Paper Princess Page 10

“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.”

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