Paper Princess Page 15

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.”

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