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the wedding date

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Chapter 1: What kind of a name is Rio?

“Have you lost your damn mind?”

Beth Boland sighs evenly as she glances over at her sister, and yeah, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea to tell her because it looks like her head might explode—red lipstick getting redder by the second.

“No, I’ve actually thought a lot about this. I even made a flow chart.” She takes the two-piece paper chart out from under a stack of papers and envelopes on the island kitchen table, covered in color-coded highlights and post-it notes. But before she can show her, Annie snatches it up and crumples, tossing it towards the garbage can and missing.

“That took an hour.”

Annie pinches the bridge of her nose, “This is crazy. Dean re-marrying has really done something to your psyche. You know, most women go on a shopping spree with their ex-husband’s credit cards before they cut them off but you…you’re buying a…” She trails off, unsure of how to phrase it.

“I’m renting a date for Dean’s wedding. There’s a ‘stand-in’ service that does this all the time—”

“Phrasing it like that doesn’t make it sound any better.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re basically hiring a gigolo.”

Beth feels her cheeks go scarlet, “That is not what I’m—” She digs through the papers and shows her the website’s home page that she printed out from online. “You don’t think I know how to do research? I’ve looked into this for over a month. He’s not a gigolo; I literally pay him to be my stand-in wedding date, that’s it.”

Annie sighs but she can tell she’s slowly buckling to the idea; Beth’s always been rather good at weighing people down with overwhelming facts. If only her flow-chart hadn’t been thrown away…she itches to pick it up where it sits glaring at her from the floor.

“This has to be one of the sketchiest things you’ve ever done.” Annie licks her lips. “How do you know this isn’t some big scam? He could be a gang leader, or a murderer—”

“One of the PTA moms told me about it, says she hired someone to make her husband jealous. She has receipts and even wrote a tasteful review.” She smiles, but Annie’s still looking at her like she’s a little crazy.

And maybe she is.

“So you want to hire someone to make Dean jealous.”

She distantly knows it’s a joke but her body reacts to the idea instantly, her shoulders curling in and a gagging noise leaves her throat. “God, no,” Annie smirks a little, moving to sit down at the island counter. “This isn’t for Dean or about Dean at all…this is for me.”

Beth holds her sister’s gaze for a moment, letting the words sink in. Annie’s eyes trace the expression on her face, her jaw working because she wants to offer commentary that Beth doesn’t need. But instead she bites her tongue and lets her continue.

“You know I wouldn’t be going to this damn thing at all if it weren’t for him using the kids.” She rolls her eyes to the ceiling, a helpless sensation crawling around her like rope, just long enough to hang herself with it. “They’re in the wedding, they want me to be there.” She rubs the back of her neck, squeezing tired muscles.

“What does it tell them if I don’t show up? If I’m not interested in having Dean in my life anymore with the new family he’s trying to build for himself?”

“That he’s a cheating man-whore who doesn’t deserve you or the kids, to be honest.”

Beth lets out a slow breath, too tired to argue. She’s done trying, “He’s still their father.”

Annie groans, running her fingers through her hair, almost like she’s getting ready to pull it out. She hates the ‘father’ card, Beth knows this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the only good thing Dean’s ever done.

“Okay, but hiring a date? You could have anyone you want.”

“And how much time is that going to take?” Beth prompts, shoving a calendar a little too hard in Annie’s direction. “He sprung this wedding on me. It’s in two weeks—I don’t have time to find someone I don’t mind going with. I can’t go alone.” She swallows thickly and Annie’s hand slips across the counter to squeeze her own.

She doesn’t feel sorry for her but she…she understands, which is the only reason Beth squeezes her hand back and straightens her shoulders afterwards.

“I’m strong but I’m not that strong. I want a distraction, I want someone…hot and charismatic and someone easily forgettable after this whole thing is over. I don’t want Dean to think he’s won by me showing up alone or…with someone less attractive than him.”

Annie laughs softly and hops down off her chair to get herself a glass of wine. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find someone more attractive than him, let’s put it that way. Thank God for your genes otherwise your kids would be a lost cause.”

She rolls her eyes playfully and lets out a slow breath. Okay, so she’s doing this.

“How much is this dude, anyways?”

Beth chews on her lower lip, not wanting to reply to her for a moment because she’s got Annie on the bandwagon but…here’s where she loses her again. It’s expensive; she’s dipped into savings she’s collected over the years and she definitely was going to put some of it on one of Dean’s credit cards.

But it’s a service, right? She can’t expect to pay something cheap and get a good experience.

“It’s…an investment.” She starts and Annie narrows her eyes before quickly grabbing another sheet of paper—an email interaction between her and her mystery man.

Annie slams her wine glass down so hard Beth thought the stem might break in half. “Five thousand dollars? Are you crazy? His dick better glow in the dark, Beth—” She grabs the paper back, smoothing out the edges with a patient expression and waits for her sister’s rant to be finished. “And what kind of a name is Rio?”

“The price has nothing to do with—” She rolls her eyes to the ceiling; she’s done commenting on that irrelevant part in all this. “He’s got a five-star review.”

“And a neck tattoo, that’ll drive Dean’s mom crazy.”

Beth smiles a little before shrugging her shoulder, “So it’s a win-win.”

Annie snorts, picking up her wine glass again to take a slow sip. She pauses thoughtfully for a moment, eyes tracing the photo of Rio at the bottom of the email. It’s just from his waist up, arms down at his sides, black t-shirt. Nothing too fancy. Her sister purses her lips, “At least he’s hot, got those kinda vibes like he could choke me and I’d thank him from the hospital.”

“Oh my God, Annie,” Beth shakes her head but she’s smiling as she clinks her glass against her own.

She leans her elbows on the counter and chews on the inside of her cheek hard enough to nearly taste blood, “He’s local, so I’m meeting him at a bar tomorrow night to, as he put it, ‘check the merchandise’.”

Annie tilts the email to get a better look at it and moves a paper aside to pick up the picture Rio’s attached of himself.  She raises an eyebrow and suddenly gets a mischievous sparkle to her eyes that Beth isn’t sure she likes.

“What kind of checking will you be doing?” She waggles her eyebrows and Beth covers the papers with a dish towel.

“It’s a business deal.” Beth tries to brand the words into her skin with her eyes but it’s not working, it’s not taking Annie’s amused smile off her face. She taps her fingers against the countertop before continuing, “I pay him half up front, iron out the details with him, make sure we’re on the same page and then…I guess I see him at the wedding.”

Annie clinks her wine glass with her own again, “Cheers, wish I could see the look on Dean’s face. The man deserves to swallow his own tongue.”

“Oh, I’ll take pictures.” Beth grins, mostly kidding and Annie dissolves into a fit of giggles, her shoulder bumping into her sister’s as she pours her another glass of wine.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: “What about ‘sweetheart’?”

Beth knows she’s late—only by a little, but still, she’s usually so punctual. It took her ten minutes to pick out an outfit, five minutes to get into it and then another fifteen to change into something else before she finally left her house.

She’s nervous in a way she hasn’t felt in a long time, like she’s about to go on a blind date—which, she supposes, is exactly what this is except for the whole date part. It’s a business transaction, nothing more, and yet that does nothing to quell the knot in her stomach threatening to fill up her entire body. She runs a sweaty palm along the outside of her dress (she’s settled on a black cocktail style, one that highlights her curves and always make her hair look brighter than it is) and paces in front of the bar’s front door before backing up to take another moment.

Fuck.

What is she doing? Annie practically told her she was crazy and she is; this is the most ridiculous thing she’s ever done…and she married Dean for Christ’s sake in comparison. Five thousand dollars for what? A guaranteed date to distract her from this wedding? She could use that money for something important—house revamps, car payments, kid’s Christmas presents…and she’s blowing it on a guy (a very good looking guy, but still).

In the email, Rio said he’d do whatever she wanted to support her, to make her feel wanted, good enough—and she bit her tongue on typing back: I am good enough because when’s the last time that actually felt true?

Years of being treated a certain way tends to stick, and despite being divorced, the crushing shadow of Dean’s condescending fifties housewife vibes still weighs heavily on her shoulders…with no clear end in sight. It’s something she has to work on—

And if she has to hire a wedding date in-between all that then so be it.

Beth straightens her back, lets out a slow breath and turns towards the doors again, her hand outstretched to pull it open and she just—stands there.

Staring.

Her fingers curl into her palm, creating half-moon indentations with her hesitance.

“I think you gotta pull.”

She blinks, turning around so quick that she nearly trips over her own heels. She’s met face to face with, of course, Rio—who looks even better than the picture he’s sent her. He’s dressed head to toe in black; jeans, a button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows and boots. He takes a beanie off his head to stick into his back pocket, the action enough to give her a heart attack, his muscles flexing underneath his shirt.

God she’s in so much trouble.

He raises his eyebrows at her, slightly amused, the bird tattoo on his neck dancing as a soft smile tugs at the edges of his mouth.

“The door? You’re pushing. It’s pull.”

“Oh,” She says suddenly, letting go of the handle completely because Rio reaches over her to pull the door open. He holds it, like a gentleman and fuck, waiting for her to walk over the threshold.

Her limbs suddenly feel disconnected from her body but she walks in and makes a beeline for the bar, pulling a stool back so she can sit down. Rio follows her, the warmth of his body nearly pressing into her own as he takes a seat. He licks his lips, leaning his elbows onto the counter and attempts to wave down the bartender.

“You like reds?”

Beth nods, putting her purse on the counter and attempting to hide her shaking hands by playing with the bottom of her dress.

He tilts his body towards her and she can feel his eyes traveling up and down her form, analyzing her, slipping underneath the fabric of her dress and even her skin itself. It’s intimate in a way that shouldn’t feel so good, the way he’s looking at her, trying to get a good read but also caressing as if he knows her.

It’s really no wonder he has a five-star review.

“Relax, this is the easy part, ma.”

She scrunches her nose, pushing her hair over her shoulder as she finally looks at him. He’s got stubble on his jawline that she hadn’t noticed before—she wonders if she can ask him to be clean shaven for the wedding. She doesn’t want that brushing against her skin, her cheeks tinting pink because, no that’s the last thing she should be thinking about. She’s not going to be…kissing him, right?

His eyes are dark, like the wood of a pine tree, deep enough to fall into. She blames the ill-lit bar, needs something, anything, to give her an excuse for how handsome he looks.

“I don’t like pet names, so maybe just stick to my first name.”

Rio smiles, a genuine display of perfect teeth. “Right. Whatever you want, Elizabeth. It’s your dollar.”

“Beth is fine.” She clears her throat. “Is your name really Rio?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Would something like ‘Richard’ be more comforting to you?”

Her cheeks heat again and she fights the urge to rub one with the back of her wrist, “That’s not what I meant,” Because she realizes how it sounds now. “I’m just…nervous, I don’t usually do things like this.”

He hums a little as the bartender approaches and he orders them two glasses of red wine, a Cabernet—which is good because she hates Merlot. Rio rolls his hips back against the stool to get into a more comfortable position and Beth hates how her eyes instantly clock the movement, how well his jeans fit him, how she can almost see the lines of his back against the black canvas of his button down shirt.

“I’m sure it’s not very hard for you to get a date to somethin’,” He says after a moment. “So do you mind me askin’ why you need my services?”

Beth pauses a moment, smiling gently at the bartender as he sets down her glass of wine. She buys herself some time to think about her response by taking a slow sip, letting the spiced red coat her throat warmly.

“My ex-husband cheated on me,” She clears her throat. “With someone younger and thinner and…far less brain cells.” Rio smirks lightly but doesn’t say anything, “And now he’s marrying her. I guess want to…”

“Make him jealous?”

She makes an ugly snorting sound and covers her mouth instantly afterwards because why does everyone think she wants that? and shakes her head as Rio chuckles. “No.” She swallows, straightening her back, “I want to show him what he walked out on. I want him to regret it.”

Rio nods, running his thumb along the bottom of his wine glass before he takes a sip of his own. He’s wearing a chunky gold pinky ring that’s a little distracting as it catches the light and she can tell he’s chewing on words in his mouth before he speaks because his jawline clenches.

“Shouldn’t be too hard.”

Beth feels a nervous energy grip the bottom of her ribcage, making a laugh slip out. “You sound awfully confident.”

He smiles, “I’m very good at what I do but I was mostly talkin’ about you.” His eyes slip down her dress again in a way that feels absolutely sinful, his body turning as he moves to place a hand on her forearm.

She squirms instantly, he’s too much in her personal space and suddenly she can smell his cologne and skin and it’s mesmerizing—but it doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t know him, he’s a stranger.

“Relax,” He says softly, squeezing her gently and running his thumb along the veins on the inside of her wrist. “No one’s gonna believe we’re dating if I can’t touch you.”

Beth swallows because he has a point and it takes a moment, but each one of her muscles begin to unwind until she’s not so tense against him. He hums in praise, taking his time to continue to stroke her arm until she feels comforted by the action and not uneasy by it.

“What I mean is that you’re beautiful and very strong willed based off the categorized list of demands you sent in your email,” Her cheeks kiss pink, “You can have whatever you want and you don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that.”

She gets lost somewhere in-between his words, because she knows this isn’t real, that it’s something he’s probably said to countless other women who need his help but she can’t help but feel validated by them. She wants that self-confidence, wants it more than anything else, and despite where the words are coming from—the weight of them still wrap around her body like a blanket.

It’s worth every penny to be seen.

Beth licks her lips, breaking the trance by looking down at his hand on her forearm, and the spidery veins that greet her. She clears her throat and takes another sip of wine,

“We should probably uh, discuss details.”

Rio nods, letting his hand slip away from her so he can pick up his wine glass again. “You have more than what you put in your email?”

She misses the warmth of his touch, which is absolutely ridiculous. She’s also not about to admit that he has such nice hands and that she wonders what his touch would feel like lower, encompassing her thigh, fingers slipping between her legs and—

Beth glances up, realizes she’s missed a question. “What?”

He smiles a little, licking his lips, “I said, ‘no nicknames’ weren’t on that list.”

She rolls her eyes, “I just don’t like being called ‘babe’—”

“What about ‘sweetheart’?” He asks but her face betrays her because even though her mouth says ‘no’, her tinted cheeks tell him a different story. He chuckles against the rim of his wine glass, clearly pleased with himself at the reaction and Beth lets out a soft huff that flutters her bangs.

“I just want to make sure I’m getting what I pay for, you’re not exactly cheap.”

There’s definitely an eyeroll that Rio gives her even though it’s very brief and the way his fingers are clenching his knee tells her that he wants to say something, but doesn’t, about her flippant comment about payment.

She doesn’t mean to be so callous or take the fun out of what this can be…but she’s already nervous enough as it is and a tiny bit ashamed that she’s hiring him in the first place. The last thing she wants is for him to go off book at this wedding to cause further embarrassment.

“Have you ever done a wedding before?” Beth asks suddenly, a little curious. “I saw you’ve done…first-date practices, birthdays, meeting the parents and uh…a lot of funerals, for some reason,” She scrunches her nose.

“Of course I do funerals,” Rio says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Imagine losing someone you care about and having to go through all that alone. Sometimes people just want to know someone’s there—hold their hand, offer support when they feel like there’s nothin’ else.”

She supposes she’s never thought of it that way, not really, and her eyebrows crinkle together as she pauses on a thought because, “But none of it’s real.”

Rio lets out a long sigh, like he’s a little frustrated he has to explain this to her. He doesn’t seem to enjoy talking about other clients which makes Beth wonder if he doesn’t actually enjoy what he does—despite being so confident about it. She’s trying to peel his layers open in front of her like a book, to read him like he’s done to her the moment he sat down at the bar, but it’s not as easy as it appears.

He’s very good at holding up walls and not letting her over them.

“The support I offer is very real,” Rio pauses a moment, “But to answer your question, no, I’ve never done a wedding.”

Beth feels a soft swirl of panic lick at her nerve endings because she’s paying him so much and he’s never done a wedding? If it weren’t for the countless reviews she’s read guaranteeing him as a perfect stand-in, she’d cancel right now—despite the voice in her head that tells her she wouldn’t.

