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Face the fear.
Sydney faced the fear every single day of her life. Every day she made life-or-death decisions. Abseiling down the tower of the London Victoria hospital, to raise funds for specialist equipment for the emergency department, should be a breeze. She had a sheet full of sponsor signatures, with a large amount of money at stake. There was no question that she wouldn't do it. How could she possibly back out now?
But then she looked down. Over the edge. There was a white stone cornice and then nothing.
For two hundred and fifty feet.
Back in the department, two months ago, this had seemed like a brilliant idea. Right here and now, she knew it was the most stupid, ridiculous thing she'd ever done. She sneaked another look at the edge, hoping that her fairy godmother was passing with some sparkly dust and the drop would look a bit less scary.
And there was no way that she could make herself walk backwards over the edge. OK, so she had a harness on, and a hard hat. The ropes were belayed, or whatever the technical term was, and the experts weren't going to let her fall. She knew that. All she had to do was go backwards over the edge and walk down the building.
But she still couldn't move her feet.
'It's OK, Sydney. You can do it. Just one tiny step back.'
One tiny step backwards. Over the edge. She couldn't even reply to the man who'd just spoken to her: the instructor who'd explained carefully to her just what she had to do to get off the top of the tower and go all the way down to the bottom. Her brain was refusing to process his name. Refusing to do anything.
She couldn't step back. Couldn't step forwards, either, and let the team down.
Why, why, why had she agreed to be the first person down? Whatever had possessed her? Why had she thought it would boost her confidence in herself? She must've been mad. No way could she do this. She was stuck.
Then another man joined the instructor at the edge. 'Hi.'
She'd never seen him before. The part of her mind that wasn't completely frozen in fear thought how gorgeous he was, with eyes colour of melted chocolate, dark hair, and an olive complexion. He reminded her a bit of an actor she had a huge crush on and her friends in the department were always teasing her about.
And his voice was even more gorgeous than his face: just the hint of an accent, incredibly sexy.
He'd introduced himself to her. Now she was supposed to speak. But, just like her feet, her mouth was frozen and it wasn't going to let any proper words out.
'You're Sydney, yes?' 'Uh.'
Clearly he took the little squeak of fear as meaning yes. 'OK. What we're going to do now is sing together, Sydney.'
What? How on earth was singing going to help her frozen feet move?
'How about Tom Petty's "Free Falling"?' he suggested.
Not funny. So not funny. And just what any of her colleagues would've suggested. Clearly climbing people shared the same kind of dark humour as medics. Falling. Uh. She gave him a look of pure loathing.
He grinned. 'At least you're not doing this face down, tesoro. That's a bonus. And singing's going to take your mind off it and help you down, I promise.'
He sounded a lot more confident than she felt.
'If I start, will you join in?'
She managed a nod, and in return got a full-wattage smile. If her knees hadn't been frozen, they would definitely have gone weak.
'That's great, tesoro. You're going to sing with me. And you're going to keep your right hand behind your back, holding the static line, and just take one tiny step back. You'll feel yourself go down a little bit, but don't worry, that's fineit's just the tension in the ropes letting you move. The line's going to take your weight. And then you move your right hand out to your side, and it'll give you the slack to start walking down. If you need to stop, just move your hand behind your back again. Got it?'
She nodded again.
'Excellent. Do you know the song "Walking on Sunshine"?'
She could almost hear it in her head, infectious and upbeat, a real summer anthem. Another nod.
He smiled and began singing. To her amazement, he even hummed the intro, mimicking the tune of the brass sectionand then she found herselfjoining in.
They got to the first chorus. 'One step back,' he encouraged during the bit where he was meant to sing the 'woh-ohs'.
Somehow she did it. Took a step backwards. Everything lurched, but then it was stable again. And he was still singing. Still keeping her company. Still with her.
She could do this.
Her voice sounded thready, but she was singing back. And she was walking. Not on sunshine, but against brick.
How she actually got down the building was a blur, but at last she was at the bottom. Her legs were shaking, so were her hands, and she could barely unclip the harness and move out of the way so the next person could abseil down the building and land safely.
'So are you going next?' the instructor asked.
'Me?' It had been a while since Marco had abseiled. But a building in the middle of London was going to be a lot safer than the last abseil he'd done at home, down the cliffs in Capri. Apart from anything else, they didn't have to worry about the tide coming in and causing problems with landing.
He glanced at his watch. Well, it'd be almost as quick as taking the lift. And nobody was going to notice any creases in his suit caused by the abseil harness once they were in the thick of things in the emergency department. 'I'm not on your list,' he warned, 'so it's going to put you off schedule.'
'Not as far off as we would've been if you hadn't talked Sydney down,' the instructor pointed out. 'So are you next?'
He wasn't technically part of the department for another half an hour, and he didn't have a sponsor form; but that wasn't a problem. He'd sponsor himself for the same amount as any of the other registrars had raised. He grinned. 'Yeah, I'm next. Thanks.'
It didn't take long to buckle on the harness. And going over the edge, he felt the whole adrenalin rush as he stepped backwards into nothing . It was the first time he'd really felt alive since Sienna's death.
