الرئيسية Paper Princess: A Novel
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Honestly, this is the worst book I've ever read. If there's a list of worst book boyfriends, Reed Royal will be on the top. There are books that you just can't hate but then there's this book. Ew.
10 September 2020 (13:42)
This is book 1 in a series. Though the begining is a bit rough, it gets better as you read on. The end is definitely worth the rough begining.
16 November 2020 (12:08)
This is one of the best books I've ever read.
02 December 2020 (13:10)
omg I love this book so much! Great escape from reality. Good light read- def recommend
21 December 2020 (02:37)
Such a page turner. There were several parts that had me gasping. and speechless. The ending had me wanting to read the next book right away. But it’s 3:33am right now? Took my 8 hours to read this book. read it in a day. Such a good book. definitely recommend. It’s romance with a turn
05 January 2021 (13:34)
It get slightly better as you keep reading
06 April 2021 (23:25)
One of the Best teenage books I have ever read
And I have seen a lot of Books that have actually copied the plot and twisted it but this is the best of all of they
And I have seen a lot of Books that have actually copied the plot and twisted it but this is the best of all of they
17 April 2021 (23:25)
Please is there a book six because I Just finished reading cracked kingdom and I want more
17 April 2021 (23:26)
I usually just read the first book and I’m done but with this one I can’t wait to read the rest of the series and I had a hard time parting with this one even for a few hours. I couldn’t put it down amazing book!
06 June 2021 (18:39)
Paper Princess Erin Watt Contents Copyright Summary Dedication Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Stay Connected Acknowledgments About the Author This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental Copyright © 2016 by Erin Watt Cover Design by Meljean Brook All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. BUY NOW: Broken Prince, Book 2 Twisted Palace, Book 3 (Link coming soon) From strip clubs and truck stops to southern coast mansions and prep schools, one girl tries to stay true to herself. These Royals will ruin you… Ella Harper is a survivor—a pragmatic optimist. She’s spent her whole life moving from town to town with her flighty mother, struggling to make ends meet and believing that someday she’ll climb out of the gutter. After her mother’s death, Ella is truly alone. Until Callum Royal appears, plucking Ella out of poverty and tossing her into his posh mansion among his five sons who all hate her. Each Royal boy is more magnetic than the last, but none as captivating as Reed Royal, the boy who is determined to send her back to the slums she came from. Reed doesn’t want her. He says she doesn’t belong with the Royals. He might be right. Wealth. Exces; s. Deception. It’s like nothing Ella has ever experienced, and if she’s going to survive her time in the Royal palace, she’ll need to learn to issue her own Royal decrees. For Margo, whose enthusiasm for this project matched our own. 1 “Ella, you’re wanted in the principal’s office,” Ms. Weir says before I can step inside her precalculus classroom. I check my watch. “I’m not even late.” It’s one minute before nine and this watch is never wrong. It’s probably the most expensive item I own. My mom said that it was my dad’s. Besides his sperm, it’s the only thing he left behind. “No, it’s not about tardiness…this time.” Her normally flinty gaze is soft around the edges, and my gut relays a warning to my sluggish morning brain. Ms. Weir is a hard ass, which is why I like her. She treats her students like we’re here to learn actual math instead of some life lesson on loving your neighbor and crap like that. So for her to be giving me sympathetic looks means something bad is cooking down at the principal’s office. “Fine.” It’s not like I can give any other response. I offer a nod and redirect myself to the school office. “I’ll email you the course assignment,” Ms. Weir calls after me. I guess she thinks I won’t be returning to class, but there isn’t anything Principal Thompson could throw at me that’s worse than what I’ve faced before. Before enrolling in George Washington High School for my junior year, I’d already lost everything of importance. Even if Mr. Thompson has somehow figured out I’m not technically living in the GW school district, I can lie to stall for time. And if I have to transfer, which is the worst thing that could happen to me today, then no big deal. I’ll do it. “How’s it going, Darlene?” The mom-haired school secretary barely looks up from her People magazine. “Take a seat, Ella. Mr. Thompson will be right with you.” Yep, we’re on a first-name basis, me and Darlene. One month at GW High, and I’ve already spent way too much time in this office, thanks to my ever-growing stack of late slips. But that’s what happens when you work nights and don’t see the smooth side of the sheets until three a.m. every night. I crane my neck around to peek through the open blinds of Mr. Thompson’s office. Someone’s sitting in the visitor’s chair, but all I can make out is a hard jaw and dark brown hair. Total opposite of me. I’m as blonde and blue-eyed as they come. Courtesy of my sperm donor, according to Mom. Thompson’s visitor reminds me of the out-of-town businessmen who would tip my mom mega bucks for her to pretend to be their girlfriend for the night. Some guys got off on that even more than actual sex. This is per my mom, of course. I haven’t had to go down that path...yet. And I hope I never have to, which is why I need my high school diploma so I can go to college, get a degree, and be normal. Some kids dream of traveling the world, owning fast cars, big houses. Me? I want my own apartment, a fridge full of food, and a steady paying job, preferably one that’s as exciting as paste drying. The two men talk and talk and talk. Fifteen minutes pass and they’re still shooting the shit. “Hey, Darlene? I’m missing precalc right now. Okay for me to come back when Mr. Thompson isn’t busy?” I try to state it as nicely as possible, but years of having no real adult presence in my life—my flighty, lovely mom doesn’t count—makes it hard for me to summon up the necessary submissiveness adults prefer from anyone who isn’t allowed to legally drink. “No, Ella. Mr. Thompson will be right out.” This time she’s right, because the door opens and the principal steps out. Mr. Thompson is about five ten and looks like he graduated from high school last year. Somehow he manages a certain air of capable responsibility. He gestures me forward. “Miss Harper, please come inside.” Inside? While Don Juan is in there? “You already have someone in your office.” I point out the obvious. This looks suspicious as hell and my gut is telling me to get out of here. But if I run, I’ll be giving up on this careful life I’ve spent months planning. Thompson turns around and looks toward Don Juan, who rises from his chair and waves at me with his large hand. “Yes, well, he’s why you’re here. Please come in.” Against my better judgment, I slip past Mr. Thompson and stand just inside the door. Thompson closes the door and flips the blinds to the office shut. Now I’m really nervous. “Ms. Harper, if you’d sit down.” Thompson points at the chair Don Juan just vacated. I cross my arms and look at both of them mutinously. The seas could flood the earth before I take a seat. Thompson sighs and settles in his own chair, knowing a lost cause when he sees one. That makes me even more uneasy, because if he’s giving up this fight it means there’s a bigger one coming. He picks up a set of papers on his desk. “Ella Harper, this is Callum Royal.” He pauses as if that means something to me. Meanwhile, Royal is staring at me like he’s never seen a girl before. I realize that my crossed arms are pushing my boobs together and so I drop my hands to my sides where they dangle awkwardly. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Royal.” It’s apparent to everyone in the room that I’m thinking the exact opposite. The sound of my voice jolts him out of his hypnosis. He strides forward and, before I can move, has my right hand clasped between two of his. “My God, you look just like him.” The words are whispered so only he and I can hear them. Then, as if remembering where he is, he shakes my hand. “Please, call me Callum.” There’s an odd tone to his words. Like they’re hard to get out. I tug my hand from his, which requires some effort because the creep does not want to let go. It takes Mr. Thompson clearing his throat to get Royal to drop my hand. “What’s this all about?” I demand. As a seventeen-year-old in a room full of adults, my tone is out of place, but no one even bats an eyelash. Mr. Thompson runs an agitated hand through his hair. “I don’t know how to say this so I’ll just be straightforward. Mr. Royal tells me that your parents are both deceased and that he’s now your guardian.” I falter. Just for a beat. Just long enough to let the shock filter into indignation. “Bullshit!” The curse word bursts out before I can stop it. “My mother signed me up for classes. You have her signature on the registration forms.” My heart is beating a million miles a minute, because that signature is actually mine. I forged it to maintain control over my own life. Even though I’m a minor, I’ve had to be the adult in my family since the age of fifteen. To Mr. Thompson’s credit, he doesn’t chastise me for the profanity. “The paperwork indicates that Mr. Royal’s claim is legitimate.” He rattles the papers in his hands. “Yeah? Well, he’s lying. I’ve never seen this guy before, and if you let me go with him, the next report you’ll see is how some girl from GW disappeared into a sex trafficking scheme.” “You’re right, we haven’t met before,” Royal interjects. “But that doesn’t change the reality here.” “Let me see.” I jump to Thompson’s desk and pluck the papers out of his hands. My eyes run over the pages, not really reading what’s there. Words pop out at me—guardian and deceased and bequeath—but they mean nothing. Callum Royal is still a stranger. Period. “Perhaps if your mother could come in, we could clear everything up,” Mr. Thompson suggests. “Yes, Ella, bring your mother and I’ll withdraw my claim.” Royal’s voice is soft, but I hear the steel. He knows something. I turn back to my principal. He’s the weak link here. “I could create this in the school computer lab. I wouldn’t even need Photoshop.” I toss the sheaf of papers in front of him. Doubt is forming in his eyes, so I press my advantage. “I need to get back to class. The semester is just starting and I don’t want to fall behind.” He licks his lips uncertainly and I stare him down with all the conviction in my heart. I don’t have a dad. I certainly don’t have a guardian. If I did, where was this jackass all my life while my mom was struggling to make ends meet, when she was in god-awful pain from her cancer, when she was weeping on her hospice bed about leaving me alone? Where was he then? Thompson sighs. “All right, Ella, why don’t you go to class? Clearly Mr. Royal and I have more matters to discuss.” Royal objects. “These papers are all in order. You know me and you know my family. I wouldn’t be here presenting this to you if it were not the truth. What would be the reason?” “There are a lot of perverts in this world,” I say snidely. “They have lots of reasons to make up stories.” Thompson waves his hand. “Ella, that’s enough. Mr. Royal, this is a surprise to all of us. Once we contact Ella’s mother, we can clear this all up.” Royal doesn’t like the delay and renews his argument about how important he is and how a Royal wouldn’t tell a lie. I half expect him to invoke George Washington and the cherry tree. As the two bicker, I slip out of the room. “I’m going to the bathroom, Darlene,” I lie. “I’ll head back to class right after.” She buys it easily. “Take your time. I’ll let your teacher know.” I don’t go to the bathroom. I don’t go back to class. Instead, I hustle to the bus stop and catch the G bus to the last stop. From there it’s a thirty-minute walk to the apartment I lease for a measly five hundred a month. It has one bedroom, a dingy bathroom, and a living/kitchen area that smells like mold. But it’s cheap and the landlord is a woman who was willing to accept cash and not run a background check. I don’t know who Callum Royal is, but I do know that his presence in Kirkwood is bad, bad news. Those legal papers hadn’t been Photoshopped. They were real. But there’s no way I’m placing my life in the hands of some stranger who appeared out of the blue. My life is mine. I live it. I control it. I dump my hundred-dollar textbooks out of my backpack and fill the newly