COULD love be revived once it had been trampled on, betrayed and drenched in tears? Lara doubted it. While some elements of the old chemical reaction-the pounding heart, the weakened knees, the lust-could apparently still be stirred to action, they were echoes, doomed to fade in the harsh light of the present.
So why did she feel that the planet were suddenly spinning out of control?
The street lights were on by the time she opened her front gate. Newtown was the same rackety slice of bohemian life, the terrace house she and Vivi shared on different levels with her mother had the same slightly down-at-heel charm, but with Alessandro back in her life, however briefly, the world was suddenly vivid and exciting.
Although, she felt stung by that interview. Why on earth had she made it worse by bringing up the pact? Everything associated with it now was so painful. She’d only wanted to lay to rest that last minuscule worry that he might have flown all the way back from America and been disappointed, but her concern had only served to arouse his sarcasm. She’d had no idea-she was sure he’d never given any hint of resenting the pact so deeply.
Why should he have even given it two thoughts if he’d been planning to marry this other woman all along? Was that why he’d treated her so coldly today? He felt guilty?
She rested her bag of purchases from the Greek deli on the step, and pressed the doorbell.
Greta opened the door almost at once, accompanied by two cats and Vivi, who thrust herself forward for a hug, nearly knocking Lara backwards down the step with the fervour of her welcome.
‘Nanna and me made pikelets, but I haven’t spoiled my dinner and I haven’t made myself sick yet,’ she informed Lara earnestly, while Lara fought to set foot inside the foyer.
‘I should hope not,’ Lara said, laughing, hefting her up to hug her and give her a resounding kiss. ‘And that’s Nanna and I.’ She turned to peck her mother’s soft cheek. ‘Sorry, I’m late, Mum. I was held up at work at the last minute. The-the new takeover team, and all that.’
‘Good, good,’ Greta said, her blue eyes lighting up. ‘Any talent there?’ then, seeing Lara’s expression, ‘Never mind, never mind. We live in hope. You can tell me all about it after dinner. I’m about to head off for my rehearsal.’
The groceries were retrieved from the step, Greta retreated to her apartment to put the finishing touches to her hair, and Lara and Vivi climbed the stairs to their floor.
Vivi really was amazingly like Alessandro, Lara thought, watching her daughter as she ran from room to room, reconnecting with all her precious possessions like a small, passionate whirlwind. She’d always known that, but now, after seeing him again in the flesh, the resemblance was striking.
Throughout the evening, every glance at Vivi confronted Lara with the seriousness of her dilemma.
After all the efforts she’d made to contact him during her pregnancy, she’d always imagined that if the moment of meeting him again eventuated, she’d be an honest, moral, upstanding woman and inform him of his responsibility straight away. She wasn’t the sort to secrete her child, jealous of sharing, frightened of losing control. For goodness’ sake, she’d never be one of those mothers who behaved like inflamed tigresses, dancing up and down on the side of the netball court, screaming advice to their daughters and hurling insults at the opposition.
She was calm and balanced. Protective and responsible, certainly. But mature. Rational.
Still, faced with the compelling reality, she found the issue was far more complicated than she’d expected. The truth needed to be faced. The Alessandro she’d met today was not the man she thought she knew. The father of her child was a stranger. One whose life was on the other side of the world.
There was no predicting how Vivi’s life would change. How hers would. For goodness’ sake, her baby was five. How could she cope with the shock of another parent?
Listening to her daughter’s account of her day during the glorious ritual of the bath, Lara tried to work out how much to tell her mother. Of course Greta knew the name of Vivi’s father, but Lara hadn’t broken it to her yet about Alessandro’s latest meteoric appearance in her life.
During dinner, watching Vivi carefully hide all her peas under a lettuce leaf then ease them off one by one to hide under her plate, Lara guessed what her mother’s attitude would be. Tell him at once, Greta would urge. He deserves to know the truth. Vivi deserves it. And there was little doubt that he wouldn’t be long at work before someone mentioned she had a child. As soon as he found out Vivi’s age he wouldn’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out the truth.
How dreadful for him if he found out in some casual conversation. If only he hadn’t been so difficult this afternoon. So angry.
During the bedtime story, leaning back against the pillows with Vivi cuddled up to her and Kylie Minogie, her best doll, propped up beside them so she could see the pictures, every glance at her daughter over the pages of The Little Mermaid brought Alessandro’s likeness forcibly before her.
The resemblance was in more than Vivi’s dark velvet eyes and the richness of her hair. There was mischief and humour in that small face already, and even now the capacity for fathomless depths of…what?
Lara gave herself a little shake. Now she was being ridiculous. Vivi was only five. It was just the effect of having been with Alessandro after a long absence. Naturally his presence was overwhelming. Disquieting.
