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       Bound, p.20

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  was mistaken and walk away.

  Please let him walk away.

  Before she could vanish into the crowd, Tyler stepped in front of her.

  He wore an expression of shock. “Amery Hardwick. It is you.” Tyler pulled her into his arms. “My god, it’s been what? Four years since we’ve seen each other?”

  “Yes,” she said, trying to disentangle from his embrace.

  But Tyler wasn’t letting her go. He scrutinized her face. “You look fantastic. Like really fantastic.”

  “Thanks. I need to—”

  “Stay and talk with me. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

  No, they didn’t. But if she didn’t act as if she wanted to escape, then maybe she’d satisfy his curiosity and he’d move on. Quickly. “I didn’t realize you were still in Denver.”

  “Left for about a year to oversee the Rockies feeder teams. When I returned management promoted me. And I also work with the pitching staff, so I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

  “Sounds great.” Amery tried not to stand on tiptoe and peer over his shoulder for a glimpse of Ronin.

  “I’m living in Cherry Creek now.”

  “That’s nice.”

  “One of the perks of being upper-level management is I get to attend this event every year.”

  “Lucky you.”

  Tyler went on to tell how awesome his life was and never stopped to take a breath or to ask about her. He hadn’t changed a bit. How had she ever found the me-me-me aspect to him attractive? Yes, he was a good-looking guy, but as she stood in front of him, trapped by his gigantic ego, she couldn’t remember what she’d ever seen in him.

  Confidence. He had it; you lacked it.

  That was the one good thing that’d come out of their relationship. In trying to emulate him she’d learned to act more confident—even if she had to fake it.

  He was frowning at her. Oops. Had he noticed she’d tuned him out? “Sorry, I didn’t catch that last part.”

  “I’m here with Chantal.”

  “You two are still together?”

  “We’ve had a breakup or two over the years, which is why I’m dragging my feet on giving her the engagement ring she’s been nagging me about.”

  Yeah, Chantal and Tyler deserved each other.

  “Who are you here with?” Tyler asked.

  “She’s with me,” Ronin said, sliding his arm around her waist.

  Tyler’s eyes widened so fast she almost heard a cartoonish sproing.

  Then Ronin offered his hand. “Ronin Black. And you are?”

  “I know who you are, Sensei Black. I’m Tyler Pessac. I’m with the Rockies management team.”

  “How do you know Amery? Or did you just see a beautiful woman standing alone and decide to hit on her?”

  Tyler shot her a grin. At one time she would’ve considered it the cutest thing ever. Now it came across as super-cheesy.

  “Amery and I were involved for a few years before and after we moved to Denver.” When Tyler’s gaze scanned her thoroughly, Amery felt as if she’d been slimed. “Damn, Ame, you’re a knockout tonight.”

  Ronin’s demeanor didn’t change. “Yes, she is. And she’s all mine. So if you’ll excuse us . . .” And Ronin steered her away.

  Once they were far enough away, Amery spun in front of him, forcing him to stop. “Mine? What was that?”

  “A friendly reminder that your past with him is just that, long past.” He pressed his lips against her temple. “Shall we track down the dining area?”

  Just like that he changed the subject and led her away.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  THE dining room defined opulence. Forty-foot-high ceilings with mahogany crown molding, a preponderance of sparkly crystal chandeliers, silk-covered walls, carpeting that mimicked a pricey Persian rug.

  The already beautiful space had been further transformed. Each table had different jewel-toned linen. From the back of the room, the hundred or so colored tables spread out like a rainbow, darkest to lightest. The glassware on each table was clear, reflecting the individual color, creating the illusion that each table had customized glassware. The centerpiece on each table initially looked tacky—artificial flowers with color-changing LED lights on the edges of the leaves and flowers. But as Amery watched the lights morphing from one shade of the rainbow to the next, she noticed the effect sent tiny shards of light outward, so it looked as if diamonds had been sprinkled across the table.

  This was one of the coolest decorating themes she’d ever seen.

  And the Hidden Hills Resort didn’t allow its members to sit on padded metal conference chairs. No, every chair was draped in the same fabric as the table.

  A female server intercepted them as they tried to cut through the tables. “One of the staff members with the clipboard will have your seat assignments.”

