There was a point during dinner when Aubrey noticed Julio had shut down. She didn’t quite remember what moment it was, or if something was said, but from the time she noticed it, he was withdrawn for the rest of the night. He didn’t laugh or tell stories, and when asked questions, he gave brief, closed-ended answers. Was it Ranveer? Did he feel threatened some kind of way? Jealous? Ranveer’s personality was bigger than Julio’s, and he was a straight-up goofball just like her father. And, this was his first time meeting her mother and visiting the house, so it was natural for him to be in the spotlight. He was a big hit with her parents just like she thought he’d be, but that didn’t mean they liked Julio any less. Besides, this wasn’t his first rodeo. He had dined with the Pruetts many nights and was practically family. If he was still hung up over his relation to the family drama, he needed to get past it; they had all done so. Still, whatever it was bothered him a great deal, so she asked him to stick around after dinner and took him to the patio to be alone. She almost felt guilty for not knowing what bothered him. They had both been so busy with their own businesses and hadn’t seen each other all week. Whatever it was flew right under her radar.
“So…what’s up?” she asked nervously.
“What’s up? You seem so…far away.”
He grinned quickly. “I’m fine, Aubrey.”
“You’re not going to shut down on me, Julio,” she said with a bit more attitude than she planned. “Now, what’s wrong?”
He looked a little bit surprised but nodded as if to say “touche.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just…well, you know how it is when you think you’ve gotten over something, but in the most inopportune moments, you find out you haven’t? Or, maybe not as fully as you thought?”
She nodded and was glad he chose not to continue brooding. It was strange though. She was comfortable asserting herself with him but was still so timid when it came to her staff. Was it because she knew he wasn’t going anywhere?
“It didn’t occur to me that something was wrong with my parents’ relationship until I was exposed to other people’s families.”
She exhaled all her held breath in relief that this wasn’t about Ranveer. At least it didn’t sound like it.
“We didn’t go on trips or even out dinner together. I didn’t know that wasn’t normal until I got to high school.” He shrugged. “But, you know what they say. You can’t miss something you never had. At least I tried to see it that way. My parents loved me. That’s all that mattered, right?”
Her heart broke for him. She didn’t know where this story would lead, but whatever path it took would bring her back to the man sitting next to her whom she just learned was still broken.
“I thought I was fine until my mom and her husband had the triplets.”
He spoke of his mother and half-siblings so infrequently, she often forgot he had them. The triplets were even younger than Oliver, and his mother was pregnant again. They both had siblings young enough to be their own children, and it was weird to think about sometimes.
“When I go over there, they’re all so happy. My mom is with someone who gives her all the attention she ever wanted. And, my little sisters and brother get to live in a warm, loving environment…” As he trailed off, his eyes traced the framing of her house. “This house feels like that…times ten. Your parents are crazy about each other, and their love spills over into every other relationship in the house. I love that…it’s what I wanted growing up. And now my little siblings get to enjoy that feeling.” He snorted. “I guess I just get a little jealous sometimes.”
She grabbed his hand. “Oh, Julio. Why didn’t you tell me? I know this isn’t about my parents, but we don’t always have to hang out here. We can–”
“I like hanging out here! Have you noticed I’ve never invited you to my house?”
She did notice but thought it was because Julio was so traditional and old-fashioned in that way.
“My house is so…cold! And empty.”
His words were drenched in despair; she never heard him speak like that before. Why hadn’t he shared this with her before now? “Sometimes I feel like I’ll end up just like my parents in a cold relationship with only a child keeping them together. But when I’m here, I see what marriage could be like! Your parents give me hope.” He peered into her eyes. It felt like he was looking into her soul. “When I’m around you, I don’t feel empty anymore.”
Her chest heaved faster as a warmth spread through her body.
“I feel like…myself. Like, I’m not living under the shadow of my dad’s expectations. I feel alive, and I want you around me all the time. I learn so much from you, and I just want–”
Why did he stop? What was he going to say?? He looked startled like he realized he said too much, but he didn’t! She wanted to hear it all.
“I, uhhh…sorry. That wasn’t how I planned to–I mean, I wasn’t going to…gosh, I’m all over the place tonight.”
He was such an interesting person. Sometimes he was the cool, smooth man she had come to know as an adult while other times he was still the same awkward kid she called her BFF.
“Julio,” she said softly, “please look at me.”
His head slowly spun in her direction, and his sheepish eyes met hers.
“Do you want me to move in with you?”
He seemed surprised by the question but turned away to consider his answer. When he arrived at a conclusion, he held a confident gaze. “I don’t want to live with my girlfriend.”
Her heart dropped. She wasn’t aware that was something she wanted to do until it was an option, and now it wasn’t. But, he maintained his confident gaze and threw on a knowing smirk. That’s when she realized what he really said, and the excitement returned. “Are we ready for that?”
“I am. Are you?”
She bit her lip, trying to contain the excitement inside. He smiled admirably.
“Holy llamas! Are we engaged?”
“Unofficially. I want to talk to your dad and do it properly.”
“I can’t believe this!”
“You are the best person, Aubrey, and I adore you.”