And by tomorrow, if Tal had his way, she would be gone. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, but she plastered a smile on her face and joined the group, taking a glass of wine from one of the servants. She mingled, speaking to each politician, turning the conversation to the economy and politics when she could. She could feel Rafe’s and Kade’s warm eyes on her, giving her strength. And every time she looked up, Tal had to look away because she caught him staring.
She completed her circuit around the room, never allowing a moment when she wasn’t smiling, wasn’t charming. She found herself alone finally, on the far side of the room and away from the guests, staring out the big bay windows that overlooked the grounds. The sun had set, and silvery moonlight illuminated the gorgeous gardens. This land was foreign and beautiful and, in a few short days, had begun to feel like home.
Where would she be tomorrow? She’d spent so much of her life knowing exactly where she would be. She’d expected to live and die in a small Texas town, accepting her fate. At some point she’d discovered the strength to make her own way. Was she strong enough to keep her family together?
“You play the part well. I’ll give that to you. You have the gracious queen act down.”
She saw his reflection on the glass. Talib. Beautiful, remote, her sheikh. The thought of losing him hurt her heart. “I’m only doing it to please you.”
“If you want to please me, you’ll walk out and take my brothers with you,” he shot back in a heated whisper. He stared out the windows, his face a polite blank, so unlike the man who’d spanked her and forced his cock deep in her body, binding them together just hours before. Now he was telling her to leave.
“If I really thought it would please you, I would leave, but I remember what it feels like with you inside me,” she said softly. “I know how you make love, Tal.”
There it was. Just a little twitch to let her know she’d scored a hit. If she hadn’t been watching closely, she would have missed it. His face went blank again. “It was sex, Piper. You’re too naïve to know. I fuck the same way every time.”
She rolled her eyes. She couldn’t help it. She turned, making sure to lean back so there was no way he could miss her breasts. Rafe had selected her gown, a gorgeous red designer item with a plunging V-neck. And there it was again, a little flare to his eyes and a tent in his slacks. Yes, he was utterly disinterested in her.
“Sure. Except you told me you haven’t had a lover in your dungeon in years. Me, Tal. I was in there,” she murmured.
His eyes hardened. “You snuck in there.”
“I was curious. If you really hadn’t wanted me in there, you would have politely asked me to leave. I would have, you know. I would have left and never gone back, but that isn’t what happened. What happened was you made love to me.”
His jaw tightened, his eyes trailing to her breasts. “You overestimate your appeal.”
Piper snorted. She couldn’t help it. “Yes, I’m so good. So well-practiced. Tal, you can send me away, but I’ll still love you.”
“And I will forget you. Piper, I’ll get married two weeks after you’re gone and I will move on. You can wait all you like, but I’m done with you.” He turned and walked away.
She stared at him. What the hell was she doing? If he’d really decided on this course, how could she change his mind? He would simply have his guards forcibly remove her from the country, and she wouldn’t be allowed back in. If he didn’t want to see her, he would never look on her face again.
“Your Highnesses, honored guests, please join us in the dining hall. Dinner is ready to be served.” A turbaned servant in a black uniform smiled as he and his helper stood at the double doors that led to the dining hall. Piper stared as Tal walked toward the doors. He would put as much distance between them as possible. He would sit at one end of the long table, relegating her to the other. He would try not to speak to her again until he sent her away.
She could fight. But now she wasn’t certain she would win.
The double doors opened, and Hassem stood there, two small metal objects in either hand. What was he doing? She got a glimpse of his face again and remembered where she’d seen him before. A brief memory flashed through her head. Hassem had been the one Khalil had called on for tea. She remembered his graceful hands as he’d placed the tray on the table and poured out the tea. He’d given her the slightest smile as he’d passed her the cup that she now suspected he’d placed a measure of poison in.
He had the same smile on his face as he threw the small canisters into the conservatory. Metal cylinders hit the floor and exploded, causing the whole world to flare. There was a horrible flash. Her vision fled, bleeding from fiery white to complete darkness in a second. A blast of sound hit her ears just before they stopped working. Piper stumbled, trying to find her balance, but she couldn’t quite make her legs work.
Flash bang. She’d read about them. Stun grenades. She’d read an article about a terrorist attack that went into the use of flash bangs as a way to gain valuable seconds. They could incapacitate people for a few seconds, giving the bad guy time to do something really nasty. She let her body fall back. She needed to get to the floor. She couldn’t stand. Falling back would save her arms, and she could turn to her belly and protect her head. Confusion threatened to swamp her, but she forced herself to stay calm. Five seconds. That was what she’d read. In five seconds her vision would start to clear. Her hearing would take longer, but she would be able to see. She had to get to Tal. They were coming for Tal.
But they weren’t, she knew in just a second. A big hand reached down, and she was dragged across the floor, her body sagging as she was pulled from the room.
Tal hit the floor, his ears ringing and his eyes black. He couldn’t fucking see. What the hell had happened? One minute he’d been walking away from Piper, certain he was saving her, and the next, one of his household staff was tossing a goddamn grenade his way. It had hit his chest and bounced off before the flash bang had exploded and sent him into silent darkness. He forced himself to flip over. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t see. He had to get to Piper. Khalil was behind this. Khalil had paid off his staff to turn against him. It was the only explanation.
He felt the marble under his hands and at his knees. He tried to orient himself. He’d been facing away from Piper when the assault occurred. His vision swam in front of his eyes. He couldn’t see a fucking thing. His ears felt like they were bleeding. Sound got through but it was muffled and distorted.
