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Dr Kiki Fender gazed across the blue of the Mediterranean to distant houses that clung like pastel limpets onto the cliffs of Italy and breathed in the beauty of the day.
It wasn't something she'd done when she'd first boarded the ship, but it was easier now as she listened to the delight of the newly embarked passengers.
These first few hours sailing along the Italian coast was her favourite time. But duty called so she brushed the hair out of her eyes and turned towards the hospital below. Four months of shipboard life had brought the purpose back into her life and she was so grateful for that.
Her smile slipped when she remembered it was only five days until the date she'd so looked forward to would be behind her, and then it would get even easier.
One deck down, Prince Stefano Adolphi Phil-lipe Augustus Mykonides tried not to think of the worst-case scenario as he rolled the unconscious wife of his brother into the recovery position. With immense relief he noted the blue of her lips improve slightly as her airway cleared.
He'd hoped Theros could stay out of trouble this week, on his wife's birthday holiday, but it seemed it wasn't so. With a sigh, the eldest son of Prince Paulo of Aspelicus, a tiny but wealthy principality in the Mediterranean Sea, knew it was his fault his brother had done something else stupid.
When he looked up at Theros his brother was as helpless as ever, his handsome face twisted in distress. 'Get the ship's hospital on the phone. Tell them it's an emergency,' Stefano said.
Theros's mouth worked silently, like a child's, and he looked shocked and incredulous as his wife began to turn blue again.
Stefano lowered his voice to a stern order. 'Now! Tell them it's a reaction to latex. To bring adrenalin.' He said the words slowly and enunciated clearly.
Theros blinked and stumbled to his feet as Stefano began to strip Marla of her skintight rubber playsuit, cursing under his breath as her breathing became even more laboured, but thankful that at least Theros had had the good sense to call him in time.
His concern lay in removing the offending clothing as fast as possiblebefore his sister-in-law stopped breathing. Not an easy jobwhich he gathered should have been half the fun. What he would have given for a scalpel
Ten doors away Dr Kiki Fender jogged down the hallway to the largest suites, running over in her head what she knew about latex allergies. In truth Kiki was the on-call doctor for crewnot passengersand she hoped her boss would follow quickly in case the patient was in extremis.
She'd hate to lose a patient on departure day, and royalty at thatvery poor form. Terrible luck that Will had been on a cabin visit when the call had come in, so she was it till he came. She didn't even bother to try and imagine where this latex exposure had come from.
She'd tossed the usual personal protection gloves out from the emergency pack and donned latex-free ones, reminding herself they should use them in the whole medical centre in this current climate of escalating allergies, and had packed extra adrenalin ampoules. She carried in her hand the Epi-pen which made administration much quicker in such emergencies.
She prayed the patient's airways wouldn't have closed completely by the time her boss arrived with the rest of the equipment.
When the door opened she barely glanced at the distressed man in black shiny underwear and glanced ahead to the woman on the floor. Another man was bent over her as he struggled to extricate her legs from skintight latex leggings.
There was something oddly familiar about the shape of his head, but the woman was already unconscious and her skin was blotched with a paling red rash.
Kiki spoke to the dark hair of the man kneeling on the carpet as she bent down beside him. 'Is she breathing?'
Kiki glanced at the man's face and recognition slapped into her like one of the ocean white caps outside the window.
What the hell was Stefano Mykonides doing on her ship? Lock that away, quick-smart, she chastised herself, and quickly pinched the woman's leg to inject the adrenalin. Her eyes skimmed the almost naked woman for tiny rapid rises of her chest, aware that the movements would tell if the medication was helping. Most times with this type of shock recovery was dramatic, because the drug turned off the body's flooding allergic response like a tap.
But a tiny section of her brain was still suggesting that the Stefano she'd known was the last person who needed a threesome with a dolly bird in latex to fill his day.
She heard her boss and the nurse arrive with the emergency stretcher as Stefano leaned towards her.
'Of course I expect you to remain discreet about this event.'
She could see the pulse beating in his strong neck and a part of her responded involuntarilyand that increased her dislike. She met his eyes and tried with only some success to keep the contempt from her face. So typical. The woman was fighting for her life but it was all about how important the good name of the Mykonides family was.
She could say a few things about his good name. Instead she nodded at her patient. 'Of course, Your Highness.'
