The Flesh Cartel #19: Promise
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.
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Outside the courtroom was a media circus—news vans and microphones and camera flashes—and even with a security detail, Doug felt cornered and exposed.
Inside the courtroom, cloistered away from the nosy crowds, his hand gripped tight in Mat’s, he felt even worse.
He’d thought . . . well, he wasn’t sure what he’d thought. That seeing Madame (real name Dana Hewlett, apparently) and Allen and the bounty hunters and the procurement team and everyone else who’d hurt him sent away to rot in cages for the rest of their lives would feel good. Vindicating. Satisfying. Safe. A reclamation of a life cruelly stolen. That knowing they couldn’t hurt him anymore would make moving forward somehow easier than it’d been these last few months. That all his hard-won progress would seem like peanuts in comparison to the leap he’d take after finally putting this all behind him.
That he’d even be able to put this all behind him.
And yes, in some way, some pale-shadowed, deep-down imitation way, he really did feel all those things. But mostly what he felt was weary. Scared and hollowed out and wrung dry. From his testimony. From having to face his abusers again.
Strange, too, how impersonal, how distant, his so-called closure felt.
Mat squeezed his hand as the judge read out the next sentence. Penny’s, oh God, and what the fuck was wrong with him that he wanted to weep all over again—Jesus, hadn’t he done that enough the last two weeks with the trial?—at the thought of her going to jail. For one hundred and forty-seven years, apparently, with no hope of parole. He knew better now than to say she was innocent. Far from it; she’d sat back and let it all happen, had done plenty of it herself, even if she’d never inflicted physical pain. Yet still he felt love for her, and what was it Nikolai had once said? That emotions are by their nature irrational? Yeah. That.
Doug turned his gaze to Nikolai, flanked by guards in the front row on the other side of the aisle. He’d made a deal, wasn’t going to prison, but that didn’t mean he could waltz off into the sunset, either. The feds couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him—he was, after all, a victim of the Cartel himself—so they were carting him home, deporting him to a country he hadn’t seen since he’d been, what, five? Six? Did he even still speak the language? How would he get by there?
Not your problem anymore, Doug. And fuck him for ever making it so to start with.
His eyes slid back to his brother, grim-faced and taut on the bench seat beside him. Listening, cold and intent and darkly satisfied, to every pronouncement the judge made. He looked . . . fierce and terrifying and beautiful and strong, and Doug felt a surge of pride and blessedly uncomplicated love. No worries or fears or quid pro quos, just family.
Mat met his eyes and squeezed his hand again, and it occurred to Doug that Mat was clinging to him just as much as he was clinging to Mat. That this had all been hard for him too. Beyond hard. Doug’s pillar was as shaken as he was.
Doug just hadn’t seen it before. He’d been blind to how much Mat had been hurting. How confused and frightened he’d been. Couldn’t see beyond his own nose back then.
But that was before their joint therapy sessions. He’d only listened in at first, but that had been a journey in and of itself. Hearing Mat say things he’d have never assumed, never even dreamed. He’d seen a side of Mat he never knew existed. A side of Mat that needed Doug’s care and nurturing as much as Doug had ever needed Mat.
Not selfishly, though. Not an exchange, or a transaction, or a demand.
Just family. Love. Real love. Not Nikolai’s twisted concept.
Doug would never let himself forget that again.
It was amazing, what they could get through when they were on each other’s side.
And with others on their side as well. To Doug’s left, Beth, watching them both surreptitiously as she listened to the sentencing, ready to support them if they needed it (okay, if they flipped their shit, but still). To Mat’s right, Nate, looking satisfied enough for all four of them at the words coming out of the judge’s mouth: multiple lifetime sentences; one hundred and eighty years; ninety-seven years; no chance of parole; consider yourself fortunate there is no death penalty here. To Nate’s right, Coach Darryl, his face a near mirror of Mat’s. And four rows back and to the left, Mike, here without his new family to support his old one. He wasn’t staying at Nate’s through the trial like everyone else; Doug just . . . wasn’t comfortable with that yet. Still wasn’t sure how he felt about Mike—it wasn’t a topic they’d touched on much in therapy yet; too many other more immediate issues to discuss—but the little boy inside him was glad he was here. Doug hadn’t worked up the courage to say much more than hello to him yet, but he was glad that Mat had pressed him to let Mike come.
