Kage Unleashed (KAGE Trilogy #2) : chap 1

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

(KAGE)

 

So I had just rawdogged my boyfriend in every sense of the word: no condom, no lube, and no fucking mercy. I left him half naked and crying in his parents’ backyard on the eve of his mother’s surgery. It was cruel, right? I should have felt guilty. Instead, I was flying like I’d just submitted a Jiu Jitsu blackbelt in the first round of a title fight.

It was because I didn’t think about shit right. Hell, I didn’t know how to break up with somebody, and especially not when I was that fucking mad. I just handled it like I did everything else, by beating it or balling it into submission. And now it was over. It was time to move on to the next phase of my life, and that phase did not include Jamie Atwood.

UFC, here I come.

My sweaty thighs squeaked obscenely on the leather of the backseat of the cab as I slid in. God, it was humid down here. I was pretty sure the temperature was higher back home in Vegas, probably in the nineties, but the air in Georgia was so heavy with moisture it almost felt like I was swimming through it. The stuff was downright cloying— alive and grasping with invisible fingers, slicking up every inch of my skin. The sharp chill of the cab’s air conditioning against my hot, wet skin gave me goosebumps, and a thin rivulet of sweat tickled my temple as it tracked down the side of my face. I shivered.

“Where to, buddy?” the driver asked through the plexiglass divider, his face weary and lined beyond his years.

I glanced up with bewildered eyes, my breaths still coming too quickly. Where was I going? Oh, yeah. I pulled the door closed behind me with a muted clunk. “Hartsfield,” I told him.

“No bags?” he asked, programming the airport into his GPS.

“Nope, no bags. It’s just me tonight.” Through the smudged cab window, I could barely see the darkened seventies split level where Jamie had grown up with his disgustingly suburban family. Fucking charming bunch, the Atwoods. Actually, I had no beef with his mom or his younger brother, Paul. But his father and his bratty older sister, Jennifer? Those two could bite my ass. Just thinking about them spiked my blood pressure anew. They had started this shit. They were the reason I was stealing away in the middle of the night and leaving my luggage behind.

“Traveling light sure makes things easier,” the driver remarked. The cab pulled away from the curb, leaving suburbia right where it belonged— in my rear view. I leaned heavily against the back of the seat, trying to relax, hoping the adrenaline would be worn off by the time I got to the airport. They were expecting me to report for day one of my pre-fight training camp around noon the next day, but I was going to surprise them by arriving early. No sense putting it off, because I only had eleven days to drop thirty-five pounds and get prepared for my first UFC fight. I couldn’t afford a distraction, even if that distraction did have sweet brown eyes and an ass that made me so hard I could fuck a hole in a steel plate.

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…

Trying to reset and put the events of the night behind me, I ran a hand distractedly over my face, feeling the scruff of two-day stubble. Bad idea. I caught a whiff of grass and earth and fresh jizz on my fingers, and the memories slammed into me full force. Arguing with Jamie on his parents’ gazebo, calling a cab to get the hell out of there, the crazy little fucker chasing me down. Dammit, what had he been thinking? He’d baited me, punched me in the face.

I saw red.

Before he punched me, I’d only meant to leave, to sever all ties with the guy and never look back. But as soon as I felt the sting of his knuckles against my lip, everything changed. Suddenly I was a starved dog and he was my prey. He took off across the yard toward the woods, running away from me, because he knew he’d fucked up. And now I was going to make him pay.

I tracked him, put him face down in the grass, twisted his arm and secured it at the small of his back. He squirmed a little, testing me, so I mounted him and sat back heavily on his thighs. Every little struggle and whimper made me crazy with want. Instead of submitting like I’d expected him to, Jamie summoned every bit of strength he had and pushed his ass back toward me, lifting me slightly off the ground.

“Kage—” He groaned my name out, and the sound reverberated all the way down into my cock. I’d been hard for him during our entire altercation, but before I’d been able to walk away.

Not anymore.

I don’t think he consciously knew what he was doing, couldn’t possibly realize the effect his actions would have on me. God knows, I’d tried to keep my darker needs hidden when I was around him, but maybe he could see through me. Either way, it was too late now.

But I didn’t want him anymore, did I? He’d pissed me off, done everything in his power to make sure no one found out about us, and it hurt. I’d been nothing but a perfect gentleman with him, treated him like a prince, pampered him and made him the center of my world, and what had I gotten in return? Fucking denial. Now I wanted to be done with him, just put the whole summer behind me and be done, but he just kept pushing and pushing. And now, he’d pushed us both into a dark place where need was going to win out over common sense.

