Once Natasha had been blissfully happy. Her love for Mario had flowered, filling her life with joy.
But then Tania, his ex-girlfriend descended on them accusing him of lies and treachery. Horrified, believing the worst of him, Natasha had fled, rejecting his attempts to find her.
Two years later she accepted a job in Verona, working for hotel owners who wanted her to make the most of the Romeo and Juliet legend. But once there she was stunned to discover that she was expected to portray Juliet – and her Romeo would be Mario.
Bitterly she faced him, only to find that he too was bitter at the way she had vanished, denying him the chance to defend himself. Somehow they must forget that they had broken each other’s hearts, and play the roles of lovers.
But could the past ever be forgotten? Could their fate be different to the legendary lovers whose spirit haunted Verona?
As part of the puiblicity Mario and Natasha are acting out the ballroom scene from the play, posing for photographs, following instructions.
Gently Mario dropped his head, laying his lips on hers.
‘Good,’ Giorgio said. ‘But I wonder if we should do it again. Natasha it might be more effective if you put your arm around him.’
‘It’s too soon for that,’ she said quickly. ‘She doesn’t yet know how she feels.’
‘Nor does he,’ Mario said. ‘How would Romeo kiss her at this point? Would it be like this?’ He laid his lips briefly over Natasha’s. ‘He 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.
Ever since their parting 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 then –
‘All right, Giorgio?’ Mario cried, standing back. ‘Is 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 promotion right? Fury simmered inside her.
‘That’s fine,’ Giorgio said. ‘Do 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 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.
‘All right, that’s it. Well done you two. Now let’s think about the next scene.’
‘I 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 Romeo facing her.
‘Did you follow me?’ she demanded.
‘I thought that was what you meant me to do. Don’t you have something you want to say to me?’
‘Oh yes, I have a thousand things,’ she said furiously. ‘You’ve got a nerve, doing what you did back there.’
‘Kissing you, you mean? But you owed it to me. When we parted you never kissed me goodbye.’
‘I never thumped the living daylights out of you either, which I was surely tempted to.’
He seemed to consider this. ‘So you think I deserve to have you slap my face? Very well. Do your worst.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Go ahead. Slap me if it will make you feel better.’
He jutted his chin out a little and stood waiting.
‘Stop talking nonsense,’ she snapped.
‘I mean it. You can do what you like and I promise not to retaliate.’
‘This is all a big joke to you isn’t?’
He shook his head. ‘My 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?’
‘Certainly not. It would be unprofessional. I might leave marks on your face that would spoil the next photographs. The matter is closed.’
He saluted. ‘Yes ma’am. Whatever you say ma’am.’
‘Oh stop it, stop 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.
‘You silly woman,’ he said quietly. ‘Don’t you realise that we all have our own way of coping.’
‘And 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 herself – to 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. ‘Natasha – ’
‘Take 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. In a sudden fierce movement he pushed her violently away.
‘You had to do that, didn’t you?’ he rasped. ‘You had to tease me – make me think – but it wasn’t a kiss. It was revenge.’
‘Revenge can be very sweet,’ she said. ‘That’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. ‘You won’t believe this,’ he said in a hard voice, ‘but 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.
‘But 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 what I’ve lost.’
‘You lost it because you didn’t want it,’ she said.
‘Keep telling yourself that,’ he said quietly. ‘In 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 be here. We could have been married by now, and expecting our first child. Instead – well, look at us.’
‘Stop it! Stop it!’ she screamed, turning away from him with her hands over her ears.
‘Yes, 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.’
‘Well at least that’s getting the truth out into the open. You hate me.’
‘I 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.
‘You won’t let me tell you my side of it and I think I know why.’ he raged. ‘Because 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.
‘If you knew how I planned that night,’ Mario said. ‘I’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.
‘My 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.
‘But when I met you things changed. Suddenly I no longer wanted ‘bits 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.’
‘She 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 was – well, I guess you’d have enjoyed it.’
‘I wouldn’t have believed it,’ she retorted. ‘You? In despair, when you played the field so easily?’
‘I’d done with playing the field. That life was all over for me. And if I could have explained that – made 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 people, one recoiling from him, one reaching out, longing to know more.