Their Virgin Princess
Masters of Menage, Book 4
About the book
A broken woman…
Alea Binte al Mussad, Princess of Bezakistan, was abducted from her university, mentally tortured and forced to witness the worst of humanity. She was rescued, but not before fear and her shattered soul made her retreat into herself. Two years later, she’s living behind the palace’s locked gates and the walls she’s built surrounding her heart. Alea is comforted by the joyous family around her, but inside feels so alone—except when she’s with the steady trio of guards who relentlessly keep her safe. And tempt her with a passion she isn’t sure she’ll survive.
Three stalwart warriors determined to claim her…
Dane Mitchell, Cooper Evans, and Landon Nix wanted Alea from the moment they laid eyes on her. Held back by their duty and her fragility, they worship the Princess from afar, determined to claim her if the chance ever comes. When Alea learns that someone may still be hunting her, she plots to escape both danger and her guards’ simmering, overwhelming passion. Dane, Coop, and Lan aren’t about to let her go. When they find themselves in paradise and all boundaries are stripped away, the ice begins to melt around Alea’s heart. But when reality comes crashing in, will she learn to accept love before a killer strikes again?
(The following excerpt is for adults only!)
Alea escaped from the glittering lights and laughter of the ballroom. Everything about the evening was lovely and elegant, and she couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t her dress or the amount of food she’d consumed, but the press of bodies, the expectation, the terror she could never quite shake…
The warm night air caressed her skin as she closed the balcony doors behind her. The terrace overlooked the garden at the center of the palace. Normally, the doors would be open and a bar would have been placed out here, but Dane Mitchell, one of Tal’s bodyguards, had decreed it unsafe for the time being. After an episode that had nearly ended in the murder of her cousins’ wife a few months ago, Dane had been on a security tear. Everyone had tried to explain to him that the perpetrator, Khalil, was dead and wasn’t likely to rise as a zombie to eat Piper’s brains. Alea felt a smile cross her face. She’d been the one to use that argument. But Talib, Rafiq, and Kadir, ever vigilant, had signed on to the new “keep the women safe” plan.
To Alea, it felt more like the “never let the women have any fun” plan. Or a minute alone.
“Hello, Landon.” She didn’t have to turn around to know he stood there, strong and stalwart. She’d heard the briefest squeak of the door opening…then nothing. Landon Nix never made a sound, but sometimes little things like squeaky hinges defeated his silent grace.
“You don’t have to talk. I just can’t leave you alone. Pretend I’m not here.”
Impossible. She turned and stared at the quietest of her three watchmen, all of whom had been hired months after her rescue. By then, she’d recovered, and Alea was beyond glad they had never seen her so weak. They had been apprised of her abduction and given sketchy details, but by the time Tal had hired them, thanks to Cole Lennox’s advice, at least her body had recovered. The three guards kept her safe day and night. And had quickly become the bane of her existence.
As well as the center of her every fantasy.
Landon hovered in the corner, shadows clinging to him, making him look even more dangerous than normal. He was six foot three and leaner than the two Mack Trucks he called friends, but there was no way he was any less lethal. Her brain told her that, but something about him put her at ease in a way she wasn’t with the other two. Dane was so dark and dominant. Coop was a relentless flirt—both things that scared the crap out of her. But Landon, with his golden hair and face, with his expression so often as placid as an untouched lake, was a calming presence. He never pushed her too hard to talk or demanded her smiles. When he guarded her, he simply followed and made sure she got where she needed to go. Coop and Dane either pretended to flirt with her or downright insisted that she follow their direction, but Landon just quietly did his job.
He was a little like the large, gorgeous Labrador retriever she’d had as a child. Except she had never dreamed about sharing Duke’s wet kisses, much less taking on his friends.
She had to stop thinking that way, but Landon made that difficult when he stood so near and the night fell softly all around her. She’d snuck away to escape the crowd, but she was surprised at just how much she liked being out here alone with Lan. “Did Tal make you wear that tux?”
Even in the deep gloom, she saw his telling flush. Maybe Lan’s down-to-earth nature was what made her feel so comfortable. He was obviously uneasy with the wealth around him. Ever since she’d returned to Bezakistan and the palace, she had felt the same way. She’d seen real suffering in the real world, and sometimes this opulence chafed.
“I don’t know why I have to wear this monkey suit. It was made for me, but it still feels too tight,” Lan said with a bit of a Texas drawl.
