PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF LORELEI JAMES
ALSO BY LORELEI JAMES
SHIORI Hirano wanted to beat the fuck out of someone.
And by “someone” she meant that smarmy asswipe Knox Lofgren.
Ob-Knox-ious had been in rare form today, harping on safety protocols until the newly earned black belt class looked ready to commit hara-kiri just so they wouldn’t have to listen to their Shihan drone on and on.
And there was another point of contention. Everyone else in Black Arts dojo called Knox “Shihan” since he was the highest-ranking belt after Master Black.
Or he was until she’d arrived.
Since Shiori outranked him by one belt level, she called him Godan, one step down in the ranking system—which really got his goat. Then he retaliated by refusing to refer to her by any official title at all, calling her She-Cat or Shitake.
Yes, they were shining examples of leadership.
Her brother, Ronin Black, had left Knox in charge of his martial-arts dojo while he took a ten-week sabbatical to Japan with his wife. While Shiori agreed Ronin deserved the break, she wasn’t sure she’d survive working eighty days with Knox.
“Are there any questions before you’re dismissed?” Knox asked the class.
Jesus. Loaded question.
And of course the biggest pain-in-the-ass student raised her hand. “Shihan, I’m a little fuzzy on that sit-up guard and sweep. Could you demonstrate?”
The silly chit expected Shihan would beckon her up to demonstrate? And he’d press his big body to hers as he relayed directions in his deep bedroom voice? No. He’d want her to observe and that meant . . .
“Shiori, I need your assistance.”
Right-o, Captain Asshat. And I need a gin and tonic. Jumbo-sized. Pronto.
Refusing wasn’t an option, so she rolled to her feet and moved to the center of the mat.
“Gather ’round so you can all see this.” As soon as the students had formed a circle, he sat and placed his right foot above her left knee.
She went to grab his left leg for the sweep, and he grabbed her white gi top by the lapels and shoved her to the mat, rolling her onto her shoulder and pinning her arm down with his knee on her gi sleeve.
When Knox went into side mount, it took every ounce of restraint not to immediately counter his move.
Little Miss Ten Million Questions asked to see the move one more time. And of course Shihan obliged her.
Finally he dismissed the class. She was about to bail when two hands landed on her shoulders.
So tempting to give in to her instinct and do a sweep and roll and jam her knee into his balls, but she refrained. She deserved a fucking cookie for that.
“Mandatory meeting with ABC instructors in five minutes in the second-floor training room.”
“Yippee.” She shook off his hands and started walking away.
“Great attitude. I saw some of that in class tonight. Curb it before next class.”
“No problem. As long as you curb your tendency to overexplain a simple technique for the benefit of jiggly tits, who’d just love for you to show her every mount technique in your arsenal.”
Knox stopped and latched on to her arm. “Jillian? She asked a valid question.”
“No, she asked for a demonstration. And I’m pretty sure her nipples pouted when you didn’t demonstrate on her. You demonstrated on me again.”
“Which is your job.”
“No. My job would’ve been to show the class how stupid that move is in the first place and the best way to counter it.”
His eyes cooled. “But you didn’t do that . . . in deference to me?”
“There aren’t any students around now, She-Cat. So let’s take this to the mat.”
“That offer is so freakin’ hard to refuse, but—”
Knox crowded her against the elevator door. “That wasn’t an offer.”
Shit. “You’re pulling rank on me?”
“Damn straight. You and me. Upstairs. Now.” He lowered his head and whispered, “Put your money where your mouth is, Rokudan. Put me in my place.”
Shiori balled her hands into fists against his sarcastic use of her sixth-degree black belt rank, Rokudan. What really rankled were the goose bumps flowing down the left side of her body from the rumble of his voice in her ear.
Knox walked off without looking back.
What the hell was wrong with her? She hadn’t uttered a peep, hadn’t tossed out an insult, hadn’t even created silent cutting remarks in her head when he’d made the challenge.
Because Knox affects you in ways you’re scared to admit.
When she entered the training room, Deacon looked at her, then at Knox, and said, “Jesus. This again?”
Shiori ignored him.
Knox waited for her on the mat. No hint of smile on his face; just the determined set of his jaw.
“How do you want me?”
That seemed to fluster him for a second before he barked, “Standing sweep.”
Knox grabbed on to her and tried to drive her into the floor.
She turned her upper body but kept her feet planted—tricky to execute without ending up with torn ligaments in her knee—and pushed on his center of gravity.
It knocked him back a step, as she’d intended, but his balance recovery was quick. So instead of her dog piling him, he crushed her back to his chest in a bear hug and at the same time he swept her feet out from under her.
They hit the mat hard.
Shiori threw her leg on the outside of his and pushed off with her other foot, which allowed her to control the direction they rolled.
Somehow she’d telegraphed her intent, because Knox countered and shoved her face-first into the mat—after he’d clipped her in the mouth with his elbow.
So he had her pinned down in the most humiliating position—with him lying on top of her, both of her arms trapped.
Then his warm lips were against her ear. “Come on, She-Cat. Put me in my place. Show me how stupid that move was.”
“Get the fuck off of me.”
“I’m game anytime you wanna teach me another lesson,” he murmured again, and then he was gone.
Shiori rolled onto her back. Fuck. Was she losing her touch? She pushed up into a sitting position and wrapped her arms around her calves.
That’s when she noticed the blood.
And the crowd that’d gathered around them.
Sophia “Fee” Curacao snatched a towel and doused it in water before she crouched beside Shiori. “You okay?”
Shiori nodded and held the towel to her mouth, where the wound was starting to sting.
Fee stood and glared at Knox. “I cannot believe you drew blood on her the first fucking day you’re running the dojo, Shihan.”
“It’s all right, Fee,” Shiori said softly. “I should’ve been paying better attention.”
The sight of blood had changed Knox’s taunting mood. “You’re damn right you should’ve been.”
Not an apology—not that she deserved one. Annoyed by the guys staring at her and the fucked-up way Knox was studying her mouth, she pushed to her feet. “I’m fine. Let’s get this meeting over with.”
Knox said, “Not you. Take off. You bleed, you leave.”
Shiori rolled her eyes. “That is a shitty rhyme and a shitty rule, so I’m not going anywhere.”
“Suit yourself.” Knox clapped his hands for attention. “Gather ’round.”
Deacon, Ito, Zach, and Jon moved in on Knox’s left. Blue, Fee, Terrel, and Gil moved in on his right.
Knox ran through the list of weekly events and changes twice as fast as Ronin would have done, and they were finished with the meeting in ten minutes. New record.
“Anything to add, Shiori?”
“Then we’re done. See you all tomorrow.” Knox left immediately. Maybe he had a hot date.
She punched in the number to the car service and requested a pickup. She didn’t bother going to the locker room to change since she’d have to soak her gi to get the bloodstains out.
On the way out the front door she realized she had twisted her knee in that scuffle with Knox.
But all in all, a limp and a little blood—not bad for the first day.
* * *
THE next morning Shiori was in the conference room on her laptop, answering questions from her account managers at Okada, the family business, when Knox shuffled in.
He hadn’t shaved, and she hated that the dark bristle accentuating his angular jaw looked so good on him. He wore wrinkled gi pants and his gi top wasn’t closed, so she had a peek at his sculpted chest and muscular abs. She glanced up and caught Deacon staring at her from behind his laptop.
She couldn’t help but snap, “You’re late, Godan.”
“Long night. I had to drive to Golden after class—”
“Not interested in where you go for your booty calls. Deacon and I—”
“Don’t you drag me into this, darlin’,” Deacon drawled.
Those two stuck together on everything. These next two and a half months might be the most combative of her life—and she’d worked in her grandfather’s office, where every day was a battleground.
