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Winners Know When…

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He doesn't stay over every night.

But the ones when he does are her favourites. She can't really explain it – feels a bit embarrassed, honestly – but there's something about it that feels right when he's there, and she's cold every night she doesn't get to spend in his arms.

She begins to blame him for it – if he wouldn't touch her the way he does, it wouldn't be as bad. It wouldn't feel like a Band-Aid being ripped away each time his lips pry from hers and he pulls away, starts dressing.

Sometimes she invites him over for dinner, with the kids or without. On nights with the kids, she lays out food and he charms all the children with crazy stories about family members she's sure he's made up, then he helps her with the dishes. She learns 'Marcus' doesn't like broccoli, which actually means Rio doesn't like broccoli. (It's about the only thing edible she's found that he doesn't like, making it more puzzling than anything else.) The discovery of his scapegoating comes at the dinner table, and Rio instantly becomes her children's new favourite adult. His penance is convincing them he eats it anyway because it's the only way to counteract the unhealthiness of ice cream.

Nights without the children are strange, because once upon a time it had meant not eating – not caring – or a frozen dinner. But now she cooks; cooks meals that she'd long forgotten she could, meals that five-year-olds don't exactly clamour for. She makes steak with the creamiest mushroom sauce and roasted potatoes. She bakes fresh garlic focaccia and he brings over charcuterie – she pops olives and cheese on the board too and they eat it on the couch with wine.

Most times they end up on the couch, really, watching a movie then exchanging gentle kisses till they're not so soft and gentle anymore. One night they don't make it there – they're at the dining room table and Rio asks what's for dessert while looking at her like that. He doesn't break eye contact as he gets to his knees and noses her knees apart. 

But he leaves and it's hell every time; a hell she shrugs and smiles through like it's no big deal. She never asks him to stay because somehow she feels he would, and that'd be even worse.

She feels dependent and it's alien to her – Dean had always been the clingy one, the one who got pouty when she wanted some time alone, the one who would bother her during a rare moment of quiet to ask what her book was about when she just wanted to read in peace.

It's not as bad when the kids are there, obviously, but she still feels it. When he's there, he seems to fill up the entire house with himself, his energy. She'll be on her knees bathing the kids and glowing from the inside out knowing he's waiting for her downstairs. Knowing that they can shower together, wash off the day together and take their urgent kisses to bed, where he'll stay with her all night, curled around her like tightly like gift wrapping or haphazardly, already half asleep. His fingers curled into the soft skin at her stomach, his cool breath in her ear, the scent of his body wash mixing with hers. The soft kiss he lays in her wet hair and the way she knows to have her butt pressed all the way against him.

Those nights are her favourites.



It worries her whenever her sister is too giddy when she arrives somewhere.

This time it’s Ruby’s house and Annie is positively bouncing.

“Have you told her yet?!”

“Told me what?” Beth eyes them both, dropping her handbag on the couch before heading over to them at the kitchen island.

“Is Rio still coming to Ruby’s first poker night?” Annie asks before Ruby can answer.

Sensing this has something to do with the answer, Beth decides to relent for the moment.

“Yes,” she nods. “Why?”

Now Annie’s definitely bouncing and Ruby’s pulling a face like Beth probably isn’t going to like what she has to say next.

“So you know how I took over from you and have been trying to put my own spin on things, especially since we don’t need to keep as low of a profile because we aren’t using the poker games to wash cash anymore?”

“Sure,” Beth nods, taking a seat.

“Soooo I thought a theme could be pretty cool.”

“That’s a great idea!” She frowns, confused: “What’s the problem?”

“Oh, well… there’s no problem. Not exactly.”

“It’s actually the best,” Annie grins.

“Ok, you’re freaking me out – what’s going on? What’s the theme?”

The girls exchange glances before Ruby regards her sheepishly.

A Gangster’s Paradise.”


Beth texts Rio to say they’re going to be late.

She’d told him about the theme shortly after finding out, a few days ago, and he hadn’t said much to acknowledge it, moving onto an unrelated topic of conversation. She’d decided not to press it, mainly because she’s still surprised that he’s even going.

She’s still surprised she’s taking him.

They hadn’t spoken much more about the formalities of their relationship after that day in her kitchen, taking the past two weeks day by day, and now this feels like a different step forward. She’s taking him as her date – to an event filled with parents from her children’s school.

She blinks, staring at herself in the mirror. The gravity of the situation is only fully settling on her shoulders for the first time as she touches up her red lipstick.

Because it had come about so casually: Beth had gotten off the phone with Ruby after giving her some advice, Rio had enquired about the event and she’d described it. Off-handedly – jokingly, almost – she’d asked if he wanted to go and he’d simply said Sure. At the time she hadn’t given much more thought to it. Now she’s remembering how he’d once mandated that their relationship not be public knowledge; realising that he’s never met this many people in her life.

With a sigh Beth tosses the lipstick into her handbag then does one last outfit check. The black turtleneck dress fits like a glove and with her black boots, it kind of looks more like a cat burglar outfit, but it’s too late now – and at least there are the giant gold hoops in her ears – so with another sigh she heads to the kitchen.

She texts Dean to check that the kids are ok and is about to send another message off to Rio when the kitchen door opens.

“You’re here!” she exclaims, voice filled with relief.

She was beginning to think he wasn’t going to make it, and the thought of going alone hadn’t been sitting particularly well with her.

“Yea.” His lips curve up a little. “Heard you needed a plus one.”

She raises a brow, playful.

“How can I need one when I've already got one?”       

He grins and she’s about to laugh as he comes closer when suddenly she takes him in and cocks her head with a frown, bringing him to a stop.

“What?”

Her frown deepens as she tries to figure out the right way to verbalise the problem while simultaneously trying to figure out how to solve it when they should’ve been halfway to the school already.

Then, finally, she just spits it out.

“You understood the part about the theme, right?”

He’s wearing a usual variation on his work outfit, all black and adorned in a coat, gloves and a gold chain.

Rio shrugs, jaw hard. “Ain't my fault y'all think my life's a costume.”

Beth’s mouth falls open, speechless, and he bursts into laughter.

“I'm fuckin wit' you, mami. I got shit to do later. Bought the chain, though.”

At the reference, her eyes take it in again and she realises it is a lot gaudier than he ever usually wears.

“That’s not funny,” she complains, lips pursed.

“Naw?” he asks, coming closer with a smirk. Then his eyes roam her form very deliberately. “You look dope.”

A blush immediately rises to her cheeks.

“Really?”

He nods, stopping a step away. “I'd hire you.”

“I believe you already did.”

“Worst fuckin decision of my life,” he retorts, and she rolls her eyes good-naturedly.

“You know,” she realises, eyeing him, “you've never actually told me what made you change your mind that day, when Demon had a gun to my head.”

His smirk widens as he clearly goes back to that day too.

You’re an idiot.

If you want to invite all that attention over a few grand, then you’re not the smart businessman you think you are.

Roll the dice; tell them to pull the trigger. See what happens.

“You was stacked and had a mouth on ya. I was intrigued.”

Beth scoffs.

“I'm serious!”

“Yeah, so am I.”

She fixes him with a disbelieving glare. “You're saying you were attracted to me from the start?”

“Weren't you?”

“That's different.”

“Why?”

“You're...” She squirms. “You.”

“What’s that mean?”

She stares. “You know.”

His head shake is adamant.

“I don’t.”

Beth huffs. “When we go places together, I’m practically invisible.”

“This about the girl at the McDonald’s drive-thru?” he sighs.

“She was hitting on you,” Beth re-iterates.

He’s smiling now as he shakes his head in amused disbelief.

“She said have a nice night – that’s part of their script, ma.”

“It’s not what she said, it’s what her eyes were doing.”

“What, was she lookin at my cleavage?”

He chuckles at her glare.

“It’s not funny! I was right next to you and she didn’t even care, I may as well have been your mother.”

“You know my sister’s older than you, right?” he asks, still amused as he lays his hands on her hips.

She didn't actually know that, but doesn't want to divert.

“Whatever. The point is, I don't exactly look in the mirror and think 'She's dating a gangster'.”

“Hmm,” he smiles, pulling her to him. “Good thing I ain't a gangster.”

Before she can say anything, he kisses her.

Her insecurities seem to melt away without any real permission from her and her hands go to his collar to pull him closer.

But it’s only a second more and then he’s pulling away, licking his lips with gleaming eyes.

“C’mon. Gotta go show you off.”


“So the first one I snuck in, it got banned, but then all the parents put up such a big fight that it became school-mandated. And now we have poker nights,” she grins proudly as they wind their way through the school.

It’s dark, only essential lights turned on. Despite having permission to be here, they’d kept the under-the-radar feel from the first poker game she’d hosted here, the parents all liking the thrill of how underground and secretive it all seems. And, well, considering her career, she’s not exactly in the position to judge.

“So you hosted a poker night at your kids’ school by bribing the janitor?”

Hearing the judgement in his tone, she huffs.

“I needed the money!” Then, with a sidelong glance at him: “Someone left me high and dry.”

He sniffs in amusement as they take a corner.

“So why you still got it runnin now?”

“Because if the FBI comes sniffing around, they’ll investigate, realise they were wrong, look like fools again, and then if we ever do need to use the schools again, we'll be free and clear.”

“…Why would we need to use them again?”

“You don't trust homeboy, do you?”

She avoids his eyes as they enter the library, where there are a few more lights on.

“Just in case.”

“Case o’ what?”

She can feel the defensive set of her shoulders.

“Just… in case.”

And now she pushes open the door to the large room just off the library, which she supposes is normally a space for dedicated project time during school hours, but for their purposes it’s the back room of a card game.

“Wow,” Beth breathes, immediately distracted.

Ruby had done an amazing job of transforming the room beyond the call of duty, having gone as far as commissioning dry ice to make the room seem smoky. There are a bunch of mini bars set up around the room with (what she hopes are) fake cigars laid around.

Rio notices too.

“Ya want sum’n to drink?”

“Wine, please,” she nods.

He goes off in the direction of one and Beth looks around for the girls. The venue is already filled with parents milling around in various interpretations of the theme – many look like they’d stepped off the set of The Sopranos, but there are a few more contemporary interpretations too.

After a minute, Beth spots them – Ruby in a huge black-and-white fur coat, and Annie in leather pants and a nearly see-through top with approximately a thousand chains – and goes up with a gasp.

“Ruby! This is amazing!”

“Really? I mean, duh,” she plays at bragging and they all laugh. “Thanks, B. Not gonna lie, I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t make it.”

“Sorry, Rio was late,” she confesses.

“He’s here?”

Beth nods then points him out, just barely visible through all the smoke.

Suddenly there’s hoarse laughter from beside her.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Is he just wearing the same thing he does every day?!” Annie can barely breathe, she's laughing so hard. “This is too good!”

“He has to go to work later,” Beth sniffs defensively. “And he said he got the chain for this.”

“Oh my god,” she continues giggling.

“Can you make her stop?” Beth demands of her best friend.

“I mean… she’s not wrong.”

And then, taking another look, they all start giggling.

“If it makes you feel any better, Stan was planning on wearing a fedora if he came.”

“God, I’m glad he’s on kid duty,” Annie teases before doing a little jig. “Mama’s getting lit.”

Ruby, unimpressed: “We need to set a good example.”

“And what’s a better example than shelling out money at the bar?”

“Beth,” Ruby tries to enlist her help.

“Oh, what’s she gonna say?” Annie scoffs. “She brought a literal gangster – example of the year.”

Beth shoots her sister a glare but Annie’s oblivious, glancing at him again before grinning back at the girls.

“Ok, you know what I love about gangfriend? Besides everything, obviously – it's that no matter what I do wrong in life, at least I will never be the one dating a gangbanger.” At Beth's pursed lips: “Excuse me, gang kingpin who's the key part of a syndicate.”

“You're still working for him,” Ruby jabs before she’s pulled off by one of her assistants for one or other issue.

Beth fixes Annie with a glare.

“Can you please stop calling him gangfriend?”

“Or what?”

“Or I'm telling!”

She scoffs bitterly. “Of course you are.”

“You’ve got to let the weed thing go.”

“Of course you’d say that, snitch.”

It's at this moment Rio arrives, carrying drinks.

He looks at Annie.

“Sorry. Only got two hands.”

He passes Beth her drink, which is some kind of white wine.

“It's cool, bro, I'm already two deep,” Annie grins and oh no, Beth’s going to have to catch up if she intends to not die of embarrassment around her sister tonight.

This prompts her to inspect her wine and she frowns, sniffing it.

“Please don't say this is pinot grigio.”

“Whatever that shit is is on your friend. Just got what they had.”

She realises he's holding a Coke but before she can say anything, Annie speaks.

“Hey, Rio.”

He looks at her curiously and she does a weird little shifting of her weight then a galloping spin.

“What do you think of my outfit?”

Oh god. Beth would press her eyes closed in embarrassment but it's like a car crash, she can't look away.

Rio looks nothing close to bothered, though – in fact, his eyes light up.

“Know who'd fuckin love your costume? Demon. Come to think of it, I should set you two up!”

Annie pales.

“And Demon's the... one with the face tattoos?”

“What, you ain't into that?” Rio asks, brows knitting.

“I... Y–I mean, I'm down, I just–I'm, um, I’m gonna go check what Ruby thinks.”

And she damn near dashes away as Rio's shoulders shake in silent amusement. Beth, on the other hand, is laughing way too hard.

“Oh my god,” she giggles, near-hiccupping, “I swear you're the only person I know who can shut my sister up.”


They’re all at different tables.

Their job is to make sure everyone’s having a good time and with them spread out, it’s working. The room is lively, especially with all the flowing wine, and there’s constant laughter and yells of jubilation. “You’re so going to earn that right back, Renee; you got this, you came to WIN!” she hears her sister rile someone up at another table. It works – everyone whoops and Renee stands up and does a little jig before getting her next hand dealt.

Beth’s at the only craps table, which she has no idea how Ruby had managed to source. It makes the room feel even more like it’s in a casino and considering Stan’s love for James Bond, she’s sure a Casino Royale theme isn’t too far in the offing.

Beth finishes her turn then decides to vacate her spot for a moment, figuring it’s time to check on Rio. She feels bad for having left him alone to deal with a table of parents for an hour, but the guilt dissipates nearly immediately when she catches sight of him.

He’s sat behind mountains of chips, chuckling at a woman opposite him as the guy beside him pats him on the back encouragingly. 

“Thanks, Jeff,” he’s saying, then reveals his cards.

Beth watches for a moment; watches the table whoop as he shrugs, expressionless, and rakes in the chips he’s won.

“Better luck next time, Susan,” he smirks.

Her glass is nearing on empty but she takes another sip before heading over.

“Hey.”

Her hand falls on his shoulder and she’d be at pains to motivate whether it’s the wine, the McDonald’s memory still on her mind or just him.

God, there’s something so sexy about his nonchalance; his own quiet confidence that he’d win.

He looks up and there’s a bit of surprise in his eyes at the touch, but it disappears quickly. He blames the wine, probably.

“Hey, mami.”

Jeff immediately stands. “Have my seat, Beth, I need a beer anyway.”

“Thanks,” she smiles, before sinking down next to Rio, his eyes not leaving hers.

“Hi,” she says again, feeling her neck warm.

He makes a little amused sound, smirking, then finally turns away when his hand is dealt.

They’re silent for a while as the game unfolds and then eventually she remembers why she’d intended to come over here.

“Are you ok?” she half-whispers.

He eyes her. “I ever not ok?”

“I just wanted to check on you,” she admits, and maybe it comes out a little too soft around the edges.

He turns his gaze fully on her, seeming secretly pleased.

“That right?”

She nods very sincerely and he breaks into a slow genuine smile.

“I’m good, momma.”

She bites on her lip to prevent it, but it’s no use, a matching smile breaks through.

“Ok.”

The blush has gotten to her cheeks and they’re on fire at his gaze; his warm smile.

“Beth, your boyfriend has the best poker face I've ever seen!”

It cuts the moment and she quickly looks away, trying to register whatever had just been said to her as she clears her throat.

Poker face. Right.

She laughs a little, rolling her eyes. “Trust me, I know.”

God, does she know.

Rio shrugs. “Gotta have one in my line of work.”

The woman speaking is Martha, who’d served with Beth on the board at one point, and now she leans in curiously.

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I'm a gangster.”

Martha bursts into laughter. “Good one!” She shimmies to show off her costume. “I'm a high-priced escort.”

“You got a pimp?”

“They say I married him.”

Rio chuckles as Martha turns and calls on her husband, who sits at another table wearing a top hat and leather gloves. He turns to grin at them and Martha winks at him performatively then blows a kiss.

Rio's grinning. “He's a lucky guy.”

Seeing Jeff heading back, Beth begins to stand, but Rio catches her with a hand on hers, which she’d evidently forgotten to remove from his shoulder.

“I’ll let you know if I ain’t good no more, yeah?”

There’s something suggestive in his eyes and she swallows, saying nothing before pulling her hand away.

Ruby and Annie are at one of the bars and she heads over, needing a refill.

“Red,” she tells the bartender, and he nods.

“Oooh,” Annie’s eyes widen. “Someone’s getting crazy.”

She shrugs. “Dean has the kids and I’m not driving.”

It’s probably best not to add the way Rio had just been looking at her.

“I did mention the good example thing, right?” Ruby glares.

Annie cackles. “The previous queen bee is coming to mess your shit up.”

“Are you incapable of not stirring the pot?” she glares at her sister.

Their conversation is interrupted by raucous laughter from Rio’s table. Really, the noise level had been on steady incline the entire night, with Rio notably at the centre of it despite never being audible.

“Ok, how is it that homeboy seems like he fits in here more than I do?” Annie asks, puzzled.

Beth nods knowingly.

“He's weirdly good at charming people. The other day he made better friends with my fishmonger in one conversation than I have in ten years.”

“God, it's like finding out the Grinch has better social skills than you do. Wait – you have a fishmonger??”


It’s maybe half an hour later when Rio comes to her table.

“Whassup?”

She looks up with a pout. “I’m losing. So I’m sitting out a few rounds.”

He looks down at her tiny stack of chips and, smirking in amusement, puts two of his down next to it.

“You ever gonna stop needin my money, darlin?”

She glares. “I didn’t ask you for that. And it isn’t going to help my streak.”

“Hmm.” His eyes go from her to the table and everyone around it, then to the dealer. “She’s back in.”

“Ri-Christopher!”

He looks highly entertained by her near-slipup then takes the dice the dealer holds out to her.

Already leaned over, he uses his position to whisper lowly into her ear.

“Roll the dice. See what happens.”

A thrill runs down her spine, throat drying as he pulls back to meet her eyes.

He drops them into her hand and she swallows before bravely holding it out.

“Blow.”

His brow quirks but she doesn’t let up and, after a second, he leans in and lets the softest cool breath into her palm, caressing the dice.

She holds his gaze for only a second longer before clearing her throat and turning back to the table to throw them.

She turns to look for him when she wins but he’s gone, and Beth immediately jumps from her chair, gathering up her chips as she hears one of the women mutter about how she’d like him to blow on her. Beth shoots her a look before tripping over herself to get to Ruby, who's busy coordinating the chips.

“Can you hold these for me? I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Sure.”

“Have you seen Rio?”

“Not to sound like a broken record, but you’ve had too much wine. He’s literally right there.”

Beth follows her pointing and through all the smoke she eventually makes him out, at one of the further bars sipping a Coke. It truly is unfair how good he can look just standing there, she thinks with a sigh.

She thanks Ruby before making her way across the room slowly, trying her best not to trip on anything. It’s not easy, especially once he catches sight of her, but she manages.

“I won,” she says once she gets to him.

He shrugs a little. “I got that effect on people.”

God, he’s annoying. But right now she doesn’t mind it that much, especially with the way his eyes are darting down to her boobs, her body dipping closer to his automatically.

“So now I guess you owe me, huh?”

“Do you get off on me owing you money?” she bites.

He smirks. “Naw, but I could get off with what you could pay me with.”

She shoves at him, playing at indignance that it’s very clear he doesn’t buy as he remains rooted to his spot, watching her.

Shifting her weight, she clears her throat.

“The bathrooms here are small.”

“And nasty,” he agrees. “Was thinkin we could go play teacher.”

She gasps.

“I'm not having sex with you in my children's school!”

A bathroom is one thing, but an actual classroom just seems wrong on too many levels.

“Oh, you wanna go outside? Lil cold, but I'm down.”

She glares and he grins before setting down his drink and suddenly leaning forward.

“Meet you at E.E. Cummings,” he drawls into her ear.

Her eyes fall closed as a blush rises anew, and by the time she opens them, he’s gone.

Heart beating fast, her eyes scan the room.

She doesn’t just want to leave in case she’s needed. The last thing she needs is for someone to come looking for her and discover them in the middle of–

“Annie!” she calls out, spotting her.

Her sister comes bounding up.

“What's happening?”

“Rio wants to get some fresh air – in case anyone is looking for me.”

The smirk on her sister’s face is annoyingly knowing.

“Ok, I'll tell them you're getting it. And by it, I mean fresh air, of course.”

She reaches to shove at her but her sister darts away, sticking out her tongue then putting it back in her mouth to shove it into her cheek with a rhythm and accompanying hand movement that Beth’s definitely going to murder her for later.

For the moment, though, she needs to find Rio.

It doesn’t take long, and after a few minutes they’re out of the library and back in the hallway, pulling each other along as Beth tries to remember the layout of the school.

“Ok, here,” she eventually breathes, pushing open a door to a teacher’s class that she knows none of her kids have.

He’s right behind her, pushing her, and Beth’s head is spinning by the time he lifts her onto the teacher’s desk and she pushes his coat to the floor, pressing her body against his.

“Why you so sexy, ma?” he murmurs into her ear and she lets out a heavy breath before kissing him, hard.

The kiss is rough, desperate; tongues battling as her hands go to his neck and his reach to pull up her dress. It’s taking too long for her liking, not helped by the tight material, and she groans.

“Hurry up.” Against his stubble: “I need you.”

He curses under his breath and then suddenly her dress is at her hips, he’s ripping down her panties and she spreads her knees wide when it joins his coat on the floor.

Together they work at his pants and soon he’s free and she wraps her legs around him, so hot she can barely think.

He pulls her closer, lines himself up and then her eyes fall closed as he pushes into her.

“Oh my god,” she breathes.

His lips go first to her concealed breasts then her covered neck and Rio grunts in complaint.

“Fuck, I hate this dress right now.”

She wants to giggle but she can’t disagree – she loves his mouth on her neck and breasts.

“I didn’t think about this when choosing my costume.”

“You gotta think about this ’fore choosing anything you wanna wear, sweetheart.”

Before she can respond he kisses her, beginning to move, and Beth’s nails clench in his neck and side as she moans onto his tongue.

His hand goes to knead her breast and she pulls away from the kiss to let her head fall back as he finds the perfect rhythm and she meets it, one hand landing on the desk to support herself.

“Rio,” she moans, lost in him inside her.

His mouth lands on her chest and she feels the heat of his breath even through her dress, hardening her nipples. Her free hand goes to the back of his head, digging in, and Rio groans, beginning to go faster.

She’s whimpering loudly now and the desk is shaking, pens and papers rattling as the feeling builds inside her then–

It snaps and she’s gone, shaking as she cries out.

He comes right after and she feels his teeth when he kisses her. She moves her hand to dig her nails into his ass and his body is rigid for a long few seconds before finally he collapses against her.

“Fuck, mami,” he breathes into her shoulder.

Beth can’t speak, she’s still too high and he’s still inside her.

Her whole body feels sensitive, prickly hot, when he finally pulls out, rocking away to observe her. God, what must he see? She's flushed, splayed across a classroom desk with her dress sitting atop her hips.

“’S a gangster’s paradise, alright,” Rio mutters, licking his lips.

She can't breathe for a second; blinks away her stupor.

“…Thought you said you aren’t a gangster,” is the best she can think to respond with, breathy.

“Am tonight – don’t you see my costume?”

She gives him a look and he chuckles before coming closer to kiss her again, hand tangling in her hair.

Every time he kisses her, she remembers it’s her favourite thing in the world to do, and she’s disappointed when he finally pulls away, wanting more.

She supposes she always wants more of him.

They spend a few minutes cleaning up and redressing, Rio helping her get her panties back on and squeezing her ass in the process, and once they’re back to presentable, he looks at her.

“You gon' be good if I blow outta here early?”

“Yeah,” she nods, though she’d actually forgotten that he even still has to head to work.  “I'll just get an Uber with Annie.”

“Cool.”

“How much longer can you stay?” she wonders.

“Like twenty minutes or so.”

“Ok.” She bites at her lip. “Can we spend a few more of them in here?”



Beth's outfit:

Gangster-s-Paradise

Chapter Text

Elizabeth had gone to get him a last drink for the night and now he can’t find her anywhere.

He gets caught in a few conversations with progressively drunker parents and his throat’s parched by the time he finally spots someone who at least resembles who he’s lookin for.

“Yo, Annie.”

“Hey! You’re still here?”

“Barely,” he shrugs, before peering at her curiously: “What time y’all plannin on leaving?”

“We’ll probably stay till the end,” she shrugs. “Ruby’ll announce how much money we raised and everyone pretends to care, it’s great.”

“You’re raising money for somethin?”

“Yes,” she stresses like it’s obvious, “it’s a school fundraiser.”

“What for?”

She stares at him; blinks.

“Um. I have no idea.” At his expression: “Hey, don’t you dare judge me! My kid doesn’t even go here.”

“Fair enough,” he smirks.

He’s about to circle round to his initial question when Ruby comes up, barking an order at someone as she goes.

“Andy, please go unpack the restock bar – when people run out of drinks, they wither up and die!”

The waiter nods and rushes off in the direction she’d come, and Rio eyes both women.

“Y’all seen Elizabeth?”

Ruby nods, pointing. “She’s at the restock bar; that’s actually why I’m here, I was coming to fetch you,” she eyes Annie. “…She’s in there with Brad, he must’ve cornered her.”

Annie groans. “Brad Brad?”

He frowns.

“Who’s Brad Brad?”

They look at him as if it’d slipped their minds that he’s standin right there next to em.

“He’s Beth’s stalker!” Annie informs, spitting out the word with disgust.

“He’s one of the parents,” Ruby expands. "Pretty recently divorced."

“And he basically only comes to these events to try and get into Beth’s pants.”

“Even though she’s said many times, in many different ways, that she’s not interested. Hence me coming to fetch the best man repeller I know,” she finishes, looking pointedly at Annie.

“It’s cool, I’ll go,” Rio says simply.

Simply but with that tone; the one that says there ain’t no arguing. And he don’t wait for it, either, spinning and heading to the room Ruby had come from.

The women watch him go, Ruby biting at her lip.

“We probably shouldn't have told him that.”

“No,” Annie agrees. “Buuuut now that we have, we're obligated to watch it play out.”

“Makes sense,” Ruby nods, and they wait for a few seconds before following.


Rio can see em through the small set of windows in the door.

There’s a sign that says Special Collections, below which is one that says you need a librarian to accompany you into the room. He guesses it’s a lil refrigerated, which is why Ruby had put the extra drinks in there. What he don’t get is why Brad – who from the back looks like he could be Dean’s shorter brother – is leanin so close to Elizabeth, who clearly looks pained. He’s got sisters – he knows the look well. Has seen it enough times a second before knocking the breath outta some prick’s lungs.

But the whole thing with White Boy Bartender’s still fresh in his mind and he don’t wanna upset her again. You don’t always have to handle things by sticking a gun in someone’s face, he remembers her yelling and he does actually have it on him now – figured it’d just seem like a prop, part of his costume, if anyone caught sight of it – but don’t nobody want a repeat of that day.

So he pushes open the swing door then heads inside, cool air hitting him immediately.

He goes right up to Elizabeth, setting himself in the small space between em and pretendin like the guy ain’t even there.

“Where those drinks at, amante?”

She’s long past bombed, but her face still instantly floods with relief.

“Oh, god. S-sorry, I got held up.” She clears her throat then gestures. “Brad, this is… Christopher. Christopher, Brad.”

He stands still for a good few seconds before slowly turning, eyeing up this Brad as he clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Hmm.”

His discomfort is palpable and Rio calmly watches him shift from foot to foot.

“Uh, nice tattoo,” he points at Rio’s neck. “Bit over the top, but it's a nice detail.”

“Thanks,” he drawls. “Your costume sucks.”

“Um,” he flails, and Rio smirks. “I’m not sure if you know my daughter?”

Beth clears her throat. Rio’s almost entirely blocking her view of Brad, but she’s pretty sure things aren’t going well, so she decides to add something helpfully.

“Jess.”

Well. It’s kind of helpful.

“Yeah, Jane talks about her all the time,” Rio nods.

“All the time?” he repeats, cogs clearly turning in his mind as his eyes go from Rio to Beth then back again.

If Rio had intended to convey the message that he’s a permanent fixture in her life, it lands perfectly.

“Well. I was just telling Beth that I’d love to have the girls over at my new place; we could make a day of it.”

She opens her mouth, but Rio speaks first.

“Yeah, we’ll check our schedules and get back to you on that.”

Beth nearly chokes on the we and Brad goes a little green.

Deciding it can’t hurt, Beth pushes herself closer so she’s lightly pressed against Rio, head leaning against his arm.

But Brad’s determined, has always been, and he takes a breath of courage.

“Actually–”

“You speak Spanish, Brad?”

Beth blinks, not at all sure where this has come from. And, judging by Brad’s face, he doesn’t either.

“…Not really, no.”

“You wanna? ’Cuz we could get to know each other real good.”

She feels Rio rock an inch forward, away from her, but she has no idea what facial expression he’s wearing.

“No, that’s, uh–”

“No; you sure? You look like a nice guy, we could hang out.”

Brad looks at her, suddenly very pale, then spins and bolts away with a barely-audible greeting.

The doors are swinging behind him in seconds and Beth’s way too drunk to make heads or tails of what had just happened.

Instead she tugs on Rio’s arm so he turns, then looks up at him with a guilty frown.

“Were you thirsty?”

“I was.”

“I’m sorry,” she pouts. “All the bars were out of Coke but I remembered that this– that back… here there’s some more stock and then he was here and…”

“You wanna have some water?” he interrupts, brow quirked.

“Are you saying I’m drunk?”

“Yea.”

She glares but it’s a half-hearted effort because he’s not wrong, and she pivots it into a huff.

“Are you gonna tell me what amante means?”

“Nope.”

“You’ve never called me that before.”

“Guess not.”

“Are you gonna teach me Spanish?”

“Mami, it’s pretty sad you don’t already know any.”

She slaps at his chest and he rocks backward with laughter.


It's only hours – and several glasses of water – later when Beth suddenly remembers as they’re heading out to his car.

“Didn't you say you were gonna leave early?”

“Changed my mind.”

Beth frowns, not least because of his cloaked tone, but she’s distracted by Annie beginning to flail about getting to ride in Rio’s car.

Something feels strange to Beth, but her mind is still filled with wine. She doesn’t even completely remember the decision to leave with Rio, when it had been decided that her sister would come with them, or where Ruby is. There’s a vague memory of Annie trying to get up on top of a table and Ruby coming over to kick them out, but everything after that is a blank.

The ride to Annie’s place is long – or maybe it just feels that way because her sister is chatting a mile a minute and Beth has her window down, trying to sober up a little more.

“Say, you wouldn’t be interested in giving this car away to a petite yet deserving party, would you?” Rio ignores her but she’s not discouraged: “God, the things I would do in this backseat.”

Normally Beth would reprimand her but she’s still way too gone, so instead she just meets the look Rio throws her way.

“Yeah so I don’t think we gon’ work out,” he says coolly. “Your sister’s a dealbreaker.”

“Oh no, that’s ok,” she shakes her head, “we aren’t a package deal. You can just drop her at the side of the road, actually.”

“Ok, you know what, that is just mean,” comes the huff from the backseat.

They laugh then share an extra smile before Beth clears her throat and looks back out her window.

“And this after I gave you that tip about Creep of the Year moving in on your girl,” Annie complains. “And I didn’t even follow you in which, let me tell you, was a real test of willpower, my friend.”

Beth frowns, realising this isn’t just a nonsensical drunken diatribe – especially when she glances at Rio and his expression is strange.

“What are you talking about?” she asks, turning to regard her sister.

“Brad VS Rio. The big KO. By the way, what did you even say to him, homeslice? I mean, god, he got out of there like a bat out of hell! And I’m not saying he went to throw up, but he damn sure looked green around the gills.”

Realising she’s not going to get anything helpful from her sister, Beth spins to Rio, anger cutting right through any ingested alcohol.

What is she talking about?” she demands, tone testy.

Pleeeease tell us what you said!”

It’s beginning to make sense, suddenly. The way Rio had found her just as she’d been struggling with Brad had all been a bit too coincidental, though she hadn’t registered it at the time.

And…

She tries to remember how exactly he'd gotten Brad to leave, but nothing sticks out to her. He hadn’t pulled out his gun or gotten in his face or anything. She remembers Spanish lessons and a playdate and that’s about it. Had there been more? Had she missed it?

“What did you say? Did you threaten to beat him up?”

Rio’s face twists. “Oh, he knows what I threatened to do to him.”

She stares daggers at him but he doesn’t say anything else, and her lips purse as she turns away again, fury boiling in her stomach as she sees Annie’s apartment block up ahead.

“Yikes, the temperature in here just dropped like a hundred degrees,” Annie notes awkwardly.

They don’t say anything and Rio pulls up smoothly without a word.

“Thanks for the ride, bro-ski. You know, you're way better than Dean,” she decides to add. “And Brad. Like put together.” She’s opening the door when she pauses for a moment, regarding the leather interiors longingly. “And let me know about this baby – I promise I’ll take real good care of it.”

“Please get out of my car.”

“Yes, sir.”

With that, she’s out, and there’s crackling silence as they wait for her to stumble her way into the building then shut the door behind her.

Rio starts the car back up with half a sigh and Beth immediately turns to regard him again.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Your friend came over, said he was botherin you.”

“They’re just people, Rio! Harmless parents. And, as I'm sure you know, you terrify people!"

“Oh, trust me, that guy wasn’t harmless.”

“What does that mean?”

He doesn’t speak for a while and she waits.

Nearly a minute has passed by the time he begins to explain.

“Back in the day, my momz had a rule: my younger sisters could only go out to bars ’n shit if I was with em. Kept an eye on em – once you seen one creep, you seen em all. One night I was watchin and when Gabby went to the bathroom, this guy put somethin in her drink.” 

“Oh my god,” she gasps softly, immediately mollified.

He doesn’t take his eyes off the road.

“And ’cuz I was watchin, I saw the way he'd been lookin at her before. Like she was prey," he says, tone revolted. "And that Brad fool was lookin at you the exact same way.”

She stares, uncertain how to respond to that.

So she asks something else instead: “What did you do to the guy?”

“That ain't important.”

Forcing herself not to get as irritable as that line normally makes her, she draws a deep breath, dedicating herself to being as diplomatic as possible. She's too drunk for an argument with him and besides, that's not how she wants this night to end, not after it had been going so well. 

“Rio, I appreciate your concern, I really do, and I love that you look out for me – like that night at the bar, that was amazing,” she says, voice steady. “But I'm not a teenager and I'm sure you don't do that for your sisters now.”

He rolls his shoulders but says nothing as he pulls up outside her house, expression unreadable.

“This wasn't that night at the bar, it was a situation I could control. And – god, is that why you stayed?”

His eyes are still focused on the road in front of them.

“Knew he'd try his luck if I left.”

She sighs, desperate for them to come to some sort of conclusion that will actually prevent further situations like this. He needs to know that she’s capable of taking care of herself, otherwise who knows how many more Charlies and Brads there'll be.

“That's not your responsibility. I could've handled it.”

“I know,” he nods, meeting her eyes for a second. “You can handle anythin, momma. That don't mean you gotta.”

Her throat dries as his words dart straight between her legs; wrap around her.

Maybe one day his unwavering belief in her will get old. Today is not that day.

“Pull in to the driveway.”

He gives her a sidelong glance, but obliges without further comment.

As soon as he turns the car off, she’s shimmying, working her panties down her legs as elegantly as she can manage in her half-drunken state. They’ve barely cleared her ankles before she reaches over for his belt and she notices that he’s staring at her with half-amused half-lidded eyes, intrigued.

She nips her lip into her mouth then gets his pants open and reaches inside. She does a few solid strokes before letting out a breath.

“Push your seat back.”

Eyes flitting back open, he does, then starts pulling off his jeans and underwear as she tugs up the tight jersey material of her dress. When she’s finally gotten it up over her hips, she reaches her leg over the middle console and, look – she’s had more than a few glasses of wine. The fact that she only falls once is actually impressive. She bursts into laughter, as does Rio, but the giggles wear off when she realises that for some reason she can’t pull herself free.

She’s tugging and tugging when Rio grabs hold of her with a bossy tone.

“Lemme help you,” he demands. “Relax, mami.”

She does, letting herself go boneless, and he untangles her from whatever she’s gotten herself stuck into but, a second before he’s about to lift her, she pulls herself over and onto his lap.

She’s too drunk and wet to wait – she slides right onto him and Rio jerks in surprise then groans, head tipping back a little.

And he feels so good that Beth has to take a second, too.

Then she presses forward, so she has more room to move, and they both groan.

His hand wraps around the back of her thigh possessively.

“Fuck, you’re wet, ma,” he complains into her ear.

Biting back a grin, Beth lifts herself off then drops back down, slowly at first then faster, his hand helping her. His free one reaches for her clit but she hits it away.

“Take your earring off,” he growls.

She does, haphazardly, and he jerks that side of her turtleneck down to suck her neck into his mouth roughly, teeth marking. She cries out and his free hand kneads at her ass nearly as roughly.

The sound of their bodies meeting, rapid, rings throughout the car and Beth hadn’t been meaning to – this was supposed to be for him – but suddenly she feels that tight snap inside her.

“Oh my god,” she moans, feeling like she’s going to implode.

Then she does and Rio’s right behind her, nails digging deep into her skin as they both come with grunts and jerking bodies.

She comes to with her head in his shoulder, body still arced up over his. He’s still inside her, too, and she takes the opportunity to capitalise on the intimacy, laying little kisses over the far end of the wing on his neck.

Like this, his body is hers and he is hers too, isn't he – Mami, I been yours since the second you laid them baby blues on me – and maybe she's just drunk, but suddenly it doesn't matter anymore. If he's hers then him putting his body between her and anything that threatens to hurt her makes sense. Maybe she even likes it, just a little. The thought of Brad going as pale as he had brings her a deep sense of satisfaction, almost as deep as him getting the message that she's with someone. But not just anyone. Him.

She feels him begin to relax, fingers slowly pulling away from their tight grip on her.

Eventually he speaks.

“You really tryna kill me, huh?”

She pulls away with a little smile, regarding him with an innocent expression that isn’t all pretence.

“Who, me?”

Rio rolls his eyes in a show of annoyance but then pulls her to him sharply, tongue rough and teeth on her lips rougher.

Eventually she has to pull away because she’s bone-tired, but Rio keeps her close to him. It’s when she realises that she’s sitting on his lap half-naked in her driveway in the middle of suburbia.

“Not for the first time, I’m really glad your windows are tinted,” she laughs a little, cheeks pinking despite the alcohol.

Rio smirks but begins pulling down her dress a little anyway.

Her ass covered, he moves his hand to her chest before his eyes go to where they’re still joined then slowly moving higher and higher until they make it back to her eyes.

“You gon’ wait up for me?”

“Do you want me to?”

He nods a little. “I want you on my tongue, mami.”

She swallows.

But, already feeling her eyes slip closed, she’s forced to be honest.

“I’m going to be out cold in five minutes,” she admits, sheepish. “But… you could wake me.”

“Cool,” he says, then brings her to his lips again.

The kiss is long and languid this time and when he finally pulls away, it’s to whisper into her ear.

“Don’t forget your panties, momma.”

She hits him and he laughs, a blush rising to her cheeks anew. She lifts off him and he helps so that she’s quickly fully settled again. They re-dress, clean up and he finds her earring in a crevice beside him.

When they’re finally done, they just sit together in the dark, staring at each other. She’s grateful for the wine still flowing through her veins – for once, it’s not as hard to bear the weight of his dark unreadable gaze.

Eventually she breaks the silence.

“Thank you for coming tonight.”

“Hmm,” he acknowledges lightly. “We got a murderer mixer next month, if you wanna make us even.”

She glares and he laughs under his breath. 

She watches him for a moment then pulls her lip into her mouth guiltily.

“I’ve made you really late for work, haven’t I?”

He shakes his head. “You don’t make me do nothin I don’t wanna do, Elizabeth.”

