Disclaimers in part 1
Three weeks later, Francesca had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to a hospital in England, and later the same week, she started the orthopaedic rehab of her hip.
"Just one more!" Kathleen said, urging the driver on.
"That's easy for you to say," Francesca hissed through clenched teeth, as she used her leg to lift a small bar with weights attached to it.
'Wasn't this supposed to be an exercise machine? Torture machine is more like it' , Francesca thought.
They had agreed on waiting a few weeks before she'd move out of her apartment, mostly because she already had a room full of pro-quality exercise equipment, and it would be so much easier for Francesca to use her own machines than to go to a public gym. She had a nurse helping her four days a week, and Kathleen was more than willing to help her the rest of the time, and also to run two households while Francesca was incapacitated.
She got the weights all the way up and held it there for several seconds, making the muscles in her thigh spasm and quiver like a bowl of jelly. Finally she released it, and the weights tumbled down to the bottom, making the machine rattle when they hit the bump stop.
"Bloody hell..." she said, and released the death grip she had had on two small metal handrests. She opened the Velcro strip on her bicycle gloves, and looked down at her body. She was sweating profusely, and she felt sticky and generally disgusting. Not to mention the sports clothes she was wearing. She thought they belonged in a 1980's Sheena Easton music video - a pale grey body suit with a loose fitting purple top, made of cotton - but Kathleen had picked them out for her, and when she had seen the love in the green eyes, she couldn't make herself say 'no thanks!' to the author.
"Are you ready for the next exercise?" Kathleen asked, and gave Francesca a bottle of spring water.
"Do I have to?" Francesca said, and gulped down half of the bottle's contents.
"According to the program, you do."
"Oh, all right, then..." Francesca said, and moved wearily over to another machine. She arranged the weights and sat down on the bench, leaning on the backrest. This particular machine had nearly ripped her leg off when she had first tried it, and she was convinced there was a demon living inside it somewhere.
"Come on, Francesca, please...? I'll give you a kiss if you can give me five pushes?" Kathleen said, kneeling next to Francesca.
"I'll try, but I can't promise anything." She spread her legs and put her knees on either side of two large, leather covered arms. She took a deep breath to control her shaking insides, and placed her hands on two handrests above her.
She started pushing her legs in towards each other, and the two arms slowly came closer. The muscles in her arms were bulging, and her face was red from the exertion.
"One!" Kathleen said enthusiastically, as Francesca managed to make the two arms touch. She released the pressure, and the arms gradually grew apart. She went through the stress one more time, but she knew she wouldn't be able to go the distance today.
"Two! Come on, just three more,"
"I can't, Kathleen..."
"Sure you can, come on,"
"I BLOODY WELL CAN'T!" Francesca barked, and lost her concentration. The arms clanged to their outer stops too quickly - her legs were forced apart with a jerk and her hip received a nasty jolt.
A strangled cry escaped her, and her face lost all colour. A wave of white hot pain shot through her, and she had to slam her eyes shut until it receded. When it finally did, she felt sick to her stomach, but by sheer determination she forced herself not to vomit. She opened her eyes and looked around for Kathleen. The author was nowhere to be seen, but a faint sound of crying from the hall gave away her location.
Francesca sighed and reached for her cane. With a great deal of difficulty, she stood up and got off the damn machine. Pausing a moment to get her wobbly legs to cooperate, she went out of the exercise room to search for Kathleen.
"Kathleen? Where did you go?"
Kathleen didn't reply, but as Francesca hobbled along the hall, she could hear the author in the kitchen. She turned the corner and found Kathleen standing above the sink, crying. Francesca suddenly felt tongue-tied, so she settled for clearing her throat.
Kathleen turned around and looked at the battered woman. She didn't stop crying, and Francesca didn't know what to do.
"I'm sorry for yelling at you," she offered, leaning on her cane.
"If you hate me, I'll understand," Kathleen said.
"Hate you? Why on Earth should I hate you?" Francesca said shocked.
"For making you hurt so much..."
"That was my own fault. I tried too much too soon... and I lost concentration. That was all my own fault, Kathleen," she said, and pulled out a chair so she could sit down and rest her hip. The tremendous strain on her had left her completely exhausted, and her pelvic area had begun to throb, so she knew she'd be needing some painkillers soon. She took the bicycle gloves off and put them on a small table. She rubbed her face and ran a hand through her very short hair.
"You wouldn't have tried if I hadn't pushed you to it," Kathleen said and sighed.
"I probably wouldn't. But there are many things I wouldn't have done unless you had pushed me," Francesca said.
Kathleen looked up, unsure what the driver meant.
"Like telling you how much I love you."
New tears began rolling down Kathleen's cheeks, and she blushed.
"Will you please give me glass of water? My throat's as dry as the Sahara right now..." Francesca said.
"Of course... hang on." Kathleen opened the cold water tap and took a glass from the cupboard. She filled it, and put it on the table in front of Francesca.
"Here you go."
"Thank you. I... I know I didn't quite go the distance, but do you think it'd be possible to get a kiss anyway?" Francesca said with a shy smile on her face.
A little while later, Kathleen was sitting in Francesca's posh living room, studying the user's manual for the outrageously advanced TV set. She put the booklet down on the table, not a bit wiser. Instead, she walked over to the equally advanced sound system, but she didn't dare turn it on while Francesca was taking a little nap, because she couldn't see any knob for the volume, and the risk of it playing on full-blast was too great. She sighed, and settled for looking out of the window.
The look on Francesca's face when she experienced the pain played over and over in Kathleen's mind. For a second, Kathleen had been afraid Francesca might pass out. She had turned white as a sheet, and the pained look on her face had scared Kathleen no end.
She tried to push the negative thoughts from her mind by shaking her head, but they wouldn't leave.
If Francesca had fainted while her legs were still in the machine, she might have twisted her abdomen and her pelvic area severely if she had fallen off. Kathleen felt a panic creeping up on her, and she half-ran from the living room and into Francesca's bedroom to see if the driver was all right.
Kathleen stopped in the doorway, looking at the sleeping woman. She could hear Francesca snore softly, and the sound soothed her soul. She buried her face in her hands, and sighed. She had treated Francesca's recovery far too lightly. This wasn't just a broken arm, this was something that demanded her utmost respect.
A week later, Francesca's stamina had improved so much that she was able to get to four pushes on the 'torture machine' before needing to stop, and Kathleen had started to exercise to show her solidarity with Francesca. And since they were both hot and sweaty now, it didn't hurt one bit that Francesca's bathroom was large enough for the two of them to shower together...
Francesca had finally taught Kathleen how to use the Hewlett-Packard laptop she gave her months earlier, and now she was sitting on the leather couch, happily browsing the web. Francesca was sitting in a comfy chair, resting her legs on a stool, and zapped her way through the many channels on her bigscreen TV.
"Hey Francesca, do you want to know the results from Mosport?" Kathleen said.
"Just who won. Don't care about the rest."
"Maserati #1, DiLorenzi and Zorzi."
"Oh? How far were they ahead of the competition?"
"... don't know," Kathleen said, and looked in vain at the laptop to find the info.
"Gimme," Francesca said, and Kathleen turned the laptop around so Francesca could see the screen.
"They were two laps ahead, that's was the '-2' on the next car stands for," she explained.
"Last year, the Canadian round of the world championship was held at the Grand Prix track in Montreal, but the tarmac couldn't handle our heavier cars, so it broke up."
"Yes. While we were there, I got an offer from a Canadian Mercedes importer to drive one of his cars in the Mosport event, which was a round of the US Championship, and... well, I won."
"I'm happy for you," Kathleen said and smiled.
"Well, thank you. Actually, I have it on DVD, if you're interested...?" Francesca said, and turned around to look at Kathleen.
"Ah, no... I'm sorry. Do you mind?"
"No... I guess not."
"It's not that I don't want to watch you win a race, but there are so many aspects to the sport that I don't understand..."
"Well, you've seen so much this year. I think you'd be able to follow it, and it's a highlights programme, it's only 45 minutes..."
"Maybe I would, but no thanks," Kathleen said and smiled apologetically.
"I watched the dog show the other day when you asked," Francesca said with a pout.
Kathleen giggled. She knew when she was beaten.
"Oh, all right, then. Which drawer is it in?" she said, and got up from the couch.
"The one in the middle. It has a blue cover, and it says Mosport on the spine, you can't miss it."
Kathleen opened the drawer and looked for the DVD. She quickly found the one with the blue cover, took the disc out, and popped it into the player.
The next morning, Kathleen went to her cottage to water her flowers and check up on her mail. She had trouble opening the front door because of a small anthill of letters and newspapers behind it, but she finally managed. On the top of the pile was a formal looking letter from W.P. Carruthers, Ltd. She quickly picked it up and opened it. It read,
'Dear Ms. O'Malley.
The tremendous success of your biography on Francesca Carrara had led to a flood of requests for biographies, some of which were made by famous actresses and sports stars. We are most excited to be able to present you with a wide selection of names you can choose from freely.
Therefore, we kindly request your presence at a meeting on Tuesday, July 13th, at 10:00 am in our offices on Bartholomew Road.
Carruthers Publishing, Ltd.'
'Wow,' Kathleen thought. 'Famous actresses... wide selection of names I can choose from... and the meeting's tomorrow!'
Kathleen looked at the date on the stamp. This must have arrived the day before yesterday. She wanted to confirm that she'd be there, so she took her jacket off and sat down on next to the telephone. She dialled the number to the publishers and waited.
After five minutes of listening to a horrible muzak version of 'I Just Called To Say I Love You', she hung up and decided to call Francesca instead to tell her the exciting news.
The next day saw Kathleen back at the office where it all began. She experienced a severe case of deja vu as she walked up to the desk clerk and announced herself. Unlike the last time she was there, W.P. Carruthers quickly came out to greet her.
"Well, Miss O'Malley, I must say you've been a great asset to Carruthers Publishing", the old man himself said a few moments later when they were sitting in his office, sipping a sherry. Kathleen listened intently to W.P. talking about the sales figures for her book on Francesca.
"...and here's the list of names who've expressed an interest in acquiring your services for a biography," he said, and pushed a piece of paper across the mahogany desk.
Kathleen's eyebrows shot up to her hairline when she saw some of the names.
"Good heavens, even... even..." she said, and pointed at a particularly surprising name.
"Yes, even her," W.P. said, and smiled broadly. For once, his smile was genuine, at least that's what it looked like to Kathleen.
"Good heavens..." Kathleen repeated.
She moved her finger down the list, carefully considering each of the names, some more illustrious than others. It was tempting to get involved with the glitz of showbiz or the international jetset, but she knew deep down that those people were much too flashy for her. She recognised a name from her mother's generation, a woman who had been a major star in the world of ballroom dancing when she was younger, and who had become the leader of a charity organisation when she retired.
"Her, Margaret Lester-Williams," Kathleen said, and pointed at the name on the list.
"Oh, that's a good choice, Miss O'Malley. Mrs. Lester-Williams is a very well respected woman. I'm sure we'll... I mean, you, can create a fantastic book from working with her."
"Well, let's see," Kathleen said, and leaned back in the Chesterfield chair.
"Indeed. Sign here, please," W.P. said, and presented a preliminary contract to Kathleen. She did so, and they shook hands.
Kathleen unlocked the front door and then the inner door to Francesca's apartment.
"Francesca, I'm back!" she said loudly.
"I'm in the exercise room!"
Kathleen hung her jacket on the hallstand, and took her pumps and her gold earrings off. She unclipped her pearl necklace and put that and the earrings in the jewellery box. She looked at herself in the mirror in the hallway, unable to get the huge smile off her face.
On bare feet, she walked silently into the exercise room, stopping in the doorway to admire Francesca. The driver was sitting on a bench, lifting weights, and Kathleen's mouth went dry at the sight of Francesca's taut biceps and shoulders. She licked her lips, and made sure to walk the long way round so she wouldn't spook Francesca.
"Hi. How did it go?" the driver asked.
"Very fine. I signed a preliminary contract to work on a biography for Margaret Lester-Williams."
"Never heard of her," Francesca said, and resumed lifting the bar.
"Of course you have. How much do you have on it?" Kathleen said, and pointed at the bells.
"Dear lord," Kathleen said with an evil grin, staring at Francesca's arms.
"You're looking like the cat that ate the canary," Francesca said, and put the bar into the holders. She wiped her arms off with a towel.
Kathleen said something Francesca couldn't quite hear.
"I haven't eaten it yet," Kathleen said, and tried in vain to fight off a blush.
"The world must be coming to an end, Kathleen O'Malley's making dirty jokes," Francesca said, and winked.
Kathleen looked down and blushed furiously.
"So, this Margaret whatshername is someone important, then?"
"She's the leader of 'A Safer World For Children', surely you've heard of that?"
"Oh... I only know them from their ads, actually," Francesca said, and took her cane.
"I'll have a few meetings with her, and then I'll start working on the research. But I promise it won't interfere with us moving. That still happens on Monday," Kathleen said, and helped Francesca up from the bench.
"Good, because I think the movers would be upset if we rescheduled now," Francesca said, and leaned down to kiss Kathleen on the lips.
"Oh, I think that's a given."
Kathleen took Francesca's arm, and helped her out of the exercise room and into the bathroom across the hall so she could freshen up for lunch.
When the movers arrived, it only took twenty minutes for Francesca to go through the roof in a hissy fit. Despite Kathleen's best efforts in organising the event, the two men hired to move Francesca's furniture were bumbling about, clumsily getting in each other's way, and generally making a mess of things.
"No, this one goes there, *that* one goes *there*," Kathleen had said and pointed at two boxes the movers had put in the wrong order.
The two movers, remarkably similar in their filthy white t-shirts and identical, unkempt moustaches, looked at each other and shrugged.
"Lady, we are skilled movers. Please leave the organising to us," one of the men had said in a patronising voice, and that had triggered Francesca's Latin temper.
Right now, she was sitting in the kitchen, growling, and drinking a cup of the strongest cappuccino she could make. She felt tempted to pour a shot of Amaretto in it to calm her temper, but she decided against it. A loud bump and a couple of rasping curses from the living room made her bury her face in her hands and shake her head in disgust. If she had been in one piece, she could've rented a van and Kathleen and her could've done this so much more easily.
She sighed and looked at her cane. Kathleen had bought it for her, and the shop claimed it was a genuine Italian walking cane, but Francesca had never seen such a model when she was in Italy - she didn't see a point in telling Kathleen, though. It was a lovely gift, and there was no reason to make Kathleen unhappy.
In the living room, something went bump-bump-bump across the floor, and Francesca waited for the inevitable crash... that miraculously didn't come. She rolled her eyes and considered praying for guidance from above.
Later that evening in Kathleen's cottage, Francesca and Kathleen shared a bottle of white wine. Francesca got one glass, and Kathleen drank the rest - the author's nerves were completely frazzled by the incompetence of the two movers.
They looked around at the myriad of boxes that were standing left, right and centre - and in some cases on top of each other. Kathleen's meticulous system had been shot full of holes when the movers had deposited the boxes in her living room in completely random order instead of sticking to the plan, and Francesca had never seen her so upset.
