Elizabeth’s mouth had tightened. She hated any hint of her deficiencies as a mother. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t provide you with a more stable upbringing,’ she said stiffly. ‘If your father—’

‘I didn’t mean it like that.’

Elizabeth had turned to look at her directly. ‘So will you come to Rome, to meet Rico? It should only take a few days.’

‘Rome?’ Laurel had boggled at the suggestion. ‘Why would I go there? I mean…can’t he come here? And why does he have to meet me?’

‘Family is important to him. And I need this to work, Laurel.’ The desperate look in her mother’s eyes had intensified. ‘If you do this, I’ll give you the only thing you’ve ever wanted, I promise.’ She’d glanced around the worn living room. ‘All I’m asking is for you to show Rico that we’re a family, that you’re pleased to have him in your life. Is that so much to ask?’

* * *

Cristiano stretched out on the bed, as far from sleep as he could possibly be, his body still pulsing with the aftershocks of kissing Laurel. Her skin had felt like the supplest silk under his hands. He shifted, trying to suppress the ache in his groin, the flicker of regret whispering through him on dark wings.

He hadn’t heard a sound from the bedroom across the hall, not so much as a creak of a floorboard. He hoped Laurel was asleep. She had to be exhausted, after everything she’d endured tonight.

Including him.

Guilt, Cristiano reflected, was a very inconvenient emotion. It was one he wasn’t used to feeling. He’d always prided himself on his plain speaking, his honesty. He never pretended to care. The women he chose to be with knew what he was willing to give, and all that he wasn’t, up front. That, in his view, was something admirable. Honourable.

So why did he feel as if his actions tonight hadn’t been? As if he’d used Laurel, just as Bavasso had used her? She’d responded to his touch, heaven knew. He’d felt it. He’d certainly felt it in himself, a raging fire he’d struggled to control, the strength of which had alarmed him—because, when he’d taken Laurel in his arms, it had been to prove something to her as well as to himself. Yet he’d had to use all his self-control, all of his deeply ingrained self-discipline, to keep from giving in to the tidal roar of need inside him and drowning in her kiss.

And when Laurel had jerked out of his arms she’d looked…horrified. And hurt. As if he’d damaged her in a way he didn’t like to think about.

Restless now, Cristiano rose from his bed and pulled on a T-shirt and drawstring pyjama bottoms. Pale pink morning light seeped along the horizon as the sky lightened to a luminescent grey. He wouldn’t sleep. And, he decided as he grabbed his laptop and strode out to the living room, he needed to know more about Laurel Forrester.

Cristiano made himself a mug of strong coffee and then stretched out on one of the sofas, his computer on his lap. He typed her name into the search engine and waited for the results.

He scrolled through pages obviously about other people—a physics professor in Colorado, a housewife in South Carolina—before finally hitting on one that snagged his interest, simply because it was from Illinois. Laurel Forrester, on the page of the website for a hospital in Canton Heights. He frowned, not quite believing this could be his Laurel—because Laurel, whether she acknowledged it or not, was most definitely his. For now, at least.

He clicked and scrolled down the staff directory until he found Laurel Forrester, RN. She was a nurse? That so didn’t fit the profile of the woman he’d seen totter into La Sirena only a few short hours ago on the arm of one of Rome’s shadiest businessmen. Surely that wasn’t her?

Cristiano raked a hand through his close-cropped hair, fingernails grazing his skull. He went back to the search results and scrolled through several pages. Then he clicked on images, but not a single one came up that looked like Laurel. Her Internet footprint was light indeed, unlike her mother’s.

Just to prove a point to himself, Cristiano typed Elizabeth Forrester’s name into the search engine. It didn’t take long to find dozens of photos of his former stepmother, usually on the arm of some Z-lister, always looking a little defiant, as if she was daring her audience to ask if she was happy.

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