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A Ruthless Proposition(13)

By:Natasha Anders

“Miss Knight.” Dante’s quiet voice intruded upon her thoughts, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d called her Miss Knight because he’d forgotten her name again. The absolute ludicrousness of a man who knew her body better than she did addressing her so formally caused a tiny burble of hysterical laughter to rise in her chest. She swallowed it back down, instinct telling her he wouldn’t appreciate her humor right now.

She turned to face him, hiding a grimace when her still-sore knee twinged in response to the movement. Sure enough, the grim set of his jaw and the tense line of his mouth confirmed that he was ready to have a Serious Discussion.

“Wait.” She held up a hand and he paused. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. It was fun while it lasted but now it—whatever it was—is over, and we will never speak of it again. How did I do?”

“I will require you to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” he said stiffly, and the words stole the breath right out of her. She felt so outraged, insulted, and—shockingly—hurt.

“And what if I don’t sign it?” she asked through stiff lips. “I mean, aren’t you supposed to sign those things before we do the stuff we’re not supposed to disclose?”

“Usually, yes, but we were in bed together before I had a chance to consider the possibility that something sexual might happen between us. We don’t suit. You’re not my usual . . .” His voice petered off as he grasped that his next words would be in bad taste. Still, he might not have said them, but they hovered between them like an offensive odor.

“I’m not your usual type,” she finished for him. “And because of that, you never thought we’d wind up screwing each other’s brains out. So you didn’t protect yourself the way you normally would have.

“Do you make all of your lovers sign nondisclosure agreements before you sleep with them?” she asked combatively, and his jaw clenched.

“Usually.” The tight one-word answer surprised her.

“You do? All of them?”

He seemed to have no shortage of female companions, and the thought of him going through this same distasteful scene with all of them was a little revolting.

“I don’t trust many people,” he admitted, and his broad shoulders shifted uncomfortably.

“That’s not a very romantic way to start a relationship,” she noted absently, still a bit taken aback by his admission.

“The women I usually associate with understand the need for privacy. Nobody wants their private lives smeared all over the papers for the titillation of the masses.”

“And you think that’s something I would do?” she asked, stung.

“I don’t know you, Miss Knight. I don’t want to know you. We enjoyed each other and that’s the end of it. What you are or aren’t capable of doesn’t interest me. I want you to sign the agreement so that I no longer have to consider the possibility that you may one day decide to do a cheeky little sexposé on your ‘tryst with Dante Damaso.’” Tryst was such an un-Dante-like word for him to use that for a moment she could only gape at him before his words sank in properly.

“How do I know that you won’t be the one to brag to your mates about screwing your secretary?”

“First of all, you’re not my secretary, and secondly, this agreement would protect you from such an eventuality. It works both ways.”

“So what happens if I don’t sign your agreement?” she asked again, trying very hard to disguise the tremble in her voice. “Do I lose my job?”

“Your job has never been, and will never be, at stake because of our personal association,” he said, the answer coming so quickly that she didn’t doubt its veracity. “But this gesture would go a long way toward convincing me of your integrity.”

“And yet it does nothing for yours.” She could see that he didn’t like the idea of his integrity being called into question. He tugged at his cuffs and straightened his already immaculate tie before launching another volley at her.

“You sign it and you have the comfort of knowing that none of this ever gets out. That your brother and friends never discover how very quickly you fell into bed with me.” He played dirty, and for a second she almost fell for his bluff.

“Why would you tell anybody about this when you just admitted that you don’t want it to come out?” she asked skeptically. “Also I’m a consenting adult, and you’re not my first sexual partner. I’m pretty sure my brother and friends don’t have any misconceptions about me.”

“But they don’t think you’re an easy little slut either, do they?”

She could feel the blood draining from her face at the question. She struggled to breathe as the emotional impact of that sucker punch nearly caused her to double over in shock and pain. Why did this hurt? It shouldn’t hurt. He meant nothing to her. He didn’t have the power to hurt her. And yet . . . there was pain. An awful lot of pain.

“You think I’m a slut?” For a fleeting instant, she saw an expression almost like regret flash across his face.

“I could make it look like you are.” He didn’t answer her question, not really, but the failure to give her a yes or no was more of an indictment than an actual reply. “I could make you look like a scheming, manipulative, money-grubbing little tramp, while I come out smelling like a rose. But if you sign this agreement, you’d be protected from that. We could both go back to our lives none the worse for wear. Failure to sign would force me to play dirty. To go on the offensive, and neither of us wants that.”

She hated him so much in that instant that she was shaking with it. He had to know how she felt, had to see it in her eyes, but he didn’t even flinch, merely held the document out with a steady hand until she took it from him. Cleo tried to read it, but her eyes were blurred with tears she hadn’t even known were there. She took the pen from him and signed in the allotted space beside his sprawling signature.

She handed both pen and paper back to him with violently shaking hands, wanting nothing more than to get out of his presence and take another shower.

“This is for the best, Cleo,” he murmured gently, almost regretfully, and she laughed bitterly as she turned away from him.

“I would rather you didn’t talk to me unless it’s work related, sir. I don’t think I could stomach your empty platitudes right now.” She retreated to her own room without a backward glance.

The return journey to Cape Town felt endless. Dante and Cleo barely exchanged a word between Narita airport and Cape Town International. They separated in Dubai for much-needed showers in the first-class lounge, and Cleo picked listlessly at some fruit while waiting for the boarding call of their next flight. She didn’t see Dante at all between disembarking and boarding in Dubai, and she preferred it that way. The privacy of their first-class suites, which had been new and exciting to Cleo on the way to Tokyo, had merely made the flight back to Cape Town tolerable because she didn’t have to see him and could actually manage to squeeze in a few hours of sleep.

The cold, windy, and gray weather of Cape Town suited Cleo’s mood perfectly. She was moody, exhausted, her knee still hurt, and she just wanted to get home. Dante caught up with her after they had both cleared customs and baggage claim, just before they stepped into the arrivals lounge. He grabbed hold of her elbow and turned her toward him.

“The car will take you home first. I’m sure you must be tired.”


“My driver, James, will be picking us up. Remember?”

“I assumed I would have to find my own way home from here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll drop you off first.” He steered her toward the door to the arrivals lounge, and she jerked her arm from his grip before coming to a standstill. The other first- and business-class passengers gave them curious looks as they streamed by.

“There’s no need for that. I’ve made alternative arrangements.”

His jaw tightened. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s done.”

He looked like he wanted to argue, but after a brief hesitation, he shrugged and strode away from her without another word. She watched him go, hating how conflicted she felt. She should feel relief that their messy little interlude was over and that he was gone, not regret and longing and pain.

She followed him out into the arrivals lounge and saw her best friend almost immediately. Cal—her ex–dance partner—was easy to spot because, aside from Dante, he was one of the tallest men she knew. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the crowd. She saw his tousled blond hair before he saw her five-foot-one frame and black hair, which wasn’t as easy to spot in a crowd of people. When he did finally see her, his handsome face broke into a huge grin, and he waved enthusiastically. Cleo fought her way past the jostling mass of people and flung herself at him. She was just so relieved to see a friendly face that she couldn’t help herself. He lifted her clear off the floor—it had always been so easy for him to pick her up—and hugged her warmly, enfolding her completely in his arms. Cal was the best hugger.