“This is for the best, Cleo,” he murmured gently, almost regretfully, and she laughed bitterly as she turned away from him.
“I would rather you didn’t talk to me unless it’s work related, sir. I don’t think I could stomach your empty platitudes right now.” She retreated to her own room without a backward glance.
The return journey to Cape Town felt endless. Dante and Cleo barely exchanged a word between Narita airport and Cape Town International. They separated in Dubai for much-needed showers in the first-class lounge, and Cleo picked listlessly at some fruit while waiting for the boarding call of their next flight. She didn’t see Dante at all between disembarking and boarding in Dubai, and she preferred it that way. The privacy of their first-class suites, which had been new and exciting to Cleo on the way to Tokyo, had merely made the flight back to Cape Town tolerable because she didn’t have to see him and could actually manage to squeeze in a few hours of sleep.
The cold, windy, and gray weather of Cape Town suited Cleo’s mood perfectly. She was moody, exhausted, her knee still hurt, and she just wanted to get home. Dante caught up with her after they had both cleared customs and baggage claim, just before they stepped into the arrivals lounge. He grabbed hold of her elbow and turned her toward him.
“The car will take you home first. I’m sure you must be tired.”
“My driver, James, will be picking us up. Remember?”
“I assumed I would have to find my own way home from here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll drop you off first.” He steered her toward the door to the arrivals lounge, and she jerked her arm from his grip before coming to a standstill. The other first- and business-class passengers gave them curious looks as they streamed by.
“There’s no need for that. I’ve made alternative arrangements.”
His jaw tightened. “You didn’t have to do that.”
He looked like he wanted to argue, but after a brief hesitation, he shrugged and strode away from her without another word. She watched him go, hating how conflicted she felt. She should feel relief that their messy little interlude was over and that he was gone, not regret and longing and pain.
She followed him out into the arrivals lounge and saw her best friend almost immediately. Cal—her ex–dance partner—was easy to spot because, aside from Dante, he was one of the tallest men she knew. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the crowd. She saw his tousled blond hair before he saw her five-foot-one frame and black hair, which wasn’t as easy to spot in a crowd of people. When he did finally see her, his handsome face broke into a huge grin, and he waved enthusiastically. Cleo fought her way past the jostling mass of people and flung herself at him. She was just so relieved to see a friendly face that she couldn’t help herself. He lifted her clear off the floor—it had always been so easy for him to pick her up—and hugged her warmly, enfolding her completely in his arms. Cal was the best hugger.
She clung to him, feeling safe and cocooned in his embrace, and her urgency and desperation must have been obvious because his arms tightened.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he muttered. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
She shook her head and kept her nose buried in his neck. She loved the familiar smell of him. He put her down and gently removed her arms from his neck, wanting to see her face.
“What’s happened?” Damn him, he knew her too well. And everything she felt was still too fresh to hide from him.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.” A surreptitious glance around informed her that they’d attracted a bit of attention from passersby, and she knew that Dante was probably close by as well.
“Okay.” Bless him, he was always so understanding. He looked around for her bag—a single medium-size roller suitcase—and raised a dubious brow when he saw it.
“You’re such a miserly little packer. How did you survive a week in Tokyo with just that little bag?” he asked as he grabbed her elbow with one hand and the suitcase handle with the other.
“I didn’t exactly have time to socialize. This was sufficient.”
“I would need a bag that size for hair product alone,” he said dismissively, and she giggled, surprising herself.
“Don’t I know it?”
“Magnificence like this”—he tossed his hair for emphasis—“doesn’t come easily.”
Another giggle. Cal was exactly what she needed right now. She hooked her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder and let his nonsense chatter wash over her like a soothing balm as he led her toward where he’d parked.
Dante watched Cleo leave with that blond behemoth; she was clinging to the man’s arm and staring up at him adoringly as they walked away. So much for thinking he’d hurt her back in Tokyo. He’d had an uncharacteristic flash of conscience when he’d said the things necessary to get her to sign that nondisclosure agreement. It had been dirty and unfair, but it had gotten the job done. Still, Dante wasn’t a complete monster. He felt moved by her tears and even a little guilty in the face of her obvious distress. But to see her now with that guy was like watching an entirely different person, and he was glad he hadn’t been completely taken in by her little-girl-lost act back in Tokyo. He always protected himself: condoms and nondisclosure agreements without exception. No unwanted pregnancies and no unwanted scandals. It kept things clean and uncomplicated, which was exactly the way he preferred his life. Women served a purpose, and until Cleo they had all known exactly what they were getting into with him. He was on shaky legal ground getting her to sign it the way he had, but without it he felt naked and vulnerable. Feelings he would never admit to out loud.