Kathleen O'Malley turned her red Ford Focus hatchback into the crowded parking lot in front of the publishing house. She worried about finding a parking space, but fortunately she found an empty one almost immediately. It didn't hurt that it was right next to the entrance, either.
She picked up the letter and took the piece of paper out of the envelope. The words were simple enough, but she didn't quite understand why she, of all people, had been chosen.
'Dear Ms. O'Malley.
We kindly request your presence at a meeting on Wednesday, March 24th, 10:00 am in our offices on Bartholomew Road. The renowned sports personality Miss Francesca Carrara has given Carruthers Publishing, Ltd. first rights to publish her biography, and she has made it clear that she prefers a female biographer.
Carruthers Publishing, Ltd.'
She looked at herself in the rear view mirror.
'All right Kathleen, this is it. Do this right and you could find yourself with a contract. Lipstick or not?'
She decided on 'not', quickly ran a comb through her hair, and stepped out of the car. She looked at the expensive models parked next to her, and she felt her own family car, four years old and with mismatched hubcaps, was horribly out of place among the BMWs and Audis.
She opened the double glass doors and walked into the hall. It was so white it was almost sterile. Wall-to-wall white tiles on the floor, and white curtains in front of the windows. A round desk was situated in the centre of the hall, complete with a platinum blonde desk clerk, who was looking rather bored. Kathleen walked up to her and announced herself.
Kathleen sighed, crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt for the umpteenth time since she had been asked to wait. The large clock on the wall was now fifteen minutes past the time where this fabled race car driver was supposed to be here.
She looked around the waiting room. Everything was just too posh for her tastes, the polished chrome and the glass surfaces were too shiny, the furniture too modern and soulless, the carpet too grey. And it didn't help that the chair she was sitting on was uncomfortable, too.
The secretary came over to her and offered her another cup of coffee, which Kathleen politely declined. She almost told the secretary that the first cup of the so-called 'coffee' had tasted so horribly that it had been necessary to use twice the amount of sugar she usually used, but she let it go.
The door to the publisher's office was closed, as it had been for the entire time she had been waiting. She sighed again.
Suddenly she could hear loud voices, followed by heavy footsteps, echoing off the white tiles in the hall. The frosted glass door to the waiting room was flung open and a dark-haired woman strode in. Kathleen recognised her instantly, it was Francesca Carrara, the woman she had been waiting for. She was wearing a black pant-suit that outlined her figure very nicely, and a matching jacket. Kathleen couldn't recognise the cut, but she was sure it was Italian, and that it had probably cost more than she herself made in a month. Usually known for her 'hipness' and her cool, stoic behaviour, Carrara's face was now flushed and she had a murderous expression in her ice blue eyes.
The door to the publisher's office opened, and a well-dressed man in his early sixties came out.
"Hello, Miss Carrara, I'm W.P. Carruthers. So nice to see you, won't you come in?" he said, and motioned her inside with a big, fake smile.
The powerfully built woman walked into the office with long, aggressive strides.
Kathleen grabbed her attaché-case and started to get up, but the publisher closed the door without even looking at her. She sat down with a bump and rolled her eyes.
After a few seconds, Kathleen could hear Carrara throwing a tantrum inside the office, and she smirked. Oh dear, how was this ever going to work.
"The person who took the VIP parking space reserved for me had better be someone BLOODY IMPORTANT!" Carrara said loudly.
"...I had to park over on the other side of the parking lot. If my car is scratched when I get back there, I'll have my solicitor..." she continued.
Then the publisher said something, but his voice was muffled by the walls of the office. Carrara replied in a calmer tone, but Kathleen couldn't hear that either.
The door opened, and the man signalled Kathleen to come inside.
she thought. She smoothed her skirt again and took her attaché-case.
Carrara was sitting in a leather chair, still looking upset.
"Miss Francesca Carrara, this is Miss Kathleen O'Malley," the publisher said.
"Pleased to meet you," the race car driver hissed.
"Likewise," Kathleen said, and put her hand out.
Carrara shook it with an air of absolute arrogance, and she only looked at Kathleen for a second when she did so.
'Oh, how charming...'
the author thought as she sat down in a leather chair next to Carrara's, both opposite a huge desk where the publisher was sitting.
In fact, Francesca Carrara had noticed the blonde woman. She looked to be in her early thirties, with misty green eyes and shoulder-length hair in a shade somewhere between white- and strawberry-blonde. A dark green shirt and a tan skirt covering a nice rear end - definitely easy on the eyes.
Francesca leaned forward and took off her jacket, revealing her muscular shoulders and arms, and a silver and black Certina wristwatch. A pleasant scent of some outrageously expensive perfume filled the office, and Kathleen couldn't help but stare at the other woman's muscular frame. She quickly looked away when the publisher cleared his throat.
"All right, now that we're all here, here are the details of the deal we're proposing. Miss Carrara has kindly agreed on having her biography published by us, if we can provide her with a female author. That's where you come in, Miss O'Malley," he said and looked expectantly at Kathleen. She looked back, and after a few seconds understood that she was supposed to speak.
"Oh, right. Well, after the successful biography I wrote the year before last for the Olympic Gold Medallist in Pentathlon, I feel I'm capable of being a part of the team. As you recall, sir, that book was published by your house, and it sold quite well."
"Indeed. That's why we wrote you the letter. Go on," the publisher said.
"I believe I can add a touch of..."
"Do you know why I want a woman to write it?" Francesca interrupted her.
"Last month, I was offered a six-figure deal with a men's magazine, but I turned them down. Why? Because they wanted the book to be about my tits and my arse, and I want it to be about ME," Francesca said, and pointed her index finger at her chest.
Kathleen blushed over the direct language, but she nodded.
"That's what I do best, Miss Carrara. I'm not a reporter for a gossip rag. I'm not afraid of going in-depth nor of asking difficult questions," she said, and looked the dark haired woman straight in the eye.
A smile slowly spread out over Francesca's face - a very beautiful smile, Kathleen noticed, one which completely transformed her appearance.
"All right. That sounds good to me. I can accept that," Francesca said to the publisher, who put on another of his big, fake smiles.
"Sherry, anyone?" he said, and pushed a contract across the desk to each woman.
After signing, Francesca and Kathleen shook hands again, and this time, Francesca actually looked at her.
When the colourful woman had left, the publisher came over to Kathleen who was busy putting the contract into her attaché-case.
"Miss O'Malley, if I may ask... where did you park?" he said.
"Right next to the entrance. That was the only one available... why?"
"Well, that's the VIP parking space," he said and winked.
"Oh," Kathleen said and blushed slightly.
"No harm, no foul. But I'd wait until Miss Carrara's left before I'd go down there, myself," he said and laughed.
"Sounds like a very good plan, Mr. Carruthers..."
Two weeks later. In the mean time, Francesca had won the opening race of the season, the Silverstone 1000 kilometres, as the first woman ever, so her picture had been on the cover of several magazines and newspapers. As Kathleen noted as she parked in the slot marked 'guest' in front of the block of four condominiums, that fact might boost the sales of the book.
There weren't any names on the electronic door bells to the four apartments, but Kathleen had been told which one was Francesca's. She pressed the small button, and the front door opened soon after with a deep, buzzing sound. She walked into a lush hall and quickly found the correct door, the first one on the right.
Francesca opened the door herself, much to Kathleen's surprise. She was even more surprised when she saw that the dark haired woman was wearing faded blue jeans and a baggy sweatshirt - she had expected something by Armani at least.
"Hello, Miss O'Malley. Come in, make yourself comfortable," Francesca said, and at the same time spotted Kathleen's red Ford through the glass of the windbreak, over the author's shoulder.
Kathleen walked inside and hung her coat on a hallstand. The condominium was just like she had expected: posh, posh, posh. Everything was luxurious and expensive. On her way to the living room, she glanced into the kitchen which, sure enough, looked like it had come straight out of a glossy magazine.
The living room was a half-step down from the hall. Colourful, abstract paintings were prominently displayed on the white walls, most of them looking so expensive Kathleen didn't even dare contemplate the fire insurance.
"Please have a seat, Miss O'Malley," Francesca said, and pointed at a selection of exquisite leather furniture.
Kathleen sat down on a leather sofa and felt horribly lost in all this grandeur.
Francesca sat down in her favourite chair, and looked at the other woman sitting opposite her. She seemed nervous, Francesca thought. My reputation has preceded me.
"I guess we should start at the beginning, Miss Carrara."
"Let's. That red Ford out there, isn't that the same one that occupied the VIP parking space at the publisher's the other week?" Francesca said, and raised an eyebrow.
"Oh... well... yes. Yes it is. I'm terribly sorry, I didn't notice the sign until I left."
"May I call you Kathleen?"
"... Of course."
"Kathleen, it's all right. I won't hold it against you. That day, I was already upset when I arrived, and when that happened... well, you know the result," the dark haired woman said.
Kathleen smiled and nodded nervously.
"Now, with that out of the way, let's get down to business. And please, call me Francesca."
"All right. Francesca. Well, I must say I'm not too well-versed in the world of motorsports. Congratulations on the victory last weekend... but unfortunately, I don't know exactly what it is you won...?" Kathleen said as she put a notebook, a pencil and a small tape recorder on the glass table.
"You're not using a laptop?"
"I don't have one," Kathleen said.
"You can have one of mine. I have four," Francesca said, and leaned forward in her chair, grinning.
"Don't forget, Hewlett-Packard is a technical partner of the team. They hand out laptops like cheese crackers."
"Sure. But anyway, I won the first race of the World Sportscar Championship."
"Oh..." Kathleen said, not quite sure what that actually meant.
"So now I'm leading the championship."
"Well, thank you, but I'd rather lead it after the last race."
A small pause.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know what the World Sportscar Championship is, actually..." Kathleen said.
An expression of annoyance flashed across Francesca's face, but it soon passed.
"Well... It's a championship of nine long distance races, fought on three continents by some of the biggest car makers in the world. Currently, there are four factory teams, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Nissan and Toyota. I drive for Mercedes."
"Oh, I see. Thank you."
"Anything else you'd like to know while we're at it?" Francesca said in a slightly sharp tone.
"Well, why don't we start at the beginning like we said we would. Tell me a bit about yourself," Kathleen said, choosing to ignore the jab. She turned on her recorder, and picked up her notebook and her pencil.
Francesca again raised an eyebrow, but relaxed and leaned back in her chair.
"All right. My name is Francesca Carrara. I'm 32 years old, and my zodiac sign is the Scorpio, if you're interested in that nonsense. My father is English, and my mother is Italian. I was born in Rome, that's why I have an Italian name. For the first several years of my life, my family lived there, until my father was promoted and we moved to London. I've been here ever since."
"Are your parents still alive?"
"Oh yes. They're divorced now, though. Mother's gone back to Italy," Francesca said and shrugged.
"When did you realise you had a knack for motor racing?"
"In the last year of school. At that point, we lived not far from a kart track, and I went there every day. Just to watch the others to begin with, but one day I was allowed to try a few laps... and I blew everyone else away."
Kathleen nodded, and write some words down in her notebook.
"But that's actually a little late, isn't it?"
"Hey, I thought you said you didn't know anything about motor racing?", Francesca joked.
"... but yes, it was a bit late. I was fifteen when I first sat in a kart. I guess the best age is about nine or ten. I was halfway through puberty and all that. Not that it hindered me. I knew from my height that I'd never get a fair shot at the single seaters, so I aimed for the sportscars from the outset. They're bigger, so larger drivers can fit in much more easily."
"Like Formula 1."
"Oh, all right. Does that bother you?"
"Not really, no. And you can print that quote directly, if you want."
"How did you get from karting to where you are today?"
"Well, after two years in pro-karting, I went up the ladder to the junior formulae to get the feel for driving on the edge in heavier cars. When I got my driver's license when I turned eighteen, I switched to the tintops..."
"Cars with roofs, saloon cars, you know," Francesca said.
"Le Mans was always my main aim, so after acquiring experience for three years in various national series, I started driving in the World Sportscar Championship for a privateer team. In my third year, I had become good enough to get noticed by the right people, and I was selected to be a junior driver for Aston Martin. Unfortunately, they left the series two years later, but I was picked up by Mercedes, and... well, that's it, basically," she said.
Kathleen hurriedly jotted down a few cues on her notebook, nodding as she went along.
"Great!" she said, and smiled.
Over the next several hours the conversation flowed freely, and Kathleen picked up many interesting pieces of information about the race car driver. She began to understand why Francesca was able to turn heads everywhere she went. She was beautiful, no doubt about that, but more importantly she had presence and charisma, and those characteristics have always been vital to success.
"Do you need a refreshment? I don't have any alcohol, but I do have a large selection of juices and exotic teas."
"Mango-strawberry, passion fruit-chilli, thistle-blackberry..."
"Thistle...?!" Kathleen said shocked.
"It's very popular, I can assure you," Francesca said.
"I see. I'd like an orange juice, please."
A few minutes later, Francesca put down a coaster and a glass of freshly pressed orange juice on the glass table.
"Here you go."
"You know, there's one thing we haven't talked about yet," Kathleen said over the rim of her glass.
"And that is?"
"Money. The thing I hear the most from people outside the sport is 'why the hell do race car drivers always make so much money. All they do is sit down and drive'".
"True. I've heard that more than once, too," Francesca said, nodding.
"How much money did you make last year, then?"
Francesca looked up, slightly startled. Well, Kathleen had told her that she didn't shy away from asking pointed questions.
"A lot. I finished in third place in the world championship after winning three races, and another two in the US series... and I get a bonus for winning races, it's in my contract. Add to that a very nice wager from my employer, and I am all set," Francesca said while sipping some mango-strawberry flavoured tea.
"Well, how much is 'a lot', exactly?" Kathleen said, and chewed on the end of her pencil.
"Between two and a half and three million Euros. Closer to three."
Kathleen quickly calculated that into Pounds, and her eyebrows crept up her forehead.
"... OK, that's 'a lot', I agree with you there."
"Does that make you uncomfortable?"
"Well... somewhat, yes," Kathleen admitted.
"There's a catch, though. You have to remember one thing - every single time I get strapped into the car, every single lap I start may be my last. The cars are much safer now, sure, but anything can happen at all times. We are doing in excess of 200 mph on most racetracks, you know. At that speed, if it goes wrong, you're..." Francesca snapped her fingers to underscore the words.
"... gone," she said.
"Honestly, Francesca, if it's that dangerous, I don't understand why you and your colleagues keep doing it," Kathleen said.
"Why do footballers play football? It's what I do, I love to do it, and I'm damned good at it, too," Francesca said, and shrugged.
Francesca could see that Kathleen wasn't entirely convinced, so she got up and pulled out a drawer.
"Tell you what, Kathleen, I have some DVD's the team made for me from the television broadcasts. It's from the races I won last year, and Le Mans. If you watch them, perhaps you'll get a better understanding of what it is we're doing out there," she said, and held up several DVD's.
"Oh, DVD, I don't... my player is broken," Kathleen said.
"Why don't you buy a new one?"
"I don't really have a need for it, to be honest. I don't watch many movies."
"Well... all right," Francesca said and put the discs back down into the drawer.
"You wouldn't happen to have a few spare DVD players as well, would you?" Kathleen said and chuckled nervously.
"Unfortunately, no. And I'm quite fond of my home cinema, so you can't borrow that," the driver said.
"Oh, no, I wasn't asking for..."
"I know, I'm pulling your leg," Francesca said and sat down again.
A little pause.
"I do have a video, actually..." Kathleen said.
"But I don't, so I can't transfer them for you."
"Hey! I got it, one of the HP laptops has a DVD-drive. Problem solved," Francesca said and smiled.
"... right," Kathleen said, dreading the prospect of having to install and get the computer running.
After she returned home, Kathleen started transcribing the tape. She still used an old typewriter, and the sound of the arms hitting the paper made her relax. Francesca Carrara could be infuriating at times, but she could also be charming when she wanted to... unfortunately, that wasn't often, Kathleen thought, and chuckled. But she definitely was an intriguing woman.
Stopping to flip the tape, she reflected on how exciting the first day had been compared to when she was working on the other biography - Kaye Jason had nearly made her fall asleep. That woman may have been the consummate professional when she was in a pentathlon event, but Kathleen had found her to be insufferably dull in real life, and in the end, she had had to spice up the biography with all kinds of humorous bits and bobs to keep it afloat.
The tape came to Francesca telling a particularly saucy anecdote, and Kathleen paused for a minute to consider if she should omit that one. She went ahead and typed it, but in reality she knew that it would never get past the legal department of the publishing house.
When Kathleen was done with the first of the two tapes she had recorded that day, she turned around in her swivel-chair and looked at the brand new HP laptop that was placed on a table. Complete with all the optional extras, it was very impressive to look at... and very intimidating to her. Kathleen didn't even have a microwave oven, so how on Earth would she ever be able to get *that* thing up and running...? She made a little note on her to-do-list to call her nephew. He'd know how to get it to work.
She changed tapes in the small recorder, and went back to work. It didn't take long for her to reach a part that had caught her by surprise.
'Why have you never been married, Francesca?'
, she heard herself say on the tape.
'When you said you weren't a gossip rag reporter, you weren't kidding, were you?'
'I... don't know exactly what you...'
'I'm a lesbian.'
'I've been out since my late teens.'
