Authors: Lucy Gordon
' she screamed, turning away from him with her hands over her ears.
âYes, the truth can be very painful, can't it? I could have devoted my life to loving you. Instead, I've come so close to hating you that it scares me.'
âWell, at least that's getting the truth out into the open. You hate me.'
âI didn't say that. I said I came close to hating you. I've never been able to take the final step, but I have a feeling that will come soon.'
She made no reply. The unexpected glimpse he'd given her of his own feelings had set off an aching misery inside her. He didn't hate her, but he would if he could. She wanted to scream and bang her head against the wall.
She turned away but he pulled her around to face him.
âYou won't let me tell you my side of it and I think I know why,' he raged. âBecause you're a coward, Natasha. You're afraid to know the truth. If you had to face the terrible thing you did, you couldn't bear it. Everything could have been so different for us if you hadn't condemned me so quickly.'
She didn't reply. Something inside her choked the words back before they could escape.
âIf you knew how I planned that day,' Mario said. âI'd told you that I had something important to say to you. I was going to ask you not to go home, to stay with me, become my love.
âMy relationship with Tania was never serious. She was a very experienced woman who surrounded herself with various male “friends”. I knew I wasn't the only man in her life but it didn't trouble me because I wasn't in love with her and she wasn't in love with me.
âBut when I met you, things changed. Suddenly I no longer wanted “a bit of fun”. I wanted something serious and I wanted it with you. Nobody else. Just you. So I met up with Tania and I told her that we couldn't see each other any more.
âShe was angry, but I thought she understood. Then it happened. She descended on us; you disappeared. If you could have seen what I went through trying to find you, how deep in despair I wasâwell, I guess you'd have enjoyed it.'
âI wouldn't have believed it,' she retorted. âYou? In despair, when you played the field so easily?'
âI'd done with playing the field. That life was all over for me. And if I could have explained thatâmade you understand... But what's the use? You only believe what you want to believe.'
She stared at him, trying to take in his incredible words. It was as though she'd become two peopleâone recoiling from him, one reaching out, longing to know more.
âAre you two there?'
Giorgio's voice came along the corridor.
âWe're here,' Mario called back.
âAh, good.' Giorgio appeared around the corner. âTime to get changed back into normal clothes. No more photographs today, but we're going to see Romeo's house.'
Natasha escaped to the dressing room and rid herself of the costume. It was a relief to don modern clothes and become herself again. Juliet could be banished, at least for a while.
The longer the better, she thought, staring into the mirror and brushing her hair fiercely so that it fell down over her shoulders. It looked like spun gold in the afternoon sunlight. Once Mario had made a joke about it; âmy dangerous blonde bombshell' he'd said in a teasing voice.
âI'm not dangerous,' she'd protested.
âYou can be when you act on instinct. Some of your instincts could scare a man.'
âDo I scare you?' she'd teased.
âYou could if I scared easily.'
Today he'd told her frankly that her headstrong temper had done much to part them.
Suppose I'd stayed to listen to his âexplanations'
, she thought.
Should I have done that? Should I have trusted him? No! No!'
She scraped her hair back as tight as it would go. When she was satisfied with her appearance she went down to join them.
Romeo's house was just a few minutes away from Juliet's and could only be seen from the outside.
âIt looks like a fortress,' she said, âwith those battlements.'
âA lot of buildings were created like that in those days,' Giorgio said. âHalf of the city was almost permanently at war with the other half, hence the fight between the Capulets and Montagues.'
A cry from a few feet away made them turn to see a man hailing them. He seemed to be in his forties, tall and strongly built, and Natasha recognised him as a member of the
that she had met on the first evening.
âYou should have told me you were coming,' he said, giving her a hug.
âI wasn't sure until the last minute,' Mario said.
âCome and have coffee with me. My hotel is just around the corner.'
As they walked there Giorgio dropped his voice to say to Natasha, âMario would have avoided this meeting if he could. That's Riccardo, the rival who tried to challenge him for the presidency of the
. He's very wealthy, owns more vineyards than any of the others, and likes giving orders just as much as Mario does.'
âYou said Mario got him to back off.'
âYes. Not sure how, but the rumours say some of Riccardo's business dealings wouldn't bear inspection.'
âYou mean Mario threatened him?'
