text. “I feel like Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.”

Dags snorts, and Beth grins, only to grimace at the pain in her jaw from where Slav had hit her. Thing is, she doesn’t really believe it. The more she’s thought about it, the more she’s pretty sure his assignment to her is about Rio punishing her for the whole thing with Slav and Dominic over anything like her protection. She can’t imagine anyone going out of their way to track her down, and she certainly can’t imagine anyone viewing her as a worthwhile piece to play against Rio outside of getting her as some sort of double agent, and if word spreads as quickly as Rio had insisted, then she’s pretty sure Dominic will have told everyone what a dead end that was.

Still, she bites the inside of her cheek, his words from last night ring through her head - I took out another boss. I took him out because of you, and baby, that ain’t done neither of us any favours. You think that word won’t travel? You think it ain’t puttin’ a nice, round target on your back? People were already checkin’ for you because of that dumbass husband of yours, but this? It ain’t ever gonna be over.

But people weren’t checking for her, Beth thinks. It had been almost a year between Dean organising those hitmen and the other night with Slav, and nobody had bothered with her until she’d started organising meetings through Dominic, and even then – she’d been inconsequential to them. Nothing more than something to look and laugh at – like an attraction at a show – come and see the woman that kept Rio entertained.

That he - -

Well.

Beth frowns, adjusting a little in her seat, turning down the side streets towards the grocery store.

She needs to focus. She needs to focus on finding Boomer and Mary Pat so Rio lets her handle Dominic. She needs to focus on her business. On her money, on the markets, on working out if this thing with the charity scams is going to work. If she can flip her game that way, she thinks, and at least that thought settles happily enough in her belly.

“What’s that golf thing about anyway?” Dags asks, like he’s read her mind, and Beth blinks over at him. He’s so quiet, it’s easy to forget he’s there half the time, and even when Beth had been going over the details of the Golf for Gallbladders job with Annie and Ruby, Dags had seemed more focused on his phone than on them.

“Oh,” she says, collecting herself, waving a hand-out at him as she drives. “It’s just a thing. Might be a business opportunity, a place to wash my money.”

Dags seems to consider this as Beth pulls them into the grocery store parking lot, finding a spot a few rows back from the entrance.

“You talked to the boss about that yet?”

And that’s enough to make her frown, to glance up at Dags, see the lines of his face as he watches her, his expression carefully neutral. Beth frowns, scoffs a little, reaching for her purse in the backseat and trying to ignore the flush at her chest and the ache at her neck. She resists the urge to say who purely out of pettiness, because Rio’s not her boss, dammit, instead settling on:

“Why would I?”

Both of Dags’ eyebrows spring up at that, and it takes him a minute to react, shaking his head, exhaling a little laugh as Beth pulls herself together and clambers out of the car. She hasn’t been to this grocery store in ages, but she’d wanted to avoid Fine & Frugal, at least until she could get herself together enough to buy Tyler a replacement taser for the one she lost. She smooths down the belly of her blouse, starting towards the grocery store, Dags promptly at her heels.

“Lotta reasons,” Dags tells her, catching up, and Beth blinks up at him as she reaches for a shopping cart.

“Oh?”

Dags hums in affirmation, looking around her head, and it takes Beth a moment to realise that he’s casing the place, and then she’s just rolling her eyes, pushing into the store.

“He might have some advice,” Dags says first, and that just makes Beth snort.

“I’m sure he will,” she replies, because telling Rio will only go one of two ways – him agreeing and liking the idea enough to take it over, just like he did with Boland Motors, or disliking it enough to make a point of watching her fail. Or, okay, three ways, she thinks, remembering him rearranging her calendar. He could just try and shut it down entirely. Her frown deepens, and then it’s so sudden – the thought of him kissing her last night on top of her calendar, and just, god – stop. A prickly tension erupts over her arms.

“You also report to him,” Dags adds, and Beth scoffs louder this time, fingers gripping the handlebar of the shopping cart as she pushes into the first aisle. “And I don’t think he’s going to be wanting anyone under him branching out with new opportunities right now, especially not you.”

Beth stops, turning around to stare at him.

“Excuse me?”

Dags looks down at her, a look she can’t read crossing his face, until finally he just shakes his head.

“You miss the part where he’s got me on your protection detail right now?” he asks, voice lowered enough she has to strain to hear him over the thrum of the grocery store. “Things aren’t exactly on solid ground at the moment, not with what happened with Slav. Rio knows what he’s doing – knows what’s cooking, but he’s not gonna want you adding ingredients or changing the recipe, not when things are already boiling, that’s all I’m saying.”

Beth just stares at him, feels the pinch at her jaw, remembers Rio, the other night in the car, telling her to stick with him, and just - - the second she thinks it, she’s almost overwhelmed, a pressure behind her eyes she can’t blink away, because she is sticking with him. This is how she sticks with him.

It’s more than just a distraction from Slav and Dominic, she’d known that the second she’d seen him last night. This? It’s for them, to prove that she can pull her weight, that his faith in her isn’t - - has never been wrong, that her messing up with Slav the other night isn’t who she is, that she’s not a burden for him to carry and shield and protect and throw the occasional scraps to.

It’s about them being partners again. 

As soon as the thought hits her, she turns away, looking at the aisle ahead of her, at the displays of canned corn, tomatoes, baby beets. At a couple arguing over brands, a mother struggling with a weepy child, an elderly woman dragging her feet, and she thinks about Rio’s arm around her, dragging her out of Slav’s warehouse, thinks of him sending her home yesterday with Dags while he stood in that kitchen with his boys, thinks of the new bruise on his face when he’d come to her bed last night, and just - - god, she doesn’t want that.

She doesn’t want him to get to choose what she gets to see, to hear, she doesn’t want him in control of the light switch – deciding when to let her know something and when to keep her in the dark. Not again.

She wants to be beside him, not behind him.

With a short glance back at Dags, Beth reaches for her shopping cart and pushes onwards.  

 

*

 

“So my mom’s offered to pick the kids up from school, and then I thought they’d come back here, pack up their things, and maybe I’d take them to that new Chinese place off West Street for an early dinner before bringing them back to yours? When’ll you be done at the charity thing?”

“Should be home by six,” Beth says, pouring herself a bourbon, cell hooked between her ear and her shoulder. She waves the bottle briefly at Dags, offering him a drink, but he just shakes his head, fingers working furiously at his phone. “But I’m sure the kids would love to have dinner with you, so just text me when you’re heading over.”

Dean hums across the line, and Beth caps the bottle, having a drink. It’s dark out already, and she’s barely even thought about dinner for herself. She’s sure she has a couple of freezer meals still, but she’s not sure she can bare the thought of serving one of those up to Dags (besides, it’d probably take six Lean Cuisine’s to fill him up). Shaking her head, Beth refocuses on Dean’s breath down the line, and she’s about to ask how the kids are, how the last few days at his mom’s have gone, but before she can get the words out, Dean’s starting to splutter.  

“Um, great, so. I know I was going to move out at the end of the week, but, y’know, most of my stuff’s at mom’s now anyway, and honestly I feel like - - like this has actually almost been a good trial, right?”

The words are enough to make Beth blink, to press the rim of her glass against her lips, as if in preparation. She resists the urge to press a finger to one of the bruises on her face, to her split lip – just to remind herself that she’s awake.

“Yeah,” she says tentatively instead, and Dean hums again in her ear.

“Okay, well, I thought when I dropped the kids off tomorrow night, I could take the last of my things too, and that would be - - you know. That.”

Outside, Beth can hear the thrum of evening traffic – the call of nighttime birds, the sounds of somebody else’s TV, and it wouldn’t be a thing, wouldn’t mean anything if her breath hadn’t suddenly escaped her. If the harsh pull of this hadn’t set her teeth on edge already. She pushes her hair harshly behind her ear, nodding, avoiding Dags’ eye.

“If that’s what you want to do,” Beth says, and it’s strange, the unfolding of emotion in her belly. Something between relief and whatever the rest of this is. She can’t quite articulate it, and before she even knows what she’s doing, her hand is rising up her chest again, jabbing accidentally at one of the bruises Slav had left, and then she just - - stops.

“Kind of think it’s time,” Dean says. “And look, we’ll give it two weeks and I’ll pick the kids up for the long weekend. I mean, if - - if that works for you?”

Beth pauses again, going through her plans in her own head, working through them, and she wonders if this is what it’s like for Annie with Sadie, if it’s what it’s like for Rio and his son. That strange lurching sense of knowing your time with your child is no longer entirely a given.

“Yeah, there’s a few markets that weekend, so it would kind of be perfect,” Beth says, aiming for something light and breezy. “I mean, I’d miss the help, but not the complaining.” 

Dean makes a pleased noise over the line.

“Great! I was thinking I could take the kids to my brother’s lake house. Go fishing, y’know, the whole nine yards.”

With a nod, Beth finds herself fumbling with the bottle cap of her bourbon again, topping up her glass. Vaguely, she can feel Dags’ gaze on her, but Beth won’t cave – won’t turn back around to meet him. It’s not like it’s any of his business, Beth reminds herself, and besides, she’s not quite sure she could explain what she’s feeling anyway. It’s not that she’s sad, or jealous, and she’s hardly heartbroken, it just - - feels weird, she thinks, bringing her glass back to her mouth.

“That sounds really nice,” she allows, and Dean hums happily in agreement, before launching into a spiel about how his brother has recently bought a new boat too, that he can take the kids out in it, that they can go back to that taffy shop with their cousins, and Beth resists the urge to tell him that it’s too much for three days, that the kids will be tired and grumpy by the end of it all and Dean will be ending this getaway with tantrums if he’s not careful, because that’s not her job anymore.

The conversation winds down, and Beth hangs up, tossing her cell down onto the bar cart in irritation, swirling her drink in her glass before Dags clears his throat behind her.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” she says, without looking back. Because she is. Because this is what she wants, just - - just it also feels like there’s so much that they haven’t talked about yet, like what custody really looks like, like child support, like what the hell the plan is beyond Dean moving out, and god, she can feel the headache building behind her eyes already.

She’s having another sip of her bourbon when Dags’ voice cuts through the quiet behind her again.

“Cool, come on then. We’re heading out,” he says, and Beth jerks her head back, spinning on the spot to face him.

“Excuse me?”

But Dags doesn’t elaborate, just starts towards the front door, and before Beth can even think, she’s downing her drink like a shot, grabbing her phone and rushing out behind him. She barely has time to put her slip-on boots on by the door before Dags is gesturing her into the passenger seat of his car. She’s doing up her seatbelt when a seed of doubt plants in her belly, the memory of sitting like this beside Dominic two nights ago stirring in her head, and she shifts around to look at Dags uncertainly as he starts the car and pulls out of her driveway.

“Where are we going?” she asks, furious at herself for trusting him so easily, because god, has she learnt nothing? She shifts uncomfortably back in the seat, and Dags doesn’t even spare her a second look as he drives them onwards.  

“Boss asked me to drop you off with him.”

And - - well, that’s not what Beth was expecting. She grabs her phone out of her back pocket, checking it quickly to see if Rio had texted her while she was on the phone to Dean, but the only text is one from her favourite craft store, promoting an end of season sale. She blinks, shifting her gaze back to Dags.