'And that hasn't hindered your career?'
'Not in the slightest, no. In motor racing, that's not as important as it is in real life. It's more important to have a good head on your shoulders for the strategy game... and a lead foot for the racing game.'
'Does that apply equally for gay men and women?'
'No. Unfortunately, it doesn't. There are some gay men driving today, but they're all closeted. If they're outed, they're gone.'
'Why is that?'
'I honestly don't know. There is a lad-culture with your mechanics, that could a part of it. The inherent masculinity of driving fast could be another, but... honestly, Kathleen, I don't know.'
Kathleen re-read the lines she had just typed, and leaned back in her chair to ponder the unexpected development. Should she put this in the book? If the biography was a hit, the tabloids might start a witch hunt to discover the identities of the drivers Francesca talked about. She rubbed her forehead, and decided to ask Francesca some time later. She took the paper out of the typewriter and put it into a drawer.
The large clock on the wall struck 11 pm, and Kathleen yawned accordingly. Reluctantly, she forced herself to finish transcribing the second tape before she would be allowed to go to bed. She stretched like a cat, and went back to work.
A week passed by quickly with the biography coming along nicely. Kathleen had to admit that she was beginning to feel very accustomed to being around the charismatic woman - on the days where they worked together in Francesca's house, she often found herself humming or whistling a happy little tune in the morning when she was getting ready to leave... she didn't know what to make of that. Well, it didn't really matter, anyway. They only had four more weeks of working together. After that, Francesca would be off to God knows where, and Kathleen would go back to her little cottage and start another book.
When the phone rang, Kathleen was on her knees with her head fully inside the drum of the washing machine, trying to find a missing sock. She didn't hear the telephone at first, but since whoever it was kept it ringing, and ringing, and ringing, she eventually heard.
She went into the living room and picked up the receiver.
"Kathleen O'Malley speaking."
"Hello Kathleen, it's me. Would you mind if I popped over?"
"Francesca? No, of course not..." she said, and looked around. She grimaced as she saw the not-quite presentable living room. Then she looked down at herself and grimaced again over the mismatched sweater and baggy sweat pants she was wearing.
"... Ah, can we say half an hour?"
"How about half a minute," Francesca said, and revved the engine of her car.
The sound echoed both inside and outside of the telephone, and Kathleen went over to the window and pulled apart the curtains. Francesca was right outside her cottage...
"Well, I guess I haven't much choice in the matter," Kathleen said into the telephone as she opened her front door and waved Francesca inside.
Francesca was impressed by the cottage Kathleen was living in. It couldn't possibly be further from her own avantgarde condominium, but it did have soul... and it didn't hurt that the golden-haired author looked so darn cute as she was standing in the open door waving her inside. Francesca got out of her car and clicked on the button on the remote. The car answered by flashing the lights twice.
She couldn't help but grin at the sight of the usually impeccably dressed Kathleen barefoot in bathing slippers, grey sweat pants that were about three sizes too large for her and a sweater that had probably been green when it was bought, but now was a comical mix of washed out green and pink. It didn't help the ensemble that the sleeves has been cut off at the elbows.
Kathleen pulled an unruly lock of hair behind an ear and put out her hand for Francesca to shake.
"Hello. How nice of you to drop by," the author said in a voice full of sarcasm as she welcomed the other woman inside.
"Why thank you, dear," Francesca said and grinned again.
"Did I get my dates confused... we weren't supposed to be working on the book today, were we?" Kathleen said, and checked her calendar.
Francesca looked at her in a funny way, and then over at the calendar - which was still on yesterday's date.
"Well, actually, number 1, you've forgotten to change the day on your calendar, and number 2, we've scheduled a photo-session in an hour's time..."
"Oh god!" Kathleen said and panicked. She ran into her bedroom to change, her laundry completely forgotten.
They drove off the high street and into an alley. Two Porsche 911's, one mint green and one yellow, were parked in front of the sign advertising the Studio.
"Well, now we know why the photographer's so expensive. It takes a lot of cash to service those cars..." Francesca said as they parked.
"True, but they're the best, too. I worked with them on the other biography I made. They're very professional."
"I hope they'll accept the choice of clothes I've brought along."
"I think they will. And besides, it's my book, I have the last word on which photo is used for the cover."
"Sounds good," Francesca said as she took the traveller's bag full of clothes she had picked out from her wardrobe, and locked the car.
They opened the glass doors and entered the Studio.
"Which one is it?" Francesca asked as she saw several different names on a board.
"This one." Kathleen pointed at an unpronounceable French name.
"Set #3... that's over here," Francesca said, and started to walk towards the door with a large 3 on it.
Before she could reach it, the door opened and a woman came out, only wearing a see-through sarong with a polka dotted bikini underneath, huge sunglasses and high heels.
Francesca stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the scantily clad woman.
"It's all ready for you, darling," the woman said and blew her a kiss before waltzing away.
"Oh, 'ello Miss O'Malley, we'll be ready shortly," a man said, coming out of the door behind the model.
"I'm not dressing up like that," Francesca hissed at him, and pointed her thumb at the model.
"Of course not. It's for a book cover, no?"
Kathleen nodded, and patted Francesca's elbow to calm her down.
"We've built up a living room for you, it's going to be very classy, Miss," the photographer said.
"What was that model working on?"
"A cover for the debut album of a new rock group. I think they're called the Raging Hormones, or something..." he said.
"Oh, how charming," Francesca said icily - unfortunately, the irony was lost on the photographer.
"Yes, that's what I said!" he said and nodded.
Francesca rolled her eyes, and Kathleen had to pat her elbow again.
"But we can talk afterwards. I see you've brought your own costumes, no? The room to change is over there. While you do, I'll 'ave a word with Miss O'Malley."
Francesca left them with a muffled string of words that sounded just like profanity - in several languages. Kathleen sighed.
"Right, Mr... ?"
"Jean-Philippe Douchateaux, Miss O'Malley. Let's go inside, ok?"
He opened the door to the studio, and they walked in. It was much larger than Kathleen had expected, at least sixty by sixty feet. The ceiling was an impressive array of lights, some with clear glass, and some had blue, red or green covers.
Two huge cameras were set up on flexible tripods, pointing at a set that looked just like a living room. As background, it had a large, white wall with a fake window frame with silver-grey venetian blinds, and in the foreground they had placed a sand-coloured reclining chair and a glass table with two candlesticks on it.
"Looks really good, Mr. Douchateaux," Kathleen said enthusiastically.
"It does, yes? When your friend returns, we can see if we should change the chair. Depends on the colours she's wearing."
As if on cue, Francesca walked onto the set. She was wearing dark grey slacks and an off-white sweater.
"Oooh, your 'air and your eyes will really stand out against the white of the sweater, Miss. Good choice!" the photographer said.
"Let's get to it," she said.
"Right. Please take a seat in the chair, and I'll re-arrange the lighting. I think I'll reduce the background slightly to get greater contrast, and have a spot with a soft-filter on your face. I'll start with the A-camera, full-body."
"Whatever," Francesca said and looked at Kathleen, who was standing outside of the set's boundaries. She smiled back and mouthed 'be nice, please'.
"Do you want some music to get into the mood, Miss?"
"Well... why not?"
"This set just oozes jazz... Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, we have it all. Who's your favourite?" he asked, standing next to a huge rack of CD's.
"Oooh, a perfect match for your eyes!" he said, and ran his finger down the spines of the CD's to find the 'S'. He found a suitable album, and popped it in the player. Before long, the dulcet tones of Sinatra filled the studio, and the photographer started working.
An hour later, they were looking through the results. The photographer had loaded all the images onto memory cards, and they were watching them on an enormous computer monitor.
Kathleen was astounded over the quality of the shots, every single one of them captured Francesca's beauty perfectly. The photographer had taken more than 300 photos in three different series, full-body and shoulders-up in colour, and closeups in high-contrast black and white.
"Series 3 number 97 will look fantastic on the back dust cover... that one," Kathleen said, and pointed at an index of pictures on the screen.
"3-97, marked," the photographer said, and moved the mouse to click in a checkbox. After marking it, he clicked on the image to enlarge it.
"Yes, looking good, I caught a nice look in your eye," he said to Francesca.
'That's when I was focusing on Kathleen instead of the camera,'
Francesca thought and chuckled to herself.
"What's so funny?" Kathleen asked.
"You know, it just struck me. I'm a race car driver, won't my readers expect the cover to be of me sitting in a car? Or at least wear my driving suit?" Francesca said after looking through nearly 200 pictures of herself sitting on the reclining chair.
"Well, they might, but those pictures will date the book, Francesca. What happens if you change teams, for instance? Then the cover is out of date, and that'll make the book seem old," Kathleen said.
"Well... I hadn't thought about that. Good thinking. Not that I'm planning on changing teams, but I understand what you mean."
"Good. Oh, that one, definitely that one!" Kathleen said and pointed at the screen. It was one of the full-body shots, and Francesca looked like a Greek goddess reborn. Looking directly at the camera, her ice blue eyes threatened to burn a hole in the lens, and her lips were creased in the very beginnings of a smile.
"Well, I guess that's a pretty good shot of me," she said, and raised her eyebrows.
"C'est magnifique," Jean-Philippe said, grinning.
"And that makes it unanimous," Kathleen said, and asked the photographer to mark the image to be the cover-shot.
When they returned, Francesca parked her Mercedes behind Kathleen's red Ford.
"It's a very charming cottage, Kathleen. You know, I had you figured as someone who'd live in a house like this."
"Oh did you now?"
"Can I have the house tour, please? I showed you mine," Francesca said.
"Oh, all right, but be warned, you might get sensory overload from all the clutter. I can't live like you do, pure white surfaces and empty tables. I like to have things around me," Kathleen said and smiled.
"I'll live," Francesca said, and got out of the car.
"Would you like some tea?" Kathleen said as she hung her jacket on the hallstand.
"Yes, please. No milk or sugar."
"I should warn you, I only have plain, old English breakfast tea, not any of those fancy new-age combinations like strawberry-chilli or passion fruit-red peppers or whatever it was you offered me..."
"I love plain, old English tea, so that's fine by me," Francesca said and smiled.
After finishing their tea, they walked around the cottage, with Kathleen showing Francesca all the little, charming details of a Victorian house from 1872. The dark haired woman was very impressed with the size of the author's library in her den, shelf after shelf of books, all filled past capacity.
"Good heavens," Francesca said, peeking into Kathleen's bedroom as she went past in the hall. The wooden floor was in original condition, so it creaked rustically when she walked in. Kathleen had two Monéts hanging on the bedroom wall, but the real centrepiece of the room was an old, brass four-poster bed, complete with a pale blue canopy and two rows of tassels. The blanket was in a very delicate shade of rose, and the sheets and pillows were white.
There was a small two-drawer dresser next to the bed, with an antique lamp, an old-fashioned alarm clock, a pair of reading glasses, and a book with a bookmark on the highly polished top. Francesca looked over her shoulder to see if Kathleen was there, which she wasn't, so she leaned down to see the title of the book.
"No, it's not Lady Chatterley's Lover," Kathleen said from the door. Francesca quickly stood up straight, grinning broadly.
"Just checking," she said.
"Didn't know you needed glasses?" Francesca said to change the subject.
"Sometimes I do. Depends on how much I've been working during the day," Kathleen explained.
"You have a very beautiful cottage, Kathleen," Francesca said when they returned to the living room.
"Oh, I almost forgot... I want to ask you if you have any plans for tonight?"
"You mean... are you asking me out on a date?" Kathleen said, and laughed heartily. She didn't notice Francesca's cheeks were tinted in a somewhat darker shade of pink than they usually were.
"No, of course not, ha ha. Well, not a 'date' date. One of our sponsors, 'Power Supply Energy Drinks', is having a bash tonight in a night club, and I was wondering if you'd be interested in going with me?"
"Oh... I'd love to, Francesca. Thank you for asking," Kathleen said and gave the other woman a blinding smile.
"Good. There's no dress code as such, but the last time they held one it was upscale."
"All right. I'll dig a dress out of my closet, then. Are you going to wear one...? I think I'd like to see that, actually," Kathleen said and winked.
"Oh no. No, I'll be wearing what I usually do at these things."
"A secret. You'll see when I pick you up. Is seven pm too early for you? It doesn't start until eight, but the traffic is usually horrendous."
"Seven sounds fine. I'll be ready."
"OK. See you then," Francesca said with a smile as she opened the front door. Kathleen waved to her as she reversed out of the driveway and onto the small road in front of her house.
6.58 pm, and Kathleen was putting the finishing touches on her makeup. She had very little experience with upscale events, but she knew that the worst thing she could do would be to look trampy, so she settled for using a subtle eyeliner and a lipstick in a delicate shade of pink. She checked the results in the small mirror, and was quite satisfied. This was the first time in ages that she had been dolled up, and she had to admit that she was looking forward to the evening.
She put on the pumps, straightened her dress and made sure her hair was in place. All set. She was quite proud over the fact the dress still fit her, even after several years.
A few minutes later the door bell rang, and Kathleen opened it.
"Milady, your carriage is rea... WOW!" Francesca exclaimed loudly when she saw what Kathleen wore - a beautiful red dress that outlined all the right places, held up by a single, broad strap over her right shoulder, leaving the left one bare. She wore red pumps, and she held a small, red purse with a gold chain. Around her neck she wore a gold necklace with a tastefully sized pendant.
Both women were equally speechless - Kathleen couldn't stop staring at the suit Francesca was wearing. Shiny leather shoes, black pants with a black leather belt, an off-white shirt with golden cufflinks and the top two buttons opened. Add to that a black jacket with a small, white handkerchief in the pocket, and the dark haired woman looked like she had just stepped out of the cover page of a men's fashion magazine.
The image in front of her ignited a heated spark in Kathleen's centre that grew exponentially and rapidly enveloped her entire being. Nothing had ever turned her on quite like that before, and she had to shake her head to get rid of the unexpected, but definitely pleasant, feeling.
"Well, I'd say we're going to be the talk of the town..." Francesca said, and looked squarely into Kathleen's glowing green eyes.
A few hours later, the two women were standing by the bar at the party, Kathleen quietly sipping a GT, and Francesca holding on to a club soda.
The author had been blushing more or less constantly over the many glances she and Francesca attracted from the partygoers. For Francesca this was nothing new, however, so she was able to ignore it.
"Have you ever seen the Power Supply ad, Francesca? The one with the marathon runner not wanting to stop?"
"I've seen it. They wanted me to be in it."
"Yeah. I was all set to do it, and then they showed me the costume I'd be wearing. It was *this* big. I told them where they could put it, and then I left."
"Yeah. Amazingly, they continued to sponsor us after that. Heh," she said and took a swig from her drink.
"I don't like it," Kathleen said, looking at all the sponsor logos on the tarp behind the bar.
"Yes, I think it tastes poorly. It's much too artificial, too chemical."
"I guess you're right about that."
"Do you like it?"
"Not really, actually. But it doesn't matter, since I can't have any of it. There's so much caffeine in the bloomin' thing that we can't pass a doping control afterwards," Francesca said and shrugged.
"No... really? ...and where does that leave the marathon runner?" Kathleen said and started to laugh. The sound was contagious, and soon Francesca joined her.
"But I've been in other ads. I did two fun ones for Mercedes-Benz for Italian television, you can probably find those on the Internet somewhere, and one for Davidoff Cool Water for a magazine. That was slightly less fun," Francesca said.
"Another tiny costume?"
"Bathing suit, in a swimming pool."
"Oh," Kathleen said, and really, really tried to get the pictures of the dark haired woman in a wet bathing suit out of her mind.
"I guess it turned out all right. You can't see anything on the picture. I was in the water, resting my arms on the edge of the pool, and the camera was in front of me, so..." Francesca said and shrugged.
"Oh," Kathleen said again.
"But I remember the director being angry with me. He said my shoulders and arms looked like I was a wrestler," Francesca said and chuckled.
Kathleen shook her head. To her, Francesca's muscular shoulders and arms were among her best features. Along with her eyes... and her lips... and her... well, never mind.
A slightly inebriated man came up to the bar to order a new drink. While the bartender was mixing it, the man looked very intently at Kathleen. His eyes ran up and down the red dress, and she began to feel very uncomfortable.
"So... can I get you a drink, or something...?" he said to her.
"No thank you."
"Oh, come on, just a little one."
"No," she said, and went over to stand on the other side of Francesca, making her a buffer 5'10" tall and, as a result of her broad back, looking nearly as wide.
"Oh, come on," he said again, trying to get around the driver.
"The lady said no, Frank. Didn't I see you with your wife earlier?" Francesca said sternly.
"Well... she's here somewhere."
The man got his drink and was about to speak up again when Francesca's very dark expression convinced him not to. Instead he walked away, clutching his drink, making sure not to spill any of it with his slightly clumsy walk.
"Thank you for rescuing me, Francesca."
"My pleasure. Unfortunately, this happens from time to time at these types of events. There's always someone who doesn't know when to stop. I hope it hasn't ruined your evening?" she said, and put a hand on Kathleen's arm.
"It hasn't," Kathleen said. She noticed her arm was tingling where Francesca was holding her, and she smiled warmly at the driver.
A pair who were clearly husband and wife came over to Francesca and asked if it was all right to take a few pictures. She agreed, and stood up straight while they snapped away again and again. The flash was annoying her greatly, but she kept a fake smile plastered on her face. The pair shook her hand and left, much to her relief.
