Authors: Lucy Gordon
At once he saw her, lying in bed, so still and silent that alarm rose in him. He rushed towards the bed and leaned down to her, close enough to see that she was breathing.
His relief was so great that he grasped the chest of drawers to stop himself falling. Every instinct of self-preservation warned him to get out quickly, before he was discovered. But he couldn't make himself leave her. Instead he dropped onto one knee, gazing at her closely. She lay without moving, her lovely hair splayed out on the pillow, her face soft and almost smiling.
How he had once dreamed of this, of awakening to find her beside him, sleeping gently, full of happiness at the pleasure they had shared.
He leaned a little closer, until he could feel her breath on his face. He knew he was taking a mad risk. A wise man would leave now, but he wasn't a wise man. He was a man torn by conflicting desires.
Then she moved, turning so that the bedclothes slipped away from her, revealing that she was naked. Mario drew a sharp breath.
How often in the past had he longed to see her this way? He had planned and schemed to draw her tenderly closer! The night of their disaster had been meant to end like this, lying together in his bed, with him discovering her hidden beauty. But then a calamity had descended on him and wrecked his life. How bitter was the irony that he should see her lovely nakedness now.
She moved again, reaching out in his direction, so that he had to jerk away quickly. She began to whisper in her sleep, but he couldn't make out the words. Only escape would save him. He rose, backed off quickly and managed to make it to the door before her eyes opened. Once outside, he leaned against the wall, his chest heaving, his brain whirling.
At last he moved away, back to the real world, where he was a man in command. And that, he vowed, was where he would stay.
* * *
Giorgio looked up as Mario approached. âNo luck finding her?'
Mario shrugged. âI didn't bother looking very far. Try calling her again.'
Giorgio dialled the number, listening with a resigned face.
âLooks like she still isn'tâno, wait! Natasha, is that you? Thank goodness! Where have you been?
Don't you know the time? All right, I'll tell Mario. But hurry.' He shut off the phone. âShe says she overslept.'
Mario shrugged. âPerhaps the flight tired her yesterday.'
Giorgio gave a rich chuckle. âMy guess is that she was entertaining someone last night. I know she'd only just arrived, but a girl as lovely as that can entertain anyone whenever she wants. I saw men looking at her as she came down those stairs. Did you expect such a beauty?'
âI didn't know what to expect,' Mario said in a toneless voice.
âNor me. I never hoped she'd be so young and lovely. Let's make the best of it. Juliet come to life. Oh, yes, finding her was a real stroke of luck.'
A stroke of luck. The words clamoured in Mario's brain, adding more bitterness to what he was already suffering. He didn't believe that a man had been in Natasha's room last night, but the sight of her naked had devastated him. He could almost believe she'd done it on purpose to taunt him, but the sweet, enchanting Natasha he'd known would never do that.
But was she that Natasha any more?
Had she ever been?
âI just know what she's doing right this minute,' Giorgio said with relish. âShe's turning to the man next to her in the bed, saying, “You've got to go quickly so that nobody finds you here.” Perhaps we should have someone watch her door to see who comes out.'
âThat's enough,' Mario growled.
âWith a girl as stunning as that, nothing is ever enough. Don't pretend you don't know what I mean. You were fizzing from the moment you saw her.'
âDrop it,' Mario growled.
âAll right, you don't want to admit she had that effect on you. After all, you're the boss. Don't let her guess she's got you where she wants youâeven if she has.'
âI said drop it.'
âSteady there. Don't get mad at me. I was only thinking that if there's an attraction between you, we can make use of it.'
âAnd you're mistaken. There's no attraction between us.'
âPity. That could have been fun.'
* * *
Slowly, Natasha felt life returning to her as she ended the call from Giorgio.
âNine-fifteen!' she gasped in horror. âI was supposed to be downstairs at nine. Oh, I should never have taken those sleeping pills.'
The pills had plunged her into a deep slumber, which she'd needed to silence her desperate thoughts of Mario. But at the end he'd invaded her sleep, his face close to hers, regarding her with an almost fierce intensity. But he wasn't there. It had been a dream.
âI just can't get away from him,' she whispered. âWill I ever?'
She showered in cold water, relishing the feeling of coming back to life. Dressing was a simple matter of putting on tailored trousers and a smart blazer and fixing her hair back tightly. Then she was ready to go.
She found Giorgio and Mario downstairs at the table.
âI'm so sorry,' she said. âI didn't mean to be late but I was more tired than I realised.'
âThat's understandable,' Giorgio said gallantly.
Mario threw him a cynical look but said nothing.
