I'm so thrilled to share the opening chapter of my debut book Conquering His Virgin Queen. When I first started thinking of Eloise and Odir, I knew I wanted a high stakes, high tension, passionate romance. And what better way to really pile on the pressure than to see if I could tell a romance in twelve hours?! Odir and Eloise's relationship takes place one hour at a time, exploring their heart renching romance all the way until the final second!
Six months ago their marriage ended… He has twelve hours to claim his wife back!
Odir Farouk is about to become King―but to take his throne he needs his errant wife by his side! Odir once denied his hunger for Eloise, refusing to compromise power for passion, and his rejection drove her away. Now Odir has until news of his succession breaks to win back his Queen…and pleasure will be his most powerful weapon!
Read on for an exclusive look at the first chapter.
August 1st, 20.00-21.00, Heron Tower
TO SAY THAT Odir Farouk Al Arkrin, twelfth generation Farrehed warrior, eldest son of Sheikh Abbas and leading world business figure, was having a bad day would be a dramatic understatement. The Prince pulled the loops of his English-style bowtie together, shaking off the feeling of a noose closing around his neck, and bit back a curse. A curse that damned the wife he had not seen for six months.
But his past feelings about her didn’t matter. Her recent absence didn’t matter.
Within an hour she would return to him.
And he’d get what he needed—what his country needed.
Odir pulled the edges of the black silk fabric tight, firmly fixing the tie in place. Stepping back, he checked his image in the full-length mirror. The sun, setting over the London skyline, caught in the reflection of the mirror and briefly stung his eyes before dipping behind his broad shoulders. He tugged at the cuffs of the tailor-made tux that was equally as uncomfortable as his royal robes. Each were trappings, a costume for the role that he was required to play. And tonight, in one of England’s most renowned and expensive hotels, he’d play the role of a lifetime.
Behind him stood Malik, his personal bodyguard and a man he’d known since they had both run about the Farrehed palace in little more than nappies. A man who nearly six months before had betrayed him in the most shocking way. Frustration rose up within him, and this time Odir just couldn’t hold back.
‘Wipe the look of guilt from your face or leave. I can’t have you making people curious. Not now.’
Malik opened his mouth to speak, but Odir cut him off.
‘And if you don’t have the good sense to stop apologising then I will send you back to Farrehed and you can spend the rest of your life guarding my father’s sister. And, trust me, that is a promise, not a threat. She eats more than a camel and lives like a tortoise. You will die of boredom before your time, and that would be a waste.’
Malik didn’t even twitch. It was the first time Odir had made a joke in what felt like months, and not only had it fallen flat, but a burst of shame cut through him. Now wasn’t the time for jokes.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Malik asked.
Perhaps it was only because Malik was standing behind him that he dared to ask that question. But Odir reluctantly acknowledged that it echoed his own struggling mind.
‘Want? No. Am I sure? Yes. It must be done.’
There was a knock on the door and his personal advisor poked his head through the opening, clearly aware of what kind of mood his Prince was in and not daring to enter further into the dark aura that had surrounded Odir since that morning.
‘Has the press conference been arranged?’ Odir tossed over his shoulder, meeting his aide’s curious glance in the mirror.
‘Don’t. Don’t call me that. Not yet.’
‘Of course, Sir. Yes, the press have been called for eight o’clock tomorrow morning at the embassy. Sir...?’
‘We can still cancel the event tonight.’
‘This yearly event has been upheld through two skirmishes, one war, one financial depression and a royal wedding—and that’s just in the last thirty years. It’s taken months of planning and even if it hadn’t we cannot cancel. To do so would be seen as a sign of weakness. And that—right now—is untenable.’
His assistant nodded, but didn’t leave, instead hovering on the threshold as if he knew there was something more.
‘The invitation...it went out this morning? She received it?’
Once Odir’s security team had discovered the fake name his wife was using on her equally fake passport, it hadn’t taken them more than thirty minutes to track down her whereabouts. From there it had been easy for his consulate in Switzerland to deliver the invitation to her address. An address he’d never visited nor known about until ten hours ago.
‘You can go,’ he said, and his assistant disappeared back through the door.
