Ray listened to the conversation going on around him. He was excited that everyone was finally pulling together as they should have all along. It still amazed him that it had never once clicked in his mind what their connection was to Antonio and his family. The man was his uncle, and Ray had been oblivious until Grandma’s conscience had her admitting the truth. His attention was caught by Tony entering the room, and he wasn’t alone. There was an older teenager with him, dressed up in gothic attire and, for some reason, Ray could only stare at him. His eyes were the exact same color as Viv’s. Hell, the guy was almost a mirror image of his husband.
“I’m looking for Christopher Vivvens.” The young man sounded nervous.
“That’s me.” Viv placed Layla on the bunny rug and stood.
“Then…I think you’re my father,” the guy said softly. “My name is Declan—Declan Vivvens.”
Christ on a pogo stick.
Ray couldn’t believe what was currently happening. He hoped like all get out he had been able to keep a straight face when Declan made his mind-blowing announcement. The uncertainty on the boy’s face didn’t sit well with Ray. Some part of him wanted to reach out and haul the poor kid into his arms for a hug, and tell him everything was going to be all right. Glancing toward his husband, he caught the look of astonishment on Viv’s face. He knew without a doubt this was all news to him.
“Who is your mother?” Viv asked a little warily. Guilt and something akin to hurt swept over Viv’s face.
The boy rifled through the ratty bag he held and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper and a pendant necklace, and offered them to Viv. “After she died I found these hidden among her belongings. My mother’s name was Susan Whitely.” He swallowed loudly. “My name is Declan, Declan Vivvens. My mother told me I’m named after my grandfather.” Sighing heavily, he went on, “Never mind, you seem to be way too young to be my father. I guess my parentage was just something else Mum lied about.”
The defeat in the boy’s voice clutched at Ray’s heart. Ray got to his feet then ushered Declan from the room before the tears in Declan’s eyes could spill over. He could tell Declan didn’t appear too comfortable as the center of attention and wanted to give him a little bit of privacy so he could sort through his emotions. By the time they reached the kitchen, the tension seemed to be leaving the young man’s body.
“Let me make you something to eat.” Ray was pretty sure Declan wasn’t eating properly, because in Ray’s eyes, he was one skinny-as-hell kid. He didn’t look any older than fifteen or so. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
Declan gazed around the room as he sat on a stool at the kitchen bench. “I’m seventeen.”
Doing the math in his head, he realized Viv would have only been sixteen when he’d gotten Susan pregnant. There was no doubt in his mind Viv was indeed his father. Declan was too much like Viv for them not to be closely related. They both had the same slightly curled, glossy black hair, and those beautiful stunningly green eyes. Pain twinged in his heart at Viv having missed so much of his son’s life, and for Declan missing out on his father.
“How long ago did Susan pass away?” Both Ray and Declan jumped as Viv spoke from the doorway.
“Hi.” Ray smiled at his husband. “Come, join us. Make yourself useful and grab some sodas from the fridge.”
“Mum died about a year ago. Uncle Ryan came to live in the house and after a while, he kicked me out.”
“Where have you been living since he kicked you out?” Viv demanded a little more brusquely than Ray would have liked.
Ray sighed as Declan shrugged without answering. He knew that sometimes Viv wasn’t crash-hot when it came to using his people skills. He didn’t want Viv to scare the boy off before Ray had convinced him to stay. “Viv, not now. Let Declan have a chance to eat and unwind before you start grilling him.” Turning to Declan, he winked. “Fathers think they have to know everything about their kid’s lives. You’ll get used to it eventually.”
The smile he got in return was reward enough.
“I wasn’t trying to be bossy. I just wanted to know where we had to go and pick up his stuff so we could bring him home,” Viv explained.
The shock on Declan’s face was almost comical. “You want me to live here with you?”
“Isn’t this why you found me?” Viv asked.
Declan shook his head. “Actually no, though I did want to ask for your help, but not for me. I’m trying to find my friend. He’s gone missing, and I can’t find him anywhere. Believe me, I’ve tried. I just couldn’t think of what else to do.”
