Once upon a time, I had wanted everything from Alexi Galanti. Not just his body, but his love. But as I stared at his tall, muscular body dressed in a T-shirt and worn jeans, the fabric stretched enticingly across pectoral muscles that had only become more defined in the last five years—not quite sure if he was real or a figment of my over-active imagination—I knew those desires were childish dreams borne of infatuation.
I’d locked those dreams away five years ago after the cruel banishment which had left me destitute, disillusioned and alone at nineteen.
And, as I’d discovered two months later, pregnant with his child.
I refused to let them resurface now just because he was even more handsome and compelling at thirty than he had been at twenty-five.
I was twenty-four now and I’d survived what he’d done to me. And I had a wonderful son whom I adored.
I struggled to quell the old yearning which shivered through me at the sight of him. A yearning I’d never been able to feel for any other man.
Heat careered into my cheeks as I watched him stiffen, the knowledge of who I was hitting him as hard as it had hit me a few moments before.
Good, I was glad. I wanted him to feel as raw as I did.
But, as soon as the ungenerous thought occurred to me, another horrifying realisation hit me—bringing with it the guilt I had struggled with for five years.
Oh, no! My cousin Jessie was bringing Cai—my son—to meet me at the track this afternoon.
I’d known it was a risk, agreeing to come to Barcelona to test drive the car I’d helped develop in my role as Camaro’s fuel-efficiency expert for their R&D department in the UK. But Renzo, my boss, had been quite insistent and I had checked to make sure the Galanti team weren’t scheduled to be at the test track today.
Cai loved the cars and the trip had been a special treat for him. But I didn’t want him to come face to face with his father—or vice versa.
I’d never contacted Alexi to tell him about his son. I’d been in a daze, still struggling to cope with the loss of Remy, not to mention my job and my life in Monaco, when I’d discovered I was pregnant five years ago.
I hadn’t had the courage or the strength to face Alexi then and as my pregnancy had progressed I had quickly begun to justify my cowardice to myself.
Alexi had made it very clear he hated me, that he blamed me for Remy’s death. He’d told me he never wanted to see me again, that he’d have me arrested if he did. He’d called me a whore and implied I was a gold-digger. He probably wouldn’t even have believed the child was his, so what would have been the point?
And, in the years since Cai’s birth, it had become easier and easier not to make that call. My sweet, beautiful, smiley little boy, who looked so much like his father but would always be mine, would never know the cynicism, the coldness, of the man who had sired him. Really, I was just protecting my son.
I’d seen reports of Alexi’s love life in the press, in gossip columns and celebrity blogs, over the intervening years too and had convinced myself Alexi wouldn’t want to be a father. That I was doing him a favour by not divulging to him he had a son. Surely he wouldn’t want to be tied down, to have his rampant womanising and glamorous social life hampered by a toddler?
But, now I was faced with the possibility of him meeting Cai for the first time, all my justifications began to crumble.
The guilt combined with the inappropriate yearning in the pit of my stomach and made me plummet me into the black hole I remembered from the last time I’d seen him—creating a wave of pure, unadulterated panic
I’d always told myself that one day—when Cai was older, and I had become the foremost R&D specialist in the Super League and had some serious professional clout—I would get up the guts to inform Alexi of his son’s existence.
But this wasn’t that day. I wasn’t ready to face that reality. Not yet. And neither was Cai. I hadn’t prepared Cai for this news. And I doubted Alexi would even care if he had a son.
‘I need you to leave,’ I said, my voice firm, even though I was shaking inside from fear and the heat that would never die as long as I was in the same room as this man.
He hadn’t said anything, he’d been rooted to the spot, but he controlled himself a lot faster than I did, the naked shock on his face masked by the cynical expression I remembered from our graveside parting. Although the heat in his gaze told another story, a heat I recognised from that fateful night when we had conceived Cai.
How could we still want each other when we both hated each other so much? I wondered vaguely, as my frantic mind tried to grasp the logistics of how I was going to avert the disaster galloping towards me with each tick of the clock.
Calm down, Belle, and don’t show him any weakness.
I had twenty minutes. They weren’t due here till three. I had time. All I had to do was get Alexi to leave before Jessie and Cai arrived. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard, now he knew who I was? After all, he had been prepared to pay thousands of euros five years ago so he’d never have to see me again.
‘The offer still stands,’ he said at last.
‘I… What? You can’t be serious,’ I said, stunned. Surely he couldn’t believe I would want to spend any time in his company, let alone work for him?
‘I’m deadly serious. I need a reserve driver and I want you… You should be on the track, not behind it. Once you’re signed with Galanti we can discuss the possibility of getting a full driver spot for you, maybe next season. I’ll make it worth your while to break your attachment to Camaro…’ His gaze dipped, his perusal swift but no less insulting, and the heat ignited in my cheeks as I saw the spark of desire and realised he thought Renzo and I were lovers.
I knew rumours were rife on the track and in the Camaro team that I was sleeping with the boss. Renzo had been instrumental in advancing my career, hiring me for his R&D team straight after I’d finished my masters in bioengineering and alternative fuel technology last year. He had been remarkably flexible about my childcare commitments on the job, had befriended Cai—who idolised him—and I did sometimes wonder if he thought of me as more than an employee and a friend… But he had never stepped over that line and I certainly hadn’t encouraged him.
