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       Bound, p.8

         Part #1 of Mastered series by Lorelei James

  Then she knew. “Dammit, Chaz, you’re sleeping with him already?”


  “What about Andre?”

  “What about him?” Chaz said breezily. “I’d be up for a threesome, but as it stands, boy A don’t know about boy B and maybe I’d like to keep it that way.”

  Then maybe you should keep it in your pants.

  Chaz glared at her, even though she hadn’t said a word. “About to go all holier-than-thou on me? No wonder you didn’t get laid this weekend.”

  “Really? I get that snap judgment snark from other people, Chaz; I don’t need it from you, so piss off.”

  Amery stormed into her office and slammed the door.

  She hated that Chaz could be so mean. He knew about her screwed up her childhood as the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian minister. She’d been shamed by her body, shamed by her need for physical intimacy, shamed for just about everything. Threatened by eternal punishment from God for every little transgression, but the punishments from her dad were always way worse. And her mother had just stood by and let the man of the house rule. Watching as her husband belittled and shamed Amery until the day Amery left for college.

  So it wasn’t any surprise the first real relationship after she’d dated casually for a couple of years had been fucked up from the start. Tyler, star athlete, self-professed Christian boy, had played on her insecurities, manipulated her, and used her until he hadn’t needed her anymore.

  Chaz had been the one to pick up the pieces. He’d always been there to bolster her when she needed it. And for him to be so harsh toward her now? She didn’t deserve it from him. She wasn’t judging him. She just wanted him to be careful. Mixing business with pleasure wasn’t a good idea.

  And yet here you are, about to do a presentation for a man that you hope to get naked with very soon. Maybe you were pulling an attitude on Chaz.

  But there was nothing she could do about it now—she didn’t think she had anything to apologize for. Besides, they both needed to cool off.

  Amery grabbed her portfolio and her laptop and left through the back door.

  Parking wasn’t any easier to find around the dojo during the day. She ended up hoofing it three blocks, so she was sweaty and wrinkled when she entered the main entrance ten minutes late.

  The elevator dumped her on the second floor into one long corridor. No reception area. She followed the hallway midway down until she came to a door. BLACK ARTS was etched in the frosted glass, along with by appointment only.

  Did she knock? Or walk in? Was the door locked?

  After thirty seconds of indecision, Amery knocked rapidly four times and opened the door. “Sensei Black?” she said loudly as she stepped into an empty waiting area.

  The big blond instructor exited from a door halfway down the hall. He beckoned her closer. “We’re in here, Ms. Hardwick.”

  Amery plastered on a smile. Her heels clicked loudly on the tile floors and she wished she’d worn different shoes.

  He bowed slightly and offered his hand. “I’m Knox Lofgren. We met briefly the night you signed up for the self-defense class.”

  “I’m hoping you won’t hold my behavior that night against me, Shihan.”

  “No. But you did manage to get under Sensei’s skin, which is as rare as it is amusing.” He pushed open the door. “Come in and get settled. Ronin is on a conference call and he’ll be in shortly. Would you care for coffee? Tea? A soda?”

  “I’m good, thank you.” They’d entered a large meeting room lined with windows and a U-shaped conference table in the center. Another guy stood when she came in.

  He looked . . . mean. Bald head. Tattoos decorating his arm from wrists to elbows. Tattoos peeking out from the V in his T-shirt. His eyes were the lightest blue—almost translucent. He wasn’t tall—not as big as Ronin and definitely not as big as Knox—but he was built like a cement block. Solid. Probably solid muscle. She guessed he was somewhere around her age.

  “Ms. Hardwick, this is Deacon McConnell.”

  Deacon also offered her a slight bow before extending his hand. “Ms. Hardwick, it is a pleasure.”

  Oh, wow, he had a honey-thick Southern drawl that softened his I’m-a-badass vibe. She smiled at him. “Please, both of you, call me Amery. And I have to ask, what is your official title, Deacon?”

  “Yondan. Fourth-degree black belt.”

  “Technically my official title is Godan, which is fifth degree black belt,” Knox said. “Students call me Shihan as a sign of respect since I’m the second-highest belt rank in the dojo.”

  She pointed to the screen on the wall. “I hope you’re not expecting a PowerPoint presentation?”

  “To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect.”

  “So neither of you knows why I’m here?”

  They shook their heads.

  “Sensei Black approached me last week about creating a new logo for the dojo. He indicated he’s needed to do that for some time.”