âI doubt if it was a blatant threat. That isn't Mario's way. He'll just make a remark that only one man will understandâand fear. Riccardo dropped his challenge very suddenly. Mario isn't a man you tangle with, not if you've got any sense.'
Riccardo's premises were lavish and decorative, even more so than the Dimitri Hotel. Wherever Natasha looked she could see that money had been spent without restraint. It might well appear that Riccardo was a man who could challenge Mario, but after only a few minutes seeing them together Natasha sensed that this could never happen.
Riccardo was afraid of Mario. That was the incredible truth. And Mario was content to have it be so. The young man who had once enjoyed getting his own way by charm now used power to bend people to his will.
He had blamed her for disappearing, leaving him to search frantically until finally he had accepted despair. She had resisted the accusation, but now it troubled her more than she could face. This man scared other people, but admitted that she scared him.
She fell into earnest conversation with Riccardo.
âI want to see the rest of Verona,' she said. âIt's not just about
Romeo and Juliet
. There's more to life than romance.'
âNo doubt about that,' Mario agreed.
They clinked glasses.
âRight,' Natasha said. âI've done my preliminary work. Now I'm going to shut myself away for a while to get everything written. I'll see you in a few days, gentlemen.'
âSo we're no longer needed?' Giorgio asked comically. âYou're dismissing us just like that? Ah, it's a hard world.'
âThat's how it is,' Mario said, reflecting Giorgio's theatrical manner. âA woman dismisses a man when she no longer needs him. We just have to accept it.'
They all laughed.
âIf I'm not required for a while I'll go back to Venice for a few days,' Mario said. âSally, my sister-in-law, is about to give birth again. She had a hard time with her last baby so I think Damiano might appreciate having me around for a few days. I'll stay in touchâ
, Giorgio will take care of you.'
âThank you. If I have Giorgio, what more could I possibly want?'
Mario left that afternoon, bidding her a polite goodbye in front of everyone else, adding, âGiorgio can contact me if need be. Goodbye, everyone.'
relief for Natasha to spend the next few days without Mario. She needed time to come to terms with what he'd told her.
If you knew how I planned that day... I was going to ask you not to go home, to stay with me, become my love.
She tried to block out the memory, but it haunted her. Mario vowed he'd broken with Tania because he loved her and was preparing to tell her.
We didn't have to end up here. We could have been married by now, and expecting our first child. Insteadâwell, look at us.
She tried not to hear the terrible words echoing in her mind. Mario had accused her of believing only what she wanted to believe. And perhaps he was right. If he was telling the truth it meant that she had created the disaster almost single-handed.
To escape that unbearable thought, she submerged herself in work, studying not just Verona itself but its surroundings. It stood in the Veneto, the northern region of Italy that was best known for the city of Venice.
âThat's why we speak Venetian here,' Giorgio told her.
âVenetian? Venice has its own language?'
âCertainly, and it's spoken throughout the Veneto. People speak Italian as well, and English is very common because of all the tourists. But you need to know about the Venetian language to really understand this area.'
âAnd that's what I want to do,' she said, scribbling furiously.
The next day the photographer delivered the pictures of âRomeo and Juliet' and she studied them closely.
Mario's face fascinated her. When they had met a few days ago, she'd thought he looked older, harsher, more tense. But in these pictures he had changed again, becoming more like the young man she remembered. She thought she could see a softening in his expression as he looked at Juliet, a glow in his eyes which the camera had caught wonderfully.
She had seen that glow before, two years ago.
He must be a very good actor
, she thought.
But I suppose I knew that.
She spent some time wandering Verona alone, drinking in the atmosphere with nobody to distract her. She found a street she thought might be the place where Juliet's cousin Tybalt killed Romeo's friend, Mercutio. Just a little further on was where Romeo could have caught up with Tybalt and stabbed him in revenge.
Nearby were two
hotels, where she was welcomed eagerly. She looked them over, and jotted down notes in readiness for the next despatch.
There were a dozen places to visit, but she had no energy to explore further today. She had coped with the emotional strains of the last few days, but they had taken their toll. Now she was tired and her head ached a little, so she set off back to the Dimitri Hotel.
It was a relief to get back there, order a coffee and sit in the hotel cafÃ©. She closed her eyes, unaware that a man was watching her a few yards away, taking in every detail about her: her air of despondency, her appearance of being apart from the world, her loneliness.
