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Clearspring Water, as the marketing department was keen to point out, was sourced from an ancient spring deep in the green heart of the Yorkshire Dales. Its offices, however, were situated in a hideous 1960s building on an industrial estate on the fringes of a grey Yorkshire town.
They were pretty depressing at the best of times, but on the first Monday morning in January the drooping paper chains and balding Christmas tree in Reception that no one had quite got round to removing made them feel more than usually grim. Standing in the cell-like kitchen at the end of the corridor, waiting for the kettle to boil, Kate stared at the calendar on the wall in front of her.
New year, new calendar. New set of photographs of the Campano racing team.
Pulling the sleeves of the rather unflattering polo-necked jumper her mother had given her for Christmas down over her fingers, she turned her back on the calendar and leaned against the worktop, repeating her New Year's resolution in her head like a mantra. This year I am going to stop waiting. I am going to give up dealing in maybes and what ifs; stop obsessing over what I haven't got, and make the most of what I havea gorgeous, happy, healthy three-year-old boy.
Her fingers tingled. She wasn't going to look. Wasn't going to pull the stupid calendar off the wall and flick through in search of a photo of Cristiano Maresca like some obsessed teenage fangirl.
As she had last year. And the one before.
Cristiano Maresca hadn't raced since the accident that had almost killed him at Monaco, but if anything his status as a celebrity heart-throb had only increased. He was more elusive than ever, but rare snatched paparazzi photographs of him looking lean and menacing were reproduced endlessly in newspapers and magazines, along with speculation about whether he'd ever return to the circuit.
Why was the kettle taking so long to boil?
She took down mugs from the cupboard, threw a herbal teabag into the one that said 'The Boss' on it, and spooned coffee into 'I'd rather be in Tenerife'. The kettle was just beginning the throaty splutter that was a prelude to its great crescendo as it reached boiling point. Kate's gaze flickered back to the calendar.
January's photo was harmless enough, showing two of the Campano carsClearspring banners clearly visibleracing side by side. Surreptitiously, as if it had a mind of its own, she felt her hand come up, lifting the page so she could see the picture underneath.
The voice from behind her made her jump. Kate snatched her hand back as Lisa from the art department stuck her head round the door.
'Don't pretend you weren't looking for Maresca.' She grinned. 'We all have. He's July. Roll on summer!'
The kettle reached its final death rattle in a billowing cloud of steam as Lisa disappeared down the corridor. Grimly, Kate sloshed water into the mugs and followed, allowing herself a brief moment of triumph as she knocked on the door of Dominic's office.
She hadn't looked, and she had until July to get her life together and move on. Or give up coffee.
'What the hell is that?' Dominic peered suspiciously into the mug as she set it down on his desk and then gave a groan.
'Oh, Godit's a conspiracy. Don't tell me Lizzie's got you on board with this appalling New Year detox idea?'
Kate raised an eyebrow. 'Happy New Year to you too,' she said sardonically, turning and heading back towards the door. 'And you're welcome.'
'Waitsorry,' Dominic sighed. 'A whole week in the company of my mother-in-law seems to have brought out my petulant side. Let me try that again, in the manner of a civilised human being who is delighted to be back at work at the start of an exciting new year.' He beamed comically, gesturing to the chair squeezed into the gap between the window and the filing cabinet opposite his desk. 'Have a seat and tell me about your Christmas. I take it you weren't buried beneath an avalanche of pink plastic like we were?'
Cupping her coffee in both hands, Kate sat down. Nine months older than her son, Dominic's daughter Ruby was both Alexander's best friend and his nemesis. Between them, they seemed to have dedicated their lives to proving any child psychologist who claimed that gender roles weren't programmed from birth an idiot.
'Nope, it was wall-to-wall cars with us,' Kate said ruefully. 'Alexander's favourite by miles is the Alfa Romeo whatever-it-was from you.' She took a sip of coffee. 'He even takes it to bed with him. Thank you.'
'My pleasure,' Dominic said with a wistful sigh. 'It's a Spider, you hopeless girl. An Alfa Romeo Spiderand Alexander's quite right. It's one of the most iconic cars ever made. I'd go to bed with one if I could.'
