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       Bound, p.42

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  “Our mother fled his control and married an American soldier. After our father’s death, our mother chose to bring us to Japan. I was five and Ronin was eight.”

  While Amery appreciated the family history, she wasn’t sure why Shiori felt the need to tell her. Simply because Ronin hadn’t? Nothing she’d said had helped Amery understand why Ronin had kept so much from her.

  “Earlier when I asked you who you thought I was, why did you hesitate?”

  “I wondered if you were Ronin’s ex, Naomi. I don’t know much about her beyond that she’s Japanese. Someone told Ronin a few weeks ago she planned to visit Denver. I imagine since she and Ronin were together for a while you knew her.”

  “I was at the club when Ronin met Naomi. In fact, the only reason he went there that night was me. Did he tell you about it?”

  Ronin’s sister was aware of his club activities? Or maybe she was fishing for information. For some stupid reason Amery wanted to protect Ronin’s secrets.

  Because you’re in love with him.

  And right about now that made her the biggest idiot on the planet—how could she possibly love someone she didn’t know?

  When she realized Shiori was still waiting for her response, she shook her head.

  “I’d just been granted a divorce and I came to the U.S. with a friend. She wanted to go to the Denver Japanese Social Club and I was afraid she’d hook up with her old boyfriend and ditch me, so I begged Ronin to accompany me. He hates those places, but he agreed and that’s where he met Naomi. She was involved in international finance and was in the U.S. to oversee her father’s business interests. They hit it off. For a while anyway. Until Ronin found out . . .” Shiori looked uncomfortable for the first time. “Sorry. I talk too much.”

  But Amery’s mind had already latched onto the fact that Ronin hadn’t met Naomi at a sex club as he’d led her to believe, but at a social club.

  Was there anything he hadn’t lied to her about?

  His lust for her.

  “So knowing all this . . . what are you going to do with the information I gave you today?”

  Something in Shiori’s tone seemed off. Amery turned the question back on her. “What did you hope to gain from telling me this?”

  “An insight into my brother’s frame of mind.”

  “Through me?”

  “Yes. And I’m afraid I can’t say any more than that.”

  “You don’t have to.” Amery stood. “You’ve said plenty.”

  A panicked look flashed across Shiori’s face. “Wait. You’re leaving?”

  “No point in staying here and listening to more of the Okada/Black/Hirano saga since it no longer affects me.”

  Shiori’s eyes narrowed. In that moment she looked so much like Ronin that Amery’s chest tightened. “How does this not affect you?”

  “Okada Foods dangled the carrot and I bit. Shame on me for being hungry. But now that I found out it wasn’t a real carrot, I won’t make that judgment error again. You got the answers you wanted and so did I.”

  “You’re not pitching the project?”

  No fucking way. “No.”

  That shocked Shiori, but she recovered quickly and tossed off, “Petulance doesn’t make good business, Ms. Hardwick.”

  “Neither do lies.” Amery picked up her portfolio and dumped all of the design work on the conference table. As she reached inside for her keys, her fingers brushed crinkly wrapping paper. She pulled out the package and all but threw it on the table. “Oh, I almost forgot to give you this.”

  “What is it?”

  “A parting gift, a cheap token of my affection, a meaningless gesture I’d brought in good faith. Take your pick.”

  Amery walked out with her head held high.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  AFTER the meeting with Ronin’s sister, Amery found herself at loose ends. She drove aimlessly for an hour, knowing once the shock wore off, her wrath would kick in again—full force this time—and she’d go off the rails.

  She had no one to talk to. Although she and Emmylou had mended fences, her friend hadn’t revised her opinion on Ronin Black. She’d just accepted that the man would be in Amery’s life. So showing up to cry on Emmylou’s shoulder, about Ronin’s lies, and deliberate omissions, would make Amery look like a naive idiot for blindly trusting him and not heeding any of her friends’ concerns about him.

  Was saving face really more important than unloading all the heartache that was threatening to choke her?

  Yes.

  She couldn’t go to Chaz either. He’d been marginally more supportive about Ronin than Emmylou, but Chaz defined materialistic. He’d be wowed by Ronin’s status as a billionaire heir. He’d encourage her to forgive Ronin for misleading her about his true colors—which were apparently green, the color of money. Then he’d toss off a comment that he could think of a billion reasons why she should just let this issue go.

  Yeah, it sucks to be involved with a gorgeous sex-god billionaire.

