Her muscles burned. Her lungs screamed for air.
Another wave washed over her. Kicking hard, Charlotte Wentworth tried desperately to haul the child's limp body to shore. A larger wave smashed over them. The undertow tugged at them as if the devil himself had decided it was their time. Strength drained from her body and cold shuddering fear rushed to take its place.
I won't make it.
The little girl dragged her down but Charlotte kicked madly for the surface. Warm Mediterranean seawater filled her mouth and bile rose in her throat. Gagging, she made one last, frenzied attempt to break the surface.
Suddenly the little girl's weight disappeared. A hand gripped her shoulder, heaving herÂ .Â .Â .Â up, up, up. Holding her on the surface, her saviour waited until she gulped in a breath.
âCan you get in?' he shouted as he pushed for the shallows, the child limp in his arms.
âGo. Go,' she panted. Air had never tasted so incredible.
Treading water, she watched the man who'd so captivated her a few minutes ago tow his unconscious daughter to the beach. Charlotte stroked to shore. She pushed her way through the crowd already surrounding the pair. Dozens of dark eyes, most just staring, paralysed. Someone shouted.
In the water, the child had simply looked asleep. Lying prone on the sand she lookedÂ .Â .Â .Â Tears stung Charlotte's salt-ravaged eyes. Her throat constricted. She'd watched the man play with his kids earlier. It'd been hard not to admire his striking physique; he clearly made exercise a priority. She'd enjoyed a guilty pleasure in keeping a distant vigil. Now she could taste his despair.
âShe's not breathing.' He looked wildly at the crowd for an answer.
From nowhere, Charlotte's high school first aid course flashed through her mind like a movie: clear, exact and actionable.
âHas she got a pulse?' The authority in her voice surprised her as she slammed down onto the sand next to him.
He grabbed the child's wrist and went still for a moment. âYes.'
âWhat's her name?'
Charlotte gently shook the girl's shoulders. âAmelia, can you hear me?' she shouted.
Charlotte tried to swallow. How long since the kid had taken a breath? One minute? Two?
âDid you check her airway?' she asked.
Rolling Amelia onto her side, Charlotte hooked her finger down the little girl's throat. A small, ragged chunk of seaweed flicked out onto the sand. Almost immediately the child coughed, retched seawater and began to cry. The crowd erupted with collective joy. The man pulled his daughter to him, his face streaked with tears.
Charlotte collapsed back on the sand and shut her eyes against the glare. Her rough breaths roared in her ears. Slowly, slowly the world came back into focus. The sound of the waves. Italian chatter. The wail of a siren.
She sat up. Numb.
The whole episode had probably lasted less than five minutes, but Charlie's body ached as if she'd just climbed Everest. She shivered even as the sun heated her skin. They'd come within seconds of tragedy.
A couple of people patted her shoulder. One elderly man shook her hand. A little English voice mewed through the noise. Amid rapid-fire Italian, the crowd quickly dispersed.
The man's son, who couldn't have been more than four, stood near his father and sister, his little body trembling. Without a thought, Charlotte scooped him into her arms.
âYour sister's fine. Look,' she said, pointing. âSee, she's talking.'
Charlie leaned her head close to the boy's as they listened. Between the sniffles, Amelia sputtered a few words.
The boy nodded. Tears were still pouring down his chubby face.
âWhat's your name?' she asked, turning him away from the scene.
âRupert.' He sniffed. âMy leg still hurts.' He threw out the last word in a wail.
Of course. Before his sister disappeared underwater, a jellyfish had stung the little boy. His screams had drawn everyone's attention. She'd grabbed her backpack and run down the beach to see if she could help. She'd stood close by, worried about the child, as every Italian mother descended on the family. That's when she'd realised the father wasn't Italian. His piercing eyes were as blue as a mid-summer's sky, his skin a lovely golden caramel, and he spoke with an English accent.
Everybody had a different theory on the treatment of jellyfish sting and the scene had been chaotic. And now, the red and angry welts still looked very painful. She noticed the bottle of vinegar someone had been using to ease the sting was still on the sand nearby.
