His brothers. His almost wife. He wasn’t sure he could live without them. But if he saved her, he knew he would have to. Others would try. She would never be safe. Bile rose in his throat. What the hell could he do? Even if Khalil was dead, he would leave followers behind.
He pushed his panic down. Nothing mattered if she died. Nothing at all.
Dane put a fist up, stopping completely. His body went perfectly still. He could have been one of the many marble statues that decorated the grounds. His face was as hard as granite as he pointed to one of the corners.
A body. One of the servants. Even from here, Tal could see the blood beginning to pool around the body. A faithful employee, brought down by a monster. Guilt was starting to eat away at his panic. How many would die because Khalil was broken?
“Silencer.” The word was a whisper from Dane’s mouth. “He has to have one or I would have heard that.”
Dane took a step forward, his big body making no sound. He stepped on the balls of his feet, moving with natural grace. Tal matched his guard, clinging to the walls. Every step brought him closer to Piper, closer to finding out if she was still alive.
“Fucking bitch!” Khalil’s scream echoed.
Dane put a hand out, stopping Tal from running forward. Tal calmed. His guard was right. Running screaming into the room wasn’t the best way to save Piper. He could hear Khalil moan a little.
“I’m sorry. Did my heel hurt your balls?” Piper’s voice was shaky, but there was a deep resolve in that Texas twang. “You try that again and I swear I’ll take them off.”
“Dumb bitch.” Khalil’s low growl echoed quietly through the room as Tal was allowed to move forward. It sounded like his cousin had managed to make his way to the bedroom. The outer sitting room was empty, but someone had put up a fight. A chair was knocked over and a table destroyed. Piper was fighting for her life, and she didn’t seem to be doing it with courtesy.
A little thrill of pride in his bride lit his system. She was still alive, and she was giving Khalil hell.
A hand on his back had him turning. He bit back a yell.
Rafe and Kade were there, each with a gun in his hand.
Dane put a finger to his lips. Silence. It was the key word of the day.
Tal wasn’t sure how his brothers had gotten here. More than likely they had followed Dane or been told by Landon where to go, but no matter how it had happened, Tal was deeply relieved his brothers were at his side. They fell in line behind him. He could feel their tension, but neither one would panic.
“It’s not going to work,” Piper said. Tal wished he could see her. “You can’t hurt him through me. He doesn’t really love me. All you’re going to do is kill me, get yourself thrown in jail, and he’ll have another bride by the end of the week. He has plenty of time to marry. He only needs a few weeks. He was shipping me out in the morning anyway.”
Tal hated the way her voice trembled. He wondered if she really believed it. God, she couldn’t die when she didn’t believe he loved her. She was his whole world.
There was a pause. Dane inched toward the door, leading them all. Tal felt brutally inadequate. He couldn’t just march in the room and start shooting. He had no idea where they were standing.
A horrible idea started to play at the back of his head. They needed an advantage. They needed the door open and a line of vision to the target. If Dane entered and Khalil had even a moment’s advantage, Piper could be killed. Tal couldn’t risk that. Khalil had nothing to lose. Tal had everything.
They needed a distraction.
Khalil’s voice floated through the heavy doors. Tal could see Dane listening, trying to figure out where the jackal stood. The problem was the fact that sound tended to echo through the large room, making it impossible to really know where the target was without seeing it.
“I think my cousin cares more about you than you realize,” Khalil snarled. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you. You must have seen it, too. Why else would you stay after I told you about all of your husbands’ women, you stubborn American? Why else would you show up to this dinner tonight after your terrible argument earlier? Yes, I know all about it. We nearly called off the attack, you know. I intended to wait for another occasion when you would be present. But you waltzed into the room as if you had the Sheikh wrapped around your finger. Stupid whore. Now come here, and perhaps I will allow you to live. If you refuse, I can shoot you where you stand. Either way, I will bring Talib to his knees. You are the key.”
A mountain of fury raged through Talib. And terror for Piper. That motherfuker. Khalil had just signed his own death warrant.
Dane’s head shook slightly, as though he was trying to clear it so he could try again to place them in the room, but Tal couldn’t be certain Khalil would speak first or shoot. Piper wasn’t cooperating. He didn’t have a minute to waste.
“Make certain he dies,” he whispered to Dane. Then he laid the gun down on the table and walked to the door with his hands up in the air.
Dane cursed softly, his eyes flaring, but Tal knew he was too far away for the guard to catch him without making a lot of noise.
“Khalil, I’m alone and I’m coming in.”
He could practically feel his brothers’ tension. He sent them one long last look. His brothers. His closest friends. He’d been blessed to spend this lifetime with Rafe and Kade. They would watch after Piper. They would take care of the country.
I love you, my brothers. If he died, he wanted such good lives for them. Children. Happiness. Love.
“I swear to all that is holy, I’m going to kill you, Talib. I’ve tried for years. I was the one who aided the rebels. I was the one who gave them the codes to get onto the drill site so they could take you.” His cousin’s voice floated from the room.
Tal’s gut churned. He’d known it deep down, but hearing the confession made it real. His own cousin had colluded to have him tortured. Yet, he had to stay unemotional. Piper’s life was on the line. He had to calmly walk in and give Khalil a better target than Piper.
Once Khalil had taken his shot, Dane would know where he was. Piper could get down. Dane would rush in and everything precious in Tal’s life would be saved.
He put a hand on the door, his heart racing. Would Khalil shoot right away or play with him for a while? He opened the door and immediately put his hands back in the air. “I love her. I’ve loved her for months. You were always smarter than I gave you credit for. I would trade myself for her. I’m the one you want. I’m the one who should pay.”
