She sat for a minute, his words sinking in. They wanted her to get on a plane and fly halfway across the world to meet with a billionaire sheikh in a fabulous palace? Her shoes were secondhand. She’d never been on a plane. She couldn’t just go to a different country. She needed gateway travel first. Like Manhattan. Nope. Too big. Chicago. Yes, that was more her speed. When she knew she could handle the Windy City, she would think about the Big Apple.
But she couldn’t go to Bezakistan. Could she?
“I have so much to do here. How about a video conference? I’ll be available whenever you want.”
“They prefer to do business with a hand they can shake. I’ve already discussed this with Gavin James. He has agreed to transfer you here for the time being.”
“Transferred? As in out of the country?” The idea was so foreign, she didn’t know how to make heads or tails of it. “For how long?”
He hesitated. “At least a month, but I suspect it may be longer.”
“But…I have an apartment here.”
“You will have a place to live in Bezakistan. The al Mussad family allowed me some input, and I promise your residence will be to your liking. It is very near mine, so we will have plenty of time to discuss the project. I have made all of the arrangements. You need only say yes.”
Her head was racing a million miles an hour. Tal made it sound so simple, but… “I have a lease. Then there’s my furniture and belongings. I can’t just leave it all.”
“For your trouble, the al Mussad family will purchase you a lovely residence upon your return. For now, your things will be put into storage.”
Piper gasped. “I can’t accept that. It’s too much.”
“Indeed not. If this project is the success they believe it will be, a new residence is merely a small token of their appreciation. So now that the trivialities are settled, I’m supposed to inform you that a team will come tomorrow morning to help you pack what you need and make any other preparations necessary so this transition is as easy as possible.”
“B-But…I don’t even have a passport.” Her mind raced with the enormity of the decision in front of her, though it sounded very much like there wasn’t a decision at all. The al Mussads had already decided, and Gavin James had concurred.
And that, it seemed, was that.
“Fear not. Everything will be taken care of. It will be for the best.” His voice softened a bit. “This is your project, Piper. Your voice gives it the best chance possible to succeed. I know this is moving quite quickly, but your presence here will be good for Black Oak and Bezakistan. The country needs you now.”
“Tal, you know everything about the project as well as I do.”
“Indeed not.” His voice turned gentle. “I know how unsettling change can be, Piper, but if you do not come, you will always wonder what would have happened. Please. Help us change.”
Tears pricked her eyes. Change. It terrified her, yet she needed it so badly. She’d come to Dallas for a job, hoping to shake her life up. For so long she’d done what was acceptable, expected. She’d been forced to give up much of her youth in order to ensure her sister’s safety and home life. She’d worked two jobs and gone to school, and all she had to show for it was an apartment she was sure had played host to several murders. She’d accomplished much…but lived little.
Bezakistan. It could be more than numbers on a page. What would they think of a little hick from small-town Texas?
Piper sat up. They would think she was smart and competent because she would show them. She was more than a bad pair of used shoes. She had built this project—and it could change the whole world if someone was willing to take a chance on it. If she expected Bezakistan to do that, she had to be willing to take a chance herself.
“All right.” There was a breathless joy in her voice. “I’ll come.”
“Excellent. I look forward to greeting you, Piper. This is good. You will see. Now get some sleep, little one. You have much preparation and a long journey ahead of you. Tell those al Mussad boys that if they do not care for you properly, they will answer to me.”
The connection broke, and Piper rolled her eyes. Yeah, she wouldn’t be seeing Rafe and Kade again. Even if she did, a pair of princes would never care what a lowly researcher or two thought.
She walked to the window, wonder pinging inside her. Wow. Very soon, she would be starting a new adventure, discovering a new place. Piper grinned, determined to conquer it.
Piper stared up at the jet and hoped she didn’t live up to her nickname. She could only imagine what her own unique brand of chaos could do at forty thousand feet.
“You are nervous, habibti?” Rafe put a hand on her elbow, helping her up the stairs.
“I’ve been known to cause electronics to crash.” She really hoped the enormous plane was immune to her superpowers of destruction. “I thought we were flying in a private jet. I was expecting something smaller.”
“This is private. It’s a Boeing 747-430, but you’ll find we have extensively redecorated.”
“This huge thing is going to take three people across the world? I don’t even want to think about the carbon footprint that’s leaving.” She was going to have to have a little talk with the sheikh when she met him. Politely, of course. But if he was about to become the world’s leading producer of green energy, he needed to start flying commercial.
“Don’t think about that. And do not judge before you’ve seen it. It is a very long flight. Fourteen hours. That is why we’re leaving so late. I want you to rest so you are ready to meet our brother.” Rafe gave her a reassuring smile with just the hint of even white teeth. Everything about the prince was polished, from his smile to his manners. He was smooth as silk, and Piper couldn’t help but wonder what his wife or girlfriend was like. Probably a model.
“What? Who is a model?” Rafe asked, stepping up to the top of the stairs.
She’d said that out loud? Piper grimaced. She’d spent way too much of the last couple of years alone in a library or going over data in lonely rooms. She was used to talking to herself. Come up with something clever to deflect the situation. Quick! “I was wondering if your girlfriend is a model.”
A brilliant smile broke over his face and he laughed. It was so nice to see the usually somber man chuckle that she forgave him for laughing at her. “I do not have a girlfriend, Piper. I date very little, in fact. The customs of my country are a bit unusual. I think many women would run if I told them what I would require from a serious relationship.”
