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Brutal Prince: Chapter 21


Cal interrupted me in the middle of something I’d rather not show him—not yet, at least. But now he’s acting weird. We’re downstairs, eating two of the meals the chef left in the fridge. Cal is chewing his meat like he can’t even taste it, looking moodily out the kitchen window to the pool outside.

“What’s going on?” I ask him, taking a bite of braised short rib and grilled carrot. This is about as decadent as it gets in casa Griffin, so I’m trying to enjoy my meal. But that’s hard to do with Callum sitting stone-faced right next to me.

“Nothing,” he says shortly.

“What are you all wound up about? Poking a stick in the hornet’s nest?”

I’m aware that someone named “the Butcher” isn’t the best target to antagonize. Still, I’m excited at the prospect of hunting down Zajac. I’ve been playing the good girl for weeks now. It’s time to get in a little trouble.

“Yes,” Callum says testily. “I’m concerned about teeing up against an unhinged gangster. Especially two days before the election.”

“Maybe we should hold off, then,” I tell him. “Wait until after to slap back at him.”

“If we don’t find him tonight, then that’s what I’ll do,” Callum says. “But I’d rather deal with it sooner than later.”

Callum’s phone buzzes with a message. He glances at it, saying, “Your brothers are here.”

A minute later they pull up in front of the house, parking and getting out of Dante’s Escalade warily. They haven’t been here since Nessa’s party. I can tell they feel awkward coming in through the kitchen door.

“Nice house,” Dante says politely, as if he hasn’t seen it before.

“Yeah, very nice,” Nero says, stuffing his hands in his pockets and looking all around the gleaming, modern kitchen. His eye catches on the one thing out of place. He bends over for a closer look, saying, “Is that a—”

Yes,” I interrupt him. “And we don’t need to talk about it.”

Imogen already read me the riot act about the bullet hole in her cabinet door. I think she was angrier than when I tried to poison her son. This house is her actual favorite child. It would have gotten ugly if Callum hadn’t covered for me, telling her it was an accident.

She didn’t look convinced.

“How am I even going to get someone to fix it?” she demanded, eyes blazing. “How am I going to explain to some carpenter that he needs to dig a bullet out before he can fill in the hole?”

“You could act totally surprised,” I said helpfully.

Callum shot me a look, telling me to shut up, immediately.

“I could get the bullet out first,” he said.

“No!” Imogen snapped, “Don’t touch it. You two have done enough.”

It still hasn’t been fixed, and it’s another sore subject that I don’t need Nero bringing up right before we’re supposed to head out.

But then Sore Subject Number Three comes strolling into the kitchen.

“Car’s out front,” Jack says, holding up the keys.

“Don’t tell me he’s coming,” I say to Callum.

“Yes. He is,” Callum replies.

“We don’t need—”

He interrupts me. “We’re not going in short-handed. Your brothers brought someone too.”

“Gabriel’s in the car,” Dante confirms.

Gabriel is our cousin, and one of my brothers’ enforcers. He looks like a big gruff teddy bear, but he can be a killer when he has to be.

“Fine,” I say, with only a hint of annoyance. “And what’s the plan?”

“Well,” Callum says, exchanging a look with my brothers, “There are two options. One, we try to follow this lead about the girl Zajac’s been fucking.”

“But we don’t have her address,” Nero says, obviously not a fan of this option. “And we don’t know how often he sees her.”

Or,” Callum continues, as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “we could hit one of his businesses. Smash his shit up, maybe take something, then wait for him to call us.”

“We’re leaning toward his casino, because it’s remote and cash-heavy,” Dante says.

“Why not both?” I say. “Are you talking about Francie Ross? She works at Pole, right?”

“Do you know her?” Callum asks quickly.

“No. But I know a girl who knows her,” I say. “That’s what I was trying to tell you, earlier.”

Callum gives me a look, half annoyed and half curious.

“Does your friend know where Francie lives?”

“Maybe,” I say. “We should ask her.”

