Beth hears them before she sees them—the raucous chatter of grown men and the bubbling gurgle of the hot tub spilling out from the dining room to greet her in the foyer. One man snorts, deep and piggish, while another giggles, high-pitched and girlish. She doesn’t recognize their laughter. Doesn’t know these men congregating in her home. But she knows who they are.
Dean’s cycling buddies have been over more nights than not in the past week—drinking and splashing about in the hot tub well into the evening. They’re usually there when she gets home and leave after she goes to bed.
It’s annoying to come home after a long day of work to six or so half-naked, middle-aged men hanging out in her dining room.
But she deals with it. Sucking it up just to keep the peace.
They all greet her as she passes through, and Beth gives them a polite wave in return. She doesn’t stop to talk, far too tired tonight to hear even one word about whatever moisturizer or eye cream they’re schilling.
Their “business” is a scam; that much is clear. A waste of Dean’s time and her money. But at least it keeps him occupied—happy and placid enough to keep him out of her hair.
And out of her business.
It’s for the best, really. Having Dean underfoot only ever created more problems for her. She’d learned that lesson the hard way with Boland Bubbles and the months of Secret Service agents hounding her just because Dean didn’t listen to her. Couldn’t follow her lead just once.
Her business is hard enough without Dean fucking up it at every turn. And if this stupid men’s skincare scam keeps him content and out of her way, then she can tolerate these men intruding on her home.
But that doesn’t mean she’s going to tolerate talking to them. Not after the day she’s had.
The past three days, actually, have been a waking nightmare after the nail polish manufacturer they use for the Canadian funny money filed for bankruptcy, drying up the supply and leaving them scrambling to replace it.
They’d already bought up as much of the remaining supply as they could, even sending Annie as far as Minneapolis to pick up a few boxes of it. But that wouldn’t last long, not with their current printing requirements.
They needed a replacement ASAP.
And they’d found one right away—a near-perfect dup for the shade they’d been using. But, unfortunately, the new brand is Swedish. And while the nail polish is abundant in European stores, it’s extremely hard to come by in the US—sold only in small boutiques in the Northeast and Midwest.
It was a stroke of luck that they’d found it in the first place. One of Ruby’s regulars happened to bring it into the salon the day after their original manufacturer announced the bankruptcy. But without a reliable U.S. supplier, printing Canadian will be off the table the second their remaining supply dries up in the next few days.
The whole situation left Beth with an aching, low-grade migraine.
Rio took the news better than expected. Or at least, he hadn’t seemed angry with her when she told him. Instead, he just looked at her, his big, brown eyes shining in the dim light of the strip club workroom.
Figure it out, yeah?
Beth can still feel the weight of his hand on her shoulder, where he’d gripped her firmly on his way out. The heat of his fingers searing into her skin through the thin material of her sweater.
She would figure it out. She had to.
But not tonight.
Tonight, she’s going to shower and go to bed—sleep off the pounding in her head. Then tomorrow, she’ll find a supplier.
The closed door muffles the sound of laughter and splashing. Beth closes her eyes and sinks back into it, letting the peace of the near silence wash over her. The stress of the past few days weighs her down, turning her limbs to lead and nearly dragging her down to the floor. The only thing keeping her upright is the sweet beckoning call of the shower—she can already feel it, the hot water washing away the tension twinging in her tired muscles.
Beth's eyes snap open.
Rio lounges in her wicker chair, waiting for her in the dark.
He flips on the lamp, illuminating the room with warm yellow light. Her stomach drops—and she’s back in that moment, on that night when she’s been so sure he was going to kill her. That night when she’d betrayed him.
When he’d been waiting for her in the dark.
That night still aches inside her, a dull pain radiating from the center of her chest—starting somewhere deep down in her sternum, burning hot in her marrow, and running along thin fractures in the bone.
Seeing him in that chair, knowing what she’d done—Beth had been so sure he’d come to kill her. So sure that’d she’d finally pushed him too far. Panic flooded through her, spiking her heartrate so rapidly it nearly beat through her ribs. Her chest hurt like the wind was knocked from her lungs, and she couldn’t quite catch her breath. The sound was jagged and hoarse in her ears, so loud it was all she could hear.
The ache hurt something close to regret. That sort of bone-deep weariness that only remorse brings forth. But that wasn’t quite right. No, Beth didn’t regret what she did—she can’t regret anything she’s done. Not then. Not ever.
Beth didn’t have a choice, not really. If it’s him or her family, she will never choose him.
Rio knows that now. She’d seen it—the hurt and anger and disappointment boiling just beneath the surface of his dark, inky eyes. She’d heard it in his voice, raw and rasping on the words like they stuck in his throat.
You just didn’t choose me.
His eyes fluttered closed when he said it as if he didn’t want to see her confirm its truth. As if he couldn’t bear to look at her any longer.
Rio wanted her to choose him, but she didn’t.
