Authors: Lucy Gordon
âYou should put all that behind you,' he murmured. âThe past is gone, but you must make sure it
the past. Don't let it haunt your life, or it will control you.'
âYou sound as though you really know,' she said.
âIn a way I do. At one time I owed so much to Damiano that the need to get free and grow up became the most important thing in my life.'
âI took a long time to get to that stage.'
That was true, she thought, remembering him two years ago. Now he was so much stronger and more serious that he was almost a different man.
â“Haunt your life”,' she murmured. âMy mother never got over him abandoning us. She told me again and again that you could never trust a man.'
âAnd her words have stayed with you always,' he said softly.
âNot just her words. It was also the way he cut me out of his life, after I'd seemed to mean so much to him. I'd believed in his love, but it meant nothing.'
Mario uttered a soft curse. âI wish I had him here so that I could sock him in the jaw,' he said. âBut don't let your fatherâor Elroy Jensonâdestroy your life, Natasha. Banish them into the past, turn your back and become the person you really are.'
âToo late,' she sighed.
âIt's never too late if it's what you really want.'
She would have given anything to see his face as he uttered those words, but her head was pressed against his shoulder.
âNever too late,' she echoed, resting against him. A feeling of sleepy contentment was overtaking her, and she could have happily stayed like this for ever.
Mario sensed the moment when she began to doze. He tightened his arms about her, laying his lips against her hair, feeling an unfamiliar warmth go through him. He wanted to hold her close, but not in the hope of making love with her, only to keep her safe.
It was a feeling he'd never known before. When they had first met she had seemed strong, full of confidence, able to challenge the world and emerge victorious.
He found his mind drifting back to his own past. Since the day he'd first begun flirting with girlfriends he had never been attracted by commitment. His girlfriends had all been strong, independent, fancying him but not needing him.
, he thought now wryly.
Boy, was I immature
Four years earlier he'd met Sally, the woman who had married his brother, Damiano. His feelings for her had grown so deep that he'd fled their home in Venice for safety's sake.
Later, he'd felt safe enough to return occasionally. His interest in the hotel business had grown. Damiano had been an excellent teacher and Mario's talent had flourished until he could manage to buy and run his own hotel. But he'd remained a playboy, dancing from girl to girl, never choosing anyone who might seriously need him.
Now he realised how much things had changed. Natasha's sadness had touched his heart. She was alone and vulnerable, and the knowledge affected him strongly. The torment he'd endured when she'd deserted him had begun to fade, overwhelmed by her need. She needed a friend to be strong for her, and something told him that he should be that person because without him she had nobody. He tightened his arms, trying to send her a silent message of reassurance. Her breathing was steady and, although he couldn't see her face, he guessed she was still dozing.
Probably just as well that they couldn't talk, he thought. Words could be a trap, especially for a man like himself, with little verbal skill. He preferred to be judged by his actions rather than his words.
Since the day she'd arrived he knew he'd been clumsy, confused. The feeling had been increased by the suspicion that she enjoyed confusing him. He'd fought back, making matters worse, he now realised. But now he knew that his own feelings didn't matter. He only wanted her to feel safe.
He eased her down onto the bed. Her head drooped to one side and her eyes were closed, as though she'd slipped away from him into another world. And yet she was still with him.
And she always would be, he resolved. He'd lost her once. He couldn't bear to lose her again. He knew he had to keep her, but for the moment he must be silent about his decision. They had far to travel before things could be said openly between them.
Moving carefully, he lay down beside her, still holding her so that her head rested against him. For a while she was still, but then her arm moved, drifting slowly across his chest as though seeking him, his help and comfort.
For a moment he thought that she might awaken and he could say some of the things in his heart. But then she grew still again, and he knew she'd slipped back into another world. One where he did not exist, he realised. Did he exist for her at all?
He looked closely into her face, hoping to read in it some hint of an answer, but she was fast asleep. Their time would come, but for now he knew he must be patient. He closed his eyes.
* * *
In the early morning light Natasha opened her eyes to find herself in a strange world, one where her head rested against Mario and his arms enfolded her protectively.
At once she knew it was a dream. It could be nothing else.
âAll right?' asked his gentle voice. âAre you awake at last?'
âAm Iâwhatâwhat am Iâ?'
Mario saw the dismay come into her eyes as she realised that she was lying in his arms.
âYou've had a good night's sleep,' he said. âSo have I.'
âWhat happened? How did weâ?'
