This is an original story. All characters are created by me.
All characters and events depicted in this story are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons (living or dead) or events is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story depicts sexual relationships between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
Written: November 24th, 2010 - January 10th, 2011.
Ianic (Yorksbard) - As always, you've been a great help. Thanks :D
Scanto - Thank you very much for giving me a (much needed) hand with the Italian dialogue. :D
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: After sharing a home for several months, the bond between the biographer Kathleen O'Malley and the professional race car driver Francesca Carrara has grown very strong. Unfortunately, the new season brings new problems and as Francesca embarks on the world championship tour, unexpected - and very much unwanted - issues arise that may threaten their relationship and Kathleen's peace of mind.
Trying to be as quiet as a mouse, Kathleen O'Malley slipped out of the double bed she was sharing with Francesca Carrara and tip-toed into her study.
Wrapping the warm housecoat tightly around herself, she sat down at her desk and turned on her little lamp. She grimaced when the hard, white light assaulted her and she rubbed her eyes to adjust to it.
After glancing at the clock on the wall - and shuddering when she realised it was only a quarter past six in the morning on Tuesday, January 11th - she pulled up her laptop and opened it. After loading the word processing program, she went to work on finishing a chapter in her latest biography.
The success of the book she had written on Francesca had made the offers come thick and fast and she had been able to pick and choose her clients at will. After debating with herself for several days, Kathleen had finally chosen to work on the biography for a celebrity pop star.
Her fingers flew across the laptop's small keyboard, creating paragraph after paragraph on the life of David Harting, better known to his fans as Davey Boy Hearty - every single time Kathleen typed that, she had to stop and giggle to herself.
Suddenly, the word processing program started acting oddly. When Kathleen tried to save the file, the only thing it did was to show a warning dialogue box where it said that the file format she was trying to save it to was 'incompatible with the formatting of the document'.
Kathleen sighed and rolled her eyes.
"Oh... I hate computers," she said softly in a resigned voice, wishing she had kept her trusty old typewriter.
She was able to highlight the entire file and then copy it into a new document. When that was saved without any problems, she'd had enough and closed the laptop with a hard phlum .
Sighing again, she clicked off the light and tip-toed back through the hallway to go into the living room down the other end of her cottage. Not bothering to turn on the lights, she sat down in the couch in the semi-darkness and started looking around at the things she had assembled over the years.
"Goodness me, it hasn't even been a year..." she whispered to herself as her eyes fell on the framed photographs on her mantelpiece. The pictures were all of herself and Francesca captured in various silly situations, like at the Christmas shopping or when they visited a New Year's Eve party hosted by one of Francesca's personal sponsors - or celebrating Francesca's victory in the Spa-Francorchamps 1000 kilometres sports car race in October.
When she looked at that photo, Kathleen was filled with a familiar, comforting warmth that could only be described as love. Love definitely hadn't been on the cards when she had first met the feisty, fiery race car driver Francesca Carrara the year before, but as soon as they had started working closely together on Francesca's biography, feelings had begun to develop that neither of them could deny.
And then Francesca had suffered a serious accident at Le Mans. The months of rehab that followed were hard on both of them, but they kept together and by Christmas time, they could no longer even contemplate living apart.
Kathleen chuckled quietly to herself when she remembered how they had met. In all the romance novels she had read, the two soon-to-be lovers would always meet in a cute or romantic fashion, perhaps with one saving the other from some hideous fate - but in her particular case, she actually thought that the tall, gorgeous brunette was a pain in the backside.
To Kathleen, they were the epitome of 'opposites attract' - where Francesca was tall and dark, Kathleen was short and blonde. Where Francesca was assertive and supremely confident in her abilities, Kathleen had always categorised herself as meek and a pushover. But like Kathleen had written in her diary, they fit together perfectly - physically and otherwise.
At those thoughts, Kathleen chuckled again and let her eyes continue to roam her living room. She looked at the shelf where Francesca kept the cups and trophies that meant the most to her; the first trophy she had won in karting, her Best Newcomer Award from a decade ago when she started in sports cars, and a copy of the British Empire Trophy she had won at Silverstone the year before - the original was safely locked away in the vault of their bank.
One trophy was missing from the shelf, and Kathleen knew that it annoyed Francesca greatly. The opulent golden statue given to the winners of the Le Mans Twenty-Four Hours had so far eluded Francesca, even after nearly a decade of trying.
Kathleen hummed to herself and ran a hand through her white-blonde hair. She briefly considered going back to her study to try the laptop again, but she didn't feel like fighting the little devil living inside the plastic box any longer.
When the call of the warm bed drowned out the need to work on Davey Boy's biography, Kathleen yawned, scratched her hair and went back to the bedroom.
A few moments later, Kathleen put her housecoat over the back of a chair and kicked off her slippers. With a wide yawn, she got back in the bed and snuggled close to Francesca to steal some of the taller woman's body heat.
When she did so, the old brass bed creaked mercilessly and she held her breath in the vain hope that it wouldn't wake Francesca up - unfortunately, it did.
"Mmmmm... time to get up already?" Francesca slurred, not yet daring to open her eyes.
"No, just go back to sleep," Kathleen whispered and placed a small kiss on Francesca's cheek.
"What time is it?"
"Very early. Twenty to seven."
"God! Just two more hours..." Francesca slurred and turned over onto her right side so she could wrap an arm around Kathleen's body. Within a few seconds, Francesca fell asleep again; her even breathing tickling the side of Kathleen's face.
Kathleen smiled and put her hand on top of Francesca's arm. Buried under the delightful and comforting weight of her lover, Kathleen closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, Francesca's bladder started sending out distress calls, so she rolled over onto her back and rubbed her face. The muffled snoring coming from Kathleen proved that she was still asleep, so Francesca left the bed and the bedroom very quietly.
After taking care of nature's business, she pulled her bathrobe tight and went into the kitchen to start setting the breakfast table.
'Today's the day... ugh. How will I ever get out of there alive...?' Francesca thought as she found the plates and the tumblers.
'Why did I ever say yes to that silly request? God... I wonder if I could call in sick? No, that would be too transparent.'
Francesca sighed and shook her head despondently. She opened a cupboard and pulled out the buns and the jam and then crouched down so she could get the toaster.
A creaking floorboard behind her gave away Kathleen's presence, and Francesca quickly put the items down and turned around so she could give her partner a hug.
"Good morning, darling," Francesca said and gave Kathleen a loving kiss on the lips.
"Morning. Just one cup of tea for me today, please."
"All right," Francesca said and began to pour water into the electric kettle.
"Aren't you excited?" Kathleen said sincerely.
"Well... not really, no."
"Oh. I'd be."
"That's because you're a natural in the limelight, darling," Francesca said and flashed Kathleen a blinding smile. She set up the toaster and took the buns out of the plastic bag. Finding a knife in a drawer, she began to cut the buns in half.
"I most certainly am not! Oh come on, you have plenty of experience. There's nothing to it, really."
"Perhaps I could tempt you to trade places with me today, then?"
"Sure, if you promise to write another chapter in Davey Boy Hearty's biography. My notes are all set, you just have to extract the correct information and insert it in the correct places in the document," Kathleen said and wrapped her arms around Francesca's waist. She leaned her head on the side of Francesca's shoulder and gave the taller woman a thorough squeeze.
"I'd better not," Francesca said with a chuckle. She put the buns on the flat toaster and turned it on. She dusted off her hands and turned around so she was face to face with Kathleen.
"I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun once you get there. I mean, they do this every day, don't they?" Kathleen said with a smile.
"I'm sure they know how to treat slightly reluctant celebrities."
"But it's just... that... me... Francesca Carrara, on... the... UK Home Shopping... Network," Francesca said, punctuating the sentence by placing little kisses on Kathleen's eyebrows, nose and lips.
"It'll be fun. I guarantee it," Kathleen whispered and started kissing Francesca for real - only stopping when the toaster turned itself off to protect the buns from being scorched.
After eating breakfast and showering, Francesca went into the living room to turn on the television. She started zapping through the channels until she arrived at the shopping network.
Grimacing, she pressed the Electronic Programme Guide button on the remote in the hope that they had cancelled the programme without bothering to tell her.
'Two p.m. - high quality die cast model cars. Special guest: the acclaimed race car driver Francesca Carrara.'
Francesca turned off the television, put down the remote and let out a long, slow, heartfelt sigh that didn't leave any room open for misinterpretation.
Leaning back on the couch, Francesca closed her eyes and concentrated on listening to Kathleen humming in the shower. A small smile flickered across her lips, but before her thoughts could begin to wander, the telephone rang.
Getting up from the couch, Francesca crossed the room with a slight limp and sat down in the comfy chair next to the phone. As she picked up the receiver, she put a hand on her aching hip, inwardly cursing over the fact that her hip and pelvis were still hurting seven months after her accident.
"The Carrara and O'Malley residence. This is Francesca."
'Hello, Fran, it's Giampaolo.'
"Buongiorno, signor Razotti, e felice anno nuovo. Come vanno le cose?" Francesca said and pulled a footstool over to her. With a grunt, she put her left leg on it and leaned back in the comfy chair.
'Molto bene, grazie. Happy New Year to you, too. I called to tell you that we've scheduled a meeting on Monday at ten a.m. and you need to be present. It's to sort out various details for the coming year.'
"All right. I'll be there. In the offices?"
'Yes. Oh, by the way... Fran, are you interested in a drive at the Barcelona Invitational?'
"Did the organisers change their plans? I thought they weren't going to allow factory-entered cars?"
'That hasn't changed, but one of our customers is taking part in GT2 in a GranTurismo S.'
"Oh, GT2, that's not really... hmmm."
'I know that you're usually not interested in racing in the smaller categories, but this guy could be valuable for us later on. It would be a vote of confidence in his team and his abilities if we let him have a factory driver for the weekend.'
"It's not whatshisname... Vittorio Franco again, is it?" Francesca said flatly.
'Oh, no. No, he's long gone. Last I heard, he bought himself a vintage Ferrari he's playing with.'
"I don't care what he's doing as long as he isn't doing it where I am."
'Yeah, well... anyway, are you interested, Fran?'
"Do I need to commit to it right now?"
'No, you have a couple of days. Monday will suffice.'
"Good. Tell you what, I need to discuss it with Kathleen before I can give you an answer. Once I have, I'll get back to you."
'Sounds fine. That's it for now. Send Kathleen my regards, Fran.'
"Sure. Arrivederci, signor Razotti."
"Who was that?" Kathleen said, standing in the doorway. She was using a towel to dry her long hair and the movements caused her bathrobe to part slightly, offering a tantalising peek at the treasures inside.
"Giampaolo Razotti. He offered me a drive for the Barcelona Invitational."
"Yes, in February. The week of the twenty first."
"Is it warm in Spain in February?"
"Well, warmer than here, anyway."
"Then I think we should go," Kathleen said with a cheeky grin.
"Oh, 'we' should go?" Francesca said and got up from the chair. She hobbled over to Kathleen and put her hands on the shorter woman's shoulders.
"Yes, 'we' definitely should go."
"What about Davey Boy's biography?"
"Oh, that'll be done by then."
"Won't you be bored?"
"Oh, no. I can survive another twenty-four hour race easily. Hey, are you trying to tell me that you won't want me to come?" Kathleen said and crinkled her nose.
"Of course not. And the Invitational is only a four-hour race, actually."
"Oh... well, even better, then. Case closed."
"Well, it's not for a fair while yet, so..." Francesca said, leaning down to give Kathleen a kiss on the forehead. She let her hands roam freely and one of them somehow found its way underneath Kathleen's bathrobe.
"I think you're forgetting the time. You're supposed to be at the studio an hour ahead of the broadcast so they can powder your nose," Kathleen said and tapped her index finger lovingly on Francesca's aforementioned body part.
"Rats. I thought you had forgotten..."
"Will you be recording it?" Francesca said as she fixed her hair. Much to Kathleen's delight, she had let it grow over the winter so it just touched the collar of her Armani shirt.
"But of course I will."
"That'll be a video nasty for sure."
"Don't be silly. It'll be fine," Kathleen said, holding Francesca's dark blue blazer jacket.
"How do I look?"
Kathleen let her eyes roam slowly up the woman in front of her: dark shoes, dark blue trousers with razor-sharp creases, a black leather belt and a pale blue shirt with golden cufflinks.
"Mmmm. Fantastic," Kathleen said with a broad smile.
Francesca put on the jacket and straightened out the lapels. She brushed off a few pieces of lint and then closed the jacket, taking her time with the buttons. She began to fiddle with a loose thread on the small Maserati Corse logo on the breast pocket but Kathleen swatted the long fingers away.
"Don't play with that. It'll only get worse."
Francesca grinned cheekily and then leaned down to give Kathleen a proper goodbye kiss.
"You know, I have a feeling that this year is going to be something very special for the two of us," Francesca whispered into Kathleen's ear once they separated.
Francesca put her hand on Kathleen's cheek and caressed it with her thumb. She was about to lean down again when Kathleen cleared her throat.
"Oh, dear, look at the time. You really should get going," she said with a well-placed wink.
Forty minutes later, Francesca drove into the TV station's parking lot. After finding a suitable spot for her company car, she looked at herself in the rear view mirror and chuckled quietly at the absurdity of it all.
Taking a deep breath, she got out of her car and walked towards the entrance.
Not long after, Francesca found herself in a makeup room having her face powdered for her appearance. The assistant applying the makeup was a young girl who was chewing noisily on a wad of bubble gum, and the resulting sounds were slowly driving Francesca bonkers.
"Miss Carrara?" a male voice said behind them.
Francesca craned her neck so she could see who it was in the mirror in front of her. It turned out to be a young man in his mid-twenties, holding a clipboard and a ball point pen in his hand.
"Yes?" Francesca said, still looking in the mirror.
"I'm James MacElhone. I'm your liaison, so to speak," the man said as he went into the makeup room.
"Good afternoon," Francesca said and tried to raise her hand from underneath the protective gown the makeup assistant had forced her into wearing.
"Good afternoon. We better shake hands later. I have a few questions for you, if you don't mind."
"Yes, we need a little bit of info before we can go ahead. We always ask our guest celebrities about their preferences."
"Do you have any live TV experience, Miss Carrara?"
"Well, I've been interviewed dozens of times before and after races, but I've never co-hosted a show before."
"All right. What do you prefer the hosts calls you on air?"
"Fran or Francesca will do fine."
"All right," James said and made notes on his clipboard.
After removing the excess powder from Francesca's forehead and hair, the makeup artist removed the protective gown and popped a huge gum bubble. Francesca swivelled the chair around and got up so she could shake hands with her liaison.
Standing a good three inches taller than the young man, she noticed at once that her presence unsettled him. With a mental shrug, she reached for her blazer jacket and put it on.
After saying goodbye to the makeup artist, Francesca and James left the small room and started walking down a pastel-coloured hallway, headed for a pair of frosted glass doors.
"Francesca, as you probably know, Lawrence White will be your host for the hour. Have you ever watched any his shows?"
"Can't say that I have, no," Francesca said and pulled down in her shirt sleeves so they lined up properly with the cuffs of the blazer.
"Well, he has a certain jovial style that has made him very popular with the viewers," James said and pulled open one of the glass doors. He held out his hand to allow Francesca to go through.
"Thank you. Are you warning me about him?"
"Oh, no, I'm just trying to get you settled in."
"Right. When do I go on?"
"Uh... soon. Less than ten minutes," James said after checking his wristwatch.
"Excellent. The sooner, the better," Francesca said, continuing the thought in her mind: 'The sooner I get in, the sooner I can get home.'
When they reached the end of the hallway, James MacElhone pointed through a sheer glass window.
"Here we are, Miss Carrara."
Actually beginning to feel a little excited, Francesca turned to look where he was pointing - it took her a few seconds to realise that the thing she was looking at was the inside of a television studio and not a half-empty warehouse.
The set was smaller than she had imagined it would be: a colourful backdrop made to resemble a living room, a pale grey carpet on the floor, two chairs and a large table. In front of the set, two cameras had been placed on large, movable structures that allowed them to move freely around the set.
Three powerful spotlights were beaming down on the set from above, and Francesca instantly regretted her decision to wear the company jacket.
"Oh, Miss Carrara, here's Mr. White now," James said, pulling Francesca away from her thoughts. She looked up the hallway and saw a balding, slightly overweight man in his late forties with salt and pepper hair and a weak jaw walk towards them. He waved at the two people, careful not to spill anything from the Styrofoam cup of coffee he held in his other hand.
"Mr. White, this is your celebrity guest for the hour. Miss Francesca Carrara," James said with a smile.
"Right-o, Jimmy. So, Miss Carrara. Jimmy here tells me you're one of those fancy race car drivers?"
Francesca blinked twice before opening her mouth to speak. She observed Lawrence White's face closely, but there were no signs of him joking. She groaned inwardly and plastered a fake smile on her lips.
"That's right, Mr. White."
"Like one of those eff-one drivers?"
"No, more like a sports car driver, actually."
"Like the toy cars we'll be presenting on the show," Francesca said. Her fake smile was already beginning to hurt her cheeks, but she wanted to keep up appearances.
"Oh... you mean, like, the rally cars?"
"Rally cars? No, sports cars."
"Oh... well, I don't know anything about that. I'll just call them rally cars. Anyway, once we're on air, just call me Lawrence. Not Larry. Lawrence. Okay?"
Francesca's fake smile slowly melted away and turned into a deep frown, but she was saved by the bell - literally. Inside the studio, a small bell started ringing, alerting everyone that the next show would start in five minutes.
"That's our cue. Come on... uh, Jimmy...?"
"Francesca, Mr. White."
"Right-o. Come on, Francesca. It'll be fun. Oh, I have a word of advice for you, though. It's going to be far too hot for you with that jacket in the studio."
"Thank you, Mr. White," Francesca said. She hesitated for a few seconds, but then made up her mind and took off the blazer jacket.
Lawrence White's eyes instantly zeroed in on Francesca's chest, but she did her best to carry on like she hadn't noticed. She folded her jacket neatly and put it over her arm.
"Lead on, Francesca," Lawrence White said and pushed open a door that led into the studio itself.
As she crossed over the threshold, Francesca could feel Lawrence's eyes on her rear end. Dearly wishing that Kathleen had come with her, she started counting to fifty to try to keep a lid on her temper.
"And we're live in five, four..." a crew member said and continued the countdown by holding up first three, then two and finally one finger.
A monitor had been set up on the floor beyond the camera's reach so Francesca and Lawrence could see when they were in frame. The moment Francesca saw herself on it, her heart rate increased and she could feel her throat tighten up. She knew that she'd be teased mercilessly by Kathleen and everyone else watching if she messed it up, so she girded her loins and cleared her throat.
Back home in the cottage, Kathleen put a tray with a mug of tea and some slices of toast down on the coffee table. After turning on the television, she went over to the digital recorder and turned that on, too. Trying to remember what Francesca had taught her, she eventually found the right button and set it to record. Once she was sure it was running as it should, she went over to the comfy chair and folded her legs up underneath her.
The credits were still rolling from the earlier programme, so Kathleen took the mug and warmed her hands.
Soon, the new programme started, fading in from black to reveal two people sitting at a small table that was loaded with various toy cars. When Kathleen saw Francesca looking cool, calm, collected and oh-so-very sexy, she couldn't stop a childish squeal from escaping her lips and she bounced up and down in her chair.
"Hello and good afternoon, dear viewers, I'm Lawrence White. Welcome to the Toys For Big Boys hour. Joining us today is our very special guest, the acclaimed sports car driver Francesca Carrera," Lawrence said, reading off a teleprompter.
Francesca noted with a pang of irritation that Lawrence White pronounced her last name wrongly, but she decided to let it slip.
"We're going to look at plenty of high quality models today... one of which is sitting next to me right now," Lawrence said with a grin.
Francesca opened her mouth to growl, but at the last moment, she could see out of the corner of her eye that there was a huge close-up of her face on the monitor, so she quickly smiled instead.
"Oh, you're too kind, Lawrence," Francesca said, hoping that she wasn't hissing too much.
"The first model is a 1:18 scale Massaratty 250F. I believe it's from the 1950's, isn't that right, Francesca?" Lawrence said and held up a scarlet model car.
"Maserati, actually. Yes, the two-fifty was one of our most famous models."
"Looking at it, feeling the weight of it, it's not hard to see why it's thirty nine pounds ninety pence, dear viewers. It's heavy, which usually means that the company creating it used a lot of the good stuff."
"The good stuff, yes," Francesca echoed.
"What can you tell us about the racing heritage of this particular model, Francesca?"
"Well, it was a little before my time, but the '250F' was one of the most successful racers in Formula One. In 1957, it..."
"Fascinating. Well, we've got a lot of models to go through, so let's move on to the next one. Here's a 1:24 scale Massaratty Khamsin, reasonably priced at twenty four pounds ninety five pence. Did I pronounce that right?"
"No, it's Maserati, actually." - Francesca cringed inwardly - "The Khamsin was a high-performance car in the early 1970's. The design was ahead of its day, and is still quite evocative even today, as you can see with the flip-up..."
"I was just going to say that. Love those headlights," Lawrence White said and grinned. Francesca cocked her head and started chewing on the inside of her cheek.
"Oh, look at that, the hour has just flown by. We only have time for one more model so let's skip to the best one... this 1:18 scale Massaratty MC12. A real bargain at forty four pounds ninety five pence. This is your car from last year, isn't it, Francesca?" Lawrence said and held up a model of the dark blue #2 Francesca had used in the last race at Spa.
"Maserati. Yes, it's the..."
"Well, not this one exactly. Your long legs wouldn't fit," Lawrence said and laughed at his own joke.
"Ha, ha, no. But anyway, this is a model of the car I used to win the Spa-Francorchamps 1000 Kilometres race last October."
"So you might say this particular model has real pedigree. Fascinating."
"As you can see, dear viewers, the graphics and lettering on the model aren't sticky decals like in the old days, no, they've been laser-etched into the model. This will guarantee that in five years, it'll still look the same. And look at this detail work. Look at this tiny antenna on top of the model, the wing mirrors and even the alloy wheels. All these miniature items still look as good as the rest of the car. Fascinating."
"Yes, it looks good," Francesca said flatly.
"Well, the clock is winding down and I think we've sold almost every model we had, so the only thing left to say is thank you very much for joining us today, Miss Carrera..."
"... and we hope that you'll swing by another time," Lawrence White said and held out his hand.
Francesca shook it and then the programme's signature jingle started. As soon as Francesca could see the end credits roll on the monitor, she yanked her hand back and shot up from her chair.
"This was quite an experience, Mr. White," Francesca said as she put on her jacket.
"Yes, wasn't it? I thought it was kind of exciting, actually. It's rare that I have such a beautiful woman so close to me. Could I tempt you to join me for a cuppa?"
"Ahhhh, that would be a 'no,' Mr. White."
"Right-o. Can't fault a man for trying, eh?" Lawrence said and started walking towards the glass doors that led away from the studio.
The powerful hum of the company car's engine gave away Francesca's return and Kathleen quickly turned off the news and ran to the door.
Before Francesca had time to find her keys, Kathleen opened the door and grabbed Francesca's hands.
