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for a moment we were strangers

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It’s the Friday before Labor Day weekend when Beth parks in her driveway after her morning’s errands are done, checks the mailbox, and decides to just leave the car out instead of pulling into the garage.  She’ll dig out the worst of the debris before taking it to be detailed later. She’s flipping idly through the junk mail as she heads for the door when she notices from the corner of her eye that the gate to the backyard is ajar, and she can hear sounds coming from that direction.  The kids are all in school for a few more hours and Dean had gone to work first thing that morning - with some idea to get there before Rio might, as if Dean expects him to actually show up at the dealership and what’s more to keep banker’s hours.

 

The sounds, something like a bat hitting a ball, are accompanied by voices and as Beth takes a few steps closer, sticking by the side of the house to avoid being seen, she realizes who it is.  Annoyed, she steps away from the house and then pushes through the open gate without hesitation, and there they are: Rio and his son. In her backyard.

 

The little boy has the T-ball bat and Rio is throwing underhand to him, diving to catch the returns.  Rio turns when his son freezes in place, caught. Rio only waves to her, and grins, before tossing the ball again.  Beth shakes her head and approaches, consciously smoothing out the incredulous and none-too-kind expression she must have for the little boy’s benefit alone.

 

“Hi there.”

 

“Hey Miss Elizabeth, sorry to barge in like this.  Marcus say hello.”

 

Marcus waves, squinting into the sun, in her general direction.  “Hi Miss Elizabeth,” he parrots his father, “Daddy said we could borrow the bat and ball while we waited for you to get home.”

 

Beth swallows down her approximately fifty questions and smiles brightly at Marcus.  “Of course you can. Hey, I’m just gonna borrow your dad for a minute, okay?”

 

“Sure!  Can I go climb on that house thing?” He points toward the playset where Beth and Annie had kept Boomer tied up and gagged.

 

“Knock yourself out.”

 

“Daddy says I’m not supposed to do things that will knock me out!” Marcus calls as he runs off and Beth turns to Rio, now tossing the ball from hand to hand.  She lifts her hands in question and waits. Rio, glancing first in Marcus’ direction, then back to her, stops tossing the ball.

 

“My place was bugged.”

 

“Your house?”

 

“Found a camera with sound recording this morning.  My boys are doing a quick sweep but I gotta get somebody else in there to go over it again, see if they can confirm who did it.  My usual crew ain’t exactly surveillance experts.”

 

“Who would do that, I mean.  Do you think the FBI?  No, they couldn’t do that in your house without a warrant or something right?”

 

“Naw, not the feds.  I got a guy in my supply chain for the paper, real squirrely, nervous.  Think the trial’s got him spooked, now he’s tryna get intel.”

 

“Do you think he’s gotten anything?  How long-”

 

“I don’t know, like I said, I got guys there now.  Kid had a half-day today, I got him home and found it, turned around and left again.  I’m not havin’ him there,” he adds, sobering, looking her in the eye.

 

Beth’s skin crawls at the thought of finding a camera in her own house, someone viewing and recording her children while they were unaware.  

 

“I mean-” Beth glances over to where Marcus is on his second trip up the slide, disappearing into the covered top only to slide back, belly down, feet first, a few moments later, “I have to go to pick up the kids starting at one.”  She pauses, eyeing Rio. “And Dean could be back from work as early as four-thirty if it’s slow-”

 

“Oh he ain’t gonna have many slow days anymore,” Rio says coolly.

 

Beth rolls her eyes.  “It’s the Friday before Labor Day, even with big sales a lot of people are out spending their money on vacations, not cars.”

 

“Yeah, well.  He’s gonna find a way to sell something to anybody who sets foot on that lot everyday from now on.  We got timelines to keep up with.”

 

Beth quiets and swallows, decides not to point out that pressure has never been Dean’s thriving place, as Rio should have surmised by now.  She inhales and exhales, trying to clear her mind and mentally replan her day at the same time. She glances back at Rio, who’s watching her, shifting his weight from foot to foot, ball still held loosely in one of his long-fingered hands.  Her eyes trip over his face before she can stop herself, but she looks away quickly when she sees a grin start to curl the corner of his mouth.

 

They haven’t seen much of each other since . . . well.   Since .  After the bar restroom - sweaty and bruised, wiping him off her thighs with a damp paper towel, realizing he’d taken her panties with him - there had been nothing but that empty storage unit, and then him declaring them partners and smashing up the ‘vette.  Then she’d seen him only once to exchange washed cash for fake and it had been quick, two of his guys flanking him, just like the old days. So apparently “partners” didn’t change things that much. Not with Dean partially in the picture now, anyway.

 

“Hey Marcus?”  she calls across the yard.

 

Marcus pops out of the window of the playhouse like a little jack in the box.  “Yeah, Miss Elizabeth?” he yells back.

 

Beth smiles in spite of herself, feeling Rio’s eyes on her even as she tries to tamp it back down a little.  His kid is adorable and even with four herself she’s not immune.

 

“Are you hungry?”

 

“Yeah!” Marcus comes shooting down the slide a moment later, bounding across the lawn toward them and Beth carefully ignores Rio as she leads them towards the house.

 

She has after school snacks to prep anyway, so she drops the mail with her keys and purse and kicks off her shoes by the door.  She glances back to see Marcus, and Rio, doing the same, Marcus stopping to move one of his sneakers so that the toe isn’t hanging over the edge of the mat.

 

“Miss Elizabeth?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Daddy found a big bug in our house, and he smashed it with his shoe, but he wouldn’t show it to me,” Marcus recites as he climbs up to sit on one of the chairs at the island.

 

“Oh, really?” Beth answers, face in the fridge as she pulls out a bunch of celery.  “Well it was probably pretty gross.”

 

“I know! That’s why I wanted to see it, because I love gross things, but he says I can’t talk about them when we’re eating, but sometimes food looks like bug guts so I just think of it.”

 

Rio, pulling up his own chair next to Marcus, leans his elbows on the counter.  “That’s right, Pop, people don’t wanna hear about that stuff when they’re eating, cause some people don’t have an iron stomach like you and me.”

 

Beth bites her tongue, piling a canister of raisins and a jar of peanut butter into her arms.

 

“Yeah,” Marcus sighs.  He eyes the ingredients Beth has set out on the countertop.  “What’s our snack gonna be?”

 

“Ants on a log.”

 

“WE GET TO EAT BUGS?  Dad won’t even let me TALK about bugs-!”

 

“No no no, Pop, it’s just the name of it.  It’s celery and peanut butter, yeah, and that’s the log and then she’s gonna put raisins on it and what’s it look like?”

 

“Oh,” Marcus acknowledges, deflating.

 

Beth tilts her head at him.  “If you wash your hands first you can help me, how about that?”

 

She’s side by side with Rio’s son at her kitchen sink, helping him get his shirtsleeves pushed up, when the sense memory hits her again, of leaning her hips against a different sink counter, and she catches her own eyes in her faint reflection in the window before glancing back over her shoulder and locking eyes with Rio, watching her with something unreadable in his eyes that sends a wash of goosebumps over her neck.

 

Oh , she thinks.

 

Oh shit.

 

---

 

Marcus and Rio head out not long after, in time for Beth to be in the school pick up lines, which are especially manic on the last Friday before a holiday weekend.  Saturday is typical; Dean works a later shift, and he and the kids are all piled on the couch watching cartoons when Beth gets a text from Rio just before nine a.m.

 

“Dean?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I have to go out for a while.”

 

He glances back at her, toaster waffle halfway to his mouth.  “What for?”

 

She holds his gaze for a moment.  “Work thing.”

 

His face tightens but he answers easily enough.  “I’m going in at one today, though.”

 

“I know.  I’ll be back by then.  Kids, be good okay? Not too much syrup with those waffles please.”

 

--

 

Rio’s sitting in Dean’s chair at his office desk at the dealership when Beth arrives.  He’s got his fingers steepled like a Bond villain when he spins around in the chair to face her and kicks his feet up on the desk.  Beth folds her arms.

 

“I thought you were just providing the capital,” she deadpans, after checking the door is shut tight.

 

“We gotta check your place.”

 

“For recorders?  No, that’s - why would anyone even know we were working together anymore?”

 

“Because this guy is getting way too detailed.  He’s got shit on me going back to last year. In my house.”

 

Beth drops onto one of the guest chairs on the other side of the desk and blows out a breath, mind racing.  “So wait, you . . . you’ve got him somewhere?”

 

Rio nods, silently, letting that settle.  

 

“And you’re gonna-”

 

“It’s gonna be taken care of, you don’t gotta worry about it.”

 

She tilts her head and answers with a forced lightness:  “Oh gee, thanks.” She leans forward and scrubs her hands through her hair.  “I’ve got to get Dean and the kids out then, if we’re gonna have people at my house.  For how long?”

 

Rio raises his eyes and shrugs, tilting his head.  “Long weekend, baby.”

 

“Jesus, Rio,” Beth sighs.  “Alright, I’ll . . . I’ll give him some cash and tell him to take the kids to one of the water parks or something.  They were disappointed we didn’t have anything planned anyway, but after the last few months-”

 

She trails off, staring blankly out the half-open blinds over the glass walls of the office.  The showroom is reasonably busy for a Saturday, people milling around and talking.

 

“We have got to get rid those stupid sport cars,” she sighs, slumping in her chair and letting the distraction derail her for a moment.

 

Rio grins at her, still kicked back in the chair, head leaned back and his hands now folded casually over his middle.  “You the boss.”

 

Beth huffs an unamused laugh and pulls out her phone, narrating as she types, “amusement parks near me.”

 

“Not too close.  Get ‘em somewhere for the whole weekend if you can.  You got a lot more house than I do, we gotta get you set up with a security system too.  Shoulda done already.”

 

Beth revises her search and scrolls for a moment.  “Santa’s Village Azoozment Park, East Dundee, Illinois.”  She glances up at Rio. “Is three hundred and twenty-nine miles far enough?”

 

He grins at her again, swings his feet down and launches up from the chair with an annoying grace.  “Aughta do it. Go get ‘em packin’, mama.”

 

---

 

“Guess what guys!” Beth calls as she closes the door behind her.  There’s indeterminate yelling from upstairs, a toilet flushes, and immediately the downstairs half-bath door with the messed up hinge smacks against the wall as Danny comes flying out toward her.

 

“Ah-ah-ah!”  Beth points, sternly, and Danny turns back, a shirtless streak of blonde hair and blue pajama pants as he runs back to wash his hands.

 

“Dean?” Beth calls, trying again.