Odir returned his focus to the mirror, and although a part of him wanted to close his eyes against the white printout lying on the small side table beside his bed, he forced them to remain open. Forced his gaze to scan the blurry photocopy of a passport with a face he recognised bearing a name he didn’t. The document had become the physical manifestation of his wife’s deceit and he resisted the urge to ball it up and throw it aside.
But that wasn’t what had sent a ripple of discord through his body. It was the black and white picture of the woman he had married and vowed before God to honour above all else. And he had, he thought with an arrow of anger. But she hadn’t.
After six months of seemingly fruitless investigations trying to track down his errant wife, the fact that Malik had seen sense—only in the direst of circumstances—to reveal the name on her fake passport had briefly made Odir wonder whether Eloise had put Malik under some kind of wicked spell too. But he’d discarded the thought as quickly as it had come. Malik would never have touched his wife. Only one other had, and no matter how angry, how furious he was, he couldn’t and wouldn’t harm a hair on that body.
Another glance at the black and white photocopy, lying on the depressingly thin file of information his security team had dug up on her, creased and limp already from heavy fingers and angry hands, spiked his frustration once again.
His wife had always been beautiful. A beauty that had once threatened to undo him. But that wasn’t what he was looking for. Odir wanted to know if she had been blushing with shame when that photograph was taken. But the soft white planes of her face set against the grey shadow of her hair told him nothing.
Odir ruthlessly forced away the frustration welling in his chest. He didn’t have time to give in to such base things. He never had.
Tonight he had but one goal.
‘You have confirmation of her arrival?’ he threw at Malik.
‘She landed at Gatwick five hours ago.’
A curl of tension loosened its grip on him. Everything was falling into place.
‘She was followed to a hotel in London where she spent two hours, made a few phone calls,’ Malik continued. ‘She left in a cab and should arrive here in twenty minutes.’
Odir wondered why Eloise hadn’t fled to her family’s posting in Kuwait. He knew that she didn’t get on with her father. There had always been a strange, unsettling and silent bond between the young woman who had followed her ambassador father to Farrehed after finishing her university studies. A father who hadn’t noticed his daughter had been missing for six months. Hell, he hadn’t even noticed for three whole days.
But his lack of knowledge about her family was just another sign that he should have known more about the woman he’d bound himself to. He’d believed his father when he’d said their marriage would be good for his country. Would cement much-needed ties between their desert kingdom and Britain. And, although Odir had been brought up to expect an arranged marriage, what he’d found when he’d met Eloise two years ago had given him hope. Hope that he’d have a chance at finding something true—something more. Instead he’d been blinded by lust and what he now considered an award-worthy performance.
Not that it mattered at all. For his wife was going to return to his side no matter what he had to do to ensure it. She had no choice, he had no choice, and nothing angered him more than having his hand forced.
‘Take your men and meet her in Reception.’
‘Could you pull up around the corner?’
The last thing Eloise wanted was for the Princess of Farrehed to be seen getting out of a local cab right outside the Heron Tower, where her husband’s glamorous charity event was being held.
She hadn’t seen the tower since it had been built, and the tall glass structure, reaching into the night sky, struck her as an appropriate symbol to represent the power of the husband she hadn’t seen in half a year.
A finger of fear trailed its icy tip down the length of her spine and she straightened her shoulders to try and dislodge its hold. Eloise didn’t need to know how Odir had found her. In reality, she was actually a little surprised that Malik hadn’t told him earlier.
In those first few months the only thing that had distracted her from the belief that Odir would arrive in Zurich and drag her back to Farrehed had been Natalia. Her university friend who, within a matter of days, had thrown Eloise’s problems into stark relief.
One day she might look back kindly on the girl who had arrived in Zurich looking over her shoulder, broken by misunderstandings and deeper hurts. But in contrast to Natalia’s situation, the Eloise that first came to Switzerland simply looked foolish and spoilt.
Taking a deep breath, Eloise pushed those thoughts aside and tried to focus on the present. What was it her husband wanted? Had he come to the decision that it was time to end their marriage? Or was there a reason that her husband’s summons coincided with her birthday tomorrow? The same day that she would finally be able to access the trust fund her grandfather had so kindly and generously secured for her. Surely just a coincidence.
And if she told herself that one hundred times more, perhaps she would start to believe it.
