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 fi x 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.