âHow did we end up lying together? You got a call from Jenson and it scared you. You were so upset that it seemed best not to leave you alone, so I came in here and stayed with you. But don't worry. I was just being a friend. I haven't done anything I shouldn't.'
She knew at once that it was true. Her flesh was calm and rested in a way that wouldn't have been true if he'd touched her sexually. He had merely held her gently, comfortingly in his arms, thinking only of her welfare.
âTruly,' he said. âStop worrying.'
âI'm not worried. I'm just glad you're here.'
âGlad?' he echoed. âReally glad?'
âOf course. How could I not be? You said you'd keep me safe and you did. Oh, if I could only tell you how good that feels.'
âIf that's what you want, that's all that matters,' he said.
Her eyes glowed and he became tense. Desire was growing in him. He wanted to kiss her smiling mouth, caress her warm body, feel her come to new life in his arms. But he had just reassured her that he had no such temptations, and her reaction left no doubt that this was what she wanted to hear.
He wanted her, but she didn't want him in the same way. That was what he had to accept. It was all he could do for her.
She stirred in his arms and he loosened his hold, thinking she was trying to move away from him. But she turned more towards him, closing her eyes again, sliding an arm around his body and murmuring,
as though she had discovered blissful contentment.
And that was what he brought her, he reflected. It was a kind of happiness, and better than the anguish of their first encounter, days ago.
âBut there could be more,' he whispered softly into her ear.
âIf we're patient, there could be more between us, surely? We could take it slowly, and thenâmaybeâ'
âMaybe what?' she murmured.
âI know we still have things to put behind us, and it won't be easy. You didn't treat me kindly, vanishing like that, but, after the way your father behaved, I guess you don't trust any of us. And I hurt you but I didn't mean to. If only you could bring yourself to believe me about that. But you will. One day I just know you will, and then everything will be wonderful.'
He gave a gentle laugh. âI wonder what “Mmm” actually means.'
She met his eyes. âIf I knewâI'd tell you.'
âNo, you wouldn't. You enjoy keeping me guessing. All right. I'll play your game because the prize we could win is worth everything.'
âYes,' she whispered. âBut will we win it?'
âWho knows?' he said. âWe
know. We must. But not just yet. Something will happen. It will make everything clearâsoonâsoon.'
âI guess you understand more than I do. You'll tell me when the time comesâwhenever that is.'
She smiled at him in a way that filled him with hope.
now so you can get some more sleep,' Mario said. âSee you in the morning.'
He fled from the room, downstairs and out into the garden. It was just becoming light and he went to the river, where he could lean over the wall and stare into the water, brooding.
It felt wonderful to have achieved a brief emotional contact with her, but he wondered how completely she understood him. He'd spoken of his hopes for the future, but were they any more than fantasies? She had said that something would happen. But when? How long must they wait to be sure?
He looked back at the building, where he could identify her room from the faint light that still glowed inside. As he watched, the floor-length window opened and she came out onto the balcony.
He backed away into the shadows so that she wouldn't see him, but she didn't even look down. She stood motionless, her eyes turned up to the heavens as though she could find the answer to a mystery in that distant place.
Watching her on the balcony, he thought that this must have been how it was for Romeo, seeing his beloved standing there above him.
On the night she'd arrived he'd gone to stand beneath her window, looking up, longing to see her. And there she had been, reaching out into the night, her body full of anguish, speaking words he had strained to hear. Then she'd gone inside again, leaving him standing alone in the darkness, struggling to come to terms with his conflicting feelings.
Now, here he was again, watching Natasha from a distance, condemned perhaps to be always at a distance, unable to voice his emotions openly.
Romeo's words came into his head.
It is my lady, Oh, it is my love! Oh, that she knew she were!
âYes,' he murmured. âIt is my love. Oh, that she knew she were.'
She does know
, argued a voice in his head.
You've made it very clear.
But does she want to know?
queried another voice.
Is she ready to accept?
Her voice was still there in his mind, asking if they would win the prize. That alarmed him, as it meant she could envisage a future apart. The way ahead was still strewn with doubts and problems, and who knew what the answers would be? Or if there would be any answers?
Romeo had reached out from beneath Juliet's balcony, letting her know he was there, telling her of his feelings. But Mario knew that path wasn't open to him at this moment.
Slowly he backed away, retreating deep into the shadows, never taking his eyes off her.
For a while, she stayed looking up into the sky, but then she lowered her head and wrapped her arms about herself, leaning against the wall. Her demeanour suggested confusion, sadness. Mario drew in his breath sharply. He'd tried to ease those feelings in her, and had briefly thought he'd succeeded. But she was still lonely, still vulnerable, and the sight hurt him.
