Release Date: 6/28/18
Gray Nolan’s biggest problem in life was the torch he carried for his closeted coach. He was just another happy-go-lucky dude, a college student and hockey player, when his ordinary existence was interrupted, and he became a human trafficking statistic.
He and seven other young men were taken aboard a luxurious yacht where they were to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Gray was beaten, shattered, and almost defeated by the time his buyer stepped out of the shadows in a swirl of his own cigarette smoke.
He was Gray’s new owner.
Darius Quinn had vowed never again to find himself in a situation like this. His days as a private military contractor were over. No more missions, no more risks, no more personal attachments. Yet, here he was, after weeks of searching, face-to-face with his broken prize.
It was time to get the knucklehead back to his family.
Quick and easy was Darius’s plan.
Then everything went sideways.
Amazon US: http://bit.ly/amus-auction
Amazon CAN: http://bit.ly/amca-auction
Amazon AUS: http://bit.ly/amau-auction
Amazon DE: https://amzn.to/2ttUZ8q
Amazon UK: http://bit.ly/amuk-auction
Signed paperback: https://www.caradeewrites.com/
Gray grinned to himself as he scrolled through baby clothes on his phone. Online shopping was dangerous when you’d learned you were expecting your first niece or nephew, and his funds were limited. He couldn’t help it, though. He was stoked for his stepsister—and, frankly, himself. He was gonna spoil that kid rotten.
Taking a left on Sixth Street, he looked up briefly to make sure shopping for baby socks wasn’t getting him lost on the way home. He could picture his friends and brothers ribbing him about that for years.
It’d gotten dark while Gray had been to the movies with a couple friends. He was almost home, thankfully. Summer was over, and he was one of the last to haul out the fall wardrobe. Probably time to start using a jacket. Northern Washington wasn’t known for its heat.
“Hey!” Gray banged furiously against the planks that boarded up the window. Between the cracks, he could see a man exiting a car across the street, and it was the first person Gray had seen all day. “Help! Over here!” With a growl of frustration and panic, he tried to dig his fingers between two boards to get them loose. “Up here!” He kept going, even as his fingers started bleeding from the rough splinters.
His stomach churned as he heard the heavy footfalls of the two men who lived in this house. Or so he guessed. He hadn’t paused to consider ownership of the shitty little house on a street he didn’t recognize.
“Just silence him,” one of the men snarled on the other side of the door.
Flight was out, so Gray steeled himself to fight. His chest heaved, his fists clenched. And the second the locks were turned and the door opened, he charged with every bit of strength he possessed.
A message popped up on Gray’s phone as he was crossing the park behind the community college.
I want to celebrate my birthday with you. Please say yes, beautiful.
Gray wanted to. Fuck, did he want to spend that day with Craig. But he’d drawn the line. It’d been nearly three years of texting and confessing feelings and fantasies, three years of not being intimate with the man he loved. He knew if he spent any alone time with Craig now, he’d cave.
His thumb hovered over the send button, reading and rereading his reply, then eventually fired it off.
Leave your wife first.
A strong wind rustled the trees above him and sent a shiver down his spine. Fall was really here. He zipped up his hoodie and bunched his shoulders. The apartment he shared with a couple teammates and too much hockey gear to stumble over was just around the little duck pond. He hoped he could fall asleep quickly tonight, ’cause being reminded of Craig’s birthday sucked.
Gray could thank—or curse—his mom for putting so much value on morals. High motherfucking morals. He shook his head and wished he could just, for one damn night, get what he wanted. A stolen moment. Technically, they’d already had one. A kiss—a heated, awesome kiss—right after Craig became Craig and stopped being Coach Fuller.
As Gray nursed his no doubt fractured wrist, he counted the cracks in the ceiling. The pain had lessened to a low throb after keeping it still for two days, and the swelling had gone down.
He knew a thing or two about fractures, being a hockey player. Unlike his younger twin brothers, he didn’t dream of making it in the NHL, though. Same with Gray’s best friend, Abel, who played for the Canucks in Vancouver. No, Gray wanted to coach or work with kids in some other capacity. But all of that hurt to think about now.
Rolling onto his side, he winced as his joints protested. The thin mattress was the only thing in the room, aside from a portable toilet in the opposite corner. More often than not, his eyes strayed to the boarded-up window, which beat staring at the faded wallpaper.
Six days. That was how long it’d been since he was taken. Long enough for him to become a case. First as a missing person, then with the suspicion of foul play. Had he made the news yet? Most likely. In fact, Gray counted on it, because he wasn’t the first to disappear from their little town. A boy had gone missing earlier this year, followed by a young woman a couple months ago.
