Authors: Lucy Gordon
âPerfect,' Mario said, studying the picture. âGood-looking and vulnerable.'
âVulnerable?' Giorgio queried. âHe's one of literature's great heroes.'
âHe also fell for everything that was said to him,' Mario observed wryly. âNot one of the world's great minds.'
âThat's what happens to people in love,' Natasha said. âThey set their minds aside and believe what they want to believe.'
âAnd soon learn their mistake. All right, let's hire these two.'
Giorgio got straight onto the phone, made the contact and arranged for the two young people to appear in a couple of days.
âPaolo and Lucia,' he said. âThey'll be here ready to start on Thursday morning.'
âThat's fine,' Natasha said. âIt gives me some more time to work on my ideas.'
The next two days were abuzz with action. Some of the time was spent visiting Romeo's house, and twice Natasha was invited to dine with other members of the
. Mario accompanied her on these trips, but did not sit next to her at the dinner table.
She thought she understood. Having tied her down with the contract, both legally and financially, Mario preferred to keep a certain distance between them.
But the money in her bank account was a big relief. There was no doubt that in Mario she'd made a good professional association. She must cling to that thought.
By day they were absorbed in preparing for the photo shoot. Giorgio hired a photographer experienced in taking dramatic pictures. He also found a theatrical costumier.
âShe'll join us tomorrow with a big variety of costumes,' he told Natasha. âOur models can try several until we find the right ones.'
âJuliet will need something exotic for the ballroom,' Natasha said. âThen an elegant dress for the wedding scene, and a very simple one for the tomb. Right, I'm going to bed. It's going to be a busy day tomorrow.'
âDoes anyone know where Mario is?' Giorgio enquired.
âHe left an hour ago,' Natasha said. âHe must be busy.'
On the way upstairs she wondered if Mario was in his room, or had he gone to be with the same person he'd probably visited the other night?
Passing his door, she couldn't help pausing to hear if any sound was coming from inside. She blamed herself for yielding to the temptation, but she couldn't help it.
Then she heard his voice. He was on the telephone, speaking Italian in a warm, laughing tone.
âNon Ã¨ importante. Non Ã¨ importante.'
She didn't need to know the language to understand what he was saying: âIt's not important'. Mario was reassuring somebody that what was happening now didn't matter to him.
She hurried into her room and locked the door, wishing she'd resisted temptation and vowing to be stronger next time.
* * *
Next morning Lisa, the costumier, arrived early. She was a tall businesslike woman who spoke perfect English and went through Natasha's requirements with no trouble.
âLet's hope Romeo is handsome and has a good figure,' she said briskly.
âHe looked good in the photo I saw, but I haven't met him yet,' Natasha admitted.
âThat's a pity. To be suitable he must be sexy. We need the women to sigh over him and say, “I want some of that”.'
âBut he'll only be a picture,' Natasha protested. âWe're selling the town, not Romeo himself.'
Lisa chuckled. âYou think that, do you?'
Natasha gave a wry smile. âWell, it's what I need to believe. But I guess you're right.'
âShare the joke, ladies,' Giorgio called from nearby, where he was talking with Mario.
âYou wouldn't understand it,' Lisa told him. âWe're laughing at men, and men never realise how funny they are.'
âThat's very true,' Natasha said. âAnd if you try to explain they still don't understand.'
Mario gave her an odd glance which she returned with an air of teasing confidence. She felt a certain cheeky pleasure in having disconcerted him. The day had started well. Whatever happened now, she felt she could cope.
They all set out for the Splendido, where everyone was waiting, eager to begin. The next hour was spent going through a variety of garments.
âI like this one,' Natasha said, holding up a long white ballgown. It was simple and elegant, perfect for a girl making her debut in society. âJuliet can wear this at the ball.'
Giorgio looked impatiently at his watch.
âThey should be here by now. What's happened to them?'
He snatched up his phone and dialled. Almost as soon as he was through, an expression of outrage overtook him.
