Brutal Prince: Chapter 14

CALLUM

Aida comes down the staircase, gingerly and clinging to the railing, twenty minutes late but, frankly, looking stunning. Marta pulled Aida’s hair up into a slightly retro updo that plays up that classic bombshell look. Her eyes are lined with kohl, which highlights their exotic shape and makes them look almost as silvery as the dress.

I like the fact that Aida can barely walk in the stilettos. It gives her a vulnerable air and makes her cling to my arm for the walk to the car.

She’s quieter than usual. I don’t know if she’s annoyed about me stealing her clothes, or if she’s nervous about the night ahead of us.

I feel calm and more focused than I’ve been in weeks. Just as my father predicted, the Italians are throwing their full support behind me now that Aida and I are officially married. La Spata is sunk, and I’ve already dug up some fantastic dirt on Kelly Hopkins from her college years, when she was neck-deep in a cheating ring, selling ready-made thesis papers to wealthier and lazier students. Poor little scholarship student, forced to compromise her morals to get her degree.

That’s what you always find in the end—no matter how pure people pretend to be, when the screw gets tight, there’s always some place they crack.

That’s going to shoot an arrow right through her pretensions of moral superiority. Which leaves the field clear for one candidate alone: me.

The election is only a week away. Almost nothing can fuck this up for me now.

As long as I can keep my wife in line.

I see her sitting across from me in the back of the town car. She looks calm enough, watching the buildings stream by out the window. But she doesn’t fool me. I know how unruly she is. I might have slipped a bridle over her head for the moment, but she’s going to try to buck me off again the moment she gets the chance.

The crucial thing is to keep her in line during this party. After that, she can mutiny as much as she likes. Several Italian business owners, CEOs, investors, and union reps will be here tonight. They need to see my wife at my side: obedient. Supportive.

We drive to the Fulton Market District, which used to be full of meat-packing plants and warehouses and has now gentrified into hotels, bars, restaurants, and trendy tech companies. The fundraiser is at Morgan’s on Fulton, in the penthouse at the very top of the building.

We make our way toward the elevator through the art gallery on the main floor. It’s stuffed floor-to-ceiling with paintings of various styles, in varying levels of skill. Aida pauses by one particularly hideous modern piece in shades of peach, taupe, and tan.

“Oh, look,” she says. “Now I know what to get your mother for Christmas.”

“I suppose you prefer that,” I say, nodding toward a dark and moody oil painting of Cronus devouring his children.

“Oh yes,” Aida says, nodding somberly. “Family portrait. That’s Papa when we leave the cupboards open or forget to turn off the lights.”

I give a little snort, and Aida looks startled, like she’s never heard me laugh before. She probably hasn’t.

As we reach the elevator at last, somebody calls, “Hold the door!”

I put my arm out to stop it from closing.

Then I immediately regret it when I see Oliver Castle push his way inside.

“Oh,” he says, spotting us and giving an arrogant toss of his head. His hair is longish, thick and sun-streaked. He’s got a tan and a hint of a burn, like he’s been out on a boat all day. When he grins, his teeth look too white by comparison.

He looks Aida up and down, letting his eyes crawl over her body, which looks lusciously hourglass-shaped in the tight, beaded dress. It pisses me off how blatant he’s being. My arrangement with Aida might not be romantic, but she’s still my wife. She belongs to me and me alone. Not this overgrown rich kid.

“You really went all out, Aida,” he says. “I don’t remember you dressing up like that for me.”

“Guess it wasn’t worth the effort,” I say, glowering at him.

Oliver snorts.

“I dunno. Guess Aida was just using her effort for other things . . .”

I get a vivid image of Aida sliding her tongue up and down Oliver’s cock like she did to mine. I’m hit with jealousy like a sack of wet mud. It knocks the air out of me.

It takes everything I have not to grab Castle by the lapels of his velvet dinner jacket and throw him up against the elevator wall.

I might have done it if the elevator didn’t give a lurch at exactly that moment, stopping at the top floor. The doors part, and Oliver saunters out without a look back at us.

Aida’s watching me with her cool gray eyes.

I don’t like this new quiet Aida. It makes me nervous, wondering what she’s up to. I like it better when she blurts out whatever she’s thinking as soon as it comes into her head. Even if it really pisses me off in the moment.

The penthouse is a large, open room, currently stuffed full of potential donors getting sloshed on free liquor. Of course, it’s not really free—I’m going to try to milk every one of these fuckers for every last bit of support I can get out of them. But in the meantime, they’re welcome to gorge themselves on high-end cocktails and fancy finger foods.