She put her arm around the shorter woman, and pulled her closer. Kathleen rested her head on Francesca's shoulder and sighed.
"How are we ever going to get this mess sorted out?"
"We'll just take one thing at a time. I told you it was a good thing I decided to leave my couch and the two chairs behind."
"Those two imbeciles would've put them on top of the box marked 'fragile', don't you think?" Kathleen asked, and giggled.
"'Lady, we are skilled movers. Please leave the organising to us'," Kathleen said with a deepened voice, mocking what the mover had told her earlier.
The two women looked at each other and started laughing heartily.
"Welcome to my cottage, Francesca." Kathleen raised her glass and smiled at Francesca, who returned the gesture by kissing Kathleen soundly.
"Wow, I can't believe we're actually doing this..." Kathleen said when they separated.
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
"No, of course not, but... I'd be lying if I said I'm not nervous about it. There are some pretty big butterflies flapping their wings inside my stomach," she said and chuckled nervously.
"Let me calm them down," Francesca said, and unbuttoned the middle button on Kathleen's shirt. She stuck her hand inside and caressed the soft skin she found there.
The touch felt electric to Kathleen, and she closed her eyes and let out a sensuous sigh. Francesca leaned in and started nibbling on Kathleen's earlobe and neck.
"How about you and me go to your bedroom and introduce your brass bed to the new resident of the house...?" she whispered, making Kathleen giggle.
"Are you sure you're up to the challenge?" Kathleen said teasingly.
"I think I can manage..."
Kathleen desperately needed a drink when she returned from yet another meeting with Margaret Lester-Williams. In the two weeks since Francesca had moved in, they had hardly seen each other during the days. Everything had been so hectic and confusing, and if there was one thing Kathleen couldn't cope with, it was stress.
Her work on the new biography had so far proved to be interesting, as Margaret was a woman who had travelled the world and met all kinds of exciting people, but Kathleen had to admit her heart wasn't fully in the new job. It certainly didn't leave much room for spending quality time with Francesca, and that pained her.
Kathleen locked the car and opened the front door. Francesca was sitting on the couch with her legs up on a stool, talking Italian on her cell phone. When she saw the author, she winked and smiled a 200-watt smile that left Kathleen's knees weak.
A couple of magazines and a newspaper lay opened on the table and the couch, and Francesca had a notepad and a pencil in her lap. It looked like she had written quite a lot on the notepad, but Kathleen couldn't see enough to understand what it said.
After washing her hands in the bathroom, Kathleen went to the small bar she had in a cupboard in a corner of the living room, and poured herself a glass of Scotch. Francesca was still talking in Italian, so Kathleen sat down in her favourite chair and waited for Francesca to tell her what was going on.
It only took a few more minutes, and then Francesca turned off the cell phone and put it on the table. She looked at the notepad and leaned back in the couch, her face unreadable to Kathleen.
"Who was that you were talking to?" she said interested.
"Giampaolo Razotti, the team manager of Maserati. They won again in Laguna Seca last Sunday."
"Yes. And they have a seat available in their third car," Francesca said, locking eyes with Kathleen.
Kathleen opened her mouth, and then closed it again without a sound. She put her empty glass down on the table and defensively crossed her arms over her chest.
"So you are going racing again?" she said, her voice tinged with a hint of frustration.
"We already spoke about it at the hospital, remember? I thought we had straightened it out...?" Francesca said.
"Kathleen, I'm improving every single day. I'm able to do things now that I couldn't do just a week ago. You know me, I'll get cabin fever if I'm not doing anything..."
"I understand all of that, Francesca, but I had hoped that you'd..." Kathleen said, not finishing the sentence.
"That I'd what?"
"Come to your senses, honestly," Kathleen said and sighed.
Now it was Francesca's turn to become silent, and Kathleen could feel tears starting to well up in her eyes. She blinked a few times to make them go away, and then she went over to the couch, removed the newspaper, and sat down next to the driver.
Francesca shrugged but still didn't speak.
"I know it's wrong of me to treat you like an overgrown teddy bear. Please accept my apology."
Francesca sighed and put her arm around Kathleen's shoulders.
"Francesca, yell at me if you will, but please say something. I hate this silence," Kathleen said, grabbing Francesca's hand that was hovering above her chest.
"This is something I need to do, Kathleen. I need to see if I still have what it takes," Francesca said quietly.
"I understand... I just wish that didn't include driving cars at 200 mph."
Kathleen looked at Francesca's profile, at her chiselled jawbone, at her well-defined cheekbones and finally at her ice blue eyes. She sighed, and rested her head on Francesca's shoulder.
"Our lives would've been much more peaceful if you were playing darts."
"Actually, I'm not very good with pointy things," Francesca said and chuckled.
"You know what I mean. But please... you have to promise me that you'll be careful. I don't want to organise your funeral any time soon," Kathleen said, and moved into a kneeling position on the couch so she was face to face with Francesca.
"I promise. I haven't arranged anything yet. I wanted to discuss it with you first. The team manager offered me a meeting so he could evaluate my health. And if he considers me fit enough, I might make a comeback for them."
Kathleen nodded her acceptance, but she could feel a knot forming in her stomach that hadn't been there since the days she visited Francesca in the hospital.
"I have to ask you again... are you sure about this?" Kathleen said as she stopped her Ford Focus in front of a non-descript, two-storey building that housed the Maserati team's British base.
"I'm sure," Francesca said, and leaned over to kiss Kathleen on the cheek.
"Well, good luck, then. How long do you think it'll take?"
"Can't say, but I'll call you when we're done."
"Let's hope I know how to operate that fancy cell phone you gave me..." Kathleen said with a chuckle.
"Hey, if you can drive a car, you can use a phone. How do I look?"
Francesca wanted to present herself in the best possible way, so she had splashed out and bought a pair of black slacks and a pale blue shirt that matched her eyes. Kathleen had ordered her to leave the shirt's top two buttons undone, and when combined with her black blazer, Francesca looked stunning.
"Oh... just... exquisite," Kathleen said.
Francesca opened the door and got out, hobbling slightly. She had left her cane at home as she suspected it wouldn't look good to the people who might become her new employers.
"Don't move too fast, or you might keel over," Kathleen said with an evil grin. Francesca waved dismissively at her, and then gave her a thumbsup.
Kathleen drove off with a slight toot of the horn.
Francesca turned around and headed for the glass doors. She went inside the building and walked up to a large security guard.
"Francesca Carrara to see Giampaolo Razotti," she said.
The guard pressed a button on an intercom and repeated what she had said.
"Please wait here," he told her.
A few minutes later, a tall man in his late fifties with short salt-and-pepper hair and a matching beard arrived at the door and waved at the security guard. The guard pressed another button, and the door to the building was unlocked.
Francesca walked through the door, trying not to limp. It wasn't entirely successful, but it merely looked like she was walking with a swagger.
"Miss Carrara, I'm Giampaolo Razotti," the man said, and put out his hand.
"Delighted to meet you, Mr. Razotti."
"Welcome to Maserati Cars GB. This is our official importer, and we use their warehouse for preparing our race cars. That was a nasty accident you had back at Le Mans. Are you sure you're fully recovered?"
"Mostly. I'm 99% back to normal," Francesca said, which was a little bit of a white lie. The correct figure was probably closer to 85%.
"Glad to hear it. I have Vittorio Franco waiting in my office, but we'll get to him eventually. Do you want to have a tour of the car?"
"Well... I'd like that, yes. Thank you."
"The two works cars aren't here, they're on a cargo ship bound for Buenos Aires, but we're prepping Mr. Franco's own car. We're planning to use it as a ringer in the last three races. Here it is," he said, and pointed at a dark blue car parked in the middle of the warehouse. The doors, the engine cover, and the front bodywork had been removed to ease the access of the engineers who were busy upgrading the car to the latest works specifications.
"I see," Francesca said and looked intently at the race car. She already knew it from duelling with the works cars at the first three races of the season, but it was always interesting to get a closer look at cars from different makes.
The engine was a normally aspirated six litre V12, with around 685 bhp. This car still used an H-pattern shift, but Giampaolo told her the works cars had been fitted with paddle shifts. Francesca looked inside and noted the cockpit was larger than both the two different types of Mercedes' she had used over the course of the season.
"Looks pretty good, Mr. Razotti."
"Please, call me Giampaolo. Yes, it does. It's too early to say if we can win the championship this year, but we're definitely giving it a shot," he said.
"All right, Giampaolo."
"Let's go and meet Mr. Franco. Miss Carrara, a word of... advice. When you see him, don't stare too much at his girth..." Giampaolo said quietly. Francesca's left eyebrow slowly crept up her forehead.
"... he isn't the fittest man imaginable. But at least half of his bulk is his wallet. I trust you understand?"
"All right. Follow me, please," he said, and started walking up a metal staircase, headed for a gallery that connected the work floor with the offices on the first floor. Francesca looked up at all the steps and swallowed nervously. She hadn't planned on that at all...
Finally arriving at the top, a small drop of sweat found its way down Francesca's neck and into the collar of her shirt. Her hip was throbbing, but she felt it was probably not constructive for her to mention that fact right now. Giampaolo opened the door to his office and welcomed her inside.
A large man, some might call him fat, was sitting in a leather chair smoking a cigar. He turned to the door and his face lit up when he saw the attractive figure walking in. He got up and put forth his hand.
"Vittorio Franco, Miss Carrara. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise, Mr. Franco."
"Let's get down to business, shall we?" Giampaolo said, and closed the door behind him.
An hour later, Francesca was waiting by the curb, carrying a signed contract for the remaining three World Championship races. Kathleen drove up, and she got in.
"How did it go?"
"I got a contract," Francesca said with a smile, and showed Kathleen the papers.
"Congratulations. Are you all right? You look pale."
"I'm fine. The office was upstairs... 48 steps from the ground level," Francesca said as she put on her seatbelt.
"Good heavens... does it hurt much?" Kathleen said shocked.
"Meh... it's throbbing. It was a good workout."
"Let's get you home so I can give you a massage," Kathleen said, and put her Ford into first gear.
"Aren't you interested in how much I'll make?" Francesca said as they drove through traffic, heading for home.
"For three races?! Pfff!" Kathleen said, and made a whistling sound.
"Well, that's how it works in motor racing."
"When's the first race?"
"It's in Mugello in Italy, in five and a half weeks, so I have plenty of time to get back to my old level of fitness," Francesca said, and rubbed her aching hip.
"I'll help you."
"So, it's back to Italy, then?" Kathleen said, remembering that wonderful evening in Monza where they kissed for the first time.
"Yes. I don't want to pressure you into coming... if you don't want to be there, I'll understand," Francesca said.
"My book will be done by then. You'll need to put me in a straitjacket to keep me away, Francesca," Kathleen said, and smiled lovingly at the dark haired woman next to her.
"Giampaolo, Vittorio was eight seconds slower on his qually lap than I went in free practice... eight seconds!" Francesca said angrily. She slammed her fist down on the armrest of the chair.
"And he's also the one that makes it financially possible to have a third car, so... what's your problem, Francesca?"
She bit down hard on the inside of her lips so she wouldn't tell him what she really thought, and counted to ten.
"I knew you'd see it from my point of view. Calm down, have fun this weekend, Francesca. It's your comeback, you can't expect to be fighting for the victory right away," he said, and started to get up from his leather chair.
"I'm not having fun, Giampaolo. I'm not here to finish last."
"But you are here, aren't you? Let's take it race by race, OK? Now, if you will excuse me, I have plenty to do..." he said and showed her the way out.
She left the team manager's office thoroughly fed up, and almost ready to pack up and go home. As one of the support races droned on in the background, she walked back to her own Knaus Sunliner motorhome, parked on the other end of the paddock. On her way there, she was approached by several fans holding magazines for her to autograph, and she wanted most of all to brush them off, but reconsidered and started to sign when she saw the expectant faces.
A large group of people quickly formed around her, and she was secretly pleased to see how much they were smiling and exchanging small quips with her. Compared to Germany where people were more distant, she felt right at home here in Italy. She joked in Italian with several of them, earning laughs and even a couple of blushes along the way.
When she was done, her mood was much improved and she continued her walk back to her motorhome with a spring in her step. She still had to start at the wrong end of the grid, but at least the fans had treated her like always. Of course, it didn't hurt that she was now proudly displaying the Trident on her suit - the Maserati team had always been very popular in Italy.
"Honey, I'm home!" she said and knocked on the front door.
"I'm in the kitchen, making sandwiches," Kathleen said over her shoulder.
"So you are. Hello," Francesca said, admiring the view of Kathleen's back in white cotton shorts and a green spaghetti strap tank top. She walked up to stand closely behind the author and pulled away Kathleen's hair to kiss her on the neck.
Kathleen squirmed and giggled.
"Your hair is getting long," Francesca said and wrapped her arms around Kathleen's waist.
"I like it that way," Kathleen said, leaning into the touch.
"Perhaps I could cut it for you? There's a pair of scissors in the medical kit."
"Oh, you'd like that wouldn't you?"
"I'd love it," Francesca purred into Kathleen's ear.
"How did qualifying go?"
"Like shit," Francesca said matter-of-factly, and unzipped her dark blue driving suit.
"We qualified 23rd."
"23rd...?" Kathleen said and put down the knife and wiped her hands on a towel.
"Vittorio was the qualifier today. He did a bad job. And I have to thank him for it."
"What on Earth for?"
"His fat wallet pays for my comeback."
"Oh... all right. Is Mugello a difficult track to learn?"
"Not particularly. The problem is that he's just a wealthy amateur with an expensive weekend hobby."
"Why isn't he driving in one of the slower categories, then? It sounds a bit dangerous to me..."
"Heh! Big toys for big boys, you know," Francesca said and grinned.
Kathleen rolled her eyes.
"Phew, it's hot in here!" Francesca said, and pulled down the driving suit, tying it around her waist. Kathleen picked up the tray with the sandwiches, and turned around to put them in the refrigerator. She couldn't avoid looking at the very form-fitting fireproof undershirt the driver was wearing, and suddenly felt rather warm herself.
"Yeah... the air condition thingamajig is broken. I never knew Italy was so warm in early September."
"Well, it is. I need a shower, I smell rather strongly," Francesca said and winked at Kathleen.
"...now you mention it... I'll have the tea ready when you're done," Kathleen said, returning the wink.
"Cheeky so-and-so," Francesca said on her way to the bathroom.
"How's your hip?" Kathleen said as she bit down into a cucumber sandwich.
"A bit sore, but the free practice this morning didn't hurt at all. It's getting better day by day."
"Good. Listen, I've been going over the files. I honestly don't know if we should go ahead with writing a second book. So much of what I've written is so... private. What do you think?"
Francesca put down her mug of tea and scratched her damp hair.
"I can't tell you how to write the book, Kathleen. You're the expert in that field. The first one still sells pretty well, right?"
"And we know that people love to read about someone coming back from injury. Just look at all the biographies on footballers, half of those are comeback stories... all right, usually from alcohol-related issues rather than actual accidents, but you know what I mean," Francesca said, and took a sip of her tea.
