Authors: Lucy Gordon
She got up and walked quickly away. Frowning, he followed her, hurrying until he caught up and could take a firm hold of her hand. She didn't resist but neither did she respond, and he had a feeling that she had taken refuge in another world, from which he was excluded.
He accompanied her as far as her door, noting that she still looked pale and tense.
âI'll collect you in an hour,' he said.
âI'll be ready.'
Once inside, she undressed and got into the shower. There was a kind of relief in being doused with water, as though it could wash away the shock that had overtaken her.
The text on her mobile phone had been from Elroy Jenson:
You won't get away from me.
He's driving me crazy
, she told herself.
And that's what he wants
She wondered why she hadn't told Mario what had troubled her. It should have been easy since she had already told him about Elroy, and he would have been a valuable ally. But something in her was reluctant to reveal more vulnerability. Especially to Mario.
When she had showered she put on a neat dark blue dress, suitable for a polite gathering. For several minutes she teased her hair, trying to decide whether to be seductive or businesslike. As so often with Mario, her mind was filled with conflicting thoughts.
Their conversation had been fraught with double meanings. He'd said,
I wanted to hurt you because I resented the way you'd just shown your power over me.
But he'd implied the power of a bully, not of a woman. They had made a truce, but the battle was far from over.
When he'd pressed her to say that she believed him now she had been unable to say what he wanted to hear. She longed to believe him, but she couldn't quite make herself take the final step.
But why should it matter whether I believe him or not?
That's all over. What matters is that we can manage to be friends.
Nico was watching for their arrival at the Albergo Martinez and came to meet them with hands outstretched. Natasha recognised him from their meeting the first night.
Over supper he described the tomb.
âJuliet was buried in the church of San Francesco al Corso, a monastery,' he explained.
âYes, it was Friar Laurence, a monk, who married them,' Natasha recalled. âOn their wedding day they went to his cell and he took them to the church to marry them.'
âTrue. And when Juliet diedâor at least she'd drunk the potion and seemed deadâshe was taken to the monastery to be buried. These days the monastery has become a museum. You can go to the crypt and see the sarcophagus that legend says was hers.
âThe museum also hosts weddings. Many people choose to become united for life in the place where Romeo and Juliet were united in eternity. Of course, if they are seeking a hotel not too far awayâ'
âThey'll be glad to discover yours,' she said in her most professional manner. âI shall make sure that they do.'
Mario, you've made a fine discovery in this talented lady. Don't let her go, whatever you do.'
âDon't worry; I won't,' he said with a cheerful nod.
âNow, let us go in to supper.'
Supper was served at a large table where many people were already sitting. As they sat down Natasha became aware of something she had seen many times before. From every direction women were casting admiring glances at Mario. It had been there from the beginning, two years ago. It was still there.
And why not?
He's got the looks to make it happen. And it doesn't bother me any more.
She soon discovered that the man sitting next to her was an ideal choice. His name was Tonio and he was an academic, specialising in English history. As history had always been one of her interests, she was soon deep in conversation with him, intrigued by his prejudiced arguments.
âYou're all wrong about Richard III,' she told him. âShakespeare depicted him as a monster but he wasn't reallyâ'
âYou English!' he exclaimed. âYou can never believe that any of your monarchs were evil.'
âOn the contrary, the evil ones are the most fun. But Richard's evil reputation is mostly a kind of show business.'
âI've studied the evidence and I tell youâ'
Heads close together, they stayed absorbed in their argument, with the rest of the table regarding them with amused fascination. All except Mario, who was looking displeased, which surprised Natasha when she happened to glance up. The luscious beauty beside him was paying him fervent attention that a man might be expected to enjoy. But he seemed to be tolerating rather than encouraging her.
âI see Bianca's got her claws into a new man,' said Tonio, sounding amused.
âYou speak as though it happens often.'
âWith Bianca it does. She likes to cast her net wide.'
âIt doesn't look as though he's fallen under her spell.'
âNot now, but give him a little time.'
Bianca was clearly a practised flirt, convinced that any man was hers for the asking. When she patted Mario's face, giggling, he smiled back politely before returning his gaze to Natasha.
âYou need to look at it like this,' Tonio said, returning to their discussion. âKing Richard couldn't possiblyâ'
She plunged back into the argument, enjoying herself for the next half hour, until somebody put on some music and people began to dance. Suddenly Mario appeared by her chair.
âDance with me,' he said.
