Paper Princess Page 48

“I already told you, I’m here to stay. I’m here to go to school and graduate and then go to college.”

“So you say.”

I let out an aggravated groan. “You want me to say something else? Fine, I’ve got plenty to say. I’m not hooking up with your father, Reed. And I’m never going to, because one, that’s gross, and two, that’s gross. He’s my guardian, and I appreciate everything he’s done for me. That’s it. That’s all it’ll ever be.”

Reed shoves his hands in his pockets and says nothing.

“All Callum and I did on the boat today was talk. He told me about my father, and honestly, I still don’t know how I feel about all that. I never even met Steve, and from what I’ve heard about him, I don’t know if I would have liked him. But I can’t change the fact that he’s my father, okay? And you can’t keep holding it against me. I didn’t ask for Steve to knock up my mom, and I didn’t ask your dad to barge into my life and bring me here.”

He scoffs. “You’re saying you’d prefer to still be taking your clothes off for money?”

“Right now? Yeah,” I say frankly. “At least I knew what to expect from that life. I knew who to trust, and who to stay away from. And say what you want about stripping, but no one, not a single person, ever called me a slut or a whore the whole time I was working the clubs.”

Reed rolls his eyes. “Because it’s such a respectable profession.”

“It’s a living,” I shoot back. “And when you’re fifteen and trying to pay your dying mother’s medical bills, it’s survival. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me, and you haven’t even tried getting to know me, so you’re not allowed to judge. You’re not allowed to talk shit about something you have no clue about.”

His shoulders go rigid again. He takes another step forward, causing water to splash my bare ankles.

“You don’t know me,” I repeat.

He tosses me a dark look. “I know enough.”

“I’m a virgin, did you know that?” The words pop out before I can stop them, and he jerks in surprise.

He recovers quickly, a cynical look playing across his face. “Sure, Ella. You’re a virgin.”

“It’s the truth.” Embarrassment heats my cheeks, though I’m not sure what I’m embarrassed about. “You can keep thinking I’m a slut, but you’re wrong. My mom got sick when I was fifteen—when the hell did I have time to screw around with boys?”

He laughs harshly. “Next thing you’re going to tell me, you’ve never kissed a guy, right?”

“No, I have. I’ve done…some stuff.” My cheeks are scorching now. “But not the big stuff. Not the stuff you keep accusing me of.”

“Is this the part where you ask me to make a woman of you?”

My skin prickles with insult. “You’re a real asshole sometimes, you know that?”

He frowns.

“I’m only telling you this because I want you to realize how unfair you’re being,” I whisper. “I get it, you’ve got issues. You hate your dad and you miss your mom and you like to beat people up for shits and giggles. You’re messed up in the head, that much is obvious. I don’t expect us to be friends, okay? I don’t expect anything from you, actually. But I want you to know that I’m done with this…this feud we’ve got going. I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier. I’m sorry I tied you to a chair and let you think there was something between me and Callum. But as of this moment, I’m done fighting. Say whatever you want to me, think whatever you want about me, keep acting like a jerk, I don’t care. I’m not playing the game anymore. I’m done.”

When he stays silent, I wade out of the water and make my way back to the house. I’ve said my piece, and I meant every word. Seeing Reed beat the crap out of someone tonight really put everything in perspective for me.

The Royal brothers are even more screwed up than I am. They’re hurting and they’re lashing out and I’m the most convenient target, but fighting back only makes it worse. It only fuels their anger toward me. I refuse to engage anymore.

“Ella.” Reed’s voice stops me as I reach the upper deck.

I halt near the pool, and swallow hard when I glimpse the remorse in his eyes.

He reaches me, his voice thick with gravel as he says, “I—”

A loud voice slurs from behind us. “What are you kids doing out here so late?”

I smother my irritation as Brooke appears at the patio doors. She’s in a white silk robe, with her blonde hair flowing over one shoulder. In her right hand she’s clutching a bottle of red wine.

I notice that Reed cringes at the sound of her voice, but when he speaks, he sounds cold and indifferent. “We’re in the middle of something. Go to bed.”

“You know I can’t sleep without your dad cuddled up beside me.”

Brooke manages to make it down the steps without tripping. She comes up to us, and I sigh when I glimpse her alcohol-glazed eyes. Callum is a pro when it comes to drinking, but this is the first time I’ve seen Brooke drunk.

“Where’s Callum?” I reach a hand out to steady her.

“He went to the office,” she whines. “On Sunday night. He said there was an emergency he had to handle.”

I can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. It’s so obvious that Callum is not at all invested in his relationship with Brooke, and equally obvious that she wants so badly for him to love her. I feel bad for her.

“I didn’t realize banging your secretary was considered an emergency,” Reed says mockingly.

Her eyes laser toward Reed. I take a protective step toward him. “Let me take you inside,” I tell Brooke. “To the living room. I’ll get you a blanket and—“

She jerks out of my grip. “Are you the lady of the house now?” Her voice is reaching shrilly levels. “Because you’re a fool if you think that you’ll be anything to these Royals. And you—” she turns with a wild light in her eyes toward Reed, “—you’d better stop talking to me like that.”

The retort that I was sure Reed would spit back never comes. I cast a questioning glance toward him, but he’s gone. His expression is closed down, almost vacant.

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