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Was it the subtle scent that perfumed the warm airsalt, spices, a fruit she couldn't identifyor the air itself that wrapped around her like the finest, softest, mohair blanket? Or was it the mind-boggling beauty of a landscape of red desert dunes alongside brilliant cobalt seas, the dense green of a palm grove in an oasis at the edge of the desert, or the tall skyscrapers that rose from the sand like sculpted, alien life forms?
Or perhaps the people themselves, the shy but welcoming smile of a headscarfed woman, the cheeky grin of tousle-haired boy, pointing at her fair skin and hair?
Marni had no idea. She couldn't give an answer to the question of why she'd fallen in love with this strange, exotic land within hours of stepping off the plane, but in love she wasflushed with excitement as she explored the narrow market lanes that sneaked off the city highways, trembling with delight the first time she dived into the crystal-clear waters, and shyly happy when a group of local women, fellow nurses, asked her to join them for lunch in the hospital canteen.
This was her first day at the hospital, her schedule having allowed her four free days to explore her new home before starting work, and today was more an orientation day, finding her way around the corridors, feeling at home with the unfamiliar layout and the more familiar hospital buzz. Now her new friends were telling her about the theatres where they all worked, which surgeons were quick to anger, which ones talked a lot, which ones liked music as they worked, and which ones flirted.
Hmm! So there were some flirts!
Would they flirt with her?
The young women giggled and tittered behind their hands as they discussed this last category and Marni wanted to ask if they flirted back, but felt she was too new to the country and understood too little of the local ways. So she listened to the chat, enjoying it, feeling more and more at home as she realised the women's words could be talk among theatre nurses anywhere in the world, except that it was never personalno mention of family or relationshipsusually the main topics of conversation among nurses back home.
But for all the ease she felt with her fellow nurses, nerves tightened her sinews, and butterflies danced polkas in her stomach when she reported for duty the next day.
'Welcome,' Jawa, one of the nurses she'd met the previous day, said as Marni pushed through the door into the theatre dressing room. 'This morning you will enjoy for Gaz is operating. He's not only a good surgeon, but he takes time to tell us what he is doing so we can learn.'
Aware that many of the staff at the hospital were imports like herself, she wondered if Gaz might be an Australian, the name a shortened Aussie version of Gary or Gareth. Not that she had time to dwell on the thought, for Jawa was handing her pale lavenderlavender?theatre pyjamas, a cap and mask, talking all the time in her liltingly accented English.
'So we must hurry for he is not one of those surgeons who keep patients or staff waiting. He is always on time.'
Jawa led the way through to the theatre where they scrubbed and gloved up, ready for what lay ahead. The bundle of instruments on the tray at Marni's stationshe would be replenishing Jawa's tray as Jawa passed instruments to the surgeonlooked exactly the same as the bundles at home, and relieved by the familiarity of that and her surroundings she relaxed.
Until the gowned, capped, gloved and half-masked figure of the surgeon strode into the room, when every nerve in her body tightened and the hairs on her arms and back of her neck stood to attention.
He's just a man! she told herself, but that didn't stop a tremble in the pit of her stomach as he looked around the room, dark eyes taking in the newcomer, his head nodding in acknowledgement, the eyes holding hersa second or two, no moreyet causing heat to sear downwards through her body.
'So, we have a stranger in our midst,' the man who was causing the problems said, his voice reverberating through her like the echoes of carillon bells. 'And you are?'
'Marni Graham, sir,' she said, hoping she sounded more in control than she felt.
'In here I'm Gaz, just Gaz, Marni Graham,' he said. 'Welcome to the team.'
She really should say somethingrespond in some waybut her voice was lost somewhere in the general muddle of the new and unbelievably vital sensations she was experiencing right now. Lust at first sight?
It can't be, Marni argued with herself, but silently and very weakly.
The man in question had pulled his mask up to cover his nose and mouth, and seemed about to turn away, but before he did so he smiled at her.
Of course, she couldn't see the smile, not on his lips, but she was certain it was there, shining in his eyes and making her feel warm and very, very unsettled.
What she had to do was to appear totally unaffected by the man, which, of course she was, she told herself. The reaction had been nerves, first day on the job and all that. Yet she was aware of this man in a way she'd never been aware of anyone before, her skin reacting as if tiny invisible wires ran between them so every time he moved they tugged at her.
Was this what had been missing in her other relationshipsthe ones that had fizzled out, mainly, she had to admit, because she'd backed away from committing physically?
She shook the thought out of her head and concentrated on the task at hand, on the operation, the patient, a child of eight having a second surgery to repair a cleft palate.
'This little boy, Safi, had had his first repair when he'd been six months old,' Gaz was explaining, his voice like thick treacle sliding down Marni's spine. 'That was to repair the palate to help him feed and also to aid the development of his teeth and facial bones.'
He worked as he talked, slender gloved fingers moving skilfully, probing and cutting, everything done with meticulous care, but Marni gave him more points for knowing the child's name and using it, humanising the patient, rather than calling him 'the child'.
'Now we need to use a bone graft to further repair the upper jaw where the cleft is, in the alveolar.'
Marni recited the bones forming part of the maxilla, or upper jaw bonezygomatic, frontal, alveoal and palatineinside her head, amazed at what the brain could retain from studies years ago.
