‘Thanks for that.’ She shook her head slowly as tears threatened once again. But, no, she would not cry. She wouldn’t let Cristiano see how he affected her. Hurt her. And yet she needed to know. ‘Why?’ she whispered.

Cristiano raked a hand through his close-cropped hair. ‘I… I don’t know.’

‘I was having a good time tonight, you know,’ she told him, forcing her voice not to wobble. ‘Talking about things that mattered. Feeling important. A small thing, no doubt, and probably pathetic, but it mattered to me. I’m not… I don’t want to be your…your sex toy.’

‘You’re not,’ Cristiano insisted in a low voice.

‘Your convenient mistress, then. You pulled me from the gala before it had hardly started, and with everyone watching you took me upstairs and treated me like a—like a—’ Her voice choked and she struggled to go on.

‘Laurel, please. Don’t.’ Cristiano sounded genuinely anguished. ‘I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.’

‘So you say. But I still don’t understand why you treated me like that.’ She drew a shaking breath. ‘Do you get your kicks from humiliating women?’

‘Of course not.’ He sounded angry now, colour slashing his cheekbones. ‘I wasn’t trying to humiliate you.’

‘Just making me feel cheap, then. As usual.’

‘Just reminding you of our relationship!’ he exploded. ‘Reminding myself.’ He turned away, raking his hands through his hair again, leaving them on top of his head as he blew out a long, weary breath. ‘And you were enjoying it, so don’t pretend otherwise.’

‘I can’t help how I respond to you,’ Laurel returned with as much dignity as she could muster. ‘I wish I could.’

‘Do you?’ He let out a humourless laugh.

‘Yes. I know what you think of me, how little you think of me, and yet I still melt like butter when you so much as crook your finger. That’s humiliating.’

‘You have no idea what I think of you,’ Cristiano said, and dropped his hands.

‘Your actions give me a pretty good idea.’

‘No.’ He turned around to face her. ‘Because the truth is I think you’re amazing. Smart and driven, kind and compassionate.’ Laurel’s mouth dropped open as she stared at him in complete shock. ‘And that’s the reason I took you from the gala, Laurel. That’s the reason I brought you up here and tried to remind us both that this is just about sex. Because I’m starting to care about you, and I don’t want to.’

* * *

He hadn’t meant to say all that. And now that he had Cristiano fought the urge to retreat or lash out, either one, something to mitigate the damage he’d just inflicted on himself. Laurel was staring at him, her mouth hanging open, looking completely gobsmacked, and no wonder.

‘Wow,’ she said finally, and she shook her head. ‘Wow. Am I supposed to be touched? Thankful?’

The scorn in her voice shocked him. He hadn’t been expecting it. He had, he realised, been expecting her to be surprised and moved and—hell!—pleased. He’d given her more emotion, more of himself, than he had any other woman. Yet Laurel didn’t seem to appreciate that fact.

‘No,’ he said after a moment, his voice stiff. ‘Of course not. I was just trying to explain.’

‘Trying to explain how you behaved like a complete bastard? Thanks. I feel so much better now.’

He stared at her, anger crystallising inside him. ‘Glad to hear it,’ he bit out. This is what he got for being honest. He supposed it was better than having her go all dewy-eyed on him, although right now he wouldn’t have minded a little softness. Laurel was all hard, glittering edges, filled with a fury he didn’t fully understand.

Then, abruptly, she deflated. She walked slowly to an ornate sofa, all gilt curlicues and striped silk, and sank onto it. ‘I don’t understand you,’ she whispered. ‘You start to care about me and you treat me even more like you don’t?’

Cristiano felt the stirrings of shame and even embarrassment. When she put it like that, it sounded ridiculous and infantile. ‘Basically, yes,’ he said, and sat opposite her. ‘That’s what happened.’

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