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       Bound, p.17

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  “No. I followed the rules, even when I didn’t agree with them, because it was easier than fighting with my parents. By age sixteen I counted down the days until I could be free of that life and that small town. I kept my grades up because I knew college would save me. And it did. My parents weren’t happy with my choice because I’d opted for a state school instead of a private Christian college. Even now I still struggle with acting bold, acting how I want to, when the girl inside me who abided by the rules for so many years tells me my actions and thoughts are morally wrong.” She wanted to hide her face after that confession. Would Ronin believe, as Tyler did, that she’d never be able to tackle those demons from her past?

  “Seems family expectations can bog us down no matter how old we get.”

  Tears sparked her eyes; he did understand.

  “How’s your relationship with them now?”

  She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Strained. I almost never go home. They repeatedly subject me to the I’ve forgotten all my family and Christian values lecture. You’d think they’d clue in that their shaming attitude about how I’ve chosen to live my life isn’t making me want to come home. But the kicker is, they’ve never visited me in Denver. Not once in six years. I rarely hear from my father directly—which isn’t all bad. My mother calls me maybe once a month, mostly to see if I’ve had a ‘come back to Jesus’ moment or if I’ve met a decent man. I always need a stiff drink after that conversation. Or during it.”

  Ronin kissed her temple. “That’s got to be hard.”

  “It is. But I don’t miss anything about that life or who I was expected to be.”

  “You don’t seem to be carrying much baggage from the way you were raised.”

  She laughed. “Wrong. I just hide it well. Or try to. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m still really modest.” She looked at him over her shoulder. “Which is probably hard to believe since I’m lying here naked with you.”

  “And we’ve sinned twice too.”

  “My parents are probably holding a prayer vigil for me even as we speak.”

  He laughed.

  “Sorry about the weird pillow talk.”

  “Don’t apologize. I want to know everything about you. Even the stuff that makes you uncomfortable to talk about.”

  But that wasn’t a two-way street. He talked, but didn’t reveal much personally, only in the context of how it affected her. In response, she reverted to that “don’t ask questions” girl, because she feared if she pushed him to open up, he’d just walk away.

  Do you really want to be involved with a man who keeps so much of himself to himself?

  Yes. She’d take Ronin Black any way she could get him.

  “This is totally off topic, but are you busy next Saturday night?”

  “Not that I know of. Why?”

  “There’s this Colorado Sports Banquet I’m supposed to go to.” He smoothed his hand over her hair. “I intended to skip it, but it might be tolerable if you went with me.”

  Amery drew circles on his chest but didn’t look up. “As your date?”

  “Are you surprised I want people to know we’re seeing each other?”

  “Well, I wasn’t sure . . . what this thing is. If we’re just having fun or whatever.”

  Ronin lifted her chin. “Should I be insulted you think I’m some fuck-around playboy?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You didn’t have to. I’m not involved with any woman, Amery, besides you. I haven’t been involved for quite some time.”

  “Why not? You’re . . . perfect. Gorgeous, with a killer body, and you’re amazing in bed.”

  He stared at her for so long she feared she’d said the wrong thing. “Because I don’t do this sort of thing.”

  Was this his way of warning her this wouldn’t last? “What sort of thing?”

  “Dating. And before you get all indignant, I said that because I want to continue this with you. It doesn’t feel casual to me.” His eyes searched hers. “Does it to you?”

  “No. But if we’re going to be involved . . . or whatever . . . I need to know how long you’ve been enjoying casual sex. A guy doesn’t get to be an expert at anything without practice. Knowing what a sexual man you are, I doubt you’ve gone long without a woman in your bed.”

  He rolled over to stare at the ceiling. “I’ve been selective as far as partners go. No woman lasted beyond two nights at the most. I’ve always worn condoms. I got a clean bill of health six months ago, but if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll get tested again.”

  That was more information than she’d expected. “I’m on the pill, but I’ll get tested so we can ditch the condoms. But if we’re together, I want to make sure we’re exclusive.” For however long it lasts.

  “You have my word.” Ronin rolled on top of her. “I’ll set up the appointments for Monday afternoon. We should have the results the next day.”

  “That fast?”

  “A guy owes me a favor.”

  Wasn’t the first time he’d said that, and she wondered what Sensei Black had done to garner such a vast array of favors. “How far is this testing place from downtown Denver?”

  “Across the river, over by me.”

  “Okay. But . . . I’ve never done anything like this before.”

  “I know, baby. It’s necessary, but a bit of a buzzkill. Would it help if we went together?”

