Page 7 of Pretend Ring Girl

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Just then I hear the throaty purr of an enormous engine, and with it a sleek, metallic silver coupe screeches to a stop directly in front of the glass double doors. Is that…?

Elian’s face pops up from the driver's side and he smiles apologetically, rushing up to the building entrance.

“Is that your ride?” Rebecca’s voice is warmly curious, and I nod silently. “Well, I guess the flowers worked. Enjoy your evening!” She gives me a conspiratorial wink.

I nod once more, desperately trying to swallow again before he reaches the doors. Next to his brothers, Elian still looked a lot like the young college boy who goofed off with me in the kitchens.

Now he wears a light grey suit that matches the fancy car he drove up in, and suddenly it’s like he went from boy to man in the blink of an eye. Everything about him is sharper, from the line of his impeccable haircut to the edge of his jaw. The dimples are still there, very clear as his grin widens to see me waiting for him.

I give Rebecca a quick smile and pass through the glass door into an oppressive heat. The lock clicks behind me just as Elian approaches with his hand out.

Reaching to shake it, I’m surprised when he lifts my hand to his lips and presses a soft kiss to the back. “My apologies for being late,mama. The bridge was up forever.”

My heart flutters to hear him use the Spanish term of endearment instead of my name. As a white girl growing up in Miami, I’d always had a thing for latino guys, but I wasn’t really the kind of white girl most of them found hot. Too nerdy and awkward, with no rhythm or curves to speak of.

But now Elian’s eyes gleam as they take me in. “You look gorgeous, Sloane. Why did you think you needed to change?”

I shrug, blushing. “I dunno, I just don’t consider this ‘date’ attire. I got it for work. It’s not very sexy or romantic.” With the high square neck, sheath cut, and knee-length hem, not to mention my flat shoes, it’s pretty much the opposite of sexy.

“Well, I think you look sexy,” he purrs, before tugging lightly on my hand and leading me toward the car. “But then, I thought you looked sexy in black pants and the catering shirt, so perhaps it’s not about the clothes.”

The heat in my cheeks is almost unbearable. I don’t know how to respond, so I let him pass me silently into the leather bucket seat and draw in several deep breaths after he closes the door before he enters from the driver’s side.

Elian grins again as he buckles his seatbelt. “I hope it’s okay; I made reservations already. I should have asked what you like, but I have a spot in mind. How do you feel about seafood?”

“I love it,” I manage to reply in a smooth voice. “My mom is allergic, so I almost never get to have fish.”

“Well then, tonight is already off to a great start,” he turns up the A/C so I’m blasted with cool air. “Let’s go!”

* * *

Elian whips through traffic in the sporty convertible, and I cling to the door, hoping I don’t look as terrified as I feel. He’s leaned back in the seat, one hand on the wheel, and totally at ease.

“New car, huh?” Perhaps some conversation will distract me.

“Yes,” a grin spreads across his cheeks. “My excellent behavior in college put me back in my parent’s good graces. I traded in my mom’s hand-me-down sedan and received this M850 as a graduation present.”

“Well, that’s nice. I’m glad it worked out for you.” I don’t vocalize my thoughts that the ‘hand-me-down’ car he had in college was about a decade newer than my old car that I amstilldriving.

“I’m very fortunate, Sloane. I may not have understood that before, but I do now.” His voice is suddenly low and serious. “My parents said I was spoiled, and they were right. I didn’t know, couldn’t appreciate, what it meant to really sacrifice. To be fair, it’s sort of their fault I was spoiled—it’s not like I raised myself—but I was definitely way worse than my brothers. I see that now.” His dark eyes flash to me as we speed ridiculously fast up the MacArthur Causeway. “You know,” he adds, tone lightening, “those four years at U of M, my parents didn’t give me any money at all?”

“Oh, yeah?” I reply to be polite. It sounds like rich boy problems to me.

“They paid for my school and let me live at home, and that was it. I know, poor little rich boy, I can see it in your eyes, and I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. Growing up, they always gave me money so they didn’t have to deal with me. But I went from having wads of cash just handed to me to suddenly no money at all. And what I earned from my campus job? I had to donate twenty-five percent to charity. I barely earned enough to pay for gas, and it was on me to get myself to class. I couldn’t have taken you out for McDonald’s during school. It was like I was the only poor member of a rich family.”

Now I can’t help my sarcasm. “Right, I get it. Did the cooks refuse to make you dinner unless you scrubbed the dishes?” As soon as it pops out of my mouth, I’m immediately horrified. Perhaps we come from two different worlds, but it’s not his fault our families are in different tax brackets.

Fortunately, Elian just laughs. “I know. I still sound fucking spoiled. I’m really just trying to apologize for waiting this long to ask you out. It was embarrassing that I had no money to throw at you back then. In high school, that was the only way I knew to get a girl’s attention next to my bigger, more handsome brothers. But my parents still paid for anything school related, so I signed up for as many clubs and organizations as I could. That way I could at least make friends, have activities to go to—like club events. They gave me money for those.”

“Fraternity formals?” I hint. That would have been an excellent date and a club event.

“Ah, well, those were tricky. Technically, I was allowed to go, but my parents told me if they caught me around underage drinking, even ifIwasn’t drinking, they’d write me off for good. So I didn’t go.”

“You didn’t go tooneformal?” The surprise is evident in my voice.

“Nope. I spent my entire college career going home every night and, quite often, eating dinner by myself since my parents were usually out. When they hosted parties, I was expected to dress up and attend, but otherwise I mostly studied in my room and played video games.”

“Wow, we’re more alike than I realized.” The truth hits hard. All the times I was babysitting my younger siblings and imagining Elian and his brothers out living a glamorous life, he was probably holed up in his room doing the same thing.

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