Authors: Lucy Gordon
Before she could stop him he'd seized the phone from her hand and was reading the text.
âJust tell him toâ What does he mean, run away?'
âI've been running away from him for months. He's Elroy Jenson, the man who owns a great media empire. It stretches all over the worldâEngland, America, Europeâ'
âYesâ' Mario broke in ââI've heard of him. Some of his papers are in this country. Not a man you'd want to antagonise.'
âI used to make a good living writing for his newspapers and magazines, but then he decided that he fancied me. I didn't fancy him but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He kept pestering me until I slapped his face. Unfortunately, some of his employees saw it and the word got out. Since then none of his editors will buy articles from me.'
âAnd he keeps sending you these messages? Why don't you just change your mobile phone number?'
âI have. Several times. But he always manages to get the new one. He's a powerful man and his tentacles stretch far.'
âIf that means what I think it does, then yes. Now I can't earn a living in England and he's coming after me.'
âThinking you'll turn to him for the money? And he'd like thatâknowing that you'd only given in to him out of need?'
âHe'd enjoy it. He's that kind of man. But he's going to be disappointed. I'll do anything rather than what he wants.'
âAnything? Including taking a job with a man you hate?'
âEven that. This job's a lucky break for me. It gets me out of England.'
âBut you have to put up with me.'
âStop being melodramatic. You're not so bad. I can manage. We've put the past behind us.'
He smiled wryly, trying to come to terms with her words. âYou're not so bad' implied a casual acceptance that should have been a relief but felt more like an insult.
âYes, we've put it all behind us,' he agreed. âAnd now we can concentrate on business, which is what we're here for. You need to make a living and I need to repay the bank loans I had to take out to buy this place.'
âThat must be a heavy burden,' she said.
âIt is. Damiano wanted to help me by lending me some money, and standing guarantor for the bank loan. But I wouldn't let him do either. This is my hotel, and mine alone.'
âI remember meeting Damiano in Venice. And his wife. They were very nice to me.'
âThey both liked you a lot.'
In fact both Sally and Damiano had nudged him, saying, âShe's the one, Mario. Go on, make sure of her.'
And when things went wrong they had united again to call him âThe biggest idiot of all time'. It was a remark that still stung him.
âWhy wouldn't you let him help you?' she asked.
âI just prefer to control my own life,' he said in a voice that was suddenly hard.
A tantalising memory flickered through her mind: Mario, two years ago, young, carefree and easy-going. Somehow he had changed into this grimly self-sufficient man who mistrusted the world.
âI prefer it too,' she said. âYou feel safer, like wearing a suit of armour. But is that always a good thing to wear?'
âThat depends on who challenges you,' he said.
His eyes, fixed on her, left her in no doubt of his message. Her presence was a challenge, one that he would fight off ruthlessly.
âBut you wouldn't need a suit of armour against your older brother,' she said. âHelping you is surely what older brothers are for?'
âPossibly, but I needed to stop being the younger brother, leaning on him. I told him I could do it alone, so I've got to prove that's true. I simply mustn't fail.'
âAnd I mustn't fail either,' she said, âso in future we're going to concentrate on being practical. Please leave me now, and when I've finished my research I'll see you and Giorgio at supper.'
âGood luck with the work,' he said, and departed.
He went quickly to his office and went online. A few minutes' research told him all he needed to know about Elroy Jenson: his creation of a media empire, his money, his far-reaching power.
But it was the man's looks that amazed him. He'd expected a slobbering, middle-aged monster, a man no woman could want to be with unless she was after his money. But Jenson was well built, even handsome, with a riotous head of curly hair. A woman lucky enough to have captured his attention would have every reason to flaunt her triumph.
But not Natasha.
No man impresses her
, he thought.
She decides what she wants, and woe betide him if he can't live up to it.
He glanced at himself in the mirror.
âBut could any man live up to it?' he murmured.
* * *
Researching the Albergo Splendido, Natasha could easily believe that it had started life as a palace. It was seven hundred years old and magnificently built.
To dine there meant dressing in style. Luckily she'd brought with her a black satin figure-hugging dress that managed to be both decorous and elegant.
Giorgio nodded approval. âLovely. You'll make their heads spin. Let's go.'
As they walked to the car Mario said, âAren't you making too much of her appearance? Surely it's her efficiency we need to promote?'
âEfficiency alone isn't enough. She's got that extra “something” special, and it's going to make all the difference.'
âI'll take your word for it,' Mario said coldly.
