The Flesh Cartel #17: Boxed In

The Flesh Cartel #17: Boxed In, by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz

This title is #17 of the The Flesh Cartel series.

This title is part of the The Flesh Cartel, Season 5: Reclamation serial. Check out the season discount!

Ebook $2.99

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.

Chapter 1

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?”

Who else?

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.

Grief.

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.

***

Nate sipped his coffee and stared down the hallway at the psych ward waiting room, currently occupied by one particularly weary-looking Mathias Carmichael. Nothing new there; Mat had spent so much of the last four days in those waiting-room chairs that Nate wouldn’t be surprised if they’d molded to the shape of his ass.

Mat shouldn’t be there. He should be in Dougie’s room. Or on a psychiatrist’s couch, after all he’d been through himself. After what Nate had helped to put him through. Or in bed, resting, recovering from his own violence of the last week. Getting up, walking around, eating something that didn’t come in a plastic wrapper.

It broke Nate’s heart to see him like this.

Even worse to know he couldn’t help Mat. Not anymore. Not after—

God, he hadn’t even worked up the courage to speak to Mat since then. Not more than was strictly necessary, anyway, and those few painfully brief encounters had involved no eye contact on either side.

Then again, why would Mat want to look at him after what he’d done to the poor guy?

“Still pining, partner?”

Nate turned and nodded a greeting to Louise, who’d snuck up on him as effectively as she always seemed to lately, holding a breakfast sandwich in each hand. One half-eaten, the other still wrapped. She offered it to him—not to eat, he’d done that already, but to give to Mat—and he shook his head.

He’d learned these last few days to anticipate the look of reproach on her face.

There was an actual, physical pain in his chest as he watched her pace the last twenty feet to the waiting room, sit down in the chair beside Mat with all the comfortable freedom of a person who hadn’t raped him, and hand him his food.

Well, at least she was making sure he remembered to eat.

At least she was caring for him now that Nate couldn’t.

It wasn’t your fault, Agent Johnson. You were raped too.

Yeah, thanks, Mister-Work-Appointed-Shrink. I wasn’t the one left bleeding and covered in cum.

Fuck. Maybe the group home would be as good for Nate as he was hoping it’d be for Mat and Dougie. A whole building full of people who’d understand what he’d been through. Who’d been through so, so much worse for so much longer than that short little taste he’d gotten. Maybe they wouldn’t mind if he sat in on the group sessions. He needed to help the DA prep for trial anyway, right?

Maybe with a therapist—one who truly understood this whole fucking mess—acting as a mediator between them, Nate could find the words to apologize to Mat.

Louise jogged him out of his little pity party by somehow ending up right in front of him again, instead of in the waiting room next to Mat. She touched a hand to his biceps, and he was ashamed to say he twitched a little. But he didn’t feel the need to shake her off, and she didn’t spook and let go, either. “You with me, partner?”

Nate swiped a hand across his mouth, took a swig of his cooling coffee. “Yeah.” He nodded his head. “Yeah. I’m okay.”

She was nice enough not to call him on his bullshit. “Mat’s heading in to try visiting again. Mostly Dougie lets him if he just sits there quietly. I think he’s hoping to desensitize the kid or something, I dunno. It’s gotta be hard.” She frowned, eyebrows drawing down. “Poor guy. All that sacrifice . . .”

“Yeah,” Nate agreed, because what else was there to say. No words to describe how fucked up that particular situation was. “But I hear there’s high hopes for the group home. They brought in the best.”

Louise nodded. “You should tell them.”

He should. He knew that. Louise had been there for Mat, sure, but she didn’t have the trust, the connection that Mat and Nate did—or rather, had once had. Still, it’d be cowardly to pass this off to his partner. Even though he knew she’d do it for him if he asked.

“Yeah. Okay.” He finished his coffee in one long gulp, tossed the paper cup in a trash can, shook out the tension in his shoulders and neck. Started purposely toward Dougie’s room, into which Mat had disappeared a minute or two earlier. Louise followed close behind in silent support.

He knocked twice, gently. No way he was going in without permission. Wouldn’t barge in on anyone anywhere ever again, if he had a choice.

“Come in,” Mat called.

