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       Bound, p.38

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  to hear you trust him, because frankly, I never expected you to be attracted to that sort of man.”

  “What sort? Hot? Older? Exotic?”

  “A thug. A highly trained thug, but a thug nonetheless.”

  Amery’s jaw dropped. “Wow, for a gay man who deals with preconceived ideas, you’re pretty goddamn judgmental.”

  “And what would sweet, naive Amery call a man who teaches violent tactics and sometimes uses them himself for profit? Isn’t that the very definition of a thug?”

  She hated his pseudo-reasonable I’m-talking-to-a-child-tone. She drained her drink and stood. “Excuse me. I need to use the facilities.” And get the hell away from you.

  In the bathroom, she replayed the conversation with Vincent. The problem with her friends and the groups they hung around with? They intellectualized everything. They wouldn’t look beyond Ronin’s brawn to see his brain. If he capitalized on his skill and expanded his income base, it didn’t make him a thug for hire; it made him smart.

  Despite her frustration with him, she missed him.

  Back at the table she took a seat at the end opposite Vincent.

  Chaz made a beeline for her and sat on the arm of the chair. “Amery, the girl who always brings her A game, what’s up?”

  “Not much. Just enjoying your par-tay.”

  “You could’ve brought Master Black, you know.”

  “Might be awkward for him, with your prissy friends judging him.”

  Chaz crouched beside her. “Ignore Vincent. He’s a flaming asshole.”

  “I just don’t understand why you talked to him about your concerns regarding me getting involved with Ronin.”

  “Well, sugar cube, Vincent is my friend. I talked to him around the time Emmylou had me freaked out. That’s all.”

  “You sure?” When Chaz hesitated, she knew that wasn’t all. “Tell me.”

  “I just hate the secretiveness that’s grown between us since you started seeing him. Don’t jump on me, because I’m not blaming him, okay?”

  Chaz did have a point. She didn’t talk about her relationship with Ronin. “Okay.”

  “Seriously, where is he tonight?”

  I don’t know. “Contrary to what you and Emmylou believe, Ronin and I do lead separate lives.”

  “I’m glad because that means you’re here with me. I’m selfish enough to want you all to myself to help me celebrate tonight.” He took her hand. “So we okay?”

  Amery smiled, suspecting it looked as bogus as it felt. “Of course. We going dancing?”

  “You know it.” He stood and hip-checked her. “But no bitching because it’s a gay club,” he warned.

  • • •

  RONIN texted her at two a.m. I’m at the back door.

  She debated ignoring it. She started a snarky response about him forgetting his key and deleted it. She typed K and rolled out of bed to let him in.

  The metal door screeched loudly. After he stepped inside, she said, “Why did I bother to give you a key?”

  Ronin responded by wrapping his hand around the back of her neck and pulling her mouth to his. Kissing her softly, but thoroughly. He broke the kiss to press his mouth up her jawline. “Goddamn, I missed you so much tonight. I was an ass earlier today.”

  It wasn’t exactly an apology, but at least he acknowledged his bad behavior toward her. She tilted his head back and stared into his handsome face. Such tired eyes. “Ronin, you’re exhausted.”

  “Pretty much.”

  “You never did tell me what you did last night that kept you from sleep all night.”

  “A favor for a friend. Now we’re square.”

  Amery frowned at the shadow beneath his jaw. “Is that a bruise?”

  “Probably. Some favors are unappreciated.”

  Vincent’s nasty comment from earlier echoed in her head. “He’s a thug. A highly trained thug, but a thug nonetheless.”

  No, he was just a man. She kissed the mark. “Let’s get you in bed.”

  “Love to hear you say that. Although all I’m up for tonight is sleep.”

  She stopped and pointed at the back door. “If you’re not going to fuck me at least three times, you might as well get the hell out.”

  Ronin laughed, as she hoped he would. “Let me get a few hours of shut-eye and I’ll be all over you.”

  “Well, then. I suppose you can crash with me.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  RONIN woke her when the faint orange glow of dawn teased the edges of the curtains. He said nothing; he just brushed his mouth over her ear until she offered him her throat. He placed a soft kiss on her jawline and nuzzled his face against her neck.

  At first she loved the prickliness of his facial hair abrading her skin. But when he rubbed in the same spot on her throat and then the tops of her breasts, it became uncomfortable.