“Why?”

There’s silence then, no sounds beyond that of the air whipping through the vents and the tyres on the road below, and before Beth can stop herself, she’s squinting at Dags, trying to get a sense of what it is he’s not telling her, and then it hits her. Quick as anything.

“You told him about the charity event,” Beth says, shock heavy in her tone, and Dags has at least the good grace to look a little apologetic. Squirming back in her seat, Beth scowls over at him, her shock quickly giving way to outrage.

“I told you it’s none of his business,” she hisses, at least not yet, not until she knows it’ll work, and Dags doesn’t say anything at that, doesn’t even look back at her, as Beth’s leg goes jittery underneath her. Dropping her cell to her lap, she shifts in her seat, scowling out the window, feeling every bit like a reprimanded child, and she can’t help it – the way her hand rises to her neck to touch the bruises there, to push, just slightly, to feel the dull throb of the ache there.

It’s not long before Dags is pulling the car into the Boland Motors lot – or not the Boland Motors lot, Beth reminds herself, shifting, annoyed, in her seat. The Capital Auto lot. Rio’s lot, and she hasn’t been here in almost two weeks, not since she was sitting between Ruby and Annie on the couch, Rio passing them keys and addresses like he used to. Not that it looks like that now – it’s late in the evening for starters, the better cars pulled back into the garages while the more middling ones sit out on the concrete, finishes glinting beneath the security lights. There’s barely anyone around albeit a foreboding looking security guard and a few of Rio’s boys, talking over some of the older cars, divvying them up for what can only be drops.

Dags pulls them into a spot, and clambers out of the car, and Beth almost stays in the passenger seat – figures if Rio wants to see her so badly, he can come and get her, but then again - - depending on his mood, she thinks he’d either leave her in the car all night, or forcibly come and get her, and she’s not really sure which is worse. With a sigh, she gets out of the car after Dags, following him into the building, past the sliding doors, past the empty front desk and the rows or artfully styled desks, towards the office that used to be Dean’s – that used to be hers, and god, she thinks, it’s still weird.

Because she can see him already – the blinds not drawn, leaving Rio almost exposed in the glass box of the office, pouring over the desk, paperwork spread into neat, thick piles in front of him. It’s not particularly well lit – most of the open floor plan lights off, the only real glow coming from his dim office light and the security lights of the lot outside. It has the effect of making him appear almost eerily in the space – like she’s dreamt him up this very minute, every tanned inch of him and everything that covers him – from the polished toes of his boots to his navy button down, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

Rapping his knuckles on the glass, Dags jerks his head up as Rio lolls his own around to meet him, gaze moving from Dags to Beth, and he just - - looks at her for a minute, jaw rocking forwards, and Beth finds herself shifting her weight despite herself, tilting her chin up defiantly in a way that makes Rio flatten his mouth, gaze skirting back to Dags, jerking his head, gesturing them in.

Opening the door for her, Beth steps through, surprised to hear it click shut behind her. She spins on the spot only to see Dags simply nod at her from the other side of the glass and stride back down the Capital Auto foyer, back out towards where the other boys are starting to pile into cars on the lot. And then it’s just her and Rio again, she thinks, shuffling her feet a little, and god, shouldn’t she be used to this again by now. Sucking in a breath, she turns back to face him, only to frown when Rio doesn’t so much as spare her a look, just keeps himself folded over his paperwork, his pen working hard – annotating and signing and crossing things out. Beth watches him for a minute, standing awkwardly by the door of his office, resisting the urge to fidget, until finally she caves, striding out across the room and planting herself in the chair opposite his desk.

There’s only one now. There used to be two, back when it was Dean’s, and she’d kept it when it was hers too – designed for couples choosing a car together, but then, she doesn’t think Rio too often sits here opposite couples.

“I feel like I’ve been sent to the principal’s office,” she says, more to break up the silence than anything else, and at least it’s enough to make Rio huff out a laugh behind the desk, even if he doesn’t look up at her, finishing off another slip of paper.

She waits another minute, maybe two, and when he still doesn’t say anything, she fidgets, annoyed, and adds:

“And you know, it’s great to know that you didn’t just assign me a babysitter but a spy too.”

Which – well – at least it makes him look up at her, an expression somewhere between amusement and disbelief on his face.

“Figured that’d be obvious. He works for me, darlin’, you knew that.”

And okay, she had known that, just Dags and her had hit a stride and she figured he’d at least talk to her about talking to Rio and - - well, he had, kind of, Beth thinks with a scowl, just she hadn’t thought he’d go running straight to him after they did talk. God, was that who he was texting on the way home from the grocery store? Had he told Rio about their plan for Mary Pat and Boomer too?

Beth sits back in her seat, annoyed, watching as Rio finishes writing his chicken scratch scrawl across another few sheets of paper. When he’s done, he sits up straighter, eyeing her off thoughtfully. He looks about as tired as she feels – the bruise on his chin has darkened since she saw him last night, the graze at his cheek starting to crust over as it heals. She frowns, wonders what she looks like to him, resists the urge to pull her blouse tighter around herself, to touch the marks on her neck again, like hiding them with her bruised hand would do anything but draw attention to them.  

“Gonna give me the pitch?”

The words are said so suddenly, so firmly, that Beth reels back a little in surprise, her forehead furrowing as she watches Rio watch her, his expression unreadable, and Beth huffs out a breath.

“Thought your boy already had?”

Rio shrugs.

“Like to hear it from you.”

And that’s enough to make her blink in surprise all over again, her eyes darting over his face, trying to find any hint of what he means, what he’s thinking – anything that might make sense to her, and god. Where has he been today, she thinks, between her bed and here?

“Have you found Slav’s other guy yet?”

It’s her question, yet she thinks it surprises her more than it does him. He turns his head away, tilting it outside to where one of his boy’s clambers into a car, headlights on high beam, almost blinding them, before he drives it out into the night.

“We’re gettin’ closer,” Rio allows, and Beth bites her lip, nodding, following his gaze out to the lot. What does he do in a day? When does he find time when he’s organising pill drops and rooting out gangbangers and running the dealership? How many businesses does he even have? How does he find the time for his son? She blinks, thinking of the markets and the fake money and the Etsy store and the charity scam and her kids, and it feels like so much and she really is about to be doing it on her own, if Dean’s really gone tomorrow, but still, she finds herself offering.  

“You know, me and the girls could do this part of it, right? The dealership, the drops,” Beth says, before she can stop herself. “We used to do it after all. It would free you up a bit.”

“That your pitch?”

“No,” Beth says. “It’s just a suggestion.”

Rio hums, but doesn’t say anything else, and Beth finds herself frowning again, moving backwards in her chair, unsure what to do, what to say. She brushes her hair back behind her ear, watching as Rio watches another car leave the lot, and just - - right.

Her pitch.   

“A woman I know through the kids’ school does monthly fundraisers for charities that don’t exist. It’s cash only, and she makes some real money – thirty grand, forty sometimes. I’m going to swap out the real for our fake money. It’s almost half a million a year after all, and I know it’s not as much as we were doing through the big box stores or here, but if our markets keep growing, it’d be a good, passive feeder to our bottom line.”

“Scam the scammer,” Rio says, still looking out the window, and Beth sits up a little straighter, nodding, pleased that he gets it.

“Hopefully she’ll never even realise, but if she does, it’s not like she can go to the police. She’d have to admit how she had that money in the first place. They’d get her before they got us.”

Rio hums, watching as another one of his boys climbs into yet another car, Dags stopping him before he can drive off, passing him something, then laughing. Rio rolls his eyes, jaw rocking a little in vague annoyance, and Beth blinks, glancing back at them, trying to see what Rio’s just seen.  

“I’m guessin’ there’s a guest list though.”

Beth blinks, gaze skirting back to Rio.

“We have fake IDs.”

Darren had hooked them up with them when they’d first been trialling their fake cash – something Annie had suggested in the case that they get pulled into a security office again. She’s sure hers is still in her craft table at home.  

“Ain’t the people at this thing gonna know you though?”

And right, Beth thinks, biting the inside of her cheek. It’s not that she hadn’t thought of that, because there was a risk – she knew that – just her plan really relied more on not getting caught than anything else, not that she’s particularly interested in telling Rio that.

“They don’t really know Annie or Ruby at all,” she tries instead. “All our kids go to different schools, so they’ve literally only ever met them through me.”

“Still know ‘em though.”

Beth frowns, watching Rio lose interest, watching him watch his cars leave the lot, his fingers starting to drum on the arm of his chair, and something in her belly tightens. It’s not fair – that she can’t get a leg up in his world because nobody knows her, and apparently can’t get one up in her own one either because everyone does, only - -

Wait.

Beth pauses.

“That might work in our favour.”

And at least that’s enough to make him turn around and look at her again, an expression of disbelief on his face as he pops an eyebrow at her, staring at her.

“Yeah? How?”

“Like you kept saying right. People aren’t going to take a chance on me because I don’t have anybody to vouch for me. Everyone at these things will.”

Rio’s other eyebrow raises to meet the first at that, but Beth powers through, sitting up a little straighter, taller.

“I’ve known half these people since prenatal yoga when I was pregnant with Kenny. None of them would think for a second I’d be involved in something like this. If anything, these people knowing me is an asset. I would be the last name on their list of suspects, I mean, I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. Carol Rodden’s had three, to say nothing of Rachel Roseman’s husband who got fired for embezzling like, thousands of dollars from the firm where he works. Rachel says he’s a stay-at-home dad now, but everyone knows he day drinks at a sports bar in West Port.”

Rio stares at her, and Beth collects herself.

“My point is, everyone knows everyone’s business, but they look at me and all they see is a twelve year spotless record.”

Which: technically untrue, Beth thinks. She’s pretty sure that all of them knew about Dean’s cheating, and they definitely knew about the raid at Boland Motors and the subsequent sale, but that’s neither here nor there. All of that stuff is on Dean. She stares back at Rio who – okay, mostly still looks unimpressed, but then he’s sighing.

“I say no, you gonna do it anyway?”

“Yes,” Beth admits, and Rio snorts, rubbing a hand over the back of his head, face briefly scrunching up in frustrated thought before he smooths it all out, dropping his arm back down to the chair.

“This thing on tomorrow?”

Beth nods quickly, sitting up taller in her seat as Rio eyes her off.

“Dags said it was just scoutin’?”

“Scouting and we were going to test it. To see if it worked. Not do a full wash, but maybe a few hundred dollars.”

“And then it’s a month til the next one?”

Beth nods again, and Rio just stares at her, jaw rocking, as if he’s ticking all of it over and - - maybe something else too? She feels like she’s getting better at reading his expressions, but sometimes he’s so careful, and right now she can’t quite decipher him.

“Scout only. You ain’t takin’ any of your cash with you, and I want a full report.”

Beth almost reels back in surprise, a grin spilling onto her face before she can stop it only - - only it shouldn’t really be that easy, never is with him. Her grin wavers a little, but then a ghost of a smile finds his lips too and somehow it charges her own again, leaving her almost breathless. Her plan will work, she knows it will, and it’ll fix these last few days, weeks, it’ll get everything back on track.

