Except here she was in Italy, in a limo, living a life of luxury, if only for a short time,. So it seemed she had that life, albeit temporarily, after all.

* * *

‘So what exactly are we doing in Paris?’ she asked once they were settled in the first-class section on the plane, their seats forming a private nook.

‘As I told you, I have a business meeting this afternoon, and then the charity gala tonight. After that…’ His slow smile was like a burn, the wicked glint in his eyes a hiss. ‘After that we can do what we like,’ he murmured, his gaze lowering to sweep meaningfully over her.

And even though part of her felt she should resist the innuendo, the expectation, Laurel couldn’t keep from reacting. Heat flared, need tightening inside her into sharp, aching points.

She smiled and looked away, trying to regain her composure. A flight attendant brought them both glasses of fizzing champagne, and Laurel took a much-needed sip. She wasn’t much of a one for alcohol, but right now she needed the distraction.

‘Relax,’ Cristiano murmured as he lounged back in his seat and sipped his drink. ‘Bavasso has been dealt with.’

But it wasn’t Bavasso making her feel as if everything inside her was on edge. It was this man right here, his silvery gaze slipping inside her, stirring things up, making her restless, wanting and afraid. After years of living a small, calm life, it felt like too much. Maybe, Laurel reflected wistfully, she just wasn’t mistress material.

* * *

Cristiano watched Laurel fidget out of the corner of his eye and wondered why she was so nervous. It couldn’t be Bavasso, so it had to be him and the new status of their relationship—although he used that word with caution.

Still, the last twelve hours had been some of the most enjoyable of his life. Not just the sex, which had been as incredible as before, but—dared he even think of it?—the company. He was starting to like Laurel—her feistiness, her sense of humour, her easy-to-read emotions and limitless compassion—something he’d never felt for any of his other mistresses, whose personalities had been of zero interest to him.

‘What is the gala tonight in aid of?’ Laurel asked. ‘Which charity?’

‘A children’s hospice, I believe.’

‘Really?’ Interest sparked in her eyes. ‘I’m a hospice nurse. Palliative care.’ Which meant she helped people in the last days and weeks, even hours, of their lives.

‘That must be difficult sometimes,’ he said quietly.

‘Yes, it can be. Sad, of course.’ She gave a sorrowful smile. ‘But it’s often an overlooked part of the medical profession. People are so focused on getting better, they don’t want to think about what happens when you can’t.’

‘Of course,’ Cristiano murmured. He was disconcertingly moved by the thought of her helping people at such a hard time in their lives. The selflessness of it, when there was so little reward. The patients she dealt with were never going to get better. ‘So how did you choose that particular field of nursing?’ he asked, even though his gut was telling him to stop asking questions. Stop being interested; stop caring, for heaven’s sake.

‘My grandfather.’ Laurel was quiet for a moment, her expression pensive and a little shadowed. ‘He was diagnosed with dementia while I was doing my degree. I was living with him, working during the day and taking classes at night. My grandad really wanted to be able to stay at home as long as he could, and so I went even more part-time to make that happen. After all he’d done for me over the years…’ She pressed her lips together, her gaze distant. ‘It was the very least I could do.’

The very least, and yet so much. And, Cristiano reflected, the opposite of what he’d assumed. When she’d walked into the casino he’d decided right then that she was a shallow, mercenary, experienced gold-digger like her mother. Instead he was discovering how innocent she was, how pure. A woman who’d been willing to put her own ambitions aside to care for an elderly man; to dedicate her life to easing the burdens and sorrows for others.

It was an uncomfortable realisation.

‘And you said your grandfather died three months ago?’ he asked after a moment.

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