“Why bother!” Nero snaps. “Who cares about finding Zajac. We need to hit him back for what he did to our job site. We don’t need to look him in the eye to kick him in the balls.”

Dante looks like he could go either way. “The casino seems like more of a sure bet,” he says.

“Well . . .” Callum glances over at me. “Let’s do both. You guys can hit the casino, while Aida and I talk to her friend.”

“You think three people is enough?” Dante says to Nero.

“Of course,” Nero says, tossing his head.

“Take Jack, too,” Callum says.

“Then it’ll just be you and Aida . . .” Dante says.

“We don’t need an army,” I say. “We’re just talking to a waitress.”

Dante frowns, and reaches inside his jacket. He passes me a Glock, loaded.

“Is that wise?” Jack says, eyeing the gun as Dante puts it in my hand.

“Don’t worry,” I say sweetly. “I won’t leave it lying around like an idiot.”

Jack looks like he wants to retort, but he drops it, since Callum is standing right there.

“Everybody else got what they need?” Dante asks.

We all nod.

“Let’s head out, then.”

Dante and Nero get back in the Escalade. I wave to Gabriel through the window. He grins and gives me a little salute. Jack climbs in the backseat next to him, introducing himself with a grunt and a curt nod.

I’m extremely pleased not to have to spend any more time cooped up in a car with him, and even more pleased that Cal and I are running down my lead. Well, sort of his too—but I thought of it first.

Anyway, I like when Cal drives. It lets me sneak glances at him while his attention is fixed on the road.

Every time we’re alone together, the energy seems to shift. There’s a thick tension in the air, and my mind starts inevitably wandering back to what we did the last time we were alone.

Since I’m thinking of such pleasant things, I’m startled when Callum says, “Why did you break up with Oliver Castle?”

It jolts me, and makes me remember, uncomfortably, how Oliver accosted me on campus earlier. How does he keep running into me like that? At first when he would find me at every party, I assumed my friends were texting him. But even later—

“Well?” Callum interrupts.

I sigh, annoyed to be talking about this again. And without the likelihood of kinky jealousy-fueled sex afterward.

“It just never felt right,” I say. “It was like putting a shoe on the wrong foot. Right away it was awkward, and the longer it went on, the worse it got.”

“So you weren’t in love with him? When we met?” Callum asks.

There’s the tiniest hint of vulnerability in his question.

I’ve never heard Callum be vulnerable. Not even one percent. I desperately want to look at him, but I use all my willpower to keep my eyes pointed forward. I feel like we’re actually being honest for a minute, and I don’t want to ruin it.

“I never loved him,” I tell Cal, my voice steady and sure.

He exhales, and I know, I just know, there’s relief in that sigh.

I have to smile, thinking of something poetic.

“What?” Callum asks.

“Well, ironically, when I broke up with Oliver, I thought I should find someone more compatible. Someone more like me.”

Cal has to laugh, too.

“Instead you got the exact opposite,” he says.

“Right,” I say.

Opposites have a kind of symmetry. Fire and ice. Stern and playful. Impulsive and restrained. In a way, they belong together.

Oliver and I were more like two objects selected at random: a pen and an owl. A cookie and a shovel.

That’s why there was no emotion on my side, just indifference.

You need push and pull to feel love. Or hate.

We pull up in front of Pole. It’s a cabaret club on the west end of the city. Dark, low-ceilinged, sprawling and seedy. But also wildly popular, because it’s not your run-of-the-mill strip club. The performances are dark, kinky, and fetish-based. Some of the dancers are semi-famous in Chicago, including Francie Ross, who’s one of the headliners. It doesn’t surprise me that she caught Zajac’s eye.

“Have you been here before?” I ask Callum.

“No,” he says carelessly. “Is it good?”

“You’ll see.” I grin.

The bouncers check our IDs and we head inside.

The thumping bass makes the air feel thick. I smell the sharp scent of alcohol, and the earthy tones of vape pens. The light is deep red, making everything else look like shades of black and gray.

