It was Talib’s turn to flush. His whole system went on emotional overload, but he tried to present a calm front. He had his suspicions, but he hadn’t voiced them to his brothers. But Alea wasn’t finished.
“And I blame him for what happened to me, too. I can’t prove a damn thing, but no one knew where I was going that night except for the consulate. I received a message from the consulate telling me where I should be and when, and surprise, cousins, the only person to meet me was the man who kidnapped me.”
“Alea?” Dane stepped forward, a fierce look on his face.
She put a hand out. “Don’t. I can’t handle it. Whatever Khalil did to me, it doesn’t matter now.”
“It fucking matters to me,” Cooper said.
Tears pooled in Alea’s eyes. “Nothing matters now, not when it comes to me. But Piper is another story. She shouldn’t have to deal with this. Why did you choose someone like her? She doesn’t understand the exchange. She just wants to be loved. She shouldn’t have to worry about being killed because she married one of us.”
Landon, Coop, and Dane all looked ready to surround his cousin, but Tal needed to shut that down. Alea wasn’t ready for anything like a relationship, much less one that involved three hardened soldiers. “I’m not going to allow anything to happen to Piper, Alea. And I will have Dane look into any connections Khalil has with the consulate in New York.”
“Oh, I will absolutely look into that,” Dane said under his breath.
Tal turned to him, keeping his voice low. He needed to talk to Dane, to make him see that Alea wasn’t ready for all the things Dane wanted from her. “See that is all you look in to, my friend. Never forget that she is royalty.”
Dane’s eyes hardened, and he took a neat step back, his stance purely professional now. “Of course, sir. Since royalty never, ever falls for a commoner. Your shaykhah is so very royal, after all. Coop, Lan, let’s patrol for a bit. I can see we’re not needed here.”
His guard, the men who had been his closest friends for the last several years, turned and walked out. They would be professional, Tal knew, but he worried that in his rage and fear, he’d broken something between them.
So much was breaking in his life. His peace. His friendships. He didn’t want to think about the heart he was certain he didn’t possess.
And Alea’s words had cut him to the bone. Hadn’t he learned his lesson? Hadn’t Lily’s death taught him that there would be no peace for any woman he cared about?
Alea took a deep breath. “Tal, forget I said anything. I’m sorry. Carry on and don’t give up the throne because Khalil will try to hurt any woman you marry. You can’t let him win like that. I just really like Piper. She’s so kind. I hate the thought of her being hurt. It feels like our family is cursed.”
“We aren’t cursed,” Rafe said, his voice harsh. “But we do have some housekeeping to take care of. Talib is right. We can’t kill him now. We don’t have any proof that she was poisoned at all. The doctor said it could be a case of nerves. I don’t believe it, but we have to follow our own laws.”
“To a point,” Kade said.
A small feminine sound escaped from the bedroom. Piper. His brothers dropped everything and practically ran into the room, leaving him alone with Alea.
“You should go and see to her,” Alea said. Her eyes trailed to the door where Landon was now posted. He stood outside, only a bulky arm evidence that he was there.
Tal knew he should be in there with his brothers, but he also knew what would happen. He would crawl into bed with Piper and cuddle her, falling deeper into a pit he had no intention of ever giving in to. “They will care for her. I have meetings to attend to.”
Alea’s brow arched over her dark eyes. “Really? Tell me what’s going on, Talib. I’m not stupid. I know you have a thing for that girl. You talked about her incessantly for months before you brought her over. Now you’re pulling away?”
He wasn’t pulling away. He’d never really been with her in the first place.
Liar. Fucking liar. You were with her in every way last night. She gave you a precious gift and you want to toss it in the trash because you can’t stand the thought of her knowing who you really are. You don’t deserve her. You should have bought a bride and forced your brothers to accept her or leave the family.
Self-loathing was like bile in the back of his throat. If he was half a man, he would tell her to go now, but he couldn’t. He would protect her. He would allow his brothers to love her and adore her and be her true husbands. And he would be what he had become since being held in the pit and forced to face his true self. He would be the sheikh.
“I talked about her in relation to work, Alea. And don’t try to get me to open my soul.” He wasn’t sure he had one anymore. “Unless you would like to talk to about what happened to you? No? Don’t treat me like the freak, cousin. We’re in the same boat, you and I. You think I don’t see how you look at my guards?”
Alea’s eyes widened. “I don’t look at those Neanderthal he-men of yours.”
“Oh, you look all right. You devour them, cousin, with your eyes. And in the same breath you send them away. So until you’re ready to face your own situation, stay out of mine.”
Tal turned and strode out of the room, his gut a churning mess. He longed to go into Piper’s room, to be with her and his brothers, to begin to settle into his little family.
But he didn’t deserve a family. The sight of Lily’s tortured, lifeless eyes haunted him.
He would protect Piper at all costs. Even from himself.
Two days later Piper was damn sick of being treated like an invalid. She’d been a little sick, and now Rafe and Kade wouldn’t let her out of bed. They’d waited on her hand and foot, making her completely crazy. She’d felt perfectly fine the day after her fainting spell, but they had insisted on her convalescence.
“Can I get you anything?” Rafe asked, his eyes soft as he looked down at her. Kade stirred beside her, his face nuzzling her right arm. It was odd to not be surrounded by them. Neither man had left her side for days.
But Talib had only come in to make sure she didn’t need anything. He hadn’t slept with them at all.
