Not liking it didn’t make sense. It made him feel angry and strangely vulnerable, two emotions he despised. So he wouldn’t feel them. Cristiano paused on the threshold of the casino as a cold, steely calm came over him. He was here to show Bavasso that Laurel was his, for Laurel’s sake as well as his own. The reputation of his hotel and casino, of his professional status, rested on keeping men like Bavasso in check, or preferably off the premises. The sooner this irritation was dealt with, the better.

Bavasso was certainly unpleasant, but Cristiano wasn’t really worried about him. And he might have overplayed Bavasso’s reputation in order to secure his own interest in Laurel. He felt a qualm of guilt about that and shoved it away. He’d deal with Bavasso tonight and tomorrow, and the next two weeks, would be his and Laurel’s.

Raising his chin, Cristiano coldly scanned the room with its baccarat and blackjack, poker tables and roulette wheel. Diamonds glinted and the buzz of conversation, glasses clinking and dice being rolled, filled the room.

Cristiano had never gambled. He hated the thought of it, the desperate need for the adrenalin rush, the loss of control, the craven craving. Casinos were a necessary part of a luxury hotel chain, but he’d never placed money on a bet. Never held his breath for the roll of the dice. It wasn’t the kind of man he was.

So why did bringing Laurel onto this heaving floor feel like a risk?

Next to him she shifted nervously, and he caught the scent of her perfume, something unfamiliar and cloyingly expensive, not the scent of lemon and violets he’d smelled earlier.

‘What exactly am I meant to be doing?’ she whispered. The pulse leapt in her throat as her gaze darted around the crowded room.

‘All you have to do is look beautiful and smile,’ Cristiano said. ‘I think you can manage that.’ He glanced at her, his mouth curving in what he intended to be a reassuring smile, but she didn’t look as if he’d put her at ease at all.

Her face was pale, her eyes wide, her slender hands clenched into fists at her sides. ‘Relax,’ Cristiano murmured. ‘We have to be convincing.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I would like to deal with Bavasso and be done with him. If he suspects he’s being played, he’ll continue to annoy the both of us.’

‘You make him sound like a fly.’

‘And I will swat him away.’ Cristiano reached for her hand. Her palm was icy cold in his as he pulled her deeper into the room and the throng of curious onlookers. He was used to being looked at, the owner of La Sirena and notorious in his own right. Women eyed Laurel up and down, mouths twisting in disappointment or derision. Men eyed her lasciviously, making everything in Cristiano tighten. She was his, damn it. His. He didn’t even want them looking.

This was starting to feel like a very bad idea.

He pulled Laurel along, deeper into the crowd. She stumbled slightly, muttering under her breath, almost making Cristiano smile. She disliked the dressing up almost as much as he did.

‘Now what?’ she whispered.

‘Enjoy.’ He slid his arm around her waist, splaying his fingers along her hip. He felt her react, and it afforded him a flare of primal pleasure. Yes, she was his, whether she acknowledged it or not. Whether she wanted to be or not. They had a connection, a bond, forged in desire. She couldn’t break it, and he didn’t want to. Yet.

Laurel’s body was tense under his arm as he moved her towards his usual place by the roulette table. Bavasso hadn’t come in yet, although Cristiano expected him. He’d heard from his staff that he was still in Rome, and when he was he came to La Sirena nearly every night.

Idly Cristiano stroked Laurel’s hip and her body twanged in response. ‘You look like you’re at the dentist,’ he murmured, leaning closer so his breath fanned her ear. She shivered. ‘I told you, relax.’

‘I can’t.’

‘You’re safe here, Laurel. I won’t let anyone hurt you.’ That was a promise he was absolutely sure he’d keep.

She just shook her head a fraction, her expression as pained as if she were having a filling done. Annoyance sparked inside him.

‘You were a better actress with Bavasso,’ he growled, further annoyed that he felt irritated and, yes, even a little hurt by how difficult she was finding this. Him.

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