In desperate need of staff for her small clinic on a beautiful Malaysian island, Dr Arissa Cotter accepts the help of tourist Dr Philippe Aronaz, little knowing her knight-in-shining-armour is also a prince! But when he sweeps her away to his Mediterranean kingdom she discovers Philippe faces battles of his own. Arissa has always hidden herself away - does she dare step into the spotlight and stand by her Prince's side?
Philippe settled into his seat and pulled his baseball cap over his eyes. It was a four-hour flight to Temur Sapora, the Malaysian island in the South China Seas and he intended to sleep the whole way.
Two minutes later an ample gentleman tried to slide into the seat next to him. Philippe looked up briefly, shifting a little to allow the man more room to sit down. It was an instant mistake. The red-faced man instantly started talking. “Pardon me. I’m a little bigger than the standard-sized airline seat,” he laughed, then stuck out his hand towards Philippe.
“Harry Reacher, I’m from Minneapolis in the US. Are you going to Temur Sapora too?”
Philippe let his practiced face slide into place. He didn’t say the word obviously that was floating around in his head. This aircraft only had one destination.
“Philippe,” he said simply, leaving the last name blank. It didn’t matter that this guy was American. His surname was pretty well known worldwide. The whole point of this trip was to remain anonymous – hence why he was heading to an island in the South China Seas that few people had heard of.
“I’m a doctor,” added Harry quickly, pulling a cotton handkerchief from his pocket and wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’m going to work at one of the local medical centres for a few weeks. They’ve apparently made huge advances on wound healing.”
“They have?” Now Philippe’s curiosity was definitely piqued. He sat up a little in his chair. “What are they doing?”
There was a spark in Harry’s eyes. “You in the business?”
Philippe nodded. “I’m a doctor too.”
“Aaaaahh.” Harry gave him a careful stare which Philippe hoped wasn’t a glimmer of recognition. “You here to work too?”
Philippe shook his head and smiled. “Absolutely not. This is a holiday. My first in five years. I’m going to lay low for two weeks, drink a few beers and sleep.” He left out the part about needing a bit of time and headspace to regroup after his last patient in the ER. That experience would never leave him.
“If this is a holiday where are all your friends?” Harry looked around in surprise. “Don’t you young guys all go on holidays together?”
Philippe gave a shrug. He had years of experience at avoiding questions he really didn’t want to answer. “Thanks for the compliment but I’m not that young – thirty-one now. And I can guarantee if my friends were with me I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep and that’s what I need right now. Five years of fifty-hour weeks is enough for anyone. I’m starting another job in a few weeks and just wanted some downtime.”
Harry smiled again. “And you chose Temur Sapora? It’s a little off the beaten track.”
Philippe nodded. “Which means it’s perfect. Beautiful beaches, perfect ocean and an anonymous luxury resort.”
Harry shrugged. “I guess we all need some downtime.”
“Except you. You’re here to work.” He was still curious to hear about the advances in wound healing.
Harry smiled again. “But it’s for selfish reasons. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can and take it back with me. And for me, coming here, it’s the trip of a lifetime.” His smile got wider. “I can’t wait.”
Philippe settled back in his seat a little as the fasten seatbelt signs lit up. Harry struggled to fit his around his wide girth, eventually closing it with a bit of a squirm. “Now,” he said. “Where were we? Ah yes, let me tell you about the effects of the ointment they’ve developed on necrotising fasciitis.”
Philippe kept a smile on his face as the plane taxied down the runway and the possibility of sleep slipped further and further from his grasp.
“Harry, are you okay?”
Three hours later Harry was rubbing at his chest again. He’d hardly touched the food when it came and had only been drinking water. Sweat was pouring off him and his face was getting redder by the second.
“It’ll pass. Just a bit of indigestion,” he said.
Philippe shook his head. “Let me take a proper look at you.” He grabbed his backpack from under the seat in front and pulled out a tiny monitor and a stethoscope. Every doctor’s first-aid kit. Before Harry could say any more, Philippe slipped the tiny probe onto his finger.
“Do you have any health conditions I should know about?”
Harry shook his head. “Just a bit of high blood pressure but it’s been under control for the last few years.”
Philippe reached over to touch him. The skin on his chest was cold and clammy. He positioned the stethoscope, knowing it was unlikely to help. Harry’s lungs were functioning – it was his heart that was having problems.