 

There’s more yelling from upstairs as Beth drops her purse and shopping bags on the island, and she stops and sighs at the open waffle box and empty syrup bottle on its side, dripping its dregs out onto the counter.

 

“This was full two days ago, don’t think I don’t know somebody was drinking straight from it!”  she yells, tossing the waffle box in the recycling can. She takes the syrup bottle with her as she heads up the stairs, mentally ticking through who she’ll have to shame with it.  She hopes it isn’t Kenny. That would be worrying.

 

“In here!” Dean finally yells, and Beth follows the sound to the kids’ bathroom where Dean is sitting on the side of the tub next to Emma, who is hunched over the toilet while he holds back her hair and she retches miserably.

 

“Oh, baby,” Beth sighs, leaning against the door frame.  She addresses Dean with a much less gentle tone and holds up the syrup bottle.  “This? Is not for doing shots. Her stomach can’t handle that much sugar, don’t you remember after Kenny’s birthday she had all that frosting and-”

 

“No, Beth, I know, I swear, she only had it on her waffles and she didn’t even finish them, I think she’s just, like, normal sick.”

 

“Does she have a temperature?” Beth asks, stepping in, flipping on the fan to dissipate the smell of vomit and reaching over to feel her daughter’s forehead.

 

“Jane’s looking for a thermometer, this one doesn’t work,” he answers, holding on up.  Beth takes it and looks at it for a moment before looking back to Dean. “You have to turn it on,” she explains, pushing the button and handing it back.

 

Beth leaves without waiting for a reply and goes back downstairs, tossing the syrup bottle and heading to her bedroom and the ensuite bath where Jane is rifling through the vanity drawers and startles when her mother walks in.

 

“Dad said I should-”

 

“It’s okay, sweets, Dad’s got the thermometer upstairs, it’s working now.  Come help me pull out the suitcases instead.”

 

“What for?”

 

“You know how we said we were just gonna stay home and have family time this year for Labor Day?”

 

“Yeah, and then Kenny got grounded for saying that would suck ass.”

 

Beth sighs.  “Yes, well. There’s been a change of plans.  But first, who drank all the syrup?”

 

“Dad and Danny were doing it,” Jane answers immediately.

 

Beth wraps and arm around her as they walk together out of the bathroom.

 

“That’s my favorite child.”

 

--



“We brought your newspaper,” Marcus says, offering it up when Beth answers the door the next morning.  “I was gonna get the mail for you like Daddy lets me do at home, but he says that’s illegal and I could go to jail.”

 

“Does he,” she steps back to let Marcus and Rio past her.  Rio steps far closer than he needs to, almost chest to chest with her, hint of a smile on his face, and Beth clutches the paper in its plastic bag between them and swallows.

 

“People still get the paper delivered?” he asks, finally moving away and toeing off his shoes as he had two days before.  Beth watches him scratch one socked toe against his other shin before snapping out of it and shutting the door. “Can’t you just get it online?”

 

“Well, we’re Gen-Xers, we like our coupons.  I wouldn’t expect a Millenial to understand the appeal.”

 

Beth’s following Marcus and Rio to the kitchen as she says it but Rio stops and lets her walk past him, staring at her with a tilted head.  She’d like to breeze by but he doesn’t let her, snagging her arm and leaning in to speak low in her ear, even while both of them track Marcus’ movement to the kitchen island as he climbs up onto one of the chairs.

 

“Don’t worry darlin’, you ain’t breakin’ any laws with me.”

 

Beth doesn’t dignify that with an answer beyond a scoff.  She pulls away gently and heads for the kitchen again, pointedly dropping the paper on the hall table on her way.

 

As Rio’s following her, Emma pops up over the back of the couch, messy-haired and half-wrapped in a blanket.  “Mama?”

 

Rio visibly startles and Marcus spins in his chair so fast he almost knocks it over.

 

“Oh, I, uh, forgot to let you know, slight change of plans,” Beth scoots past Rio toward the couch.  “Yes, baby?”

 

“I’m thirsty.”

 

“Okay you can have some juice, but just little sips, okay?”

 

“Are they all here?” Rio whispers, glancing around like the rest of the children and their father will come crawling out of the walls.

 

“No, they left this morning as planned.”  Beth pours Pedialyte into a lidded water bottle with a flip up straw and rounds the counter to give it to Emma.  “But this little one has a stomach bug. No more fever today, but she’s just not quite right so we are having a relaxing weekend at home while Mr. Rio and Marcus are here visiting and we get some work done on the house, right?”

 

Emma releases the straw with a pop.  “Right. Hi,” she waves to Rio, unbothered, before addressing Marcus, “do you want to watch Ariel after you eat?”

 

“What happens in it?” Marcus hedges, kicking his feet back and forth.

 

“There’s singing, and at the end they stab the squid lady and she gets elec-ter-cutted with lightning and she’s really tall, like taller than a gorilla.”

 

“Little Mermaid is our favorite,” Beth interprets, giving Emma a squeeze before she heads back to the kitchen.  “Don’t worry,” she adds, holding up two boxes of cereal to Marcus, and pouring the one he points to, “she shouldn’t be contagious, it was a low fever and it passed quickly.  And,” she continues, quietly, just for Rio’s attention, “I didn’t really have any other options and it looks like you didn’t either.” She nods to Marcus meaningfully. There’d been no discussion of him coming along on this little venture while her own kids were supposed to be away.  Ruby and Stan were on vacation with theirs, and Annie had work.

 

“Yeah,” Rio agrees, “My ex is outta town for the weekend so I was supposed to have him anyway.”  He pauses and eyes her, and Beth didn’t miss how he slightly emphasized the first part of that sentence.  “We’ll make it work,” he adds, carefully vague.

 

“Sure,” Beth turns away quickly and pulls out the coffee to start measuring out grounds.

 

---

 

Even though Beth has a little time to herself at home during most weeks, it’s still startling how quiet the house is with just two children and one other adult there.  She finds her mind tripping back to when there was just her and Dean, Kenny, and Danny, but she shuts that down quickly since this is clearly not a similar situation. She refocuses on washing dishes, startling when Rio appears at her shoulder with a towel and starts picking up dishes from the rack and drying them.

 

“How’s the afternoon look?” she asks vaguely, hyperaware that there’s a chance anything they say could be being recorded.  Her skin still crawls with the thought and she tries to shake it off.

 

“Should be here soon.”

 

Beth nods, handing over her rinsed coffee cup and carefully avoiding Rio’s eyes.  He’s so close she can smell him, barely-there cologne mixing with the dish soap.

 

“She’ll need to nap for an hour or so.  I can take him out back with me and he can help with weeding if you don’t mind his clothes getting dirty.”

 

“We got stuff,” Rio motions with a nod to the backpack Beth hadn’t noticed when they arrived hanging on the back of one of the chairs at the island.

 

She swallows and turns back to the dishes, realizing Rio apparently means to sleep there , assuming the place isn’t bugged.  Or for some kind of cover story if it is.  She turns and fixes Rio with a narrow-eyed stare, studying his face, the corner of his jaw especially prominent from the angle she’s looking up at him.  He’s methodical about drying each dish and setting it back on the rack, maddeningly ignoring her hard stare, so when he goes to take the next plate from her hands she grips it tightly and gets his attention.

“Hey.”

 

“What you on about now?” he asks, irritated.

 

It gets her gut uneasy, how he’s just . . . there, settling in, in ways he never had before, no matter how nonchalantly he would let himself in through her locked doors.  

 

“This is,” Beth tries, failing, to find words for it, “. . . it’s weird .”

 

He glances at her side-long, like not fully turning to face her means he’s winning, and she knows that’s what he’s thinking because of the slightly mean smirk on his lips.  

 

Beth barrels on.  “It’s too . . . too normal, what do you think-” but the doorbell rings then and Rio simply lets go of the plate, swings the dish towel over his shoulder, and goes to answer her door.  

 

She watches his back as he pads across her house, looking for all the world like he owns the place.  It won’t be long until his fake cash has indirectly paid for all three of the mortgages, anyway. Beth wills the shaky energy ramping up inside her to calm, peeling off her rubber gloves quickly with shaking hands.  

 

“Emma?  Sweetie, it’s time to go up and rest for awhile.  Marcus you can come up too, do you like dinosaurs?  My son Danny has a ton of dinosaurs you can play with his room, okay?”

 

She’s getting Emma settled, Marcus playing quietly in the bedroom across the hall, when she hears Rio and his guy in the hallway outside the door.

 

“Do this room with the door closed last, yeah?  We got a little girl sleeping in here.”

 

We .

 

Beth swallows and closes her eyes.

 

What the hell.

 

---

 

It takes hours, this guy of Rio’s and his other guy working with him to comb over every room one by one.  In the end they find nothing but by the time they’re leaving it’s nearly dinner time, Emma has napped, watched a whole second movie, and gone back for another nap, and Marcus has entirely worn himself out alternately helping Beth weed and water the landscaping around the house, rake up the first of the leaves left in the yard, and play on the swingset.  Rio has mostly been inside either supervising his guys or taking phone calls and Beth tries to ignore the thought of him poking around in her bedroom, but following him around the whole time seemed like it would invite more trouble than she knows what she’d do with.

 

“You’re turnin’ red, ma,” he says from the patio, leaning casually against the side of the house.  Beth sits back on her heels from where she’s been winterizing a hydrangea bush.

 

She wipes the back of one gloved hand against her forehead and ignores his comment even though she can feel the sting of a light sunburn there.  She hadn’t thought of putting on an extra layer of sunscreen since it was overcast and there were obviously other things on her mind.

 

“Are they finished?”  she asks, still keeping up whatever facade they’re going with.

 

Rio nods.  “It’s clean,” he says, and Beth lets out a breath of relief that had been stuck in her chest for the last two days.  

 

She sits all the way back on the grass, heedless of her old ratty jeans taking on another stain or two, and leans back on the heels of her hands, just looking up at the house.  Eight years they’d lived there after outgrowing their little three bedroom starter house when she got pregnant with Jane. Boland Motors had been having a good season - or it seemed so at the time.  

 

She couldn’t stop picturing this house just disappearing into thin air, her life swallowed up into nothingness, a mental image that’s stuck in her mind since she first found the statements documenting Dean’s mountain of debt.  Still, the house stands, and her eyes trail back down until they land on Rio. She sits up straight again, and pushes up from the ground, narrowly holding back a groan at the ache in her tired muscles.

 

“I heard the little one makin’ some noise upstairs,” Rio says, and Beth pauses in pulling off her filthy gloves.  There’s a hole in the left one somewhere, that hand is stained with dirt, and Beth looks down at herself and sighs.  She hesitates, but he’s here and she’s tired and sweaty and off-kilter.

