She sighed and picked at her food, her hair falling forward to hide her face. ‘About a week ago my mother came to me and asked me for…for a favour, I suppose. We hadn’t seen much of each other in recent years, or really at all. She’d been dating Rico Bavasso and she said he wanted to meet me.’
‘What I saw last night was hardly your mother introducing you as her daughter to her boyfriend.’ Cristiano couldn’t keep the scepticism from his voice. He didn’t even want to.
‘I know. She said he was feeling his age and it would do him good to flirt with a younger woman. It sounded innocent, but maybe it was just me being naïve.’ Laurel gulped. ‘I can’t believe my mother would…’
‘Set you up?’
‘She wanted him for herself.’ Laurel shook her head. ‘When I talked to her tonight, she was annoyed that Bavasso had been interested in me at all.’
Laurel sighed. ‘That’s just how she is. I’ve accepted it.’ She glanced up at him, something in her expression hardening. ‘You don’t know anything about my mother or me, for that matter. So please don’t judge.’
‘It’s hard not to judge from what I saw and continue to see,’ Cristiano returned coolly. ‘What I don’t understand is why you agreed to come at all, if there has been no love lost between the two of you.’
‘Because I suppose I’m always hoping it will be better between us this time.’ Laurel hesitated, and Cristiano waited for the other shoe to drop, because surely it would? ‘And,’ Laurel admitted quietly, ‘Because she offered me something I wanted very much.’
There it was, just as Cristiano had known. His instincts hadn’t been wrong. ‘And what did you want so much?’ he asked.
‘A house. My house.’ Cristiano stared at her, nonplussed, and Laurel continued, ‘I spent a lot of my childhood at my grandfather’s house in Canton Heights. It’s a small farmhouse, nothing special, but I love it. It’s the only place besides… Well, the only place I think of as home.’
‘Besides?’ Cristiano honed on that revealing word. ‘Besides what?’
Laurel shrugged, her gaze sliding away. ‘Besides the villa in Milan when we lived with your father. That felt like home, for a little while.’
Three years. He stared at her, trying to gauge what she was feeling. How much she was feeling. ‘And so this house…’ he said after a pause. ‘Your mother agreed to…what? Give it to you?’
‘Her half. My grandfather died three months ago and he left the house, the only thing he had, to both of us equally. I think he was hoping she’d come back, settle down.’ She let out a humourless laugh. ‘She’d never do that. My mother hates the place. But she agreed to sign over her half to me if I…met Bavasso and was nice to him. So I agreed, because the only thing I’ve ever wanted in life is my own house. My own home.’ Her voice wobbled and she looked away.
‘Why didn’t you just offer to buy her out?’
Laurel let out a shaky huff of laughter. ‘Because I don’t have a hundred grand just sitting around,’ she returned. ‘Even farmhouses in rural Illinois cost money, you know. Money I don’t have.’
Cristiano remained nonplussed. ‘Still, you were agreeing to a rather large unknown just for a house.’
Laurel sucked in a breath, swinging around to stare at him, her face pale, her eyes narrowed. ‘Says someone who has no idea what it’s like not to have one.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, come on, Cristiano. You’re rich. You’ve always been rich. You have absolutely no idea what it’s like not to be. To be poor.’
He opened his mouth to make some suitably stinging reply and then closed it. She was right. He didn’t know. He never had. ‘That’s true,’ he said evenly. ‘I don’t.’
Laurel let out a tired laugh. ‘But it doesn’t excuse making reprehensible or at least stupid decisions. I know.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘It was on your face. You might as well have shouted it.’