“Princess?” A deep voice rumbled through the quiet, causing Alea to jump.

“Dane. You frightened me.” She took a deep breath, but straightened up to her full height, a stubborn tilt to her jaw. “Since when does a bodyguard interrupt the royal family’s private meetings?”

The enormous bodyguard’s stark blue eyes narrowed. Piper had been introduced to Dane by Talib a few days before. He’d been pleasant and polite, but now he looked dangerous. “Since the princess became reckless and threatens her cousins’ plans.”

“Don’t you dare question my loyalty to this family or my country, soldier. You know nothing.” Alea turned and stormed away.

Dane seemed to deflate, his shoulders slumping. “Ms. Glen, I apologize for the scene. The princess isn’t fond of me. She only really gets along with Landon. Coop and I are a little too Neanderthal for her tastes. If you would allow me to escort you, the sheikh requests your presence in the main hall. There are a few people he would like you to meet.”

Piper was shaken by the conversation with Alea, but it had oddly crystallized her determination to go on with the evening. Clearly, Talib had his reasons for being aloof. He’d been through hell. Yet he was still gentle with her. The brothers had more difficulty to shoulder than she’d imagined, but they treated her with great care. The thought warmed her.

And Alea was wrong. She wasn’t important enough to be brought into their politics. The relationship she was entering into would be kept quiet. She would almost be their dirty little secret.

But she was willing to risk it—and her heart—for a night or two with them.

She stepped forward and took Dane’s arm, allowing him to lead her down the stairs.

“They’re good men, you know,” Dane said.

Piper glanced up at the rough former SEAL. “I’ve found them to be.”

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“They’ll do everything they can to keep you safe. And so will I. After tonight, you’ll be a high priority.”

She blushed. Did everyone have to know about their fling? “I don’t know about that. I don’t need any added attention.”

“Like it or not, if you follow through with what the sheikh wants, you will be important.”

“Maybe for a little while.”

“Forever, Piper. I hope I can call you Piper. Just know that we’re going to be here to take care of you, the same way we watch out for the brat princess.”

Piper sighed. “She’s not a brat. She’s been through a lot.”

“We all go through a lot, Piper. How we handle the pain we’ve been dealt is the way we’re measured in life. We can take it and let it mold us into better people or we can allow it to tear us down. The princess hasn’t figured out which way she’s going yet. I’m not the only one who would help her, but she shuts everyone out.”

“Piper!” Kade’s voice rang out over the ballroom floor. His face lit up as he strode across the room. His brother joined him, Rafe peeling away from the crowd. They were perfect in their tuxedoes. Kade was broad and so masculine she nearly sighed. Rafe looked like he’d just prowled off the cover of a magazine.

Dane smiled, his mouth quirking up. “I can see you’re going to be in good hands. Just remember, Piper, my team is here for you should you need help. We take care of this family.”

He stepped back as Kade and Rafe descended, both reaching for her hands. She wasn’t family, but just for tonight, she felt like she belonged. It was a lovely feeling.

Talib turned slightly as the American ambassador said something about trade agreements. It was the kind of thing he should pay close attention to, but Piper was walking down the stairs on the arm of his bodyguard. A brutal flash of jealousy split his soul. He had the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to plant his fist in Dane’s face. His hand was on her arm, guiding her down the stairs. She was wearing a white gown that skimmed her curves and molded to her breasts, the fabric looking almost transparent in certain lights as it shimmered.

He was going to kill Rafe. No doubt his middle brother had picked the gown and now every fucking man in the place was going to look at their bride-to-be’s breasts. Rafe might enjoy treating her like a Barbie doll, but after tonight she would be a much more modest doll.

His brothers met her at the bottom of the stairs. Piper’s smile lit up the room, her blue eyes dancing happily as she took in the sights. Talib felt his heart nearly stop. Her hair was flowing over her shoulders, her skin glowing.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador.” Without a look back, he walked away from the man, but not toward Piper. He needed a moment alone. The last few days hadn’t gone as he’d assumed they would. He’d been so sure when Piper arrived that he would see her, satisfy his curiosity, enjoy a few intellectual discussions, then put her to the back of his mind until she became their concubine. After that, he meant to continue his day-to-day life without really thinking about her.

He strode past the throng of people, needing some air. Nothing was working out as planned. He wasn’t supposed to be obsessed with Piper, or burn to pin her body under his and fuck her half the night. But he couldn’t fool himself for a minute longer. He’d spent the last six years with his emotions buried deep, and they seemed to be bubbling to the surface now. Because of her.

He opened the French doors that led to the balcony and overlooked the garden where he and his brothers had played as children, their mother watching over them with her gentle smile. He was far from the child he’d been.

He caught sight of Landon’s broad figure at the door, a silent sentinel. This was his life now. Guarded constantly. How could he think about bringing Piper into this? If his enemies ever caught wind of the unexpected depth of his desire for her, they wouldn’t hesitate to use her against him.

But he had no choice and he knew it. He had to hold himself apart from her, make everyone, even Piper, believe he was indifferent. He wasn’t going to lose years of progress because he was worried he might break her heart. He had to harden his own. What he was feeling wasn’t love, just a perfectly normal sentiment for the woman he was about to marry, coupled with a hearty dose of lust.

Once he’d fucked her, he would see that she was just like every other female, and he could settle into a pleasant friendship and leave her heart to his brothers.

