Brutal Prince: Chapter 1

AIDA GALLO

Fireworks burst into bloom above the lake, hanging suspended in the clear night air, then drifting down in glittering clouds that settle on the water.

My father flinches at the first explosion. He doesn’t like things that are loud or unexpected. Which is why I get on his nerves sometimes—I can be both of those things, even when I’m trying to behave myself.

I see his scowl illuminated by the blue and gold light. Yup, definitely the same expression he gets when he looks at me.

“Do you want to eat inside?” Dante asks him.

Because it’s a warm night, we’re all sitting out on the deck. Chicago is not like Sicily—you have to take the opportunity to eat outdoors whenever you can get it. Still, if it weren’t for the sound of traffic below, you might think you were in an Italian vineyard. The table is set with the rustic stoneware brought from the old country three generations ago, and the pergola overhead is thickly blanketed by the fox grapes Papa planted for shade. You can’t make wine out of fox grapes, but they’re good for jam at least.

My father shakes his head.

“It’s fine here,” he says shortly.

Dante grunts and goes back to shoveling chicken in his mouth. He’s so big that his fork looks comically small in his hand. He always eats like he’s starving, hunched over his plate.

Dante is the oldest, so he sits on my father’s right-hand side. Nero’s on the left, with Sebastian next to him. I’m at the foot of the table, where my mother would sit if she were still alive.

“What’s the holiday?” Sebastian says as another round of fireworks rocket up into the sky.

“It’s not a holiday. It’s Nessa Griffin’s birthday,” I tell him.

The Griffins’ palatial estate sits right on the edge of the lake, in the heart of the Gold Coast. They’re setting off fireworks to make sure absolutely everybody in the city knows their little princess is having a party—as if it wasn’t already promoted like the Olympics and the Oscars combined.

Sebastian doesn’t know because he doesn’t pay attention to anything that isn’t basketball. He’s the youngest of my brothers, and the tallest. He got a full ride at Chicago State, and he’s good enough that when I go visit him on campus, girls stare and giggle everywhere he goes, and sometimes pluck up the courage to ask him to sign their t-shirts.

“How come we weren’t invited?” Nero says sarcastically.

We weren’t invited because we fucking hate the Griffins, and vice versa.

The guest list will be carefully curated, stuffed with socialites and politicians and anybody else chosen for their usefulness or their cache. I doubt Nessa will know any of them.

Not that I’m crying any tears for her. I heard her father hired Demi Lovato to perform. I mean, it ain’t Halsey, but it’s still pretty good.

“What’s the update on the Oak Street Tower?” Papa says to Dante while slowly and meticulously cutting up his chicken parm.

He already knows damn well how the Oak Street Tower is doing, because he tracks absolutely everything done by Gallo Construction. He’s just changing the subject because the thought of the Griffins sipping champagne and brokering deals with the haute monde of Chicago is irritating to him.

I don’t give a shit what the Griffins are doing. Except that I don’t like anybody having fun without me.

So, while my father and Dante are droning on about the tower, I mutter to Sebastian, “We should go over there.”

“Where?” he says obliviously, gulping down a big glass of milk. The rest of us are drinking wine. Sebastian’s trying to stay in tiptop shape for dribbling and sit-ups, or whatever the fuck his team of gangly ogres does for training.

“We should go to the party,” I say, keeping my voice low.

Nero perks up at once. He’s always interested in getting into trouble.

“When?” he says.

“Right after dinner.”

“We’re not on the list,” Sebastian protests.

“Jesus.” I roll my eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re even a Gallo. You scared of jaywalking too?”

My two oldest brothers are proper gangsters. They handle the messier parts of the family business. But Sebastian thinks he’s going to the NBA. He’s living in a whole other reality than the rest of us. Trying to be a good boy, a law-abiding citizen.

Still, he’s the closest to me in age, and probably my best friend, though I love all my brothers. So, he just grins back at me and says, “I’m coming, aren’t I?”

Dante shoots us a stern look. He’s still talking to our father, but he knows we’re plotting something.

Since we’ve all finished our chicken, Greta brings out the panna cotta. She’s been our housekeeper for about a hundred years. She’s my second-favorite person, after Sebastian. She’s stout and pretty, with more gray in her hair than red.

She made my panna cotta without raspberries because she knows I don’t like the seeds, and she doesn’t mind if I’m a spoiled brat. I grab her head and give her a kiss on the cheek as she sets it down in front of me.

“You’re going to make me drop my tray,” she says, trying to shake me loose.

“You’ve never dropped a tray in your life,” I tell her.

