Laurel nestled against him and closed her eyes, not wanting to move. Definitely not wanting to think. The nightmare was still there, lurking, like the monster under the bed, the skeleton in the cupboard. She shuddered and Cristiano’s arms tightened around her.

‘It’s okay,’ he whispered. ‘You’re safe here.’

Even in the grip of her nightmare she knew she shouldn’t believe him. She shouldn’t trust him. And yet she did, because right now she needed someone to trust. Someone to hold her and tell her she was safe. So she burrowed deeper into the strong wall of Cristiano’s chest, closing her eyes and her heart to the memory of his cold, flat statements; to that awful, clinical look on his face in the mirror as he’d touched her body.

Cristiano stroked her back, her hair, whispering soothing words in Italian. It sounded like water rippling over stones, like music. She closed her eyes and tried to make the monster retreat. But Bavasso was still there, lingering on the edges of her mind. It had all happened so quickly.

After his assurances that they would all go upstairs for champagne, that this was a family celebration, it had turned into something else in the space of a second. The door to the hotel suite had closed behind her and, before Laurel had so much as been able to blink, he’d been grabbing her, his mouth on hers, his hands on her body. She’d frozen, unable to process what was happening; then, when she’d felt Bavasso squeeze her breast, she’d started to fight, kicking and screaming, nails contacting with flesh. Bavasso had let out an agonised roar, and that had only spurred her on. It had been make or break. Life or death. Eventually she’d made it out through the door, with his hot breath on her neck, his curses renting the air.

‘Laurel. Laurel.’ Cristiano’s hands cradled her face and Laurel realised she was weeping, silent tears streaking down her face. She tilted her face up to his as he gently wiped her tears away with his thumbs. It was a gesture so tender and intimate, it made everything in her yearn.

No one had ever touched her like this, yet this was Cristiano, a man who had shown her very little understanding or compassion. A man who seemed to think she was little better than a whore. A man whose caress made her feel as if he were touching her with sweet fire, warming and burning her all at once. And suddenly she wanted to be burned.

The distant part in her brain that had been reminding her how stupid this all was, how dangerous, fell silent. Her lips parted. Cristiano’s compassionate gaze stilled, fastening on her mouth. The whole room seemed to shimmer.

‘Laurel…’

She liked the way he said her name. She liked it far better than bella. When he said her name, she felt he knew her. She felt known, and that felt wonderful. Her body arched, just a little, towards his. It was enough.

Cristiano let out a tiny sigh and then he lowered his head, his hands still cradling her face, and brushed his lips against hers. This kiss was entirely different from the calculated and passionate assault in the hallway. This was a balm, a gift—one she accepted, her lips parting under his, her hands coming up to clutch handfuls of his T-shirt. Cristiano’s breath came out in a shudder and the kiss deepened, turning both hungry and yet still so achingly sweet. She wanted to be kissed like this for ever—and yet already she wanted more.

Cristiano’s breathing was harsh and ragged as he shifted on the bed, pulling her closer to him so their legs twined together and their hips nudged, the press of his arousal against her stomach electrifying. Pulses of desire were zinging through her, short-circuiting her thoughts. Gone were reservations, regrets, resistance. She slid her hands under his shirt, felt the taut muscles and satiny skin of his abs, and let out a shuddering sigh. Cristiano drew his breath in sharply as she let her hands drift across his chest, revelling in the hot, hard feel of him.

‘Laurel…’ This time her name was a warning. She didn’t like that quite as much.

‘Please,’ she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed. ‘Please touch me.’

She wanted to be touched. She needed to feel desired and treasured and loved, just for a little while. She knew it wasn’t real; of course she did. She wasn’t that naïve, that stupid. But just for a few hours, a few moments, even, she wanted this. Him. She wanted pleasure and closeness and touch. And she didn’t want to think about the consequences.

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