From innocent in distress…
To convenient princess. To escape her overprotective family, sweet-natured Zoe Mardas heads to the desert kingdom of Maraban for an adventure. But she’s kidnapped on arrival! Zoe is saved by mysterious and devastatingly handsome Raj—the nation’s exiled Prince. The attraction between them is instant—and fiery like the desert sun! Yet her rescue comes with a price: to save them both from a political scandal, Zoe must become Raj’s virgin bride…
ZOE DESCENDED THE steps of her grandfather’s private jet and as the sunlight of Maraban enveloped her she smiled happily. It was spring and the heat was bearable but, best of all, she was taking the very first brave step into her new life.
On her own, on her own at last, free of the restrictions that her sisters would have attached to her but, most importantly of all, free of the low expectations they had of her. Winnie and Vivi had been amazed when Zoe had agreed to move to a foreign country for a few months without freaking out at the prospect. They had been equally amazed when she’d agreed to marry a much older man to fulfil her part of their agreement with their grandfather, Stamboulas Fotakis. Why not? It wasn’t as though it was going to be a real marriage, merely a pretend marriage in which her future husband made political use of the fact that she was the granddaughter of a former princess of a country called Bania, which no longer existed.
Long before Zoe was even born the two tiny realms of Bania and Mara had joined to become Maraban and apparently her late grandmother, the Princess Azra, had been hugely popular in both countries. Prince Hakem wanted to marry Zoe literally for her ancestry and she would become an Arabian princess and live in the royal palace for several months. There she would enjoy glorious solitude with nobody bothering her, nobody asking how she felt or worriedly enquiring if she thought she should have more therapy to help her cope with ordinary life. Even though she hadn’t had a panic attack in months, her siblings had always been on edge around her, awaiting another one.
Zoe adored her older sisters but their constant care and concern had held her back from the independence she needed to rebuild her self-esteem and forge her own path. And taking part in this silly pretend marriage was all she had to do to finally obtain that freedom.
All three sisters had agreed to marry men of their grandfather’s choosing to gain his financial help for their foster parents, John and Liz Brooke. Winnie and Vivi had already fulfilled that bargain. But in Zoe’s case, no pressure whatsoever had been placed on her and, indeed, John and Liz’s mortgage arrears had been paid off shortly after her sister Vivi’s marriage had taken place. Yes, she thought wryly, even her extremely ruthless grandfather had shrunk from taking the risk of putting pressure on his youngest granddaughter, having taken on board her siblings’ conviction that she was hopelessly fragile and emotionally vulnerable. Nobody had faith in her ability to be strong, Zoe reflected ruefully, which was why it was so very important that she proved for her own benefit that she could be strong.
Like her sisters, Zoe had grown up in foster care, and a terrifying incident when she was twelve years old had traumatised her. But she had buried all that hurt and fear, seemingly flourishing in John and Liz’s happy home, only for those frightening insecurities to come back and engulf her while she was studying botany at university. Having to freely mix with men, having to deal with friends asking why she didn’t want a boyfriend, had put her under severe strain. Her panic attacks had grown worse and worse and, although she had contrived to hide her extreme anxiety from her sisters, she had, ultimately, been unable to deal with her problems alone. Weeks before she sat her final degree exams, she had suffered a nervous breakdown, which had meant that she had had to take time out from her course to recover.
Although she had subsequently completed her degree and worked through the therapy required to put her back on an even track where crippling anxiety no longer ruled her every thought and action, her sisters had continued to treat her as if she could shatter again at any moment. While she understood that their protectiveness came from love, she also saw that their attitude had made her weaker than she need have been and that she badly needed the chance to stand on her own feet. With her sisters now married, one living in Greece and the other in Italy, coming to Maraban was Zoe’s opportunity to prove that she had overcome her unhappy past.
Zoe stepped into the limousine awaiting her, grateful for the reality that her arrival in Maraban was completely low-key. Prince Hakem had insisted that no public appearances or indeed anything of that nature would be required from her. He might be the brother of the current King but he had no official standing in Maraban. Zoe’s grandfather should have been travelling with her but a pressing business matter had led to him asking if she could manage alone if he put off his arrival until the following day. Of course, she could manage, she thought cheerfully, gazing out with lively interest at the busy streets of the capital city, Tasit, which was an intriguing mix of old and new. She saw old buildings and elaborate mosques with quaint colourful turrets nudging shoulders with redeveloped areas boasting soaring skyscrapers and office blocks. Maraban was evidently right in the middle of the process of modernisation.
Oil and gas wealth had transformed the country. Zoe had read everything she could find on Maraban and had rolled her eyes at the discovery that nobody appeared to know why her grandmother, Princess Azra, had failed to marry the current King, Tahir, as she had been expected to do. The bald truth was that Azra had run off with Stamboulas Fotakis sooner than marry a man who’d already had three wives. Presumably that story had been suppressed to conserve the monarch’s dignity. Luckily, Stam had told her everything she needed to know about his late wife’s background.
Darkness was falling fast when the limo driver turned off the road and steered between imposingly large gates guarded by soldiers. Zoe strained to see the enormous property that lay ahead but the limo travelled slowly right on past it, threading a path through a vast complex of buildings and finally drawing up beside one. She was ushered out and indoors before she could even catch her breath and was a little disappointed to find herself standing in a contemporary house. A very large contemporary house, she conceded wryly, with aggressively gilded fancy furniture and nothing whatsoever historic about it. A female servant in a long kaftan bowed to her and showed her up a brilliantly lit staircase into an entire suite of rooms.
Her disappointment that she wasn’t going to be living in the ancient royal palace slowly ebbed as she scanned her comfortable and well-furnished surroundings. It wasn’t ideal that none of the staff spoke her language and that she didn’t speak theirs but miming could accomplish a lot, she told herself bracingly as her companion mimicked eating to let her know that a meal was being brought. And long before she went home again, she should have picked up at least a few useful phrases to enable her to communicate more effectively, she told herself soothingly.
A maid had already arrived to unpack her suitcases when a knock sounded on the door. Zoe made it to the door first.
A slimly built young man and a uniformed nurse hovered outside. ‘I am Dr Wazd,’ the man told her stiffly. ‘I have been instructed to give you a vaccination shot. The nurse will assist.’
Zoe winced because she hated needles and she was surprised because she had had all the required shots for Maraban. But then what she did know that a medical doctor would not know better? She rolled up her sleeve and then frowned as she saw the doctor’s hand on the syringe was shaking. Glancing up at him in surprise, noting the perspiration beading his brow, she wondered if he was a very newly qualified doctor to be so nervous and she was relieved when the nurse silently filched the syringe from him and gave her the injection without further ado. It stung and she gritted her teeth.