"I do, but if we decide to go ahead with it, we have to go over the text very thoroughly. There are things in there I don't want the world to know about," Kathleen said and dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
"I agree. But that's for later. It might be a moot point anyway - if my comeback fizzles out, I'll be forgotten by Christmas."
"Oh, surely not!"
"We're only as good as our last race. That's always been a part of the game in motor racing."
"Well, I won't forget you," Kathleen said and patted Francesca's hand in a very motherly fashion.
"Awwwwwww," Francesca said and batted her eyelids.
The next morning saw Francesca making her usual preparations for race day. The colour of the driving suit was different, but everything else was as it had always been, right down to Kathleen falling asleep again after the alarm clock had chimed.
"Come on, Kathleen, wakey-wakey, it's time for me to go," Francesca whispered and nudged the author's shoulder.
"There should be a law against getting up before 9 am," Kathleen said, and yawned so wide Francesca was worried she might dislocate her jaw.
"There might be, who knows - but right now, all I need is a 'see-you-soon' kiss."
They kissed, and Kathleen squeezed Francesca's arm.
"Please be safe, OK? My stomach's in a knot already, and you haven't even left yet..."
"I'll try my best. I love you," Francesca said, and kissed Kathleen again.
"Love you, too," the author echoed, and waved.
After Francesca had closed the outer door, Kathleen was left with her thoughts. She sighed and looked around - the motorhome was equipped with all kinds of electronic gadgets, but it didn't feel like a home to her. It was too impersonal, and 65 pan-European satellite channels on the 40" flatscreen TV couldn't compensate for that. She got up and decided to do something useful so she wouldn't get an ulcer from worrying so much. She opened a small cupboard and pulled out the vacuum cleaner. The lush carpet was only 25 feet long and four feet wide, but she'd work hard to make it the cleanest carpet in all of Italy... or the entire continent for that matter.
Vittorio Franco insisted on starting the race, and after the green flag fell he immediately lost another three places in a wild manoeuvre at the first corner. As the first lap was completed, he wasn't just stone last among the factory cars, he was even behind most of the top privateers.
Francesca was watching in the Maserati pits, her face a dark grey mask of irritation. Because of the rules of the championship, no driver could be in the car for longer than four hours, and since Mugello nearly always went to the full six hour distance, Vittorio would need to be in the car for two hours.
Fortunately, even he knew that a two-hour stint would go far beyond his fitness levels and his skills, so he was scheduled to do a 75 minute double stint to begin with, and then Francesca would take over for the next four hours, leaving him with the honour of taking the chequered flag... provided he hadn't thrown the car off the circuit before he could hand over to Francesca.
Francesca cursed silently as the TV broadcast zoomed in on her car, the #3 Maserati MC12, making yet another wild manoeuvre overtaking a slower car. On one hand, she was surprised there were actually drivers in the race who were slower than Vittorio, and on the other she wished that she was back with Jonno. Even though he was young and relatively inexperienced, he was fast, and owned up to his mistakes. Vittorio never made mistakes - or so he said.
Finally he came into the pits, two laps down and completely out of contention for even the top 10. Francesca was waiting impatiently with her drinks bottle and her foam seat - which she needed to fill out the seat in the car because Vittorio's backside was twice the size of hers - and as soon as the car was stopped she tore the door open and almost forced him out of it. Vittorio fumbled and bumbled getting his legs over the wide tunnels in the sides of the car, and when he finally did, he could barely hold his balance.
Francesca inserted her seat and the drinks bottle, and grabbed the roof of the car. She lifted herself off the ground and practically flung herself into the seat. A white hot stab of pain shot up from her hip, and she had to clench her teeth sharply for a few seconds before the pain receded somewhat.
A mechanic grabbed the seatbelts and reached between Francesca's legs to connect them to the centre lock. She took the side-belts herself and did the same. As she was tightening the shoulder straps, the top belts on the six-point harness, the door was closed, and she could hear the team manager counting down on the radio in her helmet.
When he shouted "GO!", she depressed the yellow starter button, and the six litre V12 screamed to life right behind her. She selected first gear and dropped the clutch, making the car roar out of the pits. She kept her finger on the pit-speed limiter all the way down the long pitlane until she passed the traffic light at the end of it. It showed a blinking blue light, warning her that a faster car was approaching from behind. She spotted it in her mirror, and it passed her safely before she was up to full speed.
She checked the gauges, everything looked all right. The engine was a little cool, no wonder, really, she thought, as she went through the second-gear first corner - Vittorio hadn't done enough to make it come up to temperature. She chuckled, but soon concentrated on getting back into the rhythm of driving 210 mph race cars.
At the end of the day, all Francesca's efforts had earned car #3 a tenth-place finish, two laps down. In her stint, she had reclaimed one of the laps Vittorio had lost, only to see him lose it again in the final thirty minutes. She became furious when she saw him dance around in the paddock afterwards, splashing champagne on everyone in his way, behaving like a tenth place finish was some kind of victory.
"Look alive, Francesca. It's his best finish of the year," the team manager said to her, and patted her on the shoulder.
"Mmmm. How nice."
"Listen, you did well today, but if you're not interested in racing for us for the rest of the season, just tell me straight up, OK? Because I don't need that kind of attitude," the team manager said sternly.
Francesca looked down at her driving boots, her ears growing red.
"I apologise. You're right, I'm acting like a prat."
"If that word means what I think it does, you're right," he said, and patted her back again.
"And that's the end of that, yes?"
Kathleen jumped up from the couch and ran to the door when Francesca arrived at their motorhome.
"Welcome back, I'm so glad to see you're all right," she said, and hugged the driver - sweat-soaked driving suit and all. Francesca felt as stiff as a statue, so Kathleen knew something wasn't right.
"Oh, this and that," Francesca said in a tone of voice that Kathleen instantly recognised as one the driver used when she was fed up.
"My co-driver drives slower than my gran ever did, I just made a damned fool out of myself in front of my team manager... and my hip hurts like hell," she said and leaned against the door jamb.
"First things first. Get out of your clothes, and I'll find the massage oil," Kathleen said.
"The oil isn't necessary today. It's a different kind of pain. And I stink, I need a shower first," Francesca said, and limped towards the bathroom.
"I can live with a little sweat... please?"
Francesca looked at Kathleen's nervous expression, and relented. She unzipped and stepped out of her driving suit, leaving it in a pile on the floor. She tried to bend down to pick it up, but her hip wouldn't let her.
"I'll get it later, come on, we need you to lie down," Kathleen said, and took Francesca's elbow, guiding her to the other end of the motorhome. Kathleen closed the curtains separating the beds from the living area and shut the window she had opened earlier. Finally, she closed the venetian blinds.
"Let's get you undressed," Kathleen said.
Francesca pulled the fireproof long johns off her hips and Kathleen dragged them off the rest of the way. They were soaked with sweat as well, and the driver knew it wasn't a pleasant job for her.
Francesca was in a great deal of discomfort, and when she sat down, the pressure on her hip made her moan in pain - a sound that made Kathleen's nape hairs stand on end. Francesca pulled off her undershirt, but felt so vulnerable that she preferred to keep her fireproof sportsbra and panties on.
Kathleen helped moving her legs up onto the bed, and Francesca slowly let herself slide backwards until she was flat on her back.
"I just need to rest for a few minutes..." she said, releasing a long sigh.
"When did the pain begin?"
"The second I got into the car..."
"There was something in the seat that pressed against it..."
Kathleen sighed. She simply did not understand why someone was willing to risk so much just to prove themselves - especially not when it wasn't necessary at all.
"How on Earth did you get out of the car?"
"I just jumped out like I always do. I'm not about to look weak in front of a new team."
"But you are weak, woman!" Kathleen said exasperated.
"No, I'm not."
'All right, change of subject,' Kathleen thought.
"What was that you said about making a fool out of yourself," she asked.
Francesca sighed and put her arm across her eyes.
"Vittorio celebrated his best result of the year, and I guess I... mocked him. Giampaolo, my team manager, basically told me to put up or ship out."
"Oh. Was he wrong?"
Francesca moved her arm away from her eyes and looked directly at Kathleen, raising an eyebrow. When it didn't have any effect on the author, she sighed, and lowered her arm again.
"... no, he wasn't. But I just don't feel we've accomplished anything when all we've done is a damned tenth place finish. Toyota won, so the championship has closed right up. I could've had a shot at it this year..."
Kathleen placed her hand on Francesca's heart, feeling the steady rhythm.
"*That's* all I care about. You and me, not another cup on the mantelpiece."
Francesca smiled and squeezed Kathleen's hand.
"I know..." Francesca said, and reached behind Kathleen to pull her down so she could claim her lips.
Three weeks later at the Nürburgring, high in the German Eiffel mountains.
"Kathleen O'Malley speaking," the familiar voice said in Francesca's cell phone.
"Hello honey. I love you and I miss you," Francesca said, and smiled broadly. It was Sunday at lunch time, just before the traditional Nürburgring Six Hours was scheduled to start. She sat in the Maserati motorhome with her feet up on the a coffee table. If Kathleen had seen that, she'd never have allowed it.
"Me, too," Kathleen replied and sneezed.
"It's just so weird not to have you here."
"That bloomin' cold. I knew it the instant we got home from Italy. Remember I told you? I was right. I hate it when I'm right," Kathleen said, and sneezed again.
"Are you wrapped up warmly?"
"Oh yes. I'm in bed, drinking hot cocoa with a shot of rum, and I have my slippers and my bathrobe on. I'm comfy."
"You have your bathrobe on in bed? Let me guess, it's the pink one with the fluffy collar."
"...Yes. You know me too well."
"I do," Francesca purred into the telephone. Kathleen sneezed again.
"Oh, it feels like I have a wad of cotton inside my head!" she whined.
"I can hear, your voice sounds different."
"Everything's different... the race isn't over, is it?"
"No, it hasn't started yet. I'll call you again when it's done."
"All right. Please be safe. I love you," Kathleen said, and attempted to blow a kiss through the telephone, but she had a sneezing fit instead.
"Settle down, settle down. Love you too, bye bye," Francesca said, trying not to laugh.
"So long," Kathleen said and hung up.
Francesca had urged Vittorio to make her the qualifying driver for this race, and he had agreed. When the green flag waved for the warmup lap, she took off from the sixth starting position her hard work had earned her in qualifying. She noted with a great deal of pride that even her supposed team leader, the #1 car, was behind her. The Toyotas were again occupying the front row, their campaign coming on very strongly at the end of the season.
The Nürburgring Six Hours was true to form by being run in adverse conditions. A drizzle fell on the cars as they went around the warmup lap, and judging by the clouds Francesca could see in the horizon when she went through the Dunlop hairpin at the bottom of the circuit, it wouldn't be long before real rain arrived. It didn't bother her a bit, she loved driving in the rain, but Vittorio would be quaking in his boots by now, she thought - and chuckled.
This weekend's race was on the southern 'Grand Prix' loop of the Nürburgring instead of the old Nordschleife. Francesca had only driven on the old circuit in a road car, but she would've loved to race there. That track really separated the wheat from the chaff. The new 'Ring had few of the old track's charms, but it was fast and sweeping, and it suited the Maseratis well. Francesca was determined to achieve a good result this time.
She ran slowly through the Veedol-S chicane and onto the front straight, heading for the start-finish line. The car in pole position controlled the speed of the pack of cars until the light turned to green on the gantry over the track, and the Toyota had them creeping along. Francesca was starting to wonder if something had gone wrong when the red light finally turned off. She floored the throttle and went up through the gears - the race was on.
She found a gap at the first corner and managed to overtake two cars. When the leaders streamed through the Mercedes Arena, she was already in fourth place. Ahead of her were only the two Toyotas and one of the Nissans.
She had advanced to third place when the rain arrived. Everybody dove into the pits to change to wets, and she considered for a brief moment if she should chance it and stay out. A radio message from the team manager overruled her decision, and she followed the two Toyotas into the pits.
The Maserati pit crew was slower than what she was used to at Mercedes, and when Francesca returned to the track, the Nissan had snatched back third place. No matter, there was plenty of time to get it back.
After an excellent two hour stint that saw her trade fastest laps with the Toyotas, the team manager ordered her to rest and to swap to Vittorio. Grudgingly, she had to accept, and she took to the pits to hand over the car.
She helped strap Vittorio in, not an easy task considering his girth, and made sure his drinks bottle was in place. She stepped back from the car and slammed the door shut. The refuellers finished, and the car was sent off.
She went inside the garage and grabbed a bottle of water. She emptied it in two gulps and used a towel to dry her neck and her hair.
"Is everything all right?" The team manager said.
"Yep. Pretty good race today," she replied.
"Slippery much out there?"
"Well... it's not too bad." she said and shrugged,
"Please be on alert in case Vittorio aborts," he said, jotting some info down on a clipboard.
She didn't need to. Twenty minutes later, the cameras zoomed in on a crashed car that looked very much like... a dark blue Maserati with a #3 on the side.
Francesca's shoulders slumped and she shook her head in defeat. Suddenly the team manager exploded in a hissy fit and hurled his headset across the garage. The expensive electronic equipment made a devastating impact with a wall, shattering in a dozen pieces and making a crack loud enough to make Francesca jump. The team manager started shouting a string of profanities in Italian, and the rest of the team soon knew why - the camera panned to another crashed car that had been hiding behind the #3... it was the #2 - the car that held a slender lead in the championship...
A replay started on the TV, showing Vittorio losing control under braking to the Veedol-S chicane and skidding right up the backside of his team mate in the #2 car at nearly unabated speed. Giampaolo fell silent for a few seconds, and then he went off like Mount Etna all over again. Francesca didn't need to see or hear more, so she quietly slipped out the back of the garage, heading for her motorhome. This race was over for her.
When she returned after a shower and a change to street clothes, Giampaolo hadn't calmed down yet. He was in the back of the garage, telling Vittorio Franco the a-b-c's of driving in the wet, and by the red-faced look of the wealthy amateur, he had been going on for quite some time.
The #3 car had been returned to the pits on the back of a flatbed lorry, and Francesca gave it a quick once-over. Not surprisingly, it was a mess. The front bodywork had been firmly remodelled, the suspension on the right front was completely gone, and the hoses guiding the air to the radiators were torn off.
She shook her head and thrust her hands into the pockets of her jacket.
The lecture finally over, Vittorio brushed past Francesca without even looking at her, and on his way out of the garage, he slammed the door so hard the lamps shook.
'Great. There goes my comeback,' she thought.
"Carrara, don't leave yet. I need to have a word with you after the race," the team manager said to her as she was searching for a new headset.
"All right," she replied, and went back to lean against the back wall of the garage so she wouldn't interfere with the work in the pits.
It was easy to overlook through the pandemonium that the race was still going on - the #1 car had inherited third place when #2 crashed, and he was right on the tail of the Toyota that posed the biggest threat to #2's championship lead. This was a vital time of the race. The laps were winding down, and the other Toyota wasn't far up the road. If #1 managed to get by the Toyota, they couldn't play the team order card and have their two cars swap positions.
