Brutal Prince: Chapter 24

CALLUM

I’m sitting at the table, surrounded by my family, basking in the glow of victory. My parents look happier and more proud than I’ve ever seen them before. My sisters are in good spirits, laughing and joking about some guy who’s been chasing after Nessa.

It’s a scene I’ve been working toward for months.

And yet, I find myself tuning out of the conversation because I want to look at Aida instead.

I can’t believe she stayed at Zajac’s warehouse, looking for me.

She could have been killed, or at the very least, recaptured and held hostage until her brothers returned the money they stole.

She could have just run the moment she escaped the office. But she didn’t. Because she knew I was somewhere in the building, probably being tortured, possibly being killed.

That would have been an easy way for her to get out of our marriage contract.

But I don’t think she wants to get out of it anymore.

Or at least, not as much as before.

I know I don’t want to lose her.

I’ve come to respect Aida, and like her, too. I like the effect she has on me. She makes me more reckless, but also more focused. Before I met her, I was going through the motions. Doing what I was supposed to without really caring.

Now I want to achieve all the same things, but I want it so much more. Because I want to do it with Aida by my side, bringing life to the whole enterprise.

I take Aida’s hand and hold it, gently running my thumb over hers. She looks up, surprised, but not annoyed. She smiles up at me, squeezing my hand in return.

Then her phone buzzes and she sneaks it out of her bag to read the message. She’s looking at it under the table, so I can’t see the screen. But I notice the immediate change in her expression—how she sucks in a little breath of excitement, her cheeks flushing with color.

“What is it?” I ask her.

“Oh, nothing,” she says. “Just a text from my brother.”

She quickly stows the phone away. But I can tell she’s lit up with excitement, barely able to sit still now.

I take my hand back and drink my wine, trying not to let my irritation show.

What would it take to make Aida be completely honest with me? When will she open up to me and stop treating me like an annoying overseer?

She’s too happy to notice the change in my mood.

“We should order dessert!” she says. “What’s your favorite?”

“I don’t eat sweets,” I say sulkily.

“They have a grapefruit gelato,” she teases. “That’s pretty much health food.”

“Maybe I’ll have a bit of yours,” I say, relenting.

“I’m not eating that,” Aida laughs. “I’m getting chocolate soufflé.”


The next afternoon, I’m supposed to go see my new office at City Hall. I swing by the house to see if Aida wants to come along with me. To my surprise, she’s already dressed and getting into Nessa’s Jeep.

“Where are you going?” I ask her.

“I’ve got some errands to run,” she says vaguely.

“What kind of errands?”

“All kinds,” she says, climbing into the car and closing the door.

She’s wearing a little crop top and cut-off shorts, with her hair pulled up in a ponytail and heart-shaped sunglasses on top of her head. By Aida’s standards, this is fairly dressed up. My curiosity is inflamed.

I lean against the windowsill, annoyed that she’s not coming with me. I wanted to show her all of City Hall, and maybe go for a late lunch together.

“Can’t it wait?” I ask her.

“No,” she says regretfully. “Actually, I’ve got to get going . . .”

I step back, letting her start the engine.

“What’s the hurry?” I say.

“No hurry. See you tonight!” she calls, putting the car in reverse.

Aida is fucking maddening when she won’t answer my questions.

I can’t help thinking that she looks way too cute just to be running to the post office or whatever the fuck. And what kind of errands could she possibly have that are time-sensitive?

And who messaged her last night?

Could it be Oliver Castle?

Could she be going to meet with him right now?

I’m burning with jealousy.

I know I should just talk to her when she comes home tonight, but I don’t want to wait until then.

I wish I’d remembered to steal her phone. I figured out her passcode by watching over her shoulder while she entered it—it’s 1799, not hard to remember. But in the craziness of our encounter with Zajac and the election right after, I forgot to look through it.

I should have done it last night while she was sleeping.

Now it’s fucking eating me alive.

I grab my own phone out of my pocket and call Jack. He picks up immediately.

“What’s up, boss?” he says.

“Where are you right now?”

“Ravenswood.”

“Is there a GPS tracker on Nessa’s Jeep?”

“Yeah. Your dad’s got them on all the vehicles.”

I let out a sigh of relief.

“Good. I want you to follow it. Aida’s running errands—I want you to see what she’s doing, where she goes.”

“You got it,” Jack says.

He doesn’t ask why, but I’m sure he can guess.

“Keep me posted. Tell me everything she does. And don’t lose track of her.”

“Understood.”

I hang up the phone.

I don’t feel great about siccing Jack on Aida—especially knowing how she feels about him. But I have to know what she’s doing. I have to know, once and for all, if Aida’s heart belongs to someone else, or if it might be available. Maybe even for me.