“Why come here? Not that we don’t want you here. Do you need us to hire a private detective to find your friend?” Ray asked, genuinely curious as to what this was all about.
“I only came here because I think Nathan—Nate—is related to you somehow.” Declan sighed. “He once showed me a picture he carries in his wallet of a girl. He told me she was his sister. Well, his half-sister. They have the same father, but different mothers. The girl in the picture was Sara Connelly. Your daughter.”
The air rushed out of Ray’s body as shock rocketed through him. “What’s Nate’s last name?”
“Burkhart, his parents are Enid and Larry. From what Nate told me, Larry died when he was a kid. His mother re-married, but Nate never got on with the step-father. He’s some kind of religious nut, and he wanted to pray the gay out of Nate. His mother didn’t try to stop the man, so Nate took off. He hasn’t seen either of them since.”
“Are you gay? Were you involved with this Nate? How old is he?” Viv demanded.
“Viv!” Ray snapped in exasperation as he set the plate of sandwiches in front of Declan. “Nate is the same age as Girly. Enid was pregnant at the same time as Izzy. In the end, Larry chose Izzy.” Taking a gulp of his Coke Zero and wishing like hell it was something stronger, he added, “If this is Girly’s brother, we have to find him—he’s family.”
They ate in silence, more so Declan could eat his fill.
“I think you need to tell us everything if we’re going to help. We need to know where you’ve been living. When was the last time you saw Nate? It will give us a starting place at least.” Ray also noticed Viv never once denied Declan was his son, which was a very good thing. He hoped Viv relaxed around the boy, or it was going to make for some pretty strained times ahead.
After he’d swallowed what was in his mouth, Declan spoke. “When Uncle Ryan kicked me out, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was on the street for a couple of weeks when I met this guy. His name was Beau. Never did find out his last name. He took me back to where he was staying, and I met Nate. I think he was kind of like Beau’s part-time boyfriend or something. Mind you, to me, Beau seemed to have a lot of boyfriends at the house we were staying at.”
Ray sensed Declan wasn’t exactly telling the truth, but he could get to that later. Maybe the boy would open up if his father wasn’t sitting there listening.
“Why didn’t you come to me as soon as your mother died?” Viv seemed perplexed. “We would have gladly taken you in.”
Again Declan shrugged. “Uncle Ryan told me the reason you weren’t in my life was because you didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I believed him. Nate tried to convince me otherwise, but I wasn’t ready to listen. Now I’m here begging for help because I’m desperate to find Nate.”
Ray reached across and patted Declan’s hand. “I’m positive if Viv had known about you, he would have been in your life.”
“Of course I would have. I just didn’t know.” Viv sighed. “Please, go on with your story so we can figure out what we need to do first.”
Declan took a deep breath before he said, “Just so you know. I’m not Nate’s boyfriend. We formed a very close bond, but there has never been anything sexual or romantic between us. We lived in the same house and as the months passed, we became as close as two people can get. Almost like brothers. I’ll admit at one time I wanted more, but Nate only ever saw me as a younger brother. Beau hated how close Nate and I were. One day he sent me on some stupid errand to buy him something, and when I came home, Nate was gone. All his belongings were gone as well. That first night I went to bed, and one of the other guys came in and gave me a message from Nate. He said I needed to come and find you, and that he would come for me.”
“How long ago was that?” Ray asked.
“Two weeks ago. I’ve been trying to find him on my own, but I’ve run out of places to look. Has he shown up here at all? I was kind of hoping he made it here before me.” Sadness settled in Declan’s eyes as he spoke.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“When I questioned Beau as to what happened to Nate, he refused to talk to me. All he did was backhand me and tell me Nate had broken the rules. The more I kept pushing, the more he ended up talking to me with his fists. So, in the end, I stopped talking about it and have been searching for Nate.”
“Are you hurt?” Ray asked worriedly. “Do you need to see a doctor? I can grab my keys and drive you to a hospital if needed.”
