Page 48 of Pretend Ring Girl

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“Vincente said to do what the other girls were doing. They all grabbed drinks as soon as they walked in.” I wrench my arm from his grip. “Get off my case. I’m here, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Shouldn’t you be looking for our contact?”

“Summer,thereyou are!” Tara’s trilling voice reaches my ear, and I look up to see her heading my way. “I was just talking to my new friend, Mr. Miller, about that funny thing you told me earlier. Youhaveto come tell him yourself. I can’t do it justice.” She beams at Emiliano, then grasps my wrist. “Excuse us,” she offers him with a smile, dragging me away.

“You are seriously my hero!” I gush as Tara walks me all the way through to another room of the party before pausing.

“Well, I could see you were in distress, and I didn’t like the look of him. Girl next time, don’t fall for the bad boy. It’s not just a vibe, it’s their lifestyle, and it will only lead you to trouble.”

I’m stealing a sip of my drink while she talks, and I choke, sputtering.

Wise advice, too bad it’s already too late for me.

“Thank you,” I say again. “Is there actually a Mr. Miller?”

Tara laughs. “Not at all, but come on, let’s find someone to talk to in case he comes looking for you again.”

With Tara as my guide, I navigate the party, and we end up clustered with another two girls, chatting up a pair of well-dressed older men who introduce themselves as investors. I do my best to position myself with a good view of the room, so I can be ready when Emiliano gives me the signal that it’s time for the exchange.

However, it’s not Emiliano who comes looking for me.

After nearly a half hour of boring pleasantries, I excuse myself to the restroom and to seek another glass of champagne—I’m parched. It turns out smiling and looking pretty is more taxing than I realized. Once I finish in the ladies, I make my way toward the bar, only to be intercepted by Manuel.

“Come on,” he says in a low voice.

I turn and follow him, but instead of leading me to the girl I’m meant to swap necklaces with, he hustles me through a glass door to the balcony.

“Who are you, really?”

“I… what? You know who I am.” I eyeball him with confusion. Is this some kind of test?

“I know who my cousinsthinkyou are. But then I see you chatting it up with Jose Perez, and I think they’ve got it all wrong.” His voice is low and dangerous, with a distinctive rasp. I realize I’ve never heard him speak before tonight.

“You mean the guy I was talking to ten minutes ago? This is the first time I’ve met him. Vincente told me to circulate with the other girls and blend in, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it’s true, so I don’t know what else to tell you. Tara, the girl in the purple dress, brought me over and introduced me. All I know is that Jose and his friend said they were investors. The rest was all small talk.”

“Sure seemed awfully cozy for small talk.”

“It’s a party, and there were three other girls there. How cozy do you think it was? I think you’re off your rocker.”

“It’s my job to suspect people who snoop around, sticking their noses into our business, then claim to want to join the family.”

“Woah okay, you’ve got it all wrong. The boat was an accident. I didn’t mean to walk in on your business. But Iamwith Vincente—he’s waiting for my text to come pick me up. Do you want to call him?”

Manuel grimaces, and I know I’ve one-upped him.

“Don’t think for a second I can’t see what you’re doing. My cousin may be pussy-whipped, but that’s why he has me to look out for him.”

I do my best to play it cool, even though I feel as if my knees could give out at any minute. “Whatever. Just let me know when we’re ready to do this. In the meantime, I’m going to get another drink.”

Just then, he reaches into his pocket and withdraws a phone, quickly checking the lock screen. “Looks like our timing is good. They’re ready.”

I follow Manuel through the party, attempting to look as though I’m happy to accompany him instead of like I’m being kidnapped.

There are people milling in every crook and nook of this penthouse, but eventually we reach a closed door with a single man in a plain black suit standing out front. He nods to Manuel and allows us to pass inside.

Emiliano sits on the bed, next to a pretty brunette with warm brown skin. She’s wearing a collared necklace, similar to mine, although I can tell immediately it’s just a swath of chain with rhinestones pasted on the top.