ere?” Tamara Lennox turned around to give her friend Rose an incredulous look as they got out of the taxi. “Really?”
Rose’s brown eyes glittered in the neon-painted darkness of the Detroit night. She was looking at the building in front them, a big, broken-down warehouse, its brick walls thick with graffiti and some of the windows smashed and boarded up. A narrow doorway led into the building, a small sign above that read
ROYAL ROAD GYM
—the only signal they’d reached the right place.
“Yeah.” Rose gave her a naughty grin. “Really.”
“Great,” Tamara muttered.
She liked Rose, she really did. She hadn’t made many friends at Lennox Investments where she’d been interning for the past six months, because she hadn’t had time to make any. She’d been concentrating too hard on work. Yet Rose had brushed aside all her refusals, approaching friendship with Tamara the way she approached everything—aggressively. Yeah, Rose was great. But there were times when Tamara really questioned the other woman’s judgment.
Such as now, as they stood on the sidewalk in the middle of one of Detroit’s shadier neighborhoods, on a hot Wednesday night, and all because Rose had heard about the even hotter instructor who taught women’s self-defense classes.
Tamara let out a breath, staring at the shitty-looking building ahead of them. Well, she couldn’t say she was surprised. Rose wasn’t serious about much except when it came to men. And she was deadly serious about men.
Her friend narrowed her gaze at Tamara, giving her outfit a disapproving glance. “You should be joining in, you know.”
Tamara pulled a face. Obviously the soft, dark blue designer jeans and white cashmere blend T-shirt she’d gotten on a Barneys shopping trip the last time she’d been in New York visiting Robert weren’t exactly appropriate self-defense wear. But then she wasn’t the one taking the classes.
“Moral support only,” Tamara said, closing her fingers around the strap of her Louis Vuitton purse. “I told you. That’s the only reason I’m here.” Starting to feel a little bit too downtown and out of place, she carefully turned the distinctive monogram on the flap of her purse inward so it was less conspicuous.
“And I appreciate it, Tam, you know I do.” Rose turned toward the gym doorway. “But what are you going to do for an hour? I don’t think waiting on the sidewalk would work around here.”
That went without saying. Here and there, Tamara could see signs of revitalization: a new building a couple of blocks away, the looming spike of a crane signaling construction, a cleaned-up old building with bright new signs flashing in the windows. But there were also too many boarded-up doorways, broken-up sidewalks, and seedy-looking sex shops to make a woman feel safe waiting around at night by herself.
A strange little thrill crawled down her spine, a prowling restlessness pacing under her skin.
She couldn’t say why she’d come with Rose tonight, because she had a lot of work she had to get through and Royal Road wasn’t exactly a top tourist destination. She wasn’t too keen on the thought of learning self-defense either. Getting hot and sweaty with a bunch of strangers didn’t thrill her and she avoided gym classes for precisely that reason.
Yet as soon as her friend had mentioned it, something had shivered through her, that restlessness. It had been dogging her for weeks now and where it had come from she didn’t know. But she’d suddenly felt a little suffocated by her apartment. Like the walls were closing in. Like she needed to get out, feel some of that vibrant Detroit energy run through her like a current. Recharge herself.
She’d been working too hard.
Perhaps she should have tried to dress down a little more. Then again, it wasn’t like she was swanning around in a cocktail dress. It was only jeans and a tee.
“I’ve got my phone.” Tamara patted her purse. “I’ll catch up on some work e-mails.”
Rose shook her head. “You’re way too dedicated, man.”
Of course she was. She had to be. If she wanted a permanent position at Lennox Investments she had to work twice as hard as anyone else because her dad owned it. And she did want a permanent position. She hadn’t worked her butt off at Stanford for nothing.
“I’m behind,” she said. “It’s no big deal.”
“Okay, okay. Fine. But if that man in there is as hot as the girls in HR were saying, you might be finding your own way home, know what I mean?”
Tamara rolled her eyes. That was pretty much a given when going out with Rose. “So why did you drag me down here then?”
