Beth had been speechless when he said it.
“When he calls to ask you out? Say yes.”
Speechless and furious. It had boiled over throughout the whole meal. They hardly spoke, and when they did it was terse, and somehow she’d still ended up on top of him in his car in the darkened parking lot. She blushes when she thinks about how she had dug her nails into his shoulder blades and demanded that he look at her. He’d obeyed, but his eyes were blazing and Beth had felt hers brimming with tears, so she’d kissed him just so she didn’t have to look at him anymore. He’d come as soon as her lips pressed against his, thrusting up into her with such force that she’d gasped. But he didn’t leave immediately like usual. They just sat there, his cum dribbling back down her thighs onto his lap, both of them breathing heavily with their foreheads pressed together and their eyes closed.
Still. They said nothing. She thought about saying, “I don’t want to go on a date with Peter.” She considered telling him, “I’m sorry. Whatever it is I’ve done, I’m sorry.” She wondered if he would respond if she said, “Please, talk to me.”
But she’d just sat there until all she had left to say was, “I’d better get home.”
That was four days ago, and now Peter has called her and asked her out to dinner to “catch up.” There was some vagueness in that language, some leeway for her to believe it wasn’t a date.
For her to forgive herself for saying yes.
Still. Here she is at some dingy bar close to Rio’s place knocking back bourbons and trying to muster up enough of a backbone to go and try to have an honest conversation with him. She needs it.
He’s still having sex with her, but he isn’t talking to her—he’s still teaching her, but when he looks at her it feels like it’s through some sort of thick, distorted glass. The walls are not just up—they’re closing in on her, pushing her away, backwards towards the ledge. Beth wonders when her foot will fall to find air instead of solid ground.
Swirling the liquid in her glass as she sits at the bar alone, Beth tries to imagine it, what it might look like to have an honest conversation with Rio—and not one about his past, one about his present. Not one about what’s happened to him then, but one about what he feels now.
After her fourth drink, she abandons her plan. It’s a disastrous idea that, even if she were ready to execute it, she knows should not be executed while her brain is this fuzzy. She pulls out her phone and orders an Uber home, and it’s the right time on a Saturday night, so there are cars everywhere. She won’t have to wait more than a few minutes.
Beth orders a water and closes her tab, stewing about the fact that she’s just wasted a bunch and time and money on a stupid plan. Now she’s going to have to find some sort of ride here tomorrow to retrieve her van.
Walking out the door of the bar, she reprimands herself for her impulsivity, for her tendency to walk blindly into things, the way she fixates on step one without even considering what step five might be. That’s when she sees him.
One of Rio’s boys.
The bald one. The one with the bird tattoo next to his eye and the words she’s never been able to read above his brow.
The one that had held a gun to her head in her dining room, waiting for Rio to give him the go ahead to pull the trigger.
They walk past each other at the door, her exiting, him entering. He holds the door open for her and their eyes lock. She sees the moment that he recognizes her, and there’s some element of amusement on his face at seeing her. Looking down, she spots the small black leather duffel bag in his hand. The whole interaction lasts three seconds, but as Beth hits the crisp air outside, she’s left reeling.
A Toyota Camry pulls up and rolls down the window. “Are you Beth?”
Beth shakes herself off, brushes some hair out of her eyes. “Yes.”
She opens the door to the backseat and slides in. Her heart is pounding.
“Looks like you’re going to Arden Park?”
The impetuous part of her brain speaks for her: “Actually, there’s been a change of plans.”
There’s a brief moment of hesitation before she raps on his door. But it’s like her hand falls to the wood of someone else’s volition.
It’s silent. Then she hears a shuffle beyond the door and the air gets caught in her throat. If she leaves right now, maybe—
The door swings open and Rio’s standing there. His eyes pass over her, and his jaw is slightly open so she can see the annoyed way he runs his tongue over his teeth as he cocks one eyebrow. He lets his face settle into that mask of indifference, however, and just says, “Evenin’.”
It infuriates her.
“I— we need to talk.” She tries to look past him into the loft, but it’s mostly dark. Beth stands up straighter, trying to look more sure of herself than she is. What she should have asked was whether Marcus was home. What she asks instead is: “Are you alone?”
Rio scoffs. “What’re you trying to ask me, Elizabeth?”
“I didn’t—I just meant—Is Marcus here?”
“You drunk?” Rio cocks an eyebrow, unamused. “What are you doin’ here?”
“I just saw one of your boys,” she says like it’s an accusation.
“And he looked at me funny.”