Even if he was afraid that Mike was only here for show. Or because he felt obligated somehow. Like maybe he was afraid the world would condemn him if he didn’t come, that the talking heads on the nightly news would blather on about how the man who’d raised him for four years couldn’t be bothered to support him when things got tough.
Just like Nikolai had said.
Just like Nikolai. Only hanging on to him as some kind of investment—put in the time, cash the checks while your good little boy keeps your house clean and your dishes washed (and your dick sucked—not that Mike had ever looked at him like that), say good-bye and never think of you again.
Doug didn’t want to believe that. He really, really didn’t. And Nikolai had lied about so many things, and of course it’d been in Nikolai’s best interests to lie about this too. To twist Doug’s insecurities, to convince him he’d never truly been loved. He knew that. And yet . . .
Stop it, Doug. Don’t let him hurt you anymore. Mike loves you. He loves you.
And yet it was to Nikolai, rather than Doug’s loved ones, that his gaze kept being drawn. The one criminal in this whole mess who wasn’t getting his comeuppance.
Being deported to Russia ain’t exactly a yacht party, you know.
Yeah, but nor was it three lifetimes in the slammer surrounded by people who thought you had a big hand in putting them there.
It wasn’t fair.
But by the same token, if Nikolai hadn’t taken the deal, then where would they be?
Stuck back at Allen’s still, Doug was willing to bet.
Just the thought of that sent a cold shiver through him, and this time both Mat and Beth squeezed his fingers.
Like it or not, as much as Nikolai had had a hand in stealing his life, he’d also had a hand in giving it back.
Doug hated that. He didn’t want to feel conflicted about Nikolai. He didn’t want to feel thankful—after all, the plea bargain was as much self-preservation as it was any act of altruism—but he still couldn’t hate Nikolai the way Mat did. Mat looked at Nikolai and saw a monster. Doug looked at him and saw a monster and a lover.
And now he couldn’t even have the closure of a sentence.
Russia was awfully far away, but it wasn’t a jail cell. It wasn’t penance for his wrongs. It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t safe.
It was a nonanswer. A stay. Nikolai wasn’t going to pay for his crimes, he was just going to leave them all behind. Leave Doug behind with his wounds. Leave Roger behind in his donated grave.
Doug realized he didn’t want Nikolai to just walk away from any of this. From him. If the law couldn’t have a say, then shit, at least Doug could. Roger couldn’t speak for himself anymore, but Doug damn well could.
“Hey.” He leaned over Mat, toward Nate, extricated his hand from Mat’s to tap Nate on the knee. “Hey,” he whispered again, careful not to draw the attention of those around him, to distract them from the judge’s endless pronouncements.
Nate’s hard hazel eyes fell on Doug and softened immediately. He leaned over Mat’s other side, and Mat leaned back—not to avoid touching them, like he might once have, but just to be polite, give them room.
Doug whispered into Nate’s ear, “I need to talk to Nikolai before they send him off.”
He knew Mat had heard him by the way Mat’s chest stilled, the way the weight of his gaze landed heavy on the side of Doug’s head.
But Mat said nothing. Two months ago he would’ve railed, overprotected, controlled—bad idea, Doug; I’m not gonna let you do that, Doug—but now he held his tongue.
Nate didn’t say anything either. Didn’t ask why. Didn’t ask if he was crazy. Just thought it over for a moment, then nodded. Slipped his phone from his pocket and typed away for several seconds.
The guard to Nikolai’s left checked his phone. Met Nate’s expectant gaze. Nodded.
Nate gave Doug a wary thumbs-up as the judge sent one of the bounty hunters who’d tortured Mat to jail for eighty-five years. Doug loved Mat, he did, and the thought of someone having hurt him like that—even himself; he had no illusions now about what truly unforgivable things he’d done to Mat, how blessed he was that Mat had forgiven, if not forgotten—absolutely enraged him. Yet somehow he was more focused on the prospect of getting his face time with Nikolai than he was with hearing that sentence passed.
