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By Abby Niles, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Abby Niles
All rights reserved.
Demolished homes. Mangled cars. Strewn bodies. All around him lay death and destruction.
Panic locked in a chokehold around Mac "The Snake" Hannon's neck, rendering him incapable of drawing in air. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on mentally fighting his way out of the tormenting memory's submission hold. Forcing in a deep inhale, he held it for a few seconds, then slowly released, repeating the action until the death grip around his throat slackened, and only then did he reopen his eyes.
The destruction was gone. The only thing speeding by the passenger window of his childhood friend's truck was miles upon miles of flat open land.
The flat open land of Kansas, to be exact.
No place like home? What a load of shit.
What the hell had he been thinking in coming back? To actually step foot back on the cursed soil known as Tornado Alley?
Damn Lance and his whole "I could really use your help, buddy." How the fuck was Mac supposed to say no? He shot a glare at his childhood friend, who was too busy driving to notice his edginess. Or maybe he did notice and was refusing to acknowledge it. Most likely the latter. Lance knew Mac hadn't wanted to return to Kansas any more than a fighter wanted to lose a goddamn fight — but that hadn't stopped him from asking Mac to help him train for an upcoming fight.
After trying to come up with every reason known to man to have Lance come out to Atlanta instead, and the asshole always having a damn good excuse why he couldn't, Mac had reluctantly agreed. Because he sure as hell couldn't say no. Not when this was the first favor Lance had asked for since he'd saved Mac's life four years ago.
Lance's deep voice cut into the thick silence, causing him to jolt. Fuck, he was whacked out.
"I know we haven't really stayed in touch since you moved to Atlanta," his friend continued. "So I appreciate you doing this for me."
Other than a few phone calls — made by Lance — over the years, Mac had cut all ties with the past the moment the plane's wheels had lifted off the runway and carried him away to Georgia.
"Yeah, well." Scowling at the roughness in his voice, he cleared his throat. "It's the least I could do, considering. Besides, your kid's here. I didn't want to take you away from your kid."
Especially after he'd learned Lance had moved over two hundred miles to stay near the child. It also meant Mac wouldn't have to return to Emerald Springs. Thank God.
"Skylar can't wait to see you," Lance said.
Mac glanced out the window. No clouds. Just endless blue skies. How quickly that could change, though, especially at the end of April. Mac clenched his teeth. Goddammit, he was going to drive himself fucking mad before he left.
"How old is she now?" he gritted out, determined to focus on their conversation.
"Eight. She remembers you. When I told her you were coming out for a few weeks to help me train, she was excited about seeing Uncle Mac again."
Uncle Mac. He remembered that man, too. He'd died, along with his wife, over four years ago.
He scrubbed a hand over his jaw and shifted on his seat.
Don't go there.
He inhaled another steadying breath and sat back against the leather seat, studying Lance. Anything to keep from being crushed by the influx of fucked-up emotions this damn trip was already causing.
Except for a couple more tats added to the sleeve his friend had been working on for years, and a beefier build since he'd decided to fight light-heavyweight instead of middleweight, Lance hadn't changed. Same unruly dirty blond hair, same mischievous gleam to his gray eyes, same laid-back attitude. Mac used to be like that ... before.
"When did you move out to Cheney?" The edgy feeling of wanting to crawl out of his skin had him scouring his palms on his jean-clad thighs until the skin burned. Trying to relieve the building tension, he worked his neck back and forth. He hadn't felt this tightly wound in years. It was what had pushed him into the cage — which had ended up being the best damn therapy a guy could've asked for. Pummeling the shit out of something released it all. And he sure as hell could use a pummeling session right now.
"You okay?" Lance asked.
Mac grunted. "Cheney?"
A sigh came from across the cab, which he ignored. If Lance thought Mac was the same guy he'd grown up with after all that had happened, he'd soon learn how wrong he was. That guy was long gone. Once his friend realized that, maybe he'd get the boot back to Atlanta early. He'd be okay with that.
"About two years ago Piper's husband got a job in Wichita, and I couldn't be three hours away from Skylar. Since I can technically work anywhere, I packed up and moved here, too. Cheney's nice. It's only thirty minutes from Wichita, but still has a small town feel."
"How are things between you and Piper?"
His friend shrugged. "Unlike popular belief, divorce doesn't have to be horrible. We have a great relationship, I like her husband, and he loves Skylar. He doesn't try to take my place or step on my toes, and he leaves the parenting to me and Piper. So I think I got a pretty good deal."
The more Lance talked, the more Mac's tension eased. If distraction helped, he'd make sure to keep him talking.
"That's great. If anyone could make a divorce work, it's you two."
"There's still love there, man. Just not love. I guess that's what happens when you marry right out of high school. We grew up together, then grew apart together. There're no hard feelings, the shit just happened. As a result, Skylar gets two parents who can be in the same room together and honestly like each other."
