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Cristiano leaned his head back against the sofa, replaying the moment when he’d seen Laurel come into the casino yesterday evening. He’d been standing by the roulette table, keeping a discreet eye on the heavy betters, making sure nothing got out of hand. His establishments were high class and respectable, where gambling was a dignified pastime rather than a desperate sport. He’d seen a flash of silver in his peripheral vision, and he’d turned, the nape of his neck prickling, although he hadn’t even known why. He’d seen Elizabeth Forrester first, wearing a crimson cocktail dress that was far too tight and short for a woman of her age, although she still had the body to pull it off. His insides had tightened, his mouth turning down in disgust at the sight of the gold-digger who had just about ruined his father’s life. And then he’d seen Laurel. He’d recognised her instantly, even though it had been ten years. It hadn’t taken a moment of mental gymnastics, not even a second. He’d looked at her and he’d known. And he’d felt, in that moment, a pang of something deeper than desire—the need to possess, to consume, a craving so overwhelming he struggled to control it. And then he’d seen whose arm she was on. He’d taken in the skimpy dress and sky-high heels, the bright make-up and hair shellacked with hairspray, and he’d felt as if he could be sick. He had been sick, sickened by her obvious tactics, and his stomach had cramped when Bavasso had pulled her onto his lap. She’d perched there, her smile frozen in place, determined to endure…and for what? Had Bavasso paid for the sycophantic attention…and worse? Far worse. Cristiano had stayed on the fringes of the crowds, watching Laurel and Bavasso out of the corner of his eye, his gut churning. Bavasso went for the baccarat table as he always did, flanked by two of his bodyguards—and Laurel. Elizabeth lurked in the background, looking anxious and trying not to. Clearly this was Laurel’s game, but Elizabeth had some stake in it. A mother and daughter team. Had they always been like that? Probably. He hadn’t been able to keep from looking at Laurel, noticing the tiny dress, the slender yet generous figure poured into it. He hadn’t thought of Laurel Forrester once in the last ten years, but he realised then that, on some level, it had been a conscious decision. Not thinking of her had taken effort, a matter of will. And he was certainly thinking about her now. It had taken all his self-control not to stride over to Bavasso when the odious man had pulled Laurel onto his lap. Cristiano had seen the flash of disgust cross Laurel’s face but then she’d lifted her chin, her smile firmly in place, and Cristiano hadn’t known whether to feel admiration or contempt. She hated this, but she still chose it. That was the kind of woman she was. So why now was he starting to wonder, even to doubt? He was a man who dealt in certainties. And the certainty he’d seen last night was Laurel agreeing to go up to Bavasso’s hotel room. The only reason she’d been in Cristiano’s casino with that man was because she’d chosen it. Because she wanted something from him. Right? With a sigh Cristiano opened his laptop again and once more he scrolled through the search results for Laurel Forrester. He clicked on the page for the hospital in Illinois again, and went through every page of the website to see if he could find anything more about Laurel Forrester, RN. After half an hour he came across a page of thank you messages and photographs from patients—and there was a photo of Laurel, standing next to an elderly woman and her adult children, looking tired but smiling. He hadn’t seen her smile like that all night. It was a genuine smile, full of warmth and kindness, and Cristiano stared and stared at it, unable to look away. Who was the woman in the photo? And who was the woman who had locked herself in his guest bedroom, defiant and afraid? Cristiano shoved his laptop away. His eyes were gritty, his head starting to pound. Outside sunlight was spreading across the city sky like melted butter, pearly grey giving way to pale, fragile blue. Cristiano opened the sliding glass doors to the private terrace and breathed in the summer air, fresh this early in the morning, yet already imbued with heat.
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