‘Yes, you could put it that way, I suppose.’ Laurel sighed, disliking how scornful he sounded, although she couldn’t really blame him. ‘It was hard for her, you know. More than one of her boyfriends was bad news. Seriously bad news. Sometimes we had to run.’
And sometimes her mother would leave her with her grandfather in Canton Heights, which had been the sweetest relief, as well as a disappointment. No more dank hotel rooms or temporary apartments, no more late nights crouching in corners or under the covers. No more drama and endless uncertainty. And no more Mom.
But then her mother would always collect her again, and in her mother’s sudden, desperate hug Laurel had believed Elizabeth did love her and want her with her. Why else would she come back for her? And there had been moments when Elizabeth had seemed, if not quite maternal, then at least a little caring. She’d given Laurel plenty of advice, a lot of it bitter, and when she’d landed Lorenzo she’d promised Laurel things would be better for her too. It wasn’t much, but Laurel believed her mother loved her, in her own way. At least, she wanted to believe that.
‘So you had ten years of this and then she hit the jackpot with my father.’
Laurel flinched a bit at his tone but then she lifted her chin and met his cool gaze head on. ‘Yes, but you know she didn’t even realise how rich he was when she met him.’
‘She just got lucky, then.’
‘Yes, I suppose she did. I know what it looks like—and, trust me, I know my mother is selfish and self-serving—but I do believe she and your father loved each other, Cristiano.’ Her mouth twisted. ‘Obviously that isn’t something you can understand.’
He leaned forward, his eyes sparking gold fire. ‘They loved each other? That’s why she siphoned two million euros into her own private bank account?’
‘She was trying to protect herself.’ Laurel held up a hand. ‘I know it was wrong. I’m not justifying it, just trying to make you understand. This is a woman who grew up dirt poor, who had men treat her badly time and time again. She was trying to give herself a little security—but, yes, I realise it was stealing.’ Memory sharpened inside her. ‘I didn’t know you were the one who told your father, though.’
Something flickered in Cristiano’s eyes. ‘Why shouldn’t I have?’
‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t have. Only…you could have asked her first. You could have tried to figure out what was going on.’
‘It was fairly obvious, bella.’
‘Don’t call me bella!’ Laurel snapped. ‘Not now. Not ever.’
‘I did what was right. Surely you can’t deny that?’
‘I just wished you’d talked to her first. I don’t think she would have ever left him. She’s lived her whole life on the edge. With Lorenzo we’d both finally found a haven. Your father was a kind man, Cristiano. If he’d been told another way, he might have understood.’ Ten years later she still remembered her mother’s resignation, felt her own numb shock at Lorenzo’s cold treatment of them both. He’d taken her for rides in his sports car. He’d slipped her pocket money and tousled her hair. He’d bought her a dress for a school dance. He’d been more of a father to her than anyone, save her grandfather, and he’d cut her off without so much as a conversation. But that was a pain too deep and personal to share with Cristiano, especially when he was looking at her with such disdain.
‘I cannot believe,’ Cristiano said, ice in every word, ‘That you are blaming me for what happened when your mother is so clearly a gold-digger and a thief.’
‘I’m not blaming you. I just wished it could have been handled differently—’
‘And,’ he cut her off with even more arctic tones, ‘I cannot believe you are defending the woman who as good as sold you to a man twice your age just twenty-four hours ago.’
Laurel looked away, blinking hard. She couldn’t argue with what he said. Her mother had treated her badly, no matter what protestations she’d made earlier. Even if she believed what her mother had said… It was just that Laurel had always wanted to see the best in her mother. Wanted to believe her mother loved her, deep down. Because if your own mother didn’t love you… ‘I’ve already told you, I’m not defending her,’ she said after a moment, her voice low. ‘Just trying to explain things. Not that you’d accept any explanations.’