Paper Princess Page 8

Everywhere I look I see wealth.

And through it all, Callum watches me with wary eyes, as if he’s stepped inside my mind and realizes how close I am to freaking out. To running hard and fast, because I don’t fucking belong here.

“I know it’s different from what you’re used to,” he says gruffly, “but you’ll get used to this, too. You’re going to like it here. I promise you.”

My shoulders stiffen. “Don’t make promises, Mr. Royal. Not to me, not ever.”

His face goes stricken. “Call me Callum. And I intend to keep any promise I make to you, Ella. Same way I kept every promise I made to your father.”

Something softens inside me. “You…uh…” The words come out awkwardly. “You really cared about my—about Steve, huh?”

“He was my best friend,” Callum says simply. “I trusted him with my life.”

Must be nice. The only person I’ve ever trusted is gone. Dead and buried. I think of Mom, and suddenly I miss her so much my throat closes up.

“Um…” I struggle to sound casual, as if I’m not on the verge of tears or a breakdown. “So do you have a butler or something? Or a housekeeper? Who takes care of this place?”

“I have staff. You won’t be required to scrub floors to earn your keep.” His grin dies off at my unsmiling stare.

“Where’s my letter?”

Callum must sense how close I am to losing it, because his tone softens. “Look, it’s late, and you’ve had a lot of excitement for one day. Why don’t we save this conversation for tomorrow? Right now I just want you to get a good night’s sleep.” He eyes me knowingly. “I get the feeling it’s been a long time since you’ve had one of those.”

He’s right. I take a breath, then exhale slowly. “Where’s my room?”

“I’ll take you up—” He halts when footsteps sound from above us, and I glimpse a flicker of approval in his blue eyes. “Here they are. Gideon is at college, but I asked the others to come down and meet you. They don’t always listen—”

And still don’t, apparently, because whatever orders he issued to the junior Royals are being ignored. And so am I. Not a single gaze flicks in my direction as four dark-haired figures appear at the curved railing of the balcony.

My jaw falls open, just slightly, before I slam it shut, steeling myself against the show of aggression from above. I won’t let them see how much they’ve rattled me, but holy shit, I’m rattled. No, I’m intimidated.

The Royal boys are not what I expected. They don’t look like rich pricks in preppy clothes. They look like terrifying thugs who can snap me like a twig.

Each one is as big as his father, easily six feet tall, and with varying degrees of muscle—the two on the right are leaner, the two on the left are broad-shouldered with sculpted arms. They must be athletes. Nobody is that ripped without working hard for it, bleeding and sweating for it.

I’m nervous now, because nobody has said a word. Not them, not Callum. Even standing far below them, I can see that all his sons have his eyes. Vivid blue and piercing in their intensity—all of it focused on their father.

“Boys,” he finally says. “Come meet our guest.” He shakes his head as if correcting himself. “Come meet the new member of our family.”

Silence.

It’s eerie.

The one in the middle smirks, just a tiny tug on the corner of his mouth. Mocking his father as he rests his muscled forearms on the railing and says nothing.

“Reed.” Callum’s commanding voice bounces off the walls. “Easton.” Another name rattles out. “Sawyer.” Then another. “Sebastian. Get down here. Now.”

They don’t move. The two on the right are twins, I realize. Identical in looks, and in their insolent poses when they cross their arms over their chests. One of the twins glances to the side, casting a barely noticeable look toward the brother on the far left.

A chill runs through me. He’s the one to worry about. He’s the one I need to watch out for.

And he’s the only one who tilts his head toward me in a calculated slant. As our gazes lock, my heart beats a little bit faster. Out of fear. Maybe under different circumstances, my heart would be pounding for another reason. Because he’s gorgeous. They all are.

But this one scares me, and I work hard to hide the response. I meet his eyes in challenge. Come down here, Royal. Bring it on.

Those dark blue eyes narrow slightly. He senses the unspoken challenge. He sees my defiance and he doesn’t like it. Then he turns from the railing and walks away. The others follow as if on command. They dismiss their father from their gazes. Footsteps echo in the cavernous house. Doors close.

Next to me, Callum sighs. “I’m sorry about that. I thought I got through to them before—they’ve had time to prepare for it—but clearly they still need more time to absorb all this.”

All this? He means me. My presence in their home, my tie to their father that I never knew I had before today.

“I’m sure they’ll be more welcoming in the morning,” he says. It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself.

He sure as hell hasn’t convinced me.

5

I wake up in an unfamiliar bed and I don’t like it. Not the bed. The bed is the shit. It’s soft but firm at the same time and the sheets are buttery smooth, not like the scratchy pieces of crap that I’m used to, when I actually slept on a bed with sheets. Lots of times it was just a sleeping bag, and those nylon sacks get smelly after a while.

This bed smells like honey and lavender.

All this luxury and niceness feels threatening, because in my experience, nice is usually followed by a real nasty surprise. One time, Mom came home from work and announced that we were moving into a better place. A tall, thin man came and helped us pack our meager belongings, and several hours later we were in his tiny house. It was adorable, with plaid curtains on the windows, and despite the small size, I even had my own bedroom.

Later that night I woke up to the sound of shouting and glass breaking. Mom rushed into my room and pulled me out of bed, and we were out of the house before I could take a breath. It wasn’t until we’d stopped two blocks away that I saw the bruise forming on her cheekbone.

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