He screwed his eyes shut and willed himself not to cry. It would do him no good.
With his apartment building in sight, he picked up the pace and—
A screeching sound broke his train of thought, and Gray looked around, confused. This area was usually dead at night, unless it was a Friday or Saturday and fellow students threw a party or four.
He was supposed to have graduated last semester, but failing grades had forced him to retake a few classes.
A black sedan rolled up right outside the building, blocking Gray’s path. A big man stepped out and asked, “Are you Gray Nolan?”
Gray stiffened, torn between worry and suspicion. “What do you want with him?”
The man cracked a grin that revealed perfectly white teeth, except one was missing.
Another man was quick to join the first one, and they exchanged a sentence in a language Gray couldn’t understand or identify.
A beat later, they both flew at Gray.
Gray could picture his mom’s face in the most idyllic scenarios. He could envision her laughing as she walked down the sloped lawn behind the inn she ran. The sun shining, the wind catching in her long, dark hair, the apple trees in bloom. Perhaps Gray had told her an inappropriate joke, and she was doing her mom thing by pretending not to find it funny. She’d look up at him with narrowed eyes, even as they danced with mirth, and scold him for his language or something. Then a giggle would slip free, and the laughs would follow.
Maybe it was because she’d had kids young that Gray was so close with her. The mama bear was always lurking and ready to pounce, but for the most part, they were friends. He helped out at the inn whenever he had the time, working side by side with his mother when most guys his age would rather chill with buddies.
The memory of his mom’s mischievous smirks and soft laughter were among Gray’s favorites, but they were always interrupted by the harsh reality. Her happiness grew distorted before morphing into despair and anguish-laden rage. Gray imagined her surrounded by law enforcement as she tried to figure out where her second eldest son had gone. She was such a short little thing. A complete sweetheart, until you messed with her.
The van jostled, bringing Gray out of his head. The air was humid and pungent, reeking of mildew, piss, and vomit. His restraints were cutting into his skin, and the burlap sack covering his head was thick and scratchy.
Find me. Please find me.
“Stand still!” The motherfucker fisted Gray’s hair through the rough material of the bag that covered his head and positioned him on the scale. “One-eighty-nine. Gotta love the athletes. He’ll go for a lot.”
Gray gnashed his teeth together.
This isn’t real, this isn’t real.
He wasn’t going to be sold. It seemed as impossible now as it had the first time he’d been told of his fate. That shit didn’t happen, not in America.
Bob claimed otherwise. Men without faces and names had come and gone in the weeks Gray had been God knows where, except for one man. He had a craggy face and crooked teeth, and on the eighth day in a shitty little house with faded wallpaper, he’d strolled into what was left of Gray’s life, grinned widely, and said, “Call me Bob.”
Bob made Gray’s life a living hell.
Another man grunted. “The fit ones also escape easier. Measurements next.”
Every digit imaginable was jotted down. From Gray’s six feet in height to…Jesus Christ, the length of his flaccid cock. Bob and who Gray assumed was a physician spoke as if they were the only people in the room.
“Tattoos or scars?” Doc asked. “Eye color, hair color… Anything that stands out?”
Bob ripped off the burlap sack, and Gray blinked at the harsh light. His eyes burned and watered rapidly. A blurry face obstructed his view, and there was a painful grip on his jaw.
“Light brown hair. Blue eyes, I guess. No scars—wait.” He gripped Gray’s bicep next. “Four-inch scar across his neck, several fainter ones on his torso. No ink, no piercings, handful of smaller birthmarks on his back and chest.”
Doc hummed and walked closer. Gray’s eyes wouldn’t fucking stop running; he hadn’t seen daylight—artificial or otherwise—for more than a few seconds at a time in weeks. Ever since he’d been moved from the house.
Doc poked a pen at the scars along Gray’s ribcage. “What sport, boy?” This guy had a Southern accent. He was old, bald, and short.
“Fuck you,” Gray gritted out.
That earned him a bitch slap that sent his head sideways. The pain didn’t even register.
Bob laughed under his breath.
“Hockey,” Gray muttered at Doc’s impatient look. Then he wrenched his gaze away and took in the dank office.
There was an old newspaper sticking up from the trash can, but he couldn’t see if it was local or anything.
“Violent sport,” Doc tsked. “How old are you?”
“Twenty.” Blinking past the stinging, Gray continued to search the office for clues. He spotted a calendar on the wall that made him sick. November. “Twenty-one.”
He’d missed his birthday. He’d also been gone for over two months.
Doc narrowed his eyes.