“Hey, I’m thinking of you, too, okay? Maybe the dude’s got a friend or something.”
“I have a boyfriend already, Rose. I don’t know how many times I’ve told you that.”
“What? That guy in New York? Whom we’ve never even seen?”
“Yes. That guy in New York.” Tamara tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice. It wasn’t the first time she’d had this conversation with Rose. “And you’ve never seen him because he’s in New York.”
Rose waved a hand. “Whatever. Just trying to help a girl out.” She turned and started heading toward the doorway.
Tamara shook her head and followed Rose inside the building, stepping into the hallway.
It was just about as rundown as the exterior, narrow and dark, the floorboards dented and dirty. There was also a smell, of sweat and unwashed towels, and something else unpleasant Tamara couldn’t identify. She wrinkled her nose at it. Why the hell couldn’t Rose have found a hot guy giving self-defense classes somewhere else? Like at one of the cleaner, brighter gyms in her area? Why did it have to be in one of Detroit’s meaner neighborhoods?
Rose pushed open a door that read
and Tamara let out a silent sigh of relief.
Light flooded a massive open space with concrete block walls and some exercise machines scattered around. There were a couple of punching bags hanging from the high ceiling and a boxing ring down one end, a water cooler and a bank of shelves with various different exercise gear stored on it standing near a wall.
Well, it wasn’t at all like the polished, boutique gyms she was used to, and that sweaty, musty smell was still hanging around distastefully, but at least there was light.
Tamara looked around, hoping to find a chair or a bench or at least something to sit down on where she could wait.
Alas, there was nothing but the bare, dirty wooden floor.
A group of around ten women were already gathered in a circle near the ring, their eyes fixed on the man standing in the middle of the group, who turned as Rose and Tamara entered.
“Holy shit,” Rose breathed. “The HR girls weren’t kidding.”
Eyes the color of polished steel swept them a glance, sharp as a sword blade. “You here for the self-defense class?” The man’s voice was husky, gritty like fine sand, a kind of energy running through it. Like Detroit itself, always moving, changing. Full of punchy vitality and a stubborn determination.
And for some reason it made Tamara’s breath catch.
“Uh, yeah.” Rose was already walking forward, dumping her purse near the shelves. “Sorry about that. Traffic was a night-mare.”
Tamara couldn’t stop staring at the instructor. God, he was beautiful. His face was all perfect lines, straight nose and hard jaw, high cheekbones, a long, gorgeous mouth. And yet marring all that perfection were the stitches through one dark, winged eyebrow, the bruise along one side of that classical jawline. A half-healed cut marring the perfect shape of his lower lip.
A shiver brushed over her skin, though she couldn’t fathom why. Since when had she ever gotten off on scars?
The women shifted around him, an unfocused blur as the circle parted and he came toward them, moving with the lethal, fluid grace of a leopard.
Her heart began to pick up speed.
There was something about him, as if the restless energy in his voice moved along the surface of his skin, too. A barely leashed violence that pulsed in the air around him like electricity from a live wire. He almost crackled with it.
That, combined with the marks on his face made him . . . disturbing in a way she didn’t quite understand. She found herself rooted to the spot as he came closer, his strange, glittering silver gaze catching hers, a blade running straight through her.
This is what you’ve been searching for. What you didn’t even realize you wanted.
The thought registered dimly in her brain, a strange fear gathering in the pit of her stomach.
Weird. Why would she have been searching for him? She didn’t even know the guy. And besides, how could a man in a tight-fitting, faded black tee and black sweatpants be threatening?
Yet . . . somehow, he was. Projecting violence and darkness and danger like a storm front, switching something primitive in her brain into fight-or-flight mode.
She held the strap of her purse in a death grip.
He stopped abruptly in front of them and when his gaze switched from her to Rose, it felt like she’d been released from heavy chains.
“Traffic?” he demanded. “At this time of night?”
Rose, who was never cowed, blinked. “Um . . . Yeah.”
“Bullshit. For future reference, if you’re gonna be late, I don’t wanna see you. Understand me?”