At the hotel Amadore was waiting for them. âEveryone's here,' he said. âThey're longing to meet you.'
He led her into a room filled with tables at which sat crowds of men and women, who broke into applause at the sight of her.
There could be no doubt that she was the star of the evening. Amadore introduced her to each guest, one by one, giving the name of the person and of their hotel.
âAh, yes,' she said to one elderly man. âThat's the place whereâ'
He listened, open-mouthed, as she revealed her in-depth research. She did the same thing with several of the other hotel owners and was rewarded by looks of admiration.
âYou see what I mean?' Giorgio murmured to Mario. âA brilliant lady, clever and hard-working. We've struck gold.'
Mario didn't reply.
When she'd met all the guests she sat down at the head table for the meal, which turned out to be a glorious banquet, adorned with the finest wines.
âMmm, lovely,' she said, sipping from her glass.
âEveryone thinks of Verona as the site of the love story,' Giorgio told her. âBut it's also surrounded by vineyards. Most of the hotel owners have some sort of investment in vineyards.'
âThe wine you're drinking now was produced in my own vineyard,' Amadore said.
âIt's delicious,' she said, sipping again.
They clinked glasses.
Soon she saw that everyone was looking at her expectantly.
âThey're waiting for your speech,' Mario murmured.
âBut I can only speak English,' she protested. âWill they understand?'
âHotel owners tend to speak English because your country sends us many tourists.'
Mario got to his feet.
âMy friends,' he said, âit has been our pleasure tonight to meet the lady we've employed to promote us to the world. Now let us hear her plans.'
There was applause as Natasha rose. For a few moments she was nervous but the warm, friendly atmosphere enveloped her and she began to enjoy herself as she laid out the ideas that had been forming in her mind.
âEvery hotel has something to connect it to the story,' she said. âSome are near Juliet's house, some near Romeo's house, some are near the tomb.'
âSome of us aren't so lucky,' a man called. âOur hotels aren't near anywhere significant.'
âDon't be so sure,' she said. âRemember the scene where Romeo's friend Mercutio is stabbed to death by Juliet's kinsman? That happens outdoors in the street. But which street? Nobody knows for sure, but perhaps some of your hotels are nearby.'
Natasha looked out at her audience, smiling and nodding appreciatively as she spoke. She was fulfilling all their highest expectations. Applause rang in her ears.
next stage,' Natasha said. âI'll want to talk to you all individually, and then I'm going to write my first piece explaining how “Romeo and Juliet” are still alive in Verona if people know how to find them. We'll invite them to come here, and stay in your hotels. By that time I'll have produced several more texts.'
âBut who will publish these?' called a voice from the floor.
âAnyone she sends it to,' Giorgio called back. âThis lady is a very notable journalist with many connections. She gets published everywhere.'
More applause, but Natasha held up her hand for silence.
âWe're not going to take chances,' she said. âThis “article” will actually be an advertisement. We buy a double-page spread and insert our own text and pictures. That way we can be sure of being read. What matters is to get things done the way we want. Of course it will be costly. Advertisements have to be paid for, and perhaps some of you won't want to accept that expense. Let's take a vote. Hands up anyone who's against the idea.'
Not a single hand was raised.
âWe'll do it your way,' called a voice.
There were cheers and applause, which went on until they were interrupted by the sound of music.
âThat's coming from the ballroom,' Amadore told her. âOur guests like to dance in the evening.'
âA ballroom is wonderful,' she said. âThe Capulets gave a ball for Juliet and Paris, the man they wanted her to marry, which Romeo gatecrashed to see another girl that he was in love with. Instead he met Juliet and they fell in love within a few minutes. Without that ball it might never have happened.'
âThen come and have a look,' Amadore said eagerly.
Everyone crowded after them as he led her along a short corridor, throwing open a double door at the end, revealing a huge, beautiful room where couples were whirling.
âPerfect,' she murmured.
Amadore took her hand. âDance with me.'
Smiling, she let him draw her into his arms and guide her onto the floor. He was an excellent dancer and she responded gladly. When the music stopped another man stepped in to claim her, then another.
At last she found herself facing Mario.
âYou've danced with everyone else,' he observed. âWill it ever be my turn?'
âNot until you ask me.'
âNo,' he said. âI'm not going to ask you.'
But as he spoke his arm went around her waist in a grip too firm for her to resist, even if she had wanted to.
They had danced together once before. One night in Venice, when they had been having supper at an outdoor cafÃ© in St Mark's Square, a band had started to play and before she knew it she was waltzing in his arms.
