Page 34 of Pretend Ring Girl

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The next morning, Elian and I sneak out in the window of darkness between when my mom comes home from her shift and when my dad gets up. I shoot Mom a quick text that I’m going to spend the day with my friends but I’ll be back to babysit tonight, and then we head directly for the coffee drive-through.

There’s an ease to our relationship now, warm fuzzy feelings coursing through my body in the wake of such a night. Even so, it’s difficult to avoid comparing Elian to his brothers. Sandro is funny and hot, and I enjoy his surprising foodie side. Vincente is sexy and intimidating in that ‘bossy older man’ sort of way that sends excited shivers up my spine.

But Elian and I feel like we’re on the same page. It’s especially amusing now, knowing that we always were and he just couldn’t do anything about it for the four years I pined for him. Last night we fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, literally made for each other.

Of course that reminds me that in thisparticularpuzzle, there are twomorepieces that I need to try out, and see if they fit, too. Just the thought sends a jolt of excitement through my body, but unease settles in my gut. My eyes drift to Elian.Is he really okay with that?

“What?” Elian glances my way and catches me watching him.

“Nothing,” I shrug, heart skittering. “I’m really glad you came over last night. I had a good time.”

“Me too,” his lush lips curl into a wide grin, bringing out those dimples I love.

“I just… keep thinking about what we talked about, at the party.”

He waits, and I’m not sure if it’s because he’s not following or just giving me space to say what I’m thinking.

“You know, about you, and your brothers, and one girl…”

“Yeah, I know what you meant. What are you thinking about it?”

“Are you really okay with that arrangement? Can you honestly say you wouldn’t be jealous, or hurt, loving someone who… loves your brothers, too?” I can’t bring myself to just refer to the sexual aspect, it seems so tawdry and cheap compared to the way they spoke about the relationship they want.

Elian just shrugs. “I love my brothers. And any woman in my life that I love, I want her to be a part of our family, and feel loved just as much. I want her to be just as important to my brothers as she is to me. And I never want her to feel alone or neglected because of our work.”

“But what if all three of you had wives? Then those women would have each other, so they wouldn’t be alone.”

“It’s not the same. Because instead of being together, we’d be splitting ourselves apart, each focusing on a separate family instead of tying back into one. Sloane, I will not lie to you. Some of my father’s business dealings are dangerous. We’ve lost a lot of family over the years. My father used to have many brothers—hence all the cousins—and he only has one left. My brothers and I grew up in that world, and we don’t want to bring three women in, only to leave one or more a widow. This was the solution that we all agreed on.”

His eyes are concealed behind sunglasses, but I feel the weight of his gaze in each quick glance. “How do you feel about it?”

I shrug, heat spreading across my cheeks. “I dunno. It’s not something I’ve ever considered before. I really like you, and I have for a long time.” I wince just saying that out loud, but the warm smile that lifts his cheeks encourages me to continue. “And I like your brothers; I suppose it’s okay to say now that I’ve always been attracted to them, too. It’s been nice getting to know them.

“But this is a lot, and suddenly in one afternoon, I’m supposedly engaged to Vincente? I’ve never evenkissedhim. Sandro has kissed me on the cheeks but that’s it. And if something happens, I’d hate to be the person who comes between you and your brothers.” It feels safe to voice these concerns in the cozy bucket seat of his car, with a warm coffee cup in my hands.

As if he can read my mind, Elian asks, “But what doyouwant? Do you like the idea, or not? Does it weird you out? You can be honest with me, mama. I don’t want you to feel pressured into something you don’t want, but you have to tell me the truth.”

The truth is, it feels incredibly selfish toadmitthat I want them all to myself. “I’m not closed to the idea,” I admit instead. “I’m just curious about how it would work so everyone is happy.”

“As long as we all get time with you, and time together as a family, we’ll be happy. The real question is: what do you need to be happy?”

For some reason, this feels like a very complicated question, and I consider it in silence for the rest of the drive.

Elian parks at Hollywood Beach, and we take our coffee and pastries to sit in the sand and watch the early morning low tide begin to rise. I lean into his warm body, and he wraps a casual arm around my shoulders as we stare out at the water. It’s exactly how I fantasized hanging out with Elian would be, back when we just worked catering together and I assumed he ran off to go party while I went home to study.

But even as I revel in the gentle romance, my brain flutters between the present, and what it would be like if I were with Sandro or Vincente right now. Sunday morning, Sandro would probably take me for brunch at some spot I’d never heard of with fantastic Bloody Mary’s, probably a place that has a sports game on the tv. He seems like a sports guy.

Even though I imagine him as an incredibly hard worker, I picture Vincente taking advantage of the chance to sleep in on Sunday, then perhaps bringing me coffee in bed when we finally stir. It’s bright in his room, a serene place where he gets to relax.

“Well, we’d better get going,” Elian stands, brushing sand from his pants and offering me a hand.

“Going? Going where?” I accept the help and we make our way back to the car.

“In order to ensure your safety, we have to make you a member of the family and then you have to prove your loyalty.”

“Yes, Vincente said that. But what does that mean?”

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