Brutal Prince: Chapter 28

CALLUM

I don’t have the exact address for the Castles’ cabin, but I know it’s outside of Chesterton, and I know its rough position to the lake. So, I’m thinking I’ll be able to spot it, based off the color and general location.

Unfortunately, there are a fuck ton of little blue beach houses along this stretch of the lake. Plus, it’s getting dark and there aren’t that many streetlights along this route. I can barely tell which houses are blue, and which are gray or green.

I’m looking for Oliver’s Maserati, but I can’t count on that since he might have been driving something else.

I can at least bypass the places that are lit up with noise and laughter and partygoers—wherever Aida is, the house will quiet and relatively secluded, I’m sure of it.

I roll down the window to try to get a better look at some of the cabins that are set back from the road, half-hidden in trees.

Some of the driveways are so faint I can barely see them. In fact, I almost pass one by, failing to see the faint tracks through the grass. Until I smell a hint of smoke.

It’s so mild that I hardly know what scent I caught. Then I feel the automatic reaction—the hair on the back of my neck standing up and my heart starting to race. It’s a primal, terrifying smell. A warning of danger.

I slam on the brakes, whipping the wheel to the left. I follow the long, winding path toward a double stand of trees. Between those trees sits a small blue beach house that I’ve seen once before in a battered photograph.

Sure enough, Oliver’s silver Maserati is parked alongside the house. The trunk stands open.

I fucking knew it.

I stop my car, hoping Oliver hasn’t already heard the engine or seen me driving up the road. I slip out of the driver’s side and crouch down behind the car, trying to peer around at the house.

I send a quick text to Aida’s brothers. I’m an hour outside Chicago. They won’t be getting here anytime soon.

I can smell smoke for certain now. In fact, over the sound of the wind in the trees, I think I hear the crackling wood burning. All the lights are off, but an alarming orange glow emanates from the back of the house.

Fuck it, I can’t wait. If Aida’s in there, I have to get her out now.

I run toward the house, trying to stay low. I’ve got my Beretta with me and I draw it. I’m leery of actually using it in the dark, without knowing where Aida is. Even a stray bullet through a wall could accidentally hit her.

I go around the back of the house, trying to peer in the windows. I can’t see shit. So, I try the back door, finding it unlocked. The moment I open it, a cloud of thick, black smoke comes rolling out, and I have to drop even lower, stifling my cough in the crook of my arm.

The infusion of fresh air invigorates the fire. I hear it sucking up the oxygen, expanding in heat and size. The kitchen is ablaze, the cabinets, countertops, floor, and ceiling all burning.

As I try to skirt the fire, I trip over something on the floor. It’s relatively soft. For a second, I hope that it’s Aida, but then I realize it’s just an old mattress.

I want to call out for her, but I can’t risk alerting Oliver, wherever he might be. I try to search the main level as best I can in the smoke and darkness. I can’t go anywhere near the kitchen, or the hallway beyond.

She’s got to be upstairs. She’s got to be, because otherwise this whole place is going to burn down before I find her, and I can’t think about that.

So I pull my shirt partly over my face and run up the stairs, thinking only of Aida.

I let my guard down. I’m not holding my gun up.

As soon as I reach the head of the stairs, Oliver charges me from the side, with all the speed and technique of the athlete he once was. He barrels into me so hard that we slam into the opposite wall, smashing into the drywall. My gun goes spinning off down the hallway, hitting the doorjamb and disappearing into one of the rooms.

Oliver is hitting me with both fists, throwing wild haymakers and body shots. By bad luck, one of his blows lands directly on my amateur appendectomy, ripping open the stitches and making me roar with pain.

He’s an inch shorter than me, but probably thirty pounds heavier. Plus, he’s been in plenty of frat-boy brawls.

He’s not a trained fighter, though. After the initial shock and the wild onslaught, I get my hands up and block several of his punches, before hitting him in the stomach and jaw.

The hits barely seem to faze him. His face is almost unrecognizable—his hair is a tangled mess, he’s got a manic gleam in his eyes, and dried blood has run from his nose down around his mouth and chin, like some macabre goatee.

“Where is she, you fucking psychopath?” I shout, fists up.

Oliver swipes the back of his hand across his face as fresh blood seeps from his nose.

“She belonged to me first, and she’ll belong to me last,” he growls.

“She was never yours!” I shout.

Oliver dives at me again, grabbing for my knees. He’s so reckless and inflamed that he knocks me backward down the stairs. We go tumbling end over end, the side of my head slamming against one of the bare wood steps.

Oliver gets the worst of it, though. He’s on the bottom when we crash down on the landing. It knocks him out cold—or, so it appears.

The smoke in the air is thicker than ever, and I’m breathing hard from the fight. I double over with a fit of coughing, hacking so hard that I feel a sharp pain in my ribs, like I just popped one out of place. Or Oliver broke it when he threw his giant body at me.

I drag myself back up the steps, shouting, “AIDA! Aida, where are you?”

The shouting scratches my smoke-filled throat. I cough harder than ever, tears streaming out of my eyes.

Oliver seizes my ankle and yanks, pulling my feet out from under me. I fall straight down on the top stair, my jaw slamming against the wooden edge. I kick out hard with my foot, wrenching it out of Castle’s grasp and ramming the heel of my dress shoe directly into his eye. Oliver goes tumbling backward, back down to the landing.

