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crash course in polite conversation

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"Do you like spinach?"

Beth looked up from the table, blinking. "What?"

David's lips turned down for a split second before he began to chuckle. "Spinach. Green, leafy stuff. Do you like it? They have an amazing spinach artichoke dip. Or... are you just not a big herbivore?"

She followed his stare and found herself looking down at her own salad bowl. She realized she had been stabbing the salad's contents with her fork. Her cheeks flushed, and she unconsciously released her iron-grip on the piece of metal. It hit her bowl with a loud clang! before thudding onto the table and soiling the white tablecloth. She immediately felt like all eyes were on her, but it was Saturday night in the middle of a popular Italian restaurant, so she could only hope she was imagining it.

Beth cleared her throat. "Yes! I mean, no, I do. I do like it, I mean. I like spinach, I mean. Obviously that's what I meant." She realized she was starting to ramble and tried to force down a nervous laugh, but it only made her cough. "I'm sorry," she said, reaching for her water glass. "I don't know what that was. I was just... somewhere else in my head, I think. But I'm here now. Completely." She placed her glass back on the table and met his eyes, a wide smile plastered on her face.

This time David's chuckle was a full laugh. It was a deep sound that seemed to make his chest vibrate. "No, no, please don't apologize. I think it's normal to be a little nervous."

"Nervous?" Beth echoed, arching a brow.

He hesitated, clearly having caught the slight inflection in her tone. "Nervous," he repeated with a slow nod. "About dating. First dates are especially nerve-wrecking, right?" His cheeks dimpled with a smile.

Dating. Right.

Beth felt the change in her demeanor but hoped it wasn't as obvious to David as her earlier tone. Beth had been distracted, that was for sure, but it had nothing to do with her nerves.

David was a dentist. He was also blonde, probably in his mid-forties, and the single father to a girl in Kenny's class. His wife had died in a car accident over three years ago. She was struck by a drunk driver after dropping her daughter off at soccer practice.

When his wife had passed, Beth was still blissfully ignorant to her own husband's flaws. Things were different now.

David was attractive, successful, and seemed quite charismatic from what Beth had gathered over the years. But he was a dentist. Dentists talked about things like plaque, flossing, and dental hygienists named Michelle who kept forgetting to properly clean the dental tools between patients. Disgusting.

No, Beth wasn't nervous. She was bored out of her mind.

"Do you want to know a secret?"

Beth remembered the kind of secrets she used to have. Armed robberies, money laundering, lying to the FBI. Something in her stomach tightened, but she ignored it and nodded. "Sure."

David leaned closer, eyes lowering bashfully. "I haven't been on many dates since Chelsea passed. Well, I actually haven't been on any before tonight." He looked into her eyes. His were green and soft, non-threatening. "It's hard, putting yourself out there. I should know." Those dimples again. Jesus.

Beth's lips formed a small smile. It was small, but it was genuine. She suddenly felt guilty for having accepted David's invitation to dinner. Here he was, making a genuine effort to rebuild his love life, and there Beth sat, wishing she were anywhere else.

As she considered all the places that "anywhere else" could be, a warehouse came to mind.

Despite the sadness and turmoil inside, her smile never faltered. Beth leaned forward and placed a hand over his, meeting his gaze. "I haven't been on a first date in over twenty years. I know my situation isn't the same, but you're right. It's hard."

"I was so sorry to hear about you and Dean not working out," David said.

"You can't be that sorry if you asked me out," Beth quipped.

David's eyes went wide momentarily. "Oh! No, I am sorry. I thought I had waited enough time to ask." He paused, his eyes searching her face. "Is there any chance of... reconciliation?"

There was that word again: reconciliation. She hated it. Dean must have learned the word from his attorney, because he had thrown it around at least once a week for months after she first asked for the divorce. They were going on month six of Dean being completely moved out of the house, and he had finally stopped looking at her with those puppy eyes when he picked up the kids.

Six months since Dean had moved out. Six months since the night Rio had fired her. And in those months, she still had not been able to admit to herself which of those bothered her more. She saw Dean twice a week for kid exchanges. She hadn't seen Rio since that night.

"Absolutely not," she said, waving a hand dismissively. Realizing she still had her hand on his, she gave a quick squeeze before pulling away. "I'm glad you asked me," she continued, lying through her teeth.