Rio blinks, but he steps to the side to allow Beth to pass him into the apartment. She looks around and it’s exactly the same as when she broke in: spotless, the kind of clean of which most people only dream. The lamps are on in the sitting area, but that’s it. There’s no indication what Rio was up to sitting in his home at 11 pm. The bed is made, so he wasn’t sleeping. There is nothing out on the counters that isn't supposed to be there. Like some sort of model home, it barely looks lived in. That makes her blood boil because isn’t that how he treats everything? His car, his home, even her, lately—they all feel untouched. Like he was never there. Or like he could disappear at a moment’s notice.
“What you so riled up about, Elizabeth?” He sits on his leather couch and crosses an ankle over a knee. He looks perfectly at ease. Unruffled. Unconcerned. Meanwhile, she wants to crawl out of her skin.
Riled up? It’s dismissive, as if there couldn’t possibly be any legitimate reason that she’s agitated, when the reality is that it feels like there are dozens.
“Why don’t they know you’re working with me?”
Rio looks taken aback that she’s remembered to ask this question, but he masks it quickly. “That’s why you here? That’s what’s weighin’ so heavy on your mind?”
“Why?” The question is genuine.
“Because—” She drops her purse on the coffee table. It makes a loud sound in the quiet of the apartment. Beth forces herself to look at him as she says, “Because it’s like I’m some—some sort of secret.”
“Ah,” he says, couching his chin in his palm. “That bother you?”
Dean’s name hangs unspoken in the air. She’d walked straight into that trap. How is it that he snatches the upper hand from her so easily?
Rio pulls his bottom lip into his teeth, eyes boring into her. “Mhm.”
“I was protecting myself.”
“Why? Ain’t we just… oh, what was it? Really good friends?” His tone is mischievous but his eyes are cold.
“That—” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “I didn’t mean that.”
Beth’s thoughts are jumbled and bouncing around in her head. How is it he’s throwing her words back in her face like this when he’s the one treating her like less than what they are?
Unsure of how to proceed, Beth tries to course correct. “I don’t—I don’t understand why you’re being like this.”
“Bein’ like what?”
“You’re twisting—you’re avoiding—” Beth exhales. “Why won’t you answer the question?”
“You wanna know?” he asks, pursing his lips. Beth nods, but there’s a sinking feeling in her stomach, like maybe she doesn’t. “They think you dead, Elizabeth.”
This was not what she had been expecting. She’d thought maybe it was a power trip: Rio fronting his independence and his solitary control over his kingdom. Or maybe that he was embarrassed to have her as his partner. Not this.
His calm and collected manner cracks, and his voice is harsh. “Because most people that make moves like you do—and fuckin’ sloppy ones at that—they don’t get second chances. You got me arrested, yeah? I’m still on trial, yeah? And yet here you are.”
The word sloppy wraps around her neck. “You’re still on trial? But Boomer’s dead…” Not at her hand, but still. Dead.
“So? You think he’s the only person that’s caused trouble?”
“Shit, didn’t you watch the news? Didn’t you wanna make sure your li’l plan to take down the boss worked?”
Beth can feel the flames of her blush lick at her collar bones, her neck, her cheeks. She looks at her feet, and Rio knows she remembers it: him in cuffs being put in the back of a cop car, a news anchor reporting that he’d been washing cash at Fine and Frugal locations across the entirety of Oakland County.
“You was probably all satisfied with yourself for makin’ such a clean job of it, huh? Well, sorry, darlin’, it's been anythin’ but.”
Beth doesn't look up. She thinks about those other managers, staring at his hands, and Rio reads it on her face.
“Shit, Elizabeth, I’m cleaning up your messes and you still questionin’ the way I do things? Fuckin’ figures.”
Rio looks away from her. His anger makes the room feel hot, uncomfortably stuffy, but Beth sinks into the chair opposite him. She’s been so stupid to believe that he’d forgiven her for that. He’d shot Dean and said they were good, but how could they be? She'd fucked everything up for him.
Her voice comes out in a whisper. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
Rio’s hand, which is still supporting his jaw, shifts so that his fingers cover his mouth. He blinks slowly at her, and Beth feels a tiny bubble of hope rise up within her. She knows why he didn’t. Ruby had said it herself: there was a reason they were all alive, and it was Beth, it was this thing between them. He’d been giving them second chances from the first—was still, even after all that she’s put him through.
The other witnesses were bad, yes—but he’s known about them as long as he’s known about Boomer. He’s mad, of course—furious even. But this wasn’t the first thing he’d thrown in her face tonight. First, he’d been pissed about her referring to him as merely a friend.
