FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
In the new Mastered series by New York Times bestselling author Lorelei James, a woman’s desire to shatter her inhibitions leaves her unprepared for where that erotic journey will take her….
Former small-town girl Amery Hardwick is living her dream as a graphic designer in Denver, Colorado. She’s focused on building her business, which leaves little time for dating—not that she needs a romantic entanglement to fulfill her. When her friend signs up for a self-defense class as part of her recovery after an attack, Amery joins her for support. That’s where she meets him.
Ronin Black, owner of the dojo, is so drawn to Amery that he takes over her training—in public and in private. The enigmatic Ronin pushes Amery’s boundaries from the start, and with each new tryst, Amery becomes addicted to the pleasure and to him. But when Amery senses Ronin is hiding something, she questions her total trust in him, despite the undeniable thrill of his possession….
About the Author
Lorelei James is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary erotic romances, including the Blacktop Cowboy novels: Turn and Burn, One Night Rodeo, Wrangled and Tangled, Saddled and Spurred, and Coralled. Lorelei lives in western South Dakota with her family.
Read an Excerpt
“SO this is where you’re learning to kick some ass.”
Amery scrutinized the front of the restored historic brick building. At six stories it was the tallest structure on this end of the block. On the street level, iron bars covered the few windows that hadn’t been bricked over. The signage on the glass door read BLACK ARTS with a phone number below it.
She craned her neck to look up. Had to be a killer view of the river and the city from the top floor.
“Uh, Amery? What are we waiting for?”
“A welcoming party of ninjas to rappel down from the roof? Any less than a dozen masked killers brandishing swords and I’ll be sorely disappointed.”
Molly laughed nervously. “Um . . . well, maybe next time. But we should go in. Class starts in five minutes and we were warned to be on time.”
Amery bit back a sigh. She really didn’t want to be here, but she’d suck it up and do it, even if only out of solidarity.
Her stomach twisted into a vicious knot every time she remembered the phone call from the police last month, after her sweet-natured employee, Molly, had been attacked by homeless guys in downtown Denver. Poor Molly had defined introverted even before the incident; the attack had pushed her further into her shell. So when Molly asked Amery to accompany her to a women’s self-defense class, Amery had agreed.
But looking around this sketchy neighborhood, she’d be surprised if they weren’t jumped after class. Maybe that was part of the training. Seeing if students put the moves they learned to good use as they fought their way back to their car after dark.
Amery must’ve seemed reluctant, because Molly said, “If you don’t want to do this . . .”
She plastered on a smile. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be in an enclosed space with a bunch of macho martial arts guys who like to beat the crap out of each other for fun.”
Molly’s eyes narrowed.
“Kidding, Mol. Let’s hit it. Wouldn’t want you to be late for your first day.”
Inside the building, the entryway split into two hallways, one that pointed to the men’s and women’s locker rooms and the other to the classrooms. They headed to the main entrance.
A bald-headed, heavily tattooed guy in what resembled white pajamas manned a small cubby that looked like a cross between a ticket booth and a coat check.
“Good evening, ladies. How may I help you?”
Molly cleared her throat. “I’m here for the women’s self-defense class.”
He picked up a clipboard. “Name?”
Mr. Tattoos had to be bald by choice since he appeared to be under twenty-five. He checked the list, marked off Molly’s name, and looked at Amery. “Ma’am? Your name?”
He frowned. “You’re not on the list. You signed up for the class?”
“Technically? No. I’m here as a bench warmer to support my buddy Molly.”
“I’m sorry, that’s against our policy.”
“You’re only allowed into the dojo if you’re a participant in the classes. We do not allow spectators. Or supporters.”
Amery looked at Molly. The poor girl blushed crimson. Then Amery focused on the bald-headed gatekeeper. “You don’t allow parents or guardians inside to watch their kids beat each other to a pulp?”
Well, that was stupid. And she said so.
“It’s all right, Amery,” Molly whispered. “This was a dumb idea. We can just go.” She grabbed on to Amery’s arm.
“Hang on a second.” Amery pulled her black-and-white cowhide wallet out of her purse. “How much is the class?”
“This isn’t a movie theater where you can just show up and buy tickets at the door. You have to be approved in advance before you can even register for the class. Those are the rules. I don’t make them. I just enforce them.”
Amery tapped her fingers on the counter. “I understand. But these are extenuating circumstances.”
“Maybe you oughta just get your supervisor, because I’m not leaving.”
He hesitated about ten seconds before he reached for the phone. He turned his back so they couldn’t hear the conversation. Then he faced them again. “If you’ll have a seat, someone will be right out.”
Molly looked mortified, which made Amery more determined to make sure she took this class.
Less than two minutes later a big blond guy, about mid-thirties, dressed in what resembled black pajamas, stopped in front of them. He offered Amery his hand. “I’m Knox Lofgren, the dojo general manager. How can I help you?”
Amery explained the situation, adding, “I would’ve officially signed up for the class ahead of time had I known that was required. It’s not fair to penalize Molly.” She leaned closer and whispered, “Ever since the attack . . . she’s jumpy and avoiding all social situations where she doesn’t know anyone. She won’t start the class if I’m not here. You don’t want that on your conscience, do you, Mr. Lofgren?”
The man studied Amery as if she was lying. Just as she was about to crack and back off, he said, “Fine. I’ll squeeze you in. But understand that you two will not always be paired together in class. You’ll both be expected to train with others.” He focused on Molly. “Will that be a problem for you?”
“Good.” Then Knox handed Amery a clipboard. “Also, we alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays for this class. Next week class will be Thursday night. The following week Tuesday evening, and so on.”
Don’t ask why, Amery.
“Just fill in the basic details on the application. Will you be paying by credit card or check?”
“How much is the class?”
“One hundred and fifty dollars.”
Seemed high but she’d pay it. She slid her credit card from her wallet and handed it to him.
“I’ll get your receipt.”
“Thank you.” Soon as she finished scrawling her information, she glanced up at him. This Knox guy could intimidate on size alone. He had to be at least six foot four. Although he had the rugged all-American-boy-next-door good looks, he was . . . just slightly scary.
“I’ve included a description of the class and the schedule. Make sure you follow all the rules—”
A teenaged boy raced in. “Shihan? We’ve got blood in the fourth ring.”
Shihan or Knox or whoever he was bailed immediately.
Tattooed Bald Guy said, “Ladies, step through the far door. Put your bags on the conveyor belt. If you’re bringing weapons to class, I need them out of the bag. If not, you can proceed through the metal detector.”
Metal detector? Amery was having a hard time wrapping her head around this much security in a place that should be swarming with killer ninjas.
She just about let it lie, but curiosity had always been her downfall. “Level with me. Is this some secret military training camp?”
“Why the extra security for a teaching facility?”
The guy shrugged. “Weapons are part of the training. Swords, knives, sticks. We have to check and approve all weapons that are brought in.”
Molly nudged her toward the door.
After they were cleared through security—still sounded bizarre—he pointed to a stocky guy, and that guy waved them over.
As they approached him, Amery checked out the joint. The place had clean lines and neutral colors: gray carpet and white walls—where there were walls. Some of the training rooms were separated by Plexiglas. Since there weren’t any windows along the entire side, the walls were mirrored, creating a fun-house effect. In the center of the room was a guard tower that overlooked the entire space.
The stocky guy did a quick bow to them and offered his hand. “I’m your instructor for the women’s self-defense class. We do use formal titles at Black Arts, so you can call me either Sandan or Sandan Zach.”
Molly introduced herself first.
When Amery gave her name, he frowned. “I don’t remember your application.”
“That’s because I’m a last-minute addition.” She nudged Molly. “I was supposed to be here for support only, but that somehow violates the dojo rules.”
“The rules are . . . precisely the way Sensei wants them.” Zach gestured to the area behind them. “There’s nearly fourteen thousand square feet of training space on two floors, so we can have all student levels training at the same time if we choose. Some of the rooms are open like these. And some on the backside, for the more advanced students, are semiprivate.”
Molly pointed to the watchtower in the midst of everything. “What’s that?”
“The Crow’s Nest. Sensei Black can observe the classes.”
Amery had an image of a grizzled but wise and agile Asian man sitting up there muttering to himself about the lack of discipline in today’s youth.
“We’re happy to have you both at Black Arts,” Sandan Zach said, without looking away from Molly. “Your class is over here. Set your bags along the back wall.”
Their fifteen classmates ranged in age from younger than Molly to a woman in her mid-sixties and all sizes and ethnicities.
One other thing Amery noticed? All the women wore white shirts and black sweatpants or yoga pants. A few stared at her jeans and short-sleeved white blouse.
