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.”