 

“I need to take a shower, could you . . .?”  She motions vaguely and Rio seems to understand what it takes for her to make the request, nodding quietly without innuendo.

 

“Yeah alright,” he says, staying in place and lowering his eyes as she moves past him.  “Dinner?”

 

She pauses, one hand on the handle of the french doors that lead to the master bedroom, and looks back at him over her shoulder.

 

“Whatever you want,” she says lightly.  She slips in and closes the door without waiting for a response, sheds her clothes on the bathroom floor, and refuses to meet her own eyes in the mirror before she steps into a steaming hot shower.

 

---

 

When Beth remembers to glance at her phone after her shower, dressed but with her hair still dripping, she has four texts from Annie and seventeen Instagram notifications of updates from Ruby, chronicling her family’s mini-vacation to Mackinac Island.  She replies to Annie’s last text asking what the difference is between pesto and chutney. She likes all of Ruby’s pictures and comments with heart-eyes, thumbs ups, sunglass-wearing suns, and fruity cocktail emojis, then taps into her voicemail, with three waiting from Dean.  

 

The first is asking where the coolers and the swimsuits are - she can hear Jane yelling in the background that everything is in the back of the van where she had helped pack them, and Beth loves and hates that her older girl is so much like her - another letting her know they had arrived at the hotel, and she can hear the tension in Dean’s voice at getting her voicemail a second time.  The third has no message, just a quick hang-up. She sighs and dials, waits while it rings. It goes to voicemail.

 

Beth grits her teeth.

 

“Hi, I’m really sorry, I was out doing yard work while Emma napped and I forgot I left my phone on the charger.  She’s doing a little better today but she’s still not quite herself. You know how she is when her stomach’s upset, so . . . just a lot of movies and couch time for us here.”

 

She pauses, and she can hear, faintly, Rio and both kids in the kitchen, but she knows the sound won’t carry all the way through and she closes her eyes tight.

 

“Okay, I’ve got to go get dinner started for me and the little sickie, so give the kids hugs from us.  Call me again tomorrow. We miss you guys. ‘Night.”

 

The thing of it is, she’s barely lying.  

 

She’d sold Dean on the last minute trip as family bonding time with one text as she’d left the dealership after meeting with Rio.  Dean had jumped at the idea, even agreeing that he wouldn’t spoil the surprise for the kids, which worked out since she was still figuring out what her excuse to him would be for why she suddenly wasn’t going on a trip she herself had suggested.  Then by the time she’d gotten home from picking up new swimsuits and extra sunscreen, Emma was sick and plans changed, effortlessly.

 

She hears a belly laugh from Emma in the kitchen and stands, a little wobbly on her feet at first after barely any lunch and a long afternoon outdoors.  When she reaches the end of the hall the scene in the kitchen is both exactly what she expects and also, somehow, much much worse. Rio is at the stove stirring something - she’d assumed he would just order pizza for the four seconds she’d let her mind settle on the whole idea of it - and the kids are playing Candy Land at the island, Marcus nearly laying flat on the counter and looking as worn out as she feels, the poor kid.  There’s a bottle of wine - white - that she recognizes as one Ruby had brought one girls’ night that they hadn’t ever opened, and two glasses poured on the counter next to the stove.

 

“Mama, I’m winning!” Emma cheers, and Beth’s face snaps into a bright smile almost painfully fast, she can feel her cheeks twinging.

 

“Yayyy!” Beth cheers, padding further into the kitchen.  Rio still stands at the stove, and when she moves closer she can see he’s tossing pasta with some kind of herby seasoning and parmesan cheese.

 

“S’just primavera,” he says off-handedly, gesturing to the baking sheet of roasted vegetables on the counter cooling.

 

“No red sauce,” she says quietly, but she sees him freeze for a second, and his eyes flick to hers.

 

“All you had was Chardonnay,” he counters, a little too evenly.

 

Then they all sit at the dining room table, Beth’s feet on the rug she had scrubbed Dean’s blood out of after Rio beat up and shot him.  The kids eat agreeably, Beth and Rio each sip their wine between bites. It’s nearly as stifling as rare family dinners with Dean had become, just with a different kind of quiet.

 

Emma pipes up suddenly, “Mister . . . Oreo?”

 

Rio very nearly spits his wine across the table and Beth inhales hers, coughing until tears are spilling down her cheeks.  Emma laughs along confusedly after a moment.

 

“Just call me Rio, okay?  No mister.” he finally gets out, and Emma nods.

 

“‘Kay, Rio?”

 

“What?”

 

“Is that bird on your neck from a marker?”

 

Beth, still half-hysterical at the suddenness of Oreo tilts her head innocently, still half-laughing when she adds innocently, “oh, is it?”

 

He shoots Beth a look from across the table, then addresses Emma.  “No, babe, it’s a tattoo. It’s ink, poked under your skin with a needle.”

 

“Did it hurt?”

 

“Does it hurt when you get a shot at the doctor?”

 

“Yeah, but I get a sticker after so I tough it out.”

 

“It’s the same, then, it just takes longer.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Cool.  Finish your dinner, yeah?”

 

Emma takes a bite and chews consideringly, staring hard at Rio’s throat as he chews and swallows and glares mightily at Beth, who is barely holding back laughter as she stares right back at him.  Marcus, who had been quiet anyway, suddenly nods off, his head slipping from resting on one hand to laying on his arm on the table.

 

“Oh, oh no, is he-”

 

“He’s fine, he’s fine, he just falls asleep anywhere,” Rio cuts in, getting up to carefully lift Marcus away from the table.  Beth gets up too and follows him.

 

“Come on, you can put him upstairs in Danny’s room, I just changed the sheets.”

 

Rio nods and waves her off when she goes to follow him upstairs.  He’s been all over the house at this point anyway, she realizes, it’s not like he needs directions.  When Beth heads back toward the dining room Emma is balanced on her back on the couch by the TV, dangling her head upside down over the armrest.

 

“Mama can I watch just one single episode of Doc McStuffins, I finished my food, please please please?”

 

Beth sighs and tilts her head, weighing her options briefly before deciding, screw it , four hours of screen time in a day probably won’t ruin her for life.  She’s setting up the TV when Rio comes back downstairs himself.

 

“I’ll get the dishes,” Beth says absently as she scrolls through streaming menus.

 

“I got it.”

 

“But you cooked, I can-”

 

Rio’s knuckles flush over her lower back and she freezes when she feels him close, so close at her ear.  “I said I got it.”

 

He noses into her hair just slightly before he moves away, and Beth exhales and startles when Emma pops up in her field of vision, standing now on the armrest, arms held out like she’s about to jump off a diving board.

 

“Get down,” Beth sighs, not even surprised when Emma obeys by forward-falling face down onto the cushions, arms straight to her sides.  

 

Rio tsk s from the dining room as he clears away dishes and Beth shoots a look in his direction as she rounds the couch herself but he’s already heading into the kitchen.  She picks up Emma’s feet and sits down with them on her lap, slouching and putting her own feet up on the coffee table with a groan. She’s sleepy, belly full, wine-and-advil-buzzed, and someone else is cleaning her kitchen.  If she weren’t sore all over from the yard work she would think she was high.

 

It can’t be more than five minutes before she drifts off to sleep.

 

---

 

Netflix is asking if she’d like to keep watching Doc McStuffins, Emma is curled on her side snoring lightly with her feet shoved under Beth’s hip, and the house is dark and quiet when Beth wakes up some time later.  She sits up slowly, her neck and shoulders stiff from falling asleep sitting up, and looks around, bleary-eyed. There’s a light on in the kitchen, shining dimly through the doorway to the dining room, where the table is cleared and the chairs all pushed in neatly.  Beth pulls her feet down from the coffee table and drops a blanket over Emma’s legs as she gets up carefully, wincing at the cracks and pops of her back and knees as she does. Emma mumbles in her sleep but doesn’t stir. Beth peeks into the kitchen to find it empty, clean dishes on the drying rack, pasta pot soaking with soapy water in the sink, and the Candy Land box packed away on the island.  She peers into the living room to find it empty, and sees Rio and Marcus’ shoes still mixed in with the pile by the back door when she checks that it’s locked.

 

She takes a breath and slips upstairs and down the hall to where the door to Jane and Danny’s room is ajar.  Their nightlights are both on, and there’s Rio, fast asleep on Jane’s bed on top of the covers, just across the room from where Marcus is tucked into Danny’s bed.  Beth leans heavily against the door frame and presses her fingertips to her lips.

 

Somehow this feels like something else, something new, something more.

 

She’s literally had him inside her, deep and rough enough that she’d felt bruised and sore the whole next day, inside, on her thighs and her neck where he’d gripped her so, so hard.  He’s held her at gunpoint more than once, waving it lazily or taking her by the back of the neck and drawing the tip of the barrel over her collarbone, his voice sure and chilling. Now he’s in her home, invited, asleep in her daughter’s bed after cooking a meal for her.  If this were nearly any other moment over the last year she would be either fleeing in terror, or smacking him awake to kick him out. But, she glances over, Marcus.

 

She could strangle Rio for both never mentioning his son as long as he did, and then showing him off when he did, after she and Annie and Ruby were in too deep to veer off the insane road they’d stumbled onto.  She knows he knew what that would do to her, how it was the best and surest way to keep her from ever trying to put him away again, and how it would make her rethink their every interaction, her brain obsessively trying to match up this new knowledge to everything else she knew about him.

 

“Can hear you thinkin’,” Rio’s voice sounds gravelly in the dark, and Beth startles so violently she has to clap both hands over her mouth so she won’t yell.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” she whisper-screams, shaking with adrenaline.

 

Rio laughs softly and rolls over to his side.

 

“Y’know I woulda gone for your bed, darlin’.  He’s always down for a good ten hours. But that seemed a little forward for how PG we keepin’ things these last few days.”

 

“Well we’ve had other things going on,” Beth reminds him.  Her heart rate is finally slowing but she presses a hand to her chest anyway just for the steadying of it.

 

“Yeah,” he concedes.  “Little one still out?”

 

“Yeah . . . yeah she’s on the couch downstairs.  I’m about to bring her up, she’ll be confused if she wakes up down there.”

 

Rio mm’s in assent and Beth backs away to pad downstairs, scoop up Emma from the couch and bring her back up to tuck her into her own bed.  She’s tiptoeing back down the hall toward the stairs when she hears Rio’s voice again.

 

“‘M I invited?” he asks, tone still light, but with more than his usual heat creeping in.

