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       Bound, p.41

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James

  lesser being as she waited for Madame Hirano to acknowledge her.

  Finally the woman spoke. “I’m Hirano Shiori from Okada Foods. I apologize for what must seem like rude behavior. I arrived from Tokyo a few hours ago. The difference in altitude has given me a vicious migraine.”

  “I’m sorry. Would you prefer to reschedule?”

  Ms. Hirano turned and offered a wan smile. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. So you’ll have to forgive me for wearing sunglasses indoors. But they help with the light sensitivity.”

  “No problem. I once had a client wear a kilt and a bagpipe and speak in a Scottish brogue during our meeting. I’m used to dealing with eccentricities in this business.”

  “Good to know. Please have a seat.”

  When Ms. Hirano walked to the conference table, Amery admired her business attire. Cream silk pants and an embroidered tunic that managed to be sleek and trendy. Killer shoes. She carried herself with grace, which only accentuated the overall impression of beauty and power.

  After she’d glided into a high-backed chair, she said, “Shall I order tea or coffee?”

  “None for me, thanks.” Amery began pulling folders out of her bag and extreme nerves made her babble. “I’ll admit I got a little overzealous with this project. I created several designs that keep the Okada Food logo prominent, but I didn’t study your existing product lines too much since you’re looking for a fresh approach. I also—”

  “Ms. Hardwick. Please slow down. And sit down. You don’t have to start your pitch within five minutes of walking in.” Ms. Hirano waited until Amery dropped into a chair. Then she picked up the phone and spoke rapidly in Japanese. After she returned the receiver to the cradle, she said, “They’ll bring us refreshments shortly. I’m a few cups short on my daily tea intake.”

  Amery forced her hands into her lap, away from the urge to shuffle the folders. “I’ll probably forgo the caffeine.”

  One pencil-thin eyebrow rose above the sunglasses frame. “Are you always so energetic, Ms. Hardwick?”

  “Yes. And please call me Amery.”

  “So, I’m curious, Amery, as to how you ended up running your own graphic design business.”

  “You sound as if that’s a novelty.”

  “Perhaps. Small American businesses fascinate me. Especially businesses with a woman at the helm.”

  Grateful for the chance to discuss her work, Amery shared the abbreviated version of her career. She finished just as two raps sounded on the door and Sumo Guy rolled in a cart loaded with pastries, fruit, and beverages.

  “Help yourself to whatever you’d like.” She paused. “Or would you prefer to have Jenko serve you?”

  The slight stiffening of Jenko’s shoulders indicated he wouldn’t be down with that at all.

  “I can serve myself, thank you.”

  Ms. Hirano lifted a slim shoulder and spoke to Jenko in Japanese. Amery and Jenko stood side by side as he filled his boss’s plate and she arranged hers. She opted for a nonalcoholic mimosa—orange juice with a splash of 7up.

  When she returned to her seat, she felt the woman staring at her.

  “While we’re taking a break, tell me about yourself. What you do outside of work for fun.”

  This was getting weirder, but maybe it was a Japanese thing, so Amery played along. Talking about her interests and her friends without giving too much away was much harder than she imagined.

  Ms. Hirano sliced a chunk of mango and speared it with her fork. “You’re not in a relationship?”

  She stomped down the urge to snap none of your damn business and can we please keep this focused on business? The thing between her and Ronin wasn’t the type of relationship she could explain. Amery wet her suddenly dry lips. “No. I’m currently single.”

  “A woman who likes to play the field. I admire that.”

  But that wasn’t what Amery had said. This woman had twisted her words and Amery heard another alarm bell go off.

  Another bout of silence fell.

  Something wasn’t right. Amery continued to covertly scrutinize the woman, but big round lenses kept more than half of her features hidden.

  Why was she playing so coy? Why had she started asking such personal questions? Why had Amery sensed a thread of hostility coming from her?

  An odd thought clicked into place. Could this woman be Ronin’s ex, Naomi? Kiki had warned Ronin that Naomi would be returning to Denver soon.

  Her stomach pitched. She tried to remember if she’d been contacted by Maggie at Okada Foods before or after the run-in with Naomi’s friend. Which brought her back to her original question: why had an international Japanese food conglomerate requested Amery’s small company to prepare designs for a new major campaign? Then after a few weeks of clandestine phone calls and secretly working on project specs, she was invited to a last-minute meeting with the company’s VP, not her usual Okada contact? A business meeting, which takes place in a private suite? A meeting in which they’d not discussed business at all, but the VP had grilled Amery on her personal life?

  This was total bullshit.

  “Is there a problem?” Ms. Hirano asked.

