Actions

Work Header

You're A Hustler Like Me

Chapter Text

The Hamptons Country Club certainly lived up to its lofty reputation. The tennis court had been turned into a grand gazebo with white silk canopy drapes and fairy lights. Beth appreciated the prudence of the planners in selecting the venue to host the event.

While it was possible to keep stiletto heels from sinking into the grass of the well-maintained lawn by putting all your weight on the soles of your feet, the resulting calluses took a whole day and a hot soak to alleviate. Not to mention, she would hate to sully her lucky Louboutins.

The red soles of the lustrous black shoes matched the shade of lipstick she had chosen. They were the only pops of color in her appearance. In accordance with the dress code of the party she was attending, she wore a white dress with buttoned shoulder straps.

The fresh September air was pleasant, and the humidity was finally starting to dissipate. She ordered a tonic and lime at the bar, making sure to thank the bartender with a crisp twenty-dollar bill and a close-lipped smile at the way the server’s eyes lit up.

Rich folks were often stingy tippers, as if the staff had to be kept in line or it would puncture their inflated egos. A fast friend was worth their weight in gold under the right circumstances so spreading around a little green was a prudent investment in Beth’s line of work.

Now that she had a drink she could use as a prop, Beth scouted out a seat at the corner of the bar. She sat down and swiveled around to observe the crowd from her carefully selected vantage point.

It was easy to slip into surveillance mode and use her trained eyes to discern the replica handbags and watches among the crowd. She glanced down to her own bare wrists, wistful that she had to forgo her Bulova watch for the façade she was selling tonight.

With a silent sigh, she moved back to the task at hand. She noted who was wearing last season’s designs and clothes that didn’t fit well, either borrowed or untailored.

Beth studied fashion for the same reason she did French and Russian. They were skills valued among the affluent, subtle markers of an exclusive membership. Few others had the time and inclination to undertake such electives. She was among those exceptions.

There were three golden rules to any hustle and one of them was to know your mark. If you knew their fears and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, then you could twist them to your own purposes.

In this world of mansions, slums, and a middle-class hell in between, you were either a hustler or a sucker. Suckers never knew their roles until it was too late, but Beth liked to take it even further.

It was one thing to fool a man until you pulled one over on him. Manipulation was commonplace; any gold digger could manage that. A true con artist could hoodwink you and you would never realize it. Her marks never found out she was playing them.

Truth be told, tonight was just an exercise to flex her muscles. She had already netted her 3000-pound Marlin, the greatest catch among all the marks she had ever spotted. He was the meal ticket to an endless buffet of champagne and caviar. Still, it didn’t hurt to keep her skills sharp.

Another of the golden rules was that there was no such thing as one last job. Hustling was a grind: a hard way to make a seemingly easy living. Like any performance, it took years of training and concealed the effort behind it.

She had narrowed down the field to three potential targets when her attention, along with everyone else’s, was diverted to the arrival of a latecomer to the party.

Beth did a double take. The wiry framed man either did not get the memo or possessed a reckless disregard for the rules. In a sea of white silk and chiffon, he was a black leather interloper.

On top of the offending coat, he spurned formality with blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Despite all that, the vintage Akubra hat might be the oddest part of his ensemble.

She proceeded to trail her gaze on his nondescript accessories: a signet ring, a bracelet, some silver necklaces. No watch…

Clearly, he was a regular among the crowd as most resumed their conversations and a few women approached him with enthusiastic greetings.

As he related some story with hand gestures, his eyes locked onto Beth’s. Not one to back down, she held his stare, daring him to look away first. Most people became uncomfortable with eye contact quickly. This man proved an exception to the rule and, to her surprise, excused himself to approach her.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he drawled in a Southern accent, gesturing to the stool next to hers. “Is this seat taken?”

Willing to humor what she expected to be a pickup attempt, Beth gestured to the seat in question.

He pulled the chair out and made a show of flaring out his duster before he sat down. As he waved the bartender over, he took his hat off and placed it on the counter between them.

Dusk had fully fallen, and the glow of the fairy lights transformed the messy locks of his dirty blonde hair into spun gold. Beth wondered what it would be like to run her fingers through them. Would they feel as soft as they looked or turn out to be greasy with hair products?

The same girl from earlier arrived in front of them.

“I’ll have one of those,” he declared.

“Of course, sir,” the bartender smiled and turned to Beth. “What was your order again, ma’am?”

“Vodka on the rocks with a twist,” Beth replied, pleased to see the seed from earlier bear fruit.

"Can I ask you a question?" Beth asked, wanting to make the opening move. Just like in Russian roulette, there was a statistical advantage to going first.

"You already did," he quickly pointed out with an easy tilt of the head and huffed his consent.

"What's with the outfit?" To his raised eyebrows, she elaborated. "This is a Labor Day party. You’re supposed to wear white."

"This is what I always wear," he answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

He leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially. "Does that blank canvas play really work?"

She jerked back in affront. "Excuse me?"

“There’s not a single accessory on you,” he explained. “No visible earrings, no necklace, no watch.”

The bartender returned with his drink. He pulled out a fifty-dollar bill from his pocket without looking and slid it to the server with a wink. “Keep the change, darlin’.”

If Beth wasn’t sure before, she was now certain that this man was a fellow hustler. She found his act to be a cheap gimmick with no finesse, even if she felt the draw firsthand. Recognizing the strategy didn’t make her impervious to it, but knowledge was the true currency among cons.

“We can’t all be Southern cowboys stealing the spotlight,” she told him. “Not exactly subtle.”

“Ahh but the spotlight is the best place to operate,” he claimed and took a gulp of his drink. “Who would be so brazen if they had something to hide?”

She silently raised her glass in acknowledgment of his point and carefully sipped at her tonic through her cocktail straw.

“I’m Benny Watts,” he told her, holding out a hand.

“Beth Harmon,” she said, the corner of her mouth lifting in amusement when he brought her proffered hand to his mouth and laid a kiss on her knuckles.

“What brings a fine young lady such as yourself to these parts?” Benny asked, a small smirk betraying his faux chivalry.

“Some trainspotting.” A coded term for purely speculative reconnaissance rather than an active search. “How about you?”

“Passing through, thought I’d see some old friends,” he answered, turning to wave at a few folks who had been looking their way with interest. An implication that this was a regular crowd for him, and he was returning to familiar marks. Now he had her attention; for him to maintain a long-term ruse implied a considerable amount of skill.

“Would you care to dance?” he offered amicably with an easy grin designed to make a mark swoon. “I could make some introductions.”

Beth couldn’t tell if it was a sincere proposal to collaborate or the set up for an elaborate double cross. Not that it mattered much. The most cardinal golden rule was never trust anyone. It was the only way to guarantee that no one could ever betray her and make her the sucker. She ran a hand through the hair that her birth mother used to braid and she’d worn loose ever since.

“Dancing is a dangerous game,” she told him as she shook her head. “I wouldn’t want to step on your toes.”

“That looks painful,” he commented, glancing down at her feet to assess her four-inch stilettos and mock-winced, earning a chuckle from her.

She was caught off guard when he leaned in somber and looked her straight in the eye. “You know, life is like a game of tennis. If you want to win, you gotta aim for the edge. Otherwise you’ll waste all your time in long, boring rallies.”

Before she could come up with a reply, he was gathering his things and standing up.

“Best of luck to you, ma’am,” he wished her in his Southern affectation, tipping his Akubra and laying a hand on her shoulder. The touch sent a jolt through her body that she barely managed to suppress shuddering from.

Beth watched him walk back into the crowd but lost sight of him beyond the couples now occupying the main dance floor.

She stared down at his abandoned drink and fingered the rim absentmindedly. When she moved her shoulder, she noticed that something shifted underneath the strap. She pulled it out to discover that it was an ivory business card with a calligraphic ‘B’ engraved on the front. She flipped it over to find a phone number printed on the back.

‘Not bad,’ she thought. That was a smooth slip, she hadn’t noticed the placement. But then again, she had also lifted something from him without getting caught.

When he had turned away to wave, she had plucked the feather from his hat and palmed it. She had wanted to test the keenness of his eyes. Now she twirled it between her fingers.

She wondered when he would notice its absence and why he thought she would call him. The cowboy was certainly an intriguing figure, but Beth Harmon was far too wise to fall for his gambit.

Chapter Text

Beth had a standing appointment in her trusty planner for the second Sunday of every month. It said, “noon at the Four Seasons” and was circled in red.

Networking was fundamental to her profession. It established a reputation and was a great way to gather intel.

The Apple Pi’s were a group of rich women who lived on the Upper East Side and liked to gossip over gourmet food. According to them, God made Sundays for brunch and bottomless mimosas.

She had met one of them at a Soul Cycle class and procured an invitation. She had dressed in country club wear to that first luncheon, expecting a pretentious affair but had been surprised by the presence of cocktail dresses and pantsuits. When they told her about the origin of their group’s nickname, she found herself impressed by their snark. “Because we don’t sit at home and bake apple pies. It’s called catering, bitch.”

They were her kind of crowd and this lunch had become an enjoyable aspect of her life. It helped that the Four Seasons garden dining area was a stunning venue. With giant African acacias that reminded her of Alma’s azaleas and a wonderful art-deco aesthetic, it was no wonder they had decided to hold court here rather than at another five-star hotel, of which Manhattan had no shortage.

Today she wore a crimson crepe dress that she had bought on her last trip to Paris. The group exchanged their greetings as they all trickled in. She had made sure to tip the maître’d who showed her over to the table as usual.

Beth ordered a Bloody Mary and some avocado toast. Normally she would never drink on the job, but these gatherings blurred the lines between business and a social life so she usually allowed herself one real drink before switching to the virgin version discreetly.

