His Royal Highness

Now, it was at the forefront of my mind every day when I’d walk into the dorm cafeteria and realize I had no one to sit with. I had noticed another girl sitting by herself, her head bent low over a book every time I passed her by. I fantasized about waltzing up to her and introducing myself, but I never did. The idea of it nearly made me sick.

I told Derek about her in an email once. He encouraged me to talk to her; in fact, he said, “If she likes to read that much, she’d make a great friend.”

I didn’t work up the courage until a week later. Hopped up on an extra cup of caffeine, tired of spending lunch holed up in my dorm room alone, and aware that I was only a few days away from my second meeting with Derek (and wanting to make him proud), I gathered my food from the buffet line and walked directly toward the booth where the girl sat reading.

“Hi. Is this seat taken?”

Her head jerked up in surprise. Her black hair, trimmed short at the base of her chin, was set off by her fair skin. She had long front bangs straight from the ’60s and startling blue eyes—blue eyes that were staring up at me in shock.

Abort.

Run!

Like a trapped animal, I searched around me for an exit. Though the cafeteria doors were yards away, a row of windows were near enough for me to dive through at my own peril.

Then she finally spoke.

“Oh, um, no, it’s not taken.” She dragged her backpack off the table and set it down on the seat beside her. “Go for it.”

I sat down. She closed her book. There was silence so loud I started to sweat. I knew I needed to conjure up small talk, but the part of my brain capable of that function was currently screaming at me to stop being weird.

“Were you reading ahead for class?” I finally asked, nodding toward her textbook.

She seemed hesitant to admit she was.

“I have been too. Honestly, with the semester in full swing, I’m so nervous about getting behind. I’ve tried to stay on top of our assignments.”

She nodded, unveiling a small smile. “Where are you stationed in the park?”

“Elena’s Castle.”

Her brows perked up. “Really? That sounds cool. I wanted to work in the Costuming Department, but I got placed in València over near the Enchanted Forest instead. I’ve had a few shifts where I shadowed the chef or ma?tre d', but most of the time, I’m just bussing tables.”

“No way! That’s still awesome. I’ve never even been inside.”

She smiled, viewing her position with new enthusiasm now that I had deemed it cool. “Sometimes at the end of my shifts, they let me take home leftover food.”

My jaw dropped. The restaurant was Michelin-starred. Reservations were based on a lottery system. There were news stories all the time of celebrities getting turned away.

We stayed there talking through the remainder of lunch. Small talk gave way to frenzied chatter, each of us talking over the other in a rush to get out all the words we’d been swallowing the last few weeks.

In the middle of that chaos, I found out Carrie wasn’t living in the dorms.

“They were booked up by the time I sent in my housing request. I’m staying with a family friend about twenty minutes from the park.”

I nearly leapt across the table with excitement. “I don’t have a roommate! They never showed up, and to be honest, I’m not even sure administration realizes I’m living by myself.”

“Really?”

I nodded, wheels spinning.

Neither one of us thought it was weird to suggest rooming together within thirty minutes of meeting. In fact, we were both on board. We left the cafeteria side by side and marched to the admin office together. My first task from Derek was officially complete.





For my second meeting with Derek, I wore an emerald green wrap dress similar to the one I’d seen Heather wear the month before. It was brand new and courtesy of the Knightley Company. An electronic gift card had hit my inbox three weeks prior, sent from Heather to make up for the coffee incident. $200 to Nordstrom. I’d stretched every penny of it so it would cover a new dress, a fitted blazer off the clearance rack, and a pair of comfortable yet stylish flats that actually fit. I’d purchased the same pair for Carrie. When I surprised her with them later back in our dorm, her jaw dropped.

“You didn’t have to do that!”

I gave her a pointed look. “I think I tried on just about every piece of clothing inside Nordstrom while you sat inside that cramped dressing room. It’s the least I can do.” I push the shoes toward her. “Besides, now we match.”

The dress was professional and pretty, fitted with a tie at my waist. I felt like a woman about to charge into a boardroom and bark orders to cowering underlings.