‘I’m not for sale,’ I said flatly, determined not to let my hurt at Alexi’s insinuations show.
I didn’t need this man’s approval. It had taken me five years to get over his rejection. When I’d arrived in the UK and discovered I was carrying his child, the grief for Remy and everything I’d lost the day he’d died had all but destroyed me.
My confidence, and my sense of self had been left in tatters but I’d dragged myself up off the floor, with the help of my wonderful second cousin Jessie, and forced myself to concentrate on what mattered.
I’d had my child and dedicated myself to supporting us both with two jobs, while taking on a mountain of student debt and studying late into the night to realise a new dream that in the last year had finally started to take off.
I had been a fool to keep the news of his child from him, something about which I had become starkly aware in the last few minutes. I would have to rectify that as soon as I could manage the news in a way that wouldn’t hurt Cai.
But I didn’t have to defend my professional reputation to Alexi or anyone else.
‘That’s a shame,’ Alexi said, his husky voice sending goose bumps skittering over my skin. ‘Because, whatever Renzo is paying you, you’re worth more. And with the talent I saw on the track ten minutes ago it’s obvious you should be driving.’
‘I don’t want to drive, not competitively,’ I said, pushing past the sexual fog threatening to envelop me, to concentrate on getting him out of here. I didn’t have time for a negotiation. Or to obsess over the way he could still make me feel simply by looking at me.
Why did I have to be so affected by this man? It was as if a spell had been cast on me as soon as I’d hit puberty and I couldn’t escape the enchantment of my own body.
So not the point, Belle.
‘Why the hell don’t you want to drive?’ Alexi shot back, his frustration only making his dark good looks and intense gaze all the more overwhelming. ‘That was always your dream ever since you were a kid, wasn’t it?’
I was surprised he had remembered that much about me. As a teenager, and later as a man, he had always made a point of ignoring me. Until that night.
‘It was my dream once,’ I said. ‘It’s not my dream any more. Now, would you please leave before I call security?’ It was an empty threat, and we both knew it. No security guy in his right mind would eject Alexi Galanti from the track—the man was motor-racing royalty. But I was desperate.
Not surprisingly, he ignored the threat and, instead of leaving, stepped closer. Close enough for me to capture his intoxicating scent—spice, musk and the hint of pine soap. The aroma made my knees shake, propelling me back to that night—somewhere I so did not need to go ever again.
I stood my ground, though, because showing Alexi a weakness had never ended well.
‘Tell me why,’ he insisted, the frustration disappearing to be replaced with something much more disturbing—genuine interest in me and my life, something I’d yearned for all through my teenage years. ‘Tell me why you gave up on your dream, bella notte,’ he repeated, his voice soft, coaxing, as he used the nickname he had coined that night, no doubt to intimidate me more. ‘And then I’ll leave.’
I opened my mouth, determined to give him an answer, any answer that would make him leave and take this pointless yearning away again. But the only explanation I could think of was the real one.
Because I have a child, a son, who I love more than life itself. And I’m the only person he has. I can’t risk leaving him alone—dying the way Remy died. So I found a way to readjust my dreams. To feed my passion for racing—while also fulfilling my obligations to my child.
But I couldn’t tell him that.
As I racked my brains, trying to come up with a viable alternative reason Alexi would believe, it occurred to me I’d been hoisted by my own dishonesty.
And then the door burst open and Cai ran into the room ten minutes early, a four-year-old bundle of energy…and the black hole in the pit of my stomach imploded. For the first time in my life I was not pleased to see him.
My time had run out.
‘Mummy, Mummy, I saw the car!’ he cried, practically bursting with excitement as he raced towards me, oblivious to Alexi and everything else. ‘Mr Renzo let me touch it.’
He ran past Alexi, who stepped back, his dark brows launching up his forehead. Cai’s sturdy body barrelled into me and the love I had felt for him as soon as I’d held him in my arms after ten agonising hours of labour washed through me.
‘Mr Renzo said I could sit in it if I’m good.’
Cai’s arms wrapped around my legs as he peered up at me, the love in his eyes all-consuming and utterly uncomplicated. The blue of his irises was the same true, iridescent aquamarine as those of the man standing two feet away, staring at him as if he were an alien.
‘Can I, Mummy? Can I?’ he pleaded, completely oblivious to the tension now snapping in the room. I could almost feel Alexi’s mind working as he stared at my child and calculated dates and ages. Cai was tall for a four-year-old, probably because his father was six-foot-three, but that wasn’t going to help me.
With the light from the window shining onto Cai’s dark, wavy hair and illuminating his face and his Galanti bone structure—which had become more defined in the last year or two as he’d grown from toddlerhood into boyhood—the resemblance to his father was all the more striking.
Alexi was not a stupid man, and as my gaze connected with his over Cai’s head I watched as he figured out Cai’s heritage—the stunned disbelief turning to shock before a sharp frown flattened his brows and his sensual lips pursed into a tight line of accusation.