Authors: Lucy Gordon
She fixed her hair firmly away from her face until she felt it conveyed the serious message she intended. Giorgio had warned her that the owner was a man to be reckoned with, but she could deal with that. She'd meet him on his own ground, a woman to be reckoned with.
âI did the right thing in coming here,' she whispered. âEverything's going to be fine.'
* * *
In Venice, a city where most of the roads were water, motor cars could only come as far as Piazzale Roma, the car park on the edge of town. In the glowing heat of a sunny day, Mario Ferrone went to collect his car, accompanied by his brother Damiano.
âIt sounds like your hotel is doing really well,' Damiano said. âYou've got a great future ahead of you.'
âI think I just might have,' Mario said, grinning.
âNo doubt,' Damiano said cheerfully. âAfter all, look who taught you.'
This was a reference to Damiano's successful career as the owner of several hotels. Mario had learned the trade working in many of them and had finally become ambitious for his own establishment.
âThat's right, I learned from the best,' Mario said. âAnd having a place in Verona is a help. Several of us hoteliers have got together to promote the
Romeo and Juliet
âThe city of lovers,' Damiano said wryly. âThat should suit you. You'd hardly believe some of the tales I've heard about you.'
âNot recently,' Mario said quickly.
âNo, you've settled down these last couple of years, but before that I remember you gave a whole new meaning to the term “bad boy”.'
âMost of us do before we find the right woman,' Mario pointed out.
âTrue. I wasn't a saint before I met Sally. But you haven't met your “Sally”, so what made you suddenly become virtuous?'
âVirtuous? Me? No need to insult me.'
Damiano grinned. âSo is it just a smokescreen?'
âNo. I really have changed, not necessarily for the better.'
âDon't say that. You're much improvedâquieter, more serious, more grown-up...'
âMore suspicious and demanding, nastier sometimes,' Mario said quietly.
âHey, why do you put yourself down?'
âPerhaps because I know myself better than anyone else does. I'm not the nice guy I used to beâif I ever was.'
âSo what made it happen?'
Mario clapped him on the shoulder. âDon't ask me. It's a long story, and one thatâwell, that I don't care to think of too often. Let's leave it. I'd better be going. Giorgio has hired a journalist he says will be brilliant at promoting the
Romeo and Juliet
angle. I'm meeting her for dinner when I get back tonight.'
âBest of luck. Goodbye, brother.'
They embraced each other. Damiano stood back, waving as Mario turned out of the car park and across the causeway that led to the mainland.
From Venice to Verona was nearly seventy-five miles. During the journey Mario reflected wryly on his brother's words. Damiano didn't know that one of the turning points in Mario's life had been Damiano's marriage to Sally, four years earlier. Mario had been strongly attracted to Sally, something he'd had to fight. He'd fought it by working in Damiano's hotels in Rome, Florence, Milan, only rarely returning to Venice.
Until then his life had been free and easy. He was young, charming and handsome, with no trouble attracting women. He'd had many girlfriends. Too many, he now realised.
He'd returned to Venice for the birth of his brother's son and found, to his relief, that Sally no longer attracted him, except as a sister. He'd settled into a life of work and pleasure.
Then had come the other great turning point in his life, when he'd met the one woman who could make a difference, drive away the loneliness and give his existence meaning.
Fantasy dictated that she should feel the same and throw herself into his arms. The bitter reality was that she had walked out on him, slamming the door in his face, condemning him to a bleak isolation that was all the worse because he had glimpsed a glorious future, and come so close to embracing it.
Buying the hotel two years ago had been a lucky chance. The owner was eager to sell and accepted a discounted price, and now Mario felt that he was headed for success and independence. If he did nothing else in his life he would triumph in this, he vowed to himself. With that hope to guide him he could banish the pain and bleakness of the last two years.
At last he reached the hotel. Giorgio came to the entrance to greet him.
âIt's all set up,' he said.
âHas the lady arrived?'
âYes, an hour ago. She's not who I was expecting. The agency made a last-minute change, but she seems serious and professional.'
âI can't wait to meet her.' As they walked across the elegant lobby, Mario looked around him at the place he was beginning to regard as his kingdom. âYou know, I have the best possible feeling about this,' he said. âWe're on the right road, and we're going to reach a great destination.'
âOne where the money is,' Giorgio supplied with a grin.
âOf course, but that's not the only thing. Somehow, everything is beginning to feel right.'
âThat's the spirit. Get settled in and then I'll introduce you to... Mario? Mario, is something wrong?'
But Mario didn't hear him. His attention had been drawn to the great staircase that led to the next floor. He was staring at it like a man stunned. A young woman was walking down the stairs. She moved slowly, pausing to look at the paintings on the wall, so that at first she didn't seem to notice Mario standing by the bottom step.
When her eyes came to rest on Mario she stopped suddenly, as if unable to believe her eyes.
* * *
A terrible stillness came over Natasha as she looked down the staircase, trying to understand what was happening. It was impossible that Mario should be standing there, staring up at her with a thunderstruck expression.
And yet it was true. He was there, looking like a man who'd seen a nightmare come to life.
She tried to move but the stillness enveloped her. Now he was climbing the stairs slowly, as though unwilling to approach her too quickly or come too close. When he spoke it was uneasily.
âI believe...we've met before.'
A dozen answers clamoured in her head, but at last she heard herself say, âNo, never.'
That took him off-guard, she could see. While he struggled for a reply, Giorgio's voice reached them from the bottom of the stairs.
âAha! I see you two are getting acquainted.' Waving cheerfully, he climbed up to join them.
âNatasha, let me introduce Mario Ferrone, the owner of the hotel and President of the
. Mario, this is Natasha Bates, the lady who's going to tell the world about Verona.'