 

Beth stops in the hallway, considering.  “Honestly I’m so tired and sore, I’m not going to be awake for more than five more minutes anyway.  So no, not really.”

 

She can feel his smile even though she can’t see it.

 

“See you in the morning then.  How you like your eggs?”

 

Anything, truly, would have been less disarming than that answer, accompanied by the creaks of the bed and rustling of the mattress as Rio apparently gets comfortable again.

 

Beth just sighs, something bone-tired and hysterical, and walks away, leaving the door pushed open.  She can hear him chuckling as she walks down the stairs again.

 

---

 

Beth hasn’t woken up in her own bed to the smell of bacon cooking in a good fifteen years, except for the odd time or two Ruby had crashed there after drinking too much and had time to make breakfast before she left.  A few times it had been Beth on the Hill’s couch and Stan humming to himself as he moved around the kitchen. Stan made the best breakfasts of any of them, Beth included.

 

Stan is not in her kitchen.

 

Neither are Marcus or Emma, and Beth realizes she never put her watch back on as she stands leaning against the doorway just outside a beam of earliest morning sunlight streaming in through the window above the sink.  She had picked this house for the light, how it traveled through the rooms from sunrise to sunset and warmed them.

 

Now she runs her tongue over her teeth, still a little gritty from the toothpaste she hadn’t rinsed all the way before she’d stumbled into some fresh clothes and ventured out of her bedroom, and watches Rio put away clean dishes, barefoot, his t-shirt riding up when he reaches to place the wine glasses on their high shelf.  She approaches silently, but she can tell when he hears her and stills, not turning or moving toward her but just waiting until she reaches him and presses a hand flat to his back, up between his shoulder blades and to the back of his neck. She lets both hands wander over his back, slipping under his t-shirt at his hips and leaning into him, letting him feel her pressed against him, her chin not even reaching the knob at the top of his spine when she rests it there.  She always forgets how tall he is when she doesn’t have heels on, shorter than Dean, but. Different. Narrower hips and wider shoulders, sharper all over, deceptively strong for how wiry he’s built.

 

He turns suddenly in her arms, walks her back a step until her hips hit the island, caging her in with his hands on either side, veering off at the last second to kiss her neck instead of her mouth.  She pulls him back, hand at the back of his neck again, and makes him kiss her properly, kids toothpaste and tea on his tongue and a low growl in his throat.

 

They hadn’t kissed before, and she hadn’t had to say it, he knew already she couldn’t look too obviously just-fucked walking out of that bathroom and back to Dean.  So he’d kept his mouth at her neck, nosing into her hair and biting her shoulder through her dress, swearing under his breath when he hitched her up against his bony hips and left fingertip bruises on her when she’d tensed all over and gasped through her orgasm.

 

Now he’s dropping to his knees, wrestling her jeans down her hips while she’s starts fumbling with the zipper-

 

“Mamaaaa!  I PEEEEEEEEEEEEED!”

 

Beth grits out a groan, breath still coming heavy as Rio looks up at her, leans in and bites the flesh of her thigh before he pulls her jeans back up and stands again.  She zips and buttons her jeans and slips sideways from between him and the island.

 

“MAMA!”

 

“I hear you baby, I’ll be right there!”

 

Beth jogs up the stairs and passes Marcus in the hallway.

 

“Good morning, Marcus.”

 

“‘Morning Miss ‘lizabeth,” he answers groggily.  She smiles and ruffles his hair lightly.

 

“Your dad’s downstairs,” she adds.  

 

“I know, I could smell the bacon.”

 

Beth rolls her eyes at how much he sounds like his dad and blows out a breath before opening Emma’s door to find her stark naked, crouching on top of her dresser like a gollum, pajamas in a wet pile on her bed.

 

Beth blinks a few times.

 

“I think we need to just buy a kennel for you.”

 

Emma yips a few times agreeably and flings herself off the dresser, landing with a thump in the middle of the floor.

 

“Can I wear my Sleepy Beauty dress today?”

 

“Sure,” Beth sighs, popping the top on a wet wipes box and pulling a few out, then a few more.  “Why not. Okay, come here little puppy, let’s get you cleaned up for breakfast. And you’re taking a bath right afterward, no TV, no excuses.”

 

“Is Or- is Rio and Marcus still here?”

 

“Yes, Rio’s making breakfast,” Beth answers as she hands Emma clean underwear and steadies her while she steps into them.

 

“Is it popsicles and cake?”  Emma asks.

 

“No, it’s bacon and eggs.”

 

“Can we have popsicles and cake for lunch?”

 

“Maybe one of those for dessert after lunch,” Beth says, helping Emma find the neck hole of the faded Sleeping Beauty nightgown, “if you eat your veggies.”

 

Emma sighs and leans into her mother’s shoulder.  “It’s too much reponsabilities.”

 

“You’ll manage.”

 

Marcus is eating at the island when they come downstairs, and Rio is at the stove again, cellphone in one hand, spatula in the other.

 

Beth helps Emma into the chair next to Marcus where there’s a plate waiting for her with scrambled eggs and toast.

 

“How should I do your eggs?” Rio asks.  “I don’t have time to poach ‘em,” he adds.  He doesn’t wait for an answer before he gestures to Emma, who already has grape jelly from her toast dotted on her cheeks.  “You want her to have bacon or nah?”

 

“Yeah she can have half a piece,” Beth answers absently, looking at the third plate with toast and bacon waiting and a cup of coffee tinted with cream to the exact shade of caramel-y brown she likes.  “Is this yours?” she asks, pointing.

 

Rio shakes his head, holding out the plate of bacon for her to take a piece for Emma.  “S’yours, ma."

 

“Over-medium,” Beth murmurs, sitting down in the chair and picking up her toast to nibble a corner.  There’s apricot jam spread on it, grape for the kids. And her coffee is perfect. She frowns at it all.

 

“How did you-”

 

“I got some work to do for a few hours, he alright to stay with you?”

 

Rio’s talking with his back to her, cellphone in his pocket now, nudging at the eggs in the skillet.

 

“Yeah,” Beth answers questioningly, watching Rio’s back intently.  “I can go by the lot if that’s-”

 

“It’s not about that, it’s the other thing.”

 

Rio slides two sunny side up eggs onto her plate and turns back to set the pan in the sink, then stand across from her and the kids to finish his own buttered toast.  He lifts the World’s Best Aunt mug that Sadie had given Beth for her birthday one year to his lips and sips.

 

“So it’s . . . related to,” Beth glances sidelong at the kids and continues quietly, “to Friday?”

 

Rio nods, eyebrow slightly raised in challenge.  

 

Okay.  

 

Beth swallows drily and takes a drink of her coffee.  Babysitting duty while Rio attends to a murder.

 

This is fine.

 

“Pop you’re gonna stay here for a little bit while I go take care of a work thing.  It’s not gonna be long though alright?”

 

“Okay,” Marcus agrees easily.

 

“You mind Miss Elizabeth while I’m gone, yeah?”

 

“Okay Daddy,” he repeats.

 

“Can I come with?”  Emma pipes up, bacon halfway to her mouth.

 

“NO!” Beth blurts before she can stop herself, and Rio gives her a look.

 

“I get to go to my daddy’s work sometimes and he has candy on his desk, do you have a desk with candy?”

 

“Different kinda work, babe,” Rio answers easily, finishing the last of his tea.  “Sometimes I work at a desk with a candy bowl, but not today.”

 

He winks at Beth before turning to rinse his dishes in the sink and she glowers, shaking her head and muttering “sweet Jesus” into her coffee.

 

Her perfect coffee.

 

---

 

She doesn’t go so far as to see Rio off at the door, but she does dig some sidewalk chalk, Emma’s scooter, and one of Danny’s skateboards out of the garage and sit on the front porch while the kids play on the driveway.  She finishes her second cup of coffee and contemplates her phone, startling when it starts ringing in her hand with a call from Dean.

 

“Hi!” she answers brightly, and chats stiltedly with Dean for a few minutes, then with each of the kids when he puts them on.  Then it gets sticky. “Hey Emma!” she calls, motioning her over. “Hold on honey, just a second.” She covers the phone with her hand and takes a breath.

 

“Hey, Daddy’s on the phone, but listen.  You know how we have some visitors?” Emma nods.  “Okay well we’re going to keep that a . . . surprise, okay?  So don’t say anything about that to Daddy, okay?” Emma nods and reaches for the phone and Beth prays.  

 

“Hi Daddy.  Yeah, a little better.  I had bacon for breakfast and Mama said I could have cake for dessert if I eat my vegables . . . Daddy when you come back can we go to your work with the candy bowl?”

 

Beth shuts her eyes and waits, but after another moment she hears the other kids shouting into the phone to their little sister, and then they’re all saying goodbye and she swipes out of the call and can breathe again.  Another batch of Instagram notifications start popping up from Ruby while Emma runs off to play some more and Beth bites her lip, pausing before she swipes to Ruby’s contact info and taps the call button.

 

Ruby picks up after a few rings: “Hey girl!  How’s life on that non-island you call a city?”

 

“It’s good,” Beth answers lightly.  Then, “So. I’m . . . doing something.”

 

“No.  Nah. Nuh-uh, not on my vacation.”

 

“But listen, it’s not-”

 

“No, Beth.  You are not giving me hives on my vacation, I have a vibe going and it does not include you doing things!”

 

“Okay, but it’s not really-”

 

“NO.”

 

There’s some muffled sounds like Ruby’s holding her hand over the speaker and then Stan’s voice.

 

“Heeeeeey, Beth?”

 

“Stan?”

 

“Yeah, Ruby says she’s not talking to you right now?  I’m supposed to tell you if you try to call her again about anything other than a life-or-death situation, or Housewives spoilers, that she’s gonna throw her phone in the pool and you have to buy her a new one so she can block your number on that too.”

 

Beth sighs over the line.

 

“Sorry,” Stan adds.

 

“S’okay,” Beth replies, beaten.  “Have fun, give the kids a kiss from me.”

 

She’s cringing with her finger over the call button for Annie’s speed-dial when Marcus lets out a yelp and loses the skateboard from under his feet, landing on his back in the grass just off the driveway.

 

“Shit,” Beth mutters as she gets up to run over.  “Emma, stop laughing, it’s not funny!”

 

Thankfully Marcus isn’t hurt, just winded, but he does agree to take a break from the skateboard and do chalk instead.  Beth figures she’ll get another twenty minutes out of it before they’re bored and thirsty, then they can help make lemonade, have a snack, maybe throw together a cake for after lunch-

 

Her phone rings again , this time a number she doesn’t recognize.  She answers hesitantly and it’s a security company calling to confirm they’ll be there in two hours to install her whole-home system.  