Lance veered right, off the main street running parallel to the town of Cheney, onto a dirt road. A few seconds later, he turned onto a long, gravel driveway leading to a large two-story farmhouse. He pointed to a wooden barn behind it. "I have a home gym setup in there. With my schedule, it's hard for me to get out to a training facility daily, but I have to train, even if the only time I can find is at two in the morning. It's a rough setup, but it gets the job done."
"You got to do what you got to do, man," Mac muttered. No one knew that better than he did. It was why he'd left in the first place.
"With your help, I hope to be ready for the fight in six weeks. There're supposed to be some big-name promoters from Cage Match Championship there. If I can get CMC to notice me, I'll be golden."
Mac hid a grimace. At thirty-six, Lance's chance of getting into the top dog of Mixed Martial Arts was slim to none. Though he'd give the guy credit — he never gave up on his dream, even if he'd had to postpone working toward it for a few years.
His friend parked the truck, and Mac climbed out, surveying the area. After being in the hustle and bustle of Atlanta, the endless expanse of land before him was almost overwhelming — made him feel like a walking target. He fucking hated it. "You really went for isolated, didn't you? There wasn't a part of you that wanted to live in, say ... a neighborhood?"
Lance chuckled. "I did, actually. For Skylar. But I couldn't pass up this house. I got a killer deal. I would've never been able to afford a place like this if it hadn't been in foreclosure. The house needed a ton of work but, since I spent years working construction with Dad, I knew I could fix it up."
Looking at the house now, Mac would never have known it'd ever needed work. Soft sage siding made the white trim and shutters stand out. The gigantic wraparound porch was decorated with potted plants and hanging baskets, with a wicker seating area, and a porch swing. Lance had sown grass around the perimeter of the house so there was a large, lush lawn that stood out against the dried-out land surrounding them. The flower beds were filled with hostas, boxwood shrubs, and pansies. Cozy. A home. Easily destroyed.
He shook away the thought.
"You've been busy."
"You know me. I can't sit still. Always got to be doing something."
He did know that. Lance had the energy of ten men. His inability to just relax had been one of the problems he'd had with Piper.
"Surprisingly, I love it out here," Lance continued. "Skylar loves it out here. And if I had moved anywhere else, I wouldn't have meet Gayle."
"Gayle? She a new girlfriend?"
"Nah, man. It's not like that." Lance pointed to one of only two houses in the distance — another two-story farmhouse, but with white siding and black shutters. Though the house was beside Lance's, it sat farther back off the road and was at least a good five minute walk away. Talk about privacy. Sheesh. "She moved in about six months ago. She helps me with Skylar when I get a call. She's never bothered about the time, either."
"You still repo'ing, then?"
"And towing, jimmying locked doors. The life of a single dad, bro. Skylar comes first. I can't fight as much as I want. The little I bring in is a nice bonus but, with you here, I can get in a little quality training and hopefully knock those promoters' socks off." His friend slapped him on the shoulder as they started toward the house. "It'd be nice to get out of the smaller circuit. I'm only averaging about a grand a fight right now. Because of my schedule, I've only been able to do one every other month or so. Can't make a living like that."
"How's your record?"
"Won the last five consecutive fights, hence the grand payouts. Overall record is 12 to 2."
"Pretty good. Have they already slotted you against your opponent?"
"Yeah, some young kid. Man, it sucks to be old in a young sport." A strained smile came to Lance's face. "Do you think I'm chasing a pipedream? Should I just hang up the gloves and be happy with what I did get to do?"
No reason to sugarcoat it. "Ultimately your decision. It's not going to be easy. The chances are slim. But I got into CMC at thirty-two. Others have come in their mid- thirties — though few. We still have guys fighting into their forties. So it's not impossible."
His friend nodded. "As long as there's a chance, right?"
"Never give up."
As they neared the porch, a tiny body with a mass of blond curls came barreling around the house, squealing at the top of her lungs. The piercing shriek, however, wasn't from happiness at her dad being home. Mac tensed, preparing to take down whatever was chasing the child. The little girl suddenly dove to the left into a thicket of bushes.
"Ah-ha! I've got you now."
A figure jumped from around the corner of the house and a cold blast of water hit Mac in the middle of the chest, soaking his shirt to his skin. Stunned, he stared at the woman for a moment, his arms splayed wide at his sides, then he tugged the drenched material away from his body.
Lance burst into laughter.
The woman didn't miss beat. Turning slowly in a circle, she kept the water gun close to her face as if she was peering through a scope. "Did you see that, missy? I just took out a civilian. You will pay for that!"
She pumped the lever on the bottom of the gun and a peal of childish laughter erupted from the bushes. The woman spun around, pulled the trigger, and saturated the greenery in a spray of water.
Skylar crawled out, laughing so hard her sides heaved. "I-I surrender." She flopped on her side, giggling. "Did you ... did you see his face?"
Heat crept up Mac's neck as his gaze bounced from the laughing child to the young girl who'd assaulted him with the water gun. He knew he should see the humor in the situation, but with all the suppressed emotions trying to explode forward since he'd stepped off the plane, being laughed at as soon as he got out of the truck irritated the piss out of him. "Who the hell is she?"