Eloise fingered the embossed invitation that had arrived, hand-delivered, that morning. She had opened the door with her coffee in one hand and accepted the envelope with the other. Looking back, she could hardly credit that it had been only eight hours ago. Nothing had sprung her into action like that demand from her husband to attend tonight’s charity event. Nothing. Not even Natalia’s illness, her father’s blackmail or her mother’s indifference.
It had taken her an hour to think out her options, to call the hospital and make arrangements to cover her absence. She could have stayed in Zurich. She could have run again. But if Odir had found her then he knew the name on her fake passport, and without help from Malik she couldn’t easily procure another one.
But through all these considerations was the realisation that she should make use of this unexpected summons...and finally put into motion the one thing she’d wanted for the last six months.
Eloise twisted the royal wedding ring around her finger. The weight she’d lost in recent months had made the fitting loose, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was a sign. A sign that perhaps she was finally about to escape the noose that had been placed around her neck the moment her ambitious father had finally got what he wanted as two little words fell from her lips... ‘I do.’
A car horn crashed into the night from somewhere behind the cab. She handed the driver the last of her English money and got out, carefully picking up the long skirts of the black silk dress she had bought at the airport. The halter-neck fitted snugly around her throat, disguising the need for the expensive jewellery that would be expected from the royal princess she had supposedly been for the last eight months. The material clung to her chest like a second skin, and at her bare back she felt a blast of unusually warm air for London, which was in the throes of a summer heatwave. She had spent a fortune on it—almost more than a month’s salary. But it was worth it.
She wasn’t naïve enough to go to a State event in a dress of even half the price. And she wasn’t naïve enough to pick a fight with a prince without armour.
Not when that Prince was her husband.
As soon as Eloise stepped through the doors of the Heron Tower she was flanked by four men dressed from head to toe in black. For a moment—just a moment—she imagined the cold clasps of handcuffs closing around her wrists, and then discarded the thought as foolish. Her husband might be infuriated with her, but he would never do anything to risk the reputation of the royal family. She knew that better than most. She looked to their faces and was not surprised to see Malik, the only one of the men actually to meet her eye. No one spoke, though if it was a sign of respect, or shame, she couldn’t tell.
As they all entered the lift, the guards barring entry to any of the other guests, she allowed herself to feel a burst of hope that after tonight she might finally be free. Her stomach dropped away as the lift drew them higher and higher, giving her the most spectacular night-time view of London. Multi-coloured lights spread out before her and it was almost enough to take her breath away.
But superimposed over the dramatic vista was her pale, shimmering reflection. Her long blonde hair had not been expertly looped and pinned by stylists who knew what they were doing and charged a fortune. Instead she had done her best in the mirror at the cheap hotel she’d rented for the night. And in her mind the two extremes—the poor hotel and the incredibly rich lavish world of the Heron Tower—summed up the last two years of her life.
The poorer part was so much more valuable to her for its freedom...the richer part coming with a price she could no longer pay.
Drawing to a stop sooner than she’d expected, the lift doors opened onto a room lavishly decorated with leading members of international society—each adorned in clothes and jewellery that would rival all the gold in the Bank of England.
She glanced around the soft-hued room, its delicate lighting clashing painfully with the sounds of clinking glasses and mind-numbing small talk.
The party, it seemed, had started without her.
With Eloise’s first step into the room those standing nearby stopped talking, and all around her a hush seemed to descend. Many bowed their heads, as if in respect, but she knew it also served to mask their gossiping mouths. And she hated it. She always had. The close attention paid to her and her family before and even more so after she had married Odir. For just a moment she wondered whether this was how her mother felt. Hiding her hurt behind practised smiles. And then she berated herself. Her husband, for all his sins, was nothing like her father.
‘Eloise?’ A familiar voice cut through the crowds.
Eloise turned to take in the face of one of the only friends she could claim from her ‘old life’, as she now thought of it.
‘Emily, it’s good to see you,’ she replied, surprised at the truth of her words, and even more surprised as Emily drew her into a warm embrace.
‘Where have you been?’ Emily whispered into her ear. ‘It’s been ages, El. The rumour mill has had you locked in the Farrehed palace tower by your domineering husband.’
For just a moment Eloise wanted to tell her friend everything. Of the joy she’d found helping others, the freedom she’d found in Zurich, the meaning she’d found in such a simple existence...
‘Mrs Santos,’ Malik said, interrupting Eloise’s thoughts and putting an end to such a foolish whim.
