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       Bound, p.3

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James

  bolt between your business area and your living space. Once that’s done, have the alarm company add a trigger to that door, so if someone does get in from the business side, it’ll alert you.”

  “Thank you so much. I appreciate your advice.”

  The cops didn’t stick around after that.

  Amery and Molly sat in their office chairs facing the gaping hole.

  “I can’t believe it,” Molly said.

  “Me either.” As grateful as Amery was that nothing had been stolen, she worried about how much the repairs would run. Yes, she had insurance, but she’d have out-of-pocket expenses. She was running a much smaller profit so far this year and had been cutting corners and pinching pennies everywhere she could.

  The window replacement company arrived and off-loaded pieces of plywood.

  As they heard hammers banging, saws going, and an electric drill screeching, Molly said, “Amery, you’re awful quiet. Are you really okay?”

  “No. I’m wired. There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep tonight. Especially not when all that’ll be separating me from the street is a sheet of plywood.” Amery offered Molly a wan smile. “I’ll probably be all caught up on my backlog of filing and stuff by the time you get here tomorrow.”

  Molly frowned. “Get here? Where do you think I’m going?”

  “Home where you belong.” Where it’s safe.

  “Huh-uh. I’m staying right here with you.”

  “I’ll be—”

  “No, you aren’t fine. Which is why I will be right there, on that couch. I’m used to pulling all-nighters. So suck it up and grab me a pillow.”

  “Man, I didn’t know you had such a bossy streak,” Amery grumbled.

  “And I never would’ve thought you’d be so antagonistic toward a man who could probably kill you with a look,” Molly retorted. “So it looks like we’re both full of surprises.”

  “Let’s hope we done with all surprises—good or bad—for the rest of the night.”


  GROGGY from lack of sleep, Amery released a little scream the next morning when her best buddy, Chaz, enveloped her in a gigantic bear hug from behind. “Girl, I’d ask how you’re doing but the scream pretty much gave it away.”

  “You surprised me,” she said defensively. “Can you blame me for being a little shaken?”

  “No.” Then Chaz curled his hands around her biceps and helped her to her feet, demanding, “Why didn’t you call me last night?”

  “Because I didn’t want to freak you out. There wasn’t anything you could’ve done anyway.”

  “Except be there for you. That’s what friends do for each other, hon.”

  “Chewing her out after the fact won’t make her feel better,” Emmylou intoned dryly from the doorway that separated their two businesses.

  “Did she call you and your lesbian Mafia connections for help?” Chaz asked snottily.

  “They could protect her better than that gay brotherhood you hang around with,” she shot back.

  Although their jabs were meant in good fun, given her mood, her two best pals would drive her crazy with their dicks-versus-chicks bickering.

  “I stayed with her,” Molly piped in. “Which is why I’m still wearing the same clothes that I had on yesterday.” She scowled. “Not that Amery let me do anything but sleep on the couch down here while she made sure no one tried to get in.”

  “Just knowing you were here eased my mind.” Amery had managed to tie up a few projects during the wee small hours, keeping a wary eye on the big chunk of plywood where her front window used to be. She hadn’t needed caffeine either; adrenaline had kept her up all night. But now? Talk about exhausted. She was dangerously close to face-planting if she didn’t keep the liquid energy flowing, so she poured herself another cup of coffee.

  “What did the cops say?” Chaz asked.

  “They’re calling it a random act of vandalism since nothing was taken. Which just shows how lucky I am as well as how stupid I am.”

  “Sweetie. You’re the victim here,” Emmylou said gently.

  Amery twisted her ponytail, a nervous habit from childhood she’d yet to break. “For the random act? Yes. But believing a sheet of glass is adequate protection between the outside world and my business does make me naive.”

  “You have plans to rectify that?”

  “The glass place is installing thicker panes this time. They’re also replacing the glass on your side,” she said to Emmylou. “Once that’s done, I’ll have them mount drop-down chain fencing outside both windows. I know they’re ugly, but they’ll offer another layer of protection. Half the businesses on this block already have them anyway.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t ever want to relive what I went through last night after the cops called. Where I envisioned my computers with all my client information and projects being ripped off or smashed to bits. And that doesn’t include how guilty I’d feel as your landlord if something had happened to either of your workspaces.”

