‘She and my father had an almighty row. I think they enjoyed arguing, the intensity of it, and of course the passionate making up. This time she flounced out of the house. She’d done it before; I remember watching from the window as she’d speed down the driveway in her little red convertible. I never knew if she was going to come back or not.’ The memories were hitting him now, wave after relentless wave, reminding him of the turmoil and tumult of his childhood. The arguments, the shrieking voices, the feeling, as a boy, that he never knew what to expect. Who to trust. Or what it meant truly to love someone.

‘That must have been very hard on you,’ Laurel said quietly. Her eyes were filled with a sorrowful compassion that Cristiano feared would be his undoing. Perhaps her fury and scorn would have been better to deal with. He could have matched them. But this…

‘There’s no shame in it, you know,’ she said. ‘In feeling hurt.’

Oh, but there was. Because it revealed a weakness in him, a gaping, bleeding need that felt like the very life were draining out of him.

‘Anyway,’ he resumed after a moment, when he trusted himself to speak normally, ‘that time, that argument, she left in her convertible and she didn’t come back. She died,’ he explained succinctly. ‘Crashed her car straight into a tree.’

‘Oh, Cristiano…’

‘The thing is,’ he continued, determined to say it all now. ‘It was a straight, flat road. No other cars were involved. And the tree was about ten feet away from the road. So why did she crash? How?’

Laurel’s face paled, her eyes wide and dark. ‘You mean you think she did it on purpose?’

‘It seems likely, doesn’t it?’

‘I don’t know…’

‘That’s what love does to you,’ he finished flatly. ‘It kills you.’ When he said the words out loud they sounded melodramatic, even childish, yet he knew he meant them. Utterly.

‘Oh, Cristiano.’ Laurel’s face was suffused with sadness. ‘It doesn’t have to. I have to believe that.’ She let out a sad little laugh. ‘Not that I would really know.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The people I’ve loved have always left. My father, my mother, your father.’ She gave him an almost apologetic look. ‘You might not want to hear that, but I loved him. He was like a father to me for those three years—showing up to school concerts, taking me for a ride in his fancy car. The only father I’ve ever really had, my mother’s parade of boyfriends aside.’

‘I… I didn’t realise.’ He hadn’t given Laurel’s feelings so much as a thought when he’d told his father about Elizabeth’s secret bank account—and she’d only been fourteen. How could he have been so thoughtless? So selfish? Yes, Elizabeth had been a thief. But Laurel had been collateral damage, and he hadn’t even cared. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It was a long time ago. I didn’t say all that to make you feel sorry for me. I just wanted to say that I understand, at least a little bit. But I guess I’m still hoping that it can be different for me some day, with someone new. They won’t leave.’ Her lips trembled and she forced them into a smile. ‘They won’t want to leave.’

‘Laurel…’

‘And it can be different for you, Cristiano, one day. One day maybe you won’t believe that love kills or even hurts. You’ll see that it can heal and restore and strengthen.’

‘You have a lot of faith,’ Cristiano said in a low voice. He was unbearably moved by her hope, when she had so little to hope for. So many people had left her.

‘Not really,’ Laurel admitted with a shaky laugh. ‘I talk a big game.’

Cristiano nodded slowly. He felt weary and aching, yet, strangely, cautiously hopeful—although about what, he couldn’t quite say. Wasn’t willing to verbalise.

‘Thank you,’ he said after a moment. ‘For listening. For understanding. And I am sorry for…before.’ He paused, weighing his words, his feelings. Truth versus safety. Caring versus control. ‘The question is,’ he said slowly, ‘what do we do now?’


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