  But Amery wasn’t that shallow. And she couldn’t give a damn about Ronin’s financial status—until she’d learned that he’d withheld the truth about it.

  What burned her ass, scarred her soul, and shredded her heart was that Ronin hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her anything about who he really was. But he’d demanded full disclosure, body and soul, from her.

  A sick feeling started to take root.

  That wasn’t really true. Ronin had never demanded anything from her. She’d just been so crazy about him, so happy that he’d helped free her from some of the moral confines that’d held her back her entire life, that she’d given him every part of herself without question. She’d willingly handed herself over to him physically, emotionally, sexually because she’d trusted him, because she’d believed he was being equally honest with her.

  Not so.

  Even after his rope proclivities came to light, he’d basically said take me as I am.

  She had.

  But that wasn’t who he really was.

  And that made her question who she was.

  • • •

  AMERY showed up at the dojo and rode the elevator to the second floor. Not many classes were held this time of day, but she didn’t give a damn if the entire dojo was in attendance. She’d say what she had to.

  She found Ronin Lee Black, otherwise known to her now as Rich, Lying Bastard, in the largest training room. He remained at rest in front of the class of black belts. Amery paused out of view and watched two men grappling until one guy plucked up his opponent and slammed him into the mat.

  What she wouldn’t give to be able to do that to Ronin right now.

  She didn’t know if her heart had ever pounded as hard or her blood had ever pumped as fast and hot and angry as when she stormed in.

  Every student turned to see who was dumb enough to interrupt his class.

  Amery didn’t wait for him to acknowledge her. “Sensei. A word please. Now.”

  Ronin spared her one quick glance. “The ‘no observation’ policy is in effect all day, every day. Return to the main room.”

  “I’m not leaving until I talk to you.”

  “I am teaching.”

  “And that time is sacrosanct?”

  When he looked at her, his face betrayed nothing. “My classes take precedence over everything, Ms. Hardwick.” Including you went unsaid.

  Putting her in her place and then he all but dismissed her? Screw that. Screw him. He spoke to the wide-eyed students as if she weren’t seething in the doorway.

  She interrupted him with, “Would you prefer to discuss the meeting I just had with your sister in front of your students? Because I’m good with that too.”

  Without meeting her gaze, Ronin said, “Everyone out. Five minutes. Don’t go far.”

  After the students were gone, she said, “I’m thrilled you can spare five whole minutes for me.”

  “Which I won’t waste on pointless bickering. Tell me where you were that you just
happened to run into my sister.”

  “I didn’t just happen to run into her. She sent for me. Okada Foods ringing a bell?”

  He glided toward her, his expression devoid of emotion. “Conference room.”

  Amery followed him, feeling like a naughty child about to be punished by the headmaster. Seeing the conference room at the end of the hall, she hustled past him to reach it first. She stood at the far side of the table and watched as he closed the door and blocked it with his body. That’s why she’d chosen her spot first. She had an exit behind her.

  “Talk.”

  “Shiori Hirano is your sister. She’s also vice president of Okada Foods, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate, which also happens to be your family business.”

  Ronin said nothing.

  Not that she’d expected anything different. She laid it out for him brick by brick. “Weeks ago I received a phone call from Okada’s North American director. She’d gotten my company’s name—gee, I wonder where—and asked if I’d be interested in doing design work on a new healthy frozen food line. I’ll admit it was a big ego boost when I got the call. The client confidentiality nondisclosure meant I couldn’t talk about anything, which is why I didn’t tell you. Still, I’d thought it odd that this ginormous international corporation would contact little old Hardwick Designs. I finished the specs, sent them off, and was told to proceed with my design ideas.

  “Imagine my surprise when I learned that Okada Food’s VP was in Denver today and had requested a meeting. With me.”

  His jaw tightened.

  “There’s a sign of life. Didn’t your darling sister share her business travel plans with you?”

  “No.”

  “I wasn’t supposed to ever deal with her, was I? You’d gone out of your way to demand that Maggie at Okada hire me sight unseen. Which tipped off the VP—aka your sister—that something wasn’t right. She was curious about my company and my connection to her billionaire heir brother.”

  “I’m sure my sister told you that with absolute glee.”

  “Actually she seemed shocked you hadn’t shared that tidbit with me.”

  Not a spark of guilt showed in his eyes.

  “When did you plan to tell me about being a billionaire baby? Ever?”