She couldn’t help herself. He was far too endearing to ignore. Months and months of trying had just proven she wasn’t capable.
Alea closed the space between them. “The suit fits you perfectly, but the tie is too tight.”
He looked up, his eyes flaring briefly as she neared. “I’m not much good with clothes like this. I have to admit, I liked the uniforms in the Army better. Uncle Sam’s dress code made it easy.”
And she’d bet he’d looked good. Of course, he looked devastatingly handsome in a tux, too.
Dangerous train of thought. Stop now. After hesitating for an instant, she forced herself to buck up and do what she’d crossed the room to accomplish.
“May I?” she asked before reaching for his tie.
Lan nodded, and she quickly undid the black scrap of silk. The Armani tuxedo had been perfectly fitted, but she knew very well that his normal wardrobe choices ran more toward sweat pants and loose fitting T-shirts. It was a crime against women everywhere that the man didn’t just walk around shirtless.
Don’t go there, Alea. He can’t handle your damage. None of them can. And you can’t handle them.
Her inner voice was way more practical than she was, but it was also right. Landon Nix was a gorgeous god of a man who wouldn’t look at her twice if her cousins weren’t paying him to. None of them would. She’d seen a picture of Dane’s ex-wife once. She’d been blonde and stacked and gorgeous. She wasn’t sure why they’d divorced, but it couldn’t have had anything to do with a lack of desire. Any heterosexual man would want that woman.
No one would want Alea if she wasn’t tied to the fabulously wealthy, royal al Mussads.
Landon didn’t move a muscle as she knotted his tie again, this time much looser. No wonder he’d been uncomfortable. He’d practically strangled himself. She smoothed down the lapels of his jacket, feeling his hard chest beneath. He was so close and he smelled incredible. The heat of his skin penetrated her senses. His gorgeously sculpted lips lingered just above her own. His eyes, which had always seemed so cold, were now a warm blue and focused intently on her. A flash of heat passed through her body.
If he knew what she was thinking, she would undoubtedly make a complete fool of herself because he was her cousins’ employee.
Quickly, Alea retreated, needing some distance between them. “There you go. That should be more comfortable.”
He nodded, clearing his throat. “Yeah. Thanks. It is. You’re really good with that. I mean with men’s clothes.” His eyes closed briefly. “I didn’t mean it like that. And you were putting them on, not taking them off. God, I’m just going to shut up now.”
This was another reason she felt more comfortable with Lan. Looks aside, he wasn’t anywhere near perfect. In fact, he could be a charmingly inept conversationalist. “It’s okay. I only know how to tie a bowtie because Kadir was so bad at it. When Rafiq would try to help him, they would get into fistfights. When I was a girl, they broke my Barbie house. To avoid future disasters, I took care of their ties from that point on.”
Right up until they had married Piper, and she’d taken over the duty. Tal, Rafe, and Kade were now happy men.
Alea was still alone. And standing too near Landon wasn’t helping. She crossed back to the stone railing and tried to find some peace. This was one of the few places she felt even a vague connection to her life before her abduction. When it was very quiet, she could almost hear her younger self running among the trees, her head thrown back in laughter.
Why had she ever left this place? Why did she feel like she didn’t belong here anymore?
Why could she not focus on anything but Landon right now? “Is there any way you could wait inside, even for five minutes?”
No matter how quiet he was, she knew he was there. He was staring, possibly even thinking how boring it was to watch the little downtrodden royal brat.
She turned, frowning his way. “I’m not going to climb down the trellis and run away.”
He shrugged. “You might.”
“Landon, don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible in this dress. You can stand in front of the door,” she tried to bargain with him.
He didn’t move, simply stood rooted in place, a mass of muscle in a thousand dollar tux. “No.”
“What do you honestly think is going to happen? It’s not as if there are assassins hanging out in the palm trees, waiting for that one moment you turn your back.”
“You never know. Assassins could lay in wait anywhere. I haven’t checked the palm trees, but that wouldn’t shock me.”
“So you’re just going to follow me everywhere?”
“What happens if you have to go to the bathroom?”
He didn’t even crack a smile. “I hold it or you get real well acquainted with the men’s urinal.”
“I’m not going into the men’s room.”
“Then it’s good I didn’t drink a bunch earlier.”
“This is ridiculous.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to talk to Tal.”
He sent her a single, firm nod. “I’ll take you to him.”