Sandan Zach clapped his hands. “Listen up, ladies. I’ll do a brief overview of the class, but first everyone needs to remove socks and shoes.”
Amery shot Molly a look, but she’d already started untying her laces. She unzipped her black riding boots and tossed them on top of her purse.
“This class is more involved than the typical women’s self-defense class you take at the Y. Taking charge of your safety is the first step since most violent acts happen one on one. But during this class you will learn together, and part of that is being supportive of each other and helping each other learn.”
“We’ll warm up. Nothing like the rigorous jujitsu warm-ups you’re seeing in other classes, I promise you. So spread out, arm’s length on each side.”
Molly headed for the back row, but Amery snagged her hand. “No hiding, remember?”
“You’re bossy even outside of work.”
But it seemed everyone wanted to be in the front row, so they ended up in the back anyway.
Sandan Zach walked a circle around the class members as he gave directions for gentle stretches. Amery wished she had on yoga pants—the jeans were cutting into her every time she moved.
Molly leaned over and puffed. “I thought he said this wouldn’t be a rigorous workout. I didn’t sign up for aerobics.”
“No doubt.” Amery felt a little out of breath herself. “And if he tries to make me run? Sorry, I’m making a break for the door.”
Molly snickered, but she stopped abruptly when Sandan Zach stared at her.
“Before we get started, are there any questions?”
“Yes. Why isn’t she wearing the required uniform?”
Amery froze. The commanding voice sent a chill through her. Like a hot breeze blowing across wet skin and resulting in head-to-toe goose bumps. Before she could turn around and determine if his face matched his sensual voice, her instructor piped in.
“I apologize, Sensei. Would you prefer that I excuse her from class?”
Excuse her from the class? Bullshit. Seemed Mr. Tattooed Bald Gatekeeper up front had neglected to remind her about the dress code, but that wasn’t her fault. She’d paid the fee; she wasn’t going anywhere. And why wasn’t either of these men, Mr. Dangerous and Delicious Voice or Drill Instructor Zach, addressing her directly?
“She can speak for herself.” Amery whirled around to face the sensei.
Holy hell. Good thing she’d locked her knees or else she might’ve fallen to them. The man’s face more than matched the seductive voice; he was quite simply the most stunning man she’d ever seen. High cheekbones and a wide, chiseled jawline courtesy of Germanic or Nordic genes in his lineage. His full lower lip bowed at the corners, giving his mouth a sensual curve. The slight bend in his nose added interest to his otherwise perfect features. And his eyes. She’d never seen eyes that hue—a light golden brown the color of topaz. The corners of his eyes tilted upward, indicating his family tree also included an Asian branch. His black hair nearly brushed his shoulders. Everything about this man, from his face to his posture, announced his commanding presence.
Sensei definitely wasn’t the decrepit man she’d imagined.
“Are you done?” he asked in that velvet voice, but his tone was decidedly clipped.
Amery blushed when she realized she’d been staring at him practically slack-jawed.
“Why isn’t your student wearing the required uniform?” he asked Sandan Zach again, while maintaining an intense eye lock with her.
“Why are you chewing him out? It’s not his fault I’m not wearing the right clothing,” she snapped.
And that whole could’ve heard a pin drop saying? Now Amery knew exactly what that meant. Seemed everyone in the entire building—not just in the vicinity—had gone silent and was gaping at her.
Then Mr. Sexy Sensei leaned forward, placing his mouth right next to her ear. “I don’t allow open defiance in my dojo. Ever.”
The warmth of his breath flowed across her neck and she suppressed a shiver.
“Is that clear?”
“‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes, Sensei,’ or ‘Yes, Master Black’ is an acceptable response. ‘Uh-huh’ is not.”
“Got it, uh, Master Black.”
“If you hope to stay in this class, I’d suggest you wear the proper clothing without argument.”
“Since I was a last-minute addition to this class, I don’t have the proper clothing.”
He said, “We’ll remedy that now. Follow me.”
His tenor demanded that she obey. She trailed after him, feeling every eye in the place on them. Her focus remained on the broad back in front of her.
Maybe it bothered her that he hadn’t turned around even once to see if she’d obeyed—he just assumed she had.
Because you aren’t exactly a rule breaker, Amery.
But “you can call me sir, Sensei, or Master Black” didn’t know that. Maybe since she’d mouthed off, he thought she was some kind of troublemaker. She swore she’d be as meek as a kitten from here on out—if only for Molly’s sake.
They cut down a short hallway.
He opened a door and Amery followed him into a storage area. On the far back wall were stacks of uniforms she’d seen everyone wearing. Some white, some black.
Sensei eyed her from the waist down, turned, and shoved his hand into a stack. Then he held out a pair of black pants.
“What are those? They look like pajama bottoms.”
“It’s called a gi and beggars cannot be choosers, can they, Mrs. . . . ?”
“Ms. Hardwick,” she retorted.
“Feel free to change in the bathroom across the hall as long as it doesn’t take you all night.”
Amery’s rarely seen rebellious side appeared again. Although she could count on one hand the number of men who’d seen her half-naked, something about this man pushed her buttons and she wanted to push back. “Not necessary. I’ll just change here.” She unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans before pushing the denim off. Kicking them aside, she snatched the pants from his fingertips.
And Master Black didn’t pretend he wasn’t looking at her bare legs as she fumbled with the drawstrings. When his perusal of her lower half ended at her lavender bikini panties, he glanced up at her.
The blast of heat from those liquid gold eyes reminded her that her boldness was only an act.
His was not.
Was it possible to be burned by a look and frozen in place by it? At the same time?
Yep, if it was coming from Sensei’s laser eyes.
Why are you stalling? Get dressed and go.
Amery dragged the cotton pants up her legs and fled.
Or she tried to flee. But that sinfully compelling voice stopped her before she made it halfway down the hall. “Forgetting something, Ms. Hardwick?”
She faced him, feeling the rush of emotions that ran the gamut from annoyance to awe to alarm . . . and annoyance won out. “What?”
He held up her discarded jeans. “Don’t you want these?”
“Keep them as collateral,” she tossed over her shoulder, and hustled away.
And surprise, surprise, the man didn’t follow her.
In class, Sandan Zach didn’t pause in his lecture as she slid into her spot in the back row. “For most women, it goes against your natural response to fight back. So our aim isn’t to teach you how to start a fight, but how to defend yourself, which is a far cry from being the aggressor. Any questions?”
Amery had a ton of them, but she kept her mouth shut. Wouldn’t want to be known as the problem pupil any more than she already was.
“I’m sure questions will arise over the next few weeks. But right now we’ll do the most basic self-defense technique for an attack without a weapon. This is Shihan Knox. He’ll be assisting me in class.”
Shihan Knox came up behind Zach and snaked an arm around his neck.
“Three things to be aware of in this situation. How much head movement you have, where the person is behind you, and where your arms are. It’d be difficult in this position to try a reverse head butt to connect with the attacker’s nose. You might first try turning your head and biting the attacker’s arm. We’re not talking a little love bite, ladies. I’m talking about opening your mouth wide like you’re gnawing on a turkey leg and biting down like you’re trying to reach the bone.”
Other class members giggled.
Which didn’t amuse Sandan Zach at all.
“If your head is too immobilized for that, remember where your hands are. Usually right up here.” He wrapped his hands around Knox’s arm, trying to pull it away. “That is a wasted motion. Use your hands elsewhere. If your attacker is a man, ladies, you’ve got one shot to grab on to his junk and try to twist it off. That said, that’s a pretty risky move because a guy’s automatic response is to protect the family jewels. So you’ve got to assume he’ll anticipate where you plan to attack. Your best option is stomp on his foot.”
“But what if she’s wearing flip-flops and I’m wearing combat boots?” Shihan Knox asked.
“Good point. That won’t work. In that case, kick out and aim for the knee. Even connecting with the shin with just the back of the heel is painful and a hard-placed kick will often loosen up the attacker’s hold enough that you can escape.” Zach kicked out at Knox and he released him from the choke hold. “Let’s call this a victory for now. The goal has been achieved—to break the attacker’s hold.”
After fifteen more minutes of demonstrations, during which Amery’s eyes had sort of glazed over, Molly scooted closer and whispered, “Could you ever bite someone like that?”
“Hard enough to break the skin?”
“It’d depend.” Her eyes searched Molly’s. “Could you have bitten your attacker if you knew it would’ve stopped him?”
“When you put it that way . . . yes. I’m tired of being scared of my own shadow.”
Amery squeezed her hand. “I know. Let’s focus on turning you into a badass no one wants to mess with.”
