Paper Princess Page 45

Callum scrubs a hand down his face. “You just have to give it some time. They’ll come around.”

I fold my legs up underneath me on the bed. There’s only one chair in the stateroom, so Callum sat on it while I took the bed. It’s awkward to be in here sitting on a mattress while talking to my new father figure about my newly discovered but deceased father.

“You said that before, but I don’t think they will,” I say quietly. “And I don’t get it. I mean, is it the money? Do they really resent you giving me money?”

“It’s not the money. It’s…shit—I mean, shoot.” Callum stumbles over his words. “God, I need a drink.” He laughs a little. “But I’d bet you wouldn’t let me have one.”

“Not now.” I cross my arms. Callum wants me to be tough with him? I can do that.

“Straight up, no shit. That’s how you want it, right?”

I have to smile. “Right.”

He tilts his head back to stare at the ceiling. “At this point, my relationship with the boys is so broken I could bring Mother Teresa home and they’d accuse her of trying to get in my pants. They think I cheated on their mother and caused her death.”

I make an effort to keep my jaw closed. Okay. Wow. Well, that explains some of it. I take a breath. “And did you?”

“No. I never cheated on her. I was never even tempted, not once during our marriage. When I was young, Steve and I ran a little wild, but once I married Maria I never looked at another woman.”

He sounds sincere, but I feel like I’m not getting the whole story. “Then why are your kids always in a foul mood?”

“Steve was…” Callum looks away. “Hell, Ella, I wanted time for you to learn to love your father, not tell you all the crappy things that he did because he was lonely.”

I grasp at every straw I can in order to force Callum to spill whatever it is he’s trying so hard to hide. “Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but I don’t know Steve and now that he’s gone, I won’t ever know him. He’s not a real person to mean, not like Reed or Easton or you. You want me to be a Royal, but I’m never going to be one if everyone in the family doesn’t accept me. Why would I ever come back after graduation to a place where I don’t feel wanted?”

My attempts at emotional blackmail are a success. Callum instantly starts speaking, and I’m genuinely touched at how badly he wants me to be part of his family.

“Steve was a bachelor for a long time. He liked to brag a lot, and I think when the boys were younger they thought their Uncle Steve was the epitome of manhood. He’d tell them stories of our wilder days and I never stopped him. We spent a lot of time jetting around on business trips and Steve took advantage of that. I promise you I didn’t, but... not everyone believed that.”

Like his kids. Like his wife.

He shifts in his chair, obviously uncomfortable with this story. “Maria became depressed and I didn’t recognize the signs. Looking back, I realize that her distance and moodiness were symptoms of a serious issue, but I was too busy trying to keep the business in the black during the recession. She was getting more and more pills with only the boys to keep her company. When she had the overdose and I was halfway around the world in Tokyo pulling Steve out of a whorehouse, they blamed me.”

Maybe they were right to blame you, I think.

“Steve wasn’t a bad guy, but you…you’re…evidence, I guess. Evidence that he led me around by the nose into things that eventually killed their mother.” His eyes plead with me for understanding, even forgiveness, but I’m not the one who can give him that. “When he got the letter from your mom, Steve changed. He was a new man overnight. I swear to you, he would have been the most attentive, doting father. He wanted kids and was over the moon when he discovered you. He would have started looking for you immediately but he’d had this trip planned for a long time with Dinah. It was hang-gliding in a place that apparently doesn’t allow it, but Steve managed to bribe some local officials to let them make a run. He was going to look for you the minute he came back. Don’t hate him.”

“I don’t hate him. I don’t even know him. I…”

I trail off, because my thoughts are a jumbled mess. Somehow in the Royal boys’ minds, their mother’s death and Steve’s involvement are all tangled up, and I’m a convenient—and living—target. There’s nothing I can do that will change their opinion. I see that now. Still, I asked for the truth, and I won’t blame Callum for this.

“Thank you,” I say in a wobbly voice. “I appreciate you being straight with me.” I could be completely virtuous and they’d still hate me. I could be Abby-like and…a thought pops into my mind and out of my mouth before I can stop it. “What was Maria like?”

“Sweet. She was sweet, kind. Just a smidge over five feet and the soul of an angel.” He smiles, and in that instant I know he loved Maria. I’ve seen that kind of true love glow only once before—in the eyes of my own mother. She didn’t have all her shit together, but she loved me.

Maria inspired the same love in her sons. That Abby is her replica and the opposite of everything I’m made of shouldn’t bother me, but it does, because as much as I hate admitting it, the truth is I want Reed to feel that way about me.

Which is about the stupidest sentiment I have ever conjured up.

19

Reed doesn’t look at me the entire trip back to shore or when we arrive home. His brooding silence speaks loudly enough. He’s furious and going to stay that way for a good long while.

I beg off dinner citing sunstroke, because there’s no way I can endure an entire meal with Reed either ignoring I exist or needling me at every opportunity.

I know I brought this on myself, but when even Easton scowls as I’m heading up to my room, I wonder if I made a mistake.

“I thought you weren’t going to screw my dad,” he hisses as I pass by him in the hall.

“I didn’t. I just wanted Reed to think I did.” When Easton still looks doubtful, I let out a sigh. “All Callum and I did was talk about Steve.” And your mom, but I figure Easton wouldn’t appreciate that in his current mood.

He’s not pacified one bit by my confession. “Don’t play games with my brother. You’ve got him worked up and now he’s gonna have to get it out of his system.”

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