Because Landon knew damn well that Tal would agree with him. “I scarcely think someone has come to Her Highness’s coronation ball to try to kill me. If they’ve come to hurt someone, it’s most likely the others in the royal family. Really, Landon, study a little more history.”
He stiffened, his whole body tightening. His eyes turned cold again. A sickening feeling slid through her, and she knew that she’d just hurt him. “I wasn’t very good at history, Princess. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m just a dumb grunt following the orders of my CO. If you have a problem with it, you should take it up with Dane.”
Alea winced and looked away. What had she done? An apology sat right on the tip of her tongue. Why? This wasn’t her fault….but it wasn’t his either. He was just doing his job. But damn it, she was being followed twenty-four seven. The only place she was allowed to be alone was her bedroom, and even then, the minute she opened the door, one of them waited outside. She felt like a prisoner in so many ways, and it was wearing her out.
As he stared a hole right through her, Alea felt her resolve weakening. She yearned for those blue eyes to glow with the warmth they had just minutes ago.
The door to the balcony opened, and a lean figure slid through. This man didn’t have a problem with his tuxedo. She was fairly certain that Oliver Thurston-Hughes had been born in a tux. The very noble Brit wouldn’t have done anything so common as to have been born naked.
“Alea? Darling, are you out here?” He nearly bumped into Landon. “Bloody hell, who are you?”
“I’m over here, Oliver,” she said before Landon could reply.
A broad smile came over the handsome Brit’s face, and he stepped around the guard, utterly ignoring him, then walked toward her. “I’ve been looking all over for you. That receiving line was complete hell. I’ve never seen so many people.”
Oliver had been at the last British royal wedding, so Alea doubted that, but he was always polite. Oliver would never say a social function wasn’t the greatest event he’d ever attended. “I was happy when it was over. My face hurts from smiling. Where’s Yasmin?”
He shrugged an elegant shoulder. “Last I saw, she was dancing with the Prime Minister. She’s been looking for you, though. Alea, it’s so good to see you.” He smiled warmly. “You’ve been a virtual stranger ever since…”
His words trailed off, and she could see the way he paled when he realized what he’d nearly said.
“Since she was taken hostage and forced to endure something most people wouldn’t survive?” A sarcastic voice with a low Texas accent cut through the awkward silence. Now Landon decided to get chatty? “I’m sure she’s sorry she didn’t just pause her recovery to call you up the second she got home.”
“No one asked you,” Oliver shot back. “Why is he here? You’re not seeing him, I hope?”
She saw far too much of Lan. And far too little. “He’s my bodyguard. I’m sorry I haven’t called.”
“You don’t owe him an apology,” Landon ground out.
“Stay out of this.” She couldn’t handle him getting involved in her personal life. She could barely handle him being her constant watchman. She turned back to Oliver. “I am sorry. It’s been hard to get back into the real world.”
Oliver was everything that Landon wasn’t. He was perfectly charming as he stared at her with a pitying little frown. “Of course it is, darling. I apologize. It’s terribly selfish of me. It’s simply that Yasmin and I have missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
They hadn’t missed her enough to put off their wedding while she’d been kidnapped. She guessed she couldn’t really blame them. She’d been gone for months. They’d assumed she’d been killed, her body buried somewhere in an unmarked grave. Yasmin hadn’t had any idea that she’d been found until months after the fact. Yas still didn’t know about all the rehab she’d had to go through. The last thing Alea wanted the world to know about was her drug addiction.
She wondered if Landon knew, if one of the reasons he, Dane, and Coop were so zealous in their guardianship was that they had been tasked to ensure she didn’t hit the streets looking for a fix.
“I think you should come home with us in a few weeks. We’re going to spend the winter at the country estate. I know my brothers would love to see you again.”
Oliver’s brothers were outrageous flirts. She didn’t need that. But it did point out a problem. Lately, she been thinking that she couldn’t stay in Bezakistan, aimless and lonely, for the rest of her life. She hadn’t really left the palace. Instead, she’d been hiding here, taking classes online. Sure, she could get a degree that way, but what would happen when she graduated?
The door opened again. Yasmin glided through the door. She looked gorgeous in her designer gown, her pale hair in a perfect upswept do. “Oliver? Oh, you’re out here with Alea. I thought you had gone back to your room, dear.”
Yasmin utterly ignored Landon, moving around him like he was just a piece of furniture. Her perfectly manicured hands reached for Alea’s.