Knox glared at her as he turned over a coffee cup. “Not a booty call—not that it’s any of your damn business if it were—but I had a family thing to deal with.”
Deacon said, “Everything all right?”
“Now it is. But I’m fucking tired and need a gallon of coffee to wake up.”
He started to pour a cup and Shiori said, “That’s not—”
“Jesus, She-Cat. Give me two goddamn minutes before you start in on me.”
Fine. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.
Knox took a drink from his cup. A grimace twisted his mouth, and he turned and spewed the liquid into the sink. “What the motherfuck is that shit?”
“Why? That’s a coffeepot, not a teapot.” His eyes narrowed. “You did that on purpose.”
“I was the first one here, so I made tea. When you’re the first one here, you can make coffee.” She smiled and sipped her tea.
Knox looked at Deacon for support.
“Don’t you drag me into this either. She tried to tell you, but as usual, y’all prefer to snap and snarl at each other instead of listening.”
“Are you drinking tea?” Knox demanded.
Deacon grinned at Shiori. “It ain’t bad if you dump half a cup of sugar in it.”
Knox snagged a Coke out of the fridge. “For the record, I’m buying one of those one-cup coffeemakers so this never happens again.”
“Or you could be on time?” Shiori said sweetly.
* * *
“I didn’t have to sit through this many meetings in the army,” Knox complained the next afternoon when they were gathered in the conference room.
“Sorry to inconvenience you when you were so busy upstairs playing footsie with Katie, but I don’t have the backstory on this situation,” Shiori retorted.
“Jealous, She-Cat?” he purred. “’Cause I could talk Katie into letting you play footsie with us sometime.”
“Stop bein’ an ass, Knox, or she’ll put you in charge of answering Ronin’s e-mail,” Deacon warned.
Not so much with the “I got your back, bro” between these two today.
“This e-mail came in last night.” She picked up the printout and read, “‘Greetings, Sensei Black. I’ve recently had a philosophical difference with the leaders of the Cherry Creek Martial Arts Studio and have opted to stop training with them. This leaves me in a bind because the only other dojo I’d consider training in would be ABC, which is now part of Black Arts. I was part of the group of students who stormed into your dojo several years ago when Steve Atwood threw down the fight challenge.’” She glanced up. “What the hell is that about?”
“Steve Atwood is a cocky prick, and our students were beating his students in tournaments. So he showed up here one night with thirty of his highest-ranking students and challenged Ronin to a public fight.”
“Of course Ronin accepted,” Shiori said.
Knox nodded. “He might’ve beat him to death if I hadn’t stepped in. Anyway, Atwood lost some students”—he grinned—“to us when the parents realized what a fucking tool bag Atwood had become. But as far as I know, we haven’t taken on any new students from that martial-arts club since that time.”
“That incident is why we have hard-core security before anyone can even enter the dojo,” Deacon pointed out. “In hindsight that ended up being a good thing.”
“This guy is a third-degree black belt. And he doesn’t want to join our program but Blue’s.” Right after Shiori had come to the United States, Alvares “Blue” Curacao’s Brazilian jujitsu dojo, ABC, had become part of Black Arts. “So before we bring this up with Blue and ABC, Black Arts needs to have a united decision.”
“Tell him we aren’t interested in further discussion,” Knox stated.
“No. Set up a meeting. With me,” Deacon said. “That way he’ll see our updated security and that we don’t fuck around. I’m a good judge of sincerity.”
Knox snorted. “You? Come on, D. You hate fucking everybody. You are the only instructor who actively tries to get students to drop from your classes.”
“Better he sees that than the milk and fucking cookies you’ve been serving the students in your classes recently.”
Anger emanated from Knox, distorting the casual atmosphere like a poisonous cloud. He remained deadly still. Several long moments ticked by before he said, “Your opinion is noted, Yondan. You are excused from this discussion.”
Deacon pushed to his feet. He paused at the door and seemed to struggle with whether or not to speak. But he left without saying a word.
And how fucking awesome was it that Knox had learned the “I’m your sensei; my word is law” attitude from Ronin?
When Shiori felt Knox’s ire directed at her, as if she’d contradict him, it took her a breath or two to look at him.
“Is that how you’d like me to respond to the e-mail? That we’re not interested in him training in our facility in any capacity?” she asked.
“Forward the e-mail to me and I’ll respond, but yes, that is my intent.”
Shiori slid her laptop closer and started opening screens. Her fingers fumbled on the keys beneath Knox’s penetrating stare. “Done.”
“Do you disagree with my decision?” he asked coolly.
She met his gaze. “No, Shihan, I don’t.”
His eyes darkened. “That’s the first time you’ve called me Shihan.”
She closed her laptop and stood. “That’s the first time you’ve acted like you deserve the title.”
* * *
THURSDAY night classes were always crazy. Still, it surprised her to hear, “Shihan needs you in practice room one.”
Shiori glanced up at Deacon and moved toward him, standing in the open doorway. “What’s going on?”
“I was filling in for Zach in the yellow belt class, and uh, well, now there are a couple of students who are cryin’.”
“You made kids cry?”
“The fuck if I know what I did wrong. But you can hear those two girls bawlin’—”
“You made little girls cry?”
Deacon looked away. “Just go help Knox.”
She passed through the open training areas. The wails assaulted her ears before she reached the room.
Knox had two little girls, age seven or so, up at the front of the class. With the way the building echoed, the girls’ cries were actually louder outside the room. She shot a quick glance to the other students, a dozen boys and girls who were watching Shihan with wide eyes.
Shiori set her hand on Knox’s shoulder. For the briefest moment she thought he might act instinctively and put her in a wrist lock.
But he cranked his head around and gave her a surprised look. “What are you doing here?”
“Deacon said you needed help. What’s going on?”
“Near as I can figure, that one”—Knox pointed to the dark-haired girl sobbing with her forehead on her knees—“attempted a wheel kick and her foot caught her”—he gestured to another dark-haired girl sobbing with her forehead on her knees—“in the face. Then girl number two pushed her down and tried to choke her out.”
“Are either one hurt?”
He shook his head. “Go back to your class. I’ve got this handled.”
Right. “What set off the waterworks?”
“Deacon put them in time-out for the rest of class and said he’d talk to their parents about banning them from watching MMA TV shows.”
Seemed reasonable. MMA was great for showcasing high ability levels for different styles of martial arts, but kids didn’t grasp that they shouldn’t try those moves until they’d been trained properly. “What are their names?”
“Mind if I try to talk to them?”
“Have at it.”
Shiori tapped girl number one on the foot. “Hey. You need to stop crying and get a grip.”
Knox snorted. “Great help. And believe it or not, they are calmer than they were a few minutes ago.”
“Don’t you just have the magic touch?” she said sarcastically.
“No, but I do have two little sisters.”
He did? Why hadn’t she known that?
Knox touched girl number two on the arm. “Can you talk to me, sweetheart?”
Girl number two raised her head. Her sobs had faded into hiccupping sniffles. “Addy is mean. She said she’s gonna get her orange belt before me so she doesn’t have to be in the same class as me because I suck.”
Girl number one looked up. Holy shit. They were identical twins. She retorted, “Abby is just mad because I’m better at jujitsu than she is.”
“Are not!” Abby yelled.
“Am too!” Addy yelled back.
“Are not!” Abby yelled louder.
“Am too, and I don’t want anyone thinking that you’re me, because I am better!” Addy shouted.
“Girls,” Shiori warned.
A warning that didn’t stop the escalating screaming match.
Knox rolled his eyes. Then he sat between the two warring girls. “Enough.”
