Princess Maysarah El Habib worked the blonde dye through her dark hair in streaks, fighting with the curls, which refused to cooperate. Hopefully with blonde hair and sea-green contacts she’d pass for a Westerner in Queensland, Australia. Fortunately in coloring, she’d taken after her fair-skinned Australian mother and not her father, Sheikh Abdel El Habib. She also had her mother’s petite nose, high cheekbones and smaller frame. From her father’s family she’d inherited the almond-shaped eyes, full breasts and long legs. With trembling fingers, she brushed the dye through another lock of hair.
She had to clear out fast and keep on the move so her father’s secret service didn’t find her.
When she’d discovered that the representatives of her intended husband, Sheikh Khalid Salah al Din were coming to London to collect her, she’d fled to Australia. Now he’d married her best friend and May’s powerful father was livid. If he found her here on the Gold Coast in Queensland, he’d drag her back to Qtara, have her stripped and whipped in front of the court just as he’d done to her mother when she’d tried to leave him.
She shuddered. No one defied her father.
Sweat beaded on her brow as she finished painting on the last of the color. Dye in place, she had twenty minutes to pack while it developed. May flew from room to room like a fluttering moth, gathering possessions and stuffing them into a backpack. Passport. Check. Bundle of cash. Check. Huge sunglasses to disguise her eyes. Check. Jewelry she could hock. Check. One simple bag was all she’d allow herself. She looked at her watch. Twenty minutes was up. Time to wash the dye out. Discarding her sleek Versace bathrobe, she laid out the cheesecloth kaftan, leather sandals and floppy beige hat she planned to wear. On stepping into the shower stall, she was glad she’d had every dark hair lasered off her body. She rejected her Arab side if it meant subjugation and she’d spent enough school holidays here with her mother and Aussie grandparents to know how to blend in. Turning on the shower taps, she lathered the shampoo onto her thick hair. Hopefully with the new fringe and long blonde tresses smoothed out with her hair straightener, she’d get away undetected. The thought of punishment was unbearable. May had never wanted an arranged marriage even though she’d been betrothed to Khalid from birth. The whole concept was barbaric to her. The whipping had broken her mother and she’d made May vow never to marry into the Qtara culture.
Hatred for her father burned in her chest. May had cried scorching tears when she’d been forced to witness the punishment of her mother two months ago.
Her jaw clenched. She would never marry an Arab.
She dug her fingers into her hair and scrubbed. She had to get further north into the wilderness. Make it impossible to be found. May rinsed out her hair and lathered herself in soap. After living in London where she’d studied design for the past three years, this country’s humidity took some time to get used to. It wasn’t the dry heat of Qtara but humidity pressurized until a thunderstorm broke, bringing relief. Rinsing off the lather, she then turned off the taps, grabbed the white, fluffy towel and stepped out to dry herself. With frenetic energy, she checked through her mental list again to see if she’d thought of everything. Simple non body-hugging clothes. Check. Nothing in bright colors that would draw attention to her. Check. Her make up bag with her sunscreen, toothbrush and other essentials. Where was that? Hanging her towel on a hook, she bent and opened the cupboard under the vanity to grab the bag. Her father had always supplied a good income in London and she’d saved a lot, squirreling money away for when she’d need it. But she’d have to learn to be more frugal now she couldn’t touch her bank account. Every expense mattered.
May straightened and froze. Blood rushed to her face. She screamed, but her voice barely pushed past the lump in her throat. Her make up bag slipped through her fingers, clattering onto the tiles.
Reflected in the mirror was a man, an Arab man wearing a black ghutrah headdress and thawb that covered his whole body in the traditional way. The dress of her father’s terrifying secret service, tall broad-shouldered men as lethal as the weapons they carried. Even with the soapy scent of the bathroom she could smell the desert sand on him.
His full lips widened into a smirk as he appraised her body. Stubble under high cheekbones signaled long hours of travel, and his intense expression throbbed with danger.
Terror rocketed through her body at the hot, raw lust burning in his eyes. They glittered like rare black sapphires as his gaze left her face, moved down to focus on her breasts and then to her bare mons. He took in a deep breath, his nostrils flaring slightly. “Princess Maysarah, you have been very foolish.”
Every bit of saliva dried in her throat as she covered herself with her hands. She opened her lips to cry out again. There were other apartments in this block, surely if she were loud enough someone would call the police?
A frown creased his brow, his body snapping taut. “Scream again and I will be forced to silence you.”
A whimper left her lips. She looked down his body, trying to see what weapon he carried, but there was nothing in his capable, square hands. Not for a moment did she doubt he could silence her. “My father would not want me dead.” Even to her own ears her voice was hoarse with bone-chilling fear.
“Your father wants you punished for dishonoring him and he has sent me to do so.” The man filled the bathroom doorway, big and strong. He was older than her twenty years but probably not yet thirty, though his expression was hard. This was a man in his prime; a lethal killing machine.
