The votes are in, K will react on Hate/Revenge!
Welcome to the GAME: a playground for the rich and powerful, a hell for those ignorant of the rules. To play, you embody your true self. The vile you. The desperate you. The sexual, depraved, despicable you.
She doesn’t know her role, her location, or even her name. Trapped in a world designed for the devious to indulge, the tribute known only as Juno is the ultimate prize—whether she realizes it or not.
K, a game master with many secrets, is more than eager to take the spoils of this twisted fantasy landscape for himself. But when the consequences are laid bare, he has to give in to the very traits of humanity the GAME is designed to suppress, or play his role to its full extent.
No matter the cost.
Disclaimer: The following copyrighted content is unedited and subject to change.
“You’re still drooling, by the way,” Jax declares from across the narrow table we’ve commandeered in a small pub just off the city center.
The bastard has the nerve to look smug, simpering over his meal. The worst part? He’s right.
I can’t stop picturing her. Those eyes. That body. That face…
“She was pretty sexy, but methinks you’re sprung, bro,” Jax adds. “I’m starting to like this theme after all.”
In the glow of the candle flickering between us, his eyes sparkle with more mischief than usual. The odd thing is that he looks more at home here than he does outside of the confines of the game. What that says for our personal life? Who knows. An ancient, gritty backdrop suits us more than the posh, pampered surroundings of our family home—which might reveal something profound about our upbringing if I cared enough to reflect on it.
Ancient Rome holds more homely cheer than the Kendall manor. Credit to the game designers, this place hews to realism with a religious attention to detail. Overall, the crafted effect seems almost too realistic at times, and this establishment is no exception—dingy, cramped, with an interior choked by smoke and the smells of cooking meat tinging the air. Even so, clues alluding to this location’s true identity as a destination for the rich and debauched remain. The food is top notch for one, personally designed by a team of world renown chefs.
Jax licks his fingers before taking a bite out of an herb encrusted roasted chicken thigh. As his eyes meet mine, I internally groan. Him gloating is one thing, but he’s not smiling now. Instead, he’s sporting that puppy-dog look again. The one that warns he’s about to turn this into another impromptu sibling bonding moment.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks, extending his bitten chicken leg toward me as a makeshift microphone. “Relive your inner trauma?”
“Let’s employ some of your methods,” he proposes, unfazed. “Active discussion, as you like to call it. If you can’t voice what’s troubling you out loud in direct terms. Talk around it.” He deepens his tone into a parody of mine while puffing up his chest with mock bravado. “K. You just caught sight of a sexy woman who is a dead ringer for your bitch of an… Do we even call her an ex? Fuck that.” His eyes narrow with a vitriol he rarely ever displays. “Your abuser. The woman who abused you. Who manipulated a literal minor—”
“Stop,” I snarl, feeling my upper lip curl back from my teeth.
I glance around at the wooden tables spread out around us, but if I’m worried about anyone eavesdropping I quickly realize I shouldn’t be. Of the few patrons here, most are already drunk on the freely available wine, singing showtunes at the top of their lungs in bleating harmony.
“No,” Jax says as I turn my attention back to him. “Not until you acknowledge some shred of human emotion. Like a normal person.” He brandishes his chicken leg, his lips flat in determination. “Alright. I’ll say it, then if you won’t. That chick looks like Diana. Why does that bother you?”
I’m so caught off guard by the question—and that name—that I don’t even have the sense to be truly enraged by his gall.
The sight of that woman “bothered” me the same way hearing that name makes blood rush through my skull, driven by every surge of my pulse. I grit my teeth so hard I taste salt and for a split second, this room and everyone in it disappears.
“Sure, I broke a rule,” Jax admits, sounding muffled as though I’m hearing him from under water, still up to my ass in the sea. “But that bitch never played by them anyway, so who cares? She’s not here, K. You can’t let her control your life anymore—”
“Keep talking, and I swear to God. I will put my fist through your mouth.” I watch my knuckles protrude as I form a fist against the table’s surface. I mean it.
And he’s smart enough to clamp his lips together. For a second at least, which is a world record as far as his self-restraint goes.