She exhales happily, glancing sideways to see Dags striding out across the lot, and right – she thinks – that too.

“Oh! And my kids are coming home tomorrow night.”

“Cool,” Rio says, and Beth looks back at him, waiting for him to pick up what she’s implying, but he just looks back at her, and of course he’s going to make her say it. She rolls her eyes, amused, tilting her head out the window towards Dags and the last couple of Rio’s boys.

 “It is cool. So, y’know, you’ll need to give Dags something else to do.”

And it’s instant, the way Rio pops an eyebrow at her, turns better in his chair towards her, leaning slightly over his desk towards her.

“Oh, I will?”

Beth laughs, trying to keep it light, but she can already feel something tightening in her belly, because something on his face is telling her that this isn’t going to be something he compromises on so easily.

“Well, I can’t have him hanging around the kids,” she says, gesturing out with a hand. “I mean, he’s a lovely guy, but they’re going to have no idea what’s happening. It’ll confuse them.”

“And that’s my problem how?”

“I’m not saying it’s your problem,” Beth says, her tone edging defensively, because god, surely he’s got to understand this. “I’m saying I don’t want him hanging around and confusing my children.”

“Oh, okay, well now we know what you’re sayin’,” he says, before planting a hand on his chest. “And what I’m sayin’ is those kids of yours better get used to Uncle Dags out there. Shit, Elizabeth, do you listen? How many times I gotta tell you you ain’t safe right now, and you gonna be even less safe when you’re lettin’ yourself get distracted by math homework and dance class and baby blankets, and I ain’t goin’ there with you again.”

Somewhere outside, one of Rio’s guys laughs, revs an engine, speeds off into the night. The security guard hollering, good natured, in his wake, but Beth doesn’t hear any of it, all Beth hears is Rio – not now, but then – yelling at her in an alley. All she sees is a big yellow envelope with her name on it, and just - -

“Excuse me?”

Rio scoffs, shaking his head at her, jaw setting hard, and Beth leans forwards, her skin prickling with tension, her eyes unblinking, gaze unwavering.

“I never asked you to get that back for me,” she insists. “Don’t - - ”

“Yeah, you ain’t never asked for nothin’, have you, baby?”

It’s cooed, designed to cow, but his hard stare just sucks all the air out of her lungs, and Beth watches him – watches his jaw rock and his hands grip the arm of his chair, and she just feels too hot, feels too much. Beth grits her teeth.  

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll tell Dags he doesn’t work with me anymore myself.”

Rio just laughs, the sound almost melodic, filling up the space between them, and Beth stares hard across at him.

“I can lose him,” she says, and Rio gives her that look he gives her too often – that one that sits somewhere between entertained and furious, which only serves to fan the fire of her own anger.

“Yeah? Gonna get your first speedin’ ticket?”

“I’ll stop letting him into my house for starters.”

And Rio laughs again, louder at that, making her flush, because it’s not like him or any of his boys have ever needed her to let them in, but god, Beth thinks, because it’s the thought of it now – of Dean dropping the kids off, red faced as he picks up the last of his things, Dags at her dining room table, watching, and then Dean lawyering-up because god, he’d take one look at Dags and he’d know, and then he’d come for the kids again, and - - Beth can’t help the noise in the back of her throat.

“Aren’t there other people who need your protection more than me?” she tries, scrambling. “I mean, god, your son - ”

“You think I ain’t got my son taken care of?”

The words are sharp, enough to rip the air from her lungs all over again, and Beth stares at him, mortified, because god, did she really just imply that he was too focused on her to have looked after him? Humiliation burns up her chest as she clenches her hands around the arms of her chair, looks away, back at Rio, away again. She clenches her eyes shut, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry, I - -”  

She should tell him, about Dean, about why, but she just - -

She sucks in a breath.

“Is he okay? Your son?”

“Sure,” Rio says, looking away from her. “He’s on vacation.”

The way he says it – it’s almost flippant, a too easy easy, and Beth takes in the bags under his eyes, the bruise on his jaw, the exhaustion written into his features, and she bites the inside of her cheek.

“Until when?”

Rio looks at her, and then looks away.

“Until I say so.”

It’s final, his tone, terse to even her ears, closing that part of the conversation, and Beth tries to imagine it – Rio alone somewhere. Or not alone, she thinks, and that’s so much worse. She exhales.

“Look, having Dags follow me around is not a solution,” she starts, and Rio sucks in an irritated breath. “I understand that the situation is - - sensitive right now, and I know that’s on me, but I have commitments and responsibilities, plus the job tomorrow now, and - - and like I said before, I can help out more around here too, so I won’t be on my own all the time anyway, and - -”

“It’s either him or it’s me until this shit is handled,” Rio says, cutting her off. “You a liability and you a - - . You’re a target. That’s it. I’m done talkin’ about this.”

He drops his hands heavily back to the desk, starting to organise some of the sheets of paper, fixing them with paper clips, filing them away into the small cabinet beneath, and Beth stares furiously at him, her gaze shifting out the window, and she thinks Dags must have left – can’t see anyone out there anymore – which means Rio plans on coming home with her, and that only makes her even more prickly but also - -

She could groan internally, feeling the heat pooling low in her at the thought, before shaking her head, trying to focus on Rio here instead, not at home, not in her bed. Rio, at the dealership he stole – or, well, legitimately bought off them, but in a really underhanded way, in the office that used to belong to her ex-husband, sitting behind the desk that - - well.

And it’s like he feels it – the shift in her, in the air, and she hates it, because it should be fleeting, but the way he glances up at her, watches her with half-lidded eyes as his hands move easily over the papers, somehow just makes the moment hotter. He files away the last of the papers and then they just - - stare at each other, until suddenly Rio leans back in his seat, practically reclines in it, like some sort of mafia don, which, god, Beth thinks, exhaling, he kind of is, and she’s not sure how the thought manages to both completely infuriate her and make her thighs clench. She doesn’t have much time to think much more of it when he jerks his chin up at her suddenly, catching Beth’s attention again, and says:

“Take your clothes off.”

Beth blinks, flushing instantly.

“Excuse me?”

“Take your clothes off,” Rio repeats easily, sliding a little down in his seat, knitting his hands together on his skinny belly, eyeing her off lazily from the other side of his – her – desk, and at least that posture makes her more annoyed than turned on. Beth rolls her eyes.

“Is that an order, boss?” she asks, voice laden with condescension, and Rio grins at her, dart quick.

“You want it to be?”

And - - oh, Beth thinks, sucking in a breath before she can stop herself, which – god, no, but also - -

“Rio.”

The word hangs heavy in the air between them, and Rio arches an eyebrow in reply, inviting her to keep going, but the words dry up on her tongue.

“The blinds are open,” she says after a minute, but it’s weak, even to her own ears.

“So?”

“So anyone could see us.”

“Everybody’s gone but security, and he’s watchin’ the pills, not us. He won’t come round here.”

She gapes at him, heat crawling up her neck, her chest, up above the collar of her blouse, and she resists the urge to close it there, hide her blush from view. Not that he wouldn’t know – not that he doesn’t know, and she glances over to see him somehow both smug and innocent, the awful, too-handsome lines of his face like something carved just for her, and she can’t quite tear her gaze away from him.  

“You don’t wanna?”

Beth exhales with a huff, refusing to admit it, refusing to not admit it too.

“Coz I think you do,” Rio drawls easily, briefly sucking in his lips as he looks at her. “I think you wanna take off that blouse of yours and those mama jeans, and I think you want me to fuck you on this desk like I offered the last time we were sittin’ here like this.”

She can almost feel how red she is now, breathing heavily, but she can’t bring herself to say anything because - - god, she does want it. Has thought about it more than she cares to admit, and it takes all of her energy not to squirm beneath the unbound weight of his gaze. And he doesn’t even say anything else, just watches her – like he’s going to wait her out, like he’s three steps ahead of her, like he already has her on the desk, and Beth can barely breathe.

Despite herself – and before she can think any more on it – her hands go for the top button of her blouse. His lips twitch in a grin as she swallows thickly, desperate to tear her gaze away from his in embarrassment but - - but not quite able to either. She undoes the top button, then the second, the third, so slowly she almost feels drunk. It’s at the fourth button that Rio finally tears his gaze away from hers, instead fixing it hard on the skin being exposed as she unbuttons her shirt, and there’s something in that that makes her feel powerful. That she can make him break eye contact before she does, and she makes slow, steady work all the way down to the bottom of her shirt, pulling her back off the chair to slide her blouse off her shoulders, exposing a simple, rose pink lace bra.

Rio sucks in his lips again, looking at her hotly, and Beth drops her blouse to the floor beside the chair before standing up. She toes easily out of her slip-on boots, her hands finding the button of her jeans, popping it, before zipping down the fly and shucking out of them altogether. And this isn’t quite so cute, she thinks, avoiding the urge to give into any insecurity over her faded black panties or the marks the waistband of her jeans have left on the soft flesh of her belly.

She bends down, grabbing her pants off the floor to fold them, lower them back to the chair she’s just left, then repeats the motion with her blouse, feeling flushed when she feels Rio’s gaze map the line of her back, feels it like a grip on the swell of her ass as she bends over. She clears her throat, glancing sideways outside, but then quickly averts her gaze again, relieved not to have seen anyone out there, but also just - - sort of mortified that she’s even doing this, but she’s come this far, she reminds herself, reaching behind herself to undo her bra.

“Nuh, not yet,” Rio says suddenly, his voice cutting through the quiet of the office. “C’mere, mami.”  

And it’s not fair, she thinks, that he can seem so contained, little to show for any of this except in the heat in his dark eyes, and she walks slowly towards him, around the desk, moving to stand between his spread legs, but he just shakes his head, tilting his head towards the desk, and right, Beth thinks, feeling the heat pool in her again. The back of her hands find the edge of the desk, and she hauls herself up onto it, the coolness of the wooden top making itself known at the backs of her thighs.

Almost as soon as she’s settled, Rio wheels his chair back in, hands ghosting up her thighs, groping hard at their middles before moving back down to her knees, pushing them apart until he can slide himself easily between them. It’s his breath on the insides of her thighs that make her tremble, and god, he’s barely even touched her yet, and she’s pretty sure she’s soaked through her panties, her thighs already shaking with the strength it’s taking to keep them apart as Rio slides his hands up them. He leans in, pressing a kiss to the inside of her left knee, then her right, before glancing up at her with hooded eyes.

Beth can barely breathe, her belly jumping, her heart racing, and she feels red everywhere, hot and flushed, the blood coursing through her so hard, so close, she can practically feel it at her skin, and her grip grows white knuckled around the desk when he hooks his thumbs in either side of her panties.

“You got no idea,” he rasps. “The things I’d do to you.”

And then it’s so sudden, him yanking her panties off with enough force she almost tumbles off the desk into his lap, tossing them aside, his mouth biting it’s way back up her thighs before he’s pressing his flat tongue at her clit and pushing two fingers inside of her. Beth keens, her body practically on fire at the suddenness of it all, at the quick work Rio makes of undoing her entirely, and she falls back on her elbows to the desk, head dropping back as she tries to find her breath.