“You want it that bad?” I asked, aiming to humiliate him. I also wanted to hurt him, so I did. I yanked up on his arm just enough to make him scream, but instead of easing my need or giving me any kind of satisfaction, his suffering sizzled deliciously through my body and made me want to hurt him more. I dropped down over his back and bit into the tender flesh where his shoulder met the side of his throat, groaning at the feel of him squirming beneath me. Without even realizing I was doing it, I started to rock into him, going through the motions of fucking him, the friction of his ass against my dick driving all rational thoughts out of my head. God, he was turning me on. I could not wait to get inside him, but I had to know he wanted me there. If I didn’t confirm that this was mutual, things could get ugly. I had just enough sense left to realize that.

“Jamie, look at me.” I sat back and eased my grip on his arm.

He turned his head and looked over his shoulder. His eyes were wide, his lips parted, and he looked like he absolutely wanted to fuck.

I flipped the band of my shorts down, took out my cock, and pushed against his hole through the fabric of his shorts. Spelling it out for him. “Is this what you want?”

He nodded, and it was then that I saw he was crying.

In that moment, I realized something that very nearly unnerved me. It hurt him to need me like he did. He speared me with that wide gaze full of longing, those big brown eyes that could annihilate the strongest of men. I was a heartbeat away from taking him into my arms and kissing away those awful tears I hadn’t meant to cause.

But no. He wasn’t asking for love. I’d already given him my heart on a silver platter, and it hadn’t been enough. He was asking for something much darker than love, something I was well-used to giving. And there was no way I was leaving until I’d given him every ugly thing he thought he wanted.

“Son, if you’ll shut that door, we can get out of here,” the cab driver said, startling me.

I hesitated. All I could think about was jumping out of that cab, running back around the side of the house, grabbing Jamie up and holding him in my arms. Forget pride, and forget common sense. He was mine, and I wanted him. It had only been a couple of minutes. He was probably still there. What if I’d hurt him? I should at least check. At least pick him up off the ground and pull his fucking pants up.

“No,” I groaned aloud, digging my fingers into my disheveled hair and pulling hard, trying to use the pain. Sometimes pain was the only thing that helped ground me. I wished I had another hair band besides the one I’d ripped out while Jamie and I were arguing. Smoothing my hair back into its little topknot would make me feel less like an animal. Less like I was falling apart.

Then, before I could make a horrible decision, I closed the door.

When the cab started moving, I watched out the back glass as the family home got smaller and finally disappeared. Should I really be feeling this kind of desperation in the suburbs? I thought it was all supposed to be Christmas mornings, footed pajamas and picket fences. After-school snacks and dogs that played fetch. I knew my ideas of family were borrowed straight from television, but I felt cheated that the experience was nothing at all like I’d expected. Was it all pure fantasy? All I’d ever known was hotels and room service, and a numbing loneliness that quietly spanned weeks, then months, then years. The idea that there was something more out there had almost been comforting.

I’d been so happy to go home with Jamie. I didn’t think a Sherman tank could blow the smile off my face as his mother gave us a tour of her tiny gardens. Then we’d run into his ex-girlfriend in the kitchen, and that had been a hell of a sucker punch.

Even now, I wasn’t sure how she’d gotten into the mix, and I don’t think Jamie knew, either. But to walk into your lover’s house and see his ex standing there, and then listen to his family fawning all over her… Hey, it had bothered the shit out of me, but I managed to push it aside. It was only a nuisance, right? Jamie wasn’t interested in her anymore, and he’d given me no reason to doubt that. That’s what I told myself.

I fought off the anger, breathed through the awkwardness, tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. But when his dad went out of his way to tell me that he expected my professional relationship with his son to be over, and had then pointedly assigned sleeping arrangements that left me out in the cold on the sofa, something inside me snapped. I felt it acutely when it happened.

Not that I’m a saint or anything, but dammit I was the one who had insisted that Jamie be there for his mom’s surgery. I’d even paid for his plane ticket and personally escorted him. I don’t know, I guess I expected a little warmer reception than Mr. Atwood politely telling me to piss off over a glass of Johnny Walker Red.