Maybe he felt the ache too. Maybe if she could cut him open and see inside, she’d find it there— deep in his bones, in his heart, in the scar tissue twisting his lung.
But tonight is different.
Rio lounges in her wicker chair without any trace of anger marring his face. He’s totally relaxed as if there’s nothing more natural than waiting for her.
Her fingers find the lock, the faint snap of the bolt barely reaching her ears.
“Why are you here?” Beth asks, pushing away from the door cautiously. She drops her purse on her bedside table, the metal hardware clicking loudly against the wood.
“Brought you somethin’.”
“Oh?” She tries to keep her voice even. Tries to act casual as she shrugs off her coat and takes a few more steps into the room. She stops by the foot of her bed, tossing her coat onto the tropical green comforter and kicking off her shoes. Her feet ache, the muscles and tendons protesting as they flatten out against her carpet after a long day of wearing heels.
“It’s a gift,” Rio says, voice low and gravelly. “Just for you.”
“And what? You just couldn’t wait to give it to me?”
“Nah,” he shakes his head and holds up a small back bottle. “Thought you’d like it sooner rather than later.”
It's the nail polish. The elusive Swedish one. The one she needs.
Her lips part in surprise, and Beth lets out a soft breath. Something tender settles in her chest as she stares at the bottle, the apprehension tensing her shoulders seeping away—but not entirely.
Caution serves her best when dealing with Rio. Another lesson she’d learned the hard way.
“Found us a supplier.” He holds it out for her to take. Beth closes the distance between them, stopping just short of his knees.
For a moment, she just stares down at him, searching his face for any signs of deception. He’d told her to figure it out, but he’d brought her the solution anyway.
Thick silence stretched between them, broken only by the sound of faint bubbling still seeping in from the crack at the bottom of the closed door. But it’s not loud enough to distract; even the occasional roar of laughter can’t cut through the quiet tension simmering in the air around them.
Rio never does anything for free.
“Why?” Her voice is soft, just barely louder than a whisper.
“You need it, yeah?”
“Since when do you care what I need?”
Rio gives her an unreadable look, not harsh or angry, but not soft either. “Don’t be like that, Elizabeth.”
She almost laughs, a sort of skeptical scoff catching in her throat.
“I would have figured it out myself.”
“Then why did you help me?”
“Because I wanted to,” he replies simply.
His fingers are warm when she takes the small glass bottle from him. A jolt of electricity crackles along her nerves, starting from where their skin touched and radiating through her. His hand drops to her hip, making her stiffen with surprise, but she doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t try to push him away.
Instead, Beth turns just enough to place the bottle delicately on her dresser. When she turns back, he’s smiling at her, the corners of his mouth just slightly upturned.
“How much is this going to cost me?”
His eyes shimmer in the lamplight, flecks of yellow dancing across the only black surface. Rio smiles wider as his fingers find her belt loop, pulling her closer, right between his knees.
As if she’d ever believe that. There’s always something with him—some fee or a clause hidden the unspoken fine print. She knows him too well to fall for it this time.
“It’s never nothing with you.”
Rio smiles slightly. “It’s on the house this time.”
Beth keeps staring at him, picking his face apart as best she can, but finding nothing but sincerity. He’s brought her a gift, a peace offering with no visible strings attached.
Something jolts inside her, something warm and tingly that she’d buried deep down. Something hadn’t let herself feel since he kissed her breathless in this very room all those months ago.
She couldn’t afford to feel it. Couldn't afford to feel anything for him other than rage and fear. It kept her alive—to hold it all down kept her focused on surviving—and for months, surviving was all she could do.
But things are different now. They’re different. She doesn’t need to keep fighting because she knows now that he won’t kill her.
Maybe now she can afford to feel a little more. To let her affection for him bubble up from deep within her. To feel something for him other than hatred and fear.
Beth doesn’t need to hate him now. And she isn’t scared, not anymore.
Desire blossoms in her chest as she sinks down onto her knees, bringing herself to his eye level. Rio watches her carefully, his eyes never leaving hers. There’s something in the way he looks at her, something in the intensity of his gaze that makes her feel exposed and raw—like he’s taking her apart and examining every inch of her.
It would be uncomfortable if she didn’t crave it. But Beth wants him to see her. Wants him to know her. Just as she wants to know him.
His thigh muscles jump beneath her fingers as she runs her hands up his legs, the denim of his jeans rough against her palms. He’s already half-hard when she cups him lightly before she reaches for his belt.
Rio doesn’t stop her this time.
This clink of his belt and the harsh zip of his jeans opening sends shivers of anticipation up her spine. Her mouth waters, saliva pooling around her tongue as she pulls his cock free.
It’s hot and satiny in her hand as she strokes him lightly.