"Oh, that was so exciting!" Kathleen enthused, but Francesca's dour expression soon made her realise that not everyone was as enthusiastic as she was.
"My name is Francesca Carrara and I seek humanitarian asylum... please...?" Francesca said flatly as she leaned down to hug Kathleen.
"Uh, sure. You don't think it was fun? Come in, it's too cold out here."
They moved into the hallway and Francesca hung her jacket on a coat hanger on the hallstand. She suddenly stopped and sniffed the air.
"Sniff... sniff... oh, did you bake scones?"
"I did. They're just cooling off."
"Oooooh, you know how to spoil a girl. I can't wait to taste them."
"They're almost ready. So you don't think it was a fun experience? You looked fantastic, Francesca. Quite extraordinary, actually," Kathleen said and put her hands on Francesca's sides. Moving in closer, she slowly moved her hands up and down, marvelling at the feel of her partner's firm, athletic body.
"Thank you, but good Lord, that was gruesome. I'd rather do a six-hour race by myself around the world's dullest track than go through that again. The host, Lawrence White...? Well, he was a twit. Actually, that's an insult to the twits," Francesca said and leaned down to give Kathleen a kiss.
"So you don't want to see the recording?"
Francesca blinked a couple of times and then shook her head, wide-eyed.
"I'll delete it. Once I figure out how," Kathleen said and wrapped an arm around her partner's waist. "Come on, tea and scones await you."
They moved side by side into the living room where the coffee table had already been set. Francesca kissed Kathleen's hair and then sat down in her regular spot.
Kathleen went into the kitchen and poured water into the electric kettle. After checking that it was on, she picked up a tray with the freshly baked scones and a small bowl of butter and carried it back to the living room.
"Oh, that smells delicious, darling," Francesca said and took a knife for the butter. Moments before she spread it out on the first scone, she stopped and cocked her head.
"I know what you're doing. You're trying to fatten me up so you can watch me work it off in the gym, right?"
Kathleen just whistled the most innocent little trill she could come up with.
"Right. Knew it all along."
Running a little late, Francesca drove off the high street and pulled into the parking lot of the two-storey, non-descript building that housed the Maserati team's British base.
She could see by the number of luxury sedans and sports cars parked there that most of the big wigs had already arrived, so she hurried over to the glass doors and quickly showed her credentials to the security guard.
As she hurried up the seemingly endless metal staircase inside the warehouse, she noticed that four Maserati race cars were parked down on the floor - a pair of dark blue works MC12's, a bright yellow privateer MC12 and an unpainted, brand new GranTurismo S that had been stripped down to its essentials.
Once Francesca had raced up all forty-eight steps, she stopped to get her breath and to rub her hand against her hip. She looked left and right on the gallery leading to the offices, but only saw a few people there; one of them was Fabio Dellassandro, standing outside the conference room.
She waved at the reigning World Champion who waved back and pointed at his wristwatch. Francesca nodded and picked up the pace.
Francesca whooshed into the lavishly decorated conference room and closed the door behind her. When she turned around, she realised that she had sixteen pairs of eyes trained on her.
"Mi scusi," she said sheepishly and walked around the large rectangular table headed for the last vacant chair. She sat down next to Fabio who flashed her an impossibly cheeky grin.
Giampaolo Razotti got up from his chair and cleared his throat.
"So, now that we're all here, let's get down to business. First of all, we have a surprising announcement: Gio Bellichi's wife has been taken ill back home in Italy so he has decided to step down from #1 to have more time for her. I'm sure we all wish her a speedy recovery."
A murmur rippled through the assembly and Giampaolo held up his hand.
"Of course, that means we have to re-assign the driving squads. #1 will be driven by Dellassandro and Carrara, with Mario Balzani as the third driver in for Le Mans. #2 will be driven by DiLorenzi and Zorzi, as usual. We've yet to decide who'll be the ringer for Le Mans."
Francesca took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She had hoped to be selected to drive in #1, but she hadn't expected it to happen as a result of someone else's misfortune.
She cast a glance at Fabio who seemed to have known in advance. He noticed her eyes on him and he turned his head and smiled.
Luca DiLorenzi, who was sitting at the opposite side of the conference table, held up his hand.
"Yes, Mr. DiLorenzi?" Giampaolo said, knowing exactly what the self-proclaimed God's Gift To Women was going to say.
"Mr. Razotti, with all due respect. I believe it would be better if I shared #1 with Fabio. After all, we're closer in size. The pitstops would take less time."
Francesca ran her index finger across her eyebrows and looked down.
"Noted, Mr. DiLorenzi. However, the pairings stay as announced. If a problem arises over the course of the season, we'll rethink our plans," Giampaolo said.
Luca DiLorenzi nodded and crossed his arms over his chest.
"So, onto the next item on the agenda. As you may know, this is the final season we can use the MC12s as the technical regulations change for next year. We have already begun assessing other types of cars, and so far, it looks like we'll be going for an open-topped prototype," Giampaolo said.
A new wave of murmurs went through the drivers, some of them eager to get their hands on new machinery and some less so.
"Open-topped sounds good. That way, the fans can see who the driver is," DiLorenzi said.
Fabio leaned in towards Francesca and tapped her on her shoulder.
"Luca has just signed a new helmet deal," he whispered, earning himself a few chuckles from Francesca.
"Noted, Mr. DiLorenzi. The other alternative is to drop down to the GT2 class for less powerful Grand Tourers. As you probably noticed on your way up here, there's a GranTurismo S down in the work shop, recently bought by Mr. Petrovich," Giampaolo said and pointed at a man in his early forties who was sitting at the back of the conference room.
"What kind of horsepower are we talking about in GT2, Giampaolo?" Francesca said.
"Roughly four hundred and fifty brake horsepower instead of six hundred and eighty five."
This time, all the drivers groaned loudly.
"I know. Anyway, we'll see how it goes at the Invitational. Fran, I need a word with you in my office once we're done here. So, next on the agenda is..."
When the meeting was over and people had drifted away from the conference room, Francesca walked the short distance down to Giampaolo's office and knocked on the doorjamb.
"You wanted a word?"
"That's right, Fran. Come in," Giampaolo said and put a stack of files into a large attaché-case.
Francesca entered the office and sat down in one of the chairs that had been placed in front of a large desk. She crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap.
"I'm sorry, but Luca has snatched your seat at the Invitational," Giampaolo said and closed the attaché-case.
"Turns out he and Mr. Petrovich had a mutual friend. Sorry."
"No problem. It happens."
"We'll all be going there for the pre-season test, anyway, so perhaps something else will come up."
"Mmmm. To offset that, I'm giving you the keys to next year's car. The testing will commence at Monza later on this year."
"Oh...!" Francesca said and moved forward on her chair.
"Thought you might be interested," Giampaolo said with a crooked grin.
"Are we going with an in-house chassis?"
"The management hasn't decided yet. For now, we've leased a Lola and mated it to our regular twelve. We'll need a safe pair of hands on the steering wheel, Fran. That's why I thought of you. Luca is fast, no doubt about that, but he gets distracted all too easily."
"I agree. On both accounts."
"He'll probably still be at the test, but you'll be doing most of the driving."
"Well, that's for later. By the way, I saw on you television the other day. Well done, Fran," Giampaolo said and held out his hand. Francesca caught the hint and got up from the chair.
"Oh... thank you."
"You showed remarkable restraint. I would'a punched the host's lights out!"
"Trust me, I almost did. If he had said 'Massaratty' one more time, I would have!" Francesca said, laughing.
Whistling merrily, Francesca locked herself into her home and took off her jacket, her scarf and her boots.
She soon picked up the easily recognisable sound of fingers tapping away on a keyboard and she tip-toed through the hallway in her stocking feet to pay Kathleen a surprise visit. When she reached the study, she peeked around the corner and saw Kathleen sitting by the laptop, completely absorbed in her work.
A mass of little, white notes were scattered out all around Kathleen and she constantly moved her head left and right, first looking at the various pieces of paper and then back at the monitor.
The steely gaze in Kathleen's eyes showed that she was concentrating hard and Francesca felt a pang of pride in her stomach.
A floorboard creaking under Francesca's foot broke the magic, causing Kathleen to turn her head and look directly into Francesca's eyes.
"Hi. Have you been here long?"
"No, just a few moments. Hi, darling," Francesca said and walked in to stand behind her partner. She moved the golden-blonde hair away from Kathleen's neck and leaned down to give it a gentle kiss.
"Uh... you're in a good mood today."
"Yes. I have good news and bad news."
"Good news first, please," Kathleen said and turned her swivel-chair around.
"Well, we're still going to Spain in a month's time, but I won't be driving in the race."
"Okay...? What happened?"
"Ah, that's a long story," Francesca said and waved her hand.
"Are you upset over it?"
"Nah. Not really. It happens. And besides, Giampaolo made me lead tester for the new car," Francesca said, beaming with pride.
"Oh... what does that mean, exactly?"
"Well, it means that I get to form the base setup for the new car once the new regulations come in, and also that I get to try out the drivability of our current engine when it's used in different configurations. That sort of thing."
"Oh... very exciting I'm sure," Kathleen said and got up from the chair.
"Oh, it is. It definitely is."
"Is that going to happen at Barcelona as well?"
"No, no, that's for later."
"Oh. I'm a little confused."
Kathleen smiled and put her arm around Francesca's waist. They moved out of the study and began to stroll down to the living room.
"I'll explain it better later on. For now, all I'm thinking of is to snuggle close to you for six straight weeks," Francesca said and took a deep sniff of Kathleen's hair.
"Ohhh. Well, I think we can accommodate that notion."
The first sound Francesca and Kathleen heard when they drove through the gates at the Barcelona International circuit at Montmeló on Wednesday, February 23rd was a racing engine driving at full chat down the front straight.
"Ferrari V8. One of the F430 GT2's. Their raspy sound is so easy to recognise," Francesca said as she rolled the window back up after showing their credentials to the guards.
"For you, perhaps," Kathleen said, giggling.
Francesca slowly manoeuvred their Fiat rental car through the half-full parking lot, searching for a suitable place to park. After settling for a space near the entrance to the paddock, they got out of the car and picked out their various travel bags from the trunk.
They had only walked a few steps when another race car turned onto the main straight and went up through the gears. The harmonic, rich, trombone-like sound of the engine reverberated through the parking lot and sent shivers down both women's backs.
"A big, fat twelve. That's one of ours," Francesca said, grinning broadly.
"I have to admit that it's a sexy sound," Kathleen said and pulled the strap for her bag higher up on her shoulder.
"Of course. It's Italian."
As they walked across the paddock headed for the backdoor to the Maserati Corse pits, another car raced past with a growlier, more rattling sound compared to the others.
"Which one was that?" Kathleen said and furrowed her brow.
"I'm not sure, actually. It's a V8, but it wasn't one of the GT2 Vettes. I've never heard that one before."
"That was my new toy. Hi, Fran," a young male voice said from somewhere behind them. Francesca put down her bags and spun around to see if the voice really belonged to the person she was expecting.
"Hey, Jonno! Good Lord, man, it's great to see you!" Francesca said and moved over to the young man. The two drivers embraced and then Francesca took a step back to look at Jonathan Baker's blue driving suit.
"I told you it was a good career move to go to the States, son," she joked and slapped him on his gut.
"That you did. Hi, Kathleen," Jonno said, waving. Kathleen waved back and then went over to stand next to Francesca.
"So you're a Ford works driver now?" Francesca said.
"That's right. We're just here to learn this year. We've got three works Ford GT's here for the test and another two entered in the race for customers."
"That was the car just now?"
"Yep. Four point seven litre, V8."
"That'll never hold up against our six litres," Francesca said cheekily.
"I wouldn't bet against us, Fran," Jonno said and laughed.
"Yeah, yeah. Who's on your roster?"
"I'm the only non-American on the squad. I'm sharing with a great guy called Miguel Gomez. Scott Friedman and Sally Sharpe usually share the other car, but Scott isn't here this weekend."
"Oh, you finally understood that you need a woman behind the wheel?" Francesca teased.
"She's mighty quick, that's for sure. She's going to make one hell of an impression this year."
"Is she from IMSA?"
"No, SCCA, but she's got plenty of experience in fast cars."
"They're two of the sanctioning bodies in the US," Francesca said, noticing the blank look on Kathleen's face.
"Oh. Right. Thanks," Kathleen said, grinning.
"Are you going to race this weekend, Fran?"
"No, I'm just here for the testing. You?"
"Yeah, for one of the customer teams. I'm going to share with Sally for the weekend. This is her first race in Europe so the management decided that she needed someone steady to show her the ropes."
"And they chose you?" Francesca said incredulously, quickly moving away in case Jonno was going to hit out after her.
"Oh, ha, ha. Sally is doing a few laps right now, but I'm sure you'll meet her later on. She's a bit of a wildcat, so you can't miss her."
"I'll keep that in mind. We better get going, Jonno. It was great talking to you," Francesca said and hugged her friend again.
"Likewise, Fran. Catch you on the race track."
A few minutes later, Francesca opened the rear door to the Maserati pit stall. Both the bays were empty so the mechanics were just lingering in the garage, waiting for the cars to come back in. At the rear end of the pit, four technicians were studying computers closely, monitoring the data being sent from the cars as they lapped the circuit.
"Hello, Fran. Kathleen," Giampaolo said. He was holding two stopwatches, a clipboard and a headset that he proceeded to put on.
"Giampaolo. How are things going?" Francesca said - Kathleen settled for nodding in the team manager's direction.
"Fairly well. #2 had a misfire at first, but we've cleared that up. Nothing wrong with #1. Fabio will be going through the program first, then it's your turn."
"All right. Is the motorhome ready?"
"I believe so."
"I'll go and change, then."
"Okay," Giampaolo said and turned his attention to a mechanic standing next to him.
"Kathleen, do you want to wait here or come with me?" Francesca said and put a hand on her partner's elbow.
"Uh, come with you. I have to spend a lot of time here today, so I'd rather see you for as long as I can."
"Sure. Come on," Francesca said and walked back out of the pit stall.
Once inside the Knaus Sunliner motorhome, Francesca put her travel bag on the narrow couch and began to take out her fireproof underwear. Stacking it neatly, she put it in the correct order so she could get into it quickly.
"It's bigger than the one we used last year," Kathleen noted and put her own bag down on a small table.
"I wonder if there's a vacuum cleaner...?"
"Mmmm. What? A vacuum cleaner?" Francesca said and turned around, wearing a rather puzzled expression.
"Uh, yes. Last year, when you were racing at Mugello, I vacuumed the small carpet in the kitchenette... oh, around twenty times."
"You never told me!" Francesca said with a throaty laugh.
"Well, it was a little embarrassing," Kathleen said sheepishly.
"No. Just another little thing that makes me love you even more."
"Ohhhh... thank you. I love you, too," Kathleen said and went over to stand next to Francesca. With a smile, she stood up on tip-toes and planted a wet kiss on the driver's lips.
"I better get changed. I have a feeling Giampaolo will run us hard today."
"Okay. I'll close the blinds."
When Francesca was sure no one could catch a glimpse of her, she took off all her street clothes and began to slip into her fireproof Nomex underwear. After donning the panties and the sports bra, she stepped into the longjohns and put on the undershirt.
Kathleen came up to her and folded her arms across her chest. With a sly smile, she let her eyes roam over the vast expanses of curves in front of her. Just for fun, she tried to figure out which part of Francesca's body she liked the best, but soon came to the conclusion that it was the package as a whole that sent those pleasant thrills racing through her.
"Wow, it's quite a show to see you get into all that gear," she said with a chuckle.
"I take that as a compliment," Francesca said and sat down on the couch so she could put on the socks.
"Oh, it certainly was," Kathleen said with a devious grin. She licked her suddenly dry lips, wishing that the day would soon come to an end so they could spend some quality time together.
Francesca took her driving suit out of the holdall and stepped into it - the right leg first, as demanded by superstition. After wiggling into it, she bent down and pulled the legs of the longjohns down so her ankles were protected.
Kathleen could see that Francesca's demeanour changed. The driver became more and more serious and the expression she wore on her face was already very focused.
"Do you have your racing boots and your gloves, love?"
"Mmmm. Right here," Francesca said and patted a plastic bag next to her. She leaned down, put on a pair of trainers and tied the laces.
Getting up from the couch, she Velcroed her driving suit all the way up and reached for the round bag that held her helmet. She unzipped it and took out the expensive equipment to give it a thorough once-over. After making sure that everything was okay, she took out the HANS-device and connected it to the helmet.
"You know, I still think that thing looks like a torture instrument from the dark ages," Kathleen said and touched the HANS with the tip of an index finger.
"Yeah. But it works. It restricts the movement of your neck in case you get into an accident. It sort of fixes your neck to your shoulders."
"Oh, that presents a charming picture," Kathleen said and laughed nervously.
"Of course, it's my job to make sure that I don't get involved in an accident to begin with," Francesca said and mussed Kathleen's hair.
"Hey, your hands are cold. Come on, let me warm them."
"No time, I'm afraid. We better get going. We have a long, long program to work through today. Oh, here's a key chain with your pit credentials and the keys to the motorhome in case you get bored waiting in the pits," Francesca said and handed Kathleen a colourful chain with an ID card and several keys on it.
"Thanks. Please stay safe. Love you," Kathleen said and pulled Francesca down so she could give her a proper 'see you later' kiss.
"Love you too, darling."
Once Kathleen and Francesca got back into the pit stall, Francesca found a chair and sat down so she could change into her racing boots.
"Three minutes, Fran," Giampaolo said and Francesca responded by giving him a thumbs-up.
After inserting her earplugs and putting on her fireproof balaclava, she pulled down her helmet and closed the visor so she could have a few moments of peace and quiet before everything would get loud.
Kathleen squeezed Francesca's hands and then moved back to stand in the spectator enclosure at the back of the pits. She found the little box with the earplugs Francesca had given her and took two of them out.
Soon, Maserati #1 came rolling down the pit lane, the engine banging and popping from running on the pit speed limiter. Fabio slowed to a halt in front of the bay and three mechanics wheeled the race car backwards into the garage. At once, a computer technician plugged a laptop into the socket on the car's dashboard and went to work downloading the data stored on the test run.
Fabio stepped out of the car and went over to Francesca.
"La macchina è a posto. La pista è scivolosa qua o là, specialmente alla chicane sul rettilineo in fondo."
Francesca nodded and patted his arm. Fabio had told her that the car was okay, but the track was slippery near the chicane on the back straight.
'What else is new?' Francesca thought and chuckled.
The technician removed the laptop and gave Giampaolo a thumbs-up. He turned around and repeated the gesture at Francesca who got up from the chair and waved at Kathleen.
After putting on her gloves and stepping into the car, Francesca first plugged the radio into the jack in the centre console and then activated her transponder, used to identify which driver was in the car.
'Radio check, one-two-three,' Giampaolo said on the radio.
"One-two-three, check. It works."
'All right. We have added seventy kilograms of fuel. I want you to do a ten-lap run at race speed to check the performance and the durability of the tyres. Fabio says that the rears wear off quicker now because of the different wing configuration.'
"All right, I understand. Ten laps at race speed."
'That's correct. If you're not satisfied with the setup, come in and we'll change the air pressures.'
'Go on,' Giampaolo said and stepped in front of the car to give Francesca a thumbs-up.
Francesca pressed the button that would fire up the engine. After turning over for a few seconds, the twelve cylinders came alive with a dragon-like howl that made Kathleen jump a foot in the air despite the ear plugs.
When Francesca moved the sequential shifter ahead to select first gear, the car jerked forward slightly and the engine note became more muted. A mechanic waved her out and she soon left the pit stall and drove up the pit lane.
Kathleen let out a slow sigh. As always, she was slightly nervous whenever Francesca was out on the track. She began to fidget with her hands, constantly putting them into her trouser pockets and then taking them out.
She tried to look at the various computer monitors and at the people working at them, but she was too preoccupied thinking about Francesca to really appreciate the beehive of activity.
On the other side of the pit stall, Luca DiLorenzi was just getting ready to go into his car. Kathleen had only met him in person a couple of times, at the Silverstone test and at Spa-Francorchamps the year before, but she had heard enough about his antics from Francesca to dislike him and his primadonna ways.
"Salve, mi chiamo Patrizia. Vuole del caffé?"
Kathleen turned to look at a pretty young girl with mahogany hair and pale brown eyes. She seemed to be out of place in the busy pit, but since she was wearing the company colours, Kathleen surmised she belonged to the team's catering staff.
"Hello. I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian," Kathleen said with a smile.
"Oh... you like some coffee?" the young girl said in heavily accented English.
"Uh, coffee... do you have regular coffee?"
"Yes. I'd like some regular coffee, please. Not espresso."
"Uhh..." the young girl said with a confused look on her face. Giampaolo noticed the little scene and went over to help out the young girl.
"Lei è la ragazza di Francesca. Vorrebbe un English coffee," he said.
"Oh...! Okay," the young girl said and hurried out of the pits.
"That's my daughter, Patrizia. Her English isn't so good, so I thought we could save some money for a tutor by bringing her here. I told her to get you some English coffee."
"I see. Thanks, Mr. Razotti, that was kind of you. She's a very pretty girl. How old is she?"
"She's fourteen. She's a fast learner, but she still has some way to go."
"What was it you said about Francesca? I recognised the name, but nothing else."
"Oh, I just said that you're Francesca's special friend. Patrizia idolises Francesca, actually. She's her big hero."
"I understand," Kathleen said with a laugh.
Moments later, Patrizia zipped back into the pits carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee, four sugar cubes, a spoon, a small plastic carton of cream and a napkin.
"Goodness me, that's what I call service!" Kathleen said and took the many small items out of the young girl's hands.
"Uh... uh, grazie mille, Patrizia," Kathleen said, hoping that she hadn't just made a fool out of herself.
Patrizia's face lit up and she nodded vigorously.
"Non c'è problema. Come ti chiami?"
"Oh... Giampaolo, help, please..." Kathleen said sheepishly.
"She asked you what your name is."
"My name is Kathleen," Kathleen said, speaking slowly so Patrizia could understand it.
The young girl nodded again and then zipped back out of the pits.
"She's a nice girl, Giampaolo."
"I was quite surprised that my ex-wife even allowed us to..." the team manager started to say, but a radio transmission in his headset meant he couldn't stay and talk. He waved at Kathleen and then went over to one of the computers.
'Say again, Fran,' Giampaolo said over the radio.
"The track is extremely dirty now. The times won't be representative."
'All right. Stay out for now.'
"Okay," Francesca said, easing the sequential shifter into Fifth and then Sixth as she blasted past the pits.
The speed climbed steadily until it peaked at 185 m.p.h. At the one hundred metres board, Francesca applied the brakes hard and went back down into third. Driving at a slowish ninety m.p.h., she stayed in third through the Elf right-hander and into the left-hander before changing up into fourth and then fifth as the corner opened up, going uphill.
At the top of the hill, she let it stay in fifth for the short straight and then moved back down to third for the Repoil right-hander that took her back down the hill. Up to fourth for another short straight and then into second for the tight, tricky off-camber left at Seat.
She blasted through the short straight, changing into fourth as she reached the chicane, first left and then right, rattling over the gravel and debris left by another car that had been off the track there.