'Does Lizzie know about this?'
'I'm sure she wouldn't be surprised,' Dominic said wryly, putting down his mug with a little grimace of distaste. 'An Alfa Romeo Spider would never make me go on a detox programme.'
'Serves you right. You shouldn't have partied so hard over Christmas.'
Dominic leaned back in his chair. 'Yes, well, you know what this job's like. Clients to entertain, staff parties to organise.' He looked at her pointedly over his glasses. 'Even though some staff didn't bother to turn up.'
Kate rolled her eyes, suddenly taking a great interest in rearranging the Post-it notes stuck all over the filing cabinet into tidy lines. 'Come on, we've been through this before. I couldn't get a babysitter, OK?'
'Your mum was out clubbing again, was she?'
The unlikeliness of the image made Kate smile briefly in spite of herself. 'I can't ask her all the time. She already does enough, looking after Alexander for me when I'm working. It's not as if I can afford to pay her or anything.'
'She wouldn't take it even if you could. You know she loves having him. It's been a lifeline for her after Will
'I know, I know.' Kate pressed her finger down on the corner of a Post-it note that stubbornly refused to stick. 'Having a little boy around again takes her back to happier times, I guess, when both Will and my dad were alive. But I still don't like to rely on her too much. I got myself into this situation, and as far as possible it's up to me to deal with it on my own.'
Dominic took another unenthusiastic sip of herbal tea. 'You didn't get into it entirely on your own,' he observed dryly. 'Not unless it was an immaculate conception.'
It was pretty perfect, Kate thought bleakly, staring out over the grey, rain-soaked car park and thinking of a warm swimming pool, a quiet pine-and-lavender-scented night. But then she hadn't had anything to compare it tobefore or since and, given that she hadn't been out for an evening without Alexander in over six months, that wasn't likely to change any time soon. She really must buy some decent clothes and go out with Lisa and the other girls next time they invited her. If they hadn't given up asking her.
'Hell-lo?' Dominic's voice, sounding distinctly tetchy, cut through her thoughts. 'Are you listening to a word I'm saying?'
'Sorry,' she muttered, dragging her gaze away from the car park and her attention back to Dominic. 'Immaculate conception. Getting into this on my own.'
Dominic sighed. Leaning forward, he put his elbows on the desk, rubbing his hands over his face and pushing his glasses up. 'That's the pointyou didn't get into it on your own, and you shouldn't have to deal with it on your own either. Parenting is bloody hard work. It takes two people to make a baby for a very good reason.'
Kate's heart sank as it began to dawn on her that Dominic was steering this conversation in a specific direction, and it wasn't one that Kate wanted to go in. 'I'm doing my best,' she said defensively. 'I know it's not ideal, believe me, but I'm doing all I'
'I'm not saying you're not,' Dominic interrupted gently. 'You're a fantastic mother.'
Kate put her mug down carefully on the desk. Her heart had started to beat a little faster, and she had an odd sensation, as if something cold and heavy was pressing on her chest.
'It's been four years, Kate, and you're still holding on hoping that a tall, dark Italian racing driver is going to come roaring down the high street and pull you into his arms.'
Kate got to her feet with a bright smile. 'OKcoffee break over. I'd love to stay and chat, but I have a load of work to do on the Healthy Schools account, so if you'll'
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' Dominic had got up too, his hands held up in a gesture of surrender, although he had also moved to one side of his desk so that he was effectively blocking her exit. 'I'm not handling this very well, am I? Lizzie and I are worried about you, that's all. The Christmas party was the last in a long list of Kate no-shows, and it just seems like you've been frozen in the same place for too long.'
Kate really didn't want to ask, but couldn't see that she had much choice. 'What place?'
Dominic met her eyes steadily, giving her the distinct impression that he was preparing himself to say something he'd been planning for a while. 'You're still waiting for a man you don't really believe is ever going to show up, and yet you can't quite bear to stop hoping.'
She turned her head away sharply, so that he wouldn't see the pain on her face as Cristiano's words came back to her.
This isn't over, you know. Last night was just the beginning. Wait for me.