He must see her expression because a smirk tugs at the one side of his mouth, infuriatingly attractive but also annoying, “You’re not gonna faint, are you?” He asks but doesn’t give her the space to reply, “I don’t do weddings because there’s too much of a chance that somethin’ will happen and at the end of the day, this is just business.”

Beth scoffs, the sound mixed with the beginning of a laugh. He’s afraid that something will happen like…like what? Feelings? Once again, he sounds way too confident in his abilities, “Then why did you say yes to me?” She asks before she can stop herself, too curious for her own good.

“Because you sounded desperate.” He says and Jesus, ouch, he didn’t have to put it that way. He smiles, taking another sip of his wine. “And I enjoy branchin’ out.”

“Well…you don’t have to worry about anything happening between us.” She shakes her head, curling her hair around her ear. “You’re not my type and more aggravating than you are handsome.”

Rio laughs suddenly, the sound warm and a little distracting. “Good, because I charge extra for sex.”

She doesn’t know whether he’s being serious or not but she does laugh, shaking her head before reaching for her purse and pulling out a thick envelope. It’s something she doesn’t want to think too much about as she hands him cash for this ridiculous turn of events they’re about to get into.

“The rehearsal dinner is at seven next week; local country club.” She bites on her lower lip. “Then the wedding is in Grand Rapids, I already booked us a room with two beds.” Rio smiles a little at that but he keeps his amusement mostly to himself. “And obviously the uh, reception.” She isn’t sure why she’s documenting this outloud; she’s already mentioned all this in the email and Rio knows how a wedding works.

He takes the envelope from her, their fingers brushing as he glances inside. “Alright,” He stands from the barstool, taking out his wallet to put a few bills down for their drinks. “Sounds easy enough.”

“You should count it.”

Rio pauses, raising an eyebrow. “I trust it’s all there.”

“I know but,” Beth swallows, clearing her throat. It’ll make it feel more like business if he counts it. “Do it anyways. 2,500; the rest after this nightmare is over.”

He smiles a little, opening the envelope as she turns on her stool to face him, watching him pull out the cash and flip through it slowly to count in his head. “Everythin’ will be fine, yeah? You might even enjoy yourself.”

“Doubtful.” She grumbles as he puts the cash in his back pocket where his beanie used to be, pulling the fabric over his head.

Before she can finish her glass of wine or tell him goodbye or offer another comment about this whole thing being a nightmare, Rio leans forward and sinks between her legs. He kisses her; something soft and intimate and his lips roll against her own until she submits to him. She tenses at first, getting ready to push him away but he won’t allow her to, his arm slipping around her back to hold her in place.

He lets her decide to tip her chin up, to deepen the kiss, a soft noise leaving his throat that travels straight between her legs. She doesn’t even realize the kiss has ended before he’s pulling back, his fingers curling a loose strand of hair behind her ear, his lips an unfair shade of pink.

“Figured we’d get that out of the way,” He winks, “That’s on the house.”

Beth’s mouth is open in surprise, she knows it is and just manages to close it before pushing him away. He smirks, grabbing her hand and squeezing it before taking his leave, turning to say something to her as he backs out of the bar,

“Try not to be so tense next time, I don’t wanna have to kiss you every time to get you to relax.”

He’s gone before she can even think about saying anything. Beth puts her face in her hand a moment, shaking her head—because it doesn’t sound like that bad of an idea.

And it’s then she knows she’s in trouble.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: You don’t seem like a beige

Beth thinks about canceling about six times between when she wakes up on the day of the rehearsal dinner to the moment she slides her dress over her head. She’s told herself that this was and continues to be a terrible idea and if she hadn’t paid him half up front, she’d have the nerve to tell him never mind.

Though she knows even if she told Rio to forget the whole thing, she still has to go to this wedding. She can’t let her kids down like that and she can’t let Dean know that she’s bothered either. Canceling now would definitely mean going alone and she can’t stomach it, not when she feels like all of her insides are already in knots.

She smooths her hands down the front of her dress as she hears the doorbell, taking the steps downstairs carefully in her gold heels. She’s settled for a navy-blue number that shows just enough cleavage and is ruffled at her middle, hugging her curves and kissing her skin beautifully. She feels confident and comfortable, which is important for a long night.

Beth sighs, glancing at her front door for a moment before turning the knob and opening up to see Rio. He’s standing in a suit, beautifully polished even though he hasn’t touched his facial hair. She’s kinda happy about that now that she thinks about it—a little rough to offset the clean pressed lines of his suit. His bird tattoo somehow looks more pronounced with the navy button-down he has on underneath a gray suit jacket, tie to match with a red spidery design that reminds her of tree branches in the winter.

A crinkle appears between Rio’s eyebrows because, “Why are you shakin’ your head?” He asks as he steps over the threshold and she closes the door.

“I just naturally assumed you were going to show up in black. Black in your picture, black at the bar… I thought that was the only shade you owned.”

He runs a hand lightly over his chest. “Grays in the same shade family.” He’s joking but she’s not laughing and finally he just throws his hands up a little, “What’s the big deal?”

“Because we match.”

Rio looks down at himself and pauses, doesn’t get it, gives her a look that makes her feel a little crazy. “That a bad thing?”

“It’s—” No, it’s not exactly a terrible idea but it somehow digs under her skin because she wants today to be perfect and Rio is supposed to be her boyfriend and they can’t be that couple that goes all matchy-matchy to events, can they?

What are the odds that he shows up in something that is the exact same color as her damn dress?

“It’s too perfect, it’s not believable.” She says and he raises his eyebrows because that does not make one lick of sense. He takes a step towards her and she mirrors one back, shaking her head.

Rio lets out a slow breath because she’s nitpicking and it annoys him, a flare of impatience decorating his handsome face. “Well I don’t exactly got another suit in my back pocket, ma, and we’re already late.”

She narrows her eyes, “I told you not to call me that and just…follow me. I’ll change.”

Beth’s up the stairs and in her bedroom before she realizes what she’s said, Rio slipping in behind her and looking around the room, drinking her in with permission she’s accidently given him. She turns suddenly and slips off her heels, pressing one hand to his chest to stop him.

“Don’t move.”

He smiles a little and nods his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he watches her slide into her walk-in closet to change. She sighs softly and runs a hand over her forehead before she takes a moment to unzip her dress and glance at her options.

“A lot of beige.”

Beth rolls her eyes and pulls out a black dress, quickly pulling it on and kicking her navy blue one to the side before stepping out of her closet. She doesn’t bother to zip it up until she makes sure it’s the right one.

Rio has dutifully not moved from the spot on the carpet where she’s left him and he scrunches his nose at her dress, “You goin’ to a wake?”

“What’s wrong with beige?” She glances around her bedroom; at the little accents she’s added that have color to them. Some shades of coffee colored brown and touches of teal here and there. It’s minimalist but tasteful.

“It’s just not what I pictured.”

“You pictured my bedroom?” She asks, but the corners of her mouth pull slightly as she puts her hands on her hips.

Rio tilts his head at her, eyes traveling over her body in an unashamed way. “Maybe.” He pauses for a moment to let that sink into her pores. “You don’t seem like a beige. Also, no to that dress. I can maybe get you not wantin’ to match completely but that doesn’t line up with what I got on at all.”

Beth nods and turns to go back into her closet, pulling the dress off and standing far too long in her underwear trying to decide on a color range. She could go gold…but that feels too flashy, gray is out of the question and so is another navy dress so…

She fingers red fabric for a moment that matches the scarlet on Rio’s tie and pulls it off the hanger.

“I’m not actually that fond of beige,” She admits over her shoulder as she pulls the dress up—it’s a fit and flare that kind of reminds her of the sixties. Something that hugs her waist with a high-neck tanked top and flares out like a wide flame at the bottom. It hits just below her knees and her gold heels will still go nicely with it.

“But Dean, he uh,” She walks out of the closet, pulling her hair free from underneath. “He doesn’t like bold colors.”

Rio’s eyes descend on her like a cold rush of water, a wave crashing down onto her shores. He stares for what feels like a long time, his hands coming out of his pockets like he wants to touch but can’t—too far away. She smiles softly as his gaze sticks, he’s captivated by the dress, and she notices he has to shake his head as she approaches to be able to speak to her.

“So I’m guessin’ he’s not gonna like this.” He reaches to touch her waist, fingers pressing warmly into the fabric.

Beth chews on the inside of her cheek a moment, looking up at him. “Do you like it?”

He smirks gently, pulling on her elbow to turn her around. He doesn’t reply but she feels suddenly naked under his gaze as her bare back is exposed to him. He takes his time finding the zipper and slowly draws it up into place, fixing the little hook at the top. His hands rest against her shoulders and guide down, squeezing her arms before letting her go.

“Get your shoes. We’re already late.”

Beth lets out a long sigh that somehow turns into a pout, making him smile, “We could stay here, you could give more wisecracks about my bedroom decorum.”

Rio smirks and grabs her purse from where it’s seated on the bed as she slips her heels back on. “As amazing as that sounds, that’s not what you’re payin’ me for.”

And the words sound sour, swallowing them down, nodding her head as she leaves the bedroom with him.

--

They have their story practically written in stone just in case anyone asks but that offers her little comfort as they walk towards the venue: a country club decorated in twinkle lights and far too much white that it nearly gives her a headache. She’s not the focus of this event, so she knows not many people will even ask her about Rio—he’s here for her comfort and that’s it, but she finds herself going over little details in her head just in case.

Dean’s mother might ask and clearly Dean himself but going over the laundry list in her head stops her hands from shaking.

She met Rio at a PTA meeting; he has a son who’s interested in going to the same school that her kids do. They had dinner a few times, talked about enrollment and everything she does for the school and how her kids like it.

A few dinners turned into dates and they’ve been hitting it off for a few months ever since, something lowkey and personal and hers because of the divorce she’s had with Dean and not wanting to get her kids involved.

Everything is new and rose-colored and Rio is sweet and caring and does mundane shit with her like grocery shopping and errands. He has his own small business, a café in downtown Detroit that he’s owned since his father passed. His son’s name is Marcus, his favorite color is emerald green and he’s allergic to blueberries.

And all of this and none of it at the same time matters. She just wants to get through this as quickly as possible and hopefully fall under the radar of not speaking to anyone other than Rio at this country club. She ascends the steps to the grand ballroom that they’ll be dining in, the room all high windows and sparkling light. She suddenly feels so out of place in her scarlet dress, a contrasting color that is noticeable against the stark white.

Rio squeezes her hand, getting her attention as they walk in. He pulls her to the side where a coat check is, waiting until her gaze meets her own. “You’re shakin’.” His other hand covers the one he’s already holding.

She nods her head and offers a smile she doesn’t feel. “I thought this would be easy. Having you here as a distraction, smiling at all the right times and drinking too much wine in a nice dress,” She shrugs her one shoulder, “It doesn’t change how I feel.”

Despite the small amount of privacy the coat check wall provides, Beth can feel eyes on them from different parts of the room; people slipping past them to get a glass of champagne from the cash bar, fluttering in-between hors d'oeuvres tables and congratulating the couple. Guests who know who she is, who are whispering about her. She can hear Dean a few feet away; big laughs and too loud discussions that tell her he’s a little drunk but genuinely happy.

“Look, I think you were gonna feel this way no matter if you came alone or with someone.” He runs his thumb over her knuckles. “But you can still do all the other things you mentioned,” Rio leans in, brushes his lips over her cheekbone as he talks, “Drink too much wine in a beautiful dress and smilin’ definitely doesn’t hurt.”  

He pulls back and Beth licks her lips, wanting nothing more than to lean up and kiss him again. To feel his arms wrap around her and pull her close, back outside, to his car, away from this place where she feels like she has to be someone she’s not.

Rio grasps her chin between his pointer finger and thumb, waiting until her gaze meets his own. He leans forward to brush their lips together, gently, more to distract her than anything else because it’s not a kiss.

“Women hire me because they want to feel wanted and if that’s what you need to hear, then fine, I do want you Elizabeth.” She lets out a breath that sounds too shaky for her own good, her knees slightly buckling. All the other gazes she once felt on her fade away, until it’s only them in an empty country club.

“But hearin’ that doesn’t matter until you want things for yourself. You want someone to believe in you? You want to feel confident? Wanted?” His hand falls to her waist, “Good enough?”

Beth swallows thickly, his words reaching something that’s still raw inside of her, that still hurts to think about. She wants to pull away, nearly does, but instead surrenders to his weight against her. It’s not his fault that he does a better job of reading her than she does looking in a mirror.

“Then it has to come from you first.”

She shakes her head as he pulls away, his hand very simply returning to hers as they move towards the cash bar. “I know you think you know me from a few meetings and a detailed email. But you don’t.” Her words at least sound stronger than she feels.

Rio looks at her over his shoulder and smiles but says nothing in return.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Congratulations are in order

The night drags on; dinner was subpar but she hadn’t expected much from an overpriced buffet. This isn’t exactly Dean’s style, so it has to be the idea of the bride. If it was up to Dean, he’d have the rehearsal dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings—and yet here they are at a stuffy country club that has edible but boring food and won’t allow kids under the age of eighteen. She lets out a slow breath and looks out one of the long paned windows that face woods and a pond—least the views are nice.  

She’s having a pretty decent time despite the conversation she had with her date when they first arrived sticking in her head like pins and needles. She still wants to tell Rio he’s wrong, that she knows what she wants and is plenty capable of sticking up for herself…but then she thinks about that beige bedroom, and the drab off-white accents and little moments of teal and cocoa brown trying to burst its way through and—

She knows she’s wrong.

She couldn’t even stand up for what she wanted with furniture colors, let alone what she wants in a life of her own. Beth knows she used to be so independent before she met Dean and even when she was dating and earlier moments in her marriage, she was confident and clear about the things that made her happy.

Beth somehow lost that part of herself and didn’t realize it until it was too late. This ridiculous stand-in date is one of the first decisions she’s made in a long time that feels so blissfully her own.

And while she hates that a man who she barely knows is telling her that she needs to want things for herself and mean it; he’s right.

She just…has to figure out what that looks like.

“Beth.” She turns at the sound of her name, Dean’s mother approaching her with an open hug that smothers her in heavy perfume. She squeezes the woman before letting go, taking a step back that doesn’t help because she grabs hold of her wrist.

She knows exactly where this conversation is going.

“So nice of you to be here, dear.” Beth chews down on her tongue, hard. “You know, it really should be you, you know?”

Beth blinks, unsure of what…that is supposed to mean. “You mean getting married a second time?” She tries to laugh but it sounds odd leaving her lips.

“I mean you two shouldn’t have given up on one another.” She squeezes her hand and it feels like a warm embrace but there’s something in her eyes, something underneath the cool color that tells Beth what Judith really means.

She’s somehow attributing this failure to her; that despite Dean’s indiscretions, she didn’t work hard enough to keep a family together.

Beth swallows thickly, pulling her hand from her grasp and as she opens her mouth to say something, Rio appears at her side and hands her a glass of champagne. “They’re out of reds.”

Judith’s demeanor changes instantly, her posture straightening like a rod has been placed along her spine. She watches Rio with an aura of distaste before looking back at Beth—the disappointment is there and heavy enough to drag her through the floor.

Beth clears her throat and sips the champagne, the bubbles hurting the back of her mouth. “Rio, this is Dean’s mother, Judith.”

Rio turns gently and outstretches his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Judith does not extend the gesture and there’s a flicker of something dancing in Rio’s eyes, a mixture of amusement and contempt as he wraps an arm around Beth’s waist instead.

“Honestly Beth, I’m glad the kids aren’t here. What would they think?”

What would they think? Beth bites down on the inside of her cheek—she doesn’t want to make a scene, but how could Judith ask her that? How could she imply that she’s not being a good mother just for moving on?

She feels Rio go rigid beside her, his fingers pressing into her lower back as he clears his throat. “I think…what you should be concerned about? Is what they’d think about their father already remarryin’ someone that’s clearly too young for him.”

Judith’s eyes widen to the point where Beth thinks they might pop out of her head, stuttering over her own words in response because she’s too angry to think straight. Rio gently pulls Beth in another direction, a little closer to the bar,

“Excuse us.”

Beth’s shaking but smiling at the same time, looking up at him as a small laugh escapes her lips. “You…you didn’t have to do that.”

