Authors: Lucy Gordon
Two years later...
, but the answer's no, and that's final. You just have to accept it.'
Natasha's face was distorted by anger as she clutched the phone.
âDon't tell me what I have to do,' she snapped into the receiver. âYou said you were eager for anything I wroteâ'
âThat was a long time ago. Things have changed. I can't buy any more of your work. Those are my orders.'
Natasha took a shuddering breath as yet another rejection slammed into her.
âBut you're the editor,' she protested. âSurely it's you who gives the orders.'
âThe magazine's owner tells us what to do and that's final. You're out. Finished. Goodbye.'
The editor hung up, leaving Natasha staring at the phone in fury and anguish.
âAnother one?' asked a female voice behind her. âThat's the sixth editor who's suddenly turned against you after buying your work for ages.'
Natasha turned to her friend Helen, who was also her flatmate.
âI can't believe it,' she groaned. âIt's like there's a spider at the centre of a web controlling them all, telling them to freeze me out.'
âBut there is. Surely you know that. The spider's name is Elroy Jenson.'
, Natasha thought reluctantly. Jenson owned a huge media empire that until recently had provided her with a good living. But he'd taken a fancy to her and pursued her relentlessly, ignoring her pleas to be left alone. Finally he'd gone too far, forcing her to slap his face hard enough to make him yell. One of his employees had seen them and spread the story.
âEveryone knows you made him look a fool,' Helen said sympathetically. âSo now he's your enemy. It's a pity about that quick temper of yours, Natasha. You had every right to be angry but...well...'
âBut I should have paused before I clobbered him. I should have been calm and controlled and thought about the future. Hah!'
âYes, I know it sounds ironic, but look at the price you've paid.'
âYes,' Natasha said with a heavy sigh.
As a freelance journalist her success had been dazzling. Magazines and newspapers clamoured for her sassy, insightful articles.
âHow can one man have so much power?' she groaned.
âPerhaps you need to go abroad for a while,' Helen suggested. âUntil Jenson forgets all about you.'
âThat would be difficultâ'
âIt needn't be. The agency found me a job in Italy, doing publicity. It would mean going out there for a while. I was about to call them and say they'd have to find someone else, but why don't you go instead?'
âBut I can't just... That's a mad idea.'
âSometimes madness is the best way. It could be just what you need now.'
âBut I don't speak Italian.'
âYou don't have to. It's an international thing, promoting the city all over the world.'
âIt's not Venice, is it?' Natasha asked, suddenly tense.
âNo, don't worry. I know you wouldn't want to go to Venice. It's Verona, the city of
Romeo and Juliet
. Some of that story is real, and tourists love to see Juliet's balcony and other places where different scenes are set. So a group of luxury hotel owners have clubbed together to create some publicity for the place. Of course, I know you're not exactly a fan of romanceâ'
âIt doesn't bother me,' Natasha said quickly. âI'm not going into retreat just because one manâ Well, anywayâ'
âFine. So why don't you take this job?'
âBut how can I? It's yours.'
âI really wish you would. I accepted it impulsively because I'd had a row with my boyfriend. I thought we were finished, but we've made up and it would really suit me if you went instead of me.'
âBut if they're expecting youâ'
âI've been dealing with the agency. I'll put you in touch with them and sing your praises. Natasha, you can't let your life be ruled by a man you haven't seen for two years. Especially when he was a cheating rogue. Your words, not mine.'
âYes,' she murmured. âI said that. And I meant it.'
âThen go. Put Mario behind you and put Elroy behind you, too. Seize your chance for a fresh start.'
Natasha took a deep breath. âAll right,' she said. âI'll do it.'
âFine. Now, let's get started.'
Helen logged on to her computer and contacted the agency. Moments later, Natasha was reading an email, written in efficient English, offering her the assignment and giving her instructions:
You will be dealing with Giorgio Marcelli. The hotel owners employ him to handle publicity. He looks forward to welcoming you to Verona.
âYou see, it's a no-brainer,' Helen said. âI'll leave you to have a think.'
Left alone, Natasha stared out of the window, trying to decide what to do. Despite what Helen said, it wasn't easy to make up her mind.
âNot Venice,' she had asserted and Helen had reassured her, because she knew that nothing would persuade Natasha ever to go back to that beautiful romantic city where her heart had been broken.
Natasha thought back to herself as a very young woman, haunted by her mother's warnings never to trust a man. She had pursued a successful career, devoting her time to her writing, avoiding emotional relationships. Of course she could flirt and enjoy male company. But never for very long. Eventually distrust would make her back away from any man who attracted her.
She'd been glad of it, sure that caution would protect her from suffering her mother's fate. On that she had been resolved.
Until she'd met Mario.
He had affected her as no other man ever had. Together they had walked the streets of Venice, drifting by the canals. In one tiny alley he'd drawn her into the shadows for their first kiss. Despite her attempts to obliterate the memory, it still lived in her now.
Her whole body had responded to him, coming alive in ways she had never dreamed of before. She could sense the same in him, although every instinct told her that he was an experienced lover. Wherever they went, women had thrown admiring glances at him and regarded Natasha with envy. She'd guessed they were thinking how lucky she was to be sharing his bed. That day had never come, although several times Natasha had been on the verge of giving in to temptation.
As the day of her departure neared, Mario had begged her to stay with him a little longer. Blissfully happy, she had agreed.
Even now, two years later, remembering that happiness was the most painful thing of all, despite her frantic attempts to banish it from her memory, her heart, her life.
