All-American Princess by Maggie Dallen

All-American Princess

One

Lila

From my spot at the window I had a perfect view of the ghost town that spread below my feet. Our new apartment overlooked the main road, which was a whopping three blocks long and consisted of a diner, a hardware store, and about twelve antique shops.

The residents of Pinedale had the audacity to call it Broadway. Naming this sad street after Manhattan’s iconic, bustling theater district was surely someone’s idea of a joke.

Of course, that would mean the local yokels had some sense of irony. If anyone in this inbred, halfwit town even knew what the word irony meant, I’d have fainted in disbelief. My sister and I had seen a few of the slack-jawed townsfolk on our drive in from the airport, but not a single soul graced the sidewalk on this particular Friday afternoon.

The only thing missing from the scene below was a tumbleweed.

I wrinkled my nose and turned to face my cellphone, which was charging on the floor in the corner at the only electrical outlet that worked in this soon-to-be condemned apartment. “It’s like the zombie apocalypse out there, Daddy.”

My phone was set on speaker so I could unpack as we talked, and my father’s sigh echoed throughout the nearly empty apartment. “It’s Montana, Princess,” he said for the millionth time. “What did you expect?”

I shrugged, even though he couldn’t see it, and traced a heart in the dust that covered the windowsill. I hadn’t known what to expect, but even in my worst nightmares it certainly hadn’t been as bad as this.

The driver who’d picked me up at the airport and driven me out to this rural hellhole had described Pinedale’s downtown as quaint and charming.

Miserable and forgotten seemed far more accurate. Pinedale was the land before time, the town that the rest of the world had forgotten. This was where trends came to die. We were about as far from the center of the universe as one could get and still be in the Northern Hemisphere.

By ‘the center of the universe,’ I obviously meant Los Angeles.

“This place smells like dead people,” I informed my father, brushing off my dusty fingers as I turned away to assess the apartment. “I’m pretty sure there are corpses buried under the floorboards.”

“Delilah.” My father’s voice took on a warning tone. He was reaching his breaking point—no one ever called me Delilah except for my father, and he only ever used my full name when he was running out of patience with me.

So, pretty much all the time.

“Yes, Daddy?” I said sweetly.

He sighed again. “You won’t be there for long.”

I took a deep breath and relaxed my shoulders. It was true. I wouldn’t be here long. One week, if I could manage it. Two, tops. I’d be back in my own home by the time all my friends got back from summer break.

I gripped the edge of the windowsill behind me at the thought of all my friends having fun while I was here. In hell. “I don’t see why I had to come.”

This was a conversation we’d had before… multiple times. Sometimes, I couldn’t help myself when it came to my father. I’d always had this sick impulse to see how far I could push him before he broke. A therapist once told me it was a sort of defense mechanism. A preemptive strike, if you will.

Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. But in this instance, I could almost positively say I wasn’t trying to be preemptive about anything. It was more a case of my ego needing one more stroke. “I still don’t see why Tess can’t do this on her own.”

If I’d been hoping to hear how my father needed my particular finesse, my way with people, my charm and my flair—I was doomed to disappointment. Not only that, I was toeing the edge of my father’s temper.

His answering silence was a warning in and of itself.

I turned to watch the phone warily as I waited for a response. My father was not one to trifle with, and his tone was frosty when he spoke again. “I’ll have Tess find better accommodations if you think you’ll be there that long.”

I scowled at the phone, but of course my silent response went unnoticed. Probably for the best. We’d been over this more times than I could count. No one got anything for free in my family, not even dutiful daughters. We all earned our keep, and that’s all this was. A job. One which I would do without complaint. Okay fine, without an excessive amount of whining, at least—and then I’d call it a day. I took a deep breath and gave my father the response he wanted to hear, “We won’t be here long enough to need a new place, Daddy.”

“That’s my princess.” The pride in his voice warmed me even though I knew he was just buttering me up. Right now, he needed me more than I needed him.

My father’s whole plan to reboot the hit primetime drama Love on the Range was dependent on me accomplishing my mission.

I was here to convince Brandon MacMillan to reprise the role of Colt Ranger, the part his father Frank MacMillan had made a household name back in the day.

Brandon had been a star in his own right—a child star but beloved nonetheless. He’d played the part of Colt Ranger’s son, and fans had eaten it up. A real-life father and son playing father and son? It didn’t get much cuter than that. Adorableness aside, Frank MacMillan and his family personified the American dream. There was the aw-shucks, down-home, humble rancher making it big in Hollywood alongside his fresh-faced, apple pie-making wife and their cherubic son. The MacMillans were basically a PR wet dream.

Right up until Frank MacMillan died of an accidental drug overdose anyway.