The minute Nate stepped through the door, that blanket of awkwardness settled over him again, nearly smothering him. “Uh, so . . .” He swallowed.

Dougie was lying on his side, his back to Mat. Mat was sitting at Dougie’s bedside, staring resolutely at his brother’s blanketed shoulder blades. They didn’t look much like reunited brothers. More like strangers.

“The docs are going to discharge Dougie today,” Nate said.

Mat nodded, eyes still on Dougie’s back. “Yeah. They came in to talk to me about home care.”

Home care? Just where did Mat think he’d be taking Dougie once they left this place? Had he even considered it?

Of course he had. Mat the big brother. Mat the substitute father. No way he hadn’t spent the last four days racking his brain about their futures.

“So, um. About that. Dougie, are you awake?” He didn’t want to talk about Dougie like the guy couldn’t handle his own life. Even if he really couldn’t right now. People had been treating him like a child, like a thing, for the last year and change. Nate wouldn’t do that too.

At last Dougie said softly, “Yes.” He rolled onto his back, as careful not to meet Mat’s eyes as Nate was, and pressed the button to raise the head of his bed into a sitting position. He and Nate hadn’t spoken at all, really, beyond basic assurances on the boat ride from the island—the docs had banned anyone from questioning him about his ordeal—but his gaze landed square on Nate’s and held. “You’re the agent who arrested Allen,” he said. Not a question.

Nate nodded. “Yes. Me and my partner. I’m Nate. This is Louise.”

Dougie’s eyes flitted from him to Louise and back. “And Nikolai,” Dougie added, carefully flat.

Nate nodded again, trying to decipher that empty tone, that empty expression. Was he angry? Relieved? Something else? “Yes.”

A long, uncomfortable pause. Then Dougie dropped his gaze to his lap and said, soft and scratchy, “Thank you, sir. Ma’am.”

“You don’t have—” Nate began, but was cut off by the look of sheer despair on Mat’s face, by the sick twisted feeling in his own gut. He cleared his throat, made sure to keep his voice soft, his eyes kind. “You don’t have to call me sir, Dougie. Just Nate. Nate’s fine.”

Dougie didn’t respond to that. Didn’t argue, but didn’t agree, either. Maybe that was for the best. He’d rather the kid not mindlessly obey his every request. The fact that he didn’t had to be a kind of progress, right?

“All right. Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. You two have been gone a long time, and in that time your bills haven’t been paid and the bank has repossessed your house. Now, the FBI Victim’s Services can probably accommodate you with an apartment, but there’s another option I’d like to discuss.” He looked into Dougie’s eyes, then quickly glanced in Mat’s direction, trying to discern any reaction but finding nothing. They were both so horribly blank. “Along with rescuing victims and arresting the people who hurt you, the FBI also seized a pretty sizeable amount of assets. A good portion of that has been put aside for a victim’s fund, and part of it is being used to create transitional housing and long-term care facilities for the Cartel’s victims. You’d have a roof over your head, three square meals, exercise facilities, a TV, a game room, round-the-clock medical care—”

“And supervision,” Mat cut in.

Nate nodded. “For people like Roger, supervision is the only way to go. Technically, they’re guilty of crimes, but they’re also victims themselves. Where to draw the line with that . . . well, that’s something the courts will have to decide. But for now, we have a duty to care for them, but also a duty to protect society at large.”

“You think we’re dangerous?” Dougie spat.

“Not you. Not your brother. Not to other people, no.” He hesitated, not sure if he was trying to let the truth of that last bit really sink in, or if he was just avoiding what he had to say next: “But maybe to yourselves.”

Dougie looked . . . offended at that, but maybe also resigned. Mat just looked betrayed.

“Look, nothing’s set in stone or anything. For some people, it may just be a short term thing, just until you get back on your feet and adjust to the outside world again, and maybe get a little bit of much needed therapy. For others, it might be the rest of their lives, but it’s not prison. It’s . . . it’s a safe space to heal, and to help us prepare to prosecute the real bad guys here.” Neither Mat nor Dougie seemed convinced, and Nate found himself scrambling to make them understand, to soften this blow some-fucking-how, to lighten the palpable suffering and despair that had settled over the room. “You’ll have access to some of the best, most experienced psychiatrists in the fields of human trafficking and sex crimes. It’s a nice place—a seized estate, all marble floors and canopy beds and meditation gardens and the whole nine. You’ll be with other people who understand what you’ve been through, what you’re still going through. No pressures, no responsibility but to heal, okay? I’m asking you both to trust me.”