Closure. That was what watching the sentencing was all about. Closure. As witnesses, they weren’t even required to attend the sentencing. Nate and Beth had given them a choice, and Mat and Doug had both decided it was something they needed to see through to the end.
Now, he would see this thing with Nikolai through to the end too.
Nikolai thought they would escort him directly from the courtroom to the airfield after the last sentence had been read, but he was brought to a holding cell instead. A frisson of excitement mingled with terror ran up his spine like a fault line. Had the terms of his deal changed? Was there new information in play? Or had some last secret remnant of the Cartel, not ferreted out during the investigations or the trial, paid an assassin to deliver one very final good-bye?
He wouldn’t cower or cry, not like some of the men and women he’d seen today. Pitiful in their defeat. Nikolai would be—had been—dignified in his.
Assuming, of course, that it was to come. Despite all the so-called counseling and therapy, all the agents and lawyers, the threats and the insults these last few months, he still knew exactly who and what he was: Better. Smarter. A trainer of immeasurable skill. A master in every sense of the word. Concession was not defeat, his mentor had taught him that early and often, and if he were still permitted to get on that plane to Russia today, he’d show every last one of his naysayers just how strong he still was.
How quickly he could rebuild.
In that respect, it lessened the pain of Roger taking his life. After all, he could hardly start anew on the frontier with a remnant of his old dead life tethering him to his past.
He’d hoped, once, that Roger would be able to wait for him. Nikolai had given up so much in the name of being free to care for his pets, after all. And now he had no pets to care for. He’d almost thought the man weak when he’d heard the news, but then he’d realized Roger’s suicide was not weakness, it was limitless loyalty: rather than speak ill of his master, of his master’s work and life’s purpose, Roger had given his life. Nikolai had sacrificed, and Roger had honored that sacrifice in the only way he could. Nikolai both deserved and respected such selflessness.
He knew the public and the FBI and his guards resented how little remorse he’d shown, even in the wake of Roger’s death, even when hearing Mathias and Douglas Carmichael tearfully recounting his supposed “crimes.”
Let the fools be resentful. Let Nikolai be hated and despised.
He was still free. He’d won.
Even if he did miss Roger terribly sometimes. Well, perhaps one day he’d make them pay for stealing the man from him.
He smiled as his guards cuffed him to the sturdy interview table. They didn’t offer him a refreshment. He didn’t ask for one. The animals would probably urinate in it anyway.
“Watch your fucking mouth,” the baser of the two guards said. “Don’t give me any reason to concuss you on the tabletop before we send you back to Mother Russia.”
Such showy impotence. Nikolai was tired of the performance. Months of threats and posturing. Soon it would all be over.
As soon as whatever was about to happen in this room came to pass.
“We’ll be listening in. Watching.”
Nikolai nodded, smirked. “Of course. Far be it from me to deny you whatever small pleasures you can find in your meaningless lives.”
“Don’t take the bait,” the other guard consoled, patting his partner’s shoulder.
They left. Shut the door behind them. The only door, of course, and no windows, either. Just a buzzing overhead fixture and a camera mounted in the corner. A cage the likes of which the world would never need again if only more people like him were left to lead.
He sat. Waited. Straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin when the door finally opened.
And in walked Douglas.
So strange to see him clothed, wearing a shirt buttoned to his throat, a tie and jacket. He’d cut his pretty curls into what Nikolai could only label a hipster shag. His expression was gaunt and exhausted, nothing like the sweet face of the boy Nikolai had known.
“What a pleasant surprise,” Nikolai said, and meant it.
“Can it,” Douglas barked back. He scraped his chair and threw himself into it, unconsciously mimicking his brother’s body language. “This isn’t one last chance for mind games—” He paused, like he’d intended to address Nikolai some way: By first name? By last name? By a slur? Or was it Master on the tip of his tongue? “It’s a chance for me to get some closure with you. So I’m gonna talk and you’re gonna listen.”
