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Show Me How to Fake It (Touch Me in the Dark)

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The thing is, underneath it all, underneath the anger and the betrayal and the humiliation and the grief, when it’s all dredged from the riverbanks of her consciousness, the hardened earth of her bones, all that’s left is relief.

Which is strange, she thinks, because so much is left uncertain. All her plans unmade, the map she’d set for her life re-routed, and if she’s honest, she’s not sure her future has ever been so vague, so malformed, but where there should be panic and desperation, anxiousness and loss, Beth packs up the last box of her husband’s things and thinks good.

At least, she does until the reality sets in.

 

*

 

 “And may the door hit him on the way out,” Annie says with a grin, throwing back her tequila and slamming the shot glass down hard on the table, smacking her lips in show. Beth rolls her eyes, downing her own a little more gracefully.

“We’re trying to keep it civil for the kids,” she reminds her, but Annie scoffs, waves a hand at her before gesturing the bartender over for another round.

“Still think you should lawyer up, B,” Ruby tells her across the table. “I wouldn’t put it past Deansy to try and wriggle out of paying child support.”

“And how am I paying for this lawyer?” Beth asks, her throat burning from tequila as the bartender sets them up with another round. God, how’s she paying for any of it? It’s not like Dean’s got money to spare right now, not after spending it all on lingerie and expensive dates for one of his many girlfriends. She inhales sharply, shifts back in her seat.

“I can talk to Tony at the diner,” Ruby offers. “I mean, the money’s not great, and the customers are awful, but occasionally you get someone who actually tips.”

“And I could definitely get Boomer to hire you at Fine and Frugal,” Annie adds. “But I don’t think there’s any way he wouldn’t dial his creep factor up to eight billion and he’s already at a solid 6.”

The sounds of the bar suddenly takes up too much room in Beth’s head – the slightly too-loud thrum of bass-heavy music she’s never heard of, the drunken woos of a bachelorette party, the sound of a glass smashing, a door slamming, a man’s braying laugh. And Beth smiles at them as best she can, grateful, because she is, of course she is, only Ruby’s got Stan’s income to boost her own, and Annie’s able to scrape by in her tiny apartment with her one child on her Fine and Frugal salary and Greg’s support, but Beth can’t even begin to imagine it. Not in her house (three mortgages, she thinks bleakly, on the one house), not with the four kids too, not with them so little still and so hungry. She’d have to hire babysitters, or pay for afterschool care to work, and that would eat up her paycheck faster than she could earn it.

“Thanks,” Beth says still, painting on the best grin she can manage. “That’d be amazing.”

And right, she thinks, watching Ruby and Annie see straight through her. She needs newer friends, she thinks, self-deprecating. Newer friends who can’t read her like an open book, who don’t know exactly how far up shit’s creek she really is. Her hand reaches up, fiddling with her necklace, turning the warm gold-plated bar in her fingers and has another drink.

“Welp, great,” Annie says suddenly, breaking up the quiet with a loud, forced-lightness to her voice. “Now that we’re all thoroughly depressed, we have more important matters to discuss. Like getting you back on the horse. The sex horse.”

It’s enough to make Beth flush and for Ruby to close her eyes in the sort of horror only Annie can really inspire.

“Please never say sex horse again,” she says, and Annie laughs, opening her mouth to reply, which Beth takes as her own opportunity to promptly interrupt.

“I am not even remotely ready for sex, on a horse or otherwise,” Beth tells her, because god, is she not. She hasn’t even had sex with Dean in years, and it’s not like she’s about to tell Annie and Ruby that, but still. She opens her mouth to say something, to justify it somehow, when Annie continues:

“Doesn’t have to be with anybody else,” she says with a shrug. “I mean, not to be crass or whatever, but when was the last time you jacked off?”

Annie,” Ruby groans as Beth flushes fuchsia

“What? It’s healthy,” Annie insists, waving her drink at them. “An orgasm a day has like, proven health benefits, and I refuse to believe that Dean is even remotely capable of giving anyone an orgasm, so.”

And - - well, it’s not like she’s exactly wrong on that count. Still, Beth has a long drink of her cocktail, muddling the lime at the bottom of her glass with the straw.

“Maybe it’s been a while. I don’t know. I’m not good at that sort of thing,” Beth says flippantly, fiddling with her straw, and Annie squints back at her across the table.

“What? Masturbating?”

Beth blushes to the roots of her hair.

“Trust me, I’m fine with the - -” Beth tries to find the word. “Mechanics. It’s - - I don’t know. I can never really think of anything, so then I just feel stupid and - -”

“You don’t have any fantasies?” Ruby asks, interjecting, her forehead furrowed. She pauses, and it almost seems to cause her physical pain when she asks: “Nothing to call back on at all with Dean?”

And well, Beth thinks, there probably is, maybe, just all her Dean memories feel tainted now, and it’s not like he was ever the sexiest man in the world. Or even the room.

Even rooms with like, just him in them.

She snorts a little to herself.

That’s not to say that they didn’t have fun sometimes, but that’s what sex was with Dean. At best – cute, sweet, affectionate, at worst – well.

“You could try a romance novel or something. Try a little 50 Shades,” Ruby says sympathetically, and Annie scoffs.

“Please. Try porn.”

“Annie!” Ruby hisses again, and Beth practically melts back in her seat to get herself out of the conversation. Annie just rolls her eyes at Ruby.

“What, like you’ve never watched porn. You’ve told me about yours and Stan’s movie nights.”

Which is certainly news to Beth. She blinks wildly over at Ruby, who’s giving Annie a supremely unimpressed look.

“Remind me never to get high with you again.”

Annie makes a mouth with her hand, moving it in a blah blah blah gesture which has Ruby rolling her eyes, and Beth just - - she reels around before she can help it, a slightly betrayed lilt to her voice when she asks:

“You and Stan watch porn?”

Thing is, Ruby doesn’t even look bashful, let alone embarrassed. She takes a sip of her drink, just sort of shrugs as she does it, and there must be a look on Beth’s face, because suddenly Ruby’s dropping her drink and sitting up a little straighter.

“We’re very selective about what we watch,” she says defensively. “Not like this one.”

She jerks her head over at Annie who fake gasps.

“But sure,” Ruby continues, easing up a bit again. “Gets us in the mood sometimes, and it’s certainly inspired us once or twice. To try something new, I mean.”

Leaning back into the booth, Beth turns the thought over in her head, considering it. Thing is, she can kind of see it maybe, for Ruby and Stan. They’ve always been easy with each other, enough she can see them joking about it, enjoying it, touching each other gently, tenderly, in that way that they do.

Dean had suggested it once too, but Beth had adamantly declined. After all, she’d seen the sort that he’d watched more times than she’d ever wanted to (he’s never been particularly good at clearing his browsing history) and it had often made her feel a little ill. It had all just been so - - aggressive.

She doesn’t even have to say it for Ruby to seem to pick up on it. She puts down her drink.

“There’s a lot out there, B, and a lot of different types. Some of it is totally foul, but some of it…” she shrugs. “You’ve just got to find what feels right.”

“I don’t know,” Beth says, scrunching up her nose, and Annie shakes her head, grabbing her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans.

“I’m gonna send you some,” she decides, and Beth and Ruby both scoff. “No, seriously. I’ve got some thoughts, y’know? I’m very well-read. Well-watched? Well-porned? Whatever. I’ve got you, sis.”

“Okay, I’m getting another drink.” Beth says loudly, scooting out of the booth, and Ruby makes an agreeable noise in the back of her throat, gesturing to her own glass and saying please.

 

*

 

And okay, so maybe Beth’s a little drunk by the time she’s stumbling in through the front door of her house, shushing herself breathlessly, giggling and then groaning when she rolls her ankle trying to kick off her pumps. She’s more than a little glad Dean’s mom had insisted on taking the kids for a special weekend to the lake while her and Dean got things settled this week, meaning Beth doesn’t feel too badly about pouring herself a bourbon and stumbling around the stairs towards bed.

She falls back into it, awkwardly shoving down her stockings, wriggling back on the mattress as she grabs her cell and checks her phones for any messages, rolling her eyes when she sees the one from Annie that just says ‘Home safe. Check your emails’ and then features the splashing water emoji about a hundred times.

Tossing her phone down her bed, Beth looks at her glass of bourbon, looks at herself, lying down in bed, and tries to pour some into her mouth only to get it all over her chin and neck. Spluttering, she sits up quickly, wiping at her face, looking around the room for a tissue, only - -

Her laptop is on the top of her dresser.

Beth blinks, looking at her phone, squinting at it, like Annie has somehow magicked up the ability to put her laptop directly into her line of sight, and then rolls to her feet. She stumbles over to her laptop, grabs it, stumbles straight back to bed, dropping onto the mattress and loading up the screen.

The email from Annie has the subject line INCOGNITO MODE, HONEY B, and the body of the email is nothing but links, maybe ten of them, a couple from different websites, but most of them from the same one – Thank You Ma’am, which is kinda funny, Beth thinks, clicking on one only to promptly slam her laptop shut at the image of a large, hairy man eating out a woman in a flower crown while a skinny blonde woman in a strap-on lines up against his ass.

She blinks.

Hard.

Right, she thinks, grabbing her bourbon off her bedside table, polishing it off and inhaling sharply.

She opens her laptop again, quickly x’ing out of the video, and glancing back through the links, biting her lip, and clicking on the one that looks safest titled ‘Sensual Massage’.

And, okay, it’s just a woman, sitting on the edge of a massage table, dressed in short, floaty sundress, her legs dangling off the table. She brushes her hair back behind her ears, staring around the room, fiddling with the strap on her dress when suddenly the door opens and a man walks in and Beth just - - blinks.

He’s just - - not what she expected. Lean and handsome, all sharp cheekbones and pouting lips, big dark eyes, and Beth finds herself shifting forwards a little, slightly closer to the screen. He’s dressed in a what almost looks like scrubs, white, the pants a little tight, showing off a pretty intimidating bulge.  

“Oh! There you are,” the woman says. “I was starting to wonder if I had the wrong room.”

“Sorry, just finishin’ up with another client.”

It’s the sound of him, she thinks, that makes something in her lurch, that makes her tongue dart out, wet her lips, before she can help herself. Deep, gravelly, the sort of rolling purr that Beth doesn’t think she’s ever heard in real life – a million miles away from Dean’s nasal stutter, and Beth just - -

She likes it.

“You know, it’s been years since I’ve done anything like this,” the woman says, biting her lip, and the guy steps towards her, unthreatening, gentle almost, as he says:

“That’s okay. We can take it slow, if you want.”

It only makes the woman giggle, a little sultry, her tone veering into an obviously put-upon shyness.

“Maybe just to start.”

With that, she promptly pulls off her dress, revealing nothing underneath but small, perky breasts and a shaved - - well, everything, and Beth blinks, fumbles forwards almost in shock, blinking rapidly as the woman turns slowly on the table, sliding her nude body face down, exposing what has to be one of the best asses Beth has ever seen.

The man moves almost like liquid behind her, just pouring into her space, before stroking one large hand down her back, gently gliding over her ass, before down to her thighs, her calves, and then back up again before - - suddenly, sharp as anything, slapping her ass. The woman gasps and Beth’s thighs clench, her eyes blinking rapidly, as she watches the man step away, grabbing some massage oil, pouring some generously onto her hands and starting to slowly knead her back.

Moaning, the woman leans forwards into the table, spreading her legs as the man works his way down her back.

“You’ve got a beautiful body,” he says. “Gotta say, can’t really believe you havin’ to come in here to pay to unwind, darlin’.”

“My husband does try,” she titters breathlessly as his hands start to knead her ass, his long fingers starting to stroke between her legs. “But he just can’t quite get to those hard to reach spots. I was told that wouldn’t be a problem with you.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever had any complaints,” he replies, slipping a finger inside her, starting to pump in and out of her, adding a second, and it’s not long before the woman is writhing against the massage table, keening, and the man is purring over her, moving gracefully, and Beth’s cheeks are so red, her arms stiff, eyes wide as she watches him fuck her with his fingers, and then the woman’s coming, and quick as anything, he’s flipping her over and pulling what has to be the biggest - - biggest penis - - Beth has ever seen out of his thin pants, and she has to resist the urge to slam the laptop screen shut again.

“You weren’t kidding,” the woman says hungrily, and the guy, he just laughs, yanking her to the edge of the massage table and then he’s sitting her up, dropping his head to suck at her breasts before he pushes into her in one smooth motion.

The woman cries out, long and loud, and Beth’s almost jittery with energy, her lips wet but her mouth dry, heat coursing through her in a way she can’t quite explain.

“You’re so big!”

“You can take it though, can’t you, baby? Ain’t your pussy hungry for it?”

“Yes!”

“Been a while since she been full, huh?”

“Yes! Yes!”

And Beth’s suddenly shifting back in the bed – can’t take it anymore, her fingers pulling up her dress before pushing into her panties, and god, she can’t remember a time she’s ever been this wet. Her thighs are trembling by the time she finds her clit, rubbing a wobbly circle with her fingers, her body shuddering awake beneath her own touch. She watches him fuck this woman on the massage table, bending her back over it, hiking her legs up almost to his armpits, driving into her.

