He joined a group of business associates, wealthy men and women and their partners, everyone speaking in flawless French that Laurel couldn’t follow. She spoke a smattering of Italian, thanks to her three years living in Milan, and a bit of schoolgirl French, but that was it. Everyone here seemed as if they spoke several languages with ease.

A middle-aged man turned to her with a friendly smile. ‘Are you English?’ he asked in accented English and Laurel smiled, grateful for someone making a friendly overture.

‘American, actually. And I’m sorry, but I don’t speak much French.’

‘I speak English,’ the man replied with a very Gallic shrug. ‘So it is okay. You are with Monsieur Ferrero?’ His inquisitive gaze flicked to Cristiano, who was engaged in a discussion with another businessman, but Laurel had the sense that he was listening intently to their conversation, even though he didn’t so much as look at them.

‘Yes. But I’m interested in hospice care,’ she said, determined to be there on her own terms as much as she could. ‘Back in the US, I work as a nurse in palliative care.’

‘Do you?’ The man’s eyes sparked with interest. ‘I would love to hear your thoughts about rehabilitative palliative care. Do you practise that where you work?’

‘We are beginning to,’ Laurel said with real enthusiasm. It was invigorating to talk to someone about issues that mattered, to feel useful again, with more to contribute than simply being an accessory or a clothes horse. ‘It’s difficult, because of course you have to reach patients earlier, before they’re referred to hospice care.’

‘Exactly. We are pioneering a new method, of consultants giving us referrals of anyone with a non-curative diagnosis.’

‘But most people don’t want to hear they have a non-curative diagnosis,’ Laurel said quietly. ‘They want to believe they can get better.’

‘Yes.’ The man nodded and then extended his hand. ‘Michel Durand, consultant at the Institut Curie.’

‘Laurel Forrester. A nurse at Canton Heights General Hospital.’ She gave a self-conscious smile as she shook his hand.

They chatted for a few more minutes, with Laurel becoming increasingly animated as Michel asked her opinion on various new initiatives in palliative care happening in America. Then he glanced at Cristiano, eyebrows raised.

‘Do you mind if I steal your lovely companion away for a few minutes? There are a few people here I’d like her to meet.’

Cristiano’s expression was suspiciously bland as he smiled and nodded. ‘Of course.’

With one quick, questioning look which Cristiano returned just as blandly, Laurel went.

* * *

Cristiano tracked Laurel’s progress across the crowded ballroom as he half-listened to one of his associates drone on about an investment opportunity in Bucharest.

‘It’s ripe for tourist venues, and there’s a lovely nineteenth-century building perfect for renovation, right in the heart of the Old Town…’

‘La Sirena Bucharest?’ Cristiano dragged his gaze away from Laurel to give the man a small smile. ‘I’ll think about it.’

Then he turned back with narrowed eyes to watch Laurel laugh and chat with several men who, improbably, were not staring at her cleavage but actually listening to what she was saying.

And she must have been saying something important, because she looked so passionate—eyes sparkling, mouth curving, her hands moving in graceful arcs as she described something. Cristiano had no idea what, but he couldn’t look away from her. And neither could any of her listeners.

What was the emotion churning like acid in his gut? Was it a simple matter of jealousy? His mistresses were his. They devoted their time and attention to him. It was so obvious that he’d never needed to articulate it in one of his arrangements. But his arrangement with Laurel was like no other.

‘Who is she?’

Cristiano turned to see the man who had suggested the Bucharest hotel—Niko Savakis—nodding towards Laurel. ‘Your latest amour,’ he clarified, making Cristiano inexplicably want to punch him. ‘Who is she?’

‘Her name is Laurel Forrester.’

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