Kathleen was just about to ask Francesca a question when an important-looking elderly man arrived at the bar. Kathleen immediately noticed the difference in Francesca's body language, so she reckoned it was someone from the company.
"Good evening, Dr. Jäger," Francesca said, and put her hand out.
"Good evening, Miss Carrara. You must introduce me to your charming ladyfriend," the man said and smiled at the two women.
"I'm Kathleen O'Malley, Sir. I'm the author who's writing Miss Carrara's biography."
"Oh! I've heard of that. Not too many saucy anecdotes, please?" he said and laughed.
"Oh, you know me too well, Dr. Jäger," Francesca joked. Kathleen laughed.
"Indeed I do," he said, and looked appreciatively at Kathleen.
"Well, I better be mingling. Have a nice evening, both of you," he said and bowed slightly.
"Who was that?" Kathleen said when he was out of earshot.
"Dr. Jäger's the CEO of Mercedes-Benz AG. He's the man who pays my wages."
"Hmmm. I thought as much. He had that certain air of importance about him."
In the background, an announcement was made that a world famous DJ would start doing his stuff in twenty minutes, so Francesca leaned in towards Kathleen.
"I'm too old for the music he'll be playing. How about we head for home?"
They left the party and waited for the valet to find Francesca's car. He soon arrived in her jet black Mercedes CLK, and they got in.
"I've had a fantastic evening, Francesca. Thank you very much for inviting me," Kathleen said.
"Oh, you're very welcome. I've had a great time too, actually. Usually these sponsor events are terribly boring and long-winded, but tonight's just flown by," Francesca said, and smiled broadly at the author.
Kathleen felt the unfamiliar tingling sensation return, and she couldn't help but smile back.
"I was thinking... would you like to come over to my place for a night cap?" Francesca asked when they were waiting at a red light.
Kathleen's mouth went bone dry, and she tried, unsuccessfully, to lick her lips a couple of times.
"Well, I'm... I'm sorry, Francesca. Not tonight. I'm really tired, it's been years since I've been to such a large party. Maybe we could do that some other time?" she said.
"All right. We'll do it next time, OK?" Francesca said, and smiled again. Kathleen nodded, but realised the driver couldn't see in the darkness, so she said,
"I'd like that."
Kathleen waved goodbye to Francesca, who replied by honking twice as she drove off. She put the key in the front door and walked inside. As soon as she closed the door behind her, she leaned against it, and let out a long, slow sigh.
Her body was humming with an energy she hadn't felt in years. She knew exactly what it was, but still it surprised her. She was falling for the dark haired beauty. Francesca was a woman who excited her in a way no other woman had - not since Becky, and that was... God, five years ago. That suit Francesca was wearing tonight... if Kathleen had been a bit less inhibited, they might never have gotten further than the living room floor. She closed her eyes and let her imagination fill out the blanks.
She stepped down from the pumps and headed for her bedroom. She undressed and put the dress back into the closet. She walked across the hall and turned on the water heater in the bathroom. She knew she needed a hot shower before she could relax enough to go to bed. While the hot water was getting ready, she sat down on the bed and looked at the dresser. After a little while, she opened the top drawer of the small dresser, took out a purple object and walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Two weeks later, at the Palace Exhibition Centre.
The six drivers walked onto the stage and stood in threes on either side of the car, which was still wrapped in a silver-grey satin tarp carrying the Star logo.
"First of all... if you please..." the emcee said, and the drivers each grabbed a small hook connected to the tarp. He nodded to them, and the tarp was pulled away, revealing the spit-shined car. The people on the stage were greeted by a shockwave of flashes going off. Even though the car had already been presented in Stuttgart the day before, it seemed like the entire British press was gathered to get a glimpse of the car and the all-British driving crew that Mercedes pinned their hopes on for Le Mans.
"And here we have it, the Mercedes-Benz CLR! Powered by a 6-litre twin turbo V8, it produces nearly 700 bhp, controlled by the regulation air restrictors - unrestricted, it would be capable of 1000 bhp."
The audience ooh'ed and aah'ed, and the emcee let the sound die down before he continued.
"It has a new and revolutionary gear change system, created and perfected by the finest technicians in the auto industry today, and one that our drivers have already predicted will take seconds off the lap time."
"Speaking of which, Ladies and Gentlemen, here are the six drivers of the Mercedes-Benz factory squad. From left to right, driving car #5, Jonathan Baker, Francesca Carrara and Derek Harrison, all from Great Britain - let's give them a warm welcome," the slick emcee said.
As the applause died down, the emcee went over to the other side of the stage and continued his spiel:
"Then we have the drivers of car #6 - Johannes Heinrich from Germany, Piercarlo Paletti from Italy, and Hans Wochalewski from Germany. Let's give them a hand, too."
All six drivers were lined up next to the car, fully dressed in their fireproof driving suits and holding their helmets. They had been split up into the same two squads they would later be using for Le Mans: three taller British drivers and three shorter drivers from the Continent.
One by one, the emcee shoved a microphone under the nose of a driver, and he or she was expected to deliver a few words for the press and the dignitaries in the audience, among which Kathleen sat. When it was Francesca's turn, she looked directly at the author the whole time, completely ignoring the stage manager's frantic arm waving, telling her to look at the entire crowd. In her seat, Kathleen never broke eye contact with Francesca, enjoying the curious intimacy even in front of nearly five hundred people.
With the first part of the presentation over, the drivers walked into the crowd to give reporters pre-fabricated 'scoops'. Kathleen saw the stage manager storm over to Francesca, but she said a few words to him and calmly walked away from him.
"Francesca, you looked fantastic up on the stage," Kathleen said.
"Thank you. Do you want to see the car?"
"I'd love to."
"Come on, then."
They walked back up the small flight of stairs leading to the stage. One of the other drivers was showing the car to a TV crew, so they waited for a minute or so until the broadcast was done.
"Right. As you can see, it looks very different to this year's car, it's much flatter and smoother, and much more advanced aerodynamically. According to the engineers, this'll give us a bit more grunt at Le Mans. A higher top speed on the straights will inevitably equal a higher chance of overtaking other cars," Francesca explained.
"We've changed the engine configuration radically. It's still mid-engined as you can see, but last year, and the first races of this, we used a normally aspirated V12, but now we're changing to a twin-turbo V8 for Le Mans. It'll give us better fuel economy, which is important. If you can add a lap to each stint, compared to your nearest competitor, it's bound to make a difference in the end. Paddle-shift on the steering wheel, as you can see..." Francesca said, and pointed at two strange pieces of plastic behind the wheel.
"Oh, yes," Kathleen said, not quite sure what it was exactly she was looking at.
"It's much faster to use than a regular H-pattern."
"Why does the car have blue wing mirrors?" she asked.
"Well, why do you think," Francesca said and batted her eyelids, giving the author a not-so-subtle hint.
"Because you have blue eyes?" she said incredulously.
"How fast can you go in this thing, anyway?"
"Oh, if the wings and the gearing is set for maximum speed, probably 230 mph."
"Really! That much?"
"God, I get frightened when I drive 60 on the motorway," Kathleen said and laughed.
"I do too, all those lorries..." Francesca said and winked, earning her a gentle slap on her arm.
"All in all, I think we have a good shot at victory this year... barring unforeseen disasters, of course," Francesca said as she lead Kathleen back down the stairs to the rows of chairs.
"Come on, let me introduce you to my team-mates."
"Oh, but surely they're too busy now?"
"No. This is all just hot air. Come on," Francesca said, and put an arm around Kathleen's shoulder.
"Jonno, this is my friend Kathleen," the dark haired woman said to a man a few years younger than her.
"Delighted to meet you, Miss," he said and shook her hand.
"Kathleen, this is Jonathan Baker, the Benjamin of car #5. He won Silverstone with me."
"Hello, pleased to meet you," Kathleen said.
"And over there we have the grand old man himself, Derek Harrison, he's only joining us for Le Mans," Francesca said and pointed at a man being interviewed by a Sky Sports camera crew.
"We'll get to him in a little while. Over on the far side of the room, you'll find the drivers of #6, 'Pico' Paletti and Jo, the two regular drivers, and Hans Wochalewski, the experienced ringer for Le Mans."
"I'm glad you arranged a pass for me to come, Francesca. This is really fun," Kathleen said.
"I thought you might like it. I have another surprise for you. How would you like to..."
The Sky crew came over to Francesca and turned on the powerful light right in her face. She blinked a few times to get used to the brightness.
"We're hot," the camera operator said. The sports presenter started asking Francesca all the usual trivialities, and Kathleen stepped into the background.
When they moved away, searching for the next hapless victim, Francesca mocked the presenter.
"How do you feel about being the only woman in a factory team, Miss Carrara?" she said in a distorted voice.
"Oh, how imaginative. I've only been asked that fifty times," she said in her normal voice, rolling her eyes.
Kathleen couldn't hide a grin over Francesca's discomfort, which earned her a raised eyebrow and a crooked smile from the other woman.
"You said you had another surprise for me?" Kathleen said.
"Have you ever been to Italy?"
"Would you like to go there?"
"Well... sure," Kathleen said and shrugged.
"Good... because I have an airline ticket and a free 'gold' paddock pass with your name on it for the Monza 1000 Kilometre's coming up next weekend. Entry to the uber-luxurious Star Club, free food and drink, free everything. Please say yes," Francesca said and winked at the author.
Kathleen was gobsmacked over the offer. She looked disbelieving at Francesca's smiling face. A voice at the back of Kathleen's mind was asking her if it was possible that the beautiful race car driver was feeling the same way she was.
"Good heavens! That must've been very expensive for you. Yes, please!" she said.
"I'm really glad to hear that, Kathleen. There isn't much work left on the book, and I thought it would be a nice goodbye present for you," Francesca said.
Kathleen only heard the word 'goodbye'. Her smile froze on her face, and she could barely breathe. She settled for nodding.
Francesca was ushered away by the still fuming stage manager to get the official team photos taken. She smiled and waved at the stunned Kathleen as she was led away.
A week later.
The days had gone by in a blur for Kathleen. She had kept up the façade, so she doubted that Francesca knew anything about the turmoil within her. She had been looking forward to spending a weekend in Italy with the charismatic dark haired woman, no doubt about that, but at the same time, she couldn't believe that the rug had been pulled out from under her quite so viciously... and how much it actually hurt.
The first night after the presentation of the car, she couldn't sleep at all; Francesca's words had just kept on churning in her mind. 'Goodbye', well of course, it was supposed to be, after all. Kathleen had never said anything that might lead them down another path, and now she was very unsure if she should. Francesca was a woman of the world, how could a little, strawberry-blonde mouse who needed reading glasses possibly interest her?
No matter how she tried to come up with alternatives, the book was just about finished. Even if she slowed down to a snail's pace, there was no way she could stretch out the remaining work to more than a few weeks. Really, all she needed was to tie up the loose ends and double check the index - that was it. Then her master copy would be sent to the printer's for a test run. If that was all right, the book would go into print. The legal department had even approved of the saucy anecdote about why another driver's nickname was 'The Shrimp'.
The look on Francesca's face when she told the anecdote had been priceless. Her eyes really lit up when she was enjoying herself, and she definitely had been that afternoon. It was a good thing Kathleen had turned on the tape recorder, because for the rest of the session she was transfixed onto Francesca's ice blue eyes, and she couldn't remember a word that had been said.
The ear-splitting scream of an Italian V12 driving by shook Kathleen back to the real world. She looked around, but none of the other guests in the Star Club had noticed that she had zoned out. Three Italian waiters were constantly walking among the tables, ready to serve the guests.
Kathleen raised her hand, and one of the waiters quickly arrived at her table.
"I'd like another glass of white, please."
"As you wish, signorina. How was your Pasta Pollo?" he said, as he removed the plates.
"Oh, it was magnificent, thank you. Please tell me, how many laps are left?"
"Let me see... 20 laps, signorina," the waiter said, looking at the TV screen constantly updating the timing and scoring information.
"One last thing, do you mind telling me who is leading? I'm new to all this, and I'm lost," Kathleen said and gave the waiter a blinding smile.
"The Maseratis are one-two," he said with some pride.
"Oh... thank you very much," Kathleen said.
The Star Club was located on top of the pit complex on the front straight, so Kathleen had an excellent view of the victory celebrations. The Maserati team did in fact finish one-two, with Francesca's car in third, two laps down.
After the drivers had received their trophies, the Italian anthem blasted out over the track, ending with a huge cheer from the spectators massing below. The winning drivers splashed the champagne over everyone, and finally they threw their caps into the crowd, Francesca included.
Kathleen walked down the stairs from the Star Club and into a VIP enclosure where she'd be able to see the drivers up close when they returned from the obligatory press conference.
She didn't have to wait long - within moments, the four Maserati drivers came through the glass doors, laughing and slapping each other on the backs. They cheerily whistled at her, and she blushed slightly. Then Francesca entered, looking like she was about to kill someone. Her lips were reduced to a narrow line in her face, and her hand held the third place trophy so tightly her knuckles were white. Walking right behind her, Jonathan Baker was trying to blend in with the white walls.
Kathleen didn't know what had happened, but she could certainly read the body language, and she guessed a better result had slipped through their fingers.
Francesca walked briskly and nearly passed Kathleen before she spotted her. Taking a deep breath, she turned around to talk to the author.
"Hi. You look bothered," Kathleen said, slightly worried that the driver would snap at her.
"Mmmm. Third place. That's... mmmm," Francesca said, and Kathleen knew that she was really trying to control her temper.
"You need a hot shower, Francesca."
"Mmmm. Good idea."
Purely as a reflex, Kathleen reached out, grabbed Francesca's hand and held it tight. Francesca looked down at the clasped hands in amazement. Her strained facial expression softened, and she couldn't stop a smile from breaking out on her face.
When Kathleen noticed where her hand was, and the effect it had on the driver, she blushed furiously... but she didn't let go of Francesca's hand.
That same evening, they decided to go to a restaurant together to celebrate the result. Even though Francesca called it 'celebrate' in quotation marks, she was more than willing to spend some time with Kathleen.
The waiter led them to a quiet table for two and pulled the chairs out for each of them. Smiling, he gave them a menu each and withdrew.
"I had Pasta Pollo for lunch, so I think I'll have some veal," Kathleen said, and looked up from the menu. For the briefest of moments, the two women made eye contact, but Francesca hurriedly looked down into her own menu.
"How about #25 then, roast veal in mushroom sauce?"
"Sounds good. What'll you have?"
"Oh, I don't know. I eat pasta daily for the carbohydrates, so... I think I'll splash out for once and have a pizza," Francesca said.
"Wine?" Kathleen asked.
"Not for me, but if you want?"
"Well, I never say no to white wine," Kathleen said and smiled.
"Deal, then. Waiter!"
The waiter came over to their table and took their orders. This was the first time Kathleen heard Francesca speak Italian, and the sound of the fast cadence was so sexy to her that her ears started burning.
Francesca smiled mischievously at the author.
"Your ears are redder than a lobster's rear end."
"I must have had too much sun..."
"It was overcast the entire day. And you were inside the entire day, too."
Francesca pulled back her chair slightly and crossed her legs. She flipped her hair back, and Kathleen almost melted. Francesca was wearing the same black pant suit she had worn when they had first met in the publisher's office, and Kathleen had to admit that she liked that outfit a lot.
"Everybody's watching you," she whispered to Francesca after having looked around in the restaurant.
"Everybody's watching *us*," Francesca said and winked.
"Hardly," Kathleen said quietly.
The waiter arrived with a basket of hot bread and some olives and their drinks, a carafe of white wine for Kathleen and a club soda for Francesca.
"If you keep sitting like that, you'll have someone serenading you pretty soon," Kathleen said, as she broke off a piece of bread and started to eat it.
"Like what? I'm just sitting here."
"Oh, all right," Francesca said and moved back to the table.
"Do you want to talk about what happened today?" Kathleen asked.
"Well... it's really quite simple. I don't know if we could've won, the Maseratis are always very fast on their home track, but we had second place in the bag. Jonno wasn't patient enough overtaking a lapped car, and he slipped off the track and ended in the gravel at the Parabolica, the final corner of the track. It took a lap and a half to dig him out, and we finished two laps back, so..."
"I'm sorry, Francesca. But at least you got a trophy," Kathleen offered.
"I'm here to win. I'm paid to win, and I want to win. Second place is the first of the losers. I wasn't even that today," Francesca said, and emptied her club soda.
"But enough talk about that failure. Kathleen, I just realised, you know everything there is to know about me, but I hardly know anything about you. So, Kathleen O'Malley, who are you?" Francesca said and smiled.
"Oh... well... I'm just me, you know. I live a quiet life in a quiet house doing quiet things... when I'm not visiting the race tracks of the world, of course," Kathleen said and laughed.
"There must be more to you than that. Come on," Francesca teased.
The waiter interrupted them by bringing their meals. He lit a candle with a lighter and asked if he could do anything more at this point. Francesca asked for another club soda, and he quickly delivered it.
"I guess I'm just not that interesting," Kathleen said and shrugged.
"That's nonsense, Kathleen. You have a great mind, and a quick wit. And great writing skills, too. I have your other biography, the one about Kaye Jason, and..."