Suddenly she looked up and saw him.
âHello, Natasha.' He went to sit beside her.
âYou're back from Venice then?'
âYes, I arrived ten minutes ago.'
âIs everything all right with your family?'
âYes, Sally came through it well and now I've got a niece.'
âThank you. How are things with you? You look very tired.'
âI've had a busy day, but a very satisfying one.'
âDid anyone go with you, to make sure you didn't get lost?'
âHey, there's no need to insult me.'
âI'm not some silly girl who gets lost every time she's in an unfamiliar street.'
âI could have asked Giorgio to escort me, but I refused. I can manage.'
He had no doubt of her real meaning. She'd needed time alone, free of the tension that was always there between them. He understood because he felt the same.
âYou work too hard,' he said. âYou always did. I remember once before, when we first met in Venice, you said you'd been working so hard that you were exhausted. I took you for a ride in a gondola, and you fell asleep.'
He said it with a smile but she recalled that he hadn't been amused at the time. He was used to taking girls for gondola rides, but not used to them nodding off in his company.
âYou took me back to the hotel and said goodnight very firmly,' she recalled, smiling. âYou felt insulted at my behaviour. I always wondered what you did for the rest of the evening, but I expect you found someone else who managed to stay awake.'
âI can't remember,' he said firmly.
They both laughed. He couldn't tell her that he'd spent the rest of that evening alone, brooding about her seeming indifference to his attentions. She had intrigued him, and he'd sought her out early next day.
âThat was always the way with you,' he reflected now. âThere, yet not there, keeping me wondering.'
âI didn't do it on purpose,' she said. âYou thought I was being a deliberate tease, but I wasn't. I was wondering too.'
And that had been her attraction for him, he realised. Where other girls were often willing, sometimes too willing, Natasha had always been just out of reach. It had driven him crazy but it had kept him in pursuit of her. Until finally she had vanished, leaving him devastated.
How much had she really felt for him? To this day he didn't know, and he doubted he ever would.
But one thing was certain. She was no longer the tense, nervy creature of a few days ago. The woman who had forced a kiss on him as revenge for his kissing her had simply vanished. Now she was relaxed, in command, humorous, alluring.
âI hear that you've been working hard,' he said. âYou've been contacting the other hotel owners to get information, and showing them what you planned to write so that they could approve it. They're very impressed. My stock has risen considerably since I performed the brilliant act of securing your services.' He gave a theatrical flourish. âOnly a genius like myself could have discovered you.'
âBut you didn't discover me. It was Giorgio.'
âHush. We don't say that.' He grinned. âAnd neither does Giorgio if he knows what's good for him.'
âI see. The boss gives his orders and we all jump to obey.'
âSome do. I doubt I'll ever see the day when you jump to obey.'
âBut you pay my wages,' she reminded him. âSurely I have no choice but to obey you?'
âAll right, all right. You've had your joke.'
âIt's not a joke. You're my employer. I know it's Giorgio who directs me, but you're the authority. If you told him to fire me, he'd have to do so.'
âThere's no danger of that.'
âActually, there's something I've been meaning to say to you.'
âWhat is it?' he asked with a sense of foreboding, for her tone implied a serious matter. âGo on, tell me. How bad is it?'
âIt's not bad at all. I want to say thank you.'
âThank you? For what?' he asked, sounding nervous.
âFor changing my contract so that I'm making more money. I couldn't believe it when Giorgio showed me the new one and said you'd told him to increase it.'
âBut you've already thanked me,' he said. âYou did so a few minutes afterwards. I told you then that it was essential to secure your professional services.'
âYes, you told me that, but you knew how bad my financial problems were. You could have secured me without raising the money. I think there may have been a little kindness involved too.'
He gave a slight smile. âKindness? Me? I'm a businessman. I don't do kindness.'
âI think you do. I can remember things in Veniceâthat little girl who lost her dog, and you found it for her.'
âI was only trying to impress you.'
âAnd you succeeded. You don't like people to know about your kind and caring streak but it's there.'
âThat's practically an insult.'
âThen you'll have to put up with me insulting you,' she said.
âI think I can just about manage that.'
âThe thing isâthat quarrel we had the other day, when we'd finished having the pictures taken... It just flared up but I wish it hadn't.'
âSo do I. I said things I didn't mean.'
