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Sabrina Russo got only a few seconds' warning before disaster struck.
The powerful roar of a vehicle rounding the hairpin curve behind her carried clearly on the late December air. Cursing, she kicked herself for parking her rental car in a turnout a good ten yards back. The roads on this portion of Italy's Amalfi coast were narrow and treacherous at best. Walls of sheer rock hedged the pavement on one side, thousand-foot drops on the other. But, like the worst kind of numbnuts tourist, she'd had to leave the protection of the turnout and inch along this narrow, pebble-strewn verge to snap a picture of the colorful village spilling down the steep mountainside to the blue-green Mediterranean below.
The slick leather soles of her boots provided only marginal traction as she scrambled back toward the turnout. She was still trying to reach its protective guardrail when a flame-red Ferrari convertible swept around the curve.
Sabrina caught a glimpse of the driverjust a glimpse. Her frantic mind registered dark hair, wide shoulders encased in a buckskin-tan-colored jacket, and a startled expression on a face so strong and chiseled it might have been sculpted by Michelangelo. Then the Ferrari was aiming right for her.
Yelping, she leaped back. She knew she was in trouble when her left boot heel came down on empty air. Faced with the choice of throwing herself forward, under the Ferrari's tires, or toppling down the steep precipice behind her, she opted for the tumble.
She didn't fall far, but she hit hard. The cell phone she'd been using to shoot the photos flew out of her hands. A rocky outcropping slammed into her hip. Her gray wool slacks and matching,hip-length jacket protected her from the stony, serrated edges. The wool provided little buffer, however, when she crashed into a stunted, wind-tortured tree that clung to the cliffside with stubborn tenacity.
Pain shot from her ankle to her hip in white-hot waves. The achingly blue Mediterranean sky blurred around the edges.
* * *
"Signorina! Signorina! Mi sente?"
A deep, compelling voice pierced the gray haze. Sabrina fought the agony shooting through her and turned her head.
"Ecco, brava. Apra gli'occhi."
Slowly, so slowly, a face swam into view.
"Siete " He gave a quick shake of his head and shifted to flawless English. "You fell from the road above. Luckily, this cypress broke your descent."
Sabrina blinked, and a twisted tree trunk came into focus. Its thin branches and silvery-green leaves formed a backdrop for the face hovering over her. Even dazed and confused, she felt its sensual impact.
The man was certifiably gorgeous! Whiskers darkened his cheeks and strong, square chin. His mouth could tempt a saint to sin, and Sabrina was certainly no candidate for canonization. His short, black hair had just a hint of curl, and his skin was tanned to warm oak.
But it was his eyes that mesmerized her. Dark and compelling, they stared into hers. For an absurd moment, she had the ridiculous notion he was looking into her soul.
Then more of her haze cleared and she recognized the driver of the Ferrari. Anger spiked through her, overriding the pain.
"You almost hit me!"
She planted a hand against the tree trunk and tried to sit up. The attempt produced two immediate reactions. The first was a searing jolt that lanced from her ankle to her hip. The second was a big hand splayed against her shoulder, accompanied by a sharp order.
"Be still! You're not bleeding from any external wounds, but you may have sustained a concussion or internal injuries. Tell me, do you hurt when you breathe?"
She drew in a cautious breath. "No."
"Can you move your head?"
She tried a tentative tilt. "Yes."
"Lie still while I check for broken bones."
"Hey! Watch where you put those hands, pal!"
Impatience stamped across his classic features. "I am a doctor."
Good excuse to cop a feel, Sabrina thought, too pissed to appreciate his gentle touch.
"You have no business taking these hairpin turns so fast," she informed him. "Especially when there's no guardrail. I had nowhere to go but down. If I hadn't hit this tree I could have Ow!"
She clenched her teeth against the agony when he ran his hands down her calf to her ankle.
Frowning, the doc sat back on his heels. "With your boot on, I can't tell if the ankle is broken or merely sprained. We must get you to the hospital for X-rays."
He glanced from her to the road above and back again.
"My cell phone is in the car. I can call an ambulance. Unfortunately, the closest will have to come from the town of Amalfi, thirty kilometers from here."
Terrific! Thirty kilometers of narrow, winding roads with blind curves and snaking switchbacks. She'd be down here all day, clinging to this friggin' tree.
"It's better if we get you to the car and I drive you to the hospital myself."
Sabrina eyed the slope doubtfully. "I don't think I'm up for a climb."
"I'll carry you."
He said it with such self-assurance that she almost believed he could. He had the shoulders for it. They looked wide and solid under his suede bomber jacket.
Sabrina was no lightweight, however. She kept in shape with daily workouts, but her five-eight height and lush curves added up to more pounds than she cared to admit in polite company.
"Thanks, anyway, but I'll wait for the ambulance."
"You could black out again or go into shock." Pushing to his feet, he braced himself at an angle on the slope and issued abrusque order. "Take my hand."
The imperious command rubbed her exactly the wrong way. She'd spent a turbulent childhood and her even more tempestuous college years rebelling against her cold, autocratic father. She'd paid the price for her revolt many times over, but she still didn't take orders well.
"Anyone ever tell you that you need to work on your bedside manner, Doc? It pretty well sucks."
His dark brows snapped together in a way that clearly said he wasn't used to being taken to task by his patients. She answered with a bland smile. After a short staring contest, his scowl relaxed into a reluctant grin.