“It’s true,” Bob said. “He’s twenty-one.”
Gray was stuck on the month. November, November, November. He’d suspected they were no longer in Washington—or even Oregon—and now he knew it for certain. The weather outside was too warm for November.
He couldn’t imagine how his mom was faring.
Every time he thought of his family, the grief nearly did him in. It spread like fire through his veins, making it hard for him to breathe.
“Has he tried to escape?” Doc asked.
“Three times,” Bob grunted in reply.
Doc wasn’t happy about that, and he asked his next question while making another note. “Did he ever get close?”
Once. Gray swallowed bile. It was when two men had escorted him from that house he’d spent the first two weeks in… Gray had gotten loose from his restraints and tried to run.
Bob had caught up with him, and later that night, he’d made Gray regret he was alive.
Gray shut his eyes and stopped moving around inside the wooden box. He couldn’t stretch out his legs, and the top of his head touched the ceiling. Rolling his shoulders and twisting his body was often all he could do to stop the numbness from growing too painful.
He wasn’t alone in the back of the truck. Judging by the sounds and the voices sometimes reaching out, he guessed there were around nine of them right now. All men. Or boys… Always leaving one storage unit or garage bay to go to another.
“Try to get some sleep,” Gray croaked.
“You never answer,” the boy whispered. “I’m scared.”
Gray scrubbed tiredly at his face, ashamed because he did, in fact, avoid talking to anyone. It made the guys real. Some of them sounded so fucking young, and Gray was scared out of his mind too. He couldn’t be strong for others who might need him to.
“I know.” His head hit the side of the large crate, and he blinked. Sometimes, there were slivers of light he could follow. Nothing now, though. Everything was pitch black.
A thin film of slime covered parts of the crates. Bodily fluids and mildew.
The boy coughed softly. “Are you maybe from Camassia Cove in Washington?”
Gray frowned. “Why?”
“I heard a guard mention it at the last place,” he revealed. “I’m from there too.”
Gray released a breath. “When were you taken?” Was this the kid who’d gone missing at the beginning of the year?
“I don’t know, a few weeks ago.”
Oh. So, after Gray had been kidnapped.
He didn’t wanna think about it—or anything that involved their home. It was too painful and brought forth too many memories. He missed his family so fucking much. Gage, his big brother. Gabriel and Gid, his younger twin brothers. And Mom and Isla and his stepdad and…everyone. Friends—especially Abel. Craig. Fuck, his chest hurt. Wounded feelings from before mingled with love, combined with the increasing aches and the horror of being abducted. Jesus Christ, literally abducted. These things happened on the news! Or in movies.
“My name is Milo,” the boy said nervously.
Gray scrubbed at his face, the rope around his wrists cinching tighter. Now the boy had a name. It changed things.
“Does anyone know where we are?” another guy asked.
Fuck no. Gray snapped his mouth shut. He’d been through this before. Shortly after he was taken, he’d been in a truck with four others. They’d established names and birthplaces, all trying to piece details together. Then everyone was taken away, maybe in a different truck going someplace else or…fuck if Gray knew. The next time, there’d been a couple girls too.
He loathed thinking about what happened to them when they were suddenly shipped like cattle to another destination. It made him wonder how big this whole thing was. Could he call it a network? Organized slavery? Human trafficking. The term hit him like a bolt, and it wrenched a pained breath from him.
Trafficking was invisible, yet, somehow, always a word on politicians’ lips. Sometimes, Gray would hear about it on the news, trafficking rings being exposed and blown up, but it was a crime so heinous it was impossible to grasp. Like anyone else, he’d think how horrible trafficking was. When leaders rallied before elections, saying they had to fight the drug trade and human trafficking, everyone went hell yeah. Because who wouldn’t? No one stood up and said the war on drugs wasn’t important.
As Gray listened to the guys making wary introductions, it terrified him to think how big this could be. He envisioned a dark map lighting up with a neon grid that grew denser and more heavily trafficked, and no one knew. The men and women passing the truck he was in had no clue. Like him, they’d seen news segments. Young girls, often. Always far away. Not in the truck next to them. To them, the grid remained invisible.
How many locations had he been taken to? Twelve? Thirteen? During overnight stays, he was locked in his crate. He could only hear the nightmares of others.
Gray was jostled awake. At the first assault of a simple flashlight, he hissed and cowered away in a corner. Welcome to another night of terror. Knees pulled up, tied hands covering his face. Light burned. The familiar smell of piss and vomit mingled with salt… That sparked something, and he took a tentative whiff. Ocean. He could smell the ocean. Or was he imagining it?