âWouldn't you rather dance with Bianca?'
âNo.' He grasped her hand, drew her to her feet and onto the floor.
âI thought you were having a lovely time.' She laughed as they twirled.
âDid you really?' he demanded ironically.
âBeing hunted down by a woman who'd gladly have given you anything you wanted.'
âWhich would be fine if there was anything I did want from her. But I don't.'
âThat wouldn't stop some men. They'd just take anything that's going.'
âI was like that once, when I was young and stupid. I grew up in the end, but by then it was too late.'
He said the last words with a wry look. The next moment the temptress glided past them. She was dancing with another man, but even so she gave Mario a glance that made him tighten his grasp on Natasha.
âRescue me,' he growled.
âAll right. Here goes. Aaaargh!'
With a theatrical sigh, she drooped against his chest.
âOh, how my head aches,' she declared. âI really must go home.'
âI'll take you,' he said.
Turning to their host, he explained that it was necessary to take Natasha away at once.
âShe isn't feeling well,' he said. âShe must go to bed.'
From somewhere came the sound of choking laughter. Mario ignored it and picked Natasha up to carry her from the room. He didn't set her down until they reached the car.
âThank you,' he said as they drove away.
âNo problem. I'm really glad to leave because I need some sleep. Of course, if you want to go back and spend time with Biancaâ'
âIf that's your idea of a joke, it's not funny,' he said in an edgy voice.
âSorry, I couldn't resist it.'
âPerhaps you should try to resist it. I'm just a sitting duck as far as you're concerned.'
âAll right, I apologise.'
âIt was getting very difficult in there.'
âYou know what they're all thinking now, don't you?' she chuckled.
âYes, they think that when we get home we're going toâ Well, you can imagine.'
âYes, I can imagine.'
âAnd I'm sorry. But that woman was getting embarrassing.'
âDon't tell me you're afraid of her. You? A man who's afraid of nothing.'
âYou'd be surprised at some of the things I'm afraid of,' he said. âOnce you were one of them. Now you're beginning to feel like the best friend I have.'
âGood. Then we have nothing left to worry about...'
drove to the monastery museum and went down into the crypt, where several other tourists had already gathered, looking at a large marble sarcophagus.
It was open at the top, revealing that it was empty now, but legend said that this was where Juliet had lain after taking the drug that made her appear lifeless. Here, Romeo had come to find her and, believing her dead, had taken his own life, minutes before she awoke. Finding him dead, she had taken her own life.
âI just don't understand it,' said an elderly man, staring into the sarcophagus. âHow could two people so young take their own lives?'
âMaybe they didn't,' said one of his companions. âMaybe that's an invention of the story.'
âNo,' Natasha said. âIt's part of the story because it was inevitable. It's what you do if life has lost all meaning.'
âAnd that can happen at any age,' Mario said at once.
âNo,' the old man said. âThey could have got over each other and found other lovers.'
âBut they didn't believe that,' Mario pointed out.
âYoungsters never do,' the man said loftily. âBut when they get older they find out that nothing ever really matters that much. Love comes and goes and comes again. It's ridiculous to believe anyone discovers the full meaning of their life as young as that.'
âNo,' Mario said. âIt's ridiculous to believe that such a discovery happens to a timetable. It happens when it's ready to happen. Not before and not after.'
The old man looked at him with interest. âYou sound like an expert, sir.'
âI guess we're all experts, one way or another,' Mario said.
There were some murmurs of agreement from the little crowd as they turned away, following their tourist guide to another part of the museum.
Now that they were alone, Mario watched as Natasha looked into the sarcophagus.
âThey married and had one sweet night together,' she murmured. âBut when they finally lay together it was here.'
âThey lie together and they always will,' Mario said.
She turned a smiling face on him. âYou know what you've done, don't you?'
âWhat have I done?'
âGiven me a wonderful idea that I can develop for the piece I'm writing. “They lie together and they always will.” Thank you.'
He made an ironic gesture. âGlad to be of use.'
âWould you mind leaving me alone here for a while? I just want toâ' She looked around her, taking a deep breath, her arms extended.
She just wanted to absorb a romantic atmosphere without being troubled by his presence, he thought. A dreary inconvenience. That was how she saw him now.
True, she had kissed him, but in anger, not in love or desire. And hell would freeze over before he let her suspect the depth of her triumph.