Of course she couldn’t say anything that would reveal her absence from Farrehed...from the Prince.
‘Malik.’ Emily nodded in warm welcome.
‘It’s a long story,’ Eloise replied quietly, with a smile to soften the brush-off. ‘What are you doing here? You’re not usually at these events.’
‘I could say the same for you,’ the brunette replied in hushed tones. ‘My father... He’s... He’s not doing so well.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. And your husband?’
‘Not here—thankfully,’ Emily replied with a rueful laugh. ‘Speaking of husbands... Yours has been like a bear with a sore head all evening.’
‘Really?’ Eloise asked, her heart pounding just at the thought of him.
Emily nodded over her shoulder.
And, as if their discussion had conjured his presence, Eloise caught sight of the man she hadn’t seen in six months. She couldn’t see his face, but the broad lines of his back were etched in her memory as if it were the only way she had ever seen her husband: from a distance and from behind.
Even today he stood a head taller than all those around him, and for one second her breath caught in her lungs. A thousand images of her handsome husband ran through her mind and over her skin. That first ever sight of him, dismounting a formidable black stallion. His impenetrable air of authority before she’d even known he was the son of a sheikh. The way that she had mocked him for his arrogance as he’d flung the horse’s reins at the stable hand and the innocent flirtation they had shared—until later that evening when they had been formally introduced.
Betraying nothing of their first meeting, Odir had eased her humiliation, charmed away her embarrassment and made it a secret shared between them, kept from their fathers. One she’d foolishly cherished.
Images crashed through her mind of the brief time they had spent together during their arranged engagement—the trips he’d made out to the borders of Farrehed, where she had been working for a charity set up to help provide medication for the desert tribes. The secret dinners they had shared...the morning they’d watched the sun rise over the sand dunes...
She thought back with shame of how she had told him her hopes and dreams...how she’d eagerly eaten up his plans for Farrehed and its people. Of how they’d come together, in spite of their fathers’ plans, to try and make the best of the arrangement. Of how she’d dared to hope that their marriage could be something more.
But it hadn’t been. She was a bought bride—a pawn used by powerful men.
Her wedding ring slipped down her finger again. She was done waiting for her prince to come along and rescue her. It was time for the Princess to rescue herself.
Odir’s cheeks ached from fake smiles, his throat hurt from obsequious small talk and his head pounded from the pressure he’d been keeping at bay all day. He rubbed away the exhaustion from his neck. He’d been through worse, he assured himself, but then wondered whether that was actually true.
At that moment, he would have given half of his country away for a whisky.
But the ruler of Farrehed couldn’t be so uncouth as to drink whisky at an event where only the finest champagne was being guzzled by the gallon.
Odir had never quite understood why it required the spending of such large sums of money to raise even greater sums of money for charity. But then the law of diminishing returns was something he’d never held to.
‘And that was when she said that she couldn’t see it!’
Odir joined in the over-zealous laughter at the undeserving joke told by the French Ambassador. And then, instead of turning away and seeking the solitude he so badly wanted, Odir slipped into the kind of seasoned small talk that he could do in his sleep. Perhaps in the brief, heady days of his youth he had even done it in his sleep. But that had been before. Before his marriage, before his father’s grief-stricken deterioration had signalled the near absolute destruction of his beloved country, and before this morning.
And now, despite all this spectacle, all this civility, the future of Farrehed was hanging by a thread. And the only person who could help him hold on to it was the woman he’d let into his palace to wear his ring.
Behind him Odir felt rather than heard a lull in the conversation and the hairs lifted on his arms. She should never have been able to elicit such a reaction in him. He’d once thought the barriers around his heart strong enough to prevent such a thing. But she had. And she still did.
Eloise—his wife, his future Queen—had arrived.
Odir watched her reflection in the glass as she made her way through the throng of people between them. The closer she got, the more eagerly he ate up the defiance that shone from the angle of her shoulders, her determined footsteps. Good. He wanted the promise of the fight she was offering him. He needed it.
He let her get almost within touching distance and then he struck.
Odir wheeled round and imprisoned her within his arms, proceeding to kiss her in a way that he had allowed himself on only a few occasions during their courtship. He took full advantage of her lips, opened partially in shock, and plunged his tongue into...
