The Flesh Cartel #17: Boxed In
In the exciting final season of the Flesh Cartel . . .
With the help of the FBI, Mat Carmichael has let himself be re-taken by the Flesh Cartel. Objective? Rescue his brother, exact revenge, and destroy the entire organization from the inside.
FBI Special Agent Nate Johnson will be playing backup, of course, but to get Dougie out alive, Mat will need to make sure his brother is out of Allen’s clutches before calling in the troops. Now that Mat’s back in bondage, though, there’s no way he can do it alone. He’ll have to ask for help from the only man within the Cartel who cares about Dougie’s welfare: Nikolai. And even knowing it will destroy him, Nikolai delivers.
Bringing down the Cartel should have been the hardest part, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the real challenge has only just begun. Dougie doesn’t know how to be free anymore, and Mat is forced to admit that he may no longer be strong enough to help himself, let alone his brother. But with loved ones in their corner and their love for each other banked but not extinguished, Mat and Dougie learn that you can come home again, no matter how desperate the circumstances you’ve left behind.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, angst, family, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, jocks / athletes, protection, PTSD, recovery, reunion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, slave / capture (actual), trust issues
Mat had never realized just how nerve-wracking it was to be sitting on this side of the hospital bed. To be the one waiting and worrying and hoping, staring down at the evidence of so many months of terrible abuse and simultaneously praying for and dreading the moment your loved one opens their eyes. Opens their mouth and says something that won’t crush your heart any further.
The doctors had sedated Dougie for two solid days. Not for the injuries, which were extensive but noncritical; no, for the state he’d been in when they’d brought him here. Frantic, terrified, unwilling to let go of Mat, to let anyone else touch him—not even Mike. Convinced they were all Allen’s men here to kill him, Nikolai’s men here to feed him more lies. Delirious, probably—three months of torture and malnourishment and dehydration would do that to anyone.
The docs had started weaning Dougie off the sedation this morning, but he was still sleeping. Still hiding from the horrors of the world.
Mat didn’t blame him at all.
Dougie was growing restless now, though. Stirring and moaning in his sleep. Mumbling things Mat was certain he didn’t want to hear. He’d likely wake soon. But which Dougie would open his eyes? Nikolai’s perfect pet, Allen’s wounded animal, or the brother who’d cried on Mat’s shoulder the entire boat ride back to Florida? One thing was certain: it wouldn’t be the bright young man Mat remembered from before all this.
When Dougie finally did come around, he woke up quiet. Confused, maybe, but calm. They’d pumped him full of fluids, nutrients, painkillers, let him sleep safe and uninterrupted for days—Mat’s eyes stung with tears as he let himself hope, just a little, that maybe it’d done the trick. That maybe that’d be all he’d needed, and now he’d turn those big blue eyes on Mat and say I want to go home.
But he didn’t. Oh, he looked at Mat, all right—blinked and blinked again and then furrowed his brow and maybe narrowed his eyes for a second and then just . . . let his gaze slide away. Didn’t say a word.
“Hey,” Mat said softly, so many anxious weeks of waiting and love and relief all stuffed into that single syllable. “You’re safe now, Dougie.” The first thing, the most important thing to say. He carefully didn’t touch Dougie, though he wanted to—take his hand, squeeze his shoulder, brush the hair from his forehead—God, he wanted to. “We got out. We’re free.”
“Mat,” he said softly, his throat rough even after two days of quiet. “It was you?”
Mat flinched when he realized. He resolutely ignored the part of him that was trying to analyze those three little words and determine if they were . . . disappointed.
He played it off with a weak laugh. “Sorry, just me.”
Dougie flushed and winced—or was that glared? Embarrassed? Angry? Maybe both. Suddenly, Mat felt ashamed for trying to be funny at all.
“I am sorry, Dougie. We tried so hard to get you out sooner.”
That awful hint of hope in his eyes again; Mat knew damn well who Dougie was thinking of. Waited for his brother’s inevitable, timid, needy, “We?”
It still made him cringe, though. “Had a little help from the FBI.”
Crestfallen again. Of course he was. His precious Nikolai hadn’t come for him.
Well, okay, he kind of had, but Mat sure as fuck wasn’t going to mention that. That wasn’t the kind of help Dougie needed right now. Sure, it might sting, but in the long run, it seemed like a little withholding of information was for the best.
Silence, long and awkward. Emotions flitted over Dougie’s face so rapidly—and shallowly, as if he was half-numb, or too frightened to let them free—that Mat could barely begin to decipher them. Sadness—no mistaking that one. Shame, too. Disappointment. In between them, definitely that flicker of hope again. But mostly he just seemed . . . lost.
Yeah, Mat knew that feeling too. And he hadn’t been even half as fucked up as Dougie when he’d broken free. At least Nikolai had let him keep his sense of self, his ability to be fucking pissed off and know he’d been wronged. Dougie didn’t even have that.
But he did have one thing that really counted. Someone else who loved him, who’d guided him, whose memory might not’ve been tainted by Nikolai’s machinations. “Hey!” he said brightly, reaching for Dougie’s arm but then smoothing the sheet next to it instead. “Mike’s here. He’s really anxious to see you. Can I let him in? Just for a couple minutes. Or longer, if you want. Whatever you want.”