âSÃ¬? Che cosa? Cosa vuol dire che non posso venire? Oh, dolore bene!'
He hung up.
âWhat's happened?' Mario demanded.
âThey're not coming. There's been a mix-up with the dates. They thought the shoot was next week.'
âOh, no, what are we going to do?' Natasha cried. âIt's all set up for today.'
âThere's only one thing we can do,' Giorgio said. âFind another Romeo and Juliet.'
âBut we haven't got time to search,' she protested.
âWe don't have to search. We've got the duo we need right here.' He threw out his arms towards her and Mario. âRomeo and Juliet.'
She stared. âYou can't possibly be serious.'
âI'm perfectly serious. You're beautiful enough to be Juliet, and Mario can just about get by as Romeo.'
âIt won't work,' Mario growled. âAs though I couldâ'
âIt's got to work,' Giorgio said. âYou're the only two who can do it in the time available. We've got to start right now, otherwise all our plans are in a mess. Come along, you two. Be professional.'
âHe's right,' Mario growled. âWe have no choice.'
âGo next door and get changed,' Amadore said. âNatasha, a maid will come with you.'
She looked around wildly. Surely there must be some other way. But there was no other way. Only this could save her plans for the success she simply had to have.
The maid appeared and took her to the room assigned as Juliet's dressing room. The dress fitted perfectly onto her slender, delicate figure. But her hair didn't seem right, pulled tightly back.
âI think Juliet would wear it hung loose,' she said.
The maid nodded, and got skilfully to work. Natasha watched, only half believing, as the self she knew disappeared and naive, vulnerable Juliet took her place. The merest touch of make-up heightened the impression, and she was ready to go.
As she entered the ballroom heads turned. Giorgio made a clapping movement and Amadore whistled.
She noticed neither of them. Her attention had been seized by the man standing a little further off. Mario had transformed into Romeo, wearing a dark blue doublet and tights. It would need a fine figure to get away with such a revealing costume, but Mario was tall, splendidly built and handsome enough to steal the spotlight.
Suddenly a memory came flooding back to her. Two years ago, during their precious short time together in Venice, they had spent a day on the beach. Her first sight of him, half naked in swimming trunks, had had a stunning effect on her, making her intensely aware that her own swimwear was a bikini, leaving much of her body uncovered.
, she'd thought as she enjoyed the sight of his long, strong legs as he raced across the beach.
After that everything had changed. They spent the day chasing each other, bathing in the sea or stretched out on the sand, and with every moment she wanted him more. She'd feasted her eyes on his smooth, muscular body, seizing every chance to lean closer to him, cherishing the brief moments when her flesh brushed against his.
It had been her first experience of fierce desire and it revealed her to herself in a new light. In the past she had flirted, laughed, teased, but never before had she wanted a man with such fervour. When their eyes met she believed she saw the same intensity in him, and promised herself that soon he would carry her to a new world.
That night they'd parted with only a kiss. She had told herself he was biding his time, waiting for her to be ready to move on.
Three days later they had parted for ever.
Shaking off the memory, she began to walk towards Mario, tense for the moment when she would see his reaction to her. Would the past return to haunt him too? What would she see in his eyes?
At last Mario looked up, saw her and nodded.
âSplendid,' he said. âGiorgio chose Juliet well.'
His tone was polite but nothing more, and his eyes were blank.
âAnd you look fine as well, Signor Ferrone,' she said, striving to match him for blandness.
âWell, like Giorgio said, I'll “just about get by”.'
âEverybody ready?' Amadore called. âThis way.'
He indicated an archway at the far end of the ballroom. Mario offered Natasha his arm and she took it, saying, âThank you,
He leaned closer to her, murmuring, âDon't call me
. My name is Mario. If you address me formally people will think something is wrong between us.'
âAnd we mustn't let them think that,' she agreed. âShall we go?'
cheer when they came into the ballroom. Lisa nodded, as though to say that Romeo's looks met her high standards.
