Mastered - 2

Lorelei James


HIS head hurt like a motherfucker.

He couldn’t see a damn thing in this dark alley.

Why the hell hadn’t she come to the door yet?

He smacked his helmet into the steel three more times.

Please, baby, just let me in.

No lights came on. No clicking sounds of the door locks disengaging.

But he couldn’t hear anything above the pain screaming in his head.

He rested his shoulders on the brick building. When he put his palm to his forehead to try to keep his brain from exploding, his fingers came away wet.

What the hell?

Why the fuck was he bleeding?

The steel door squeaked and opened only far enough so she could peer out. Playing it safe. Good girl.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

Ronin? What are you doing here?”

“I needed to see you.”

“At two in the morning?”

“Yes. Please. Let me in.” As soon as she opened the door, Ronin stumbled inside and his helmet bounced across the concrete floor.

She dove for him when he swayed. Somehow she kept him on his feet and maneuvered him against the wall. She gasped softly. “Your face. What happened?”

He swallowed the bile crawling up his throat. He dropped to his knees and hissed at the excruciating pain before he plopped onto the floor with a juddering thump.

“Ronin?” She crouched beside him. “You look like you’ve taken a beating.”

“I have. Being beaten down has been my natural state since you walked out on me.”

His response jarred her into silence.

So he kept talking. “The fight . . . rattled my brain.”

“You were in a fight tonight? A real fight?”


“Can I ask why?”

“Needed to numb the pain.” He winced when he tried to shift positions. “But then I couldn’t remember.”

“What? Why you came here?”

“I came here because I didn’t have any other place to go.”

She picked up his hand. “You’re bleeding.”

“Sorry. I never wanted you to see me like this.”

“Like what?”


He heard a soft gasp. “Ronin, you probably need a doctor.”

It was getting harder to breathe and maintain focus. And balance. He slurred, “No. I just need to sleep.” Then he half rolled/half fell to his side.

“You can’t sleep.”

“Have to. Fuck. It hurts.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no! Don’t close your eyes. Dammit, Ronin, stay with me. Come on! Where’s the infallible martial arts master? You are freaking me out.”

“Sorry.” Then he was at the mouth of a tunnel. Her distorted voice echoed back to him from a point far away.

Or was this an illusion?

He raced toward the pinpoint of light, running faster when it began to fade.

Then he was engulfed in nothingness.


Six weeks earlier . . .

RONIN Black had thought his breaking and entering days were behind him.

But after the cold reception he’d received from Molly, Amery’s receptionist at Hardwick Designs, and Molly’s lack of information about where her boss had disappeared to, he’d opted for Plan B.

Since Amery had given him a key, technically his presence in her loft wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t as if he planned to read her journal or scroll through her private accounts on her computer. He just needed some idea of where she’d gone before he went out of his fucking mind.

It wasn’t the why Ronin didn’t understand, since Amery’s parting shot twenty-four hours earlier replayed on a continuous loop in his head: Don’t bother running after me with the excuses you consider apologies or offering more lies masquerading as explanations because we’re done this time. Done.

Fuck that. They weren’t even close to done. They’d barely begun.

Just thinking about how badly he’d fucked up . . . Ronin squeezed the key so hard it bit into his palm. So much for staying composed. After he’d calmed down last night, following their . . . blowup, his fuckup, or whatever the hell it was, he’d tried calling her. Her cell phone had kicked him over to voice mail every one of the fifteen times he’d called. He hadn’t left a message. He needed to talk to her, not a machine.

He forced his hand to relax and jammed the key into the lock, twisting until the mechanism clicked. After he’d opened the door, he slipped inside the back room.

Since the offices at the front of the building were empty, he called out, “Amery?” just in case she was hiding out.

No response.

Ronin scaled the circular staircase as quietly as possible. But he had no reason for stealth; as soon as his foot hit the top tread, he knew she wasn’t here.