“…I guess nobody does.”

“Hmm,” he hums again, this time more non-committal as he looks away.

It unsettles her for some reason.

She looks at the time on the dash then at his relaxed form.

“It’s really late – maybe you should just skip it altogether?”

He looks at her, amused. “You a real fuckin bad influence, you know that?”

Her jaw drops. “I’m the bad influence?”

He nods, mock-earnest, and she can’t help laughing at the absurdity.

He reaches a hand over and starts dancing it over the inside of her thigh, not quite sexual but not exactly innocent, either.

It's strange because she'd thought she was the one holding him up, but it tells her that he’s not quite ready to leave yet. Watching his hand on her, she relaxes a little more into her seat and a few more minutes of silence pass.

She thinks it’s really unfair that just his light fingers on her can feel so good, so relaxing.

She wonders whether he’s doing it on purpose to keep her awake. It’s working – just barely.

She questions how he makes silence so comfortable, so serene.

She worries that she smells like pinot grigio.

And then, somehow, she finds herself speaking.

“I hate falling asleep without you,” she admits, her voice tiny in the dark.

After a second, she turns to look at him.

He’s already looking at her.

“Me too.”

It takes her breath away.

He pulls his hand away from her leg to whisper it over her lower lip and chin. It’s tender and her eyes flutter closed for an instant.

Then he nods, decisive.

“A’ight.”

Finally there’s a set to his shoulders and a determined energy about him that she associates with work.

And though she’s been waiting for him to realise that he needs to leave if he plans on getting anything done for the night, it catches her off guard. Maybe it’s the speed at which he can flip that switch. Maybe it’s the – dangerous – thought creeping in that he’d seemingly needed this time with her to recharge.

Just the notion is mind-bending – that she could help without actually doing anything; that just her being present could be enough. No meals to cook, no work friends to host, no outfit to pick out. Nothing she’d ever had to do to feel needed by Dean; appreciated.

“Thank you for coming with me tonight.”

“You said that already.”

“I know.”

“You don’t gotta thank me,” he shakes his head, shrugging, “it wasn’t that bad.”

“I know,” she says again.

He looks at her; cocks his head.

“Then whatchu tryna say?”

Too many things.

There was a time when she’d thought this – them, tonight, everything – was an impossibility; the reality of a fantasy Beth and Rio in another lifetime. But somehow here they are.

And it’s in the way he looks at her and touches her and makes her feel, but it’s also in the way his forgiveness lives in her chest.

I’m stupid for you, Elizabeth Boland.

It’s been weeks and somehow it still hits her afresh each time she remembers it.

He makes her feel so many things she never has before, and each one takes her back to that night.

So, what does she want to say?

Maybe she wants to thank him for forgiving her. Maybe she wants to try and explain that she’s never felt any of this before; that he’s her first in so many ways she doesn’t know how to describe.

She wants to say that she’s excited but scared; that she doesn’t feel capable.

That she feels like she’s going to ruin it, again.

“Goodbye,” she answers eventually, tone light.

There’s something in his eyes – he knows that’s not it, but after a second he apparently decides not to press.

“I’ll see you later, mami.”

Chapter Text


To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before


“Annie wants to come to our movie nights.”

“We got movie nights?”

Beth’s sigh is half a laugh. “That’s what she’s decided to call them. Also that we should have them regularly, on Saturday nights, and that other people are allowed to come.” At his raised brow: “I pick my battles, ok?”

He snorts in amusement but doesn’t press. Instead he shoots a quick glance behind him before crossing the space between them and laying a kiss at her lips, hand settling into her neck. It catches her by surprise, but she falls into it quickly – always does – and she’s about to thoughtlessly pull him even closer when there are soft careful footsteps on the staircase.

Rio’s gone in an instant, meeting her eyes for a second as he licks over his lips, before turning to regard the staircase.

“You brush properly, Pop?”

Marcus eventually makes it all the way down then nods.

“Uh huh.”

“Cool, let’s get to it.”

Marcus re-settles in his spot between them and Beth curls her legs up onto the sofa, sitting sideways so she can look at the TV as easily as she can look at them.

She’s about to hit play when Marcus looks at her, grinning sweetly.

“Miss Beth, can we bake cookies after the movie?”

“You literally just brushed your teeth,” Rio eyes him, unimpressed.

“We can eat them tomorrow,” Marcus points out, which can’t really be argued against.

Beth laughs. She loves that there’s someone in this world who can successfully refute Rio.

“Of course we can.”

“That’s if you make it to the end of the movie,” Rio snorts.

And he’s right, Marcus doesn’t. He falls asleep under Rio’s arm, nestled against his chest, and Rio complains about his drool as Beth rolls her eyes.

They finish watching the movie anyway – which is really cute, even Rio likes it – and Beth’s gaze keeps going to the pair of them.

She wishes she could take a picture; wishes she could be part of it.


John Wick: Chapter 3


“Stop being crazy and just come inside!” Beth shouts into her phone.

“What's goin on?” Rio asks, coming from her room, where’d he changed.

“My sister is absurdly bad at staying away from guys who are bad for her – although it could be argued that I've now surpassed her in that arena.”

Rio snorts in amusement but otherwise makes no comment on this.

“So when Sadie's away, sometimes I have to show some tough love and stop her from making bad choices.”

Gregg had needed to go on a work trip to San Diego. He’d gotten permission from the school – and, reluctantly, Annie – to take Sadie with him to experience it. Now Beth has the unenviable job of preventing her sister from contacting Noah – or, worse, finding a married guy at an electronics store.  

She heads to the front door then throws it open to a miserable-looking Annie, wearing a beanie and pink lipstick.

Beth holds out her hand.

“You know the rule: price of admittance is your phone.”

“God, I hate this part. Goodbye, sweet baby,” she whispers to it before handing it over.

Beth grins triumphantly.

“Welcome to movie night.”


Annie's brought with her a flask of literal gin and juice that she cracks before she’s even been inside the house for a full two minutes.

“Alright, who’s having?”

Beth accepts with a roll of her eyes, going to get ice, and Rio shrugs.

“Sure, why not. I ain’t drivin.”

“Oh, you're staying over?”

Rio looks at her, no doubt noting her tone of surprise.

“Yeah.”

“That wasn't planned well,” Annie frowns. “Where are you gonna sleep?”

He stares at her.

“Where am I gonna sleep?”

“Yeah, I mean the couch may look comfy, but let me tell you, you'll have kinks in your neck for days, my friend.”

“You got jokes, huh.”

Beth rolls her eyes as she sets the ice down on the counter between them.

“Annie, you're sleeping on the couch. Or you can take one of the kids’ beds.”

She gasps. 

“So that's how it is? What ever happened to chicks before dicks??”

“Oh, she found a better dick,” Rio boasts.

Annie huffs. “God, who ever thought I'd be fighting to sleep next you anyway, sheet-stealer?”

Beth's mouth drops open. Annie is the sheet-stealer!

She looks at Rio. “FYI, she snores. “

“I do not!” Beth turns to Rio with brows drawn together and a pout. “I do not!”

Smiling softly, he drops a kiss in her hair.

“I know, baby.”

She feels oddly comforted by this, letting herself relax into his light embrace. Of course – of course – Annie has to ruin it.

“What, you think after the thousand annoying things about you, he’s going to break up with you because you snore??”


Beth does the dumbest thing in the world: she goes to use the bathroom.

Meaning that not only does she leave Rio alone with Annie, but she also leaves them alone with the movie paused, leaving them with nothing to do but talk. And talking just happens to be Annie’s favourite thing to do when she’s been drinking, something Beth promptly remembers as she begins to exit her bedroom.

“She’s just a really soft soul, you know?" Annie's saying, which causes Beth to freeze involuntarily. "Sure, she comes off like this hard-hearted bitch, but actually she just wants to bake everybody cookies. And you’re like this storm of dark chaos sucking her in, and cookies and chaos don't really go that well together, it's a bad recipe. Wow, that metaphor worked out well. Anyway, I just think you might break her heart and it worries me a little sometimes.”

Beth nearly chokes then trips trying to get to the lounge.

“In conclusion: what exactly are your intentions with my sister?”

“Oh, I was plannin on fu–”

“DO NOT answer that!” she shouts, finally making it to them. “Annie, kitchen, NOW.”

Getting up, Annie pulls a face at Rio.

“Ugh, you got me sidebarred.”

He pops a brow. “I got you sidebarred?”

She sticks out her tongue then joins Beth in the kitchen, dragging her feet in.

“Whaaaaat?”

“What are you doing??”

“Chatting to your boyfriend.”

“Shhh!” she hisses. Rio doesn’t look like he’s paying them any attention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. “And he's not my boyfriend.”

“Lame,” Annie wrinkles her nose, “then what is he?”

You mine and that's it.

I'm yours?

Yea.

Your what?

Oh, so you into labels now, huh?

“He's Rio. AKA the head of a very dangerous criminal organisation, member of an international syndicate, and your boss! As am I, I'll have you remember.”

“You've been my boss my whole life,” Annie mutters bitterly.

“Then get with the program!”

With that, Beth spins and struts back into the lounge.

“All good, ladies?”

“Super,” Beth says, flopping onto the couch as Annie drags her feet back.

Rio chuckles. “That's what I like to hear.”

His hand creeps onto her knee, brushing lightly, and it calms Beth a little. When he meets her eyes, she can tell it’s exactly what he’d intended.

He pulls his gaze away when Annie speaks, though.

“Hey, where’s Lil Jesus tonight?” Then, at Beth: “Am I allowed to ask about that, free speech police?”

Beth’s trying to figure out what it even means when Rio replies with a smirk.

“With his momz.”

“Bummer,” Annie shrugs, and Rio just looks vaguely amused.

And now Beth remembers: Annie embarrassing her thoroughly and telling Rio that Marcus must be related to Jesus.

But in a second she’s breezed onto something completely different.

“Ok, next question, and it’s of vital importance: Between the two of us, who would John Wick like better? And before you answer, keep in mind that I really love dogs.”

And maybe it’s the gin, but Rio actually gets genuinely involved in this debate. And, watching silently, Beth’s anger – still flaming a minute ago – vanishes.

Instead she just watches the miracle of her sister getting along with a man in her life.


“And if I hear any sex noises, I’m coughing really loudly,” Annie says when the movie’s done, just before they disperse for the night.

She could’ve told her not to worry – by the time they’re getting into bed, things are awkward, at least from Beth’s side. She faffs, trying to postpone, but eventually there are no more texts to check and she’s applied all the cream her hands are capable of absorbing, so finally she climbs underneath the covers.

Rio turns out the light then pulls her close as usual, snuggling into her hair.

She tries not to feel stiff, but can’t help it, and after a few minutes pass, she clears her throat woodenly.

“Do… do you want to talk about the stuff my sister said?”

His response comes easily: “Do you wanna talk about the stuff your sister said?”

Beth nibbles at her lip then shakes her head a little.

“No.”

“Then naw.”

And so the tension in her shoulders ebbs way and they fall asleep.


The Incredibles 2


Elizabeth’s upstairs when the Hills get there.

Rio’s on popcorn duty and he’s busy judgin whether he’d thrown in enough M&Ms when Annie, Ruby and who he guesses is Ruby’s husband enter. Stan, he thinks his name is. Thinks Ruby had mentioned him at Monopoly night. Before anyone can say anything, there’s a yelp from the kids and Ruby shoots Annie a glance.

“Please can you sort that out? I need to find place in the fridge for the dip.”

Annie runs off to terrorise the seven kids and Ruby clears her throat.

“So Stan, this is Rio. Rio, Stan.”

Her eyes are dartin between em kinda nervously but Rio don’t see why it’s gotta be a big deal.

“Hey,” he pops his head.

Stan comes closer, stance combative, and Rio watches.

“I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he says, eyes stern; chin up. “The guy who turned my house inside out.”

And brought some money into it too, he wants to say, but doesn’t. He should start keepin a list of all the times he’s held himself back for Elizabeth’s sake.  

“You was on the task team that got me arrested, right?” he says instead. “Think that makes us even.”

Not that they'd actually gotten anywhere by themselves – that shit's all on Elizabeth – but it still wouldn't have sat right with him if it had been anyone else. Add it to the list.

“Oh, it doesn’t even begin to,” Stan scoffs, getting even closer. “Everything you’ve done to these women – to my wife – and now you’re just standing in the kitchen making popcorn? You think that’s ok?”

Ruby comes up beside em to give her husband a withering look.

“Stan, honey, you said you were going to be cool,” she reminds through her teeth.

It makes him falter, and Rio rocks back a little so they ain’t quite as in each other’s faces no more and he’s less threatening, not at his full height. He has a talent for seeing opportunities and Ruby had just handed him one on a silver platter.

“Look, man, I get what you tryna do and I respect that. You lookin out for your family, wanna keep em safe, and that’s all anyone in this place is doin.” He hears Annie shout at one of the kids upstairs and smiles a little. “Even Elizabeth’s crazy-ass sister. Don’t matter what side of the law we on, we all doin what we do for the same reason.”

Stan’s eyes go first to the staircase then back at Rio, wide.

“Wait, you’re good with Annie??”

This response throws Rio and he glances at Ruby, who’s givin him major ‘Say yes’ eyes.

So he nods. “Yeah.”

And he watches, puzzled, as Stan breaks out into a huge grin.

“Why didn’t you just say that, man?!”

He offers out a fist, Rio bumps it, and then the Hills go about finding a spot in the fridge for some kinda dip as Rio wonders what the hell had just happened.


He gets Elizabeth in the kitchen alone about halfway through the movie – they’re on ice-cream duty, and once she gets the tubs out the freezer, he regards her with unconcealed confusion.

“What?” she frowns, licking a drop of strawberry that’d made it onto her thumb.

He watches this for a moment before reminding himself to think straight.

Then he relates what’d happened earlier and Elizabeth goes from worried to mystified then resigned, like it makes complete sense. Which is funny ’cuz he still don’t get it.

“What’s your sister got to do with it?”

She looks past him into the lounge, where everyone’s arguing about how their favourite Super is the most helpful in a fight.

She hesitates for another second before speaking as she starts gettin the lids off the ice cream.

“My sister doesn’t like anyone I date.”

He raises a brow. “No one?”

“Nope. Never.”

“Not even…”

“Oh, she hated Dean,” she says with a little scoff.

He studies her as she studiously doesn’t make eye contact.

“But she likes me?”

“I guess she does,” she shrugs, uncharacteristically off-handed.

And now he wishes he woulda wanted to talk that night and not that he hadn’t, actually, but she’d seemed uncomfortable and he’d been tired so he’d let it go. But things had been different ever since – minutely, but notably – and he hasn’t quite known how to bring it up again.

And now ain’t the time neither.

“Shit,” he whistles. “Remind me to start bein nicer to her.”

“Oh, god, please don’t – she’d be completely unbearable then.”

They laugh together then he starts helpin her, setting out bowls and spoons.

“There is one thing she’d like, though,” she says after a minute, and he looks up with a quirked brow.

“What’s that?”

She rolls her eyes with a little smile as if she can’t quite believe it either: “A nickname.”

He frowns for a moment before remembering Elizabeth doubling over in laughter when he’d admitted to not remembering her sister’s name. He shakes his head in amusement then turns to face the lounge.

“Yo, A!”

Annie pops up like a puppy who’d just been called on.

“You say you wanted choc chips or choc sauce on top?”

She grins from ear to ear.

Chapter Text


Someone Great


Beth has the popcorn ready by the time he enters through the kitchen door.

“You’re late.”

“Jeremy was in a talkin mood.”

She groans. “I hate when he gets in those.”

“Hmm,” he agrees, then steps right in and kisses her.

It lasts a while, him pulling her close to him – they’d barely seen each other in the past unusually busy week.

The dealerships have been doing exceptionally well recently and Marina had needed to be in and out of hospital for check-up tests, meaning Rio had been on full-custody duty and on standby for anything she needed, especially if that something was Marcus.

He’d looked tired the one time she’d seen him – during a meeting – and they’d barely gotten to talk by themselves afterward before he’d had to run to fetch first Marcus from archery then Marina from the hospital.

She’d had to get used to sleeping without him for so long again, and it had been a special kind of torment. In his arms now she feels finally at ease, and she hates it when they part to take a breath.

Rio looks around the quiet house.

“We alone?”

She nods, watching him.

“We are.”

It’s all it takes for him to kiss away her bra strap as he lowers her pajama bottoms, Beth already half-lifting herself onto the counter. He helps her and she uses her height advantage to push his jacket from his shoulders. Then he gets her pajama jacket off, moving it and the popcorn out of the way before admiring with his hands the lingerie she’d picked.

It’s a dark purple set, with a thong, and she wouldn’t have worn it if she hadn’t known this was exactly how things would go.

He slips a finger under the line of it then follows it around to her ass and Beth mewls a little. It makes his gaze burn.

“Fuck, I missed you.”

She knows. Not just because she’d missed him – this – too, but because, well. There are men who love sex, and then there’s Rio, who’s a once-a-day minimum kind of guy, and a few of their phone calls had taken place before bed, when he’d been very overt about how much he wanted to be in her bed instead.

She lopes her arms around him as his hand slides to fully enclose her ass and then pull her closer. She presses just close enough but doesn’t kiss him, teasing him, and he grunts his complaint before using his other hand to slip under her panties and straight inside her. He watches her gasp and now he’s the one holding off on the kiss, keeping her back as his fingers shallowly ignite her body and he watches her every reaction. God, it’s insane the way he can play her like an instrument, as confident as when he holds his gun in his strong hands.

She falls forward with an involuntary moan and finally, finally, he takes her lips with his and she kisses him back for only a second before breathlessly reaching for his belt.

Everything is rapid from there, a mess of hands and tongues before finally he’s pulling her thong down roughly and she’s barely registered the snap of it before he’s inside her, nibbling at her neck as she adjusts to his size.

Beth breathes out a moan, sinking her fingers into the back of his neck. She takes a breath of him and it’s insane how much his clean ocean scent makes her feel so goddamn at home, like she’d been incomplete all week and it was the puzzle piece she’d been missing.

“You need to stop breaking my thongs,” she says eventually, to distract herself.

“Then maybe you gotta stop wearin such flimsy ones.”

She smiles against the wings on his neck. “I thought you liked them.”

He moves a little and she gasps, making him laugh as he runs a deliberate hand over her bare hipbone.

“I like ya like this,” he says, smug but sincere. “Anythin else’s icing.”

“Icing’s nice,” she sniffs.

“But a once-off-use kinda thing, ain’t it?”

She feels his grin against her collarbone and then the argument no longer matters because her eyes fall closed as he begins pounding into her, pulling out then pushing back in faster and faster until both their moans are ricocheting off the kitchen windows. She starts coming before she even realises it, suddenly in the middle of it, and she’s holding on for dear life as they spiral and shake together.

It takes several minutes to come back down and she feels so sated that she nearly starts to drift to sleep, but he pulls her lips to his and kisses her hard, bruising.

“I didn’t wait all week to see ya just so you could fall asleep on me, ma,” he regards her sternly.

She giggles guiltily a little and he grins back before they clean up and redress. She goes to her bedroom to discard of the thong and pull on a fresh pair of underwear and when she exits, she finds her feet stuttering at the threshold, bringing her to a pause.

Rio’s giving the popcorn an appraising taste and she finds herself staring at him.

He’d spoken very little about himself during their phone calls – it was all her and Marcus; a dash of Marina only when he went through what he’d done for the day. But never how he felt about it all, and it had concerned her a little.

She watches him for a second more before clearing her throat; getting closer.

“Do you want to talk about your week?”

 “Nuh; I had enough of it,” he shakes his head. “Just wanna hold you and watch a movie.”

And she can tell from his tone that he is tired of it – on a good day just the mention of Marina seems to drain him, never mind a week full of dealing with her – but she can’t help getting a different message, too. That the intimacies of that part of his life are still not for her to be part of.

And she wonders: will it ever change?


“Fuck, this movie’s depressing.”

“I think it’s supposed to be,” she points out. “It’s about a breakup.”

“They’re gettin high and shit,” he counters, waving a hand at the TV.

Pausing it, she looks at him.

“She can’t be with the person who makes her happy. No amount of weed is gonna make her forget that.”

Her voice wobbles a little and she mentally curses.

The last thing in the world she wants to do is make him feel guilty for the past week. The crippling way she’d missed him isn’t his to bear, and god knows he’d had enough to bear.

But Rio shifts on the couch, turning fully to face her as he cocks his head a little.

You make me happy. You know that, right?”

She stares back at him, speechless. Where in the hell is this coming from?

“I-I do?”

“Yea.” Agitated, he shifts. “Why else you think I'm here?”

She doesn’t know how to respond to this, so she says the first thing that pops into her mind: “The sex is really good?”

It’s a stupid answer, she knows it is, but he looks unfazed.

“We havin sex right now?”

“No.”

“Then there ya go.”

She squirms against her will and he looks annoyed.

“Why I gotta keep tellin you this shit?”

Now she scoffs.

“Have you met you?”

“What's that mean?” he presses, jaw hard.

“You're not exactly the most forthcoming person in the world, and it’s not very comforting. And... and I know you have options.”

Are you going on a date or something?

Yea, actually.

“That right?” he spits. “Keep goin, let's hear some more shit about myself I didn't know.”

God, he's an asshole.

“How could I, when I don't know anything about you?” she throws out, frustrated.

“You don't know anythin about me?”

“No!”

“Like what kinda scotch or tea I like, or my favourite kinda popcorn or–”

“Those aren't important things!”

“Yeah? What's important?”

They’d been yelling at each other and now she stops to draw a breath, the beat ticking over into a sort of artificial calm that lets the words come off her tongue steadily.

“You do know that I don't even know your last name?”

It hasn’t bothered her in a long while – whenever he’s with her, it’s hard to remember how little she knows about him. When they’re together, she feels she knows him all too well – the taste of his lips, the scent of his skin, the way he shudders when she curves a thumb over his sharp hipbone. The kinds of things in movies that make him laugh, the look he gets in his eyes when he gets a serious text, the way his jaw softens when he’s exhausted.

But when they’re apart, the doubts sow themselves and when she hasn’t seen him for a few days, it suddenly occurs to her: what if he’d gone? What if he’d left and hadn’t said anything again? How could she ever track him down?

She doesn’t know his last name, where he lives, where his ex lives, where Marcus goes to school. She knows nothing concrete about him and it’s a wound freshly salted by his refusal to talk about what had happened with Marina this week.

But Rio shrugs.

“So?”

Scoffing a little, Beth shakes her head and stands, heading to the kitchen. He's infuriating enough when he isn't even trying, to say nothing of when he does.

She gets herself a glass of water then slowly sips it, she supposes in an attempt to calm herself; to put her worries down, tuck them in and whisper Everything’s going to be ok.

But, god – is it?

Is it really so wrong of her to want to know him outside of who he is with her? The parts of him – she finally lets herself think; acknowledge sullenly – that Marina knows.

He knows her sister and her ex and her friends; parents at the school. He knows so much about her, their relationship a seesaw she’s so tired of being at the bottom of.

And does she really make him happy? How?

To say nothing of why he’d even suddenly told her that. Is it because of what Annie had said weeks ago? She can think of nothing else. But why? Why now? And which part of it had struck a chord with him?

Anyway, I just think you might break her heart and it worries me a little sometimes.

Beth turns when she hears him enter, which must mean he'd wanted her to hear him, because he's practically a ghost otherwise.

She doesn't really know what to say so she says nothing and he stares back at her for a few moments, jaw working, before he speaks.

“C'mon.”

He jerks his head in the direction of his car.

She frowns. “What?”

“Wanna show you somethin.”

“Where?”

“You'll see when you c'mon.”

She lets out a long sigh then, giving in, looks down at her pajamas.

“Well, I'll have to change.”

“Naw, you don't gotta change, just c'mon.”


Beth feels weird in her pajamas and slippers in his incredibly sleek black premium-leather-interior car.

But they don’t talk or make eye contact, and that makes her feel infinitesimally better about it, thanking his tinted windows once more for no one else being able to see what an extra odd pair they make, tattooed and pajamaed in the middle of the night.

The silence is thick but not long – he pulls in somewhere after a handful of minutes and she studies the building they’ve pulled up in front of.

It has a bit of a reputation, she thinks. She’s heard snippets about it, has never really paid much attention, but it’s seemingly where people buy when they’ve just made it big. New money, she supposes is the term.

But it’s not splashy – the opposite, really. It has an industrial yet luxurious aesthetic about it that’s maybe a bit too on trend for the PTA.

And it hits her like a truck: he’s brought her to where he lives.

Her head whips to him, but he’s already climbing out and Beth opens her own door with a feeling in her stomach that she can only liken to dread. She feels physically sick as she follows him and she doesn’t know why other than that it’s a lot.

His place. His real place. Him inviting her into it. She doesn’t have to break in.

Him not wasting a second longer, bringing her here because she’d wanted to know him.

It’s so goddamn much and she feels vaguely woozy as she follows him through a short passageway that has a door at the end of it. He places a keycard into it and it opens onto an elevator. He lets her in first and she swallows, looking around the small elevator with wooden panels, no mirrors. It’s a private one for sure, made explicit when Rio hits the only button there is and they start ascending.

He stands a little in front of her and she forces herself to clear her throat.

“This is your place?”

He turns slowly, anger and frustration melting away instantly when he sees her face.

“What’s wrong?”

God. Now she wishes there were mirrors – does she actually look green?

She shakes her head wordlessly and Rio rocks hesitantly before closing the space between them, kissing her. She gasps but he doesn’t deepen the kiss, keeps it soft. Still, she lets her fingers tangle into his jacket so he doesn’t go far when he pulls back.

He looks down at her and Beth realises the dread is gone, abandoned at the altar of his lips.

Breaking eye contact, she clears her throat then casts a glance around.

“I can’t believe you have your own elevator.”

He smirks. “Now you know where to come when you need help gettin rid of a body.”

She shoves at him and they laugh before the elevator finally comes to a stop, opening.

Beth takes a breath.

Rio holds an arm up to keep the doors open for her and she swallows as she crosses inside.

It’s ludicrous.

Truly, there’s no other description for it. It’s like a combination of his old place and his fancy nest egg house: huge – almost impossibly huge, gargantuan – and open, with light wood and exposed brick, soft lighting from exposed lightbulbs, neutral couches, white curtains.

His bed is just off the lounge again, not enclosed, and the kitchen is right opposite it, visible through high arches. She makes to step further in, seeing gleaming stainless steel, when Rio speaks from behind her.

“Place is a mess,” he says apologetically, and Beth takes another glance around as she takes a few more steps.

There’s a lone blue toy truck off to the side of the lounge, near a pair of kids’ trainers. The couch looks like someone had sat there for maybe a minute and slightly disturbed one of the cushions. In the kitchen sink there are two plates and two forks and there are two cups on the drying rack. Other than that, the place is immaculate.

God, yes,” she injects mock horror into her voice. “How can you even let guests into a place in this state? It’s like wading through a dumpster.”

“You makin fun of me?”

“It’s disgusting. You should be ashamed.”

He grabs her from behind and she squeals in surprise before lifting her head all the way up so she can stick her tongue out at him.

“You’re crazy.”

“Whatever,” he rolls his eyes, tickling her a little at her sides.

Looking around again, she lets out a breath and pulls herself free.

“I can’t believe people even live here. God, two people. It could fit at least ten.”

He snorts a laugh then releases her, going off.

“Got sum’n for ya.”

Beth barely acknowledges this, moving to fully enter the kitchen.

It, too, is massive. Her eyes pass over the marble counter and pale wood cabinets, the huge double-door fridge and two ovens. The pizza oven Marcus had told her about.

God, she’s sure there are professional chefs who don’t even have kitchens like this.

There’s a sound that’s a bit like a safe clicking open – Rio’s guy had come a few weeks ago, meaning she’s now intimately acquainted with safes – then shutting again, and Beth frowns, finally registering that he’d said he has something for her.

She hopes it’s not more jewellery – the bracelet he’d given her is one of the few things she owns that actually makes it into the safe, and it’s annoying to take it in and out every day. (Rio deposits his gun and two rings in there, plus a few work papers every now and then. He also keeps a spare gun in there that looks suspiciously like the one he’d once taught her on, but she deliberately doesn’t ask.)

She’s trying his – superpowered – faucet when suddenly he’s behind her and she jolts before turning off the water then spinning to face him with a glare. He’s grinning, pleased with himself, and she’s about to point out that he wouldn’t be so pleased if he knew his entire kitchen could’ve just been flooded, when she catches sight of what he’s holding.

The little book makes her frown.

“It’s your passport.”

He nods, seemingly amused.

“My real one, too.”

She’s trying to process that when she suddenly realises.

It’ll have his full name. His last name. His birth date.

Real things.

Her throat is suddenly very dry and she feels paralysed, unable to do anything but stare back at him and it.

“You want it?” he prods, smirking.

Forcing air into her lungs, Beth reaches out and he gives it to her.

It seems to happen in slow motion but, once it’s in her hand, that shatters, and within a second she’s on the most important page.

She runs a finger over all three of his names, the last two so new to her; unfamiliar yet fitting.

He hadn’t lied about his age, she’s relieved to learn. Then her gaze goes down to the picture and she can’t believe how ridiculously hot he looks in it. (Though ill-tempered, obviously, like the photographer had insulted his mother before taking the shot.)

“I don’t know what to say,” she finally finds it in her to speak.

“Say happy birthday this year.”

She looks up at this, meets his gaze, and he looks smug and teasing but there’s something genuine in his eyes, too, like he knows how big the moment is.

Swallowing, she feels suddenly guilty.

“I didn’t mean to make you do this,” she shakes her head.

Because she wanted to know, but she didn’t want to force him to tell her. Didn’t want to have to scale the fire escape and climb through the window of his mind.

“You don’t make me do nothin I don’t wanna do, Elizabeth.”

She blinks back, speechless, but then just when she’s about to say something, he steps forward, cutting her off.

“Look,” he sucks in a sharp breath. “What we got in here and out there’s different. You ain't happy out there, it's cool–”

“Is it?”

“But if you ain't happy in here, that's a problem.”

She doesn’t know what to say. She wants to say that she isn’t unhappy, but that isn’t really true, is it? She’d been happy but in metered doses, as high as the girls in the movie from earlier.

“You should know,” she feels compelled to say, “none of what my sister said is a reflection of what I think.”

And you’re like this storm of dark chaos sucking her in, and cookies and chaos don't really go that well together, it's a bad recipe.

“I didn’t tell her any of those things, or whatever else she may have said before that.”

Rio snorts lightly. “Mami, I ain’t taken anythin she’s said as a reflection of you since she said she’d be down to smuggle shit up her butt.”

“Oh my god,” she laughs and cringes at the same time, remembering that day. “I can’t believe you put up with us.”

“Well I didn’t wanna have to deal wit’ ‘street people’ no more,” he grins.

“Oh my god,” she blushes bright red, remembering herself saying that.

He laughs, rocking back a little and moving his hands to her waist so he’s holding her.

“So,” he pulls a face, “you sayin’ you ain’t the cookies to my chaos?”

“Oh my god,” she repeats again, “please stop or I might actually die of embarrassment.”

He laughs again then shakes his head. “You don’t gotta. Prolly got a Halloween costume somewhere in there.”

And as intriguing as the thoughts of him agreeing to a couple’s costume or them still being together by Halloween are, there’s more important ground to cover.

Biting at her lip, Beth looks up at him through her lashes.

“So you didn’t mind what she said?”

“Like what, that she called me your boyfriend?” he smirks.

God, she knew he’d heard that.

Sighing, she tries stepping back a little, but he holds her fast.

“…For one.”

He shrugs. “She done called me way worse. Called me homeslice the other night.”

And oh god, she vaguely remembers that.

“I’ll talk to her about that.”

“You should.”

She watches him, silent, and he lets the moment pull and stretch like taffy.

And maybe it’s that – knowing, somehow, that he has the control – that makes her decide she won’t be the one to break the silence.

Maybe he can read her mind or maybe they’ve just done this too many times by now, but he knows. She knows he knows.

Rio nibbles on his top lip, considering, then leans forward, hand going up to push her hair away, brush against her temple.

“Whatchu thinkin up there?”

Something about the way he’s let her win makes her smile teasingly.

“Whether I want to be your girlfriend or not.”

A laugh bubbles up from his throat, but he gains back his composure nearly instantly.

“Yeah?” He looks impressed by her. “What’s the verdict?”

Overtly sizing him up, she forces a sigh like she’s coming to a difficult decision.

“It could go either way.”

“Hmmm.” And now he draws his entire body closer. “Guess I gotta sweeten the pot, huh?”

She presses a hand to his chest, smile slipping, and he actually lets it restrain him.

“No.”

Beth’s eyes flick up to meet his. There’s disquiet in the dark pools and maybe the mood had gone from teasing to serious too quickly, but suddenly it had felt too fast, too dizzy-making, and by now she recognises it too well.

She swallows hard, like there’s a marble in her throat.

“Just tell me this isn’t crazy.”

Rio takes a breath. She watches as his chest rises and falls.

“You askin me to lie to you?”

His tone is even, cool, and not for the first time she admires his ability to do that.

She shakes her head a little: “I’m asking you if we’re lying to ourselves.”

Can any of this actually work?

A second passes, quiet, and then he rolls his shoulders.

“Guess that depends on what’s got you worried.”

You, she wants to say. Me.

She feels his eyes on her as she trips over herself in her mind, the marble of uncertainty eating her up inside, burning through, refusing to be turned into words she can roll off her tongue.

“Look at me.”

His voice is hard now, rough, and she didn’t even know her chin had fallen but she lifts it, meets his eyes. Marvels at the storm behind them; wonders when it had brewed.

“I was a shitty husband and that's on me, I know that,” he says, lip curling. “But I don’t make the same mistake twice, and I definitely ain’t making that mistake wit’ you.”

Forcing herself to draw a breath, Beth parts her lips.

“What does that mean?”

Now finally he doesn’t let her hold him back any longer; comes closer to caress his thumb over the apple of her cheek.

“It means you make me real damn happy, Elizabeth. And if you didn’t, I’d let you know, I can promise ya that.” He pauses for a moment, almost as if second-guessing the rest, but then continues: “And I wanna make you happy too, that’s it, nothin else. That’s my job. That’s what we doin here.”

And maybe it’s still not quite happiness, but it’s joy and it’s there because now it feels real, all of it – him, this, them – and it’s no longer just a butterfly in the palm of her hand; no longer fleeting.

But joy isn’t quite as long-lasting, though it feels good – so goddamn good, settling warmly in her chest and spreading – and it doesn’t find itself uncontended. There’s Marina, for one; everything complicated about the two of them that she hadn’t expected to find herself faced with. 

“You make it seem like everything is so incredibly simple,” she repeats once more, rolling her eyes.

She feels so light, though; Marina seeming far away and not nearly as real as him in front of her, his hands on her. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it can be simple.

Maybe she’d blown his response earlier out of proportion.

Maybe she hadn’t and it doesn’t matter either way. Because he’d brought her here, to his home, and now she’s inside; knows who he really is beneath all the layers he wears when they’re out there.

“It ain’t supposed to be hard, Elizabeth,” he shakes his head a little. “If there’s anythin I learned the first time ’round, it’s that.”

That catches her. She blinks.

“The first time around?”

Rio smirks, amused.

“What, you wanna get married now?”

“Right now?” she quips, then shakes her head vehemently. “Not while wearing this.”

He looks her up and down.

“Why didn’t you change?”

She gasps and hits him, and Rio rocks back with laughter before pushing back in and kissing her long and deep.

She holds his passport between her hands, pressed to his chest between them, and once again, her anxieties seem to float away on the air like… like butterflies.

She smiles as she kisses him and he presses closer, holding her between his hands like he’s never going to let her go, and Beth feels more secure than she maybe ever has. She knows who he is and he is hers and he wants to make her happy.

By the time he finally pulls away, she feels so far away; has forgotten they’re in the kitchen of his ridiculously huge loft.

But he doesn’t go far; looks down at her.

“Now you.”

“Now me, what?”

“You tell me all the shit you got buried,” he explains. “’Cuz much as you make it seem, mami, I ain’t the only one holdin things back.”

When I was young, trust me, those people were everything I wanted; what every fourteen-year-old who only wants to escape wanted: money, contacts, freedom.

What’d you wanna escape from?

God, that’s right, she’d let that slip.

Beth looks around uncertainly, anxiety beginning to build quickly again, but he looks at her for a second, analysing, then takes her wrists in his hand and twists around, pulling her along until they’ve stopped at his bed.

“Relax. I’ll be right back.”

She sits on the bed cross-legged and waits as he disappears, she supposes to the bathroom, because when he kisses her when he gets back, he tastes like toothpaste.

Her hand’s still on his jaw when she looks up at him.

“Where do you want me to start?”

And that night, curled into each other in his bed, she tells him all about her childhood. Things so few people in this world know about her. Some things even Dean has never known.

She watches in his eyes as she somehow grows in his estimation and it makes her tell him more and more, till she has nothing left to tell.

So he tells her stories. They aren’t exhumed from quite as deep, but she finds them revealing all the same, lapping each word up like mist in a desert. He tells her about his mother’s face when she’d first stepped into the new house he’d bought her – “Sooooo fuckin dope” is his precise description – and his face splits into a grin from ear to ear. He tells her about the first Sunday lunch they’d had there, when his elder sister had spent the whole afternoon taking digs at how he’d managed to afford it – it makes her realise the perpetual animosity between them is about his job, but Beth doesn’t press.

About Marnie’s phone call to tell him about her engagement. About the surprise car he’s going to buy Gabby for her birthday at the end of the year.

When he’s done, both their eyes unable to stay open a moment longer, she buries her face in his shoulder with his arms wrapped around her, and the last thing she thinks before she falls asleep is Now I know you too.



Rio's place (not all his furniture):

3191f2ce-a9ab-4d09-83c6-54d802450f9e-f10

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Chapter Text

Beth wakes to the scent of breakfast.

It takes her several seconds to pry her eyes apart and then she looks around with a frown. Where the hell is she?

But then she catches sight of Rio in the distant kitchen at the stove, in track pants and a hoodie, and she remembers. This is his place.

A smile rises to her lips as she surveys the loft again; feels the soft linen surrounding her. She rubs her eyes then eventually slowly retrieves herself from under the sheet, heading to find the bathroom.

She blinks when she gets inside.

It’s a lot different than the one at his fancy nest egg house – twice as small and with a lighter, more industrial feel to it. Less like the world’s fanciest hotel and more like… well, like Rio. Rough and refined at the exact same time.

She pees then goes about looking for a spare toothbrush. There are none.

Biting back a smile, she reaches for his then brushes her teeth.

She’s coming up from rinsing when she spots him in the mirror, and she twists around with a yip of surprise that makes him smirk.

“Breakfast’s ready,” he points out, body pressing into the doorway.

There’s something very casual and relaxed about him – like they do this every Sunday morning – and she lets her eyes roam his concave form before nodding.

“Ok.”

He gives her one last look – laced with amusement – before leaving, and it takes turning back to the mirror to discover that she has some foam on her chin. God.

She rinses it away then beelines back out with the full intention of berating him for not informing her, but she stops dead when she catches sight of the dining table.

There’s a Spanish omelette, bacon, toast, orange juice and two settings perfectly placed. There are even napkins.

Struck speechless, she’s glad Rio is in the kitchen, his back to her.

Beth forces herself to wipe the awe off her face, sinking into the seat at the head of the table instead. Rio pulls two espressos then comes to the table bearing them.

“You sleep good?” he questions curiously, sitting himself and the coffee down.

Again she can’t believe how nonchalant he’s being about it all – like they’ve been doing this their entire lives. And it’s not just that.

Everything they’d revealed to each other last night, all her buried secrets, make her feel so bare in the crisp daylight bouncing off all the light wood. She feels like he can see her and it makes her want to find a corner where it’s dark and safe.

“Y-yeah.”

“Cool.”

She takes her espresso and starts sipping at it – it’s ridiculously strong, near undrinkable, and she’s sure it’s some incredibly expensive single-origin something-or-other – as Rio begins dishing them food.

Finally, finally – when their plates are filled and she’s placed down her cup, just blinking at the spread in front of her – Rio seems to notice her incongruence.

He seems to want to say something but then foregoes it, opting to move his chair closer instead. She watches, curious, and yet is still somehow entirely caught off guard when he tugs her to him, fingers on her chin, and kisses her deep.

She disappears into it, melting, and god, how does he know?

How does he always know what she needs?

His lips are warm, and it spreads through her, like she’s walked straight into a beam of sunlight. Like the dark is not where she belongs.

By the time he pulls away, she feels a million times better. Like maybe this is normal. Like maybe they can look at each other and see each other and it’s ok. It’s ok.

