She paused on the threshold, the balmy summer breeze blowing over her. Her heart was stuttering in her chest for all sorts of reasons. She had no idea what was going to happen tonight. What she would be expected to do. And as for Cristiano…

He looked magnificent in a tuxedo, the jacket encasing his broad shoulders to perfection, the crisp snowy whiteness of his shirt the perfect foil to his dark hair and olive skin.

Then he turned and Laurel caught her breath, because the heat flaring in Cristiano’s eyes made her remember last night in all its exquisite detail. She didn’t want the reminder, didn’t need it, to complicate what already felt fraught. With what felt like superhuman effort she banished the memory and stepped out onto the terrace.

‘So here I am, all dolled up with nowhere to go.’

His eyes simmered like liquid silver, his mouth a compressed line. Laurel had the sudden urge to run her hand along his chiselled jaw with its hint of sexy stubble. To feel his skin under her fingers again. ‘On the contrary. You have somewhere to go.’

Her heart stuttered in her chest. ‘Where?’

‘Down to the casino. With me.’

Laurel swallowed dryly. The last time she’d been on that casino floor… ‘Tonight? I mean, so soon? If I’m going to be here for two weeks…’ She trailed off, a desperate note entering her voice. She didn’t want to go down there. Didn’t want to see Bavasso again, or be another ornament on someone’s arm, even Cristiano’s. Especially Cristiano’s.

‘Of course so soon,’ Cristiano answered in a clipped voice. ‘Why wait? The sooner Bavasso realises you’re mine, the better.’

‘Maybe I don’t want to be anyone’s.’

‘Too late, bella, and too bad. You don’t have a choice any more.’ Cristiano’s smile was hard, the kind of smile she was used to, the kind she really didn’t like. ‘You should have thought of that before you tangled with Bavasso. Fortunately, I think this can be resolved quickly. The sooner Bavasso is off my property, the better.’

‘Fine, let’s go,’ Laurel said, and held out her hand.

Mistake. Cristiano’s palm slid across her, jolting her senses. Reminding her of…everything. Lips, tongues, hands, legs, bodies. Skin…smooth and hot and hard. Stroking…

She really had to stop thinking like this.

Cristiano’s fingers tightened on hers, reminding her that she was under his control. She was his…at least for the next two weeks. And in spite of everything, against all sense and odds, Laurel felt a lick of excitement through her veins. Anticipation fizzed in her stomach and she decided not to suppress it for once. She needed the hit to make it through this evening.

They rode in silence down the lift, its speed making Laurel feel dizzy. Or perhaps Cristiano was the one making her feel dizzy, with her hand still in his, the spicy scent of his aftershave, the heat of his body, the overwhelming maleness of him, dominating her senses. She couldn’t think, could barely breathe.

‘So what happens when we go into the casino?’ she asked, her voice breathy with nerves.

‘Follow my lead.’ Cristiano’s voice was grim. ‘And, for the love of heaven, do a better job of playing a mistress with me than you did with Bavasso.’ He glanced at her, eyes and teeth both glinting. ‘That shouldn’t be too hard, since you are my mistress.’

The doors opened before Laurel could make a stinging comeback and, with his careless remark still thudding through her, she followed him out onto the crowded casino floor.

* * *

Nothing about this felt as he’d anticipated. Needed. Laurel was stunning, but she wasn’t Laurel. When she’d appeared on the terrace, Cristiano had fought the nonsensical urge to take the pins from her hair, to grab his handkerchief and wipe the crimson lipstick from her luscious mouth. To strip her of her dress and heels and put her back in the plain T-shirt and skirt she’d worn earlier, or preferably nothing at all. He didn’t want her like this, looking like all his other mistresses, glamorous, edgy and hard.

But that was exactly how he’d wanted her to look. Exactly what he’d told the army of assistants to make her look like, because she needed to look like his mistress. She was his mistress…of a sort.

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