emptied bag with clothes, toiletries, and the last of my savings—one thousand dollars. Crap. I need some quick money to help me get out of town. I’m seriously depleted. It cost me over two grand to move here, what with bus tickets and then first and last month’s rent along with a rental deposit. It sucks that I’m going to be eating the unused rent money, but it’s clear I can’t stick around. I’m running again. Story of my life. Mom and I were always running. From her boyfriends, her pervert bosses, social services, poverty. The hospice was the only place we stayed in for any substantial amount of time, and that’s because she was dying. Sometimes I think the universe has decided I’m not allowed to be happy. I sit on the side of the bed and try not to cry out of frustration and anger and okay, yes, even fear. I allow myself five minutes of self-pity and then get on the phone. Screw the universe. “Hey, George, I’ve been thinking about your offer to work at Daddy G’s,” I say when a male voice answers the call. “I’m ready to take you up on that.” I’ve been working the pole at Miss Candy’s, a baby club where I strip down to a G-string and pasties. It’s good, but not great, money. George has been asking me to graduate to Daddy G’s, a full nudity place, for the last few weeks. I’ve resisted because I didn’t see the need. I do now. I’m blessed with my mother’s body. Long legs. Nipped-in waist. My boobs aren’t double-D spectacular, but George said he liked my perky B-cup because it gives the illusion of youth. It’s not an illusion, but my identification says I’m thirty-four and that my name isn’t Ella Harper but Margaret Harper. My dead mom. Super creepy if you stop to think about it, which I try not to. There aren’t many jobs a seventeen-year-old can actually do part time and still pay the bills. And none of them are legal. Run drugs. Turn tricks. Strip. I chose the last one. “Damn, girl, that’s excellent news!” George crows. “I have an opening tonight. You can be the third dancer. Wear the Catholic schoolgirl uniform. The guys are gonna love that.” “How much for tonight?” “How much what?” “Cash, George. How much cash?” “Five hundred and any tips you can make. If you want to do some private lap dances, I’ll give you one hundred per dance.” Shit. I could make a grand easy tonight. I shove all my anxiety and discomfort to the back of my mind. Now isn’t the time for an internal morality debate. I need money, and stripping is one of the safest ways for me to get it. “I’ll be there. Book as many as you can for me.” 2 Daddy G’s is a shithole, but it’s a lot nicer than some of the other clubs in town. Then again, that’s like saying, “Take a bite of this rotten chicken. It’s not as green and moldy as these other pieces.” Still, money is money. Callum Royal’s appearance at the school has been eating at me all day. If I had a laptop and an Internet connection, I would’ve Googled the guy, but my old computer is broken and I haven’t had the cash to lay out for a replacement. I didn’t want to trek to the library to use theirs, either. It’s stupid, but I was scared if I left the apartment, Royal might ambush me on the street. Who is he? And why does he think he’s my guardian? Mom never once mentioned his name to me. For a moment earlier, I wondered if he might be my father, but those papers said my dad was deceased, too. And unless Mom lied to me, I know my dad’s name wasn’t Callum. It was Steve. Steve. That always felt made-up to me. Like, when your kid says, “Tell me about my daddy, Mama!” and you’re on the spot so you blurt out the first name that comes to mind—“Uh, his name was, um, Steve, honey.” But I hate to think that Mom was lying. We’d always been honest with each other. I push Callum Royal out of my mind, because tonight is my debut at Daddy G’s, and I can’t let some middle-aged stranger in a thousand-dollar suit distract me. There are already enough middle-aged men in this joint to occupy my thoughts. The club is packed. I guess Catholic schoolgirl night is a big draw at Daddy G’s. The tables and booths on the main floor are all occupied, but the raised level that holds the VIP lounge is deserted. Not a surprise. There aren’t many VIPs in Kirkwood, this small Tennessee town outside of Knoxville. It’s a blue-collar town, mostly lower class. If you make more than 40K a year, you’re considered filthy rich. That’s why I chose it. The rent’s cheap and the public school system is decent. The dressing room is in the back, and it’s full of life when I walk inside. Half-naked women glance over at my entrance. Some nod, a couple smile, and then they refocus their attention on securing their garter belts or applying their makeup at the vanity tables. Only one rushes over to me. “Cinderella?” she says. I nod. It’s the stage name I’ve been using at Miss Candy’s. Seemed fitting at the time. “I’m Rose. George asked me to show you the ropes tonight.” There’s always one mother hen in every club—an older woman who realizes she’s losing the fight against gravity and decides to make herself useful in other ways. At Miss Candy’s, it had been Tina, the aging bleached blonde who took me under her wing from moment one. Here, it’s the aging redhead Rose, who clucks over me as she guides me toward the metal rack of costumes. When I reach for the schoolgirl uniform, she intercepts my hand. “No, that’s for later. Put this on.” Next thing I know, she’s helping me into a black corset with crisscrossed laces and a lacy black thong. “I’m dancing in this?” I can barely breathe in the corset, let alone reach in front of me to unlace it. “Forget what’s up top.” She laughs when she notices my halted breathing. “Just wiggle that bottom of yours and ride Richie Rich’s pole, and you’ll be fine.” I give her a blank look. “I thought I was going on stage?” “George didn’t tell you? You’re doing a private dance in the VIP lounge now.” What? But I just got here. From my experience at Miss Candy’s, normally you dance on stage a few times before any of the customers request a private show. “Must be one of your regulars from your former club,” Rose guesses when she notices my confusion. “Richie Rich just waltzes in here like he owns the place, hands George five hundies, and tells ’im to send you over.” She winks at me. “Play it right and you’ll squeeze a few more Benjamins outta him.” Then she’s gone. Flouncing off to one of the other dancers, while I stand there debating if this was a mistake. I like to play it off like I’m tough, and yeah, I am, to some extent. I’ve been poor and hungry. I was raised by a stripper. I know how to throw a punch if I have to. But I’m only seventeen. Sometimes that feels too young to have lived the life I have. Sometimes I look around at my surroundings and think, I don’t belong here. But I am here. I’m here, and I’m broke, and if I want to be that normal girl I’m desperately trying to be, then I need to walk out of this dressing room and ride Mr. VIP’s pole, as Rose so nicely phrased it. George appears as I step into the hallway. He’s a stocky man with a full beard and kind eyes. “Did Rose tell you about the customer? He’s been waiting for you.” Nodding, I swallow awkwardly. “I don’t have to do anything fancy, right? Just a regular lap dance?” He chuckles. “Get as fancy as you like, but if he touches you, Bruno’ll haul him out on his ass.” I’m relieved to hear that Daddy G’s enforces the no-touching-the-merchandise rule. Dancing for slimy men is a lot easier to swallow when their slimy hands don’t get anywhere near you. “You’ll do fine, girl.” He pats my arm. “And if he asks, you’re twenty-four, okay? No one over thirty works here, remember?” What about under twenty? I almost ask. But I keep my lips pressed tight. He has to know I’m lying about my age. Half the girls here are. And I may have lived a hard life, but no way do I look thirty-fricking-four. The makeup helps me pass for twenty-one. Barely. George disappears into the dressing room, and I take a breath before heading down the hallway. The sultry bass line greets me in the main room. The dancer on stage just unbuttoned her white uniform shirt, and the men go wild at the first sight of her see-through bra. Dollar bills rain on the stage. That’s what I focus on. The money. Screw everything else. Still, I’m so bummed at the thought of leaving GW High and all those teachers who actually seem to care about what they’re teaching. But I’ll find another school in another town. A town where Callum Royal won’t be able to find— I halt in my tracks. Then I spin around in a panic. It’s too late. Royal has already crossed the shadowy VIP lounge and his strong hand encircles my upper arm. “Ella,” he says in a low voice. “Let me go.” My tone is as indifferent as I can make it, but my hand shakes as I try to pry his off me. He doesn’t let go, not until another figure steps out of the shadows, a man in a dark suit and with the shoulders of a linebacker. “No touching,” the bouncer says ominously. Royal releases my arm as if it’s made of lava. He spares a grim look at Bruno the bouncer, then turns back to me. His eyes stay locked on my face, like he’s making a pointed effort not to look at my skimpy outfit. “We need to talk.” The whiskey on his breath nearly knocks me over. “I have nothing to say to you,” I answer coolly. “I don’t know you.” “I’m your guardian.” “You’re a stranger.” Now I’m haughty. “And you’re interfering with my work.” His mouth opens. Then closes. Then he says, “All right. Get to work then.” What? There’s a mocking gleam in his eyes as he drifts backward toward the plush couches. He sits, spreading his legs slightly, still mocking me. “Give me what I paid for.” My heart speeds up. No way. I’m not dancing for this man. From the corner of my eye I see George approaching the steps of the lounge. My new boss stares at me expectantly. I gulp. I want to cry, but I don’t. Instead, I sashay over to Royal with confidence I don’t feel. “Fine. You want me to dance for you, Daddy? I’ll dance for you.” Tears prick the insides of my eyelids, but I know they won’t spill over. I’ve trained myself never to cry in public. The last time I cried, it was by my mother’s deathbed, and that was after all the nurses and doctors left the room. Callum Royal has a pained look on his face as I move in front of him. My hips roll to the music, as if on instinct. Actually, it is instinct. Dancing is in my blood. It’s part of me. When I was younger, Mom was able to scrape money together to send me to ballet and jazz classes for three years. After the funds ran out, she took up the teaching part herself. She would watch videos, or crash classes at the community center before they kicked her out, and then she’d come home and teach me. I love to dance, and I’m good at it, but I’m not stupid enough to think it’ll ever be a career, not unless I want to strip for a living. Nope, my career will be practical. Business or law, something that will earn me a good living. Dancing is a little girl’s foolish dream. As I run my hands seductively down the front of my corset, Royal lets out a groan. It’s not the groan I’m used to hearing, though. He doesn’t look turned on. He looks…sad. “He’s rolling over in his grave right now,” Royal says hoarsely. I ignore him. He doesn’t exist to me. “This isn’t right.” He sounds choked up. I toss my hair back and jut my boobs out. I can feel Bruno’s eyes on me from the shadows. A hundred bucks for a ten-minute dance, and I’ve already gyrated away two minutes. Eight more to go. I can do this. But evidently, Royal can’t. One more sway and both his hands clamp down on my hips. “No,” he growls. “Steve wouldn’t want this for you.” I don’t have time to blink, to register his words. He’s on his feet and I’m flying through the air, my torso slamming into his broad shoulder. “Let me go!” I scream. He’s not listening. He carries me over his shoulder like I’m a rag doll, and not even Bruno’s sudden appearance can stop him. “Get the hell out of my way!” When Bruno takes another step, Royal booms at him. “This girl is seventeen years old! She’s a minor, and I’m her guardian, and so help me God, if you take one more step, I will have every cop in Kirkwood swarming this place and you and all these other perverts will be thrown in jail for endangering a minor.” Bruno might be beefy, but he’s not dumb. With a stricken look, he moves out of the way. Me, I’m not so cooperative. My fists pound against Royal’s back, my nails clawing at his expensive suit jacket. “Put me down!” I shriek. He doesn’t. And nobody stops him as he marches toward the exit. The men in the club are too busy leering and hooting at the stage. I see a flash of movement—George coming up beside Bruno, who furiously whispers in his ear—but then they’re gone and I’m hit by a gust of cool air. We’re outside, but Callum Royal still