 

“Yes, that’s right.  Yes, I’m Elizabeth. Thank you.”

 

---

 

Rio comes in on the heels of the team installing the security system when Beth and the kids have just finished lunch.  He goes straight to the hall bathroom and she can hear the sink running, like he’s washing his hands. When he comes out the door swings too far and knocks into the wall behind like always and he startles, swinging around to glare at it.

 

“Sorry,” Beth calls from the kitchen, “The hinge is broken, it always does that.”

 

“Should get it fixed,” Rio says, briskly but not unkindly as he strides into the kitchen, heading straight for Marcus and kissing the top of his head.  “Hey Pop, you all good?”

 

“Yeah, we made lemonade from real lemons.”

 

“Oh, that’s the best kind, did you save me some?”

 

Beth already has the pitcher out of the fridge and is pouring him a glass, offering it up.  Rio looks her over as she does, heedless of the kids between them and the sound of a power drill coming from where a woman in a polo shirt is installing the security system keypad near the front door.  He rounds the island slowly to take the glass and sip, standing too close to Beth, looking immaculate and preternaturally calm. Given the circumstances.

 

“Everything . . . go okay?” Beth asks.

 

He pauses and raises an eyebrow.  “‘S’all taken care of.”

 

---

 

The security system install is relatively quick and painless, once it’s all finished and they’ve walked Beth through all the interior and exterior features and how to manage it she closes the front door and tosses the thick instruction manual on the island, following voices to the TV room where Rio is puzzling through the remote system, Emma at his shoulder trying to help as much as a newly-five-year-old can, which is not at all.

 

“Emma?  Naptime sweetie, you’re still getting better from that stomach bug.”

 

Emma lets out a whine, jostling at Rio’s shoulder while she drapes herself over the back of the couch to beg.

 

“Emma,” Rio says, “Obey your mama.”

 

Emma, startled and slightly shamed, oozes off the couch and slumps over to Beth, who accompanies her upstairs to the bathroom and then her bedroom.

 

“Miss Elizabeth?”  Marcus asks in a whisper when Beth comes out from Emma’s room.

 

“Yes, Marcus.”

 

“Can I watch Big Hero 6 while Emma has her bedtime?”

 

“Um.  Just a second, I have to talk to your dad about something.”

 

Rio comes when called, following Beth to the kitchen.

 

“Do you guys need to get going?”

 

Rio shrugs.  “Not really. Why?”

 

Beth eyes him.  “Because . . . everything’s done?  There weren't any bugs, the security system is installed.  Are they not done at your place yet?”

 

“Naw, it is.”

 

Beth widens her eyes.  “Okay, so.”

 

“You gettin’ rid of me, Elizabeth?”  He’s advancing on her slowly, all intent and heat and she stands her ground even when she has to crane her neck to look up at him.

 

“I sent Dean and the kids away so we could get things taken care of more easily.”

 

“Yeah,” Rio agrees, his posture unchanged but his eyes darkening, challenging.  “You gonna call him up? Tell him to come on home honey, we’re waitin’ for ya ?”

 

“Shouldn’t I?”

 

Rio nods over her shoulder.  “He gonna fix that janky ass door when he gets back?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

Rio leans in, right to her ear, his hands landing on her hips large and warm.  Beth sucks in a breath, eyes flying to the TV room.

 

“He gonna fuck you better than me?”

 

She huffs a breath out in spite of herself.  “No. Not a chance.”

 

Rio grins, eyes trailing all over her face.

 

“So what’s the rush, huh, darlin’?”

 

Beth blinks slowly, feels herself teetering on yet another edge she absolutely can’t come back from.

 

“We don’t have Big Hero 6.  You’ll have to download it.”

 

Rio’s grin grows, then quiets as he puts on a faux-serious face.  “I’ll reimburse you.”

 

---

 

Rio sits down with Marcus to watch the movie and Beth works on all the little tasks she hadn’t been doing to keep up with the house the last two days.  She sorts and opens the mail, gives the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms a once over, takes the garbage out, and gathers up a pile of random things that don’t belong where they were left and carries the armload upstairs to drop in whichever kids’ room they belong.  

 

When she’s just down to Dean’s things she pauses outside Kenny’s room where he’d still been sharing the bunk bed.  She thinks Kenny doesn’t mind it but at the same time it’s not a long-term solution. But then long-term solutions haven’t so much been her focus for a while now.  She finally surrenders the pile of phone charger, socks, earbuds, belt, and half-done packages of gum and mints, to the pillow on the bottom bunk where Dean’s been sleeping.

 

Then, laundry.  She gathers as much as she can carry in one basket and takes it downstairs, peeking in at Rio and Marcus in the TV room on her way.  Marcus is describing something with a lot of hand motions to his dad and Rio is listening intently, nodding along. He must see Beth from the corner of his eye and he glances back.  Beth holds his gaze for a moment before she turns, warm and with a heavy feeling in her veins, to take the basket to the laundry room.

 

Of course he appears as she’s opening the washer to change over the last load.

 

“I thought you were gonna hang out with your kid,” she chides softly.

 

“He’s all good for a few,” Rio answers easily.  He opens the dryer and takes out one of the dryer balls, inspecting it.  “How these things work, anyway?”

 

“Um.  I don’t really know, actually,” Beth realizes, nudging him with her hip to move so she can toss a handful of damp clothes in.  “They’re wool, so they help soak up extra moisture, and I think something about softening the fabrics without chemicals, or something.”  She watches him squint at the one he’s holding when she brings over the next armful.

 

“They don’t get lint on your dark stuff?”

 

“No, I haven’t noticed it.  I guess that would be kind of a nightmare for you since everything you wear is black.”

 

He pulls a face at her, tosses the dryer ball back in, and pulls out the lint filter, tsking when it’s full.  He cleans it, tosses the lint in the little garbage can reserved for it, and takes the last pile of damp clothes from Beth’s hands to put them in himself.

 

“Put it on-”

 

“I’ve used a dryer before,” he cuts her off, turning the dial and starting it.  

 

Beth purposefully cranes her neck to check that he did in fact choose the right cycle, a little upheaval of annoyance in her chest when she sees he did.  He’s grinning at her, drawing her over between him and the dryer which is now running, the dryer balls tumbling around inside and making a muffled racket.  He leans his hands on the dryer on either side of her hips like he had that morning in the kitchen and just watches her, barely any heat in his eyes despite how purposefully he’d positioned them.

 

“What?” she asks finally.

 

He looks for another several seconds before a mild little grin colors his face for a moment, then vanishes as he backs away.

 

“Nothin’.  You just get pissed about weird shit is all.”  He actually turns to leave the room, adding, “ Laundry ,” as he does, for emphasis.

 

Beth could probably choose not to rise to that, but she doesn’t.  He’s in her house, messing with her, getting in her space and doing things without asking or being asked and it’s freaking her out, beyond just the fact that he’s present and has made it clear he’s ready for a repeat performance of the bar restroom whenever they can find the time and privacy.

 

My laundry,” she corrects, following on his heels, and she thinks she can tell just by his shoulders that he’s holding in a laugh, which is obnoxious on both their parts.  “My house. My kitchen, my dishes-”

 

“I’m tryna be a pleasant houseguest, damn!” he says under his breath, both of them immediately mindful of Marcus in the next room.  Then, “this some real last year shit, you know? You got all bothered about me bein’ in your house where people could see, what your friends gonna think, how’m I gonna make your pretty life messy today like you-”

 

“Rio?”

 

Beth startles at Emma’s voice sounding from where she’s appeared on the stairs only a few feet away from where they’re standing.

 

“You're supposed to be asleep, little one,” he answers.

 

“It’s okay, it’s almost time for her to be up anyway,” Beth answers him.  She clears her throat quickly and addresses Emma, subtly sliding away from Rio where she’d been standing practically toe-to-toe with him a moment before.  “Emma, honey. Why do you have markers?”

 

“I have a question for Rio ,” Emma repeats.  Rio agreeably walks over, where standing on the third step from the bottom Emma is about as tall as Beth in comparison to him.  He folds his arms and raises his eyebrows at her, waiting. Emma holds up the markers in one fist. “May I please color the bird on your neck.”

 

Beth snorts loudly, slapping a hand over her mouth.  

 

Rio, for his part, mostly holds it together.  “No.”

 

“You can pick the colors, I have purple and green and red and-”

 

“Nah babe, we’re not doin’ that.”

 

“. . . Can I use nail polish instead?”

 

Beth cackles into her palm, wrapping one arm around her own waist to try and hold it in and failing.

 

Rio clears his throat, barely hanging onto a scrap of dignity.  Marcus is hanging over the back of the couch, watching with baited breath.

 

No .”

 

“But Auntie let me do it with markers!  These are the wash-off ones, I can show you on your hand-”

 

“Wait, wait, Emma, Auntie let you do what ?  When was this?” Beth asks, finally starting to wipe the tears from her eyes.

 

Emma blanches, tucking the fistful of markers under her chin and turning back and forth nervously.  “When you and Daddy went out for dinner and you wore your poke-dots dress. Auntie was really sleepy and the big kids were playing Wii and she was laying on the couch and I asked nicely and she said I could color her butt tattoo.”

 

The look Rio swivels around to give Beth is more than a little horrified - she can see him putting the puzzle pieces together of which night Emma’s unknowingly referring to, not to mention what she’d actually said.  Beth chokes down her hysterical laughter, just barely. “Emma, no , it’s on her back you can’t- don’t, don’t say it’s on her butt, it’s not.  It’s really not,” she adds to Rio.

 

He hasn’t cracked a smile yet but she can see the struggle not to break in his eyes.   Beth shakes her head, holding up her hands in surrender and gesturing to the two of them.  “I’m not really involved in this, I’m gonna go make dinner. If I were you I’d just take the markers.  They will wash off.”

 

She leaves them there, glancing up from the open fridge when Emma shrieks and starts giggling, Rio walking by with her slung over his shoulder to deposit her on the couch next to Marcus, the markers mysteriously vanished.

 

“Your kid is weird,” he announces as he strides over to the kitchen and goes to the sink to wash his hands.

 

“I’m not weird I’m special!” Emma yells from the couch.

 

Rio just shakes his head and dries his hands, turning to watch Beth expectantly.  She watches him a little incredulously back.

 

“I don’t need help,” she clarifies, setting the package of chicken, bunch of kale, and a pack of cherry tomatoes on the island.