“You can’t punch me here,” he points out. “I’m a renegade and you are but a lowly servant. I bet I could have your ass thrown in the stocks or something. Don’t try me, buddy.”
I chuckle to myself and raise an eyebrow. “You sure you want to test that theory?”
“Besides,” he says quickly, clearing his throat. “I’m your best shot of getting to your prize. It’s decided. Going after a nice piece of revenge ass is how you’re going to spend your wild and crazy days of sexual freedom. You shall purge yourself of the scourge that is Diana—”
“Recklessly breaking rules in front of the game creator,” I scold with a scoff. “Nice way to earn a lifetime ban.”
“Anything would be worth you getting back to normal,” he says, his expression devoid of any humor. He’s sporting that serious frown again and in irritation I stand from the table and pick my way through the sparse crowd and exit the establishment all together.
Air conditioning is another sign of the luxury built into the background of this realm, and I’m instantly slicked with a layer of sweat the second I step outside. It’s still hot as hell. The sun looms high in the sky, beating down with a vengeance, scorching the stones embedded in the pavement so that I feel each one through my thin leather sandals. I have yet to open the bundle of supplies the woman gave me in case I’ve been assigned sturdier footwear. Hell, I briefly consider tossing it all, leaving the central hub and going rogue, wandering the wilderness in search of inner peace the way I preach in all those fucking books. What little wilderness one can find in a million-dollar playground at least.
I lower the sack from where I have it slung over my shoulder, prepared to pitch it. Something holds me back from doing so, but it takes me a second to realize what. My flaring nostrils hold the answer—a smell, which triggers a thought and a painful slew of memories.
The crisp scent emanates from a stone planter adorning this part of the road, adding color to the cream backdrop of colorless architecture. Diana—damn Jax for dragging her name from the depths of my psyche where I’d banished it—loved to drench herself in the stench. She loved the illusion it could cast around her. An allure of innocence, and yet the subtle power that came with subverting expectations was her true aim. One whiff of roses and the average person’s brain went to thoughts of the elegant and romantic. The sweet. The sacrosanct.
And by doing so, a man would fall right into her trap—he’d never see the knife aimed at his back coming.
I reach out, fingering one of the scarlet blooms. My mind rebels against the constraints I’ve enforced on it, returning to thoughts of a figure I’d rather forget. The woman from the arena, her features close enough to Diana’s it’s uncanny. Yet, different from her in so many ways it’s almost laughable to consider her a substitute.
Regardless, I can’t shake the part of myself that wants to use her as one. Needs to. Craves to. I want to run my fingers through that mane of white hair…and tug. Hurt. Make her scream. Make her suffer for a woman she probably doesn’t know—or maybe that’s a naïve fucking hope at this point.
By now, the whole damn world—the real world—has heard of Diana and the lies she’s told. They know of me—the gullible, vulnerable caricature she’s depicted of me, anyway. Through her careful shading of the past, they know parts of the tale that tore my life apart, colored through a romanticized outlook that removes any shade of gray.
I’ve held my silence all this time, but I’m tired of living in the fucking gray.
No more, that volatile, vengeful part of me hisses. As I watch, my fingers curl, crushing the bud of a newborn rose between them. The man I am beyond this realm has an army of publicists, lawyers, and consultants guiding his every move, urging his silence and recommending he not acknowledge any rumors or lies floating in the ether that is the public sphere.
Those voices are silent here. I don’t have the same expectations here. Fuck, dressed like this, no retinue of sycophants in sight, most probably won’t know who I fucking am anyway.
So why not do the one thing I’ve been preaching cossetted rich men and bored housewives to do for over a decade? Hit a reset button. Shred my past self. Acknowledge the desires the old Kendall would never let his politically correct brain touch.
“I know that look,” someone gleefully remarks, and I turn to find Jax leaning against the front of the pub, clapping like a goddamn child. “Someone’s ready to play. Oh goody!” He skips forward, falling into step by my side as I turn and start for the crest of the hill where the arena sits.
“I’ve never been manly enough to participate in a gauntlet style game,” he adds. “They can get pretty nasty from what I hear.”
