Laurel nodded. ‘Yes, in the hospice where I work, so I could see him every day. That was a great blessing.’ She let out a soft, sad sigh. ‘And it was a great loss. The last year of his illness, he was very confused. And the last few months, he didn’t even know who I was.’ Grief flashed across her face and then was gone.

Cristiano felt a tightening in his chest, an overflow of emotion. He was discovering depths to Laurel that amazed and humbled him. And, damn it, he still wanted her to be shallow. He needed her to be, because that was so much simpler. So much easier.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said again, the words heartfelt, but feeling useless.

‘Thank you. I still miss him. I suppose I always will.’ She turned to him with a small smile. ‘Enough of my sob story,’ Laurel said, injecting a note of brightness into her voice. ‘What about you?’

What about him? What could he say? He was a sinner to her saint. At that moment, he felt he’d done nothing of note in his life whatsoever. Cristiano shifted in his seat and took a sip of champagne. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘How did you get started in the hotel business? Your father is in finance, isn’t he?’

‘Yes, he was. He’s retired now.’

‘So why hotels instead of the family business?’

‘Because I wanted to be my own man, on my own terms, not just follow in my father’s footsteps.’ He hadn’t wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps in any way—not the business, not the three marriages, not the endless loop of love and heartbreak that had left his father alone and wistful in his villa in Capri, still hoping for some kind of silver years romance.

‘Fair enough,’ Laurel answered. ‘So why hotels?’

Cristiano shrugged. ‘I got my start by buying up a run-down pensione and turning it into an exclusive boutique hotel.’ He shrugged. ‘A combination of luck, risk and a small amount of skill.’

‘I’m sure it was more than a small amount,’ Laurel said, smiling, and Cristiano looked away.

‘Maybe.’ The truth was he’d been in the right place at the right time, and had been willing to take a risk on a big vision no one else had shared. It didn’t feel like that much, all of a sudden.

‘And from that one little pensione you now have how many hotels?’ Laurel asked, and Cristiano turned back to her.

‘An even dozen. Most are in Europe, but I’m expanding into North American and Asia.’

‘With one in New York and one in Hong Kong.’

Cristiano arched an eyebrow. ‘You’re well informed.’

Laurel blushed and ducked her head. ‘I read about it in the papers.’

‘Did you?’ That was interesting. Had she been keeping tabs on him? That schoolgirl crush from ten years ago had perhaps lain dormant. Once that information might have alarmed him, but now he felt strangely pleased by the thought.

‘You are in the tabloids a lot, you know,’ Laurel said, clearly trying to recover. ‘With whatever supermodel or actress you’re with at that nanosecond.’

‘Nanosecond?’ Cristiano leaned forward. ‘That’s insulting to my sexual prowess.’

Laurel’s blush, which had faded to a lovely, dusky pink, now returned to red. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘I know you didn’t. You couldn’t possibly have.’ He leaned a little closer, so his leg nudged hers and his breath fanned her ear. ‘But perhaps I need to remind you of it anyway.’

Laurel’s lips parted soundlessly and her gaze darted around the first-class area. Their seats formed a private alcove, but it wasn’t that private. Not private enough to do what Cristiano was now aching to do.

And yet… He trailed one hand up Laurel’s bare leg, skimming the sensitive skin under her knee before sliding his fingers under the hem of her dress.

‘Cristiano.’ Laurel looked scandalised but also excited. He saw it in the flared pupils, the parted lips, heard it in her uneven breathing. And felt it in himself. He was barely touching her, yet it felt like the most wildly exciting thing he’d ever done.

He stroked the silky-smooth skin of her inner thigh, listening to her breathing hitch and feeling his own painfully intense reaction as lust arrowed through him.

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