“I won’t go,” Dougie said. “I’m not sick. I’m not going to a hospital. I’m not letting them tell me what to do. You tell me it’s wrong, what Nikolai did, but you just want to put me in a hospital where I’ll be a slave to a shrink instead? Someone telling me when to eat, what to wear, telling me what TV to watch, locked doors and p-pills and—”

“Dougie . . .” Face as tight as his voice, Mat reached a hand out, almost but not quite touching Dougie’s shoulder. Seeking permission, but Dougie didn’t give it; he jerked away. Glared at Mat. “It’s not like that, Dougie. I’ll be right there with you, okay? It’ll be good. It’ll help.”

Dougie’s fist pounded the mattress as he shouted, “How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want your damn help?”

Nate felt as helpless as Mat looked as he watched Mat swallow, swallow again. Blink back tears. Dougie was furious. Irrationally so. PTSD, Nate knew that, he’d seen the same behavior in Mat too. And what he was about to say wasn’t going to make it any better. But he couldn’t keep it a secret any longer, either.

“Dougie, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you don’t actually have a choice. Until you’re cleared by your doctors, you’re under conservatorship. Ward of the state. The only way you’re going to be your own man again is to prove that you can care for yourself. And the only way to prove that is to do your time with a psychiatrist until he or she deems you fit.”

Dougie’s glare was downright withering. He threw back his blankets and, tubes and wires and flapping gown be damned, shuffled onto his knees. Into a position that Nate recognized all too well, and he felt the bile rising in his throat even before Dougie bowed his head with exaggerated flare and sneered, “Yes, Master.”

And fine, maybe Nate really was a coward, but there was only one way he could respond to that.

He fled.

***

Two little words. That’s all it was. Two. Little. Words.

Douglas had just been so fucking angry. Couldn’t help himself, knowing that he didn’t have to watch his mouth anymore. Could say what he wanted to say without being punished.

Still, he’d regretted it the moment he’d said it, done it. The looks of horror on Agent Johnson’s and Mat’s faces were unbearable to even think about. What they must think of him, what he’d just proven he was: a used up, broken, little jizz-covered toy no one wanted anymore. To watch a grown man scamper out of his room like that, partner on his heels . . .

He felt sick.

As bad as it was, though, Mat didn’t draw back when Douglas reached out for him. Too afraid to hold hands—of what that meant between them—he closed his fingers around Mat’s clammy wrist instead. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I’m so sorry, I’m so— I’m a fuck up, I really am a fuck up, oh God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

He wanted Mat to leave him alone to his misery, leave him like everyone else had, like he surely would eventually when he figured out Douglas was good for nothing anymore. He wanted Mat to just get it the fuck over with.

He wanted Mat to never leave again.

“Shhh,” Mat said, and enclosed Douglas in his arms. Douglas didn’t fight off the embrace. He felt tiny and frail, smaller than he’d ever felt. Allen had starved him these past few weeks, deprived him of everything a human being needed to thrive. But Douglas didn’t think what he was feeling right now was entirely physical.

“What’s wrong with me? Why would I say that? He’s right, he’s right, I can’t be trusted on my own, I am a d-danger.”

Maybe that was really true. He’d . . . he’d done things, hadn’t he? Things he was pretty sure weren’t right. Things he was pretty sure would’ve horrified him, once upon a time. Maybe admitting that would get Mat to stay.

Maybe he’d even find some answers. Like what he was supposed to do with himself now. What the fucking point of it all was. Whether he really was sick, or if the rest of the world just couldn’t see the beauty, the elegance, the purpose of the types of men Nikolai built.

Mat didn’t acknowledge or deny what Douglas had said, just murmured in a soothing voice, “He’s going to get you help. Both of us help. Just wait and see.”

