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Chapter 8

Things still remained tense amongst the rest of the group, it seemed. Elo and Shane walked slowly to the lounge chairs by the pool, as if approaching a hostile animal.

Ehan had his arms crossed and gave a bit of a side-eye to Devi. “So you’re not even vegetarian?”

Devi sighed. “No.” This seemed to upset him even more. “I’m not even from that region of India, okay? Get off my back.”

“I mean,” he started defensively, “it’s hard enough to get people to accept our culture and our food without people lying about it all the time.” Elo and Shane paused a few feet away from the sunning chairs. She glanced over to him, and he gestured to the bar, as if that’s where they were going to go the whole time. Though she really wanted to sit and listen to what the hell that was, but at the same time, it would probably be safer to stir the pot from afar. She accepted his invitation to the bar and slid into the bar stool, flipping the switch for the lights on the pergola for Shane.

She had to give credit to the landscapers: the twinkle lights wrapped up and around the legs of the pergola with just the perfect amount of vines, some of which flowered a little purple thing; at the top of the cover, the lights only outlined the structure while the vines bushed out and provided a full canopy overhead. Sitting under it in the cool, fresh air, right against the sunset, was quite breathtaking. The lavender bushes nearby let off a gentle perfume, creating an intoxicating illusion of relaxation.

But while she enjoyed the scenery, Shane stepped behind the counter and started to look at the ingredients offered here.

“Just wine?” he thought, looking up to her. She nodded. “Merlot, right?”

Elo laughed. “Any red is fine.”

“So you’re not a wine snob, then?” What weird question. But he did return from the bottom shelf of the bar with a bottle of wine, and reached up to the rack for two glasses. “I mean, you’d pair a Bordeaux with salami?” Was she supposed to say yes to that? Or no?

“I don’t know what that means,” Elo said, still laughing. Shane only blinked at her before he rounded the counter to sit on the stool beside her, and popped open the cork without another mention of it.

“Not much of a foodie, are you?”

“I’m not,” she admitted, furrowing her brows. She accepted the glass from him, and clinked it against his as a thank you. “But I understand that it’s the way you express yourself, right?” Shane nodded. “And I know about the love languages, kind of, so I guess it’s super important to you in that way.” Another nod. “Even though I’m not all that into food and wine and all that, I do want to thank you for cooking. It’s very nice of you.” This seemed to be enough for him, and he settled against the back of the bar stool, seemingly pleased.

“I still have a couple months to turn all of you into snobs and critics.” That was cute. Shane turned to her, smiling a smile she knew too well. This wasn’t unlike the situation she got herself in at Hackler. She wasn’t available, but talking to a sweet guy, maybe not being clear enough about the boundaries. She was lying, completely, to Shane about who she was and what she did, flirting with him when she knew she wasn’t supposed to.

Or, maybe this was worse than what she and Nick did, because at least Nick knew her real name. He knew she was taken. She never did anything technically wrong, even morally, with Nick while she was with Bernadette. She did lie to Bernadette, but she was always faithful. With Shane, this felt worse. Rather than exciting, like a harmless secret, it didn’t feel quite harmless when Shane spewed stupid jokes or just...went on about his weird self. He was starting to express interest and she wasn’t shutting it down.

Elo tried to keep an ear on the drama by the pool, but Shane commanded her full attention.

“What’s your love language?” he asked, more than a little obvious.

She laughed. “Someone forgetting this is a competition?”

“I’m just asking! We were talking about it.” Though he sounded like he had to convince himself more than her. She tried, really hard, not to feel bad about it. Especially because he was exactly her type, if she wasn’t actively trying to ruin his chances at winning money that could change his life.

“I don’t know,” she admitted, glancing out to the group. “It’s, words, service, all that?” He nodded, but she still didn’t have an answer for him. “I don’t know. I guess I like…. I like when people tell me what they mean, rather than make me guess...and maybe I’m, like, better at communicating through….” She gestured to the air, “I don’t know, maybe acts of service? Like I’ll just...I don’t know, do your laundry while I’m doing mine and it’s there, and I think you’re okay with it.”

“You’d do my laundry?” Shane gasped, resting a hand over his mouth to fake surprise.

She laughed. “No.” Even if it would give her an advantage, to manipulate someone as vulnerable as him. But first off, it would be stupid to piss off the chef. Second of all, he didn’t even look like he could handle any heartbreak. Even if he was in the wrong with his last relationship, that didn’t take away all of the pain, especially something that messy.

