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Mazoku Matsumoto was constantly being pursued by men wanting to end his life, and by women who wanted to be in his life. Both genders pursued for the same reason, the wealth and power that he wielded. Raised to be the heir of his grandfather’s criminal empire, he wanted no part of that world. The fact that his position as head of their crime family meant constant danger for her, for Taki, sealed it for him. He wanted out. She was his responsibility, and he would do anything to protect her.

Both had been deserted by parents who had callously eradicated them from their lives. Their shared history created an unbreakable bond that nothing and no one had come close to even denting. Despite the many enemies Mazoku acquired from his grandfather’s nefarious businesses, nothing posed a bigger threat to their bond than the secret love that they both tried desperately to hide.

Mazoku thought love was a weakness he couldn’t afford. The abandonment and the brutality of his childhood ensured that he would never allow such a weakness. However, for her, there was nothing he wouldn’t sacrifice to make her happy.

Taki felt the bond that she and Mazoku shared down to the marrow of her bones. He had been the only constant in her life. He was her protector, her big brother, and her best friend. What started as an innocent hero worship quickly turned into long years of unrequited love. While he still viewed her as his “responsibility,” she was forced to watch the parade of women in and out of his life. After years of hoping he would finally love her, as her heart secretly yearned for, Taki had to accept that she must forge a life without Mazoku in it. However, she didn’t take into account his view that no man was ever worthy of her and his insistence on vetting her dates. It was fortunate that she was no pushover and was just as dogged in her desire as he.

As Mazoku fought to protect her from the dangerous men determined to capture her to gain his compliance and suck him back into the criminal world, Taki struggled to not lose herself in Maz’s dominance. 

Instinct music

Book Excerpt


Mazoku “Maz”


I was conceived from violence, born from spite, and lived most of my childhood in chaos and pain. I was named Mazoku Matsumoto by my father, and really that’s about all he ever gave me. The name Mazoku meant devil or dark lord in Japanese. It was an explicit confirmation of what my father thought of me. I didn’t have to wonder if my parents loved me or not because, from birth, I was an outcast and marked as something evil. My name was chosen to indicate to all that I was born of hate. I was the devil to them.

I should explain that I hated thinking about him or my mother if I could help it. However, my beginning is very important, and I had to always remember. It reminded me that no one could be trusted. No one except her. She came later. There is a distinct reason why that is, but I’m thinking of the beginning of me before she came along.

Born to a Japanese immigrant father, Yakeru Matsumoto, and a Puerto Rican mother, Isabel Lopez, I was not a child either parent wanted. To hear my mother tell it, and I heard it a lot as a toddler, my father raped her in retaliation against her brother, who was in a rival gang. And apparently that’s all the justification they both needed. From birth, I was a hostile volley between my parents. And I learned the valuable lesson to not be seen or heard, especially to the adults around me, who should have protected me but were more likely to kick me, punch me, starve me, or just lock me out of sight.  Yeah, it was better if I remain silent. Then they would forget I existed, at least for a little while.

When I was born, my mother sent me to my father wrapped in only the bloodied sheet she birthed me in. Other than naming me, my father ignored my existence and left my care to the women who were there to service him and his men. Their baishunpu. Yeah, their whores. They were young, barely out of their teens, and had no interest in taking care of a baby. I was little more than discarded linen. Soiled linen.

As I got older, my skin became darker, and it became even more hostile living in my father’s Asian immigrant community. He was ashamed of my coloring and determined that I looked too much like my mother’s people. The darker hue of my skin, my size, and my fuller lips were not welcomed features, despite my glossy ink-black hair and the angular shape of my face from him. I was almost a year old when I was sent back to my mother in almost the same manner I was sent to my father. In a soiled T-shirt and loaded diaper, I was left on my mother’s doorstep. My mother found great delight in reminding me of this every time she bothered to speak to me.

It was no surprise that, when I was four years old, my mother finally left me at the emergency entrance of the hospital and threatened to kill me if I told them about her. She had been screeching at me the entire way there that she couldn’t handle the constant reminder of her rapist. I had already learned the benefit of silence by then.

It was made abundantly clear for the next four years of my life that not only did my mother and father not want me but no one else seemed to want a part-Asian, part-Hispanic boy in their home either. No one wanted to adopt such an emotionally vacant child. I wasn’t sad or mad at my circumstances; I was simply indifferent. I was placed into a foster home with a husband and wife who had twelve other children in a three-bedroom house. I was the youngest foster child in the house, so I got a spot in the corner of a room with two bunkbeds and six other boys. Six girls were in the other bedroom. 