And he is looking at her – in that knowing way he has – so she quickly averts her gaze, picking up her fork and digging in.

After a minute Rio does too and they just eat for a while. The omelette is really good and she’s about to ask how he can do this but burn mac and cheese, when he speaks.

“Whatchu got goin on today?”

Beth frowns, thinking about it.

“I have to fetch the kids tonight, but otherwise… nothing.”

“Yeah?”

His eyes are lit up in interest and though she too is surprised by her own empty schedule, she wouldn’t have expected this reaction from him.

“Why, what do you have?”

He pulls his lip into his mouth slowly and she’s still trying to figure out what he’s so damn pleased by.

“Nothin, no more.”

Oh.

She swallows and he holds her eyes for a second longer before going back to his food.

Another unbidden smile rises to her lips and she tries to get rid of it by eating. The idea of getting to spend the entire day with him is already a little unbelievable, but him cancelling plans so it’s possible? Her stomach does flip flops around the food she’s putting into it.

Eventually they get into conversation, her informing him that the coffee is terrible and he should be well aware that there are easier ways to kill her. He throws his head back with laughter.

He gives her the recipe for the omelette, rolling his eyes at her disbelief that he’d actually made it.

He tells her about the day he has planned with Marcus tomorrow – he lets Marcus play truant sometimes just so they can spend time together at special places outside the city – and she finds herself inviting them over for dinner. He studies her then says yes.

They argue about what she’ll cook then eventually come to an agreement.

Silence settles.

Beth sits down her orange juice. The sound seems to reverberate around the loft.

Rio’s head is cocked, one foot pulled up onto his chair, which is still closer to hers than it belongs.

When she looks at him, he lowers his knee, placing his foot back on the hardwood floor. He leans closer just the tiniest bit, a knowing smirk tugging at the corner of his lips.

She pulls him to her by his hoodie’s zipper and his smug laugh falls on her lips as her cool orange-juice-hand meets his warm neck and then they’re both moaning, her legs parting almost immediately. He doesn’t waste a second, hand tracing up then rubbing her through her pajama pants. Her moans are louder now and she gets his hoodie off him, hands running over his bare chest.

Her panties are beginning to stick to her slit, she’s so wet, and he’s smirking when she pushes him away.

But then he kicks his chair back as he stands and the moment she’s risen, he shoves her chair out of the way too.

She gets closer, slipping her fingers under his waistband, and he watches with his lower lip pulled into his mouth as she pushes down his track pants. Then he pulls her to his lips and they kiss as he finishes undressing them till she’s in only her underwear.

Placing his hands on her hips, he begins pushing her backwards and she pulls away from the kiss with a small yip, trying to keep her balance.

Then she feels the bed against the backs of her knees and his hands behind her, getting off her bra. As soon as it’s cleared her arms, he jerks his head.

She sits with a harsh breath then lays down, watching him stare down her body. His eyes take in every inch of her then settle on the one part still hidden from him. He bites on his lower lip then settles over her, breath cool across her face.

Then, slowly, he bows into her neck to whisper into her ear.

“Take off your panties.”

God, he’s a jerk, she thinks as her cheeks pink. Don’t say panties, she knows he’s remembering. Because he could easily get them off himself.

But she knows she’s not going to win this fight so, shifting, she reaches down to wiggle out of her panties and the blush only gets hotter as she notes the line of thick moisture on it. Looking down, Rio clocks it too, and she’s mortified until he curses then presses a finger into her without preamble.

Her back arches as she moans and Rio’s brows knit.

“Fuck, mami, fuck,” he complains, finger slipping in deeper so damn easily.

“Stop,” she snaps on a breath, slapping at his hand.

He lets out a long breath then retracts it, looking down at her like he’s never seen her before, before parting her legs wide, wider. His eyes are focused firmly between them and Beth’s caught between shyness and desperation.

She’s decided on desperation, about to say something or pull him to her, when he settles over her again then presses into her in one solid movement.

“Oh, god,” she moans.

He lets out a shallow breath as his palms press into the bed at her sides and he arches up, looking down at where their bodies meet. Beth bites on her lip as she looks too, but then he starts thrusting and she tosses her head back, addicted to the feeling. He half-pulls out then buries himself completely again, building a ridiculous rhythm too fast and oh, she’s caught up in it. She wants more, more, but then he’s circling her clit and she shakes her head no, it’s too soon, and he growls.

Beth ignores him, biting harder into her lip, and suddenly he’s on top of her, pulling her face to him and then he’s kissing her roughly, desperate.

When she cries out, he pulls back to look at her sternly.

“You gotta come for me, momma.”

But though he’s going slower now, it feels too good and she doesn’t want to let go; doesn’t want to let that tightening inside of her snap.

Rio makes a noise of complaint into the crook of her neck.

“You bein stubborn, huh?”

He nibbles roughly as his hips speed up again.

“What if I say Imma just fuck you all day long, huh? Keep you coming, mami, over and over; let’s find that limit.”

At the image, her hips stutter and instantly she snaps. Fuck.

“Ah-ah-ahhh,” she breathes, feeling Rio go rigid above her a second later.

Her body quivers, jerking erratically, and she relishes in the fact that he’s still inside her; on top of her. When exactly had orgasming become less important than the way he feels; the way he makes her feel in the throes of it?

It’s a fleeting thought, though, gone as soon as another tremor hits her.

When she gets her breath back, she slams a fist against his chest.

“Asshole.”

Rio howls with laughter.


They settle against the headboard – he moves her pillows closer to his and she rolls her eyes then settles against them anyway as he pulls out his laptop.

She watches as he does a multitude of things: skimming headlines then reading a few feature articles and HuffPost opinion pieces. He checks stock market sites, which is where she begins zoning out, not able to make heads or tails of the red and green numbers; the arrows and percentages. Then he checks racing results: horses and cars. After that comes the official Michigan government website, his eyes attentively going over headlines like Governor Whitmer makes appointments to committee on Michigan's mining future or Homeless veteran and youth populations in Michigan continue to decline.

Finally he circles back around to the news cycle, going through local things that seem to interest him then international and Canadian news.

“Are you looking for something specific?” she asks eventually.

“Yeah,” he nods. “Everythin.”

She rolls her eyes at his trademark less-than-helpful response.

“Do you do this a lot?”

“Every day.”

Oh.

She sometimes forgets the level at which he operates; that it’s so much more than her limited view of him. The ping of terror in her stomach reminds her why.

“Does it help?” she decides to ask, as if seeking advice.

“Guess so,” he shrugs. “Can see what’s comin ’fore it gets here.”

“So you know when to flip your game?”

“You’re catching on.”

She half-rolls her eyes and he smiles down at her warmly before something seems to occur to him as he very obviously takes her in.

“You need some clothes.”

She glares, refusing to once again point out that he’s the reason she has nothing to wear, and he chuckles.

“Here,” he says, typing something in then passing her the laptop. “Order some stuff.”

With a frown she takes the laptop, then sees that he’s opened some fancy clothing site.

“You’re joking, right?”

“Not even a lil,” he shakes his head.

Not waiting for a reply, he hops out of bed as she stares after him with her jaw open.

He starts making coffee, snacks on bacon, and by the time he disappears as he squats to get something from inside a cabinet – all very nonchalantly – she realises he’s really being serious.

So, out of spite more than anything else, she begins clicking ‘Add to cart’ on everything she even vaguely likes, but when he returns with a bag of pretzels and a cup of coffee, he frowns.

“That all?”

“I…”

Her mouth falls open, speechless. Her cart says $1400.

With a sigh, he abandons his coffee and climbs back in with her then begins pointing out things.

“You like that?”

“Yes, but it probably won’t fit right–”

“So then ya send it back.”

His reasoning is similar for a lot more, and by the time he finally seems satisfied – having clicked ‘Add to cart’ himself more than a few times – she’s at $9000.

“Oh my god, you can’t buy me all this stuff!”

“Why not?” he asks, taking the laptop back so he can finish the purchase like it's petty cash.

She doesn’t have a response for this so, before she knows it, the screen says the purchase is on its way.

“Cool.” He seems pleased. “You hungry?”

They eat for about a minute before the pretzels end up on the floor and she ends up on his lap, head tossed back as she bounces on his cock and he sucks at her throat.

Afterwards, he’s trying to get her around to liking his coffee when his phone goes off.

It’s his work phone, Beth knows from the notification sound, as well as that it’s from one of his contacts that can bypass the silent mode, meaning something urgent.

Rio lets out a long breath then twists to get it, and she watches with a frown as he reads the message.

“What’s wrong?”

“Marvin got himself locked up,” he says with another very annoyed sigh.

She gasps. “How?”

“I dunno, but I gotta fuckin sort this out.”

She nods.

“Can I help?”

“Nuh,” he waves his hand, already beginning to get up. “You stay here, yeah?”

She looks back at him uncertainly.

“Are you sure?”

“Uh huh. Do some snoopin, you love that shit.”

She glares and he laughs all the way to the bathroom.

He’s back and dressed within five minutes, during which time Beth had gotten more and more uncertain.

“Hey,” he says, sitting in front of her on the bed. “Imma be back, alright? Two hours tops. Can’t let you miss me too much.”

She shoves his shoulder. “God, you’re annoying.”

“Hmm,” he hums in agreement, smiling.

Then he kisses her.

And again, it unravels every bit of insecurity lodged inside, deep within where she doesn’t even know how it had formed.

It’s assuring: You belong here, it seems to say.

“Mmm,” he pulls away, licking the taste of her from his lips.

Deciding he doesn’t get to just pull away like that, even if reluctantly, she darts forward again, pressing her mouth to his, and he falls back into the kiss like breathing. It makes the sheet fall away from her body and it’s like her skin is magnetic – his hand roams over her ass then settles and squeezes.

Finally he manages to pull away again, both of them breathing heavily.

“Elizabeth,” he says sternly, “you gonna get me hard again.”

Rocking back, she bites her lip into her mouth coyly.

“Who, me?”

His laugh is breathy as he shakes his head, standing.

“Two hours,” he promises again.

She nods though she’s not really sure if she believes him. Still, she knows he wants to stay and that’s enough.

Rio dials on his phone as he gets out his gun then secures the safe again.

“Yo, Gretchen, we got a problem.”

And then he’s out the door.

Chapter Text

Beth decides she does, in fact, want to snoop.

She re-dresses then spends a second whirling around, trying to decide where to start. The place is cavernous and she lets out a long breath of air before deciding to start with the closet again.

It’s behind a door that she has to slide open, and the first thing that hits her is that it’s a lot bigger. At least double in size to the previous one, and it still smells new.

Her eyes go to the clothing, which is now more representative of what he actually wears. There are still the light shirts and cashmere sweaters, but they’re in the minority. There are dark bomber jackets now too, denim shirts, expensive black t-shirts, dark blue and green button-ups. She runs a hand over it all again, smiling a little.

She’s turning to leave when she catches sight of the other side of the closet. It’s obviously a his-and-hers closet, and what she supposes is the ‘hers’ side is devoid of a single item of clothing.

She blinks, $9000 flashing behind her eyes.

Not letting herself think about it for any longer, she closes it again then goes to find Marcus’ room.

It’s very similar to his previous one, only bigger. There are more toys, more of his extramural life on display. On his bedside table is a picture and Beth nearly skips it before realising it’s not just him and Rio, per usual.

Nearing, she lifts the frame.

Marina. It has to be. Marcus is settled on a railing – above a lake or something, maybe – with a parent on either side as they all smile into the camera.

Is she a looker? Annie had once asked, and Beth hadn’t been able to answer. But now, looking at Rio’s ex-wife, she swallows.

If she had to describe her, she’d say that she’s Beth’s opposite in every possible physical way. She’s tiny and petite, with fine dark features. Her smile is open, unguarded, at least for the picture.

Annie says Beth has resting bitch face.

Marina’s hair is long and glistens a little in the late-afternoon sun and she’s wearing one of those trendy felt hats. The rest of the outfit is in the same vein: effortless and stylish.

Though Beth couldn’t put it into words, there’s something about Marina that just… suits Rio better.  

Setting down the frame, she goes elsewhere. There’s a study upstairs and she feels uncomfortable looking through anything here, even though she knows Rio would never keep anything here that actually has any real ties to his businesses. But despite this, and the fact that she practically knows everything at this point, she decides not to open any drawers or rifle through any papers.

Instead she just runs her hand over all the luxurious items – paper weights, a silver letter opener, a leather office chair that looks like it costs more than all the appliances in her kitchen.

There’s a bookshelf, too, and she goes to read some of the titles.

The first one she lays eyes on is about game theory, and there are some finance books too, some philosophy and leadership ones, and then the rest is all literature. Some classics and then some series, like it’d just been bought because it made sense to do so – there’s the entire Harry Potter one, followed by the Game of Thrones one. Both seem untouched.

Swinging back around, Beth regards the study in its entirety. She knows Rio hasn’t been living here all that long, but it still has that same sense of being untouched as his other apartment had.

She hadn’t been able to describe it exactly then but now, knowing what she does, she can: it’s as if it had all been put together to leave behind.  

Beth rubs over her arms then goes back downstairs. She opens the fridge with the intent to make lunch, but finds herself immediately stumped.

It’s crazy neat, obviously, but also stocked to the point of being overwhelming.

It also has a colour palette – like, there are ingredients in it that people don’t just keep; as if they’re literally here just to contribute to being a picture-perfect fridge. Her glance goes over yellow bell peppers, strawberries, eggplant, salmon, blueberries, kale, fennel and and and.

She can no longer stop herself: she calls Annie.

“I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”

“Why, where are you?”

“At Rio’s place.”

Her sister gasps. “His new one??”

“Yeah. And it makes the old one look like a sandbox.”

“Holy crap.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a moment of silence, then: “Why do you sound like someone stole your candy?”

“I don’t know, I just…” She lets out a long breath, doing a slow spin to cast another glance around the loft. “It’s so… cold.”

“You can’t put on a jacket?”

“No, not like that! It’s… it’s like someone came in to design it and furnish it and fill the fridge with food and then Rio just walked in one day with his toothbrush.”

“Like it’s not lived-in? Like a hotel?”

“Yes, exactly! But a very well-furnished and warm hotel,” Beth frowns.

“Oh, to be wealthy,” Annie sighs. “Also, is it cold or warm? Make up your mind.”

“The colours are warm,” she rolls her eyes. “And there are plants.”

“Are they real?”

This she doesn’t know, so Beth tells her to wait then goes over and checks.

“Yes.”

“Interestingggg. Do you think he has one of those indoor gardeners?”

“Not the point, Annie.”

“Right. And what is the point?”

Beth bites on her lip, reticent to say it aloud.

She clears her throat.

“Remember when I showed you the storage units? Where he left all his previous place’s stuff?”

There’s a long moment of silence as she practically hears the cogs turning in her sister’s mind.

“I get it – you’re scared he’s just gonna pack up again? Like everything’s so impersonal because he can just leave it behind at any moment?”

Beth blinks rapidly, trying to hold back the prickling behind her eyes.

You do scare me. But not because of this. It’s because you can just leave. One second you’re here and then you’re gone, completely.

She doesn’t say anything and Annie sighs heavily.

“Orrrrr…” Beth waits hopefully as her sister primes for a theory: “What if it’s less about what he’s going to do and more about who he is?”

She frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the guy’s an enigma. Maybe he just doesn’t want even his place giving anything away about him. I mean, have you seen his car? Admittedly amazing, but the inside is like what serial killers aspire to when they grow up.”

“Annie, just because your car is littered with trash from the past twenty years doesn’t mean people with clean cars are hiding something.”

“Whatever. I bet his cleaner wipes his fingerprints away every morning and night, so there.”

Beth laughs a little, shaking her head.

But her gaze does go to all the shiny surfaces – the black marble counter and all the steel appliances – as she wonders whether that’s true.

“Maybe I should come over,” Annie suddenly decides. “We can have a party – can you imagine how pissed he’d be if we got drunk and wrecked the place?”

Her sister sounds genuinely excited by the prospect of this.

Yes, Annie, I can.”

“Let’s do it! You sound like you need a distraction.”

True. But.

“I’m not ending the first time he has me over with an impromptu party with someone he didn’t even invite into his house.”

“You’re overthinking this, just give me the address.”

“Goodbye, Annie.”

She ends the call smiling against her will, then heads to the closet again. Sliding it open, she looks in at the empty shelves.

After a while, she heads back to the kitchen with renewed determination.


He’s early, actually.

Not that she’s watching the clock (she’s definitely watching the clock), but he gets back nearly twenty minutes before his two-hour deadline.

She’d roasted the fennel and made a salad then seared some salmon and, having found the cellar (because obviously there’s a cellar), poured herself a glass of white wine.

“Shit, somethin smells good,” he moans as soon as he enters.

Beth nearly jumps up in shock – she really hadn’t been expecting him back so soon.

“Hi,” she hurries to meet him at the door.

She’s suddenly very self-conscious about the way she’d made herself at home, especially to the point of drinking his wine. But it was the only thing that she knew would take her mind off everything else and make the time pass quicker.

“Hey,” he smiles, immediately pulling her closer.

Feeling like she has fish breath, she doesn’t let him kiss her on the mouth, and he doesn’t seem too pleased about it, but seems to take his satisfaction from getting to press her body up against his for a prolonged moment.

“Everything ok?” she asks, realising she’s not actually thought about Marvin once in the past two hours.

“Yea, all sorted,” he nods, ducking into her neck and snuggling.

“Stop,” she giggles and forces her way out of his arms.

That’s when she notices he’s carrying a duffel bag.

“What’s that?”

He holds it up. “Got you some clothing.”

Her heart clenches. He’d gone to her house for her?

“Really??”

He seems amused by how much this delights her, and she takes the bag happily before going over to plant it on the bed. God, she’s been so grossed out with herself in these pajamas all day and has been desperate for fresh underwear.

He presses up behind her and kisses at the back of her shoulder as she digs through it, finding at least two good outfits and several pairs of underwear. There’s even some toiletries – her toothbrush, deodorant, perfume.

“This is great, thank you.”

“Hmm. You make lunch?”

“I did.”

“Shit, I should leave you here all the time.”

This, plus his initial reaction to the scent, makes her realise he never gets to come home to food cooking. Combined with everything she’s learned, with Annie’s help, it makes her sad for him.

“Are you hungry?”

“I’m always hungry, mami.”

She rolls her eyes. That’s true.

She dishes for him then heads to the bathroom for a shower. By the time she gets out, he’s demolished nearly all the food.

“So whatchu think?”

“Of what?” she asks with a frown.

He gestures around. “The place.”

“Um.”

It’s made it out before she can stop herself and Rio leans back, crossing his ankles.

“That bad?”

His tone is too even for her to tell if he’s offended and she shifts her weight before, with a sigh, getting closer to him.

“It belongs in a magazine somewhere.”

This makes him laugh.

“So you hate it.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t.”

Now she’s right in front of him; he lifts his neck to meet her eyes.

“Naw?”

“I think…” she starts carefully, putting her hands on either side of his head, “that it tells a very specific story about a very specific side of you.”

“Ok,” he says, knowing more is coming.

She shrugs. “And I guess I just wonder what the whole picture looks like.”

He takes her body’s hints, hands going to her hips. But he keeps her eyes with his.

“Mami, you seen the whole picture o’ me more than anyone else has.”

She looks at him for a long moment.

Then, with a short breath, she ducks down to kiss him.

It’s barely there, nearly uncertain on his part. She pulls away.

“I missed you.”

She’s a little tipsy and the shower’s helped for some of it, but not all of it.

Slowly he licks over his lip with the tip of his tongue.

“…You gonna show me how much?”

She nods and he swallows then stands, letting her lead him to the bed. He sits and then she places her palms to his chest and he lets himself be pressed down.

Spreading her legs to put one on either side of him, she stares down.

Beth says all three of his names – slowly, making sure to pronounce them perfectly; that she doesn’t slur – and his eyes gleam up at her. She feels powerful.

She undoes his belt then his pants and pulls it and his boxer briefs down just enough. Then she undoes the ties on her dress – it’s old and slightly too small at the top, so much so that she doesn’t normally wear a bra with it, but now she lets her cleavage spill out, watching his face; feeling him beneath her.

Then she drops down onto him and they both moan, one of his hands going to her ass as the other grasps her breast.

She pulls a slow figure eight on him as he groans beneath her, hands tightening, then again and again until she can’t anymore – she lifts herself off just a little then drops back down and Rio growls.

“C’mere.”

It doesn’t leave room for discussion, so she falls forward and he kisses her, hard. She gets lost in it, just barely noticing when he twists them so they’re both on their sides and she squeezes her legs around him, meeting his pace as he fucks up into her.

It’s slow, a lot slower than they normally go, and though they’re still nearly completely dressed, it feels so much more intimate too, not an inch of space between them as he kisses at her collarbone.

It has her clit rubbing up against his hipbone and Beth sighs every time. Then it begins to build and her breaths shake, broken.

“Don’t stop,” she says on one, far gone even to her own ears.

He starts going deeper, harder, and she whimpers loudly, the sound seeming to reverberate around the loft.

Her fingers dig into his scalp and then she’s coming as he shifts her onto her back and begins pounding into her, shooting her higher and further until he’s right there with her, riding the wave for minutes that feel like hours.

“Fuck,” he mutters under his breath afterwards. He pushes some hair out of her face. “You really somethin else, you know that?”

She smiles shyly then, with a sharp breath, forces bravery as she pushes closer to him.

“…Which part of the picture am I in?”

He pushes up onto his elbow to stare down at her and shakes his head, something like disbelief in his eyes.

“Every one, ma. Every one.”

Then he kisses her.


He takes her through the whole Marvin situation – everything that had happened, what he’d done and what’s going to happen. All the ramifications.

When they’re done talking business, she looks at him for a long time, trying to find that same sense of bravery she’d had earlier.

But it’s not as easy – she’s more sober now and his eyes seem too piercing.

“What?” he prompts.

Feeling she has no choice, she clears her throat.

“Is the space in your closet for me?”

The question comes as a bit of a surprise, she can tell, but he blinks it away as he swallows, shifting to get onto his back.

“Maybe,” he hedges. Then his head swings back to her. “D’you want it?”

“Yes,” she says more easily than she thought she could’ve.

He smiles before he can seem to help it. Then, wiping it away, he shrugs nonchalantly.

“A’ight, it’s yours.”

She doesn’t let herself smile, doesn’t let herself react, even though inside she’s beaming.

Instead she just sits up in bed and starts putting herself back together, pressing her breasts back into the dress then doing up the ties again.

“What time you gotta get the kids?”

“6:30.”

He sighs. “Your order shoulda been here by now.”

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t bought up the whole shop…”

He chuckles.

“So I’ll stick it in your side when it comes then, yeah?”

“Sounds good,” she says evenly as she climbs off the bed and finds shoes.

Once she’s all dressed, she begins packing, going to the bathroom to collect her things there too. He’s also getting himself together when she gets back and they make it out the door soon after.

The car ride is fairly quiet and Beth realises she’s exhausted. Too much so to even count all her day’s orgasms so she can blame it on them.

Maybe she should ask Dean if he can just drop the kids off. She’ll make up some excuse.

But she frowns when she realises that she doesn’t recognise the road they’re on, nor has she for the past few minutes.

“Are we taking a different route?”

“Yea, I wanna show you sum'n.”

She decides not to ask, too tired, and she settles in her seat, simply looking out as he drives.

Eventually the car comes to a stop and she adjusts her gaze to focus out through the windshield.

Beth frowns.

They're parked out in front of a huge development. And, well, the word development is to be used loosely. It looks like construction had begun and been stopped by several companies, each time grinding to a halt and being abandoned till it got sold off again. It is – or could be – about ten storeys high, and the property is huge.

“I don't understand,” she admits, turning to him.

“I wanna buy it.”

Beth turns back to stare at the building with renewed interest. She supposes it could be something. Considering Rio's usual preferences, she doesn't doubt it, really.

But...

“Why?”

“Think we could turn it into a hotel, one of them real fancy types.”

We?” she repeats, looking at him.

“Yeah, you a pro at openin places, aren't ya?”

She blinks at that. Is he kidding? Or is he using his usual brand of mocking to disguise real belief in her?

And of course there’s the more concerning question: Why? Why would he think she has the ability to open a hotel?

But she chooses none of these questions to make it past her lips.

“Is it going to be legit?”

He shrugs. “For the most part.”

“You're not only going to give me a month and a half, are you?”

He laughs and she smiles a little too before looking back at the building.

In her chest, anxiety springs up and builds faster than this development had.

“You wanna do hotel school or some shit?”

Her head whips to him. “You'd pay for that?”

Naw,” he says with a tone like this is very obvious. “Would come outta the budget.”

Her smile widens, brightens. It's not a gift, none of this is. They're business partners.

“How much is the buy-in?”

He curls his lip, shrugging with one shoulder.

“Haven't run the numbers f'real yet. Wanted to show you first.” He looks at the building for a second longer then drags his gaze away to regard her. “So whatchu think?”

“Have you ever owned a hotel before?”

“Nope.”

“Is this Schiller's idea?”

“All my own, sweetheart,” he half-scoffs. “All my money, too.”

“How come?”

“Time for somethin new. New challenge, new income; all o' that.”

His gaze goes back to the building now and she sees the excitement in his eyes.

“It goes well, we open another one somewhere else and 'fore you know it, we got ourselves a whole empire.” He clicks his tongue. “Dunno, I just like the idea.”

Beth looks at it again too.

To her own surprise, she can see his vision now as if he’d unfolded it before her very eyes; as if the building itself had only just sprung to life in his image.

What if they could start something real, legal, built from the backs of their illegal activities? Isn't that what every huge business in the world had done? What if they could make a Marriott, a Hilton?

What if her children could one day inherit a hotel; an empire of hotels? And there’s Annie and Ruby, too. Her sister had once upon a time gone to business school and Ruby’s a born manager. What if their children never have to worry about money a day in their lives; never have to work a shitty job; never have to feel trapped in a miserable marriage; never have to rob a grocery store?

Looking back at him, Beth’s smile is brighter than ever.

“Me too.”



Casting for the women in Rio's life:

Cardenas

Chapter Text

He starts catching her at the worst times.

She's bent down, labouring over her rose bushes, when he comes in through the gate with a cool “Hey ma”.

She blows a strand of hair out of her face then glares up at him.

“What are you doing here?”

He ignores her, of course he does, letting his eyes flick over her.

“Mmm, you look sexy in them gloves.”

Beth turns bright red.

“Shut up!”

He doubles over laughing.


One of Beth’s hires at the second Boland Motors is a mom of three named Carrie.

She tells Beth about this boxing workout she does that only takes 20 minutes. But it’s not a single video; it’s like a course, getting progressively more in-depth so that by the end you don't just feel like an idiot bumbling around your lounge.

It's online and free so Beth starts doing it, and she likes it, likes that it makes her feel strong and that it's something she can do while waiting for a pot of rice to boil or in the small window she has between work and fetching the kids from school, Dean's or extramural activities.

She's on her third session when suddenly she spots Rio in her peripheral vision, just having entered the kitchen, and she shrieks halfway through a jab then goes desperately looking for the remote to shut the TV off with near-violence.

Amused, he shakes his head.

“Nah, keep goin, ma.”

“No! It's 2, what are you even doing here??”

“Had a free hour,” he shrugs. “Knew you'd be home.”

With the way he's looking her up and down, she knows exactly what he wanted to do with that free hour.

But he waves a hand at her, entering the lounge.

“C'mon, let's see whatchu got.”

It's in this moment she remembers he boxes – that he's had her plan mutual meetings around his gym time before; has left dinners a little early to go do some sparring.

“I don't–”

C'mon,” he cajoles forcefully.

With a heavy sigh, she decides it’s easier not to argue and she gets back into her stance, hands in guard.

He studies this then steps forward with a little hum.

He uses his foot to gently press hers a little further apart then places his hand between her shoulder blades before bringing it down to the bottom of her spine. She straightens with it before pulling in her core when his hand lands on her stomach. Next he slightly adjusts the angle of her fists then steps back with a decisive nod.

She sucks in a breath then does a one-two, ducks, throws a jab with her right then an uppercut with her left. It's not a part of her routine, but she throws in a roundhouse kick at the end just because she'd been delighted to discover how high she's able to kick, and the pride in his eyes makes her heavy breaths worth it.

“Good?” she questions once she can speak again.

He runs his teeth over his bottom lip, then: “Yeah… you look real good.”

She blinks and he's on her, kissing her, pressing against her. She moans her complaint, trying and failing to push him off her.

“Let me shower first!” she yelps when he finally gives her the chance to breathe, tugging off her T-shirt.

“Naw, I like you sweaty,” he counters, tugging his lip into his mouth as he undoes her sports bra then peels it away.

The cold hits the fresh sweat instantly, puckering her nipples. Rio starts sucking at them, pushing her backward with the full weight of his body until she's against a wall and he's tugging down her leggings roughly despite all the sweat down her legs too, and for a minute it's all Beth can think about – how gross it must feel and taste – but then he's rubbing her aggressively, a lot rougher and more frenzied than he usually is, and he sucks a hickey into her neck where her baby hairs are matted down with all the sweat and she realises he really does like this.

It makes her relax, forget her insecurities, and the moment they’re gone, she falls away into how turned on he is, feels it too.

She lets him pull down her hair then rip off her leggings; fuck her against the wall beside the TV so hard that she's scared they might go right through it.

Rio works up a sweat too and by the time he growls “You got me as horny as a fuckin teenager, Elizabeth” into her ear, she's so far gone. She comes so hard that it takes her apart, leaves her a shivering mess he has to hold up against the wall even as the cold settles on their damp skin.

They do shower after that – he makes her keep the curtain open so they can watch in the mirror as he circles her clit and sucks a hickey into the back of her neck too.

She has to set down half a dozen towels to clean up the mess afterwards, but it's worth it.

And he starts showing up a lot more often during her workout afternoons.


She’s baking a friend a cake.

It’s a huge one, for Theresa’s twelve-year-old son’s birthday, and it’s gruelling work. Gruelling work that she enjoys, but gruelling work nonetheless. She’s elbow-deep in colouring different sets of icing, cake in the oven, when Rio comes strolling in.

“Mmm, whatchu baking?”

“It’s not for you,” she says upfront, because he’s a food vacuum.

She hadn’t been expecting him to come by or she would’ve made extra batter and baked them into cupcakes.

And, oh – she catches sight of her reflection and realises she’s covered in all manner of ingredients, the border of flour at her hairline most prominent. God, if only he could ever give her a five-minute heads-up.

“C’mon, mami, don’t be like that,” he pouts, coming closer.

She ignores it.

“Didn’t you have a meeting tonight?”

He nods. “Got cancelled. Seems like he heard sum’n that got him a lil spooked.”

Beth raises a brow. “That’s bad.”

“Uh huh. But Demon’s on it,” he waves a hand, unconcerned. “You sharin or what?”

“No,” she stresses, “I can’t, it’s for a friend.”

Making it all the way to her, he lays a light kiss on her cheek in greeting then turns to survey the kitchen.

“You operatin a bakery now?”

She rolls her eyes a little. “No, it’s a favour. It’s her son’s birthday.”

He goes to take a look inside the oven then quirks a brow.

“That’s one big cake.”

“I know,” she sighs, “it’s taken me all day and I still have another layer to do. So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t distract me.”

He puts his elbows on the counter to stare up at her judgementally.

“A favour don’t take all day, ma. You gotta charge; time is money.”

“You don’t charge friends, Rio.”

“Sure ya do.” He rolls his shoulders. “That’s what the friends-and-family discount’s for.”

God. There’s not even a smile on his lips, he’s serious.

“Because that’s what you do?” she turns it back on him.

He smirks. “For what?”

Going through their inventory in her mind, she stutters – then realises this is exactly why he’d asked, knowing there’s nothing that qualifies.

“…TVs,” she eventually lamely settles on.

Now the smart ones, they turn nickels into dimes. Dimes gets you the pills. And now you movin up the chain. Before anyboy knows what’s goin on, you onto TVs and whatnot.

He snorts out a laugh. “My family’s got TVs, thanks.”

“Well,” she resets her shoulders haughtily, “my friend needs a cake and she knows I love baking, so.”

He watches her for a few seconds.

“Marcus’ birthday is coming up.”

She’d gone back to dyeing the icing and now she looks up sharply.

“Really? When?”

“Few months,” he shrugs. “You makin him a cake?”

Beth stills. He has this way of creeping important things into conversation in the most casual manner and this is one of those – annoying – times. She wants to say she’s touched he’d ask; she wants to say she’d be honoured.

Instead she says “Of course I would” very evenly, like it’s no big deal to her either.

He nods slowly. “Cool.” Then, looking around: “How long you gon’ be busy with all o’ this?”

“Um.” She sighs. “At least another hour.”

And he actually leaves her alone for it. So much so that she completely forgets about him, stuck into baking, until he comes in through the front door an hour and a half later as she’s washing up.

“You left??”

“Yeah, where you think I was?”

Turning to answer, she notes him setting down bags.

“You got food?” She groans in excitement when he nods. “Oh my god, I’m starving!”

He grins and together they start unpacking all the Thai food before moving to the couch to eat.

They exchange work updates then Rio gives her the big news: he’d gotten the owner of the development to agree to his price. (It’s a long way down from what the seller had been asking for – she decides she doesn’t want to know how Rio had swung that negotiation.)

“God, that’s amazing!”

“Uh huh,” he nods, looking pleased.

“We’re buying a hotel,” she breathes long and deep, trying to let it sink in.

“That’s right, honey.”

“So now I can tell the girls?”

Rio makes a sound of derision. “The thought of your sister workin on it makes me wanna skip the whole thing and just file for bankruptcy right now.”

She giggles. “She’s good at what she does, you’ll see. She’s just also the least professional person you’ll ever meet.”

He snorts. “That ain’t news to me.”

Full, Beth sets aside the containers of food with a smile on her face. She can’t believe this is actually happening.

“I can’t believe we’re buying a hotel.”

“Cold feet?”

“Not at all,” she shakes her head, still smiling wide.

He nods, satisfied, and she looks at all the containers, most of them now empty.

“Thank you for the food.”

His expression is surprisingly stormy when her eyes return to him.

“You don’t take good care o’ yourself when there’s no one else around.”

She wants to deny this but, god, he’d seen that frozen dinner when Dean had taken the kids. And then there’s today – she hadn’t even eaten breakfast before starting work on fondant cars and soccer balls.

“That’s what you’re doing? Taking care of me?”

“What do you think?” he flips it back on her.

He’s always been really good at that.

“I think…” she starts, moving closer and running a finger over his lip, “that you didn’t kiss me properly earlier.”

It’s a cheat, but he lets her, pressing his body then his lips to hers.

The kiss is ramping up, her hand in his neck, when he pulls away.

Beth blinks at him, confused, and he grins.

“Got sum'n for ya.”

He jumps up then returns with a large cardboard box that he places in her lap. He drapes an arm around her as he settles back beside her on the couch.

“Open it,” he says into her neck, and she lifts the lid.

There’s white tissue paper and she moves this away too before seeing what’s inside.

It’s a pair of boxing gloves. They’re black and white and at the base both have been sewed into: I'd rather be crafting.

She blinks back tears at the personal touch; at the fact that they both know she doesn’t even need boxing gloves, but somehow this is one of their things now. A real thing.

And obviously the box lands on the floor, spilling out, as she fills his lap up with her, and it’s probably time to go ice the cake but she thinks screw the cake.

He catches her at the worst times but, somehow, they become the best.



“So I have some news.”

“That’s a rephrased ‘I did something’ and, for the record, it’s not appreciated.”

Beth rolls her eyes at her best friend.

“It’s good! I promise.”

“Then spit it out!” Annie urges.

For a second she doesn’t know how to, then: “We’re opening a hotel.”

We?”

A hotel?”

She nods. “Rio’s signing for the building next week. We get six months to pay him back if we want shares.”

“Whoa whoa whoa, take it all the way back. A hotel??”

“I know it’s kind of crazy, but it’s also kind of perfect,” she says, tone persuasive. “Annie, you can finally put business school to use and Ruby, nobody could manage the place better than you could. We could do hotel school too.”

They both stare back at her for several moments before Ruby swallows.

“You’re serious.” She looks at Annie. “She’s serious.”

“I don’t understand,” her sister holds up a hand. “How did this happen?”

Beth sighs then launches into the story from the beginning – their argument, her staying at his place the next day, the snooping and, finally, the way he’d taken her to the part-finished construction site.

“And we get shares in this??” Ruby asks, eyes wide.

Beth nods. “He’s drawing up a budget and then he’ll send over the cost per share.”

They’d agreed to forty each and leave the twenty for the girls to have first option on. Though she’d pointed out that she definitely can’t afford forty – not over six months – he’d told her not to worry about it.

Annie’s eyes shine after she relays this information.

“God, you know – I am so proud of you. Finally sleeping your way to the top. I mean it took you a while, it really did, but you finally came through – and in a real damn big way, too.”

Beth blushes as her sister slow-claps before finally working up a scowl.

“Stop! That’s not what happened! I’m still paying for it!”

“Right. But do the rest of us get extended payment plans? No. Because you’re paying with your–”

“So we’re really gonna own a hotel? Like for real??” Ruby asks, still not fully able to grasp the reality of it.

Beth doesn’t blame her. She doesn’t think she’ll believe it till she sees the contract, and maybe not even then.

“We really are.”

“What does that even look like?”

Beth shrugs. “For now, there isn’t much we can do. The first enrolment date for any hotel school I could find is only in a month and a half, and there’s still so much construction that needs to happen – I don’t think we could open for at least another year.”

“Do I get to quit the candy store?” Annie gasps hopefully.

“She literally just said that any profit is at least a year away.”

“But I do think you could maybe go back to school for a while. We could put it in the budget.”

“Ooh, what else can I squeeze into the budget? Can I get a company car?”

Beth ignores this.

“After the sale has gone through, we’ll hire people to design the place, see what we want it to look like–”

“Can we get mirrors above the beds?”

“And then construction will get going.”

She lets out a long breath. It’s a lot. The more she thinks and talks about it, the more she realises that. It’s like the dealership on steroids.

She’ll have to hire people: service staff, restaurant staff, casino staff. She knows nothing about any of these things, but that scares and excites her in equal amounts. Especially after what Rio had said when she’d admitted her fears to him: Didn’t know nothin about dealerships ’fore you opened one neither.

She’d smiled, nodded. Felt his belief in her blossom in her chest. Brushed her lips over his and, before kissing him, whispered Fear is a pretty luxury.

Annie leans over. “What’s it going to be called?”

“Well…” Beth nibbles at her lip. “Rio doesn’t want his name on it–”

“Shocker.”

“So he said I could name it anything I want. And I was thinking, Dean has his name on Boland Motors…”

“Beth’s Bed and Breakfast?”

“No,” she giggles. “No, I was thinking… Marks Empire.”

Silence settles heavily until finally Ruby breaks it.

“Wow,” she breathes.

They share a smile, Ruby’s paired with an encouraging nod, before both their gazes go to Annie, who looks like she’s blinking back tears.

“I love it,” she nods sincerely.

“Group hug?”

“Group hug,” her sister nods.

Beth rounds the counter to join them and they all squeeze each other until they’re sniffling a bit but smiling wide.

“This is insane,” Ruby says eventually. “Amazing, but insane.”

“Dude, we’re going from grocery-store robbers to hoteliers. Glow-up of the decade.”

Ruby squeezes Beth’s arm. “Told you you were doing great.”

She smiles, but it’s not her – not just her. None of this would have been possible without him.

For a long time that had meant something really bad. But now it means a future.

“This Dream Team kicks ass,” Annie notes, and Beth laughs.

“Wine?”

“Wine!”

Chapter Text

Elizabeth don’t like bein touched.

He thinks it's funny – well, kinda funny. Kinda sad.

In his family there's always touchin: when you mad, when you teasin, when you tryna explain somethin. So it'd freaked him out a lil since the beginning that she always looks so untouched and, on top of just wanting to touch her, he'd decided to start workin on it. Somethin innocuous, a hand on her arm here, a light squeeze there; just barely touchin her hair.

And maybe he'd started liking pushing away her hair a lil too much – but that's off the point.

It ain't like it makes her uncomfortable, is the thing; it's like she just ain't used to it and that makes her uncomfortable.

Must be the way she grew up, he decides, and once she even lets slip that Dean had started off too needy for her liking. So even though he always wants to pull her against him or wrap his arms around her, he holds himself back ’cuz the last thing he wants to do is freak her out. (Even though he likes the feel of her skin, the soft smoothness of it that's his in a way he don't know how to explain; like God had made em with reverse polarities and he can't help drawing closer.)