 

“I’m here, I can do it,” he says, reaching to open the drawer where the cutting boards and knives are, because of course he knows that .  Beth slaps his hand away.

 

“Let me rephrase: I don’t want help.  I like to cook by myself. It’s relaxing.”

 

“Mama can I help?” Emma asks, appearing in the kitchen with Marcus on her heels.

 

“Is your movie all done already?”

 

“Yeah, it’s the credits.”

 

“Well, honey, there’s not much I can let you help with here, I have raw chicken that I’m going to cook on the stove and for the rest I have to use a sharp knife.  How about if you color instead?”

 

Emma turns to Rio, ready to start her spiel again when Beth clarifies, “on paper.  Or a coloring book.”

 

“I don’t wanna ,” Emma whines, “I wanna help .”

 

“Can I please color?” Marcus asks.

 

“Of course, Emma, you can be a helper by getting out the coloring stuff for Marcus and put it on the dining room table so he has enough space.”

 

Emma flounces off, annoyed, and Beth glances at Rio, who has sat himself at the island, chin leaned on his fist, watching.  She gestures accusingly at him with a knife. “Your kid makes my kid look like a jerk.”

 

He shrugs, grinning.  “Some people are just assholes, Elizabeth.”

 

She sighs, nods in agreement, and sets to work on dinner.

 

When Emma comes back she climbs onto the chair beside Rio and copies his pose, leaning her chin on her fist too.  Beth glances up from cutting tomatoes and smiles. It's too soft, her heart all soppy with it, and this is so messed up, but seeing Rio so normal, so safe, and in his own way kind with her daughter is . . . affecting.

 

Rio's eyes flick sideways and he says, muffled under his hand, “you ain't coloring my neck, stop staring.”

 

“Mama says ain't isn't a word.”

 

“Mama's right.”

 

“Then why did you say it?”

 

“I ain't your mama.”

 

Emma folds her arms and slouches down to rest her chin on them on the countertop.

 

“Daddy, do cooking show!” Marcus says, appearing on Rio's other side and climbing into a chair.

 

“I ain't cookin’,” Rio answers meaningfully, refusing to meet Beth's rolled eyes.

 

“But you could do it while Miss Elizabeth is cooking.”

 

“My mama's name is Beth,” Emma pipes up.

 

“Beth is short for Elizabeth,” Beth answers from the stove where she's setting a skillet on the burner and adding a pat of butter to melt.

 

“What's short for Emma?”

 

“Not much, really,” Beth says distractedly, twisting the pepper grinder, “but you have other nicknames-”

 

“Like babe and little one?’ Emma asks, and Beth can only blush privately at that and ignore the grin she knows is on Rio's face.

 

“Daddy, please do cooking show?”

 

“I thought you were coloring,” Rio sighs, harassed. Beth smirks to herself and sets the seasoned chicken in the pan to brown.

 

“What's cooking show?” Emma asks.

 

“I'll do cooking show if you both shut up.”

 

“Shut up is a bad word,” Emma whispers from behind her hands.

 

“Submit a complaint,” Rio tells her, deadpan.

 

“What's submit?”

 

Daddy -”

 

Rio stares at Beth, stricken, as she comes back to the island and both kids continue chattering ceaselessly.

 

“Don't look at me for sympathy, only two going simultaneously is literally a vacation for me.”

 

Rio groans and rubs his hands over his face.

 

“Today on Cooking Show-”

 

“Yay!” Marcus cheers.

 

“WHAT'S COOKING SHOW,” Emma bellows, getting ready to stand on her chair.

 

Beth gives her a murder stare, raised eyebrows and pursed lips, and Emma slaps her hands back over her mouth and settles back onto her seat.

 

Rio inhales and exhales. The kitchen is perfectly silent for five seconds, save for the chicken sizzling and the quiet rustling of Beth dividing the kale into smaller bunches.

 

“Today on Cooking Show,” Rio starts again, “Miss Elizabeth is making chicken with kale and tomatoes.”

 

“What's kale?” Marcus asks.

 

“It's like spinach,” Beth answers in a whisper, winking at him.

 

“Do I like it?” Marcus asks Rio, holding his hand to his mouth like he's telling a secret, already near giggling when Rio closes his eyes and his nostrils flare.

 

“You gonna eat it and say thank you, that's what it is.”

 

“Okay,” Marcus agrees, losing control and dissolving back into laughter.  Rio looks over at him, face stern but eyes warm, and waits until the last of his giggles have subsided.

 

“Chicken comes from a chicken and kale grows from the ground and tomatoes grow on a vine. These ones are small so they call them cherry tomatoes.”

 

“Like a bouncy ball?” Emma asks.

 

Rio gives her the same look as he did Marcus.  “Like a cherry.”

 

“I don't like cherries.”

 

“They're tomatoes, it's just the name.  Miss Elizabeth is seasoning the chicken with salt and pepper and basil. Basil is an herb, that's a plant with leaves.”

 

“Like at home?”

 

“Yeah Pop, we got basil at home.”

 

It goes on, Rio narrating as Beth cooks, and it's so soothing and wholesome, an intimate simple thing she can imagine Rio doing with Marcus.  It's the kind of tradition that takes fewer kids and more adults than are generally around while she's making dinner.

 

Unbelievably she feels tears welling up in her eyes as he keeps going, the kids interjecting here and there, and she keeps her head down so they won't see, surreptitiously wiping her eyes when she has her back turned at the stove.  

 

This isn't her life.  

 

This won't be her life, this particular sweetness that makes no sense given that it’s Rio , and that this little arrangement can't possibly last beyond another day.  Of all the places and ways she’d ever expected to share space with him, this was less likely than that restroom.  Rio and Marcus will leave, this Rio will leave, and and her family will come home.  Rio can't be this when he's doing business. She's not sure how he can be this at all, hours after facilitating a murder, awaiting a criminal trial she herself brought on.

 

Dean and her other kids will come back and her marriage will keep dying its messy, slow, excruciating death until one of them finally starts making it official.  As if she and Rio hadn't pushed that process another step further along already.

 

Beth turns the chicken, adds the kale to a second pan with oil and garlic and lemon zest, tosses the cherry tomatoes with salt, pepper and more basil.  She clears up the island, rinses her knife and cutting board in the sink, sets out plates and silverware and glasses and barely hears it when Rio sends the kids to set the table in the dining room.

 

For another few seconds it’s silent in the kitchen, Beth standing at the stove holding a meat thermometer in the largest piece of chicken.  She sniffles once before she can help it and quickly wipes her nose on the back of her hand.

 

“You straight?” Rio asks quietly.

 

She breathes in and out and prays for her voice to come out at all.  “Yeah, fine.”

 

He’s at her back seconds later, hands on her hips, steadying.

 

“Elizabeth.”

 

“Come on, it’s ready,” she says, knocking his hand on her forearm away and taking the pan of chicken to the dining room.  “Can you get me the trivet please?” she calls, forcing her voice to sound normal.

 

He appears with it a moment later.  He knows where that is too.

 

---

 

Later, Beth has supervised toothbrushing, threatened no desserts for three days to get Emma to submit to a thorough hair brushing, deposited her into bed, arranged and rearranged several stuffed animals, fetched a cup of water, read two books, said a bedtime prayer by rote, and kissed her little forehead goodnight.  She steps out of the room, pulling Emma’s door shut quietly behind her, and she can hear Rio and Marcus in the room across the hall doing their own bedtime routine. She shouldn’t - or maybe it’s not an intrusion, she can’t tell anymore - but she leans against the wall next to the door just out of sight and listens.

 

“. . . one of Mom’s friends?”

 

“Nah, she’s not Mom’s friend she’s my friend.”

 

“Oh.  How did you meet her?”

 

Beth presses a hand to her lips and bows her head, listening intently.

 

“You were playin’ at the park one day-”

 

“The one with the splash pad?”

 

“No, the other one, with the monkey bars.  And I was sittin’ on one bench and she was sittin’ on the next one and we got to talkin’.”

 

“So she said we could come over when the bug cleaner guy had to come?”

 

“Exterminator, yeah.  Miss Elizabeth’s been real nice to us, huh?”

 

“Yeah.  Can we come sleepover again when the other kids are back and I can play with them?”

 

“I don’t know, Pop, we’ll see.”

 

Beth huffs a little breath of amusement.   We’ll see , universal parent code for absolutely never but I don’t want to deal with the reaction to saying that right now .

 

She moves away on tiptoes, skipping the squeaky step carefully.  The kitchen is clean, laundry baskets full and waiting to be put away, but she ignores them and passes through the darkened house, down the hall to her bedroom and out the french doors that lead to the patio out back, and sits down on the steps.  The moon is full, its bright silvery light limning the trees, the edges of the fence, and the playset. She draws her knees up, rests her elbows on them and her chin on her forearms, and waits.

 

He finds her.  Like always.

 

Sits down beside her with his own elbows propped on his knees and his hands folded loosely between.  To her surprise he speaks first.

 

“You remember that night you were puttin’ up that stop sign out front?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“In your pajamas,” he emphasises the word, “and that bathrobe.  Middle a’ the night.”

 

“You were watching my house in the middle of the night, I think we’re even.”

 

“Fair enough.”

 

It’s quiet for a beat, then another.  Then,

 

“You still thought I was gonna kill you.”

 

He sounds almost mild, saying it plainly, but she can hear, can feel something lurking underneath.  She shifts and stares harder out into the darkness, considering.

 

“I couldn’t step up.  I couldn’t do what you needed me to.”

 

She could go into it all right now, tell him the whole truth about who actually killed Leslie Peterson, and she’s about to, but then he speaks again.

 

“Elizabeth?”

 

She can feel his gaze on the side of her face but she stays curled in on herself facing forward, eyes on the dew gathering on the grass.  She can sense that he’s trying to say more, to put his thoughts together in a way Rio never seems to have trouble with. But he doesn’t say anything else, and she’s not sure he needs to.  They let the quiet grow around them, a owl calling and cars occasionally passing on the road out front.

 

Eventually she stands, faces him and pauses, reaching out to scratch her fingertips through his close-cropped hair.  “Come to bed,” she says softly.

 

He follows, closing the door behind them and turning the deadbolt, and Beth closes the interior bedroom door, turning to lean back against it.  Rio approaches her slowly, but pauses at her dresser, barely looking as he takes the pictures of her and Dean, their wedding photo and one of them at Emma’s first birthday, and lays them face down.

 

Beth huffs an annoyed little laugh at it, this stupid pissing match between her ineffective lying disloyal husband and her money-laundering murdering partner in crime.  Rio raises an eyebrow as he keeps coming closer, stopping when they’re toe to toe and she has to crane her neck to look up at him.

