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.
The only other woman present, Ms. Inokawa, also slanted surreptitious glances at Dante and smiled demurely every time he spoke with her. If not for the calculating gleam in her pretty eyes, Cleo would have thought the woman sweet and slightly shy, but beneath all that saccharine sweetness beat the heart of a scheming seductress. And she had her sights on Dante.
Well, she was welcome to him. All Cleo wanted was a doughnut. Maybe that caramel one, it looked like the fly had skipped—damn it. Sure enough, as if drawn to it by her thoughts, the fly landed on that one too. By the time the meeting was over, the damned thing would have—
“Miss Knight?” She jerked upright, realizing Dante had been trying to get her attention.
“Uh . . . yes?”
“I asked if you got that?”
That? What? Wait, had they finally said something in English and she’d missed it? Damn it.