She was on the precipice of something. Was it heaven or complete disaster? No clue. But could she live the rest of her life not knowing which it would have been? She’d always played it safe. She’d done the right thing and waited for something special.
If this wasn’t special, she had no idea what the word meant. She realized this meant giving herself utterly to these three men, and she would never have imagined that she would want or care for all of them. But sometimes, she supposed, life took strange turns.
A slow smile crossed his lips, and he brushed his nose against hers. “I will do everything in my power to ensure you will not regret this. Now go and prepare for the banquet. I will look forward to this evening.”
She took a step back and nearly fell on her backside, her heels wobbling beneath her. Tal caught her in his arms, pulling her back up and steadying her on her feet.
“Thanks,” she said breathlessly.
“Pandora is back, I see.” He smiled. “Yes, I know all about that. I think it’s an apt nickname. You are certainly shaking up my world.” He seemed satisfied that she wouldn’t trip, and Kade now stood beside her, offering his arm. Tal graciously gave her up to his brother.
Kade took advantage. “Thank god, we’re back to kissing.” He thrust an arm around her waist and planted a perfect kiss on her cheek. “I’ve missed kissing you, cuddling you. And now I have to take you to Rafe. Maybe I won’t tell him we’re off the leash just yet.”
Tal stopped at the door, turning to her. “And Piper, whatever happens, know that I will always take care of you.”
Rafe watched as Piper and Alea disappeared with the spa attendant. He rather wished he could go with her, watch as she was pampered and turned into the queen he knew she could be.
She’d said yes. Oh, she didn’t know exactly all she was saying yes to, but such was the way of captive brides in Bezakistan. And weren’t most relationships a bit like that anyway? When one started a relationship, there was no sure way of telling where it would go. Only this time, he knew damn well it would lead to marriage, and he knew he could make Piper happy. He would do everything in his power to make her so.
He turned and walked out of the lush spa. It catered to Bezakistan’s elite and the wealthy tourists who visited. He nodded to the security team who had followed discretely behind him as he’d led Piper and his cousin to the spa. Three stayed behind and one peeled off to follow Rafe as he walked down the street.
Normally they all trailed him, but he wasn’t about to leave Piper unprotected. Talib had been insistent on her security protocols. There was no way to miss how worried Tal was about Piper’s welfare. His brother was a bit paranoid, anyway. It was understandable. After what Tal had endured, Rafe was surprised he went out at all.
“I see you are determined to take care of your last-chance girl,” a distinctly sarcastic voice said.
Rafe sighed. He wanted to go and make his preparations for the upcoming night. He didn’t want to deal with Khalil.
“Cousin,” he acknowledged and tried to move on.
Khalil stepped out of the shop he’d been in and moved in front of Rafe. “Can’t I offer my felicitations on your engagement?”
It was always a dance with Khalil. There was always some hidden meaning to his words. Rafe had begun to wonder if his cousin’s words didn’t often hide daggers as well. “We are not engaged.”
“I am not naïve, cousin. The girl might be, but we both know this banquet isn’t simply to celebrate a business relationship or to welcome her. I suspect some very quiet, sacred words will be exchanged during the event, will they not? Are you trying to hide her and your coming handfasting from the press?”
Of course they wanted to keep the press out of this as much as possible. Piper needed to be eased into her new role. Hell, they had to figure out a way to explain her new role, but they were all terrified she would run. Rafe’s conscience plagued him. It wasn’t a question of whether she would she feel betrayed, but simply how much. But it wasn’t as if they intended to hurt her. Indeed, they would ask her to marry them…just later, after a few weeks of getting to know each other intimately. If the press wasn’t involved, then Piper might not have to know she’d been more married than not all along.
“She is simply a guest of the sheikh, important because she is helping him with the Clean Energy Project, which could be a great boon for the whole nation.”
Khalil’s dark eyes narrowed. “And none of you are sleeping with the girl?”
Not yet they weren’t. He could answer that question with complete truth. His aching cock was proof of how much he wasn’t sleeping with Piper. “Though I admit she is quite lovely, we are not sleeping with her. You know as well as I do that we must find a bride, and look we shall. We are quite aware that our time is running out.”
It was best to acknowledge the facts. If Khalil believed he was dodging, the man would get crafty.
A predatory grin crossed Khalil’s face. He was almost too thin, and his eyes were marked with dark circles, making him look older than his forty-five years. “Yes, and the parliament also knows the clock is ticking down. Perhaps you would not have this trouble if you would open discussions to change our barbaric laws.”
And the minute they did, radical religious groups would be all over it, attempting to rip out all language that made Bezakistan a secular country with a free market economy. Certain lobbyists would also love to challenge the way wealth was distributed, taking from the mere citizens and putting even more into their own already rich-beyond-compare pockets.
And Khalil would attempt to do what his father couldn’t. Take back power and place it in his own tyrannical hands.
“Too late now, so we shall muddle through.” Now it was time for a bit of deception. “Kade is going to talk to the Dutch ambassador about a possible meeting with their princess. We have a bit of time left. And we are not hideous trolls. We can always buy a bride if need be.”
Khalil’s shoulders moved in a lazy shrug. “You probably can, and I can see Talib doing that. He’s a ruthless bastard. I’m certain he has a checklist and would simply order one off the internet if he could. Kadir just wants a pretty place to put his dick on a regular basis. But you, my cousin, you are the difficult one. You are the one who, what is the phrase? Yes, you are the one who thinks with your heart, not your head. Not so smart but true. You think I don’t see the way you look at that fluffy piece of American ass?”
Before he could think, he had his cousin’s shirt wadded in his hands, hauling him forward. “You don’t ever speak of her that way. You will mind your manners around her or we will have a problem, you and I.”