“Are you talking during class because you’ve already got all the answers?” Master Black asked behind her.
She jumped. When she spun around he took her wrists in one hand and lightly wrapped his hand around the base of her throat.
“See how easy it is to get into trouble when you’re unaware?”
“You are here to learn.”
“I know that,” she retorted. Then when his stony face remained that way, she tacked on “Sir.”
“Prove it.” He did some fancy twisting maneuver and then he was behind her, dragging her off the mat. “Remember what to do if you’re put in a choke hold? Or were you too busy talking to listen to your instructor?”
“I can multitask.”
An arm snaked around her throat and he pinned her left arm behind her back. “Show me how to get out of this hold.”
Her heart rate zoomed. Her free hand came up to claw at his arm, but that did nothing to loosen his grip.
She turned her head and opened her mouth over his meaty biceps, intending to sink her teeth into the marrow of his bones.
Master Black released her.
Score one for her. But Amery’s victory was short-lived. Then he wrapped his other arm around her neck but left both her arms free. “Again. Make me release you.”
She swung her elbow into his gut and attempted to scratch his eye out.
He let her go.
But he wasn’t done. She’d barely get him to release her and then he had her immobilized again.
The man was relentless in his drills.
During a short break, Amery noticed the rest of the class was working with partners too—just not instructors—and they were on the far side of the room, giving Amery and Master Black a wide berth. She’d give anything if she could just pick him up and throw him over her head on his ass.
She was fantasizing about the look of shock on his too-perfect face, not paying attention, and that’s when he wrapped his hands around her neck and stayed back, not in close proximity to her body. “Free yourself.”
Shoot, she didn’t remember this one. She tried to kick out at his knee, but he dodged. She tried to twist away, risking a neck injury, but he held fast.
“Come on, think,” he said evenly.
“I can’t. You’re choking me.”
“That’s the point.”
She attempted to gouge his forearms.
“Better, but not enough. Try again.”
“I don’t know! Let me go. I can’t breathe.”
Master Black released her and moved directly in front of her. “Calm down.”
“I am fucking calm.” Amery inhaled several deep breaths. His gaze never wavered from hers, which was disconcerting . . . and yet not.
Once she’d settled, he gave her a quick nod. “You try choking me.”
This would be fun because she didn’t intend to hold back. Amery stepped behind him, noticing for the first time that he’d pulled his hair into a stubby ponytail. Why in the hell did that look so sexy? And why did she have the overwhelming urge to slide the elastic band free and plunge her hands into those gorgeous black tresses?
“Problem?” he asked in that rumbling rasp.
“No, sir.” Amery tried to get her hands around his neck, but it was so muscular that she had to slide her hands up and down to find a decent position. Her hands on his warm skin released a heavenly scent.
Dammit. Why did he smell so nice? Shouldn’t he reek like sweat and suppressed anger?
“Are you finished fitting me for a necklace?”
Cocky man. “Maybe I’m fitting you for a noose.”
“Then you’d need a better grip.”
She dug her fingernails into his flesh.
“I still have my hands free.” He raked his fingers up the back of her arms and pinched the skin on the underside—not hard enough to bruise but with enough pressure she released him. “With that move you will definitely get your attacker’s attention.”
“Then what should I do? Because pinching someone that hard will piss him off.”
He studied her. “You should run.”
“And what if I’m caught again?”
“Then you’ll fight. The goal of this class is to make your reactions instinctive. To give you a tool and a solid mind-set to deal with a physical crisis situation where you don’t have time to think—you just react.”
Master Black had gotten close to her again, and spoke in the deep timbre that rolled over her like warm honey. “Since you’re short a partner, next week I’ll show you more options.”
They stared at each other, locked in an eye-fuck that was better than any sex she’d ever had.
“Sensei, if I may interrupt, you’re needed in the black belt class,” someone said behind him.
Master Black backed up and gave her a small bow. “Until next time, Ms. Hardwick.”
She returned his bow, not as smoothly. “Thank you for the instruction, Sensei.”
After class ended, some students were giving her suspicious looks. Including Molly.
“It’s just strange, the fact that Master Black took interest in you and—”
“All but made me wear a dunce’s cap and sit in the corner when he wasn’t beating the crap out of me in front of everyone?”
“Um, that’s not how I saw it at all.”
Amery was moving her boots off her purse when she felt her phone vibrating. She picked it up but didn’t recognize the caller ID. “Hello?”
“Is this Amery Hardwick?”
“Yes, who’s this?”
“Officer Stickney, Denver Police. We received a call from your alarm company regarding a possible break-in. We arrived on-scene and discovered the front window is shattered. We’ve done a sweep of the main floor and the upstairs. Are you able to return to the property to verify if anything is missing?”
Amery’s heart hammered. Someone had broken into her building? Damn, damn, damn. Her computer with all her client files was on the desk in her office, right in plain sight.
“Sorry. Yes, I’m on my way.” She jammed her feet into her boots.
Molly sidled up as Amery retrieved her keys. “What’s wrong?”
“Someone vandalized my building. The cops are there. I’ve got to go.”
“Since I rode here with you, I’m coming too.”
Amery shouldered her bag, Molly close on her heels as they exited the building a lot easier than they’d gotten in.
The dojo was across the Platte River, which separated Platte Valley from Lodo—a nickname for lower downtown Denver. With one-way streets and dead-end alleys, the trip took fifteen minutes. On the drive she spoke with the alarm company and then she called an after-hours window repair company to temporarily board up the window until the new glass could be installed.
Parking was nearly impossible to find—especially with all the cop cars blocking the street. She didn’t get the full impact of the damage until she stood in front of the building.
The front window wasn’t just shattered; it was completely gone.
Spots danced in front of her eyes. She had to bend at the waist to keep the bile rising in her throat from exiting her mouth. Had she been robbed too? Had they done damage to Emmylou’s side? What about her loft? Had that been ransacked?
Keep it together.
A cop moved toward her. “You’ll have to move along—”
“I’m Amery Hardwick. This is my building.”
“Need to see some ID.”
Her hand shook when she removed her driver’s license from her wallet and handed it over.
“Okay, ma’am, you can go in. Officer Stickney is waiting inside.”
The beat cop tried to keep Molly back, but she snarled at him—very un-Molly-like—and he let her go with Amery.
She stepped over the glass to take a better look at the damage inside the building. Two officers paced in her office. She just about fell to her knees when she saw her computer on her desk intact.
Molly squeezed her hand. “I’ll go check and see if anything is missing at my desk.”
The African-American cop approached her while the other cop, a young Hispanic woman, talked on a phone.
“Ms. Hardwick? I’m Officer Stickney.”
“Do you have any idea what happened?”
“It doesn’t appear that anything was taken, so we doubt robbery was a motive. It’s sad to say, but there’ve been random acts of vandalism like this across the Denver metro area in the last six months.”
Amery slumped against the wall. “So it’s just my bad luck?”
“Possibly. Or it might be some freak accident where a car spins its tires, dislodging a rock that hits the window at just the right speed and shatters it. Sounds weird, but I’ve seen it happen. We weren’t able to find any evidence of what was used to break the window inside the store.”
“Am I still supposed to check upstairs to see if anything is missing in my loft?”
“Yes, and we’ll need Officer Gomez to accompany you.”
Molly looked up from her desk. “Nothing missing or out of place on my side.”
Amery led Officer Gomez through the rear door that led from her office into the small back area with a steel door that led into the alley. A circular staircase dominated the space and opened up into the second-floor loft apartment where she lived. In true loft fashion the only room walled off was the bathroom. This was the first place that was completely hers, and it put an extra twist in her gut to imagine her safe haven had been violated.
But nothing had been disturbed in her oversized bedroom, or the large eat-in kitchen, or the great room with the funky windows that overlooked the street.
“Anything missing or destroyed, Ms. Hardwick?” Officer Gomez asked.
“No. I can’t even blame the mess on the counters on anyone but myself.”
The female cop smiled. “I can relate. I’m relieved this wasn’t a B and E, but I will offer you some advice.” She pointed to the businesses across the street with the drop-down steel cages covering the storefronts. “Those might be ugly, but they are effective; those cages do deter crime. And it’s an especially smart add-on since you’re a single woman living alone above your business. I’d also suggest you install a heftier door with a dead bolt between your business area and your living space. Once that’s done, have the alarm company add a trigger to that door, so if someone does get in from the business side, it’ll alert you.”
“Thank you so much. I appreciate your advice.”
The cops didn’t stick around after that.
Amery and Molly sat in their office chairs facing the gaping hole.
“I can’t believe it,” Molly said.
