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       Bound, p.2

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  “What are those? They look like pajama bottoms.”

  “It’s called a gi and beggars cannot be choosers, can they, Mrs. . . . ?”

  “Ms. Hardwick,” she retorted.

  “Feel free to change in the bathroom across the hall as long as it doesn’t take you all night.”

  Amery’s rarely seen rebellious side appeared again. Although she could count on one hand the number of men who’d seen her half-naked, something about this man pushed her buttons and she wanted to push back. “Not necessary. I’ll just change here.” She unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans before pushing the denim off. Kicking them aside, she snatched the pants from his fingertips.

  And Master Black didn’t pretend he wasn’t looking at her bare legs as she fumbled with the drawstrings. When his perusal of her lower half ended at her lavender bikini panties, he glanced up at her.

  The blast of heat from those liquid gold eyes reminded her that her boldness was only an act.

  His was not.

  So not.

  Was it possible to be burned by a look and frozen in place by it? At the same time?

  Yep, if it was coming from Sensei’s laser eyes.

  Why are you stalling? Get dressed and go.

  Amery dragged the cotton pants up her legs and fled.

  Or she tried to flee. But that sinfully compelling voice stopped her before she made it halfway down the hall. “Forgetting something, Ms. Hardwick?”

  She faced him, feeling the rush of emotions that ran the gamut from annoyance to awe to alarm . . . and annoyance won out. “What?”

  He held up her discarded jeans. “Don’t you want these?”

  “Keep them as collateral,” she tossed over her shoulder, and hustled away.

  And surprise, surprise, the man didn’t follow her.

  In class, Sandan Zach didn’t pause in his lecture as she slid into her spot in the back row. “For most women, it goes against your natural response to fight back. So our aim isn’t to teach you how to start a fight, but how to defend yourself, which is a far cry from being the aggressor. Any questions?”

  Amery had a ton of them, but she kept her mouth shut. Wouldn’t want to be known as the problem pupil any more than she already was.

  “I’m sure questions will arise over the next few weeks. But right now we’ll do the most basic self-defense technique for an attack without a weapon. This is Shihan Knox. He’ll be assisting me in class.”

  Shihan Knox came up behind Zach and snaked an arm around his neck.

  “Three things to be aware of in this situation. How much head movement you have, where the person is behind you, and where your arms are. It’d be difficult in this position to try a reverse head butt to connect with the attacker’s nose. You might first try turning your head and biting the attacker’s arm. We’re not talking a little love bite, ladies. I’m talking about opening your mouth wide like you’re gnawing on a turkey leg and biting down like you’re trying to reach the bone.”

  Other class members giggled.

  Which didn’t amuse Sandan Zach at all.

  “If your head is too immobilized for that, remember where your hands are. Usually right up here.” He wrapped his hands around Knox’s arm, trying to pull it away. “That is a wasted motion. Use your hands elsewhere. If your attacker is a man, ladies, you’ve got one shot to grab on to his junk and try to twist it off. That said, that’s a pretty risky move because a guy’s automatic response is to protect the family jewels. So you’ve got to assume he’ll anticipate where you plan to attack. Your best option is stomp on his foot.”

  “But what if she’s wearing flip-flops and I’m wearing combat boots?” Shihan Knox asked.

  “Good point. That won’t work. In that case, kick out and aim for the knee. Even connecting with the shin with just the back of the heel is painful and a hard-placed kick will often loosen up the attacker’s hold enough that you can escape.” Zach kicked out at Knox and he released him from the choke hold. “Let’s call this a victory for now. The goal has been achieved—to break the attacker’s hold.”

  After fifteen more minutes of demonstrations, during which Amery’s eyes had sort of glazed over, Molly scooted closer and whispered, “Could you ever bite someone like that?”

  “Hard enough to break the skin?”

  She nodded.

  “It’d depend.” Her eyes searched Molly’s. “Could you have bitten your attacker if you knew it would’ve stopped him?”

  “When you put it that way . . . yes. I’m tired of being scared of my own shadow.”

  Amery squeezed her hand. “I know. Let’s focus on turning you into a badass no one wants to mess with.”

  “Are you talking during class because you’ve already got all the answers?” Master Black asked behind her.

  She jumped. When she spun around he took her wrists in one hand and lightly wrapped his hand around the base of her throat.