“I have to be okay,” murmured Harry. “I’m meeting Arissa Cotter at the medical centre. She’s expecting me. They’re down a doctor right now so the timing has worked out perfectly.” He gasped as his hand went to his chest. “She needs me.”
For the first time Philippe could see real fear in Harry’s eyes. He signalled to one of the air stewards. “How soon until we land?”
The steward shot an anxious glance at Harry. “Another hour.”
“Anywhere closer we can land?”
He shook his head. “No. Not for a plane this size. There’s only the South China Sea. Temur Sapora is the nearest airport from here.”
Philippe grimaced. For the first time he wished he’d taken the royal private jet. It was smaller and could probably have landed on a much shorter airstrip. But he’d wanted to be incognito – he’d wanted to have the chance of having a true holiday before he had to head back home to Corinez to take up his role in spearheading some changes in the healthcare system. The King had trained his children well. One – trained in the armed forces - to be the next King, one – trained as a doctor - to help facilitate changes in healthcare and one – trained as an accountant – to join the advisory committee on finance.
But bringing the royal jet to Temur Sapora would just have alerted most of the news agencies around the world. Not the kind of holiday he wanted.
“Give me a number for your chest pain, Harry, between 1 and 10.” He couldn’t help it. Moving into complete doctor mode was so natural to him.
The redness started to fade from Harry’s face, replaced by a horrible paleness. Harry didn’t answer.
Philippe’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. As a doctor he’d dealt with many emergencies, but not at 30,000 feet – and not without any real supplies. He had a horrible sinking feeling that what he needed right now was some kind of anticoagulant to stop the current damage to Harry’s heart. This guy was having a heart attack. And those kind of meds weren’t available at 30,000 feet.
Within a few seconds Harry slumped over.
The steward panicked and ran to get their emergency kit and defibrillator. Philippe slid Harry to the floor. The passengers close by were wide-eyed but moved swiftly aside to let Philippe work.
Ten minutes later Philippe ran his fingers through his dark hair and let out an angry sigh. It was impossible. The defibrillator wasn’t even picking up a shockable rhythm. CPR was having no effect and they were too far away from landing to continue indefinitely.
He stared down at Harry and withdrew his hands slowly, making a final check of the pulse before he glanced at his watch. “Time of death, two, fifty-six,” he said as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Harry,” he said quietly. “I guess you’re not getting the trip of a lifetime anymore.”
Arissa glanced at her watch. It was odd. Harry Reacher’s plane had landed hours ago and he should have been here by now.
Her stomach squeezed. She hoped he hadn’t had a last-minute change of heart. Getting doctors here was difficult enough. As it was, she used all her own holidays to cover here five weeks a year.
She finished scrubbing her hands at the sink and moved over to the small trolley she had set up. “Okay, Adilah, let’s get a proper look at the finger.”
She pulled on some gloves and touched Adilah’s finger to ensure the local anaesthetic had taken effect. Her mother adjusted Adilah on her knee. “How many stitches do you think it will need?”
Arissa gave a smile. “I think about four will be enough. That’s a nasty cut you gave yourself, Adilah. But I’ll have it fixed in no time and it won’t hurt a bit.”
Arissa bent down and started making the tiny stitches as she sang a childhood nursery rhyme that her mother had taught her as a child. Adilah smiled and joined in. Within a few minutes she was done, giving the wound a final check and covering with a small dressing. She pulled out her prescription pad. “I’m going to give you some antibiotics for Adilah, as the wound was pretty dirty when she got here. She’s more liable to infection than most, so hopefully this will keep things at bay.”
Adilah’s mother gave a grateful nod. Arissa noted the dark circles under her eyes. Having a five year old with leukaemia was taking its toll. “Bring her back if she shows sign of a temperature or any discharge from the wound. Otherwise try and keep the dressing dry for the next few days. It should heal without any problems.”
There was a movement at the door, and Arissa looked up. Darn it. Another tourist, doubtless looking for luxury resort that had a similar name to their clinic.
“Give me a minute.” She waved her hand as she moved to dispose of the items on the trolley and wash her hands again.
Instead of waiting at the door the curious tourist stepped inside, nodding at Adilah and her mother as they left and then turning his head from side to side, scanning the clinic area.