“Me either.” As grateful as Amery was that nothing had been stolen, she worried about how much the repairs would run. Yes, she had insurance, but she’d have out-of-pocket expenses. She was running a much smaller profit so far this year and had been cutting corners and pinching pennies everywhere she could.
The window replacement company arrived and off-loaded pieces of plywood.
As they heard hammers banging, saws going, and an electric drill screeching, Molly said, “Amery, you’re awful quiet. Are you really okay?”
“No. I’m wired. There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep tonight. Especially not when all that’ll be separating me from the street is a sheet of plywood.” Amery offered Molly a wan smile. “I’ll probably be all caught up on my backlog of filing and stuff by the time you get here tomorrow.”
Molly frowned. “Get here? Where do you think I’m going?”
“Home where you belong.” Where it’s safe.
“Huh-uh. I’m staying right here with you.”
“No, you aren’t fine. Which is why I will be right there, on that couch. I’m used to pulling all-nighters. So suck it up and grab me a pillow.”
“Man, I didn’t know you had such a bossy streak,” Amery grumbled.
“And I never would’ve thought you’d be so antagonistic toward a man who could probably kill you with a look,” Molly retorted. “So it looks like we’re both full of surprises.”
“Let’s hope we done with all surprises—good or bad—for the rest of the night.”
GROGGY from lack of sleep, Amery released a little scream the next morning when her best buddy, Chaz, enveloped her in a gigantic bear hug from behind. “Girl, I’d ask how you’re doing but the scream pretty much gave it away.”
“You surprised me,” she said defensively. “Can you blame me for being a little shaken?”
“No.” Then Chaz curled his hands around her biceps and helped her to her feet, demanding, “Why didn’t you call me last night?”
“Because I didn’t want to freak you out. There wasn’t anything you could’ve done anyway.”
“Except be there for you. That’s what friends do for each other, hon.”
“Chewing her out after the fact won’t make her feel better,” Emmylou intoned dryly from the doorway that separated their two businesses.
“Did she call you and your lesbian Mafia connections for help?” Chaz asked snottily.
“They could protect her better than that gay brotherhood you hang around with,” she shot back.
Although their jabs were meant in good fun, given her mood, her two best pals would drive her crazy with their dicks-versus-chicks bickering.
“I stayed with her,” Molly piped in. “Which is why I’m still wearing the same clothes that I had on yesterday.” She scowled. “Not that Amery let me do anything but sleep on the couch down here while she made sure no one tried to get in.”
“Just knowing you were here eased my mind.” Amery had managed to tie up a few projects during the wee small hours, keeping a wary eye on the big chunk of plywood where her front window used to be. She hadn’t needed caffeine either; adrenaline had kept her up all night. But now? Talk about exhausted. She was dangerously close to face-planting if she didn’t keep the liquid energy flowing, so she poured herself another cup of coffee.
“What did the cops say?” Chaz asked.
“They’re calling it a random act of vandalism since nothing was taken. Which just shows how lucky I am as well as how stupid I am.”
“Sweetie. You’re the victim here,” Emmylou said gently.
Amery twisted her ponytail, a nervous habit from childhood she’d yet to break. “For the random act? Yes. But believing a sheet of glass is adequate protection between the outside world and my business does make me naive.”
“You have plans to rectify that?”
“The glass place is installing thicker panes this time. They’re also replacing the glass on your side,” she said to Emmylou. “Once that’s done, I’ll have them mount drop-down chain fencing outside both windows. I know they’re ugly, but they’ll offer another layer of protection. Half the businesses on this block already have them anyway.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t ever want to relive what I went through last night after the cops called. Where I envisioned my computers with all my client information and projects being ripped off or smashed to bits. And that doesn’t include how guilty I’d feel as your landlord if something had happened to either of your workspaces.”
She’d been lax in her responsibilities as the building owner because her tenants were her friends. Emmylou rented out the left half of the bottom floor space for her massage studio. Chaz rented the tiny center section for his various artistic enterprises. Amery’s graphic design business was on the right bottom half and she lived in the loft that spanned the length of the two-story building.
Emmylou crossed the room and put her arms around Amery. “What can I do? You need a massage?”
“Thanks for the offer, but those magic hands of yours would put me right to sleep. And I have to be alert for the insurance adjuster and the glass repair place to show up.”
“As soon as you’ve signed off on the paperwork, I’ll stay until everything is done. It’s the least I can do, especially after last night,” Molly said.
“Speaking of last night, Molly, how did your self-defense class go?” Chaz asked.
“Great except Amery had to take the class too. She wasn’t allowed to be there just for support.”
“I wondered how you planned to get past that ‘no observation’ rule at Black Arts,” Emmylou said.
Amery frowned at her. “You knew?”
“Honey, everyone knows that rule,” she drawled in her thick Oklahoma accent.
“Then why did you send Molly there?”
“Because it’s the best dojo in Denver. My clients can’t speak highly enough of the place, even when they’re intimidated by the owner. He’s, like, a hundredth-degree black belt or something.”
“Amery wasn’t intimidated,” Molly threw out. “Master Black hauled her out of class first thing. Made her change her pants. Then he worked with her one-on-one for half the class.”
Worked with. Ha. The man had picked on her endlessly. “Someone should’ve told me there was a dress code,” Amery mumbled. She’d been so scrambled last night she’d left wearing the borrowed gi pants.
Emmylou’s mouth fell open. “You had a run-in with Master Black on your first night?”
“Because he doesn’t bother with the lower-belt classes. To hear my clients talk, he’s some kind of super-samurai throwback. Dangerous. Stealthy. Deadly. Evidently he can sneak up behind you and you’d never know he was there until it was too late.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Amery had known where Master Black had been at all times last night. She’d felt the weight of his gaze on her—even from the Crow’s Nest.
“I’d have to disagree with that statement.”
Amery spun around. Holy shit. Master Black lingered just inside the main doorway. A very hot looking Master Black, casually outfitted in jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt that set off his coloring to perfection. The ends of his untamed hair brushed his shoulders, giving the impression of wildness lurking beneath his controlled demeanor.
Faced with the devastatingly powerful and sexy whole of him, she was having difficulty breathing. Not only hadn’t she ever experienced such a visceral reaction to a man, she couldn’t look away from him. But she had the oddest feeling she should drop her gaze, so she did.
After she’d broken the intense eye-fuck, he sauntered forward and offered his hand to Emmylou. “Seems my reputation has preceded me once again, Ms. . . . ?”
“Simmons. But, darlin’, you can call me Emmylou. I’m pleased to meet you, Master Black. I have several clients who train at your facility, and they can’t speak highly enough of your training programs.”
Emmylou pointed to the door to her massage studio. “I’m a masseuse. With my background in sports medicine I deal mostly with professional athletes. That’s how Amery and I met.”
“I’m sure Master Black isn’t interested in how we met.” Amery gave him a cool once-over, trying to gain some equilibrium. “What do you want?”
He moved with alarming speed, stopping directly in front of her. “You forgot your jeans at my place last night.”
He’d phrased that so intimately her cheeks burned.
“Then you left so abruptly after . . . well, afterward.”
Making it sound as if they’d had a fuck-and-run encounter. He seemed to enjoy flustering her.
He turned and pointed to the plywood. “Did that have something to do with your rapid departure?”
“Yeah, I tend to drop everything when the cops call and tell me about a break-in.”
His eyes narrowed. “Has this happened before?”
“No. We weren’t robbed either. It seems to be just a random act of vandalism. But it’s shaken us all up, as you can imagine.”
Chaz sashayed over and offered his hand. “Chaz Graylind. Nice to meet you, Master Black.”
He shook Chaz’s hand. “Please call me Ronin.”
Ronin. The sexy, mysterious name fit him perfectly.
Then he returned that laser focus to her again.
Amery was acutely aware how awful she looked. She fought the urge to smooth the wrinkles from her shirt, the same one she’d worn to class last night. In fact, she still wore the black pants he’d forced her to change into.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“Not unless you own a glass company and can have this fixed in the next hour.”
“I can make some calls, if you like. See if I can speed up the process.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because you’re a beautiful woman in distress and it’s in the samurai code of honor that I help you.”
Her friends scattered. Traitors. But they probably assumed given the sparks flying between her and Master Black that she wanted to be alone with him.
Amery backed up. “Are you so concerned with all your new students that you stop in to check on them?”
“Only you, apparently.”
She found her back against the brick wall. He hadn’t caged her in with his arms or blocked her in with his body. He even kept a respectable distance, not touching her at all, but something about him held her in place. “What do you want from me, Master Black?”
“Ronin,” he corrected. “When we’re outside the dojo like this, you can call me Ronin. As for what I want from you . . .”