“Rio, slow down,” she says desperately, hand going to his head, trying to push him off briefly, but Rio only starts to suck at her clit, making her cry out, hand at his head pulling him closer instead, his own fingers fucking into her, and she’s coming before she can help it, toppling into her orgasm, like she’s been pushed. And hell, maybe she has, with the way Rio laughs into her, pulling off just enough to take a chunk of her thigh in his mouth and bite hard. With a yelp, Beth surges up, grabbing the back of his head again, pulling him off her thigh, and when he just noses back between her folds in retaliation, Beth squares her jaw and firms her hold, pressing him into her cunt, riding up onto his face, because two can play at that game, she thinks breathlessly.

He crooks his fingers inside her, and Beth grits her teeth, staving off her second orgasm, trying to keep it at bay as Rio roughens his tongue against her clit. He grips hard at her thigh, yanking her in closer, and it’s not long before she’s coming again, her orgasm clutching at her like a vice.

Still, Rio keeps going, and Beth groans, pushing his head back off her and lifting a leg to kick at his shoulder, and he laughs again as he pulls his fingers out of her with a wet sound that makes her cringe, and just - - god.

“You damn pushy, you know that,” Rio says above her, wiping his fingers off on thigh, and Beth blinks over at him, glowering, but before she can open her mouth to reply, he just hums, eyes dropping down to her chest. “Yeah, you can take that off now too.”

It takes her a minute to catch up – still boneless from two orgasms in the space of maybe three minutes, but she glances down at herself, utterly naked except for her lace bra and her socks, and she has the good grace to blush, even as Rio plants himself back in his desk chair and reaches for her feet to pull off her socks. She watches him do it, making no moves for her bra, but wriggling her toes as he pulls off her socks, yelping when he tugs on one in retaliation. And just - - god, he’s still fully dressed, the only evidence of their intimacy in the wetness of his lips and the hard line of his cock in his pants, and Beth flushes at the picture of them.

She jabs him in the chest with her foot.

“You’ve got to get undressed too,” she tells him, and Rio pops an eyebrow up at her again, grabbing the foot that had just jabbed him, and yanking on it, so that Beth almost falls off the desk. She scrambles back up it, glaring at him, but he looks amused more than anything else. Still, he unbuttons his shirt, sliding it off before pulling his undershirt off over his head too, and just - - Beth can’t help it, the way it steals her breath.

The solid plains of him, the sharp, hard lines, and god, Dean had never had abs, not even when he was on the football team in highschool, but even at his fittest, he didn’t look a thing like Rio. Everything about Rio is just so defined, and she’s lost in her lust when her gaze stops on one of his scars. On one of the scars she left him, and then - - then she’s not entirely sure what she feels.

Rio doesn’t let her feel anything for long though. Suddenly he’s standing up, pushing her back against the desk and kissing her hotly, so hard she can feel her split lip prick and then the metallic taste of coins slips into her mouth, and god, is there a wound left in her he isn’t capable of unstitching? Beth gasps, and Rio grins, moving away from her lips to bite at her jaw, hands coming up behind her to undo her bra, pull it off her, toss it over the desk and then he’s cupping her breasts, groaning at the weight of them in his hands, and Beth’s starting to wrap her legs around his waist when - - too quickly, too easily - - he’s flipping her over onto her belly.

Her legs flail briefly in the air, realizing she can’t reach the floor this high up on the desk, and so she pushes herself backwards, scooting her body down until her toes hit the floor, moving to flatten her feet, when suddenly Rio grabs her by the hips, hauling her back up onto the desk, leaving her feet to dangle in the air. She gasps, wriggling back again before she can help herself, her legs flailing, but then Rio’s smacking her hard on the ass, making her yelp, she tries to spin over, but he pushes her back down, pressing his crotch hard against her ass, and god, he’s still  mostly clothed, and she’s here naked, pushed over a desk, the blinds open for anyone to see, and she clenches her eyes shut, because it just - - it’s overwhelming. How hot she feels right now.

“Relax, mami, what do I keep tellin’ you? I got you,” Rio hums behind her, stroking a hand slowly across her shoulders then up to the base of her skull, pushing her head gently down. She shivers, squirming back before she can help it, feeling how hard he is through his jeans. Her hands ball into fists on top of the desk as she feels him start to move his hand, to trail his fingers down the knobs of her spine, slowly, slowly, leaving a line of electricity in their wake, and Beth blinks hard, swallows thick, feels herself getting wetter and god – how does he do this to her?

Her toes curl as the pressure of his touch increases, as he reaches her tailbone, his fingers softening again as they ghost over the cleft of her ass and then push back into her cunt. He fucks her roughly with them and it’s too easy for Beth’s eyelids to tremble shut, for her to focus on nothing but the smell and the feel and the sounds of him, and then the sound of his zipper too.

Pulling out his fingers, he slides slowly, restrained, into her, his hips rolling in a way that makes her gasp, her legs twitching in the air, her hands balling into fists on the desk. She rocks her hips back against his, and vaguely she thinks she can hear him saying something to her, but the words won’t compute, not with the slow, too-good stroke of his cock inside her, and Beth’s out of breath by the time he’s buried to the hilt, because god, has he always been this big?

“’Ey,” he says, and then she blinks her eyes back open, feels her face pushed sideways into the desk, can only see him with one eye as he gently tugs her hair out of her line of vision. “You okay?”

She nods, not trusting herself to speak. She reaches a hand back instead, grabs his arm, tries to pull him closer, digs her nails in, hopes that he gets the message, that he hears her, and if his breathless laugh and sudden, hard hip roll is anything to go by, she thinks the answer is yes.

He starts fucking her properly, hips slamming against her, and she keens, nails digging harder into his arm until she has to drop it, banging her fist down onto the desk, feet jerking, trying to get any purchase on the ground, any momentum to thrust back, but like this, she can’t do much more than take it, and even now she knows that was sort of the point.

Circling his hand around to her clit, Beth cries out as he coaxes her to her third orgasm, his own thrusts growing more erratic behind her, and then suddenly he’s pulling out, and Beth’s gasping as he rolls her over onto her back. She blinks, a little blinded by the sudden glare of the office light above her when Rio pulls her back down to the edge of the desk, lines himself up and thrusts back into her. He drops his head to kiss her, then her neck, then her clavicle, before mouthing down her breast, rubbing his stubble in a way that scratches at her nipple, making her gasp, and then he’s pushing deep, deeper still inside her, hitting his climax with a thrust and a shudder.

He sinks his weight down against her chest, and Beth cups the back of his neck, massages it briefly, hears him groan into the swell of her breast, his breath wet enough it makes her shiver.

“Fuck.”

It takes him a moment to raise his head, to look at her properly, his face soft and his eyes dark, and then he leans up to kiss her deeply, practically melting against her mouth, and Beth’s hand tightens on the back of his neck. Stays tight there even as he shifts enough to pull out of her, even when he pulls her up with him and collapses them both down into his desk chair, settling her on his lap. She has to maneuver her jelly legs around the arms of the thing to sort of awkwardly straddle him in a way that doesn’t feel anywhere near as comfortable as she thinks he might have intended it, but still - - it’s nice.

Or it is until he laughs suddenly, and Beth glances down at him, sees him lower a hand to her breast, and she blushes when he lifts it a little before pulling off a paperclip that must’ve stuck itself to her when she was face down on the desk. He flicks it off his finger, the tiny metallic sound of it landing somewhere behind them making Beth roll her eyes.

“Very mature,” she says, moving to slide off him, when Rio instantly swoops down to suck her nipple into his mouth. Beth’s eyes briefly roll back into her head, but she gasps when she feels his hand start to lower to her clit because: “I can’t go again.”

Rio makes a noise like he adamantly disagrees, and god, Beth thinks, grabbing his wrist with her free hand, settling it around her waist, it’s not fair, that it’s this good with him. That it’s even possible to be this good with anyone. Not that she’s sure she’ll be thinking that in the morning – she’s already starting to ache.

“Shoulda kept the carpet,” Rio says suddenly against her breast, and Beth glances down at him, eyebrow raised. “Bet you’d look good with some rug burn.” He looks at her appreciatively, as if imagining it. “On your knees, on your back.” He grabs her ass with both hands, hard enough she gasps, lurching upwards in his grip. “On your ass.”

She squints down at him, her hand still at his neck.

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough damage?”

The words are enough to make him grin – whip fast and earnest in a way that makes her heart stutter in a way Beth has no intention of thinking about any time soon, but still, she’s so focused on that that she almost misses it when he says:

“To you? After the shit you done? Nah.”

Before she can stop herself, Beth sucks in a breath, her gaze dropping down to his chest, to the highest bullet scar, the sudden memory of the gun in her hands colliding with - - just with all of it, with the car and Slav and Rio on the floor of his loft, and she’s still trying to find her breath when Rio’s hand finds her chin, tilting her down to face him.

“I’m just playin’, Elizabeth.”

“How can you even joke about it?”

“Ain’t the first time I’ve been shot, won’t be the last.”

He says it easily, almost casually, but that doesn’t make her feel any better. She sits back a little on his thighs, letting go of his neck, looking away from him, and she needs to get dressed, she needs to get out of here, needs her bed, and her house and her privacy, but most of all she just needs to say it again.

“I’m so sor - - “

“Told you in the car, didn’t I? Had enough o’ that.”

Beth closes her mouth, not without huffing out a breath. She wonders how he can do that. How he can let this go, but then - - she’d forgiven him for shooting Dean, hadn’t he? God, she hadn’t needed to forgive him. She opens her mouth again, to say what, she has no idea, when suddenly there’s a rap against the glass, and Beth reels her head around, gasping when she sees Dags standing awkwardly by the glass office wall, and oh god, Beth thinks - - all her clothes are on the other side of the desk, and just - - she flails forwards, crushing her chest against Rio’s, hiding her face in his shoulder, willing herself not to blush, even when she can feel the heat in every inch of her body and it’s only worse when she feels Rio’s hands come down to squeeze her ass again before they resettle on her back, can feel the soft shake of his chest where he’s laughing underneath her, and then - - the door is opening? And Dags is coming in. Beth wriggles lower, willing the ground to swallow her whole.

“You still need me tonight?” Dags asks, his tone devoid of anything, and Rio hums underneath her.

“Nah, we good. I’ll take her home.”

Dags makes an acknowledging noise which may as well be saying oh, I bet you will, and Beth clenches her eyes shut, trying to ignore the feel of Rio’s hands on her back. She hears Dag’s pad away, the door closing behind him, and Beth still waits another minute before she pinches Rio’s bare side.

“You told me he’d gone.”

“Thought he had,” Rio replies easily with a laugh, and like he can feel her humiliation, adds: “He’s seen worse, trust me.”

And just - - Beth blinks against his chest, because it’s sudden, the thought of watching him hug that other woman, stuck in a car, away from him. Thinks of Dags springing Rio in situations worse than this one, and just - - god, Beth, stop. Nothing good can come from that train of thought.