But even with that dark cloud hanging over them, the MacMillans were still a household name. If anything, the tragic accident had made Frank a legend and his son the beloved heir to that legacy.

My father’s plan was to bring the show back, with America’s favorite son taking over the role that his dad had made famous. There was already buzz about a reboot, but its success hinged on getting as much of the original cast to return as possible. All the other key players were on board, but it was the role of Colt Ranger that everyone cared about most. He was the heart and soul of the show, and to replace the late, great Frank MacMillan was sacrilege to some of the more hardcore fans. But even that loyal tribe could be brought to love the reboot if Brandon MacMillan were to take over the iconic role. He was the only person who made sense, and the only one Frank’s diehard fans wouldn’t resent.

So, basically, Brandon MacMillan was the linchpin in my father’s grand plan. He wouldn’t settle for anything less than success with this mission, and it was up to me to make it happen. Once I convinced Brandon to return to Hollywood, I could go back home with Brandon on my arm and a starring role in the series reprisal.

Being the executive producer’s daughter had its perks, but like I said—we all had to work for what we got. My father was a big believer in work ethic, which might have been commendable if his definition of ‘work ethic’ didn’t currently coincide with the job description of an escort.

I’m not ordering you to sleep with him. That was my father’s response when I’d accused him of whoring me out. Just pretend to like him; go out on some dates with him. Let him see how good life could be if he cameback home.

It seemed my father’s standard tactics of persuasion had been stonewalled at every turn. Sending in his teenage daughter in the hopes of appealing to Brandon’s hormones was the next step. I’d love to say this was as low as he’d ever stooped, but anyone who’d ever heard of my father would spot that lie a million miles away.

No one became as successful as my dad without getting his hands dirty. And his daughters’ hands dirty, and his wife’s hands dirty...

To be a Devereaux was a dirty job, but it came with some epic perks.

I turned back to look out at the dismal overcast day in this thriving metropolis. It was those perks I needed to focus on now. I had to keep my eye on the prize if I was going to make it through this stint in Siberia.

Why Brandon and his mother had chosen to come back here to live after Frank’s death? I wish I knew. Maybe it was nostalgia or something. This was where Frank had been born and raised and where his family spent all their time when they weren’t on set.

Still… they could have gone anywhere, and they chose this? I eyed the abandoned street with a sniff, but a flicker of movement just below my window caught my eye. When I looked directly down I saw someone move into my line of sight. A guy.

He tilted his head up as if he could feel my stare, and I was forced to amend my observation. He wasn’t just some guy. He was a hot guy.

Young, with short dark hair, sharp features, and a body that looked to be tall and lean. He was so my type. Handsome but rough around the edges—like one of the rocker guys I used to bring around on the weekends when I stayed at my mom’s place.

I loved to freak her out by making her think I was going to be the next Lindsay Lohan. And then there was the fact that her live-in boyfriend Kevin pretty much crapped himself whenever one of those guys walked into his pristine white, art-deco living room.

Really, it was a win-win.

I couldn’t tell if this guy saw me or if he was just squinting up at a reflection in the window. If he saw me he didn’t smile or nod or give any other sign that he’d just spotted a new girl in town.

Obviously, he was blinded by the light.

I mean, not to toot my own horn but, you know, toot toot. It was safe to say that I was the hottest piece this town had ever seen. Blonde hair, blue eyes, with a lean build and just the right amount of curves, I’d gotten the best of my supermodel mother with the brains of my cutthroat father. Thankfully, I hadn’t gotten stuck with his looks.

Now, Tess on the other hand…

“Daddy, be sure to take your medicine. Maria said you’ve been forgetting,” my sister called out as she walked into the living room with her arms full of shopping bags so her face was partially hidden.

“I will, ladybug,” Daddy called out.

Maria was my father’s housekeeper and the only person he listened to about stuff like remembering to make a doctor’s appointment or taking his heart medication. She pretty much took over Tess’s role of being Daddy’s caretaker when my sister wasn’t around to coddle him.

To clarify, Tess and I were half-sisters. She was older and had the bad luck of getting stuck with my dad’s mousy brown hair and astigmatism. He’d had his corrected with Lasik but not Tess. She wore her glasses proudly, and the same went for her flat brown hair and her lack of a body. The girl lived to flaunt her sub-par genes.

That was probably why she was so determined to transfer to a college in the Northeast. There she could spend half the year hiding her pasty-white skin under those oversized wool cardigans she loved so much.

In true Tess fashion, she stumbled over nothing in the sparsely furnished apartment. I darted over to her and took one of the bags before she could spill our groceries for the week.

One week. Maybe two. That was all I’d need to get this job done. Then I could go back to my normal life and leave this sad miserable excuse of a town far behind.

