Until they meet again in Venice one carnivalnightnot as Luca and Nell, but as twomasked strangers in the grip of pure,irresistible attraction, untainted by the past .
But what happens when the masks come off?
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Nell Foster's shout brought the people strolling along the narrow street to an abrupt halt. The scene froze in a distorted snapshot. On the cobbled calle above the canal a tall, dark man was holding a limp blonde child in his arms. From the gondola swaying gracefully below him, a young mother thrust out her arms in alarm.
"What the hell do you think you're doing with my daugh- ter?" On the pretext of helping her to disembark the gondo- lier had passed Molly to a stranger!
Nell's voice sounded shrill in the oppressive silence of the ancient backwater, and shock made her actions disjointed as she hurried to disembark. She stumbled on the treacherous moss-coated steps, forcing the man holding Molly to lurch out and save her. She shook him off angrily. Molly was like a rag doll in his arms, the soft breeze feathering fronds of baby hair around her face.
"Give her to me now!' People stared. Nell didn't care. She had one goal in mind, and that was Molly. While they had been travelling along the canal at a snail's pace with no means of escape Molly had fallen asleep so heavily Nell hadn't been able to wake her. It was an unnatural sleep that terrified Nell. And now this man had taken Molly from her. 'No."The deep, faintly accented voice was brusque and un- compromising.
He was refusing? Nell looked for support, but there was something so commanding in the man's manner that, rather than attempting to help her, people were already starting to move away.
Used to wielding authority, she guessed, he was in his mid to late twenties and expensively though casually dressed. He was groomed in a way only the rich had time forpressed trousers, crisp shirt, and with a lightweight sweater slung around his shoulders that she would have needed superglue at the very least to keep in place. He made her feel shabby, frightened and very angry.
"Stand out of my light." Dipping his head to look her in the eyes, he rapped the words at her.
"Give my daughter back to me!' Nell met and held his gaze. She had no intention of moving one inch. What, and leave Molly in the arms of some man she didn't know?
"Don't," he warned, stepping back when she tried to take Molly from him.
"Don't? What do you mean, don't? That's my daughter you're holding."
Dazzling black-gold eyes equally full of determination locked with Nell's.
"You've had a shock. you're unsteady on your feet. If you fall into the canal, who will rescue you?" He glanced at Molly lying insensible in his arms, turning the question into a rebuke.
A few locks of inky black hair had fallen into his eyes as he spokethe only part of him that had resisted perfection. Nell resented absorbing that much about him. "We need help. Can't you see?" She fumbled for her phone while the sun beat down on her shoulders, making it impossible to breathe. The man holding Molly seemed to exist in a bubble of air-conditioning. "you're overwrought," he said coldly.
Overwrought? 'Are you surprised?" She watched with mounting anger as he pulled out a phone and flipped it open. It seemed like another tactic to avoid giving Molly back to her. "Who are you calling?"
He paused with the mobile halfway to his ear. "An ambu- lance."
"An ambulance?" Nell's mouth dried. Briefly, her mind re- fused to accept the possibility of an ambulance coming down the canal. But she knew there had to be some means by which emergency cases could be transported to hospital in Venice.
Emergency cases? Molly was only eighteen months old! She'd never had a day's illness in her life.
Nell stared at the man more intently. "Who are you?" she demanded.
He pressed his lips together and shook his head as he lis- tened to the voice at the other end of the phone line.
Nell gazed at Molly lying in his arms. She was almost frightened to touch her own daughter. Molly looked so frail, as if all the life had leached out of her.
The man started speaking rapidly in Italian. Nell had found the language an interesting challenge earlier, but now it was just a hostile barrier she couldn't cross. Her heart jerked as his phone snapped shut. Why didn't he say something? Couldn't he see she was desperate for information? But all his attention was focused on Molly. His brow was furrowed and she could see he was worried. It endorsed her own fears. Why wouldn't Molly wake up? No one slept like this unless there was something seriously wrong.
When he moved she followed him into the shade. "Will the ambulance be long?"
"So, do you know what's wrong?" She ran a hand through her hair. Why should she assume he knew anything? But she was desperate. She didn't know what was happening, she didn't know himshe didn't know anything. "Who are you?"
Panic was rising inside her chest. She fought it back, forc- ing herself to concentrate as he started to say something. She couldn't afford to go to pieces.
"I'm a doctora medical practitioner." He held her gaze fast in a blaze of self-assurance.
If that was meant to reassure her, it had the opposite effect. All the panic and fear drained out of her to be replaced by dread. She had been brought up to trust and respect the medical profession, and she'd had no reason to change that opinion until a catastrophic event had pulled the wool from her eyes.
"My name is Dottore Luca Barbaro."
The man had moved on smoothly to introductions, Nell realised. It was as if she were watching a horror film in slow motion, a film that had no connection with her life. "Dr Barbaro," she repeated distractedly.
He sounded as though he expected her to fall on her knees and give thanks.
"Well, now that you've made your call, Dr Barbaro, you can give my daughter back to me!"
"Don't you trust me?" His brow furrowed. "Trust you? Why should I trust you?"
"you're in shock," he said, sounding irritable. "It's better if I hold her."
Better? What could be better than for a child to be held by its own mother? 'I'm not in shock. Give her to me." The urge to rip Molly from his arms was growing every moment, but she couldn't risk manhandling Molly, not when there was something so obviously wrong.
Nell's mind darted about, trying to land on a sensible course of action, but nothing made senseespecially this man appearing out of the blue to take charge of their lives. "Have you been following us?" she said suspiciously.
"Following you?" His eyes mirrored his impatience. "Oh, so you just happened along. And you tell me you're a doctor. Quite convenient, don't you think?"
"Why should I lie to you? I am a doctor. I live just over there." He jutted out his chin to indicate some building.
