Mischief and the Masters by Cherise Sinclair


  Jessica tilted her head. “Pretty much, yeah.”

  “I missed all that. In high school, I worked part-time in a department store and after graduation, I went full-time. Mama got sick then, so I took care of her in any spare time.” Uzuri shook her head. “Even now, there aren’t many men around in my section of the store. Guys still seem like strange creatures.”

  Kim rolled her eyes. “Honey, men are strange creatures. No seems about it.”

  “For pranks, well…” Uzuri grinned. “My set of friends raised pranking the priests and nuns to a fine art, so when I get mad, I fall back on that—with the Masters I like.”

  “Wow.” Gabi stared. “I can’t imagine getting a priest mad at me. Scary.”

  Uzuri huffed a laugh. “Actually, the nuns were a lot meaner. Think Mistress Anne with a ruler instead of a cane.”

  “Talk about a world of hurt,” Kim muttered.

  Uzuri’s smile faded. “But…I need to work on standing up for myself with guys instead of going behind their backs.”

  “Damn right.” The man’s voice came from behind her.

  Eyes widening, Andrea stared at something past Uzuri’s shoulder.

  Uzuri twisted around.

  Holding a takeout cup, Max was standing on the other side of a plant-topped divider.

  He’d been listening? “How long have you been eavesdropping on us?”

  He had a thoroughly devastating—and wicked—grin. “Not long.” He took a sip of his coffee. “But it explains a bit.”

  Uzuri flushed, then frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work, making the streets safe for all mankind?”

  “Actually, I’m here to do exactly that—for womankind.” He glanced at his watch, finished his coffee in two big swallows, and rose. “I’m assisting with your self-defense class today. Don’t be late.”

  Mouth open, Uzuri watched him walk out. Omigod.

  * * * * *

  THE BIRTH OF a prankster. That did explain a lot. Max was still smiling as he crossed the street to the martial arts studio. She’d filled Holt’s locker with football-team-colored balls because the Dom had annoyed her—and because she was comfortable with him.

  Hmm. Max frowned. He and Alastair had annoyed her a few times when she had stayed with them. She hadn’t done anything mischievous.

  Apparently, she still wasn’t comfortable with them. The thought was a tad disappointing. With luck, her comfort level would rise now. Last Friday, Alastair had thoroughly enjoyed his time with her. Even better, he’d looked more like himself than he had in a while. More relaxed. Less stressed.

  The little prankster was good for him.

  Max rubbed his chin. Maybe he should step away so Alastair could have her to himself.

  The thought grated his nerves like sandpaper.

  Yet, even if they decided to share her, she might not work out. He and his cousin had strong personalities. Unless a submissive could hold her own, a ménage might flatten her completely.

  Shaking his head, he entered the studio. Anne, a Shadowlands Mistress, stood at the far end of the mirror-walled room, and he headed that way. “Hey, Anne.”

  “Max, thank you for volunteering.” The pregnant brunette smiled at him. “I like your idea about having male opponents.”

  “Good. And looks like the opponents are right on time.” Max held up his hand to get the attention of the three detectives entering the dojo. Although they were big guys, he’d chosen men who would be gentle with inexperienced fighters. “How careful do we need to be?”

  “Well… The women have been meeting for quite a while, learning from Andrea and me—and Sensei when he has time. They have some solid skills, although Uzuri only joined them recently. She’s still catching up.” Anne rubbed her belly unconsciously. “The problem is that most have a history of abuse or violence in their past. I’m not sure how they’ll react to male opponents.”

  The Shadowkittens from the coffee shop headed across the studio.

  Anne frowned. “A woman with an abusive past often freezes when confronted by a man. Uzuri certainly did last spring.”

  “Her stalker was here?” Max stiffened.

  “No, this was something else.” Anne motioned him away from where the women were stowing their gear into storage cubbies outside the mat-covered area. “An abusive bastard and friends showed up at my house to get the location of the domestic violence shelter. There was an altercation.”

  “I hope you beat the shit out of him.”

