She scrambled to her feet, pulling on the hem of the short sparkly dress of silver satin that had also been her mother’s choice. Bavasso wants to see a lovely young woman in her prime, not some dowdy wallflower. He’s a discriminating man, Laurel. Now she was afraid she understood all that had meant.

Laurel knew she couldn’t stay in the lift; the doors would close and then the lift would start heading down again, back to Bavasso or his goons, somewhere she definitely didn’t want to be. Cautiously Laurel took a step out, onto a floor of polished black marble. Floor-to-ceiling windows were visible in every direction, giving a panoramic view of the Eternal City, lights shimmering in the darkness.

Modern-looking sofas of black leather and gleaming chrome were scattered around, the soaring space lit only by a few minimalistic table lamps, so it took Laurel a stunned second to realise there was someone in the room with her.

A man stood at its centre dressed in black trousers and a charcoal-grey shirt that was open at the throat. His hair was black and cropped close to his head, his eyes a piercing grey, the same colour as his shirt. His arms were folded, emphasising impressive biceps, and everything about him radiated power. Control. Danger.

Laurel’s breath hitched and she froze where she stood, dawning realisation, relief and fear colliding inside her with an almighty crash. Could it be…?

Then he spoke, a voice like molten silver, pitched low. His tone was both authoritative and sensual, winding around her shattered senses, pulling them tight.

‘Hello, Laurel.’

She gave a little gasp of surprise even though she’d known, deep inside, that it was him. That it had to be him. The awareness she felt of him didn’t make sense, considering they were near strangers, yet she wasn’t surprised by it at all.

‘Cristiano.’ She let out a little laugh of relief; the adrenalin still coursing through her body made her feel shaky and weak. Or maybe he was making her feel shaky and weak, standing there like a rock-solid pillar, arms still folded, face expressionless in the dim light. ‘Thank God.’

He arched one dark slash of an eyebrow, his gaze travelling to her tiny, torn dress. ‘Things get a little out of hand?’

Laurel glanced down at her dress, an embarrassed flush sweeping over her along with all the other overwhelming emotions. The dress was practically indecent, a spangled slip that revealed far too much thigh and cleavage. One of the straps had torn from the bodice, so the dress gaped even more. She wasn’t even wearing a bra, only a tiny scrap of a thong. And, from the hard look in her stepbrother’s eyes, Laurel suspected he knew it—and wasn’t impressed.

She took a deep breath, trying to gather her scattered wits. Her head was spinning from everything that had happened, and her legs still felt weak. She longed to sit down, to breathe, to figure out how she’d got here and what on earth she was going to do next. ‘I didn’t even know you were here.’

‘Didn’t you?’

‘No, of course not…’ Laurel frowned, belatedly registering Cristiano’s cool tone, the look of mocking censure in his iron gaze. And then she remembered the last time she’d seen him, ten years ago, when she’d been a silly fourteen-year-old to his manly twenty-three, and when she’d practically thrown herself at him as part of a stupid teenaged dare.

‘I don’t even know where I am,’ she said, trying to smile, but her lips didn’t seem to be working properly. They just wobbled.

‘You’re in the penthouse suite of La Sirena. My private home.’

‘Oh.’ So she’d pushed that button? But how had she been granted access? ‘Well, I’m glad the doors opened up here. Very glad.’

‘I’m sure you are.’ There was a note of sardonic amusement in his voice that Laurel felt too scatter-brained to understand at the moment. It sounded as if he was referencing something she was meant to know about and didn’t. Unless he was referring to her stupid schoolgirl crush all those years ago. Laurel doubted that. She doubted her one clumsy attempt at a kiss—he’d pushed her firmly away before she’d so much as made contact—had stayed in Cristiano’s memory for more than a millisecond. He’d been that unimpressed.

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