“You feelin’ me in those hard to reach places?” he purrs, and the woman’s almost sobbing when his hand comes to roughly rub her clit, his other hand groping at her small breast. Beth’s free hand reaches up to find her own, squeezing it before she even knows what she’s doing. “Ain’t right, a woman like you goin’ without. That husband o’ yours ever fuck you this good?”

“No,” she cries out, and Beth’s eyelashes flutter shut, moving her hand, pushing a finger inside herself, leaving her thumb to rub at her own clit, making an awkward, unpracticed motion of fucking herself.  

“Ain’t no one ever gonna fuck you this good,” he says, and Beth’s toes curl in the sheets. “I’m sorry, baby. I know that ain’t fair.”

The woman’s moaning non-stop now, scrambling at his back as he fucks her onto him. The liquid lines of his body on hers like watching a wave crash against the shore.

“But we got right now, huh? And your cunt is so fuckin’ tight, so fuckin’ slick. She takes my cock so well.”

Beth’s fingers are working faster, more erratically, and it’s not long before she’s toppled over the edge, so hard she almost collapses back against the bedhead. When her eyes flutter back open, the man is swapping open mouthed kisses with the woman, his hands tugging at her nipples, his cum dripping out of her, her hands on his flaccid cock, slowly getting him hard again, and right Beth thinks, biting her lip, starting to move her fingers again, feeling her too-sensitive walls clench around them, and right she thinks, pulling her fingers out and slamming her laptop shut.

Right.  

 

*

 

(Maybe she finishes it in the morning before she has to pick the kids up from Judith’s.

Twice.)

 

*

 

“Danny, be careful!”

It’s at least enough to make him stop, his blue eyes bright and impossibly big, his mouth turned down.

“I was,” he calls back, hopping off his little scooter like he wasn’t trying to do jumps on it off the patio, and Beth gives him her best Mom Stare through the backdoor window. He frowns, but at least looks reprimanded enough to drop his scooter to the grass and dart across to the back of the yard where Emma’s playing tea party with her stuffed animals, no doubt to cause mayhem there instead.

“Jeez, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this,” Annie says somewhere down the hall, and Beth spins around to see Annie hovering in the doorway of Dean’s old study, taking in the now empty room. “What are you going to do with it?”

Beth just sighs, because isn’t that the million dollar question at the moment?

“Maybe try and rent it out to a student or something?” Beth says. “Or I don’t know. I was thinking I could turn it into an office for me? The girls’ ballet teacher has offered to waive their tuition fees if I make the costumes for the fall recital. She said she could put in a word for me with some of the other classes too, see if they might be willing to pay me to make theirs too.”

“That’s great,” Ruby enthuses, leaning over the kitchen island, taking a sip on her coffee, and Beth tentatively smiles. Thing is, it does sort of feel great. Feels like something that might work, if she could branch it out big enough to schools and clubs in the neighbourhood. She could work from home, still look after the kids, but maybe start making some money too.

“That would be bomb,” Annie agrees, finally turning on her heel and heading towards Beth and Ruby. She takes the coffee Beth offers her. “Speaking of the exact opposite of bomb, have you heard from Deansy about child support?”

“Not yet,” Beth says with a sigh. “He says he’s getting the accountant at work to help him draft something up.”

“Do we believe him?” Ruby asks tentatively, and Beth bites the inside of her cheek.

“We kind of have to,” she replies. “I’m not exactly overwhelmed with options. Actually, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of that right now.”

Annie and Ruby both look at each other, and Beth looks away, runs her hand around the rim of the mug in her hands, listening to the kids play outside. They both know she’s applied for the only jobs that might have been workable around the kids, but it turns out she didn’t even qualify for those – not for drive-thru windows at fast food restaurants or basic administration at daytime clinics. She’d even looked up being a teacher aid, one of the ones who helped with reading and homework, but even that required a college degree these days.

“Sounds like you’ve been needing to de-stress,” Annie says suddenly, and Ruby rolls her eyes.

Annie.”

“Come on, I’ve been dying over here! Sis, I need to know if you’ve been getting back in touch with yourself.”

Beth flushes to the roots of her hair, stutters briefly, and Annie’s face brightens instantly.

“You did watch something,” Annie says gleefully, and Beth’s blush only deepens. “Okay, which one? Please tell me it was on the freaky list.”

And the thing is, it’s been more than one now.

After all, there was only so many times she could watch that massage video in a week, and she’d clicked on the account name and just sort of sucked it up. And she’d tried other guys, but none of them quite did it for her. It was always his she’d come back to, and so far she’s seen him as the masseuse, a doctor, a mechanic, a pool boy (that one seems to be one of his earlier works, if the baby face and substantially less tattoos have anything to say about it) and in one particularly creative one, a demon of some sort who had sex with at least four different women in fluffy angel wings and body glitter.

And god, it’s embarrassing, how quickly he’s come to dominate her bedtime thoughts. Like as soon as she’s put the kids to bed, he’s there, waiting for her, pressing her into the shower wall or against the kitchen counters or most of all just in bed, her fingers working furiously at herself, her body writhing back against the sheets.

“Not freaky. Just this like - -” Beth waves her hand out, avoiding eye contact. “Latin guy? He has a neck tattoo?”

“Rio,” Annie says instantly, then promptly brings her fingers to her mouth and kisses them. “Good choice.”

Ruby hums in agreement, taking a healthy sip of her coffee, before smacking her lips and saying:

“Now that’s a man who knows his way around a woman’s body.”

And just - -

What?

Beth blinks between them, something strange tightening in her belly, almost like - - jealousy? Which makes approximately zero sense. It’s not like she doesn’t know other people are watching his videos, but - - she shakes her head.

“You both know who I’m talking about?”

Annie just looks at her, like she can hear something in her tone, but doesn’t comment on it, instead she just throws out an arm.

“Kinda skinny, but like. Fit skinny? Bird on his neck? Eyes that can penetrate your soul? Huge cock?”

Beth flushes, which is apparently as much of a confirmation as Annie and Ruby need.

“Yeah, B. He’s kind of a big deal. Even Stan’s got a crush on the guy.”  

Huge deal,” Annie corrects. “Rio. He’s only got one name, like Beyoncé. And I mean like, he’s kind of the Beyoncé of porn. Universally loved, huge, international superstar, like, a million hit songs, doesn’t do interviews, sweeps up awards. Well, I mean, he used to. He’s way slowed down his output.”

“He only released like, one thing last year,” Ruby adds, scrunching up her nose. “And I don’t know. Wasn’t as good. Scenario was cute. New neighbours gettin’ down, but - -”

She shrugs, and Annie nods in agreement.

“Kinda felt like he was just going through the motions? Agreed. It was a bit of a bust.”

Beth pauses, looking between the two of them as they sort of just - - stare forlornly at the loss of the guy’s – Rio’s – regular movies, and the thought alone makes her feel sort of weird.

“Why did he slow down?” she asks, once her curiosity gets the better of her, and Annie just shrugs, taking a sip of her coffee.

“Maybe just burnt out? It’s hard to say. The production company he’s signed to must be pissed though. I mean, they have a few other porn stars who are like, pretty good, but he was their meal ticket. God, I haven’t watched his stuff in ages. You’re making me wanna date night myself. Buy a bottle of wine, pull out the ol’ vibe. Watch his greatest hits.”

Beth rolls her eyes, but feels that weird spike of almost jealousy again, which is so absurd she almost breaks her neck shaking her head, trying to swallow it down. She doesn’t even know the guy, she reminds herself, just masturbated to him at least once a day for the last two weeks, which - - god. Both Annie and Ruby look at her curiously, and Beth stands up straighter.

“I should probably go and check on the kids.”

 

*

 

Beth’s still pulling Emma’s arms through her hoodie when the girls’ ballet teacher, Michaela, pops her head out of the classroom, grinning widely over at her.

“Ms. Boland, do you have a minute?”

Beth blinks, takes in Michaela’s enthused expression, and feels something in her chest lurch hopefully. She nods quickly, crouching down to the girls and asking them to wait, before stepping up behind Michaela, letting her walk her back into the now-empty ballet studio.

“It’s good news,” she hums, delighted, wandering into the corner towards her own things. “I spoke to Madame Bousset, and she’s totally keen to have you make the costumes for all the classes for the fall recital.”

It takes her a minute to process it, but when she does, she’s almost awash with relief, with excitement, with hope, the prospect of any sort of income like a salve to the open wound of her right now. Her face almost hurts, with how widely she’s grinning.

“Oh my god, you have no idea how great that is,” Beth says, and Michaela smiles warmly at her, propping her arm against the wall and undoing the ribbons on her ballet slippers.

“I really do, trust me. We hired Mrs. Paull last year, and god, that woman does not know the difference between a snap fastener and an eyelet. Totally embarrassing. We had to pay somebody else to fix half the costumes.”

“That will not be a problem with me,” Beth says quickly, earnestly, clutching the strap on her handbag a little tighter in excitement, and Michaela grins, stretching out her feet.

“Of course not. I saw your girls’ costumes trick or treating last year. Out of this world.”

Beth preens happily, opens her mouth to say thanks, when Michaela continues:

“Money-wise, Madame Bousset has said $40 per costume, on top of all the materials of course, does that sound alright?”

And god, Beth thinks, cheeks flushing, delighted.

“Sounds more than alright,” she replies, voice high and light, already starting to do the math in her head – that’ll get her close to $5,000 she thinks, and should give her enough looks to start a website, and - -

“Well, don’t tell Madame Bousset that, she might think she’s highballed you,” Michaela says with a laugh, pulling off her ballet slipper. She starts on the second one. “She said to send the invoice after the performance, so itemise it for the costumes, and for all the fabrics and stuff – oh, you’ll need to provide the receipts for anything you buy to make them, just for accounts, so don’t forget that.”

Which - - Beth pauses. She clears her throat, stands up a little straighter, excitement stifling in her belly like someone’s dropped a weight on it, and she tries to keep her voice light, easy, breezy, as she says:

“Oh, you’re not going to pay up front?”

Down the hall, a mother calls out for her daughter, her voice loud, braying in the afternoon, the bustle of the next class swallowing up all the other sounds, little girls chattering, giggling, playing each other TikTok videos on their cells. Beth wants to glance back, check on her own girls, but she can’t take her eyes off Michaela, who’s focused now on pulling on her socks, her sneakers, to go home.

“Not really how we do things, Ms. Boland.”

“I don’t mean all of it,” Beth says quickly. “I just mean for the materials I have to buy to make the costumes. Not - - not the costumes themselves.”

Michaela blinks at her, crouching down to tie up her laces.

“You’ll get fully reimbursed at the end of it all.”

“Right,” Beth says. “But I mean - - you have over a hundred students here, that’s going to be a lot of materials.”

Hundreds of dollars worth at least, Beth thinks, a weight suddenly sitting heavy on her chest. She shifts sideways, awkward, and Michaela looks up at Beth a little uncertainly, and god. She’s so young, Beth thinks. Teaching ballet classes while she’s at college. A hobby. Like this was always supposed to be for Beth.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

Beth exhales, ums, pushes her hair behind her ears, a flush creeping up her neck. She has two hundred dollars in her bank account right now, and groceries and petrol and school field trip fees to pay, and just - -

“Mrs Paull has offered again anyway,” Michaela says sympathetically. “Maybe you guys could do it together. Go halves? Her husband’s like, a big deal lawyer, so I’m sure she could cover the costs of the fabric and stuff.”

And she could, Beth thinks.

But it would mean half the money at the end of it too.

She shakes her head, paints on the best smile she can manage.

“No, I’ve got this, don’t even worry about it. Can you email me the themes for the dances and I’ll start drawing up some sketches? Thank you, again, seriously. This is going to be just great.”

 

*

 

Thing about Dean is that he’s pretty impossible to miss, Beth thinks, folding her arms across her chest, watching him stride across the showroom floor, laughing loudly at something somebody has said. The dealership is quieter than it should be – more staff than customers taking up space, but Dean seems unbothered, rapping his fingers along the bonnet of his prized yellow corvette as he walks to god knows where.

Probably straight into the vagina of one of his office floozy’s, a voice in her head that sounds suspiciously like Annie says, and Beth bites the inside of her cheek, pulling her handbag tighter against her side, embarrassment staining her cheeks.

Did everyone here know? Did they - -

“Mrs. Boland,” the receptionist – Sharon – chimes suddenly, loudly, only just having seen her, and Beth smiles stiffly at her. She’s said it loud enough that Dean spins suddenly on his heels, staring gormless at her across the showroom floor. He paints on a forced, goofy grin, makes a comment to a guy near him about the old ball and chain, before striding across the lot towards her.

“Hey, honey, what are you doing here?” he asks, and Beth stands up a little straighter, tilts her chin up at him, and says:

“We need to talk about money.”

It’s enough to make Dean glare at her, shushing her quickly, grabbing her by the elbow and steering her away from the floor of the lot and into his office. He pulls down the blinds, quick as he can, before spinning on his heel to face her.

“I’m doing fine, thanks for asking,” he snaps. “Can’t say it’s been easy, sleeping in my mom’s spare room, but you know, I’m making it work.”

