Brutal Prince: Chapter 7

AIDA

My brothers are in an uproar about my father’s insane plan.

Dante didn’t say anything on the drive home, but I heard him arguing with Papa for hours afterward while shut up together in the study.

It was pointless. Papa is stubborn as a mule. A Sicilian mule that only eats thistles and will kick you in the teeth if you get too close. Once his mind is made up, not even the trump of judgment day could change it.

Honestly, Armageddon would be a welcome respite from what’s actually about to happen.

The very first day after the deal is struck, I get a message from Imogen Griffin telling me about some engagement party on Wednesday night. An engagement party! As if there’s something to celebrate here, and not just a slow-motion train wreck in process.

She also shipped me a ring in a box.

I fucking hate it, of course. It’s a big old square diamond on a bedazzled band, chunky and sure to bang against everything. I keep it shut up in its box on my nightstand, because I have no intention of wearing it before I absolutely have to.

The only good thing in this mountain of shit is that at least Sebastian is doing a little better. He had to have surgery to reconstruct his ACL, but we got the best doctor in the city, the same one who fixed Derrick Rose’s knee. So, we’re hoping he’ll be up and around again before long.

In the meantime, I’ve been going to the hospital to visit him every day. I brought him all his favorite snacks—Reese’s Peanut-butter Cups, string cheese, and salted cashews—and also his schoolbooks.

“Have you ever opened these before?” I tease him, laying the textbooks on his nightstand.

“Once or twice,” he says, grinning from the hospital bed.

The little nighty-thing they gave him to wear is ridiculously tiny on his giant body. His long legs stretch out from under it, his bandaged knee propped up with a pillow.

“You don’t walk around in that thing, do you?” I ask him.

“Only when the hot nurse is on duty.” He winks.

“Gross,” I say.

“You better get used to all things romantic,” Sebastian says. “Since you’re about to be a blushing bride . . .”

“Don’t joke about that,” I snap at him.

Seb gives me a sympathetic look.

“Are you worried?” he says.

“No!” I say at once, though it’s a complete lie. “They’re the ones that should be worried. Callum, especially. I’m gonna strangle him in his sleep the first chance I get.”

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Sebastian warns me. “This is serious, Aida. It’s not like your semester in Spain or that internship you took with Pepsi. You can’t just skip out of this if you don’t like it.”

“I know that,” I tell him. “I know exactly how trapped I’m about to be.”

Sebastian frowns, hating to see me upset.

“Have you talked to Papa?” he says. “Maybe if you tell him—”

“It’s pointless,” I interrupt. “Dante argued with him all night. He’s not going to listen to anything I have to say.”

I look at Sebastian’s knee, bandaged to twice its normal size and bruised all the way up the thigh.

“Anyway,” I say quietly, “I brought this on myself. Papa’s right—I made this mess, and now I’ve got to fix it.”

“Don’t be a martyr just cause my leg got fucked,“ Sebastian says. “You marrying that psychopath isn’t going to fix it.”

“It won’t fix your knee,” I say, “but it might stop anything else from happening.”

There’s silence between us for a minute, and then I say, “I’m really sorry that—”

“Don’t apologize again,” he says. “I mean it. First off, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was.”

“No, it wasn’t. We all chose to go to the party. You didn’t make that meathead stomp on me. And second, even if it was your fault, I wouldn’t care. I’ve got two knees, but only one sister.”

I can’t help snorting at that.

“That’s really sweet, Seb.”

“It’s true. So come here.”

I come closer to the bed so Sebastian can give me a side-arm hug. I rest my chin on his hair, which is the messier and curlier than ever. It feels like lamb’s wool against my skin.

“Quit beating yourself up about it. I’ll be fine. You just figure out a way to get along with the Griffins. Because going into this like you’re going into battle is only going to make things harder,” Seb says.

That’s the only way I know how to do it, though—head down, covered in armor. I approach everything as a fight.

“When can you leave?” I ask Sebastian. “Cause apparently I’m supposed to have an engagement party tomorrow night . . .”

“I wish I could come,” Sebastian says wistfully. “Them and us, all forced to dress up fancy and be nice to each other. I’d love to see it. Take pictures for me, at least.”

“I don’t think they’ll show up in a photo,” I tell him. “Bunch of blood-sucking vampires.”

Sebastian just shakes his head at me.

“You want any water or anything before I go?” I ask him.

“Nah,” he says. “But if the hot redheaded nurse is out there, tell her I look all pale and sweaty and I probably need a sponge bath.”

“No way,” I tell him. “And also, still gross.”

“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he says, leaning back against his pillow with his arms propping up his head.


All too soon, it’s time for the Griffins’ stupid engagement party. I feel like these people would throw a party for the opening of an envelope. They’re so ridiculous and showy.

Still, I know I’m supposed to behave myself and put on a good face for it. This will be the first test of my compliance.

I wish I had someone to get ready with. I loved growing up with all brothers, but it’s times like this that a little feminine company wouldn’t go amiss.

It would be nice if I had someone to assure me that I don’t look like half-melted sherbet in this stupid dress I bought. It’s yellow with scallops along the hem. It looked alright on the mannequin, but now that I’m trying it on at home, I feel like a little kid all dressed up for Easter. All I need is a straw basket over my arm.

