|Cover Art By BitterGrace|
Can you ever hold on to a ghost?
Cole has nowhere left to turn. With his father dying and his sister in danger, he turns for help to the very people trying to track him down. Sanctuary’s assistance is what he needs to punch another hole in Varga’s organization.
When Elliot and Cole meet, it isn’t just passion that consumes them. When lust becomes something more, Elliot realizes that sometimes you can’t hold on to a ghost, and that sacrifice is often the only way to make things right.
warned him, an edge to her voice.
composed and in control, despite the fact his adrenaline was spiking dangerously
high. Where was his center? Where was his ability to see events unfold before
him with calm consideration?
worlds began to collide with the horrible realization that today would finally be
the day you might not make it out alive.
of the op, she wouldn’t take her eyes off the meeting she was tasked with
watching—six of Varga’s key men in a restaurant on Halsted, giving him the heads-up
when they disbanded and headed toward the run-down warehouse district for the
meeting. He was there to deal with a man who didn’t deserve to live on this
earth, and he was already fighting the sickness roiling in his stomach.
worse, and Cole wished he could say he’d expected the shit to hit the fan, but
he hadn’t. He’d honestly thought tonight would go smoothly given he’d evaded
long that he’d not seen the pattern emerging. Slowly but surely, Sanctuary was getting closer, the proverbial thorn in his
side. It was as though they were second-guessing him, tracking him enough to
No one was supposed to die tonight; it was just a deal—money for human lives—something
he’d been working on for months. His job was to fix this, but Sanctuary kept
getting in his way.
their do-good meddling and their freaking unanswered questions, he was way too smart to get caught.
sister warned again. He didn’t answer, and she wouldn’t expect him to. “And
you’ve got company with Sanctuary
tracking your way.”
their father, who couldn’t be left, so it was just Cole and his gun and his
sorely tested wits.
that Sanctuary fucker Elliot. The man was like a dog with a bone, and Cole
couldn’t afford to be compromised
tonight. Every meeting, every mission, Elliot got closer, yet Cole couldn’t
move from his spot or everything would go to shit and he’d lose his chance of
getting the best human return for his cash.
he knew he was better, or he’d have died a long time ago. Bravado and confidence had gotten
him this far in life, mostly unharmed and
thankfully alive. But if Elliot arrived when the shit was hitting the fan, he’d
be collateral damage, and Cole wasn’t ready to work on those terms.
against the brick wall, an exit to the street on his right, the parking lot on
his left. Above his head was the fire escape pull-down ladder for that apartment block; at his feet, the ground was damp with the rain that
had only eased up a few minutes ago, and distant streetlights sparkled in
puddle remnants just outside the cloak of darkness. Everything was quiet; but
moments away, following fuck-knows-what lead to get there, was Sanctuary.
determination and his uncanny ability to see beyond a scene and know exactly
where Cole had gone.
single minute, and Cole wasn’t ashamed to admit that the near misses sent a
frisson of excitement up his spine. Too often he’d been the steady one, staring
down a scope, a surgical removal to keep others safe, distanced from the kill
and the action. The cat and mouse with Elliot was
a game that he was enjoying far too much.
every moment he could. Elliot was a good guy
who didn’t smile much, but he’d broken up with his boyfriend two months before;
he shopped organically and lived close to the place Sanctuary called Head
Office in Chicago. All things being even, Elliot would score high on Cole’s
list of ideal attributes in a lover. There was nothing better than roughing up
an organic-loving tight-ass and reducing him to a puddle of goo in the middle
of snow-white sheets.
about Elliot naked and in his bed.
breathing, but his movement could block sounds from the street beyond, if only
snow; Cole knew the only thing that could give him away would be the puff of
his breath, so he burrowed down into the scarf twisted around his neck.
his hand. He relaxed only a millisecond later when a woman’s laughter and a
man’s voice had him focusing past the light and to the street beyond. He was right on Englewood’s district line, and the whole meeting was playing out in a place where
he felt way too exposed. He knew his mark had set this meet here for a reason.
