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Yuletide Baby Surprise

By: Catherine Mann

One

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 polyrhythmic 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 other—or even on the same continent—the 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.

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