Piper. He had to reach her, protect her. He couldn’t lose her. He could turn her away. He could live without her as long as he knew she was somewhere in the world, safe and sound. He didn’t want to live in a world where Piper didn’t exist. His heart pounded in his chest.
“Piper!” A muffled shout managed to get through his damaged ears. Rafe? Kade? They sounded so far away.
He stumbled to his feet. His eyes were beginning to clear, but the whole conservatory was chaos. Smoke filled the room. Where the hell were the guards? He’d made sure there were at least two at every door. Dane, Landon, and Cooper were patrolling. In his stubbornness, he had sent them as far away as he dared. Had they heard the noise?
Khalil couldn’t expect to get out of the palace with Piper. He could have bribed one or two people without causing alarm, but more? He didn’t believe it. His staff was loyal.
That meant Piper could already be dead. And then nothing would matter.
He nearly tripped over a body. The ambassador? He wasn’t dead, but he was struggling to get up. Tal fell back to the floor. A strong hand lifted him up.
“You know my orders are to get you out of danger.” Dane looked right at Tal. His eyes were perfectly clear. Dane had all his faculties because he hadn’t been in the room when it exploded in light, smoke, and sound. Besides the flash bangs, the attacker seemed to have used some sort of smoke bomb. Tal coughed to try to clear his lungs.
“Piper.” He could barely hear Dane, but he knew the gist of the words. Dane’s chief mission was to protect the sheikh. If he didn’t get away from Dane, he would find himself in protective custody while Khalil did god knew what to his bride. He tried to pull away. “I have to find Piper.”
He couldn’t let them waste time trying to get him somewhere secure. Piper, if she was still alive, had so little time.
“Stop. I know I’m supposed to protect you, but if that woman dies, you’ll be worth nothing. Do you remember how to use a SIG, Your Highness?” Dane pressed a SIG Sauer into his palm. The cool metal felt substantial in his hand.
Fuck yeah, he remembered. He’d trained on the weapon religiously after escaping his captors. After tonight, he might simply carry one with him always. He flipped off the safety and forced his fucking legs to work.
Dane pointed to the hallway entrance to the conservatory. “I think they went out this way, Your Highness. The little fucker who threw the flash bangs hadn’t counted on me and Landon to hang around. He tried to send us on a wild goose chase, but I know a traitor when he shows his face. Cooper went to check out the kid’s story, but Landon and I stayed behind.”
Thank god Dane’s voice was loud. Tal was starting to get his presence of mind back. How did Khalil imagine he was going to get away with this? “Khalil has gone insane. Even if he had an escape path, someone would see him.”
Where would he take her? Would he ransom her? Try to trade her for Talib? It didn’t make sense.
“He’s not crazy. He’s got terminal cancer,” Dane shouted back at him. “I found out a couple of days ago, but honestly I didn’t want you to go soft on him. I’m also close to linking him to the radicals who took you and the slavers who grabbed Alea. It’s all there in the financials, but I need some reports. I wanted all my ducks in a row so you could give me the go ahead to take him out.” Dane’s brow furrowed in a look of consternation. “He’s only got six months to live. He’s not trying to take the throne anymore. He just wants to hurt you. He’s bitter. He hates you and the whole family.”
Fear gripped Tal’s stomach. Khalil really wanted to kill her. He wanted to make sure Tal suffered. He didn’t care about getting away. There would be no negotiations. There would only be pain for his concubine, his Piper. Pain and death.
“Sarge, I think I’ve got something for you.” Dane’s radio squawked, Landon’s voice coming over it as they made their way through the double doors. The two guards he’d placed there were both knocked out, bodies slumped to the floor. Water covered the marble. It looked like they had been drinking it when they fell. Tal hoped they weren’t dead.
“This little bastard, Hassem, says Khalil plans to rape and kill her on her husbands’ bed. It should have been Khalil’s, he claims. Then Khalil is going to kill himself. He’s leaving a note stating that the royal family pushed him to it. He’s trying to wreak all sorts of havoc.”
Even before Dane spoke, they both started to jog toward the stairs. “How reliable is this intel? We don’t have much time.”
They couldn’t afford to be led astray. Every moment they were delayed, Piper could be in unimaginable pain. The thought of her being hurt, raped, was almost too much for him to take.
“Well, Sarge, I have my pistol about halfway up his asshole, and I’ve threatened to pull the trigger. He seems real attached to his innards, if you know what I mean. I think I’ll just keep it here until we’re sure he’s not lying.”
Dane kept talking as he took the stairs two at a time. “Who’s watching the brat?”
Alea. Khalil had really sold Alea into slavery. Khalil hated them so much, and all because they had a little more than he did. Khalil had money and a good life, but something deep inside of him was twisted and broken. Dane’s face remained stony, but he’d flushed when he asked about Alea. The big guard really did care about her.
“Coop’s on her. She’s safe, Sarge. Coop will keep an eye on our girl and make sure she stays out of the line of fire. Even if she doesn’t want to be safe. Check back and let me know if I need to blow this guy’s ass away. Out.”
Tal decided to never cross Landon Nix. He looked back, wishing his brothers were with him. He’d lost them in the throng, but he had no doubt they would be searching for Piper. His brothers. He’d never really been alone, he realized, because his brothers were always there. Even in that pisshole of a warehouse he’d been held in, when all felt like it was lost, he’d heard his brothers whispering to him, telling him to survive.
He should never have doubted them. He could have told them everything, and they would have taken their share of his burdens because that was what family did. They shared the hurt and pain, dividing it and making it bearable. They shared the joy and love, multiplying it into something more.