Tam: I’ll give Hallie Wynter thirty days. Thirty days of living with me before I’ll marry her. Thirty days for her to tell me no, so I can send her running back to my family’s biggest rival—her father. She might act tough, but I don’t doubt my ability to break her. She’s so innocent. So naïve. The girl will be begging to go home by the time I’m done with her. Hallie: Tam Cornell is too old for me; too hard, too cold, too everything. It was never supposed to be him. I know he’s pushing me, trying to send me back to a father who is just as ruthless as he is. He thinks he can shock me with his filthy words and violent touch, but nothing he can expose me to will make me leave. My father has always taught me family is everything. And in thirty days Tam Cornell will become my family, too, whether he likes it or not.
“What’s more important than family, Hallie?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. Nothing is more important than family. Family is everything.”
I knew my lines well. I’d been saying them since I’d been able to talk. Marlon Wynter, my father and head of the Wynter Syndicate, put both hands on my shoulders. He pulled me towards him and placed a kiss to my
brow. I wished the kiss contained some warmth, some tenderness, but it was cool and perfunctory.
“Good girl. I knew you wouldn’t let us down. This alliance with the Cornell Firm is necessary. You understand that, don’t you? And Harvey is a good man, for a Cornell, anyway. I wouldn’t be considering this otherwise.”
“Yes, Dad. I know all of that.”
He let out a sigh, and I suddenly saw the years in my father’s face. He was only in his mid-fifties, but these past few years had been hard on him. Turf wars over who controlled which parts of the city had grown rife, and with three families all fighting over various boroughs of London, they’d been even harder. We had some of the police in our pockets, but so did the other families. It had become a case of whoever could pay more were the ones who bought their loyalty, and there was always the chance that loyalty would change. Who did we trust?
“Of course you do. It’s just hard for me, trying to make the right choices for you on my own. I wish your mother was still around. She should have been here, today of all days.”
Yes, my mother would have loved to have seen me in my wedding dress. I imagined her standing behind me, rearranging my hair and placing my veil on my head. But it wasn’t to be. She’d died thirteen years ago, when I was eight, and I still missed her every day.
“Is Jayden coming?” I asked.
I wanted my younger brother in the church with me. If anything had happened to Dad, he would have been the one to give me away. I’d kind of
hoped he’d have swung by this morning, if only to wish me luck, but I hadn’t seen him. If he didn’t turn up at the church, I’d kill him.
“Yes, he’s at the church already, making sure everything runs smoothly on our side.”
My shoulders slumped with relief. “Good. I was worried he’d been out partying all night and was still sleeping off a hangover.”
“I can’t promise that he doesn’t have a hangover, but he’s definitely not sleeping.”
I smoothed down the front of the designer wedding dress and sucked in a breath to quell my nerves. I shouldn’t be nervous. I was about to marry one of the sons of a powerful family, tying our two families together. It was no hardship. Harvey and I had spent time together over the past couple of months, and we got along well enough. In time, I thought I could come to love him.
I’d gone for a cream dress instead of the traditional white, and lace sleeves encased my arms. A beaded bodice sheathed my torso, and layers of silk and more lace fell to the floor. A pair of cream Jimmy Choo sandals cradled my feet, and my curly red hair was piled up on top of my head, tendrils carefully teased loose, and fresh flowers woven within the tresses.
I felt beautiful, and I hoped Harvey would think the same when he saw me. I pictured him becoming overwhelmed with emotion and maybe even shedding a tear, but then I pushed that image from my head. That was never going to happen. Harvey wasn’t marrying me because of any feelings he might have for me. This was happening out of loyalty to our respective families, nothing else.
I didn’t want to feel that dip of disappointment in my stomach, but I did. I would have liked to fall into the arms of my husband, to have him say he couldn’t live without me, for our nights to be filled with passion, instead of this being an arrangement.
Passion would come later. There was plenty of time for that. My best friend, Layla, burst into the room.
“Oh my God, Hallie. You’re beautiful.”
She gave me a hug, and tears welled in my eyes. “Thanks, Lay.” “You can’t cry,” she admonished me. “You’ll ruin your makeup.”
I flapped my hand in front of my face, hoping to keep my mascara in place. “I won’t. I’m okay. You look gorgeous, too.”
I hadn’t wanted to be one of those brides who put their friend in some hideous dress to make themselves feel prettier. Layla was my only bridesmaid and technically my maid of honour as well, so I’d let her choose whatever dress she wanted. She’d gone for an A-line blush-pink strappy number, and it showed off her curves and olive skin to perfection. Her dark hair fell in waves across one shoulder, and small diamonds glinted on her earlobes.
My dad’s gaze darted between us. “I’ll give you girls a moment,” he said, before exiting the room.
I got the impression he was relieved to get out of here.
Layla dropped onto the edge of my bed. “Are you excited? I can’t believe you’re going to be a married woman in a few hours.”
