The Desert King’s Kidnapped Virgin

Book 1 in the Innocent Stolen Brides Series
Satisfyingly Spicy

Stolen in her bridal gown…
Taken as the sheikh’s wife!

When Hope Cartwright is kidnapped from her convenient wedding, she should feel outraged. But whisked away by Cyrus Ashkan, the sheikh she’s been promised to from birth, Hope feels something far more dangerous – desire!

Cyrus refuses to ignore his royal duty – he’s determined to marry innocent Hope, even if he finds her unsuitable in every way. But secluded together in his opulent desert fortress, their unwanted attraction burns hotter than the sun. Hot enough to burn down this mighty king’s every defense, if only Cyrus will allow it…

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Hope Cartwright walked down the aisle toward her groom, dressed in the requisite white gown and filled with nothing but a sense of relief.

God knew she’d earned it.

Everything is fine, she told herself as she walked. Everything will be perfectly fine.

Just as soon as she made it to the altar and said her vows. That was all it would take.

She blew out a breath, not surprised to find it was a bit shaky. And she kept her eyes focused up ahead on the man who stood at the head of the shockingly long aisle in this picturesque Italian wedding chapel, looking as grimly impatient as ever. He wanted this done as much as she did, Hope knew. Because this was the business arrangement they’d both wanted, as cold and calculated as it could get.

She could have been walking into something far more unpleasant, given her options and her desperate situation, and well did she know it. She doubted she’d thought of anything else in any serious way for the past two years.

Hope walked alone because her mother had, in her typical fashion, become so overset by the fact that Hope was actually marrying—because everyone gets a happy ending except me, she had sobbed in her childish way, quick to forget the last few years when she could nurse her feelings instead—that she’d drunk herself into something close enough to a stupor.

Except Mignon never lapsed off into an actual stupor. That was the trouble. Stupors suggested some measure of silence, and that was not her style. She was a storm, always. Sometimes wild with joy, sometimes distraught, but always and ever a storm. Accordingly, there had been scenes all morning as Mignon had turned Hope’s preparations for this ceremony into a saga about Mignon’s own choices.

This arrangement was as close to happy as either one of them was likely to get, Hope had tried to tell her. First Mignon had been mad with glee. Then the champagne had gone to her head and she’d simply been mad. Then had come the tears, the French love songs all sung off-key in honor of Hope’s late father—Mignon’s one true love—and last Hope had looked, Mignon had been passed out in a pile of butter-yellow chiffon, snoring off the bubbly.

Maybe that was as much of a happy ending as Hope could wish for.

She tried to remember what her severe groom had told her the night before when they’d indulged in a rehearsal right here in this ancient chapel that sat up above the sparkling waters of the famed Lake Como in Italy.

It will not do to race down the aisle in an unseemly haste, he had said in his usual repressive tones after she’d sprinted toward him from the antechamber.

Even if I feel an unseemly haste? she had asked, smiling.

Her husband-to-be was no love match for Hope. Love had not entered into the discussions. As such, he was not particularly interested in her smiles. He did not find her amusing, either, as he had made clear on numerous occasions already. Hope was a means to an end for him, that was all.

This was a good thing. Hope liked the fact that he required a service of her. So that she was not the only one selling herself here.

It also helped that he was not repulsive, like so many of the men who had auditioned for this particular role. Hope had wanted an honorable benefactor in the classic style. Someone she could rely upon and even feel safe with. Maybe there would even be some affection, in time.

Maybe it wasn’t the charming fairy-tale prince she’d dreamed of when she was small, but if she’d learned anything since her father died, it was that life was not kind to childish dreams. Looking for a more businesslike arrangement that benefited her as well as the man in question seemed a practical and even lovely alternative, in its way.

Instead she had discovered that entirely too many men out there were nothing short of horrible.

Like the one who had called what she was doing a virginity auction. She had been at some pains to tell him that there was no auction, thank you. That such a notion was unpleasant and, anyway, not true.

What was true was that Hope was, indeed, a virgin. That, like so many things in her life, had been an accident, not any sort of morality crusade on her part. It was a twist of fate, nothing more. If her father had not died when Hope was barely turned fourteen, she imagined she would have had the same kind of adolescence her old friends at school had enjoyed. Silly parties and boys to giggle over instead of having to act as the adult she wasn’t. Because Mignon, as delightful as she was most of the time, was sadly incapable of behaving like the adult she actually was with any regularity.

