Sanura Jones looked up from her canvas as her best friend May flung open the door to her small attic studio and stood clasping a scrunched up sheet of paper to her chest.
Sanura dropped her brush into the jar of water and wiped her hands on her paint-splattered coverall. Unease coiled through her at Mays’ unnaturally pale face. “What’s the matter?”
With a trembling hand, her friend handed her the letter. It was a rich, creamy parchment and disbelief crawled along Sanura’s spine as she stared at the elaborate crest emblazoned across the top.
She didn’t need to read it. She knew what this letter was about. May’s worst nightmare had come true, and the man she had been betrothed to since birth was coming to claim her.
“I can’t stay here.” May paced the floor. “I have to get away. Will you help me?”
Sanura gripped May’s hand and pulled her around. “May, calm down. It’s the twenty-first century. Nobody can make you marry anyone you don’t want to. This is England. They have laws here to prevent that kind of thing.”
“You don’t understand. In Qtara, once the bride price has been paid that’s as binding as a marriage contract. I’m already married to Khalid Salah al Din.”
“What?” Bride price? What century was May’s father living in? Surely Qtara couldn’t be that barbaric in its customs? May had to be mistaken. Sanura scanned the document. She couldn’t understand a word. “Where does it say you’re married to him?”
May snatched the document back and read through it. Finally she looked up. “It says the bride price has yet to be paid.” She didn’t sound relieved. If anything, she sounded more panicked than ever.
“Well there you are, then. You’re not married to Khalid and all you have to do is tell him you don’t want to marry him. He’s not going to want an unwilling wife, now is he?”
“That didn’t stop Khalid’s older brother abducting Lexi Galvin last month, did it?” May’s voice notched up in panic. “The Salah al Din family can do anything they want. No one will stop them.”
“The abduction was only a rumor.” Although her mother was Australian, May had royal blood from her Arab father and as such not only did she have shadowy bodyguards that watched her from afar, she also had access to all kinds of weird and wonderful information. “Their marriage was in the all the gossip mags the other week and honestly, can you tell me she looked freaked out?” In truth, the bride had looked ecstatic in all the wedding photos. No one could fake that level of happiness, surely.
“I won’t marry into that family.”
Sanura squeezed May’s fingers. They had been friends from the moment they had met three years ago, when May had moved to England to start her design course at university. Not only were they the same age, strangers often mistook them for sisters with their similar build and coloring.
Ever since her parents had died eight years ago, Sanura had lived with her aunt Clara. Clara owned a beautiful, rambling old house and had taken in wealthy students for years to make ends meet. But since May had arrived and subsequently rented the entire second floor, no other student had been necessary.
“All right. You know I’ll do anything to help you. Do you want me to find a lawyer who deals in human rights?”
May looked at her as if she had just said something incredibly naïve. “A lawyer can’t help me. Khalid is sending his personal representatives at the end of the week to escort me to Omana. I can’t be here when they arrive.”
“Okay.” Sanura pulled off her coverall. She still thought May was overreacting but if she wanted to get away for a while to collect her thoughts, then that was probably the best thing for her. Especially since May was still grieving for the unexpected death of her brother a couple of months ago. She’d gone back to Qtara after that for a short time to be with her parents, but since she’d returned to London she had been even more paranoid about this betrothal. “I’ll help you pack.”
The following afternoon Sanura tried not to show her impatience as her aunt Clara burst into her studio, a tragic expression on her face. “When is the princess coming back, Sanura? Do I keep her rooms ready for her or should I advertise for more students?”
She knew her aunt was worried about the money side of things. Even though May had just finished her course, she had planned to stay in the house while she looked for a job. May might be a princess but all she wanted was a normal life and Sanura knew Clara had been relying on the generous rental income for another year at least.
After all, it wasn’t as though Sanura brought in much with her part time job at the local supermarket. But that was just a temporary thing to pay essential bills so she could devote the rest of her time to her art. One day her passion would be her full-time career. No way would she compromise that.
