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A Ruthless Proposition(12)

By:Natasha Anders

Things got rowdy quite quickly, and it was a little shocking to watch the previously somber Japanese businessmen get wasted and exceptionally loud and cheerful in pretty short order. Nobody remained seated—pouring etiquette went out the window—and soon people were crawling about on the floor from one person to the next, chatting and topping up each other’s beers. She noticed that quite a few of the men had immediately moved toward Dante and were all vying to pour his drinks. He took the time to chat amicably with each and every man, looking sober as a judge but cultivating a jovial manner that Cleo didn’t believe for a second was genuine.

A few of the younger men made a point of talking with her, some in great English, others a little less fluently. Cleo forced aside her pain, kept smiling, and delighted the men when she butchered a few of the standard Japanese phrases she’d learned over the course of the week. They were ridiculously flattering of her bad Japanese, and remembering Daisuke’s reaction in the car earlier, she modestly waved off their compliments.

She turned to say something to Ms. Inokawa, but the woman was gone. Cleo cast her gaze toward Dante, expecting to see the woman fawning over him, but she wasn’t there. Dante, however, met and held her eyes for a few long moments. His face was completely inscrutable, almost grim. Cleo frowned and wondered if he was pissed off with her yet again. She was the first to break eye contact, still looking for Ms. Inokawa, and she was surprised to see the other woman blatantly flirting with Craig Templeton, the contractor for the hotel build. The handsome older man was smiling and flirting back.

Well, that was new.

Cleo turned her gaze back to Dante to see if Ms. Inokawa’s shift in romantic attentions bothered him, but he was still watching Cleo intently. His complete focus was starting to make her a little hot under the collar, and she shifted restlessly. Unfortunately, the inadvertent movement caused a shaft of pain to shoot through her knee, and she flinched. Dante’s entire body went still, and his head tilted slightly to the left as he watched her quizzically. In that moment he reminded her of a wild animal on the scent trail of something small and wounded, and Cleo desperately tried to throw him off that trail with a casual grin and a careless wiggle of her fingers. As expected, the frivolous and flirtatious wave did the trick, and he gave her a frown before returning his attention to one of the many sycophants huddling around him. Cleo heaved a relieved sigh and gave her knee a surreptitious little massage before focusing on one of the earnest young men trying to have a conversation with her.

It was going to be a long night.

At around two the following morning, Cleo was more than ready to call it quits. The merry group had dragged Cleo and Dante from one night spot to another and was now insisting on karaoke.

“I have to get back to the hotel,” she whispered to Dante, who didn’t look as drunk as the rest of their loud group. In fact, he looked much too sober for a man who’d been drinking all night, and she wondered about that for a few moments before he distracted her with a glare.

“You have to do no such thing,” he snapped, keeping his voice low. By now her knee was radiating almost constant pain, and all Cleo wanted was a hot bath, pain medication, and a long, long sleep.

“You don’t need me here. This isn’t part of my job description, and you can’t force me to stay.”

“One of your unofficial duties is to accompany me to business lunches and dinners.”

“Unofficial as in not contracted,” she pointed out, and he rubbed the nape of his neck before switching tactics.

“Okay, then, what about coming along in a personal capacity, as my . . .” He struggled to find a definition, and she raised a brow and folded her arms across her chest.

“Girlfriend?” she supplied, and he blanched.

“God, no.”

“Mistress?” If possible, he went even paler.

“Absolutely not.” He hesitated a few moments longer before shrugging and continuing, “As my friend.”

“We’re friends?”

“Of a sort.”

“Well, be a pal and let me go to bed. I’m tired and in pain.” Okay, she hadn’t meant to reveal that last bit; it just slipped out. His eyes narrowed.

“In pain?”

“Yeah. My knee hurts,” she confessed.

“This is why you have been limping since we left the first restaurant?” He had noticed that? She had tried very hard to disguise the slight limp.

“Damaso-san,” one of the other men called from a few meters away, “you are coming?”

“Chotto matte,” Dante snapped back. “Give me a moment!”

Cleo still stood with her arms crossed and her bad knee bent so that her other leg was taking most of her weight.