Nikolai made a welcoming gesture with his chained hands. “By all means, Douglas.”
“Just Doug.” Douglas’s pretty pink tongue flicked out to wet his lips. He didn’t meet Nikolai’s gaze. “Are you sorry that Roger’s dead?”
“I thought you were doing the talking and I was doing the listening.”
“J-just answer the question!”
Nikolai leaned back in his chair with a smile, savoring the panic and confusion in Douglas’s voice, even as he wished so very much for the opportunity to quell it. To soothe Douglas. The boy was terribly unmoored without his guidance, that much was evident.
But all Nikolai said was, “It will be an adjustment, having to iron my own shirts.”
Hit. Douglas reared back like he’d been slapped across the face.
“That is what you wanted to hear from me, isn’t it, Douglas? That I have no remorse, that I didn’t care for Roger at all, that I don’t mourn his untimely death?”
Douglas’s hands balled into fists on the table. Trembling. Nikolai wished he could cover those delicate, furious hands with his own. Hold them until they were still. “The truth, Nikolai,” he ground out, voice tearful.
“You already know the truth. I loved Roger deeply, with my whole heart, much as I love you now—even after you betrayed me so. Of course I mourn his loss.”
“Betrayed you! Betrayed you? You sold me! You gave me up! You l—” His voice locked, beautiful blue eyes watering. “You l-left me there with that monster while he . . . while he . . . You left me! There was nothing to betray!”
“Oh my. That doesn’t sound like the hurt of a man conscripted into sexual slavery by an inhuman monster. That sounds much more like a jilted lover to me.” Nikolai smiled again. He’d missed this. It made him feel himself again. Powerful. Like perhaps his future in Russia wouldn’t be bleak at all. All he needed was a project. All he needed was this. “Yes, Douglas, I sold you. I never lied to you or betrayed you. I did exactly the thing I had promised from the beginning. And every moment you were away was physically painful to me. I was trying to be a professional, honoring my commitment to my client, fighting my desires. In hindsight, I wish I’d given into them instead. Even knowing you’d come back to me one day, I wish I’d never let you go. But while I freely admit to selling you, Douglas, I never gave you up. Didn’t your brother tell you what lengths I went to in order to see you freed from Allen’s clutches?”
“You made a fucking plea deal. You’re going free after watching a line of people you once rubbed elbows with get locked up forever and then some. Don’t pretend it’s an act of altruism.”
“It didn’t have to end this way, Douglas. Do you really think I didn’t have fail-safes in place to prevent my own fall and the fall of the Cartel? Do you really think my only option was to give up everything?”
Douglas recoiled. His expression shuttered. He said nothing.
“I fell on my sword, Douglas. I had a way out. I didn’t have to cooperate, but I did. For you.”
“No. That’s a lie. That— It’s just more mind games.”
“I suggest you ask Agent Johnson and your brother again how my assistance was obtained. Somebody is lying here, but it most certainly isn’t me. You know I never li—”
“Don’t,” Douglas growled, slamming his fist on the table. “Don’t say you never lied to me. You know damn well that’s not true.”
Nikolai canted his head, a gentle demur—Perhaps you and I have different definitions of the truth, my dear boy. “Ask for yourself, then. Go on. Ask them.” He held up his cuffed hands, emphasizing the chain through the bolt on the table. Raised an eyebrow and quirked his lips. “I’ll wait. But I did do this for you, Douglas.”
“S-so what? So maybe you were looking out for me, in your sick head.” How quickly he acquiesced to Nikolai’s truth. Still so biddable, even as he labored not to be. “Doesn’t change the fact that you kept me hostage and tortured me and raped me and brainwashed me. Doesn’t change the fact that Roger is dead because of what you did to his mind.”
“Everything I did, Douglas, every last thing, was out of love. For you, and for Roger, gods rest his soul. Can you say the same of your brother, with his oh-so-keen sense of self-preservation?”
“Yes,” Douglas answered, a little more forceful than strictly necessary.