  “Yes.” Amery hoped she wasn’t making a mistake. “Who are you really?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “Who are you? This last-minute meeting with the company bigwig doesn’t make sense. Neither does the fact that none of your other business associates are here except for Jenko, who I’m assuming is your bodyguard since he didn’t seem comfortable serving tea. And there’s the fact that you can’t even deign to look me in the eye. So you can understand why I’d be concerned this is some sort of scam.”

  “I assure you Okada Foods Conglomerate is not a scam.”

  “I know that. I did my research. I’m saying your being here doesn’t make any sense and I wonder what you really want from me.”

  “A little paranoid, aren’t you, Ms. Hardwick?”

  Amery shrugged. “So prove me wrong.”


  “Take off your sunglasses.”

  “Why is that necessary?”

  “Because playing the cool, mysterious food magnate hidden behind unflattering cheap sunglasses doesn’t ring true for you.”

  She cocked her head prettily. “How so?”

  “Nothing about you is cheap. Or unstylish. You bought those sunglasses for one reason only; they’re big enough to mask more than half of your face. So why do you want to hide your face from me?”

  “You read that much into this? How is it you think you know so much about me thirty minutes after meeting me?”

  Amery pointed to the purse on the opposite end of the table. “Your handbag is from Hermès and runs about twenty-five thousand dollars. The diamond-encrusted watch on your wrist is easily in the hundred-thousand-dollar range. Your shoes? Roughly ten grand. I don’t have any idea which designer you’re wearing, but I’ll bet a month’s rent that suit is not off the discount rack from a Tokyo department store. Your scarf, also Hermès, set you back around fifteen hundred bucks. So the cheap sunglasses don’t fit. Besides, if you truly had a vicious headache, you wouldn’t take a meeting with me.”

  She smiled. “Very astute.”

  “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but my gut instinct is warning me to walk out.”

  “Walk away from a project that could potentially pay you six figures?”

  Don’t think about the money; think about the principle. Amery raised her chin a notch. “Yes, ma’am. Who are you?”

  “Who do you think I am?”

  Ask if she’s Naomi.

  No. She didn’t even know Naomi’s last name. “You ditching the shades or not?”

  “How like him you are,” she muttered. “Believing eyes are the windows to the soul and all that crap.”

  Who was him? Was this woman completely bonkers?

  Just as she’d decided to cut her losses and run, Ms. Hirano lowered her head and removed the shades.

  When she
glanced up at Amery, Amery’s entire body seized in shock. In recognition. Looking into those amber-colored eyes, she knew. Only one other person she’d ever met had eyes like that.

  Ronin Black.

  “They are a giveaway, aren’t they?” she murmured. “You can see why I felt the need to mask them.”

  “Yes,” Amery managed, relieved this woman wasn’t Naomi. But facing a member of Ronin’s family when she knew next to nothing about said family . . . not fun either. She couldn’t be certain yet how this woman was related to Ronin. “You are Ronin’s . . . ?”

  “Sister.” She gave Amery that same seated bow she’d seen Ronin do a hundred times. “I’m Shiori Hirano.”

  Ten billion questions bounced around in Amery’s head, but she couldn’t give voice to a single one.

  “You’re not what I expected, Amery.”

  “To say that I wasn’t expecting you, Ms. Hirano, is an understatement.”

  “Please. Call me Shiori.”

  She pronounced it she-o-ree. “Where’s the Hirano come in? The whole Japanese family surname first, and then the given name last confuses me.”

  “Hirano was my married name. I opted not to change it back after the divorce. In Japan I introduce myself as Hirano Shiori. When dealing with people in Europe or the West, I switch it to the Westernized version Shiori Hirano. My headache is such I neglected to do that today.”

  Amery couldn’t help but stare at Ronin’s exotic-looking sister.

  “I know Ronin and I don’t look alike—except we both have our mother’s eyes. Although we do have the same parents. Our father was an eighth Japanese.”

  Amery frowned. Had Ronin ever told her that about his father? No. “Does Ronin know you’re here in Denver?”

  Shiori shook her head. “Curiosity about you got the better of me.”

  He’d spoken to his sister about her? “What did he tell you about me?”

  “Nothing. He circumvented my involvement by dealing with Maggie. He demanded that we hire your firm, sight unseen, for a major product launch for the family business. Naturally that caused a major red flag.”

  “What family business?”

  Shiori’s gaze sharpened. “You really don’t know? When you can rattle off the retail price of every item on my body? You know exactly what Ronin is worth. I’m observant too, Ms. Hardwick. Don’t try and snow me like you’ve snowed my brother.”

