Dane’s calm voice echoed through the room. “I remember the time, sir. Had you made that tape, had the people seen it, there might have been real trouble. Something like that could have destabilized the country. The parliament wasn’t in control. You were. There could have been riots, and the countries around you would have pounced. You did what you had to.”
“Yes.” Bitterness rose. “I had to choose my country over a woman who trusted me.”
“You do not have easy choices, my brother.”
Pure fear went through Tal as he realized Rafiq stood in the doorway. His brother had heard everything. His brother knew his shame. “Go away, Rafe. Go look after Piper.”
“I came here to beat the crap out of you,” Rafe admitted, his face flushed with emotion. “I planned to fight because you cannot treat our bride that way. She is not a piece of property, but that isn’t why you rejected her, is it? I think she might be smarter than any of us. She told me you were afraid.”
Everyone was backing him into a corner today. “I am not afraid. I simply don’t want to be forced to deal with Piper’s naïveté. This marriage is about protecting a kingdom, not falling in love.”
Rafe walked in. His shoulders had relaxed, his fists unclenched. “It’s about both. Tal, you did what you had to do in the worst of circumstances. But you survived. Our country survived. I am so sorry Lily did not, but you cannot spend the rest of your life punishing yourself. You did everything you could possibly do to save her. You made the right choice. One life for thousands. You had no other option.”
And there was the heart of his problem. There was the precise reason he couldn’t ever let himself love Piper. “And if I couldn’t make that decision again? If I couldn’t choose my country?”
Rafe’s eyes flared, understanding dawning. “You’re worried if it happens again you would give everything up for Piper?”
He knew it deep in his gut. He could lie to her, but there was the truth. He was already over the edge. “I need to let her go. I can’t make the choices I would need to. I can’t protect my country and love my wife.”
Rafe sighed. “That is untrue.”
“Sir, your brother is right. You can’t sacrifice everything. You have to take a risk at some point,” Dane said.
But he didn’t. He never had to risk another thing. Tal stood stiffly, his decision clear. “Rafe, you and Kade will abdicate your positions. You can take Piper and marry her. I’ll make sure you have more money than you could ever need. I’ll marry within the month. The throne will be secure, and if I never speak to her again, perhaps no one will think to hurt her in order to get to me.”
Rafe’s jaw hardened to a razor-sharp line. “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
His brother was thinking with his heart and not his head. Tal knew one of them had to be rational. “It protects us all.”
“Should Piper not have any say in whether she wants this?” Rafe asked. “You have not given her a real choice, Tal. If you care for her, then you should let her decide.”
Let her decide if she wanted to risk her life? Not a chance. “I would think you would want her alive, Rafe. You’re truly willing to risk her?”
Rafe groaned. “God, you should have been on the stage, Tal. Everything is a risk. Am I not going to get in a car because I could be in an accident? Not fly because I could crash? We have an amazing life, and it comes with risks. For every privilege we have, there is an ounce of pain and still, I would not take any of it back. I will not abdicate. Piper will not leave. You must learn that this is your family, and we will not abandon you, even when you do not deserve us. That is what family is. She is stronger than you can imagine, our concubine. I know her. She is willing to take the risk.”
“But I’m not.” He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t. He couldn’t risk having to choose between her and his country. “I won’t be moved, Rafe. Tell her to pack her things. You can go with her or not. I’ll make sure she’s financially cared for. She assures me there’s no way she’s carrying a child. Tell her she can choose to live anywhere she likes. Anywhere except here. I expect her to be gone by tomorrow.” He pivoted away, his body moving on autopilot when all he wanted to do was fucking beat his head against the wall. He couldn’t stand the thought of never seeing her again. She’d already wound her way around his heart. He would do his duty to his country, but he would go to his grave with the memory of her warmth in his heart. “I must attend the dinner tonight. I’ll sleep in here. I’ll meet with the press secretary in the morning. We’ll need a good story. And have someone call the Dutch ambassador. I need to speak with him. They were eager to provide me with a bride.”
“It won’t work, brother.” Rafe turned and walked out.
Dane simply turned away. Though he stood just outside the door, Tal was well aware he’d broken their friendship.
He was alone. It was the way he would spend the rest of his life.
“You’re sure you want to do this, habibti?” Kade tucked a stray hair behind her head, his touch soft on her skin.
Piper was sure. She’d never been more sure of anything in her life. She didn’t intend to take her walking papers with aplomb. Talib wanted to get rid of her? He would have a fight on his hands. After Rafe explained everything to her, all of Tal’s fears and worries, she’d been more sure than ever that he needed her. She wasn’t a masochist. She knew she could break, but she wasn’t going to stop fighting until there was nothing left to fight for.
Tal wasn’t cruel. He was just dumb. Very, very dumb. Lucky for him, she was awfully smart.
“She is sure, Kade.” Rafe placed a hand on her hip, drawing her in. “And she’s so damn beautiful. Have I told you how beautiful you are, habibti?”
“More than once, baby.” She turned her face up, silently asking for a kiss. It was swiftly given. These two men were the best things that had ever happened to her. Not only had they told her she was beautiful, they made her believe it. The same way a man named Tal had managed to boost her confidence all those months ago. Now that she looked back at their odd relationship, she could see all the things he’d done for her. She would never have been strong enough to take this journey without him encouraging her. He’d been the one to tell her she was smart enough to take on this project. He’d been the one to give her ideas credit and real value.
She wasn’t going to let a single one of her men go.
