Paper Princess Page 22

Brooke clasps her hands together. “You are just amazing. Have I told you how amazing you are?”

She leans close, her breasts squashing against his arm, and plants a wet kiss against his cheek. He casts a quick glance in my direction before gently moving away. Brooke makes a small noise of disappointment but settles into her chair.

I dig into my steak. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a piece of meat so juicy before.

“Steak is very fattening. All red meat is,” Brooke informs me.

“Ella doesn’t need to worry about that,” Callum says brusquely.

“Not now, but later you’ll regret it,” Brooke warns.

I look down at the succulent piece of meat and then over at Brooke’s willowy frame. I think I get where she’s coming from. Like me, she’s poor. She relies on Callum’s generosity and probably fears that if she’s less beautiful tomorrow, he’ll be done with her. I don’t know if she’s wrong or right, but it doesn’t make her concerns less valid. Still, I’m hungry and I want this steak. “Thanks for your input.”

Callum smothers a chuckle as Brooke frowns. An expression I can’t make out flits across her face. Something like disappointment or disapproval. Her pouty lips firm and she turns to Callum, engaging him in conversation about some party they went to before I arrived.

Guilt makes my next bite of meat a little less delicious than the first one. I hurt her feelings and now she’s shutting me out. Other than Valerie, she was the one friendly face around in this new place and now I’ve offended her.

“Should we plan a party to welcome Ella into the family?” Callum suggests, trying to include me in the conversation.

And Callum. He’s been nothing but perfect since he dragged me out of Daddy G’s, but a party with the assholes from school? I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out one by one.

I place my fork beside my plate. “I don’t need a party. You’ve already given me everything I need.”

Brooke lays her head against Callum’s stiff shoulder. “Callum, don’t worry about it. Ella will make friends in her own time, won’t you, darling?”

I nod in agreement. “That’s right.”

I summon up my best smile, and it must work because the tension in his body disappears. “All right, then. No party.”

“Callum’s the best, isn’t he?” Brooke reaches up to toy with the top button of his shirt. Her actions are possessive, almost as if she’s trying to defend her territory. I want to tell her I’m not a threat, but I don’t know if she’d believe me. “We’re his soiled doves. Hopefully once we’re cleaned up, he doesn’t send us away.”

“No one’s sending Ella away. She’s a Royal,” Callum declares.

My gaze shifts to Brooke, and by the tight expression on her face, she doesn’t miss that her name wasn’t included in his pronouncement.

“Really? I thought she was Steve’s daughter. Is there something you’re not telling us?” Brooke trills.

He rears back as if she hit him. “What? No. Of course she’s Steve’s. But he’s”—Callum swallows hard—“he’s gone, and so Ella is part of my family now just as the boys would have been Steve’s if anything had happened to me.”

“Of course. I didn’t mean anything other than you’re generous.” Her voice drops to a purr. “So very generous.”

With each word, she moves closer and closer to Callum until she’s virtually on his lap. He switches his fork to his left hand and drapes an arm around the back of Brooke’s chair. His eyes plead with me to understand. I’m using her just as she’s using me.

I get it, I really do. This is a man who lost his wife and best friend in a short span of time. I know what loss feels like, and if Brooke fills up those empty spaces for Callum, then good for him.

But I don’t need to watch them in action.

“I’m going inside to get a—” I don’t even bother finishing because Brooke has climbed on top of Callum. I watch wide-eyed as she straddles him, pulling on his ears like he’s a hobby horse.

“Not here, Brooke.” His eyes flicker toward me.

I start walking—quickly—toward the kitchen. Behind me, I hear her reassure Callum.

“She’s seventeen, darling. She probably knows more about sex than the two of us put together. And if she doesn’t, your boys will expose her innocent eyes soon enough.”

That makes me cringe, but whatever spell Brooke has cooked up is doing its thing because I hear Callum groan.

“Wait. Wait. Brooke.”

She giggles breathily and then Callum’s chair starts squeaking. Damn, this is a big patio.

Easton is coming out of the kitchen as I make my escape inside. He peers past me, totally unfazed by what’s happening on the patio.

“Welcome to the Royal Palace,” he says. An impish grin spreads across his face and he yells, “Don’t forget to wrap it before you tap it. We don’t need more money-grubbing illegitimate kids in this family.”

My smile dies off immediately. “Did someone teach you how to be a jerk or does it come naturally?”

Easton hesitates for a moment, but then, as if Reed is sitting on his shoulder, he drops his hand to his crotch. “Why don’t you come upstairs and I’ll show you just how good I am in my natural state?”

“Pass.” I walk by as calmly as possible, and I don’t start running until I hit the stairs.

Once I’m in the privacy of my bedroom, I list all the reasons why I shouldn’t leave immediately. I remind myself that I’m not hungry. I have ten grand in my backpack. I’m not stripping for greedy men with dollar bills clutched in their sweaty hands. I can handle two years of sexual come-ons and personal putdowns from the Royal boys.

But for the rest of the night I stay in my room, where I spend the time looking for part-time jobs using the shiny new MacBook that magically appeared on my desk. There’s no public transport outside the house, but I passed a bus stop last night that wasn’t too far away. Maybe a quarter of a mile.

The next day, I make the walk, and according to my watch it takes ten minutes at a brisk pace, which is more like a half mile. The Sunday bus schedule is snoozy—only one every hour and it stops at six. Whatever job I get would need to be over early on Sundays.

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