Paper Princess Page 7

“The catch is that you don’t fight. You don’t try to run away. You accept my guardianship. You live in my home. You treat my sons as your brothers. If you do that, you can have the life you’ve dreamed of.” He pauses. “The life Steve would have wanted you to have.”

“And what do I have to do for you?” I need the terms spelled out exactly.

Callum’s eyes widen and his face takes on a green cast. “Nothing for me. You’re a very pretty girl, Ella, but you are a girl and I’m a forty-two-year-old man with five sons. Rest assured, I have an attractive girlfriend who meets my every need.”

E* I hold up a hand. “Okay, I don’t need any more explanation.”

Callum laughs with relief before his tone goes serious again. “I know I can’t replace your parents, but I’m here for you in any way that you would need them. You may have lost your family, but you’re not alone anymore, Ella. You’re a Royal now.”

4

We’re landing, but even with my nose pressed right up to the window, it’s too dark to see anything. Blinking lights from the runway below are all I can make out, and once we touch down, Callum doesn’t give me time to examine my surroundings. We don’t take the car that’s in the belly of the plane. No, that must be the “travel” car because Durand ushers us to another sleek black sedan. The windows are tinted so dark I have no idea what kind of scenery is flashing past us, but then Callum rolls the window down a bit, and I smell it—salt. The ocean.

We’re on the coast then. One of the Carolinas? Six hours from Kirkwood would place us somewhere along the Atlantic, which makes sense given the name of Callum’s company. It doesn’t matter, though. All that matters is the stack of crisp bills in my backpack. Ten grand. I still can’t fathom it. Ten grand a month. And a helluva lot more after I graduate.

There has to be a catch. Callum might have assured me that he doesn’t expect…special favors in return, but this isn’t my first rodeo. There’s always a catch, and eventually it will make itself known. When it does, at least I’ll have ten grand in my pocket if I need to run again.

Until then, I’m playing along. Making nice with Royal.

And his sons…

Crap, I forgot about the sons—five of them, he’d said.

How bad could they really be, though? Five spoiled rich boys? Ha. I’ve dealt with a lot worse. Like my mom’s gangster boyfriend, Leo, who tried to feel me up when I was twelve, then taught me the right way to form a fist after I punched him in the gut and nearly broke my hand. He’d laughed and we were fast friends after that. The self-defense tips definitely helped me with Mom’s next boyfriend, who was just as handsy. Mom really knew how to pick winners.

But I try not to judge her. She did what she had to do to survive, and I never doubted her love for me.

After thirty minutes of driving, Durand slows the car in front of a gate. There’s a divider between us and the driver’s seat, but I hear an electronic beep, then a mechanical whir, and then we’re driving again. Slower this time, until finally the car stops altogether and the locks release with a click.

“We’re home,” Callum says quietly.

I want to correct him—there’s no such thing—but I keep my mouth shut.

Durand opens the door for me and extends a hand. My knees wobble slightly as I exit. Three other vehicles are parked outside a huge garage—two black SUVS and a cherry-red pickup truck that looks out of place.

Callum notices where my gaze has gone and smiles ruefully. “Used to be three Range Rovers, but Easton traded his for the pickup. I suspect he wanted more room to screw around with his dates.”

He doesn’t say it with reproach, but resignation. I assume Easton is one of his sons. I also sense an undercurrent of…something in Callum’s tone. Helplessness maybe? I’ve only known him a few hours, but somehow I can’t imagine this man ever being helpless, and my guard shoots up again.

“You’ll have to catch a ride to school with the boys for the first few days,” he adds. “Until I get you a car.” His eyes narrow. “That is, if you have a license under your own name and which doesn’t say you’re thirty-four?”

I nod grudgingly.

“Good.”

Then I realize what he said before. “You’re buying me a car?”

“It’ll be easier that way. My sons…”—he seems to be choosing his words carefully—“…aren’t quick to warm up to strangers. But you need to go to school, so…” He shrugs and repeats himself. “It will be easier.”

I can’t fight my suspicion. Something is off here. With this man. With his kids. Maybe I should have fought harder to get out of his car back in Kirkwood. Maybe I—

My thoughts die as I shift my gaze and get my first glimpse of the mansion.

No, the palace. The Royal Palace. Literally.

This isn’t real. The house is only two stories tall but it stretches out so far I can barely see the end of it. And there are windows everywhere. Maybe the architect who designed this place was allergic to walls or had a deep fear of vampires.

“You…” My voice hitches. “You live here?”

“We live here,” he corrects. “This is your home now, too, Ella.”

This will never be my home. I don’t belong in splendor, I belong in squalor. That’s what I know. It’s what I’m comfortable with, because squalor doesn’t lie to you. It’s not wrapped in a pretty package. It is what it is.

This house is an illusion. It’s polished and pretty, but the dream Callum is trying to sell is as flimsy as paper. Nothing stays shiny forever in this world.

* * *

The interior of the Royal mansion is as extravagant as the exterior. White slabs of tile veined with gray and gold—the kind that banks and doctors’ offices have—span the foyer, which seems to go on for miles. The ceiling never ends either, and I’m tempted to shout something just to see how deep the echo goes.

Stairs on either side of the entrance meet at an actual balcony that overlooks the foyer. The chandelier above my head must contain a hundred lights and so much crystal that if it fell on my head, all they’d be able to find is glass dust. It looks like it belongs in a hotel. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was taken from one.

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