Beth resists the urge to roll her eyes, sucking in a breath. They need to talk about the mortgage. They need to talk about child support. And god, Beth hates even the prospect of it, but she’s spent three days doing the math, and she needs him to lend her the money for the materials for the ballet costumes too.  

“You said you were going to your accountant to work out the money situation,” she tells him firmly, and Dean stares at her for a second, before he plants his hands on his hips, sniffs, looks away.  

“Yeah, and I will,” he replies, kicking at the carpet with the toe of his shoe, and Beth frowns.

“Well, let’s go now together,” she suggests. “Get it done.”

With that, she spins on her heel, trying to remember where Larry’s office is when suddenly Dean darts in front of her, blocking the exit from his office.

“Jesus, Beth, these things are like - - you know, they take - - take time, and nuance. I mean Larry works for the business, not for us. He’d be doing us a favour even looking at it.”

And just - - god, Beth thinks with a sigh, exhausted, exasperated. She looks up at him desperately, at his big, block head and his water eyes and his thinning hair, and she hates him and she just so desperately wishes she didn’t need him still for this.

“Dean, the mortgage is due in two weeks,” she says. “I’ve been making a budget for everything too – Kenny’s tutoring and Danny’s karate and the clothes for the kids, and I just - - we really need to talk about it, we - - ”  

Scoffing loudly, Dean surges up to his full height, towering over her as he looks down at her, waving a hand out flippantly between them.

“Yeah, well, maybe it wouldn’t slip my mind so much if I was, y’know, living in my house.”

It’s enough to set Beth’s teeth on edge, to make her glower up at him, her fury like a pulled-tight strap of elastic, close to the tearing point.

“Sure, and maybe if you’d been home more when you lived there, your marital vows might not have slipped your mind,” Beth bites, furious, and Dean scowls down at her.

“You know what?” he says. “Why don’t you get a job, Bethie, instead of hanging around mine. Earn your own damn money for a change.”

And god, isn’t she trying, she thinks, sucking in a wet breath, and he looks almost sympathetic at that, almost regretful, and god, the last thing she wants is his pity. She tugs her purse tighter into her side, shoving past him and out the door.

“Talk to Larry, Dean,” Beth calls behind her, before storming out of the dealership. She climbs into the driver’s seat of her minivan and slams her hands down on the steering wheel, frustrated tears building at the corners of her eyes, and just - -

She’ll figure it out, she promises herself.

God, she hopes she figures it out.

 

*

 

A car alarm goes off.

The sound braying through the quiet of the night, and Beth finds herself holding her breath, despite herself, praying it’s not enough to wake the kids up. It had taken her too long to get them to bed tonight, Jane in particular racing down the hall every time Beth wandered three feet away from her and Emma’s bedroom, and it was enough to leave her feeling ragged. Or, well, more ragged.

She hasn’t slept well all week, has spent almost every hour of the day cooking, cleaning and trying to work out if she has anything of value to sell on Craigslist. Her jewellery, her favourite casserole dish, her dryer. At least it had given her an excuse to clean out the garage of the kids baby things too, she thinks – their highchairs and cribs, clothes and toys, and things she’d once thought she’d have passed down to them when they had their own children, but - -

No.

This was more important, she reminds herself.

Having a roof over their heads is more important than any sentimentality.

Beth sighs, tosses over in bed, glancing out the window at the clear night. It’s a strange feeling – to be this bone tired and yet to have sleep seem so evasive, to have her head just so full of all there is to do, the terrible, paralysing fear of not being able to pay her way next month having stretched out in her head, and just, god, Beth thinks, clenching her eyes shut.

She sits up in bed and grabs her laptop.

It’s almost second nature these days to open up an incognito tab in her browser, type in the Thank You Ma’am website, to click on the porn stars tag and then Rio’s face, and she settles back against the headboard, biting her lip as she scrolls down his video catalogue. A lot of his newer ones are behind a paywall, and she frowns, toes curling a little, weirdly embarrassed at the prospect of not being able to afford to see them, and then somehow even more embarrassed that she’s embarrassed at all.

She shakes her head, groans at herself, runs a hand back through her hair and is about to click on one she knows she likes – the one with him as a mechanic, and really, she doesn’t have the time or energy to think about what that means given Dean – only to suddenly have a bright pink box pop-up onto the screen.

She blinks, eyes adjusting to the sudden flare of light.

WANTED: Girls! Girls! Girls!

Dying to get in front of the Thank You Ma’am cameras? For a limited time, we’re opening our doors to any woman who’s ever dreamt of being a porn star. Whether you’re a petite or a BBW, MILF or barely legal, whether you give killer BJs or are an expert with anal beads, rock missionary or kill the crab walk, we want to get to know YOU (potentially REAL well).

If you think you’ve got what it takes to take it, apply today!

(All Thank You Ma’am performers are paid industry award rates. Speak to your union representative today for more info).

Beth slams her laptop shut, eyes wide, chest heaving, and just - -

What?

 

*

 

“How much do you think porn pays?” Beth slurs, a little tipsy, rocking sideways on her barstool, and Ruby shoots her an amused look, her eyes a little glassy herself.

“God, B, if I’d known you’d get this into it, I’d have - - “

“Have what?” Beth asks, and Ruby bursts out laughing.

“I have no idea.”

And then Beth’s giggling too, dropping her head heavily forwards and watching as Annie stumbles back towards their corner of the bar, another round of drinks in her hands.

“Annie, how much do you think porn pays?” Ruby asks her, pinching one of the cocktails, and Annie blinks up at her.

“What?”

“Your sister’s curious,” Ruby says slyly, tilting her head towards Beth, who flushes a little, sucking on the straw of her cocktail. “Clearly brushing up for trivia night.”

And that makes all of them giggle drunkenly. They haven’t been to this bar before, but Beth thinks she likes it. Annie had met the bartender on Tinder and after what Annie told them was a night of above-average sex, he’d promised a night on the house at the bar he worked at for her and a couple of friends.

He was pretty cute too, smiling at her down the bar, waving every now and then. It was a nice vibe, Beth thinks, wobbling a little on her barstool.

“I mean, it’s gotta be a bit, right?” Annie contemplates. “Some of it is like, fucking weird. I once accidentally clicked on this video where a woman in a ski mask put a full pineapple up her vagina.”

Beth spits out her drink, and Ruby just looks totally horrified.

“She’d taken the skin off,” Annie says, laughing at their reactions, and Ruby shakes her head.

“Wouldn’t it still sting? Like, that’s citrusy as fuck.”  

 Beth’s cringing, trying to mop up the drink she’d just half spat out everywhere as Ruby suddenly pulls out her phone, typing something in.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you think? I’m looking it up.”

“Oh my god,” Beth says, blushing, and Annie just starts laughing, taking a sip of her own drink and sitting close enough to Ruby that she can peer over her shoulder at her phone screen. At least, she does until Ruby bats her away, muttering something about personal space. After a minute, Ruby pops an eyebrow at her phone screen, and Annie bounces in her seat.

“Okay, lay it on us, Rubes.”

“Minimum $700 for a girl-on-girl scene, $900 for girl-on-guy. It looks like it’s a sliding scale? You get more the more you do, or who you do it with. More money per sex act, more money for more people, more again for interracial, more if it’s your debut. Stars obviously get the most. They like, match salary to what they think the star will make them.”

“Makes sense,” Annie says, sipping on her drink. “God, Rio must get like, a bajillion dollars.”

Ruby makes a noise of agreement, and Beth sits there, considering it, and Ruby clocks it, eyes suddenly widening in shock.

“Beth.”

Beth glances up at her.

“What?”

“You have a look.”

“What look?”

“On your face right now,” she tells her, and Annie blinks over at her, reels back, because she must see it too.

“What the fuck?” she says, laughing, and Beth goes bright red, feeling totally sprung as she waves a hand out and tries to just - - swallow her embarrassment.

“I don’t know, I’m not really - - it’s just - -  that website you sent me has like, a callout? For people - - I mean. Women, not people. I mean women are people obviously, but - -”

Ruby just stares at her, waiting for her to wrap it up, while Annie stares at her in shock, and Beth just keeps babbling until finally she just - -

Stops.

She looks at them both, then down at her drink, exhaling shakily, a little drunkenly.

“I don’t think Dean’s going to pay me anything.”

It’s immediate then, the furious ranting that practically bursts from Annie’s lips, and Beth looks sideways, out across the bar, at people younger than them, happier than them, with so many less problems than them, and - - she finally glances back at Ruby, who doesn’t look at all surprised.

“The ballet studio - - ” Ruby tries anyway, and Beth promptly cuts her off.

“Will pay me,” Beth agrees. “But I’ve got to buy the materials up front, and I won’t see that money for at least a month.”

“Me and Stan can lend you something,” Ruby says quickly, and Beth looks at her.

“Twelve-hundred dollars?”

And that’s immediate too. The way Ruby closes her mouth, and it’s not a jab, it’s not, Beth’s just - - she wants to be realistic. She’s done pretending that there’s any sort of get out of jail free card for her in life, and besides, she doesn’t want to leave Ruby without anyway. She bites her lip, shaking her head.

“And that’ll only pay for this month’s mortgage and the fabric,” Beth says. “I don’t have any other skills, I didn’t go to college, I haven’t worked since highschool. And…I’m tired of relying on people for money.”

Because she is. Because it’s humiliating, talking to Dean, humiliating telling a college-aged ballet teacher she can’t front a few hundred dollars to make a few thousand, humiliating to have to count every penny at the grocery store to make sure her card won’t be declined at the checkout, and - -

Since she saw the ad, she just…hasn’t been able to unsee it.

“They’ll probably take one look at my application and throw it out anyway,” Beth says, lighter this time, laughing a little, because they probably will, but at least this way she can say that she tried.  

“Maybe,” Ruby says quietly, shrugging. “I mean, maybe not too. Beth, you’d be having sex with strangers.”

“Yeah,” Beth agrees, shrugging, because she’d thought of that too, but – “I mean. Kind of turned out I’d been doing that for twenty years, didn’t it?”

It’s enough to silence both Annie and Ruby briefly, to leave them looking at her, unreadable expressions on both their faces, and Beth quickly turns back to her drink, polishing it off in a long gulp, and it’s Annie who breaks the quiet.

“Well,” she says, voice lightening up. “I can’t imagine anyone being worse at sex than Dean.”

Which - - Beth giggles, wrinkling her nose, grateful, and she looks at Annie, hoping that it conveys that, and the way Annie smiles softly back at her, she thinks she did. Annie’s grin widens suddenly, punching Beth lightly on the arm.

“And who knows, right? Maybe you’ll get to bone Rio.”

She waggles her eyebrows dramatically, and then her face suddenly shifts into one of abject horror.

“Oh my god, if you do, does that mean I can’t watch it? No, I’ll definitely still watch it, but - - hmmm. Truly a moral dilemma of our time. Does that count as incest if I watch your porno?”

Annie,” Beth groans, and Ruby just laughs, ordering them another round.

 

*

 

And okay, she thinks, stumbling back into her bedroom, it’s not like it could hurt.

They’ll probably take one look at her and laugh her out of the - - studio? Theater? Beth giggles, where do they even make porn? She suddenly conjures up an image in her head of the girls’ ballet school stage – red velvet curtains and all, pulled apart to reveal a porno set. The thought alone makes her wrinkle her nose, kicking off her pumps and flopping heavily onto her belly on the bed.

She bounces a few times, wriggling up the mattress, moving slow, like her brain’s bobbing like a ship on the sea of alcohol she’s drunk tonight, and that thought makes her laugh too. Finally wriggling enough up the bed, she grabs her laptop off her bedside table, pulling up the Thank You Ma’am website, clicking through to Rio’s tag, scrolling to find one she hasn’t watched yet and hovering the mouse over a thumbnail of him and his enormous penis in a pair of tight red speedos and ooooo, lifeguard, Beth grins, biting her lip, already feeling herself getting warm and - -

No!

She frowns at herself, sits up. That’s not what she’s doing.

Before she can think anything more of it, she clicks on the ad.

The page opens up to a portal with a range of basic questions – name, age, why you want to be in porn. Beth briefly contemplates lying about all of it, but she feels a little wobbly, and the site says she’ll need to present ID if she’s brought in anyway, so instead she just fills it out accurately.

Elizabeth Boland.

42.

Looking for money to start my real business.

Huh, she thinks, frowning a little at the screen, the words swimming a bit in front of her. Maybe that’s a little too accurate.

She deletes it.

Recently divorced. Looking to take control of my destiny!

Beth grins, happy, hits next.

After that, the questions get a little more specific, asking for details about her body – measurements to tattoos and piercings to cup sizes to - - pubic hair style, and she has to stimmy the urge to throw her laptop across the room, because right, she thinks. Right. She lurches off the bed, grabbing a measuring tape out of her sewing kit and making wobbly work of measuring herself up, filling in the details, and when she’s done with that, she hits the button to the next page too.

The photo package.

Beth wets her lips, reading through the instructions. They don’t want anything racy, nothing salacious (We work in porn already, the caption says. We don’t need to see your thirst traps. Just what you really look like). Just - - nudes. Almost clinical ones. A full frontal, one from the side, one from the back, then three close-ups – face, breasts, ass.

