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A Ruthless Proposition(6)

By:Natasha Anders

“You might want to run a comb through your hair,” he said, the words dripping with disdain. “Maybe reapply your lipstick while you’re at it. Oh, and I’m sure you’d like to adjust your skirt and button your blouse before we get there as well.”


She scooted back to her end of the seat and quickly straightened her skirt and fumblingly fixed her blouse, flushing a little when she noticed her bra was showing. A quick check of her hair and makeup confirmed the former was sticking up a bit and her lipstick was smudged at one corner of her mouth. Wait, how on earth had she managed to smudge her lipstick while trying to pick up her phone? Who did that? This day just got worse and worse and it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. She reapplied it and quite pointedly turned her back on him to stare out the window.

She wasn’t going to let him dampen her excitement of being here, and if this was all she got to see of the city, then she was damned well going to soak it in while she could. She heard him snort softly behind her but ignored it, willing him to go back to his oh-so-critical preparation. He only needed her here to take notes, write his correspondence, and do all the other menial crap that required little to no thinking.

She knew Donna, his executive assistant, had a very challenging and intellectually stimulating job—she handled projects, ran the office in his absence, and had all manner of other important and interesting duties. But Dante didn’t trust Cleo to do even a small percentage of what his precious Donna did, and she didn’t expect him to. She was nowhere near as qualified. He gave her the basic secretarial stuff to do while designating the more important tasks to other personal and executive assistants. The little he did entrust to her was always gone over by the man himself with a fine-tooth comb.

Naturally the other assistants were already swamped with their own regular duties and were starting to resent Cleo for not doing the job she was being so handsomely paid for. They knew Luc and Dante were friends because Cleo had foolishly mentioned it to one of the younger admin assistants in an aborted attempt to make friends. The woman had wasted no time spreading rumors that Cleo had been hired because of the relationship between the two men. Nobody would ever accuse Dante of nepotism to his face, of course, so Cleo bore the brunt of their hostility. After that, Cleo had been a lot pickier about whom she spoke to at work. Luckily there were a number of other people who didn’t give the rumors any credence. People like Florence, the lovely tea lady; Solomon, the cheerful company driver; Dante’s personal protection guys; and some of the junior staff members who didn’t get saddled with her extra work. Despite the short time she’d been working there, she had no shortage of new friends.

But the irony was that Cleo hadn’t for even a second realized the Dante Damaso of Damaso International, Inc., was the same “Dan” whose name Luc casually dropped into conversation on occasion. Luc and Dante had met in college and had become friends but were hardly the type of guys to invite each other to family gatherings, so Cleo had never had the opportunity to meet the man. She had also been way too involved with her own life and her dancing—too wrapped up in herself—to care about Lucius and his boring friends. So it had come as a shock to learn Luc’s “Dan” was the Dante Damaso of the renowned Damaso International chain of five-star hotels and resorts.

Only after Luc had gone all stern and disapproving big brother on her for using his relationship with Dante to get a job, did the penny drop. That’s when she’d understood that she’d probably gotten the job because she was Luc’s sister. A favor neither Luc nor Cleo had actually asked for. By that time it had been too late to back out, and Cleo had been determined to make the best of the chance she’d been given. Of course, if she had actually met Dante Damaso during the interview process, she may very well have told him to shove his job. But his minions had conducted the recorded interviews, and Dante had—supposedly—made his decision after watching the recordings.

Cleo didn’t know what she’d expected of Dante Damaso, but from the very first day he had made it clear he merely suffered her presence, and just half an hour into her first day—after asking her to make him a cup of coffee, photocopy some documents, send two e-mails (one of which she had messed up by leaving off a zero in a seriously huge number), and water his frickin’ ficus—he had sent her downstairs to a junior executive. Once there, the junior exec’s assistant had patronizingly ushered Cleo to a desk and instructed her to answer the phone if it rang, before the woman checked her makeup and swanned off with a breezy “Mr. Damaso needs me to assist him today.”