Butterflies danced in her stomach as she waited for him to answer his own question.
Those sun-warmed topaz eyes locked on to hers. “Guess.”
“Ah, you want your pants back?” Brilliant comeback, Amery.
“I want much more than that from you, and I think you know it.”
Gulp. She feared her swallow was audible.
Holy crap. Ronin Black smiled and she swore the heavens opened up and a chorus of angels started singing. Oddly enough, she worried they were humming “The Strip.”
Man, she was punchy when she was sleep-deprived.
“But getting you out of those pants is a good place to start.”
Amery glanced down. “You want them off right now?”
“I didn’t bring your jeans with me, so we’ll wait to swap. Time and place to be determined.”
Her eyes met his. “Not before class next week?”
He shook his head.
“You are freaking me out.”
“But you’re not scared of me, are you?”
“No.” It came out of her mouth before the logic center of her brain weighed in with a solid hell yes.
“Is that why you singled me out last night?”
“Then why?” she pressed.
“You were out of uniform.”
“But if I’d been in proper clothing . . . ?”
“I still would’ve singled you out.”
His cryptic answers were sort of pissing her off. “Why?” she asked, slightly exasperated.
Ronin reached out to stroke the edge of her cheek. “Your attitude . . . intrigues me.”
“Defiance. Especially since I don’t think that’s a natural reaction for you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Or maybe you’re intrigued by the fact that I took my pants off within a few minutes of meeting you?”
“Which you did by your own choice, so you can understand my interest in a woman who blushes as she’s tossing her jeans at me.”
Amery blinked at him. This had to be the most bizarre conversation she’d ever had. Wait, maybe this was a dream.
Then he edged closer. “Where’d you go?”
“Maybe the better question is where am I? I’m out of it and don’t even know what I’m saying. I need to go to bed.”
“I’d be happy to take you to bed,” he murmured.
“Ronin.” God, just saying his name made her heart race. “We’re getting past my comfort zone.”
His eyes searched hers. “Now you’re getting it. From the minute I watched you walk into my dojo, this has been past my comfort zone.”
“Hello?” echoed from the doorway.
Grateful for the reprieve, Amery sidestepped the formidable Ronin Black and headed toward the man with the clipboard.
“You’re Ms. Hardwick?”
“I’m Dennis Harris from Schmidt Insurance. I’ll just poke around and be out of your hair before you know it.” He returned outside.
She turned around to see Master Black studying the projects she’d framed and hung on the wall.
His movements were measured and deliberate even when it appeared he was wandering. His profile was well proportioned—both rugged and classic.
“You do great work,” he said without looking at her. “Very original when so much graphic art seems like a rehash.”
“Have you been in the business long?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but instead she yawned so widely her jaw cracked. All of a sudden everything went fuzzy and she swayed.
“Sit down before you fall down.” He rolled Molly’s wheeled office chair over and held it steady as she dropped into it. Then he crouched in front of her. “You’re fading fast.”
“I just need more coffee.” Amery started to stand, but two strong hands on her thighs kept her in place.
“You need sleep, not coffee.”
“But that one guy is here, doing that one thing.” She frowned because she couldn’t remember. “What’s his name?”
“Harris,” the man said from somewhere. “I’ve finished.”
“Already? That was fast.”
“Expediency is our motto.” He handed her a clipboard. “So I’ll just need you to sign off on this and I’ll get it filed.”
Amery held the pen poised at the bottom of the paper, and then the next second the clipboard was gone. She glared up at Master Black, who’d gotten way too close. “Hey, what’re you doing?”
“You’re just signing this without reading it?”
She fought another yawn and the temptation to rest her head on his broad shoulder. She muttered, “I’m exhausted and just want to be done with this.”
“Which is all the more reason for you to wait until you’re coherent to sign a legally binding document.” He shoved the clipboard back at the agent. “You’ve done the preliminary work. She’ll be in touch about finalizing it.”
“She’s already called the window replacement company. We won’t pay the claim without her signature. And most of the companies expect COD in these situations.”
“Amery, which glass company did you call?”
Her fuzzy brain rallied and she said, “Bet Your Glass, on Colfax.”
“I’ve dealt with them. They owe me a favor. They’ll waive the COD fee and I can get them here within the hour.”
More male bickering. Amery closed her eyes and tuned them out.
That wonderful darkness beckoned only to be yanked away when someone poked her shoulder. “What?”
“Chaz is taking me home. I have class in an hour.”
She opened a bleary eye and squinted at Molly. “But I thought you were going to stay until the glass guys were done?”
Molly’s gaze darted to the right. “Master Black said he’d be happy to handle it for you. That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s okay,” Chaz inserted. He squeezed Amery’s shoulder. “She’s exhausted and who better to trust her safety with than her self-defense instructor?”
Ronin flashed Amery a wolfish grin that no one else saw.
“Besides, Emmylou is here and she promised to lock up after the new windows are installed. So we’re heading out, okay, sweets?”
Amery was too tired to argue. She closed her eyes when Chaz kissed her forehead. Her mind blanked out the hushed voices until they faded completely and sleep teased the edges of her consciousness.
Ronin’s deep voice roused her again. “You can’t sleep in the chair.”
Dammit. Why wouldn’t everyone just leave her alone? “Fine. I’ll go sleep in my bed.” She mustered the will to push upright. Her feet seemed to be encased in cement blocks as she trudged to the back door that led to her loft. After nearly tripping, she slapped herself in the face to stay focused. Seeing the twisty metal staircase leading to her living space put an extra spring in her step.
A hard hand landed on her shoulder. “Slow down. Don’t want this pretty face of yours smacking into the concrete.”
She wheeled around. “What are you still doing here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seriously. I don’t know.” He encroached on her space, coming chest-to-chest with her. “So will you please cut me a break and let me make sure you fall face-first in your bed and not on the floor?”
Something . . . oddly sweet flickered in his penetrating stare, and her flip comment dried up. “Thank you, Ronin.”
He smoothed her hair from her cheek. “My pleasure.”
Why didn’t it bother her that he touched her with such familiarity? Amery turned away before she did something stupid like face-plant into that amazing chest of his.
He followed her closely up the stairs. That breathing-down-her-neck proximity didn’t change when she cut toward her bedroom. She crawled into the unmade bed and wrapped her arms around the closest pillow with an enormous sigh.
A soft laugh sounded behind her.
Then she felt him unzipping her boots. She wiggled her toes and sighed again.
“Need my help with the rest of your clothes?”
She cracked one eye open and looked at him. “Nice try.”
“I could point out half of what you’re wearing belongs to me and it’s within my rights to demand you return it.”
“Go away, Ronin.”
“I will.” He covered her with her comforter. “But I’ll be back.”
That’s the last thing Amery remembered.
THE following day Amery felt Ronin Black’s eyes on her before she knew he’d entered her office. No lie, the man had that stealthy approach down. She spun her chair toward him and her belly cartwheeled at the heated way he looked at her.
She continued her phone conversation, but her focus remained on him. “No. That isn’t a problem at all. Absolutely. I can have the changes to you by tomorrow. Thank you.” She hung up. “I assume Molly sent you back?”
Ronin leaned against the doorjamb, looking delectable and dangerous in a short-sleeved black polo, dark jeans, and modified combat boots. “Yes. She said to tell you she was going to lunch.”
“So, Master Black, why are you here?”
“Ronin,” he corrected.
“Okay, Ronin. What brings you by today?”
“I want to hire you.”
She hadn’t been expecting that—and maybe she felt a tiny kernel of disappointment that he wasn’t here because he intended to act on this undeniable attraction between them.
Maybe he’s disappointed that you haven’t acknowledged how much he helped you out yesterday.
Guilt for her oversight caused her to blurt out, “Thank you for sticking around and dealing with the glass installers yesterday morning after I went comatose.”
“You’re welcome. The workers didn’t milk the installation time with me watching them.”
She suspected Master Black’s displeased glare was hot enough to melt glass.
“Besides, it gave me a chance to look at your graphic art work more closely and decide to hire you.”
“Hire me for what?”
“To create a new logo for Black Arts. I’d like to scrap what we’ve got and start from scratch. Is that a project you’d be interested in tackling?”
I’d rather tackle you.
She fought the pull of this man’s incredible magnetism and put a lid on those I want to jump you thoughts that were so unlike her. “I’m always interested in taking on new projects.”
“Good. Because I brought this.” Ronin sauntered into her office and handed her a rolled-up sheaf of papers. “Our current logo. Black Arts has always kept a low profile, which suits me. But my instructors have pointed out that we need an updated official logo that can be screen-printed on the back of gis and used for patches so Black Arts students are more recognizable when they compete in tournaments.”