Dougie didn’t reply, not right away. The flitting expressions slowed, settled onto one or two very clear ones: Sadness. Fear.
Dougie blinked tears out of his eyes and shook his head. Pulled his blanket up to his chin and turned his gaze to the far wall. Not sticking around to hear Mat’s opinion on his reply—leaving the only way he could.
But . . . why? Aside from Dougie, there’d been no one in the world Mat wanted to see more than Darryl when he’d opened his eyes in his hospital bed. No one who’d offered more relief, no one who’d managed to calm and ground and soothe him so thoroughly. Mike had been to Dougie what Darryl was to Mat—more so, even, had taken him into his home for four years and raised him. If Dougie was searching for stability now, for a father figure to step in and guide him—and wouldn’t or couldn’t accept it from Mat after what Nikolai had done to them—then Mike should’ve been perfect.
“He was worried sick for you, Dougie. He was the one who wouldn’t let the case rest, even after the cops closed it. He called in favors, got it to the FBI. He’s half of why we found you, Dougie.”
Dougie seemed to flinch a little—hard to tell, as blank and still as he was holding himself—and it took Mat a moment to realize . . . Don’t call me that. My name is Douglas. And yeah, it was the name on his birth certificate, but they’d never, ever used it, and Mat couldn’t stomach the thought of using it now.
“Dougie, please, let him see you. He won’t . . . he won’t judge, you know. He saw me too. Was here when I woke up a total fucking wreck. Stayed with me the whole time.”
“Why?” Dougie whispered. “Why would he do that for you . . . or for me? We’re not his kids. We’re not his family. What does he want from us?”
“W-want from us?” Mat blinked. “He doesn’t want anything from us! That’s—that’s Nikolai talking, Dougie. Not everyone in this world wants something from us. Sometimes people just care.” He dropped his head. “The way I do about you.”
Anger flashed briefly in Dougie’s eyes, then faded into the dullness of disappointment. Mat knew the things Nikolai had told him. Had seen the security tapes in his six long weeks with the FBI at Nikolai’s estate. Had heard the words from Nikolai’s own mouth: That Dougie was Mat’s meal ticket when he could no longer fight. That Dougie was Mat’s burden. The albatross Mat only tolerated for its usefulness. And Mat could see how Dougie had bought it, too—exhausted, suffering, frightened, and isolated as a master manipulator played on his greatest fears. Preyed on the heart of that fourteen-year-old child whose world had imploded, who’d made beds and washed dishes and done all his homework and stayed seen and not heard like a good little foster kid so the new family wouldn’t discard him like the last one had. Mike and Pattie had been a blessing, a boon, real parents to Dougie, but while they’d been the last, they hadn’t been the first.
And then there’d been Nikolai, whose “love” really was conditional. Brutally so.
So he supposed it shouldn’t have come as such a painful shock that Dougie was convinced the whole world was like that now.
Maybe the direct approach was best, then. “Mike loves you, Dougie. I love you. That doesn’t come with a price tag. You could lounge around on the couch eating Cheetos and watching Colbert for the rest of your life and I’d still love you.”
Dougie’s eyes slid back to Mat’s. Still so carefully blank, though the puckered mouth gave his cynicism away.
“I’d take care of you forever if you needed me to. I—”
“I’m not a child,” Dougie snapped. Well. At least he was speaking. “When are you gonna figure that out, huh? You gonna . . . what? Dress me up like your own little living doll and suffocate me like you always did? For what, Mat? I don’t need that bullshit. Just . . .” He snapped a hand at Mat, grabbed the covers, and pulled them up to his ears as he curled away, his back to Mat. “Fuck off.”
Mat’s hands curled into fists, but he wouldn’t hit Dougie. Not ever again. “Okay,” he said, softly. “Okay, okay. I’ll tell Mike to come back another time, when you’re ready to see him, huh? It’s okay. He’ll understand.”
“Please stop talking,” Dougie mumbled. “I can’t take it anymore. Please.”
He was on the verge of tears. So was Mat. Best, maybe, to let them both cry in peace. What had he been expecting, anyway? To swoop in like some white fucking knight and make everything magically okay? It’d taken Nikolai almost a year to mold Dougie into Douglas. Two lousy days wasn’t going to put that mess back together again.
Mat squeezed his eyes closed, held them closed until the burn of impending tears faded. Laid his hand on the bed by Dougie’s shoulder because he knew he shouldn’t touch his brother but also couldn’t not. Cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’ll, um . . .” He gestured helplessly toward the door, never mind that Dougie wasn’t looking at him. “I’ll just be outside with Mike. You call us if you need us. Or if you just want us. Whatever. Okay?”
Mat waited, but Dougie didn’t reply. Didn’t move. Didn’t so much as make a sound.
Suddenly, You’re safe. We’re free felt like a pretty cold comfort.
Word Count: 15,600
Page Count: 64
Cover By: Imaliea
Release Date: 06/02/2014