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The lift doors opened. Prince Zafar Aasim Al Zamid stepped inside and to his disgust his heart began to pound.
Someone slipped past him into the elevator and he couldn't help the deeper breath he took as the doors shut. A drift of orange soap vividly recalled the memory of fruit-laden trees in the palace grounds as a child, and, by association, the memory soothed him.
Thoughts that calmed were an excellent idea. Life had been much less complicated then. He opened his eyes as the lift shifted under his feet.
Lately he'd been acquiring phobias like new shirts. Since the crash it had been heights, now elevatorsworse every ascentuntil even a closing door caused symptoms. Perhaps it was a sign the claustrophobia in his life had worsened since he'd been forced to give up his work in favour of royal duty.
He would address his inner calm with the solitude of a retreat as soon as he sorted this latest mess. The vastness of the desert always made his problems seem less significant.
For the moment he was cramped and palpitating in a lift with the painful reminder of all he'd lost. This particular enclosed space held a fragile-looking new mum with a baby in one arm, a beaming new father clutching a balloon, and thankfully the orange-scented woman as well, dispensing an aura of tranquillity.
The metallic 'It's A Boy' helium balloon bobbed towards him and Zafar leant closer to the wall and regretted his decision to stay at this hotel. A baby hotel. The last place he needed to be. The image he carried of his tiny son's body flickered in his mind and he forced it away. Such happy families were constant reminders he could have done without but the stakes were high.
He had hoped to find Fadia, his estranged cousin, prior to the birth but time was against him. He'd discovered she planned to convalesce here instead of hospital if he arrived too late to find her beforehand.
The lift jerked and his pulse thundered in his ears.
The balloon wielder tugged on the string as the proud new dad hailed the woman. 'Carmen! We didn't get a chance to thank you.' He grabbed the woman's hand and shook it vigorously. 'You were amazing.'
The woman retrieved her hand and smiled at the young mother. 'Hello, again, Lisa, Jock. Lisa was the amazing one.'
Her voice soothed like a cool hand to his forehead and, infinitesimally, a little more of his agitation drained away as the phobia receded. Thankfully. It would be useful if his psyche finally accepted the obscenity of irrational fears.
'It was a beautiful birth.' She cast Zafar a swift apologetic look for their exclusive conversation, and the unexpected impact of her one glance collided with his, as if that ridiculous balloon had bumped him, before she turned back to the father.
Medical background, he concluded, and dismissed the stab of frustration the loss of his career left him with. Midwife probably. He'd met women like her beforethose natural soothers who could create a rapport with strangers without effort.
He lifted his head and glanced over her.
Anything was good to take his mind off the ascent through the lift well.
Thankfully his phobia retreated by the second as he studied her. She had thick black hair coiled on her head like rope. An Irish accent. Carmen seemed more Spanish than Irish yet she suited her name.
He watched her mouth as she said, 'How is young Brody?'
Jock laughed, loudly, and Zafar winced as the noise jarred his ears. 'He's a bruiser.' The father's pride resonated within the four walls as the lift stopped at the fifth floor with an extra jolt. The cage floor fell six inches and bounced before it came back to the level. Everyone laughed nervously, except Zafar. He closed his eyes and swallowed.
There was rustling and movement as the lift emptied and the father's voice, a little further away now. 'We'll see you soon, then.'
'I'll be down as soon as I have handover report from the morning midwife.' So Carmen was still in the lift. He opened his eyes as she waved at the couple.
'That's great. We'll see you then.' Zafar noted the relief in the father's face and his mind clutched at the distraction of wondering about this trend of moving postnatal women from the hospital into hotels to recover from birth.
Not something he was familiar with but it made sense when he thought about it. A place of quiet comfort, fewer germs, useful for the hospital to have quick turnover and quite appropriate if your health fund covered it.
The lift doors closed silently, though the cage remained stationary, and he returned to contemplate the lights on the panel above the door despite the insidious desire to study the woman called Carmen more closely.
She stepped back and seemed to lean into the wall.
He knew she was tall because her head came above his shoulders and her knot of hair had been near his nose as she'd drifted orange blossom his way. The lift still didn't move. Seconds to go and he would be able to breathe properly again.
He glanced at her from under his lashes and saw her eyes were shut. He frowned. Not a usual occurrence when he shared space with a woman. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been ignored. In repose she appeared weary. Too weary?
His concern increased. 'Are you unwell?'
Her eyes flew open and she straightened.
'Good grief.' She blinked at him and then fo-cussed. 'A micro-sleep. Sorry. I've been on night shift. It's been a busy week.'
Suddenly he felt empathetic to a perfect stranger because he could remember that weariness from a string of busy days and nights during his internship. Lack of sleep he'd grumbled about, but now the choice was no longer his, he'd love to suffer from that inconvenience again.
That was the problem with returning to Sydney. It reminded him that he wasn't living the life he'd once loved. Made him feel frustration he shouldn't feel towards his duty to Zandorro.
The elevator jerked, ground upwards for a few inches. The sooner the better, he thought, then the lift bounced suddenly as the cable stopped.
His breath caught as he waited. The doors didn't open and the light sat on neither five nor six. Midway between floors. Stopped.
This was not good. He felt his heart rate shift gear, double before his next breath, his chest tightened, and air jammed in his lungs.
