“I like this woman. I don’t want her to be grateful,” Kade said, aware his voice was more somber than usual. “I am grateful to her. I’ll go along with this whole tradition thing, but I don’t want her hurt.”

Tal groaned a little, the sound coming over the speakers. “How will she be hurt? This is a woman married to her job. We will give her that and more. She will have a family and a high-powered career. She will like being prized for her amazing brain. That woman knows more about the economics of energy than anyone I have spoken to. She has ideas that could change the way the world works. Trust me, when she realizes the power she wields, she won’t care that we misrepresented ourselves a bit.”

Rafe’s eyes rolled. “I begin to doubt that. There is a quiet strength to her. I worry a deception could wound her pride.”

“If we play this in anything but a traditional fashion, we leave ourselves open to Khalil challenging us in court.” Tal’s words dropped like a lodestone. “I know this seems archaic and barbaric and we should just negotiate with her, but the taking of a captive bride is our tradition and our law. Someday, we may find a way to refine it and bring it into the present century, but I’ve been more worried about our economy than our legal processes.”

Kade couldn’t disagree, but…

“Had we settled on a wealthy bride, she would have been prepared. Our marriage practices have been debated for decades.” Rafe settled back in his chair. “Unfortunately, Piper knows nothing of our world. She could care less about pop culture. It will be up to us to wrap her in pleasure and affection so she does not wish to leave.”

A long sigh came over the line. “She won’t leave. I know what I’m doing. Just bring her here. I grow tired of waiting.”

The line died. Kade leaned forward, so much falling into place. “He’s never really seen her. He thinks she looks like that sad little photo on her driver’s license. He truly believes he can bring her in, marry her, and then work with her like she’s some sort of co-worker he won’t have any emotional connection to. And that she will be so grateful, she won’t care.”

Rafe sat back in his chair, a weary look on his face. “You had not yet figured that out? I knew it the minute I realized who she was. She is beautiful, but does not possess the sort of beauty that shows up in a photograph. It’s in her spirit, her smile, the way she moves. He has no idea what Piper is really like.”

“What if she runs?” Kade couldn’t stand the thought, but he would not bury his head in the sand. Anything was possible. Tal was right. They should have challenged the law long before now but many other pressing matters had taken precedence, and marriage had seemed a distant thing. And then Tal had been taken, upending their world. That week when the rebels held him had changed all their lives. Talib had left a happy, optimistic young royal, and he’d returned a cold, distant man. They’d all been merely existing since.

Now they had to deal with the real possibility that they could lose the crown—something their family had held for centuries.

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They needed Piper for more reasons than simply holding on to their birthright. But perhaps Tal needed her most of all.

“It will be all right, Kadir.” Rafe stood, straightening his suit. “We will convince her. But you and I must do it. Talib is no longer capable of truly loving a woman.”

That so wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “He’s not dead inside. I know he isn’t.”

“I hope not. But we have to take care of her. I cannot allow Talib’s cold heart to scar her. I care about her. I think I can love her. What happened last night nearly ripped me apart. We will manage this fucking travesty of a handfasting. Then she will be ours. We will give her every reason to stay. Are you in or out?”

There was a brisk knock on the door. Before he could answer, Rafe opened it, and Piper stepped through, her face a careful blank. She was gorgeous in the early morning light. Her brown hair shone richly. Her skin was a creamy pearl against the turquoise-colored dress she wore. The swell of her breasts made his cock hard.

“Do you have any information on how I can get to my apartment? I’d like a map, please.” She said it with an even tone, but he couldn’t help but notice that her hands shook.

“A limo will pick us up, Piper,” Rafe replied.

“I’d rather take a taxi.”

Kadir looked at her. She was solid. She wasn’t some delicate flower, but her heart was far more fragile than anyone believed. He’d handled her all wrong last night. He’d acted like a child who’d had his toys taken away. He’d treated her like a plaything and not a beloved female.

Maybe it was time for Kadir al Mussad to grow up.

He followed his true instincts, the one that had nothing to do with testosterone and everything to do with his heart. He stood and crossed toward her, his heart lifting as her eyes flared. Yes, he wasn’t always going to do what she expected. Rafe was right. It was up to them to keep her. Tal wanted her to save the kingdom. But Kade needed her to save him.

“What are you doing?” The question came out as a breathless huff.

He didn’t give her a chance to move out of the way. He simply crowded her and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close to his body, reveling in the feel of her against him. For the first time in his life, he simply allowed himself to enjoy a woman’s softness for emotional reasons. It was funny. He might never have truly opened himself to her if she’d just been a girl he and his brother shared, but she was the one. He would be married to her and that meant he had a chance to sink into her. “You’re coming with us, habibti. Don’t bother complaining. I won’t let you take a cab somewhere. Please, Piper, forgive me.”

It took a moment. She was stiff in his arms, but then Rafe was there at her back, his hands on her, following Kade’s lead for once.

“Forgive us, Piper,” Rafe said quietly.

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Her words were soft, but there was a hard edge to them.

“We didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know. You just felt sorry for me.”

He pressed her against his brother, trapping her between them. He pressed his pelvis against her stomach. “I feel sorry for me right now. I’ve been like this all night long.”

“And me.”

Piper’s body nestled against his as Rafe pressed against her, too.

Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I don’t understand. I wasn’t going to turn you away.”

Kade struggled to find the words to make her understand. “Piper, we care about you. We want you, but we want to make love to you when the time is right. Can you honestly tell me you had any thoughts of the future last night?”

