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       Unraveled, p.1

         Part #3 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
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  CHAPTER ONE

  SHIORI Hirano wanted to beat the fuck out of someone.

  And by “someone” she meant that smarmy asswipe Knox Lofgren.

  Ob-Knox-ious had been in rare form today, harping on safety protocols until the newly earned black belt class looked ready to commit hara-kiri just so they wouldn’t have to listen to their Shihan drone on and on.

  And there was another point of contention. Everyone else in Black Arts dojo called Knox “Shihan” since he was the highest-ranking belt after Master Black.

  Or he was until she’d arrived.

  Since Shiori outranked him by one belt level, she called him Godan, one step down in the ranking system—which really got his goat. Then he retaliated by refusing to refer to her by any official title at all, calling her She-Cat or Shitake.

  Yes, they were shining examples of leadership.

  Her brother, Ronin Black, had left Knox in charge of his martial-arts dojo while he took a ten-week sabbatical to Japan with his wife. While Shiori agreed Ronin deserved the break, she wasn’t sure she’d survive working eighty days with Knox.

  “Are there any questions before you’re dismissed?” Knox asked the class.

  Jesus. Loaded question.

  And of course the biggest pain-in-the-ass student raised her hand. “Shihan, I’m a little fuzzy on that sit-up guard and sweep. Could you demonstrate?”

  The silly chit expected Shihan would beckon her up to demonstrate? And he’d press his big body to hers as he relayed directions in his deep bedroom voice? No. He’d want her to observe and that meant . . .

  “Shiori, I need your assistance.”

  Right-o, Captain Asshat. And I need a gin and tonic. Jumbo-sized. Pronto.

  Refusing wasn’t an option, so she rolled to her feet and moved to the center of the mat.

  “Gather ’round so you can all see this.” As soon as the students had formed a circle, he sat and placed his right foot above her left knee.

  She went to grab his left leg for the sweep, and he grabbed her white gi top by the lapels and shoved her to the mat, rolling her onto her shoulder and pinning her arm down with his knee on her gi sleeve.

  When Knox went into side mount, it took every ounce of restraint not to immediately counter his move.

  Little Miss Ten Million Questions asked to see the move one more time. And of course Shihan obliged her.

  Finally he dismissed the class. She was about to bail when two hands landed on her shoulders.

  So tempting to give in to her instinct and do a sweep and roll and jam her knee into his balls, but she refrained. She deserved a fucking cookie for that.

  “Mandatory meeting with ABC instructors in five minutes in the second-floor training room.”

  “Yippee.” She shook off his hands and started walking away.

  “Great attitude. I saw some of that in class tonight. Curb it before next class.”

  “No problem. As long as you curb your tendency to overexplain a simple technique for the benefit of jiggly tits, who’d just love for you to show her every mount technique in your arsenal.”

  Knox stopped and latched on to her arm. “Jillian? She asked a valid question.”

  “No, she asked for a demonstration. And I’m pretty sure her nipples pouted when you didn’t demonstrate on her. You demonstrated on me again.”

  “Which is your job.”

  “No. My job would’ve been to show the class how stupid that move is in the first place and the best way to counter it.”

  His eyes cooled. “But you didn’t do that . . . in deference to me?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “There aren’t any students around now, She-Cat. So let’s take this to the mat.”

  “That offer is so freakin’ hard to refuse, but—”

  Knox crowded her against the elevator door. “That wasn’t an offer.”

  Shit. “You’re pulling rank on me?”

  “Damn straight. You and me. Upstairs. Now.” He lowered his head and whispered, “Put your money where your mouth is, Rokudan. Put me in my place.”

  Shiori balled her hands into fists against his sarcastic use of her sixth-degree black belt rank, Rokudan. What really rankled were the goose bumps flowing down the left side of her body from the rumble of his voice in her ear.

  Knox walked off without looking back.

  What the hell was wrong with her? She hadn’t uttered a peep, hadn’t tossed out an insult, hadn’t even created silent cutting remarks in her head when he’d made the challenge.

  Because Knox affects you in ways you’re scared to admit.

  When she entered the training room, Deacon looked at her, then at Knox, and said, “Jesus. This again?”

  Shiori ignored him.

