He’s just always gone it alone.
Now he’s got the wrong people breathing down his neck, and the only way out demands placing his trust in the unlikeliest of heroes: Duncan Rook, a gruff cop whose ethics are as solid as his body.
Cozying up to a criminal is hardly what Duncan’s reputation on the force needs—especially when that criminal is temptation personified. Ghost is Duncan’s polar opposite, and the last person he expected to fall for.
So then why does every imaginable scenario for taking down their common enemy end with Ghost in his arms?
This book is approximately 122,000 words
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Don't do it. Ghost aimed the silent warning to the teenage boy sitting three spots down from him, who was currently glancing toward the bathroom with a pained expression. The kid had the nervy air of a new colt, all trusting blue eyes and tentative smiles, and at the moment, the fidgety body language of someone who needed to take a piss. Badly.
Don't do it, Ghost thought again toward the guy. Tobias, Ghost was pretty sure his name was. A rich name for a rich boy, and both the name and the money would do exactly zip for the kid if he did something stupid now. Wait until class starts. There will be fewer of them.
The cafeteria in the Woodbury Residential Treatment Center couldn't have been more institutional if the administration had tried — long tables with attached benches instead of chairs, plastic silverware, cinder block walls painted white, and linoleum the color of olives, dark enough to conceal suspicious stains. The windows were thick, scratched glass, warped and dirty and alarmed, lending a mediocre view of the rest of the sprawling campus: half-full parking lots, the overgrown courtyard — rarely, if ever, used by students — and the eleven cottages housing three hundred boys on the verge of manhood — if they hadn't tipped over it already.
The boys around him began to return their lunch trays, but Ghost only sat and watched Tobias struggle to make up his mind. He was around eighteen, a good four years older than Ghost, but he clearly had the survival instincts of a toddler.
As evidenced by the purple bruises half-hidden beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt.
And the surprisingly dignified, in-chair potty dance. Which was understandable. Ghost had heard about the rule Gibson's crew had laid down for the new guy. Hell, everyone had heard about the rule. Except the staff, but they didn't count anyway. Normally the hazing took the form of having to stand up in class or group therapy and say something humiliating. A onetime thing with no real consequences. Tobias, with his expensive jeans and perfect posture and countless small courtesies to the staff, had a target on his back big enough to be seen from space, and the ire directed his way had risen accordingly.
It didn't sound like much, earning a punch from every guy in the bathroom each time you pissed, but when you considered that the vast majority of the day was scheduled so that each cottage or class took bathroom breaks together — twenty guys at a time, minimum — that shit added up. While some of the guys took pity and ignored the whole mess or delivered love taps, if there was a guy in Gibson's crew who pulled his punches, Ghost hadn't met him.
With a last anguished, not-remotely-sneaky look around the cafeteria, Tobias got up and wound his way through the crowd to bus his tray, an apology in the flesh, darting out of the way of other boys. Ghost suspected he hadn't made eye contact with anyone who wasn't staff since his second day here. He couldn't have been a victim more clearly if he'd had a neon sign above his head flashing the word in bright, glaring red. Hurt me, the sign might also say. I won't fight back.
Oblivious too. Gibson — a big, muscle-bound skinhead in the making — got to his feet in Tobias's wake, slapping the backs of his buddies' heads as he passed through the crowd, dodging staff and other boys, following the smaller boy out into the hallway, and Tobias never noticed.
Don't do it, Ghost thought, this time to himself.
It wasn't his problem.
It wasn't his business.
He didn't give a shit about this kid. He'd never had a single conversation with him. This was Ghost's second time through Woodbury; the other guys came and went with the tangibility of clouds. He'd forget Tobias soon enough.
Plus, intervening could turn into a thing if Gibson decided to take offense, and while Ghost wasn't afraid of Gibson, he could see the situation getting physical. Having to cut someone up would stall out Ghost's program. It'd mean more time in Woodbury before he got released, and definitely a loss of privileges.
Nothing took the starch out of a guy's spine like using kiddie scissors in class.
Besides, there were only about three minutes before the bell would ring and cleanup staff would start searching for guys who weren't in class as expected. Someone would check that bathroom eventually. Someone would find them.
Maybe not before Tobias lost a tooth or something, though.
Fucking fucking fuck.
He got up.
He wound his way through the crowd, considering how to play it, pretty sure he couldn't make the first move, not when there would be five or six of them at least. The only way to manage those odds was to marshal up some legit head games, get them unsettled, make them want to cave. As long as Gibson could save face by offering Tobias up instead of being pushed into letting Tobias go, maybe it wouldn't turn into a problem.
The halls were nearly empty as he made his way to the bathroom at the far end of the Science Corridor. Quiet enough that he could hear the sounds of the scuffle through the bathroom door. He checked to make sure no one was watching, staff or otherwise, and pulled his blade, the small paring knife he'd stolen from the kitchen three days after he'd arrived. He put his game face on — impersonal curiosity and a hint of the feral.