He stepped aside to a place in the shadows. From here he saw her stare down again into the tomb, reaching out into the empty space inside. What did she see in that space? Romeo, lying there, waiting for her to join him? Or Romeo and Juliet, sleeping eternally, clasped in each other's arms, held against each other's hearts?
Whatever it was, she had not invited him to be with her, because in her heart she was certain that he had left the dream behind long ago. If he had ever believed in it.
If only there was some magic spell that could enable her to look into his heart and see the truth he had carried there ever since their first meeting. Might she then look at him with eyes as fervent and glowing as she had done once, long, long ago?
He stayed watching her for a while, expecting that any moment she would move away. But she seemed transfixed, and at last he went to her.
âAre you all right?' he asked. âYou seem almost troubled.'
âNo, I'm not troubled. It's just the atmosphere here, and what this tomb represents.'
âSurely it just represents death?'
âNo, there's more. Finality, fulfilment, completion. They were young; they could have gone on and had lives that would have seemed satisfying. But each meant more to the other than life itself. You put it perfectly when you said people can discover what really matters while they're still young, and then they lie together for ever. Thisâ' she looked around at the walls of the tomb ââthis says everything.'
âI think we should go now,' he said. Her fascination with the place was making him uneasy.
âYes, I've done all I need to do here. I'll spend this evening working on it. Then I'll do a new article and send it around the
, so they can tell me what they think. I'm sure their suggestions will be useful.'
âI see you've got all the boxes ticked.'
âI hope so. That's what you're paying me for. Shall we go? We're finished here, aren't we?'
âOh, yes,' he agreed. âWe're finished here.'
No more was said on the way back to the hotel.
Once there, Natasha hurried up to her room to get to work. She had supper served to her there and did not go downstairs all evening. She needed to be alone to think about the day. Mario's observations at the tomb had left her wondering. The old man had said he sounded like an expert about love. Mario had replied,
We're all experts, one way or another.
One way or another. Love might be a joy or a betrayal. Which had he meant?
But I don't need to ask that
, she thought.
He feels betrayed, just as I do. But how is that possible? Can we have both betrayed each other?
He'd accused her of refusing to listen to him because she feared the truth, feared to confront her own part in their break-up. She had denied it, but could there possibly be a grain of truth in it?
Surely not, she thought. It couldn't have turned out any differently. Could it?
She had felt her own pain so intensely, but now she was confronted by his pain and it was a bewildering experience.
We'll never understand each other
, she thought.
I mustn't hope for too much. Or do I mean fear too much?
She gave herself a mental shake.
That's enough. I'm here to work and when I've finished my job I'll leave, whatever he says or does.
But the next day everything changed.
* * *
In the morning she went exploring again, wandering Verona on foot until, in the afternoon, she reached Juliet's house. There, she looked around the courtyard, meaning to go inside and see the museum.
But something drew her to Juliet's statue, still standing as it had been before, gazing into the distance.
If only, she thought, she could indulge the fantasy of asking Juliet's advice, and imagining an answer. It might help sort out the confusion in her head and her heart.
She didn't know how Mario felt, or how she herself felt. When he had kissed her she'd wanted him so much that it scared her. So she had punished him with a kiss designed to show him what he'd lost. But she too had been reminded of what she'd lost.
Into her mind came Mario's face, looking as he had at the start of the photo shoot. His expression had beenâshe struggled for the wordsâcautious, perhaps a little nervous.
She had blamed him for kissing her, thinking him too confident and self-satisfied. But did she blame him too much? Had he been uneasy, secretly wanting the kiss but unsure of himself?
I know how that feels
, she brooded.
In my heart I wanted him to kiss me. Perhaps that's why I was so angry when he did.
She sighed and turned away. Then she stopped, tense.
Mario was standing there, watching her.
âI happened to see you in the street,' he said, âso I took the liberty of following you. Have you been inside the house?'
âNo, I was about to go in.'
âLet's go in together.'
Inside, they looked briefly around the sixteenth-century furniture, absorbing the perfect atmosphere for the legend. Then they climbed the stairs and stepped out onto the balcony.
A young couple was already there, wrapped in each other's arms.
âSorry,' the girl said, moving aside. âWe just had to come and see it again. We're getting married here next week and all the pictures will be taken out on the balcony.'
âHow lovely,' Natasha said. âThe perfect place.'
âWe thought so.' They kissed and slipped away into the building.
How lucky they were, she thought, to be so sure of each other, of life, of the future.
