His Royal Highness

It made no sense. Had I offended him so badly he didn’t even want to be my mentor anymore? Had I crossed a line in a way we couldn’t come back from?

Avery was enraged on my behalf, calling Derek every name under the sun and spouting off a sharp, confident “You can do better” pep talk that only made me feel worse.

For the next few days, I was a mess. I typed out five different emails to Derek and deleted every single one. I entered his work number into my phone—the one at the bottom of his email signature—and then wavered, ultimately chickening out every time.

Carrie knew something was wrong with me, so I lied and said I had the flu. It bought me freedom to wallow.

I’d waver between despair over the fact that I’d ruined a good thing and hope that maybe Derek had asked to be removed as my official mentor because of his complicated feelings for me. That hope only spawned in the dead of night, when my brain was too sleepy to notice the obvious naivety of it.

A week after I was informed of my new mentor assignment, I came back from class and found a bold unread email at the top of my inbox. Derek’s name shocked my heart back to life. I leapt for my chair and quadruple-clicked. It sprang up across the screen, but when I read his words the first time, they seemed nonsensical.





Whitney,





Work has taken me to London.





Don’t worry, I haven’t dropped the ball as your mentor. My grandfather will advise you much better than I ever could. Take advantage of everything he’s willing to teach you.





Best,

Derek





I read it again, eyes focused on the first sentence.

Derek was going to London. London, England? For how long? He didn’t say.

He hadn’t addressed my proposal of dinner. No raincheck or promises to make it up to me when he returned. Worse, he hadn’t even suggested we stay in communication while he was gone. No mention of a continued friendship. No clues hinting that he might have felt the same way I did.

I hadn’t even known London was on the horizon for him. That was the first blow. I hadn’t known because he never told me. It was an irrefutable sign that I’d spun our encounters into something more meaningful than they had been. He hadn’t even thought to say goodbye to me in person.

I felt…crushed.

My feelings for Derek were not platonic. They never had been. I had souvenirs of him littered across my life. His name was my computer password. His lent paperbacks were stacked up beside my bed. His emails were carefully categorized in their own folder in my inbox. If they’d been letters, the sheets of paper would have been threadbare and disintegrating.

Looking back, I wonder if Derek ever realized how much his friendship meant to me that fall. How long it took me to get over him. How much I beat myself up over my feelings for a man I never should have fallen for in the first place. I don’t know how a soul finds its mate, why it seemed like mine had latched onto someone who was the least logical choice. All I know is it’s been eight years and I’m still not over my silly crush on Derek Knightley.

But hopefully, I will be soon.





Chapter Four





Whitney





It’s the morning after my dinner with Cal—the morning after I spotted Derek getting off the elevator—and curiosity has me rereading my old emails to him. It’s worse than I remember. My eagerness bleeds off the screen. So! Many! Exclamation! Marks! There are too many exaggerated attempts at sounding more intelligent than I was. I must have consulted a thesaurus each time I typed up a reply. Words like laborious and esoteric were stuffed into sentences with a heavy hand. The result is a sad, obvious attempt at looking wise beyond my years. There’s no way he thought of me as anything more than a silly teenage girl.

“Oh no. What happened?”

Carrie’s voice startles me and I glance up to see the reflection of my friend in the wall-to-wall mirror in front of my makeup chair. She’s at the door, holding up Princess Elena’s dress, a sweet gesture she didn’t have to make. Normally, a runner brings it over from the Costuming Department—their warehouse is a few minutes away by golf cart, longer by foot—but she brought it herself, and I have a feeling I know why.

“Nothing happened,” I say, locking my phone and tossing it down into my purse. Looking at those emails was a bad idea.

“Your face was telling a different story.”

I hum and lean forward, returning to the task at hand. My shift will start soon, which means I need to finish getting ready. During training, a professional taught me how to glam myself up to mimic our characters to a T. Some of the other In Character employees in the park have makeup much more difficult to apply than mine. I know a girl who plays a pink-skinned fairy. Before every shift, she has to cover her face and arms in paint. I don’t envy her.