  As soon as she tried to touch him, he knocked the pillows to the floor, pinned her arms to the mattress, and trailed sucking kisses from one side of her neck to the other. Over and over. Then he did the same scraping sweep from one breast to the other. Keeping a firm grip on her wrists, he settled between her thighs and thrust into her. He moved with such desperation. Fast and hard, with no time for finesse. No time to catch his breath in the race to the finish line. He swiveled his hips and Amery arched up, reaching for that moment of pleasure. She came quietly, panting against his neck, and his silent climax followed hers.

  Amery was a little taken aback by his impersonal actions, because Ronin wasn’t a selfish lover. Ever. Not even when he had her bound. She broke his hold on her wrists. Touching his back, running her hands through his hair, hoping to get through to him, because he seemed to be in a daze. “Ronin?”

  He started to lift up and she thought she’d finally gotten somewhere with him. But he rolled onto his side, away from her, and she heard the deep rhythmic breathing that indicted he’d fallen asleep.

  She slid off the bed, grabbed her robe, and crept out of her bedroom, completely disconcerted. Something hadn’t been right with him. She didn’t mind aggressive sex, but she suspected Ronin hadn’t been conscious of his actions.

  What? He was sleep-fucking you?

  That did sound ridiculous.

  She poured a glass of water and noticed the red mark on her wrist. On both her wrists. Finger-shaped marks. Where else had he left marks on her? She dropped the robe and stared at her reflection in the mirror, shocked at what she saw.

  Her neck was covered with patches of beard burn interspersed with red suck marks. Same with her chest.

  Amery looked away from the marks and slipped the robe back on.

  He’s a violent man. Aren’t you afraid he’ll hurt you?

  The irony wasn’t lost on her. Ronin hadn’t hurt her in anger; he’d hurt her while making love to her. Had he even been aware of his actions in his exhausted state?

  You’re making excuses for him?

  She jumped when a loud knock sounded on the door. “Amery?”

  “If you need to use the bathroom, try the one downstairs.”

  “I don’t need to use the bathroom. Let me in. I know something’s wrong.”

  “Just give me a minute.”

  “No. Open the goddamn door or I’ll kick it in.”

  There’s another example of his violent streak. Are you really sure you know this man?

  She shrank against the wall.

  No sound came from the other side for several long moments. Then he said, “Please.”

  Amery found herself unlocking the door and walking past him into the kitchen. Hands shaking, she poured a glass of juice. Her heart raced when Ronin moved in behind her.

  “What happened? Help me out because I don’t remember a goddamn thing.”

  She faced him. “You don’t remember anything at all?”

  “I vaguely recall coming here late last night and crashing next to you. Then about five minutes ago I woke up alone, surrounded by twisted sheets and your taste on my tongue.” His gaz
e dropped to her hands, and how tightly she clutched her robe. “Amery. Did I hurt you?”

  She stared at him but couldn’t give voice to the it’s not so bad excuse.

  “Let me see.”

  “I’m afraid to.”

  “Why?”

  “Because of what you’ll do to yourself when you see what you did to me.”

  That gave him pause. “Jesus. I hurt you and you’re worried about me.”

  Yes, because it wasn’t really you.

  “Let me see it. Now.”

  Fed up with her self-recrimination and frustrated by his hot and cold behavior, Amery let the robe fall to the floor.

  Ronin clenched his hands at his sides as his gaze mentally catalogued every inch of her. “You are brightness and beauty in my life and your trust in me is something I treasure . . . and I did this to you?”

  Amery didn’t say anything; she just watched him. The horror on his face ripped at her.

  “Where does it hurt the most?” He briefly closed his eyes. “If you say you hurt worse inside than outside . . .”

  And like usual, she rushed to reassure him. “The beard burn stings. Arnica gel will help, but first I need a shower.” Maybe steam would clear the cobwebs in her brain and the heat would loosen her tensed muscles.

  When she exited the bathroom thirty minutes later, Ronin stood in front of the living room window. In two steps he erased the distance between them. “Baby. Let me put this right.” He nuzzled her temple. “Please.” He kissed her. Not tentatively as she expected, but with surety that felt like comfort and love.

  Love?

  That’s when she feared she’d forgive him anything because she loved him. It frightened her as much as it thrilled her.

  When he finally released her mouth, she tilted her head back and looked at him. She noticed Ronin had dark circles under his eyes. Every line in his face read exhaustion. She let her fingers drift across his baby-smooth face. When had he shaved? Had he done it out of guilt? “Ronin. You’re not okay and it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

  “You’re all that matters to me right now.” He placed his hand over hers. “Come on.”