This history of theirs, it’s dark and twisted—but they’ve propelled so far past it.
Beth knows what they have, knows what she wants them to be. She just needs to hear it from him, too. They just need to talk about it. Name it.
It doesn't have to be in the traditional sense. It just had to be more than no sé. It had to be more than “I don’t know.”
Rio’s eyebrows are knit, though. “You ain’t seriously askin’ me that.”
“Yes,” she says, and she scoots forward in her seat. “I am.”
“Why you wanna make me say shit you already know?”
She sighs and goes with the truth: “Sometimes… sometimes I need to hear it.”
Beth watches him as he shifts in his seat. He plants the foot that was on his knee on the ground and leans toward her. His eyes lock with hers.
“You drive me fuckin’ crazy.”
He says it almost… almost with admiration.
She knows it’s his confession, as much a one as he’s ready to give. But she understands exactly what he means because he drives her insane.
Beth stands and walks up to him. Rio leans back to look up at her, and she sinks herself onto his lap. He licks his lips and moves his hands on her hips, his thumb dipping under her shirt to swipe at a bit of bare skin. Their faces are inches apart, but there’s still something in his eyes she can’t read.
“You’re not my friend.” Her own confession.
“No?” He tips his head back to look her up and down, his gaze resting on her face.
“No,” Beth says, shaking her head. “Not at all.”
She presses her lips to his. They kiss open-mouthed, pausing to breathe each other’s air. Rio slips his tongue against hers. Beth sighs into him until Rio sucks her lip in between his teeth and nibbles gently. His hands slide up her back and he holds her to him. Beth feels heat pool at her center but—but they aren’t done talking yet.
Breaking away to cup his face, she asks, “Are we on the same page?”
He nods and squeezes her hip. “Yeah, mama. We good.”
We good. He’s said that before, though. And he hadn’t let her in to let her know how her mistakes had impacted him. She needs more.
“So then… what’s been going on with you?”
Rio sighs and tilts his head to the side. Finally, he says, “It ain’t important anymore.”
Beth wants to accept it, wants to just believe that they can go forward without being dragged down by the quicksand of the past, but she can’t. Not when she had been left so lost and confused for weeks with no explanation.
She had endured it, well-practiced in burying her emotions, but she won’t be able to again. Not with Rio. He drives her mad—everything he makes her feel is acute and all-encompassing. When she’s around him, he doesn’t make her angry, he makes her livid; not merely happy, but beaming; not worried, but panicked. She can’t numb herself with Rio like she had with Dean—with him, her veins are wicks and the fire of her feelings ignites her entire body.
“It was like...” She pauses, trying to find the words. “It was like everything between us just disappeared.”
“I know,” he says with resignation. He tips his forehead to hers: an apology.
“If we’re going to…” Beth takes in a sharp breath, moves her head backward so that she can look him in the eye. She chooses her words wisely. “If we’re going to be together, we’re going to have to work on being more open with each other. So… why did you make it seem like—like it was just sex?”
Beth watches the bird on his neck shift as he swallows thickly. “Because I thought it was.”
Rio furrows his brow. “We really gotta get into it?”
“I’d like to,” she pushes. “Did I do something?”
“Fuck.” Rio runs his tongue along his bottom lip in frustration. He hesitates, but she doesn't stop looking at him, waiting. Eventually: “Dean told me shit, aight?”
“Dean?" This was the last thing she was expecting him to say. “When did you—when did you see Dean? What did he say?”
She can feel him tense up underneath her. “I went to talk to him.”
“You… went to talk to Dean?” She searches his eyes, trying to understand. “Why?”
“Look, you was always in your feelin’s about him tryin’ to take your kids. I just went to tell him why that ain't such a good idea.”
It’s like water fills her ears, dulling the sound of everything around her. “Excuse me?”
“Relax. Nothin’ happened.”
Relax. How many times has a man told her to relax when she was rightfully pissed?
“What did you do?” Her voice cracks.
“Nothin’. F’real, ma.” He tries to soothe her by pushing her bangs out of her eyes, but Beth recoils. She scrambles off his legs.
“What were you going to do? I mean, you must’ve had some plan in mind to convince him it wasn’t a good idea, right?” Beth’s lip trembles. “You gave him ammo against me in a custody case. How could you do that?”
“I didn’t touch him—I barely even fuckin’ said anything. He had all sorts of shit to say, though,” Rio says, trying to draw her attention away from him.
