HIS head hurt like a motherfucker.
He couldn’t see a damn thing in this dark alley.
Why the hell hadn’t she come to the door yet?
He smacked his helmet into the steel three more times.
Please, baby, just let me in.
No lights came on. No clicking sounds of the door locks disengaging.
But he couldn’t hear anything above the pain screaming in his head.
He rested his shoulders on the brick building. When he put his palm to his forehead to try to keep his brain from exploding, his fingers came away wet.
What the hell?
Why the fuck was he bleeding?
The steel door squeaked and opened only far enough so she could peer out. Playing it safe. Good girl.
“Ronin? What are you doing here?”
“I needed to see you.”
“At two in the morning?”
“Yes. Please. Let me in.” As soon as she opened the door, Ronin stumbled inside and his helmet bounced across the concrete floor.
She dove for him when he swayed. Somehow she kept him on his feet and maneuvered him against the wall. She gasped softly. “Your face. What happened?”
He swallowed the bile crawling up his throat. He dropped to his knees and hissed at the excruciating pain before he plopped onto the floor with a juddering thump.
“Ronin?” She crouched beside him. “You look like you’ve taken a beating.”
“I have. Being beaten down has been my natural state since you walked out on me.”
His response jarred her into silence.
So he kept talking. “The fight . . . rattled my brain.”
“You were in a fight tonight? A real fight?”
“Can I ask why?”
“Needed to numb the pain.” He winced when he tried to shift positions. “But then I couldn’t remember.”
“What? Why you came here?”
“I came here because I didn’t have any other place to go.”
She picked up his hand. “You’re bleeding.”
“Sorry. I never wanted you to see me like this.”
He heard a soft gasp. “Ronin, you probably need a doctor.”
It was getting harder to breathe and maintain focus. And balance. He slurred, “No. I just need to sleep.” Then he half rolled/half fell to his side.
“You can’t sleep.”
“Have to. Fuck. It hurts.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no! Don’t close your eyes. Dammit, Ronin, stay with me. Come on! Where’s the infallible martial arts master? You are freaking me out.”
“Sorry.” Then he was at the mouth of a tunnel. Her distorted voice echoed back to him from a point far away.
Or was this an illusion?
He raced toward the pinpoint of light, running faster when it began to fade.
Then he was engulfed in nothingness.
Six weeks earlier . . .
RONIN Black had thought his breaking and entering days were behind him.
But after the cold reception he’d received from Molly, Amery’s receptionist at Hardwick Designs, and Molly’s lack of information about where her boss had disappeared to, he’d opted for Plan B.
Since Amery had given him a key, technically his presence in her loft wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t as if he planned to read her journal or scroll through her private accounts on her computer. He just needed some idea of where she’d gone before he went out of his fucking mind.
It wasn’t the why Ronin didn’t understand, since Amery’s parting shot twenty-four hours earlier replayed on a continuous loop in his head: Don’t bother running after me with the excuses you consider apologies or offering more lies masquerading as explanations because we’re done this time. Done.
Fuck that. They weren’t even close to done. They’d barely begun.
Just thinking about how badly he’d fucked up . . . Ronin squeezed the key so hard it bit into his palm. So much for staying composed. After he’d calmed down last night, following their . . . blowup, his fuckup, or whatever the hell it was, he’d tried calling her. Her cell phone had kicked him over to voice mail every one of the fifteen times he’d called. He hadn’t left a message. He needed to talk to her, not a machine.
He forced his hand to relax and jammed the key into the lock, twisting until the mechanism clicked. After he’d opened the door, he slipped inside the back room.
Since the offices at the front of the building were empty, he called out, “Amery?” just in case she was hiding out.
Ronin scaled the circular staircase as quietly as possible. But he had no reason for stealth; as soon as his foot hit the top tread, he knew she wasn’t here.
The blinds were drawn in her main living area. If Amery were around she’d have the windows open, the curtains billowing in the breeze. He circled her couch and coffee table, noticing she’d tidied up more than normal. He found the same thing in the kitchen. Dishes drying on the drain rack, garbage taken out, wooden fruit bowl emptied. He checked the contents of the fridge. No dairy products or takeout containers, which suggested she planned to be gone long enough to worry about food spoilage.
Her toothbrush wasn’t in the flower-shaped cup holder in the bathroom. Her cosmetics weren’t strewn across the counter. No pajamas or workout clothes were piled in the hamper. He squeezed the bath towel hanging on the hook. Completely dry. But just touching it released the scent of her shampoo, and his stomach knotted with longing.
He didn’t do this. He didn’t know how to do this missing her and wanting her thing.
But you do know how to fuck something up beyond repair.
He had to fix this. Had to.
Ronin retreated from the bathroom. He paused in the doorway to her bedroom. Her rumpled bed looked exactly as he’d left it. Exactly. Bedding dangling off the end of the mattress where he’d thrown it back. Pillows shoved to his side of the bed.
But on her side of the bed . . . there were the two coils of black rope he’d forgotten to pack up before leaving yesterday morning.
Christ. Had it been only yesterday morning he’d woken in her bed? Only one damn day since everything had imploded?
At least she hadn’t thrown them out in a fit of pique.
Now that he knew they were here, he had a legitimate excuse for returning.
• • •
BACK at the Black Arts dojo, Ronin wandered around like a ghost. No one engaged him while he observed classes from a distance. He saw everything yet nothing as his mind focused elsewhere—which is probably why he didn’t recognize the woman at first.
Shihan Knox barked, “None of you have shown any familiarity with this technique, and I know this is not the first time you’ve worked with it.”
Every student appeared to hang their head in shame.
Except for one.
Naturally Knox noticed her defiant posture. His eyes narrowed and he pointed to her. “You. Up here. Now.”
The woman sauntered to the front of the class and bowed.
“You familiar with this technique?”
She kept her head lowered. “Yes, Godan.”
“Good.” Knox took five steps back. “Start from the defensive stance.” He went at her, low and outside.
In that split second Ronin recognized Knox’s mistake—as did his student.
She used the forward motion of his body against him, knocking him sideways. The move caught him completely off guard, and he took a knee—which was as good as admitting defeat.