"You have?" Kathleen asked surprised.
"Yes. And let me tell you a secret: I know Kaye Jason. She's a hole in the ground when it comes to humour. But your book is so much fun to read, and it makes her look very good. That's why I wanted you."
"You know Kaye Jason?" Kathleen said, her fork stopped halfway to her mouth.
"I do. We've met on several occasions."
"Imagine that. Well!" Kathleen said, and continued eating.
They ate in silence for a few minutes until Kathleen noticed Francesca looking at her with a curious gleam in her eye.
"You were talking about yourself, remember?"
"Funny. I'd love to get to know you better, Kathleen," Francesca said and smiled.
"How come a beautiful woman like yourself doesn't have anyone to share her house with?" Francesca asked.
"Well, I went through a terrible break-up some time ago, and I guess I've needed the solitude."
"What happened? If it's too personal, it's OK to tell me that it's none of my business."
Kathleen put down the fork and sighed. She considered for a few seconds whether or not to the tell Francesca the story, and finally came to the conclusion that she wanted to share it with someone.
"I was living with a man I had known since my school days. We never married, but it almost felt like we had. We'd been together for five years, but then I met someone else, and I realised I didn't love Edward... at all. We were friends, but that was all it ever had been."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Kathleen."
"His sister, Becky, had worked on a charity project in Africa for several years, but then she returned to England. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. After a few months, I told her, and I told Edward, and then... everything came crashing down," Kathleen said bitterly. She wiped her mouth in a napkin, and emptied her glass of wine in a gulp.
"Oh... Kathleen, I never would have guessed... but you're not out, then?" Francesca said.
"No. Not even to my parents. I went 'in' instead, the furthest I could go. That was five years ago."
"Five years! You've been living like a hermit for five years?" Francesca said, clearly shocked.
"I didn't choose it to be that way, but... after a while it felt like the safest option. No adventures, no disappointments," Kathleen said and crossed her arms over her chest. She sighed again.
A pregnant silence filled the air between them.
'Time for a leap of faith,'
"Well, I was very much hoping that we could still... see each other. Even after the book is done," Francesca said, unable to look at Kathleen.
The author's mouth gaped open, and her face looked like a question mark.
"You... you do?" she asked, completely perplexed.
Francesca nodded, her face a mask of shyness that Kathleen thought was very becoming of the usually highly confident race car driver.
"Oh god, I'd like that very much, Francesca... but why did you call this trip a goodbye present, then?"
"Well, you might have laughed at me... I'm not very good with these emotional things," Francesca said quietly.
And laugh Kathleen did, a wonderfully liberating laugh that cleared her mind of the last remaining cobwebs. It was so good to know they were both on the same page now. Now she actually had a chance to look forward to something, for the first time in years.
"You should have told me earlier, it would have saved me from a few sleepless nights," Kathleen said and used her napkin to dab away some tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes.
"Well, I wanted to, but... I could never find the right moment," Francesca said sheepishly, still looking like she didn't entirely understand what was going on.
Kathleen grabbed both of Francesca's hands across the table and held them tight. No words were necessary as their eyes made contact. They didn't have time for little things like breathing or hearing, so they didn't notice the waiter standing by their table until he cleared his throat for the third time.
They both had huge, silly grins on their faces as they let go so Francesca could get to her wallet to pay the bill.
Francesca parked the rental car in the parking garage underneath the hotel, and the elevator ride up to their floor was made in silence.
They had rented adjacent suites, but Francesca followed Kathleen into hers. They were on the top floor of the hotel, the twelfth, and the vista overlooking the city was magnificent. It was past 9 pm when they returned, so the sun had nearly set in the western sky, but the air was still warm.
Kathleen pulled open the sliding door and stepped out on the balcony. The sounds of the large city were muffled this high up, but she could still hear the typical cacophony of cars honking and sirens far below her. She leaned against the metal railing and enjoyed the sights of the thousands of lights coming from the city's many houses and apartments. In the far distance, she could see red lights blinking on the chimneys of a large power plant, and far above her, she could see the landing lights of a passenger jet, coming in to land in the same airport she and Francesca would go to early tomorrow morning.
Francesca came out onto the balcony, having changed from the uncomfortable ankle boots she had been wearing in the restaurant to flats. She stood next to Kathleen and looked at the city. She used the approaching darkness to put her hand on Kathleen's hip.
The author turned around and looked lovingly at Francesca. She put her own hands around the taller woman's waist and pulled her close. Francesca leaned down and brushed her lips gently against Kathleen's, just to allow both women to get a feel for the other. Kathleen opened her eyes, and to the driver, it looked like they were on fire. Another kiss followed, deeper this time, making Kathleen moan.
They separated, and Kathleen turned away from Francesca. Her heart was beating wildly in her chest, and she could feel the heated blood coursing through her veins. Her whole body was throbbing with need, but she wanted the first time they made love to be special, and an impersonal hotel room couldn't give her that feeling.
"Please, Francesca, I... I can't go any further... not just yet," she whispered.
"All right. Try to get some sleep. We're leaving very early in the morning. Sweet dreams," Francesca whispered back, and kissed the top of Kathleen's head before slipping quietly out of the suite.
Kathleen put her hand down on the alarm clock, silencing the infernal noise. She sighed and looked around in her bedroom. Everything was as it had always been, but now she was a year older. Today was her 36th birthday, May 26th, and she didn't particularly feel like celebrating.
Her life had been so wonderfully straightforward in the years where she hadn't allowed herself to get involved with anyone else, but in the three weeks since that fantastic evening in Italy, she had become confused. To find out that Francesca did actually feel something for her had been a life-changing event for Kathleen, but... they were so different. Francesca was a pragmatist - she was a romantic; She still felt like a little grey mouse, even though Francesca often told her differently - and Francesca was never any less than stunningly beautiful; she felt lost at times - and Francesca was always in perfect and complete control... Kathleen sighed again.
She got out of bed and stuck her feet into her slippers. She put her bathrobe on, and padded into the kitchen to make some tea and breakfast.
After she had done the dishes and had a quick shower, she sat down to finish the biography. Officially, her co-operation with Francesca had ended on Monday, and all that remained was to write the page with all the acknowledgements. She started typing, and was soon lost to the world.
After a little while, it rang on the door, and Kathleen got up to open it. She looked left and right, but the place was deserted - apart from a large... well, 'something' on her doorstep. At first, she couldn't understand what it was, but it soon dawned on her that it was a glass vase of mammoth proportions, maybe three feet tall, and tinted in a dark orange. She scratched her hair. She couldn't just leave it on the doorstep, so she carried it inside. It was lighter than it looked, but it still weighed a good twenty pounds. She had barely had time to place it on the living room floor when the door bell rang again.
This time, Kathleen was there in an instant, hoping to catch whoever it was playing pranks on her.
Francesca was waiting outside, carrying three dozen red roses.
"Happy Birthday, Kathleen," she said and smiled.
"May I come in?"
She walked past a stunned Kathleen who couldn't have formed a coherent sentence if her life had depended on it.
Francesca carefully put down the three sheaves of twelve roses each on the kitchen table.
"They're pre-cut, so we won't have to do that. Let me get some water for the vase, and I'll put them in," she said.
Kathleen had followed her into the kitchen, still speechless. Her hands were covering her mouth, and she was afraid she would start to cry if she didn't have something to hold on to.
Francesca filled water in the glass vase until she was satisfied with the level. She put in the roses two or three at a time, so they wouldn't be harmed.
Kathleen sat down on her couch, shook her head and looked silently at all the roses. After a little while, she trusted her voice wouldn't break, so she took a deep breath.
"My god, thank you Francesca. I... I..."
The dark haired woman sat down next to Kathleen and hugged her.
"I'm glad you like them," she said, and snuggled up to the author.
"... there are so many..." Kathleen said.
"Well, it is your 36th birthday, isn't it? Couldn't come with just one rose, you know."
"I would've been happy with just one..."
"I know you would, but Kathleen... sometimes you just have to do something extravagant," Francesca said, and leaned in to kiss the other woman on her cheek.
"I'm very happy you did," Kathleen whispered, and turned her head so they could kiss properly.
A little while later, after much kissing and a few tears of joy, Francesca was back in the kitchen, making tea.
She added a spoonful of honey to Kathleen's and picked up the two mugs. She carried them into the living room, and handed Kathleen hers.
"Here you go - with honey."
"Thank you," Kathleen sniffed.
"Do you have any plans for the weekend?" Francesca said as she sat down on the couch, her face as innocent as a cherub.
Kathleen raised an eyebrow.
"You're not going to surprise me with another trip to Italy, or something like that, are you?"
"You're spending bundles of money on me, I don't deserve that..."
"It's my money, so let me be the judge of that. And my opinion is that you deserve every penny. But, it's not Italy, I can assure you."
"Are we going out to eat, then?"
"Well... yes, but not like you think," Francesca said and winked.
"Do I need fancy clothes?"
"Ah... no. Nothing more fancy than what you wear regularly."
"Do you need a hint?"
"It begins with an 'F'," Francesca said, and sipped her tea.
"Oh, that's so much help,"
"... I give up," Kathleen said, and grinned.
"It's a four day trip to France. Saturday and Sunday I have to work, and then we'll have Monday and Tuesday to ourselves."
"France! Oh, god Francesca! Hang on, I know what it is... it's the Le Mans test day, right?"
Kathleen put down the mug on the table, and got up from her couch. She stretched her arms out, and almost fell on top of Francesca, who fortunately had already emptied her mug.
"Ooof!" she exclaimed as 122 lbs. of author came down on her, hugging and kissing her senseless.
When Kathleen had calmed down, Francesca scooted up on the couch, and put her head on the arm rest. Kathleen was sprawled across the driver with her head in the nook of Francesca's chin. The misty green eyes were closed and she was smiling contentedly. The smaller woman's arm were placed just below Francesca's breasts, and the intimate touch was doing things to her body that she didn't think it was capable of. She could feel a tremendous warmth spreading out from her centre, and she ached for Kathleen to touch her, to kiss her, to make love to her - but she knew that they should wait until it felt right for both of them.
With Kathleen seemingly content to stay where she was, Francesca started daydreaming - about what they could do together, where they could go. Paris was only 250 kilometres away from Le Mans, and the City Of Love was an exciting prospect. Francesca hoped Kathleen would enjoy a trip to Paris, and she was almost sure the author would. She made a mental note to look for a romantic pension the next time she was online.
"I love it when you smile..." Kathleen said. Francesca looked down and saw Kathleen's eyes fixed on her.
"You have such a beautiful smile..." the author purred, and started to place tiny kisses on the side of Francesca's neck. She moved her arm from its resting place across Francesca's chest and started to caress a full breast through the shirt. The movement sent a jolt of passion through Francesca, and she could feel every nerve in her standing on edge.
Never stopping her kisses on Francesca's neck and jaw, Kathleen moved her hand underneath the driver's shirt and started to gently claw and caress the muscular stomach she found there. Francesca closed her eyes, and allowed the incredible sensations to engulf her.
"I want to make love with you..." Kathleen whispered, and moved her hand from the stomach to Francesca's right breast, gently cupping and caressing the soft skin, moving ever closer to the sensitive peak in the centre.
Francesca moaned throatily, and arced her back off the couch from the sensation. With trembling fingers, she started to unbutton her shirt, sending the last two buttons flying when they wouldn't come open. She took the shirt off and let it fall to the floor, exposing her sculpted torso to Kathleen.
The author stopped kissing Francesca's neck and went down to continue on the inviting breasts. When her tongue circled the hardened nipples, Francesca moaned again, spurring Kathleen on.
Kathleen reached down with her free hand to unbutton her jeans and shimmied out of them, the cool air feeling wonderful on her heated skin. Francesca started tugging on Kathleen's blouse, and she leaned over to her left so it would come off.
Francesca rose off the couch to find the soft lips waiting there. Kathleen opened her mouth to allow the driver inside, and soon their tongues were engaged in a passionate dance.
When they separated to get some air, Francesca quickly shed her slacks, and turned to her left so she could hold Kathleen better. She traced her hand up Kathleen's back and found the release on the bra and unhitched it, liberating the author's breasts.
"My turn," she whispered, and effortlessly moved the smaller woman onto her back. Kathleen giggled over how easily she was picked up and moved, but soon lost her ability to think, as Francesca leaned down and started to kiss her way from the collar bone down to the sternum. She used both hands to play with Kathleen's breasts, gently squeezing and pulling the erect nipples between her thumbs and index fingers. She cupped the two mounds with her hands and let her tongue run slowly over the sensitive tips, sending a wave of electric shocks crashing through Kathleen's body. She bucked and groaned wildly, putting her hands behind Francesca's head to press her down even more.
Instead Francesca moved up, making Kathleen whimper from the sudden lack of contact. The driver hovered above Kathleen's face for a few seconds, and then she kissed her passionately.
"I want you, please..." Kathleen whispered between kisses.
Francesca complied, kissing her way down Kathleen's body, before stopping at the elastic band of the pink panties. Instinctively, Kathleen spread her legs slightly to ease Francesca's access, and the driver responded by using her thumb to apply pressure through the soaked panties. She moved her finger rhythmically in small circles, some times gently, some times harder.
Kathleen tried to get out of the panties, and Francesca helped by snagging a finger inside the elastic band and pulling them off. She admired the view of Kathleen's blonde curls for a few seconds, and then ran her fingers over the moist folds.
Kathleen raised her hips off the couch and pressed her throbbing centre against Francesca's hand.
"Oh gaaaawd..." she moaned, her voice thick with passion. At the first touch of Francesca's tongue on her, Kathleen was unable to resist any longer and surrendered to a powerful climax surging through her body, making her buck and groan Francesca's name loudly.
After settling down slightly, the groans turned to quiet sobs, and Francesca scooted up Kathleen's body to hold her in her arms.
"Shhhh, I've got you, I've got you..." she whispered, cradling and gently rocking Kathleen in her arms.
"That was... that was my first time with a woman..." Kathleen whispered.
"I love you so much, Francesca," Kathleen said shakily between sobs, and hugged the driver for all she was worth.
Francesca froze for a brief second, but relaxed before Kathleen could feel it.
'Love?' she thought. She stored the information in her mind - that was for later.
"Happy birthday..." Francesca whispered, and moved a stray lock of hair away from the blonde woman's eyes.
Kathleen chuckled and snuggled down in Francesca's arms.
"Thank you... for the roses and... everything. I could get used to this, you know," she said, and looked deep into Francesca's blue eyes.
"Good," the driver said, and claimed Kathleen's soft lips.
Three days later, Francesca and Kathleen were standing in a small waiting room at a local airport in Kent, waiting for the Mercedes-Benz AG business jet to arrive. They could see the plane being prepared inside a hangar on the other side of the runway.
"You know, Francesca, I've never flown in such a small jet before..." Kathleen said, and fidgeted with her sleeves.
"Are you nervous?"
"A little bit, yes."
"Don't worry, I'll hold your hand during take-off and the landing," Francesca said, and squeezed Kathleen's shoulder.
The Citation was towed out of the hangar by a tractor, and when it had cleared the building, it fired up its two jet engines. Slowly, it taxied onto the runway and towards the terminal building. When it was in place, the door was opened, and a small set of stairs was extended from the jet.
The two women took their suitcases and waited for the gate to open. When it did, they and the other passengers walked out to the jet.
The other four passengers, all computer technicians or engineers working for the team, got settled in the single-seats, which left the only double for Francesca and Kathleen.
"Oh, how convenient," Francesca said and smiled mischievously.
With such an expression on her face, Kathleen knew that Francesca had arranged it that way. She had probably bribed all the others to stay away from the double.
The Captain came into the cabin and said hello to the passengers.
"Guten Tag, I'm Captain Holzer. Is everyone settled in? The trip is expected to last 45 minutes, and the weather looks fine all the way to our destination, so it should be a smooth ride. In case it isn't, you'll find your parachutes next to the rear escape hatch."
The other passengers had heard it countless times, so they all laughed dutifully.
Kathleen blinked a few times, and her mouth gaped open.
"German humour," Francesca said quietly to her.
"Ha... ha..." Kathleen replied dryly.
The flight was indeed smooth, but Francesca kept her promise by holding Kathleen's hand during the scary bits.
"How do we get to the circuit from here?" Kathleen said, as they were standing in the French airport. She looked at her watch, it was 4:50 PM local time.
"Before we took off, we rented a minibus from Hertz. The circuit's not far, actually. Only about half an hours' drive from here," Francesca said.
The rental bus signalled its arrival by honking, so they all picked up their bags and walked out to it.
'WELCOME TO LE MANS - CIRCUIT DE LA SARTHE' was proudly displayed on the side of a pedestrian bridge across the road. Francesca drove slowly underneath the bridge, and pulled up to a booth. They showed their credentials and received instructions on how to get to their pit area.
As they drove into the paddock behind the pit complex, Kathleen couldn't believe her eyes. Everything was enormous, even larger than the buildings in Monza. The pit complex stretched on for what seemed like miles in either direction, and there were hundreds of people milling about in the paddock, even though there wasn't a single car on the track yet.
"My goodness," she said and stared wide eyed at the anthill-like activity.
"Wait 'till you see the pit straight, Kathleen," Francesca said and grinned over the expression on the author's face.
