There was a tray of coffee and breakfast breads on the table. She winced. Talib’s servants had already been in here. She hadn’t thought to draw the drapes on the bed the night before. Gosh, what must they think of her now? Her skin flushed, but she would just have to brazen through it. This certainly wasn’t the first time they had seduced a woman to their bed, and it likely wouldn’t be the last. They were too well-practiced in the art of taking a woman together.
And they had the routine down. Piper poured herself a cup of rich-smelling coffee as she thought about the night before. After the first time, they’d adjourned to the hot tub in the monstrosity of a bathroom. That was where Rafe had taken her, sitting her in his lap, his cock finding its way home. After they’d bathed her, Kade had carried her to bed where he’d gently made love to her before they’d all fallen asleep together.
She moved toward the balcony, a muffin in one hand, a mug of coffee in the other. She had plenty of time to shower before anyone would expect her to begin work for the day. For now she would look over the palace gardens and soak in the moment.
This was the start of her new life. Free and brave. That was what she was going to be.
She breathed in the fresh air as she set her coffee and muffin aside for a moment and stepped out onto the terrace. A cheer rose up. Flashbulbs exploded.
The palace grounds, almost always deserted at this time of morning, were filled with people. And cameras. She was nearly blinded as more flashbulbs went off. There was a whooshing sound and the heavy thud of helicopter blades. A sleek black chopper swooped down, and a man with a camera, complete with a long telephoto lens, leaned out the window.
The crowd erupted in another huge cheer. A thousand people jumped up and down shouting the al Mussad name.
Piper turned, trying desperately to get back inside, but she got caught in the filmy curtains, twisting and turning around. It was a labyrinth of linen and silk, trapping her.
“What the hell?” Tal’s voice rang out. “Rafe, get up. We’ve got a problem. Get on the phone and deal with the press.” There was a momentary pause. “Piper? Darling? If you stop moving, I think I can extricate you from the curtains.”
“Sheikh!” The swelling crowd chanted for Talib.
“I think I’ll just stay here.” If Tal got her out, she would be standing in front of a whole bunch of people wearing only Tal’s shirt, which she was pretty sure had blown up when that damn helicopter had swooped down. She might just stay right here forever, and then she wouldn’t have to deal with the possibility that her hoohaw had been caught on film.
“Darling, I’m very sorry this happened, but I need you to come out now.” His big masculine hand reached in, trying to catch her.
Piper dodged him. She wasn’t coming out until she had some answers. “Who are those people?”
The curtains moved, jostling her around, and then she heard Kade’s voice. “They’re just citizens, habibti. They gathered because they heard we have taken a new concubine.”
“God, can you not just say girlfriend? That word sounds so…medieval.” She sniffled, tears threatening. They had taken pictures of her half-naked, looking her absolute worst. Was this the Bezakistani version of the paparazzi?
“We’re going to have to tell her now, Kade,” Tal said, his voice heavy. “Khalil did this. I just know it. I swear I’m going to have his head.”
Kade’s head poked through the curtains. “Piper, we need to talk, explain a few things.”
“Why does anyone care that we slept together? Does this happen to all your girlfriends?” She wasn’t even sure she could call herself his girlfriend. She’d only slept with them once. They hadn’t made her any promises.
Kade’s face tightened. “Tal, shouldn’t Rafiq be the one to explain? He’s the smart one.”
Tal seemed to be trying to force the curtains open. Piper held them shut. On the one hand, it was hot and slightly suffocating in all this fabric. But on the other was total embarrassment on a national scale. Maybe she could listen to their explanation from here.
“Rafe is currently speaking to the press,” Tal argued. “And I have little doubt they’re getting anxious and beginning to wonder exactly what is wrong with our concubine.”
“Wrong with me? Why do they care about me at all?” Piper asked, panic creeping into her voice .
Kade took a long breath, muttering something that she would bet wasn’t a polite thing to say in his language. “Piper, my dearest, a concubine means something a little different here. You know the word to mean a lover or mistress. Here in Bezakistan, it’s always meant the woman the sheikh and his brothers will marry. As Rafe and I explained, it’s tradition in our country to steal a bride. We don’t do that in precisely the same fashion our ancestors did, but…the practice is still both accepted and expected.”
“What does that have to do with concubines?”
“Well, even though we steal a bride, she must still agree to marry us. According to our laws, she has a month to decide. During that month, she is called the concubine.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Oh my god. They think you’re trying to marry me.”
It was horrific. How could anyone think they—unbelievably rich and powerful men—would want to marry her? It was a mistake of historic proportions.
Kade’s hand finally made it through the yards of curtains. He cupped her face. “Yes, they think that. We tried to keep our interest in you quiet so this wouldn’t happen.”
She’d screwed everything up. “We’ll just explain that there’s been a mistake.”
“That would be a much greater scandal, habibti. And I personally have no interest in correcting anything. I’m crazy about you, Piper.” He got his hands on her hips, pulling her close.
Tal finally tore through the curtains, his face flushed. “There is no mistake, Piper. We are going to marry you. I would never have taken your virginity had I not been prepared to marry you. This is not at all how I intended to start our lives together, but we must deal with this fiasco now. The press is here, and they are wondering why the hell my concubine is hiding.”
Piper heard their words, but they weren’t computing. They couldn’t be. Because everything they said made almost no sense. They couldn’t possibly be saying what she thought they were saying. “But…there must be a mistake. You didn’t ask me to marry you.”