At least Papa nods in approval when he sees it.

“Good,” he says.

He’s wearing a suit. Dante has on a black t-shirt and jeans, and Nero’s wearing a leather jacket.

My brothers are refusing to dress up on principle. A silent protest. I wish I could do the same.

We drive together to Shoreside, where the Griffins are hosting the party. The restaurant is already packed with guests. I recognize more of the people than I expected—our families run in some of the same circles, and I did go to the same school as Nessa and Riona, though I was between the two of them and not in the same grade.

I wonder for a moment if Callum went there, too. Then I crush that thought. I don’t care where Callum went. I’m not curious about him in the slightest.

Our upcoming nuptials don’t seem real to me at all. I feel like the punishment is the lead-up—the pretense that this is actually going to happen. Surely one or both of our families will call it off at the last minute, when they see that we’ve learned our lesson.

Until that happens, I just have to grin and bear it. Put on a phony face of cooperation so they can see I’ve had my wrist successfully slapped.

The only thing keeping me going is my morbid amusement that Callum Griffin is going to have to pretend to be in love with me tonight, just like I’m going to have to do to him.

It’s a joke to me, but I get the impression that for a stuck-up bastard like him, where image is everything, this will be pure torture. He probably thought he was going to marry some perfect prissy Hilton or Rockefeller heir. Instead he gets me on his arm. He has to pretend to adore me, while the whole time he’s dying to wring my neck.

Actually, this could be the perfect opportunity to put the screws to him. He won’t be able to do anything in front of all these people. I should see how far I can push him before he snaps.

First, I need a little refreshment to get me through this pony show.

I shake off my father and brothers, heading straight to the bar. Shoreside may be a bit snooty, but it’s got a fun resort kinda vibe, and they’re famous for their summery cocktails. Especially the Kentucky Kiss, which is bourbon, lemon, fresh strawberry purée, and a splash of maple syrup, poured over ice with a dumb little paper umbrella on top.

But when I order it, the bartender shakes his head regretfully.

“Sorry, no Kentucky Kisses.”

“What about a strawberry daiquiri?”

“No can do. We can’t make anything with strawberries.”

“Did your truck get hijacked on the way up from Mexico?”

“Nah,” he fills a shaker with ice and starts making a martini for somebody else while I scan down the drink menu. “It’s just for this party—I guess the dude is allergic?”

“What dude?”

“The one gettin married.”

I set my menu down, alight with interest.

“He is?”

“Yeah, his mom was makin a big deal out of it. Sayin no strawberries for anybody in the whole place. Like someone’s gonna try and hide one in his drink.”

Well, now they might . . .

“Very interesting,” I say. “I’ll take one of those martinis, then.”

He pours the chilled vodka into a glass and slides it over to me.

“Here, take this one. I can make another.”

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

I leave him a five-dollar bill as a tip, tickled to think that the political robot has a weakness after all. Red shiny kryptonite. Another thing to needle him about.

That’s my plan, until I actually see Callum.

He really does remind me of a vampire. Lean, pale, dark suit, eyes that are inhumanly blue. An expression both keenly sharp and highly disdainful. It must be difficult for him to try to be charming for his work. I wonder if he watches actual humans and tries to emulate them. If he does, he’s failing miserably. Everyone around him is chatting and laughing, while he’s gripping his drink like he wants to crush it in his hand. He’s got large hands, long, slim fingers.

When he catches sight of me, he shows some emotion at last—pure, unadulterated hatred. It burns out of him, in a straight line directly into me.

I walk right up to him, bold as brass, so he knows he can’t intimidate me.

“Better watch it, my love,” I whisper to him. “We’re supposed to be celebrating our engagement. Yet you look completely miserable.”

“Aida Gallo,” he hisses back at me. “I’m relieved to see that you’re at least aware of the concept of dressing up, even if your execution is trash.”

I keep my smile firmly plastered in place, not letting him see that stung a little. I hadn’t realized until I walked right up to him how much he was going to tower over me, even with these stupid heels on. I’m kind of wishing I hadn’t stood so close. But I’m not going to take a step back now. That would show weakness.

And anyway, I’m used to scary-looking men, thanks to my brothers. In fact, Callum Griffin doesn’t have any of the scars or permanently swollen knuckles that hint at what my brothers get up to. His hands are perfectly smooth. He’s just a rich kid, after all. I have to remember that.

His eye is drawn to the showy ring on my left hand. I put it on for the first time tonight, and I already feel strangled by it. I hate what it means, and I hate how it draws attention. Callum’s lips almost disappear as they tighten and blanch at the sight of it. He looks mildly nauseated.

Well, good. I’m glad it makes him suffer, too.

Without warning, Callum wraps his arm around my waist and jerks me close. It’s so sudden and unexpected that I almost haul off and smack him, thinking he’s attacking me. It’s only after a squealing blonde girl runs up to us that I catch on to his game.

She’s about 5’2, wearing a pink sundress with a matching silk scarf around her neck. She’s trailed by a bearded man carrying a large Hermès bag that I can only assume doesn’t belong to him, since it really doesn’t match his polo shirt.