“I have some bruises on my chest and back. Beau never hit us where the marks would show.” Declan stood and carefully took his jacket off. “He didn’t want anybody asking questions. He probably didn’t want anyone going to the police about the abuse he was dishing out.”
He lifted up his shirt and turned full circle, showing the dark smudges littering his body. Fury filled Ray at the sadistic thrashing Declan must have taken, and by the varying degrees in color, Ray surmised he’d endured more than one beating.
“Where do I find this Beau?” Viv demanded icily.
“Why do you need to find Beau?” Declan sounded scared.
To Ray, the stone-cold, burning anger in Viv’s eyes was understandable.
“So I can go and teach him an object lesson about laying his hands on my son,” Viv snarled.
“Wait here. I’ll just go and let everyone know we have to go out for a moment.” Ray didn’t wait for them to answer as he hurried back to where the rest of the family waited.
Their questions started flying before he could get a word out.
Ray held up a hand. “I’ll fill you all in when I get back. Viv and I need to sort something out first.”
“Where are you going?” Girly demanded. “I know your angry face when I see it, and you’re wearing it right now.”
She would be the one to see and know exactly how he was feeling. Girly understood him just as well as he did himself. He knew he wouldn’t get out of there without telling her something. Ever since she was little, he had sworn to always tell her the truth. “I’m going with Viv to knock some sense into the guy who beat up Declan for asking questions about his friend’s disappearance.”
“Someone beat him up?” GG asked. She seemed almost as pissed off as he was.
Girly watched him shrewdly. “Tell me the rest.”
“Declan’s friend is a guy called Nathan Burkhart,” Ray stated.
“Hey, that’s Larry’s last name,” Girly blurted. She never had been one to call Larry Dad. That honor had only ever been for Ray.
Ray went on to say, “If what Declan told us is true, then Nate is your half-brother.”
“I have a brother?” Girly’s eyes widened in shock. “He’s missing?” She jumped to her feet. “I’m coming with you. I want to talk to this douchebag you’re going to see. If he knows where my brother is, I want to know what he does, before I kick his ass.”
Ray’s father, Liam, said, “Go. We’ll take care of the kids until you get back. I’ll call Byron and fill him in on what’s going on.”
“I’ll make up a room for the boy. By his appearance, I’m assuming he really is Viv’s son, and he’ll be staying,” Antonio said.
God, Ray loved that his family jumped in to help without him even having to ask, though he wished Girly would stay home. He knew he wasn’t going to talk her out of it. And if she came, so would Daniel. He wasn’t surprised when the man in question stood and followed.
By the time they made it back to the kitchen, Ray could see Viv was ready to go. Since becoming a father, Viv had become an overprotective person to all of their kids. “Looks like we’ll have company,” Ray said. He grabbed a set of keys from the pegboard and walked out the kitchen door.
If the situation wasn’t so serious, Ray would have chuckled at how Declan kept sneaking peeks at Girly. He seemed to be in awe of her. Maybe Nate and Girly resembled each other a lot. Viv drove through the streets, following Declan’s instructions, until they pulled up in front of a rundown house in one of the worst areas of town. Fuck! Ray was thankful that they were bringing Declan home with them and taking him away from this horrid place. There was old furniture and debris littering the front yard. The grass itself obviously hadn’t been mowed in years. There were broken windows. Ray knew whoever lived there must be squatting. A real-estate owner wouldn’t put up with this sort of mess for long. Then again, he’d watched some of those shows where people were addicted to rubbish and hoarded whatever they could get their hands on.
Getting his mind back in the here and now, Ray followed the others as they stormed up to the front door. If door was what it could even be called—one good gust of wind and it would fall right off of its hinges. While they moved through the house, young men of varying ages came to meet them.
“Where’s Beau?” Viv demanded gruffly.
More than a few of those present took a step back, worry filling their eyes.