After their orders were in, Vivian had launched into an outrageous story about an elevator hook-up she’d had. Then there was a lull in the conversation, and she snagged the spot with her own sharing session.

Despite her best efforts, Beth had not been able to shake her curiosity about the cowboy and decided to sniff around casually.

“I ran into the strangest man at the Hamptons Labor Day party. He wore a black leather coat when the dress code was obviously white,” she began but she was soon interrupted by a very excited blonde.

“Was his name Benny Watts?” Veronica asked.

“Yeah, do you know him?” Beth replied.

Several of the other ladies began to grin as well.

“I know of him,” she shared a look with the others. “He's got good word of mouth.”

They all sniggered, and Beth felt like she was out of the loop.

Trying not to let her frustration show, she pressed on. “What do you mean?”

“She means he's got a talented tongue,” Sarah added, as cryptic as ever. “Too bad that French fashionista scooped him up. Now he trails after her across the world.”

Beth's brows furrowed. He wasn't that smooth of a talker.

Thankfully, the conversation continued when Margaret, the group’s unofficial head bitch, extolled the man in question. “I'm just glad he's still available to the rest of us when she's in town. He was so good I passed out when I came. Worth every cent.”

Beth felt her cheek burn at the realization that they were discussing cunnilingus. Her mouth curved downwards at the mention of cash, an inverse to her usual association. “So he’s like a hooker?”

“Not exactly, but he’s always got gambling debts to pay down. No such thing as a perfect man,” Margaret chuckled, hailing the waiter to order another Peach Bellini mimosa.

Beth sipped at her own Bloody Mary but couldn’t wash away the bad taste in her mouth.

The conversation moved on to Julia’s promotion and Beth smiled along.

After the meal, she bid the ladies adieu with expressions of false fondness and turned down Fifth Avenue to do some window shopping with some pep in her step. Nothing like a little retail therapy to lift her spirits, although she refused to contemplate why she was gloomy in the first place. After all, everything was going well for her. She had a fish on the hook, a solid network and all the capital she desired.

She was admiring a ballgown on the front display at Bergdorf Goodman when she heard a familiar voice address her, sans the Southern accent. “Why, hello, Beth.”

What were the odds of running into him in a city of eight million people mere hours after discussing him? Grimly she thought, ‘speak of the devil and he shall appear’ and plastered on a tight lipped smile to greet him.

She regretted having had 3 non-virgin Bloody Marys and not eating more at brunch. Sarah’s turkey bacon had smelled so good. After she heard about Benny, she had ordered two more to alleviate the churning in her gut. She really should have known better. It was sloppy of her and she was certainly paying for it now. She tried her best to rally.

“Why, hello, Benny,” she returned, turning her head to look at him. He really did wear the same outfit all the time. Last time it had been a black t-shirt and this time it was a green half-unbuttoned shirt with what was probably the same t-shirt underneath. From two feet away, he could probably smell the booze on her.

He gave her that infuriating ‘I am better at this than you’ smirk of his. “Just came from a three-martini lunch, did you?”

“So what if I did?” she challenged, daring him to continue his condescension.

“What are you doing here anyway? If this is what you always wear, what brings you to Fifth Avenue?” she asked, gesturing at his general ensemble somewhat aggressively.

“I seem to have misplaced the feather in my hat,” he replied.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said. While it obviously wasn’t the truth about why he was in the area and he had his suspicions about her theft, she wasn’t about to give up the ghost so easily.

“I would really like it back,” he pressed. He almost looked sincere. “It’s important to me.”

Beth bit her lip. “I suppose it’s possible that it fell out at the bar and I may have rescued it from oblivion,” she allowed, caving out of pity for the sad story she’d heard at lunch. “Hail us a cab?”

Soon enough, they were walking into her swanky apartment. She flicked on the lights and went straight to the kitchen to start watering herself down. He walked up to floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room and admired the view.

She retrieved the feather from its place in her jewelry box and joined him.

“This is quite a view,” he admired. The sun was starting to set over Central Park and they could watch the receding figure along with all the colors cast into the cloudscape.

“I know,” she acknowledged. “I never get used to it.”

“How do you afford this place?” he asked, swiveling his head to look at her. She felt smaller now that she had taken off her heels, despite still being nearly eye level with him.

“Playing the long rally has its uses,” she replied, reviving the tennis analogy from their previous meeting.

She offered up the feather and he took it, tucking it back into its designated place on his Akubra.

“You shouldn’t wear things that matter on the job,” she told him. It was a rookie mistake. She thought someone as experienced as him would know that.

He smiled wistfully. “Yeah, I know. Right back at you.”

He held out his fist and unclenched it to reveal her Bulova watch. Her heart beat faster as her hand moved to grasp her bare wrist. When had he… It must have been at the window display when her senses had been dulled. He must have taken it as leverage. She couldn’t bring herself to be angry at him. She was instead furious at herself for letting her guard down.

She knew better than to get drunk like this. It had cost Alma her life and if she wasn’t careful, she would follow the same path.

She gingerly took back the precious memento and tried to reattach it to her wrist, but her fingers fumbled.

“Allow me,” he reached out and gently locked the clasp, rotating it to the correct position on her wrist.

“Who is Alma?” he asked softly, referring to the inscription on the backside. With Love, From Alma.

“She was my adoptive mother,” she replied, not entirely sure why she was telling him the truth when her trade was based in lies.

An instinctive part of her required quid pro quo so she asked him, “Why is the feather important?”

“My grandpops gave it to me,” he told her with a despondence visible in the slump of his shoulders. “Whenever I visit him at his retirement home, he’s happy to see it.”

Beth thought that was sweet of him. It explained why he had been so adamant about the small token. Then a thought occurred to her; their run-in was probably not a coincidence either.

“How did you find me?” she asked suspiciously.

“It’s a small city,” he quipped.

“I’m not buying it,” she crossed her arms to indicate that she was still waiting for a real answer.

“I was meeting up with someone and she mentioned that she had lunch with you in the area,” he finally admitted, twisting his bracelet around his wrist.

Beth frowned. When she asked the Apple Pi’s about him, she didn’t realize the thread would lead him back to her. It was unlike her to be so shortsighted.

“Does this someone have a name?” she ventured, thinking it best to narrow down the leak.

“A gentleman never talks about a lady behind her back,” he informed her theatrically. “Of course, it seems ladies show no such reluctance to gossip.”

“Well... you got what you came for,” she said, a little bitter about being outplayed. “You can go now.”

He deflated a little. “I wanted to see you again,” he confessed in a softer voice, reaching out to brush her hair out of her face. The gentle gesture made her stomach flutter in a different way than it had at lunch. “It’s been a while since I met someone like me.”

She remembered the last time she’d felt the same way, but that had turned out to be a red herring. It didn’t matter that Benny wasn’t her mark, she still had to follow the golden rule of trusting no one. Her hand traced the engraving on her watch in remembrance.

“I already told you at the party that we can’t consort,” she warned him, taking a step back.

“Why not?” he pushed, staying where he was.

She didn’t have a reply. How could she tell him that she could never be truly vulnerable with anyone- that she could never risk reproducing the fatal flaw that felled both her mothers?

So when Benny laughed grimly, raw and hurt, Beth was relieved because she knew how to have a fight.

“Worried the Russian will find out and disown you?” he asked, looking to draw blood.

She threw a quick glance to the bookshelf and noticed that the Cryllic copy of Anna Karenina was pulled halfway out, probably where he picked up that detail from.

She wasn’t too worried about anyone learning that she had brought a strange man into the apartment. If she didn’t regularly tip the doorman handsomely, this might have been a legitimate concern, but Beth was always planning ahead. Still, the implication that she was someone’s property struck a blow to her pride.

“He doesn’t own me,” Beth replied, outwardly keeping her cool even as her blood boiled at his hypocrisy. “And you’re one to talk. Won’t your mademoiselle mind?”

“I can damn well fuck whomsoever I please,” he informed her haughtily, crossing his arms across his chest.

“At least your mouth is good for one thing," she threw back and the retort was out there before she could catch it.

"I see my reputation precedes me," he remarked smarmily. She wanted to wipe that smirk off his face. How dare this man patronize her in her own home! She bristled at the disrespect and decided to throw caution to the wind.

She wasn’t really putting her full force behind the blow, but the slap never landed. He caught her wrist and shoved her up against the window wall.

They glared at each other, the few inches between their faces too far yet too close.

“If you wanted to play rough Beth, all you had to do was ask,” he informed her, using her arms to cage her in. “Tell me: does he take you hard against this glass or touch you like you’re made of porcelain?”

Her cheeks flushed in fury and heat rose in her gut. “It is none of your business, Benny.”

“Is that all there is to you? Business?” he leaned in even closer, looking her dead in the eye. “No wonder you’re so tightly wound.”

He traced the column of her neck with his nose. “I bet I could teach you a thing or two.”

Beth didn’t know if it was the anger or residual alcohol that made her clench her fist in his hair to pull him off her, but as she smashed their mouths together, she frankly couldn’t care.

Since the moment they had met, something had been building inside her and if it didn’t boil over soon, it might just drive her insane.

He tasted like cigarettes and apples as she tangled their tongues and shoved off his dumb leather duster. He reached up to softly discard his precious hat, anticipating her next target.

She grabbed him by the shoulders and flipped their positions. “Maybe you’re the one who needs a lesson in humility.”

Benny had pegged Beth’s gimmick more aptly than she would ever admit when she called her a blank canvas. She allowed others to see what they wanted and attribute traits to her that they themselves favored. She had gotten quite good at reflecting back at people this way and it was this skill that she fell back on now. Beth could do anger and domination just as well as he could.

Maybe Benny Watts was beginning to realize this, because he stared at her in shock with his mouth slightly open. She used his distraction to descend upon him once again before he could regain his composure.