Piper sighed, her body finally relaxing. She didn’t wrap herself around them, but she stopped fighting. “I wasn’t thinking at all. I was just feeling. And this morning, I’m glad we didn’t go through with it. It would have been a mistake.”

He forced her face up. She was so beautiful. “Yes, but I do not think we’re on the same page yet. This is going to happen, Piper. We will come together when everything is as it should be. Do you remember how we explained last night that in our family, brothers must share a woman?”

Piper flushed. “Yes. It’s not exactly the kind of thing a girl forgets.”

“There are three brothers, habibti. Think about that.” He kissed her quickly before she could pull away. Then he stepped back.

He deeply enjoyed the shocked look on her face.

The plane rolled to a peaceful stop, but he was pretty sure Piper’s mind was still soaring.

“Come on then, love. It’s time to meet your friend, Tal.” Kade took her hand and started to lead her out of the plane.

“So I’m going to Tal’s? Should I get my briefcase? Does he know I’m coming?”

Rafe walked behind them. “He knows. I have little doubt he is waiting for you.”

The plane door opened, and a blast of heat hit them. Piper gasped a little. He was sure it wasn’t the last he’d hear of that sweet sound. She was in for a bit of a surprise.

Talib stood in the heat, adjusting his tie yet again, wondering what he was doing. It was traditional to wait for guests in the receiving room, but Piper Glen was more than a guest. She would be mistress of this house if things worked out.

Three bodyguards stood behind him. All former US Special Forces. All recommended by his friend, Cole Burke. He almost never went anywhere now without his own small SEAL team. Every man was decked out for the occasion in a suit and those sunglasses that the US military seemed to hand out to their resident badasses.

“You have incoming, sir.” Cooper Evans nodded toward the west hall.

Ah, his day was complete. He stared at his cousin, Khalil, a hungry beast if ever he saw one. Over the last few months he’d dropped some weight and the new gauntness to his features gave him the air of a jackal on the prowl. This handfasting to Piper must work out. Khalil was just waiting to pounce.

Alea frowned, moving from behind Landon Nix. The big former sergeant kept his eyes on Alea as though waiting for someone to make a move.

“I didn’t tell him.” Alea nodded their cousin’s way. “But I think he suspects. I swear he has spies everywhere. I worry he has them even here in the palace.”

It was probably a good idea to rerun background checks on everyone working in the palace. Once again, he worried that he was placing Piper in danger, but there was nothing he could do but try his utmost to protect her. He had to move forward.

To call Khalil a cousin was a misnomer. They were related by blood in a distant fashion. Alea was his first cousin, born to his mother’s sister. Khalil’s family had branched off two generations back, his grandfather refusing to share a wife in the traditional fashion. He’d been given money and a place to live, but Tal often wondered if that was enough for the al Bashirs, who had been forced to give up the name al Mussad when their grandfather abdicated.

Khalil, the only living son left, gave Tal a polite bow, but there was no way to miss the daggers in his eyes.

No. Wealth and power weren’t enough. Khalil wanted the throne. The question was how far would he go to get it? How far had he already gone? His suspicions about Khalil grew by the day. Tal just wished there was some way to prevent the bastard from ever meeting Piper.

“Can’t you execute him or something?” Alea said, a frown on her face. She was dressed in a lovely skirt and blouse, but there was something stiff about the outfit that bothered Tal. Alea had always been a frilly bit of femininity in a house crowded with men. And then she’d been kidnapped. Tal often wondered if he would ever see that carefree girl again.

No, he would not, and he understood why better than anyone.

“We aren’t barbarians, Alea. Though if I had any proof that Khalil betrayed his country, I would certainly plead for a swift trial.”

“My sheikh.” Khalil practically oozed menace even though his voice was perfectly even. “It is a glorious day, is it not?”

Patience. It required patience to weave a web. He could banish Khalil, but without proof of his perfidy, there would be a scandal, and the last thing he needed was Khalil to go to their enemies and stir trouble. Not when they were close to having a new queen and these green energy breakthroughs.

“It is, indeed,” he called, then said more quietly to Alea, “You will recall our traditions regarding this event?”

She groaned. “And you say we aren’t barbarians. Don’t expect me to help you.”

“Alea,” he warned.

“I know what’s at stake, but I don’t have to like it.” She strode off.

Khalil watched her, his eyes too hot to be watching a cousin. “She is still pouting about the little incident in America?”

Patience. He only had so much of it. He moved forward, wrapping his hand around Khalil’s throat after making damn sure they were out of view of the cameras. He shoved him against one of the lovely ornamental stone pillars that were so plentiful in the palace. Khalil’s feet dangled. “She is not pouting. She was kidnapped, tortured, and forced to work in a brothel. If it hadn’t been for the same man who saved me from radicals, she would still be there or worse. She would have been sold and used until she died. So if I ever hear you use the word ‘pouting’ again in relation to what our cousin suffered, I will prove to you that I can still be barbaric.”

He set Khalil down.

“You are a pathetic dog, Talib, but I’ll let it go for now.” He straightened his suit. “I think I shall freshen up before I meet your future bride. We’ll see if you can keep this one. I rather think not.”

Khalil’s thousand dollar shoes beat against the marbled floor as he strode off.

“You know, assassination gets a bad rap.” Dane Mitchell was the largest of his personal security force and by far the most sarcastic. He was roughly six foot seven, with the build of a well-designed Mack Truck and a deep Southern accent.