“It’s rent day. He’s on his way. He won’t be happy if he finds you here. Dec, what were you thinking in bringing strangers here? You’ll cop it from Beau for sure now.”
Ray was becoming more confused and a little suspicious as time passed. They didn’t have long to wait until a well-dressed man in his mid-fifties walked in demanding to know who the hell was parked in his spot.
Ray saw red the very second everything clicked into place inside his head. This man was taking the kids off the street and using them for his own perverse pleasure. By the ring clearly seen on his left hand, the scumbag didn’t even try to hide the fact he was a married man.
“Who the hell are you?” he shouted when he finally saw them standing there. He looked from Declan to Viv and back. Seeing the resemblance, he paled. “I never touched the kid.”
“Liar,” Viv said coldly. “I’ve seen the bruises. Tell me again that you never hit my son.”
Beau paled further, if that were possible. “I meant that I haven’t fucked him.”
The coarse language turned Ray’s stomach. He wondered how many of the others Beau had demanded that they pay for their rent through intercourse. Judging by how many of them had bruises of their own, he could tell they’d been abused in other ways as well. The men—boys, really—in question, all seemed to shrink away from Beau.
“What exactly is rent day?” Ray asked. When Beau remained silent, Ray turned and asked the same question of the young men gathered.
Finally, it was Declan who answered. “Rent day is when Beau comes around to choose who he fucks for us living here. He can choose one or more. I was never chosen, but Nate was one of his favorites. Beau likes rough sex, so usually those chosen are hurt in some way.”
Before Beau could make his denial, Ray cocked his arm back and let it fly. The punch landed in the center of Beau’s face. The crunch of bone was a telling sign the asshole’s nose was broken. And Ray couldn’t have been happier.
“You fucking broke my nose. I’m going to sue the hell out of you.” Beau spat a mouthful of blood on the floor.
Ray shrugged. “Go ahead. I’d like to see how you talk your way out of the prostitution suit I’ll bring against you. I may not be able to help everyone you’ve fucked up over the years, but I can damn well help these guys right here. I’ll make you pay for the way you treated them if it’s the last thing I do. I wonder what your wife has to say about your extra-marital activities. Maybe when I find out who she is, I’ll give her a call and tell her what a charmer she has for a husband.”
Anger flooded him as he turned to Daniel. “Call for some maxi taxis or hire a bus and get these guys some medical attention. I’ll organize someplace for them to stay as this cesspit is disgusting.” Turning back to Beau, he added, “If this really is your place, I’ll also be suing you for negligence and bodily harm of this group of young men. As a landlord, it was your duty to keep the place habitable and not let the building fall down around their ears. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Viv piped up. “I called B and Jas. Their place is still vacant. They said we can take the boys there. B’s going to ring GG and organize more bedding and for a ton of food to be brought in.”
“And I’ve called the police,” Girly snarled viciously, “because I want to find out from this fuckwit where the hell my brother is. If you’ve hurt him in any way, you’re going to be sorry.”
“What brother?” Beau snapped right back.
Declan spoke up. “She means Nate. You wouldn’t tell me what you did with him, but maybe you’ll talk to her and the police when they get here.”
When Beau tried to make a run for the front door, the seven boys Ray had counted earlier lunged and brought Beau to the ground. With the option of getting away from Beau once and for all on the horizon, they seemed to ignite with a spark of hope. Somewhere inside Ray’s brain the notion of setting up a home for men in trouble like these guys took root, but the idea would have to bear some more thinking for later.
“You aren’t going anywhere until we find out where the hell Nate is. Then, after you’ve told us what you know, the cops can take you away,” Ray snarled. “Now where is he?”
One of the other young men in the room said softly, “Beau beat Nathan up, then he dumped Nathan down by the river walk. He wanted it to look like he’d been mugged. John and I went back after Beau had gone. We called an ambulance and it took Nathan to the hospital.”
“Which hospital?” Girly asked.
“The Wesley. By the time the ambos got there, Nathan was unconscious. They were trying to bring him around as they put him in the back of the truck. I don’t know what happened to him after that, as we were too scared to go and see in case Beau found out about what we’d done. We knew Beau would do the same to us—or worse.”
