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It was hot. Forty degrees Celsius and it was only just after six in the morning. The dust was everywhere, swirling around like dirty talcum powder coating the inside of her mouth and settling on every inch of her exposed skin.
Tiggy swigged from the water in her bottle, which was already turning tepid in the heat, brushed a damp curl from her forehead and sighed. The shower she'd had ten minutes before had been a complete waste of time.
She bent her head against a sudden dust ball. Everything was the same dun colour: the tents; her uniform; the Jeepsthere were even dust-coloured tanks parked along the high walls surrounding the compound. Tiggy didn't know if that made her feel better or worse.
She must have been crazy to come. Although back in the UK they had been thoroughly briefed as to what to expectdown to practising what medical emergencies they might encounter in a mock-up of a building with soldiers acting the part of casualtiesnothing had really prepared her for the reality of living in a war zone. And nothing had prepared her for the sheer terror she felt.
Coming in to land last night on the Hercules, the pilot had dimmed the cabin lights in case they attracted enemy fire. When his words had come over the intercom, Tiggy had almost lost it.
Enemy fire? She hadn't signed up for that. She'd signed up to be looking after soldiers miles away from danger in a camp protected by soldiers.
She'd squeezed her eyes shut, not even able to force them open when she'd felt someone sit next to her. She had become aware of a faint scent of citrus.
'You can open your eyes, you know.' The laughter in his voice bugged her.
She'd opened one eye and squinted. In the dim light of the cabin all she had been able to make out had been a powerful frame in uniform and the flash of even, white teeth.
Whoever it was had been studying her frankly in return.
'For all you know, I'm having a nap,' she'd said through clenched teeth.
'I've never seen anyone nap while holding on to their seat so tight their knuckles were white.'
'God!' She gave up all pretence. 'What if they hit the plane? I'm scared to death of flying as it is.'
'Hey, relax. It will be okay. The pilots have done it scores of times and no one has shot them down yet. They just say what they do to make all the newbies cra Apologies, ma'am. To scare the newbies.'
She hadn't been sure she'd entirely believed him, but she had felt a little better.
'How much longer until we're on the ground?'
'Another twenty minutes or so.'
'Twenty bloody minutes!' she groaned.
'Why don't you tell me all about yourself? It'll help distract you.' He held out a hand. 'I'm Nick, one of the army doctors. You?'
'Tiggy. Casualty nurse.'
'Then we'll be working together,' he said with a sideways grin. 'You with anyone? Married? Engaged?'
This was not exactly the sort of route Tiggy wanted to go down. Men didn't exactly queue up at her door. Might have been something to do with the fact that her brothers appeared to think it was their duty to guard her honour as if she were some early-twentieth-century maiden, or it mightand this was more likelyhave to do with the fact that she wasn't particularly pretty or vivacious. 'No. You?'
'God, no!' He laughed.
The sound of sniggering came from the seats behind them.
'Major Casey married?' A soldier leant over the top of her seat. 'You have got to be kidding. The major barely stays with a woman long enough to'
'That's enough, Corporal.' The words were quietly spoken but stopped the soldier from finishing his sentence.
Stay with a woman long enough to what?
The plane lurched to the right and Tiggy yelped.
'You have a strong grip for such a little thing,' Nick drawled.
She hadn't realised that she'd grabbed his hand, but when she tried to pull away he curled his fingers around hers.
It was easier to leave her hand where it was. Especially when it felt so reassuringor would have if it weren't for the millions of little sparks, enough to ignite the whole plane, shooting up the side of her arm.
Adrenaline made you over-sensitive, didn't it?
'So, tell me, what made you come out here?' Nick asked.
Anyone would have thought they were on a day trip to the seaside.
'Brothers. One in Engineers, the other an Apache pilot. Thought I'd better come and check up on them.'
'I'm surprised they let you come out.'
'Let me? You mean you think I should have asked their permission?' Actually, if they had known she was planning to head out after them to a war zone, she had no doubt they would have stopped herforcibly if necessary.
They might all be adults now, but her two brothers continued to protect their little sister as they had all their lives. Although they liked to spoil her, there were disadvantages to having older brothers.
'If I had a sister I wouldn't let her come out here,' Nick continued. 'No way. Women have no place in a war.'
Even if that was almost exactly what her family thought, Tiggy wasn't prepared to let it pass. 'Oh, for goodness' sake! This is the twenty-first century.'
