‘Why would we go to France?’
‘Because I have a new manager at my hotel in Paris and I want to check up on her. Also, there is a charity gala I am meant to attend. You can come as my date.’
‘Your date?’ Laurel was still goggling at him. ‘But why? Bavasso won’t be there.’
‘I don’t care about Bavasso any longer, and you shouldn’t either. I need a date, and you’re here. It’s convenient.’
‘So glad to be of service.’ Laurel sat back, looking nonplussed by the change of plans. Cristiano understood her surprise. He’d only just decided to take her to Paris tonight. To escape the oppressive feeling here, with Bavasso below, her mother in attendance, all the bad memories swirling around them.
They’d go somewhere new, somewhere different, where the past didn’t dog them. Where they could simply be and enjoy each other. Because all evening a realisation had been coalescing inside him—he wasn’t done with Laurel Forrester. Their affair would be real, and therefore all the more convincing. But first he needed to explain the parameters.
He gazed at her now—the long, golden-brown curls, the shadowed eyes, the way she nibbled her lip. She was nervous, uncertain, maybe even afraid. He needed to reassure her. He also needed to convince her.
‘Laurel.’ She jerked her startled gaze towards him, eyes wide with wary apprehension. Cristiano leaned forward, his attention fully focused on the woman before him. ‘What you said in the lift—about sex meaning something to you.’
Colour flared in her cheeks. ‘Don’t use that against me now,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’
She lifted her chin, a brave attempt at haughtiness. ‘You don’t need to worry that I’m going to fall in love with you, Cristiano. Trust me on that.’
This was unexpected, and for some reason her lofty assurance rubbed him the wrong way. ‘What a relief.’
‘I’m sure it is, since you seem to have an allergic reaction to love or commitment.’
‘An allergy suggests something that isn’t a choice,’ Cristiano returned lightly. ‘And trust me, Laurel, it is very much a choice.’
‘Is it? Or is it just a reaction to your childhood, all those women of your father’s?’
Cristiano sat back against the sofa and folded his arms. ‘My, what a stunning little piece of psychoanalysis.’
‘Actually, it seems fairly obvious to me. We’re all products of our childhood, aren’t we?’ Laurel shrugged. ‘I know I am.’
And now, even though he knew he shouldn’t be, he was curious. He needed to know more. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘People leave,’ Laurel stated starkly. ‘Don’t they? Some by choice, some not. It’s one of the reasons why I won’t fall in love with you, Cristiano. I don’t want to fall in love with anyone.’
‘One of the reasons?’
A faint, sardonic smile curved her lush mouth. ‘It’s not exactly as if you’ve been Prince Charming, is it?’
‘I… I…’ He was actually stuttering in his shock. Suddenly she looked so smugly confident, sitting curled up on his sofa, acting as if the prospect of her falling for him was the remotest of possibilities. And yes, that was fine, that was what he wanted; of course it was. Yet he still found it seriously annoyed him.
‘Thank you for putting me so much at my ease,’ he said dryly when he’d thankfully recovered his composure. ‘What, then, did you mean in the lift?’
She didn’t pretend to misunderstand. ‘Sex is important. You’re giving yourself to someone, making yourself vulnerable. I mean, just being naked is being vulnerable, isn’t it?’ Cristiano shrugged a non-answer. He was, he realised with a pang of unease, out of his depth. He didn’t talk about this kind of stuff. He didn’t even think about it.
‘And then the things you do together…’ Her cheeks were going from pink to fiery red and Cristiano knew she was recalling all they’d done together. All he intended they do again. And again. ‘Well, it means something. Not love, necessarily, but there’s a bond of sorts. A shared memory. I know men seem able to dismiss it as just some kind of physical workout, but it didn’t feel that way to me.’