Rio takes her champagne glass from her to take a sip before handing it back, “Trust me, I did.”

She chews on the corner of her lower lip before glancing to her right, seeing Dean grab the hand of…what’s her name again? Chloe? And begin to approach them. It’s too late for her to move somewhere else and the country club is only so big—she can’t avoid him forever. One terrible conversation down, one to go.

So she plasters on a smile and steels her shoulders as Dean wraps an arm around her to say hello.

“Beth! You made it.” He pulls back with a grin, smelling too much like woodchips and cigar smoke.

“Did I have a choice?” She jokes, holding her glass a little too tight but Dean’s preoccupied by the skinny blonde that joins his side to able to reply to her commentary.

“You remember Kate, right?”

Beth clears her throat and bites down on everything inside of her to say something nasty or hurtful about how could she forget the woman that ruined her marriage but really? It’s not just her fault, because it takes two to cheat on someone. Not only that, shouldn’t she be thanking her for ending something as toxic as her relationship with Dean?

Sometimes it’s hard to take the high road, especially right now with this ditzy blonde grinning, diamond necklace and matching bracelet most likely bought with money put aside for their kids, shining too bright in her face.

She can feel Rio’s body slip closer to her own, his hand finding her lower back, a weight of support that snaps her back into the present and out of her thoughts.

“Kate, right of course. It’s nice to see you again,” She feels sick and sets her champagne down on the counter behind Rio. “Dean, this is my boyfriend. Rio.”

“Boyfriend.” Dean says the word like it’s too heavy in his mouth, breaking his teeth, like he hadn’t even seen Rio until she pointed him out. He glances between them a few times before straightening his back, glancing down at the hand Rio’s outstretched like it might somehow bite him.

“Pleasure’s yours.” Rio says with a smile, squeezing his hand briefly before letting go. “Suppose I should be thankin’ you for putting someone like Elizabeth back out there.”

Dean’s face resembles sucking on a lemon and it’s an expression that’s gone almost as soon as it appears…but Beth sees it. If anything, those few moments are worth every penny she’s paying. She smiles gently at him, tucking herself into his side as Dean clears his throat.  

“Congratulations are in order, yeah?” Rio picks up the glass Beth’s put down and Kate giggles as she catches sight of him, twirling her hair between her fingers. Her eyes slip over the long lines of his body.

“Well if we’re going to toast, I can’t have empty hands.”

Dean looks like he’d rather eat a glass than toast with one, sticking his hands in his pockets as he nods, but his eyes never leave Beth. She can feel him despite not wanting to look, Kate reaching forward to put her hand on Rio’s forearm.

“Would you order me a rosé?”

Rio slips easily out from under her grasp and nods, tucking his lips against the shell of Beth’s ear to tease, “Is she old enough to drink?” and she has to stop herself from laughing outright as he pulls away to do what’s been asked.

Beth looks up at Dean, reading a conversation in his eyes that she knows she’ll eventually have to have.

He’s not happy about this, about Rio, judging him almost instantly by his presence alone, his words, that possessive arm around Beth’s waist. He’s going to bring up his neck tattoo, ask him about his job, about whether he’s going to be around the kids—to make it about them and their happiness when it has nothing to do with it and everything to do about her and her own happiness.

About how he doesn’t want that for her—or worse, a proclamation that they can still make things work despite how he’s about to married again.

Rio hands Kate her rosé but before they can clink glasses, Dean’s mother speaks into a microphone about a toast from the groom. He schools his face as eyes find him in the crowd, relatives and friends clapping and raising their glasses. Dean pulls Kate away and walks towards the microphone that Judith is motioning to him with.

Beth lets out a slow breath she doesn’t realize she’s been holding, allowing herself to slip further against Rio’s chest. He allows her, that hand not leaving her back as he sips from the champagne glass.

“He’s a dumbass, no wonder you left him.” He mutters against the rim as Dean begins speaking into the mic.

She’s happy for the distraction because he instantly dives into meeting Kate in a pivotal part of his life and how they got to this moment. The story is wrong, a lie, but people soak it up like gospel—smiling too wide and drinking wine like they don’t know Beth’s in the room.

“I caught them, you know, in Dean’s office at his dealership.” Rio raises an eyebrow, turning his attention towards her while she speaks. “Fucking right on his desk.” She shrugs her one shoulder. “Things ended so quickly after that. The divorce was easy, custody agreements, him moving out of the house. Things were finally getting back to normal. And then this.” She gestures briefly to the room.

Rio lets out a slow sigh, tilting his head towards the exit. “He could catch us fuckin’ around in the coat check if you want to even the score.”

A laugh slips out of her lips because she can tell he’s joking, despite how entertaining the thought may be. She’s about to open her mouth to reply when Dean says her name, her eyes snapping to his as everyone turns to look at her.

“That’s right,” Dean smiles, apparently keen on embarrassing her. “To Bethy. I don't think I’d be here without her.” She’s hated that nickname the moment it’s left his mouth and he knows that, which is why she thinks he uses it so publicly like this. Out in the open, stripping her down so all can see.

He wouldn’t be here without her? Something cold grips the bottom of her ribcage, eyes stinging as she holds them open too long. Meaning what? That if she just would have had sex with him more often in their marriage, that he wouldn’t have left her for younger looking and more attractive woman to get off with? That if he just would have thought of her as an equal for one moment, that she was good enough for one second, he wouldn’t have done what he did?

Cheated on her? Finding someone else to marry, to start a more perfect family the second time around?

Beth swallows thickly, distantly feeling Rio’s arm squeezing around her waist. She doesn’t regret divorcing him or being free from him—she realizes she stopped loving Dean a long time ago, even before she learned he was cheating on her. But despite everything, by being happy she’s single and starting something new, independently on her own, his words cut down to her very bone.

They hurt in a way someone who knows her could only hurt her. Because he knows her vulnerabilities, her shame, what makes her feel self-conscious—and he bares her veins to the bright light like a surgeon cutting her open right on this very floor.

“And for the wonderful kids she gave us!” Dean smiles as everyone ‘awes’ in response. “Always the perfect mother.”

She can feel Rio’s jaw clench even though she’s not looking at him and she lets out a short breath to raise her glass, so that Dean will continue this speech, to get it over with, to get everyone’s eyes off her. Her hand is shaking ever so slightly but she sips her champagne as people begin to clap when Dean finishes, watching the happy couple share a kiss before handing the mic off to his mother again.

Rio presses a soft kiss to her temple as the applause slows, everyone beginning to get back into their conversations and ordering more drinks from the bar before dessert is served. He prevents her from pulling away, from running, from going to the bathroom or outside or anywhere that’s not in this room.

When she’s managed to calm down, to have her breathing return to normal, she’s glad he’s grounded her. The last thing she wants is for people to think she’s so upset she had to leave, for them to talk about her when she’s gone.

Beth lets out a slow breath, turning her head to see that Rio’s already watching her. His gaze is constant, like a storm that consumes her but somehow, it’s one of the most comforting things she’s felt in a long while. She’s just gotta make it through tonight, the wedding itself will be easy compared to this. It has to be.

“You good?” He asks after a moment and she nods, pressing herself up on her toes to kiss his cheekbone…just because.

“Thank you for being here.”

And instead on mentioning anything about money like she thinks he might, he offers her a small smile before shrugging his one shoulder. “You’re welcome. Let me know if you change your mind about escapin’ to that coat check room.”

Beth smiles and tries to tell herself that it’s not a great idea the longer the night goes on.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Somethin’ sweet

Rio drives her home after the rehearsal dinner and Beth can’t wait to get out of this dress and into something more comfortable. All she wants is to soak in a too hot bath for a few hours, maybe light some candles, and scrub the night off of her. She rubs the side of her neck, glancing out the window to watch the blur of houses pass her by.

She knows she ate at the country club but an indulgent part of her wants to order take out and drink a half bottle of wine, just to offer another layer of comfort for the upcoming week. If this is any indication of how the wedding weekend is going to go then she’s in trouble.

Beth won’t get through it without a conversation with Dean, with meeting Rio it’ll be the only thing he wants to do. Despite the wedding, despite having a clean break and a civil custody agreement—he’ll want to dig all that up, pull scabs back to open fresh wounds, anything to disrupt her from moving on.

She’s got a headache thinking about it.

When the car engine turns off, she undoes her seatbelt without really realizing where they’ve stopped and it takes her a moment to see she’s not at home.

She raises an eyebrow as she looks out the windshield, “A custard house?”

“Thought you could do with somethin’ sweet.” Rio leans up and unbuttons his suit jacket, slipping the material off to place in the back seat. He really is that good at reading people—it’s no wonder why he has this job as a stand-in with a five star rating; he makes up for it in sweets. “They make these waffle custard sandwiches that’ll change your life.”

Beth blinks, her mouth opening slightly because? “We’re here for ice cream sandwiches?”

Rio scrunches his nose, mock offended at her flippant description, “No, we’re here for waffle custard. You need to work on listenin’, come on.” He gets out of the car and rounds to open her door for her, which is good because she’s still confused on why they’re here.

She knows she’s paying Rio a decent amount of money to be her stand-in date, her fake boyfriend, dragging him to awful rehearsal dinners and making him travel two hours for a wedding—but, custard sandwiches? Why is he wasting his time trying to make her feel better? If she were him, she’d be trying to get back home as soon as possible for all the relaxations she’s been thinking about since they left the country club.

Except now she’s thinking about Rio in a bath so—

She takes his hand to help her out of the car, licking her lips as the scent of sweet baked waffles and caramel waft to her nose. Beth follows him to the counter, her eyes trailing over at least thirty different custard flavors—not only that, but there’s twice as many toppings. How is she supposed to choose?

“You know what you want already?” She asks as Rio rolls up his shirt sleeves to his elbows and loosens his tie.

“I always know what I want.” He leans on the counter, turning towards the woman at the register to order French vanilla—but stops when Beth makes a noise. He looks at her over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “Somethin’ you wanna share?”

She purses her lips and rocks back onto her heels, shaking her head, “No I just…vanilla, really? You don’t seem like the type.” She teases.

Rio smirks, straightening his back. “Oh, aight.” He motions to the large display menu. “Put your money where your mouth is, ma. What should I order?”

Beth lets the nickname slide, which is probably a dangerous slippery slope, but she’s too busy trying to concoct a custard selection at the moment to care. She chews on her lower lip, slipping through the flavors written in chalk on the board and decides to go with her favorite pairing—

“He’ll have chocolate and strawberry custard in that waffle sandwich thing with…” She hums, “Caramel sauce and chocolate sprinkles.” Beth smiles, clearly happy with her selection before ordering the same for herself…except she also gets chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Because why the hell not?

“You’re gonna have that all over you before the night is over.” Rio motions to her dripping mess in her hands, carefully shelled between fresh waffles wrapped up in foil.

Beth slides herself onto the hood of Rio’s car, kicking her heels off. She almost slides back down but manages to lean against the windshield before losing her custard sandwich.

“Challenge accepted.”

Rio smiles a little, sitting down next to her, looking far too handsome sprawled out on his car.

She realizes that everything between them is so dangerous, wrapped in gentle dynamite, the softest breath or touch capable of explosion. But it’s also tantalizing in a way that excites her—Rio is so different, gentle but rough with the walls he keeps between them.

Everything about this is a lie –circles in her head, over and over, trying to remind her not to take anything too seriously. And yet? She buries it deep with a bite of her custard sandwich. She moans softly and licks chocolate off her lips because Jesus, this is incredible.

Rio smirks, licking custard between the waffle before he takes a bite of his own. “Told you it was worth the stop.”

“I’m not going to admit you somehow know all just because you have decent taste in custard.” Beth smiles and takes another bite of her waffle sandwich, leaning back to watch cars drive by.

“Give it time.” Rio glances over at her, she can feel his gaze, always like a magnet tracing the curves of her body. She wants to tell him that she enjoys when he looks at her like that, to be felt and seen all at the same time, but she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

She wonders if he looks at every woman who’s ever paid him like that.

Beth isn’t sure she wants to know.

She turns and meets his gaze, holding it for a moment before a small smile graces her lips. “Do you really own a café?”

He nods, leaning further up against the windshield. “It’s called Mug Half Full; I made some changes since I took it over from my father. Kept the name though.” He licks his lips, pulling a napkin from his pants pocket and wiping his chin where he feels caramel sticking. “What do you do? You didn’t mention it in your email.”

Beth swallows down a bought of self-loathing at the question and decides to take another bite of her sandwich; sweet hiding sour. “I uh, I’m kinda in-between jobs at the moment.” She knows Rio has to be able to see through that terrible excuse of an answer. “I’m a stay at home mom, for the most part.”

Rio finishes his custard waffle, which is admirable because Beth’s is two seconds away from becoming soup in her hands. She licks at the sides as he crumples up a napkin and puts his trash in a can nearby so it’s not in their way.

“What do you want to do?”

The question shouldn’t offend her as much as it does, the want and need to defend herself raising her hackles a bit. She bites down on reacting too sorely; he’s just asking a question—and she realizes she hasn’t given him a reason not to ask something like that. Her bland response is what prompts the statement.

She clears her throat, setting her custard sandwich down on her lap a moment, the foil protecting her dress. “I love being there to take care of my kids.”

He holds her gaze for a moment, slight amusement dancing in the corners of his eyes. He smiles gently, looking down at her hands before he picks up her sandwich and licks whipped cream off the corner. Ridiculously obscene and unnecessary but she lets him do it anyways.

They’ve apparently become accustomed to sharing things—she’s noticed that he continues the ruse of soft touches and intimate gestures when no one’s watching them. She thinks it’s to help solidify the fact that they’re supposed to be dating, supposed to be into one another. Which isn’t very hard when he does things like that with his tongue.

“I never said you didn’t,” Rio tosses her trash like he did with his own before turning to look at her, handing her a napkin to wipe her hands off. “But I can tell you want more. Nothin’s wrong with that.”

Then why does it feel so guilty for her to admit— “I want to open up a craft shop one day.” She swallows, letting it sink into the air around them. She’s never told anyone that before, not even her best friend or her sister.

Beth always considered her crafts to be some sort of pet project, something Dean got her supplies for to keep her busy and numb in routine. But when she thinks about it? She really enjoys the things she makes. She’s good at it—and that’s important.

“I’m pretty good with my hands; I’ve made a lot of costumes for my kids from scratch, jewelry, small ceramic pieces. I think…I think I could sell them? Make a store for moms,” She chews on her lower lip, glancing over at Rio. “Probably sounds…” She wants to say the word ‘stupid’ or ‘pointless’, something that conveys how Dean’s made her feel every time she’s tried to share an idea with him.

Most of the time he wasn’t really listening but when he was, he kinda scrunched his face together and looked at her with sympathy because: Bethy when are you going to find the time to do that between being a PTA lead and a mother? Dinner doesn’t just cook itself.

“Like you could be your own boss,” Rio finishes without a moment’s hesitation.

It’s not what she expects him to say, not in the slightest, but it warms her from the inside out either way. She nods because yes, she’s never thought about it like that but yes, that’s exactly how she wants it to feel. Not only being able to do something she really loves, and enjoying it, but not having to answer to anyone about what’s best for her.

Rio hums softly, moving to slip off the car. Beth swings her legs around and toes her shoes back on. They’re still buckled and she refuses to reach down and put them on properly since she’s going home, she just has to make it back into the car, but she’s just wobbly enough that her ankle twists when she puts her full weight onto her feet.

She swerves and Beth swears she’s about to hit pavement but Rio is there, quickly, grabbing her arms and balancing her before she can fall. She lets out a short breath, her hands falling to his broad chest as she looks down at her shoes.

“Damn death traps.”

“Well, it’d probably help if you put ‘em on properly.” He smiles a little as she looks up at him and it takes her half a moment to realize how close they are.

How easy it would be to lean up on unsteady shoes and kiss him, how he’d probably taste like hints of chocolate and strawberry. She waits for him to let her go, for his hands to disappear from her waist, holding her upright and close to him. But he doesn’t.

Beth licks her own lips, her eyes looking to his lower one, how it pouts out gently when he looks at her—and she decides to stop waiting for things she wants. If she’s going to pay for his company, she might as well enjoy it.