Short-shifting into fifth for Campsa, Francesca balanced the Maserati on the throttle at 130 m.p.h. until she was through, and then went full blast down the back straight, changing into sixth at the exit of the old, abandoned, chicane.
Braking very hard from 175 m.p.h. at the one hundred metres board, Francesca went down into second and edged her way through the new, frustratingly tight La Caixa chicane built for the Grands Prix. Up into third and then fourth, she stepped hard on the throttle for the short blast out of Banc de Sabadell and into the re-profiled last corners.
She went back into second for the first part of the chicane and stayed in that gear for the second part. When she went through the final corner, New Holland, she moved up the gearbox until she eased the sequential shifter into fifth and then sixth on her way past the pits.
As Francesca approached the first corner again, marshals waved yellow flags to warn her that a car had gone off into the gravel trap. She slowed down accordingly, noticing as she went past it that it was a dark blue Ford GT carrying the number six on the side. A snatch vehicle was already on its way to the stranded race car, so Francesca surmised that it wouldn't take long to clear up the corner.
"There's a car off at turn one," Francesca said on the radio.
'We see it. Three more laps, Fran.'
"Here you go," Kathleen said, handing Francesca a cup of steaming hot coffee that had been freshly delivered by Patrizia. Leaving the Maserati pits, they began strolling up through the paddock to see what else was going on.
"What's the programme for the rest of the day?"
"Well, first of all, once the track reopens after the lunch break, Fabio will go back out and do a quallie run with low tanks and soft rubbers, just to see where we are on a flying lap."
"Yes, and then I'll do the same later on."
"Which part of it didn't you get?" Francesca said, bumping shoulders with Kathleen.
"No, I got most of it... it's just the quaint language. You have a way of using regular words in strange contexts."
"Why, thank you," Francesca said and chuckled.
"You're welcome. Jonno was right, wasn't he? The Fords are really quick here."
"Yes they are. Second and third right now. That's not bad considering it's their first time here."
"Faster than your car."
"Yes. That's going to be a right-old ding dong all year."
"There you go again!"
"Scusami, tesoro. Sorry, luv. Anyway, the Toyotas will arrive tomorrow and that'll probably change the look of the timing sheets. I have a feeling that the Nissans will come to regret not doing this test. They were the slowest of the works cars last year. Really, wouldn't you have thought that they could use the extra practice?"
"You're asking me?" Kathleen said, chuckling.
As they walked past the Ford works pit, the same engine note they had heard when they first arrived at the circuit streamed out of the back door to the garage. Francesca stopped and took a sip of her coffee, listening to the crispy sounds of the engine.
"I wonder if they'll have the same problems with vibrations I had when we used the V8 at Le Mans last year...?"
"In the Mercedes?"
"Yeah. The punchy V8's are great for the twistier circuits typically found in the US, but the faster European tracks tend to favour smoothness and top end performance more."
"Francesca... in English, please?" Kathleen said and shook her head.
"V8's deliver a kick in the pants which is great for getting off the corners in a hurry, but the big twelves just breathe best on the straights."
"We saw that at Adria Raceway a couple of years ago. None of us could keep up with the Toyotas. Grunt definitely won out that day," Francesca said and emptied her cup in a single gulp.
"Well, that was before my time, I'm afraid," Kathleen said and hooked her arm inside Francesca's.
"When we get home, I can show you what I'm talking about. I have that race on DVD."
Just before they turned away from the Ford garage, a woman in her mid-twenties with very short, ash-blonde hair walked into view, catching Francesca's eye. The woman leaned against the edge of a tool box and ran both hands through her hair. She wiggled her way out of her driving suit and tied it around her waist, revealing her formfitting fireproof undershirt.
"Hey, Kathleen, I've just spotted someone I want to say hello to. Do you mind...?"
"Who...? Oh... her," Kathleen said, following Francesca's look.
"It must be Sally Sharpe, the driver Jonno mentioned," Francesca said and began to walk towards the Ford garage.
"Uh, okay," Kathleen said, following Francesca closely.
Francesca knocked twice on the doorjamb to the Ford garage to catch the ash-blonde's attention - it worked. When the woman saw who it was, she put down the Styrofoam cup she had just picked up and wiped off her hands on her suit.
"Hi, you must be Sally Sharpe," Francesca said and put out her hand.
"That's right. And you're Francesca Carrara," Sally said in a voice that was higher in pitch than her compact, athletic frame suggested.
"Yep. This is my partner, Kathleen O'Malley. She's an author."
"Nice to meet you. My brother is a journalist back home in Michigan."
"Really? How interesting," Kathleen said and shook Sally's hand when it was her turn.
"How are things going? Jonno told me this is your first race in Europe?" Francesca said.
"Yeah, that's right. Everything's been pretty good so far. I had to learn the track as well... all in all, it's not going too bad."
Francesca noted that the Ford mechanics were busy changing the front splitter on the GT and that there was plenty of gravel on the floor of the garage, but she chose not to comment on it.
"Are you here for the full season?"
"That's the plan, yeah," Sally said, smiling.
"Okay. Well, we won't take too much of your time. See you on the track," Francesca said and shook Sally's hand again.
"See ya," Sally said and gave Kathleen a thumbs-up.
"She was flirting with you," Kathleen said as soon as they were out of earshot of the garage.
"I beg your pardon...?"
"She was flirting with you. Trust me," Kathleen said and hooked her arm inside Francesca's again - this time, a little more possessively.
"I didn't see it."
"I did. The way she looked at you. The way she smiled. The way she cocked her head when you spoke. The way her grey eyes sparkled. I'm telling you, Francesca, she was flirting with you."
"Look, honey..." Francesca said and put her hand on Kathleen's arm. Before she could speak, a group of mechanics walked past them pushing tyre trolleys down the paddock.
Instead of waiting until the mechanics had filed past, Francesca pulled Kathleen over to a more secluded part of the paddock.
"Look, not every female race car driver is gay, you know. I didn't see it at all. I think I'd know if a good-looking woman was flirting with me," Francesca said quietly, adding a little wink to take the edge off her words.
"And besides, Kathleen, even if she was, why would I respond to it... when I have you?"
Francesca delivered the last four words in a whisper and then she leaned down to give Kathleen a gentle kiss on the lips.
After separating, Francesca moved her hand under Kathleen's long hair and ran her fingers along her partner's soft skin. Kathleen leaned into Francesca's touch and smiled wistfully.
"I'm sorry. Maybe I'm seeing ghosts."
"Don't worry about it. You're the one I love," Francesca said and scratched Kathleen's neck.
"And I love you."
The sequin moment was broken by an electronic horn blaring noisily somewhere in the distance. Seconds later, engines started all the way up and down the pits.
"I need to go back, Kathleen. If you don't want to wait, just go back to the motorhome. You have the keys."
"No. No, I'm staying in the pits until you return. I don't feel like being alone right now," Kathleen said in a voice that she thought sounded curiously insecure. She cleared her throat, hoping that Francesca hadn't noticed it.
Francesca smiled and wrapped her arm around Kathleen's shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the things Kathleen was worrying about.
With a nod, Kathleen breathed a quiet sigh of relief and started the short trek back to the Maserati pit arm in arm with Francesca.
Sunday, March 13th.
"Ohhh, we're going to be late!" Kathleen said, frantically searching for her other ear-ring. Taking off her pumps so she could move faster, she zipped back into the bedroom and looked high and low for the missing piece of jewellery.
Hoisting up her ivory-coloured dress, she got down on her knees to look under their brass bed. When there was no sign of the ear-ring there either, she could feel a panic building inside her, but she refused to give into it so easily. She looked all over the floor and finally caught a glimpse of something reflecting the light underneath their dresser.
"Here it is! Damn, how did it get there... Francesca, I need your help, please!" Kathleen said and wiggled her way over to the dresser.
"It's not like we're going to meet the Queen, we're only going to the launch party for the new season. Can't you just use another pair of ear-rings?" Francesca said, standing in the doorway.
"But you gave them to me for Christmas! It's the first time I get to wear them..."
"Oh, all right," Francesca said and took off her tuxedo jacket. She put it on the bed and got down on her knees next to Kathleen. Reaching in, she scooped up the wayward ear-ring without problems and handed it to Kathleen, still resting on her knees.
"Why, Francesca, it looks like you're asking me for my hand," Kathleen said with a giggle. She attached the stud to her ear lobe and fluffed her hair back in place.
"I'm saving that for your birthday," Francesca said and got up. She dusted off her hands and put on her jacket.
"Well, you just have to wait and see, won't you?" Francesca said huskily as she straightened out her lapels - Kathleen's lips were creased by an expectant little grin and she hummed quietly to herself.
"Don't forget your pumps, dear," Francesca said on her way out of the bedroom.
Forty minutes later, Francesca drove her Maserati road car into a well-lit parking lot next to a warehouse that had been converted into a posh night club.
Zooming around the car, she held the door open for Kathleen, allowing her to step out gracefully. As she did so, Francesca couldn't help but admire her partner's exquisite looks - underneath the coat Kathleen was wearing for the cold, the ivory dress accentuated her lithe body perfectly and turned the author into a Greek goddess. The tasteful jewellery was the icing on the cake, matching her golden mane perfectly and adding an air of supreme elegance to the ensemble.
"Oh, you look a-*ma*-zing," Francesca said for Kathleen's ears only.
"Thank you, Francesca. That Tux is quite special, too."
"This way, Madame," Francesca said in a jokey French accent and put her hand on the small of Kathleen's back.
Once they were inside the night-club, Kathleen handed the coat to the young woman working the cloakroom. After receiving a tag and putting it in her purse, Kathleen made sure that the silk scarf around her neck and the belt around her waist were on straight. She worked on them for a few seconds but then noticed that Francesca was wearing a huge grin on her face.
"What? Is it on backwards?" Kathleen said and looked down.
"No, it's just... Good Lord, that dress works so well on you. Do you mind going home at once so I can rip it off with my teeth?"
"Francesca!" Kathleen hissed, instantly blushing like mad. She tried to hide her red cheeks by fumbling with her purse, but when she finally dared to look up after a few seconds of frantic fidgeting, she noticed that no one was paying her any attention.
"Let's go inside, my dear," Francesca said and offered Kathleen her arm. Fanning her red cheeks, Kathleen took the arm and leaned in towards her partner.
"I'm open for suggestions later on... but can we please spare the dress?"
"Anything for you, darling. It's what's underneath the dress that I'm really interested in, anyway," Francesca said and gently bumped shoulders with Kathleen.
The night-club itself was more spacious than predicted - a large group of chairs and tables had been set up below a stage, and at the far end of the room, three bartenders were busy serving the guests from behind a long, shiny black bar counter.
The stage was framed by a rigging of lights and Francesca began to get a bad feeling in her stomach.
"Oh, no, they haven't booked one of those stand-up comedians, have they? I can't stand those people. They're always so aggressive. And unfunny," she growled.
"I really wouldn't know. Come on, let's get a drink while the bar is relatively quiet," Kathleen said and tugged at Francesca's arm.
"Good evening, ladies, what can I get you?" one of the bartenders said as Kathleen and Francesca reached the counter.
"A Club Soda and a Gin and Tonic, please," Kathleen said.
"Will that be all, Miss?"
"For now, yes. Thank you."
As the bartender started preparing the drinks, Francesca turned around and looked at the rest of the guests. It was the usual mix of VIPs and hangers-on and one or two of them were already looking inebriated. Several waitresses zipped between the tables, carrying trays with drinks and a few snacks.
From the stage, soft music began playing and the lights seemed to dim even more than they already were.
"Hey, do you know what the entertainment will be?" Francesca asked as the bartender came back to them with the drinks.
"I'm sorry, no. I know they rehearsed something earlier this afternoon, but I wasn't here then," the bartender said and put the two glasses down on the counter. Typically, he put the G&T in front of Francesca and the Club Soda in front of Kathleen.
"All right. Thanks," Francesca said and swapped the drinks. She took two napkins and handed one of them to Kathleen.
"Thank you," Kathleen said with a smile.
Stepping away from the bar counter, they began to look for a table. Most of the tables close to the stage were already occupied, but most of those in the rear were vacant.
"At the back?" Kathleen said.
"Yes, please. At the very back."
As they strolled towards a cluster of tables, Luca DiLorenzi arrived with his arm around a doll in her early twenties. She was dressed in an electric green plastic dress that only came to mid-thigh and she had a fake, fluffy boa wrapped around her neck.
"Oh dear..." Kathleen said as she noticed the young woman. Francesca only chuckled and took a sip of her Club Soda.
Luca, as always wearing his expensive designer sunglasses, turned his head slowly from left to right, taking in everything that happened in the club. When he spotted Francesca and Kathleen, his left eyebrow went up at the sight of the ivory dress.
He blew Kathleen a kiss and then walked over to the bar, still holding onto the doll.
"He blew me a kiss, that... that..." Kathleen said, leaning in towards Francesca.
"Ah, forget him. He's not worth wasting a tantrum on."
At the exact same time, Giampaolo stepped up onto the stage wearing a headset with a small microphone on it.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please. As most of you will know, the Maserati Corse team has been involved in motorsport at the highest level for nearly a decade now."
The audience clapped politely.
"For seven years, we have been at the pinnacle of sports car racing. We've won many, many races and a few championships, and throughout those years, we've always received sterling support by the Mediterraneo Petrochemical Corporation. Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am extremely proud to announce..."
Giampaolo stepped aside and pulled on a chord that had appeared at the side of the stage. The entire backdrop fell down, revealing one of the MC12's. Four spotlights flared up, shining bright lights down onto the car that had been painted in the new factory colours.
"... the new look of the Maserati Corse team. From now on, the name on the entry lists will be Team Mediterraneo Maserati."
The guests erupted in a loud cheer and they all began to clap. An up-tempo version of the Italian national anthem began to play and two female models dressed in the new driving suits came out to stand in front of the car, posing for the photographers that had suddenly appeared at the edge of the stage.
Francesca rubbed her eyes and stared at the new company colours. This was a complete surprise to her and she didn't really know what to make of the combination of colours that had been used.
"It's black and..." she said, not quite comprehending what was going on.
"Turquoise. Black and turquoise," Kathleen said and began to chuckle.
"Black and turquoise. Well... I guess it could be worse."
"I think it looks good," Kathleen said, leaning in towards Francesca.
Giampaolo stepped back onto the stage and held out his hands.
"Now the drivers will appear on the stage. Unfortunately, Fabio Dellassandro, the reigning World Champion, couldn't be here tonight, but here is last year's Le Mans winner, Luca DiLorenzi, and the winner of the British Empire Trophy, Francesca Carrara. Please give them a warm welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen."
"Ooooh, go on, Francesca!" Kathleen said and thumped her partner's shoulder.
Francesca sighed deeply and got up from her chair. She made her way through the tables and walked up onto the stage. She turned around and flashed her 200-watt smile at the photographers who all responded by taking dozens of photos.
Luca was a bit slow to get to the stage and Francesca could see by the annoyed look on his face that he was most unhappy that she had stolen his thunder - Francesca bit down a saucy remark and concentrated on presenting herself to the cameras.
Giampaolo came up to stand between them and put his hands on their shoulders.
"How do you like the new colours?" he said, smiling to the cameras.
"Well, they're certainly loud," Francesca said out of the corner of her mouth.
"Loud, effective and fill our coffers," the team manager responded and patted both his drivers on the back.
Once all the razzmatazz was over, the guests began to drift away from the night-club, Kathleen and Francesca among them.
Walking arm in arm back to the parking lot, they stopped at the rear of Francesca's car and gazed at each other.
"Weren't you supposed to give a few more interviews?" Kathleen said and ran her fingers down Francesca's cheek.
"Probably. I've already answered everything three times over, though. I can't believe one of the journos asked me how it was like to be the only woman in a factory team. Good Lord, do you know how often I've been asked that question?"
"Too often. And besides, it isn't even true any more. Not with Sally Sharpe around. Anyway... earlier tonight, you said something about... oh, what was it... that you were open to suggestions later on...?"
"Well, it's 'later on' right now."
"Perhaps we should go home first, silly?"
"Perhaps we should *run* home," Francesca said quietly and leaned down towards Kathleen. An inch before their lips met, she stopped and looked deeply into Kathleen's misty green orbs.
When Francesca could see the excitement and barely hidden lust building in them, she closed the distance and claimed Kathleen's lips in a long, loving kiss.
Kathleen put down the slice of toast she was eating for breakfast and pushed her chair back. Before she had time to reach the telephone, it rang again, and for some unknown reason, she knew it was trouble even before she had picked up the receiver.
"The Carrara and O'Malley residence, it's Kathleen," she said as she sat down.
'Kathleen O'Malley, how dare you! How dare you do this to us!' an agitated female voice said from the other end of the line.
"Wha... what? Mother? Is something wrong? Dare do what to you? What's going on?" Kathleen said and shot up from the chair.
'You know perfectly well what's going on! How *dare* you!' Kathleen's mother said, her voice trembling from the stress she appeared to be under.
"You're not making any sense!"
'There's a picture of you in the Sun.'
'Kissing another woman! How dare you do that to us?'
Kathleen's jaw gradually slipped down and her bottom lip started quivering. She covered her mouth with her hand and took a deep breath. As the warm air filtered through her fingers, she realised with alarming clarity that everything had just come crashing down again. She sat down with a bump and closed her eyes.
'Kathleen, tell me you're not one of those... those people.'
"Would it be so bad if I...?" Kathleen said in a trembling voice that matched her mother's.
'Yes it would! We raised you as a good Catholic. Now look what you've become!'
Kathleen rubbed her brow several times, trying to stop the tears from coming. Soon, a few crystal teardrops escaped her eyes and began to run down her cheeks.
"But... how can you say that..."
'Is this why you broke up with Edward? Is this why you haven't had one, single boyfriend in the years since?'
"I... yes. Yes, it is."
'What did that awful woman do to you? Tell me, did she force herself on you? Please tell me that she did. Please tell me that this is just a big misunderstanding!'
"A misunderstanding? Forced herself on me...? No... no, of course she didn..."
'She must have. Explain to me how someone like that can...'
"I love her," Kathleen said quietly.
'That woman is using you,' Kathleen's mother said in a voice so thick with anger that it was barely intelligible.
'If she has laid a finger on you, I'll call the police and...'
Kathleen clenched her fist so tightly around the receiver that it started to creak. Trying to control her temper, she slammed her eyes shut and took several deep breaths - suddenly the anger inside her won the battle and her green eyes shot fire.
"Too late! We've made love countless times including last night and it was the BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD!" Kathleen roared into the phone. Unsurprisingly, the connection was lost and all that was left for Kathleen to do was to hold the silent receiver.
Francesca came out of the shower and stared wide-eyed at Kathleen.
"What in the world...?" she said, wrapping the towel around her and tucking it under her arms.
Kathleen tried to speak, but she was so choked up that she couldn't utter a word. The receiver slipped from her fingers and fell onto the floor. On the way down, the cord struck some letters on a small table which sent them fluttering to the floor, landing on the carpet in an unruly heap.
"Oh, darling, what's wrong?" Francesca said, rushing over to Kathleen. She knelt down in front of the stricken woman and took her hands in her own. When Francesca didn't get a response, she leaned in and gave Kathleen a big hug.
"What's wrong, Kathleen? Please tell me what's wrong...?"
"That was my mother. She knows."
"She knows? Knows what?"
"That I'm... that we're together."
"Oh..." Francesca said and framed Kathleen's face.
"There must've been a photographer nearby when we kissed last night. There's a pict..." Kathleen started to say, but her throat constricted again and she could only sob.
"A picture of us kissing?"
Kathleen nodded and took another deep breath.
"In the Sun. Everybody knows, Francesca," Kathleen said and didn't do anything to stop the steady stream of tears running down her cheeks.
"Maybe it's for the best, sweetheart."
"No... you don't understand. It wasn't supposed to be like this! Now, they'll all look at me and..."
"And know that you love another woman. Is that really that bad, Kathleen?"
"N-no, of course not, but... but... everything has changed now."
"Not everything. I still love you," Francesca said quietly. She found a snip of her towel and wiped off some of the tears that still ran down Kathleen's cheeks.
Kathleen's lips started quivering but she tried to hold it back for as long as she could. She nodded again and made to get up from the chair. Standing up straight, Francesca helped Kathleen up and guided her over to the couch.
"Can I get you something? I know it's early, but do you want a drink?" Francesca said, but Kathleen just shook her head.
"I... oh, the phone," Francesca said and picked up the receiver and the letters that had fallen onto the carpet. Five seconds later, the phone rang again.
"I don't want to talk to my mother again," Kathleen whispered hoarsely.
Francesca sat down in the chair and picked up the phone.
'Hi, Francesca, it's Giampaolo. Can you come over to the offices after lunch? I just wanted to discuss a few details regarding the upcoming test at Monza. Don't forget it starts this Friday, March 18th.'
"Oh... oh, it's a really bad time right now, Giampaolo."
' Okay ?'
"It's a... we're having an, uh... a family problem."
'All right. How about tomorrow morning at nine, then? We have several things we need to talk about.'
"Nine a.m. tomorrow. I'll be there, Giampaolo."
'Good. Arrivederci, Francesca.'
"You don't have to change your plans for my sake," Kathleen said and blew her nose in an old hankie.
"I'm not going anywhere, Kathleen... oh, that bloody telephone!" Francesca said angrily when the phone suddenly rang again.
"This better be important!" Francesca barked into the receiver.
'Good morning. Can I speak with Miss Kathleen O'Malley, please? My name is Christine Bennett and I'm calling on behalf of W.P. Carruthers of Carruthers Publishing, Limited.'
"Miss O'Malley is indisposed. I'll give her the message," Francesca said curtly.
'All right. Please tell Miss O'Malley that Mr. Carruthers is urgently requesting a meeting. Preferably today or tomorrow. Do you have that?'
"Yes, I have that. I'll tell her. Good day, Miss Bennett," Francesca said and hung up before the person at the other end could object.
"Who was that?" Kathleen said.
"Christine Bennett from your publisher's. Looks like W.P. wants a meeting."
Kathleen's face became even paler than it had already been. She pressed a hand hard against her stomach and slowly got up from the couch. A few seconds later, her stomach clenched violently and she ran to the bathroom to throw up.
Fifteen minutes later, Francesca tucked Kathleen in and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. She brushed a damp lock of blonde hair away from Kathleen's eyes and then quietly left the bedroom to go to their local newsagent.
When Francesca returned, she went into the living room and put the tabloid down on their coffee table. Sighing, she sat down on the couch and opened the newspaper to the page containing the photo. The colours weren't great and the contrast was too high, but the motif was all too easy to make out.
'Celebrity Outing of the month!' the headline screamed. Francesca sighed again and read the relatively short blurb located beneath the photo.
'The biographer Kathleen O'Malley, 36, (on the right) is seen here involved in a lip-wrestling match with 'out' lesbian Francesca Carrara, 32. Sorry boys, another one to scratch off the list.'
"Those bastards..." Francesca growled and fought the urge to tear the tabloid to shreds.
Twenty to four, p.m., Francesca and Kathleen drove into the parking lot at the publishing house. The VIP parking space at the main entrance was vacant so Francesca pulled into it, chuckling quietly to herself when she remembered the curious incident that had happened when she and Kathleen had first met.