Rose all but shuffled her feet like a teenager. “Sorry. I didn’t—”
“What’s your name?”
“Rose, I’m Ezekiel West. You can call me Zee. Now get your ass in the circle.”
Without a single protest, Rose did as she was told. Which was unheard of, if you knew Rose.
Zee switched his gaze back to Tamara and again the air seemed to thin around her, the ground unsteady under her feet. “What about you?” He swept a look down her body, his cut lip curling as he took in her preppy jeans and T-shirt. “You here for the class or what?”
“No,” Tamara said carefully, forcing her voice to work. “I’m just waiting for my friend.”
His gaze came back to hers. And for a moment it felt like he could see right inside her. Right down to her bones, to her soul.
It made the fear turn over inside her, panic closing long fingers around her throat.
What the hell? He can’t see inside you, idiot. Pull yourself together.
What was wrong with her? This guy was seriously freaking her out for some reason she didn’t understand, and she did not appreciate it one bit.
“Uh-huh.” He was still staring at her, the electricity radiating from him, crackling over her skin. Burning right through her clothes. Holy crap . . . “No one comes into my gym to do nothing,” he said flatly. “Either you get involved or you get out.”
Arrogant bastard. She was used to arrogance from Robert’s friends, or from some of the people in the social circles her family moved in. But certainly not from some guy in sweatpants with bruises all over his face, in a shitty part of town.
Still, it wouldn’t do to be rude. A Lennox was never rude.
“I’m sorry,” she said coolly, “but I’m not dressed for the class. And I’m certainly not waiting outside in the dark.”
He continued to stare, the sheer intensity of his focus unnerving.
Resisting the urge to lick her dry lips, she tried a polite smile instead. “Do you have anywhere I can sit?”
He said nothing for what seemed like a very long time. Then, with an abruptness that was only just short of rude, he turned away. “Nothing but the ground, pretty girl,” he said carelessly over his shoulder.
It was not a compliment, that much she knew.
Tamara gritted her teeth and looked around for somewhere that maybe had less dirt on it than where she was standing. There wasn’t anywhere.
So she sat gingerly on the floorboards, her back against the concrete wall, her purse held tight to her side. Her heart still beating hard and fast.
Crazy. This was crazy. It just made no sense at all.
She’d never met a man—anyone—she’d had such an instant and strong reaction to, and why it was this guy causing her such a chemical imbalance she had no idea. For God’s sake, Robert was just as good-looking yet she’d never even felt that way about
And he was her damn boyfriend.
The concrete was rough against her back, no doubt snagging on the fine cashmere of her tee, but Tamara ignored it as she got her phone out of her purse and began going through her e-mails.
Another one from her mother, long and full of the usual boring society gossip.
Zee’s husky, gritty voice drifted in the big empty space of the gym and Tamara couldn’t help herself, looking up from her phone screen to see what was going on.
He was demonstrating some move or other, at first fast and fluid, then slowing it right down so the women could see each separate movement.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. It was as if he’d taken that restless, violent energy and channeled it into a series of precise shifts of his body. A hold. A pivot. A kick. A turn. All of it measured and controlled. All of it powerful.
He must be a professional fighter. Martial arts or whatever.
God, she shouldn’t have been looking. She’d always abhorred violence and she was inclined to go with her instincts on this one. If her gut said the guy was bad news, he probably was. And boy was this one bad news.
Yet she still didn’t look away. Couldn’t.
His T-shirt was starting to stick to his body in the heat of the gym, outlining the hard, cut muscles beneath. Broad shoulders and narrow hips, his skin tanned and smooth and . . . inked. There were what looked like flames extending from under the sleeve of his tee, licking around the powerful muscles of his right upper arm. On his left the coils of what looked to be a serpent.
Well, of course he had tattoos. Didn’t all professional fighters have them? They weren’t her thing at all so why she was staring at them?
Zee had stopped in the middle of the circle, still talking, running an absent hand over black hair shorn close to his skull. The women were clearly all enthralled, including Rose, who didn’t even glance in Tamara’s direction.