“She started it,” Abby said sullenly.
Addy tried to kick her.
Knox put his hand on Addy’s leg. “Ms. Hirano, there’s another class in room two. Since Addy thinks she’s ready to move belt levels, will you please escort her into that class?”
“Yep. Abby, say goodbye to your sister.”
“Come on, Addy,” Shiori said.
Addy didn’t budge. Abby gasped. “You can’t do that! We have to be in the same class.”
Shiori shrugged. “No, you don’t. My brother and I didn’t even go to the same martial-arts school. Plus, the crying and carrying on makes me wonder if you even like taking jujitsu classes.”
Another gasp—from Addy this time. “But it’s our favorite thing!”
“Then maybe you should act like it. Come on, Addy. Let’s get you settled in the other class.”
“Please don’t put me in a different class,” Addy pleaded with Knox.
“I didn’t mean what I said,” Abby added. “Addy is helping me learn better. Please let her stay.”
“You’re both sure this is what you want?” Knox asked.
They both nodded.
“Fine. But your actions do have consequences. You will sit out the remainder of class, and if I see any grappling, hitting, or kicking I will have words with your parents.”
“We’ll be good, Shihan. We promise,” Addy said. She mimed zipping her lips, and Abby did the same.
Knox patted them each on the leg and stood. “Pay attention because I may test you after class.”
“I’m impressed,” Shiori admitted to him grudgingly.
“My sisters yelled and screamed at each other, but the second Mom tried to separate them, they were best buddies again. I thought I’d give it a shot.”
“All right,” Knox said, standing in front of the class. “Get up. Take off your belts. At the count of ten, we’ll have a belt-tying contest.” He inclined his head to Shiori. “Ms. Hirano? Will you lead the countdown in Japanese?”
“Ready? Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju!”
A flurry of belt tying ensued.
“I’ve always wondered. Did you and Ronin ever take jujitsu classes together?” Knox asked.
“No. He was always way more advanced than me. Our dad didn’t feel the same need to push me into it like he did Ronin. Our mother is the one who insisted I train—probably preparing me to spar with my grandfather.” She paused. “But once when I was about five I asked Ronin to practice with me.”
“He kicked me so hard—on accident—that he broke two of my ribs. He felt horrible. So horrible that he agreed to play dolls with me every day until I was better.” Shiori shot him a sideways glance. “And no, you cannot tell Sensei Black you know that story.”
Knox grinned. “No worries. I played dolls with my sisters, too, and I was a helluva lot older than eight.”
“Done!” a towheaded boy in the front row yelled.
“Good job, Dylan. Now you get to come up front and pick what we do next.” Knox leaned down and whispered in his ear.
His ease with younger kids didn’t surprise her, since the man got along with everyone.
Yes. They’d forged an unspoken truce yesterday after Knox had knocked Deacon down a peg, proving he could lead.
Now if they could just get through the last day of the week without incident, she might believe—just might—they’d survive the next nine weeks.
* * *
IN the locker room Friday night, Fee asked Shiori, “You coming to Diesel with us?”
“Who’s us?” Although she hadn’t seen Knox since she’d arrived to teach that afternoon, Zach had mentioned Knox was in the Crow’s Nest, getting an overview of the classes.
“Black Arts and ABC’s finest. It’s Friday night and I’m on the prowl.”
Shiori pulled the ponytail holder out and shook her hair free. “Had any luck finding prey?”
“Last month I met a bull rider from Brazil. Sweet. Kind of shy until I bought him a few shots. We ended up going back to his hotel and ay caramba. He was built, hung like a bull, and knew how to use his hips.” She sighed. “I loved that he talked dirty. Made me realize how much I missed hearing my language in those intimate moments.” Fee gave her a curious look. “What about you?”
“Japanese men aren’t exactly known for dirty talk. So I prefer American guys.” Shiori smiled. “Not just the ones who can talk dirty, but the guys who know how to act down and dirty.”
“Plenty of those at Diesel. So what’dya say?”
“I’m in. Is Katie coming?”
Fee’s eyes narrowed. “What do you have against Katie?”
Besides the fact she’s a decade younger, a foot taller, and she’s a blond amazon with big tits? “I hate that she literally hangs on the Black Arts instructors when we go out.”
“The guys might’ve invited her,” Fee warned. “She’s fun and generous in buying drinks. She hangs on the guys because she’s a born flirt. It comes to her as naturally as breathing. Best thing to do is ignore it.”
“You’re jumping to her defense? Last I knew you wanted to bitch-slap her into next week—your words, Fee, not mine. So what changed?”
She smeared on frosted pink lipstick. “She’s really trying to make Black and Blue Promotions into a larger entity. She’s smarter than anyone gives her credit for—especially my pigheaded brother and yours. Neither Ronin nor Blue gives her ideas any consideration. I feel for her because I suspect she’s been dealing with that attitude her whole life.”
“What makes you say that?” Shiori asked.
“I heard a phone call between her and her big-money big daddy. He was a total asshole to her. I saw her crying afterward. It just . . . gave me a different impression of her. She struggles like the rest of us with all the family shit.”
Of course Fee played on the one thing that would earn Shiori’s sympathy. “Fine. I’ll give her another chance.”
“That oughta keep her on the straight and narrow, because you scare the crap out of her.”
Shiori flashed her teeth. “Smart girl.”
Fee shouldered her purse. “Got a few bucks for bus fare?”
“I hate riding the bus. I could call Tom and he’d be here in fifteen minutes.”
“No car and driver tonight, moneybags. It’ll be good for you to rub elbows with the common folk.”
Shiori insulted her in Japanese.
Fee shot back a Portuguese phrase.
Then they both laughed.
“Come on. Booze and boys await us.”
The bus ride was tolerable. Diesel was just starting to fill up, but Gil had scored a corner table. Blue sat next to Katie.
Fee said, “What’s up, guys?” Then she frowned at Gil. “I thought you were closing down the dojo?”
“Knox said he’d handle it.”
“I talked to him, and he said he’d be here right afterward,” Katie added.
Of course she’d know Knox’s schedule.
Giving her a second chance, remember?
A pitcher of beer and one of margaritas were in the center of the table.
“Pull up a chair and have a drink,” Blue urged.
Both Fee and Shiori opted for margaritas.
After the toast and the usual “Thank god it’s the weekend” comments, Fee leaned over and whispered, “You’ve already got one admirer eyeing you.”
“At nine o’clock. The guy in the suit at the bar?”
Shiori casually turned her head and looked at the guy. Cute. Lanky. Malleable. He smiled at her. She smiled back.
Just as she started to get up, a pair of hands landed on her shoulders.
KNOX had been oddly elated to see that Shiori had shown up for a night out with the Black Arts crew. As he approached the table, her gorgeous fall of black hair had swished over her shoulder when she’d turned her head toward the bar.
He’d followed her gaze to see what’d caught her attention and some jackass in a three-piece suit was making eyes at her.
Give it up, buddy. She’s not interested.
But then Shiori tilted her head and a crease appeared in her cheek, as if she was smiling at him. As if she was interested in him. Then her ass started to come out of the chair.
Knox pushed down on Shiori’s shoulders and put his mouth against her ear. “Going someplace?”
“Yes. Why do you care?”
Her silken tresses teased the side of his face. Her spicy scent filled his nose. She always smelled so damn good. “Because I’m surprised to see you here.”
She angled her head slightly to look at him. “Why?”
“You and Fee don’t usually hang out with us on Friday nights.”
“We work with you guys all week and we need a break from all that testosterone, which is why we go elsewhere.”
“Or you don’t come out with us because you’re afraid we’d cock block you.”
“Right.” Shiori blinked at him. “You’re serious.”
