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       Bound, p.5

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James
 

  accent . . . I can’t put a finger on it. Where are you from originally?”

  Talk about changing the subject. “North Dakota.”

  “I’ve seen the movie Fargo.”

  She rolled her eyes. “We’re not all like that, doncha know?”

  A small smile curled the corners of his mouth. “So noted. Tell me why you left the cold climes of North Dakota.”

  “Because of the cold climes of North Dakota,” she said dryly.

  “Why Denver? Why not California or Florida to escape the cold and snow?”

  “After I graduated from the University of North Dakota with a graphic arts degree, my boyfriend at the time had a tryout with the Colorado Rockies, so I followed him. We broke up and I loved it here, so I stayed.”

  “You stayed because you already owned your own business?”

  What was up with the twenty questions?

  He’s entitled to your background information since he’s already hired you.

  “No. I worked for DeeDee Lewis of DDL Designs for three years. Then both her parents had health problems, forcing her to move back to Boston. I took out a loan for her business and the building and I’ve been working for myself ever since. Luckily I kept most of DDL’s clients and added a few of my own. Molly works for me part-time while she’s getting her master’s degree.”

  “And Emmylou? Was she already renting space there?”

  Amery shook her head. “When DDL owned the building the entire first floor belonged to the company. But I don’t need that much space, especially since I downscaled to being a one-woman operation. Around that same time Emmylou, who I’d met through my ex, was looking for a permanent place for her massage clients. We erected a wall between the two businesses and it works.” She didn’t want to admit that without Emmylou’s rent, she might not be able to swing the mortgage payment.

  “What about Chaz? Where does he fit in?”

  “Chaz worked for DeeDee when I first started. Then his freelance work started paying better, so he quit. Anyway, after my ex and I broke up, I moved in with Chaz. I didn’t know anyone in Denver besides the group my ex and I ran around with, and he got custody of them in the split. Chaz took me under his wing. After I assumed ownership of the building and company, he asked to rent the tiny room, which was the employee break room before the remodel. He doesn’t like working alone in his apartment all the time.”

  When Ronin continued to stare at her, she bristled. “So, did I pass the Sensei Ronin Black business qualifications test?”

  He leaned forward. “That wasn’t a business test. Have I not made myself clear that it will be more than self-defense training and business between us?”

  “Why me?” she blurted. “To hear people talk, you’re some kind of martial arts god. You have that whole scary, mysterious Zen thing going on. And you are one of the hottest guys I’ve ever met.”

  “One of?” he repeated.

  “Okay, the hottest guy I’ve ever met, but I didn’t want to admit that because I didn’t want you to get a swelled head.”

  Ronin smiled. “Thank you for the compliment. But I’m just a guy, Amery. A guy who works too hard and plays too little. And after meeting you?” His heated gaze roamed over her face. “I’m more than ready to play.”

  His deep velvety voice dripped with promises of sweaty, combustible sex. And her panties started getting very, very warm.

  “Are you seeing anyone?”

  “No. I have a hard time finding a date.” Now, why had she admitted that to the hottest guy she’d ever met?

  “You are a beautiful woman. But I’d venture a guess to say if you’re hanging out in gay bars with your friends, then you’re batting zero on the dating front because of your choice of venues.”

  Since both Chaz and Emmylou wore their sexual orientation like a banner, his insight about them wasn’t shocking after one meeting. But his supposed insight into her was wrong. Dead wrong. And she told him so.

  “I’m never wrong.” Ronin cocked his head. “I’ll prove it to you.”

  “How?”

  “Pick a bar around here where young urban professionals hang out after work. I’ll bet you get hit on at least six times. In an hour.”

  “There’s no way to prove it,” she argued. “I could just tell you I didn’t get hit on at all and you’d never know.”

  He picked up her hand. “But I will know because I plan to be in the same bar. I’ll keep track of how many men hit on you. You just have to be your beautiful, charming self.”

  His thumb was drawing tiny circles on the base of her hand. Sexy circles. Gentle, yet insistent. Would Ronin kiss that way? Starting out slow and then unleashing the heat that burned in his eyes?

  “What were you thinking about just now?”

  She guzzled half her glass of water. “What’s in this bar experiment for you?”

  Ronin brought her hand to his mouth, pressing soft kisses from the edge of her wrist to the fleshy skin below her thumb. “I get to look at you for an hour, which you know I like. And when the time is up, I get to be the guy you’ll leave the bar with.”

  Amery gave him a skeptical look. “You won’t have a bunch of your friends there as ringers, pretending to be interested in me?”

  “First of all, I wouldn’t do something so dishonorable. Second, I want you to see all the men that flock to you when you’re not surrounded by gay camouflage.”