She presses her lips into his own, capturing something sweet, their lips moving together like they were always made to kiss. Rio’s one hand leaves her waist to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing her hair back around her ear before they eventually have to pull back. She’s breathing a little shakily, their noses brushing, Rio taking his time to trace her cheekbone with his lips before he opens up the car door for her.

“You’re not charging me extra for the gentleman treatment, are you?” Or for the kisses I keep stealing?

Rio smiles, a soft laugh leaving his throat as he waits for her to put her seatbelt on. “Not yet.” And closes her door with a wink.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: A winking emoji with a purple eggplant

Beth peruses the snack aisle at a rest stop on their drive to Grand Rapids, scrunching her nose at every fake cheese item she sees. She gets things like that for the kids sometimes but the idea of eating it herself kinda makes her stomach roll. Not that she’d put something like Doritos in the same category…obviously different (at least that’s what she tells herself) but tries to pick a snack that won’t unsettle her stomach any more than it already is.

She’s glad Rio pulled over for gas when they did; she wants to stretch her legs and ready herself for the next hour and a half of travel. The first part wasn’t so bad, she offered to drive but Rio wouldn’t let her, so she ended up sleeping for some of it. His taste in music isn’t the worst she’s ever heard, but she does tease him about bopping along to Top 40 songs. Though with the way his lips curl around lyrics, fast words and up-tempo beats, she’s not exactly complaining.

Beth places a hand on her stomach and takes a slow breath in through her nose—it’s only a two-hour drive but she’s always had a little trouble with car trips. The nausea rolls through her midsection in waves and suddenly eating something doesn’t sound like a great idea.

Her phone starts to vibrate in her pocket and she slips it out of her leggings to look at the caller ID, a soft smile tugging the corner of her lips as she answers, “Hi, Annie.”

“Thank God, I was about to report you as a missing person, have the police call the BAU like they do in Criminal Minds.”

Beth rolls her eyes, fingering a corner of Ding-Dongs, “I fell asleep in the car, you know how I am with long drives.”

Annie hums and if Beth listens closely enough, she can hear the distant chattering of other people in the background, the beeping of a check-out aisle and Boomer making annoying announcements on the intercom about ‘subscribe and save’.

“Are you calling me from work?”

“I’m on break,” Annie informs her, “Besides, I shouldn’t have to be calling you at all. You should be sending me text-by-text updates.”

“I’ve been busy,” She chews on her lower lip, trying to swallow down the excuse and make it a part of her. She’s been meaning to call her, really she has, she’s just…not sure what to say.

A wave of the past few days comes flooding into the forefront of her mind; Rio’s grip on her waist, the taste of champagne on his lips, custard sandwiches and gray suits and talking about her future, her wants, far too genuine expressions on his face as he listens.

Really listens to her.

She shakes her head and clears her throat, listens to Annie mill around the grocery store.

“Busy being busy?” She can hear her grin and Beth lets out a short huff of annoyance. “Are you gonna share details or do I have to guess?” Her sister finally says, “My break is only for another five minutes. Is he worth all the money?”

“He’s worth it,” Beth says a little too quickly, her cheeks kissing pink before she runs a hand over her forehead. “Yeah, it’s…let’s just say I understand why he has such a high review.”

Annie smirks and something crinkles through the phone line; most likely her sister grabbing chips right off the shelf and opening them up. A crunching noise greets her next which just confirms her suspicions,

“Yeah? Do tell.” Her words are muffled slightly, mouth full, and Beth pinches her eyes closed for a moment because the sound is gross.

“You better be payin’ for those,” She hears a man tell her to which Annie replies, “Fuck off, Boomer, I’m on break.”

A soft chuckle leaves Beth’s lips as she moves around the tiny convenience store, still on the search for her own snack. Maybe Chex-Mix? “He’s just been very supportive—”

“What kinda stuff is he supporting for you?” Annie’s grinning, she can hear it, and Beth finally has to put her metaphorical foot down.

“Will you stop and just listen? I told you that’s not what I hired hm for.”

Annie lets out a slow breath but relents, mumbling about being wound too tight, but she does let Beth continue.

“He stood up to Dean’s mother for me and you know that woman has always been a nightmare,” Annie hums in agreement before the bag of chips crinkles again, “He just,” She picks up a bag of Chex-Mix, finally deciding to buy them. She isn’t sure how to describe what she’s feeling or if she wants to tell her everything that’s been happening.

Some of it feels private, hers alone.

Like the kiss after the custard sandwiches.

“He’s sweet and thoughtful and I know the gentleman thing is part of what he does but,” She chews on her lower lip, “It’s nice to be thought of. To be seen.” Beth clears her throat. “He notices things without me having to tell him and—” She bites her tongue, hard, on saying he cares.

Annie makes a low noise and it almost sounds like she’s choking on a chip as the words spill from her mouth, “Oh my god, Beth, you like him.”

She blinks, looking up to see Rio walk into the rest-stop. He’s dressed in a black pair of jeans and a white t-shirt, she never realized he had block tattoos on the back of his arms until this very moment and suddenly the thought makes her knees weak. There’s a maroon beanie sticking out of his back pocket and he smiles at a woman when he holds the door open for her; a too-easy handsome. Annie’s words are ringing in her head as she watches him; he begins glancing up and down the aisles, looking for something—until she realizes he’s looking for her, his eyes finding her easily and softening at the contact.

“I have to go,” She says quickly into the phone as he approaches.

“Seriously, Beth, you couldn’t find someone to like that didn’t cost five thousand dollars—”

Beth hangs up on her, sticking her phone back into her leggings with a loose smile as he stands before her, looking down at the snack in her hands.

“You feelin’ better?”

She clears her throat, dizzy, but it isn’t from the car ride—it’s from the combination of his cologne, laundry detergent and skin melting into her like a dripping candle. “What?”

“I noticed you were lookin’ a little pale so I pulled off,” He reaches behind her to get a water out of the cooler.

Beth’s mouth falls open slightly as she realizes, “Oh, I…I thought we needed gas.”

Rio shrugs and takes the Chex-Mix from her, slowly making their way towards the register. “Yeah, we filled up but I also didn’t want you losin’ it on the upholstery.”

Something warm grips the bottom of her ribcage at him being so observant; she’s not used to this. Often it felt like she had to hit Dean with a battering ram just to get him to notice anything, especially when she needed him. But…the fact that Rio does it so effortlessly, like breathing—

Oh, no.

“You ready?” He asks after he pays, crumpling up the receipt to put in his front pocket. He hands her the Chex-Mix and holds the door open for her, finding their way back to his car.

Oh, no, no, no.

Rio raises an eyebrow when she doesn’t answer him and after he tosses the bottle of water into the front seat, he turns to hook her chin with his fingers. His thumb curls a strand of her hair in place and he tucks it behind her ear.

“You sure you’re good?”

“Yeah,” She nods, giving him a more confident smile before pulling back to walk to her side of the car. “I’m good.”

She was so not good.

--

They finally reach the hotel downtown in Grand Rapids and Beth’s never been happier to crawl out of a car and create some space for herself. She knows she’s going to have to share a room with him for a few days but the idea of unpacking her suitcase and bringing a sense of organization to her life is comforting.

Maybe she can carve out some time on her own; find a nice café, grab a cup of coffee and sit in a park to clear her head before the wedding tomorrow. She just has to make it through another seventy-two hours; in three measly days she’ll pay him the other half of what he’s owed and he’ll go on his way to be a stand-in for another woman who needs him.

Three days. Seventy-two hours. Beth just has to buckle down and swallow these feelings that are just the byproduct of spending so much time with him in a heightened emotionally vulnerable state. That’s all it is. She needs Rio and he’s there for her; it’s some sort of warped Stockholm syndrome.

Nothing more.

She’ll get over this and carry on like she’s done with anything else.

Beth lets out a soft sigh as she approaches the front desk at the hotel to check-in, Rio left behind with the car to grab their bags and pay the valet.

She takes her credit card out to put on the room and takes a look around the lobby while the receptionist finishes a phone call. The hotel is contemporary, a lot of black glass and metal, white flowers to put softening touches in places.

“Sorry for the wait, miss, can I have a last name for the reservation.”

Beth clears her throat, “Boland, Elizabeth.” She bites down on the tip of her tongue, hoping the woman doesn’t mention anything about her last name matching Dean’s—because she knows the entire wedding party is staying here. That the kids came up earlier with Dean and are staying with his mother in a suite—at least she can count on Judith for something.

It’s the first time she entertains the thought about switching back to her maiden name. An idea that comes and goes because the receptionist hums with a soft smile,

“Ah, yes okay. A queen bed on the 16th floor for three days, two nights?”

She frowns as the woman continues talking because wait, what? “I’m sorry,” She interrupts, “It was supposed to be two full beds, not one queen.”

A confusion line appears between the woman’s eyebrows as she does a various amount of clicking, scrolling and looking at what seems to be notes left behind on Beth’s account. “It says here that you…were two full beds but your sister called to inform us that a mistake was made and that you needed a queen? She had your confirmation number.”

Her mouth opens and closes like a goldfish a moment because what? She can’t even hear what the rest of the receptionist says because a boiling anger she’s never felt before starts bubbling in her bloodstream, making her see red.

She’s going to kill Annie.

“That was a mistake,” She all but snaps, clearing her throat afterwards because it’s not this poor woman’s fault. “I’m sorry, I uh. She was…mistaken. I need the two full beds.”

She draws back a little, looking down at her computer and clicking a few more times. “I’m sorry but all rooms are currently booked. We have a few weddings in town at the moment, there’s no room to switch you to.”

A wave of panic draws up from the middle of her chest and she bites down on the knee-jerk reaction of pulling the middle-aged white woman card and asking for a manager. There’s nothing she can do—

“Please, are you sure? I need two beds.”

“I can’t make a bedroom appear, ma’am.” The receptionist says evenly, clearly losing her patience. Then something changes over her face, a calmed expression painted with self-interest and Beth realizes it’s because Rio’s approaching the desk from over her shoulder.

“Everything alright?” He asks, setting their bags down, giving a soft smile to the woman behind the desk.

Beth clears her throat, straightening her shoulders. “They only have a one bed room.”

Rio holds her gaze for a moment like she might be crazy and she resists the urge to smack him with her credit card.

“Right,” He drawls slowly and takes a look at the receptionist again. “We’ll take it, thank you.” He hands her Beth’s card, slipping it out from her fingertips and then puts a cash tip on the counter before grabbing her elbow to pull her away.

“I was handling it,” She hisses, maneuvering out from his touch and grabbing one of her bags from him.

“You were scarin’ the receptionist and a line was formin’ behind you. Always causin’ a scene, hmm?” He teases, hitting the button for the elevator.

She has her phone out to text Annie, leaning against the walls of the elevator as the floors begin to rise: Now who’s out of their /damn/ mind???

That feels like too many question marks but she’s still riled up from the situation at the front desk. She can see Annie typing, the bubble appearing with the ellipses, but she should know better than to try and get a conversation out of her sister when she really needs it. The only text back she gets is a winking emoji with a purple eggplant.

Rio holds the elevator open for her when they reach their floor, making their way down the silver-walled hallway to the room. He takes the key out of his pocket and waits for the indicator to flash green before toeing the door open.

Beth lets out a slow breath; the room’s a decent size, much of the décor matching the style of the lobby…and their queen-sized bed sitting in the center of the room.

Fuck.

“Sleepin’ together isn’t gonna kill you,” He says after a moment, letting the door close behind them. He sets their bags down near the bathroom and goes to draw the curtains open to let in a little more daylight into the space.

“It’s…I’m not worried about sleeping together, I was doing all that for your benefit. I figured you’d want some space to yourself.” She sits down on the corner of the bed.

Rio smirks, not believing a word of what she’s saying as he toes off his shoes and plops down onto the bed, lying on his back. The sudden weight nearly makes her tumble off the edge and she adjusts herself quickly, accidently grabbing his shin.

Like a burn, her touch is gone as soon as she makes contact.

That stupid smirk is still on Rio’s lips, “We’re supposed to be a couple,” He points out, looking down at her through his eyelashes. His head is tipped slightly back, exposing his throat and his stupid tattoo. She squashes the sudden urge to kiss his neck. “Couples share a bed.”

“Don’t make me make you sleep on the floor.” She mumbles but lies back on the bed herself, their shoulders brushing. Beth makes it her goal to stare at the ceiling, refusing to look at him even though his presence is overwhelming.

She can smell his cologne and feel his body heat as if he’s on top of her, crushing her.

“Don’t worry, ma,” He turns his head to look at her and she does the same out of instinct, watching him lick his lips, “I won’t sleep naked like I usually do.” He winks, completely fucking with her, before he rolls off the bed to grab his suitcase.

She’s definitely going to kill Annie when she gets back home.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Part of the job

Beth snags her time away from Rio because she’s not sure she’s going to be able to function sanely if she doesn’t. Dollar signs keep dancing in front of her eyes every moment she’s away from him and she understands that it’s not worth paying for something if you don’t…well, use seems like the wrong word. Regardless, she hadn’t planned on sleeping in the same bed with him so this time to think is crucial.

She grabs a cup of coffee, sits in a park for a half of an hour and then goes back to the hotel to gather her kids to have dinner. It’s nothing too fancy, just something quick that sates everyone’s appetites. When she has to hear the topic of conversation switch to ‘dad getting married’ for the thousandth time she wishes for a meteor to hit the restaurant. Maybe she should have invited Rio along as a distraction, for her and for the kids; she knows Jane will love the bird tattoo.

As she grabs to-go containers and makes sure everyone’s holding hands for the walk back to the hotel, she finds herself slipping into something she thinks about far too often: the idea of telling her kids the truth about their father.

Beth doesn’t think she’d ever be able to do it and they’ve been great so far with the separation; different days with each parent, separate holidays, a shared dinner every so often. No acting out, no crying, no arguments—at least not yet, she thinks that maybe they can sense that her and Dean are happier this way. Her kids sometimes have an uncanny ability to read her when she least expects it, like words are printed directly on her skin from a bedtime story she’s forgotten.

But when her kids say stuff about missing their father, or wanting to spend more time with him, or sometimes they wish that when it was her day that they were seeing him instead—she selfishly bites down on every fiber in her being that prompts her to be honest with them.

To let them know what kind of man their father is.

But she never does…and she knows she never will. Destroying their idea of him will only hurt them in the end and that’s the last thing Beth wants.

Beth sighs as she drops off her kids to Judith’s hotel room with a small wave, the woman giving her a look up and down that she can feel bubble under her skin.

“It’s past their bedtime.”

She looks at her cellphone and shrugs her one shoulder, it’s only nearing ten. “Restaurant was busy. Thanks for looking after them.”

Judith straightens her shoulders and clears her throat, “Well, I’m sure you’re far too… preoccupied to take care of your children tonight.” Beth bristles, her lower jaw working as she tries to take a deep breath through her mouth before letting it out of her nose.

It’s not worth getting into an argument with this woman, she knows that firsthand. “Goodnight, Judith.”

“Don’t be late tomorrow.” And closes the door right in her face.

Beth stands there for a long moment before finally deciding to head to the elevator, flipping her room key between her fingers as the floors disappear beneath her. Forty-eight hours and counting.

She sighs softly and slips into her room once she’s reached it, the lamps on the nightstands golden and bright even though Rio appears to be in bed. The TVs on but not loud enough to be heard, gentle white noise paired with the soft glow of blue light. Beth grabs her bag and heads into the bathroom to take a long shower before changing into her pajamas.

The water’s hot enough to leave her skin with a soft pink sheen and she’s comforted by the smell of roses that accompany her shampoo and conditioner. She doesn’t bother to blow dry her hair but she does towel it off and run a brush through it several times to get knots out. She’ll have to curl it for tomorrow anyways.

Her stomach lurches at the thought—tomorrow. She just hopes it won’t be as painful as she’s predicting. One long ceremony and a reception to get through, that’s it.

It won’t be that bad, she muses as she pulls her pajamas on, not with Rio there.

She glances at herself in the mirror, a tired version of herself staring back. Beth bites down hard on her the tip of her tongue, repeating a mantra that she’s kept buried underneath her ribs for what feels like forever. You are good enough. This wedding and Dean’s choices up until then have nothing to do with her. They’re not a reflection of her as a woman, a wife or a mother.