Beau struggled as he shouted, “Shut the fuck up before I make you shut up for good, you ungrateful little fucker.”
Before the police arrived, Josh got there with Ray’s van. There was more than enough room to carry all of the young men away. “Your dad called Byron and he’ll meet me at B’s place. They’re also bringing a doctor in to check everyone over. We’re going to try to keep this out of the press as much as possible. Not for that asshole’s sake, but your dad said these kids don’t need reporters shoving cameras in their faces.”
The men looked scared as Ray tried to reassure them all that it was okay to go with Josh. He also had to promise, once the doctor checked them out, that they could leave if they truly wanted to. He hoped they’d at least stay long enough to get cleaned up and have a decent feed or two. They all looked on the thin side, and Ray hated seeing the malnourishment in their faces. No sooner had Josh driven away from the house than the police arrived.
The best part of the whole tragedy was seeing how Beau reacted when the police called Ray by his name. Ray smiled when Brendan Callahan walk through the front door. Only then did Ray realize Brendan was actually now the chief of police and, at the same time, Beau was about to find out exactly who Ray was, or more so, who he was related to. If the guy wanted to fight it out in court, he was going to have a battle on his hands. Ray wasn’t afraid to take this all the way to the end where he got the result he wanted. Beau would pay for what he’d put these boys through, and pay dearly.
The police left people behind to document everything, and Ray was assured this would be looked into thoroughly to see what else could be done, and who else had been affected by Beau’s touch. Ray explained he’d moved the boys to another residence for the time being, and they would be welcome to come and interview the boys if necessary. Jokingly, one officer asked if Ray was starting a home for young men in trouble. Ray just smiled, not wanting to confirm one way or the other before he’d had enough time to sit and talk to his family about the whole idea of setting up some kind of a refuge.
Right now, he could sense Girly’s desire to get to the Wesley Hospital and find Nate, a feeling he was all too familiar with. It had been this way when they’d gone in search of Viv’s mother and had been surprised with a child, Ben. Ray wanted to go and find out what he could do to help with the situation. He pocketed the card he’d gotten from the police officer in charge, and promised he’d be available later if they needed any more information from him. He smiled as they also walked Beau from the room. The man protested his innocence the whole way while demanding Ray be charged with assault.
On the way to the hospital, Ray called Josh. “Hey, when the doctor checks everyone over, make sure he documents any and all signs of abuse. The police will want both a written report and any photographic evidence gathered for when they finally prosecute Beau. We’re on our way to the Wesley Hospital right now. We’re going to find out what’s happening with Nate and when he can come home.”
“Okay, keep us informed. I’ll meet you at home if you don’t come here,” Josh said.
“How is everyone?” Ray asked, wanting to find out how the guys were handling the changes in their lives. He didn’t want them to freak out and worry that Ray would want to make the same arrangement for sex as Beau had. The mere thought made Ray sick to his stomach.
“They’re fine, Ray. They’ve settled down some. They’re a little confused and skittish, but I’ve been telling them the house is a safe haven.”
“Any time, my friend.” Josh ended the call.
After parking the car in the hospital car park, the five of them made their way into the hospital and toward the information desk. Ray smiled at the middle-aged woman behind the partition.
“Welcome to the Wesley Hospital. How may I direct you?” she asked.
“Around two weeks ago, an unconscious young man would have been brought in. He would’ve been picked up somewhere along the river walk, and he was more than likely beaten up, or so I’ve been told.”
The woman, whose name was Mary Lloyd, going by her nametag, typed away on her computer. “You must mean our John Doe. If you take the elevator over there to the fourth floor and follow corridor B to the end, you’ll come to another nurse’s station. They’ll be able to give you more information.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Ray said politely before they all rushed to the elevator.
They got out at the fourth floor and followed corridor B to the next station. Once there, Ray started all over again.