Stefano turned back to extricating Mar-la's foot. He was in shockmuch like poor Marla without the benefit of the drug's reversal. Kiki Fender was here and to see her like this As a saviour to his family, dynamic, confident of her skills as he'd known she would be. But it was not these things he remembered the most. Nor the woman who looked at him with distaste and called him Your Highness.
Before he could think what to say Marla groaned and stirred, and his sigh of relief escaped silently as Kiki leant over and spoke near her ear.
'You're okay. Take it easy.' She looked at him and silently mouthed, name?
'Marla,' he said quietly, just as thankfully the last of the trouser leg came free over her foot with an elastic snapping noise. He slid the rubber suit under the seat of the lounge chair out of sight as more medical staff approached.
Kiki saw him do it and rolled her eyes at his priorities as she turned back to her patient. 'I'm going to put another needlea cannulain your arm and tape it there, Marla, as a precaution, but I think you're improving every second.'
The cannula slid in easily. Always a relief.
'Like I said, this is only a precaution,' she said to the dazed woman, 'in case you need further medication or intravenous fluids.' But within herself, Kiki thought the response appeared adequate from the initial doseoften the wayand it seemed the crisis was over.
She felt the trolley being manoeuvred in beside her and Stefano stood up.
He said, 'Please take my towelling robe,' and handed it to Kiki to cover the patient with.
Her nod of appreciation wasn't only for the gown for Marla, but because with him gone there seemed so much more air around the patientand herselfmore distance. Funny, that, and funny that she wasn't in the mood for laughing.
She had always had a respiratory awareness of himlike her own damned anaphylaxisbut she'd thought herself desensitised against that response after what she'd been through. Later, on her own, she would worry about that.
'Hi, Will.' Kiki glanced at the senior ship's doctor as he knelt down beside her. 'This is Marla. Severe reaction to latex. We've removed the causative agent.' She flicked an ironic glance at Stefano before she turned back to her boss.
Dr Wilhelm Hobson leaned over and took the woman's wrist to feel her pulse. 'You've given adrenalin?'
'Two minutes ago.' Kiki finished taping the intravenous cannula in place.
Marla groaned and opened her eyes more positively. 'Where am I?'
'It's okay, Marla. You're in your cabin. Just close your eyes and rest. You'll feel better soon.' She rested her hand over Marla's in sympathy. She and Wilhelm looked at the welts on her arms that seemed to be fading before their eyes. 'Good response, as you see.'
Will nodded, then wrote the pulse-rate, dose and time down on his scribe sheet while Kiki took the blood pressure cuff from the nurse and wrapped it around Marla's arm. As expected, the pressure was very low.
'In shock.' The nurse nodded as she adhered cardiac dots to the patient's skin and the sound of a racing heartbeat permeated the room. They began to assemble an intravenous line to increase the pressure in Marla's blood vessels with an extra fluid bolus.
Confident now that their patient was stable, Will stood up and faced the two men in the room. This'll be good, Kiki thought, and though she didn't look away from her patient her ears were tuned for their explanation.
'And who is responsible for this woman?' Wilhelm's tone was deadly serious. But then he was serious most of the time.
Stefano had watched Marla wake up with relief and now he refocused on the room. Kiki, down on the floor with Marla, ignored himas she should. He glanced at the man in chargea stocky blond-headed man with a South African accent and air of command. A ship this size would need a competent senior. One who knew how to be discreet.
Then he looked to Theros. His brother stood, twisting his hands across his body, suddenly aware that he looked strange in those ridiculous shorts. His mouth worked but, as usual in times of stress, nothing came out.
Stefano sighed and stepped forward. Of course he was responsible. He had been since the moment of Theros's accident all those years ago. It did not occur to him to feel vulnerable, dressed only in swim-trunks, and he glanced coolly at the medic. 'I am.'
Kiki flinched when she heard Stefano's voice and realised she'd hoped otherwise. It shouldn't have mattered. Didn't matter. She'd always expected him to be more than he really was. A prince who lied and made promises he didn't keep.
She didn't wait to hear the rest. 'Okay, Ginger,' she said to the nurse. 'Let's help Marla up onto the trolley and we'll take her down to the hospital for observation.'
Fifteen minutes later Stefano paced in front of the window in his brother's suite. 'Please get rid of those ridiculous shorts,' he said. Stefano moved very slowly, with rigid control, frustrated at his brother's propensity for disaster and his own for not preventing itand at the fruitless urge to ask why he had to deal with this. He knew why.
