Indeed, something had been wrong with every candidate, and Rafe and Kade hadn’t been shy about saying so. They’d had valid points, but if they could not collectively settle on a single bride soon, their country would be in ruins. He prayed that his brothers could look past Piper’s sensible façade and see the wisdom of his unusual choice.

His computer trilled, a satellite call coming in. He steeled himself. He was about to find out if his idea of bringing a smart, economically intelligent Western woman into his family would fly. He hit the button to answer the call, not bothering to shoo Alea away. She wouldn’t spread gossip. In fact, Alea would be instrumental in preparing any prospective bride he brought to Bezakistan for the ceremonies.

His brothers’ faces came into view, and Tal skipped the greeting. “Did you talk to Dex? Did he give you the information you needed?”

He’d sent them to Dex, hoping that if the James brothers got behind the match, it would make securing Piper’s agreement simpler. Getting her out of the country would prove less difficult if her employer colluded with them. And Dex would be able to talk more personally about Piper, in a way Rafe and Kade would be sympathetic to. If they took the time to ask a trusted friend about her, perhaps they’d be curious enough to meet her with an open mind. Tal didn’t need Dex’s information. He knew everything of merit about Piper, right down to how often she bought groceries. Which wasn’t often enough. Piper was hurting for money, and Tal consoled himself with the fact that, if his brothers approved of her and they changed her life, at least he could remove all financial burden from her.

Rafe nodded. “He did. In fact, we met her for ourselves, and Dex confirmed everything we observed. We took her to lunch and discovered that she is a very kind and intelligent woman. When can we move forward?”

Tal sat back in his seat. “You don’t intend to fight me on this?”

Kade leaned into the picture with a grin, his hand sporting a thumbs up gesture. “Not at all. Let’s move. The sooner the better. I want to get to the concubine portion of this wedding.”

Tal felt a frown slide across his face. The “concubine” portion of the wedding ritual was a very vulgar way of describing the traditional handfasting period. He and his brothers would pledge their willingness to wed at a banquet. Then, to determine their compatibility, they would all share a life—and a bed—for thirty days. During that time, none of the grooms could end the arrangement, but the bride could if she was displeased with them in any way, including sexually. If she didn’t cry off during that thirty days, they would be, by Bezakistani law, married.

But Piper Glen wouldn’t sever the handfasting because she was a reasonable woman. She would understand a sound bargain when it was struck. And he couldn’t afford to let her walk away with Khalil lurking in the shadows, waging a PR campaign battle for Bezakistani hearts and minds.

“You approve of her, then?” Tal had thought he would have to fight them. On Rafe, he’d intended to use logic. Piper was a professional economist whose life work happened to be in the energy field. Bezakistan’s whole economy was based off energy. She made sense, and his middle brother was too smart not to see that.

And then there was Kade. He’d had a plan for his youngest brother, who seemed to think they would marry a supermodel with the sex drive of a porn star. He’d intended to trade fists with Kade until he finally gave in. But if his youngest brother already approved without the fisticuffs, Piper must be at least marginally attractive.

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“We do. Obviously we have not discussed marriage with her. She seems to think you’re some lowly researcher.” Rafe’s eyes narrowed. “I’m actually somewhat worried that if we tell her what we truly seek, she will turn us down. She has no interest in fame. Nor, I suspect, will wealth sway her.”

That was Tal’s assessment as well. “But she’s quite passionate about this project. I believe the better proposal is to promise her that she can help head the project as our wife.”

“Perhaps. She would at least listen, then.” Rafe’s mouth turned down. “But I think she is more romantic than you believe. Tal, I’m quite convinced that she is a virgin.”

He heard Alea shuffle out. Damn. He wished she hadn’t overheard his brother debating Piper’s purity. It, no doubt, upset her. But Bezakistan was Alea’s country, too, and she would suffer along with everyone else if it fell to Khalil’s incompetent hands.

“So she’s been smart enough to exercise her good character and save herself for a long-term relationship. I see no problem with that.”

Rafe hesitated, then shook his head. “Under all that intelligence, she is still a woman with a woman’s sensibilities. She might be hoping for the fairy tale.”

Kade’s face came back into view. “She’ll agree to this because we will bring her pleasure. A whole lot of it. She is innocent, and we can show her a whole new world, both in bed and out of it. Piper has never even been out of her country. Between all the new sights and exotic locations, along with the ecstasy we’ll show her, she will be ours. So, when can we get this sucker done?”

Rafe’s eyes rolled. “He’s horny.”

“You’re truly sexually interested in Piper?” Talib asked.

She seemed sweet, and he deeply enjoyed their talks. Since he rarely found an intellectual equal as enthusiastic about the subjects he adored, he was looking forward to bringing her to the palace so they could spend hours talking about economics and politics. But he was a bit worried about the bedroom portion of their marriage. Had he missed something? The photos he had of her showed a somewhat mousy woman with a decently attractive face, but nothing to truly stir a man’s blood. Over the past two months, he’d come to feel an affection for her on an intellectual level, which had become a warm sort of friendship. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of Kade, the playboy, treating her like one of his brainless fuck bunnies.

“Absolutely, I’m interested. She’s got a geek chic thing that’s hot. Her breasts alone are worth salivating over. And that mouth…” Tal raised a disapproving brow at his younger brother, and Kade cleared his throat, then continued. “But I agree with Rafe. We have to play this fairly cool with Piper. If you put this all out in a cold, factual way, like a business deal, she’ll run.”