He glanced around, realizing that he was being an idiot. Alea was distracting Khalil at the moment, as planned. Now it was time. He pulled his phone out and texted Rafe to bring Piper to him. Rafe knew what to do.

Mere minutes passed before the door opened and Piper walked through. Her eyes widened as she took in the garden. This hadn’t been part of her tour. It was a very private part of the palace connected to his rooms. Piper had been shown much smaller guest rooms, but after tonight she would reside in the family rooms, a set of opulent apartments fit for a queen. And he would visit her there often until he was assured his line would continue.

And otherwise they would live separate lives.

“This is so beautiful,” Piper said, looking over the gardens. The silvery moonlight gave the space an almost haunted look.

She was a beautiful thing. How could he have ever thought her plain? He’d taken one look at a picture on a government document and decided she wasn’t lovely. Her features taken one by one were unremarkable, but she practically glowed in person, her loveliness a function of her personality and kind spirit.

“We used to play here as children.” Rafe didn’t seem to have Tal’s reticence. He wound an arm around her waist and cuddled his front to her back, his chin resting on her shoulder. “Kade tried to climb the palms from the yard to the balcony. He got stuck there once and our fathers had to rescue him.”

Piper was turned away from him, but Tal could hear the smile in her voice. “It’s so odd to hear you talk about having four fathers.”

“They were great men, happy men. I miss them all dearly. They have all passed on now. We didn’t get away with much, but we were always taken care of.” He paused for a moment. “And our mother always knew she was loved.”

His mother had been the daughter of an English aristocrat. His fathers had taken one look at her and known she would be theirs. They had actually stolen her, smuggled her out of the country, almost causing an international incident, but by the time she’d emerged from their concubine period, she’d been sated and happy and ready to play the gracious queen.

He had to hope Rafe and Kade could do the same with Piper.

The doors opened again, and Kade walked in with their secret guests of honor. Two men. The head of Congress and the country’s highest appointed judge. Both were necessary for the ceremony to be legal, and both would be very discreet.

Piper looked up, pulling away from Rafe when she realized they weren’t alone.

They were doing the right thing. If they sat her down and tried to talk to her in a logical fashion now, it would take too long. Her natural caution would win that war. If she thought for a moment that the world would know about her relationship with three men, she would likely run. She wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure all at once, but after she’d been eased into it and shown how good it could be, she would end up happy, like their mother.

Though he would be nothing like their fathers.

“Sheikh, it is my deepest honor to officiate at this grand day.” The judge shook his hand. It had been his father who had married Talib’s parents. He spoke in Arabic, the same language that would bind Piper to them in mere minutes. It was a language she didn’t understand in the least, making everything so much easier, especially since her consent wasn’t required for thirty days. By then they would have wrapped her in pleasure and luxury, and she would never leave them.

“Thank you both for coming and for your discretion. My brothers and I would love to keep this quiet until the actual wedding day. If the press got hold of this, our bride could be hurt, and we would like to avoid that.” He spoke in Arabic as well.

The Prime Minister nodded. “We all agree. And no matter what Khalil says, she’s a perfect queen. I’ve found her to be incredibly intelligent, and she has an endearing manner. She can be taught to deal with the press.”

Fucking Khalil. He cursed the day his cousin had been elected to a seat in parliament. He’d been a pain in Tal’s ass ever since. “Is his chief objection that she’s a commoner?”

Tal knew what his real objection was, that she would ensure the al Mussad line continued to rule. But Khalil needed a logical argument, so he’d tried to invent one.

“I believe he’s upset that she’s an American. Some suggest they already have too much influence here. Between Black Oak Oil and your security team, you surround yourself with Americans, Your Highness.”

Tal shook his head. “And Americans have saved our asses time and time again. I’m not going to let my cousin’s bigotry influence my security force or my choice of a bride. As for going into business with Black Oak, no one complains when the shareholder checks come in.” There were some in Bezakistan who lived off shareholder checks alone. It was a moot point. “Can we finish the ritual quickly? I have a bride to claim.”

The other men laughed, and the Prime Minister nodded.

His cock hardened at the thought of Piper naked in his bed, spread out for his pleasure. Not that it spent much time in a relaxed position anymore. Since Piper had come to the palace, Tal found himself in a constant state of arousal. He glanced back and found his brothers each watching Piper with a hungry look in their eyes.

She was in for an interesting night.

He reached out, gesturing for Piper to come forward. Both of his brothers tensed, well aware of the gravity of the moment. He switched to English. “Piper, my dear, come here. I would like for you to meet His Honor, Judge Nejem and you’ve met Prime Minister al Feid.”

Her smile was wide with none of the easy pretension of a longtime socialite. “It’s so good to see you again, Prime Minister. And Your Honor, it’s a pleasure.”

Judge Nejem took her hand in both of his, his eyes getting a little misty. “She reminds me of my own sweet girl,” he said in Arabic.

Kade stepped up. “Sorry, habibti, the judge only speaks Arabic, but he’s pleased to meet you as well. He says you remind him of his daughter. She’s a lawyer following in her father’s footsteps.”

Piper blushed. “Please tell him he honors me.”

The judge spoke the Queen’s English with a perfect accent, but now he merely nodded and played his part. Tal kept Piper’s hand in his while Judge Nejem spoke to the brothers, intoning the ancient words that would bind them together. “Princes of the Desert, do you take this woman as your concubine with the promise to make her your wife in thirty days should she assent? Do you promise to make her the center of your world, the sun that warms your family? Do you promise to protect her and ensure her happiness?”