Another thing: the problem don't extend to when they fucking. Then he can touch her any way he wants, and fuck if he don't take the opportunity. He palms her breasts and squeezes her ass; pries her thighs apart and presses his lips to her stomach. He tugs at her hair and presses her against him till he can feel her heartbeat; sometimes he presses his tongue to it.

Yeah, then it's full steam ahead, anythin allowed; sometimes she even lets it fall from those full lips of hers – I need you to touch me. And sure, sometimes it's ’cuz he prompts her; tortures her. Maybe some part of him thinks it'll translate. But it don't, never does; she'll still jump away or shrink back from a hand on her arm, an arm slung around her waist, and he acts like he don’t notice but he does.

(Maybe once or twice he'd even thought it was him, but nah, she'd taken him to that poker night with all her fancy friends all proud like, and that Marsha had called him her boyfriend to her face and Elizabeth hadn't batted a liquored lash.)

The big thing is: he wants to hold her fuckin hand. It's goddamn stupid, he knows it.

He ain't a real big hand-holder usually, and it ain't like he wants to go skippin through no meadows or nothin. But he can tell she's even more averse to the idea than he is and that makes him want it, man. He wants everything she ain't done with no one else and maybe it's childish but then again, goin for things he ain't supposed to is what's gotten him this far in life.

Not that it normally takes this long – when he wants somethin, he gets it, works for it, but Elizabeth ain't just somethin; ain't easy, has never been.

And maybe it's cool, ’cuz he'll work harder, longer. He don't mind it, don't even mind the wait.

She's worth it.



“Have an awesome weekend, boss.”

“You too, Enya,” Beth smiles, opening her office door.

The day’s been productive – all she has to do is finish off the last of her paperwork and then she’s done for the week.

But, entering fully, she jumps back with a gasp.

“God, you’re going to give me a heart attack one day! What are you doing here??”

Rio smirks from his seat in her office chair. “Thought we could have a lil meetin.”

She sighs.

“What about?”

He jerks his chin and, noting the way he's looking at her, she locks the door before heading over to him. He wheels back a little and Beth takes the hint, getting between him and the desk then perching on it a little.

He takes in her floral green dress, gaze sticking on her cleavage, and black blazer before rolling his shoulders.

“How's our lil one doin?”

This is how he's taken to referring to the second dealership and she's decided it's useless to try pointing out again that he has no ownership of it.

“It's good, really good,” she nods. “Sales are exceeding projections and just like I predicted, it's helping its mother branch too.”

“Yeah, baby, you delivered.”

His eyes gleam.

Beth clears her throat. “That means pill distribution is going just as well – like I said on the phone, we even have some open slots.”

“Hmm, I'm workin on it. Gotta keep you all filled up.”

She swallows, refusing to rise to his baiting no matter how hot it’s making her.

“How did the signing go?”

“No problems,” he shakes his head. “Looks like we got ourselves a hotel.”

“Well, not yet,” she points out. “It’s still just a building.”

He hums his agreement then slides a little closer, so she’s pinned between him and the desk.

“Can’t wait till the first room’s done and we get to take it for a spin.” His eyes go from hers to her cleavage, then lower still. “You 'member the day this came?” he raps his knuckles against the desk. “When we took it for a test drive.”

She does. He’d said it would be good luck starting off her new office with new odds and she hadn’t really cared about whatever logic was behind it once he’d had his teeth on her nipples. He’d put her up on top then climbed on too; held her wrists over her head in one hand as they tested the desk’s endurance.

Moaning at the memory, she gives in, falling forward onto his lips. They curve up into a smile beneath hers and then he pulls her away from the desk entirely so her body arcs over his.

He works a hand up under her dress and over the bare skin of the back of her thigh until he’s gotten to her ass, which he begins to knead.

It gets her breathing hard even though he isn’t kissing her with his normal fervour. The way his lips press to hers is lighter, more lingering.

After a minute she pulls away a little.

“You have to go, don't you?”

“Yeah,” he nods with a breath. “Got a five o' clock.”

“Nooooo,” she wines into his neck.

“It's important.”

“Why would you do this to me?!” she accuses, swatting at his shoulder.

He chuckles, catching the hand abusing him then brushing his nose over hers.

“What, a guy can't drop by to feel up his girl?”

A blush blossoms across the tops of her cheeks – he's never called her his girl like that before – but she presses on with a scowl.

“Not if he doesn't follow through.”

He watches her for a moment, considering, then jerks his chin.

“Turn around.”

It knocks the air from her lungs and she hesitates, body moving too slowly against her will, before jerking to obey, twisting around with limbs half shaking in anticipation.

His hands lift then come back onto her legs, smoothing up then pushing her until she's sitting on his lap. He uses his foot to move hers away, spreading her legs, and her breaths are choppy, now, short.

Slowly but steadily his hand starts moving higher up her leg, twisting into her thigh then higher until he's reached her panties and she sucks in a breath.

“C'mere,” he demands, and she relaxes into him, settling against his chest, hearing his breath in her ear. 

He pushes her panties aside and–

She can't think for a while, can only pinch her eyes closed and moan as softly as she's able, fingers digging into his free arm.

She's so wet that they can hear his fingers darting in and out of her when suddenly they slip out and don't go back in.

“Oh my god!”

“Gotta go, honey.”

He starts shifting beneath her, moving, and she forces herself up on slightly unsteady legs then turns around to scowl at him. She's caught off guard, though, by his fingers in his mouth and the tent in his jeans.

It makes her stumble into the desk, sitting again, and when he springs up it’s to lean down into her ear.

“Stay warm for me for tonight, yea?”

His hand wraps around her breast and squeezes, and Beth whimpers involuntarily.

“l hate you,” she glares.

He smirks. “I know.”

She lets out a heavy breath when he finally pulls all the way away and rounds the desk.

“I’m telling the kids tonight.”

“’Bout time,” he notes.

“It’s better than dealing with that kind of excitement for weeks,” she points out, to which he nods in agreement. “Which I hope you’re ready for, by the way. This weekend isn’t gonna be easy.”

“Hmm,” he seems amused. “The army off to the races. Sounds like the name of one o’ those shitty kids’ books.”

And before she can reprimand him for calling her children an army again, he’s out the door.


She’s right, the kids are ecstatic.

Kenny's old enough to know just how cool IndyCar is and it’s the girls' first time at a racecourse. Marcus is giddy at the prospect of being here with newcomers, talking Danny's ear off with everything he knows about the course and the cars and the rules. Beth listens in, if only because she has no earthly idea what's fascinating about watching cars go round and round and make a lot of noise in the process.

Rio presents their tickets and the usher says VIP and gestures, which sets Kenny off, punching the air and yelling “VIP VIP, WE'RE VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE!”.

By the time she's blushingly managed to stop this, they're getting seated as Rio checks what kind of snacks everybody wants.

“A'ight, who's helpin me carry?”

Everyone volunteers excitedly, but Rio only takes the oldest three as she stays behind with Emma and Danny. She takes the time to rearrange their seating so she can have the youngest with her and Rio can sit on the opposite end, with all the kids between them.

It works out well, Rio good at keeping a lid on the older ones as she makes sure Emma and Danny don’t move from their spots.

This is the kind of place she has nightmares about, her children taken from under her nose, so she’s very paranoid until she realises Rio is strangely good at controlling all of them.

If they are an army, he’s a drill sergeant, getting them to sit, stand, huddle and disperse with a single command. When Kenny gets stubborn about being old enough to go discard his trash on his own, Rio gives him a single look and he sits back down wordlessly until everyone’s finished eating and Rio can accompany all three boys to the bin.

He helps her get sunscreen onto all the kids, booping Emma’s nose when he’s done with her; patiently answers the ongoing questions they have about the races, the cars, the drivers, the course.

He makes them keep their array of stuff together and in sight, apologises to the people behind them when one of Emma’s toy cars accidentally hits them in the face, and within an hour, Beth isn’t keyed up anymore.

It’s like she no longer carries the sole burden of keeping the kids safe and disciplined anymore, and it’s an alien feeling. Dean had always been the fun parent, the one who could keep the kids entertained but not realise that one of them had wandered away, or who would freak when a tantrum broke out. It had meant being constantly on high alert when they went somewhere public and busy like this with all four – but now all of that melts away.

Which isn’t entirely good, because Beth relaxes so much that she finds herself drifting off, only waking up at a particularly loud zoom of a car passing, or people yelling and cheering.

After a few hours she wakes because of a very specific sound – an Emma squeak. It’s the sound she makes when she’s peed herself, desperately ashamed.

“Sweetie,” she reaches out before she’s even fully woken up, and Emma falls into her arms, sniffing into Beth’s shoulder.

Rio meets her eyes over the children’s heads and she mouths the problem, not wanting to embarrass her daughter further.

Thankfully he catches it then rolls his shoulders with a sigh.

“A’ight, had enough o’ this for the day. Let’s get goin, yeah?”

Hot and sticky, they don’t complain too much, beginning to pack after Rio gives the order, then letting him pass so he can get to her.

Beth stands and he rubs a hand over Emma’s back.

“You good, lil ma?”

Instantly she hides her face in Beth’s neck and she shakes her head.

“She hates when his happens.”

“You got a change of clothes?”

“This is her change of clothes,” she sighs. “She spilled juice on the way here, remember?”

He rocks back onto his heels decisively. “A’ight, well, it can’t be too comfy – why don’t we go to my place? It’s closer. She can wear somethin of Marcus’.”

Beth blinks back.

The thought of her children running around his immaculate loft makes her want to break into hives.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says diplomatically.

“Why not?” he asks, brows knit.

She doesn’t want to offend him, but she also really doesn’t want to see the look on his face when he realises her children are a hurricane.

“It’s just so…” Not child-friendly. She thinks of all the shiny surfaces and white curtains just waiting for grimy little hands. “Clean,” she finishes, clearing her throat.

He disregards this with a simple roll of his eyes then claps his hands together to finish coordinating the packing effort and before she knows it, they’re all piled back in her van, Emma still in her arms, and speeding off towards his place.


They just barely all fit into his elevator, the situation worsened by her three children wanting to mill around to admire and touch every square inch of it.

Even Emma looks up from her neck to see what the fuss is about.

When they get to the top, Rio looks at his son.

“Pop, give em the tour, yeah?”

Marcus nods happily and then Rio leads her to Marcus’ room and finds a fresh pair of pants that mostly fits. She gets wet wipes from the travel bag, cleans up her daughter completely then redresses her in Marcus’ clothing. It’s only when she’s done that she realises she too smells like pee.

But, though Emma’s mood has improved, she still doesn’t want to go off to join the other kids and Beth sighs.

“Mommy needs to go get cleaned up too, sweetie.”

She pulls back from her chest to regard Beth contemplatively then, seemingly relenting, turns to eye Rio. He comes closer with a small smile and Emma holds out her arms.

“Thank you,” Beth breathes when Emma’s in his arms, head buried into his shoulder too.

He shrugs the free one then jerks his head.

“You can change too.”

And oh, that’s right. She has a closet here now.

She bites away a smile. “Ok. Call me if you need me.”

Her side of the closet isn’t as full as Rio’s is but it’s not bad either, and she picks a plain black cotton dress and flat sandals. Then she heads to the bathroom, where she takes the quickest shower, only letting herself revel in the familiar scent of Rio’s body wash for a moment.

She needn’t have worried, though.

By the time she emerges, all the children – Emma included – are giggling on the carpet in the lounge as they play with a bunch of what she assumes to be Marcus’ toys. The hurricane level is about a 7, but it thankfully seems contained to the one spot.

She finds Rio in the kitchen staring into the open fridge.

“How you feel about pizza?” he asks when he spots her.

She doesn’t reply, doesn’t say anything, just pushes closed the fridge door and kisses him.

Her hands are on both wings on his neck and her skin is cool and fresh against his. He smells like sun and her children; she knows she smells fresh and clean, like the ocean – like him.

She doesn’t want to pull away but eventually she forces herself to, scared one of the children will wander in.

But she stays close, keeps her hands on him, and looks up into his eyes.

He seems swept away, staring down at her through his lashes like he hadn’t been expecting that, like he’s trying to figure out where it had come from. She’s glad he doesn’t ask because god, she’d have no way to verbalise it.

“So Imma take that as a yes?” he asks eventually, voice husky.

For a second she doesn’t know what he’s talking about then remembers he’d mentioned pizza. She supposes it is nearly dinnertime.

“Yeah.” She looks around. “Do you need help?”

He shrugs. “Sure.”

She makes to move away, but for the first time his hands land on her, feeling over her hips then traversing her stomach as his eyes take in the plain outfit she’d chosen as if she’d dressed for a runway.

Then he lets her go.


They have a few pizzas nearly completed when the kids come ambling into the kitchen.

Rio tells them to stay on that side of the counter, though, away from where the pizza oven burns, and they do.

But Kenny looks confused.

“Mr Rio, you don't have a TV.”

“I don't??” Rio says with shock and horror, like this is complete news to him.

Beth rolls her eyes as Marcus gives Kenny a proper answer.

“Daddy says small TVs are ugly and big TVs are pretentious.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don't know,” Marcus shakes his head solemnly. Then he looks at Rio. “Daddy, can we play basketball?”

“Uh huh,” he nods, chopping peppers. “Set up for your iPad for Emma, though.”

Marcus dutifully does this then excitedly hops over to a little area off to the side where he begins unveiling a mini basketball court – fencing coming up from the floor and a net pulled out from a compartment in the wall.

There are shelves with multiple balls on them and Marcus takes Kenny through them. He's indecisive, so Jane picks a classic-looking one. Beth can just make out part of a signature on it.

Deciding Marcus is weirdly the only adult supervision they're likely to need, she turns to Rio.

“Since when doesn't daddy like pretentious things?”

“Since when you callin me daddy?”

A boiling hot blush rises from her chest up to her cheeks and ears as she blinks, trying to find a response, but he steps closer with a wicked smirk.

“Mmm, don't worry, mami, I like it.”

She punches him in the gut lightly and he laughs, planting the quickest kiss on her lips before moving off again.


Rio’s very good at making pizza, she finds.

He operates the paddle like an expert, getting the dough off it with one smooth shove then timing it perfectly before slipping it back on and transferring it to the kitchen counter.

She admires this aloud and he says it isn’t that difficult, then offers to teach her.

It’s very difficult, even with him at her back and his strong hand wrapped around her wrist to guide her.

It results in more than one misshapen and burnt calzone that Rio just barely manages to salvage before Jane complains about being hungry and they sit down to eat.

The kids ask him a lot of questions about his place, things she hadn’t ever thought or dared to ask (Mr Rio, why is your house so big? Do you get lonely? Why aren’t there walls around your bed? Does that mean the kitchen is your bedroom too? Does Marcus get to play basketball every day? Did you ever try running from that wall to that wall, Mr Rio? How long did it take?). Afterwards they move to the lounge and the kids huddle around the iPad to watch a movie together.

Before going to shower, Rio pours her a glass of red wine then tells her not to do the dishes (he’s got someone comin later, she guesses with a roll of her eyes). Settled on the couch behind them, Beth sips at the wine as she watches the movie with the kids. It’s cute, she enjoys it.

Then Rio slips in beside her and he’s barely settled before he begins skipping a finger over her leg, claiming her attention for his own.

She meets his eyes and they start stealing kisses until they’re just outright making out because all the kids are asleep.

Eventually she finds it in herself to pull away.

Seeing how swollen his lips are, she swallows. There’s a complicated look in his eyes as they stare at one another for a protracted moment.

She wants to lean back into it but then the movie ends, the end credits music loud and cheerful, and the older kids wake up, having just dozed off.

Beth clears her throat.

“We should get going.”

By we she means her and her children, expecting him to stay. They're already at his place, it just makes sense. But he stands too.

At first she thinks it's just to help her, but then he packs Marcus a bag.

They fill the van with everything then head back up. She pulls an asleep Danny into her arms and Rio picks up Emma and Marcus.

They march Kenny and Jane ahead of them, Rio checks to make sure the door has locked behind them, and he catches her looking at him, near-drowning in sleeping children.

“What?”

“Nothing,” she shakes her head.

By the time they make it back to her house, all the kids are awake and grumpy, with the exception of Emma, who’s young enough to stay asleep through it all.

Beth makes the executive decision that baths can wait until tomorrow morning then sends them all off to brush their teeth, dealing with more than one temper tantrum along the way.

Rio meets her in the bathroom doorway, where she's overseeing the process that comes with several groans and moans of disdain.

“I want to make sure Marcus is settled,” she tells him. “Can you get the girls down, then we swap?”

He nods. “Sounds like a plan.”

Kenny's so tired that he gets directly into bed without another word, but the two other boys require further settling, Marcus more irritable than she's ever seen him. She decides to cuddle in with them both, setting Marcus on her lap and getting them to chat to her about the day. It works like a charm, sending both their eyes fluttering closed within minutes.

She tenderly lays Marcus down, makes sure they're both tucked in, then goes to stand in the doorway to watch them.

Her heart feels full, fuller than it has in years.

You're lonely, Annie had once said. She's not, not anymore. That empty spot inside had become so filled that she can't even remember what it had used to feel like.

And as she stands watching, an idea takes root then grows, so much quicker than anything she's ever planted. Her eyes go over Marcus' soft lashes, so much like his father's, and the little bed she's made for him that isn't great but that he's never once complained about. Then up to Danny and Kenny.

Sometimes, when he's here, I forget he's not mine.

Suddenly strong arms wrap around her, and she smiles as Rio's lips land in her neck.

“Tag.”

Caught up in the moment, she settles her hands over his, twining his fingers with hers. She can almost feel his surprise – she supposes she's bad at this kind of thing usually – but then he settles in behind her and she relaxes into the shape of his body too.

“Asleep?” she asks.

“Naw, I ain't a magician like you.”

His voice is somehow gruffer when he tries to speak quietly – she likes it a lot.

She’s no magician, though – what Rio had accomplished with her children today is far more impressive, in her opinion.

“Jane just loves seeing me before she falls asleep,” she explains.

He rubs over her stomach thoughtfully. “So does Marcus, usually.”

Four simple words and they ping a deep sense of joy throughout her.

He lays feather-light kisses over her shoulder and she lets her eyes close to enjoy the moment.

“Meet you downstairs?” she asks eventually.

“Hmm,” he hums in agreement, then releases her.

It makes her suddenly cold.

Beth starts to walk away but finds herself pausing when she notices Rio enter the room. She debates for a second before turning back and peering in.

He's crouched in front of his sleeping son, passing a light hand over his hair. Without knowing, she knows he's telling him he loves him.


“Packed away what I could and you only doin the rest tomorrow,” he says when she joins him downstairs.

She looks at the counter to note that this is indeed the case, although most of what's left is dirty clothing.

“Ok,” she shrugs.

“Really?”

“You want me to argue?”

“Was kinda expectin it, yeah.”

She shakes her head. “I just want to go to bed. We have to do all of this over again tomorrow.”

Though she’s already wondering how much ice cream she can promise her children to bribe them into not wanting to go to the second day at the racecourse.

“Cool.”

She makes it to the doorway of her bedroom then waits for him and maybe, god maybe, she's looking at him funny again.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Naw, you ain't gettin away with that twice.”

She pulls a face as he presses in opposite her.

“I just... forgot how nice it is to have someone help with all of this.”

“Fuck, I dunno how you do it, momma,” he lets out a heavy breath.

“You get used to it.”

He shakes his head. “You shouldn't have to.”

You can handle anythin, momma. That don't mean you gotta.

A small laugh gets the better of her.

“You know, you're surprisingly good at it.”

Surprisingly?” he lifts a brow. “You know my kid's nine, right?”

“Surprisingly, as in if someone had told me a year ago that one day my gangbanger boss would be effortlessly helping me put my kids to bed, I'd say my sister would like to try some of whatever they were smoking.”

His lips curl up. “Fair enough.”

They stare at each other for a long time, longer than makes sense considering the long day they've had. But maybe that's what she wants to tell him, without saying it. Thank you for today. Not just the race or the pizza or coming back here with us, but all of it. All of it. Thank you for being everything I never could've imagined I needed.

Why is it that she feels like he's trying to say the same?

She's opening her mouth, finally having gathered the courage to tell him about her idea, when he comes forward and kisses her deep, hand at her waist.

They don't talk much after that.

Chapter Text

He runs.

In the mornings, he runs.

She finds this out when she happens to wake as he's busy pulling on trainers, sat beside her on the bed.

“Hey,” she says, voice scratchy as she takes him in.

He's topless but wearing track pants as he does up his shoes.

“Just goin for a run. Go back to sleep,” he says with a wave of his hand.

This wakes her up instantly.

“You run??”

Has he always – is this just her first time catching him in it? How has she never been aware of it before?

“Yeah.” Then, at her look of complete befuddlement: “What, I ain't white enough for that?”

She rolls her eyes and he grins, leaning closer to her.

“Your prim neighbourhood gonna stare at me, ma?”

“Yes,” she says, and waits for his look of shock before continuing: “They're all gonna ogle, so you better put on a shirt.”

Now he smirks. “Not everyone's thoughts are as dirty as yours, Elizabeth.”

She glares, and he's laughing hard when she tugs him down to her.

And, well. He doesn't go running that morning. But usually, usually he does.



Dear Ms Boland

Find budget attached.

Warm regards

Christopher M.

“What are you laughing so hard at??”

But Annie has to come rushing over to the couch to find out for herself, Beth laughing so hard that she can barely breathe.

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s Rio!” she finally manages to get out. “He has an email address– I mean, we all do, but–”

“Christopher.meade@marksempire.com??”

And now they’re both giggling hard, Annie coming around to sandwich herself against Beth on the couch so she can take a closer look at the email.

“He calls you Ms Boland?”

“It’s a weird habit, ignore it,” Beth rolls her eyes.

“Warm regards?? Oh, no. He can’t have a cookie-cutter signature, that’s all wrong. He has to have, like: From Paris, with love.”

And that gets them going again.

Finally, when the laughter has died down, Beth hovers her cursor over the attached document for several seconds.

“I’m scared to open it,” she admits.

It has to be several million dollars, the thought of which makes her head want to explode.

“Yeah, let’s do it later when we’re drunk.”

“For once, I agree,” Beth says with a heavy exhale, shutting the laptop then standing to head to the kitchen.

Annie makes to follow before stopping dead in her tracks with a sudden realisation.

“Oh. My. GOD. Am I annie.marks@marksempire.com??”

Oh no. Beth’s eyes close.

“I’m gonna sound like I own the joint!!”

“Please – please – don’t say that to Rio.”

He may have an aneurysm, she doesn’t add. Or make her rename the hotel.

“This is so cool, I’m going to email all those bitches from high school. But, fine, I won’t tell him. Where is he tonight, anyway?” Annie wonders. “Is he one of those guys who don’t do girls’ nights?”

“No, he and Marcus are doing a fort night in his loft.”

“Like the videogame?”

“What videogame?”

“Never mind,” she rolls her eyes. “He’s doing a whatnow?”

“He’s gonna fill his place with blanket forts and they’re gonna camp out.”

Beth had made them a bunch of snacks, too – half of which he’d eaten while she’d been packing them up earlier when he’d come to collect them.

He’d come up with the idea about a week ago, and she and the kids had been invited since the get-go, but Dean hadn’t been willing to give up his night with the kids and then the girls’ night had been planned.

“Ok, is he like the coolest dad?”

In her mind, Beth sees Emma burying into his shoulder; him keeping the children away from the pizza oven; answering all their crazy questions; carrying a sleeping child on both of his shoulders; whispering to his sleeping son that he loves him.

She nods. “He’s a great dad.”

And maybe it’s in the way she says it or smiles, but Annie pulls a face.

“Ew! Did not mean to discover a fetish!”

“It’s not a fetish! He is a good dad!”

“Yeah, and you said it like you wish you could hop on his good-dad dick right this second.”

“Oh my god.”

She’s prevented from further having to deal with her sister’s absurdity when her phone pings.

She goes to check it and the text makes her smile.

“Speak of the devil,” Annie mutters.

Rolling her eyes, she passes her sister the phone.

Rio had sent a picture of the place, filled with cushions and blankets, crawl spaces and snack stops.

“He totally a hired company to do all this, right?”

Beth shakes her head. “He didn’t hire anyone.”

Annie whistles, impressed, before passing the phone back.

“Do you think he asked his boys for help? I bet Mr Cisco can build a fucking fort.”

Beth can’t help it, she giggles.

She texts Rio an approving emoji then places her phone down.

“Actually – I know who Mr Cisco is now, and he’s terrifying.”

Annie snorts. “You say that like there are non-terrifying people – in a street gang.”

And, god – that’s true. Somewhere along the line they’d stopped being terrifying to her. Now…

Bein in charge means havin people, Elizabeth.

Now they’re her people. They even treat her as such. She’d seen the guy whom she’d alibied out, once, and he’d given her a solid nod, like he respected her.

This reminds Beth she has a gift to get. She moves to put it on her shopping list as Annie clears her throat nervously.

“Sooo… I have an idea.”

Beth looks up to peer at her sister sceptically. “Your ideas are notoriously terrible.”

Annie rolls her eyes then holds out her hands.

“Just try and keep an open mind, ok? For two minutes, just promise me you'll be open to the possibilities of the world.”

“You're sounding like a yoga instructor.”

“Ew.”

Beth smirks as she turns to place the stack of cereal bowls in the sink.

“Ok, so...” Annie waits till she's turned back around again, brow quirked. “I was thinking... Maybe...”

“Annie,” Beth sighs.

“Ok, fine! Maybewemoveinhere.”

“What?”

“Me and Sadie. Move in here with you.” Beth opens her mouth but Annie shakes her head adamantly. “Hear me out: Me or Sadie can babysit whenever you and loverboy want some alone time, and I’ll be able to save up some money for a deposit on a place of my own. Especially taking the hotel cost into account.”

Beth waits till a good few seconds of silence have passed then shrugs.

“I think it's a great idea.”

“Ok, but just listen– wait, what?? Uh, who are you and what have you done with my sister?”

Beth laughs a little, light-heartedly rolling her eyes.

“It actually may work perfectly with something I've been thinking about.”

Plus she’s proud of her sister for being so financially savvy. When Sadie had reached a certain age, Annie had been adamant about moving out on her own, no matter the cost.

Beth still kind of misses those days before she’d found herself alone with Dean and then suddenly children of her own. They’d been so close then.

“What's that?” Annie asks.

“Well, Rio's been staying over here a lot, mostly with Marcus, and…” She sighs. “You should see that kid's normal bedroom – then he has to come here and sleep on a blow-up mattress.”

“So you want to... what?”

Beth nibbles on her lip for a moment, nervous to finally say her idea aloud.

“I was thinking of doing some renovations. I mean, Kenny's getting older, he's going to need his own space soon anyway–”

But it's no use, her sister has started going off, hooting and hollering like Beth's just announced she's running for president.

This is when Ruby enters, looking at them like they're aliens.

“What the hell is going on?”

Before Beth can say anything, Annie spins on her chair.

“Beth's asking homeboy to move in!”

Her jaw drops. “I am not!”

Her best friend's eyes go from one sister then to the other.

“Ok, explain,” she says, sitting.

“I just think it would be nice for Marcus to have somewhere more permanent to stay,” she explains very diplomatically. “If we changed things around a bit, Kenny and Marcus could have their own rooms.”

“I'm hearing the word permanent.”

“He's been sleeping on a blow-up mattress for weeks!”

Ruby holds up her hands. “Ok, ok! You've sold me. What did Rio say?”

Beth immediately loses all conviction, missing a breath, and of course the girls notice.

“You haven't told him yet?”

“No, I haven't had the chance, really. Well.” She shifts her weight. “I don't know how.”

“Just say 'Hey, wanna room? More opportunities to bang!'”

They both glare at Annie and her reaction tells her that even she hadn't thought that was her best one.

Ruby makes a face, clearly trying to hold herself back, but then speaks.

“So, not to bring this back up again, but... What exactly are you two doing?”

“Oh, god. Welcome to episode 2 of Extreme Party Pooping.”

Ruby ignores this.

“I mean, obviously there's feelings, but does that mean you're headed toward… Marriageville?”

“What? No! Oh my god, do you think he'll think that’s what I mean if I bring up the room?”

Sure, they’d spoken about marriage once, after their argument, but it had been for a second and as a joke.

If there’s anythin I learned the first time ’round, it’s that.

The first time around?

What, you wanna get married now?

Ruby cocks her head. “Well..."

“If someone were breaking down walls for me, I'd take that as a pretty solid commitment,” Annie shrugs.

Ruby rushes to add more when Beth’s eyes go wide as saucers: “But then again, he doesn't seem like the type to do anything he doesn't want to do, so I feel like you're fine.”

“Yeah, totally! He'll probably just be like 'Break down the fuckin wall, I'm chill'.

Annie says this with a very weird accent that veers into Scottish, which they both sneer at before Ruby continues.

“She's an idiot, obviously, but she has a point – just because we think it means commitment, doesn't mean he would, especially if that's not what he wants.”

Beth wobbles.

“You don't think he wants to marry me?”

“Um.”

They stare back at her for several seconds before Ruby finally finds words again.

“Of course he wants to marry you, sweetie, who wouldn't?”

“Wait, I'm confused, what do you want us to convince you of?”

“I don't know!!”


Beth waits till she's come back from the bathroom, where she gathers strength.

Rio is sitting up in bed waiting for her, as usual. He never goes to sleep without her, always waits for her to finish up in the bathroom, but this time she'd been hoping against hope that he wouldn't.

“I need to ask you something,” she blurts before she can talk herself out of it.

His brows furrow at her tone.

“Shoot.”

She pulls her dressing gown closer then takes a slow step toward the bed, then another.

Slowly she approaches, eyes on her feet, before sitting down at the edge.

“You scarin me, Elizabeth, what's up?”

“It isn't anything scary, I'm just nervous,” she confesses with a breath, still not able to meet his eyes.

“You preggers or somethin?”

Her neck snaps up. “What? No!”

His expression is strange – almost relieved and disappointed. Then he shrugs.

“Thought you was gonna ask if I wanted another kid.”

“I'm not...” She gestures wordlessly in the general direction of her womb. “Able.”

He takes his lip into his mouth. “Figured.”

Though she's thankful this has broken the ice, she's not entirely happy with the angle she's ended up coming at this from, and she pushes her hair back behind her ears awkwardly.

“It's just... We've never had this discussion.”

“And what discussion would that be?” he asks, and his tone is explicitly annoyed, like he would very much like her to get to the fucking point already.

God, she feels stupid. Like the topic is too adult and too juvenile at the same time. Are we going steady? she may as well ask.

“Do you...” She clears her throat, shifts, then starts again. “Do you see what we're doing here as... serious?”

You make me real damn happy, Elizabeth. And I wanna make you happy too, that’s it, nothin else. That’s my job. That’s what we doin here.

It had meant so much to her then. But now, after her talk with the girls, she realises it had still been vague; not concrete. At least not about the future.

“’Cuz the opposite would be, what?”

There's no good answer to that.

“Is this going somewhere or kind of just... idling. In a good place,” she rushes to add, “but idling.”

Does a future even exist for them?

She watches him carefully, watches his face change in a way she struggles to process. Intrigued, maybe, but tickled too.

Then he draws a long finger over his bottom lip, amusement clear.

“I don't idle, honey.”

“This is why I don't ask you things,” she says, irritated.

It makes him breathe out a laugh and she folds her arms with a huff.

“You know what I'm trying to ask you so, for once, just make it easy on me and answer.”

The demand, though not rough, seems to shake the amusement out of him, features ironing out.

“What else you think we doin here, Elizabeth? I don't idle and I don't waste time. If I'm here it's ’cuz I wanna be here and it's ’cuz I wanna be wit’ you and here I am, right?”

“That doesn't answer the question.”

He rolls his eyes. “We goin, we ridin, we flyin, whatever. Whatever you want; wherever you want, darlin.”

“I want to know what you want,” she stresses. “I don't want to wake up in 20 years and realise I was the architect of my own unhappiness.” She bites at her lip. “Not again.”

“You don’t make me do nothin I don’t wanna do, Elizabeth.” She blinks; waits for more. With a sigh, he provides it: “I ain't sayin' it's up to you, I'm sayin' so long as I got you, I'm easy – ’cuz I want you, yeah? 20 years and all.”

Her heart stops; flutters.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I mean I only got like 10 years max lookin this good, so after that you stuck wit’ me.”

She swats a hand at him as they both laugh and he grabs it to pull her to him then kisses her deep.

It's a few minutes later when she pulls away, now slightly less so but nervous nonetheless.

“There's a reason I'm asking.”

He watches her.

“Alright.”

Beth swallows, preparing herself. Then: “I was thinking of doing some renovations. I'd really like to build Marcus a room of his own and change things up, maybe move my bedroom upstairs...”

“Fuck yes!”

Her eyes widen at this uncharacteristic excitement, not to mention that she'd been expecting tacit agreement at best.

Noticing her shock, he breaks into an almost apologetic smile.

“Mami, not to offend or nothin, but this room needs to get into this century. Plus, that moron used to sleep in this bed and it ain't my favourite thing in the world to think about.”

This renders her speechless. She honestly hadn't ever considered it, nor that it might bother him.

“I'm sorry.”

He shrugs. “When does construction start?”

“Uh, I-I don't know,” she admits inelegantly.

She really hadn't been expecting this to go over so well. Actual plans had been the furthest thing from her mind.

“I was thinking, though, that it might be a good use for fake cash.”

“Hmm,” he thinks about it, cocking his head. “Or we could use one of Schiller's companies. Would get a good discount.”

“He has construction companies?” she asks, surprised.

“Comin outta his ears. ’Course, we'd have to use legit money.”

She blinks. “We?”

“Yeah,” he nods, “I'll cover half.”

“But...” She clears her throat. “You don't have to do that. It's my idea.”

“Yeah, and you buildin my kid a room, ain't it?”

He's got that determined unarguable look in his eyes and she decides there's no point in debating this.                                                           

“Annie wants to move in too," she adds instead. "So she can save up to buy a place of her own."

“There had to be a downside, huh.”

Laughing, she shoves him a little.

“It won’t be that bad. I was thinking a separate entrance.”

He shrugs like he has no opinion on this and she watches him for a few moments before clearing her throat. 

“Speaking of Annie, she and Ruby decided – seven percent each.”

“...Leaves us with six to sell to an investor.”

He hasn't had any noticeable reaction and Beth frowns.

“Is that ok?”

Had he been hoping for more? Or not to have to sell to anyone else at all?

“No problem,” he nods slowly.

And now she realises the reason for his blank expression – he's thinking. There are cogs turning in his mind that he's not verbalising. 

“Schiller?” she wonders.

And now there's a reaction – he seems displeased almost, but doesn't seem to want to say why. 

“Or,” he says instead. Rolls his shoulders. “We could both take three more.”

Beth frowns. It’s a lot of money. She’s already concerned about how much he’s letting her essentially loan from him.

“I can’t afford that.”

“’Cuz the forty’s fine, it’s the three that’s just gonna really send you into a tailspin,” he regards her sardonically.

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

She nibbles on her lip hesitantly, trying to bite back the admission.

But he’s staring at her, waiting, and eventually she resets her posture with a sigh.

“It’s just the girls – well, Annie – said something.”

“Somethin?”

“That I’m borrowing the money from you.”

“Yeah, so are they." 

“But…”

She can’t finish the sentence, though; feels too shy about it. There’s no way she’s phrasing it the way her sister had (Do the rest of us get extended payment plans? No. Because you’re paying with your–) and she can’t seem to find another way.

He cocks his head, studying her. Then he jerks his chin.

“C’mere.”

She huffs but obeys, moving to settle against him where he's still sitting up against the headboard.

He’s quiet for a moment and she wonders if this is his solution to her fears or if he’s going to say something. But then he does.

“’Member what I said when you asked me to get drivers for the pills?”

Beth frowns, casting her mind back.

Then she remembers.

“I wanted to know why you weren’t putting up more of a fight about it. You said you wanted me and you’d gotten me.”

“Exactly.”

Exactly, as in the same counts for now – she’s what he wants. Beth swallows.

“The rest is just money,” he shrugs.

Just money?” she stares incredulously. “Money’s just about your favourite thing in the world.”

He doesn’t move his eyes from hers.

“Just about.”

With a sharp breath she moves to sit away from him again, breaking the stare, too self-conscious about what he’s implying.

“Ok,” she eventually nods. “43.”

“Cool," he shrugs. "Gretchen should have contracts for us by the end of the week. And I’ll reach out to Schiller ’bout the construction.”

“Ok, good, I’ll find an architect.” She swallows. “...I guess I’ll also have to tell the kids.”

He notes her tone: “You nervous?”

“A little,” she nods. “They still miss Dean sometimes. But at least they like you.” She hesitates for a second then peers at him shyly. “Will you be there when I tell them?”

Rio shrugs, unconcerned. “Sure.”

“What about Marcus?”

“What about him?”

“What’s Marina gonna say?”

“Where I’m livin don’t got nothin to do with her. Plus I think your ex’s the bigger problem.”

Beth nibbles on her lip remembering how pig-headed Dean had been about not swapping his night with the kids so they could go to the fort night.

“You may be right about that,” she sighs. “But it’s legally my house and he doesn't have any basis for not allowing you to be around the kids. Well, no basis he can prove.”

Rio snorts. “A’ight, cool.”

She re-settles on his chest and the silence seems filled with her own thoughts. What Dean might say. How the kids will feel. All the changes she can make to her house, some of which she'd been wanting to do for years. What her new bedroom will look like.

But, suddenly, one in particular climbs its way to the top of them all as she suddenly remembers his reaction.

You preggers or somethin?

She clears her throat.

“Rio.”

“Hmm?”

She shifts a little then cranes her neck up.

Do you want another child?”

It feels strange asking him something so personal and straightforward, knowing she can get a real answer from him. The very fact that she doesn’t know the answer to this reminds her that there’d been a time not all that long ago when everything about him was still shut behind a vault.

“Depends.”

She frowns at the cryptic answer.

“On what?”

He meets her eyes.

“If I got one or five now.”

She stares back at him speechless, heart thumping.

Just because we think it means commitment, doesn't mean he would, especially if that's not what he wants.

But he’s explicitly waiting for an answer and Beth forces herself to swallow; regain control of her faculties.

“…I guess that depends.”

She’d learnt from the best how to flip a conversation, after all. Rio looks vaguely impressed.

“On what?”

She wants to close her eyes and escape from this moment, escape from words she can’t ever take back. A concern she can’t unvoice if she says it aloud.

In her mind she sees untouched book spines and gleaming kitchen counters; the surreal contents of a fridge and filled storage units.

“Promise me you won't ever go anywhere.”

She can’t do that to her children, not again. She’d already uprooted their lives with the divorce and now she’s changing their house around. She needs his assurance; needs to know 20 years wasn’t just a quip – that he won’t get bored in a few months and move on. That if things get tough between them, he won’t just leave.

His thumb and forefinger land on her chin, tugging it up so she’ll look him in the eye.

“I promise, Elizabeth.” His eyes are serious; determined. He caresses her cheek as he lets out a short breath. “You believe me?”

She loses her breath. Because–

“Yeah. I do.”

Chapter Text

“Are you and Daddy getting another divorce?”

“You can only get one divorce, dummy,” Kenny shoots at Danny.

Danny opens his mouth to respond but Rio clears his throat pointedly and the children all turn their attention back to the two adults seated in front of them.

It hadn't even occurred to Beth that they’d been in a nearly identical spot and formation as they are now when she and Dean had broken the news of their divorce to the children, but before she can wallow in this, Rio barrels ahead.

“So like we said, we got some news. You ready?”

Is she? She’s not sure. But the kids all nod enthusiastically and then Rio shrugs.

“All o’ y’all get to do archery wit’ Marcus.”

What?

The children start shrieking and hopping up and down with excitement as she blinks back at Rio.

“They can?” she whispers.

“Oh, you don’t know that trick?”

“What trick?”

“’Fore you gotta deliver some garbage news, you give em somethin better that distracts em. How you think Marcus started doin archery?”

She doesn’t know how to respond to that so instead she just shakes her head.

“That’s a really expensive gift.”

He smirks. “You know you gotta start gettin used to me gettin em shit, right?”

Supposing that’s true, Beth lets out a breath.

“Fine. As long as you don’t take them on impromptu trips to Legoland or build them entire game rooms in a house you never use. Mine aren’t Jesus spawn.”

He laughs at that before turning back to the kids and clapping to bring the noise back down.

“A’ight, so that ain’t it. Your momma’s got some more,” he jabs a thumb in her direction.

Now they all turn diligently to her, eyes glowing like they’re sure she’s about to announce something even better.

She clears her throat. 