“Wake up!” It was the driver, and soon, more light filled the truck. Bearable light, Gray guessed, in comparison to the sun. He wasn’t sure he could live through a sunrise at this point. His eyes only knew the flickering lights of garage bays and the sharp, white beams from flashlights. “Crate four and six,” the driver told someone. “Food for the others.”
Two crates were lifted off the truck, and Gray prayed he could forget the heartbreaking sound of young men begging for their lives.
How many weeks had passed now?
Packets of rice and steamed vegetables were shoved in between the cracks of the crates—the same every night. Then they’d be back on the road for a few hours, only to make a final stop before a new day began. At that stop, they’d be hauled out of their boxes and hosed down. If anyone got mouthy, which Gray had learned the hard way, their one and only bathroom visit was taken away, and they got to experience waterboarding.
He flinched at a certain memory but managed to shove it aside.
“On your feet, slave.”
Gray shuddered violently as someone guided him roughly out of the truck. There was a bag over his head again. The telltale beep to alert that the lift gate was in use, the low murmur of voices around, boys wondering what was going on, the lift gate lowering with him on it—Gray could anticipate all of it.
He stood stock-still on the concrete ground and waited for the water. Every shuffle and noise registered, and then it hit him. The blast of cold water. He sucked in a breath and squeezed his eyes shut harder. One boy cried out. If the low-life scum were feeling extra sadistic, the first attack of the hose would hit the boys right in the face. Not even the burlap could shield them from the force of the frigid water.
They were deemed clean when teeth were chattering and their bodies shaking.
A quick bathroom break entailed being shoved into a porta-potty where the men got two minutes at best to relieve themselves. It was the only time their wrists weren’t shackled or bound. After which, they stumbled out and felt a gun pressing to their heads.
Gray was beginning to take comfort from the burlap sack. He didn’t wanna see the hell he lived through.
Soon enough, he was shoved back into his crate, another night drawing to a close.
Like the doctor’s exam, a rare night here and there stood out. Tonight, Gray and the other young men were shuffled out of the truck and into another garage bay, bags thrown over their heads, but there was no hose waiting for them, nor had they been fed yet. Instead, they were all ordered on their knees with their heads bowed.
Panic seized Gray’s chest. Is this it? Have they gone through all this to give me a bullet in the head? Just like that, his rational side kicked in. There wasn’t a chance in hell they were gonna kill him after everything. He’d been manhandled by countless men throughout this time, and they probably didn’t do it for free. An operation like this had to be costly.
“Please don’t kill me,” one guy sobbed.
He was new.
“Disappointingly little money in selling corpses,” a man said impassively. “Start with him, Gregor.”
Gray’s ears prickled. He strained to be alert, refusing to let the fatigue get the best of him. Boots scraped the cement. Wherever they stopped, it wasn’t near Gray. This time.
“This the final eight for Joulter?” someone asked in a gravelly voice.
“Yes. We’ll get the other six tomorrow.”
The next thing that registered was a low, jagged buzz. The first words that flew into Gray’s head were tattoo gun. Confirmed by a boy whimpering in pain and a motherfucker telling him to be still. Gray tensed up and steeled himself. They’re gonna mark me. They’re gonna put a mark on me. Milo was next, and Gray listened to his shaky breaths as the boy tried to be brave. Each faint, choking sound was a stab in Gray’s chest.
“One of them was reserved, right?” It was the gravelly voice again.
“This one,” another replied, and it was followed by a pained sound. “He’s to be delivered with a chip already. Buyer ain’t takin’ any chances, I guess.”
Gray’s mind was quick to draw conclusions. Chip. GPS or something else that would track the kid. Making it almost impossible to escape. On the other hand, Gray and the other six wouldn’t be chipped. He would only need a small window. If he saw a chance to run, he would. Saw, being the ironic keyword. With a bag over his head, he didn’t see a whole lot.
A meaty hand clamped down on Gray’s neck through the scratchy fabric, and Gray clenched his jaw. This was it. He’d get some kind of mark—a permanent one. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t faze him more than the other abuse. He could survive a tattoo. Being kidnapped, maybe not.
The buzz grew louder, and the bag over Gray’s head was pushed up enough to expose the back of his neck. What followed was a trail of fire that pierced his skin. He broke out in a sweat, the pain reverberating in his skull and locking his jaw into place. He gnashed his teeth so hard he thought he was gonna crush them.
Something was different.
“Be quiet, Milo.” Gray spoke the words under his breath, too caught up in the outside world to try consoling Milo again. “Please. Something’s—” Shit, he didn’t even know what to say. As the truck turned, so did Gray. He twisted his upper body inside the crate, as if he could suddenly see through walls just because he was facing the right direction.
