Authors: Lucy Gordon
. âAs long as we understand each other.'
Natasha drew a tense breath as the bitter irony of those words swept over her. They had never understood each other. Nor could they ever, except on the lines of mutual defensiveness and mistrust.
She turned to Giorgio, assuming her most businesslike tone.
âSo it's time I consulted with the Publicity Manager. Tell me, what are my instructions?'
âWe must go on a trip around Verona,' he said, âstudying all the significant places. Especially the balcony. These days you can even get married in Juliet's house. And afterwards the bride and groom always come out onto the balcony for the photographs.'
âUseful,' she said, taking out her notebook and beginning to write. âThe balcony scene is the most famous part of the story.'
âYes, people love to imagine Juliet standing there, yearning for her lover, saying, “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?”'
âShe doesn't say “where”,' Natasha objected. âShe says “Wherefore”. It means “Why?” She's saying “Why did you have to be Romeo, a Montague, and my enemy?” In Shakespeare's time, if you wanted to know why someone had behaved in a certain way, you'd sayâ' she assumed a dramatic attitude â“âWherefore did thou do this, varlet?”'
âVarlet?' Giorgio queried.
âIt means rascal. You'd say it to someone who'd behaved disgustingly.'
Giorgio gave a crack of laughter. âI must remember that. Rascalâ
,' Natasha observed lightly.
âAha! So you know some Italian words?' Giorgio said eagerly.
âOne or two,' she said with a fair assumption of indifference.
âI'd give a lot to know how you learned that particular one,' he said cheekily.
âYou'll just have to wonder,' she chuckled.
Mario wasn't looking at her. He seemed completely occupied with his wine.
A man appeared in the doorway, signalling to Giorgio.
âI've got to leave you for a moment,' he said. âBut I'll be back.' He laid a hand on Natasha's shoulder. âDon't go away. I have a very good feeling about this.'
âSo have I,' she said. âI'll be right here.'
When Giorgio had gone, Mario refilled her wine glass.
âBe cautious about Giorgio,' he said. âHe turns on the charm as part of his trade.'
âBut of course,' she said cheerfully. âIt's a form of show business. No harm in that.'
âAs long as you're not taken in.'
âI'm not. These days, nothing and nobody manages to deceive me.'
He raised his glass to her in an ironic salute.
âThis is quite a coincidence,' he said. âI wonder which of us is more shocked.'
âWe'll never know.'
âJust now you were very determined to say we didn't know each other.'
âWould you have said differently?' she asked, watching him.
âNo, but I doubt I'd have said it so fast or emphatically. You denied knowing me as though your life depended on it.'
âBut we didn't know each other. Once we believed we did but we were both wrong. You thought I was easy to fool or you wouldn't have wasted your time on me. You never reckoned on Tania turning up and showing me what you were really like.'
âI admit I once had a relationship with Tania, but it was over.'
âWas it? I don't think she believed that. She still felt you were hers. That's why she felt so betrayed when she saw us. No, it was me you were planning to leave. That's why you kept hinting about something you wanted to tell me. You said it wasn't easy, but then it's never easy to dump someone, is it?'
He turned very pale. âIsn't it? You dumped me without any trouble.'
âDumping you was the easiest thing I'd ever done, but that's because you gave me cause.'
âBut the way you did itâvanishing so that I could never find you. Can you imagine what I went through? It was like searching for a ghost. I nearly went mad because you denied me any chance to explainâ'
âExplain what? That you were fooling around with both of us? If you'd been the man I thought youâ Well, let's leave it there. You weren't that man and you never could be. It's best if we remain strangers now.'
he echoed sharply. But then his voice changed to wry, slightly bitter acceptance. âYes, we always were strangers, weren't we?'
âAlways were, always will be. That's a very good business arrangement.'
âAnd you're a businesswoman?'
âExactly. It's what I choose to be.
He nodded. â
âFrom now on, it's all business. The past didn't happen. It was an illusion.'
âAn illusionâyes. I guessed that when you vanished into thin air. And now you've reappeared just as suddenly.'
âAnother illusion. I'm not really here.'
âSo if I look away you'll vanish again?'
âPerhaps that's what I ought to do.'
âNo,' he said with a hint of suppressed violence. â
Not again. You could never understand how Iâ Don't even think of it.
I understand very well.'
âPromise me that you won't leave.'
âOn your word of honour.'
âSay it. Let me know that I can trust you this time at least.'
? As though I was the one who deceivedâ You've got a nerve.'
âHe's coming back,' Mario said hurriedly, glancing to where Giorgio had appeared. âSmile.'
She tried to look at ease but it was hard, and as soon as Giorgio reached the table she rose.
âI'm going to bed,' she said. âIt's been a long day for me, with the flight.'
âYou're right; get some rest,' Mario said. âWe'll all meet here tomorrow morning at nine.'
They shook hands and she departed at once.
Giorgio watched her go, then eyed Mario wryly.
âWhat's going on with you two?' he queried. âYou're on edge with each other. For a moment I really thought there'd been something between you.'
âNot a thing,' Mario assured him. âAnd there never could be.'
âPity. Romeo and Juliet were “star-crossed lovers”. It could have been interesting to have them promoted by another pair of star-crossed lovers. After all, if a couple is meant for each other but just can't get it togetherâwell, it's not in their hands, is it? They just have to enjoy it while they can, but then accept that fate is against them.'
âIsn't that giving in too easily?'
âIt's what Romeo and Juliet had to accept.'
âAnd then they died.'
âThey died physically, but it doesn't usually happen that way. Sometimes people just die inside.'
âYes,' Mario murmured. âThat's true.'