Khalil’s voice was pure menace. “Yes, I can see she is just an important guest for her knowledge of energy and economics. You would never be so foolish as to marry someone for anything but political reasons, and an American would be a terrible idea. You have certainly thought this through.”
Rafe let him go. Damn, he’d made a terrible mistake. He’d lost his cool and given away something important. He took a step back, his mind racing, trying to find a way out of the trap Khalil had baited him into. “I won’t have any woman treated with disrespect, especially one who is our guest. I confess, I like Piper very much. We discussed her as a potential bride, if you must know. But Talib will never marry a commoner. So I am thinking of making Piper my mistress. If the others are going to force me into a marriage I don’t want, then I will find love where I can. I will pretend to be in love with our bride, but my mistress will always have my heart.”
“If you say so, Rafiq.” Khalil smiled smugly. “I will look forward to this evening. And I will be watching.”
Piper looked down over the banquet space. The grand hall had been completely transformed from cool and elegant to a rich, decadent space. The lights were shining, shimmering. The room was beyond splendid. The smell of spice filled the air, reminding Piper that she’d skipped lunch. The food had been brought to her, a sumptuous feast laid out for her pleasure. As she’d thought the words, she’d realized they could apply to her as well. Later this evening, she would be laid out for the al Mussad brothers, and she’d worried she was a little too sumptuous for them.
Her hands shook. She’d spent a whole afternoon preparing, ostensibly for the banquet, but she knew what the whole spa experience had really been about. She hadn’t needed a Brazilian wax to sit with dignitaries and talk economics.
“Are you all right?” Alea appeared at her side, wearing a long flowing dress in a midnight blue color. The draping of the dress perfectly suited her petite figure. She was a beauty with golden skin and deep brown eyes. Her rich chocolate-colored hair was chicly cut in a long bob that brushed the tops of her shoulders. She was so unlike the other women Piper had met. Alea was kind but deeply aloof. Now that lovely face frowned at Piper. “I can get you out of here. You don’t have to stay.”
Piper’s heart sank a little. Alea had been like this all afternoon, offering Piper transportation out of the country every time she made mention of her home or a little thing that was different between the two countries. Alea seemed genuinely fond of her cousins, but Piper couldn’t overlook the fact that the girl seemed determined to whisk her away from them. “I chose to be here, you know. This is what I want.”
Alea’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
Piper didn’t want to play all the social games others seemed to adore. She just liked things laid out. “I chose to come to Bezakistan, and I’ll be staying for a bit. I don’t know why you don’t like me, but it shouldn’t be because you think I’m some sort of social climber. Tal and I share a passion for our project, and I’d like to get to know Rafe and Kade a bit more, too.” She felt her face flame and hurried to finish, hoping Alea didn’t notice. “I promise I’ll be good to them.”
Alea glanced down at the ballroom where at least a hundred people mingled. “I know what they have planned tonight with you. They don’t deserve you.” While Piper was busy sucking in a shocked breath, Alea turned, her hard beauty softening for the first time. “Piper, I apologize if I made you think I don’t like you. The last few years have been hard on my manners. I’ve become isolated and cynical. I like being around you very much, and I wouldn’t want to see you hurt.”
Piper frowned, trepidation tightening her belly. “You think they would hurt me?”
“Not physically. They would never do that, but I worry that our world is a bit less civilized than yours, filled with a tad more intrigue. And you are perhaps too honest and forthright.”
“Look, I have no intentions of getting involved in palace intrigues. I just like your cousins a lot.” I might be falling in love with them. A dangerous thought, but she didn’t lie to herself. She was falling for them each because of their individual ways.
Alea stepped back in the shadows, pulling Piper along, her voice dropping to a whisper. “If you become involved, there will be no way to escape the politics. My cousins think they can protect you, but I’m living proof they cannot. Tal especially should know better.”
“What do you mean?” There was something about the desperation in Alea’s voice that made Piper reach out to her, holding the woman’s hand.
Alea was stiff for a moment as though the intimacy was wholly unwanted, but she relaxed and threaded their fingers together, a moment of sweet sisterhood. “You could be so good for them, but I worry for you. Do you know about what happened to Talib? Do you know why he has that scar on his neck?”
The long jagged scar was a ghostly white line that ran from just below his ear and disappeared under his shirt. She’d longed to trace that scar and have him tell her the story. She’d made it up in her head, a story of boyhood clumsiness.
“He was kidnapped by radicals, held and tortured for days.”
Piper gasped. “Tortured?”
“They kept him in a warehouse just outside the country. Rafe was supposed to bring millions of dollars. He paid the ransom, but they wanted more. They wanted for us to declare our constitution dead. Rafe was forced to refuse. They set my cousin’s execution date. They were going to televise it. Luckily, the US government wasn’t at all interested in allowing our country to fall to radicals. A Navy SEAL team located and rescued Tal. They lost several men and one of the team members had to smuggle Tal back into the country.”
“I had no idea.” She wasn’t up on world politics. She tended to stay in her own sheltered corner. What had Tal gone through? What horrors had he faced?
Alea’s voice dropped to a mere whisper. “I was taken as well.”
“By the same radicals?”
She shook her head. “By slavers, but I have my suspicions. My cousins believe that it was a coincidence, but I don’t think so. I was lured to the place of my kidnapping by a note from the Bezakistani Embassy. My cousins think I was simply taken at random, and I don’t have proof, but there are very few people with access to that particular stationary. I don’t want to delve into what happened. Just know that the politics, the pain, are not limited to my cousins. The people who would take down this government will use anyone they care about.”