She kissed him with a demanding fury and her fingers made quick work of the few shirt buttons that needed unbuttoning, shoving that layer off as well.

He seemed to have recovered somewhat because his hands had found their way down to her ass and he pulled her firm against his groin where she could feel his half hard erection.

She pulled his black t-shirt up and off him, forcing him to release her. At the sight of him half naked, Beth briefly wondered how they had even ended up here, with her dismantling this stranger in her inner sanctum. Was she the one who had fallen into some kind of trap?

Goddamnit, she was so angry, and she hated the loss of control. She had to reclaim it somehow. It was like a sinkhole had formed beneath her and the only way to survive was to dive in deeper and make it to a peaceful cavern underneath.

She walked them away from the window wall and pressed on his shoulders until he got the hint and kneeled down on the wool rug she’d added to warm up the living area.

He moved to grasp her legs and push her dress up but she slapped away the hand and clenched his jaw shut with one hand.

“I’m not one of your clients,” she growled before releasing her hold.

With what felt like fire in her veins, she dropped down to straddle his hips with her own and fell forward to pin him on the rug that was as soft as his hair. She captured his mouth again and tried not to think about where else this mouth had been. The last thing she needed right now was to feel sorry for this arrogant man who had challenged her in her own domain.

She raked her nails down his chest, leaving red lines of her wrath in her wake. He hissed into her mouth but his hands didn’t grab her wrists to halt her progress. They went to her hips and he ground himself against her, chasing the friction. She could feel his full length firm against her now.

She sat up and reached for the discarded clutch she’d tossed on the couch earlier. Her fingers deftly retrieved a small plastic square.

She held it up with a question in her eyes, almost a challenge to see if he would back down and admit defeat.

His eyes narrowed and he gave a brisk nod before he pulled her into another kiss.

She reached a hand down to undo his belt and had a wild thought about how good it would look around his neck. She threw it out of reach before she could be tempted.

His jeans would stay on, as would her dress. After all, they might have an audience, given that it was now dark and the lights were on. Fucking in a high rise came with a stunning view, but also with the risk of being seen by occupants of the opposite buildings or “bird” watchers in Central Park.

The thought of being watched by strangers had always been a turn on for Beth and it was a damn shame that Vasily always preferred the privacy of the master suite. If no one observed her, would she even exist? Granted, all they saw was the mirage she crafted and not the wild beast that lay underneath her skin.

She pulled down his zipper and took out his cock, tearing open the packet in her other hand with her teeth and rolling it on without much difficulty. She held him firmly and pulled her underwear to one side beneath her hitched-up dress, lining herself up and sinking down slowly.

It was like a livewire where they connected. She closed her eyes and began to move, basking in the feel of him inside her and ignoring the rug burn on her knees. When she opened them again, she found him softly staring at her like they weren’t in the middle of hate sex. Unable to bear his gaze, she moved a hand from where she was braced on his chest to turn his head to the side. He didn’t object to that either and she looked to see why.

In the translucent reflection of the window glass, she could see their figures staring back at them. Their eyes met in the reflection again and for the first time in forever, it felt like someone could see the real her. It was a terrifying thought.

She didn’t have the time or space to freak out because she was getting close and she just needed to get him out of her system so she would never have to see him again. She reached a hand down to press at her clit to help herself get out of this messy situation that was spiraling further out of her control by the second.

Not wanting to look at the image of their coupling any longer, she buried her face between his neck and shoulder. She could feel his nipples pressed against her chest and worked her fingers faster, chasing the edge.

He pulled one of his hands off her hips and brushed his fingers against her chest, finding one of her nipples hard beneath the layers of cloth. Without warning, he pinched sharply and Beth came undone, muffling her scream with his shoulder. He followed with an unsuppressed yell.

She wanted to disentangle them quickly, eager to get away from facing what just happened, but her body wouldn’t obey. She laid on top of him limp, recovering from what ranked among the best orgasms she’s ever had.

All she could hear was the sound of their harsh breathing and she was afraid to stick around to hear what Benny might say once he’d caught his breath. She lifted herself off of him gingerly and rolled to the side, landing on the soft rug facing away from him.

What had she been thinking? The game of chicken had gone too far. She had just fucked a stranger in her living room and while her body had enjoyed it, her mind now worried about whatever weaknesses she had exposed.

She fisted the rug and hauled herself upright with sheer will, maneuvering to her knees and rising with a hand braced on the sofa.

She risked a quick glance at him to find him staring at her with that same piercing but not harsh look from before.

“The bathroom is through there, and you can let yourself out,” she pointed to the half bath near the entrance and retreated into the safety of the bedroom, locking the door behind her.

Putting a door between her and the cowboy didn’t alleviate the strange mix of anxiety and regret that threatened to overwhelm her. Clearly she wasn’t thinking straight tonight and she couldn’t risk another stupid move like going back out there or responding if he called out.

It wasn’t enough to leave the room. Beth needed to leave reality for a few hours and return when the situation and her stability had improved. She made a quick trip to the bathroom to wipe off any traces of their activity and got into bed fully dressed. She opened the bedside drawer and pulled out two Xanax from a black plastic container, swallowing them dry. Soon enough, oblivion swept her away.

Chapter Text

Beth woke up and it was still dark. For a minute, she was disoriented. Then her eyes adjusted to the dim light coming from under the door. She was in her bed. She began to relax but suddenly remembered the earlier events.

The Xanax must not have worn off entirely because her heartbeat didn’t pick up when she approached the door and put her ear to it tentatively. Surely he’d be gone by now?

To her great relief, she opened the door to find the apartment empty. She walked around and nothing seemed out of place, but Beth wouldn’t be too surprised if he had taken some kind of souvenir.

Sticky fingers were a habit as much as a skill for her and it might be the same for him. She shook her head; she had to stop comparing the two of them. Anything of significant value was locked away in the safe in the bedroom closet anyway. She should just take a hot shower and pretend the whole incident never happened.

It was so unlike her to get riled up like that. Only a rookie would let a potential rival invoke such a reaction, and Beth was a professional, even if she had come from humble beginnings and learned along the way.

Beth recalled her childhood in flashes: a trailer shared with a red-haired woman she called Momma, a man leaving in a car, a bonfire of possessions, a man turning away Momma, instructions to close her eyes before the car lurched into another vehicle on the bridge.

After that point though, the rest of her memories were crystal clear, much to her disappointment. It would be nice to be able to forget the six years she spent bouncing around foster homes until she was placed with the Wheatleys at fifteen.

Allston had left for Denver on permanent business not long afterwards, but Alma adopted her and worked double shifts to support them. Beth studied hard to make her new mother proud and managed to gain admission into NYU with her math acumen. They had even saved up enough money to go to Mexico for her graduation trip.

Alma had been so happy there. They’d met up with her high school penpal Manuel, who was a car salesman, and the two of them had hit it off. But then he made some excuse to leave for Oaxaca and Alma became heartsick.

Beth walked into their hotel room one day to find her mother gone once again. The coroner said it was hepatitis that killed her but Beth felt the root cause may have been her broken heart, just like it might have been for her first mother.

Beth had learned that love always fades, so you should never let yourself fall. It would shatter you when you lost it and losing was inevitable. Love was a sucker’s mistake; Beth chose to become a hustler instead.

Beth had moved to New York City to attend NYU, got student loans for the tuition, and worked as a struggling waitress to pay rent before she discovered a more lucrative avenue. Though she was a math major, she had been taking a Russian language course to fulfill her foreign language requirement. It was there that she met her first mark, Tim.

Tim was a trust fund baby who was taking Russian so he could “read Dostoyevsky in the original” like the average pretentious stoner. Beth had almost scoffed away his invitation to a “shindig tonight” but the event turned out to be a private party at a swanky rooftop hookah bar whose waitlist was beyond difficult to get on.

They’d spent the evening passing the pipes around their conversational circle, discussing prestige art. What was notable for Beth was that these important and expensive pieces weren’t hanging in galleries but in their own homes. Tim had a casual arm around her but wasn’t grabby.

When she saw that the party gift bag included a real 24 karat gold plated lighter with a matching cigarette holder case, Beth realized that this lifestyle might be able to pay her rent, start paying off her student loans, and leave her time to focus on her studies. It was easy enough to pawn across the bridge in Brooklyn for a low five-figure sum.

That had been her sophomore year. Tim had mostly wanted a girl on his arm and the one time they’d tried to actually hook up was not successful on his part. He’d blamed it on the marijuana, of course. In retrospect, Beth was thankful she hadn’t disclosed her lack of experience to him. It spared her the mortification of letting this spoiled brat know he had been her failure of a first time.

By junior year, she had grown bored of Tim and she suspected he had begun to tire of her as well. She’d enrolled in a French course, but failed to find any prospective marks there.

Instead she found her second mark at the university chess club, of all places. They’d been hosting a poker night to raise funds for their travelling team and she’d gone with Tim. It was there she met Harry. He was a Electrical Engineering major.

She’d been sitting at the blackjack table, counting cards when he’d sat down next to her and let on that he knew what she was doing. When she’d asked him how, he said “it takes one to know one”. She had thought maybe he was like her. The authentic Rolex on his wrist said otherwise.

Harry was sweet, charming and easy to talk to. They exchanged numbers, and texts turned into coffee dates. From his simple manner, one would never think his family owned a well-known European conglomerate.

Beth had thought Harry might have actually been in love with her. He bought her a car for her twenty-first birthday, even though they’d only been together for a few months at that point. It was a souped up white convertible; a brand new Porsche 718 Boxster.

She’d had to admit she didn’t know how to drive but he had laughed fondly and promised to teach her. He took her upstate to a cabin for Thanksgiving break and patiently showed her how.

Harry never pushed for her to meet his family, which relieved Beth. It seemed wrong to dupe prospective in-laws into thinking their son was on his way to being settled down when she knew she had no intentions of staying with him in the long run. Maybe Harry knew that too, the same way he’d known she was counting cards.