The photographer studied them with approval and said he would start with portrait shots.
âFirst I'll take you separately, then together. Juliet, you first.'
âJuliet? I'm Natasha,' she said lightly.
âNo, today you are Juliet.'
âHe's right,' Giorgio said. âYou don't pretend to be Juliet. You
Juliet. You can go back to being Natasha tomorrow.'
âIf I want to,' she said, entering into the spirit. âNatasha might be too boring.'
âThat's the spirit,' Giorgio said with a grin.
She turned this way and that, smiled, looked sad, smiled again.
âNow throw your arms out,' Giorgio said. âImagine you're looking at someone who's the great happiness of your life.'
She did so, reaching towards the camera with a yearning look.
Mario, watching from the sidelines, turned his head to avoid seeing that expression on her face. He remembered it too well from the past, and couldn't bear to be reminded of it now that the past was over.
Then he too had to pose for portrait shots.
âThis way, that way,' the photographer called. âTurn your head a little. Good. Now the two of you together.'
The first shot was a formal pose, with Juliet standing just in front of Romeo, his hands on her shoulders.
âNow turn and look into each other's eyes. Keep hold of each other but lean back a little so that I can see both of your faces.'
They obeyed, studying each other seriously, then smiling according to instructions.
âI think Romeo should frown a little,' Lisa called. âAnd he should try to look sexy so that we know why Juliet fell for him.'
Mario scowled, annoyed at the comment and even more exasperated by the fact that Natasha collapsed with laughter.
âDon't worry,' she called. âI can pretend if I have to.'
âAnd perhaps Juliet had to,' Giorgio said cheerfully. âMaybe she didn't really fancy Romeo at all. She was pursuing her own agenda.
Romeo, that grim look is perfect. Keep it up.'
âYes, keep it up,' she chuckled. âJust think how I'm going to thump you later.'
âJuliet, that smile is wonderful,' the photographer called. âIt says a lot about the kind of marriage they would have had if they'd lived. One where he got worked up and she laughed at him. I'm beginning to think nobody ever really understands this pair.'
âNo,' she murmured so that only Mario could hear. âNobody really understands.'
âHe's talking nonsense,' Mario growled.
âHe's grandstanding to make us play our parts,' she said. âIt's his job. So we have to do ours.'
âJuliet,' Giorgio called, âreach up and brush his hair forward a little, around his face.' She did so, hearing the camera click madly.
âThat's itânow againâand againâgentlyâJuliet's longing to caress his face, and this is her chance.'
Natasha told herself that she was merely obeying orders, but she couldn't hide the truth from herself. She wanted to do thisâwanted to touch his face, his body, his heart. Even through the lightness of her caress she felt the tremor that went through Mario, despite his attempt to suppress it. She could sense his reaction because it mirrored her own.
But could he suspect the feelings that were going through her at being so close to him? Suddenly, his face had softened. The grim look she saw on it so often faded, leaving a faint echo of the young, gentle man she had loved. His eyes were fixed on her intently but that might be no more than playing his part. If only she could tell.
âRight, that's it,' came Giorgio's voice. âNow for the balcony scene. Come this way.'
The balcony at the back of the Splendido was decorated much like the one at Juliet's house, and had the advantage of being several feet lower so that Romeo and Juliet could be closer to each other. Mario stood below, reaching up, while Natasha leaned down to touch his hand while the camera clicked away.
âPerfect,' Giorgio cried at last. âYou two are doing a great job. It's wonderful how well you work together.'
They said what was necessary and followed him back to the ballroom, where another selection of garments was laid out for them.
âRomeo believes that Juliet is dead,' Giorgio said. âSo he comes to the crypt where her body lies. He finds her there, says his farewells and takes his own life. Then she wakes, finds him dead, and she too chooses death. We'll shoot this scene in the cellar.'