“You don’t seem very enthusiastic about that prospect.”
His eyes never strayed from her face. “I’m enthusiastic about the prospect of working with you.”
Amery’s pulse leaped.
“Are you free so we can discuss it over lunch?”
She didn’t have anything scheduled, but part of her wanted to lie and claim she did. Lunch with the sexy sensei . . . she wasn’t sure she’d honed the feminine skills to cope with a man like him. But if she kept it focused on business? Business she could do. Amery smiled. “I’d love to have lunch with you. There’s a great bistro a few blocks away.”
“Maybe next time. I’ve already made reservations for us at Dillinger’s.”
Normally she’d bristle at such presumptive behavior. But Amery liked that he hadn’t stopped by as an afterthought, that he’d planned it. “Sounds good.”
“I’ll drive. I’m parked out front.”
“I’ll grab my purse and meet you.”
She quickly peeked in the bathroom mirror to check her hair and makeup. Thankfully her meeting with a new client earlier meant she’d put extra effort into her appearance today. One thing she loved about her job and owning her business? She didn’t have to dress to the nines every day. So donning a feminine business suit always bolstered her self-confidence. She’d need an extra boost in dealing with an enigmatic man like Ronin Black.
After locking the front door, she scanned the cars parallel-parked on the tree-lined block. No sign of him. She turned and her heart stopped. Ronin stood in front of a motorcycle.
His gaze moved over her, from the tips of her gray peep-toe pumps to the hem of her pink and gray tweed pencil skirt. His lips quirked. “Nice suit. Good thing the restaurant is only twelve blocks from here.”
“You don’t seriously expect me to climb on the back of that thing in this outfit?”
“Of course. I even brought you a helmet.”
“I don’t see how a helmet will keep my skirt from riding up and showing everyone in downtown Denver the color of my panties.”
“Then I guess you’d better sit real close to me to keep it a secret.”
“Maybe I should—”
He loomed over her. “It’s twelve blocks. If you hate the ride over, I’ll call a cab to bring you back here after lunch. But you’ve got to at least try it. You know you want to.”
How had he known that? “I’m putting myself in your hands, Ronin.”
“You have no idea how much that appeals to me,” he murmured.
His words flowed across her as potent as a caress.
“Hold still.” He slipped the helmet on and flipped the visor up. “Is it pinching anywhere?”
Ronin swept her hair over her shoulders. He draped her long purse strap over her head, positioning her purse against her hip. “Let’s go.” He closed the visor and dug the keys out of his pocket before he climbed onto the bike.
Talk about a nice butt. Good thing the visor hid her lustful eyes—not good to be drooling over a new client.
And she might’ve pulled off her silent reminder to keep it professional, if she hadn’t been forced to sit so close to him on the bike seat that angled down, smashing her crotch against that nice ass. All professional thoughts vanished when she wrapped her arms around his hard muscular core as they zoomed through city traffic.
The ride didn’t take long and Amery was sort of sad to see it end.
Ronin held the bike steady as she quickly dismounted. She pulled the helmet off, shaking her hair free before she straightened her skirt.
“Want me to carry your helmet?” he asked.
“Nope. Holding it makes me feel a like a badass biker chick.”
“You’re a little too wholesome looking to pull that off.”
Amery faced him. “Did you mean wholesome as an insult?”
Ronin invaded her space. “Not at all. It just requires more patience convincing a wholesome woman like you to take a walk on the wild side. But once you’re there . . .” His eyes were glued to her mouth. “I bet you’d put badass biker chicks to shame.”
Her entire body heated, but she managed a droll, “I’m wondering who you see when you’re looking at me, because I don’t see that at all.”
“You should look deeper, because it’s right there in your eyes.”
Amery placed her hand on his chest and leaned in, catching a whiff of his exotic cologne. “You are dangerous, and not because you’ve got mad martial arts skills.”
“Because you almost make me believe you can read me that well.” Amery sidestepped him and walked through the open door to the restaurant. She paused at the hostess stand, inhaling several deep breaths to try and calm down.
A warm body pressed against her back, and soft lips brushed her ear. “Pink.”
She turned her head and his lips moved to her cheek. “What?”
“The only person who saw your underwear was me. And they’re pink.”
The host approached and bowed. “Master Black.”
Ronin returned the bow. “Michael. You’re looking good. How’s the family?”
“Wonderful. Angelina and I are so proud our Christina graduated with honors in May.”
“Congratulations. You have every right to be proud.”
“If not for your help . . . our Christina might not be . . .”
“Please.” Ronin held up his hand in a say no more gesture. “Give my best to your wife and daughter.”
“I will. Francis will show you to your table.”
After they were seated upstairs on the patio, in the corner table with an amazing view, Amery said, “Best seat in the house, Master Black. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. Michael is too shrewd a businessman to hold a special table for me during lunch rush. I chalk it up to my good luck today.”
Amery didn’t buy that, but she let it go. She scanned the menu. “I’ve heard the food is fantastic. What do you recommend?”
“The salmon quinoa salad. Or the roasted vegetable pasta.” She must’ve frowned because he said, “Is something wrong?”
“Just wondering if you’re a vegetarian.”
“Because I suggested vegetarian dishes? No. I’m very much a carnivore. In fact, I’ve decided on the buffalo burger.”
“I was looking at that too.”
Once the waiter took their order, Amery handed over the menu and felt Ronin’s eyes on her again. “You’re staring at me. Do I have helmet hair or something?”
“No. I just like looking at you.”
“Well, it makes me uncomfortable.”
He shrugged, as if to say too bad.
“So that guy you talked to up front. What did he mean when he said if not for you? Did you save his daughter’s life or something?”
The change in his face was subtle, from relaxed to guarded, but she caught it. By the stiff way he held himself, she suspected he wouldn’t answer. Finally he said, “His only daughter was attacked at college her freshman year. She closed herself off from everyone and was failing all her classes. Michael signed her up for a self-defense class with me at the dojo and she worked through her issues.”
“Do you teach self-defenses often?”
“Almost never anymore.” He took a long drink of water. “Your accent . . . I can’t put a finger on it. Where are you from originally?”
Talk about changing the subject. “North Dakota.”
“I’ve seen the movie Fargo.”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re not all like that, doncha know?”
A small smile curled the corners of his mouth. “So noted. Tell me why you left the cold climes of North Dakota.”
“Because of the cold climes of North Dakota,” she said dryly.
“Why Denver? Why not California or Florida to escape the cold and snow?”
“After I graduated from the University of North Dakota with a graphic arts degree, my boyfriend at the time had a tryout with the Colorado Rockies, so I followed him. We broke up and I loved it here, so I stayed.”
“You stayed because you already owned your own business?”
What was up with the twenty questions?
He’s entitled to your background information since he’s already hired you.
“No. I worked for DeeDee Lewis of DDL Designs for three years. Then both her parents had health problems, forcing her to move back to Boston. I took out a loan for her business and the building and I’ve been working for myself ever since. Luckily I kept most of DDL’s clients and added a few of my own. Molly works for me part-time while she’s getting her master’s degree.”
“And Emmylou? Was she already renting space there?”
Amery shook her head. “When DDL owned the building the entire first floor belonged to the company. But I don’t need that much space, especially since I downscaled to being a one-woman operation. Around that same time Emmylou, who I’d met through my ex, was looking for a permanent place for her massage clients. We erected a wall between the two businesses and it works.” She didn’t want to admit that without Emmylou’s rent, she might not be able to swing the mortgage payment.
“What about Chaz? Where does he fit in?”
“Chaz worked for DeeDee when I first started. Then his freelance work started paying better, so he quit. Anyway, after my ex and I broke up, I moved in with Chaz. I didn’t know anyone in Denver besides the group my ex and I ran around with, and he got custody of them in the split. Chaz took me under his wing. After I assumed ownership of the building and company, he asked to rent the tiny room, which was the employee break room before the remodel. He doesn’t like working alone in his apartment all the time.”
When Ronin continued to stare at her, she bristled. “So, did I pass the Sensei Ronin Black business qualifications test?”
He leaned forward. “That wasn’t a business test. Have I not made myself clear that it will be more than self-defense training and business between us?”
“Why me?” she blurted. “To hear people talk, you’re some kind of martial arts god. You have that whole scary, mysterious Zen thing going on. And you are one of the hottest guys I’ve ever met.”
“One of?” he repeated.
“Okay, the hottest guy I’ve ever met, but I didn’t want to admit that because I didn’t want you to get a swelled head.”
