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       Bound, p.15

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  Stop thinking about him.

  “So, Jake, I admit I’ve got a total mental blank about what you do for a living.”

  “We bankers are either villains or ghosts.”

  “Now I remember. Investment banking.”

  “Specializing in small businesses,” he added.

  She smiled at Lucas. Equally attractive. Sandy brown hair, green eyes, freckles, and dimples, but she felt no zing of attraction. “And how about you?”

  “Professional mud wrestler. This is the cleanest I’ve been in weeks.” He paused and grinned. “Just kidding. I run an at-risk management system for kids with a history of truancy.”

  “That’s noble. Does the program keep them in school?”

  “Our attendance numbers have gone up significantly, which is encouraging, and they increased our budget this year. Not to bring up business at a social event, but we’re looking at upgrading our existing pamphlets with a hipper design to appeal to our demographic. The kids complain what we’ve got is lame and straight out of the 80s. Since you own a graphic design business, would you be interested in pitching an idea?”

  Amery never turned down the possibility for new work. “I’d love to. Can you get me copies of the existing brochures and all your promotional materials?”

  Lucas said, “Hey, Chaz, buddy, can you come here and bring your murse?”

  Jake snorted. “Watch him get bent out of shape about his man purse.”

  “It’s not a murse, you moron. And you don’t get to make fun of my messenger bag since you asked me to put something in it,” Chaz sniped. He lightly whapped Lucas on the back of the head with it before dropping it on the table.

  “Sorry.” Lucas turned and grinned at Amery. “Just because it doesn’t have flowers and rhinestones on it doesn’t mean it’s not a purse.”

  Amery bit her cheek to keep from laughing.

  “Anyone need anything from the kitchen?” Chaz asked. When no one answered he disappeared into the roof-access doorway.

  Lucas slid the envelope in front of her. “It’s all right here, including my contact info. Take a look and let me know either way if it’s something you’d be interested in. We could discuss specifics over lunch.”

  “Thank you. I will.” They discussed national ad campaigns, arguing good-naturedly about the impact of social media versus traditional media outlets.

  Jake made the time-out sign. “The truth is no one knows what works.” He beamed at Amery. “I’d be happy to discuss what does work in the business world—having your banker as a partner. I’d love the chance to pitch to you on why you should switch your business banking to Western National.”

  What was up with these two tonight? They’d hung out a few times the last year and they’d never come on this strong.

  Maybe after being with Ronin Black you have sexual confidence you’ve been lacking and men take notice.

  “Look who I found wandering around downstairs,” Chaz said.

  Amery turned around and Ronin stepped into view.

  Speak of the devil.

  “Chaz invited me up,” he said to Amery.

  Of course he didn’t ask permission to join the party or explain what he’d been doing wandering around in her alley in the first place. Or why she hadn’t heard from him at all in the last two freakin’ days.

  Immediately Sandan Zach stood, offering Ronin a slight bow. “I wasn’t expecting you to be here tonight, sir.”

  “You’re not the only one.” He shot Amery a slightly sheepish smile. “I’m glad to see everyone is enjoying Amery’s hospitality.” Ronin moved to stand behind her. Keeping a proprietary hand on her shoulder, he offered his hand to Jake. “I’m Ronin Black. And you are?”

  Jake seemed flustered as he introduced himself. As did Lucas. Amery saw Rich and Larry exchange a smirk as Ronin shook hands with Lucas.

  Pissed off that he’d crashed her party, she stood. “Excuse me.” She sidestepped Ronin and headed to the other table.

  Emmylou had her arms draped over her date’s shoulders as they chatted with Josie and Roz. Suze from next door leaped up, intercepting her. “Amery, thanks so much for the party. My parents are having a great time.”

  “I’m glad. Hey, I just wanted to say I’m sorry for not stopping over and reassuring you guys after the break-in that even the cops think it was a random incident. But then again . . . I haven’t seen much of you and Mark lately. Are you both traveling a lot for work?”

  “Mark is. I’ve backed way off on my travel schedule.” She smiled serenely and touched her stomach. “You’ll see a lot more of me after the baby comes.”

  “You’re pregnant?”

  Suze laughed. “Five months already.”

  “How exciting! I am so happy for you guys. I know you’ve wanted this for a while.”

  “Thanks.” Her gaze drifted to someone who’d stepped behind Amery. One guess who it was.