But she still had to finish and deliver this final piece for her very first art exhibition next week. To be able to follow her dream, in a way her beloved dad never had with his art, meant everything to Sanura. She’d just about died when the art gallery’s board had offered her a place in their Emerging New Artists Exhibition.
“May’s going to let me know as soon as she’s settled.” They had decided not to tell Clara the truth about May’s sudden disappearance. Sanura had driven her to Heathrow that morning and as far as she knew they hadn’t been followed. All Clara knew was May had a family emergency that required her presence somewhere in Europe.
Even though May had, in fact, been going to Australia.
It was crazy how paranoid May was when it came to anything related to her father. She spoke of his secret police and it sounded like she was talking about medieval times. She’d warned Sanura to act completely unaware of the situation when Khalid’s representatives turned up. To tell them that, as far as she knew, May had gone to Europe.
Seriously. If Khalid’s reps turned up on the doorstep and tried flexing their barbaric muscles in her face, she’d have the authorities on them in no time.
The doorbell chimed, interrupting her aunt’s monologue on how rude it had been of May to leave without any notice. Sanura smothered a groan and pulled off her coverall. At this rate she was never going to get her work finished.
“I’ll get it.”
Sheikh Khalid Salah al Din stepped out of his limousine and frowned up at the house before him. It was a large detached Victorian house in a quiet residential road, but the paintwork was peeling and it hardly looked suitable accommodation for a princess.
For his future wife.
His stomach knotted. He was only twenty-six. He wasn’t ready to settle down. Had no desire to take a bride yet, especially a bride he had not even met.
But despite the Western blood from his beloved mother, he knew his duty. It had been his father’s wish that he marry Princess Maysarah El Habib, the only daughter—and since her brother’s death the only heir—of Sheikh Abdel El Habib, whose neighboring kingdom, Qtara, had valuable access to the sea.
The betrothal had been drawn up twenty years ago, despite his mother’s protests. But his father, who would usually move both heaven and earth to please his second wife, had remained firm.
The kingdom of Omana needed the alliance with the kingdom of Qtara. And Khalid, as his second son, was the only suitable candidate.
Ah, God. His father. Grief rolled through Khalid and for a moment he gripped the weathered stone wall that surrounded the front garden of the property. Barely three months ago his father had been brutally murdered during the country’s Millennium celebrations. It had been shocking. Unbelievable that such a thing could occur.
But their security was second to none. His younger brother Rafi ensured this was so. It was horrifying and repellent to imagine there must be a traitor in their midst, but how else had the rebels gained access to the royal family?
A shudder crawled over his flesh at how narrowly he and his brothers had escaped the same bloodied fate when the bomb had ripped apart the royal enclosure. They should have been there, but had been delayed after paying their respects to Khalid’s mother who had declined to share the opening day’s limelight with their father’s first wife.
It was devastating enough that his father had been murdered. He couldn’t imagine how he would feel if his mother had also died.
The way his brothers’ mother had died.
He forced the thought of retribution for the atrocity to the back of his mind. Now was not the time to dwell on such matters. He straightened and took a deep breath. His own feelings didn’t matter. This marriage was a political alliance, nothing more. It had been their father’s last wish to see his two elder sons fulfill their marital obligations and while Khalid had balked at the idea, events had now overtaken his personal objections.
The upheaval caused by his father’s murder necessitated he and Princess Maysarah made their union official as soon as possible. All he required of the princess was that she provide him with strong, healthy sons so that the Salah al Din name continued, as it had for countless centuries.
He strode up the short path toward the door, the late July warmth heating his shoulders through his shirt. He’d left his jacket in the limo, along with his bodyguard and the engagement ring he had selected from the Salah al Din crown jewels.
There would be plenty of time to present the princess with the ring this evening, at the formal dinner he had planned.
It was only as he rang the bell it occurred to him that perhaps he should have informed her he was coming to collect her himself. But the palace of his elder brother had sent the official notification to the princess before confirming with him.
They would not be doing such a thing again.
