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A Ruthless Proposition

By:Natasha Anders

CHAPTER ONE

“Freshen up, Miss Knight, and meet me back in the living room in forty-five minutes. We’ll have to work through dinner,” Dante Damaso commanded as he tugged off his tie with one hand and poured himself a brandy with the other.

Cleopatra Pandora Knight stared at her boss with a simmering resentment that she hid behind a mask of impassivity. She was exhausted. They had landed at Narita airport that afternoon and had hit the ground running, with one meeting after the next, as they attempted to deal with the bureaucratic red tape that had delayed the start of construction on Dante’s new hotel. All she wanted was a hot shower and a good night’s sleep since she knew that she had to face more of the same frenetic pace tomorrow.

Sadly, that was not to be; the boss wasn’t done working, and that meant no sleep for Cleo until he said so.

“Yes, Mr. Damaso,” she said demurely, keeping her voice low and emotionless. He didn’t acknowledge her response, picking up a newspaper and perusing the headlines with the intense focus he gave whatever activity he happened to be engaged in at any given moment. Recognizing the dismissal, Cleo turned and headed for her room.

When Cleo realized that she would be sharing the penthouse suite of one of the most exclusive hotels in Tokyo with her boss, she had a moment of panic. Until she’d seen the suite. Her entire apartment back in Cape Town could fit into this place several times over. It had three huge bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a living room. Nothing but the best for Dante Damaso. Until his hotel was built, he would stay in what would soon be the second best hotel in Tokyo.

Cleo rolled her head on her shoulders and listened to her neck creak with the movement. God, she felt like she could sleep for a week, whereas the boss barely looked winded. It was a little infuriating how indefatigable he was, especially since it impacted Cleo directly. She sighed and allowed herself a moment of self-pity before rummaging through her suitcase for a change of clothing, and padding to the bathroom.




She was back in the living room exactly forty minutes later, dressed in a modest blue slip dress in which she felt a lot more comfortable than the suits she was required to wear for this job. Her short bob was still damp from the shower, and she hadn’t bothered with makeup. She hoped that the boss wouldn’t mind her lack of formality and was relieved to note that he’d removed his tie, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his white shirt, and folded back his shirtsleeves to reveal extremely masculine forearms. Her favorite kind—strong, lightly dusted with hair, with raised veins mapping a path to his capable-looking hands.

He looked up and grunted when she entered the room.

“Good, you’re back. We have to go through today’s minutes and compile a list of the most pertinent facts. Then take care of the day’s correspondence. You get started on that; I have to make a few phone calls.”

He turned away from her and lifted his phone to his ear. Cleo stared at his broad back for a moment before trudging over to the laptop with a muffled sigh. She wondered if he’d ordered room service yet; she was starving. She glanced around the room and gasped in outrage when she saw the room-service cart standing off to the side of the room, with the uncovered empty plates precariously stacked one on top of the other. Another quick look around the room told her that there was definitely no other food around. Had he actually forgotten to order something for her? Was the man wholly incapable of thinking of anybody but himself? She picked up the room telephone to order her own meal, but he had finished his call and cast her a sharp look.

“Stop wasting time, Knight,” he growled, tapping away at the screen of his phone. “We have a lot of work to do. I didn’t bring you along to sit around looking pretty and doing nothing.”

The injustice of that statement left her fuming, and she bit back a sarcastic retort, knowing that she had no alternative but to swallow down the anger she felt toward him. Cleo knew that—due to the last-minute nature of this trip—she’d been his only choice as assistant. And since the man had avoided testing her full potential in the office up until now, he didn’t trust her to get anything done competently. Still, Cleo had jumped at the opportunity to join him. The heady excitement of a trip to Japan combined with the desire to prove herself capable of doing this job to both Dante Damaso and to herself had proved hard to resist. Yet now, feeling completely overwhelmed, all she wanted was to run back home with her tail between her legs.

All because her boss was doing his level best to be an ass.

