Could she read him so easily? Because, yes, he had been thinking something along those lines. He didn’t particularly like Laurel knowing, though.

‘If it makes any difference, it happened in increments,’ Laurel said. ‘I agreed to meet Bavasso as no more than my mother’s boyfriend. And then we got to Rome and my mother was telling me to dress up for him. Okay, fine. And then it was “be nice to him”, and I didn’t even know what that meant. I think she felt trapped. She wanted him for himself, but she realised she’d lose him altogether if I wasn’t…well.’ She shook her head. ‘She didn’t mean for me to be hurt, that I do believe. Things got out of hand for both of us. But I’m not excusing any of it, trust me.’

‘All right.’ Cristiano absorbed all that for a moment before continuing, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’ Because he realised he wanted to know. ‘Before your mother married my father. Where did you grow up?’

She looked surprised, then a little wary. ‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Perhaps it will help me to understand who you are and why you’ve made the choices you have. That can only be a good thing, surely, since we have to spend the next two weeks together?’

‘By your decree.’ Laurel sighed. ‘Fine. Where should I begin?’

‘Why not at the beginning?’ Cristiano gave her a mirthless smile. ‘It’s the very best place to start.’

CHAPTER TEN

LAUREL SHIFTED ON the sofa, unsure how to deal with Cristiano’s request. He wanted to know about her? Why? To use whatever she said against her? And yet she was so tired of staying suspicious. Being so careful all the time with him. And that tactic hadn’t worked out all that well so far, so why not tell him everything? Who cared what he thought? He’d already shown her tonight what he thought of her—just another mistress. A prop.

Being seen on his arm—knowing what people were whispering about her, knowing what she and Cristiano had done together—it had been worse than anything she’d endured with Bavasso. More shameful. And she knew Cristiano would never understand that.

‘My mother was born in rural Illinois,’ she began. ‘My grandfather was a poor farmer and they didn’t have much money. She married a local boy and they had me.’

‘Sounds like a fairly normal story so far.’

Oh, that even tone. The mildness. ‘It was,’ Laurel agreed, trying to match his tone. ‘They struggled, but so did a lot of people. But then my father lost his job on the assembly line of a local factory. He started drinking too much. Things started to get ugly, or so my mother tells me. I was only four at the time, when he left.’

‘Four? Do you remember your father?’ He was looking at her closely, but she couldn’t tell anything from his tone or his expression.

‘Vaguely. The smell of chewing tobacco, the scratchiness of his shirt. Sitting next to him in his truck.’ She shrugged, trying to ignore the tightness that had started in her throat and chest. ‘It all feels like parts of an old dream. Foggy fragments, no more.’

‘Yes.’

Something about the way he spoke, the contained feeling underneath the words, made her ask, ‘What about your mother? Do you remember her?’

‘Yes, of course. She died when I was nine.’ Cristiano spoke dismissively, looking away, making Laurel wonder. ‘So what happened after your father left?’

Laurel shrugged. ‘My mother tried to get work but it was hard. Not much was going on in that part of Illinois, and of course she had me to take care of. My grandfather needed to work on the farm and my grandmother had died before I was born. We moved to Chicago and while she was waitressing she met someone.’

Her first ‘daddy’. Laurel had always hated how Elizabeth made her call the men she’d entertained her father…except for the ones who weren’t interested in kids. More than one boyfriend had never known about her at all. Laurel had been very good about staying quiet, hiding in cupboards, pretending she didn’t exist.

‘And that’s how it began? Elizabeth funding her lifestyle through a series of men?’

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