"I believe that has been mentioned to me before."
The air left Sabrina's lungs a second time. The man was seriously hot without that crooked grin. With it, he made breathing a lost cause.
"Shall we start again?" he suggested in a less impatient tone. "I am Marco Calvetti. And you are?"
"Allow me to help you up to the car." He reached down a hand. "If you please, Signorina Russo."
It was either wait for the ambulance or take him up on his offer. No choice, really. Sabrina needed to get her ankle looked at and be on her way. She had business to take care of. Important business that could put the fledgling company she'd started with her two best friends into the black for the first time since they'd launched it.
She laid her hand in his, her nerves jumping when his fingers folded around hers. Loose stones rattled and skittered down the slope as she levered up and onto her uninjured leg. Once vertical, she got a good look at the sheer precipice only a few yards beyond her tree.
"Don't look down. Put your arm around my neck."
When she complied, he lifted her and hooked an elbow under her knees. She could feel the muscles go taut under the buttery suede as he made his careful way up the slope. Determined not to look down, she kept her gaze locked on his profile.
The dark bristles sprouting on his cheeks and chin only accentuated his rugged good looks. He had a Roman nose, she decided, straight and strong and proud. His eyes were a clear, liquid brown. And was that a sprinkling of silver at his temple?
Interesting man. When he wasn't trying to run people down, that is. The black skid marks leading to the convertible nosed onto the narrow verge made Sabrina bristle again.
"You came around that corner way too fast. If I hadn't jumped backward, you would have hit me."
"You should not have left the safety of the turnout," he countered. "Why did you do something so foolish?"
She hated to admit she'd been mesmerized by the incredible view and was snapping pictures like an awestruck tourist, but she had no other excuse short of an outright lie. Sabrina had committed more than her share of sins in her colorful past. Lying wasn't one of them.
"I was taking pictures. For my business," she added, as if that would lessen the idiocy.
He didn't roll his eyes but he came damned close. "What business is that?"
"My company provides travel, translation and executive support services for Americans doing business in Europe. I'm here to scout locations for a high-level conference for one of our clients."
He nodded, but made no comment as they approached the red convertible. Raising a knee, he balanced her on a hard, muscled thigh and reached down to open the passenger door. Despite her efforts to protect her ankle, Sabrina was gritting her teeth by the time he'd jockeyed her into the seat.
"My purse," she ground out. "It's in the rental car."
He did the almost-eye-roll thing again.
Okay, so leaving her purse unattended in Italy or anywhere else!wasn't the smartest thing to do. She certainly wouldn't have done so under normal circumstances. But this was such an isolated stretch of road and she'd kept her rental car in view the whole time. Except when she'd nose-dived over the side of the cliff, of course.
Good thing she didn't have her purse with her then. If she had, it might have gone the way of her cell phone. God knew where that was right now. One thing's for sure, she wasn't crawling back down the slope to look for it.
"I locked your car," the doc informed her when he returned with her purse and the keys. "I'll send someone back for it while you're being attended to."
He folded his muscular frame behind the wheel with practiced ease and keyed the Ferrari's ignition. It came to life with a well-mannered growl.
"I'll take you to the clinic in Positano. It's small but well equipped."
"How far is that?"
"Just there." He indicated the cluster of colorful buildings clinging to the side of the cliff. "The place you were photographing," he added on a dry note.
Sabrina was too preoccupied at the moment to respond. Navigating these narrow, twisting roads in the driver's seat was nerve-racking enough. Sitting in the passenger seat, with a perpendicular drop-off mere inches away, it was a life-altering experience.
Stiff-armed, she braced her palms against the edge of her seat. Her uninjured leg instinctively thumped the floorboards, searching for the nonexistent brake on every turn. She sucked air whenever the Ferrari took a curve but gradually, grudgingly, had to admit the doc handled his powerful machine with unerring skill. Which didn't explain why he'd seemed to aim right for her a while ago.
She must have startled him as much as he had her. Obviously, he hadn't expected to encounter a pedestrian on that narrow curve. He wouldn't encounter this one again, Sabrina vowed as the convertible hugged the asphalt on another switchback turn. She'd learned her lesson. No more excursions beyond the protection of the guardrails.
Dragging her attention from the sheer precipices, she pinned it on the driver. "Your name and accent are Italian, but your English has a touch of New York City in it."
"You have a good ear. I did a three-year neuro-surgical residency at Mount Sinai. I still consult there and fly over two or three times a year." He sent a swift glance in her direction. "Are you a New Yorker?"
"I was once," she got out, her uninjured foot stomping the floorboard again. "How about you keep your eyes on the road, Doc?"
She didn't draw a full breath until the road cut away from the cliffs and buildings began to spring up on her side of the car.
Positano turned out to be a small town but one that obviously catered to the tourist trade during the regular season. This late in the year, many of the shops and restaurants were shuttered. Those still open displayed windows filled with glazed pottery and bottles of the region's famous limoncello liqueur.
The town's main street led straight down to a round-domed church and a piazza overlooking the sea, then straight up again. Since it was only two days past Christmas, the piazza was still decorated with festive garlands. A life-size nativity scene held the place of honor outside the church. Sabrina caught a glimpse of colorful fishing boats pulled up on a slice of rocky beach just before the doc made a sharp left and pulled into a small courtyard.