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       Bound, p.24

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  fucking weird because she had no right to it.

  Did she?

  Frustrated, she shut off her laptop and flipped on the TV.

  • • •

  MONDAY morning Chaz pressed her for details about the gala. Amery regaled him with tales of who she’d seen, of what the ballroom looked like, and she dished on the food and the clothes. She got the appropriate expression of outrage from Chaz that she’d been subjected to spending time with Tyler. He was satisfied enough that she didn’t have to tell him what’d happened afterward. Because chances were high she’d break down. But she couldn’t tell the truth because Ronin deserved privacy about his lifestyle choices.

  Molly had hung back during the conversation. As soon as Chaz and Emmylou were off bickering in Emmylou’s studio, she approached Amery.

  “That isn’t all of it.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean you did mention how fantastic Master Black looked a couple of times. But beyond that you didn’t talk about him at all, and that is not normal for you . . . so what gives?”

  Amery recalled that during her years spent as the bookworm in the corner, she’d honed her ability to read people since none of them talked to her. It shouldn’t have surprised her that Molly was so intuitive—they were a lot alike. “Ronin and I had a big fight. I’ll spare you the details, but we’re in a cooling-off period for a week.”

  Molly rubbed her arm. “I’m sorry. I know you really like him.”

  Like. Not liked, past tense. That’s when Amery realized she didn’t want to think of Ronin in the past tense either. “Thank you.”

  “Is there anything I can do?”

  “You’re doing it.”

  “I imagine you’re not coming to class with me this week?”

  That was another wrinkle; he’d hired her and she hadn’t completed the last phase of the project—she’d been dragging it out as another way to keep in touch with him. After their conversation about Brazilian jujitsu, she’d designed new graphics to promote the newest discipline offered at Black Arts, that is, if Ronin ever followed through with it and hired an instructor. She’d enjoyed the challenge, but the bottom line was she needed the work and she couldn’t quit just because there were issues in their personal relationship. In the last year many of her clients had started bringing design work in-house. If business didn’t pick up soon . . . She didn’t even want to think about having to let Molly go. She worked more hours than she got paid. Plus, she excelled at creating Web sites, animated banners, and ads where as Amery preferred to work with text, images, and personalized photography—which was why they made such a good team.

  “Amery?”

  She glanced up. “Sorry. I guess we’ll see. Can you help me today? I’ve got a bunch of shots to do for the Wicksburg Farm flyers.”

  “Sure. What props are they sending this time?”

  A large portion of Amery’s clients catered to organic food consumers, so she’d carved out a niche in the natural food market crafting unique ad campaigns. She had a different approach and it was the one aspect of her business that was easily recognizable in her design work. “They’re sending a bunch of different kinds of mushrooms and they want them photographed in a natural environment, so . . . they’re delivering dirt today.”

  “I’ll get the vacuum. What else?”

  “I just hope they’re not bringing the beehives for the honeycomb photos.”

  Molly grinned. “Funny. But I have my EpiPen just in case.”

  Later, after she’d sent Molly home for the day and she’d sorted photos into folders, her e-mail dinged. An unfamiliar name on the subject line. Hopefully it was someone looking for graphic design work. She opened the e-mail.

  Hardwick Designs,

  I was browsing on your Web site and saw that you do custom photographic work. I love the perspectives on inanimate objects as well as how you’re framing them. I’m an author and I’m looking for a unique—not stock photo!—image for my next book cover. Is that something you’d be interested in giving me a quote on?

  Thanks for your time and hope to hear from you soon.

  Cherry Starr~

  She knew a few freelancers who’d jumped on the digital book bandwagon and offered design services from covers to formatting for authors trying their hand at publishing their own work.

  While she was interested, she wasn’t sure of the industry standard pricing structure for custom photography versus revamping stock photos to suit the client’s needs.

  She headed to Cherry Starr’s Web site to see what types of books she wrote. Oh, wow. She wrote naughty books. The stuff Amery’s mother would’ve called filthy porn. Then again, her mother hadn’t balked at all when it came to sneaking True Confessions magazine.

  The world was full of judgmental hypocrites.

  The title His Whip-smart Mistress had an intriguing cover. A half-naked woman in knee-high leather boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier, wielding a whip over a man on his knees, his arms tied behind his back with rope, his head bowed.

  That’s when the first warning bell chimed.