  Her satisfied grin reminded him that she’d served in the Marines as well as law enforcement. “We did. However, Uzuri froze. She wouldn’t share why at the time.”

  Max nodded. That fucking stalker.

  “This summer, she joined our classes, but her heart isn’t in it. And although she’s come a long way, I doubt she’ll fight back if her opponent is male.”

  Exactly his concern. “That’s what the guys and I are here for.” However, the thought of scaring women, especially one little submissive with big brown eyes, made his gut twist.

  Anne gave him an understanding look before she lifted her voice. “Ladies, we have volunteer instructors with us today.”

  Eyes went wide when the women saw the wall of over-sized men they’d be facing. It broke Max’s heart to see little Zuri take a step back.

  An hour later, after giving Sally, his current “victim”, a rest break, Max surveyed the room. Damned if he wasn’t enjoying himself. Aside from Anne, all the women were submissive, but…as any Dom quickly learned, submissives weren’t cowards or weaklings. When they decided to fight, they could be downright effective. In addition, fists that were smaller could fucking hurt. It was like being hit with a broomstick instead of a flat paddle.

  Marcus’ Gabi had gotten in a couple of good punches, and despite the padding, he’d probably have a bruise or two.

  Kim did well, too. Raoul had obviously worked with his brunette slave. She fought with a mixture of karate and street fighting.

  However, as he’d feared, most of the women were momentarily freezing when attacked. They’d need work to get past that reaction…but then they’d do well enough in a real fight. He knew Beth would, since he’d seen the bruises on the bastard who’d attacked her kids last August.

  Uzuri, though, was a whole different story. When one of his detective volunteers had “attacked”, she’d panicked. After trying one more time, she’d given up and retreated to the sidelines. Seeing her fear sent all of Max’s protective instincts into overdrive. Damned if he hadn’t wanted to punch the detective for scaring her.

  He’d also wanted to rip the detective a new one for flirting with her—and that was jealousy, pure and simple.

  When was the last time he’d been jealous? Tuning out the shouts and grunts of battle around him, he considered. Not since high school when the love of his life had dumped him for a basketball player. Two weeks later, Max’s affections had moved to a skinny, blonde swimmer.

  He’d had his fair share of lovers since, but no one had roused his territorial instincts like Uzuri. What the hell was he going to do about this?

  After sending Sally to work out with a different partner, Max crossed the mats to Uzuri. Fuck, she was pretty. Her hair was twisted flat against her scalp from the crown to the back of her head, before billowing out into gleaming corkscrews. Tight leggings showed her toned legs. She wore a loose shirt over a tank top that was probably supposed to conceal her assets—and it did hide her cleavage. However, she had no idea of how the hem kept riding up over her gorgeous round ass in an erotic hide ‘n’ seek.

  He hated fighting when half-erect.

  Ignoring the discomfort, he turned his focus to his current task. Teach her to fight, even though the poor baby was so nervous she was wringing her hands.

  Her unfamiliarity with any kind of violence added to the problem. When he’d questioned the students about their pasts, he learned Sally had worked in a police station for a while. As teens, Gabi and Andrea had spent time on the str
eet. Kim had grown up around the docks. Violence, in general, wouldn’t shock most of them into immobility.

  Uzuri, though… Catholic girls’ schools didn’t have many fistfights. Her occupation kept her in nice quiet department stores, although…those Black Friday sales? Scary shit. Cincinnati had rough sectors, but her mama had been ill during the times when a girl might run wild. Uzuri probably hadn’t even seen bloodshed, not until that asshole beat the hell out of her.

  No wonder she’d retreated to the sidelines today. She wasn’t mentally ready to defend against a strange male. So for this lesson, he’d work with her himself. At least she knew him somewhat.

  “Time to go play, princess.” He held out his hand.

  “I’m fine right here,” she said in a small voice.

  “No attacking right now. We’ll work on a block-punch combination.” Then…maybe…he’d step it up.