Besides, she’s not sure if Rio’s waiting for her to probe, or if he’s just got nothing else to say, but they settle into a stranger sort of quiet, Beth’s face still pressed into his shoulder, mostly out of an unwillingness to let Rio see just how red she is, but then - - maybe she likes it too. Maybe she likes the feel of him here, against her, the weight and the heat of him, and she thinks maybe - - maybe he likes too when suddenly she feels his hand jerk away, like he’s only just realized where it had settled and then - - she can’t help it, the sound that escapes her throat, the inhale, because almost as soon as it’s gone, she misses it. It’s nothing, she tells herself, she should get up, should get her clothes on, go home, but then his hand drifts slowly to her back again, softer this time, gentler, like she’s someone who’s fragile, precious, and she’s not, but she thinks maybe this moment is.

She holds her breath, lost in the feel of his hand on her back, the tender stroke of his calloused fingers against her bare skin, and she could stay here all night, but they can’t, because they’re not - - she’s not - -

“You had dinner?”

Beth blinks into his chest.

“No,” she tells his collar bone.

“Cool,” he tells her hair. “Wanna get some?”

Chapter Text

He’s watching her.

That’s the thing, his gaze unblinking, focused, considering, and Beth finally caves, swallowing thickly and waving her chopsticks back at him.

“Okay, it’s good,” she says, and Rio smirks triumphantly, sitting back in his seat at her dining room table, finally returning his attention to the dumplings in front of him. They’d agreed on Chinese for dinner, but he’d been almost offended when she’d suggested the big, kitschy place only a few blocks down from the dealership (“That shit ain’t real, you know that? It’s all Americanised. You may as well be eatin’ McDonalds or somethin’.”)  Instead, he’d taken her to a tiny little place almost twenty minutes away in his car, a place that avoided the typical Sweet and Sour Pork and Cashew Chicken and instead offered a range of things she’d never heard of. It even smelled different, she’d thought, and she’d let Rio order to go.

He hadn’t wanted to eat in after all. Had made a vague allusion to the place being too established, too known, and despite the way he’d swaggered into the restaurant like he’d owned the place, Beth had been able to recognise the set to him for what it was. He was almost too alert, every sudden movement, shuffle, sound catching his attention and holding it only long enough for him to clock it, file it, and deem it not a threat.

It had only served to put Beth on edge too, and she’d been more relieved than she’d cared to admit when their food had come out and they’d both ended up back in the car to her place.

“Told you,” he tells her easily now, grabbing the container of rice to soak up the sauce still in his bowl, and Beth hums happily, grabbing another dumpling with her chopsticks.

“What did you call them?”

“Xiao Long Bao. You can ask for soup dumplin’s when you’re orderin’ though and they’ll know what you’re talkin’ about.”

Which makes sense, she thinks, popping the dumpling in her mouth, her teeth breaking the soft dough of the dumpling, leaving a hot, salty, gingery broth to spill out around her teeth. She moans a little, resting back in her chair, because it really is that good, and across the table, Rio glances up at her, laughs, before refocusing on filling his bowl with seconds (or maybe thirds), and it’s sudden then – the memory of the last time they were at this table, the last time he laughed here, Dean beside him, bound up and bloody, the way Rio had slid her his gun.

“You wanna be the king, you gotta kill the king.”

She blinks.

Hard.

“How do you find these places anyway?” she asks, changing the subject, and at his questioning look, she adds: “The café, the bar, this place. I’d never heard of any of them.”

Rio just snorts.

“Yeah, that ain’t sayin’ much, darlin’.”

Which is unfair to say the least, Beth thinks, squinting across the table at him. She grabs one of the vegetable dishes, spooning some into her bowl.

“I know a lot of places,” she says. “Everyone on the PTA says they follow my Yelp reviews.”

It’s enough to make Rio glance back up at her, sit back in his seat, one of his big hands cupping his bowl to his chest, eyeing her off across the table, and she can see him trying to bite back his grin, trying to swallow it whole as he uses his chopsticks to swirl the rice around in the sauce in his bowl.

“Yeah?” he asks. “Why’s that?”

“I write very good reviews. Very fair,” Beth insists, watching as he pops a piece of chicken into his mouth. He chews languidly, unable to quite hide his amusement now, and Beth sits up a little straighter, weirdly annoyed, because she’s pretty sure he’s making fun of her.

“Nah,” he decides. “Bet you one of those people who eats whatever they put in front of you, even if they bring you the wrong dish. Bet the lowest ratin’ you’ve ever given is three stars.”

Which - - okay, Beth splutters briefly, feeling a heat rise to her cheeks, because it’s not fair, how quickly he can do that. How easily he can read her and know her and just - -

“It’s hard to work in the service industry,” she insists, willing her blush away. God, she’s heard too many stories from Ruby and Annie. “And mistakes like that are usually because they’re really busy or - - or stressed, or something’s happened, and besides, sometimes it’s even a good thing. You get to try things you wouldn’t necessarily have ordered.”

“That you didn’t order,” Rio corrects, still amused, and Beth glares at him across the table.

“You win more flies with honey,” Beth says, pointing at him with her chopsticks. “I’d know. Back when I used to work at Dairy Queen, I - -”  

And Rio just laughs at that, loud, delighted almost, and Beth blinks, looking back at him, her eyes wide, trying to figure out what exactly is so funny about that.

“What?”

“Dairy Queen, huh?”

“It was a hard job,” Beth insists, and Rio leans forward, plants his elbow on the table, his chin on his hand, nodding.

“Bet it was,” he says sympathetically, and Beth squints, not quite trusting him. “For you especially, huh?”

Beth blinks, confused, when suddenly Rio drops his eyes to her chest, and right, Beth thinks with a scowl. She throws a chopstick at him.

He dodges it easily, laughing again, and Beth resists the urge to get up and collect the chopstick, which is now on the floor behind him. Instead, she reaches over and steals one of his.

“Do you have to make everything so - -”

“So what?” he asks innocently, and Beth rolls her eyes, grabbing a mouthful of bok choy, and she hates it, the way even the vaguest euphemism from him can send a heat flooding her veins, can leave it rushing to pool low in her. She shifts, trying to ignore it, but it’s no good – the movement only reminds her of how much she aches already, the bruises on her hips from where he’d fucked her into his – her old – Dean’s old desk, the hickies on her neck that his eyes keep dropping to, just the general, muscular soreness of being that well seen to, and she glowers at him across the table, because it’s his fault and it’s not fair, that she can still feel him inside her.

“You like it,” she tells him. “You like - -”

But she doesn’t even really know how to finish that sentence. Knows what she means – that he likes throwing her off kilter, that he likes sweeping the floor out from underneath her – literally and figuratively. The memory of her feet scrambling in the air off the desk still fresh, but then, the memory of them in that bathroom stark too, the way she’s gasped, startled, when he’d hiked her in the air that first time, like she weighed nothing at all, leaving her legs to dangle freely beneath her.

He’s looking at her now, amused, waiting for her to finish but looking like he knows she won’t, and she exhales a hard breath, the spark of competition in her gut, so she just - - says it.

“You like it when I’m flailing and you get to pretend to be the cool, calm one.”

“Pretend?”

She thinks of him, red hot with anger, yelling at her in alleys, breaking figurines, clutching a tire iron.

“Pretend,” she insists, stabbing one of the non-soupy dumplings with her chopstick, waving it at him. “I know you better than that now. You act like I’m the one who’s all - - messy, but you’re just as bad as me. Maybe worse.”

He laughs again at that, sitting back in his chair, arms folded across his chest this time, bowl back on the table, as he watches her sort of furiously eat a dumpling, his gaze heavy with amusement but also - - something else too. Something a little hot, something that only curls in her all the better.

“Maybe I just like how easy it is to get a rise outta you,” he purrs, and Beth gives him a look.

“You like to be in control,” she corrects, and Rio concedes to that one at least, tilting his head to the side like a sort of deference and it’s so sudden, the spark of heat that sends through her too.

“Like, even when we’re - - you like it your way,” Beth says, and god, why is she still talking? But suddenly she can’t stop. it’s not like she can talk to anyone else about it - - not like she can ever let Annie or Ruby know about the bathroom or the way he’d kept Dean’s old desk just to bend her over it, and - - god. He’s just staring at her now, amused still, but a little hot too, when he says:

“You don’t?”

Which - - well.

“When have you ever let me have things my way?”

“Not about lettin’, mami, you want it your way, you gotta make it happen.”

And he makes it sound so easy, makes it sound like wanting something, taking something doesn’t get you three gangbangers in your kitchen and everything that falls out of that. Makes it sound like it doesn’t get her panties torn and her legs in the air in a seedy bathroom before losing her half her business to said-panty-ripper and his crowbar. The thought makes her scoff, dropping her chopsticks and raising an eyebrow at him.

“Please. Life might work for you that way, but that’s not how it works for me.”

“I dunno about that,” he replies. “Got me followin’ you, didn’t it?”

Which - - okay, Beth sits up a little taller, looks at him again, says: “Every time,” just to see how he’ll react, and when he sucks in his lower lip, jerks his chin down as if to concede, Beth feels herself go hot, from her cheeks to her toes. She scoffs again, mouth suddenly dry.

“Is this the part where I just crawl across the table to you and make it happen,” she says it, mostly joking, mocking, waving her hand, and Rio just laughs.

“If you want to,” he replies easily, sitting back in his chair, and Beth sarcastically says, “Ha ha,” and Rio looks back at her, drops his hands to his narrow belly, spreads his legs a little wider, like he’s waiting for it, and no, Beth thinks, swallowing thickly. No, he doesn’t get to - - she thinks, as she stands up, definitely not, she thinks, clambering, wobbly, onto the table, almost planting a hand in a stir fry container.

Just stop, she thinks, her lips parting, cheeks flushed, as she crawls towards him, his eyes on her, hot and too pleased, like he can and can’t believe she’s actually doing this, and look, it’s not the breakfast dishes, but it’s close.

 

*

 

Her phone’s ringing.

She can hear it, cutting through the quiet, through the early morning light, and Beth groans, pushing her aching body up in her bed, rolling over, flailing an arm out, and she’s less surprised than she cares to admit when she finds the bed empty beside her. Blinking, she sits up, pulling the sheet with her as she does it, and grabbing her phone, finding Ruby’s number blearing back at her.

Holding it to her ear, she mumbles out a, “Hi,” trying to ignore the aches in practically every part of her body, and - -

“We found her, B,” Ruby sounds a little breathless, and Beth blinks, her head reeling.

“What?”

“We found Mary Pat,” Ruby says, and Beth blinks again, harder this time, sitting up straighter, holding the sheet tighter up over her still-naked (and bruised and bitten and wrecked) body. “And if we’re going to do this, we’ve gotta to it now.”

“What? Why?”

It takes Ruby a moment to respond, the mouthpiece covered, and vaguely Beth can hear Annie ranting in the background, her voice loud saying something about a betrayer and then Ruby’s back on.

“She ran into Tyler at Fine and Frugal and that sweet, summer child might have told her we were looking for her. He thought he was helping.”