“Yep. If we saw the loser guys you planned on hooking up with at that dive bar you two troll in, we’d . . . encourage those jackoffs to look elsewhere.” His lips brushed her ear and he felt her shiver. “Like the fucker at the bar who was probably texting his wife while he tried to lure you in with a doofy smile. Be happy he’s gone.”
Shiori leaned back to look at the empty barstool. “Nice going.”
Next thing he knew she had two fingers squeezing the skin on the inside of his knee. “Don’t cock block me again, Knox. You’re not my big brother. You don’t get to decide who I do and don’t fuck.”
Jesus. That tiny pinch stung. “You can do better than him. You would’ve broken him like a twig, She-Cat.”
“Maybe that’s what I like.”
He smiled. “What a coincidence. I like that, too.” He stood but left his hands on her.
She pinched him harder.
Why the fuck that made him hard made no sense. He moved away from her and scooted into the booth next to Katie. Not because he had a thing for her, but because it put him directly across from Shiori. He poured himself a beer. “So what’d I miss?”
“Nothing.” Katie sat between Knox and Blue. “I thought your MMA guys were coming tonight and cutting loose with you.”
“Just Deacon. He’s parking his car. Anyone in particular you were hoping to see?” Knox teased.
“Just you, Shihan,” she cooed back.
A noise sounded from across the table, and he looked over to see a sneer on Shiori’s lips.
Was she annoyed by his harmless flirting with Katie? That was interesting.
Deacon showed up and straddled the chair next to Fee. “S’up, buttercup?”
“Feelin’ fly, wise guy.”
They did some weird fist-bump handshake thing.
“Are we ordering food?” Deacon asked.
“Not at ten at night. You are a bottomless pit.”
He patted his belly. “I’m in training, darlin’. So will you help me burn off calories by—”
“No! You’re such a pervert.” Fee shoved him.
“You’re the pervert. I was asking if you’d two-step with me later.”
“I don’t know what that is. Like the tango?”
“Lord, I miss Texas sometimes.” He filled a mug with beer. “What about you Shi-Shi? You know how to dance?”
“In a club with my friends? Yes. But the moving-around-the-floor-with-a-man kind? Uh. No.”
“You don’t know how to slow dance?” Knox asked.
Shiori shrugged. “Not really.”
“So tell us about this two-timing thing,” Fee said.
“Two-step,” Deacon corrected.
Knox watched Shiori as she listened to Fee and Deacon. Normally he tried not to stare at her, but it was hard not to, with her exotic looks. Flawless ivory- and rose-colored skin tone. A heart-shaped face with a delicate jawline. Full lips. Topaz-colored eyes, slightly angled in the corners. And that hair—a black sheet that shone like onyx and fell in a straight line down her back.
Yes, Shiori turned heads. He could admit she’d turned his head the moment she’d shown up at Black Arts, sliding into the back row during one of his classes. Laughable really, that she’d believed her beauty, grace, and power would go unnoticed.
After she’d demonstrated that her martial-arts skill level exceeded his, he’d gotten pissy, hating that he’d felt threatened by the bit of a thing. Then he’d worried that he’d lose his stature as Shihan—the highest-ranking belt after Sensei—because Shiori was Ronin’s sister. She hadn’t pushed to take over his position, but she sure liked lording it over him that she outranked him.
So he used that antagonistic nature between them to mask his fascination with her. Ronin was his friend, his boss, and his mentor. No way could Knox admit he lusted after Ronin’s little sister. Even when that sister was a thirty-five-year-old business shark who could buy and sell small countries and kick the shit out of just about anyone.
As he’d gotten to know her over the past few months, he suspected what she showed people of herself was only the surface view—just as her brother did.
“So? What do you think?”
Knox tore his gaze away from her—acting like a creeper much?—and focused on Katie and Blue’s conversation.
“I said I’d consider it. Deus, woman,” Blue complained. “You’re like a dog with a bone.”
“Because it’s a great idea.”
“What’s a great idea?” Fee asked her.
“Running a pro-bono self-defense clinic on a Saturday at the North Seventh Girls Club.”
“That’s in a rough part of town,” Knox said.
“I know. Which is all the more reason these girls need a self-defense class.”
“My guys are putting in extra training hours on Saturday, Katie. I can’t spare an instructor,” Blue said.
“Ditto for us,” Knox said. “I can’t pull teachers away from the Saturday students.”
Shiori touched Katie’s hand when she was busy stirring her drink. “How many instructors would you need?”
“I thought I’d limit the class to fifty. That way four instructors would be enough. It’d just be basics.”
“If you set it up, I’ll do it,” Shiori offered.
“Really? Thank you!”
Knox hid his surprise that Shiori had volunteered.
“I’m in too,” Fee said. “Tasha isn’t working with the MMA guys, so she could be the third instructor. I know Molly isn’t a teacher, but she’s passed the class and gone on to take more classes. It’d be good for the girls to hear from a woman who’s survived an attack.”
“Absolutely fucking not.”
Everyone’s gaze snapped to Deacon.
“Why not?” Katie demanded.
“Because Molly was traumatized, and she doesn’t need to relive that shit in front of a bunch of people she doesn’t know. Leave her out of this.”
“If Molly were here, she’d remind you that you’re not the boss of her,” Shiori said with a sniff.
Katie smirked. “Yeah, what she said. And it won’t hurt to ask her, at any rate.”
Deacon’s gaze winged between Shiori and Katie. “Since when do you two trust-fund babies have Saturdays open to help the less fortunate? Ain’t that primo shopping time at Saks?”
Christ, Deacon, do you have any fucking tact?
“Maybe the next time I’m there I’ll take you on as a charity case and buy you some goddamn manners,” Katie snapped.
Fee put her hand over Deacon’s mouth when he started to retort. “We all wonder why you don’t talk much, and when you do . . . aye yi, Yondan. Be nice or I won’t do that quick-step thing with you.”
The only person paying attention to their interaction was Gil. Katie and Blue were back in a heated discussion. And Shiori was . . . looking straight at him.
“Still mad at me for chasing off weasel dick from the bar?”
Knox grinned. “I know what’ll make you feel better.”
“That’s not in the cards for you . . . oh, ever, pervert.”
“You’re the perverted one, since I was talking about dancing.” He leaned forward. “Come on. Dance with me.”
“Why are you being so insistent about this?”
Because I’d like to know what it’s like holding your body against mine when we’re not trying to choke each other out. “Because it’s a rite of passage that you missed—at least as part of your American heritage. What kind of American would I be if I didn’t fill that gap?”
She rolled her eyes—but she didn’t say no.
Knox took that as a yes.
Immediately he was on his feet, moving in behind her.
Gil said, “Just a heads-up, Shiori. Dancing is nothing like grappling. But if he grabs your ass, I expect to see a wicked hip throw from you.”
Everyone laughed. So Knox didn’t take her hand until they were out of heckling range.
Shiori looked at him when they stopped in the middle of the dance floor.
He put her hands on his shoulders and snaked his arms around her waist, pulling their bodies close.
She tried to hold herself stiffly away from him. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Relax. Move with me. Let your body rest against mine.”
“This feels unnatural.”
“You’re overthinking it. Close your eyes.”
She nestled her cheek against his chest and closed the distance between their lower halves.
The slow, bluesy music was the perfect tempo to sway together.
When she sighed and melted into him, he felt the insane urge to press his lips to the top of her head.
“This is nice,” she said softly.
“You really haven’t ever danced like this?”
“No. I went to an all-girls school. In college when I went out with my friends, we went to clubs where we all danced in a group. We did some dirty dancing as a joke.”
“So no drunken groping and sloppy kisses at your friends’ wedding dances?”
