He curled his hands around the railing as he gazed down at the city starting to wake up, lorries and motorbikes filling the narrow, ancient streets. Laurel would wake up soon too, and then what? They needed to have a conversation, something he hadn’t anticipated. He’d expected a simple transaction, and one that was welcome on both sides. That was what he always got, what he demanded. Instead tonight he’d encountered resistance, animosity and doubt—as well as desire. He needed to figure out what was going on, and who Laurel was, before he made his next move.

A sound from the penthouse had him stilling. Over the muted roar of early-morning traffic far below he heard it again, a sound almost like a moan or a cry. Quickly Cristiano strode from the terrace, closing the doors behind him. In the sudden, muted stillness of the penthouse he froze, straining to listen.

There it was again—an anguished moan, coming from Laurel’s room. Was she hurt? In pain? Every protective instinct Cristiano had rose to the fore, propelling him across the living room and down the hall.

He knocked sharply on the bedroom door. ‘Laurel?’

Silence—and then a whimpering cry. Cristiano tried the handle, rattling it uselessly, as he knew the door was locked. ‘Laurel. Answer me. Are you hurt?’

The only response was a shuddering sob. Cristiano didn’t think—he just acted. Backing up a few steps, he rammed the door with his shoulder. It took a few tries, and would create a few bruises, but the lock finally busted and the door sprang open.

With the curtains drawn against the dawn light it took Cristiano’s eyes a few desperate seconds to adjust, and then he saw Laurel lying in bed, the sheets twisted around her slender body, her eyes clenched shut, her face an agonised grimace. She was in the throes of a nightmare.

‘Laurel.’ Cristiano spoke gently now as he crept towards the bed and touched her shoulder. ‘Laurel, you’re dreaming. It’s all right. Wake up.’

Laurel’s body shuddered with the force of emotion he could see on her face, twisting her features as if she were in agony. ‘Don’t…’ she murmured brokenly. ‘Please don’t… I don’t want to…’ Another cry and she pressed her face into the pillow.

It took Cristiano a few shocked seconds to realise, with icy horror, that she was reliving Bavasso’s attack. He felt sick—sickened not just by Bavasso, but by himself. His arrogant self-assurance that Laurel would welcome his attention. Hell, that she’d be grateful.

‘Laurel.’ His voice was soft as he gently touched her shoulder again. ‘Laurel, cara. Please wake up.’ He shook her shoulder, carefully, not wanting to startle or scare her.

And then she did wake up with a sudden gasp, as if she were coming up out of water, as if she’d been drowning. Her face was pale and shocked, her eyes wide and unfocused.

Relief pulsed through him, stronger than anything he’d felt in a long time. ‘Laurel, cara, you’re okay. It was just a dream.’

She blinked a few times, and Cristiano couldn’t tell if she had fully come conscious or was still in the hazy throes of her nightmare.

‘It wasn’t a dream,’ she whispered, and she let out a broken little cry. ‘It was real.’

‘Oh, cara.’ Cristiano reached for her, not even thinking about what he was doing as he hauled Laurel against his chest, moving onto the bed so she could snuggle against him. The feel of Laurel in his arms—her head burrowing into his chest, her body curled into his—felt supremely right, touching him deeply in a place he’d thought didn’t exist. A place he’d excised long ago. ‘It’s okay,’ he whispered. ‘You’re safe here.’ And he knew he meant it.

CHAPTER SIX

THE VESTIGES OF the nightmare clung to her like a grey, snaking mist, obscuring her vision. Obliterating rational thought. Laurel felt Cristiano’s arms close around her and they were warm and strong, encasing her in a way that made her feel safe. Protected. Cherished.

Some small part of her brain whispered for her to resist this new offensive of his but the nightmare was still too strong—the memory of Bavasso’s sneering face, his hands pawing at her—and Cristiano was murmuring to her, his voice steady and low, a humming in her chest. Then he gently shifted her over so he was lying on the bed and she was in his arms, her body close to his, and that felt so very right.

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