Tess sniffed, shoved her glasses up her nose, and shot me a suspicious glare in lieu of a thank you.

I sighed and walked away toward the kitchen. It was impossible to do anything nice for Tess. The girl was paranoid most of the time and a wet blanket all of the time.

Like right now, for example.

“Daddy, please tell Lila that she needs to be nice to the townspeople if she stands any chance with Brandon.”

I shot her a withering look. One less-than-pleasant remark about inbreeding and apparently I’d made an enemy for life. “He was the taxi driver,” I muttered. “It’s not like he lives here.”

“Montana is one big small town, Princess.” My father’s tone had turned teacherly, which was a step up from frigid but still not as good as the way he spoke when he was buttering me up.

“She’s going to get us driven out of town before she even has a chance to talk to him,” Tess added. She ignored my glare as she unloaded the groceries.

“You’re just annoyed because Daddy trusts me to bring Brandon back and not you.” I said it under my breath so Daddy wouldn’t hear as I snagged a box of pasta and put it away in the pantry.

She rolled her eyes as she glanced over at me. “Oh please. Like I’d want that. You’re the one who wants to be an actress, Lila, not me.”

“That’s only because you don’t have the looks,” I shot back.

“Girls.” Our father clearly got the gist of what was happening on our end because his voice sounded weary.

Tess raised her voice so he could better hear. “I was just telling Lila how happy I am with this new arrangement. Lying and manipulating isn’t my strong suit.” Unlike you, she mouthed. She added a saccharine sweet smile for my benefit.

And Daddy thought she was the mature one.

“Tess, you have plenty of strengths,” our father said. As always, he leapt to placate daughter dearest.

“Exactly,” I said with a smile just as fake as hers. “Like babysitting me, for example. Whatever would we do without you?”

“That’s not the only reason I’m here,” she snapped as her lips curled up in a sneer that I was pretty sure matched my own. Neither of us were happy when Daddy put her in charge of me. At best, it led to nonstop bickering. At worst, the cops were called because of a prank gone wrong.

In my defense, that only happened once, and how was I supposed to know that Tess’s shellfish allergy was that severe?

“Tess, I was just telling Lila that this won’t be for long,” my dad said, all of the exhaustion gone from his voice now that the ever-perfect Tess was here to save the day.

“I don’t mind if it is. I like it here in Pinedale; it’s charming,” Tess said sweetly. Too sweetly. I shot her a glare, and her answering smirk had me fighting the urge to smack her.

I wouldn’t because she would totally hit me back—trust me, I knew this from experience. The girl might be bookish and meek, but she threw a mean right hook.

Of course, Daddy didn’t know that. He thought Tess was the good one. Ha!

“That’s great, ladybug. Hey, while you’re there maybe you could keep an eye out for some good investment property.”

“That’s a great idea, Daddy.”

That’s a great idea, Daddy. I mouthed the words back to her with an admittedly immature pout before puckering up my lips, pretending to kiss his butt.

It may have been immature, but it was true. Tess was the ultimate kiss-up.

Tess was also the nerd in our family—the one who voluntarily went to school for some boring business degree, and whose wildest dreams included working for my father as a business analyst.

I also wanted to work for my father, but I was going to be a star, thank you very much. What was the point of having a Hollywood emperor as a father if I couldn’t become an A-list celebrity?

Of course, Tess didn’t have A-list looks, so maybe she was just being realistic. Still, she could have found some career that didn’t involve being super pretty. She could have gone into fashion or makeup or something. Or maybe even been a screenwriter or a producer. They could totally look like dogs and still be powerful in L.A.

Instead, Tess crunched numbers. Happily.

Sometimes, she seriously made me sick.

“There’s some land for sale near the MacMillan ranch, actually,” Tess said, her eyes lighting up in a way that made me groan. It meant she and our father were about to go off on a conversation about boring business that had nothing to do with me.

I reached for my clutch purse that was sitting on top of a stack of boxes. The rest of the boxes would arrive in a couple of days, but it was up to me and Tess to do our own unpacking. “I’m out,” I said.

“Where?” Tess called.

I paused by the door. “I’m going to check out this charming new town of ours.”

She sneered.

“Bye, Daddy,” I called out.

“Bye, Princess.”

I heard his reply as I shot out the door and down the narrow, depressing staircase. Our apartment was above the hardware store, and the family that owned it were our landlords. Tess was the one who’d rented the place, and when I’d stepped in and cringed at the décor—or rather, the lack of décor—she’d given me a tedious lecture about how hard it was to find a rental at such short notice and blah blah blah.

Whatever. All I knew was there were some things that needed to be addressed before I would unpack my belongings. I’d rather stay in that one dumpy motel on the outskirts of town than live in a place that had mouse droppings on the floor and fluorescent lighting in the bathroom.