“Explain!” he commanded, pointing to her knee.

“I have a weak knee, and sitting in seiza made it flare up a bit.”

He swore colorfully in about three different languages before running an agitated hand through his hair.

“What’s wrong with your knee?” he asked after a moment, and she huffed impatiently.

“You’ve seen every inch of my body,” she said. “I assumed that, over the course of the week, you’d have noticed the great, ugly scar on my knee?”

“Of course I did,” he admitted. “And I’ve been meaning to ask you about it. Only—”

“Only you’ve never had the time?” she completed. Where would he find the time? At night he was fully occupied with seducing her, and his days were dominated by back-to-back meetings required to get his precious hotel built. And then there was the obvious fact that he simply didn’t care enough to delve into personal details. They didn’t speak about anything other than superficial nonsense when they were alone at night, and once the sex started, the conversation dwindled down to what felt good and where.

“I was aware of the scar. I just never really appreciated that your knee might have been weakened by it. Which was foolish considering the extent of the scarring. But in my defense, it never seems to bother you, you usually walk without impediment, and you’re quite limber—as I can personally attest.”

His comment flashed her back to two nights before, when they’d had sex in the middle of his room, his hands supporting her butt and her legs wrapped around his waist, without even a wall to bolster them. It had been quite a testament to his strength and her flexibility. Only their mutual orgasms had finally sent them sinking down to the carpeted floor. She flushed at the memory and felt uncomfortably hot as she remembered how intense that session had been, the fear of falling combined with the excitement of maintaining rhythm and balance.

“Anyway,” she said, hoping to divert them both back to the point at hand, “the knee doesn’t really bother me unless I’m testing it, and, trust me, that seiza thing tested it sorely.”

“How old is the injury?” he asked, looking deeply uncomfortable with the question, and she knew it was because he felt compelled to ask her a personal question to make himself look—and possibly feel—like less of an uncaring dick.

“I injured it about three years ago,” she recalled, her lips twisting as she remembered the catastrophic fall that had killed all of her dreams.

“What happened?” Again, the question sounded torn from him. He clearly hated asking and probably had no real interest in the answer.

“I had an accident and needed knee surgery. The end. You don’t have to ask me any more questions, sir. You’ve shown an interest. Noted.”

He said nothing, merely watched her for a very long moment, that handsome face maddeningly blank.

“So be it.” He shrugged dismissively. “We will return to the hotel.”

“You don’t have to go back. I can make it back on my own.”

“Undoubtedly,” he agreed. “But I find myself rather tired.”

“Do you?” she asked on a whisper, and his lips quirked in that sexy, dreadful cat-that-got-the-cream grin.


“What?” she asked, although she knew exactly what he meant by that.

“I’m tired-ish,” he clarified, even though the expression on his face suggested he knew he didn’t really have to. “I may find my second wind by the time we return to the hotel.”

Of course he would.

And did.

Breakfast felt different. Usually the meal, which was always delivered to their suite, was eaten in a rush while Dante rapid-fired a list of the day’s requirements at Cleo. Today, with the urgency of the week behind them and the memory of the previous night’s fantastic sex still throbbing between them, everything felt odd. Different. Wrong.

They would leave for the airport in under an hour, and they were in this weird space of nothingness where everything had been arranged and there was no more to be done other than enjoy the rare moment of peace and quiet.

Only it wasn’t peaceful and it was much too quiet.

Cleo swallowed a piece of toast that felt like sandpaper as it slid down her dry throat. She chased it down with some acidic orange juice and wondered at her nervousness.

She got up and restlessly made her way over to the huge picture windows beside the Bakokko armchairs, which now had some pretty raunchy memories attached to them. There was a layer of smog hanging over the city that did nothing to detract from Tokyo’s vibrancy. She had voraciously read her guidebook from beginning to end, diligently folding over the pages dedicated to places that she had longed to see, promising herself she would come back and visit someday. She knew that it was unlikely to happen and considered herself lucky to have seen this much of it at least, from way up in her glass tower and the claustrophobic confines of the car.