Yasmin had been her childhood playmate. Their fathers had both been connected to the Bezakistani royal line maternally. Alea’s parents had drowned when she was very young, so her aunt and uncle, the sheikh and shaykhah, had taken her in, given her the al Mussad name, and raised her at the palace. But Alea had always looked forward to the weeks when Yasmin would visit. It had been the only time she’d had another female playmate.
Yasmin hugged her briefly. “Alea, it’s so nice to see you. I tried calling for ages, but no one would put me through. I rather thought you were ducking my calls, dear.”
Alea groaned inwardly. Yasmin seemed to know how to make her feel guilty, even when she didn’t mean to. “Sorry. I really haven’t felt up to socializing.”
“Talib has allowed you to hide away for far too long. You’re never going to feel better if you don’t get back to normal.” Yasmin frowned, her perfect face forming a mask of disapproval.
“Yas, let it be. We talked about this.” Oliver reached for his wife’s hand.
“I know, but seeing her has made me more certain than ever that she can’t recover by languishing here. She hasn’t truly smiled once. And what is Tal thinking putting those guards on her?”
“They’re here for my protection.” Despite her own problems with the guys, she felt an urge to defend them.
“You don’t need a constant shadow reminding you of danger, Lea. Come to England with us. You can enroll at university and take up your schooling again. Or you can work with me at the foundation.”
Ah, yes. Reaching Across Cultures. One of the surprises she’d been faced with when she’d been rescued was the fact that Yasmin had taken over the European offices of this al Mussad charity, a job that had been earmarked for Alea.
But it wasn’t like she could do the job now, endure all those glittering fundraisers and public speaking engagements. How would that work when she could barely manage to leave the palace?
“I just mentioned that myself,” Oliver said with a long sigh. “I thought we were going to do this with a little subtlety. I’m sorry about the hard sell, love. I’m afraid Yasmin has done nothing but plot and plan to take you back with us.”
Yasmin pouted prettily. “I miss my cousin. I was beside myself when we thought you were gone forever. It was like losing my sister.” She sniffled a little, a tear sliding down her face. “Lea, I miss you. Please think about coming back with us. I want you to be there when—”
“You weren’t going to tell her that, either,” Oliver muttered under his breath.
“I can’t keep it from her. She’s my closest relative. Oh, Lea. You weren’t there when we got married. You have to be there when I have my first baby. Please say you’ll come.”
Yasmin was pregnant? Silly, superficial Yasmin was married and now having a child. A little kernel of jealousy weighed in her gut. Yas had been the prankster when they were young. She’d nearly dropped out of school. She hadn’t even thought of going to university. So how was Yas the one with a husband and a career that should have been Alea’s, and a baby on the way?
She struggled to find something to say. She looked down at Yasmin, who was perfectly slender in her Marchesa gown. “You don’t look pregnant.”
Yasmin’s smile lit up the night. She ran a hand down her flat stomach. “I assure you I am. I’m almost three months along. You have to come. It will be just like our childhoods when we spent summers together. And you can start over in England. The palace is too insular. You need to be out in the world.”
Yasmin waxed on and on about all the things they could do in London. They would shop, go to the theater, hang out with Oliver’s brothers. One was a very famous football player, and Yas was convinced that Alea should go on a date with him.
The idea curdled her stomach. Alea backed up, her hip bumping the ledge of the balcony. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Landon surge toward her. She quickly edged away from the ledge lest Lan decide she meant to escape Yas by jumping to her death or something equally dramatic. He would think of it as his sacred duty to either save her or go down with her, no doubt.
“You’re going to love Callum. He’s so handsome, and he’s just a bit younger than my Oliver.”
“Yas, stop. I don’t know that I want to leave the palace right now.”
When her cousin pursed her lips, preparing an argument, Alea knew she had to come up with some excuse or Yasmin really would set her up with an athlete. The paparazzi already swarmed her on those few occasions she ventured out in public. They called her the “Prisoner Princess.” Tal had managed to keep the gritty details of her kidnapping out of the press. The world believed she’d simply been held in a gilded cage until the royal family had coughed up enough cash. If they knew the truth, they would call her the “Prostitute Princess.” The very idea made her stomach turn.
Oliver put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Back off a bit, Yas. You’ve just thrown a lot of information her way. Give her some time to think.”
“You’re not happy for me, are you?” Yasmin stared at her, her doe eyes more than a little sad.
“O-of course I am,” Alea stuttered. “I’m just surprised.”