âWhere's that waiter?' Giorgio asked, frowning. âI'll find him and he can bring you breakfast.'
âI'm glad Giorgio's gone,' she said. âIt gives us a chance to talk honestly. Last night you stopped me getting out of my chair, and told me to stay. But is that really what you want? Wouldn't you be better off without me?'
âIf I thought that I'd have said so,' he retorted.
âBut think of it, day after day, trying not to get annoyed with each other, pretending to like each other. Surely you don't want that? I'm giving you the chance to get rid of me, Mario.'
âWhat about you? Do you want to make a run for it?'
âI can cope.'
âBut you think I can't. Thanks for the vote of confidence. We're business professionals and on that basis it can work.'
âYou're right,' she said. âShake.'
âShake.' He took her extended hand. âPerhaps I should warn you that Giorgio has some rather fancy ideas about you. He thinks you had a lover in your room last night and that's why you overslept.'
I'd taken some herbal pills to get to sleep after a strenuous day. A lover? I'd only been here five minutes.'
âGiorgio sees you as the kind of woman who can attract men as fast as that.'
âIn his eyes it's a compliment.'
She scowled for a moment, then laughed. âI guess I'll learn to put up with him.'
Giorgio reappeared with her breakfast.
âEat up and we'll get to work,' he said. âI'll get you a map of Verona.'
âI've got one,' she said, drawing it from her bag. âI bought it at the airport so that I would be ready. The more you plan, the simpler life is.'
âTrue,' Mario murmured, âbut there are some things that can never be planned.'
âAnd you can't always anticipate what they might be,' she agreed. âYou can try, butâ' She shrugged.
âBut they always take you by surprise,' he murmured.
âNot always. Just sometimes. It's best to be ready.'
Giorgio looked from one to the other as if his alarm bells had sounded again.
âIt's time we were making plans,' he said. âI've called the others in the group, and they're dying to meet you. We're all invited to dinner tonight at the Albergo Splendido.' He beamed at Natasha. âIt'll be your big night.'
âThen I'd better prepare for it,' she said. âI'll look around Verona today so that I can sound knowledgeable at the dinner. Otherwise they'll think I'm an amateur.'
âGood thinking,' Giorgio said. âI'll escort you, and we'll have a great time.'
âNow, hereâ' Natasha pointed to a street on the map ââthis is the Via Capello, where I can visit Juliet's house. I'd like to go there first, then the house where the Montagues lived. Finally, I'd like to see the tomb. Then I can work out my plans.'
âWe'll leave as soon as you've finished breakfast,' Mario told her.
was waiting for them, and soon they were on their way around the city.
Natasha already knew a good deal about Verona, having read about it on the plane. It was an old city, much of which went back to Roman times, two thousand years ago. Several places survived from that era, including a huge arena where gladiators had once slain their victims, but now was used for musical performances.
The streets were lined with historic buildings, many hinting at mystery and romance, all seeming to come from a more intriguing and beautiful age. She kept her eyes fixed on them as they drove through the town, trying to absorb its atmosphere.
âWe're just turning into the Via Capello,' Mario said. âWe'll reach Juliet's house at any moment.'
A few minutes later the car dropped them at the entrance to a short tunnel. They joined the crowd walking through to the courtyard at the far end, where the balcony loomed overhead. Natasha regarded it with shining eyes.
âIt's lovely,' she said. âOf course I know it was put up less than a hundred years ago, but it looks right. It fits the house so perfectly that you can almost see Juliet standing there.'
âShe's actually over there,' Giorgio said, pointing at a figure standing a little ahead, beneath and to the side of the balcony. It was a bronze statue of a young woman.
âJuliet,' she breathed.
As she watched, a woman walked up to the statue and brushed her hand against its breast. She was followed by another woman, and another, then a man.
âIt's a tradition,' Mario explained. âEveryone does it in the hope that it will bring them good luck. That's why that part of her is shining, because it's touched so often. People like to make contact with Juliet because they see her as a woman who knows more about love than anyone in the world.'
âPerhaps that's true,' Natasha murmured. âBut she knows tragedy as well as love.'
Intrigued, she went to stand before the statue. Juliet's head was turned slightly to the side, gazing into the distance as though only in another world could she find what she sought.
Natasha watched as a woman touched Juliet, closed her eyes and murmured something. At last her eyes opened and she stepped back with a smile, evidently feeling that she had received an answer.
If only it was that simple
, Natasha thought.
If Juliet really could give me advice I'd ask her about the way my head is whirling, about how I'm feeling, and how I
to be feeling. But she can't help me because she doesn't exist. She never really did, not the way people believe in her. That kind of love is just an illusion.