She imagined his face when he'd returned to the table and found her gone.
Vanished into thin air
, she thought.
As far as he's concerned I no longer exist, and he no longer exists to me.
In fact, the man she'd believed him to be had never existed. That was what she had to face.
Bitterly, she replayed the scene. She'd been so sure that he was about to declare his feelings, but when he'd said, âThere's something I've been trying to tell you for days,' he'd actually been planning to dump her.
He'd probably spent the afternoon with Tania, perhaps in her bed.
She thought he was being unfaithful to her with me. In fact he was being unfaithful to both of us. That's the kind of man he is.
After fleeing from Venice, Natasha had done everything she could to disappear for ever, changing her email address and phone number.
But one email from him had just managed to get through before the old address was cut off:
Where did you vanish to? What happened? Are you all right?
, she thought defiantly.
I'm all right. I got rid of the only person who could hurt me. And nobody is ever going to do that to me again.
She'd never replied to Mario, merely instructing the server to block his emails. Then she'd moved in with Helen. If he came to her old flat he would find the door locked against him as firmly as her heart was locked against him.
At night she would lie awake, dismayed by the violence of her response. He had touched her emotions with an intensity that warned her to escape while there was still time. That way lay the only safety.
, she thought.
Since then she'd devoted herself to work, making such an impression that she came to the attention of Elroy Jenson. The media magnate had propositioned her, certain that a mere freelance journalist would never refuse him. When she did refuse he couldn't believe it, persisting until she was forced to slap his face and bring her successful career to a sudden end.
After that, her life had been on a downward spiral. Her income had collapsed. Now she could barely afford the small rent she paid on the room she rented from Helen.
The time had come for firm action. And if that meant leaping into the unknown, she would do it. The unknown had its attractions, and suddenly she was ready for anything.
She exchanged brisk emails with Giorgio, the publicity manager. He informed her that she would be staying at the Dimitri Hotel and a driver would meet her at the airport. Two days later she embarked on the journey that might lead to a triumphant new life, or a disaster. Either way, she was venturing into the unknown.
During the flight to Verona she kept her mind firmly concentrated on work.
Romeo and Juliet
was a story that had long touched the world: two young people who fell in love despite the enmity of their families. In the end, they chose to die rather than live without each other.
Legend said that Shakespeare's play was based on real events. The lovers had really lived and died. It would be her job to immerse herself in the story and entice the world to join her.
The driver was at the airport, holding up a placard bearing the words âDimitri Hotel'. He greeted her with relief, and ushered her into the car for the three-mile journey to Verona.
âThe hotel is in the centre of town,' he said. âRight next to the river.'
Verona was an ancient, beautiful city. Delighted, she gazed out of the window, enchanted by the hints of another, mysterious age. At last they drew up outside a large elaborate building.
âHere we are. Dimitri Hotel,' the driver said.
As she entered the elegant lobby, a man came forward. He was in his sixties, heavily built, with a plump, smiling face. He greeted her in English.
âThe agency told me there had been a change of plan,' he said. âApparently the original candidate couldn't make it, but they say you have excellent credentials.'
âThank you. I'm an experienced journalist. I hope I can live up to your expectations.'
âI'm sure you will. I'm very glad you're here. I promised the President the lady would be here for him tonight and it's never good to disappoint him.'
He gave a comical shudder which made Natasha ask, âIs he a difficult man? Scary?'
âSometimes. Mostly he's very determined. People don't cross him if they can help it. He only bought this hotel just under two years ago and set about changing everything practically the first day. There's been a massive redecoration, and the staff has been reorganised to suit him. Everything has to be done his way. Nobody argues.'
âYou called him the President.'
âPresident of the
It was his idea that a group of hotel owners of Verona, the
, should all work together. They thought it would be an easy-going organisation but he said it needed leadership. The others just did as he suggested and named him President.
âA while back one of the other owners thought of challenging him for the top job, but he was “persuaded” not to. Nobody knows how, but neither was anyone surprised.
âWhen he gives his orders we jump to attention, especially me, because he could fire me any time he likes. I'm only telling you so that you'll take care not to offend him.
âWe'll dine with him tonight and tomorrow you will meet all the
members. They're looking forward to having you spread the word about our lovely city.'
âBut isn't the word already out? Surely
Romeo and Juliet
is the most famous love story in the world?'
âTrue, but we need to make people realise how they can become involved. Now, I'll show you to your room.'
On their way up they passed two men having a noisy argument. One was clearly in command, yelling,
so fiercely that the other backed off.
âWhat does that word mean?' Natasha asked curiously. âIt really scared the other guy.'
âIt means “Do you understand?”' Giorgio laughed. âIt's really just a way of saying “You'll do as I say.
âIt sounds useful.'
âIt can be, if you're trying to make it clear who's in charge.' He grinned. âI've had it said to me a few times. Here's your room.'
Like the rest of the place, her room was elegant and luxurious. A huge window looked out over the river, where the sun shone on the water. The atmosphere seemed peaceful and she took a deep contented breath.
When she'd unpacked she took a shower and began work on her appearance. For this meeting she was going to look her best.
She was attractive so not too much effort was required. Her blue eyes were large and expressive. Her blonde hair had just a touch of red that showed in some lights but not in others.
Natasha pinned her hair high on her head, suggesting businesslike severity. Usually, she preferred to let it flow, curved and luscious about her shoulders in a more relaxed way.
But not tonight
, she mused, studying herself in the mirror.
Tonight I'm a businesswoman, here to earn a living.