As the original princess in the Knightley storybook, Elena is simpler and more understated. Bronzer and blush enhance my features, mascara and warm eyeshadow ensuring I look more done up than on a normal day. My lips are coated in a dark coral pink shade, just a hairsbreadth away from nude.

My hair is curled and long, half of it wrapped up behind my head with a twinkling diamond and emerald tiara.

“Sure nothing is bothering you? Is it your parents?”

“Parents? What are those?”

She laughs and shakes her head.

I reassure her. “No, really. Everything is good. Promise.”

Carrie steps forward and unzips the garment bag.

The pale green costume is an updated version of the timeless dress half the little girls in the country own, and as a Senior Designer, Carrie had a hand in its creation. The bodice is so delicately embroidered, it looks like the material might split with the slightest tug. A built-in bra ensures no straps interrupt the deep, square neckline. The long, sheer sleeves fit my arms tightly and end with a V at my wrists. The waist is cinched tight and the tulle skirt billows down to the floor. The material itself is contemporary and light, but the cut and style is an amalgamation of renaissance and medieval costuming. In short, it’s the best, most beautiful item of clothing I’ve ever worn.

In lieu of a corset, the dress zips up the back, fitted perfectly. Carrie straightens my skirt, stands, and spins me around.

“Okay, enough,” she says. “I know you’ve heard the news.”

I scrunch my nose and play dumb. News? I know not of what you speak.

“Derek’s back from London. Word is, he’s here to take over for Cal once and for all.”

My features give nothing away. “Cal didn’t mention anything last night.”

She smiles conspiratorially. “I assumed it was just a rumor too, that he’s not really back—but I know for a fact he is.”

My heart hammers against my tight bodice. I can’t catch a full breath no matter how hard I try.

When I don’t immediately demand more information, she gets cocky, dangling what she knows over my head like bait.

“Costuming has a special fitting today. Can you guess who it’s for?”

“The Queen of England.”

She ignores my dry sarcasm. “Derek.”

Carrie knows the truth about Derek. Years ago, I eventually opened up to her about all the sad details. She’d already guessed what was going on even before I told her. Apparently, people don’t have the flu for months on end.

I’d sit if I could, but the dress won’t allow it. Or rather, Carrie won’t allow it. If I wrinkled the tulle before my shift, she’d have my head.

“That makes no sense. Since when does he need a costume?”

I think of him as he was eight years ago. His crisp button-downs, fitted slacks, cool sneakers. His clothes could have been bespoke, but I don’t think Costuming had a hand in them. Maybe I’m wrong.

She’s looking at her nails now, examining them coolly. “Wish I could say more, but it’s confidential.”

I resist the urge to shake her senseless. My hands fist at my sides in an effort to restrain myself.

“Tell me!”

She laughs and finally looks up at me. “I’m sorry. I can’t let the secret out. You know how tight-lipped this company is.”

My glare says, Who do you think I am? “This is different. We don’t keep secrets.”

Her dark brow arches. “Are you sure about that?”

We both know she’s referring to my feelings for my old mentor. I might have copped to my love for him back then, but I’ve assured her that’s all in the past. He means nothing to me now.

“Carrie!” I say, grabbing her by the shoulders.

“Ow! Jeez!”

“Whitney,” a soft voice calls from the hall just before a hand knocks on the door. “We’re a few minutes behind. Are you almost done in there?”

My eyes dart to Carrie. HURRY. Tell me!

She interprets my wide-eyed gaze as fear. She thinks I don’t want to be late for my shift. I’ve forgotten I even have a shift. I want info. Now.

She finds my high heels and bends low to help me strap them on.

“Carrie,” I demand, voice low.

Another knock sounds on the door.

“This isn’t funny,” I say through clenched teeth.

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