  Knox grinned. “Hot damn. I’m happy to hear that.”

  Deacon nodded.

  “Bear in mind I have limited ideas because I am waiting for more input.”

  “Which they’ll be happy to provide,” Ronin said behind her.

  She jumped and whirled around. “You have got to stop doing that to me, Master Black.”

  “Ronin,” he murmured.

  “But we’re in the dojo, aren’t we?” she murmured back.

  “Technically? No. So relax.”

  Knox and Deacon seemed to be watching them very closely.

  “I see you’ve met Knox, my second–in-command, for lack of a better term. And Deacon, my third-in-command.”

  Amery seized the chance to learn more about Ronin. She looked at Knox. “How long have you been associated with Black Arts, Shihan?”

  “Since I was discharged from the service five years ago.”

  “And you, Yondan?”

  “Three years.”

  From what she’d read about dojos and the student’s loyalty to train with one master for years, and sometimes decades, she’d expected both of these men to have been with Sensei longer.

  “While we’re informal, please call us by our first names,” Knox said.

  Ronin pulled out a chair for her. Then he parked himself right beside her.

  Damn hard not to get flustered. Especially since the man wasn’t giving her any space. He was dressed like Knox and Deacon in a white T-shirt and white gi pants. None of them wore shoes. What had they been doing before she showed up? Working out? Sparring? Rolling around on the mats beating on each other? Why did that image make her heart pound?

  “Problem?” Ronin prompted.

  Her cheeks flamed. Stupid lily-white skin. She fake-coughed. “I might need some water after all.”

  Amery expected Ronin to appoint either of these guys to get her a drink. But he grabbed a bottle of water from the minibar fridge and handed it to her.

  She really wanted to roll the plastic bottle over her hot face, but she uncapped it and drank. Then she smiled. “You guys will want to come down here because my ideas are on the computer.”

  Knox and Deacon crowded behind her. At some point Ronin had draped his arm over the back of her chair. Now he was so close she could smell his scent: sweat and laundry soap. She could feel the heat of his thigh muscle pressing against the outside of her leg. Then his fingers would absentmindedly drift across her shoulder.

  The man had thrown her completely off her game.

  Take control. You don’t want to look incompetent.

  “I’ll run through it once as a slide show and then we can stop on individual images to see if anything pops out at you.”

  She wasn’t expecting them to chatter, but their absolute silence unnerved her.

  Knox spoke first. “I like images three and seven.”

  “Those are polar opposites. One has clean lines. The other has Japanese influences.”

  “Probably why I like them both. Any ch
ance you could marry those two styles into something bolder?”

  Amery started clicking on the keys, designing on the fly. Taking suggestions. Adding, discarding.

  An hour of collaboration later, Black Arts had a great new logo. They were so pleased with it even Deacon said, “Fine job.”

  Then Knox and Deacon left the conference room.

  “You are very good at what you do, Amery. I’m impressed.”

  “Thank you.”

  “But I’ll confess I hoped it’d take a lot longer. That way we would have excuses for long lunches.”

  She gave Ronin an arch look. “So you need an excuse to see me?”

  Annoyance flashed in his eyes. “No.”

  “Good to know. Do you want to give me a list of all the promotional items you’ll need updated? I can set up the orders with the printer and make sure everything fits—”

  Ronin grabbed her by the back of the neck and stopped her jabbering with a long, deep, wet kiss. By the time he pulled back, her body shook. Inwardly. Outwardly. And Ronin took great satisfaction in his effect on her. He didn’t say a word; he didn’t have to. He just leaned in to kiss her again.

  The next kiss was lazy. A sensual exploration. He caressed the side of her face while he fed her kiss after kiss. Then he cranked up the intensity. She finally understood what it meant to be weak-kneed—and she was sitting down. If Ronin kept this up she’d slide into a big puddle on the floor.

  The door opened and Knox said, “Ronin, do we have—oh, shit. Sorry. Didn’t mean to barge in.” Then he was gone.

  Amery turned her head and rested her cheek on his. “Guess your second-in-command knows we’re . . .” Whatever this is. She’d wait to hear what term he used to explain it.

  “I won’t hide the fact that we’re seeing each other. The only place it might be an issue is in the dojo during class.”

  “I’m not dropping out,” she warned. “Molly needs this class, and the only way she’ll stay in it is if I’m around.”

  He gently tilted her head back. “I wouldn’t ask you to quit.”