“Wedding dances aren’t a big thing in Japan. Or at least not in my circle of friends.”
“Glad I’m your first.”
She laughed. “I’ll bet you had girls lined up to slow dance with you.”
A compliment? He waited for her to tag it with an insult, but she didn’t. “Yes, I did. You’re looking at the slow-dancing stud of Westwood Hills Junior High.”
“And what made you such a hot commodity?”
“I was tall, for one thing. Other boys in my class hadn’t hit their growth spurts yet. It was awkward for taller girls to dance with shorter boys. The other appeal of dancing with thirteen-year-old Knox was I figured out girls might say they didn’t want a boy’s hand on their butt, but if you made the move gradually, they didn’t notice until you’re rubbing circles on their ass and then they realize they like it. So I could cop a feel, but not in a threatening way.”
Shiori tilted her head back. “You think I didn’t notice your big hand is on my ass?”
He grinned. “Well, you didn’t put me in a wrist lock, so I figured it was okay.”
While she kept her eyes on his, her hand traveled up his neck to the back of his head. She grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled. Hard.
Sweet baby Moses, his knees nearly buckled.
What the ever-lovin’ fuck? How could he like that? Why did he want her to stop and yet . . . at the same time he felt desperate for her to continue.
Knox returned his hand to her lower back.
She released him but kept the lock on his eyes.
“Not the reaction I expected from you.”
“That’s not a reaction I expected to have either,” he said without anger or sarcasm.
“You confuse the hell out of me, Knox Lofgren.”
“The same could be said for you, Ms. Hirano.”
They studied each other, almost as if it were the first time they’d met.
Shiori curled her hand around his neck and stroked the pulse point by the hollow of his throat. “How many songs have we danced to?”
Not enough. “Two. Why?”
“How long do you plan to keep me out here dancing with you?”
Knox slipped his hand up her back and beneath her hair to curl around the side of her face. “Junior-high Knox had worked out a strategy that if he could keep a girl in his arms, moving body to body, by song three she would let her kiss him.” His gaze dropped to her mouth. She still had a bump on her lower lip from their angry grappling match on Monday night. He swept his thumb over the mark. “Dammit, Shiori. I’m sorry about making you bleed.”
“It’s rare for me to say this, but I deserved to get knocked down a peg. But if you really wanted to prove you’re sorry . . .”
Their gazes met.
His cock had been behaving. But between the sexy way she’d commanded his attention by pulling his hair and the invitation that she’d welcome his mouth on hers, his cock immediately grew hard and hopeful.
“It’s my lucky day, because the third song hasn’t even started.” Knox tried to keep his gaze secured on hers as he angled his head, debating on a sweet or a fiery kiss, when an arm hooked around his neck, pulling him away from Shiori.
“Quit hoggin’ her. My turn to show Shi-Shi how real dancin’ is done,” Deacon drawled.
One shot to the kidney and Deacon “Con Man” McConnell wouldn’t be dancing with anyone, his masculine pride demanded. Who the fuck did Deacon think he was that he could just interrupt a private moment?
Just as Knox was about to follow through with some bodily harm, Deacon wrapped his hand around Knox’s neck and gave him a head butt. Under his breath Deacon said, “Sit the fuck down.”
He broke Deacon’s hold and walked away, trying to keep his temper in check. Instead of going back to the table, he detoured to the bar.
The bartender, a hot twentysomething with bleached hair and a fake tan, aimed a blindingly white smile at him. “What’ll it be, handsome? Shot of Jack?”
“I’ll take a Coke.”
She filled a glass with ice and soda before he got his wallet out. “No charge for designated drivers.”
He dropped three bucks on the bar top and headed back to his friends. Only Gil remained at the table. “Where’d everyone go?”
“Katie got a phone call and left. Fee decided Blue had enough to drink so she took his keys and drove home. Deacon . . . I don’t know what happened to him.”
“He’s dancing with Shiori.”
“I’m surprised he stuck around as long as he did. He’s seriously on edge.”
“And he’ll be like that until his next fight is over.”
Gil picked at the bar napkin beneath his empty beer glass. “He’s gonna get his ass beat.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because Deacon doesn’t care about winning. He cares about fighting.” Gil glanced up. “Sensei Black is a jujitsu master. He’s been a fighter. But he’s not an MMA coach. No offense, but neither are you. If Black Arts wants the fighters on their roster to win, you’ll have to recruit coaching talent, not more fighters.”
The rivalry between Black Arts and ABC had lessened as the two dojos were under the same Black Arts umbrella. And it pained Knox to admit it, but Gil was right. Ronin had added ten new fighters to train at Black Arts. Out of five bouts in the last fight—which was more of an amateur “smoker”—they’d had one winner. ABC had four winners out of five.
“You pissed off at me now?” Gil asked.
“No. I’m frustrated because I know you’re right. And I don’t know what I can do about it.”
“As of this week you’re in charge. If there’s ever been any time that you can make a change, it’ll be in the next two months when Ronin isn’t here.”
Knox’s gaze sharpened. “You’re suggesting . . . what exactly?”
“Make the Black Arts MMA program a priority by hiring a high-profile professional trainer. That way maybe Black and Blue Promotions can move out of the smoker category and get into the real fight-promotion business too.”
“Did Blue tell you to talk to me? As one second-in-command to another?”
Gil shook his head. “My first loyalty is to Blue and ABC. But I also know ABC would’ve had to disband if it hadn’t been for Ronin’s assistance. A stronger Black Arts MMA program only strengthens our position. I’m not looking to sabotage either dojo; I’m only looking to bolster the entire organization.”
“Let’s say I agree with you. A high-profile trainer doesn’t come cheap. I don’t have financial discretion at Black Arts, and if I bring someone new on board without Ronin’s approval, he’ll just shitcan the guy the second he’s back in charge.”
“You don’t have financial discretion, but Shiori does,” Gil said slyly. “If you can convince her to back your plan, she’ll free up the funds to pay a trainer’s salary. And don’t discount Hachidan Black’s reputation as the real deal. I’ll bet you’d be surprised by the number of trainer applicants you’d get just on that alone.”
Knox scrubbed his hands over his face. “Fuck, Gil. Why’d you bring this up now?” Then it clicked. He lowered his hands. “You know a trainer who’s looking to jump ship.”
“Yes. I’m worried once word gets out he’s ready to move on, people will start offering him the moon and the stars.” Gil leaned forward. “This guy needs a change, and the right offer will hook him more than a big offer.”
“Stop fucking around and tell me who we’re talking about.”
Gil paused. “I need your promise it doesn’t leave this table. Your solemn promise.”
Knox almost snapped off, “I prefer pinkie promises,” but he reined it in. “Fine. You’ve got my word.”
His jaw dropped. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Why the fuck is he leaving TGL?” TGL—Tieg, Garvey, Linson—based in LA, culled only the best of the best for their MMA roster. They’d trained UFC champs, Bellator champs, Strikeforce champs, but their biggest claim to fame was Judson DeSilva, nine-time world champion. DeSilva had won three world championship titles in each division he fought in—an unheard-of feat. Different divisions had different training regimens because weight and size determined the level of physical activity. And who’d trained DeSilva in all three divisions? Maddox Byerly.
“He’s going through a messy divorce. TGL wanted to ‘brand’ him and then use that as a selling point to franchise TGL.” At Knox’s blank look, Gil clarified. “Like the Gracie Method in Brazilian jujitsu. TGL called it the Maddox Effect.”
“Maddox hates that corporate mentality. He wants to train individual fighters, not be responsible for a style of fighting.”
“How do you know all this?”