Shihan Knox shot to his feet. He tried to appear unfazed, but Ronin recognized his annoyance. Knox said, “Reverse stances. You’re on the offensive.”
“No,” the student said calmly.
“I decline the challenge. I wouldn’t come at you from the angle you’ve been demonstrating. That’s why no one in the class has mastered it. With all due respect, Godan, this teaching method is ineffective.”
Rather than show irritation, Knox grinned. Ronin knew he lived for this comeuppance shit.
“Since you have ideas on how our training time might be better spent, defend yourself any way you see fit.” Then Knox rushed her.
She lowered into a defensive stance, allowing herself to get steamrolled, the equivalent of offering the alpha dog her throat.
That didn’t make Knox happy. “Partner up at the heavy bags. We’ll work on kicks for the remainder of class.”
Ronin stayed in the dark corner, assessing each student’s skills. Clearly they needed to put the screws to this class—he saw several students slacking on basic techniques. Their lack of discipline reflected on him as owner of the dojo.
Knox dismissed class student by student—as was his prerogative. He retained the female student until everyone had left.
She gracefully propelled herself upright.
“Why did you refuse to demonstrate the reversal of the technique?”
“Out of deference to you, Godan.”
She called him Godan, his belt rank, and not Shihan, a term used for the highest-ranking teacher besides the sensei.
“Explain that,” Knox demanded.
“I am merely a visitor to your domain.”
Knox loomed over her, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. “So you let me win because you didn’t want to show me up in front of my students?”
“Oh, hell no. We’ll go again. This time? No holding back. And that is an order.”
“As you wish.” She fortified her stance.
For a big guy, Knox was fast on his feet, very adaptable in the moment. But he didn’t stand a chance against the woman’s speed and intuition.
She dodged, ducked, and knocked Knox down, immobilizing him against the mat with her elbow on the back of his neck. She held his wrist in a joint lock, which, if he moved the wrong way, would result in a fracture.
Ronin stepped forward. “Release him.”
The woman immediately let Knox go. When she offered him a helping hand, Knox tugged her to the mat, trying to regain ground, but she merely pulled a reversal and Knox found himself in the same subservient position as before.
Knox swore under his breath.
“Ill-advised attempt at saving face, Shihan.” Then Ronin addressed the woman. “I take it you didn’t introduce yourself to my staff?”
She shrugged. “You gave me a guest pass. I used it. It didn’t include welcome to the dojo instructions.”
Such a smart mouth. “Let him go.”
She glanced down at Knox. “Do I have permission to put him in his place again if he doesn’t behave?”
“Shihan?” Ronin prompted.
Knox gritted out, “I won’t engage her.”
“Wise move.” She stood and bowed to Ronin. “Sensei.”
Ronin gestured to the petite woman, who failed to pull off an innocent look. “Knox, this is my sister, Shiori Hirano.”
“Your sister? Fuck me.”
“No, thank you.” She sniffed. “I never fuck guys I can top.”
“Shiori. Knock it off,” Ronin warned.
Knox’s gaze zeroed in on Shiori’s plain black belt. “What’s your rank?”
“You outrank me?”
“Yes, which is why I didn’t want to engage you.”
“You don’t have that option with me.” Ronin kept his eyes locked on hers. “Get dressed and meet me in the second-floor conference room. You’ll know which one I mean. It’s missing a window from when I threw a chair through it after your conversation with my girlfriend yesterday.” He spun on his heel and exited the room.
Ronin made it halfway down the hall before Knox caught up to him. “I guess I expected your sister would look more—”
“Like a fire-breathing dragon lady?”
“No, more like you. Although I see the resemblance in your combative attitudes.”
He bit back a snarl.
“Are you in the right frame of mind to deal with her?”
“Probably not. But it’s been a long time coming.” Years. Since everything that had gone down with Naomi.
Knox set his hand on Ronin’s shoulder. “Then I’ll stick around and run interference.”
“I insist. You’re a powder keg and she’s a match. The dojo has sustained enough damage in the last day.”
They stopped in the conference room. The window hadn’t been replaced, but he’d cleaned up the mess.
“Any luck tracking Amery down today?”
Ronin shook his head. “Molly wouldn’t talk to me. The state of Amery’s apartment indicated she’d be gone for a few days.”
“How’d you get into her place?”
“I’ve got a key.”
“A key,” Knox repeated. “As in . . . you two exchanged keys? Does she have access to your penthouse?”
“Jesus. We need to change the security codes to the building right away.”
“No. I want her to be able to get to me. It’ll show I trust her.”
“Why should she trust you? When you weren’t honest with her about anything?”
At the comment, Ronin turned to face Shiori, leaning in the doorway, still wearing her gi. “You’re ballsy enough to speak of honesty to me?”
She tsk-tsked. “How quickly you’ve forgotten the importance of discretion.” She gave Knox a haughty be gone with you gesture.
“We don’t bring outsiders into family business.”
“Guess you broke that rule when you introduced me to Naomi and fucked up my life. I trust Knox implicitly, and he might just be the only thing keeping me from killing you.”
Knox leaned forward, blocking her from Ronin’s sight. “Not helping. Take it down a notch.”
Shiori sidestepped Knox and sat at the end of the table. “Don’t feign surprise that you forced my hand and my appearance in Denver by insisting that the company hire your latest squeeze.”
“I didn’t force anything. I provided the name of a qualified designer for a project you discussed with me months ago. You want me to take an interest in the company, and when I do, you still question my motives.”
She steepled her fingers. “So your interest in this specific Okada project is your way of telling me you’re considering taking the reins?”
“That’s always been your dream, not mine,” Ronin stated. “How long are you here?”
“I didn’t think Grandfather let you out of his sight.”
“You wouldn’t know, since you haven’t been around both of us together for a long time, have you?”
Zing. He deserved that. “Did you arrive with an entourage?”
“Just Jenko. He insisted on checking the security at the Ritz since I’ve leased the penthouse for the foreseeable future. He also interviewed potential security specialists, should I require one. I doubt that’ll be necessary, and I’m looking forward to a little breathing room.”