One whole side of the room is composed of sliding glass doors, currently thrown open to the rooftop deck. The guests can mingle back and forth, enjoying the warm night air and the breeze off the lake. The open-air deck is strung with glowing lanterns, and it offers a striking view of the city lights below.

Right now, neither the flawless set-up nor the excellent turnout of guests is giving me any pleasure. I march over to the bar and ask for a double shot of whiskey, neat. Aida watches me down it in one gulp.

“What?” I snap, slamming the empty glass back down on the bar.

“Nothing,” she says, shrugging her bare shoulders and turning away from me to order her own drink.

Trying to get the thought of Oliver and Aida out of my mind, I scan the crowd, looking for my first target. I’ve got to talk to Calibrese and Montez. I spot my mother over by the food, talking to the state treasurer. She’s been here for hours, overseeing the set-up and greeting the first guests as they arrived.

Then I see somebody who definitely wasn’t invited: Tymon Zajac, better known as the Butcher. Head of the Polish mafia, and a major fucking pain in my ass.

The Braterstwo control most of the Lower West Side, right up to Chinatown, Little Italy, and the wealthier neighborhoods to the northeast that are controlled by the Irish—aka me.

If there’s a hierarchy to gangsters, it goes something like this: at the top you’ve got your white-collar, gentrified gangsters who use the levers of business and politics to maintain their control. That’s the Irish in Chicago. We run this city. We’ve got more gold than a fucking leprechaun. And we make as much money legally as illegally—or at least, in that nice gray area of loopholes and backdoor deals.

Which doesn’t mean I’m afraid to get my hands dirty. I’ve made more than one person in this city disappear forever. But I do it quietly and only when necessary.

On the next rung down the ladder, you’ve got gangsters with a foot in both worlds—like the Italians. They still run plenty of strip clubs, nightclubs, illegal gambling, and protection rackets. But they’re also involved in construction projects that form the bulk of their income. They have heavy sway in the unions for the carpenters, the electrical workers, the glaziers, heavy equipment operators, ironworkers, masons, plumbers, sheet metal workers, and more. If you want to get anything built in Chicago, and you don’t want it to burn down halfway through, or get “delayed,” or your materials stolen, then you have to hire the Italians as your foremen, or else pay them off.

Then, lower down still, you’ve got the Polish mafia. They’re still participating in violent crime, in loud and obvious and attention-grabbing shit that causes problems for those of us who want to keep up the perception of a safe city.

The Braterstwo are still actively running drugs and guns, boosting cars, robbing banks and armored cars, extorting, even kidnapping. They get their dirty deeds published in the news, and they’re constantly pushing the boundaries of their territory. They don’t want to stay in Garfield, Lawndale, and the Ukrainian Village. They want to push into the areas where the money is. The areas I own.

In fact, Tymon Zajac showing up here at my fundraiser is a problem in and of itself. I don’t want him here as an enemy or a friend. I don’t want to be associated with him.

He’s not exactly the kind of guy who blends in. He’s nearly as broad as he is tall, with wheat-colored hair just starting to gray, and a craggy face that might be scarred from acne or something worse. He has hatchet-like cheekbones with a Roman nose. He’s carefully dressed in a pinstripe suit, with a white bloom in the lapel. Somehow those natty details only serve to emphasize the roughness of his face and hands.

Zajac has a mythos around him. Though his family has been in Chicago for a century, he himself came up on the streets of Poland, operating a sophisticated car-theft ring from the time he was a teenager. He singlehandedly tripled the number of exotic car thefts in the country, until the wealthy Polish hardly dared buy an imported car, because they knew it would disappear off the streets or even out of their own garages within the week.

He rose through the ranks of the Wolomin in Warsaw, until that gang became enmeshed in a bloody turf war with the Polish Police. Around the same time, his half-brother Kasper was murdered by the Colombian drug lords helping to smuggle cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines into Chicago. The Colombians thought they could start dealing directly in the city. Instead, Zajac flew into Chicago for his brother’s funeral, then organized a two-part retaliation that left eight Colombians dead in Chicago, and twelve more slaughtered in Bogota.

Zajac did the killings himself, holding a cleaver in one hand and a machete in the other. That earned him the nickname “The Butcher of Bogota.”

The Butcher took his brother’s place as the head of the Chicago Braterstwo. And since then, not a month has gone by without his chipping away at the edges of my empire. He’s old school. He’s hungry. And I know he’s here for a reason tonight.