With the maid's help, Natasha donned a plain gown and they all went down to the hotel's cellar, where a stone bench had been prepared for her to lie on.
âOw!' she said, stretching out on it. âThat stone's really hard.'
âIs it really painful?' Mario asked her quietly.
âNo, I'll be all right.'
âLet me put something under your head.'
âNo, that would spoil it. But thank you.'
He still looked worried but let it drop.
âWalk up to her body,' Giorgio said. âLook into her face as though you can't believe it's true. Good. Just like that.'
Lying there with her eyes closed, Natasha yearned to open them and see Mario's expression, to meet his eyes. But she must resist temptation and be content with the feel of his breath on her face.
âLay your head on her breast,' Giorgio instructed.
The next moment she felt him lying against her and gave a slight gasp.
âNow kiss her,' Giorgio said,
She braced herself for the moment his mouth touched hers. It was the faintest possible sensation but she told herself to endure it.
âAgain,' Giorgio said. âRemember, you've lost the only woman in life that you could ever care about.'
Mario kissed her again before laying his head once more on her breast. At last Giorgio called out that the scene was over.
âNow for the big one,' he said. âThe moment when they meet.'
In the ballroom Natasha donned the glamorous gown and watched while the maid worked on her hair. When everything was ready Giorgio guided âRomeo and Juliet' into position.
âIt's during the ball. Juliet is standing there, watching everyone, particularly Paris, the man her parents want her to marry. But then she sees Romeo watching her. Their eyes meet.'
Mario turned his head so that he gazed at Natasha. She gazed back.
âHe advances towards her,' Giorgio continued. âThat's right, Mario, a little nearer. He takes her hand, and asks forgiveness for touching her because he says he isn't worthy. But she says he is.'
Now Natasha's hand was clasped in Mario's. He was close to her, watching her intently.
âAnd Romeo dares to steal a kiss,' Giorgio said triumphantly. âGo on. Let's catch that on camera.'
Gently Mario dropped his head, laying his lips on hers.
âGood,' Giorgio said. âBut I wonder if we should do it again. Natasha, it might be more effective if you put your arm around him.'
âIt's too soon for that,' she said quickly. âShe doesn't yet know how she feels.'
âNor does he,' Mario said. âHow would Romeo kiss her at this point? Would it be like this?' He laid his lips briefly over Natasha's. âHe might do it respectfully because however much he desires her he fears to offend her. Or is he a shameless character who simply takes what he wants, like this?'
His arm went around her waist, drawing her against him, while his mouth covered hers firmly and purposefully.
She was stunned. The brief, light kiss he'd given her a few moments ago hadn't prepared her for this. Instinctively, her hands moved to touch him, but she snatched them back, unsure whether she would embrace him or push him away. She understood nothing except the disturbing pleasure of his lips on hers, and the maddening instinct to slap his face.
For two years she'd wanted to be in his arms, dreamed of it while mentally rejecting it in her rage at his betrayal. Now the sweetness of holding him again struggled with fury at his assumption that he could do as he liked and she would have to accept it.
But she could not repulse him. Whatever common sense might dictate, she must appear to react to him blissfully and chance what the future might bring. She let herself press against him, eager to feel his response, and thenâ
âAll right, Giorgio?' Mario cried, standing back. âIs that what you want?'
Natasha froze, barely able to believe what had happened. It seemed that the feelings that had pervaded her had been hers alone. Had he felt anything beyond the need to get the photographs right? Fury simmered inside her.
âThat's fine,' Giorgio said. âDo it just like that, for the camera.'
Then Mario's hands were on her again, drawing her nearer so that he could lay his lips on hers and hold her against him, unmoving. She could feel the warmth of his mouth, of his whole body, and her own responded to the sensation whether she wanted it to or not. Her anger flared further.
Somewhere in the background she could hear the sound of a camera, clicking again and again until at last Giorgio called, âAll right, that's it. Well done, you two. Now let's think about the next scene.'