However, my confidence drained as soon as I took a step inside the coffee shop. Derek was at the same table as before, though this time, he stood surrounded by a group of people. He was the sun, and they were planets orbiting, shuffling, vying to be the closest one to him. They listened as he spoke. If possible, they would have snatched his words out of thin air and stuffed them down their throats. I wondered if I looked that desperate when I was near him.

Of course I did.

I couldn’t work up the courage to infiltrate the group. Tap tap. Hello, mind if I cut in?

Instead, I started to head for the counter so I could order a coffee and ask them to glue the lid in place so there could be no danger of me meeting Derek with coffee spilled across my clothes for a second time.

I was halfway to the counter when Derek’s authoritative tone cut through the hum of conversation.

“Whitney.”

Heads turned in my direction.

I was slow to look over my shoulder, as if even after a month of near-constant emails, I wasn’t absolutely certain I was the Whitney he was calling out to.

When our eyes met, he nodded for me to join him.

“Heather already got your coffee.”

Short of feigning a bathroom emergency, I had no choice but to pivot and head straight for them. Oh goodie. Strolling toward that group of young professionals, I felt the weight of a hundred judgmental stares. It’s a wonder I kept my footing. Their thoughts were projected on scrolling marquees. Who is she? Why is Heather buying her coffee?

Then I reached the table and Derek made it clear he and I had a meeting. They scattered quickly, but not before desperately throwing out final parting words: “I’ll shoot you an email about that request!” “I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the expansion.” “I’ll get in contact with Heather about setting up a meeting!”

Once they were gone, Derek tugged my chair out for me, an act of chivalry I’d never before experienced. For a moment, we stood a smidge too close. His size threw me off. You see a man that tall and toned in an action film and you think, Run. But Derek was no tough guy, at least not that I’d seen.

He pointed to my coffee, sitting before me on the table.

“Heather made me promise I wouldn’t spill it on you before she left.”

I couldn’t meet his eyes when I smiled. Instead, I watched him from beneath my lashes as he rounded the table. The chair that made me feel small looked almost diminutive under him.

“We have twenty minutes,” he told me, sounding nearly apologetic.

I wanted to lean forward and start speaking at a rapid-fire pace. Twenty minutes wasn’t enough. It was hardly anything.

Derek didn’t waste a second.

“I brought that book for you,” he said, reaching down into his beaten leather messenger bag.

Without Reservations by J.W. Marriott, Jr., slid across the table.

I noticed the yellow tabs stuck between the pages.

“Those are the sections I think you could learn the most from,” he explained. “They’ll help with your profile.”

“I’ll read the whole thing,” I assured him, knowing I would.

I wanted nothing more than to impress him, to soak up every small piece of information he felt compelled to offer. He nodded and I noticed a glint of respect in his gaze. He admired my work ethic the same way I did his.

The book was for a class assignment. I had to profile an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry, and Derek had been the one to suggest I write about J.W. Marriott, Jr. He’d first been assigned the book by a professor at Princeton.

“How are things going with your new roommate?” he asked after I slid the book onto my lap. Both hands wrapped around it like it was a prized possession.

“Good. She helped me pick out this dress.” I glanced down at it then shot him a crooked smile. “Thank you, by the way.” His brows furrowed in confusion and I hurried to explain, “Heather sent over a gift card to make up for the coffee-stained suit.”

“Ah.” Understanding dawned on his perfectly honed features. “I’m glad.”

Then, for some reason, silence clung to us. He glanced at the dress for only a moment before reaching for his coffee.

I turned red and tried desperately to come up with another subject for conversation. It felt like I was waiting for him to give his opinion of the dress, but that would be inappropriate. He was my mentor. As long as I was professionally dressed, it was irrelevant what I wore.

Oh god, does he think I’m waiting for a compliment? Speak! Say something.

I held up the book. “Thank you for this, by the way. Everyone else in the class is still floundering for who they’ll choose.”

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