‘I thought he just wanted to flirt. I hoped that was all it was, for both of our sakes. I know I’ve been far from the world’s greatest mother, but I don’t think I’m that bad.’ She let out a wobbly laugh, and then sighed. ‘The truth is, I’m too old for him. I’m too old for most men these days. All washed up at forty-six. I’m sorry.’
‘I know.’ Laurel believed her mother, even if Cristiano would think it was foolish. Her mother never thought out her slap-dash plans, her desperate bids for the life of luxury and security she’d always craved.
‘I’m sorry,’ Elizabeth said after a moment. ‘Truly. But I will need the money from the sale of that house.’
‘I know,’ Laurel said again. She hadn’t deceived herself that her mother would suddenly have an attack of generosity and give her her half of her grandfather’s house free and clear. And she’d decided, after everything, that a house was just a house. She couldn’t afford a similar place; in fact, on her salary, she’d barely be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in town. But after everything it didn’t seem to matter quite so much. Home wasn’t a farmhouse in Illinois any more. It was wherever Cristiano was, and that was a place she most likely wasn’t going to be able to be.
‘I’m calling for a reason, though, Mom,’ Laurel said, determined to say what she needed to. ‘Cristiano and I are staying with Lorenzo.’
Elizabeth drew her breath in again, a quick, audible hiss. ‘Oh, yes?’ she asked cautiously.
‘He’d like to speak to you, on the phone. He asked me to call you first, to see if you’d welcome a call from him.’
Elizabeth didn’t speak for a long moment, and when she did her voice was thick with unshed tears. ‘Yes,’ she said, and cleared her throat. ‘Yes, I would very much welcome a call from him.’
* * *
Fury boiled through Cristiano’s blood like black tar, rising up and choking him. He strode through the villa, glaring into empty rooms in search of the woman who had orchestrated his father’s destruction. How could she? And without consulting him!
Moments ago he’d left his father’s bedroom, stunned past all sensibility. He’d managed to moderate his tone with his father, but Cristiano didn’t think he would be able to show such self-control when it came to Laurel.
He found her in the library, a pleasant, book-lined room with views of the side garden, adorned with its orange trees and hibiscus. Laurel was curled up on the sofa, a book lying open next to her, her expression both pensive and wary. She’d been waiting for him, waiting for him to confront her, because she knew what she’d done was wrong.
Cristiano closed the door carefully behind him and stared her down. Laurel lifted her chin, meeting his narrowed gaze with something close to defiance, infuriating him all the more.
‘How could you?’ he stated quietly, not even a question. ‘How could you?’
‘I assume you’re talking about helping your father to be in touch with my mother.’
‘She is arriving here tomorrow morning.’
‘I know.’ Laurel’s chin went up another notch. ‘I helped to book the flight, a red-eye from New York.’
Cristiano shook his head, trying to keep a rein on his anger. He felt like throttling her. ‘My father is in his last months of life, and you want to bring Elizabeth Forrester back into his life?’
‘Of course he asked.’ Cristiano raked a hand through his close-cropped hair, nails grazing skin, the brief flash of pain an outlet for his frustration. ‘He’s feeling lonely and vulnerable. He is an eternal optimist when it comes to matters of the heart. And, in every single case, every romantic attachment he’s ever made has ended in disaster.’
‘What are you afraid of, Cristiano?’ Laurel asked quietly. ‘Because in this case the disaster is going to happen, no matter what. Your father is going to die. Why shouldn’t we—yes, we—help to make his last days and weeks a little bit happier?’
He stared at her in disbelief. ‘And you think having Elizabeth here will achieve that aim?’