“Well. Mr Rio’s going to be moving in here with us permanently. Not immediately. But soon. And I just wanted to tell you so you knew.”

Rio had told Marcus last night and the two had called Beth. Marcus had said he couldn’t wait then, prompted by his father, Thank you for building me a room, Miss Beth.

She looks at each one of her four children, not quite able to read their expressions. She sits up straighter.

“Any questions?”

“Is Marcus moving in too?” Danny asks.

“Marcus will be with us three days a week and every second weekend.”

“Is Mr Rio bringing all the cool stuff from his place?” Kenny, of course.

“Well, actually, that's another bit of news: we're going to be doing a bit of construction.”

“What's that mean?” Emma asks.

“It means that the house is going to change a little bit. And it's exciting because it means all your bedrooms are going to be different.”

“Different how??” Kenny is the first to ask.

“You're going to get your own room and all of you will have bedrooms downstairs, like you've been begging me for for years.”

“And you?”

“Me and Mr Rio will sleep upstairs.”

This causes another uproar, though not what she expects: they're overjoyed that they'll get the floor to themselves and start theorising amongst themselves about what the new layout will be like, Jane not impressed by Kenny getting to have his own room.

Rio smirks at her and she rolls her eyes covertly before looking back at the children with a loud throat clear.

“So once all the construction is done, Mr Rio will move in properly with whatever he and Marcus want to bring with them.”

Kenny blinks back, displeased, like she hadn't answered his original question at all.

“Tell you what,” Rio speaks up, “most of my stuff'll go into storage, but Marcus always gets a list so he can tick off everythin he wants to take with on a move. I'll give y'all one too, yeah?”

This causes buoyant excitement as they begin throwing around things for the wishlist – she hears basketball hoop amongst others.

But she looks at Rio with a frown.

“You have an itemised list of every single thing in your apartment?”

“Sure,” he shrugs. “Helps the movers.”

She's about to ask if he comprehends how incredibly messed up that is when suddenly Jane speaks, voice small.

“Mommy. I have a question.”

“What is it, honey?”

“Can I say Marcus is my brother now? If someone asks.”

Beth's mouth falls opens and it takes her a full second to remember to breathe.

“Um. Has someone asked you that?”

Jane nods. “Jess.”

Beth’s eyes immediately go to Rio, who doesn't miss a beat.

“Oh yeah, you can tell Jess and her dad–”

She cuts him off with a hand on his leg and an answer of her own.

“Yes, sweetie. You can say yes.”


“King! Come take a look at this.”

The first time he calls her this, Beth is incredibly confused. They're in a warehouse filled with his guys – a bunch of those 'contracted' out to him too, not just his core ones – and Beth's behind the car that he has a map laid open on. She's applying makeup to a guy named Wiicked's tattoos and she doesn’t pay Rio's request any attention at first till Wiicked looks at her pointedly then flicks a finger like He's talking to you.

Beth feels stupid, having forgotten this is her alias, but he's never shortened it that way either, and she has a blush across her cheeks when she rounds the car hesitantly, still thinking maybe he's not referring to her.

But when she rounds, the gaze he levels at her is unimpressed.

“Took you a minute.”

She glares back and he breaks into a grin then gestures for her to come closer and points out the problem on the map.

She supposes Miss King is shorter than Elizabeth – seeing as he refuses to call her Beth – and King is even shorter than that, but Wiicked and Demon and Drip have her thinking: Is that her gang name now?

But before she can think too hard about this, he's barrelling into another first.

“Two minutes!” he calls out, making everyone nod back then finish their prep.

He turns back to her and draws even closer, so she's stuck between him and the car.

“You look good.”

Her neck burns beneath the same black turtleneck dress she'd worn for the poker night.

She'd wanted to look like them, she supposes.

King.

“Thank you,” she says shortly, uncomfortable with everything about this moment.

She swears she can feel a few guys' eyes on them and she doesn't understand how Rio doesn't.

She thinks of reminding him that they're not alone, but then he speaks.

“You worried?”

She removes her eyes from him to scan the warehouse full of guys as she runs over her plan in her head.

Schiller had decided that the best way to get the upper hand in a current business deal he’s trying to secure would be if the other party is more desperate to come to the table. To that end, he’d offered a price for robbing the guy’s loading bay of all its current stock. Rio had gotten first choice at taking the job.

With Wiicked – who has the most innocent face out of the bunch when his tattoos are covered – up front and the rest of the guys forming an ambush behind them, Beth’s plan is simple. The rest of it is just ski masks, black spray paint on the few cameras, and getting in and out rapidly.

The speed is what necessitates the thirty guys and fleet of cars. They'll swarm the place, completely overwhelm the half-dozen security guards, grab everything and take off. Five minutes, max.

Beth looks back at him.

“No.”

He smiles slowly, pleased. “Good.”

“But you should still be careful.”

“Always am,” he says, still smiling.

She rolls her eyes, about to counter, when he kisses her.

It doesn't last long – she blinks and he's pulled back – but her lips tingle.

Rio looks casual, like nothing important had just happened.

“Tell the kid I love him and I'll be there when he wakes up.”

She nods wordlessly and then he jerks his chin in greeting before looking around the room.

“Yo, did I say two minutes or twenty? Move your asses!”

Everyone scurries, the warehouse filling with the sounds of car doors shutting. He disappears into the throng of them and Beth presses two fingers to her lips as they turn up into an involuntary smile.


Beth’s unsuccessfully trying to distract herself with bad TV, nearly nibbling her whole lip off, when a text comes through.

Done. All good.

A breath of relief leaves her lips right before another text comes through.

Heading to Schiller.


She wakes to cold fingertips dancing down her spine.

“You awake?”

The voice is raspy in the dark and Beth’s eyes stutter open as she tries to process what’s going on.

“I wasn't,” she replies testily.

But she is now, so after a few blinks and a lick over her lips, she slowly turns to face him.

“What did Schiller say?”

“That you look real cute when you wake up,” he quips, then frowns in sudden annoyance. “I'm starvin.”

Beth’s too sleepy to point out that he nearly always is.

“There's food in the fridge.”

“Yeah? What?”

“Chicken pasta.”

“Come wit' me,” he says, half a demand and half a request.

She groans in complaint but lets him pull her first out of bed then into the kitchen. It's clear from the fact that he's still fully clothed that this is what his plan had been all along.

It's also clear that he'd just brought her along for the company. When they get to the kitchen, he pats the counter pointedly and she rolls her eyes before letting him place two hands on her waist, helping her up onto it. Then he heads to the fridge to begin digging around for the food.

After a second he finds it, plus some cutlery and a plate, then goes about dishing for himself.

“Schiller's real damn pleased,” he says as the microwave reheats it. “Figures the guy's gonna give in no problem.”

“That's good.”

“Real good. Got him off my back for another month at least. Plus we got two hundred gees for five minutes o’ work.”

“And we can sell the stock.”

“Turn a pretty profit, too.”

“So it all worked out,” she breathes out a breath of relief.

As confident as she’d been in her plan, it had still been a big job, with big risks attached. She’d also had under 48 hours to plan it and even the most well-laid plans made in a rush make her feel unsteady.

Rio nods confidently as he comes back over to her counter with his plate.

“Your plans are always rock solid, mami. And now you know you don’t always gotta overthink shit.”

She rolls her eyes as he chuckles, setting his plate down next to her.

“So that’s all Schiller said?”

Maybe she is overthinking, but there’s a feeling in her gut like there’s more.

“Uh huh,” he says without meeting her eyes, sticking a forkful of pasta in his mouth.

But she resolves to let it go. They’re partners now – she’d been the first person he’d called after Schiller had offered him this job – and she trusts him not to keep anything important from her.

Maybe Schiller had just been in a bad mood. Maybe it’s an ongoing mood, too – she’s noticed Rio’s cagey about him these days, despite having procured a construction company and a huge discount for them as promised.

So instead Beth’s mind goes elsewhere, back to what she’d been thinking about before falling asleep.

The way he’d kissed her.

She isn’t sure if she’d liked it or not because she isn’t sure what it had meant; what it had appeared to be.

It's unusually quiet as he eats and he notices it, of course he does.

“Whatchu thinkin up there?”

She waits for a few more moments to pass, uncertain on phrasing, before she just blurts it out.

“You kissed me earlier.”

“So?”

“In front of everyone.”

“That a problem?”

“No,” she shakes her head. “No, it was just... surprising.” Beth clears her throat uncomfortably. “I was surprised.”

“Why?”

“Because… well, because I didn’t think you’d… want them to see that.”

He blinks.

“Why?”

She shifts uncomfortably beneath his eagle gaze before clearing her throat with an insecurity she hopes he can’t read.

“What if it makes…” You? Me? “…us look soft?”

Now the intensity drops, furrowed brows relaxing as amusement floods his features.

He shakes his head with a light snort.

“’Member what I just said about overthinkin shit?”

She huffs. “I’m not–”

The rest disappears against his lips as he kisses her long and slow until she forgets what she was saying, what she was thinking, where she is.

He pulls away slowly and Beth stares back at him thinking maybe none of this is real; maybe she’s still sleeping, still has to be woken.

But, shaking herself out of it, she grabs the fork and gets some pasta for herself too, which Rio allows with a little smile and a hand on the outside of each of her thighs.

“You’re a bad influence,” she notes after she’s swallowed.

“What’s the point of food in the fridge if you ain’t gonna eat it at 1am?”

“Says the guy with enough food in his fridge to feed a small country.”

He rolls his eyes as he takes the fork back. He’s about to dig in again when suddenly there’s a pitter-patter on the staircase followed by a shrill “Daddyyy!”

Rio’s head shoots up and his face splits into a grin.

“Hey, lil man. Whatchu doin up?”

Beth turns to face Marcus, who looks vaguely confused as he comes toward them.

“What are you doing up?”

“Got back from work and wanted sum'n to eat,” Rio shrugs. “You hungry?”

He nods and Rio grins then cocks his head in her direction.

“Why don't you ask Miss Beth real nice if you can get another helping?”

Marcus rounds the counter then smiles sweetly up at her.

“Can I please have some more, Miss Beth?”

“Of course, Marcus,” she smiles back, ruffling his hair a little.

“She can't ever say no to us, huh?” Rio winks, at which Beth glares and he chuckles.

He heads to the fridge to dish out some more then, as it’s reheating, he lifts Marcus up, who giggles and kicks, then sits him beside Beth on the counter. He passes him the plate and a fork and Marcus gets to eating without preamble. She watches this with a small unpreventable smile, thinking of how much he’s like his father.

She’s about to tell Rio this, turning back, when her tongue fails, catching him in the middle of looking at the two of them on the counter together.

“What?” she asks.

There’s something in his eyes she just can’t place; only knows that it’s warming her up from the inside out and wants it to last forever.

And for the first time, she realises: one or five doesn't only apply to him.

Can I say Marcus is my brother now?

Sometimes, when he's here, I forget he's not mine.

She never has stop herself from forgetting again.

Biting a bit of his cheek between his teeth, Rio shakes his head as he moves his gaze away.

“Naw, nothin. You just make some real damn good pasta, ma.”

Marcus makes a sound of agreement and for a while she doesn’t know what to say – she'd accuse him of being a bad liar, but she doesn't want to say that in front of Marcus, so she presses her lips together.

Then she realises she can do something.

Once Rio finishes eating, he leans down onto the counter with one elbow as he chats with Marcus from beside her. Marcus is telling him about some new game he’d downloaded to his iPad when Beth, barely breathing, settles her hand over Rio’s.

It’s on the counter just next to her, hidden from Marcus by her leg, and Rio’s eyes dart up to hers. She swallows.

Then he looks back at his son, nodding along with the game’s description. She’s about to move her hand away when his fingers rise and entwine with hers, squeezing a little.

She squeezes back.

Chapter Text

He's grumpy when he's hungry.

Like Marcus-being-woken-against-his-will grumpy.

Normally it's not that bad – they'll stop off somewhere and get a bite or he'll get something from the fridge, but then there's when he skips meals. It's rare but an actual nightmare.

“No.”

She looks at the blueprints then finds another spot for the bathroom.

“Here?”

“Naw.”

“There isn't really anywhere else– Here?”

“Why the hell would you put a bathroom there?”

“Well, you're not being very helpful.”

It's been 25 minutes of back and forth about the tiniest things and she has to get back to the architect tomorrow.

“Your plan, ain't it? If you wanted me to draw it up, you shoulda said so and it coulda been good from the start.”

“Have you eaten?”

“’Scuse me?”

“Have you eaten?”

“What's that got to do wit’ anything?”

“You're unbearable when your blood sugar drops.”

“I ain't a fuckin kid, Elizabeth.”

“I know. They're awful when their blood sugar spikes, you're the opposite.”

He stares at her for a long moment, chewing over his hesitance, then sighs.

“Was outta breakfast stuff and didn't get to lunch.”

Her eyes round with horror. He'd skipped two meals??

“Oh my god, how could you not have lunch?!”

“I was workin, Elizabeth,” he growls.

She rolls her eyes at this then, without a word, begins getting out all the burger ingredients left over from the night before. He rolls his eyes watching her construct it but doesn't reject it when she puts it in front of him.

“Still ain't your kid,” he grumbles, though, which she ignores.

He eats voraciously and then, after they've cleaned up, he wraps his arms around her and they get through all further decisions in five minutes.

Then he's pulling her hair away, laying kisses down her neck, and Beth wriggles and giggles.

“My kids don't kiss me like that,” she points out.

“Naw? What about like this?”

It devolves from there.



A few cars had made it across the border without any product in them.

Beth’s trying to get to the source of the problem – in the meantime, Rio had sent guys over to check the cars she currently has on the lot.

She’s on her way to check on them in the back when she comes to a stop at the door, hearing what they’re talking about.

“But why’s she called King if she’s a girl?” one asks.

“It’s her name, stupid,” says another.

“It’s Boland, ain’t it? Says so in the front.”

“That’s her married name.”

“She’s married? Ain’t her and the boss…?”

There’s a beat of silence as she guesses some sort of hand gesture is made.

“Obviously,” someone else responds. “It’s called divorce, idiot.”

“And so what if it ain’t her name, why can’t a king be a girl, anyway?” says another. “It’s 2019, man.”

“Yeah, fuck the monarchy!”

Beth hides a smile, staying back as the conversation turns into a list of more and more explicit reasons why monarchies are stupid.

She’s right about to enter when suddenly Demon comes up to her.

“Hey, the boys givin you trouble?”

“Oh no,” she shakes her head, “not at all.” Then, looking at him, she suddenly remembers. “Stay right here, ok?”

She rushes to her office and when she gets back, Demon hasn’t moved an inch, feet planted shoulder-width apart and arms folded, as if she’d stationed him there.

She clears her throat. “I got you this.”

Beth offers the package and Demon gives first her then it an uncertain look before reluctantly reaching for it.

He unwraps it gingerly, one side of a ribbon at a time, like maybe it’s a bomb inside.

Once it’s finally unwrapped, he peers up at her in bewilderment.

“Issa shirt.”

“Yeah,” she grins.

“You got me a shirt?” he asks, cocking his head in what could either be confusion or annoyance.

Either way, it’s bad, and she hesitates.

“I… did.”

“Why?”

“Well…”

She shifts her weight, feeling awkward. She was really hoping not to have to explain this.

“Rio mentioned that… well, you don’t hate me,” she paraphrases with a cringe, “and I was really grateful because I know your opinion means a lot to him, and to the other guys, so I just wanted to get you something to say… thank you for the ‘recommendation’, I guess.”

She clears her throat. “I wasn’t sure what you liked, though.”

It occurs to her now that she maybe should’ve asked Rio, though that likely would’ve resulted in more mocking than actual help.

“Huh.”

Demon takes another look at the shirt.

Then, slowly, his eyes rise back up to hers.

“I like you ’cuz you know what you want done and you get it done, just like the boss. I like you ’cuz he been happy, happier than he’s been in a while. And I like you ’cuz you efficient and don’t waste time with stupid shit.”

Beth swallows, eyes going down to the gift she’d bought him and wishing desperately that the earth will open up and swallow both it and her whole.

He pivots, turning to open the garage door, then pauses.

“I like the shirt, though.” After a beat: “Also cigars.”

And then he’s gone, leaving Beth blinking in surprise.

Then she breaks into a smile.


For two consecutive days neither of them have kids and Rio invites her to stay at his place.

He cooks dinner and she wakes up first the next morning. She brushes her teeth then goes to retrieve something from his bookshelf, climbing back into bed to read it. It's about half an hour later when Rio wakes up and he regards her – naked on her stomach and reading – for a while but doesn't bother her, just watching.

Then he starts running a feather-light finger down her spine, still just observing.

Sucked into the story, Beth manages to ignore his gaze and it's a long while – nine chapters – later when he finally lets his touch drift lower, pressing a kiss to her elbow. She abandons the book readily for his lips and the kiss goes from soft to heated quicker than the speed of her broken breaths.

They spend the next few hours working – Demon even comes by – and then Rio takes her to lunch. It's somewhere he goes often; the staff know him by name – well, by Christopher – and the food is simple but amazing, which she supposes is expected for somewhere Rio likes.

Afterwards, discovering a sale, they go shopping for the house – light fittings and beds; art (which isn’t on sale, yet Rio buys way too much of it) and curtains all getting ticked off a long list she has. At one point she’s in an aisle considering a lamp, twirling a little almost unconsciously in one of her pretty new skirts from Rio's closet, and then suddenly he's behind her, laying a kiss behind her ear. He darts away before she can reprimand him and she finds an irremovable smile settling on her lips.

They get takeout then go home and work on the Marks Empire business plan. (Annie had emailed her input from her new email address. Rio presses his lips together but doesn’t say anything about it.)

He goes upstairs to work on the numbers and eventually Beth gets bored with her hotel research, still too indecisive about which hotel school to pick. So after a moment of hesitation, she goes into the kitchen and starts unearthing all things baking she can find.

After regarding what she has at her disposal, she spends a while making a chocolate torte, losing herself in the familiar process as she mentally weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of her top three school picks.

She still has no answer by the time it’s done, though, so with a sigh she pulls ice cream out of the freezer to soften then takes the stairs two by two. By the time she gets to the top, Rio’s making a sound of displeasure from his desk.

“Please tell me someone broke in and made cocoa – ’cuz I know I ain’t been the only one up here workin.”

“I did work,” she points out huffily, “I just also managed to bake.”

Looking over his shoulder, he snorts but seemingly decides not to argue this.

“Whatchu make?”

“A chocolate torte. You need more baking ingredients, by the way.”

“I’ll get right on that,” he says dryly.

“And some equipment.”

Now he turns all the way around to peer at her. “You know I’m movin into your place, not the other way ’round, right?”

“About that: are you still sure?”

He lifts a brow, unimpressed.

“I know you tryna distract me.”

“Is it working?”

“Nope.”

He spins back around and Beth rolls her eyes as she crosses the distance between them. He gets annoyingly zoned in when he’s working – much like her while baking – and she’s had just about enough of work for the day.

But she stays silent for a while to let him finish up, peeking over his shoulder at the pages he’s working on. They can’t eat the torte too hot, anyway.

Beth notices that he works out the calculations in his head, fills in the answers and only then checks them on a calculator. It’s six-digit amounts and he’s right to the cent nearly every single time. It’s the oddest thing about him that’s ever turned her on.

She watches for a while longer – the steady brush of his hand over paper, the luxe pen confidently inking numbers into waiting spaces, his hard jaw, his dark brows furrowed in concentration.

Then, when she can’t contain herself any longer, she presses her face to the back of his neck. He’s warm and smells like him and Beth wants all of it wrapped around her.

“Elizabeth,” he says in warning.

“Yeah?”

She wraps her arms around his neck, first feeling at his chest then beginning to undo the buttons on his shirt.

“I gotta finish this,” he complains.

She nods as she kisses at the side of his neck.

“Ok.”

She lets the tip of her tongue run along the shell of his ear and Rio groans.

“Fuuuck.”

Before she has the chance to do anything else, he’s pulling her off him then tugging her around and against the desk.

Noticing she’d gotten all his buttons undone, she starts on the ones on her blouse, watching him watch her as she shrugs it off her shoulders. Then she leans forward very deliberately, arms pressing her breasts closer together.

“I’m sorry, I’m not distracting you, am I?”

His eyes burn as he jumps up and kicks the chair away.

“Naw, it’s time for dessert.”

Then he kisses her so hard she whimpers, his one hand supporting her neck as she dips back with the force of his lips.

Their hands fight as their tongues do, both of them going for the other’s bottoms. She gets his jeans undone first then he rips down her panties, and she’s just gotten his boxer briefs off when he grabs her knee to lift her entire leg onto the desk, getting her well and open. Beth would blush but then suddenly he’s inside her, ripping down the cup of her bra as she moans.

His lips go from hers to her nipples and he licks a hot line up each of them before sucking a hickey onto the side of her breast as he rocks up into her.

“Rio,” she breathes, fingers digging deep into his neck.

The angle feels chosen expressly for her sheer torture – she feels he’s never been this deep inside her and her orgasm feels closer with his every movement, her body jolting uncontrollably.

Then his fingers sink into the backs of her legs.

“C’mon,” he instructs, breathy.

She lets him pull her off the desk then twist her around before pressing her palms into the desk, his hard work scattered around them. He flips her skirt over before he pushes back in and Beth accepts him readily, clenching a little at just the relief of having him inside her again.

One of his hands goes to her breast, kneading, and she yips, the nipple and hickey still raw.

“This good?” he asks smugly, and she hates that it makes her wetter. “This whatchu wanted, mami?”

She moans, clenching hard, and he curses before pulling out then pounding back in. Her hips, bruising where his fingers are dug deep, meet his with every thrust. Her eyes are pressed closed tightly, teeth near splitting her own lip.

But.

“Faster,” she moans.

It feels so damn good, all she needs is more. She’s so close, she can feel it closing in; the edges of the dark behind her eyes beginning to blur.

Their bodies and breaths are deafening, echoing in her ears, and then her hips are stuttering, shattering, along with her high whines as the electricity darts through her body; sears through her veins.

She cries out as he groans and in no time they’re an incoherent mess, tangled in each other as they try and get their breaths back.

Eventually they clean up and she gets her panties and blouse back on as Rio produces a huge fluffy blanket from somewhere that he spreads out over the floor. She sinks down onto it gratefully and he kisses her before heading downstairs, returning with pillows and the real dessert.

They settle on the floor and stuff their faces with cake and ice cream.

When she doesn’t think she could ever have another bite of anything chocolate-flavoured again, Beth sets aside her spoon to look at the papers on the floor around them.

“I know everything with Schiller started when you were really young,” Beth begins with a curious frown, “but did you ever think about being an accountant?”

Rio snorts. “So I could sit behind a boring desk in a ugly-ass tie countin other people’s money? Nah, man.” He picks up one of the papers filled with projected profits. “See this? This all mine.”

Her gaze goes over the Marks Empire logo – Ruby's design – at the top of the page then back to him, and she shakes her head.

My money. Mine.

“Ours.”

A surprised smile stutters onto his face that he tries to bite back before he nods, eyes gleaming.

“Hmm.”

He stares at her for a moment longer before coming closer and pressing both his hands to her waist. They’re still cold from the ice cream and Beth’s eyes flutter closed with a breath.

He kisses her bottom lip as he undoes her blouse then brushes his lips over her collarbone, nips at the valley between her breasts. He keeps going – her stomach, her hipbone and then he’s pulling off her skirt and panties and somehow it still surprises her, a breath audibly catching in the back of her throat.

He kisses her softly – softly, at first. Then rougher, dirtier, tongue slipping out and tasting her as he presses so her back hits the floor and her knees rock up then out as far as they can go. It’s not fair how quickly he can make her open for him.

She feels his smirk against her and then he sucks and Beth moans, head thrashing.

He takes his time with it, relishing in the way her back arcs off the floor as she mewls, body quivering, before finally passing a thumb over her clit. Softly at first.

She comes with his name on her lips and stars behind her eyes.

For several minutes she just lays there, trying to come down, and when her eyes finally stutter open, she realises Rio is back beside her, regarding her as casually as if he’d just made her a cup of tea.

“So.” He raises a brow. “It’s Saturday. Wanna watch a movie?”


He wants to go around in his underwear but Beth requests he wears clothing and god, it’s not fair that she still wants him just as much in his track pants and hoodie.

But it’s a compromise – she’d had to leave her blouse upstairs and now she sits semi-self-conscious as Rio browses Netflix for something good.

It’s not that she’s a prude, it’s just that she feels exposed in his giant apartment with several yards of space in all directions surrounding her, including up. The way his eyes flick over her chest every time he looks at her doesn’t exactly help things, either. She’s about to point this out when Rio's personal phone rings.

He regards the caller ID with a complicated look before answering.

“What's up?”

There's rapid-fire Spanish on the other end and Rio shakes his head.

“Naw, I'm home.”

There's a stilted pause on the other end, then: “Why the English?”

He glances at Beth quickly.

“’Cuz I got company,” he sighs.

“Company you want listening in?” comes the prodding reply.

Rio rolls his eyes as he stands and heads to the kitchen.

“You call me for a reason?”

Beth watches, no longer privy to the other end of the conversation with this woman, as he puts on the kettle and gets out two cups; starts rummaging for snacks.

Eventually he speaks again, tone as hard as his jaw.

“Gimme the plate.” He listens for a moment then says “Yeah, got it,” and ends the call.

She's about to ask but then he's already on another call.

“Yo, it's Rio. Need you to run a plate.”

She supposes the cop on the other side asks it if can wait because Rio replies with, “Dunno, did my check last month wait?”

She marvels at how smoothly this works: he relates the licence plate number and in a minute he's gotten whatever answer he needed.

“Good. Next time don't ask me no fuckin follow-up questions.”

This call ends too, but he's on yet another one instantly.

“Demon. My sister spotted a suspicious car at the park this mornin and now she seen it again in the area. Got Dave to run the plate; guy's on the sex offender list. Take care o' that.” After a second: “Yeah, Carla.”

He listens for a moment then nods. “Good, lemme know when it's done.”

It's like this she begins cataloguing smaller things about him: Demon is something close to a friend, he has to be. She doesn’t think any of Rio’s other guys get updated on his current home address or know the names of all his sisters or where they live. She also surmises that he doesn't have many more friends; that his social life outside of her mainly comprises his family.

I know it's lonely at the top.

And then there are the things she feels comfortable now just outright asking about.

His elder sister has two kids. Rio's only the one's godparent, but he considers himself to be both of theirs (Her hubby's brother is like 70, what's he gon’ do with a seven-year-old?). Carla’s a little overprotective of her children but her gut instinct is always right, like it had just been – Rio trusts it implicitly.

After they finish talking, they manage to find a movie and Beth passes out within minutes.

She wakes with the end credits.

She wants to tell him his couch is too comfortable; the movie hadn’t been engaging enough. That she’s had way too many orgasms today. But she’s too exhausted to even try to form a word of an excuse.

So she just watches silently as he shuts the laptop then drops his hoodie and pants.

It hits her, suddenly, that tomorrow she has to go back home – there’s work and children and the normalcy of life.

Not that she minds it. It’s just not… this.

She expects him to cajole her to bed, but when he’s done undressing, he gets the blanket from the end of the couch and crawls on behind her. She shifts despite there being more than enough space, and he immediately pulls her back before spreading the blanket over them.

He whispers a kiss over her arm then reaches for the clasp on her bra and Beth lets out a sigh of relief when her breasts fall freed. He pulls her firmly to him, till their bodies are flush per usual, then noses the hair in the nape of her neck away so he can settle there.

“You smell good, mami.”

She smiles. They fall asleep.


He's always reachable.

If he doesn't answer when she calls, he'll call right back. If her text is urgent, he'll reply immediately; if not, he'll wait. It tells her he always checks. Even when he's working, he checks.

He's always reachable, until he isn't.



Beth goes out to fetch the girls – Emma and Jane love playing with Frankie's kids, who are practically the same age, making for perfect play dates. On more than a few occasions she's collected all four girls from school then dropped Emma and Jane off at home after the play date.

Beth carries Emma in with Jane right in front of her, then pops back out to thank Frankie.

“They love coming over,” she adds with a smile.

“And I love having them,” Frankie says back, but there's something tight about her expression.

She's also not making any of her usual indicators that she's getting ready to leave. The car is still parked, like she wants to talk to her about something.

“Is everything ok, Frankie?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

Beth folds her arms, impatient. Inside, the oven is preheating, waiting for her lamb pie to go in.

The architect had phoned this morning to warn her that it’d make a lot of sense, logistically speaking, if she and the kids didn’t need to live in the house while construction was underway. Otherwise it’d mean setting up camping beds in out-of-the-way rooms and rotating every week or so. It’s something she’d actually considered – until remembering.

Remembering the way he’d been so comfortable with having the kids at his place; remembering the two idyllic days she’d spent there.

So she’d decided to make a pie, pour some wine and raise the discussion with him. (A pie because it’s something she could spend time on, working and kneading her anxiety into the dough.)

She has no idea what he’ll say. It would only be for a few weeks, but that’s no small ask with four children involved, especially when he hadn’t seen it coming.

You know I’m movin into your place, not the other way ’round, right?

So the last thing her tightly strung nerves need right now is Frankie’s dubious behaviour.

“It's just that...”

She bites back what it just is, though, taking a sharp breath as Beth mentally curses at her.

“Mommyyyyy, ice creeeeam!” one of her kids screams.

It seems to prompt her; she clears her throat.

“I've noticed someone... following us.”

“What?” Beth asks, half-laughing. “What do you mean?”

Frankie isn't normally this melodramatic and she doesn't know how exactly to handle it.

“Well, I've noticed that every time I pick up Emma and Jane, a black SUV follows me.”

The mirth drops from her face.

“Every time?”

“The last three times.”

“You're sure it's following you?”

“I didn't want to be paranoid, obviously, and I wasn't going to say anything. But today I was extra vigilant, and I noticed it parked nearby my house nearly the entire time the girls were there. Same licence plate.”

“Oh my god.”

Frankie looks extra uncomfortable now, squirming in her seat.

“I would've called the police, but... I just thought... maybe I should check with you first; I thought, well, maybe... maybe it's just one of your associates.”

Beth stays very still, reactionless, as she reads between the lines: You sleep with dogs and now there are fleas

For the first time she realises that who she's associating herself with must be a topic of gossip amongst the school parents.

The poker game had been the first but not the last time they'd seen Rio – she's been making no effort to hide him. Once or twice he's even gone to collect the kids when she's been tied up in a meeting. And now they know his tattoo isn't part of any costume, know that the way he talks and walks means something, might even know what the bump in his waistband means.

She'd frozen but now she clears her throat.

“You know what? You could be right.” She forces a sunny relaxed smile. “I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. I'll check and then let you know.”


“Oh, there's definitely something to be worried about,” Ruby gasps.

“It couldn't be homeboy?”

“I don't know!”

“Have you asked?”

“He's not replying and his phone is turned off.”

In and of itself, that's worrisome – he never has his personal phone turned off, she guesses in case Marcus needs to get hold of him. She'd even tried his other phone, but it had just rung and rung and rung.

“So it could be him?” Annie shrugs helpfully, clearly trying to look at the bright side in an effort to prevent a total Beth meltdown.

“Wouldn't he tell you if he were having someone follow your kids?” Ruby asks.

And, god, she really doesn't know. She'd hope so, but the truth is that sometimes he does things she has no way to explain. Like turning off his phone.

She shrugs helplessly. “I don't think it is one of our guys, I mean I make their schedules.”

“So don't you do loverboy's? Where's he at now?”

“Not always and I don't know. He's not working now.”

“So he's not working somewhere with his phone off and didn't tell you where he was going, and someone's following your children?”

“Well, not just today. Three separate times, at least.”

“No one's thinking it's him, Beth, he's not Bruce Wayne.”

“Disappears like him,” Ruby mutters under her breath.

And Beth doesn't know how to refute that.


She's working on chewing her fingernails to the quick when she spots him in the backyard.

She doesn't know why he still insists on using this entrance, but right now isn't the time to question it.

Flinging open the French door, she all but charges at him and they end up speaking at the same time.

“Hey, I gotta talk to you.”

“Where have you been?!”

Then he takes in her face; her panic.

“What's up, what's wrong?”

“Where WERE you?” she shouts.

It's been nearly four hours, where the fuck had he been with his phone off for four hours??

“Marina's,” he answers, but it's just to placate her; there's no more information coming, his frown deep: “What's goin on?”

“Someone's following my children!”

What?”

His voice seems to shake the earth under her feet and she takes an involuntary step back.

Chapter Text

He could fuck her every hour every day for the rest his life and he'd never want her any less.

Elizabeth is... Fuck. Elizabeth is his.

That’s it.

There's a lil beauty mark on her left thigh. That's his. The heavy heat of her tits on his tongue, in his hands. That's his. The curve of her ass where his hand fits perfectly – that's his. She's his in ways he didn't know existed and the thought of that not bein true makes him wanna explode ’cuz when she looks at him, he knows he's right. Knows he does right by her.

He fucks her good, he knows he does. She always makes that sound, the one he loves, from the back of her throat like she had no idea he could make her feel that good, could coil her that tight then rip the cord and bring her crashing.

She gets wilder, too, will let him fuck her on the staircase or the washing machine or in the kids' homework room ’cuz she knows how good he can make it. Once or twice she even takes his pants down when he thinks it ain't appropriate – in traffic, one night. He pulls over and she gives him head so good that they don't make it all the way into his place – he gets on his knees for her in his elevator then fucks her from behind ’cuz shit she drives him wild too.

He's fucking her slow one night – which they don't do often ’cuz it ain’t Elizabeth's preference, he figures carman had ruined it for her, and usually she gets him so damn frenzied that it ain't his neither – when he decides to ask her. She's glowing, lips soft and eyes fluttering, and she just feels so goddamn good around him.

“Elizabeth,” he says, rubbing a thumb over her jaw.

Her eyelids stutter and they're so pale, nearly translucent, just like the rest of her skin. Her skin that's his.

“Yes?” she finally gets her eyes open and they're glazed over because, yeah. He fucks her good.

“You said I'm yours, right?”

So if I'm yours, are you mine?

Her eyes widen a little, but happily – it's a good memory.

Not so much for him; not that part, anyway. That fuckin bartender leering at her had crawled under his skin. But after that, yeah. She'd kissed him deep and led him to her bedroom; had let him bend her over her dressing table.

“Yessss,” she drags it out as he presses deep into her.

“And you’re mine, momma.”

He moves his hand from her ass to press lightly at her clit and she moans, eyes fallin closed again.

“Every part of ya,” he emphasises. “You know that, yeah?”

Her hand goes to cover his, pressing his finger against her harder, and she hisses.

“I’m yours, keep going.”

She's his but it ain't just about her body. Sometimes he thinks about someone comin after her – ’cuz he likes being prepared – and just the thought has electricity sizzling through his veins, jolting every part of him and makin him see red. And it ain't anger, it's blood.

Thinkin back to Nico's threat makes him wanna lose it, and back then he and her hadn't even been what they are now.

Now he swears, if someone tries to fuckin touch her, he'll rip em apart, limb from limb. He'll raze everythin they got to the ground.

She's his and nobody hurts what's his. Or God help em.



Sometimes Beth forgets the place he can go to; the I will rip your fucking throat out then have a cup of tea.

The look in his eyes, the burn of his voice, it scares her.

So she takes a second to calm herself down just so he will too. Then she tells him.

He relaxes with her, at first, before his shoulders tense up and his jaw hardens; brows growing heavier. It's like that day at the port all over again: she'd thought she'd been blowing it out of proportion, but his body language tells her he agrees, she's right – something's wrong.

“A'ight, Imma take care of it.”

But no, no.

“Rio,” she starts hyperventilating, “these are my children, I need to look after them, if something happens to them, oh god, it's gonna be all my fault, I can't–”

“Elizabeth.”

His voice is stern, solid, like the ground she doesn't feel beneath her.

“Imma need you to calm down.”

“I will, once–”

“Nah, right now.”

His eyes and tone slash through everything, uncompromising, and she gulps back a breath then takes another one, long and slow.

She feels a little bit better, but there's still one giant frog in her throat.

“What if it's Nico? What if this is payback? What if he's planning to do something to my children?”

She levels the questions at him evenly and he seems to absorb them.

There's an aura of forced calm about him but it seems fragile, like he could blow at any moment. It's terrifying.

“Imma find out who it is and Imma take care of it.”

“But–”

“But you gotta keep your head on ’cuz we can't both be out there wildin.”

They're a team, she realises; breathes. A balance scale. He needs her to be level-headed so he can be–

She doesn't let herself think about it, closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

Then she opens them.

“Ok.”

“You got my word, Imma take care of this. Right quick, too. Gave you my word way back when, didn’t I?”

You said you want your family safe. They safe, Elizabeth. You got my word. Ain’t nothin gonna happen to em while you with me.

“Y-yeah.”

“’Member what it's like to get on my bad side?”

She nods. God, does she remember.

“Well, anyone messin wit’ my kids is on my worst fuckin side.”

“Your kids?”

“They mine just like you mine.”

One or five.

They’d been an arm’s length away but now he steps a little closer; meets her eyes.

“You trust me?”

She barely blinks.

“I trust you.”

He nods slowly then spins on his heel and in four long strides he’s disappeared.


Beth bakes.

It’s five sheets of cookies and a dozen cupcakes later when her phones goes off twice and she rushes for it, heart thumping.

It’s two short texts from Rio.

Ain’t Nico

It’s Schiller.


“A’ight, stay outside in case I need backup. I’ll be there in ten.”

“Copy that, boss,” Demon says then hangs up.

Rio slows down a little knowin Schiller ain’t goin nowhere, not with Demon right outside the shitty little office he’s appropriating today.

And gettin there is all he wants to think about but now that he knows who and where, the apprehension has burnt off, leaving just fury behind; leaving just enough space for his mind to wander to a place he don’t want it to go.

“We hours into this, Marina. This really how you wanna keep goin?”

“Don’t you think that’s the question you should be asking yourself?”

“And what the fuck’s that’s supposed to mean?”

She sighs, stops bein quite so confrontational, as she steps toward him. She ain’t like Elizabeth, she’s good at backing down when she knows she needs to.

“It’s just that I know you want to do what’s right. You always do.”

He meets her eyes then looks away.

What’s right.

He don’t know about that. All he knows is she got a talent for makin him do shit he don’t wanna do. It clouds up his mind, makes him not know which side is up. Makes him not know which side is right.

“I gotta think about it,” he says, standin and grabbing his stuff.

“I know,” she nods.

“If you know then why you been keepin me here?” he growls.

He’s irritated. Not with her, really, but this whole goddamn situation.

She shrugs a shoulder.

“Maybe because I like you being here.”

He rocks his jaw at the look in her eyes, the half-smile on her lips, and she shifts when he has no further reaction.

“And we had a lot to talk about.”

“Cool. Talk over.”

Turning, he’s about to leave when she calls him back.

He stops but doesn’t turn and he hears her come closer; feels her lay her hand between his shoulder blades.

They’d always laughed when he teased that it was the highest part of him she could reach. Later in their marriage it’d been the way she’d make peace. A silent hand to tell him she ain’t apologisin just like he ain’t, but she’s ready to move on if he is. He’d turn around and lift her up, wrap her legs around him; carry her to their bedroom.

He turns now and grabs hold of her arm. Her hand’s still splayed and he looks from it to her.

Her eyes are all round, huge and brown. Sympathetic.

“She’ll understand, Rio.”

He scoffs. “I don’t need that from you right now.”

“I don’t want to argue with you again.”

He said she had a talent, didn’t he?

Smiling softly, she takes a step forward.

“Despite your faults – and there are many – you’ve always been a good father. I just want you to be the best you can be, and I know that’s what you want, too. That’s what you want, right?”

She switches to Spanish on the question but he doesn’t, just nodding. Maybe it’s her alien lack of confrontation or the memories she’d forced on him with that touch, or everything she’s sayin, but he’s mollified; can’t bring himself to say much more than a word.

“Yeah.”

She nods, comin another step closer.

“And most of all – dios, most of all – I want our son to be the kind of man you are.”

Damn, she’s good. She’s so damn good.

“I gotta go,” he manages to choke out.

She just looks at him for a second then steps back, pulling her arm free. He’d forgotten he was still holding it.

“Do what you need to do.”

Rio speeds up. Right now this is what he’s gotta do.


There’s a girl in with Schiller, a secretary or somethin, when Rio throws open the door.

His face has gotta be a sight to behold ’cuz she’s already halfway gone by the time he growls “Get out”.

Schiller regards him.

“I suppose my men weren’t as discreet as I’d hope they’d be.”