She swallows thickly, refuses to cry, and puts lotion on her face.

Maybe by the time she gets back out there Rio will be asleep and that’ll be one less thing she has to worry about.

Beth clears her throat as she leaves the bathroom, putting her bag back with the others near the door before wandering towards the bed. Rio’s back is to her and he thankfully has a t-shirt on; this one is a soft maroon. She can see the smooth lines of his back and her gaze ticks over the block tattoos on the back of his one arm that sits on top of the comforter.

She reaches for the TV remote when Rio shifts, “Leave it on for a little longer. I have trouble sleepin’ in hotels.”

“Sometimes I need white noise too.” She agrees before moving to her side of the bed, trying to focus on anything that’s not Rio against starched off-white sheets. His face is pressed gently into his pillow, his breath even and—

She grabs a bunch of pillows that were toppers on a chair and starts creating a mountain between them.

“Talking to more of your clients?” She asks as she sees his phone in his hand. Rio scoffs out a sound that’s a mixture between annoyed and amused as he turns to put it on the nightstand, eyeing the pillow disaster Beth’s creating.

“I was FaceTiming my son.”

She pauses a moment, her eyes skittering over the lines of his face. “You…”

He raises an eyebrow, “I told you I did.”

But she didn’t realize that was something real. “You didn’t tell me that you were being honest about that.”

Rio smiles a little, watching her shove a pillow down by his legs. “You never asked.”

She huffs out a soft sound and puts her hands on her hips, pausing her administrations. That’s not fair and he knows it; it’s never as simple as asking. Despite sharing things with one another, or being in a fake relationship, Rio hasn’t let her get close to him. Which…makes complete sense, this is a business deal, they need to be able to forget about one another when this whole thing is over.

Isn’t that why Rio said he never did weddings? Because of something ‘developing’? She decides to push the envelope anyways, because he’s an asshole for saying that she only need ask: “So does your son know what kind of work you do? Why you’re not home?”

She places a pillow at his chest and then one more for good measure near his…waist before crawling into bed. There’s a shadow that passes over Rio’s face, quick, almost gone as soon as it appears at her prying questions. He seems fine talking a little bit about his business, about his father’s café that he now owns, but won’t breech answers about his son. Which is fine, he doesn’t have to respond to her, she’s just proving a point.

He shifts in bed, letting out a slow sigh at the pillows because, “You afraid you won't be able to keep your hands to yourself?”

Beth rolls her eyes and pulls the covers up over her shoulder, “On the contrary,” She says, because why not, “I’m afraid that if I put my hands on you, I won’t be able to stop.” The heated surprise that greets her is more than satisfactory payment.

And she grins as she turns to face away from him, flipping the bedside lamp off.

--

It’s the third time that Beth trips over her heels on the floor as she gets ready that she finally picks one up and throws it. Her toss isn’t that heavy handed but she just manages to miss Rio’s head as he exits the bathroom, looking pristine like she’s cut him out of a GQ magazine. He’s fixing his cufflink; his entire three-piece suit is jet black except for the color of his pocket handkerchief which matches her dress.

Royal purple, what a stupid color—too dark to be lavender, too light to be boysenberry, doing her makeup was a pain. And what lipstick is she even supposed to wear with this?

“I see getting ready is going well.” He notes, turning to look at the scuff mark her shoe has made in the wall.

She lets herself sit down on a chair near the windows; her dress isn’t zipped; her hair feels like it’s falling out of the gentle updo she attempted and now one of her shoes is across the room. “Don’t.”

She sits in a chair in front of the window to buckle the one shoe she still has, taking her time to stare at the floor because she’s a little embarrassed about her outburst. She knew her nerves were going to be off-kilter but she didn’t expect this. She’s not angry, but worse, she’s upset—she’s hurt even though this wedding shouldn’t be affecting her like this.

It’s not like she doesn’t want Dean to get married, Katie or Chloe, whatever her name is can have him. She doesn’t regret not trying to make things work, even for the kids as Judith so helpfully supplied at the rehearsal dinner. She knows this is the best choice for both parties, she doesn’t love Dean anymore.

But something in her chest aches, a heavy weight that’s been with her for a long time; the sensation that screams to her that all of this is somehow her fault because she wasn’t a good enough wife or mother in the first place.

It feels etched into her bones.

Which is…she knows it’s absolutely ridiculous. But sometimes even when she tells herself not to feel a certain way, it doesn’t work.

Rio crouches in front of her and when she looks up, he has her other shoe in his hands. She bites down on her lower lip, “Please don’t Cinderella me right now, not when you look like that.”

He chuckles under his breath but lifts her shin up anyways, slipping her other shoe on and buckling it with ease. “Quicker we get outta here, sooner it’s over. Stand up, let me zip you.”

Beth sighs dramatically but does as she’s told, turning when she stands so Rio can adjust her straps and zip the fabric together. It’s a modest number, something unassuming in hopes that she blends into the crowd. She matches the wedding party because of her kids, this stupid color that never bothered her before somehow making her skin crawl. The dress falls just above her knees, a crimped skirt with a waist that hugs and satin flowing sleeves. It’s beautiful, really, and if she wasn’t so miserable, she might even appreciate the look.

Rio squeezes her arms so that she turns around and he lifts his hand to curl her hair behind her ear. She closes her eyes at the touch, can’t help it; wants to bury herself in it.

“No one asked you to look so perfect,” She says after a moment, her eyes opening to glance over his form again as she puts her hand on his chest.

“Part of the job,” He teases, his hand covering hers as she fingers at the lapels of his suit.

They hold one another’s gazes for a moment, nearly pressed into one another, breathing the same air. Rio is rubbing his thumb along the outside of her wrist, waiting for her to make the first move. He’s too good at this, offering comfort, seeming to know exactly what she needs without her having to say anything.

It’s a slippery slope she’s tired of sliding down.

“We’re cutting out of the reception early; I’ll be lucky if I make it through the ceremony sober.”

He smirks gently and pulls back to grab her shawl, helping her slip it over her shoulders. “Whatever you want.”

Whatever she wants? If it were up to her she’d be skipping the whole thing entirely—despite the gossip she knows she’ll be a part of if she doesn’t show up.

--

The wedding itself, isn’t as bad as she thought it might be. The most painful part is showing up to the chapel and then it’s all downhill from there. It’s a beautiful setup, which altogether just wants to make her roll her eyes—white lace around purple and blue flower arrangements. Simple but delicate and as soon as she sees it she wishes she didn’t have to wear the same color that tied everyone in the wedding party together.

All her kids are walking down the aisle in the procession, so she slips into the back room near the entrance for a moment to hug them and make sure they’re all looking their best. Rio hangs out just outside, hands in his pockets, watching her—she can feel his eyes on her, always, just out of reach.

She makes sure to tell the kids who he is, a small conversation that seems necessary, referring to him as her wedding date—not her boyfriend. Her boys watch him with a careful gaze but none of them are too keen on saying hello, which is a relief. When this whole thing is over, they’ll probably forget she ever introduced them in the first place.

Jane’s always been the most curious one of her kids, so she looks up at him as she plays with the purple lace of her flower girl dress and walks up to him with confidence that should belong to someone older.

“You got a bird on your neck.”

Rio smirks softly and kneels down so he’s eyelevel and before Beth can tell Jane to not bother him, he smooths his fingers against petals in her headband. “And you got flowers in your hair.”

Jane smiles almost instantly, obviously pleased that he’s noticed and twirls her skirt. “Look at my dress when I spin!”

She nearly knocks herself off balance and Beth chuckles a little as she moves to pick her up, but Rio’s steadying her so she doesn’t fall with a soft expression on his face that does something to her insides.

He’s clearly been in this situation before, perhaps not quite the same with his son, but the patience that comes from watching a kid do something silly for maybe the thousandth time. His face is soft, warm, and attentive, like whatever Jane’s about to do or say is his whole world and something heavy appears between her ribcage.

Seeing Rio with her kids is something else.

“That’s quite impressive.” He tells Jane seriously as Beth picks her up and puts her back with her siblings. She has to end this interaction quickly before she has too much time to think about it.

“Good luck my darlings.” She smiles at all of them, blowing them kisses and closing the door behind her.

Rio offers his arm to her so that they can begin the walk to their seats, “Cute kids.”

She smiles a little, curling a loose strand of hair around her ear. “They’re the only thing Dean’s ever done right.”

“I wouldn’t say the only thing.” He says softly, hand on her lower back as he guides her into one of the pews.

She holds his gaze after that, letting his words sink into her pores and live there. A soft pink flush appears on her cheeks and down her neck, sitting idly on her collarbones. She wants to tell him that he’s far too good at that, knowing what she needs to hear, but she’d rather stay in the moment by looking at him.

He smiles a little, unreasonably handsome in his black on black suit and she leans forward to do something incredibly stupid and just manages to stop herself.

She can’t keep kissing him like this when she knows it’s starting to feel different. Like it’s not about the job or how much she’s paying him or what it looks like to other people, it’s not about him comforting her or being there to hold her hand or how his eyes always seem to trail over her lips right before they kiss.

It’s not about an act.

But reality is always there to remind her that it is—the wedding procession song beginning and breaking the moment between them.

Beth pulls back suddenly and shakes her head, fixing her gaze forward. If Rio notices, it doesn’t show, he simply lets hand fall from her back and begins to watch her kids start down the aisle. She can’t stop a smile from breaking out on her face, taking her phone out to snap a few pictures to send to Annie and Ruby—because despite the fact that she’s here doesn’t change how beautiful they all look.

She lets out a slow sigh and sets her phone back down, straightening her shoulders for some reason to prepare herself for the bride to make her way to Dean when the music suddenly swelling. Her eyes flicker to Dean at the alter and part of her wishes it hadn’t—what she’s met with is something she never thought would bother her, but the clear amount of love and admiration on his face feels like a knife to her side.

It’s like she’s suddenly having trouble breathing, her knuckles turning white as she grips the pew in front of her.

Beth’s conflicted with a mountain of feelings that somehow seem too contradictory building up in her chest. It’s not that she wants Dean to look at her like that but it’s the fact that he never really has. That if he would have valued her just once like he seems to his new wife, that they may not be where they are today: one family being torn apart to build another.

She swallows thickly, her gaze slipping to something anything in front of her so she doesn’t have to watch Kate float down the aisle. The many ‘awes’ and gasps around her just builds a picture in her mind’s eye about how beautiful she looks and she knows distantly that this has nothing to do with Kate, or Dean, but everything to do with herself. She reaches the alter and they begin vows that she wonders if Dean will hold truthfully this time.

Rio breaks her spiral; he snaps her right out of it by his hand covering hers on the pew. He runs his thumb over her white knuckles and takes her palm into his own, lacing their fingers. He squeezes, forcing her gaze back up to his, his eyes a constant state of calm that washes over her like cold water.

And because he can read her so well, because he knows what she needs but won’t ask for it, he leans forward and captures her lips.

She instantly knows that something has changed, but she isn’t sure what, can’t name it with words. Rio’s lips move gently against her own, intimately, drawing her out of her thoughts and melting into his chest. His arm slips around her waist to pull her close and they only stop when someone behind them pointedly clears their throat.

He’s smiling against her mouth, making the corners of her own pull up instinctively.

Before she realizes it, people are clapping, Dean pulls back from kissing Kate and they begin to walk back down the aisle, the procession following. Beth joins her hands together in a few slow claps, glancing back at Rio with a careful expression,

“Thought you said you didn’t want to have to keep kissing me to get me to relax.”

Rio smirks, bumping their shoulders together just because he can before picking her shawl up off the pew. “I did that for myself so I wouldn’t have to listen to the vows.” Beth laughs suddenly, the sound almost surprising enough that she covers her mouth for a moment.

Rio wraps the fabric around her shoulders, using it as leverage to pull her a little closer as people start emptying out of the chapel to follow the bride and groom. “Not all of this is about you,” He teases, “Not once have you considered my needs.”

She raises her eyebrows and lets her hands fall to his sides, anchoring herself for a moment, a deviant sparkle in her eyes as she says, “Oh alright, I didn’t realize this was a two-way street. But it seems if I’m going to be helping you with your needs, you should give some of that money back to me.”

Beth straightens her shoulders, her smile easy and she licks her lips. “Who knows, maybe I’ll be better at this business than you are. Create my own profile and everything.”

Rio shakes his head, something flickering over his features that offers her a conflicting message: she’s not sure whether he doesn’t like the idea of her doing this job with other men or that he doesn’t want to entertain the competition even if they are joking with one another.

She continues anyways as she settles her hands on his chest, looking up at him through her eyelashes. His arms snake around her waist, holding her close, his chest pressing into her own as they breathe.

“So as my first client,” Beth brushes their lips together. “What do you need?”

His lips quirk before he kisses her nose, “Trust me, when I figure it out? You’ll be the first to know.”

The proposition alone is enough to make her dizzy, Beth allowing him to turn her and wrap an arm around her waist as they walk out of the chapel.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: But not you

The reception is held in the hotel ballroom and honestly, Beth’s just glad it’s in the same building as her bed. She meant what she said to Rio about leaving this thing as soon as possible, and she considers using the kids as an excuse for an early bedtime. With a swap of flats for heels, she takes in a refreshed breath about dealing with this thing head on—she can finally see the finish line, which…

She glances at Rio, who is talking to a small group of women, she thinks aunts and grandmothers related to both bride and groom. He’s taken his suit jacket off and rolled up his sleeves to his elbows, the vest still buttoned and hugging his frame like a gift bow that needs to be tugged open. She chews on her lower lip, her eyes traveling over his form as he offers polite smiles and laughs when appropriate.

Beth’s not sure she’s ready for this thing to be over.

She takes a large gulp of wine in irony because she should be celebrating that she only has to make it through tonight and a brunch tomorrow before check-out. She turns away from her date to take in the ballroom, elegantly decorated in the same fashion as the chapel with large round tables surrounding a dance floor that her kids are already spinning on.

Beth finds herself smiling gently at them, nearly falling over one another, having a good time as they bop to the music. She takes in a slow breath before crossing the space to the bar, pulling a few ones from her purse to put into the tip jar as she gets another glass of wine.

She should probably slow down at some point so she doesn’t get a headache later in the night but…a few more drinks currently won’t hurt. When she goes to look back at her kids, Dean is approaching her—he’s wearing something more comfortable than his tuxedo, in a simple pair of grey slacks and a blue button-down shirt. Just by looking at him she knows this is the conversation his eyes told her at the rehearsal dinner that they were going to have, that it’s unavoidable.

“Can we talk?” He asks over the music and Beth’s eyes try to find Rio’s in the crowd but she doesn’t see him.

She sighs before nodding her head, motioning towards the big double doors that lead into the hallway and a patio at the back of the hotel. It takes every fiber in Beth’s being not to run outside, to leave this conversation before it even begins but she knows it’s coming down the pipeline. If she doesn’t have this now, she’ll just have to do it at another time—at least at this reception she has a glass of wine and Rio in tow.

Beth bites her tongue on saying ‘let’s get this over with’ when Dean sighs out, relaxed like he’s stepped out of a spa, and smiles at her. “You know I’m happy for you, it’s not that I didn’t want you to move on…”

Her eyes nearly roll back into her head and she takes another sip of wine, her refill almost gone already. If this is going to be her only lifeline for this conversation, she’s going to take advantage of it because Dean isn’t just giving her this talk because he wants her to be happy. No, there’s a hidden knife underneath the softness of his words, striking her between her ribs when she least expects it.

The wine sinks itself into her bloodstream, making her feel warm and fuzzy as the other shoe drops.

“I just thought it would be with someone different.”

She clears her throat, “You mean you pictured me with someone else who was more like you.”

Another cookie cut-out of suburban life, of her ending up in another situation that she’s just left. She wants nothing more in that moment for Rio to be real, for him to be her actual boyfriend than just this business deal of a long weekend—for him to stick around with all his differences and further dig under Dean’s skin. Distantly though she knows that wouldn’t be fair; Rio isn’t a prop or an accessory but she just hates the stupid look on her ex-husband’s face as he tries to give her unwarranted advice.

