Paper Princess Page 2

My heart is beating a million miles a minute, because that signature is actually mine. I forged it to maintain control over my own life. Even though I’m a minor, I’ve had to be the adult in my family since the age of fifteen.

To Mr. Thompson’s credit, he doesn’t chastise me for the profanity. “The paperwork indicates that Mr. Royal’s claim is legitimate.” He rattles the papers in his hands.

“Yeah? Well, he’s lying. I’ve never seen this guy before, and if you let me go with him, the next report you’ll see is how some girl from GW disappeared into a sex trafficking scheme.”

“You’re right, we haven’t met before,” Royal interjects. “But that doesn’t change the reality here.”

“Let me see.” I jump to Thompson’s desk and pluck the papers out of his hands. My eyes run over the pages, not really reading what’s there. Words pop out at me—guardian and deceased and bequeath—but they mean nothing. Callum Royal is still a stranger. Period.

“Perhaps if your mother could come in, we could clear everything up,” Mr. Thompson suggests.

“Yes, Ella, bring your mother and I’ll withdraw my claim.” Royal’s voice is soft, but I hear the steel. He knows something.

I turn back to my principal. He’s the weak link here. “I could create this in the school computer lab. I wouldn’t even need Photoshop.” I toss the sheaf of papers in front of him. Doubt is forming in his eyes, so I press my advantage. “I need to get back to class. The semester is just starting and I don’t want to fall behind.”

He licks his lips uncertainly and I stare him down with all the conviction in my heart. I don’t have a dad. I certainly don’t have a guardian. If I did, where was this jackass all my life while my mom was struggling to make ends meet, when she was in god-awful pain from her cancer, when she was weeping on her hospice bed about leaving me alone? Where was he then?

Thompson sighs. “All right, Ella, why don’t you go to class? Clearly Mr. Royal and I have more matters to discuss.”

Royal objects. “These papers are all in order. You know me and you know my family. I wouldn’t be here presenting this to you if it were not the truth. What would be the reason?”

“There are a lot of perverts in this world,” I say snidely. “They have lots of reasons to make up stories.”

Thompson waves his hand. “Ella, that’s enough. Mr. Royal, this is a surprise to all of us. Once we contact Ella’s mother, we can clear this all up.”

Royal doesn’t like the delay and renews his argument about how important he is and how a Royal wouldn’t tell a lie. I half expect him to invoke George Washington and the cherry tree. As the two bicker, I slip out of the room.

“I’m going to the bathroom, Darlene,” I lie. “I’ll head back to class right after.”

She buys it easily. “Take your time. I’ll let your teacher know.”

I don’t go to the bathroom. I don’t go back to class. Instead, I hustle to the bus stop and catch the G bus to the last stop.

From there it’s a thirty-minute walk to the apartment I lease for a measly five hundred a month. It has one bedroom, a dingy bathroom, and a living/kitchen area that smells like mold. But it’s cheap and the landlord is a woman who was willing to accept cash and not run a background check.

I don’t know who Callum Royal is, but I do know that his presence in Kirkwood is bad, bad news. Those legal papers hadn’t been Photoshopped. They were real. But there’s no way I’m placing my life in the hands of some stranger who appeared out of the blue.

My life is mine. I live it. I control it.

I dump my hundred-dollar textbooks out of my backpack and fill the newly emptied bag with clothes, toiletries, and the last of my savings—one thousand dollars. Crap. I need some quick money to help me get out of town. I’m seriously depleted. It cost me over two grand to move here, what with bus tickets and then first and last month’s rent along with a rental deposit. It sucks that I’m going to be eating the unused rent money, but it’s clear I can’t stick around.

I’m running again. Story of my life. Mom and I were always running. From her boyfriends, her pervert bosses, social services, poverty. The hospice was the only place we stayed in for any substantial amount of time, and that’s because she was dying. Sometimes I think the universe has decided I’m not allowed to be happy.

I sit on the side of the bed and try not to cry out of frustration and anger and okay, yes, even fear. I allow myself five minutes of self-pity and then get on the phone. Screw the universe.

“Hey, George, I’ve been thinking about your offer to work at Daddy G’s,” I say when a male voice answers the call. “I’m ready to take you up on that.”

I’ve been working the pole at Miss Candy’s, a baby club where I strip down to a G-string and pasties. It’s good, but not great, money. George has been asking me to graduate to Daddy G’s, a full nudity place, for the last few weeks. I’ve resisted because I didn’t see the need. I do now.

I’m blessed with my mother’s body. Long legs. Nipped-in waist. My boobs aren’t double-D spectacular, but George said he liked my perky B-cup because it gives the illusion of youth. It’s not an illusion, but my identification says I’m thirty-four and that my name isn’t Ella Harper but Margaret Harper. My dead mom. Super creepy if you stop to think about it, which I try not to.

There aren’t many jobs a seventeen-year-old can actually do part time and still pay the bills. And none of them are legal. Run drugs. Turn tricks. Strip. I chose the last one.

“Damn, girl, that’s excellent news!” George crows. “I have an opening tonight. You can be the third dancer. Wear the Catholic schoolgirl uniform. The guys are gonna love that.”

“How much for tonight?”

“How much what?”

“Cash, George. How much cash?”

“Five hundred and any tips you can make. If you want to do some private lap dances, I’ll give you one hundred per dance.”

Shit. I could make a grand easy tonight. I shove all my anxiety and discomfort to the back of my mind. Now isn’t the time for an internal morality debate. I need money, and stripping is one of the safest ways for me to get it.

“I’ll be there. Book as many as you can for me.”

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