The current driver of #1, Luca DiLorenzi, was a man Francesca considered a primadonna, but she had to admit he was a fast driver. Giampaolo was constantly on the radio telling him to hurry up, and the TV pictures proved that he listened. With about thirty minutes of the race left to run, DiLorenzi tried a daring manoeuvre on the Toyota in front which paid off, and he swept around it and into second place, making the mechanics cheer wildly.
The positions remained the same until the chequered flag, and #2's lead in the championship had been protected.
After the mechanics had celebrated the second place finish, Giampaolo found Francesca and walked with her to the Maserati motorhome.
He closed the sliding door to the office and turned on the little red light over the door, indicating a confidential conversation was taking place.
"Well. Here we are."
"Pretty good finish by Luca," Francesca offered.
"Yes. Let's get to the point. Vittorio's gone, he won't be back, and he's taking #3 with him."
"Shit," Francesca said, the news confirming what she had already expected.
"It might've been, but I've decided #2 needs a firm pair of hands on the steering wheel for Spa, so I'm bumping you up to be the ringer in that car."
Francesca's eyebrows shot up.
"We've arranged a private test in Silverstone in ten days' time, and we'll use it to get the base setup sorted. You need to be there to adapt to Fabio and Gio's setup, and... well, we need to see if you're back to full strength. Your stint today was excellent, but Spa is much more strenuous than the Nürburgring... I guess I don't have to tell you, you won there last year, after all."
Francesca nodded absentmindedly, she had a hundred things going through her mind all at once. Such a chance rarely presented itself, and she had to make sure she took it with both hands... plus there was a small matter of maybe earning a contract for next year if she did well.
"All right?" Giampaolo said, and stretched out his hand so she could shake it.
"Yes. I'll see you there, then."
When the meeting was over, Francesca almost couldn't wait to tell Kathleen, so she dialled her number on the cell phone and waited impatiently for the author to pick it up.
"Hi honey, it's me. I have some fantastic news..." Francesca blurted out, interrupting Kathleen.
"Francesca, dear, if you have to whistle while you work, can't you at least do it on key?" Kathleen asked while she was cleaning up a bit around the house.
"I am on key," Francesca said, and demonstrated a perfect scale.
"Now you are. You definitely weren't before."
"When I'm working, I can't hit the tones."
"I'll say," Kathleen said under her breath.
"The bottom right corner needs to go down a bit," Francesca said from her position on the floor, where she was busy wiping off the underside of the glass table with a soft cloth. Kathleen stepped back from the picture frame she was trying to get level, and squinted.
"Hmmm... no. It's straight now," she said.
"Maybe I want it crooked!" Kathleen said with her hands on her hips.
Francesca started whistling another unrecognisable song, totally off key, occasionally pausing to breathe on the glass table.
"I think I'll start to vacuum the bedroom. Then I can't hear you murdering some poor song," Kathleen said, and opened the cupboard where they stored the vacuum cleaner.
Suddenly the phone rang, right above where Francesca was working.
"I got it!" she said, still sitting on the floor. She reached up on top of the glass table and took the receiver.
"Hi Fran, it's Jonno. Remember me?" he said and laughed.
"Hello Jonno. It's been a while. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. I trust you are, too?"
"Getting better all the time, thank you."
"That's good to hear. Listen, Fran... have you seen this week's issue of Trackracer?"
"No," she said, and sighed. She got up from the floor and sat down on the couch.
"Well, perhaps you should buy it. There's an article in there about you."
"I haven't spoken to a Trackracer reporter since June," she said, her good mood evaporating rapidly.
"Thought as much. It's ah... how can I put it, I think 'peculiar' is a fitting word."
"I'm afraid so, yes," Jonno said, recognising Francesca's tone of voice.
"What's it about?"
"Oh, Fran... I'd rather not... I think you should buy it and see. And please don't shoot the messenger."
"Don't worry, Jonno, I won't. I'll deal with that later. Have you found another ride yet?"
"Well, I think I have something cooking. But let's see."
"For the World Championship?"
"No. For the US series, actually," he said.
"Oh? Well, you're a bachelor, and there's good money to be found over there, so break a leg, friend!"
"Thank you, Fran. How's Kathleen?"
"Oh, she's fine. A bit grumpy today," Francesca said and chuckled.
"That happens on a monthly basis with most women, you know."
"It's been fun to hear your voice again, Fran."
"Likewise, Jonno. If your plans come to fruition, swing by for dinner before you leave, OK?"
"I'd love that, Fran. That's a promise."
"Great. Bye bye, Jonno."
"Kathleen, I have to go to the newsagent. Do you want a magazine or something?" Francesca shouted as she was tying her shoelaces.
"No, thank you. Was that Jonno?" Kathleen said, and dragged the vacuum cleaner into the living room.
"Yes. He gave me a warning about an negative article in Trackracer... just what I didn't need now."
"Why would they want to do that?" Kathleen asked confused.
"Who knows why they do anything. They want to sell copies, and then they think they have to write garbage. I shan't be long," Francesca said, and gave Kathleen a quick kiss.
Forty minutes later, Francesca returned with the magazine under her arm. She hung her jacket on the hallstand and threw her shoes into the bedroom. Kathleen had put on some music while Francesca was away, and Loreena McKennitt's crystal clear voice filled the room.
Francesca put down the magazine on the glass table and sat down on the couch, simply staring at the glossy mag, and not making a move to read it. Kathleen moved from the chair to sit next to her.
"Do you want me to see what it's all about first?" she asked.
"No. I can handle it."
"I don't want you to have a heart attack..." Kathleen said, and wrapped her arm around Francesca's waist.
She sighed, and opened the magazine. There wasn't anything untoward on the cover, the top story of the week was that some GP2 driver had failed a drugs test. She leafed past several pages of ads to get to the index. Her finger went down the list of articles and stopped at page 26. 'Francesca Carrara - losing the edge?' the headline said.
Francesca flipped the magazine to the correct page. The first thing she saw was a photo of her Le Mans accident, spread out over two pages. Francesca felt Kathleen shudder, so she reached out and mussed the blonde hair.
"Hey, it's all right. It's just a picture," she said.
"I know, but I still don't like looking at it," Kathleen said.
The byline said it had been written by James Fenton, the same reporter who had called her in the hospital in Le Mans. She flipped the page, and started to read the article. She quickly found that it was barely coherent. Column after column of psychobabble, occasionally interrupted by boxes with fragments of an interview with a psychologist Francesca had never seen or heard of, and certainly hadn't spoken to.
After reading the first page over Francesca's shoulder, Kathleen rose from the couch.
"I still don't understand why they'd do something like that. The article is poorly written, and apart from using your name in the headline, you're hardly mentioned. It's about how accidents can have long-lasting psychological effects... and you clearly don't have any of those."
"No, but how would they know? They didn't speak to me when they wrote it."
Kathleen rolled her eyes and sighed.
"I feel a headache coming on. I think I need some tea. Do you want anything?" she said.
"No, thank you."
"Not even a butter cookie?"
"Well... maybe just one?" Francesca said and grinned.
On the next page, Trackracer had inserted a picture of her from the pre-season tests. She was of course wearing her Mercedes driving suit, and she was talking to Derek Harrison and Jochen Graumann. She shook her head, not quite grasping how so much could have happened in such a short span of time.
"Do you want to phone Trackracer and talk to this Fenton-character?" Kathleen said, as she put down her mug of tea and a plate with five butter cookies on the glass table. She handed Francesca her one cookie, and winked at the dark haired woman.
"Thank you. No, there's no point," Francesca said, and started munching on the cookie straight away.
"But the article is nonsense...?"
"Well, yes it is, but I know exactly what he'll say. 'If you have a problem with the magazine, you should contact our solicitor, and blah blah blah.'"
"I couldn't work like that," Kathleen said.
"Me neither," Francesca said, and stole another butter cookie from the plate, earning her a swat on the hand.
"Do you think Giampaolo will have read the magazine?"
"Probably. But I refuse to let it affect me. Once I'm in the car, I leave everything from the real world behind. The only things that exist then are myself, the car and the track. If I foul up, there's no one else to blame but me, and likewise, if I do a good job, then I expect to be praised."
"You leave everything behind... even me?" Kathleen asked.
"Well... I know it sounds terrible, but yes. I need to concentrate and focus exclusively on the driving," Francesca said, and looked at Kathleen with an apologetic expression on her face.
Kathleen nodded, and asked a question that had been burning on her mind for a while.
"What happens if you're not fast enough in the test, Francesca?"
"Then I'm unemployed again. And third chances are non-existent in this business," Francesca said matter-of-factly, looking directly into Kathleen's eyes.
"Papers, please," the security guard said, as Francesca and Kathleen drove up to the gates at Silverstone. In World War 2, it had been an airfield for the heavy American bombers, and the preserved runways still had several RAF-style barracks on them. The circuit was lined with miles and miles of ten-feet high catchfencing, and the grandstands were huge structures, all very reminiscent of an active airbase.
"You know, whenever I race here, I feel like an extra in a remake of 'The Battle Of Britain'," Francesca said and laughed, as they were driving through the gate to get to the paddock.
"You're right, it does have that feel to it. I've never been here in person, but I've seen it many times on the TV. The British Grand Prix was the only motorsports event my dad watched," Kathleen said.
"The track was very different back then. It's constantly being updated to keep abreast of all the modern safety ideas."
Kathleen nodded, busy looking out of the side window at the imposing grandstands.
They found a parking space behind the team's transporters and prepared to venture outside in the early October wind. The day was gloomy, with low clouds and a threat of rain.
"Yikes, my hair!" Kathleen said, as the wind made a right mess of her long hair when she got out of the car.
"Good thing you weren't wearing a hat, it'd have been in the next village by now,"
"Why is it so windy here? It's not anywhere else!"
"The paddock and the pits are perpetually blustery here. It doesn't matter how it is elsewhere - in Silverstone, it's always windy," Francesca said as she took the bag with her clothing and the smaller holdall with her helmet out of the trunk of Kathleen's car.
"Oh, how charming. You can't see that on the TV," Kathleen said, and raised the collar on her jacket up to her ears.
Francesca shut the hatchback, and they started to walk over to an open door in the pits complex.
Inside the garage, a young-ish man with typical Latin good looks was sitting on a plastic chair, holding a steaming mug of coffee. He was wearing a dark blue Maserati driving suit with some slightly unusual accessories: yellow winter gloves and a fire engine red 'Snoopy' beanie hat he had pulled down past his ears.
"Ciao, Francesca. Come stai?" he said when he saw her.
He started talking to her in Italian, but Francesca put her hands in the air.
"Abbiamo bisogno di parlare inglese, per favore, Fabio. This is my friend, Kathleen, and she doesn't speak Italian."
"Salute a la bella donna!" Fabio said with a huge smile and raised his mug to Kathleen.
"He's toasting the pretty lady," Francesca leaned in and said, nudging Kathleen in the side.
"Oh... I've never been greeted quite like that before," Kathleen said, and laughed. She put out her hand.
"Kathleen O'Malley. How do you do."
"Fabio Dellassandro. Very nice to meet you," he said.
"I'm off to change. Think you can stay out of trouble for that long?" Francesca said to Kathleen.
As Francesca passed Fabio, she said a few words to him in Italian, and he nodded - 'hands off, she's not available.'
"So you're one of the drivers in #2 ?" Kathleen asked, and dug her hands into her pockets to try to get some warmth in them.
"Yes I am."
"I see. So you're fighting for the championship?"
"That's right. And I hope Francesca can help us get there. You're the lady that wrote her biography, right?" he said and smiled.
"I saw the presentation at Le Mans, it looked pretty full."
"It was," Kathleen said and laughed, remembering the huge crowd at the event.
The door opened behind them and another driver walked in. He was a few years older than Francesca, and with very little hair on his head. He started talking very fast in Italian to Fabio, and at first, he didn't notice Kathleen at all.
"Gio, this is Francesca's friend Kathleen," Fabio said, and pointed at the blonde woman.
"Oh, hello, I'm sorry, I didn't see you. My name's Giovanni Bellichi. Everyone calls me Gio."
"Hello. I'm Kathleen O'Malley."
"Where's Francesca?" Gio said.
"She's changing. She won't be long," Fabio said.
"Good, because there are several things we need to go over with her before we can start the test."
They started talking Italian to each other, and Kathleen felt slightly overlooked. It didn't last long, as Francesca put her hands on the blonde woman's shoulders.
"Ciao, Gio. Nice to see you."
"Francesca," he said.
"Fabio's the ladies' man, and Gio's the serious one... but I think you've found that out already," she said to Kathleen, who smirked in return. Fabio laughed out loud, raising his mug to her again.
"I've got you a set of earplugs, and you have to use them, Kathleen. The cars need to warm up, and as soon as they're started, it'll be louder than hell in here," Francesca said, and gave Kathleen a small plastic box with the Maserati Trident on it.
"All right. I was..."
Giampaolo strode into the garage holding a clipboard and a headset.
"Team briefing in five minutes in the bus. Has everyone heard it?"
"Luca and Donny aren't here yet," Gio said.
The team manager raised an eyebrow and was about to set off on one of his trademark tirades when he spotted Kathleen.
"Oh, hello, Miss O'Malley."
Kathleen opened her mouth to say hello, but Giampaolo didn't wait for her.
"Team briefing in ten minutes, and we'll start with or without them!" he said and tapped his wristwatch. He spun around on his heel, and left the garage.
Half an hour later, Francesca and the others came out of the bus, ready to begin the testing. Kathleen had been busy watching the mechanics preparing and taking the cars out of the transporters, and they were now wheeling them into the garage.
"The cars are looking fabulous, don't you think?" she said to Francesca as she came over to her.
"They look good, I guess. All right. We're set. Fabio's going out first to set a base time."
"And then you'll get in?"
"Yes. Well, that's the plan, anyway. All kinds of things usually happen at tests. It might be that he isn't happy with the basic setup, and comes in to get it adjusted."
"Right. Well, whenever you do go out... please be careful."
"I always am, Kathleen," Francesca said, and took the hand offered to her.
Right at that moment, one of the mechanics pressed the starter button on #2, and the V12 came to life with a scream. Kathleen jumped a foot in the air and wrapped her arms around Francesca.
"Oh dear," she said when she noticed what she was doing.
"Doesn't bother me at all," Francesca drawled.
"Of course not, but there are so many people here..."
"They'll be fine. Don't you worry about that. Come on, let's go someplace where it's more quiet..."
"I have arrived!" a man walking down the pitlane suddenly shouted. Everyone turned to look at the newcomer, Luca DiLorenzi. He was in his late twenties, and his hair and beard were trimmed to the latest fashion standards. He wore a pair of sunglasses even though it was overcast, and his driving suit wasn't closed all the way up, so everyone could get a good look at the undoubtedly expensive piece of gold jewellery around his neck. A rail-thin woman walked a step behind him.
He walked over to Francesca and Kathleen and took Kathleen's hand. He bent down and kissed it, trying to appear like a matinee idol - not entirely successful.