“I know. It’s crazy, isn’t it. I feel like we were only in school a few months ago.”
“Me, too. I would say I envy you, but I hope I don’t get married until I’m at least thirty. I need to sow my wild oats first.” She gave me a wink and stuck out her tongue.
I raised both eyebrows. “Well, this isn’t exactly something I had planned, Lay.”
“Shit, yeah, I forgot. Sorry.”
I exhaled a breath and smoothed my dress down again. “Forget about it.
This is a new start for me.”
“Marrying the enemy.” She dropped her voice so she wouldn’t be overheard. “You know you don’t have to do this, don’t you? You can always say no to your dad.”
“Say no to my dad? Are you serious?”
“You’re his daughter. He should care about your happiness.”
A knot tightened in my stomach. “He cares about me staying alive. Our two families joining means we’ll be taking over two thirds of London. We’re stronger together than we are apart. We can stop any other families from reigning over the city.”
She cocked her head. “The Gilligans, you mean.”
We both knew it was one particular family that posed our biggest threat. “Yeah, them.”
Layla let out a sigh and took my hand. “It’s just so crap that you can’t do what you want.”
I squeezed her fingers. “I’m happy, Layla. I promise. Try to be happy for me, too, yeah?”
She plastered a smile on her face and jumped to her feet. “You’re right.
I’m being a total twat. Now, where’s that champagne. Don’t tell me your dad is letting his daughter get married to someone she barely knows without getting totally shitfaced on champers first.”
I laughed. “It’s over there.” I nodded at the silver ice bucket on a stand. “I’m only having one glass, though. I would like to actually remember my own wedding day.”
She poured our drinks into crystal champagne glasses and handed me one. We clinked them together.
“Here’s to a...headboard-banging wedding night.”
“Layla, stop it.” I scolded her, but my lips twitched in a smile.
“I can’t believe you’re marrying someone you haven’t even shagged yet.
What if he’s awful in bed? What if he’s got a micro penis?”
I made the unfortunate mistake of taking a sip of my drink right at that moment and ended up snorting the champagne out of my nose. “Jesus, Lay! You talk about me not making a mess of my makeup and then say something like that to me. And no, he will not have a micro dick. He’s one of the Cornell men. I cannot imagine a single one of them being anything less than hung like a donkey.”
It was her turn to snort laughter.
The door opened, and we both hid our giggles between flattened lips. My father stepped back into the room and glanced curiously between us.
“What are you two laughing about.”
Layla and I shared a look and almost dissolved again. “Nothing, Dad,” I managed to say. “Just girl stuff.”
“Well, pull yourselves together,” he said. “The car’s here for you.” Bloody hell, it was time. Fresh nerves tumbled in my stomach.
I didn’t really need a car. The church was only around the corner from the hotel where we lived in Shoreditch. East London was my family’s territory, where, across the river and to the south, belonged to the Cornells, and the Gilligans had the more upmarket area of Islington and North London. In central London, our territories merged, and there was the problem. It was impossible to live in London and not need access to the central part of the city. Areas were fought over for dominance, and while we did our best not to step into each other’s strongholds, there was never a line down the street
marking one territory from another. Now the Gilligans had pushed out the family who’d been running West London, taking even more of the city for themselves. Their crime family had been growing stronger, month on month, making both us Wynters and the Cornells more vulnerable. The only way to keep them from taking over the city for good was this alliance between our families, starting with a marriage between two of their offspring.
The church was the same one my parents had been married in twenty-five years earlier. That was why we were getting married over on our side of the city instead of the Cornell’s. Harvey said he didn’t care where the actual wedding took place, so long as we lived in their slice of the city. I had to admit, the idea of leaving our portion of East London unnerved me. I’d lived here my whole life, except for when I was away at a private boarding school during my teenage years, and now I was going to be living somewhere else.
Admittedly, it wasn’t as though it was even outside of the city, but it was the other side of the river, which felt like another part of the world. We didn’t go there—or we hadn’t until now—just like the Cornells didn’t step on our turf either. I guessed all of that was going to end now. We had to try to figure out how to be one family.
“I don’t really need a car,” I protested.
My father raised his eyebrows at me. “If you think I’m going to have a daughter of mine walk to her wedding day, you don’t know me at all.”
I smiled, but there were times when I felt like I didn’t know him. He did his best to shelter me from the worst of his business dealings, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew the hotel we lived in, and all the other businesses he had around our corner of the city, were just a cover-up for his main businesses, none of which were legal. Money laundering, illegal gambling, counterfeiting, were just a scratch on the surface. But I couldn’t complain. I’d benefitted from the money he earned and was still benefitting from it now.
From my expensive education to my wedding dress, they were all paid for by my dad’s businesses.