  She let him lead her into the bedroom. The scent of orange blossoms and ginger perfumed the air from the candles on the dresser. Soft strains of Norah Jones tunes drifted from her old CD player. He’d put on fresh sheets, her favorite ones, pale pink cotton emblazoned with cherry blossoms. The whole space had a warm, comforting vibe.

  He kissed the back of her head, and his hands moved to untie the sash. Then he slipped the robe from her body. “Sit in the middle of the bed.”

  Shivering, not only from her nakedness, Amery positioned herself cross-legged in the center of the mattress.

  Ronin cocooned her in fleece. “Warm enough?” he asked as he brought her damp hair on the outside of the blanket.

  “Yes.”

  “Close your eyes. Let me know if I’m hurting you.” He scooted in behind her with his legs stretched out in a V; then he spread her hair out.

  Was he really . . . ?

  Yes. Ronin was brushing her hair.

  At first, it seemed weird. But then she blanked her mind to everything except the sensation of the bristles lightly digging into her scalp. The brush tugging down the long strands. His hands smoothing the untangled tresses. Ronin’s need to atone for his carelessness with her touched her on so many levels.

  “Such beautiful hair.” He brushed it straight back and gathered it at the back of her head. “I’ll braid it so it’s out of my way.”

  “You know how to braid?” tumbled out.

  “Same principle as braiding rope, right?”

  “I guess.” And he’d know all about that.

  Ronin’s warm breath drifted across her ear as he loosened the blanket. “Stretch out on your back.”

  Her heart beat faster—not from fear.

  His hands caressed her shoulders, her arms, her sides, her belly. He placed tender, warm kisses on every mark. Ronin continued to stroke her as he applied arnica gel to the areas that needed a salve stronger than the loving touch of his mouth.

  Amery kept her eyes closed. Her thoughts scrolled back to the night he’d shown her in the mirror how she looked bound by him. She remembered the dreamy quality of sitting perfectly still and feeling his hands on her everywhere. His fingers caressing her as he worked the ropes. Even when he’d unbound her, she’d still felt the pull, as if the ropes were digging into her skin.

  She felt that same type pull now—as if Ronin were burrowing beneath her skin. When she reached up to touch him, she saw the bruise on his jaw had darkened. Her gaze moved over his face. Was his bottom lip swollen? Why hadn’t she noticed the scratches on his neck?

  “What? You’re glaring at me.”

  “Where were you last night that you ended up with marks on your throat?” Now that she thought about it, he’d been fully dressed when he came looking for her. And the entire time he’d been touching her—he always took his shirt off. So what other marks was he hiding? And why?

  “It’s nothing.”

  “It’s not nothing to me. You didn’t have those Saturday morning when you pinned me to the bed and fucked me.”

  “Amery—”

  “Did you go to Twisted?”

  Ronin scowled. “No. I told you—”

  “You haven’t told me anything. So you’d better come clean about where you were last night or you can leave and don’t come back. I’m not kidding.”

  He sighed. “I know you’re not.” He pushed back onto his haunches and studied Amery for a long time before he spoke. “The only time I’ve slept in the last seventy-two hours was when I crawled in bed with you. After my twenty-four-hour surveillance gig, I came here and we went shopping. Seeing Kiki . . .”

  A knot in her chest tightened.

  “I’d signed on to ref ten matches in an amateur MMA event last night. The last guy’s opponent didn’t show, so I stepped in.”

  “Wait. You fought last night? In an actual match?”

  “Yeah.” He jammed his hand through his hair and she noticed his knuckles were shredded. “I saw the chance to alleviate some of my aggression from the previous forty-eight hours and I took it.”

  When his eyes met hers, she recognized the challenge. Go ahead and judge me.

  “Before you ask, yes, I won. But he managed to kick me in the head, which rang my bell pretty good. The fight went all three rounds, so the fans got their money’s worth.”

  The casual way Ronin relayed all this raised red flags. “How did you hear about the event?”

  “It was my event. I set it up.”

  Why didn’t she know that about him? Was that part of the shady business dealings others had mentioned? Was that why he didn’t talk about where he’d been or what he’d been doing some weekend nights? “You do that often?”

  “Often enough. And no, it’s not something I advertise through Black Arts.”

  Vincent’s warning surfaced again. “Mr. Black doesn’t list all his services on his dojo’s Web site.”

 
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