  Amery clicked on the next title Hog-tied and Whip-kissed. That cover featured a bare-chested man holding the end of a whip to the woman’s bright red lips. Her torso was completely wrapped in rope and she was bent at such an angle that part of her butt cheek showed—a butt cheek that the guy had his hand on.

  So today, of all days, she would get contacted by an author who writes books about . . . the type of tying-up things that Amery was dealing with understanding about Ronin?

  Bullshit. She did not believe in coincidences. Ronin had to have given this woman her contact information. Projects of this nature did not just fall in her lap. Amery hit REPLY.

  Cherry Starr,

  Before we get into the quote stage, may I ask how you got my name?

  Best, Amery Hardwick ~ Hardwick Designs

  Rather than fuming about Ronin’s stealthy approach—throwing her a new business bone in the hopes it’d spur her to contact him sooner—she closed up shop for the day.

  Needing fresh air, she strolled down to the Sixteenth Street mall. The Greek place still ran a four-dollar gyro special on Mondays, so she took her sandwich and salad outside beneath the umbrella and people-watched, hoping it’d clear her mind.

  Fat lot of good that did. She saw scarves hanging in the windows and thought of Ronin. She saw candles in the window and thought of Ronin. She saw a display of men’s ties and thought of Ronin. The Japanese takeout place reminded her of Ronin.

  That’s because this issue isn’t going away. You can’t ignore it. And your biggest problem is that part of Ronin intrigues and excites you as much as it scares you.

  That stopped her in the middle of the sidewalk.

  She had liked it when Ronin used scarves or even her own clothing to tie her up during foreplay and sex. She’d found an odd kind of freedom in knowing it pleased him.

  Didn’t that make her subservient? Putting his needs above her own?

  But Amery couldn’t come up with a single instance where Ronin hadn’t seen to her needs first. Every. Single. Time.

  Plus, Ronin never made her feel subservient. She wasn’t there strictly for his pleasure. If anything, the opposite was true. He went above and beyond giving her pleasure . . . and always first.

  Now that she’d sorted that out, what did she do next?

  By the time Amery had returned to her loft she hadn’t come up with an answer.

  Out of habit she turned on her laptop and checked her e-mail. Well, well, another e-mail from Cherry Starr.

  Amery,

  I know your work because you’ve done some brochures and flyers for my family’s campground. And sorry for coming off mysterious, but Cherry Starr is my pen name and no one in my family knows I write erotica—and I’d like to keep it that way.

  Before we go any further, is there such a thing as client confidentiality?

  Cherry~

  Amery had done several brochures o
ver the years for different campgrounds. Some camps were church based; some were family focused and wouldn’t allow singles or couples without children to camp there. She understood Cherry’s reluctance to reveal her identity without some guarantee Amery wouldn’t blab. She typed back:

  Cherry,

  Yes, I can promise you client confidentiality. I’m not trying to be rude, but I see that you write books about bondage, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to tell me about the BDSM lifestyle. What does this have to do with your cover design? Not a damn thing. So my questions really are more on a personal side.

  A~

  Two hours later, a response popped up in Amery’s in-box.

  Amery,

  I actually don’t mind answering questions—knowledge is power, and I’m happy to use my experience—limited as it is—to clear up misconceptions.

  No, I’m not in the life. I’ve dabbled and done a few “drive-bys,” but I haven’t found a situation or a man who . . . fit me. That said, there is a difference between BDSM and bondage.

  In the BDSM lifestyle one person is the Dominant and the other submissive—even if they’re “playing” for only one night. The relationship between the Dom and the sub is sexual—more often than not.

  Things are . . . a little trickier when it comes to explaining bondage. It’s a release for some people to be tied up to the point they can’t move, they can’t think, they exist solely as a vessel. Some rope enthusiasts want to be bound by someone they have no other intimate relations with, so the binding process is not always sexual. Sometimes it’s strictly psychological. Then there are the artistic bondage disciplines, where the beauty of the ties and configuration of knots is more about showcasing the rope master’s artistry than emphasizing the sexual aspect of the scene.

  Amery pushed away from the computer screen and rubbed her eyes. Every time Ronin had immobilized her, he’d made it sensual. He couldn’t touch her enough. Being bound had allowed him to explore her body and her reactions without restriction.

  And the truth was, she’d liked it, even when she hadn’t known what he was doing to her had an actual official name.

  Maybe she was naive, but she’d had no idea relationships like those—BDSM, Dominants, submissives—existed. She considered herself open-minded, but it’d never work for her. If it worked for other people, great.