“Are you ready, Hallie?” Layla asked me. I smiled and nodded. “Yes, I’m ready.”
I had to be, didn’t I? With two of London’s most powerful crime families filling up a church, waiting for my arrival, I didn’t have much choice.
Layla chugged the remainder of her champagne.
My father frowned at her. “You know that’s a Dom Perignon vintage and costs four hundred quid a bottle. You’re not supposed to drink it like tequila.”
“Damn. You should have told me sooner,” she quipped. “I would have drunk more of it.”
Despite himself, my father smiled. No one could be mad with Layla for long. She had the kind of confidence I craved.
I would have liked to follow her down to oblivion as well, but I needed to stay sharp. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself in front of my new husband’s family.
My dad put his arm out to me, and I slipped my hand into the crook. With Layla behind us, picking up my train, we caught the private lift from our living quarters down to the lobby. The doorman hurried to open the large glass hotel doors, and we stepped out onto the street. London’s traffic fumes hit my nostrils, the usual noise and bustle filling my ears—distant police sirens, horns honking, the constant drone of vehicles. A couple of my father’s men had directed people to the other side of the street, so I didn’t have to weave my way through strangers on my way to the car. The classic Rolls- Royce had ribbon running down the long bonnet. Despite my protests about not needing a car, I had to admit it was beautiful.
I was grateful the weather had held off. It might be early summer, but that didn’t mean anything in England. One thing we could rely on in this country was that the weather was always unreliable.
The driver opened the door for me, and I slid onto the soft leather of the back seat, careful not to wrinkle my dress, and swallowed my nerves. I’d be fine once this part was over, I told myself. It was just the thought of standing at the front of a church with everyone staring at me that was making me so nervous, not the marriage itself. Once the wedding was done, I could relax, and Harvey and I could start to get to know each other properly.
In the bedroom.
I hoped he wouldn’t think I was completely useless in that regard. Maybe it was old-fashioned to save yourself for your wedding, but I had. I hadn’t done it deliberately, but when you were Marlon Wynter’s daughter, both men, and boys, had a tendency to give you a wide berth. Who would want to be the one to take his daughter’s V-card? I was pretty sure no one would be stupid enough to risk their lives just to get into bed with me.
The driver started the Rolls-Royce. I sat in the back with Layla on one side and my dad on the other. We were only in the car for a matter of minutes, and before I could even get my head around it, we were pulling up in front of the church.
It was a pretty red stone building, with a graveyard surrounding it, a gravel path leading up to the front door, and black wrought-iron railings dividing the grounds from the road and pavement. Not that I could see much pavement. People were everywhere. Most of them in expensive suits or pretty dresses. I didn’t recognise any of them.
The moment the car stopped, everyone extinguished cigarettes or put their phones away and hurried into the church. Harvey was nowhere to be seen, and I imagined he was already standing at the front of the church, with his younger brother, Leo Cornell, beside him as best man.
Was Harvey nervous, too?
“Are you ready?” my father asked me. I nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
Someone must have got the nod as organ music began inside the church and the inner doors were swung wide open, giving us unfettered access.
I stepped through the arched doorway, hanging on tightly to my father’s arm. I wanted to keep my line of sight straight and focus on my husband-to- be standing tall at the front, but the moment I caught sight of the pews filled with people, all of whom were staring at me, I couldn’t help searching for a familiar face. I wanted to catch the eye of a friend or family member and have them throw me a reassuring smile, but instead, it was someone else’s eye I caught.
Standing near the back, his eyes narrowed, was the brother who hadn’t
been asked to be best man.
Tam Cornell didn’t approve of this union. I was surprised he’d even come.
While others wore bright colours and light-grey suits with flowers in the lapels to celebrate the wedding, he was dressed entirely in black. At well over six feet, with shoulders that filled out every inch of his suit and biceps pressing at the material of the sleeves, he made for an imposing figure. The black of his suit matched his thick hair and eyes that were almost as dark.
He caught my gaze and held it steady, not a spark of light about him. He was the eldest of the three sons, and so would be the one to take over everything, should something happen to his father, Samuel Cornell. He’d probably imagined a future where he’d be king of the whole of this side of the river and didn’t want to have to share it with my family. We were ruining that for him now, except he didn’t really have a choice. He wouldn’t be able
to hold off the Gilligans by himself, and he must know that. My father wouldn’t have agreed to this either if there was any other way.
I hoped he wasn’t here to stir up trouble. This was one day I’d like to get through without a fight breaking out.
I wrenched my eyes away from him, and my cheeks flooded with heat. I focused on the front of the church and the two men standing there, Harvey and Leo. Harvey watched me, and a smile touched my lips. He was handsome in his three-piece suit, his wavy light-brown hair combed back from his face, his blue eyes a shade darker than the sky. That was one of Harvey’s benefits—even though he was the son of one of the most powerful crime families in London, he looked like he should be playing polo on a field in Winchester and breaking for afternoon tea.