The husband and wife were apparently spooked by my stony expression and eerily ghostlike way of moving about. Their words, not mine. I was big for my age, and they also thought that I was much older than my papers said, mostly because of my dispassionate expression, the indifference in my demeanor, and my maturity. Again, their words. Being the only Asian in the group of kids didn’t help either. It was not my first taste of the bitter prejudice pill. The color of my skin and the slant of my eyes had marked me for that particular melodrama long ago.

I learned early to fight when I had to, fight dirty and fight hard. The other boys quickly realized that, although I was reserved and barely spoke, I wasn’t easy prey. What terrified them most was that I could take a beating and it would look like I had no chance of getting up, but then I would get up, bloodied, broken, and keep fighting, brutally, relentlessly. I was usually a quiet, make-no-waves kid, but when provoked, rage pulsed through every pore in my body, putting a fear in the other children, which had them quickly leaving me to my own devices. My instinctive quick movements, agility, and Asian look made them wary of me and strengthened the stereotypical image of an Asian that they expected me to be. They started calling me El Diablo as well as Mazoku; both meant devil in different languages.

Even the husband and wife started calling me the Asian and Latino devil.

I took it in stride because, even then, I had already internalized a resolve to one day be so successful that it wouldn’t matter what my parents or anyone else thought of me. I was determined and taught myself more complex math problems in the textbooks assigned to the older kids and read every book I could get my hands on. I devoured information as though I were a storage device, taking the old adage that information is power quite seriously. 

I was doing high school math at eight years old. I read books in both my mother’s Spanish language and my father’s Japanese language. Unlike the other children, I never took time to play games because, in my mind, I didn’t have time to be a child. Nothing my teachers or my foster caregivers said swayed or distracted me from my path. Nothing the other children said or did deterred me either. 

That same year, I was sitting in my corner of the boys’ bedroom as I always did, working some mathematical equations, when something caused me to look out the window into the back alley behind the house. I wasn’t sure what had caused me to look over into the dumpster area in the alley, which was right below the bedroom window, but I did. An African American girl was arguing with a Hispanic boy. They seemed to be teenagers. The boy held something against his chest, a cloth or something that looked like a blanket. The girl was whispering fiercely in Spanish that the boy should stop acting like a pussy.

She grabbed the blanket and walked up to the dumpster with a determined stride. She looked around her, seeming to check that no one else was about. She then quickly tossed the blanket, which was wrapped in the shape of a ball, into the dumpster. She turned, grabbed the boy’s hand, and ran out of the alley. 

The blanket that she had just tossed looked soft and clean. I thought the girl was stupid to toss out what looked like a perfectly good blanket.  I only had a thin sheet on the carpeted floor of the room that I shared with other boys. I wanted that blanket and was determined to get it.

Although we weren’t allowed to leave the house this time of the evening, I sneaked out through the break in the fence surrounding the house. Honestly, I could have walked out the front door and no one would have probably seen me. I was that fast and moved that quietly. 

I arrived at the base of the dumpster without being detected. It sounded like a tiny cat meowing in distress. I looked around the large, dirty, smelly dumpster but couldn’t find the cat or the source of the noise. Finding the block that the teenage girl had stood on to open the dumpster, I hopped on and peered into the industrial-size bin. The blanket was there, looking as clean as I thought it did. However, something was moving in it. I couldn’t believe that rats had gotten in it already, and there were more rats edging toward it even then.

I climbed back down from the block and grabbed a stick that was wedged under the dumpster. By the time I’d climbed back to the top of the dumpster, the rats had completely covered the blanket and the meowing became louder. It was then that I realized that there was a cat in the blanket, not rats. I used the stick to disperse the rats and carefully lifted the blanket and the cat. Only it wasn’t a cat either. It looked like a tiny doll with no clothes, a tiny, brown live baby. A bloody baby.

I was disgusted. I was expecting a clean blanket for my corner tonight, but no, I had this clusterfuck to contend with. I just couldn’t catch a break. And then the baby opened its eyes, looking directly into mine. I swear I thought everything around me stilled, time stopped, and something in me shifted. I couldn’t explain it, but this tiny thing became mine. It was the first real thing I had ever owned, that was completely mine.

