Cristiano just shrugged. He didn’t trust himself to speak. He didn’t know what he’d say, in any case. Yes, he’d sworn off love, and for good reason. And, although the last week and a half had been the best of his life, he still wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment to Laurel. Couldn’t open himself up to all the risk and pain. Did that make him an emotional coward? Maybe. But at least he stayed strong. Solitary.

He left his father a short while later, because Lorenzo was clearly tiring, and went in search of Laurel. Twilight was settling over the terrace, the air holding a hint of coolness, as Cristiano stepped outside. Laurel was standing by the balcony, her hands resting on the ornate stone railing, her face tilted to the last dying rays of the sun.

‘You spoke to your father?’ she asked softly.

‘You knew.’

‘I guessed.’ She turned to him, a world of sorrow in her eyes. ‘I spend all my time with people who are dealing with terminal illness. You get to know the signs.’

‘I wish he’d told me.’

‘I know.’ She moved towards him, all fluid grace, and put her arms around him. For a second Cristiano resisted. Part of him wanted to stay strong, separate. But the pain he felt was too much for him to bear on his own, and the sweet, pliant warmth of her body was the balm he so desperately needed.

He pulled her close, burying his face in her fragrant hair. ‘I’ve always tried to live my life so I have no regrets,’ he muttered against her hair, his eyes clenched shut. ‘I thought that was the best way to be, and yet now I feel awash with regret. Too many things to feel sorry for. To atone for.’

‘Regret isn’t a bad thing, Cristiano,’ Laurel said gently. ‘It doesn’t have to be about guilt or shame. It’s a strong and brave thing to feel, because it allows you to take responsibility for your actions and make a positive choice for the future.’

‘That sounds very wise.’

‘I’ve talked a lot to people who are dealing with regrets. It’s something you think about as your life comes to an end. And,’ she added, a tremor in her voice, ‘I’ve had regrets of my own.’

He eased back, searching her face. ‘What do you regret?’

‘Letting my mother talk me into coming to meet Rico Bavasso, for one.’

‘But, if you hadn’t, you would never have met me again.’

She smiled, but it wavered on her face, as uncertain as a shadow slipping away. ‘You don’t regret meeting me, do you, Laurel?’ Cristiano asked with more urgency than he meant to reveal or even feel. ‘Do you?’

‘No.’ Still she sounded uncertain, and that hurt him more than he expected.

‘Why? Why would you?’ Of course he knew the reasons, yet still he asked. Torturing himself because he couldn’t help it.

‘It’s not as if this is going to last,’ Laurel said after a moment, her voice so quiet Cristiano strained to hear it, even though he was standing right next to her. ‘You don’t have a monopoly on pain, Cristiano.’ She spoke without rancour, merely stating truth. ‘I don’t want to get hurt, either.’

‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ He meant it more than he’d ever thought possible.

She gave him a sad, wistful smile. ‘Sometimes we don’t have a choice in these things.’

‘But if you’re pregnant…’ It was a possibility he’d considered unfortunate mere days ago, but now it opened up a whole new realm of choice to him. To them. ‘If you’re pregnant, I will marry you.’ He didn’t know whether it was a threat or promise. Both, perhaps.

‘And if I’m not?’ She gazed up at him, her face cast in silvery light from the rising moon, her eyes large and clear, hiding nothing. The choice was his, to stay or to go, to risk or to hide. To love or to leave.

Cristiano’s mind spun. He thought of his father wasting away in bed, alone after so many years and still heartbroken. His mother, storming out in a fearsome rage, only to go to her death, and for what? For what? ‘We don’t have to make any decisions right away,’ he said, and disappointment flickered across Laurel’s face before she nodded.

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