  She laughed. “Okay. You’re on. But I have two conditions.”

  “Which I’ll allow you to mention but I do not have to abide by, since the experiment was my idea and the rules are mine to make.” He smiled serenely. “But please, go ahead and tell me your conditions.”

  “I want to hear your backstory.”

  “Didn’t you read my bio on the Web site?”

  She had, despite the fact that she’d only read it to see if he’d listed any personal information. “Yes. But that’s your official bio. It’s not the same. So tell me.”

  The food arrived, putting an end to the discussion.

  While they ate Amery wondered if Ronin would skirt the subject again.

  But he started talking without prompting after he finished his burger. “My father was stationed in Japan when he met my mother. They married, against my grandfather’s wishes. Since my father was in the air force, we moved a lot. My dad trained in jujitsu and started taking me to class with him when I was three. Long story short, after my father died, we moved to Japan.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Eight. Even though I’m a quarter Japanese on my mother’s side, I didn’t fit in anywhere besides the dojo. By age twelve I’d enrolled in a school where the main focus was jujitsu. By age sixteen I knew I’d found my calling. My grandfather refused to pay for advanced training, so I found an old master who agreed to swap training for my help with his business.”

  “That’s very Karate Kid.”

  “I swear I’m not making this up. I trained with him for two years. When I turned eighteen I joined a . . .” He said a Japanese phrase. “There’s no word for it in English. The closest description is a sort of monastery.”

  Her eyes widened. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

  “No. I spent four years there. It was a humbling and inspiring opportunity that I’m grateful for to this day. Upon my return to the real world at age twenty-two, I had to choose citizenship since Japan doesn’t allow duality. I chose the U.S. Within four years of living here, I’d earned the money and built the reputation to start my own dojo.”

  “Wow. That’s way more exciting than my story.”

  “It is what it is. Now what’s the second condition?”

  “I want to know if you’re serious about hiring me or if it was just a way to get me to go out on a lunch date with you.”

  “I’m serious about having you design a new logo. But I also wanted a lunch date with you.”

  “Do you always get what you want?”

  “Always.” Ronin bent his head closer to hers.
“As far as the logo is concerned, I’d like a bolder design that speaks of Japanese jujitsu, not the Brazilian method that’s become so popular.”

  An edge had crept into his voice. “I take it you don’t approve of that method?”

  “Brazilian jujitsu is the preferred form for MMA fighters and I have no issue with the method. Just the guys who claim to have training in it. Few of the dojos around here have a qualified leader. They add the term ‘Gracie method’ and students flock to their classes. I’m traditional in that I train students to master techniques and learn control, not only to fight.”

  Everything about his physical charisma compelled her. Even when he wasn’t looking directly at her, she could see the fire dancing in his eyes. She watched the agitated muscle popping in his jaw and how his full lips flattened into a thin line. All subtle movements that she might’ve missed if she hadn’t allowed his magnetism to pull her in. A section of hair fell across his cheek and she had to curl her fingers into her palms to keep from brushing it aside. “Were you a good fighter?”

  “I don’t have TKO stats, or an official win-loss record, or a medal or a winner’s belt. But I did make a whole bunch of money fighting, and that allowed me to start Black Arts.”

  “And that was the endgame for you? The only reason you fought?”

  Ronin seemed surprised she’d moved so close. He reached out and followed a section of her hair from her scalp to the end where it rested against her breast. “You’re the first person to ask me that in a very long time. It’d be tempting now, even fourteen years later, to say I only fought to earn my place so I didn’t have to fight anymore.” He stroked her hair again and the blunt edge of his fingertip grazed her cheek. “But the truth is, I like fighting. I like matching my skill against another opponent. In class, we work the techniques, but we’re always careful not to hurt the students. But on the mat during a match? Pain isn’t a concern. The fighting is raw.”

  The gentle way he touched her hair as he spoke so nonchalantly about violence gave her a surprisingly intimate peek into this complex man. “Do you still fight?”

  “Four years ago a Brazilian jujitsu practitioner publicly questioned my credentials and openly mocked me for claiming I’d studied in Japan and that I was part Japanese. Normally I don’t bother with martial arts politics, but when he brought it into my house? Making those claims in front of my students? I couldn’t let it slide.”

  “Is that why you’ve got security at the front door?”

  “Partially. He did just walk in with twenty of his students and disrupt my classes. I had no idea if they’d brought weapons, so I took preventive measures after that incident to provide better security for my students.”

  “What happened? Was him showing up on your turf like he’d declared war?”

  Ronin smiled. “He said he’d meet me anytime, anyplace, so I suggested a time and a place. He bragged near and far about the public beat-down he was about to dish out.”

  “And?”