Picking the tiny thing up with the blanket, I gingerly carried the baby covered by the blanket into the house and to my corner of the bedroom. I got a damp cloth and cleaned it as best I could. It was then that I realized that it was again my dumb luck that the baby was a girl. I had already been thinking how he and I would be the best of friends and take on the other boys together. I needed a warrior, not a girl. And then I remembered the warrior demon hunter from the Japanese video game I had played before. The warrior’s name was Taki. Yeah, I was going to make her a warrior too. 

Sneaking some milk out of the fridge, I spoon fed it the cold liquid. I don’t know why I felt so possessive of that little thing, but I was convinced that if I didn’t protect it that the adults would throw it back in the dumpster and the rats would eat it. 

I kept the baby hidden in my corner for an entire day before the wife found out. Poor thing was so tiny and weak, her cries sounded like a small cat’s meow. I was eight years old and had no idea how to care for a baby. It was really a miracle that the baby girl, who I had been calling Taki, had survived for an entire day under my care. At least that was the doctor’s assessment once the foster mom insisted on having a doctor exam the infant. The baby was barely five pounds, barely seemed to be moving, and had probably been born prematurely.

Baby Taki was assessed as being healthy despite being under weight and still had the umbilical cord attached. The doctor estimated that she was at least two days old and quite fortunate to not get an infection from the bloody cord. After clothing the baby properly, because I had wrapped her in a towel with a rope tied to keep it in place, the wife tried taking the baby to social services to assign the infant to the appropriate care. I refused to let her.

I don’t know why it felt as though she was trying to remove my arm when she took Taki from me, but it did. In two short days she had come to mean everything to me. Everything I had up until then someone had taken away from me. No one was taking Taki from me.

I insisted that baby Taki was my little sister, and I would take care of her. A screaming, angry fit ensued unlike anything they’d ever seen me display before. I had never cried in the two years I’d been at the foster home, and I didn’t cry then either; I was too furious. Giving them a death stare that I knew unnerved them, I told them in explicit, deadly detail what I would do to them and their children if they took her away from me. The foster mom was stunned and made the sign of the cross. And when the infant started to cry, and only stopped when I held her, the mom relented, warning me that they could only hold the baby for a few days. I only glared at her to let her know it wouldn’t be a good idea to cross me.

It was the next day that a distinguished-looking Japanese man, dressed in a custom-made pinstripe suit, chauffeur driven and travelling with armed bodyguards, entered the house and provided papers to show that he was my grandfather. With the same moss green eyes as mine, he’d come to collect his grandson. And for five years, I started to believe that there was finally someone who wanted me, loved me, despite the color of my skin and slant on my eyes.



Mazoku “Maz”


“Mr. Matsumoto, the profits this year will be doubled what we did last year.” Sam Quincy pointed enthusiastically at the PowerPoint charts displayed from the projector.

I listened without comment or expression to the presentation being made by the casino manager. The manager had no idea that his time in that position was numbered in terms of minutes. The bastard had made the mistake of stealing from the wrong man.

“Mr. Quincy, your idea of profits and mine are a bit different,” I told him coolly. I sat perfectly still and without the slightest change in my expression.

Around the boardroom table sat the casino executives. They looked expectantly at me as though expecting some sign of approval from me on this bullshit presentation. I didn’t feel a bit sorry for what was about to befall them.

Sam continued his presentation uninterrupted for another five minutes before he took a seat. His blue dress shirt and gray suit were visibly soaked with sweat from the stress and his exaggerated enthusiasm.

I watched the sweat run down the manager’s forehead without comment for a full minute, making the bastard sweat even more.  The other casino executives looked on, seeming just as stressed by uncertainty. 

“According to our investigation, your presentation is missing a few zeros.” My voice hit the occupants in the room as though I’d unleashed a sharp whip in the still quiet of the boardroom. “I am not a forgiving man,” I continued and stood abruptly. Beside me, my executive assistant, Taki, also stood up. Taki was not only my assistant but also my ward, at least that had been our relationship status when my grandfather died almost two years ago and until she turned twenty-one.