The interior feels like a gothic dollhouse. Plush booths, botanical wallpaper, ornate mirrors. The waitresses are dressed up in strappy leather harnesses, some with leather animal ears and matching fur tails—bunnies, foxes, and cats, mostly.

I spy a table emptying out close to the stage, and I drag Callum over before someone else can snag it.

“Shouldn’t we be looking for your friend?” he says.

“We might be in her section. If not, I’ll go find her.”

He looks around at the busty waitresses, and the bartenders who are wearing skin-tight pleather bodysuits, unzipped to the navel.

“So this is what Zajac’s into, huh?” he says.

“I think everybody’s into this, to one degree or another,” I reply, biting the edge of my lip and grinning just a little.

“Oh yeah?” Callum says. He’s looking at me, curious and more than a little distracted. “Tell me more.”

I nod to the corner of our booth, where a pair of silver handcuffs dangle down from a hook.

“I could see you making good use of those,” I say.

“Depends,” Callum growls, his eyes dark. “On how you behave yourself tonight . . .”

Before I can answer, our waitress comes to take our order. It’s not my friend Jada. But she says Jada is working.

“Can you send her over?” I ask.

“Sure,” the girl nods.

While we wait, the lights lower even further, and the DJ drops the music.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he croons. “Please welcome to the stage the one . . . the only . . . Eduardo!”

“Oh, you’re going to like this,” I whisper to Callum.

“Who’s Eduardo?” he mutters back.

“Shh!” I say.

A spotlight follows a slim young man who poses for a moment in its light, then saunters down to the stage. He’s wearing a fedora and zoot suit— well-tailored, with exaggerated shoulders. He has a mustache and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

His presence is magnetic. Every eye in the room is fixed on him and on his outrageous swagger.

Right before he ascends to the stage, he pauses next to a slim, pretty blonde girl in the front row. He grabs her hand and drags her up on stage, despite her protests and obvious shyness.

Then he goes through a little comedy routine where he instructs the girl to hold a flower for him. The top of the flower immediately falls off, tumbling down the front of the girl’s blouse. Eduardo plucks it out again before she can move, making her shriek. Then he teaches her a dance routine, a very seductive tango, which he performs masterfully, whipping her around like a mannequin.

All the while he’s keeping up a patter of jokes and insults, making the audience howl with laughter. He has a low, smooth voice, with a slight accent.

Finally, he tells the girl that he’s finished, and asks for a kiss on the cheek. When she reluctantly puckers up her lips, he holds out his cheek to her, then turns his head at the last minute, kissing her square on the mouth.

Of course the crowd eats it up. They’re cheering and chanting, “Eduardo! Eduardo!”

“Thank you my friends. But before I go—one last dance!” he shouts.

As the music plays, he dances across the stage, swift and sharp. He grabs his fedora and yanks it off his head, letting down a spill of white-blonde hair. He tears off his mustache, then rips open the front of his suit to reveal two absolutely spectacular breasts, full and bare, except for a pair of red tassels covering the nipples. “Eduardo” hops and shimmies to make the tassels spin round, then blows the crowd a kiss, bows, and leaves the stage.

Callum looks like he got slapped in the face. I’m laughing so hard that tears are running down my cheeks. I’ve seen Francie’s show three times now, and it still blows me away. Her ability to walk and dance and speak like a man, even laugh like one, is just incredible. She never breaks character for a second, not until the very end.

“That’s Francie Ross,” I say to Callum, in case he still hasn’t figured it out.

“That’s the Butcher’s girlfriend?” he says in astonishment.

“Yup. If the rumors are true.”

I get my chance to ask Jada when she brings over our drinks. She passes a whiskey on the rocks to Callum, a vodka cranberry to me.

“Hey!” she says, “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know!” I grin up at her. “It’s been crazy.”

“So I heard,” Jada says, casting a significant glance in Callum’s direction. Jada has dyed-black hair, a multitude of piercings, and plum-colored lips. Her father used to work for mine, until he was sent to prison for unrelated mischief. Specifically, he tried to scam the state lottery. It was going great until he accidentally won twice in a row, which kinda tipped them off.