Still, it was so easy with Harry that Beth stopped looking for her next move. Their efforts in bed were a step up from her prior experience. Harry could get it up but he was so gentle with her, like she was made of glass, that Beth found it hard to get off on it. She even tried telling him once but Harry was a lost cause in that respect.

Last but not least, it was at a New Years’ Eve party their senior year that she first saw Vasily Borgov. Beth didn’t need an accessory to know that he was the biggest mark in the room. His entire aura signalled his behemoth standing.

He was a man of few words, silently smoking a Cuban and drinking vodka with the other serious looking businessmen. Harry knew him though; he walked them both right up to him and introduced her.

The stoic man broke into a warm smile and greeted them. They moved to the study where the two engaged in a game of chess. Beth sat on a nearby sofa and watched them move the pieces but her focus was on the older gentleman. He spoke English with a Russian accent and, from all the time she’d spent watching Harry with his chess team, she recognized that he used the Sicilian defense.

She looked him up when she got back to her place and began to make a plan. She waited until she and Harry amicably parted ways before graduation. In the meantime, she staged a few casual run-ins to keep herself fresh in his mind. He was the only mark she’d really had to work for, and it took her three attempts to prevail. The first two failures had been embarrassing, but she persisted.

Now she lived in his apartment and he paid for everything. Borgov was an oil baron who had a wife and son in Russia. He often came to New York on business and Beth kept him company on those visits. Sometimes he’d go to Europe and ask her if she’d like to join him there, an invitation she sometimes accepted and sometimes declined.

He had offered to take off his wedding ring, which he wore on his right hand as Europeans sometimes did, but Beth had told him not to bother. She didn’t feel like the other woman because she knew she was the one pulling the strings.

She had her degree now and her student loans were paid off. She could get a white collar job to support herself, but Beth had become enthralled in the challenge and subsequently she quickly grew accustomed to the effortless luxuries. The past year had flown by and she felt secure in her comforts.

A long time ago, she could fit everything she owed in a trash bag that she took with her to all the foster placements that never became homes. Now she had it all; a fancy apartment, a nice car and no chance of a broken heart.

She wasn’t about to let two run-ins and a haphazard night with some cowboy stud disturb the flow of her life. She dug out his card from her clutch and burned it in the sink for good measure.


Benny Watts was a blip in her rear view mirror when Vasily arrived in town a few weeks later. He was engaged in day-long negotiations and tired by the time he got home so they mostly stayed in, but tonight was a charity benefit at the Met.

Beth wore a caramel sheath dress with intersecting black bars across her waist and length that formed a cross. She added some skin colored stockings to match and slipped on a pair of nude, kitten heels. She knew the Heavenly Bodies exhibit on how Catholicism intersects with fashion was still featured throughout the museum, left over from the Met Gala in May, and the cross in her dress would match the theme.

The outfit also made a nice homage to Pierre Cardin. Vasily favored vintage styles, particularly from the sixties. His watch was a Sturmanskie that had been worn by Yuri Gagarin on his trip to space.

She thought he looked especially handsome in his dark blue velvet suede suit.

“Vy smotrite shchegolevatyy, Vasya[1],” she told him, smoothing down the front lapels with her hands.

He kissed her thoroughly in response and Beth began to wonder if they were going to end up fashionably late to the event, but true to form, he withdrew. Punctuality was important to him, she knew.

“Poydem Liza[2]?” he asked, offering his arm to escort her out of the apartment and down to the waiting town car.

They held hands in the car and she rested her head on his shoulder, a comfortable silence between them.

Once they reached the museum, Vasily sensed her restlessness and gave her free reign to explore the exhibit to her heart’s content, with a promise to catch up with her soon.

During her browsing, she bumped into someone, walking with her eyes on a dress on display instead of looking where she was going.

“Sorry,” she offered to the stranger’s back. He turned around and looked taken aback to see her there.

This was a shared sentiment. She certainly wasn't expecting to run into Benny Watts here of all places, especially looking like that. He wore a tuxedo, and it fit him well but he looked uncomfortable in it.

“So you do own normal clothes,” she remarked in the place of a greeting.

“This thing might as well be a straightjacket,” he told her, earning a raised eyebrow from her.

“Then why are you wearing it?” she asked, crossing her arms. “It’s not like you’re one to follow the dress code.”

Instead of answering with words, he pointedly gazed at a woman across the room. She wore a sleek bob cut and a midi that was unmistakably couture; that must be the aforementioned Frenchwoman who was his keeper. Although the tan was good enough to fool Beth into thinking she was Egyptian. She also admired the cat eye the other woman was sporting.

“So this is your preferred tennis partner,” Beth thought out loud.

“More like I’m hers,” he replied, sounding bitter. “Every artist needs a muse.” Beth detected traces of resentment in his voice.

”I suppose,” she acknowledged, appraising his outfit once more. “At least she has good taste.”

"Why are you with The Russian?" he snapped.

"We have things in common," she answered calmly, turning to face a nearby painting so she would appear to be admiring it to any passersby.

"Like what?"

She could see his incredulous expression in her peripheral vision.

"Caviar, champagne, ballet," she listed off.

“Somehow I doubt those shared interests preceded your acquaintance,” he commented, knowingly.

“It’s not like you’re above making accommodations yourself,” she pointed out.

“Touché,” he conceded.

There was a pregnant pause in their conversation. It was uncanny, the way she had stumbled into him today, almost as if it was fate tempting her to sabotage herself with the animosity between them. Now that avoidance had failed, Beth realized she had to clear the air so the disaster from the other night didn’t remain the elephant in the room.

“About the other night,” she began, hoping he would throw her a bone. “Things got a little out of hand.”

“I shouldn’t have pushed you like that,” he said unexpectedly and she didn’t dare look at him.

“I shouldn’t have taken it that far in the first place,” she allowed, finding it easier to share the blame than she expected.

Their arms brushed in comfort as they continued observing the painting without really seeing it.

“I heard about your problem. There are support groups for that,” she offered gently. It wasn’t really her place to say, but she needed to make sure he knew it. If she’d recognized the danger in Alma’s drinking earlier, she might have lived.

“I’m just having a bad streak, that’s all. I doubt sitting in a circle and singing Kumbayah is going to help with that. We can’t all be as lucky as you,” he threw back, mouth twisting into a nasty grimace. She could see his fist clench at his side, but she had learned from last time that the quick temper was a defense mechanism.

“If you were betting money you had, you could write it off as a venture, but betting what you don’t have is dangerous and you know it,” Beth could see how he was trapped in a hole and he kept digging rather than reaching for the rope to climb out. Maybe no one else had thrown him a lifeline. She thought back to the yearly addiction awareness campaigns at NYU. “I’ve heard good things about Gamblers Anonymous. It’s very discreet and you can look up the meeting schedule online.”

Before he could respond, she heard a husky, mezzo-soprano voice call out ‘Ben-nee’ from across the room.

“Here.” In a moment of sympathy, Beth reached out to undo the knot on his silk bow tie and adjusted the loose ends so they would hang evenly. “It’s optional. Just say you felt hot.”

He reached up to undo the top few buttons and their hands brushed. Beth withdrew hers slowly, despite the desire to pull back instantly as if burned. It was probably just static shock that made his touch feel electric, it had to be.

Benny tossed out a “don’t worry about it” and left her to her fake contemplation.

Beth shook her head and continued her self guided tour, feeling relieved when she ran into Vasily again. His innate steadiness always helped her find her own emotional balance.

“Vse khorosho[3]?” he asked her as she attached herself to his arm.

“Seychas[4],” she told him, and hoped it was true.

Chapter Text

Beth hated Halloween. Sure, she pretended to be someone else for a living, but there was an elegance to her craft that was entirely absent from the gaudy costumes worn on the last day of October. However, she had appearances to keep up, so she was going to a bash in Brooklyn that Margaret mentioned at the last Apple Pi brunch.

She wore a little black dress with a bow at the top and stopped by a party supply store to pick up a black witch hat before she took a cab to the loft in Williamsburg.

As she made her way up the external stairs, she was busy watching her feet to make sure her Louboutins didn’t get stuck in the grating. She didn’t see the piping jutting out of the brickwork on the landing. When a hand grasped her wrist to halt her, she looked up to discover the averted disaster.

She turned to thank the stranger and was greeted by a familiar black clad man with some fake vampire teeth leaning against the railing. “Thank you- oh it’s you.”

“You should watch where you’re going,” he said with a smug smile. “Unless you prefer to spend the night in the emergency room.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, buttoning her black shrug closed to ward off the wind from the East River. What were the odds of running into him by chance three times in the span of two months? Not that she was counting. He couldn’t be stalking her, after all he was here first.

“Attending a party?” he replied in a sardonic tone. “Nice hat.”

“It’s certainly more comfortable than those dentures,” she threw back easily, moving to a spot beside him to make way for some newcomers.

The front door opened to a dark room with strobe lightning, fog on the floor and the steady thrum of techno music. This was really not her scene. Apparently the reaction was plain on her face because Benny offered her a cigarette. She declined with a shake of her head and watched him lit one up for himself.

“I went to one of those meetings you told me about,” he said between drags.

“Oh,” she said, surprised that he had heeded her advice. “I hope it went well?”

“It was alright,” he replied with a smoky sigh. “I’m supposed to find a sponsor, someone who’s successfully kicked the habit and can help me stay on the reservation, but I don’t see why I would want to tell some rando my personal shit.”

Beth barely knew this man, even if she knew his body from a night of bad judgement, and could gain nothing from helping him. Yet she was the one who had started him down this path and she felt responsible for seeing it through.

Her mind was geared towards math and she had a penchant for remembering numbers. She pulled out her phone and punched in the one she still remembered from a mere glance months ago. A single ring went off in his coat pocket.