That’s why I’ve got to go speak to him, though I’d rather not be seen with him in public. I wait until he moves to a less obtrusive part of the room, and then I join him.

“Taking an interest in politics now, Zajac?” I ask him.

“It’s the true syndicate in Chicago, isn’t it,” he says in his low, gravelly voice. He sounds like he’s been smoking a hundred years, though I don’t smell it on his clothing.

“Are you here to donate, or do you have a comment card for the suggestion box?” I say.

“You know as well as I do that wealthy men never give their money away for nothing,” he says.

He takes a cigar out of his pocket and inhales the toasted scent.

“Care to smoke one with me?” he says.

“I wish I could. But there’s no smoking in the building.”

“Americans love to make rules for other people that they never keep themselves. If you were here alone, you would smoke this with me.”

“Sure,” I say, wondering what he’s driving at.

Aida has appeared at my side, quiet as a shadow.

“Hello, Tymon,” she says.

The Polish mafia has a long and complicated history with both my family and Aida’s. During Prohibition when the Irish and Italians battled for control of the distilleries, there were Poles on both sides. In fact, it was a Polack that carried out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

More recently, I know Zajac has done business with Enzo Gallo—mostly successfully, though I heard rumors of a conflict over at the Oak Street Tower, with reports of shots fired and a hasty laying of the foundation, possibly with a body or two concealed underneath the cement.

“I heard the happy news,” Zajac says. He gives a significant glance to the ring on Aida’s ringer. “I was disappointed not to receive an invitation. Or an inquiry from your father beforehand. You know I have two sons of my own, Aida. Poles and Italians work well together. I don’t see you learning to love corned beef and cabbage.”

“Be careful how you speak to my wife,” I cut across him. “The deal is done, and I doubt any offer you would have made then or now is going to interest her. In fact, I doubt you have anything to say to either of us.”

“You might be surprised,” Zajac says, fixing me with his fierce stare.

“Not likely,” I say dismissively.

To my surprise, it’s Aida who keeps her temper.

“Tymon isn’t a man to waste his own time,” she says. “Why don’t you tell us what’s on your mind?”

“The politician is rude, and the fiery Italian is the diplomat,” Zajac muses. “What a strange reversal. Will she wear the tux and you put on the dress later tonight?”

“This tux will be soaked in your blood after I cut your fucking tongue out of your mouth, old man,” I growl at him,

“The young make threats. The old make promises,” he replies.

“Save the fortune cookie bullshit,” Aida says, holding up her hand to stay me. “What do you want, Tymon? Callum has a lot of people to speak to tonight, and I don’t think you were even invited.”

“I want the Chicago Transit property,” he says, cutting to the chase at last.

“Not happening,” I tell him.

“Because you’re already planning to sell it to Marty Rico?”

That gives me a moment’s pause. That deal isn’t even done yet, so I don’t know how the fuck Zajac heard about it.

“I’m not planning anything yet,” I lie. “But I can tell you it’s not going to you. Not unless you’ve got some magic power-washer for your reputation to make it all bright and sparkling new again.”

The truth is, I wouldn’t sell it to the Butcher either way. I already have to make nice with the Italians. I’m not inviting the Polacks right into my backyard. If Zajac wants to play at being a legitimate businessman, he can do it somewhere else in the city. Not in the middle of my territory.

The Butcher narrows his eyes. He’s still holding the cigar in his thick fingers, rolling it over and over.

“You Irish are so greedy,” he says. “Nobody wanted you here when you came to America. It was the same for us. They put up signs, telling us not to apply for jobs. They tried to stop us from immigrating. Now that you think you’re secure at the head of the table, you don’t want to let anyone else join you. You don’t want to share even the crumbs of your feast.”

“I’m always willing to make deals,” I tell him. “But you can’t demand a plum piece of public property to be handed over to you. And for what? What do you have to offer me in return?”

“Money,” he hisses.

“I have money.”

“Protection.”

I let out a rude laugh. Zajac doesn’t like that at all. His face flushes in anger, but I don’t care. His offer is insulting.

“I don’t need your protection. You were already outmatched when it was only my family against yours. Now that I’ve allied with the Italians, what do you possibly think you have to offer us? How could you dare threaten us?”

“Be reasonable, Tymon,” Aida says. “We’ve worked together in the past. We will again in the future. But milk before meat.”