“Did you see the show?” Jada asks me.

“Yes! Francie’s the best.” I lean a little closer, keeping my voice low so it’s covered by the music. “Is it true she’s dating that Polish gangster?”

“I don’t know, “ Jada says, picking up an empty glass from the table next to ours, and setting it down on her tray. She’s not meeting my eyes anymore.

“Come on,” I coax her. “I know you two are tight.”

“They might be,” she says noncommittally.

“Does he come in here to see her?” I ask.

“No,” Jada says. “Not that I’ve seen.”

She obviously doesn’t like this line of questioning. But I don’t want to drop it just yet.

Callum reaches under the table, smoothly pressing a folded bill into Jada’s palm.

“Where does she live?” he says.

Jada hesitates. She sneaks a glance down at her palm to see the denomination.

“The yellow building on Cherry Street,” she says at last. “Third-floor walk-up. He goes there Tuesday nights. That’s when she’s off work.”

“There you go,” I mutter to Callum after Jada leaves. “If he doesn’t make contact after we fuck up his casino, then we’ll get him on Tuesday.”

“Yeah,” Callum agrees. “It’s still early—text your brothers and see if they need us over at the casino.”

I’m about to do so when Jada brings us another round of drinks.

“On me,” she says, friendlier now that I’ve stopped grilling her. “Don’t be a stranger so long next time.”

She slides a fresh vodka cranberry toward me.

I didn’t really want a second, but if it’s free . . .

“Thanks,” I say, raising it in a cheers motion.

“Roxy Rotten’s up next,” Jada says. “You want to stay for that one.”

As I raise the straw to my lips, I see a strange sheen on the surface on my drink. I set it down again, looking at the cocktail. Maybe it’s just the red light on my red drink. But the surface looks a little oily. Like the glass wasn’t washed well enough.

“What?” Callum says.

I’m not sure I should drink it.

I’m about to tell Callum to check his own drink, but he’s already slugged it back in a gulp.

The lights lower again, and the DJ introduces Roxy Rotten. Roxy performs her striptease in zombie makeup, under black lights that give the illusion that she loses several limbs over the course of her routine. Then, finally, her head seems to fall off. The lights go up again and Roxy stands center-stage, miraculously whole again, and displaying her lovely green-painted figure to the crowd.

“Should we go?” I say to Callum.

“Did your brothers reply?”

I check my phone. “Not yet.”

“Let’s leash, then. I mean leave.” He shakes his head. “Are you gonna finish that first?” he points to my second drink.

“Uh . . . no.” I pour half of the new drink into my old glass so Jada won’t be offended. “Let’s go.”

I stand up first, slinging my bag over my arm. When Callum stands, he stumbles slightly.

“Are you okay?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he grunts. “Just a headache.”

I can see how unsteady he is on his feet. It’s not the whiskey—he only had two shots, and I know from experience that Callum can drink a lot more than that without getting tipsy.

I see Jada standing next to the bar, arms crossed. She looks like a malevolent gargoyle with her leather fox ears, and her lips painted dark purple.

“Let’s get out of here,” I mutter to Callum, slinging his arm over my shoulder.

I’m reminded horribly of the day we met, when I had to carry Sebastian down the pier like this. Callum is just as heavy, slumping over more and more with every step. He’s trying to say something, but his eyes are rolled back, his voice mushy and incoherent.

If I can get him into the car, I can drive us someplace safe and call my brothers.

But just like on the pier, the door seems a million miles away. I’m wading through sand, and I’m never going to make it.

As I reach the exit at last, the bouncers surround me.

“Is there a problem, Miss?”

I’m about to tell them I need someone to help carry Callum over to the car. But then I realize they’re not coming to help us. They’re blocking the door.

I look around at the semi-circle of burly, looming men.

No time to call my brothers.

I do the only thing I can think of.

I slump down like I’m passing out, hoping it won’t hurt too bad when I hit the floor.


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