Which is - - that’s okay, she thinks, maybe? Yes. God, if she’s even remotely serious about this, it’s not like she won’t be showing all of that off anyway. Maybe she should give it another few weeks – try and lose a few pounds before - -

No, Beth reminds herself.

A few weeks her mortgage will be overdue.

A few weeks and Michaela might find somebody else for the costumes.

She grabs her cell off the bed, ducks into her en suite, makes quick work of fixing her hair, touching up her make-up, and then takes a few awkward selfies which are - - awkward, to say the least. Okay, maybe she’ll come back to the headshot.

Unzipping her dress and wriggling out of it, she pulls off her stockings too, her panties, unclips her bra and then she just - - looks at herself in the mirror, and god, she can see it on herself like this, how far down her chest her flush goes. She blinks, inhales sharply.

She looks - -

Soft, mostly. Probably her age. Her big, full breasts not sagging exactly, but just - - a far cry from the small, perky breasts of the girls she’s seen Rio sleep with on the Thank You Ma’am website, which is silly, she tells herself. It’s not like it’ll be him. He barely makes anything anyway anymore, and besides, they’ll probably want to put her with somebody her age or something, or - - maybe not? It’s just a stark reminder of how much she doesn’t know how this works, and god, is this a huge mistake?

She looks at herself in the mirror, sucks in her belly a bit, runs her hands down the hourglass shape of her body, where she’s narrowest at her waist, where her hips widen, and she could just leave it, could wait for Dean, she could - - she could be homeless.  

She sucks in a breath and she grabs her phone.

Chapter Text

“What am I supposed to be looking at right now?”

“The email,” Beth hisses, flailing a hand out at her phone, and Ruby arches an eyebrow, picking it up from where Beth had planted it in front of her on the kitchen island. She sees it is the thing, the exact moment Ruby realises, her eyes widening and her mouth splitting open to let loose a disbelieving laugh.

“Bitch, did you get a callback?”

And is that what you even call it? Beth has no idea, just knows that three days after she’d drunkenly hit send on her application, she’d gotten a phone call from a woman named Gretchen from Thank You Ma’am who’d asked her if she’d come into their Detroit office for a chat. The email was more a follow-up confirmation of what they’d talked about on the phone than anything – a run-through of the details – the meeting time (Tuesday, 2 o’clock), and some general advice to dress casually (she’d reiterated what the application form had said about them already working in porn – “We make the shows, so we don’t need you to give the office one.”) and to let her know they’d likely take some photos of her.

Beth had been a stuttering mess on the phone, stumbling through the call while unpacking groceries, and the second Gretchen had hung up, she’d practically thrown her cell through the kitchen window, because - -

Well.

“It’s good, right?” Beth says, her voice higher pitched than she intends.

“I mean,” Ruby looks at her, eyebrows raised again. “It’s what you wanted, right?”

“Right,” she agrees, twisting her hands around her coffee mug. “Totally. I mean. It’s exactly what I wanted. This could be big.”

“Huge,” Ruby echoes, and Beth starts nodding.

“The hugest.”

Ruby nods, takes a sip of her own coffee, not taking her eyes off Beth.

“You freaking out?”

“Yes,” Beth admits with a groan, leaning back a little until her hip hits her kitchen counter. “I mean - -” she lowers her voice to little more than a whisper. “It’s porn.”

Because god, it is. It’s all - - penises and bodies and words - - sounds that make her blush. Hell, she’s blushing now just thinking about it, and Ruby flashes her an amused look in reply.

“Yeah, B. It was porn when you hit send on that application too.” She jerks her head back, forehead furrowing in thought as she squints over at Beth. “What did you have to send anyway?”

“Just like, some basic information and then, um, like, naked pictures,” Beth says, gesturing broadly, and Ruby’s eyes practically pop out of her head. “But not like, weird ones. Just - - pretty basic stuff really.”

Turning it over, Ruby reaches for the creamer, topping off her coffee, and she just sort of - - squints at Beth again, like she’s trying to picture it, which is kind of dumb anyway. Between change rooms and childbirth (Ruby was by her side for every birth after Kenny’s after all – Dean had decided being in the room for one was enough), it’s not like she hasn’t seen Beth all up close and personal before. There was even that time in highschool when Ruby had been so nervous to kiss Stan for the first time (she needn’t have been), and Beth sort of wanted to know if maybe kissing somebody who wasn’t Dean might be more fun than kissing him was (it was), and they’d just sort of - - well. Explored a little. Not had sex or anything, but - - maybe they’d compared bodies and touched a little. It had been nice. Kind of fun. They’d barely been able to stop giggling.

Beth doesn’t remember a time being that naked had ever otherwise felt that fun. And safe. And - -

Warm.

“And what’s this sitch gonna be? Like, do you have to audition?”

Beth blinks, pulled from her thoughts, and quickly shakes her head, because Gretchen had been adamant about that on the phone too.

(“While it’s certainly a popular scenario in the medium, casting couches don’t actually operate at any reputable studio,” she’d said. “We just have a conversation, talk about process, what you’ll be comfortable with, then if we go ahead, we’ll have some pretty extensive rehearsals so that when we shoot it’ll be quick and easy, even if what we’re shooting isn’t.” She’d laughed at her own joke in a way that makes Beth think she’s told it too many times before. She’d laughed politely in reply).

 “She just wants to talk.”

Ruby considers this, tilting her head from side to side, thinking it through.

“Sounds like it’ll be like any other job interview then,” Ruby replies, and Beth nods, because - - right. Not that she’d know. She hasn’t exactly had a formal job interview since the Dairy Queen in highschool, and even that hadn’t exactly been formal. She’d known the job was a sure-thing, what with one of Ruby’s cousins managing the place.

Nothing about this feels like a sure thing though, she thinks, biting the inside of her cheek. She takes a sip of her coffee, trying to swallow any doubt down with the mouthful.

“I guess there’s only one question left then,” Ruby adds, and Beth blinks up at her, quirking an eyebrow. “What are you going to wear?”

 

*

 

Beth’s still re-hanging her floral sundresses in her closet when Jane suddenly cackles, shattering the otherwise quiet of Beth’s bedroom. Spinning on the spot, Beth grins, amused, to see Jane sprawled out on her bed, practically swallowed in one of her robes as Emma teeters across the rug in a pair of Beth’s old kitten heels.

“Oh, are we playing dress up now too?” she asks, smiling, and both of the girls’ giggle, striking haphazard poses on the spot.

It’s not exactly unusual for the girls to turn Beth’s wardrobe into their own personal costume box, but perhaps it is for Beth. She feels like she’s spent half the morning clawing her way through floral blouses and slacks, pencil skirts from two-children-ago and fitted dresses with the zipper teeth mangled. Ruby had helped for most of the morning, vetoing options or adding them to a (very small) Ruby-Approved-Shortlist. Still, nothing felt quite right.

“Do I look like a princess, mommy?” Emma coos, spinning so fast on the spot she almost falls out of Beth’s heels, and Beth hums in affirmation.

“You always look like a princess, sweetie. The sweetest, most perfect princess of all.”

Emma glows, and Jane suddenly lurches off the bed, Beth’s robe flying around her like a cape.

“And I’m a dragon!” she howls, making Emma giggle and turn her hands into claws – the surefire sign she’s about to do some ‘magic’. Beth smiles, warmth unfolding in her chest even as she turns back to her closet and just - - right. She has to pick something. It’s not like she can go out and buy anything. Something in here has to be it.

Keys jangle in the lock of the front door, and before she can even think, there are familiar, heavy steps sounding up the hallway, chasing away the warmth in her chest. She doesn’t even have to look to know who it is.

“Daddy!” Jane cries, springing off the bed towards Dean, and Beth clenches her jaw, furiously shoving clothes back into her closet. God, he didn’t even text, let alone knock.

“Janey! Emmy! Uhhh, you girls look amazing.”

They both giggle, pleased, and Beth chances a look over, seeing Dean in his slacks, an unironed shirt, his tie hanging loose around his neck. He looks - - rumpled, and the thought settles uneasily in her, the memory of all the months she’d dismissed this look as something like Dean being hands on at work, which - - well, wasn’t exactly untrue.

He could certainly be hands on.

Beth strides across to her French doors, pushing them open onto the back deck and letting the warmth of the afternoon flood her bedroom.

“Girls, why don’t you go play outside for a bit?”

And it’s like they can sense it – the tension, because their bright little eyes dart between Beth and Dean before they sprint outside, Emma’s feet newly bare, but Beth’s robe flapping off of Jane’s shoulders like a filmy set of insect wings. She waits until they’re out of earshot, eagerly climbing the wrong way up the slide, before Beth turns to look at Dean.

“Really?” she asks, and Dean shrugs, shuffling slightly closer, eyeing off the piles of clothes still on her bed.

“Are you cleaning out your wardrobe or something?”

Beth rolls her eyes, grabbing another dress off the bed, shoving it back onto its hanger and then back into her closet.

“Well, I have so much extra room now,” she says, tone cloying, before she glances back at him, takes him in all over again. “Are you working on the weekend? That’s new. What’s her name?”

With a scoff, Dean drops his hands to his hips, shaking his head, like he’d do whenever Beth was suspicious. Whenever he wanted to make her feel ridiculous instead of right.

His name is Barry. The accountant you’ve been begging me to talk to.”

Asking,” Beth corrects, striding back across the room, grabbing her shoes that Emma had been wearing off the floor and putting them away too. “And I’d really appreciate it if you knocked instead of letting yourself in. I’m only letting you keep the key in case of emergencies.”

“Letting me? Jesus, Beth, it’s still my house.”

“No, it’s not,” she insists, her voice exasperated, urgent, embarrassingly upset, even to her own ears. She spins around to face him, flush cheeked and suddenly furious. “It’s my house, and if you don’t - - ”

“We can’t afford it.”

Beth stops, the wind knocked out of her. Dean looks away, down at his feet, kicks at the carpet.

“Barry said between the mortgages and Boland Motors and you - - y’know, not working, there’s just - - no way.”

Beth blinks, sucks in a wobbly, aching breath.

“When you start paying child support, I can figure it out, I can - - ”

“I’m not paying child support, Beth.”

His voice is firm, but when Beth stares back at him, unblinking, unable to even really move, think, feel anything but the heavy stone of confirmation in her gut. Dean sighs, runs a hand back through his hair, pink staining his cheeks, the shells of his ears.

“I mean, I will - - I just. I talked to Barry about that too, and um. My mom got me a lawyer, and y’know…with the four kids, it’d be 19% of my income, right? But the thing is, Boland Motors isn’t actually - - uhh  - - turning enough of a profit to pay me at the moment.”

“You’re not being paid?”

“No. Not at the moment. But I mean, you’ll get the 19%, just right now - - ”

“It’s 19% of nothing.”

Dean breathes out a laugh, almost like he’s - - he’s relieved to get it off his chest or something, and Beth can feel the tears prickling at the corners of her eyes, hot and aching and just so angry.

“Until I make it work. I just think what’s going to be best is if we all move into my mom’s for a bit, and then we - - ”

Which - - god, no. Beth inhales sharply, staring at the pile of Ruby-Approved-Shortlisted clothes, and maybe her black turtleneck with jeans, maybe with slacks. Maybe she can fix the zipper on the back of her navy dress, maybe she can soak it, to get out the red wine stain on the bust. Can she do that before Thursday?

No.

It can’t be a question anymore.

None of this can.

“No, Dean,” she says, her gaze flicking up to him, clearing her throat and blinking back her tears. “I’m figuring it out, okay?”

“Beth - -”

“I want you to transfer all the paperwork over to me. Everything. Then - - I’m going to get my own accountant. And a lawyer. Since your mother’s decided you should have one, I guess I should too.”

Dean splutters, his gormless face blinking back at her, and she knows this wasn’t the way he wanted this to go, wasn’t the way he’d even thought it would, but now at least he doesn’t seem to fight it. He holds up his hands, offering nothing, looking out the open French doors to where the girls are hollering on the top of the play house, the sounds of their giggles echoing up through the clear sky.  

“I’m going to say goodbye to the girls.”

Beth watches him go, watches him play with them, however briefly, and the weight of all of this just feels so hopeless.

She shudders out a breath, steadies herself with a hand on the top of her chest of drawers, eyes dropping back to her bed.

The dress, she thinks.

 

*

 

There’s music playing in the foyer.

Nothing particularly noticeable, barely even identifiable, the sort of generic instrumental music that reminds Beth of hospital waiting rooms or shopping mall elevators, and she smooths out the skirt of her dress as she steps deeper into the room, across the marble-tiled floors towards the tall, glass reception desk at the other end of the space.

She’s not sure what she was expecting out of the Thank You Ma’am offices, but it certainly wasn’t this. She doesn’t think she’s ever been in a building this nice – a small, modern office space with what looks like a low-slung studio attached to it, and a neat density of forest enveloping both from the back.

The foyer is neat too – sleek, chic white marble and glass. A couple of black leather couches with white, fluffy cushions Beth’s pretty sure Annie owns, sits in front of a glass coffee table stacked with magazines that are really the only hint of what this place actually is – Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse – even a few others Beth has never heard of.