“Jesus,” Beth says, scrubbing at her face, her mind already working in overdrive. She glances back over to the empty spot in the bed beside her where Rio was when she went to sleep, where the sheets are still crumpled from his body and she wonders briefly if his smell is still lingering there, and then that thought sends her reeling. She shakes her head, suddenly feeling - - weird, to say the least. She tries to get back on track. “Okay, well, we’ve got Golf for Gallbladders at three.”

“Think we can do both?”

Ruby sounds uncertain, but Beth just remembers Rio’s hesitance over letting them do this at all yesterday, which wouldn’t exactly be an issue if she didn’t have her Rio-prescribed shadow in Dags, and Beth doesn’t really fancy her chances of getting rid of him.

“Give me half an hour?” she says, and Ruby makes a sound of agreement, hanging up, and it’s only then that Beth finds a text on her phone from an unknown number, and she blinks, heart stuttering when she realises that - - finally - - after all this time, it’s Rio’s.  

She opens the message to read:

Dags in your kitchen. Might wanna put some panties on.

And typical, Beth thinks throwing her phone to the other end of her bed with a groan.

 

*

 

This is where she’s living?”

“Apparently,” Ruby says, squinting through the window of Beth’s minivan at the house, and honestly? It really is nice.

When Ruby had texted Beth the address after their phone call this morning, she’d almost thought it was a mistake. It’s not exactly a high-end part of town, but it’s a far cry from the more run-down sections of suburbia Mary Pat was living in before she - -

Well, Beth thinks, almost laughing.

Chopped up her dead husband’s body, extorted them, and ran over her fiancé.

Annie suddenly lurches forwards across the back seat, shoving Ruby’s shoulder hard, making her yelp and spin around to glare at where Annie sits in the backseat beside Dags.

“Why didn’t you tell me going to church could get me this sort of set-up? I could do a few Hail Mary’s for a place like this.”

“Please,” Ruby says. “It’s a miracle you didn’t catch fire at Harry’s baptism.”

They immediately start bickering over how a church can even own a house like this - - and they don’t – it belongs to one of the cousins of the pastor apparently, who’s letting Mary Pat housesit over the summer after all the trauma of the FBI and her fiancé rising (in a decidedly un-Christlike fashion) from the grave. Ruby had actually been the one to figure it out – asking her own pastor to ask around – feigning worry for her friend at another parish, and he’d only been too eager to help.

Beth glances back at Dags, who looks something between amused and annoyed watching Annie and Ruby argue, and god, Beth’s still not even sure how they got Dags to come along for this. He’s been more inclined for Beth to stay at home until the fallout of Slav’s death is over, but then, he’s already chaperoning them to Golf for Gallbladders this afternoon, so perhaps he feels this is just a pitstop. Still, she bites her lip.

“What do you think?” she asks him quietly, and Dags blinks back at her.

“About the house? Not really my style,” and Beth rolls her eyes at the joke, leaving Dags to crack a grin. Before she can reply, he keeps going: “Any chance she’s armed?”

It certainly shuts Annie and Ruby up, both of their heads spinning around to face Dags, but Beth had thought about that, and she nods, swallowing thickly. Dags raises both his eyebrows, nods a little, like it’s a surprise, which maybe it is.

“Any chance she might shoot?”

And - - well.

“Yes,” Beth says, glancing back at Annie and Ruby, who both look sobered now. “I think so.”

“Her husband was a hunter,” Annie adds, pulling the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands, rubbing them nervously against her legs. “And she’s like - - insane, so.”

“But she also knows us,” Ruby counters. “The bitch has come to us for help.”

And she has. Beth still remember her teary eyed on her doorstep, showing her the photo of Boomer on her phone. Still remembers her sitting opposite them in her living room, dead-eyed as she told them about what had happened (and what had not happened) to Boomer too.

Dags considers this, seems to turn the thought over in his head, and then finally looks straight at Beth.

“I’m not him,” he tells her, and Beth blinks, sits back in her seat, flushing as she shakes her head, because that’s not what she meant (or maybe it was?) but before she can get a word out, Dags keeps talking. “And fuck, he wouldn’t know what to do either. He doesn’t know her. You know her. Seems like you guys know her pretty fucking well. Only thing you need to be asking me is how many rounds I got. Only thing you need to be telling me is where you want me,” he pauses then, just for a minute, before he adds, “Boss up, boss.”

And Beth can’t quite bite back her grin.

 

*

 

She thinks maybe it’s the church-thing, that makes the place so easy to break into. The door unlatching with a few quick twists of Annie’s practiced hand, and instantly they can hear Mary Pat – changing the diaper of her youngest in the other room, chattering away to him like he has any control over his bowel movements, and it’s almost too easy, Beth thinks, to haul herself up onto the kitchen island, to cross her legs, lean back on her hands as Ruby arches an eyebrow but stays standing, pressing her back against the kitchen island beside her, and Annie stops too, on the other side, while Dags moves behind them.

It’s almost too easy to wait.

And it’s not for long anyway, Mary Pat laying the baby down and heading out of the room, her hair back over her shoulder, her flannel shirt marked with baby vomit, and Beth watches her easily, waits until she’s almost  at the bathroom down the hall before she says:

“You know, with your history, I’d really be investing in better locks.”

The yell is loud, hoarse, and Mary Pat spins around, seeing them, her eyes growing wide, wild almost, before darting towards the lone exit of the house behind them. Beth smiles and Mary Pat scowls, her jaw thrusting out as she drops her hands to her hips, refusing to move.

“Why are you in my house?” she calls down the hallway, and Beth widens her eyes dramatically.

“Oh! This is yours?” she asks, glancing over at Ruby. “I thought it was - - ”

“Artie Evans’,” Ruby hums. “Pretty lucky. Housesitting for someone with more kids than you.”

“Five, right?” Beth asks her. “I can never tell if another one would be harder than four, or if it would just be another one, you know? Do you ever wonder that?”

She refocuses her attention on Mary Pat then, calling to her down the hallway, sees her swallow thickly, sees her look behind Beth to Dags.

“What do you want?” she says, voice raised, and Beth shrugs, finally jumping down off the kitchen island, the heels of her boots clicking as she starts down the hallway towards her.

“Just to talk,” she says, and Mary Pat starts twitching back, her eyes big.

“About what?”

“Oh,” Beth says, the memory hitting her all at once. “About the money you stole from us.”

 

*

 

Mary Pat scowls.

“I don’t know how you expect me to get money for you,” she tells them after they’ve settled in the living room – away from any easy exits – and Beth folds her arms across her chest, rolls her eyes.

“How did you expect us to get you ten thousand dollars a month?”

That’s enough to make Mary Pat flounder, to twitch a hand up by her temple.

“Well, you have - - connections,” she insists, her eyes flicking to where Dags stands in the doorway, his face carefully blank. “And you know there’s three of you, and you have - - well, your husbands are alive to help you, which is just - - ”

Her lip quivers, and it’s Ruby this time who rolls her eyes.

“Bitch, you chopped your husband up and put him in a meat freezer.”

And - - okay, Beth hears Dags swallow a noise and maybe she should’ve told him that in advance.

The words are enough to make Mary Pat firm though, her lip curl, her eyes spark furiously back at them, which would maybe mean anything if Beth hadn’t seen it too many times before, if she hadn’t been faced all too recently with threats far greater than Mary Pat’s manipulations.

“Yeah and you got rid of his body, so.” she says, goading, and Annie scoffs while Beth turns away from Mary Pat, her step careful, confident, as she wanders back towards where Annie and Ruby stand towards the back of the living room, and she’s still facing them, when she asks:

“Says who?”

The room is quiet for a moment, two, maybe three, and she feels Annie and Ruby’s eyes on her, confused as to what she’s doing, and Beth glances up at them, smiles, before painting on an innocent expression and spinning back to face Mary Pat.

“You - - I - - ” Mary Pat stutters, eyes wide, unblinking as she stares at Beth. Finally, she finds her tongue, setting her jaw. “Me.

Beth widens her eyes even further, bats them a little, in that way she knows makes her all eyelashes and baby blues.

“Yeah? How do you know that?”

There’s the dull smell in the house of TV-dinners, of dirty diapers, of pre-pubescent boys. It’s strange, how ill at ease it sits with the fashionable Swedish design of the house, something that’s all clean lines and bold colours, like it’s a constant reminder of how much this house doesn’t belong to Mary Pat, and there’s something in that - - that reminds Beth of - -

Well.

Of all of it.

“See, the way I see it is that you’ve already filed a false police report with Turner – which you’re lucky they’re not prosecuting you for. You’re also the one cashing in your dead husband’s disability checks, so I really don’t think you want to be drawing any more attention to yourself, at least not as long as we still have his body.”

“Which, hey,” Annie says behind them, gesturing to Mary Pat. “You gave to us.”

“You did give him to us,” Beth agrees with a nod, gentle almost, and Mary Pat turns a particular shade of purple. Beth steps a little closer. “In fact, you gave him to us while trying to make us handle your problem, which is kinda funny, given you’ve really been one of our problems. But I think we can move past that. Even help each other out.”  

Mary Pat pauses at that, her gaze flicking from Beth to Annie and Ruby, something intrigued spiking through her resentment, and Dags was right, Beth thinks with a smile. She does know Mary Pat. Knows exactly how much she smells out an opportunity.

“Okay, so we help each other out. I pay you back the twenty-thousand dollars and then what? What do I get?”

“Oh, it’s a lot more than twenty-thousand dollars,” Beth says easily, and Mary Pat splutters.

Before she gets the chance to say a word, Beth folds her arms across her chest and keeps going.

“You honestly didn’t think we’d forget about that?” Beth says. “We paid you $20,000 after you failed to wash - - how much was it?”

“100g,” Annie says sharply, and Beth clicks her fingers, nodding.

 “Right, after you failed to wash 100g for us. So we had to wash it. We also handled that situation for you, what with your husband’s body, which you know - - it wasn’t easy. Last we heard too the going rate for that is - -”

She looks at Ruby this time, who gives her an impressed look back, lips twitching into a grin.

“I think that might be 200g as well.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, almost faux bashful, looking between Annie and Ruby. “Was there anything else?”

“The groceries at Fine and Frugal,” Annie says quickly, firmly, staring straight past Beth to Mary Pat, her jaw locked. “Sixty-four dollars.”

“Sixty-four dollars,” Beth agrees, turning back to Mary Pat. “So that is three-hundred, twenty thousand and sixty four dollars. Once you’ve paid that back, we’ll negotiate a new arrangement.”

And Mary Pat just - - stares for a minute, her gaze wavering, and Beth almost feels bad – how she can see Mary Pat’s mind short circuiting, but then she thinks about what she’s put them through, what Beth’s been through since, and Rio’s promise.

Dominic, she thinks, resisting the urge to touch the bruises on her neck.

“How?” Mary Pat asks, her voice tight, and Beth looks at her, blinks innocently, shrugs.

“You’ll figure it out. How about we start it at the rate you wanted? Ten thousand by the end of the month.”

“And if I don’t get it?”

Dags steps forwards, pulls the gun out of the back of his pants, holding it easily in front of him now, and Mary Pat’s eyes widen dramatically, her gaze fixed and Beth wrinkles her nose a little, glancing back at Mary Pat.

