Paper Princess Page 16

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.

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