He opened the door. Drifted inside. Paused in the doorway to watch. Left his hand visible at his side.
He wasn't sure who saw him first; he kept his gaze on Tobias, Tobias crying fat tears and trying desperately to muffle the sounds, Tobias with the blood from his busted nose streaking across his cheek, glinting dull maroon in the yellow light of the caged fluorescents. There were no windows in the bathroom, only cheap drains with thin, bent grates in the floor and chipped sinks and dirty mirrors reflecting the six boys looming over the one crumpled in the center of them. But eventually someone did see Ghost, and finally even Gibson fell still, his foot coming back to the ground after he landed one last kick.
Ghost let the silence vibrate for long seconds before he spoke, a nonsense story that rambled out of him without his attention, because the real conversation was happening elsewhere, between the blade in his hand and the boys watching him, the slow tap of his blade against his thigh a subtle reminder to everyone in the room about what'd happened the last time someone fucked with him.
Getting dragged to the Intervention Unit in the middle of the night while covered in someone else's blood and your victim lay in the hallway screaming left an impression. The news that Booler had lost a testicle had spread like a cold through the cottage. The icing on the cake had been that, because Booler had been an inoffensive guy, everyone assumed the incident had been unprovoked. Ghost's rep for being a head case had grown exponentially overnight. A useful thing.
Ghost sure as shit wasn't going to be the one to share the fact that nothing would've happened if Booler had kept his dick in his own fucking bed. Ghost might be a whore from nine to five, but he didn't get friendly until cash changed hands, no matter how much bigger the guy sliding between his sheets might be.
Ghost let his voice drop as he spoke, let his hand twitch occasionally so the light reflected off his blade. Remember, he told them without words, remember that I'll jump anyone without warning, remember that the odds won't figure in my crazy brain, remember that I'm good at breaking people, that I go for the balls, remember.
Gibson lifted his hands in a soothing movement. "Ghost, hey, hey, we wouldn't have if you'd just said, man. All you had to do. He's yours, fuck, have at him. Keep him off my dick, though, yeah?"
Which was fine. Let Gibson save face by pretending he was being the decent, honorable bastard he never was, respecting an ownership claim. Never mind that hardly anyone tried to pull that bullshit because there was too much supervision in Woodbury at night to make it worth the effort, or that everyone knew Ghost didn't touch other people. They all knew what was really happening, but at least this lie came without blood.
To cement the moment, Ghost put on one of his fugue-acts. Or how he imagined he looked to others when he was in one of his fugues anyway. He kept his mouth slack and his eyes dead, staring at one fixed point no matter how much every instinct swore at him to track the hands of the boys shuffling past him, to keep Gibson in sight. But the creepy robot stillness worked; Gibson nearly dislocated his spine trying to get his big body past Ghost in the doorway without touching him, and then it was Ghost and Tobias and the soft drip of a leaking faucet in one of the sinks.
Tobias sat up, face tipped to the ground, swallowing hard, the curve of his throat vulnerable as his Adam's apple bobbed, his hand shaking as he wiped off blood and tears, and Ghost jerked his gaze away. Witnessing it felt like an attack somehow.
He stood there while Tobias went to a sink to wash up. Not that anything could conceal the bruises on his face or the twisted angle of two of his fingers on his right hand. Broken trying to block a kick, Ghost suspected.
When some of the riotous flush had left Tobias's cheeks and the blood had been mopped up, Ghost headed for the door. "I'll walk you to the infirmary."
Tobias's gaze flicked to the clock, and suddenly it all slipped into place — Tobias's willingness to brave the bathroom during lunch break instead of holding it for literally three more minutes to ensure safety and privacy while Gibson's crew were in class.
"Please tell me that you didn't risk your life because you were scared to be late," Ghost said, his hand pausing on the doorknob, "in a school where calling the teacher a bitch only nets you an essay?"
Tobias stared at his shoes.
Ghost sighed. "You fell down the stairs."
"I fell down the stairs," Tobias repeated quietly, obedient as a well-trained dog as he followed Ghost out of the bathroom.
Tobias watched him like he was a rabid animal over the next few days, body tense, going still whenever Ghost moved unexpectedly. He barely said five words that first week, too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the next blow to land, and it should've made Ghost angry. He should've wanted to be mean, to punish Tobias for making him have to think so much about these sorts of things, for putting him in this position, but Ghost didn't feel angry or mean.
He understood that kind of waiting.
He found himself being gentle with Tobias, saying stupid shit he thought might be comforting, words that felt misshapen and awkward in his mouth, anything to take that flinch out of the flesh between Tobias's hunched shoulders, the flinch that struck Ghost behind the breastbone without even trying.
What the fuck do you think I am? But asking it would take him a little too close to no stop I avoid looking back, so mostly he made Tobias help him with his homework and tested out bullshit stories on his gullible ass, timing how long it would take for Tobias to figure out he was getting played.