Arissa felt her hackles rise. He was likely looking for luxury, Egyptian cotton sheets, straw parasols, cocktails and personal waiters. This simple clinic would be something completely out with his normal environment.
She sighed and turned around, trying her best to paste a smile on her face. “Are you lost?” Her heart stopped somewhere in her chest. Wow. Okay, Mr Tourist was about to knock Hugh Jackman off her “if only” list and steal his place.
Dark hair and dark eyes, combined with height and a muscular build. He was dragging some kind of backpack behind him. Not like the usual designer luggage she might have expected.
He was holding a baseball cap in his hand. He tilted his head to the side. “Arissa Cotter?”
She blinked. This couldn’t be her guy. Wasn’t Dr Reacher in his sixties? She held her breath for a second. “Who wants to know?”
Her heart started thudding against her chest as she tried to control her breathing. Was he a reporter? A private investigator? Had the secret she’d tried to hide for the last few years finally tracked her down?
The man crossed the room in three long strides, holding his hand out towards her. “Philippe...,” he paused, then gave the briefest shake of his head. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
She didn’t like this. She didn’t like this at all. She automatically stepped back and he looked a little surprised.
It didn’t matter that his eyes were the darkest brown she’d ever seen. Her breath was tangling somewhere inside her, wondering if things were about to come crashing down around her.
She didn’t answer him. Her words caught somewhere between her chest and throat.
He took a deep breath. “I’m really sorry to tell you that I was on the plane next to Dr Harry Reacher. He had a heart attack while we were in midair.”
It took a few seconds for the words to process. “Wh..what?”
Her brain jumped away from the fear. For a few moments she felt utterly selfish. She’d imagined this was all about her. “Is he in the hospital?”
Something flitted across the eyes of the man calling himself Philippe and she knew instantly what came next. A horrible prickling feeling spread over her skin.
“Oh no,” were all the words she could form. She took a deep breath. She’d never had a chance to meet Harry Reacher but his emails over the last few months had brightened her days, his enthusiasm and passion for his work brimming over in every sentence.
The tall stranger was still standing there, watching her with those intense brown eyes. She gave herself a little shake then tried to give him a smile. “I’m really sorry to hear about Harry. I was looking forward to working with him.” Her heart gave a little twist as she realised she’d need to carry the workload here herself for the next few weeks.
He nodded too and ran his hand through his thick dark hair. It was the first time she’d noticed the fatigue in his eyes. “I’m just sorry I couldn’t save him. But, up there,” he let out a sigh, “I had nothing. No drugs, proper equipment. I don’t have a doubt what the autopsy will show, but I hate the fact that if we’d actually been on the ground and near a hospital, there might have been a chance to save him.”
It was the way he said the words. As if he had an edge of responsibility for what had happened.
“You had a defib?” She couldn’t help but ask, she was curious.
He nodded. “But no shockable rhythm.”
Arissa pressed her lips together. She knew exactly what that meant. The heart attack must have been catastrophic. Whether they’d been near a hospital or not, it was unlikely that Harry would have survived.
But how many people knew it wasn’t a shockable rhythm? She opened her mouth to ask when another priority sprung to mind. Of course.
She straightened up as the logical part of her brain kicked into gear. “I should contact the hospital. See about making arrangements regarding Harry – speak to the consulate about contacting his relatives.”
“I’ve taken care of things,” he said, somewhat carefully.
She frowned. “Really?”
That seemed a little odd. Regulations and red tape were notorious on Temur Sapora. Who on earth was this guy? She looked at him again. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she couldn’t place him at all. His accent was kind of strange. A mix of French, Italian and Spanish. He was definitely from Europe somewhere but she couldn’t quite place the rich tone in his voice. Whoever he was, he must have money. The luxury resorts here were for the rich, the very rich and, the very, very rich.
Too expensive and exclusive for anyone less than a millionaire. At some point Temur Sapora would be found by the masses, but luckily that hadn’t happened yet. She cringed every time some billionaire businessman mentioned in an interview that they’d visited a ‘luxury Malaysian island’ putting the spotlight on her home.
