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Dr. Mariama Mandara had always been the last picked for a team in gym class. With good reason. Athletics? Not her thing. But when it came to spelling bees, debate squads and math competitions, she'd racked up requests by the dozens.
Too bad her academic skills couldn't help her sprint faster down the posh hotel corridor.
More than ever, she needed speed to escape the royal watchers tracking her at the Cape Verde beachside resort off the coast of West Africa, which was like a North Atlantic Hawaii, a horseshoe grouping of ten islands. They were staying on the largest island, Santiago.
No matter where she hid, determined legions were all too eager for a photo with a princess. Why couldn't they accept she was here for a business conference, not socializing?
Panting, Mari braced a hand against the wall as she stumbled past a potted areca silk palm strung with twinkling Christmas lights. Evading relentless pursuers wasn't as easy as it appeared in the movies, especially if you weren't inclined to blow things up or leap from windows. The nearest stairwell door was blocked by two tourists poring over some sightseeing pamphlet. A cleaning cart blocked another escape route. She could only keep moving forward.
Regaining her balance, she power-walked, since running would draw even more attention or send her tripping over her own feet. Her low-heeled pumps thud-thud-thudded along the plush carpet in time with a poly-rhythmic version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" wafting from the sound system. She just wanted to finish this medical conference and return to her research lab, where she could ride out the holiday madness in peace, crunching data rather than candy canes.
For most people, Christmas meant love, joy and family. But for her, the "season to be jolly" brought epic family battles even twenty years after her parents' divorce. If her mom and dad had lived next door to each otheror even on the same continentthe holidays would not have been so painful. But they'd played transcontinental tug-of-war over their only child for decades. Growing up, she'd spent more time in the Atlanta airport and on planes with her nanny than actually celebrating by a fireside with cocoa. She'd even spent one Christmas in a hotel, her connecting flight canceled for snow.
The occasional cart in the hall now reminded her of that year's room-service Christmas meal. Call her crazy, but once she had gained more control over her world, she preferred a simpler Christmas.
Although simple wasn't always possible for someone born into royalty. Her mother had crumbled under the pressure of the constant spotlight, divorced her Prince Charming in Western Africa and returned to her Atlanta, Georgia, home. Mari, however, couldn't divorce herself from her heritage.
If only her father and his subjects understood she could best serve their small region through her research at the university lab using her clinical brain, rather than smiling endlessly through the status quo of ribbon-cutting ceremonies. She craved her comfy, shapeless clothes, instead of worrying about keeping herself neat as a pin for photo ops.
Finally, she spotted an unguarded stairwell. Peering inside, she found it empty but for the echo of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" segueing into "Away in a Manger." She just needed to make it from the ground level to her fifth-floor room, where she could hole up for the night before facing the rest of the week's symposiums. Exhausted from a fourteen-hour day of presentations about her research on antiviral medications, she was a rumpled mess and just didn't have it in her to smile pretty for the camera or field questions that would be captured on video phone. Especially since anything she said could gain a life of its own on the internet in seconds these days.
She grasped the rail and all but hauled herself up step after step. Urgency pumped her pulse in her ears. Gasping, she paused for a second at the third floor to catch her breath before trudging up the last flights. Shoving through the fifth-floor door, she almost slammed into a mother and teenage daughter leaving their room. The teen did a double take and Mari turned away quickly, adrenaline surging through her exhaustion and powering her down the hall. Except now she was going in the opposite direction, damn it.
Simply strolling back into the hall wasn't an option until she could be sure the path was clear. But she couldn't simply stand here indefinitely, either. If only she had a disguise, something to throw people off the scent. Head tucked down, she searched the hall through her eyelashes, taking in a brass luggage rack and monstrously big pots of African feather grass.
Her gaze landed on the perfect answera room-service cart. Apparently abandoned. She scanned for anyone in a hotel uniform, but saw only the retreating back of a woman walking away quickly, a cell phone pressed to her ear. Mari chewed her lip for half a second then sprinted forward and stopped just short of the cloth-draped trolley.
She peeked under the silver tray. The mouth-watering scent of saffron-braised karoo lamb made her stomach rumble. And the tiramisu particularly tempted her to find the nearest closet and feast after a long day of talking without a break for more than coffee and water. She shook off indulgent thoughts. The sooner she worked her way back to her room, the sooner she could end this crazy day with a hot shower, her own tray of food and a soft bed.
