Cover: BitterGrace Art
Length: 45,000 words
Can you ever hold on to a ghost?
Elliot is tracking an elusive killer, codenamed Ghost, with ties to organized crime. Every time the Sanctuary team gets close, Ghost slips their grasp.
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.
“This is not going to end well,” his sister warned him, an edge to her voice.
“I just need five minutes.” Cole was aiming for 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?
Gone as soon as your two worlds began to collide with the horrible realization that today would finally be the day you might not make it out alive.
“Do your job, sis.”
“F*ck you, big brother.”
Cole didn’t answer that one. As the controller 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.
Unfortunately, things had taken a turn for the worse, and Cole wished he could say he’d expected the sh*t to hit the fan, but he hadn’t. He’d honestly thought tonight would go smoothly given he’d evaded Sanctuary again.
He’d been the mouse avoiding the trap for so 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 see patterns.
Patterns killed people in his line of work.
He checked his gun, considered holstering it. 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.
And if they caught up with him again, with their do-good meddling and their freaking unanswered questions, he was way too smart to get caught.
“Bad guys are only five minutes out,” his sister warned again. He didn’t answer, and she wouldn’t expect him to. “And you’ve got company with Sanctuary tracking your way.”
“You need me there?”
Cole weighed his options. She needed to be with their father, who couldn’t be left, so it was just Cole and his gun and his sorely tested wits.
He’d need his gun if he needed to get away from that Sanctuary f*cker 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 sh*t and he’d lose his chance of getting the best human return for his cash.
Sanctuary was the elite, but 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 sh*t was hitting the fan, he’d be collateral damage, and Cole wasn’t ready to work on those terms.
He moved even deeper into the shadows, his back 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 f*ck-knows-what lead to get there, was Sanctuary.
Or, more correctly, Elliot, with his dogged determination and his uncanny ability to see beyond a scene and know exactly where Cole had gone.
Last time, Elliot had only missed him by a 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.
Add to which, Elliot was gorgeous and sexy, and all kinds of a hard-ass, and Cole was happy to surveil the guy 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.
Not that he’d spent a long time fantasizing about Elliot naked and in his bed.
He listened for the tiny noises that would give Elliot’s arrival away, not as close as breathing, but his movement could block sounds from the street beyond, if only infinitesimally.
The cold air promised more 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.
A soft scuff of leather on the sidewalk had Cole stiffening, and he briefly tightened his grip on the lethal SIG in 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 f*cker who played the game of criminal very well. Little did the man know that nothing was going to keep him safe if he f*cked Cole over. Not tonight. Not ever.
The woman laughed again, but this time the sound seemed a little off, as if she hadn’t really meant to laugh. There was no real joy in the noise.
Too late he realized what that meant.
Too late when the whisper of a movement to his left turned into the barrel of a weapon smacking his temple.
The wall kept him standing, but the sweep of a 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.
Cole took the initiative, stepping right into the man’s space, up close to Elliot’s face, and in seconds he’d pushed him hard against the wall.
“Leave it,” Cole growled, when what he wanted to do was sit Elliot down and explain exactly why he needed Elliot to leave right the f*ck now.
“F*ck you,” Elliot snapped, even as he fell limp in Cole’s hold, then yanked free to shove a knee right into Cole’s groin.
He missed by inches; the force of the shove went to Cole’s inner thigh, hard enough to give him a dead leg long enough to give Elliot the upper hand.
But Cole wasn’t done. He countered with a punch 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.
Elliot wasn’t a normal man. He was trained, focused, and f*cking vicious at it.
“They’re really close now; you need to end this with Sanctuary.”
His sister’s voice in his ear was enough to make 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.
Elliot crumpled at first, momentarily stunned, and then he stumbled to stand.
But Cole was prepared, retrieving his weapon and pointing it directly at Elliot. “Run,” he snapped.
Elliot said nothing, stepping toward him. F*ck, did the man not care that Cole had a gun on him?
“You have company one minute out.” The voice in his ear sounded a little frantic.
F*ck, this whole thing was going wrong. Cole had his mark and various cronies bearing down on him, and Sanctuary in the shape of Elliot right in the freaking middle.
But if Cole left, then what about the kids? 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.
Or at least he had until Elliot tracked him down.
“You have to leave,” he snapped and gestured with the gun.
Surprise made Elliot frown, and only when he saw that did Cole realize he’d f*cked 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.
And then it was too late to think of anything.
At the same time his sister’s frantic voice warned him that a car was turning onto the street, Cole heard a voice from the darkness.
So, his mark had sent an advance guard, and all Cole could think was that if it was his time to die, he didn’t want to take anyone with him.
“Drop the gun, asshole,” a voice said from 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.
Cole dropped his pistol to the ground, feeling abruptly bereft. “It’s done,” he said to whoever the hell was behind him.
Cole lifted his hands and laced them behind his head, looking right into the darkness, not able to see Elliot’s form but hoping to hell he stayed the f*ck down. Very deliberately he turned to face the man with the gun at his head.