doesn’t put me down. I see his fancy shoes slapping the cracked pavement of the parking lot. There’s a jingle of keys, a loud beep, and then I’m propelled through the air again before landing on a leather seat. I’m in the back of a car. A door slams. An engine roars to life. Oh my God. This man is kidnapping me. 3 My backpack! It has my money and my watch in it! The backseat of the behemoth Callum Royal calls a car is more luxurious than anything my butt has ever touched in my entire life. Too bad I won’t have time to appreciate it. I dive for the door handle and pull on it but the stupid thing won’t open. My eyes shift to the driver. It’s reckless as hell but I don’t have any choice—I lunge forward and grab the shoulder of the driver whose neck is as big as my thigh. “Turn around! I have to go back!” He doesn’t even flinch. It’s like he’s made out of brick. I tug a few more times, but I’m pretty sure that short of stabbing this guy in the neck—and maybe not even then—he’s not doing anything unless Royal tells him to. Callum hasn’t moved an inch from his side of the rear passenger seat, and I resign myself to the fact that I won’t be exiting the car until he okays it. I test the window just to be sure. It remains stubbornly closed. “Child safety locks?” I mutter, even though I’m sure of the answer. He nods slightly. “Among other things, but suffice it to say that you’re in the car for the duration of our trip. Are you looking for this?” My backpack lands in my lap. I resist the urge to rip it open and check if he’s taken my cash and identification. Without either, I’m completely at his mercy, but I don’t want to reveal a thing until I figure out his angle. “Look, mister, I don’t know what you want but it’s obvious you have money. There are plenty of hookers out there who will do whatever you want and won’t cause you the legal trouble that I could. Just drop me off at the next intersection and I promise you’ll never hear from me again. I won’t go to the cops. I’ll tell George that you were an old client but that we hammered out our issues.” “I’m not looking for a hooker. I’m here for you.” After that ominous statement, Royal shrugs out of his suit coat and offers it to me. Part of me wishes I was just a little bolder, but sitting here in this super fancy car in front of the man I’d just used as a pole is making me feel awkward and exposed. I’d give anything for a pair of granny panties right now. Reluctantly, I slip the jacket on, ignoring the uncomfortable pain the corset is causing me, and clutch the lapels tight against my chest. “I have nothing you want.” Surely the small amount of cash shoved into the bottom of my bag is peanuts to this dude. We could trade this car for all of Daddy G’s. Royal raises one eyebrow in a wordless rebuttal. Now that he’s in his shirtsleeves, I can see his watch and it looks…exactly like mine. His eyes follow my gaze. “You’ve seen this before.” It’s not a question. He shoves his wrist toward me. The watch has a plain black leather band, silver knobs and an 18-carat gold housing around the domed glass of the watch face. The numbers and hands are glow-in-the-dark. Dry-mouthed, I lie, “Never seen it before in my life.” “Really? It’s an Oris watch. Swiss, made by hand. It was a gift when I graduated BUD/S. My best friend, Steve O’Halloran, received the same exact watch when he graduated from BUD/S, too. On the back it’s engraved—” Non sibi sed patriae. I looked up the phrase when I was nine years old, after my mom told me the story of my birth. Sorry, kid, but I slept with a sailor. He left me with nothing more than his first name and this watch. And me, I’d reminded her. She’d playfully ruffled my hair and told me I was the best thing ever. My heart lurches again at her absence. “—It means ‘not for self, but for country.’ Steve’s watch went missing eighteen years ago. He said he lost it, but he never replaced it. Never wore another watch.” Royal releases a rueful snort. “He used that as an excuse for why he was late all the time.” I catch myself leaning forward, wanting to know more about Steve O’Halloran, what the heck ‘buds’ is, and how the men knew each other. Then I give myself a mental face slap and slouch back against the door. “Cool story, bro. But what does that have to do with me?” I glance at Goliath in the front seat and raise my voice. “Because both of you just kidnapped a minor, and I’m pretty sure that’s a felony in all fifty states.” Only Royal responds. “It’s a felony to kidnap anyone regardless of age, but since I’m your guardian and you were engaging in illegal acts, it’s within my right to remove you from the premises.” I force out a mocking laugh. “I’m not sure who you think I am, but I’m thirty-four.” I reach into the backpack to find my ID, pushing aside the watch that’s a perfect match to the one Royal has on his left wrist. “See? Margaret Harper. Age thirty-four.” He plucks the identification from my fingers. “Five foot seven inches. One hundred and thirty pounds.” His eyes flick over me. “Felt more like a hundred, but I suspect you’ve lost weight since you’ve been on the run.” On the run? How the hell does he know that? As if he can read my expression, he snorts. “I’ve got five sons. There’s no trick in the book that one of them haven’t tried on me, and I know a teenager when I see one, even beneath a foot of makeup.” I stare back stonily. This man, whoever he is, is getting nothing from me. “Your father is Steven O’Halloran.” He checks himself. “Was. Your father was Steven O’Halloran.” I turn my face against the window so this stranger doesn’t see the flash of pain that crosses my expression before I can bury it. Of course my dad is dead. Of course. My throat feels tight and the awful sensation of tears pricks at the back of my eyes. Crying is for babies. Crying is for weaklings. Crying for a dad I never knew? Totally weak. Over the hum of the road, I hear a clink of glass against glass and then the familiar sound of liquor splashing into a tumbler. Royal starts talking a moment later. “Your father and I were best friends. We grew up together. Went to college together. Decided to enlist in the Navy on a whim. We eventually joined the SEALs, but our fathers wanted to retire early so instead of re-upping for duty, we moved home to take up the reins of our family business. We build airplanes, if you were wondering.” Of course you do, I think sourly. He ignores my silence or takes it as approval to continue. “Five months ago, Steve died during a hang-gliding accident. But before he left…it’s eerie, almost like he had some kind of premonition”—Royal shakes his head—“he gave me a letter and said it might be the most important piece of correspondence he’d ever received. He told me we’d go over it together once he got back, but a week later, his wife returned from the trip and informed me Steve was dead. I set the letter aside to deal with…complications regarding his death and his widow.” Complications? What did that mean? You die and then that’s it, no? Plus, the way he said widow, like it was a nasty word, makes me wonder about her. “A couple of months later, I remembered the letter. Do you want to know what it said?” What a horrible tease. Of course I want to know what the letter said but I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a response. I fix my cheek against the window. Several blocks whiz by before Royal gives in. “The letter was from your mother.” “What?” I whip my head around in shock. He doesn’t look smug that he’s finally gained my attention—only tired. The loss of his friend, of my dad, is etched all over his face, and for the first time I see Callum Royal as the man he professes to be: a father who lost his best friend and received the surprise of a lifetime. Before he can say another word, though, the car comes to a stop. I look out the window and see we’re out in the country. There’s a long flat strip of land, a large one-story building made of metal sheeting, and a tower. Near the building is a large white airplane with the words “Atlantic Aviation” emblazoned on it. When Royal said he built airplanes, I didn’t expect this kind of airplane. I don’t know what I expected, but a huge ass jet large enough to carry hundreds of people across the world was not it. “Is that yours?” I have a hard time not gaping. “It is but we’re not stopping.” I pull my hand away from the heavy silver door latch. “What do you mean?” For the time being, I shelve the shock of being kidnapped, of the existence—and death—of the sperm donor who helped make me, of this mysterious letter, to watch in open-mouthed amazement when we drive past the gates, past the building, and onto what I presume to be the airfield. At the rear of the plane, a hatch lowers and once the ramp hits the ground, Goliath motors up the incline and right into the belly of the plane. I twist around to look out the back windshield as the hatch closes loudly behind us. As soon as the door of the plane shuts, the locks to the car doors make a soft snick. And I’m free. Sort of. “After you.” Callum gestures toward the door Goliath is holding open for me. With the jacket clutched tightly around me, I try to gather my composure. Even the plane is in better condition than me with my borrowed stripper corset and uncomfortable heels. “I need to change.” I’m grateful I manage to sound halfway normal. I’ve had a lot of experience being shamed, and over the years I’ve learned that the best defense is a good offense. But I’m at a low point right now. I don’t want anyone, not Goliath or the flight people, looking at me in this getup. This is my first time on a plane. Before it was always buses and, in some really terrible spots, rides with truck drivers. But this is a giant thing, big enough to house a car. Surely there’s a closet somewhere for me to change. Callum’s eyes soften and he gives a brisk nod to Goliath. “We’ll wait upstairs.” He points to the end of the garage-like room. “Through that door is a set of stairs. Come up when you’re ready.” The minute I’m alone, I quickly exchange my stripper clothes for my most comfortable undies, a pair of baggy jeans, a tank top, and a flannel button-down top that I’d normally leave open but tonight fasten all the way up, leaving only the top button undone. I look like a hobo, but at least I’m covered. I stuff the stripper gear in the bag and check to see if my money is there. It is, thankfully, along with Steve’s watch. My wrist feels naked without it, and since Callum already knows, I might as well wear it. The second the latch is affixed around my wrist, I feel instantly better, stronger. I can face whatever Callum Royal has in store for me. Slinging the backpack over my shoulder, I start plotting as I walk toward the door. I need money. Callum has that. I need a new place to live, and fast. If I get enough money from him, I’ll fly to my next destination and start over again. I know how to do that. I’m going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. If I tell myself that lie long enough, I’ll believe it to be true…even if it isn’t. When I reach the top of the stairs, Callum is there waiting for me. He introduces me to the driver. “Ella Harper, this is Durand Sahadi. Durand, Steven’s daughter, Ella.” “Nice to meet you,” Durand says in a ridiculously deep voice. Jeez, he sounds like Batman. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He bows his head slightly and he’s just so fricking nice that it’d be rude to ignore him. I push my backpack out of the way and shake his outstretched hand. “Thank you.” “Thank you as well, Durand.” Callum dismisses his driver and turns to me. “Let’s take our seats. I want to get home. It’s an hour plane ride to Bayview.” “An hour? You brought a plane to go an hour?” I exclaim. “It would have taken me six hours to drive and that was far too long. It’s already taken me nine weeks and an army of detectives to find you.” Since I don’t have any other options right now, I follow Callum toward a set of plush cream leather seats facing each other, with a fancy black wooden table inlaid with silver situated between them. He settles into one, then gestures for me to take my place opposite him. A glass and a bottle are already set out, as if his staff knows he can’t function without a drink. Across the aisle from Callum is another set of cushy chairs, and a sofa lies beyond that. I wonder if I could get a job as a flight attendant for him. This place is even nicer than his car. I could live here, no question. I sit down and set my backpack between my feet. “Nice watch,” he comments dryly. “Thanks. My mom gave it to me. Said it was the only thing my dad left her besides his name and me.” There’s no point in lying anymore. If his army of private detectives led him to me in Kirkwood, he probably knows more about me and Mom than I do. He certainly seems to know a lot about my dad, and I find, against my better judgment, I’m starving for that information. “Where’s the letter?” “At home. I’ll give it to you when we arrive.” He reaches for a leather portfolio and pulls out a stack of cash—the kind you see in movies with a white wrapper around it. “I want to make a deal with you, Ella.” I know my eyes are as huge as saucers but I can’t help it. I’ve never seen so many hundred-dollar bills in my entire life. He pushes the stack across the dark surface until the pile of bills sits in front of me. Maybe this is a game show or some kind of reality television competition? I snap my mouth shut and try to stiffen up. No one plays me for a fool. “Let’s hear it,” I say, crossing my arms and looking at Callum with narrowed eyes. “From what I can tell, you’re stripping to support yourself and get a high school diploma. From there, I presume you’d like to go to college and give up stripping and perhaps do something else. Maybe you’d like to be an accountant or doctor or lawyer. This money is a good faith gesture.” He taps the bills. “This stack contains ten thousand dollars. For every month you stay with me, I’ll give you a new stack—in cash—for the same amount. If you stay with me until you graduate from high school, you’ll receive a bonus of two hundred thousand. That will pay for your college education, housing, clothing, and food. If you graduate with a degree, you’ll receive another substantial bonus.” “What’s the catch?” My hands itch to grab the money, find a parachute and escape from Callum Royal’s clutches before he can even say stock market. Instead, I stay seated, waiting to hear what kind of sick deed I’ll have to do to get this money—and debating internally what my limits are. “The catch is that you don’t fight. You don’t try to run away. You accept my guardianship. You live in my home. You treat my sons as your brothers. If you do that, you can have the life you’ve dreamed of.” He pauses. “The life Steve would have wanted you to have.” “And what do I have to do for you?” I need the terms spelled out exactly. Callum’s eyes widen and his face takes on a green cast. “Nothing for me. You’re a very pretty girl, Ella, but you are a girl and I’m a forty-two-year-old man with five sons. Rest assured, I have an attractive girlfriend who meets my every need.” Ewww. I hold up a hand. “Okay, I don’t need any more explanation.” Callum laughs with relief before his tone goes serious again. “I know I can’t replace your parents, but I’m here for you in any way that you would need them. You may have lost your family, but you’re not alone anymore, Ella. You’re a Royal now.” 4 We’re landing, but even with my nose pressed right up to the window, it’s too dark to see anything. Blinking lights from the runway below are all I can make out, and once we touch down, Callum doesn’t give me time to examine my surroundings. We don’t take the car that’s in the belly of the plane. No, that must be the “travel” car because Durand ushers us to another sleek black sedan. The windows are tinted so dark I have no idea what kind of scenery is flashing past us, but then Callum rolls the window down a bit, and I smell it—salt. The ocean. We’re on the coast then. One of the Carolinas? Six hours from Kirkwood would place us somewhere along the Atlantic, which makes sense given the name of Callum’s company. It doesn’t matter, though. All that matters is the stack of crisp bills in my backpack. Ten grand. I still can’t fathom it. Ten grand a month. And a helluva lot more after I graduate. There has to be a catch. Callum might have assured me that he doesn’t expect…special favors in return, but this isn’t my first rodeo. There’s always a catch, and eventually it will make itself known. When it does, at least I’ll have ten grand in my pocket if I need to run again. Until then, I’m playing along. Making nice with Royal. And his sons… Crap, I forgot about the sons—five of them, he’d said. How bad could they really be, though? Five spoiled rich boys? Ha. I’ve dealt with a lot worse. Like my mom’s gangster boyfriend, Leo, who tried to feel me up when I was twelve, then taught me the right way to form a fist after I punched him in the gut and nearly broke my hand. He’d laughed and we were fast friends after that. The self-defense tips definitely helped me with Mom’s next boyfriend, who was just as handsy. Mom really knew how to pick winners. But I try not to judge her. She did what she had to do to survive, and I never doubted her love for me. After thirty minutes of driving, Durand slows the car in front of a gate. There’s a divider between us and the driver’s seat, but I hear an electronic beep, then a mechanical whir, and then we’re driving again. Slower this time, until finally the car stops altogether and the locks release with a click. “We’re home,” Callum says quietly. I want to correct him—there’s no such thing—but I keep my mouth shut. Durand opens the door for me and extends a hand. My knees wobble slightly as I exit. Three other vehicles are parked outside a huge garage—two black SUVS and a cherry-red pickup truck that looks out of place. Callum notices where my gaze has gone and smiles ruefully. “Used to be three Range Rovers, but Easton traded his for the pickup. I suspect he wanted more room to screw around with his dates.” He doesn’t say it with reproach, but resignation. I assume Easton is one of his sons. I also sense an undercurrent of…something in Callum’s tone. Helplessness maybe? I’ve only known him a few hours, but somehow I can’t imagine this man ever being helpless, and my guard shoots up again. “You’ll have to catch a ride to school with the boys for the first few days,” he adds. “Until I get you a car.” His eyes narrow. “That is, if you have a license under your own name and which doesn’t say you’re thirty-four?” I nod grudgingly. “Good.” Then I realize what he said before. “You’re buying me a car?” “It’ll be easier that way. My sons…”—he seems to be choosing his words carefully—“…aren’t quick to warm up to strangers. But you need to go to school, so…” He shrugs and repeats himself. “It will be easier.” I can’t fight my suspicion. Something is off here. With this man. With his kids. Maybe I should have fought harder to get out of his car back in Kirkwood. Maybe I— My thoughts die as I shift my gaze and get my first glimpse of the mansion. No, the palace. The Royal Palace. Literally. This isn’t real. The house is only two stories tall but it stretches out so far I can barely see the end of it. And there are windows everywhere. Maybe the architect who designed this place was allergic to walls or had a deep fear of vampires. “You…” My voice hitches. “You live here?” “We live here,” he corrects. “This is your home now, too, Ella.” This will never be my home. I don’t belong in splendor, I belong in squalor. That’s what I know. It’s what I’m comfortable with, because squalor doesn’t lie to you. It’s not wrapped in a pretty package. It is what it is. This house is an illusion. It’s polished and pretty, but the dream Callum is trying to sell is as flimsy as paper. Nothing stays shiny forever in this world. * * * The interior of the Royal mansion is as extravagant as the exterior. White slabs of tile veined with gray and gold—the kind that banks and doctors’ offices have—span the foyer, which seems to go on for miles. The ceiling never ends either, and I’m tempted to shout something just to see how deep the echo goes. Stairs on either side of the entrance meet at an actual balcony that overlooks the foyer. The chandelier above my head must contain a hundred lights and so much crystal that if it fell on my head, all they’d be able to find is glass dust. It looks like it belongs in a hotel. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was taken from one. Everywhere I look I see wealth. And through it all, Callum watches me with wary eyes, as if he’s stepped inside my mind and realizes how close I am to freaking out. To running hard and fast, because I don’t fucking belong here. “I know it’s different from what you’re used to,” he says gruffly, “but you’ll get used to this, too. You’re going to like it here. I promise you.” My shoulders stiffen. “Don’t make promises, Mr. Royal. Not to me, not ever.” His face goes stricken. “Call me Callum. And I intend to keep any promise I make to you, Ella. Same way I kept every promise I made to your father.” Something softens inside me. “You…uh…” The words come out awkwardly. “You really cared about my—about Steve, huh?” “He was my best friend,” Callum says simply. “I trusted him with my life.” Must be nice. The only person I’ve ever trusted is gone. Dead and buried. I think of Mom, and suddenly I miss her so much my throat closes up. “Um…” I struggle to sound casual, as if I’m not on the verge of tears or a breakdown. “So do you have a butler or something? Or a housekeeper? Who takes care of this place?” “I have staff. You won’t be required to scrub floors to earn your keep.” His grin dies off at my unsmiling stare. “Where’s my letter?” Callum must sense how close I am to losing it, because his tone softens. “Look, it’s late, and you’ve had a lot of excitement for one day. Why don’t we save this conversation for tomorrow? Right now I just want you to get a good night’s sleep.” He eyes me knowingly. “I get the feeling it’s been a long time since you’ve had one of those.” He’s right. I take a breath, then exhale slowly. “Where’s my room?” “I’ll take you up—” He halts when footsteps sound from above us, and I glimpse a flicker of approval in his blue eyes. “Here they are. Gideon is at college, but I asked the others to come down and meet you. They don’t always listen—” And still don’t, apparently, because whatever orders he issued to the junior Royals are being ignored. And so am I. Not a single gaze flicks in my direction as four dark-haired figures appear at the curved railing of the balcony. My jaw falls open, just slightly, before I slam it shut, steeling myself against the show of aggression from above. I won’t let them see how much they’ve rattled me, but holy shit, I’m rattled. No, I’m intimidated. The Royal boys are not what I expected. They don’t look like rich pricks in preppy clothes. They look like terrifying thugs who can snap me like a twig. Each one is as big as his father, easily six feet tall, and with varying degrees of muscle—the two on the right are leaner, the two on the left are broad-shouldered with sculpted arms. They must be athletes. Nobody is that ripped without working hard for it, bleeding and sweating for it. I’m nervous now, because nobody has said a word. Not them, not Callum. Even standing far below them, I can see that all his sons have his eyes. Vivid blue and piercing in their intensity—all of it focused on their father. “Boys,” he finally says. “Come meet our guest.” He shakes his head as if correcting himself. “Come meet the new member of our family.” Silence. It’s eerie. The one in the middle smirks, just a tiny tug on the corner of his mouth. Mocking his father as he rests his muscled forearms on the railing and says nothing. “Reed.” Callum’s commanding voice bounces off the walls. “Easton.” Another name rattles out. “Sawyer.” Then another. “Sebastian. Get down here. Now.” They don’t move. The two on the right are twins, I realize. Identical in looks, and in their insolent poses when they cross their arms over their chests. One of the twins glances to the side, casting a barely noticeable look toward the brother on the far left. A chill runs through me. He’s the one to worry about. He’s the one I need to watch out for. And he’s the only one who tilts his head toward me in a calculated slant. As our gazes lock, my heart beats a little bit faster. Out of fear. Maybe under different circumstances, my heart would be pounding for another reason. Because he’s gorgeous. They all are. But this one scares me, and I work hard to hide the response. I meet his eyes in challenge. Come down here, Royal. Bring it on. Those dark blue eyes narrow slightly. He senses the unspoken challenge. He sees my defiance and he doesn’t like it. Then he turns from the railing and walks away. The others follow as if on command. They dismiss their father from their gazes. Footsteps echo in the cavernous house. Doors close. Next to me, Callum sighs. “I’m sorry about that. I thought I got through to them before—they’ve had time to prepare for it—but clearly they still need more time to absorb all this.” All this? He means me. My presence in their home, my tie to their father that I never knew I had before today. “I’m sure they’ll be more welcoming in the morning,” he says. It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. He sure as hell hasn’t convinced me. 5 I wake up in an unfamiliar bed and I don’t