Jenko, Shiori’s bodyguard, wasn’t employed by the family company, Okada; therefore, he didn’t answer to their grandfather. Hiring the former Sumo wrestler was one of the few things she’d done against their patriarch’s wishes. “Jenko won’t remain in Denver with you?”
A look of sorrow flashed in her eyes. “He has a wife and daughter. It’s not fair to ask him to be away from them indefinitely.” She inhaled a calming breath. “Look, I’ll admit I didn’t arrive in Denver with good intentions toward Amery. But I did have good intentions toward you, Ronin. I wanted to see if you were being taken advantage of by this woman.”
“Because I’m such a fucking idiot and an easy mark when it comes to women?”
“No. I’m really sorry for the way I handled it, okay?” Shiori picked at her fingernails, a nervous habit she’d had for years.
Ronin had no response for that.
“Putting aside our personal differences, I’ll need a place to practice while I’m in Denver. May I have your permission to train here, in whatever capacity best suits the dojo?”
“Who are you training with in Tokyo?”
“Masaman. A protégé of your sensei. The best I could get.”
As far as Ronin knew, he was the last student his sensei had consented to teach—and that’d been twenty-two years ago. “In your defense, he’s never taken a woman as a pupil.”
“That seems to be a tradition you’re following.”
“Wrong. I have female students.”
“Ah. But do you have any female instructors?”
Shiori cocked her head. “Because you don’t feel women are as qualified to teach as men?”
Ronin did not want to get into a gender-equality argument with his sister.
But you can admit she has a point.
“I’ve not had any women apply for an instructor’s position.”
“But you do have female students at black belt level you could’ve moved up?” she pressed.
“A few. But like I said, none of them have expressed interest.”
“Perhaps they’re afraid to be the first to break the Black Arts glass ceiling. Along those lines, what is the protocol for my visitor’s status?”
“Having a higher-ranking belt than my Shihan hasn’t come up before, so we don’t have protocol in place. I’ll discuss options with my instructors and let you know.” Maybe he’d have his sister put her money where her mouth was and assign her to teach classes.
“Thank you.” She stood. “I’m not returning to Japan until things are settled between us. I screwed up. I’ve apologized. I don’t expect immediate forgiveness, but I do expect you to acknowledge that the person you’re angriest with is . . . yourself.”
She walked out, regal as a warrior queen.
Unbelievable. His pesky little sister still had the ability to get under his skin.
Knox cleared his throat.
“I hear you muttering. And not to be a dick, but I agree with your sister. While she stirred the pot, the shit stew that was already in it was all yours.”
A sense of self-loathing rose again. Ronin closed his eyes.
“Let it go, my man. You can sort things out with Amery when she returns from wherever she’s gone. Don’t you always preach to control the things you can and ignore the rest? You can’t control this.”
“I’m a postulating asshole sometimes, aren’t I?”
Knox grinned. “Only on the days of the week ending in Y.”
• • •
IT’D been one week since Ronin had seen Amery.
Seven fucking days without a word from her.
He hadn’t gone back to her loft. But he hadn’t stopped calling her once an hour. His way of letting her know he thought of her every waking hour of his day.
Then maybe you should leave a message so she’ll call you back.
He turned away from brooding out his office window and faced Deacon. “Hey. What’s up? I didn’t think you were coming in today.”
“I hadn’t planned on it. But I got some bad news yesterday.”
“What’s going on?”
Deacon ran his hand across his bald head and sighed. “You know my grandfather died a few months back and his estate is in limbo. My dad’s been trying to mediate all this inheritance shit between his brother and sister. My aunt hired an attorney, which we all expected, and he’s scheduled a meeting for next Thursday afternoon.”
Ronin’s gaze sharpened. “That’s the night you’re scheduled for a bout with Alvares Curacao.”
“I know. And if the meeting were in Denver, it wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s in San Antonio. My dad . . .” Deacon started to pace. “He’s had a rough go of it. On top of losing his father, he’s dealing with his greedy siblings, who care only about the money they feel is owed to them as their birthright.”
Deacon came from money. Old Texas oil money. So the legal summons wasn’t something he could ignore, especially when his participation in MMA fights was more of a hobby. Their family situations were similar only in that they both had more money than they could possibly ever spend.
“Look, I’m really sorry—”
“No worries, Deacon. Be there for your dad. How much time off will you need?”
“I’ll leave on Tuesday morning and take a late flight back on Sunday. In addition to putting you in a bind with missing the fight, that leaves four days’ worth of classes uncovered.”
“We can combine classes. I’ll move Jon up to instructor level. Probably time I did that anyway.”
“Fine, but four students in my Friday class are testing for black belts next week, remember? I don’t have to be there to test them, but I promised to extend class time so they could work on techniques, and that requires an instructor.”
Ronin reached for the printout with the month’s class schedules. “Can we push testing back until next month?”
Deacon shook his head. “It’s already been postponed once. These students have been working hard for the last year. I don’t wanna disappoint them.”
Since Ronin preferred to run his martial arts studio with a small staff of instructors, something like this could upend his system.
He glanced up. “There is one option. Since it doesn’t appear my sister plans to leave Denver anytime soon, she could fill in.”
“Will Shiori feel that’s beneath her?”
“If she practices here, she’s under my leadership. She’ll do what I tell her.” Ronin noticed Deacon’s rigid posture. “Don’t tell me both you and Knox have an issue with her?”
“Nope, not me. She pushes Shihan’s buttons something fierce. You’ve been . . . distracted the past week, but it’s taken me, Ito, and Zach to keep them from takin’ their issues to the mat.”
Distracted was an impartial way of putting it. Ronin had been worthless this past week. Angry, melancholy, on edge—and those were the good days. His instructors hadn’t mentioned the chair-throwing incident nor questioned Amery’s absence.
“Anyway, I’ll get outta your hair. I just wanted to let you know what was up.”
“I appreciate it. If anything changes and you need more time in Texas, take it.”
“Thanks, Ronin.” Deacon stopped in the doorway and turned around. “Look. If you ever need to talk—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get that I can call you.”
