Page 21 of Pretend Ring Girl

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After checking every tray circulating in the main room, Vincente takes more drastic measures and grabs my hand, tugging me down the narrow hallway between the bar area where the servers emerge, and to the kitchen. Several servers dart out of our way when they see us coming, and once we pass through the narrow doorway, the space opens up to a full restaurant-style kitchen.

Multiple stainless steel counters form a prep space, and they’re covered in silver trays, being carefully loaded with bite-sized delicacies. Servers swoop in and collect a full tray, replacing it with an empty one so fast they’re practically a blur.

The kitchen is full of mixed fragrances, but I can still detect the smell of shellfish, and the unmistakable scent of bacon.

Examining the trays more closely, I find the one we’re looking for—it’s laden with seared scallops, wrapped in bacon and speared on toothpicks. “Jackpot!” I shout, to draw Vincente’s attention.

But he shakes his head, clicking his tongue at me. “No, you need to think bigger, my darling.” Just then Miguel approaches him with a cookie sheet, holding four times as many scallops as are resting on my little tray.

“No fair, you have the inside scoop!” I try to sound indignant, but I can’t help laughing—the devious grin on his face is the least Vincente-like thing I’ve ever seen. It’s positively boyish.

“Here,” Diego appears as if from nowhere and thrusts two glasses and an un-opened bottle of champagne at me, and I accept them, bewildered.

“Come on!” Vincente tips his head toward a hallway that leads away from the party. He’s already transferred the pile of scallops into some kind of basket, and he leads me around a corner and up two flights of stairs, until we find ourselves on the upper front deck of the ship.

“Have a seat,” Vincente relieves me of the bottle and glasses, and gestures to the wide bench. I slide in, relieved to be off my feet. There’s a lovely breeze, cool but not chilly, and just enough light from the overhead bulkhead to illuminate the table. Vincente pulls napkins and small plates from his basket, then pops the cork and pours us each a glass before claiming the seat next to me.

Now I can gaze out and see the Miami skyline. The sunset is fading on the horizon, and all the buildings are already lit for the night. The water is like black satin, reflecting moonlight and faint traces of sunset that linger.

“Now, we feast!” Vincente’s voice is playful, and I see his upraised glass, so I lift mine to clink with it. We sip and start on the food, which is still hot and extremely tasty, and our silence is comfortable while we eat.

At first I’m eagerly digging in, but once the pang of hunger dissipates and I slow down, my brain wanders.

Were those women right? Is it true that the three brothers always just date one girl? Or is it just the misconception of jealous strangers who don’t really know them?

And how on earth am I supposed to broach this conversation?

As if sensing my thoughts, Vincente asks, “Is something wrong?”

“No!” my reply is automatic, and then I realize that he just gave me the opening I was searching for. “Well, I guess… I overheard something, and I wanted to ask you about it.”

Peeking up at him, I see his jaw flex in the darkness. His energy becomes more guarded, and his voice is immeasurably cooler when he asks, “What did you hear?”

Now I’m even more nervous. This Vincente, the stoic one, is far less approachable than the one I’d been stealing food from the kitchen with a few minutes ago. “Nevermind, it’s not really important,” I deflect.

“It was important enough to occupy your mind, so it’s important enough to ask. Go ahead, whatever it is, I won’t be mad at you. I promise.” His eyes remain focused on the Miami skyline as he waits.

My heart pounds against my chest, but I have to know. “Okay, those girls who were talking to you? I think one of their names is Carmen?”

The corner of his lips twitches. “Yes, Carmen, and Isabella and Antonia.”

I do not know if this is going well or not, but I carry on. “I overheard them in the bathroom. They said a few things about you… and your brothers.”

He waits a moment while I hesitate before finally saying, “Go on.”

“They said something about me being ‘the new girl’, and that there’s always just one, and something about a game and your father not putting up with it forever.”

Vincente’s jaw flexes several times as he stares off into the distance, and it seems to be an eternity as I wait for a response. My stomach churns and I wonder if I overdid it on the scallops.

Finally, he scrubs a hand across his brow and sighs, then turns to me.

“Sloane, this is definitely not how I imagined this going. I’m sorry you heard what you did. That’s a rather… crude misunderstanding, at best.”

“Did someone say crude?” Sandro’s voice approaches from the stairs.

“I like crude,” Elian answers, and I cringe internally.

It was one thing to ask Vincente about what I heard. It’s another thing entirely to face down all three of them at the same time.

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