She stared at her sushi glumly and took solace in the fact that at least it wouldn’t get cold, and her little friend Damaso Jr. was probably still back in that stuffy boardroom gorging himself on stale doughnuts and éclairs and therefore unable to ruin this meal for her. Mr. Watanabe finally stopped talking, and everybody picked up his or her chopsticks and proceeded to eat with great gusto.
“Damaso-san, you use chopsticks very proficiently,” Cleo heard Ms. Inokawa, seated on Dante’s left, say in her breathy voice. Seriously? Like the man wasn’t arrogant enough, she was going to stare at him with those big brown eyes and fawn over him because he could use chopsticks? He modestly thanked her for her compliment, and Cleo choked down her sushi, trying very hard not to be sick.
A few minutes later she nearly was sick when she stared in horror at the plate of sashimi that had just been placed in front of her. Her hand fluttered to her mouth as she swallowed back her nausea.
“Don’t you dare,” Dante warned, leaning toward her and keeping a pleasant smile on his face to disguise the warning.
“But they’re alive,” she practically wept in reply. The sashimi shrimp on her plate were writhing weakly and had quite effectively killed her previously ravenous appetite.
“You don’t like odori ebi, Knight-san?” Mr. Tanaka, who had been chatting shyly with her in broken English, noticed her reaction. “It’s very fresh.”
“It’s not fresh,” she said from behind her hand. “It’s alive.”
“Yes.” Mr. Tanaka nodded, smiling encouragingly as he made an eager go-ahead gesture with his hands. “Fresh. Taste. Taste.”
“I don’t think . . .” She was on the verge of tears, horrified at the thought of the shrimp dying in her mouth. It was hypocritical, sure, but if they’d died even just seconds before being served to her, she would happily have eaten them. But the thought of them dying between her teeth or on her tongue or as they slid down her throat totally grossed her out. She turned pleading eyes on Dante, whose face was completely expressionless. “I can’t.”
He turned to their companions, said something in Japanese, and they all roared with laughter.
“Oh, Damaso-san, you are so funny,” Ms. Inokawa chortled.
“Yeah. Hilarious,” Cleo muttered beneath her breath. A slanted glance from him confirmed that he’d heard her. She directed another distressed look down at her plate, and a pair of chopsticks swooped into her line of vision and grabbed one of the poor creatures.
“Don’t worry, Miss Knight, I’ll save you from these creepy crustaceans,” he mocked, before dipping the poor thing in soy sauce, hopefully drowning it, and popping it into his mouth. “You’re just prolonging their suffering by letting them writhe like that.”
She was ridiculously grateful to him for handling the situation even though he had made her the butt of the joke to do so. The incident was soon forgotten, but as the dishes grew progressively more unappetizing—gah! sea urchin—her queasiness and exhaustion made her feel more ill with every passing moment. Lunch stretched on for ages, and when it finally ended, Cleo, who had barely touched a morsel, had a huge headache and felt a little punch-drunk.
“Miss Knight, contact the driver and head back to the hotel to draft those e-mails we discussed earlier,” Dante said as the group got up from the booth. She stared up at him blankly, wondering what she’d missed this time. He waved the other three ahead of them, and Cleo tried to focus on his face and what he was saying, which was difficult when she felt like a zombie.
“I’m sorry, I don’t recall the e-mails you’re referring to,” she said, hating to reinforce his already low opinion of her.
“There are no e-mails, Knight. Go back to the hotel, take a shower, order room service, and get some sleep. The jet lag, combined with the busy evening and”—his eyes darkened and his voice lowered sexily—“exhausting night you had yesterday, has taken a toll on you. Rest up. I need you to be more alert tomorrow.”
Oh, thank God.
“Thank you, sir,” she whispered, for once feeling something akin to affection and gratitude toward the man.
“Go on now, Knight,” he said, the words brusque and the tone businesslike. “Before I change my mind.”
She resisted the impish urge to salute, and after he’d followed the other three people out onto the humid, bustling sidewalk, she got out her cell phone to contact the driver.
Half an hour later, she was back in the air-conditioned splendor of the car and happily chatting with the driver, Daisuke. He spoke fluent English and very sweetly pointed out a few of the interesting sights to her, giving her a brief history lesson while he was at it. Cleo was disappointed when they arrived back at the hotel. She was tempted to venture out on her own, since she had this unexpected free time, but hunger and exhaustion had really taken their toll on her, and by the time she got back to her room, she was dragging so badly that eating didn’t even occur to her. She discarded her clothes on her way to the bed and fell facedown onto the covers. She was asleep seconds later.
“Miss Knight?” The regrettably familiar masculine voice resonated through Cleo’s pleasant dream. She frowned and turned away from it, happily rejoining the cotton-candy sheep she’d been frolicking with just moments before. The sheep were cute, friendly, and delicious . . . she took a bite out of a particularly friendly fellow’s sugary-pink fleece and relished the sweetness. The sheep baaed and—“Miss Knight!”