Piper noticed that Rafe wasn’t the only one who’d moved closer. The booth was elegant and fashioned into a semi-circle. Piper sat between them, and neither man seemed to have a need for personal space. They were beginning to crowd her. Kade’s long, muscular leg brushed her own, sending an odd wave of heat through her. The heat wave swelled when Rafe smiled.

“No, habibti. Continue,” he bid. “Why did you not go to the college of your choice?”

Rafe was so close she could feel the heat of his body, smell the musky cologne he wore. She stared at the strong column of his throat, the firm line of his jaw, the sensual shape of his lips. Piper tore her gaze away.

“Uhm, I couldn’t leave my sister. Once I found out the ranch was deep in debt, I had to sell it, along with our home. No one wanted to take Melinda in. She was fourteen and a little wild. You have to understand that the town I lived in was very small and conservative. A week after my father’s funeral, some of the women of the community stopped by to tell me they thought Mindy should be placed in the foster system.”

“You had no family left?” Rafe asked, his voice deep with sympathy.

She forced a smile, but knew it looked bitter. “Oh, we had family, just none interested in us. My mother’s parents were millionaires. When she didn’t marry the man they’d chosen, they cut her off. My grandparents wouldn’t even help pay for my dad’s funeral, so I had to find a way to bury him properly. They’ve never met me or Mindy. They said they had no use for mongrels.”

And she’d once again said way too much. Why did she just talk when she got nervous? It was like an illness. Once she started going, Piper Glen would tell anyone anything.

A strong hand covered hers, encasing her in warmth—and a heat that sizzled up her arm. She blinked up with a silent gasp to find Rafe regarding her. “It is good for you that they are not in your life.”

“Yeah.” Though a check would have been nice. “It’s good. And Mindy and I came through just fine. I worked at a clothing store during the day and took night school classes…and here we are. Mindy’s in her sophomore year of college. She settled down. We’re good.”

The waiter placed the iced tea in front of her, but suddenly she didn’t have a hand because Kade took hold of her other. Guys from Bezakistan were really touchy-feely. Piper went with the flow. She’d heard people from other cultures didn’t have the same boundaries as Americans.

Kade’s hand squeezed hers lightly. “You were left on your own at eighteen years old to raise your sister. That must have been very difficult.”

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“It wasn’t like I had to change her diapers or anything. Though getting her back and forth from color guard was a nightmare. Seriously, those color guard moms are like a cult. If I had to sell one more box of candy or make another homecoming corsage, I was going to blow my head off.”

“That would be a shame since it’s such a pretty head.” Slowly, Rafe released her hand and reached for one of the ridiculously well-presented oysters. “Here you are, Piper.”

They looked awesome. And the minute she put a hand on one of those things it would inevitably slide the wrong way, fall out of its nice little shell, slip across the floor, and some very important person would break a leg. “No, thank you.”

“You do not like them?” Again Rafe’s gorgeous face turned down, and she felt a bit like she’d insulted him. No, upset him. “Dex told us you liked seafood. It was why we chose this place. I’ll have the waiter take this away. We can find a restaurant that is more pleasing to you.”

They both started to stand, as though perfectly ready to leave.

“No! I love seafood. I adore oysters. I’m just really clumsy with them, and the waiter didn’t offer me like a bib or anything.” Because yeah, that would be classy in a five-star place like this.

Kade laughed, the masculine sound running a shiver up her spine. “You’re worried you will make a mess?”

“Worried? No. How about absolutely certain. There’s a reason they call me Pandora. I tend to make a mess wherever I go.” Her reputation hadn’t bought her a ton of friends at Black Oak. Women like Amanda seemed to genuinely hate her.

Rafe slid back into the booth and settled closer. He squeezed a lemon over the oyster and picked it up once more. “Pandora was the most beautiful woman in the world, you know. She was a gift from Zeus to Prometheus’s brother.”

Piper knew the story. “She was a trick. Zeus’s gifts always came with a price.”

His lips curved in a satisfied smile. “Oh, habibti, the discussions we could have. You are right, but I think this was one trick that worked for the world. Without Pandora, the gifted one, there would have been no women.”

Kade shuddered. “That would be truly horrible.”

“She opened a box she wasn’t supposed to and unleashed suffering on mankind,” Piper argued.

“You view this story in the wrong way. By unleashing suffering, she also unleashed joy. Men before Pandora did not know love or happiness or true comfort because they cannot exist without their opposites to define them. Pandora made mankind.” Rafe brushed a stray piece of hair from her face. “You are afraid of many things, habibti. Do not be afraid to try. Do not be afraid to fail. Be afraid to simply exist never knowing either the high of success or the low of failure.”

He held the oyster up, offering to control the shell.

His words, those beautiful words coming from deep inside him, coated her ears with that rich chocolate voice that filled her like a sensual spell. She shouldn’t take him up on the offer. He was practically her boss. No, more important even, since he could influence the presentation of all her research. But she was twenty-five years old and suddenly she realized just how much fear had ruled her world. Fear of losing her sister. Fear of failing. Fear of being hurt.

She looked him in the eyes, a spark flaring inside her as he placed the shell to her lips and tilted the oyster in. Soft, with a lovely acidic flavor from the lemon. The oyster slid down her throat, a decadent experience.

Rafe looked down at her, pleasure oozing from his pores. “It was good?”

She nodded, feeling a flush creep up her cheeks.

Kade’s hand slid around the back of the booth. “What else have you been afraid to try?”

The answer to that would probably have shocked them. Sex. She hadn’t tried sex, but now it crept across her mind, luring, tempting her. Rafe would treat her well. Kade must surely know how to woo a woman between the sheets. She suspected either of them would make her first experience wonderful. She shivered, picturing losing herself in a downy bed, wrapped in those strong, sun-kissed arms.

