“Oh my god.” She’d done some stupid things in her time, gotten into some dumb situations, but this took the cake. “Does everyone in town know?”
She hadn’t been back to her small town in over a year. She’d been very happy to be able to visit Mindy in Lubbock instead of having to go back to that place where she’d been judged for her every move. Her college years had been one long tightrope because the old biddies of the town had been like hawks watching her every move, waiting for the moment when they had a reason to take her sister away. It had been a sick game for them.
Mindy’s grin filled the screen. “Well, the townsfolk here have figured out a couple of things. One, that you’re marrying godless heathens who apparently take you three at a time.”
“Oh my god.” Her sister shouldn’t know that.
Mindy was utterly nonplussed. “Two, said godless heathens are totally gorgeous and kind of rule the world because they have all that money. My friends back home say it’s a standoff. Half the town wants to ask for a loan and the other half thinks you’re going straight to hell, but even that half is sure you’re heading there first class.”
Piper let her head find the desk.
“Sis? Why are you so upset? In those pictures, you look so happy that you’re glowing. I’m thrilled for you. Hell, I’m kind of thrilled for me.”
Piper sniffled, looking up at the computer. “Why?”
Her sister was leaning in, a soft smile on her face. In the background, Piper could see a display of red and black Texas Tech logos on the wall. “Because I was told today that my tuition and books and room and board have been paid for the rest of my time in school, Piper. You did that, right? No more freaking out every six months. No more working at the pizza place for grocery money. I can really do this. I can be a doctor.”
Now tears filled her eyes, but for something other than self-loathing. “I didn’t. I’m sure it was Rafe.”
She’d talked to Rafe about her sister. She’d opened up and let him know how worried she always was.
Mindy shook her head. “They told me the man who signed the check was named Talib al Mussad. He’s the sheikh, right? I just thought you strong-armed him into doing it. Except you didn’t use your arm. You used that part of you that is absolutely not all over YouTube.”
She laughed. There was nothing else to do. “At least tell me I didn’t look wretched.”
“Like I said, you looked hot. Although I have to admit, I really didn’t look at you once the hottie walked out without his shirt on. And then the second one. And the third one. Holy crapballs, Pipe! You hit the jackpot. Those men are superhot, and I saw the way they looked at you. I am totally jealous, and tell me I’m getting to come to the royal wedding thingee.”
She’d missed the wedding thingee, but then so had Piper. Although according to everything she’d read this morning, it hadn’t been a wedding, more like a promise to marry. “Sweetie, I don’t know that I’m marrying them.”
Mindy’s mouth dropped open. “Are you kidding me? You landed in a country where no one blinks an eye that you’re marrying three hot billionaires.”
How did she make her sister understand? “It might be fine here, but what will everyone else think? What will the people at home think?”
“Who cares? Piper, the people at home made your life hell. Don’t you dare think you have to live by their standards. Do you understand what you’re being given? You’re being given the chance to not give a damn what anyone thinks.”
Her sister was a little naïve. “Oh, sweetie, that’s just not true. That’s not what a princess is. Or a shaykhah. Don’t you know that every eye will be on me?”
It would be just like it had been at home, but on a global scale. Everyone would watch her. Everyone would be waiting for her to make a dumb move. The press would live for her mistakes. They would be splashed across the tabloids.
Mindy threw her arms up in obvious frustration. “Who cares? Piper, they can’t do anything to you. Who cares what they say? You have the power. You just have to take it. You’ll be a queen.”
But was she ready for that? No. Not at all.
And still, with her heart yearning for the sense of belonging and connection she’d felt last night, she wasn’t sure she could walk away.
“I don’t know, Min. What the press didn’t tell you is that those incredibly hot men didn’t bother to tell me they were pledging to marry me. They thought they could just sort of fool me for a while and then they would ask me.”
Mindy groaned. “God, it is so good to know that men are dumbasses all over the world. Look, do you care about them, Piper?”
She was in love with them. After last night, she was pretty sure she would never love anyone else. But they had lied. How could they start any sort of meaningful life together like that? And Talib had been so cold this morning. The heat and desire of the night before had been gone. The man she’d made love with, given her virginity to, had fled, and she’d been forced to deal with a sheikh instead.
“I’m crazy about them, but I don’t know that it’s enough.”
Mindy sighed, sitting forward, her hand on the screen. “I love you, sister. I’m going to give you the same advice you gave me that day so long ago. Do you remember? Our parents were gone. You stayed home with me. I didn’t want to go to school because I knew everyone would pity me. What did you say to me?”
Piper remembered the day. It had been so hard to let her sister go. She’d been so young, but the responsibility had weighed on her. Mindy’s first day of high school. Their parents should have been there. Piper had tried to come up with something her mother might have said. Piper put her hand to the screen, the need to touch her sister so strong, she couldn’t resist. “I told you to be brave. I told you that this was your world, and you were the only one who could build it.”
Her sister nodded, the words heavy between them. “Build your world, Piper. Build it strong so no one can tear it down. I’ll be there no matter what.”
“I love you.” Her sister had turned into a strong woman. She’d done one thing right.
“You, too. Call me later. And if you can, make sure this little camera thingee catches those hot hunks in various states of undress.” Mindy grinned just before her hand moved and the connection was broken.
