Paper Princess Page 49

“I’m going to be your mother someday. You should learn to be nicer to me.” Brooke takes an unsteady step forward and strokes her manicured nails down his cheek.

He flinches and then pries Brooke’s hand off him. “I’ll be dead first.”

He shoves past her and heads for the French doors. I hurry after him, leaving Callum’s girlfriend on the patio.

This time I’m the one calling after him. “Reed.”

He stops in front of the stairs in the kitchen. “What?”

“What…what were you going to say before Brooke interrupted us?”

His head turns. Blue eyes hard with malice peer back at me. “Nothing,” he mutters. “Absolutely nothing.”

Behind me I hear a crash. I want nothing more than to chase after Reed, but Brooke can’t be left alone, drunk by the pool.

I hurry back to her side, where I find her staggering precariously close to the edge of the water. “Come on, Brooke.” I tug on her arm. This time she follows docilely, leaning her slight weight against me.

“They’re all terrible,” she weeps. “You need to stay away from them, just to protect yourself.”

“It’s going to be okay. Do you want to go upstairs or is the living room all right?”

“With the ghost of Maria staring at me?” Brooke shudders. “She’s here. Always here. When I’m in charge, we’re moving. We’re razing this house to the ground and eradicating Maria.”

That sounds unlikely. I lead her, half carrying, half dragging her into the living room where, yep, there’s a portrait of Maria over the fireplace. Brooke holds her fingers up in the sign of the cross as we pass in front of it.

I have to swallow a laugh at the ridiculousness of this. The living room is actually a long room that runs along the front of the house. There are two seating areas so I pull Brooke to the second set that is closer to the window and farther away from the portrait of Maria.

She gratefully sinks onto the sofa, bending her knees and tucking her hands under her cheek. Her tears have smeared her makeup and she looks like a tragic doll, like one of the strippers who’s so sure that the rich man who gives her the hundred-dollar tip is going to return and sweep her away. Of course, he doesn’t. He’s just using her.

“Brooke, if being with Callum hurts you like this, why do you stay?”

“Do you really think there’s any man out there who won’t hurt you? That’s what men do, Ella. They hurt you.” Her hand shoots out to grip my wrist. “You should get away from here. These Royals will ruin you.”

“Maybe I want to be ruined,” I say lightly.

She lets me go, pulling her hand back, retreating inside herself. “No one wants to be ruined. We all want to be saved.”

“There has to be at least one decent guy out there.”

That makes her laugh. Hysterically. And the laughter just keeps going and going.

I leave her to it, heading upstairs with the sound of her giggles tickling my back, this woman who honestly doesn’t believe she can find a man who doesn’t hurt her.

Why that conviction feels like she scraped a knife down my spine, I don’t know.

21

Reed doesn’t drive me to work the next morning. He’s already left for football practice when I step out of the house, and I’m not surprised. I’m pretty sure that the last thing he expected to get from me last night was a truce offering. Which means he’s probably on his way to school right now, obsessing about whether or not my apology was just another trick.

It wasn’t, though. I’m sticking to the decision I made yesterday. I’m done antagonizing the Royals.

I take the bus to the bakery and work alongside Lucy for the next three hours, then walk over to school and duck into the bathroom to change into my uniform.

When I exit the ladies’ room, I bump into the girl Easton was supposedly dating before. Claire, I think.

The second she sees me, her mouth pinches in a tight line. Then she brushes past me, leaving one hiss of a word in her wake.

“Slut.”

That single syllable is like a fist to the stomach. I falter, wondering if I’d misheard her, but as I walk down the hall and every junior girl I pass glowers at me, I realize something’s up. From the guys, I get grins and smirks. It’s painfully obvious that for some reason, I’m a hot topic today.

It isn’t until Valerie finds me at my locker that I’m brought into the loop.

“Why didn’t you tell me you made out with Easton Royal?” she demands in a hushed voice.

My calculus book almost slips from my fingers. Wait, this is about Easton? But we were in my bedroom when we kissed, and there’s no way Reed would have blabbed about that. So how the heck does everyone know—

The club. Crap. The memory whizzes into my head at the same time Valerie starts to laugh.

“I knew I should’ve kept a closer eye on you that night,” she teases. “But we weren’t even drinking! That means you made out with him sober! Do I need to hold an intervention for you?”

I sigh. “Maybe?”

The girls Val had introduced me to at Jordan’s party—The Pastels, she’d called them—walk by. All three of them turn to look at me and whisper amongst themselves.

“It was a stupid move,” I admit. “I didn’t really think it through.” No, all I was thinking about that night was Reed and the way he looked at me when I was in the cage. “Does everybody know, then?”

She grins. “Oh, they know. It’s all anyone’s been talking about this morning, and the first bell hasn’t even gone off. Claire is pissed.”

I bet she is. And if Claire’s mad, I can only imagine what Jordan will have to say about it. A “casual” like me putting my grubby hands all over one of her precious Royals? She’s probably freaking out right now.

“What about you?” I ask the only person who matters. “Are you pissed?”

Valerie snickers. “Because you stuck your tongue down Easton’s throat? Why would I care about that?”

It’s the answer I’d hoped for, and I cling to it as we part ways in the hallway and go off to our morning classes. It doesn’t matter that everyone is whispering, or that chicks glare daggers at me whenever I enter a classroom. Valerie’s opinion is the only one that matters to me.

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