There are two women sitting on one of the couches already – one who has to be one of the most beautiful women that Beth has ever seen – small and dark haired and darker featured, snapping gum like her life depended on it. The other who looks like a Barbie doll brought to life, her fake tan leaving a stain on those white fluffy cushions, and Beth smiles at them both, oddly relieved when they both smile kindly back. It’s enough to steel her nerves, to help her push her hair back over her shoulder, suck in a breath, and stride across to the woman behind the desk.

“Hi there, I’m here to meet with Gretchen Zorada? My name is Elizabeth Boland.”

The girl blinks up at her, gormless in a way that reminds Beth of Amber, and god - - she sucks in another breath, trying to square her shoulders. The woman looks Beth over appraisingly, tilts her head back to the other two women.

“I’ll let her know you’re here. Gretchen’s running about forty minutes behind. Lots of interviews today, so I’d grab a seat and settle in.”

Beth feels her mouth dry, but she nods, smiles as best she can and spins, looking awkwardly over at the other women, and finally taking a seat on one of the other chairs, brushing her hair back again, and wishing she’d brought a book or something because her mind feels like it’s going a mile a minute. She ends up grabbing one of the magazines, only to instantly close it with a bright, furious flush when she opens it on a woman lounging on a couch not unlike the one she’s sitting on in only a pair of lace panties, her fingers inching below the fabric.

The movement’s been enough to make the petite, dark haired woman look at her and bite back a grin, and Beth shrugs bashfully back at her.

Are they interviewing a lot of women? Are they all as beautiful as this one? What if Gretchen takes one look at Beth and laughs her out of the office, because god, she’s not a thing like the women she’s watched Rio with on the Thank You Ma’am site, and certainly not like either of the women sitting opposite her and if she can’t get this work than she can’t - -

No, Beth thinks settling into her seat, swallowing thickly. She can’t think like that, she reminds herself.

She pulls her phone from her purse instead, scrolling through an email from the dance school, starting to put together costumes in her head for the distraction.

She has no idea how long she’s been sitting there when the blonde gets called in, but knows that the other woman is barely in there ten minutes when the darker-featured woman is called in, and then - - well, that’s a much longer wait.

Still, it’s not quite the forty minutes when her own name is called.

“Ms. Boland?”

Swivelling around in her seat, Beth blinks, surprised to see a tall, angular woman standing in the foyer. She’s sharply dressed, in a black sheer blouse, wide legged black slacks and a pair of polka dot pumps, her hair neatly styled in dark waves. Spotting Beth, she just jerks her head for her to follow, and Beth scrambles to her feet, following her down the hall, her eyes wide as she takes in the neat lines of the building beyond the foyer.

She walks her past a row of tidy offices, before pulling open the door to a large studio in the back. Stepping tentatively in, Beth’s not really sure what she’s expecting – a camera crew, perhaps, or a stained couch, maybe even a bed, because despite Gretchen’s assurances, Beth’s been overthinking this for days, only - -

Only what she’s met with instead is a brightly lit room with a long, gleaming wooden floor and pigeon egg walls. There are a few things that look perhaps like props shoved back against the far wall – a few tables, stacked up chairs, rolled up rugs, folded sheets and curtains. In front of them is a photography screen, a few lights set up, a trolly filled with things Beth would usually keep in her craft room.

Beth blinks, lets her eyes keep scanning, taking in the space until they land on a little meeting nook in the corner, complete with one long couch and a couple of grey armchairs, a small, glass table like the ones outside. Before she can help herself, she starts towards it, only to pause when Gretchen stops her.  

“We’ll get your measurements first, if that’s okay. Then some photographs, and then we can have a chat.”

“Oh, right! Yes,” Beth says, pausing in her step, looking back at her. Gretchen had said that on the phone after all. She shifts a little, biting her lip. “Were the ones I sent in not okay?”

“They were great,” Gretchen replies easily, walking Beth over to the photography screen and starting to rummage through the trolly beside it. “I mean, heck, you’re here, aren’t you? We just like to get our own too. Think of it like - - a bit of further corroboration. Can you take off your shoes?”

Glancing down at her heeled boots, Beth swallows thickly, crouching down to unzip them and step out of them, losing a good three inches of height in the process, but if anything this just seems to make Gretchen pleased and - - right, Beth thinks. This isn’t modelling. This is - -

Cold metal nudges at her toes, and Beth startles. She’d been so lost in her own head she hadn’t even seen Gretchen move, and she certainly hadn’t seen her pull out the shoe measuring device.

“Lift your foot,” Gretchen says, and Beth does, stepping onto the thing, and letting Gretchen measure it, which is - - weird, she thinks. But then she thinks of one of the thumbnails on the website which definitely featured a penis pushing between a pair of feet, and the thought sends her scarlet. Still, she lets Gretchen measure the other too.

When Gretchen stands up again, grabbing her tablet, she doesn’t let her put her shoes back on, just walks her back towards the wall instead where there’s a measuring board, and presses Beth back into it. She hums, narrowing her eyes a little.  

“How tall did you say you were?” she asks, checking her tablet.

“5’8,” Beth says, and Gretchen shakes her head.

“You gave yourself an inch. You’re 5’7.”

And - - right, Beth thinks, more bemused than anything. Gretchen steps her forwards again, walking her back to the photography screen before pulling a cloth measuring tape off the trolly, and gesturing for Beth to hold her arms out. She does, watching as Gretchen first measures her shoulder to sternum, then shoulder to waist, shoulder to hip, then shoulder to - -

She jumps a little when Gretchen’s fingers graze her crotch through her dress. Gretchen flicks her gaze back up, clocking her reaction, and when she reaches for her tablet, Beth wonders if she types that into it too.

After that, she measures her around her hips, waist, then her bust.

She pops an eyebrow at what she sees, before dropping the tape and grabbing her tablet again.

“They real?” she asks, and Beth looks at her, curling her hair behind her ears.

“Yes,” she replies. “I kind of figured you’d be able to tell.”

“There are some very good surgeons out there,” Gretchen tells her. “Although I will say not many of the girls in this business use those ones unfortunately. You’re certainly blessed though. Would you take your dress off for me?”

She says it so suddenly, so matter of factly, that it takes Beth a moment to process it. She blinks, mouth going a little dry, but then - - this isn’t so bad. Clinical almost, she thinks, like she’s at a doctor’s appointment, not a pornography studio. She reaches behind herself for the zip on the back of her dress, tugging it down when suddenly the door slides open, and god, okay, maybe she was more on edge than she thought, because she gasps before she can help herself, glad that she was still mostly (entirely) covered.

“You’re early,” Gretchen says, not even looking up from where she’s still punching notes into her tablet. Beth fiddles with her zip – getting it the whole way back up, before dropping her arms, and she’s just about to turn around when a voice sounds behind her.

“Like to keep you on your toes, darlin’, you know that.”

And just - - it’s the voice, that’s what it is. The dulcet timbre of it, the purr of it, and then it’s sudden – the way heat floods her body, unfurling like twin blooms in her cheeks, the roots of it sprawling down her neck, chest, and lower still. She sucks in a breath, blinking hard.

“Please,” Gretchen scoffs, finally glancing up from tablet as Rio strides past Beth towards Gretchen. “You like to throw me off schedule is what you like.”

There’s a swagger to his step Beth doesn’t think she’s ever seen on another human being before, an easy confidence to him that belies his videos, and Beth just - - she can’t take her eyes off him. The long line of his body, the fresh buzz of his hair, the eyelashes as long and thick as the fringing on her grandmother’s old curtains, and god, she can barely catch her breath. He’s somehow both smaller and bigger than she’d ever thought. Taller maybe, his shoulders broader but his waist narrower, legs almost just thin instead of thinly muscled, and his face - - well, his face.

Beth sucks in another breath, her eyes wide, watching as he laughs, the sound almost musical, watches as he pinches the tablet out of Gretchen’s hands and walks over to the little meeting nook, flopping onto his back on the couch like he owns the thing. In seconds,  he’s reading over Gretchen’s notes without even looking up, scrolling through - - her profile? One of the other girls’? Beth fidgets, swallows thickly, and it’s enough to make Gretchen glance back at her, wave a hand in brief apology, before striding over to the meeting nook, standing over him.

“You can take that into my office if you want to look through the girls so far,” Gretchen tells him. “I’ve still got a few left to meet with, and then we can - -”

Rio pulls a face, laughs at something, shakes his head, and it must be one of the girls’ information, and Beth flushes like it’s hers, blinks hard, because this is - -

“Shit, Gretch, you remember her?”

He holds up the tablet suddenly to Gretchen, and Beth can just make out the picture of a dull-eyed blonde with tight skin and great hair.

“She shot with Eddie a few years ago.”

Gretchen blinks.

“No, all the girls we’re meeting with are amateurs, new to the industry, we - - ”

“Nuh, think of her without that shit in her face and all that fuckin’ tanner. Without them blow-up titties too.”

Gretchen frowns, grabbing the tablet from him, forehead furrowing as she scrolls down the screen. She cusses, shaking her head while Rio just grins up at her.

“What did she call herself back then?”

Rio shrugs, but runs through a couple of names, and Beth frowns, glancing over at them, trying to - - to what, she’s got no idea. She bites the inside of her cheek. Should she go over? Should she leave? They look practically like they’re in a meeting now – doing something she shouldn’t be privy to, but Beth - - she thinks of Dean telling her 19% of nothing. She thinks of Michaela, telling her to invoice after she does the work.

She sucks in a breath.

“Excuse me,” she calls meekly, fiddling a little with the waist of her dress. “Um, would you like me to come back?”

“Moana Loud,” Gretchen says, and Rio barks on a laugh.

“Shit, that was her. Didn’t she give him somethin’?”

“Gonorrhoea,” Gretchen replies with a groan. “That was before we had the clinics send the results straight to us so they couldn’t be faked. Okay, so we’ll scrap her.”

Rio hums in agreement.

“That blonde with the tattoos too, I ain’t feelin’ it.”

“Really? I thought she had potential.”

Rio shakes his head, and Beth shifts her weight, looking between them, and she clears her throat, hoping it’ll grab their attention again, but Rio just keeps talking. Irritation sparks in her belly, her jaw rocks, frustrated.

“Nuh. Feel like I’ve fucked her already, probably a few times over.”

“She’s new to the industry.”

She might be, but c’mon, sweetheart, you know there are a million hers in this business, and I ain’t feelin’ that no more.”

Gretchen rolls her eyes.

“Believe me, I know that. Are you sure you didn’t just want to shoot with Dylan again? You’ve always done good work together, and - - ”

“I’m sorry, but this is very rude,” Beth says with a huff, louder than she’d intended, and both Rio and Gretchen’s heads snap around to face her. She flushes instantly, and Rio just - - looks at her like he hadn’t even realised she was in the room. She shifts her weight again, tries to square her shoulders. “And - - that was rude too, of course, sorry,” she corrects herself, feels herself floundering, swallows. “You did interrupt our meeting though, and I did try to get your attention before, and um. I just mean. I had to wait a while before, and I have to pick my kids up from school in like, half an hour, and it would be great if Gretchen - - I mean, Ms. Zorada and I could finish up so this so that I could go and do that.”

She finishes it lamely, shrugs a little, and Rio’s mouth hangs open for a second, before he closes it in something close to a smile. Gretchen starts back towards her.

“Of course, Ms. Boland, I’m so sorr-”

But then Rio’s up on his feet, cutting Gretchen off and striding in front of her and heading straight towards Beth and she feels the flush burst across her face and neck again, stumbles a little back, because god, he’s so fast, and then he just - - stops. Maybe a foot in front of her, enough she has to crane her neck to look up at him (did she seriously have to leave her shoes off?)

“’Ey,” Rio says, tilting his chin at her, and Beth blinks up at him, her eyes wide.

“Hi.”

His dark eyes drag hotly down her body, and it’s like - - like she’s sand, and he’s drawn a line in her with a stick – his stick – oh god, Beth flushes, feels him - - just - - feels him.

“You interviewin’ to be Gretchen’s new secretary or somethin’?”

Beth blinks again.

“What? No, I - - ” she pauses, squints at him when she sees his lips tug up. “Funny,” she finishes dryly, and he shrugs, as if to say I thought so, before reaching a hand over to the sleeve of her dress, smoothing it down.

“You know who I am, baby?”

Beth just nods sharply, her flush deepening when he just looks at her, unsurprised, nodding softly himself.

“I bet you do,” he purrs, lowering his voice. “Bet you know me real well, huh?”

God, she suddenly regrets ever even drawing attention to herself. She can’t peel her eyes off him though, can’t - -

Suddenly he steps back.

“Yeah, this one,” he tells Gretchen, who’s eyes bulge as she looks between them.

“Wait, really?”

“Really?” Beth squeaks, instantly realising – horrifyingly – what Rio’s just said, and Rio looks back at her again, appraisingly almost, before he sucks in his lips and nods sharply.

“Yeah,” he says, firmer this time – if that was even possible. He pulls his cellphone out of the back pocket of his pants, running off a text.

“We’d be wanting to shoot soon,” Gretchen says, a question in it or a warning, Beth can’t quite tell, and Rio doesn’t reply, just keeps texting someone something, until Gretchen taps her foot on the floor.

Rio.”