  Knox waited for her on the mat. No hint of smile on his face; just the determined set of his jaw.

  “How do you want me?”

  That seemed to fluster him for a second before he barked, “Standing sweep.”

  Knox grabbed on to her and tried to drive her into the floor.

  She turned her upper body but kept her feet planted—tricky to execute without ending up with torn ligaments in her knee—and pushed on his center of gravity.

  It knocked him back a step, as she’d intended, but his balance recovery was quick. So instead of her dog piling him, he crushed her back to his chest in a bear hug and at the same time he swept her feet out from under her.

  They hit the mat hard.

  Shiori threw her leg on the outside of his and pushed off with her other foot, which allowed her to control the direction they rolled.

  Somehow she’d telegraphed her intent, because Knox countered and shoved her face-first into the mat—after he’d clipped her in the mouth with his elbow.

  So he had her pinned down in the most humiliating position—with him lying on top of her, both of her arms trapped.

  Then his warm lips were against her ear. “Come on, She-Cat. Put me in my place. Show me how stupid that move was.”

  “Get the fuck off of me.”

  “I’m game anytime you wanna teach me another lesson,” he murmured again, and then he was gone.

  Shiori rolled onto her back. Fuck. Was she losing her touch? She pushed up into a sitting position and wrapped her arms around her calves.

  That’s when she noticed the blood.

  And the crowd that’d gathered around them.

  Sophia “Fee” Curacao snatched a towel and doused it in water before she crouched beside Shiori. “You okay?”

  Shiori nodded and held the towel to her mouth, where the wound was starting to sting.

  Fee stood and glared at Knox. “I cannot believe you drew blood on her the first fucking day you’re running the dojo, Shihan.”

  “It’s all right, Fee,” Shiori said softly. “I should’ve been paying better attention.”

  The sight of blood had changed Knox’s taunting mood. “You’re damn right you should’ve been.”

  Not an apology—not that she deserved one. Annoyed by the guys staring at her and the fucked-up way Knox was studying her mouth, she pushed to her feet. “I’m fine. Let’s get this meeting over with.”

  Knox said, “Not you. Take off. You bleed, you leave.”

  Shiori rolled her eyes. “That is a shitty rhyme and a shitty rule, so I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Suit yourself.” Knox clapped his hands for attention. “Gather ’round.”

  Deacon, Ito, Zach, and Jon moved in on Knox’s left. Blue, Fee, Terrel, and Gil moved in on his right.

  Knox ran through the list of weekly events and changes twice as fast as Ronin would have done, and they were finished with the meeting in ten minutes. New record.

  “Anyth
ing to add, Shiori?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Then we’re done. See you all tomorrow.” Knox left immediately. Maybe he had a hot date.

  She punched in the number to the car service and requested a pickup. She didn’t bother going to the locker room to change since she’d have to soak her gi to get the bloodstains out.

  On the way out the front door she realized she had twisted her knee in that scuffle with Knox.

  But all in all, a limp and a little blood—not bad for the first day.

  * * *

  THE next morning Shiori was in the conference room on her laptop, answering questions from her account managers at Okada, the family business, when Knox shuffled in.

  He hadn’t shaved, and she hated that the dark bristle accentuating his angular jaw looked so good on him. He wore wrinkled gi pants and his gi top wasn’t closed, so she had a peek at his sculpted chest and muscular abs. She glanced up and caught Deacon staring at her from behind his laptop.

  She couldn’t help but snap, “You’re late, Godan.”

  “Long night. I had to drive to Golden after class—”

  “Not interested in where you go for your booty calls. Deacon and I—”

  “Don’t you drag me into this, darlin’,” Deacon drawled.

  Those two stuck together on everything. These next two and a half months might be the most combative of her life—and she’d worked in her grandfather’s office, where every day was a battleground.

  Knox glared at her as he turned over a coffee cup. “Not a booty call—not that it’s any of your damn business if it were—but I had a family thing to deal with.”

  Deacon said, “Everything all right?”

  “Now it is. But I’m fucking tired and need a gallon of coffee to wake up.”

  He started to pour a cup and Shiori said, “That’s not—”

  “Jesus, She-Cat. Give me two goddamn minutes before you start in on me.”

  Fine. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.

