‘You almost sound as if you were the one who was betrayed.’
‘I was.’ Laurel pressed her lips together, as if she’d revealed too much with that statement. She looked away, blinking hard. ‘But clearly you don’t think I have any right to that feeling. Clearly you think, even without knowing me at all, that I am one step up from a prostitute.’
For a second Cristiano paused. He could see Laurel was battling intense emotion, and he didn’t think she was faking it. ‘I accept that you were young at the time of our parents’ divorce,’ he said after a moment. ‘You might not have been aware of your mother’s actions.’
‘And yet you said you judged me as you judged her,’ Laurel returned. Her lips were white, her eyes huge, the only colour in her face those two bright spots.
‘I said I had no reason to think you were different. Prove me wrong if you can.’
‘Why should I bother?’ she flung back at him. ‘You’re…you’re disgusting.’ She rose from the table, her body taut and trembling. ‘You disgust me. You act so superior, as if you’re standing above everyone, judging their actions when you have no clue, no concept, of what our lives are really like. And meanwhile your actions are just as reprehensible as my mother’s, or even those of Rico Bavasso.’
‘Don’t compare me to that man,’ Cristiano warned in a low voice.
‘Why shouldn’t I? You trapped me here—’
‘I rescued you.’
‘You propositioned me and still you refuse to let me go. At least I managed to escape Bavasso’s clutches.’ She shook her head, her lip curling in genuine disgust. She was repulsed by him. The realisation was shocking and deeply, deeply unsettling. For the first time Cristiano didn’t wonder what game she was playing, but whether she was playing one at all. And right now he didn’t think she was. He’d been trying to get her to be honest, and it seemed he’d succeeded in that goal. It just hadn’t turned out at all as he’d expected.
‘Your mother doesn’t matter to me,’ he said swiftly. ‘We never should have talked about her in the first place. She is not relevant to our discussions.’
‘We talked about her because I’m worried for her safety, no matter what you think of her or her actions of ten years ago. Can you please see that she is all right? Regardless of what you think of her, surely you have that much honour?’
Elizabeth Forrester had always struck Cristiano as the kind of woman who knew exactly on which side her bread was buttered, but for Laurel’s sake he nodded tersely. ‘Very well.’
A truce, then, of sorts. Laurel glanced down at her plate and then, her chin tilted at a haughty, proud angle, she sat down and started to eat again. It seemed Laurel Forrester knew on which side her bread was buttered as well.
‘How did you feel betrayed by my father?’ Cristiano asked abruptly. The remark had niggled at him.
Laurel looked up warily. ‘Because one minute we were all playing happy families, and the next my mother and I were on the plane back to Illinois, and I never even saw him again. Not so much as a text.’
‘And your mother had two million euros in her private bank account,’ Cristiano reminded her flatly.
‘Two million euros that your father got back,’ Laurel retorted. ‘Thanks to his water-tight pre-nup agreement. She didn’t see a penny of it.’
‘That makes it better, then? Just because she was caught?’
Laurel had the grace to look away. ‘Caught doing what, exactly?’ she hedged. Did she think he didn’t know?
‘Caught stealing from my father,’ he snapped, annoyed that she was practically defending her mother’s indefensible actions. ‘Taking his money and squirreling it away.’
‘Is it stealing, when they were married?’ Laurel asked quietly. ‘She took money from a joint bank account. Technically it was hers too.’
‘Technically,’ Cristiano agreed, the word bitten off and spit out. ‘Fortunately the law did not consider it a technicality.’
‘Still,’ Laurel persisted. ‘What’s yours is mine and vice versa, isn’t that right? Or do you not believe in marriage vows?’