Kade turned her face up to his, and another sweet kiss fell on her lips. How the hell was a woman supposed to feel less than worthy when she’d spent hours in their arms? Tal had no idea what he was in for.
She took Kade’s hand and let him lead her through the marbled entrance to the conservatory. Security was everywhere. Two big guards stood at the door to the conservatory, their khaki uniforms incongruous compared to the elegance around them.
“Your Highnesses.” The men both bowed their heads in deference.
At least Talib hadn’t barred her from the dinner. He likely thought she would be packing like the good girl he believed her to be. Maybe he hadn’t studied her as thoroughly as he imagined. She hadn’t managed to raise her sister and put herself through school without some serious willpower.
“Gentlemen.” She nodded their way. It was odd, the deference she was shown, but she’d started to simply view it as courtesy.
A servant stood at the door, dressed in a resplendent uniform. She’d seen him around a bit, though she had trouble placing his face. He looked so familiar. She’d met so many. She needed to make it a priority to learn the members of her household by name and to be able to inquire about their families.
This young man frowned slightly before his face cleared and he smiled. “Your Highnesses. The Sheikh informed us just minutes ago that you would not be joining us this evening. Any of you. I’m afraid the cocktail hour has already begun. Dinner will be soon.”
Kade studied the young man. “You are Hassem? How long have you been with us?”
Hassem stood a little straighter. “Just over a year, Your Highness. My father has been at the palace for twenty.”
Rafe nodded. “He is Ahmed’s youngest. The one who spent time in the army. I thank you, Hassem, but the sheikh was wrong. Her Highness decided to attend after all. Please open the door. We wouldn’t want to miss dinner. I’ve heard chef came up with something amazing.”
The servant flushed slightly, and his hand found the door. “Of course. If it is all right, I would provide refreshments for the guards. I have water bottles and some energy snacks for them. It will be a very long night, I can see.”
Kade waved the young man away. “Do what you need to do. Thank you.”
The double doors swung open. Soft harp music and elegant lighting made Piper think she was walking into a room from the last century. Everything was antique and beautifully crafted.
This was her world now. How odd to have come so far.
Twenty heads turned her way. She recognized many of the men in the room, including Khalil. He smiled her way, a predatory look.
“I’m going to kill him.” Rafe’s words whispered from a clenched jaw. “How dare he show his face in the palace.”
Piper still wasn’t sure Khalil had tried anything on her at all. She’d just been sick. It wasn’t so surprising given she hadn’t gotten used to her new country. She had to be careful about what she ate and drank until her body had adjusted. “He’s here because he represents the western provinces. Until they choose to vote him out of office or you can find real evidence against him, you need to be careful.”
She’d been studying everything she could about politics in the region. It had been easy to read between the lines. There was bad blood between the cousins. Khalil was an outspoken advocate of religious reform and wresting power from the sheikh, but his position in government meant he spent a lot of time at the palace. They had to deal carefully with him.
“I can very quietly kill him,” Kade whispered.
She sent him a frown.
“Or not.” Kade shrugged. “But don’t be terribly surprised if he meets with a horrible accident. I’ve heard he is a terrible driver.”
“Yes,” Rafe’s voice was filled with silky satisfaction. “There are many dangerous roads. Not that we would have anything to do with it.”
She was going to give them a serious talking to about the evils of assassination, but Talib had finally seen her. His handsome face turned in her direction, then he flushed a deep scarlet. His eyes flared, and she realized just how much she’d challenged him.
He murmured something to the ambassador and began stalking across the room, his every move an example of predatory grace. He was so gorgeous in his perfectly cut tuxedo, but anger flashed in his eyes. He really didn’t want her here. He might care about her, but what if she couldn’t get through his pain to the emotions that might bind them together?
“Be brave,” Rafe whispered.
“My brothers, would you like to explain yourselves?” He didn’t even look at her. It was infuriating. She felt her anger start to rise.
“I was hungry. Did you intend to starve me before you ship me out?” She kept her voice low, a plastic smile on her face.
Tal’s eyes finally caught hers, and she realized he thought this was all a plan of his brothers. He hadn’t given her credit for knowing her own mind. “I will have food sent to you. Of course, I meant you no discomfort.”
And now he was on the ropes, right where she wanted him. They had a very avid audience. She gave him a brilliant smile and leaned over to greet him with a kiss. So close, she could feel the heat coming off his body, see the way his lips firmed just before she pressed them with her own. She meant it to be a light kiss, a soft greeting, but his hands found her waist and pulled her close. He might not want her here, but his erection didn’t have any such qualms. It was instantly hard against her belly.
“Don’t think just because you win a single battle that you can claim victory in a war. I’ll have you forcibly removed from the palace tomorrow morning. In fact, I can have you on a plane tonight. You can sit down and play the part one last time, but tomorrow you will be out of my life, Piper.”
Tears threatened to blur her vision. “You don’t care that I love you?”
His hands tightened, and his voice ground from his throat. “I want to do the right thing for you. For my country. Can’t you see this is for the best?”
She let her eyes meet his again. “No. And I won’t go away quietly. You think you can find some more biddable bride, but I’ll make it hard on you. I’ll fight for my family.”
“So be it.” He kissed her again, a hard meeting of lips. When he brought his head back up, he was perfectly calm again, the mask he wore slipping into place so easily. “Gentlemen, you will have to forgive me for the delay. My bride is looking exceptionally lovely tonight.”