It had been down to Hope to sort out the funeral, then all the bills that followed. To do the best she could with the money her father had left and her mother’s seeming determination to blow through it all at an alarming rate as she dealt with her terrible grief. Hope had been the one who’d sold off the family estate, sorrowfully parting with her father’s staff, who had all been there longer than her, because she could not afford to keep them on. It had been Hope who had found the two of them a flat in London that Mignon wailed about on some maudlin evenings, because the neighborhood was questionable—Hope liked to think of it as up-and-coming—and what would people think, and what was next, the poorhouse?

Mignon kept clinging to the hope that even one of the men who partied with her, took advantage of her, or used her as they wished might love her if she let them do as they pleased.

They never did.

And so it was Hope who had to save them.

That was how she’d come to the attention of far too many obnoxiously wealthy and self-involved men since she’d turned eighteen. Her birthday present to herself, such as it was, had been leaving Mignon singing into her wine to meet her first potential contender. Hope had used her father’s connections to put herself forward, but only to a very specific sort of individual. He needed to be rich, first and foremost, because while she felt that she might quite like to make her own way in the world, what mattered was that Mignon would want for nothing.

That was what Hope’s dad would have wanted. No matter what flights of fancy her mother might commit herself to. No matter what Hope did or didn’t do.

That was what Hope wanted too, because she loved her mother. And she understood, somewhere deep inside, that she had a certain grit her mother lacked. She had a fortitude while Mignon was made of pretty smiles and too much air. She had no head for reality.

Reality had been Hope’s father’s job.

Mignon needed looking after, that was the beginning and end of it. In return, Hope was prepared to sign anything. Any prenuptial agreement, any contract, anything at all. After two years out there on what only an optimist like her mother would call “a dating scene,” Hope had almost convinced herself that she was well and truly prepared to be the virgin sacrifice she had learned a certain kind of man dreamed of finding.

After all, she had but two things that she could use to her advantage, according to far too many of the unpleasant men she’d encountered, having had to forgo any A levels to leave school at sixteen to take care of her mother as best she could: her father’s august pedigree and the fact that Hope herself was entirely untouched.

Sometimes she almost thought it was funny, that the thing her friends had teased her about in the years since her father’s death had become the only weapon Hope had, it seemed. The only possible way she could get both herself and her mother out of this mess.

Though she had taken her time coming to that conclusion, because it was so medieval.

Because she could always get a job, she’d told herself at first, the way normal people did. She sometimes thought about a glorious career the way she imagined some people dreamed of beach vacations in the Spanish sun. But the trouble was, Mignon could not do the same. Several attempts on her part had proved that, until Mignon had been forced to confess that she thought she was, perhaps, an idiot missing its village. Which had broken Hope’s heart.

In my dreams I am a fierce warrior for you, Mignon had whispered, working hard to keep a tremulous smile on her lovely, tearstained face. While in reality I am a mess. Beyond redemption, I fear.

No. Hope had been certain. Fierce. Never that.

That had left Hope to set aside any lingering Prince Charming fantasies—as well as any notions of a career, for that matter—and attempt to find a decent job that could support her and her mother when Hope had no work experience as well as no advanced education. But that was fine. She was scrappy. And while she had feelings, she was not buffeted this way and that by them, like Mignon.

She viewed this as a superpower, really.

But regardless of her feelings, and whether or not they ruled her, it had been a grueling two years of “dating” the sort of men who she found increasingly and almost unbearably unpleasant as time went on. Which was deeply unfortunate, as her dwindling funds made her more and more desperate to find someone—anyone—to help them, and running out of money meant she was running out of options.

Because one after another, the terrible men who took her out to such seemingly elegant dinners confessed their darkest and most furtive fantasies to her as if she’d asked for such intimate details, making it impossible for Hope to agree to any terms they might put to her.

One after the next, they made it impossible to do the thing she knew she had to do to save her mother.

And when she refused them, they took great pleasure in making it clear that her virginity was her only currency, and her pedigree a mere gloss to go with it.

She began to fear that sooner or later, she would have to marry one of them and do whatever their vile imaginations conjured up, somehow.