Francesca turned off the engine and looked at Kathleen's profile. The author had calmed down somewhat, but she was still pale as a sheet and she was wearing a pair of extra-dark sunglasses to hide her red eyes.
"Sweetheart, do you remember what happened here... in this exact parking spot?"
"I remember," Kathleen said hoarsely.
"We've come a long way, haven't we? This is just a bump on the road. We'll get over this and then we'll move on," Francesca said and took Kathleen's hand.
"I hope so. I'm so sorry for dragging you into the tabloids."
"Ah, nonsense. I don't care one iota about the gutter press. Tomorrow, they'll find another defenceless victim to put their claws into. That's what they do."
Kathleen just shrugged.
"Come on, let's go in and get this thing sorted. Who knows, maybe your publisher wants to give you a bonus?"
"No. He wants to terminate my contract."
"Let's take it one step at a time. Okay?"
"Miss O'Malley and Miss Carrara to see Mr. Carruthers, please," Francesca said to the clerk manning the desk in the centre of the sterile, white reception area.
"It's right this way," the platinum blonde desk clerk said and pointed at the frosted glass door that Francesca and Kathleen remembered so well from the year before.
"We know the way, thank you," Francesca said and put her hand on Kathleen's elbow.
Once they reached the front office, a tall, well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties greeted them in the door. She put out her hand and Francesca and Kathleen shook it.
"Good afternoon. I'm Christine Bennett, Mr. Carruthers' secretary. Mr. Carruthers has had a busy schedule today, so he's running a little late. Please have a seat. It won't be long."
"Thank you. Do you know what's going to happen?" Kathleen said in a croaky voice.
"I'm afraid I don't, Miss O'Malley."
"Oh. Well... oh."
"Would you like some coffee?"
"Um, no thanks," Kathleen said, remembering the terrible coffee she'd had the first time she had been waiting to meet W.P. Carruthers. She looked over her shoulder and noticed that while the front office still looked much the same, the uncomfortable chairs had at least been changed.
Before they could reach the chairs, the door to the inner office flew open, revealing W.P. Carruthers himself standing in the doorway. W.P. had a harried expression on his face and his hair appeared to be whiter than the last time Kathleen had met him. He looked every one of his sixty-four years and a thought flashed through Kathleen's mind that it had all been caused by the picture in the Sun.
W.P. put out his hand, wearing his customary slightly plastic smile, and motioned Francesca and Kathleen to step into his office.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Carruthers," Francesca said and shook the publisher's hand.
"Good afternoon. What a mess."
"What a mess indeed," Kathleen said, shaking W.P.'s hand.
Carruthers closed the door behind him and walked around his huge desk to sit down in a leather armchair. Francesca and Kathleen sat down in two matching Chesterfield armchairs - Francesca, cool as usual, leaned back in the chair and crossed her hands over her chest, wearing an expression that told W.P. that he better not do anything that would cause Kathleen even more harm.
Kathleen sat with her legs together and her hands neatly folded in her lap, almost disappearing in the huge armchair. She had taken off her sunglasses, but the light was so hard in the office that she wished she hadn't.
"Well, this is quite a mess. I've spent most of today speaking to Mr. Harting's agents. They've agree to see out the contract. It wouldn't be a good signal to send to his fans if he..."
"To the people buying his third-rate songs, you mean?" Francesca said icily.
"Yes. Well, to keep the story short... Miss O'Malley, how much work is left on the Davey Boy biography?"
"Not much. Five working days at the most. Three if I rush it. Then it needs to go to the legal department, et cetera. I can have it done by next Monday," Kathleen said quietly.
"All right. Miss O'Malley, to tell you the truth, when I asked for this meeting, I was certain that Mr. Harting's agents would call off the contract, but after the aforementioned development... not to mention that we've had several inquiries today asking if you were available... I don't think this will have much of an impact."
"So you're saying that any PR is good PR?" Francesca said.
"Well, I can understand how it must be for you..."
"No, I don't think you can, frankly. With all due respect, Sir."
"You're right, Miss Carrara, I can't. But I do know that this will be forgotten quicker than you think. It's been less than two weeks since the 'keeper on the English national team was arrested after the police found recreational drugs in his car, but who is talking about that now? Nobody."
"My parents won't forget about that picture," Kathleen said quietly. Smiling, Francesca leaned over and gently clawed the back of Kathleen's hand to offer some support.
"Well. The bottom line is that the Davey Boy contract will be upheld. I'm quite sure that several new opportunities will present themselves once you're available, Miss O'Malley," W.P. Carruthers said and got up from his armchair, signalling the end of the meeting.
"I told you it'd be good news, Kathleen," Francesca said and got up.
"Thank you, Mr. Carruthers. I only wish it hadn't been necessary to hold this meeting at all," Kathleen said and shook hands with her publisher.
Wednesday, March 16th.
"All right ... All right, Dad. We'll be over at six thirty tonight ... No, I said that *we'll* be over ... Yes ... Yes, 'that woman' will be coming, too ... Yes. Goodbye, Dad," Kathleen said and hung up. After putting down the receiver, she sighed deeply and rubbed her face.
"So...?" Francesca said, sitting in the couch.
"Well, he wasn't too pleased about it, but I think he accepted it. My mom refuses to speak with me."
Getting up from the chair by the telephone, Kathleen went straight over to the cupboard in the corner of the living room and opened it. After finding a bottle of brandy, she poured herself a small drink and gulped it down in a single motion.
At once, Kathleen poured herself a new drink - two fingers of the dark red liquid instead of one like in the first one. She took the glass back to the couch and sat down next to Francesca.
"At least your publisher was right. It's Wednesday, two days after the picture was printed, but you haven't heard anything from anybody," Francesca said, gently bumping shoulders with Kathleen.
"Well, except from my parents. The very people I didn't want to find out."
"You couldn't keep it a secret forever, Kathleen. Not something like that."
"Well... I could for nearly six years."
"Hey, they'll come around. You'll see," Francesca said and mussed Kathleen's hair.
"You don't know my parents. Right now, they hate us. That's why we need to visit them tonight. God, I wish none of this had ever happened..." Kathleen said and emptied her glass in one gulp. When the strong liquid burned its way down her throat, she coughed dryly a few times and leaned forward to put her elbows on her knees.
Francesca seized the golden opportunity and began to run her hand slowly up and down Kathleen's back. Kathleen sighed again and put her hand on Francesca's thigh.
"Thank you for being here for me, Francesca."
"You're welcome, darling."
Six twenty-five, p.m., Kathleen parked her red Ford Focus behind her father's Mondeo. She turned off the engine and sighed deeply.
"So this is where you grew up? It looks like a nice neighbourhood," Francesca said, looking around at the houses and the cars parked on the street.
Kathleen cast a brief glance at the street where she had spent a lot of her childhood. Everything still appeared much the same, save for a few houses that had been repainted in the intervening years.
"I've only been here maybe five times in the twenty years since I moved out. Once for my Gran's funeral, once for my thirtieth birthday... I can't even remember the other times," Kathleen said looking at her parents' house.
"Perhaps so, but in the months we've been together, you've spoken regularly to your mother over the phone, so it's not like they're complete strangers. Don't worry about it, darling."
"You don't know my parents," Kathleen said quietly.
"No, but I'm looking forward to getting to know them. They raised you, they can't be all bad. Oh, your father is already standing in the door," Francesca said, looking past Kathleen at the front door of the house where a dark silhouette of a man stood out against the light coming from behind him.
Kathleen gulped several times and immediately pressed a hand against her upset stomach. With a sigh, she took the key out of the ignition and opened the door.
Francesca stepped out of the car and went around the back. To make sure that Kathleen's parents wouldn't think she was some kind of intolerable fop, she had chosen to dress low-key: a blue cotton jacket, a pair of charcoal grey slacks and a dusty white button-down shirt over a charcoal grey T-shirt.
For much the same reason, Kathleen had insisted that they used her Focus instead of Francesca's posh sports car so they could show that it was an equal relationship - but now that they had arrived, she felt a childish, irrational urge to show her parents that there was much more to life than a terraced house and a sensible family saloon.
Walking around the back to join Francesca, she opened the hatchback and reached in to take a small vase she had found in a gift shop. Once that was prepared, she found the bouquet of roses she had bought at the supermarket, removed the green protective paper and stuck the flowers into the vase.
"Please hold it for a sec," Kathleen said and handed Francesca the vase. After taking off her windbreaker and putting it in the back of the car, Kathleen closed the hatch, smoothed out her tan skirt and straightened her bottle green blouse.
"How do I look?" Kathleen said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
"Prim and proper," Francesca said, holding the vase with the roses.
"Good. I love you."
"I love you, too. Let's get this over with," Francesca said and handed the vase back to Kathleen.
Moving as one, they began to walk up the garden path. Every step felt like a thousand-mile journey to Kathleen, and for each yard they got closer, her legs became more and more wobbly.
Once they were at the door, Kathleen's father reached out for his only daughter. Embracing her and pulling her into a hug, he whispered something in her ear that Francesca couldn't hear.
They separated after a few moments, and as Kathleen walked into the house, her father put out his hand at Francesca.
"I'm Dennis O'Malley. How do you do, Miss...?"
"Carrara. Francesca Carrara. Good evening, Sir," Francesca said and shook Dennis' hand.
Kathleen's father was in his late sixties and he was dressed in a white shirt and grey trousers with a black leather belt. His features were soft, reminding Francesca of Kathleen. When he shook Francesca's hand, she could smell cigarette smoke on his clothes and she felt at once that his grip was firm and unwavering, just like his daughter's.
"Carrara? You're Italian?"
"My mother is. My father is English. I've lived here for nearly thirty years."
"Oh. Well, anyway, welcome to my house."
"Thank you, Sir," Francesca said and stepped into the hall, finding it to be nice and cosy, if a little over-decorated. A closed sliding door went off to the right, presumably into the living room, and at the far end of the hall, the door to the kitchen was open, allowing a flood of bright light to come out into the hall.
"Let's go into the living room, shall we? I think Kathleen needs to have a moment alone with her mother," Dennis said and pulled the sliding door open.
Francesca and Kathleen briefly locked eyes - smiling faintly, Kathleen nodded to show that she agreed with her father.
Once she was sure Kathleen was doing all right, Francesca and Dennis stepped into the living room and closed the sliding door behind them.
As Kathleen fixed her hair in front of a mirror, her face was set in stone. She could hear her mother working in the kitchen, but suddenly, her legs wouldn't obey her commands at all.
She took a deep breath, turned around slowly and forced herself to walk over to stand in the door to the kitchen. She knocked on the doorjamb and prepared for the worst.
At first, Kate O'Malley didn't seem to have noticed her daughter at all. She was busy tending to a large pot, but after a few moments, her movements became slower and slower until they finally stopped.
Kate turned around and looked at her daughter, wearing an unreadable expression on her face. She noticed with some curiosity that both she and Kathleen had chosen to wear green blouses to bring out their misty green eyes.
As Kate was looking at Kathleen's pensive face, she realised that the strong-willed author had inherited so many of her own traits that any form of reconciliation would be difficult. Tapping the spoon on the side of the pot, she put it on the table next to the stove and wiped her hands on a tea towel.
"Hello, Mom," Kathleen said quietly. She took a hesitant step forward and put out her arms, hoping that her mother would at least grant her a hug.
Kate furrowed her brow but came forward and embraced her daughter.
"Hello, Kathleen. It's good to see you. I wish it could've been under better circumstances."
"Yes. What are you making?"
"Roast beef and potato salad."
"Your father said that you'd bring that woman along. Did you?" Kate said as she went back to stirring the pot.
Kathleen felt stung by the words, but she bit back a barb that would only have made the situation worse.
"Yes, I did. Her name is Francesca and she's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Kathleen could feel that she started fidgeting, something that her mother had scolded her for countless times when she was a child.
Kate snorted loudly and took the pot off the stove.
The corner of Kathleen's mouth twitched at the sound, and she started wringing her hands even more.
"Another Catholic, I'll bet," Kate said.
"Religion doesn't play any role in our lives, Mom."
"No? Well, look where that got you."
"Dinner's almost ready. Go wash your hands."
Kathleen hesitated briefly. One part of her was annoyed that her mother treated her like a child, but another part knew that it wasn't worth it to have the inevitable argument so soon. She turned around on her heel and went into the bathroom to freshen up even though she didn't need to.
A few minutes later, all four people were sitting at a dinner table that had been set up at one end of the living room.
Kathleen looked around the room, finding it hard to believe that her parents had so many little trinkets but suddenly realising that her own cottage was just as overcrowded.
Dennis was sitting at the side of the table that was facing away from the kitchen, and Kathleen shook her head when she realised that it meant that her mother had to do all the work carrying the food.
'Some things never change,' she thought.
Kate had made the seating arrangements so that Kathleen and Francesca faced each other, with Kathleen to her mother's right.
'If nothing else, it means that I can have eye contact with Francesca,' Kathleen thought and locked eyes with her lover. When she did, Francesca's bright blue eyes lit up and a small smile graced her features. Kathleen mirrored the smile, a gesture that wasn't lost on Dennis.
Kate O'Malley came into the living room and placed a tray with the freshly sliced roast beef in the centre of the table. Taking a step back, she gave Francesca a quietly defiant stare that was closer to a silent Third Degree Interrogation than a simple once-over.
Francesca caught the hint and pushed her chair back. She got up and put out her hand, wearing her most winning smile.
When she looked closely at Kate, she thought to herself that it was easy to see where Kathleen had her looks from. Her mother, though thirty years older, looked more like an older sister than a parent. Her eyes, nose and lips were the same as Kathleen's, and although her hair was shorter and her figure was rounder than her daughter's, there was a great family likeness - even down to using some of the same mannerisms.
"How do you do, Mrs. O'Malley. My name is Francesca Carrara."
At first, Kate seemed to be reluctant to touch Francesca's hand, but her manners finally won out and she stepped forward to shake it.
"How do you do. Well, let's eat while it's hot," Kate said and sat down. She placed a slice of the roast beef on her plate and took a few spoonfuls of the potato salad.
During the first ten minutes of the dinner, they only engaged in trivial chit-chat like discussing the weather, but Kathleen knew it was too good to last. She had watched her mother study Francesca's table manners carefully, no doubt hoping to expose her daughter's girlfriend as an ill-mannered tart.
"So, Miss Carrara, what do you do, exactly?" Kate said.
"I'm a race car driver. I'm working for the Maserati factory team."
"Really? That sounds exciting. So you get to see the world?" Dennis said.
"Yes, but mostly airports and hotel rooms."
"Being a factory driver, you must make a lot of money...?" Dennis said, trying to make the question sound as innocuous as he could.
"Oh, Dennis! That's hardly appropriate," Kate said, but with slightly less conviction in her voice than Kathleen had expected to hear.
"I'm well covered, financially speaking," Francesca said, discreetly wiping her mouth on her napkin.
Kathleen cringed inwardly, knowing exactly what kind of game her parents were playing. She wanted to speak up to make her mother aware of the fact, but she knew that her words wouldn't have any impact, so she didn't.
Francesca's answer seemed to take the wind out of Kate's sails and the dinner went on in silence for a few more minutes.
"In that photo in the Sun..." Kate said, leaning forward on her chair.
"Mother! Can't it wait until we've eaten... please?" Kathleen said, alarmed over the direction the conversation was going. When Kathleen saw the look her mother sent her, she lost her appetite and put down her knife and fork.
"No, it can't. In that photo in the Sun...?"
"Yes?" Francesca said.
"Why were you dressed like a man? I mean, you're a woman, aren't you? Isn't that what this whole lesbian thing is about?"
"Mother! How *dare* you?!" Kathleen said, her voice breaking as she spoke the sentence. When she realised that she had used the same words her mother had when they'd had the telephone conversation earlier in the week, she clenched her fist and punched her thigh in frustration.
"I want to hear her answer, Kathleen."
"Her name is *Francesca*!"
Kate ignored her daughter and looked directly at Francesca.
"Well?" she said, putting down her napkin in her lap.
"Mrs. O'Malley, we're as different as everyone else. Some of us like to wear dresses and makeup and some of us don't. Personally, I don't. I only have a few clothing items that are feminine in nature and I rarely wear them."
"Oh, that's interesting. So you don't wear jewellery either?"
"No, not apart from my wristwatch."
"I see. When did you realise you were a lesbian?"
"Oh, mother, is this really necessary?" Kathleen said, rubbing her brow.
"It's all right, Kathleen. I don't mind," Francesca said with a smile.
Kathleen just sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, the food long forgotten.
"I began to realise that I was different to the girls around me when I was fifteen. After a few years of uncertainty, I came out when I was eighteen."
"Mmmm. Oh, Kathleen, we had such high hopes that you would gift us a grandchild. A little girl you could call Kate, like you were named after my mother," Kate said and picked up her fork and began to eat again.
"There's still time for that. I'm only thirty-six. That book hasn't closed yet," Kathleen said, drawing little patterns on the tablecloth with her index finger.
Kate leaned back in her chair, narrowing her eyes dangerously. She looked at Francesca and then back at Kathleen.
"I will never allow that my grandchild is raised by homosexuals."
At first, Kathleen just stared at her mother, frozen in shock and refusing to believe that her mother could be so cruel. When the words finally sunk in, an ice cold sensation engulfed her entire being, making her shiver deep inside. Her face contorted into a mask of pain and she pushed the chair back.
Wordlessly, Kathleen got up from the dinner table and left the living room.
Francesca put down her napkin and followed Kathleen away from the table. By the time she took her jacket from the coat hanger, Kathleen was already out of the front door and halfway down the garden path. With a deep sigh, Francesca closed and locked the door behind her.
Down by the car, Kathleen's hands were shaking so hard that she couldn't put the key into the lock on the car door. When she dropped the keys onto the ground, she let out a strangled sob and tried to squat down to pick them up but the skirt restricted her movements.
Putting a calming hand on Kathleen's shoulder, Francesca bent down to pick up the keys. After unlocking the car, she opened the hatchback so Kathleen could get her windbreaker, and then helped Kathleen around the car and into the passenger seat.
With a final look at the house, Francesca started the engine and drove off.
As soon as they got home, Kathleen went straight for the cupboard in the corner of her own living room. Taking out a bottle of Scotch, she poured herself a stiff drink and gulped it down in one.
After draining the glass, she let out a trembling sigh and fell into the couch. She shook her head slowly, still not comprehending what had just happened.
Francesca sat down on the couch and ran her hand up and down Kathleen's back.
"Now you know my parents. I'm so, so sorry that you had to experience that," Kathleen half-whispered, coughing dryly when the strong drink burned its way down her throat and into her stomach.
"Mmmm. It's not your fault, darling. Some people are like that."
"The next time I'll see my mother will be at her funeral," Kathleen said, sounding very much like she meant it.
"Oh, Kathleen... that's..."
"I'm serious. I'm done with them," Kathleen said and got up from the couch. She poured herself another drink and gulped it down like the first one.
"Do you want one?" she said and held up the bottle of Scotch.
"No, thank you."
"When are you leaving for the Monza test?"
"Late tomorrow evening. We have a big program to go through, so I need to be at the circuit when it opens at nine a.m. on Friday," Francesca said and crossed her legs.
"Would you mind if I came along?"
"Of course not... but Kathleen, there won't be anything for you to do there. The motorhome will be there, but that's it. None of the teams attending the test will bring their hospitality crews."
"I want to come. There's nothing left for me here... now."
"Oh, darling. I'd love you to come... but you need to take a few books or something. You'll get bored out of your skull."
"I'll take my laptop. Maybe I can finish that damn book on Davey Boy. Do you know if I could stay in the pits, like at Barcelona?"
"I honestly don't know. But I'll ask," Francesca said and put out her hand. Kathleen took it and walked around the couch. She sat down next to Francesca and leaned her head on the taller woman's shoulder.
"I... I knew something like this was going to happen. I just knew it," Kathleen said and let out another long sigh. She closed her eyes, hoping that the Scotch in her stomach would soon take control over her and dull her aching heart.
Eight minutes past nine a.m., on Friday, March 18th, Francesca pulled her Fiat rental car up to the end of a line of cars waiting to get into the circuit located in the middle of the Parco di Monza. Someone ahead of them honked several times and Francesca chuckled to herself.
"Why hasn't the circuit opened yet? I thought it was supposed to open at nine?" Kathleen said and checked her watch.
"Eh... we're in Italy," Francesca said with a shrug.
"Not that we're any better in old Blighty."
Ahead of them, someone honked again. When that didn't seem to have any effect, a man stuck his head out of his window and roared something in Italian at the gate keeper. The watchman - a slightly overweight, forty-something man in a uniform that was one size too small for him - just waved his hand as he made his way across the parking lot.
Francesca snorted and then laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" Kathleen said, turning around in her seat.
"Oh... that's Luca honking. And yelling," Francesca said and adjusted her designer sunglasses.
"What did he say?"
"I... uh, a lot."
Francesca turned to face Kathleen and flashed her a brilliant, cheeky grin.
"I get the picture," Kathleen said, chuckling.
The watchman finally opened the gate and stepped into his booth. One by one, he checked the credentials of the people waiting in the line. When it was Luca DiLorenzi's turn, the watchman made a big show out of checking the credentials extra-thoroughly.
"If we had been here three minutes earlier, we would've been in front of Luca," Francesca said as she put the Fiat in gear and rolled a car-length ahead.
"Well, on the bright side, everyone is late now. If Giampaolo is driving, he'll be late, too."
When it was finally their turn, Francesca rolled down the window and handed their passes to the watchman.
"Buongiorno. Bella giornata oggi, eh?" the watchman said as he ran the plastic pit passes through the computer, checking to see if they had been registered.
"Siete in due in macchina?"
"Esatto. Francesca Carrara e Kathleen O'Malley."
"Okay... Buona giornata. Guidare con prudenza," the watchman said and handed the passes back to Francesca.
"Grazie," Francesca said and drove into the parking lot.
"Wow, what was that all about?" Kathleen said, scrunching up her face.
"Nothing really. Just small talk. Then he told me to drive carefully today."
"Oh, that was nice of him."
"Yep," Francesca said and pulled into a parking space close to the Maserati garage.
A few minutes later, they walked between two huge transporters to get to the back door of the pit building. As soon as Francesca opened the door, they spotted the car she had come to test.
The low, sleek, open-topped Lola chassis acted as the eye of the hurricane, surrounded by a swarming mass of technicians and mechanics who were all busy preparing the car for its first lap of the circuit.
Francesca whistled appreciatively when she saw the new chassis. Still standing in the door, she studied the graceful curves closely, nodding to herself when she realised that it was a true racing machine.
"Oooh, I can't wait to get my hands on that baby," Francesca said dreamily.
"Hey, should I get jealous?" Kathleen said in jest, poking Francesca in the side.
"No, of course not. But you have to admit that it's a sexy car."
"Well. It's certainly a car."
"But what a car," Francesca said, looking back at the prototype. Still unpainted, the black-and-brown patterns of the carbon fibre weave stood out quite clearly, giving the car a dark, dangerous look that Francesca found very appealing.