People often found us to be a striking couple that they never failed to gawk at whenever we were together. Taki was the beauty to my beast. The jagged scar on the right side of my face, one of many scars my grandfather’s men gave me, enhanced my dark persona, my image as the dark lord. Everything about me was dark, my straight wet-ink-black hair, golden bronze skin, my over six-foot frame of lean muscle, maintained to deliver maximum pain with swift efficiency, and my ever-constant icy expression. Even my moss green eyes were an inheritance of the darkness in my family. The only light or softness in me was in how I felt about Taki, but I would never reveal that. My business rivals often referred to me as Bruce Lee in a suit. I didn’t bother telling them that Bruce Lee was a Chinese American and I was Japanese American. That would have probably gone over their heads anyway, given the acute prejudice I often came across in America and Europe because of my blatant Asian features.

Taki’s statuesque figure, at almost six feet in the stilettos and sharp dark business suit that molded her slender frame, made a sleek, graceful image that was an alluring contrast to her strikingly beautiful face and exotic coloring. Men’s and women’s heads swerved whenever she walked into a space. Her body was always elegantly encased in dark designer suits that fit the athletic curves of her body to perfection. She wore her long black hair in a bun at the base of her neck, adorned with a jeweled accessory that no one realized was a concealed weapon. In fact, only I knew that most of the accessories on her body, including her stilettos, were weapons of some kind.

My wealth, business interests, and the Matsumoto family legacy brought constant danger to me and anyone close to me. Both Taki and I had to learn to defend ourselves. Despite the presence of the bodyguards I assigned to her and her expertise in ninjutsu, I ensured that Taki was trained by the best and remained in constant readiness for any attack. I personally reviewed her skillset every six months. Her safety was of paramount importance. 

“Mr. Matsumoto,” Sam called in a near panic, “I am sure we can explain any reservations you may have regarding the presentation and forecasts. Please. This gaming house has been very profitable under my watch. The casino is doing amazingly well, and the sports betting opportunities are unmatched here in Vegas.”

“We have already appointed another management team to oversee this property, Mr. Quincy,” Taki informed him coolly, her brisk professional manner precise and correct in every way. She was almost an exact mirror image of me. I knew that together, with Taki mimicking my stony façade, we appeared imposing, and that, more than anything, seemed to intimidate others. The feminine version of my enigmatic persona. It was all an act because Taki was nothing like me. She actually gave a shit. She was warm, caring, and had a sense of fair play and compassion. No one would describe me in those terms.  

A small tick in my jawline was the only reaction I allowed to show my satisfaction at the stunned look on Sam’s and the other executives’ faces. They were fools for having stolen from me and think I wouldn’t uncover it. With just a nod, I could have these fuckers killed. Fortunately for them, I had mellowed in recent years for Taki’s sake. No way would I endanger her the way my grandfather had by continuing that life of crime and retribution.

My grandfather, Taro Matsumoto, placed both of us in danger, continuously, purposely. He wanted us to be lethal. To be feared. Unfortunately, he also made us targets. Taro, as he had insisted I call him instead of grandpa, had built a corporation from decades and generations of nefarious activities. The family business was mainly trafficking. Drugs. Humans. Arms. You name it, Taro provided with cold, brutal efficiency, made even more ominous by the size and scope of his organization. Taro had started to branch out in underground gaming houses and mixed martial arts fights in Japan when his only son, my father, Yakeru Matsumoto, had run away to America with a few of their warriors. 

Yakeru had wanted to set up a branch of the family’s main business interest, trafficking, in San Francisco against Taro’s objection. Taro had not wanted the attention of United States intelligence agencies on his business, so he had initially set up only shell companies to funnel money through America with no actual activity occurring here.   

Yakeru, with all the recklessness and inexperience of his youth, had ignored his father, insisted on taking a few warriors, and conducting Yakuza business in America anyway. He was killed in an inter-agency sting operation almost ten years later.  It was only while going over some of his son’s papers that Taro uncovered my existence. It took another year for him to find me. Taro had had every intention of taking his only grandchild home with him. The evidence of my eye color sealed it. I was his chance to further his direct lineage, even though he had nephews from his brother and his sister. He had had no idea that I would refuse to leave without the baby girl I’d found in the dumpster.

Taro and my foster caretakers explained to me over and again that the baby girl wasn’t related to me.

“Taki is mine,” I had insisted, holding the baby in my lap. And from the stubborn set of my chin and determined stance, the adults had no choice but to give in to me if they wanted an easy resolution. It might have had something to do with the wife and husband being too lazy to engage social services. With no paperwork and no idea where I had found the baby, the caretakers allowed Taro to take the baby after he left a significant “donation” in their bank accounts.