Once he could have reached out to console her openly, revealing everything in his heart, inviting her in, rejoicing in the unity they had seemed to share.
But that unity had been an illusion, with traps along the way, ready to bring them both down. She needed him. He felt this as he had never felt it before, and the longing to fulfil her need was taking him over, heart and soul. But her feelings for him, whatever they might be, were undermined by a caution that barred her from believing that she was his love.
âOh, that she knew she were,' he whispered again. âOh, that I could convince her.'
He slipped quietly away for fear that she might see him.
Inside the hotel, he found Giorgio waiting for him in a state of agitation.
âYou were right about her all along,' he said.
âRight about who?'
âHer. Natasha Bates. You suspected something troubling about her as soon as she arrived. You said you hadn't met her before but it was obvious you guessed what a suspicious character she was. And she knew that you sensed it. That's why she's so edgy when you're around.'
âWhat the devil are you talking about?' Mario snapped.
âWe've received an email about Natasha that you must see. It's from Jenson Publications.'
The email was blunt and vicious:
You should be warned about your employee, Natasha Bates. She's well known in the media business for her dishonesty and inefficiency. If you are wise you will dismiss her at once.
There was no name attached. The missive merely came from the Jenson Publications head office.
âHe didn't dare put his name to it,' Mario growled. âBut this comes from Elroy Jenson, a miserable, scheming bastard who I'll strangle if I ever get my hands on him.'
âBut suppose it's true,' Giorgio argued. âYou've always sensed that she was dodgy.'
âDon't you dare say that,' Mario raged. âNone of this is true and if I ever hear you say such a thing again I'll make you sorry.'
âAll right, all right,' Giorgio said, hastily backing off, alarmed by the look in Mario's eyes. âMy lips are sealed.'
âDon't say it and don't even think it,' Mario snapped. âUnderstand?'
âUnderstand,' Giorgio said. âSorry. It just hadn't occurred to me.'
âYes, there are a lot of things that hadn't occurred to me either,' Mario sighed. âBut when they do occurâwell, you just have to face them. This email is a pack of lies. Jenson came on to her, she rejected him and now he's out to destroy her out of spite.'
Giorgio nodded as comprehension came to him. âSo you're on her side?'
âYes,' Mario said slowly. âI'm on her side.'
In the past few days he'd felt a desire to care for Natasha, but those moments were nothing compared to the storm of protectiveness that invaded him now. If Jenson had been there in person he would have throttled him without compunction.
âDon't tell her about this,' he instructed Giorgio. âHe's trying to scare her and I won't have it.'
âBut shouldn't we warn her? She should know she's got an enemy.'
âShe already knows. But she also has us, and we're going to take care of her. Not a word. I don't want her upset.'
She had every reason to be upset, he realised. Elroy Jenson might not be following her physically, but he was after her in a far more dangerous way. Through stretching out his tentacles of power across the world, he thought he could still make her suffer for defying him.
But he was wrong, Mario thought angrily. Now Natasha had him to defend her and he would do so, whatever it cost him.
âShe mustn't suspect anything,' he said to Giorgio.
âIf you say so.' Giorgio sighed reluctantly. âBut can we fend this man off?'
âWe can and we will. She's going to be safe.' His face became set. âI've promised her that and I'm going to keep my word.'
* * *
Turning back into her room from the balcony, Natasha returned to the bed and lay down. She had a strange yet pleasant feeling that Mario was still with her, whispering reassurances in her mind, or merely tightening his arms protectively around her, so that she understood.
But was that what he'd meant, or was she just listening to her own hopes? She was still wondering as she fell asleep.
She awoke feeling refreshed, eager to get up and face the day.
As soon as she swung her legs out of bed she knew something was wrong. The carpet beneath her feet was wet. Looking further, she found that the water came from the bathroom and covered most of the floor.
âOh, heavens, I must have left a tap on!' she exclaimed in dismay.
But when exploring the bathroom she discovered not a tap but a leaking pipe, spilling water directly onto the floor.
Hastily, she called Mario and explained that she'd need a plumber. He arrived a few minutes later and swore when he saw the extent of the damage.
âThis must be fixed quickly before it sinks through the floor,' he said. âPack your things and get out of here fast. I'll arrange another room for you.'
She was packed and finished in half an hour, glad to escape and leave the room to the plumbers who'd arrived. She found Mario waiting for her downstairs with a table laid for breakfast.
