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'Don't let me go!'
Tilly's voice rose to a shrill whisper as she grabbed Campbell Sanderson's neck and hung on for dear life. He was rock-solid and smelt reassuringly clean and masculine. And he was the only thing standing between her and the bottom of a cliff.
Typical. The closest she had been to a bloke for ages and she was too terrified to enjoy it.
Campbell reached up to prise her hands away. 'I've no intention of letting you go,' he said irritably. 'I'm going to hold the rope while you lower yourself down. It's perfectly simple. All you have to do is lean back and trust me.'
And how many women over the centuries have heard that line?' snapped Tilly, clamping her arms determinedly back in place the moment he released them. 'It's all very well for you to talk about trust, but you're not the one being asked to dangle over an abyss with only a thin rope between you and certain death!'
One thing was surecertain death was awaiting her twin brothers, who were responsible for getting her into this mess. She was going to kill them the moment she got off this sodding hillside.
If she ever got off this hillside.
Tilly risked a glance at Campbell. It was odd to be so close to a perfect stranger at all, let alone clasping him quite so fervently, and she examined him with a strange, detached part of her mind that was prepared to do anything other than think about abseiling down the sheer cliff face.
He had glacier-green eyes that were the coldest and most implacable she had ever seen, close-cropped hair and an expression of profound impatience. Of course, that might just be inspired by her, Tilly had to acknowledge, but she had a feeling it was habitual.He seemed the impatient type. Tilly was the last person to deny that appearances could be deceptive, but there was something about the austere angles of his face and the ruthless set of his mouth that made her think that here was a prime example of 'what you see is what you get'.
And what you got in the case of Campbell Sanderson was a very tough customer indeed.
'How can I trust you?' she demanded, without releasing her limpet-like grip. 'I don't know anything about you.'
Campbell sucked in an exasperated breath. 'I don't know you either,' he pointed out crisply. 'So why would I want to drop you down a cliff, especially with a television camera trained on me? Or hadn't you noticed they're filming you right now?'
'Of course I've noticed! Why do you think I'm whispering?'
Tilly's arms were aching with the effort of holding on to him. Her feet were braced just over the lip of the cliff, but she could feel gravity pulling her weight backwards.
And, let's face it, it was a substantial weight to be pulled. Why, oh, why hadn't she stuck to any of her diets? Tilly wondered wildly. This was a punishment to her for not subsisting on lettuce leaves for the past thirty years.
Campbell glanced at the distant cameras in disbelief. 'They're miles away! Of course they can' t hear you, but they can see you. They've got a socking great zoom on that camera and it's pointed straight at you so, for God's sake, pull yourself together!' he told her sharply. 'You're making yourself look ridiculous.'
And him by association.
'Better to be ridiculous than splattered all over the bottom of this cliff!'
A muscle was jumping in his cheek and his jaw looked suspiciously set. 'For a start, this is not a cliff,' he said with the kind of restraint that suggested that he was only hanging on to his temper with extreme difficulty. 'It's barely twenty feet to the bottom there and, as I keep telling you, you're not going to fall. You're on a secure rope, and you can let yourself down slowly. Even if you did lose control, I've got hold of the rope and I'd stop you dropping.'
'You might not be able to,' said Tilly, not at all convinced. 'That rope's awfully fine. I can't believe it'll hold my weight.'
'Of course it will,' he said impatiently. 'This rope could hold a hippopotamus.'
'Now, I wonder what made you think of a hippo,' Tilly said bitterly.
She wished Campbell hadn't mentioned the zoom on that camera. It was probably trained on her bottom right now. Unsure of quite what 'a day in the hills' involved, but fairly sure it would mean getting cold, she had squeezed herself into her old skiing salopettes, bought in a burst of enthusiasm soon after she had met Olivier and was at least two sizes smaller. Now her big red bottom would be filling the screen down there, and the television crew would all be having a good laugh.
Tilly had a dark suspicion that had been the idea all along.
'Who thought up this show in the first place?' she demanded, fear and humiliation giving her voice a treacherous wobble, but at least talking took her mind off the void beneath her.