They found the Mercedes pit easily enough, and they all got out of the minibus. The engineers and the technicians immediately joined their already present colleagues, and soon Francesca and Kathleen were alone. Francesca motioned to Kathleen that she should follow her, and they went over to stand between the large lorries carrying the race cars and the spares.
"Kathleen, as soon as they know I'm here, we won't see much of each other until after the test is finished at 9 or 10 pm tonight, so..." she leaned down to kiss the author, and continued:
"... have fun until we meet again, OK? Go to the Mercedes hospitality area, and ask for Belle. She's the press liaison, and she'll help you get comfortable."
"Hospitality area, Belle, okie-dokie," Kathleen said and looked around. Safe in the knowledge that no one could see them, she stood up on tiptoes and kissed the driver again.
"Please be safe, Francesca. Break a leg!" she said.
"Thanks... but I think I'd rather not, if you don't mind," Francesca said with a laugh, and left, heading towards the entrance to the pit complex.
Kathleen looked after her, and saw that she was greeted by man in a Mercedes suit who said something to her, and tapped on his wristwatch. Francesca shrugged, as if to say, 'whatever', and then they went inside the building.
Kathleen didn't have to look long for the Mercedes hospitality area. She could see the Star logo on the front of a big tent almost at once, so she made her way over there, careful not to get in the way of the many mechanics moving around in the paddock, some with laptops and some towing large trolleys carrying stacks of racing wheels.
When she walked inside, she saw the Star logo was prominently placed on everything - the carpet, the chairs, the tables, the uniforms the waitresses were wearing, and even on the glasses and plates themselves. She had to chuckle over the attention to detail.
Kathleen walked up to the bar and ordered a mineral water. A security guard came over to her.
"I'm sorry, Miss, you can't be in here without proper credentials," he said.
"Erm... oh, the plastic thing?"
"Yes," he replied.
Kathleen pulled a plastic card on a long keychain out of her purse and showed it to him.
"Yes. It checks out, so you're allowed to stay in here. You need to keep it visible," the guard said. At the same time, the bartender put down a tall glass of mineral water and a napkin in front of her.
"All right, thank you," she said to the guard, and looked at the card. She put the long chain around her neck, and put the card into the chest pocket of her blazer.
"Will this do?"
"It will. Good day, Miss."
"Good day," she said, and turned to the bartender.
"Hello. What do I owe?"
"Oh, nothing, Miss. The food and beverages are free for people with Mercedes credentials."
"Are they really? Then I should have ordered champagne," Kathleen said and smiled.
"You can have a whole bottle if you want," the bartender said, and showed her the well-equipped bar - rows and rows of bottles of the best known labels of spirits, beers and what looked like very exquisite wines.
"I'll keep that in mind... maybe later, thank you. By the way, I'm hoping you can help me, I'm looking for Belle, the press liaison?" Kathleen said.
He quickly scanned the tent.
"She's not here yet, but you can't miss her when she comes in, she's about your height, with a full head of ash-blonde curls."
"All right, that sounds easy enough to identify. Thank you," she said, and took her glass. She chuckled when she noticed that even the napkin had the Star logo on it. She quickly found a free table right next to two palm trees and sat down. Above the table, a flatscreen TV was continuously showing Mercedes-Benz ads and infrequently a highlights programme of last year's race that hadn't gone well for the team.
Kathleen had asked Francesca about it in one of the sessions, and she had told her that they had experienced technical difficulties that hadn't shown up in any of the testing they'd done. Both cars had been out after only 40 laps, and it was hugely disappointing, not to mention embarrassing, to the crew, the drivers and not least the senior management who were all hoping for a great deal more. This year *had* to be better, and everybody had redoubled their efforts to make sure it would be.
A lady in a dark grey skirt and an off-white blouse entered the tent. She also had a full head of bobbing curls, and Kathleen quickly finished her drink and got up so she wouldn't miss her. The woman was talking to the bartender when Kathleen arrived, so she waited politely.
"Excuse me, are you Belle?" she said, when their conversation was over.
"I am. And you must be Kathleen O'Malley?" Belle said.
"That's right. How do you do." They shook hands, and Kathleen was surprised to see that Belle was much younger than she had anticipated. The woman couldn't be more then 30-31, and she was very good looking, with sharply drawn eyebrows, high cheek bones and lush lips.
"How do you do. Let me get you sorted... let's see," Belle said, and pulled out a PDA that was clipped to her belt.
"Oh, yes. I have you in room 11 in the Mercedes Hotel. How much luggage do you have?"
"Just my purse and this suitcase."
"I see. Do you require a porter?"
Kathleen felt somewhat insulted by that, and her facial expression told Belle so.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Miss O'Malley, I didn't mean to imply that you couldn't carry it, but a lot of our guests insist on having their luggage moved there by porters," Belle said apologetically.
"Really?" Kathleen said disbelieving.
"Well, I can handle my luggage just fine, thank you."
"All right. Then it's this way, please," Belle said, and motioned for Kathleen to leave the tent.
Belle walked very fast, and Kathleen had to hurry to keep up with her. They arrived at a temporary building with an advanced looking electronic security system on the front door.
"Miss O'Malley, you'll need this to get in. Here you go..." she said, and handed Kathleen a yellow keycard.
"And this is for your room. It's on the first floor," she said, and gave her a red keycard.
Kathleen looked exasperated at all the plastic cards, but reluctantly understood that it was necessary.
"Let me help you, here..." Belle said, and took the yellow keycard and put it into a slot next to a door. A red light blinked green after a few seconds, and the door unlocked.
"You have ten seconds to get in, after that it'll lock automatically, Miss O'Malley."
"What is this, Alcatraz?" Kathleen grumbled to herself, slowly getting annoyed over all this electronic nonsense.
"In your room, you'll find an ethernet socket, courtesy of Mercedes-Benz AG, with free and unlimited use of the Internet for your laptop. You'll also find charging equipment for all major brands of cell phones. Do you have any questions about the accommodations, Miss O'Malley?"
"I have neither a laptop nor a cell phone, but other than that, no. I'm fine," she said, and smiled.
"Oh... well, in any case, the kitchen in our hospitality area can provide you with breakfast, lunch and dinner at all times of the day. And I'm sure André has already told you that all food and beverages are free, courtesy of Mercedes-Benz AG, for those guests with full Mercedes credentials," Belle said.
"Yes, he has. Thank you. I don't want to take any more of your time, so... thank you," Kathleen said.
"Thank you, Miss O'Malley," Belle said, and left.
Kathleen let out a long, suffering sigh, and found the yellow keycard for the front door. She ran it through the slot, and it unlocked. She went inside, and started to climb the stairs.
Francesca rubbed her weary eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Four hours of looking at computer monitors and data printouts had taken its toll on her, and she badly needed a break. She looked at her watch, 9:30 PM.
"Are we done here?" she asked a technician who sat next to her at a computer console.
"Just about, Francesca. We only need to check the..." he said, and droned on.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
A quarter past ten, they finally called it a night. She threw the plastic plates and a cup from her pasta dinner, nourishing but with no taste whatsoever, into the wastebin and stretched her back.
The crowd in the paddock had thinned out considerably now, so she had no problems in getting to the hospitality area.
She saw Belle and André, the bartender, sitting at a table, quietly talking.
"Hi, André, Belle," she said, and nodded to the two of them.
"Miss Carrara," the bartender said and returned the nod.
"Hello, Fran," Belle said, smiling seductively.
"I need a drink, so do you mind fixing me a Club Soda with a lemon twist, please, André?"
"My pleasure, Miss Carrara," he said, and went up to the bar.
"Have a seat," Belle said, and smiled.
Francesca raised an eyebrow, but sat down anyway.
"How have you been?"
"Mmmm? I'm off in fifteen minutes. I know you have to get up early in the morning, but I was thinking..." Belle purred.
"I'm sorry, I can't."
"You could last year, as I recall."
"That was then, and this is now, Belle."
"Well. Maybe some other time, then."
"Did Kathleen O'Malley find you?"
"She did, I put her in #11," Belle said, irritated over the change in subject.
"What the hell? Why isn't she in my room?" Francesca said surprised.
"In your room?"
"She's with me, Belle."
"Oh... You mean, like..."
"Yes. That's exactly what I mean."
"Somebody must've messed up," Francesca growled, and crossed her arms over her chest.
"I better go and fix it right away," she said and got up. André had the Club Soda ready, but Francesca brushed past him without even looking at it.
"What was that all about?" he asked Belle, but didn't get an answer, as she got up and left in a huff, too.
"Women!" he said, and took a swig from the glass.
Francesca locked herself into the building and bounded up the stairs, two steps at a time. She quickly found room #11, and quietly knocked on the door.
"Kathleen? Are you in there, it's me, Francesca!"
The door was unlocked and opened.
"Hello... I think there's been some mistake..." Kathleen said, and stepped aside so Francesca could come in.
"I know, but... first things first," the driver said and proceeded to pull Kathleen close and kiss her senseless.
"Now, that's what I call a 'hello'," Kathleen said, giggling, after they separated.
"Good lord, I needed that," Francesca said, and sighed.
"There's only one bed in here," Kathleen said.
"I know. There's been a foul-up somewhere. You were supposed to stay in my room, down the hall in #17."
"Oh. Belle mustn't have been told, obviously."
"Obviously," Francesca said icily, and ran a hand through her hair.
"Now we pack your suitcase again, and relocate you down to my room. I'll deal with Belle in the morning."
"Please don't be too hard on her. I'm sure she didn't have anything to do with it," Kathleen said, and put a hand on Francesca's arm.
"Mmmm. That's for tomorrow. Let's go," the driver said.
Some time later, they were resting in each other's arms in the double bed in Francesca's room.
"Muuuuch better," Kathleen whispered and nibbled at the tempting earlobe right in front of her face.
Francesca squirmed, but Kathleen held her tight and ran her tongue over the driver's exposed neck.
"We really need to get some sleep, Kathleen."
"We'll get to that eventually," she replied.
"No, I'm serious. I have to get up at 7 am," Francesca said and squirmed again over the delicate touch on her neck.
Kathleen stopped licking the driver's neck and snuggled down into the nook of her chin instead.
"Oh, all right. But when we get to Paris, I expect to be compensated."
"You will, no doubt about that," Francesca said, and reached up to turn off the reading light.
"Good night, Kathleen, sweet dreams," she whispered.
"Good night, Francesca, you too."
7:15 am, and Francesca stepped out of the shower to see Kathleen fast asleep draped across the table in the kitchenette. She smiled at the cute sight, and started to get dressed.
She took her driving suit and the fireproof nomex underwear from the closet and put it on the unmade bed.
First the panties and the sportsbra, then the long johns, the socks and the undershirt. She held out the suit and stepped in it, superstition demanding that she inserted the right leg first. She bent over and pulled the long john legs down, and then pulled the top of the suit up and put her arms into it. She zipped it, and the sound woke Kathleen up.
"Oh, I must've fallen asleep," she said, wiping her eyes and yawning.
"You did," Francesca said, as she was checking her gloves and her boots. She would wear tennis shoes until she was ready to get in the car, the delicate soles of the driving boots didn't like the rough asphalt in the paddock.
She opened the cupboard and took out her helmet and the 'Head & Neck Support'-device. She put them, the boots and the gloves into a holdall and zipped it.
"Well, I guess I'm ready," she said to Kathleen.
"Not quite, I haven't given you a goodbye kiss yet," the author said.
"Oh, that's right, I knew I had forgotten something." Francesca walked over to where Kathleen was sitting.
"Cheeky," Kathleen said, and rose to meet the taller woman's lips.
"Please stay safe," she whispered into Francesca's ear.
"I'll try. See you tonight at six," the driver said, and kissed Kathleen again for luck.
An hour later, the first of the test sessions officially started, and the potent racing engines came to life all the way up and down the pitlane. Italian and British V12's, American V8's, German flat-sixes and Japanese inline-four Turbos all competed for attention, the cacophony of sounds completely drowning out the PA speakers.
Kathleen could feel the vibrations in her chest, even sitting in the hospitality area, which was quite some distance from the front of pit garages.
All the TV's were now showing live pictures from the circuit - still mostly empty, save for a brave few who dared to go out on the still dusty track. One of those few was rewarded for his impatience with a lazy half-spin in the Esses.
Fifteen minutes into the session, the first of the major players took to the track - the #1 Maserati, last year's winner. The track announcer started to get excited and he reported the sector times as they came in on the official timing and scoring computers.
A few minutes after that, Mercedes #5, Francesca's car, took to the track, but unfortunately, the caption didn't say who was driving. The TV followed it around the lap, and Kathleen stared at the screen the whole time, hoping that it was announced who the driver was. After the installation lap, #5 went back into the pits, and Kathleen relaxed again.
The TV cut to Francesca standing in the rear of the garage, talking to an engineer. The car was wheeled backwards into the garage with the driver's side door open, and she came forward and kneeled next to it, clearly talking to the driver.
A shadow fell over the table Kathleen was sitting at, and she looked up.
"Good morning, Miss O'Malley, do you need anything?" Belle said, with all the warmth of an icicle.
"Not right now, thank you," Kathleen replied, and turned her attention back to the screen.
"I'm terribly sorry the rooms were mixed up yesterday."
"It's all right, it wasn't your fault," Kathleen said politely.
"No. It wasn't," Belle replied with a scowl that Kathleen didn't see.
The TV was showing the action on the track. By now there were plenty of cars out, and the first fast laps started to come in. On the back straight, a privateer Ferrari was parked at the side of the track, and the driver was looking under the engine cover. Yellow flags were being waved leading up to the incident and green flags ahead of it.
The events soon turned into routine work for most of the teams, with only a few of them daring to go for fast times. None of the factory teams or the major privateers really needed to risk the cars, as they were practically sure to pre-qualify for the race, but a few of the smaller teams who always found themselves at the back of the grid were going for it.
The TV cut back to the Mercedes garage, and Francesca was strapping on her helmet, getting ready to go out. Kathleen's heart rate started going up again, and she found herself holding her breath. Kathleen had always thought that Francesca's helmet design was very pretty - very simple, yet highly effective to look at, it had a scarlet top and a ribbon around the crown in the same red and blue as the Union Jack, a heavily stylised FC in red and gold on the sides, and a ribbon in the Italian colours around the bottom of the helmet, where her chin would be.
Francesca put on her gloves and stepped into the car. The door was closed and the engine was started. A mechanic waved her out of the garage and onto the pitlane. Because of the 40 mph speed limit there, it looked like she was going so slow you could walk faster. At the end of the pits, she accelerated, and the TV cut to an onboard shot from over her shoulder. She wasn't visible in the shot apart from her hands, but Kathleen was mesmerised by the pictures. She got up and stood right in front of the TV, not wanting to miss anything.
Whoever the TV producer was, he had listened to her prayers, as it looked like they'd stay with Francesca for a whole lap using the onboard camera. And not only that, but they put up a little onscreen graphic with the name of the corner when Francesca arrived at it.
She went through the Dunlop Corner and under the old bridge. She plunged down the Chapelle and into the Esses, heading for Tertre Rouge, constantly accelerating at this point. Through Tertre Rouge and onto the first part of the Mulsanne straight, the speed building to around 215 mph.
Kathleen couldn't believe how fast the scenery went by, and she had trouble remembering to breathe.
Francesca braked at the 150 meters board, and turned right into the first chicane. Through that, and back onto the straight. Again building up to maximum speed, and holding it for a while. Brake for the second chicane, a mirror image of the first one, and back onto the straight. She went through the kink, and the engine note sounded like she had the foot to the floor. Over the Mulsanne hump where the car seemed to be a bit skittish, and then braking hard for Mulsanne Corner.
Through that, past the old signalling pits, and onto the section of the track that Kathleen remembered Francesca had told her was the most dangerous of them all, the return trip from Mulsanne Corner. Over the first brow, then the second, driving at insane speeds with trees lining the circuit, and then she braked hard for the Indianapolis Corner. A short burst of acceleration and then through Arnage.
Again climbing to maximum speed, she swept through the countryside heading for the Porsche Curves, first a right, then a left, then a very long right that led into a left turn at Maison Blanche. Onto a short straight and then into the Ford Chicane, approaching the end of the lap. Left, right, left, right and onto the pit straight. The lap completed, the TV cut to the Mercedes thundering past the pits and out of sight.
Kathleen felt her legs turn wobbly, and she had to sit down. She felt completely drained by the pictures she had just seen. She couldn't fathom how anyone would volunteer to do that, and not just once, but 370 times or more in the race itself.
"How does it feel, Francesca?" the engineer asked over the radio.
"Not too bad, a bit unsteady," she replied over the background noise of the engine blasting away at full revs.
"Pit, pit, pit," the engineer said.
A few minutes later, Francesca brought the car into the pitlane, where it was wheeled into the garage by the mechanics.
The engineer who had spoken with her on the radio kneeled next to the car.
"Jonno said it felt skittish over the hump and the brows after Mulsanne, do you concur?"
"Yes. It becomes light and floaty. I think we need more downforce on the front."
"It's already on max."
"Hmmm," Francesca said and wiped her brow with her gloved fingers. As soon as the car was stopped, the heat from the engine came forward into the cockpit.
"How's #6 doing?" she asked.
"They're saying the same thing you are."
"We'll experiment with varying fuel loads. First, we're going to do a run with full tanks. Do a six lap stint now, and if the car feels the same, we'll make some adjustments in the lunch break," the engineer said.
