Unwound

By: Lorelei James


CHAPTER ONE




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.

Fuck.

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?”

“Yes.”

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

“As you wish.” She fortified her stance.

For a big guy, Knox was fast on his feet, very adaptable in the moment. But he didn’t stand a chance against the woman’s speed and intuition.

She dodged, ducked, and knocked Knox down, immobilizing him against the mat with her elbow on the back of his neck. She held his wrist in a joint lock, which, if he moved the wrong way, would result in a fracture.

Ronin stepped forward. “Release him.”

The woman immediately let Knox go. When she offered him a helping hand, Knox tugged her to the mat, trying to regain ground, but she merely pulled a reversal and Knox found himself in the same subservient position as before.

Knox swore under his breath.

“Ill-advised attempt at saving face, Shihan.” Then Ronin addressed the woman. “I take it you didn’t introduce yourself to my staff?”

She shrugged. “You gave me a guest pass. I used it. It didn’t include welcome to the dojo instructions.”

Such a smart mouth. “Let him go.”

She glanced down at Knox. “Do I have permission to put him in his place again if he doesn’t behave?”

“Shihan?” Ronin prompted.

Knox gritted out, “I won’t engage her.”

“Wise move.” She stood and bowed to Ronin. “Sensei.”

Ronin gestured to the petite woman, who failed to pull off an innocent look. “Knox, this is my sister, Shiori Hirano.”

“Your sister? Fuck me.”

“No, thank you.” She sniffed. “I never fuck guys I can top.”

“Shiori. Knock it off,” Ronin warned.

Knox’s gaze zeroed in on Shiori’s plain black belt. “What’s your rank?”

“Rokudan.”

“You outrank me?”

“Yes, which is why I didn’t want to engage you.”

“You don’t have that option with me.” Ronin kept his eyes locked on hers. “Get dressed and meet me in the second-floor conference room. You’ll know which one I mean. It’s missing a window from when I threw a chair through it after your conversation with my girlfriend yesterday.” He spun on his heel and exited the room.

Ronin made it halfway down the hall before Knox caught up to him. “I guess I expected your sister would look more—”

“Like a fire-breathing dragon lady?”

“No, more like you. Although I see the resemblance in your combative attitudes.”

He bit back a snarl.

“Are you in the right frame of mind to deal with her?”

“Probably not. But it’s been a long time coming.” Years. Since everything that had gone down with Naomi.

Knox set his hand on Ronin’s shoulder. “Then I’ll stick around and run interference.”

“Not necessary.”

“I insist. You’re a powder keg and she’s a match. The dojo has sustained enough damage in the last day.”

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