His Royal Highness

“I think you have…” Heather’s sentence trailed off as she pointed to the corner of her lips, trying to inform me gently that I had something on my face.

I swiped aggressively and came away with red lipstick. No doubt it was now even more smeared across my chin.

In hindsight, I should have excused myself to use the restroom, gathered my wits, and fixed my appearance, but at the time, I was too intimidated. I didn’t want to waste their time, and truthfully, I wasn’t sure I could perform the simple task of walking without my legs buckling underneath me. I’d have looked like a freshly born baby giraffe.

Derek was a lot for my teenage brain to take in.

Break him apart piece by piece and it was still a lot to process: heir to an empire, much older, drop-dead handsome, confident, assessing me from across the table in a way that made me want to fidget.

A ping sounded from Heather’s tablet and she swiped her finger across the screen.

“Mika wants to move your 11 to 10:15. I’ll see if we can accommodate her. You have twenty more minutes here and then you need to meet Food and Beverage at the north gate for an all-hands.”

While she spoke, Derek focused on me, conducting a careful study, like I was some rare bird he’d never encountered. Ah yes, this female’s mating habits include smeared lipstick and the stench of coffee grounds.

I shifted in my chair, slightly uncomfortable, but even still, I didn’t get the sense that he was being judgmental. Just…curious.

“Thank you, Heather. I’ll meet you outside in twenty,” he said, effectively dismissing her.

“But you asked me to take notes.”

“I don’t think it’ll be necessary.”

Without another word, she stood and left.

I nearly asked her to stay. We were an awkward trio, but without her, I didn’t have the courage to pull my gaze off the table.

“I’m sorry again about the coffee,” he said, his voice sure and resolute, confident even while apologizing. “Rest assured, we’ll get you set up with a new suit.”

My cheeks flamed. Please God, don’t ask where this one is from. He’d assume Goodwill was some kind of nice boutique. Is it pronounced Güdwíll?

“I had originally asked Heather to sit in on our meeting, but I think I might serve you better one on one. Today especially, we can just chat. No business.”

I swallowed, the task proving more difficult than usual.

“Should we start with names?” he continued. “I assume it’s fine to call you Whitney. Or would you prefer Ms. Atwood?”

The fact that he of all people knew not only my last name but also my first was completely mind-boggling. I’d been in the dorms for a week now. Classes hadn’t started yet. I’d barely ventured out of my room. I was supposed to have a roommate, but she’d forfeited her spot in the program last minute and they hadn’t assigned anyone to take her place yet. I’d spent the last seven days mostly by myself, reading ahead in my textbooks, finishing assignments, listening to voices carrying out into the hallway, homesick for a home that didn’t exist anymore.

I hadn’t introduced myself to one person, but Derek knew me.

“Whitney is fine,” I said, my voice shaky. I tried to clear my throat but was unsuccessful.

“Good. You can call me Derek. I don’t want these meetings to feel formal. The point is for us to develop a personal relationship.”

The blush on my cheeks doubled down. I wanted to cover my face with my hands to hide the effect he had on me. It was silly. I was being silly, but I couldn’t stop myself.

If Derek noticed, he didn’t let on. “So you’ve been getting settled in at the dorms. There’s quite a few of you in the program. Have you met any of your classmates?”

Shame washed over me. “I’ve met a few people.” Met as in passed in the communal bathroom on the way to brush my teeth.

At this point in our meeting, I still hadn’t made eye contact with him. It seemed like a Herculean task just to glance at his hands, cupping his drink. They were large, tanned, handsome if ever hands could be.

“All right,” he continued, almost amused. “I think we need to break the ice. I know the last few weeks have probably been difficult for you. I still remember when I first arrived at college. I didn’t think I’d be overwhelmed, but I was. Why don’t we turn the tables? You ask me questions. Anything you want.”

My eyes finally jerked up as a small laugh escaped me.

The idea of me interviewing him was hilarious.

His dimples popped as he leaned back, completely serious.

“I mean it. Shoot.”

I tried to think of questions that would make me sound educated and informed, on his level. I didn’t want him to think of me as a silly teenager. So, I sat and I thought. I knew I was smart. I’d excelled in high school and graduated at the top of my class. I’d worked at Fairytale Kingdom for three years already. There were questions I wanted to ask…but my brain went blank.

He leaned forward. “Nothing too intense. It’s early and I haven’t finished this coffee. Something simple.”

“How old are you?” I asked, the question flying out of me on impulse.

He hid a smirk. “28.”

Ten years my senior. He seemed even older.

“Does your grandfather live inside the park?”

His smirk spread wider. “Yes.”

“Inside Elena’s Castle?”

He took a sip of his coffee before answering in a tone dripping with mock severity. “That’s classified information. Ask something else.”

I was grinning then. Enjoying myself.

“Did you work here when you were my age?”

He nodded. “My very first job inside the park was selling balloons.”

I lit up with excitement. “That’s my job! Well…it was. Now that I’m in the internship program, I’ve been stationed inside the castle. I’ll help control the lines for the meet-and-greet sessions with Princess Elena.”

He seemed impressed. “That’s a great place to be. You’ll get experience with In Character employees, and come to think of it, managing that line might be one of the toughest jobs in the park.” He tilted his head. “It’s funny, you kind of look like her.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that. It was my hair mainly, and the feline shape of my pale green eyes. While stationed at my balloon stand, a few kids in the park had mistaken me for her, but Princess Elena was always played by someone older. Beautiful. Poised. I could have played Princess Elena’s kid sister with my rounded cheeks and the constellation of freckles across my nose.

I think he confused my silence as a sign of offense because he changed the subject. “You and I will have to figure out this mentorship together. I’ve never had a mentee, and to be honest, I don’t have a lot of time in my schedule, but I’d like to try to be a resource for you if you need one.”

“I’d like that,” I said, feeling shy again all of sudden.

“We’ll meet here again in a month. Your task before then is to make a friend in the program. You’ll need someone to lean on through the next four years.”

I nibbled on my lip before asking what I thought was a simple question.

“And you don’t count?”

The question was meant in innocence. What is a mentor if not a friend? But his brows furrowed slightly as he studied me quietly. Then Heather walked back in, interrupting our meeting. Derek never answered me one way or the other, but the truth is, he was the very first friend I made that fall.

For the next month, Derek and I exchanged emails a few times a week. In each one, he’d assign me a small task: read through this article on economics and management, listen to this podcast on hospitality trends in the US, skim through and take to heart The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. None of the assignments were graded or anything and Derek knew the mentorship program was mostly meant to be an easy one-hour blow-off credit, but I’d complete his tasks soon after he sent them, digesting the concepts and themes as best as possible and composing thoughtful emails back to him. In some ways, I felt like Derek’s equal, which was laughable considering the cavernous gap between my position in the company and his.

His emails were always time-stamped at odd hours. 4:30 AM. 9:20 PM. 1:23 AM. I wondered if he ever slept.

All of his subsequent tasks proved easier to accomplish than the first one he’d issued.

Making friends didn’t come naturally to me, but I could be outgoing in my job. Talking to strangers while dressed up in my Fairytale Kingdom uniform never seemed all that hard. Outside of work, though, I’d slink right back into my shell. I’d never thought of myself as a loner, but before college, I always had Avery. After school and on weekends, life always seemed to revolve around her. I’d never had time to notice my lack of friends.

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