‘Laurel.’ Elizabeth’s gaze was as conflicted as Laurel’s, a mix of guilt and relief. ‘I’m glad to see you safe.’ Her mother’s gaze raked her up and down. ‘And it seems you landed on your feet.’

For a moment Laurel couldn’t speak. Her chest burned with indignation and hurt and she simply stared, battling emotions too intense to verbalise. ‘You call this on my feet?’ she finally squeezed out. ‘Did you…did you know Rico Bavasso was going to attack me?’

‘Of course I didn’t.’ Guilt flashed across her mother’s face again. ‘Do you think I’d have let you upstairs if I’d known what he planned? I was expecting him to propose!’

For a second Laurel almost wanted to laugh. Her mother sounded outraged…on her own behalf.

‘You must have suspected something,’ she insisted in a low voice. ‘The way he was acting on the casino floor…’

‘What old man doesn’t like to flirt with a beautiful young woman? Do you think I liked it? That I welcomed such an occurrence? He was mine.’

‘He’s not now?’

‘I haven’t seen him since. He wants nothing to do with me.’ Elizabeth sounded more resigned than bitter. ‘It was a bad idea, bringing you along. It just showed me up.’

‘That’s your takeaway from all of this?’ Laurel let out a hollow laugh. Her mother had always been foremost concerned with herself. The only saving grace was that she was up front and unapologetic about it. I spent the first twenty-four years of my life living for other people, wearing myself out. It’s time I started thinking about myself. And it seemed she’d never stopped.

Laurel shook her head, weary now. ‘I never should have come here.’

‘Who are you with now?’ Elizabeth asked, ever pragmatic. ‘Someone worth it, I hope?’

Laurel closed her eyes briefly. ‘I’m with Cristiano.’

‘Cristiano?’ Elizabeth boggled at that bit of news. ‘I thought he’d never have anything to do with either of us ever again.’

‘And with good reason.’

‘You know I never would have left Lorenzo.’ Elizabeth’s voice was tight. ‘That money wasn’t…’

‘I know,’ Laurel said tiredly, because she’d heard this all before. ‘But it was still stealing.’

‘We were married.’ Elizabeth struggled to contain her bitterness, even after all these years. ‘Can you blame me for wanting a nest egg?’

The trouble was, Laurel couldn’t. Not exactly. But she couldn’t justify it, either. So she said nothing, and Elizabeth’s scarlet mouth twisted bitterly. ‘Watch your back, that’s all I have to say. Cristiano sold me down the river and he’ll have no compunction doing the same to you.’

‘Wait—what?’ Laurel stared at her mother in surprised confusion. ‘What do you mean, he sold you down the river?’

Elizabeth shrugged. ‘He told Lorenzo about the bank account, fired him up and made it all seem far worse than it was.’ She took a sip of her drink, a shadow of sorrow passing over her features. ‘I did love him, you know—Lorenzo. No matter what his son or anyone else thought.’

‘I know you did.’ She’d doubted many things about her mother but not that. But Laurel hadn’t realised it was Cristiano who had blown the whistle on her. Did it make a difference?

‘Be careful,’ Elizabeth said in a low voice. ‘About Cristiano and about Rico. This isn’t your world, Laurel. You’re far too naïve for it. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this, but I was desperate. I wanted to please Rico. I should have realised he’d prefer you.’

‘I’m going to leave this world as soon as I can,’ Laurel promised. ‘All I want is to go home.’

‘It won’t be home for much longer, I’m afraid,’ Elizabeth stated bluntly. ‘I’ll need my half.’

Cold crept into Laurel’s bones, even though she’d been expecting this. Of course she had. ‘But you said—’

‘Laurel, I only agreed to give you my half of the house because I thought Rico was going to propose! I’m sorry, but I need the money.’


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