Talib’s face tightened, his jaw a hard line. “Piper, will you marry me?”
“Oh, no, I can’t do that.” No way. No how. It would be a horrible mistake. She wasn’t queen material. She had important work to do, and they needed someone far more polished and pretty to fill that role.
He huffed, his eyes rolling. “And now you see why I did not ask. Could you please stop hiding in the curtains? Every moment you hide, the press writes something about your unsuitability. You’re an economist, darling. What is this little episode doing to our stock?”
Who cared about stock? Except that Bezakistan made an enormous amount of its money off stock and so did Black Oak Oil. And Black Oak was heavily invested in Bezakistan. Her mind rattled off numbers. Tal was the head of the country. The country was dependent on stocks and oil futures. If the future wife of the sheikh was a complete idiot, the stock might fall.
And they had lied.
“I don’t understand any of this.”
Kade leaned in, his face close to hers. “I know. I’m so sorry. Forgive me. Please come out and smile and wave for the citizens and the press. Once we’ve done that, we can sit down and I will explain everything to you. Piper, I don’t want this to come between us.”
The enormity of what they had done slammed her squarely in the chest. “You lied.”
He shook his head. “Not really. I just didn’t tell you everything.”
“Are we married?”
“Not yet,” Tal said, his voice clipped. “You now have a month to decide. But you should understand that we only have a few months before the crown reverts to Khalil, who will bring in radicals and change the face of this country forever. He’s counting on you to run. He’s the one who brought the press down on our heads.”
She didn’t understand a darn thing except that they had kept her in the dark about something that affected the rest of her life. And still, there was a lot riding on her. She had made friends here. She cared about Black Oak Oil. She couldn’t let them down. “What should I do?”
She asked the question of Kade. She couldn’t look at Tal yet. Some events that had made her scratch her head over the past few days now snapped into place and made sense, including the reason Rafe and Kade had refused to sleep with her on their journey to Bezakistan. Her virginity had belonged to Talib. To her future husband.
Together, the three of them had colluded to marry her to a man she didn’t really know. Because the Tal who had been her co-worker had been nothing but a pretense, just like their entire reason for bringing her here.
Tal didn’t seem to care that she was talking to Kade. “I need you to walk out with me, hold my hand, and smile.” Tal said the word smile, but he was frowning. “If you don’t, they will assume you have already rejected us. If that happens, Khalil will be meeting with his lawyers to challenge us and our claim to the throne within the hour.”
Her head was spinning, and all the ramifications of their deception swirled in her head. But the stakes were terribly high, too. The decisions she made now would affect their futures—and hers. Even if she didn’t remain their concubine, if Khalil overtook the country, all her work would go down the toilet. “Can’t I get dressed first?”
Tal’s frown deepened. “Rafe is talking to the press. He’s going to schedule some photo shoots for later this afternoon. You will look your best then, and those are the photos we will circulate. For now, Khalil has left us with no choice but to put you on display. If you would just walk out onto the balcony and allow me to kiss you, I believe we can stem the tide of scandal.”
She laughed, a little hysteria tingeing the sound. “I can stem the tide of scandal if I walk out half naked and kiss a man in front of a bunch of cameras?”
“You aren’t in America anymore, Piper.”
She wasn’t. And she didn’t have much of a choice now. She turned, ignoring Kade’s attempts to hug her. His affection hadn’t come with an ounce of honesty. She wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but she needed to buy everyone a little time. Then she could make some decisions.
She allowed Tal to pull her free. The sun hit her face, but this time she felt the heat instead of the soft glow. Flashbulbs blasted all around her as Talib pulled her into his arms.
Unlike the night before, now there was no gentleness in his face. There was a hard, possessive look in his eyes as he drew her against him. Her heart raced as he cupped her cheek, and his mouth came down on hers. Arousal flooded through her, but there was a cool distance to Tal that she couldn’t ignore.
As he took her mouth, a cheer went through the crowd, the sound nearly deafening her.
When Tal turned, Rafe and Kade were immediately at her sides, grasping her hands, gazing at her with affection before they turned to the crowd with triumphant smiles.
Though surrounded by people, Piper had never felt so alone.
Rafe watched as Piper walked out of the bathroom. Her robe had been double knotted as though she was desperately afraid the tie might come open and expose her. Her face was set in tight lines, so unlike the happy, sensual woman who had ridden his cock the night before.
All in all, this was not how he’d imagined the morning would go. He’d thought he would feed Piper while they lay in bed and made love well into the afternoon. Now was their concubine time, damn it. Instead of enjoying his bride, he was fielding questions from fucking reporters. The story would be splashed across every magazine in the free world.
His cell phone trilled again, and he seriously thought about throwing it out the window.
Tal stared at him. “Are you going to answer that?”
“No.” He was in charge of dealing with the press. He would not allow Tal’s impatience to screw up his plan. “I will let them stew until tomorrow. To the outside world, we are in seclusion now. It should be expected since we’re meant to bond with our future bride.”
Piper turned suspicious eyes his way. “That whole meet up with the judge and the Prime Minister last night wasn’t just a greeting, was it? There was a reason you invited them to join us on the balcony. They asked you a question, and the three of you all gave the same answer. That was some sort of ceremony.”
Sometimes, she was too clever. He looked to Tal, who frowned his way.
Piper picked up on that, too. She stood in front of Rafe, blocking his view of his brother. “You have a mouth, Rafiq. You can answer me without Tal telling you what to say.”