“I’ll probably be okay once I get the feeling back in my legs. They’ve fallen asleep.” Although her knee was a different matter entirely, she wasn’t sure if she’d done some damage to it, but it definitely didn’t feel all right. She tried to placate the woman with a smile and picked up the bottle of beer placed in front of her and held it up to Ms. Inokawa. “May I?”

It was traditional to pour for the people seated closest to you and considered poor form to allow your neighbor’s glass to run dry. The guy on her right, whom she didn’t know at all, was holding a bottle up and smiling expectantly, and even though she pretty much hated beer, she managed a smile and a nod while he added the drop of beer that would be needed to fill the glass to the brim again. If she didn’t stay alert, she would probably wind up extremely drunk, because it was almost impossible to monitor one’s alcohol intake in a situation like this.


Things got rowdy quite quickly, and it was a little shocking to watch the previously somber Japanese businessmen get wasted and exceptionally loud and cheerful in pretty short order. Nobody remained seated—pouring etiquette went out the window—and soon people were crawling about on the floor from one person to the next, chatting and topping up each other’s beers. She noticed that quite a few of the men had immediately moved toward Dante and were all vying to pour his drinks. He took the time to chat amicably with each and every man, looking sober as a judge but cultivating a jovial manner that Cleo didn’t believe for a second was genuine.

A few of the younger men made a point of talking with her, some in great English, others a little less fluently. Cleo forced aside her pain, kept smiling, and delighted the men when she butchered a few of the standard Japanese phrases she’d learned over the course of the week. They were ridiculously flattering of her bad Japanese, and remembering Daisuke’s reaction in the car earlier, she modestly waved off their compliments.

She turned to say something to Ms. Inokawa, but the woman was gone. Cleo cast her gaze toward Dante, expecting to see the woman fawning over him, but she wasn’t there. Dante, however, met and held her eyes for a few long moments. His face was completely inscrutable, almost grim. Cleo frowned and wondered if he was pissed off with her yet again. She was the first to break eye contact, still looking for Ms. Inokawa, and she was surprised to see the other woman blatantly flirting with Craig Templeton, the contractor for the hotel build. The handsome older man was smiling and flirting back.

Well, that was new.

Cleo turned her gaze back to Dante to see if Ms. Inokawa’s shift in romantic attentions bothered him, but he was still watching Cleo intently. His complete focus was starting to make her a little hot under the collar, and she shifted restlessly. Unfortunately, the inadvertent movement caused a shaft of pain to shoot through her knee, and she flinched. Dante’s entire body went still, and his head tilted slightly to the left as he watched her quizzically. In that moment he reminded her of a wild animal on the scent trail of something small and wounded, and Cleo desperately tried to throw him off that trail with a casual grin and a careless wiggle of her fingers. As expected, the frivolous and flirtatious wave did the trick, and he gave her a frown before returning his attention to one of the many sycophants huddling around him. Cleo heaved a relieved sigh and gave her knee a surreptitious little massage before focusing on one of the earnest young men trying to have a conversation with her.

It was going to be a long night.

At around two the following morning, Cleo was more than ready to call it quits. The merry group had dragged Cleo and Dante from one night spot to another and was now insisting on karaoke.

“I have to get back to the hotel,” she whispered to Dante, who didn’t look as drunk as the rest of their loud group. In fact, he looked much too sober for a man who’d been drinking all night, and she wondered about that for a few moments before he distracted her with a glare.

“You have to do no such thing,” he snapped, keeping his voice low. By now her knee was radiating almost constant pain, and all Cleo wanted was a hot bath, pain medication, and a long, long sleep.

-- Advertisement --

“You don’t need me here. This isn’t part of my job description, and you can’t force me to stay.”

“One of your unofficial duties is to accompany me to business lunches and dinners.”

“Unofficial as in not contracted,” she pointed out, and he rubbed the nape of his neck before switching tactics.

“Okay, then, what about coming along in a personal capacity, as my . . .” He struggled to find a definition, and she raised a brow and folded her arms across her chest.

“Girlfriend?” she supplied, and he blanched.

“God, no.”

“Mistress?” If possible, he went even paler.

“Absolutely not.” He hesitated a few moments longer before shrugging and continuing, “As my friend.”

“We’re friends?”

“Of a sort.”

“Well, be a pal and let me go to bed. I’m tired and in pain.” Okay, she hadn’t meant to reveal that last bit; it just slipped out. His eyes narrowed.

“In pain?”

“Yeah. My knee hurts,” she confessed.

“This is why you have been limping since we left the first restaurant?” He had noticed that? She had tried very hard to disguise the slight limp.

“Damaso-san,” one of the other men called from a few meters away, “you are coming?”

“Chotto matte,” Dante snapped back. “Give me a moment!”

-- Advertisement --