The second reason trumped the first by a long shot.

During a lull in the conversation, Laurel caught him looking at her and she smiled uncertainly. ‘Why are you scowling at me?’

‘Am I?’ He reached for her hand, twining her fingers with his and tugging her gently towards him. He craved the contact even now, felt his heartbeat start to slow as her hip brushed against his leg. ‘I suppose it’s because I’m thinking how I’d rather be alone with you upstairs than in this stuffy room listening to people witter on.’

Laurel smiled slightly but he saw a flash of something close to hurt in her clear, aquamarine eyes. ‘I rather enjoy the wittering, actually.’

Of course she did. And Cristiano felt a pang of shame for dismissing what he knew was an incredibly important topic. Too much of tonight was putting him off balance, out of sorts. And the only way he knew to rectify it was to put things back the way he was used to having them. Laurel in his bed. End of story.

‘How about this?’ he suggested in a lazy murmur. ‘Fifteen more minutes of wittering, we say our goodbyes and then we head upstairs?’

Laurel was eyeing him thoughtfully, in a way Cristiano didn’t particularly like. As if she saw through his suggestion to something underneath that he tried to hide, and hell if he even knew what it was.

‘We’ll miss dinner.’

‘I don’t care.’

There was a pause as she looked at him, seeming to see far too much. ‘All right,’ she said softly. ‘If that’s what you want.’

‘It is.’ It had to be. And yet, as he watched Laurel begin to make her farewells to the people she’d been talking to, he also felt that it wasn’t.

Somehow he wasn’t getting what he wanted out of this deal, yet at the same time he was getting far more than he’d ever expected or asked for.

Ten minutes later they were leaving the ballroom. Laurel was silent and pensive as they stepped into the lift and soared up to their private suite, and although he wanted to Cristiano couldn’t quite make himself take her in his arms. Turn this into the simple physical exchange he’d told himself he wanted it to be.

What was keeping him from it, damn it? Every nerve felt scraped raw, every sense on high alert as the lifts opened into the suite.

Laurel walked into the suite ahead of him, looking so elegant and lovely, and something in Cristiano broke, the fragments hardening into crystalline points. He took a step towards her and she stilled, perhaps sensing the danger in him. The emotion he couldn’t express or suppress, the emotion he couldn’t afford to feel.

‘Cristiano…?’ She turned to him, eyebrows raised in uncertain query.

‘Turn around,’ Cristiano said, his voice low and hard, a demand that brooked no opposition.

Laurel stared at him for a moment, a faint frown drawing her eyebrows together, and then wordlessly she turned around.

Cristiano stepped towards her and with one swift tug he unzipped her dress.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

LAUREL FELT THE cool air brush her back and drew in a sharp breath. Cristiano pushed the gown off her shoulders and then slid it down so it pooled about her waist. He didn’t speak, and she felt the tension and something inexplicably like anger rolling off him in powerful waves. Felt a tremble of both fear and excitement in herself because, no matter how he treated her, it seemed she couldn’t get enough of his touch. But what was going on?

‘Cristiano, what—?’

‘Don’t talk.’ He spoke flatly, and Laurel fell silent, even more apprehensive now.

Cristiano stepped behind her, so she felt his powerful frame practically pulsing into hers. He reached up and covered her breasts with his palms, the touch possessive and sure, making her ache. She sagged a little against him as his thumb teased the aching peaks of her breasts and he dropped a kiss onto the curve of her shoulder. And, even though she didn’t want to, even though something about this felt completely off, Laurel responded.

A shudder ripped through her as Cristiano rocked against her and her dress slid into a gauzy pool about her feet. She was wearing nothing but a thong—the style of the dress had prohibited a bra—and Cristiano was fully dressed. Fully in control. Everything about this felt unequal. Wrong.


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