Paper Princess

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“Ella, you’re wanted in the principal’s office,” Ms. Weir says before I can step inside her precalculus classroom.

I check my watch. “I’m not even late.”

It’s one minute before nine and this watch is never wrong. It’s probably the most expensive item I own. My mom said that it was my dad’s. Besides his sperm, it’s the only thing he left behind.

“No, it’s not about tardiness…this time.” Her normally flinty gaze is soft around the edges, and my gut relays a warning to my sluggish morning brain. Ms. Weir is a hard ass, which is why I like her. She treats her students like we’re here to learn actual math instead of some life lesson on loving your neighbor and crap like that. So for her to be giving me sympathetic looks means something bad is cooking down at the principal’s office.

“Fine.” It’s not like I can give any other response. I offer a nod and redirect myself to the school office.

“I’ll email you the course assignment,” Ms. Weir calls after me. I guess she thinks I won’t be returning to class, but there isn’t anything Principal Thompson could throw at me that’s worse than what I’ve faced before.

Before enrolling in George Washington High School for my junior year, I’d already lost everything of importance. Even if Mr. Thompson has somehow figured out I’m not technically living in the GW school district, I can lie to stall for time. And if I have to transfer, which is the worst thing that could happen to me today, then no big deal. I’ll do it.

“How’s it going, Darlene?”

The mom-haired school secretary barely looks up from her People magazine. “Take a seat, Ella. Mr. Thompson will be right with you.”

Yep, we’re on a first-name basis, me and Darlene. One month at GW High, and I’ve already spent way too much time in this office, thanks to my ever-growing stack of late slips. But that’s what happens when you work nights and don’t see the smooth side of the sheets until three a.m. every night.

I crane my neck around to peek through the open blinds of Mr. Thompson’s office. Someone’s sitting in the visitor’s chair, but all I can make out is a hard jaw and dark brown hair. Total opposite of me. I’m as blonde and blue-eyed as they come. Courtesy of my sperm donor, according to Mom.

Thompson’s visitor reminds me of the out-of-town businessmen who would tip my mom mega bucks for her to pretend to be their girlfriend for the night. Some guys got off on that even more than actual sex. This is per my mom, of course. I haven’t had to go down that path...yet. And I hope I never have to, which is why I need my high school diploma so I can go to college, get a degree, and be normal.

Some kids dream of traveling the world, owning fast cars, big houses. Me? I want my own apartment, a fridge full of food, and a steady paying job, preferably one that’s as exciting as paste drying.

The two men talk and talk and talk. Fifteen minutes pass and they’re still shooting the shit.

“Hey, Darlene? I’m missing precalc right now. Okay for me to come back when Mr. Thompson isn’t busy?”

I try to state it as nicely as possible, but years of having no real adult presence in my life—my flighty, lovely mom doesn’t count—makes it hard for me to summon up the necessary submissiveness adults prefer from anyone who isn’t allowed to legally drink.

“No, Ella. Mr. Thompson will be right out.”

This time she’s right, because the door opens and the principal steps out. Mr. Thompson is about five ten and looks like he graduated from high school last year. Somehow he manages a certain air of capable responsibility.

He gestures me forward. “Miss Harper, please come inside.”

Inside? While Don Juan is in there?

“You already have someone in your office.” I point out the obvious. This looks suspicious as hell and my gut is telling me to get out of here. But if I run, I’ll be giving up on this careful life I’ve spent months planning.

Thompson turns around and looks toward Don Juan, who rises from his chair and waves at me with his large hand. “Yes, well, he’s why you’re here. Please come in.”

Against my better judgment, I slip past Mr. Thompson and stand just inside the door. Thompson closes the door and flips the blinds to the office shut. Now I’m really nervous.

“Ms. Harper, if you’d sit down.” Thompson points at the chair Don Juan just vacated.

I cross my arms and look at both of them mutinously. The seas could flood the earth before I take a seat.

Thompson sighs and settles in his own chair, knowing a lost cause when he sees one. That makes me even more uneasy, because if he’s giving up this fight it means there’s a bigger one coming.

He picks up a set of papers on his desk. “Ella Harper, this is Callum Royal.” He pauses as if that means something to me.

Meanwhile, Royal is staring at me like he’s never seen a girl before. I realize that my crossed arms are pushing my boobs together and so I drop my hands to my sides where they dangle awkwardly.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Royal.” It’s apparent to everyone in the room that I’m thinking the exact opposite.

The sound of my voice jolts him out of his hypnosis. He strides forward and, before I can move, has my right hand clasped between two of his.

“My God, you look just like him.” The words are whispered so only he and I can hear them. Then, as if remembering where he is, he shakes my hand. “Please, call me Callum.”

There’s an odd tone to his words. Like they’re hard to get out. I tug my hand from his, which requires some effort because the creep does not want to let go. It takes Mr. Thompson clearing his throat to get Royal to drop my hand.

“What’s this all about?” I demand. As a seventeen-year-old in a room full of adults, my tone is out of place, but no one even bats an eyelash.

Mr. Thompson runs an agitated hand through his hair. “I don’t know how to say this so I’ll just be straightforward. Mr. Royal tells me that your parents are both deceased and that he’s now your guardian.”

I falter. Just for a beat. Just long enough to let the shock filter into indignation.

“Bullshit!” The curse word bursts out before I can stop it. “My mother signed me up for classes. You have her signature on the registration forms.”

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