Page 19 of Pretend Ring Girl

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He offers me a warm hand, and I grasp it, rising carefully to my feet. The shoes are beautiful but not the most steady footwear on a boat.

“We stand in a group with my parents, and they do all the talking. Occasionally some family or friend will address us directly, but mostly we’re just dutiful eye candy,” Elian adds, grinning.

“Hey, don’t try to steal my title. I’m the dutiful eye candy in this family,” Sandro smacks him on the shoulder.

“Now, boys, don’t argue. You know that’s a man’s job, and I’m the only man in this room,” Vincente smirks.

I can’t help giggling. “Alright, you’re all very dutiful and handsome. Everyone is special. Okay?”

“But I thought if everyone is special, that means no one is special?” Elian scratches his chin as if he’s thinking about it.

“Now who’s making things complicated?” I tease. “Just take the compliment and get a move on. If your mom gets pissed off, I don’t want it to be at me.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” Sandro replies, pushing his younger brother toward the stairs. “And don’t worry, Mamá wouldn’t be mad at you. She likes you.”

“What makes you say that? I met her for all of ten seconds and she didn’t seem that impressed.”

“Well, that’s how you know she likes you.” Vincente scoops my hand under his arm and wraps his fingers over mine. “If she didn’t like you, she’d have had a lot more to say. Now, let’s go.”

As a group, we ascend the stairs, and smile in greeting at each group of new guests that arrive while the guys’ parents greet them personally. As Elian predicted, hardly anyone does more than smile politely in our direction; we are not the main attraction tonight, and seeing that first-hand releases the remaining knots in my belly. The three of them form a supportive circle behind me, and after the first few groups of passengers, I find I’m enjoying being a part of the welcoming committee.

I note several groups of young women who try to make meaningful eye contact with the guys, batting their lashes and smiling alluringly. I can’t see Sandro behind me and I don’t turn to look, but I catch an occasional look of discomfort on Elian’s face, and a flexed jaw on Vincente. The girls smile politely in my direction, but I can feel the curiosity coming at me in waves. There’s something territorial about it, and I’m not sure what it means.

Regardless, they pass along to the party like everyone else, and before long, we’ve pushed off and are sailing into the harbor.

Vincente once again provides me a steadying arm as we descend into the party and exchange our empty glasses for full ones. As if on some cue I miss, the entire family splits apart, each person choosing a different direction to walk like a spray of bullets, and they strike up friendly conversations with guests.

Vincente walks me around and introduces me to several groups of people, but eventually the champagne catches up to me and I excuse myself to retreat to the restroom. There’s no line, but the door is locked, so I wait my turn.

And then I hear the conversation being held within.

Several women are in the bathroom at once, two with Hispanic accents and one whose voice is deep and smoky. Just as I resolve to tune them out and dig out my phone to distract myself, I realize they’re talking about me.

“Did you get a load of the new girl?”

“Yeah. That didn’t take long.”

“Well, at least they’re consistent.”

“What do you mean, consistent?”

“It’s always just one girl for all three of them, and they definitely have a type.”

“What type is that?”

“Skinnygringawho perpetually looks lost.” The smoky-voiced one answers, and all three begin cackling at once. My heart starts pounding, and I glance both ways down the hallway before pressing my ear to the door.

“But seriously, at some point, they have to settle down, right? Vincente Senior isn’t going to let them keep playing this game forever.”

“Look, you can hypothesize all you want, but if they just want one girl, I intend for that girl to be me.” Smoky answers with a haughty tone.

“Watch yourself, Carmen. There’s three of them and three of us. The plan is we each get one. Don’t start getting greedy.”

“Hey girl, I’m happy to share, but despite the agreements our families made, if there’s only one winner, I’m going to claim the crown.”

The toilet flushes, and I realize I don’t want them to walk out and see me standing here, so I hustle down the hallway to the master suite and use the bathroom there. Even though Vincente advised me to stick to the public areas, I can’t help feeling he’ll understand.

After locking myself in the cabin and sitting, the words keep zinging around in my mind.

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