âIs this all right?' he'd whispered.
âI'll let you know later,' she had teased.
It had lasted only a few minutes, and she had promised herself that one day she would dance with him again. But the next day they had broken up, and it had never happened again. Until now.
It was unnerving to feel his arms around her, his hand on her waist, holding her close. Her heart was beating softly but fervently. She glanced at him, trying to know if he felt the same. Would he invite her to dance with him again?
But before he could speak they became aware of a middle-aged man on the edge of the crowd, trying to attract their attention.
âAh, there's Francesco,' Mario said. âI hoped he'd be here. He owns one of the biggest hotels, and I always like to have him on my side. Let's go and say hello.'
Francesco beamed, greeting Natasha with an embrace.
âIt's a pleasure to meet you,' he said warmly. âNow, let me introduce my daughter, Laura.'
The young woman with him was in her mid-twenties with a beautiful face and an air of confidence that came from being always in demand.
âHow have you done?' she said carefully to Natasha.
âNo,' her father interrupted her. âNot like that,
. The English say “How do you do?” not “How have you done?”'
âHow do you do?' Laura echoed, smiling. âIs that right?'
âThat is perfect,' her father said.
He spoke proudly and Natasha knew a slight twinge of sadness as a memory came back to her from long ago. She had heard that pride before, in her own father's voice, in her childhood, before he'd abandoned her without a backward glance.
But this was no time to be brooding over the past. She thrust the memory aside, returning Laura's greeting with the appearance of warmth.
Then Laura turned her attention to Mario, saying, âAnd how do you do?'
âThere's no need for such formality,' Mario said, shaking her hand. âWe already know each other.'
âIndeed we do,' Laura said, glancing at Natasha as she spoke.
Natasha returned her look with interest. She had the feeling that Laura was sizing her up as possible competition.
Then Amadore appeared beside them. âDo I get another dance?' he asked.
âOf course.' Natasha let the charming hotel owner enfold her in his arms and twirl her gently across the floor.
Out of the corner of her eye she could just see Mario gliding past with Laura, who seemed to be trying to dance as close to him as possible.
âThere the women go again,' Amadore said, âparading themselves to get his attention.'
âDo you mean Signor Ferrone?' Natasha asked.
âOh, yes. He's a lucky man. Every female makes eyes at him, and the rumour is that he can have any woman he wants.'
So nothing had changed, she thought, remembering how women's eyes had followed Mario during their time together. How they had envied her, being with him. How little they had known how he could make a woman suffer.
âLook at that,' Amadore said, still regarding Mario with envy. âThe way she's pressed up against him is almost indecent.'
Natasha managed to chuckle. âOh, come on. A man's entitled to enjoy himself if he can.'
âThat's very generous of you. Most women don't take such a relaxed view.'
âI can afford to be relaxed. My life is arranged just the way I want it.'
âYou're luckier than most of us then.'
* * *
Mario, just a few feet away, glanced at them only briefly before swinging Laura away to the far side of the ballroom. There, he found more female attention to distract him from sights he didn't want to see and thoughts he didn't want to think.
But it lasted only a short time. When he next looked at Natasha she was sitting down scribbling in her notebook. Two men were sitting beside her, while another two looked over her shoulders. As the music came to an end he began to approach her, but Amadore detained him.
âLovely lady,' he said. âEvery man is interested. Luckily she's not interested in them.'
âShe told you that?'
âWe were watching Laura making a play for you. I disapproved but she said you were entitled to enjoy yourself. I complimented her on her relaxed attitude and she said she could afford to be relaxed as her life was arranged the way she wanted it.'
âShe probably just said that to shut you up.'
âMaybe. But it wouldn't surprise me if back home she has a trail of eager pursuers.'
âYou could be right,' Mario growled.
He could see that Natasha had finished making notes, and was rising to move away. He got to her quickly.
âStill working?' he said.
âI've had an idea. I need to talk to everyone again.'
âThen let's return to the dining room.' He offered her his arm, saying, âYou've done well tonight. The contract will be ready soon.'
âFor you to sign. The whole
is determined to secure your professional services. Are you willing to stay with us?'
âYes,' she said softly. âI'm willing.'
When they were gathered in the dining room again she addressed everyone. âI think we should take some photographs of Romeo and Juliet. They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and we can send ours all over the world. We'll need to hire actors, then we'll photograph them on the balcony, in the tomb, anywhere that seems atmospheric.'