  “You won’t attack me?” Her big brown eyes met his with a punch all their own. “You didn’t do combinations with the others. Why…”

  Focus, Drago. “They’ve taken enough classes that their reactions are close to instinctive. You haven’t reached that level.” Hell, it was obvious she could barely bring herself to hit a person.

  “I’m not brave,” she whispered.

  “You survived, Zuri. Courage doesn’t mean not being scared. In the Marines, we’d say, ‘Courage is endurance for one moment more.’ ”

  She stared at him, her lips repeating silently, “One moment more.”

  “That’s it.” Moving slowly, he gripped her wrist and ignored her flinch. “Make a fist.”

  When she did, he nodded. “You got that part down. Now punch me in the gut.”

  “What?”

  He slapped the heavy padding covering his chest and belly. “You won’t hurt me.”

  She still hesitated. The women were accustomed to pulling their punches upon contact with an opponent’s clothing. That wouldn’t do. He and his volunteers had donned padding, and expected full contact.

  He hardened his voice. “C’mon, little wimp. You’re not here to stare at me.”

  She hit him. Lightly.

  “Sorry, baby. That wouldn’t scare anything bigger than a poodle. Do you have any muscles at all?”

  She gave him a pitiful look.

  “Uzuri, look at Kim.” Face sweaty, the brunette was smacking her fists into the handheld pads one detective held. A grunt accompanied each punch. “I want that kind of effort from you.”

  Her eyes held so many warring emotions. A submissive’s desire to do what a Dom requested. Her fear of hurting him. Her abhorrence of violence.

  “This is what you’re here for. Make it worth both our whiles.” He waited her out and saw resolve appear on her face.

  The next punch had a bit of spirit behind it.

  “Better.” He gripped her arm and moved her fist to where it would strike below his sternum. “Aim here next time.” He released her and stepped back. “Again.”

  The next punch was dead-on and even harder. She’d brought the energy from below and rotated her hips into the punch. “Good. Now use both arms and give me a one-two-three set of punches.”

  With only a second’s hesitation, she complied. The three fast punches to his solar plexus were hard enough he almost winced. The smack of her fists against the padding was beautiful.

  Laughing, he gripped her shoulders, giving her a light squeeze to shake the worry from her gaze. “Perfect. That was perfect.”

  “You mean it?” The wonder in her big eyes made his chest tighten. Fuck, she was adorable.

  Stepping back, he motioned. “Again. And harder.”

  UZURI COULD STILL feel the strength of his hands on her shoulders. Pushing that aside, she narrowed her focus and put her body into the right space in the way Anne had taught her, used her hips to add power, and pretended her fist would go right through the…the target. Not the body—the target.

  Pow, pow, pow.

  Her knuckles burned. Oh, she’d hit him so hard.

  Yet, even as she stepped back, she heard his pleased chuckle. “That’s a good girl.” His far-too-devastating grin made dimples in his cheeks.

  Her insides quivered in a way that had nothing to do with fear.

  He saw—the Dom saw everything—and his blue eyes sharpened. Heated.

  A second later, he was just her teacher. “I’m going to reach for you. I want you to block my arm and punch me. It’s a one-two move; block, then punch.”

  Her heart was already racing at being so close to him, at hitting him, at the sounds of all the aggression. When he tried to grab her, she skittered back.

  “Nope,” he said. “Try again.” He reached.

  She hesitated too long, fighting her need to retreat, and he slapped her shoulder lightly. “Nope. You lost that one. Try again.”

  He reached.

  Her block was sloppy and weak, but he kindly let her forearm knock his arm away. Her punch didn’t get close to connecting.

  “Better. Look here, Zuri.” He held her arm out right beside his. “I’m a guy and have long arms. You’ll have to step closer to punch me.”

  She shook her head. “You’ll hit me.”

  “Maybe. It happens.”

  “What?”

  “Going into a fight, you know you might get hurt, but baby, I want you fucking determined that you’ll be the only one standing at the end.” His blue gaze burned into her, driving his words home. After a second, he moved back. “Once more.”

  They did it again and again and again until she didn’t fear him…she hated him.

  “Again.”