“I don’t fit your description, but I’ll listen if you need to talk,” she told him.

He looked at her appraisingly before he chuckled, “You know, witches and vampires are supposed to be mortal enemies, so we’re breaking character here.”

“I think that’s vampires and werewolves,” she corrected.

“See you’ve just confessed to being a Twilight fan,” he playfully accused.

“I did not!” Beth denied, shoving his arm in rebuke. “Everyone knows the plot.”

“Uh huh, sure they do,” he hummed with a smirk.

She shook her head at his jest and left him on the landing. If she played her cards right, she could be in and out before midnight. She saw other vampires scattered throughout the loft, but she didn’t catch a glimpse of Benny again that night.

-

The next week passed normally. Some nights Benny would call and they would discuss mundane topics or watch the same TV channel and trade commentary. They didn’t talk about his gambling again.

Beth was setting out the ingredients for a grilled cheese sandwich when her phone began to ring. She picked up and continued her meal prep. “Hello?”

“Beth,” Benny said. “Are you busy?”

“No, I’m not,” she said, sitting down on a bar stool near the kitchen counter.

“I’m surprised, it’s a Saturday night,” he said.

“I guess weekends don’t matter as much when you don’t have a nine to five,” she replied.

“Yeah,” he laughed, but it sounded forced.

“So what are you doing right now?” she cringed as the words left her lips. It sounded so awkward but she was trying to be patient instead of pushing for his motive.

“Just bored at home when I could be making back my money instead,” he said, setting off alarm bells in Beth’s head. She could hear some street noise in the background. Maybe he was on a balcony or had a window open, but she had to assume the worst.

“Needing the win won’t make the cards come,” she reasoned. He knew this too, but positive reinforcement couldn’t hurt, especially when he might be on the verge of a relapse.

“I just feel really lucky tonight, like I could cover my losses in one sitting,” he countered. It was an excuse, even if he had convinced himself of its legitimacy. Beth had to offer him the perspective he couldn’t see at the moment.

“Benny, this is how you ended up in this situation in the first place. You have to stop making it worse,” she told him firmly.

“You don’t get it, Beth. The longer I let it lie, the more the interest builds. I just need one night to get back to even and then I won’t play again,” he argued.

Beth didn’t know why he was so anxious to play on this night in particular but she knew her role here was to talk him out of it. “How much do you owe?”

“Ten grand.”

“Wow.”

That was a lot to owe. She could see why he might be losing sleep over it. She had that much saved in her safe from her working woman days, but it had taken her a year to save that. Even now the cash was a nice safety cushion.

“I know,” he sighed. “And the juice is five points a week.”

That was a steep interest rate for a principal amount to compound at, but Beth supposed that’s why loan sharking was a lucrative business. In a month, his debt would balloon to twelve thousand.

“What happens if you can’t pay?” Beth asked, trying to understand the gravity of the situation.

“I won’t play okay?” he conceded without answering her question. “I’ll find another way to settle it.”

“Keep calling me so I know you’re alright?” If he just didn’t call, there wasn’t anything she could do. His avoidance unnerved Beth. Maybe she should offer him another option, in case his urges get worse. “You can come by if you want.”

“Yeah sure. Goodnight,” he hung up, sounding rueful.

In the morning, Beth added his name to her approved visitor list and made sure her phone’s ringer was on. All she could do was wait and hope for the best now.

-

Benny called Beth every night for the next week, just like before, and she began to relax. After her Saturday morning breakfast of waffles, Beth settled down on the couch with a copy of Little Fires Everywhere, comfy in her favorite t-shirt and some sweatpants.

She was startled when she heard a knock on her door, since she wasn’t expecting anyone. The doorman hadn’t rang about any visitors. She warily set the book down and peered through the peephole, only to pull back with a barely-suppressed gasp.

It was Benny, but he’d been roughed up. Violence was foreign to her. When she worried about getting hurt, it was never physical. She was frozen at the unfamiliar sight, but shook her head and opened the three locks on the door.

“Hi,” he greeted in a strained voice, a hand clutching one of his sides.

“Get in here,” Beth commanded, slipping an arm around his waist to help him to the couch. Once they made it there, she took a closer look. The black eye was starting to purple.

“Did you get jumped?” she asked him, as she moved to the kitchen to get an ice pack.

“Something like that,” she heard him call out.

She handed him the ice pack and he held it against his face with a mumbled thanks.

“That first night I called you… I was standing outside the poker den,” he confessed. “I’m not sure why I even called you. I wanted to go in, but I didn’t play that night or any night since, I swear.”

“I know,” she told him, taking his hand in hers. “I believe you.”

“Let me get you something for the pain.” She went to her bedside desk for her trusty black tube and to the kitchen for a glass of water. She returned to the living room to find him still shaky on the sofa.

She set them both down and took a seat next to him. “Take two of these.”

He opened the cap, pulled out a white pill and eyed it warily in his hand. “What is it?”

“Xanax. You look like you need it,” she told him.

With a reluctant scowl, he swallowed the pill and gulped down the glass of water.

“You shouldn’t be buying these off the street,” he told her, discerning the lack of a prescription label. She raised an eyebrow to question whether he should be warning her about the dangers of illicit dealings given his state of appearance.

“Do you take these often?” He asked, looking at the contents of the bottle like he was counting how many there were.

She took the bottle from him and capped it firmly. “It’s just a sleeping aid.”

He didn’t look like he believed her, but there were more important matters.

“I should check for more damage,” she said, moving a hand to hesitantly lift up his shirt. He stayed relaxed so Beth inspected the area he’d been holding before and saw some bruising.

“Are you sure you don’t need to go to a hospital?” she asked. She didn’t have much experience with first aid.

“Nah, it’s not that bad,” he insisted. “I paid part of it off so they went easy on me.”

A part of Beth’s heart broke at the thought that he could be hurt worse next time. She swallowed against the swell of terror that arose at the prospect. She didn’t want to lose someone else.

“How much are you still in for?” she asked.

“Five grand.”

Beth blinked at that. He’d managed to scrape together five thousand dollars over the last three weeks. If he’d really stayed away from the table, he must have been seeing some of his special lady friends. A familiar churning began in her gut.

“I can give you the rest of it,” she said, keeping her voice even.

“No,” he rejected out of hand. “Beth, I am not going to take your money.”

“Why not?” she demanded, getting a little angry. “What’s wrong with my money?” He certainly had no problem taking money from the other women.

“I don’t need your charity!” he snapped.

She flinched back and his expression softened.

“I’m sorry,” he looked away, taking his hat off finally. “I know you think I’m dirty.”

“No, I would be the last person to judge you Benny,” she assured him, a hand on his shoulder. “I just don’t want you to have to sell your body. It’s not much of a choice when the alternative is you get hurt or you go back to gambling again.”

“It’s not a big deal, Beth. As if you don’t sleep with him,” he scoffed, clearly hurting even if it wasn’t aimed at her.

“That’s not what he pays me for,” she calmly replied.

“What then?” he challenged, but Beth only smiled with a sage’s wisdom. She withdrew her hand and tucked her legs beneath herself.

“He’s an oil baron,” Beth informed him. “Women are always throwing themselves at him. I am not the most beautiful among them.”

He shook his head but she continued. “What I am is intuitive. I can give him what he wants without him ever having to ask: to feel young and alive and like he’s with an equal.”

She looked away from him and thought of the man beneath the stern exterior. “He is lonely, not because of lack of physical comfort, but because no one understands him except me. I see him and accept him as he is. It’s not something he buys from me, Benny.” She turned back to him. “It is freely given, it wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t.”

“Do you love him?” he asked hesitantly, as if he was afraid to hear the answer.

Beth gave him a sad smile. “There can be no love in their world, only the illusion of it.”

He took her hand and squeezed in understanding.

“What do they pay you for?” she asked softly, wondering if he would be less confrontational now. If he was okay with it, she would have to find a way to accept his choice.

“Well you’ve seen my persona and you’ve heard about my reputation,” he shrugged. “They just wanna feel special for a night. A private party for two.”

“What about Cleo?” she prodded.

“It’s complicated,” he shook his head.

“Do you get tested?” she asked. She had only gotten tested twice, between each of her marks.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I know we used a condom, but I want you to know I was clean before and after.”

Beth gulped. She really didn’t expect him to bring that up again. She was still raw about what happened between them that night. It had been easy to push aside over the phone and in public, but now they were alone and sitting a few feet from the spot in question.

She reminded herself that they were different people now, no longer riled strangers but hesitant friends. It was in the past and it could stay there collecting cobwebs as far as she was concerned.

“I’ll get another ice pack and some chamomile tea. You should get some rest,” she said, standing up. “You can stay as long as you need. I can fix your face with some makeup when you’re ready to leave.”

“You are not putting that gunk on my face,” he told her.

“Green eyeshadow works great on purple skin,” she informed him matter of factly.

“How do you know that?” he asked gingerly.

“If you play around with an eyeshadow palette, you learn which colors blend into what other colors,” she told him. “Green and purple make an earthy, skin tone. We can add white until it matches your complexion.”

He groaned again and she smiled to herself on the way to the kitchen. Maybe he would be okay.

-

There was a knock at the front door.

“Just a minute,” Beth called out, wiping her hands on her red and white checkered apron. She lowered the heat on the yams she was boiling and went to let her guest in.

“Hello,” he greeted. Benny looked good, the bruises had almost completely healed. He held a store bought peach cobbler in one hand. The only problem with the picture was the way he was scrunching up his nose. “I think something’s burning.”

“The turkey!” Beth exclaimed, rushing to pull on oven mitts and take the smoking tray out of the oven. She fanned it with a nearby tray, praying that the sprinklers wouldn’t go off. Even she didn’t tip the Super enough to have him not begrudge a call from her on Thanksgiving.