As her cheeks turned hotter, Piper reached for her iced tea and began gulping. With those thoughts, she feared she’d just opened her own Pandora’s box and that she might not be able to close the lid again.

Chapter Three

Unable to sleep, Talib al Mussad looked out his office window in the palace, onto his garden, still shrouded by night. He wondered what his brothers were doing. Bloody hell, who was he fooling? He wondered what Piper was doing. He was a thirty-four-year-old, powerful-as-sin multi-billionaire, and he was practically mooning about a little bit of fluff. Except that Piper wasn’t just a bit of fluff. The woman had proven herself to be blisteringly smart, and she shared many of his interests—the environment, history, economic concerns, bad B movies…but would any of that translate into being an effective queen? What if she buckled under the limelight, the expectations, the appearances? What had seemed so rational days ago now sounded mad.

Piper had no real polish and no concept of what it took to run a country. Being a queen was about more than having a brain, a heart, and a compassionate spirit. Though those qualities certainly helped, surviving being royal today had become largely about media relations, the ability to be graceful under pressure. By all accounts, Piper currently struggled to walk down a hall without tripping—and that was before donning designer heels and walking to an explosion of flashbulbs with all eyes on her, as everyone would expect of their wife.

If he and his brothers wed her, it was inevitable that Piper would struggle to fit in. The possibility troubled him, and Tal wondered if she would come to hate him for making her their captive bride. But her knowledge and passion for the Clean Energy Project would be a much-needed boon for Bezakistan’s future. Having a Western wife would help further separate his country from some of his neighbors and be an asset in global relations. So if Rafe and Kade approved, none of his concerns could derail his course. Her feelings could matter even less. She could be taught everything she needed to know. Bezakistan desperately needed a queen, and he couldn’t get Piper out of his head.

But even if she handled being a queen, how would she feel once she realized she could be a target of violence as well? Dark voices started to whisper in Talib’s head. He’d already cost one woman her life. How could he even think about risking another?

“Tal?”

He turned slightly and caught sight of his cousin, Alea. She was dressed informally, but the troubled frown on her youthful face matched her personality. No amount of trying to convince her to finish university had helped. During her first year, she’d been abducted and rescued from a nightmare of sexual slavery by two of Tal’s old friends, Cole and Burke Lennox. Since then, nothing Tal had done, no amount of therapy—psychological or retail—seemed to cure the darkness that had settled into her soul. Of course, he couldn’t exactly cast stones himself.

Six years ago, he’d been taken and tortured in an attempted political ploy. And he’d learned the hard way that a sheikh bled and prayed just like any other man. Yes, he’d been rescued, thanks to Cole Lennox, but nothing had been able to banish his darkness, either.

“You are not sleeping,” he chided.

“Neither are you.”

“Touché. What is it, dear?” he asked gently.

At least she didn’t flinch when he approached her now. It had taken six months before she stopped screaming every time any male came near.

“It’s Khalil. I don’t trust him.”

Alea no longer trusted anyone, but in this case, Tal agreed. “What has he done now?”

“I overheard him giving an interview about your lack of a bride

As if Khalil’s little mouse of a wife would be the strong pillar of a queen Bezakistan required. “I have six months to marry. I assure you I will do my duty to my country, then my part in this archaic ritual will be done. Bezakistan will be safe.”

“He’s also harping about and how you’re going to send the country into deep debt with this new green energy project.”

Little bastard. Tal sighed. “He’s trying to build his case with the people, as pitiful as it is. For now, Khalil has very few options. I will, of course, assure the country that the green project is the best course of action. After all, I have facts and figures on my side.”

And his potential bride would be instrumental in that. Piper had all sorts of interesting ideas on financing the project. She thought out of the box. Her creativity and drive to make things happen were two of her most appealing qualities.

If only she was a bit more attractive. But it was perhaps best that she was not. He had no intention of falling for his bride. She was a means to an end, and he would pay her well. Love would be dangerous, and Piper was too smart to expect romantic gestures. Theirs would be a marriage of minds. If she wanted anything more, she would have to look to his brothers.

“Who is this Piper woman?” Alea asked, peering at the file on his desk between them.

Damn. So much for keeping her a secret until he and his brothers reached a final conclusion. “She’s a woman I’m vetting as a potential wife.”

Alea flipped the folder open and scanned, her mouth turning down. “An American?”

“Yes. She is from Texas.”

Alea gave an amused huff of a laugh. “Good, cousin. Perhaps she will come with her six-shooters and teach you a thing or two.” She sobered. “Do you like her?”

“I like her very much actually.” He often found himself smiling at their conversations. Her soft, Southern voice alone was adorable.

But would that be enough upon which to base a marriage? Tal worried a bit that she hadn’t seen his face, nor he hers, really. All he had of her after a rushed investigation was a grainy driver’s license photo that was nearly five years old and a high school yearbook photo. Piper was young; he knew that. But after several months of conversation, Tal was convinced that she was mature beyond her years. Intellectual interests mattered to her. She had a solid moral character and a very big heart. She would make an excellent mother someday. All admirable qualities, of course, but nothing to truly tempt his heart and make her someone his enemies could use to weaken him.

That made her perfect.

“I’m glad, Tal. I hope Rafe and Kade don’t shoot you down. They were right about that ambassador’s daughter, though. She was completely selfish. She would have been a terrible mother. And the Swedish girl had the most obnoxious laugh. The press would have crucified her. The Miss America contestant was polished and would have played well with the press, but she lacked heart.” She shrugged. “You’ve had a tough bride hunt.”