'Doesn't matter. Women should be safe.'
'Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen? Please!' She had only just got started on putting him right when the plane lurched once more. She yelped again.
The I-told-you-so look he gave her was enough to make her decide that even if the plane went into a spiral she'd rather die than let him hear her scream.
Die? God, don't let her mind go there.
She took a deep breath. 'Just because I'm a little frightened of flying, it doesn't mean I shouldn't have come here.' She lifted her chin and stared at him. 'I'll be fine once we're on the ground.' At least her voice sounded reasonably steady.
He laughed. 'Good on you. Now, why don't you tell me about those brothers of yours?'
When the plane touched down with a skipping bounce, Tiggy was surprised. Despite her terror, the last twenty minutes or so had flown past. She realised that she'd told Nick about her brothers, her parents, every place her father had been posted and even the family's pet dog, Hannibal.
God, she'd been babbling so much Nick knew almost everything about her life. On the other hand, she knew nothing about him. Probably because she hadn't let him get a word in edgeways.
Her companion returned her handshe hadn't even realised she was still holding onto itand eased out of his seat.
He touched his cap in a mock salute. 'See you around, Lieutenant.'
Tired and disoriented, Tiggy had only a vague recollection of being shown to her quarters by a friendly nurse in army uniform who had greeted her sleepily, shown her to her bunk and then, with a yawn, excused herself with a 'Catch you at breakfast'.
Even if the bed had been comfortable, Tiggy doubted she would have slept anyway. The adrenaline that was still making her heart hammer would have kept her awake even if she'd had a feather mattress to sleep on. And as for the heat! She couldn't remember being as hot during the day as she had been last night. Plus she was sure her foot had been chomped to bits by some horrible insect through the night.
How the hell was she going to manage six weeks of this? She'd have to. She doubted if the British Army would put on a special plane to fly her back out.
She straightened the collar of her uniform and took a deep breath. Courage, girl, she told herself. You can do this.
The mess tent was a hive of activity and noise as soldiers and medics helped themselves to breakfast. Tiggy looked around, unsure of what the correct protocol was. She didn't want to make more of an idiot of herself than she'd done on the flight. She tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. She had never felt so lonely, or so out of her depth.
A familiar smell drifted on the air. Coffee! That would make it better. She'd never be able to force solid food down her constricted throat but she'd kill for a cup of coffee. Wrong choice of words. She felt the tension in her limbs ease as a bubble of nervous laughter rose to the surface.
Someone came from behind and touched her on the elbow, and Tiggy jumped.
'You look lost.' It was Sue, the nurse from last night who'd showed her to her accommodation. Sue lowered her voice 'And absolutely terrified. Don't worry, we all felt the same way when we first arrived. In a day or two everything will seem as familiar as the good old NHS.'
Tiggy managed a smile. 'I doubt that.'
'You'll see, I'm never wrong.' Sue pressed a mug of coffee into her hands. 'Get that down you. You'll feel better. If you want breakfast, help yourself from over there.' She nodded in the direction of a counter where cheerful men in army fatigues were piling plates high with what looked like a full English breakfast. 'But I'd stay away from the scrambled eggs. They're powdered. Yuck.'
Tiggy shook her head. 'I think I'll give breakfast a miss, thanks all the same.'
Sue smiled. 'Can't say I blame you. But you'll get used to the food in the same way you'll get used to everything else. Finish your coffee and I'll take you across to the hospital and show you around. We've fifteen minutes before rounds.'
Tiggy took a grateful swig of coffee and almost spat it out. It was the worst she had ever tasted. And if Sue thought the eggs were bad She gave herself a mental shake. Where was her usual optimism? Okay, the food might be rubbish, but she was always meaning to go on a dietso what better way to give it a kick start? And if the coffee was hot, she would get used to that too.
Her mood improved further when she saw the hospital. Divided into separate sections, it had two well-equipped theatres, a resus area as well as a couple of wards and three intensive-care beds.
Looking at the facilities, she felt reassured. She could almost forget she was in the desert on the edge of a war zoneuntil the low rumble of an explosion made the building shudder. When no one else even flinched, she forced herself to concentrate on what Sue was saying
'You'll have been briefed before you came out, but it's different once you actually come here. I'm a full-time army nurse and this is my third tour. Don't worry, we're perfectly safe here. The hospital has never come under attack and even if it did, we're well protected. We nurses all take turns working between Resus, ITU and the wards. Your background is casualty, if I'm not mistaken?'