And admit it. In some way…energising.
It was a challenge. Not telling him would deprive Vivi unnecessarily of a parent, but on the other hand, the upheaval to their lives if he wanted to somehow participate in her parenting was frightening. How could he, anyway, from the other side of the world? It would be so unsettling and confusing, Vivi might be better off without him.
And today had been such a disappointment.
What had happened with the wife? she wondered, closing the story book and helping Vivi to settle down under the covers with Kylie Minogie. After his cavalier treatment of her she couldn’t help wondering if he’d been a faithful husband.
There was no denying it. Whatever he was, whatever he’d done, the old fire had been breathlessly present in the vibrations between them. When he’d touched her in that accidental collision-and had it been accidental?-she’d felt stirred. All the way home on the train she hadn’t been able to stop thinking of how disturbed that brief touch had made her feel.
Her eyes drifted shut.
Though obviously, after six years of male deprivation, it was only to be expected he’d have had some impact.
She’d tucked Vivi into bed and had nearly finished the kitchen clean-up when the phone rang. Greta, she assumed, back from her oboe rehearsal and in need of a gossip.
She picked up the phone and cradled it between her ear and her shoulder while she peeled off her rubber gloves. ‘Hi, dear. Come straight up.’
There was a moment of silence, then, ‘Do you say that to everyone who calls?’
She froze to the sink, her heart making a bound as his deep velvet voice trickled down her spine like liquid Tiramisu.
‘Alessandro,’ he prompted when she didn’t reply at once.
Everything else in the world shrank and receded as the compelling tones thrilled through her. She managed to suck enough breath into her dislocated lungs to say, ‘I know that.’
‘We need to talk.’
She took the phone off her shoulder to hold squeezed in her shaking hand. Amazing, but even with her insides doing pirouettes, adrenaline cut in and she could speak.
‘I can’t imagine why,’ she said coldly. ‘But all right, then. Shoot.’
‘Face to face.’
A shock of excitement raced through her. ‘That’s impossible. I’m not available tonight.’
‘But you are at home.’
She glanced in the direction of Vivi’s room. ‘Well, yes, but I can’t go out. I have-commitments.’
‘Then I will come to you.’
She felt a bolt of alarm. ‘No! You can’t come here.’ Anxiety helped her to unscramble her wits. ‘Anyway, after today…the things you said…we can have nothing to say to each other. We’re strangers, remember?’
He said swiftly, ‘But you don’t accept that. I’m certain that was what you said.’ And when she didn’t answer added, ‘You know there are things we need to discuss.’
That was rich, after the way he’d refused to acknowledge their former relationship.
‘Things. Oh, you mean things about work?’
Her heart was thundering. Yeah, right. Things about work indeed. If he wanted to know operational things, he could ask anyone. And he could wait until tomorrow. Did he think she was an idiot? He wanted to see her.
Oh, God. Forget all the negative emotion and confusion of the day. Face the truth. That mesmeric connection was still there. The excitement. And she wanted to meet him. God, she wanted to. If she could arrange to meet him somewhere…
He said firmly, ‘I’ll be in your street in a couple of minutes.’
‘What?’ she gasped, but it was too late. She’d spoken into dead space.
Immediately, she phoned down to Greta’s, but her mother mustn’t have returned yet. Then she realised she was wearing track pants and a ragged old sweater that had borne the brunt of too many bathtime splashes.
She dashed to her bedroom and dragged on her good jeans and a top. Though surely the red top was too clingy? What sort of a statement was it making? One breath of cold air and her nipples would stand up and protrude through the layers. Quickly she whipped it off and dived into her wardrobe for a shirt. She shrugged a sleeveless vest over it, ran a brush through her hair and smoothed on some lipstick.
She ran to the front window, and gasped when she saw a dark car pulling up across the street from the house. She jumped back, and stood for seconds, dithering. She’d open the door to him, and talk to him on the porch. In a worst-case scenario, she could invite him into Greta’s as if it were her place.
She thought rapidly. Unless Vivi had left toys there. And there were the photos.
If he came here, her bumpy heartbeat told her, if he saw Vivi, she’d have no time to prepare. No time to prepare Vivi, no time to break the news gently to him. Somehow, she would have to lure him away from the house.
Her hands twisting, she paced back and forwards, stopping several times at Vivi’s door to glance in, dashing in once to ensure the covers were in place over the slight mound of her daughter’s sleeping form.
The downstairs bell to Greta’s flat gave a couple of sharp peals, and, torn between rushing to answer it and defending her cub, like a maddened tigress Lara dashed in to resettle the covers over Vivi’s shoulders.