She didn't look. She had no intention of staring at a place she had no wish to see. "And you were standing by your win- dow when our gondola floated past?"
"Your gondolier rang to warn me you were on your way." That seemed so incongruous, it had to be impossible. Then Nell remembered the gondolier had made a call. It was so easy to be seduced by ravishingly beautiful and apparently un- changed Venice, and forget how easily the modern world co- existed with the old.
"Luck was smiling on you," he remarked. "Luck?" It was Nell's turn to snap. "Lucky for you your gondolier knew me and where I live. Marco only had to ring to check that I was in, and then he brought you straight here."
"He brought us here intentionally?"
"He was trying to help you."
A fact that seemed lost on the child's mother, Luca thought. He eased his neck. His head was thumping. Sleep deprivation had finally claimed him. This was supposed to be his day off, but when the call came suggesting a worrying case, his time on duty had slipped into its third day. That didn't matter. The patient came first. The patient always came first.
"The gondolier brought you here as quickly as he could."
His tolerance levels, thin at the best of times when dealing with civilians, were at an all-time low. While one part of his brain knew it was routine for the mother to be concerned and emotional, the other, more forceful side resented her interfer- ence. The result? He was spitting out words to drive his mes- sage home. And the message was: Leave me to deal with this. I don't need to be here, I don't want your thanks, just don't expect me to be your emotional support when I have a job to do.
But there was no nurse here to take the woman away. Grinding his jaw, Luca attempted to calm her down. Human decency demanded that much of him. "Marco could see you needed a doctor, so he brought you to me. Didn't you tell him you needed help?"
"I didn't think he understood."
"He didn't. Lucky for you he used his initiative."
Oh, forget human decency. He was just too damn tired, and the child needed all his attention. Besides, there was some- thing else nagging at himsomething that meant he had to be harsh. Feelings, thoughts, all of them inappropriate, were swimming round his head, pulling his eyes to her body when they should be on the patient.
He didn't need this. A particularly harrowing shift had left him tired and susceptiblehow else could he explain the way he was reacting to her?
Luca turned back to the patient in his arms before he had chance to lock eyes with her mother.
"What are you doing now?" Nell tensed as he inspected Molly's fingernails.
"you're going to have to put your mistrust of doctors on hold while I check my patient."
His patient? Her baby. Her life. Nell gritted her teeth. And as for putting her mistrust on hold! Didn't this just under- line everything she felt about doctors? Didn't this man's detached manner justify all the ugly emotion welling inside her nowemotion so close to hatred it was impossible to tell the difference?
"So, what exactly are you checking, Doctor?"
"And you can do that just from staring at my daughter's hand?"
"I can see if the nails are pink and healthy, or if they are tinged with blue."
"Blue? Let me see!' Fear welled in Nell's throat. She had no medical training to draw on. She didn't know if Molly's nails were pink enough. What kind of mother didn't know the colour of her own daughter's nails? Why hadn't she noticed the colour of Molly's nails when she was well so she had something to compare them with now?
"You can't be expected to know everything."
And now he could read minds? She doubted he was trying to placate her. In any case, she didn't want his understanding: she wanted facts. "How can I help if you don't tell me what's going on?"
"You can't help," he said flatly. "So a mother's care is worth nothing?"
"I didn't say that," he said wearily. "Then give her to me." Nell's tone sharpened.
He levelled a gaze on her face. "If you want me to assess her medical condition you'll leave her where she is."
"you're a doctor and you don't know what's wrong with her yet?"
"I can't be certain"
"But you must have some idea."
"Stop pressing me for answers. You should try to relax' "Relax?" "All right, then, how about trusting me?" 'Why should I trust you? I don't know you. You could be anyone!"
"Look, just stay calm, or move away. you're disturbing my patient."
Nell held her ground. "Your patient is my daughter! If you're not capable of helping Molly then I'm going to find someone who is."
He fired the word back at her. She flinched and fell silent. "If you just stay calm everything will be all right," he told her. The man's assurance infuriated her. He had intoned the platitude in the way Nell was beginning to think must be dished out along with the accreditation MD. "And maybe I could stay calm if I thought you had any idea what was wrong with my daughter."
"I can't be sure of anything yet."
"Or you don't know.'she had been too trusting once before, and that had ended in tragedy. She wasn't going to make that same mistake again. Not with Molly.
When her husband, Jake, had been killed in a car accident, Nell hadn't known that Molly's father might have survived had the junior doctor mistakenly sent to tend him at the road- side been properly trained. Later, in Casualty, she had believed the medics had been trying to save Jake's life, not covering for their colleague's mistake. When they had finally admitted Jake was dead it had come as a complete shock to her. There had been no warning, no preparation at all.
It had been a life-changing event that had led to Nell start- ing a campaign to help others in a similar plight. That cam- paign was now a charitable trust with volunteers countrywide in the United Kingdom. People who could liaise with the medical staff within a hospital and give whatever support was required to a patient's relative or friend.
This Luca Barbaro seemed too glamorous, too young, to be an experienced doctor. Very like the young medic who had tended Jake. Nell's heart lurched.
"Can you call the hospital? Tell them I want someone there as soon as we arrivea paediatric consultant, someone ex- perienced. The best!"
"I'll see what I can do."His voice was bordering on sarcastic. "Not good enough," she said sharply. His answer was to lock his fingers under Molly, as if she was about to do something stupid like snatch Molly from him. Or was it just to drive home the message that he was in charge?
He leaned over the canal at a perilous angle to peer down itwith Molly in his arms. Nell's hands balled into fists. Molly's tiny frame suspended over murky water! Her head was banging with tension by the time he straightened up to stare at her in silence. Did he expect her to start a conversa- tionabout the weather, maybe?
"You should tell me your name."