Gil’s lips tightened. “Because he’s married to—soon to be divorced from—my psycho sister, Roxanna. The split has been a long time coming.”
“Holy shit, man. He’s your brother-in-law?”
“I see the question in your eyes. And yes, Maddox was a long shot to bail ABC out of trouble, but it didn’t come to that. He’s aware of who Ronin is, even when he’s not fully invested in the martial-arts world. So I think the right offer, the chance to relocate and the guarantee he’ll be treated like an individual with autonomy and not a commodity would sway him.”
“You got any sway with him?”
“Some. I got along better with him than with my sister. I actually told him he was fucking crazy to want to be with her. So he knows it’s no bullshit with me.”
Knox’s eyes narrowed. “So why aren’t you aligning Maddox with ABC?”
“Because Blue can’t afford him. Ronin Black can. And if Maddox is under the Black Arts umbrella . . .”
“Then chances are good he’ll be working with ABC fighters too.”
“You’re a sneaky bastard.”
He laughed. “There is a devious mind behind these good looks, amazing physique, and Brazilian charm.”
“Snake charmer is more like it,” Deacon said, snagging the chair next to Gil. “What’s going on?”
Knox had gotten so sucked into the conversation with Gil that he’d forgotten Deacon’s dick move. “Where’s Shiori?”
“She went home. Her car service picked her up.”
“Why the fuck did you—”
Gil stood. “I’ve had enough drama for one night. See you guys in the morning.” Gil’s parting shot at Knox was, “Think about what I said.”
As soon as Gil was gone, Deacon started in. “I did you a fuckin’ favor cutting you off with Shiori when I did. You would’ve dry humped her right on the damn dance floor in front of everyone. And while that so what look in your eyes is charming as hell, keep in mind that other instructors from other martial-arts studios hang out here. After the bullshit Ronin went through with Amery, I can’t shake the feeling someone is still gunning for Black Arts. I hope I’m wrong, but in the meantime don’t bump and grind on Ronin Black’s sister in public where anyone can snap a fucking picture of it, okay?”
“I get what you’re saying, but it wasn’t like that between us. It was a nice change that we weren’t trying to knock each other out.”
“Fine. Great. It’s a fuckin’ relief to all of us who have to work with you two that you’ve learned how to deal. But don’t turn the fact you don’t want to kill each other into something more, something it ain’t, something it’ll never be, dig?”
“Why? Did she say something about me?”
“Christ, Knox. Did you really just ask me that? This ain’t third grade.” Deacon laced his hands together and placed them on top of his head. “How long’s it been since you were at Twisted?”
“Two weeks. Why?”
“Go tomorrow night. Beat the shit out of someone and get fuckin’ laid. Then I’ll bet Shiori won’t look so damn appetizing to you.”
Not a bet Knox would take. If he’d been insanely attracted to her even when he wanted to stuff her face into the mat most days, he suspected that attraction wouldn’t fade now.
But in Deacon’s world everything was cut-and-dried. So Knox told him what he wanted to hear. “You’re probably right. Let’s get out of here. We’ve got an early training day tomorrow.”
As they walked toward Deacon’s car, he said, “What were you and Gil talking about? It looked intense.”
He could bounce the idea of hiring Maddox Byerly off Deacon, but he wanted to run it by Shiori first. Get her financial take on it. “His sister is going through a divorce. He just needed someone to talk to.”
“Thank god it was you and not me who got roped into that conversation.”
“One of these days, Deacon, the idea of talking things out with someone won’t send you running toward the nearest strip club for validation that you’ve got balls.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
SATURDAY night Shiori walked into the main lounge area of Twisted like she owned the place. The immediate buzz of interest fed her ego, which hadn’t been stroked in so long she’d almost forgotten that feeling of power.
The first man to approach her was Merrick McBride, the club’s owner. He clasped both of her hands in his and kissed her cheeks. “Mistress B, it’s an honor that you’ve joined us.”
“Thank you.” She looked around the space—a horseshoe-shaped bar, a large meet-and-greet lounge area with couches, chairs, and floor cushions. The hallways that led to the private playrooms allowed for a separation of casual conversation from serious play.
Master Merrick gave her a slow perusal. For tonight’s fun and games, Shiori had donned a platinum wig and a cream-colored lace mask. She’d gone for the traditional Domme look in clothing: a black leather vest with burgundy laces up the front, a pair of hip-hugging burgundy leather pants, and four-inch black platform booties.
She fought the urge to fiddle with the gold band adorning her wrist, which denoted her Domme status at the club. “Do I pass inspection, Master Merrick?”
His hungry gaze met hers. “You are stunning. You’ll have subs falling at your feet tonight.” He cocked his head. “I’m curious about the mask. When I did your background check, I was told that’s always been part of your persona at the club in Tokyo.”
“So why would I continue that here in the United States when there’s a slim possibility someone will recognize me?” She leaned in. “Besides the fact I’m Ronin Black’s sister?”
“Your brother hasn’t been here in ages. Which is unfortunate for me, from a business standpoint, because we have some of our biggest crowds when he gives demos.”
“I imagine the bakushi master is a huge draw to show off his rope skills. He’s been through a lot of changes in the past several months, but I’m confident he will return to do demos at some point.” Ronin’s wife had put off any discussion of Ronin doing bondage demos while he was on medical restrictions due to injuries. But Shiori knew now that he’d been cleared by his doctors, his need to teach would force that issue between them—sooner rather than later. “I assume you mentioned my pending membership to my brother?”
Master Merrick shook his head. “I merely verified you’re his sister. It’s against the rules to divulge members’ names—real or the personas they choose to use.”
Shiori touched the mask. “Which is why I wore this. It’s become such a part of Mistress B that I felt naked without it.”
“It adds another layer of mystery to the exotically beautiful Mistress you already are.” He kissed her hand again. “Anytime you decide you want to test your limits on whether you might be a switch, you let me know. I would love to tear that mask away and see the real woman beneath.”
Her belly did a slow curl. She touched Master Merrick’s face. He was beautiful, the epitome of an all-American guy with his classically handsome looks, athletic body, and easy charm. He definitely had that Master’s way about him—where she felt the pull to do what he commanded. “You are a dangerously sexy man, Master Merrick. You almost make me question my orientation.” She smiled. “Almost. And I promise if I’m ever in the mood to be topped, you’re the first man I’ll call.”
He laughed. “I’ll hold you to that. Now, would you like me to introduce you around?”
“I’ll take you up on that later. Right now I’d like to have a glass of wine and get the lay of the land, so to speak.”
“Understood.” He turned and crooked his finger at a young man poised at the end of the bar. “Tell Greg to pour Mistress B a glass of my private reserve.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
“I rate the private reserve on my first night?”
“I imagine a woman of your stature doesn’t drink house wine.”
Her stature. There was another reminder on why she’d chosen the mask and become Mistress B. Then no one knew her as a corporate executive and an heiress to billions; they saw her as formidable for an entirely different reason. She flashed Master Merrick a frosty smile. “My stature in the club is Mistress B, and I’m perfectly content drinking house wine. But I do appreciate your gift as a one-time-only welcome gesture.”
His eyebrows rose. Then he smiled. “Understood. And I see that you and I will get along very well indeed, Mistress.”
After Master Merrick handed her the glass of wine, he took his leave.
Shiori sipped her wine. This definitely wasn’t the house special. She looked around and realized she was still getting curious stares. It would be interesting to see who approached her first. When she turned, she realized part of the reason for the attention she’d garnered was the young submissive sitting at her feet. “You may look at me,” she said softly.
He tipped his head back and gazed at her with wonder.
Oh, how she’d missed that. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Justin. Why are you sitting at my feet?”