Now the light was fading, and there were few visitors. It was easy to imagine herself as Juliet, standing there looking into the night sky, unaware that Romeo was down below, watching her.
âI wonder what it was like for her,' she mused, âto stand here, dreaming of him, then finally realising he was there, seeing him watching her, not knowing that their love was fated.'
Before he could answer, there was a shrill from her mobile phone. But she ignored it.
âAren't you going to answer that?' Mario asked.
âNo, it can wait,' she said in a tense voice. âI didn't mean to bring it with me. I don't want to be distracted.'
The phone shrilled again.
âAnswer it,' Mario said. âGet rid of them.'
Reluctantly, she pulled out the phone and answered.
âAt last,' said the voice she dreaded.
âYou again,' she snapped. âStop pestering me.'
âStop telling me what to do,' said Jenson's voice. âIf I want to call you I shall. Who do you think you are to give me orders?'
âWho do I think I am? I'm the woman who told you to go and jump in the lake. I'm the woman who wants nothing to do with a man as disgusting as you. You should have realised that by now.'
From the other end of the line came a crack of laughter.
âNo, you're the one who should have woken up to reality, you stupid tart. You don't know what I could do to youâ'
âI think I do. You've made it brutally clear.'
âThat was just the start. You don't know how sorry I can make you, but you're going to find out. I know something about you, Natasha, and by the time I've finished you're going to wish you'd treated me with more respect.'
Before she could reply, the phone was wrenched from her hand by Mario.
âJenson,' he snapped. âGo to hell. Leave her alone or I'll make you sorry.'
A bellow of ugly laughter reached him down the line.
âNot as sorry as you'll be if you're involved with Natasha,' Jenson bawled. âShe's made herself my enemy, and if you side with her you'll be my enemy too. I have a way with enemies.'
With a swift movement Mario severed the connection.
âJenson's still pestering you?'
âYes, he won't stop.' She was shaking.
âAll right, let's deal with this,' Mario said. He put his arms around her firmly, protectively. âCome on, we're going back to the hotel.'
Still holding her, he led her back to his car. She almost collapsed into the seat beside him and sat with her head in her hands during the drive. To his relief, there was almost nobody in the hotel lobby and he was able to take her upstairs quickly. As soon as the door closed behind them he clasped her once more in his arms.
âIt's all right,' he said fiercely. âThere's nothing to be scared of. You're safe here. Jenson is in the past.'
âNo, he's not,' she groaned. âAs long as he can reach me he's not in the past. Changing my number is useless. He always finds out my new one. That's how powerful he is. I'm scared. He haunts me. When I get a text or a call from him it's as though he's actually there. He's already ruined my career, and I can't be rid of him.'
âYou're wrong,' Mario said. âHe hasn't ruined your career, and he isn't going to because I'm not going to let him.'
She took some deep breaths, managing to calm down a little. Mario touched her chin, lifting it so that he could see her face. For a moment he was tempted to give her a gentle kiss, by way of comfort. But, instead, he took her to the bed, still holding her as she sat down, then drawing her head against him again.
âThank goodness you were there,' she said. âI couldn't have coped alone.'
âI know you couldn't,' he said morosely. âThat's why I grabbed your phone in a way you must have thought rather rude. If something threatens me I like to know how serious it is.'
âBut he's not threatening you.'
âAnything that threatens you threatens me. I told youâI'll deal with it.'
âThank you.' She clung to him. âIt's lucky it was only a phone call. If he'd turned up in person I think I'd have done something violent, perhaps strangled him.' She made a wry face. âYou're right in what you've always said about my nasty temper.'
âI've never said it was a nasty temper,' he disclaimed at once. âIt's a quick temper. Act first, think later.'
âBy which time it's too late to think,' she sighed.
He didn't reply, merely tightened his arms about her.
âIt's been a curse all my life,' she said. âMy mother used to say I'd come to a bad end. According to her, I got my temper from my father, and I never heard her say a good word about him.'
âYou mentioned him the other day. Didn't they split up?'
âHe left her when I was only ten. Just walked out and vanished. It broke my heart. Until then I'd had a wonderful relationship with my father. I was the apple of his eye. But he left my mother for another woman and I never heard from him again.'
âNever? Are you sure your mother didn't keep you apart?'
âNo, he didn't write or call. I used to watch the mail arrive and there was never anything from him. I tried telephoning him but he'd changed his number.'
He didn't reply. She waited for him to remind her how she'd done the same thing, but he only hugged her closer.