'I am so not in the mood for this.' Zafar heard her in the distance as he tried to loosen his throat. He sank down onto his haunches and put one hand on the wall to give himself more blood to his head. With his other he loosened his collar.
The lift was suddenly the cabin of the private jet. His family would plunge in a few spiralling seconds and there was not a thing he could do about it. So now it was his destiny to die. It was almost a relief. And he'd complained about being in line for the throne.
Distantly he realised she'd picked up the phone and spoken to the operator. When he heard her re-seat the instrument she bent down to him. 'You okay?'
He didn't refocus his eyes off the floor until he felt her hand on his armwarm, firm, comfort personifiedand not letting go. He had the bizarre idea he couldn't fall anywhere while she held him. Yet all she did was share touch without moving. He breathed with difficulty through his nose and inhaled drifts of orange. Incredibly steadying, like a shot of Valium through his bloodstream.
He sucked air through clenched teeth and the light-headedness faded a little. This was ridiculous. Irrational. Acutely embarrassing. He forced himself to look into her face. She had dark golden eyes, like burnt twisted treacle, calm and wise and filled with compassion. Mesmerising up close. 'You're a nurse?'
Her eyes crinkled and his chest eased a little more. 'Sort of. I'm a midwife. Do you need some deep breathing?'
'I'm not in labour.' But this was hard work. He shut his eyes again. 'Possibly.'
'Do you have a phobia?' The same gentle conversational voice as if she'd asked if he needed sugar in his tea.
The demons from the past battered against him. He strove to keep his voice level. 'So it seems.'
She sank down. He heard the rustle of fabric and felt the slight brush of her leg as she settled herself beside him on the floor. Her hand rested still on his arm, not moving, as if to transfer energy and calmness from her to him. It seemed to be working. 'What's your name?
He had many. 'Zafar.'
She paused and he felt her appraisal until he opened his eyes again. Her golden interest captured his. 'Well, Zafar. I'm Carmen. I've been stuck in this lift three times this week. Big, deep breaths should help.'
Deep breaths might be difficult. 'It is a battle with small ones.'
Coaxing. 'You can do a couple.'
He wasn't sure but the fact that she'd lived through this three times did help. He was feeling faint again. 'A rule of threes?'
'In through your nose '
Intolerably bossy woman. 'Out through my mouth. Yes, I know.'
Her voice firmed. Like his mother's from the distant past. The time of orange trees. 'Then do it.'
He humoured her. And felt better. Actually, quite a lot better so he did it again. With her sitting below him he had a delightful view down the valley between her breasts. He glanced away politely but could feel himself improve every second with the picture in his mind. Surely a harmless medicinal remedy.
Imagine if the lift had still been full. He mentally shuddered. There was just her to see this weakness. Thankfully he'd sent his bodyguard and secretary to the suite. In future the stairs would be good for his fitness. Once free, he'd never see this woman again. A good thing, and a shame.
At least it seemed his brain had accepted death was unlikely.
And she had the most incredible breasts but he wasn't going to look againhis gaze travelled back to her faceand a delightful mouth. Those lips His body stirred. A mouth designed by angels and plump for surrender if he was willing to risk life and limb for it. She may be calm but she looked very capable of protecting herself despite the weariness. His lips twitched.
'Are you feeling better?'
'Much.' Better than she knew. He watched with some amusement as she slowly recognised the direction of his fascination until she stared straight back at him and raised her brows.
She removed her hand from his arm and she shook her head. 'Tsk tsk.'
The lift jerked and resumed its ascent. Zafar shut his eyes briefly but the panic had gone.
It seemed she was good at her job. He straightened until he stood with his feet firm beneath him, reached down and took her hand to help her up. Such a lovely hand, but work-worn. She rose fluidly into his space, as he'd intended.
For that moment as their glances met he forgot the lift, the heights, the strain his life was, all except this unexpected awareness between them that swept away their surroundings, so enmeshed in this unexpected connection that when he said, 'Thank you,' the words hung in the air between them like mist.
An imp of mischief drew his head closer. He expected her to pull away. 'You're very kind and incredibly beautiful.' He stroked her cheek, his gaze drawn once more to her ripe and luscious mouth.
She did the unpredicted. 'It's okay. I understand.' He heard it in her voice, a note of sympathy that horrified him. Pity?
He recoiled. He needed no one's compassion.
The elevator jolted and the doors opened on seven. They'd missed six altogether. She turned away from him with a frown on her entrancing face.
There was some consolation in the way she compressed her lips together as if to hide the way they'd plumped and reddened in anticipation of what? The almost brush of his lips on hers? So she had felt something too?
'You certainly look better.' Her comment made him smile again, the dryness hiding undertones he couldn't identify, but there was a subtle flush of colour to her cheeks and her wide eyes searched his face as if seeking a hint of what had passed between them during the last few frozen moments.
Despite his urge to throw himself out of the lift to safety, Zafar stretched his hand across the doors to allow her to precede him. 'My apologies for my weakness earlier.'
She assessed him with a clinical scrutiny he wasn't used to getting from a woman and strangled back a half-laugh. 'I doubt you're a weak man so I'm sure you've good reason.'
He inclined his head.
She glanced around. 'And I should have got out at level six.' She turned swiftly out to the left of the lift and pulled open the door of the fire escape to go down a flight before he was fully out of the lift himself.
He started to hum. The day was not as bad as it had started out.