  “That’s not who I am.”

  “So that’s your logic for not sharing that you’re an heir to one of the twenty largest corporations in Japan?”

  “You knew when you met me that I’m a very private person, Amery.”

  “To the world at large, yes. But to me?” She shook her head. “I thought I was different. I thought—rather mistakenly, it appears—that we had something together.”

  “You’re using the past tense.”

  She ignored his flat statement and looked for a glimmer of anything besides apathy on his face. “I opened up everything to you: my body, my thoughts, my feelings, my fears.” My heart.

  “I didn’t demand that of you,” he pointed out.

  She felt as if he’d thrown her on the mat and knocked every bit of air from her lungs. She didn’t recognize this man at all. “Which is what makes it so much worse.”

  No response.

  “I trusted you.” She curled her hands into fists. “My friends were right. I am naive. I should’ve heeded their warnings about you. Only their warnings about you being a dangerous man didn’t even come close to the real truth. I can’t believe you investigated me through my family and friends the week after we met! And yes, they all told me about the invasive phone calls, but I didn’t know you were the one who initiated it. God. If you thought I was such a sketchy person, why did you even want to get involved with me?”

  “What did your friends say about me?”

  Amery met his gaze after he’d sidestepped yet another question. “That you were a thug. Your past was suspect. No one knew anything about you until you just showed up in Denver ten years ago and set yourself up as a jujitsu master in a building you couldn’t possibly afford. Some suggested you got the building on the cheap from TP. In exchange, you owed him favors. Which he collected, demanding you root out vagrants and criminals in this area so he could buy other real estate cheap and then cash in on urban renewal funds to get them up to code.”

  “Who’s your source?”

  “Then someone else hinted,” she continued without pause, “that with your martial arts background, you hired out as muscle for the Russian mob and handled TP’s management problems.”

  “Anyone tie me to the Yakuza?”

  At any other time she would’ve laughed at his mention of the Japanese Mafia; now she just wanted to cry. “After we were attacked in the alley, the fact that you knew just how to ditch a gun put me in the camp that you were a street thug who’d made good. Your secrets, or maybe I should say your nondisclosure and layers of protection, made sense. I accepted them. I’d hoped that given time, you’d let me in.

  “I did get to you a couple of times, but then those walls came right back up like they’d never been down. You know you got to me with your sexual expertise, with those times you were so sweet . . .” Don’t cry. Jesus. Keep it together, Amery. “I actually bought into your sincerity.” She closed her eyes. “God. Could I have been any more moon-eyed over you? Especially when you gave me that whole bullshit story about the stupid scar on my arm being the same symbol for your name and it being a cosmic sign.”

  “Amery—”

  “Now I have to wonder why you took it so far. Was I just a game for you? Toying with the . . . what did you call me? Wholesome? Toying with the wholesome North Dakota farm girl because she provided a different challenge than the usual skanks you met at the various clubs? Get her to open up, get her to sleep with you, get her to let you practice bondage on her, get her to spend all her free time with you until she’s crazy about you. Then act like it could be a long-term relationship by offering to lend her money to help her struggling business. I bought it all.

  “And while I was beating myself up on the way over here, about why you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about your true station in life, I realized the Okada ‘reveal’ was part of your master plan. So you took it as far as you needed to. Go, you, Master Black, master manipulator. You win.”

  “Part of my plan?” he repeated.

  “It stings that I didn’t see the signs. Gorgeous penthouse. Check. Expensive cars. Check. Relationships with the bigwigs in this town. Check. Your devotion to an art not dependent upon income from it to thrive and survive. Check.”

  “Not going to throw anything in about me being a spoiled rich kid who expects women to accept my sexual kinks?”

  “No, but I’ll add that you discard your partners when you get what you want from them and they no longer please you,” she retorted.

  “Where’d you hear that?”

  Amery looked at him. “Deacon. He repeatedly expressed surprise that your current flavor of the month—me—had lasted an entire summer.”

  “Deacon wasn’t speaking of my lovers, Amery; he meant that in the rope partner sense.”

  “That’s comforting. Does Knox, closest thing you’ve got to a friend, know that you’re a closeted billionaire?”

  “Yes.”

  “Deacon?”

  “Yes.”

  “Your sister told me Naomi knew too.”

  “Why do you think she stuck around as long as she did?” he said testily.

  “You led me to believe she was some poor waif who used you and
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