âCome on,' she said, sliding Rupert off her lap. âLet's put some more vinegar on.'
âIt'll hurt.' His voice shook.
âNo,' she said, taking his hand and giving it a little squeeze. âIt'll make it better.'
âYou talk funny,' Rupert said, screwing up his eyes to look up at her.
âI'm from Australia.'
âWhere the kangaroos live?'
As Charlotte poured the vinegar on Rupert's legs, ambulance officers reached Amelia. Charlotte had been holding herself as rigid as steel and now she slumped a little on the sand. The professionals were here.
âRupert!' The man looked about wildly.
âIt's all right,' Charlotte called. âHe's here.'
The man's eyes took a moment to focus. When his gaze settled on her with Rupert by her side, the alarm vanished. He turned back to his daughter.
He trusts me.
Warmth touched her heart. Trust had been sadly lacking in her life lately.
Charlotte held Rupert's hand and walked him back to his father. The ambulance officers eased Amelia onto a stretcher.
âThey're taking Amelia to hospital,' the man said.
âIs she all right?' Charlotte stared at the small figure covered with a blanket. Sand peppered her blonde hair. Her face looked ashen, but she smiled weakly when she caught her father's eye.
He shook his head, incredulous. âShe seems fine. They just want to keep her under observation for a few hours. I can't tell youÂ .Â .Â .'
Before Charlotte could respond, the man's arms wrapped around her shoulders. He pulled her close, his face buried in her long hair. Her breath stalled. His touch, his strength, his smell, flooded her with conflicting emotions. Only grains of sand separated her cheek from his bare chest. She closed her eyes, drawing a breath, long and dreamyÂ âÂ an intoxicating mix of salt, sunscreen and man.
She slipped her arms tentatively around him, barely touching his skin. She'd been engaged for six months, but she'd never been held with such intensity.
Perhaps that's what happens after a crisis. Maybe you experience things more deeply.
âThank you,' he murmured. âShe'd have drowned.'
He drew her closer and held her for a long time. With his wet body moulded against her, the rest of the world vanished. She could hold this man for eternity. Just the two of them on an Italian beach in the afternoon light. So perfect. Soul mates meeting.
He eased himself away.
The sand between her toes suddenly became fascinating.
. The saltwater had messed with her logic. Hell, she didn't even believe in that rubbish. Shock, that was it. She rubbed her eyes, hoping to bring back some sense of reality. This man's touch had ignited a flame of need so strong it frightened her. Her fiancÃ© had never affected her like this.
She gave herself a mental slap.
Get a grip.
He has kids. He'd be married.
âHow can I ever thank youÂ .Â .Â .' he said. She realised he wanted her name.
âCharlotte.' What would he think of the ideas floating through her mind? âBut call me Charlie,' she said, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her damp shorts.
Best not to touch him again.
âGabriel,' he said, a smile lightly touching his lips as he held out his hand. âCall me Gabe.'
She hesitated then took his hand. There it was again, sheer sexual pullÂ âÂ unmistakable.
Tugging her hand free, she ran her fingers through her hair from scalp to tip. She needed her head read. She'd just walked away from one sexual disaster. She didn't need this sort of feeling. This was
No family. No bloody diamonds. No cheating fiancÃ©. In fact, no men altogether.
An ambulance officer interrupted. They wanted to get moving.
âSorry,' Gabe said. âI've got to go.'
But he didn't move. He held her gaze then reached across and brushed a long wisp of hair from her cheek. His gentle touch sent a shudder of desire through her body, washing away any lingering fatigue. He took a breath as if to say something, but changed his mind.
âCome on, Rupert,' he called to his son, who was playing in the sand at their feet. Rupert didn't move.
The officer insisted Gabe go with Amelia, and he turned and walked away.
Charlotte gazed after him. The best time she'd had in Italy. Gone. Just like that. She smiled ironically. Of course her best time included near drowning, bringing a kid back from the brink and calming an almost hysterical boy.