âThere's a bit of a problem,' he said. âIt's high season and every room in the place is taken.'
âSo I'll find a room somewhere else.'
âCertainly not. I have an apartment upstairs that you can have. I don't sleep there so the bed is free. You can relax in peace.'
âAnd do some work,' she said, gathering up her laptop.
His apartment was mainly a place of storage, filled with shelves and filing cabinets. She arrived to find a maid making up the bed.
âIt's all yours,' Mario said. âI'll leave you to it. Goodbye for now.'
She worked contentedly, sending her material to a dozen different sources. Then she felt the need for a short break, and crossed the room to switch on the television. But on the way her heel tangled in the carpet and she pitched forward. Reaching out, she grabbed hold of some small shelves, which promptly disgorged their contents onto the floor. With an exclamation, she dropped down and began gathering them up.
Then she stopped suddenly, as though something had grabbed her in a vice. An envelope had opened, spilling out several sheets of pale blue notepaper. On one of them she saw what was written at the bottom:
Your loving Tania.
Her whole being was consumed by a silent howl of anguish. Tania was still communicating with Mario. After all his promises, his assurances that he had broken with her, that she meant nothing to him, the truth was that he had been in contact with her.
When she thought of how close she had come to trusting him she wanted to bang her head against the wall.
âFool!' she murmured. âFool! You were so wise in the beginning. You should have listened to your suspicions.'
Was he still in touch with her? Or was it an old letter? If so, why had he kept it so long?
Because he's still involved with her
, she told herself.
He's been lying all this time.
With frenzied hands she pulled the letter open and began to read it. As she read she grew still. When she got to the end she went back and read it again. And then again, trying to believe the incredible words Tania had written.
Don't keep me at a distance.
I know you told me it was over because you wanted to be with that English girl, but look what she did when she found out about me. She wouldn't have vanished if she'd really loved you. I thought you'd realise that and come back to me. Why won't you take my calls or answer my emails?
Don't keep rejecting me, Mario. Natasha can't possibly mean that much to you.
Your loving Tania
She read it again, murmuring the words aloud, as though in this way she could manage to convince herself that they were real.
Everything Mario had told her was true. He had broken with Tania, as he'd vowed. She had refused to accept it and kept hounding him, but it seemed that nothing would make him take her back.
âI should have believed you,' she whispered. âOh, my love, I should have trusted you. But why didn't you show me this? Then I would have known the truth.'
She noticed that the letter was written in English, and remembered how Tania had spoken mostly in English with the odd Italian word thrown in. Doubtless, English was her native language, and perhaps her closeness to Mario had helped his mastery of English.
Which is lucky
, she thought.
If Tania had written in Italian I couldn't have understood, and I wouldn't have missed this for the world.
A noise outside warned her that Mario was coming. Swiftly she gathered up the papers and thrust them back onto the shelf, except for the Tania letter, which she thrust into her pocket. She would want to read that again, many times.
Natasha was back in front of the computer when he came in.
âDid you manage to sort the plumbing problem?' she asked.
âYes, it's all taken care of. It'll be a couple of days before you can move back in but, thanks to you, I was alerted in time to avoid total disaster. How are you getting on?'
âI've managed to do quite a lot of work. Now I feel like taking the evening off. I think I'll have a stroll by the river.'
âAm I allowed to come with you?'
It was a joy to have his company now that she could see him in a new light. All the pain and tension of the past two years had vanished, leaving only happiness and hope.
The light was fading as they left the building and crossed the street to the river. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, and she stretched hers about his waist. Clinging together, they strolled along the bank until they reached a cafÃ© by the water, and he indicated for her to sit down. Waving a waiter over, Mario spoke to him quickly in Italian and moments later the waiter returned with a bottle of wine.
âI have a reason for bringing you here,' Mario said. âThis place buys all its wine from a shop that stocks products from my vineyard.'
âThe best, naturally,' she said.
âNaturally. Everyone knows about Verona's romantic reputation, but its fame as a great wine centre tends to get blocked out.'
âI've been reading a little about it recently,' she said. âThere are wine tours, aren't there? We might do a little publicity for them too.'
âGood idea. You can turn your talents on to Vinitaly. That's a wine festival that happens every year in spring.' He grinned. âThere's a lot more to Verona than you think.'
âI'm sure there is. I look forward to discovering all its secrets.'
He raised his glass to her, saying,
âTi vol un altro goto de vin?'
âIs that Venetian?'
âYou know about Venetian?'
âGiorgio told me. The more I know, the better.'