Tiggy nodded. 'Eight years in a busy city-centre A and E. I've seen most things.'
Sue smiled wryly. 'But not, I'm afraid, anything like you'll see here. And it's not just the soldiers, we get civilians too. Anyone who needs us, we patch 'em up before sending them on. The soldiers go to a military hospital in Germany or the UK; civilians we transfer to their local hospital.'
Tiggy's head was beginning to reel. Not for the first time, she wondered if she'd cope. What if one of her brothers was brought in? But then, that was why she was here. Even if, pray God, they didn't get injured, she would be able to help someone else's brother.
Sue paused in front of an open door. Inside, a group of men and women sat around joking and drinking tea and coffee.
'That's the team,' Sue said, 'a mixture of lifers, like me, and volunteers.'
Tiggy's eyes were immediately drawn to a man sitting in the centre of the group. Nick. He was laughing at something someone had said. Then he looked up and caught her eye. He pursed his lips in a soundless whistle and let his eyes roam over her body before dropping one eyelid in a wink. Whether it was the weather or something else, Tiggy felt heat race across her skin. In the dim light of the descending plane last night, she hadn't noticed just how gorgeous he was with his toffee-coloured eyes, weatherbeaten face and high sharp cheekbones.
There was something about him that was sending warning signals to Tiggy's overheated brain. Danger and excitement radiated from himalong with a casual self-assurance, as if he was used to women gawping at him and almost expected it.
She tore her eyes away. Men like him were so out of her league. And even if he wasn't, he wasn't her type. When she fell in love it would be with a decent, steady, one-hundred-per-cent monogamous man. The only type who asked her out. Not that she had managed to fall for one of those, come to think of it.
Sue tapped her on the arm and grinned at her. 'Major Nick Caseyour very own playboy doctor.' She dropped her voice. 'Let me give you a word of warning. He eats woman like you for breakfast. If you want to survive with your heart intact, keep away from him. Trust me.' Her lips twitched. 'I've known Nick for a while and picked up the pieces of his conquests' broken hearts too often to count.' Sue's grin widened. 'Thankfully I'm married and immune to his charms.'
Nick stood and held out a chair, indicating with a tilt of his head that Tiggy should take it. Acutely conscious of his eyes on her, every step of the dozen or so required felt like a mile.
'Everyone, this is our latest, crazy volunteer, Lieutenant Tiggy Williamsotherwise known as Casualty Nurse Extraordinaire,' Sue introduced her with a flourish.
Tiggy knew she would no more get used to being called 'Lieutenant' than she would get used to the army revolver she had in her possession. It was beyond her why they had issued her with one. There wasn't the remotest chance of her ever firing it. She was more likely to shoot herself in the foot.
'Good to have you with us.' Nick grinned at her. His accent, like Sue's, was an unusual mixture of Irish and Scottish.
Her heart did a crazy pirouette and it took all her willpower not to whimper. She managed a cool smileat least, she hoped it was a cool smile and not a grimacein his direction before turning to hear the names of the folk with whom she'd be working closely over the coming months.
Apart from the surgeons, there were nurses, radiographers, physios and several other professionals all involved in making sure casualties had access to the best care. The names were too many for Tiggy to remember, but she felt reassured by the warmth of her colleagues' welcome.
'If you need anything, let us know,' an older nurse called Pat said. 'There's hardly any of us women so we have to stick together. Don't mind this lot, I keep them in order.'
Nick detached himself from the desk he'd been leaning on and loped towards Tiggy. Everyone was too busy catching up with one another to notice him bending his head and whispering in her ear.
'You recovered from the flight to hell yet?' His warm breath fanned her neck causing goose-bumps to spring up alarmingly all over her body. She much preferred it when he was way over on the other side of the room.
'Good. You may have to go out in the 'copter sometimes, though, on a retrieval. You do know that?'
Although Tiggy had heard it might be a possibility that she'd be asked to accompany the medical emergency response team, she hoped to hell it wouldn't happen. If last night's flight had been scary, how much worse would it be going into an actual hot zone? She lifted her chin. 'If I'm needed, of course I'll go. I'm here to do my bit, the same as everyone else.'
'Good girl.' He straightened and once again Tiggy was aware of his eyes sweeping over her body.
'Hey, do you play poker?' one of the male nurses asked. 'I need someone new to take some money from. With the exception of Nick here, no one else will play with me any more.'