Deacon looked horrified. “Fuck that. I was gonna tell you to call Knox because he can be such a girl about that kinda emotional shit. But if you wanna flat-out forget your troubles? Call me. I’ve got a case of Jägermeister and VIP access to Jiggles Strip Club.”
Ronin managed a smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
For the next hour, he dealt with dojo business, including trying to find a replacement fighter for the bout Thursday night. Normally he didn’t mix with other dojos, but in the last couple months, he’d refereed events run by Alvares “Blue” Curacao, an MMA fighter who owned ABC, a Brazilian jujitsu dojo. Blue had proven himself different from the other Brazilian jujitsu practitioners in the area, and Ronin respected the man to the point they’d discussed bringing in ABC as part of Black Arts. He and Blue had met privately to talk about possible options before they each brought it up with their instructors. So not supplying a fighter for the main bout, especially against Blue, would give the impression that Black Arts didn’t have a qualified fighter besides Deacon.
Why don’t you just admit it? You don’t have a qualified professional fighter.
Fuck that. He’d figure something out.
Feeling at loose ends in nearly every aspect of his life, he called Amery’s cell phone for the tenth time and hung up when it kicked over to voice mail. He was getting tired of her dodging his calls.
That’s because she’s done with you.
With the voices in his head wreaking havoc, he decided to pursue a more productive mind-set, like spending time in his Zen garden, when two knocks sounded on his office door. “Come in.”
Martel, his UPS courier, bounded in. “Afternoon, Mr. B. How’s it hangin’?”
“High. I start my vacay tomorrow. A week in Cancun.” He thrust the cardboard box at Ronin. “Same-day delivery. Signature required on this one.”
He signed the electronic pad and missed the rest of what Martel said because the package was from Amery. He squinted at the block lettering. Jesus. Even her writing looked angry. Especially the PERSONAL notation in the corner—angrily outlined three times with red marker.
As soon as the door shut, he used a carton cutter to slice through the tape. His heart raced as he folded back the cardboard edges and yanked out the bubble wrap.
His heart stopped when he saw the contents: two coils of black rope. The rope he’d left at her place the last time they were together. The rope he’d seen on her floor last week.
He upended the box on his desk. No note. Just the rope. And a pair of scissors.
She’d made her message loud and clear. She wanted no part of him. No reminders of their time together. She was cutting all ties.
Ronin dropped into his chair and stared at the black bundles as fury hit him as hard and fast as a freight train. His current anger-management program—beating the fuck out of a speed bag—wouldn’t dampen his rage this time. He needed something else. Something . . . real.
A plan took shape in his mind. It would require every bit of his focus, leaving him no time to think about anything—or anyone—else, which is exactly what he wanted.
After he retaped the box and shoved the package under his desk, he hit the intercom for the training room. “Shihan? A word in my office, please.”
Knox walked in a few minutes later. “What’s up?”
“Did you talk to Deacon today?”
Knox uncapped his water bottle and drank deeply before answering. “No. I saw him, but he didn’t stop to talk. Is something wrong?”
“He’s got family stuff going on next week in Texas, so he pulled out of the fight Thursday night.”
“Shit.” Knox flopped into the office chair across from the desk. “How much money is tied up in the event?”
“Shit,” he said again. “This is why we’ve stayed out of the fight-promotion business.”
“I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that Blue runs events like this all the time, and we’ll come across as unprofessional if we can’t pull it together.” Ronin didn’t give a damn about the money. The dojo saving face was all that mattered to him.
“You worried advance ticket sales will drop off when we change the fight matchup?”
“Some. But that’s why there’s the disclaimer about fight matchups being subject to change without notice.”
Knox gave him a contemplative look. “The easiest thing would be to drop the last bout altogether since it’s the only pro matchup.”
“We’re not dropping the main bout. I’ve already got someone who can fight in Deacon’s place.”
“Hilarious. And here I thought you’d lost your sense of humor in the last week.”
“I’m not joking.”
Knox’s smile died, and he changed into that steely-eyed former soldier. “Fuck that, Ronin. You don’t have to do this.”
“Not a matter of have to. It’s a matter of want to.”
“With all the shit that’s happened in the last week, you are not in the right frame of mind. Let me represent the dojo.”
Ronin leaned forward and didn’t bank the rage fueling him. “Are you suggesting, Godan, that I don’t have the skills to adequately represent the dojo I own?”
“Jesus, no. I’m questioning why you’re doing this.”
“Because I can.” Ronin shoved the updated schedule at him. “Find replacement instructors for the times I circled. I’ll give Shiori a heads up and let her know she’s taking over Deacon’s classes.”
Knox opened his mouth to argue but thought better of it. He asked, “What else can I do?”
“Call Clint. He owes me a favor.”
“Maybe this is obvious, but Clint is retired from the UFC because his body couldn’t take it anymore. And he’s five years younger than you.”
Ronin shrugged. “One fight won’t kill me. But I’m not an idiot. I’ve no doubt I’ll feel every one of my thirty-eight years and then some after the final bell rings.”
“How long has it been since you’ve stepped foot in the ring?”
Hadn’t been that long ago, but he wasn’t sharing that information. “Between you and Clint . . . figure out a training regimen that will get me up to speed fast because Blue is one tough motherfucker.”
Knox stood. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t question your decisions.”
After Knox left, Ronin headed to the training room.
Fuck finding Zen.
• • •
Six nights later
FIGHT night was a blur.
Ronin remembered getting in the ring believing he was the most impervious motherfucker on the planet. Acting like he’d bring the pain. Welcoming the physical punishment Blue Curacao would dish out.
But somewhere in the middle of the second round, Ronin’s focus shifted. He fought back with minimal effort. He embraced the feeling of numbness after his opponent’s blows connected with his body. Every drop of blood he lost cleansed him. Everything around him dropped into slow motion, so when he saw the powerful right cross headed for his jaw, he didn’t bother to block it.
He hit the mat and the lights went out.