The hardware store shared the same awful lighting—no surprise there. I cringed a bit as I eyed the sea of plaid and denim that congregated near the registers. They all stopped talking and turned to face me as I stepped close.

Look away, yokels, I wanted to say. Nothing to see here.

But I couldn’t say that because as much as I hated to admit it, Tess had a point when she’d said I’d have to play nice. This was a small town, and from what I could tell, small towns were the societal equivalent of a Twitter meme. A single hissy fit, and it would go viral. The last thing I needed was for Brandon MacMillan to hear something bad about me before I had a chance to charm him.

So, I pasted on a smile, flashed my pearly white teeth, and politely made my way past the slack-jawed Neanderthals to the counter. An older middle-aged guy stood behind it, with a weathered face and a smattering of gray at his temples and in his beard. “What can I do for you, darlin’?”

“Uh, I’m the new tenant upstairs?” I adopted Tess’s sweet, ingratiating tone. The one that made it sound like she was forever asking a question, too uncertain and fragile to make a comment without an inflection at the end. It was the tone she used with hotel desk clerks and waiters when she was trying to get her way. Tess was a kill-them-with-kindness sort.

I was not.

“Of course!” The older man grinned, and it made his whole face crease into deep-set lines. “The Baker girls.”

Baker was Tess’s mother’s last name—it was the name that she’d taken to keep some distance from my father so she could stand on her own two feet. As far as acts of independence went, it was about as effective as fighting a bear with a flyswatter.

I used my mother’s name when it suited me—like when I was using her credit card to buy myself a birthday present—but I had no problem using my father’s name to open doors.

Unfortunately, my father and Tess had decided that while I was here, I would go by Tess’s mother’s name as well to give me some anonymity until I was ready to reveal my true identity to Brandon.

We don’t want to scare him off, my father had explained. ‘Him’ being Brandon, of course. My mark. My target.

Anyway, all this was to say, I smiled even wider at the Baker girls comment and nodded stupidly. Yup, that’s me. Just your average hick from nowheresville.

“I’m Don Carlton,” the man said. “I own this place.” He looked around the hardware store proudly, an emperor gazing out over his domain. I followed his gaze, wondering idly if there was some magical kingdom here I couldn’t see. All I could detect was a dingy old store filled with nails and tools.

“How’s the apartment working out for you?” he asked.

My smile felt frozen as he and the local Greek chorus waited for my response. “Uh…” Your apartment is a hellhole. It should be boarded up and quarantined.

Somehow I doubted that would go over well.

He cut off any polite lie I might have come up with, the older man’s gaze fixing on someone behind me instead. “Ah, just the guy I was hoping to see. Jack, get over here and meet our new tenant.”

I turned around, and there he was. The guy. The hot guy. The one I’d seen on the street earlier. My smile never faltered, but his expression was far from friendly. His dark eyes met mine, and my polite smile suddenly felt too big, too fake. For a second, I could have sworn he saw right through me.

For one paranoid moment, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was, where I was from, and what I was doing here.

“Jack, meet Lila Baker.”

I blinked at the unfamiliar last name, but I stuck a hand out politely. He looked down at it for a moment, as if shaking hands was some bizarre foreign ritual, before taking my hand in his. His hand was warm and rough, and his grip was strong.

“Lila, this is my son, Jack. He’ll be a senior this year, which puts you right about the same age, I’d imagine.”

Jack’s father didn’t wait for either of us to comment. And really, what was there to say? So we were the same age. Neat. Clearly, that was where our similarities ended.

I studied him like he was studying me. Which was to say, thoroughly. He didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was scrutinizing me as he dropped my hand.

I realized two things as Don Carlton told me other inane facts about his family and this town. One, this guy was indeed hot, and he absolutely had that bad boy look that I loved. But as for being my type? There, I’d been all wrong. That was the second revelation, and it hit me with a jolt. It was in his eyes. One look in those dark brown eyes and I could see his judgement loud and clear. He was one of those guys. The kind who sneered at the sight of my stilettos and whose sexy-as-sin lips quirked up in a smirk as he eyed my designer bag and dress. I knew that look, and I knew it well. This guy was a snob. A reverse snob, but they were the worst kind, in my opinion.

I hated guys like him. They thought that being poor made them superior and that being uncultured made them cool. What they didn’t understand was that being poor made them powerless, and not knowing about the finer things in life? That was just sad.

Don interrupted the silent scrutiny going on between us by clapping a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Jack here can show you upstairs and help you and your sister get settled in.”

I threw Don a smile over my shoulder as I turned to leave, but when I turned back to face Jack, I didn’t bother keeping up the pretense.

What was the point?

He didn’t like me either.