  “Hey!”

  “See how easy it is to get into trouble when you’re unaware?”

  Damn him.

  “You are here to learn.”

  “I know that,” she retorted. Then when his stony face remained that way, she tacked on “Sir.”

  “Prove it.” He did some fancy twisting maneuver and then he was behind her, dragging her off the mat. “Remember what to do if you’re put in a choke hold? Or were you too busy talking to listen to your instructor?”

  “I can multitask.”

  An arm snaked around her throat and he pinned her left arm behind her back. “Show me how to get out of this hold.”

  Her heart rate zoomed. Her free hand came up to claw at his arm, but that did nothing to loosen his grip.

  “Try again.”

  She turned her head and opened her mouth over his meaty biceps, intending to sink her teeth into the marrow of his bones.

  Master Black released her.

  Score one for her. But Amery’s victory was short-lived. Then he wrapped his other arm around her neck but left both her arms free. “Again. Make me release you.”

  She swung her elbow into his gut and attempted to scratch his eye out.

  He let her go.

  But he wasn’t done. She’d barely get him to release her and then he had her immobilized again.

  The man was relentless in his drills.

  During a short break, Amery noticed the rest of the class was working with partners too—just not instructors—and they were on the far side of the room, giving Amery and Master Black a wide berth. She’d give anything if she could just pick him up and throw him over her head on his ass.

  She was fantasizing about the look of shock on his too-perfect face, not paying attention, and that’s when he wrapped his hands around her neck and stayed back, not in close proximity to her body. “Free yourself.”

  Shoot, she didn’t remember this one. She tried to kick out at his knee, but he dodged. She tried to twist away, risking a neck injury, but he held fast.

  “Come on, think,” he said evenly.

  “I can’t. You’re choking me.”

  “That’s the point.”

  She attempted to gouge his forearms.

  “Better, but not enough. Try again.”

  “I don’t know! Let me go. I can’t breathe.”

  Master Black released her and moved directly in front of her. “Calm down.”

  “I am fucking calm.” Amery inhaled several deep breaths. His gaze never wavered from hers, which was disconcerting . . . and yet not.

  Once she’d settled, he gave her a quick nod. “You try choking me.”

  This would be fun because she didn’t intend to hold back. Amery stepped behind him, noticing for the first time that he’d pulled his hair into a stubby ponytail. Why in the hell did that look so sexy? And why did she have the overwhelming urge to slide the elastic band free and plunge her hands into those gorgeous black tresses?

  “Problem?” he asked in that rumbling rasp.

  “No, sir.” Amery tried to get her hands ar
ound his neck, but it was so muscular that she had to slide her hands up and down to find a decent position. Her hands on his warm skin released a heavenly scent.

  Dammit. Why did he smell so nice? Shouldn’t he reek like sweat and suppressed anger?

  “Are you finished fitting me for a necklace?”

  Cocky man. “Maybe I’m fitting you for a noose.”

  “Then you’d need a better grip.”

  She dug her fingernails into his flesh.

  “I still have my hands free.” He raked his fingers up the back of her arms and pinched the skin on the underside—not hard enough to bruise but with enough pressure she released him. “With that move you will definitely get your attacker’s attention.”

  “Then what should I do? Because pinching someone that hard will piss him off.”

  He studied her. “You should run.”

  “And what if I’m caught again?”

  “Then you’ll fight. The goal of this class is to make your reactions instinctive. To give you a tool and a solid mind-set to deal with a physical crisis situation where you don’t have time to think—you just react.”

  Master Black had gotten close to her again, and spoke in the deep timbre that rolled over her like warm honey. “Since you’re short a partner, next week I’ll show you more options.”

  They stared at each other, locked in an eye-fuck that was better than any sex she’d ever had.

  “Sensei, if I may interrupt, you’re needed in the black belt class,” someone said behind him.

  Master Black backed up and gave her a small bow. “Until next time, Ms. Hardwick.”

  She returned his bow, not as smoothly. “Thank you for the instruction, Sensei.”

  After class ended, some students were giving her suspicious looks. Including Molly.

  “What?”

  “It’s just strange, the fact that Master Black took interest in you and—”

  “All but made me wear a dunce’s cap and sit in the corner when he wasn’t beating the crap out of me in front of everyone?”

