His Royal Highness

It’s been the plan since day one, me working directly under Cal. He won’t retire officially, but I could help take most of the load off him.

“I’ve been thinking about that…”

He takes another sip of wine and my fork stalls midway to my mouth.

“I’ve had a little pushback from the board.”

I find that a little hard to believe.

“Some of them are whispering concerns about nepotism,” he finishes.

I rear back in my seat. My fork clinks against my dinner plate. “That’s absurd. It’s a family-run business. You’ve been grooming me for this job my entire life. There’s a statue of you and me down there in the middle of the park for God’s sake. What do they expect? That I’d happily step aside and make room for an outside hire? I won’t.”

“And I don’t expect you to. But, Derek, I think there’s a way to make everyone happy. I’ve been thinking on it, and this fall, we ought to have you prove your dedication to the company in a way no one can refute.”

“I think I’ve more than proven my dedication to this company.”

I spent my early teen years working in Non-Character roles in the park, only leaving to pursue an undergrad degree at Princeton with a focus on economics and management and then a graduate degree in global hospitality at Yale. When I graduated, I moved home and worked as Director of Entertainment for the Knightley Company. Four years later, when Cal’s vision for a sister theme park in London finally got the green light, I moved there and oversaw the project. No questions asked. Move here. Work there. Build this. Every facet of my life has revolved around this company and its needs.

The board can go fuck themselves.

We sit in silence for a long stretch, and I know he’s giving me time to cool down. I finish my wine off in one gulp and push my glass away.

“I want you to take over this company more than anyone,” he clarifies.

I clear my throat.

“That being said, I think a little shakeup would be good for you.”

I interlock my fingers on the table and stare at where my hands meet. “Just tell me what you have in mind. It’s been a long day.”

“A few months working In Character down in the park.” His words have the same effect as a winning poker hand, flipped over and fanned across the table. It’s like he knows he’s already won this battle.

“Absolutely not.”

He’s out of his mind.

I stand to leave. “Give Ava my thanks for dinner.”

He calls after me as I walk away. “What is our base-level employees’ number one concern right now?”

The question is out of left field, and yet, without hesitating, I rattle off the answer I know to be correct. “Hourly wage, followed closely by job security.”

“Wrong.”

I jerk to a stop.

“We’re just coming off of a scorching summer,” he continues. “Their main concern is the heat. When they’re in costume with the sun beating down overhead, they don’t give a damn about job security. They want shorter shift times, more frequent breaks, and effective cooling systems built into wardrobe.”

Though I want to argue, I stay completely silent.

“You know the broad scope of managing the company better than anyone, but I’m afraid you’ve forgotten about the minutia. Working In Character for a few months will bring you out of the clouds and give the board a shining example of the lengths you’re willing to go to for this company. No one will be able to argue when I name you as my successor once and for all.”

I haven’t agreed to it. I think it’s an absolutely ridiculous idea. Still, I ask a simple question I know he has the answer to. Cal is always ten steps ahead of the rest of us.

“Where?”

“Elena’s Castle. You’ll work alongside Whitney, the girl who was here with me when you first arrived.”

“You forget I already know her.”

“That’s right.” He chuckles. “I’d forgotten. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have her old mentor back.”





Chapter Three





Whitney





I am the product of a unique childhood. My family and I moved from Idaho to Georgia when I was six. My older sister was sick, and according to all the specialists, her prognosis was bleak enough to be measured in months, not years. My parents wanted her life to be as happy as it could be for as long as she had, and well…there’s no place on earth more happy-inducing than Fairytale Kingdom. As a six-year-old, I thought this was the best decision they could have made. Living next to a theme park!? Genius. But I was six.

The reality of our situation was less than perfect. We squeezed into a crumbling two-bedroom apartment right next door to the children’s hospital. Both were so close to Fairytale Kingdom that we could see the purple spires of Elena’s Castle from Avery’s hospital room. On Fridays, we’d perch at the window and watch the firework show with our faces pressed against the glass.

In some ways, life in Georgia seemed more fun. My parents worked at the park as base-level employees. Their uniforms looked more like Halloween costumes. My mom got to wear a cute little hat, and my dad pretended to smith toy axes. In my head, they’d both won the job jackpot.

On good days, when my parents could take off work and Avery was feeling up to it, we’d all go to Fairytale Kingdom together. The park was always accommodating. Avery would get special treats and toys. The employees always paid her special attention and we’d get front-row seats for the afternoon parade.

In other ways, life in Georgia was just the same as it’d been in Idaho. Avery was still sick, and this was extremely frustrating to me. In my six-year-old mind, Georgia was supposed to heal Avery, as if all she’d been missing before was Southern cooking. Get her more peach cobbler, stat!

The other part of life in Idaho that got dragged with us to Georgia was my role as Avery’s donor. I don’t remember the first time I donated blood or bone marrow to Avery. It was a part of my life as far back as my memory can stretch. Don’t you want to help your sister? Yes. This will hurt, but Avery needs it. Okay. No one ever forced me to help; they didn’t need to. Being her donor made me feel important, and my parents and Avery’s care team were always so appreciative. Those were the few times I felt truly noticed.

Over time, our roles became set in stone. Avery was the patient, and I was the caregiver. I didn’t change her IVs or dole out medication, but every day after school, I’d race to her hospital room with new artwork. Her walls were soon covered. I’d bring her stories of the outside world: what our cafeteria food tasted like, what new shoes Cara Sims wore to school that day. I’d check out books from the library for the two of us to read together. Most importantly, at the most basic level, I made sure to be my most smiling, happy self whenever I was with her because Avery needed happiness.

However, as the years passed and my parents’ focus remained on Avery’s health, I started to slowly see my position as something to resent. I know it’s a terrible thing, but there were times I used to wish I were the sick one. Avery seemed to get so much love and attention, not because she demanded it, but because she needed it. It probably wasn’t even intentional, but the fact is, when one child is sick, everyone else goes on the back burner. It’s the only way for the family unit to survive. I understood that, but my hope was that once Avery got better and left the hospital, life would balance itself out again. We could turn into a normal family.

It didn’t work that way.

Avery did kick cancer’s butt, and eventually she got to come home to cram into the two-bedroom apartment with us. Still, that didn’t mean she was “normal” the way I was—heavy emphasis on the air quotes. Avery always needed more. She was behind in school. She was fragile and small for her age. She needed a special diet, tutors, routine checkups.

My parents continued to provide for her the best way they could, and I found a place to survive all on my own: Fairytale Kingdom. I started working there the summer I turned fifteen. My job wasn’t all that important—I sold balloons on Castle Drive—but I loved every minute of it. I was playing the same role I’d played for years: making people happy and providing for others, but this time it was on my own terms. Children would squeal with delight when I’d hand over a balloon, and after that first summer, I knew I wanted to work in the park full-time one day.

My senior year in high school, my parents started discussing the idea of moving to New York for Avery so she could pursue a real acting career. She’d been bit with the acting bug when she was still in the hospital. Her pediatric unit had put on a Christmas play, and each child was assigned a part. Avery played the sugarplum queen, and on that makeshift stage in the hospital cafeteria, she found her calling.

After that, she was cast in local theater productions. My parents would drive her to auditions and practices all over the state, gone most nights of the week. She’d recently come home, beaming from ear to ear, eager to inform me that she had an agent! She showed me his business card while I sat in our shared bedroom, reading my history textbook on my bed.

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