Douglas curled toward Mat, half on his knees again, just barely resisting the urge to press his forehead into Mat’s lap. Mat wasn’t a master; in the absence of real ones, Douglas had to keep reminding himself of that. “Please don’t let them put me in a hospital, Mat, please! I don’t . . . I just need some time, okay? I’ll figure it out. I’ll be useful. I’ll be good. I promise.” I’ll be a good boy. Be a good boy, Douglas.

Mat curled a hand around the side of his head, then slowly dropped it like he’d changed his mind, laid it awkwardly atop the hand Douglas was still clutching to Mat’s wrist. Or maybe you just disgust him. “You don’t need to be useful, Dougie. You just need to heal. That’s going to take time, but it’s going to take help, too. I’m gonna be there with you every step—”

“You’re fucking lying!” Douglas jerked his hand back, jerked his whole body back. “You heard what that agent said! He said some people would only be there for a couple weeks. They’ll let you out way before they ever let out someone like me because they think I’m fucked in the head! I’ll be all alone in there. They’ll keep me until I die because I’ll never go back to being your perfect PhD meal ticket brother. I’ll wind up sucking the orderlies’ dicks instead.”

“No.” Mat shook his head, reached for Douglas’s hand again but then didn’t touch. Never touched. Proving his own damn lie. “That’s not going to happen. I’m going to stay with you. Nobody’s going to make you . . . service them like that, Dougie. The FBI isn’t going to let anyone work there who might try to exploit you.”

“You don’t know that! You don’t know anything! And who fucking says it’s exploiting me, huh? Maybe I want to suck the orderlies’ dicks. Maybe what I do matters.” The urge to leap from the bed, rip out the IV and pace and hit something was so strong, he nearly caved, nearly lashed out like the animal he’d once been. Nikolai might’ve lied to him, manipulated him, but he’d been right about that, at least. About the anger in Douglas. The desperation. The neediness. The ache to be loved. “God, you’re so fucking stupid, Mat! You’ve always been stupid. You never— You always—” He wished he could howl, claw, fight, let out a bloodcurdling scream, but he knew if he acted out any more than he was, they wouldn’t just put him in a hospital, they’d put him in a fucking padded room.

“Maybe I am stupid,” Mat said, voice artificially calm even as he spoke through his teeth. “But you’re sick. I don’t doubt that you want to do . . . things, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or healthy. And you’re right. You’re never going to go back to the person you used to be before all this. Neither will I. Nobody expects that of you. Not me, and not the doctors. They’re just going to want to see you unlearn some of the shit Nikolai put in your head. Get on the right track. Learn to ask for help. Learn healthy coping skills.”

“Is that what this talk is? Healthy coping skills?”

“I don’t know. I’m not exactly in the best mental health of my life, either. Maybe one day you’ll be well enough to see that.” Mat’s eyes were wet, his voice quaking. “Maybe then, you’ll take care of me a little, too.”

Ah-hah. The angle. Always a fucking angle.

“Is that what this is about? You just want me back in good enough shape that you can lean on me? Is this about money? Nikolai said—”

“I fucking know what Nikolai said!” Mat roared. And then he flinched, tears streaking down his face. “He told you whatever you needed to hear, Dougie. Whatever he needed to say in order to twist you into what he wanted you to be. He lied. I think you know he lied, somewhere deep down inside you. I don’t want to own you and I don’t want to use you and I don’t want to control you. I just want to see you happy.”

“Then you should have left me with Nikolai.”

Mat’s head fell, and Douglas thought he’d won—as hollow as that feeling was—but then Mat looked up again, his face expressionless and hard. “There was no leaving you with Nikolai, Dougie. He gave you away—sold you for money—and he wasn’t coming to get you back.”

Douglas grimaced, closed his eyes. Fuck Mat for reminding him of that, for pointing out the broken trust between him and Nikolai. But maybe they could’ve fixed it, right? Maybe Nikolai deserved that chance. Douglas didn’t even know anymore.

“So, sorry, it was either come with me, or stay with Allen.” He stood. Brushed invisible dirt off his worn gray sweat suit and turned to leave. “And don’t even try telling me you’d rather I’d left you with him.”

As much as it shook him, shook everything he still wanted—needed—to believe in, Douglas didn’t have an answer to that.

from The Blogger Girls

 [A] fantastic ride . . . [O]ne I’m really not quite ready to see end.