 

He brushes the backs of his fingers over her stomach, down from her ribs and to the waistband of her jeans, gently nudging her shirt up and tucking his fingertips inside.  He tugs, pulling her hips forward, and then makes slow work of the button and zipper and kneels, peeling her jeans down her thighs as he does. There’s no skirt to lift, no frantic kicking and yanking to get her out of her panties, and she takes off her shirt this time, dropping it in the pile of her clothes while he watches her from his place on his knees.  He’s slow about leaning in, about guiding her leg over his shoulder, about the slide of his hands up her thighs and the way he spreads her open with his fingers, and then he starts, presses a kiss, soft licks all over to taste at first and then-

 

She’ll be gone before she knows it, nails scrabbling at the flat of the door, the handle, his ears, anything, her shoulders pressed flat and her hips forward to open up for him, two long fingers deep inside and his mouth on her, tongue working relentless and rough.  Not that she hasn’t had any orgasms in five years, but it’s been nearly that long since she had one with Dean and much longer than that since he’d gone down on her.  Not that it was remotely this good when he did.

 

She groans out a yes when she’s close, - yes - climbing and trembling, - yes - gripping Rio close with the leg thrown over his shoulder - yes - and he grunts, muffled, in return, and she has to cover her mouth when she comes, one hand braced on the wall, - yes devolving into desperate little mews, her nails digging into his neck once she can let go of the wall as he, slowly, brings her down.  He’s kissing her thighs, hands everywhere, when she gently dislodges him to sit back on his heels and she lets herself collapse to the floor, curled up with her back to the door, looking up at Rio now while they both catch their breath.

 

“Again?” he suggests, and she cackles at that, bright and loose, his answering grin blinding even in the dark.

 

“Oh to be that young again,” she sighs teasingly, holding her hands out for him to stand and help her up.  They’re both on their feet and she’s guiding him backwards toward the bed with her hands on his forearms when he asks,

 

“How young you think I am anyway, huh?”

 

Beth shrugs.  She hadn’t given it much thought beyond - younger .  “I don’t know.  How old are you?”

 

“How old are you ?”

 

“Forty-one.”

 

He seems to not have expected her to answer so easily, but she figures at this point it’s hardly a secret.  He knows everything else about her, probably knew she’d had a c-section before he had his nose pressed to the scar.

 

“So what you think I am,” he starts, turning them to sit her down on the bed and stay standing to peel off his t-shirt.  “Seventeen?” He leans down and tugs off his socks. “Thirty-nine?” He’s taking off his belt and she stares, hands tucked next to her thighs.  “Twenty-three?”

 

His hands are on the button of his jeans but she stops him and curls her fingers into the waistband to tug him closer, one step, then she widens her knees to bring him in another step.  His face, when she looks up, is not quite shocked, but like he’d been in that restroom mirror - struck , their banter totally forgotten.  She’s as slow with his button and zipper as he was with hers, letting him wait, letting him feel it when the denim scrapes down his thighs.  She palms his hips, his skin warm and the cotton of his black boxer briefs - because of course they’re black, even the elastic - soft under her hands.  

 

If she were being mean she’d say he was skinny, but he’d hauled her up that restroom wall, pinned her up on his hips, one arm locked under her thigh and the other gripping her neck, both her feet dangling off the floor while he drove into her, so.  She knows it’s deceiving.

 

She pushes him back a step and slides as gracefully as she can to her knees on the floor - the angle isn’t right if she stays sitting on the bed, and she wants this to be good.  In fairness it’s been equally as long since she’d given as received with Dean, but it’s not like she doesn’t remember, tugging Rio's underwear off, inhaling at the sight of him. She hadn’t seen much before, just knew how stretched full she’d felt, how sore the whole next day.  She looks up, finds Rio staring, pained and flushed and unbelievably gorgeous. He lifts a hand to her face, trails his fingers over her cheek and across her open mouth, nudges the dip of her chin with his thumb.

 

Maybe it really has been so long, maybe it just . . . wasn’t ever all that great with Dean, like everything else.  But she's sucking down Rio's cock as deep as the backs of her teeth and cupping his balls in her palm and Rio - Rio is wrecked , moaning just barely soft enough that she doesn’t stop to shush him, and his hands are shaking as they wander through her hair and over her jaw, her throat.  

 

Then, “Fuck, fuck , wait -” he's gasping, and she pulls off and leans up, lifts her chin, empties him out all over her neck and cleavage.  His eyes are closed tight, his hands dug into her hair cupping the back of her head. She’s watching, breathless, mouth bruised, when he rolls his neck and looks down and sees his come dripping down her skin, and a second later he’s hauling her none too gently back up on the bed, pushing her down and crawling over her, mumbling, “fuckin’ hell, Elizabeth,” as he leans in and starts licking her clean.

 

And that's - something new.

 

Newer still when he tugs her mouth open with his thumb on her chin and kisses her, licking come onto her tongue from his.  She takes it, kisses him back with a hand at the back of his neck, scratching comfortingly when he moans into her. He pulls back only to kiss over her chin, her jaw, down her throat, moving back over the same damp lines from his tongue, and finally pressing kisses to the swells of her breasts above the cups of her bra.  He sighs, seeming satisfied, and flops on his back next to her, both their feet hanging off the end of the bed.

 

Beth wriggles up the bed to the pillows and when Rio follows she tosses the bedspread away and yanks the sheet untucked and up over their legs, turning on her side to face him.  She reaches out and traces his lower lip with one finger.

 

“Thirty-three,” she guesses, voice soft.

 

He furrows his brow incredulously.  She rolls her eyes.

 

“Thirty- one ?”

 

He grins a little and shakes her head.

 

“Twenty-five,” she sighs, kidding.

 

He makes a thumbs-up gesture and raises it a few times: higher.

 

“Well good,” she mutters, adjusting the sheet.

 

“What’s wrong with twenty-five?”

 

“It breaks the half-my-age-plus-seven rule.”

 

His grin widens a little before he can stop it and Beth clocks it, gasping and sitting up with the sheet clutched to her stomach.  “Are you twenty- eight ?”

 

“I was.”

 

“Oh thank God.”

 

“Last month.”

 

“Oh my God .”

 

“Told you you weren’t breakin’ any rules, ma.”

 

“Do not.  Call me that right now.”

 

He laughs outright, something soft and deep that she’s never heard before.  When he quiets, she lays back down gingerly.

 

“What’s that matter, huh?  F’real.”

 

F ’real?”

 

He glares at her.

 

Beth pauses and mulls it.  Twenty-nine.

 

“I was pregnant with Kenny was I was twenty-nine.  Dean was still at another dealership, we opened Boland Motors the next year.  I was a secretary at the last place he worked before we had kids. My life was about to change so much.”

 

Rio is often quiet, calculating, observing, cataloguing.  This quiet is different. He’s just . . . absorbing.

 

“And then for about ten years between the pregnancies and the nursing and the baby weight and the potty training, I was just . . . along for the ride.  They just need you all the time .  Nothing was mine anymore.  Not even me.”

 

Rio reaches out and runs his fingers down her bra strap and over the edge of the cup to the center, then just lays his hand on the mattress, close but not touching.  She can almost feel the warmth of it.

 

“What about now?”

 

“Now I . . . probably know everything about Dean, and the business, and the affair.  Emma’s five. Your birthdays are right around the same time, she just turned. I don’t have any babies anymore.”

 

“You done?”

 

Beth snorts at that.  “Oh yeah.” She gets quiet again.  “After Emma I got my tubes tied. So yeah.  I’m done.”

 

She hasn’t said that, aloud, to anyone who hadn’t been there the whole time, through the nausea; back pain; the varicose veins; the constant peeing; weight gain after weight gain; episiotomies; that last emergency c-section; breasts expanding and deflating, softening and dropping; hair falling out; chapped nipples; sleep deprivation; hormone swings; depression; all of it.  

 

She’d told Ruby and Annie before she told Dean.  Dean hadn’t argued.

 

“You kind of forget it’s still your body after a while,” she murmurs, “you know?”

 

“No,” Rio says softly, leaning in, reaching to brush his hand down her bare arm gently.  “‘S yours again?” he asks, eyes sweeping like they have so many times, looking her up and down this time like he sees something new.

 

“Yeah,” she murmurs, reaching up to touch his neck, leaning up further to push against his chest, guiding him back as she climbs over him and settles on his thighs.  “Yeah. It’s different. It’s new. But it’s mine.”

 

She hovers over him for a kiss, feels his cock twitch against her stomach, and grins in spite of herself.  Of course he notices.

 

“Twenty-nine, baby.”

 

---

 

Beth wakes up early in the morning, cool dim light filtering through the curtains over the french doors.  Rio’s asleep properly this time, she can tell, mouth slack and a little frown between his eyebrows. She would lay there and stare for awhile, he’s beautiful enough that she feels the urge, but.  The kids are asleep, it’s early Sunday morning, and she has him.

 

She slips out of bed and tip toes to the bathroom, pees, swishes with mouthwash, digs the crud out of the corners of her eyes, splashes a little water on her face.  Stares at herself in the mirror. She touches that c-section scar and hears Dean saying, when it was still fresh, the stitches barely out, I would never know you’d had four kids, really like it was a compliment.  Like erasing her children’s marks from her body should be a goal.  

 

Rio had licked it on his way down,

 

She’d stopped questioning why Rio specifically is attracted to her at some point along the way, because his attraction was so obvious, so heavy she could feel it touching her before he ever did.  Somewhere along the way she’d stopped assuming it was a game, a script between them that he was using to keep her uncomfortable and distracted, stopped assuming she just had the kind of body he liked and that was the extent of it.  It just became her, this post-babies post-forty post-realizing-her-life-was-a-lie her, and Rio. Drawing closer and closer like a magnet, seeing more and more of her and wanting all of it.

 

Beth crawls back into bed, Rio turning to watch her as she does, and when she’s laying down next to him she turns away, scoots herself back and lets him meet her.  Hot skin under the sheets slotting against her perfectly, and then his hands, big even for his tall frame, on her thighs and hips, brushing her hair away so he can get at her neck.  He’s already hard, his cock twitching against her ass, and she reaches back for a handful of his, smiling at the undignified shuddery little moan that falls out of his mouth when she pulls his sharp hips tighter into the soft swell of her.

 

“Come on,” she murmurs, practically wriggling against him, sighing when he pushes away only to kiss down her back, licking at the base of her spine and lower, biting marks into her palest skin.

