The Sheik and the Virgin Princess (Desert Rogues #5)

by Susan Mallery

Chapter 1

“What kind of stupid does it take not to want to be a princess?” Cleo asked.

Zara Paxton ignored both her sister and the question. Stupid or not, what she wanted more than anything was to turn tail and run. This had been a really bad idea from the start.

“The mosaics on the east wall date back to the early 1100s,” the tour guide intoned as she pointed to the Bahanian palace wall covered with small tiles in a rainbow of colors. A few tiles had chipped over the past thousand years, but the majority were in place, detailing a lovely landscape of the ocean and a lush island in the distance.

“The scene is of Lucas-Surrat,” the guide continued. “The crown prince of the island has always been a member of the Bahanian ruling family.”

“How can you not want to know?” Cleo asked in a low voice. “Come on, Zara, take a chance.”

“Easy for you to say,” Zara pointed out. “We’re not talking about your life.”

“I wish we were. I would love to find out I’m the illegitimate daughter of royalty.”

Zara hushed her sister, then glanced around to make sure that no one in their tour group had overheard Cleo’s comments. Fortunately the others were more interested in what the guide had to say than any conversation between the two women.

Zara tugged on Cleo’s arm, pulling her to a stop. “Don’t say anything,” she said urgently. “We’re not sure what’s true. So I have a few letters. They don’t mean the king is really my father.”

Cleo didn’t look convinced. “If you don’t think there’s a possibility, what are we doing here?”

Zara didn’t have an answer for that. The “here” in question was a public tour of the famous royal palace of Bahania. Cleo had suggested they simply announce themselves at the front gate and demand to be let in. Zara had opted for the more subtle approach—hence the tour. If nothing else, she could get the lay of the land, so to speak. Her trip to Bahania had been impulsive, something she tried to avoid. Now that she was here, she was going to have to think through what she wanted to do.

“You make me crazy,” Cleo muttered, trailing after their group. “All your life you’ve wanted to know who your father is. You finally get some information on the man and suddenly you get all scared.”

Zara shook her head. “You make it sound cut-and-dried, and it isn’t. I thought my mother had an affair with a married man and that’s why she wouldn’t talk about my father. If it turns out he really is the king, then life is a whole lot more complicated. I’m not sure I want to be a part of all this.”

“Which brings me back to my stupid remark,” Cleo said with a look of impatience. “Hello? This is your chance at the fairy tale, Zara. How many of us get to be transformed into a princess? Why on earth wouldn’t you jump at the chance?”

“Because I—”

“Princess Sabra! I did not know you had arrived.”

Both women turned to the man who hurried toward them. He was slight, in his mid-thirties and wearing some kind of uniform.

“I was told you would be arriving shortly. I had been watching for you, but must have missed you.” The man stopped in front of them and bowed slightly. “A thousand pardons.”

Zara blinked. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not—”

“I am new,” the man continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Please do not be angry. This way.”

Before Zara could protest, the man grabbed her arm and hustled her down a long corridor—one that led away from the tour group. She heard Cleo’s footsteps as her sister hurried after her.

“Zara? What’s going on?”

“I have no idea.” She tried to free herself, but the little man’s grip was surprisingly strong. “Look, you’ve made a mistake. I’m not who you think I am. I’m with the tour group. We’re just tourists.”

The man gave her a disapproving glance. “Yes, princess, but if you wanted a tour of the castle, you could simply ask your father, who is waiting for you even now.”

Father? Zara’s stomach tightened. She had a bad feeling about all of this.

They turned right, then left. She had a brief impression of large rooms, tile floors, beautiful statues and paintings, along with occasional glimpses of the blue Arabian Sea. Then they came to an oval foyer filled with half a dozen people. The man stopped and released her arm.

“I have found Princess Sabra,” he announced to the milling crowd.

Everyone turned to look at her. Conversation stilled. In the heartbeat of silence, Zara knew that something awful was about to happen.

Her premonition proved true.

A male voice yelled that they were imposters. People dove at them from all directions. Zara didn’t know what to do, and that indecision cost her breath when a large man threw himself at her. One second she was standing, the next she hit the hard, tiled floor with the impact of a train barreling into a brick wall.

Air rushed from her body. Her head banged against something unforgiving and the room began to spin. The next thing she knew, she couldn’t breathe and there was a gun pointed at her temple.

“Talk!”

The voice commanded her obedience. Zara blinked and tried to suck in a breath. Her lungs wouldn’t cooperate. The spinning increased, fueled by panic. She moved—or at least made the attempt—but her body froze. She inhaled again and this time air seeped into her lungs. Again and again she drew breath until she was able to focus. It was then that she realized her body wasn’t frozen, it was pinned by a large, angry man with the coldest blue eyes she’d ever seen.

Blue had always been her favorite color, she thought somewhat hysterically. It was the color of the sea and the sky. But the irises of this man held no warmth. Staring at him, she felt chilled down to her bones. Maybe even down to her soul.

“Talk,” he repeated. “Who the hell are you?”

“Zara Paxton,” she breathed.

The pressure on her temple increased. She swallowed when she remembered the gun.

“Are you going to shoot me?” she asked, her voice shaking.

Everything she’d read about Bahania had told her that the country was safe, forward thinking and a perfect tourist destination. Perhaps the brochures had been wrong.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded, ignoring her question.