He glances back up at her, almost lazy, and she tilts her head back to Beth.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” he says again, shrugging this time, before looking over at Beth and grinning. “Kinda wanna see how far down that blush goes.”

And just like that, he’s gone.

 

*

 

She’s barely stumbled out of the office, staggered into her car before she’s pulling out her phone, frantically dialling her sister’s number, and wriggling, jittery, in her seat as Annie finally picks up.  

“Just the woman I was wanting to talk to,” Annie says in lieu of hello. “On a scale of one to ten, if I put top loader laundry detergent in a front loader washing machine, what are the odds of me blowing up my apartment?”

“It’s Rio,” Beth hisses, and she hears Annie pause.

“Who’s starring in all your post-divorce fantasies? Yeah, sis, I know, join the club.”

No,” Beth says. “It’s Rio. Who they’re doing this whole - - whole search thing for! That ad I responded to – they were looking for a new - - a new girl for him.”

She has to yank the phone away from her ear when Annie starts scream-laughing, and Beth folds forwards, dropping her head to the steering wheel of her car.

“He picked me,” Beth says, her voice wobbling, and Annie screeches again.

“Holy shit, Beth! You’re going to be boning Beyonce! You’re like Jay-Z or something. I can’t wait for your porn-o Louvre takeover.”

“This isn’t funny,” Beth snaps, and Annie laughs, the sound tinny over the line.

“I mean, it kind of is, B. Jesus, you’re going to be going from the man of nobody’s fantasies to the man of everybody’s fantasies, but more specifically your fantasies. Your vagina isn’t gonna know what hit it.”

“Don’t say vagina,” Beth says sharply, and Annie laughs again.

“Would you rather punani? Pussy? Love cave?”

“I’d rather none of those things.”

“So did you meet him then?”

“Yeah,” Beth says, but then she bites the inside of her cheek and corrects herself. “Kind of.”

The meeting had been weird before Rio had burst through the door, but only weirder after. Gretchen had had Beth undress, taken photos of her that had Beth flushed and uncertain because god, now she knew exactly who’d be looking at them, before sitting her on the couch Rio had just been on and starting a squirm-inducing chat about what Beth was and wasn’t okay with doing on camera.

“God, I am brimming with jealousy right now,” Annie says, even though the only thing her tone is brimming with is amusement. “Tell me everything. Is his dick as big as it looks in his videos?”

Beth flushes, but rolls her eyes, folding back into her chair. She fumbles for her seatbelt, clipping herself in.

“He was kind of a jerk,” Beth says in lieu of answering Annie’s question, and Annie makes an annoyed noise on her behalf over the phone.

“Booo. I mean, it’s not a surprise. Dude’s probably used to everyone falling on his dick, that can’t be good for the ego.”

Frowning, Beth pushes the keys into the ignition, but doesn’t quite start the car yet. She knew that after all – has watched multiple videos of him with other women, just… It had been strange, she thinks, his vibe of authoritative and almost immature, boyishly flirtatious and mannishly demanding. She didn’t quite know what to make of him in their (very) brief interaction, and something in her gut told her that maybe he liked it that way. She fiddles a little with her keychain.

“I guess not,” she agrees, listening to the keys jangle.

“Whatever, there are more important things than porn-friend’s attitude right now,” Annie says, and well, at least that’s reliable, Beth thinks, already getting her eye roll started, expecting the worst, when Annie suddenly says. “You got a job! Yay! Money! Double yay!”

Beth blinks, and before she knows it, all thoughts of Rio’s attitude fall away and a sort of unfamiliar lightness fills her chest, an ease and an excitement and just a - - a hope.

“I got a job,” Beth says, half breathless, and Annie starts cheering her down the line, and just - -

A job. And she did it on her own.

She can’t wipe the smile off her face the rest of the day.

 

*

 

The week passes - - strangely, mostly. It’s not to say it’s bad exactly, but she spends more time with Gretchen in the Thank You Ma’am offices than she thought would be necessary, going through a range of tests (STI test, a background check, a police check), and what Beth can only really describe as an interrogation from Gretchen about – well, everything else. It’s not so invasive exactly, just…Thorough.

(“We’ve come a long way over the last few years to really legitimize ourselves as a premier, professional studio with premier, professional talent. The last thing we need is a Twitter scandal because you’ve had affiliations with hate groups or were picking on another mom at your Stitch and Bitch. By the way, have you come up with a stage name yet? Our talent team has a few suggestions if you’re stuck.”)

And through it all, Beth doesn’t so much as see Rio wandering around the studio. Her interactions seem limited to Gretchen, a few producers, and some of the crew – the fact of which has disappointed Annie and Ruby to no end, and - - as much as she hates to admit it, maybe herself a little too.

Still, she thinks, as Gretchen collects her from the foyer and leads her towards the meeting room. It’s not like she won’t ever be seeing him.

Seeing all of him.

Up close, personal-style.

“All your results came back clean, by the way,” Gretchen says after a quick greeting, picking up her pace, and Beth blinks over at her, quickening her own step to keep up.

“Oh! Good,” Beth says, and Gretchen gives her an easy grin.

“Not so much as a parking ticket.”

“I’ve always been a bit of a girl scout,” Beth replies with a shrug, and Gretchen laughs, holding open the door for her and gesturing her through into the room. She’s surprised to find a neat little meeting room, with a couple of men with slick hair and well-fitted suits at the other side of the table, and Beth racks her head to remember what today was even supposed to be about.

“This is Noah and Max, two of our story developers,” Gretchen says, as if she’s read her mind. She gestures for Beth to sit down. “They’ve been doing some brainstorming this week, and have some scenarios in mind. Rio has it in his contract that he gets sign-off on every stage, particularly story, so he should be here in just a moment too.”

Beth nods, feels something in her chest tighten, and across the table, one of the guys looks her up and down, as if he’s weighing her.

“This is her?”

Gretchen rolls her eyes.

“Don’t be an asshole, Noah.”

“How am I being an asshole, I’m just - - surprised, y’know? Aren’t I allowed to have an opinion?”

“Sure,” Gretchen says. “But I’d keep it to yourself until you’re the multi-award winning star doing the fucking.”

Noah laughs, and Beth has to bite back the heat in her cheeks. She shifts uncomfortably, folding her hands in her lap, resisting the urge to look at any of them, and thankfully she’s saved from even acknowledging it by the door pushing open and Rio stepping in – hoodie pulled up over his ears, slurping on a Big Gulp.

“Yo,” he says easily, and Gretchen huffs out a breath, giving him a disapproving look that makes Beth’s gaze dart between them. The two guys across the table immediately puff out their chests, watching as Rio drops into the seat beside Beth, still slurping on the straw of his drink.

“My man,” Noah starts, holding his hands out. “Where you been? Me and Max were just saying last week, we feel like it’s been a year since we last wrote for you.”  

Rio rolls his eyes a little, which - - god, rude, Beth thinks with a frown. Not that these guys don’t seem like assholes, but still.

“Seriously, we’d drummed up this great little movie for your boy, Eddie, a few weeks ago. Threesome with two of the best girls in the biz, and he was telling us you were - - ”

“Whatchu got for me, man?”

The words stop Noah instantly, and the guy just sort of shuffles on the spot, glancing sideways at Max who looks almost afraid, and god, what is even going on? Beth looks back at Rio, who’s back to sucking on his straw, gaze fixed, almost unblinkingly on Noah.

He’s almost a little scary, and it tightens low in Beth in a way that doesn’t really feel like fear.

“Right, man of action, I like it, I like it. Always the pro, this guy, huh?”

Noah glances over to Gretchen, who’s stone-faced and unimpressed and at least it’s enough to spring Noah into action.

“We’re thinking, boxer,” he says, half folded over the table, pointing to Rio with his pen as if to punctuate the point, before flicking it sideways to Beth. “Yoga teacher. Perhaps a bit of competition for space at the gym that you, you know. Work out.”

The other guy laughs beside him, almost practiced, while Gretchen’s eyes fix steadily on Rio, almost - - almost in anticipation. Of what, Beth has no idea, her own gaze drifting over to him, but he’s not even looking at her, just stays sucking on the straw of his huge plastic cup, hoodie pulled up around his ears, face blank.

“You do yoga?”

It takes her a moment to realise that he’s even talking to her, and when she does, Beth flusters, flushes, wracks her head for any time in her life she’s been to the gym at all, let alone a class. She swallows thickly. 

“Um, a little? I did some classes while I was pregnant, um, I - -”

“So you ain’t got the flexibility,” Rio tells her, or not her, the guys across the table. He drops his drink down to his knee, letting the condensation from the cup leave a wet circle on his jeans. “Ain’t that the point with fucking a yoga instructor? You gonna teach her that shit before we shoot next week?”

Noah looks almost ashen, spluttering a bit back at Rio, when suddenly the other guy leaps in.

“Okay,” he says quickly. “New scenario. She’s your kid’s teacher. She’s called you in to discuss their grades, you - -”

Gretchen suddenly sits forwards on her seat, gesturing to the guy, says, “No, Rio doesn’t - - ”

“I don’t do nothin’ with kids,” Rio says, cutting her off sharply, and the guy blinks back at him.

“I mean, it’s inferred kids. They wouldn’t actually be in the film.”

“Nuh, none of it. You want that DILF shit, you go with one of the other guys workin’ that scene, I ain’t it.”

Noah huffs out a breath, but instantly regrets it when Rio levels him with a look.

“She’s your maid,” he starts instead, and Rio just laughs, which only makes Beth flush.

“Best friend’s wife,” Max cuts in, and god, they’re ping-ponging now, tossing out ideas: he’s a delivery man, a plumber, her divorce lawyer. She’s a mail-order bride, a woman who runs a mindfulness class, a nurse, and each one Rio shoots down – he’s done it before, it’s boring, and on one particularly embarrassing note, would rather do a scene like that with someone who ‘looks like she might actually know how to do it.’

She’s not really sure what to say – what to think, when one of the guys finally throws his hands up in exasperation, says:

“Her husband owes you money. You’re a - - bad debt. You go to collect, he’s not there, and she’s - - y’know, a good girl, and you and her work something out.”

And it’s just - - quiet for a moment.

Which only makes Beth spin back around to look at Rio, who’s suddenly looking straight at her, that damn straw back in his mouth as he drags his gaze down her body, undressing her with his eyes and it’s like he’s - - imagining it, she thinks, flushing to the roots of her hair. She clears her throat, and it seems to pull Rio out of - - whatever it was he was in. He promptly shrugs, lurching to his feet.

“That’ll do,” he says, striding out of the room, and Gretchen’s eyes widen dramatically, just like they had the other day when Rio had picked Beth, her eyes going from her to the guys beside her before suddenly she’s getting to her feet too and striding out of the room after Rio, and Beth’s just left sitting there. About eight hundred types of embarrassed.

It’s not long before one of the guys snorts on a laugh, shaking his head and collapsing back into his chair. He grabs a vape pen out of his pocket, pushing it against his lips. 

“Was he always this much of an asshole?”

“Pretty much,” Noah says, and then he looks back at Beth, seems to consider her again, before yelling out into the hall.

“Mindy!”

A woman materialises in the doorway, achingly thin and wobbling on six inch heels.

“Yes, Mr Anderson?”

“Could you take - - ” he clicks his fingers at Beth, and she opens her mouth to reply with her name, but the guy doesn’t wait. “To the costume team? We’re probably looking at shooting next week – I’ll send through the details tonight from the story room. Um, housewife. Sexy but also like. Kinda innocent? Thinking little nightie and a robe? Tits out, but not totally, you know? Enough that a guy that looks like Rio might actually wanna fuck her, you know?”

Beth just stares at him at that, taking in the slope of his nose and his dumb, boyish face, and she’s mortified but she’s also halfway to saying fuck you, when Mindy’s gesturing her out of the room, and just think of the money, Beth tells herself, sucking in a breath.

Think of the future. 

 

*

 

Finally switching off the sewing machine, Beth sags back in her seat, rubbing at her forehead. After she’d passed the tests, after the meeting, Gretchen had been happy to give her an advance – to pay her for her time so far – and Beth had almost fallen to the floor in relief, taking the two-thousand dollar cheque straight to the bank and then spending almost half of it on groceries and fabric for the ballet school. She’d made the most special dinner she could think of – one that had the kids excited after weeks of vegetable pasta bakes and lentils instead of meat (because god, she forgets how much meat costs for four hungry kids), and they’d been practically bouncing off the walls before it and in adorable, pink-cheeked food comas after it.

After getting them all to bed, she’d managed to look through some of the paperwork for the house that Dean had finally sent through, and been panicked enough by it to power sew her way through a few costumes.

She lurches to her feet, exhaustion settling in between her shoulder blades as she heads to her bar cart and pours herself a bourbon. She stands for a moment, just - - stops, and the reality of that almost makes her collapse, so she throws back her drink, pours herself another and heads towards her room.

Flopping down on her bed, she groans, kicking off her shoes and shuffling up the bed. She needs to start a new budget. She needs to look at that accountant Ruby sent her and the lawyer that Annie did, but just - - god, she just wishes she could relax. The thought alone sends something wriggly and warm through her body. She bites her lip, and before she can think any more of it, grabs her laptop, opening up the Thank You, Ma’am website.