âI need a little fresh air first,' Natasha said, quickly slipping out of the nearest door into a corridor.
She ran until she reached a corner behind which she could hide. She must escape Mario lest he suspect that she'd just discovered the power he still had over her.
But when she looked around she found him facing her.
âDid you follow me?' she demanded.
âI thought that was what you meant me to do. Don't you have something you want to say to me?'
âOh, yes, I have a thousand things,' she said furiously. âYou've got a nerve, doing what you did back there.'
âKissing you, you mean? But you owed it to me. When we parted you never kissed me goodbye.'
âI never thumped the living daylights out of you either, which I was surely tempted to.'
He seemed to consider this. âSo you think I deserve to have you slap my face? Very well. Do your worst.'
âWhat are you saying?'
âGo ahead. Slap me if it will make you feel better.'
He jutted his chin out a little and stood waiting.
âStop talking nonsense,' she snapped.
âI mean it. You can do what you like and I promise not to retaliate.'
âThis is all a big joke to you, isn't it?'
He shook his head. âMy sense of humour died the day you left. In the weeks I spent trying to find you I buried it deep underground. So what now? Aren't you going to hit me?'
âCertainly not. It would be unprofessional. I might leave marks on your face that would spoil the next photographs. The matter is closed.'
He saluted. âYes, ma'am. Whatever you say, ma'am.'
âOh, stop itâstop it! Stop trying to make a fool of me, of yourself, of both of us.'
Suddenly, his manner changed. The wry irony died and a bleakness came into his eyes. âYou silly woman,' he said quietly. âDon't you realise that we all have our own way of coping.'
âAnd that's your way? Well, this is my way.'
Without warning, the swift temper she'd vowed to control swept over her, driving her to do something she knew was madness. She seized his head in her hands, drew it down and covered his mouth with her own. At once she could feel his hands on her and sensed the same confusion as she had felt herselfâto deny the kiss or indulge it joyfully?
But he was going to indulge it. That was her decision, and she would give him no choice. She slightly softened the pressure of her mouth so that the kiss could become a caress, her lips moving over his in a way she had once known delighted him. She sensed his response in his tension, the sudden tightening of his arms about her.
Now she was ready to taunt him further. The pressure of her mouth intensified, and his breath came faster as his excitement grew. His lips parted as he explored her more deeply. He was no longer merely receiving her kiss but returning it in full, seeking to take command but not succeeding. The command was hers, and she would keep it whether he liked it or not. Her spirit soared. She was winning.
He drew back a little. âNatashaâ'
âTake warning, Mario. Two can play this game. You won't defy me again. If you do I'll make you sorry.'
She felt him tense, saw his eyes full of disbelief as he understood her meaning. Then it was all over. âYou had to do that, didn't you?' he rasped. âYou had to tease meâmake me thinkâbut it wasn't a kiss. It was revenge.'
âRevenge can be very sweet,' she said, pushing him away. âThat's one of the things I learned from you. Did you think you were going to get away with what you did back there? You just had to show me that you were the boss, and how I felt didn't count.'
He shook his head. âYou won't believe this,' he said in a hard voice, âbut I kissed you because I wanted to. I'm ashamed of that now because it seems so stupid to imagine that you had any kindly feelings left. But, idiot that I was, I thought some part of you might still be the old Natasha, the sweet-natured girl I loved and wanted to be with.
âBut you warned me about that, didn't you? You told me that Natasha was dead. I couldn't believe it, but I believe it now. You did this to get your own back by reminding me of what I've lost.'
âYou lost it because you didn't want it,' she said.
âKeep telling yourself that,' he said quietly. âIn the end you may come to believe it. In those days I wanted you more than I've ever wanted any woman. And I could have told you that if you hadn't vanished when you did. You landed us in this desert, not me. You did it by losing your temper and acting without thinking anything through. We didn't have to end up here. We could have been married by now, and expecting our first child. Insteadâwell, look at us.'