By the time he reached the bottom of the tower, the rush had filled his entire body.
And the first person he saw when his feet touched the ground was Sydney. The woman he'd talked over the edge. The woman who'd been full of fear, and still looked slightly dazed.
He unbuckled the harness. 'Hey. Are you OK?' he asked softly.
OK? No. Sydney was still shaking all over. 'Yes,' she lied.
Then she made the mistake of looking up. It was him. Mr Gorgeous from the top of the tower. He'd just done exactly what she'd done, and he wasn't a nervous mess. He wasn't even breaking a sweat.
Get a grip, she told herself, and took a deep breath. 'Thanks for talkingwell, singingme down.'
'No problem.' He looked concerned. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
'I have to beI'm on duty in a few minutes.' And she would be OK. She never let anything get in the way of work.
He touched her face gently with the backs of his fingers. 'I take it this was your first time?'
She nodded. 'And last. Next time one of our consultants gets a bright idea, I'm paying up and bailing out.'
He smiled. 'The adrenalin rush hasn't kicked in yet, then.'
'Look up,' he said softly.
She did, and saw someone slowly walking backwards over the top of the tower. 'You just did that,' he said.
'And I was stuck. Scared witless. I froze up there.' She shook her head. 'I didn't think I was scared of heights or anything like that. I've never frozen like that before.' Not even when she'd had the MRI scan and they'd told her the bad news. She'd managed to find a bright side. Up there had been simply terrifying.
'But you still did it. Which makes you amazing, in my book.'
'Amazing?' It had been a long, long while since someone had called her amazing.
'Amazing,' he confirmed. 'People like me, who do this for funwe're not brave. The ones with real courage are people who do it even when they're scared, because they're doing it to make a difference. People like you.'
Sydney wasn't sure which one of them moved first, but then his hands were cupping her face and his mouth was brushing lightly against hers. Warm and sweet and promisingand then suddenly it spiralled into something completely different. Something hot and sensual and mind-blowing.
Or maybe that was what he'd meant by 'adrenalin rush'.
When he broke the kiss, she was still shakingbut this time for a different reason. She couldn't remember the last time someone had made her feel like this. And that in itself was incredibly scary.
'Now your eyes are sparkling,' he said softly.
'That's the adrenalin rush,' she said swiftly, not wanting him to think that it was his effect on her.
'Yeah.' He laughed. 'Well. Good to meet you, Sydney. And although I'd love to stay a bit longer and talk, I'd better go, because I'm starting my new job in less than twenty minutes.'
New job? It had to be at the hospital, or he wouldn't have been up the London Victoria's tower in the first place.
'Nice to meet you, too. Good luck with your first shift. Which department are you working in?' she asked.
'Me, too.' It suddenly clicked. Marco. She'd been too frozen with fear to take it in before. 'You're Dr Ranieri, our new registrar?' The guy on secondment from Rome.
He inclined his head. 'Though I prefer first name terms.'
'Sydney Collins. And I'm a much better doctor than I am an abseiler. Pleased to meet youproperly, this time.' She held her hand out for him to shake.
Clearly she was still wobbly from the abseiling, because her knees went weak again at the touch of his skin against hers and the memory of that kiss made her skin burn.
'So how long have you worked here?' he asked.
'Five yearssince I qualified and did my two years' pre-reg training. It's a really nice department to work in. Everyone's great. Except possibly Max Fenton, who suggested we did this abseil in the first place.' She pulled a face. 'I think I've gone off him.'
Marco laughed. 'No, you haven't. He's a nice guy.'
'His wife's nice, tooMarina. Have you met her yet? She's Italian, too. She's working part time at the moment, and then she's off on maternity leave again in a couple of months.' She paused. 'So you've done a lot of climbing and abseiling?'
He shrugged. 'What can I say? I went through a phase of doing extreme sports.'
'You did that sort of thing for pleasure? Are you insane?' She shuddered. 'I'm going to have nightmares tonight.'
He just laughed, and Sydney looked at him. He really did have lovely eyes. And a beautiful mouth. Not that she should be thinking about that kiss. It hadn't meant anything; it had just been adrenalin whizzing through her system. She wasn't in the market for a relationship. Not any more. 'Do you sing many people down like that?'
'Not on an abseil, noit's usually to distract little ones in the department, because it stops them being scared.'
'Fair point.' It was a technique she used, too. 'Though I normally get them to sing "Old Macdonald Had a Farm" or something like that.'
He laughed again. 'Ah, the song choice. I picked that one because it's a happy song. It always makes me think of driving with the roof down on a summer day.'
Sydney looked at him and took in the quality of his clothes. It was a fair bet that he owned an open-topped sports car. Gorgeous to look at, a nice guy, and beautifully dressed: he was going to have women sighing over him everywhere he walked.
Though not her. She didn't sigh over men, any more. She'd learned the hard way that it wasn't worth the effort: the only person she could really rely on was herself.
'I take it you're meeting Ellen now?' On his first day, of course he'd be meeting the head of the department. At his nod, she said, 'I can show you to her office, if you like.'
'Thanks, that'd be good.'