Two years ago, Hope had foolishly believed that she would find the perfect solution to all her problems, and quickly.

After all, she’d started her search for the proper benefactor by aiming straight for men her father’s age, many of whom she’d met when she’d been a little girl. The men who she’d known had precious little in the way of scruples. Because she knew precisely which ones had taken it upon themselves to offer her mother what they called comfort, while drooling, after the funeral.

Instead, she’d had two years of exploring precisely how twisted and appalling some men really were.

A lesson she would have preferred not to learn at all, though she supposed it was good she had. Since there were so many of them.

Lionel Asensio had been a breath of fresh air, she thought now, because it was good to remind herself of reality. And the fact she’d survived those two years without succumbing to those revolting suggestions she had found so impossible to imagine, much less imagine doing. She kept her eyes trained on him as she continued down the aisle, reminding herself further that this was an escape today. A victory. Because his notice of her had been a solution.

Finally, the kind—if cold—benefactor she’d been seeking all along.

Lionel Asensio had his own reasons for marrying in cold blood and in such haste. Hope did not care what those reasons were—she was merely delighted that he had them. She’d felt nothing but relief when he had actually wanted the gilt and gloss of her father’s spotless pedigree. That the fact that the Cartwrights stretched back through the ages ever since the original cart-making owner of the name had been elevated from his humble origins by a long-dead queen had intrigued him the most. Even her mother had helped in that respect, for Mignon had been raised in a family that seemed unaware that there was no longer the sort of French aristocracy that had once led to any number of revolutions. She had been made to shine brightly, that was all, and that was what she did. From her still-pretty face straight down into her thoroughbred bones.

All of this had impressed Lionel Asensio.

Her innocence had not been part of the initial discussions at all.

And none of that mattered today. Today was a day to walk very, very slowly down this aisle and congratulate herself on her own grit, not worry overmuch about terrible men or once noble blood. Mignon was even now sleeping off the morning’s excesses and would no doubt rise to dance again later this afternoon, flushed and happy that her daughter had wrangled the only thing Mignon had ever wanted in life—a husband.

As she walked without any undue haste, Hope was actually entertaining the notion of getting some kind of job after all. The wife of a billionaire like Lionel Asensio could create charities with a wave of her hand. She wouldn’t have to worry about not having the proper qualifications to work in the nearest chip shop.

Hope could hardly wait to see what she was actually good at. Not what she was forced to do instead.

All it would take were a few vows. A few signatures on the contracts she’d already read over and agreed to verbally. So little, in the end, to be free at last. Really, her stone-faced husband-to-be was lucky she hadn’t sprinted down the narrow stone aisle to get on with things more quickly, which she suspected he would find unseemly in every regard.

There weren’t many people here today, which Hope was happy about, because this wasn’t exactly an all-out celebration of whatever a wedding usually celebrated. Fairy tales, she thought, but not wistfully. She’d learned her lesson there. Wistfulness was about as useful as childhood fantasies about far-off princes and castles made of stone. She thought the entirety of the congregation, sparse as it was, were members of Lionel’s staff—with the exception of one woman in the back, who was scowling from behind big glasses and looked like a library was missing its fearless leader. She entertained herself for a few slow steps by imagining that was a special guest of the groom, who might very well have hidden bookish depths that required a personal librarian on call, for all Hope knew.

What she did know for certain was that Lionel himself was a man of some renown, as most people in his tax bracket were. Wealth created its own legends, she had discovered over the past two years. She had been subjected to a great number of meetings with his PR team once she and Lionel had come to an agreement. They had decided how to fashion this strange wedding into a palatable romantic tale that could sell newspapers, appease the ever-nosy public, and serve Lionel’s own ulterior motives.

Hope didn’t care about any of that.

All she wanted was to get this over with, so that she could move at last into the next phase of her life. Maybe let herself grieve the loss of her father at last, now that she wasn’t forced to deal with the fallout of losing him.

While she was at it, she planned to pay off the last of her mother’s creditors and set up pensions for the loyal staff she had been forced to let go when she’d sold the family estate. She had promised them that if it was ever within her power, she would do exactly that. She’d been flattered back then that they’d pretended to believe she might when she hadn’t believed it herself.