  “Um, that’s not how I saw it at all.”

  Amery was moving her boots off her purse when she felt her phone vibrating. She picked it up but didn’t recognize the caller ID. “Hello?”

  “Is this Amery Hardwick?”

  “Yes, who’s this?”

  “Officer Stickney, Denver Police. We received a call from your alarm company regarding a possible break-in. We arrived on-scene and discovered the front window is shattered. We’ve done a sweep of the main floor and the upstairs. Are you able to return to the property to verify if anything is missing?”

  Amery’s heart hammered. Someone had broken into her building? Damn, damn, damn. Her computer with all her client files was on the desk in her office, right in plain sight.

  “Ma’am?”

  “Sorry. Yes, I’m on my way.” She jammed her feet into her boots.

  Molly sidled up as Amery retrieved her keys. “What’s wrong?”

  “Someone vandalized my building. The cops are there. I’ve got to go.”

  “Since I rode here with you, I’m coming too.”

  Amery shouldered her bag, Molly close on her heels as they exited the building a lot easier than they’d gotten in.

  The dojo was across the Platte River, which separated Platte Valley from Lodo—a nickname for lower downtown Denver. With one-way streets and dead-end alleys, the trip took fifteen minutes. On the drive she spoke with the alarm company and then she called an after-hours window repair company to temporarily board up the window until the new glass could be installed.

  Parking was nearly impossible to find—especially with all the cop cars blocking the street. She didn’t get the full impact of the damage until she stood in front of the building.

  The front window wasn’t just shattered; it was completely gone.

  Spots danced in front of her eyes. She had to bend at the waist to keep the bile rising in her throat from exiting her mouth. Had she been robbed too? Had they done damage to Emmylou’s side? What about her loft? Had that been ransacked?

  Keep it together.

  A cop moved toward her. “You’ll have to move along—”

  “I’m Amery Hardwick. This is my building.”

  “Need to see some ID.”

  Her hand shook when she removed her driver’s license from her wallet and handed it over.

  “Okay, ma’am, you can go in. Officer Stickney is waiting inside.”

  The beat cop tried to keep Molly back, but she snarled at him—very un-Molly-like—and he let her go with Amery.

  She stepped over the glass to take a better look at the damage inside the building. Two officers paced in her office. She just about fell to her knees when she saw her computer on her desk intact.

  Molly squeezed her hand. “I’ll go check and see if anything is missing at my desk.”

  The African-American cop approached her while the other cop, a young Hispanic woman, talked on a phone.

  “Ms. Hardwick? I’m Officer Stickney.”

  “Do you have any idea what happened?”

  “It doesn’t appear that anything was taken, so we doubt robbery was a motive. It’s sad to say, but there’ve been random acts of vandalism like this across the Denver metro area in the last six months.”

  Amery slumped against the wall. “So it’s just my bad luck?”

  “Possibly. Or it might be some freak accident where a car spins its tires, dislodging a rock that hits the window at just the right speed and shatters it. Sounds weird, but I’ve seen it happen. We weren’t able to find any evidence of what was used to break the window inside the store.”

  “Am I still supposed to check upstairs to see if anything is missing in my loft?”

  “Yes, and we’ll need Officer Gomez to accompany you.”

  Molly looked up from her desk. “Nothing missing or out of place on my side.”

  “Thank god.”

  Amery led Officer Gomez through the rear door that led from her office into the small back area with a steel door that led into the alley. A circular staircase dominated the space and opened up into the second-floor loft apartment where she lived. In true loft fashion the only room walled off was the bathroom. This was the first place that was completely hers, and it put an extra twist in her gut to imagine her safe haven had been violated.

  But nothing had been disturbed in her oversized bedroom, or the large eat-in kitchen, or the great room with the funky windows that overlooked the street.

  “Anything missing or destroyed, Ms. Hardwick?” Officer Gomez asked.

  “No. I can’t even blame the mess on the counters on anyone but myself.”

  The female cop smiled. “I can relate. I’m relieved this wasn’t a B and E, but I will offer you some advice.” She pointed to the businesses across the street with the drop-down steel cages covering the storefronts. “Those might be ugly, but they are effective; those cages do deter crime. And it’s an especially smart add-on since you’re a single woman living alone above your business. I’d also suggest you install a heftier door with a dead
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