By Susan Carlisle
Out in April
Dr. Laurel Martin placed the test tube into the rack with great care, her pulse racing in anticipation. This could be it. The breakthrough she’d devoted her career to finding. The process to stop the mutation in the factor IX gene in the X chromosome. If it could be tested for during pregnancy and corrected then thousands of lives could be changed, in some cases even saved. The key was finding that link.
To find the answer she had to have funding. That money was difficult to come by. She’d already been put on notice that hers was running out. Still she held out hope that would change. She’d submitted another grant application and should hear from it any day.
The study of hemophilia had become her life’s calling. In medical school it hadn’t taken her long to realize her comfort zone didn’t include interacting with patients and their loved ones. She didn’t like to tell them bad news. Being an introvert further hindered her ability to do so. Research had become her safe spot.
A tap on her lab window drew her attention. She pushed her glasses up on her nose. Stewart, the director of the lab, stood on the other side of the glass. His medium height was dwarfed by the tall, lean man standing beside him.
Oh, my. Laurel’s heart jumped then adjusted. She stared. The stranger was gorgeous. She hadn’t had that type of reaction to a man in years. Not since college when she’d first seen her ex-boyfriend, Larry. A college football player, he’d been shockingly good-looking as well. She’d learned the hard way that good looks didn’t make a kind person.
The man beside Stewart had an exotic appearance that implied he might be of Middle Eastern decent. His skin had a warm pecan tint as if he spent a great amount of time in the sun. His proud baring gave him an aura of authority, as if he knew his place in the world and had no trouble holding it. The black tailored suit jacket covering his broad shoulders that matched his hair and equally dark, meticulously-groomed beard screamed wealth and power. His gaze locked with hers.
To her surprise his eyes weren’t like ink. Instead they were chestnut, reminding her of a racing stallion she’d seen once as a girl. One of his well-shaped brows rose slightly as if he suspected the effect he had on women and wasn’t surprised by her reaction.
His look bore into hers making her feel like one of her petri dish specimens under a microscope. The devil of it was, he was the kind of man she’d always been attracted to. The brand of male who had always looked passed her mousy, too serious and impossibly intelligent personality in favor of a tall blonde, with perky breasts, long legs and an engaging giggle that stood just behind her. She was wallpaper and his type were interested in the chandeliers.
Men like him didn’t seriously consider her worth noticing. The one time someone had, she’d been traumatized. Larry had damaged her that much. So much so she’d sworn off men and had stuck to that vow for ten years. Long enough to become so absorbed in her work she had little life outside of it. None of that had anything to do with the man before her.
The wave of hand Stewart’s hand drew her look away from the arresting stranger. Stewart indicated he wanted her to come out of her lab. Laurel checked her test tubes again and pushed the rack further away from the edge of the table before rolling her chair back. She exited the room door with a swish of the airlock seal behind her. In the outer room, she removed her goggles and adjusted her glasses. She pulled her mask, gloves and gown off leaving her in a simple round neck t-shirt and jeans.
Shrugging into her starched lab coat, she touched the bun at the back of her head making sure it was in place. She glanced over her shoulder. The stranger intense gaze remained on her. A ripple of heat went through her, disconcerting her even more.
Shaking off the response, she moved with cool proficiency into the main lab. It wasn’t until she’d almost joined the men that she noticed the two larger ones standing a few paces behind the man. How had she missed those intimidating figures? Because she’d been so absorbed by her reaction to the man standing front and center. These males were larger with bulkier shoulders and had even grimmer faces, if that was possible. They stood with hands clasped in front of them and legs wide as if ready to move into action. Who were these people and what did they want with her?
Laurel’s hands trembled. She shoved them in the pockets of her lab coat. Had she done something wrong? Her eyes narrowed and she gave Stewart a questioning look, relieved to have an excuse to break off eye contact with the other men.
Stewart’s voice shook slightly as he said, “Laurel, this is Prince Tariq bin Al Maktum, and he would like to speak to you.” Stewart enunciated the man’s unusual name carefully as if he’d been practicing in order not to trip over it.
Prince? Why would a prince want with her? A “lab rat” according to her siblings. Astonishment made her blurt, “About what?”
“I’ll be glad to share that in private,” Prince bin Al Maktum answered in a deep smooth voice like refined velvet with a thread of steel running through it. His accent made Laurel want to hear him say more.
She twinkled her nose as alarm washed through her. “Stewart, what’s this about?”
“I’ll let the prince tell you. Why don’t we go to my office?” Stewart turned and started toward the swinging doors separating the main lab from the offices. The prince stepped aside, allowing her to proceed him. Acutely aware of him and his security men, she walked stiffly. At the doors, he quickly stepped ahead of her and held one open. Laurel gave him a quick glance as she passed. His inscrutable look revealed nothing. She wouldn’t want to deal with him on a daily basis. How could she ever discern what he was thinking? Feeling?
As they walked down the tiled hall her low sensible clogs made a tap-tap but there was no sound behind her. How did such great men move with such agility? That thought didn’t comfort her.
Stewart swiped his card and pushed the office door open. She entered, expecting him to follow but instead Prince bin Al Maktum joined her and closed the door behind him. The already small space shrunk in proportion to his large presence. She faced him and shoved her hands into her lab coat pocket, bracing herself.
“Please Dr. Martin, have a seat.” He indicated the chairs in front of Stewart’s desk.
“No thank you. I need get back to my lab as soon as possible.” She wanted to return to her safe place. “How can I help you?” Laurel couldn’t imagine how but it seemed like the right thing to say to hurry this along.