Now she could prove, at last, that she was more her father’s daughter than her mother’s. She loved them both, she truly did, but she did not want to think of how scared her mother had been these past few years. She did not like remembering how Mignon had sobbed and sobbed, too aware that her attempts to help only made things worse.

Hope had no intention of letting circumstances wreck her like that. Ever.

And she was imagining how good it would feel, to take care of the people who had always taken care of her—and walking slower than a snail, God help her, because it made political sense to obey her almost-husband’s instructions as soon as she could—when there was a sudden great noise from the back.

Hope froze, her eyes closing of their own accord.

That would be her mother, no doubt. And there was no way Mignon could have slept off all that champagne and sobbing, so she would be wilder than usual—

Up at the head of the aisle, she saw the way her groom’s jaw tensed, and she couldn’t have that. Not until they were well and truly married, and all of this was done.

Never had she wanted to break into an impolite sprint for the altar more than she did just then, but Hope turned instead. She expected to find Mignon staggering toward her in some or other questionable state. Or dancing down the aisle, singing French lullabies.

She opened her mouth as she turned, prepared to try to redirect her mother, but Hope found herself unable to speak at all because it wasn’t her mother who strode toward her.

It was a vision.

Her first impression was of light and heat. A kind of mad explosion that seemed to take place entirely within her.

It took her long, jarring moments while her heart clawed its way out of her chest to understand that what she was looking at was a man.

But he was like no man she had ever beheld.

And she had spent these past two years becoming something of a reluctant expert on the species. This man was…not like the others.

This man walked as if his footsteps upon the ground were a favor he was doing for the stone floor beneath him and, perhaps, the earth itself. He was very tall, and though he was dressed in the sort of exquisite suit that could have made any form look perfect, she had an immediate and innate understanding that there was no sleight of hand here. His shoulders were truly that wide. He was actually made of all that muscle, lean and hard, and every step he took made it clear that unlike the sorts of men that Hope was used to, he used his body for hard, physical things.

Hard, physical things, she whispered to herself, a hot little echo that seemed to send a kind of too-bright, glittering burst straight through her.

But more than all of that—though all of that was a lot—he was dangerous.

She could feel that danger like a new, intense heat, like flames breaking out from the nave and taking over the whole of the church. And the strangest sensation swept over her, like her own skin had simply burst out all over into that same kind of fire. She would not have been at all surprised to find flames dancing up and down her arms, part of that fire that climbed and climbed, hotter and higher, the longer she looked at him.

Hope had some odd thought that perhaps he was a guest who had merely come late, that perhaps he knew Lionel somehow—

But even as she thought it, she realized that he was focused on her.

Only on her.

That meant she could do nothing at all but stare at him in return.

This was not a hardship, but her body reacted as if it was a hard, physical thing all its own. He had eyes of an unholy midnight in a face sculpted from bronze. He had a blade of a nose, dark brows, and a mouth so stark it made something inside her feel hollow, as if overwhelmed with the austerity she saw there.

So overwhelmed it made her shiver, and not because she was cold.

He bore down upon her and Hope knew on some level that it could only have taken a few seconds. His strides were so long, so deliberate. It could only have been one breath, maybe two, but it felt like an eternity.

An eternity of gazing at this man, this apparition, and all of that light and heat. An eternity of a kind of wonder as one explosion fed into the next inside her, making new and strange sensations burst into life all over her skin and then reach deep in her core.

An eternity that felt like fate.

Like a deep recognition when she was more certain than she had ever been of anything that she had never laid eyes on this man before.

An eternity—

But then he was right there before her.

And the whole world seemed to tilt and whirl, knocking her so far off its axis she felt as if she was spinning off into space—

It took her far too long to understand that he had lifted her up, tossing her over his shoulder as he spun around to march right back up that aisle again.

It took her too long because once again, all of that impossible sensation seemed to detonate inside of her.

That hard, muscled shoulder was making itself known against her belly with every step. Worse—better?—his hand was on her bottom, holding her fast.

She was reduced to a shiver with head dangling down against the hard stretch of his muscled back.

Surely she ought to…fight this, or something, she thought, but she felt no particular urge to do anything of the kind.

And she couldn’t tell if anyone else was protesting—not when there was far too much ringing in her ears and a mad noise in her head. But by the time the thought landed in her, fully formed, they were already outside. She could feel the sweet Lake Como breeze that seemed to press against her face, making it clear to her that she was already far too hot for anything like comfort.