“He’s done what he set out to do for you,” he’d said. And it wasn’t so much his words that pissed me off, but rather the look in his eyes as he regarded me across his desk. I could read people. I could hear unspoken words, feel emotions when people tried their best to hide them. This heightened ability to sense things seemed to be a side effect of being a fighter. At least it was for me. So when Jamie’s dad raised his dollar-store glass full of working man’s finest and toasted our separate futures, his eyes were saying something entirely different than his mouth. And that something was not friendly.

No clap on the back and welcome to the family for me. Nope. Jennifer’s zombie fiance— fucking wife-beater in training— could sit his redneck ass in front of the TV and act like he was the only person in the room, like everyone owed him something. But I couldn’t get a fucking smile from daddy.

I muffled a growl and threw a hard punch straight down into the seat. Something beneath the upholstery, beneath the cushions, didn’t give. My eyes flew open in surprise as knuckles plowed metal, like that moment when you punch a wall and realize you’ve accidentally located a stud.

I didn’t curse or yell or cry. Instead I ground my teeth together and smiled, sucking in a quick breath through my nose, feeling that familiar wash of agony that I craved like some people craved chocolate. My knuckles weren’t broken, I was sure of that, but there would be a hell of a bruise. I’d get to feel it every time I landed a right-handed punch, and that was a good thing. It would remind me of Jamie, and how I should never trust anyone again.

God, how had things gotten so fucked up? I’d wanted to be strong. For Jamie, I had wanted to hold it together. With his mom going into the hospital the next morning, he didn’t need me stirring up drama just because of my own insecurities. Hell, I had muscled through far more awkward situations and much colder receptions than that. And I supposed his dad had a right to prefer that his son follow in his footsteps and have a normal suburban life, rather than playing catcher to an emotionally volatile MMA fighter.

All things considered, I thought I did a pretty damn good job keeping my temper in check and rationalizing everything out. I tried so hard to be the perfect boyfriend.

But then… the necklace happened.

The fucking love necklace, with its secret code meant just for me. Yeah, right. When he was lying in my bed all sexed up and fucked six ways from Sunday, Jamie had gladly allowed me to flip that Claddagh heart around so that its point was aiming straight at his heart. Soulmate, he had said. And I’d thought he meant it.

But apparently, by the time we made it to Georgia, his fickle ass had come unfucked and he was ready to sell me down the river. When his sister pointed out that his charm was upside-down, he could have just shrugged it off, maybe even told them he’d met someone. I wouldn’t have given him away. It was not my intention to embarrass him or put him on the spot in front of his family. But to take the necklace off right there in front of me and turn it around? It felt like a blatant denial— like a take-back. I swear a stone cold kick in the nuts wouldn’t have hurt so much.

So, yeah. I snapped. I lost my cool, and I swore I’d never do that with him.

I fucking loved him.

I could still see his big round eyes looking up at me— warm brown eyes that could swallow me whole. And his sweet, pouty lips— so fucking tempting even when they were sneering at me in anger. Goddammit, why hadn’t I kissed him one last time? Just one last time to taste him, to breathe in his sweet scent, feel him pliant beneath my fingertips.

Instead, I’d used him like a nameless rent boy. No, worse than that; I’d humiliated him and hurt him. The most disturbing part of it all was that he’d let me do it to him. Hell, he’d begged for it, all the while looking at me with those hurt, soulful eyes. Pushing my buttons like only he can to do.

Killing me inside.

I’d taken him from behind because I couldn’t stand looking into those eyes. And because I wanted to punish him. I’d wanted to destroy him. To fucking obliterate him for making me love him, and for being able to live without me. For being able to turn that necklace around with no more thought than changing his socks.

So, yeah. I did it. I fucked. him. up.

What I hadn’t counted on was destroying myself in the process. I hadn’t known I’d leave my beating heart back there on the ground beside him, quivering in the dirt.

Didn’t matter, anyway. I wouldn’t be needing a heart where I was going. I was pretty sure there was no room for emotions at a hardcore pre-fight MMA camp. They’d push me to my limits every day, challenge me to perform at my absolute peak, work off the excess weight that could disqualify me before I even got into the octagon. Marco had arranged it all— ten days in some desert hell hole with some of the best coaches and training partners my uncle’s dirty money could buy. If they were truly worth their price tag, maybe they could work this emotional train wreckage out of me, too. Make me forget I’d ever met Jamie Fucking Atwood.