Piper stood to his right, her face pale and her eyes wide. There was a scratch on her cheek and her dress was torn. All her elegance was gone, but nothing could make her less beautiful. “Tal.”
“Don’t you dare move, Piper.” He spared her just a momentary glance. He needed to keep his eyes on Khalil.
A nasty grin split Khalil’s face. Now that he knew, Tal could see the toll the cancer had taken on his cousin. Or perhaps it was just a life spent doing evil to the people around him that had sunken in his eyes, made his skin sallow. He could never feel an ounce of sympathy for Khalil. Whatever horrible death found him, it would be too easy.
“I told you he would come for you, dear,” Khalil said. “And I will kill him, too, but not yet. He’s just in time to watch you die.”
Tal leapt just as Khalil lifted his gun. Time seemed to slow down, his vision centering on that gun. He had to save Piper, and there was only one way to do it. That bullet would have its victim. He simply had to make sure it wasn’t her.
The sound was muffled by the long silencer on the end of the gun, but that shot shuddered through the room and a terrible lash of fire went through Tal’s gut. It burned, cutting through his flesh.
Shot. He’d been shot.
He’d taken the bullet that would have likely ended Piper’s life. Even as he hit the floor, he could feel the bullet lodging in his gut, safely away from Piper. His body crumpled, pain in his every cell.
“Damn you, Talib,” Khalil cursed.
The door slammed open, kicked from the outside. In a second Dane was through, his big body moving faster than Tal could have imagined. The huge guard’s face was a blank as he raised his weapon, firing three times in rapid succession without a hint of hesitation.
Tal looked up in time to see his cousin’s body shudder with the impact of the bullets. Two in his chest and a neat shot that split his eyes. Khalil’s face went blank, his body slumping to the floor, dead.
Relief swam through Talib. Now he could die in peace.
“Tal!” Piper’s face came into view as she scrambled toward him, shoving the skirts of her destroyed gown aside. Tears coursed down her cheeks. She looked back up, seeming to find his brothers. “Someone call an ambulance. Kade, please tell them to hurry.”
Blood. There was so much blood. He could feel his hands getting slippery with it. Was it his? The world seemed to have a soft glow about it. Piper put a hand to his face. She really was an angel. And she should be protected. She should never be shot at. How could he have ever thought for a minute she was plain?
He lifted a hand to her face. “So beautiful.”
She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Please stay with me. Please. Don’t leave us. We need you.”
But she needed something so much better than him. He tried to tell her, but the words wouldn’t come. He just held on to the sight of her face now streaked with a small smear of blood. He could hear Dane barking orders through his radio.
“Forgive me,” he managed to force out.
“Of course.” Tears streaked down her face. “Always.”
Rafe got to one knee, his hand on Piper’s back, lending support. Kade was shouting for help. Everyone was moving around him, but all that mattered was Piper.
Darkness swallowed him whole, but not before one final thought consumed him.
I love you.
Three weeks later
Piper stared out at the night lights and tried to come up with a single enthusiastic thought. From the James family’s penthouse suite, the views of Dallas were beyond spectacular, but all she could think about was how peaceful the gardens had been in Bezakistan. At night she would wander on to the balcony and watch the palms sway. Eventually one of her husbands would find her, slip an arm around her waist, and tell her how beautiful she was.
She’d had three amazing men. And now she was alone.
No longer a concubine. Never a queen.
“Hey, Jessa and I were wondering if you were going to come in and have a glass of wine before dinner? Come on. Someone has to drink for me.” Hannah James stepped out onto the balcony, stroking her swollen belly. She started with a smile, but lost it when she looked at Piper. “Hon, you’re crying again. I wish you would tell me what happened. All I know is you came home and needed a place to stay, and suddenly Cole and Burke were deeply interested in where you were twenty-four seven.”
She sighed. Ever since her return, she’d been out of sorts. She felt homeless, aimless. The night she’d landed in Dallas, she’d wondered how she would get from the airport to a hotel. She’d been given a thousand US dollars and a credit card she vowed to never use, but as far as she’d known, no one had been advised that she was returning to Texas.
To her surprise, Burke and Cole Lennox had been waiting for her. Tal’s big brooding guard, the one named Dane, had handed her over to them, and she’d found herself on her way to the James penthouse. She no longer had an apartment, thanks to Rafe and Kade. She’d cried because she didn’t have a home. Oh, a real estate agent had contacted her the morning after her arrival in Dallas, a very nice woman who indicated that Piper could have any house of her choosing in the city, all paid for. She just had to select one. Piper hadn’t returned the woman’s calls. She wanted nothing more from the al Mussad brothers. So she’d been the James’s very quiet houseguest for three weeks. And she’d been unwilling to share even a moment of her heartbreak. But maybe it was time.
Tomorrow, Piper would thank Hannah and her husbands for their hospitality, find her belongings in storage, then rebuild her life and try to move on.
“You know Tal was shot, right?” Piper said.
Hannah nodded. “I read it in the paper. He was shot by his cousin. I heard that’s not the first time he tried to kill the sheikh.”
No. It wasn’t the first time Khalil had hurt the al Mussad family, and it wasn’t really the last. His legacy of pain seemed to be destined to last a lifetime. “He’s dead now, but Tal decided he didn’t want to marry me.”
“I don’t understand that.” Hannah put a hand on her arm. “I saw the pictures of the four of you together. You all looked so happy.”
Piper couldn’t stand to look at those pictures. “Tal is afraid that Khalil won’t be the last person to try to hurt him by hurting me.”
“He’s scared of losing you,” Hannah said, sympathy in her voice.