People poked and prodded him. He answered their questions by rote. He’d been in this situation enough times that he gave them the responses they were looking for. He made it out of the ring on his own steam and promptly passed out in the locker room with only Shiori and Knox as his witnesses.
“You managed to walk in here on your own after the medical team checked you out, so I know you can hear me.”
Ronin opened his eye—the one that wasn’t swollen shut. “What?”
“You’re smiling? Are you actually happy that you got your ass kicked?”
He choked out a simple “Yes.”
“Why? Brother, he knocked you out.”
“Not until the third round.” He slowly pushed up from the cot. Fuck. Every inch of his body hurt. The sadistic side of his brain smugly said, Good. The part of his brain with the pain receptors responded by kicking into overdrive.
“Why are you wearing that scary-ass smile?” Knox demanded.
“Getting beat means it’s a perfect setup for a rematch. I’ll probably have to fight a few other bouts to pump up interest.”
“Bullshit,” Shiori spat. “You said one fight, Ronin. One.”
“I changed my mind.”
Knox shook his head. “Sensei, you’re not a pro fighter. These twenty-something guys will be gunning to kick the shit out of an eighth-degree jujitsu master.”
“They’re welcome to try.” Ronin chugged half a bottle of water and spit it in the bucket. “I’m going home.”
“You had a knockout, which equals concussion,” Shiori snapped. “You need to go to the ER.”
“This wasn’t my first fight. I’ve lived the doctor’s advice: rest, painkillers, and alternate ice and heat for swelling.” Ronin pushed to his feet and swayed.
Shiori caught him. “See? You are not all right.”
“I just got up too fast.” He tried to sidestep her, but she wouldn’t let go. “What?”
“Are you doing this because of her?”
Ronin got right in her face. “You don’t get to play that card. Ever.” He dropped his arm. “My personal life is off-limits to you. Period.”
“Not when you are beaten and bleeding.”
“When I’m beaten and bleeding is the only time I really feel alive.”
Shiori looked like she was ready to cry.
“Don’t,” he warned sharply. “I’m fucking fine.”
“No, you’re not.” She took a deep breath and glanced at Knox before meeting his gaze again. “Ronin. Sensei. We can’t stand by and watch you do this to yourself.”
“Then don’t watch. Because this is just the beginning.”
He headed down the hallway, ignoring their shouts calling him back.
Five weeks later
BRIGHT lights, loud voices, a cacophony of noises bombarded him from every angle, jarring him from the blissful darkness where the pain had been dormant.
“Thirty-eight-year-old male. In and out of consciousness. Symptoms indicate possible concussion. Lacerations on the face. Contusions on several parts of the body. Possible patella fracture. Possible cracked ribs.”
“From a car accident?”
“No, from a mixed martial arts fight.”
Light flashed across his face. “If he won, I’d hate to see the guy who lost.”
“No kidding. Be warned: He’s disoriented and volatile.”
“Put him in the back while we wait for an opening in the diagnostic rooms.”
“You got it, Doc.”
The noise faded and his stomach roiled. This time he couldn’t stop it.
“He’s gagging. Get a bucket.”
Hands tilted his head, and he expelled the contents of his stomach.
Then he went under again.
• • •
“MR. Black, can you open your eyes?”
Ronin winced when he shook his head. Felt like his brain was grinding against the inside of his skull.
“Sorry. I have to do this. Hold him still.”
Someone pried his eyelids open with a crowbar and tried to sear his retinas with laser beams. Tears streamed out the corners of his eyes and down his neck. He tried to twist away, but rough hands held him firm.
White spots danced behind his lids even after he slammed them shut.
“Tell me the last thing you remember.”
Everything had been so fuzzy—shrouded by the pain in his head. “I was nauseous.”
Being in the cage. Existing in that state where he focused on inflicting maximum damage on his opponent. Then being on his motorcycle. Racing toward . . .
“Sir?” the voice interrupted. “Try to think back. The last image you remember.”
“I was in a tunnel.”
“Like tunnel vision?”
“Suddenly bright light? Or very dim?”
“Both. I saw a pinpoint in the distance; then my peripheral vision blurred and became dark.” He remembered the hardness pressing into his swollen knee and the cooling effects of the flooring on his forearms before everything went black.
“Do you recall where you were?”
He squeezed his eyes as if that would help him concentrate. Why couldn’t he remember?
Wait. He’d banged on a door. Not the door to the dojo but a door in an alley. He’d had a sense of urgency. Of anxiety.
His stomach twisted. What had he done? Last time he’d had a memory lapse like this . . .
He’d hurt her.
He frantically attempted to sit up; the center of his body seemed glued down. His arms and legs were useless. Jesus. Was he paralyzed?
He clenched his hands into fists. Beeping machines, unidentifiable clicking sounds, the murmur of voices surrounded him as he jerked to free himself.
“Mr. Black. Stay still.”
“Why the fuck can’t I move?”
“The EMTs had to strap you down because you were agitated.”
“Where am I?”
“Denver Memorial’s emergency room.”
“Undo the straps.”
“I’m sorry. We have to keep you immobilized for your protection and ours.”
He tried to roll his shoulders. “I didn’t ask to be admitted. You can’t hold me against my will.”
“Ronin. Stop fighting.” Cool hands pressed against his cheeks. “Please.”
His heart raced and his body stirred. “Amery. Are you okay?”
“I’m better off than you are.” Then her soft fingers smoothed his hair back. “Stay still.”
Immediately, Ronin relaxed.
“You seem to have the magic touch,” the persistent voice remarked.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Amery said.
“I need to check on something. You’ll be okay staying with him?”
Her gentle touches calmed him but stirred his confusion. “Why are you here?”
“You asked me to come.”
“Even after I—”
“Showed up in the dead of night, bloodied, beat-up, and confused? When I haven’t heard from you in six weeks? Yes.”
“Did I . . .” He swallowed hard. “Hurt you?”
“Physically? No. But seeing you like this?” She paused. “That definitely hurts. Especially since I don’t think you’ll remember much of what you’ve said tonight.”
Even when he tried to open his eyes, he couldn’t. He needed to see her. To make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “I might not remember the past few hours, but I do remember the past few weeks have been hell without you.”
