Home > Fallen Heir (The Royals #4)(17)

Fallen Heir (The Royals #4)(17)
Author: Erin Watt

“Because it’s nobody’s business. Yeah, I wait tables at a diner. So what. Why is that something that needs to be spread around school? It’s hardly a big deal.”

Frustration has me leaning forward. I rest my forearms on my knees and study her intently. “Who are you, Hartley?”

Her fork pauses halfway to her mouth. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I looked you up—”

Just like that, her shoulders snap into a straight, angry line.

“Oh relax,” I say. “It’s not like I found any deep, dark secrets. All I know about you is that your dad ran for mayor and lost.”

The mention of her father casts a shadow across her face, and I find myself scanning her arms for bruises. Did her dad beat her and she ran away?

I try to fish for more information by saying, “And I found an article that says you have two sisters.”

Rather than confirm or deny that, she simply stares at me with the most tired expression I’ve ever seen. “Easton.” She pauses. “Why are you looking me up?” Another pause. “Why are you buying me dinner?” And another. “Why are you here? Why would you leave your big fancy house and spend your entire night waiting around for me? I’m surprised you weren’t robbed out there.”

I have to laugh. “I can take care of myself, babe. And to answer your question, I’m here because I like you.”

“You don’t even know me,” she says in frustration.

“I’m trying to!” Feeling that same frustration, I slam my palm against my thigh.

Hartley flinches at the loud smacking sound. Fear darts across her gaze like a skittish rabbit.

I quickly raise both hands in a signal of surrender. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Holy hell, maybe she was being abused at home. Or being abused now, by someone else. Should I call my dad?

“Is someone…hurting you?” I ask cautiously.

“No,” she answers. “No one’s hurting me. I live here alone and I don’t need help. I’m managing fine on my own.”

“This doesn’t look fine to me.” I wave my hand around the apartment.

“Really? And you wonder why I don’t tell people at Astor where I work? Or where I live? I like my place here.” She shakes her head in annoyance. “It’s not fancy, but it’s mine. I provide for myself and I’m damn proud of it.”

“You’re right.”

My admission catches her off guard. “What?”

“Hey, I can admit that I made a mistake. I actually admire the hell out of you. If I didn’t, I sure as shit wouldn’t be following you around, bringing you food.”

She relaxes, but her expression doesn’t entirely lose its guardedness. “You’re not the kind of person I want to hang around, Easton.”

Something jolts up my chest and stabs me in the heart.

“I know that sounds harsh.” She’s totally oblivious to the effect her words had on me. “But I keep trying to tell you—you’re too much trouble. I don’t have time for that.”

Despite the burn of indignation in my blood, I know she’s right. I am trouble. I’m the Royal screw-up who gets into fights and drinks too much and pisses everyone off all the time.

But even though it hurts to find out that she clearly views me as completely unsubstantial, I appreciate her honesty. She’s not like Claire or the other girls I’ve been with, who fawn all over me and forgive me no matter what I do, since Easton Royal can do no wrong in their eyes.

Hartley isn’t afraid to tell me everything she doesn’t like about me. And I can’t even be mad at her, because all these bad things she sees in me are the same things I hate about myself.

“All I care about is making sure I have somewhere to sleep every night, which means making money,” she says frankly.

“If you need money, I’ll give you money.”

Fuck. Wrong thing to say.

Her fork clutters to the plate. “Did you seriously just say that? What, you think if you hand over some cash, I won’t have to work as much and therefore I’ll have more time to spend with you?” She sounds incredulous.

“I’m sorry. That was a dumb thing to say.” Shame tickles my throat, because that’s how we Royals fix problems—by throwing money at them.

But at the same time, the judgment in her storm-gray eyes needles at me. She’s not like Ella, who grew up dirt-poor. Or Valerie, who comes from the less well-off Carrington side and is forced to accept handouts from her aunt and uncle in order to attend a good school.

Hartley’s family is rich. She might not be living with them right now, but she sure as hell lived with them before.

“I’ve been to your house, remember?” I find myself snapping. “You might not have a steady cash flow right now, but your family comes from money. So don’t look at me like I’m a spoiled brat and you’re the hardened coupon clipper who’s been struggling her whole life. For fuck’s sake. You were at some fancy boarding school up until a few months ago.”

Those gray eyes, rather than blaze in anger like I thought they would, once again convey exhaustion. “Yeah, I did have money before. But I don’t anymore. And I’ve been in this apartment since school ended last May. That’s only four months, long enough for me to realize that I used to take everything for granted. Life isn’t about boarding schools and fancy clothes and mansions. I learned a hard lesson when I came back to Bayview.” She looks me over. “I don’t think you’ve learned that lesson yet.”

“What?” I scoff. “How to be poor? Is that what it’ll take for you to be nicer to me? If I trade in my ride for a bus ticket and see how the other side lives for a while?”

“I’m not asking you to do that. I don’t care what you do, Easton. I’m not here to help you or hold your hand while you learn various life lessons. I’m just trying to take care of myself.” She takes a quick sip of water. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you don’t even cross my mind.”


That fucking stings.

But the painful sensation fades once I register something—the false note in her voice. The way she’s studiously avoiding my eyes.

“I don’t believe you,” I declare. “I do cross your mind.”

She puts down her glass and rises unsteadily to her feet. “It’s time for you to go, Easton.”

“Why? Because I’m getting to you?” With a look of challenge, I stand up, too.

“You’re getting on my nerves, that’s what you’re doing.”

“No. I’m getting to you,” I repeat.

I step closer, and although she tenses up, she doesn’t move away. I don’t miss the way her breathing quickens, and I swear I see her pulse throbbing in the base of her throat. And the need in her eyes. She wants me, or she at least wants what I can give her, but she’s too proud or stubborn or frustrated to ask for it. Because she thinks she doesn’t need affection or closeness or connections.

I’m starting to figure her out. Not her past. Not the problems with her family, but what makes her tick.

When she’s scared and hurt, she lashes out. Someone less stubborn than me would’ve left by now. But that’s why she’s alone—because she doesn’t have anyone in her life willing to stick it out with her.

I know what it’s like to be alone. I know what it’s like to want and not have. I don’t want Hartley to feel that way. Not anymore. Not while I’m around.

“I’m gonna do it,” I say softly.

Her gaze whips up to meet mine. “Do what?”

“Kiss you.”

Her breath hitches. The air stretches thin between us, like when you’re up high in the clouds with nothing but a couple inches of metal between you and the big blue sky. Excitement spreads through my veins as I look into her eyes. I see the same anticipation in response.

“Easton—” she says, but I don’t know whether it’s a warning or a plea.

And it’s too late. My mouth is already on hers.

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