"All right. The engine is OK, but I still like the Twelve better. The V8 vibrates like hell."
"We know, we can see it on the telemetry," he said and jotted something down on a piece of paper stuck on a clipboard.
A mechanic shouted something from the rear of the car, and the engineer gave Francesca the thumbsup. He closed the door, and she drove out of the garage.
At lunch, the chequered flag ended the first test session, and the teams started analysing the data they had collected. Francesca had hoped to find Kathleen, but with this peculiar instability problem needing to be fixed, there would be no time for personal business.
"I don't understand why this problem hasn't shown up in the thousands of miles we've tested already?" Jonno said. All three drivers of #5 and the chief engineer of the car had a meeting in the corner of the garage.
"It's the track, we can't recreate it anywhere else," the engineer said.
"Derek? What does your experience tell you?" Francesca said.
"More downforce on the front, but we've already got all it can have. I don't know. Maybe it's a design flaw somewhere?"
"No," the engineer said decisively, earning a raised eyebrow from all three drivers at once.
"Where are we in the times?" Jonno asked.
"10th and 12th," the engineer said, looking at the data on the screen.
"In other words, we're the slowest of the factory teams, right?"
"How about bolting two winglets on each side of the front?" Derek asked.
"That'll alter the handling characteristics fundamentally," the engineer warned.
"It can't be worse," the veteran driver grumbled, and looked at Francesca.
"I say, why not. Let's try it," she said.
When the green flag was waved for the afternoon session, Kathleen was back in the hospitality area, eating a delicious fried chicken and salad and sipping white wine. She briefly wondered why the two Mercedes didn't take to the track when seemingly everyone else did, but she got the answer when the TV picture found the Mercedes garage.
Several mechanics were working on the front of both cars, but the camera couldn't get close enough to pick up what it might be. The workers looked to be in a great deal of haste, and it seemed less organised than usual.
After a little while, first #6 and then Francesca's #5, with her behind the wheel, left the garage. They circulated together for a lap, and then #6 came back into the pits - Francesca continued on.
The TV cut away to show other things, and Kathleen wondered what the unusual commotion in the garage had been all about.
André came over to her, holding a bottle of wine.
"More wine, Miss?"
"No, thank you," Kathleen said and smiled.
The TV suddenly cut to a yellow privateer Porsche, looking rather second hand, parked across the track at the exit of the first chicane on the Mulsanne. The driver got out of the car and walked away, gesticulating wildly on the way to the cornerworkers, who were busy waving yellow flags.
The camera showed a replay, which turned out to be a classic Porsche accident - the driver giving it too much throttle at the exit of the corner and getting the tail all out of shape, finally ending up in the barrier. After the replay, they zoomed in on the hapless driver, who was still mouthing off to anyone who'd listen. Kathleen chuckled at the sight of the irate man, and toasted him with the last of her wine.
Francesca came into the picture and passed the accident site with greatly reduced speed, like she was supposed to. The camera followed the factory Mercedes as it sped away from the stranded Porsche, and again Kathleen marvelled over the incredible acceleration of the race car.
"That shunt ruined my qually test, should I go on?" Francesca said on the radio as she accelerated away from the incident.
"Yes. You have fuel for one more lap," the engineer replied.
The next lap, Francesca went around in maximum attack mode, completely throwing caution to the wind, shaving the apexes more than she had done before, and generally driving very aggressive.
The reward came when she passed the start-finish line, and the engineer congratulated her over the radio.
"Well done, Fran - position 1, fastest time of the day," he said.
"It should've come sooner," Francesca replied, dissatisfied with the day's work.
A little later on, Francesca joined Kathleen in the hospitality area, and the author immediately knew that she was unhappy. A steady stream of people congratulating her and patting her on her shoulders didn't improve Francesca's mood, as company policy dictated that she should wear a smile when dealing with the corporate guests.
Finally she was allowed to go to the table Kathleen was sitting at. She sat down and the fake smile melted from her face.
"Bad day?" Kathleen asked, concerned.
"Mmmm. Terrible day. The car's awful."
"But you're fastest?"
"Sure, but if we were to drive like that in the race, the car won't last twenty laps. I had to kick it in the arse to get that time out of it."
"There's some kind of aerodynamic instability somewhere in the system. It really got on my last nerve, I can assure you," Francesca said, and sighed.
"I believe you," Kathleen said, grabbed Francesca's hands, and started to squeeze and massage them.
"Are you done for the day?" she asked.
"Almost. Belle probably needs a few words for the website and the press releases."
"Here she is now, actually," Kathleen said, as she saw Belle entering the tent.
Francesca sighed again. Belle came over to the with a small recording device in her hands, and asked Francesca a few stock questions. The driver gave a few stock answers, and Belle left again, completely ignoring Kathleen.
"Now I'm done," Francesca said, and got up from the table.
Francesca felt much better the next day when they arrived at the small pension in Rue Gabrielle in Montmartre in Paris. It wasn't easy to find a parking space for the little Peugeot they had rented - Kathleen had insisted on not only renting it in her name, but driving it, too - but they finally did, and were quickly at the pension, suitcases in hand.
"Oh! Look at that! Pure charm, none of those glass- and concrete towers they call hotels these days," Kathleen said and looked up at the façade of the typical French hotel from the early 1900's.
"Glad you like it. I've been here a couple of times," Francesca said, and opened the door for Kathleen.
"Hopefully not with too many other women," Kathleen said, only half-joking.
"Of course not. I go here when I want to get away from everything."
Kathleen instantly fell in love with the apartment they were given. It was simple, only two rooms, with a small kitchen and a bathroom, but it had everything they would need for their brief stay.
The bedroom had an old brass bed that reminded her of her own one back home, and several beautiful paintings were hanging on the wall. Everywhere else, the walls were draped in a wallpaper with a wonderfully old-fashioned design, and the living room had a dark green velvet chaise lounge that appeared to be from the turn of the last century, as well as other antique furniture, like a charming set of matching oil lamps on a low sideboard.
Kathleen looked around the room with sparkling eyes, and sat her suitcase down on the floor. Behind her, Francesca came in, and put her arms around Kathleen's waist.
"What do you think, Kathleen?"
"Oh god, I love it. I never want to leave!"
"Good," Francesca said, and moved Kathleen's hair aside to kiss her on the neck.
"But there's one thing I can't quite understand..."
"And that is?"
"Why you choose to go to *this* place when you want to get away from everything... Francesca, are you a closeted romantic?"
"I'll give you romantic!" she said, and poked Kathleen in both sides at once.
The blonde woman shrieked and jumped a foot in the air. When she landed, she chased Francesca around the room until she finally caught and tackled her onto the chaise lounge, all the while laughing like a pair of lunatics.
After settling down, they kicked off their shoes and just enjoyed the moment.
"Running around like a couple of love crazed teenagers!" Kathleen said, still a bit out of breath.
"I like having women chasing me," Francesca said, mussing Kathleen's hair.
"Well, it's a whole new experience for me. I'm more of a 'nice and slow' type," the author replied, leaning into the touch.
"Mmmm, not always..." Francesca purred, and tenderly kissed Kathleen's hair.
"Listen, I'm starved, so how about we venture out into the big city and go down the street to Chez Marie... what do you say?" Francesca said.
"That sounds like a very good idea, Francesca."
"Good lord, I thought this place was crowded for the test days... this is madness!" Kathleen said out loud, sitting on a high chair in a booth in the paddock in Le Mans on race weekend, staring at the thousands upon thousands of spectators walking around. Several dozen fans had gathered in front of the booth, talking amongst themselves in all possible languages.
She nervously scanned the crowd and checked her watch. The presentation of the biography was scheduled to start in five minutes, but Francesca was not to be seen anywhere. She adjusted her collar for the umpteenth time, and once again cursed silently that she hadn't chosen one of her v-neck blouses to wear instead of this damned uncomfortable brand name design. The skirt wasn't any better, it kept riding up her thigh, and the crowd didn't need to see that much of her.
'Oh, this is fantastic. She's deserted me, and now I have to talk to all these people,'
Kathleen thought, and got the shivers just thinking about it.
Suddenly, the crowd parted and started clapping. Francesca came through the mill of people, smiling and talking to everyone.
'About bloomin' time!'
Kathleen thought, and raised an eyebrow at Francesca when she was close enough to see it.
"I had to sign a few autographs, but I made it," she said.
"There's no need to win by a minute when a second will do," Francesca teased.
The representative of the publishing house turned on the microphone and blew into it, creating a deafening roar from the loudspeakers that had everyone covering their ears.
"Oops... I guess it works," he said.
"So, anyway, we're here today to talk about the new biography, written by acclaimed and best selling author Kathleen O'Malley, about the racing driver Francesca Carrara, who needs no introduction to you lot," he said.
Kathleen was discouraged to see some of the spectators walking away, but Francesca leaned in and whispered to her that it was perfectly normal.
"And here's Francesca herself to give us a few words of wisdom... Fran?" the presenter said, and handed Francesca the microphone.
"Right. Any questions?" she said, and the crowd laughed.
She started telling a few anecdotes and promised there would be plenty more of that in the biography. Kathleen smiled from ear to ear over the way Francesca had the crowd in her hands, and as a result, the time just flew by. Soon the fifteen minute Q&A session was all over, and Francesca sat down at a small table to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Not everyone bought the book, but more than a few did, and by the end of the thirty minutes, they had sold nearly 35 copies.
The crowd started thinning out, and Francesca put down her Sharpie and massaged her wrist. Kathleen was standing next to her, still smiling for all she was worth - and with an open collar, the top button having finally surrendered to all her re-adjusting, disappearing without a trace.
"That was something else, Francesca. It was never like this with my Kaye Jason book."
"Well, motorsport fans are enthusiastic. You'll see that at the parade, too. You are coming, aren't you?" Francesca said.
"Well, if you want me there?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course I want you there!" the driver said and smiled.
"Let's hope I won't get lost in the massive crowd," Kathleen said and laughed nervously.
"You won't," Francesca said, and straightened Kathleen's loose collar.
But she did. All the drivers of the race went by in veteran cars, driving very slowly so everyone would get a chance to see their heroes. They started in chronological order based on the entry number, so Francesca's car was fortunately one of the first.
Kathleen was being manhandled this way and that, caught between the crowd and the red and white tape marking the restricted area. She had screaming children on one side, and drunken fans of all nationalities, all holding plastic cups of beer, on the other. Her designer shirt now sported a very damp left sleeve, courtesy of a pint of Kronenbourg. Well, if nothing else, it gave her a reason to throw the uncomfortable thing away, so she wasn't too upset.
*Finally* Francesca's car went by, naturally an old Mercedes-Benz from the 1920's. The three British drivers waved enthusiastically to the crowd, and threw little trinkets out to them, like Mercedes keychains or autographed photos.
Jonno was sitting closest to the side where Kathleen was standing, and he recognised her and waved. He tapped Francesca on the shoulder and pointed at Kathleen. Francesca's face lit up in a huge smile, waved at the author, and threw her one of the photos.
With Francesca moving on, Kathleen decided that she had had enough of this rugby scrum and wiggled her way out of the crowd. She knew she'd be black and blue in the morning from all the elbows she'd received, and her ears were ringing from all the drunken chanting going on around her, but when she looked at the photo Francesca had thrown her, she still smiled.
Francesca opened the door to her room in the Mercedes Hotel and furrowed her brow. She sniffed again... the place reeked like a tavern! She hung her jacket into the closet and looked at Kathleen, who was reclining on the bed, reading a magazine.
"Ah, Kathleen, dear... how much beer have you had today?" she asked sweetly.
"Plenty. Most of it went down my shirt," the author replied with a grin.
"I can tell."
"Yes, I know... but unfortunately, the window only opens two inches, and it's not enough for the air to circulate," Kathleen said and laughed.
"You stood next to the Drinking For Holland team at the parade, didn't you?"
"I must have. The name fits!" Kathleen said and sat up on the bed.
Francesca came over and kneeled in front of the author. They kissed and rubbed noses.
"But it was fun, wasn't it?" Francesca asked.
"Well... thank you for the picture, by the way."
"You're welcome. Don't you think it was fun?"
"It was a little too loud and loony for me, to be perfectly honest," Kathleen said.
"You haven't seen anything yet. After the race is over, all the spectators from the main grandstand will run onto the track and meet below the victory dais. That's tens of thousands of people. Guess how loud *that* usually is?" Francesca said and caressed Kathleen's cheek with her thumb.
"I'd rather not," the author said, leaning into the touch.
"Well, you're going to see it Sunday, after I win."
"Oh? Confident, are we?"
"Yes. I'm not going to say that I 'hope for a good result'. For me, and for the team, it's win or bust. I'd rather win," Francesca said.
"So... how does the time plan look like from now until the race starts?"
"First, we go and eat in the tent, then we come back here and make mad love all night, then it's the warmup, starting at 8 am tomorrow," Francesca said.
"Hey, I thought that athletes weren't supposed to make mad love all night in the buildup to a big match...?" Kathleen said and grinned wickedly.
"That's right.. for male athletes. We women improve our stamina by making love..." Francesca purred into Kathleen's ear, and started to nibble her earlobe.
"OK, OK, I get the picture!" Kathleen said, giggling.
"Too bad, I would've loved to spell it out for you," Francesca said, still busy with Kathleen's earlobe.
The morning warmup went well for the Mercedes team, finishing third and sixth fastest. Apart from a single lap in the beginning when Derek was behind the wheel, Francesca drove the entire thirty minutes, so when she returned to the pits and got out of the car, she immediately unzipped the top of her driving suit and tied it around her waist. The day had turned out to be hot, so she grabbed a towel and wiped her neck and her arms.
She picked up the official bulletin with the qualifying times and looked for a quiet place to sit down and read it. Having found a chair in the corner of the garage, she studied the lap times.
The Toyotas had proved to be a strong contender all weekend, and they emerged as the team most likely to win, lining up in pole position and in second place on the grid after the four qualifying sessions. That also meant that Francesca and the others now had a well-defined target. Beat the Toyotas, and they would probably find themselves at the front of the field.
Mercedes #5 had qualified fourth, with Francesca doing the time. In the two week period since they discovered the instability problem on the test day, the engineers had developed a new aerodynamic package for the car by adding three winglets on each side of the front, and adjusting the rear wing to realign the balance. It felt much better to the drivers, and the increase in confidence resulted in faster lap times. Francesca was slightly annoyed over the fact that a privateer BMW had squeezed ahead of her in the dying moments of the last qualifying session, but she knew that car couldn't be driven at that speed for long.
Unfortunately for #6, 'Pico' Paletti had a spin when the track was at its fastest, so when everyone else were going for quick times, they had to stay in the garage to get several buckets worth of gravel scooped out of the car. In the end, they qualified ninth, nearly six seconds slower than Francesca's fastest lap time in #5.
All in all, everything looked good for the team in general, and for Francesca in particular.
The tension was building, everyone felt it. Thirty minutes to the start of the race, and the butterflies had begun to flap their wings. Kathleen could see it clear as day on Francesca's face. Gone were the bright smiles from yesterday, replaced by a stoic mask of calmness - and yet Kathleen knew that Francesca was getting agitated, as the driver's hands were cold. The author had volunteered to be the umbrella-girl for car #5, keeping the driver cool and out of the afternoon sun.
The grid was awash with people - TV crews, mechanics, all kinds of engineers and technicians and assorted more-or-less important hangers-on. There were even scantily clad women in the shape of the Hawaiian Tropic Girls, strutting their stuff draped across cars and drivers, and attracting choirs of lewd shouts and catcalls from the grandstand.
Francesca kept her cool through all this pandemonium. She was standing next to the car, focusing on getting the job done. As she had always said, you can't win an endurance race at the first corner, you can only lose it. It was so easy to overdo it at the start and ending up looking like an complete idiot in front of the TV cameras - and more importantly, in front of the people who were paying her wages. Some of the Mercedes-Benz board of directors were at the track, and at this level, and in front of those kinds of people, you only get one chance. Foul that up, and you better start looking for another job.
Much to Kathleen's shock, she had decided to get a haircut prior to the race, leaving it very short. Looking at the climbing temperatures, she was happy she had made that decision. With the ambient temperature around the 28-30 centigrade mark, it would be awfully hot in the cars today, possibly reaching 70 degrees centigrade.
A klaxon bellowed out an infernal sound, signalling fifteen minutes to go to the start of the warmup lap. A track marshal walked down the grid holding a sign with the same message.
Francesca opened a small case containing new earplugs and prepared them by shaping them with her fingers. She smiled at Kathleen.
"Now long to go now, huh?" she said.
"No. This is incredible. Look at all these people!" Kathleen said.
"Yeah. There seems to be more and more each year. I don't know what the hell they're all here for..." Francesca said, and inserted one of the earplugs.
"They can't all be umbrella-holders, can they?" Kathleen said and laughed.
The long line of Hawaiian Tropic Girls waltzed past the Mercedes and the two women, heading for the small opening in the barrier to get off the track.
Kathleen blushed over the excess of skin on display, but Francesca completely ignored them, instead concentrating on getting the other earplug in correctly.
The klaxon sounded again, ordering the grid to be cleared.
"This is it, Kathleen. Thank you for your umbrella-holding services," Francesca said and smiled broadly.