“Yeah, I really don’t think you want to find out,” she says. “See you in a month.”

 

*

 

“I wish we’d filmed it,” Annie says, still grinning wide as she pulls on her white polo shirt with the bright pink collar. “Did you see the look on her face when you were all you’ll figure it out? She was totally imagining sticking you in her meat freezer.”

Beth rolls her eyes, but can’t quite bite back her grin either. It had gone even better than she’d expected, the role fitting her too easily, too well, and god, it’s strange – how pleased she was that Dags was there, knowing that he’d tell Rio, and - -

“We’ve got to focus,” Beth tells her, adjusting her white turtleneck and navy golf skirt. “This is a scouting job, but we need to be on our a-game.”

Because handling Mary Pat was one thing. This job? It’s so much more. She needs this to work. Needs this to go well, needs to prove that this is her now, the real her, the one she’s been trying to be since - -

God, she doesn’t even remember.

Needs to prove it to him, but more than that - - she needs to prove it to herself.

She stuffs the handful of their fake cash into her bra, and together they head on out.

 

*

 

Beth’s never been a fan of golf.

She thinks that’s in no small part because her dad used to play, used to use it as an excuse to stay away from home, avoid their mother, to justify it as his time, like his life wasn’t his time, away from his children, away from all of them. It startles her sometimes, the visceral reaction she has to it, even when Dean used to put it on the TV – her urge to throw something through the screen bubbling out of her like the mere mention of it was a hot plate underneath her, and she was simmering over it, and - -

Well. Beth stands up a little straighter, grabbing one of the glasses of champagne off the tray that the waiter is bringing around, Dags himself lost in conversation with one of the other guy’s down on the green, talking about clubs and balls and holes and whatever else it is about this sport that makes men feel like men. She rolls her eyes, tuning briefly back into conversation with Lauren while her eyes dart out across the green, spotting Annie working the crowd, lingering near the picnic table with the money kitty – a glass jar filled with notes about as tall as Annie’s torso, chattering away to the kids – Kourtney’s, apparently, who are set to guard it.

Speaking of whom – Ruby’s done a good job of cornering Kourtney on one of the courses, talking loudly to her about how important these sorts of fundraisers are – as someone with a sick daughter, she’d know, y’know – and Beth can’t quite help her own grin, throwing back the last of her champagne, excusing herself from Lauren and heading towards Annie and the money kitty.

Their cash is burning a hole against her chest – tucked into her bra, and it’s only a test, Beth reminds herself, but it’s also so much more. So much pressure on this one moment, this one instant, to really make this work. Striding across the grass, across the event, dodging women getting progressively drunker and men swinging clubs, Beth meets eyes with Annie, watching as she interrupts the flow, says something to the kids at the money kitty that sends them bolting after her and god, it’s almost too easy, Beth thinks, making careful steps towards it.

She looks sideways at where Ruby is still talking to Kourtney, asking a million questions about the charity, just like they’d planned, where Annie is keeping watch, playing with Kourtney’s children now, and finally Beth slips one of her hands into her turtle neck, reaching for the notes in her bra, feigning wiping sweat away, and she’s getting so close – eyes on the jar, on the loosened seal. If she can just drop her hand in – feign a donation, even swap it out, she - -

“Beth?”

Beth blinks, turning suddenly and just - -

Tom?” she flusters, flushes, clearing her throat. Tries to paint on a warm smile. “What are you doing here?”

He smiles at her, but it’s a little uncertain, waving his champagne glass towards the course. And god, he’s every bit as handsome as she remembers – tall and broad-jawed, sandy haired, his cheeks flushed in the afternoon heat. It’s so strange, to see him out of the markets, but then again, it’s not so strange to see him here. Beth shifts beneath his gaze, and Tom’s smile only grows more awkward.

“Same thing you are, I suspect,” he says, and Beth makes a noise in the back of her throat. “The invite came through the PTA at the girls’ school, so I figured I’d check it out.  Kourtney’s certainly put in a big effort.”

“Seriously,” Beth agrees quickly, glancing over at where Ruby’s still talking to her, scrambling for something innocuous to say. “I can’t imagine doing something like this.”

“Please,” Tom says, waving a hand at her. “What you’re doing at the markets – and with your online store too, all while raising four kids? That’s a hell of a lot more than throwing a party to get parents drunk and empty their wallets for a charity that may or may not exist.”

Which - - huh, Beth thinks, smiling, more amused than anything.

She hadn’t thought anyone else here would’ve realised. Then again, Tom isn’t anyone else.

“Right?” she says. “Golf for gallbladders? What is that?”

He laughs, shrugs, takes a sip of his champagne.

“Ask me, it’s a scam,” he tells her. “And not a particularly good one at that. I think I might save my donations for something endorsed by the National Council of Nonprofits.”

Beth nods in agreement, biting the inside of her cheek as she sees Annie step into her peripheral vision, gesture – in the movement they’d agreed upon – to see if she needs help, and probably, Beth thinks, shifting her weight, seeing Tom gesture for another drink for both of them from the waiter.

“Gotta say I saw the guy you came in with,” he tells her, and Beth’s gaze snaps back towards him, seeing him wobble slightly – drunker than she’d thought, and something in her belly clenches in guilt. “Looks like I was never going to be your type.”

Watching him, Beth carefully takes a step back, resisting the urge to drop a hand to his arm, to steady him. Instead she shifts her weight again, tries to disentangle herself from this - - from him.

“He’s just a friend,” Beth says, eyes darting across to where Dags is still comparing golf clubs on the green, and Tom leans a little closer again, says:  

“But the other guy?”

And, well.

Beth doesn’t think there’s a way she could possibly answer that.

Tom seems to get it at least, looking at her with eyes that are almost - - mournful, and she doesn’t quite know what to make of that when he says:

“I hope you’re happy,” before lowering his voice conspiratorially. “And keep your name out of the papers. This whole thing is five minutes away from an IRS audit. Someone like you really shouldn’t be involved.”

He smiles softly at her, like he knows a thing about her, carting off across the crowd, and right, Beth thinks, turning around, striding back towards the kitty. She steels herself as she scribbles down a name on the list of donors, slipping her fake bill into the kitty, and spinning around.

God, she’s sick of men thinking that they know her.

And hell, this goes belly up? It won’t be her involved after all.

On the list of donors, the name Mary Pat Warner burns bright.

 

*

 

“Green,” Beth guesses, and Jane giggles, shaking her head.

“Noooo,” she titters, and Beth paints a faux serious expression on her face.

“Hmm,” she hums, pulling Jane’s nightie over her head, before grabbing her arms underneath it and tugging them up through the sleeves too.

“Purple?”

The guess makes Jane burst into a fresh set of giggles, her cheeks flushed, her eyes closed.

“You’re silly, mommy,” she tells her, and Beth grins, picking Jane up and walking her backwards to bed. Guessing what colour something is that Jane saw (a dog at the park today) is always one of Jane’s favourite games when she’s tired, particularly when the answers make no sense – like imagining a green retriever is the fastest way to get her exhausted little head happy and ready for dreamland, and Beth can’t say she doesn’t have fun with it too.

Dean had been later than she’d expected dropping the kids off, and all in all, it had worked out well – giving Beth, Ruby and Annie the chance to debrief, to talk about issues with the day (running into Tom, the security guards at the golf club itself, the attention of the party generally) and the benefits of it (by the end of it, much of the party was so drunk, Beth thinks she could have swapped the kitty for a sports bag of their cash and nobody would’ve been the wiser). Still, Beth had thought, it was doable. The event had raised $7,000 and their note had passed through the count unidentified. If they volunteered to be counters for Kourtney, they’d be able to swap the whole haul out for their cash easily enough.

All in all, Beth was feeling good.

“I give up,” she says, pulling back Jane’s sheets and laying her down in bed. She leans close, brushes a strand of hair off her daughter’s face, and waits for Jane to give her the answer.

“He was caramel,” Jane tells her authoritatively, and Beth makes a dutifully impressed face at that. “And his eyes were the biggest in the world and they were black.”

Beth opens her mouth to reply to that when she hears something downstairs – a voice, Dags’ voice, and then another that can only be Rio’s. The changing of the guard, she thinks, even as something in her chest stutters.

The kids had handled Dags’ presence surprisingly well – Beth having made up an excuse about him being a distant relative from out of town who’d stopped by to help her with her business (not an outright lie exactly, after all), and they’d all taken it in their stride. Kenny had even been impressed by his tattoos, which Beth really didn’t want to entertain the thought of for too long.

“Bigger than Buddy’s?” Beth asks now, and Jane nods adamantly before her little mouth forms a neat ‘O’ as she yawns. “Maybe you can draw me a picture tomorrow.”

Jane nods, and Beth leans down to kiss her forehead, whispering a good night there, before getting back to her feet. Emma and Danny are already in bed, and she can hear Kenny up, playing on his computer, but Beth skips him for now – figures he has an hour before bed anyway – and heads downstairs.

She hears the side door close, and blinks, finally getting to the kitchen, surprised to see Rio there alone, pouring two glasses of bourbon. She stops for a moment, assessing the situation, before letting her socked feet pad across the foyer towards him.

“Has Dags gone for the night?”

Rio hums in affirmation, and Beth strides closer, finding excitement sparking in her gut at the prospect of telling him about the day. It had felt like a win. More than a win. Rio had trusted her enough to give her his number again, she’d handled Mary Pat, and she could get the charity scam to work. She’s buzzing again as she approaches him, only to stop with a gasp.

At the sound, he looks up at her, and his face - - god. All the wounds from last week with Slav have reopened – the cut at his eyebrow, at his lip, the bruises on his face replaced with new ones, his cheek swollen.

“What happened?” she asks, suddenly breathless, striding over to him with more purpose. She rounds the counter, tries to touch his face, but he moves too easily away from her, passing her one of the glasses of bourbon instead. He clinks their glasses, takes a drink of his, and Beth huffs out a breath, throws her drink back in one swallow, drops the glass back to the counter and jerks her head, gesturing them towards her bedroom.

She’s not entirely expecting him to follow, but beelines there anyway, heading straight for her en suite, pulling out the first aid kit from beneath the sink, and striding back through her bedroom, prepared to seek him out, only to stop all over again, surprised.

Because there he is, sitting heavily on her bed, his bourbon glass newly topped up as he watches her, and Beth just. Pauses. Shifts her weight, her hands tightening on the first aid kit in her hands. Something in her gut feels uncertain suddenly – tentative, perhaps. She looks away, finally shaking her head, feeling him watching her as she strides over, sits on the bed beside him, a leg curled beneath her as she moves sideways to face him.

“What happened?” she asks again, and this time he waves a hand out at her, like all of this is nothing, shifting heavily to the edge of her bed, and Beth frowns, pulling a snap ice-pack out of her first aid kit, snapping it, and leaning in close to push it against his slow-swelling eye. He sucks in a breath, jerks back a little, and Beth pulls it away.

“Sorry,” she says. “It’ll help with the swelling though.”

And he gives her a look at that – like no shit, like she’s forgetting who he is, and Beth rolls her eyes, pushing it a little harder against the bruise than is probably necessary in retaliation. She doesn’t forget – not really, but if he doesn’t talk to her, she just doesn’t know what he knows, and - - sure, it’s probably logical to think he probably knows the basics of wound care at this point in his life, but still.