Delivering the room-service cart now offered her best means of disguise. A hotel jacket was even draped over the handle and a slip of paper clearly listed Suite 5A as the recipient.
The sound of the elevator doors opening spurred her into action.
Mari shrugged the voluminous forest-green jacket over her rumpled black suit. A red Father Christmas hat slipped from underneath the hotel uniform. All the better for extra camouflaging. She yanked on the hat over her upswept hair and started pushing the heavily laden cart toward the suite at the end of the hall, just as voices swelled behind her.
"Do you see her?" a female teen asked in Portuguese, her squeaky tones drifting down the corridor. "I thought you said she ran up the stairs to the fifth floor."
"Are you sure it wasn't the fourth?" another high-pitched girl answered.
"I'm certain," a third voice snapped. "Get your phone ready. We can sell these for a fortune."
Not a chance.
Mari shoved the cart. China rattled and the wheels creaked. Damn, this thing was heavier than it looked. She dug her heels in deeper and pushed harder. Step by step, past carved masks and a pottery elephant planter, she walked closer to suite 5A.
The conspiring trio drew closer. "Maybe we can ask that lady with the cart if she's seen her "
Apprehension lifted the hair on the back of Mari's neck. The photos would be all the more mortifying if they caught her in this disguise. She needed to get inside suite 5A. Now. The numbered brass plaque told her she was at the right place.
Mari jabbed the buzzer, twice, fast.
"Room service," she called, keeping her head low.
Seconds ticked by. The risk of stepping inside and hiding her identity from one person seemed far less daunting than hanging out here with the determined group and heaven only knew who else.
Just when she started to panic that time would run out, the door opened, thank God. She rushed past, her arms straining at the weight of the cart and her nose catching a whiff of manly soap. Her favorite scentclean and crisp rather than cloying and obvious. Her feet tangled for a second.
Tripping over her own feet as she shoved the cart was far from dignified. But she'd always been too gangly to be a glamour girl. She was more of a cerebral type, a proud nerd, much to the frustration of her family's press secretary, who expected her to present herself in a more dignified manner.
Still, even in her rush to get inside, curiosity nipped at her. What type of man would choose such a simple smell while staying in such opulence? But she didn't dare risk a peek at him.
She eyed the suite for other occupants, even though the room-service cart only held one meal. One very weighty meal. She shoved the rattling cart past a teak lion. The room appeared empty, the lighting low. Fat leather sofas and a thick wooden table filled the main space. Floor-to-ceiling shutters had been slid aside to reveal the moonlit beach outside a panoramic window. Lights from stars and yachts dotted the horizon. Palms and fruit trees with lanterns illuminated the shore. On a distant islet, a stone church perched on a hill.
She cleared her throat and started toward the table by the window. "I'll set everything up on the table for you."
"Thanks," rumbled a hauntingly familiar voice that froze her in her tracks. "But you can just leave it there by the fireplace."
Her brain needed less than a second to identify those deep bass tones. Ice trickled down her spine as if snow had hit her African Christmas after all.
She didn't have to turn around to confirm that fate was having a big laugh at her expense. She'd run from an irritation straight into a major frustration. Out of all the hotel suites she could have entered, somehow she'd landed in the room of Dr. Rowan Boothe. Her professional nemesis.
A physician whose inventions she'd all but ridiculed in public.
What the hell was he doing here? She'd reviewed the entire program of speakers and she could have sworn he wasn't listed on the docket until the end of the week.
The door clicked shut behind her. The tread of his footsteps closed in, steady, deliberate, bringing the scent of him drifting her way. She kept her face down, studying his loafers and the well-washed hem of his faded jeans.
She held on to the hope that he wouldn't recognize her. "I'll leave your meal right here then," she said softly. "Have a nice evening."
His tall, solid body blocked her path. God, she was caught between a rock and a hard place. Her eyes skated to his chest.
A very hard, muscle-bound place encased in a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up and the tail untucked. She remembered well every muscularannoyinginch of him.
She just prayed he wouldn't recognize her from their last encounter five months ago at a conference in London. Already the heat of embarrassment flamed over her.
