‘Both.’

Cristiano sat back in his chair. ‘Stop fighting it, bella,’ he said, his tone turning lazy. ‘It would be far more pleasant for both of us if you did.’

‘Stop fighting it? Or you?’

‘Both.’

They stared at each other, a stand-off, and one that made fireworks fizz in Laurel’s middle. There could be no mistaking the, yes, proprietary gleam in Cristiano’s silvery-grey gaze. And definitely not just about the clothes. But, instead of feeling outraged and objectified as she knew she should, Laurel felt…excited.

Excited to know the heat simmering in those silvery depths was for her. She might be no more than a convenience, the expedient option, but he still wanted her. And, Bavasso’s odious groping aside, Laurel had precious little experience with being wanted.

So why was she fighting it? Her body battled with her brain, with both sense and self-preservation. The look stretched and lengthened between them and Laurel fought to hold onto all the reasons why she should not engage in some temporary, tasteless affair with Cristiano Ferrero.

Because this was his world, not hers, and she was already out of her depth. Because she had enough experience of people who loved and then left you, starting with her own parents—as well as Cristiano’s father, Lorenzo. She didn’t need another reminder. Because she was too innocent, too naïve, and too darn hopeful to survive the kind of arrangement Cristiano was suggesting.

Because he was dangerous, as dangerous as holding a firework in your hand and letting yourself be mesmerised by the fizz and spark. It wouldn’t take long for it to blow up in your face. To ruin your life.

Laurel dragged her gaze away from Cristiano’s simmering, steady one. ‘I want to ask about my mother,’ she said when she trusted her voice to sound normal. Her body was still reacting, little electric pulses going off in the strangest of places. Low in her belly. Between her thighs.

‘Your mother?’ Oh, that mild, enquiring tone. Already she knew to suspect it.

‘Yes. If Rico Bavasso is as unpleasant as you say, then I’m worried for her.’

‘Bella, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that your mother can take of herself.’

Laurel glanced up sharply. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Let’s not pretend when it comes to your mother,’ Cristiano answered. Gone was that mild tone, replaced by something far harder. Something that hinted at the unrelenting steel she knew lurked beneath his smooth urbanity. ‘We both know what she is.’

‘Which is?’ Laurel threw at him. She wasn’t under any illusions about what Cristiano Ferrero or his father thought of her mother, but some perverse, determined streak in her still wanted to hear him say it out loud.

‘She is a craven, amoral, shameless, gold-digging liar,’ Cristiano stated with flat and final authority. Laurel opened her mouth but nothing came out. She hadn’t expected him to state it quite so plainly. So coldly. ‘And,’ he continued, ‘I have no reason not to think you are the same.’

* * *

Cristiano watched the colour drain from Laurel’s face and wished he didn’t feel guilty for speaking so plainly. Aggravatingly, at every step it seemed he had to remind himself to act in the manner to which he’d become accustomed—matter-of-fact to the point of ruthlessness.

Anything else smacked of weakness or want and was completely unacceptable. He would never succumb to either option, as his mother did, or manipulation and lies, as his father did, letting himself get ensnared in a sticky web of a woman’s deceit.

No man was an island, but he was doing his damnedest to try. But Laurel didn’t have to look so wounded. As if he’d sucker-punched her when he’d been stating the obvious.

‘Well.’ Her voice was shaky as she placed her napkin next to her plate of barely touched food. ‘Don’t sugar-coat it.’

‘I see no need to sugar-coat anything,’ Cristiano replied shortly. ‘Surely we are both aware of the facts surrounding our parents’ divorce?’

‘If you mean, did Lorenzo Ferrero cut my mother and me out of his life without so much as a goodbye, then yes, I’m aware.’ A bright spot of colour appeared on each glorious cheekbone, enflaming and annoying him in turns.

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