Her curious gaze took in the room’s stark elements—bed, bureau, view. No personal objects or mementoes, no photographs or knick-knacks. Not even a book. No sign of a woman, either, so perhaps he was between mistresses. But why was she looking? Laurel bolted for the bathroom, locking the door behind her.

The bathroom was just as elegantly stark as the bedroom, and almost as big. An enormous sunken black marble tub with gold taps, a separate infinity shower bigger than her bedroom back home and double sinks. Laurel registered the heat coming through the quarry tiles beneath her feet and let out a shuddery sigh, the events of the last few hours slamming into her all over her again.

The endless evening at the casino, while Rico had played baccarat and given her lascivious looks that Laurel had told herself were in her imagination. They had to be. Bavasso liked her mother. Her mother had said she was hoping for a ring, for goodness’ sake. He wouldn’t look at her. The only reason she was meeting him was to give her mother her blessing.

Wasn’t it?

Then the moment when he’d asked her to go upstairs, and Laurel had given her mother a frantic look. Elizabeth had smiled and had told her she’d be along in a few minutes and they’d all have champagne to celebrate. And Laurel had believed her. Of course she had believed her. Elizabeth was her mother and, while she’d done some questionable things over the years, she’d never done anything like this.

Laurel closed her eyes as she tried to will back the pain of the betrayal. Although, betrayal wasn’t the right word, not really, because Elizabeth hadn’t promised anything but the cold, hard cash she knew Laurel needed… And Laurel had been willing to take it. Did that make her any better than her mother, a woman who was always on the prowl for a man to fund her lifestyle?

Taking a deep breath, Laurel opened her eyes and then shrugged off the satin slip of a dress. It pooled at her feet and, overcome suddenly with a remorse so strong it felt like a physical illness, cramping her stomach and making her gorge rise, she kicked the offending garment into the corner of the room.

But that wasn’t enough—Laurel could still see the dress, a rumpled pile of silver, and with a little cry she snatched it up and pulled. The thin fabric tore easily, and within seconds the dress was in bright, glittering ribbons that she stuffed into the bin. Then she realised it was remarkably unwise to destroy the one piece of clothing she had. Was she meant to go confront Cristiano in nothing but a lacy thong? That would go over well.

With a groan, Laurel turned on the shower. She needed to wash and scrub off the scent of the expensive, cloying cologne that Rico Bavasso wore before she thought about what could she do—or what could she wear.

She stepped under the powerful jets, letting the water stream over and wash away her regrets…if only it could. She never should have agreed to her mother’s plan. Never should have sold her soul for a flimsy promise her mother now might not even keep. And if she didn’t…

Laurel’s heart lurched. It didn’t feel fair that she wanted so little, worked so hard and might still end up with nothing. But she knew there was no point in whining or crying about it. She’d made her own choices, and they hadn’t all been good ones. Some of them had been extraordinarily bad. Somehow she had to rescue what she could from the rubble of the last few hours.

She stayed in the bathroom for as long as she could, first under the soothing spray of the shower, and then brushing her hair. Thankfully there was a thick navy terrycloth robe hanging on the door and she swathed herself in it, grateful that it covered her from her neck to her toes. She needed the armour, flimsy as it was.

She also needed time to figure out a plan—and how to present it to Cristiano. She had, unfortunately, extremely limited resources or options. She’d left her handbag behind in Bavasso’s hotel room, with her money, driving licence and hotel key. Her passport, at least, was in the safe back at the shabby pensione where she and her mother were staying. But how was she going to get there? What if Bavasso was waiting for her?

Taking a deep breath, she decided it was time to face the music. Face Cristiano…a prospect that made her insides lurch with alarm even as a little ripple of anticipation shivered through her. She was looking forward to seeing him, even sparring with him, although heaven knew she shouldn’t be.

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