Laurel swallowed tightly. ‘Please, Mom,’ she whispered, using the endearment her mother never liked. Sometimes it slipped out, because she’d always wanted a mother. A proper mother, who cuddled, kissed and cared. ‘Please. That house is the only thing…’

Elizabeth’s expression turned sly. ‘Maybe you can get something out of Cristiano. If you can, then we’ll talk.’

Something out of Cristiano? He might have bought her these clothes but he wouldn’t give her a penny. And she wouldn’t ask for one. Laurel swallowed. ‘You know that’s impossible.’

‘Then the house will have to be sold. Your grandfather left me half that house in his will. It’s my inheritance as much as yours.’

‘I know it is, but…’

A hand closed around Laurel’s arm like a steel band, making her nearly drop her drink. ‘As much as I hate to interrupt this little chat, we have places to be and people to see.’ Cristiano inclined his head towards Elizabeth, his gaze glittering, before he steered Laurel away.

‘You didn’t have to—’ she began, only to be cut off by his clipped voice.

‘Bavasso is here.’

‘Is he? Where?’

Cristiano nodded towards the baccarat table and Laurel’s blood felt as if it had frozen in her veins as she caught sight of the man who had assaulted her last night: neatly dressed, the silver thatch of hair, the glinting eyes. A handsome older man, charming when he wanted to be, yet he made her skin crawl and her stomach heave.

The reaction was visceral, instinctive; she couldn’t have controlled it if she’d tried. ‘I think,’ she whispered, ‘I’m going to faint.’

Cristiano’s arm came around her waist as Laurel sagged against him. ‘Not yet, bella,’ he murmured and then, as Bavasso turned to watch, he kissed her in front of everyone, his mouth moving over hers with possessive thoroughness, causing desire to flow through her, a molten river of want. Another moment and she’d be reduced to a puddle on the floor.

‘Please,’ Laurel whispered when he finally broke the kiss. ‘I can’t… I can’t handle any more of this. Please get me out of here.’

Cristiano glanced at Bavasso and then, seemingly satisfied, he started walking towards the lifts. ‘Very well. I think we’ve made our point.’

Laurel managed to keep herself upright as she walked past the staring crowds and saw Bavasso’s tight expression, the bodyguards on either side of him. The lifts. All she needed to do was get through those gleaming black doors.

They opened and Laurel practically hurled herself inside. When they’d closed again she let out a sound that was halfway to a moan and crumpled against the wall, her knees buckling beneath her. It was the second time in the space of twenty-four hours that she’d fled to a lift. Her dress pooled around her as she slowly slid to a seated position, resting her head on her arms.

‘Was it really so terrible?’ Cristiano asked dryly. ‘Being seen on my arm?’

‘Everything about it was terrible.’ Laurel drew a ragged breath, willing herself not to cry. She didn’t think Cristiano would be impressed by her tears. ‘I felt cheaper than I ever have in my life right then.’

‘Cheaper than last night?’ Cristiano demanded in disbelief, sounding annoyed. Laurel looked up, conscious of the tears pooling in her eyes and starting to streak down her cheeks. It seemed she was going to cry after all.

‘Yes, Cristiano, cheaper. Because, although you’d never believe it, I wasn’t trying to impress Bavasso. He wasn’t my mark.’ Her voice hitched and she forced herself to continue. ‘I was there to meet my mother’s boyfriend, possibly fiancé, and when he started treating me… Well, you know how he treated me. I didn’t know what to do. How to respond. And so I froze and I let it happen, and it made me feel awful, but this…’ She swiped at her cheeks. ‘I gave myself to you last night. I know it didn’t mean anything to you, of course I do, but it meant something to me. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did. And to be treated like your mistress, your possession, your plaything… I hated it. I hated every minute of it.’

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