Ronin smiled. “Thank you for the compliment. But I’m just a guy, Amery. A guy who works too hard and plays too little. And after meeting you?” His heated gaze roamed over her face. “I’m more than ready to play.”
His deep velvety voice dripped with promises of sweaty, combustible sex. And her panties started getting very, very warm.
Excerpted from "Bound"
Copyright © 2014 Lorelei James.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Lorelei James! She's always an automatic buy for me! She didn't disappoint with this book either! I love her characters. Amery is like one of my girlfriends, who just happens to have such a HAWT bf. Btw, his name is Ronin Black, who is soooo alpha, I get goosebumps just thinking of him. Yes, I have lost sleep reading this bk. Yes, I've thought of the characters during my work day. And, yes I have rushed home just to continue reading. I love the characters and storyline. Totally will await the next installment!
I absolutely loved this book! I read it in one day as I could not put it down. The charactors are intense and the story is unique. The sex and chemistry between Ronin and Amery...OMG! I can't wait for the conclusion of Unbound in March.
Wow! Great start to the Mastered Series! I wasn't sure what to expect from Lorelei James latest novel, BOUND. Even though its set in Colorado, there are no cowboys in this one! There is, however, one very sexy, mysterious and secretive martial arts and Shibari master, Ronin Black. I was instantly intrigued by Master Black and so was our heroine, graphic artist Amery Hardwick. They meet when Amery goes along to a self defense class to support a friend. And sparks immediately fly! Something about the dominant and demanding Sensei Black compels Amery to act out of character, to be quite bold. Raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian family, Amery struggles to claim her sexuality and to be the bold, independent, strong woman she wants to be. Sensei Black encourages and accompanies her on her journey. The two begin a relationship that is, at times, a challenge for Amery. Ronin's lifestyle is very different from anything Amery has known in the past. She struggles to accept certain parts of Ronin, while also growing frustrated that he holds back certain parts of himself. Their differences do cause some conflicts, which I felt were very authentic and realistic. One of my favorite things about Amery, and there are quite a few--I loved this character!--is that she doesn't just go along with Ronin. When confronted with certain things that are a little shocking and foreign to her, she has questions and concerns. She needs time to think things over. I loved this book! I'm going to be completely honest here--I'm not a fan of bondage. Although I've read a number of bondage-themed books, none of them have ever made it interesting or appealing to me. Ms. James history and descriptions of the art of shibari and kinbaku were so vivid, that I could picture it in my head. I still don't want anyone to tie me up, but I have a whole new appreciation for this artform. BOUND is just the first part of Ronin and Amery's story. Their story concludes in UNWOUND (March 25, 2014). This book is a complete story. It's just not the entire story. It never felt contrived or padded. I loved every word of it!! Was I sorry it ended? Hell yes! I'm always sorry when a good book ends...but I cannot wait to read the rest of Ronin and Amery's story in UNWOUND!!
4 1/2 earth moving stars! I don't think that it's possible for Lorelei to write a book that I wouldn't absolutely love. Strong characters with lots of layers and depth. Ronin and Amery literally scorch the pages of this book. Their chemistry is beyond hot. He is, or course, a typical closed off man. Unfortunately, he's keeping a lot more secrets than most - and not willing to share. They meet at his dojo when she is a last minute addition to a self defense class she was tagging along with for support of her friend. Their connection is instant and only heats up further as the book progresses. In addidion to the fabulous sex, the bondage scenes practically transport the reader to the same happy space Amery is in and makes you crave the ability to let go and find your own release. When the bondage using ropes first appears, Amery says quite a few hurtful things to Ronin due to shock and fear. They actually discuss this as mature adults after each have calmed down. It's not glossed over as if the reader won't realize. There is an impromtu rooftop dinner party, a run-in with her ex at an exclusive event, an attempted robbery, a woman who bares her heart and soul and a possesive man afraid to let anyone in. After Amery's last minute business meeting, things do come to blows and there is quite a bit of tension. I'll have to wait until next month to find out what happens. This does end on a cliff, but not one so drastic that you want to throw the book across the room. I actually read that part 3 times and am very proud of Amery for holding herself together and getting it all out there. One of the reasons I love Lorelei's books so much is that she writes a story as if you are actually seeing it unfold in front of your eyes - like a movie. I can't wait for more!
Did you this is a two book story? Ive read all of Lorelei's books. Absolutely love her stories. This one? Not so much. Of course it had an abundance of passion. But this book didnt feel like a Lorelei book. This read like every other commercialized erotic book out there; with the trend of having to read more than one book to finish it. Didnt feel as pure as all of her other books. Im so disappointed. I can no longer buy her books just bc i see her name.
This was another fantastic read by Lorelei James. It has a great strong story line and depth in the characters! I cant wait for the next one in the series!
OMG! I absolutely loved Bound! Amery and Ronin had me hooked in chapter one and I had a very difficult time putting the book down. Master Ronin can tie me up any time!! Miss Lorelei, I am so happy you took this book in a different direction than others similar to it. I will never look at someone in Gi pants the same way ever again!!
Bound took me by surprise. I figured it was going to be your typical BDSM book. I approached it with some measure of trepidation, because many BDSM books don't appeal to me. It's the submissive part of the relationship I always have the biggest problem with. But, I wanted to try Bound because it's by Lorelei James, and from what I've read by her, she masters super strong characters. Surprise number one - Bound is NOT a BDSM book. Surprise number two - there isn't a single cowboy in this book. Bound is about art and secrets and how the past has the power to strengthen or destroy you. Amery is the owner of a freelance graphic design business who is trying to remake herself in Denver. After enrolling in a self-defense class, she meets Ronin Black, eighth-degree black belt and super sexy owner of the dojo where her class is held. Ronin makes Amery feel things she never thought possible. He makes her want to bare her life, her soul and her body for him, and yet, she doesn't get the same openness in return. It's clear Ronin cares deeply for her, yet he keeps a lot of secrets. Ronin spent a lot of time in Japan, and while there learned the Japanese art of Kinbaku and Shibari, both of which use ropes and scarves to bind a person, sometimes for sexual pleasure. It's treated as a form of art - a thing of beauty. In this way, it's very different from what we westerners think of as "bondage." It's not whips and chains and handcuffs. It's colorful scarves and soft touches and something to be admired. How amazingly fascinating and refreshing! Ronin is a master at these arts and for awhile, Amery is his canvas. They both grow and learn so much about themselves during the course of their relationship. Despite the fact that Ronin kept that part of him a secret from Amery for awhile, in the spirit of continually trying to broaden her horizons and break out of the stifling mold in which her parents put her, she opens herself up to this new and exciting thing with him. I loved reading about the binding. I even Googled a few of them so I could see what they looked like. It was such a new and interesting approach to the same old BDSM genre. And even cooler is that it came from Lorelei James. I've only known her for her sexy cowboy series. What a wonderful surprise! The chemistry between Amery and Ronin was awesome. I loved how they cared for each other and seemed to want to meet each others' needs, no matter what they were. It was sweet and sexy and I was rooting for them the entire time. But, Ronin - GAH. His inability to open up and share... well, anything of substance, really... was infuriating. And, Amery's constant acceptance of that equally frustrated me. I could see a mile away that there was going to come a point when everything was going to come to a head and create a colossal mess. And, when that happened, I was very torn. I was cheering Amery on for finally growing a backbone, and yet, my heart was breaking for both of them. Despite my frustration with him, Lorelei James' development of Ronin Black made it impossible to not love him. I love that he's not your typical young stud (he's 38). Well, young - no (at least, not comparatively speaking). Stud? Absolutely. Ronin Black may not swagger, wear chaps or don a 10-gallon hat, but that's okay. Because hot is hot. And, Ronin Black is H-O-T. He's enigmatic and intense and strong. He's all things that embody sexy. Bound is told from Amery's POV, except for the last chapter, which is all Ronin. There is a bit of a cliffhanger ending, but it fit well with the story and the events that unfolded in the last few chapters. Thank goodness we don't have to wait long for the follow-up to their story!
Lorelei does it again!!! She takes us in a new direction, keeps your heart (and lady parts) pumping, and gives an adrenaline rush right up to the end!!!! Ronin is sexy, intense, frustrating, and melt-your-panties yummy! Amery may have issues, but she can definitely stand on her own, and she definitely makes Ronin reconsider himself. BOUND is so difficult to put down, yet you want to savor it slowly. And this will definitely be a re-read in anticipation of UNWOUND in March!