  Ronin slipped his hand across Amery’s lower back. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it sounds like congratulations are in order.”

  “Thank you.” Just as Suze was about to ask his name, her husband, Mark, approached. As did Suze’s parents. Ronin introduced himself and made small talk.

  Would wonders never cease? Ronin Black was indulging in cocktail party chitchat—with complete charm and none of that haughty sensei demeanor.

  Amery murmured about checking on something and dislodged Ronin’s hand from her hip. She headed for the drink station and checked the ice supply.

  Footsteps sounded behind her. “Amery? Are you okay?”

  “I’m fine.” She adjusted the beer bottles in the ice. She kept her voice low as Molly moved in beside her. “So, you and Zach, huh?”

  Molly blushed. “You told me to stop waiting for life to happen to me and go out and grab it. So I did. My knees were knocking when I asked Zach out, but I did it anyway.”

  “That’s great! I’m so proud of you.”

  “Thanks. I’m proud of myself for bucking up and taking that first step.” She grabbed a bottle of hard cider. “So, what’s going on between you and Master Black?”

  “Nothing,” she answered honestly.

  “I was really surprised to see him show up here.”

  “Me too.”

  “You didn’t invite him?” Molly asked skeptically.

  “No. Evidently he’s above following societal norms like—”

  “Making a phone call and keeping in touch about future plans?” Ronin intoned directly behind her.

  Amery jumped at the sound of his voice and spun to face him. “Would you stop doing that?”

  “No. You need to be more in tune to what goes on around you.”

  “You need to be more in tune when someone is pissed off at you,” she snapped.

  Ronin’s eyes never wavered from Amery’s when he said, “Will you please excuse us?” to Molly. He didn’t wait for Molly’s response; he steered Amery to the edge of the roof behind the duct.

  Might be petulant to twist out of his hold, but she tried it anyway. No surprise she couldn’t make the man budge. “What are you doing?”

  “Getting you alone so I have a chance to explain—”

  “Why I haven’t heard from you since you rolled out of my bed Friday morning? Or explain why you feel entitled to crash a party I’m hosting?”

  “Both.”

  Silence.

  “So? If you wanted to explain you’d better start talking.”

  “I should’ve called you. But I promise you were on my mind all damn weekend.”

  Amery got right in his face. “Not a good enough apology, Master Black. Try again.”

  “Such a hardass,” he murmured. “I like this side of you.”

  Her belly fluttered, she felt herself softening toward him, but somehow she rallied to keep her backbone up. “I liked the side of you that promised me no games between us. You told me you’d call; I expected to hear from you. And don’t give me some lame excuse like your cell phone died or you were out of serv
ice range.”

  Ronin’s eyes changed then, from cool and detached to contrite. “The truth is I owed someone a favor and he collected on it this weekend. I wasn’t expecting it and it sapped every bit of energy out of me. You deserved better than to deal with that, especially since you’re so used to my extremely engaging and chatty side.” He brushed his mouth across her knuckles.

  Even though his answer was more cryptic than she liked, she believed him, especially since he’d just proven that he could poke fun at himself.

  “I am sorry.” Curling his hand around the nape of her neck, he pulled her closer.

  “Ronin—”

  “Ssh. Just let me apologize like this too.” He kissed her with the mix of tenderness and passion that fogged up her brain.

  She intended to keep her hands by her sides, but they crept up his chest of their own accord. Within fifteen seconds of his mouth mastering hers, Amery forgot her anger with him. She forgot everything but the way kissing Ronin consumed her.

  Somehow her sanity clawed to the surface, urging her to break the kiss. “Stop mauling me at my own dinner party. A dinner party you weren’t invited to.”

  “I’ll behave if you let me stay.”

  Amery realized he still held her hands, except he wasn’t looking at her, but across the roof. That caused her to bristle up again. “I know it’s not as nice as yours—”

  He shut her up with a kiss. Then he pressed his forehead to hers. “Right now this place far exceeds the beauty of mine because it’s filled with people who care about you. My place may be twice as big, but that only makes it feel emptier when it’s just me up there. Which it almost always is.”

  His vulnerability in that moment spoke to her on the most basic human level. Ronin was lonely. Maybe not always, but often enough that he understood that visceral fear that it might never change.

  “Fine. You can stay. Come on. I need to see if anyone needs anything.”

  “I need something first.”

  Amery’s gaze snagged his. “What?”

  “Your promise that I can stay with you tonight.”