At first, Tobias only stared at him with confused, anxious frowns. But after a few days, those anxious stares shifted. Became curious and intent. Like Ghost was a lock he couldn't decide how to open. He began to smile when Ghost gave him bullshit answers. He started tentatively telling stories of his own — true ones, though, about his family and friends back home, about school, about how he was going to be a doctor like his father, a complicated mixture of love and exhaustion lying heavy in his words.
One day Ghost realized he'd miscalculated. Instead of taking on a lost, broken puppy he could send to get shit from the cafeteria for him, he'd gotten stuck with a guy who thought they were friends, a guy who got Ghost snacks not because he was afraid of what Ghost might do if he refused, but because he thought it might make Ghost happy.
A bizarre turn of events.
"I think you're stupid to spend this much time on homework," he told Tobias once.
"I know." Tobias settled onto the couch beside him and rolled his eyes, but with an indulgent air, as if he found it cute that Ghost said these things, as if he'd somehow figured out why Ghost said these things even though Ghost had barely any understanding of it himself.
"Hey, what'd you get for number five?" Tobias asked, holding out one of the snacks from the vending machine.
"X=tits," he said, amused despite himself at the way Tobias flushed at his crude language. He took the chips.
He did like sour cream and onion.
"I have this vintage chicken coop in my basement," the man said, breath already huffing as Ghost knelt in front of him. "It locks and everything. To keep foxes out."
"Uh-huh," Ghost said. Gravel dug into his knees through his jeans. He shifted his weight. Didn't help. Still, it wasn't as bad as the cramping pain in his belly where his stomach seemed intent on reminding him that it'd been almost two days now with nothing but cake mix to eat. Which was maybe most people's ideas of a good time, but for Ghost it had more to do with getting the maximum number of calories into his body on the minimum number of dollars. Cake mix was cheap and it kept his motor running, but he'd shank Bambi for a burger at this point.
"It's warmer there. We could go there." The man's breath fogged as he spoke. "The bricks are really cold, is all."
Ghost wasn't sure what the guy had expected from an alley by an overpass on a December morning, but he wasn't wrong about the temperature. Still. Foxes trying to get to chickens in a basement? For fuck's sake, how stupid did he think Ghost was?
"As much fun as your murder basement sounds," Ghost said politely, "I'm afraid I'll have to pass."
"Okay. Sure. Fine." The guy nodded in little jerks. "Can we still, um, do this?" "If you'll shut up."
"Okay." He shoved his boxers down and waited, his skinny thighs vibrating, his hands with their dirty nails twitching in the air like he wanted to grab Ghost by the hair but didn't dare.
Ghost reached up, giving the guy's dick a few tugs while he did the junk check, looking for sores and crabs and other gross things, but people who raised chicken coops for prostitute murdering apparently took good care of themselves. Ghost looked up, caught the guy's eye. He had, objectively, a not-ugly face. For a potential psycho, he appeared normal enough.
Ghost gave him a few more lazy tugs, slid one hand into the waistband of his jeans to pry the hilt of his blade up — just in case — and leaned in.
The guy tasted like he smelled — clean sweat and hidden-away skin, the small jogs of his hips probably involuntary as he let out a moan and —
Ghost blinked. The world wobbled around him. Daytime. Noises he couldn't make sense of. His body had turned into raw meat. He couldn't move from where he lay on his side. Where was his blade? It — he needed it. He couldn't — his arms unlocked finally, and he fumbled at his jeans, but the pocket he'd sewn into the waistband at the small of his back was empty. Panic snarled in his chest, ran liquid through his veins.
Where was his knife?
Blade in the left hand meant he came back fast from a fugue, his thoughts instantly intact. He didn't know why. Just was. With an empty hand it was always like this. Like swimming to the surface of a pool full of syrup.
He glanced around. In an alley. Near the overpass. Empty lot to his left. A broken crate with rotting cabbage spilling out, a sick-sweet reek. A grody Dumpster down the way. The main road about a block's distance away. Not a lot of cover. Anyone driving by would see.
A low cry came from somewhere behind him. He lurched to his knees and turned. A guy was sprawled on the ground, struggling, cursing, getting the shit kicked out of him by — Ghost shook his head, trying to get his brain cells working. Was that — Fuck. Vasily Krayev.
He had to get up. His limbs were noodles. But he had to get up. He knew what Krayev wanted. He'd been shaking down every hustler who worked the boulevard for a few weeks now, finding the whores who didn't have protection, offering his "services," regardless of whether they were needed. Ghost had evaded him until now, but say what you liked about the egotistical hothead, he'd picked his moment well this time. Ghost didn't always fugue during tricks, and there were different degrees to it anyway, but Vasily had caught him in a doozy today.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rough Trade"
Copyright © 2018 Sidney Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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