This proved she hadn’t been properly prepared for the job they had selected her for. He’d let her down. His heart twisted in his chest. “At times like these, Piper, he is not my brother. He is my sheikh.”

Rafe might have enormous influence, but Talib made the decisions. He’d known that his whole life. While he and Kade were able to traipse across the globe, Tal had a country to run.

“So you and Kadir just do what Talib tells you to?” Piper sounded more aggressive than he’d ever heard her. “That’s the way this works?”

Tal groaned, his eyes rolling. “Yes, Piper, they never give me a single moment of trouble. Damn it. Consider this family like a corporation. I’m the CEO.”

She frowned, her lips curling down. “I don’t think I want a family like that.”

Why was Tal taunting her? Rafe reached out for her hand, happy that she didn’t totally reject him. She didn’t curl her fingers into his, but she didn’t pull away. “Give this a chance. Our life will not be like this all the time. I promise the press will settle down.”

“Before or after I have to make a decision I never thought I would, with your entire country watching?”

Now it was Rafe’s turn to frown. Yes, he had deceived and failed to prepare her, but his intentions had always been good. “You never once considered you might marry us? Our relationship was not even remotely serious for you?”

Now she pulled away, drawing her hand back. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re royal. I’m from a town of two hundred rednecks in West Texas. Why would I imagine marriage was even possible?”

“You’re also one of the world’s experts on green energy economics,” Tal shot back. “It’s a skill my country can use.”

Rafe wanted to hit his brother. Even if that argument had swayed Tal to consider Piper in the first place, this wasn’t the time to point out all the practical reasons she worked as their bride. “Piper, I knew I wanted you from the moment I saw you.”

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But she turned, rounding on Talib as though she knew he was the one who would give her the fight she so obviously wanted. “Is that why you sought me out? Is that why you befriended me?”

Tal didn’t back down an inch. “It’s why I sought you out to help me with the project. You had the knowledge to help me and my country. You also turned out to be a suitable wife.”

Rafe let his head hit his hand. Tal might have his respect as his sheikh, but as his brother, Rafe wanted to kick him.

“Suitable?” Piper asked, the word a hiss.

Kade chose that moment to walk in carrying Piper’s clothes for the day. “You can put these on for this afternoon. A stylist is on her way to assist you with hair and makeup before the photo shoot. Then servants will move all of our clothing and things into this wing by nightfall.”

Piper, who had been staring down Tal, now turned on Kade, who stopped, his eyes widening. “Why would they move me in here? Why can’t I stay in my own room?”

Kade’s jaw dropped. “Habibti…”

“Don’t you habibti me.” She turned to Rafe, ignoring Tal altogether. “I told you that I didn’t want to marry Johnny because I didn’t want to be an asset; I wanted to be loved. Yet you brought me here, knowing Tal’s motives. Did you think I’d feel differently now?” Her words stabbed him like a knife. The blade twisted when her face closed up. “I’m going to my room. And I intend to stay there until I’ve decided what to do.”

“The servants talk, Piper.” Rafe felt for her. She was reeling, confused…but he could not give in. There was far too much at stake. “I intend to figure out exactly who decided to not wake us this morning when the crowd began to gather, but we could be in trouble if the press gets wind that you refuse to share the traditional rooms with us.”

Her face flushed. “You can’t expect me to just go along with this…this farce. I don’t want to be some sort of pampered princess, cloistered and coddled and pointless.”

“Shaykhah. That is what we would call you. She is the wife of the sheikh. She is the one who binds our family and forms the center of our universe. We have sought our shaykhah for some time. Only once have we been able to agree on a woman for us all. You, Piper.” Let her stew on that. Tal was wrong to try to explain with logic just now.

She stopped, her body language softening, her expression crumbling. “It wasn’t fair to not tell me.”

Rafe crossed to her. “I know you do not wish to hear this, but it is our way. Piper, can you not find it in your heart to believe that we care for you? To forgive us for being fools? Did we make a mistake? Yes. But we did it because we feared losing you. I know that’s an excuse, but you are more special than we ever hoped to find.”

“I think it’s interesting that you’ve decided I’m so special just a few months before you’ll lose your crown if you fail to take a wife.” Suspicion flavored every word.

“I could have bought a bride, Piper.” Tal stared out the window, no doubt seeing the reporters who were prowling around the periphery of the palace. His brother was beyond restless, his face stark and angry. “It would have been simple. You are not exactly an easy bride.”

“I apologize for being difficult.” Her face fell, and Rafe could see that she looked somewhere between torn and stricken. “I don’t understand any of this.”

Rafe did what came naturally. He took her into his arms. She stood stiffly in his embrace. “We intended to protect you from all this.”

“Were you ever going to tell me we were married? Or would I have found out a couple of years down the road?”

Kade dropped her clothes to the bed and came to her other side. At least one of his brothers was being smart. Piper would be unable to resist affection for long. “We were going to ask you to marry us as soon as we’d all eased into our relationship. We picked out a ring and everything. We thought it would be good to propose the American way. We wanted it to be very romantic.”

“Why me?” She glared at Tal’s back. “If you truly care about me beyond the knowledge I can bring to your country, then explain why.”

Rafe sighed. “Because you’re special, Piper. Because you move me.”

Kade nuzzled her cheek. “You move me, too, habibti. You move my cock. It’s moving right now.”