"Oh, you're welcome. Please be safe, all right?"
"I will. Hug."
"... in front of all these people?" Kathleen said, blushing again.
"Hug," Francesca repeated, and took the author in her arms, giving her an almighty squeeze.
"See you in a few hours," Francesca said and winked at Kathleen. The author waved in return as she was led away by the track marshals, guiding the remaining people off the grid.
Two mechanics strapped Francesca into the car and tightened her seatbelts almost to the point of crushing her. They closed the door, and she was left all alone. She pressed the starter button, and the engine came to life. Rumbling away at a very low idle, she blipped the throttle a few times to check the engine note. She looked at the gauges and nodded to herself.
She was set.
At the front of the field, the clerk of the course waved the green flag, and the car in pole position slowly left the grid and started the warmup lap. After a few seconds, Francesca followed the leaders, remembering to prepare the brakes by slightly holding her left foot on the brake pedal while she accelerated. She started to weave left and right to try to get some more heat into the tires.
Kathleen watched the start of the warmup lap on the TV screens in the hospitality area. She was more nervous than at any point in her life. So many things could go wrong for Francesca...
The tent was packed to the rafters, and the noise level was grating on Kathleen, but their room back in the Hotel didn't have a TV, and she *had* to see what happened.
The cars made their way around the circuit in orderly fashion, and at one minute to three, they were lined up in rows of two, approaching the Ford Chicanes.
The pace car peeled off, and the Tricolour was ready. At the exact stroke of three o'clock, the flag dropped and the cars set off. The sound of 50 racing cars accelerating at once echoed through the paddock and drowned out the TV commentators. As predicted, the two Toyotas immediately took the lead, but Francesca slotted into third place by passing the privateer BMW even before they reached the Dunlop Chicane.
All the front runners went through the chicane without problems, but as usual, some of the more inexperienced backmarkers tried too much and ended up cutting across the gravel trap.
The leaders went through Tertre Rouge heading onto the Mulsanne, and the race was on proper. The two Toyotas battled for the lead, screaming down the Mulsanne, pulling slightly away from the rest of the field. At the braking point to the first chicane, the privateer BMW divebombed Francesca's Mercedes, locking up the near side front wheel in the process, and just squeezing past on the inside. Wisely, she let him go, concentrating on her own race.
The rest of the lap had no dramas of consequence for the front runners, and Kathleen began to relax slightly, though the concrete block in her stomach refused to loosen up. The first lap of Le Mans ended with the two Toyotas out front, as predicted, then the privateer interloper, and then Francesca's Mercedes, its tail stepping out slightly as she applied the throttle onto the front straight.
The field streamed by, but Kathleen didn't really notice what was going on behind the top four. One lap down, more than 370 to go if the fair weather held up, and it looked like it would.
Some 36 laps later, amounting to slightly more than two hours and five minutes, Francesca entered the pits after her third stint. She jumped out of the car and helped Jonathan Baker getting strapped in. Watching the mechanics changing the tires and refuelling the car, she took off her helmet and put it on a shelf at the back of the garage. In the heat of the day, the tires needed to be changed after each stint, so they had decided there was no point in stressing the drivers needlessly, and they would only triple-stint for now. Later, when the temperature fell, the tires would last longer, and they'd go for quadruple stints.
After talking to the engineers and Derek Harrison, she walked out the back of the garage and picked up a fresh driving suit in the depot, before heading off to the physio for a shower and her massage.
Twenty minutes later, she came into the hospitality tent and looked around for Kathleen. She quickly spotted the fair-haired author and went over to her table.
"Hello Kathleen," Francesca said, and pulled out a chair.
"Hi. How's it going?" Kathleen said and smiled, putting away the newspaper she'd been reading.
"Fairly well. We're still in third place. Jonno's in now."
"OK. I've missed you."
"I was only gone for two hours," Francesca said and laughed.
"I saw the start on the big-screen TV. God, was I nervous..."
"It was nothing. Piece of cake."
"Oh, suuure," Kathleen said and smiled sarcastically.
Francesca chuckled over the expression on Kathleen's face, and gave her a wink.
"Do you have time to go back to the Hotel?"
"Unfortunately, no. I'm not even supposed to be over here, but I wanted to see you," Francesca said.
"You aren't bored, are you?"
"No. I'm nervous."
"Don't worry about me, Kathleen. I know what I'm doing."
"I know, but you're sharing the track with 49 other drivers, who might not know what *they're* doing..."
"True, that. No, I'll be fine, don't worry," she said, and caressed Kathleen's hand. Kathleen nodded.
"But, tell you what, if you're interested, you can come to the garage and watch from there while I'm driving... are you?"
"Interested? Oh yes, definitely, but won't I need a pit pass...?"
"Yep. And it looks a lot like this one..." Francesca said, and pulled a plastic card on a keychain out of her driving suit, smiling like a Cheshire cat.
"Oh, Francesca!" Kathleen said loudly, causing a few of the people sitting at the neighbouring tables to stretch their necks to see what was going on.
"Now, I know you'll have to deal with Belle... and vice versa... but if you show this to her, she'll let you stay there," Francesca said.
Kathleen took the pit pass and put it around her neck with the three others she already had there.
"I'm looking like an advertisement for keychains," she said and laughed out loud.
Francesca leaned in towards Kathleen.
"I think you look cute, that's what I think," Francesca whispered, causing the author to blush slightly.
"Well, I better get back to the pits in case they need me. See you in a few hours," Francesca said, and ran her thumb over the back of Kathleen's hand.
"See you then, Francesca. And thank you very much for the pit pass."
Francesca nodded and waved as she left the tent.
Nearly three hours later, Kathleen proudly showed her pass to the Mercedes security guards standing at the back of the garages, and walked in. She had arrived between pit stops, so the mechanics were sitting on plastic chairs, trying to get some rest. She waited behind a yellow line that said 'restricted area'.
Belle spotted her, and reluctantly decided to go and talk to the author.
"Hello, Miss O'Malley. I didn't know you had a pit pass?" she said.
"Francesca gave me one."
"Oh, how kind of her. She's like that, very giving."
"Yes," Kathleen said, and mentally rolled her eyes.
"Well, I suppose you're part of the family now, so if you want to have a closer look around the pits, I can give you a 'visitor' badge?" Belle said.
"I'd like that, thank you."
"All right," Belle said, and took a small metal badge from a table, signed it, and gave it to Kathleen.
"You better put this on yourself, I don't want to risk injuring a guest of Mercedes-Benz" she said, smiling sweetly.
Kathleen returned the smile, refusing to join the juvenile game played by the other woman.
"Fran's in the car right now. Do you want to listen in? I'll give you a headset," Belle said as they walked over to the other side of the garage.
"Oh, that would be fun - yes, please," Kathleen said.
"All right, hang on, they're around here somewhere... here you go," Belle said, and presented the headset to Kathleen.
Kathleen adjusted the strap, and put them on.
"She's on lap 5 of her stint, and she's due in on lap 12, which is in about 24 minutes or so," Belle said to her.
"Where is she on the track?"
"Let me see... she's on the Mulsanne right now. That's the back straight, it's on the far side of the circuit," Belle explained carefully, after checking the monitor.
"I know. Thank you," Kathleen said, and had to struggle to not let it show how much the other woman annoyed her.
A few laps passed without any radio communication, but on the next lap, Francesca keyed the mic as she was coming out of the Porsche Curves.
"Pits, I've nudged a car. He turned in on me. Check for damage," she said.
A minute or so later, Francesca thundered past the pits, heading onto another lap, the 93rd.
"Fran, it looks OK."
Half a lap later, Kathleen heard Francesca's voice in her headset.
"It's skittish, I must have some damage."
"OK. Pit, pit, pit," one of the engineers replied.
"Roger. I'm at the second chicane on the Mulsanne."
Kathleen loved it when Francesca talked shop, so she was smiling broadly, but at the same time she was disappointed to hear about an apparent problem with the car. Francesca had told her several times that Le Mans is really won in the pits. The car that spends the least time in there will have an edge over a car that's faster but more fragile.
A TV was droning on in the background, and Kathleen looked at it from time to time. She looked at her watch, 8:19 pm. Suddenly she noticed Francesca's voice had become strained.
"I have a problem. It's handling like a pig, I can't..." she said, and then the contact was lost.
The TV cut to a picture of a flash of silver in the air, and the spectators in the grandstand on the opposite side of the pit straight fell silent.
Kathleen was confused - she had only caught the last glimpse of what the TV had showed, so she looked to Belle for an answer. The headset was only sending static, so she took it off.
Everyone in the garage were looking at the monitor, and Kathleen felt a chill creeping up her spine. The picture on the TV was still showing an empty piece of track, even though she could hear cars circulating. Suddenly several track marshals came into the picture, carrying fire extinguishers, apparently running towards a section of the track that was just after the second brow on the return stretch from Mulsanne Corner... but there wasn't a car where they were running to...?
Suddenly it dawned on Kathleen that Francesca's car had left the circuit and had gone into the trees. Her heart started hammering in her chest, and she didn't know whether to stand up or sit down.
Belle came over to her, and Kathleen saw the usually cool woman was white as a sheet. Someone shouted something, and they both looked up at the monitor.
The TV began showing a replay of what had happened. Francesca was rapidly catching another car when the front of the Mercedes suddenly started lifting. The TV cut to another camera angle, and caught her car taking to the air. It made four reverse flips in mid-air, probably 15 feet off the ground, before disappearing out of the camera's view, heading towards the trees.
"Oh dear god!" Kathleen cried out in a trembling voice.
Stunned silence filled the Mercedes garage. Kathleen felt cold as ice on the inside, and she clenched her fists and held them to her chest.
The clerk of the course came inside the garage and spoke in hushed tones with the team manager, who nodded in response to the older man's words. After the senior track official had left, the team manager pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and dialled a number.
The TV changed to a helicopter shot of the crash site. Francesca's car had landed on its wheels about 30 yards from the edge of the circuit. By pure luck, the grove where the car landed appeared to be recently forested, so there weren't any trees at all, not even stubs. As the helicopter hovered over the site, a doctor team arrived on the track and began to make their way across the guardrail and towards the car.
The front bodywork had been ripped off and was lying across the rear deck, hiding the extent of damage there, and both front wheels had been torn off. The driver's side door was open, but there hadn't been any movement in the car, so it was impossible to say if Francesca had opened it, or if it had been forced open in the impact.
The doctor ducked into the cockpit and quickly came back out. He talked to the other medics there, and a man was sent for a stretcher from the ambulance.
"I have their frequency!", one of the technicians in the garage suddenly said, holding a portable radio in his hand.
"... ah, the doctor says the driver is awake and alert, but complaining of severe pain in her lower back and her left leg."
A sigh of relief was heard throughout the garage, but everyone knew that a back injury could still be serious. All kinds of horrible images flashed through Kathleen's mind, but she forced herself to focus on the TV pictures.
The growl of an engine signalled #6's arrival in the adjacent garage. The team manager opened the door and spoke to the driver. Behind them, two mechanics pulled down the garage doors - the team manager's phone call to Stuttgart had resulted in the team pulling out of the race immediately.
"They're taking her out of the car now," the interpreter said, and the TV pictures confirmed it. Francesca was extracted from the wreckage and placed very gingerly on the stretcher. She was fitted with a neckbrace, and it looked like the doctor gave her an injection of some kind.
The medical team carried the stretcher across the grove, over the guard rail and into the waiting ambulance. A medic closed the double doors and the ambulance began moving, the blue lights flashing away.
"Where are they taking her?" Kathleen asked out loud. Wherever it was, she needed to be there when Francesca arrived.
"She'll go to the infield medical centre first. If the extent of her injuries exceed their capabilities, she'll be airlifted to a hospital in the area," Belle told her, sounding like a robot and clearly in a state of shock.
"Can I get there? Belle? I need to be with her..." Kathleen said, and put her hand on Belle's shoulder, but the other woman wasn't responding.
"Dammit Belle, where is the bloody medical centre?!" Kathleen shouted.
No one had time to answer her, so Kathleen ran out of the garage and into the paddock. She stopped three people before she found one who knew where it was - clear down the other end of the paddock. Kathleen cursed and set off running.
When she arrived at the medical centre, she was completely out of breath, and she had to lean forward and put her hands on her knees. Her lungs were burning and her ankles and calves were aching from the shoes that definitely weren't designed to be used in a sprint - but she had beat the ambulance there.
Half a minute later, it arrived and drove up to the door of the medical centre. The doctor Kathleen had seen on the TV pictures climbed out and went to the rear of the car to open the double doors. Two nurses came out of the hospital to help.
The stretcher was wheeled out and to Kathleen's eyes, Francesca looked very pale. The driving suit had been cut off of her and her body was wrapped in a blue blanket.
"Francesca!" Kathleen shouted, but there was no reaction from the driver. The stretcher was pushed into the medical centre, and the nurses closed the doors behind it.
"Bloody hell!" Kathleen said, and wiped her eyes angrily.
The Mercedes team manager and someone Kathleen didn't know, but who was wearing a Mercedes shirt, arrived at the medical centre on a scooter and went inside. Kathleen tried to follow them, but she was denied access by one of the nurses.
She went back outside and sat down on a curb. She held her head in her hands and let out a long, trembling sigh.
Ten minutes later, she heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter warming up, and she bolted to her feet. She looked around to see where it was, and was filled with dread when she realised that it was on the other side of the medical centre, in an area she couldn't get to.
Kathleen's heart was hurting terribly when the white and orange Air Rescue helicopter took off a few minutes later, taking Francesca away from her and to an unknown hospital.
She followed the helicopter with her eyes until she couldn't see it any more. When it was just a black spot in the far distance, she started walking back to the pits. After a few dozen yards, she was caught by the team manager who was on the scooter.
"Miss O'Malley, we haven't been introduced. My name's Jochen Graumann. Do you want a lift?" he said, and put out his hand. She shook it.
"Where are they taking Francesca?"
"They're transferring her to the Le Mans city hospital. It's only a few miles away, but it would take too long on these congested roads. She's probably there already."
Kathleen nodded. At least she knew where Francesca was. The hospital was familiar to her, they had driven by it on their way to the circuit on Wednesday morning.
"I have a press release with me. Basically she's all right, but she has a fractured pelvis and possibly a fractured left leg or hip. And she's got a concussion," he said.
"God, you call that 'basically all right' ?"
"It could've been a lot worse, Miss."
"... Did... did she ask for me?"
"She was sedated the whole time I was there... I'm sorry."
"What now?" she asked.
"Well... first of all, come back to the pits with me. I'll give the crew a briefing, and then we'll work out a plan. OK?"
Kathleen sighed and ran a hand through her hair.
"OK. But I demand to see her," she said forcefully, and got seated on the scooter.
"I understand. Hang on," the team manager said, and selected first gear.
Several hours later, Kathleen was in her bed in the Mercedes hotel, staring up at the ceiling. The race was still going on, but she couldn't care less about that now. She had taken a sleeping tablet, but she was far too shaken up to relax.
In the hours following the accident, the team had dismantled the garage and loaded the giant lorries who rumbled out of the paddock just after midnight. The hotel and the hospitality tent would stay for the remainder of the race, but only because they were used by other people as well as Mercedes personnel.
Just before Kathleen left for the night, the man she had seen on the scooter with the team manager returned, and she found out he was the team's physiotherapist and doctor. He had been with Francesca in the helicopter, escorting her to the hospital, and he explained in great detail to Kathleen and the team what and how serious Francesca's injuries were.
She had been x-rayed and thoroughly checked, and the initial diagnosis had proven correct: her pelvis was fractured, but fortunately it didn't appear to have caused any internal bleeding or tears in the surrounding soft tissue. Her left hip was fractured as well, a piece of bone had been chipped off the pelvis, and her thigh bone had a clean break two inches from the top. The injuries were no doubt a result of the car's very hard impact on the ground.
The lower spine had been compressed, but not dangerously so, and there was no risk of Francesca losing the use of her legs.
The impact itself had knocked her out, and she couldn't remember anything about the accident. Francesca had told him that she regained consciousness just as the first doctor arrived at the car.
All this information churned on mercilessly inside Kathleen. No matter how hard she tried to relax, she couldn't get the evening's events out of her mind. She sighed and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. She could feel a headache coming on, so she got up and took an Aspirin and a glass of water. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was 3:31 am, seven and a bit hours after the accident - the worst seven hours of her life, even beating the horrible evening five years ago when Becky had slapped her across the face after she told her that she loved her.
Kathleen sighed deeply and went back to the bed. It was going to be a long day tomorrow, and she knew she'd be terribly exhausted if she didn't catch some sleep now. It was a warm night, so she threw the blanket down to the footend of the bed that she was too short to reach anyway, and settled for her oversized T-shirt. She found a comfortable position on her left side, and after a little while, she fell into a restless sleep.
The alarm clock chimed at 7 am, waking Kathleen from a horrible nightmare where she dragged a fatally injured Francesca out of a destroyed car, and even though there were plenty of people around her, they refused to help.
Kathleen rolled over onto her back and rubbed her face to get the last fragments of that nightmare out of her system. She could see the sun shining through the protective cover she had pulled down in front of the window, and in the distance, she could hear the racecars still going round. A part of her felt very disappointed over the fact that Francesca had again lost the opportunity to win this race, but another, stronger, part of her vowed to never have anything to do with race cars again, or even go to a race again.