Part of her wanted the island to remain unspoiled and undiscovered. But part of her wanted it to share some of the distributed wealth of the rich visitors. The tourist resorts had given jobs to many of her friends. Families that had lived in poverty had started to gain a little income and independence. Healthcare had finally started to become a little more accessible. In the last ten years people around her had flourished. Before, Arissa had to leave the island to train as a doctor. There was no university here, and the local hospitals weren’t properly equipped. But gradual improvements had happened. She was always glad to return now and give back a little to the place she’d left behind. Her fulltime job was in Washington. She was specialising in paediatrics. But the plane ride back to Temur Sapora with the familiar sight of the turquoise waters and the backdrop of the volcano always made her heart leap a little in her chest. There was no place like home.
There was a crackle above them. The guy started and Arissa gave a rueful smile. She held up one hand, “Give it a second.”
He looked confused – his muscles tense in his neck, his hands in fists. Was he afraid? A few seconds later another noise thundered from the sky followed by a sudden torrent of rain deluging the roof above them.
A half smile appeared on his face as he realised what the sound was, and he glanced a look outside at the rain thudding down on the ground. The rain drops bounced back up and the street quickly collected water. “It almost sounded like gun fire,” he said softly.
It was a curious thing to say. Arissa glanced at her watch and shook her head. “It’s almost like clockwork.” She put her hands on her hips. “Everyday around midday we have the daily deluge.” She moved a little closer to him, catching a sea-edged scent with a hint of musk. She could feel her senses prickle. Interesting aftershave. She shifted her feet, curious and a little irritated that she’d even noticed. The rain drummed down relentlessly outside, ricocheting off the nearby roofs like a drum beat. He’d crossed his arms across his body revealing the muscles in his back visible through his thin cotton t-shirt.
She dragged her eyes deliberately away but immediately found them focusing on his toned, tanned arms. Darn it. What was wrong with her?
She blinked as she took a step forward so she was slightly ahead of him. His eyes were focused firmly on the water rushing past their feet, rapidly turning a sludgy brown as it mixed with the earth from the surrounding streets.
“Is it always like this?”
She nodded. “Yip. This is normal. Give it fifteen minutes and the sun will come back out.” She took a deep breath and pointed off to the distant volcano, currently with a dark cloud hanging over it. “Scientists have studied it and can’t really explain the phenomenon. When I was little, my nenek used to tell me the God of Thunder was a little sad and wanted to remind us he was still there.”
She glanced sideways at him and she could see the amused look on his face. “And you believed that?”
Instantly she was annoyed. Her eyes went from his face to the designer emblem on the right side of the t-shirt. She recognised it. That t-shirt cost what she’d normally earn in a month. She was right. He was one of the cocky billionaires that normally frequented the local luxury resort. She’d do well to remember that instead of getting lost in a set of deep brown eyes.
Memories flooded her brain. Someone like him would never relate to someone like her – abandoned as a baby outside a local shop. She’d been one of the lucky ones. She’d been adopted by a local couple and had a warm upbringing, only ending when they’d both died from ill health a few years ago. But she’d had to fight for everything she’d ever achieved. She loved the local stories and traditions of Temur Sapora. A man of privilege would never relate to a place like this.
She spun away and shot over her shoulder, “Give it fifteen minutes and it’ll be finished. Then, you’ll be able to get to wherever you’re going. If you need a taxi you’ll find one at the end of the street.” She licked her lips, reluctantly adding, “Thanks for letting me know about Harry. Have a nice holiday.”
He looked a bit stunned by her sudden dismissal. But she couldn’t worry about that now. She had work to do – more, now that she knew Harry wouldn’t be joining her.
She didn’t have time to waste exchanging niceties with an anonymous stranger – no matter how nice he smelt.
One day. That’s how long he’d been here and he was bored rigid.
The resort was glorious, immaculate and set on a gleaming white sandy beach. Every room had a view of the rippling turquoise ocean. The impeccable staff seemed to anticipate his every need. The beds and sheets were as luxurious as the ones he slept on in the palace. He had everything he could possibly want or need at his fingertips.
He’d picked the resort carefully. It was exactly what he wanted. A place he could completely relax and refocus. He knew after finishing his last job in a busy ER that he’d need a chance to reflect and change pace. His final patient in the ER had brought home to him just how important it was to spearhead the changes his principality needed in healthcare. Corinez was a playground for the rich and famous. But not everyone who lived and worked there was rich and famous, and healthcare was something that frequently came bottom of the list on people’s daily expenses. After his last case his father had promised him a few weeks leeway before he returned to help try and develop free maternity care within Corinez.
