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       Bound, p.35

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James

  She offered a cheeky smile. “You didn’t ask.”

  “You’re sidestepping the issue, but I’ll let it slide. Why did you think we couldn’t get together tonight?”

  She threaded her fingers through his. “Ronin. Master Black. Sensei. Sir. You are many, many things and I appreciate every facet of you, but tenderness isn’t in your arsenal of seduction. Within five minutes of being alone together, we’re naked together, and that couldn’t happen tonight, so I opted to avoid the situation.”

  “Which caused an issue between us, so nondisclosure was obviously the best choice,” he said dryly. “I’ll point out we can be together without it always leading to sex.”

  “But why would we want to be?”

  Her flip comment annoyed him rather than amused him. “Sounds like it’s past someone’s bedtime.” He pushed to his feet and held out his hand. “Shall we?”

  The night had cooled off and the short bike ride left her chilled. She didn’t protest when Ronin informed her he’d tuck her in.

  He followed her into the bedroom and began to unbutton her blouse, pressing kisses down her chest as he did so.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Helping you get ready for bed. Lift up.” He curled his hand around her knee and lifted her leg to tug off her boot. “Other side.”

  She clutched his shoulders as he removed her other boot.

  As soon as Ronin was upright, his mouth landed on hers. The slow kiss belied how fast his fingers worked the button and zipper on her jeans. Despite the fabric being skintight, he easily peeled the denim down her legs.

  He nuzzled her temple and brushed his lips across her cheekbone. “Let me show you.”

  “Show me what?”

  “That I can be tender.” He strung kisses down her throat. “So very, very tender with you.”

  “Ronin. You don’t have to.”

  “I want to. I need to.”

  She about melted into a puddle of goo.

  “And you don’t have to worry that I’ll rut on you afterward.” He unhooked her bra and removed it. “Take off your panties.”

  His sweet but commanding tone sent a shiver through her. When she reached down to grasp the lace band, Ronin’s fingers were there, helping her slide them off.

  Then he dropped to his knees.

  Amery blushed head to toe. It was far from the first time he’d been up close and personal, but she’d literally never been so bared before.

  His hands started at her hips and his thumbs swept over the smooth sheen of her mound. His fingers skated down the crease of her thigh and then up the inside edge of her slit. Ronin made that long sweeping caress several more times, not speaking, just staring.

  Just when she didn’t think she could stand another second, he said, “How can you be so pale and yet so perfect?”

  Her breath stalled when his fiery gaze met hers.

  “Spread your legs, baby. I need my mouth on you.”

  That quiet, sultry demand caused her knees to buckle and her butt hit the mattress.

  Ronin didn’t miss a beat. He scooted closer to the edge of the bed and pushed her thighs apart. Way apart.

  He covered every inch of her denuded flesh with butterfly kisses. By the time he dipped his tongue down her slit, she’d gone slick and slippery.

  “The way you taste is addictive.” And he proved it by licking, lapping, and sucking her juices. Never aggressively, but with a tender need she’d never experienced with him.

  And Ronin didn’t threaten to bind her hands if she touched him while he went down on her. So she sifted her fingers through his thick, unruly hair. Her fingers swept over his eyebrows and cheekbones and even the shell of his ear as he worked her over with his mouth.

  His eyes were closed, but every once in a while those thick lashes would lift and she’d find him watching her, watching him.

  Sexy. Hot. Sweet.

  When he focused on her clit, the detonation against his mouth was instantaneous. Delicious. Perfect. Especially when he didn’t relent and immediately drove her up and spun her into orbit again.

  Amery could scarcely hear over the blood whooshing in her ears. She slumped back on the bed, reveling in every hard throb against his firmly sucking mouth. Every unerring flick of his tongue. Every soft smooch on her swollen flesh. She also reveled in his fingers digging into her inner thighs. Ironic that his intent to show her tenderness would leave a mark on her? No. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

  She yawned. “Now I’m tired.”


  A kiss on her forehead. Then he tucked the covers around her. “I’ll lock up.”

  She whispered, “Thank you,” as sleep beckoned.

  “No. Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For reminding me I can lower my guard around you. For letting me be what you needed tonight.”

  Her last thought was she’d been mistaken about Ronin. He knew exactly how to be tender. He’d just needed someone to allow him to show it.


  WHEN Amery realized Molly was already on a call on the other line, she picked up the ringing receiver and answered, “Hardwick Designs.”