“What were you going to say to him?” Rio doesn’t answer her right away, so she repeats it more firmly. “What were you going to say to him?”
Rio uncurls a hand against his thigh, flexing his fingers. “I got my resources, okay, ma? Nobody was gonna get hurt if that’s what you worried about.”
Beth starts pacing in front of him. “What were you going to do? Buy off a judge?”
The look on Rio’s face tells her that she’s right. His nostrils flare, defensive. “Whoever I had to.”
“I told you I needed you to let me do it my way. In the car. After Canada. I told you that.”
“You did,” he assents.
“And you—you tried to take that away from me." Beth squeezes her eyes shut. "Behind my back. With your money. Like it was just another one of my messes you had to fix, right?”
Tears spill out of Beth’s eyes, and she turns away from him, desperate for him not to notice.
She’d lived almost her entire life under the thumb of someone else’s money, their charity being the only reason she survived. Jesus—Dean even used to give her an allowance.
Beth had fought tooth and nail to start being able to take care of herself, to make her own money, to be able to solve her own problems.
For years, she had trusted Dean to fix every issue that came up in their lives—and still, it was only too recently that she had tried again. That’s why she gave him the cash to buy the cars, right? She had relied on him again, only to be let down by him again.
Isn’t that why she’d ended up drunk on Annie’s couch remembering all the excuses he had ever given for his failures?
Why do I still want him to have the answer?
Because he’s a man.
We really have to stop doing that.
And she’d committed to that mindset. She’d stopped relying on men, choosing only to rely on herself. Hadn't she proven herself? She and Annie and Ruby had sold all those cars, and then she’d offered herself to Rio for the first time. Gone after what she’d wanted for the first time.
And not just that, but more recently, too—she’d handled those meetings. Rio had been practically silent beside her, and she’d gotten them not one but two potential partnerships.
Beth had invited him into that bathroom because she’d thought he was different. Thought that he saw her, that he realized how much she needed to have control. She’d thought he was someone that believed in her.
“You woulda said no,” Rio says. He stands, annoyed. He walks up behind her, too close. He’s not touching her, but she feels the electric current between them. “You was actin’ like you was handlin’ it—”
“I was!” She whirls around to look at him and he sees the wetness in her eyes and his jaw clenches.
Rio was just another person acting like Beth had never had the right idea, like she needed saving. How could he think he knew how to solve her problems with Dean better than she did? He didn't know Dean. She had twenty years of experience with Dean on him, and still. He’d just… doubted her.
“No, mama, you weren’t. You was livin’ in a house with him, plannin’ on gettin’ an apartment with him, gonna be sleepin’ in his bed.” He counts these items out on his fingers. “You let him take those kids from you and you just rolled over when he made you give everythin’ up to get ‘em back. You smart as fuck, Elizabeth, so why you let him take back that business? You the lead, and you playin’ understudy in your own life.” Rio scoffs. “I don’t get it. Why you act like this perfect li’l housewife for him when you a boss bitch?”
It’s maybe the most Rio has ever said at one time, and Beth hates every word. How does he use the same breath to call her a boss and to tell her everything she’s done is wrong?
“I let him take my kids?”
Rio’s eyes flash dark. “You make yourself smaller for him, and it’s fuckin’ dumb—”
“You think you don’t make me feel small?” Beth reaches for her purse and lets out a weak laugh. She has to get out of here. She needs space to breathe. “That’s why you started dealing drugs out of my dealership without even telling me, right? Told me to ‘stay in my li’l lane’? That’s why you’ve put your gun in my face, why you held onto that body?”
“We past that—”
“Are we? So why you didn’t want me in those meetings?”
“You saw how they acted toward you, ma—”
“I don’t even know anything about ‘our boys.’ You just shut me out. Again. You want to pretend that you’re treating me better, but you’re just… not.” She blinks and the last tear slides down her cheek to her chin. Beth turns and starts walking towards the door.
“So, what? You just goin’ back to him?”
“I’m going away from you.” Her words are undercut by her hiccup.
“Fuck. Elizabeth—” He lets out a long, frustrated sigh. “You don’t even wanna know what he said to me?”
Beth hesitates and turns to look at Rio over her shoulder.
“He’s not filin’ those papers. He’s just waitin’ you out. He thinks you gonna get scared and run back to him.”
Beth is suddenly depleted. Her bones feel heavy, and there’s a crick in her neck.
“It sounds like you believed him.”
Rio runs a hand across his hair. He doesn’t deny it, just scoffs.