“Is this where I point out it took a blow to the head before you reached out to me?”
“You reached out to me first. With that peace offering.”
“Stop. You’re making no sense.” She trailed her fingertips across his hairline and down his temple. “I can’t imagine how much pain you’re in. What can I do?”
“I may not have a choice. Shiori is on her way.”
“How’d she . . . ?”
“I called Knox. He contacted her.”
A shard of pain lanced his brain, as if trying to cleave his head in two. He groaned.
“Don’t try to talk. Just rest.”
With her soothing continual touch, he drifted off again.
• • •
NEW voices by his bedside roused him.
“How did he get there after the injury?” a man asked.
“Apparently he drove his motorcycle.”
“Impossible. There’s no way this man was capable of operating a vehicle.”
“You don’t know my brother,” Shiori retorted. “He can block out pain, bend it to his will, use it to his advantage.”
“Determined man, is he?”
“Unfortunately determination is no match for trauma to the head. I see you’ve requested your own physician?”
“Physicians. I’ve contacted the medical team I want assessing and treating him. Nothing gets done without my permission, understand?”
“I’m right fucking here, Shiori,” Ronin interjected. “Don’t talk about me like I’m in a goddamn coma.”
“But you’re not really here, are you? You’re drifting in and out of consciousness, which is why someone needs to make these medical decisions for you.”
It took too much effort to open his eyes and glare at her.
“I know better than anyone how you get when you’re injured. Case in point—you’re strapped down. The orthopedist hasn’t been in, nor has the neurologist, nor the plastic surgeon.”
“Why the fuck do I need a plastic surgeon?”
“There’s a nasty gash above your eye. A split in your lip. Your nose is swollen. It might be broken again.”
“Like I give a shit about how I look? Get. Out. I don’t want—nor do I need—you here.”
“Ronin.” Amery’s soft hand brushed his cheek. “You aren’t thinking straight if you believe your sister has an ulterior motive besides getting you the best medical care as soon as possible.”
He must really be fucked up if he heard Amery defending Shiori.
“We’re ready for him in X-ray,” someone said.
“So what’s it going to be?” Shiori asked.
“I’ll let you make my immediate medical decisions, but not personal ones. Amery stays with me as long as she wants to.”
“All right.” Shiori kissed his cheek, then whispered in Japanese, “I only want what’s best for you, brother.”
“She’s what’s best for me.”
• • •
WHEN Ronin woke up the next morning, he half expected to be in his bedroom, the events from the previous night some sort of bad dream. But he was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with a cuff thing on his arm.
He had a vague recollection of being X-rayed head to toe. A chatty doctor providing running commentary as he stitched Ronin’s head and lip. Another doctor forcing him to do leg lifts to gauge damage to his kneecap. Amery’s hand in his as they wheeled him into a private hospital room. Then nothing as pain and consciousness faded away.
He blinked his bleary eyes. The shades were drawn, and the only light in his room came from the fixture above the sink. But that scant light bathed Amery in an ethereal glow.
“Your beautiful face is the very best thing to wake up to.”
“Beautiful. Right. I look like hell.”
“Still brushing aside my compliments.”
She moved closer. “I’m chalking them up to your muddled brain. What do you remember from last night?”
“The very last thing?” He frowned. “Did you really ask me how I liked being strapped down for a change?”
She smiled. “Yes. I also said I could see the appeal of binding from the other side.”
“Just an opportunist.” She pointed to the strap dangling from the bed frame. “Did they release your restraints, or did the ninja master manage to undo them by himself?”
“Sometime during the twenty million times the nurse poked me awake, she freed me.” Ronin shifted his arm, and the movement caused a sharp pain in his shoulder. “How long did you stay?”
“Until your pain drugs kicked in and you were down for the count. Knox gave me a ride home and moved your motorcycle into the back room. Which meant I had to stick around to tell Molly why your bike was there. I postponed a client meeting, changed out of my blood-spattered clothes, and grabbed these.” She set his cell phone and his keys on the side table.
“Thank you for all that. But mostly thanks for coming back.”
“I almost didn’t.” Amery ducked her head, and her strawberry-blond hair covered her face. When a drop of wetness landed on his arm, he realized she was crying.
“Baby. Can you look at me?”
She raised her head. Her blue eyes flashed a message of anger and fear. “Do you have any idea how terrifying last night was for me? Seeing you like that and then hearing you admit things were left unfinished between us? Dammit, Ronin. In the past five weeks, after you stopped calling, I assumed you were done with me.”
“Done with you,” he repeated. “Maybe I assumed after calling you sixteen times a day for seven days after you walked out on me and you didn’t return a single phone call that you were done with me.”
“You didn’t leave a single message in all the times you called.”
“And it never occurred to you to pick up the damn phone when it was ringing to see what I wanted?”
“I didn’t know you’d called. After I left the dojo that day, I was in a daze. I charged my phone in my office while I finished up a few things. I didn’t realize I didn’t have it until three hours later, when I was on the road headed to North Dakota.”
“You didn’t have your phone for a week?” he asked skeptically.
“Evidently I didn’t need it. I checked in with Molly once a day on the office line. When I called my cell voice mail, I didn’t have a single message from you. In seven days.”
His eyes searched hers. “If I would’ve left a message?”
“I would’ve returned your call.”
“Instead you got pissed off and returned my ropes.”
“Not even that garnered me an enraged visit from Master Black. Anytime before when I’d pissed you off, you showed up loaded for bear.”
“Baby.” He unwrapped her fingers from the metal side rail and kissed her knuckles. “We’ve both got a lot to learn when it comes to communication.”
“But thank you for reaching out to me.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The package you sent.”
“I sent the ropes weeks ago.”
“No. The box I got yesterday. With a peace lily and an invite to come by so we could talk. I’m pretty sure that’s how I got it in my head to show up at your place last night.”
“Ronin . . . I didn’t send you anything like that.”
They stared at each other. “Somebody wanted to get us talking again.”
“Now you babbling about a peace offering makes sense. But that wasn’t—”
Three knocks sounded on the door, and a guy in a white coat walked in.