“What do you really know about this guy, Beth? Kate was able to find him on Facebook and—”

Oh my God,” Beth snaps, nearly breaking the stem of her wine glass. “You’re unbelievable.”

He sighs out softly, that gentle irritated look that always makes her feel like she’s being hysterical for no reason, “Did you know he has a kid?”

Beth digs her heels into the carpet and pauses to take another large sip of wine so she doesn’t do something stupid like throw the liquid all over his pressed blue shirt. Don’t say something you’ll regret, you’re above his baiting.  

“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I did. Rio tells me things, which is more than I can say for some people.”

He holds her gaze and for a moment she can tell that he might actually regret wanting to have this conversation but instead of just ending it right there, he continues, “I’m just looking out for you…I want to make sure he makes you happy and laugh,” Dean’s lips quirk up a little, a fond memory on his tongue, “You know that one that makes your nose scrunch.”

Beth swallows thickly, bile heavy in the back of her throat. She tries to get it to go away with another sip of wine, but she’s running low, and has a feeling they’re not done talking yet. She stares up at him, unamused that he’s trying to bring up the past like they were something special, something happy.

Rose-colored bullshit.

“Well, he doesn’t make me cry.” She says evenly.

Dean takes in a sharp breath, glancing to the ballroom where he’s left guests waiting. His new bride waiting. There’s a hesitation there, like he wants to leave but doesn’t want their talk to end like this. She just wants to ask him what did you honestly expect to happen?

“Make sure you know what you’re getting into,” Which is too ironic coming from him. He really wants her to ‘make sure she knows what kind of a man she’s getting involved with’? “I just…I know you’re a better mother than jumping in feet first.”

Beth distantly knows that in Dean’s mind, that’s supposed to be some sort of praise as he turns to walk back but she almost has trouble picking her jaw up off the floor because what? No, he doesn’t just get to say that and walk away. He doesn’t get to leave her with a backhanded compliment and call it a night.

“You know Dean,” She says after him, making him pause and turn. She approaches him with her too-empty wine glass, needing another refill. “I didn’t tell the kids the truth about what happened between us because I don’t want them to hate you.”

A realization settles in Dean’s eyes, nearly turning him to stone—it’s fear, she recognizes, and for once Beth feels like she might actually have the upper hand.

“And I’m not going to tell them right now but when they grow up? I’m not lying anymore,” She bites down on the inside of her cheek, glancing into the ballroom to see her little girls spinning in dresses and laughing.

It hits her hard in the chest, like a cinderblock.

“Especially the girls, who need to know what kind of men they don’t need in their lives. No matter what.”

Beth doesn’t mean to bump into him as she walks past but is kind of glad she does; the remnants of red wine in her glass slips over the edges and stains his perfect blue shirt.

--

She’s another drink in by the time Rio finds her, seeking her through the crowd as she eats directly from the dessert table. Beth’s once again reminded how pleased she is that she has flats on because it makes the sway of her feet less noticeable when she turns to look at her date.

“Where have you been?”

Rio licks his lips and reaches around her for a mini-cupcake. “I had to make a phone call.” It’s not that he says it flippantly and she knows that he can do whatever he needs to, she doesn’t have him on a leash for Christ’s sake—

But she makes a noise of distaste because she’s annoyed and a little drunk. It doesn’t take long for him to pick up on her vibes because she’s sending them out via smoke signals. He slowly unwraps the cupcake and pops it into his mouth.

“S’matter with you?”

She bites down hard on the inside of her cheek but doesn’t reply right away, instead she takes another sip of wine. “I’m paying you to be here.”

A muscle works in Rio’s jaw which tells her she’s toeing the line of his patience; she notices that he doesn’t like the mention of money, unless they’re teasing about it. But when it’s serious? There’s a flare of aggravation that’s almost immediate…and maybe she’s pressing that button purpose.

“Call was an emergency.” She can tell that’s not what he wants to say but offers that up anyways. She knows with her current attitude problem that he won’t give her any more details than that.

As it takes a second for the words to settle into her skin, she wants to ask whether he’s alright. Beth swallows down a heavy bout of guilt with another gulp of wine; she hopes it’s nothing to do with his son. She crosses her arms over her chest and clears her throat, like that’ll somehow restart the conversation as she glances at the dessert table.

“You know with all this money spent; they could have bought a damn cookie tray. You know those double chocolate ones with the…chocolate batter?” She’s rambling just a little about cookies? and takes her final sip of wine that finishes the glass. She just hopes her words aren’t stringing together too pathetically.

Rio tilts his head to get a better look at her and his hand comes down on her arm as she stares at the dessert table, like the cookie tray might appear out of thin air from concentrating.

“Are you…” He pauses for a moment, assessing the situation himself but doesn’t finish his sentence.

Beth lets out a dramatic sigh that fluffs her bangs, “Maybe.”

A sound mixed between a scoff and a smirk leaves Rio’s lips before he nods, gently taking the wine glass from her to put on the table. “C’mon, we’re gettin’ out of here.”

She lets Rio take her hand and guide her away from the dessert table and out of the ballroom; part of her wants to argue that she should probably make sure the kids are taken care of but they’re staying in Judith’s room so…maybe the responsibility doesn’t have to be on her shoulders. Maybe she should allow herself to be taken care of for once.

“Where are we going?”

“Water n’bed.” Rio says as he hits the call button for the elevator.

Beth scrunches her nose and looks to the ceiling, definitely knocking herself off balance as the room spins. Rio lets out a short grunt as he catches her, steadying her against his chest.

“In that order? That’s so boring.”

He chuckles slightly, guiding them into the elevator before hitting their floor. “You got somethin’ else you’d rather do?”

She can’t help but grin at the question, poking at his chest. “I think you know what I’d rather like to do.” It’s like hot lava pouring from her lips, she can’t seem to stop it and she knows she’ll have burns later.

Rio hums under his breath but doesn’t respond, concentrates instead on getting her out of the elevator and into their room. He throws the room key down on the small table near the bathroom and sits her on the bed.

“Stay there,” He says when she tries to get up, holding onto her shoulders and pressing her gently down. “You good or you gonna slip off?” There’s an amused smile pulling handsomely at his lips as he tilts his head down to look at her, slipping his thumb and forefinger along her chin.

“Good, I’m so good.” She nods, determined to give him responses that make sense. She just wishes the room would stop spinning.

Only when he feels like she means it does he pull away from her. She closes her eyes as her fingers grip the comforter, trying to hold herself in place. None of this really helps and instead she just ends up feeling nauseas, forcing her eyes to open so she can see Rio.

He’s changed quickly, which makes her wonder how long she’s been sitting there. Approaching her in a soft pair of gray joggers and a black t-shirt makes heat unwantedly pool between her legs and Beth licks her lips, trying to focus on what he has in his hands.

“He…he said I wasn’t a good mom.”

A crinkle appears between Rio’s eyebrows and he pauses, “What?”

She swallows, not sure if her trail of thought makes sense. “Dean. Bad.” She gives as an explanation.

Something passes over Rio’s face but it’s gone as soon as it appears and he crouches in front of her, his one hand slipping over her knee a moment, “Do you think you’re a bad mom, Elizabeth?”

She holds his gaze for a long moment before shaking her head. He hums softly, squeezing, his thumb between her thighs and it’s really too distracting.

“Then fuck him; Dean seems like he can barely take care of himself let alone kids without your help.”

Beth giggles something ridiculous and covers her face with her hand a moment, glad she was able to cover that even though it doesn’t feel necessary.

“You got anythin’ other than mom pajamas?” He changes the subject as he digs through her suitcase. “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to get pants on you.”

She huffs out a sound and rubs a hand over her face, most likely smearing makeup in the worst way. “That’s alright, I like bein’ pantless.” She reaches over and is happy she doesn’t tumble, using one hand to hold onto his shoulder as the other rummages through her belongings. Beth pulls out a long t-shirt, not quite as long as a nightgown but it’ll cover the bits that matter.

“Here.”

She practically throws it at him and he drops her suitcase to catch it.

Him undressing her is a blur; she notes that he does his best to dip his gaze when he can to give her a little privacy. Just enough that she can figure out that her head doesn’t go into one of the arm holes and assists when she starts whining that she can’t get it right. She throws her wedding dress aside and kicks off her flats, letting out a soft huff when Rio disappears into the bathroom.

He comes back with a warm washcloth that smells like lilac body wash and he waits until her gaze focuses on him before he asks whether she can do this herself.

Beth nods a little absently, taking the washcloth from him and wiping her makeup off before handing it back to him. She pulls as many bobbypins as she can find from her hair and tosses them onto the floor, pulling her strands back up into a messy bun before collapsing face first into the bed.

She barely feels the bed dip as she smushes her face into her pillow, blankets being draped over her shoulders.

--

When she wakes up, she doesn’t remember where she is.

She lifts her head and groans softly, pinching her eyes with her thumb and forefinger trying to get the pounding to stop. There’s a soft blue light casting shadows on the headboard and wall and oh, that’s right, she’s in a hotel room.

Beth swallows and nearly sits up too fast, leaning up on her elbows because oh, oh fuck, now she remembers. A wave of nausea crashes down on her for moving and she flutters her eyes closed briefly and hope that helps. When she feels confident enough to fix her gaze on something other than the inside of her eyelids, she turns to look at Rio who’s sitting up in bed against a few pillows, watching TV.

The sound isn’t loud enough to be heard but she can tell he does this often, eyes on the screen, just absorbing the images that flicker to life. His head dips to look at her when she moves; he looks tired. She really hopes he didn’t sit up to just…keep an eye on her, making sure she slept alright.

She clears her throat, the sound scratchy and dry regardless of her trying, “Am I dead?”

Rio smirks a little and reaches over to his side of the nightstand, handing her a glass of water. “Here. You passed out before I could get you to drink any.”

Beth sighs softly and closes her eyes, moving to sit up further and is glad to see the room isn’t spinning anymore. “Lovely.” She drinks deeply after a few tentative sips to make sure she can keep it down.

Rio’s quiet for a few moments, playing with the corners of one of the bedsheets. “You got a headache?”

She hums an affirmative response but it’s nothing water and Advil can’t cure. She leans her head back against the headboard, closing her eyes again for a few moments to avoid the blue light spilling into the room from the TV. Beth gives herself some time to sip her water before she opens them, setting the glass down on her nightstand.

She senses embarrassment licking at her nerve endings, feeling a little ridiculous for her behavior. She should really know better than to let herself go like that, especially since it doesn’t take too many glasses of wine in a row for it to happen.

“Sober?” He asks and there’s a tilt to his voice that she doesn’t like, far too amused.

Beth groans and turns her head to look at him, trying to muster up a glare that doesn’t stick. “Unfortunately.” She rakes her fingers through her hair, trying to not even think about what she might look like.

She’s just glad she didn’t vomit.

A deep breath settles in and out of her lungs before she turns her head to look at Rio, the light of the TV casting beautiful shadows on his face. Her eyes skitter over the scruff on his jawline and her fingers itch to follow. She clears her throat, getting his attention, and he turns his head to look at her.

“I’m sorry for getting plastered.” She smiles a little because he does; that same amusement back on his face, though it doesn’t bother her this time around. “No wonder you don’t do weddings.”

Beth allows herself to laugh a little, shaking her head like it’ll somehow clear the fuzzy memories of him bringing her back into this room, tripping over herself. She regrets the way she’s carried herself, for arguing with him when he disappeared to make a phone call—but a tiny part of her is glad she decided to let herself go, to enjoy the open bar and let her emotions run a little rampant for once.

She’s so used to keeping everything inside, to holding it all in. For once she didn’t.

Rio’s chewing on words he’s not saying, she can see the hesitance in his expression, wanting to say something but unsure if he should. She waits, doesn’t press, and eventually,

“You want to know why I said ‘yes’ to this wedding when I usually don’t do ‘em?”

She frowns because if this is an excuse to bring up how pathetic she is right now, she might hit him, “You said it was because I was desperate.”

He smirks, “Well yeah,” He turns a bit in bed to face her, his shoulder pressed against the headboard. “But it was a little more than that.” Rio licks his lips, his eyes tracing her jawline and lips, slipping down her neck and collarbone enough to make her shiver.

“You said in your email, ‘I don’t want my ex-husband to feel like he’s taken somethin’ from me. Somethin’ that’s mine and will always be mine’.”

Beth searches his eyes for a moment and when his finally meet hers, something warm and aching starts in her chest, blooming outward like a flower only meant to grow at night. She swallows thickly, “You remember that?”

“I have a very good memory,” He attempts to wave this off, and she wants to tell him not to—that what he’s saying matters. Rio’s seeing her, over walls she didn’t realize she had up after all this time.

“You said you wanted Dean to regret walkin’ out on you, but I think you really meant that you wanted him to see that he didn’t break you.” He licks his lips and trails his pinky finger along her jawline as he curls loose hair behind her ear. “I’ve met a lot of women in similar situations, and not all of them have handled it like you.”

A laugh slips out of her throat, something she can’t stop. She’s trying to break the tension gathering in the room, something heavy and thick like warm cotton settling over them both. Handled it? She hasn’t exactly done that well, has she? If last night is any indication.

“What, they didn’t hire a male escort and get piss drunk?”

He smiles gently, shaking his head. “They crawled back to their husbands because they couldn’t figure out who they were without them.”

The warmth in her chest threatens to burst and she wishes for a moment that she could see herself the way Rio does, so clearly, like everything is laid out before him, all he has to do is read.

“But not you.” It barely leaves his mouth before Beth closes the distance between them.

The heat erupts in a single kiss, both of Rio’s hands tangling themselves in her hair, pulling it loose from her haphazard bun. He kisses her like she’s always wanted to be kissed, even though she hadn’t realized it was something that was missing until now.

He inches her forward, forcing her to move until she’s straddling his waist, sheets getting caught and tangled in-between. Anything that’s been building up suddenly releases into them both, like a wave crashing, heated breaths against skin and not being able to get close enough. Rio tugs off her long t-shirt and a shiver travels down her skin as she reaches up and automatically unclasps her bra.

She sits there for a moment, almost in the wake of realizing what she’s done, and she watches Rio’s gaze. His eyes drink her in, hands still on her waist, trailing up her sides, thumb slipping underneath one of her breasts to press against her ribcage. The touch is intimate enough to cause something sharp in her throat, thick swallowing for it to disappear. She leans forward, presses their foreheads together and they kiss again.

They’re fumbling to get sheets down, to move everything out of their way and Rio flips their positions, easing her down onto her back along the pillows. He rifles for something on his side of the bed while Beth slips her hips up to slide her underwear down and off and away. He’s got too many layers on and she itches to immediately remove his shirt when he’s overtop of her again.

Toned skin greets her and she can’t help but touch, sink her fingers in, drag her nails. The noises that leave Rio’s throat are enough to single handedly build the heat beginning in her lower belly, something she doesn’t think she ever wants to stop hearing. He moves only long enough to take his joggers off, tossing them to the side, and he holds her gaze—

He waits.

Beth swallows and knows this is such a bad idea, that nothing good can come from this. But wasn’t it Rio who urged her to figure out what she wants? You want to feel confident? Wanted? Good enough?

Then it has to come from her first.

There’s a half-nod in Rio’s direction before he’s slipping a hand down between them, to put a condom on but also—

She moans, rolling her hips as she feels his fingers slide against her, inside of her. He teases, rolls flesh between his thumb and forefinger, lips falling to her neck to leave kisses that eventually find her mouth again.

He takes his time even though she wishes he wouldn’t, building her up and letting her down easy before pressing inside. Beth gasps and her back arches, hips rolling forward, Rio leaning down to capture her mouth again, to absorb her sounds. She wraps her legs around him, which makes moving a little difficult, but she doesn’t want him to move too far away, wants to constantly feel him—keep them connected.

Rio nips at her lower lip with his own, not taking her long to build up what they’ve started. Pleasure circles in her veins, pulling her towards an end that she doesn’t want to reach yet. He doesn’t stop, keeps moving his hips forward at a quickening pace and Beth digs her nails into his back.

She barely has time to warn him before she’s cumming, though because their bodies are molded together, she thinks he already knows—probably knew before she did. He grunts as he loses himself in her, his face falling to her neck, gentle panting and lazy kissing.