“Can you still say so now that he’s entangled with that agent of his? For whom, I might add, he risked the outcome of the trial itself—conflict of interest, you see?”
Another hit. Douglas might not have physically recoiled this time, but there was no mistaking the impact of that truth in his eyes.
Perhaps this day would go well, after all.
“Mathias is a man of hot passions, Douglas. He isn’t like me. He doesn’t have room for more than one great love. Will you make him choose between his duty to his brother and his desire for companionship? Or will you fall on your sword?”
“You want me to kill myself? Like Roger?”
“Hardly.” Nikolai wished more than ever that he could reach out. Wanted badly to touch his poor floundering boy and guide him home. “I want you to come with me. You’re a free man. I’m a free man. We can start a new life together. I’ll show you what I mean when I say I live and breathe for you. You’ll be my greatest love. You are. In fact—” Yes, yes, yes. “In fact, I see now that you were always more to me than just a pet. You were more to me than Roger.”
Another hit, accidental. Clearly the boy mourned for Roger as deeply as Nikolai did. More so, perhaps. He backtracked, explained: “Roger was a servant. A deeply loyal and loved one, but a servant just the same. No mistaking the power dynamic there, who loved and gave more than whom. But you!” He stared into those huge, disbelieving eyes. “I tore down the world for you, Douglas.”
He paused, waited for that to sink in. Waited. Hardly dared to admit, even to himself, how desperately much he wanted this. Needed it, even.
“And I’d do it again.” The boy shivered, nearly imperceptibly, but oh, Nikolai could read him so, so well. Hatred in those eyes, yes, but vulnerability, too. For all the arguments that spewed forth from Douglas’s perfect lips, there was no denying the seed of love, of devotion, of hunger and need buried deep. Fragile, true, but Nikolai could nurture it back to life again, he was certain of it. “You could be my partner, Douglas. My protégé. You have the aptitude. The giving nature. The understanding of the human psyche. I’ve clearly made mistakes, but you could teach me to overcome them. Together we could make art, Douglas. We could open the eyes of a whole new generation of beasts in need of a gentle hand. In the rubble of our old lives, we could build anew. All this pain and confusion you’re feeling now, this rootlessness, this humiliation, this loss, I can take it all away. You could be at peace, Douglas, and so could I. We could learn to love one another all over again, in a brand-new way.”
Nikolai’s heart scarcely beat.
Douglas didn’t blink. Didn’t speak. Nikolai wasn’t even sure he was breathing, he was so still and quiet.
“You really do love me?” he asked, barely above a whisper.
“Forever and always, above all others,” Nikolai promised. Just say yes.
For a moment—a perfect, fleeting moment, so beautiful it couldn’t survive—Douglas’s expression softened to Nikolai, softened like the face of a man about to be kissed.
But then the moment ended. Douglas’s face was a mask, as impenetrable as the one Nikolai had worn over a year ago at their first meeting. He stood. “You don’t even know what love is, Nikolai. And you never, ever will. You’re going to die alone, just like Roger, and it serves you fucking right.”
For the very first and, gods willing, last time, Nikolai Petrovic found himself at a loss for words.
Douglas was gone before he’d gathered his wits enough to say good-bye.
This book covers some very dark territory but that increased emotional range also allows the authors to connect with readers on a deeper, more visceral level . . . Kudos to authors Rachel Haimowitz & Heidi Belleau for being willing to take a risk on writing such a boldly compelling story.
[W]ith 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.
The Flesh Cartel has been an epic saga, a journey that has affected me like nothing else I’ve ever read....intricate and harrowing with twists and turns in every direction where nothing has been predictable....writing has been flawless, exemplary in every aspect...truly captivating.
It has been harrowing, torturous, suspenseful, and hopeful.... I felt their agonies surely as if I was in captivity with them.... I have been completely captivated by this psychological thriller and every single character and event. The authors made me care deeply for Mat and Doug, and I will never forget these two beautiful men and their incredible, horrifying experience. Kudos to the authors for keeping me riveted, for writing characters that I couldn’t help loving, and for this last “Promise.”