Crown Prince Kamal Zokan, the soon-to-be-crowned King of the Zokari tribal lands, stood in the paddock at Narabia’s famed annual horse-racing pageant and scowled as he recalled the meeting the day before with Uttram Aziz, the head of his tribal elders.
The minarets of his neighbour Sheikh Zane Ali Nawari Khan’s lavish Golden Palace glittered like jewels in the morning sunshine behind the high stone walls surrounding the stable yards and race arena as flags of every nation fluttered in the breeze and a string of thoroughbred Arabian horses gathered at the starting line. But Kamal could appreciate none of it.
Damn Uttram Aziz. Damn his attempts to defy me at every turn. And, most of all, damn his latest attempt to stop me from claiming my throne.
Adrenaline pumped through Kamal’s system as the anger and resentment which had been burning under his breastbone since yesterday’s meeting refused to release its stranglehold on his throat.
‘It is the law, Kamal. You would know this already if you had a more cultured past. You must be married before the crowning ceremony next month or you will forfeit the throne.’
Born an outcast boy, he had fought his way from nothing to become Zokar’s youngest army colonel, and now—after amassing a fortune by having invested in the country’s fledging mineral industry—he was on the verge of becoming its king. The previous Sheikh had died without heirs two months ago and had named Kamal as his successor.
Kamal had no doubt the Sheikh’s decision had been based on expediency. Zokar needed inward investment and Kamal was a successful businessman who had also proved himself a leader of men. Kamal had hesitated at first but, once he had decided to take the throne, Aziz and his followers had attempted to thwart him at every turn. And this latest ultimatum had only frustrated him more. How did they come up with this stuff?
Kamal could not have felt more out of place if he had tried, forced to attend Khan’s lavish annual event in search of a damned bride. And not just any bride. A royal bride whom, Aziz had stated, would make up for Kamal’s lack of breeding and sophistication….
He swallowed, all but choking on his fury. He didn’t need breeding, or sophistication, to be a strong ruler and a good king. He was smart, ambitious and determined to obtain the investment Zokar needed to bring its infrastructure into the twenty-first century. He had already invested a small fortune of his own money to that end. But the more conservative elements of the country’s ruling elite—represented by Aziz and his acolytes—insisted on putting barriers in his way. Every time Kamal scaled one, there would be another, and he was sick of it.
He glanced up at the royal box where Khan and his brother Prince Raif of the Kholadi people and their families stood with the other local rulers. Kamal shuddered, having escaped from the official greeting ceremony earlier with some excuse about joining his men in the stable yards—where he felt a great deal more comfortable—to watch the main race.
He had respect for Khan. He knew the man had worked hard to develop his kingdom after his father’s harsh rule—and Khan had been quick to offer his support when Kamal had been named as successor to the Zokari throne. It was an endorsement Kamal was embarrassed to admit he had needed to smooth his path with the rest of Zokar’s tribal elders. Luckily, neither Khan nor his brother Raif had recognised Kamal from their previous meeting fifteen years ago.
But Kamal still remembered the sickening humiliation of that day as if it were yesterday—when he had been a malnourished boy serving the royal party and Khan and his entourage had arrived for a state visit. Kamal had lingered, gathering the dishes as slowly as he could, fascinated by the pride in the powerful sheikh’s voice as Khan had introduced his heir—his five-year-old daughter, Crown Princess Kaliah—to the Zokari Elders.
Unfortunately, Kamal had been so intent on eavesdropping on the conversation he hadn’t spotted the pillow strewn across his path. He had tripped and dropped the dishes. The crash of breaking porcelain had made every eye turn on him.
Shame washed over him again at the memory of the striking blue of Princess Kaliah Khan’s eyes as they had glowed with pity for him. He’d begun gathering the broken pieces, his pride burning, when his employer, Hamid, had appeared, apologising profusely for Kamal’s clumsiness, and had proceeded to beat him with his belt.
The vicious swipe had stung like the devil—because the wounds from Kamal’s previous beating had yet to fully heal—but not nearly as much as his pride when he’d heard the golden child’s impassioned plea to her father. ‘Daddy, you must stop that man. He shouldn’t hit that poor serving boy, it’s not right.’
Poor serving boy?
Khan had intervened, of course, and Hamid had been reprimanded for his behaviour. But the memory of that long-ago encounter still stung. Which was precisely why Kamal had not wanted to come to this event. Being in Khan’s debt was bad enough, but the humiliation if he recognised him would be far worse.
At least the Crown Princess was not present in the royal box. The last thing he needed right now was to meet that spoilt, entitled child again—even if she would now be twenty or thereabouts—and risk her recognising him. Although that seemed unlikely. He was six-foot-four now, and twenty-nine years old, even if he felt a great deal older in life experience.
