Brutal Prince: Chapter 8

CALLUM

After that first bit of brattiness, Aida calms down and starts to behave herself. Or at least, she does her best. She puts on a smile and chats with reasonable civility to the stream of guests who come up to congratulate us.

It’s pretty fucking awkward explaining to friends and family that I’m about to marry this girl they’ve never even heard of, let alone met. Again and I again I tell them, “We kept things private. It was romantic, keeping it between the two of us. But now we can’t wait anymore; we want to get married.”

I see more than a few people glance down at Aida’s stomach to see if there’s a particular reason we’re in such a rush.

Aida puts those rumors to rest by drinking her weight in champagne.

As she reaches for another glass, I snatch it out of her hand and slug it down myself instead.

“You’ve had enough,” I tell her.

“I decide when I’ve had enough,” she says stubbornly. “It takes more than a little glorified ginger ale to get me drunk.”

But I can tell she’s already less steady on her high heels, and she was none too steady to begin with.

I’m relieved that she wore a dress, though the one she picked looks cheap and overly bright. What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they have the money to buy decent clothes? Her brothers look like complete thugs. One’s wearing a fucking t-shirt and jeans, the other’s kitted up like James Dean. Dante is skulking around the room like he expects a bomb to go off any minute, and Nero’s chatting up the bartender like he’s planning to take her upstairs. Maybe he will, that sleazy shit. I’m pretty sure he fucked Nora Albright in my house.

At least Enzo Gallo is properly attired for the occasion, and properly mannered. He seems to know almost as many people here as I do. Not the new-money socialites, but anybody deeply connected to old Chicago. I can see them shaking his hand with respect. Maybe my father wasn’t entirely wrong about the benefits of this alliance.

My parents come over to check in on us, with Madeline Breck alongside them. Madeline is almost seventy years old, black, with close-cropped gray hair, a plain suit, and sensible shoes. She’s got a calm and intelligent face. If you were stupid, you might think she’s a friendly grandmother type. In actuality, she’s one of the most powerful people in Chicago.

As President of the Cook County Commissioner’s Board, she controls the purse strings of massive publicly-funded projects from parks to infrastructure. She also has an iron-clad grip on the liberal democrats of Chicago. Without ever appearing to stick her finger in the pie, she manages to get whoever she wants appointed to key positions like city treasurer or state’s attorney.

She is shrewd and subtle, and not at all someone I want to get on my bad side. So I’m almost sick at the thought of Aida saying something obnoxious in front of her.

As she approaches, I hiss to Aida, “Behave yourself. That’s Madeline—”

“I know who she is,” she interrupts, rolling her eyes.

“Madeline,” my father says, “you know our son Callum. He’ll be running for the Alderman seat in the 43rd Ward in a few weeks’ time.”

“Excellent,” Madeline says. “It’s about time we had someone in there with some vision.”

“What sort of vision are you hoping for?” I ask her. “Maybe someone who can keep Lincoln Park in one piece?”

She smirks at me. “Who told you I was against the re-mapping?”

“A little bird,” I say. “If I become Alderman, I wouldn’t want Lincoln Park chopped up and portioned out. Luckily, I’m close personal friends with the head of the Rules Committee.”

“Jeremy Ross is stubborn,” Madeline says, peering at me over the top of her glasses like she thinks I don’t actually have any sway over him.

“He’s stubborn as hell, but he owes me a favor. And not a small one, either.”

“Well, I only want what’s best for the neighborhood,” she says magnanimously.

“Of course. I feel exactly the same. Lincoln Park has history. We can’t allow it to be farmed out to other districts that won’t see it as a priority.”

“That’s the spirit,” she says, patting my arm. “Nice to meet you, dear,” she says to Aida.

I’m a little confused about why she ended our conversation so abruptly. I’m pretty sure we both want the same thing.

As she walks away, Aida takes another swig of the drink she swiped from somewhere and says, “You know she doesn’t give a fuck about Lincoln Park.”

My father whips his head around sharply. “What are you talking about?”

“She gets kickbacks on the garbage service in the 44th and 32nd Wards,” Aida says, as if it’s obvious. “You add half of Lincoln Park to that, and you double the value. She’s just opposing the re-mapping in public because it’s unpopular.”

A glance passes between my parents.

“I better talk to Marty Rico,” my mother says.

As they split off to confirm, Aida laughs softly.

“How did you know that?” I ask her.

“Looks like the Griffins aren’t so well-connected after all,” she says. “I guess nobody was talking about it at the North Shore Country Club.”

“How would you get her to come around, if you’re so smart?” I demand.