Piper scoffed, but Rafe heard a laugh buried in there. “I’m glad to know that.” She sobered a little, pushing out of his arms. “I need some time. You’ve just turned my whole world around.”

Tal turned, his face a blank mask. “What did you have in Dallas, Piper? What did we take you from that was so cruel? A ratty apartment? A low-paying job? A constant struggle to make ends meet? No love life to speak of?” She winced, but Tal plowed on. “We’re offering you the world, Piper. We’re offering you a palace and more money than you could dream of. We’re offering you enormous power to chase your own ideals. Free reign to pursue this project you love. You will have to explain to me why I’m suddenly the bad guy.”

“Do you love me?” Piper’s shoulders squared, obviously waiting for a hard blow.

Rafe could answer that easily. “Yes. I loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you. I followed you down a hallway hoping that you would turn so I could ask your name.”

She flushed. “I fell instead.”

He would remember the moment forever. “Yes. You fell. But I promise from now on that I will be there to catch you.”

“I love you, Piper. I know it must seem sudden, but believe me, habibti, I’ve been with enough women to know how I feel,” Kade said.

Rafe shook his head in agreement. “He is right. He has slept with most of the females in the Western world. He should know this is different.”

Kade growled his way, but Piper smiled just a bit.

Until she turned back to Talib.

“I’m offering you everything I have, Piper. If it is not enough for you, if my brothers’ love and devotion isn’t enough, then you should say so now.” He stepped forward but didn’t touch her. A cold ruthless will poured off his brother. “The time is coming when I must take a wife or step down. I selected the bride I thought would be the best for my brothers and my country.”

“What about for you?” Piper asked.

“My needs are inconsequential. I like you, Piper. I enjoy your company. I admire your mind, and I crave your body. That will have to be enough for you.”

Her face fell, her eyes finding the floor as though she couldn’t stand to look at them. “It isn’t.”

Tal straightened up, looking every inch the sheikh. “Then you have a decision to make. Think long and hard, Piper al Mussad. Your decision affects the lives of millions. And it affects your friends. Black Oak Oil is heavily invested in this country. If the throne goes to my cousin, he will not honor our contracts. He will simply take everything from them. Think about Hannah and her children when you decide whether or not to stay. You’re not a girl anymore, Piper. And this love you want is a naïve dream. I’m offering you a life, a chance to make a difference to my people—hell, to the planet—and you wish me to understand that you won’t be happy until I cut my heart out and serve it up on a silver platter? It won’t happen. We will be partners. That is my offer. Take it or leave it. My country awaits your wisdom.”

He turned and strode out the door, leaving a stunned Piper in his wake.

Rafe thought seriously about killing his brother. “Piper, you must give him time. You cannot fathom what he has endured, the pressures he’s under.”

Piper’s eyes were still on the empty doorway. “I should give him time? Why should I give him anything? He didn’t even give me the courtesy of asking me if I wanted this responsibility, Rafe. From what I can tell, everything the three of you have done has been to manipulate me into a position where I have no options.”

“You have options.” Just none he wanted her to take.

“Yes. To capitulate or seem like a selfish witch.” She sank to the chaise, the very one they’d laid her out on the night before when he had lovingly presented her to Tal. Now, she looked weary, her eyes full of tears. “Go away. Both of you. Please. I need some time. I’m not saying no. You three have boxed me in so tightly that I probably can’t. So give me space for now.”

Kade looked at him, misery awash across his face. “Habibti, I am more sorry than you can know.”

It was time to give her what she needed. Until now, they had done very little of that. “We will remain on the palace grounds should you require us.”

They retreated. Rafe felt hollow as he walked down the corridor, knowing that he had left his heart and soul behind with the woman he’d betrayed.

Chapter Ten

Piper took a long breath, forcing back tears. Hours had passed. The photo shoot had been a blur, and now the day was waning. Two separate buffets had been laid out for her, but she hadn’t touched a thing. Soon someone would try to make her eat dinner. She could hear people milling around outside, but at least the curtains were drawn properly again. Just a few minutes before, a small army of servants had brought her clothes and things in, depositing them neatly in a closet that seemed to have been emptied out just for her. And it wasn’t just her clothes. There was a never-ending parade of designer wear she’d never seen before.

Someone intended to dress a princess.

A shaykhah, she amended.

What on earth was she going to do?

Her computer trilled, the sound of a call coming through. Before she’d come to Bezakistan, she’d made sure her sister knew how to use her computer to call her. Or it could be one of the James brothers calling to point out that she was seriously screwing up their business. And the country’s. So many people depending on her.

She’d never imagined that her vagina had the power to destabilize a whole country.

With grim resolve, she sat down in front of her computer and clicked the button that connected the call.

Her sister’s face filled the screen, her blue eyes wide. “Oh my god, Piper. You’re on TV. Like everywhere. Seriously. You’re on the Today show.”

Heat flashed through her system. “Tell me they’re not showing my backside.”

Mindy got the same look on her face she used to get right before she lied to Piper about her report card. “Not at all.”

Piper felt tears cloud her eyes again. She seemed to have a never-ending supply of them today.

“Piper, it’s okay. They totally did that thing where they blurred out that part of the screen. And the rest of you looked hot. That was some serious sex hair, big sister. So don’t worry. No one has seen your privates. Wait. Do you ever get on YouTube?”

“No.”

“Then no one has seen you,” Mindy assured her.