And a bit annoyed, which made her feel guilty. Yas merely meant to help. But she just wanted peace. Why had she and Oliver sought her on this balcony? Alea had enjoyed the quiet of her and Lan sharing the space alone.
“But I thought you would be happy for me, too. I’m sorry, Lea. Oliver was right. You’re still in a dark place, and I didn’t realize… This is all my fault.”
She turned and fled the balcony, her dress floating around her ankles. Alea winced. Oliver cursed under his breath. Yas had always been on the dramatic side. Pregnancy hormones probably weren’t helping. Of course she wanted her cousin to be happy…but it was hard to feel joy about anything when she felt stuck in a rut defined by numbness, terror, and a slow-burning rage.
Oliver dragged a hand over his face. “Forgive her. She’s missed you far more than she’s let on. I swear she changed the day you went missing. She was quite manic for a while. I was worried we would have to sedate her those first few days. I think the wedding was the only thing that held her together. And now the baby is coming.”
He said the last in a sort of resolved tone that led Alea to wonder if Oliver wasn’t the one who was unhappy about the baby. “Are you two in trouble?”
Truthfully, Alea was surprised the couple had made it this far. She’d had a bet with Kade that Oliver would bow out of the wedding. Yasmin, a drama diva, didn’t seem like the right fit for the level-headed, stiff-upper-lip Brit.
“It isn’t the first time she’s been pregnant,” Oliver admitted, his voice going low. “I’ll be honest, Lea. I actually had plans to call off the wedding, but then you went missing, and Yasmin was expecting. I felt I had to honor the commitment. In some ways, I felt I had to honor it in order to honor you.”
“Alea, you know I’ve always had a thing for you, but you went off to New York…and I kind of fell in with Yas. We do all right, the two of us. We muddle through. She had a miscarriage shortly after our honeymoon. She’s been obsessive about getting pregnant again ever since. Please take a little time and think about our offer. It really would do you good to get away from all this pomp and circumstance. I’ve heard a rumor that Yasmin isn’t the only one who’s pregnant. If it’s true, the spotlights will only shine brighter on the palace.”
Piper. She wasn’t showing yet, either, but she wouldn’t be able to keep her condition from the press for long. There didn’t seem to be a minute of the day that one of Piper’s husbands didn’t have a hand on her belly as though they could already feel the child growing there.
Alea wouldn’t have children. She would grow old right here and be the pathetic old maid. No one could possibly want a woman as broken as she was. No one knew just how shattered she was on the inside. What man could handle that, even if she could bring herself to get close to him?
“Yes. They’re going to make the announcement in a few weeks, when Piper is past the first trimester.”
“It will be a madhouse, then. You must know that. The rags in England don’t really give a damn about me unless I’m hanging out with Wills. It’s Callum they’re interested in, and I promise, you don’t have to date him. Though I’ll warn you, he’ll make you crazy about it, and when you relent, I’ll likely be a bit jealous. Come on, Lea. I can protect you in England.”
“I’ll think about it.”
But there was no way she belonged there. If she went, Yas and Oliver would mean well, but with a baby coming, as well as ties to both celebrities and royals, Alea knew she’d find no peace. She was starting to think, however, that they were right about getting out of Bezakistan. Maybe a change of scenery would be good. Maybe she needed to be alone for a while, get her head together, weigh what she wanted in life against how brave she felt in pursuing it.
A long, painful moment passed. “I suppose I should go and check on Yasmin.”
With a nod, Oliver turned and walked out. Finally, Alea could breathe again.
“Did you love him?”
She turned, startled. Lan stood, his stern face expressionless. He could be so quiet, she’d almost forgotten he was there. And he rarely asked questions. In fact, Landon could follow her for hours and never say a word.
“No. God, no. I was so young. I didn’t love anyone except Robert Pattinson,” she answered without thinking.
Oliver had been a pleasant companion, and they had gone on a few dates, but she hadn’t even kissed him. She’d been happy when she’d discovered that he and Yasmin were dating. She’d hoped Oliver would be a calming influence on her headstrong cousin.
“I’m glad. Because he’s an asshole.” One minute Landon was a shadow clinging to the wall, and the next he was in her space, a mountain of lean muscle.
“He is not! What makes you say that?”
Lan gave her an incredulous stare, as if wondering how she could miss the big picture. “He put the moves on you.”
“He did no such thing. He’s never once tried.”