At seven Stefano had pulled Theros from a deep ocean pool on their island and saved his life with a boy's rough and ready resuscitation. Unfortunately Theros had been left with an injury to part of his brain from its time without oxygen. After that Stefano's young brother had not been the most sensible of boys, and later had become a handsome and lovable but childish man.
But that had not stopped Theros from diving into mischief and danger whenever he could, and as often as he was able Stefano would be the one to rescue him.
'Trouble. It will find you in the dark. Or in this case broad daylight. Is sex so tedious with your wife that you must risk her life with latex?'
Theros wrung his hands. 'No. Mo. One of her friends gave the suits to us for her birthday We were playing. Laughing. Suddenly she could not breathe. I did not know Marla was allergic to rubber.'
'Latex.' Stefano squeezed the skin under his nose with his fingers in a pincer grip to stop himself from losing patience. He never lost patience with Theros. His father had been right to say that if only he, Stefano, had been faster at getting help perhaps his brother's brain would not have been damaged.
It was a legacy of guilt he could not shake. The job of protecting the family and The-ros from ridicule had fallen to Stefano, and he had protected his brother well for many yearsbecause he'd been willing to take up the mantle and carry it regardless of the impact on his own life.
His foray into medicinethe vocation that should have been Theros'shad stemmed from that guilt, from his father's distress and disappointment, and from his own lack of ability to prevent such a sequela for his brother. Even at such a young age he had vowed if such a situation ever arose again he would know what to do. Unexpectedly, medicine had also provided a true vocation, and something that soothed his soul.
His father, Crown Prince Paulo III of Aspe-licus, had hired a sensible woman to supervise Theros while Stefano had been away at a medical symposium in Australia earlier that year, and to everyone's surprise his simple little brother had found true love.
At his father's urgent request Stefano had rushed home from the arms of Dr Kiki Fenderbut too late.
Theros had already eloped. Then Stefano himself had been involved in a serious motor vehicle accident, and during his slow recovery months had passed.
To his unexpected relief Theros's sensible wife had proved helpful in steering Theros on a more stable path, but even the most sensible could make an unfortunate mistake. So any notion of Stefano being released from his duty of care was a misconception. Theros would always need him, and he could offer no life to a vibrant and intelligent woman like Kiki, who was not accustomed to the strictures of royal duty.
In the harsh light of reality he knew that as heir to the throne he should let go of what had passed between he and Dr Fender in Australia. That was for the best.
But it seemed she had not forgiven him for his failure to return.
Theros coughed and Stefano returned to the present. His brother still waited for reassurance.
He took his fingers from his face and stared at Theros so he could be sure he was listening. Perhaps even absorbing the gravity of the situation.
'Marla could have died. Almost did.' He paused, let that settle in. 'One of you must carry an injection, similar to that which the doctor had, in case she is exposed to this product again accidentally.' He stared hard. 'You are her husband and it is your duty to keep her safe. Do you understand?'
'Yes, Stefano.' Theros chewed his lip. 'The doctor said she would be all right, though? They'll let her out of the hospital this afternoon?'
Not surprisingly, Theros had an irrational fear of hospitalswhich hadn't been helped when Stefano had nearly died.
Stefano saw that fear, and his irritation with his brother seeped further away. His voice gentled. 'For the moment the danger is gone. Yes.'
Theros climbed into his swim-trunks and sadly handed Stefano his latex briefs. 'And she will be fine tomorrow, won't she? We're going to Naples to climb Vesuvius. You're coming with us.'
'My leg is a little painful.' Why must his brother love adventures that required exposure to the public? It would be so much easier on the island of Aspelicus, their island home off mainland Greece, and he had so many things that required his attention there. But his father had asked him to watch over them on this short cruise that Theros had promised his wife.
Ashore, his man could be with them. And while they were touring it would be a good time for him, Stefano, to reacquaint himself with Dr Fender.
After finding Kiki where he least expected her, he had pressing matters to attend to. First an apology for his non-return. Past ghosts to lay.
The problem was that the woman he'd left behind in Australia had stayed like a halo around his heart. He, of all people, knew it wasn't sensible to desire a woman who did not understand or deserve the ways of royal commitment. As heir, in his country's crises he was the one who was called.
But still he smarted from the thinly veiled contempt in her sea-blue eyes, because he remembered the warmly passionate, fun-loving side of sweet Kiki.
The gods must be laughing at this insult to his pride. If they had been destined to meet again this was not how he would have orchestrated the moment.