Because that’s really what I needed right now. I was confident that I’d beat the living hell out of that second-rate fighter they had me going up against. He was nobody. What I really needed was for

someone to get me so exhausted every day that I didn’t have the energy to think about the little brown-eyed demon whose memory would be shadowing my every step. Surely the best trainers in the business could manage to do that for me— because that’s what Marco had called them, and he knew what he was talking about. I wouldn’t have known the best if they’d hit me over the head, because I’d never followed the professional MMA scene very closely. I was too immersed in it on a personal level to have ever become a spectator or fan. Truth be known, I hated the sport just as much as I depended on it. It ruled me, owned me, made me whole and hollowed me out. I just tried to keep focused on training, stick to my schedule, and fight when they told me to fight.

And I won. I always won.

It was almost too easy to win. I had a compulsion to do it, that’s for sure. I could no more let someone beat me than I could put Aldo’s Glock to my head and pull the trigger. But I also resented it, because winning was following my uncle’s plan. Just once I’d like to put the plan on its ass, you know? Just flip it right the fuck over and smile defiantly at the master manipulator who’d raised me. The guy just did not lose. Everything was either his way, or something bad happened to you. I’d never pushed hard enough to find out what that something might be, but I was tempted every single day of my life. I did not want to be a part of his plan, to play into his hands with every move I made, and yet that is exactly what I did.

When I was a teenager and had really begun to come into my own as a fighter, that’s when he started bringing guys into the gym to fight me. He’d started me on a steady diet of opponents who were just below my skill level. Systematically, calculatingly, he’d fed them to me. One by one I beat them, using each soundly battered body as a stepping stone to the next tier, until eventually pretty much everyone was below my skill level. Then he’d started offering the prize money, like I was some sort of circus act. Step right up, folks! Beat the freak and win a prize!

Yeah, but you always performed for him, didn’t you?

I swallowed back the taste of bile, pushed away the unsettling image of my uncle as ringmaster, and then it was on me: the anxiety, the palpitations, the unbearable sensation that a two-hundred-forty-pound heavyweight was sitting on my chest.

A panic attack.

I fought it off as best I could. If I wasn’t diligent, if I didn’t try to head it off, it would ambush me and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. That much I’d learned over the years. It would creep over me slowly, as if conscious of not wanting to startle me, and then all of a sudden it would be too late. The point of no return, when I realized I just might as well hang on, grit my teeth and ride it out.

But this stuff with Jamie had me messed up. I wasn’t used to feeling. I’d already had one panic attack since I met him, and I believed it was because deep down I knew it was wrong to try to have a relationship with someone— to bring another person into my fucked up world. If I’d had an ounce of conscience in me, I would have turned and walked away from him that very first night at the MMA event when he’d so clumsily tried to interview me. When he’d pissed off the other reporters, effectively nudging them out of the way and demanding every bit of my attention. Maybe if I’d walked away then, we would have had a fighting chance. Separately. Instead, I had tracked him down and doomed us both.

As much as I’d have loved to give in to my anger and hang all of the guilt on Jamie for betraying me at the first hint of opposition, I couldn’t do it. The truth is, I deserved what I got. For the bad things I’d done in my short twenty-four years of life, I deserved that and a whole lot worse. It was karma.

See, there’s a lot of heavy shit tied like an albatross around my neck, and while I’m plenty strong enough to drag it around for the rest of my life, it would be criminally selfish for me to expect someone else to do it. Yet that’s exactly what I did with Jamie. I tried to take an innocent boy who barely weighs more than my warm-up barbell and force him to carry me and my baggage.

Why did I ever think Jamie could handle something like that? He never gave me any indication that he was strong, or particularly understanding. But still, there was something in those warm brown eyes. Something in there that screamed, “Pick me! Pick me!” And I did. I picked him. I looked right dead in his face, knowing what I had to offer, and decided I was going to have him whether he liked it or not.

Now, hurtling down the interstate toward Hartsfield Airport, watching as the Atlanta skyline drew closer, I was engulfed in regret. Thick and stiff and suffocating like those old wool Army blankets my dad used to make us sleep under— the kind that stood away from your body and offered no comfort at all.

Part of me still wanted Jamie like I wanted my next breath, but I’d come to realize I’d overestimated him in a lot of ways. I’d played up the fantasy that we could actually be something to each other, and that was ultimately my downfall. I had begged fate, providence, God, and all of the powers that be to make him what I wanted— what I needed. But in the end, he was just an average guy who was going to graduate college next year and make something decent of himself. He’d probably sign on with a local firm and represent hip-hop artists or pro ballers who got DUI’s or beat up their girlfriends. He’d fight traffic on the afternoon commute out of Atlanta, come home to a meatloaf dinner in the suburbs, tuck his kids into bed, and fuck his wife. That was the kind of life Jamie Atwood was made for, and that was the kind of life I hoped he’d get.