There’s a smug kinda look on his face, almost amused, and Rio has half a mind to rip it right off him.

“This funny to you?” Schiller opens his mouth to speak, but he ain’t done: “Goin after someone’s kids is funny to you?”

And maybe it’s the tone of his voice or the fact that he’s still holdin his gun, but Schiller goes all still.

“Please sit down,” he says lowly, scared as shit.

Rio meets his eyes and they stare at each other for a good long minute before finally Schiller lets out a breath.

“We can talk about this like civilised adults.”

Rio considers.

Schiller don't believe in guns, thinks it's beneath him, and that's cool. Rio'll be in any position that puts a barrel at the end of his hand.

But it means now he can put his piece away, at least for the moment.

“Funny, you coulda thought that ’fore sendin thugs after kids.”

“They weren’t thugs.”

“They weren’t sellin ice cream.”

“What happened to you?”

“’Scuse me?”

He spits in disgust.

“You used to think with your upstairs brain. Now you're throwing it all away for some bitch with big tits.”

He’s all comfortable again, face twisted; forgot to be scared.

Rio takes a breath then rounds the chair. Sits down. Takes his time – readjusts the seat.

Gets out his gun then sets it on his lap. Strokes it a little like he’s having a long hard think.

Then he looks up, meets his eyes.

“You know what a Colombian necktie is, Schiller?” he asks, voice real calm. “I know you all fancy and shit; might not know the lingo.”

But he knows he knows, and Schiller knows he knows too.

But he nods. “Yes.”

“I know a guy, it's his specialty. Like, he's real damn good, you gotta believe me,” he chuckles. “Hasn't been caught for it even once.” Now he cocks his head like he's just remembered somethin. “Owes me a favour, actually.”

Schiller shifts but don’t say nothin and Rio lets out a long breath like he’d come here just to shoot the breeze.

“Oh and – remember Gabe? Slits a son of a bitch's throat then hangs em upside down?” He hisses through his teeth. “Shitty way to go, man.”

“You can't kill me.”

The game’s up. Rio leans forward.

“See, that's where you wrong. It'd kinda suck to kill ya, but man I could do it real fast. Real neat, real easy. Sleep like a baby after. I could do it right now, even, leave your brains on the wall right behind ya. Wouldn't think twice. ’Cuz when you fuck wit’ my girl, that's what you askin for.”

Schiller goes the colour of the sheets Elizabeth had picked out for their hotel and Rio feels real smug. He fuckin loves makin white people go whiter.

“…I wasn't going to hurt her. Or them.”

He rolls his shoulders, reading sincerity in Schiller's tone.

“That a fact?”


Beth’s icing the cookies.

It’s not her best work, but then again it’s not every day you learn that the leader of a global syndicate has been having your children followed, so she thinks she’s doing ok considering.

Her phone rings as she finishes a hat and her wrist jerks, spraying icing everywhere.

“Damn it,” she mutters, reaching for a towel and her phone at the same time.

“Hello?”

“Come outside.”

Beth turns and there’s Rio in her backyard, porch lights warming his skin as he perches on his usual spot on her outside table.

She frowns.

“Why can’t you come inside?”

He doesn’t answer, just ends the call as she still holds his eyes, then pockets his phone.

She curses both the icing and her stubborn boyfriend as she tries doing the quickest cleanup she can.

Passing through her bedroom, she puts on a jacket then joins him outside.

“Hi.”

“It’s taken care of.”

“What does that mean?”

“That it’s taken care of.”

Beth watches him. Something feels very familiar about this and her stomach aches with dread.

“Did you… kill him?” she asks softly, wincing as she takes two steps toward him.

He shakes his head. “Didn’t need to. Found out what he wanted.”

“What did he want?”

He hesitates, looks away. Swallows.

Then: “Canada.”

“Oh my god.”

She knew he wasn’t going to give up, she knew it.

“But what does that have to do with my kids?!”

“He was keepin his options open. Or more like seein what his options were, I guess.”

For blackmail.

“But why me?”

“He sees you as a threat. Knows you the one blackballin him.”

“You’ve never said no to him before??”

“Not to somethin this big; that cut and dried.”

She shakes her head, not sure what to say. She never would’ve thought that decision would draw a target on her back.

“Well, couldn’t he have just raised it again? Is plan B really scaring the shit out of a parent??”

He draws a long breath that lasts a while.

It makes her anxious. Makes her stomach ache more.

“He did.”

“What?”

“Said he did.”

She shakes her head, ignoring his snark.

“You mean after you got back from Canada and said no, he asked again?”

“Yeah.”

And now it falls into place. The way he’d studiously avoided her gaze that night in her kitchen after he’d met with him. The way he’d said Schiller hadn’t said anything else.

“The night of the warehouse job?”

He nods. “And a few more times ’fore that.”

“Oh my god! Why wouldn’t you tell me that?”

“’Cuz there was nothin to tell. He asked me to reconsider, I said no. That’s it.”

“Well, ‘nothing to tell’ turned my children into pieces of blackmail,” she scoffs.

His jaw rocks. “Said I took care of it.”

“How? How did you take care of it, Rio? Did you say no with a thank you at the end this time? Did you mail off an RSVP? How exactly did this no mean something different than all the other times you said no and it ended with my children in danger?!”

“Thought I told you to calm down.”

“I can’t just–”

“Thought you said you trusted me.”

That silences her instantly and he watches her for a moment then jumps down.

“He ain’t gon’ lay a hand on your kids or you or anyone else. I promise you that.”

“I trust you. I don’t trust him. And god,” she shoots out a breath, “I don’t know, maybe it’s just better to give in and do Canada, I mean we have the FBI mostly off our backs now and–”

Elizabeth,” he stops her rambling, coming closer. “I made up my mind. We ain’t lettin him bully us into changin it.”

He’s looking down at her, eyes assuring, and it brings a smile to her face.

“Ok.” She takes a deep breath. “For once, I’m really happy about how stubborn you are.”

She crosses the last of the distance between them, moving to kiss him, but he holds her back with a hand on her waist and Beth blinks in surprise.

Her stomach feels like it’s crippling her.

Rio holds his lip between his teeth, not meeting her eyes, and for the first time today she thinks about something other than her kids.

Thinks about what had come before that.

“…Why was your phone off when you went to see Marina?”

Now his eyes come back to hers. He watches her.

“She asked me to turn it off.”

“Why?”

“Wanted to talk to me without distractions.”

God, her stomach hurts so bad that she’s struggling to stand up straight.

“And you actually did it.”

“Didn’t know it was gonna be that long.”

“What did she wanna talk about?”

And now he nods long and slow, like this is a yes or no question, which confuses her. But then she remembers that he’d said he’d wanted to talk to her when he came in through her gate earlier.

He’s nodding like this is what he wanted to talk to her about.

“She–”

He bites back the rest; turns away then puts space between them. Shoves his hands into his pockets.

She stares at his profile, trying to figure out what the hell could cause him to act this way; what her stomach knows that her brain doesn’t yet.

“She wants to get back together.”

Her heart stops. For a second Beth thinks she may be having a heart attack. But then it ebbs and spreads; makes just enough way for her to verbalise the only logical conclusion for him to be telling her this.

“And you want to, too.”

His jaw rocks.

“She thinks it’s gon’ be best for Marcus.”

And oh god, now she wants to cry with joy because he doesn’t want her, this is about his son– but oh, god. That’s so much worse.

“That’s crazy!”

“Is it?” he asks, voice barely audible. “Why?”

“Because he’s happy!”

“His grades ain’t been the same lately. She says he asks for me at dinner. Drags his feet packin to come over.”

“I–”

But she doesn’t know how to refute any of this except by saying this Marina – whom she’s never even met – is lying. So she presses her lips firmly together as he finally turns back to her.

“This ain’t about you, mami.”

But she thinks it’s all about her.

“Please tell me you see how strange the timing of this is.”

He nods. “She said she wasn’t gonna say nothin, but didn’t want me makin no big decisions not knowin what’s going on.”

She shakes her head, speechless, and he looks about to say something else but then his phone goes off.

“Fuck,” he mutters, checking it. “I gotta go. It’s my night.”

Beth doesn’t think Marina’s ever texted him to say she’s at his place to drop off Marcus before. Had he just lost track of time today with the Schiller situation? Or is it something much more deliberate?

Why is it that she feels like she’s caught up in a game she never agreed to play? Like Marina had snagged her king before Beth had even realised they were playing chess?

She’s trying to figure this – anything – out when Rio jerks his chin at her.

“Can you come over?”

She swallows then finds herself nodding.

“I’ll just finish up here and call Annie.”

He nods. “Cool.”

He turns, begins walking away, and before she can help it, she’s calling out.

“Rio.”

He stops but doesn’t turn around. She’s glad. There are tears welling up and the ache in her chest is back, threatening to overwhelm her.

When you’re in love, it feels like that person is your heart. Like they are literally your heart – someone ripped yours out and turned it into a person. And when they hurt you, it’s like how can your own heart do that to you, you know? It’s your heart, it’s its job to keep you alive, not hurt you, but it does and then the ache is so deep inside you, there’s nothing you can do.

Beth clears her throat.

“Say goodnight to Marcus for me.”

And this time it’s not regret on her tongue, but everything. Everything she’d thought she’d had that disappears with him.

There’s nothing you can do, nothing else you can feel or think about, because you let someone in, let someone replace a part of you, and now they’re breaking you down from the inside out.

Chapter Text

Beth pulls up in front of her children’s school.

It’s the first safe place she can think to pull over, because Annie had arrived uncharacteristically punctually and that had left Beth with no time to process after cleaning the kitchen and changing.

Now she shuts off the car then leans over the steering wheel, crying out as the sobs wrack her body.

She hugs herself; holds herself together as her body gives everything it has.

After twenty minutes, when she thinks she could pass out she’s so exhausted, Beth swallows, fixes her makeup then starts the car up again.


She pulls into an empty parking space then psyches herself up a little.

It doesn’t work.

God, what is she even doing here? What more does he need to say besides the fact that he doesn’t want her anymore? Why had she agreed so easily to come here?

She’s debating just leaving again when suddenly the door to the little space that holds Rio’s elevator opens.

Beth sucks in a breath.

It’s Marina. And Rio. 

She blinks, trying to tell herself she’s seeing things. But it’s definitely the – gorgeous – woman from the picture and Rio’s in the same outfit from earlier, nodding at something she’s saying.

She’s close enough to see them both quite clearly, but it’s hopeless trying to read his expression – there’s nothing there. Beth wonders what he looks like when he’s talking to her.

Then Marina rocks forward into his space – as if there already isn’t too little distance between them in the small room – and Rio doesn’t move away. He says something and she smiles, but it’s a strange smile, almost sympathetic. She reaches out and lays a hand on his arm then nods understandingly, saying something.

Suddenly it hits Beth: why is Marina even still here? It’s been an hour since she’d texted Rio, since she was supposed to have dropped off Marcus. Dropped off – not delivered and stayed for a chat and whatever this, now, is.

Then Rio looks up and, across the lot, their eyes meet.

She doesn’t know what to do, can’t look away. Her throat goes dry but then he adjusts his gaze back to Marina. She watches him jerk his chin, like maybe he’s talking about Marcus upstairs. Marina nods in agreement then says something. Rio replies and she laughs hard this time, throwing her head back.

Beth feels so cold. Inside and out. And her stomach still hurts so damn much.

She wants to leave but there are two problems: she can’t move, her limbs are frozen. And starting up the car now might catch Marina’s attention. She doesn’t want to seem like she’s retreating with her tail between her legs – she won’t be that person, she has never been that person. Not when Dean had screwed his secretary, not when he’d screwed the entire dealership.

And she can’t give Marina money to disappear, but for this moment she can hold her own; stand steady.

Slowly her limbs thaw.

She waits for a kiss or a hug as the conversation clearly winds down, but neither happen. Instead Marina just moves her hand down to the back of his, lingering there for a second, before she says some sort of greeting then goes to find her car.

Beth and Rio both watch as it pulls out and disappears down the street, then finally his eyes return to hers.

She looks away, to the view right in front of her.

After a minute the passenger’s side door opens.

She still doesn’t meet his gaze and after a second he climbs in with a sigh.

In her periphery she sees him open his mouth, but she speaks first.

“I’m tired – is there anything else you wanted to say?”

But she can’t not look at him forever – she can’t look weak – so with a breath, she forces herself to face him.

He shrugs. “Thought you’d have questions.”

Only a million.

“One,” she nods. “What were you doing at your ex’s place for four hours?”

His jaw rocks at the implication.

“What exactly you tryna ask me?”

She lifts her chin; doesn’t let herself be intimidated.

“I’m trying to ask you what you were doing at your ex’s place for four hours.”

“Playin Monopoly.”

She doesn’t react and he blows out a harsh breath. 

“Fuck, Elizabeth. Talking. Arguin, mostly.”

“The way you were just arguing?”

“If you accusin me of somethin, say it out loud, don’t jump around it,” he demands, gruff.

She won’t let that get to her either.

Well, then you won’t get your pills.

Welcome back, boss.

I blocked your number. 

That's not an answer, Christopher. 

Do we have a deal or not?

She shuts off, shuts off every part of her that lets him get to her. She is the old Beth again, she tells herself. The Beth that doesn’t know the face he makes when he wakes up or the way he has a superstition about the one side of the shower or his birthday or his full name or the feeling of his nose buried into her shoulder.

He is the enemy and the colder she can make herself, the more chance there is of survival. 

“She was touching you,” she says evenly.

Only the facts.

“Yeah, and?” he shoots back. “My people do a lotta touchin, it’s how we are.”

That hurts. Because she knows she’s bad at it; can count on one hand the number of times she’s laid a hand on his arm as casually as Marina just had.

And of course, there’s the isolation again, him from her.

My people

They your people ; Guess your people’d call it a nest egg.

But she can’t be hurt, she tells herself. The enemy can’t hurt her.

“Did you touch her?” she asks. “Earlier.”

He blinks back at her and his eyes contain a sort of anger she hasn’t seen directed at her in a long time.

“I fuckin told you I ain’t no cheater.”

“And I told you that’s what all men say!”

It comes out too impassioned, not cold at all, and Beth has to look away and swallow it down; take a breath.

It’s a minute before either of them talk again and then it’s him, voice soft.

“And even if I was, I’d never do to you what that piece of shit did to you. Never, Elizabeth. You gotta know that.”

She shakes her head but doesn’t turn back around. She’s crying and she has to find a way to get rid of it before she lets him look at her again.  

“I don’t know anything about you anymore.”

Her voice cracks a little but it’s good enough, she thinks, as she wipes at her eyes and nose.

There’s silence behind her and eventually she feels that her eyes have dried up and she turns back.

He’s staring out the windshield, jaw hard.

“So that’s it, huh?” he growls. “One foot wrong and suddenly everythin we got don’t mean nothin?”

She bursts.

“How do we have anything?! How can you expect any of it to mean anything when you stand there with another woman and give her everything she wants just because she remembered she has leverage nobody else has?!”

He faces her lightning fast.

“My kid ain’t leverage.”

“Isn’t he?! Has anyone even asked him what he wants? I seem to remember someone once saying that what the child wants is important too.”

He grinds his teeth together, no doubt remembering that day at Kenny’s swim lesson too.

“He’s a kid,” he says eventually. “Kids want their parents together.”

“Oh my god, no, he doesn’t!! He said he hated it when you two were together!”

Confusion floods his eyes.

What?”

Shit.

It had just suddenly come out – she’d forgotten that she’d never told him about that conversation with Marcus. Honestly, had mostly forgotten it had even happened, it had been so long ago.

“He said you made her sad. And he didn’t want you to move back in.” She clears her throat. “I was asking… for Dean.”

“He said that?” he asks, mollified.

“Yes,” she nods, voice equally as soft.

“Fuck,” he mutters, then slams at the dash before rubbing his hands over his face.

She wants to touch him, wants to pull him to her and make it ok. Wants to tell him he doesn’t have to punish himself for this.

But then he speaks.

“Things’d be different this time.”

Beth scoffs. “Why, because this time she’ll bend to your every will for a few months because she’s scared you’ll leave to go be with the person who doesn’t make you miserable?”

He still doesn’t look at her.

“Told you this ain’t about you.”

She waits for a moment, waits for the air to feel less thick, then clears her throat.

“Is… is it about your dad?”

“Naw.”

It’s hard and short, too short.

“You’re not him, Rio–”

“I said no!”

Enemy, he’s the enemy.

“Well, if this isn’t about him and it isn’t about me, then I’d love to know who it’s about, because it damn sure isn’t about Marcus.”

His gaze returns to her, hard as glass. “You got no right.”

“No, you have no right – to do this to me again.”

Again?”

“Yes! God, you don’t even see it! Every time we’re ok, you self-sabotage and I swear to god, I can’t take it anymore, my body can’t take it anymore.”

The ache in her stomach clenches. God, she hopes it’s not an ulcer.

“The fuck you talkin about?”

“The dealership! You asked me to take you home, said you'd wait, and then you just left. After Nico threatened me, instead of telling me, you pushed me away; told me you didn’t want to commit. And then I forgave you and you went right ahead and treated me like a fucking employee when Schiller gave you the judge job.”

As she talks, she realises how right she is. How many times he’d pulled her close just to step away; leave her hanging. How many times she’d thought he would kiss her, make all the uncertainty stop, and he hadn’t.

The rollercoaster, the see-saw, the tightrope, the tug of war; whatever the fuck it is this week.

“You’re right, this isn’t about me. It’s about you.”

He’s quiet for so long, looking out, that she becomes sure he isn’t going to speak again, that he’ll just get out and leave.

But then eventually he does, low and slow.

“You know… the way you look at me?”

Beth blinks.

It’s about the last way she would’ve thought he’d go – calm and collected; a measured question – but she doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“When you look at me, what it feels like,” he stresses.

And, oh. Now she remembers.

The way you’re looking at me, it makes me feel so naked.

Ever think about how I feel when you look at me?

“What does it feel like?” she asks, nearly a whisper.

Now he looks all the way away, out his window.

“Like this some sorta fairytale and I’m the magic in the middle and the happily ever after at the end. Like I’m more than everythin I am just ’cuz I don’t treat you the way he did. And don’t get me wrong, I’m better than that piece o’ shit, always will be, but I ain’t no prince, I don’t got the answers you need, none o’ that.”

Something inside her chest clenches.

“Rio, the way I look at you is because of who you are and the way you treat me, not what I expect.”

He seems to ignore this.

“When Marina looks at me, it ain’t like that. ’Cuz she knows what it’s really like, what I’m really like. When it ain’t flowers and rainbows no more.”

She shakes her head.

“You said you wouldn’t make the same mistake again.”

“And you believed that shit?”

God, Marina had brainwashed him. Beth doesn’t know how – what she’d said to him in those four hours – but it’s like Svengali the way she’d covered every single one of her bases.

And Beth can’t do it anymore; can’t fight this losing battle.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t believe you.”

He looks at her now, frowning, and she turns away, pressing her eyes closed. Takes a deep breath.

“You said you were mine, that you didn't want a future without me in it. You promised you'd never go anywhere.” Now she faces him again, expression stony. “Remind me which one of us is the liar?”

He looks wounded by this, but she doesn’t let it affect her. Can’t let it touch her.

“I dunno what to do, Elizabeth.”

“If you were asking for my advice, I’d say don’t go for the person who makes you feel like anybody who doesn’t hate you is still in the flowers-and-rainbows phase. I’d say make sure your son actually wants what you’re ostensibly doing for him. And I’d say that you’re allowing all of this out of some stupid fear that you’re not the exact man I want to be with, and I won’t be there waiting when it all blows up in your face and you end up just as miserable as you were the first time.”

She takes a long breath. Her stomach is almost unbearable now, like a white-hot rod had been inserted into it.

“But you’re not asking for my advice, because none of this is about me. Now get out.”

“’Scuse me?” he bites out, voice gruff.

Beth straightens; sets her shoulders, but doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Get out of my car. I don't want to see you again until you know what you want.”

Until it's me.

He nods slowly, jaw filled with wrath, but she looks away before he can say anything. She won’t watch him leave again.

And then the car door opens and shuts, Beth’s heart along with it.

Chapter Text

“Move.”

“Should you be vacuuming with an ulcer?”

“Move or I will take your legs off and then use them to extend the nozzle.”

“Holy shit.” She jerks her legs up onto the couch. “Y’know, you’re getting dicked down way too good to be this moody. Even with an ulcer.”

“Why are you still here? You came to drop off a game for Kenny, who isn’t even here – how do you end up staying for another hour?”

“Matter of fact, you should call homeboy over, I haven’t seen him in forever,” she continues, completely ignoring Beth. “Maybe all your ulcer needs is some vitamin D.”

Beth finishes vacuuming around the coffee table then switches the vacuum off.

“Might be a little awkward since we aren’t together anymore.”

She lifts the vacuum as Annie’s jaw drops, then heads to the laundry room to deposit it. There are rushed footsteps behind her but Beth ignores her sister, heading back to the lounge to begin fluffing cushions.

“WHAT?! What are you talking about??”

She swallows.

“We’re… taking a break.”

“Since when??”

“Last week.”

“Last week when your ulcer started?”

“My ulcer started last week when my children were being followed,” she bites back, hitting one cushion particularly hard.

The doctor had asked if she’d had any particular stress lately. Beth’s glad she’s a good liar.

“Okayyy,” her sister says with that tone she uses when she’s acting like Beth’s being an insane person. “…But what happened with Rio?”

And now it’s unstoppable, the memory. It’s why she’d waited so long to tell anyone. She didn’t want to have to think about him, or the ache in her heart or any of it.

Now even the good memories hurt, sting, and she only lets them in at night, when she’s alone and at her weakest.

“His ex wants to get back together. For Marcus.”

She flings the last cushion down then heads to the kitchen to find herself a glass.

Annie watches as she pours out the bourbon then nods when she offers her one.

“I don’t understand,” she frowns, taking it. “Hasn’t he been divorced for like ever?”

“Five years,” Beth nods, hoping her math is right.

“And suddenly homegirl comes out of the woodwork?”

Beth scoffs. “She says it’s because she didn’t want him ‘making a big decision without being aware of all the facts.’”

“Shady, but I’ll bite: what are the facts?”

She throws her hands up. “Apparently Marcus hasn’t been doing well recently. His grades are going down and he’s been moody going to Rio’s.”

“He’s a kid, they’re moody.”

Marcus isn’t moody,” Beth shakes her head, despite wanting to agree with her sister.

“Oh, right. Fucking Jesus-kid,” she pulls an annoyed face. “So now, what, he’s just running his fine ass back to what’s-her-name?”

“Marina.”

“No, I didn’t mean– ok, wait. You said apparently.”

“I’m not saying she’s lying, but the timing is weird, right?”

“Wayyyyy weird,” Annie nods.

“And Rio said back in the day she always had a huge crush on him.”

“Interesting.”

“God, I don’t know,” she sighs hopelessly.

Beth finishes her bourbon then pours out another as Annie continues pondering.

Did she know about it all, before? The move and the hotel?”

“I don’t know, Rio wouldn’t have told her, and I don’t know if Marcus knows about the hotel. But I do know that Rio doesn’t believe in asking Marcus to keep secrets for him.”

“Well, how noble of the crime boss.”

Beth laughs in spite of herself.

“Don’t be mean,” she points with a finger, though, taking the bottle and her glass back through to the lounge.

“You need to grieve!” Annie points out. “I mean you’ve clearly been doing denial very well all on your own, and I don’t know what the rest of the steps are, but we can look them up and I do know anger is next. So say awful things about him, you’ll feel better, I promise.”

“I don’t need to grieve,” Beth rolls her eyes, flopping onto the couch so hard that it makes her drink jostle a little. “Nobody died and nothing’s decided yet.”

She hopes.

“Wait, it’s not a done deal?” Annie asks, joining her. “Then what are you moping for? Just go to his place in a coat and a thong, have I taught you nothing?”

“It’s not like that,” she shakes her head. “This isn’t about me and Marina, it’s his son–”

“Sure, we’re all parents here, but–”

“No, it’s different with them–”

But she cuts herself off, bites back the rest, because she can’t just blurt out something it had taken so long for him to confide in her about. Something he’d whispered so lowly that she’d had to move closer to hear it all, so close until they were sharing breaths; fears. His aloud, just barely, and hers in her mind.

It had scared her to unearth such vulnerability in him.

“It’s just different,” she finishes with a breath.

“Ok, but go talk to him! Tell him bitches be crazy and two-parent households are so last century.”

“I CAN’T, ANNIE!”

“Why not??”

“Because she’s some kind of Rio whisperer–”

“Yeah, that’s the ‘bitches be crazy’ part–”

“And I said I didn’t want to see him again until he made up his mind.”

“Oh, no,” she gasps. “No. You did the bitchy ice-queen thing, didn’t you?”

Beth gasps.

“That’s not a thing! Don’t make it sound like it’s a thing.”

“In seventh grade there was a rumour going around that Ian Sandhurst was going to break up with you and you went right up to him outside your locker, saw the rose he was holding and told him you don’t want his pity gift and that bad breath isn’t genetic, it’s called brushing twice a day.”

“Well… it isn’t!”

“Yeah, but you could’ve taken the rose and the L gracefully, but instead you went ice queen because that’s where you go when you’re scared.”

Beth has no comeback for this so instead she just clears her throat.

“How do you even know all that?”

“Shelley Sandhurst and I smoked weed together a bunch of years later and she was like ‘You’re sisters with that crazy girl who sent my brother home crying!’ and I was like ‘Uh-uh, no relation’.”

Beth glares.

“Why is it that so many of your stories either start or end with weed?”

“Oh my god, that is such a good point: We need weed!”

“Annie, I swear to god – the vacuum-nozzle idea is still in play.”

She rolls her eyes.

“Fine. But no more moping. If we’re not grieving, then this,” she says, grinning as she sits up straighter, “is officially a party.”

“Do we have to?” Beth pulls a face.

“Yes! And no more bourbon!”

“Why??”

“Because it’s what you drink when you’re sad. Or stressed. Or other dumb emotions.”

“I am sad,” Beth pouts.

“From now on, we’re having vodka or tequila – party drinks only.” Then she cocks her head. “By the way, are you even supposed to be drinking on your meds? God, I can’t believe this. You’re forcing me to be the mature one – and I just want to say that I think it’s really selfish of you.”

Beth bursts into laughter, her giggles ringing throughout the room, and Annie smiles softly.

“There she is.”

And Beth lets her smile widen, buoyant with her sister’s enthusiasm.

“Fine. Vodka or tequila only.”


“To Hottie McHotster coming to his senses!”

Beth rolls her eyes but knocks her shot glass against Annie’s.

“Ow,” she mutters as she feels the tequila traverse her oesophagus.

“It’s a good kind of pain. Ok, so. What I like to do when I’m drunk, while all the juices are flowing, is draw up game plans.”

“This explains so much.”

“Shut up. What we need is something small but clever, you know? Like we dye her hair green or push her into a puddle of mud.”

Beth’s had just enough shots to give up on explaining to her sister that Marina isn’t the main problem at hand.

“Can you think of anything that isn’t straight from a 90s movie?”

“…We can keep brainstorming.”

Beth kicks off her shoes then pulls her legs up onto the couch.

“Which one of is supposed to be doing the grieving? Because you sound like you’re going through bargaining.”

“That’s not a real step, Beth, stop making things up. And I’m not bargaining, I’m being pro-active. I mean what’s it been, a week? Homeboy’s basically crying out for help, especially with this snake he has for an ex. We need to make him see who she really is, he’s clearly being blinded. Probably by his own pretty privilege.”

“Now who’s making things up?”

“Oh my god, it’s a thing!”

“It’s not a thing.”

“Tell that to the bone structure of his face.”

“I need another drink.”

Annie refills their shot glasses and Beth knocks hers back before Annie’s even done pouring her own.

“Just so you know, you only have yourself to blame. This is what happens when you date outside your hotness bracket–”

“Oh my god, can we please stop talking about how hot he is?!”

It comes out a little too harsh and Beth swallows back the emotion, shaking her head to clear it.

“Why?” Annie frowns. “It’s a verifiable fact.”

“Because look how well that worked out for Mom,” she snaps.

She’s been thinking about their parents a lot recently.

Maybe it’s because she still goes to the same doctor she had her whole life. She’d sat in the waiting room a week ago and thought about being there with her parents. Just a few times. A few more times with just her mother.

Then she’d had to go for an x-ray and she’d felt so alone. It had been familiar. When you’re the head of the household, there’s no one to hold your hand when you’re scared, no matter how young you are.

Sitting in the icy hospital in the threadbare hospital gown, she’d even missed Dean. He’d been there for every ultrasound with her pregnancies. And maybe he hadn’t been real support, hadn’t made her feel less alone, but he’d been a shoulder to rest her head on. And maybe that’s what he’d always been, really. A place to rest her head because the rest of her life was too cold and lonely. A presence she could delude herself into thinking was there to hold her up.

“Okaaaay, I’m so not drunk enough for this conversation.”

Beth watches as her sister considers the shot glass before giving up and just gulping straight from the bottle for long enough to make Beth wince just watching.

“Oooh,” she does a wriggle when she finally places the bottle back down. “That’s gonna burn coming back up in the morning.”

“Oh my god. If you don’t make it to the toilet again, you’re never drinking at my house again.”

“Yeesh, you spit chunks of popcorn all over someone’s carpet one time.”

Beth rolls her eyes but her heart’s not in it, and the silence settles around them, heavy with her own thoughts.

“Rio’s not Dad,” Annie says suddenly, breaking through it.

Beth turns back to her sister with a sad sigh.

“Isn’t he?”

He’d run, as soon as things had gotten serious. She sees that now.

Now she’s on her own, just like then. Just like always. She’d done the x-rays and gotten her medicine and nursed herself to health. Had cooked the meals she’d once cooked them, adult meals, and hadn’t made the children an alternative. Had baked and cleaned and gone to work. Had taken care of herself.

You don’t take good care o’ yourself when there’s no one else around.

Annie cocks her head.

“Beth, you have four kids. I know to you that seems normal, but to normal people, that’s insane. But despite it, homeboy didn’t run for the hills. Pretty sure he’s not gonna bounce every time the going gets tough.”

“But–”

“Also he bought you a hotel – Dad bought a one-way ticket out of Michigan.”

“I don’t want a hotel, I don’t want him to be hot, I just want him to choose me!”

Re-playing her words to herself, she smiles with morbid amusement. “And he may not be Dad, but I sure sound like Mom.”

I just want him to choose me – she’d said exactly that sometimes, in her more lucid moments.

“God. They really did a number on us, didn’t they?”

Beth nods wordlessly, sucking her lower lip into her mouth. It had used to be her tell. She’d do it before saying I know my mom signed the permission slip, I must’ve just misplaced it or Dad said he’d make it to the next parents’ night. But she’d grown out of it.

Now she lies flawlessly; after a lifetime of it, she’s learned to have no tells.

“Remember the last time I said that?” Annie breaks through her reverie. “When I theorised that maybe that’s what a parent’s job is? To irrevocably screw you up?”

She hadn’t at first, but now Beth remembers.

Sadie had been five and had thrown a major tantrum. Annie had freaked out at him then come to Beth guilt-ridden.

“Yeah.”

“Remember what you said?”

“I don’t, actually,” she frowns, turning to look at her sister.

“That it only is if that’s what you choose for it to be.” Coming closer, Annie grabs at her hand. “So I chose right then and there that it wouldn’t be. That I would always be the parent who didn’t screw up their kid – every decision I ever made, that was the filter. And yeah, sure, sometimes I still screwed up – big and bad – but I was a damn sight better than I ever would’ve been otherwise.”

Annie’s eyes are moist and, Beth realises, so are hers.

“I’m the mother that I am because of you, Beth. In a million little ways and in that one moment.”

Beth wipes away tears with the back of her hand.

“You’re so annoying, but I love you.”

“Whoosh. Can you wrap that in tissue paper for me? I don’t normally get backhanded compliments that great.”

They laugh and Annie crawls closer to place a kiss on Beth’s cheek.

“I love you too.”

“Let’s order Chinese?”

The least she can do for her ulcer is put some food in her stomach.

“Oh. My. God.”

Annie sits up so fast that she nearly knocks Beth out cold with her head.

“What??”

“Remember when I was ten and we were ordering Chinese and I said one day we should order every single thing on the menu and you said we’d never be able to afford it? LOOK AT US NOW, BABY! Hoteliers as fuck!”

And Beth isn’t really sure that they are still hoteliers; isn’t really sure about any of it or where she and Rio stand professionally now. The dealerships, which operate almost entirely without him, are doing good. But there had still been a bunch of decisions for them to make regarding the hotel, and cutting off communication had meant bringing all of it to a stall.

But she nods, grinning.

“Let’s do it.”


Annie checks her texts with a moan.

“Ruby can’t make it! Stan’s on nights so she’s looking after the kids like an asshole. Who’s supposed to eat all this food, now??”

“Why do you like him?”

“What?”

It takes Annie a second to pull her gaze from her phone and the dozens of open takeout containers to Beth, where her head is laid on her arms on the back of the couch.

“Rio,” she clarifies, “why do you like him?”

The alcohol is warm in her veins – vodka pairs very well with Chinese food, they’d discovered – and now it doesn’t hurt to think anymore.

“What do you mean?” Annie frowns.

“I mean, my entire life, you’ve hated every single guy I’ve ever dated – you hated the guy I married. But the head of a crime ring who’s killed people, him you glom onto. Why?”

“Who even uses the word glom?”

“Just answer the question!”

Now Annie looks away, thoughtful.

“You smile a little when you talk about him, even when you’re complaining.”

She sits up a little.

“I do?”

“Yeah. You should do something about it, it’s embarrassing.”

She grins and Beth rolls her eyes.

Then, after a second: “That’s why you like him?”

She shakes her head.

“No.”

Beth stares back, knowing by the look on her sister’s face that more is coming.

“When you married Dean, I was so mad–”

Really? I couldn’t tell.”

Annie elbows her as they giggle.

“Can you just let me finish?!”

“Ok, I’m sorry.”

She draws a deep breath then breaks eye contact again, staring off into the distance.

“I was so mad,” she starts again, “because I knew you weren’t doing it for you. At least, not the you I knew. It was this new you, the you who thought everything was her responsibility because Mom couldn’t do it. I watched you go from my sister to a parent and then suddenly there was Dean and he was the epitome of every guy you’d dated before him: boring and safe galore. He liked you so much more than you liked him – for obvious reasons – and I think even back then, he already saw this entire life,” she gestures around the house, “laid out for you. And it’s like you saw… a lifeboat.”

Beth shifts, suddenly deeply regretting asking. She doesn’t want to hear this; doesn’t want the truth of her life narrated to her.

But the only thing worse would be stopping her.

“And you latched on because – finally – you had a real safety net. But it’s like you got caught up in it, like it wrapped around your neck and strangled you in this Stepford-y life of tuna-fish sandwiches and book clubs.”

Now finally Beth makes to speak, defend herself, but Annie shakes her head.

“And I get why, ok? We've been over this, we’re screwed up. It's why I've spent my life doing the exact opposite – and god, I know sometimes that only made things worse for you. But when you're safe, Beth, you're honestly the least interesting version of yourself.”

And now she huffs out the breath she’d taken for her own defence.

“Wow, you never fail to make me feel terrible.”

“That's not what I mean! I just... What I'm trying to say is, you tend towards extremes. Either you're cutting chicken fingers into stars or you're driving us across the border to smuggle fake cash.”

“But–”

“And all I'm saying is, I like the latter Beth better. She doesn't feel like she has to be or take care of anyone else. And it's like, in those moments, you're really you again.”

Beth swallows back a breath.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Why do you think crime's brought us closer?”

“Awww.”

She goes to lope an arm around her sister, pulling her closer and laying her own ahead atop hers.

“Please don't ever repeat that, though.”

“Seems wise.”

They stay like that for a while, cuddling, and then eventually Annie moves away with a contemplative breath.

“Anyway. Gangfriend’s none of that. He’s not boring or safe and you – clearly – never know exactly where you stand with him. He’s this chaotic storm and I honestly think you need that.”

“Your idea of a healthy relationship is concerning.”

“Ok, you know what everyone thinks is the answer to everything? Unconditional love. Until they realise that gets them a puppy and twenty years of boredom raising it. And yes, maybe I’m a little jaded – which is why I’m currently taking a very long break from men – but I just think that that love should come with a little more: excitement. Spontaneity. Really, really good sex.”

Beth bursts into surprised laughter and Annie grins, clearly feeling very satisfied with herself.

Finally, when her laughter has died down, she regards her sister.

“I wish we’d had this talk forever ago.”

“Me too.” After a second: “Dean has a small penis, doesn’t he?”

Beth bursts into surprised laughter then shakes her head.

“He doesn’t, actually.” She pulls a face. “But it still wasn’t good.”

Now they both laugh, so loudly the walls seem to shake, and it feels good, which is strange. She’d always thought that sharing about her sex life with her sister would be the strangest thing in the world – Annie being who she is – but it feels freeing.

“Can I ask you something?”

The silence had settled without Beth really realising it, her mind wandering aimlessly, but now her gaze returns to her sister.

“Ok?”

“Why do you like him?”

Oh.

She’s never considered that before, not really. Not outside of the beginning, when all she’d wanted to do was get over him, move past him. She’s never really asked herself why he makes her feel the way he does.

Yet she finds herself with an answer.

“You know when you’re young, you imagine who you’re going to be when you’re older? Strong and confident; beautiful and super-capable. This powerhouse of a person that gets you through every insecurity you have when you have nothing else but your future to look forward to.”

Beth shakes her head a little.

“It took 20 years, but I realised that I wasn’t that person; that I’d never be that person. And the realisation, it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s like frost seeping into your skin and settling inside until suddenly you realise… you’re ice cold.”

“An ice-cold bitch?”

“I guess so. I guess I cut myself off from everything I’d ever wanted because I knew it was the only way to not be miserable. But it made me… I don’t know. Distant. Numb. Resentful. Cold.” She throws out her arms with a sigh. "Stepford mom without a pulse, as you put it."

Annie shrugs in vague apology then frowns, jerking her chin. 

“And Rio?”

“Rio makes me feel like I’m that person I dreamed I’d be one day – that person and more. And not because he tells me I am or helps me – god, he’s the toughest person on me – but because I see it in myself. I feel it. He gives me challenges I don’t think I could ever meet and then I do and I look in the mirror and I see that woman.”

“And that woman looks really sexually satisfied…?”

Beth wants to roll her eyes but, remembering the realisation she’d just come to, she decides to answer.

“God, yes.”

“Yes!! I knew it!”

“It’s always so good, it’s crazy, every single day!” she exclaims in disbelief.

“What? Every day??”

“Every day,” she nods.

“That’s excessive.”

“I thought so too when I thought about it at first, but then I realised I always wanted it; sometimes once wasn’t even enough,” she finds herself admitting.

Just off the top of her head she can think of five different times Dean had cajoled her into sex when she genuinely hadn’t wanted it – she doesn’t think a single time with Rio had ever been like that.

“Oh. My god. Dean tranqued your libido for twenty years!”

Which is… maybe a little unfair, but not completely untrue. She’d had a better sex life with her vibrator than with Dean.

She blames her last four vodkas for the fact that she actually says this aloud, and Annie snorts.

“Maybe that’s because your vibrator actually cared more about your happy ending. Also, FYI, totally knew you had to have a vibrator.”

They giggle and then Annie peers at her very pointedly, brow raised, knowing she doesn’t even have to ask.

“Oh, Rio firmly believes in ladies first.”

This causes ear-splitting hollering – and, for some reason, a dance around the coffee table – before Annie collapses back onto the couch with a grin.

“Oh my god, why have you never been this cool before?? Please, god, you have to marry that man.”

“He’s not perfect, you know,” Beth points out. “He laughs at the dumbest jokes – usually his own. And he doesn’t like Courage the Cowardly Dog – who doesn’t like Courage the Cowardly Dog?? Also he knows how attractive he is and he’s so goddamn smug about it, god, it’s annoying. Oh and he’ll argue with you for ten minutes about how chipmunks aren’t real animals even though he knows they are. I mean, who does that? And he has this weird superstition about the shower, like there's one side of it that's gonna make the day go well, but it changes every day. It's ridiculous!”

She’d stared off as she’d been speaking but now she looks back at her sister and realises she’s looking at her oddly.

“What?”

“You’re smiling.”

And Beth’s face is numb, so she actually has to press her fingers to her lips to realise – yeah, she is.

“So.” Annie raises a brow. “Are you sure he’s not worth fighting for?”

Whatchu sayin, that you wouldn’t wait for me if I got time?

Who, me? No, I’m ride or die.