  “Then I think you should let Sandan Zach teach me.”

  “No. I’m teaching you.”

  She did not understand why it was so important to him, but he had that don’t argue with Sensei Black look in his eyes, so she let it slide.

  “But I don’t want to wait until class to see you. What are you doing tonight?”

  “A Bikram yoga class. I’m exhausted afterward. Don’t you teach tonight?”

  “Yes.” He sucked her lower lip and gently bit down. “Since I can’t see you tonight, have lunch with me.”

  “Did you already make reservations someplace like last time?” she teased.

  “No.” Ronin lifted her hand and kissed her palm. “I ordered in a light lunch and thought we’d eat upstairs at my place.”

  Amery had opened her mouth to say yes when Knox walked in and headed to the minifridge for a bottle of water. He drank deeply and addressed Ronin. “Are you coming back to finish our training session?”

  “No. Amery and I are having lunch upstairs.”

  Knox’s jaw tightened and his gaze winged between Amery and Ronin. “I’ll remind you that you called this training session. If you’re leaving halfway through, Deacon and I won’t be around when you’re done.”

  Ronin carefully placed Amery’s hand on her lap and stood. He said, “A word please,” to Knox before he brushed past him.

  Might make her snoopy, but given the tension between the two macho men, something was going on and she wanted to know what. She hopped up and stood by the door. And she heard way more than she bargained for.

  “Lose the attitude, Knox.”

  “Or what? You gonna discipline me?”

  “Maybe I need to,” Ronin said evenly. “Regardless of our friendship, I’m still your sensei and your boss.”

  “What is it about that woman?” Knox demanded. “You’ve been off your game since the moment she walked into this dojo.”

  Her heart skipped a beat.

  “I can’t explain it.”

  “You mean you won’t explain it,” Knox said hotly. “Is she why you were wandering around aimlessly at the club Saturday night?”

  Amery frowned. Club? What club?

  “That is none of your fucking business.”

  “Bullshit, Ronin. I was fucking there after Naomi, remember? And this goddamn situation has Naomi written all over it again.”

  Who the hell was Naomi?

  “We are not discussing this. You and Deacon are done for the day. I’ll finish up the paperwork on the job proposal for Stanislovsky after lunch.”

  Amery practically ran to her seat. She didn’t want to get caught eavesdropping. She shut down her computer and looked up when Ronin reentered the room.

  “Sorry about that. So about lunch?”

  “Sure, if it’s not a long lunch. I always have a ton to do on Mondays.”

  “Standard hour. No more.”

  Amery shouldered her laptop bag and picked up her portfolio. She watched as Ronin snagged a plastic deli bag from the fridge.

  “Let’s go.”

  She followed him down the corridor and was momentarily confused as to why they were heading away from the elevators. They passed an enormous room that had more workout equipment than a commercial gym. She stopped and looked through the glass partition that stretched to the far wall. In one corner were stacks of mats. And standing on a mat were Knox and Deacon. They appeared to be beating the shit out of each other.

  Ronin noticed she’d stopped. He backtracked and followed her gaze to the men throwing each other everywhere. “What?”

  “Shouldn’t you intervene before one of them gets hurt?”

  “No. They’re training.”

  “For what?”

  “Mixed martial arts. Deacon is a professional MMA fighter. Knox and I train him. We’re trying to build a training program, but most fighters want Brazilian jujitsu instruction as well as Muay Thai. We also train others, but Deacon is our highest-ranked fighter.”

  “You train him because . . . you’re his sensei?”

  “Partially. Mostly I train him because I fought in combat sports before there was MMA and I know what it takes to win.”

  “Do you still fight?”

  “Thirty-eight is too old to compete with twenty-something guys in their prime.”

  His world was so different from hers—was that why he’d deflected the question? “So this is a separate training area for MMA competitors?”

  He shook his head. “This is the training gym for all students. It’s open to them anytime during class hours. But when Knox and Deacon and I are working on techniques, we train up here, simply because it’s closer to the offices where we spend our business hours.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “How can this possibly interest you?”

  Impulsively, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. “If it has to do with you, it interests me.”

  Ronin wrapped his hand around the back of her neck and kissed her with breathtaking passion. It felt completely natural to lean into him and press her hands against his chest. When she shifted even closer, her laptop bag swung and connected with the bag of food, forcing her to step back. “Sorry.”

  “Don’t be. I like your hands on me, Amery.”

  They stared at each other, the attraction between them getting stronger each time they were together.

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