‘That was different.’

‘How?’

Her tongue darted out to lick crimson lips. ‘It just was.’

‘Maybe you need a drink.’ He snapped his fingers and a waiter came scurrying. ‘Champagne,’ Cristiano ordered. ‘And two glasses.’

‘Very good, sir.’

His narrowed gaze continued to survey the room as he stroked Laurel’s hip, willing her to soften. ‘Is it so very difficult,’ he murmured, ‘for you to appear as if you enjoy my company? Because you enjoyed it last night.’

‘I wonder,’ she breathed, ‘how long you’re going to keep reminding me of that.’

‘As long as it takes for you to begin to relax.’

‘Reminding me of my complete and utter folly is hardly going to get me to relax,’ she snapped. ‘Surprisingly.’

‘Perhaps I’ll remind you in a different way, then,’ Cristiano answered, and he turned her around to face him. Her eyes widened, lips parting instinctively as she gazed at him warily. Cristiano lowered his head, sensing every eye in the room upon them. Then he stroked that crimson mouth with one fingertip, felt Laurel’s shuddering breath and smiled.

CHAPTER NINE

LAUREL FELT CRISTIANO’S finger on her mouth and, despite her desperate determination not to react, to yield, fireworks started going off in her body. His other hand remained on her waist, fingers splayed over her hip, and she was more conscious of his hands touching her than she’d been of anything in her life.

She couldn’t keep from responding, tilting her head back as he traced the outline of her lips, a move so seemingly innocent and yet so overwhelmingly sensual. Distantly she heard the ripple of murmurs around them, like waves breaking on a faraway shore.

Cristiano dropped his finger from her mouth, looking, of course, utterly unmoved besides a faint flush on his high, sharp cheekbones. ‘Good girl,’ he murmured and Laurel wanted to weep.

This felt so much worse than those awful moments with Bavasso, when she’d felt trapped and frozen by shock, caught in a drama in which she’d had no intention of acting. This felt as if her soul was being slowly and inexorably crushed. Every moment she stayed down here—draped on Cristiano’s arm, ‘mistress’ practically branded on her forehead in scarlet letters—felt like a sacrifice, a slaying, of everything she was.

Because this wasn’t who she was. Who she wanted to be. And the fact that she’d actually given herself to this man, and it had meant something to her, made her want to curl up in a ball and cry.

‘Chin up,’ Cristiano said, touching her chin with his finger. ‘And smile.’

Laurel couldn’t summon a smile. She turned away from him, conscious of the whispers, the murmurs, the looks. Was she imagining the derision? The contempt? A woman’s lip curled and Laurel blinked back tears. She hated this.

‘Drink,’ Cristiano ordered, and handed her a flute of fizzing champagne. Laurel took a long swallow, needing the alcohol to dull her senses, which were heightened to a painful point.

‘Easy,’ he said, and her fingers tightened around the stem of the glass.

‘Stop ordering me around,’ she hissed. ‘I’m an adult—not a puppet, not a doll, despite what you and everyone here believes.’

And, because she desperately needed some space, she stalked away from him, her dress swishing around her ankles, her head held high as she met no one’s gaze.

She couldn’t do this. She certainly couldn’t do this for two whole weeks. Laurel took another sip of champagne and willed herself to get a grip. Two weeks and she could have her life, or at least most of her life, back…as long as she wasn’t pregnant. And she couldn’t be pregnant. She just couldn’t be.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of red and her whole body stiffened. It was her mother, Elizabeth, standing alone in the corner of the casino. Laurel walked towards her, a mix of despair and relief churning inside her.

‘Elizabeth.’ Her mother had never wanted her to call her Mom, or Mother, not even when Laurel had been small, although occasionally the endearment slipped out. It didn’t now.

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