  “I lost.”

  Her mouth fell open. “Are you serious?”

  “No. But telling you the truth will put me in a different light in your eyes, and I’m not ready for that. I’m liking the way you’re looking at me now, Amery.”

  She blushed. “Tell me anyway.”

  He kept absentmindedly running his fingers down that same section of hair. “I wiped the floor with him. He wanted it real—I gave him real. I broke his arm and his nose. I dislocated his shoulder. I cracked his ribs. All within five minutes.”

  Amery fought a shiver. “Did he do any damage to you?”

  Their eyes met. “He dislocated my finger and gave me a deep bruise on my hip.” He tugged on the end of her hair. “How did we get so far off topic?”

  “It’s not off topic. It’s stuff I need to know if you and I are . . . ah, working together.”

  He seemed amused that she’d kept her answer professional.

  “I’ll work up some design ideas for the logo.”

  “Perfect. But on the personal side of us working together, mark your calendar tomorrow night for the ‘hot chick getting hit on in a bar’ challenge.”

  “Ronin—”

  He held up his hand, forestalling her argument, and took his phone out of his pocket. “What’s your number?”

  Amery recited the digits, watching him plug the numbers in. Then her phone buzzed with a text message.

  “Now you have mine. You decide on the destination at the last minute so you know it’s not rigged.” Ronin scowled at his phone buzzing in his hand. “Excuse me, I need to take this.” He left the table and walked to the far edge of the balcony.

  She stood and straightened her skirt. She picked up the helmet. Ronin’s conversation drifted to her—so odd to hear him speaking in Japanese.

  That reiterated her misgivings. What did she really know about this man? Besides that he fired her blood? No doubt he embodied sexy, exotic, and mysterious—but she reminded herself his life was devoted to teaching the finer points of violence.

  He returned. “I’m so sorry, but I will have to send you back to your office in a cab. Something came up that I need to deal with right away.”

  She placed her hand on his chest. “Are you okay?”

  Ronin dipped his head and brushed his cheek against hers. “Yes. But I appreciate your concern because that shows me you know this is more than just business between us.” He kept his hand on the middle of her back as they walked downstairs.

  At the hostess stand he spoke to Michael and discreetly palmed him cash. He paused in the doorway and looked at Amery. He mouthed, Tomorrow, and then he was gone.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  “IS this seat taken?”

  Amery glanced up at the tall, lanky man with sandy brown hair. Cute in that geeky sort of way. “No. It’s open.”

  “Great. Thanks.” He picked up the chair and carried it to his table of friends.

  So much for him offering to buy her a drink.

  But she’d suspected that’s how this hour-long social experiment would play out. She feigned interest in the TV in the corner, trying not to devour the bowl of snack mix placed in front of her.

  This was a cool bar. Why had she walked by the place dozens of times but hadn’t stopped in? The vibe here was relaxed despite the upbeat music. Great ambience with the brightly colored pendant lights hanging from the high ceiling. Like in so many old warehouses in Lodo, the rafters had been left exposed, as had the brick walls. She’d checked out the scarred wide-planked oak as she’d walked in, wondering if she’d find similar flooring beneath the carpet in her loft.

  As she’d prepped herself for a night at the meat market, she considered Ronin’s observation—maybe she hadn’t been looking in the right places to meet eligible men. She chatted with the same guys at the gym, but they’d never asked her out. No men attended her yoga classes. She’d smile at guys at the grocery store, or the bank, keeping it friendly, but it hadn’t made a difference. She went to the movies alone. She ate out by herself frequently and it didn’t bother her, but other patrons avoided making eye contact, pitying her as a single diner.

  Amery admitted she’d fallen into a rut—relying on Emmylou and Chaz to entertain her. Molly had pulled into her shell completely after the attack and they hadn’t done anything together outside of work for ages. In recent months if her pals were busy, she’d stay home and watch movies or TV or read.

  Nothing wrong with liking her own company . . . was there?

  A man sidled up next to her and smiled. “Hey. I haven’t seen you in here before.”

  “First time. I thought I’d swing in and have a drink.”

  “If you’re thirsty I could buy the next one.”

  “That’s sweet. Thank you, but I’m meeting a friend.”

  His eyes filled with regret. “Shame. Enjoy.” He took off.

  After that, Amery fended off advances from several other guys as she nursed her drink. If she hadn’t made plans with Ronin, she might’ve giv
en her number to a couple of them.

  Where was Ronin anyway?

  Then she felt his eyes on her, even though she couldn’t see him. Calming her even as he assessed her. Thankfully this demonstration or whatever it was ended in ten minutes. She ordered another martini. As the clock wound down, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She faced the guy. He looked familiar.

 
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