“Cal!” she cries, grabbing his arms and stretching up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

All of this is par for the course at Shoreside. It’s Callum’s reaction that astonishes me.

His chilly expression transforms into a charming smile and he says, “There they are! My favorite newlyweds. Any tips for us now that you’re on the other side?”

It really is incredible, how the politician’s mask slides into place on his handsome face. It looks totally natural—except for the rigidness of his smile. I had no idea he was so good at this.

Makes sense, I guess. But it’s disturbing how easily he puts on the cheerfulness and charm. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The woman laughs, resting her manicured hand lightly on Callum’s arm. I can see her engagement ring, the rock almost tipping her hand over sideways. Jesus Christ, I think I just found the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

“Oh, Cal!” she says with a twittering laugh. “It’s only been a month for us, so all I’ve learned so far is that you shouldn’t register at Kneen & Co! What a nightmare trying to return the things we didn’t want. I asked for the Marie Daage Aloe custom dinnerware, but I immediately regretted it once I saw the new spring pattern. Of course, you don’t care about that—you’ll probably leave it all to your fiancée to handle.”

Now she spares me a glance, and the tiniest of lines struggle to appear between her eyebrows, valiantly fighting against the mass amounts of Botox attempting to smooth it back out again.

“I don’t think we’ve ever met,” she says. “I’m Christina Huntley-Hart. This is my husband, Geoffrey Hart.”

She holds out her hand in that limp overhand way that always confuses me. I have to fight the urge to bow and kiss it like an earl in an old movie. Instead I just give it a weird sideways squeeze, letting go as quickly as possible.

“Aida,” I reply.

“Aida . . .?”

“Aida Gallo,” Callum supplies.

That forehead line struggles to reappear again.

“I don’t think I know the Gallos . . .” she says. “Are you members at the North Shore Country Club?”

“No!” I say, matching her voice in pitch in phoniness. “Should we join? I fear my tennis game has been suffering ever so much lately . . .”

She stares at me like she has a slight suspicion I’m making fun of her but doesn’t believe that could possibly be true.

Callum’s hand tightens painfully around my waist. It’s hard not to wince.

“Aida loves tennis,” he says. “She’s so athletic.”

Christina smiles uncertainly.

“So do I,” she says. Then, turning back to Callum, “You remember when we played together in Florence? You were my favorite doubles partner of that trip.”

It’s funny. I could give two shits if Christina Cuntley-Hart wants to flirt with Callum. They might have fucked last week, for all I know. But I find it pretty fucking disrespectful that she’s doing it right in front of my face.

I look over at poor Geoffrey Hart to see what he thinks about it. He hasn’t spoken one word so far. He’s got his eye on the television over the bar, which is playing highlights from the Cubs game. He’s holding Christina’s purse in both hands, with an expression on his face like this month of marriage has been the longest thirty days of his life.

“Hey, Geoff,” I say to him, “did they let you play, too, or did you just carry the rackets?”

Geoffrey raises an eyebrow and gives a little snort. “I wasn’t on that particular trip.”

“Hm,” I say. “Too bad. You missed seeing Cal score with Christina.”

Now Christina is definitely pissed. She narrows her eyes at me, nostrils flared.

“Well,” she says flatly. “Congratulations again. Looks like you’ve got quite the catch, Cal.”

As soon as she sweeps away with Geoffrey in her wake, Callum lets go of my waist and seizes my arm instead, his fingers digging into my flesh.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he snarls at me.

“Are those your actual friends?” I ask him. “She should have just gotten one of those little dogs for her purse. Geoff is an awkward accessory . . .”

“Grow up,” Callum says, shaking his head in disgust. “The Huntleys organized a massive fundraiser for me last year. I’ve known Christina since grade school.”

“Known her?” I say. “Or fucked her? Because if you haven’t done it yet, you’d better get to it, before she starts humping your leg in public.”

“Oh my god,” Callum says, pressing his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe this. I’m marrying a child. And not a normal child—a demon hellspawn, like Chucky, or the Children of the Corn . . .”

I try to jerk my arm away from him, but his grip is harder than steel. I’m going to have to really make a scene to get loose, and I’m not quite ready to blow this thing up just yet.

So instead, I signal to the nearest waiter and take a glass of champagne off his tray. Then I take a sip and say to Callum, quietly and calmly, “If you don’t let go of me, I’m going to throw this drink in your face.”

He releases me, his face paler than ever from anger.

But he leans right into my face and says, “You think you’re the only one who can fuck with my plans? Don’t forget that you’re going to be moving into my house. I can make your life a living nightmare from the moment you wake up in the morning until I allow you to lay your head down again at night. I really don’t think you want to start a war with me.”

My hand is itching to fling that champagne right in his face, to show him exactly what I think of that.

But I manage to restrain myself. Just barely.

I content myself with smiling up at him and saying, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Callum stares at me blankly.

“What . . . what the fuck are you talking about? Does that mean you’re going to try to make the best of this mess?”

“Sure,” I say. “What else can I do?”

Actually, it’s a quote from The Art of War. Here’s another one I like:

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

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