After the water crisis was averted, Beth stared at the singed bird regretfully. “Poor bird.”

“You realize it’s already dead right?” he asked with a slow blink.

“Yeah, but it died for a cause. Now its death was in vain,” she sighed. “Maybe we can just order pizza.”

He shrugged off his coat and placed it on a bar stool along with his hat.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he told her, patting her shoulder. “We can fix it. Hand me that carving knife and fork.”

Beth held the bird in place with her mitts, while Benny removed the blackened skin and carved up the meat.

“Do you have any gravy?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Beth said, grabbing a jar out of the fridge. “Let me just heat it in the microwave.”

“Nah, it’ll curdle,” he objected. “We’re better off with low heat on the stove.”

Beth worked to plate the yams as Benny dumped the carved pieces into a pot with the gravy.

“You really know what you’re doing,” she remarked.

“I’ve just screwed up enough times to know how to fix it,” he shrugged. “No one starts out perfect in the kitchen.”

They ate at her table, talking about everything and nothing at all.

Somewhere along the way Beth worked up the nerve to ask him why he started going to the meetings.

“What you said at the museum,” Benny admitted. “It was easier to convince myself that things were still manageable when no one called me out on it.”

It was only after Benny left that Beth realized she hadn’t thought of either of her deceased mothers that day. Almost every holiday they would haunt her thoughts, but today was an exception. She didn’t need any help falling asleep that night.

-

The reprieve didn’t last though. It wasn’t long until Beth found herself having one of those nights, when she lay awake thinking about her mothers’ dead bodies. Alice had been laid down beside the car, a red-splotched blanket draped over her like she could have been just sleeping on the bridge. Alma’s eyes had been wide open, but Beth supposed some people slept like that too.

She knew it was an irrational fear, but she was afraid that if she let the darkness overtake her, she wouldn’t wake up again. Who would even notice? How many days would her body lay in this bed before someone complained about the smell and the building super checked on her?

She shook her head and reached for the Xanax in her bedside drawer. When she pulled out the bottle and went to uncap it, Beth remembered how Benny had reacted to the pills. Benny would notice if she didn’t wake up and answer the phone when he called about the most random things to distract himself.

Beth felt like she was letting him down. She was supposed to be supporting his recovery from gambling so it would be hypocritical to be using drugs like this even if she certainly wasn’t addicted to narcotics. Not to mention, she wouldn’t hear the phone ring if he called while she was knocked out by the pills.

She put the container back and reached for her phone instead. He picked up on the third ring.

“Is something wrong?” he asked right off the bat.

“No,” Beth denied. “I just- I can’t sleep.”

“Oh,” he quickly caught on. “Well since we’re talking anyway I might as well tell you what I saw on the subway today.”

“What’d you see?” she prompted, settling in place.

“There was a giant rat. Huge. Like it must have fallen into a vat of toxic waste or something,” he described, with liberal doses of dramatization.

“This is why I don’t ride the subway,” Beth laughed.

“I will have you know being traumatized on the L train is a quintessential New York experience,” he playfully mocked.

“Did anyone freak out about SuperRat?”.

“Yeah this one lady screamed. If the rat could talk he would have said ‘calm down bitch, I’m only here to eat the garbage. All I do to keep these tunnels clean and this is the thanks I get.’”

“Maybe the rat was used in a lab experiment and it mutated him,” Beth offered.

“Silly Beth, that’s a myth. Everyone knows you use mice for those.”

“I’m pretty sure they use rats, Benny,” she replied, a yawn making its way out of her mouth mid-sentence.

“I will look it up and call you back tomorrow to say ‘I told you so,’” he declared. “Goodnight, Beth.”

“Goodnight, Benny,” she replied and disconnected the call.

She turned on her side and fell asleep to thoughts of rats and cowboys.

-

A few days later, Benny dropped in to see Beth again. She braced herself for his possible state, but to her great relief he was intact and dressed in his normal attire.

They sat on her couch and she waited for him to break the silence. It took him a few minutes of fidgeting before he straightened up and looked her in the eye.

“I think I need three grand, if you’re still offering,” he said, his voice trembling slightly. He hadn’t even seemed this upset when he was beat up, so to see him shaky without any injuries was alarming to Beth.

She was not sure whether she wanted to know what exactly spooked Benny Watts, but she trusted his judgement on what’s worth worrying over in this particular matter.

Beth tried not to read too much into the fact that he had come to her this time. It didn’t necessarily mean that he had stopped seeing his clients. Maybe he had finally set his pride aside.

She left him on the sofa and went to the safe in her closet. Her hand shook as she punched in the combination to unlock it, fumbling the digits the first time. She pulled out three pre-bundled stacks, each one amounting to a thousand dollars.

She recalled all those late-night waitressing shifts where she wanted to drop, and working on holidays when everyone else was at home with their families. The honest work she had put into this money from back before she had discovered her potential as a temptress.

Could she really part with the only tangible proof she had that she could support herself without being the fancy of any man? Plus, the money has always been a safety net for emergencies.

But this was an emergency, and if she couldn’t be here for him in his hour of need after she had offered to help, Beth didn’t know how she would live with herself.

She returned to the living room and gingerly handed it over to him.

“I’ll pay you back,” he assured her, looking guilty about the whole thing.

She sat down next to him and shook her head. “I don’t want you to.”

She knew how he made his money and she didn’t want to be one of the reasons behind it.

“Won’t it put you out?” he pressed.

“I earned this a few years ago while waitressing. It’s mine to give.” She closed his fingers around the stacks. He finally tucked them away inside his duster.

Chapter Text

Beth was in Saks when her phone started playing the theme music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Ignoring the weird looks she received from the other patrons, Beth calmly answered the call. “Yes?”

“What happened to hello?” was the snarky response from the other end of the line.

The corner of Beth’s lips turned up in amusement as she continued to leaf through the rack of coats in front of her.

“Why hello, Benny,” she exclaimed with false enthusiasm.

“Why hello, Beth,” he parroted, satisfied at having his petty request indulged.

“There. Now that we’re done with the formalities, I assume you called for a reason,” she pulled out a checkered coat with a buttonable neck collar strip. She held it up against herself and assessed the look in the nearby full length mirror.

“Today’s meeting is an open one and I was wondering if you could come. It’s at three o'clock at the bookstore on twenty-second and tenth,” he asked, voice a little quieter.

Beth covered the receiver with one hand and passed the coat to the shopping assistant who had been helping her. “I’ll be wearing this out.”

The employee bustled away with a “yes ma’am” to ring up the item. Beth followed her and replied to Benny, “Sure, save me a seat. I gotta go now.”

He hung up with a ‘bye’ and she pulled out her American Express black card to finish the purchase. The girl helped her into the coat and Beth thanked her before heading out of the store.

She took herself to lunch at a French Bistro and then caught a cab to Chelsea.

At the bookstore, Beth made a subtle inquiry at the front desk and was directed to take the stairs to the basement. She saw Benny sitting in the front row of the metal foldable chairs that had been arranged to face a small podium. She stopped by the refreshments table and had learned on a previous visit to skip the coffee but the doughnuts looked decent so she grabbed a chocolate glazed one in a napkin.

“Hey,” she greeted, dropping into the seat next to him after picking up his hat from the chair. He took it from her and returned it to its rightful place on his head.

“You’re on time,” he remarked.

“Always am,” she informed him with a teasing smile.

A man took the stage and said he was going to be leading today’s session. After a brief introduction for any newcomers, he asked for a volunteer to kick things off and Benny went up.

“Hi, I’m Benny and I’m a gambling addict,” he started with his hands in his coat pockets.

“Hi Benny,” the room echoed back.

“They say if you do anything for thirty days straight it becomes a habit. As of today, I haven’t played a game in a month. I’m hoping that means staying straight is part of my routine now,” he held out a chip that said ‘one month’ on it and rolled it on his knuckles, seemingly on pure instinct.

Beth frowned inwardly, but kept her face encouraging. Sobriety was a new habit and she was proud of him for sticking with it, but old habits die hard so they would have to stay vigilant.

“I don’t know if I would have made it without my friend Beth who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” he stated, looking at her softly.

Beth nodded gracefully in acknowledgement and felt a blush on her cheeks.

“Thanks for listening,” he concluded and sat back down beside her to a round of soft applause. He casually slipped her hand into his and turned his attention to the next speaker.

Beth couldn’t remember the last time someone other than a mark had held her hand in public. It was probably with Alma. Normally the thought would have made her despondent, but today was a milestone that indicated Benny’s path had diverged from Alma’s. She wanted to think her adoptive mother would be proud of her role in that. So she was content to eat her doughnut and let him hold her hand for the rest of the meeting.


It was that time of the month again: Sunday Brunch with the Apple Pi's. Beth donned a luxuriously soft emerald turtleneck and some warm cashmere slacks to ward off the December chill.

The Garden at the Four Seasons had been decorated for fall with autumn leaf hangings and the specials menu included an assortment of apple based items from pastries to spiked cider. Soon they would switch over to a Christmas theme.

Beth opted for an Irish coffee and a plate of apple fritters. The gossip was perfectly enjoyable and enlightening until the subject turned to Benny.

“Has anyone been with Benny lately?” Margaret asked the group. “I’ve seen him around and he’s friendly enough, but he never comes over anymore.”

A few others shook their heads.

“Beth, I think I saw you two together in Chelsea the other day. Are you together?” Sarah ventured.

“No!” Beth denied, perhaps a little too strongly. She composed herself and continued. “We’re just friends.”

“Sure you are,” Margaret said sarcastically before mercifully switching the topic to winter vacation plans.

Later that day, when she was having her regular evening phone call with Benny, she brought it up nonchalantly. “My friend Margaret was asking about you today and someone else mentioned seeing us together.”