The door swung open and all thoughts of his brother’s pompous administrators vanished. Standing before him, her long black hair scraped back from her face in an untidy plait, was the most stunning woman he had ever seen.
And he had seen many beautiful women.
She blinked impossibly long eyelashes at him, her ice-blue eyes showing her surprise. For a second her eyes transfixed him, until an old memory surfaced.
Of course. The princess also had Western blood in her veins. There could be no doubt. This slender, dark beauty could be none other than his intended. Although what she was doing answering the front door herself, he could not imagine.
He bestowed his most winning smile, even as he took in her threadbare jeans, faded tee-shirt and—most extraordinary of all—the smear of green paint across her cheek.
“Good afternoon.” His English was impeccable, although a lifetime of the most exclusive education money could buy had failed to rid him of his slight French accent. But then, he had no desire to lose his accent. “I request the pleasure of an audience with the princess Maysarah El Habib.”
Before he had the chance to introduce himself her eyes widened, and to his disbelief a look of horror flashed over her face. Obviously she imagined he was the Salah al Din representative sent to collect her. He knew his name could strike terror into the hearts of his family’s enemies, but no woman had ever looked at him in such a way.
As though he was the manifestation of every nightmare she had ever had.
It was a shock to realize his betrothed was not only as opposed to this marriage as he was, but the thought apparently petrified her.
“Princess Maysarah isn’t here.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, but her husky tone was the sexiest sound he had ever heard. He watched her glance at the limo, and he had the alarming notion she was going to pass out.
Merde. Why was she so frightened that she would pretend she wasn’t the princess? He had only seen formal photos of the Sheikh’s daughter, taken earlier this year when she had been in Qtara. True, she had been wearing a headdress that had covered her hair and her eyes had been lowered, but her coloring and delicate bone structure was undeniable.
“May I enquire as to whom I am addressing?” He kept his voice neutral. He had no wish for her to slam the door in his face or faint at his feet. Although the vision of scooping her pliant body into his arms and into the back of the limo was more than tempting.
She swallowed and the tip of her tongue peeked between her full lips. For a second her lips distracted him. How sweet she would taste when he made her his. His cock stirred, and for the first time the prospect of his arranged marriage didn’t seem the onerous duty he had always regarded it.
“I’m—my name is Sanura.”
Sanura. Now he considered it, hadn’t he heard that the princess went by an abbreviated version of her full name? Sanura wasn’t strictly part of her name but it wasn’t that much of a stretch from Sarah if she was attempting to delude him.
He had two options. To call her out on her attempt at subterfuge—something he knew his brothers would have no hesitation in doing—or allow her time to get used to him, without any additional pressure.
Strangely, the thought of getting to know her before disclosing he was her betrothed held a sense of appeal. He guessed it was the Gallic blood from his mother. Certainly neither of his brothers would find it intriguing should their intended bride lie to their faces.
He took her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles without breaking eye contact. The startled expression on her face was oddly endearing. “It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, Sanura.”
She didn’t attempt to pull her hand away, and he idly caressed his thumb across her fingers. For such a chaste touch he found it remarkably arousing.
Thank God he would have no reluctance in sharing the matrimonial bed with her. The prospect of siring sons to continue his father’s dynasty no longer loomed like a thundercloud on the horizon.
It would be a pleasure.
After an endless moment she tugged her hand free. Some of her color had returned to her cheeks and she no longer looked as though she wanted to flee to the ends of the earth. He smothered a smile at the irony. How many beautiful women had he taken who had wanted nothing more than to become his wife?
Yet his betrothed, apparently, wanted anything but.
He relished the thought of changing her mind.
“I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat and cast another furtive glance at the limo. “And you are?”
For once he silently thanked the interfering bureaucrats of his elder brother’s administration. By pre-empting his own wishes, they had provided him with a perfect cover.
Not that he intended to lie outright to her. That was beneath his dignity. But he could omit certain facts.
And allow her the rare privilege of calling him by the name his mother had given him.
“I am here on behalf of the Salah al Din family. My name is Andre.”