like it. Not the bed. The bed is the shit. It’s soft but firm at the same time and the sheets are buttery smooth, not like the scratchy pieces of crap that I’m used to, when I actually slept on a bed with sheets. Lots of times it was just a sleeping bag, and those nylon sacks get smelly after a while. This bed smells like honey and lavender. All this luxury and niceness feels threatening, because in my experience, nice is usually followed by a real nasty surprise. One time, Mom came home from work and announced that we were moving into a better place. A tall, thin man came and helped us pack our meager belongings, and several hours later we were in his tiny house. It was adorable, with plaid curtains on the windows, and despite the small size, I even had my own bedroom. Later that night I woke up to the sound of shouting and glass breaking. Mom rushed into my room and pulled me out of bed, and we were out of the house before I could take a breath. It wasn’t until we’d stopped two blocks away that I saw the bruise forming on her cheekbone. So nice things doesn’t equal nice people. I sit up and take in my surroundings. The whole room is designed for a princess—a really young one. There’s a gag worthy amount of pink and ruffles. It’s really only missing Disney posters, although I’m sure posters are too low-class for this place, just like my backpack sitting on the floor near the door is. Yesterday’s events flick through my mind, halting at the stack of hundred dollar bills. I leap out of bed and grab the backpack. Ripping it open, I sigh with relief when I see the stack of Benjamins on the top. I thumb the bills and listen to the sweet sound of the paper shuffling, replacing the silence of the room. I could take this right now and leave. Ten grand would keep me afloat for a long time. But…if I stay, Callum Royal has promised me so much more. The bed, the room, ten grand each month until I graduate…just for going to school? For living in this mansion? For driving my own car? I tuck the money into the secret pocket at the bottom of the bag. I’ll give it a day. There’s nothing stopping me from leaving tomorrow or next month or the month after. The minute things go bad, I can jet. With my money secured, I dump the rest of the bag’s contents out on the bed and take stock. For clothes, there are two pairs of skinny jeans, the baggy pair I wore home from the strip joint to avoid attention, five T-shirts, five pairs of undies, one bra, the corset I danced in last night, a G-string, a pair of stripper heels, and one nice dress that was my mother’s back in the day. It’s black, short, and makes me look like I have more upstairs than what God gave me. There’s a makeup case, again mostly things my mom used, but also castaways from various strippers we met along the way. The kit is probably worth at least a grand. I’ve also got my book of Auden poetry, which I guess is the most romantic and unnecessary part of my belongings, but I found it lying on a coffee shop table and the inscription matched the one on my watch. I couldn’t leave it there. It was kismet, even though I generally don’t believe in that stuff. Fate is for the weak—those people who don’t have enough power or will to shape life into what they need it to be. I’m not there yet. I don’t have enough power, but I will some day. I rub my hand over the cover of the book. Maybe I can get a part-time job somewhere waiting tables. A steakhouse would be good. That’d give me some spending money so I wouldn’t have to dip into the ten grand, which I’ve now deemed untouchable. A knock at the door startles me. “Callum?” I call. “No, it’s Reed. Open up.” I glance down at my oversized T-shirt. It belonged to one of my mom’s old boyfriends and mostly covers me, but I’m not facing the accusing and angry glare of one of the Royal boys unless I’m fully armed. Which means dressed up and with a complete layer of bad girl makeup on. “I’m not decent.” “Like I give a shit. You’ve got five seconds and then I’m coming in.” The words are flat and forceful. Jerk. With the guns on that guy, I have no doubt he could break down the door if he wanted to. I stomp over and fling it open. “What do you want?” He gives me a rude onceover, and even though my shirt hangs down far enough to cover anything racy, he makes me feel like I’m completely naked. I hate that, and the distrust that planted itself last night grows into genuine dislike. “I want to know what your game is.” He steps forward and I know it’s meant to intimidate me. This is a guy who uses his physicality as both a weapon and a lure. “I think you should be talking to your father. He’s the one who kidnapped me and brought me here.” Reed takes another step until we’re so close each breath we take makes our bodies rub against each other. He’s hot enough that my mouth dries up and tingles start dancing in places I’d like to think an asshole like him would never awaken. But another lesson I learned from my mom is that your body can like things that your head hates. Your head just has to be the one in charge. That was one of her “do as I say, not as I do” admonishments. He’s a jerk and he wants to hurt you, I scream at my body. My nipples pucker despite my warning. “And you fought real hard, didn’t you?” He looks down with disdain at the peaks that have formed under my thin shirt. There’s nothing for me to do but pretend my nips are always at attention. “Again, you should be talking to your father.” I turn away and pretend Reed Royal isn’t firing every nerve ending in my body. I stroll to the bed and pick up a pair of plain bikini panties. As if I don’t have a care in the world, I step out of my old ones and leave them lying on the cream-colored carpet. Behind me I hear a swift intake of breath. Score one for the away team. As nonchalantly as possible I pull on the new pair, carefully working them up my legs and under the long hem of my nightshirt. I can feel his eyes run over my body like it’s a physical touch. “You should know whatever game you’re playing, you can’t win. Not against all of us.” His voice has deepened and roughened. My show is affecting him. Score two. I’m so glad my back is to him so he doesn’t see that I’m affected, too, by just his voice and his gaze. “If you leave now, you won’t be hurt. We’ll let you keep whatever Dad’s given you and none of us will bother you. If you stay, we’ll break you so bad that you’ll be crawling away.” I tug my jeans on, and then, with my back still turned, start to whip off my shirt. A harsh chuckle follows and I hear swift footsteps. His hand clamps on my shoulder, keeping my shirt intact. He twists me to face him. Then he leans in close, his lips inches from my ear. “Newsflash, baby—you can do a striptease in front of me every day and I still wouldn’t do you, got that? You may have my dad wrapped around your underage ass, but the rest of us have your number.” Reed’s hot breath skates down my neck and it takes every ounce of willpower not to shiver. Am I scared? Turned on? Who the hell knows. My body is so confused right now. Crap. Am I ever my mother’s daughter or what? Because liking men who treat you badly is—was, dammit—Maggie Harper’s calling card. “Let me go,” I say coldly. His fingers tighten on my shoulder a moment before he pushes back from me. I stumble forward, catching myself on the edge of the bed. “We’re all watching you,” he says ominously and then stomps out. My hands shake as I hurriedly finish dressing. Starting now, I’m always going to have clothes on in this house, even in the privacy of my bedroom. There’s no way I’m letting that jerk Reed catch me off-guard ever again. “Ella?” I jump in surprise and whirl around to see Callum standing at my open door. “Callum, you scared me,” I squeak, slapping my hand across my thundering heart. “Sorry.” He walks in holding a worn piece of notebook paper. “Your letter.” My surprised gaze flies up to his. “I, ah, thanks.” “Didn’t think I’d give it to you, did you?” I make a face. “Truthfully? I wasn’t sure it existed.” “I won’t lie to you, Ella. I’ve got a lot of flaws. My sons’ antics could probably fill a book longer than War and Peace with all of them, but I won’t lie. And I’m not going to ask you for anything more than a chance.” He presses the paper into my hand. “When you’re done, come down and have breakfast. There’s a back staircase at the end of the hall and it leads to the kitchen. Whenever you’re ready.” “Thanks, I will.” He smiles warmly at me. “I’m so glad you’re here. For a while there I thought I’d never find you.” “I—I don’t know what to say.” If it was just Callum and me, I think I would be relieved to be here, maybe even grateful, but after the encounter with Reed, I’m halfway between afraid and terrified. “That’s okay. You’ll get used to all of this. I promise.” He gives me what is supposed to be a reassuring wink and disappears. I sink onto the bed and unfold the letter with trembling fingers. Dear Steve, I don’t know if you’ll ever get this letter or if you’ll even believe it when you read it. I’m sending it to the Little Creek naval base with your ID #. You dropped a piece of paper here with it, along with your watch. I kept the watch. Somehow remembered that damned number. Anyway, straight to the point—you knocked me up in that frenzy we had the month before you shipped out to God knows where. By the time I figured out I was preggo, you were long gone. The guys at the base weren’t interested in hearing my story. I suspect you aren’t interested in it now. But if you are, you should come. I’m sick with cancer. It’s eating up my colon. I swear I can feel it inside me like some parasite. My baby girl’s going to be alone. She’s resilient. Tough. Tougher than me. I love her. And while I don’t fear death, I dread that she’s going to be alone. I know we weren’t more than two warm bodies knocking uglies, but I swear to you we created the best damn thing in the world. You’ll hate yourself if you don’t at least meet her. Ella Harper. I named her after that corny music box you won for me in Atlantic City. Thought you might appreciate that. Anyway, hope you get this in time. She doesn’t know you exist but she has your watch and your eyes. You’ll know it the first time you lay eyes on her. Sincerely, Maggie Harper I duck into my private bathroom—also bubble-gum pink—to press a washcloth against my face. Don’t cry, Ella. There’s no point in crying. I lean over the sink and splash my face, pretending that all the water dripping into the porcelain bowl is from the faucet and not my eyes. Once I have myself under control, I yank a brush through my hair and sweep it up into a high ponytail. I slather on some BB cream to cover up my red eyes and call it a day. Before I leave, I stuff everything into the backpack and then swing it over my shoulder. This is going with me everywhere until I find a place to hide it. I pass four doors before I find the back staircase. The hallway outside my room is so wide I could drive one of Callum’s cars down it. Okay, this place must have been a hotel at one time, because it just seems ridiculous that a house for one family is this big. The kitchen at the bottom of the stairs is ginormous. There are two stoves, an island with a marble countertop, and a huge bank of white cabinets. I spot a sink but no refrigerator or dishwasher. Maybe there’s another working kitchen in the bowels of the house and I’ll be sent there to scrub floors, despite what Callum said earlier. Which would actually be okay. I’d be more comfortable doing real work for the money than just going to school and being a normal kid, because who gets paid for being normal? No one. At the far end of the kitchen, an enormous table overlooks the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows. The Royal brothers sit at four of the sixteen seats. They’re all wearing uniforms—white dress shirts with the untucked tails resting over flat front khakis. Blue blazers hang over the backs of a few chairs. And somehow each boy manages to pull off looking gorgeous with a side of brutishness. This place is like the Garden of Eden. Beautiful but full of danger. “How do you like your eggs?” Callum asks. He stands at the stove with a spatula in one hand and two eggs in the other. It doesn’t look like a comfortable pose for him. A quick glance at the boys confirms my suspicions. Callum rarely cooks. “Scrambled is good for me.” No one can screw that up. He nods and then points the spatula at a large cabinet door close to him. “There’s fruit and yogurt in the fridge and bagels behind me.” I walk over to the cabinet and pull it open as four sets of sullen, angry eyes track me. It’s like the first day at a new school and everyone has decided they hate the new girl—just for the hell of it. A light turns on and cold air hits my face. Hidden refrigerators. Because