“Uh huh,” he acknowledged. “What’d you tell her?”

“That we’re just friends,” she replied, leaning back onto the sofa.

“Which is true,” he spoke slowly, like he was trying to find her point. “What’s got you all tangled up about it?”

“I guess I’m just wondering how many other women are wondering about your absence,” she said, one hand fisting the blanket on her lap.

“Oh,” he seemed speechless, which would be a first.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Beth quickly covered up.

“Well,” he drawled. “It’s definitely a defunct business now anyway.”

“Really?” she tried not to sound too happy.

“Yeah, I got an actual job instead.” Beth blinked and wondered why this was the first she was hearing of it. She was only concerned as his friend, of course. A job might create stress triggers that could drive him back to the playing tables.

“Doing what?” she inquired.

“Bartending at this pub on forty-seventh and Lexington,” he rattled off easily.

Beth breathed a silent sigh of relief. Neither of them were in acute danger from that particular vice at least. Then a thought occurred to her. “What does Cleo think about that?”

“Cleo’s not in the picture anymore. In fact, I think she’s not on the continent either,” he told her.

“Oh.” Now it was Beth’s turn to be speechless.

“You won’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard from patrons,” Benny pivoted, keeping his tone light.

“Try me,” Beth challenged, reaching for the hot chocolate on the coffee table.


Beth waited on a park bench while Benny bought them both bagels from a nearby stand. It was a lovely winter evening and gave her a chance to wear her white wool coat and matching hat. She watched as children ran around on the playground and an eclectic crowd filled an open air ice rink.

“Here you go,” he said as he sat down next to her and handed her a bagel that looked more like an ice cream sandwich with the sheer amount of cream cheese in the middle. She wiped most of it off with a napkin.

“What are you doing?” he asked, eyebrows furrowed.

“It’s too much cream cheese,” she replied, shaking her head.

“Well I mean what else are we paying the extra dollar for?” he wondered aloud, taking a big bite out of his bagel.

“A good New York bagel doesn’t need cream cheese,” she told him proudly.

“You could have told me that before,” he jested. She shoved her shoulder against his in playful rebuke. “Besides you’re not even from here, Miss Kentucky.”

“I actually didn’t win the state beauty pageant Mr. Watts,” she threw back. “But it’s nice to hear that you think I could.”

They both laughed and ate their bagels in a comfortable silence, legs brushing to guard against the chilly air.

“Come on,” he said, getting up and offering her a hand. “Where are we going?”

She took his bare skinned hand with her own gloved one and briefly regretted that she had worn them, even if they were Chanel. Benny was always so warm.

“We are gonna make a real New Yorker out of you,” he told her, linking their arms together and walking them towards the ice rink.

“Benny, no,” she laughed. “I’m hopeless on the ice. I’ve tried before, it’s just not for me.”

“Humor me,” he persisted as they reached the rental kiosk.

“You got the bagels. I’ll get these,” Beth pulled some bills out of her purse to pay before he could protest in earnest.

They told the attendant their sizes and sat down on one of the metal benches to lace up the skates. Beth was having trouble doing up the laces with her gloves.

“There,” he reached over and did them for her, his head nearly in her lap. “You’re all good to go.”

He helped her wobble over to the entrance and she clung on the railing as she stepped out onto the ice and scooted over to not block the opening.

“Come on, Beth,” he said, turning so he was in front of her and offering his hands to pull her along. “I won’t let you fall.”

She let him lead her across the rink. Once she got past her nerves and stopped tensing up her ankles on his advice, it felt a bit like flying. Of course, he was doing all the work and if he let go, she’d go sprawling across the ice. Beth believed him when he said he wouldn’t though.


Beth hadn’t spent a Christmas by herself since Freshman year of college. Even though Christmas was celebrated in January by Orthodox Russians, Vasily had been in town for the December holiday season last year. This year, he was delayed until the evening of the twenty sixth and sent his apologies, but Beth told him not to worry about it. After all, it’s not like she would be spending it alone.

Benny wasn’t big on Christmas. He said it was a completely commercial holiday and she told him that he just needed to get into the spirit to see the beauty in it.

Beth loved the decoration aspect of the holiday and always put up a tree, even if it was an artificial one with built-in lights for convenience’s sake. She hung up ornaments, wrapped it in tinsel and topped it with a star. She also put a wreath on the front door and hung some mistletoe above the entrance.

Benny showed up on Christmas Eve with Chinese food. When she let him in, he looked up at the mistletoe and said, “Really? You know if you want to make out with me, all you have to do is ask.”

Beth’s mind flashed back to that last time he had said something similar when they were pressed up against each other, hot and heavy. They’d been tangled up in each other in more ways than one, reaching heights of raw emotion previously unknown to her. But they were friends now and everything was simpler so it was easy to shake her head, giggling. “It’s not for you.”

“Oh right, he’s coming back tomorrow,” Benny said, frowning and setting down the food. “It’s bad luck not to kiss under mistletoe. Wouldn’t want him to get into some terrible accident on the way, now would you?”

Beth smiled in amusement and leaned in to give him a quick and harmless peck on the lips, but he put his hands on her hips and playfully slipped his tongue into her mouth. Her heart skipped a beat and her eyes fell shut as she kissed him back.

It was both familiar and different. She found that he still tasted of cigarettes and apples, but now there was a hint of cinnamon too. Her hands clenched the soft fabric of his t-shirt. The fiery flames of passion from their last kiss were replaced with glowing embers of warmth.

His lips were warm, despite the chill outside, but his hands were cold on her thin slacks. She wanted to run her hands through his hair, but he was still wearing his hat and she didn’t want to disturb it or the moment.

She should pull away now. It was well past the decent period for a mistletoe kiss, but for some reason, this moment felt like a natural part of Christmas and they lingered in the doorway.

She supposed a little seasonal celebration between friends couldn’t hurt, it was perfectly normal. It was like kissing someone at the end of the countdown on New Years Eve, just a tradition to be followed.

Except it would be Vasily she would kiss in a few days from now under those circumstances, not Benny. Benny would be tending bar, while Beth worked her hustle in a ballroom.

Now the kiss just felt bittersweet. She pulled back and made an excuse to move past the moment. “We should eat before the food gets cold.”

“The noodles are actually better when eaten cold out of the fridge,” he called out, as he grabbed the food and locked the front door behind him.

“You’re just lazy when it comes to reheating your food,” she shot back, getting out plates for the food and glasses for eggnog, trying to regain her composure.

Once they’d finished dinner, Beth insisted that they watch It’s A Wonderful Life, claiming it to be the ultimate Christmas movie. She caught him hiding a few sniffles he claimed were caused by allergies near the end. Benny claimed he still preferred The Nightmare Before Christmas, and when Beth admitted to having never seen it, they had to watch that too. She didn’t resist much, it was hard to go wrong with Tim Burton. By the time their double feature was over, it was late and snowing heavily outside.

“I should head out,” he said, getting up off where they’d been warmly nestled together on the couch.

“Don’t be absurd,” she said, pulling him back down. “You can take the couch.”

He hesitated. “What if he comes back early?”

“I doubt that Vasily will mind if I have friends over when he’s not here,” she dismissed his concern.

“Right,” he seemed a bit morose, but Beth didn’t comment on it.

“Don’t disappear in the morning light either alright,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he mock-saluted her.

She laughed out a ‘goodnight’ and retired to the bedroom.

The next morning, she made them scrambled eggs and bacon along with some coffee.

“Is a full service bed and breakfast my Christmas present?” he raised a toast with his mug of coffee. “Well, couch and breakfast.”

She smiled indulgently. “What if it is?”

“Then I happily accept,” he informed her and proceeded to devour his food.

“I got you something too,” he said afterwards.

He pulled a nondescript envelope out from his leather duster and slid it down the kitchen bar counter to where she sat beside him.

Beth opened it to find a familiar stack of bills.

Before she could object, he cut in. “I know you said you didn’t want it back, but I wanted us to be on an even footing. It’s from tips at the bar, not the other thing.”

She understood him not wanting to feel like he’s in her debt. Had he gotten the job just to pay her back? Had he stopped seeing those women for her?

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

Beth went to her bedroom closet to deposit the money in her safe.

Maybe she was overthinking things. Friends loaned each other money and paid each other back. She was happy for the newfound stability in his life. That was all.

On her way back, she took a small box out of her dresser and set it down on the kitchen counter in front of him.

He opened the lid to find a set of three silver feathers identical to the one in his hat.

“In case you ever lose it, so you don’t have to worry about disappointing your grandpa,” she explained.

He blinked a few times. “Thank you, Beth.” He stood up from his bar stool and pulled her into a hug.

It was different from any other time she had been in his arms. There was something vulnerable and honest in the way he held her to him now. She embraced him back and they stayed like that for a while.


The Grand Ballroom at the Ritz Carlton was an explosion of gold leaf and crystals. Beth looked a little plain in her black and white gingham dress with an A-line skirt and black shrug.

She was making polite small talk with the wife of the French ambassador who thought her outfit was retro. Vasily was hoping to secure an oil import agreement with the French government, so Beth made sure to butter up the woman in her native language. Power lies where men believe it lies, and men believe whatever women want them to. After securing an invitation to a dinner at the embassy, Beth bid her adieu and made her way over to the bar.

She didn’t normally drink at these events, preferring to keep her wits about her, but there was something so tiring about these fake interactions that never used to bother her before.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked before tilting her head to the side. “Not to be rude, but I think we’ve met before.”

“Oh, must have been at one of these events,” Beth shrugged, reaching for her purse.

“Can I get a Gibson?” she asked, pulling out a twenty.

“It’s an open bar, ma’am,” The girl objected.

“Please, I insist,” Beth slid the bill across the counter.