“Talk to me,” his sister snapped at him, her voice dead and cold, gone past emotional and well into focused.
“You realize I have a meeting with Mario, right? That this was organized? He won’t take it well when he finds out you’re here with a gun on me.”
A nasal voice joined in. “I’m quite happy with the situation,” Mario said.
And right there and then, Cole knew time was 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 f*ck, man?” he asked.
“Do you have access to the money?”
Cole wasn’t letting the evil f*cker get control of the conversation. “How many?” he asked firmly.
Mario looked at him; a group of others, all 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 sh*t.
He was also suspicious as hell of anything and 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.
“You can have seven of them,” Mario said, his lips stretching in an obscene grin.
“The deal was for all ten.”
Mario shrugged as if he wasn’t playing with people’s lives. “I have a market for the other three,” he said nonchalantly.
Cole knew exactly what that meant: the younger girls parceled up and sold on. “All ten, or no deal,” he stated, keeping emotion out of his voice.
“Then the price goes up. No skin off my nose who gets them.”
“Well now... just how badly do you want them all?”
One of Mario’s men snickered, and the sound echoed in the otherwise quiet alley.
Cole could play it two ways: show his hand and admit he was desperate to get all ten of the illegals Mario had, or try to call his bluff.
“F*ck you,” Cole said, and drew himself tall. He wished he had his weapon, but he’d just have to hope to hell that confronting was the answer. “The deal’s off.”
He bent to pick up his weapon, slowly placing 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.
“An extra ten,” Mario said, throwing it out as if it meant nothing to him.
“Five.” Cole couldn’t give in too easily.
“Hell, I can get double that on the ’net for the seven-year-old,” Mario said.
Cole had to stop the panic pushing at his chest 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 f*cking 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-sh*t human trafficker intact.
“I’ll take that,” Mario said.
One of the posse 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 f*cking with him, had likely placed two men inside. Cole would take a step inside the warehouse, and be a dead man.
How had he blown his cover? This wasn’t the 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…
Very carefully and deliberately he pulled out 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.
Mario tossed the key card for the warehouse to Cole, who caught it deftly. “All yours,” Mario said, and then he turned and left, taking everyone with him.
“Heads-up,” his sister said. “The extra two have left the building at the rear. Hovering outside the closed door.”
What the f*ck?
Cole crossed to the steel door and waved the 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.
He rounded what he imagined was the last corner 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?
Immediately he went to a crouch and held out a hand in a gesture of innocence. “It’s okay,” he said in English. “I’m here to help.”
He repeated it in as many languages as he’d 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.
The radio crackled and hissed in his ear; he could only make out a few words. Fire! Get out.
Resolutely he continued with the chains until 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.
So, that was 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 kids.
“Sis? Can you hear me?” He spoke loudly above the sound of the littlest girl 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? F*ck, the horror was sick inside him. Think. Think. He wasn’t going to let anyone burn to death.
Stop, he told himself. There’s nothing to be won by planning for the worst.
He looked up at the vents and tiny windows about twenty feet from the floor. He could pile boxes, pass the kids up, smash the window.
The heat was getting 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 the windows?
Then he heard shouting.
“Up here!” a voice demanded, and peering up, Cole could see Elliot scrambling through the space and lowering himself in, dropping and rolling awkwardly. “Get the boxes.”
For a second, Cole was immobile, and then 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 boxes.
Cole’s breathing became labored. And then he spotted 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.
“Kid!” Elliot shouted from the window.
But if anything, she curled tighter, her hands over her ears, rocking slowly. “I’m going back down,” Cole said.
“You have thirty seconds before this whole place lights up.”
Cole didn’t hesitate—he wasn’t about to leave a 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.
He grabbed her, but she wailed and fought 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.
“Is that ten?” Cole gasped as the box he stood on wavered; he gripped hard at the windowsill.
“Is that all ten kids?”
“Yes, grab hold!” Elliot held out a hand.
Cole tried to grip as the pile toppled, their 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.
“Jesus,” Elliot snapped, smacking at Cole’s jacket to extinguish the flames as Cole shrugged it off in a panic.
As he rolled, he pulled his weapon from its 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.
Cole asked, “Where are Mario’s two goons?”
“Out cold. You’re not the man we profiled. Who the f*ck are you really?”
Cole didn’t answer.
“You should know I called 911,” Elliot said, his expression unreadable.
Was Elliot giving him a chance to leave? A warning? He seemed more interested in hugging the kids to him protectively than in taking Cole down.
Cole looked away 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?”
Elliot nodded. “Yes,” he said, all seriousness. Then he inclined his head toward the sound of sirens.
Cole grabbed what was left of his jacket, and with one last look at Elliot and the kids, he was gone.
RJ Scott is the bestselling romance author of over 100 romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men and women who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn't with family either reading or writing.
The last time she had a week's break from writing she didn't like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn't defeat.
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