“Mr. Black, I’m Dr. Dainsworth. Your neurologist.”
“I hope you’re here with good news.”
“I guess that depends on your idea of good.” He glanced around the dark room. “Still having light-sensitivity issues?”
“It might take as long as a week before you’re back to normal. If it takes any longer than that, you’ll need to contact my office so I can coordinate with an ophthalmologist for additional testing.” The doctor gave Amery a once-over, and Ronin bristled. Mostly because the young blond doc was the type of man Amery found attractive.
But her eyes were firmly focused on him.
“Can I speak freely? Or would you prefer we discuss my concerns in private?”
Amery released his hand. “I’ll wait outside.”
Ronin snatched her wrist before she’d even moved. “I want you to stay.”
That shocked her.
“Why don’t you both have a seat.” The doctor pointed to the small table and chairs in the corner. “I’ll be right back.”
Ronin gritted his teeth from the sharp sting zipping down his spine when he simply rotated his body to set his bare feet on the cold tile.
“Do you need help?”
He tamped down his automatic response that he wasn’t a fucking invalid. “No.” As soon as he put pressure on his bruised knee, he nearly stumbled.
She said, “Careful,” but didn’t touch him.
Goddammit, he hated—fucking hated—how he shuffled the twenty feet between the bed and the chair like an old cripple. There wasn’t a part of his body that didn’t hurt.
Suck it up and be a man.
Ronin caught sight of himself in the mirror above the sink. His right eye was discolored red and purple. He had a bandage above his left eyebrow covering stitches. Bruises dotted his jaw. His bottom lip was busted up and also sported stitches. In his younger years, he would’ve shown pride in his injuries. Now? He was disturbed Amery had seen him this way.
Easing himself into the chair caused the hospital gown to ride up. To make his humiliation complete, Amery draped a blanket across his lap.
Dr. Dainsworth returned and sat on the rolling stool, getting in Ronin’s face. “I did my homework on you, Sensei Black. Impressive that you’ve achieved the eighth-degree black belt level at your age. Aren’t most jujitsu practitioners who reach Hachidan status in their fifties?”
“Yes. But my sensei in Japan factors other things besides mastering techniques into advancement. The belt system in Japan is different from the U.S.”
“I imagine my sister contacted you because you’re . . . ?” Ronin purposely left that vague to see how this doctor would fill in the blanks.
“A neurologist specializing in treating sports-related brain trauma for athletes who have a documented history of repetitive cranial injuries.” He raised an eyebrow. “Need my other qualifications? Medical degrees? Internships? I can have my secretary send you a copy of my latest article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the four years of research I compiled on potential long-term effects of brain injuries in mixed martial arts fighters as compared to boxers.”
“So you’re the best of the best.”
“Yes. And like you, I reached that level at a relatively young age, also due to dedicating my life to my studies.”
Ronin respected warranted cockiness. “Hit me with the questions.”
“If you had to guess, how many times would you say you’ve been knocked unconscious either during a match or in practice?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Because it’s too high a number to count?”
The doctor jotted something down in Ronin’s chart. Then he asked, “How many times have you been knocked out in the last month?”
“Twice.” Ronin didn’t look at Amery, but he felt her staring at him.
“Did you seek medical attention after the first incident?”
“What was different this time? Did you feel your injuries were more severe?”
“Not especially. I probably wouldn’t have sought help on my own. But I had some . . . confused moments and showed up on Amery’s doorstep and she . . .”
“Had no choice but to call an ambulance when you passed out on my floor,” she finished.
Dr. Dainsworth focused on Amery. “Did you see him after his first concussion? Were his reactions and behavior similar?”
She shook her head. “We broke up a little more than six weeks ago.”
The doctor directed his shrewd gaze to Ronin. “Did this breakup directly contribute to your need to compete on a more physical level?”
Here was a moment of truth between them. Ronin reached for Amery’s hand. “Yes. Being in the cage forced my focus away from what was going on in my personal life.”
The sound of the doctor scrawling seemed unbearably loud in the quiet room.
“Look. I’ll be brutally honest here.” The doctor’s eyes searched Ronin’s face. “You’ve suffered two major head injuries in the past four weeks. Have you heard of second-impact syndrome?”
“So you know that a second impact to the brain, while you’re still symptomatic from the first traumatic concussion, can result in cerebral edema, brain stem herniation, cerebral hemorrhaging, and even death?”
“I’m aware of the risks, Doctor.”
“But you disregarded them. Why?”
“Physical pain is something I know how to deal with.” Even though Ronin wasn’t about to start discussing emotional pain with the doctor, the topic seemed to hang in the air like a foul odor.
Walking like a cripple, complaining about your head hurting—why don’t you just start crying so you come across as a total fucking pussy?
“After studying your CAT scan,” the doctor continued, “your MRI, and your PET scan, my recommendation for treatment hasn’t changed. Before I tell you what that is, I have to ask: If you were aware that one of your students had these same types of brain injuries in the same time frame, what would your recommendation be for recovery?”
“Medical tests. Rest. Observe the practices but zero physical participation until cleared by a medical professional and after all the risk factors for returning to the discipline were weighed.”
“So you’ll enforce that rule with your students but don’t abide by the same rule yourself?”
Ronin hadn’t seen that one coming. He glanced over at Amery, expecting to see a smirk, but she was horrified. “Amery—”
“Don’t,” she snapped. “Shut up and listen to your doctor for a change.”
Fuck. “So what is the verdict?”
“If I thought you’d adhere to my edict of no more MMA-style fighting—ever—I’d issue it.” The doctor furrowed his brow. “But I’ve dealt with your type for years—physical contact is in your blood. For you personally, it’s a way of life.”
“And my livelihood,” Ronin pointed out.
“Teaching is your livelihood,” Amery retorted. “Not fighting.”
Being a fighter—whether in the ring himself or teaching others, was what defined him. Who would he be if he didn’t have that?
“My recommendation is one more week of rest. During that time, while you’re working on physical therapy for your knee, you can start gentle stretches to maintain your flexibility. Then for the next month, no body-to-body impact. That means zero. If you can teach without physical demonstration, then return to teaching. But no jarring moves either against the mat, the heavy bag, or another person.”
