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       Bound, p.14

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  weekend and we’re kicking it off with happy hour.”

  “First drink is on me. I’ll grab my purse.”

  After she’d locked the front door, she dropped the metal screens in front of the windows.

  “They really don’t look too bad,” Chaz offered. He looped his arm through hers. “Let’s head to Tracks.”

  She stopped. “No.”

  “No?”

  After the advice she’d given Molly, she stood her ground. “While I love hanging out with you, I’m tired of you and Emmylou only taking me to gay bars.”

  Chaz raised that imperious eyebrow. “What’s gotten into you?”

  “Common sense maybe. In three years I haven’t once complained. I’m complaining now. I want to go someplace else. Someplace mainstream.”

  “Oh, so you’ve finally got a man in your bed and you selfishly want to be the only one? I’d like a man in my bed too, Amery.”

  “How can you throw that in my face?”

  “Because you should’ve said something before now if you hated hanging out with me so much,” he sniped.

  “I don’t hate it! For the last year you’ve harped on the fact that I don’t date.” She poked him in the chest. “Did it ever occur to you that the places you and Emmylou drag me to aren’t the right demographics for me?”

  That shut down whatever smart retort he’d been about to make.

  “Admit there are lots of awesome bars around here that we never go to and that’s just lazy on our part. I want to go someplace new. Be adventurous, Chaz.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Why can’t you go to these bars with your straight friends?”

  “I want to go with you. You’re my BFF,” she cooed.

  “Girl. You are a totally different animal after you’ve gotten laid. Fine. We’ll both widen our horizons. I know just the place. I’ve heard their tapas are to die for.” They headed up the street, arm in arm. “I guess I should seize the chance to spend time with you because that’ll change soon enough.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Now that you’re doing the nasty with—omigod, could Ronin Black have a more banging body?—your free time will be at a premium. And the way he looked at you today?” Chaz sighed. “He wanted to karate chop me in the face for even being in the same room with you when you were naked.”

  “Karate chop. Right. He’s a jujitsu master, not karate.”

  He waved his hand. “Whatever. The point is, he didn’t even notice me drooling over his arms, his chest, and his abs. Most straight guys freak out about gays eyeing the goodies. He didn’t want me to get an eyeful of you.”

  Amery rested her head on Chaz’s shoulder. “I love you. You make me feel better. Ronin is . . . enigmatic. I don’t know how long he’ll find me interesting.”

  “Sugar cube, you’ve got enough baggage to keep him interested for a long time.”

  “Oh, shut up. And for that, you’re buying the first round.”

  • • •

  PROBABLY a good thing she had a decent buzz when she got home and her cell rang. She needed a buffer for this call. “Hello, Mom.”

  “Amery. How are you?”

  “I’m fine. How are you?”

  “Oh, you know. Busy, busy. We start summer session of vacation Bible school next week. Lots of prepreparation. I swear these women who volunteer are just there as a way for God to test my patience.”

  She made a noncommittal noise.

  “Have you heard from Aiden?”

  “No. I think he’s lacking basic services in Afghanistan, not just phone service.”

  “You don’t need to get snippy with me. I was just curious. He doesn’t keep in contact any better than you do.”

  Don’t take the bait.

  “It’s hard to answer members of the congregation about how Aiden is doing when we, his parents, don’t even know. To top it off, he doesn’t acknowledge the care packages the congregation sends him, which also makes your father and me look like we raised him to act ungrateful.”

  Yes, it was always about appearances with her parents. Not the scary fact that Aiden was in hostile territory getting his ass shot off every damn day. And knowing her mother, she’d played that “my only son is fighting for our country” card just to get sympathy from members of her father’s flock anyway. Amery shipped Aiden a package once a month and he always thanked her. She suspected he didn’t want the guilt and “Jesus Saves” pamphlets in with baby wipes and lip balm from the church members, and no response would be the fastest way to put an end to it. Not so, apparently.

  “Enough about your brother. I’m surprised you’re home on a Friday night.”

  Amery wanted to beat her head into the wall. Either she was a whore out at the bars sinning, or being at home on a Friday night made her pitiable. She grabbed a bottle from the fridge and twisted off the cap. “I went out earlier.”

  “With a man?”

  “With Chaz.” Amery gulped down a mouthful of beer.

  Her mother snorted a sound of disgust. “Spending so much time with a man like him will keep decent men away from you.”

  “What’s a decent man?” slipped out before she could stop it.

  “Honestly, Amery, you don’t have to be so snotty. Decent men see Chaz’s lifestyle for the perversion it is.”

  “I don’t see why you care. Chaz’s lifestyle isn’t affecting you at all.”