“Why should I tell you?” Aida says, narrowing her gray eyes at me and taking another sip of her drink. She looks sly and malicious when she does that, like some sort of jungle cat high up in the branches, about to drop down on my head.

“Well,” I say, “in another week’s time, what’s mine is yours. Which means my successes . . . and my failures . . . will all be on your shoulders too. So it makes sense for you to help me.”

She sets her empty glass down on the nearest planter, color coming into her cheeks.

“You think I’m going to be some little woman standing behind you, working behind the scenes to help launch your bright shiny star?” she snaps.

“I don’t need your help,” I tell her, “but if we’re going to be stuck together, we might as well work together.”

“I’m not your accessory!” she says hotly.

“Oh, you’ve got something better to do with your time?” I sneer at her. “As far as I can tell, you don’t do shit in your own family’s business, and you just fuck around taking classes at Loyola. What do you care about, besides sneaking into other people’s parties?”

She stares up at me, angry, and for once, silenced.

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” she says at last.

A weak retort, compared to her usual. I must have struck a nerve.

So I push her just a little further.

“I doubt you’d have anything useful to say, anyway.”

She’s almost quivering with anger. Aida has a temper—I really shouldn’t needle her like that, especially not in a public place where I’ve got more to lose from her flying off the handle than she does.

But at last she says, “I know you’re trying to goad me. I’ll tell you the answer anyway, only because it doesn’t matter, and you won’t be able to do it anyway. Madeline Breck cares about making money, end of story. She gets a chop out of a hundred different utility and construction deals. But if she’s passionate about anything, it’s cops shooting people. If you can convince her you’re actually going to do something about that, you might get her on board. But you can’t, cause then you’ll lose the support of the police union, and probably the firefighters, too.”

That’s . . . actually not the worst idea in the world. Aida is probably right. But she’s also right that it would be difficult to impress Madeline without pissing off the police union.

“That’s actually pretty smart,” I say.

“Oh, thank you!” she replies sarcastically. “I’m so honored.”

Then, right as she’s in the middle of rolling her eyes, Aida catches sight of someone coming toward us and she whips around like she’s going to be able to find somewhere to hide, despite the fact that this party is in our honor, and she’s dressed about as subtly as sunflower.

It’s Oliver Castle strolling over, hands stuffed in his pockets, a big stupid grin plastered across his face. I’ve known him since college, but I’ve never been a fan. He was a football star, and he’s obviously still been eating like one, despite the fact that he works at his father’s investment firm now. His big, beefy frame is just starting to get soft, though he still looks strong. He’s extra tan, probably from some recent trip that he’s sure to tell me all about.

But as he draws close, I see his attention is entirely fixed on Aida.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” he says.

“Hey Ollie,” she says, turning around unenthusiastically.

Ollie?

“I’m hurt, Aida. You get engaged and you don’t even call to tell me?”

“Why would I call you?” she says flatly. “I spent three months ignoring your messages and calls. When you’re trying to train a dog, you can’t give it a single treat, or it’ll keep barking and slobbering on you forever.”

I expect Oliver to be offended, but he just grins and sidles all the closer to Aida, so he’s towering over her. It’s pissing me off how close he’s standing, and how he hasn’t even acknowledged me yet.

“Now there’s the bite I love,” Oliver says. “Never change, Aida.”

“I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I say.

“Oh, we go way back,” Oliver drawls, still looking at Aida.

I step between the two of them, so I’m partially cutting off his view.

“Well, I guess we’ll be seeing you at the wedding, then,” I say, not bothering to hide the irritation in my voice.

“I guess so,” Oliver says, finally sparing me a glance. “Funny, I never pictured you two together. Aida’s so wild. I didn’t think she’d let one of the glitterati put a ring on her finger.”

“Just because you didn’t manage it, doesn’t mean no one else can,” I growl.

Aida interrupts us.

“As thrilling as this is, I think I’m gonna go get some food.”

She pushes past us, leaving us alone together.

Without Aida, the tension dissipates, and I find myself annoyed that I’m even talking to Oliver, let alone getting riled up about the fact that he apparently used to date my fake fiancée. Why should I give a fuck who Aida dated before me? She could have banged the whole Bears starting lineup, and what would it matter? Our arrangement is business, nothing more.

Still, it pisses me off when Oliver says, “Good luck, Griffin. She’s a live one.”

“I doubt you know a fucking thing about what she is or isn’t,” I snap at him.

Oliver raises his hands in mock apology.

“Sure, sure,” he says. “I bet you’ve got it totally under control.”

He’s giving me a wicked grin, like he can’t wait to see how Aida’s going to fuck up my life.

Unfortunately, I think he might be right.

I go find Riona—she’ll know the scoop on this.