"Ehi, Carrara, come diavolo hai fatto a persuadere Giampaolo a lasciarti provare per prima la macchina nuova?" Luca DiLorenzi said, having snuck up behind Francesca and Kathleen without any of them noticing.
"Mmmm? Oh, that's easy. He knew I'm the smartest," Francesca said and raised an eyebrow. She moved past Luca, took Kathleen by the elbow and led her back out into the parking lot.
"What did he say?" Kathleen said once they were out of earshot.
"Ah, he just asked me how the Hell I persuaded Giampaolo to give me the first drive in the new car."
"Wait a minute, was he insinuating that you...?"
"It's Luca. Forget it. That's just the way he is, Kathleen."
"Forget it. Come on, I better get changed before Giampaolo gets here. That way, he won't know that we were late."
"Clever," Kathleen said and picked up the pace, heading for the motorhome that had already been set up for them.
While Francesca was putting on her fireproof underwear and the driving suit, Kathleen unpacked her travel bags and found her mobile phone, her laptop and her uni-socket adapter set so she could plug her electronics into the Italian sockets.
Getting everything set up and ready for use, Kathleen plugged her phone into the laptop and turned both on. After waiting for a few moments while the laptop booted, she opened the mail program to see if anyone had contacted her.
"Anything?" Francesca said as she bent down and pulled the legs of the longjohns down. She zipped the driving suit all the way up and then a bit down so she wouldn't get too hot before she even got into the car.
"No. Only spam."
"Maybe there's something on the voicemail," Kathleen said and turned off the mobile phone so she could unplug it.
"Less than a year ago, I couldn't even get my old video to work. And now..." Kathleen said and held up a mess of cables and plugs.
Francesca chuckled and mussed Kathleen's hair.
"Welcome to the 21st century, darling."
"I do miss my typewriter, though..." Kathleen said under her breath as she turned the mobile phone back on and put it up to her ear. A few moments later, she furrowed her brow and looked at the display.
"A message from your mother?"
"Yes. How could you tell?"
"I could see it in your eyes," Francesca said and put her helmet back in the bag so it would be easy to carry over to the pits.
"She wants me to contact her. God, just hearing her voice gave me a knot in my stomach."
"I think you should, Kathleen."
"Maybe later," Kathleen said and moved the phone back to her ear. After she had listened to the next message, she scrunched up her face and sighed. Turning off the phone, she stored it in its protective pouch and put it back into the travel bag.
"The other one was Christine Bennett from my publisher's. Looks like someone didn't appreciate the picture in the Sun. Even though the person had already signed a preliminary contract, he had phoned Carruthers again and said that he didn't want to work with one of those quote 'ungodly people' unquote," Kathleen said and waved her fingers in the air to form the quotation marks.
"Bastard. Who was that? Some here-today gone-tomorrow celebrity like Davey Boy?"
"I'm rarely told the names of my clients until I meet them for the first time. It could be anybody."
"Oh. Look, Kathleen, I'm sorry to leave you now, but I have to go," Francesca said and pulled Kathleen up towards her. She wrapped her strong arms around the smaller woman and gave her a fierce hug. Finishing off with a flurry, Francesca winked and kissed Kathleen on her nose.
"No problem. I'll be in the pits in a little while, I just need to go over the final chapter one last time. Love you... if I don't see you before you get in the car, please drive carefully."
"I will. Love you, too, darling."
The motorhome became very quiet after Francesca had left and Kathleen soon ran out of things to do. She had fired up her laptop to continue working on the final chapter, but the blank page just laughed in her face.
Sighing, she took her mobile phone back out of the travel bag and put it on the low table, thinking that if she could see it at all times, she'd reconsider and call her mother.
When that didn't seem to be working, she found the remote for the television set and began to zap through the many satellite channels.
Ten minutes later, she turned off the television and threw the remote onto the slab of plywood doubling as a couch, fed up with the forty-or-so Italian channels that all seemed to be broadcasting infomercials or dubbed American soaps at that time of the day.
Suddenly, her phone rang, making her jump back in surprise. She looked intently at the advanced, but noisy, piece of electronic equipment, not sure whether she should pick it up or not.
After the third ring, she relented and pressed the Off Hook button on the phone.
"Yes?" she said - deciding on the spot that if it was her mother calling, she'd hang up at once.
'Miss O'Malley? It's Christine Bennett from W.P. Carruthers.'
"Oh... oh, yes, good morning, Miss Bennett. I got your message. It's too bad that the contract was lost, but I guess..."
'Well, you can forget about that now. We've just scored a big one,' Christine said, interrupting Kathleen.
'Yes, someone who specifically said she wanted you to write her biography.'
"Oh! That's great news."
'When can you come to the offices, Miss O'Malley?'
"Not until Monday, I'm afraid. I'm not in the UK at the moment."
'Monday?' Christine Bennett echoed, and Kathleen could hear through the connection that the woman was typing on a keyboard.
"That's very much the plan, yes."
'All right. That's noted. By the way, I'm not supposed to tell you, but are you interested in hearing who the client is?'
'It's Rachel Silverman.'
"The actress who won an Oscar for Love Lost, Love Found?!" Kathleen said and almost jumped up from the couch.
'The very same, yes.'
"Wow... how on Earth did she ever hear of me...?"
'I don't know, but I'm sure you'll find out on Monday. She's coming in so you can get acquainted.'
'I'll call you again with the details. All right?'
'All right. Goodbye, Miss O'Malley.'
"Goodbye, Miss Bennett," Kathleen said and terminated the connection. She sat down on the couch and rubbed her face. Once again, she couldn't quite believe what had just happened, but this time, at least, it was something positive.
"Rachel Silverman...! Oh, I can't wait to work with someone who has more than nonsense on their mind," Kathleen said out loud, remembering all the wasted interview sessions with Davey Boy where he was bragging endlessly about his weekend exploits.
Needing to tell Francesca at once, she closed the laptop, picked up her jacket and left the motorhome in a hurry, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Kathleen barged into the pits, making every one there turn their heads and stare at her. She blushed furiously but managed a quick smile.
"Is something wrong, Kathleen?" Giampaolo asked, holding his customary clipboard.
"Oh... uh, no. No, everything is fine. Is Francesca out on the circuit... I guess she isn't..." Kathleen said, suddenly noticing that the new car was still being worked on in the pits.
"No, she's up at race control having a word with the clerk of the course. It's up the other end of the pit lane if you need to speak with her."
"Uh, no. It can wait. What's she doing there?" Kathleen said, putting her hands into her jacket pockets.
"Ah, it's nothing out of the ordinary. He's just talking to the drivers so they know that even though it's a test and not a race meeting, he'll still be watching if they cut too many corners and things like that."
"By the way, you've forgotten your earplugs and your pit credentials," Giampaolo said with a smile.
"Oh, damn!" Kathleen said and spun around on her heel.
Francesca walked into the Maserati pit reading from a piece of paper with a list of all the fire posts. She studied it so hard that she didn't notice Kathleen standing inside the pit until she was right next to her.
"Oh... hello again, darling," Francesca said and gave Kathleen a quick kiss on the forehead.
"Hi... I've got some fantastic news!" Kathleen said, completely unable to hide her excitement.
"I had another call from Christine Bennett. A world famous actress has told them that she wants *me* to write her biography."
"Oh, wow, that's terrific. Is it anyone I know?"
"Doesn't ring a bell..."
"She works mainly in dramas and things like that. Two years ago, she won an Oscar for Love Lost, Love Found."
"I remember the title better than the movie," Francesca said and laughed.
"If everything goes well, we'll sign the contract on Monday."
"I'm definitely crossing my fingers for you, darling," Francesca said and leaned down so she could give Kathleen a kiss on the lips.
"Oh, not in front of all these people," Kathleen said, embarrassed over the unexpected show of affection.
"Ah, they know me. C'mon."
"What's that you're reading?" Kathleen said after they separated.
"A list of where the fire posts are. Monza is on another level to the other tracks, so it's good to know where the help is in case there's trouble."
"Another level? What do you mean by that?"
"It's the fastest track we go to all year. The fastest straights, the quickest corners. I love it. It's a real challenge, not these sanitised Formula One circuits with acres of runoff."
"And that's a good thing?" Kathleen said, narrowing her eyes.
"Yep. The nickname for the track is The Cathedral Of Speed and it's an apt one, considering that an F1 car went down the main straight at 233 m.p.h. a few years ago."
"We'll not be going that fast, though. I don't think we'll get much over 200 m.p.h."
"Two hundred miles an hour... that just goes way over my head."
"It's not really that fast once you're doing it," Francesca said and wrapped her arm around Kathleen's shoulder.
"I'll have to take your word for it."
"Fran!" Giampaolo said from the other side of the pit. When she looked at him, he waved her over.
"Time to go to work, I think," Francesca said and gave Kathleen a little squeeze.
"The computer technicians tell me that everything's A-okay, so the test starts now," Giampaolo said.
"I want you to do an installation lap first. This engine hasn't run in this chassis before so we want to check all the plumbing and the fittings thoroughly."
"If that's all in the green, you should do two or three laps to get used to the car and how it works on the track when it's in the basic setup."
"Don't forget, it's a lot lighter than the MC12 so you can brake later, corner faster and accelerate quicker."
"How is the brake bias set?"
"At neutral. We don't have any Lola engineers here so you'll have to work that out by yourself."
"All right. Well, that's all part of the test, anyway," Francesca said and clenched her fists a few times to get some heat into them.
"Yes. Get your helmet and get into the car. We have a roll-out to conduct," Giampaolo said and put on his headset.
Francesca nodded and went over to the small shelf at the back of the pits where she had put the bag with her helmet and the HANS-device.
'Radio check, radio check,' Giampaolo said.
"Radio check. One-two, one-two," Francesca replied, looking at Giampaolo standing only three feet away. He nodded and then wrote something down on his clipboard.
Francesca looked up - not being protected by a roof was a curious feeling. She tried to remember when she had last driven a race car in anger that didn't have a roof, but she couldn't. She knew that she was about to experience the full force of the headwind down the straights, but she really had no idea how much buffeting there would be.
After tightening the belts again, she stretched out her arms so she was sure she could reach all the little switches around the cockpit. Mission accomplished, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was ready.
'Fran, it's all yours,' Giampaolo said and gave her a thumbs-up.
Francesca reached out and put her index finger on the Starter button. After turning over for a few seconds, the twelve came alive with a scream that seemed to be even louder than in the old car. She pulled on the right paddle shifter located behind the steering wheel and felt how the car jerked a bit when the first gear engaged.
Letting the clutch out slowly, she rolled out of the pit bay and into the slow lane, remembering to look left to see if anyone else was coming down the pit - she was clear.
Moments later, she took her thumb off the pit lane speed limiter on the steering wheel and ventured out onto the circuit for the installation lap.
One minute and fifty seconds later, she came back in, slowing to the required 60 k.p.h. at the entrance to the pits. The car banged and popped on the limiter as it travelled up the pit lane, and soon, Francesca returned to the Maserati pit.
Two mechanics pushed the car backwards into the bay and attached the hose with the compressed air to the nozzle at the rear of the car, making the car groan as it went up on its pneumatic jacks.
Two other mechanics took off the rear bodywork and started checking for leaks, using high-tech work lights and a low-tech, old-fashioned rag.
"Asciutta come le mutande di una monaca!" one of the mechanics shouted before he suddenly remembered that they had a visitor in the shape of Kathleen. He grinned at her, but it appeared that she hadn't understood what he said.
Giampaolo cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow, but then signalled the mechanics that they should put the bodywork back on.
"Fran, everything is looking good. I want you to do three laps at race pace to see how the car reacts. Don't forget it's still at basic setup," he said into the microphone on his headset.
' Okay , Giampaolo.'
A mechanic pulled off the hose with the compressed air which produced a loud PFFFFFFFFT sound as the pneumatic jacks retracted and the car fell down onto its wheels. Francesca pushed the starter button, firing up the twelve.
Once Francesca had left the pit, Kathleen came over to Giampaolo, holding her pit credentials so he could see that she had remembered them.
"Giampaolo, that mechanic before... what did he say?"
"Oh, that was just a little joke about something being as dry as a, uh, a nun and... something. Mechanics have a special brand of humour, Kathleen."
"I guessed as much," she said with a laugh.
Out on the circuit, Francesca went down the back straight, headed for the Parabolica corner at the end of it. She was taking it fairly easy on her out lap, but as soon as she was halfway through the Parabolica, she pressed the throttle down all the way.
Soon, the speed climbed to 195 m.p.h. as she blasted past the pits on the seemingly endless front straight. Standing on the brakes at the Variante del Rettifilo, the car snaked so much under braking that it nearly threw itself off the circuit.
Going down to second gear, Francesca turned hard right and then hard left to navigate through the Formula One chicane and then kept her foot on the throttle going up through the gearbox. While she went through the Curva Grande at 155 m.p.h., she reached down to her left to turn the knob on the brake bias one half notch to the front, hoping that it would improve the way the car handled under braking.
For the next chicane, the Variante della Roggia, the braking felt much better and Francesca was able to fling the car through the left-right sequence in second gear without too much effort.
After going through Lesmo One and Two in third gear, she went down the first section of the back straight, touching 190 m.p.h. in sixth as she went through Curva del Serraglio and under the old banked circuit.
Braking hard for the Variante Ascari, she flipped the paddle shifter until she found third and then guided the car into the first left hander, immediately changing up into fourth and sliding across the track to hug the inside curb through the right hander that followed.
Flying through the final left hander at 135 m.p.h. in fifth, she ran a little wide on the exit like always and then went up into sixth, blasting down the back straight headed for the Parabolica.
Just touching 195 m.p.h. on the entry, she braked hard, went down into third and turned into the corner. Halfway through, she allowed the car to move to the outside of the track, following the white line through the turn and onto the straight, changing up into fourth, then fifth and finally sixth just as she crossed the start-finish line. Soon, she moved past the massive pits complex having completed a flying lap of the Monza circuit.
The rich, trombone-like sound from the six litre V12 reverberated through both the pit and Kathleen's body, giving her goosebumps all over. She wiggled uncomfortably to get rid of them, but they didn't disappear until the engine note changed when Francesca took her foot off the throttle and went down through the gearbox at the first chicane.
Kathleen felt her nipples grow hard and she quickly folded her arms across her chest to hide it. Shaking her head, she chuckled quietly when she realised that the tall, passionate driver didn't even have to be there in person to have that sort of effect on Kathleen's body.
After pitting again to check the car and to adjust a few things on the setup, Francesca continued pounding round the circuit. The next seven laps went well, but on the eighth lap, the engine started sounding rough and she could feel the car losing power on the straight.
"Pits, I have a problem. Power loss," she said into her radio.
'We can see it, Fran. Pit, pit, pit.'
"Okay," Francesca said and eased off the throttle going through Curva Grande. She looked in the mirrors to check for any signs of smoke behind her, but she couldn't see anything. She went slowly past two fire posts, but they didn't react, so she reckoned she'd be able to get back to the pits.
Cruising back in at an easy 95 m.p.h., she checked all the gauges but found that they were all in the green zone. Going through the Variante Ascari, she could hear the engine get rougher and she keyed the mic.
"Pits, I think it's a cracked exhaust. It sounds terrible and there's no pull at all."
'Do you need to park it?'
"No, I can get back."
'We're ready for you.'
Francesca finally entered the pitlane and pressed the pit speed limiter button on the steering wheel. As soon as her thumb connected with the button, the engine started rattling and she could see in the mirror that it sent out a large plume of grey smoke.
"Pits, I'm in. I have a small barbecue at the back," she said, already loosening her seatbelts.
'Roger, Fran. Stay out in the pit lane. Don't go into the bay.'
"Yep," Francesca said, switched off the engine and let car cruise down to the Maserati pits in neutral.
As soon as the car stopped, she took off her belts and jumped out. A couple of mechanics ran out into the pitlane with fire extinguishers and began to douse down the smouldering bodywork.
Francesca shrugged and walked into the pits. She waved at Kathleen to show that she was safe and then went over to Giampaolo who was studying one of the telemetry monitors.
"I think the exhaust broke, Giampaolo. Once I hit the limiter, it just rattled apart and set fire to the bodywork," Francesca said and took off her gloves.
"Looks like it. Are you all right?"
"Give me an initial evaluation of the car," Giampaolo said and leaned against the table.
"Well, it's definitely got potential. I need to try a quallie-simulation and a long run on full tanks before I can give you a detailed report. Perhaps there'll be time for that later on today," Francesca said and took off the helmet and the HANS-device. Putting them on the shelf at the back wall of the pits, she ruffled her damp hair and then zipped the driving suit down a bit.
"Let's hope so. We've got a spare engine cover."
"All right. But anyway, a tentative evaluation is that it responds well to changes in the setup. The engine is on the heavy side for such a light chassis, you can definitely feel the bulk in the first and second chicanes. It's like throwing a dart the wrong way... if you know what I mean?"
"Yeah. Go on."
"The tyre degradation didn't seem to be a problem, but I only did nine laps in total, so... but, all in all, it's got potential."
Giampaolo nodded and wrote everything down on his clipboard.
"Has the management made a decision on the chassis yet?"
"No... not from what I've heard, anyway. The board of directors can be a supertanker at times. It's funny you should mention the heavy engine. The latest rumour floating around is that we might change to a four litre V8 Turbo."
"Oh, really? That's the same displacement as the Toyotas. That's bound to be a lot lighter."
Francesca looked over Giampaolo's shoulder and saw Kathleen waiting for her, wearing a cheeky grin that Francesca couldn't really decipher.
Giampaolo closed his clipboard and nodded to himself.
"Fran, we don't need you right now. We have to change the engine and clean up the car, and most importantly, we have to analyse why the exhaust failed. Go take a rest. I'll send a runner for you when we're ready to carry on with the Lola."
"All right, Giampaolo. I'll do that."
The team manager rolled back his sleeve and checked his watch.
"In the mean time, we'll push up the tyre tests that were planned for this afternoon. One of the MC12s is warming up out back as we speak. Luca can scrub in some tyres for Silverstone so we're not wasting time doing nothing."
"I'll bet he'll like that," Francesca said with a grin.
"Hi again," Kathleen said, still wearing the same cheeky grin from before.
"Hi. What's up with you?" Francesca said, running her index finger down Kathleen's cheek.
Kathleen looked left and right and then leaned in to whisper in Francesca's ear.
"Oh... and I did that?"
Kathleen nodded conspiratorially, adding a little wink at the end.
"Hmmm...! Fascinating. Perhaps I should try to sell that if I'm ever invited back to the UK Home Shopping Network."
"It'd break all records."
"All the bored housewives would love it. Anyway, I have some time off now. Care to join me in the motorhome?" Francesca said and put out her hand.
"I'd love to, thank you," Kathleen said and hooked her arm inside Francesca's.
With a little wave at Giampaolo, the two women left the Maserati pit.
"Oh, dear Lord..." Francesca said as they walked past the black-and-turquoise MC12 warming up in the paddock. She crinkled her nose and tried to shield her eyes, earning her a slap in the gut from Kathleen.
"Silly! I think the new colours are nice, actually."
"Uh-huh? All black, sure. But black and turquoise?"
"Well, you won't be overlooked," Kathleen said, sticking her fingers in her ears when the mechanic sitting in the car began to blip the engine.
"Overlooked? No. We'll be lucky if we're not thrown out of the championship for bringing it into disrepute."
"Noooo. Come on!" Kathleen said and resumed walking.
Francesca mussed her partner's hair and leaned down to kiss the golden locks.
"Who did you say the actress was who wanted you to write her biography?"
"Still doesn't ring a bell."
A few minutes later, Francesca went around in the motorhome and closed all the blinds. Once that was done, she zipped the driving suit all the way down, stepped out of it and put it into the miniature bathroom so it could dry.
Kathleen sat down on the couch and crossed her legs. With a grin, she patted the seat next to her.
"Darling, I'm really sweaty," Francesca said with a shrug.
"I can take a bit of sweat. I just want to give you a little, oh... neck rub. But if you don't want me to...?"
Francesca immediately took off her fireproof undershirt and sat down next to Kathleen. She found the author's hands and placed them on her own neck muscles.
"They're all yours," Francesca purred seductively.
"All righty. Here we go."
Kathleen started moulding the well-defined muscles, making sure she was doing it properly by taking her time, going in deep and slow.
Francesca let out a sensuous sigh that made Kathleen's nape hairs stand on edge. On a whim, Kathleen decided to up the ante by leaning forward and letting her tongue run along the base of Francesca's neck.
"Did you like that?" Kathleen whispered, running her fingers down from Francesca's neck muscles and onto her muscular shoulders.
"There's plenty more where that came from, but we better wait until we're back home in our own bed."
"I know," Kathleen said and resumed the massage.
"It's so good to see you smile again, darling. After what happened Wednesday, I was afraid I wouldn't..."
"Shhh. Not now."
"Flex your muscles," Kathleen whispered into Francesca's ear.
"Go on, flex your muscles for me... please."
"Uh, okay. Which ones?"
When Francesca did as asked, Kathleen let her hands glide down the taut, firm biceps. Feeling her mouth go dry, she licked her lips several times, just enjoying the night-and-day contrast between the smoothness of Francesca's skin and the hardness of her muscles. Stopping at Francesca's elbows, she went back up on the outside, feeling up Francesca's well-defined triceps.
Francesca chuckled and shook her head.
"Why do you have such a thing for my muscles, darling?"
"No idea. I just do," Kathleen husked. Once her fingers came back to Francesca's shoulders, she pulled back and sighed deeply.
"I'm glad you do. Hey, think of all the money we save on romantic candlelight dinners. I can just whip off my shirt and you're putty in my hands," Francesca said as she turned around. She grinned and leaned in to give Kathleen a loving kiss on the lips.
"I... I'm sorry if you feel objectified. I just needed something to hold on to, and..." Kathleen said, suddenly embarrassed. She looked away and started to blush, but Francesca put a finger under Kathleen's chin and turned her head back.
"Ah, it's all right. I don't even know what that word means. All I know is that I love you... and that you can touch me whenever you need it. Huh?"
"Thanks. I love you, too," Kathleen said and pulled Francesca into a hug.
"When we get home, I'll show you just how *hard* I love you," Francesca said in a mock growl. She dove in and pretended to feast on Kathleen's neck.
"Oh...! Uh... uh... Francesca, we... uhhhh... we better not start something we don't have time to finish...!" Kathleen said, giggling loudly and squirming under the relentless onslaught. On their own accord, Kathleen's hands began to run up and down Francesca's back, sometimes clawing the smooth skin and sometimes just caressing it.
"You're right," Francesca said and sighed in an overly theatrical fashion that made Kathleen giggle some more.
In the background, they could hear the easily recognisable sound of a big twelve leaving the pits and beginning a lap.
"I'll bet that Luca was thrilled when he found out that Giampaolo wanted him to scrub in some tyres," Francesca said with a deep chuckle.
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"It just means that the shine is taken off the surface of the tires. When they've been put through a heat cycle, they respond better. It means that Luca has to do a one or two lap run and then come in to get the tires changed. And so on and so forth."
"Oh... that's all Greek to me, I'm afraid," Kathleen said and ran a hand through Francesca's short, slightly damp hair.
"Well, it's a long story."
