Chapter One ~ The Sheikh’s Reluctant Princess

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Prince Tariq shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat as the cold November wind whipped through the narrow London backstreet. Had he got the right address? He fixed his stony gaze on the dilapidated building across the road. If it wasn’t bad enough that he needed to follow the example of his two older brothers and marry a woman he’d never met, his intended bride had ignored his every attempt to contact her, and that really pissed him off.

It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been informed of this damned arrangement two weeks ago. Just like him. And while he’d always known he’d have to make a strategic marriage at some point, he hadn’t expected he’d be required to do his duty until he was at least thirty, but the unexpected death of his father six months ago had ignited an already simmering political situation.

He dragged in a deep breath, but it didn’t help smother the ache in his chest. He’d never been close to his father, unlike his two older brothers, but he’d harbored the secret desire to one day gain his approval.

Guess that dream’s dead.

He forcibly pushed the regrets aside. Princess Sofia Jemila al Jazad was a volunteer in a civil rights office and it was one of the few positive things he could see about this upcoming marriage. As his consort of his province, Zanzar, in Qutum, she’d be a magnificent figurehead for the education program he and his brothers were implementing.

He hadn’t imagined for one moment the place she worked would be so sordid. Far from working at a prestigious firm in the heart of the city, the entire area looked as though it should be condemned. Hardly fitting for a princess, even a princess of the impoverished country of Bahmen.

It’s only a marriage of convenience. A political contract. Once the formalities were over he could return to his former lifestyle. Just because both his brothers had found love with their arranged brides didn’t mean lightning would strike three times. In fact, that made it even less likely he’d fall for the princess.

All he could hope was they were compatible in bed and produced an heir as quickly as possible. That’s all anyone expected of this union.

The door swung open and a girl emerged, wearing knee high boots, jeans, an overlarge jacket and multi-colored scarf and hat. Anyone attired less like a princess he couldn’t imagine. But there was no mistaking her face. This was his bride-to-be, but without the gloss and glamour that had been evident in the official photo his brother, Jamal, had given him.

For a moment he waited, expecting her bodyguard to follow her, although protocol dictated the idiot should have left the building first, to ensure the princess was in no danger. For several moments she rummaged in the ugliest, most oversized purse he’d ever seen, and it was clear that she was alone.

What the fuck?

He crossed the road, irritation buzzing through his blood. He’d always known she was a rebel. What else could be expected when her late Italian mother had been a top catwalk model? But Sofia was still a princess and should always be protected as such.

“Princess Sofia Jemila al Jazad?” He gave a formal bow, his hand extended, but instead of accepting his greeting she dropped her phone onto the ground. Gritting his teeth he snatched up her phone before straightening, and his gaze clashed with hers.

His irritation sizzled into a sharp stab of lust. Up close, her eyes were an enchanting honey-brown, fringed with long black lashes and for some incomprehensible reason the lack of ceremonial makeup only enhanced her delicate features. Black curls escaped from beneath her hideous hat, framing her face, and he smiled, turning on his legendary charm. This marriage won’t be such a hardship, after all.

She didn’t incline her head in the accepted manner. Neither did she return his smile. He squashed his lascivious thoughts. Focus. Perhaps she hadn’t received an official photo of him, and had no idea who he was.

The reprimand he’d planned on delivering to her, for her discourteous behavior in ignoring him during the last two weeks, evaporated. It was possible that she’d never received his gifts. “I’m Tariq El-Amin. It’s my pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.”

Instead of relaxing at the knowledge he wasn’t a crazy stalker, she stiffened further, and her smile held all the warmth of an Artic winter. “Greetings, Your Highness. May I have my phone back?”

She might’ve given him his title, but the ice in her voice conveyed exactly what she thought of him. It was rare—make that never—that a woman spoke to him in such a manner, never mind actually recoiled from him.

First time for everything. Unfortunately, her barely disguised contempt didn’t manage to curb the hardening of his unruly cock, despite his best intentions, which was another first. He was hardly a horny teen who couldn’t control his base impulses, but Sofia’s icy reserve was inexplicably intriguing.

Get your mind out of the gutter. There would be plenty of time for sex once they were officially married. For the first time the indecent haste of this betrothal didn’t feel like a chain compressing his chest, although her attitude did confirm one thing.

His first instincts had been right. She’d received his overtures, and deliberately ignored them.

He handed back her phone and she dropped it into her cavernous purse without a word.

“We need to talk.” He indicated his Maserati convertible parked across the road. “I’ve hired you a suite at the Clifton.”

He always stayed at the luxurious Clifton Hotel when he was in London. When it became clear he’d have to hunt his recalcitrant bride down, it had made sense to ensure she stayed where he could keep an eye on her until they flew back to his province of Zanzar.

Instead of following him, as protocol demanded, she remained rooted to the spot. Incredulity flared through him as he swung about, to find her glaring at him with her arms crossed.

“I’m not staying at the Clifton. If you want to talk, we can go to a local café.”

Throughout university he’d dated a multitude of beautiful Western girls who hung off his arm and agreed with every suggestion he made. Sure, they enjoyed having a prince by their side and the relationships had never been serious, but none of them had ever defied him. That Sofia, born into the royal house of al Jazad, should do so now, after he’d rescheduled his plans in order to find her, was unbelievable.