Even with her face averted, she didn't need to look further to refresh her memory of that too handsome face of his. Weathered by the sun, his Brad Pitt-level good looks only increased. His sandy blond hair would have been too shaggy for any other medical professional to carry off. But somehow he simply appeared too immersed in philanthropic deeds to be bothered with anything as mundane as a trip to the barber.
The world thought he was Dr. Hot Perfection but she simply couldn't condone the way he circumvented rules.
"Ma'am," he said, ducking his head as if to catch her attention, "is there a problem?"
Just keep calm. There was no way for him to identify her from the back. She would rather brave a few pictures in the press than face this man while she wore a flipping Santa Claus hat.
A broad hand slid into view with cash folded over into a tip. "Merry Christmas."
If she didn't take the money, that would appear suspicious. She pinched the edge of the folded bills, doing her best to avoid touching him. She plucked the cash free and made a mental note to donate the tip to charity. "Thank you for your generosity."
"You're very welcome." His smooth bass was too appealing coming from such an obnoxiously perfect man.
Exhaling hard, she angled past him. Almost home free. Her hand closed around the cool brass door handle.
"Dr. Mandara, are you really going so soon?" he asked with unmistakable sarcasm. He'd recognized her. Damn. He was probably smirking, too, the bastard.
He took a step closer, the heat of his breath caressing her cheek. "And here I thought you'd gone to all this trouble to sneak into my room so you could seduce me."
Dr. Rowan Boothe waited for his words to sink in, the possibility of sparring with the sexy princess/ research scientist already pumping excitement through his veins. He didn't know what it was about Mariama Mandara that turned him inside out, but he'd given up analyzing the why of it long ago. His attraction to Mari was simply a fact of life now.
Her disdain for him was an equally undeniable fact, and to be honest, it was quite possibly part of her allure.
He grew weary with the whole notion of the world painting him as some kind of saint just because he'd rejected the offer of a lucrative practice in North Carolina and opened a clinic in Africa. These days, he had money to burn after his invention of a computerized medical diagnostics programa program Mari missed no opportunity to dismiss as faux, shortcut medicine. Funding the clinic hadn't even put a dent in his portfolio so he didn't see it as worthy of hoopla. Real philanthropy involved sacrifice. And he wasn't particularly adept at denying himself things he wanted.
Right now, he wanted Mari.
Although from the look of horror on her face, his half-joking come-on line hadn't struck gold.
She opened and closed her mouth twice, for once at a loss for words. Fine by him. He was cool with just soaking up the sight of her. He leaned back against the wet bar, taking in her long, elegant lines. Others might miss the fine-boned grace beneath the bulky clothes she wore, but he'd studied her often enough to catch the brush of every subtle curve. He could almost feel her, ached to peel her clothes away and taste every inch of her cafe-au-lait skin.
Some of the heat must have shown on his face because she snapped out of her shock. "You have got to be joking. You can't honestly believe I would ever make a move on you, much less one so incredibly blatant."
Damn, but her indignation was so sexy and yeah, even cute with the incongruity of that Santa hat perched on her head. He couldn't stop himself from grinning.
She stomped her foot. "Don't you dare laugh at me."
He tapped his head lightly. "Nice hat."
Growling, she flung aside the hat and shrugged out of the hotel jacket. "Believe me, if I'd known you were in here, I wouldn't have chosen this room to hide out."
"Hide out?" he said absently, half following her words.
As she pulled her arms free of the jacket to review a rumpled black suit, the tug of her white business shirt against her breasts sent an unwelcome surge of arousal through him. He'd been fighting a damned inconvenient arousal around this woman for more than two years, ever since she'd stepped behind a podium in front of an auditorium full of people and proceeded to shoot holes in his work. She thought his computerized diagnostics tool was too simplistic. She'd accused him of taking the human element out of medicine. His jaw flexed, any urge to smile fading.
If anyone was too impersonal, it was her. And, God, how he ached to rattle her composure, to see her tawny eyes go sleepy with all-consuming passion.
He was five seconds away from an obvious erection. He reined himself in and faced the problem at handthe womanas a more likely reason for her arrival smoked through his brain. "Is this some sort of professional espionage?"
"What in the hell are you talking about?" She fidgeted with the loose waistband on her tweedy skirt.
Who would have thought tweed would turn him inside out? Yet he found himself fantasizing about pulling those practical clunky shoes off her feet. He would kiss his way up under her skirt, discover the silken inside of her calf