Beth tilts her head back so her throat is exposed, her hands slipping down his back and settling on his waist, his skin a little slick to the touch. He lays there for a long few moments and they take one another in, his chest pressing into her own as they breathe.

He pulls back too soon for her liking, but she doesn’t have the energy to tell him to stop. Rio cleans himself up, slipping into bed again, and pulls her close. She turns on her side, blankets coming up over her shoulder as she puzzle-pieces them together, her face hiding in his neck, already falling asleep.

Rio says nothing, which is fine with her, they don’t need to say anything. His lips find her shoulder, a few kisses here and there, hands intertwining in her hair.

She finally figures out what she wants—

and she wants this. She wants him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Services rendered

When Beth wakes up, Rio isn’t there.

She turns onto her stomach a moment and touches the other side of the rumpled bed; cold sheets greet her. The TV is still on from last night, creating soft blue shadows mixed with the golden sun that’s trying to peek through the curtains.

Beth sits up and reaches for the nightstand to turn her lamp on, slow and steady, finding the remote to turn the screen off in front of her. She lets out a gradual breath, grateful for the glass of water that’s still close by and takes a long sip.

She doesn’t feel as terrible as she thought she might be; her hangovers either range from a slight headache and dry mouth to bouts of nausea and not being able to get out of bed. She pulls the covers back and…realizes she never pulled her underwear up from last night. Her feet touch the cold carpeted floor and when she thinks she can stand, she does so and dresses herself. Nothing too complicated, she doesn’t put her bra back on but she grabs the long t-shirt and slides it back over her head inside out.

It’s actually a good thing that Rio’s not here; she has a chance to get herself together. She wanders into the bathroom, brushes her teeth and hair, feels more like a person again and walks straight back to bed. According to the time on her cell phone, they’ve missed the brunch by a lot—and she has a scathing message from Judith about it and Dean’s left her a voicemail about taking the kids back home.

Beth pinches the bridge of her nose and licks her lips—could have been worse, she guesses. At least she doesn’t have to show up and pretend she cares anymore before the happy couple goes on their honeymoon. She’s had enough of that at the past two events.

She yawns, settling back down against the mattress and pulling the covers up over her legs. Advil, does she have Advil? Picking up her purse, she sets it on her legs and rifles through, trying to locate a tiny pill bottle in a big mess. She’s usually a little more organized than this but this whole wedding has had her out of sorts.

Her fingers come across makeup, pads, her car and house keys and—

Beth swallows, slowly pulling out a thick envelope of money.

Oh, right.

She sets her purse on her nightstand, her thumb pressing the envelope aside to finger another 2,500 dollars. Putting her head back against the headboard, she closes her eyes for a moment because,

“What the fuck are you doing?” She mumbles, squeezing the envelope until a few bills peek through and crumple under her touch.

That question seems to apply to so much: what was she doing last night? Getting involved with Rio in the first place? Letting him in and spreading her legs for him—

Because she wanted it, she still does. She doesn’t regret it, finally doing something for herself regardless of consequences, but now she’s sitting here trying to debate on what to do. Does she carry on like something has changed? Because it has, hasn’t it? Or does she smile like business as usual and pay him the rest of the money he’s due.

Will he want it regardless, even if something has shifted between them? A job well done.  

Does Rio want her as much as she’s been wanting him? She barely knows anything about him and yet she feels connected to him; he’s under her skin and she can’t get him out. Not now. She lets the money fall beside her, some bills pressed against the white sheets; maybe she won’t approach this at all until she gets a sense of where he’s coming from.

What he wants—she remembers him saying that he has needs too, and admittedly, she wants to know what they are.

The door opens to the hotel room and before Beth can put the money back into her purse, she covers it with a blanket, clearing her throat as Rio walks back in with a bag in his one hand and two coffees in a carrier in the other.

He pauses for a moment when he sees her, offering a soft smile before putting everything down on the table in front of the TV. He then crosses the room and draws the curtains back, bright sun emptying into the room. Beth groans a little and covers her face with her hands, shaking her head like she can force the rays back out the window.

She can hear Rio give a soft laugh, amusement on his tongue as he says, “Gotta face the day at some point, ma. It’s already noon.”

“Check out was at eleven.” She grumbles, massaging her temples but eventually pulling her hands away so she can look at him. And damn, what a sight.

He’s in a pair of black jeans, which aren’t surprising, but she’s being graced by a maroon Henley that’s rolled up to his elbows. He’s going through the plastic bag he’s brought in and pulls out a container, approaching her with it and coffee.

“Don’t worry, I can take care of it. Think the front desk doesn’t want to deal with you unless they have to.” He grins to which she rolls her eyes.

“Ha,” Taking the cup of coffee from him, she removes the lid, “You’re funny. Your profile didn’t say you were funny.”

Rio rolls his eyes and places the mysterious container on her lap and—her mouth falls open a little; they’re a package of bakery fresh cookies. It takes a moment to process, her hungover brain catching up with what she’s seeing, but these are the ones she was talking about at the dessert table last night—chocolate batter chocolate-chip cookies.

“You got me cookies.”

He shrugs, “Don’t act like you’re not gonna share ‘em.” He pulls the container open and takes one before she can, biting into it with a soft sound of pleasure. He’s already got chocolate smeared on his lower lip and Beth can’t stop herself from reaching her hand up and thumbing it away.

Rio fixes his gaze on her a moment as she pulls her fingers back, clearing her throat and curling hair around her ear. He licks his lips after, nudging the container towards her so she takes a cookie. Her stomach feels alright enough to, so she does, picking one up and biting into it. It’s so good; not too soft, just enough crunch and lots of chocolate chips.

She wonders how far he went for them but doesn’t ask.

The suddenly money burns against the side of her thigh.

Beth settles into the few moments of silence between them, the air sweet with chocolate and coffee. “So last night…” She trails off, unsure of how to approach the topic. “Was…”

Rio takes a sip of his coffee, apparently keen on watching her struggle through her sentence, an amused smile tugging the ends of his mouth.

“Keep goin’.” He urges and she rolls her eyes, pushing on his chest.

A soft laugh leaves his lips before he nods, popping the rest of his cookie into his mouth. He talks while he chews, which should annoy her, and yet its oddly endearing.

“It was good.” His hand settles on the other side of her waist, almost creating a cage that her legs are trapped in, between him and his body. “But you’re wonderin’ if I’m still gonna see clients when we get back.”

Beth swallows, uses the opportunity to take another sip of coffee because…she’s not sure what to say. “Do you like your job?” She asks even though that’s not exactly the words she wants but, they’ve never talked about it and she’s curious.

Rio hesitates, like he’s unsure if he wants to unbrick that wall. He hasn’t let her behind that one, not yet, and she wonders if he’s ever going to. He opens his mouth and runs his thumb along the rim of his coffee cup, thinking before he speaks.

But finally, “It pays well,” He tells her, carefully. “Pays better than my café and I got a kid to look after.”

She can’t hide the disappointment on her face, no matter how small it may be…because if they’re going to do anything about this, she doesn’t want him to be working for stand-in anymore. But she also knows she can’t ask him to quit, she’d never do that; she has too much experience being asked to put something aside that she enjoys for someone else’s vision of who she should be.

He catches her expression, even when she hurries it away with a smile. He lets out a slow breath, drumming his finger against his coffee cup.

“But that’s what you’re tellin’ me, isn’t it.” It’s not a question and Beth sees he already knows the answer just by looking into her eyes. He nods before a smirk pulls at his lips, “Look at you callin’ the shots with what you want n’shit.”

A laugh sneaks out of her throat, unexpected, cheeks tinting pink because yes it does feel good to be seen and heard—to know what she wants and not having to be afraid to ask for it.

“I’d never ask you to quit.” She says softly, resting her lips against her coffee cup, breathing in the scent.

“But you want me all to yourself.” He teases, his hand moving to rest against her waist. The touch makes her squirm slightly and she leans up without being able to help herself, pressing her lips against his own in a gentle kiss.

“Maybe.”

Rio pulls back, standing from the bed to set his coffee down on the nightstand and Beth mirrors it. “Somethin’ we can talk about on our drive back, c’mon.” He picks up the container of cookies and, before she can stop him, yanks the covers back off her legs.

She can pinpoint the exact moment that Rio sees the money next to her thigh because his expression changes, like a shadow passing over but instead of dissipating—it stays, darkening the color of his eyes. A breath catches in her throat as she sits up, words on her lips and stuck on her tongue. Nothing comes out.

His gaze flickers up from the money to her eyes and what she sees there is like a cold bucket of ice water, anger but…deeper, it’s—

“Not what it looks like.” She finally says, breaking the tension into pieces with a hammer.

Rio hums, nodding his head and licking his lips. He’s trying very hard to speak without sounding annoyed, “What’s it like then?” He asks, the words daggered. “Cause it looks like you were about to pay me for services rendered.”

Beth shakes her head and gets out of bed, standing on wobbly knees. Rio takes a step back from her, almost like a caged animal, getting ready to bolt. And then she realizes, right, he’s not angry, he’s upset.

“No—”

“Don’t lie to me,” He grounds out, the words chewed on between his teeth. “You ain’t very good at it.”

A shuddered noise leaves her lips because she can tell she’s losing it, this conversation slipping like sand between her fingers. He’s not going to be willing to listen to her if she confirms he’s right, that she had thought about it—if she admits she wasn’t sure what she was doing or what they were.

She distantly knows that this isn’t going to end well, no matter what she says. Rio tore his walls down in front of her, exposed himself, and now he looks like a fool for doing it. Even if it’s on accident, she’s hurt him, and she’s not sure if she’ll be able to backpedal without looking guilty.

“I thought about it,” She admits after a moment. “I wasn’t…” The last thing she wanted to do was make him feel cheap; she knows they started this thing as a transaction but also that something changed last night.

That they aren’t the same people that started this whole thing.

“Nah, it’s good. You were payin’ me to do a job, right?” Rio reaches past her and picks up the cash, quickly flipping through it with his fingers.

“Rio, don’t.” Beth sighs and puts a hand on her lips, suddenly feeling nauseas as he moves too quick for her to stop him.

“Business is business. You can stop feelin’ so guilty,” He straightens his shoulders, sticking the cash into his back pocket before grabbing his jean jacket, slipping it on. Metaphorically it feels like a shield, another layer he’s building back up between them, shutting her out.

“But just so you know, you're about 500 short.” He sneers, picking up his bag from the floor as he walks towards the door. “I told you sex ain’t free.”

And with that he leaves the room, slamming the door behind him.

She doesn’t go after him.

--

Beth knows even before she makes it downstairs that Rio’s gone, so she takes her time. She wants to be angry about it, him abandoning her at the hotel, but honestly? she can’t argue that she wouldn’t have done the same. Their contract is over, there’s nothing keeping him here and nothing obligating him to drive her back to Detroit.

She just pictured this morning going a little differently when she first woke up.

They’re both idiots for so many reasons but Beth’s willing to take responsibility for this; she should have never taken that money out of her purse.

She should have never let him leave.

Beth’s at least pleased to see a different woman at the check-in desk because that’s the last thing she wants to deal with. She apologizes for the late check out and gets her credit card back, signing in all the right places.

The clerk takes a look at her signature and seems to remember something. “Ms. Boland?” She turns and hands her a thick envelope that she recognizes. “This was left for you. Glad you enjoyed your stay, have a safe trip home.”

Her fingers close around it carefully, like precious cargo, and she thinks she says ‘thanks’ but she isn’t sure as she turns and walks towards the exit of the hotel. The fresh air kisses her face and forces its way into her lungs as she takes a deep breath; she’s almost comforted by being outside.

It’s nearly enough to take away the stinging weight in her hand. So close, but not quite. Beth swallows and opens up the envelope, flipping through the cash.

It’s all there, all 2,500 dollars. Rio didn’t take one single thing.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Somethin' you always wanted

Beth tries not to think about how expensive her uber is as she sits in the back seat on her ride home, leaning her head back against the headrest. She allows her eyes to close for a few moments, breathing deep. After all, she’s got money burning a hole through the bottom of her purse to cover it.

If she’s being honest, the last thing she’s thinking about is money. She can’t get her mind off Rio, the betrayed look in his eyes, the sneer on his full lips, the echoing of the door slamming closed. She distantly thought he’d come back, that she’d have a chance to apologize and explain herself.

Clearly, that was out of the question, but now she’s not sure she’ll ever get the chance. She’s texted him a few times but, not surprisingly, those have gone ignored—and she’s not about to call him either. There’s a line she shouldn’t cross, but is she really just going to go back home and act like everything’s normal? Go back to business as usual and pretend they never met one another?

The concept seems incredibly painful and daunting to the point where she can’t breathe and cracks a window open like that might help.

Beth sighs as her phone begins to vibrate and presses the green button flashing on her screen to pick up, Annie instantly filling in with: “I got your twenty texts, you alright?”

She leans her elbow on the car door, her fingers raking through her hair, “You know this is all your fault,” She presses the blame, trying to get it off her chest because, no, she is not alright, “If I would have had two beds in the first place, this never would have happened.”

Her sister sighs rather patiently despite the commentary and even though she doesn’t know the entire story despite many texts, she says ‘Sure, Jan’ in an even tone. “Why don’t you just tell me who you’re really upset with, because it ain’t me.”

Beth closes her eyes because even though her sister has the capability of being one of the most irritating people on the planet—she also knows her better than anyone. She’s not angry with her or with Rio…

“I’m mad at myself, okay? I screwed up.”

“There we go, that didn’t take long at all—I feel like I should start charging by the hour for this therapist shit,” Annie muses and metal clicks together; she’s either doing dishes or making herself lunch. “Could get a new couch for you to vent on.”

She rolls her eyes, “Annie.”

“I know, I know. Tell me what happened; your texts were all hysteria and no detail.”

Beth maps out the whole thing from start to finish, the chapel, the reception, the night of, the morning after—her voice drops on intimate details, her uber driver already looks annoyed he has to spend the next hour and a half listening to this. There goes the 5.0 rating on her profile.

“Damn, Beth.”

She pinches the bridge of her nose, “I know…it was an accident.” She swallows. “The money part, anyways.”

Another clinking pot and running water, “Does tall, dark and brooding know that?”

She lets her hand fall from her face, eyes focusing out the window as scenery passes by. Suddenly a dark brown gaze rekindles in her memory, the hurt there, wounded and refusing to let her past his boundaries again.

“I tried to tell him; he wouldn’t listen.”

Annie hums under her breath a moment and shuffles, “Maybe give him some time? Try him tomorrow.”

Easier said than done, “I don’t even know where he lives. He’s not going to pick up the phone if I try to call him; texts are useless.”

Her sister’s quiet for a few moments, considering—and then a sound leaves her lips and Beth pictures a lightbulb going off on her facial expression. “But you know where he works.”

--

Beth stands outside Rio’s café for what feels like a long time, staring at the sign and pacing back and forth to her car parked down the street. She really hopes no one is watching her because she probably looks crazy; she feels crazy. She can’t just approach this man where he works, can she?

It’s not her fault that he won’t text her back.

If the situation was reversed, she knows he’d probably show up at her back door, all irritatingly handsome and charming with his stupid beanies and hands tucked into a black jean jacket—so really, this seems fair.

So after spending ten minutes contemplating what to do, she finally forces herself to walk up the café door and make her way inside. It’s a hole in the wall but filled to the brim with people at tiny circular tables, waiting in line to place their order with a beautiful blonde cashier and satisfied customers adding sugar and creamer to their coffees at a station to her left.

The heady scent of fresh coffee and baked goods slam into her like a truck, leaving her almost breathless. This place blends in when it should stick out—she wonders if she didn’t know Rio if she’d come in to order an iced coffee just walking by on the street.

Her eyes graze behind the counter until she finally spots him further down, filling baked goods trays in a window that were once empty. A ton of questions hit her at once; does he always work despite owning the place? Did he make those baked goods that are at his fingertips? How does he separate the time between the café and the stand-in job?

Before she can fully approach him, Rio turns to look down and says something she can’t make out. Her heart stutters in her chest as she sees a little boy run out from behind the counter to take a look at the glass case from the front; and she knows instantly that it has to be Marcus, his son. He gives Rio the thumbs up that everything looks good and that’s when Rio glances up—and spots her.

