‘I’ll arrange private transport,’ Cristiano said. It seemed simple to him, and for some ridiculous reason he really wanted her to take the clothes with her. ‘A car from the villa that will take you all the way to Rome.’

Laurel gazed at him levelly for a moment. ‘As eager as you may be to get me out of your life quickly, I’m fine with public transport.’

Cristiano stared at her, silently fuming, because of course he hadn’t meant it that way. But he didn’t even know what he had meant, or how to explain. So he stayed silent, and Laurel kept packing, and after a few more tense moments Cristiano turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

He didn’t sleep that night, lying awake and gritty-eyed, staring at the ceiling as he went over the last two weeks and kept telling himself this was what he wanted. What he had to want.

Because what was the alternative, really? Their lives were so different. Laurel wasn’t going to want to give up her job, or even that house she claimed to love so much. And Cristiano’s life was in Italy, managing his hotels and making new business deals. This made sense. This was the only way. It had to be.

He didn’t come out of the study when he heard her suitcase bumping down the stairs. Didn’t trust himself to say goodbye in the cool, civil way he wanted to. He was being a coward, and he knew it, but the other option—of breaking down or begging her to stay—felt impossible. Unbearable. So he stayed still and listened as the suitcase bumped down each step and then the front door clicked softly shut.

The house suddenly felt deathly silent.

He buried himself in work for the next three days, trying not to think. He didn’t sleep, and barely ate. On day four he finally dragged himself up to his father’s bedroom, pausing in surprise on the threshold at seeing Elizabeth sitting next to him, smiling at something Lorenzo was saying, her head bent close to his.

The image was arresting in its poignant intimacy. The love was so visible between the two of them, it felt as if it shimmered in the air. Cristiano could hardly credit it, yet he knew it was true. Laurel had been right.

Elizabeth caught sight of him first, her expression freezing before she managed a cautious smile.

‘Cristiano,’ Lorenzo called, beckoning to him with one gnarled hand. ‘Come in.’

‘I don’t want to disturb…’

‘You aren’t,’ Lorenzo assured him. ‘But you look terrible. You miss Laurel.’ It was a statement, and one Cristiano chose to ignore.

‘You seem well,’ he said stiffly, although his father had been spending more and more time resting in bed.

‘I feel well.’ Lorenzo shot Elizabeth an adoring look. ‘I feel very well.’

Cristiano gazed at the two of them, feeling flummoxed, weary, yet strangely cheered. Who was he to deny his father his happiness? Laurel had asked the same question and he’d dismissed it, because he had truly believed Elizabeth Forrester couldn’t make his father happy. But, against all odds, it seemed she could.

He left them a short while later, drifting around the house like a ghost. There was no reason to stay here, of course, now that Elizabeth was proving to be such a capable nurse. He could return to Rome, to his penthouse, to his life. All of it felt empty.

* * *

‘May I talk to you for a few minutes?’

Cristiano turned at the sound of Elizabeth’s tense voice. ‘Yes,’ he answered, as tense as she was.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. ‘I know you don’t like me, Cristiano. I know you don’t trust me. And,’ she continued before he could protest against either statement, which he wasn’t even sure he would have, ‘I know I have not shown myself well in your eyes.’ She grimaced. ‘I’ve not shown myself well in my own eyes. I’ve made a lot of poor choices—choices borne out of fear, but that doesn’t excuse them, I know.’

Cristiano felt compelled to say, ‘Laurel told me something of your life.’

‘Did she? Laurel has always been far more forgiving of me than I deserve. I know that.’ She let out an unsteady breath. ‘But I want to reassure you, Cristiano, that I love your father. I’ve always loved him. I know you didn’t trust me ten years ago, and you had reason not to—good reason—but the only reason I took that money was because I’d known what it is to be poor and I never wanted to be it again.’ She managed a rather wavering smile. ‘It was wrong, and I accept that, but I was never going to leave him. I realise there’s no reason for you to believe that, though. I don’t deserve your trust in that or any matter.’

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