“You touch me. I’ll find a way to call the police. They’re not savages here.” A weapon. What could she use on a man who could rip her apart with his bare hands? She skimmed the room. On the vanity? Nothing. Everything was packed away. If she could get to the kitchen there were knives there. Her late brother, Saladin, had trained her how to defend herself. He would never have let her be forced into a marriage. Dead only two months ago. She missed him terribly. It was like all sanity had left her family.
A slight smile crossed his lips. “Your father told me you had taken up Western ways but I will not tolerate it.”
She tilted her chin, mustering courage that had deserted her. “You are nothing to me. Get out.” May grabbed her bath towel and wrapped it around herself. She used the voice she used on male servants, after all she’d had male bodyguards who’d driven her to and from school then university in England, but instinctively, she knew this man was different.
The stranger stepped into the bathroom and towered over her. “Your mother learned the hard way that such trivialities as borders mean nothing to Sheikh El Habib when she left without his permission. It seems you have too much of her Western blood and do not understand duty.” His eyes glinted. “It is my will and pleasure to teach you to obey as a highborn princess should.”
May edged back until she was hard against the vanity, desperately trying to remember if she’d met this man before. Surely her father wouldn’t let one of his secret service rape her? Who was he? She’d met most of the royal families in her region and this man was not amongst them. “I don’t believe you. My father wouldn’t allow a man of no consequence to touch me. Get away from me.”
“And deprive myself the sight of your submission?”
Despite her whole body trembling, May forced herself to stare him in the eyes. “I will submit to nothing. I am the heir to the throne of Qtara since the death of my brother. You touch me and my father will kill you.”
“I very much doubt that. He has sold you to me. I have paid your bride price in full. The Sheikh is glad to be rid of such an ungrateful daughter, so now as my wife you are my responsibility.” He lunged and scooped her up, the corded muscles of his arms binding her against his hard, muscular torso as he headed out of the bathroom toward the bed.
“Your wife?” The world swirled in front of her.
“That is correct.”
“Liar! My father would never sell me, not without telling me.” Arms and legs bound by his hold, May used the only weapon she had: her teeth. She bit down onto his chest through his robe, until she tasted blood.
The man stopped, looked down and his eyes narrowed. “Continue to bite me, Princess, and I will make your punishment last longer. You will beg for mercy.”
The threat dripped like honey from his tongue. She released him, the salty tang of his blood in her mouth.
“If you behave like a biting dog I will take you like one. Perhaps you will enjoy it.”
“You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you, but I seem to recall that dogs have rabies and I have no liking of disease.”
She expected to see anger ripple across his face but it was as if he’d suffered no more than the sting of a gnat. She’d known the risk when she’d run but she’d never thought her father would do this, unless he saw it as her ultimate punishment. After all, degradation had tamed her mother.
He strode across the bedroom and threw her on the bed so that her towel slipped to the floor, leaving her naked and exposed. Ready to fight, she kicked out at him but he deflected her leg, his body movement fluid in the way of a man used to combat.
Scrambling to her knees, she punched into his solar plexus, another move Saladin had taught her. But although her fist landed, her knuckles met rock-hard abdomen with the kind of musculature developed through long hours of dedicated training. Damn. She was rusty. She must have missed the deadly pressure point. He should have buckled.
Amusement danced across his eyes as if this were a game. “You have spirit. It seems a shame to break it.”
A wail met the air. Her voice. It was no game to her.
In a sure movement, he rolled her onto her stomach, pinioning her with one big hand pressed onto her back. He sat next to her on the bed, his thigh pressing against hers. “It is my great pleasure to find you alone.”
His words caressed her but May wasn’t fooled by the softness of his tone. This was no iron fist in a velvet glove, this was a man who knew psychological torture, knew where to stab and when to withdraw.
Raw panic overwhelmed her. With his hand pressed hard between her shoulder blades it was difficult to breathe. She lashed out awkwardly, trying to claw him, her fingernails digging into the musculature of his thigh. But it was impossible to wound him through his robe and pants.
The man studied her with those uncompromising, dark eyes as she tried to rake and scratch him. Did he not feel pain? All she could hear was her own hoarse breathing.
“You have the strength of a kitten.” He reached forward and ran his free hand through her hair as if exploring the color.
“Don’t touch me.”
“Your father insisted you were intelligent. Why do you not recognize defeat? You’ve had a marriage contract almost from when you were born.”
“That was not of my making. I won’t accept it. I am not married to you.” May gritted her teeth.
“Nor should it be. You are royal. It is your father’s duty to make a good marriage for you as you well know.” He leaned closer, examining her face. “You’ll learn your duty and give me sons.”