I’m shocked how calm Aida can be when conversing with someone from her own world. I’ve never seen this side of her. She had no patience for Christina Huntley-Hart, who brought out Aida’s most outrageous and disdainful attitude. But with Tymon, who is infinitely more dangerous and volatile, Aida has managed to stay calmer than me.

I’m looking at her with actual respect. She sees it and rolls her eyes at me, annoyed rather than gratified.

“I always liked you, Aida,” Zajac growls. “I hope you haven’t made a mistake, marrying this puffed-up Mick.”

“The only mistake would be underestimating him,” she replies coldly.

Now I really am shocked. Aida defending me? Wonders never cease.

The Butcher gives a stiff nod, which could mean anything, and turns and walks away. I’m relieved to see that he seems to be leaving the party, without making a scene.

I look back at Aida.

“You handled that really well,” I tell her.

“Yeah, shocking, I know,” she says, tossing her head. “You know I grew up with these people. I sat under the table while my father negotiated deals with the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Armenians, when I was just four years old. I’m not always running around nicking watches.”

“He’s got some balls marching in here,” I say, scowling in the direction of the doorway where Zajac just disappeared.

“He certainly does,” Aida says. She’s frowning, twisting the ring on her finger while she’s lost in thought.

My mother picked out that ring and mailed it to Aida. Looking at it on her hand, I realize it doesn’t really suit her. Aida would have picked something more comfortable and casual. Maybe I should have let her choose her own or taken her to Tiffany’s. That would have been easy to do.

I was so angry with her after the circumstances of our first meeting that I never really considered what she might prefer. What might make her more comfortable with this arrangement or moving into my house.

I want to ask her what else she knows about Zajac. What deals he’s done with Enzo. But I’m interrupted by my father, who wants to hear what Zajac said. Before I can include Aida in the conversation, she slips away.

My father is going on and on, grilling me about the Butcher, wanting a word-for-word accounting of everybody else I talked to tonight, and what they said.

Usually I’d go through it with him point by point. But I can’t help sneaking glances over his shoulder, trying to see where Aida is in the room. What she’s doing. Whom she’s talking to.

I finally catch sight of her out on the deck, talking with Alan Mitts, the treasurer. He’s a crusty old bastard. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile once in all the times I’ve spoken to him. Yet, with Aida, he’s lost in some anecdote, waving his hands around, and Aida is laughing and egging him on. When she laughs, she throws back her head and her eyes close and her shoulders shake, and there’s nothing polite about it. She’s just happy.

I want to hear what’s making her laugh so hard.

“Are you listening to me?” my father says sharply.

I whip my head back around.

“What? Yes. I’m listening.”

“What are you looking at?” he says, squinting his eyes in the direction of the deck.

“Mitts. I have to talk to him next.”

“Looks like he’s already talking to Aida,” my father says in his most inscrutable tone.

“Oh. Yeah.”

“How has she been performing?”

“Good. Surprisingly well,” I reply.

My father looks her over, giving a nod of approval. “She certainly looks better. Though the dress is too revealing.”

I knew he would say that. There were more conservative options in the pile of dresses Marta brought for my approval, but I chose this one. Because I knew it would hug Aida’s curves like it was made for her.

My father is still blathering on, despite my efforts to wrap up the conversation.

“The mayor has kicked down thirty thousand dollars to your campaign, and endorsed you, but he did the same to twenty-five other council allies, so I don’t think his statement is as strong as—”

Oliver Castle has reappeared, buoyed by liquid courage. I can tell he’s half-drunk by the flush in his sunburned face and the way he roughly cuts in between Aida and Mitts. Aida tries to shake him off, heading to the opposite side of the deck, but Castle follows her over, trying to get her to talk to him.

“So, I think it will be most efficient and most effective if we—”

“Hold that thought, Dad,” I tell him.

I set my drink down, heading outside through the wide-open sliding doors. This part of the venue is only dimly lit by the lanterns overhead, the music quieter and the seating more private. Oliver is trying to pull Aida into the darkest and most distant corner, hidden behind a screen of potted Japanese maples.

I intended to interrupt them immediately, but as I draw closer, I hear Oliver’s low, urgent voice pleading with Aida. My curiosity is piqued. I creep up at an angle, wanting to hear what they’re talking about.

“I know you miss me, Aida. I know you think about me, just like I think about you . . .”

“I really don’t,” she says.

“We had good times together. Remember the night we all built that bonfire on the beach, and you and I walked out on the dunes, and you had that white bikini on, and I took the top off with my teeth . . .”