why would you want anyone to see that you own a refrigerator? Weird. I pull out a container of strawberries and set it on the counter. Reed throws down his napkin. “I’m done. Who wants a ride?” The twins scrape back their chairs but the other one—Easton, I think—shakes his head. “I’m picking up Claire this morning.” “Boys,” their father says warningly. “It’s fine.” I don’t want to start a fight or be the source of tension between Callum and his sons. “It’s fine, Dad,” Reed mocks. He turns to his brothers. “Ten minutes and we leave.” They all follow like baby ducks. Or maybe the better analogy is soldiers. “I’m sorry.” Callum heaves a sigh. “I don’t know why they’re so upset. I planned on driving you to school regardless. I just hoped they’d be more…welcoming.” The smell of burning eggs has us both turning toward the stove. “Shit,” he curses. I move next to him and see a dark congealing mess. He smiles ruefully. “I never cook but I figured I couldn’t screw eggs up. Guess I was wrong.” So he never cooks but he does for some strange girl he brought home? Not hard to see the source of resentment. “Are you hungry? Because I’m okay with fruit and yogurt.” Fresh fruit is something I haven’t had the privilege of eating often. Fresh anything is a sign of privilege. “Starving actually.” He gives me a pitiful look. “I can cook some eggs”—before I can even finish, he pulls out a package of bacon—“and bacon if you have it.” As I cook, Callum leans against the counter. “So five boys, huh? That’s a handful.” “Their mother died two years ago. They’ve never really recovered. None of us have. Maria was the glue that held us together.” He shoves a hand through his hair. “I wasn’t around much before she died. Atlantic Aviation was going through a rough time and I was chasing deals around the globe.” He lets out a gusty sigh. “The business, I’ve managed to turn around…the family is still a work in progress.” Based on what I saw of his sons, I don’t think they’re even close to the bend in the road, but Callum’s parenting skills aren’t any of my business. I make a noncommittal noise at the back of my throat that Callum takes as encouragement to continue. “Gideon’s the oldest. He’s away at college but comes home on the weekends. I think he must be seeing someone around town but I don’t know who. You should meet him tonight.” Goodie. Not. “That’d be nice.” In the way an enema is nice. “I’d like to take you over to the school, get you enrolled. After we get you squared away, Brooke—that’s my girlfriend—has offered to take you shopping. I figure you can start school on Monday.” “How far behind am I?” “Classes started two weeks ago. I’ve seen your grades, so I think you’ll be fine,” he reassures me. “Your PIs must be pretty good if you have my school records.” I frown into the eggs. “You’ve moved around a lot, but yes, eventually when I found out your mother’s full name, it wasn’t too hard to backtrack and obtain everything I needed.” “Mom did the best she could with me.” I jut out my chin. “She stripped. Did she force you to do that, too?” Callum reacts angrily. “No, I did that all on my own.” I slap his eggs onto a plate. He can cook his own stupid bacon. No one gets to run down my mom in front of me. Callum grabs my arm. “Look, I—” “Am I interrupting something?” A cold voice sounds from the doorway. I whip around and see Reed. His voice is icy but his eyes are full of fire. He doesn’t like me standing close to his dad. I know it’s a total dick move, but something drives me to step even closer to Callum, almost under his arm. Callum’s paying attention to his son, so he doesn’t realize the reason for my sudden closeness. But Reed’s narrowed eyes tell me he gets the message. I raise my hand and place it on Callum’s shoulder. “No, I was just making your dad some breakfast.” I smile sweetly. If possible, Reed’s expression gets even stormier. “I forgot my jacket.” He stalks over to the table and pulls it off the chair. “See you at school, Reed,” I taunt. He spears me with another glare before turning and leaving. My hand falls away. Callum looks down at me, bemused. “You’re poking a tiger.” I shrug. “He poked me first.” Callum shakes his head. “And I thought raising five boys was an adventure. I haven’t seen anything yet, have I?” 6 Callum drives me to the school I’ll be attending for the next two years. Well, Durand drives. Callum and I sit in the backseat, and he’s shuffling through a stack of what looks like blueprints while I stare out the window, trying not to think about what went down in my bedroom earlier with Reed. Ten minutes pass before Callum finally looks up from his work. “I’m sorry, I’m playing catch-up. I took some time off after Steve’s death, and the board is on my ass to get on top of things.” I’m tempted to ask him what Steve was like, if he was nice, what he did for fun, why he screwed my mom and never looked back. I keep my mouth shut instead. A part of me doesn’t want to know about my father. Because if I know about him, he becomes real. He might even become good. It’s easier to think of him as the jerk who abandoned my mom. I gesture to the papers. “Are those plans for your airplanes?” He nods. “We’re designing a new fighter jet. Army commissioned it.” Jesus. He doesn’t just build planes. He builds military-grade planes. That’s big money. Then again, considering their house, I shouldn’t be surprised. “And my fath—Steve. He designed planes, too?” “He was more involved in the testing sector. I am, too, to some extent, but your father had a real passion for flying.” My dad liked to fly planes. I file away that information. As I fall silent, Callum’s voice softens. “You can ask me whatever you want about him, Ella. I knew Steve better than anyone.” “I’m not sure I’m ready to know about him yet,” I answer vaguely. “Understood. But whenever you are ready, I’m happy to tell you about him. He was a great man.” I bite back the retort that he couldn’t have been that great if he abandoned me, but I don’t want to get into it with Callum. All thoughts of Steve disappear when the car reaches a set of gates that must be twenty feet high, at least. Is this how the Royals live? Driving from one gate to another? We pass through them and follow a paved road that ends in front of a massive Gothic-looking building covered in ivy. I look around when we step out of the car and note similar buildings dotting the pristine campus of Astor Park Prep Academy, along with acres of grass. I guess that’s why park is in the name of the school. “Stick around,” Callum tells Durand through the open driver’s window. “I’ll ring you when we’re ready to leave.” The black car disappears toward a parking gate at the far end of the drive. Callum turns to me and says, “Headmaster Beringer is expecting us.” It’s hard to keep my jaw off the ground as I follow him up the wide set of steps toward the front doors. This school is bonkers. It oozes money and privilege. The manicured lawn and massive courtyard are deserted—I guess everyone is already in class—in one of the far fields I see a blur of uniform-clad boys playing soccer. Callum follows my gaze. “Do you play any sports?” “Uh, no. I mean, I’m athletic, kind of. Dance, gymnastics, that stuff. But I’m not very good at sports.” He purses his lips. “That’s too bad. If you join a team or squad, you’re exempt from taking the phys ed class. I’ll ask if there’s an opening on one of the cheerleading squads—you might be a good fit there.” A cheerleader? Yeah right. You need pep for that, and I’m the least peppy person you’ll ever meet. We step into a lobby that belongs in a college movie. Large portraits of alumni hang on the oak-paneled walls, and the hardwood floor beneath our feet is polished. A few guys in blue blazers saunter by, their curious gazes landing on me briefly before they continue on. “Reed and Easton play football—our team is number one in the state. And the twins play lacrosse,” Callum tells me. “If you earn a spot on a pep squad, you might end up cheering for one of their teams.” I wonder if he realizes he’s just building an even bigger case for me not becoming a cheerleader. No way am I bouncing around and waving my arms in the air for an asshole Royal. “Maybe,” I mutter. “I’d rather concentrate on my studies.” Callum strides into the waiting room of the headmaster’s office as if he’s been there hundreds of times before. He probably has, because the white-haired secretary behind the desk greets him like they’re old friends. “Mr. Royal, it’s lovely to see you here under positive circumstances for a change.” He offers a crooked grin. “Tell me about it. Is Francois ready for us?” “He is. Go right in.” * * * The meeting with the headmaster goes smoother than I expect. I wonder if Callum threw some money at the guy so he wouldn’t ask too many questions about my background. But he must have been told some things, because at the start of the meeting, he asks if I want to be called Ella Harper or O’Halloran. “Harper,” I answer stiffly. I’m not giving up my mother’s name. She raised me, not Steve O’Halloran. I’m given my class schedule, which includes a gym class. Against my protests, Callum tells Headmaster Beringer that I’m interested in trying out for a pep squad. Jeez. I have no idea what this man has against PE. Once we’re done, Beringer shakes my hand and tells me that my student guide is waiting in the lobby to take me on a quick tour. I shoot a panicky glance at Callum, but he’s oblivious—too busy talking about the ninth green being tricky. Apparently he and Beringer are golf buddies, and he waves me off, telling me Durand will bring the car around in an hour. I bite my lip as I leave the office. I don’t know how I feel about this school. Academically, I’m told it’s top-notch. But everything else…the uniforms, the fancy campus…I don’t fit in. I already know this, and my thoughts are confirmed the moment I meet my tour guide. She’s wearing the navy-blue skirt and white dress shirt that make up the school uniform, and everything about her screams money, from her perfectly styled hair to the French-tip nails. She introduces herself as Savannah Montgomery—“Yes, those Montgomerys,” she says knowingly, as if that’s supposed to clue me in. I still have no fricking idea who she is. She’s a junior like me, and she spends a good twenty seconds sizing me up. Her nose wrinkles at my tight jeans and tank top, the scuffed combat boots on my feet, my hair, my unmanicured nails and hastily applied makeup. “Your uniforms will be shipped to your house this weekend,” she informs me. “The skirt’s non-negotiable, but there are ways around the hem length.” She winks and smooths out the bottom of her skirt, which barely grazes her lower thighs. The other girls I glimpsed in the hallway had their skirts down to their knees. “What, blow the teachers, get a shorter skirt allowance?” I ask politely. Her ice-blue eyes widen in alarm. Then she laughs awkwardly. “Um, no. Just slip a hundie to Beringer if one of the teachers complains, and he looks the other way.” Must be nice living in a world were you can slip people “hundies.” I’m a dollar-bill kinda girl. Because that was the denomination usually tucked into my G-string. I decide not to share that with Savannah. “Anyway, let me show you around,” she says, but we’re barely a minute into the tour before I realize she’s not interested in playing tour guide. She wants intel. “Classroom, classroom, ladies’ room.” Her fancy fingernails flick at various doors as we head down the hall. “So Callum Royal is your legal guardian?