“Sons?” May froze. She twisted her face from the pillow so she could see him better, sitting just behind her, his thigh casually touching her ribcage. Never had she seen a more serious expression on a man’s face. “Are you insane? I will not have you.”
“So you think you have a choice? What a simpleton you are little princess. Perhaps your father was wrong about your intellect.”
“Who the hell are you?” When he smiled, small crinkles formed at the corner of his eyes. In another circumstance, she would think him handsome. He had the bearing of someone used to being in charge and, despite her insults, he was well made, tall with broad shoulders. His free hand moved over her, stroking the back of her neck, his thumb caressing behind the soft skin of her ear. Disgust should have overwhelmed her. Instead her body reacted to him, her skin rising in goosebumps as his hand moved down her back before running over her bottom in a possessive, intimate way.
“I am Prince Rafi Salah al Din, third son of the late Sheikh of Omana.”
Her heartbeat ramped up and she was certain her face had lost all color. The rumored deadly head of the Omani forces, in charge of the army and his own secret police force. She’d heard a little of this shadowy man, from her brother, Saladin. Her brother had admired this prince’s war-like nature. For all her planning she had not escaped her destiny. “But I was promised to your brother, Khalid.”
“It seems I also have a fool for a brother who thought it his right to marry for love, but then he was polluted by his mother’s Western beliefs.”
“Have you ever considered it’s you who’s in error? Your beliefs are ancient.” It had never occurred to her that her father would organize another alliance so quickly. Such contracts took time to negotiate, but then all the negotiations had been done, only the names had been changed.
The prince’s brows drew together and his expression darkened. “Did you really think you could shrug such an important agreement aside? You are a princess.”
“Then treat me like one. Unpin me,” she demanded.
“Do you think you can behave yourself?” His warm breath fanned the nape of her neck.
“Can you?” She wracked her mind trying to remember what she had learned about this younger brother. This last son was pure Arab, dark, forceful and wedded to duty. No wonder she’d mistaken him for her father’s secret service. He dressed and behaved in the same way. Saladin had described him as a lethal fighter. He had that commanding and frightening air about him, but he was more dangerous because this man had money and power.
His gaze moved over her, hot and bright as if he enjoyed having her under his control. Nevertheless, he took his hand off her back, releasing her from his grasp. She turned, grabbed the comforter, pulled it over herself and huddled in a sitting position. Her clothes were laid out on the end of the bed. If she could just get to them she wouldn’t feel so vulnerable.
“Return me to my father. I’ve sinned against him. It is his right to punish me.” Misery welled up inside as she remembered her mother’s screams. It wasn’t that she wished to go back to her people but the cool steeliness of this man petrified her. She’d prefer her father’s punishment over a lifetime wedded to this uncompromising Arab.
“I do not beat women. It gives me no pleasure to see a woman cry in pain. Clearly you have no sense of your obligation to your father or your country. However, there are other ways to ensure compliance.” He reached forward and cupped her face as if he had ownership of her.
May tried to jerk her face away but he wouldn’t let go. She gripped his wrists, wrenching them off her but that only served to make the comforter slip down, exposing her breasts. “You deluded bastard. You forget my mother made sure I had Australian citizenship. I don’t accept you, contract or not.” May didn’t have a lot of experience with men but she could smell the lust that permeated from his body, combined with exotic scents of cinnamon and cardamom that she recognized from her country.
“Your agreement is not necessary. Provided you fulfill the conditions of the contract, you are mine.” He moved kissing distance apart, his thumb caressing her lips.
To her surprise his touch was sensual and rich with promise. Yet her life hung by a thread, for he could lash out at her if he chose to do so, drug her and carry her out of the apartment to a boat or car she was sure he’d have waiting.
“We will not suit.”
“And why is that?” he asked, voice turning husky.
There was one way out. She knew how these contracts worked. “I’m not the virgin bride you want.”
His dark eyes flashed with anger. He removed his hands from her face.
May leapt forward, trying to grab her clothes. With appalling ease, he shoved her back on the bed and climbed on top of her. “Your surveillance report detailed no relationship with a man. You tested your father enough with your lack of obedience and adherence to duty. Did you really think your father would allow you to stay in London if you behaved like a whore?”
May struggled underneath him but his body was all rock hard muscle. “Let me go.”
“You will move when I permit you to do so.”
Terrified of the hard intent in his eyes, she clamped her legs together. “I ordered my bodyguards to keep their distance. I knew I was watched. I expected it.” Frozen with anxiety, she didn’t know what else to say. Would he return her to her father unscathed if he thought she was a used woman?
Would he rape her to find out?
“So tell me about this man you let have you?”
She wouldn’t let him break her. “Go to hell.”
He smirked, his eyes glittering. “I am not ready to go to hell when such naked perfection is presented to me on a bed, but I wish to know if you are spoiled goods.”