Kathleen chuckled and pulled back slightly so she could look her partner in the eye.
"Francesca, on a more serious note, we need to talk about the immediate future. Once the contract with Ms. Silverman is signed, I'll have less time to go to the races with you."
"Hrmppf," Francesca said, wearing a world-class pout.
"Don't be silly, Silly. The first race of the championship is at Silverstone, right?"
"Yes. The British Empire Trophy, April 10th."
"Oh... Well, I'll be there for that one, of course. What's coming up after that?"
"Back to Monza for the 1000 Kilometres on May 1st, then we'll be going to Romania for a two-hour supersprint running through downtown Bucharest on May 15th... and then the big one. Le Mans. June 18th and 19th," Francesca said, kissing Kathleen's eyebrows.
"I don't think I can make it to Monza or Bucharest."
"That's okay. I'll just text you hourly updates."
"And then Le Mans. Francesca, I don't know... if... if I want to go back there. Not after what happened last year," Kathleen said quietly.
"I don't want you to feel pressured to go, darling. If you feel you're up for it, I'd love to see you there. But if you don't, I'll understand fully."
"Well, that's not for a good while yet."
"No. We have plenty of time to decide," Francesca said and gave Kathleen another little kiss.
Just before lunch time on Monday, March 21st, Kathleen turned off Bartholomew Road and entered the parking lot at Carruthers Publishing, Ltd.
As she was fixing her hair in the rear view mirror, she could feel two dozen butterflies flapping furiously in her stomach. This was her biggest deal yet and she was painfully aware of that fact.
After she had stepped out of her Ford Focus, she rolled her shoulders a couple of times like a prize fighter getting ready for a championship bout. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly - then she went around the back of the car to take her briefcase.
A few minutes later, she met Christine Bennett who greeted her with a broad smile. The secretary got up from her desk and pulled out a chair for Kathleen.
"Hello, Miss O'Malley. Coffee?"
"Um, no thank you."
"Aren't you excited?"
"Oh, just a little bit," Kathleen fibbed, suddenly feeling an urge to press a hand against her stomach.
"Well, we certainly are. Even W.P. himself is a bit edgy today," Christine said and sat down again.
"Oh... I would've thought this was a run-of-the-mill deal for you...?"
"It's anything but, Miss O'Malley. How do you do," W.P. interrupted, appearing in the doorway to the inner office.
"How do you do, Mr. Carruthers."
"I've just spoken to Miss Silverman. She's a few minutes late. Apparently the traffic is horrendous today."
'Hmmm... I didn't have any problems on my way over here...' Kathleen thought, but wisely kept her comments to herself. "Oh, yes. Dreadful," she said to W.P., nodding in sympathy.
W.P. donned his usual not-quite-genuine smile and ushered Kathleen into his office. Before she even had time to put her briefcase down on the lush carpet, he offered her a drink.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Carruthers?" Kathleen said when she suddenly noticed that W.P. had spoken to her.
"I said, would you like a sherry, Miss O'Malley?"
"Oh... no thank, you. I'm driving."
"But of course. I'll have one," W.P. said and poured himself a drink into a crystal glass.
"I can't quite fathom why an international star like Rachel Silverman would be interested in having me as her biographer. I mean, there's no connection at all," Kathleen said and sat down in one of the Chesterfields, smoothing her skirt as she did so.
"I have no idea myself, Miss O'Malley. I only know that it's a great honour."
"Oh... it certainly is."
Outside the windows of W.P.'s office, a black Mercedes limousine drove around the parking lot, eventually stopping at the main entrance.
"That must be her. Excuse me, please," W.P. said and got up from his armchair quicker than Kathleen had ever seen him move. Once the publisher had left his office, Kathleen shook her head and sniggered to herself.
Soon, gushing voices were heard from the reception area and Kathleen could hear the rhythmical click-click-click of hard heels on the white tiles. A moment later, the door to the inner office opened, revealing the much-lauded and much-anticipated Rachel Silverman.
Instead of being bowled over by the presence of an Oscar-winning actress, Kathleen furrowed her brow when she realised that Rachel Silverman was older, shorter and a lot less glamorous in real life than when she appeared on the silver screen.
The actress was in her early forties and she had almond-coloured eyes and short, sandy brown hair. She was almost exactly the same height as Kathleen, five-foot four, and of a similar build - and she wasn't wearing the latest fashion from Milan, but rather a pair of faded jeans and a black vest over an ochre-coloured short tunic with long sleeves. Her face was quite pretty, but she wasn't anywhere near the knockout she had been in Love Lost, Love Found.
"Oh..." Kathleen said, so surprised by Rachel Silverman's unglamorous appearance that she didn't even get up from the chair.
W.P. rushed into his office and began to introduce the two women. Halfway through the introduction, Kathleen realised that she was still sitting down and she shot up from the Chesterfield so she wouldn't look like a fool.
Wearing a wide grin, Rachel put out her hand and waited for Kathleen to do the same. After they had shaken hands, W.P. invited them to sit down.
Rachel took the other Chesterfield and crossed her legs at the knees. She put her hands together and studied Kathleen closely - so closely, in fact, that Kathleen began to feel uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny.
"Miss Silverman, I can't put words to how exciting it is to have such an esteemed guest here in my office," W.P. said, his enthusiasm almost bubbling over.
"Thank you, Mr. Carruthers," Rachel said in a rich voice that wasn't anything like how it was in her movies - instead of the posh English accent she'd had in her award-winning performance, she had a Canadian accent.
Kathleen furrowed her brow again and discreetly scratched her neck.
"I'm an ex-pat Torontonian," Rachel said off Kathleen's slightly confused look.
"Oh... I see," Kathleen said, suddenly realising that she didn't know anything about the woman sitting across from her.
"Well, here's the contract, Miss Silverman. If you would sign on the dotted line, please," W.P. said and pushed a contract and a ball point pen across his mahogany desk.
"Actually, Mr. Carruthers, I'd like a word with Miss O'Malley first."
"But of course. Be my guest," W.P. said and leaned back in his armchair.
"... In private," the actress said, looking expectantly at the publisher.
"Oh. All right. My office is all yours," W.P. said and got up from his chair.
Once he had left his own office, Rachel turned to look at Kathleen, again studying her intently.
"Do you know why I requested you, Miss O'Malley?"
"No, but I presume it's because I've had eight biographies in the top-twenty over the last five years, including one in the top-three."
"Those are admittedly good reasons, but it's not why I'm interested in working with you," Rachel said and dug her wallet out of her back pocket. She found a small newspaper clipping and unfolded it.
"This is why," the actress said and held up the clipping. It was the picture from the Sun. As soon as Kathleen saw it, she gripped the armrests of the chair, feeling like the rug had just been pulled out from under her.
"I want a fellow lesbian to tell my story. I need someone who understands me completely... my motivations, my struggles. What I enjoy and what I don't. You follow me?"
Kathleen's only answer was a sigh.
"I've tried collaborating with a straight biographer before, but it didn't work. She only wanted to talk about crap, crap and more crap, like my fashion sense or my adventures on the red carpets."
"Look, Miss Silverman, I take pride in daring to go in-depth and to ask unpolished questions, but one thing I'm not is a political writer. If that's what you're looking for, I'm afraid you have the wrong biographer," Kathleen said, leaning forward in her chair.
"Noted. Here's what I think we should do. I think we should sign a preliminary contract and then work together on the first chapter... or two. If that goes well, we can finalise the contract and take it from there."
"... All right, but I'll still need to think about it."
"Fine with me. I'll take a cup of coffee and then I'll be back in ten minutes. That'll leave you plenty of time to think about it," Rachel said and signed on the dotted line on the contract. She pushed it back across the desk and then got up from her chair to get some coffee.
Kathleen leaned back in her Chesterfield and folded her arms across her chest. She started biting her lip, yet again taken by surprise by an unexpected development - and terribly unsure of what she should do.
After weighing the pros and cons thoroughly, she made up her mind - even though she hated to be forced into such situations, she reached for the contract and signed her name on the dotted line.
Saturday, April 9th.
'Welcome to Silverstone! Welcome to the British Empire Trophy! ... oday, we'll have... works cars from... yota, Nissan, Ford and Mase... everal privateer Porsches and Ferrar... romises to be an exci... eekend....' the PA system droned, fading in and out in the inevitable wind so it was impossible to understand more than half of what the circuit commentator was saying.
In the paddock behind the pits, Kathleen had almost her entire index finger stuck in her left ear so she could hear what Rachel Silverman was trying to tell her at the other end of the phone line.
"So you want the chapters to have titles? All right, we can do that. What did you have in mind? ... I'm sorry, you want the index to be called 'How To Rob A Bank Without Getting Caught' ? ... but what does that have to do with... all right. I'll give it a look. Goodbye, Rachel," Kathleen said and terminated the connection.
She growled and shook her head, once more regretting her decision to accept the deal. After closing the phone, she inserted her earplugs and walked back into the incredibly noisy Maserati pit where both black-and-turquoise works MC12s were warming up at the same time, preparing for the qualifying session that was about to start.
She moved into the spectator enclosure at the back of the pit and waved at Francesca who was busy talking to Giampaolo. Francesca waved back and then concentrated on the data in front of her.
"Looks like there's rain coming, but it'll most likely stay away until after the quallie," Giampaolo said, wearing no less than two stopwatches around his neck. His trusty clipboard already had several pages of closely written text on it, and his compulsory fireproof suit had already been zipped down a bit.
"After analysing the laps run in free practice yesterday, we're guessing that the main competition will come from the Toyotas, specifically Kaneichi and Hattori in #7. Kaneichi will do most of the quallie."
"As expected. How do Fabio and I share?"
"You go first. I want you to do a banker and two flyers and then come back in for a tyre change. Fabio will go out after that and do the same. The final run at the end of the session will be made by the quickest of you. Okay?"
"Yep," Francesca said and unzipped the bag with her helmet so she was ready to go into the car. She looked up at the clock on the wall - eight minutes to go until the qualifying session would commence.
Carrying her helmet, Francesca walked over to the enclosure, took Kathleen's offered hand and gave it a little squeeze.
"Be careful out there, please," Kathleen said, still shouting to be heard over the din of the excited crowd around her and the two V12s warming up.
"I will," Francesca mouthed and put on the HANS-device.
At two p.m. sharp, the light at the end of the pitlane changed from red to green, signalling the official opening of the qualifying session.
By that time, Francesca was firmly strapped into her MC12, fully helmeted up and ready to go. Her breath was deep and calm and she was very much looking forward to measuring herself against the opposition; her own team mate and the other factory entered cars from Toyota, Nissan and Ford. Seven additional GT1s were entered by privateers, usually driven by a wealthy enthusiast and a young, local hotshot eager to prove his or her worth.
It would be difficult enough to find a clear piece of track for the qualifying with the fifteen GT1s alone, so Francesca was glad the organisers had split the qualifying in two - later on in the day, the sixteen cars of the smaller GT2 category would take to the track on their own.
Six minutes past two, the radio crackled to life.
'Fran, the initial flurry is over. Whenever you're ready,' Giampaolo said from his position at row of computers at the back wall of the pit.
Francesca responded by pressing the starter button. Once the engine was running cleanly, she put it into first and left the pits.
"Ciao, Kathleen," Fabio Dellassandro said, patting Kathleen's shoulder. When she turned around to see who it was, Fabio kissed her on both cheeks like he always did.
"Oh, hi, Fabio. Francesca has just gone out. This is quite exciting!"
"I know. The first race of the season is all about putting down a marker. I'm sure Fran can stick it somewhere in the top three or so,"
"What's going to happen now? Will she drive the whole hour?"
"Oh, no, Fran will only do two or three flyers. Then she'll come in."
"Two or three... what?"
"A flyer. That's a fast lap. We have flyers and bankers. A banker lap means that you just go out and set a base time so we have one in the bank in case we get problems later in the quallie."
"Oh... thank you. You speak just like Francesca. You're using common words in weird contexts!" Kathleen said with a chuckle.
From the other pit bay, Luca DiLorenzi left the garage in his MC12. A modicum of quiet fell on the garage, but it only lasted for a few seconds before the next car blasted past the pit complex on the front straight.
"The Toyotas are really fast this weekend. They've worked hard over the winter," Fabio said.
"Oh, that was a Toyota right now?" Kathleen said, looking out of the garage at the track, but the car she was looking for was long gone.
"Yes. You can tell by the way the Turbo is chirping when it enters Copse."
"You can, perhaps. Oh, the first times are coming in now," Kathleen said, looking at a timing monitor that had been set up so the spectators in the pit could see it.
"Is Francesca only sixth quickest?" she said, puzzled.
"Yes, but she's just set a fastest time in sector #1. The pink dot," Fabio said, pointing at a column on the right of the monitor.
"Oh... okay. Go, Francesca!"
Fabio chuckled and patted Kathleen's shoulder again.
"I better get ready. Ehi, Kathleen."
"Ciao, Fabio," Kathleen said, grinning when she saw Fabio react surprised over the Italian word.
Out on the circuit, Francesca was just completing her first flyer, blasting through the Woodcote corner. As she went past the start-finish line to start her final flying lap, she checked the timing display in the centre console which read 1 minute 37.68 seconds. She was now third quickest, three tenths down on the car currently in pole position, Toyota #7.
Copse was approaching fast, so Francesca changed down twice to take the corner in fourth, edging through it at 125 m.p.h. Up to fifth and sixth for the short straight and then into the first left-hander at the Maggotts-Becketts complex, taking it with 155 m.p.h. on the speedometer. Stepping hard on the brakes, she changed down into third through Chapel and then she was back on the gas for the following Hangar Straight.
Screaming down the back straight at nearly 180 m.p.h., she applied the brakes hard and went down the gearbox, turning in for Stowe in third gear. She went through Stowe, the Vale and then reached the entry of the tight chicane at Club.
The exit of Club opened up onto another straight and Francesca stepped hard on the gas, making the MC12 snake under acceleration; the shudder in the car showed that it was on the limit of adhesion.
Taking Abbey flat out in sixth, she feathered the throttle through Bridge, blasting through it at 160 m.p.h. Immediately following that, she went hard on the brakes for Priory, going down to second. Staying in second for the Brooklands-Luffield complex, she went up through the gears as she reached the first part of Woodcote.
As she passed the start-finish line, 1:37:42 lit up on the display. Her run completed, Francesca eased off the throttle, constantly checking the wing mirrors to see if she needed to make way for a faster car.
'Position three, Fran. Position three. Toyota in p1. Luca in p2. Pit, pit, pit.'
"Okay!" Francesca said, furrowing her brows.
Two and half minutes later, Francesca stopped in front of the Maserati pit and waited for the mechanics to come out and push her in. Once she was inside the bay, she opened the door and stepped out of the car.
Taking off her helmet and the HANS-device, she walked down to the back wall of the pit and put them on the shelf.
"1:37.42, Fran," Giampaolo said.
"I know. We're slower than the test last year. Are we still in third?"
"For now, but the second Toyota is on a flyer right now."
"Hmmm. It's the new wing configuration. There's a lot less grip on the rears. It's hurting us in Maggotts-Becketts. On my banker lap, I followed a Toyota through there and he was just zip... gone," Francesca said and ran a hand through her damp hair.
"The data shows the same. What can you suggest?"
"Another fifty horsepower?" Francesca said, adding a cheeky grin.
"I'll move your request up the system, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you," Giampaolo deadpanned.
"Nah. What did Luca do?"
"Hmmm. There's only one tenth and change in it. I think Fabio can find that."
"We'll, let's see if he can."
The #8 Toyota roared past the pits and the time it had set flashed onto the timing monitor soon after - second place, pushing Francesca and Fabio's Maserati #1 down to fourth.
"Boy, we're going to have trouble with those guys this year. They've gained a lot over the winter," Francesca said, whistling appreciatively.
"According to Trackracer, they've spent more than twice the amount we did," Giampaolo said and clicked off his ball point pen.
"Frankly, I can't believe you read that rag," Francesca joked and then went over to Kathleen.
"Hi," Kathleen said, waving at Francesca.
"Hi. Did you see my laps?"
"Only the times. How was it out there?"
"Mmmm. Could've been better," Francesca said and sat down on a lawn chair that had been set up next to the spectator enclosure.
"What happens now?"
"Now Fabio will try to better our time. I hope he can. I think the Toyotas are out of reach, but we should be able to beat Luca's time."
"Why aren't the Fords quicker here? They were so quick at Barcelona...?"
"This is the real deal, not testing. It's always different once we get to the race weekends. Where are they?" Francesca said, craning her neck to look at the timing screen.
"Uh... eighth and twelfth. Jonno ahead of Sally," Kathleen said, secretly quite proud that she could decipher the confusing data on the monitor.
"Mmmm, yeah. That's about where I had expected them to be."
At that moment, Fabio started the car, making all conversation impossible. Francesca put her fingers in her ears and waited for the World Champion to leave the pits - as soon as he did, she got up from her chair so she could watch the monitor closely.
Four minutes later, Fabio's first flying lap clocked onto the timing monitor - 1:37.32, exactly one tenth faster than Francesca, but still slower than Luca's time.
Francesca frowned and took a deep breath. When pink dots appeared on all three sectors on Fabio's second flying lap indicating that he was going even faster than before, she couldn't quite decide whether she was happy or annoyed.
As the #1 MC12 screamed across the start-finish line, the clock stopped at 1:37.26 - fast enough to beat Luca's time, but still slower than both Toyotas.
"Oh, that's great, you're third!" Kathleen said and clapped her hands.
"Aren't you? Am I reading it wrong...?"
"No, we're third. But I was two tenths slower than Fabio," Francesca said and sat down again. She unzipped her driving suit, knowing that she wouldn't be driving any more in the qualifying session.
Ten thirty a.m. on Sunday April 10th, Francesca stood outside the pits, studying the sky closely. The weather had deteriorated for race day, but the blue patches still outnumbered the grey clouds.
"You look really serious today, Francesca. What's bothering you?" Kathleen said, realising that Francesca hadn't listened to a word of the things she had told her about her work on Rachel Silverman's book.
"I'm sorry, darling... I'm just a little preoccupied," Francesca said, smiling apologetically.
"You didn't sleep well, either. You were tossing and turning from five o'clock or so."
"Yeah. I'm just a bit annoyed about my lack of speed here."
"Well, it can't be that bad. You're starting third," Kathleen said and hooked her arm inside Francesca's.
"Mmmm, yes, but that was all Fabio's doing. Come on, let's go out to the grid."
They began to stroll through the garage arm in arm, but as soon as they were in range of the television cameras that were covering the pre-race grid, Kathleen pulled her arm away from Francesca and put on a pair of dark sunglasses.
Walking through a gap in the pit wall, they soon found themselves in the middle of a sea of humanity. Scores of VIPs, would-be VIPs and general hangers-on were milling about between the cars, causing chaos and mayhem for the engineers and mechanics trying to get them ready for the race start.
On their way to Fabio's place on the starting grid, Francesca and Kathleen were surprised by the sheer number of men and women wearing red and white clothing and carrying similarly coloured umbrellas up near the Toyotas.
"Well, they certainly have a big entourage with them," Kathleen said, shaking her head slightly over the large number of people.
"Speaking of entourage, look at Luca," Francesca said and put her hand on Kathleen's shoulder so she'd know where to look.
Luca DiLorenzi was standing in front of his Maserati #2, surrounded by a bevy of beauties from the event sponsor, a car magazine. They were all wearing bikinis and they all looked like they were freezing their behinds off. Luca still had his designer sunglasses on, but the unbelievably broad smile underneath it betrayed his thoughts.
"He's in heaven, the poor chump," Francesca said with a chuckle.
Once they reached Fabio in Maserati #1, Francesca began talking Italian with him and Giampaolo, who had come over from the #2 car, so Kathleen wandered a bit further down the grid to see what else was going on.
"Hello, Miss O'Malley," a female voice said from somewhere behind her.
"Huh? Oh... hi, Sally," Kathleen said and put out her hand. Sally Sharpe shook it and then put her hands in the pockets of her driving suit.
"Oh, nothing. I was just looking at the opposition," Kathleen said with a smile. She still hadn't overcome the feeling she'd had back in Barcelona. Inside, she still felt that Sally had been flirting with Francesca.
"Is Francesca starting?"
"How did it go in the Barcelona Invitational? I never heard about that."
"Well, I kinda had a little accident," Sally said, scratching her cheek,
"Oh. Well, I'm sure lightning won't strike twice. Anyway, good l... uh, break a leg," Kathleen said, suddenly remembering that wishing someone good luck was considered bad form.
"Thanks, Miss O'Malley," Sally said and gave Kathleen a thumbs-up.
Suddenly, a noisy klaxon blared out, signalling five minutes to the start. A race official walked down between the two rows of cars, holding a board that said 'CLEAR THE GRID'.
When she saw the board, Kathleen hurried back to Francesca so they could leave together. She arrived just in time before they were ushered off the track.
Four minutes to eleven, the safety car took off from the grid to give the track a final inspection. On the dot of eleven o'clock, the green light on the gantry above the starting grid turned green and the front row Toyotas set off on the warmup lap, followed closely by the remaining twenty-nine cars.
Giampaolo and two of the Maserati engineers had assumed their place on the small perch on the wall between the pitlane and the track, and both Francesca and Kathleen were in the back of the pits, wearing headsets and looking at the television pictures from Eurosport on a TV set that had been set up in the spectator enclosure.
"Oh, this is so exciting! I can hardly watch it," Kathleen said, wringing her hands. Glancing at Francesca, she could see in the dark look on the driver's face that she would much rather be out on the track than inside the pits.
As the train of cars made its way around the track, the cameras caught an unfortunate privateer GT2 Porsche that had to pull over by the side of the road on the Hangar Straight with smoke pouring off the left front wheel.
"Huh? What's wrong with that car?" Kathleen said and pointed at the TV.
"Wheel bearing failure, perhaps. Or maybe the brakes have locked on. It's happened before."
"Oh... perhaps someone wished them good luck..." Kathleen said to herself. Francesca chuckled and reached over to squeeze Kathleen's shoulder.
A few minutes later, the cars filed through the Woodcote chicane and lined up in a perfect two-by-two formation - approaching the red lights very slowly, they were all trying to anticipate when the green lights would flash on so they could start the race.
They were almost at the gantry before the lights went green - in an ear-splitting wail, nearly eighteen thousand horsepower were unleashed at once as the thirty remaining racecars were set free, all accelerating hard along the front straight. The crowd cheered and rose to their feet so they wouldn't miss anything in case there was an accident in the first turn.
The lead Toyotas went through Copse in line-astern formation, #7 ahead of #8, but behind them, Luca shuffled ahead of Fabio as they turned into the first corner. Fabio lost some momentum, but he was able to keep his third place as the cars screamed into the first left-hander at the Maggotts-Becketts complex.
"Hmmm," Francesca said, not looking particularly excited. Kathleen, on the other hand, was staring wide-eyed at the TV, caught between wanting to look at the action and covering her eyes in case something horrible happened.
The pack of cars soon blasted onto the Hangar Straight. The two Toyotas out front were still in perfect formation, but most of the rest of the following pack were in disarray, trying to shuffle ahead of the car in front of them without opening the door for the car behind.