Taro not only got a grandson, but he also obtained a ward. He ensured Taki had official documents in both America and Japan. Something I hadn’t expected him to do, but it was his first attempt to leverage things he could provide for Taki to ensure my compliance. He groomed me to take over his empire. I decided early on that I would only be part of the international business that he had converted to a legitimate corporation. 

Taro had created a chain of international hotels, casinos, and commercial real estate properties, mainly to hide what his activities were really about. However, nothing could hide the fact that he was the head of one of the deadliest crime syndicates in Japan that spanned generations. I refused any association with the criminal side of the Matsumoto’s legacy. Taro had other ideas, and he was relentless. 

I was thirteen years old when I was introduced to how relentless my grandfather could be. Up until that point, Taro had been mildly amused by my refusal to accept my place in the family. For five years, he had convinced me that I was wanted, loved even. The beatings started then. Some days I would be beaten until I was unconscious with broken bones and knife wounds to remind me what would come again if I continued my stubbornness. Instead of being angry at my stance, at my incredible tolerance for pain, and my adamant conviction, Taro was proud. And he didn’t try to hide his pleasure.

Taki was a toddler and didn’t understand what was happening to me. However, she knew enough to be terrified and enough to try comfort me. She had always slept in my room in her own bed. She started curling up next to me and sleeping in my bed after each beating.

The beatings continued for months. I had stopped fighting by then. My grandfather became bored at my stone-cold silence while his men beat me with clubs and gave me shallow stabs with their knives. I was fourteen years old when my grandfather dragged Taki into the room to be beaten instead of me. I almost lost my mind. All I saw was her fear, her cheeks streaked with tears. I attacked my grandfather’s men, trying to keep them away from her. It was a fury unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I was out of my mind with it, berserk. I felt no pain, no fear. I kept punching, kicking, biting. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. The only thing clear in my mind was keeping Taki safe. 

It was her screams that got through to me. I had to get to her, but I didn’t understand why I was covered from head to toe in blood. Thick, wet, dark red blood. I fell to my knees and tried to clear the fog that seemed to cloud my mind and my eyes. When the room came into focus, my grandfather’s eight men lay dead about the room. Their bodies looked as though they’d been attacked by a wild animal. 

Taro held a screaming Taki against his chest and stared at me as though dumbfounded. I think I’d finally shocked him. I grabbed Taki out of his arms and held her against me. She immediately stopped screaming and snuggled against me, uncaring that I was covered with blood. “No one touches her,” I told him coldly before turning and taking Taki to our room.

My grandfather never pitted his men against me again. And then a rival crime family kidnapped Taki a few years later. I was convinced my grandfather had something to do with that. The old man had been too smug when I returned home with Taki and with the blood of many men on my hands again.

“Security is outside this door to escort you all off the premises,” Taki was telling the stunned executives in the calm, detached voice that I knew unnerved people. “Our lawyers will be in contact to instruct you on returning the funds you have stolen.”

I didn’t need to add my voice to Taki’s statements. Everyone in my organization, Matsumoto Enterprises, knew that Taki’s words were mine. No one doubted how close we were. I’d rarely been seen without her in the past four years, or more accurately, Taki was never seen without me. I ran the corporation for years, even before my grandfather died. Taki only came on as my assistant four years ago. If I wasn’t around, Taki stayed in the office or her condo. 

My mood instantly soured when I thought about Taki in her new condo. Until about a year ago, Taki lived with me on my estate, which was built with Taki in mind. However, she had abruptly moved out against my wishes. 

I had tried everything to get her back under my roof and control. Bullying. Arguing. Threats. Guilt. The last one I’d thought would definitely work. Without fear of contradiction, I knew that Taki loved me and would do almost anything to please me. So, I was baffled that she would refuse me the very thing that I wanted most. I never realized until she moved out how much I needed her close to me. It had taken me months to stop waking up during the night in a cold sweat worried about her being alone in that damn condo of hers. Despite the four bodyguards I employed to guard her around the clock, two men on duty at all times, I was still not comfortable with her being out from under my protection.

As we moved, seemingly in unison, toward the exit of the room with fluid, almost stealth-like strides, the aura around us was laced with suspense and danger. The occupants of the room held their breaths, stunned by the abruptness of our departure and uncertainty of what was to come next. They had no idea that we moved the way we did because of our training. I’d excelled in ninjutsu, aikido, karate, and every deadly piece of Japanese martial arts weaponry my grandfather could get in my hands. And for years I’d engaged in underground mixed martial arts fighting, which had me perfecting Krav Maga as well. 

