For one year only!
Once, Ella Gilchrist had the gall to turn down playboy prince Zarif al-Rastani’s proposal. To ensure peace and stability in his country Zarif must now marry, so when Ella returns begging for his help he’ll give it…on one condition. Three years ago Zarif needed only moments to ignite a passion in her that left her breathless – until his adamant declaration that he could never love her broke her heart. But if she is to rescue her family from imminent and permanent ruin Ella must agree to a year of marriage…on his arm and in his bed!
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ZARIF WAS BORED. The opulent attractions of his creamy-skinned and highly sophisticated mistress had palled. Right at that minute she was posed on the bed, entranced by her reflection in the mirror as she adjusted the glowing ruby pendant now encircling her throat. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ she told him, wide-eyed with avid admiration. ‘Thank you. You’ve been very generous.’
Lena was shrewd. She knew the pendant was a goodbye gift and that she would vacate his lavish Dubai apartment without argument and cruise off in search of another rich man. Sex, Zarif had discovered, was no big deal. He preferred amateurs to professionals in the bedroom but had few illusions about the morals of the women he took as lovers. He gave them the means to enjoy the good things in life while they gave him a necessary outlet for his highly charged sex drive. Such women understood the need for discretion and appreciated that approaching the media would be a seriously unwise career move.
And Zarif had more need than most men to conserve his public image. At the age of twelve he had become the King of Vashir with his uncle acting as Regent until Zarif attained his majority. He was the latest in a long line of feudal rulers to occupy the Emerald throne in the Old Palace. Vashir was oil-rich, but very conservative, and whenever Zarif tried to drag the country into the twenty-first century the old guard on his advisory council—composed of twelve tribal sheiks all over the age of sixty—panicked and pleaded with him to reconsider.
‘Are you getting married?’ Lena shot the question at him abruptly and then gave him a discomfited glance. ‘Sorry, I know it’s none of my business.’
‘Not yet but soon,’ Zarif responded flatly, straightening the tailored jacket of his business suit and turning on his heel.
‘Good luck,’ Lena breathed. ‘She’ll be a lucky woman.’
Zarif was still frowning as he entered the lift. When it came to marriage or children, luck didn’t feature much in his family tree. Historically the love matches had fared as badly as the practical alliances and very few children had been born. Zarif had grown up an only child and he could no longer withstand the pressure on him at home to marry and provide an heir. He had only got to reach the age of twenty-nine single because he was, in fact, a widower, whose wife, Azel and infant son, Firas had died in a car crash seven years earlier.
At the time, Zarif had thought he would never recover from such an indescribable loss. Everyone had respected his right to grieve but even so he was well aware that he could not ignore his obligations indefinitely. Preserving the continuity of his bloodline to ensure stability in the country that he loved was his most basic duty. In truth, however, he didn’t want a wife at all and he felt guilty about that. But he liked being alone; he liked his life just as it was.
A sleek private jet returned Zarif to Vashir. Before disembarking he donned the long white tunic, beige cloak and rope-bound headdress required for him to attend the ceremonial opening of a new museum in the city centre. Only after that appearance had been made would he be free to return to the old palace, a rambling property set in lush perfumed gardens. It had long since been surpassed by the giant shiny new palace built on the other side of the city, which now functioned as the official centre of government. Zarif, however, had grown up at the old palace and was strongly attached to the ancient building.
It was also where his beloved uncle, Halim, was spending the last months of his terminal illness and Zarif was making the most of the time the older man had left. In many ways, Halim had been the father whom Zarif had never known, a gentle, quiet man, who had taught Zarif everything he had needed to know about negotiation, self-discipline and statesmanship.
Zarif’s business manager, Yaman, awaited him in the room Zarif used as an office. ‘What brings you here?’ Zarif asked in surprise for the older man rarely made such visits.
Unlike his brothers, Nik and Cristo, who had both made names in the financial world, Zarif had little interest in his business affairs. Vashir had become oil-rich long before he was born and he had grown up wrapped in the golden cocoon of his family’s fabulous wealth. Yaman and his highly professional team presided over that fortune and conserved it.
‘There is a matter which I felt I should bring to your personal attention,’ Yaman informed him gravely.
‘Of course. What is this matter?’ Zarif asked, resting back against the edge of his desk, his dark eyes enquiring in his lean bronzed features.
The middle-aged accountant’s air of discomfiture increased. ‘It relates to a personal loan you made to a friend three years ago…Jason Gilchrist.’
Disconcerted by the mention of that name, Zarif stiffened. Yet it was not his one-time friend’s face that he pictured, it was that of Jason’s sister, Eleonora. An image of a young woman with a honey-blonde fall of silky curls, gentian-blue eyes and the legs of a gazelle flashed in his mind’s eye. Zarif froze into angry defensiveness at the speed of his own unwelcome response and the unwelcome remembrance of the staccato delivery of insults he had never forgotten:
We’re both far too young to get married.
I’m British. I couldn’t live in a culture where women are second-class citizens.
I’m not cut out to be a queen.
‘What has happened?’ he asked Yaman with his customary quietness, only the charge of sudden flaring energy lighting his dark gaze to amber belying his outer façade of cool.
Ella walked into the silent house. She was so tired that only will power was keeping her upright.