“I don’t go to local cafes.” He loaded the words with the derision they deserved. Just because he found her more desirable than he’d anticipated didn’t mean he’d tolerate her disrespect. “And until we leave the U.K. you’re staying at the Clifton as befits my future wife.”

She drew in a ragged breath. “Your Highness—“

“Please.” He couldn’t help the note of mockery. “Call me Tariq.”

“Tariq. Surely you can’t be seriously considering this…alliance between us?”

When the Grand Vizier had told him of the arrangement, Tariq hadn’t been thrilled, but he knew his duty. Strong political marriages with Qutum’s allies was essential, not only to strengthen the region’s borders but also to mollify the tribal elders who disapproved of the progressive laws his brothers and he were determined to enact.

When Sofia had ignored the letters and gifts his private secretary had sent, Tariq guessed she wasn’t delighted about the betrothal, either.

But it had never occurred to him that once they met she’d continue to challenge his word. Certainly not on a matter of state that neither of them could afford to disregard if they wished to protect their respective peoples.

“Surely you, Sofia, cannot seriously be considering ignoring it?” He turned her question back at her, and a faint blush heated her cheeks. Damn, she was beautiful. Her Italian blood gave her an exotic allure her photo hadn’t done justice to. If only she wasn’t his intended bride he’d seduce her this very night, but unfortunately her royal, virtuous, status made that plan a non-starter.

“It’s barbaric. A throwback to medieval times. I can’t believe that you, with your alleged commitment to equality, agreed to it.”

The truth was he concurred with her medieval jibe, and under other circumstances would’ve been willing to discuss the contradiction with her, but her unsubtle censure grated along his nerves. Alleged commitment to equality? It was that very pledge that had impelled the Grand Vizier, with his anachronistic ideals, into forging these political alliances.

“Perhaps you’re unaware of the advantages this marriage will have on Bahmen.” Was she really that ignorant of her country’s predicament? That hadn’t even occurred to him until now. “Your father has been assured of our protection from the moment the ink dried on the contract.”

“And Qutum, and in particular your province, Zanzar, will have unfettered access through Bahmen to the sea route.”

Huh. So she did know the situation. It didn’t improve his temper.

“Indeed. Just one of the many mutual benefits our countries will enjoy through our union.”

“Benefits that could be negotiated between our governments, without the need for a ritualistic sacrifice.”

A ritualistic sacrifice? He was damn sure Sofia wasn’t referring to him, and the implication she saw their marriage in such an unflattering way annoyed him more than it should.

It doesn’t matter what she thinks. The wedding would be formalized despite their personal objections, but hell. He’d spent the last six years since he was eighteen telling women who professed undying love that marriage was out of the question. And here was his bride attempting to convince him there was an alternative diplomatic solution to the problem.

Ironic, much?

For some reason he didn’t find the situation amusing.

“We’ve progressed from burning virgin brides at the altar.” His voice was scathing, so she wouldn’t guess his damn pride was stinging from her response.

“Oh.” She widened her eyes and he tried not to let their beautiful depths distract him. “So it’s virgin brides only? I guess that means our contract is null and void.”

It took a second for her breezy comment to penetrate. He sucked in a harsh breath and raked his gaze over her. Such a thing had never crossed his mind, despite her Western education. Had he misunderstood? “You’re not a virgin?”

“Are you?”

“This isn’t about me.” Why hadn’t he ordered her into his car before starting this conversation? Anyone might overhear them, and the thought of this discussion going public was horrifying.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

He’d never talked about such things before, and had certainly never envisaged discussing his previous sex life with his intended wife. But that paled into insignificance at her casual disclosure that she, a valuable princess, hadn’t waited until her wedding night.

Was her father aware?

“Are you living with a man?” He ground the words between his teeth. Surely such information would’ve been passed onto him? Except her father had been desperate for this marriage to take place, and it was doubtful he would’ve told the Grand Vizier anything likely to invalidate the contract.

Such as disclosing the fact his daughter was no longer a virgin.

Even so, it was astonishing the Grand Vizier hadn’t discovered such a fact. The man’s network of spies and ability to gather sensitive intel was truly impressive.

“I am not.” She gave him a haughty look. “But naturally I understand the wedding can’t go ahead now you’re in possession of the full facts.”

It was regrettable that the princess wasn’t untouched, as tradition decreed. But wasn’t breaking through those rigid patriarchal dictates something he and his brothers were working toward?

And since she wasn’t the inexperienced girl he’d imagined, there was no need to wait until their official wedding night before he took her.

Tonight I’ll make you mine. That agreeable prospect more than made up for her breach in convention.

“Come with me.” Without waiting for her reply he grasped her elbow and propelled her forward. Surprisingly she didn’t resist, and he’d pulled open the door of his car before she tugged herself free.

“I’m not getting in your car.” She looked up at him, disbelief clear on her face. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

His patience frayed and he planted his hand on the car beside her shoulder. “It’s not a request, Sofia. You’ll obey me with the dignity your royal position commands.” He lowered his head and breathed against her cheek. “Or do I need to force you?”

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