She panted with exertion. “I won’t answer your disgusting questions.”
“Since you won’t tell me, I know a way to find out.” He lowered his face to kiss her but she quickly turned her head away, avoiding his lips. Pinning her hands together above her head with one of his, he fisted her hair with the other so that she couldn’t move. His lips were surprisingly gentle and warm, the intimacy of a man testing for a reaction. May didn’t expect to like it. She steeled herself to feel nothing, but the scorching insistence of his mouth made her want to respond. The dominant possession of his body pressing against hers had her nipples contracting and warmth grew between her legs. When he opened his lips to deepen the kiss, she tightened her mouth, though she was breathing hard and fast when he pulled back.
There was a certain zeal in his dark eyes, a sense of knowing. “You’re enjoying this.”
May squirmed as his hard cock pressed against her thigh. “You mean, you are.”
“You are made for the marriage bed.” He reared up to examine her, his gaze focusing on her breasts. “I have never seen such magnificence.”
She panted harder, but it was as much from excitement as it was panic. “Get off me. I am not a piece of meat for you to ogle.”
“You are exquisitely made. Perfect for me. Your father has sold me a treasure.” He cupped her breast with one of his hands, stroking his thumb over her nipple.
May couldn’t contain her groan of arousal, the sensation of his touch was maddening. How was it that Rafi could wrench such feelings from her? Clearly he was experiencing it too. She saw the look of wonder on his face as he touched her, before he bent and kissed her nipple as if testing a new sweet for the first time. Mind in a frenzy, she tried to find a way to appeal to his Arab sensibility. “You mustn’t. This is wrong. There has been no public acknowledgement of our union. No wedding. No celebrations. You know that’s not how it is done now.”
Rafi raised his head to look at her, his gaze burning with desire. “We are not from the West. Celebrations are not essential for the deal to be legal in Qtara. As chief of defense I do not wish to have my face emblazoned across the media. Provided you are a virgin, you fulfill the conditions of the contract and that makes you my wife. I paid a fortune for you and I like what I see.”
“Damn you! That might be legal in Qtara but it’s not in Australia. I am not your wife here and I don’t want to be.”
Rafi shrugged as if her argument meant nothing. “You are more beautiful in the flesh and I’m not letting you go.” He released her hands and cupped both breasts, bent and licked her nipples again, first one and then the other.
His touch was so sensual, not what she expected he would be like at all with his cold talk of duty. His mouth was hot and wet and she didn’t want him to stop even though it was foolish of her body to awaken as though nothing could stop the need but this man. May closed her eyes and resisted rolling her hips against his body. He seemed able to trigger a response in her whether she liked it or not.
She had to get a grip.
“Stop. You must stop.” Grabbing his headdress, she yanked it with all her might. It came off, revealing his thick, black hair, which was layered in a modern style. Somehow it dawned on her that he was younger than she at first thought now the dark fabric no longer cast shadows on his head and neck. Perhaps not more than twenty-five, and although he had the sternness of a man, there was still a hint of boyishness about him.
He raised his head and stared at her. “Are you or aren’t you a virgin?”
She slapped his face, determined to make him hate her. Her legs were clamped together so hard, every muscle in her back and bottom ached. “I won’t answer to you. You have no right.”
“That is the last time you hit me,” he said, his voice a growl. Any sign of boyishness vanished. “For a princess you have no concept of respect for your husband. It seems I shall have to teach you what it means to belong to me, step by step.” He leaned over the bed and grabbed a cord from his rumpled headdress on the ground.
May sat and shoved at his shoulders to be free of him. If only she could grab her clothes and flee. The real world existed outside this expensive complex.
With the sinuous movement of a powerful, young man, he grabbed her and turned her onto her stomach. Then he pinned both her hands together above her head and tied them together with the cord. He did it with such ease, May knew it wasn’t the first time he’d taken a prisoner.
Outraged, she managed to roll herself onto her back, scrunching her legs up in a sitting position, her face inches from his. “How dare you talk to me about respect?”
“Since it seems you cannot be trusted about your virginity, I will find out for myself.” He pulled her down the bed and pressed on her knees until she was forced to straighten her legs, then slid his body to the side of her. Clamping her down by placing his thigh on hers, his hand moved over her stomach to stroke her bare mons, his thumb lightly rubbing over her slit just near her clitoris.
“Damn you.” A tingling heat seemed to come out of nowhere when he stroked her and she had to bite her bottom lip to stop herself crying out. She moaned and rolled her hips, trying to avoid his touch but it only served to make the sensation overwhelming. Then his thumb slid in between her fleshy folds.
Rafi’s touch scorched her, the intensity of the sensation, a wild shock. It zinged right up her spine and to her nipples, which she wanted him to lick again.
“When a woman plucks every hair from her body she is preparing herself for marriage. What were you preparing yourself for, Princess?”