She suppressed a shudder as she recalled Bavasso’s hands on her, reaching, grabbing. ‘I believe you,’ she said. ‘But I still don’t appreciate feeling like a prisoner.’

‘For your own safety, as well as my own, I must take precautions. I’m sure you understand.’

He was so smooth, so aggravatingly assured, that Laurel felt her protests falling away, unspoken. Cristiano had locked the doors, yet here she was, the one who felt as though she was being unreasonable.

‘And if I insist on leaving?’ she asked. ‘What then?’

Cristiano shook his head slowly, his expression one of patently mock regret. ‘But you see, I could not live with putting a woman into potential danger on my conscience. Especially one I was once, however happenstance, related to.’

‘We were never related.’

He inclined his head in a regal nod. ‘It is as you say, of course. Stepsiblings hardly count as blood relations.’

‘And surely you exaggerate?’ Laurel persisted. She had to believe that. ‘Rico Bavasso isn’t that dangerous.’ When she’d first met him, he’d seemed charming, just as Cristiano had said: silver-haired, hazel-eyed, all smooth urbanity. Admittedly something about his assured manner had made Laurel uneasy, but her mother had seemed happy, and Laurel had just wanted her money. Shame licked through her again at the thought.

Cristiano dropped his expression of fake regret as his gaze turned startlingly serious. ‘Do you really want to take such a risk?’

Wordlessly Laurel shook her head. Bavasso had been so angry. She had no desire to run into him again, especially not any time soon.

‘How well do you know him?’ Cristiano asked. His voice was mild, even friendly, but with a ripple of darkness underneath that nearly made Laurel gulp again.

‘I don’t know him,’ she said quickly. ‘That is, not very well at all.’ She didn’t really want to go into the how and why of her acquaintance with Rico Bavasso, yet it seemed Cristiano had already assumed the absolute worst.

Which wasn’t all that far from the truth, unfortunately—yet it felt different. It was different, at least to her. She hadn’t thought Bavasso had been interested in her.

‘You seemed as if you knew him quite well while you were on his lap, whispering in his ear,’ Cristiano said in that same awful, mild tone.

‘I wasn’t on his lap,’ she snapped.

‘Close enough.’

Laurel shook her head. ‘It wasn’t what it looked like.’

‘Funny, I think it was exactly what it looked like.’

‘You would.’ Clearly Cristiano was going to think the worst of her. And Laurel knew it had looked bad. How could she explain that she had never meant to lead Bavasso astray; that when he’d started cosying up to her she’d frozen inside, appalled and uncertain? And, with her mother smiling and nodding the whole while, she’d assumed it was all in her head, that she was being paranoid and oversensitive. If only.

‘I believe you, as a matter of interest,’ Cristiano drawled. ‘I don’t think you know him well. If you had, you would not have tangled with him so precipitously.’

‘No, I wouldn’t have,’ Laurel agreed. Had her mother known what Bavasso was capable of? Had she been in on it? Had she realised that, if Laurel had known what Bavasso really wanted, she never would have agreed to set foot in all of Italy, much less a casino in Rome? Cristiano’s casino. ‘Can I have some clothes, please?’ Her voice sounded high and thin, as if she was scared.

And she was scared—of everything, at the moment. Scared of a future she couldn’t even begin to fathom, a freedom she longed to grasp but which felt further away than ever. But she wasn’t, Laurel realised, actually scared of Cristiano. Despite his determination, his desire, she believed him. She had to believe him, believe that he wouldn’t threaten or force her to do something she didn’t want to do.

But the trouble was, he wouldn’t be forcing her. Already she felt a dark, honeyed ribbon of longing wind its way through her, melting her resistance. Already she was imagining the feel of his lips on hers. Already she was anticipating the delicious, icy burn of his touch. His caress.

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