Something flickered in Laurel’s eyes but she kept his gaze. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. ‘But I hope so.’

‘Do I need to remind you that this is the woman who, only two weeks ago, as good as sold you to a very unpleasant man and did nothing while he attacked you?’

‘No,’ Laurel answered stiffly. ‘You don’t need to remind me. And it wasn’t quite like that—’

‘The woman who,’ Cristiano continued relentlessly, ‘Has been seen with several dozen Z-listers over the last decade? Who is so clearly only with a man for what he can provide for her financially?’

‘Is that what you’re worried about?’ Laurel flung back at him. ‘That my mother will take Lorenzo’s money? Your inheritance?’

‘Hardly.’ The single word was scathing. ‘I have no need of my father’s money, and he obviously won’t need it in the long term.’ He pressed his lips together. ‘No, Laurel, I’m worried about my father’s health. His mental and emotional health. How do you think he’ll feel if and when Elizabeth abandons him in his greatest moment of need? Don’t you think there is a significant chance of her coming here, taking what she can and hightailing it to heaven knows where?’

Laurel pressed her trembling lips together. ‘That’s a rather cynical view.’

‘I have reason to be cynical,’ Cristiano snapped. ‘Many reasons. I have yet to see a romantic relationship that has actually worked.’

‘Not even ours, obviously,’ Laurel returned, bitterness spiking every word. ‘Not that we have a romantic relationship. Of course I don’t dare to presume such a thing.’ She rolled her eyes, and Cristiano glared at her, his fists clenched, his chest heaving.

‘This isn’t about us.’

‘Of course it isn’t.’

‘If you’re trying to say something, why don’t you just spit it out?’

Laurel took a deep, steadying breath. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, even sad, the bitterness and anger gone. Too bad they were still out in full force in Cristiano. ‘The difference between us, Cristiano,’ she said slowly, ‘Is that I choose to hope and you choose to doubt. And that is a chasm that neither of us seem able to cross.’

‘How poetic,’ he practically sneered. ‘If I’m doubting, it’s because I have very good reason to doubt. I’ve watched your mother swan into one or another of my hotels over the last ten years, always on the arm of some man, always out for herself. That is not the kind of person I want to introduce into my father’s life at this point.’

‘Too bad you don’t have a choice,’ Laurel returned evenly. ‘He’s a grown man, and he can make his own choices. He asked me,’ she emphasised, her voice throbbing with emotion now. ‘He asked me to call her and see if she’d welcome a phone call from him. And she did. There were tears in her voice when she realised he wanted to be in touch.’

‘I’m sure there were,’ Cristiano dismissed. ‘She’s a passable actress.’

Laurel shook her head. ‘Does it make you happy?’ she asked. ‘To feel so bitter and superior all the time? Does it feel good to tear down every possibility of hope and love that you can? Because, if it doesn’t, you must be a wretched, unhappy man, and then I would feel very sorry for you.’

Cristiano felt a muscle tick in his clenched jaw. ‘The last thing I need,’ he ground out, ‘is your pity.’

‘You have it anyway,’ Laurel snapped. Tears shone in her eyes and she blinked them away fiercely. ‘Would you really deny your father a chance to be with the woman he loves?’

Yes. Everything in him shouted it. But he stayed silent, because to admit such a thing seemed both callous and cruel. Laurel took a step towards him, one slender hand outstretched.

‘What is it you’re really afraid of, Cristiano?’ she asked softly.

Afraid? He wasn’t afraid. Not for himself, anyway. For his father. This wasn’t about him, about them, even though Laurel kept trying to make it seem as if it was.

‘I’m not afraid. I just don’t want to see my father get hurt.’

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