  “It is if being friends with him is preventing you from finding a decent man, getting married, and having children. Most of your friends are already married. Quite a few have babies. As a matter of fact, I saw Jillian in church last Sunday. Her little girl, Parlay, is adorable.”

  Parlay? Who the fuck picked such a dumb name for a kid? “I’m sure she is cute. Jillian and Tommy got divorced, right?”

  “Yes, such a sad thing. He likes to drink.”

  “I heard that Candy and Billy-John called it quits too. Didn’t he smack her around and she finally had enough?”

  Her mother got quiet on the other end of the line.

  “Seems your definition of decent men and mine vary, because neither Tommy nor Billy-John is a decent man in my mind. So I’ll stick to hanging out with Chaz.”

  Her mother chuffed out the noise that reminded Amery of an annoyed bull. “I see you’re impossible to talk to as usual. Lord, help me; I don’t know why I bothered.”

  She hated the quick sting those words still gave her. “Then why did you call?”

  “Two reasons. First, I wondered if your business was in some sort of financial trouble. I received a phone call this week from a very rude woman who demanded details on your business practices and your personal life. “

  What the hell?

  “No need to curse, Amery.”

  Shit. She’d said that out loud?

  “Anyway, I set her straight and hung up on her after she refused to tell me why she needed the information.”

  “I appreciate that. And I’m not having business problems, but even if I was I don’t understand why you’d get a phone call.”

  “Which is why I mentioned it. Your father doesn’t need it to get out that his daughter is under some kind of investigation.”

  And there it was . . . the concern wasn’t about her but about the pastor’s sterling reputation.

  “The other reason I called was to remind you of your father’s anniversary party. Thirty-five years serving the Lord is a very big occasion in his life, and we expect you to be here to help celebrate it.”

  Since she worked for herself she couldn’t claim her boss wouldn’t give her the time off. “If I come I’ll probably stay at the Super 8.”

  “Aren’t you staying with us?” her mother asked sharply.

  Hell no. “I assumed you’d save beds for out-of-town guests so they didn’t have to book a hotel room.”

  “Oh. That’s probably a good idea.”

  “I’ll let you know after I’ve made my reservation what day I’m flying in.”

  “Flying i
n? That seems a little frivolous when you’ve got a nice car.”

  Ten hours in the car one way? Uh. No.

  “It would be nice if you’d get here a few days early to help with the cooking and cleaning.”

  Maybe you should guilt Dad’s parishioners into doing it. She really needed to get off the phone before the snarky comebacks in her head started popping out of her mouth. “I’ll let you know about my, uh, schedule.”

  Her mother’s disapproval hummed across the line. “I’ll be in touch. God bless.” She hung up.

  “And bless your heart too.” She refused to let her mother ruin her good day and happy buzz. She popped a huge bowl of popcorn and settled in for a marathon night of bad TV until Ronin called.

  CHAPTER NINE

  BUT Amery didn’t hear from Ronin that night.

  Or the next day.

  Or the next night.

  And she’d be damned if she’d call him first. It wasn’t a childish thing, but rather an adult thing. Accepting that she could have casual sex and not feel guilty. Granted it’d been amazing sex, best sex of her life. Now that she knew firsthand she wasn’t an iceberg in the sack, maybe she could jump back into the dating pool.

  Over the past three years she’d been focused on building her business, and not wanting the distraction of a relationship was a valid reason for remaining single. But she could admit part of her reluctance had been fear. Tyler’s parting shot scared her. “You’re fucked up, Amery. You’ll never be normal because you’re afraid your daddy will find out you like sex. The only time you get on your knees is to pray, and what man wants to live like that?”

  Well, fuck that and fuck him. She didn’t want to be normal. She wanted to be outstanding. She had friends. She had a good life. She had lots of things to be thankful for. And she’d damn well celebrate it and not wait for a man to swoop in and make her life complete.

  So early Sunday morning she showed up for the yoga in the park class she’d always wanted to attend. Afterward she walked around, savoring the gorgeous summer day. Happy families, happy singles, happy dogs. On the way home she decided she’d throw a dinner party. After she invited her friends and tallied up the number of guests plus more for last minute add-ons, she stopped at her favorite market to load up on food. Fresh pasta, ingredients for a basil cream sauce, loaves of French bread, the makings for a salad, and double chocolate brownies.

  Amery quickly cleaned her house and cranked the tunes while she prepared the food. As she was trying to figure out where everyone would eat without ending up in the office space downstairs, she had a crazy idea. She had roof access through a narrow staircase.