The memory still made Cleo seethe—four months later—and she clenched her teeth when she thought of how consistently after that first encounter the same thing had happened. She began every day in Damaso’s office suite, and after half an hour—during which she had the dubious privilege of making his coffee and watering that stupid ficus, or sometimes sending one of those loathsome little “Thanks for the sex” notes—she got shipped off to a different exec. Luckily the other executives had stopped giving her mundane tasks to do, and she’d started enjoying her daily little soirees away from the boss’s office. Still, the half hours in the mornings had become almost unbearable. Dante was scathing, brutally frank in his dismissal of her skills, and almost unbearably rude. He never greeted her, never used common courtesies like “please” and “thank you” when he spoke with her, and Cleo was convinced a smile would crack his perfect face.

Dante was still grimly focused on his iPad, and Cleo went back to greedily watching the passing scenery, trying to commit as much of it to memory as she could while longing to be out there exploring the wonderful mix of old and new. She loved the wooden buildings that looked as if they’d been around since the Middle Ages, tucked away down alleys and overshadowed by aggressively modern monolithic skyscrapers. Nothing escaped her attention, and she tried to file away the interesting bits, wanting to research and read up on buildings, museums, and shops that captured her interest. All of which helped keep her mind off Dante’s disturbing presence.


Praise Jesus! They had doughnuts! Cleo barely noticed all the bowing and talking around her as her senses homed in on that single, all-important fact. By now she was so hungry she actually felt faint, and if she could only get her hands on one of those gorgeous hoops of sugary goodness, all would be right with her world. She nodded dazedly at the half circle of somber-looking businessmen in dark suits bowing to her and was barely aware of the tall, dark presence looming beside her as her eyes drifted again and again to the tempting display of coffee and pastries set up over to the side.

The painfully prolonged polite greetings finally over, she stealthily drifted over to the table of goodies. She was just a finger’s length away from a chocolate-glazed precious with her name written all over it when a firm hand clamped down on her elbow. Her empty stomach sank to the bottom of her sensible shoes, and she stared up at her boss with what she knew was the most effectively pathetic hangdog expression in her arsenal. But he was having none of it; his jaw was clenched so tightly she was amazed his teeth didn’t crack. She gave one final forlorn look at the doughnuts before he led her to the long conference table in the center of the room.

“Try to pay attention,” he muttered in her ear as he planted her into a seat that, cruelly, faced the delicious spread just a table’s breadth away from her.

What followed was the longest, most boring and torturous three hours of Cleo’s life. The meeting was conducted entirely in Japanese, which Cleo didn’t speak but Dante most certainly did, and quite fluently too from what she could tell. She didn’t know why she was there. He had a Dictaphone recording the meeting, so even if she’d been able to understand what was going on, she wouldn’t have had to take notes anyway. All she could do was stare at the doughnuts and other delicious goodies in front of her and imagine how they tasted. At one point a fly landed on her doughnut. It took everything she had not to jump up with a primal scream and chase it away. Instead, she watched in revulsion as it crawled over every inch of her beautiful doughnut. She nearly sobbed in disappointment, gave up on the chocolate one, and shifted her attention to a gorgeous éclair on a different platter. But when that bastard fly, which she had now named Damaso Jr., landed on her éclair as well, she slumped back in her chair and stared glumly down at the blank notebook in front of her.

She picked up her pen and started scribbling. Hoping to at least look busy, she composed truly awful haiku and observations about the people seated around the table.

Her attempt at describing Dante:

Hard of abs he is

Beautiful to look at sure

My God what a dick

Okay, maybe that last line was a little ambiguous. Was it an insult or a compliment? Even Cleo wasn’t sure.

After several even worse attempts, Cleo gave up on the haiku. She segued into doodling, occasionally looking up and nodding to make it seem like she was listening to every incomprehensible word being spoken. She glanced over at Dante and was delighted to note that he’d perched his dark-rimmed spectacles on the tip of his nose. She’d seen them before, of course, but loved how truly nerdy they made him look. Sexy-nerdy, but it was a flaw and she’d take it.