I’m scrambling up the steps again. The upper part of the house is filling with smoke and I can feel the heat rising up from the kitchen. The fire must be all across the first floor now. I don’t even know if we’ll be able to get back down the stairs. Assuming Aida is even up here.

She’s got to be up here. Because if she’s anywhere else in the house, she’s already dead.

I run down the hallway, opening every door and looking in every room as I pass. Bathroom. Linen closet. Empty bedroom. Then at last, at the end of the hall, I find the master suite. It’s devoid of furniture like all the rooms, the house cleared out for sale. But there’s a figure laying in the middle of the floor, hands tied in front of her, feet bound with rope, head propped up on a pillow. Nice. I’m glad he made sure she was comfy before he tried to burn her alive.

I run over to Aida, lifting her head and turning her face so I can make sure she’s alright.

I press my fingers against the side of her throat. I can feel her pulse at least. As I tilt up her face, her lashes flutter against her cheek.

“Aida!” I cry, stroking her cheek with my thumb. “I’m here!”

Her eyes open, clouded and dazed, but definitely alive.

“Cal?” she croaks.

There’s no time to untie her. I pick her up and throw her over my shoulder. As I turn toward the doorway, I see a hulking shape blocking our way.

Gently, I set Aida back down on the bare floorboards. I can feel the heat radiating upward, and I can hear the fire getting louder and louder. We must be right over the kitchen. The wallpaper is starting to blacken and curl. The fire’s in the walls, too.

“It’s enough, Oliver,” I tell him, holding up my hands. “We have to get out of here before the whole house collapses.”

Oliver gives his head a weird, twitching shake, like there’s a fly buzzing around his ear. He’s hunched over, limping a little on one leg. Still, his eyes are fixed on me, and his fists are balled at his sides.

“None of us are leaving,” he says.

He charges at me one last time. His shoulder hits my chest like an anvil. We’re grappling and clawing at each other. I’m swinging punches at his face, his ear, his kidneys, any part of him I can reach.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Aida slamming her hands down against the windowsill. No, not her hands—her cast. She’s trying to break the cast off her right hand. Grunting with pain, she bashes the cast down one more time, breaking the plaster. Now she can pull her hand loose from the rope, and she begins to fumble with the ties around her ankles, her broken fingers clumsy and the knots too tight.

I lose sight of her as Oliver and I roll over again, each of us grappling with all our might. We’re both big men—I can feel the floor groaning dangerously beneath us. It’s getting hotter by the minute, the air so black and dense that I can barely see Aida at all.

She jumps to her feet and I shout, “Get the gun, Aida! It’s in one of the rooms . . .”

She won’t be able to find it, though. I couldn’t see it before, and it’s ten times smokier now.

Really, I just want her out of here. Because the fire is raging beneath us, and I have a feeling I’m about to plunge down to hell.

I get my hands around Castle’s throat and I pin him down, squeezing as hard as I can. His eyes are popping. He’s clawing at my arms, reigning blows on my face and body, weaker and weaker each time. I tighten my grip, even as I feel the floor starting to shift and groan beneath us.

The whole corner of the room gives way. The floor becomes a titled platform, a slide leading from the door down into the fiery pit that’s opened up beneath us. We’re sliding down, Oliver Castle and me on top of him, sliding and falling into the bonfire that once was a kitchen.

I let go of Castle and try to scramble backward, but it’s too late. I’m sliding faster than I can climb. There’s no way to save myself. Until something seizes my sleeve. I see Aida, clinging to the doorframe with one hand, and my wrist with the other. Her teeth are bared with effort, her face a rictus of pain as she tries to hang on to the frame with her broken hand.

I don’t grab her arm, because I can see how weak her grip is. I’m not dragging her down with me.

“I love you, Aida,” I say.

“Don’t you fucking dare!” she yells back at me. “You grab my arm, or I’ll jump in after you!”

With anyone else, it would be an idle threat.

Aida is the only person I know who’s stubborn enough to actually do it.

So I grab her arm and I haul myself upward, right as the joists give way and the whole room collapses. Oliver howls as he tumbles down into the flames. Aida and I fling ourselves through the doorway, scrambling down the hallway hand in hand. There’s no going down the stairs again, that much is obvious. We run to the opposite end of the house instead, finding a child’s room with sailboat decals still stuck to the walls. Oliver’s old room.

I wrench up the windowsill and climb out, letting out a fresh pillar of dark smoke. I hang from the window frame and then drop down. Then I put up my hands to catch Aida.

She jumps down into my arms, still only wearing one shoe.

As we sprint away from the house, I can hear the distant wail of sirens.

I’m pulling Aida down the drive to the Jeep. Aida yanks her hand out of my grip, yelling, “Wait!”

She runs in the opposite direction, past the inferno of the house, out on the sand toward the water.

She pauses, stooping to pick something up—her purse.

Then she runs back to me, her white teeth brilliant against her filthy face as she grins at me.

“Got it!” she says triumphantly.

“I can buy you a new purse,” I tell her.

“I know,” she says.

I’m about to start the engine, but there’s something I can’t wait another second to do, either.

I grab Aida and I kiss her, tasting blood and smoke on her lips.

I kiss her like I’ll never let her go.

Because I won’t. Not ever.

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