Jochen Graumann had stayed behind when the rest of the team left after midnight, and he had promised to pick up Kathleen and go with her to the hospital - he'd be there at 7:30 am. She knew she had to hurry to make it, so she got off the bed and stumbled into the bathroom.
After a very quick shower, she got dressed and packed everything into their suitcases. The large holdall usually used for Francesca's helmet was empty, so she picked that up as the last item, and took it under her arm. She checked the room for any forgotten belongings, but it was empty. She locked the door and went down the hallway to the stairs.
She didn't have to wait long for the team manager who was there nearly on time.
"Are you ready, Miss?"
"Yes. We have a rental car, a blue Mercedes C-class, in the car park, what will happen to that?" she asked, as they walked through the paddock, heading for the main exit.
"We'll deal with that later. Did you have any breakfast?"
"No. No time for that."
"Do you want any before we go?"
"No. I want to see Francesca," Kathleen said, a bit more strongly than she wanted to.
Jochen merely nodded.
"Belle fainted last night, after you had run off to the medical centre."
"Yes. The accident struck her quite hard."
"I think she and Francesca used to be... to know each other privately."
"I've heard that rumour. I sent her home with the rest of the crew last night. Anyway, it was a madhouse this morning. I had reporters from every newspaper and TV station imaginable shouting questions at me in several different languages at once. I could really have used Belle."
"Well, I guess it's big news," Kathleen said.
"We're going to get roasted in the German press," he said and sighed.
A short pause.
"I don't think the team will go on."
"Really?" Kathleen said surprised.
"I had Dr. Jäger on the telephone all through the night. He's furious with what's happened. And he's the one controlling the money flow, so..."
They reached a silver grey Mercedes minibus, parked just inside the main gate. Jochen opened the back door, took Kathleen's suitcases and put them in the back.
Silently, they got in and drove off. For both of them, Le Mans was a closed chapter.
The visiting hours didn't begin until 8:15 am, so they had to wait in a hallway for nearly twenty minutes before a rather stern matron gave them permission to enter the ward.
Kathleen was getting really impatient, but the doctor accompanying them insisted on checking up on Francesca before they were allowed to see her, and instead escorted them to a room set up for relatives where they could wait in the meantime.
The team's doctor slept on one of the couches, and Jochen nudged him when they came in. Kathleen took her jacket off, and hung it over the back of the chair. She sat down and sighed.
"Hello, I'm Sebastién Thierry. I'm the team's physiotherapist. Pleased to meet you," he said, stifling a yawn.
"Kathleen O'Malley. Likewise. We actually met last night. I was in the pits when you returned."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't notice you," he said.
"Well, we were all pre-occupied," Kathleen said and tried to smile.
"Yes. What a damned mess."
"How is Francesca?" she asked.
"I don't know. After the team had left, I came back here, but she was still in surgery. I believe she's in the recovery room now."
"Yes, there's a doctor in there with her," Jochen said.
Kathleen was about to speak when the door was opened and the doctor they had talked to before came in.
"Miss Carrara's ready to see you now. A word of caution: She's still somewhat disoriented, the anaesthetic still has some effect on her. She might be forgetful, or nod off in the middle of the conversation. These are all normal reactions to the anaesthetic, and are not lasting effects from her accident. Do you understand?"
They all nodded, and started to get up from their chairs.
"Please, Sirs, Miss Carrara asked to see Miss O'Malley first," the doctor said, and helped Kathleen up from the chair.
Kathleen choked up and couldn't speak a word. Her stomach tightened into a knot, and she felt nauseous, but she managed to get her legs moving. She followed the doctor to the door, where he stood aside and allowed her to go alone into the single-bed room where Francesca was.
It looked like any other hospital room, with white walls and pale green linoleum on the floor. A thick, brown curtain was pulled in front of the window, effectively closing out the sunshine. A clock on the wall tick-tocked loudly, but Kathleen noted with great relief that Francesca didn't have one of those horrible machines that measured her heartrate. One of the things she had always been most frightened of ever since she was a little girl was the sound of that machine, sending out the long, flat beeeeep that indicated the patient had died.
Kathleen closed the door behind her, and steeled her resolve. She could see the footend of Francesca's hospital bed, but the top end was hidden from view by a large closet. Even though her legs felt like they were made of lead, Kathleen went a few steps further and peeked around the corner.
Francesca's bed was open to her right side, with a chair and a small nightstand with a reading lamp and a jug of water next to it.
Francesca looked so pale, so fragile... so unlike her usual appearance. She was asleep, or perhaps merely resting, Kathleen couldn't say which, but in any case, her eyes were closed. Her chest rose and fell steadily, and the motion calmed Kathleen's nerves somewhat. A blue tube was protruding from Francesca's left hand, and it was connected to a drip that was hanging on a rack above her.
Suddenly Francesca stirred, and she opened her eyes and blinked a few times to get her bearings. It didn't take long for her to focus, and then she noticed she wasn't alone. She looked directly at Kathleen, and the corners of her mouth creased upwards. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse croak.
Kathleen dropped her jacket and her purse and rushed over to the bed, framing Francesca's face with her hands. The tears that had threatened to fall since she saw the accident yesterday evening finally came, and she let out a long sob. She leaned down and feverishly kissed Francesca on the lips and she was relieved to feel the driver responding.
"Oh god, I thought I had lost you!" Kathleen said when they separated, her tears leaving damp stains on the white blanket.
"I'm still here," Francesca said.
Kathleen kissed her again, a bit more controlled this time. She finished off by kissing the tip of Francesca's nose, earning a broad smile from the driver. Kathleen wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
"You look terrible," Francesca said.
"*I* look terrible?"
"You have dark circles under your eyes and your hair is a mess."
"Well... I didn't get much sleep last night," Kathleen said, and grabbed Francesca's right hand.
"I understand," Francesca said, and gave Kathleen's hand a little squeeze.
"Can you see me if I sit down on the chair...? My legs are like rubber, and I don't want to fall on top of you," Kathleen said, trying to smile, but not quite succeeding.
"Good idea. I think we have to save falling on top of each other for a little later," Francesca said.
Kathleen sat down on the chair and clenched her fists in her lap.
"Are you in much pain?" she said.
"Not right now. I'm still numb from the surgery. But I guess I got banged up a bit this time."
"Do... do you remember anything from the accident?"
"Not really. Bits and pieces. Seb told me some things on the way here, but my memory's blank. It must've been a big one."
Kathleen let out a strangled sob, and wiped her nose with the handkerchief.
"God, yes... it was... a horrible accident. I saw it on the TV. I was in the pits at the time," Kathleen said quietly.
"Christ, I'm so sorry, Kathleen... I wanted the pit pass to be a fun gift, not..." Francesca said and shook her head. She reached up with her free hand to rub her brow angrily.
"Please don't blame yourself, it's not your fault, Francesca. Until the accident happened, I had a great time in the pits," Kathleen said, and held out her hand again.
Francesca squeezed the hand that was offered her, and she needed so badly to say the three little words that had been on her mind for some time, but her nerve deserted her when she saw the green eyes glistening with tears.
"Who's with you here? You're not here alone, are you?" Francesca said, choosing to ask a safe question.
"No, your physiotherapist is here, and your team manager."
"Oh? ...Listen, Kathleen, we'll have all the time in the world to speak later on, but right now, I need to have a few words with Jochen. All right?"
"I understand," Kathleen said and got up from the chair. She leaned down and gave Francesca a loving kiss and caressed her face tenderly.
"Just concentrate on getting better, OK? Don't overstress yourself too soon," she said.
"I will, and I won't," Francesca said, and stroked Kathleen's arm with her free hand.
The next day, Francesca could already begin to sense an improvement in her condition - but the headlines of the newspapers and magazines spread out over her bed made her grumpy. Kathleen had picked them up for her, looking wonderfully cute trying to navigate into the hospital room with her arms full when the visiting hours began.
Kathleen came out of the small bathroom and turned off the light with her elbow. She wiped her hands in a brown paper towel that she threw into the wastepaper bin.
"There was more ink on my fingers than on the newspapers," she joked, and leaned down to give Francesca a 'good morning' kiss.
"Good morning, Francesca."
"Good morning. I trust you found a place to stay?"
"Yes, I was able to find a small pension here in Le Mans. It's not too far, it's almost walking distance to here."
"And I suppose it's outrageously romantic?" Francesca said, and winked.
"Well... yes, yes it is," Kathleen said.
"Thought so. Thanks for all the newspapers... look at this one, this really makes me sick... figuratively speaking..."
"TOYOTA SUFFERS SHOCK DEFEAT - MASERATI WINS!" the headline screamed.
Francesca sighed and rested her head on the pillow.
"I could've won the bloomin' thing, you know?"
"We were miles ahead of the Maseratis... bloody hell," Francesca said, and closed her eyes.
"What does this one say?"
"SCHANDE! - Eine blamage für Mercedes-Benz," was on the front page of a German tabloid.
"Well... I think it would be 'disgrace, a blemish on Mercedes' reputation.'
"Wow, Jochen was right when he told me you'd get in trouble in Germany."
"Yeah. Has he told you it's all over?" Francesca said, and put the tabloid away.
"It is? Really? He said he was worried about it, but..."
"Jochen came by again yesterday afternoon, just before leaving for Germany. Dr. Jäger closed us down with immediate effect. We're not even going to continue the championship."
"But... that means..."
"Yeah. I'm unemployed... and my shot at the championship is..." Francesca made a whistling noise, and pointed her thumb down.
"Well, it would've been anyway, right? I mean, you're not going to compete for the rest of the season, or maybe..."
"Oh, I'll probably miss the next two races at least, but I'm going to make a comeback this year, you can bet your cute little belly button on that," Francesca said, and picked up another newspaper.
Kathleen's shoulders slumped, and she turned her back to the bed. She felt immensely disappointed in Francesca's words, but she didn't want the driver to see.
"Were you hoping that I'd stop racing?" Francesca said quietly.
Kathleen sighed and turned around.
"Yes... Oh, I... don't know what I was hoping. But I do know I never thought you'd be so eager to get back to something that nearly killed you..."
Francesca struggled to come up with an answer that would express how she felt, when they were interrupted by a nurse, wheeling in a telephone on a small cart.
"Miss Carrara, telephone for you, it's a journalist," she said.
Francesca didn't know if she should take the call or not. She turned her head towards Kathleen who had walked over to the window and looked out, facing away from her.
"All right, I'll take it."
"Press '1' on the numberpad. I'll be back for it later," the nurse said, and left.
"Francesca Carrara speaking,"
"Hello Miss Carrara, it's James Fenton from Trackracer. I don't have to tell you what the headline story will be for our next issue, and we need a quote and a Q&A. Is that all right with you?"
"OK. This is what we're planning on for the blurb on the cover: 'Under-fire Mercedes defends Le Mans shunt' - we've cleared that with the legal department, so that's the final one. It'll be our opening story, and I quote 'Mercedes has denied its CLR sportscar is unsafe - even after Francesca Carrara's car cartwheeled over the barrier and into a forest at 200 mph.', unquote."
"All right," Francesca said and rubbed her brow.
"Was the car unsafe?"
"No. There was a design flaw, but the winglets cured it. We raced for five hours before the prob..."
"The team's folded, you know. You don't have to toe the party line any more," the journalist said, interrupting her.
"Charming," she said icily.
"Well, we just want to extrapolate the truth from this mess."
"Oh, the truth, what a concept," Francesca grumbled.
"Quite. Are you ready for the Q&A?" the journalist said.
"By the way, I'm recording the conversation. Here we go... was Mercedes right to race?"
"All of the drivers wanted to race at Le Mans. If we had said we didn't want to race, they would have withdrawn. We had been preparing for the event for six or seven months and we had a chance of winning. We found a problem on the car on the test day, but we fixed it."
"What happened in the accident?"
"I only know what I've seen on the TV. I was close to the Toyota, and the turbulence behind the car must've disturbed the airflow over the wings."
"Do you remember somersaulting through the air?"
"No. I can't remember anything from the last lap prior to the accident. I was most likely rendered unconscious upon impact, wiping out my short-term memory. The next thing I know is that I'm on the ground with the doctor next to me."
"...You're not giving us much to work with, Miss Carrara," the journalist said.
"I've given you the truth," she answered.
"Well, thank you for the conversation. I hope you'll buy our magazine on Thursday,"
"Thank you," Francesca said, and hung up.
"... and I wouldn't dream of it," she said to herself.
'All right, back to the real world...'
, Francesca thought.
"Kathleen, please look at me."
Kathleen turned away from the window, but couldn't face Francesca. They were separated by the safety rail on the left side of the bed.
"I'm sorry. It was foolish of me to expect you to give up your career when it's obvious how much it means to you..." she said quietly, and continued,
"... but I know that I'll worry myself sick whenever you race, so perhaps we should..."
A sudden chill flashed across Francesca's entire body - 'so perhaps we should...'
"No, no, no, please don't say that. Please!" Francesca said, and cursed the fact that she couldn't get out of bed to give Kathleen a reassuring hug.
Kathleen looked at her with sad eyes.
"Well, I..." she said, and raised her shoulders in a shrug.
"I love you," Francesca said, the three little words she had been keeping inside for so long finally blurted out of her mouth on their own accord - she felt her face and neck grow hot from the blush that rapidly crept upwards, and soon her features were coloured crimson red.
Kathleen's jaw dropped slightly when her brain had processed the unfamiliar words coming from the driver. Her breath hitched and her heart skipped a beat.
"Oh..." she said, blinking several times, trying to understand what was going on.
Francesca was dying a slow and painful death in the bed over the lack of an answer, so she reached her arms out to Kathleen, and said:
"Whatever you feel about that, please, give me a hug..."
Kathleen hurried over to the right side of the bed and leaned down to take Francesca in her arms. The tears that had been her constant companion for the last two days returned and she wept openly as she hugged Francesca.
"Oh Francesca, I love you too..." she said, crying into Francesca's dark hair.
Francesca closed her eyes and allowed an incredible feeling of happiness to wash over her. She was 32 years old and for the first time in her life, she had said 'I love you' to someone and actually meant it... and it felt so good.
She stroked Kathleen's back, and turned her head to seek the delicate lips she knew were very close by.
"No, wait, Francesca... I'm a mess, I need to splash some water in my face before I can kiss anything," Kathleen said, and laughed through the tears. She pulled back, and tried to wipe her face and her nose with the handkerchief, but it was too soggy.
"I'm just going to..." she said, and pointed at the bathroom.
Francesca smiled and nodded.
Kathleen clicked on the light and looked disbelieving at herself in the mirror. She couldn't quite understand what had just happened. The strange hole that had been in her heart for five years had just vanished completely. The part of her soul that remembered Becky's stinging rejection told her to calm down and stop acting like a teenager, but she willed herself not to listen. Happiness was rare, and when it presented itself, you had to grab it with both hands.
... And she had been two words from telling Francesca that perhaps it would be best if they stopped seeing each other, or at least saw each other less frequent.
'I love you' - she had hoped and dreamed she'd hear those words, but for some reason, she never figured they'd come from the usually unflappable Francesca Carrara.
"Hey, did you get lost in there? Where did you go?" Francesca said loudly, and Kathleen laughed. She opened the faucet and cupped her hands, splashing her face with water.
"I'm back," she said, and sat down on the chair.
They looked at each other for a minute or so, before Francesca broke the silence.
"You're so beautiful, Kathleen."
"Careful, you'll make me cry again," the author said and sniffed.
"Can't have that, because I seem to recall you promised me a kiss...?"
"Oh, that's true..." Kathleen said and rose from the chair. She leaned down towards the bedridden woman and closed her eyes. As their lips met in a tender kiss, her heart began to flutter and she felt a wonderful warmth flow through her body. When they separated, she felt light and floaty, and she could see in Francesca's sparkling eyes that she felt the same.
"I hate to break up the moment, but we still need to talk about the future," Kathleen said, and traced her finger down Francesca's jaw and onto her neck.
"When we return home, you can't manage by yourself, you know. You'll need help," Kathleen said.
"I suppose so."
"And... I could... I could move in with you...?" she said as a question.
Francesca's eyes lit up at the thought of the two of them sharing a home.
"I guess you could, yes," she said, beaming.
"I promise I won't clutter up your fancy apartment... at least not the first two days," Kathleen said, and leaned down to kiss Francesca again.
"But what about your own cottage... are you going to give that up?"
Kathleen drew back slightly and thought very hard about that question.
"... No... I'm... quite attached to that house, and my things, and my..."
"... your way of life?"
"I'm not attached to my condo at all. I'd sell it in a heartbeat."
"Really? But what about all the abstract art, and your top of the line home cinema and all that?"
"Doesn't mean anything to me. Making you happy, however, means everything," Francesca said with determination.
Kathleen's bottom lip started quivering, and within a few heartbeats she burst into tears. She framed Francesca's face with her hands and assaulted her with kisses.
"All right, all right, already!" Francesca said, laughing out loud over the outpouring of emotions from the other woman.
"First, I need to get out of here. We'll have plenty of time to sort out the details when we're back home in Blighty."
Kathleen nodded and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"God, I wish you were back to full strength. If you were, I'd ravish you right here..." she said to the dark haired woman, getting a wicked grin in return.
Concluded in part 2