My father takes fucking forever to eat his dessert. He’s sipping his wine and going on and on about the electrical workers’ union. I swear Dante is drawing him out on purpose to infuriate the rest of us. When we have these formal sit-down dinners, Papa expects us all to stay till the bitter end. No phones allowed at the table either, which is basically torture because I can feel my cell buzzing again and again in my pocket, with messages from who knows who. Hopefully not Oliver.

I broke up with Oliver Castle three months ago, but he isn’t taking the hint. He might need to take a mallet to the head instead if he doesn’t stop annoying me.

Finally, Papa finishes eating, and we all gather up as many plates and dishes as we can carry to stack in the sink for Greta.

Then Papa goes into his office to have his second nightcap, while Sebastian, Nero, and I all sneak downstairs.

We’re allowed to go out on a Saturday night. We’re all adults, after all—just barely, in my case. Still, we don’t want Papa to ask us where we’re going.

We pile into Nero’s car because it’s a boss ‘57 Chevy Bel Air that will be the most fun to cruise around in with the top down.

Nero starts the ignition, and in the flare of the headlights, we see Dante’s hulking silhouette, standing right in front of us, arms crossed, looking like Michael Meyers about to murder us.

Sebastian jumps and I let out a little shriek.

“You’re blocking the car,” Nero says drily.

“This is a bad idea,” Dante says.

“Why?” Nero says innocently. “We’re just going for a drive.”

“Yeah?” Dante says, not moving. “Right down Lake Shore Drive.”

Nero switches tactics.

“So what if we are?” he says. “It’s just some Sweet Sixteen party.”

“Nessa’s nineteen,” I correct him.

“Nineteen?” Nero shakes his head in disgust. “Why are they even—never mind. Probably some stupid Irish thing. Or just any excuse to show off.”

“Can we get going?” Sebastian says. “I don’t wanna be out too late.”

“Get in or get out of the way,” I say to Dante.

He stares at us a minute longer, then shrugs. “Fine,” he says, “but I’m riding shotgun.”

I climb over the seat without argument, letting Dante have the front. A small price to pay to get my big brother on team Party Crashers.

We cruise down LaSalle Drive, enjoying the warm early summer air streaming into the car. Nero has a black heart and a vicious temperament, but you’d never know it from the way he drives. In the car, he’s as smooth as a baby’s ass—calm and careful.

Maybe it’s because he loves the Chevy and has put about a thousand hours of work into it. Or maybe driving is the only thing that relaxes him. Either way, I always like seeing him with his arm stretched out on the wheel, the wind blowing back his sleek dark hair, his eyes half-closed like a cat.

It’s not far to the Gold Coast. Actually, we’re practically neighbors—we live in Old Town, which is directly north. Still, the two neighborhoods aren’t much alike. They’re both fancy in their own ways—our house looks right over Lincoln Park, theirs fronts onto the lake. But Old Town is, well, just what the name implies—pretty fucking old. Our house was built in the Victorian era. Our street is quiet, full of massive old oak trees. We’re close to St. Michael’s Church, which my father genuinely believes was spared the Chicago Fire by a direct act of god.

The Gold Coast is the new hotness. It’s all pish-posh shopping and dining and the mansions of the richest motherfuckers in Chicago. I feel like I sprang forward thirty years just driving over here.

Sebastian, Nero, and I thought we might sneak in around the back of the Griffin property—maybe steal some caterers’ uniforms. Dante, of course, isn’t participating in any of that nonsense. He just slips the security guard five Benjamins to “find” our name on the list, and the guy waves us on in.

I already know what the Griffins’ house looks like even before I see it, because it was big news when they bought it a few years back. At the time, it was the most expensive piece of residential real estate in Chicago. Fifteen thousand square feet for a cool twenty-eight million dollars.

My father scoffed and said it was just like the Irish to flash their money.

“An Irishman will wear a twelve-hundred-dollar suit without the money in his pocket to buy a pint,” he said.

True or not as a generality, the Griffins can buy plenty of pints if they want to. They’ve got money to burn, and they’re literally burning it right now, in the form of their fireworks show still trying to put Disneyworld to shame.

I don’t care about that, though—first thing I want is some of the expensive champagne being ferried around by the waiters, followed by whatever’s been stacked into a tower on the buffet table. I’m gonna do my best to bankrupt those snooty fucks by eating my weight in crab legs and caviar before I leave this place.

The party is outdoors on the sprawling green lawn. It’s the perfect night for it—more evidence of the luck of the Irish. Everybody’s laughing and talking, stuffing their faces and even dancing a little, though there’s no Demi Lovato performing yet, just a normal DJ.

I guess I probably should have changed my clothes. I don’t see a single girl without a glittery party dress and heels. But that would have been annoying as hell on the soft grass, so I’m glad I’m just wearing sandals and shorts.

