Crime by Ellie Merlin

Prologue

“Don’t move, Winter,”my grandmother says to me as she pulls the corset tighter. I want to tell her that I can’t breathe, but she’ll only make it tighter.

Rather than talking, I just shut my eyes. The emotions brewing in my head right now are suffocating. I want to run away from here, yet at the same time, I understand why I am here. Why this is who I am and how life flows for us here. I want to mourn my sister so much; I want to hug her and hold her in my arms again.

No one else but me found Willow. She was so cold when I slowly pulled her out of the tub. She was supposed to be bathing off the filth of a man as Grandmother called it. She let a man touch her in intimate ways, and grandmother knew just what to do. I told Willow not to do it. Not to get caught up in the blue irises of that man. Not to look at his skin as it glowed when the sun looks like it rises and sets on him. I’ve noticed the many ways he would look at her, the angles of which his eyes seemed to want more than she should’ve allowed him to have.

I don’t know the extent of their relationship, but I do know that she loved him. She wanted to be with him in ways that weren’t permitted before marriage. In our society, our world, it isn’t allowed. It isn’t right, especially with our last names. We weren’t and still aren’t allowed to do such things.

No one outside of our staff knew how ruthless grandmother was or rather is, but I do. I know the most because whenever Willow would mess up, it was me, who would get the hard end of the stick. But as grandmother said, she does it to keep me pure. The dips in the water made of milk and honey, the purification ceremony every month, the only white undergarments rule, but Willow messed that up.

“Are you listening to me, Winter?”

“Sorry, grandmother,” I reply in a meek voice.

“I’m warning you one last time.” She grabs my arm, applying pressure—much more pressure than she usually does. I’m going to be wearing a long sleeve dress, so it won’t show on my much lighter skin. Of the two, my sister was paler, and therefore, I had a little bit of color. “If you let that Wolfgang boy even look your way, I will bring down the wrath of God. Do you hear me?”

I inhale sharply and exhale. “Yes, grandmother, I hear you.” If I say something crazy, she would only end up doing something even more drastic.

“Good. Now, here are the rules for the funeral. Don’t talk about Willow in that suicide light, don’t even consider saying you feel bad for her. She was a coward who took her life, and that’s not how we will allow others to think of us. You will walk with dignity in there and not speak to anyone unless addressed. Now, go put on the dress I picked out for you. You need to be presentable in front of everyone, and not suggest that others touch or look. Understood?”

“Yes.” Without another word, I walk towards the dress hanging on the back of the door andslip it on without saying another word.

* * *

“She doesn’t even careabout her sister.” I hear someonewhisper. “She’s so dead inside. She has to be, because who else would just sit at their sister’s funeral next to their sister’s ex.”

This is too much; this is too hard for me. The little black veil that should be covering my face doesn’t help me at all. I feel like everyone is watching me instead of paying their respects to Willow.

“I heard Willow killed herself in the bathtub. She was just sick of having a dead family while she was the only one alive inside. They killed her.”

The second I go to stand, my grandmother’s hand comes down on my thigh. Slowly, I look ather, and she glares at me. Rena Hanson is the embodiment of grace and fear. Her features contradict her sternness. Her dark but rich chocolate skin is smooth to the touch, with few wrinkles forming here and there. She reminds me of Mom sometimes, but memories of Mom are beginning to fade away. I don’t even dream of her anymore.

Another hand is patting my hand, and my eyes widen as I look up in shock. It’s Hiram Theodore Wolfgang, better known as Hiram Wolfgang around here and in the tabloids. One could say that his looks scream of his German and Greek ancestry, and I wouldn’t be able to deny it either. His blue eyes pull you into this sort of secure place which shouldn’t make anysense, but it does. His light brown hair is always tied back into a braided ponytail that I’ve never seen loose. He’s a couple of inches or so over six feet, and everything about him screams my sister’s type. I can’t take my eyes off of him even though I know that I will face grandmother’s wrath over it. I shouldn’t be looking at him at all. I can’t keep looking at him, but there’s just something about him.

Hiram smirks, and my eyes instantly go to his lips. He has kissable pink lips and he’s rocking a clean-shaven look. “You’re being called up to say a few words,” he says to me in his British accent, and my eyes widen.

Each and every time that this man speaks to me, which isn’t often, I forget that he has an accent. His prestigious family, a bit more prestigious than mine, may I add, moved back here years ago, but Grandmother never really let me visit there. She had rules upon rules about meeting others when it had nothing to do with us or me. I think it stemmed from herstill being upset that the CEO position in our company being given to Hiram instead of my older brother, William. I could tell her that she was always too busy focusing on us girls instead of checking out her grandson and how he was not a businessman. If anything, I could run our family company, but that would mean that I run it into the ground so that everything around me can light up in flames.

There’s a part of me that isn’t sad or understanding of this love. There's an anger, one that I try to never focus on because it will take me somewhere where I do not need to go. I don’t want to go there or be a part of it. I never want to be a part of the anger that can eat me alive and take me as a hostage.

Hiram Wolfgang stands up with his hand stretched out to me, and Grandmother’s nails sink into my arm. I can feel her wrath some more and I don’t know what to do. It will look even more embarrassing if I don’t take it. She speaks about holding the family accountable for everything, especially in public, so she shouldn’t be mad at me.