 

“I’m clean,” he mumbles, mouth on her hip, finding the bone and gnawing gently.

 

“Yeah, I am too,” she answers, breathless, squirming, reaching back blindly to pull at him until he moves to fit himself to her back again, reaching around to rub cleverly between her thighs like she isn’t wet already.  “I’m ready, come on,” she repeats, shoving back against him, and he finally rubs the head of his cock where she wants him, dipping a thumb inside her along with the tip, breath desperate over her shoulder as he leans back to look.

 

“Ah, fuck, ma.”  He finally pushes in, bracing his hand on her hip to pull her back into his thrusts, threading his free arm around her to hold one breast in a splayed firm hand.

 

She cranes her neck to reach him, back arching, messy open-mouthed kisses, his stubble scraping her jaw, and she pulls his hand from her hip to her stomach, low where it’s soft and round, where his fingertips rub into the hair she hasn’t bothered waxing, barely trims anymore until it bothers her.

 

“Come on, baby,” she murmurs, taking her hand off his only to rub her own fingers down between her thighs, her other clutching his on her breast.

 

“Yeah,” he gasps, repeating, pleading, until they’re both gone in each other, shaking warm and lost.

 

---

 

The kids are running around in the backyard after breakfast and Beth is sitting at the island having her second cup of coffee when she hears banging and startles, almost spilling the coffee everywhere.

 

Rio has a screwdriver lined up with the bar that holds together the top hinge on the downstairs bathroom door and is tapping it with a hammer.  The toolbox that lives in the garage, mostly used for things like picture-hanging and tightening the pulls on dresser drawers, is open at his feet.  

 

Rio barefoot in her house is absolutely a mental image that will never leave her.  No matter that he will be leaving at some point today. It’s Sunday, Dean and the kids will be back sometime Monday, and then.  Who knows. She’s thinking about telling Dean. About summoning up the courage to rip off the bandaid they’ve pasted over everything for the last few months.  The fake cancer had pretty much come out in the wash when Rio shot him; Dean knew Beth knew, they both knew Beth brought about him getting shot, so.

 

Amber she could have forgiven, probably, if it hadn’t been for the money.  The continuing problem of the money, and realizing the pattern ever since they’d opened Boland Motors, that she had just passed off as the risks of owning a business.  She’d already been forgiving Dean reducing her running their household and raising their children to things like fancy sandwiches and carpooling for twelve years, and it could have become habit again, maybe.  Maybe not.

 

If it weren’t for all of it she could have forgiven some of it.

 

“Who installed this?” Rio asks, the door leaning against the wall and the hinges all off.

 

Beth snaps out of her haze.  “Uh. I think we upgraded to the six-panel ones about seven years ago?  They were those hollow-core flat ones when we moved in.”

 

“Yeah but who put ‘em in?”

 

“I don’t know, I think Dean did.  He probably did.”

 

“This casing is all fucked up from the edge of the door scraping it, it’s not plumb.  And this isn’t the right kinda hinge, it’s made to swing in and out, not one way.”

 

“. . . okay?”

 

Rio shrugs, coming over and tapping on his phone with one hand.  He sets the handful of hardware and screws on the island and just stands in front of Beth, almost leaned against her thigh, still tapping on his phone, ignoring her.  When he’s done he sets his phone down and ignores it to cage her in like he seems to like to with his hands on the countertop and the back of her chair. He leans in and kisses her, slow and lazy, but Beth pulls away after a moment, glancing quickly out the window over the sink to where the kids are playing outside.  Rio straightens back up and shows her his phone, a website pulled up with listings for hinges and pieces of pre-finished trim on it.

 

“You wanna go to the hardware store or should I?”

 

“You’re seriously fixing my broken bathroom door?”

 

He cocks his head.  “I’m not gonna leave it against the wall.”

 

Beth shakes her head and looks down at her hands on the countertop, weight starting to bear down on her so heavy she feels like screaming.  “You have to leave later.”

 

“Yeah, so?”

 

“You have to leave,” she repeats, and the air shifts, thickening.

 

“You want me out now?”  Rio’s voice has gone cold like she’s heard it so, so many times.

 

“Maybe I do.”

 

“Elizabeth-”

 

“Don’t- don’t say that,” she breaks, voice shaking.  “Don’t call me that right now. This is fake .  It’s all pretend, it’s not-”

 

“How’s that, huh?  How’s this more imaginary than everything else about your fuckin’ house, and your man, and that business he can’t run?”

 

“Don’t you dare .”

 

They both stop, seething.  Rio swallows audibly and follows it with a half-hearted scoff.

 

“I didn’t do that to you, darlin’.”  It’s soft, even for him, but that just makes the cut of it sink deeper.

 

Beth deflates, shoulders lowering, and presses the heels of her hands to her closed eyes.  “I know.”

 

They’re both quiet, Emma shrieking outside, and the low swish of the dishwasher the only sounds interrupting the silence.  Beth scrubs her hands back through her hair and stares blankly out the window.

 

“You wanna keep hittin’ it, I’m down.”

 

She hates that she laughs, but.  “Jesus, Rio.” Then, “it was nice,” she whispers, refusing to look at him.  “I hate that it was nice.”

 

He presses his forehead to her temple and she shuts her eyes tight and they breathe together for a beat.

 

He stands straight again, taps on his phone again, and hers pings a few seconds later with a text.

 

“Go get that stuff, yeah?  I’mma fix your door before we go.”

 

“Kay,” she murmurs.

 

“What you wanna do for lunch?”

 

Beth sighs and it turns into a yawn, glaring over at Rio when he chuckles under his breath at her.  “I wanna sleep apparently,” she slurs, her jaw cracking with it.

 

He slides in closer and puts a hand on her back and she looks up at him finally.  His face shouldn’t be so familiar, but it is, and she shouldn’t see so much in his eyes, but.

 

“I’ll pick something up,” she says, her voice a practiced light tone that she doesn’t feel at all.

 

He nods and lets her up from her chair, and she’s got her purse on her shoulder and her keys in her hand when she glances back and sees him watching her, right where he had been, and.

 

She shouldn’t be able to see so much written all over his face.

 

---

 

When she gets back from the hardware store and a stop on the way home to pick up burgers for lunch, the house is quiet.  Then she hears Emma outside again, laughing, and Rio’s voice soon after. She leaves everything on the island and pokes her head out the back door to find Marcus on the swingset, and Emma and Rio sitting on the patio facing each other, Emma’s little hands flat palm-to-palm under Rio’s.  Emma is at a constant giggle, trying again and again to move fast enough to yank her hands out and slap to tops of Rio’s, but he’s not letting her get even close to winning. On her fifth try he reaches out and pops her on the forehead and she howls with laughter, slapping at him with limp hands.

 

It should have occured to Beth much, much sooner than this, and maybe it did but she’d pushed it aside before it ever really came to the front of her mind:

 

There’s no hiding this.

 

There’s no option to not tell Dean.

 

There’s no way Emma can keep the secret, no way she could or should understand why not to say anything about Mama’s friend and his son who slept over two nights in a row.

 

She’s not a baby who can’t talk, not a toddler who’s barely stringing together a short sentence, and she’s nearly a year older than when she had told Dean whatever led him to find out about the man in her bed, when Rio had dropped his gut-shot kid off on Beth to deal with.

 

Emma erupts into raucous laughter when Rio gets her again, jumps up and throws herself into him, all wild hair and beating fists, and he catches her easily to keep her from going head-long down the brick patio steps, craning his neck to avoid getting punched in the face.  

 

He sees Beth standing in the doorway right when Marcus does too from across the yard.  He’s at the crest of his upswing and he jumps, hanging suspended mid-air for a moment before he comes crashing down, somehow barely landing on his feet in the soft grass, and comes bounding over, calling, “Hi Elizabeth!”

 

Rio doesn’t correct Marcus and his eyes stay on Beth’s as he gently rights Emma and sets her down, and she grabs his hands and holds them, jumping up and down and begging him to do the game again.

 

“Mama’s home, babe, time to eat.”

 

“Mama!” Emma barrels into Beth’s legs and smacks her cheek into the door handle in her enthusiasm, and then the laughter and cheering immediately turns to sobs while Beth hauls Emma up into her arms and tries to calm her.

 

Rio sends Marcus to wash his hands before eating and sets about unpacking the food and getting out plates while Beth sits with Emma on the couch and first inspects her reddened cheek, then strokes her hair and reminds her to take slow deep breaths.

 

“S’ready,” Rio tells them after a bit.

 

“Mama?”

 

“Yes baby?”

 

“Can-” she snuffles wetly, “can we have a picnic outside in the yard in the grass on a blanket?”

 

Beth unsticks a strand of hair from her daughter’s tear-sticky cheek and agrees easily, “sure.  You go wash your hands and your face and I will get the picnic blanket.”

 

Emma, instantly fully recovered, tears off to the bathroom, Rio yelling after her, “go upstairs, I didn’t put the door back on yet!”

 

“BUT I HAVTA PEE BAD !”

 

“Just go in that one, it’s fine!” Beth yells back.  “What, are you gonna clean it up if she pees all the way up my stairs?” she asks, ribbing, as she pushes up from the couch and passes by Rio on her way to the linen closet for the picnic blanket.

 

Rio catches her hand and she squeezes a little before pulling away, never fully stopping her stride or looking back.  If she does now she’ll never get through lunch.

 

They spread the blanket out towards the back of the yard were there’s shade, burgers and fries and leftover lemonade from the day before, the high sun and low breeze making it feel even warmer than it is.  

 

“Dad can you take the pickles off?”  Marcus asks, and frankly Beth’s a little surprised when Rio easily agrees.  He’s not, she’s learned, a terribly indulgent parent. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Rio turned the request into a teachable moment about solving your own problems.

 

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” Beth adds, eyeing Rio as he carefully picks off four slices of pickle and reassembles the burger before handing it back and licking the ketchup off his fingers.

 

“It’s okay,” Marcus says, “because I like the pickle taste but not the pickle pickle.”

 

“Can I have the pickle pickles?” Emma asks immediately, and then the kids go for a solid five minutes repeating “pickle pickles” and cackling.

 

There’s dappled sunlight coming through the still-leafy trees and a bee has discovered the lemonade, buzzing around a little threateningly.  Beth and Rio have both clocked it but neither says anything or makes to wave it away, instead holding still, watching each other from across the din of their children, quiet.  

 

Once one of the kids sees the bee the screaming and flailing will start, and somebody will step in somebody’s food in their panic, lemonade will be spilled everywhere, they’ll have to drag everything inside and clean up, and then.

 

And then it will be over.