Because this was a work-related enkai, everyone would be dressed in business suits. Dante looked his usual dashing self in a three-piece, pin-striped, navy-blue, bespoke Desmond Merrion suit with a white shirt, red tie, and Tanino Crisci Lilian shoes, all of which she knew were ridiculously expensive because she had seen his personal bills. The man looked gorgeous and smelled luxurious. Cleo, on the other hand, just felt frumpy in her department-store knockoff gray pencil skirt, matching blazer, and pink cotton blouse. Ugh, and the sensible black pumps she was wearing were completely hideous too.
“Let’s go.” Dante ushered her out of the suite and to the elevator, and Cleo tried to drum up some enthusiasm for the event. At least she would get to see someplace other than a boring conference room in a bleak building.
“I hope the food’s good,” she said once they were in the elevator. He stood beside her, close enough for her to feel his body heat without physically touching him. His hands were clasped in front of him, and his feet were braced shoulder-width apart. He looked like a soldier ready for battle.
“Hmm,” he merely grunted, and she raised her eyebrows. So it was going to be like that, was it?
She didn’t say another word until they were seated in the car. Daisuke greeted them enthusiastically, like he hadn’t seen them just hours before, and Cleo smiled warmly at him before continuing the fascinating conversation about Japanese pop culture that they’d been having earlier. He was entertaining and genuinely funny, and it wasn’t long before Cleo was laughing at some of his anecdotes.
“My girlfriend loves purikura, and she has many hundreds of tiny pictures of herself and her friends.” He told Cleo about something called “print club”—specialized photo booths found in most malls—that took tiny airbrushed pictures, which could be Photoshopped before being printed.
“Do you have any pictures, Dai?” Cleo asked curiously.
“I only go to purikura with Miki,” he explained. Miki was his girlfriend. He flipped down the sun visor and retrieved the pictures he had stashed behind the mirror. He handed them back to her, and Cleo exclaimed in delight over the colorful, brightly decorated little photographs of Daisuke and a pretty girl. She turned toward Dante to share the images with him, but he was staring out the window, ignoring them, his jaw tightly clenched as he glared at the passing scenery. Her smile slipped a little as she stared at the back of his head, wondering what was going on with him.
She handed the pictures back to Daisuke.
“They’re really cute. I wish I’d had time to take a few myself.” She could hear the wistful note in her voice and told herself to snap out of it. She was here for work, not vacation. “Miki is really pretty, Dai. How long have you guys been dating?”
“Two years.” He beamed proudly. “She is studying to be a teacher.”
“Fabulous. What will she teach?” He looked stumped for a moment as he considered her question.
“Uh . . . she will be a shodo no sensei. A penmanship teacher?” He looked uncertain. “She will teach the art of Japanese writing.”
“Oh?” Cleo was not quite sure what he meant but didn’t want to embarrass him.
“Every stroke must be correct. It is almost artistic. Very difficult.” He glanced around before pointing to an incomprehensible sign written in bold black Japanese. “Like this!”
“You mean like in cursive?”
“Christ,” Dante suddenly said beneath his breath. “He means Japanese calligraphy.”
“Oh,” she breathed, feeling like a complete idiot for not realizing that immediately.
“You know it?” Daisuke asked eagerly, and Cleo nodded.
“Yes, I read about it. I should have known when you said artistic writing,” she said apologetically.
“It’s okay. My English is very bad,” he said with a diffident grin. That was such a staggering untruth that Cleo’s mouth dropped open.
“Your English is great, Daisuke,” she said firmly, and he waved a hand in front of his face.
“No, no, very bad.”
“But . . . it’s not bad at all.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said so abruptly she blinked.
The whole exchange left her feeling a little confused and flustered. She hoped she hadn’t offended him by implying his English was bad.
“Let it go, Knight,” Dante muttered, clearly not as oblivious to their conversation as he had appeared to be earlier.
“But . . .”
“It’s the Japanese way to be self-effacing. Just leave it.”
She nodded, even though it went against every instinct she had to just comply with what could only be described as a command. She changed the subject, asking Dai a question about the relatively new Tokyo Sky Tree. It was obviously a subject he took great pride and passion in, and by the time they reached their destination five minutes later, Cleo knew exactly how tall the building was, how long it had taken to construct, how many men had worked on it, and how people from all over Japan flocked to come and visit the tallest tower in the world—a point of pride for most Japanese people.
Cleo was still thinking about how much she would have loved to see the views from the observation deck of the Sky Tree while they were being ushered into the restaurant by Ms. Inokawa, who’d been waiting for them at the entrance. Their party was being held in an extremely traditional Japanese room. It had straw mats called tatami on the floor, and rice paper—or shoji—doors and panels. The décor was very minimalist, featuring only one long, very low table in the center of the room, with flat cushions known as zabuton on the floor beside each place setting. There were no chairs.