The leading cars went through The Vale and into Club without problems, but behind them, a dark blue car with two white stripes on the front tried an overly optimistic outbraking manoeuvre and ended up pointing the wrong way and facing the oncoming traffic.
'Oh! And look at that!' the Eurosport commentator howled. 'It's the number six Ford, Sally Sharpe... on the very first lap. Oh, deary me, that wasn't supposed to happen...'
"Sheesh," Francesca said and shook her head.
The camera stayed with the blue Ford for a few moments, but when it was clear that the car wasn't damaged and that Sally was trying to get it turned around so she could rejoin, the producer cut to the leading cars.
The two works Toyotas came out of Bridge and entered Priory, sliding effortlessly into Brooklands and Luffield and then through Woodcote and onto the start-finish straight. The first lap had been completed - one hundred and eighty laps to go.
The two black-and-turquoise works Maseratis followed them, but a small gap of roughly a second and a half had already opened up. Behind the Maseratis, a privateer Toyota and the yellow privateer MC12 were already ahead of the two blue-and-red factory Nissans. The remainder of the GT1 field thundered across the start-finish line, with Jonno's dark blue Ford #5 mixing it up in the midfield.
Sally had caught the tail end of the GT2 pack after her mishap, but the GT2 cars were, as usual, fighting tooth and nail amongst themselves, so she had a hard time finding a way through. The entire length of the front straight went by before she found a gap to overtake two Porsches fighting each other.
"What a baptism of fire," Kathleen said, looking at the progress of Sally's Ford.
"Mmmm. Of course, if she hadn't thrown it off the track, she wouldn't have been back there," Francesca said laconically.
"When are you going to get in?"
"Fabio will do the first two stints, so I guess I'll get into the car in eighty minutes or so. I hope we won't be too far back by then."
"Well, right now, Fabio is able to stay close to Luca," Kathleen said, still studying the TV intently.
The producer cut to show Sally's progress up through the field. At the end of the Hangar Straight, she dove inside a privateer Ferrari, her right front tyre sending off streams of smoke as she braked too hard and too late.
"Jonno wasn't wrong when he called Sally a wildcat," Francesca said under her breath.
One hour and eighteen minutes later, Francesca was fully suited, booted and waiting in the pitlane with her drinks bottle and her foam seat under her arm. Rolling her shoulders a few times, she tried her best to control her breath and to empty her mind. Looking to her left, she could see Fabio drive the Maserati #1 down the pit lane, still in third place.
She was joined by four mechanics - two holding the fuel hose and two holding the wheel guns and the fresh tires that were going on to the car.
As soon as the car had come to a stop, the mechanics and Francesca ran around it. The mechanics holding the fuel hose attached it to the car while another mechanic ducked down behind the rear bodywork and attached the air line for the pneumatic jacks - while all of this was going on, Francesca punched the locking mechanism that secured the door.
Fabio jumped out and spun around so he could help Francesca get in. In a flash, Francesca inserted her foam seat and the drinks bottle and then flung herself into the cockpit, immediately attaching the radio plug and activating her transponder that would identify who was driving the car.
Francesca reached down, grabbed the lower seatbelts that would hold her legs and connected them to the centre lock. Fabio reached into the car and did the side-belts and then Francesca connected and tightened the shoulder straps of the six-point harness.
After giving Francesca an ultra-quick thumbs-up, Fabio slammed the door shut and ran back to the pits.
Giampaolo started counting down on the radio, and soon, Francesca could hear the fuel hose being pulled off the car. With a loud PFFFFT, the car was dropped down from the pneumatic jacks, bouncing slightly as it hit the asphalt in the pit lane.
"Go!" Giampaolo shouted over the radio, but Francesca's finger was already on the starter button. The twelve fired at once and she put it in first, dropped the clutch and screamed out of the pit box at six and a half thousand revs, remembering to keep her thumb on the pit speed limiter.
The traffic lights at the end of the pits were green, indicating that there were no cars coming up behind her out on the race track itself. After navigating through the ridiculously tight exit of the pit lane, she took her finger off the button and gripped the steering wheel hard to control the sudden onslaught of the six hundred and eighty five horses.
The big twelve in the back of the MC12 howled and the car quickly got up to speed. She went cleanly and efficiently up through the gears, second-third-fourth and a short blast in fifth before she reached the first left-hander at Maggotts.
The car was a lot heavier on full tanks, so Francesca took it relatively careful through the fast complex, not applying full throttle until she exited Chapel and went onto the Hangar Straight.
In the right wing mirror, she could see a car flashing its headlights behind her and she positioned the MC12 in the centre of the track on the run up to Stowe. The car behind her ducked back into place and she took the corner using the regular line.
As she exited Stowe and went through the Vale, the car behind her appeared in her left mirror so she drove defensively, making the other driver's task harder by drifting to the centre of the track. Once she was through Club, her tires were up to normal operating temperature and she was able to pull away from the car behind her.
"Pits, who am I racing?" she said, keying the mic by pressing another button on the steering wheel.
'Nissan #23. You're in ninth place after the stop. Five cars ahead of you have yet to stop. We're looking good, Fran.'
"Okay," Francesca said, taking the Abbey corner at 175 m.p.h. in sixth gear.
Seventeen trouble-free laps later, Francesca had returned to fourth place when she suddenly felt a big vibration from the rear of the car as she exited Copse. Almost at once, the steering became light and floaty, suggesting that the car had dropped down at the back.
She let out a long series of colourful Italian expletives and then keyed the radio.
"Pits, puncture! Puncture!"
'Pit, pit, pit, Fran. Pit now!'
"Copy," Francesca said as she slowed down through the Maggotts-Becketts complex. She craned her neck to look in the wing mirrors, but she couldn't see any debris falling off the car so she couldn't determine which side the puncture was on.
In the pits, Kathleen was watching the race on Eurosport when the camera suddenly whipped around and picked up Francesca's crawling #1 car.
"Oh, no!" Kathleen said and threw her arms in the air. She began looking for the headset she had taken off earlier so she could listen in on the radio.
On the TV, she could see Francesca hugging the white line on the left side of the Hangar Straight all the way down to Stowe. As the #1 car came closer to the turn, the camera on the outside of the corner zoomed in on the Maserati, showing Francesca gesticulating wildly inside the cockpit.
'Oh, dear, that's Francesca Carrara having an, um, a very Italian moment, let's call it that. The left rear tyre is down. She'll have to come in for an unscheduled pitstop. Perhaps she found some debris on the track...' the Eurosport commentator said.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Kathleen couldn't help but snigger at the pictures. She could well imagine that Francesca was cursing and swearing in several languages - the mere thought of the words Francesca's Latin temper would make her say caused Kathleen to blush furiously.
As Francesca crawled through Club and back up to Abbey, Toyota #7 - the race leader - lapped her, going at what seemed to be three times the speed of the stricken Maserati.
At long last, Francesca entered the pitlane. Crawling along it, she wasn't even going fast enough to reach the pit speed limit, but she still pressed the button to make sure she didn't go over it.
'Fran, do you want to get out?'
As Francesca slid the car into the bay and watched the mechanics go to work on the car, she took several deep breaths to calm herself down. She knew that the victory was long gone, but she wasn't about to roll over and give up - not when the podium was still in reach.
Francesca already had her finger on the starter button and when the car bounced down onto the ground, she depressed it at once. Starting with a howl, the Maserati left the pits and stuttered its way down the pit lane.
'And there's the white flag, signalling one lap to go,' the Eurosport commentator said as the red-and-white Toyota #7 streaked across the start- finish line to begin the last lap of the Silverstone 1000 Kilometres.
With most on-track battles settled, the camera stayed with the race leader on the final lap. The car had already visibly slowed down from the ultimate pace, not wanting to risk anything so late in the race.
Francesca sat on the chair next to the spectator enclosure, wearing a towel over her head so she could have a private moment. A brief glance at the timing monitor confirmed that Maserati #1 Dellassandro-Carrara was only in fourth place, two laps down after nearly six hours of racing.
She knew from the stopwatch that it was actually closer to three laps down, but with the reduced pace from the Toyota, Fabio wouldn't be caught so it didn't matter.
When she could feel someone squeezing her shoulder, she moved the towel aside and locked eyes with Kathleen. A smile spread out over Francesca's lips and she took Kathleen's hands in her own and returned the squeeze.
"The result wasn't that bad, Francesca. There's always the next race," Kathleen said.
"I know. But I didn't come here to finish fourth. Especially not after winning last year."
"At least you have some points in the bag for the championship."
"Yeah. Now where did... Okay, Jonno finished seventh, four laps down, and Sally finished last among the GT1s, eight laps down. Well. They can't be satisfied with that," Francesca said, once again looking at the timing monitor.
"See? There's always someone in worse shape than you," Kathleen said with a laugh.
Francesca chuckled and then got up and used the towel to wipe her neck and her hair. After throwing the towel onto the small shelf next to the bag with her helmet, she turned around and zipped up her driving suit.
Out on the circuit, Toyota #7 took the chequered flag to the applause of the spectators and the unbridled joy of the entire Toyota entourage three garages up from the Maserati Corse pits. Scores of people ran from the Toyota pit over to the pit wall to wave at the car as it slowly drove past.
Forty-four seconds later, Luca DiLorenzi crossed the line in a black-and-turquoise blur in Maserati #2, ten seconds ahead of Nishigawa in Nissan #23.
Fifteen minutes later, Luca and Donny Zorzi returned to the Maserati pits, soaking wet from the Champagne they had sprayed up on the podium. Their second place trophies were given to a team member and then they shook hands with all their mechanics.
With the spectator enclosure being closed off after the race, Kathleen had returned to the motorhome, leaving Francesca standing by herself in the corner of the pits. She observed with interest how Luca - for once - handled the success gracefully instead of behaving like a spoilt child - he even waved at her. She waved back and then left the pit garage.
A good while later, Francesca finally escaped the team debriefing and strode through the paddock to get to the motorhome to get a much needed shower.
As she turned a corner in the paddock, she ran into a Eurosport camera crew who was busy filming interviews for the highlights show. When the reporter spotted Francesca, she held up a microphone like she was asking for an interview.
Francesca sighed, but agreed to it by nodding.
The reporter, a pretty young Asian woman in her late twenties, readied her microphone and waited for her camera man to start filming.
"We're rolling!" the camera operator said.
"Francesca Carrara, a fourth place today. Could you have made it onto the podium?" the reporter said, moving the microphone in under Francesca's nose.
"I believe we could, yes. We had the speed but unfortunately not the luck. That's racing," Francesca said and crossed her arms over her chest. After a few seconds, she remembered that her gesture was covering the new Mediterraneo logo across the top of her driving suit, so she quickly put her arms down her sides.
"The Toyotas look to be in a class of their own this year."
"Yes, they're very quick, but the season has only just started. Let's see if they're able to maintain their pace. Last year, they weren't."
"The next race is another home race for you, Monza. You've recently tested there. How do you see your prospects in that race?"
"Oh, that's much too early to say. Let's see how the cards fall after qualifying, shall we?"
"Finally, Francesca, where can you go from here?"
"From here? Straight into the shower," Francesca said with a wide, but tired grin.
The reporter laughed and turned off her microphone.
"Thanks, Fran. 'preciate it."
"No... No, Rachel, you can't come over for dinner tonight ... No ... No, I've been at the racetrack all day. I'm tired and I have a headache ... I beg your pardon? ... No, I don't want you to give me a deep shiatsu massage, thank you very much," Kathleen said into the telephone, sitting on the couch in the motorhome. She was covering her eyes with her hand and slowly shaking her head left to right.
Francesca had entered the motorhome in time to hear Kathleen talk about the massage, and she stopped and narrowed her eyes.
Kathleen waved Francesca off, pointed at the mobile phone and rolled her eyes.
With a chuckle, Francesca zipped down her driving suit and stepped out of the sweat-soaked garment. Reaching into the miniature bathroom, she turned on the pre-heater to get the water to be just the right temperature. After doing that, she went into the bedroom to take off her soaked fireproof underwear.
'How about tomorrow night at six? ... You could meet Francesca, I'm sure you two would hit it off famously ... No? Why not? ... You feel intimidated by tall women?' Francesca heard Kathleen say in the living area of the motorhome.
Chuckling again, Francesca slipped into the shower cabin and turned on the hot water, moaning in delight as it pounded down on her naked, tired body.
When the water began to get cold, she turned it off and wiped the excess water out of her eyes. As the shower cabin became silent, she could hear voices from the living room and she laughed to herself, thinking that even when Kathleen was away from home, she didn't want to miss an episode of her favourite show. Opening the cabin door, Francesca reached for her towel - and established that she had forgotten it in the bedroom.
"Damn... darling, would you mind fetching my towel? I'm dripping wet in here," she said loudly enough for Kathleen to hear it over the TV.
In the living area of the motorhome, the conversation stopped abruptly and Kathleen quickly came to Francesca's rescue.
"Um, Francesca, we have a visitor," Kathleen said, blushing from the embarrassing situation. She ducked into the bedroom, found the towel and threw it into the gap in the cabin door.
"Oh... Uh... in that case, would you mind handing me my dry underwear as well?" Francesca said, adding a cheeky grin.
A few minutes later, Francesca came into the living area, pulling down a sweatshirt as she did so.
"Hi, Sally. Sorry about that before," Francesca said and put out her hand.
"Hi, Francesca. Ah, don't worry 'bout it."
"So...?" Francesca said, looking over Sally's shoulder at Kathleen who was sitting on the couch, wearing the same unreadable expression she always wore when they were talking about the blonde driver.
"Oh, I just wanted to congratulate you on your fourth place. Not too bad," Sally said with a charming smile.
When Kathleen noticed the smile, her left eyebrow slowly crept up her forehead and the corner of her mouth went the other direction.
"Thanks, Sally. I'd rather have won, but, you know."
"And I wanted to ask if you were interested in going out for a drink or something...?"
"Oh... I, er..." Francesca said, scrunching up her face.
"Both of you, of course," Sally added with another smile.
Francesca started looking a bit closer at Sally. The blonde driver was wearing black ankle boots, tight, black hipster jeans and a crimson cotton shirt over a black t-shirt - and underneath it all, a Wonderbra that really accentuated her bosom. All in all, she was looking terrific.
"No, I'm sorry, Sally, we can't. Kathleen has a headache. I think we need to get home so we can do something about it."
"Oh. All right. Some other time, perhaps," Sally said. The smile she had been wearing briefly faded from her face, but it soon returned. Behind Sally's back, Kathleen smirked.
"Sure. Get home safely," Francesca said and put her hand on Sally's elbow to let her know that the conversation was over.
Sally turned around to wave at Kathleen - who quickly wiped the smirk off her face - and then left the motorhome. As Sally walked across the paddock headed for her company car, Francesca studied her figure from behind. Sally's tight hipster jeans left very little to the imagination and the way her hips wiggled when she walked didn't help, either - she was definitely dressed to kill.
"Hmmm..." Francesca said and sat down next to Kathleen.
"Well, I hate to say I told you so... but I told you so," Kathleen said and put her hand on Francesca's thigh.
"I know. I think I need to ask Jonno if she really is gay or if she's just curious."
"You know, we seem to be attracting a lot of women recently... you have Sally and I have Rachel Silverman. God, that woman is... how can I put it... not for beginners," Kathleen said, running her hand up and down Francesca's long leg.
"Do you want to swap?"
"No, thank you! Besides, Rachel feels intimidated by tall women. She said it's because you remind her of her own imperfections."
"Huh? I sincerely hope that you've never felt intimidated by my presence...?" Francesca said, putting her hand on her own cheek for dramatic effect.
"Ohhhhh, a little bit at the very beginning. But as soon as I got to know you better, I discovered that you were in fact a big, cuddly Italian teddy bear," Kathleen said, laughing.
"Cheeky. I don't know why these women even bother. All I could ever wish for is right here," Francesca said and leaned down to kiss Kathleen thoroughly.
Sunday, May 1st.
The second the phone rang, Kathleen jumped up from her desk in the study and sprinted through the hallway. She was tempted to jump over the couch and the coffee table to get to the phone quicker, but in the end, she settled for running around them. Throwing herself into the chair, she moved her hair out of her face and picked up the receiver.
"The Carrara and O'Malley residence, this is Kathleen," she said breathlessly.
'Hello, may I speak to Miss O'Malley, please,' a female voice said in an impossibly snobby accent.
"Sill-ly!" Kathleen said, sniggering over Francesca's attempt at humour.
'Aw, didn't I even fool you for a second?'
"Not even close. What's going on down at Monza?"
'The weather is great. We're an hour away from the race start.'
"Are you nervous yet?"
'Not really. But I miss having my good luck charm with me.'
Kathleen sniggered again and folded her legs up underneath her in the chair.
"I'll bet your hands are cold."
'They are indeed. Oh, by the way, I don't know if you've read it on the 'Net yet, but Luca's car was hit with a penalty after qualifying. He was deemed to have blocked a competitor on his first quallie run. They've been pushed back five places on the starting grid... down to seventh.'
"Oh... that's too bad. I guess it was his own fault."
'Yes. It was one of the Nissans. Anyway, I'll move up to the front row because of it, so I can't complain too loudly.'
"Oh, that's right. God, now you've made me nervous..."
'Darling, there isn't that much of a difference between starting third or second, you know...'
"I know, but still."
'I wish you were here with me. The motorhome is so quiet without you. Last night, I had to resort to doing a crossword puzzle to kill the time.'
"Awww, poor you! When you get home, I'll make it up to you, I promise."
'Lovely. Listen, I have to run. I just wanted to hear your voice before the race. I love you, darling.'
"Love you, too, Francesca. Uh, break a... um, something. Break a fingernail!" Kathleen said and laughed over her own joke.
'Thanks. I'll call once the race is over. Best of success with your own event today.'
"Uggh. Thank you. I'm not really looking forward to having Rachel over for lunch, believe me..."
'I believe you. Oh, I really do have to run. Bye-bye, darling.'
"Bye!" Kathleen said and hung up once the connection had ended.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Looking down at herself, she realised she needed to change into something more classy than a faded t-shirt and a pair of cut-off sweatpants - not to mention wearing socks in her bathing slippers.
A while later, Kathleen reached behind her head and moved her hair aside so she could fasten a thin, golden necklace. After getting up from the chair by her dresser, she double-checked that she had zipped her jeans and then she fluffed her moussed hair back out over the collar of her sunflower yellow blouse.
Turning around in front of the mirror like a fashion model, she gave herself a thorough once-over to see if everything was as it should be - satisfied with the result, she walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to re-check the food she would be offering the actress.
"Hmmm... let's see, the sandwiches... vegetarian... check. Chicken... check. Corned beef... check. Turkey coldcuts... check. And the wine...?" Kathleen said, working through the contents of her refrigerator with military precision.
"Check," she said after she had touched the bag-in-box white wine. Closing the refrigerator door, she went into the living room to check that the dinner table had been set satisfactorily.
"That's all I can do. If anyone is listening, please make this lunch a pleasurable one..." Kathleen said, looking towards the heavens.
twelve minutes later, the door bell rang and Kathleen got up to answer it.
"Hello, Rachel. Please come in," Kathleen said and stepped aside so the actress could come in.
"Thank you. What a nice little romantic cottage. Exactly what I had expected," Rachel said and took off a leather jacket and a pair of gloves.
"Oh?" Kathleen said, craning her neck to see what kind of car the actress had arrived in - it turned out to be a Yamaha motorcycle.
Kathleen closed the front door quietly and walked into her own living room to greet the actress.
"Yeah. I had a hunch you'd be that kind of woman. Damn, you're looking fine today, Kathleen," Rachel said, wiggling her eyebrows.
"Oh... thank you. You're, uh... dressed nicely, too," Kathleen said, having to do a double-take at the outfit the actress was wearing - a tan tunic-style shirt stuck into black leather pants that were held in place by a wide leather belt, equipped with rivets.
"Thanks. Hey, it smells great here," Rachel said, already making herself comfortable by spreading her arms over the backrest of the couch.
"Actually, we're having sandwiches."
"Oh. Must be your natural scent, then," Rachel said with a grin.
"Uh... anyway. Lunch will be served in a few moments, so please have a seat at the dinner table."
Rachel got up and put her hands in her trouser pockets. Just as Kathleen walked past her to get to the kitchen, Rachel put out her arm to block her.
"You're a wonderful hostess, Kathleen."
"Thank you. Go on, have a seat. I'll be right there with the food."
As Kathleen entered the kitchen, she rolled her eyes and shook her head slowly. Opening the refrigerator door, she took out the bag-in-box wine and the tray with the sandwiches and then closed the door with her rear end.
Fifteen minutes later, Rachel had already wolfed down three of the four sandwiches and two glasses of wine. Kathleen was left with the Turkey coldcut sandwich, the only one she didn't like. To compensate, she poured herself a healthy glass of white wine.
"So, Rachel... let's talk about the book."
"Yes, let's," Rachel said and leaned forward, placing her elbows on the dinner table.
"I've been looking at your notes and I have to admit that I'm not particularly enchanted with your chapter titles."
"No. Quite honestly, I don't think they'll work. One thing is that they're rather vulgar... if done well, that can still be effective. But I sincerely doubt that these titles will go unscathed through the legal department."
"What's wrong with 'Benny Dean Let Me Touch His Hard-On' ?"
Just hearing the word made Kathleen's cheeks burn slightly and she took a deep breath to calm down.
"Rachel, Benjamin Dean is an American movie actor, right?"
"Yes, he's done a lot of adult comedies. What are you getting at...?"
"Did it really happen?"
"Hell, no! Of course not. I wouldn't go anywhere near that thing. Jeez!" Rachel said, grimacing.
"Then do you really think he'd like to see such a chapter title?"
"Ah, he's cool with it," Rachel said and waved her hand. She emptied her glass and poured herself some more wine.
"There is no chance, and I do really mean no chance at *all* that the legal department will approve that title."
"Look, Kathleen, sometimes you just have to be a bit adventurous. That particular title stays. And I don't care what anyone says."
"Adventurous... well, I guess that's one way of putting it. One of the other chapter titles, 'I Had Susanne Dawson For Breakfast.' Rachel... please... can't we do something about it? Please?!"
"But that one is true!" Rachel said, adding a throaty laugh.
The corners of Kathleen's mouth twitched into something that was supposed to have been an attempt at smiling.
"Look, I can see that my earthiness bothers you, but since this biography is going to be about me and not you, I think it's only fair that I get to put my fingerprint on it. Right?"
"Right. I've already come up with a title for the book."
Kathleen blinked a few times, but decided to play nice.
"Oh? What is it?"
"Bohemes, Balls and Bitches," Rachel said with a beaming smile.
The smile froze on Kathleen's lips and she leaned back in her seat. After a few seconds, she picked up her half-full glass and drained it in one gulp.
An hour later, they had moved into Kathleen's study to work more actively on the book. As Kathleen was typing away on the laptop, Rachel looked around the room, nodding approvingly as she saw the various items there.
"This is a really nice and cosy little den, Kathleen."
"Thank you. It's my refuge," Kathleen said, typing furiously.
"I can certainly see why. Did you write all your books in here?"