“Persuading you to come home with him and saying he’d be jealous if you dated the soccer player…yeah, his approach is mostly subtle, but he’s still hitting on you. Even if he would never do anything about it, he’s married, and that makes him a douche nozzle.”
“He’s just trying to help…in his way. His relationship with Yasmin is a little complicated.”
They’d gotten married far too young, and she wasn’t sure Yas was really ready to be a mom. “She’s his wife. He should never talk to another woman that way. If I was married, I wouldn’t.” He stared down at her, his expression soft and searching. She’d never seen him look so gentle. “Don’t let them sway you from getting what you need to heal. They’re trying to use you to buffer their drama. You don’t need that, darlin’.”
He hovered so close that she felt the heat radiating off his body. All it would take to press her lips to his was one simple lift to her toes. Then she’d be brushing her mouth against his and know what it felt like to kiss a man again. She hadn’t kissed anyone in years it seemed. No soft brushing of her mouth against another’s. No arms that wound protectively around her. Just pain and terror. Memories flashed through her head of vicious fingers tangling in her hair, forcing her head back until her neck felt like it would break.
“You just went white. Are you all right?” Landon reached out for her, but she wouldn’t be able to endure his touch, not when she felt so dirty.
They could put her in a designer gown, but she was still the girl who knew what it meant to be subjugated. She was still the dumb animal who had watched as the women around her were tortured, raped, and snuffed out.
“Don’t touch me.”
He jerked back. “I won’t. I wouldn’t hurt you for the world. Take a deep breath. You’re here in Bezakistan. You’re at the palace. No one will ever hurt you here. Me, Dane, and Coop will make damn sure of it. Take a long breath. I’ll do it with you.”
He breathed in, his chest filling with air. He was so calm and kind that she found herself following his directions. When he reached for her this time, she let him take her hand. He held it until she stopped shaking.
God, she wanted him to hold her. She wanted what Piper had. She wanted to be surrounded by men who loved her, who accepted her…who could want her even after all that had happened.
Her captors had ensured she would never have any of that.
She gently pulled her hand from his, hating that moment they were no longer connected palm to palm. “Thank you. I’m fine now.”
“Talk to me, Alea. Tell me what just went through your head.”
She couldn’t. It didn’t matter how much she wanted to. She was never going to talk about it, especially to the three men she very nearly idolized. She was never going to tell anyone about her shame. “That’s ‘princess’ or ‘Your Highness,’ please. It isn’t seemly for you to call me by my first name.”
Alea needed distance before she crumbled. In that panicked second, she didn’t know how else to get it.
But when she saw his face in the next moment, she cared very much. Her heart ached as Landon drew back, his shoulders squaring and his eyes icing over. “I apologize, Your Highness. Like I said, I’m just a dumb grunt. Sometimes I forget my place. Perhaps we should go back to the party.”
The urge to apologize and tell him everything swamped her. The impulsive need to bring Dane and Cooper in and confess everything, release all her pain to them, tempted her. But the past was her private hell. They were not only protectors, but kind ones, and she couldn’t take advantage of that, imagining that her own feelings for them in any way mirrored theirs for her.
She couldn’t have them, and they wouldn’t want her—even if she was brave enough to try.
Landon opened the door, and music spilled out into the night. Alea followed him back into the ballroom. Instantly, friends and family surrounded her, yet she still felt utterly alone.
* * * *
Dane Mitchell cursed under his breath as Alea walked into the ballroom followed by a sullen Landon. To an outsider, Lan’s frown wouldn’t look any different than normal, but Dane had been around the Texan long enough to know when he was in a real shit-kicker of a mood. Lan’s shoulders were too square and tight, his movements lacking their normal grace, to be anything but pissed off. Dane had little doubt it was something the prickly princess had said.
“Dayum, what do you think happened out there?” Coop’s voice came over Dane’s earpiece. “Lan’s doing his whole ‘stony soldier’ routine.”
“No idea.” But something had happened, and it had affected Alea, too. She’d pressed her mouth into a grim line and looked close to tears.
Stopping at the edge of the ballroom, she drew in a breath and collected herself. Oh, it looked to most as if she was merely smoothing her dress down and checking her hair in one of the ornate mirrors that lined the hallway, but Dane knew better. If she’d listen, he’d tell her that she looked stunning. He’d tried to tell her about a hundred times that she was the most gorgeous woman on the face of the fucking planet, but she always demurred. He would have comforted her, but she’d just shut him down and push him away. Same as always.