"Enchanted. I'm Luca DiLorenzi, you've probably heard of me," he said, lifting his sunglasses and flashing his big, brown eyes at Kathleen.
"I have, yes. I'm Kathleen O'Malley," she replied, feeling acutely embarrassed.
"And she's with me, Luca. Who's your lady friend?" Francesca said, and reached over to remove his hand from Kathleen's.
"Louisa, get over here," he said, and waved at the woman.
The woman was probably in her early twenties, but it was hard to tell since her face was covered by what looked like an inch of makeup. She had bleached blonde hair, fake eyelashes, and most likely fake breasts, too. Her pink blouse and very tight leather pants didn't leave anything to the imagination, and the way she walked didn't either.
She had an air of arrogance about her that led to Kathleen disliking her immediately, and she showed it by shoving her hands in her pockets.
"Hi," Louisa said, and never stopped chewing a wad of bubblegum. She looked at the two older women with barely hidden boredom.
"Nice to meet you. But anyway, we're busy, so if you will excuse us..." Francesca said, and took Kathleen by the shoulders.
"Whatever," Louisa said, and waltzed back to Luca who was busy talking loudly to one of the mechanics.
"Dear God, what a tramp!" Kathleen growled when they were out of earshot.
"Calm down, tiger. Not everyone can have your grace, you know," Francesca said, smiling broadly behind Kathleen's back.
"Where are we going, anyway?"
"Right over here..." Francesca said, and turned off the pitlane, walking in between two lorries.
"Give me a 'good luck' kiss. It worked the last time."
"Well, in that case, it would be a crime not to do it again..." Kathleen said, and pulled Francesca close. Their lips touched in a very loving kiss, and both women closed their eyes and savoured the moment.
A little while later, Fabio was driving #2 slowly down the pitlane after doing four flying laps and establishing a time Francesca should try to match or improve on.
She was ready to go into the car, and Kathleen could see in Francesca's eyes that she was nervous. She was looking straight ahead and not sensing anything, not even Kathleen's hand on her back. She fidgeted, first with her gloves, constantly pulling the fingers out and then pushing them in again, and then re-adjusting the HANS device and her helmet four times in three minutes.
The car stopped in front of the garage, and Fabio turned off the engine. He came over to her and explained a few details about the track conditions. Francesca nodded a couple of times, and finally said,
She turned to Kathleen and gave her a little squeeze on the arm. Showtime.
She pressed the yellow starter button, and the engine came to life. She checked the gauges, and everything was in order.
"Fran, I want you to do a slow recon lap, two flyers, and then come in. You copy?" Giampaolo said over the radio.
"I copy. Slow-fast-fast-pit."
"All right. Get to it."
Francesca selected first gear and released the clutch. There was no need for the pitlane speed limiter to be used, since the Maserati team was the only one there, so the car quickly gained speed and soon went through the right turn at the end of the pitlane.
The familiar knot in Kathleen's stomach returned, and she had to keep her hands in her pockets, because she was clenching her fists so they wouldn't shake. She could hear the engine note rise and fall as Francesca drove around the circuit on her slow lap.
Giampaolo came over to her.
"Do you want to listen in?" he said, and presented her with a headset.
"Ah... I don't... I don't have very good experiences with that, so... um..."
"Well, it's your choice if you want to use them, but here... take them."
"O... K. Thank you," she said and looked at the headset like it was a monster ready to harm her.
Suddenly she could hear Francesca's voice from the headset, and the need to connect with her was stronger than the fear, so Kathleen brushed her hair into an impromptu ponytail and put the headset on.
"Everything looks A-OK. Starting my first flyer," Francesca said, and Kathleen could hear through the radio how the engine note changed from a lazy growl to an aggressive howl.
#2 screamed past the pits, heading for the first corner, Copse. Even though the car was fitted with electronic transponders to log the time, Giampaolo still used his trusty old stopwatch to time it himself.
They could hear Francesca going at maximum revs through the Maggotts-Becketts complex, and then down the Hangar straight, before braking for Stowe.
"What's the target time?" Kathleen asked.
"1 minute 37 point 2-1," he said.
"And how is Francesca doing?"
Giampaolo looked at her, trying not appear too patronising.
"Well, she hasn't completed a lap yet, so..."
"Oh. Of course. Silly me," Kathleen said and blushed.
"Here she is. I'll tell you in a moment," he said, as Francesca came through Bridge corner and into the infield. She drove the car aggressively through the turns and ran a bit wide on the approach to Woodcote, the final corner. She crossed the line and headed onto her second flying lap.
"1:37.37. Not bad, but not quite there yet, either," he said, and wrote the figure down on his clipboard.
Kathleen willed Francesca on by crossing her fingers, and it seemed to work, because when the car crossed the line after the second flying lap, the stop watch read 1:37.05 - two tenths quicker than the target time.
"Pit, pit, pit," Giampaolo said into the radio.
"Understood. How did I do?" Francesca said, making Kathleen press her headset closer to her ears so she could hear everything.
"First lap 37-3, second lap 37 flat. Adequate for now."
'Adequate!' Kathleen thought, and was a heartbeat away from asking Giampaolo what the hell he was on about, when she realised that it was probably all part of a grander scheme, and that she better keep quiet.
"Understood," Francesca said, sounding winded after the two fast laps.
"Gio, stand by for a race handover," Giampaolo said to the thin-haired man, who nodded and closed his visor. He stepped into the pitlane with his seat and a drinks bottle.
"Francesca, simulation handover," Giampaolo said into his radio.
"Roger that. I'm entering the pits now."
Within a few seconds, Kathleen could hear the car approaching, the pit speed limiter making the car stutter loudly. Francesca dived in and stopped exactly on the yellow marker tape on the ground. She jumped out of the car, and helped Gio get in. She went down on her knees and strapped the lower belts, and then clipped the drinks bottle in place. She got up, shut the door, and stood back. Gio started and drove about fifty feet down the pitlane before stopping.
"All right Gio. Cut it," Giampaolo said, and signalled to three mechanics that they should pull the car backwards.
Francesca removed her helmet and her balaclava, She scratched her hair and looked for Kathleen. The author was still standing inside the garage and waved at the driver.
"Hi. What that it?" Kathleen asked, as they walked to the back wall of the garage.
"No, just the overture. Now we'll do a full tank simulation where they'll check if I can keep a consistent pace, and then we'll do what we came for - setting up the car for Spa."
"Oh... I though we were done."
"Oh, no. It'll be several hours yet. Have you had a cup of coffee?" Francesca asked.
"It's not coffee, it's espresso! And it smells like rocket fuel!" Kathleen said and chuckled.
"Well, try the hot soup, then. It's great from what I've heard."
Behind them, Luca went out in #1, quickly gaining speed down the pitlane.
"Oh, there's Prince Irresistible," Kathleen said and scrunched her nose.
"He's a primadonna, but he's quick. His job is simpler. All he needs to do is to find the setup that suits himself. His co-driver doesn't have any say in the matter," Francesca explained.
"That doesn't sound productive?" Kathleen said.
"He's the star."
"You're my star," Kathleen said with a smile, and hooked her hand inside Francesca's arm.
"I'm glad you think so. Perhaps you could join me the next time I'll negotiate my contract?"
"Now you mention it, how do you rate your chances?"
"Can't say, but I know I'm trying my best," Francesca said, and shrugged.
"Don't you think you could find another team to work for for next year... I mean, if this falls through?"
"Well... I probably could, but I want to be at the business end of the grid. Even the top privateers only have irregular chances of winning. I think I'd get frustrated too quickly in such a scenario," Francesca said.
"Carrara!" Giampaolo barked from out front.
"I guess that's my cue, see you later," she said, and quickly gave Kathleen a little kiss on the cheek.
"All right, here's what we'll do. We've bolted new tires on it and filled the tank to capacity. I want you to drive a full stint... and Francesca, no stunts, no bravery, only fast, consistent laps, OK?" Giampaolo said, with a very fatherly hand on her shoulder.
"Off you go."
She got into the car and drove off. After a few minutes, Giampaolo started writing down the times off his stop watch. Because of the heavier car, she was now doing 1:42's, but she was very consistent, only going a tenth or two in either direction. He nodded his approval and wrote something more on the clipboard.
"How are things going?" Kathleen said, holding a bowl of chicken soup that was steaming in the October cold.
"So far so good," Giampaolo said, and wrote down another lap time after Francesca had screamed by on the straight.
45 minutes later, and Francesca entered the pits with her tank nearly empty. Kathleen was out front watching them, hoping the anxious wait would soon be over for the driver.
"Simulation handover," Giampaolo said into the radio, and looked at his clipboard.
"Understood," Francesca replied. She approached the pit and stopped at the marker tape. Fabio was standing by to take over after her.
"Scramble, front bodywork!" Giampaolo suddenly said into the radio. Two mechanics ran into the pits and took a spare nose section. As per regulation, they couldn't touch the car while it was being refuelled, but as soon as the hoses were off, the mechanics set to work unclipping the old front. One man reached in and took off the electronic cables connected to the headlights, while the other made sure the front bodywork was lined up properly. Francesca finished the handover to Fabio and stepped back to watch them.
The exchange didn't go smoothly, as they couldn't get the front bodywork on correctly. Giampaolo cursed in Italian, came out onto the pitlane and started waving his hands.
"Stop, stop, stop, this is screwed up. Reset and do it again - and this time do it right! Fabio, stay in the car," he said.
Her work done, Francesca took her helmet off, and walked over to Kathleen.
The author smiled nervously, and took Francesca's gloved hand.
"How did it go?"
"Meh," Francesca said and shrugged.
"I think Giampaolo was satisfied," Kathleen whispered.
"Well, you never know with him. I've seen him smile when things go wrong, because then he has a legitimate reason to shout at someone."
"Oh... I don't think it was like that, actually..." Kathleen said.
"Carrara! Briefing in the bus!" Giampaolo shouted.
"I wish he would learn how to say 'please'," Kathleen said and sighed.
"I better go and see what he wants," Francesca said, and squeezed Kathleen's hand.
Inside the team bus, Giampaolo sat down in his leather chair, and Francesca pulled a plastic chair over to sit on. He went through the rows of numbers on a piece of paper on his clipboard, and his face was unreadable to Francesca.
"Well, Fran, you did 27 laps in that stint, most of them acceptable, but there were two consecutive laps where you lost 1.2 and 0.8 seconds respectively. What happened?" he said, and pointed at two lines on the data sheet.
"There was gravel on the track on the exit of the Abbey Chicane. It had been blown away when I returned for the third pass."
"After Luca's spin."
"Oh. I see."
"He made a kamikaze move on me, but went flying off into the gravel. I think he forgot the brake pedal's the one in the middle," Francesca said and smirked.
"Hmmm. Yes... I heard a few words on the radio about that," he said, and wrote something down.
"And?" Francesca said.
"And... congratulations, Fran. You're in," Giampaolo said, and stretched out his hand.
"Thank you, Giampaolo," she said, and shook it.
"Now let's go win that damned championship, huh?" he said, and leaned back in his leather chair.
Later that evening.
On their way home from the track, Francesca and Kathleen had stopped and bought a bottle of champagne. Safely home, they had lit a fire in the fireplace, and now they were sitting on a rug on the floor, watching the flames flicker. On Kathleen's insistence, they had turned off all the lights in the house, so they could get the most out of the fire.
"I can't believe you only want one glass of this champagne, Francesca. It's great," Kathleen said and took another swig of her tall glass.
"You know I don't drink alcohol... well, much, anyway," the driver said, quite content with looking at Kathleen's profile.
"Well, I do, so if you don't mind..." Kathleen said, and refilled her glass.
"By all means."
"Isn't this romantic? You, me, an open fire... what more do we want?"
"Oh, I could think of one or two things," Francesca said, and pulled one of the chairs over so she could lean against it. When she was comfortable, she stretched out her legs.
"Could you now?"
Kathleen moved over to sit between the long legs, her back resting against Francesca's full breasts underneath her grey sweater. The driver wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and sighed deeply.
"This was one of them," she whispered into Kathleen's ear.
"I still think your hair is too long," she said, and kissed the top of Kathleen's head.
"How many times do I have to tell you I like it long," Kathleen said, and chuckled. She started moving her fingers up and down the driver's arms, and was pleased to feel a shiver running through the taller woman behind her.
"Be careful. You might start something you can't stop," Francesca purred, gently clawing at Kathleen's stomach.
"I'm not planning on stopping..." the author said, and turned around to sit on her knees. Their faces, and more importantly, their lips, were suddenly right next to each other, and the temptation proved too great for the two women.
Kathleen leaned in and kissed the soft lips in front of her. She closed her eyes and let herself float away on the kiss. Francesca's tongue traced her lips and Kathleen opened her mouth to let it in. It didn't take long for the kisses to become much more passionate, and pretty soon both Francesca and Kathleen were ready for more.
Kathleen pulled back slightly and looked lustfully at Francesca's ice blue eyes, who were darkened by the passion coursing within her. She started to unbutton her shirt, taking it slowly, teasing Francesca one button at a time. When she was done, she flipped the shirt clear of her shoulders, revealing her curvaceous body to the driver, who had great difficulty in tearing her eyes from Kathleen's enticing breasts. She leaned in again and kissed Francesca lovingly. Her body trembled when she felt the other woman's hands caress her back.
"Come," she whispered, and tugged on Francesca's shoulders, inviting her to lie down in front of the fire.
The driver complied, making herself comfortable on the rug.
"Don't go anywhere..." Kathleen whispered.
Francesca grinned and put her arms behind her head. This was turning into an interesting evening.
Kathleen went into her bedroom and opened her drawer. She wanted to take the purple object, but she suddenly remembered an item that had given her much satisfaction in the years she had been alone. She rummaged through the drawer until she found it - she looked at it, and came to the conclusion that such a special occasion needed a special celebration.
She went back to Francesca, hiding her special friend behind her back. The sight of Kathleen walking in, only wearing trousers and a bra, stirred Francesca a great deal, and she looked greedily at the author. Kathleen kneeled and began to lift Francesca's blouse.
"Come on, let's get this off of you," she said.
"Hey, you're dressed too!" Francesca said, touching the leg of Kathleen's trousers.
"One thing at a time. You first..." Kathleen purred.
Francesca quickly shed her clothes. Kathleen's eyes feasted on the taller woman's exquisite body, the muscled planes, the delicate curves and the triangle of jet black curls, and she felt her mouth go bone dry in anticipation.
"Here's the special friend I told you about... she's called Lady Feather," Kathleen whispered, and presented a large goose feather from behind her back.
Without warning, she let the tip of the feather travel up the inside of Francesca's right thigh and across her centre, applying some gentle pressure. Francesca drew a sharp breath and her eyes grew wide from the touch.
"... and she'll bring you pleasure, if you let her..." Kathleen continued, and drew patterns across Francesca's abs with the tip of the feather. The driver's impressive muscles contracted and stood out clearly in the flickering glow of the fire.
"You're a devil woman, you know that?" Francesca said, and ran her fingers up Kathleen's arm.