"I wanted to ask you as soon as Cheryl told me about the separation," he said in a low tone, smirking. He said with a hint of mischief, and for a dentist in the suburbs, it was probably as mischievous as could be expected.

"Really?" Bored or not, Beth was human. She wanted to be wanted. "Why is that?"

"Why wouldn't I? You're beautiful, obviously," he replied, gesturing curtly towards her as if to explain himself. "And you're just so involved, you know? With the kids, with the school. The bake sales, the car washes. You just seem so driven. It's fascinating, you know?"

Beth pulled in a breath. She fought the urge to snort, but even as she spoke, her voice broke. "My volunteer work at the school is fascinating?"

He didn't seem to notice this time. "Oh, definitely! I've seen how you handle those moms." David did kind of a wiggly brow number just then, and Beth almost fell out of her chair from the shock of it all.

Go on a date, Annie said. It'll be fun, Annie said. Yeah, let's see you sit through this conversation lobotomy, Fun-Time Annie.

"David, I'm going to get dessert to go if that's okay with you."

 ----

When David pulled up to the curb in front of Beth's house and turned the car off, he had been talking about gingivitis for ten minutes straight. He finished his blurb about plaque and then turned to her. "I had such a good time, Beth." David reached out and touched her cheek, and although she appreciated the thought, his hand was oily and smelled like a minty orange.

Beth opened her mouth to respond, then she pursed her lips. "The restaurant was amazing," she commented with a wide-eyed look, feeling a little impaired from the force of the mint that wafted over from him. "I had no idea it was even there. Do you go there often? I wonder if it that's busy during the week, or if I could get away with taking the kids. It seemed a little upscale for four sets of roaming hands."

"We can always find out." His voice came out as almost a whisper, and before Beth knew it, he was leaning in with his whole upper body to give her a kiss that she could only assume would taste like Colgate and spaghetti. Beth panicked. In the seconds that his face moved closer to hers, she imagined a meatball on a toothbrush and jumped forward in her seat, her palm hitting the dashboard and jostling the to-go box holding her tiramisu. It fell from its spot there and landed upside down in his lap, chocolate and cream filling and all. As accidental as it was, it did the job. He grunted in surprise and pulled back, raising his hands as if in surrender.

After a few beats of them both being frozen in their spots, David began to chuckle. This time it was less charm and more discomfort. "Tiramisu down!" David exclaimed as he tried to flip the box back over. It did little good to get the chocolate sauce and crumbs off of his khakis.

"David, I'm sorry." Beth chewed on her bottom lip, watching his attempts to clean up the mess. Her mess. Even as relief flooded her, she couldn't help but feel terrible. This guy could not have picked a worse option for his first attempt back into the dating pool. "You're not going to get that out. Dean left some clothes for donation that I haven't gotten around to... Well, you're slimmer than Dean, but they should work for the drive home."

"Are you inviting me inside your home, Beth Boland?"

She felt her cheeks flush, something else he would undoubtedly misinterpret. "I guess I am," she said through gritted teeth, fumbling to get her door open. She stepped out into the crisp evening air, finally free to roll her eyes until David made his way around the car and fell into step beside her.

"Beth, who is that?" 

She had been looking down at their feet moving in unison and hadn't even glanced towards her house. When she lifted her gaze, she felt her blood run cold, like jumping into a pool full of ice. She was sure that her feet had stopped moving on their own, but as she watched her porch, it moved closer and closer, confirming that she was indeed still moving forward. The figure on the front steps also came closer and closer into view until she could see his actual features. He wore dark clothing, a thick jacket hiding much of his frame. The porch light cast a shadow that made it difficult to make out his face until she was standing directly in front of him. He sat on the top step, making him eye level with her as she stared at him from the top of the driveway. She was vaguely aware that David had slowed down and was standing just behind her, no doubt watching with fervent curiosity.

Rio turned his head to the side, making no effort to hide the way his gaze swept up and down her body. When his eyes settled on her face, he held her stare for what felt like an eternity. She really had no concept of how long it was, because her senses had begun to betray her. Mouth dry, vision tunneled, she felt every nerve in her body reacting to his presence. It had been so long since she had felt that electric feeling that it nearly overwhelmed her senses.

When she thought she would drop to the ground right there, Rio spoke. "Elizabeth," he said, his tongue grazing his teeth with each syllable. A second later, he was looking behind her, at her date. When he spoke again, the electricity was gone. It was venom. "Who the hell are you?"