  She’d been lax in her responsibilities as the building owner because her tenants were her friends. Emmylou rented out the left half of the bottom floor space for her massage studio. Chaz rented the tiny center section for his various artistic enterprises. Amery’s graphic design business was on the right bottom half and she lived in the loft that spanned the length of the two-story building.

  Emmylou crossed the room and put her arms around Amery. “What can I do? You need a massage?”

  “Thanks for the offer, but those magic hands of yours would put me right to sleep. And I have to be alert for the insurance adjuster and the glass repair place to show up.”

  “As soon as you’ve signed off on the paperwork, I’ll stay until everything is done. It’s the least I can do, especially after last night,” Molly said.

  “Speaking of last night, Molly, how did your self-defense class go?” Chaz asked.

  “Great except Amery had to take the class too. She wasn’t allowed to be there just for support.”

  “I wondered how you planned to get past that ‘no observation’ rule at Black Arts,” Emmylou said.

  Amery frowned at her. “You knew?”

  “Honey, everyone knows that rule,” she drawled in her thick Oklahoma accent.

  “Then why did you send Molly there?”

  “Because it’s the best dojo in Denver. My clients can’t speak highly enough of the place, even when they’re intimidated by the owner. He’s, like, a hundredth-degree black belt or something.”

  “Amery wasn’t intimidated,” Molly threw out. “Master Black hauled her out of class first thing. Made her change her pants. Then he worked with her one-on-one for half the class.”

  Worked with. Ha. The man had picked on her endlessly. “Someone should’ve told me there was a dress code,” Amery mumbled. She’d been so scrambled last night she’d left wearing the borrowed gi pants.

  Emmylou’s mouth fell open. “You had a run-in with Master Black on your first night?”

  “Yeah. Why?”

  “Because he doesn’t bother with the lower-belt classes. To hear my clients talk, he’s some kind of super-samurai throwback. Dangerous. Stealthy. Deadly. Evidently he can sneak up behind you and you’d never know he was there until it was too late.”

  That wasn’t entirely true. Amery had known where Master Black had been at all times last night. She’d felt the weight of his gaze on her—even from the Crow’s Nest.

  “I’d have to disagree with that statement.”

  Amery spun around. Holy shit. Master Black lingered just inside the main doorway. A very hot looking Master Black, casually outfitted in jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt that set off his coloring to perfection. The ends of his untamed hair brushed his shoulders, giving the impression of wildness lurking beneath his controlled demeanor.

  Faced with the devastatingly powerful and sexy whole of him, she was having difficulty breathing. Not only hadn’t she ever experienced such a visceral reaction to a man, she couldn’
t look away from him. But she had the oddest feeling she should drop her gaze, so she did.

  After she’d broken the intense eye-fuck, he sauntered forward and offered his hand to Emmylou. “Seems my reputation has preceded me once again, Ms. . . . ?”

  “Simmons. But, darlin’, you can call me Emmylou. I’m pleased to meet you, Master Black. I have several clients who train at your facility, and they can’t speak highly enough of your training programs.”

  “Your clients?”

  Emmylou pointed to the door to her massage studio. “I’m a masseuse. With my background in sports medicine I deal mostly with professional athletes. That’s how Amery and I met.”

  “I’m sure Master Black isn’t interested in how we met.” Amery gave him a cool once-over, trying to gain some equilibrium. “What do you want?”

  He moved with alarming speed, stopping directly in front of her. “You forgot your jeans at my place last night.”

  He’d phrased that so intimately her cheeks burned.

  “Then you left so abruptly after . . . well, afterward.”

  Making it sound as if they’d had a fuck-and-run encounter. He seemed to enjoy flustering her.

  He turned and pointed to the plywood. “Did that have something to do with your rapid departure?”

  “Yeah, I tend to drop everything when the cops call and tell me about a break-in.”

  His eyes narrowed. “Has this happened before?”

  “No. We weren’t robbed either. It seems to be just a random act of vandalism. But it’s shaken us all up, as you can imagine.”