  “May I please speak to Amery Hardwick?”

  “This is Amery.”

  “Ms. Hardwick, this is Maggie Arnold. I’m happy to finally get in touch with you.”

  Great, another telemarketer. She’d opened her mouth to decline whatever fantastic special this woman planned to offer when she said, “I assure you this isn’t a sales call. I oversee the North American district for Okada Foods. Have you heard of us?”

  That was some kind of Asian food line if she recalled correctly. “It’s vaguely familiar.”

  “Good. Okada is in the product development stage for creating healthier frozen entrées. Since these foods will launch an entirely new product line, and will only be offered for limited distribution, we’re looking for a younger, hipper, fresher packaging design. We received your name and were intrigued by your ad designs for local organic food outlets, such as Wicksburg Farms, Grass Roots, Fresh Start, and the farm-to-table restaurants like Nature’s Bounty and Juniper’s Garden that specialize in the type of audience we hope to target.”

  That piqued her curiosity. “Your company is entering the organic food market?”

  “We’re dipping our toe in the water. We’ve chosen a few areas of the country to test-market and we’re restricting the product line to higher-end grocery markets. Would you be interested in looking at some specs?”

  “What type of specs?”

  “An outline of what we’d need for FDA packaging requirements, including details of each specific food item, the deadline, a budget, and samples of existing products in the Okada line.”

  “Sounds like an interesting project. I’d love to see the specs.”

  “Excellent. First we’ll send a nondisclosure statement for you to sign and ask that you don’t discuss this potential project even before you receive the packet of information.”

  A tiny kernel of excitement built in her. “Not a problem. When should I expect it?”

  “Tomorrow morning.”

  “That fast? From overseas?”

  “No. I’m based in the Seattle office. My contact information will be with the nondisclosure statement, and if you’d be so kind to drop me an e-mail after you receive the packet tomorrow, I’d appreciate it.”

  “Will do.”

  “Thank you. We’re looking forward to the possibility of working with you, Ms. Hardwick. Good-bye.”

  Amery stared at the receiver after the woman hung up. Odd to have something like that come from out of left field. Really odd. Wasn’t it? Then again, the woman had mentioned Amery’s biggest clients, so she had done her research. Maybe she’d even contacted a few of those clients to get a recommendation.

  “Amery?” Molly prompted. “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah. Why?”

  “I said your name, like, three time

  “Sorry. Just lost in thought.” She tapped her pen on the desk. “This is a weird question. But have you gotten any strange phone calls lately?”

  Molly frowned. “Like how weird? And how recently?”

  “In the last couple of weeks.”

  “Not that recently. But the week after the break-in I got a call from someone asking for information on you. It started out with general questions and then it got personal. That’s when I told the caller I was uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. She thanked me for my time and hung up. The number was unlisted and I figured it was someone with the insurance company checking to make sure you weren’t the type who’d trash your own building and file a claim on it.”

  Amery’s eyes widened. “Why didn’t you tell me this?”

  Molly fidgeted and pushed away from the doorframe. “Because it was confidential and I’d forgotten about it until just now.” She paused. “But I think you should know that same person contacted both Chaz and Emmylou, asking them the same kinds of questions about you and the business. They were asked to keep it confidential too.”

  That kicked Amery’s memory. Her mother had mentioned getting a phone call pertaining to Amery’s personal and professional life that same week. That pissed her off. She’d made an insurance claim one time and the company questioned her integrity? Behind her back? Harassing her coworker, her office mates, and her mother?

  “I’m sure it’s just standard procedure,” Molly said diplomatically. “Especially since the cops were involved.”

  “Maybe you’re right.” But something about it didn’t sit well with her.

  “So, who called that made you bring this up with me?”

  “Doesn’t matter now.” Although Molly would eventually work on the Okada project if Amery landed it, and she’d already signed nondisclosure agreements with Hardwick Designs, Amery didn’t want to discuss the potential project because she didn’t want to jinx it. “Who were you talking to?”

  “Nancy at Grass Roots. They’re having some kind of members-only sale in three days. And she’s sorry for the late notice . . .”

  Par for the course with Nancy, so Amery didn’t even blink. “What does she need?”

  “An ad that goes out in an e-mail blast to their newsletter subscribers. And Q codes for the twenty products they’re putting on special.”

  “What else?”

  “Each store will offer twenty sale items. Fifteen are standard, and then five items are sale items unique to that store.”