In the normal way of things, I shouldn’t need this level of expertise, given that some of the businesses I owned, businesses that were often shrouded in secrecy, ensured I had limited contact with most people. The presence of my bodyguards also limited access. However, motherfuckers were still often trying their hand, trying to kill me and Taki. We had to remain ever vigilant.

Despite our similarities, there was still an innate difference in how men and women reacted to Taki. Yes, she wore the same cool, detached expression as I did. However, I’d seen men and women stop and stare, dumbfounded when Taki pinned her hazel gaze on them. Her gaze was soulful and mysterious. One always got the impression that it held intriguing carnal secrets that were banked, just ready to be unleashed. That sentiment, when I heard it from one of my business rivals, had instantly flamed my rage given how well guarded her innocence was. 

Her stride was purposeful and confident, but she also moved with a graceful sensuality that seemed to radiate from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. That observation I knew and didn’t need another man to tell me. Needless to say, that fucker isn’t observing much these days because he didn’t just observe; he’d tried to touch her. Not very fucking bright that one. 

I always felt such an urgent sense of possessiveness toward Taki whenever any man became brave enough to try to get to her. They soon found out—sometimes the information imparted more painfully than others—that she was mine and I’d kill anyone who tried to take her away from me. I wasn’t quite sure when my feeling for her changed from wanting to protect to wanting to possess her. It wasn’t something that came like a bolt of lightning one day. It was something that just was, and suddenly I burned from wanting her. 

“Sam Quincy is not only a thief, he’s stupid,” Taki stated as we climbed into the back of the limo. She had her head bent, typing diligently on her smartphone as she sat across from me.

Another thing I hated about the change in our relationship. She used to sit beside me in the car wherever we went. When she was younger, it wasn’t unusual for her to snuggle against me wherever we were. In fact, it had been rare that we were in the same room and weren’t touching in some way. Now that I thought of it, that started changing when she was about sixteen, and after she turned eighteen, it stopped completely. She insisted that she wasn’t a little girl anymore. I still used to at least get spontaneous hugs and kisses up until about three years ago when that, too, stopped. The last hug I received from her was three Christmases ago when she’d opened her present from me.

A special combat set of kunai knives. She loved them. That same year she’d bought me a custom circular twin blade with my name engraved in the middle platinum handle that opened and closed the blades.  

“Sam Quincy is also a very dangerous man,” I warned her. “You’re right though. He is stupid, and that makes him reckless as well. He won’t come after me but might come after you.”

She frowned, not looking up from her smartphone. “Why would he come after me?”

“Come on, Taki, you’re not that naive.” I wanted her eyes on me. Those warm hazel eyes rarely looked directly at me these days. I wondered what was going on in that head of hers. What was wrong? Why had things changed between us so drastically? Why so suddenly? “Once he realizes the extent of my wrath, he will try to retaliate against me. They all do. And that means coming after the only thing that would hurt me. You.”

She looked at me then, even if it was briefly, before going back to her smartphone and then muttering, “You’re not going to use this as an excuse to get me to come back home, Maz.”

He sighed. “At least you admit that our house is home,” I bit out.

“Why can’t you understand that I need to start acting like an adult?”

“Jesus, Taki, when have I stopped you from being an adult and doing adult things? You’re my executive assistant for Christ’s sake! And have been for the past four years. Do you think I’d give that position to a child?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it. Most adults don’t live at home with their parent!”

“I am not, and have never been, your damn parent,” I said menacingly. “Where the hell is this coming from anyway? I’ve never played the heavy hand with you. Why the rebellion?”

“Oh, really, so when was my last date?” She leaned back in her seat and fixed me with a challenging stare. Daring me to answer her. She had always chafed at the fact that I had her every waking moment outside of her apartment monitored and reported to me. I made no bones about that, and her ass knew that nothing was going to change in that regard. 

“Is that what this is about?” The thought of her on a date with another man, touching, kissing, the man the recipient of her sweet, rare smiles, was enough to have every muscle in my body tightening and ready to attack. “Who the hell is he? Does he work for me?” I didn’t try to hold back the snarl from my voice.

“Can you hear yourself?” Her frown deepened. “I just mentioned the word date and already you’re frothing at the mouth to get to the guy and destroy him.” She crossed her long legs, which immediately drew my attention. I had to quickly swing my gaze back to hers to avoid being caught behaving inappropriately as she sat back even straighter in her seat. She started tapping in agitation on the car’s leather seat with her fingers. Her stance was a silent seething that I would do well to heed.