—classroom, classroom, junior faculty lounge—How did that happen?” I’m stingy with my response. “He knew my father.” “Callum’s business partner, right? My parents were at his funeral.” Savannah flips her chestnut brown hair over her shoulder and pushes open a set of doors. “Freshman classrooms,” she says. “You won’t be spending much time here. Sophomore classes are in the east wing. So you’re living with the Royals, huh?” “Yes.” I don’t elaborate. We whiz past a long row of lockers, which look nothing like the narrow, rusty lockers in the public schools I went to over the years. These are navy-blue and the width of three regular lockers. They gleam in the sunlight streaming in from the wall of windows in the hall. We’re outside before I can blink, walking down a cobblestone path lined with gorgeous shade trees on each side. Savannah points to another ivy-covered building. “That’s the junior wing. All your classes will be in there. Except PE—the gym’s on the south lawn.” East wing. South lawn. This campus is ridiculous. “You meet the boys yet?” She stops in the middle of the path, her shrewd dark eyes fixed on my face. She’s sizing me up again. “Yep.” I meet her gaze head-on. “Wasn’t too impressed.” That gets me a startled laugh. “You’re in the minority then.” Her face sharpens again. “First thing you need to know about Astor—the Royals run this place, Eleanor.” “Ella,” I correct. She waves her hand. “Whatever. They make the rules. They enforce them.” “And you all follow them like good little sheep.” A slight sneer touches her lips. “If you don’t, then the four years you spend here will be miserable.” “Well, I don’t give a damn about their rules,” I say with a shrug. “I might live in their house, but I don’t know them, and I don’t want to know them. I’m just here to get my diploma.” “All right, I guess it’s time for another lesson about Astor.” She shrugs back. “Only reason I’m being so nice to you right now—” Wait, this is her way of being nice? “—is because Reed hasn’t issued the Royal decree yet.” I raise a brow. “Meaning?” “Meaning all it takes is one word from him and you’ll be nothing here. Insignificant. Invisible. Or worse.” Now I laugh. “Is this supposed to scare me?” “No. It’s just the truth. We’ve been waiting for you to show up. We were warned, and we’ve been told to stand down until otherwise ordered.” “By who? Reed? The King of Astor Park? Gee, I’m trembling in my panties.” “They haven’t reached a decision about you. They will soon, though. I’ve known you for five minutes and I can already tell you what their decision will be.” She smirks. “Women have a sixth sense. It doesn’t take us long to know what we’re dealing with.” I smirk back. “No. It doesn’t.” The stare-off that follows only lasts a few seconds. Long enough for me to convey with my eyes that I don’t give a shit about her, or Reed, or this social hierarchy she clearly abides by. Then Savannah flips her hair again and beams at me. “Come on, Eleanor, let me show you the football stadium. It’s state-of-the-art, you know.” 7 Savannah’s tour wraps up after a view of the indoor Olympic-size swimming pool. If there’s one thing she approves of, it’s my figure. The barely fed look is popular, she informs me with a brusqueness I’m beginning to believe is just her personality and not a reflection of what she thinks of me. “You might think I’m a bitch, but I’m just honest. Astor Park is an entirely different kind of school. I’m assuming you went to public?” She gestures toward my thrift store skinny jeans. “Yeah, but so what? School is school. I get it. There are different cliques. The popular kids, the rich kids—” She flips her hand up to stop me. “No. This isn’t like anything you’ve ever experienced before. The gym we saw earlier?” I nod at the question. “It was originally supposed to be for the football team, but Jordan Carrington’s family threw a fit and it was re-designated as open access except during specific times. Between five and eight in the morning and two and eight in the afternoon, it’s football only. The rest of the time, normals can use it. Nice, hmmm?” I’m not sure if she’s joking, because the limited access sounds ridiculous. “Why did the Carringtons object?” I ask curiously. “Astor Park is a prep school with a P.” Savannah keeps walking. There’s no quit button on her. “Every family in the state wants their kids to go here, but it’s exclusive. You can’t just have money to get in. Everyone that attends, even the scholarship students, are here because they have something special to offer. It might be that they’re great on the football field or can elevate the science team to win national awards, which means national press. In Jordan’s case, she’s the captain of the dance team, which in my opinion, is one step up from stripping—” Crap, that better not be why Callum suggested that this morning. “—but they win, and Astor likes to see its name in the paper next to the W.” “Then why am I here?” I mutter under my breath. But Savannah has superhero hearing because as she pushes open the front door, she says, “You’re a Royal of some sort. What kind of Royal remains to be seen. This school will eat you up if you’re weak, so my suggestion is to take advantage of everything the Royal name offers you, even if it means taking it by force.” A car door slams and a very thin, platinum blonde in skintight jeans and sky-high stilettos totters towards us. “Hello…um…” The stranger holds a hand to her forehead as if she’s shading her eyes from the sun, which is completely unnecessary given that she has enormous sunglasses covering her face. My tour guide mutters softly. “That’s Callum Royal’s girlfriend. You don’t have to be nice to her. She’s just an extra.” And with that last bit of sage advice, Savannah disappears, leaving me with this wisp of a woman. “You must be Elaine. I’m Brooke, Callum’s friend. I’m here to take you shopping.” She claps her hands together as if this is the most exciting thing ever. “Ella,” I correct. “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so terrible with names.” She beams at me. “We’re going to have so much fun today!” I hesitate. “Um. We don’t have to go shopping. I’m good just hanging out here at the school until the bus comes.” “Oh dear,” she titters. “There are no buses. Besides, Callum told me to take you shopping so that’s what we’re going to do.” She grips my arm with surprising strength and drags me toward the Town Car. And inside is Durand. I’m beginning to love him. “Hey, Durand.” I wave, before glancing back at Brooke. “How about I sit up front with Durand and let you relax in the back?” I offer. “No. I want to get to know you.” She pushes me into the backseat and climbs in beside me. “Tell me everything.” I stifle a sigh, not exactly looking forward to making small talk with Callum’s girlfriend. Then I chastise myself for it, because Brooke hasn’t done anything but be nice to me. I’m not usually so judgy, and I force myself to lower my guard a little. If anything, it sounds like Brooke is more my type than the Royals, if random classmates of the boys call her an extra. She looks young, though. Really young. As in Callum could be her father young. “There’s not much to tell,” I reply with a shrug. “I’m Ella Harper. Callum says that Steve O’Halloran is my father.” Brooke nods. “Yes, he told me this morning. Isn’t that amazing? He told me how he found you just a few hours away and he was so upset to discover your mom had passed away.” She reaches for my hand, her bright smile dimming at the corners slightly. “My mother died when I was thirteen. A brain aneurysm. I was heartbroken, so I know just how you feel.” When she squeezes my hand, I feel a lump develop in my throat. I have to swallow twice before I can answer. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Her eyelids flutter closed for a moment, as if she’s also struggling for control over her emotions. “Well, we’re both in a better place now, aren’t we? Callum saved me as well, you know.” “You were stripping, too?” I blurt out. Brooke’s eyes widen and a little laugh trips out before she can cover her mouth. “Is that what you were doing?” “It wasn’t full nudity.” I cringe in the face of her giggles, wishing I never brought it up in the first place. She composes herself and reaches out to pat my hand again. “I’m sorry I’m laughing. It’s not at you, but at Callum. He was probably mortified. He’s trying so hard to be a good father for his boys right now and I’m sure finding his young charge in a strip club had to be shocking.” Flushed and embarrassed, I look out the window. This day couldn’t have gone worse. From the weird feelings Reed’s aggressive hate brought out, to the condescending tour guided by Savannah, to my embarrassing confession to Callum’s girlfriend. I hate feeling like I don’t belong. The first day at a new school. The first ride on a bus. The first— A tap on my forehead interrupts my thoughts. “Hey, don’t get lost in there, sweetie.” I glance over my shoulder at Brooke. “I’m not,” I tell her. “Bullshit.” She speaks the curse word softly and tenderly. Her hand rises to cup my cheek. “I didn’t strip, but that’s because I chose to do worse things to get by. You get no judgment from me. None. The important thing is that you’re not there anymore and you won’t ever have to be again. If you play your cards right, you’ll be set for life.” Then she pulls her hand back and smacks me lightly. “Now, put on a smile because we’re going shopping.” Not gonna lie, that sounds good to me. “How much will it cost?” I’ve been to the mall before. Things can add up fast, even if they’re on sale, but if I have a school uniform then I only need one or two items. Another pair of pants. Maybe a shirt or two. The beach is nearby so a swimsuit makes sense. I could part with a few hundred dollars. Brooke’s face lights up. She pulls out a card and waves it in front of my face. “You’re asking the wrong question. This is all on Callum and trust me, no matter what he says about his business being in the toilet a few years ago, that man could buy and sell the entire shopping complex and still have enough left over to make even the most expensive hooker orgasm.” I don’t even know how to respond to that. * * * We end up at an outdoor mall that features tiny shops with tiny clothes and enormous price tags. When I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger on any purchase—$1500 for a pair of shoes? Are they made out of actual gold?—Brooke takes over and shoves item after item at the sales clerk. There are so many bags and boxes, I’m scared Durand is going to have to trade in the Town Car for a U-Haul. After the tenth store, I’m exhausted, and from the sigh she heaves out, I’m guessing Brooke isn’t far behind. “I’m going to sit here and enjoy some refreshments while you finish up.” She sinks down in a velvet chair and gestures for a salesgirl, who comes over immediately. “What can I get for you, Ms. Davidson?” “A mimosa.” She waves a hand at me, clutching the black credit card she’s been using so hard I’m surprised it hasn’t melted between her fingers. “Go forth and buy. Callum will be disappointed if you come home with less than a trunk full of bags. He specifically told me that you needed everything.” “But…I…” I’m completely out of my element. Drop me in a Walmart or heck, even a Gap, and I think I could do just fine. But here? None of these clothes look like they should even be worn, but Brooke’s done talking to me. She and the sales clerk are having an intense conversation about whether gray flannel or gray tweed is a better fall trend. I reluctantly take the credit card, which is heavier than any card I’ve ever felt. I wonder if there’s another card sandwiched between this one and that’s how Brooke manages to charge half the store and not be turned away. I leave and buy a few more things, trembling at the cost of them, and am frankly relieved when Durand shows up to take us back to the Royal Castle. On the drive home, Brooke chatters my ear off and offers tips about how to pair up some of my purchases to create the perfect designer “ensemble.” Some of her suggestions make me giggle, and I’m startled to realize I didn’t have such a bad time with Brooke today. Her enthusiasm is a bit much, sure, and she’s kind of over the top, but maybe I was being unfair when I questioned Callum’s taste in women. If anything, Brooke is at least entertaining. “Thanks for the ride, Durand,” I say when we pull up to the front door of the mansion. He stops the car here instead of driving around to the side like he did yesterday when we arrived from Kirkwood. Durand helps Brooke out of the car and up the stairs. I trail behind like the extra that Savannah referred to Brooke as. “I’ll bring in the bags,” he tells me over his shoulder. All of it makes me feel awkward and useless. I really should get a job. Maybe if I had my own money and some real friends, I could start feeling normal again. When I dreamed of my future, it didn’t include limos and mansions and mean girls and designer labels. The pendulum of my life has swung too far in the opposite direction. Callum is waiting in the foyer as Durand carries my bags inside, Brooke and I trailing behind him. “Thanks for your help,” Callum tells his driver. “Darling!” Brooke comes alive at Callum’s voice and throws herself at him. “We had so much fun!” Callum nods in approval. “I’m glad.” He glances my way. “Gideon is home. I want you to meet him…without other distractions. After that, why don’t we grab a late lunch?” “Gideon?” Brooke’s eyes light up. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen that darling boy.” She rises on her tiptoes and pecks at Callum’s cheek. “Your lunch plans sound delightful. I can’t wait.” The throaty delivery nearly makes me blush. Callum coughs awkwardly. “Come on, Ella. I want you to meet my oldest.” There’s a lot of pride in his voice and I follow him curiously to the back of the house, where a gorgeous blue-and-white tiled pool decorates a perfectly manicured lawn. Inside the pool is a human arrow, slicing through the water with clean, even strokes. Next to me Brooke sighs. Or maybe that’s a moan. Either sound makes sense because even in the water you can appreciate the sculpted muscles of the eldest Royal. And if the other Royal sons are anything to go by, he’s probably not hard to look at out of the water, too. I guess I can see why Brooke was excited to hear his name, but it’s a little creepy given that she’s dating his dad. Adults are complicated, I decide. It’s not my place to judge their relationship. After two more laps, Gideon stops and hauls himself out of the pool. In his Speedo it’s easy to see there’s no shrinkage problem for this guy. “Dad.” He rubs a towel over his wet face and then drapes it around his neck. He doesn’t seem to notice or care that he’s dripping water all over the deck. “Gideon, this is Ella Harper, Steve’s daughter.” His son flicks his eyes over me. “So you found her.” “I did.” They talk about me like I’m a lost puppy. Callum’s hand lands on my shoulder and propels me forward. “Nice to meet you, Gideon.” I wipe my hand on my jeans and then stick it out. “Likewise.” He shakes my hand and despite the coolness in his tone, I find him to be friendlier than anyone else in this house, other than his father. “I’ve got some calls to make.” He turns to his dad. “But first I need to shower. I’ll see you later.” He brushes by us. As we turn to watch him walk away, I happen to catch a glimpse of Brooke’s face and the hunger there shocks me. Her eyes have that greedy look—the one my mom would wear when she saw something extravagant she wanted but couldn’t have. Callum seems oblivious. He’s turned his attention to me, but I can’t stop thinking about Brooke’s expression. She totally has the hots for Callum’s son. Am I the only one who can see that? Stop it, Ella. This is none of your business. “How about we get some lunch now?” Callum suggests. “There’s a great little café just about five minutes from here. Serves amazing farm to table stuff. Very fresh. Light.” “Sure.” I’m ready to escape. “I’ll come, too,” Brooke says. “Actually, Brooke. If it’s all right with you, I want to have Ella to myself for now.” His tone says it doesn’t matter if she’s okay with the arrangement because that’s how it’s going to be. 8 Lunch with Callum is surprisingly pleasant. He tells me more about Steve even though I didn’t ask about him, but he confesses that just being able to talk about Steve is a relief. Callum admits he hadn’t always been there for either his sons or his wife, but whenever Steve needed him, he’d drop everything. Apparently that SEAL bond was unbreakable. He doesn’t make fun of me when I ask if that’s where they became buds, but he looks like he’s fighting a smile as he explains that BUD/S is a navy training program. By the time we’re done eating, I have a better sense of the senior Royal—devoted, a little single-minded, and not entirely in control of his own life. We stay away from the topic of his sons but I tense up when the gates swing open. “They’ll come around,” Callum says encouragingly. We find the guys huddled in a large room at the end of the right wing of the house. The game room, Callum calls it. Despite the black walls, the place is enormous, so it doesn’t look like a cave. The boys meet us with stone-cold silence, and Callum’s earlier reassurances suddenly sound unconvincing. “Where are you all going tonight?” Callum asks in a conversational tone. At first, no one says anything. The younger ones all look to Reed, who’s leaning against a bar stool, one foot on the floor and one foot braced on the lowest rung of the chair. Gideon stands behind the bar, his hands braced on the top, watching it all. “Gideon?” Callum prompts. His eldest shrugs. “Jordan Carrington’s having a party.” Reed swings around and scowls at Gideon as if he’s a traitor. “You’re taking Ella to the party,” their father orders. “It will be good for her to get to know her new classmates.” “There’ll be booze, drugs, and sex,” Reed mocks. “You really want her there?” “I’d rather just stay in tonight,” I volunteer but no one is listening to me. “Then you five will watch out for her. She’s your sister now.” Callum folds his arms over his chest. This is a contest of wills and he wants to win it. He also seems completely unconcerned about the “booze, drugs, and sex” part. Awesome. This is really fantastic. “Oh, did you adopt her?” Reed says sarcastically. “Guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Doing shit without telling us is your MO, right, Dad?” “I don’t want to go to the party,” I cut in. “I’m tired. I’m happy just to stay at home.” “Good idea, Ella.” Callum unfolds his arms and places one around my shoulder. “You and I will watch a movie then.” A muscle ticks in Reed’s jaw. “You win. She can come with us. We leave at eight.” Callum drops his arm. He isn’t as clueless as I thought. The boys don’t want me alone with him, and Callum knows it. Reed’s steely blue eyes shift to me. “Better go upstairs and make yourself presentable, sis. Can’t ruin your big debut by showing up looking like that.” “Reed…” Callum warns. His son’s expression is the epitome of innocence. “Just trying to be helpful.” From his perch near the pool table, Easton looks like he’s fighting a grin. Gideon is resigned and the twins are studiously ignoring us all. A tremor of panic ripples through me. The high school parties I’d gone to in the past—all one of them—had been a jeans-and-T-shirt affair. The girls slutted it up, sure, but in a casual-smut kind of way. I want to ask how fancy this party will be, but I don’t want to give the Royal brothers the satisfaction of knowing just how out of my element I feel. Since eight o’clock is fifteen minutes from now, I book it upstairs where I find all my shopping bags placed in a neat row at the end of the bed. Savannah’s warnings hang in the back of my mind. If I’m going to be here for two years, then I need to make a good impression. And now at the forefront of my mind is another thought—why the hell do I care? I don’t need these people to like me, I just need to graduate from high school. But I do care. I hate myself for it, but I can’t fight this desperate need to try. Try to fit in. Try to make this school experience different than all the previous ones. It’s warm out, so I choose a short navy-blue skirt and an ice-blue and white top made of silk and cotton. It cost as much as the entire clothing section at Walmart but it’s so fricking pretty, and I sigh when it falls into place. In another bag, I find a pair of navy flats with a wide retro silver buckle. I brush my hair and gather the long strands to tie it in a ponytail, then decide to leave it down. I throw on a silver-colored headband that Brooke made me purchase—“accessories are a must,” she’d insisted, which is why I also have an entire shopping bag full of bracelets, necklaces, scarves, and purses. In the bathroom, I dig into my makeup kit and apply it with the lightest hand possible. I try for the dewy look, hoping that my time spent in strip clubs and bars doesn’t show in my application. I’m not used to high school parties. I’m used to working with thirty-year-olds trying to pass as ten years younger, whose motto is if you’re not wearing makeup three layers deep, you’re not trying. Once I’m done, I examine my reflection in the mirror and see a stranger. I look prim and proper. I look like a Savannah Montgomery, not an Ella Harper. But maybe that’s a good thing. Except there’s nothing encouraging about the response I get when I meet the Royal brothers in the driveway a few minutes later. Gideon looks startled by my appearance. The twins and Easton snort. Reed smirks. Did I mention they’re all wearing low-riding jeans and snug T-shirts? The assholes played me. “We’re going to a party, sis, not tea with the queen.” Reed’s deep voice doesn’t give me any tingles this time. He’s mocking me again, and he’s enjoying himself. “Can you wait five minutes while I change?” I ask tightly. “Naah. Time to go.” He strides toward one of the Range Rovers without a backward look. Gideon glances at me again, then at his brother. Then he sighs and follows Reed to the car. * * * The party is at a house inland, away from the ocean. Easton drives me. The rest of the guys have gone ahead, and he doesn’t look thrilled being the one stuck with me. He doesn’t say much during the drive. He doesn’t turn on the radio either, so the silence makes for an uncomfortable ride. It isn’t until he drives through the main gate of a three-story mansion that he looks my way. “Nice headband.” I resist the urge to smack that smug smile off his smug face. “Thanks. It cost a hundred and thirty bucks. Courtesy of your dad’s magic black card.” That brings a dark look to his eyes. “Watch yourself. Ella.” I smile and reach for the door handle. “Thanks for the ride. Easton.” At the columned entrance of the house, Reed and Gideon are standing with their backs turned, engaged in hushed conversation. I hear an annoyed curse from Gideon, then, “Not smart, bro. Not during the season.” “The fuck do you care?” Reed mutters. “You made it clear where you stand—and it’s no longer at our side.” “You’re my brother and I’m worried about—” He halts when he notices me approaching. They both tense up, and then Reed turns to greet me, and by greet me, I mean give me a laundry list of things I can and cannot do. “This is Jordan’s place. Her parents deal in hotels. Don’t get sloppy drunk. Don’t embarrass the Royal name. Don’t hang around us. Don’t use the Royal name to get anything. Act like a whore and we toss you out on your ass. Gid says your mom was a prostitute. You don’t try that shit here, got it?” The infamous Royal decrees. “Screw you, Royal. She was not a prostitute, unless dancing is your version of sex and if so, your sex life must suck.” I meet Reed’s hard eyes with defiant ones. “Do your worst. You’re an amateur compared to what I’ve been through.” I waltz past the Royal brothers and hike inside like I own the place, then regret it instantly, because everyone in the front parlor turns to stare at me. Pounding bass music thuds through the house, shaking the walls and vibrating beneath my feet, and loud voices and laughter echo from beyond an arched doorway to my left. A couple of girls in skimpy tops and skin-tight jeans eye me in disdain. A tall polo-shirt-wearing guy smirks at me as he raises a beer bottle to his lips. I fight the urge to race back out into the night, but I can cower and be a target for the next two years, or I can brazen it out. The best I can do is be bold-faced when necessary and blend in whenever I have the opportunity. I’m no one’s bitch, but I don’t need to make waves either. So I just smile politely in the face of their stares, and when their gazes shift behind me toward the incoming Royals, I take the opportunity to duck into the nearest corridor. I keep going until I find the quietest corner, a shadowy little nook tucked at the end of a hallway. While it seems like the perfect make-out spot, it’s empty. “It’s still early,” a female voice says, and I jump back in surprise. “But even if it was later, this part of the house is always empty.” “Oh God, I didn’t see you there.” I clasp a hand over my racing heart. “I get that a lot.” As my eyes adjust to the dark, I see that there’s an armchair situated in the corner. The girl on the chair pushes to her feet. She’s really short, with chin-length black hair and a tiny mole over her top lip. And she’s got curves I’d kill for. “I’m Valerie Carrington.” Jordan’s sister? “I’m—” “Ella Royal,” she interrupts. “Harper actually.” I peer around her. Was she reading with a flashlight? I spot a phone lying on the small table next to the chair. Texting with her boyfriend? “You hiding?” “Yup. I’d offer you a chair, but there’s only one here.” “I know why I’m hiding,” I say with sheepish honesty, “but what’s your excuse? If you’re a Carrington, don’t you live here?” She snickers. “I’m Jordan’s poor cousin twice removed. A complete charity case.” And I bet Jordan doesn’t let her forget it. “Hiding’s not a bad thing. If you run away, you live to fight another day. That’s my theory at least.” I shrug. “Why are you hiding? You’re a Royal now.” There’s a slight sneer in her voice that makes me strike back. “Like you’re a Carrington?” She frowns. “Gotcha.” I run a hand over my forehead, feeling like a complete jerk. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. It’s been a long couple of days and I’m dead tired and completely out of my element.” Valerie’s head tilts and she contemplates me for a few seconds. “Okay then, Ella Harper”—she emphasizes that as if it’s an olive branch—“let’s find something to wake you up. You know how to dance?” “Yeah, sort of, I guess. I took lessons when I was younger.” “This will be fun then. Come on.” She l