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The sound of more than one person shouting got steadily louder as Nico Moretti turned into the narrow Venetian alleyway that would get him to his destination a little faster.
He tried to ignore the sound. He was in a hurry and it wasn't as if the sound of shouting was anything unusual for a large Italian city but he could feel his frown deepening. It was a disturbing echo of what was already occupying too much of his head.
The noise was loud enough to have people stopping in the street now. Turning their heads and asking each other what they thought it might be about. The slowing pace and knots of people forming made it harder to move forward and Nico heard a growl of frustration escape his own throat.
He could tell them what it was about if he had either the time or the inclination. It was about people who wanted different things. People who were passionate about what they believed in. People who weren't prepared to even try and understand each other and left broken lives in their wakes. But he didn't have the inclination. Not when he felt so out of place in this city of his birth and with the sound of his childhood language surrounding him and reinforcing that exclusion. And he certainly didn't have the time. Not when the real reason for his return to Venice was due to start in less than thirty minutes.
At least he had the advantage of his height. And plenty of practice in cutting through obstructions to get to the heart of an emergency. All he needed to do was take on the mantle of an expert consultant en route to an urgent call in an emergency department or at an accident scene.
'Scusi.' The word was a command, not a request, and, as always, it had the desired effect. A path appeared through the gathering crowd. Those closest to him actually stopped talking to stare at him but that only made the sound of whatever was happening ahead clearer.
Whatever it was about, it wasn't simply a misunderstanding or disagreement. There was a language barrier as well. He could hear English being spoken by a forceful, female voice.
'Stand back. Don't move him yet. Call an ambulance. Ambulanza'
More shouting. In Italian. Had someone called an ambulance? Where was it? Why wasn't it here yet? They were right beside the Grand Canal, for heaven's sake. Practically a highway in Venice. Where were the police? Where was a doctor when you needed one?'
'Si.' The English woman had understood something in the furore. 'Dottoressa. I'm a doctor. Let me get close. I have to find out if he's breathing.'
'He's not,' someone close to Nico muttered. 'He's dead. He has to be, falling off the roof like that. He must have broken his sorry neck. Who does that English woman think she is? An angel who can work some kind of miracle?'
'It's almost Christmas,' a black-clad Italian grandmother said sagely. 'A good time for a miracle to happen.'
'Scusi.' Nico schooled himself not to show any personal frustration as he recognised the inevitability of what he had to do. He raised his voice and spoke in Italian. 'I'm a doctor. Let me through. What's going on?'
Charlotte Highton heard the commanding male voice that overrode the almost hysterical barrage of Italian around her. She could also hear the faint sound of a siren. Please, God, she breathed. Let that be an ambulance.
Getting caught up in an accident scene had been the last thing she'd needed after getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, trying to take a shortcut to her destination near St Mark's Square, but what could she have done? She'd seen the man fall from the scaffolding. More than that. She'd been caught by the way he had been doubled over and clutching at his chest seconds before he'd fallen. There was no chance of him surviving any injuries the fall might have caused if he'd already been in cardiac arrest before it had happened.
But they wouldn't let her near and precious seconds were being lost. One of the man's workmates was probably the first-aid officer for the building company and he'd decided that the fall had caused a spinal injury. He was holding the victim's head still and shouting at anybody who so much as bumped the unconscious body.
Now he was shouting in response to a query from the newcomer, who Charlotte couldn't see because other people were also trying to tell him the story and some were gesticulating madlypointing to the roof of the house and circling their arms in the air to represent the fall. For a crazy moment Charlotte almost smiled.
Here she was in this beautiful, ancient city with the water of a canal lapping almost at her feet. Surrounded by the sounds of a language she loved but had never had the time to learn. Caught by the passionate involvement of people who were, for the most part, probably complete strangers to the unfortunate man who had fallen. This would never happen in England. It was so Italian.
Then a single, curt word from the newcomer and everybody fell silent. And shifted enough to make an opening. The man who stepped in to fill the gap was as Italian as everything else. Tall and dark. Strong featured and exuding a masculinity that was supremely confident. Such a stereotype that, for another crazy moment, Charlotte was sure she'd met him before.
Or maybe she just recognised that kind of confidence. It didn't come from any awareness of his effect on women. This kind of quiet power came from being in a situation where he knew exactly what needed to be done.
'You're a doctor?'
'And you speak English?'
'Yes. I'm a specialist in emergency neurology.' He was bending over the unconscious man now. 'Did you see the fall? Has he been moved at all?'
'Yes, I saw the fall.' Charlotte was right behind the man and she was reaching for the victim's neck. The newcomer caught her wrist in a grip that was as powerful as everything else about this man. His confidence. His voice. The eyes that were locked on hers right now.
'What do you think you're doing?'
'I saw him fall.' Charlotte spoke the way she would to anyone who was preventing her doing her job. Or some unfortunate junior doctor who was getting the basics dangerously wrong. 'I saw him before he fell. He clearly had severe chest pain. He didn't trip.
He collapsed. I need to see whether he's got a pulse.'
For a stunned heartbeat the dark eyes continued to hold hers. Charlotte could see how swift his comprehension was. She actually felt the moment when he stepped back from confronting her action and they became a team. He let go of her wrist.
Rapid instructions in Italian followed. The Italian specialist took over holding the man's head and guided a log roll that had the patient on his back with his airway opened in an admirably short space of time. The nearby siren was getting louder but it wasn't yet close enough. Charlotte was crouched with her cheek against the patient's mouth, one hand on his neck with her fingers searching for a pulse and the other resting gently on his diaphragm seeking the movement that would indicate breathing.