“What do you mean?” She’d heard a whole lot about Bezakistani customs over the past two days, but nothing about dating or marriage. Piper found herself deeply interested.
He shook his head. “No, habibti. You will not tempt me into one of your long discussions. I promised my brother you would sleep.”
She frowned, but admitted privately that she was tired. The last several days had been amazing, filled with anticipation and a flurry of work. Two hours after she told Tal she didn’t have a passport, Rafe and Kade had delivered one to her. How was that possible, especially when she knew darn well that every government office had been closed at the time? She had no idea how and hoped it wasn’t forged. After assuring her the passport was indeed valid, the al Mussad brothers had taken one look at her ratty apartment and its street corner hopping with illegal activity, and insisted she come with them to their condo immediately.
They were really bossy and didn’t like it when she said no. Oh, they didn’t argue with her or get angry. They simply manipulated the situation until she’d found herself settling into the guest bedroom at their very posh condo with endless views of the city at two in morning, wondering when she’d lost control of the situation.
And their bossiness hadn’t stopped there. She wobbled on her new heels as she hunched through the doorway of the private jet. The three and a half inch Pradas with a square heel and a silver buckle were easily the sturdiest of her new shoes. But they were shoes she hadn’t bought herself. Rafe had insisted the shoes were necessary to her new position in Bezakistan. He’d told her he was simply making sure she followed his country’s customs.
She’d tried to call him on it. No country customarily wore Manolo Blahniks and Louboutin stilettos. She’d looked up the price of those shoes on the internet. If this was Bezakistani custom, then the whole country would be bankrupt very soon.
And still, she was wearing them. She didn’t want to offend her hosts…and she liked the appreciative gleam in their eyes when she donned the sexy shoes.
“Piper.” Kade’s warm voice washed over her as he stood. “Welcome. We’re so happy you’ve allowed us to escort you to our country.”
She wanted to frown at him, but he was so gorgeous and a bit earnest. She couldn’t bring herself to chastise him much. “Allowed? Somehow I don’t think you would have taken no for an answer.”
A little smile creased his perfect face. “Well, we are determined and persuasive. You know, the men in my country are legendary for stealing their brides. It is said in Bezakistan that a man who cannot steal his bride is a man who does not deserve a wife.”
She glanced back at Rafe. “Is this one of the customs you were referring to earlier?”
He nodded. “Indeed. But even as we steal our brides, we take great pride in bringing her pleasure, in protecting and cherishing that which we fought hard to take.”
He phrased it like he meant more than one groom for a bride. Okay, so English wasn’t his first language. But when he talked like that, she went all gooshy inside and lost the ability to breathe. What would it be like to be Rafe’s captive bride, bound to him by his will and the pleasure he gave her?
Piper shivered, then forced herself to stop staring. If they caught her, she’d only be embarrassed. But she’d never get used to being surrounded by such exotic, masculine beauty. It would be smarter to remember she had a job to do when she got to Bezakistan. Then it would just be her and Tal and a whole bunch of number crunching.
And her life would be exactly the way it was now. Same routine, just a different living space. She was a bit shocked to realize that she’d miss Rafe and Kade.
It wouldn’t matter. She needed to put them out of her head. When they got to Bezakistan, Rafe and Kade would go their way and she would go hers.
As she tottered deeper into the body of the plane, she focused again on her surroundings, still adjusting to her new contact lenses. And her jaw dropped.
The plane looked like something a movie star would own. She’d expected rows of narrow seats that had to be placed in an upright position for landing. This looked like a decadent living room. The walls were done in a sultry amber that caught the harsh overhead lights and softened them. There was a curved velvet couch in soft chocolate tones. When she sat, she’d bet it would be like sinking into a slice of heaven. A long table sat toward the front of the plane draped in white linens, all staged for the fine china she’d bet was securely stowed until after takeoff. Even an ornate chandelier hung overhead.
“Wow. This is not what I expected.”
“When we reach a good altitude, the staff will bring out our dinner.” Kade sat down, patting the seat next to him. “I’ve prepared a feast for you.”
Rafe snorted. She kind of loved it when he made the inelegant sound. It reminded her he wasn’t perfect.
She turned back to Kade. “You prepared the feast?”
He shrugged, a graceful movement of strong shoulders. “I told the chef what to cook.”
That was enough for her. Kade couldn’t know what the last couple of meals had meant to her. The difference between a homemade ham sandwich and a perfectly seared filet was infinite. “I appreciate it.”
His face lit up and he reached for her hand, pulling her down to sit with him. “It is my greatest pleasure. Now, tell me about your day. Did the movers finish?”
Rafe sat on her other side, both men far too close, but she felt so comfortable in the soft velvet, surrounded by their heat and the musky spice of their exotic scents. They seemed to like having her between them. Everywhere they went, they managed to maneuver her into the middle.
Piper smiled wryly at Kade’s question. The movers had been ruthlessly precise—and a little judgmental. “I don’t think they appreciated my design style. One of them asked if I wanted to throw it all away and just start over.”
Actually, they’d been completely horrified at her secondhand floral-print couch. She’d picked it up at a garage sale, telling herself that the extra stains were really just flourishes.
Kade froze, then jerked his phone from his pocket. “They were not paid to embarrass you.” He stood and walked toward the back of the plane, speaking in quick, angry-sounding Arabic.
Piper blinked. “What’s he doing?”