Kade sat back, one leg casually perched over his knee. He looked like the negligent playboy he was, but Rafe knew his younger brother was quite serious now. “It means we must choose. Tal is nearly thirty-five, so our time is almost up. Gavin explained this to you?”
Gavin was the CEO of Black Oak Oil and the James brother with the closest ties to Bezakistan. He was also Dex’s eldest brother. Along with their middle brother, Slade, they shared Hannah.
“Sort of,” Dex said. “Talib has six months to pick a wife, right?”
It was so much more complicated, but that summed it up neatly, so Rafe nodded. “Yes. We toyed with the idea of revising the constitution to more accurately reflect the modern world, but we’ve run into trouble with that.”
Kade jumped in. “If we start playing with the constitution, we’ve been told we open it up to all sorts of revisions, including those from some of the more religious factions in our country who would prefer a government that was less Westernized and more like our neighbors.”
“And we know very well that several lawmakers would like to strike down the royal family’s marriage customs to weaken us,” Rafe added.
Dex’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You share a wife so you don’t have to split up the country, correct?”
“Exactly,” Rafe confirmed. “It’s a tradition that began long ago in our mountain regions as a way to keep a family’s wealth intact without cutting off the younger siblings and is still largely practiced by our population today. Primogeniture was the Western world’s tradition, but it forced younger sons into poverty, religion, or war. We did not wish that on our children. The same holds true today, though many do not see it. They view our tradition of bride sharing as barbaric, but it keeps the family centered on a common purpose.”
Dex grinned. “Well, you’re not going to get any argument from me, buddy. Lightning would strike real damn fast, and my balls would be toast for sure.”
“I’m glad you agree. The trouble is that our brother has proven rather picky.” Rafe was being generous. Talib had been a nightmare. Not that he and Kade hadn’t voiced some objections themselves.
Collectively, they’d looked into twenty women over the past two years. All twenty had been rejected. Talib didn’t want another royal because he didn’t want the headache of dealing with two royal families, or some princess with a trained smile in the ballroom but a haughty demeanor in the bedroom. He didn’t want a fame monger or a curiosity seeker, either. Bezakistan, with its unique customs and culture, was always a source of interest and mystery, after all. Talib wanted someone intelligent. She had to be educable about media affairs, have a lovely smile, be reasonably photogenic, and be kind. She had to like children, puppies, and rainbows, yada yada yada. None had passed Talib’s tests.
Which was just as well since Rafe had hated every one of those twenty cold women. They had been lacking in heart and a little hard in the soul. Kade would not have hesitated to take one or two of them to bed, but he’d made it clear that he had no interest in marrying any of them. Now the deadline for the three of them to find a bride and wed her breathed hotly down their necks. If they didn’t select one soon, the throne would pass to their cousin, Khalil.
No one who liked their chic yet charming country as it was wanted that.
“We’re actually here because Talib has found a possible candidate.” Kade’s sly smile told Rafe they were on the same page. Dex wanted to give them a lecture? They would give him a surprise.
Dex’s eyes rolled slightly. “Seriously, you’re looking for a wife, but you’re taking a little detour to salivate over my researcher? Not cool, guys.”
Rafe put the folder with Piper’s information on the desk, his palm remaining on it. It contained the original report and Tal’s observations about the girl, along with a few snippets of instant messaging conversations they’d shared. Rafe had already memorized them and had been intrigued, but meeting the girl had increased his understanding and enthusiasm a hundredfold. “You are right, of course. That would be very ungentlemanly of us.”
“And obviously your wife’s friend is far too sweet for nasty men like us.” Kade grinned.
“Dude, I’m glad you understand what I’m saying.” Dex held up his hands. “I’m not trying to disrespect you. I really do know what it means to be in your place, having a certain…itch and liking it scratched frequently. Slade and I had to hunker down and try to survive big brother until Hannah softened him up. But Piper isn’t a good-time girl. She’s the kind of girl you marry. Can’t you find someone else?”
Rafe’s lips turned up as Dex fell neatly into their trap. “I would not wish Piper heartache. Now, this is the name of the woman Talib wishes us to investigate as a potential bride. He thinks she’s quite intelligent and possesses many of the qualities we seek. If you could tell us all you know about her before we approach her, perhaps fill in any gaps in our report, we would be so grateful.”
Dex pulled the folder toward him. “Sure thing. Any woman you choose will be one lucky lady. Your country is beautiful and that palace is something else.” He opened the folder, caught sight of Piper’s name, and sighed. “You’re a son of a bitch.”
Rafe couldn’t help but smile. “So, you’ll set up lunch for us?”
He growled a little. “You two better take fucking good care of her. No, damn good care. No fucking her. Not until this thing is settled.” He picked up the phone and started talking.
Kade slid Rafe a slow smile.
Yes, they would take damn good care of her, indeed. Eventually, he suspected, they’d take fucking good care of her, as well.
Piper looked around the restaurant, hoping no one noticed her thrift store clothes. She felt deeply out of place, and yet she couldn’t help but stare. It was beautiful, completely unlike anywhere she’d been before, but then there was only one place in her hometown that would qualify as a restaurant. Patty’s Pie Hole didn’t look like this.
Gosh, she hoped she didn’t break anything and could figure out which fork to use.
“What looks good to you, habibti?”
His voice was like rich chocolate. Rafiq. He’d introduced himself that way, but quickly asked her to call him Rafe. He’d been the one to hold open the door for her and to help her out of the car. He probably knew she was likely to take a header right on the street.