Piper wasn’t like the other women he’d semi-courted. They’d been interested in power and privilege. They’d been worldly women. Piper wasn’t. She could very well be scared off by the enormity of taking her place at his side to run a country. And by the fact that she would be marrying three virtual strangers.

He couldn’t let that stop him. His country was at stake. Time was running out. If he didn’t handfast soon, Khalil could challenge him in court and argue that there wouldn’t be enough time for their potential wife to know her mind. Typically Bezakistani princes knew their prospective bride for at least a year before deciding to enter into a union. He could barely offer her the obligatory month of handfasting. Nor did he have time to woo her. He needed her in bed with all three of them and bound to them as soon as possible. Then he could woo her. Well, his brothers could.

And if he managed to impregnate her, all the better for him and his country.

His stomach turned a bit. When had he become such a cold fucker? He knew the answer to that. He knew the timing down to the minute, when those rebels had killed his guards, taken him into custody, and proceeded to spend days torturing him until his soul fled. Only duty to his country and family remained.

Piper Glen was just another duty he had to perform.

“We’re going to have to be sneaky bastards if this is going to work,” Kade added. “But that’s all right. Bezakistani men have been capturing their concubines for generations. It should be in our DNA.”

Indeed. Tal sighed. “If we’re all in agreement, then I will set the plan in motion. You two make sure she is prepared to depart when I advise you to move in. One way or another, we’re binding her to us next week.”

He ended the call and shut off the webcam, but didn’t close the computer. He intended to enjoy one last conversation with Piper before she discovered what a bastard he was.

Piper happily ate her leftovers while she looked over her latest financial projections for the Clean Energy Project. She’d felt a little dumb asking for a doggie bag at such a swanky restaurant, but she likely wouldn’t see Rafe or Kade again, and it was way better to look silly than to be hungry. She would know. She’d been both, and she came down firmly on the side of food in her belly.

She hummed a little as she stared at the endless list of numbers that added up to one happy fact: She could make her green energy theories work if she could find a company big enough and a country willing to try it.

Her computer chimed, letting her know an internet call was coming in. She sat back, surprised. Tal. Most often, he sent instant messages. They’d only spoken over the phone a few times. This must be important. She hit the button to open her line.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Piper. How are you this evening? It is night in Dallas, no?”

She loved his voice. Deep and musical. “It’s just past eight. Isn’t it the middle of the night in Bezakistan?”

“Yes. I don’t sleep much. I like how quiet it is this time of the morning. It’s still dark outside. It feels a bit like I am the only person in the world. Except for you.”

She laughed a little. “Well, I assure you I’m not the only person here. I can hear Mrs. Lindman next door yelling at her husband about the laundry. Oh, and someone is having a party above me. The cops will be here soon. It’s just another Friday night at the Holloway Manor Apartments.”

“The police will come?” He sounded horrified.

“Yeah, they’re kind of regulars around here. It gets a little wild sometimes. The good news is, it’s close to the train stop.”

“You had to take the train home from work? You did not have an escort?”

She laughed. Things must be very different there. “I take the train home every day, Tal.”

“I was given to understand you went to lunch with the al Mussad brothers so they could listen to your proposal.”

She sighed, her heart fluttering a bit. They’d discussed the proposal a bit, but mostly she’d let them feed her and stared while they talked about how beautiful their country was. Piper winced. Tal was probably calling to tell her how little she’d done to help their cause. “Yes. Well, I don’t know how interested they were in numbers.”

“They took you to lunch but did not escort you home? And you live in a dangerous neighborhood?” His growl sounded more than a bit frustrated. “I apologize for my countrymen, Piper. I assumed they were gentlemen.”

“Oh, they were wonderful. Truly.” She’d had the best time with them. She just hadn’t exactly been as focused on business as she should have been. “I had to go back to work. I had so much to do.”

Tal was silent for a moment, and she could almost feel his displeasure over the line. She wondered what the cultural standards were for business lunches in Bezakistan. Perhaps they were more stringent than here? Either way, Rafe and Kade were royal. She was surprised they’d made time to hear about her project at all. She’d never expected them to escort her anywhere.

“Really. They were very polite,” she assured.

“I would hope so.” He took a long breath. “I have already heard that they were very impressed with you, Piper. They’re interested in taking the project to the government board.”

“Oh, wow. Really? That’s great news!”

The government board was a select group of Bezakistani intellectuals and politicians, headed by Sheikh al Mussad himself. The man was known to be very intelligent and very private. She’d read his numerous papers on the business of energy. The man had an absolutely fascinating mind. And she’d had lunch with his brothers. She was far from her little hick town now.

The good news was, all she had to do was put together the numbers in a logical presentation. Tal would present it to the sheikh. There were risks involved, yes, but if al Mussad and the rest of the government board were listening, this should be a slam dunk.

“So what do you need from me? I just finished my latest round of projections, and they’re really good. I’ll e-mail them to you in a minute. Anything else I can send?”

There was a slight pause before Tal’s voice came across the line, low and more intimate than before. “You. Come here and bring those projections to me.”

Was he crazy? “Uhm, I think you need a geography refresher, Tal. Dallas. Bezakistan. It’s thousands of miles apart, not a walk down the hall.”

He chuckled a little. “Piper, come to my country. I’ve been asked to extend an official invitation. The al Mussad family would be thrilled if you would stay at the palace and grace us with your intelligent counsel.”