Beth frowns, guilt spiking in her gut as her eyes flick down to his chest, to where she - -

She shakes her head, glad that he can’t see her face through the ice-pack.

“Where were you today?” she asks instead, and when he doesn’t reply, she keeps going. “Were you meeting with somebody? Was it…” she stumbles a little. “Was it Slav’s guys?”

When he doesn’t reply to that either, she grabs his hand, the one not holding the glass, forcing it up to replace hers on the ice pack and rocking back onto the bed, she pulls out some antiseptic, some painkillers, some little scraps of wound dressing she hopes she won’t really need.

“I’m going to keep asking questions until you start answering, so you may as well just - -”

“Slav’s guys ain’t the only people around town, and they definitely ain’t the only people needin’ handlin’.”

His voice is gruff, the sentence somehow finite, and Beth stares at him for a moment, not quite sure what to do with that answer. He shifts enough that he can see her, looks back at her, unblinking, his face carefully neutral, like he’s seeing what she’ll do with that information, and god - - Beth doesn’t know either. Knows there are other operations – met with them, but Rio gives her so little, and seems to operate so highly, and - -

She shakes her head, smiles at him softly, tries to hold onto today’s success – onto last night, thinks about him eating dumplings with her, laughing with her, fucking her in her dining room and again in her bed and - -  

“Sometimes I feel like you model your business after Santa,” she says lightly, before she can stop herself. “Like you’ve got a naughty and a nice list. Only I guess the people on your naughty list aren’t exactly getting a lump of coal at the end of the year as punishment.”

She exhales a soft laugh, still sorting through the first aid kit, and - - well, it certainly surprises him at least, if the look on his face is anything to go by. After a second, he huffs out a laugh too, rolling his eyes at her.

“Nuh, mami, they ain’t getting’ no lump of coal.”

She looks up at him then, her smile fading when she sees that he isn’t smiling, and she wets her lips, blinks softly. Bites the inside of her cheek.  

“And I guess not every punishment can wait until the end of the year.”

“Now you catchin’ on,” he tells her, pressing the ice pack a little tighter to his face, and Beth looks back down at the first aid supplies in front of her, away from him. Ends up grabbing the antiseptic tube, dabbing some onto a tissue, pulling the ice pack away, dropping it to the bed, and touching the tissue to his re-split eyebrow.

They’re quiet for a minute – the only sound their breaths and the pat of the antiseptic on his forehead and vaguely, far away, the sound of Kenny playing video games upstairs, and she should leave all of this tonight, but the urge to tell him is too much, and so finally she just says it:

“I handled my rotten egg today.”

Rio looks at her, his eyes unblinking, his mouth curved into a very-almost-smile, and that’s all it takes for Beth’s lower lip to pout and god, she wishes she could’ve stopped that.

“Dags already told you,” she says knowingly, and Rio snorts on a laugh, but he gives her maybe the warmest look he’s given her tonight, and Beth’s stomach lurches.

“You know, I can’t say that I love being spied on?”

“Ain’t spyin’ if you know he’s there,” Rio replies. “Ain’t my fault or his you and your lady friends about as subtle as a car alarm. Shit, ma, you invited him in with you. What’d you think he was gonna do?”

She gives him a dirty look, because she didn’t exactly invite him in with them given Rio’s orders made the guy practically her shadow, she just also thought it would take him longer to tell Rio than it did. Still, she caves, all her pride from earlier today bubbling back to the surface.

“What’d he say?” she asks, fishing a little, and Rio pops his un-split eyebrow, knowing what she’s doing, but still, he grins at her.

“Said you were pretty dope,” he replies, and Beth flushes warmly, giggling before she can stop herself.

“I was, you know?” she says, and he just hums at her. “Did he tell you that I was also dope at the Golf for Gallbladders event?”

Rio huffs a little, but something on his face changes.

“Said you did good, yeah,” he says, and Beth’s grin widens, but before she can say anything, Rio adds:

“We ain’t gonna be doin’ that though.”

And just - -

What?

Beth flounders, lowering her arm. She looks over his face, seeking - - what, she doesn’t know. Some sort of answer, some sort of anything, but when she doesn’t get anything, she just swallows thickly, grabbing the antiseptic tube again, dabbing some a little more aggressively on a fresh tissue. She shakes her head.

“Well I haven’t talked to you about it yet,” she says. “Dags doesn’t know all the ins-and-outs and like all the - - the logistics and all the perks.”

Rio just stares at her, and Beth tries to lighten her tone, tries to regain some of the warmth from a few seconds ago. She shrugs her shoulders as easily as she can, tries to play it light and breezy, honey, not vinegar.

“Gotta write you that report from the beta trial, huh? Lodge the formal application to go ahead.”

He takes the joke as it was meant, laughing softly, even if there’s something trepidatious in his tone too.

“Yeah, see, but it failed the initial risk assessment,” he replies, joking back, and Beth frowns, sits up a little straighter, all honey gone.

“Excuse me?”

Rio exhales hard and long, hearing the shift perhaps even before it had come, sitting back slightly on her bed, looking away from her, at her bedroom, before rolling his head back to her.

“We ain’t movin’ money through some middle-class white lady’s half-assed scam, ‘specially when you gonna be spendin’ the afternoons dodgin’ Sally-Anne and Paula from carpool,” he tells her. “It’s too dangerous. Those types of ladies have big mouths and they ain’t loyal. So we ain’t doin’ it.”

Somewhere outside, a car alarm goes off, a woman calls out somebody’s name, the night sparks with life and promise. Beth wishes she could focus on any of it, anything that wasn’t Rio in front of her, here, telling her no. She blinks at him, her mouth hanging open.

“If you just let me talk to you about it, then - - ”

And he laughs roughly, coarse-edged, his voice sharp, leaving no room for argument when he speaks again.

“Elizabeth, the answer ain’t gonna change.”

“Then why let me do it in the first place,” she replies sharply, and then she looks at him – at all his new bruises, his cuts re-opened, at his dark eyes in the dim light of her bedroom, and it’s so sudden. A shock to her system.

Because she goes cold as everything clicks into place.

“Unless it was a distraction.”

Rio sucks on his teeth, and Beth suddenly feels a flicker of fury in her gut.

“You gave me a job to keep me busy while you did something today that got you hurt.”

Her mind’s ticking over now, a hundred miles an hour, because isn’t that the oldest trick in the parenting handbook? Distract a kid with a task of faux importance so that you can get on with something, and Beth’s breathing harder now, throwing things back into her first aid kit, but what would it be, what could it be, what does she know that he knows she’d want to be a part of, what would - -

She stops.

Her blue eyes staring, unblinking at him.

“Who’d you meet today?”

Rio dips his head, shakes it, says:

“Elizabeth - -”

And god, it’s all the answer she needs.

“You saw Dominic,” she says, knows it as soon as she thinks it, and Rio jerks his head up to meet her, his jaw rocking sideways, his face too open and too closed all at once, and Beth just can’t stop: “Is he - - did you - -?”

He doesn’t answer, and Beth makes a sound she didn’t know she could make – something high and urgent, something inside her splitting, and she finishes re-packing her first aid kit, her hands shaking, because why would he cut her out of this? He promised her - - why would he - -

“You said I could handle him if I handled Mary Pat and Boomer,” she says, her voice sounding so far away from her. “You said that, and my time wasn’t up and I was doing it - -”

“What do you think this is?” he says suddenly, cutting her off, voice loud, gruff, in a way that makes her want to crawl back inside herself. She stares up at him, at his rapidly closing face, at his bleeding lip. “That coz you been nice this year, Santa’s bringin’ you the present you asked for?”

Beth sucks in a breath, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

“You wanted me to keep him for you? Pass him over with a bow wrapped around him coz you been sittin’ on my lap and askin’ real nice?”

Beth’s burning now with humiliation and she shakes her head, because that’s not what she meant, and she didn’t think that - - them, whatever they are, was going to get her anything, but he’d promised, and - -

“No, I - - ”

Rio scoffs, like he doesn’t believe her, shaking his head.  

“Shit, Elizabeth, he disrespected me, I handled him.”

The words hang heavy between them, and Beth stares at him, everything bubbling in her chest, in her gut, in her in a way that simmers to the surface, and she doesn’t think she can name a single emotion, just knows that it hurts. She wets her lips, says:  

“Is this because of Turner? You think I can’t handle somebody?”

He laughs roughly, drops his glass to the floor, stands up, and Beth does too, following him, when he spins around, steps too close, enough she has to back up, enough that he towers over her.

“I got three bullet holes in my chest that tell me you can,” he hisses. “I think you won’t.”

All the air’s been sucked from her lungs, and she scrambles to get it back, to breathe, to cling to the power she’d felt today, the certainty.

“I handled my rotten egg today,” she says again, harsher this time. “Dags told you I - - ”

And Rio exhales, stepping away from her, running a hand over his face so roughly he smears his own blood across his cheek.

“You got her on the hook,” he tells her. “It ain’t the same.”

“It is,” Beth insists. “You do it all the time.”

It’s enough to make him look back at her, a hundred emotions passing his face before he schools his expression into something hard, and Beth tries to firm her step, tries to feel as sure of everything as she’d felt today when he says:

“Yeah?”

“That’s how you handle me, isn’t it?”

And she’s not sure what she was expecting, but it wasn’t for Rio to laugh – loud and sharp and angry, but - - she doesn’t think it’s aimed at her when he looks at her again.

“Trust me, baby, you a lot of things, but you ain’t handled.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He scoffs, stares at her for a minute and it’s like he’s trying to tell her something, convey something in the weight of that look, in the silence pulsing between them, the tension pulling, but Beth just - - whatever it is, she’s not hearing it and finally Rio scoffs, loud, rubbing at his forehead. He looks away.

“It’s done,” he says. “Dom’s outta the picture. So why don’t you focus on your business and payin’ me back the money you owe me, while I handle my business.”

And there are so many questions on the tip of her tongue – about what happened today, what happened to Dom,  about Slav’s empire, about what business he’s talking about, but all she can feel is the burn of humiliation, the lack of his faith in her, her trust - - thrown back in her face again, and she can’t even look at him, can barely even breathe, can feel the hot burn of tears in her eyes. Tears that she can’t let him see.

“I think you should go,” she says, her voice shaky, and Rio jerks his head back like - - like he’s surprised, his jaw rocking forwards suddenly, and Beth firms her own.

“Nuh, Elizabeth, that ain’t - -”

“Don’t raise your voice, please, my children are asleep upstairs,” she says calmly, softly, feeling almost removed from herself as she watches him, sees his bruised features staring back at her, his eyes darting across her face, but her mask slips on too easily, and Rio can read a lot of her, but he can’t read her right now.

“Okay,” he says, turning on his heel and heading towards her French doors. He looks back at her, like he wants to say something else, but Beth ignores him, packing away the last of the first aid kit and walking it back into her en suite, hears him say something that sounds a lot like fuck, and when she comes back out he’s gone.

It’s easier then, to let herself feel it.