The blinds were drawn in her main living area. If Amery were around she’d have the windows open, the curtains billowing in the breeze. He circled her couch and coffee table, noticing she’d tidied up more than normal. He found the same thing in the kitchen. Dishes drying on the drain rack, garbage taken out, wooden fruit bowl emptied. He checked the contents of the fridge. No dairy products or takeout containers, which suggested she planned to be gone long enough to worry about food spoilage.

Her toothbrush wasn’t in the flower-shaped cup holder in the bathroom. Her cosmetics weren’t strewn across the counter. No pajamas or workout clothes were piled in the hamper. He squeezed the bath towel hanging on the hook. Completely dry. But just touching it released the scent of her shampoo, and his stomach knotted with longing.


He didn’t do this. He didn’t know how to do this missing her and wanting her thing.

But you do know how to fuck something up beyond repair.

He had to fix this. Had to.

Ronin retreated from the bathroom. He paused in the doorway to her bedroom. Her rumpled bed looked exactly as he’d left it. Exactly. Bedding dangling off the end of the mattress where he’d thrown it back. Pillows shoved to his side of the bed.

But on her side of the bed . . . there were the two coils of black rope he’d forgotten to pack up before leaving yesterday morning.

Christ. Had it been only yesterday morning he’d woken in her bed? Only one damn day since everything had imploded?

At least she hadn’t thrown them out in a fit of pique.

Now that he knew they were here, he had a legitimate excuse for returning.

• • •

BACK at the Black Arts dojo, Ronin wandered around like a ghost. No one engaged him while he observed classes from a distance. He saw everything yet nothing as his mind focused elsewhere—which is probably why he didn’t recognize the woman at first.

Shihan Knox barked, “None of you have shown any familiarity with this technique, and I know this is not the first time you’ve worked with it.”

Every student appeared to hang their head in shame.

Except for one.

Naturally Knox noticed her defiant posture. His eyes narrowed and he pointed to her. “You. Up here. Now.”

The woman sauntered to the front of the class and bowed.

“You familiar with this technique?”

She kept her head lowered. “Yes, Godan.”

“Good.” Knox took five steps back. “Start from the defensive stance.” He went at her, low and outside.

In that split second Ronin recognized Knox’s mistake—as did his student.

She used the forward motion of his body against him, knocking him sideways. The move caught him completely off guard, and he took a knee—which was as good as admitting defeat.

Shihan Knox shot to his feet. He tried to appear unfazed, but Ronin recognized his annoyance. Knox said, “Reverse stances. You’re on the offensive.”

“No,” the student said calmly.

“Excuse me?”

“I decline the challenge. I wouldn’t come at you from the angle you’ve been demonstrating. That’s why no one in the class has mastered it. With all due respect, Godan, this teaching method is ineffective.”

Rather than show irritation, Knox grinned. Ronin knew he lived for this comeuppance shit.

“Since you have ideas on how our training time might be better spent, defend yourself any way you see fit.” Then Knox rushed her.

She lowered into a defensive stance, allowing herself to get steamrolled, the equivalent of offering the alpha dog her throat.

That didn’t make Knox happy. “Partner up at the heavy bags. We’ll work on kicks for the remainder of class.”

Ronin stayed in the dark corner, assessing each student’s skills. Clearly they needed to put the screws to this class—he saw several students slacking on basic techniques. Their lack of discipline reflected on him as owner of the dojo.

Knox dismissed class student by student—as was his prerogative. He retained the female student until everyone had left.

“Please stand.”

She gracefully propelled herself upright.

“Why did you refuse to demonstrate the reversal of the technique?”

“Out of deference to you, Godan.”

She called him Godan, his belt rank, and not Shihan, a term used for the highest-ranking teacher besides the sensei.

“Explain that,” Knox demanded.

“I am merely a visitor to your domain.”

Knox loomed over her, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. “So you let me win because you didn’t want to show me up in front of my students?”


“Oh, hell no. We’ll go again. This time? No holding back. And that is an order.”