He’d prepared for this role his whole life. He’d always known this time would come, as did his brother and sister. There was no doubt that Anthony had the hardest role – as Prince Regent he was expected to take over from their father when he abdicated next year.
Philippe nodded as one of the personal concierges sat a cocktail down next to him. This was his time to reflect, to plan, to take stock of what he’d learned from around the globe and apply it to the services and people in Corinez.
He had to – because paradise had changed a little over the last few years. Corinez had always been known as an island paradise. For the rich it was well known as a tax haven – the casinos flourished. Lots of celebrities had homes in Corinez. But over the last few years things had changed. The recession had hit areas of Corinez like every other country or principality and whilst the fabulously rich still existed, the people who struggled were becoming more noticeable, and those were the ones that Philippe wanted to focus on. He firmly believed that everyone was entitled to healthcare. He wanted to introduce a system in Corinez similar to the NHS in the UK. He had to start somewhere and now, more than ever, he knew that maternity care was the place to begin.
So why was he spending his time thinking about the beautiful Malaysian doctor he’d met yesterday?
Most of his dreams last night had been haunted by her dark hair, serious brown eyes, slim frame, pink shirt and dark figure-hugging trousers. He could remember every detail.
When he’d first watched her, he’d admired her easy manner as she interacted with the little girl. But from the second she’d realised he was there he could almost see the shutters go down over her eyes. He’d been surprised by her instantly suspicious gaze. The truth was – he wasn’t used to it.
He’d spent his life in two roles. Prince Philippe or Dr Aronaz. Neither of which was usually met with suspicion. But he hadn’t introduced himself to Arissa as either. Which for him was unusual. He was trying hard to keep a low profile. But now he was here?
The clientele were clearly exclusive. He’d recognised an actor hiding from a scandal. An unscrupulous politician. An author who seemed to spend all day typing her latest novel furiously. And several well-known business associates who were obviously trying to take some time to relax – even though they had phones pressed permanently to their ears. Truth was, he really didn’t want to spend time with any of these people. Particularly the blonde actress who seemed to be trying to attract his attention right now. His last experience of a relationship with an actress hadn’t gone so well. She’d relished dating a prince. She loved the attention. The constant media coverage. What she didn’t love was how dedicated Philippe was to his work. Or, that his plans for the future had included even more work. When he’d refused to choose her over his day job she’d dumped him mercilessly. He wasn’t afraid to admit he’d been hurt. He might even have loved her a little, but her hour-long interview about him on primetime TV had killed that feeling completely. He was wary now. He wasn’t ready to put his heart on the line in such an obvious way again. Here, he could just be Philippe, not a prince of Corinez. That felt surprisingly refreshing.
He looked around again. What exactly was he going to do? There was a gym – been there, done that. A business centre – no way. A beauty salon – no. A masseuse – he shuddered. He’d never been one for a stranger’s hand on his skin. As for the tennis and squash courts? It was hard to play tennis or squash solo. He stretched out his arms, feeling the sun continue to heat his skin. Arissa’s face flooded into his brain again.
He’d seen the disappointment on her face yesterday when she’d realised Dr Reacher wouldn’t be joining her. Philippe hadn’t even asked what impact that might have on her. To be honest he’d been a little stung by her sudden dismissal.
He wasn’t used to being treated like that. Sure, like any doctor he’d dealt with drunk or difficult patients. As a prince he’d dealt with arrogant or obnoxious dignitaries. But Arissa? That was something a little different. It was almost as if he’d done something to offend her – and he was sure that he hadn’t.
He straightened on his sunlounger. There was a chance she could be responsible for the clinic on her own. His legs swung off the bed automatically. He took one glance at the bright orange cocktail and shook his head as he grabbed his t-shirt. He could still keep a low profile. He could introduce himself to Arissa with his Dr persona whilst just leaving out the part he was a prince. Temur Sapora was an island just like Corinez, albeit on the other side of the planet. Thoughts started to form quickly in his head. He could help out while learning more about their health system – treat it as a research trip. He could give her references leaving out his last job at a hospital in Corinez. If she called there – she would find out instantly he was a prince. The others would only mention him as Philippe Aronaz.
He strode through to his suite, quickly changing as he wondered who he was trying to convince. His real focus was that slight frame and those deep brown eyes. He smiled as he strode out the door.
No one would turn down a free doctor – would they?
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