“He is. God, he is. But,” she shakes her head, swallowing, "this is the only kind of fighting I can do.”

“Not speaking to him or seeing him for a week is fighting?”

“Yes. If we’re both whispering into his ear, I’ll lose, Annie. I can’t go toe to toe with her–”

“Oh, please–

“You weren’t there! She has this weird brainwashing power over him. He’d say things and I’d know it wasn’t him talking, that he was just repeating something she’d said, word for word.”

“Yikes,” Annie’s eyes widen.

Big yikes.”

“Ok, you need to spend less time with Sadie.”

And now Beth settles back into her seat, realising she’s been slowly slipping down anyway.

How many drinks has she had?

She’s lost track.

“She’s really pretty, too.”

“Yeah?” Annie’s head pops up in intrigue. “Like Rio-pretty?”

“Yeah, like they came in a matching set.”

“Ugh, that’s annoying.”

Beth pouts.

“…I kind of want her to die. Is that horrible?”

“Yes. And also totally normal.” She clears her throat. “On a completely unrelated note: do you still have access to a gun?”

“It’s in the safe.”

“You have a safe?”

“I didn’t used to, but he made me get one for his stupid stuff.”

Annie smirks.

“Maybe you should give me the combination. I’ll go change it and we can both have peace of mind.”

“Ok, first of all, you with access to a gun is the least peaceful my mind will ever be, and secondly, I’m not going to shoot her!”

“Fine. Wanna go egg her house?”

“No!”

“Why not?!”

“…I’m not drunk enough yet.”

“That’s fair. We can work on that.”

“We should watch a movie,” Beth decides.

“Is it Saturday?”

“I don’t know.”

“What day was yesterday?”

Beth frowns, thinking hard.

“…Fr-Th-W-ooday.”

“Sounds right.”

They laugh and then Beth gets up to go get the remote, which should only be a few steps from her, but seems like it’s an ocean away.

Eventually she gets it, though, then collapses back onto the couch, practically jumping from where she is.

“The floor isn’t lava, you know.”

“No, but it’s spinning.”

They laugh then continue to do so as Beth struggles for a good few minutes to locate then hit the on switch.

She’s trying to navigate to Netflix when Annie clears her throat.

“So you know what you were saying earlier? About feeling like the person you’d always wanted to be one day?”

Beth turns from near-cursing at the remote controller to nod at her sister.

“Yeah?”

“Well… I suck at advice, so I’m going to recycle some I once got from a really smart person: Everything you want from him, you already have inside yourself.”

And even through the liquor, Beth manages to remember this.

“Matthew Kingston, ninth grade.”

Annie had come to her, saying she’d already let him feel her up but he’d still made out with Cassie Bronker on the bleachers and should she promise to let him go all the way?

“Asshole,” they both shake their heads.

“Also, that advice totally made me discover masturbating.”

“Ew!”

She whacks her sister with a cushion as they both giggle then get into a pillow fight for approximately thirty seconds before they’re both winded and they collapse, Annie managing to settle herself on top of Beth like a brick.

After Beth’s wriggled to get onto her back and more comfortable, she lets out a long sigh.

“I know… I know I don’t need him. But I want him. I want to be with him,” she shrugs; nibbles at her lip. “Is that ok?”

Her sister’s head comes up from its spot on her boobs, elbowing Beth in the ribs in the process.

“OW! God!”

“I’m sorry! But yes! God, Beth – of course it is. You gave twenty years to a life you didn’t want – you’re allowed to want something.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t even know if I can have it,” she shrugs helplessly.

Annie pulls a face, her eyes filled with sympathy.

“Well, you know what? You’re gonna be fine no matter what. You know why? Because your crazy sister is gonna be right here, wrapped around you and demanding you pay more attention to her than your own sad little problems.”

She smiles and Annie grins before laying back down, gently re-settling herself and wrapping her arms around her.

“You’re a lot heavier than when we used to do this,” Beth points out.

“And you’re a lot jigglier, so can it.”

They laugh and Beth finds herself looking up. It’s a bit of the ceiling she knows very well now, thanks to Rio.

She lets out a long breath.

"…Is this acceptance?"

“Maybe. Or we’re just really, really drunk.”

“I think the second one is a given.”

There’s silence for another few moments. She moves her hand down to run it through her sister’s hair thoughtfully and for a minute it does feel like they’re young again, when the problems were so much bigger, so much worse.

Maybe Annie’s right. Maybe it’ll all be fine no matter what.

Maybe she’s not on her own.

“Beth?”

“Yeah?”

“I was kidding earlier. I didn’t tell Shelley we weren’t related. I said I’d stick the joint up her nose if she called you crazy again.”

“Thus clearly proving we aren’t crazy, good.”

They giggle until it hurts.

Chapter Text

“Pop, please go ask abuela if she wants coffee… ’cuz apparently she’s suddenly gone deaf,” he mutters afterwards, when Marcus has trotted off to ask his mom the same thing he’s shouted across the loft thrice now.

It turns out to be a yes, so he adds another cup to the counter to join Carla and Gabby’s. He’s having tea so he gets it out and puts it on the counter.

Elizabeth slaps the package onto the counter.

“You know, I didn’t say anything last time, but you have weirdly high counters.”

“That’s ’cuz you weirdly short.”

She flicks him and he chuckles as he watches her go back to the fridge and bend over to get the rest of the ingredients.

“Stop staring at my behind.”

“Stop havin such a good one.”

Bringing over the vegetables, she gets real close to glare at him.

“I hate you.”

“I know.”

They kiss for a while and then eventually she pulls away to regard all the ingredients on the counter.

“So what are you making for dinner? Burnt mac and cheese?”

“I swear to God, if you and Marcus don’t let that go…”

She giggles as she kisses him again and he lets her for a few moments before takin control, shoving her over and then against the counter; pressing his body to hers till she’s whimpering just a little. He kisses her harder, possessive, and brings a hand up under her dress. Forces himself not to lose control at the softness of her skin or the way she’s arching her chest closer to him. He runs a finger along the line of her panties and now she’s spreading her legs, the whimpers higher.

Perfect.

He pulls away, regards how hard she’s breathin, how wrecked she looks.

Yeah. He’s gonna remember this for a while.

“Elizabeth.”

Her eyes take a long few seconds to stutter open.

“Yeah?” she asks, voice soft.

He makes his real hard.

“Get outta my kitchen.”

Her jaw drops and he grins, earning himself a huffy roll of her eyes.

“I’ll get wine.”

He moves to let her get away then watches as she heads off toward the cellar.

She’s been drinking less lately, he’s noticed, at least of the brown stuff. Used to be that he could walk in on any given night and find her with a double.

Bar ain’t as reliable as you, mami.

Now he can’t remember the last time he’s seen her with one.

He switches on the grill then puts the duck breasts in the pans so he can get shit goin, he’s hungry.

Smoke’s risin up from everythin, especially the grilling veg, when Elizabeth returns with a bottle of white. He gets down glasses and she pours for em then regards him.

“Are we still going to check out that sale tomorrow I told you about earlier?”

“Uh huh,” he nods. Then, dryly: “Even though no one’s hittin no walls down for like another two weeks.”

“I know, but the sale is now. And even though that’s clearly not the way you shop,” she gestures around the loft, “it’s the most cost-effective way of doing things.”

He just smirks, deciding not to comment on that.

“You decide on what size unit you want for all of it?”

“Yeah,” she nods, looking around a little for the pamphlet of storage options even though she’d left it in his car.

He’d made a mental note to remove it later ’cuz he doesn’t wanna have to hear again about how damn bizarre it somehow is that he likes the spaces around him clean.

“Should I call them and book it? Maybe we can get one near the rest of ours.”

Ours. He likes the way she says that, which is the craziest damn thing ever. He ain’t a real big sharer. His mom tells the story – which he thinks is a fuckin lie, but anyway – about him throwing a tantrum when he was young ’cuz he didn’t wanna share his last name with his sisters.

“Yeah, go ’head,” he nods. “Use my phone, the number’s in there.”

He unlocks it then hands it over.

He focuses on the food as she makes the call, knowing he’s never gonna hear the end of it if he burns anything.

Once she’s secured them another unit, they get to chattin about other shit before rolling around to her hotel school problem.

He don’t really get how it’s a problem except for Elizabeth gets too in her head about shit, considering every micro-issue involved like that’s gonna help somehow.

Finally she lets out a breath and asks him which he’d pick. He gives his answer without blinking and she glares.

“What?”

“It’s not that simple.”

Rio shrugs. “It’s the best. Seems pretty simple to me.”

“It’s not objectively the best, it just has the most thorough course material – and it’s also thirty minutes away.”

“So? It’s only for six months.”

“So I have children to drop off at school in the mornings and pick up in the afternoons and take to swimming lessons and dental appointments and–”

“Yeah and you ain’t their only parent.”

“How’s that conversation gonna go? ‘Dean, can you please give up work time to do my half of the agreed-upon custody duties too, so I can go to hotel school to open a hotel with the guy you hate?’”

"You did it for twelve years, ain’t it?”

This seems to cut off anything else she’d been about to say, and he smirks.

There’s silence as he makes the vinaigrette then starts plating everything up.

“Well, I’ll take your suggestion under advisement.”

He snorts but don’t say nothin.

“Ruby and I made a date that we put into our calendars – we don’t get to leave until we’ve made a decision.”

Having placed the plates and cutlery up on top of the island, he rounds to join her.

“Cool.”

She’d been watchin him, tryna get something from him – approval, maybe, but it’s her plan and he ain’t gonna fuck with it – but now finally she looks at the food.

“This looks amazing,” she sucks in a breath. “Thank you.”

She sounds so damn grateful and Rio rolls his eyes.

“You cook for me all the time.”

Which is why he hadn’t accepted help past gettin shit out the fridge. He buys em food sometimes, but he still don’t wanna take advantage of her. Not like her ex.

“I know,” she nods, but her eyes are still wide.

Then, moving her chair closer, she kisses him.

The food’s good and the wine she’d picked pairs perfectly with the duck, and for a while they don’t do nothin but eat.

Then suddenly, like she’d been keepin it in, she speaks; blurts.

“I will talk to him.” At his frown: “Dean.”

So that’s what she wants. Wants him to say he ain’t mad about fuckin carman.

It bugs him how good she can read him these days – is he getting worse at hiding shit?

So he keeps his voice cool, even, when he speaks.

“You tell him yet? ’Bout the hotel?”

“Not… exactly,” she says, shifting. “I just mentioned I was working on another project.”

“The renovations?”

“I was trying to figure out how to tell him without freaking him out – you freak him out.”

“Uh huh.”

He takes a sip of his wine, feelin her eyes on him.

“Rio, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that–”

“What?” he cuts her off, meeting her eyes.

He doesn’t mean anything,” she finishes softly.

He cocks his head in surprise and Elizabeth sighs, emboldened.

“I didn’t want to have to face the thought of telling him because I just know he’s going to throw a huge tantrum that I don’t want to have to deal with because…” She throws up her hands. “I don’t care what he thinks.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she nods, then takes a steeling breath. “But I will tell him.”

And, watching her, he thinks maybe now’s the time to tell her he wasn’t just talkin about Dean just now; that he’d be there for her too.

But instead he reaches out to move her hair away, the same way he does every time he tries to tell her somethin he can’t seem to say.

Then he pulls back.

“Or we could just kill him,” he shrugs. “Prolly easier all ’round.”

Shakin outta the way she always freezes when he touches her like that, she giggles high and true, and it’s so goddamn cute, he can’t help it. Can’t help smiling too, can’t help pulling her closer.

But he don’t kiss her hard – he’s long past that; just lays quick kisses on the sides of her lips before nosing over her skin.

“Fuck, momma, I want you.”

He hasn’t been inside her since yesterday and the round of her ass is still on his mind, his want for her exacerbated by the alcohol like usual.

He hears her swallow and then she’s brushing her lips over his stubble; the tops of his cheekbones.

“Can we–”

But she stops, cut herself off, and he notices she’s lookin up at him with some kinda insecurity beneath her lashes.

“What?”

“I want to try…” She clears her throat, real damn uncomfortable. “…the reverse cowgirl thing again.”

This last bit comes out even softer, kinda rushed, and he knows she’s all shy about knowing what it’s called; callin it by name. The name itself.

He wants to ask if she’s been doin some Googling, wants to tease her a lil, but it ain’t the time for it. She’s genuinely vulnerable and he ain’t gonna be stupid enough to make her feel like she can’t come to him with stuff like this.

So he just kisses her softly.

“A’ight.”

He starts undoing the buttons on her blouse but, after a second, Elizabeth pulls away.

She shakes her head, swallows.

“I should… go to the bathroom first.”

He frowns as she gets off her chair but then she refills her wine glass, all the way to the top, and takes it with her. Rio shakes his head, smiling.

He puts their plates in the sink, throws out the rest of his wine. Turns out the lights.

He sets his wallet and phone on the bedside table after turning on the lamp then undresses.

Elizabeth takes forever.

He starts checkin his texts and is about to go get her when he hears the bathroom door shut and he finally gets comfortable against the headboard, hungrily waiting for her.

In the near-dark it takes him a while to catch sight of her but then there she is, wearing a navy-blue silky number that he likes but he’s already working out how to untie.

She ain’t walkin that straight but her steps are confident, her eyes on his.

He holds em for a second longer then moves his gaze to take her in real obviously as she climbs up onto the bed.

“Took you twenty minutes to put that on?” he asks ’cuz he needs somethin to distract him.

She huffs, indignant, but she’s also tipsy so it comes out a lot cuter than he thinks she intends for it to.

“I was nervous.”

And the admission comes in that lil voice of hers that’s equally as adorable; equally as good at drivin him wild.

He moves and she freezes like a deer caught in headlights. It’s cool, he got no problem meeting her in the middle.

“Why you nervous?” he asks, voice dipping low as he frowns at her like she’s bein ridiculous.

Not that he makes her answer, pressing his lips to her neck till he can feel her pulse. It’s racing.

But her chenin breaths are long in his ear as his hands feel over the silk, one stopping at her waist as the other moves under to find a grip on her ass. He uses it to toss her onto the bed and he settles over her just as quickly, kissing away her surprised giggles.

But he’s kissing her hard, hot, and soon the smile disappears as her hands find his neck and her legs part. She moans as he gets between em and when they finally part for a breath, she looks at him in confusion.

“I’m supposed to go on top.”

“I know,” he nods, licking his lip. “And we got all night to get there.”

A smile bursts onto her face and there’s a look in her eyes like… He dunno.

“What?”

She stares for a while longer then shakes her head a little with a throat clear.

“It's just that you’re a surprisingly good boyfriend.”

He wants to point out that she’s normally a better liar.

Instead he raises a brow.

“Surprisingly?”

“Surprisingly, as in–”

He kisses the rest away.

From beside the tea, his phone rings, shakin him outta his own thoughts.

It’s Marina.

He flips it upside down then goes ahead makin the drinks. He’d already texted to say they’re back home safe, he don’t see what else she gotta know or say. If she’d realised he’d used what they’re goin through to get her to agree to letting him take Marcus outta town for a week, it’s too damn late now.

You really do have a talent for getting what you want.

Short nails scratch playfully at his back and he turns to find Gabby behind him, smirking.

“Who are you thinking about?”

Her, always her.

It's just that you’re a surprisingly good boyfriend.

“Nobody.”

“Ok. And have you thought about texting Nobody?”

All the damn time. He misses every goddamn thing about her, even the way she texts – always trying to match how abrupt he is over text and always failin terribly – and he wishes he could call or somethin.

But his pride won’t let him – she’d been radio silent for six days straight, no problem – and, besides, he’s got no idea what he’d say.

“Have you thought about doin stand-up?” he returns.

She rolls her eyes and he pulls a face back, then they both start grabbin mugs and head to the lounge, where Carla and his mom are waiting.

“Maní, this one’s yours,” he says as he sets his mom’s mug down.

Carla scoffs. “I can’t believe you still call her that.”

The nickname – Spanish for ‘peanut’, ’cuz his mom’s adored em since he was a kid – must’ve just come off his tongue for the billionth time, but Carla ain’t happy unless she’s at his throat for somethin.

“Stop pickin at shit.”

“It’s disrespectful and you're a parent, you should know that.”

“Why don’tchu just say you mad you ain’t the favourite? It’s less syllables.”

Maní heaves a sigh. “I always thought you two would grow out of saying I love you by arguing.”

As usual, his mom’s too clever for em – it ends the squabble immediately, ’cuz neither one of em wants to be the one to keep goin after that.

“It’s time.”

Whatever. Letting it go, Rio sits, pulls his laptop closer on the coffee table then presses call.

Marnie picks up nearly immediately, yelling a buncha Spanish greetings and they return em, but his mom’s greeting ain’t quite as friendly.

“Are you smoking again?”

Marnie’s face mars with horror.

“How do you know that?? Did Pa tell you?”

“He knows?! I cannot believe this. Do you want to be holding those death sticks in your wedding photos?”

Rio,” she looks at him pleadingly.

“Just because he used to have that filthy habit too doesn’t mean he has any right to defend you,” Carla bites.

Rio forces himself not to roll his eyes, sitting further forward on the sofa instead.

“Hey, sis. How’s it goin? What’s goin on, how’s Tiago? The weddin prep comin ok?”

He says all this very deliberately, emphasising each question, and he can feel his mom and sister’s glares on him, but Marnie looks relieved, shooting him a look of thanks.

“Your lips are purple,” his mom says, but then leaves it at that, followin up on the answers to Rio’s questions.

They do a lotta catchin up – it's been nearly two months since their last call.

“Rio, have you moved again?” Marnie asks at one stage.

Carla speaks before he can.

“Yes, because he has to keep running from his sins.”

“Maní, I fuckin swear–”

“Carla, stop,” his mom demands, rubbing a hand over his back soothingly.

And she does stop talkin but shoots him a dirty look that he returns all too happily.

After a while, when they’re deep into wedding talk, Marcus comes bounding outta his room.

“Hey, Pop, you done wit’ your homework?”

He hates he’s had to miss it tonight. For the past week they’d lay out all the shit his teachers had sent through on the hotel room carpet – real nice carpet, too, he wants some just like it for Marks Empire – and get it all done before room service and watching every fuckin cartoon known to man. Courage the Cowardly Dog had even come on. Rio had distracted himself; started grading Marcus’ math homework.

The kid nods with a grin and Rio grins back then holds his arms open so Marcus can jump up on his lap. He gets settled so damn quick, pumped to see Marnie.

“Tía!”

“My big boy! How are you, baby??”

Marcus launches into a breakdown of his school politics and his friendship circle, which Marnie has a weirdly good grasp on.

“I hear you went to Canada’s Wonderland, how was it??”

Now Marcus starts waxin on about the rides, how nice everyone was, and the funnel cakes and ice cream and the cheesecakes on a stick – here Rio intrudes to point out it hadn’t all stayed in Marcus’ stomach, and the kid’s cheeks go red before he tries to blame it on the rides.

Rio smiles a little watchin his sisters pretend to fall for it.

He’s glad the kid had had fun. Not so much for him; naw. He should know by now that he can’t just take off and leave her behind; that she’s there no matter where he goes, in his head like she should pay him fuckin rent. Her, always her.

And not just her, naw. He’d seen so many damn rides and thought of them kids – how much Kenny would wanna go on the Leviathan or the craziest damn carousel he’s ever seen that Jane woulda loved.

And every time he’d been so damn close to calling her, but then he’d catch sight of his kid’s face or remember hers.

Get out of my car.

I don't want to see you again until you know what you want.

’Cuz his kid’s polite and shit, Marcus steers the conversation back to Marnie, asking her about the wedding. 

“Everything is going so great,” she nods. “And, speaking of, I think you left out an important life update: I hear you may be bringing a date??”

Marcus blushes as they all poke him into confessing.

“His name is Jonathan.”

Marnie gasps. “But Jonathan’s mean!”

“No, that’s Jonathan O! This is Jonathan G!”

“Ohhh,” she gasps solemnly. “Good. He’s much better for you.”

Truly, how the fuck does she know about all these people? Does Marcus talk to his sister more than Rio does?

Marcus giggles as they tease him some more about having a date to the wedding and he guesses he’s zoning out ’cuz Marnie feels the need to involve him.

“Not even your dad has a date, you do know that, right?”

“You do know you haven’t sent out invitations so I haven’t RSVPed with a date or not yet, right?” he shoots back.

“I do know that, but we all know your son has more game than you do.”

And that gets em all laughing before he tickles Marcus, mock-outraged at him going along with that.


Gabby hugs him extra long.

“Please don’t leave me here with Carla.”

She laughs. “Just stop saying I love you so much.”

He rolls his eyes as she pulls back. Then she leans in to kiss him on the cheek.

“Thanks for cutting your trip short so you could host.”

It’d been one of their turns and she’d called to say her and Grant are goin through some shit – if she asked to swap with Carla or Maní, she’d have to do explainin she doesn’t wanna.

“No problem. Lemme know if there’s anythin else you need.”

“I will.”

“He know?”

Gabby sighs, rolling her eyes like this is some burden she gotta carry in life.

“Yes, he knows.”

He lifts his chin, demanding.

“What does he know?”

“That you’ll kick his ass if he breaks my heart,” she recites.

“Good.”

“You know what he asks me every time I tell him that?”

“Naw, what?”

“What you’re gonna do if I break his heart.”

Rio laughs a little. “I’ll buy him a beer.”

She shakes her head in amusement.

“Love you, hermano.”

And then she’s gone.

He’s debating getting more snacks before joining his mom and his kid on the sofa when suddenly Carla’s barrelling over to him with a look in her eyes that he really don't wanna have to deal with.

“Whose clothing is in your closet?”

Shit.

He’d completely forgotten about all Elizabeth’s stuff in there. But –

“The fuck you doin in my closet?”

She smiles triumphantly. “I’ll answer when you do.”

“Please get outta my house.”

She studies him for a moment then gets a shrewd look on her face.

“Marcus!”

“He’s gotta go to bed.”

“I just have two questions,” she shrugs.

Rio sighs, watching Marcus jump off the sofa then come over all innocently.

“Si, tía?”

Carla squats to get onto his level despite the huge heels she’s in, laying a hand on each of his shoulders.

“Tell tía Carla: Is there a new important woman in your dad’s life?” she asks in English.

Marcus stays very still.

“New?” he asks, brows furrowed.

This trips Carla for a moment, but she’s smart; resets easily.

“Is there a woman your dad’s been spending a lot of time with?”

Rio watches as his kid rocks backward once, forward once, then shrugs.

“Daddy says snitches get stitches.”

He nearly breaks down laughing, especially when he sees the look on his sister’s face.

“Of course he does.”

She gets back up and Marcus runs over to him, letting Rio rub a hand over his head with a grin.

“You did good, kid. Say g’night to your abuela then straight to bed.”

Marcus nods then goes and does just that as Carla comes back over to him.

“Why do you have to be so secretive?”

“I’m runnin from my sins, ’member?”

She huffs at this and he shoots her a glance.

“Why you gotta be such a bitch?”

“How else am I going to keep you as tough as I made you?”

He rolls his eyes but can’t help smiling a little.

Together they watch as their mom gives Marcus a huge hug and kiss then holds his chin between her fingers seriously.

“I love who you are.”

They’d always used to make fun of her for that when they were kids, had assumed it was a mistranslation on her part, had told her over and over that it was I love you. It had taken him growin up for him to realise that it was exactly what she meant.

“I love you, abuela,” Marcus nods.

He runs off to his room and Carla nudges him with her shoulder.

“I like your new place.”

“Yeah?”

She nods. “Less green.”

“Thought you liked green.”

“When it’s the colour of a man’s eyes,” she nods, and he laughs. “…You could’ve invited me to come see it.”

“That why you pissed?” he shoots her a glance.

“No, I’m upset because you’re involved in numerous crimes that’s going to get you hurt or imprisoned and that’s why you have to keep moving around a lot. But I’d settle for a housewarming.”

“Well, that ain’t why I moved, so.”

“No? Is it because of the person behind the clothing in the closet?”

“Actually, I’m cross-dressin now. Sucks this gotta be the way you find out.”

She goes to knee him but he blocks it like always and they laugh as she flicks him beneath his chin.

“Always such a smartass.”

“Tight ass, too.”

“Shut up.”

He grins and then she yanks at his nose, earning her a deadly glare.

“I hate when you fuckin do that.”

“I know,” she winks, twisting around. “Bye, mami!”

They both go over to the door to say proper goodbyes and let her out.

And then there was one.

Damn. If he didn’t know no better, he woulda swore Fernando’s runnin late on purpose to fetch her just so his mom can grill him.

“Want somethin else to drink, Maní?”

“If you want to avoid me for another minute,” she nods.

Fuuuck.

He sighs. “I ain’t avoiding you.”

He is. She’s the only person in the world he can’t bullshit, not even for a second.

“Then come over here,” she switches back to Spanish, and he knows he’s in for it.

He does, gettin closer so she can peer at him. The day he successfully convinces her she needs specs is the day he can pack up and go live on a fuckin island somewhere.

“Do you know what I always ask you every time I see you?”

“You ask if I’m happy.”

She nods. “And you didn’t answer tonight.”

Shit. He’d been hoping she hadn’t noticed that; had been so damn grateful that she’d been distracted.

“I just got some shit goin on.”

“Work?”

He grits his teeth. Trust her to ask a follow-up question like that.

“Naw.”

“Your business is your business only, you know I don’t interfere, but your smile is normally brighter.”

And trust her to notice that of all things.

He’s struggling for a response to that – what the fuck is he supposed to say? – when she goes in for the kill.

“The clothing in your closet, is it Marina’s?”

He’d laugh if he could. She likes pretendin he don’t have to tell her nothin he don’t wanna tell her, but then she gets this tone that in his 37 years he hasn’t learned how to lie to.

“No.”

Her features soften – half in relief and half as, he guesses, the thought of the alternative sets in.

“But Marina is what’s making your smile dull?”

Rememberin Elizabeth’s theory, he doesn’t know how to answer.

I’d love to know who it’s about, because it damn sure isn’t about Marcus.

You’re right, this isn’t about me. It’s about you.

“Kinda.”

“There’s someone else?”

He pulls a face.

“Don’t make me lie to you.”

“Hmm,” she considers.

And just like that, he sees her work it all out. She’s the smartest woman he’s ever known and he knows some damn smart women.

“You know why I never married your father?” she asks smoothly. “Because I knew he didn’t amount to a husband. That woman? She looked at you and saw a goldmine – and I’m not talking about your money.”

“You don’t know shit about my marriage.”

She raises a brow. “Adjust your tone.”

Fuck.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs.

“As you should be. Because you may have kept it all to yourself, but I know you. Better than you know yourself. You keep nothing from me, I only let you hide things.”

He sucks on his lip for a while, considering.

Then: “So then let me hide some more.”

She breaks into a grin and then so does he, not that it’d been completely a joke.

Now she lets out a thoughtful breath.

“When women from the old neighbourhood come visit, all they want to do is complain about all the consequences of your alleged actions. Someone gets shot on that street and it’s your fault, someone’s business runs into debt on that road and it’s your fault, the sun sets and it’s your fault.”

Snorting, he switches back to English.

“’Cuz their kids are losers who are just mad they can’t be me.”

She nods in agreement and he's tickled imagining her tellin em this to their faces. His mom’s savage at the best of times.

“Do you know why?”

He shrugs. “’Cuz they don’t got what I got.”

“And do you know what you have?”

“You ask a lotta questions, Maní.”

“This and this,” she says firmly, one finger on his temple and the other over his heart. “You let them lead you and they always take you to the right place.”

What’s right.

He don’t know what to say to this and she shakes her head, smiling a lil.

“You know, I was always so worried about you, in a house full of women.”

Rio swallows heavily.

“…That why you kept taking him back?”

“That’s not important.”

He sniffs out a laugh. She’s always been a master at not answering nothin she don’t wanna answer.

“So what is important?”

“That I was wrong,” she shakes her head. “You never needed anyone to show you how to be a good man. And I think that little boy in there is going to do you one better,” she points at Marcus’ room.

“You sayin he don’t need me?”

“I’m saying he doesn’t need you to be unhappy.” Before he can respond, she cocks her head: “Do you know how many hours I was in labour with you?”

His cheeks fill up and he blows out a long breath. He think he’s heard this story more times than years he’s been alive.

“26 hours,” he says in a monotone.

“26 hours,” she nods enthusiastically. “Do you think I waited all that time to meet my son only for him to be unhappy?”

“I just want my kid to be happy,” he counters.

“We’re called parents, not martyrs, mi corazon.”

He shakes his head, vehement.

“I promised myself the moment I held that kid in my arms for the first time that I wasn’t gonna be like my fuckin dad, I promised.”

She watches him for a long moment, eyes cool. Long enough for him to break outta that memory of holdin that tiny lil baby in his huge hands and makin him every single promise.

That every time he said his name, he’d be there. That every single thing he needed, he’d get. That he’d never let him go through nothin alone, not one fuckin thing.

Finally, she speaks.

“Whose name does Marcus have?”

He lets out a heavy breath.

“Mine.”

“Whose name do you have?”

“…Yours.”

She nods firmly. “You married that woman despite what all of us said and for two years you were miserable. But you did it for him. You are not your father, you have never been your father – he left the moment he wasn’t having fun anymore.”

It feels like there’s somethin in his throat. He’d seen her cry so many nights.

“You deserved better, Maní.”

She smiles softly. “So do you.”

“Do I?”

Marina’s words run through his mind.

You took me apart, Rio. What makes you think you won’t do the same to her?

He’d made her cry so many nights.

Ain’t it fuckin ironic? And a cliché, too: He’d run so damn hard away from what he didn’t wanna be that it’s exactly what he’d ended up becoming.

But his mom shakes her head. “I can’t make you believe that. That’s what you need these for,” she points at his head and heart again. “Now I have to go. The man I did marry has been waiting in his car for thirty minutes.”

He shakes his head, laughing. She’d lied flawlessly about him running late – had even complained.

“You know, I’d hire you.”

“Then when would I have the time to berate my husband for not telling me my baby girl is smoking again?”

He grins. “Go easy on him.”

“I’ll see,” she winks, before pulling him down so he can get on her level.

With a roll of his eyes he allows her, and she lays a kiss on his forehead.

“I love you, my son.”

Then she gestures around the loft, wander in her eyes.

“Look at all you’ve done, everything you made for yourself because you always move forward, never back.”

Shit, his eyes are tearin up.

“Everyone – even Carla – and the things they say, it never gets to me. And it’s not because of the money, or the things you buy me, or any of this.”

“Then how come?” he asks, knowing he gotta.

She smiles, eyes gleaming as she slips back into English.

“Because I love who you are.”


Rio shuts the door behind him then pushes back against it, closes his eyes.

Breathes.

He opens his eyes on an exhale and sees all the shit in the lounge his sisters had moved, the mugs they’d drank from and his laptop still open. Looks like he’d had ten people over instead of three.

He’s thinkin of going to clear some of it up when his phone goes off in the kitchen.

He goes to grab it – ready to give Marina an earful about getting off his damn case – when he sees it’s a text.

From Elizabeth.

He opens it and it’s gibberish, just glyphs and punctuation.

He smiles.

He wants to call her. Wants to hear her voice and her blush and everythin else he’s been dreaming about for a week. His mind’s so damn loud and he needs her ’cuz that’s when it quietens, ’cuz then she’s all he can think about.

But there’s somethin real damn important he’s gotta do, somethin he’s been putting off.

Setting his phone back down, he heads to Marcus’ room then quietly creeps in.

But he didn’t need to have bothered – his kid turns and blinks at him.

“Hi, Daddy.”

He shakes his head in amused disbelief.

“You really gotta stop needin me to come by ’fore you can fall asleep.”

“But then how would you feel important?” he quips, and Rio shakes with laughter.

He’s still laughing as he gets closer, but forces himself to sober as he takes a seat on the edge of the bed.

“Gotta talk to you.”

“Ok.”

He nibbles at his lip, watching his kid shift up on his pillows a little to regard him.

"...How much you talkin to Marnie?”

Marcus shrugs. “A few times a week.”

Thinkin of Nico, Rio nods.

“Cool, Imma get you some encryption software.”

“I don’t know what that means, but ok.”

He grins and his kid grins up at him in a way that makes his heart fuckin melt.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah?”

“What did you really wanna talk to me about?”

And yeah, that's right. He always knows.

Rio shakes his head in amusement.

“You’d tell me if you were psychic, right?”

“Daddy, it doesn’t take a psychic to figure out that you keep looking at me like you want to say something important and then you just ask me if I want popcorn or something.”

Rio frowns.

“Why didn’t you say nothin?”

“Why didn’t you just ask what you wanted to ask?”

With a long breath, Rio twists around on the bed.

Marcus moves over to make room for him and he lays down beside him, starin up at the glow-in-the-dark galaxy above Marcus’ bed.

“’Cuz I was scared,” he admits.

“Scared to talk to me?”

“Scared o’ what you’d say.”

“Why?”

“’Cuz I didn’t know what I wanted it to be.”

“Do you, now?”

He turns his head to face him.

“Yeah. I do.”

Marcus looks at him closely. He’s got Maní’s serious eyes.

“Then what’s the question?”

Chapter Text

Beth wakes to the scent of booze and stale takeout.

She suppresses the wave of nausea then slowly pries herself out of the couch, moving her sister's heavy leg off her.

Annie moans a little, the way she does when she's half-awake too, but doesn't move, and Beth heads to the kitchen then immediately gets the green mix out of the freezer.

She wipes at her eyes as she adds all the ingredients into the blender then looks around for the lid.

Annie wakes with the sound of the blender, groaning loudly before making her way over as Beth pours the green juice into glasses.

“Ugh. I can’t believe I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m actually happy to see this stuff. How come hangovers have to get worse as you get older? Like, it’s not like they were cupcakes and rainbows to begin with?”

“Maybe our bodies are trying to get us to stop self-sabotaging,” Beth moans.

“Well then my body hasn’t met its alcohol-loving brain yet.” Then she frowns deep. “Did we watch High School Musical last night or was that a dream?”

“Dream. We watched Grease.”

“That’s why Troy looked like John Travolta!”

Beth laughs a little as she places a green juice in front of her sister, who's turning to regard the food still sitting in the lounge.

“Do you think the Chinese place would come fetch their food back? Just thinking about it makes me want to—"

She gags and then is off her chair and sprinting towards Beth's bedroom and Beth shakes her head before placing it in her hands. Next time Annie suggests mixing vodka and tequila, she should suggest rather shooting themselves in the head, it'll hurt less.

She takes a sip of the green juice and gags on the taste before setting it back down and realising she hasn't seen her phone in...

She doesn't know how long.

The last thing she remembers before waking up this morning is Sandy and Danny on a beach.

She goes to the lounge to locate it but gets distracted by the smell of the food and, gagging a little, she starts closing it all up so she doesn't end up doing what she can currently hear her sister doing.

Once that's done, she continues on her search, looking underneath the coffee table and between couch cushions before eventually finding it behind the TV.

“How the...”

But she shakes her head, deciding not to even try figuring it out.

Unlocking it as she heads back to the kitchen, she sees two missed calls from Rio.

Her eyes widen and that’s before she sees their text thread.

“Oh my god. ANNIE!”

“What??” she comes darting back in.

“Did I text Rio last night??”

Annie's mouth falls open wordlessly as she clearly tries to remember. Then Beth's phone starts vibrating.

“Oh my god, he's calling! What do I do?!”

Annie's eyes round before she steers them into the kitchen.

“Ok, this is fine. Just put it on loudspeaker, and... be cool.”

Swallowing, Beth answers then shakily lays her phone down on the counter.

“H-hi.”

Definitely not cool enough.

Annie glares at her and she clears her throat, deciding not to wait for a response.

“I saw the text, um, I’m not sure what happened, Annie came over and we had a few drinks and… she must’ve gotten hold of my phone when I went to the bathroom or something.”

She says it in a rush before she can help herself. Annie gasps silently as Beth mouths an apology.

“Figured as much,” Rio says after a second, sounding amused.

Annie’s jaw falls open again before promptly giving the phone the middle finger.

She gives her sister a look and they begin silent-arguing, her threatening to take the call off loudspeaker while Annie makes a variety of vaguely threatening gestures.

She remembers she’s still on the other end of a phone call when Rio clears his throat.

The argument had resulted in a lot of dead air, she realises, that he must’ve taken as deliberately offstandish considering the way she'd left things last time they'd talked.

“So we gotta talk.”

Oh god.

She freezes and looks at her sister, eyes wide as her heart sits in her throat.

Be cool, Annie mouths.

Beth takes a deep breath.

“Ok.”

“Later?”

“No.”

It comes out of her mouth with no forethought whatsoever and then she looks at Annie for help, who begins gesturing.

Thank god she’s been stuck on her sister’s charades team far too many times in her life.

“The girls and I have plans. We made them forever ago, so.”

“…A’ight,” he says, not sounding too pleased.

She waits, biting on her lip.

“Tomorrow?”

God. She wants to say no again, but she supposes she can’t make up something for every day this week.

“That’s fine,” she nods.

“Cool.”

Cool,” she tries to echo the nonchalance he always has.

“I’ll text you details. Oh yeah, and tell your sister to add words next time.”

Beth pinks as the call ends and Annie huffs.

“First of all, goodbye to you too—"

“Yeah, he doesn’t say goodbye."

“And secondly, I did not send that text!”

“Do you remember me sending it??”

Annie cocks her head.

“…No.”

“And I don’t remember sending it either, which means you could’ve done it!”

“No way, I am so not taking the heat for you on this. If it ever comes up, I am squealing like a pig!”

“I’m your sister,” Beth points out.

“So?”

“Do you know how much ‘heat’ I’ve taken for you?”

“That’s not even–”

“The red wine on Mom’s carpet.”

“Ok, I sent the text.”

Beth shakes her head with a smile then takes a sip of her green juice.

“God, I just… panicked. I can’t believe I lied to him – I’m not doing anything today!”

Considering, Annie pulls a face.

“You know, it could not be a lie.”

“What do you mean?”

“…I saw a Groupon.”


“Literally nothing good ever starts with the words ‘I saw a Groupon’.”

“I told her that,” Beth nods at Ruby.

“We’re here, can you guys stop complaining?” Annie rolls her eyes.

They huff as they climb out of Beth’s van then begin crossing the parking lot of what looks like a department store.

When they make it in, though, it looks far more like a church, and Ruby and Beth immediately back up.

“Um,” Ruby starts under her breath, “why does this look like a Scientology convention?”

“Annie, you said this was a spa retreat!”

“What are you guys talking about? It totally looks like a spa!”

She gestures around and Beth takes in the gathering groups at small tables as pamphlets are being handed out.

Annie clears her throat.

“Ok, sure, it’s a little cult-y, but we still got half off!”

Ruby looks at Beth.

“Ballpark figure: how long do you think you’d be mad at me if I murdered your sister?”

“Like at least a week,” she shrugs.

“You guys are hilarious,” Annie glares, which gets them cackling.


It turns out to be a promotional spa day – between treatments, they have to listen to a few sales pitches and talks, some of which are optional and provide them with coupons for added extras in the spa.

It’s not unbearable, each just under ten minutes long, but it also isn’t exactly fun to keep returning to the hall when their nails are drying or they’d just gotten a wax.

“I swear to God, if there’s a session with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m out.”

“Hey, that timeshare one was interesting!” Annie points out.

Beth’s giggling at the look Ruby levels her sister with when suddenly her phone rings.

“Oh, I have to take this.”

She gets a handful of glares as she leaves the room, but she ignores them. They only get five extra minutes added to their back massage for this talk.

“Ethan, hi,” she answers once she’s out.

It’s the foreman, bringing with it the sudden reminder that her home is being renovated. Her ulcer pulses.

“Hi, Ms Boland. I haven’t heard back from you yet and I just wanted to confirm that all is in order for us to start work on Monday?”

Oh god, oh god.

“This coming Monday?”

“…Yes.”

“I’m sorry, time has just flown, um.” She clears her throat. “Can I get back to you?”

“You can, but I’m going to need confirmation by the end of today.”

She presses her eyes closed.

“I’ll get it to you, I promise.”

“Alright, then. We’ll talk later.”

“Yes, thank you.”

They say goodbye and Beth takes a long breath before creeping back into the hall.

Someone new has come up, but Ruby and Annie still look comfortable, and Beth joins with a frown.

“Who’s this guy?”

“I think he’s asking for donations to fires in Africa. Or something.”

“That’s literally not it at all.”

Beth frowns. “I thought we were doing pedis?”

“We are,” Annie nods. “After this. Turns out, listening to it scores us mimosas!”

“I own a hotel and I’ve never felt this poor,” Ruby shakes her head in disgust.