Her boots click against the floor as she takes the last few steps. Her hand finds the doorknob.
“I’m meeting with Peter on Friday. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
An eerie calmness settles over Beth as she walks from the Uber up to her own front steps. She remembers when they were house hunting how perfect it had seemed: large kitchen, two living spaces, big backyard. Enough bedrooms for the kids to spread out once they were too old to want to share anymore. An office for Dean, so he could spend less time at the dealership and more time at home (but had that ever happened?). She’d loved the French doors from their bedroom to the back deck, thought it was ideal for Sunday mornings. She’d imagined them taking their coffees out there and chatting idly about the upcoming week, or maybe he would skim the paper while she would read a book. Had it ever actually happened, though?
Had any of her dreams?
The house is mostly dark when she walks in, but she can see the TV light flickering and hear the sound of some movie playing in the den.
“Hey, Bethie,” Dean calls. “You wanna watch something together? Grown-Ups just started. It’s hilarious. You’ll love it!”
God, she hates his juvenile sense of humor—and still, after this long, he can’t even accurately gauge whether she would like something, let alone tolerate it.
“Have you filed the divorce papers yet?” she asks innocently as she walks past him into the kitchen to pull down a glass and fill it with water.
Dean pauses the movie, because god forbid he miss five minutes of it. He turns on the couch so that he can just barely see her in the kitchen. “What?”
“The divorce papers. Have you filed them?” Her voice still sounds cloyingly sweet, but she speaks slowly for him so he won’t miss a word.
“Oh, uh,” he pauses, squinting, as if he has to think about it. “Well, I just sort of thought that we’d make everything a clean break all at once, you know?”
“Yeah. You know, once we find an apartment and all that, I’ll file them.” He’s pleased with himself. Dean turns back towards the TV, making as if to resume the film. Like the conversation is over.
The water is cool and refreshing on her tongue. She drinks it all down, rehydrating after the booze and the tears. “And when will we find an apartment?”
“Soon,” he promises. “As soon as the dealership starts making money, which, you know, I’m really confident about. We’re getting a lot of bites, and Devin’s getting really good at his sales pitch. You should come down and check it out, you know? Maybe we could even get lunch tomorrow?”
“Why should we wait until the dealership starts doing better?”
“Well... money,” he says awkwardly.
“I make plenty of money now. It wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Oh. Well. Yeah. Sure. Of course.” He looks at her like she’s dangerous. “I just thought, you know, we should split everything down the middle. 50/50.”
God, she hates the sound of his fucking voice.
“You know what I think we should split down the middle, Dean?” She turns her back to him as she puts her single cup in the dishwasher. There’s just enough room for her to squeeze it onto the top shelf. This annoys her, this habit of his to do everything but the last piece. He’d take the trash out but forget to put in a new bag. He’d walk the dog but forget to put the leash away afterward. Load the dishes, but forget to start it. Beth slams the door shut and hits the button to start the wash cycle. The engine whirrs immediately.
Dean senses the shift in the air, and his voice turns thick. “Uh. No. What?”
“Time with our children. Medical bills. Registration fees and the cost of uniforms and lunch money. And that’s it.”
“What do you mean?”
Beth turns back to look at him, and her eyes flash dark. “I mean I want you to give me the divorce papers and I’ll file them tomorrow. I mean that I want you out of here. Tonight. I mean that it’s over, Dean.”
Dean jolts back, his face flinching.
A long time seems to pass where the only sound in the whole house is the water sloshing around in the dishwasher. She imagines exactly how the jets spray the plates clean, the soap suds multiplying until the grease and grime are powerless to do anything but circle the drain. How the glasses will sparkle crystal clear when she pulls them out later and carefully rearranges everything back to its proper place.
“You can’t—you can’t do that.”
“Why can’t I?” she asks.
“Where is all this coming from? What did I do?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you need an itemized list?” Beth’s voice is acid on her tongue. “I don’t have any more patience left in me, and you are wasting your time waiting for me to run away scared. I chose this, I’m doing it, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop me."
“You talked to him,” Dean spits, realizing. “You do know he practically pulled a gun on me, Beth?”
“Here’s what I know: I have enough money and enough people behind me to make your life a living hell if you don’t stop underestimating me. I will buy my way out of every single thing you think to throw at me. I will pay out custody evaluators and judges and policemen. I will not roll over. I’ve figured out a way to take care of myself. Now it’s your turn.”
Dean’s jaw drops and he opens and closes his mouth as he tries to find the words, but they don’t come.
“Now, would you please get the fuck out of my house?”