His neck strained, reminding him of the no doubt infected, two-day-old brand. Right now, he couldn’t bring himself to care. For the past hour or so, the truck had driven in a strange pattern. Bumpier roads, frequent turns. Hope was the last thing that died, Gray had read somewhere. And he couldn’t help but wonder if the sharp turns and detours meant that the driver was trying to shake someone. Someone following them, maybe.
After a while, the truck slowed down.
“Joulter cargo!” The voice of the driver was muffled through a wall but distinct nonetheless. Another voice replied, and this time, Gray couldn’t decipher the words. “No, the midnight departure with the queer boys.”
Gray’s back straightened and became rigid, and he hit his head on the ceiling of the crate. Queer boys. Oh fuck. “Milo.” He rushed out the silently crying boy’s name. “Are you gay?”
“I am,” someone else croaked.
Milo sniffled. “Yeah?”
“Damn,” Gray whispered.
There was one guy Gray’s age—Cole—who’d traveled with them for maybe a week. He spoke up next. “Special requests from buyers.” His guess confirmed Gray’s fear. Every time they’d traveled with others, it’d been different legs of different journeys. Girls, boys, straight, gay; somehow, they were categorized, whether it was by sexuality, gender, body shape, or skin color.
Gray thought back on the glimpses of the guys he was with. Sexuality established: gay. All of them athletic and cut but not bulky. All on the young side. Gray and Cole were the eldest, if he wasn’t mistaken. We’re the fucking twinks. He glared at nothing, vaguely offended. He didn’t look like a stereotypical bottom boy, goddammit.
With a shake of his head, he thought further, mainly on how these people-harvesting criminals knew so much. They didn’t snatch victims at random, and Gray didn’t advertise his sexuality. Much. His friends knew and had zero problems; still, he was heavily involved in hockey, so he chose not to flaunt anything. He was also single—officially. Only one man would hopefully dispute that status. Regardless…no one would know he was gay unless they either knew him personally or…if they’d found his Facebook.
It sent chills down his spine to realize they’d been watching him.
It would explain how Bob had known his age. They’d fucking spied on Gray.
“We have to run,” he said quickly. Panic rose at the thought of not getting any more chances. “If we’ve reached the destination where they’ll try to sell us, we gotta try to escape—by any means necessary.”
“I’m in. We can’t afford to hesitate,” Cole said in his Southern accent. “Charlie, you can’t even try. They’ll know where you are.” That was the boy with a GPS chip embedded under his skin. “The rest of us—soon as we get a chance, we run.”
Gray nodded to himself. “Don’t wait for anyone. We have a bigger shot if one slips away and calls the police.”
It was an unstable agreement among Cole, Gray, and six boys who were so afraid that their every breath was shaky or thick with emotion.
If Gray had to choose between a life in captivity and death…
Light exploded around them as the door was opened, and Gray snuck closer to the boards. Blinking rapidly past the burn, he searched for clues and escape routes. He needed to be alert, because if that tiny window of opportunity appeared, he wasn’t gonna waste a millisecond.
His heart thundered in his chest as two men headed straight for his crate. Feet firmly planted on the floor, knees pulled up, he summoned all his strength. Which wasn’t much, but he had the element of surprise, and he could shoot up quickly in this position.
When he spotted one of the men gripping a shotgun tightly, his heart plummeted, though he remained determined. Childhood memories flashed by, and he swallowed hard. Life wasn’t supposed to end here. Not like this. It wasn’t fucking fair.
“Rise and shine, fuckboy.” A guard turned the key in the three locks that held the crate shut, then lifted the lid just enough to shove in the barrel of a shotgun. Opening the lid farther, the guard flashed a wide smirk. A scar slashed across his cheek and created a deep crease whenever his mouth twisted. “Turn around.”
“Why the fuck would I?” Gray spat out. Rage engulfed him, and he balled his hands into fists. His lungs squeezed.
He chuckled. “I think you’re smart enough to know we won’t kill you, but there are other ways to use a shotgun. Would you like it shoved up your ass?”
Gray swallowed, and against everything he wanted, he shuffled around inside the crate so he had his back to them. This wasn’t how he was gonna find his escape.
“See? Obedient already. Your owner will like you.” Next, there was a hand on his neck, and then a sharp sting. Gray’s eyes widened. It dawned on him as quickly as the sedative kicked in. They were putting him down like a goddamn dog in order to move…him…
“Fucking…bastards,” Gray groaned. The hatred blazed inside of him, even as his limbs grew heavy and his mind sluggish.