The relief she’d felt at being rescued, however accidentally, from Rico Bavasso’s clutches had dissolved, replaced with an uncomfortable realisation that there was no love lost between Cristiano and her, or Cristiano’s father and her mother. A bitter divorce had put paid to any family reunion    s, and if he remembered Laurel’s schoolgirl crush he certainly didn’t do so fondly. But surely he’d help her, a woman so obviously in distress and need? Cool and remote he might be, but he was—she hoped—a man of honour.

With nothing left to lose, Laurel headed back out to the suite’s sitting room. Cristiano was stretched out on one of the sofas, his long, muscular legs propped on a glass-and-chrome coffee table, his high-tech smart phone in one hand as he scrolled through messages. He slid it into his pocket and stood up, all graceful, fluid urbanity, as she came into the room.

‘Feel better?’ he asked with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow.

‘Yes, thank you. Your shower is amazing.’ Her voice sounded thin and wavering, the voice of a girl rather than a woman. Laurel straightened. Cristiano might reduce her insides to quivering jelly—it was hard not to be affected and, yes, dazzled, by a man who exuded so much potent, masculine sexuality—but she could still take control of this conversation. ‘I need to ask a favour of you.’

Cristiano looked unsurprised. ‘Oh?’ His voice was mild and enquiring, yet something dark pulsed underneath that innocuous tone, something that made Laurel feel even warier than she already did.

‘Could you please send someone—one of your staff, perhaps—to my hotel? I need my things—my clothes and my passport.’ She lifted her chin, forcing herself to meet his sardonic, silvery gaze. ‘I’m intending to leave Rome as soon as possible.’

He cocked his head. ‘Things not work out to your satisfaction here, then?’

She couldn’t miss the mocking note in his voice and a flush swept over her. Still she kept his gaze. ‘No.’

‘Rico Bavasso doesn’t like to be thwarted, you know,’ Cristiano said after a moment when he continued simply to study her, an inspection so thorough Laurel felt as if he could see beneath the big, bulky robe she wore.

‘I guessed as much, which is why I’m planning on leaving the country.’

‘You think it will be that easy?’

Unease tightened in her gut and flared through her insides. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Bavasso is a powerful and unpleasant man,’ Cristiano stated flatly. ‘You chose the wrong mark, bella.’

She stared at him, that one work reverberating through her. Mark. So he thought she was a con artist, one step up from a prostitute, perhaps. She shouldn’t care. She shouldn’t even be surprised. She’d been acting like one, more or less, all evening, even if she’d never meant things to unravel the way they had. Shame burned deep, singeing her conscience, her soul. Why had she been so stupid; so desperate?

And as for Bavasso being both powerful and unpleasant…having it confirmed was the last thing she needed right now.

‘He’s not my mark,’ she said. Cristiano merely looked disbelieving. ‘You have no right to judge me,’ she snapped, her nerves strung tight. Cristiano was hardly the person to be angry with, but no one else was available, and frankly she could use a tiny bit of sympathy right then. ‘So what do you suggest I do?’

‘Lie low for a while,’ Cristiano stated carelessly, as if it was all of very little concern to him. And, of course, it was. She might have been semi-cyber-stalking him for the last ten years but Laurel very much doubted he’d given her so much as a thought. She was half-amazed he’d even remembered her name.

‘Lie low,’ she repeated, and she was the disbelieving one now. ‘How? And where? I left my handbag in his hotel suite and all my belongings are back in the pensione.’ She drew a quick, sharp breath. ‘Will you please send someone to fetch them? It’s a small favour…’

‘A small favour? I’m hardly about to send one of my staff into a very difficult situation, bella.’

‘Don’t call me that,’ she returned tightly. She knew he didn’t mean it and it felt mocking. A sneer she couldn’t stand when she already felt scraped raw, everything about this situation making her feel intensely, painfully vulnerable.


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