Page 11 of Pretend Ring Girl

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“This is lunch, Sloane. So eat.” As if to show me how, he leans forward and focuses on his plate, scooping a forkful of seasoned rice into his mouth.

I wait a moment, but he continues to eat and as my heart rate slows, my stomach rumbles. The food smells amazing, and I certainly don’t want to go back to the office and reheat my leftovers now. With a sigh, I lift my fork and tuck in.

Sandro grins in response, and tips his wine glass in my direction with a smirk. I copy his gesture, then go back to my food.

By the time we finish and return to the office, I’m far more relaxed. Sandro and I ended up having a delightful conversation, and I found I enjoyed his company. He’s light-hearted and easy to talk to, and despite his laissez-faire attitude in class, he’s surprisingly deep. I find his personality sets me at ease instead of aggravating me the way it did in school.

This time he steps out of the car and opens the door for me, escorting me right up to the glass doors of AJ Kellerman & Associates before kissing me lightly on both cheeks. With a wink and a promise to call me later, he waves and heads back to his Porsche.

I stumble through the front doors in a daze, and catch Rebecca grinning knowingly.

“Did that just happen?” I ask her. “That wasSandroVargas, right?”

She nods. “Yep, and last night was Elian. You knew them all in school, you said?”

“I did, but because of some really odd circumstances, I guess they both agreed not to ask me out through school.”

She raises one eyebrow. “That sounds like an interesting story, and you’ll have to dish soon. But just be careful with AJ, he might think-”

And just then the man himself walks through the glass doors from the office side. “Ah, Sloane, just the girl I was looking for. Do you have those sketches… Mr. Vargas!” He glances over my shoulder and my blood turns ice cold. “I don’t believe we have an appointment today, but you’re always welcome. What can we do for you?”

I refuse to turn around, silently willing him to go away.

“Oh, nothing, AJ, no worries. I was just bringing Sloane her purse. She left it in my car.”

My entire body tight, I turn around and accept the purse I didn’t realize I’d forgotten. “Thank you.” I take it stiffly.

“Not talking business over lunch, I hope?” AJ’s comment is crystal clear: not talking business withouthim.

“No, not at all, sir,” Sandro assures him. “Just catching up with a school friend. I owed her a meal for all her help in world history. I wouldn’t have passed if it weren’t for her.”

“Excellent. Well, I’m glad you were able to catch up. But now if you don’t mind, I need to steal Sloane away for work… on your project!” AJ grins and gestures back into the office, and I wave Sandro a quick goodbye before marching away.

“Sloane, why don’t you grab those sketches and meet me in my office? I just need to speak to Rebecca about something.”

“Will do, Mister… I mean, AJ.” I hustle to my desk, grab my paper pad and my electronic sketch pad, and walk as smoothly as I can to AJ’s office, the only one with a door and a widow. I sit, and I don’t have to wait long.

“Ah, Sloane, sorry about that. Now, what have you sketched out so far?”

My nerves settle and I show him my designs, explaining the choices I made and accepting his feedback. Once we’ve finished going through them and I’ve written his notes, he settles into his desk.

“Great work, Sloane. I’m excited to see your next round of sketches. I feel you take guidance really well, which is a surprisingly rare trait in our field. Everyone wants to put their stamp on the world, but they don’t know what they have to do to earn the right. It takes time before people trust you to create exactly as you see fit.

“Now, since you have a previous relationship with the Vargas brothers, I know this is a little muddy. Of course I would never stand in the way of a friendly meal. But I do feel obliged to warn you about a few things.”

AJ’s sleeves are rolled up to the elbow just like Sandro’s, except his shirt is a navy and white square pattern and he’s got some kind of art déco tie on. He rests his elbows on the desk and temples his fingers, gazing at me seriously with bright blue eyes.

“The Vargas family have been my clients for several decades, and I do whatever I can to keep them happy. With the boys taking over the business, I accept things might adapt a bit. However, as my employee, I feel obliged to warn you that sometimes their business dealings are seen as… questionable by some people. I am not in a position to judge either way. The money they pay for my work is legitimate and paid through unimpeachable sources, and that is as far as I delve into it. It’s not my business.

“Since you’ve grown up in this area, I’m sure you know about as much as I do. So all I will add is that if you become a conflict in my relationship with Vargas Enterprises, I will choose the relationship that supports my business. Do you understand?”

The hairs rise on my arms, and I swallow thickly before answering. “Of course, AJ. I certainly don’t intend to be a problem.”

The older man smiles brightly. “Excellent. Then let’s all just keep our relationships friendly and there’s no need to worry. Right?”


“Very good. You can get started on the new sketches with the specifications I gave you. Thank you, Sloane.”

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