Recognition flared in the bartender’s eyes. “Were you at the Hamptons Labor Day party?”

Beth smiled and nodded. “Ah yes, I recall seeing you there as well.”

“I do hope things worked out with that gentleman. You two seemed like a good match.” The girl winked and set about fixing her martini with an onion instead of olives.

“We’re just friends,” Beth told her, but it tasted bitter on her tongue. How many times had she repeated that phrase lately? She was sick of having to say it.

Beth took the drink back to her assigned seat at one of the round dinner tables and slowly sipped at it. It was thirty minutes to midnight and the eve of a new year.

There was something about this day that made her reflect on their past and think about what lay ahead. The best parts of last year weren’t her shopping purchases, the parties or flying to Europe in a private plane. They were jokes and laughs, ups and downs, moments she shared with a certain cowboy who had shed his persona to let her see the flawed person beneath. In turn, she had also let him see her and they both turned out better for it. Was this what love felt like? Was this why so many people were suckers?

She scanned the room until her gaze found the Russian she was looking for. She was fond of him and their time together, but he didn’t know the real her and if she showed him, she was sure he would leave her. This was why the three golden rules existed. Her marks desired the fantasy she spun and that was the line in the sand.

Beth tried to picture the next year without Benny and saw a large void in her life. When she did the same with Vasily, the effect was considerably less. Maybe the money had been an excuse; maybe what she had really been looking for was a way to not be alone without having to risk getting hurt. For a while, she had fooled herself into thinking a glamorous lifestyle could satisfy her, but now that she’s had a taste of the real thing, it was hard to ignore the difference.

“Chto ne tak Liza[5]?” She hadn’t noticed that Vasily had returned to his seat while she was caught up in her thoughts.

“Dumayu… mne nuzhno idti Vasya[6],” she told him gently.

“Ya ponimayu[7],” he smiled knowingly and held a gentle hand to her cheek. “Ne toropites', ne toropites'[8].”

“Spasibo tebe za vse[9],” she took his other hand with her own.

“Udovol'stviye eto moye[10],” he told her with a kiss on her cheek before letting her go.

Beth made a discreet exit from the festivities and got her white fur coat from the coat check before heading out. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hail a cab so close to midnight but her intended destination was thankfully only a five minute walk away and the weather was decent for December.

On the way over, she began to second guess herself. Yes she was ready to move on from that life, but maybe it was impulsive of her to go see Benny now. She knew he was working and it might be busy given the holiday. But she had to share the news with somebody, and Benny had become her somebody.

Maybe Beth had read him wrong and he wasn’t interested in being with her, but she had to try. All this time she spent guarding her heart from getting broken like her mothers’, she had just been breaking it herself.

The bar’s name turned out to be Snafu and Beth appreciated the pun because she could already imagine the jokes Benny would make out of it. She walked in through the red door with black grilling and hung up her coat on the nearby stand.

The place was decently crowded but less than most places would be tonight. She found a seat at the bar and looked around while she waited for the barkeep to notice her. There was an artistic sign on the wall that said ‘what whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for’.

“Beth, is that you?” Benny called out. She swiveled around to face him. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see where you worked,” she answered.

“But… don’t you have somewhere to be?” he hinted once he reached her.

“Nope. I have all the time in the world,” she told him and took a deep breath for the next part. “I left him.”

“Why?” he asked with an inscrutable expression.

“I don’t want to live a lie anymore,” she confessed.

“Then I’m happy for you,” he said with a grim smile.

“He wasn’t the reason we couldn’t be together,” she continued, thinking back to that first night in her apartment. “The problem was me. I couldn’t handle anything real back then.”

He just stared at her and Beth could feel her palms sweating as she met his gaze head on.

“And that’s changed?” he asked tentatively.

She nodded and smiled at him with earnest affection. His concerned expression melted into something sincere and the bar patrons hollered ‘happy new year’ as they met in a kiss over the bar counter.

Chapter Text

Benny’s basement bunker was a far cry from her high rise condo, but there was a homely charm to the neighborhood at least. He got it as a sublet so Beth wondered if they could find somewhere else once his lease was up.

She could always sell her car, it was just sitting in a garage. She was also looking into getting a job recommendation from one of her Apple Pi friends. ‘Anything related to math’ was a wide net so she was sure to find something.

Yesterday Benny had helped her vacate the condo.

“Are those jeans?” he asked upon arrival. “Who are you and what have you done with Beth Harmon?”

“Well they’re practical for labor intensive activities,” she explained, before growing shy and looking away. “And I kind of thought you’d like them since you wear them all the time.”

Benny had smiled and walked up to her, putting his hands on her waist. “Beth, you look good in everything. You should wear what you want, not what you think I’d prefer.”

It was a gentle reminder that Benny wasn’t a mark, she didn’t have to be his perfect woman. He wanted the real, flawed Beth and she was still getting used to that.

“Okay,” she said, wrapping her arms around him and leaning in to kiss him softly. She wanted their last kiss in this place to be an earnest one. Not under the premise of mistletoe or the haze of provocation, but just born of pure affection.

Once they returned to the task at hand, it had taken most of the day but they managed to finish the move.

There was one set of items that had apparently arrived at Benny’s ahead of the rest though.

“Are these my hand towels?” she asked, running her fingers through the terry cotton fibers already hung on the bathroom rack. “I’ve been wondering where they went.”

“If you had wanted to hang on to ones that nice, you should have gotten them monogrammed,” he told her. “Otherwise it’s an open invitation for guests to take them home.”

“I guess I’ll just have to write my name on what I want to keep,” she replied, drawing close to him and laying a hand on his chest. “How do you feel about tattoos?”

He’d kissed her hungrily in response and they had an intense make out session against the bathroom counter. Unfortunately, they had been too tired to take things further.

Hopefully this morning however would be another story. When Benny went out to get some breakfast and the morning paper, Beth changed into a black lace bra and panty set to surprise him, feeling a little self conscious as she laid on the bed.

“I’m in here,” she called out when she heard the front door open.

He walked into the bedroom with the bagels still in hand and his mouth dropped open at the sight of her.

“It’s bad luck not to break in the bed,” Beth explained.

“Now this is my favorite kind of bed and breakfast,” he told her, stripping down until he was wearing as much as her and kicking his boots beneath the bed.

He flopped down next to her and pulled her into his embrace, kissing her slowly and deeply.

She relaxed into his arms, feeling a sense of safety and contentment. It was like she was finally home.

Her hands found their way into his hair and she lost herself in the cavern of his mouth, letting out a whine when he moved his lips away from hers and down her body.

His hands pulled down her underwear and he looked up at her inquiringly. Her mind flashed back to the Four Seasons and her friends gushing over how good he was at going down on them. It was like she was back at that table, feeling uneasy all over again.

“Benny…” she murmured with a slow shake of her head, a gentle reproach and a whispered plea to leave well enough alone. “Can we do something else?”

“Sure,” he acquiesced, pulling away to lie beside her. “Will you tell me what’s wrong though?”

She wanted to never have to think about it again, but she had entwined her life with his and that meant sharing the truth even if it was ugly.

“I don’t want to be like those other women,” she confessed, turning her head to the other side and trying to push back the guilt bubbling up. She didn’t want to hurt him or make him feel bad, but she couldn’t pretend to be unbothered.

“Beth, you could never be like them,” he told her, a light hand on her cheek, asking her to look at him. She faced him and he took her hand in his own.

“You are not a client to me and I am not in debt to you,” he reminded her tenderly. “I want to share this with you because I care about you, Beth.”

She wanted to believe him, his statements granting her reassurance.

“Please, trust me?” he implored calmly, staring deeply into her eyes. He was asking her to trust him to not hurt either of them.

Was this what it meant to love someone? Beth felt like there was nothing she wouldn’t agree to, if he looked at her like that. It was now or never. She took the leap. “Okay, if it’s what you really want, we can try it. But if either of us says stop, we drop it, yeah?”

“Of course,” he nodded and kissed her soundly.

This time he took longer to make his way down the length of her, stopping along the way to kiss and suckle at her skin. Finally he breathed over her bare crotch and a shiver went through her. At the gentle nudge of his hands on her thighs, she spread her legs apart to accommodate him.

He slid her hands beneath her, cupping her cheeks with his warm hands and tilting her lower body upward. She clenched in anticipation.

“You’re tensing up,” he told her, his lips against her groin. “Just relax.”

His voice vibrated through her very bones and sent sparks up her spine, making her arch her back.

She tried to follow his advice and loosened her muscles, taking slow, deep breaths. It wasn’t like this was her first time getting head, but being with Benny was different. She felt a sense of vulnerability that had been missing even when she had lost her virginity.

She could feel his nose brush her curls and was glad she’d trimmed them last week.

His lips traced the seam of her sex and his tongue darted out for a light lick. “You taste so good, Beth.”

She glanced down to see him looking up at her with desire in his eyes and she could only hum in acknowledgement, blood rushing to her cheeks and heat pooling in her stomach.

He flicked his tongue up against her clit and she jerked away from the sudden stimulation.

“Sorry,” he apologized, still trying to find what made her respond positively.

The look in his eyes reminded her of that first time so long ago, when he had been able to see through her act. He hadn’t ever pressed her on it, but he hadn’t looked away either. She had been scared then, but now she saw it for what it was. Acceptance, something she’d never dared dream of.

“No, do it again,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready before.”

She wasn’t an orphan anymore. She had somebody to belong to, who gave himself freely in return.

Benny renewed his attentions carefully and her breathing became erratic. As he kissed and licked and sucked, her hands found their way into his hair again and she closed her eyes.

Beth had never been big on religion, but there was something mythical and transcendent about what was passing between them. It was as if they had been teleported to a paradise where the two of them floated together, suspended between heaven and earth.

Maybe it wouldn’t last forever, but Beth was happy to be a sucker in love.