As she stood gazing after Gabe, she became vaguely aware of the officer reaching for Rupert. Rupert screamed and rushed behind Charlotte, cowering. The ambulance officers could do nothing to coax him away.
She knelt down and her heart melted as Rupert's bottom lip trembled.
âIt's okay, darling,' she said, holding his hand and rubbing his arm reassuringly. âThis man's here to help.'
âI don't know what he's saying,' Rupert said, burying his head into the cotton of her shirt.
âRupert,' Gabe called. The little boy looked torn. He obviously wanted to be with his dad, but didn't want to leave the safety of Charlie's arms.
Charlie took Rupert's hand and walked up to the boulevard where Gabe was waiting.
âHe wants you,' she said.
âNo, I want her,' Rupert sobbed, tugging Charlotte's hand as though she were a treasured security blanket.
âSorry, Rupe, we have to go to the hospital,' Gabe said. âAnd Charlie has to get back to her holiday.'
Rupert blinked up at her through watery eyes. âCan't you come too?'
âI could come with you,' Charlotte said.
âNo, really, we'll be all right. Come on, Rupert.'
Exactly. They didn't need some Aussie backpacker tagging along. But ridiculously, his dismissal hurt somewhere deep within her.
Rupert dropped to the pavement, whimpering. Gabe looked from the ambulance to Rupert and back again. The officers held the ambulance door open, urging Gabe to hurry.
âIt's probably just the shock,' Gabe said, leaning down to pry Rupert from the ground, but the child affected a dead weight. Gabe threw up his hands.
âYou got anything planned for this afternoon?' he asked grimly. âAny chance you'd like a tour of the local hospital?'
âSure.' It wasn't as if she had any pressing engagements. âJust let meÂ .Â .Â .'
Charlotte scanned the beach. She turned around a few times to orientate herself, but there was no mistakeÂ âÂ her backpack had vanished. Her hand flew to the money belt around her waist. Her valuablesÂ âÂ passport, credit cards, cashÂ âÂ all wet but secure. Looking around again, anxiety coursed through her. It'd be fruitless to start searching. Her bag would be long gone. She let out a long slow breath.
âSomething wrong?' Gabe asked.
With a half-drowned child and one in hysterics, she didn't feel a missing backpack warranted a mention. Every guide book advised you never to leave your personal items unattended. Less than a week in Italy and she'd failed Travelling 101.
âNo,' she said, her gaze making one last sweep of the beach.
Picking up Rupert, she swung him onto her hip. He immediately buried his head in her neck. She'd just keep rolling with the punches. Anyway, shopping for new clothes in Italy wasn't going to be a hardship.
âLet's go,' she said.
Before they climbed into the ambulance, Gabe placed a hand on the small of her back.
His touch warmed her to her toes. She feared she'd do anything for this man.
âIt's nothing. Anyone would've done the same,' she said, trying to sound casual.
His dark blue eyes took on the sheen of polar ice.
âNo, Charlie.' His voice was sharp and tight. âThe world is full of people who don't give a damn.'
The heart monitor produced a comforting regular pulse. Gabe eased back in his chair and relaxed his shoulders. The doctor had given Amelia the all clear but wanted to keep her under observation for the next few hours. She slept peacefully in the narrow hospital bed.
Beyond their curtained cubicle, Gabe could hear the frantic proceedings of the emergency department. He hoped Charlie and Rupert were okay in the crowded waiting room.
. Why had he trusted this woman so quickly? He'd never done that before. She clearly had no idea who he was. His breakout television series,
Reaching for the Stars
, had aired in Australia with local judges, so he'd probably rarely be recognised there.
Not like life at home. His television shows were huge hits in Britain with some international syndication, but he'd yet to crack the lucrative US market. A hit in the US, an Emmy, and then he'd have the credibility to make his film.
A nurse flipped back the curtain and pulled the chart from the end of Amelia's bed.
?' she asked.
âSorry,' Gabe said, holding up his hands. âNo Italiano.'
âEnglish?' she asked.