Paper Princess Page 30

And when classes are over, it’s the big Town Car that’s waiting for me. Durand’s holding the door impatiently, so I can’t even loiter in the parking lot. It’s better this way, I tell myself. No good can come from thinking about Reed Royal.

I lecture myself all the way home, but as we pull through the wrought-iron gates, Durand gives me something else to think about.

“Mr. Royal would like to see you,” his double bass voice informs me when the car comes to a stop at the front steps.

I sit there like a dummy as I process that Mr. Royal means Callum. “Um, okay.”

“He’s in the pool house.”

“The pool house,” I repeat. “Am I being called to the principal’s office, Durand?”

His eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. “Don’t think so, Ella.”

“That’s not very encouraging.”

“Want me to drive you around some more?”

“Will he still want to see me?”

Durand nods.

“Then I better go.” I sigh dramatically.

The corner of his eyes lift slightly in what is considered a broad smile for him.

I drop my backpack at the base of the sweeping staircase and then make the trek to the back of the house, across the long patio, and to the end of the yard. The pool house is glassed in on three sides. There must be some trick to the walls because sometimes the side nearest the pool is reflective rather than see-through.

As I get closer, I realize that the walls are really a series of doors on a slider and they’ve been opened, allowing the ocean breeze to drift from the shore up to the house.

Callum is sitting on a sofa facing the ocean. He turns around when my shoes scrape on the tiled floor.

He nods in greeting. “Ella. You have a good day at school?”

No trash in my locker? No pranks in the girls’ room? “Could have been worse,” I reply.

He gestures for me to come sit with him.

“This was Maria’s favorite place,” he tells me. “When all the doors are open, you can hear the ocean. She liked getting up early to watch the sunrise. She told me once it was like a magic show every morning. The sun draws back the curtain of inky black to reveal a palette of colors more gorgeous than even the greatest masters could conjure.”

“Are you sure she wasn’t a poet?”

He smiles. “She was rather poetic. She also said the rhythmic push and pull of the waves against the shore is a musical score as pure as the most brilliant orchestration.”

We listen to it, the tinkle and wash as the tides creep up to the sand and then slide back as if pulled by an invisible hand. “It’s beautiful,” I admit.

A low moan slips from Callum’s throat. In one hand, he clutches his usual glass of whiskey, but in the other, gripped so tight his knuckles are white, he holds a picture of a dark-haired woman with eyes so bright it’s like sun shining from the frame.

“Is that Maria?” I gesture to the frame.

He swallows and nods. “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

I nod back.

Callum tips his head and empties the glass in one swift gulp. He barely sets the glass down before reaching for a refill. “Maria was the glue that held our family together. Atlantic Aviation hit a bad patch about ten years ago. A series of reckless decisions coupled with the recession placed my sons’ legacy in jeopardy, and I threw myself into saving it, which took me away from the family. I missed seeing Maria. She always wanted a daughter, you know?”

I can only nod again. It’s kind of hard to follow along this weird disjointed speech. I have no idea where he’s going with all of this.

“She would have loved you. She would have taken you from Steve and raised you as her own. She wanted a girl so badly.”

I sit still as a stone. None of this sad story can be leading anywhere good.

“My sons blame me for her death,” he says suddenly, startling me with the unexpected confession. “They’re right to do so. Which is why I let them get away with all kinds of shit. Oh, I know all about their little rebellions, but I can’t bring myself to raise a harsh word. I’m trying to pull the threads together now, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a mess. And I’ve made a mess of this family.” He draws a shaky hand through his hair, still managing to hold his glass, almost like the crystal object is the only thing keeping him tethered to this earth.

“I’m sorry,” is all I can think to say.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this.”

“A little.”

He gives me a crooked, rough smile that reminds me so much of Reed that my insides flip over.

“Dinah wants to meet you.”

“Who’s Dinah?”

“Steve’s widow.”

My pulse speeds up. “Oh.”

“I’ve been putting her off because you just got here, and, well, I wanted you to come to me about Steve. She and Steve toward the end there…” He trails off. “It wasn’t good.”

My guard snaps up. “I get the feeling that I’m not going to like whatever you’re about to say.”

“You’re pretty perceptive.” He hastily finishes off his second glass. “She’s demanding you come alone.”

So I’m supposed to meet my dead dad’s wife, who Callum dislikes so much that he’s mainlining whiskey, without anyone at my back?

I sigh. “When I said my day could be worse, it wasn’t meant as a challenge.”

He snorts at this. “Dinah reminded me that my connection to you is more tenuous than hers. She’s your father’s widow. I’m just his friend and business partner.”

A chill skates across my skin. “Are you saying that your guardianship isn’t legit?”

“It’s temporary until Steve’s will has been probated,” he admits. “Dinah could contest it.”

I can’t sit. I jump up and walk to the edge of the room, staring out at the water. I suddenly feel so stupid. I let myself believe I could make a home here even though Reed hates me, even though the students at Astor Park delight in tormenting me. Those things are supposed to be temporary nuisances. Callum has promised me a future, dammit. And now he’s telling me this Dinah woman can take that future away?

“If I don’t go,” I say slowly, “then she’ll start making trouble, won’t she?”

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