  He attacked, she blocked and punched with an arm that felt like overcooked spaghetti. Nonetheless it made a solid smack against the padding, and the sound of his grunt was wonderful.

  Grinning, he leaned down and planted a swift kiss on her lips. “That’s the girl I want facing down an attacker. Good job.”

  His approval lit a happy warmth inside her.

  He straightened. “Anne, we’re due back at work. See you this time next week.” His other detectives joined him.

  Uzuri stared as he walked toward the exit. He had a deceptively lazy stroll that almost hid all that lethal power and watchful menace.

  Because of his size and anger, Jarvis was scary.

  Max was terrifying.

  Before he walked out the door, he glanced back, caught her gaze, and held it. Held it. The mat she stood on seemed to drop a foot.

  And then he smiled and was gone.

  Chapter Thirteen

  “TURN.” KNEELING ON the floor in the Catholic Church basement on Thursday evening, Uzuri picked up another pin and smiled at the teenager who was holding herself so straight.

  The entire room was filled with women who were also hemming dresses or fitting necklines, sleeves, and waistlines for the underprivileged teenagers. Homecoming proms were coming up.

  Others were helping teens find accessories—from jewelry to shoes to purses. Makeup lessons continued in another corner.

  After watching the wonderful influence that Master Marcus—and the other Masters—had with a group of teenage boys, Uzuri had realized there were teenage girls in need of attention, too. With a couple of churchwomen, she’d organized something similar.

  “This is a stunning color on you, Makayla.” Uzuri put in the last pin and shifted her position with a smothered moan of pain. Every single muscle in her body hurt. It was obvious that going all out in self-defense would surely slay her faster than any serial killer.

  Uzuri looked up at the girl. “Do you have a date for the dance or are you going with friends?”

  The glow on the girl’s face brightened the entire room. “Joshua asked me. I can’t believe he asked me.”

  Uzuri bit back words of caution. “That’s wonderful. Is…is he a good kid?”

  “He is. He’s smart. And nice. Not one of the jock bullies. Suzi went out with him, and he wasn’t all hands or anything.”

  “Good. That’
s very good.” Reassured, Uzuri picked up the box of pins and rose. Later tonight, one of the mothers planned a talk about dating safety…as well as how to say no politely and assertively. That would probably suffice. “Go change, and I’ll show you how to hem your dress. We’ll do it together.”

  Makayla bounced on her toes slightly, and Uzuri knew it was from not only the joy of receiving a beautiful gown, but also learning a new skill. The girl’s mama was in prison. Makayla’s father worked two poorly paying jobs, leaving little time to parent the girl and her two brothers.

  A girl could get support from her besties, but…there was nothing like the anchoring effect of a mother or adult woman’s help, advice, and care. That’s what this group was all about.

  Uzuri loved teaching the girls all the secrets her mama had shared. Probably one of the most important was that the world usually judged a person first by her appearance and only later by her competence and character. “I’m not saying it’s fair, child. This is reality.”

  Mama would tell her that a smart woman would don her “armor” before setting forth. “Dress for respect, Uzuri.” “Armor” was more than mere clothing, and included hair and makeup and posture and speech.

  The tools of preparing for a dance could also be used for preparing for a job. The organization would be working on job preparation next month and whenever needed.

  “Lanna, your makeup is beautiful,” Uzuri told a pretty blonde who’d been over by the mirrors. “Very understated.”

  “That’s because this is my ‘business face’. Juliet said I should come next week and learn how to do a ‘date night face’.” Lanna wrinkled her nose. “When I try to look sexy, I always end up more like a cheap hooker.”

  Uzuri smiled. “It’s a skill like anything else. Once you learn the tricks, you’ll do fine.”

  As the girl sped across the room to show off to her friends, Uzuri settled into a quiet spot beside her sewing box. Who would have thought volunteer work could be so much fun? Then again, matching clothes to people and occasions had drawn her…forever. Before she could even spell, she’d sewn clothes for her dolls. Then she’d graduated to dressing her friends. Even now, her BFFs begged her to shop with them.

 
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