Bound, p.1

Bound, page 1

 part  #1 of  Mastered Series

 




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  CHAPTER ONE

  “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?”

  “Molly Calloway.”

  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?”

  “Amery Hardwick.”

  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.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “You’re only allowed into the dojo if you’re a participant in the classes. We do not allow spectators. Or supporters.”

  “Ever?”

  “Ever.”

  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?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  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.”

  He scowled.

  “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?”

  “No, sir.”

  “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.

  “Problem?”

  She just about let it lie, but curiosity had always been her downfall. “Level with me. Is this some secret military training camp?”

  “No. Why?”

  “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.”

  “Oh.”

  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. Si
nce 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.”

  Good philosophy.

  “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.”

  Amery grinned.

  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?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “‘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.

 
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