Kathleen grinned, and let the feather do the talking by moving back down the inside of Francesca's other thigh. Then, she let the feather run little rings around the driver's breasts, and moved down to gently kiss the erect nipples. Francesca's breath hitched, and she pulled Kathleen up to her and kissed her passionately.
Kathleen let the feather roam all over Francesca's body, and the driver closed her eyes and just enjoyed the delicate touch. The tip of the feather felt like fire on her heated skin, and pretty soon, her body cried out for a firmer touch.
"Please, I need you," she whispered, and took Kathleen's hand.
The author leaned down and kissed Francesca very gently on the lips. When they separated, she drew back slightly and looked into the ice blue eyes of the other woman. The magnetic pull was so strong she couldn't help falling in love all over again.
"God, I love you so much..." she whispered.
"I love you too, honey," Francesca said, and pulled Kathleen down again.
The heat, the crackling of the burning wood, and the flickering orange light from the fireplace awoke primal feelings in Kathleen and Francesca, and soon, they were lost to the world.
Francesca woke up and rubbed her eyes. She sat up in bed, partially opened one of the venetian blinds, and peeked out into the dark, deserted paddock of Spa-Francorchamps. The world championship would be decided today, and the fact that Francesca herself wasn't in the hunt annoyed her a great deal. Well, at least she had a ride.
Next to her, Kathleen was sleeping on her stomach, facing away from the driver. Francesca admired the sculpted rear end of the fair headed woman, and wished they had a bit more time.
Francesca listened intently, but she couldn't hear any rain on the roof of the Sunliner. Because the track wound its way through the Ardennes forest, showers were never far away here in Spa. She checked the alarm clock, October 10th, 6:10 am. She still had twenty minutes before she needed to get up, so she snuggled back down in bed, pulling the blanket up to her ears.
A little while later, Francesca stepped out of the shower and put on a bathrobe. She wiped her hair dry with a towel that she threw into the bathroom when she was done.
"How do you feel?" Kathleen asked, still lying on the bed.
"Oh, you know... ready," the driver said, and unzipped the travelling bag with her clean fireproof clothes.
"Well... I guess," Francesca said, and clenched her fists a couple of times to get the circulation going.
"Let me warm them for you," Kathleen said, and rose from the bed. She wrapped the blanket around her body and walked over to the driver on bare feet. Making sure the blanket was safely tucked under her arms, she started rubbing Francesca's cold hands.
"Is that better?" she asked.
"Oh yes... much better", Francesca said, and leaned down to give Kathleen a good morning kiss.
When they separated, Kathleen didn't let go of Francesca's hands.
"I know you must be getting tired of me telling you the same thing each and every time, but Francesca... please me careful."
"I will. I love you far too much to take stupid risks now," Francesca said, and leaned down to kiss Kathleen again.
"I love you too," Kathleen said, and stuck her hand inside Francesca's bathrobe.
While Kathleen was showering, Francesca put on her fireproof nomex underwear: the panties, the sportsbra, the long johns, the socks and finally the undershirt. She stepped into the dark blue driving suit, as usual putting her right leg in first. She closed it all the way up to see if the Velcro band worked, and then opened it down to her chest. She put her right foot up on a chair to pull down the long johns that always crept up. When she put her left foot up, she could still feel a gnawing pain in her hip, and she suspected it would never get better. She sighed, and looked for her fireproof gloves and boots.
Kathleen started humming a happy tune in the shower, and Francesca couldn't help but smile at the blonde woman. Incredible, but true... Francesca Carrara had actually fallen in love. She shook her head and chuckled as she sat down and put on her boots, again the right one first, as superstition dictated. She closed the Velcro straps on the boots and waited for Kathleen's shower to finish.
"Francesca! Francesca! Autograph, please!" a horde of young people shouted, surrounding Kathleen and Francesca on their way to the grid. Kathleen felt overwhelmed by the massive crowd, but as usual, Francesca was in her element when it came to dealing with the fans. She signed programmes and pieces of paper left and right with a huge smile on her face.
Kathleen's head was spinning. The paddock had suddenly transformed into Piccadilly Circus with what looked like thousands of people running around. She had already seen this happen at Le Mans, but Spa was a smaller venue, so the sea of humanity seemed to be even more intense here. She had volunteered to be Francesca's umbrella-girl again, and by the look of the clouds above, she'd have something to do.
They left the paddock and walked onto the grid. 48 immaculately prepared race cars, the largest starting field since Le Mans, were lined up in rows of two along the pit straight, that not only was curving slightly to the right, but also had quite a steep incline.
As soon as she had a clear line of sight, Kathleen saw the imposing Eau Rouge corner at the foot of the hill. An ultra-fast left-right-left complex that was guaranteed to catch out at least one amateur during the race, and quite often some of the professionals as well.
The circuit announcer was reading the qualifying times and the starting drivers on the PA system, and his voice echoed between the garages and the packed grandstand opposite the pits, creating a surreal effect.
"Francesca! A word, please!" a man holding a microphone said, and Francesca nodded. He waved frantically at a Eurosport camera crew, and they quickly fell in place behind him. The sound man pushed the microphone holder in the back, telling to him to begin.
"Francesca Carrara, you're on pole position in Maserati #2 with a time of 2 minutes, 14 point 157 seconds. Can you help win the championship today?"
"I'm on pole, I had a fantastic lap yesterday, and yes, I feel we can deliver the goods today."
"Vittorio Franco is here in a privateer Maserati. Have you said hello to him?"
"No, but I'll make sure to wave every time I lap him," Francesca deadpanned, making Kathleen nearly choke on her tongue.
"Are you aware that the latest weather reports suggest rain within thirty minutes? As you know, rain is very dangerous here because the spray gets stuck in the trees, creating clouds of mist."
"Yes, I've heard the weather reports, and yes, I'm aware of the problem with the mist. The best place to be when it's raining is out front, and that's where we are. I just have to control the start, and not let the Toyota outfox me on the run up to the Les Combes. If I can stay in front on the first lap, I believe we have a good chance of controlling the race in the first hours."
"All right, thank you, Francesca Carrara."
"Thank you," she said, and walked away from the camera crew with Kathleen in tow.
"Is that true? About the spray?" Kathleen said, looking anxiously at the clouds.
"Yes it is. But don't worry, Kathleen. I know exactly what I'm doing."
"Well, I am worrying. Please remember what I said, Francesca. Be careful," Kathleen said, and grabbed hold of Francesca's gloved hand.
"I promise, Kathleen. I promise."
Francesca clicked the HANS-device onto the helmet and wiped the visor. Fabio came over to them and surprised Kathleen by giving her an Italian greeting - kissing her on both cheeks. She blushed, making Francesca chuckle.
"Ciao Francesca, Kathleen," he said and smiled.
"Come stai, Fabio?"
"So-so. I'm glad I'm not starting, rain's on the way," he said.
"Yeah, well, I happen to like the rain."
"So I've heard."
"Who's starting the Toyota?" Francesca said, and pointed at the red and white car next to her Maserati.
"Hmmm. He's a hothead."
"Yep. I fought with him all race long at Mosport. He's aggressive," Fabio said, and looked with great interest at two scantily clad grid girls walking by.
"Focus, Fabio, focus."
"I am focused! Well, gotta go. Be cool, guys," Fabio said and left the two women by themselves.
Francesca looked up at the clouds, which weren't any heavier now than they had been earlier. She took her fireproof balaclava from a small bag Kathleen was carrying and put it on, smoothing out the wrinkles, and adjusting it so it fit around her eyes.
"Are you going to watch the race?" Francesca asked.
"Yes. There's a bigscreen TV set up in the back of the garage. But I don't understand why Maserati doesn't have a big hospitality tent like Mercedes did?"
"Probably because Maserati prefers to spend the money on the cars instead of on nonsense," Francesca said flatly.
"True. Still, at least you have a caterer this time. In Mugello, I had to pay for all the food myself!"
"Awwww, poor you," Francesca said and winked.
Kathleen was about to answer when a noisy group of VIP's passed, and the moment was lost.
"Hug," Francesca said to Kathleen. She put her arms around the author's waist and gave her a bearhug, almost smothering the smaller woman.
"Love you," she told her through the fireproof cloth.
"Love you too," Kathleen said, and gave Francesca's backside a squeeze.
A klaxon sounded, and two track marshals began walking down the grid holding signs that read 'CLEAR THE GRID' and 'FIVE MINUTES TO START'.
The grid was quickly cleared of the hangers-on, leaving only the mechanics and the drivers. Francesca put on her helmet and made sure the HANS-device was secured. She got in the car, and a mechanic tightened her seatbelts.
Kathleen walked briskly back to the Maserati garage, pushing her way through the masses of people - there was no way she was going to miss the start. She turned a corner and went into the garage that was packed with people in dark blue Maserati gear. Giampaolo was talking to someone on the radio, with his indispensable clipboard in his hand, and Fabio and Gio were discussing something in the corner. Luca DiLorenzi was starting from fifth place in #1, and his co-driver, Donny Zorzi, whom Kathleen hadn't met yet, was sitting on a plastic chair playing with his cell phone.
Kathleen went directly to the back of the garage to find a vacant lawn chair to sit on. The TV was showing a static shot of the pit straight, and she could easily see Francesca's Maserati #2 on the front row. A track official waved the green flag, and the cars started to move - Francesca set off first, quickly followed by the others.
As the TV followed the field around on the warmup lap, Kathleen began to understand why Francesca treated this track with such respect. Some of the corners were incredibly fast and sweeping, demanding a high level of commitment, and some of them were tight, fidgety chicanes where it'd be so easy to damage the undertray or the front splitter.
Francesca took the car through the Bus Stop chicane and past the F1 pits, unused by the sportscars. As the pole position car, she had to control the 47 cars behind her, and she was doing her job well. She went round the La Source hairpin on the outside, careful not to go over the drainage manholes on the exit of the corner, and crept down the pit straight in first gear, waiting for the red light to go off and the green light to go on.
Finally the light changed, and she floored the throttle. The V12 screamed and she quickly changed into second, then third, then fourth gear, going down the hill towards Eau Rouge. The Toyota had kept up with her, but she held the inside line into the corner, and she was ahead.
Going through the fast left in fifth gear, she could feel the car bottoming out from the weight of the full tanks. She dropped down a gear and crossed the track to apex the sweeping right, seemingly climbing straight up - and then back up to fifth gear for the left at Raidillon. As she flew onto the Kemmel straight, she changed into sixth and the revs climbed steadily to around 12,000 rpm, which translated to 200 mph. She checked her mirrors and saw the Toyota was trying a move on the inside, but she changed her line towards the centre of the track, and kept it behind her.
She braked hard for the Le Combes chicane, a right-left complex going onto a short straight, and then another hard right. Down another short straight, and then through the right hand hairpin of Malmedy. Francesca constantly checked her mirrors to see where the aggressive Toyota was, but she was in control of the situation. From time to time, she could see a flash of blue behind her, and she reckoned it meant that Luca had gone up to third place from his fifth starting position.
Francesca went through a medium-fast left in third gear, and found herself on the fast part of the circuit. She accelerated steadily up to sixth gear before snatching fifth at the entrance to Pouhon, blasting through the double-apex left at 180 mph. When she checked her mirrors, she could see the Toyota had fallen back slightly, so it looked like Kaneichi had run out of steam already. Back to sixth gear for a short straight, and then she braked and dropped down two gears for the right-left Fagnes complex.
She went down to third gear for the right hand corner at Stavelot, and cleared it effortlessly. Accelerating steadily back up to sixth gear, she prepared herself for the important Blanchimont corner.
This was a section of the track where she just didn't fancy going off - the car would veer straight into the barriers, and they would hurt, considering how fast she'd be going. Holding the correct line on the right hand side of the track, she eased the car into Blanchimont with her foot flat on the throttle in sixth gear, going 200 mph, and pulling over 4 G's through the corner.
She stood on the middle pedal for the Bus Stop, wasting no time going through the fiddly chicane. Onto a short straight, and then she dove into La Source.
"P1, 2.4 seconds ahead, looking good," Giampaolo told her over the radio as she screamed past the pits.
"10-4. Feels good," she replied, and went down the hill to start another lap.
Kathleen's heart was going nearly as fast as Francesca's. She'd been able to follow the opening lap on the bigscreen TV, and now she had to release the breath she'd been holding for the last two minutes. The familiar knot in her stomach had returned, and she crossed her fingers, hoping that Francesca would stay safe, and that everything would proceed as planned.
Francesca had told her they were going for a slightly unusual schedule here: she'd do the opening stint, the first 40 minutes, and then change to Fabio who'd do a full two hours. Then, Francesca would get back in the car for another 40-minute stint, before handing over to Gio who'd take the wheel for the next two hours. All that would leave Francesca fresh to take over for the run to the finish... provided they'd get that far, of course.
Kathleen looked at the small stopwatch she was holding. She had started it when the green flag fell, and it was now showing five minutes and counting.
After 42 minutes, Francesca jumped out of the car and handed over to Fabio.
"There's a hint of rain on the other side of the circuit!" she shouted, as she helped him get the belts done. He gave her a thumbsup, and she patted him on the helmet.
The refuelling crew pulled out the hoses and the mechanics began changing the tires. Francesca slammed the door shut and ran around the back of the car. When the tires had been changed, a mechanic pulled the pressure valve for the pneumatic jacks, making the car fall to the ground, ready to take off. Fabio pressed the starter button and the engine came to life. He set off down the pitlane, with the car stuttering away on the pit speed limiter.
Francesca took off her helmet and the balaclava and went over to the small booth on the pit wall.
"Any problems, Fran?" Giampaolo asked.
"No. Rain's coming."
"We know. Can't be long until it's here."
A group of five cars went by on the track, making conversation impossible. Francesca flinched from the noises coming out of the back of a privateer Mazda with a rotary engine.
"Where's Luca?" she asked.
"Bogged down behind a Nissan and both Toyotas. He took third on the first lap, but tried too much," Giampaolo explained.
Francesca nodded. Very typical of Luca.
"Thanks. I'll take one of these, and then I'll be in the garage," Francesca said, taking a small, portable radio and putting it in the pocket of her driving suit.
Francesca crossed the pitlane again and noticed Kathleen waving at her from the guest enclosure. She waved back and hurried over to her.
"Hi. It's going pretty well, isn't it?" Kathleen said.
"So far, yes. More than five hours to go, though."
Francesca looked around in the hectic garage.
"Come on, let's go somewhere quiet," she said, and took Kathleen by the shoulders, leading her away from the pits.
"Aren't you on standby, or something?"
"Yes, but I have a portable radio with me. It'll be fine."
They walked past the area where the bigscreen TV was, and some of the corporate guests starting clapping at Francesca when they saw her.
"Thank you, thank you, but please - no clapping until the race is over. Superstition, you know," she told them, and laughed.
Kathleen opened the back door and they walked out into the paddock. Francesca looked at the clouds, and tried to calculate which way they would blow. She could feel a light precipitation on the wind, and the air smelled of moisture.
"It's going to rain soon," Kathleen said.
