The noisy sound of a door swinging back on its hinges came from above them, followed by the echo of chattering female voices.
‘Come back upstairs,’ Alessio demanded harshly.
Daisy dug her foot back into her lost shoe and sidled away from him, terrified that she was about to break down in tears in front of him. Right now, she didn’t think that she could cope with any more. And she had done what she had come to do. She had told him about Tara and he needed time to think about that. Did he appreciate that himself? Was that why he had concentrated on their past rather than on the revelation that he had a daughter? Or was the reality more that he had not yet been able even to begin to absorb that news?
‘I’ll phone you...t-tomorrow,’ Daisy stammered sickly, gripping the handrail with a perspiring palm as she immediately began to head downwards again.
Alessio ground out a frustrated imprecation in his own language as the footsteps above grew louder and closer.
Daisy took advantage of the approaching company to flee, and she didn’t glance back this time. Tears were blinding her as she reached the final flight of stairs. The heel of one of her shoes went skittering off the edge of a step and she fell heavily with a bitten-off gasp of fright. Briefly her body was numbed by the force of her fall. Then the pain came in a stomach-churning surge. Slowly, painfully she breathed in deep and picked herself up, straightened her rucked skirt with a trembling hand and limped out through the doors into the ground-floor foyer.
She caught a cab back to the agency. Her hip throbbed with the bruises she had inflicted on herself. But that physical discomfort was as nothing to the terrible pain and confusion tearing at her fast-crumbling composure. Using the rear entrance from the car park, she hobbled into the stark little room that the sales team used for coffee-breaks and collapsed down on an armchair.
You’re like an accident around Alessio, she told herself wearily. But then even before she had met him her life had lurched from one disaster to the next. Why had she expected anything to change? She scolded herself for thinking like that. It was a loser’s mindset which she had put behind her a long time ago. But somehow, when a real crisis loomed, it was hard to forget the childhood which had left her so desperately insecure, that insidious, confidence-zapping feeling that everything that went wrong was always her fault.
Yet that sun-drenched summer with Alessio had, ironically, been the happiest of her life. Feeling loved and wanted and needed had been an intoxicating new experience for Daisy. They had been inseparable and at the time that intensity had seemed mutual. Of course, in actuality, she conceded painfully, she had only been one more notch on Alessio’s bedpost. A naive pushover, always available, always willing, frankly asking to be slapped in the teeth, she thought now. What little common sense she had possessed had evaporated beneath the onslaught of Alessio’s first smile.
The real reason why Alessio had not dated schoolgirls should have been obvious to her even then. He had been long past the stage of settling for a goodnight kiss at the end of a date. Daisy had been smoothly, gently but quite ruthlessly seduced by a teenager already expert in the field of sexual intimacy.
Of course, he had also talked with passionate conviction about how much he loved her and how he would fly over and see her at weekends after she went home, but then he would have said that, wouldn’t he? Such assurances were par for the course. Daisy was convinced that if she hadn’t got pregnant, if she had returned to London she would never have heard from Alessio Leopardi again. After all, he had already had a steady girlfriend at university, but Sophia had been abroad that summer...
Daisy swam back to the present, feeling utterly drained. She asked herself why she had been so devastated to hear Alessio admit that he had been too ashamed and upset to face her after her miscarriage. That he had got drunk, been ripped apart by guilt and an obvious inability to cope with either her feelings or his own. She had been shattered by the realisation that her image of Alessio had been inexplicably trapped in a time-warp.
At seventeen, she had looked up to him, depended on him, viewed him as an experienced and strong adult in comparison with herself. It had not occurred to her then that Alessio might have weaknesses of his own. Only now did she think he was only six years older than Tara is now; beneath the glossy, cool front he was only a kid too. But Daisy had made a hero of him because nothing less than a hero could have made her feel safe in the new and threatening world in which he and his family lived.