'If we had done this earlier,' Gaz was explaining, 'it would have inhibited the growth of the maxilla, so we wait until just before the permanent cuspid teeth are ready to erupt before grafting in new bone.'
He continued speaking, so Marni could picture not only what he was doing but how his work would help the child who'd had the misfortune to have been born with this problem.
It had to be the slight hint of an accent in his words that made his voice so treacly, she decided as he spoke quietly to the anaesthetist. So he probably wasn't an Australian. Not that it mattered, although some contrary part of her had already wound a little dream of two compatriots meeting up to talk of home.
Her mind had already run ahead to the possibility that this man might just be the one with whom she could have that fling.
You're supposed to be concentrating on the job, not thinking about sex!
She hadn't needed the reminder, already shocked by how far her mind had travelled while she'd worked.
And where it had travelled!
The man was a complete stranger
A complete stranger with mesmerising eyes and a sexy, chocolate-syrup voice!
The operation, which seemed to have gone on for ever, wound up swiftly. The surgeon and his assistant left, although Gaz did turn at the door and look around, frowning slightly as he pulled his mask down to dangle beneath his chin, revealing a sculpted line of barely-there beard outlining a jaw that needed nothing to draw attention to its strength.
He nodded in the general direction of the clump of nurses where Marni stood, before disappearing from view.
There was no rush of conversation, which seemed weird as either the surgeons or their skills usually came in for comment during the post-op clean-up. But here the women worked competently and silently, Jawa finally telling Marni that was all they had to do.
'We have time for lunch and you're back in Theatre again this afternoonyou and me both, they have paired us for a while.'
'I'm glad of that,' Marni told her. 'I still need someone to lead me around.'
She opened her mouth to ask if the surgeon called Gaz would be operating again, then closed it, not wanting to draw Jawa's attention to the fact the man had affected her in some strange way.
A very strange way!
The afternoon operation was very different, removal of a benign cancer from the ankle of a little girl. The surgeon was French and seemed to think his nationality demanded he flirt with all the nurses, but his work was more than proficient and Marni decided she'd enjoy working here if all the surgeons were as skilled as the first two she'd seen.
A minor operation on a child sent up from ER, repair of a facial tear, finished off her shift, but as she changed into her outdoor clothes she wondered about their first patient, the little boy who'd been born with a deformity that would have been affecting his life. No child liked to look different from his mates
Uncertain of protocol but needing to know how he'd come out of the operation, Marni asked Jawa if she'd be allowed to see him.
'Just a brief visit to see he's okay,' she added.
Jawa consulted her watch and decided that, yes, he should be well and truly out of Recovery and back on the children's post-op ward.
'Of course you can visit him,' she assured Marni. 'I would come with you but I have an appointment.'
The faint blush that rose in her cheeks as she said this suggested the appointment was special, but Marni forbore to tease, not knowing Jawa or the local customs well enough.
The post-op ward was easy to find. The hospital was set up rather like an octopus with all its tentacles spread flat on the ground. The operating theatres, recovery rooms, the ICU and the administration rooms were all in the tall body of the beast, while the arms supplied different wards.
In the post-op ward, bright with murals of colourful forests and wild animals, Marni found most rooms occupied not only by the patient but by a clutch of family members as wellblack-robed women, white-robed men.
'Can I help you?' a passing nurse inquired.
'A little boy who had a cleft palate operation this morning. I was one of the theatre staff and wondered how he was doing.'
'Ah, you mean Safi. Do you wish to visit him?'
'I wouldn't want to intrude on his family,' Marni said.
'You won't,' the nurse told her. 'In fact, it would be good if you could visit him. He's not local but has come here for all his surgery. The hospital takes many children from neighbouring countries because we have the doctors with the skills to help them, and this wonderful facility where they can recover, but often the parents cannot afford to accompany the child. The nurses will do their best to see these children are not too lonely, but most of the time'
'You're too busy,' Marni finished for her. 'I understand, but I'm far away from home myself so I'll be happy to visit Safi when I can.'
Following the nurse's directions, she found Safi's room, knocked quietly then went in. The little boy turned wide, troubled eyes towards her.
'Hello,' she said, aware he probably had no idea of English but not knowing what language he might speak. 'I've come to visit you.'
She sat beside him and held his hand, wishing she'd brought a toy or a book. Although this boy was eight and she'd been only two when she'd first gone to live with her grandfather, she remembered how Pop had helped her feel at homehe'd sung to her.
Dredging back through her memory, she sang the nursery rhymes of her childhood, using her hands as she had back then, making a star that twinkled in the sky and an itsy-bitsy spider climbing up a water spout.
Safi regarded her quite seriously but when she sang 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' for the fourth time, he joined in with his hands then smiled at her.
The smile made her want to cry for his aloneness, but apparently the music had soothed him and he fell asleep.
Not wanting to disturb him too soon, she sat by the bed, holding his hand, her mind drifting through the memories of the tumultuous few weeks since she'd made the decision to come to Ablezia, stumbling out of the drift when she thought of her goalher goal, not Pop's.
Could she do it? Go cold-bloodedly into a relationship with a man simply to rid herself of her virginity?