As Lance accepted the hug his daughter threw around him, he said, "Mac, I'd like to introduce you to Gayle."
"The neighbor you were just talking about?"
"One and the same."
Mac frowned at the girl. From the way his buddy had spoken about her, he'd expected someone more grandmotherly, hell, motherly at least. But this ... this kid in front of him couldn't be more than twenty-one.
Her auburn hair was split into two low pigtails that made the gathered strands fall over her shoulders onto her upper chest. A tight blue tank that didn't reach her navel strained out of the lapels of the plaid overshirt she had knotted at her ribcage, making her bountiful breasts pop forward. The sleeves had been ripped off and were frayed at the seams, giving him the impression of a farmer's daughter.
Except for the indecently low ride of her nothing-there jean shorts that displayed way too much flat stomach and tanned legs. Those things spelled trouble. His gaze lowered. Yep, the look was complete. Barefoot, with bright purple painted toenails.
"Hi, Mac. Sorry about the soaking. The little booger got away from me."
Uncomfortable with the appreciative way she was eyeing him so openly, he pressed his lips together in a disapproving scowl. "You should be a little more careful. Someone could get hurt."
Her lips twitched at the corners. "This coming from a cage fighter? How ... ironic."
How in the hell did she know he fought? He glanced at Lance, who was watching the exchange with amusement.
"What I do has no bearing on the matter," Mac said, returning his attention to Gayle.
"Really? I'd say fists have a better chance of inflicting more damage than my poor little water gun."
Mouthy thing, wasn't she?
She sauntered closer to him, an alarming sway to her hips. The fact that he noticed horrified him.
"Let me rectify the damage. Dinner. My place. Eight o'clock."
At a loss for words, Mac blinked. Not that he hadn't been asked out before by a woman. He had. Just not so bluntly.
"I have better things to do than play tea party." He needed to get control of the situation. She might find it fun to hit on older men, but he wasn't going to be a part of it.
Those twitching lips split into a full grin, revealing a radiant smile brimming with mischief and mirth.
"Come on, handsome. I make a mean cup of tea."
He got the craziest idea she was laughing at him. He shot a glance at Lance for help, who grinned and shrugged.
"That's Gayle," he said. "She holds nothing back."
A throaty chuckle that was all woman came from her, and an odd sensation crackled in Mac's chest. Frowning, he instinctively moved into his fighter stance, preparing to mentally knock that unwanted feeling into submission.
She either noticed his defensive movement or decided to change tactics, because she stopped in her advance and studied him in an extremely unnerving way that made him shift his feet. "Well, I'll let you get settled in."
She turned and started to walk away, Skylar right on her heels. Mac breathed a sigh of relief. She'd picked up on his disinterest and was taking the hint.
The relief was short-lived as she glanced over her shoulder at him. "See you at eight, handsome."
Her eyes eased up his body with such appreciation he felt it all the way to his groin. Another husky chuckle came from her as she turned her head back around. The seductive sway of her jeans-covered backside held him captivated. Mac shook himself, appalled he was gawking.
He spun on his friend. "She's trouble, Lance."
"Gayle? Ah, you'll love her."
"Really? What could I possibly have in common with someone that young? For that matter, what do you have in common with her? For God's sake, Lance, she's teetering on the edge of jailbait for guys like us."
Lance laughed. "Dude, she's thirty-two."
Mac whipped his head back toward her. She and Lance's little girl had made their way to the side of the house. She was only four years younger than him? "No way."
"Way. She has a damn doctorate in meteorology or something to that effect. But don't feel bad, okay? I made the same mistake when I met her. I even asked where her parents were after she moved in. I got the same amused reaction. She knew you thought she was young. She's a lot of fun. She doesn't have a filter, though. So be prepared."
Okay, so the age difference was a no-go as a reason to stay the fuck away from her. Damn it, he didn't like that. Didn't like his reaction to her. He needed something negative to focus on. She seemed to be a handful. Two handfuls, actually. And he didn't have time for a handful. Or any woman, for that matter. "I don't need to prepare, because I'm not going."
"Come on, Mac. She doesn't bite." He nudged him. "Unless you want her to."
Mac jerked back, scowling. "I don't want her to bite anything. I have absolutely zero interest in women."
Except for just now. And it completely freaked his shit.
His friend sobered. "Wait. Are you telling me you haven't dated at all since ... It's been over four years, Mac."
"Yeah. That's exactly what I'm saying."
"I knew it." Lance scratched the back of his head and gave a derisive snort. "I told Piper she was wrong, but I let her convince me otherwise. Damn it."
At his friend's sudden change in attitude, Mac's defensive shield locked into place. "What the fuck are you talking about, man?"
"That cold motherfucker I've been watching on the TV for the last few years. The one who is short with reporters. Never smiles. That's not for show. That's who you are now." Lance glared at Mac. "I told you to stay here. That leaving your home wasn't going to fix anything, but you were adamant. Now look at you ... you didn't heal. You're hollow. Lifeless. Ally would be horrified."
Excerpted from Winning Love by Abby Niles, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2014 Abby Niles. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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