Piper shut the lid on the computer, her sister’s words ringing through her head. Build her world. It had been a silly thing to say. She’d struggled to find the words to give Mindy strength that day, but they had proven true. She’d managed to build a world for them both and then, when Mindy no longer needed it, she’d started building her own.
Was she willing to shut Rafe and Kade and Tal out because they hadn’t said the right things? Before she truly knew what was in their hearts? Or should she try building a world and then tell them how to live in it?
Piper turned, startled at the deep voice that cut through the quiet. A man stood in the doorway. He wore a perfectly cut suit and the maroon tie that every member of the senate wore. A politician. “Yes?”
He bowed slightly. “I am a member of the parliament. I represent one of the western districts. I wanted to welcome you. I actually just came from the parliament building. We had a special session in order to discuss the sheikh’s new situation.”
She stood, wishing she hadn’t been caught crying. The man before her was polished and smooth, his dark eyes assessing her. He was a gaunt man, almost stark, but he was being excruciatingly polite. And she was well aware that she was the sheikh’s new situation. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t told to expect visitors.”
He smiled, but there was no humor to it. “I apologize if I offend.”
She wasn’t going to anger the parliament. She rallied, calling on every lesson in etiquette she’d ever been given. She stepped toward him, offering him a seat on the couch. “Of course not. Please come in. Should I call for refreshments?”
It would make the servants happy. They’d been waiting to be given something to do all day long. One hovered just outside of the door.
His head shook slightly as he lowered himself to the couch. “I already rang for tea. I hope you don’t mind. It should be here in a minute.”
With perfect timing, a young man in long, formal robes strode in carrying a tray with a lovely silver tea service. With an elegant hand, he poured two cups and then bowed, leaving them alone again. Piper let the spicy scent of the hot tea fill her senses. Everything was decadent here. Even the tea. She took a little sip.
“I thank you for receiving me,” the parliament representative said. “I merely wished to call upon you. I was at the banquet last night, but I did not get the pleasure of an introduction.”
She tried to recall him from the night before. The evening had flown by in a flurry of new faces and names. She took another sip of the tea. Rich and fragrant, it reminded her she hadn’t eaten all day. “I apologize. Last night was my first big reception. I didn’t get to meet everyone.”
“My name is Khalil al Bashir. You have heard of me, no?”
She put the tea down. Khalil. Yes, she’d heard of him. Nothing good. “You’re the cousin.”
He inclined that perfectly coiffed head. “I am, indeed. But I hope you don’t believe everything you’ve heard. I’m afraid my cousins don’t like me much. My grandfather decided to buck tradition long ago. He loved my grandmother. He did not wish to share the bride his brother had selected for them.”
“He gave up the throne for a woman?” It was an interesting story. She didn’t like the word “selected,” however. As far as she knew, Rafe and Kade had been involved in the process.
He held his cup, and she couldn’t miss the slight shake of his hand. “Oh, yes. Theirs is a great love story, and one I understand. I have to admit that I find the whole idea of sharing a wife a bit distasteful and barbaric. It is an old tradition and one I have tried to see eradicated.”
“Shouldn’t people be allowed to decide what they want?” The idea of sharing a wife was odd, but she couldn’t really see why it was wrong if everyone involved agreed to it.
Khalil’s hand waved in an imperious motion, dismissing her thoughts. “Were you allowed to decide, Miss Glen?”
There were landmines everywhere. This man might seem perfectly pleasant, but everything had changed, and she couldn’t count on appearances. “I have every option open to me, sir. I can call this whole thing off when I wish to.”
That much had been made clear to her. She hadn’t spent the whole time crying. She’d used her computer, looking up everything she could find on Bezakistani marriage laws. Apparently the tabloids were fascinated with the royal brothers. If only she’d paid attention to a magazine other than The Economist, she might have been more ready for this morning.
“This isn’t about love, Miss Glen. The reason the brothers marry a single woman is that they do not wish to split the wealth. It is a way to keep the property intact. This way, they need only give their daughters dowries, and meager ones compared to their wealth. My grandfather was given next to nothing when he chose to marry my grandmother. Al Mussad blood ran through his veins, yet he was treated like a commoner.” Khalil’s face had gone red, but he stopped as though realizing he was losing his temper. He took a long breath and that charming mask slid over his face again. “There were five brothers then.” He smiled a little. “You should be glad you need only deal with three.”
She couldn’t even imagine five. Of course, a couple of weeks before, she wouldn’t have been able to imagine three. But they were all so different. Each so appealing in their way. “I think you should probably talk to your cousins.”
“I am not here as family, Miss Glen.” He sighed, leaning forward. “Please relax. I truly do not bite.”
She sat back, holding herself apart. “I don’t think this is a good idea. Talib wouldn’t be happy that I’m talking to you alone.”
“Talib would be quite upset, but then Talib doesn’t always tell you what he is doing, does he?”
“Obviously not.” But she wasn’t a complete fool. “You were the one who told the press.”
He shrugged. “What they did was not only not fair to you, it was not fair to this country. You will have enormous influence over the sheikh. We depend on him. Can you not see how important your position is?”
Again, she felt the weight of her new position on her shoulders, and she didn’t even truly understand the scope of a shaykhah yet. “I think I would only have the influence Talib allowed me to have.”
Khalil huffed, an aristocratic sound. “So that’s the way he’s decided to go. I wondered why he selected you. Please don’t get me wrong, dear Piper. You are lovely. I really do understand what they see in you. But I was surprised when I learned of your background.”