âWe can't pose them on the official balcony,' Mario said. âThere are always tourists there. But this hotel has a balcony that will do.'
It was agreed that they would all meet again when the arrangements were made. Now all Mario wanted was to get away. Nothing had prepared him for being so close to her for hours, and he needed to be alone.
âSleep well,' he told her as he escorted her to a chauffeur-driven car. âYou've worked hard today and there'll be more tomorrow.' He opened the car door. âI'll see you tomorrow morning. Goodnight.'
He walked away.
* * *
Back in her room, Natasha undressed and went to bed. It had been a successful evening and she should have felt triumphant. Perhaps she would have done if Mario had returned with her, and been here to share her sense of achievement. But he had left her alone while he spent the night somewhere else.
Images of Laura danced through her mind, pursued by Amadore's voice saying â...he can have any woman he wants.'
She tried to shut the thoughts down. She and Mario were no longer part of each other's lives, and she cared nothing where he was now, or who he was with.
She lay down and managed to sleep. When she awoke she could hear a noise in the corridor outside, as though someone was turning a key in a lock. She rose and opened her door just in time to see Mario's door closing.
It was six in the morning.
* * *
She half expected him to be late for breakfast but he was there before her, calm, collected and ready for work.
âYou were right about hiring actors,' he said. âWe'll have a file of pictures soon. In the meantime I've been making some notes of my ownâ'
But before she could look at them her phone beeped with another text.
âIs he hounding you again?' Mario demanded.
âNo, it's not him,' she said, looking at the screen. Then she drew in her breath sharply. âOh, noâno!
âWhat is it?'
âNothing,' she said sharply.
âDon't tell me it's nothing when it affects you like that. Let me see.'
Without asking her permission, he took the phone from her.
âWhat's this?' he demanded, reading,
âSorry, your cheque bounced.'
âHow dare you?' she said furiously, snatching the phone back.
âWho's hounding you for money? Is it him?'
âNo, it's my friend Helen, and she's not hounding me. She's been letting me stay in her flat and she got me this job. Before I left I gave her a cheque for my share of expenses. I owe her so much and I've repaid her like this. I didn't mean to. I thought there was just enough in the bank.'
âRight, we'd better get your contract sorted at once. Wait for me here.'
As he left she sat there, deep in gloom. Shame pervaded her and for a moment she wished she could do what Mario had accused her of, and vanish into thin air.
After a few minutes Giorgio appeared.
âThe boss says I'm to give you the contract to sign,' he told her. âLet's go into his office.'
In the office he laid out papers before her. âJust sign at the bottom.'
She picked up the pen, then paused. âWait, are you sure this contract is right?'
âThe boss says it is.'
âBut I know what the agency offered meâthe money was far less.'
âThe fee has been changed. The boss says you're worth more.'
Her head was spinning. The new amount was much larger than the one she had been quoted before.
âYou need to give me your bank details so that some money can be paid to you today,' Giorgio said.
Dazed, she gave him the necessary information and signed the contract at the bottom of the last page.
âAnd you must put your initials on the other pages,' Giorgio told her. âHe wants to make very sure that you're ours and nobody else's. He knows good value when he sees it. Ah, here he is.'
Mario had come into the room, and stood watching as Natasha finished signing. Glancing over the papers, he nodded and handed them to Giorgio, who left the room.
âI hadn't expected so much,' she said. âYou didn't have to do that. But thank you.'
âYou have nothing to thank me for,
,' he said firmly. âYou're vital to this project and I've taken the necessary steps to make sure the
keeps your services.'
She nodded, replying in the same formal voice, âYou can be sure that I will remain loyal to the
ComunitÃ , signore
âExcellent,' he said. âThen we understand each other.'
âI'm sure we do.'
Oh, yes, she thought. They understood each other perfectly, but in ways that could never be expressed in words. He'd moved swiftly to save her from disaster, but in such a way that there was no fear of them growing closer. They were
, and nothing else.
Not long after, she accessed her bank account on the Internet and found that a large sum of money had already been deposited, enabling her to pay her debt to Helen. That was a relief and she was able to enjoy an hour wandering the streets, absorbing the feel of the city.
When she returned she found that the photographs had arrived. Giorgio and Mario were going through them, studying the pictures of young models, seeking one with the perfect combination of beauty and innocence. She joined in and after a while she discovered exactly what she wanted.
Finding Romeo was harder. He had to be handsome, with splendid legs, since Romeo would be wearing tights. At last she found what she wanted.