Royal's Arranged LoveBy: Sophia Lynn, Ana Adams
Katy snorted. “Come on. The road isn’t over yet. There are other schools that might have openings soon. Just grab the bus home before it gets much later. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Clara buttoned her work pants and pulled the white button-up over her tank top, not bothering to close it up. She hugged her friend before she slipped back through the kitchen, heading for an employee exit toward the front of the building.
The Rutgers Mansion was set back from the main road, a short walk down a winding asphalt path lined with lilies and low-hanging trees. Out in the cool night air, Clara released a deep, tired sigh. She’d been looking forward to this evening for far too long, pinning all her hopes and dreams to one conversation she’d imagined too many times to count.
Ging’s response today reiterated the silent truth flitting through the back of her mind like tadpoles in shallow water—there was no hope, no chance, no reason to even try to get out of the poverty that had plagued her whole life. Even so-called amazing opportunities were sure to flop, like this one.
And coming up against this unsavory truth in a place like the Rutgers Mansion? That was one final kick in the ribs. Especially amongst all the fancy people there. Especially compared to someone like Adrien, who probably had his pick of dates and rolled around in money as a hobby.
The thought of Adrien stirred something inside her, a longing laced with…nostalgia? He looked and felt like the man she’d dreamed of her whole life.
Headlights crested the path in front of her. She moved to the far side of the road to allow the car to pass. A black sedan crept by. One of the guests was dipping out early, judging by the tinted windows and the newness of the car.
It came to a stop about fifty feet in front of her, taillights glowing red. She kept her head down as she approached the car.
Adrien’s voice chilled her. She slowed her pace, wincing. Fuck. Prince Charming was waiting for her, but how would he react when he knew the truth?
“It’s the television star, already changed out of costume.” His voice was smoky yet firm. Busted.
She turned slowly on her heels. The back window was rolled down. Adrien watched her, an eyebrow lifted.
“Hey, waffle champ. I never said I was a television star.”
“You’re right. I just assumed, based on your beauty. Where are you heading?”
Butterflies erupted in her belly. “Home.”
“Why so soon? That party should be going on for another hour, at least.”
Defeat crumpled her. “My shift is over. Nowhere else to go but home.”
“Well, that’s awfully dreary for a Friday night.” His eyes sparkled. “Can I give you a ride, at least?”
A shiver ran up her spine. “You really don’t have to.”
“At this hour of night? It’s no trouble at all. I’d rather you get there quicker and safer than trudge along by yourself through the streets.”
As she opened her mouth to protest, something snapped inside her. Fuck it. Bad day, bad news, bad outlook. Why not get in a sexy stranger’s car, use his svelte sedan instead of her two legs and the San Fran transportation system? She needed the distraction—badly.
Clara hurried to the other side of the car. She slid into the back seat onto smooth leather, Adrien’s cologne greeting her. She offered a smile to the driver in front, who didn’t meet her eyes.
“Tell me where Mr. Pike should take you.”
She hesitated, mind blank. Something about this car, this man, and this driver felt like she was brushing up against a side of society she’d only ever heard about in movies. “Uh…on Fairview Lanes. On the south side.”
The driver nodded and the car rolled down the road. Adrien’s smile widened.
“So it seems to me you really are an actress.”
She gnawed at her lip. “Only at events like these, apparently. Trust me, I’m not getting a Golden Globe. It just…slipped out. I don’t normally lie.” Hadn’t she wished for this, after all? Turned back into the humble middle-class servant she was, caught red-handed by the prince.
“Well, Clara, who are you really?” He laced his fingers together, turning toward her. His attention was intense, sizzling over her.
She pinched her eyes shut, struggling to find the most attractive way to frame her life. “I, uh…well…I’m just…a regular girl.”
“Regular girls don’t work as caterers and then slip into the main event to hobnob. You had a goal. What was it?” His voice was firm, but he sounded amused. Like maybe this was impressive.
After she was silent for so long, Adrien added, “I’m only curious. It was a shame to see you go. I feel lucky that we ran into you.”