“What does that mean?” He’d called her that twice. She wasn’t sure if he just kept forgetting her name. Black Oak Oil didn’t hand out security badges with employees’ names.
Piper nodded, trying not to let her eyes widen as she took in the prices on the menu. She could buy a cow for what they charged for a steak. Mr. James had explained that she was being treated, but she wasn’t used to being treated this well. “Yes, sir. I don’t know what that means.”
Kadir, or Kade as he liked to be called, elegantly slid his napkin over his lap. “It’s the Arabic equivalent of sweetheart.”
She hid a smile. At least men were the same across the world. She’d been around men all her life who called every woman, from eight to eighty, sweetheart or darlin’. They were either trying to be charming or were wretchedly bad at remembering names. But it was still somewhat endearing. “Oh, that’s nice. So, what exactly can I help you with, Mr. al Mussad? I assumed you were getting all the research notes and projections from Tal.”
“Tal?” Kade asked.
Rafe didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, Tal. You know the man who’s doing the field research in Bezakistan for the Clean Energy Project, brother.”
Kade leaned forward. “Seriously? Tal? Is he shitting us?”
Rafe sent his brother a deeply quelling look before turning back to her, and Piper frowned. It was as if the two were having a secret conversation through a series of raised eyebrows and short hand gestures.
“I have received the information from Tal,” Rafe assured. “But I wanted your opinion. Gavin James thinks highly of you. You did your undergraduate work in economics?”
She smiled. If there was one thing she was proud of, it was her degree. It had taken her five years because she’d had to work full time while she went to school, but she’d graduated with honors. “Yes, I have an undergraduate degree in economics. I’ve started my graduate work with a specialization in the economic viability of renewable energy sources.”
“Very impressive. So you believe this project of Black Oak’s will be viable?”
She was intensely excited at the prospect. Bezakistan could be a huge economic and scientific experiment. “I think given your country’s unique position in the world’s fuel market and how open your economy is, you have the opportunity to make enormous strides. Brazil has gone to an almost completely biofuel model for their transportation systems. Imagine what you could do with a combination of biofuel, wind energy, and solar power. You could change the world. You could bring power to countries that can’t afford it.”
Bezakistan was the perfect testing ground. The country was rich with oil, but they also had millions of acres of deserts, perfect for solar power and wind harvesting. Their infrastructure was one of the soundest in the world, and almost everything was controlled by one man: Sheikh al Mussad. And, as Dex James had explained when he called to arrange this luncheon, she was sitting with his brothers.
God, she hoped she didn’t make an idiot of herself.
“But is it a financially viable model?” Kade probed.
This was the hard sell. She and Tal had been working on this proposal for months. She was interested from a humanitarian and ecological standpoint. But she knew money moved the world. Good thing she would merely be gathering all the data. Tal would present it to his sheikh. “Not in the first five minutes, but I think the patents alone on some of this technology could make up for the money you put into it over time.”
At least they were looking at her like she had a brain in her head. Rafe sat back, his arm going over the back of the booth, hovering above her shoulders. Gosh, he was attractive. His pitch black hair was perfectly cut and intelligent dark eyes looked out from a face that could be on the cover of a magazine. Kade was equally appealing. Piper had to remind herself not to drool.
“I am more than willing to listen to your information on this subject,” Rafe said, gesturing for a waiter. “Would you like something to drink while we do? Wine, perhaps?”
And be a slavering pile of goo by the time dessert rolled around? Nope. She’d proven long ago that she couldn’t handle liquor. She was nervous as hell, but it would be worse to fall asleep on the gorgeous gods of men who held her career in their hands. “No, thank you. I’ll just have some iced tea.”
“Of course,” Rafe said, though he looked almost disappointed. “Three iced teas and a plate of the oysters, please. We should be ready to order lunch in a moment.”
The waiter scurried off.
Kade set his menu aside. “How do you feel about travel, Piper?”
“I’ve never been outside of Texas. I read a lot about the world. I have a list of places I would love to see, but I just haven’t had the opportunity yet.”
“Why, may I ask?” Rafe leaned closer and scooted in a bit, giving her his undivided attention. “You’re young. Many young people, even in my country, get out and see the world. I have heard many Americans like to backpack across Europe.”
Kade sniffed a little. “I don’t know why. I stayed at a hostel once. My fathers were very angry with the way I was spending money, so I attempted to conserve. I see now why so many horror films have been made about them. Backpacking is apparently a very smelly experience.”
She laughed. She could just imagine the very urbane Kadir al Mussad surveying her father’s ranch. “I still would have loved it. I’m from West Texas. Trust me, once you’ve stood downwind of a herd of cattle, you can handle a little humanity. I planned a big trip to celebrate my graduation from high school. Not Europe, but I was going to drive up the West Coast from San Diego to Vancouver. I bought a little convertible and put all kinds of money away from summer jobs. I was going with a couple of friends.”
Oh, so many things. Her heart clenched as it always did when she thought about those months. “Life happened. My father died suddenly. My mom had passed away a few years before that after a battle with cancer. I had to stay with my sister. I thought it would just be for the summer. I had a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin. I assumed I would find a foreman for our ranch and a guardian for my sister and still head out in the fall.” She was about to get misty. Why was she getting so personal? She always talked too much. These men had invited her to lunch for business, not to hear her life story. “I’m sorry. We were talking about patents.”