She flicks over onto the ‘Stars’ page, selecting Rio’s profile and drifting down through his videos, finding one of her favourites (he’s a mechanic, his skin slick with sweat and oil, a little dirty, his voice low - - she clenches her legs together at even the thought). She unbuttons her jeans, slipping her hand down the front of them, just gently touching herself through her panties as the movie starts up.

A beautiful woman strides onto the screen, her afro bobbing as she walks.  

“Hi, can anyone here help me? My car broke down up the road and I could really use a pair of talented hands to help me out with it.”

From beneath a car, Rio slides out on one of those little skateboards, and Beth’s breath hitches, watching as he moves – all leonine grace towards the other woman. He purses his lips, and suddenly all Beth can see is his mouth on that straw today, sitting beside her, his gaze somehow both focused and lazy, and she blinks hard, rubbing herself a little harder, her legs squirming among the sheets.

“Well, you came to the right place, baby. I can tell you my hands are some of the most talented around.”

The woman giggles, twirling her hair around her finger, thrusting her chest up.

“I guess my luck is about to change then, huh?”

Beth’s breath shortens, her fingers pushing up into the crotch of her panties, and god, they’re soaked already, the thought making her groan. She shifts back in the bed, watching as Rio suddenly peels out of his mechanic jump suit to reveal his strong arms and lithe chest, his hands coming up to grip the woman and push her up onto the car bonnet he was working under, and is that about to be her?

Suddenly the image comes too quickly, the actress in the film suddenly her, Rio’s hands on her legs, not on a stranger’s, his fingers gripping hard enough to bruise, making her gasp, his full lips crashing down on hers, his sharp teeth biting at her lip, making her gasp, and just - -

She comes before she even imagines him inside her which makes her laugh a little too loudly, a little too desperately, because they’ll be making one of these things themselves next week, and how the hell is she supposed to get through that?

 

*

 

And - - okay.

Maybe that thought sticks.

“Damn, B, these look seriously amazing,” Ruby says, pulling up one of the costumes for the butterfly class at the ballet school, and Beth smiles, exhausted back at her. It’s been good to get a headstart on the costumes anyway, but even better, it’s been good to get her mind off the first rehearsal tomorrow.

Gretchen had rung her yesterday to tell her that Noah and Max had a draft shooting script, and that they’d found the perfect director in their stable who was both great at what he did and great at directing newcomers, and that the costume department had some looks for her that were “to die for”, and just - - reality had caught up.

Because sure, this was a job, but it was also her. Having sex for the first time since Janey was born, and doing it on camera with a bona fide porn star. She says as much to Ruby now, sitting in Dean’s old office she’d only this week claimed as her new sewing room.

“I guess I’m just realising I’m probably in over my head,” she tells Ruby when she’s done, swirling her bourbon around in the glass, a flush to her cheeks. “It’s not like I can back out now anyway, they’ve paid me half.”

“Do you want to back out?”

“No. Yes? No. Maybe. I don’t know. I just - - god, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m going to get in there, and I’m going to be - -”

Beth sighs, cutting herself off, sitting back in her seat. She keeps thinking of the way Noah told Mindy to try and make her look like someone Rio would want to fuck. Keeps thinking of Rio dismissing scenarios based on what she looked like she could and couldn’t do too, and just - - god, what is she doing? She tosses back the last of her drink.

“Did I tell you I found our old yearbook?”

Beth blinks, opens her mouth, furrows her forehead as she looks across the room at Ruby.

“What?”

Ruby hums, taking a sip of her own glass of bourbon, a dreamily nostalgic look on her face.

“Yep – ’93, our junior year. I’d forgotten we were so into mom jeans.”

Which - - sure. Beth laughs before she can help herself, wrinkling her nose.

“It’s amazing either of us had boyfriends,” she says, and Ruby nods, laughing.

“Amazing both those boyfriends married us,” she agrees, and before Beth can even comment on that, she adds: “You know what else I’d forgotten – you in that production of Grease. Opposite - - who was it?”

“Ethan Parker,” Beth says instantly, and god, she’d forgotten that. It feels like so long ago, so many problems ago. So many hurts ago. “I got kicked out of the production though.”

Because she had. She’d been cast as Sandy and she can still remember the total thrill of getting the lead role, how much she’d practiced, how exciting the prospect of being on that stage had been, of being someone else, of being seen, of being seen as somebody who wasn’t stupid little Bethie Marks.

It hadn’t worked out though. She’d missed too many rehearsals, running around after Annie, helping her mother, and the drama teacher had needed somebody who’d treat this commitment seriously. She still remembers mopping up her tears in the front yard so that Annie wouldn’t see her crying when she went inside.

“I wasn’t in it in the end though,” she tells Ruby now, and Ruby shakes her head.

“Maybe not, but I remember you practicing. You were good, B. A natural Sandy – all fun, and flirty and cute. The bitch who replaced you was a total snooze and like, stumbled her way through. You’re a lot of things, but you don’t stumble your way through anything.”

Beth just stares at her, forehead furrowed, smiling, not entirely sure what Ruby wants her to get out of this, when Ruby laughs, rolls her eyes, leans forward enough to grab her hand.

“All I’m saying is you’re going to get there, and you’re going to be amazing. You’re going to crush this job, bring home a fat paycheque, buy up the craft store to make more of this amazing shit, and you’re going to stay in this damn house. And you’re going to do all that because you’ve got chops. Use ‘em.”

 

*

 

“So what we’re thinking is Rio, you’re knocking, right? And Beth, we’ll have you run down the stairs there, maybe still tying your nightie so the camera can get a little look at you before the main event, y’know? And then you’re letting Rio in - -”  

Max holds his fingers out as a fake gun, waving them over at Beth.

“Where’s your husband, bitch?”

Noah adopts a high falsetto, waving his hand clutching his script notes up in the air.

“Oh my god, what do you want with my Peter?”

Beth frowns at the impression, but they both keep going.

“Your husband’s done some bad things, baby, and I’m here to collect. Your good man’s about to be a dead man.”

Beth chances a glance first at the director and cameraman, watching from the side of the sound stage, and then over at Rio, who’s looking unimpressed between Noah and Max, and well, at least it’s not just her.

“No! Not my Peter!” Noah screeches. “Whatever he owes you, I’m sure we can work something out. Yadda yadda yaddda,” he turns the page. “Rio pulls out his cock, Beth blows him. We’re thinking maybe a facial? Or you come on her tits or whatever, then maybe a bit of doggy on the floor, then we move to the couch. A lap dance?”

“We weren’t sure about that one,” Max interjects, striding across the floor, pinching the script notes from Noah’s hand and flipping through it.

“I think it’d work,” Noah says, rolling his eyes, gesturing to Beth. “She backs up on him, does a bit of a bump and grind to get him hard again, then Rio can be fondling her tits and stuff, we can get a bunch of close-ups. Maybe get her bra off then, turn it into a bit of a strip tease-slash-undressing. Then you fuck on the couch, maybe do some dirty talk about like, leaving your come inside her while she sleeps beside her husband. She can talk about needing it again, being addicted to your huge, bad boy cock. Something like that.”

And god, Beth’s pretty sure her soul has departed her body at this point. She’s so red she could probably replace stop signals in traffic lights, and she chances a glance over to Rio again, surprised to see him staring straight back at her, an unreadable expression on his face. After a minute, he shrugs.

“Let’s play it out, see how we go.”

Noah smiles, pleased, and Beth shifts her weight, feeling about as awkward as she thinks it’s possible to feel as Rio grabs the script notes off of Max and skims through them. They’re both dressed pretty casually – Gretchen had said it was best to aim for something she could move easily in during rehearsal as they’d be experimenting with positions and flexibility, and Beth had wound up in a pair of stretchy black leggings and an old Minnie Mouse t-shirt that had made Rio bite back a grin when he’d seen her. Rio himself was in a pair of black jeans and a loose tank top, looking rudely handsome, she thinks, squinting at him.

The set itself was one of the regular studio sets – to the point where she even recognised it from videos she’d watched. Little more than a soundstage with a front door, a mock living room, and half a set of stairs. Rio strides out across the thing, walking towards the other side of the fake door, and the director suddenly appears behind Noah’s shoulder jerking his head, gesturing Beth up the stairs and she walks quickly across, jittery with nervous energy.

“Okay, go,” Noah says, and Rio bangs his fist against the door so hard that Beth jumps a little.

“Yo, open up!” he yells, his voice gravelly, and Beth practically falls down the fake stairs at it, shuffling awkwardly towards the door. She glances back at Noah and Max, who are just watching her, script back in their hands, and god, does she even have any lines? Rio at least got to see the pages, and it’s not like she got sent anything before it. She clears her throat, says:

“Not without knowing who it is.”

And then it’s just - - quiet for a moment. Was that the wrong thing to say? Beth doesn’t know! She cringes a little, shuffles awkwardly closer to the door, glances back at the director who looks like he’s about to say something when Rio’s voice sounds instead.

“I’m the guy your bitch-ass husband owes 300g.”

It’s weird then, the thrill that shoots through her, because everyone’s looking at her like she’s insane but Rio, he - - he riffed off her. They’re riffing. She’s riffing with one-name-porn-star-Rio and Ruby believes in her and she’s already been paid two-thousand-dollars for this and is going to get more and - - and maybe she can keep doing that and this won’t feel so out of control.

“My husband isn’t a bitch, and neither is his ass,” she says quickly, and it’s sudden then, the sound, and it takes her a minute to realise everyone’s laughing. Not at her, but at her joke. She stands up a little straighter, can’t quite stop the pleased expression on her face.

“Listen, lady,” Rio calls through the door. “Me and him got business to work out.”

“Well, he’s not here,” Beth tells him, and Rio’s quiet then for a minute, but before he gets the chance to reply, she makes a show of stepping up on her tiptoes, staring through the peephole, and deliberately changing her tone. “But maybe I could open the door and you and me could work that business out.”

She wriggles her butt a bit, which – okay, might be overdoing it, but she figures if she’s going to do this, she may as well lean all the way in.

Noah hollers on a laugh, says, “Holy shit, okay,” as Rio suddenly opens the door. He steps forwards into it, immediately into Beth’s space, and she backs up a little before she can help herself, stomach suddenly lurching at his powerful stride and his - - y’know, his face.

“Oh, is that right?” he asks, and Beth bites her lip, blinks up at him through her lashes, not in the way porn’s shown her, but maybe in the way her mom taught her to make boys like you. Still - - she swallows thickly, suddenly nervous with him in front of her, and the director gestures then.

“Knees, Beth,” he calls, and - - right. She drops a little too heavily to her knees, making an oof sound as she does it, looking around again only to come face-to-face with Rio’s bulging crotch through his jeans. She flushes.

“So, you blow him,” Noah says, grabbing his notes again and rolling his hand out at the wrist. He glances up towards Rio: “Where do you want to come?”

Beth blinks, looking up at Rio, and he’s just - - looking down at her, his dark eyes somehow darker. He rocks his jaw a little, and Beth’s stomach lurches again, and then a third time when he runs his hands back through her hair, jerks her head back in a way that makes her gasp. He looks at her face, then at her breasts, like he’s considering it.

“Nuh, not yet. We should go straight into fuckin’.”

“Sure,” Noah says, powering on. “Then – doggy?”

Beth sinks back into her legs, and Rio gestures her around, until she’s facing away from him, pushing her gently so that she falls forwards onto her hands and knees, the carpet rough at both. There’s a thud behind her, and she blushes as she realises that’s his knees hitting the ground behind her. She blinks hard as his crotch presses against her ass, and just - - okay, she thinks, flushing furiously. Definitely as big as his movies make him seem. She wriggles forwards, and he grabs her hips, pulling her back against him. He thrusts against her a few times, as if trying it out, and Beth tries to pretend there’s no one else in the room.

“The camera’s not going to be able to get a good enough look at her like this on the floor,” the director calls, and Beth blinks, tries to ignore the heat rushing low in her too when Rio pulls her up a little by the back of her shirt, so she’s sort of half kneeling in front of him, his hand coming around to grab her breast, making her gasp, holding her there. He thrusts against her again, knocking her forwards, as if to just check he can still do it this way too.  

“This a better angle?”

“Much,” the director says, nodding to the man with the camera who hurries forwards and takes a few pictures. “Keep going. We might get Climax 1 here?”

“Nah, man,” Rio says, pulling off her and Beth gasps when suddenly he spins her around, hauls her better up until she finally finds her feet again. “She won’t last long there. Her legs about to give.”

“So put her on her back then,” Noah suggests, and Rio shakes his head, walking her easily over to the couch, and pushing her gently over the arm rest until her back hits the sofa cushions below.

“It’s her first time doin’ this, and the carpet in here ain’t shit. Her knees’ll be raw by the end of tomorrow and wrecked by the end of the shoot we do that.”

“Well, what are you suggesting?”