The spell broken, Beth felt something hot start in her chest and move to her fingertips. She could feel David looking at the back of her head, undoubtedly waiting for an explanation. When he moved to step up alongside her, she stepped to the right, blocking Rio's direct view. "What are you doing on my porch?"

Rio lowered his chin, and he smiled. It pained her. "You rather I wait in the kitchen like old times?"

Beth's entire face felt hot. "No! Why do you need to be at my house at all? We don't work together anymore."

"Oh, you worked together?" David's loud tone was in contrast with Rio's throaty timbre. "Beth, I didn't realize you had any employment history. Where did you work?" She turned to him with a look of exasperation. He wrinkled his nose, confused.

"Don't matter where she works or if she works," Rio interjected, narrowing his eyes at David. He was still seated on that top step, arms resting on his knees. "Who are you?" Rio repeated, raising his voice.

David moved forward and stuck out a hand. "I'm David. My daughter goes to school with Kenny. Do you know Kenny?" He glanced at Beth. "Do you know any of Beth's children?"

Rio shifted his gaze to Beth, using a thumb to point at David. "He always asking this many damn questions?"

David turned to her. "Beth, is everything okay?"

"Another question? You serious?" Rio snapped before Beth could process any part of what had just been said.

"Okay, that's enough." Beth raised both hands, one palm facing Rio and the other facing David. "David, this is... He's an old acquaintance of mine." She decided against telling David Rio's name. It wasn't important, at least not to him. She moved forward and ascended the steps, stopping at the top and turning to David. "You still need pants, right?" Her date perked up like a golden retriever and nodded quickly, following her up the steps. Beth gave him a small smile before turning her head down, staring hard at Rio. "Do you want to come in, or are you not finished playing guard dog?"

Rio stared up at her, his gaze unwavering at first. After several seconds, he chuckled quietly, sinfully. "Nah, I'm straight." At first she wasn't sure which part he was responding to, but he rose to his feet and angled himself towards her door, clearly planning to follow the pair inside one way or the other.

Beth unlocked her front door and pushed through the entrance, stepping aside to let both David and Rio in before she closed the door behind them and fumbled around to turn on the main light. When she turned to face them, she was struck by just how different the two men were. David was the personification of white collar in his red sweater vest and khaki pants. Rio, in comparison, was no more than a shadow in his dark attire. It was like night and day had set up camp in her living room and were now facing off.

A solid minute passed of the three standing like that. Rio staring David down, Beth watching Rio expectantly, and David looking... well, not really at anything, but looking clueless and out of place nonetheless. It was the latter who finally spoke. "This is a great place, Beth. I can tell you put a lot of work in to making it a comfortable place for the kiddos," David prattled mindlessly, but she caught his sweeping gaze move across her various piles of disarray: dishes in the sink, a pile of clothes on the floor and on the couch.

"Thanks, David. I do what I can." She should have felt embarrassed at the state of her home. The old Beth would have. But the last six months had taught Beth that she didn't want to be that Beth, and she didn't miss her. And so what if she was having trouble adjusting to the way her life had imploded? She knew David would just assume it was the emotional toll of the divorce, but he would be wrong. Dean's absence only truly upset the children. The true upheaval to Beth's sanity and order was standing right there, watching her. 

Beth cleared her throat. "Let me just get you those pants." She took a step forward, preparing to go to her bedroom, but immediately stopped. She wasn't even looking at him and was still certain she could feel Rio's satisfaction at her hesitation. She allowed herself a weary look at Rio. Are you going to play nice? The question was on the tip of her tongue, but without so much as a sound, Rio's lips turned upward into a devilish grin. It was his answer to the question she had not needed to ask. Her stomach lurched in the most wonderful way.

"David," she spoke again, still holding Rio's gaze, "why don't you go to my room and change? The box of Dean's old clothes is next to the dresser." Turning her head finally, Beth raised a hand and pointed to her bedroom at the end of the house. 

David's brows dipped together, but he gave an obedient nod. "Oh, sure," he replied, watching them a moment longer before he turned and left the living space.

Beth watched his retreating form disappear through the threshold of her room, followed by rustling and the sound of her bathroom door closing. When she swiveled her head back, she found that Rio had closed the space between them. He peered down at her, chin tucked. He smelled like cinnamon and cologne.