The man kept going, stalking away from the chapel and down the narrow old road—really more a path—that she’d walked up not long ago.

Hope felt dizzy and outside herself—yet no matter how she tried to lecture herself, she couldn’t quite bring herself to cause a scene. To shout, make demands, or attract attention.

Everything shifted again, a rush and tumble. And she could hardly make sense of that, either, until he slid into the back of the vehicle where he’d tossed her, slammed the door behind him, and said something in a foreign language to another man at the steering wheel in front.

A foreign language that was neither the Italian a person would expect to hear while in Italy nor even the Spanish that was her almost-groom’s first language.

She should have been terrified. Yet as the vehicle lurched away, Hope found herself blinking back the strangest rush of an emotion that certainly wasn’t fear.

Relief, something in her pronounced, and though she told herself it was an accusation, it didn’t feel like one.

Because if she was being spirited away, against her own wishes and without her own advanced knowledge or direction, she couldn’t be expected to go through with her wedding, could she?

Deep down, she could admit that delighted her, because she didn’t really want to marry Lionel.

Or anyone else.

And, sure, this felt a great deal like a frying pan into the fire moment, but if she had learned anything in these last, difficult years, it was that she should always take time to mark the little victories. No matter what.

Because they were few and far between, and needed celebrating when they came.

Mignon had taught her that.

“Do not attempt to escape,” the man beside her told her as if she’d lunged for the door. It made her think she should have tried, at the very least, for appearances’ sake. Especially because she couldn’t quite look at him. Not directly. He was too…. beautiful, yes, in a harsh kind of way that made her think of a storm. As implacable as he was stunning, and she found she had no place to put that.

“We will be in the air within the hour,” the man continued in that same forbidding way that she really shouldn’t have found so…compelling. “Nothing and no one will stop us. And anything but the strictest obedience on your part will be met with consequences I doubt very much you will like.”

“Well,” Hope said, mildly enough, looking down at her hands. She thought her hands ought to have been shaking, though they weren’t, and moved them against the skirt of her gown to feel its smoothness against her palms. She had gone for very little adornment because even the faintest embellishment had felt romantic and this wedding had been a business arrangement, nothing more. “That’s me told, then.”

Beside her, she could feel the man shift, and was aware of his affront even before she glanced over to confirm it.

“This is who you are,” he said in a low voice that was rich with a kind of betrayal that made her stomach flip, even though she couldn’t understand it. Not from a stranger. “You do not even care what man claims you, do you? You flit from one to the next as if it is nothing.”

“This was a bit less of a flit,” she pointed out, trying to focus slightly to one side of his outrageously handsome face because all of that hard bronze was too distracting. “And a bit more of a kidnap, really. So it’s not exactly sporting to hold me responsible for it, is it?”

And it was only as she said that out loud that the truth of what was happening really rushed through her, like some floodgates had opened deep within. When Hope hadn’t even known that she had floodgates. She would have said that all such emotion had been carved out of her years ago.

That’s just what happens when you’re desperate, she told herself tartly.

In her desperation, Lionel had seemed like a savior. He was not unpleasant. He was not even unkind. He was businesslike all the way through and his wanting to marry her saved her from far worse fates. Hope knew that well enough, though she hadn’t wept with joy when she’d agreed to marry him the way her mother had. But she could admit that she’d felt some measure of peace, and even happiness that she’d managed it. That she’d saved Mignon.

And herself in ways she hadn’t imagined she’d need to when she’d started this journey two years ago.

But at least she’d agreed to her deal with Lionel. She hadn’t agreed to this.

“You are mine,” the man beside her told her then. “You will spend what remains of your life in the palm of my hand. And your behavior alone will dictate whether my hand remains open or closed up tight, like a fist. But hear me now that this will be the only choice remaining to you.”

Hope nodded along, the way she’d learned to do when powerful men spoke, only realizing when he frowned at her that this was probably not the correct response. Not when he was very clearly issuing a threat.

Because it was most certainly a threat, she had no doubt about that.

What this man did not seem to understand was that she had creditors whose threats were far more concrete.