Into a heaven he’d refused to let himself remember.
As his lips carved out his domination over her he cursed inwardly. The taste of her tongue was shocking in its sweetness, her soft lips taking in every sweep of his firm command. He had meant the kiss to be retribution. He had not for one minute thought that it would be his own punishment. His entire body was on fire, and he jerked back away from her before he could get burnt.
For just a second the shock that lit her features was echoed in his eyes. Only once had he ever felt this way. On their wedding night... It had been a glimpse into the madness that might consume him whole, might tempt him to turn his back on his country’s needs.
And then he remembered what had happened two months after their wedding night...the lies and the betrayal... It was enough to return his presence of mind to what had to be done.
‘Eloise, habibti, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself,’ he said, with a smile so sickly sweet he wondered that anyone could believe it. ‘Even two days apart feels like...months,’ he said, through lips that still held the taste of her.
For a moment he almost hoped that she might slip up, that the hesitation he saw in her eyes would reveal her to be the fraud she truly was, but her instant reply was flawless.
‘I’m sorry that I couldn’t be on the same flight as you, darling.’
The lie slipped seamlessly from her lips, and yet again he wondered how he’d failed to notice such great skill in her throughout the months of their engagement and their brief marriage. Never mind. He would use it to his advantage and remember not to underestimate her. After all, she had managed to coerce his most loyal personal guard into doing her bidding.
No, it would not pay to underestimate his wife.
That kiss might have stolen her breath, and taunted her with memories of their wedding night—and it certainly was not the welcome that she’d expected from her husband—but that didn’t change a thing.
Eloise pushed down the betraying grip of desire that had dusted her body and forced it away before it could take hold. If her will hadn’t been enough, then the barely concealed warning in Odir’s eyes certainly was.
She had been here before. She had played many roles in her life and played them well. The perfect daughter, the doting wife... Just for one more night she could do it.
Eloise was skilled at recognising illusions and half-truths, but she could almost believe there had been a time when there was more to her husband’s glance than cold acceptance.
The French Ambassador claimed her attention with a bow.
‘Ma chère Eloise—I can’t tell you how sorry we were not to see you at the Hanley Cup in May. Matilde and I were just saying so, weren’t we?’ he asked of his wife.
Glancing at Matilde’s avaricious gaze, Eloise knew exactly what kind of speculation they had been involved in, and clearly they were greedily about to eat up the first juicy bit of gossip on Farrehed’s errant Princess.
Eloise was prepared to launch into the carefully constructed cover story of her actions over the last months when Odir cut in with an impossibly gentle chuckle. Chuckle? She didn’t think she’d ever heard such a sound from his lips in all the time she had known him.
‘You must forgive my wife. She’s been so preoccupied with her charitable works—’ the heavily laden words for her benefit alone ‘—that it feels as if I have hardly seen her once in the last six months.’
Matilde’s hungry gaze turned into one of reproach, and that only angered Eloise even more. The last words Odir had hurled at her across a room had been so full of fury they had driven her from Farrehed. He had forced her out of her country, her home, and he had the gall to blame her?
‘Odir, don’t exaggerate,’ she said playfully, putting a bit more weight than necessary behind a not-so-playful tap on his arm. ‘You know exactly where I have been.’ She turned to Matilde with the most ingratiating smile she had ever given and continued, ‘I have been overseeing a project to bring sovereign-funded, mental and medical health care to women of the tribes at the outer reaches of Farrehed.’
It was as close to the truth of what she had been helping to do in Zurich as it could be. As she well knew, the best lies were born from threads of truth. She had learnt that from her mother and father.
‘It’s no wonder you’re here, then,’ replied the smiling ambassador’s wife, and for a moment, Eloise was confused.
She had been so preoccupied with her husband’s summons she hadn’t even noticed which of Odir’s causes this event was for.
‘Eloise would never miss a charitable event that reaffirms the links between the World Health Organisation and the betterment of women in our country. But I hope that you will excuse us,’ he said, placing a reassuring hand on the ambassador’s shoulder. ‘It’s a little-known secret that it’s my wife’s birthday tomorrow, and I have a special present for her.’
Odir wrapped his strong arm around her waist like a steel clamp and started manoeuvring her from the room.
‘There’s only one birthday present I want from you, darling, and that’s a divorce.’
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