"He sell cars?" came the throaty murmur.

Beth stared at his chest. "No," she said softly. "He's a dentist."

His sudden laugh bolted her out of her haze, and she forced herself to raise her head and look at him, trying to appear grounded. Even his laughter felt intimidating. "A dentist, huh? Lady, you got a type," he snickered.

"And what type is that?" Beth scowled.

"Suburban, white, and boring." Rio raised a brow. "You know he gon' be bald by next year, right?"

She felt the skin on her neck go hot with anger, but there wasn't much she could say. David was handsome, but there was no denying a receding hairline. If she hadn't been so overwhelmed by rage in that moment, she may have even laughed Rio's commentary. Instead she stuck her chin back down, glaring at his chest again. When she spoke, her voice was suddenly small. "What are you doing here, Rio?"

"Came to check in," he said, laughter subsided. "Loose ends an' all that."

Beth's legs weakened at the comment. She flashed to their last encounter, after she had thrown the keys, and remembered the way she had challenged him. Despite her expectations, he had let her return home to her family. He had left her alone for six whole months, and she hated him for it. Was he threatening her now, after all this time? That didn't make sense. She had kept her distance, and so had Annie and Ruby. None of them had snitched. But she was a bad egg, wasn't she?

Beth allowed herself to look up at him from under her dark lashes. Rio, as predictable as ever, was smirking. He was fucking with her. He was always fucking with her, just like he had when he used her to move that stupid truck. A worm on a hook. At the memory, shades of red flashed in her vision, and she tore herself away from him, walking to the kitchen just to give her somewhere to go. She walked around the island, placing it between them.

"I can assure you there is nothing loose here," Beth spat.

Something flashed in Rio's eyes. "You sure about that?"

"Excuse me?"

Rio snorted loudly. He gestured between her and where David had retreated to change. "You was bringing that Andy Griffith reject in when you thought it was just y'all two, right?"

Beth guffawed. "What did you just say to me?"

"You heard me. It don't look right on you, playing dumb."

Beth struggled to find words at that, her mouth gaping. "I—I don't—" She babbled incoherently for several moments before finally managing to say, "I can assure you I'm not playing anything."

Rio's eyes narrowed to slits. He held her stare like that before he turned his head, his shoulders rising and falling once. "So what, I leave you alone for a lil' bit, and you just start losing your damn mind?" His tone was accusatory, reminiscent of the last time he pulled a gun on her, when Mary Pat had screwed them all by turning the fake money back in. But this wasn't about money. At least she didn't think it was.

"What does that even—" Beth clamped her mouth shut, raising a hand to her face. She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. She was so caught off guard by his apparent anger that her own frustration had been replaced a sense of unease. When she opened her eyes, she exhaled slowly. "Rio," she said definitely, "what are you trying to say to me?" She defaulted to the same tone she used when she couldn't understand her kids over their crying or shouting.

"I ain't saying shit," Rio snapped back, moving towards her again. "What're you bringing back random dudes here for?"

"Random dudes?" Beth echoed in disbelief. "I went on a date with one man, a man that I know. That my children know."

"Nah, you don't know him."

"What?"

Rio settled on the other side of the counter, standing opposite from her. He leaned into it, eyes searching her face. "You think you know him 'cause why? His kid plays with your kid?"

"Oh, please. I've known him for years, Rio."

"Elizabeth," he huffed, "you ain't listening to me."

"And why should I? You're not making any sense!" Beth threw her hands up. Now she was the one laughing, more out of disbelief than anything else. She felt like she was failing a test she never signed up for.

It was Rio's turn to draw in a long breath. She waited, watching him carefully. He folded his hands atop the counter and leaned all the way over, his forehead almost touching the counter's surface. When he came back up, his lips had formed a tight smile. "Alright, Elizabeth," Rio began again, "what was gon' happen if I wasn't here?"

Beth's face drained of color. She ran her tongue over the roof of her mouth, mulling the question over to be sure she understood where he was going with this. Even then, she didn't really know, because why would he care about this? She opened her mouth to respond. Closed it. Opened it again. As the seconds passed, her resignation became indignation.

Beth placed both hands on the counter and leaned forward. "That is none of your business," she said through clenched teeth, putting emphasis on every other word.