“I can see that I’m supposed to cower,” she said then, helpfully. “But if I can be honest here, is there any way we could just skip this part and get to what you actually want from me? It’s only that I had a very dramatic morning. And as much as I appreciate being carried off from a wedding I wasn’t exactly thrilled with in the first place, I really am going to have to go back. There is my mother to consider.”

The frown on the man’s beautiful, arrogant face had turned into an open scowl that deepened with every word. “You are never going back. Was I unclear?”

“You were perfectly clear. It’s just that it won’t work,” Hope told him, matter-of-factly. “It’s not you. This is really a wonderful kidnap. Very overwhelming, I promise you. It’s only that I’m pretty much dead inside, so I’m afraid that mustering up tears and caterwauling and whatever else you might have been expecting is beyond me. And again, there is my mother to consider. There is always my mother, you see. I love her. And I promised.”

She thought of the fond way her father had gazed at Mignon and how he’d said, his voice so affectionate, that one day he hoped that Hope would love her and care for her when he couldn’t. I always will, Hope had assured him, because she had always wanted to do anything and everything her father wanted. And because she’d loved her delightful, always happy and usually silly mother beyond reason.

Beside her, the man was silent for a moment—but in a way that she could only think of as thunderstruck. And not in a good way.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his voice a bare ribbon of sound.

“I don’t think anyone asks that question and expects the answer to be no,” Hope said apologetically, “but no. I don’t know who you are. Should I?”

“My name should ring inside you like a bell,” he told her, his voice seeming to fill the whole car. “I should be the only thing you see when you close your own eyes. The barest hint of my approval should be the sun your whole earth moves around.”

Hope blinked at that. “Goodness. That’s…specific indeed.” She tilted her head to one side. “I didn’t even think to ask. Were you just wandering around local chapels today or did you specifically come for me? I’m Hope Cartwright, if that helps. And I don’t want to be rude, but I think you have me confused for someone else.”

He lounged in the seat beside her and she had the stray thought that no man she’d ever met could have seemed as brutally elegant as this one did. He was dressed like any of them, so it wasn’t his clothes. It was something about him. He was wrapped up in a kind of ferocity that made all of her nerve endings seem to sing out.

And keep right on singing.

“You are Hope Cartwright,” he said, not as if he was sounding out the name. But as if he was confirming her identity. As if, something in her thought then, he is speaking me into existence. When it was her mother who lived by the Lewis Carroll rule to think of at least six impossible things before breakfast, not Hope. “The woman who was promised to me at her birth and who has instead spent these last years making a mockery of that promise.”

She could not seem to breathe. He only shook his head. “Did you really believe that I would allow you to marry another? I am Cyrus Ashkan, Lord of the Aminabad Desert, and what I have claimed will never belong to another. This I promise you.”

And despite herself, Hope felt those words inside her.

Very much like a single bell ringing, low and deep.

But she shoved that aside, because there was nothing in her life that left any space for bells. Or this man with eyes like midnight and the way he looked at her, as if he had yanked her out of the life she knew and into some solar system where there was only him.

What did it say about her that she found the notion…oddly comforting?

Hope didn’t know, because everything always came back to the same place. Some people got to spend their twenties wafting about in search of various identities to try on and discard. They got to take the geographic tour, moving from one place to another, one job to another, one party to the next. Always betting that by process of elimination alone, they might figure out what to do with their lives.

Yet Hope had never had that option.

So she smiled at the impossible blade of a man beside her as if nothing could touch her or bother her—not even her own abduction.

“You can claim me all you like,” she told him calmly enough, even as the car raced away from Lake Como. “That sounds great, actually. But I will require that we carve out certain concessions in any contracts we sign. That’s as a baseline.” He seemed to stare at her without comprehension, and somehow, it seemed perilous to keep going. But she did. “Mostly it involves allowances for my mother. Nothing too onerous, I assure you.”

The car had been careening through the narrow roads of the Italian countryside, but it stopped now, in the middle of a field where a huge helicopter sat. Hope didn’t have to ask if it was his. She knew it was.

She waved a hand at the sleek machine as if she didn’t know or care that it would fly her away from Italy and there was precious little she could do about it. Part of her was glad of it, if she was honest. She even smiled a bit wider. “Especially not for man who has one of these on call.”

And Hope wasn’t at all prepared for what happened inside her when all Cyrus Ashkan, Lord of some desert, did was laugh.

As if she belonged to him after all.

End of excerpt