I was stunned. Taki had never raised her voice to me. She must really like this guy. Knowing that I had to appear as though I was giving her rope, I sighed in resignation, fighting to rein in my temper and escalating fear. “Okay, okay.” I determinedly lowered my voice, even lower than I normally spoke, trying to calm both of us.

She was looking at me suspiciously, as though it wasn’t possible for me to be reasonable about this. She was right, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. 

“So, you want to date this guy?”

She rolled her eyes at me. “I don’t have a specific guy in mind. I just want to date without your intense oversight, without your interference, and without your brutal interrogation of anyone who dares ask me on a date. Every date I’ve been on, I could tell that you’ve had a prior conversation with them. They were even terrified to touch my hand, much less kiss me!” She breathed in deeply and then out just as loudly. “Do you know how crazy it is that I am twenty-two years old, almost twenty-three, and have never been kissed? Do you realize what a freak that makes me?”

I had to fight to stop the instant grin that wanted prominence on my face. I was elated but didn’t dare show it. And then I saw the hurt in her eyes and immediately felt two inches tall. I knew that I’d been overprotective, obsessive even, but I never meant to hurt her. I loved her more than life itself. I bent my head. It was my turn to hide my eyes from her. How could I tell her that I wanted all her firsts to be with me? How could I explain to my beautiful Taki that she was mine, would always be mine? The thought of any other man having her made me physically ill.

“Is that why you moved out?” I asked her quietly. “Are you wanting to experiment with sex?” God, just saying that had me wanting to kill any potential motherfucker.

“I don’t understand why it’s okay for you to have multiple girlfriends, different lovers every few weeks, but you want to keep me a virgin for the rest of my life.” She looked down to her phone in her hand as though not expecting a response. Obviously, I’d been on trial and hadn’t even known it.

And truthfully, I couldn’t respond to her double-standard accusation because that was exactly what I thought. I also knew that she would run from me if I told her that I had every intention of keeping her a virgin if I couldn’t have her. I should be disgusted with myself. I should be ashamed that I wanted the right to teach her to kiss, and to teach her how to make love, but I wasn’t disgusted or ashamed at all. Being with her would feel so right, and I wanted it so badly I could almost taste it. She thought of me as her brother or her friend, but I wanted her as my lover.  I had had no intention of giving in to my need anytime soon. She wasn’t ready for me yet. But soon. Given her expressed desire for intimacy, I wasn’t going to let another man take what was mine either.

“I don’t understand how we got on this topic anyway,” Taki finally said. “If Sam Quincy comes after me, I will deal with it as I’ve dealt with the many other threats to come my way since you taught me how to fight.”

“There is no need for you to fight men like Sam Quincy,” I growled with displeasure. Again, she hit another sore point with me. She always insisted on entering the fray despite the level of protection I surrounded her with. “That’s what your bodyguards are for.”

“Maz,” she muttered in irritation.

“What?” I knew that she hated being reminded of her bodyguards. Tough. She’d better learn to live with it.

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” she grumbled.

“Look, your bodyguards are not up for debate.” I didn’t try to hide the frustration in my voice. I was going to say more, but the car came to a stop at the staircase leading to the entrance of my private jet. I stepped out of the car as my long-time bodyguard, Oscar, opened the back passenger door for me. Oscar, an ex-soldier of my grandfather’s, had been my bodyguard since I was a child. 

When I parted ways with my grandfather, Oscar, his wife, Kei, and a number of my grandfather’s men followed me to America. Oscar had been unique among my grandfather’s men. He was born in Japan to a Japanese mother, and his father was an African American U.S. Marine. Not only was he unique in his parentage and skin color, he was unique in his experience, as he was also an ex-Marine. About the same height as me at six-three, he was built like a Mack truck and looked twenty years younger than his fifty-something years. Nothing got past Oscar. And other than Taki, I didn’t trust anyone more.

I reached back into the car and held Taki’s hand as she alighted from the car. We boarded the jet like a well-choreographed team, reverting to the role of boss and right-hand assistant that we had perfected over the years for the benefit of my employees. There was no trace of our heated words in the car. We always presented a united front, no matter what. In the high-tech equipped jet with space for a large meeting table and six leather office chairs, we worked through the two-and-a-half-hour flight.

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