âYou said I was afraid to face the truth, that everything could have been different if I'd listened to you. I think you meant that and I don't blame you.'
âBut do you believe what I told youâabout Tania, how I'd already broken with her?'
âPleaseâplease don't,' she gasped. âIt's in the past. It doesn't matter now.'
âMeaning that you still don't believe me.'
âI don't know,' she said in anguish. âThere are so many things battling each other in my mindâ'
âI know the feeling,' he said wryly.
âBut it doesn't matter.'
âNatasha, how can it not matter? You always prided yourself on being logical, but if you think what happened between us didn't matter you're talking nonsense.'
âI didn't mean that. It mattered then, but not now. The world has moved on. We've moved on.'
âAh, yes,' he said quietly. âWe've moved on.'
âAnd I think we were never meant to be together. Something was always fated to go wrong.'
âNow you sound like Giorgio.'
âWhat do you mean?'
âJust before you arrived, he and I were talking about Romeo and Juliet being “star-crossed lovers”. Sometimes a couple is meant for each other but just can't get it together. They just have to accept that fate is against them.'
âYes,' she said thoughtfully. âYou could say that fate was against us. My problem was that you had more women in your life than you could count. Or that I could count.'
âAnd mine was that you don't trust any man. I've always wondered why. Was there some other guy who walked out and broke your heart?'
âIn a way, yes, but it's not how you think. The man who walked out was my father.'
She fell silent until he said, âTell me about him.'
âI loved him, and he loved me, so I thought. And then he just vanished. I never heard from him again. We seemed to be so close but he just wiped me and my mother out of existence.'
As you did with me
, Mario thought, but was too tactful to say.
âMy mother was so bitter. She told me a million times that no man could ever be trusted, but she didn't need to say it. I felt it for myself.'
âSo when we knew each other you were always reminding yourself that no man could be trustedâespecially me.'
âNo, not especially you. You mattered more than anyone else butâ'
âBut you instinctively thought I was no different from the rest of them. Except perhaps a bit worse.'
âNo, noâit wasn't like that.'
âFrom where I'm sitting it was exactly like that.'
âAnd so you've come close to hating me,' she sighed. âPerhaps I can't blame you.'
âPlease, Natasha, forget I said that. I was in a temper. I wanted to hurt you because I resented the way you'd just shown your power over me. The way you kissed me made a point I didn't want to admit.'
âA point?' Her heart was beating fast.
âYou showed me that I'm not the strong, independent fellow I like to believe I am. So I hit back with the worst thing I could think of. I didn't mean it and I'm not proud of it. Do you think you can forgive me?'
âOn what?' he asked cautiously.
âThere's nothing to forgive.'
âReally? What about the way you say Iâ?'
âStop there,' he said quickly. âWhatever I may have said, I take it back. It's over. It's done with. Let us be friends.'
She considered a moment before smiling and saying wistfully, âThat would be nice.'
âIt's settled then.'
âShake?' She held out her hand, but he fended her off.
âNo. We shook hands the first night as professional associates. But now we're friendsâand friends don't shake hands. They don't need to.' He leaned over and kissed her cheek. âThat's what friends do. And they buy each other coffee.'
âNo, I meant that I'd buy you a coffee.'
âStop giving me orders. I'm buying and that's that.'
âYes, ma'am. Anything you say, ma'am.'
âMind you, you'll have to do the talking.'
He nodded, gave the waiter the order in Italian, then watched as she paid.
âHave you explored anywhere recently?' he asked.
âI've looked around a bit, but there's still one big place I've set my heart on visiting and that's Juliet's tomb.
âNow it's a museum,' she said. âIt seems to attract as many tourists as the balcony, so I must go there and plan the next article.'
hotel nearby,' Mario said. âThe Albergo Martinez. You met the owner the other night. We could dine there tonight and hear anything they have to say. Let me call him.'
He took out his phone, made a call and started talking in Italian. While she was waiting, her own mobile phone beeped. Her heart beat hard with horror when she read the text message.
After a few minutes Mario hung up, saying, âHe's expecting us in a couple of hours.'
He stopped suddenly, frowning as he saw her staring into space, full of tension.
âWhat is it?' he asked. âWhat happened?'
âNo, something's the matter. What is it?'
âNoânoâI'm all right. I'd like to go to my room.'