A month wandering around his dojo doing goddamn nothing besides observing?
“Then I’ll see you in my office and we’ll run follow-up tests to see what level of activity you can safely resume.”
Despite the panic rising inside him, he managed a cool, “Even then, what are the chances my physical activity will be limited?”
“I guarantee if you don’t follow my instructions for at least a month, it’ll affect your recovery time. But beyond that? Time will tell. The best thing you can do as a teacher is to lead by example. Show your students that head injuries are serious—no matter what level of martial arts mastery you achieve. Don’t risk your life and your long-term health because of pride.”
“When can I go home?”
“Tomorrow. You’ll need someone to stay with you, at least for the first few days. I’ll call in a month’s meds to the pharmacy on file. Any further questions?”
The doctor stood. “Give yourself time to heal. I’ve seen guys in car accidents who didn’t sustain these levels of injury.” He motioned for Amery to walk with him to the door.
What the fuck was he saying to her?
Take it easy. Getting angry put more pressure in his head. He closed his eyes. The thought of staying in this place another minute literally made him nauseous. He forced even, slow breaths to try to keep his heart rate steady so it wasn’t obvious on the monitor just how much he felt like a caged animal.
“What?” When he realized he’d snapped at her, he said, “Sorry. It’s just not what I wanted to hear.”
“I get that, but on some level you had to expect this.” She reached over and swept his hair from his eyes. “So are you going to ask me to stay with you and take care of you while you recover?”
No fucking way. She’d seen too much of his weak side already. “I don’t expect that from you.”
“Then why did you show up at my door?”
His soul screamed, Because I need you, but his mouth couldn’t force the words out. What if she believed the only reason he said that was because he required a caretaker for the short term? What he wanted—no, what he needed—from her was far, far more than that. So why couldn’t he tell her?
“Don’t pull that silent macho attitude on me. We both know you need me there. We both know my presence wouldn’t be like hiring a home health aide.” She paused. “But that would be easier for you, wouldn’t it?”
“You are seriously pissing me off, and I’m about three seconds from walking out the door for good.”
“Please don’t.” Ronin grabbed her hand before she ran off. “Come here.” He relaxed when she threaded her fingers through his.
“Why are you trying to shut me out?”
Ronin turned his face to the wall.
“Hey.” She pinched his chin and slowly turned his head back toward her. “Last chance. Ask me.”
“Fine. Please stay with me. I need you so goddamn much it scares the shit out of me, okay?” Ronin locked his gaze to hers, trying to retain some control in this situation. “But if you agree, you’ll be in my home and in my bed for as long as my recovery takes.”
“Negotiable, Amery. Period.”
She smiled. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Jesus. He’d fallen right into that.
“I’m practicing my bedside manner and telling you to get back in bed and rest.”
Like hell. He’d let her take care of him at his place, but he was getting out of here today as soon as possible—even if he had to fucking crawl.
After he’d situated himself in bed, he said, “You don’t have to hover.”
Amery looked torn. “You sure?”
“Yeah.” He touched her cheek. “Thank you for seeing past my bullshit and sticking around today.”
“You’re welcome. But as soon as you’re out of here, we’re having a talk about all the bullshit I can’t see past, the things you kept from me that forced me to walk away from you in the first place.” Amery kissed his wrist. “I’ll see you later.”
After she left, he picked up the phone.
DURING their conversation in the hospital, Amery had felt like the lines of communication had been reopened and Ronin wanted to establish trust and honesty between them.
But apparently that honesty didn’t include sharing his plan to escape from the damn hospital.
The stupid, stubborn man needed to be hog-tied to his goddamn bed—and not for sexy fun and games. Imagining him in a straitjacket, his ankles bound to the bedposts and a gag in his mouth, didn’t cool Amery’s fury even a little bit.
As soon as the elevator doors opened to the penthouse, she barreled down the hallway. “Ronin Black, you lying asshole. Get your butt out here right now before I come in there and kick it!”
“No need to shout.”
She whirled around and saw him reclined in the far corner of the dark living room. “What is wrong with you? Why did you sneak out of the hospital?”
“I left because I wasn’t getting any rest anyway. I need the solitude of my own surroundings to help me heal.”
“And a phone call informing me of that was too much to ask?”
“I wasn’t thinking straight.” He sighed. “The food sucked. I felt like I was suffocating.”
Amery studied his face, seeing the lie in it. “Then maybe you should’ve heeded your doctor’s advice after your freakin’ head injury and stayed put for another day.” She balled her hands into fists.Had anything changed with him? Or would he continue to feed her half-truths because she’d always swallowed them without question?
Fuck. That. “Who drove the getaway car? Not Knox, because he was with Shiori at the hospital. He was just as spitting mad as your sister.”
“Did you go to the hospital?”
“Not after I got the angry phone call from her accusing me of aiding in your escape. I came straight here. Who helped you?”
“Zach. For the record, he wasn’t happy either.”
“Let me guess. You pulled that I’m your sensei bullshit.”
“So why didn’t he stick around?”
“Because I made him drop me off in the alley.”
“Unfuckingbelievable. Why aren’t you in bed?”
Ronin dropped his head into his hands. “Because my bedroom was too goddamn far away. Head injury, dislocated kneecap, sore ribs. Who knew walking that extra five hundred feet would be so difficult?”
She forced herself to quell her anger and reminded herself she was here to take care of him. “You’re lucky I hadn’t shredded the keycard you gave me.”
“I didn’t change the codes because I was holding out hope that you’d show up and ream me for being an ass—kind of like you’re doing right now.”
“I haven’t even started to ream you.”
“It’ll have to wait. I need you to do something for me.”
“Inside the coat closet, on a hook above the light switch, is a key ring. Can you grab it?”
“Where’s the coat closet?”
“End of the hall past the elevator.”
In all the times Amery had been in Ronin’s place, she’d never noticed the pastoral mural on the wall wasn’t just a framed picture but a sliding door. She found the keys and brought them to him.