A glance in his direction reveals him to be practically salivating at the thought.
“Death is unlikely,” he adds, almost breathless with excitement. “But injuries are fair game. I heard one guy got his arm ripped out of its socket once, and with all the legal waivers and shit built into the application, who knows what might happen this year—”
“You know, you don’t have to follow me. Shouldn’t you be on your own quest of self-discovery bullshit?”
He shrugs. “I am fairly at peace with my identity as a lowly coward, content to hide behind my wealth and prestige. I’ve come to terms with my mommy issues. My daddy issues. This time, I think I get to tackle my fears of inferiority regarding my perfect older brother.” He nods to the velvet sack in his grasp and winks. “In fact, your mental state is my only real concern as of late, bro. Therefore, I have decided that my mission this round will be saving you from yourself.”
A feeling settles in my gut that might be true alarm. Horror, if I wanted to be dramatic about it. “Oh really?”
“Really,” he insists with a nod. “As a high and mighty renegade, I hereby conscript you lowly servant into my service. You shall be my champion and win the girl for me, whether you want to or not…”
We’re crossing the threshold of the outer wall of the complex now, and the press of bodies—more than barely an hour ago—and the hum of my own thoughts drown out everything else.
The women are still on the stage, repeating the same greeting that must be a rehearsed performance meant to set the stage and draw in contestants. Whether she had the last time or not, the redhead once again gestures to the gagged blond. Then she addresses the crowd, her voice resonating clearly.
“Who will rise to the challenge?”
A roar erupts from the crowd as a man steps forward and approaches the steps of the temple. He’s blond, wearing only a skirt of leather strips around his waist, his chest bare.
“Son of a bitch,” Jax says, his tone hard, lacking any excitement. “I thought you finally banned the asshole.”
I eye the figure in question and feel my eyes narrow. “I thought so to. But I don’t handle all internal disputes.”
“You should,” Jax snaps. “God damnit. Now you’re definitely entering this thing. If only so I can see you beat the shit out of that dickhead.”
Said dickhead is mounting the steps leading to the temple, but he stops short before approaching the women. I crane my neck, pushing forward to get a better view as he tosses something into a wooden box placed on the topmost step.
“Oh, I know what you have to do,” Jax says. “Give me your bag.”
He snatches the sack from me, but I don’t have the energy to question. Despite everything else, I’ve barely let my attention stray from one subject all this time. She’s so damn thin—more so because she seems to shrink in on herself, sandwiched between two other women keeping her in place with a grip on either arm. Those deep, dark eyes scan the assembled crowd wildly.
And for a split second our gazes lock.
Confusion eats away at the remnants of rage, rendering me numb. I’ve made a profession out of seeing to the core of someone in a glance. Knowing the fears and secrets they’d never voice out loud. If Diana taught me one mode of survival it was to always be on guard. Already be ready to decipher someone before they could ever get the chance to fool you.
This woman should be an easy creature to decipher. Some mentally broken blond on a quest for sexual discovery perhaps, hoping to escape the trauma of neglect or daddy issues. It’s cliché but a surprisingly common explanation for what society would deem “unusual” sexual appetites. Or maybe she’s another repressed, over-worked soul, desperate for an outlet in which to succeed control.
I’m ready to have her pegged and sorted.
But in her gaze, all I find is…
Nothing. Not a damn thing of import before she turns away, her gaze darting in the opposite direction.
“Here,” Jax says, pressing something cool against my palm. Before I can get a good look at it, he shoves me forward, slapping my back. “Go, get ’em, tiger!”
“Who else?” The redhead asks of the crowd, and two other men step forward to toss an item into the box. I’m already moving closer before I realize it, easily picking my way to the front of the crowd.
Again, my eyes go to the blond as I mount the first step and relinquish my grip on the object Jax gave me. A coin, gold, etched with the relief of a snarling lion on one side. It lands in the box amid a small pile of others.
“May you find yourself well in the gauntlet,” the redhead calls to me from her perch.
But this time when the blond looks at me, her gaze transforms. Those eyes widen, her cheeks flushed and it’s almost like I can hear her. Screaming. Pleading.
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