He’s not happy to see her but he doesn’t look as pissed off as the last time she saw him, so, she considers that progress. Beth swallows as she approaches the counter and her hand settles on the top of the glass, the lights above the pastries warming her palm.

“Hi.” That’s it? That’s all she can say? This conversation is going to be just as painful as the last one.

Rio doesn’t have a chance to open his mouth because Marcus rushes back behind the counter and stands on a chair so he can see her, “Hello, what do you want? We have orange scones and dino cookies on the bottom.” He points, “I icing-ed those myself.”

Beth smiles gently at the little entrepreneur and she watches Rio’s jaw work, biting the inside of his cheek to allow his son to do his thing without telling her to ‘fuck off’ like he probably wants to.

“I uh, the dinosaur cookies look very professional.” She nods her head, curling her hair around her ear. “I’ll take one of those.”

Marcus beams and clearly she’s made his day; he looks just like Rio, a toothy grin and a mischievous look in his brown eyes. Adorable but definitely capable of being handsome one day like his father when he grows into his looks.

“Alright, pop,” Rio lifts his son from the chair to put him back on the ground, “Enough cookie sales for one day, go work on some homework for a bit yeah?” He watches him go before turning his attention back to her, customers passing by and receiving orders that he’s already packed at the end of the counter.

“You stalkin’ me now?” He asks but he’s not amused, drumming his fingers on top of the counter.

Beth lets out a slow breath and he takes a few printed receipts from his cashier to grab pastries that people already ordered to heat and bag them, “You won’t text me back.”

“Maybe that’s cause I didn’t wanna talk to you,” He says pointedly before motioning towards her right, “You skipped the line.”

“I didn’t want to order anything, I just wanted to talk.”

He smirks but it doesn’t quite meet his eyes and he grabs a dino cookie, wrapping it in a napkin. “Look at you, really learned how to demand shit you want.”

“You taught me how.” Beth insists, trying to catch his gaze. When she finally does, she holds it there, trying to will him to listen to her—because she’s not grasping at straws, meeting him, spending time with him…being with him really taught her about parts of herself she was missing.

Or maybe not missing, exactly, but lying dormant.

“I just want five minutes of your time, please, then I’ll leave you won’t hear from me again.”

Rio lets out a long patient sigh with a shake of his head, something between aggravation mixed with a touch of being impressed—she’s persistent, at least. He’s going to hear her out and suddenly all the words mix in a blender and sink to the bottom of her ribs; she’s almost unsure of how to put this but all she can do is try.

“You’ve been right since we first met; I didn’t know how to want things for myself even though I expected so much out of other people.”

She chews on her lower lip a moment, eyes tracing over the handsome lines of his face—now was not the time to get distracted.

“This whole thing caught me off guard, I wasn’t prepared to want you…and not just as my stand-in date, but you.”

He doesn’t hold her gaze and maybe that’s okay, he busies himself with getting other people orders, keeping the line moving but she can tell he’s still listening to her. He’s still intent on hearing her through…even though she’s almost certain it’s not going to make a difference.

She can tell by his expression, by those walls remaining firm; they’re not budging for her.

Not again.

“The money thing was a mistake. You were right, I did pull it out of my purse and think about it because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what this thing was or if I was…imaging how I felt. So I fucked up but…so did you for not sticking around and talking to me.”

Rio’s shoulders straighten; he doesn’t appreciate her calling him out. A rod appears up his spine, his posture almost towering despite the glass case between them.

“I just…that’s it,” She swallows, her thumb running over the dino cookie in her one hand. “That’s all I wanted to say. Sorry for disrupting your work.”

Beth turns quickly, can’t take the look in his eyes anymore, the bustle of other people around her. She’s said what she needed to—she should feel more complete than before, right? Because at least he knows her side of things.

It’s his turn.

She pushes the door open, the welcome bell dinging after her as she leaves.

He doesn’t come after her.

--

Months pass as they usually do; tirelessly and busy. Things settle down and move forward; she’s not on the same page with Dean but Beth’s just glad they at least seem to be in the same book. It’s something. They have family dinners with Kate in tow and she’s learned to let go of her annoyance that she’s there, her hatred that she’s part of the reason her family’s fallen apart.

There’s no use in keeping negative emotions pent up; she’s done her best. She’s told Dean how she’s really felt, she’s gotten the divorce that didn’t allow him to keep his hold over her. She’s given her all and at least it doesn’t feel like she could have done something else; their story has ended and that’s okay.

Annie has stopped asking about Rio even though sometimes she can’t stop herself when they’ve had too much wine together. Beth thinks about him often; but it doesn’t change the fact that they didn’t work out. That they didn’t chase after one another, that there was too much unresolved baggage in-between.

They are two, completely different people—it wouldn’t have worked out anyways.

Beth does things for herself to pass the time, things that she wants. She hosts PTA meetings at her house, sometimes she sleeps in until eleven when she doesn’t have the kids, she repaints her bedroom avocado green, she takes small-business classes and she eventually makes her own online craft store.

It’s something she’s always wanted to do and finally does. She titles it, ‘I’d Rather Be Crafting’ and hosts various services while at the same time selling homemade costumes, baked goods, jewelry and small ceramic pieces. She makes herself available for baking classes, sewing tutorials and ceramic lessons for how to work the wheel.

She’s happy and not just from other moms reaching out to her, creating a small community of parents helping one another, and not just from the profit—but because she’s finally doing something that she feels matters. Beth’s good at this and she gets to immerse herself in what she loves.

Pulling her hair back into a ponytail, she readies ingredients on her kitchen counter for a cake and pours herself a glass of wine. After tying her apron, she glances at the email request from a father to make a pineapple upside-down cake for his kid’s birthday. Weird request but Beth doesn’t judge—sometimes Jane wants to eat pumpkin rolls for breakfast.

He’s already sent her PayPal account the payment for the lesson, actually; he’s overpaid. She figures it’s a mistake and this often tends to happen when using an online system to pay, accidently typing in too many zeros. She tried to email him back about it but wasn’t met with any reply.

She’ll talk to him when he shows up, she decides, and takes a picture of the email to send Annie to let her sister know she’s about to start another session. It’s her security blanket for inviting strangers into her home for lessons; they may all be mothers and fathers when they email her but it doesn’t hurt to be careful. Her sister texts back a thumbs up emoji as her doorbell rings.

Beth lets out a slow breath and approaches her front door, opening it up to see—

“Rio.”

Her heart stutters in her chest like the very first time, which is completely ridiculous and she finds herself not being able to utter a single word as she takes him in. All in black, as she remembers, but he has a bit more scruff on his face than before. His eyes are warm as he look at her, contrasting the last few times they’ve spoken—and her brain finally restarts because,

“What are you…” Beth shakes her head, “I’m sorry, this isn’t a good time. I’m expecting a client.” It doesn’t come out cold, she doesn’t want to push him away, but she’s not going to turn away her business just to talk to him.

They’ll probably end up going in circles anyways; she’s spent thinking about it.

Rio sticks his hands in his jeans pockets and nods, rocking back on his heels. “I know. Father who’s strugglin’ to make a pineapple upside-down cake?”

She stares at him, everything taking a moment to click into place because…what? She opens her mouth and closes it quickly, a smirk pulling at the corners of Rio’s mouth as he allows her to draw her own conclusions.

The email, her appointment with a baking client, that’s— “My client is you?” He nods and takes a step forward and forces her to take one back as he steps over the threshold. Beth clicks her tongue off the roof of her mouth, not exactly pleased, “Lying is real easy for you, isn’t it?” And okay, maybe that’s a little unfair but Rio doesn’t stop her, “We both know you can bake.”

He smiles, which is infuriating, head tilting a little as he speaks to her, “To be fair, I didn’t lie. I said I was a father who didn’t know how to bake a cake—I’m really good at scones, mostly pies too, somethin’ about cakes always gets fucked up.”

“You could have just called me.” Which feels a little silly of her to say, seeing as how she showed up at his work.

Rio just raises an eyebrow, reading her mind, “Maybe I wanted to pay you for your services,” He lets his gaze travel over her, drinking her in, feeling like coming home. Memorizing her in case this is the last time he’ll be able to look.

She bites the tip of her tongue because oh, right, the ridiculous amount of money for a baking lesson. Of course that was him.

“Online craft store, hmm? Somethin' you always wanted?” He smiles a little and the look in his eyes nearly fills up her entire chest, because he’s proud, she can see it and hear it when he speaks.

Beth shifts on her feet, her apron suddenly feeling too tight around her waist, a place she wants his hands to be. Her cheeks flush with heat, blotching down her neck at being the focus of conversation—she’s forgotten what it feels like to be at his center of attention.

“Yeah, I uh, I do that now. Go after things I want.”

Rio takes that as a sudden invitation, stepping into her space and Beth doesn’t move. Instead she looks up at him through her eyelashes, her mouth suddenly dry as he cups her cheek, curls loose hair around her ear.

“Do you?” He challenges gently, his voice velvet and soft in all the right ways.

The air shifts between them, things falling back into place, an overwhelming sensation of starting over—of seeing one another, no boundaries, walls to climb over, but honesty in his touch as his lips brush hers.

And for once? She’s willing to take that chance and jump back in, headfirst.

Beth presses herself up on her toes and joins their mouths together, the kiss slow and intimate, tingling all the way down to her ankles. Their souls recognize one another, the motions practiced and familiar and suddenly she feels more at home than she ever has.

When he pulls back, his hand slipping through her hair and resting at the back of her neck, she feels dizzy from the contact and blinks like it’ll somehow set her thoughts straight. “You came after me.”

Rio hums a little, taking in a deep breath as he glances past her to the kitchen. She catches his gaze, follows his thoughts before biting down on her lower lip. He lifts his one hand to run his thumb along her chin,

“You…you want to make a pineapple upside-down cake?”

He squeezes her sides, brushing their noses together in an accidental eskimo kiss. “Only if you wanna teach me.”

Beth doesn’t reply but smiles as she takes his hand to walk into her kitchen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Epilogue

It takes a while to figure out and Beth second guesses herself a few times more than necessary before they realize that they do work, fit together quite seamlessly, one half finding another. They go on dates, real dates, and Rio pays for every one despite her protests of wanting to break even. He tells her there will be time for that and to enjoy someone looking after her for once.

She definitely enjoys it.

--

Beth continues to work from her online craft store, turning a decent profit that she has to expand her merchandise (which is a lot of work to do, but it’s so worth it to feel like she’s doing something that she’s good at, that means something). She teaches Rio how to bake a few cakes and even uses Mug Half Full for a few meet n’ greets with clients; it’s good publicity for his café and she gets to spend more time with him.

--

She somehow convinces herself that dating needs to be a mix of time: intimate dates, alone time, and detailed mapped out plans put in and spent in a certain way. But she’s wrong.

She’s realized in the best way that sometimes just being there with someone makes all the difference—Beth hovering around Rio’s café as he makes lattes and scones with Marcus, Rio cooking dinner while she makes jewelry for orders on her craft store, sitting on the couch together and not talking but touching.

These are things she doesn’t realize. Rio’s filling empty spaces inside of her until one day, she feels complete. Spaces like shelves with things taken off, dust gathering, gaping holes that seemed like home because she’d gotten used to it.

Rio’s in the midst of cutting vegetables for a stir fry and Beth pauses, her fingers grazing the bottom of a wine glass she has in her hand, something lost slipping into place and clicking. She turns and wraps her arms around his waist, placing her chin on his shoulder before kissing his cheek.

She feels him smile more than seeing it, his hands pausing administrations to lean back into her. “What was that for?”

Beth shrugs, pressing her nose into the back of his neck briefly, “Just because.”

Rio angles himself more towards her, pressing an equally thoughtful kiss to her forehead, “Well if you keep distractin’ me, dinner will never be done.”

It doesn’t sound like much of a threat, but she lets him continue.

--

A lot of things begin to pop up: Dean tries to drag her into the mess that his new life with Kate but Beth wades in slowly because of the kids. She wants to make it work as much as possible without sacrificing any of her newfound freedom.

When her ex-husband tries to bring up his distaste for Rio, Beth cuts of his sentence with: “You fucked your new wife on your work desk while we were still married, I think that gives me permission to date whoever I want.”

Dean’s face changes color like a gumball losing flavor; purple to red to pale white.

He never brings up Rio again.

--

Rio’s around a lot more than she thought he would be; he has two jobs and it keeps him busy. But what surprises her is that he consistently asks her out on dates. He makes himself available for sitting around both of their apartments while she works, days on playgrounds with their kids, days for brunch because it turns out Rio really likes crispy potatoes that involve avocado, nights in to cook, nights out to grab a drink at a local bar.

Beth’s curious how he figures it all out; a hectic schedule sometimes has the capability to knock her completely out and yet here he is, doing mundane shit like sorting laundry with her while they eat Pad Thai.

She chews on her lower lip, can’t stop herself from asking— “So your schedule must really be flexible for the stand-in if you’re spending so many nights with me.”

Rio licks his lips, his eyes concentrated on his Thai food before the gaze flutters up to her. “Nah, I don’t do that anymore.”

She blinks, tries not to sound as surprised as she feels. “Oh,” She folds a tank top before placing her hands on her knees, “I didn’t realize you stopped.”

He shrugs his one shoulder, putting his food down to take a sip of his wine, sitting with his back against the bottom of the couch as she sits on the cushions. He moves to kneel, turning until he’s pressed in-between her legs, his hands on top of hers.

“You wanted me to go on dates with other women?” 

Her cheeks redden gently at the teasing and she shakes her head even though she feels transparent, eyes seeing right into her. “I…I never asked you to quit.”

He tilts her chin and leans against her, his lips brushing hers, “You never had to.”

They don’t talk much after that.

--

Beth runs out of fabric for a job that she waited until the last minute to do, of course, and she’s nearly euphoric when she opens the front door and Rio’s standing there with a bag from the nearest craft store.

“You’re a lifesaver.” She says with a smile and Rio leans against the doorjam, glancing inside to see that she’s not alone.

Annie looks up from the couch, covered in sequins and trying to untangle string. She raises an eyebrow at him.

“You can thank me later.” He says and waves a hand at her sister and then sticks his hands in his pockets.

“How much is that gonna cost her?” Annie snorts, a teasing tone to her voice that makes Rio roll his eyes.

They jab at one another like this, Beth’s come to realize with an amused but fond tilt to her lips. Annie tends to bring up his last place of employment, shots about money and prices while Rio never hesitates to go after her job at Fine & Frugal or her sparkling personality.

He must sense how down to wire Beth is about getting this work done, however, because he simply replies, “I’m sure Beth has a payment plan in mind,” before kissing Beth’s cheek and making his way back to the car.

Beth lets out a slow sigh and wanders back to the couch, pulling the fabric out of the bag. She finds herself thinking about ‘paying Rio back later’ instead of the job in front of her. It definitely encourages her to work a little more effectively.

Annie smiles a little, shaking her head when she bumps their shoulders together.

“He’s annoyingly attractive.”

A laugh slips out of her throat, nodding and grabbing her scissors as Annie contemplates a thought.

“Are you sure he’s not available to go to my high school reunion?”

--

She doesn’t feel very different when she’s busy, running around doing every odd and end thing for her business or kids. But it’s in the quiet mornings she understands how happy she is.

Beth’s not quite awake yet, somewhere in the in-between, her blankets warm as the sun streams through her curtains. She feels a warm weight beside her, breathing even and slow, his arm around her lower waist as his lips brush along her neck.

She turns, just slightly, to get a good look at him. He’s beautiful all the time but there’s nothing like this; his face free from worry lines, eyes closed. She wants to touch him but doesn’t want to wake him, even though her movement ends up doing it anyways.

Rio stirs gently, his nose brushing against her cheek, pulling back just slightly as he fixes his gaze on her. He smiles, just a little, hand moving to cup her cheek. He sleeps with his ring on, which she found odd at first, but now she relishes in the touch—the metal familiar against her skin.

“Waffles?” He decides, even though she knows it’s a question.

Beth leans forward and kisses him—just because.

It’s in moments like these she realizes she’s whole again.