I’m standing in place, filled with hot, molten jealousy churning around in my guts. I want to interrupt them, but I also have this sick curiosity. I want to know exactly what went on between Oliver and Aida. He was obviously infatuated with her. But did she feel the same? Did she love him?

“Sure, I remember that weekend,” she says lazily. “You got drunk and crashed your car on Cermak Road. And almost broke your hand getting in a fight with Joshua Dean. Good times all right.”

“That was your fault,” Oliver growls, trying to pin her against the deck railing. “You drive me out of my mind, Aida. You make me crazy. I only did all that shit after you left me at the Oriole.”

“Yeah?” she says, looking down at the city streets below the patio. “Do you remember why I left you there, though?”

Oliver hesitates. I can tell he does remember, but he doesn’t want to say it.

“We bumped into your uncle. And he asked who I was. And you said, ‘Just a friend.’ Because you liked being a rebel, dating Enzo Gallo’s daughter. But you didn’t want to risk your trust fund or your spot at Daddy’s company. You didn’t have the balls to admit what you actually wanted.”

“I made a mistake.”

Oliver’s voice is low and urgent, and I can see he keeps trying to take Aida’s hand, but she moves it out of his reach.

“Aida, I learned my lesson, I promise you. I’ve missed you so much that I could have thrown myself off the roof of Keystone Capital a hundred times. I sit in that office and I’m fucking miserable. I’ve got that picture of us on my desk, the one on the Ferris wheel where you’re laughing and hanging onto my arm. That was the best day of my life, Aida. If you give me another chance, I’ll prove what you mean to me. I’ll put a ring on your finger and show you off to the world.”

“I already have a ring on my finger,” Aida says dully, holding up her hand to show it to him. “I got married, remember?”

“That marriage was horseshit. I know you only did that to hurt me. You don’t care about Callum fucking Griffin, he’s everything you hate! You can’t stand people who are stuck up and phony and show off their money. How long did you even date him? I can tell you’re miserable.”

“I’m not miserable,” Aida says. She doesn’t sound very convincing.

I know I should interrupt the two of them, but I’m riveted in place. Furious at the balls on Oliver Castle, trying to seduce my wife at my own fucking fundraiser, but also perversely curious to hear how Aida will respond.

“Come meet me for dinner tomorrow night,” Oliver begs her.

“No,” Aida shakes her head.

“Come to my apartment, then. I know he doesn’t touch you like I used to.”

Is she going to agree? Does she want to fuck him still?

Oliver is trying to wrap his arms around her, trying to kiss her neck. Aida is smacking his hands away, but he’s got her backed into a corner, and she’s hampered by the tight dress and heels.

“Knock it off, Oliver, someone’s going to see you—”

“I know you miss this—”

“I’m serious, stop it or I’ll—”

Oliver presses her up against the railing, trying to shove his hand up her skirt. I know for a fact she doesn’t have any panties on because I dressed her myself. The thought of Oliver touching her bare pussy lips is what finally makes me snap.

I’ve heard of people being blinded by rage. It’s never happened to me before—even at my angriest, I’ve always maintained control.

Now, in an instant, I go from standing behind the Japanese maples to grabbing Oliver Castle around the throat, squeezing as hard as I can with my left hand. Meanwhile, my right fist is smashing into his face over and over again. I hear this insane roaring sound and I realize it’s me, I’m the one howling with rage while I hit the man who put his hands on my wife. I even start picking him up like I’m going to throw him over the fucking railing.

I might actually have done it if my father, Aida, and several other people didn’t grab my arms and pull me off of Castle.

Castle’s face is a mess of blood, his lip split, and his dress shirt splattered. So is mine, now that I look down at it.

The party has come to a screeching halt. Everybody inside and outside is staring at us.

“Call security,” my father barks. “This man tried to attack Mrs. Griffin.”

“The fuck I did,” Oliver snarls. “He—”

My father silences him with another blow to the face. Fergus Griffin hasn’t lost his touch—Castle’s head snaps back and he slumps to the patio floor. Two security guards hustle out onto the deck to pick him up.

“Leave. Now,” my father hisses at me under his breath.

“I’m going to take my wife home,” I say, loud enough for everyone to hear. I take my jacket off, wrapping it around Aida’s shoulders like she’s just had a shock.

Aida allows this because she is shocked. Shocked by how I attacked Oliver Castle like a rabid dog.

With my arm around her shoulders, we push through the crowd, taking the elevator back down to the ground floor.

I hustle her into the waiting limo.

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