  “Which means multiple newsletters.”

  Molly nodded. “A master, which will go out to everyone. And then another one for whichever store they’re registered at.”

  Amery tapped her fingers on her desk and tried to sort through it. “Can’t we just list everything in the master for all eight stores? There are fifteen things that will be on special on all six locations. And then under that can’t we list the five unique items to each store? Like the Lakewood store is running a special on spelt flour, kumquats, organic beets, gluten-free crackers, and chemical-free dishwasher soap? And the Castle Rock store is running, X, Y, Z, A, and B?”

  “That’s what I thought too. But Nancy swears their sales numbers can back up that a general ad blast, and then a targeted ad blast increases their sales by seventeen percent.”

  “She’s got the data to back it up, and if that’s what she wants . . . she is the client.”

  “Yep.” Molly smiled. “Plus, we get paid more, since it’ll be more work for us and we can’t afford to turn any extra jobs down right now, can we?”

  With the downturn in business, Molly hadn’t asked if her position was at risk, but she could see the writing on the wall if things didn’t pick up. “No. So how detailed are her spec sheets?”

  “Same as usual. She’s sending a courier over with the stuff you need to take pics of. And she warned me, like, three times not to unpack everything because it’s sorted and bundled according to store.”

  “Fine. You’re working on the newsletters?”

  “I’m loading the templates and I’ll start with the master.”

  Amery had done a lot of work for Grass Roots over the past six years. The stores featured organic food from produce to meat and dairy. It was similar to the big organic national food chain with the exception that it was locally owned and the company of eight stores supported Colorado-grown produce, Colorado-raised meat, Colorado dairies, and other products made in Colorado. Most companies wouldn’t take actual pictures of the items and produce available in their stores; it was much easier to use stock images. But Grass Roots wanted their newsletters to be an honest representation of what their stores offered. So Amery’s photography skills were put to the test, taking shots of everything from Romanesque broccoli to free-range chicken carcasses.

  She stood and grabbed her empty coffee mug. As she passed Molly’s desk, she said, “Want a refill?”

  Molly handed over her cup without looking away from her computer screen. “Might as well load us both up because it’s going to be a late night.”

  • • •

  AMERY finished the last shot for the newsletter around ten o’clock and sent Molly home. Since she got to keep the items she photographed, she sorted items she didn’t need, like organic dog food, into donate and save piles. But after a long day she only had the energy to refrigerate the perishables.

  Around eleven Ronin texted he was at the back door. Yawning, she hefted herself out of the chair and cut through the back room to let him in.

  The man was on her even before she closed the door. She twined her arms around his neck and held on, letting the energy that always pulsed from him restore hers.

  He broke the kiss and said, “I missed you last night.”

  “Same here. I was just finishing up.”

  “Anything I can do to help?”

  She pecked him on the mouth. “Keep me company.” As she locked the door, she said offhandedly, “I should just give you a key.” When he didn’t respond, she backtracked, “Not that I’m making it into a big thing, I just thought—”

  Ronin spun her around and framed her face in his hands. “It is a big thing. Next time you come over I’ll give you a key card and the codes to my place.” He pressed a kiss on her forehead. “I’m not doing this just to give you free swimming privileges—you know that, right?”

  “Right.” Smiling, she took his hand and led him to her small studio.

  He bent down and peered at the props on the table. “What are those? Turnips?”

  “Golden beets. They’re milder than regular beets but still good.”

  “I might have to try cooking with them.” Ronin’s gaze took in the piles everywhere. “Looks like you’ve been busy. Does that mean things are looking better on the business front?”

  They hadn’t talked about her business struggles at all in the weeks since he’d offered her a loan. While she still appreciated his generosity, taking his money—no matter how much she needed it and how well intentioned he was in offering it—would drive a wedge between them. Not only because of her pride, but it’d just add another layer to their already complicated relationship.

  “All this”—she gestured to the piles—“is for a Grass Roots newsletter. As far as adding new business . . . it’s been pretty slim pickin’s.” She thought back to the phone call from today. That could be huge. So huge she couldn’t wrap her head around it, or why they’d approached her.

  Then Ronin was in her face, resting his right hand against her cheek. “I recognize that look. Did something happen today that’s worrying you?”

  How could he read her so easily and she couldn’t read him at all?

  She latched on to the first random thought that popped into her head. “It didn’t happen today. It’s something I’ve been putting
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