âI'll call the other members of the group and fix a meeting. They'll just love her. We've found the right person. Don't you agree?'
Mario nodded and spoke in an iron voice. âThe right person. Not a doubt of it. I must be going. My work has piled up while I've been away.'
He departed fast, urgently needing to get away from Giorgio's sharp eyes that saw too much for comfort.
Upstairs, he headed for his bedroom, but paused before entering. The room allocated to Natasha was just across the corridor and he went to stand outside, looking at her door, wondering what was happening behind it.
The evening had torn his nerves to shreds. The woman he'd met had been as unlike the sweet, charming girl he remembered as steel was unlike cream. His heart told him it was impossible that they should be the same person, but his brain groaned and said it was true.
This was the heartless creature who had vanished without giving him a chance to defend himself, leaving him to hunt frantically for weeks until he'd realised that it was hopeless. And her manner towards him had left no doubt that she was enjoying her triumph.
A sensible man would have sent her away at once. Instead, he'd prevented her leaving, driven by instincts he didn't understand, nor want to face.
From behind her door came only silence. He moved closer, raising his hand to knock, then dropping it again. This wasn't the right moment.
Instead of going into his room, he turned away again and went downstairs into the garden, hoping some time in the night air would clear the confusion in his mind. But also doubting that anything would ever be clear again.
* * *
Natasha paced her room restlessly. After such a day she should have been ready to collapse into sleep, but her nerves were tense and she feared to lie awake all night, thinking the very thoughts she wanted to avoid.
Mario had blamed her for disappearing without giving him a chance to defend himself, and in so doing he'd touched a nerve.
Perhaps I should have let him say something
, she thought.
Why didn't I?
Because I'm my mother's daughter
, said another voice in her mind
. And I can't help living by the lessons she taught me. Never trust a man. Don't believe his explanation because it'll be lies and you'll only suffer more. In fact, don't let him explain at all. Never, never give him a second chance.
She'd fled Mario because she feared to listen to what he might have to say. Thinking the worst of him felt safer. That was the sad truth.
But now, meeting him again and getting a sense of his torment, she felt uneasy about her own actions.
âNo,' she said. âNo, I'm not going down that road. What's done is done. It's over.'
In the last year she'd often suffered from insomnia and had resorted to some herbal sleeping pills. She took them out now, considering.
âI'm not lying awake fretting over him. This is war.'
She swallowed two pills but, instead of going to bed, she went outside for a few minutes. The tall window opened onto a balcony where she could stand and look down on a narrow strip of garden. There were flowers, a few trees and beyond them the Adige River, glowing in the evening light. Now it was easy to slip into the balcony scene and become Juliet, yearning over the man who'd captured her heart before she knew who he was. When she'd realised that she'd fallen in love with an enemy, it was too late.
âToo late,' she murmured. âThe last thing I wanted was to meet him again. I came here to start a new life.
Mario, Mario, wherefore art thou, Mario?
But it had to be you, didn't it? When I'm looking forward to meeting new people, you have to pop up.
Wherefore did thou do this, varlet?
In her agitation she said the words aloud. Alarmed at herself, she retreated through the window, shutting it firmly.
* * *
Outside, all was quiet. Darkness was falling, and there was nobody to notice Mario standing, alone and silent, beneath the trees. He had come straight into the garden after leaving Natasha's door, wondering if some light from her room would reassure him. What he had seen stunned and confused him. Her whispered words seemed to float down, reaching him so softly that he couldn't be sure he'd actually heard them.
To believe what he longed to believe was something he refused to do. That way lay danger, disillusionâthe things he'd promised himself to avoid in future. So he backed into the shadows, his eyes fixed on her window until the light went out and his world was full of darkness.
* * *
Promptly at nine o'clock the next morning Mario appeared at the breakfast table, frowning as he saw only Giorgio there.
âWhere is she?' he demanded. âI told her nine o'clock.'
âHave a heart,' Giorgio begged. âIt's only a few minutes after nine. She's not a machine, just a lovely lady.'
âShe is an employee being paid a high salary, for which I expect punctuality and obedience to my wishes. Kindly call her room.'
âI've been calling it for half an hour,' Giorgio admitted. âBut there's no reply. Perhaps she doesn't want to talk to us.'
Or perhaps she can't
, said a voice in Mario's mind. He remembered the woman she had been the evening before, bright, completely at ease, ready to challenge him every moment.
Yet there had been something else, he realised. Beneath her confident manner he'd sensed something differentâtroubled, uneasy. Their meeting had taken them both by surprise. His own turmoil had startled and shaken him, making him struggle not to let her suspect his weakness, the more so because she had seemed free of any weakness.
But then he'd seen a new look in her eyes, a flash of vulnerability that matched his own. It had vanished at once, but for a brief moment he'd known that she was as alarmed as he was.
He remembered how he'd stood under her balcony last night, watching her, sensing again that she was haunted, but resisting the impulse to reach out to her. Her disappearance now hinted at new trouble. If he went to her room, what would he find? The confident Natasha, laughing at his discomfiture? Or the frail Natasha who couldn't cope?
Abruptly he took out his mobile phone, called her room and listened as the bell rang and rang, with no reply.
âIf it was anyone else you'd think they'd vanished without paying the bill,' Giorgio observed. âBut we're not charging her for that room, so she's got no reason to vanish.'
âThat's right,' Mario said grimly. âNo reason at all.'
âI'll go and knock on her door.'
âNo, stay here. I'll see what's happened.'
Swiftly, he went to his office and opened a cupboard that contained the hotel's replacement keys. Trying to stay calm despite his growing worry, Mario took the one that belonged to Natasha's room and went upstairs. After only a moment's hesitation, he opened her door.