‘Of course you can have some clothes,’ Cristiano answered smoothly, thankfully distracting her from her fevered imaginings. ‘As a matter of fact, I already ordered them while you were in the shower. You seem to think I am some sort of brute, Laurel, which I confess I find a bit ironic, considering the man you just fled. I hope the contrast between us is more than apparent.’

It was. Oh, it was. Laurel didn’t trust herself to answer so she turned away, walking towards the windows, taking in the incredible view.

She heard Cristiano move and then she felt him come up behind her. Her breath froze in her lungs and her heart felt suspended in her chest. Every nerve was strung tight, every sense on overload. And he wasn’t even touching her.

Then Cristiano laid a hand on her shoulder. Even through the thick terrycloth robe she felt the press of his palm like a brand, a burn, and it took everything she had not to respond—although she didn’t even know how she would. Move closer or further away? Her body would betray her.

‘I should tell you now,’ he said in a soft voice, ‘That I abhor game playing of any kind. Every transaction I’ve had with a woman has been straightforward and intensely pleasurable. So, if you think you can gain something more from me than what I have already offered by playing the coy miss, think again.’

He squeezed her shoulder lightly, a warning, while Laurel’s mind spun. Everything he’d said was offensive, appalling. She didn’t even know how to begin to respond. A transaction? Intensely pleasurable? Coy miss? She nearly choked with affront at it all.

‘What exactly are you offering?’ she finally asked in a shaky voice when she’d managed to kick her mind back into gear and could form at least one coherent sentence. ‘Out of curiosity?’

* * *

At last, a straightforward question. And he would give a straightforward response. Finally they were getting somewhere.

‘My protection,’ Cristiano said as he stepped away from her, deciding he needed a little space to stay cool and level-headed. When he’d been standing behind her he’d inhaled her scent, something light and fresh, a hint of lemon and violets. He’d felt her heat, warm and seductive, and the desire to slip the robe from her shoulders and feel the silky skin underneath had been so strong his palms had itched. His body had ached.

‘Your protection?’ she repeated. He couldn’t quite gauge her tone, veering between tremulous and infuriated.

‘From Bavasso.’

She stayed where she stood, staring out at the darkness, a slight, slender figure swathed in dark blue. ‘Do I really need protection?’

‘For a short time, yes.’

‘And how can you protect me? By keeping me here?’

‘Initially, yes. Bavasso is like a child with a toy when it comes to women. The best way to get him to forget you is for you to be seen to belong to someone else.’ He paused, waiting for that to sink in, then continued, ‘Bavasso enjoys the use of my hotels and casinos. If he discovers that you are with me, he will not pursue you.’ Bavasso was a vicious man, but only with those weaker than him. Cristiano was confident Bavasso would not bother with Laurel once he realised she was off-limits. And he very much intended her to be off-limits…to anyone but him.

‘With you?’ Laurel’s jaw hardened, her mouth set in a line as she continued to stare out into the night. ‘Is that a euphemism?’

‘It is fact.’ Their affair was only a matter of time. Surely she realised that? Surely she felt it in the desire that shimmered and pulsed between them, an energy force neither of them could deny?

‘And so I exchange one man’s unwanted attention for another.’ She spoke flatly and Cristiano prickled with irritation. He did not believe his attention was so unwanted.

‘Again you are comparing me with Bavasso, and I will remind you of the contrast.’

‘Oh, you’re certainly more attractive,’ Laurel said as she turned around, true bitterness spiking her words. ‘I’ll grant you that. Although, Bavasso is good-looking in that “silver fox” kind of way.’ She tossed the words out, but beneath the blaze of anger he felt they’d cost her. ‘And your…seduction would no doubt be far more assured and deft,’ she added. ‘But it still amounts to the same thing.’

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