'Ah, well,' she said with quiet bitterness, 'that's where you're wrong. It's my New Year's resolution to do exactly that.'
'And how well did you do with that one last year?' Dominic joked and then, sensing her anguish, softened his tone. 'The problem is, you're not going to be able to do it while everything is so unresolved. You need closure. You need to know once and for all that things are over between you, and I don't think that'll happen until you've told him that he has a son.'
Kate had stayed standing in the hope that she could wind this conversation up quickly and be on her way, but suddenly she wasn't sure that was going to be possible. Or that it was turning out to be the kind of conversation that she could have without sitting down.
'Not this again, Dominic. I tried that, remember?' She sank back onto the chair and looked down at her hands. 'Twice.'
'I know you did, lovey, but you don't actually know that the message got through. You wrote to him. But letters go astrayfall into the wrong hands. I think that for Alexander's sake you have to try again. In a way that leaves no room for doubt.'
In her lap Kate's fingers were twisted together, the bones showing white beneath the roughened, winter-dry skin. 'I'm not interested in trapping him,' she said, very quietly. 'I really don't want to force him into acknowledging me, or Alexander.'
'But it's his responsibility.'
There was a hint of exasperation in Dominic's tone now, though he was doing his best to hide it. Oddly, it strengthened Kate's resolve.
'I don't care,' she said firmly. 'I don't need Cristiano's helpAlexander and I are fine on our own. Finding out I was pregnant was such a massive shock at the beginning, especially coming on top of the accident and everything, but I'm so glad it happened now. I love Alexander more than I could ever have thought possible.' She hesitated for a second, swallowing the lump of emotion that had suddenly formed in her throat. 'I know it would be better if he had a fatherfor him and for mebut only if he wanted to be there.'
Dominic turned and chucked the remainder of his herbal tea into the pot of a sickly-looking yukka behind his desk. 'You don't know for sure that he doesn't.'
'Oh, I think I do.' Kate gave a dry, humourless laugh, turning her empty mug between her hands as if trying to absorb some of its fading warmth. 'He did actually tell me that he didn't want children when I interviewed him, so it was hardly a surprise when he didn't answer my letters. But I did try to see him as well, don't forget. I stood for two days outside the hospital, with the hardcore press pack and a group of slightly scary fans, trying not to throw up every five minutes.'
She laughed, but tears stung at the back of her eyes as she remembered the late July heat, the constant drag of morning sickness, the growing pain and humiliation of realising she was wasting her time.
'He was in a bad way,' Dominic remarked. 'He was in a coma for ten daysthose kind of injuries take some getting over.'
She flinched. The image of Cristiano, unconscious in a hospital bed was one that had haunted her during those terrible weeks. 'I know. But he'd been out of Intensive Care for a while then, and according to the papers he's made a full recovery. If he wanted to get in touch with me, he would have by now.'
'So where does that leave Alex?' Dominic said gruffly. 'One day he's going to want to know who his father is. He's only three years old at the moment, and already he's obsessed with cars and speed. Sooner or later.'
Kate sighed, letting go of the mug and staring down at its cheery picture of a beach and palm trees. I really would rather be in Tenerife, she thought wearily. 'What do you want me to do, Dominic? I tried. I wrote to him; I went to see him and couldn't get past Security. Short of a front-page kiss-and-tell expose in a tabloid newspaper, what else can I do?'
Wordlessly, Dominic opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a large silver envelope. He slid it across the desk towards her.
'Go and see him again.'
Kate glanced from the envelope to his face, and back down again. Her heart had started to thud uncomfortably in her chest.
'An invitation.' He silently cursed himself for not sounding more casual. He took a deep breath. 'To a party at the Casino in Monte Carlo to launch the new season's Campano team
And celebrate Cristiano Maresca's return to racing.'
Kate's cornflower-blue eyes widened, seeking out his and seeming to search them from a face that was suddenly the same colour as the pale grey sky beyond the window.
'Are you going?'
Dominic couldn't decide whether it was hope or terror that made her voice crack.
'No. I'm sending Lisa, and Ian from the Campano account. And you.'
Kate leapt to her feet, shaking her head vehemently. 'No. You can't. I can't. What about Alexander? I can't leave'