I couldn’t offer that. Not to anyone. What I offered was a one-way trip to Prozac city.

Jamie deserved a normal life. What he did to me at his parents’ house… that was nothing. Sure, he’d nuked my ego, and at the moment I hated him for it. But I couldn’t really hold it against him. All it meant was that he recognized that I wasn’t worthy of being in his life. I’d given him a good ride, and now it was over. He’d go on to have that vanilla life that so many people seemed to want, with the picket fences and flower beds, and the fucking gazebo in the backyard with the Christmas lights strung all over it. Meanwhile, I’d have the Grotto with its near-representation of life— not the real thing, but that was okay. I didn’t deserve the real thing. My albatross was only going to get heavier as time passed, and I certainly didn’t need to burden anyone else with it.

Still, it was an amazing fantasy while it lasted. Images flitted through my mind— fantasies of things that would probably never happen. Holding Jamie’s hand while we walked down the street in broad daylight, whispering jokes into his ear during one of those silly Vegas variety shows, running my hand up his thigh under the table in a fancy restaurant. I had never actually done any of those things, and I was pretty sure I’d never get the chance to do them now. But fuck it.

Fuck Jamie Atwood. Fuck him and his wide brown eyes. Fuck his addictive lips, his perfect cock, his sweet ass…

Yeah, fuck his sweet ass. I could do that until the end of time.

Just that one simple thought had me getting hard, a little twisting ache climbing the inside of my belly and wrapping itself around my heart. I reached down and squeezed my traitorous dick until it hurt, reminding myself that I couldn’t think of him that way anymore, dammit. It’s not like he was anything special or unusual, anyway. I could find a guy just like him on any decent hookup app and have him on his knees in front of me within a couple of hours. No strings attached, no broken hearts.

In fact, maybe that was just the thing to get over him. I could arrange to meet some willing stranger in Vegas after I got off the plane, then report to camp the next morning with a fresh outlook. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I did it almost every time I finished a fight.

There was this cheap motel on the outskirts of town called the Tick-Tock Inn, with green-and-yellow vinyl curtains and beds that smelled like mothballs and ass. It had tiny bathrooms with mildewed tiles and toilet paper that felt like that stiff shit people stuffed in gift bags. Every bedside table drawer contained a King James Bible and a condom. This is where I always had the boys meet me— or rather it was where John Brown had them meet him. I’d come up with that fictitious name because I wasn’t about to use my real one.

John Brown was kind of a sick puppy.

When I played the part of John Brown, I usually showed up with a busted lip or a clotted cut beneath my eye, hard-earned in a fight within the last couple of hours. I was always ready to go, usually with a throbbing boner that hadn’t abated since shortly after the bell had sounded to end the fight. Once I escorted my fuckboy into the motel room, there were no pleasantries exchanged, no hey-how-ya-doin or handshakes. I’d simply click the door shut behind me and smile down at the flavor of the night— always a pretty pain slut, young and wide-eyed and willing to be used hard. I’d watch them for a long moment as they swallowed and squirmed under my scrutiny, seeing clearly just what my wicked smile did to them as they trembled just a little bit and glanced at the door. I loved it when they did that— got off on it, actually. That expression of doubt, the slight hesitation, betrayed the fear that maybe this time they’d gotten in over their heads. But I knew they got off on it, too. It was all part of the game.

I only chose the ones who craved what I offered— a little bit of humiliation and a little bit of pain, all tied up with a thin ribbon of fear. There was never any real damage, of course. It was all in good fun. I’d hold them down, bind their wrists with a belt or curtain tie-back if they wanted, choke them with my big cock before rolling on a condom and fucking them good and hard. Occasionally, I’d spank them or something if they wanted me to, but only if they begged. I wasn’t fancy in my needs— no ceremony or gear, no rules beyond the obvious. As long as it was rough, that’s all I cared about. I fucked, I came, and then I went.

The sex was what I did to come down from the fighting, otherwise I’d be a nervous wreck for days. All of that raw aggression built up inside me, needing to go somewhere, and shooting it out through the tip of my dick worked better than therapy. I knew, because I had experience with both.