I have read several of Lorelei James’ western novels and I always enjoy them. This is the first book I have read by her set in a totally urban environment and it is obvious her talent is not restricted to a particular genre. In fact, I think this is the best book of hers I have read. Amery comes from an ultra religious background and her father was both physically and emotionally abusive when he did not feel she met his standards. She escaped to college as soon as she was able, but her upbringing still inhibits her sexually. Ronin is a martial arts expert and sparks fly between them as soon as they meet. He is very secretive and obsessed with control in all areas of his life . . . particularly his sex life. He is a master of the art of rope bondage which reflects his Japanese heritage. Fortunately, Amery is excited about being bound and enjoys her sexual relationship with Ronin. Unfortunately, her background causes her to be ashamed of her feelings. She believes there is something wrong with her because she enjoys the bondage. All of this could be overcome if Ronin would just open up to her. He keeps so many secrets, Amery cannot believe he really cares about her. Let me repeat, I loved this book. I had heard of rope bondage, but I did not know that much about it. Now, I can visualize the beauty of it and understand how it might be a part of Dom/Sub relationship. Mostly though, I see it as a form of living art. The sequel, Unwound, is due out on March 25th and I cannot wait. The ending of Bound definitely left me on edge and I want to know how Amery and Ronin work out their problems. I know it will be another page turner to read. Overall: 4.5 (Definitely a re-read, but I did not like the cliffhanger ending.) Sensuality level: 4.5 (Except for the rope bondage, the sexual relationship was fairly vanilla.)
Lorelei is one of my favorite authors and this book did not let me down. I absolutely loved it. Ms. James has another hit series on her hands. I had to laugh when Amery first meets Ronin and throws her pants at him. From that point on it was a roller coaster of emotions. The sex in this book is amazing as is the chemistry between Ronin and Amery. There were times in the book that I seriously wanted to reach in and smack Ronin on the head. When Ronin told Amery that the scar on her arm looked like the Japanese symbol for his name, I honestly thought to myself, see your meant to be together you hard headed fool! I will admit when this book ended I yelled. I cannot wait for the next book in the Mastered Series.
I resisted buying this book because bondage and martial arts hold no interest for me and I hate books that are dividedinto parts......but its Lorelei James so I broke down and bought it anyway. Is it kinky? Not really that kinky. Is it good? Yes, emotional depths are plumbed and the struggles to find ones place in theworld revealed. You will love reading it...but then you have tobuy anotherbook! Ah well.
4.5 stars It is a very, very hot erotica romance. I will start off this review with WOW. I really love reading authors for the first time and being blown out of the water with the story line and writing. One of the great things about reading is learning new things and I learned about the art of shibari. Ms James gave such a beautiful description of it from Ronin's perspective that I almost wished he was doing it on me. This book is a cliffhanger and not for the person who is sexually shy. For me it was so good I had to buy the next one in the series. To see the full review visit my blog: sportochicksmusings.blogspot .com
I bought this book because it was book 1 in what I thought was a series only to find out it was just a 2 book story. It was somewhat Shades of Grey but better in my opinion. I read Bound and Unwound, the conclusion, one right after the other and thoroughly enjoyed both. The characters were interesting, Ronin, a very high ranking jujitzu master,Alpha to the max and Amery, a rediculously wholesome daughter of a minister from small town USA. The sex was hot with just the right amount of kink and the story line held my interest from beginning to end. I really hope Ms.James does a follow-up story on Ronin's sister Shiori.
This fabulous story is about Amery Hardwick, a graphic designer, and Ronin Black, an 8th degree black belt and owner of Black Arts, a martial arts training facility. Oh yeah, he's also a Shibari and Kinbaku Master, which is Japanese rope bondage. Beautiful rope bondage! They both fall hard for each other but one thing holds Amery back. He's got secrets. A lot of secrets! He's an extremely private man and she can tell he picks and chooses the details he allows her to know. Rumors run rampant about the type of man Master Black truly is. Will Amery be able to accept the lifestyle Ronin leads along with all the secrets he's not sharing? Fantastic book! I highly recommend this first book in The Mastered Series. I know when I crack open a book written by Lorelei James, that it's a sure thing in my hands. She NEVER disappoints! The detail Ms. James goes into with this bondage is amazing. The images pop into your head and you can actually see him performing these beautiful Japanese bondage arts on her. He is a tortured soul and she is walking around living life to please every one else. When these two come together, you can feel the pull between them. With the first book I can tell this will be one of those series that you can read over and over and never get tired of it. I am so excited to read the next book in this fabulous series, Unwound.
I never write reviews on books I purchase, but this book had me glued. Finished it in a day. The charcters are well written and the story line is great. I am happy that the author didn't give us the story line of some pathetic woman so messed up that she couldn't be strong enough to.make her own decisions. I'm glad she made her strong willed. I'm so happy that I had other reviews to help me make my final decision on reading this story. Now I can bearly wait till the 25th for the upcoming ending to this story. I think I might have found a new writer to follow.
From page 1 to the end I was enrapt My Nook was running hot and so was I I in knots waiting to see what twists this tale of love takes I can't wait Ps Mrs. James if you ever read this Give the tattooed bald brother a book he sounds like my kind of man.
This book took me by surprise. Its so refreshing to find a book that pulls you in. Characters and story line were well developed. Literally could not put the book down. The sexual intensity between the main two characters--lets just say I fully could appreciate the saying, "I need a bottle of cold water to cool off" after reading this.
Oh yes, another great series by Lorelei James. Wanted to add this to my weekend of relaxation. I just couldn't put it down to have it last through the entire weekend. After ending the last page I had to place my pre-order for Unwound. Don't pass this one up!
If Lorelei James's name is on the cover chances are I'll buy the book based on that alone. I love her writing that much. So I purchased this book for that reason before realizing it is only the first installment of a two part series. Paying nearly $8 for an e-book and not having a complete story is annoying, but my fault for not paying better attention. While I did enjoy the storyline and main characters, Amery & Ronin I just felt it was predictable in many ways and similar to many other books in this genre. A young woman sruggling with self confidence issues based on her parents poor parenting during her formative years combined with bad relationship experiences makes her more vulnerable to the mysterious alpha male guy who starts to over ride her senses with the right words and fantastic sex. The reader knows it is too good to be true and something is going to happen that leaves our girl a confused & angry mess at the end. This easily could have been a one book deal, but now we have to wait to find out if the alpha guy pulls his head out his supersized egotistical backside and does the right thing for the sake of the relationship and out of respect to Amery which she more than deserves.
I loved this book. I felt like an author of her stature did not need to do something as gimmicky as a two parter. Book was 300 pages, how much longer can a second book be..y !
I did not think this was one of Lorelei's best books. The characters, especially Amery, were a little unbelievable to me. She is a lot smarter than she acts with Ronin. He is secretive but she never asks questions. Several times he mentions "family pressures" but she never asks questions. Her friends tell her things they've heard, but she never asks questions. She should not be so surprised to find out that he's been hiding things from her. I will read the next book, because I've read everything else she has written, but I hope it's better than this one.
Well worth a read. I will be getting the next book today!
Wow! Okay, so this was intense and majorly hot. Super interesting story with intriguing characters. Great read! I thought both Amery and Ronin were great. Sometimes I loved them, sometimes I wanted to throttle each of them but they definitely got under my skin. Loved their meeting and the chemistry that built from the push and pull they shared. After that, they had a super fast, instant-type of relationship. I really wanted to know more about Ronin but he didn’t give much away, he was extremely guarded. I found this part of him frustrating because I wanted more about him and to know why he was so closed off. Ronin was commanding and in control but had a few sweet moments, I loved those. Amery was pretty much an open book. I really enjoyed watching her get stronger and loved it when she got feisty. She was a bit frustrating too, sometimes I just wanted to shake her and tell her to ask the right questions. This was super hot with a nice amount of kink, very erotic and passionate. There were intricate details when the kink is happening, it was kind of fascinating. I liked discovering what Ronin’s favorite form of kink was and some of the drama that was created from it. I did think some of the schmexy got a little repetitive - same scenario, different day - but it was all still super hot and enjoyable to read. I didn't really care for all of Amery’s friends. They seemed rather off putting to me. They were friendly enough but I never really felt the connection between them. I did really like Molly though. It was nice to see her opening up during the story, really asserting herself. Loved Ronin’s friends and coworkers from the dojo, I’m excited about what could happen there. Really good writing with a nice build throughout, I couldn't stop reading because I wanted to know all the things. The end is explosive and ends in a cliffhanger. Finally some info on Ronin! I’m not a fan of cliffhangers but I loved the drama that was created and I will definitely be reading book two, Unwound, because I have to know what happens next! And the last little bit is Ronin's POV... LOVED that!!! I'm officially hooked in the Mastered series!
Nothing more needs to be said than as usual, Lorelei James has hit another home run... She is the best adult writer.