Beth sits with a laugh.

“Wait, we do still own a hotel, right?”

She shrugs. “I think so.”

“…Comforting, thank you.”

“Who called?” Annie wonders.

She sighs. “It was the foreman. Turns out I’m having renovations done on my house!”

“Oh, no. You forgot?”

“Completely.”

Ruby pulls a face of anguish.

“Are you… still going to do it?”

“Um, hello!” Annie holds up a hand to bring attention to herself. “Yes!”

“Yes, ma’am?” the guy at the front peers over.

Everyone turns to stare at them as Ruby mutters profanity under her breath and Beth sinks lower in her chair.

“Oh, no. Not you, pal. You continue, you’re doing great,” she sticks two thumbs up.

He looks very confused, but then he does eventually continue speaking, everyone turning back around.

You said I could move in,” she reminds with a huff, as if absolutely nothing had just happened.

“I’m not only building you and Sadie rooms, Annie!”

“Yeah, but… Marcus loves you so much he’d probably come stay over anyway,” she rolls her eyes.

They both give her looks filled with judgement.

“Ok, fine,” she huffs, “then what’s the plan?”

And now both their eyes are on her.

Beth shakes her head.

“I don’t know.”


Beth watches the hot red being applied to her toenails with a sigh.

She swears the only reason Annie had come up with the idea for them to choose each other’s colours was to force this on her.

When four of her nails are done, she turns to the girls with a breath.

“I made up my mind.”

“About?”

“Annie’s right – I should still do the renovations.”

“Boo-yah!”

“Where’s this coming from?”

“Remember what the guy said? About not waiting for life to choose for you?”

Ruby frowns. “Was that before he tried to sell us a three-hundred-dollar ‘cleanse’?”

“Yeah, well, he was right up until then,” Beth shrugs. “I can’t wait to find out what Rio wants – I mean I literally can’t wait, I have to have an answer by the end of the day – and I know what I want.” She takes a breath. “Also…”

“Oh no,” Ruby closes her eyes, recognising the tone.

“I was thinking that I could move in with Dean for those few weeks when they finish up the bedrooms.”

“Wait, WHAT?”

“Hold up, time out!”

Beth rolls her eyes. “It’s just for a few weeks.”

Ruby draws a long breath to calm herself. Then she regards her with a very artificial air of serenity.

“Honey, please don’t tell me you think that’s actually a good idea.”

Does she want to live with Dean again? Of course not. But she can’t face Rio tomorrow without being prepared.

And no matter what happens, she won’t let herself be dependent on anyone again. She won’t let life choose for her.

“I mean, I paid for his apartment – I’m not going to sleep in my kitchen for a week when he has a three-bedroom with a study.”

“Fair enough. But don’t you think he might–”

“Try and get it in?!”

“…take advantage of the situation,” Ruby finishes, glaring at Annie.

“Yeah, and he’s just gonna think he won, which is so not what we want!”

“It’s not a competition, Annie,” Ruby sends her yet another glare, then looks back at Beth. “But she has a point: it might send the wrong signal. Or Dean might make one of his own – he’s Dean!”

“I know how to handle Dean,” Beth rolls her eyes.

“Yeah,” Annie scoffs. “Like that time you spent months hinting that you wanted to go to Paris for your anniversary. Do you remember what he got you, Beth, do you?”

Beth covers her eyes. “No, please no—”

“A motherfucking Eiffel Tower keychain!” Ruby finishes.

She pinks even as she giggles along with them.

God, arranging her face into something other than horror had been a challenge that morning. Ever since she'd kept her wishlists about ten times more realistic.

“And friendly reminder: Homeboy bought you a hotel!”

“He didn’t buy me a hotel—”

“Oh, yeah, because he was just so intrigued by the hospitality industry before you came along!”

Ruby snorts and Beth’s honestly halfway between laughing and retorting herself when suddenly one of the receptionists comes up to them.

“Excuse me, ma’am, your phone’s been ringing and we were worried it might be something important.”

“Oh,” Beth gasps. “Thank you!”

“Beth, you can’t keep taking phone calls!” Annie groans, indignant. “It’s supposed to be a retreat!”

“We’re like ten minutes from my house,” Ruby deadpans.

“It’s Rio,” she says, clearing her throat. “I have to take it.”

The call ends as she’s trying to get her spa slippers on, but once she’s made it out of the hallway, she calls back, wondering what he’s been calling her so urgently for.

“Hi,” she says when he picks up. “You’ve been trying to call me?”

“Yeah, where you been?”

Be cool.

She shrugs. 

“I said I’d be busy today.”

“Well, I need ya. ’Less you don’t want a hotel no more.”

God, he’s annoying.

“Do you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She sinks down into a seat, taking a breath.

“I thought you forgot about it. There weren’t any emails or…”

“Yeah, I was outta town. Took Marcus to this amusement park in Toronto.”

“Oh.”

And normally she’d make a joke about how many vacations he’s taking, but this is different.

This means he’d gotten to spend real time with Marcus. Time that he'd probably used to talk to Marcus.

He cuts the silence.

“So if I send this to ya, how soon can you get it done?”

“Um,” she shakes her head clear, “the end of today.”

Making it her second deadline of the day. So much for 24 hours of rest and relaxation.

“Good.”

She expects him to end the call but instead there’s just silence and then, after a few seconds, he speaks again.

“Whatchu all tied up in today?”

God.

Blushing, Beth responds.

“It’s… a spa day. Annie had a Groupon,” she rushes to explain.

Even though she’d only just found out that he has stuff he needs her to be doing, she doesn’t want it to seem like she’s blowing off work for spa treatments.

“People still use Groupons?”

Hearing the amusement in his voice, she ignores this.

“Actually, it’s given me an idea – I think Marks Empire needs a spa. With a bar.”

“Oh, so you doin research?”

She can’t help it, she laughs.

“Shut up.”

He hums his acknowledgement then takes a breath of consideration.

“…Lil late to change the plans now.”

“I know, but I think it’s worth it.”

Their casino covers mostly the male market, but a spa with booze might actually rake in even more.

A second ticks by and then Rio clears his throat.

“A’ight, I’ll see what I can do. Any updates on our lil one?” he blows right into another topic.

“No.” She can't keep the pride out of her voice. “Both dealerships are still running smoothly. The new clients you added to the roster seem happy and my driver rotation is working really well.”

“Cool.” After a beat: “I’ll let you get back to it, then.”

“Thank you. It’s actually a really deep, intensive research session up next.”

“Massage?”

“Yeah,” she giggles.

He laughs too.

Then the quiet settles once more and Beth’s desperate to ask him what he’s thinking.

But she holds her tongue and then, eventually, he speaks.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Elizabeth.”


Annie whistles when she gets back.

“A week with nothing and then two calls in one day?”

“A week?” Ruby gasps.

Beth settles back in her seat with a sigh.

“Turns out he was in Toronto with Marcus.”

“Toronto, Canada??” Annie frowns.

“No; Toronto, Cleveland,” Ruby rolls her eyes.

“He took him to an amusement park.”

“Didn’t he, like, just take him to Legoland?”

“Yeah, they have an amusement park list thing.”

Marcus had explained it to her once – like a bucket list, but for being a child. He wants to see how many of the parks on his list he can go to before he turns thirteen.

“So…” Annie cocks her head with a frown, “he called you to tell you about his vacation?”

“No! It was about work.”

Bo-ring. Did he say to say hi to me?”

“No, but he was very amused by the fact that we were using a Groupon.”

Annie scoffs, instantly offended. “Well, you can tell Mr I-Have-An-Indoor-Gardener that not all of us are ballers!”

“You ordered literally everything on the menu last night.”

“He has an indoor gardener?” Ruby frowns.

“No!”

“You asked?” Annie eyes light up.

“No!”

She makes a sound of displeasure at this, but swiftly moves on: “Soooo, was it less awkward than this morning’s call?”

“I mean, would there be a way for it to be more awkward?”

“Also true.”

“What happened on this morning’s call?” Ruby wonders.

“Beth had to own up to texting homeboy while she was wasted last night.”

“What? What did the text say??”

“It wasn’t like that. Beth blushes at the words booty call.”

Ruby lets out a long exhale. “In a shocking turn of events, that’s not what I meant.”

“And I didn’t text him!”

“Beth, come on. We can’t keep up the story with Ruby – I mean, you sent him dollar signs and commas; Ruby knows if it were me I would’ve, like, sent a link to Call Your Girlfriend on Spotify.”

“It so could have been you!”

Spotify?”

“Yeah, dude. I even have an Ex playlist that I send to all the assholes who deserve it. The first letters of all the songs spell out ‘Burn in hell’.”

“Your mind scares me.”

“That’s what Patrick said,” Annie nods proudly. “One of very few who figured it out.”

“Anyway,” Beth glares. “One of us texted him last night and then he called me this morning, and Annie and I agreed that she would take responsibility for it.”

“White people and their Revisionist History,” Annie scoffs. “She texted him and then threw me under the bus for it.”

Ruby frowns, clearly attempting to put these two opposing sides of the story together.

“So the text literally only had dollar signs and commas in it?”

“There were one or two brackets.”

“And an exclamation point.”

“Whoever texted it had range, for sure.”

“Ok, and what else did he say on the call?”

Now Beth purses her lips together and Annie jumps on the opportunity to break the news.

“That they should talk.”

Ruby gasps. “And what did he sound like? Happy or sad?”

“I mean, it’s Gangfriend. He sounded like he was taking a polygraph test.”

“Wait – does this story have something to do with why we’re here right now?”

Beth plasters a very innocent smiles on her face as Ruby looks between the two of them.

Finally Annie answers.

“Well, your bestie over there decided to tell homeboy that she couldn’t talk today because she was busy and then didn’t have anything to actually do.”

Ruby spins to her.

“Why would you do that?! You could’ve had your answer; you wouldn’t even have to be thinking about Dean’s lame ass!!”

“You weren’t there! Annie!” she goes to her sister for help, but Ruby scoffs.

“So now you’re taking relationship guidance from Single McSingleton?”

Annie gasps sharply but seems lacking in a rejoinder for this as Beth sighs.

“I just needed some more time, ok. To prepare myself.”

“For what, Beth? The man is obsessed with you.”

“Ok, first of all, you didn’t see his ex,” Beth points out. “She’s like… I don’t know, a Latina Ariana Grande, or something.”

“You know who Ariana Grande is?” Annie asks, head cocked.

“Jane worships her.”

“Lord, when will we ever stick to the point?”

“And what’s the point?”

“That, sure, they share history and a culture and whatever else—"

“A kid,” Annie interjects.

“But so do you and Dean, and that didn’t keep you together.”

Beth scrunches her nose. “Dean doesn’t look like Ariana Grande.”

“Dean could’ve looked like Tom Selleck and you wouldn’t have stayed with his sorry ass.”

“Which era Tom Selleck are we talking?” Annie asks.

“Ok, you know what,” Beth holds out her hands, trying to stop the madness. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Because, secondly, this isn’t about Marina.”

“The Jesus-kid is the deciding factor,” Annie nods helpfully.

Ruby looks confused. “And how is that not a slam dunk? Didn’t you say he complained about them arguing every night?”

“Yes, but that was forever ago. What if he changed his mind? What if Rio took my advice, asked him, and it turns out he does actually want his parents back together?”

Ruby scoffs. “Then he does the adult thing and tells him to tough it out. We all want the best for our kids, but that’s for the adults to decide, not the nine-year-old. Besides, I think all three of us can attest to there being worse things in the world than a one-parent household.”

“I mean, I don't think any of us would have chosen—"

“Annie, not helping."

“Right. Actually,” she pivots expertly, “I think a two-parent household would be bad for that kid. He's already way too well-adjusted. A perfect childhood would send him right into psycho zone. There are statistics on this.”

“Bitch, what statistics? You literally just made that up.”

“Ok, now who's not helping?”

It’s at this moment that their mimosas mercifully arrive, delivered by a broad-shouldered twenty-something guy, and Annie swoons as soon as he’s gone.

“Beth, he is totally your type. If things don’t work out with homeboy…”

She scoffs. “I don’t have a type!”

“Oh, you totally do.”

“I do not!”

Even Ruby’s nodding.

“Tall, unreasonably hot, inadvisably young.”

“That is not true!”

“Rio,” Annie nods. “That bartender.”

Now Beth gasps. “Oh my god, I never told you about when they met!”

She launches into the story, which is met with various gasps of horror until she recounts Charlie nonchalantly brushing off Rio’s intimidation.

“He said you weren’t any of his business? To homey’s face??”

“Did he see the tattoo?”

Thinking about that night at the bar with that perv, Beth pulls a face.

“…It’s actually weirdly bad at deterring guys.”

“He’s too pretty,” Annie shrugs matter-of-factly. “They don’t respect him.”

They both shoot her a look.

“That is NOT a thing.”

“It totally is!” she nods confidently. “In prison, they wouldn’t respect him.”

“Yeah, because you know the ins and outs of prison life,” Ruby rolls her eyes.

“And who’s gonna not respect him??”

“Yeah! Half the population’s gotta be ex-employees.”

Disgruntled ex-employees!”

“Oh my god.”

“Can we please stay focused?!” Ruby begs.

“On what?”

“Literally anything but prison life.”

“He said the way I look at him scares him.”

It escapes her lips without any real permission from her, and she blinks back at the girls, now silent.

“What?” Ruby asks eventually.

Beth clears her throat.

“When we talked that day, he said that I look at him like… like he can’t do wrong. But Marina, she already knows that he– I don’t know, ruins relationships?”

She struggles with the paraphrasing because it’s the thing she’d been least able to process out of everything he’d said.

When you look at me, what it feels like. Like this some sorta fairytale and I’m the magic in the middle and the happily ever after at the end. Like I’m more than everythin I am just ’cuz I don’t treat you the way he did. And don’t get me wrong, I’m better than that piece o’ shit, always will be, but I ain’t no prince, I don’t got the answers you need, none o’ that.3

When Marina looks at me, it ain’t like that. ’Cuz she knows what it’s really like, what I’m really like. When it ain’t flowers and rainbows no more.

And maybe that’s why she’d blurted it out, to get someone to help her understand.

But, then again, they haven’t seen him talk about her.

I’d wanna go out, breathe, and we’d fight, I’d get back and we’d fight. After he left for school, we’d fight. Was a fuckin nightmare. Signin them papers was like her takin a weight off my shoulders.

Finally her sister breaks the silence.

“Wow, even crime bosses have self-esteem issues. That’s surprisingly comforting.”

They both ignore her.

“Honey, this is a good thing,” Ruby points out.

“How?”

“He doesn’t want to disappoint you.”

“No,” Beth shakes her head sadly, “he doesn’t want to be with me and disappoint me.”

And not even Ruby seems to have a counter for that, at least not for the moment.

Then she lets out a long breath.

“Ok, this may be... a little awkward,” Ruby admits, biting on the corner of her lip. “But...” She clears her throat. “Have you guys ever broached the L word?” At Beth's look: “I mean we're not 20 anymore, we don't need the words – Stan used to tell me he loved me every night by massaging my feet after a day at the diner—"

“Ew.”

“But it's still nice to hear the words sometimes.”

“No, he hasn't said it,” Beth manages to choke out, feeling like there's cotton in her throat.

It's not that it bothers her – she hasn't said it, either, and she's ok with that. It's that it's a reminder that she has no idea what he's going to say tomorrow.

She remembers him saying he'd never loved Marina either, but she doesn't know if that's relevant or not. He loves Marcus – more than anything else in this world. And he isn’t just going to abandon him if he needs him, not the way his father had.

And that’s maybe the worst part of it all. That she doesn’t hate him for it, not even close. Annie may not have been all the way right – it’s not a fetish – but she hadn’t been completely off base, either. She loves that he’s such an amazing father. Loves that he tells Marcus he loves him every night before bed, whether he’s asleep or not. Loves the fort nights and amusement parks and everything else he does purely for his son.

Loves that he is everything her father had never been.

And that’s why she has to prepare herself; prepare her life to go on without him.

“Gangfriend's not a big talker,” Annie announces as if she’s sharing knowledge about her best friend. “He's more of a doer, you know?” Her eyes widen with a sudden idea: “He can show me he loves me by giving me that sweet ride of his.”

“Annie.”

“What? Just because he breaks up with you doesn't mean we can't still be homies.”

Breaks up with you

Despite all the mental preparation, Beth’s face falls for an instant, she can’t help it, and Ruby notices.

“Again, not helping.”

“Oh yeah, I'm done helping. Now I'm focused on getting a new car.”

And, bursting into giggles with them, for a moment Beth forgets about the call to Ethan; forgets about Dean and every other uncertainty.

For a moment that seems to last forever – at least until it’s time for the talk on renewable energy that’s going to get them chocolate truffles – they just giggle, and everything feels ok.

Chapter Text

Beth hires a babysitter.

She doesn’t want Annie here when she gets back, no matter what happens. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she regards herself in the mirror.

She’s wearing a dark blue dress, the one she’d last worn when they’d robbed Nancy’s spas.

It still fits well, and it looks professional. Beth likes that.

Professional is safe.

On the tennis bracelet – which has remained untouched in the safe for the past week – she’d gone back and forth, then decided on no. Professional.

What’s not professional is how late she’s running but, despite it, she hasn’t been able to rush herself.

The warm bourbon in her stomach has calmed the storm there, but it still percolates behind her kohl-rimmed eyes.

You know when you’re young, you imagine who you’re going to be when you’re older? Strong and confident; beautiful and super-capable.

I see it in myself. I feel it. He gives me challenges I don’t think I could ever meet and then I do and I look in the mirror and I see that woman.

She does, she sees her.

No matter what happens, no matter what he’ll say, she made it through. She looked after herself, she didn’t break down; didn’t fold.

She closes her eyes, remembering the last time she’d stood here feeling this mix of nervous and proud.

You did it. I knew you could.

It wasn't easy.

Nothing you crush ever is. That's why you on my team.

Strong. Super-capable.

Her eyes open and Beth takes one last look, flicks her gaze over herself once more, then grabs her bag and phone.


"You have arrived at your destination."

Beth frowns first at her phone then at her 'destination'.

But even in the dark she can see the address, can see that it's right, and she swallows before going to find a parking.

If she weren't already thirty minutes late, she'd take the time to think about why on earth this is the place he’d chosen, but instead she just grabs her things and exits the car.

She feels awkward entering the building – it’s luxe in every way possible, the floor so shiny that she puts extra effort into not slipping in her heels.

“Good evening, ma’am. May I take your coat?”

She smiles at the hostess.

“Um, yes.”

She gets it off as the hostess smiles back at her then takes it.

“Are you here for our dinner seating?”

“I… think so.”

She nods, hanging the coat.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes.”

She hopes.

“Fantastic,” the hostess smiles, going back to her iPad. “Name?”

“Ri– It could be under Christopher. Christopher Meade.”

She second-guesses this as the hostess types it in. He’d been Rio at the boutique when she’d gotten her dress, but at the restaurant near his place he’d been Christopher. All he’d sent her had been the time and address, no supporting information, and she hadn't thought to ask for any more because she'd assumed the address would lead to a warehouse or something equally as austere.

Beth’s doubtfully looking around the decent-sized room when suddenly she catches sight of him, and she lets out a breath of relief that quickly stutters when he sees her too; smiles a little with the one side of his mouth.

“Um, that’s him,” she points, a little breathless.

“Oh, Ms Boland,” she nods suddenly, as if they’re personal friends. “Welcome. We’re so glad to have you dining with us this evening. Sean here will show you to your table.”

She does another round of formal greetings with Sean, who also enquires how her day has been, as he leads her on a strange path that seems like it takes her further away from Rio, but then, suddenly, he’s there, at a table they’ve had to climb a few stairs to access.

Here the tables are spaced even further apart, and Rio’s sitting in the gold-backed chair as comfortably as if he owns the entire place.

“Hey,” he jerks his chin when she gets to him.

He’s dressed for the restaurant, wearing one of his cashmere sweaters and a very expensive-looking black coat. His tattoo is uncovered, though, and Beth wonders how he wears it with such ease in a place like this. She still feels like they should escort her right back out.

But Sean pulls out her chair for her – if she’d been having second thoughts, now it’s too late.

She sits and Sean passes her the menu, which is thankfully huge; huge enough to hide Rio’s smirking face as she tries to compose herself.

“May I get you something to drink?”

“Um, wine.”

She’d already had the bourbon at home and for the sake of her ulcer, she should probably take it easier considering she hasn’t eaten yet.

Though she has no idea how she’s going to get anything into her stomach when it’s all twisted up into knots the way it is.

“Certainly.” He helps her page to the back of the menu. “These are our most popular options. They’re all extraordinary, world-class and hand-picked by our award-winning sommelier, whom you will of course meet later on should you choose the pairing option with the degustation menu, which I highly recommend.”

She stares back at him. “What?”

She’d processed about two percent of that.

“My apologies. We have two menus on offer this evening – the degustation and the shorter seven-course menu, either of which can be paired with our award-winning—”

She slaps down the menu.

“Can I please just have some wine, any wine? White.”

Rio looks very amused in her peripheral vision and Sean looks startled, but then he nods.

“Certainly, madam.”

He disappears and Beth fixes Rio with a scowl, not least because he’d let her suffer through that.

He doesn’t look even vaguely fazed.

“You know you late, right?”

She decides to ignore that, shaking her head instead as she gestures around them.

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it’s like twelve courses or some shit and then with every one they give you—”

Not the menu!”

Rio smiles, very pleased with himself, well aware that isn’t what she’d meant.

Then his eyes take her in again, very slowly.

“You look good.”

She readjusts, caught between being frustrated and flattered.

“Thank you.”

“Hmmm.”

God, she hates when he buries the lede, especially since he’s way too good at it.

“Rio.”

“Yeah?”

“This is a restaurant.”

He laughs. “The level of surprise, shit. I gotta treat you more.”

She’s opening her mouth to question this when Sean suddenly arrives with her wine and rolls into a speech that contains more words than she’s ever heard about wine before.

Throughout she feels Rio’s amusement, like the more frustrated she gets, the more entertained he is.

There’s a playfulness – an ease – to him that she hasn’t seen since before the Schiller scare.

Finally – after confirming that Rio doesn’t want anything more than the water he already has – Sean bows away with the promise that he’ll be back when they’ve decided on which menu they want. The silence is palpable as Rio stares at her, waiting for something indecipherable.

She clears her throat.

“I don't need fancy dinners.”

“Naw?” he asks, eyes gleaming. He jerks his chin. “Whatchu need?”

You, she thinks.

“You know,” she glares.

“Then you gettin double treated tonight, mami.”

“Oh my god, can't you ever just say what you actually mean?”

He smirks. “Where’d the fun be in that?”

She lets out an annoyed breath.

“You’re still the most frustrating person I’ve ever known.”

“That your way of sayin you missed me?”

It hadn’t been – but it’s true, anyway. Still, she won’t let him know that.

Readjusting her shoulders, she sits up even straighter in her chair.

“Have you spoken with Marina?”

She needs to know for sure where she stands.

His eyes stay steady on her.                              

“I did.”

“…How did she take it?”

“She took it.”

Her throat goes dry.

It’s not just the words, not just the confirmation. It’s the look in his eyes. She can always feel when he’s looking at her and he wants her, her body humming at the same vibration as his gaze.

But.

“What about Marcus?”

He nods, shifts. “We talked. For an hour.”

An hour.

Meaning it hadn’t just been a yes or a no, and she wants to know more, but his body language is telling her he doesn’t want to talk more about it here, and then there are his eyes. Her body.

Beth doesn’t say anything, she just pushes out her chair, ignoring the scrape against the expensive stone tiles, then gets up.

The signage is clear and she follows it until she’s in the bathroom, which is huge, double the size of her kitchen. It’s beautiful, too, all dark stone finishes and copper faucets.

The stalls are big too, little rooms of their own about the size of Rio’s closet, and she chooses one on the furthest end.

She can barely see now, vision unfocused as the pins and needles burn up the back of her neck, but she makes it inside. Her mouth and the back of her throat constrict and tingle, her skin so charged she thinks she may explode.

There’s a little dressing table against the wall and she places her bag atop, the chain dangling a little off the edge. Beth watches, worried it may topple, but it doesn’t.

Then there’s a fist in her hair, lips in the nape of her neck, and Beth lets out a breath that’s both relief and hunger, her body finally getting what it’s craving so badly that she’s shaking.

Then he’s gone.

The door shuts with a dull click and Beth turns, watches. Watches him lock it.

She backs up, feeling the hum grow stronger, even more painful, and then he’s there, merciful; takes her face in his hands and kisses her.

Their moans reverberate around the room; shoot between her legs. She pulls her dress up, panting as he keeps pressing her back. She needs him. She needs him right now or she thinks she’ll die.

His tongue is hot and demanding and Beth tries to meet his fervour but, oh god, she’s burning up, she can’t handle the fever.

Her back hits the table and Rio instantly lifts her onto it then yanks down her panties.

She pushes off his coat and it drops to the floor, heavy as the breaths from her lips.

His mouth goes to her neck and she opens it wide for him, just like her legs.

His fingers find her wet and Beth tries so goddamn hard to be quiet, but it’s no use, and he slips into her with a hiss of his own that lands in her collarbone; sparks against her pulse.

He tries to go slow but her hips urge him on, and soon it’s so loud yet too little and she reaches for his pants but he shakes his head, breathing hard.

“I wantchu too bad, mami, I ain’t gon’ last.”

“I don’t care,” she breathes out.

She just wants him and, god, she’s so close already. She thinks she could’ve come when his hands landed on her ravenous skin.

His eyes burn for a second and then they’re both working at his pants, ripping down his underwear, and she whimpers when he pushes into her; throws her head back with a moan.

God, she’d forgotten how good he feels, how he stretches her.

Rio lays curses down against her revealed throat and for a while he doesn’t move, just littering kisses over the exposed part of her chest.

Then, gripping the back of her neck, he yanks her back to him so he can growl into her ear.

“You’re perfect, you know that?”

She’s so far gone, she can’t process. All she knows is that she feels raw and ripped apart and he can make it better. And good. So goddamn good.

“Fuck me, Rio.”

The table must be bolted into the floor because it doesn’t shake violently with their bodies, doesn’t rattle when they’re going so fast it feels like they could never stop. Doesn’t move when Beth slams a fist into it as her orgasm hits her so damn hard, an uncontrollable sound coming from the back of her throat. She tries to keep going but she can’t, her body shattering, but then he tightens against her; pulls her closer so he can moan into the curve of her neck.

The aftershocks jerk at her body and she buries herself in the muscle of his shoulder, the soft of the cashmere, the freshness of his scent.

It’s minutes later when she finally stops coming and she realises they’re both still clinging onto each other.

Slowly she retracts her fingers and Rio hisses as he no doubt begins to feel the deep indentations in his skin.

“That’s gonna bruise, momma.”

“Look who’s talking.”

He pulls back to grin down at her and she smiles back then, not thinking, lifts her chin. It’s maybe the first time she’s ever been the one to initiate the kiss afterwards, which seems to dart through his mind too before he takes her lips with his and kisses her firmly.

It’s a while later when he starts cleaning them up and as he’s zipping up, Beth thinks she should at least attempt climbing off and trying out her legs, but then suddenly he’s close again and he wraps his arms around her.

Beth freezes a little because this is new, but then she thaws as she realises this is nice.

He’s soft, warm, and smells like him, and she settles in his neck with relief, glad to have some more time to recover.

“That was good,” she finds herself saying into his collar.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she nods, realising there’s a dopey smile on her face.

“We was so damn loud.”

And now she can't help laughing a little.

“We were.”

He runs his fingers through her hair soothingly and her eyes close for a moment, revelling in it.

Then he bows to lay a lingering kiss in her hair and Beth feels… loved. God. Loved.

And it’s not the first time she’s felt it so acutely that she’s caught herself thinking it, either.

I’m supposed to go on top.

I know. And we got all night to get there.

She shifts in the hug.

“We should get back to our table before they give it away.”

“Uh huh,” he nods slowly, but takes a while to retract.

Eventually he does, though, and for the first time she remembers they’re in a bathroom as the cold from all the stone hits her.

She clears her throat as Rio collects his coat and her panties from the floor then looks behind her at the toilet.

“I need to pee.”

He nods and she shimmies off the table – her legs surprisingly not collapsing underneath her – then makes her way over to the toilet.

But Rio doesn’t leave – he just leans back against the door, eyes on her, and she pinks.

“I can’t pee if you’re looking at me!”

He smirks but looks off into the corner a little and she finishes up quickly then manoeuvres her way back into her panties and gets her dress back down.

She checks herself, smoothing out her dress, then puts her bag over her shoulder.

“Do I look ok?”

Now his eyes return, taking her in, and Beth immediately regrets the question.

Because she’d meant it in a Is there toilet paper stuck anywhere? or Is my dress tucked into my underwear? kind of way, and it’s clear from his gaze that he’d taken it in… well, a different way.

“Mmmm. Mami, we best get outta here ’fore I take you again.”

Her cheeks burn, but she forces herself to clear her throat and nod, moving towards him so they can exit.

But he doesn’t move, not even when she reaches for the lock, and she feels his breath against her ear.

“This feels familiar, don’t it?”

“Except you didn’t speak that night, so it was less annoying,” she shoots.

He only smirks, amused, and Beth knows he isn’t going to give up until he gets what he wants, so she twists her head and his lips are ready, waiting, when she kisses him.

His tongue is hot against hers and he pushes her up against the wall with the full weight of his body, hands running over the shape of her curves until she’s whimpering under his ministrations.

Then he pulls back, satisfied.

“C’mon.”

She rearranges her features into a scowl and he grins back before presses a quick peck to her cheek and unlocking the door.

She exits first, noting with relief that no one’s in the main part of the bathroom. There are a few stalls occupied, though, and she thinks Rio will take the opportunity to leave, but he doesn’t.

Instead he washes his hands too, in no rush, then stands back to wait for her as she searches in her bag for her lipstick, which he’d failed to point out needs re-applying.

Chains start flushing and Beth tries hurrying, but then women begin exiting the stalls and Rio literally couldn’t look more relaxed even as they all give him double and triple glances. Beth tries to channel his same sense of nonchalance and, moreover, avoid their gazes, but he doesn't make it easy.

At one point she has to lean forward into the mirror a little to fix a smudge she’d made when an older woman had gasped catching sight of them, and Rio splays his hand on her ass.

She tells him with her eyes in the mirror to stop, but he only sucks his lip into his mouth roguishly and god, why is he like this.

Right then a woman exits one of the stalls and Beth decides her lipstick could be smeared all over her face as long as they don’t get thrown out of this however-many-starred restaurant.

She tosses the lipstick into her bag, shoots Rio a glare that’s met with a smirk, then marches out of the bathroom.

Rio’s right behind her, almost too close, hand on the small of her back now, and suddenly she realises: He wants people to know.

Not just what they’d done, but that they’re together, and the blush works itself all the way up until the top of her head is burning.

“You’re going to get us escorted out,” she berates in a whisper when they’re halfway back to their table.

Rio sniffs out a laugh.

“I’d love to see em try.”

God.

She slides into her seat with a throat clear, keeping her back straight, and Rio settles opposite her the way he sits on all chairs – like its shape is just a suggestion for however he feels like sitting.

Before she can say anything – not that she has any idea what to say about anything that had just happened – the waiter pops up beside them.

“Are you ready to order?”

And, she realises, she’s starving.

"I'll have the full menu. All of it."

Rio shakes with laughter.


They chat throughout dinner, but they don’t talk more about it.

They discuss work, mostly Marks Empire stuff – Rio had gotten the architect to agree to revise the plans with a spa worked in – and they even talk about how the kids are doing, but they don’t talk about Marina again.

When she can’t eat another bite, Rio asks for the dessert even though they still have about five courses to go, then he drops a roll of money on the table and they leave, his hand on her back again.

“Got the babysitter for the whole night, right?” he asks once they’ve stepped out.

Beth looks at him curiously.

“…Yes?”

She waits for an explanation, but he just mutters “Cool” under his breath then leads her to his car.

She wants to point out that she still has hers here, but quickly notices they’re not headed home – he goes a completely different way and then they’re climbing levels in a parking garage till they’re several storeys up, where a security guard stops them. Rio lowers his window just enough for his face to be recognised and then the boom lifts for them.

She’s just about to ask when, finally, he pulls the car into a parking spot and she gasps.

The view ahead of them is gorgeous, all of Detroit’s lights twinkling in the inky night.

“Wow,” she breathes.

She looks to him, mostly for some sort of explanation, but she’s caught off guard by the way the lighting hits him at odd angles, as if his features were made for chiaroscuro.

He’s not looking back at her, though, so she adjusts her gaze and settles back in her seat to admire the view.

After about ten minutes, she stops expecting him to say something; stops expecting this to turn into something else or reveal some hidden ploy.

He just wanted to enjoy this, right now, with her.

Beth lets herself breathe; decompress.

From the week, from the children, from work, from the rollercoaster of them. It’s over, she can breathe.

So for the next hour she does, taking in the stunning lights and the beauty of the city.

The silence is a strange gift she’d never think to give herself – she associates silence with danger or guilt; her children getting up to something naughty or them being gone, her being alone. But here – somewhere she’s never been, somewhere that doesn’t have any of those associations – there’s none of that. It feels like a vacation, a suspension of time; a bubble where the world is simultaneously soothing and doesn’t exist.

And, she realises, silence with Rio isn’t uncommon.

She thinks of him quietly doing the dishes behind her as she continued to bake up a storm; them reading together; the few nights when they’ve just sat on the sofa together recovering after getting all the kids down.

And then, of course, there’d been the last time they’d done exactly this: the night of the poker game. She’d almost forgotten how good it felt, how much it had filled her up to know he wanted nothing more than to just be in her presence. But now here it is again.

“I didn’t mean to do you wrong.”

Though they’re hushed, after over an hour of silence, the words nearly jolt her out of her seat.

Her head whips to face him; he’s already looking at her.

“You know that, right?”

She hesitates, still processing – now not just that he’s speaking, but also what he’s saying – but he seems to misconstrue it, letting out a sigh of regret.

“You were right.”

Looking back out the windshield, he lets the silence sit and Beth doesn’t dare to utter a word either, this time deliberately.

“Shit goin too good, it freaks me out. Guess I just ain’t used to it. I mean work, yeah, but when it comes to…”

Romance? Relationships?

Love?

He leaves it blank, though, as if giving up on a wordsearch, and Beth continues to stare.

“Just ain’t used to it,” he repeats, drawing a sharp breath through his teeth.

The silence stretches on for much longer, a few minutes at least, and finally she lets herself speak.

“I’m not used to it, either,” she admits.

Finally his gaze returns to her.

The city’s lights are reflected in his deep eyes and she’s reminded how much she loves them; the dark dense lashes surrounding them.

“Any of this,” she expands.

“We quite a pair, huh?” he asks, the corner of his lips curving upwards.

“You’re just now realising that?”

His smile grows a little, but she knows what he really means.

They’re both so incredibly messed up in so many ways, but despite how vastly different their lives have been, their fears and insecurities aren’t.

“Do you ever think about how weirdly similar we are?”

“Every damn day.”

She smiles. “Well. I self-sabotaged 20 years of my life; try and beat that.”

“Naw,” he shakes his head. “Think Imma just try ’n do right by you.”

She’s about to speak, but then he reaches out and she freezes.

His hand goes to her hair, pinkie brushing over her fringe then lightly pushing it out of the way before caressing down the side of her face.

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth.”

She still doesn’t move even though he’s not touching her anymore, scared that she’ll shatter into dozens of thousands of pieces if she so much as breathes.

Then, because he’s staring, she forces herself to say something.

“So that’s how that sounds.”

He rolls his eyes but smiles, moving his gaze back out to the city.

“You see all o’ that? That’s ours.”

Ours.

“Ours?”

He nods. “This whole city, momma; all of it.”

She lets that sit for a while.

Then: “Rio?” He looks over to meet her gaze. “What did Marcus say?”

What could they have spoken about for an hour?

Here Rio is, with her, which means it must’ve been good, but it also couldn’t have been a straight answer.

He lets out a breath.

“Kid’d been gettin in his feelins about seeing us together.”

Her jaw drops, horrified, and his hand lands on her thigh, consoling.

“He loves you, he does, mami. But he ain’t never seen me with his momz the way he seen us together and kids don’t know how to say that shit aloud till you ask. So they end up gettin moody, I guess.”

She feels bad, now, for thinking that Marina had been making all of it up.

“But… what did you say?”

He shrugs. “Told him he gotta come to me when he’s feelin some type o’ way. We made a pact to be better ’bout talkin about the tough stuff.”

“So he didn’t… want you and Marina back together?” she frowns, trying to make sense of this.

Now he removes his hand from her, resettling in his seat as he runs a hand over his mouth and adjusts his gaze.

“Never occurred to him it was a option.”

“But you told him it was?”

Rio nods. “And that we could try harder to make it work this time. So he thought it over.”

He turns to face her again, gaze very deliberate, and Beth finds herself smiling.

“He said he wanted you to be happy, didn’t he?”

“And that he’d miss you and the army way too much,” he nods, smiling now too.

She shakes her head, overwhelmed. “God, I love that little boy.”

He stares back at her for a long while, eyes complicated, before finally nodding.

“Yeah, he knows what he wants.”

And now she can’t not anymore – she leans over and kisses him with her hand on his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat.

Then, pulling away just a little, she looks up at him.

“Do you?”

“Mami, I never wanted nothin else for a second,” he assures, eyes serious. “You it for me, you know that.”

His words ignite her in a way she doesn’t think she’s ever felt before and it makes her breathless, breathless.

“You’re mine?” she manages to whisper.

He nods. “Twenty years. To start.”

It makes her laugh, and he draws over her lips with a smile.

“So about that tattoo… how much you got your heart set on comic sans?”

It takes her a second to remember what he’s referring to then another to realise what it means.

She wipes away her smile to shake her head.

“I would never make you get a tattoo for me. Especially not to prove something.”

“You don’t make me do nothin I don’t wanna do, Elizabeth.”

And for the first time she understands that, really understands.

Marina is his past, an ineluctable effect on his present, the same way Dean is for her. They both have not only exes but also wounds that run deeper than they’ve let themselves discuss before.

But now isn’t the time.

She wants to explain why she’d accused him of cheating, but they are so alone in this car, just the two of them in their moment of suspended time, and she doesn’t want to bring Dean or Marina into it.

“…I could be persuaded away from comic sans.”

It’s like he knows, like he can read her mind, and his smile is slow but radiant.

“Cool.”

“I’m not getting a tattoo for you, though.”

He laughs throatily.

“Naw? Not even initials?”

She giggles. “Definitely not.”

“Damn, ma, that’s cold.”

Then he kisses her.

They’re laughing when it starts, but it’s so slow and tender that the sombre darkness seems to settle close around them and somehow she knows he wants to tell her something.

When their lips have all but stilled, he pulls back to put barely an inch of space between their faces.

“You said somethin.” 

She looks up from his mouth to his eyes.

“What?”

“That I'm the exact man you wanna be with.”

Her heart beats hard, hard enough that she knows he can feel it.

“You are.”

“Then that’s all that matters. Fuck the past and my popz and all o’ that. ’Cuz the man I am when I'm wit’ you is the exact man I wanna be, too.”

You it for me, you know that.

Beth blinks rapidly, not wanting to tear up. And even with how close they are, he seems to notice, sighing.

Before he can say anything, though, Beth snuggles into his shoulder, needing to get away from his gaze without losing his warmth; this moment. She wants to live in it forever.

After a moment, he crosses his hand over to her lap, taking her hand into his.

And it’s strange. It – this, all of this – should feel weird, but it doesn’t. Not though it’s new, not though it’s him, not though affection makes her uncomfortable, none of it.

It feels like exactly what she should be doing.

With his free hand, he tucks her hair behind her ear so he can get a better look at her.

Concern is knitted into his features.

“You dizzy?”

She smiles; feels she will never stop smiling.

“No.” God. “I’m happy. You make me happy.”

She wants to pull on his neck to bring him down to her, but her hand is in his, so instead she just looks at him.

“Kiss me.”

There’s something in his eyes that takes her breath away and then he caresses the side of her face again – tenderly, so tenderly. It raises goosebumps on her arms, the soft; the tender. He shouldn’t be so good at it, so good that she feels where they’re touching is all that matters, that has ever mattered.

Then he kisses her.

It’s just as soft, nose brushing lightly against hers and beard tickling her just a little. It’s a bit like their first kiss and it makes her heart stutter, with joy; with possibility.

Then he pulls away and re-settles. She tucks herself closer against him and he holds her hand tighter.

They spend another hour just staring out at the world.

At the world that’s theirs.