  “Yes.”

  He kissed her. “So, is that a yes on the banquet date?”

  “Of course it’s yes. What’s the dress code for this banquet?”

  “Formal. I’m required to wear a suit and tie.”

  “I can’t wait to see you in a suit.” Her hands trailed down his muscular back. “Then again, it’d be hard to beat how you look in your birthday suit.”

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  “YOU’RE shitting me, right?”

  Amery looked at Emmylou over the rim of her coffee cup and frowned. “What did I say?”

  Emmylou stalked over. “We’re having normal Monday morning conversation and you just happen to let it slip that Ronin Black asked you to be his date for the Colorado Sports Banquet?”

  “Yeah. Why? Is that a big deal?”

  “Yes! It’s only the most exclusive event of the year. All the biggest, hottest names in the Colorado sports world, including current and former Broncos players, Rockies players, Nuggets players, Avalanche players, and Olympic trainers, are involved. Million-dollar deals are made at this event. They choose an athlete of the year and give an award for most philanthropic work. Not only is it huge that Ronin is invited, but it’s huge that he asked you to be his date.”

  “I guess he’s been invited in years past but he’s never gone.”

  Emmylou jokingly beat her head on the wooden support post.

  That’s when Chaz breezed in. “Bonjour, mesdemoiselles.”

  “Chaz, you’re absolutely gonna flip when I tell you this news.”

  “The cast from Magic Mike is making a sequel and this time it’s all gay porn?”

  She rolled her eyes. “No, pervert. Amery is going to the Colorado Sports Banquet this Saturday as Ronin Black’s date.”

  “Shut. Up.”

  “I’m dead-ass serious.” Emmylou leaned forward and mock-whispered, “She had no idea it’s a big deal.”

  Chaz put his hand on his stomach. “I might actually have to sit down.”

  Amery narrowed her eyes at her overly dramatic friend. “How do you know about this event? You are the least sporty guy I know.”

  “I know about it because everyone who’s anyone in Denver goes to this event. It’s not only about sports; the event is elbow to elbow with philanthropists. This event is so exclusive the catering staff and servers are subjected to serious military-style background checks.”

  “Why have I never heard of it?”

  “Because you live under a rock?” Chaz suggested sweetly.

  Emmylou swatted him. “Be nice, because you know what Amery atte
nding this event means . . .”

  “What does it mean?” Amery demanded.

  “Shopping trip,” they said simultaneously.

  Then Chaz said, “Girl, I’m on this. This is what I live for.”

  “This isn’t a costume party,” Emmylou drawled. “Amery needs to look classy.”

  Chaz gave Emmylou’s outfit—a floral chiffon baby doll dress, worn over ripped pink leggings, and her Doc Martens with flames on the toes—a sneering once-over. “I guess that leaves you out of the shopping excursion.”

  “I swear if you two don’t knock it off, I will buy a dress at Kmart and call it good.”

  They both gasped. “No, no, no. We’ll work together, we promise, won’t we, Emmylou, my love?”

  “Absolutely, Chaz, my turtledove,” she cooed back.

  Amery made gagging noises.

  “Wait, it’s Monday, right?” Chaz said. “You know what’s open today?”

  “Natasha’s.”

  “At the risk of being outed as ignorant again, what is Natasha’s?” Amery asked.

  “A vintage and designer clothing boutique. She owns stores in ten states and only takes the highest-quality pieces in exchange for store credit—no cash. But the kicker is, if you drop off your item here in Denver, it won’t be resold in Denver. It’ll be shipped to one of the other nine stores. And it’s only open two days a week.”

  “She moves that much merchandise?”

  “That, I’m not sure of. I do know it adds another layer of exclusivity.”

  “So it’s a Goodwill for rich people. Except with fewer store hours.”

  “Exactly.”

  Chaz didn’t recognize her sarcasm.

  “Go on.” He shooed her toward the stairs. “Since this is a fashion emergency, we’ll close up shop.”

  Emmylou said, “I’ll grab my purse and my keys.”

  • • •

  TWO hours later, Amery stared at the rack of dresses, more than a little discouraged. She must’ve tried on two dozen outfits, from funky to chic. A couple looked good, but none looked great, or gave her that wow factor she wanted.

  Emmylou and Chaz had ganged up on her with the help of Niles, the nattily dressed salesman. They brought her long dresses, short dresses, even a couple of Halston pantsuits from the 70s that were retro enough to be hip.

