‘No.’ She drew a quick breath. ‘But you’ve judged me just as you’ve judged her. Tarred us both with the same brush.’
‘And I have had obvious reason to do so. Are you telling me differently?’
She looked away. ‘You wouldn’t listen.’
Cristiano could not imagine any scenario that could excuse or explain her behaviour with Bavasso on the casino floor. ‘I’d listen,’ he said mildly, ‘but whether I believed you or not is another matter. In any case, why do you care what I think of you? Emotions have no place here, bella. This is about something else entirely. Something basic and very, very pleasurable.’ He started walking towards her slowly, and she stilled, trapped, mesmerised by his lazy yet purposeful words. Perhaps now it was time to show her just how pleasurable it all could be.
‘You paint such an appealing picture,’ Laurel said huskily. She didn’t move. ‘No emotions, no concern for feelings, just sex. For maybe a week.’
‘Sounds perfect to me.’ He kept walking until he was standing right in front of her. She hadn’t budged, and he knew he had her. ‘Stop playing your games,’ he whispered as he reached for the sash of her robe—his robe—and tugged her towards him. She came, reluctantly, perhaps, but her pointless act of protest was already being revealed as the masquerade he’d known it was. Her hips nudged his and heat flared bright and white-hot inside him. He sucked in a hard breath and tugged again at the sash. Her eyes widened as she felt the evidence of his arousal.
He touched her chin with one fingertip, tilting her face to his. ‘This can really be very simple.’
‘And to you. Why not?’ He stroked her cheek and she closed her eyes. A shudder went through her. ‘See how you respond to me?’ he murmured. ‘And I haven’t even kissed you yet.’ He stroked her cheek again, enjoying the silky feel of her skin, the tremor that went through her whole body. ‘We are going to be very, very good together, bella. I feel it. I know it.’
She let out a shuddering gasp and then opened her eyes, wrenching herself away from him as if she had to break steel bonds to be free. Her eyes shot blue-green sparks at him as she clutched the gaping robe together with one hand.
‘What I know, Cristiano, is that you’re an arrogant, manipulative bastard and I have no intention of making any sort of deal with you, now or ever. So why don’t you practise your so-called charms on some other woman who wants them?’ With another gasp that sounded halfway to a sob, she turned from the room and ran down the hall, slamming the bedroom door behind him and then turning the lock with an audible click.
LAUREL FELT AS if she needed another shower. She paced Cristiano’s bedroom, her heart racing, her whole body tingling despite the storm of indignation raging through her. No matter what big words she’d just thrown at him, she’d been tempted—seriously tempted—and for one glorious second she’d been sure he was going to kiss her, had imagined the sensuous slide of his lips along hers…
What was happening to her? How had she fallen down this rabbit hole of manipulation, sex and greed? She lived a quiet life in a small town in Illinois, working as a nurse, possessing a handful of casual friends, and no boyfriends, ever. For a second she pictured her grandfather’s farmhouse—its floorboards of weathered, honeyed oak, the view of rolling fields from the kitchen window, the friendly glimmer of the pond in the distance. She ached to go home, for things to feel familiar and safe again. Boring, even. She didn’t want this. She didn’t want any of this—not her mother, not Bavasso, not Cristiano.
She silenced that taunting inner voice by sheer strength of will and tried to think practically about what she should do now, since she seemed intent on burning her bridges both left and right.
She couldn’t leave Cristiano’s penthouse, not yet anyway. She took his warning about Bavasso seriously…just as she took his offer of no-strings sex seriously.
Why wouldn’t you become the man’s mistress?
Frustration bubbled inside her and she paced the room, feeling both frantic and caged. She wouldn’t become the man’s mistress because she had more self-respect than that. More pride. And more of an instinct of self-preservation. Sex with Cristiano would burn her up, leaving nothing but cinders. She felt that in her very bones, knew it from the way she’d reacted to his hand on her shoulder, the merest brush of his hips against hers…