  She sipped her coffee and grimaced that it’d gone cold before she continued reading Cherry’s response.

  Still interested in working with me? I obviously have no opinions on this—LOL.

  Cherry~

  After rereading the e-mail, she pulled up her history from last night and spent another hour reading about shibari and kinbaku, determined that when she and Ronin finally had an honest conversation about it, she wouldn’t be completely clueless.

  • • •

  “A dozen? Sure, that’ll work.” Amery kept her head tilted toward her shoulder to hold the phone receiver in place as she typed the information into her weekly calendar. “No, thank you. I appreciate the business and I’m always excited to work on new projects.” She laughed. “Take care. See you Thursday.”

  She dropped the receiver in the cradle and moved her neck in a circle to get the kinks out.

  “You really need to invest in a wireless headset,” Molly said from the doorway.

  Amery looked up. “I know. But the number of choices overwhelms me and I always end up walking out of the store without buying anything.”

  “Do me a favor. Next time, let me come with you.”

  “Deal. Did you need something?”

  Molly glanced over her shoulder. “There’s someone here to see you.”

  Ronin.

  Her face heated. Since their “break” she’d kept herself occupied from the moment she woke up until her head hit the pillow in an attempt to stop thinking about him. It hadn’t worked, which annoyed her to no appreciable end. They’d been involved for three weeks. Three weeks. She shouldn’t have such a . . . bond with him. She’d certainly never missed Tyler the way she missed the sexy sensei. But she honestly didn’t know what she’d say to Ronin when she saw him, or why the prospect of seeing him made her heart race.

  “Will you be disappointed that your visitor isn’t Ronin?”

  The way her stomach plummeted, the answer to that would be a resounding yes. “Then who is it?”

  “Shihan Knox from the dojo. Do you want me to tell him you’re on a client call?”

  “No. Send him back.” Amery barely had time to clear off a place for him to sit before all six feet four inches sauntered into the room.

  He smiled at her before he closed the door.

  “I usually leave my door open.”

  “I figured you’d want it closed for this conversation.” He plopped in the chair and cocked his head. “Unless you already told your office mates what happened between you and Ronin Saturday night?”

  “It’d be hard to tell them when I’m not exactly sure what happened myself.”

  “I can guess exactly what happened.”

  She frowned. “Ronin didn’t tell you?”

  “Nope. In fact, he doesn’t know I’m here.”

  That startled her.

  “I’m betting you freaked out after Master Black broke out the ropes.”

  Amery blushed.

  “Did he show you his practice room?”

  “That’s what he calls it?”

  “What else would he call it?” Knox’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe the question is, what did you call it?”

  She blushed harder, if possible when she admitted, “Nothing I care to repeat because I said it out of shock and fear.”

  “Understood.” Knox leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “Look, Amery, I don’t know you, but I’d like this to be an honest conversation, okay? Whatever you tell me won’t get back to Ronin. But I need to know where you’re at right now.”

  “You think I should tell you before I tell the man himself?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why? So you can break it to him gently that I’m walking away? Bullshit. Ronin Black doesn’t sugarcoat anything, so I doubt he’d expect that in return from me or you.”

  Knox grinned. “You’re right. Which is why I’m here.” His smile faded. “You really walking away from him?”

  “If you had asked me Saturday night, I’d have said more like I was running away.” Amery twisted a section of hair. “But now? After I’ve calmed down and gotten some perspective from doing research, I don’t know.”

  “At least that’s not a flat-out no.”

  “If it was no, would you still try to sway me?”

  He shook his head. “I have a proposition for you. Master Black is highly regarded for his rope skills. He’s considered a shibari and kinbaku rope master. He gives demonstrations at a local club, and I think it’d be beneficial for you—for both of you actually—to see him showcasing his rope-tying expertise.”

  “What kind of club?”

  “A private club. Some call it a sex club, but that’s a simplistic description.”

  Her jaw dropped. “There’s a sex club in Denver?”

  “Lady, there are a dozen different underground private sex clubs in Denver.”

  “Oh. You can tell I don’t get out much.”

  “It’s not like they’re advertised.”

  The conversation she’d overheard between Ronin and Knox at the dojo, where Knox asked if Amery was the reason Ronin hadn’t shown up at the club, made more sense. “So you’re offering to take me to this sex club?”

  “Yes.”

 
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