“Sit.” The prince’s tone implied she had no choice.
She hesitated but eased into a chair, noting too late it put her in closer proximity to him. To her surprise he took the other chair. At this point she fully expected he might try to lord over her. After all, he acted as if he owned the place. Stewart didn’t allow just anyone to take over his office. She clasped her hands in her lap and waited for bin Al Maktum to speak.
“Dr. Martin, I would like you to come to Zentar with me.”
“What?” she yelped, leaping to her feet. Had this man lost his mind? Why had Stewart allowed this crazy person in their lab?
The prince raised his hand. “Just hear me out for a moment. Please.”
Laurel eased back into her chair more from shock than trying to please him. She glanced at the door.
“I assure you, you are safe. What I meant to say is that I would like to offer you a position. And chance to further your research.”
Laurel shook her head in confusion. That sounded completely different than his earlier statement. She already had a place to do research, one in which she was so close to a breakthrough. Her family lived near. She already had a settled and secure life. She cared nothing about going somewhere else. Where was Zentar anyway? Even if she know she had no intention of marrying a stranger. “Thank you, but I already have a position here.”
“I understand you are the top researcher in the field of hemophilia. I am the Minister of Health for Zentar. I have overseen the building of a state of the art laboratory. I intend for my country to be a leader in finding a cure for hemophilia.”
Really. That was interesting. Her interest pricked.
“I have vetted you and you come with the highest of recommendations.”
“Thank you but I have no idea who you are.” Why was some prince of some tiny nation she’d never heard of focusing on hemophilia? “I appreciate your confidence in me but I’m happy here.” She wasn’t the adventurous type and she had that fact driven home in no uncertain terms. The idea of living in another state much less some far flung country terrified her. “I don’t even know where Zentar is.”
Finally, there was a spark of emotion in those dark penetrating eyes. Was it pride? “It’s an island in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Tunisia. We have beautiful white beaches and stark mountains that are amazing in their own right. We are a small independently wealthy country and progressive in many aspects. My brother, the king, has worked hard to make it so. Still we remain very traditional in others.”
What would it be like to have a man talk about her with that same admiration? She shook that shocking idea away. “It sounds nice but I have my work here.”
He leaned forward. “I can offer you anything you desire. The best of equipment, assistants and endless funding.”
“But why me? Why hemophilia?”
He paused, looked away from her so long she became uncomfortable. “I have my reasons.” That sounded like a dismissal more than a confession.
Laurel started to rise.
His expression turned shadowy and looked away. “Hemophilia is a problem in my country and growing.”
Laurel now knew what drove him. “I see.”
He pierced her with a look. “I am not sure you do. In my country the number of children born with the disease is increasing. As the Minister of Health I must find out why. You can help me.”
Apparently he believed she would accept without question but it wasn’t going to happen. Just the idea of getting on a plane made her shudder. She could not and would not pick up her entire life and move to a strange country. “I can go.”
“Is there a husband or boyfriend keeping you here?”
“Then why not?” He watched her too closely.
“I don’t fly.”
His silent steady examination lasted a heartbeat too long. “Ever?”
“More like never.”
“You would be taking my private plane. Every luxury would be afforded you. All I ask is that you come and have a look at our facility. Then you could decide.”
Laurel appreciated him thinking so highly of her but she had no interest in going to Zentar. She wasn’t a daring person. Her work, her life, was here. She stood and he did as well. “Thank you for the offer but I cannot accept. So I really shouldn’t waste anymore of your time. If you will excuse me, I need to get back to my lab now.”
The prince’s lips thinned and his eyes were emotionless again, more telling than if they had held some. She’d just refused a man who was used to getting his way. It took a great deal of willpower, but she stepped between the chairs into his personal space. A whiff of his citrus aftershave tickled her nose. A shiver ran along her spine as she hurried to the door. She was unsure if her body’s reaction was in response to his close proximity or from the anger gusting off him.
In a low, even voice he informed her, “Just so you know, I make a point of getting what I want.”
That evening in his hotel suite Tariq poured himself a finger of whiskey. Perplexed, he pondered where his interview with Dr. Martin had gone awry. The nondescript slip of a woman had refused him! He was both irritated and impressed. In his world, few if any people told him no, yet a wallflower doctor who lived most of her life closed up in a glass room laboratory had done so. He was confounded. What had gone wrong in the meeting he’d so carefully planned?
Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles, swirling the transparent copper-colored liquid in his glass. He’d done his homework. In fact, he’d even called a couple of research facilities to verify she was the person he should focus his efforts on. It never occurred to him she would turn down his offer. What research scientist wouldn’t want to head their own lab and have access to all the research money they wanted? Apparently he had overlooked some pertinent fact about Dr. Martin. He didn’t have a Plan B formulated but by evening’s end he would. He wanted Dr. Martin in Zentar and he would have her.
After his brother’s death from a car accident, Tariq had taken over the responsibility of his sister-in-law’s and Roji’s welfare. Tariq would give anything to have Roji grow up with his father there. That wouldn’t happen now, but if Tariq had anything to do with it no more of his family would have to endure what Roji would. The future members of the royal family would be free of hemophilia. The cure was out there and he’d built a lab to find it in. Now he needed the right person to lead it, and that was Dr. Martin.
He would never put a wife and child in the same position as Zara and Roji. Despite being the only male in his family that did not have hemophilia he refused to take the chance on having a family. He didn’t deserve one when the others had to deal with the disease. As a doctor he understood that the ailment was thought to be passed by the female. What if he picked the wrong woman? He already lived with enough guilt.