"I think it's started already. I can feel it sooner, 'cos I'm taller, you know," she said, and grinned at Kathleen.
"I beg your pardon!" Kathleen said with a smirk, poking Francesca in the ribs. The driver laughed, and pulled the shorter woman closer.
"You're in a good mood today. You're always so stoic at the race weekends," Kathleen said.
"Well, I have a good feeling about this race. I don't know why, but I think something good will come out of it."
"Let's hope so."
The portable radio in Francesca's pocket squawked, and she took it out. Giampaolo was telling the mechanics to prepare the wet tires. Francesca looked up again, and at the exact same moment, large drops began falling.
"Let's go inside, I don't want to get wet," Kathleen said, and tugged at Francesca's driving suit.
They went back inside and sat down at the bigscreen TV. The rain was falling hard on the far side of the circuit, but all the works car seemed to be able to handle it. A large part of the privateers dove into the pits to change to wets, creating pandemonium in the pitlane.
"Why aren't the factory cars changing yet, Francesca?"
"We're better drivers, quite simply. And it might just be a shower. Time lost in the pits is hard to regain on the track."
Francesca turned around to check the timing screens. The lap times had increased by around 3-5 seconds since the rain started.
"Let's wait and see what happens," she told Kathleen.
Twenty minutes later, a clear dry line had emerged around the circuit, and the lap times had begun to improve again. Only one of the works car, the fourth placed Nissan, had changed tires, and that was now in the unfortunate situation of being on wets on a drying track. They fell back rapidly and finally had to come in and change back to a dry set.
Because they were running on a different strategy to the #2 car, Maserati #1, still with Luca DiLorenzi at the wheel, had assumed third place when the Nissan pitted, and he was still holding it, although he was some distance behind the two Toyotas, who were both yet to stop. Fabio had fallen back to fourth place after the pitstop, and he was quite a long way behind Luca in third.
Francesca was busy telling Kathleen about the relative strategies between the teams, when the TV picture suddenly cut to a car, half-buried in a tirewall. Kathleen instinctively grabbed Francesca's arm and held her tightly.
"It's a privateer Ferrari," Francesca said to calm the author down.
The driver of the yellow Ferrari got out and didn't even bother to shut the door. He went back and looked at the rear end of the car, completely crushed against a row of tires.
The TV showed a replay of the car losing traction coming out of Stavelot, and slamming into the tirewall.
"That was his own fault - too much throttle," Francesca said flatly.
"Is he all right?"
"Oh sure. He's walking around. He's fine," Francesca said, and put her arm around Kathleen's shoulders.
The words 'SAFETY CAR' flashed on the TV screen, and not far from where the two women were sitting, the Seat Altea Turbodiesel turned on its flashing lights and entered the circuit.
"Now what?" Kathleen asked.
"Now the driver of the safety car must find the leader of the race, and run to a set pace." She checked her watch.
"... and it's a pretty good time to make a pitstop anyway, so most of the leaders will do that."
"Does that mean that Fabio will lead again?"
"Not necessarily. It depends on where he is in the queue. We haven't seen him on the TV recently, so I don't know where he is in relation to the other cars," Francesca explained.
Five dreadfully slow laps later, Giampaolo was having a hissy fit because of the time it took for the track marshals to fix the tirewall. The crashed Ferrari had long since left the scene, but they were still trying to get the tires in place.
Fabio hadn't been able to assume the lead because he had been trapped behind a gaggle of backmarkers, losing a lot of time on the lap the safety car came out. Both Luca and the two Toyotas had pitted, but the running order remained the same with the Japanese cars leading the race.
Suddenly Giampaolo went still, listening to a radio communication from Fabio. He rubbed his eyebrows, and pushed a button so the pit crew could hear him.
"Scramble! #2's overheating!" he said, and slammed his fist down on his laptop.
Francesca jumped up and quickly donned her balaclava and her helmet in case she was needed.
"Trouble," she said to Kathleen, who followed her into the garage.
Giampaolo crossed the pitlane, and went over to the row of computers to see for himself.
"It doesn't register on the telemetry," a technician said.
"We can't chance it."
He pushed the button to the driver, and said
"Pit, pit, pit."
A few minutes later, Fabio brought the car down the pitlane without any obvious signs of overheating. He stopped at the marker tape, but was told to stay in the car. Francesca was ready on the sidelines, but it didn't look like she was going in right now.
With the engine still running, the mechanics took the engine cover off and frantically looked inside the engine bay. Giampaolo opened the driver's side door and stuck his head in, and sure enough, the needle on the water temperature gauge read 120 C.
"Anything?" he said to the mechanics, who were busy checking all the hoses and the radiator for leakages.
"Nothing!" someone shouted, and Giampaolo rolled his eyes. He tapped his fingers on the rollbar.
"Does it feel strangled?" he asked Fabio.
"All right, software reset!" Giampaolo shouted, and motioned to Fabio that he should turn off the engine. A technician came out of the pits and plugged a laptop into a socket on the dashboard. The instruments all lit up like candles on a Christmas tree, and then turned off.
"Done!" he said, and pulled out the plug.
"Hit it," Giampaolo said to Fabio, who pressed the yellow button. The engine came to life, still sounding healthy, and the instruments all appeared normal, including the water temperature.
"All right, off you go!" Giampaolo said, and shut the door. Fabio drove off down the pitlane, and soon rejoined the race.
In the confusion, #2 had lost a lap, and it didn't help that the Toyota they were fighting for the championship was still out front.
Francesca took off her helmet and put it on a shelf. She ran her fingers through her hair and went back to the rear of the garage where Kathleen was waiting.
"What was that all about?" Kathleen asked.
"Instrument failure, by the looks of it," Francesca said and shrugged.
"Hey, I thought you said you had a good feeling about the race?"
"Well, I could be mistaken..."
Francesca's next stint went without further problems, but she wasn't able to get the lap back they had lost in the pits. With Gio now in the car, all Francesca could do was to wait for her final turn.
She checked her watch and saw there was an hour and ten minutes left of the race. This was going to be closer than they had imagined it would be. To everyone's surprise, Nissan #21 was leading the race, but Francesca doubted that crew's ability to fight with the Toyota in second place if push came to shove. They had already shown weakness by losing a safe lead in the closing stages of the race at the Nürburgring, and Francesca couldn't see them improving that much in the short period since that race. Gio was in third, half a lap ahead of the fourth placed car, which was the second Toyota, but quite some distance behind the two front runners.
The situation was crystal clear: if the Toyota overtook the Nissan for the lead, then #2 had to follow it into second place. If the driver, regardless of who it was, couldn't do that, Maserati would lose the championship.
Francesca was sharing a bowl of soup with Kathleen when the TV showed a smoking Maserati parked on the side of the track. For a brief second, Francesca feared it was her car, but as the door opened and the driver climbed out, she could see it was #1.
She looked over at Giampaolo, who was busy talking to Luca over the radio.
"Engine failure?" Kathleen asked.
"Looks like it. I believe it's had a misfire for the last half hour."
"Could that happen to your car, too?" Kathleen asked, and put her hand on Francesca's.
"Well, it can - they're running the same specs and electronics after all, but if Gio had problems, he would report them."
"Oh... he probably would. He's a very serious chap."
Giampaolo walked over to them and leaned down to whisper in Francesca's ear.
"I need a word, Fran... outside," he said quietly. She looked at him and furrowed her brow.
"I'll be back before I'm going out, Kathleen," Francesca said, and handed the author the bowl of soup.
"What's up, Giampaolo?"
"Luca wants to take your seat in #2."
The news took Francesca by surprise.
"What the fuck for?" she asked, stunned.
"Look, you know he's a star in Italy. It'll be great PR for the brand if the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport shows him on the podium, holding the trophy."
"And what am I? Chopped liver?"
"You're a Brit, it's different. If this wasn't the championship race, I'd let you stay in."
"So you've already made up your mind, then?"
"Well, that's the wrong fucking decision, Giampaolo. Luca's a showboat, you know that. Do you honestly think he gives a shit about the brand?"
"You got a point, but he's also faster than you, Francesca."
"That may be, but he's ten times as erratic as I am."
Giampaolo opened his mouth to answer, but Francesca cut him off.
"The Nissan's slowing down now, there's going to be a fight on the track pretty damn soon. Luca's great on his own, sure, but you know as well as I do that he's not very good in a close fight. I am." When she said the last two words, she thumped her index finger into her chest.
"Jesus, Carrara... I hear what you're saying, but if I let you stay in the car, and we lose, we're fucked... you and me both."
"I'll give it 150% ...Giampaolo, you can count on me," Francesca said, and looked him directly in the eyes. He nodded.
"All right... I'll deal with Luca. You better get ready at once - you might be going out soon. Gio has a cramp."
"OK," Francesca said and put out her hand. Giampaolo shook it, and left.
Francesca let out a long breath and put her hands on her hips. If she had to race at full chat, she couldn't be as cautious as Kathleen wanted her to be. She steeled herself, and then went back to the pits to tell Kathleen about the news.
Kathleen pressed a hand against her stomach that suddenly insisted on making flip-flops. Francesca had pulled her over to a corner of the garage and explained the situation to her, but Kathleen knew that it couldn't be as simple as Francesca said it was.
"I don't care about the championship, I only care about you... and this sounds really dangerous."
"I love you too, but it's not dangerous. It's necessary for me to do this, and you have to trust me. It's not like I'm going out there to race with my head under my arm, is it?" Francesca said, unsuccessfully trying to coax a smile out of the author.
"Look, Kathleen, I can make a difference here. It's possible for me to win the championship for my team by using my skills and my experience. This is what I'm best at, driving cars fast."
Kathleen looked down and shook her head.
"Something might happen, and you might get injured again... I... I'm not sure I could..."
"I won't be."
"I won't be. I know what I'm doing," Francesca said, and put her hand on Kathleen's cheek, stroking it gently with her thumb. She leaned down and kissed the author lovingly.
Behind them, Giampaolo cleared his throat. Francesca turned around, raising an eyebrow.
"I bet you don't like it when someone interrupts you while you're kissing *your* wife," she growled. Kathleen merely blushed.
"Pardon me. Gio's coming in on the next lap. And I'm divorced, actually."
"Oh... All right, I'll be ready."
She turned around and kissed Kathleen again.
"You heard him," she said as they separated.
"I did. Do what you have to, but please be careful. I love you."
"I will. Love you too," Francesca said, and kissed Kathleen on her forehead.
Francesca pushed the starter button, and the engine came to life. She set off down the pitlane to rejoin the fray.
Her orders were simple: In the remaining 55 minutes of the race, she had to go for it - maximum attack, nothing else would do. She needed to get past the Toyota for second place no matter what. If she could catch the Nissan in the lead, all the better, but the primary objective was to finish ahead of the Toyota.
She eliminated everything from her mind apart from the car she was chasing, and found a 'zone' where she was concentrating fully on the driving. Steering, braking, accelerating and changing gears were all that existed for her.
She set a blistering pace and she was very close to the lap record on her first three flying laps after the pitstop. Somewhere along the way, she unlapped herself when the Nissan pitted, but she didn't even notice. She had instructed the pits to not use the radio at all, unless they could see on the telemetry that something was wrong.
Her timing and luck were impeccable, and she sliced through the traffic as if it wasn't there. Pretty soon, the distance between her and the Toyota in front had withered down to practically nothing, and she could see the car ahead on some of the straights. This spurred her on even more, and two laps later, she was right behind it.
Kathleen was too nervous to sit, so she was standing behind the rows of lawn chairs, watching the race on the bigscreen TV. Because of the way Francesca drove, the camera was following her for most of the time, and Kathleen didn't dare take her eyes off the screen in case something happened while she was looking away.
The next time Francesca screamed past the pits, she had caught the Toyota, and the TV showed the two cars dicing for position going down the hill, headed for the Eau Rouge. Francesca fell back slightly to get her aerodynamics to work through the fearsome set of corners, but as soon as they were through Raidillon, she was back at work, trying to get alongside the Toyota.
Kathleen covered her mouth with her hands, unable to do much else than just stare at the screen.
Suddenly a technician shouted something in Italian, and Giampaolo spewed out a string of Italian curses that Kathleen didn't need to get translated to understand. She looked at the TV, and immediately noticed that both cars had turned their wipers on. The rain had returned.
Francesca turned on the wipers on the approach to the Malmedy hairpin. She didn't know how well the driver of the Toyota would perform in the wet, but since the Japanese drivers often had extensive experience with poor weather, he might be as good as she was.
The cars began slipping and sliding on the slick track, and it seemed to get worse. When they tiptoed through Pouhon, they had a good look at the oncoming clouds, and Francesca immediately hit the radio button.
"Wets! This lap!" she barked, scrambling the mechanics into action.
"Pit, pit, pit," Giampaolo said, and wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
But first she had to negotiate the rest of the lap she was on. The rain was coming down harder than ever as they went through Fagnes and then through Stavelot. The Toyota in front twitched viciously, and Francesca grabbed the opportunity and went for the gap. She squeezed through on the inside, and was clear of the other car.
Kathleen watched the scene completely mesmerised, and she jumped in the air when Francesca went by the Toyota. Embarrassed over the display of emotions, she blushed, but when she looked around she saw that all the other guests were too busy to even look in her direction. She clenched her fists and looked at her watch - 40 minutes to go.
Both cars went very carefully through Blanchimont and the Bus Stop. It didn't come as a surprise to Francesca when she saw the Toyota follow her into the pits.
Francesca stopped right on the marks and the mechanics went to work. The Toyota continued past her and slotted into its own pit a bit further down the pitlane. The wheelguns clattered away, and Francesca's car was quickly fitted with wets. The car was released from the pneumatic jacks and she started the engine.
She went into the pitlane with her finger on the limiter, staring intently at the back of the Toyota. She came closer and closer to it, and finally she went by it. She breathed a sigh of relief - for once, the Maserati pit crew had been quicker than the opposition.
She released the limiter at the end of the pitlane and quickly went up through the gears. The entire circuit was soaked by now, and judging by the looks of the clouds, the rain would persist for the rest of the race.
"Fran, you've got full wets, the Toyota's on intermediates," Giampaolo told her over the radio.
"10-4," she said, and digested the information. Intermediates had a lot less profile than her full wets, so if the track started to dry out, the Toyota would be a lot quicker. She checked the clouds again, but couldn't see any change from a few minutes ago. She put the Toyota out of her mind, concluding they were taking a gamble on the weather improving dramatically. And besides, she was where she needed to be.
Kathleen was pacing back and forth. She was sure her hair would turn grey from the state of near-panic she found herself in. She had weighed the pros and cons for the better part of ten minutes before the need to hear Francesca's voice won out, and she had asked Giampaolo for a headset so she could listen in on the radio communication.
The TV was still showing pictures from the track, but Francesca hadn't been on since she had left the pits. According to the timing and scoring monitors, she was catching the Nissan, but probably not enough to get past it before the end of the race.
The terrible conditions continued to catch out some of the drivers, even the professionals weren't spared the humiliation of spinning off. The race was over for the second of the Toyotas, as it was beached in the gravel at Pouhon, no doubt after trying too hard.