"Yes. At first, I was using a typewriter. It was slower and I used more paper, but I loved that thing. I still have it, it's down in the cellar somewhere," Kathleen said, swivelling her chair around so she could look at the actress.
"Perhaps so, but there were never any problems with it. It didn't even need power to run," Kathleen said and resumed her typing.
"Rachel, is this part true? Did you really go into a hunger strike when you were arrested in 1989?" Kathleen said, pointing at a paragraph on the hand-written notes.
"Yes, that's true. I did that to voice a protest against the corrupt police department that held me against my will."
"Well, actually, you were arrested because you had forgotten to renew your driver's license..."
"That's irrelevant. And besides, I did that on purpose to show the world that a driver's license is only a piece of paper."
Kathleen swivelled back around and stared wide-eyed at the actress.
"Right. Okay. I'll work that in... somehow."
Half an hour later, Kathleen yawned widely and stretched her arms above her head, making her spine crackle and pop. She rubbed her eyes and reached into her desk drawer to find her reading glasses.
"Do you want me to give you a shiatsu massage now? I have excellent hands," Rachel said and moved a bit closer.
"Uh, no thank you," Kathleen said and put on her glasses.
"Oh, that's a great look for you. Really sexy in a bookish kind of way."
"Well... thank you. Now, where were we...?"
"I was about to sign the deal for Love Lost, Love Found."
"Oh, right. When you read the script, did you know that it was going to be such a smashing success?"
"To tell you the truth, no. I thought it was just going to be another romantic drama... the world has too many of those already, in my opinion."
"Oh... uh," Kathleen said, thinking that it probably wasn't the best time to mention that she had an entire shelf full of romantic DVDs in the living room.
"But I was snared in by the way my character evolved through the script. At first, she was just a stick figure, but at the end, it was the lead role."
"Great," Kathleen said and started typing to get all Rachel's words down.
"I don't want to talk too much about that movie. I'd rather talk about my independent films," Rachel said and ran a hand through her hair.
"I think I understand that, but I know that your readers need to get hooked before they can move on to the lesser-known things. Do you have any anecdotes from Love Lost?"
"No. Like I said, I want to talk about my other works."
"Oh. All right," Kathleen said and resumed typing.
"Once, a few years ago, we were shooting a short called 'Spiky Pleasure' in the Mojave desert. I've never been so stoned in my life," Rachel said, laughing.
"It was in the middle of the desert! There was nothing for us to do but to get loaded on Tequila and smoke pot. And the rest of the cast were all guys so I couldn't even get laid."
"Well, that's certainly charming," Kathleen said icily, but the coldness in her voice was lost on Rachel.
"I have plenty of that kind of anecdotes if you're interested?"
"I was hoping they'd be more..."
"More glitzy? Forget it. Don't have any of those. But I can tell you all about squatting down to take a piss in a forest out in British Columbia and discovering that I was sitting on top of an anthill...?"
"Maybe we'll get to that one... later."
Half an hour later, Kathleen rubbed her eyes again and yawned widely, a sure-fire sign that she needed a break.
"I think I'll put the kettle on. Would you like a cup?" Kathleen said and got up from the swivel chair.
"Sure. In here?"
"No, in the living room. I need a break from the monitor," Kathleen said and held out her hand to let Rachel know that she wanted to leave the study.
"All right. I need to use the little girl's room, anyway, so..."
"That's to the right, at the end of the hall. The light switch is on the outside."
"Thanks," Rachel said and walked down the hallway. Kathleen watched the actress as she turned on the light and went into the bathroom. Once the door was closed, Kathleen let out a slow sigh and shook her head repeatedly.
After the tea break, they continued in another writing session where Kathleen could feel her enthusiasm evaporate like the morning dew. Time and time again, Rachel gave bizarre answers to Kathleen's carefully prepared questions - and finally, Kathleen had reached the limits of her patience. She saved the file she was working on, closed the lid on the laptop and swivelled around to face the actress.
"Rachel... I'm sorry. This isn't working."
"Yeah, you're right," Rachel said and sat down on a chair. She crossed her legs at the knees and put her hands on her shin.
"We're just too far apart. If I say X, you'll say Z. We haven't agreed on anything so far and that's one of the most important elements of making any biography work. If there isn't any rapport between the writer and the subject, the reader will simply skip it."
"Do you think we can salvage any of it?"
"Frankly, no. And that's my professional opinion," Kathleen said and folded her arms over her chest.
"Hmmm. All right. Well. I guess that's how it goes sometimes. Hey, I was planning to offer you this once we were done, but with this development, I better cut to the chase. Kathleen, I think you're a very attractive woman."
Rachel leaned forward on her chair and gave Kathleen a dark, husky look. Her almond-coloured eyes grew darker by the second and almost gained a hypnotic quality.
"You're a very attractive woman and your sexual aura is the most beautiful combination of sparkling gold and deep purple I've ever seen. As a 'thank you' and a goodbye present, I very much want to give you an introductory lesson in tantric sex."
"I. Beg. Your. Pardon?!" Kathleen stuttered; her mind spinning from Rachel's words. Her lips turned into a thin line in her face and she clenched her fists, feeling a spark of anger building inside her.
"Tantric sex. Old world wisdom for the new world."
"Kathleen, did you know that I could give you ten orgasms in a row just by stroking your clitoris in a particular way? No toys, no tricks... just simple technique," Rachel said, illustrating what she meant by moving her fingers.
"A lot of women would jump at the chance."
For a few seconds, Kathleen stared wide-eyed at the actress, trying to figure out if she was pulling her leg. When the expression on Rachel's appeared to be genuine, Kathleen snapped and shot up from the swivel chair.
"All right, that does it. Get out! You're not welcome in my house any longer!" Kathleen said and grabbed Rachel's elbow. Pulling the actress up from her chair, Kathleen forcibly dragged her through the hallway.
"Come on, Kathleen, don't be silly. You're throwing away a golden opportunity here. My experience and your innocence would make it perfect. We'd be so great together," Rachel said as she put on her leather jacket and her gloves.
"You... you... I... Ahhh...!" Kathleen said, getting so agitated that she wasn't even able to finish the sentence. She ran past the actress, opened the front door and pointed out of it. When Rachel didn't seem to want to go, Kathleen bared her teeth in a sneer.
"Thanks for the wine and the sandwiches," Rachel said, winking as she walked through the door.
After Kathleen had watched the actress leave on her motorcycle, she slammed the front door so hard that a small picture frame fell off its nail. Stomping into the living room, she clenched her fists and brought them up to her face.
She wanted to scream out in frustration but she knew that it wouldn't do any good. Instead, she strode over to the cupboard in the corner and poured herself a very large Scotch.
Five minutes later, she put the empty glass on the coffee table, kicked off her shoes and let herself flop down onto the couch. Sighing deeply, she put her arm over her eyes and started mulling over all the time and effort that had gone to waste.
Off and on over the course of the next few minutes, she let out a series of choice curse words that became increasingly loud until she had worked herself into such a state that she needed another drink to calm down.
Getting up from the couch, she went over to the cupboard to refill the glass. On her way there, she happened to look at the shelf that held all the biographies she had written. Sighing, she went over to it to have a look at her previous titles. Running her finger along the spines, she started reminiscing about how it had been to work on them.
She was proud of all of them, but some meant more to her than others - like the one she had made for Kaye Jason, the Olympic gold Medallist in Pentathlon. That book had been her first major success and it had been the catalyst for meeting Francesca.
When she moved her finger down the line to Francesca's biography, she took great care when she pulled it out, even though it was only a pre-run test copy.
The picture on the front of the dust jacket always gave her a warm feeling inside, and this time was no exception. The photographer had captured the tall driver perfectly, highlighting her ice blue eyes and giving her a Goddess-like appearance.
with Kathleen O'Malley
Strength & Beauty
- An extraordinary tale of an
Kathleen sighed and put the book back on the shelf. She continued along the spines, stopping at the one she had made with Margaret Lester-Williams, a patron of a charity organisation. That biography had been less successful on the sales charts, but working with the wise woman had been a very inspiring and rewarding experience for her.
She moved over to the cupboard to refill her glass. As she stood with the bottle of Scotch in her hand, she weighed her options - finally deciding on taking the bottle back to the couch instead of just having another drink.
Sitting down again, she suddenly spotted her mobile phone. Remembering that she had turned it off before Rachel had arrived so it wouldn't interrupt their writing session, she grabbed it at once and turned it back on.
A text message beeped in and she feverishly clicked through the menu to read it.
'I WON!! LUV U! B HOME 2MRW AFTRNN FRAN'
Kathleen quickly typed a congratulatory reply and sent it, and then found Francesca's number on the quick dial. After a few moments, she put the phone down, unable to establish contact.
"I can't believe it... I can't believe it! BLOODY HELL, I CAN'T BELIEVE I MISSED FRANCESCA WINNING A RACE BECAUSE OF THAT... THAT... *DAMNED* *INSANE* *COW!*" Kathleen roared into thin air, once again clenching her fists tightly together.
Feeling her blood boil with anger, she grabbed the bottle of Scotch and poured herself another stiff drink.
When the clock on the wall chimed six p.m., Kathleen swung her legs over the side of the couch. She held onto the coffee table for a moment or two to catch her balance, and when the world had stopped tilting, she reached for her trusty bottle of Scotch.
Staring dumbfoundedly at the nearly empty bottle, she shrugged in an overly dramatic fashion and then poured the last remaining drops out into her glass. After draining it in one gulp, she got up and walked on unsteady legs over to the chair by the telephone.
Sitting down with a bump, she picked up the receiver and began punching in a set of numbers. She couldn't quite remember what those numbers were for, but her index finger worked on auto-pilot so she didn't really care.
'It's Kate O'Malley speaking,' her mother said from the other end of the connection.
"Um... hi, mom," Kathleen slurred, not sure whether she should put the receiver back down or not.
'Kathleen, is something wrong? You sound odd?'
"Oh, no, I'm quite all right. I'm all fine, chipper and dandy. I've just thrown six weeks of hard work down the toilet."
'Kathleen, your language!'
"Ah, who cares about that shit now."
'Are you drunk? You're drunk! How dare you call me in such a state?'
"I just wanted to hear a friendly voice. Is that too much to ask for?"
'What about that woman? Can't you talk to her? Or maybe she's left you already?'
Kathleen rubbed her face, trying to keep her temper in check. As her fingers moved across her cheeks and brow, she was surprised to note that it felt alien to her, almost like it wasn't her own skin at all. She looked down at her free hand, but couldn't see anything wrong with it - actually, she couldn't see much at all.
"Not now, mom. Not now..."
'It's a Sunday evening. Where is she? Has she gone out to one of those gay bars there's been so much talk about? They're...'
"You don't know anything, so stop talking about Francesca like that! She's down in Italy, racing!"
'How rude of her not to take you along. I'm sure she didn't even ask.'
"God, no, that doesn't have anyth..."
'Oh, Kathleen, why can't you see that such a relationship isn't good for you? You're so much better than that. If you could only meet a few nice men, I'm sure you'd realise at once that you've been deceiving yourself thinking that you're one of those people.'
"So you're saying this is just a phase...?"
"You're saying that... that if I went to a disco and let some random guy fuck me up against the wall in one of the bathroom stalls, I'd realise that I wasn..."
"But isn't that what you're saying?"
'No, that's NOT what I'm saying! I'm saying that you need to be with someone who'll be there for you when you need him. Someone from your own circle... someone who shares your interests. Oh, Kathleen, life is so much better if you have someone to hold... to love.'
"Mom! Just what the hell do you think I have right now with Francesca? I already told you, she's the best thing that ever happened to me."
'Looking at you at the dinner nearly broke my heart. Your eyes held so much sadness, Kathleen. I'm telling you, that woman isn't good for you.'
Kathleen moved the receiver away from her ear and just stared at it. After a few seconds, she put it back and took a deep breath.
"You saw sadness in my eyes? You should. You put it there."
'How dare you speak to me like that... I'm your mother!'
"I'll speak to you any which way I damn well please! I love Francesca from the bottom of my heart and she has always been so good to me. Why the FUCK won't you understand that?" Kathleen said, suddenly finding herself sobbing. Angrily, she cleared her throat and tried to sit up a bit straighter.
'You only think you love her. I've told you from the start that she's just using you. I don't know what kind of pinch she has on you or why, but mark my words, Kathleen, she is using you. It was plain to see at the dinner. She's just some...'
"Mother, there's something I've just realised. You're a cruel, heartless homophobe who doesn't want her only daughter to be loved by anyone," Kathleen said in a brief moment of clarity.
'This conversation is over. You're a petulant, ungrateful little child, Kathleen. You always were. Goodbye!' SLAM!
Feeling deflated rather than angry or upset, Kathleen calmly put the receiver down on the telephone and rubbed her face again. Putting a hand on the wall, she got up from the chair and staggered towards the kitchen.
Once there, she tried to make herself another sandwich just so she would have something in her stomach other than The Glenlivet, but somewhere on her journey through the bottle she had lost the ability to co-ordinate her eye and hand movements. She ended up with two very uneven slices of white bread that she put some Miracle Whip and a slice of tomato on. The tomato fell onto the kitchen floor at once, rolling in under a small table next to the refrigerator - Kathleen didn't even notice.
She started chewing on the first slice of white bread, but it didn't take her more than two bites to know that it was a bad idea. She threw the remains of the slice onto the table and left the kitchen, headed for her bedroom.
On her way there, she had to put her hand on the doorjamb so she wouldn't keel over. She sighed deeply, inwardly cursing Rachel Silverman, her mother, and everyone else crossing her down to the flaming pits of hell.
When she was able to move again, she kicked off her shoes and then unbuttoned her jeans and stepped out of them. Taking off her blouse proved to be more difficult as it ended up getting snagged on her bra.
By pulling, tugging and finally tearing, she eventually managed to get it all off. Not caring about anything any longer, she dove into her bed and snuggled up under the covers. Soon, her loud, drunken snoring filled the room.
Kathleen slowly surfaced from her deep sleep where she had been suffering through all sorts of alcohol-induced bad dreams, including one where her mother had her on a leash, dragging her through the local church, naked as the day she was born.
"Hhhmmmpff... go away, mother," Kathleen croaked. Her tongue felt like it was glued to the roof of her mouth. When she tried to swallow, she wasn't able to produce any saliva so nothing happened.
"Gawd..." she croaked, moving a hand up from underneath the cover and placing it on her throbbing forehead.
"Wrong again. It's Francesca," Kathleen heard someone say. The person seemed to be at least two hundred miles away, but at least she recognised the voice.
"Uh-huh. You're hung over."
Kathleen tried to open her eyes, but the bright lights in the bedroom made her slam them shut again.
"Gawd, turn off the lights...!"
"It's the sun, darling."
"Make it go away..."
"I can't. The curtains are already drawn. It's nearly one p.m., Kathleen."
"One p.m....? What day?"
"Monday," Francesca said with a chuckle. She sat down on the bed and ran her hand up Kathleen's arm.
"Comes after Sunday, remember?"
Apparently, Kathleen couldn't, because she just put her head back down on the pillow and promptly fell asleep.
With a grin, Francesca got off the bed. As she went into the hallway, she chuckled once more when she looked at the bundle of clothes on the floor. On her way to the hallstand, she made sure that she didn't step on any of Kathleen's garments in case they were hiding something valuable.
After Francesca had taken off her jacket and hung it on a coat hanger, she briefly looked into the kitchen, noting the half-eaten slice of bread and the tomato on the floor. She shook her head, picked up her travel bag and went into the living room to unpack.
When she spotted the empty bottle of Scotch on the coffee table, she became worried and went straight back to the bedroom.
"Kathleen?" she said as she sat down on the bed.
"Gawd, will you go away, mother? I don't want to talk to you..." Kathleen slurred. She attempted to turn over onto her right side, but she soon gave up.
"No, it's me, Francesca. How much did you drink last night?"
"Too much, I'd say. That bottle of Glenlivet was nearly full the other day, wasn't it?"
"I guess," Kathleen said, once again trying to turn onto her right side so she didn't have to face Francesca.
"Why?" Francesca said quietly, caressing Kathleen's cheek.
Kathleen sighed and opened her eyes. The lights still bothered her, but she shielded her eyes with her hand and turned away from the window.
"Well, among them, the deal with Rachel Silverman fell through."
"She just became... ugh."
Kathleen sighed and tried to sit up. As soon as she swung her bare legs over the side of the bed, her head started throbbing mercilessly.
"Ohhhh...." she moaned, clutching her head. When that just made the pain even worse, she grabbed hold of the blanket instead.
"Hang on, I'll fix you an Aspirin," Francesca said and left the bedroom.
Something touched Kathleen's right hand and she looked down. In her foggy state, it took her a while to understand what it was, but she suddenly realised that it was her gold necklace.
Kathleen picked it up and looked at it through her bloodshot eyes. When she realised that it had fallen off because the catch had been damaged, she sighed deeply and clenched her fist around the gold chain.
She tried to get up so she could put the necklace into her jewellery box, but as soon as her rear end left the bed, the world started tilting and she had to let herself fall back down with a bump.
"Whoa, let me help you," Francesca said, holding a glass of water filled with a clear, fizzy liquid.
"I... I've ruined my necklace. Damn," Kathleen said and showed Francesca the golden chain.
"Oh... Well, here's the Aspirin. Try to drink all of it," Francesca said and handed Kathleen the glass. She took the gold chain and studied the lock closely.
With a sigh, Kathleen started drinking from the glass.
"I don't know if we can save it, but in any case, we need to take it to a goldsmith," Francesca said and put the chain on top of the dresser.
Kathleen burped discreetly and handed the glass back to Francesca.
"When I came home and saw the mess in the living room, I got worried. For a minute there, I thought you had invited an entire travelling circus without telling me."
"Well, there's a glass and the empty bottle of Scotch on the coffee table and the dinner table is still set. Plates, trays, everything. There's one half of what looks like a Turkey sandwich left, by the way."
"Uggh," Kathleen said, trying not to think of food.
"And the kitchen isn't any better. Oh, and all your clothes are on the floor out in the hallway... with your bra right in the middle of everything. You know, I actually wondered if you were alone in here or if you were sharing the bed with a trapeze artist or a snake charmer... or both," Francesca said, trying to lighten the mood.
At first, Kathleen scoffed at Francesca's attempts at humour, but then she chuckled and ran a hand through her unruly mop of hair.
"Rachel was the snake, not the snake charmer. She wanted to... God, she wanted to teach me tantric sex. That's when I'd had enough."
"You heard me."
"I heard you, but I don't believe you. Like in Arabian Nights?"
"No, the Kama Sutra. She's bonkers, Francesca. Just bonkers. I just couldn't listen to all her... all her shit any more," Kathleen said and coughed dryly. She turned her head to look at Francesca - and was surprised to see the driver's reaction.
"Darling, I think you're still feeling the effects of the Glenlivet... you said 'shit'. And even more so, you need a shower. Your face is pale grey and the black circles under your eyes reach down to your lips. Tell you what, I'll help you get into the shower and then I'll start to clean up. Okay?"
"I want to help..."
"Kathleen... today, you won't be able to do anything apart from sitting in the couch. Trust me," Francesca said and put her arms around Kathleen's body to help her get up.
While Kathleen was showering, Francesca cleaned up in the kitchen. She sniffed the slices of white bread and quickly threw them into the garbage bin with a horrified expression on her face.
After picking up the wayward tomato and throwing that out as well, she wiped off the kitchen table so it was ready for lunch.
As Francesca walked into the living room, she noticed the little red light blinking on the answering machine. She debated with herself whether she should clean the table or listen to the messages first, but in the end, the messages won out.
She sat down on the chair next to the telephone and pressed the small button on the machine. After the tape had rewound, she pressed play and waited for the messages to be played back.
'Kathleen, this is your father. I'm calling to hear your side of the story. Your conversation with your mother has upset her tremendously and frankly, you need to apologise.'
'Kathleen, it's your father again. Please call me on my mobile as soon as you hear this.'
'Kathleen, I'm serious. Please call my mobile.'
Francesca's shoulders slumped and she rubbed her brow - now she had a better explanation as to why Kathleen had emptied the bottle of Glenlivet all by herself. With a sigh, she got up and began to clean up the dinner table.
Fifteen minutes later, Kathleen, wearing her favourite house coat, shuffled into the living room and plopped down on the couch.
"Ohhhhhh," she whispered hoarsely, looking very much like the hangover was killing her slowly.
When she spotted her mobile on the table, her abused brain began to creak into action. She reached for the phone and turned it on. Looking through it, she found the text message Francesca had sent the day before.
"Oh... Oh! Francesca!"
"Yes?" Francesca said, coming out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel after doing the dishes.
"You won yesterday! God, I'm so sorry... I forgot all about it..." Kathleen said and tried to get up from the couch. Reluctantly, she had to give up and fell back down.
"I won and it felt damn good," Francesca said and kneeled in front of Kathleen. She took her partner's hands in her own and gave them a little squeeze. Two identical smiles spread out over the two women's faces, and after a few moments, Francesca got up and sat down next to Kathleen.
"Oh, I'm so happy for you," Kathleen said, putting an arm around Francesca's waist and giving the tall woman an almighty squeeze.
"Thanks, darling," Francesca said and leaned down to kiss the top of Kathleen's head.
"Did you get the message I sent back to you?"
"Oh... I must've made a mistake. Blech. Modern technology. Who needs it?" Kathleen said and made a face.
"It's the thought that counts. Anyway, I was the starting driver and I led from start to finish. I muscled past the Toyota in the first corner and never looked back from there. Luca finished second so it was a perfect day for us. Hey, the new lap record has my name written on it."
Kathleen sighed deeply and shook her head.
"And I wasn't there to see it. I..."
"It doesn't matter, darling. With the project finished, perhaps you'd be interested in coming with me to Bucharest in a fortnight's time?"
"Oh, I'd love to... but I don't know how W.P. will react when he's informed."
"Ah, never mind him now. Listen... Kathleen... there is something we need to talk about."
"You spoke with your mother while you were... you know, drunk."
Kathleen opened her mouth to reply, but found that she didn't really have an answer for that. Rubbing her brow, she shrugged non-committally.
"Well... I vaguely remember talking to someone, but I can't remember any details. How do you know?"
"Your Dad has called you no less than three times, leaving messages on the machine. You need to call him."
"I'll call him, but I won't talk to my mother."
"I think you probably should," Francesca said and got up from the couch. She went over to the answering machine and pressed play.
Once Kathleen had heard the three messages, she buried her head in her hands and drew several deep, trembling breaths.
"Darling, you need to call them."
"I know," Kathleen said and got up. She staggered over to the phone and sat down on the chair with a bump.
"Do you want me to leave while you talk?" Francesca said, leaning down to give Kathleen a gentle kiss on the forehead.
"No. No, I want you to be right here with me," Kathleen said, wearing a faint smile.
Francesca nodded, pulled up a chair and sat down right in front of Kathleen so she'd be able to support her through what was no doubt going to be a couple of difficult conversations.
Sighing, Kathleen took the receiver in her hand and punched in the numbers to her father's mobile. When she heard her father's dulcet tones, her heart skipped a beat.
'It's Dennis O'Malley.'
"Hi, Dad. It's Kathleen..."
Concluded in Part 2.
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