She turned away to find Mario waiting. He moved closer, leaving Giorgio at a distance, and speaking quietly.
âWere you consulting Juliet?' he asked, raising an eyebrow.
âNo,' she said. âShe's a fantasy. Nothing more.'
âHow very prosaic.'
âI am prosaic, and I'm glad. It's useful.'
âBut if you're going to promote the romantic fantasy, shouldn't you believe in it?'
She surveyed him with her head on one side and a faint ironic smile on her face.
âNot at all,' she said. âIt isn't necessary to believe something to persuade other people that it's true.'
âI wonder if you're right.'
A flash of anger made her say quickly, âYou know I'm right. We all know it at heart.'
âSoâ' he hesitated ââyou're telling me that you've toughened up?'
âBy a mile. So beware.'
âNo need to tell me that.'
âSo I've got you worried already? Good.'
For a wild moment he was tempted to tell her of the confused reactions that had rioted in him when he first saw her on the stairs. There had been an incredible moment of pleasure that the sight of her had always brought him, and which even now remained. But it had collided with a sense of alarm, as though a warning bell had sounded, letting him know that she would bring fear and darkness into his life.
But he suppressed the impulse to speak. How satisfied she would be to know that she could still throw him into confusion.
âDon't tell me I'm the only one who's toughened up,' she challenged him. âHaven't you?'
âNo doubt of it. It's called survival.'
She nodded. âRight. As long as we both understand that, there's no problem.'
For them there would always be a problem. But there was no need of words.
âNow, I have a job to do,' she said briskly.
âYes, let's look around further.'
Suddenly there was a cry from the far side of the courtyard.
âAmadore!' Giorgio exclaimed, extending his hand in welcome.
The three men exchanged greetings in Italian, until Giorgio said, â
, this is Amadore Finucci, a fellow member of the
Amadore, this is the Signorina Natasha Bates, who doesn't speak Italian.'
âThen it will be my pleasure to speak English,' Amadore said, seizing her hand.
She gave a polite response and he carried her hand to his mouth.
âMiss Bates,' he said.
âPlease, call me Natasha.'
âThank youâNatasha. When did you arrive?'
âYesterday,' Giorgio said. âYour father has invited us to dine at your hotel tonight.'
âYes, he told me. I must leave now, but I look forward to seeing you this evening.'
He departed. Natasha eyed Mario curiously, puzzled to find him frowning.
âYou're not pleased about this invitation?'
âThat's because his hotel is one of the most luxurious in town,' Giorgio said. âMario's jealous.'
âI'm not jealous,' Mario said firmly. âI admit I envy him having a bottomless pit of money to spend on the place.'
âHis ballroom has to be seen to be believed,' Giorgio told her.
âBallroom,' she echoed. âRomeo and Juliet met in a ballroom.' She turned to Mario. âDoes your hotel have a ballroom?'
âNo. None of the other hotels do.'
âThen that gives me an idea. Can we return to the hotel now? I need to get to work.'
âAren't we going on to Romeo's house?' Giorgio asked.
âI'll do that tomorrow. Today, I have urgent things to do.
âCould you please provide me with a list of every member of the
, and their hotels? Then I can check their locations and assess their requirements.'
âI'll see to it as soon as we arrive.'
As they walked back to the car, Giorgio murmured to Mario, âA woman who knows her own mind. Perhaps we should beware.'
âThere's no perhaps about it,' Mario replied grimly.
On the way back to the hotel Natasha took out her notebook and wrote in it swiftly and fiercely. Ideas were coming to her in cascades and she needed to capture them fast. This was the part of any project that she liked best. So absorbed did she become that she was unaware of the journey, and looked up suddenly when the car stopped.
âWe're here,' Mario said. He'd been watching her silently.
âI need something to eat,' Giorgio declared. âSuppose we meet downstairs in half an hour, for a feast?'
âNot me, thank you,' Natasha said. âPerhaps you could send something up to my room?'
âBut we could all celebrate together,' Giorgio protested.
âWe can celebrate when I've made a success of this job. Let's hope that happens.'
âIt'll happen,' Giorgio said. âYou're going to be just fantastic, isn't she, Mario?'
âNo doubt of it,' he said bleakly.
âYou're very kind, both of you. Now, excuse me, gentlemen.'
Giving them both a polite smile, she headed for the lift.
Upstairs, she plunged into work, making more notes about the morning before things went out of her head. She was so immersed in her work that at first she didn't hear the knock on the door. It had to be repeated louder to capture her attention.
âSorry,' she said, pulling it open, âI got soâ' She checked herself at the sight of Mario standing there with a trolley of food.