Blane Johnson, a male nurse, watched them all warily. “Are you relatives of the young man?”
“He’s my half-brother,” Girly supplied. “We’ve only just found out he was here, or I would have been here sooner.” She appeared uncertain for a moment. “Though, to be totally honest, this will be my first time meeting him. Same father, different mothers.”
Ray smiled. “Sweetheart, you’re rambling.”
Declan spoke up. “Nate looks a lot like Sara, they have almost identical facial features.”
“Nate, you say. Is that his name? He woke up yesterday, but he can’t remember what happened to him. He also can’t remember who he is. If you follow me, he’s this way in room four-oh-nine.”
As they all walked to the door, the nurse put a huge smile on his face. “Hello, handsome. You have some visitors. They even know your name. It’s Nate.”
Ray’s breath caught in his throat at the bruising on Nate’s body. Well, the parts they could see of it.
Nate eyed them all with something akin to fear until his gaze met Declan’s. “Dec?”
“I’m here, Nate.” Declan pushed ahead of them and quickly walked to the edge of the bed. He hesitated before reaching out to hold his friend’s hand. “I found Sara and brought her to you. I think they call her Girly. It’s a weird name, isn’t it? She’s going to help you now.”
The tears evident in Girly’s eyes were mirrored in a few other people’s as well.
Nurse Blane tapped Ray on the shoulder. “Do you know any more about him so I can add it to his chart?”
“I can tell you his name is Nathan Alan Burkhart. He’s twenty years old. I’m not exactly sure of his date of birth, just that he was born some time in nineteen-ninety-five. His father is Larry Burkhart, who died in two thousand and four. His mother, Enid, remarried, but Nathan has nothing to do with them.”
“I need to put an address into his paperwork.”
Ray rattled off his own address. “I’ll be the one paying his bills as well.” It was easier because there was no way he was letting Nate leave. Girly would chuck the mother of all hissy fits if he tried. Ray could see the days ahead becoming one hell of a bumpy-assed ride.
After Blane left them, Ray stepped to one side of the room and watched as both Declan and Girly fussed endlessly over Nate. It wasn’t long before Viv joined him.
“How are you holding up, love?” Viv asked as he massaged Ray’s shoulders.
Ray shrugged. “Not sure yet. Just thinking we’ll now have ten kids. Even if four of them are virtually adults. How are you holding up with the whole ‘you just found your son’? I can’t believe how much he resembles you.”
“Honestly, I’m pissed off and saddened at the same time. It hurts that I never got the chance to see Declan grow up. It’s going to be hard getting to know him at this age.” He sighed. “There’s no denying he’s mine. Susan was a summer fling I had with an older woman until my dad found out about it. He ended up firing her. She’d been a singer in the bar when Dad had owned it. He really does look like me, doesn’t he?”
“Yep. He’s going to be a heartbreaker when he gets a little older. As for getting to know him, all you have to do is talk to him, and really listen to what he has to say. Other than that, it’s basically just love the hell out of him.”
Viv kissed him softly on the lips. “You always were the smart one.”
“Words like that will get you some loving tonight.”
Viv grinned. “Something I’ll definitely be happy to go along with.”
Ray soaked up the feeling of his husband’s arms around him and wondered if their lives would ever be normal. It wasn’t so long ago that he’d been single with an adopted, fully grown daughter. Just a little over a year later, his family had swelled to the point of exploding. And it wasn’t just his part of the family. GG spilling the beans and letting everyone know Antonio was actually another member of their family had blown his mind completely. No wonder the man was always so understanding when it came to his fuck-ups.
So much had happened to them all in such a short period of time, and strangely, Ray wouldn’t change a damn thing. Not even the part involving Grace, because as crazy and as spiteful as she was, they’d ended up with a beautiful son out of the encounter. And Jeb was going to grow up one very loved little boy. It didn’t matter to Ray where any of their children had originated. In his heart of hearts, they were all his and he loved them equally. Okay, he spoiled them equally. Now he had two more sons to add to the mix.