His Royal Highness

“I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one of them profiled him as well.”

“Well, I’ll just have to do it better.”

We jumped into a discussion about my assignment and how I should approach it. There was no mention of what he thought about the dress, which I thought was for the best. I wasn’t sure I’d survive a compliment from Derek.

Over the following weeks, Derek and I communicated often, but the topics always stayed professional. We discussed my internship and coursework at school, how I was doing in my classes, what his role as Head of Entertainment looked like. Once, I shadowed him for an entire day. In the morning, we met outside of the coffee shop, and much to my annoyance, Heather remained by our side all day. He barely noticed I was there, too focused on his work. He met with the Head of Casting and discussed the planned performances for the holiday season, ensuring staff was hired and properly trained. We ran from there to another meeting, this one conducted in an office overlooking Castle Drive. Heather told me to sit quietly in the corner, and I did, watching Derek command the room. I doubt I even remembered to blink. I doubt I could have repeated a single sentence uttered. I was too infatuated. I understood that day why Derek paired his slacks with stylish tennis shoes instead of loafers. Though my new flats were comfortable, we covered the entire area of the park at least three times over, and when I made it back to my dorm that night, my feet were killing me.

I looked forward to our next monthly meeting at the coffee shop like it was something special. I marked the date on my calendar with little red stars. Sleep was out of the question on the night before we met. I lay awake, imagining him sitting at our table, waiting for me, agonizing over how I would greet him. Hi Derek! Heya Derek! Hey there, bud.

I was lucky. Carrie simply tolerated her mentor. She was an executive in the legal department, a mom of five with barely enough time in her day to use the restroom on a regular basis. “Once, she made me go with her and talked to me through the stall!” Carrie lamented.

She only met with Carrie when it was absolutely necessary to fulfill the course requirement. Beyond that, they never spoke. Carrie would see me lying in bed in our dorm room, reading the books Derek had lent me and moan about how much she wished Derek was her mentor too. The idea of having to share him made my stomach ache so hard I’d nearly double over.

I told myself I was only territorial of our time together because I was wringing invaluable knowledge from him, but in truth, it was more pitiful than that. From our very first encounter, my head and my heart were on two different pages when it came to Derek Knightley. Ten years my senior, a full-grown man in a position of power in the company I worked for—logic told me to crush my burgeoning romantic feelings for him. My heart thought logic could go to hell.

My heart caught a break the week before Thanksgiving. On my way to my fourth monthly meeting with Derek, I received a phone call from my parents. We spoke every now and then, but always at night, when they knew I was home from class and work. A call in the middle of the day had me worried. My mind immediately jumped to worst-case scenarios about Avery, but my alarm bells weren’t necessary. She was still fit as a fiddle, but they weren’t going to be able to make it down to Georgia for Thanksgiving.

The news devastated me.

I hadn’t seen them since they left for New York at the end of summer. I’d been using Thanksgiving as a lifeline in my head, though I didn’t realize how profoundly until they yanked it away.

I knew Avery hadn’t landed the role in the off-Broadway play she’d auditioned for months ago, and her agent had her auditioning for any role he could find. He was hopeful she’d land one soon. “He says your sister has the potential to be a real star!” My parents told me it wasn’t a good time to travel. They needed to focus—on Avery. I would have just suggested I fly up to visit them instead, but I couldn’t. The holiday season is a busy time for Fairytale Kingdom with so many children on break from school. Upon accepting my position in the internship program, I’d agreed I would be able to work through the holidays.

I hurried off the phone, both worried that I was late for my meeting with Derek and too upset to effectively articulate how disappointed I was that they weren’t coming down to Georgia. There was no mention of Christmas plans, but my gut knew the odds weren’t in my favor there either.

After a steadying breath, I tucked my phone into my bag and rushed into the coffee shop just as Heather was leaving. We nodded to one another, but I didn’t meet her eyes. I barely had a hold on my emotions. I was already sitting down in the chair across from Derek before he even looked up. My hair shielded one side of my face as I busied myself with getting a book out of my backpack to give back to him.

“Hey Whitney.”

His voice, though husky and masculine, had such a polite edge to it, an edge that easily pierced my defenseless heart.

I didn’t speak—couldn’t speak, not with my throat so tight.

“What’s wrong?”

I immediately tried to rearrange my features to better conceal my mood. “What? Oh. It’s nothing.” I slid the book across the table and maintained eye contact with its spine. “Thank you for letting me borrow this,” I said, trying to push the conversation into neutral territory.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. Fine. It’s a silly family thing. Nothing worth sharing. I really liked that book, by the way.”

I wiped viciously at my cheeks, angry with the few tears for giving me away. There was already such a distinct age difference between us, and crying would undo all the weeks of work I’d done to present myself in a mature light.

“I have silly family stuff too. You’re not alone in that respect.”

He was trying to lighten my load, but I didn’t need him doing that. Nothing good would come from me crying on his shoulder.

“I bet it might even be sillier than yours,” he goaded. I could hear the teasing smile in his words, but I knew better than to look up. His face was still altogether too much to handle at times, especially in that moment.

“It’s not a competition,” I chided.

“Says the person who might lose.”

I couldn’t believe we were joking about something this serious. I was upset about my family. Wounded. I didn’t want him making light of it. I wanted to feel sorry for myself.

He began anyway, ignoring my plans to mope. “My mom passed away when I was young and last year, my father remarried for the fourth time. I haven’t met his new wife, though I hear she’s lovely. About my age. She’s French and doesn’t speak a lick of English. Of course, my father doesn’t speak a word of French, so you can imagine how well they get on at dinner.”

I bit down on a smile trying to creep up.

“He wants nothing to do with the Knightley Company, though he’s happy to cash in on my grandfather’s hard work. He and my new stepmom”—he shuddered when he said the word—“live in the Bahamas. I haven’t seen him in a few years. The last time we spoke, he told me he was taking a spiritual journey to cut ties with earthly constructs and distance himself from harmful energy.”

“That’s…” I failed to come up with the right thing to say. Then it hit me. I cracked a smile. “Silly.”

He smiled then, a full, megawatt, steal-your-heart-and-keep-it-forever smile.

I had to look away.

“My parents don’t live here either,” I volunteered. “They moved away right when I started school.”

“That must have been difficult. A lot of change all at once.”

I nodded, wondering if he remembered how quiet I had been the first time we met. With Carrie by my side, I didn’t feel so alone anymore, but I still found it hard to come out of my shell at times.

“They’re in New York City.”

“For work?”

“For my sister, Avery.” I was playing with my nail, picking at invisible polish to avoid meeting his eyes. “It’s not the first time they’ve moved for her.”

“When was the first time?”

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