His Royal Highness

“It’s real! Touch it.”

I held the cardstock in my hands. It was thick and embossed with black, bold letters. Real, indeed.

“He wants me to fly to New York and audition for an off-Broadway play.”

I had no idea what “off-Broadway” meant, but I acted like I did.

“You should do it,” I said, holding the business card back out to her.

Her eyes were bright with hope. “You could come too!”

No. I couldn’t. I had school and shifts at Fairytale Kingdom.

Soon after that, the move to New York felt all but inevitable, so I looked into my options for ways I could stay in Georgia without them.

The Knightley Company has a special college program for incoming freshmen. If accepted, participants split their time between working in the theme park and taking college courses through South Georgia University. The goal is to graduate with a degree in hospitality management while gaining real-world experience. In addition to a small wage, the program pays for college tuition and provides room and board.

I sent in my application the first day the enrollment period opened, and when my acceptance letter came in the mail, I screamed so loud Avery came rushing into our room, assuming murder.

A part of me held out a tiny bit of hope that my parents would put up a fight about me staying behind in Georgia without them. The plan was for us all to move to New York, but when I showed them the acceptance letter and explained how competitive the program was, they wrapped me up in a hug and told me how proud they were. No tears of sadness over the fact that they were going to leave me behind, just nails in the coffin of our relationship.

The day they packed up their moving truck, I settled into my fully furnished on-site dorm at Fairytale Kingdom. Though the halls were noisy and filling with other new interns just like me, I sat alone in my room, sad in a way I couldn’t easily explain. I was at my desk, glancing over my course schedule and trying to conjure up excitement for my new life, when an email popped up on my computer.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Subject: Mentor Program

Hi students,

All incoming freshman interns are required to take part in our mentorship program. Each student has been placed with an executive-level staff member who will act as a resource and adviser over the coming year. Mentors will offer shadowing opportunities as well as program-approved assignments. Each student will earn one credit hour for participation in the program.

Mentors have been notified of their assignments and will be in contact soon. Please establish a consistent time and place for meetings conducive to your schedule. (Minimum of four meetings required per semester.)

Whitney Atwood has been placed with Derek Knightley, Head of Entertainment.

His phone number and email were provided below that, but I didn’t make it that far. As a longtime employee and lover of Fairytale Kingdom, I knew about the Knightley family. They were royalty. Cal Knightley was the man behind it all, someone rarely seen at the park. I thought I might have caught a glimpse of him once, from afar. His grandson worked at the park as well, but as Head of Entertainment, he was someone I’d never once come close to interacting with either. Oddly enough, my post as a balloon vendor didn’t require much face time with the higher-ups, and yet, here I sat as Derek Knightley’s new mentee.

I couldn’t believe it.

I received an email from his assistant that same day requesting a schedule of my classes and park shifts. I responded right away, fingers flying, and then hovered near my computer the rest of the night, waiting for directions for where and when I should expect my first meeting with Derek.

It was planned for one week later at a coffee shop on Castle Drive inside the park.

I knew next to nothing about Derek outside of his role in the park. Not his age, not his appearance—nothing. Though there were whispers that he was handsome, it seemed more like an urban legend than anything else. How could one human have that much luck? There were also whispers that Cal lived inside the castle, but no one had confirmed or denied that either. There was so much secrecy surrounding the Knightley family, and any rumor could catch fire, from the innocuous (Cal drinks his coffee with five teaspoons of sugar!) to the absurd (He acquired the capital to build the park from the Russian mob. Don’t cross him.).

The day of my meeting with Derek, I showed up at the coffee shop right on time in clothes I’d grabbed from a resale shop the week before. I was drowning in a navy pantsuit, and though I’d convinced myself I looked professional back in my dorm room, out there in the Georgia sun, I just felt like a sweaty mess. It didn’t help that my flats were half a size too big as well—Avery’s hand-me-downs. They kept sliding off when I walked, and I already had a nice fat blister developing on the back of my right heel.

My appearance came into sharp clarity when I caught my reflection in the coffee shop window. My too-long auburn hair hung in loose waves. My skin had a healthy glow—thank you, brisk walk in 90-degree weather—but the shade of red lipstick I’d bought at a drugstore the night before wasn’t doing me any favors. It brought out the pink undertones in my skin, resulting in me too closely resembling a cherry tomato. I wiped it off with the back of my hand as quickly as I could, but as I pulled open the door of the coffee shop, I was still conscious of the stain across my lips.

It was early morning—one hour before the park officially opened—so the coffee shop was empty except for other employees.

One man sat alone at a table with his attention focused on a laptop. He typed away furiously then paused, picked up a pencil, and scribbled quickly in a notebook.

He wasn’t just casually attractive. The sight of him grabbed me by the collar, as if to say, Look, you fool. Look!

He wore navy slacks, cool tennis shoes, and a white button-down tucked in and rolled to the elbows. No tie. He had brown hair, thick and trimmed shorter on the sides. There was minimal product in it, just enough to give it a sophisticated look.

His face was clean shaven. He had a strong jaw and dark lashes that fanned across his cheeks as his attention stayed down on his notebook. His concentration was unwavering. So was mine. I stared for so long I lost track of why I was there in the first place.

Ah yes, mentorship.

I jerked my gaze away from him and scanned the shop, looking for stereotypical signs of an executive: paunchy, suited, arrogant. There was a male barista and a man dressed up in a medieval jester’s costume, but everyone else was female. Unless Derek was late, my mentor was the man at the table.

My stomach squeezed tight as I gave in to the urge to take another look.

A man in a league of his own.

So the rumors about him were actually true then. I wondered if Cal was really in the Russian mob.

“Excuse me,” someone said, cutting around me to get inside the coffee shop.

I’d been blocking the door since my arrival, and it was high time I made a move.

There was no chance of Derek looking up at me, no chance of me getting to halfway commit to making a fool of myself before jumping in the deep end. He was too engrossed in his work to notice me until I was at his table, standing a foot away.

I cleared my throat and was about to speak when a feminine voice spoke up behind me.

“Iced Americano, no cream. If there’s too much ice, I’ll have them remake it.”

Derek’s hand shot out for the coffee but instead brushed my arm.

He jerked back. I jerked back. His assistant, however, did not get the memo, so we collided. Iced Americano spilled down the back of my pantsuit and a cascade of ice made my spine tingle. I yelped and danced around, shaking the coffee out of my clothes. The ensuing minutes after that were confusing for everyone. To Derek, it appeared as if I’d just sprung up from a hole in the ground beside his table. I’m sure he wondered how long I’d been there, quietly stalking him. I hadn’t had time to introduce myself, but we did that in the middle of the apologies and napkins and fresh drinks on the house, but it didn’t help much. When I finally took a seat across from him, I felt and looked like a wet slob someone had plucked from the dumpster out back.

“So you’re Ms. Atwood,” he said, using a napkin to wipe up the last drops of coffee from the table.

I nodded as I gathered my damp hair—soaked with coffee—and tried to knot it at my nape.

As soon as I let go, it fell like a sad lump down my back.


“I’m Derek. This is my assistant, Heather.”

The three of us sat at the table together, the two of them an odd coupling. Heather looked a few years older than Derek with thick-framed glasses, a small tablet, and a baby bump hidden carefully beneath a black sheath dress.

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