“I appreciate the sentiment, my friend. Unfortunately, he has friends in the government.” And mostly likely, well-placed contacts among the rebels. “Have you found anything out?”

In addition to being damn fine security, his little team was also being paid to track Khalil’s movements and to try and find any dirt on the jackal that they could. Tal couldn’t prove it, and hoped it wasn’t true, but he was suspicious that Khalil had a hand in Tal’s own kidnapping and torture six years before. If he ever had proof, well, assassination would be a blessing for Khalil. Tal had learned torture from the best. He would love to show his cousin just how quickly a strong man could break under the right pain.

“I found out he loves prostitutes. And not expensive ones. I have some pictures that would curdle your stomach. I kind of feel sorry for his wife. If you decide to get him thrown out of office, those pictures will do it. He spends all his time with prostitutes or doing some charity thing at a hospital. It’s a ‘save the children’ thing from what I can tell. I guess he’s trying to keep up a good image. It must be a great life for the fucker. Seriously, he’s a total pervert.”

Tal felt a little smile cross his face. He’d heard about his security detail’s proclivities. There was a reason they fit so well in Bezakistan. “Many would say the same of us, my friend. Trust me. There has not been a handfasting ceremony here since my mother was captured by my fathers. Even in 1975, the press went mad, and they weren’t as crazy then as they are now. The word perversion will be floating around quite a bit.” He hoped it didn’t deter or upset Piper.

Dane smiled, though on the big guy any smile looked a little like a shark baring his teeth. “We’ll keep them off you and the little woman. Tell me something, Tal. Is any of this going to hurt her?”

He had to tread very carefully. Tal trusted these men, far more than he’d believed he would trust anyone past his blood again. But they had hard limits. They were deeply protective of women. And he hadn’t missed the way they kept everyone off Alea. “She is going to be my bride. I would not allow her to be hurt.”

“And you’re sure about all this secrecy? I don’t get it.”

Tal didn’t expect him to. Handfasting with a captive bride was a dumb, ridiculously old ritual. “Our marital customs are ancient laws, still on the books. Eventually I hope to have them, stricken or amended. But my country’s government works slowly, and it’s more concerned with ensuring our safety and economic well-being than fixing cultural problems.”

A hint of a smile crossed Dane’s face. “I actually rather like your government.”

“Normally, I do as well. But now I must engage in this antiquated ritual or Khalil will inherit the throne. He will do anything he can to seize power. If he does, he will take over the oil wells and bleed this country dry. So, you see, my plan must work.”

Landon slapped him on the back. “Then you better be damn charming, Sheikh. You better pull out your magic carpet and give her a ride, if you know what I mean.”

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He sighed. They made him laugh. They kept him somewhat grounded. It was often easier to be with them than it was his own brothers since they didn’t remember him as he’d been before. “I will attempt to do this, but you should understand. I chose her for her brain. She is very smart, clever. I doubt that this will be some passionate match.”

Cooper stared out of the open doors, his eyes going wide. “Who the hell is that? Dayum. That is the softest little bit of femininity I have seen in a while. Did this Piper intellectual girl bring along her hot sister?”

Tal stared out. The limo must have pulled up while he was wishing he could choke the breath out of Khalil. He couldn’t miss the woman Cooper spoke about. She wore a sundress, the delicate material flowing around her knees like a handkerchief blowing in a summer breeze. On her feet were a pair of yellow heels. Stilettos. He was a sucker for stilettos. He especially loved them when they were settled on either side of his neck as he fucked his way into a soft, hot pussy.

His breath caught. His entire body stiffened, especially his cock. She was lovely. So soft. Her hair was brown, but shot through with reds and blondes that caught the light and practically gave her a damn halo. Except nowhere, in any ancient text, did angels have cleavage like hers. The dress had been selected to show off her plump, ripe breasts, the V-neck and the turquoise color of the gauzy material flattering her skin. She had on a pair of sunglasses, but even without seeing her eyes, he could tell she was gawking. Her gorgeous, full lips were slightly parted in awe as she took in the sights. Her mouth looked small. He would likely have to force his cock in, but she would have that same look on her face when she came.

Tal had to catch himself. What was he doing? His bride was here, and he was reacting to some bimbo his brothers had brought along. A gathering rage rode through his system. This had to be Kadir’s doing. Rafiq wouldn’t think to bring his latest girlfriend along when they were supposed to be focused on securing a bride.

Sure enough his youngest brother got out of the limo and was immediately all over the brunette.

His heart sank. Poor Piper. Had she been forced to watch Kade’s behavior the whole trip? Was this how his brother meant to show him he wouldn’t accept Tal’s choice of bride?

“I will kill him.” Piper deserved better than Kade’s scorn. She might not be the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was sweet and smart and he was actually looking forward to having her as a companion. Over the last few months, he’d grown closer to the woman than any he had in years. He appreciated her quick wit and her soft heart. The woman with Kade was beautiful, but she likely didn’t have half of Piper Glen’s smarts. She might make his dick hard, but Piper would be his wife. Their wife. He would never allow his youngest brother to dishonor her this way again.

“Oh, wow. Uhm, boss, you told us she was kind of homely. We have two different versions of that word, man.” Dane shook his head as Rafiq joined Kadir.

Rafe, his ultimately reasonable brother, the one he counted on, walked right up to Kade’s little bit of honey-on-the-side and pulled her into his arms. He kissed her, his lips molding to hers before he broke it off and smiled. Rafe pointed up as he talked to her.

Tal knew exactly what his brother was saying. He was pointing out the architecture on the palace. He gave every visitor the same speech about the marble and arches, and the center of the palace that dated from the fifteenth century. But now he gave the speech with an intimate smile on his face as his hands tangled with the brunette’s.