Rio looks down at Beth on the couch, tilts his head from side to side, and Beth can feel herself flush under the weight of his gaze, by the sort of impenetrable focus of it. Before she can help herself, she starts to get up, only for Rio to suddenly lurch forwards, grabbing her by the backs of her knees and hauling them up, pressing her thighs back into her chest. He promptly kneels on the couch behind her, pressing his covered crotch against hers, so firmly she can feel the zip on his jeans against her - - her - -

Beth swallows thickly, stares at the ceiling, feeling him roll his crotch against hers, and god, this was a mistake, this was - -

“Let go of her legs,” the camera guy says. “Get them on your shoulders so we can get her tits in the frame.”

Rio does, and Beth shifts a little back, more out of instinct than anything, to give them space only to have Rio glance down at her and follow her back along the couch, his crotch resting tightly against hers again.

The camera guy takes a few photos of the position, and then adds:

“And then next?”

Rio looks down at Beth, pulls her up enough and turns her over, so her chest hangs over the arm of the chair and he’s kneeling behind her, pulling her back against him.

“Might spank her a few times,” Rio says eyeing her off, and Beth’s eyes widen, heat washing over her cheeks as she glances back at him.

“Excuse me?”

It’s enough to make him pop an eyebrow down at her, amusement colouring his features and - - something else too, something she can’t quite work out.

“Might spank you a few times. That okay? You rather I do somethin’ else?”

Beth opens her mouth to reply, splutters, tries to think of how on earth to respond to that, and Rio just laughs.

“You welcome to suggest somethin’, sweetheart. Floor’s open.”

And she starts to get up, but he just slides a hand over her shoulders, pushing her firmly back down and clicking at the camera guy with his other hand.

“You get one of the cameras down here, get her face, get her chest. I’ll get her tits bouncin’ for you, yeah?”

And just - - god, she squirms under his weight in a sudden hot frustration, and the second the camera man comes into view, Beth shoves up so suddenly, so quickly that she headbutts Rio, clips his chin, and he folds back onto the couch. Beth spins, as quickly as she can, before crawling over his body, staring at him defiantly, imbuing her voice with as much saccharine sweetness as she can manage as she says: “A suggestion.”

She’s not entirely sure what she’s expecting, but it’s certainly not for his cock to twitch underneath her, and she inhales sharply, moves to get off him out of - - out of what, she’s not sure, when Rio grabs her hips, holding her still.

“You wanna be on top, all you gotta do is ask, baby,” he tells her, and Beth blinks down, a little surprised by the soothing nature of his tone, and then feels her body bounce up as his hips jerk beneath her. She gasps, falling forwards onto his chest, and he laughs, hands dropping to her ass, squeezing hard and pulling her against him.

“Climax 1 here, yeah?” he calls, grinding up into her, and Beth feels a heat shoot through her – feels herself, despite herself, grind back, feeling herself clench, and just - - 

The director nods, pleased.

“Looks good to me,” he says, before looking over at Noah and Max. “Your lap dance won’t fit here.”

“Right,” Noah agrees, flicking through his script notes before nervously tapping his foot. “Okay, Rio pulls out after coming inside her, but then he finger fucks her to her second O, then gets her sucking both of them off his fingers?”

And just - - Beth stares down, unblinking, at Rio underneath her, who looks up at her, laughs, his eyes dark, hooded, and then just - - leans up, bites her chin dimple - - which - - what? Before she can so much as begin to process that, he’s rocking them both up to their feet and off the couch, smacking her ass before striding across to Noah and grabbing the script again.

“Yeah, how you thinkin’ that? Standin’ up?”

And just - - right, Beth thinks, wobbly on her legs, fingers touching her chin, still feeling his teeth, heat shooting through her.

Right.

 

*

 

So they run through the whole thing once, then a second time, then a third.

Run through it enough times that Beth is sore and exhausted and annoyingly horny, and she’s pretty sure her cheeks are going to be a permanent shade of red for the rest of her life and she’s also pretty sure that the stitching on her leggings is so close to tearing from all the - - bending over and leg spreading that they’re going to fall off her the second she tries to take them off.

She huffs out a breath, grabbing her coat and only half paying attention to where the camera guy and the director are still eyeing off the space, muttering to each other, showing each other photographs on the small screen of the camera for tomorrow. It’d probably be a good idea to get an in with them after all – to be better prepared, but all she can really think about is going home, pouring herself the biggest glass of bourbon she can manage, and hand stitching some sequins onto little girls’ tutus while she cries over Queer Eye re-runs before like, masturbating herself to sleep.

Humming at the prospect, Beth steps out into the cool night air only to find herself stopped by a slight tug on her shoulder.

Spinning on the spot, she’s surprised to find herself face-to-face with Rio, and just - - god, the blush finds her cheeks before she can help it. She swallows thickly.

“Hi,” she says, and he nods at her, letting go of her shoulder to button up his own coat, looking at her in a way that’s almost friendly.

“You gotta pick any kids up from school, mama?” he asks, and Beth blinks over at him, eyes wide as she realises he’s joking. She offers him a half-smile.

“Given it’s almost 8, I’d be really worried if I did,” she replies lightly, and Rio grins at her. “No, they’re actually having a sleepover at one of their aunt’s tonight.”

Rio nods, taking her in again. He stretches his neck a little, like he’s as stiff as Beth feels, and it’s cold out here, in the night, but standing here, opposite him, Beth doesn’t quite feel it. She shifts her weight as he finishes doing up his coat.

“Don’t know ‘bout you, but I could use a drink,” he says, and Beth blinks, because of all the things she thought to come out of his mouth, that was probably the very last thing. She stares at him disbelievingly.

“You want to get a drink with me?”

“Get a drink beside you,” he clarifies, a grin tugging at his lips, and he’s making fun of her, she knows, but weirdly it still kind of helps. She buries her hands in the pockets of her jacket – thinks about bourbon and sequins and Queer Eye and a pile of bills, and then she thinks about his weight on top of her, and - -  

“Okay. As long as it’s beside.”

He laughs, pulling a beanie out of his pocket, yanking it down over his ears and walking her out of the office towards the road.

 

*

 

They end up at a dive bar somewhere only a few blocks away from the studio, a tiny thing with posters half-stripped off walls, a strong smell of bad beer, fairy lights dangling from the ceilings and actually a really good little band battling the cold in the courtyard.

She glances back over to him, working her hand around the glass in her hands, catching the beads of condensation. She feels drunker than she is – and all she can blame it on is today – on running through potential positions with him, rehearsing with him – feeling him, despite the fact that they didn’t even take off their clothes. God, he hadn’t even taken off his belt. Shifting back against the bar stool, Beth bites her lip, watching the liquid slosh before letting her gaze flick back to him, his face half lit up by his phone screen, forehead furrowed, lips twisted a little in something like amusement.

“Who do you keep texting anyway?” she asks, before she can think any more of it. “Someone from your harem?”

He doesn’t even look up at her when he snorts, and stupid, Beth thinks. He’d said it after all, hadn’t he? This was drinking beside each other, not with each other. How many women had he filmed this sort of thing with anyway? At least a hundred. Beth was just a blow in, a tourist in this world, albeit one he was going to be fucking five ways from Sunday over the next couple of days, but still, this was - -   

“If you can call an ex that,” he drawls, breaking up Beth’s thoughts. “She got our son this week. I’m checkin’ in.”

The words are enough to throw a rock through the glass window of him in her head, and Beth finds herself reeling back in her barstool, chest flushing, eyes widening, and she blinks multiple times, staring back at him, shaking her head.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry, I just sort of assumed - - ”

And she’s fully prepared to do a full blown apology tour when Rio drops his phone back to the bar and turns in his stool to face her, enough that his knee grazes her thigh as he spins, and Beth has to take a wobbly drink to stop herself doing something stupid like lean into it.

“Nah, it’s cool,” he replies easily, reaching back for his own drink. “You got kids?”

And hell, at least that feels like familiar territory.

“You know I do. Four though. Two girls, two boys,” she replies, grinning a little, remembering the picture Emma had drawn her at school yesterday, the way Danny had waved so much he’d missed catching the ball in the outfield at his last baseball game. Beside her, Rio’s eyebrows shoot halfway up his forehead.

“Shit. And they all got the same dad?”

Beth inhales, instantly offended until she looks over at him again and sees the look on his face, and just - - it’s payback for the harem comment, which is just - -

“Touché,” she says, tilting her glass at him and taking another swig of her drink. “And yes. But I think you might know that already too.”

He gives her a shit eating grin in reply that sort of makes her want to kiss him, and the thought sends a livewire of shock through her body. God - - she can’t remember the last time she’s wanted to kiss someone. She looks away, squirms a little in her seat, and it’s sudden then – the memory of watching him – pixelated on her laptop screen, his perfect lips spinning terrible dialogue, his perfect chest as he pulls off his shirt, his perfect, almost-too-big cock - -

“He know you ‘bout to debut?”

Beth blinks, feels too hot as she reels back around to look at him, and it takes her a moment to even process his words, her lips dropping to his mouth and god - - how many women has she seen those lips kiss, bite, eat out. She clears her throat, tries to recollect herself. 

“Excuse me?”

Rio swivels back in his bar stool, rapping his knuckles on the counter, catching the attention of the bartender. He gestures for another two drinks. Without even looking at her, Rio adds:

“Your baby daddy. He know he about to see all o’ you blowin’ up his channels.”

With a snort, Beth finishes off her drink, placing it on the bar only to have another slid immediately in front of her. She takes it without a second thought, too fixated on the way Dean had grizzled at her when she’d called him and asked him to take the kids this weekend – you ‘figured it out’ yet then? Got your accountant? A lawyer? Or did you just realise all of this cost money?

“He doesn’t exactly have any right to,” she bites, taking a drink, and it’s enough to make Rio pop an eyebrow at her. Enough to make him take her in again, in that way he’s been doing since the audition last week. That way that makes her feel simultaneously too seen and not seen at all.

“Guessin’ you ain’t together then,” he drawls, and Beth just snorts.

“No.”

“That recent?”

“Yes.”

“Ah,” he says, grinning, like he’s just figured something out. “So this is revenge.”

The sounds of the bar suddenly seem pervasive. To flood across Beth’s senses – the sounds of bustle and chatter at her ears, the smell of sour alcohol, body odour, cheap perfume at her nose, the clammy heat of the air clamping at her skin, but none of it matters. Not when all she can see is Rio – both cocksure and newly disinterested, draining his gin in one long gulp. He looks at her, and then pointedly looks away from her, eyes scanning the crowd at the bar, like he’s looking for someone else, anything else, and Beth exhales a breath she didn’t know she was holding in.

“Excuse me?”

“You doin’ this to piss him off, yeah?” and just - - god, he’s not even looking at her, his eyes still scanning the bar. “He keep you on a leash or somethin’? Fuck around on you? You wanna show him you got options? You wanna show everyone he know you got options too?”

And just - - Beth’s blinking at him a little wildly then, the flush deepening at her chest, anger sparking like a match in her belly, and she leans across the bar towards him, forcing herself into his line of vision, into his space.

“I’m not shooting a porno to piss off my ex,” she hisses, and Rio does look back at her at that, his eyebrow raised, his expression faux innocent.

“No? Why then? You dreamt o’ gettin’ your suburban mama o’ four ass railed on camera since you first rubbed one out?”

Fuck you.”

And he just laughs at that, eyes darting down to Beth’s furious, heaving chest, before he looks back at her, his eyebrow still raised, his dark eyes a little too blown – predatory almost, as he adds:  

“How many men you been with, huh? You gonna let me guess? Three?”

And the question - - it makes sense to ask, god, even Gretchen had half-asked it when she’d sent her for an STI check, but right now it makes her squirm, no matter how much she tilts her chin and puffs out her chest, and Rio just - - he laughs.

“Shit, less than three? Don’t tell me you only ever fucked that ex-husband of yours,” and when Beth doesn’t disagree fast enough, he tilts his head, patronising, as he adds. “Oh, baby girl.”

“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” Beth hisses, as soon as she wrangles up a shred of her voice, and Rio laughs again, louder this time, something resigned and - - and if she knew him any better, she’d say almost disappointed in his tone.

He leans forwards suddenly, almost into her, enough that Beth twitches back in her seat, has to stop herself from reeling back, the sweet and earthy smell of him filling her nose. She’s still trying to figure out what he’s doing when she realises he’s only leaning up enough to pull his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans, toss a few easy bills from it onto the bar, paying for both of them. Beth watches, still trying to catch up to the conversation, when Rio slides off his barstool altogether, stands up and just - - looks at her.

She has to resist the urge to wriggle, to smooth down her hair or straighten her coat, suddenly too conscious of the fraying leggings and Minnie Mouse shirt underneath it. Just stares back at him, her eyes fixed, firm, steady. God, she hopes her gaze is steady.

After a minute, he sighs.

“Look,” he says, voice softer than it has been. “You done good, but you outta your depth. Everyone in that room today knew it. Call Gretchen, pull the plug. Go home to all those babies. Coz this ain’t it, okay? It ain’t what you lookin’ for. I can promise you that.”

Somewhere behind her, someone drops their drink, the glass shattering across the bar floor. A girl yelps, a man laughs. Somebody yells I love this song.

Beth opens her mouth to reply, but before the words can leave her mouth, Rio’s hand drifts down her cheek, his fingers gliding down her jaw, before finally bucking up her chin, where he bit her only hours before.

“Nice meetin’ you though, yeah?”

And just like that, he’s gone.