Don’t respond! Don’t respond! She repeated the two words over and over to herself. No mouthing off at the boss, no matter how much he deserved it.




An hour and a half later, after they had powered their way through a series of e-mails and memos and had pored over her notes from the day’s many meetings, Cleo was starting to feel cross-eyed from staring at the computer screen too long. Her brain was scrambled, and she was practically drooping with exhaustion. Even though she hadn’t eaten since the flight—a decade ago—she was too damned tired even to think about her stomach.

Dante Damaso peered at her when she stopped tapping at the keys and frowned over the top of his black-rimmed glasses.

“Let’s take a five-minute break,” he suggested, and Cleo almost melted into a puddle of gratitude. She stretched lavishly and enjoyed a jaw-popping yawn at the same time. A quick look at her boss told her that while he had suggested a break, he wasn’t taking one himself—his head was once more bent over zoning ordinances and blueprints. The man really was tireless, a trait that she found both admirable and frustrating at the moment. She supposed years of international travel and frantic work schedules had inured him somewhat to the effects of a forty-eight-hour-long day, one that had started on a completely different continent.

She padded over to the huge floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked Tokyo in all its sparkling glory. She had never seen anything remotely close to this spectacular view. The city was vast, and its lights sprawled as far as the eye could see. Despite being forty floors removed from the heaving excitement of the city, Cleo could feel it calling to her like a seductive siren.

She turned away from the allure and found herself inadvertently appreciating a spectacular view of a different kind. Big, sexy Dante Damaso as she had never seen him before, ruffled, stubbled, and completely disheveled. The look suited him and gave him an edge that the normally smooth, urbane man kept hidden beneath layers of intimidating sophistication and flawless tailoring. It was an image of the man she really preferred not to have in her head, because it made him seem a lot more human—more approachable—than he usually was.

He looked up and happened to catch her eye, and even from across the room, she could see something spark and smolder in his gaze. It was gone in a flash, and she wondered if her tired brain had tricked her into seeing things. She wandered over to the exquisite coffee table where she had left her cell phone to charge and checked her messages. A couple from her brother, Luc, and her best friend, Cal, and one informing her that she could very well have won five hundred grand already! Fantastic. She allowed herself a moment of pure whimsy—with her “winnings” there’d be no further need to spend her mornings making coffee, watering Dante Damaso’s precious ficus, or sending the polite equivalent of “Thanks for the sex. Let’s never see each other again” notes with flowers to her boss’s random lady friends. In the nearly four months that she’d been working for him, she’d already sent five notes accompanying equally polite, pretty floral tributes. It was sickening.

Her nose wrinkled at the thought, and she jumped guiltily when the object of her thoughts called her name curtly.

“Yes, sir?”

“Ready to get back to work?”

Not really.

“Of course, sir,” she said, proud that she managed to keep her voice relatively emotionless.

She sat down at the antique secretary that she had claimed as her workstation and tried to hide her wince when her butt and back hit the hard, unforgiving surface of the ornate high-back chair. She rolled her shoulders and sighed quietly as she closed her eyes and kneaded the tightly knotted muscles in the back of her neck.

“Tired?”

She jumped when Damaso’s voice came from behind her, and she looked up over her shoulder to meet his dark, enigmatic gaze. He’d come up to within half a yard of the back of her chair and had his hands shoved into his trouser pockets. He was staring down at her, his eyes narrowed and intent.

“A little,” she admitted.

He nodded, never taking his eyes off hers, and seemed to weigh his next words before speaking.

“Would you like a neck rub?”

Cleo blinked, shocked by both the question and the heat that flared in his eyes. She knew very well what that neck rub would entail, where it would lead, and he meant for her to know that. Until that very moment, she would never have guessed that the man had even noticed her as a female, yet the way he was looking at her right now told her that he very much appreciated what he was seeing. He kept his hands to himself and his expression—despite everything going on in his eyes—impassive. If she refused his offer and all it entailed, she imagined he would simply shrug it off, and they would carry on as if this crazy moment had never happened.

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