,' he said.
She stared at the sight of the food. Someone had taken a lot of trouble preparing this meal, which Mario laid out for her with care.
âGiorgio told the kitchen to produce their best, to make sure you stay with us,' he said. âSo you have chicory risotto, followed by tiramisÃ¹, with Prosecco.'
Her favourite wine. How many times had he ordered it for her in Venice? And he had remembered.
âIt's delicious,' she said politely as she ate.
âI'll tell Giorgio you approve. And I brought you this,' he said, handing her a large file.
It was the information she'd requested about the
âhotels, owners, background information.
âThat man I met today seems to come from the biggest and best,' she said, flicking through it. âThe Albergo Splendido.'
âIt was a palace once. You'll like it. You're making a considerable impression, you know.'
âAmadore certainly seemed to think so.'
âJust don't take him too seriously. He flirts with every woman on the planet.'
She gave a brief laugh. âYou warned me about Giorgio; now you're warning me about Amadore. But you don't need to. I can recognise when a man is role-playing. He puts on a performance as the “romantic Italian” because he thinks an Englishwoman is bound to be fooled. I don't mind. He's charming. But don't expect me to fall for it.'
âI suppose I should have known you'd say that,' Mario growled. âI wonder if you ever fall for anything.'
âNot these days. Never again.'
âAnd you think that's admirable?'
âI think it's safe.'
âAnd safety matters more than anything else? Never mind who you hurt.'
She turned on him, her quick temper rising. âWho
hurt? Did I really hear you say that? After what you did?'
âI didn't do what you thought I did, and I could have explained. But you vanished without giving me a chance to defend myself.'
âWhat was there to defend? I know what I saw.'
âNatasha, why won't you realise that you misunderstood what you saw? Yes, I'd been having an affair with Tania. I'm not a saint. I've never pretended to be. But it was only a casual relationship and I'd started to feel that it must end. Things had changed in my life. I'd met you and nothing looked the same. I had to face the fact that I wanted you, not her.
âSo that day I met Tania and told her we couldn't be together any more. But I couldn't make her believe it. When I left her she followed me, and that was how she found us together.
âI went after her, trying to explain that I was sorry to hurt her, but she screamed at me and ran off. I came back to our table, hoping I could make you understand. But you were gone. I tried your phone but you'd turned it off. I went to the hotel but you'd left just a few minutes earlier. Over the next few days I tried your phone, your email, your apartment, but you'd shut off every way of contacting you. It was like you'd ceased to exist.'
ceased to exist. The girl I was thenânaive, slightly stupid, ready to be fooledâvanished into nothing. But now there's another woman in her placeâsuspicious, awkward, ready to give as good as she gets. She exists. She's me. She's rather hard. You won't like her. Be wise. Get rid of her.'
His face was suddenly tense. âI think not. I prefer to keep her around and make her face up to what she did.'
âIs that why you got me back here?'
âWhat do you mean by that?'
âI don't believe it's coincidence that we just happened to meet again.'
He paled. âYou think I manipulated this situation?'
âYou could have.'
âAnd I'm telling you I didn't. How dare you? Perhaps I should accuse
of manipulation. Did you persuade your friend to let you take her place?'
âNo way. I had no idea you'd be here until I saw you on the stairs.'
âNor I. Let's get this clear, Natasha. I didn't trick you into coming here. I didn't want to see you again, not after the way you behaved.'
âYou left me feeling as though I was hanging off the edge of a cliff.'
âI know that feeling,' she said softly, with anger in her voice.
âAll right. For the moment we have to accept things as they are. We're enemies but we need to be allies as far as this job's concerned. Our fight is still on, but it's a fair fight.'
âIs it? I wonder if your idea of a fair fight is the same as mine.'
âI guess we'll find that out.'
A beep from her mobile phone interrupted him. Answering it, she found a text:
You didn't have to run away. We can sort this out.
There was no name, but there didn't need to be. This wasn't the first text that Elroy Jenson had sent her since he'd shut her out of his media empire. Clearly he'd expected her to cave in and come crawling back.
She had to make him stop doing this.
Swiftly, she texted back:
Forget me, as I've forgotten you.
His reply came at once:
If that were true you wouldn't have run away. Come home. I can do a lot for you.
She groaned, wondering how much more of this she could take. She'd thought that by coming to Italy she could put Jenson behind her.
âWhat's the matter?' Mario asked. âWho has upset you?'
âIt's nothing,' she said quickly. âI'm fine.'
âI don't think so. Perhaps you should change your mobile number. Doing that works well because then the guy can't reach you. But of course you know that. Hereâ'