“You know Oliver Castle?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says, tucking back a lock of her bright red hair. She has her phone out, checking work emails in the intervals between socializing. Riona got her law degree, mostly to prove she could, I think. Now she works for the firm that handles all our business interests.

“Did Castle use to date Aida?” I ask her.

Riona raises her eyebrows at me. They’re as red as her hair.

Yeah,” she says, like I asked her if sushi’s made of rice. “They dated for over a year. He was obsessed with her. Completely head over heels, making a fool of himself, barely working, chasing her everywhere she went. She went to Malta on vacation, he ditched his job in the middle of some huge acquisition and chased after her. His father was furious.”

“So what happened?”

“She dumped him out of nowhere. Nobody could figure it out. Oliver’s a catch—he’s an only child, he’s going to inherit all of Keystone Capital. Plus, he’s good-looking, charming enough . . . and she just dumped him on his ass, wouldn’t tell anybody the reason.”

“Well, he’s a fucking moron, for one,” I say.

Riona stares at me.

“Is that jealousy?” she says, in disbelief.

“No,” I scowl at her. “I just don’t like finding out that my fiancée dated that ape. This is the problem with marrying a fucking stranger!”

“Lower your voice,” Riona says coldly. “None of us like this, but since our parents have apparently gone insane, we’ve got to make the best of it.”

At least Riona’s on my side.

It’s a shame my father always pits us against each other, because I do respect her. She’s disciplined, hardworking, intelligent. But she’s always nipping at my heels, waiting for me to fail so she can take my place.

Well, that ain’t happening. I’m powering through this, no matter how many trust-fund idiots Aida dated before me.

“Listen,” I say to Riona. “I’ve got to get in good with Madeline Breck. Can you work some kind of deal with Callahan?”

I explain the whole thing to her.

William Callahan is the chief of police in my district. It would be better if I could get the superintendent of the whole city on my side, but it’s a start at least. To show Madeline Breck that I’ve got sway with the cops.

Riona listens, her face skeptical.

“That’s a tough sell,” she says.

“Try, at least,” I ask her.

Riona nods, resolute. That’s the perfectionist in her. She can’t turn down an assignment.

She leaves to talk to Callahan again, and Dante Gallo takes her place next to me. He’s got one of those faces that always looks unshaven, dark shadows all around his lips and broad jaw. He’s got a kind of brutal, uncut look to his face and bulky frame. Hunched and defensive, like a fighter. I’m not intimidated by him—I’m not intimidated by anyone. But if I had to face off against one of Aida’s brothers, I wouldn’t want it to be Dante.

I already know why he came over here to talk to me.

Sure enough, Dante looks me in the eye and says, “My father may be handing Aida over to you people, but don’t think for a second we’re forgetting about her. She’s my baby sister. And if you lay one finger on her in a way she doesn’t like—”

“Save it,” I cut him off. “I have no intention of abusing Aida.”

“Good,” Dante growls.

But now it’s me who takes a step closer to him.

“Let me tell you something, though. When she says those vows to me, she becomes my wife. She’ll belong to me. And what happens to her isn’t your concern anymore. She answers to me. What goes on between us is my business, not yours.”

Dante’s shoulders hunch up all the more. He clenches two fists the size of grapefruits.

“She’ll always be my business,” he snarls.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about. I’m pretty sure she can take care of herself.”

Dante scowls.

“Yes, she can,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean she’s unbreakable.”

I look across the room where Aida’s talking to Nero. He apparently didn’t close the deal with the bartender, and Aida seems to be ribbing him about it. While I watch, she throws back her head and laughs, so loud that I can hear it all the way over here. Nero scowls and punches her hard on the shoulder. Aida just laughs harder, without flinching.

“She’ll be fine,” I say to Dante.

He shakes his head at me, eyes dark and serious.

“Treat her with respect,” he says threateningly.

“Worry about your own side of the family,” I tell him coldly. “If we’re chained together, you fucking savages need to learn to act civilized. I’ll kill every last one of you before I let you drag us down.”

“Just so long as we understand each other,” Dante says.

He turns and stomps away. I look around for another drink.

In the last week, I’ve had enough of the Gallos to last me a lifetime. And we’re only just getting started in our new “close-knit” relationship.

Dante can take his protective older brother schtick and shove it up his ass.

He thinks Aida has some vulnerable side?

I doubt it.

She’s an animal, just like her brothers.

Which means she needs to be broken.

Oliver wasn’t able to tame her—she ran right over him. Made a fool of him, publicly. Well, she’s not doing that to me. If Aida is a rock, then I’m the fucking ocean. And I’m going to beat against her, over and over, wearing her down one pebble at a time. Until I’ve broken her up and swallowed her whole.

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