  Since they were convinced they knew what style suited her better than she did, Amery hadn’t checked the merchandise. But while Niles and Chaz were advising Emmylou on professional outfits, Amery snuck out of the dressing room.

  She’d been a bargain shopper all her life and immediately headed for the sales rack. Rather than sticking to her size, she checked the selection a size smaller and a size larger. Sometimes clothes were mismarked, and other times tiny adjustments fixed fitting issues.

  Her friends were overly hung up on designer labels and tended to overlook design, while Amery gravitated toward simple styles. The pieces they’d brought to her were anything but simple. One dress had feathers around the hemline. Feathers, for god’s sake. Feathers reminded her of being forced to gather eggs on her grandparents’ farm—she’d had enough flying feathers to last her a lifetime, thank you very much.

  She flipped through hangers slowly, weighing the pros and cons of each piece, while keeping an eye on the price. She spied a dress half dangling off the hanger. It was a black silk sheath, simple looking at first glance, but then she noticed the fabric overlay was threaded with silver. When she tilted the dress, it gave the illusion of movement like lightning. The beaded hem made a cool clicking sound as the clear round beads connected with the silver tube beads around the bottom edge. Although it was shorter than she normally wore, she figured the extra weight of the beads would keep the dress from riding up.

  The woman next to her eyed the dress and Amery draped it over her arm and returned to the dressing room.

  Even before she’d zipped it up she knew it was “the” dress. She didn’t care if Emmylou or Chaz didn’t like it; she felt glamorous. As if she might not embarrass herself on Ronin’s arm, because, guaranteed, the striking-looking man would turn heads in whatever he wore.

  “Amery, darling, I’ve found . . .” Chaz’s eyes raked over her.

  “Hey, could you zip me up?”

  “Where did you get this?”

  “Pawing through the sales rack.” When he continued to stare at her, she turned defensive. “I didn’t like anything I tried on and I don’t care if you don’t like this; I love it.”

  “I love it too. It’s perfect. You are a goddess in that, Amery. A goddess.” Then he yelled for Emmylou.

  She poked her head in, took one look at Amery, and said, “Holy shit.”

  “I know, right? Our little North Dakota farm girl is all fancied up for her trip to town for the annual pie-and-ice-cream social.”

  “Fuck off,” Amery said to Chaz. “I can dress myself.”

  “Oh, really? What shoes would you wear with that?” he demanded.

  “Heels.”

  He rolled his eyes. “You gotta be more specific than that.”

  “I don’t suppose you could find me a pair of silver Louboutin spike heels or black Manolo sling-backs in my size?” Amery spun and checked out her rearview. “Maybe I need something funkier. Check to see if there’s a pair of Jimmy Choo booties. Or better yet, chunky Alexander McQueen platforms or wedges would be perfect for this dress.”

  Chaz got right in her face. “How is it that a woman who professes to care nothing about fashion can rattle off the top footwear designers?”

  “I never claimed I didn’t care, as my subscriptions to a dozen fashion and beauty magazines can attest. Just because I can’t afford haute couture doesn’t mean I’m unaware of it.”

  “I feel like I don’t even know you. You never want to discuss fashion trends with me,” he said with an exaggerated pout.

  “Because then that’d be all we’d ever talk about,” she pointed out. “Besides, I’m more interested in the layout and design of the ads in those magazines because it’s my job to stay on top of advertising trends. I can’t help it if specific fashion brands make a better impression than others.”

  “But—”

  “Chaz, leave her alone,” Emmylou warned. Then she smiled at Niles brightly. “So, sugar, you fixin’ to show us some fancier shoes for our girl?”

  Amery tuned them out as they debated shoe choices. The truth was, it wouldn’t matter if she picked a pair from Payless. No one would be checking out her feet in this hot little number. Wow. She was smokin’. She couldn’t wait to see Ronin’s reaction.

  • • •

  TUESDAY night she showed up at the dojo at nine when Ronin was almost finished teaching class. As much as she would’ve loved to see him in action, his “no observation” rule applied to girlfriends as well. She waited in the reception area for either Ronin or Knox to escort her to the elevator.

  Knox showed up ten minutes later. “Amery. Sorry to keep you waiting. Sensei has been detained, so I’m escorting you upstairs.”

  “But . . . Alone?” She wouldn’t feel comfortable just roaming around his place without him there.

  “He insisted. You don’t want to get me in trouble by refusing a direct order, do you?”

  “I suppose blindly following orders is why you’re Master Black’s second-in-command ninja badass, huh, Shihan?”

 
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