I do see Nessa Griffin, surrounded by people congratulating her on the monumental achievement of staying alive for nineteen years. She’s wearing a pretty, cream-colored sundress—simple and bohemian. Her light-brown hair is loose around her shoulders, and she’s got a bit of a tan and a few extra freckles across her nose, like she was out on the lake all morning. She’s blushing from all the attention, and she looks sweet and happy.

Honestly, out of all the Griffins, Nessa’s the best one. We went to the same high school. We weren’t exactly friends, since she was a year behind me and a bit of a goody-two-shoes. But she seemed nice enough.

Her sister on the other hand . . .

I can see Riona right now, chewing out some waitress until the poor girl is in tears. Riona Griffin is wearing one of those stiff, fitted sheath dresses that looks like it belongs in a boardroom, not at an outdoor party. Her hair is pulled back even tighter than her dress. Never did anybody less suit flaming red hair—it’s like genetics tried to make her fun, and Riona was like, “I’m never having one goddamned moment of fun in my life, thank you very much.”

She’s scanning the guests like she wants to bag and tag the important ones. I spin around to refill my plate before she catches sight of me.

My brothers already split off the moment we arrived. I can see Nero flirting with some pretty blonde over on the dance floor. Dante has made his way over to the bar, cause he’s not gonna drink froofy champagne. Sebastian has disappeared entirely—not easy to do when you’re 6’6. I’m guessing he saw some people he knows; everybody likes Sebastian, and he’s got friends everywhere.

As for me, I’ve got to pee.

I can see the Griffins brought in some outdoor toilets, discretely set back on the far side of the property, screened by a gauzy canopy. But I’m not peeing in a porta potty, even if it’s a fancy one. I’m gonna pee in a proper Griffin bathroom, right where they sit their lily-white bottoms down. Plus, it’ll give me a chance to snoop around their house.

Now, this does take a little maneuvering. They’ve got a lot more security around the entrance to the house, and I’m skint of cash for bribes. But once I throw a cloth napkin over my shoulder and steal the tray abandoned by the sobbing waitress, all I have to do is load up with a few empty glasses and I sneak right into the service kitchen.

I drop the dishes off at the sink like a good little employee, then I duck into the house itself.

Jiminy Crickets, it’s a nice fucking house. I mean, I know we’re supposed to be mortal rivals and all, but I can appreciate a place decked out better than anything I’ve ever seen on House HuntersHouse Hunters International, even.

It’s simpler than I would have expected—all creamy, smooth walls and natural wood, low, modern furniture, and light fixtures that look like industrial art.

There’s a lot of actual art around, too—paintings that look like blocks of color, and sculptures made of piles of shapes. I’m not a total philistine—I know that painting is either a Rothko or supposed to look like one. But I also know I couldn’t make a house look this pretty if I had a hundred years and an unlimited budget to do it.

Now I’m definitely glad I snuck in here to pee.

I find the closest bathroom down the hall. Sure enough, it’s a study in luxury—lovely lavender soap, soft, fluffy towels, water that comes out of the tap at the perfect temperature, not too cool and not too hot. Who knows—in a place this big, I might be the first person to even step foot in here. The Griffins probably each have their own private bathroom. In fact, they probably get tipsy and get lost in this labyrinth.

Once I finish up, I know I should head back outside. I had my little adventure, and there’s no point pushing my luck.

Instead, I find myself sneaking up the wide, curved staircase to the upper level.

The main level was too formal and antiseptic, like a show home. I want to see where these people actually live.

To the left of the staircase, I find a bedroom that must belong to Nessa. It’s soft and feminine, full of books and stuffed animals and art supplies. There’s a ukulele on the nightstand, and several pairs of sneakers kicked hastily under the bed. The only things not clean and new are the ballet slippers slung over her doorknob by their ribbons. Those are beat to hell and back, with holes in the satin toes.

Across from Nessa’s room is one that probably belongs to Riona. It’s larger, and spotlessly tidy. I don’t see any evidence of hobbies in here, just some beautiful Asian watercolors hanging on the walls. I’m disappointed that Riona hasn’t kept shelves of old trophies and medals. She definitely seems the type.

Beyond the girls’ rooms is the master suite. I won’t be going in there. It seems wrong on a different level. There has to be some kind of line I won’t cross when I’m sneaking around somebody’s house.

So, I turn the opposite direction and find myself in a large library instead.

Now, this is the kind of mysterious shit I came here for.

What do the Griffins read? Is it all leather-bound classics, or are they secret Anne Rice fans? Only one way to find out . . .

Looks like they favor biographies, architectural tomes, and yes, all the classics. They’ve even got a section dedicated to the famous Irish authors of yesteryear like James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw. No Anne Rice, but they’ve got Bram Stoker at least.