  Knox took a drink from his cup. A grimace twisted his mouth, and he turned and spewed the liquid into the sink. “What the motherfuck is that shit?”

  “Tea.”

  “Why? That’s a coffeepot, not a teapot.” His eyes narrowed. “You did that on purpose.”

  “I was the first one here, so I made tea. When you’re the first one here, you can make coffee.” She smiled and sipped her tea.

  Knox looked at Deacon for support.

  “Don’t you drag me into this either. She tried to tell you, but as usual, y’all prefer to snap and snarl at each other instead of listening.”

  “Are you drinking tea?” Knox demanded.

  Deacon grinned at Shiori. “It ain’t bad if you dump half a cup of sugar in it.”

  Knox snagged a Coke out of the fridge. “For the record, I’m buying one of those one-cup coffeemakers so this never happens again.”

  “Or you could be on time?” Shiori said sweetly.

  * * *

  “I didn’t have to sit through this many meetings in the army,” Knox complained the next afternoon when they were gathered in the conference room.

  “Sorry to inconvenience you when you were so busy upstairs playing footsie with Katie, but I don’t have the backstory on this situation,” Shiori retorted.

  “Jealous, She-Cat?” he purred. “’Cause I could talk Katie into letting you play footsie with us sometime.”

  “Stop bein’ an ass, Knox, or she’ll put you in charge of answering Ronin’s e-mail,” Deacon warned.

  Not so much with the “I got your back, bro” between these two today.

  “This e-mail came in last night.” She picked up the printout and read, “‘Greetings, Sensei Black. I’ve recently had a philosophical difference with the leaders of the Cherry Creek Martial Arts Studio and have opted to stop training with them. This leaves me in a bind because the only other dojo I’d consider training in would be ABC, which is now part of Black Arts. I was part of the group of students who stormed into your dojo several years ago when Steve Atwood threw down the fight challenge.’” She glanced up. “What the hell is that about?”

  “Steve Atwood is a cocky prick, and our students were beating his students in tournaments. So he showed up here one night with thirty of his highest-ranking students and challenged Ronin to a public fight.”

  “Of course Ronin accepted,” Shiori said.

  Knox nodded. “He might’ve beat him to death if I hadn’t stepped in. Anyway, Atwood lost some students”—he grinned—“to us when the parents realized what a fucking tool bag Atwood had become. But as far as I know, we haven’t taken on any new students from that martial-arts club since that time.”

  “That incident is why we have hard-core security before anyone can even enter the dojo,” Deacon pointed out. “In hindsight that ended up being a good thing.”

  “This guy is a third-degree black belt. And he doesn’t want to join our program but Blue’s.” Right after Shiori had come to the United States, Alvares “Blue” Curacao’s Brazilian jujitsu dojo, ABC, had become part of Black Arts. “So before we bring this up with Blue and ABC, Black Arts needs to have a united decision.”

  “Tell him we aren’t interested in further discussion,” Knox stated.

  “No. Set up a meeting. With me,” Deacon said. “That way he’ll see our updated security and that we don’t fuck around. I’m a good judge of sincerity.”

  Knox snorted. “You? Come on, D. You hate fucking everybody. You are the only instructor who actively tries to get students to drop from your classes.”

  “Better he sees that than the milk and fucking cookies you’ve been serving the students in your classes recently.”

  Anger emanated from Knox, distorting the casual atmosphere like a poisonous cloud. He remained deadly still. Several long moments ticked by before he said, “Your opinion is noted, Yondan. You are excused from this discussion.”

  Deacon pushed to his feet. He paused at the door and seemed to struggle with whether or not to speak. But he left without saying a word.

  And how fucking awesome was it that Knox had learned the “I’m your sensei; my word is law” attitude from Ronin?

  When Shiori felt Knox’s ire directed at her, as if she’d contradict him, it took her a breath or two to look at him.

  “Is that how you’d like me to respond to the e-mail? That we’re not interested in him training in our facility in any capacity?” she asked.

  “Forward the e-mail to me and I’ll respond, but yes, that is my intent.”

  “Of course.”

  Shiori slid her laptop closer and started opening screens. Her fingers fumbled on the keys beneath Knox’s penetrating stare. “Done.”

  “Do you disagree with my decision?” he asked coolly.

 
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