Shane still laughed at her joke about the laundry, and he raised his glass to her. “Message received.” Elo did sigh as she watched him, though, the way he stared to the severely uncomfortable group by the pool. Ehan and Devi screamed at each other, and Trish, Abby, and Brooke struggled and failed to get a word in. Though Shane joked, she could tell he slumped a bit at her rejection.

“It’s a competition,” she repeated as she took another sip of her wine. “You gotta be careful.” Maybe she could look out for him emotionally while she destroyed his life in other ways. But even just thinking like that--thinking she should protect him at all, was a slippery slope.

“I know,” he said, turning to her. “I appreciate the thought. I’m well aware I’m on the rebound.” In the distance, she watched the sliding door open as Quin and Nick came through, finished with the dishes. It was very apparent, by the way that Quin stopped with his hand on Nick’s arm, that the arguments from the pool were just too much for them. Nick spotted Shane and Elo by the bar, then gestured there, and the two began their way toward them.

Elo smirked. “You could try with Brooke,” she said sarcastically.

Shane burst into laughter, then nudged her with his foot. “I’m not an idiot! She’d eat me alive!” Well, at least he had a brain.

Nick and Quin gave awkward smiles as they approached, blocking the sunset.

“Who’d eat you alive?” Quin asked, a little awkward. Oh, then there was the added complication that Quin was taking a liking to Shane. Well, if they sabotaged each other, she had no control over that.

“We’re talking about love languages,” Elo said, smiling. “Shane cooks to show love, I do laundry. What do you do?”

“Sit and never talk about it,” was his honest answer. The small group laughed.

“That’s an obvious answer,” said Nick as he rounded the counter to the bar. “Mind sharing the bottle?” He gestured to the wine, and Shane shrugged. “And Quin, what’s your real answer?” It was playful, as he grabbed the bottle to fill two more glasses. Elo knew that there was a crate in a trailer somewhere full of even more wine like this. She’d be completely shocked if there weren’t at least another two identical bottles somewhere around the house now, and she had no doubt some poor PA would be told to rush a bottle into the house when no one was looking if it ran out. Alcohol helped stir drama. Though the argument by the pool was a “dry” one, at least so far. (No one got pushed into the pool yet.)

Quin chewed on his lip as he accepted the glass, and went to join Nick on the other side of the counter to lean into the conversation.

“I don’t know. Maybe talking? Nothing beats a private conversation.” He let out a long sigh. Something like this show wasn’t appropriate for someone as quiet and subdued as him. Elo couldn’t help but wonder what he revealed to the producers to get put on the show. There must have been an obnoxious quirk or something to make them think he’d stir trouble.

“So no love for you in this house, either?” Shane joked, smile wide. Quin looked shocked.

“Are you insane? This is a competition!”

Elo and Shane laughed before he added, “I know, I know. That’s what Elo was saying. I’m just a guy on the rebound, surrounded by very attractive women.” Elo glanced away from him when he looked at her. Their other two companions weren’t blind to this; the moment of silence was just a tiny bit tense.

“And men,” Quin added. “You’re into men, too.”

Shane shrugged. “Guess so. I’ve always found men attractive, I just thought it was all the whole ‘no homo’ stuff that stopped guys from actually saying it.”

“I still think that’s the case,” Elo mumbled into her glass.

“So who were you thinking would eat you alive, then?” Nick pressed, giving Elo a side-eye.

Shane answered, “Brooke,” before he burst into laughter again. Elo joined him, and Quin seemed to find the idea far too ridiculous to be funny.

“Oh,” Nick said, shocked, “you’re into Brooke?” Elo tried to pay close attention to his tone, to see if there was any jealousy. There didn’t seem to be. Maybe he was using Brooke just as much. The thought made her reach for the bottle to refill her glass.

“I’m not,” Shane said earnestly, shaking his head. “Like I said: Just a guy on the rebound.”

“Besides,” Quin said, “she’d eat you alive.” The four of them clinked glasses in agreement.

“Still,” Nick said after a long gulp, “nothing wrong with a little romance, right?” He gestured to the cameraman that stood just off to the side, filming them. “Even just casual stuff.” Elo raised a brow at him.