Taking a deep, brave breath, I stand, placing my hand in Hiram’s. His hand is warm, and it makes me feel oddly alive. I clear my throat and quickly pull myself out of whatever I am or had been feeling. We walk over to the podium, and instead of letting go of my hand, he holds it in his as if he has every right to. Just then, I feel eyes on me, angry eyes that are filled with vengeance. I peer up at Grandmother, and she doesn’t have to say a word because I know that tonight, another scar will be added but not physically, mentally. She’s hurting me inside more than she is on the outside. I could care less about my physical body. It’s my soul that I know I’ll never get back because it’s in an abyss floating out somewhere and not in me.

Hiram doesn’t let go even though I try to pull away from him. Instead, he just ends up tightening his hold on me. I don’t say anything because I can’t seem to take my eyes off my grandmother. Even if the veil hides my eyes, it doesn’t mean she can’t see me, and I can’t see her. She knows that I sort of like the hand holding. No one has ever held my hand before. No one has ever made me feel even an inkling of the way I am feeling right now, and I’m scared. I don’t want to have another purification ceremony. I don’t want anything else to happen tonight.

With all my will, I pull my hand out of Hiram’s hold, and he plays it off by placing his hand on the small of my back. My eyes widen as I move to get close to the podium, but nothing elsecan be done. I can’t climb the podium. That’s even more of an embarrassment.

The organ player begins to play the only song that Grandmother allowed me to sing so I shut my eyes as the words to Hallelujah flow out of my mouth. There’s nothing else that I can concentrate on as the images of finding Willow rush to the forefront of my mind. My heart is breaking again as the scene slowly plays in my head. The running towards the bathtub because her hand was hanging over it, and without a shadow of a doubt, I knew she was gone. When I had gotten closer, nothing, no composure, or any rules mattered to me because my sister was gone. I jumped into the bathtub without thinking about anything else.

The scream that I released as I held her to my person. There was nothing there, no Willow, no laughter in this big house anymore or anything else. Even when I found her, I sobbed and sang, not caring about a thing. I sang her favorite song, Hallelujah, because she said the lyrics spoke to her somehow. I never understood and didn’t want to understand. I just wanted to obey. I wanted her to live.

When Grandmother came into the bathroom, she didn’t bat an eyelash, however there was a flicker of emotion on her face that disappeared in the next moment, but I saw it. She wanted to hug Willow, but instead, she stood back and watched me cry. She watched me mourn my sister, and now, here at the funeral, as I open my eyes, I see the tears that have escaped her eyes. She wipes them away but deep down inside, I know it’s all for show. She wants others to think that we are a typical family, and if it weren’t for this suicide, it would’ve seemed like it.

When I feel a hand wiping away my tears, I gasp and come back to the moment, realizing that Hiram touched my face. It makes me realize that I lost composure that although I wasn’t crying out loud, I still allowed a teardrop which meant that Grandmother was forced to do the same. Hiram helps me off the podium and we sit down. Grandmother doesn’t utter a word, but my breathing becomes irregular because today’s touches were more than I’ve ever received in my entire life. Maybe Hiram thinks that I’m like my sister when I’m really not. That I just simply allow anyone to touch me, even if it’s to comfort me, but that’s not true. My eyes slowly look at him and I see he’s looking straight ahead. Although he isn’t crying, I do see the genuine sadness in his eyes. He seems like he truly is mourning my sister. I lean in, risking my grandmother’s wrath. “Thank you for loving Willow.”

Hiram turns his head towards me. He looks genuinely shocked that I’m speaking to him. I’ve barely ever initiated conversation before. “Don’t say that, especially in front of others. Right before we are going to announce our marriage.”

“Pardon?” I say.

And before he can answer, I turn to look at Grandmother. “You will not react to this, you hear me? You will remain as stone as you are. Willow was meant for him, but since she’s gone, so it’s you. Our families have a business clause, and we will continue to agree to it.”

“No one spoke to me about it,” I whisper to her.

Grandmother grabs my face, and I turn towards her. She pretends like she’s wiping my tears away even though there aren’t any. “I don’t speak to you about anything since you have allowed this boy to touch you like that. We will see what other lies you have hidden from me. Even if the public sees him as your fiancée, he is not to touch you until your wedding night. No more touching. If he comes towards you, go the other way. You understand me?”

She cups my face in her hands, but her nails dig into the sides slightly. My eyes look up at her and then down. The tears fill in again, and I go to that space in my head that keeps me sane. “Yes, Grandmother.”

Even though Hiram is attractive, beautiful even, it doesn’t mean I want to marry him. I’ve never loved him or anyone else before. How can I just be with him like this? He was for Willow. She loved him, and I know he loved her even if he’s pretending right now. How can I be with him? Why can’t I have someone for myself? Anything that is just for me. It’s always something for my brother, my sister, who sadly is gone, and always for Grandmother. I peerback up at Grandmother and her look confirms it all. Even if my last name is De La Vega, it means nothing when being a Hanson is more important. I don’t deserve it. I’ve never deserved it. I will never have anything for myself.