Mario was a shifty fucker who played the
game of criminal very well. Little did the man know that nothing was going to
keep him safe if he fucked Cole over. Not tonight. Not ever.
sound seemed a little off, as if she hadn’t
meant to laugh. There was no real joy in the noise.
movement to his left turned into the barrel of a weapon smacking his temple.
foot behind his knee had him landing heavily on one side, in stagnant water. Cole
didn’t lay there waiting for the next part of this dance; he was rolling even
as he fell, one leg darting out as he rose, catching his assailant in the thigh
and causing him to stumble back. Coming to a crouch, Cole admired the way the
other man’s stumble turned into nothing more than a sidestep and a twisting
motion that missed Cole by inches.
the man’s space, up close to Elliot’s face, and in seconds he’d pushed him
hard against the wall.
exactly why he needed Elliot to leave right the fuck now.
limp in Cole’s hold, then yanked free to shove a knee right into Cole’s groin.
went to Cole’s inner thigh, hard enough to give him a dead leg long enough to give
Elliot the upper hand.
to Elliot’s face, feeling the wetness of fist on skin at the point where Elliot’s head snapped back with a spray of
blood. A normal man would be on the
ground after that—hell, a normal man
wouldn’t have gotten out of Cole’s press against the wall.
normal man. He was trained, focused, and fucking vicious at it.
close now; you need to end this with
Cole follow through with another punch that caught cheekbone and hair and then
slid past to slam the wall. He cursed the contact and his stupidity at giving
Elliot the upper hand. This time it was Cole himself up against the wall, and he could see dark eyes, focused and hard, and feel
the fingers tightening on his throat. He attempted to go limp, but all Elliot
did was push harder, which left only one
thing. Elliot was close, and with a concerted effort, Cole snapped his head
forward, the top smacking Elliot between the eyes.
and then he stumbled to stand.
and pointing it directly at Elliot. “Run,” he snapped.
did the man not care that Cole had a gun on him?
his ear sounded a little frantic.
mark and various cronies bearing down on him, and Sanctuary in the shape of
Elliot right in the freaking middle.
Teenagers the same age as his brother, straight from the boat, working in
slavery for the Varga organization. They had a deal, and tonight Cole had the
money and the upper hand.
with the gun.
saw that did Cole realize he’d fucked up—they were standing under the street light.
They needed to get back into the shadows. Cole shoved him back against the
wall, wincing at the sound of Elliot’s skull making contact with the bricks
before he wordlessly slid to the ground in the darkness.
warned him that a car was turning onto the street, Cole heard a voice from the
Cole could think was that if it was his time to die, he didn’t want to take
anyone with him.
somewhere beyond the light. He caught
sight of the semi-automatic weapon as the person stepped forward; he didn’t
stand a chance against that kind of firepower. The barrel of another gun poked
at the base of his skull.
abruptly bereft. “It’s done,” he said to whoever the hell was behind him.
the darkness, not able to see Elliot’s form but hoping to hell he stayed the fuck down. Very deliberately he turned to
face the man with the gun at his head.
voice dead and cold, gone past emotional and well into focused.
right? That this was organized? He won’t
take it well when he finds out you’re here with a gun on me.”
the situation,” Mario said.
up. He needed to confront this; he had a legitimate cover there, and he needed to maintain it. Slowly he unclasped his hands and let them hang loosely at his sides. “What the fuck, man?” he
armed, were crowding around him. Mario was nothing if not the nervous type, twitchy like a ferret, all sharp angles, and meth-head eyes. He’d made it so far
in the Varga organization only due to the fact he was Varga’s nephew or cousin,
or some such shit.
everything, which was why it had taken this long for Cole to get anywhere near him.
Tonight wasn’t the night that Cole got to deal with erasing Mario from
existence; he had kids to get out alive. That was his priority.
lips stretching in an obscene grin.
people’s lives. “I have a market for the other three,” he said nonchalantly.
what that meant: the younger girls parceled up and sold on. “All ten, or no
deal,” he stated, keeping emotion out of his voice.
who gets them.”
echoed in the otherwise quiet alley.
admit he was desperate to get all ten of the illegals Mario had, or try to call his bluff.
have to hope to hell that confronting was the answer. “The deal’s off.”
it back into the holster and straightening his jacket. Varga senior would be
pissed with his lieutenant blowing a deal like that.
Getting illegals to the city was one thing, offloading them with profit above
and beyond what the illegals had probably paid to get there was an entirely
different ball game. He could visualize the thought processes going on…Mario was the youngest of three lieutenants
that reported to Varga, the one still out to prove himself, and he wouldn’t
want to lose the deal.
if it meant nothing to him.
the seven-year-old,” Mario said.
and nausea that threatened to have him
vomiting on the sidewalk. The idea of a child as young as seven being under
this bastard’s control made him sick to his stomach. He pretended to consider the
deal, knowing full well he’d pay every fucking cent. “Seven-five and we’re
done, cash in the bank.” He even injected a small note of respect into his
voice, which had Mario preening in front of his posse. He’d save face, and Cole
would keep his persona of didn’t-give-a-shit human trafficker intact.
stepped forward, and intel was buzzing in his ear about twelve souls
being inside the warehouse. Not ten, twelve. Two of them were moving around,
the other ten not moving much. Twelve heat signatures, so all ten kids were alive—but
the extra two? Mario was fucking with him, had likely placed two men inside. Cole
would take a step inside the warehouse, and be a dead man.
first deal he’d brokered with Mario, setting up his cover as a trader in human
flesh, looking for ways to save lives and get deep into Varga’s organization at
the same time. But something wasn’t right…
his cell, and with a few button presses, transferred the fifty, plus the extra seven-five,
into the account he’d been given details of. Next
to Mario one of the guys checked his own cell and nodded.