  “I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”

  Assigned seating felt a little junior high-ish. Were the attendees deemed more important seated at a better table with other bigwigs? Maybe it was the champagne, but Amery could give a shit where she and Ronin ended up. In her mind he remained the most interesting person in the room—regardless of how many people filled the space.

  After they were properly seated, she snuck a look at him and bit back a feminine sigh.

  Ronin’s mouth brushed her ear. “What’s the smirk for?”

  “Just thinking about how sexy you look in that suit. But as nice as the wrapper is, it’s the body beneath that gets me all hot and bothered.”

  “You always so flirty and flattering when you drink champagne?”

  She laughed softly. “I’m serious.”

  “I know.” He placed a kiss below her ear. “Which is why I’ll make sure the champagne keeps flowing.”

  “Maybe that’s not the best idea. I do all sorts of crazy things when I’m tipsy.”

  “If this shindig gets dull, I have ideas on how we can liven things up.” Ronin’s hand slid up her leg.

  “Ronin. Behave.”

  “No.” His teeth enclosed her earlobe and he tugged. “And don’t pretend you want me to be the gentleman in the suit. You prefer the master in the gi.”

  To anyone else it would appear that she and Ronin were having a private conversation. But when he whispered against her skin in that rough voice, she was done in. Add in the erotic way his thumb stroked the inside of her thigh, the continual pass of his warm lips beneath her ear . . . Amery wanted to grab him by his fancy tie, drag him into the coat check room, and fuck him stupid.

  “I like that purring sound you just made,” he murmured against her throat. “Remember earlier when you said you’d give me anything I wanted?”

  “No.”

  “That’s okay because I do. But I’ll warn you, baby, I will push your boundaries tonight.”

  Amery managed to stop the spinning in her head long enough to place her hand on his cheek, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Should I be scared?”

  Ronin just bestowed that “Hallelujah Chorus” grin. “Probably. But I promise I won’t do a thing you don’t like.”

  The table jiggled and they both looked up.

  Amery couldn’t help her shock. Tyler and Chantal were seated at their table. Out of nine hundred and ninety-eight other possibilities for dinner companions, they ended up with these two?

  Tyler offered a smarmy grin. “Well, isn’t this a coincidence?”

  Chantal didn’t seem any happier than Amery about the seating arrangements. But she managed a cool “Hello.”

  Three other couples joined them. The foursome barely acknowledged anyone outside their group. The other couple, an elegant pair in their early sixties, were sniping at each other and then fell into glaring silence as they knocked back glass after glass of champagne.

  “Good thing we like each other’s company,” Ronin said.

  “No kidding.”

  The waiters kept the bubbly flowing in addition to bringing bottles of wine to the table.
r />   Amery picked up the linen card—embossed in the exact same color of the tablecloth—that announced the evening’s five-course menu:

  Butternut squash soup with chive oil and radish seedlings

  Pan-fried trout croquettes, breaded with blue corn flour and topped with tomatillo relish

  Roasted beet carpaccio with seared goat cheese and mâche greens

  Grilled filet of beef with caramelized shallot/red wine reduction, truffle-infused potato rösti, white asparagus, and morel mushrooms

  Golden Colorado dessert, ripe Colorado peaches soaked in Colorado’s gold-medal-winning red wine, topped with yogurt sweetened with honey

  This menu was a little different than Applebee’s.

  Ronin leaned closer. “Problem?”

  “Not exactly sure what some of the ingredients are in these dishes.”

  “Me either. I’m just glad one of the courses isn’t sushi.”

  After the soup course was delivered to everyone in the room, a man stepped up to the raised dais and began to speak.

  She tuned him out and talked to Ronin. “So, the guy earlier that monopolized your time? What did he want?”

  “To convince me to teach a private kickboxing class for new Bronco recruits.”

  “What’d you say?”

  Ronin looked affronted. “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “I am not a kickboxing instructor.”

  “Saying no should’ve taken, like, two seconds. Why’d he keep you so long?”

  “He mistakenly assumed everyone has a price and all he needed to do was charm me, or throw more money at me. Or threaten me and I’d fall in line.”