  “Sure. Be warned; you’ll have plenty of dishes to wash.”

  Ronin flashed her a quick, boyish grin. “Had plenty of experience with that at the monastery.”

  For the rest of the party, he remained at her side, being charming in his understated way. As she watched him, she noticed he kept his guard up among people, not only when he was at the dojo.

  But he lowers it around you.

  Now she realized what a big deal that was for him.

  As the party wound down, Amery promised Lucas she’d get back to him quickly on her project proposal. Jake didn’t suggest they set up a lunch date when Ronin kept a hand on her at all times.

  Since Emmylou and Marilyn, aka Sasha, were the last to leave, they offered to stay and help clean up, but Amery shooed them out.

  Leaving her and Ronin alone.

  First thing he did was back her against the wall. The kiss started out slow. A lazy twining of tongues. But it picked up steam and soon they were kissing like maniacs. He stopped kissing her long enough to say, “Need you naked.”

  “Which is an awesome idea, but we have to clean up and put this food away first.”

  “Can’t it wait an hour?”

  “No. Because once I hit the sheets with you, I won’t want to crawl back out. And the thought of facing this mess on a Monday morning is crazy-making enough that I won’t enjoy getting naked with you if it’s not done.”

  “Fine.” Ronin backed up. “What do you want me to do?”

  “Be my pack mule. Take the tables and chairs from the roof back down into the office.”

  He made a braying sound before he disappeared up the stairs.

  CHAPTER TEN

  AFTER she’d finished setting the kitchen to rights, Amery drained the remnants of her wine cooler and tossed the bottle in the recycling bin. When she turned around, Ronin was so close she bumped into him. “Hey there, ninja.”

  “You really had no idea I was behind you?”

  “No. You are just too damn good at that stealth thing.”

  “Years of practice.” Ronin tucked a tendril of her hair behind her ear, then ran his finger down the arch of her neck. “This is so pretty and tempting, but I’ll admit I like your hair worn down.”

  “Why?”

  “Because a true strawberry blond is such a unique color. It complements your beautiful face so well and gives it an extra glow.”

  “You say the sweetest things sometimes, Ronin.”

  “The other reason I like your hair down is that I’ve fantasized about having these silken tresses wrapped around my fist as I’m fucking you.”

  A curl of need unfurled in her belly.

  “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

  “I like everything you do to me.” Amery pressed her palms against his pectorals and rubbed the heels of her hands against his nipples. “But that brings up a point I wanted to talk to you about.”

  He said nothing. Some of the warmth bled from his eyes.

  “Thursday night was amazing.” She raised her chin a notch. “You’ve been stingy on giving me equal time in touching you. So if you’re staying with me tonight? I demand full access to your body. I expect you’ll let me touch and kiss and play with it as much as I want.”

  Ronin placed his hand on the side of her face, letting his thumb trace the lower curve of her lip. “Demanding something that intimate from me when you’ve got a pretty red blush heating your cheeks is enough to make a man lose his head entirely.”

  “But not you.”

  “Don’t get me wrong. I want your hands on me.” His gaze dropped to her lips. “I’ve imagined my cock buried in your mouth many times. Dreamed of your hair teasing my skin as you’re jacking me off. So, beautiful, you can drag me to your bed right now and do what you will with me.”

  “Really?”

  “With one exception.”

  His thumb made those gentle sweeps on the inside of her lip, and her blood heated as she remembered him stroking her pussy the exact same way.

  “I direct how you use this mouth when you blow me.”

  Amery didn’t bristle. In fact, his demand for control took the pressure off her. She wouldn’t have to worry if she was doing a good job, because truth was, her experience in that area was pretty slim. “Okay.”

  “You humble me.” Ronin kissed her. “Is everything locked downstairs? Because once we’re in your bed we’re not leaving until morning.”

  “All locked, including the door between my office and my loft to keep Chaz out.”

  “Good.” He let his mouth drift over her ear and whispered, “Take me to your bed, Amery.”

  She threaded their fingers together and led him to her bedroom. No nerves, she sternly told herself. No holding back either. She’d touch and taste to her heart’s content.

  Normally she’d only leave on one lamp for softer light, but tonight she flipped on the overhead track lighting. She wanted to see every inch of him.

  Before she could command him to start stripping, he said, “You look gorgeous in this dress. I believe it’s my privilege to take it off.” He tugged at the sash tied in the back; then he unzipped her.
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