  She checked it out. It’d be cooler up here once the sun dropped. And there was a decent view of the city blocks to the north. The space wasn’t in the same league as Ronin’s, but it’d do for tonight.

  Emmylou and her latest squeeze—a big-breasted blonde with a Marilyn Monroe vibe—showed up early and helped her. They dragged two conference tables up to the roof, covering them with sheets of brown paper and scattering mismatched candles in funky containers. Wrapping clear Christmas lights around the ductwork added a little chic to their shabby. Galvanized garbage cans packed with ice served as coolers for the BYOB party. Then they hung a sign on the alley door directing partygoers upstairs to the roof. She made sure to arm the system and lock access to the office space. Still, it felt weird leaving the back door unlocked, especially after the recent break-in.

  After checking her watch, she scaled the stairs and cut to her bedroom to get ready.

  By the time she’d piled her hair into a messy bun, fixed her makeup, and changed into her party sundress with the floral poppy print, her guests were arriving.

  Chaz brought his latest friend with bennies, a sweet musician named Andre. He’d also invited his neighbors, two straight guys named Jake and Lucas. Rich and Larry, a couple she’d met through Chaz, arrived with booze. Emmylou’s friends Roz and Josie, also Amery’s clients, showed up next. Suze and Mark, the married couple that lived in the loft next door, came and brought Suze’s parents, who were visiting from Seattle.

  A lot of people. Good thing she’d made a ton of food.

  Molly, always so punctual, showed up last with her date, Sandan Zach from the dojo. Amery hid her shock, and resisted asking if Zach had seen Ronin. She discreetly gave Molly two thumbs-up. Ronin must not have an issue with teachers and students dating—since he was the one who’d initiated things with them.

  Things. Just say it. Sex. You had rocking sex with the man, no regrets, no promises.

  As she was slicing bread in the kitchen, Chaz’s arms came around her and he squeezed. “Great idea. Perfect night, great company, the food smells amazing, and you’ve created your own rooftop nightclub, which is so fantastic I may sleep up there tonight.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Where’d you get the idea to host this shindig on the roof?”

  She couldn’t tell him about being inspired by Ronin’s secret rooftop garden, so she hedged, “It’s been a long time since I had a par-tay, and I wanted to do something different. Isn’t it fun to see who our friends bring?”

  “Or who doesn’t show up.” He swiped a slice of bread and dipped it in the garlic butter before she could swat him. “So, where’s your hunkalicious Master Black tonight?”

  “No clue. And he’s not my Master Black. We banged the headboard a couple of times and that’s it.”

  Chaz forced her to look at him. “What’s really going on, North Dakota?”

  He called her that when he wanted her attention. “Nothing.” She smiled. “It’s all good. I promise. Now, do you think we should haul the food to the roof? Or serve it down here?”

  “Down here. Definitely.”

  “Would you be so kind as to ring the dinner bell?”

  After everyone had gone through the chow line, Amery fixed herself a plate and headed to the roof.

  Applause greeted her. Then Emmylou raised her wine cooler. “A toast to the excellent hostess, Amery Hardwick, for arranging such an awesome dinner party. For feeding us and for welcoming old friends and new.”

  Amery blushed when everyone toasted her. “I’m just glad you all came and brought friends, or I’d be eating pasta for the next three weeks.”

  Laughter.

  She seated herself across from Larry and Rich.

  Larry patted her arm. “We missed you this week. Chaz said you dragged him to a different bar for happy hour Friday night.”

  “Dragged? Please. Chaz put up a token protest. He’s been forcing me to go to Tracks for years. And as much as I love hanging out with you guys . . .”

  “Trust me, sweets, I understand. Finding a straight guy who regularly hangs out in gay bars usually means he’s not entirely straight. I don’t blame you for casting a wider net.”

  “Did you meet anyone at the bar Friday night? Or did Chaz scare them all away?”

  Amery laughed. “He scared them away. You should’ve seen the pants he was wearing.” She kept an eye on her guests while Larry and Rich bickered good-naturedly over a TV show, their cockapoo, Fritzie, and Larry’s pesky mother. She shoved her plate aside.

  Chaz’s neighbors, Jake and Lucas, sat on either side of her with their dessert. She gestured to Larry and Rich. “Have you guys met?”

  “Yes. Chaz is acting as your cohost tonight if you hadn’t noticed,” Rich said.

  “I’m fine with that. I’m flying solo anyway.”

  “Beautiful woman like you?” Jake said. “How’s that possible?”

  She turned her head to study him. Tall. Good looking. Dark hair and dark eyes. Sweet smile. But he did nothing for her. Not the way Ronin did.

 
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