Rafe wouldn’t dishonor their promised bride. Rafiq believed in his country’s traditions. He was circumspect.

So…that gorgeous, curvy thing was his Piper?

Dane huffed behind him. “Holy shit, Tal. If she’s your little smarty-pants bride, she doesn’t look like an egghead.”

Tal strode forward, his heart racing. No way. He’d seen her pictures. She was plain. She would engage his brain but not his heart. Careful. He’d been so fucking careful.

“Rafe?” He called out to his infinitely more reasonable brother. “The trip went well?”

Introduce me to my plain but brilliant bride. Tell me she’s shy and still in the limo.

Kade’s arm tightened around the brunette’s waist. “Talib! It’s good to see you.”

He stopped, halting a few feet before her. “And you, brother.” His youngest brother was the wild one. He loved Kadir. He did, but he worried about him, too. Still, he couldn’t help but notice the way his youngest brother’s hand slipped into the brunette’s and her fingers curled around his.

“Talib, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce you to…” Don’t say Piper. Don’t say Piper. “…Piper Glen. I believe you two have been speaking. Piper, habibti, this is our brother, his Serene and Royal Highness the Sheikh of Bezakistan, otherwise known as Talib al Mussad.”

She freed her hand and pulled her sunglasses off. Her blue eyes went wide and that truly magnificent chest swelled. “Tal?”

Fuck. Fuck. Fucking fuck fuck and a goddamn fucking duck. He’d only heard her voice a few times, but it was imprinted on his brain. That soft Texas twang with the hint of smarts and vulnerability. Piper. His Piper. His goddamn fucking virginal bride who would be his companion and who would rarely tempt his cock but never once move his soul.

Both were completely poleaxed because she was so beautiful.

“Hello, Piper. Yes, I am Sheikh Talib al Mussad. Or Tal, if you please.” There was nothing else to do. He had to introduce himself. Funny. He’d thought this would be a prideful moment when he revealed himself to be so much more than she’d expected, and he found himself almost shy. He didn’t show it, of course.

Her blue eyes took him in. “Talib. Of course. How stupid of me, but then I have been for months, it seems.” She stopped, her shoulders slumping a little. “Or am I wrong? Are you my Tal?”

This was supposed to be a special moment, when she looked up to him. Instead, she looked betrayed. “Yes. I am Tal, Piper. How is your sister?”

He knew everything about her. He knew about her family and her love for Mindy. He’d already taken care of the girl’s education, though Piper wouldn’t realize that for a few days. He knew about his bride’s upbringing. He knew what she liked and what she didn’t.

Until now, he hadn’t known how her eyes would pierce through him and see straight to his soul. He hadn’t known how his cock would pound at the very sight of her.

Her whole face contorted as if in pain. “You’re the third brother?”

Why did guilt roil in his gut? “Yes. It is good to meet you in person. I have enjoyed our talks over the internet. I am very eager to continue our discussions now that you are here.”

Her eyes dropped away, studying the ground in front of her. She didn’t pull away from his brothers, but he could feel her confusion.

“You’re the sheikh?” Her voice was a bleak monotone. “And you let me think you were just another researcher.”

He couldn’t let her win this argument. If he allowed his guilt to show, she would have the upper hand. It wasn’t how he intended to begin a marriage. “Bezakistan is my country. I didn’t lie to you, Piper. I work very hard for my country. This project means the world to me.”

“Of course. I’d like to go to my apartment, please. When would you like my presentation? I need a few hours to settle in and get everything in order.” She was cool and competent, that flustery feminine energy from before fleeing, leaving a somber woman in its place.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Kade said. “You need to rest, habibti.”

“I will show you to your rooms. Don’t be angry with us. Let us explain about security measures. Talib cannot simply tell everyone who he is. And he really does the work he said he does. He has a master’s degree in economics.” Rafe’s hand tangled in hers.

Her eyes went up, taking in the grandeur of the palace. “This is where I’m staying? Well, naturally.” Sarcasm dripped, and she looked furious. Closed. “I’d like to rest now. I want to get my presentation ready. And what we discussed on the plane? It won’t work. I’m not that girl. So you all need to rethink this because if I’m here for any reason other than the job, then I should just buy a plane ticket now and head home as soon as my presentation is over.”

Oh, she was here for a job. She was here for the most important job he could think of. She was here to be their wife, to save his throne. It didn’t matter how much she moved his cock. He had a crown to think of. She was going to be theirs. Her beauty and innate sensuality that tempted him so were problems he would deal with later.

He caught sight of Khalil, stalking behind the palace walls, his stare taking in Piper.

This was precisely why he hadn’t wanted a woman who would move him. The idea of Khalil even looking at her as a potential way to get under his skin had his blood pressure rising. It would be hard enough to protect her with a cool head, but if his emotions came into play? He had to shield her from being a target for rebels and neighboring radicals. Everything rested on her soft shoulders.

He needed her wedded and bedded and pregnant as quickly as possible. He had no intention of hurting her, but he had no intention of letting her go.

“Please, allow me to show you to your rooms.” It was time, perhaps, to play on everything he knew about her. “I apologize for the subterfuge. I wanted a thought partner in this process. Can you honestly tell me you would have spoken as openly as you did with me had you known who I am?”

Her eyes flared a little and then slid away from his. “Probably not. I think I called you an idiot on a couple of occasions.”

He brought his fingers to her chin, forcing her to look up at him. “My math was faulty, and yours was correct. And you called me an ape with my head up my backside because I was being stubborn when you knew you were right.” He sighed a little, letting his face fall, noting all the while that she utterly softened with every layer of guilt he heaped on her. “I loved our talks, Piper. Ask anyone in the palace. I set aside that time to work with you, and it was sacred. I walked out on a conference with the British Prime Minister because I had a call scheduled with you.”