'Nothing,' she snapped. She wasn't exactly dressed for performing CPR. She had to hoist up her slim-fitting skirt so that she could kneel on the rough cobblestones of the alleyway. Her equally neat-fitting blouse beneath the skirt's matching blazer hadn't been designed for vigorous movement either. Charlotte felt a seam ripping within the first seconds of pushing her body weight down hard enough to depress the chest of the large man.
Her unexpected medical colleague was still communicating in Italian to those around him. Explaining what was going on perhaps. And then he was showing the person who'd been guarding his patient so effectively from Charlotte how to support the man's cervical spine but do a jaw thrust at the same time.
As she stayed in position, with her body weight directly over her straight arms, Charlotte could look sideways. She saw the way he demonstrated the required position, with his large hands splayed, the palms pushing against the angle of the man's jaw and his thumbs resting on his cheeks. She knew the pressure required to keep that kind of hold and yet he made it look like he was being gentle with the critically ill patient.
And then he let the first-aider take over the hold and shifted so that he was kneeling right beside Charlotte. The shafts of pain from the movement of her knees on the cobblestones seemed to fade as his body lined up so close beside hers their arms were touching.
That eye contact was extraordinary. Reassuring and encouraging at the same time. The almost invisible movement of his head told Charlotte that he was in sync with what she was doing. That he was ready for her to pause so that he could deliver a breath. With an equally subtle nod, Charlotte began counting aloud. She had no idea how many compressions she'd done already but it was standard international protocol to deliver two breaths for every thirty compressions and a lead-in was given so that minimum pumping time was lost.
'Twenty-eight, twenty-nine thirty.' Charlotte raised her hands and sat back on her heels as her CPR partner bent down, pinching the man's nose and covering his mouth with his own. She watched the man's chest rise and fall. Twice. And then she was back in position and the compressions continued smoothly.
Wow. Not only could this guy get air into someone without disturbing the protected position of a C spine, he was prepared to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a stranger. A risk very few medical people would be prepared to take these days. And compressions were deemed the more important component of CPR now. If an ambulance was on its way and the compressions were effective, you had a window of ten minutes or so before the lack of extra oxygen would cause irreversible brain damage.
Charlotte was impressed. She was also sweating despite the deep chill of Venice in December, and her knees felt as if someone had attacked them with a baseball bat. She'd never been more grateful to hear the sound of a siren so close. Looking up, as she paused to let another two breaths be delivered, she was astonished to see that it was a jet boat, arriving on the canal, complete with flashing beacons and a uniformed paramedic, with a defibrilla-tor in his hand, waiting to jump ashore.
She knew better than to stop what she was doing and wait for these emergency medics to take over the scene. Automatically, she rocked forward, her hands back in position on the centre of the man's chest with one flat and the other locked around the wrist to give her extra strength as she pushed down and began the count that would remain silent until the warning of breaths needed.
One two three
Nico could hear the shouts of the paramedics arriving and securing the ambulance.
Thank goodness! The discomfort of kneeling on cold, hard cobbles to perform CPR was truly unbearable.
Not that the English woman was showing any signs of discomfort. Nico had been watching her, waiting for the signal to deliver another couple of breaths but also because she was so so in control. So very British.
She had that English peaches and cream type of complexion and the kind of reserve that always felt so foreign to Nico, but he had spent so many years away from Italy it was very familiar. So familiar, in fact, that he could imagine he'd met this woman before. He'd certainly met the type.
Virtually the exact opposite of the type of women he preferred.
It was perhaps unfortunate that he'd inherited his father's taste in women. He liked them small and dark, curvy and vivacious. With an appetite for life and fun that could negate any tendency to take life too seriously out of working hours. But as long as he didn't make his father's mistake of marrying a woman like this, he wouldn't end up abandoned and broken-hearted when someone on another continent offered something more exciting. Like when his father's beloved Irish wife had simply taken their only child and made off for greener pastures.
Nico shook off the thought. Normally, snippets of family history would never distract him from a situation like this but his mind had been full of it until the moment he'd intervened in this rescue scene. Even now, he was aware of the small object in his pocket that the solicitor had insisted he take with him. It should be small enough to dismiss out of hand but unfortunately it carried a significance that could never be dismissed.
He had to push it firmly to one side right now, however. After a second glance to reassure himself that the paramedics were coming in the right direction, Nico took another look at the woman who hadn't missed a beat in performing the chest compressions.
Strands of her blonde hair had worked themselves loose thanks to her current physical exertion but the rest of it was still tightly bound into an intricate kind of knot that removed the feminine allure of long tresses. She had grey eyes that could have looked attractively smoky but she was so focused on the clinical aspects of this situation that they were devoid of an identifiable emotion.
Even now, as the paramedics set up the defibrillator and prepared to take over the management of this patient, he couldn't detect any sign of relief or distress, perhaps, that she'd been caught up in this traumatic event. She was watching what the paramedics were doing with hawk-like intensity. She might not speak Italian but Nico had the distinct impression that she wouldn't hesitate to correct these medics if she felt things were not being done to an expected standard.
He filled them in as they attached the patches to the man's chest. He provided the cervical spine support as preparations were made to secure the airway and the first shock was delivered, but then a second crew arrived, along with the police, and Nico found himself stepping back and merely watching, along with the crowd of people the police couldn't manage to disperse.