“I don’t know,” Quin said, shaking his head, “that sounds like disaster. Getting your head all foggy when you should be focused on winning points.” Nick leaned a little more on the counter, regarding Quin thoughtfully.

“It’s going to happen anyway.”

“Not if you’re smart about it.”

A loud gasp from over by the pool stole everyone’s attention. Devi and Ehan stood, shouting at each other in Hindi. Devi’s hand flew in front of his face, pointing forcefully, saying something definitive, before she spun around and stormed into the house.

Abby and Brooke didn’t even hesitate to follow her inside, shouting after her, while Ehan stood with his arms crossed. Trish, oddly enough, stayed behind with a hand on his shoulder, her fingers rubbing back and forth in comfort. Why would she take his side? Was it because the other girls already chose to run after Devi? Elo frowned.

“And the drama begins,” Quin said through a sigh. As he said this, Ehan spun around, suddenly noticing them.

“What are you looking at?” he shouted through gritted teeth. Elo immediately spun around to face the bar, glass up to her lips to polish off the leftover wine. Based on the heavy footsteps behind her, it sounded like Ehan went out the back gate, maybe to the Confessional Hut. Gentle flips and flops of sandals followed, meaning Trish went after him.

“Yikes,” Shane sounded for them.

“Does that mean we have to pick a side, too?” Nick asked, gesturing to the slamming gate door. “If everyone else did?”

“I’m not interested in doing that,” said Elo. That would ruin her ability to sabotage both sides. “I’m sure they’ll work it out.” Or maybe not, and she could also use that to rattle people before competitions. She had to wait and see, though.

The guys around her shuffled uncomfortably, quiet, as they waited for Ehan to be totally out of earshot.

“Did you hear any of their arguing?” Shane asked, looking up to Quin and Nick.

“Something about Devi being a fake-Indian and Ehan being a gatekeeper,” said Nick. “They switched to Hindi pretty soon after we got over here, though, so I wasn’t able to listen.”

“Yikes,” repeated Shane. None of them could do anything about whatever started that argument, though. That was completely up to Devi and Ehan. Those issues were...not for outsiders to try and butt into.

Quin frowned, and knocked back the rest of his wine glass in one gulp.

“Well, I’m thoroughly uncomfortable. I’m going to go in and try to learn violin.”

“Oh, was that you last night?” Elo asked, cocking her head to the side. She assumed someone was trying to restring an instrument, rather than practice. Rough.

“Yeah, with no Internet, I figured now’s the time,” he said with a small smile. “They’ve got books for every instrument in that room, even for the guitars on the wall. And they’re all playable.” Elo let out a thoughtful “hm.” Maybe she could get back into learning piano, if she wasn’t too busy manipulating the show.

Quin spun around to put his glass in the dishwasher, clinking the glass against the others that had already been fed in there earlier today.

“Well, good for you.” She smiled at him, and Quin gave them all a short wave.

“If anyone asks about what I think about all of that--” He gestured to where the group was before. “--tell them I’m not here.” When he received his courteous laughter from Shane, Nick, and Elo, he broke away to go inside. He was such a nice guy. The cynic in her warned that there was a reason he was added onto the cast, though.

The awkwardness that budded from Ehan’s outburst only bloomed, now. Elo tried her hardest not to pay attention to it, to tap her fingers on her empty glass, and stare at the counter. But something about being between Nick and Shane wasn’t her most ideal place. If she just got up, though, would that be too obvious? Were they feeling awkward, too? If they were, then she should definitely stay.

“So…,” started Nick as he ducked down to the bar to grab the backup bottle of Merlot. “More wine?”

“I’m down.” Shane shrugged, and Elo nudged her glass closer to where Nick could fill it. The hollow pop of the cork encouraged her to actually look up, to attempt to seem unbothered. She’d already had two glasses, and that was usually a point where she needed to stop before she got tipsy. But if the guys looked just as uncomfortable as she felt right now, some drunk lying might work in her favor. Or, the least likely scenario: the awkwardness would fizzle away and they’d all part as close friends.

“So you said your love language is...laundry?” Nick asked as he tipped the bottle over her glass. Elo and Shane laughed.

“I show appreciation with acts of service. That’s my love language.” After a laugh of understanding, Elo continued, “but I like receiving--I mean, I like, um….” She scrunched her nose and glanced to Shane. He smirked, but didn’t offer any help. She sighed. “I respond well to talking, I guess, is what I mean.”