Cole, who caught it deftly. “All yours,” Mario said, and then he turned and
left, taking everyone with him.
have left the building at the rear. Hovering
outside the closed door.”
card at the lock, half surprised when the door actually clicked and swung open.
He pushed his way in to be faced with piles of packing cases and pallets.
Pulling the door shut behind him, he
cautiously made his way around the piles and checked out the corners of the
warehouse. He’d lost contact with outside assistance since he’d walked in there,
just one hell of a lot of static and not much in the way of a voice.
to find ten—he counted—kids and teenagers, none older than fourteen: six girls
and four boys huddled together, bound with chains to a metal framework. Most of
them stared at him with dead eyes; only
the youngest was whimpering and crying.
What had they been through to get here? Torn from their families, placed into
shipping containers, and then passed around to their new owners on payment of money?
hand in a gesture of innocence. “It’s okay,” he said in English. “I’m here to
learned those words in, hoping to hell he’d
hit the jackpot somewhere along the way. He approached the closest child, a boy
of thirteen or so who stared at him blankly. Apologizing in soft tones, Cole reached
over and checked the chain. He found a simple lock that he could have them out
of quickly. He pulled out his kit, dealt first
with one lock, then another, his hands shaky at first, waiting to die in a hail
of bullets. At least he could get the kids away.
could only make out a few words. Fire! Get
all ten were free; he realized they’d all gathered close to him, some holding
hands, but all looking to him as smoke edged
under the boxes and into their corner. Cole was considerably taller than the
children, and he could see past the nearest blockage to a hint of fire beyond,
cutting them off from the exit.
how he was being taken out of the equation; that was how Mario deleted him from
the Chicago sex trade. Mario was removing a rival, along with ten innocent
crying. In a smooth move, he scooped her up, holding her tight. If there was no
way out of here and they were all going to die, what
would he do? He had bullets; he could shoot some of the kids? Fuck, the horror was sick inside him. Think. Think. He wasn’t going to let
anyone burn to death.
about twenty feet from the floor. He could pile boxes, pass the kids up, smash
noticeable; the huddle of kids pressed tighter. They didn’t have much time. An explosion of
glass had them all ducking as panes shattered around them. Had the fire reached
Cole could see Elliot scrambling through the
space and lowering himself in, dropping and rolling awkwardly. “Get the
adrenaline flooded into him. Between him and Elliot, they made a pile of boxes
and crates. A step up, lifting and dragging, and one by one the kids were out
of the window, wriggling through the space.
Elliot went next, going out, then reaching back in as fire began to lick at the
the smallest kid, curled into a ball, her face hidden by her hands and her long
dark hair. She was so tiny and scared, way down on the ground, not climbing up as
the others had done. Cole thought she’d been first out, but in the chaos, he’d missed her.
over her ears, rocking slowly. “I’m going back down,” Cole said.
place lights up.”
child behind. He jumped lithely to the floor and into a crouch, cursing at the pain shooting up from his knee, as he crawled low
under the choking smoke to where the girl huddled.
against his hold. Cole ignored the scratching of fingers and the sheer panic,
and climbed the crates up to the window, his chest tight; breathing hard. There
he unfurled her fingers, shoving the girl through the space to Elliot, who yanked her through.
on wavered; he gripped hard at the windowsill.
all ten kids?”
fingers touched, and then the world fell away, stopped in a millisecond by
Elliot leaning in and grabbing at Cole. Elliot pulled,
and Cole scrambled, and the hungry fire bit at him, burned him even as he fell
out of the building and the force of hitting the trash cans below was enough to
steal his breath.
jacket to extinguish the flames as Cole shrugged it off in a panic.
holster and pointed it right between Elliot’s eyes, waiting for him to make a
move. All Elliot did was raise his hands and stare at Cole with an
expression that Cole couldn’t read.
fuck are you really?”
should know I called 911,” Elliot said, his expression unreadable.
warning? He seemed more interested in hugging the kids to him protectively than
in taking Cole down.
from the kids to Elliot and holstered his gun. “Do this for them,” he
said. To get involved with the cops at that
moment would destroy everything. “The Andreas Home on Windsor Street. It’s a
special place for kids taken from their parents like this. Will you take them?”
Then he inclined his head toward the sound of sirens.
with one last look at Elliot and the kids, he was gone.