I still have to go to City Hall, so I take my father instead. He’s already talking about how we’ll parlay this into a mayoral campaign in a couple of years. Plus, all the ways we can use the Aldermanship to enrich ourselves in the meantime.

I can barely pay attention to any of it. My hand keeps sneaking back into my pocket, clenching my phone so I can pick it up the moment Jack calls.

After about forty minutes, he texts me to say:

She’s somewhere around Jackson Park. I see the car, but I haven’t found her yet. Looking in the shops and cafes.

I’m strung tighter than a wire.

What’s in Jackson Park? Who is she meeting? I know she’s meeting someone, I can feel it.

My father puts his hand on my shoulder, startling me.

“You don’t look pleased,” he says. “What’s wrong, you don’t like the office?”

“No.” I shake my head. “It’s great.”

“What is it, then?”

I hesitate. My relationship with my father is based off of work. All our conversations center around the family business. Problems we need to fix, deals we need to make, ways we can expand. We don’t talk about personal things. Emotions. Feelings.

Still, I need advice.

“I think I might have made a mistake with Aida,” I tell him.

He peers at me through his glasses, thrown off balance. That’s not what he expected me to say.

“What do you mean?”

“I was cold and demanding. Cruel, even. Now it might be too late to start over . . .”

My father crosses his arms, leaning against the desk. He probably doesn’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about it, either. But it’s eating me alive.

“She didn’t seem to be holding a grudge last night,” he says.

I sigh, looking out the window at the high rises opposite.

Aida always rolls with the punches. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t hurt. And that doesn’t mean it will be easy to win her over. She’s a tough nut. What will it take to truly crack her open, to find that vulnerable core inside?

“When did you fall in love with Mom?” I ask, remembering that my parents’ marriage wasn’t exactly traditional, either.

“I’m not a sentimental person,” my father says. “I think we’re alike in that way, you and I. I don’t think much about love, or what it means. But I can tell you that I came to trust your mother. She showed me that I could rely on her, no matter what. And that’s what bonded us. That’s when I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. Because I could count on one person, at least.”

Trust as the essence of love.

It doesn’t sound romantic, not on the surface.

But it makes sense, especially in our world. Any gangster knows that your friends can put a bullet in your back just as easily as your enemies—even easier, in fact.

Trust is rarer than love.

It’s putting your fate, your happiness, your life in someone’s hands. Hoping they keep it safe.

My phone vibrates again.

“Give me a minute,” I say to my father, stepping out into the hall to take the call.

“I saw her for a second,” Jack says. “She was at a restaurant with some guy. He gave her something, a little box. She put it in her bag.”

“Who was the guy?” I ask, mouth dry and hand clenched tight around the phone.

“I don’t know,” Jack says apologetically. “I only saw the back of his head. He had dark hair.”

“Was it Castle?”

“I don’t know. They were sitting on the patio. I went into the restaurant—I was going to try to get a table so I could get closer and listen in. But while I was inside, they left. And I haven’t been able to find her again.”

“Where’s her car?” I demand.

“Well, that’s the weird thing,” I can hear Jack breathing heavy, like he’s walking and talking at the same time. “The Jeep is still in the same parking lot. But Aida’s gone.”

She must have left with the guy.

FUCK!

My heart is racing, and I feel sick.

Is she with him right now?

Where are they going?

“Keep looking for her,” I bark into the phone.

“I will,” Jack says. “There’s just one other thing . . .”

“What?”

“I found a shoe.”

I’m about to explode and Jack isn’t making any sense.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I say.

“There was a sneaker in the parking lot, over by the Jeep. It’s a woman’s shoe, Converse slip-on, size eight, cream-colored. The left foot.”

I wrack my brains, trying to remember what Aida was wearing when she stepped into the Jeep. A lavender-colored crop top. Jean shorts. Bare legs. And then, down on her feet . . . sneakers, as usual. The kind you can slip on without tying the laces. White or cream, I’m almost certain.

“Stay there,” I say into the phone. “Stay by the Jeep. Keep the shoe.”

I hang up the phone, hurrying back into the office.

“I’ve got to go,” I say to my father. “Do you mind if I take the car?”

“Go ahead,” he says. “I’ll take a cab back to the house.”

I hurry down to the main level again, my mind racing.

What the fuck is going on here? Who was Aida meeting? And how did she lose a shoe?

As I drive to meet Jack, I try calling Aida again and again. Her phone rings, but she doesn’t pick up.

The fourth time I call, it goes straight to voicemail without even ringing. Which means her phone is switched off.

I’m starting to get worried.

Maybe I’m a fool and Aida is shacked up in some hotel room right now, ripping the clothes off some other man.

But I don’t think so.

I know what the evidence looks like, but I just don’t believe it. I don’t think she’s cheating on me.

I think she’s in trouble.

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