Rio sucks in a jagged breath but otherwise stays silent, his fingers curling into fists on his knees. The first touch of her lips to his cock makes him groan, deep and hoarse from the back of his throat. It’s only a kiss, light and feathery at the base of the head, but he tenses like she’s tased him. His skin is salty on her tongue as she licks him from base to tip.
She pulls back for a moment, adjusting her position to take some pressure off her knees. But as she leans back in to take him fully into her mouth, he catches her chin in his hand. He tilts her head back so he can look at her.
“You don’t have to.” For once, Beth understands what he means. The supplier truly was a gift. Not something he ever intended for her to pay for. Not with her money or with her mouth.
Her stomach flutters.
“But I want to.” His fingers fall away from her chin, and she presses another kiss to the underside of his shaft. She licks him once more, ripping another groan from him before taking his cock into her mouth.
At first, Beth just sucks the head and jerks him with her hand. It’s been a while since she’s done this, and it takes a moment for her to build her confidence. Her movements are hesitant and unsure, but he’s panting and cursing all the same. Soon she’s ready to take more of him, letting his cock slide deeper into her mouth. She’s not even close to taking all of him, but anymore, and she knows she’ll gag.
The sounds falling from his lips shoot straight through her, heat pooling in her stomach and twinging between her thighs. She’s so turned on. By him. By his gift. Even by the faint laughter of her uninvited guests mingling with his low groans and the wet noise of her mouth on his cock.
She aches for him—pulsing and clenching around nothing. All she can do is rock back on her knees, the seam of her jeans rubbing against her clit, providing barely any relief.
One of his hands finds its way to her head, his fingers tangling in her loose curls. His touch is light, not pushing down or tugging at her hair, just resting there as she sucks him. His fingers curl when she takes him deeper, his blunt nails scratching gently along her scalp.
Beth keeps going—licking and sucking and taking him further and further until she’s taken him as deep as she can. Between her mouth and her hand, she works him over quickly. His body tensed, and his cock pulses against her tongue and she knows he’s close.
Then someone knocks on the door.
The sharp rap is like a bucket of cold water.
Her head jerks back in surprise, but his hand in her hair stops her from pulling away entirely. Beth sputters around his cock, still half in her mouth, but doesn’t yank away from him. Instead, she looks up at him, eyes wide.
Dean calls her name, but she can’t answer.
“Good thing you locked the door, huh?” Rio stares down at her, a sort of half-smug, half-annoyed look on his face. She angles her head, sucking him hard and making his grin falter.
“Wouldn’t want him to see you like this,” he huffs out, voice straining as she regains her rhythm.
Dean calls her name again, knocking loudly. She ignores him, just focuses on breathing through her nose as she works Rio back to the edge. It doesn’t take long, not when he’d been so close already.
“Bet he’d be real mad.” His voice comes out shaking, more of a moan than coherent words.
Concern colors Dean’s voice as he calls for her again. They stare at each other, the tension bulding between them as she keeps sucking, even as Dean’s knocking grows more insistent.
She doesn’t want Dean to find her like this—not on her knees with Rio’s cock in her mouth. Doesn’t want him to know Rio was in their house at all. But something hot coils deep inside her at the idea that he might burst through the door at any moment.
Her heart hammers in her chest, and she knows she shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be testing her luck, but she can’t stop. Doesn’t want to stop. Not yet.
Rio’s hips jerk up, his breath catching in his throat as he finally cums, spilling into her mouth. His cum is hot and salty on her tongue, and she swallows it down.
Dean calls her name again, and Rio pulls her head back. Beth gasps, sputtering and coughing. A thin strand of spit and cum stretches from her mouth to his softening cock, and she wipes it away with the back of her hand, trying to collect herself.
“Just a minute,” she yells back, her voice hoarse. The knocking stops, and she thinks Dean says something else, but she doesn’t quite catch it.
Rio helps her up from the ground, pulling her along as he stands. He’s still breathless as he tucks himself back into his jeans, his fingers trembling as he buttons up. She fixes his belt for him, pulling the leather taut and fastening the buckle. Her fingers linger when she’s done, hooked just around the cool metal.
His eyes are impossibly dark when he looks at her, half-closed and yet still burning with intensity. His thumb is soft on her chin as he wipes away the last traces of his cum from her skin.
For a moment, they just stand there, a comfortable silence stretching between them. Beth leans into his touch as he brushes her hair from her back, her stomach fluttering from the gentle graze of his skin on hers.
A peel of laughter from the dining room reminds her they’re not alone. Dean is waiting for her, just on the other side of the door.
“You should get out there,” Rio murmurs, pulling her hands away from his belt. Still, he lingers, holding her wrists gently for a long moment before dropping them. “He’s waitin’ for you.”
She nods, stepping away from him. He keeps his eyes on her as she makes her way to the door. With her hand on the knob, she turns back, catching his gaze and offering him a small smile.
“Thanks,” she says softly. “For the nail polish.”
“If you need somethin’, darlin’, all you gotta do is ask.”