Cleo immediately felt intimidated by the room, not sure what would be expected of her and not wanting to offend in her ignorance.
“Knight-san, please.” Ms. Inokawa gestured toward a spot close to the end of the long table before she ushered Dante up to the pride of place, dead center of the table. She bowed, left him there on his own, and rejoined Cleo.
Other somber-suited people filed into the room, while Ms. Inokawa gestured for Cleo to sit down beside her. Wondering if there was any graceful way to sit on the floor in a tight skirt, Cleo clumsily sank down flat on her butt with her legs folded to the side.
“Knight-san.” Ms. Inokawa leaned over to whisper abashedly. “Because this is a formal party, we will sit in seiza.”
“Like this.” Ms. Inokawa sat beside Cleo, folding herself up delicately on the way down. Cleo grimaced, already dreading what was to come because there was no way in hell she could sit like that. The other woman was on her knees with her legs folded beneath her thighs and her feet tucked neatly beneath her bum.
“How long will we have to sit like that?”
“It is usually proper for women to sit this way for the entire party.”
“Really? And the men?”
“They too will sit in seiza, but after a while they will probably cross their legs.”
“I can’t sit like that,” Cleo whispered urgently. Ms. Inokawa’s perfect brow furrowed ever so slightly, and she affected a lovely look of helpless distress. Dante, who could see everything from his central position on the opposite side of the table, got to his feet and ambled around to their end of the table.
“Is there a problem here?” he asked, and Ms. Inokawa bowed gracefully before shaking her head.
“There is no problem, Damaso-san.” Rather surprised that the other woman didn’t rat her out, Cleo slanted her a shocked glance before meeting Dante’s eyes.
“I can’t sit like this.” She gestured to where Ms. Inokawa sat like the perfect epitome of modesty and beauty.
“Everybody will be sitting in seiza,” Dante pointed out. Cleo nodded and tried very hard not to react to his impatience.
“So I’ve heard,” she said. Dante sighed and glanced up as several important-looking men—some of whom she’d never seen before—entered the room.
“I don’t have time for this, Knight. Stop playing childish and attention-seeking games and don’t embarrass me,” he growled, before striding away, leaving Cleo humiliated. She was absolutely—and unexpectedly—shattered that he had spoken to her like that in front of Ms. Inokawa, who was very discreetly keeping her gaze focused on her place setting. Cleo blinked hard when she realized that her eyes had actually gone misty, and she was annoyed with herself for letting him get to her. Still, after a week of sexing her up, surely he’d noticed the extensive scarring on her right knee. Surely he’d wondered about it. She knew every single detail of his body, every little imperfection—of which there were few—every nook and crevice, and he hadn’t noticed the huge and ugly vertical scar on her knee? Well, wasn’t that just a much-needed reality check for Cleo? She had to be careful around this man; she had to guard her heart, because while she had started to soften toward him, he hadn’t ever seen her as more than a casual hookup.
“We can start in seiza,” Ms. Inokawa leaned over to whisper conspiratorially, “but after everybody has had a few drinks, no one will notice if we move our legs to the side and sit on our behinds.”
Surprised by the sympathy and camaraderie in the other woman’s voice, Cleo looked up and saw genuine warmth in her eyes. Great. As if the whole situation with Dante wasn’t bad enough, she’d gone and completely misjudged Ms. Inokawa as well.
“I’d like that,” she said with a watery smile. “I have a bad knee. I don’t know how long it’ll hold up if I were to sit like that for too long.”
“Don’t worry,” Ms. Inokawa said with a swift pat on Cleo’s hand. “It won’t be long before the beers start to take effect.”
Cleo giggled when the other woman winked dramatically, and started to think that maybe this entire evening wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal after all.
Fifteen minutes later her knee was screaming in agony, she could no longer feel her lower legs, and yet another man had started yet another long-winded speech. She suppressed a moan and wished there was some discreet way to shift her legs out from beneath her thighs without drawing everybody’s attention to the movement. She was very much aware of the glances Dante was throwing in her direction and fought to keep her face impassive even while she felt like weeping.
Finally, everybody raised their small glasses of beer and held them aloft. The speaker said a few more things before ending with a word Cleo was happily familiar with.
“Kanpai!” He yelled the Japanese version of “Cheers,” and everybody followed suit.
“Kanpai!” There was loud and manly laughter—Cleo and Ms. Inokawa being the only women present—as everybody clinked glasses and started drinking.
“It’s okay for you to move your legs to the side now,” Ms. Inokawa whispered, obviously sensing her distress.
“I don’t think I can move my legs,” Cleo whispered back, while she painfully tried to shift her position without crying out.
“Daijoubu?” the woman asked, and Cleo recognized the question—which she’d heard often over the course of the week—as “Are you okay?” She shrugged miserably.