“Because I want to serve you tonight, Mistress.”
She took another long sip of the luscious red wine and considered him. He was young—twenty-two at the most. He had the blond hair, sharply defined cheekbones, and icy blue eyes she associated with a Nordic gene pool. He wore a tiny pair of black athletic shorts and the green bracelet that identified him as a submissive.
“I can strip so you can decide whether my body pleases you,” he offered.
“Tell me, Justin. Do you have a preference on whether you submit to a Master or a Mistress?”
“No, Mistress, no preference.”
Such a shame. She didn’t waste time with men who went both ways. She smoothed her hand over his soft hair. “I appreciate your honesty. You’re dismissed.”
He lowered his head, and his shoulders slumped. “Thank you, Mistress, for the consideration.”
She wandered over to the bar.
The bartender smiled at her and offered his hand. “I’m Greg.”
She shook his hand, noticing he didn’t wear a bracelet. “Mistress B. I’m new to this club, and I’m not exactly sure what that signifies.” She gestured to the black band around his biceps.
“The black bands are worn by security, although that’s a loose interpretation of what I do. I float between keeping an eye on the rooms to make sure the rules are being followed, to pouring drinks, to providing certain services to submissives as well as Masters and Mistresses.”
“‘Certain services’ sounds ominous.”
He shrugged. “It means sometimes I function as a third player in threesomes. Or mete out discipline. I intervene if a submissive uses their safe word in a scene. Pretty much jack-of-all-trades.”
“So is it like an apprentice level? Before you become a Master?”
“No. Black bands are their own station here. Not everyone aspires to be Dominant. Or submissive. We are the peacekeepers, and we keep the balance in check. We are neutral.”
“It’s the first I’ve heard of that kind of role in a club like this.”
“I’ll bet. So are there any special events going on tonight?”
“A violet wand demo on the main floor. Besides that, just the usual.” He sipped from a bottle of water. “What specifically are you looking for tonight, Mistress B?”
“Are you asking because I sent Justin on his merry way?”
“I’m asking because maybe I can help you out.”
She smiled at him. “I’m interested only in hetero male subs, if you’re curious about me.”
He grinned back. “Never hurts to ask.”
Shiori finished her wine and slid the empty glass toward him. “Thanks for the info.” She adjusted her vest and headed down the hallway to see what awaited her.
* * *
KNOX twisted the handle as he swung, sending the flogger to reconnect with the same section of skin as the last three blows. The man made a loud “uff” of pain and his Master stepped in.
“Sir, I can take more,” the man in the chains protested.
Knox didn’t get involved in the argument. While he had a break, he grabbed the towel, mopped his face, and stepped in front of the fan to cool down. He uncapped a bottle of water and drained the entire thing in four long swallows.
Master Rand motioned to him to help unhook his sub from the chains.
As soon as the guy was freed, he sank to his knees. He wrapped one hand around the back of Knox’s calf. “Thank you. That was . . . what I needed.”
“Happy to help.” He watched as Master Rand hauled his sub to his feet and led him away.
One down; one to go.
He twisted his neck and shoulders, trying to ease the ache in the middle of his back. He’d need a massage after his last scene tonight. Master Angus expected that immediate explosion of pain from the first lash to the last lash. No buildup, just continual bombardment for fifteen minutes. Having a set time frame helped Knox keep his stamina. Wielding a whip for that long took its toll on him as well. Everyone expected a big guy like him to have superior strength and staying power, so that’s the image he maintained even if he could barely move the next day. He’d gotten smart and limited himself to three sessions in a night, so his skills were in high demand for those members who craved the type of pain he provided.
Stepping out of the hot box, Knox noticed a crowd had gathered in front of one of the open-use rooms. He meandered that way, thankful his height allowed him to see over everyone’s heads.
But he didn’t have the greatest view of what held the crowd enthralled, so he got closer.
A platinum-blond Domme in leathers was whipping Dex, a male submissive, with a short-handled whip. The instrument of torture wasn’t as interesting as where she was leaving marks. She’d reddened the area around both of his nipples and the skin below his hip bones. She’d stretched him out—a spreader bar between his ankles and his arms equal distance apart above his head. That position gave her access to the front and the back sides of his body.
Dex had been a club member for a few years and hadn’t asked Knox to deliver the pain, but most of Knox’s scenes were at the behest of submissives’ Masters and Mistresses. Since Dex was an unattached sub, Knox wondered who the woman was, because she clearly knew what she was doing. Dex’s cock, bound with a strap, was fully erect.
Knox watched as she cracked the whip and the tip landed on the inside of Dex’s thigh. His entire body jerked and he started to beg her to let him come. But she didn’t respond; she just gave him a matching whip kiss on the inside of his other thigh.
Dex hissed—a sound of pain tinged with pleasure.
When the Domme walked behind Dex and delivered two strikes to the backs of his legs, Knox studied her. Her hair might be real, but he doubted it. And then there was the mask that covered her face.
She grabbed Dex by the hair and pulled his head back so she could speak directly into his ear.
He nodded and squirmed when she coiled the whip around his calf with a flick of her wrist and dragged it up. Then she did the same thing on the other side. She reached between his legs and released the cock restraint.
His relief was short-lived when she snapped two hard strikes on his inner thighs and followed through with two more hard strikes on his balls. He immediately started to come, and the Domme used the handle of the whip like a riding crop, connecting with the marks on his inner thighs as he shot his load into the air.
When he slumped against the chains, the crowd thinned.
But Knox remained in place, watching the Domme bring her sub down to earth with whispered words and gentle touches on his chest and back.
And Dex looked at her adoringly. Dex. The submissive the Dommes always complained about because he tried to top from below.
When the blond Domme circled Dex and came to stand in front of him, Knox had a niggling sense of familiarity. When she stood on tiptoe to release Dex’s arms from the cuffs, her identity hit him with the force of a spinning back fist to the head.
He knew that biteable ass.
He knew she struggled to reach items in the storeroom because she was so short.
When she turned her head, Knox groaned.
He knew those fucking luscious lips too.
In the past eight months he’d fantasized way too many times about taking that sassy mouth in a dozen different ways. And he almost had last night.
Knox watched the rest of the scene unfold. After she freed Dex from his wrist and ankle restraints, she sat him in a chair and draped a blanket around him. She handed him a bottle of water, and when he was too shaky to drink, she helped hold it to his mouth.
This wasn’t her first time dealing with a submissive’s aftercare.
As if her expertise with a whip wasn’t already a sign she was no amateur playing a role.
But fuck him.
Shiori Hirano was a Domme.
A fucking Domme.
He shook his head to clear it and watched as Dex dropped to his knees in front of her. He wrapped one arm around her shin and looked up at her beseechingly.
She petted his hair and spoke so softly Knox couldn’t hear. But whatever she’d said had pleased Dex, and he stood, clutching the blanket around his naked form before he wandered off.
Leaving the two of them alone.
From the shadows he said, “I like you as a platinum blonde, She-Cat.”
She turned around slowly, her gaze zeroing in on him even in the shadows. She said nothing as she sauntered forward, her carriage as purposeful as it was in the dojo, but her hips held an enticing sway he’d never seen before. She kept hold of the whip, flicking it with annoyance like a cat with a twitchy tail.
Too late he realized she’d cornered him completely.
“Well, well, Godan, if this isn’t an unexpected treat, running into you at my new club.”
His eyes narrowed. “Your new club? You’re a member here now?”
“Full-fledged.” She ran her whip up the outside of his thigh to his hip. “Identity verified and dues paid.”
“How long have you been a Domme?”
“How long have you been a member?” she countered.