'God knows,' said Campbell, thinking that a deep longing to be elsewhere was probably all that he and Tilly had in common.
'I bet they were sitting around in some bar or wherever television types congregate, and someone said, "Hey, I know, let's make a programme where we make fat people look absolutely ridiculous!"'
'If that were the case, all the contestants would be fat and, in fact, none of us are,' he pointed out impatiently.
' I am.'
'Not noticeably,' said Campbell, although now she came to mention it, the figure clutching him was definitely on the voluptuous side.
He had been too focused on the task in hand to notice at first, which was perhaps just as well. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed the situation. He was only human, after all, and he certainly wasn't going to object if a lush-bodied woman chose to press herself against him. Sadly, however many points Matilda Jenkins might score on the physical front, she was losing a lot more with all this carry-on about a simple abseil.
'Your theory is nonsense, in fact,' he told her. 'None of the other novices are the slightest bit overweight.'
Tilly thought back to the meeting that morning, where they had met their three rival pairs who had also made it through from the first round. Much as it might go against the grain, she had to admit that Campbell was right.
Leanne had a perfect figure, for instance. Tilly had noticed her straight away as a possible kindred spirit. She was the only other contestant wearing make-up and looked about as happy to be there as Tilly was. It turned out that Leanne was a beautician, blonde and very pretty, and, almost as much as her figure, Tilly had envied her partner, a gregarious outdoor sports instructor called Roger who had all the latest equipment and was friendly and reassuring. The opposite of Campbell, in fact.
Leanne definitely wasn't fat, and nor were the other two girls. Defying the usual stereotypes, one of them was a capable-looking outdoorsy type who had been teamed with a medieval art historian raising money for the restoration of some cathedral's stained glass, and even he was downright skinny.
'Well, perhaps they thought it was funny to make us all look ridiculous,' Tilly conceded grudgingly, reluctant to let go of her theory completely. She managed a mirthless laugh, no small achievement when you were teetering on the edge of a sheer dropand she didn't care what Campbell said about twenty feet, it felt like the side of the Grand Canyon to her. 'Ha, ha.'
'More than likely,' said Campbell tersely, 'but, since we've all agreed to take part, we're not in a position to complain about it now.'
Further along the rock face, he could see his three competitors preparing their partners for the abseil. There were three other beginners in Tilly's position, chosen for their complete lack of experience with anything remotely connected with outdoor activities, but they seemed to be getting on with what they had to do without any of the drama Matilda Jenkins seemed determined to wring from the situation.
He blew out a breath. There were better things to be doing on a bright, cold Saturday in the Highlands. A brisk wind was pushing the clouds past the sun, sending shadows scudding over the hills around them, and the air smelt of peat and heather. It would be a great day for a climb, or just to walk off the restlessness that had plagued him so often recently.
Instead of which, he had a hysterical woman on his hands. Campbell didn't care how lush her body was, how appealing her perfume. He would rather be behind enemy lines again than cope with a scene of the kind Matilda Jenkins was evidently all too capable of creating.
Why had he ever let Keith talk him into this? Good PR, indeed! How the hell could it be good PR for Manning's Chief Executive to be seen being strangled by a panicky woman at the top of a drop so short you could practically step down to the bottom?
And this was only the beginning, Campbell reminded himself darkly. He had to get the bloody woman down this rock face, across the hill, into the valley and across the river at the bottom before the others, or they wouldn't get through to the next round, and if they didn't do that, they wouldn't win the competition.
And Campbell Sanderson didn't do not winning.
Tempting as it was to just push her over the edge and lower her to the bottom, Campbell reluctantly discarded that option. He was prepared to bet that Jenkins had a scream that would be heard across the border in England. The noise would be appalling, and she had a surprisingly strong grip, too. He wouldn't put it past her to try and drag him back with her, and they would end up wrestling and making themselves look even more ridiculous than they did already.
No, he was going to have to talk her down.
Drawing a breath, Campbell forced patience into his voice.