“Like compliments and stuff?” Nick scooted her glass over to her, and she accepted it with a nod.

“I guess. Honesty, deep conversations.” He passed Shane’s glass over to him, but still looked at her.

“Like, talking about exes and stuff?” he pressed. Okay, what was that supposed to mean? Elo only shrugged, since she couldn’t give him a “what the fuck” expression with Shane being there.

“What’s yours?” Shane asked. He adjusted himself to be closer to the table, to force the conversation to shape more like a triangle than a direct line between Nick and Elo. She could see, easily, how this might be fascinating to watch from the perspective of the now two cameramen that circled them.

Nick smiled as he leaned on the counter, shrugging all the while. “I don’t know. Dinner and conversation is nice, but I never feel like that really does it.” What else was there? “What’s the word for, like, a physical sign? Holding hands, touching. Holding each other in general.” Now that Elo was forced to think about it, she ran through all the moments she spent with Nick after work, every day for a year. Had they ever touched? Even accidentally? Maybe that should have been an indicator. Maybe the real reason nothing ever happened between them was because it was so one-sided.

“I definitely see what you mean, there,” Shane agreed, lifting his wine. “Something about when a girl grabs your hand during a scary part of a movie just….” He shrugged. “Or hugs goodbye, too. Those hit different.” Was that it? Some primal instinct to protect by holding, maybe?

“I thought it was something about object permanence,” Elo muttered under her breath. Both guys heard her, though, and seemed to find this hilarious.

Shane threw his head back, laughing, and gestured to Nick. “That’s undoubtedly it!” Elo laughed back, and, just because it was her job and not due to morbid curiosity in the least bit, she nudged him in the shoulder as she did, and waited for Nick’s reaction out of the corner of her eye. It was really difficult to tell what his expression was without fully looking at him, but she wasn’t about to be that obvious about it and instead took a sip at her drink.

When she did turn back to Nick, she caught his reaction, just for a second. He had his head cocked just slightly, chewed on the inner part of his lip. Was that a response to Shane, or to what she did? He didn’t leave it there for long, and instead covered it with a chuckle.

“So you’re open to romance while you’re here, then?” Shane asked, gesturing to Nick. “Or what was it you said--something casual?” Nick sucked in a deep breath.

“Well, I mean--” He shrugged a little too hard. “I’m not going to scoff if the opportunity comes up. I mean, three months in one house with the same people all the time, something’s bound to happen.” Elo tried not to frown, to not look at him too expectantly. She shrugged instead.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Shane agreed. “I guess it’s best not to just...I don’t know, to just try to avoid something outright too hard. That would just make it more difficult later.” Okay, now what the hell was that?

Elo glanced at him, raising a brow. “It’d be a good way to distract yourself from actually trying to win, in that case.”

“Or someone else,” said Nick. She glanced at him, hoping her expression looked more curious than suspicious. He glanced between the two of them. “I’m just saying. It would take two people for it to be distracting.” Not necessarily. Not if you were distracting two people separately, then you would be getting two birds, one...flirt.

“Not if you don’t actually feel anything for them,” blurted Elo. She scrunched her face, as if the tanice from the wine bit too hard. “That’d be cruel.” Evil. Awful. The two guys nodded to her, though, in what could have been one of the most confusing responses she could have gotten.

Shane continued from his point, “but at the same time, trying to ignore something just makes it all that much harder to ignore. Like thinking about pink elephants.” Nick didn’t understand the reference, and stared at the man like he was crazy. “You know, the saying that if I tell you not to think about pink elephants, you can’t help but think about…?”

“Pink elephants,” Nick answered, understanding. “I guess, by that token, talking would be the easiest love language. If you always know what’s going on, there isn’t anything to overthink.” Now he looked back to Elo, and she responded by knocking the rest of her drink to the back of her throat. She had no idea what anyone was talking about anymore, and she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to, or even if she wanted to.

“On that note,” she said with a forced laugh, “I guess I’d better go check on Devi.” Her original intention of stirring things down here was not working out to plan. She smiled at the two of them. “Thanks for the wine, and for getting me out of having to sit with….” As she rose from the barstool, she gestured with her empty glass to where the argument was from before.

“I’ve got that for you,” Shane offered, holding out his hand. Elo handed it to him, and bade them adieu without looking back.

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