In one of the pews near the front of the church, I spotted my brother, Jayden, sitting beside some young woman I didn’t even recognise. It was most likely his latest hook-up, or perhaps someone he’d picked up the night before and brought along for the fun of it. I didn’t mind. I was just happy he’d come and that I had someone else here who actually gave a shit about me.
I reached Harvey’s side. My father paused to face me, kissed my cheek, and leaned in to speak in my ear.
“I’m proud of you for doing this.”
I bit back tears and nodded, and he stepped back, allowing me to join Harvey’s side.
Harvey smiled at me. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. “Thanks,” I mouthed back.
The priest cleared his throat, and we both turned our attention him.
“We gather here to unite these two people in marriage,” he began. “Their decision to marry has not been entered into lightly, and today they publicly declare their private devotion to each other.”
I barely paid any attention to anything else he said. I couldn’t help thinking about people in the congregation, staring, all their focus on me. I hadn’t ever wanted to be the centre of attention, but now it was unavoidable. Harvey kept catching my eye, smiling at me. I hoped he was happy with this arrangement and wasn’t wondering what the hell he’d got himself into.
The priest cleared his throat again, and I realised it was time for the marriage vows. Shit, this was it. No time to back out now—not that I’d ever intended on backing out. I wouldn’t let my father down like that.
“Repeat after me,” the priest said. “I, Harvey James Cornell, take you, Hallie Sophia Wynter, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Harvey repeated everything he’d said. My cheeks hurt from holding a smile for so long, but I didn’t feel I could let it fall, not with everyone watching.
The priest addressed me. “Repeat after me. I, Hallie Sophia Wynter, take you—”
The unmistakable crack of gunfire exploded in my ears. In a split second, all hell broke loose. Members of the congregation dropped from the pews, hiding between the solid wooden benches, while others—predominantly the men—returned fire.
Whoever had started the shooting must have done so from near the big wooden doors and had already run. Some of the more prominent men from both families had given chase.
My ears were ringing, and something wet and hot dripped down my face.
Feeling as though I’d woken in the middle of a nightmare, I lifted my trembling hand to touch my cheek. When I pulled my hand away, my fingertips were red with blood. In shock, I turned to Harvey. He wasn’t even my husband yet—the priest hadn’t had time to finish the ceremony—but still I wanted him for support. But Harvey didn’t seem to even be aware of me.
Instead, he looked down at his chest and the bloom of red that was spreading across the front of his white shirt.
But it wasn’t the wound in his chest that I couldn’t take my eyes off, it was the damage that had been done to Harvey’s handsome face. It dawned on me where the blood running down my face had come from. He barely seemed to have noticed, staring down instead at the red spot on his shirt, but then his knees folded beneath him, and he crumpled to the floor.
I opened my mouth and screamed.
God, what if he didn’t like having sex with me and sent me back to my father because of it? I didn’t even want to picture the level of humiliation I’d experience. But the prospect worried me, and not only because of Tam’s size or age, or cold, clinical view of what our marriage should be. It was because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d had the occasional fumble with boys when I was younger, and I’d shared steamy kisses with Harvey, but that was as far as my experience went. I’d watched the occasional bit of porn with Layla as well, where we’d screamed and giggled at the Olympian displays on-screen, of long limbs and hairless bodies bent into impossible positions and multiple holes filled, but I highly doubted real sex was anything like that. I knew the mechanics of it, but the easy, natural workings of a male and female body coming together was foreign to me. I’d be awkward and clumsy, and not know how to touch him right.
I straightened my shoulders. I needed to be a grown up about this, mature. “Then I won’t say no. If you think it’s important for us to
have sex, then that’s what we’ll do.”
He laughed at me, cold and humourless. “Do you think you’ll just be able to lie back and pretend nothing is happening while I thrust into you?”
My cheeks burned again. “I...I don’t know what I think.”
“Take your most perverse thoughts and multiply them by a thousand.” He smirked. “After one week with me, you’ll be begging to go back to your father.” His tone was filled with scorn.
“You’re wrong. I will do whatever it takes to keep our two families together. Family is everything.”
He curled his lip and shook his head at me. “You will never be my family.”
“If we’re married, I will be.”
He snorted. “A few words on a piece of paper. They don’t mean anything compared to shared blood flowing through your veins.”
“Not in the eyes of the law.”
“The law? Since when do people like us care anything about the law?” He caught my chin in his fingers. “So innocent. So naïve. I will destroy you within days.”
His touch seemed to burn my skin. “You underestimate me.”
“We’ll see. The moment you tell me you want to go home to your daddy, that’s exactly what will happen. I’ll send you home, and our alliance will be broken. Our families will remain enemies.”
“And if I never say those words?”
He gave a small laugh. “Then I guess I’ll have to marry you.”