Mario inclined his head formally. â
It's a pleasure to meet you.'
âHow do you do?' she said, nodding towards him.
âLet's go and eat,' Giorgio said, âand we can have a good talk.'
Downstairs, a table was laid for them in a private room overlooking the river. Giorgio led Natasha to the chair nearest the window and drew it out for her.
A waiter hurried in, eager to serve the hotel's owner. His manner was respectful and she was reminded of Giorgio's words:
âWhen he gives his orders we all jump to attention...'
She'd known him as a cheeky playboy, always ready to laugh and use his charm. It was hard to see the man he'd been then as the stern authoritarian that Giorgio described now. But his face had changed, growing slightly thinner, firmer, more intense. Even his smile had something reserved about it.
Turning her eyes to him briefly, she caught him glancing at her and realised that he was studying her too. What did he see? Had she also changed, becoming older, sterner, less relaxed? Probably. Perhaps she should be glad, for it would make her stronger. And she was going to need strength now.
Giorgio claimed her attention, filling her wine glass, smiling at her with an air of deferential admiration. He had probably been handsome in his youth, and still had the air of a practised flirt.
âHow much were you told about this job?' he asked her.
âOnly that some Verona hotel owners had got together to promote the city's connection with
Romeo and Juliet
,' Natasha said.
âThat's right. It's already well promoted by the council, which works hard to bring tourists here. But the hotel owners wanted to enjoy a bit more of the spotlight, so they formed the ComunitÃ di Verona OspitalitÃ so that they could make the most of being in the town that saw the greatest love story in the world.
âShakespeare didn't invent
Romeo and Juliet
. There really were two families called Montague and Capulet, and they did have children who fell in love, and died. It happened in the early fourteenth century. In the next two hundred years the story was told and retold, until finally Shakespeare based his play on the legend. Tourists come here to see “Juliet's balcony” and imagine the balcony scene happening there.'
âWhich it didn't,' Mario observed drily. âThe house belonged to a family called Capello, but the council added the balcony less than a hundred years ago.'
âBut if everyone knows thatâ' Natasha mused.
âThey know it but they ignore it,' Giorgio said cheerfully. âPeople are often tempted to believe only what they want to.'
âHow true,' Natasha murmured. âThat's why we're all so easily taken in.'
She didn't look directly at Mario as she said these words, but she had a sense that he was watching her with an air of tension that matched her own.
âAnd that's what we can make use of,' Giorgio said. âJuliet's balcony, Juliet's tomb, where Romeo killed himself because he couldn't bear life without her, and where she killed herself for the same reason. Is it true? It is if we want it to be.'
âOh, yes,' Natasha mused. âTrue if we want it to beâuntil one day we have to face the fact that it isn't true, however much we want it.'
âBut that's show business,' Giorgio said. âCreating a fantasy that makes people happy.'
âAnd what more could we want than that?' Mario asked.
He raised his glass and drank from it, seemingly oblivious to her. But the next moment he said, âTell us something about yourself,
She turned her head, meeting his eyes directly. âWhat did you say?'
âI said I'd like to know about you. I'm sure there is much you could tell us. What are your family obligations? Are you free to live in Verona for several weeks, or is there someone at home who will be missing you?'
âI suppose there must be,' Giorgio said. He assumed a chivalrous air. âThis is a lovely lady. She must have crowds of men following her.'
âThat doesn't mean that I let them catch up,' Natasha teased.
âSome women are very good at keeping out of sight,' Mario said.
âOf course,' Giorgio agreed. âThat's the secret. Let them chase after you, but don't let any of them get close enough to know what you're thinking and feeling.' He kissed her hand gallantly. â
, I can see you're an expert in keeping your admirers wondering.'
âBut just what are they wondering?' Mario asked. âWill any of them arrive here to assert his “rights”?'
âWhat rights?' Giorgio demanded. âShe's not married.'
âThat's irrelevant,' Mario observed. âYou have only to study
Romeo and Juliet
to see that men and women make that decision within a few moments of meeting. And nobody dares get in their way.'
âWhen people fear betrayal they can get violent,' Giorgio agreed.
Natasha nodded. âAnd if they know for sure that they've been betrayed, there's no knowing how far they'll go to make someone sorry,' she mused, letting her glance rest on Mario.
She was glad to see that he understood the silent message. Before her eyes he flinched and averted his gaze. When he spoke again it was in a voice so defiantly businesslike that it told its own story.
âSo we can expect a jealous lover to follow you out here?' he said curtly.
She faced him, reading the chilly hostility in his eyes, answering it with her own.
âOn the contrary. You can be certain that nothing will make me leave before my work is finished,' she said calmly. âUnlike some people, I'm honest about my intentions. I don't make promises and break them.'
âThat's not exactly what I asked.'
, she thought.
You asked whether I'd had the nerve to replace you with another man.
She gave him her most confident smile, as though his questions merely amused her.
âLet me assure you that I am free,' she said. âNo man tells me what to do, and if anyone triedâ' she leaned closer to him ââI would make him regret that he ever knew me.' She added significantly, âI'm good at that.'
âI believe you,' he said.
Giorgio glanced at them curiously. âHey, do you two already know each other?'
âNo,' Natasha said quickly, before Mario could speak.
âReally? I feel like I'm watching a fencing match.'
âIt's more fun that way,' she said lightly. âGo on telling me about Verona. Unless, of course, Signor Ferrone has decided he doesn't wish to employ me. In which case I'll just pack up and go. Shall I?'
She made as if to rise but Mario's hand detained her.
âNo need for that,' he said harshly. âLet's get on with the job.'
âYes, that's the only thing that matters,' she said, falling back into the chair.
For a moment he kept his hand on her arm. âSo we are agreed? You will stay?'
âI will stay.'