Oh look, they’ve even got a signed copy of Dubliners. I don’t care what anybody says, no one understands that fucking book. The Irish are all in on it, pretending it’s a masterwork of literature when I’m pretty sure it’s pure gibberish.

Besides the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, the library is full of overstuffed leather armchairs, three of which have been arranged around a large stone fireplace. Despite the warm weather, there’s a fire going in the grate—just a small one. It’s not a gas fire, there are actual birch logs burning, which smells nice. Above the fireplace hangs a painting of a pretty woman, with several objects arranged along the mantle underneath, including a carriage clock and an hourglass. Between those, an old pocket watch.

I pick it up off the mantle. It’s surprisingly heavy in my hand, the metal warm to the touch instead of cool. I can’t tell if it’s brass or gold. Part of the chain is still attached, though it looks like it broke off at about half its original length. The case is carved and inscribed, so worn that I can’t tell what the image used to be. I don’t know how to open it, either.

I’m fiddling with the mechanism when I hear a noise out in the hallway—a faint clinking sound. Quickly, I slip the watch into my pocket and dive down behind one of the armchairs, the one closest to the fire.

A man comes into the library. Tall, brown hair, about thirty years old. He’s wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and he’s extremely well-groomed. Handsome, but in a stark sort of way—like he’d push you off a lifeboat if there weren’t enough seats. Or maybe even if you forgot to brush your teeth.

I haven’t actually met this dude before, but I’m fairly certain it’s Callum Griffin, the oldest of the Griffin siblings. Which means he’s just about the worst person to catch me in the library.

Unfortunately, it seems like he plans to stick around a while. He sits down in an armchair almost directly across from me and starts reading emails on his phone. He’s got a glass of whiskey in his hand, and he’s sipping from it. That’s the sound I heard—the ice cubes chinking together.

It’s extremely cramped and uncomfortable behind the armchair. The rug over the hardwood floor is none too cushy and I have to hunch up in a ball so my head and feet don’t poke out on either side. Plus, it’s hot as balls this close to the fire.

How in the hell am I going to get out of here?

Callum is still sipping and reading. Sip. Read. Sip. Read. The only other sound is the popping of the birch logs.

How long is he going to sit here?

I can’t stay forever. My brothers are going to start looking for me in a minute.

I don’t like being stuck. I’m starting to sweat, from the heat and the stress.

The ice in Callum’s glass sounds so cool and refreshing.

God, I want a drink and I want to leave.

How many fucking emails does he have?!

Flustered and annoyed, I hatch a plan. Possibly the stupidest plan I’ve ever concocted.

I reach behind me and grab the tassel hanging down from the curtains. It’s a thick gold tassel, attached to green velvet curtains.

By pulling it out to its furthest length, I can just poke it in around the edge of the grate, directly into the embers.

My plan is to set it smoking, which will distract Callum, allowing me to sneak around the opposite side of the chair and out the door. That’s the genius scheme.

But because this isn’t a fucking Nancy Drew novel, this is what happens instead:

The flames rip up the cord like it was dipped in gasoline, singing my hand. I drop the cord, which swings back to the curtain. Then that curtain ignites like it’s paper. Liquid fire roars up to the ceiling in an instant.

This actually does achieve its purpose of distracting Callum Griffin. He shouts and jumps to his feet, knocking over his chair. However, my distraction comes at the cost of all subtlety, because I also have to abandon my hiding spot and sprint out of the room. I don’t know if Callum saw me or not, and I don’t care.

I’m thinking I should look for a fire extinguisher or water or something. I’m also thinking I should get the fuck out of here immediately.

That’s the idea that wins out—I go sprinting down the stairs at top speed.

At the bottom of the staircase, I plow into somebody else, almost knocking him over. It’s Nero, with that pretty blonde right behind him. Her hair is all messed up and he’s got lipstick on his neck.

“Jesus,” I say. “Is that a new record?” I’m pretty sure he only met her about eight seconds ago.

Nero shrugs, a hint of a grin on his handsome face.

“Probably,” he says.

Smoke drifts down over the bannister. Callum Griffin is shouting up in the library. Nero gazes up the staircase, confused.

“What’s going on—”

“Never mind,” I say, seizing his arm. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”

I start dragging him in the direction of the service kitchen, but I can’t quite take my own advice. I cast one look back over my shoulder. And I see Callum Griffin standing at the head of the stairs, glaring after us with a murderous expression on his face.

We sprint through the kitchen, knocking over a tray of canapés, then we’re out the door, back out on the lawn.

“You find Sebastian, I’ll get Dante,” Nero says. He abandons the blonde without a word, jogging off across the yard.

I run in the opposite direction, looking for the tall, lanky shape of my youngest brother.

Inside the mansion, a fire alarm starts to wail.

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