The cool evening air whipped at his skin and the crowd noise increased as the horses took their places behind the starting rope. He swallowed, the fury finally releasing its stranglehold. The rage and pain he had been subjected to as a child had stood him in good stead to ensure he never gave up, and never gave in, before he got what he wanted. Which was why he would scale this latest hurdle and return to Zokar with a willing bride in time to claim the throne once and for all.
His lips twisted in a bitter smile. Hell, he might even consider Kaliah Khan for the position, if she had learned some humility in the intervening years…although he suspected that was doubtful, given her reputation in the region as a wild child.
‘Prince Kamal, the Race of Kings is about to start. His Divine Majesty and his wife Queen Catherine would like to welcome you to the royal box with the other heads of state.’
Kamal turned to find one of Khan’s many advisers wearing a helpful smile on his weathered face.
‘I shall watch the race from here,’ he said, knowing he would need more time to prepare for the ordeal of having to socialise at the event scheduled for after the race. Khan and his wife had been welcoming earlier, and surprisingly easy going, but Kamal wasn’t a man who knew how to make small talk. Nor did he wish to learn.
The adviser bowed. ‘Of course, whatever you wish, Your Highness.’
Kamal turned as the man disappeared back into the crowd, just as a series of shouts came from the paddock. He frowned as a new horse and rider broke into the arena, galloping towards the starting line. The horse was smaller than most of the others, a mare, not a gelding. Kamal couldn’t help staring, not just at the horse—whose midnight coat gleamed in the spotlights—but at the rider, who was tall for a jockey but impossibly slender. The way he held himself was spellbinding, so graceful and perfectly attuned with the magnificent horse.
The gun sounded as the new arrival was still racing to join the starting line. The field leapt forward en masse while the trailing horse accelerated as if it had been fired from the gun. The jockey’s head was bent low over the powerful beast, his body as one with the animal as its legs ate up the ground.
The crowd went wild, the late horse providing added drama as it flew towards the rest of the field. Kamal’s throat clogged as excitement powered through his veins. He had never been much into horse racing—leisure activities were not a part of his life—but even he could admire the poetry of the horse’s motion and feel the swell of exhilaration as the horse and rider shot round the first turn without breaking stride, hugging the fence to gain ground on the field.
On the back straight, the horse powered into the lead. But, as the field raced back towards them, the mystery jockey’s cap snapped off. Long dark hair fanned out, and Kamal noticed the way the rider’s silks flattened in the wind over small, firm breasts.
A woman. What the hell?
As the horse and rider flew past, Kamal got a better look at the jockey’s fierce expression—and sensed the effort it was taking for her to stay on the horse.
Fear careered through him.
The horse’s speed was completely unchecked. The animal was going too fast, its hooves pounding hard, its flanks sweating with the effort. Was the girl controlling the horse, or was she merely trying to cling onto its back?
That little fool.
Kamal shoved his way through the busy arena stables and leapt onto the nearest saddled horse. Grabbing the reins, he ignored the shouts from the stable hand who had been leading the horse to its stall and charged towards the arena.
The crowds parted to let him through as he galloped towards the track, his mind berating the foolhardy girl even as the fear continued to streak through his body.
The horse was coming down the back straight again as Kamal reached the track. The slender rider was bent so low over the mare now it was clear she had exhausted herself. Adrenaline and something that felt uncomfortably like arousal shot through Kamal as her wild hair flowed around her features, while her slight body clung for dear life to the still accelerating horse.
Kamal spurred his mount onto the track ahead of the runaway mare as it took the turn—determined to rescue the idiot girl before she broke her foolish neck.
‘Come on, girl, we’ve got this.’ Excitement barrelled through Kaliah Khan’s exhausted body.
We’re going to win. And I will finally prove I’m not a total screw-up.
She clung to the reins and kept her body low over Ashreen’s neck, urging her on, aware of all the muscles straining to stay on the horse as they careered around the track. She needed this victory to prove to her family, to prove to Narabia’s establishment and to prove to herself she had what it took to win in a man’s world.
But most of all to prove to that creep Colin, the guy she’d thought she was falling in love at Cambridge, he’d been wrong to call her a ‘frigid bitch’.
Her anger was like an aphrodisiac, turning the fear and danger into exhilaration—and adding much-needed fuel to her flagging stamina. It was as if they were flying. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so determined to win she might have controlled the horse more, but it was too late now—Ashreen had scented victory too.
Suddenly an unknown rider on a huge white stallion swerved onto the track ahead of her.
‘Who the…?’ Liah gasped.
Where had he come from? And what was he doing right in front of her?