What was this? Last she checked, she only had one soon-to-be ex-husband, and even Dean was never this aggressive with his jealousy—not that this could be that. Rio had no reason to be jealous of anything she did, not to mention no right. But even just the thought planted a sick sense of hope in Beth's mind, the idea that Rio might not want to share her. The moment she thought it, she felt disgusted with herself.

Across from her, Rio had gone silent, jaw set and tightened. She watched his jawline twitch, an indication he was grinding his teeth. "So that's it? You were gonna do it?"

"Do what?"

"Fuck him."

"No!" Beth cried out without realizing it. "I mean, why would that even matter to you?"

"I just said it, you ain't stupid," he snapped. "No reason for you to invite that kind of trouble into your house."

Beth snorted. "Oh, now you're lecturing me about trouble? I gave up trouble, remember? Because you told me to! You told me to go home!"

"I tell you to grab the first schmuck you could and bring 'em back here?"

"I haven't seen you for months! You haven't been here!"

"And you think that was easy for me?" Rio shouted at her. His voice was so loud and so deep that it jolted her, and she realized they had been yelling at each other. She looked at him, really looked at him, past all of the anger and exasperation, and saw that his chest was heaving with emotion. It was the most unraveled she had ever seen him. But just as quickly as she noticed it, Rio seemed to close up, his body going still. He turned and started towards the front door.

She was around the island and following him before she could stop herself. "Wha—Wait! Rio, stop!"

He did just that, coming to an abrupt stop and turning around, not moving even when she fell into him. He looked down his nose at her, his chin tilted up in a show of defiance. "What?"

But Beth could only stare up at him, transfixed by the hard lines of his face and the way the shades of brown in his eyes seemed to melt together. She stood there, jaw hanging, feeling hopelessly expectant. She folded her hands and held them against her stomach, frightened to know how it would feel to touch him in that moment, but he was just so close.

"Elizabeth," Rio said, sounding almost impatient in the way he said it. He lowered his voice when he spoke again. "What do you want, Elizabeth?"

Beth didn't want to say anything. She wanted him to talk for a change, to come undone like he had moments before, to stay that way. To validate the way nerves tingled when he said her name. To make her less ashamed of the wanting in her stomach, and the ache between her legs most nights when she was alone in bed and remembering his smile.

David cleared his throat. Beth shifted back on impulse, feeling embarrassed as if both men could read her thoughts, but Rio didn't budge. He seemed mostly unfazed by David's presence now, his attention still on Beth. When she glanced back at him, he watched her, but not in the way he usually did. His eyes were soft, serious, imploring her for something. She didn't know for what.

"I'm going to go," David announced. He no longer looked uncertain or curious. Now he was frowning, solemn, looking between Rio and Beth as if putting together some invisible puzzle. Like he saw something Beth didn't.

When David stepped out of the front door, Beth suddenly remembered that he did know her. More importantly, he knew her son. She didn't want anyone at Kenny's school to whisper about a disaster date that ended with a strange man in the Boland home. She forced herself to move around Rio and out the door.

"David!" She caught up to him at the bottom step. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't expecting him."

He turned slowly to face her, hands in his pockets. He was wearing the same khakis, meaning he was more than likely listening to their conversation versus trying on Dean's pants. He was silent long enough that she had started to feel uncomfortable. "Is he the reason for the divorce?" he asked suddenly.

Beth scoffed. "You have to be kidding," she mumbled, not bothering to hide her eye roll this time.

"Beth," he said gently, as if trying to convey a lack of judgment despite the wildly inappropriate question. When she continued to look at him blankly, he sighed. "It's not my business," he said, surprising her. He looked wistful when he added, "I shouldn't hold my breath, should I?"

She frowned at the question but didn't immediately respond. Eventually she looked down at her feet and laughed mirthlessly. "You know what, David? I'm done answering questions tonight. Thank you for an amazing dinner." She lifted her head and gave him a definitive nod before walking back to the house.

The door was still ajar from when she had followed David. It didn't surprise her when she walked in and found the house now empty, but that didn't make it hurt any less. Her shoulders fell from the overwhelming disappointment that hit her when he realized he was already gone. She knew there was no sense in going after him, in trying to find him or call him. What would she say?

Feeling defeated, Beth started towards the kitchen to pour herself a drink. She stopped when she realized something had been left on the counter where Rio's hands had been.

Her pearls.