‘It does not.’ His whole body was twanging with both indignation and awareness. How dared she compare him to sly, sleek Bavasso? And how could he want her now, more than ever, when she was verbally repelling him as best she could?

Laurel lifted her chin, her eyes flashing blue-green fire. ‘Tell me how it doesn’t, then.’

Cristiano stared at her for a long moment, his jaw clenched, fists too. He felt angry, aware and wanting. ‘I told you before, I do not threaten. I certainly do not force. Trust me on that, Laurel.’

‘Why should I trust you on anything?’ she challenged. ‘And, in any case, there are different kinds of coercion.’ She looked away, a flush staining her cheeks, her teeth sinking provocatively into her full lower lip. Realisation dawned and bloomed inside him, making him smile. She wasn’t afraid of him forcing her. She was afraid she wouldn’t need to be forced.

‘Coercion?’ he asked softly. ‘Or seduction?’

She drew a shuddering breath, lifting her chin and tossing her hair back, forcing herself to meet his knowing gaze. Because he did know—he knew that she wanted him, just as he wanted her. Why she was fighting the attraction, however, remained a mystery. Was she holding out for more? ‘What else do you offer?’ she asked. ‘Besides protection?’

‘Pleasure.’ He watched her eyes flare, but to her credit she held his gaze. ‘Of that you can be certain.’

‘You are appallingly arrogant.’

‘Merely sure.’

She shook her head slowly. ‘And how long would this…arrangement between us last?’

‘As long as I want it to.’ He felt the first flickers of triumph, mingled with a strange and unsettling disappointment. After all her maidenly outrage, Laurel was acting exactly as he’d expected her to, needed her to…and he found he didn’t quite like it.

‘And how long would that be, do you think?’ she asked. Her eyes flashed and her lips trembled, fury and fear mingled together. ‘Judging from what I’ve read in the tabloids, your mistresses don’t last more than a week. And we are talking about me becoming your mistress, aren’t we? That’s the position I’m being interviewed for, isn’t it?’

‘Call it what you like.’ He’d had straightforward discussions with previous mistresses, but for some reason they hadn’t felt quite like this: so cold and mercenary. Although, mercenary was exactly how he’d always wanted to be, especially when it came to women. Any softer emotion, never mind actual love, was for fools. Fools like his father, who had been both fleeced and heartbroken by grasping women like Laurel’s mother and the wife before her. As for his own mother…

‘So for how long?’ she asked, a catch in her voice. ‘Roughly?’

Cristiano’s eyes narrowed. ‘For as long as it takes for Bavasso to be satisfied that you’re off-limits.’ And as long as he still wanted her.

‘It’s my safety you’re thinking of, is it?’

Now he was getting seriously irritated. ‘Among other things.’

‘How kind of you,’ she drawled, and he could not mistake her sarcasm. He watched her walk across the room, the sash of his robe trailing the ground, her long, wavy hair cascading over her shoulders. She looked like a young, hesitant queen and, in spite of everything, or perhaps because of it, for a moment he admired her.

‘Your safety is important to me,’ he said, ‘whether you believe it or not.’

‘Why should it be? I doubt you even thought of me once in the last ten years.’

‘Then you thought wrong.’

She stilled at his tone, which was quieter and more sincere than he’d meant it to be. ‘Any thoughts you’ve had of me can’t have been good ones,’ she said, her tone as quiet as his, and equally sincere. ‘Can they?’

‘Some were…interesting.’

‘Interesting?’ She turned around to face him. ‘I thought you might despise me, Cristiano.’

‘Despise is a strong word.’

‘Your father despises my mother.’

‘I am not my father and you are not your mother.’

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