  Her eyes widened. “He threatened you? Was he just an idiot or did he have a death wish? Did you demonstrate jujitsu pressure points so he understands why ninjas like you don’t teach kickboxing?”

  “I said something like that, but more diplomatically.”

  “Darn. I’d like to see you in ass-kicking mode.” Amery turned her head. Their mouths were only a breath apart.

  The moment lingered and became even more perfect when Ronin murmured, “I am so crazy about you.”

  As the second course was delivered, Amery glanced up to see Tyler studying her. His gaze flicked to Ronin and then back to her.

  That’s right. This hot, successful man is crazy about me. So suck it.

  More boring speeches were given by more people she didn’t know while the third course arrived.

  During a lull in the festivities, Tyler addressed Ronin. “Has the Platte Valley restoration project affected your business at all? That’s where you’re located, right?”

  “We’ve been there ten years, so urban renewal is finally catching up to us. It’s always good to have other businesses—regardless if they’re retail or service or entertainment industries—in any area. But I haven’t seen a direct impact positive or negative on my business.”

  “There is one negative thing about people flocking to the area,” Amery said, shoving aside her salad plate only to have it immediately whisked away by a server.

  “And what’s that?” Tyler asked.

  “Parking. It is impossible to find a decent parking place around the dojo. Wednesday night I swear I had to park six blocks away.”

  Ronin kissed the back of her hand. “I’m glad limited parking choices aren’t keeping you away from me.”

  So what if Ronin poured it on a little thick in front of her ex? She’d do the same thing if she crossed paths with Naomi.

  “How did you two meet?” Chantal asked with an air of boredom.

  “We had to exchange names after he threw me on my ass.”

  Silence at the table. Even the cliquey foursome stopped whispering and stared at them.

  “That isn’t even funny,” Chantal snapped.

  Amery flashed her teeth. “But it’s true. Sensei Black took me to the mat in a self-defense class I signed up for at his dojo.”

  “It’s more accurate to say Amery knocked me to my knees the first time I saw her.” Ronin kissed her hand. “I literally tried to sweep her off her feet to even things up a bit.”

  The foursome laughed, as did the other couple.

  Tyler wasn’t amused. Chantal alternated between shooting jealous daggers at Amery and Ronin and glaring at Tyler.

  Amery probably shouldn’t have signaled for more champagne as they waited on the main course.

  Ronin kept watching her, an odd look on his face.

  “What?”

  “I want to act on my every dirty impulse right now. It’s making me reckless—and I’m never reckless in public.”

  A feeling of power rolled through her. “Is it making you hard?”

  He leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Put your hand on my groin and find out for yourself.”

  Her first thought was no way. She’d reach over and everyone at the table would know what was going on.

  Her second thought was she’d never been the type who’d do something like that in public.

  So that’s precisely why she decided to do it.

  Amery dropped her napkin and reached down to pick it up. When she returned upright, she set her hand on Ronin’s knee, allowing her hand to inch up his thigh.

  He’d left his napkin covering his lap so she could slip her hand beneath it. When she had to move slightly to reach him, she leaned in. “Who is sponsoring these awards tonight?”

  “Colorado Athlete’s Foundation in conjunction with Rocky Mountain Sports Coalition.”

  Her fingers reached the crease of his thigh. “Have you ever been nominated for one of these awards?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “I’m not a team player. I prefer to play one-on-one. It’s more . . . intimate.”

  She felt his gaze burning into her. She met it head-on as her hand reached the promised land, scraping her fingernails up and down his rigid shaft. “Is it hard to get nominated?”

  The only change in Ronin’s face was the ripple of his jaw muscle—but even that was there and gone. “Very hard.”

  “Yes, it is.” Amery squeezed his cock one last time and leisurely slid her hand back down his leg.

  They exchanged private, provocative looks as the remaining courses were served. None of their tablemates engaged them in conversation.

  After the dessert and coffee course arrived, Ronin pulled Amery closer. “Leave your napkin on your lap and pull your dress up.”

  Her head whipped around. “Excuse me?”

  “You heard me. Slide your dress up so I can rub your clit until you come on my hand.”

  Amery’s face flamed. “Ronin. There are over a thousand people here.”

 
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