Paper Princess Page 21

“We got plans,” Reed mutters and walks out of the room before Callum can even open his mouth again. He turns to Easton, who raises both palms and blinks innocently.

“Don’t ask me. I’m the middle child. I do what everyone else tells me.”

Callum rolls his eyes and despite the tension, I snort softly into my bowl. Easton does what Easton wants. No one made him put his hand down his pants and proposition me. That’s a game he enjoyed playing and one he did without prompting. It’s convenient for him to pretend like Reed is his leader, absolving Easton of responsibility.

“Well, maybe you can let me know what Reed’s plans are for you later,” Callum grinds out.

Easton flushes. It’s one thing for him to cast Reed as a leader and another thing for their father to imply Easton’s a puppet.

“You never cared what I did on the weekends before.” He shoves the OJ carton back into the fridge. With a glare at his father that is hot enough to turn the hair on Callum’s head entirely gray, he walks off as well.

Callum sighs. “I’m not winning any father of the year awards, am I?”

I tap my spoon against the table a few times because I know better than to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. But in this case, Callum is dragging me right into the middle of a messed-up dynamic and the collateral damage could get real bad if he doesn’t rein it in.

“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, Callum, and obviously you know your kids better than I do, but does it really make sense shoving me down their throats? Honestly, I’d rather they ignored me. It doesn’t hurt my feelings that they aren’t happy I’m here, and the house is big enough we could all go for days and not see each other.”

He scrutinizes me as if he’s trying to figure out if I’m being sincere. Finally, he smiles sheepishly. “You’re right. It wasn’t always like this. We used to get along fine, but ever since their mother’s death, the whole family hasn’t been right. Unfortunately, these boys are spoiled. They need a dose of real life.”

And I’m that dose?

I scowl. “I’m not an afterschool lesson. And you know what? I’ve experienced real life and it sucks. I wouldn’t force real life on the people I love the most. I’d try to protect them from that.”

I push away from the table and leave him behind.

Outside the kitchen, I find Reed lurking in the hall.

“Waiting for me?” I’m not even remotely sorry for the snide edge that’s crept into my voice.

Reed gives me the onceover, his gorgeous blue eyes lingering on my bare legs. “Just wondering what your game is.”

“I’m trying to survive,” I tell him honestly. “All I want to do is to make it to college.”

“And take a chunk of Royal money with you?”

I bristle. This guy just won’t let up. “Maybe with a few Royal hearts in my pocket, too,” I say sweetly.

And then, with a forced boldness, I lift a finger and trail it slowly across his naked pecs, my nail scraping across his smooth skin. His breath hitches, almost imperceptibly, but it’s there.

My heart leaps to my throat and blood begins to pound in places that I absolutely do not want to be associated with Reed Royal.

“You’re playing a dangerous game,” he rasps out.

Don’t I know it. Still, I can’t let Reed see he’s gotten to me. I pull my hand away, folding the fingers into a fist. “I don’t know any other way to play it.”

That bit of truth stuns him and I slip away. I’d like to think I won that round, but I feel like every encounter with Reed chips away at something vital inside me.

* * *

I spend the day exploring the house and the grounds. Beside the pool is a pool house made almost entirely of glass, which holds a sofa, some chairs, and a tiny kitchen. A stairway leads to the shore, but with all the rocks, there really isn’t anything you could call a beach, at least not unless you walk farther down the shoreline. Still, it’s beautiful, and I can see myself sitting down here with a book and a mug of hot cocoa.

It’s hard to believe this is my life now. If all I have to do is endure two years of insults from the Royal boys, it’ll still be a cakewalk compared to everything I’ve gone through in the past. No worrying about having enough to eat or wondering where I’m going to sleep. No moving from town to town, looking for a quick score. No sitting by my mom’s bedside watching her shake and cry from pain but being too poor to afford the medication that would put her out of her misery.

A sharp bolt of grief slices through me at those memories. Like Callum, Mom wasn’t the best parent in the world, but she tried hard and I loved her. When she was alive, I wasn’t completely alone.

Here, with the big endless ocean rolling away from me and not another person as far as I can see, the solitude hits me hard. No matter what Callum says or tries to do, I’m never going to be a Royal.

Maybe I’ll do my reading inside.

The big house is quiet. The guys are gone. Callum has left a note that says he’s working and provides me with the Wi-Fi password, his cell phone number, and Durand’s number. Under the piece of paper is a small white box. Cue heavy breathing. I lift out the smart phone like it’s made of sugared crystals. My old phones were disposable flip phones that sent and received calls. This one…I feel like I could hack a database with it.

I spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the phone, looking up random shit and watching really terrible YouTube videos. It’s wonderful.

Around seven, Callum calls to tell me that dinner is ready. I find him and Brooke out on the patio.

“Mind if we eat out here?” he asks.

I stare at the delicious-looking food and the beautifully lit patio area, and try not to roll my eyes because who in their right mind would hate this? “It’s perfect.”

During dinner, I get a chance to see a different side of Brooke. A strange, vulnerable one where she ducks her head and bats her eyelashes at Callum. And Callum? The man who heads up a corporation that builds planes for the military? He eats it up like candy.

“Can I get you more wine, honey?” Brooke offers. Callum’s glass is almost overflowing already.

“No. I’m perfect.” He smiles easily. “I’ve got the two most beautiful ladies sitting down to dinner with me. The steak is cooked perfectly and I just closed a deal with Singapore Air.”

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