But Cristiano found he did believe her, much to his chagrin. ‘I believe you loved him,’ he said. ‘And that you love him still. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.’ He paused. ‘But are you really prepared to stay until the end, as difficult as that will be?’

She lifted her chin, reminding him of Laurel. ‘Yes, I am, because that’s what love does. I didn’t come here thinking it would be easy, you know.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘I’ve had enough of easy.’

‘Have you?’ Cristiano asked, more curious than sceptical.

‘Yes, I have. Love isn’t easy. It’s hard and messy and painful, but worth it. I believe that.’ Her chin tilted up another notch and her gaze fastened on his, unrelenting in its perception. ‘Maybe that’s something you need to think about.’

* * *

Twenty-four hours later Cristiano stood in front of a small farmhouse of weathered white wood, with a view of rolling fields and a distant glint of the pond Laurel had once told him about. Cristiano let out a long, low breath as he surveyed the house with its bowed front porch and peeling paint that Laurel had thought of as home. Had been willing to risk everything for.

Slowly he mounted the steps; he could tell from the darkened windows and empty driveway that she wasn’t home. It was six o’clock in the evening, twilight stealing slowly over the hills, the sound of crickets chirruping in the air.

Cristiano hadn’t given a lot of thought to what he would do when he got here. He’d been focused on the how—the travel, the logistics—his mind buzzing and blank with the import of what came next.

And now she wasn’t even here.

He peered in the windows, noting the mellow oak floorboards, the hand-made quilt thrown over the back of a squashy sofa, the many photographs on the walls. It was a well-loved home and, for a woman who had been dragged around the globe in search of the next boyfriend and protector, it must have felt like the ultimate sanctuary. No wonder Laurel had wanted to keep it.

But would she want to keep him?

He’d spent his whole life staying emotionally safe. Today he was going to risk it all.

The sound of a car had him turning. A beat-up truck pulled into the drive, and after a few seconds Laurel got out. She was wearing her nurse’s scrubs, her hair held back in a ponytail, and she looked tired, lovely and so very, very welcome. Cristiano had to keep himself from catapulting himself off the porch and dragging her into his arms. There were things he had to say first. Things Laurel needed to hear.

She mounted the steps, fishing in her bag for her keys, still not seeing him. Not wanting to startle her, Cristiano said softly, ‘Laurel.’

She stilled and then looked up, the blood draining from her face. She swayed slightly where she stood and Cristiano took a step forward.

‘Laurel,’ he said again, and this time he didn’t hide how he felt. It came through in her name, the loveliest word in the world. Laurel’s eyes widened and he knew she understood, or at least he hoped she understood.

‘Cristiano.’ Her voice was a breath. ‘What are you doing here?’ A wary look came into her eyes. ‘I’m not pregnant. For sure.’

‘That’s not why I came.’

‘Why, then?’

‘Because I need to tell you that I love you.’

She blinked, looking dazed. ‘You…?’

‘Love you.’ He’d agonised so much about saying it, three little words that cost so much, meant so much, yet suddenly seemed so surprisingly easy to say.

Cristiano felt buoyant and so, so light, as if a huge weight had just tumbled off him. A weight that had never really been there at all, except in the terrible void of his own fears. ‘I love you,’ he said again, just because he could. ‘I was stupid not to realise it before, and even stupider not to say it. Stupid to let you walk away when you’re the best thing in my life.’ He laughed out loud, amazed at the words tumbling out of him. Amazed at how much he meant them.

‘Cristiano…’

For one heart-stopping second he thought she was going to let him down. This was the risk he’d taken, and here was the danger, the awful, awful pay-off. But in the next second he realised it didn’t matter. Well, it mattered; of course it mattered. His life was over without Laurel in it. But he would have said it all anyway, no matter what her response, because he needed to. Because he wanted to be a man who admitted his feelings. His love.

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