  Chaz sashayed over and offered his hand. “Chaz Graylind. Nice to meet you, Master Black.”

  He shook Chaz’s hand. “Please call me Ronin.”

  Ronin. The sexy, mysterious name fit him perfectly.

  Then he returned that laser focus to her again.

  Amery was acutely aware how awful she looked. She fought the urge to smooth the wrinkles from her shirt, the same one she’d worn to class last night. In fact, she still wore the black pants he’d forced her to change into.

  “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked.

  “Not unless you own a glass company and can have this fixed in the next hour.”

  “I can make some calls, if you like. See if I can speed up the process.”

  “Why would you do that?”

  “Because you’re a beautiful woman in distress and it’s in the samurai code of honor that I help you.”

  Her friends scattered. Traitors. But they probably assumed given the sparks flying between her and Master Black that she wanted to be alone with him.

  Don’t you?

  Amery backed up. “Are you so concerned with all your new students that you stop in to check on them?”

  “Only you, apparently.”

  She found her back against the brick wall. He hadn’t caged her in with his arms or blocked her in with his body. He even kept a respectable distance, not touching her at all, but something about him held her in place. “What do you want from me, Master Black?”

  “Ronin,” he corrected. “When we’re outside the dojo like this, you can call me Ronin. As for what I want from you . . .”

  Butterflies danced in her stomach as she waited for him to answer his own question.

  Those sun-warmed topaz eyes locked on to hers. “Guess.”

  “Ah, you want your pants back?” Brilliant comeback, Amery.

  “I want much more than that from you, and I think you know it.”

  Gulp. She feared her swallow was audible.

  He smiled.

  Holy crap. Ronin Black smiled and she swore the heavens opened up and a chorus of angels started singing. Oddly enough, she worried they were humming “The Strip.”

  Man, she was punchy when she was sleep-deprived.

  “But getting you out of those pants is a good place to start.”

  Amery glanced down. “You want them off right now?”

  “I didn’t bring your jeans with me, so we’ll wait to swap. Time and place to be determined.”

  Her eyes met his. “Not before class next week?”

  He shook his head.

  “You are freaking me out.”

  “But you’re not scared of me, are you?”

  “No.” It came out of her mouth before the logic center of her brain weighed in with a solid hell yes.


  “Is that why you singled me out last night?”


  “Then why?” she pressed.

  “You were out of uniform.”

  “But if I’d been in proper clothing . . . ?”

  “I still would’ve singled you out.”

  His cryptic answers were sort of pissing her off. “Why?” she asked, slightly exasperated.

  Ronin reached out to stroke the edge of her cheek. “Your attitude . . . intrigues me.”

  “What attitude?”

  “Defiance. Especially since I don’t think that’s a natural reaction for you.”

  She raised an eyebrow. “Or maybe you’re intrigued by the fact that I took my pants off within a few minutes of meeting you?”

  “Which you did by your own choice, so you can understand my interest in a woman who blushes as she’s tossing her jeans at me.”

  Amery blinked at him. This had to be the most bizarre conversation she’d ever had. Wait, maybe this was a dream.

  Then he edged closer. “Where’d you go?”

  “Maybe the better question is where am I? I’m out of it and don’t even know what I’m saying. I need to go to bed.”

  “I’d be happy to take you to bed,” he murmured.

  “Ronin.” God, just saying his name made her heart race. “We’re getting past my comfort zone.”

  His eyes searched hers. “Now you’re getting it. From the minute I watched you walk into my dojo, this has been past my comfort zone.”

  Holy hell.

  “Hello?” echoed from the doorway.

  Grateful for the reprieve, Amery sidestepped the formidable Ronin Black and headed toward the man with the clipboard.

  “You’re Ms. Hardwick?”

  “I am.”

  “I’m Dennis Harris from Schmidt Insurance. I’ll just poke around and be out of your hair before you know it.” He returned outside.

  She turned around to see Master Black studying the projects she’d framed and hung on the wall.

  His movements were measured and deliberate even when it appeared he was wandering. His profile was well proportioned—both rugged and classic.

  “You do great work,” he said without looking at her. “Very original when so much graphic art seems like a rehash.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Have you been in the business long?”

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