  Snowed her brother? What the hell? “The Ronin Black I know owns a dojo. That’s it. There is no snowing the man. Ever.”

  “Ronin isn’t only some two-bit dojo sensei, teaching classes and putting together amateur mixed martial arts fights. Ronin Black is heir to the Okada Food Conglomerate. An international company currently valued at five billion U.S. dollars.”

  After a moment of stunned silence, Amery said, “What? Are you fucking kidding me?”

  “No, I assure you, I am not kidding.”

  Not happening. Ronin would not do this. He had too much integrity to lie to her on such an epic scale.

  But he didn’t lie; he just wasn’t completely honest. He wasn’t honest with you about a lot of things. Why are you so shocked by this?

  Because she’d trusted him. She’d believed he was just a jujitsu master living his life according to the tenets of his discipline.

  She had to keep her teeth clenched to hold back the roar of fury threatening to escape. Her face and neck became fire hot, which was odd when she’d felt the blood drain out of her face and her entire body turned ice-cold.

  Shiori leaned over the conference table. “You had no clue about who he is, did you?”

  “None at all.”

  The man was a fucking billionaire.

  The sick feeling spread from her gut straight up to her heart. He’d lied to her about who he was from the start. While she’d bared everything to him. Everything—her mind, her body, her will. And what had she gotten in return? Hot sex, kinky sex. Not the same type of soul-baring disclosure. He’d kept his place in the international billionaire’s club a fucking secret.

  “I wasn’t wrong in my assumption that you two are intimately involved?”

  “We’ve spent time together the last couple months.”

  Shiori gave her a skeptical look. “You didn’t use the fact that you were spending time together to demand that he give your company the new Okada food line project?”

  “How could I have demanded anything from him when I had no goddamn idea he had any tie to Okada? When I hadn’t even heard of the company . . .” Until a couple of weeks after she’d mentioned her financial struggles to one Ronin Black. She exhaled. “He set this whole thing up. He set me up.” Amery wanted to beat her fists into the table. “I was flattered when my little graphic design company garnered interest from a big corporation. Naive of me to trust it, but I had so much hope that playing in the big leagues would turn things around for me. Now to learn it’s all been a lie?” She shook her head. She’d never bounce back from this type of betrayal. Never.

  “I saw your financials. It’s been a rough year.”

  Of course she’d scoured Amery’s financials—a company like Okada wielded a lot of power. Which probably meant that Ronin was also aware she had two grand in her checking account, the exact amount of her outstanding mortgage payment and how much she’d socked away in her 401k. Pitiable amounts to billionaires, for sure. Her face heated again. “I never asked Ronin for money.”

  “He most likely considered this a favor to you?”

  “A favor? A favor is helping your friend move into a new apartment. Or taking a self-defense class with a friend to bolster her self-esteem. A favor is not secretly demanding your billion-dollar family business take pity on your flavor of the month and tease her with the possibility of a multimillion-dollar contract.”

  Shiori studied her. “How long have you been . . . ?”

  “Several months. So when he demanded you hire me, did he ask you not to tell me?”

  “Like I mentioned previously, I haven’t actually spoken to Ronin about this. He instructed Maggie to find a project for your company and hire you outright. She contacted me, letting me know what my brother had demanded. I decided to intervene.”

  “So you came to Denver to see if I was some gold-digging hustler.”

  She lifted a slim shoulder. “It’s happened before.”

  Amery frowned. “To Ronin?”

  “No. To me.”

  Why was she being so forthright? Because it sure as fuck didn’t run in the family.

  “You seem surprised I’d tell you that.”

  “I’m used to your brother’s nondisclosure.”

  “I’d point out it’s a Japanese thing. But it’s mostly a Ronin thing.”

  “Didn’t you do a background check on me?” Amery demanded.

  “I didn’t need to.” She nonchalantly sipped her tea. “Ronin had you checked out shortly after you two met.”

  “Checked out how?” And how had Ronin’s sister found out about it?

  “Having the investigative company Okada keeps on retainer call your known associates, your customers, your neighbors, your friends, and your family.”

  That bastard. It hadn’t been the insurance company after all. Another wave of anger rolled over her.

  “So you know nothing of our family’s background?” Shiori asked.

  “None,” she said flatly.

  “Our grandfather married an English nurse who treated his injuries after World War Two. She was assigned to Japan during the allied occupation. She was quite a bit older than him, but they married anyway. Evidently my grandmother had been exposed to chemicals during the war and with a weakened immune system, she died during an influenza outbreak a few years later, leaving my grandfather a widower at age twenty-two with a year-old daughter. In his grief he threw himself into his food supply business and ended up building an empire.

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