“You could get me a schedule of meetings.” She tried to give him a brilliant smile.
He frowned. “I think not.”
Fine. She could frown right back. “Rafe, you won’t let me work. Is this how you view a marriage?”
A long sigh escaped his chest. She could see the weariness on his face. “No, Piper. I am simply trying to take care of you.”
And he’d done a wonderful job. She let her hand slide over his. “I can’t stay in bed forever, Rafe. You have to let me be me. If all you want is some sweet little thing you can keep in bed, then you don’t really need me.” She let her lower lip pout out because she remembered the previous night. “Not that you seem interested in doing anything fun in bed.”
His lips curled up, his hand cupping her cheek. “Is that what you’re upset about?”
Kade was suddenly awake, his arm curling around her waist. “I don’t think we should upset Piper further. I believe you were right, Rafiq. We should give her everything she desires.”
She could feel the hard length of Kade’s erection nestled against her hip. Her whole body heated up, her core turning warm and soft. But she needed more than sex. For two days she’d toyed with the problem of Talib, and she needed answers.
“I think I desire a little talk.” But she let her head drift back so she was in Kade’s arms. Intimacy. It was her new favorite word. After years of deep loneliness, she reveled in their touch, surrounding herself with them. She should probably still be angry with them, but it was damn hard when they made her feel so adored.
Kade’s lips brushed her cheek. “What do you want to talk about, habibti?”
Rafe joined them, though he had dressed for the day. He crowded her other side, his nose brushing against her hair. He sighed as though the scent of her settled something deep inside him. “We will talk about anything with you.”
The name seemed to be a landmine between the three of them. The brothers stopped but didn’t pull away. Even though there was no physical distance between them, Piper could sense the emotional divide that had just opened up.
“I think you should talk with Talib,” Kade offered.
“Yes, because Tal is just going to open himself wide to me.” Frustration welled. “Look, I’m trying to give this a chance, but it’s hard when Tal will barely look at me. I don’t expect him to be in here every minute of the day. He’s busy. I get that. But is this the way a marriage would be? I’ll be married to you two and Tal will just join in the sex?”
Kade groaned a little. “No. You will be married to Tal. I assure you he’s going to take that vow seriously. He won’t cheat on you if that’s what you’re worried about. As for Rafe and myself, we don’t want another woman. We’re too busy trying to get inside you.”
And they weren’t really hearing her. “I didn’t say I’m worried about him cheating. I’m worried about having three husbands, one of whom doesn’t really know I exist unless he’s on top of me.”
Most women wouldn’t care. They would count themselves lucky that all three were rich, handsome, and good in bed. But Piper couldn’t stand the thought. She’d gone through one engagement where her groom hadn’t really wanted her. He’d just been trying to please his parents, and Piper had possessed a sterling reputation. Piper also suspected that her almost mother-in-law thought she would be easy to control.
How was Tal any different? He was marrying her because his country needed him to get married. She’d been selected because she had the right education and the right ideals, and his brothers thought she was kind of hot. She was crazy about Tal. She had been for many months before she’d met him. Even when he was just a low, sexy voice over the phone or a bunch of smart words and a quick wit coming over her computer, she’d been mad about him. She hadn’t needed to see his face to know how much she liked him. That man was buried somewhere inside him.
But he, it seemed, just wasn’t that into her. And she wasn’t sure she could live like that for the rest of her life.
“He needs time,” Rafe urged.
“I don’t have any time. I have to make a decision,” Piper replied. Every time she thought about it, her heart constricted because she was pretty sure there was no real decision to be made. She’d been placed in a terrible position, but Tal was right. Was she really going to subject the men she loved to the chaos of being forced to find a new bride in mere days or lose their throne? Was she willing to plunge a country into chaos because she wasn’t being loved the way she wanted to be?
God, she’d just thought it. She loved them. She’d tried to stay away from the L word, even in her head, but it was right there. She might never say it out loud, but the truth was already in her heart.
“Would you really leave us?” Kade asked.
Rafe put out a hand. “This is her decision. Let her make it.”
She huffed, a sound she was making a lot these days. “I don’t really have a choice and you know it.”
A slow smile spread across Kade’s face, and he settled back down, this time placing his head on her breast. He cuddled her close. “Good.”
She looked down at that black silk capped head and couldn’t help but run her fingers through it. “It doesn’t bother you that I feel manipulated into this marriage?”
She felt his chuckle along her skin. “Not at all, habibti. We were smart enough to catch you. We’ll be smart enough to make you happy to be caught.”
“I always knew you could learn, Kade.” Rafe’s warm breath played across her ear, making her shiver. “My brother is perfectly correct. We have our whole lives to make sure you never regret being tricked into becoming our wife.”
“Tricked? You didn’t have to try too hard. I sort of fell in.” She sighed in contentment. At least this felt perfect. But she was still worried about Talib. Maybe she could set a trap of her own. “I want to know what Tal likes.”
“He likes you, Piper,” Rafe replied.
“I definitely like you.” Kade had a hand on her breast, tugging at her silky nightie and releasing a nipple.
“What does he like in bed?” Piper murmured, her skin lighting up as Kade started to suckle a nipple. Heat shot to her pussy. Yes, she’d missed this.
“You need not do anything but be your sweet self.” Rafe palmed her other breast.
They were distracting her. “I want to know how to seduce Talib, and you can tell me now or I’ll put a stop to all this fun. Now tell me about this spanking stuff.”