The horse, much bigger than her mare, picked up speed and moved into her lane, keeping pace with Ashreen’s strides. The man was a huge black shadow on the white horse, large and forbidding, powerful and overwhelming.
Liah’s shattered mind imagined a Horseman of the Apocalypse come to collect her and take her to hell.
‘Get out of the way!’ she screamed, but her demand was whipped away on the wind. Her tired arms weighed several tons—all she could do was cling on, her body too weary to manoeuvre Ashreen away from the encroaching rider.
Ashreen lifted her nose, scenting the other animal, and for a split-second Liah was sure the mare would rear, but instead she slowed, almost as if she was intimidated by the huge stallion too.
‘No, Ashreen!’ Liah shouted. The finish line was just a few hundred metres away. But, before she could get the horse to accelerate again, the rider came alongside her. His hard, angular face was partially covered by a beard, but she could see the fierce concentration in his eyes and the spark of furious temper.
What the heck did he have to be angry about? She was the one getting pushed out of a race she’d been about to win.
‘Let go of the reins,’ he shouted. ‘I’ll lift you off her.’
‘Are you mad?’ she yelled back, but her fingers loosened instinctively.
The air expelled from her lungs in a rush as a hard forearm wrapped around her midriff and she became airborne, plucked from the saddle like a rag doll.
She heard the thunder of Ashreen’s hooves as the mare bolted away towards the finish line, leaving her behind. She grunted in shock as she found herself dumped face-down over the rider’s saddle. Her stomach slapped down on thighs hard with muscle and she caught a lungful of his scent—spice, musk and clean soap. His robe wrapped around them both as the mighty horse reared. But Liah didn’t even have a chance to scream before the horse bowed to its rider’s commands and its hooves crashed back to earth, giving her stomach another painful jolt against those rock-solid thighs.
His hand remained firm on her back, keeping her in place as he steered the horse across the track, bringing them to a stop inches from the fence.
The crowd erupted, waving and cheering, as if the whole thing had been planned for their entertainment. Nausea boiled in Liah’s stomach, her mind reeling as the giddy adrenaline rush slammed into a wave of shock and fury.
What had just happened? And who was this mad man? Because he’d nearly killed them both…and, more importantly – he’d just lost her the race. Every part of her body throbbed with pain. But what hurt most of all was her pride.
The rest of the field raced past them as the man dragged her up to seat her across his lap so she could see his face. Dark brows flattened over piercing golden eyes which looked weirdly familiar. Had she seen this man before? Because those amber eyes struck something in her memory from long ago.
But nothing else about him seemed familiar. And she was immediately struck by the thought that, if she had met him before, she would not have forgotten him.
He was huge, all hard, lean muscle, a brutal scar slashed down his left cheek creating a raised line through the stubble on his jaw. The fierce intensity as his gaze raked over her made the harsh planes and angles of his sun-weathered features look even more dramatic.
He wasn’t what she would call handsome, his dark, raw-boned face far too intimidating and defiantly masculine for that, but he was breath-taking.
Liah stifled the idiotic thought as unhelpful heat joined the bubble of nausea in her belly.
‘You are not hurt?’ he asked, his rough, heavily accented voice echoing in her chest—and triggering the pulse of something rich and fluid in her sore abdomen.
The question jolted her out of her trance—and drop-kicked her back into reality.
She pushed against his controlling arm. ‘Of course I’m not hurt,’ she said, her voice coming out on an annoying squeak. She gathered another breath. ‘No thanks to you, you idiot. What on earth were you thinking, grabbing me like that? You could have broken both our necks.’
His dark brows lowered and anger sparked, turning the rich amber in his gaze to a flaming gold. ‘I saved your life, you ungrateful little fool,’ he snapped, his voice rigid with condescension.
Liah’s temper burned through the last of her shock and misplaced awe.
‘Are––are you deranged?’ she spluttered, barely able to contain her incredulity at the arrogant statement. ‘I was about to win.’
‘The horse was out of control,’ he said. ‘And you were too weak to manage it.’
She heard it then, the note of masculine disdain she had been battling from some quarters all her life, despite the unstinting support of her parents and Narabia’s ruling council.
She swept the mane of unruly hair out of her eyes. ‘I get it, you decided to rescue me when I didn’t need rescuing because I’m a weak and feeble woman, right?’ She glared at him with enough force to immolate lead.
Unfortunately, it had no appreciable effect. He didn’t even have the decency to flinch before giving her an insulting once-over—which, infuriatingly, had that inappropriate shaft of heat returning.
‘You are a woman?’ He sneered, the rhetorical question dripping with sarcasm. ‘This is hard to tell when you are dressed like a boy. And behave like a spoilt brat.’