‘Why?’

Cristiano didn’t answer for a long moment. He already felt flayed raw, exposed in a way that made him want to both cringe and attack. ‘Remember when you said you didn’t want to fall in love with anyone?’

Laurel’s eyes widened and Cristiano silently cursed. He had not meant to say the dreaded L-word. ‘Yes…’

‘In a similar way I don’t want to care about anyone,’ he clarified swiftly. ‘Never mind actually fall in love.’

‘Because the women you’ve known, your father’s women, were untrustworthy?’

‘Yes.’ That wasn’t the whole truth, but it would suffice for now.

‘But you seem to get angry when I show I’m not like those women,’ Laurel pointed out with infuriatingly clear logic. ‘When I’m acting differently, like tonight. You got angry because I was talking about nursing, not because I was being as shallow and mercenary as you once assumed me to be.’

‘That’s not why I got angry.’

‘Why, then?’

Cristiano stared at her in frustration, his jaw locked so tightly he felt as if he could break a tooth. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere good. Laurel was far too persistent and smart to be fobbed off with some vague half-truths.

‘Because you’re too good for me,’ he said finally, the words ripped from him. ‘I want you to be shallow and mercenary, because then this makes sense. A sexual arrangement, nothing more. But when you talk about nursing or your grandfather—or listen to what people say or laugh—then it turns into something else, and I don’t want that.’ He injected a grim note of finality into his voice. ‘At all.’

Laurel sat back against the sofa, looking a little winded. Then she straightened and said, ‘I didn’t ask you to want it.’

‘I know,’ Cristiano said shortly. He hardly needed the reminder, and it rubbed raw, especially now.

‘But,’ Laurel continued slowly, ‘Is it such a bad thing—to care about someone? Because if I’m not like those other women…your father’s…then what’s the problem? The risk?’

And just like that she got to the painful, beating heart of it and Cristiano had no idea how to answer. So he told her the truth. ‘This isn’t about me thinking you’re like them,’ he said. ‘It’s about losing control.’

Laurel’s eyebrows rose. ‘Losing control? How?’

Cristiano shifted restlessly in his seat and then in one abrupt movement he rose from the sofa and paced the spacious room, feeling caged by his memories.

‘Any serious relationship—a loving marriage, anything—involves a loss of control. A giving up. And that’s something I can’t stand. And, yes—’ he cut across her before she could say anything ‘—it’s because of my childhood. We’re all products of our growing up; you were right there. But it’s not because of my father’s mistresses, or his second wife, or your mother. It’s because of mine.’

The silence between them felt both heavy and taut. Laurel was gazing at him steadily, a softness to her expression that made him want to bury himself in her arms. Seek comfort when he had given her none.

‘What about your mother?’ she asked when the silence had stretched to snapping point.

‘She loved my father. And he loved her.’ Cristiano felt his throat working as he swallowed hard. ‘Very much.’

‘Was that such a bad thing?’ Laurel asked softly.

‘Yes, because their love was…turbulent. Passionate. They were always fighting and falling back in love—throwing vases, breaking plates, what have you.’

‘Not every loving marriage is like that.’

‘No, but the loss of control is still there. Being enslaved to your emotions and at the mercy of another person.’

‘A person you trust.’

‘Maybe.’ Cristiano continued pacing, his head down, teeth gritted. ‘But maybe you shouldn’t trust anyone that much.’

‘What happened to your mother, Cristiano?’ The question was soft and sad, so full of compassion, that it nearly broke him.

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