“As long as I’ve known Ronin. Your turn, She—”
She pressed the whip handle against his lips. “Ah-ah. The name is Mistress B. Understand?”
“I’ve been a Domme for three years. I tried out two other clubs in Denver before this one. Neither worked out for me.”
“Does Ronin know?”
“That I’m a Domme? No. So he’d have no reason to expect he’d see me in this club. And it’s not like he’s been here in months anyway, right? That’s information I learned from his missus, not club secrets. When he gets back, we’ll sort out the details.” She traced the edge of the black band around his biceps. “You’re security. A neutral party, according to Greg.” Those beautiful golden eyes of hers bored into him. “Why?”
“I started out as a security goon. When Merrick changed the membership rules, he needed more proactive security. We all chose something that interested us. I trained for this type of club work with a Master who specialized in punishment. I’d already been working with Ronin on kinbaku and shibari.”
“Are you any good with ropes?”
When he took a breath to explain, he caught a lungful of her exotic scent. Damn her and the intimate web she was weaving around him. He wasn’t some green submissive who easily fell under the spell of a Dominant. “Back up, She—Mistress B.”
“Am I making you nervous?”
“No. You’re making me late for my next scene. So why don’t we just agree to avoid each other at the club from here on out?”
She immediately retreated. “Easy enough to find willing men to occupy my time.”
Knox should’ve shut his mouth, but something about this woman just got under his skin. “The male subs won’t play with you if all you’re doing is beating them and getting them off.”
“And you know that . . . how?”
He didn’t. But any man worth his balls would want to get her off—why else would he subject himself to pain and humiliation if he didn’t get to put his hands and mouth all over her?
“Maybe if you’re really nice someday I’ll tell you.”
Whap. The whip handle landed across his chest. “Or I could make you tell me.”
“You think you can bring me to heel?” He laughed. “Gonna hafta grow a bit, kitty-cat.” He sidestepped her and started down the hallway.
“You can’t stop me from watching your scene.”
He turned and grinned. “Not me, but the Master I’m beating prefers privacy.”
“Maybe I’ll request your services for next weekend.”
His humor fled. “I don’t beat women. Ever. Not even if they get on their knees and beg me. Not even if they piss me the fuck off by insulting me.”
“Drop it, Mistress. Find another toy to play with.”
He walked away and didn’t look back.
THAT night Shiori dreamed that she had Knox strung up.
His gorgeous, big body was spread-eagled in chains, muscular arms straining above his head, his ankles shackled. She’d tortured him with touch, first a feather, then a piece of sandpaper, followed by a Wartenberg wheel, a rubber flogger, and a square of silk. She touched every inch of him, even the bottoms of his feet.
Then she touched him with her hands. Sometimes as soft as raindrops, other times using her nails.
His cock remained erect; his heavy balls were tight in the harness.
She’d had to stand on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “You said no man would want to play with me if I was just beating him and getting him off. So I’ll offer you a choice. I’ll give you ten lashes with the cat and then this She-Cat will give your cock ten lashes with my tongue before I jack you off.”
“What’s my other choice?” he gritted out.
Shiori moved to his other ear. One hand gripped his hair while the other clamped onto his ass cheek. “The other choice is you on your knees with that pouty mouth all over my pussy.”
Knox turned his head and his mouth brushed her temple. “I’d rather be on my knees before you, Mistress. Let me serve you.”
She’d dropped the chains on his arms so fast he nearly fell forward from the force of it. “I don’t know who’s more anxious for this—me or you.”
He’d raised his head then, and those blue eyes blazed pure sexual fire. “I’ll prove that I am as many times as you’ll let me.”
Cocky. Shiori unhooked his wrist cuffs from the chains and massaged his arms for a moment before she pulled his arms behind his back. She stepped around him to admire her modern-day Viking—from his muscle-bound body, to his handsome face, to the barely leashed power vibrating from him as he fought against himself and his very nature to obey her.
Shiori let her skirt hit the floor and kicked it away as she moved in closer. Her bare pussy throbbed with her arousal—this man made her so hot that the insides of her thighs were soaked. She reached up and grabbed on to the bar holding the chains.
A low growl rumbled from his throat in response to her pussy mere inches away from his mouth. But he wouldn’t touch her until she gave him the go-ahead.
“Look at me,” she said softly.
His lust-clouded eyes met hers.
“Make me come so hard my knees give out. Then pick me up and do it again.” She held her breath as he dipped his head and his tongue shot out, eager to connect with her hot flesh . . .
That’s when she woke up. Heart pounding, body tight, thighs quivering, panties wet, mouth dry, and need driving out all rational thought.
She punched her pillow with frustration. When that didn’t help, she wrapped her arms around it and screamed into it.
You should’ve known it was a dream. Where else but in fantasyland would he say let me serve you?
She’d never get back to sleep now.
She threw on some old sweatpants and a T-shirt and headed to the room she’d turned into an art studio. She had a table covered with different types of paint, several easels with pictures at various stages of completion, and small finished canvases lined along the walls. She’d always wanted to paint, but her life had been so hectic before she’d resigned her position at Okada that she’d lacked the time.
Now she had time, but as she studied the paint lines on the closest canvas, she realized that old adage “practice makes perfect” wasn’t true for everything because she was a shitty artist. She hadn’t improved at all in the last few months. While that bothered her on one level, on another level, she loved the freedom of wasting time.
She cranked up the volume on the MP3 dock and indulged in her other guilty pleasure—Japanese boy bands. So she sang along as loudly as she wanted as she painted pictures of posies and wondered what the hell a therapist would make of her.
* * *
ALTHOUGH most of the accounting for Black Arts was done off-site, Shiori still had loose ends to tie up before the week started and she got sidetracked by her own projects.
While she was no longer working full-time in the Okada corporate offices in Tokyo, she hadn’t walked away completely. Several of their big food suppliers refused to deal with anyone at Okada besides her—she’d tried to transition them to another account specialist, but they’d threatened to pull their business. The amounts were significant, so she’d sucked it up and stayed on.
No one had asked her how long she planned to stay in the United States. The only reason she was allowed to remain here was because of her work visa. For the first time ever, being on Okada’s payroll gave her more freedom instead of less.
After getting everything in order for the accountant, she cut to the training room for cardio. Teaching meant she had to stay in better shape than ever, so she worked out in the weight room four days a week.
She’d just finished a brutal punching combination and was taking a moment to catch her breath when she heard, “There’s a rule against training in the workout room alone.”
Her stomach flipped at the sound of his voice, but she ignored Knox and hit the heavy bag three more times. Finished with that, she moved to the next station and added kicks to her strikes against the training dummy. She felt Knox’s gaze studying her every move, but she knew he’d find no error in her technique. She didn’t let his intense scrutiny rattle her. Now, if Ronin stood behind her, silently critiquing her, she’d make a misstep or ten. When he was in Sensei Black mode, he was intimidating as fuck.
She finished the sequence with a couple of practice sweeps and an uppercut and a jab from the ground. She stayed on the mat, her wrists resting on her knees, and tried to even out her labored breathing.
“Looks like you’ve been going to Deacon’s Muay Thai classes.”
“It’s free and I’m not teaching during that time, so why not? Every discipline offers different techniques to keep opponents off guard.”
Knox knelt down and handed over her water bottle. “Opponents? You plan on joining the underground fighting scene?”
“Maybe.” She swigged her water. “Maybe I’ll ask Blue to schedule me for the next Black and Blue promotional smoker.”
“I’d advise against it.”
Her eyes met his. “Why?”
Those piercing blue eyes roamed over her face with such intensity she suppressed a shiver. “Because you don’t have anything to prove, Shiori.”
WTF? Knox rarely called her by her name. She waited to see what he’d say next.