‘Do you mind if I clean myself up?’ she asked. ‘I feel…’ Dirty. She felt dirty. But Cristiano didn’t need to know that. He was already looking at her as if he thought she was, a realisation that made heat scorch Laurel’s face once more. She knew she was wearing a slinky, slutty get-up, but did he have any right to judge her? Although, considering her actions tonight, perhaps he did.
‘Be my guest.’ Cristiano gestured towards a corridor that led to the suite’s bedrooms. ‘You’ll find everything you need in one of the bathrooms.’
‘Thank you,’ Laurel answered, her tone turning a bit haughty to cover her confusion—and her guilt. If she could have picked the circumstances in which she ever saw her stepbrother again, these would not have been them. Not by a million awful miles.
Was it just the way she was dressed or was there another reason he was being so cold? Not that they’d ever had much of a relationship, or one at all. Her mother had been married to his father for three years, but in that time Laurel had only met Cristiano twice. Once after the wedding, when he’d had a blazing argument with his father, Lorenzo Ferrero, and then stormed out. And the second time when he’d come home for some reason and she’d attempted, in pathetic, girlish naivety, to impress him.
Cristiano was still staring at her, arms folded, the emotion in his silver eyes fathomless. What had she expected him to say? Do? He’d never expressed any familial concern or even interest in her before.
She was a stranger to him, or near enough to it, just as he was to her—or should be, except for the fact that out of idle curiosity—or perhaps, shamefully, something a little deeper than that—she’d followed his exploits on social media and scanned the many tabloid articles about his playboy lifestyle. She’d always been fascinated by this man who had loomed on the periphery of her life, dark and powerful, when she’d been an innocent teenaged girl emerging shyly from her chrysalis of gawkiness into uncertain womanhood.
It truly stunned her that she was in his penthouse now, although she supposed, if she stopped long enough to think rationally about it, she shouldn’t have been that surprised. She’d known the hotel where they’d met Bavasso was owned by Cristiano. She just hadn’t expected actually to see him.
Cristiano’s mouth curved in a smile that held neither humour nor warmth. His eyes glittered like burnished mirrors, reflecting nothing. ‘You said you wanted to clean yourself up?’ he prompted.
‘Yes.’ Laurel realised she was staring but it was hard not to stare at a man who was so starkly beautiful, so arrogantly attractive. The silk of his shirt clung to his well-defined pectoral muscles and the narrow trousers emphasised lean hips and powerful thighs. But beyond the impressive musculature of his body was the aura he possessed, the lethal authority and latent sexuality he emanated from every perfect pore—and that was what made Laurel stare. And not just stare, but imagine, shadowy, vague thoughts and images that danced through her mind, awakening longings that been dormant for her whole life. Thankfully they remained shadowy, falling back and leaving a streak of restless heat in their wake.
Staring at him now, taking in the arrogant tilt of his head, the dark, winged eyebrows, the sculpted mouth formed into a hard, hard line—he looked just the same as he had ten years ago. Perhaps he was a bit more muscular now, a bit more powerful. He’d made his own millions in the last decade, she knew, in property, casinos and hotels, at the highest end of the market.
He’d also, according to the tabloids, had dozens and dozens of mistresses—Hollywood actresses and European supermodels who graced his arm like the most expensive accessories, and, if the papers were to be believed—and Laurel suspected they were—were discarded after a matter of days.
It seemed incredible to her that she’d actually tried, in a clumsy, desperate way, to make him like her gawky teenaged self. The realisation made her cringe even now—especially now—yet surely Cristiano didn’t remember that? He’d swatted her away like a fly.