What I’d just done to Jamie felt different, though, because it had felt more like fighting than sex. Instead of calming me down like it normally did, this time I felt like I needed a comedown from the sex. I was agitated as hell, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it to stop. I hated what he’d done to me, what he’d reduced me to, how helpless he made me feel. Love wasn’t supposed to be this way. But then, what the hell did I know about love?

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and went to click on the icon for my favorite hookup app, but I didn’t click it right away. My thumb just hovered there in mid-air for what seemed like ages. In my peripheral vision, I could see the lights of the city whizzing by outside the window, hear the road noise humming and clicking off the seconds, and still my thumb hovered there. Then, before I realized what was happening, I’d tapped the quick call button for my psychiatrist.

“Michael?” Her voice was breathless on the other end of the line. “Is everything alright?”

A man spoke in the background, near the phone, and she covered the speaker and mumbled something to him.

“Sorry to bother you, Dr. Tanner,” I said.

I didn’t tell her I was freaking out. I didn’t need to. There was only one reason I’d be calling her outside of our now-monthly sessions.

“Has something happened, Michael? Do I need to come over? Is Jamie there?”

At the mention of his name, my body went weak. Somehow hearing her say his name aloud made it all real. And over. I slumped into the corner between the seat and the cab door like a frightened kid. Now that my doctor was on the other end of the phone, it was okay to do that, to feel and to show my weakness. A sound escaped my lips, somewhere between a sigh and a whisper, and I bashed my head against the window glass hard enough to rattle my teeth.

“Jamie’s gone,” I told her. “I fucked up, Dr. Tanner. I hurt him. I tried to walk away, but he wouldn’t back down. Then he hit me, and I just lost it. You know how I get when I lose my mind and I just want to win. I hurt him so bad, and I just left him lying there. I swear I didn’t mean to hurt him. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t you just fix me?”

The silence on the phone line was heavy, stretching out several heartbeats longer than it should have before anyone spoke again.

“Listen carefully to me, Michael.” Dr. Tanner’s voice dropped several notches, and I could hear the rustle of movement on her end of the line. “I’m getting dressed right now and coming to your apartment. Don’t move anything, don’t touch anything, don’t speak to anyone. Just do your breathing exercises and don’t worry about a thing. I promise, you will not get into any trouble. Do you hear me? Your uncle will have someone there in a few minutes to take care of this.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Are you sure he’s… gone? Can you check his breathing without touching him?”

I blinked and felt my eyebrows coming together in confusion. It took me a full ten seconds to figure out what she was actually saying. “Oh, my God. No, Dr. Tanner. I didn’t hurt him like that.” I don’t know what stunned me more. The fact that she thought I was capable of killing Jamie in cold blood, or the fact that she was talking so calmly about covering it up. My skin crawled, and my tears dried up completely. It occurred to me in a vague sort of way that maybe I had inadvertently discovered the key to stopping a panic attack in its tracks— pure, mind-numbing shock.

“Whaaat?” Dr. Tanner asked, drawing out the word. “You mean he’s okay?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say okay,” I told her carefully. “But he’s… alive. We just got into an argument, that’s all, and it didn’t end well. I’m on my way back to Vegas.”

She let out a huge sigh that I could almost feel through the phone. “Oh, baby, you scared the shit out of me. I’m so relieved, you have no idea.”

I grunted, wishing I could feel some kind of relief, too.

“You know he’s not good for you, right?” Dr. Tanner’s comment was smooth, quiet, designed to slip in under my defenses. “The two of you are from different worlds. No matter how much you want it to, it will never work out.”

I chuckled, even though there was nothing remotely funny about the situation. “No need to waste your magical skills of persuasion on me tonight, Dr. Tanner. Jamie and I are officially done. You and my uncle can go ahead and celebrate, because I know you tell him everything.”

I stared out the window of the cab in silence, looking up at the famous flying-saucer-shaped top of the Peachtree Plaza, unconsciously comparing Atlanta’s profusion of skyscrapers to the Vegas skyline I fell asleep looking at every night. My mind was reeling, and I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking anymore.

The night had just been one painful cluster-fucked moment after another, until I found myself wanting to curl up into a ball and just stop living. Just shut it all down and stop. The problem was, I didn’t know how to die. In my mind, dying was too much like losing, and no matter how bad things got, losing had never been an option. Not for Michael Kage.

Not for the Machine.

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