The TV cut to a picture of the Nissan #21 rejoining the race, after a lazy spin in La Source had caused it to end up facing the wrong way. Kathleen furrowed her brows, and checked the timing monitors... #21 was the car Francesca was chasing, and sure enough, only five seconds or so after the Nissan had carried on, the dark blue Maserati #2 came slithering around the corner... and then the TV cut away to something else.
"D'OH!" Kathleen said, and slapped her forehead.
Francesca thundered down the hill towards Eau Rouge. On her way there, she could see the Nissan cresting the hill ahead of her, and she calculated it must be around 4-5 seconds up the road. She went through Raidillon and onto the Kemmel straight. This section of the track wasn't pleasant in the wet, as the trees lining the circuit prevented the spray from being cleared.
She braked too late for Les Combes, and the near side front locked up. She cursed as the car slid wide and bounced over the wet grass. The Nissan disappeared around the next corner and out of sight. When Francesca returned to the track, she jerked the steering left and right to clear the fronts of any grass and gravel she might've picked up, and resumed her race.
"I went off at Les Combes. Nothing damaged. Continuing."
"10-4," Giampaolo replied.
Kathleen stopped between steps, but continued pacing when she came to the realisation that Francesca was calmer than she was. Not long after, the cameras finally found #2 again, and Kathleen could see there wasn't any damage to the front of the car. She rolled her shoulders to loosen the tension in her neck, and wiped her sweaty palms on her pants.
"I think you need some coffee," Giampaolo said, and handed her a cup. She took it, but sniffed the contents before she drank from it.
"It's not that rocket fuel espresso again, is it?" she said.
"No, it's regular European coffee," he said and chuckled.
"Good. Thank you very much."
"I feel like a father in a delivery room - I'm waiting and waiting, but I have absolutely no influence on the thing I'm waiting for," Kathleen said and laughed. She took the headset off and put it around her neck.
"Oh... I know what you mean. But I wouldn't worry too much if I were you. Francesca is one of the best when it comes to driving fast in the rain," Giampaolo said.
"How did Luca take the news?"
"He walked away in a huff."
"Just like that? ...that's not very professional," Kathleen said surprised.
"That's a fight for another day. If we win the championship it won't matter. If we don't..." he left the sentence hanging in the air.
Francesca's voice was heard in their headsets, and Kathleen quickly put hers on again. She looked at the TV, but it was showing something else. The official timing was showing 25 minutes to go.
"Say again," Giampaolo said on his way back into the garage.
"The gauge says I'm overheating!" Francesca said, and tried to tap on the glass, but she couldn't quite reach it. The needle was again stuck on more than 100 degrees.
She went down two gears and drove through Fagnes. The engine still ran smoothly, and she had no problems accelerating out of Stavelot, heading towards Blanchimont.
"I might've picked up some grass when I went off," she said in the radio.
"Anything on the telemetry?" the team manager barked.
"Negative. It's nowhere near overheating," the technician said.
Giampaolo pushed the button for the radio.
"Fran, ignore it. If it pops, it pops."
Francesca passed a slower car going into the Bus Stop, and another one coming out. She had the Nissan in her sights - it couldn't be more than 70 yards ahead of her. She could literally see how the other driver struggled to get the traction down coming out of La Source, as the Nissan kicked its tail out accelerating away from the hairpin. She had a perfect exit to the same corner, and she was much closer going down the hill.
Coming onto the Kemmel straight, she was close enough to smell his exhaust fumes, and she feinted right to try and psyche the other driver into making a mistake. He wasn't fooled, and kept his line into the next chicane. Unfortunately for him, he ran wide on the exit, and Francesca was almost on top of him.
She made an opening move going into Malmedy, but the driver in the Nissan closed the door. She fell back and waited for another opportunity. It arrived soon after, as the Nissan went wide on the next turn and had both its right hand wheels on the grass. Francesca made a quick decision and used her momentum to pass the other car - for the lead of the race. She went through Pouhon at nearly full speed, constantly checking her mirrors. The Nissan had already fallen some way back, so it wasn't a threat any more.
"P1, Fran," Giampaolo said on the radio.
"10-4," she acknowledged calmly.
Kathleen was on the verge of a heart attack. She couldn't even concentrate on pacing back and forth, so she just stood still, staring at the TV. She looked at her watch, 18 minutes to go.
With Francesca pulling away from the Nissan seemingly at will, the excitement fizzled out of the race. All that was left now was for #2 to get safely to the finish, but even Kathleen knew that it wasn't as easy as it sounded. Because of the rain, the 1000 kilometres wouldn't be reached before the clock reached the time limit of six hours, but the cars had still been pushed to, or even beyond, their limits. Everything could still go wrong, and often did.
Out on the track, even the Toyota passed the ailing Nissan, but they had obviously given up chasing after Francesca, as their lap times were slower by a few seconds. They would have to wait another year.
"Fran, cool down a bit," Giampaolo said.
"Understood," Francesca replied, and followed orders by braking a bit earlier into the corners and accelerating less aggressively out of them. She also started to shortshift to save the engine and the gearbox.
"Everything looks A-OK," she said into the radio.
"We're green too," Giampaolo said.
"Give me the gap to the second placed car."
"Negative, they're slower than you. Four laps to go."
Now it was just a case of counting down the laps. Fabio and Gio joined Kathleen at the TV, and they were as nervous as she was. Exhaustion had forced her to sit down, and now her legs felt like lead. By now, the TV room was filled with corporate guests, and the special occasion had created an intangible air of excitement, the likes of which Kathleen had never experienced before. Maserati was poised to win the championship for the second year running, this time with the other car, and that of course meant a great deal to all the sponsors and the suppliers.
Fabio began chewing on his fingernails, and the usually jovial Italian was as quiet as a mouse. Gio had a strange look on his face that Kathleen couldn't quite read, but she was very surprised to see a few tears escape from his eyes.
Francesca went around La Source and received the white flag, indicating she was about to start the last lap of the race. The rain had eased off again, and her laptimes were back down to around 2:25, some 11 seconds slower than her qualifying lap from yesterday. She had also scored the fastest lap of the race, a 2:16.885, set in her middle stint, after the track had dried up from the first shower, and before the second, longer one had arrived.
Kathleen couldn't speak - her throat simply didn't allow anything to pass through it. She was filled with restless energy, but at this late stage in the race, there was nothing to be done about it. If she left her seat, she'd never get it back, and she didn't want to miss the magical moment when Francesca crossed the finish line.
Fabio and Gio got up and left the TV area. They ran to the pitwall, together with all the mechanics. They were picked up by the cameras, so Kathleen watched their own pit on the TV. Giampaolo came in and looked for the blonde woman. When he had found her, he tapped her on the shoulder, and put a keychain with a yellow plastic card on it in her lap. She looked up at him, not quite understanding what it was.
He leaned down and whispered,
"It's credentials for the pitwall, c'mon, there's plenty of time." He took Kathleen's elbow, helped her up from the chair, and guided her through the pits and across the pitlane.
"Make some room!" he shouted, and the people already standing on the pitwall spread out to allow Giampaolo and Kathleen to get up there.
Francesca was driving at 85 % of the car's capabilities, and she went through Blanchimont for the last time at the leisurely pace of 160 mph. Down to second gear for the Bus Stop, and then up to fourth along the old pits. Back down to first for La Source, and when she exited the hairpin, she could see the chequered flag waiting for her.
As Francesca crossed the line, the mechanics went into a frenzy. Screaming and cheering, they climbed the fence separating the track from the pitlane, and generally behaved like fans at a football game. Italian flags were waved everywhere, even Kathleen had picked one up. Unfortunately, she couldn't see much of the track through the broad backs of the chanting mechanics, but she did get a glimpse of the roof of the car, and of Francesca's hand as the driver poked it through the small opening in the side window.
Kathleen's exhaustion was swept away by the celebrations on the pitwall, and she shouted along with the others. She felt so damned proud over Francesca's accomplishments, and she couldn't wait to see her. Looking around at the mayhem, she knew she would have to wait a while to get the dark haired woman in her arms, but when she did, watch out Francesca...
A row of track marshals had formed a human chain at the bottom of the hill, and they guided Francesca and the other finishers off the track and into the pitlane.
"P1, Fran. Well done. Plus 19 seconds to the Toyota, and that means the championship is ours. Excellent job," Giampaolo said over the radio.
"It was my pleasure, Giampaolo," she replied calmly as she was shown the way into Parc Fermé.
A track marshal waved to her where she should park, and she followed him into the slot. She turned off the engine and let out a long sigh. She felt absolutely knackered. Driving so hard and giving her all for so long had taken a lot out of her. As the adrenaline left her system, she could feel her hip starting to throb, and she unbuckled herself from the seatbelts to get the circulation going.
She got out of the car and waved to the crowd, who responded by sending out a deafening cheer. She took off her helmet and her gloves and put them on the roof of the car. Running a shaky hand through her sweat-soaked hair, she started to look around for Kathleen.
"Francesca! Over here!" a familiar voice shouted behind her, and she turned around to find the owner. The mechanics and the other members of the teams were kept out of Parc Fermé by a low fence, so they were all standing in a huge group behind it. Francesca immediately spotted the blonde beauty with the misty green eyes. Kathleen was waving an Italian flag, and she had tears running down her cheeks. In a heartbeat, Francesca stood by the fence and reached out to hug her.
Francesca framed Kathleen's face with her hands, and gave her an almighty smooch right on the lips, making the author blush furiously. The mechanics next to them all whistled and clapped, and Francesca raised an eyebrow in a mock threat.
Behind her, the second placed Toyota arrived in Parc Fermé, and Francesca went over to shake the driver's hand. His face was a mask of disappointment, but he accepted her hand and shook it.
"You'll get it next year," Francesca said, and the other driver shrugged.
The clerk of the course arrived in Parc Fermé to usher the drivers away to the podium. Giampaolo again took Kathleen by the shoulders, and helped her push her way through the massive crowd. A minute or so later, they stood below the dais, waiting for Francesca and the other drivers to appear.
They didn't have to wait long. Within minutes, the emcee stood on the left side of the podium and presented the drivers of the third placed car, the Nissan. The three men came onto the podium, waving to the crowd, and looking generally pleased. Next up were the three Toyota drivers, who all looked distinctively miserable. Below them, Kathleen and the others applauded their valiant effort.
The crowd erupted in a massive cheer when the emcee presented the winning crew. Fabio came out first, waving and throwing his cap into the crowd, as did Gio behind him. Francesca came out last, wearing her 200-watt smile that, as usual, made Kathleen's knees weak.
The Italian anthem started playing for the winning constructor, and all the drivers took their caps off in respect. Down where Kathleen was standing, all the mechanics sang along, and even though she didn't know a single word of the lyrics, she couldn't help but tralala along with them.
When the anthem finished, the crowd cheered again, and Francesca threw her cap into the spectators, aiming straight for Kathleen. The author reached up as far as she could go, but didn't catch it - instead a hand right next to hers did. She cursed, and tried to go up on tiptoes to see who had caught it, when one of the mechanics presented Francesca's cap to her with a huge smile on his face. She squeezed his arm and took the cap. With a proud expression on her face, she put the dark blue Maserati cap on, and the mechanics cheered and clapped her on her back. She sent a thumbsup to Francesca, who returned it.
The local dignitaries came out onto the podium with the trophies. When the three Maserati drivers and Giampaolo raised theirs high in the air, the sound from the crowd was deafening, and Kathleen had to cover her ears. Finally, Francesca and the others received the customary bottles of champagne, and as soon as the dignitaries had left the podium, the drivers started spraying it all over each other, as tradition dictates.
Francesca gave as good as she got, and soon she and everybody else were soaked to the core. Her hair was a mess, and she had champagne dripping out of her sleeves. Fabio and Gio whispered something to each other, and without warning, they hoisted Francesca up on their shoulders. She laughed out loud and waved to the crowd again, earning yet another round of cheers. They lowered her down gently, and she put her arms around them, giving them a mighty crush.
When the official photos had been taken, the drivers were led off the podium and into the press room where they had to answer questions from the world's press.
Kathleen had tears of joy streaming down her cheeks, and she felt immensely proud over the woman she loved. They had only known each other for six and a half months, but in that time, Kathleen had experienced more and felt more loved than she had in her first 35 years on this planet.
The crowd below the podium was massive, even after the drivers had left, so it took Kathleen ages to get over to the glass doors of the pits building where Francesca and the others would eventually emerge. She knew it was going to be a long and no doubt noisy evening and night for the Maserati team and their corporate guests, and she desperately wanted some time alone with Francesca before the party began.
Kathleen had only just arrived at the glass doors when they were opened and the drivers came out. The looks on the faces of the three Toyota drivers hadn't improved, but everybody else were smiling and laughing.
Francesca came out first of the Maserati drivers, and she proudly showed the crowd her huge, golden trophy. She spotted Kathleen and strode over to her.
"Congratulations, Francesca. God, I'm so proud of you," the author said and sniffed. She put her arm possessively around Francesca's waist as they started to walk through the crowd to get back to their motorhome.
"Thank you. It went well today. I got what I came for," Francesca said, and shook the trophy.
"Do you have a moment before the party begins?"
"Definitely. I need a shower so badly..."
"I'd say... you reek of champagne," Kathleen said and tickled Francesca in the ribs with her fingers.
"Hey!" Francesca shrieked and tried in vain to squirm away from the tickle-attack.
"Oh no you don't - you're mine, and I'm never letting you go," Kathleen purred.
"I'm not going anywhere without you," Francesca said, and kissed Kathleen's hair.
After she had closed the door to the motorhome, Francesca placed the trophy on the table and wiggled out of the champagne soaked driving suit. She threw it into the small bathroom, and turned around to face Kathleen, who had sat down on the couch.
They looked lovingly at each other for a few seconds. Francesca smiled broadly and put her hand out, intending to drag Kathleen up to her for a hug. Instead, Kathleen suddenly tugged on Francesca's arm and pulled her down on the couch. She put her hand behind Francesca's head, and claimed her lips in a ferocious kiss. The driver was taken completely by surprise, but she soon recovered and dove headfirst into the passionate kiss, allowing Kathleen's probing tongue inside.
When they drew apart to get some air into their lungs, Kathleen framed Francesca's face and used her thumbs to caress the chiselled cheekbones - the unshed tears in her misty green eyes were for once matched by Francesca's ice blue orbs.
"God, I needed that!" Kathleen said, a single tear escaping down her cheek. She wiped it away, and laughed at the look on Francesca's face, a curious mix of shock and happiness.
"I'm gobsmacked, Kathleen O'Malley, I really am...!" Francesca joked.
Kathleen laughed out loud and tickled Francesca on the thigh.
"You shouldn't be. Don't you know how much I love you?"
"Oh, I do. I know that you love me just as much as I love you..." Francesca said, and leaned in to kiss Kathleen again.
"Let's take that shower, shall we?" Kathleen said in a thick, husky voice.
"But the party...? And the guys are waiting for us..." Francesca said, grinning.
"They'll have to wait longer."
Return to the Academy