'Come along, Jenkins, you're losing your grip here,' he told her. 'The way I see it, you've got two choices. You can let me pull you back on to the top here and admit defeat, sure, but are you really prepared to let down the charity you're doing this for in the first place? They're going to be pretty disappointed when you tell them that you bottled out because you were too chicken to do a simple abseil. They'll be counting on you winning lots of money for them. What is your charity, anyway?' he asked casually.
'The local hospice,' Tilly muttered. She wished he hadn't brought that up. Of course she ought to be thinking about the hospice and everything they had done for her mother, and for Jack. She set her teeth.
'Great cause,' he commented. 'There'll be lots of people rooting for you to do well, then.'
'Oh, yes, pile on the emotional blackmail, why don't you?' she said bitterly.
'I'm just telling it like it is,' said Campbell with a virtuous air. 'One option is to disappoint all those people, not to mention the television company who have set up this challenge. The other is to take your arms from round my neck, lean back against the tension of the rope and walk slowly backwards down the rock face. It'll be over in a minute, and you'll feel great once you've done it.'
Tilly doubted that very much. More than likely, she wouldn't be in a position to feel anything ever again.
'Isn't there another option?'
'We could spend the rest of our lives up here with our arms around each other, I suppose, but I don't imagine that's an option you want to consider.'
'Oh, I don't know ' said Tilly, playing for time.
The worrying thing was that it wasn't actually that unappealing an option. Obviously, she hardly knew him, and he did seem rather cross, but on the other hand there were worse fates than spending the rest of your life holding on to a body like Campbell Sanderson's. He might not be the friendliest or best-looking man she had ever met, but Tilly had to admit there was something about that cold-eyed, stern-mouthed, lean-jawed look.
If only he wasn't so determined to make her lean back over the void. Why couldn't he be intent on whisking her away for a fabulous weekend in Paris instead?
'Come on, Jenkins, make up your mind.' Impatience was creeping back into Campbell's voice. He glanced along to where the other contestants were almost at the bottom of the rock face. 'We haven't got all day here. It's time to stop messing around and just get on with it.'
Tilly sighed. Obviously he wasn't keen on the clinging together for eternity option. She couldn't really blame him. If Campbell Sanderson was going to spend the rest of his life with anyone, it certainly wouldn't be with a panicky, overweight cook.
'You'll be absolutely fine,' the production assistant had reassured her when breaking the news that her original partner had had to drop out. She'd lowered her voice confidentially. 'Campbell Sanderson is ex-special forces, I heard,' she'd whispered enviously. 'You couldn't be in better hands.'
Tilly looked at Campbell's hands on the rope. They were strong and square and very capable. The sort of hands that would ease the strap of a sexy nightdress off your shoulder with just the right amount offrisson-inducing brushing of warm fingers. The sort of hands that under any other circumstances it would be a real pleasure to find yourself between, in fact.
More importantly, the sort of hands that wouldn't drop or fumble with a rope when you were dangling on the end of it.
'Jenkins ' he said warningly, and Tilly dragged herself back to the matter in hand.
'All right, all right '
She was going to have to do it, Tilly realised. She had to do it for her mother and for everyone who needed the care she had had, but Tilly's stomach still turned sickeningly at the prospect.
Trust me, Campbell had said. She risked a glance into his face and saw him in extraordinary detail. The pale green eyes, the dark brows drawn together in a forbidding frown, that mouth clamped in an exasperated line Funny how she hadn't noticed him in the same way when they'd been introduced.
Then, he had simply struck her as taciturn. Now, he seemed cool, competent, unsmiling. She could just see him in a balaclava, parachuting behind the lines to blow up a few tanks before tea. He clearly wasn't the type to fool around. Unlike some males of her acquaintance, Campbell Sanderson wouldn't pretend to drop her for a lark, just so he could chortle at her squeals of terror. No, he would do exactly what he said he would do.
In return, all she had to do was lean back, walk down the cliff.
And trust him.
Tilly drew a breath. She was going to have to do something.
Very, very cautiously, she loosened her hold on Campbell's neck.