“You don’t think Lan would have suggested that she find the rest of her bodice, do you? Because we all agreed that was likely a damn fine way to lose our balls,” Coop joked.
When she’d first walked out of her room earlier in the evening, it had been right there on the tip of his tongue to order her back inside to find a dress that actually covered her breasts. Luckily Coop had known he was about to unleash his inner Dominant on a woman who wasn’t ready to handle the demand. Coop had slapped him on the back, shooting him a glance that warned Dane he was about to make an idiot of himself. Into the silence, Coop had loudly proclaimed to Alea that she looked beautiful. She’d taken that to mean her dress, then explained that someone named Narciso had designed it. Dane didn’t give a shit. Narciso needed to learn how to sew a proper top into his wretchedly expensive evening gowns.
Lan had just kind of drooled.
Alea had finally cracked a smile as she lifted her gown a fraction and showed off her ridiculously hot shoes. Then all Dane could think about was just how nice those stilettos would look wrapped around his neck as he drove his cock deep. And then she’d utterly shut down as though she’d realized she’d sought their opinions and enjoyed their attention. After that, she’d straightened her gown and dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
He was getting real damn tired of Alea always pushing them away. If he believed for a minute that she didn’t want them, he would take a mental step back and protect her from afar. But he’d noticed the way she sometimes watched all three of them when she thought no one was looking.
Now, Lan stood a good ten feet behind her, watching her as she visibly calmed herself. She turned to him and said something, her hands coming up in a little plea.
“Oh, here we go. I’ve lived this scene before. Allow me. ‘Don’t follow me, Lan. Please, let me get my gorgeous self horribly murdered by the first psycho who comes along. It’s my right.’” Coop sometimes provided offbeat dialogue when they were too far away to hear the object of their affection actually speak.
Landon had moved past Dane, but he could still see the way his friend moved his head in a sharp, unmistakable shake. Coop continued his translation. “And then Lan says, in his too often verbose diatribe against her stubbornness, ‘no.’ You know, I think the dude should explain himself from time to time. Oh, look, he got the designer shoe stomp.”
Sure enough, Princess Alea stomped her right foot, threw her hands up, and stalked off, tossing open the door to the ballroom and flooding the hall briefly with glittering lights. Dane saw the way Lan sighed and opened the door again, his stare following her as he pursued.
Dane’s hand twitched, and he made a fist to quell his urge to smack her sexy but rebellious little ass. “I swear to god, Coop, sometimes I want to lay that girl over my knee and not let her up until we’ve reached an understanding.”
“Only sometimes, Dane?”
Nope. Pretty much all the time. From the minute he’d seen Princess Alea Binte al Mussad, his cock had been hard and his heart had taken a nosedive. She’d hit him like a bolt of lightning. He’d stood there staring at her, feeling like a damn fool, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. Then he’d looked at his two best friends, ready to tell them that he’d finally found the one woman he wanted to put a collar on—as crazy as that would have sounded—and realized they were just as head over heels. That quickly, all three of them were fucked.
But they had all backed off, unwilling to step on each others’ toes. They had been through too much together. Coop and Lan were the only family Dane had left. Oh, there was a father and three brothers back in Georgia, but he’d come back from the Korengal Valley a different man. Shortly after his second tour, the family drama and his divorce had ended any affection or allegiance they had for him. In their head, Dane was as good as dead. Coop and Lan were his brothers now, and he couldn’t fight with them. They had been at an impasse.
Until they had really understood the way relationships worked here in Bezakistan. It was tradition among the wealthy and the landholders in this small country for the brothers of a family to share a wife so they didn’t have to divide the family riches or leave any sibling to suffer poverty. After a few weeks, Dane had decided they could adopt the Bezakistani way. He, Lan, and Coop might not truly share blood and they might not be preserving a fortune, but they all wanted Alea and weren’t willing to stab a brother in the back to have her.
So after a full month here, he’d decided he liked the idea of sharing. The families in Bezakistan seemed happy, and he wouldn’t have to relinquish his backup. He’d spent the majority of his adult life in the military, his whole childhood before that following his dad from base to base. The idea of having a family that functioned as a team really suited him.
And then just as they’d settled everything between the three of them, they realized they had forgotten to talk to the most important member of the team. And Alea didn’t want anything to do with them. Or at least that was her story, and she seemed to be sticking to it.
Landon touched his earpiece and suddenly his voice came on the line. “I want you to do a background check on that British fucker, Oliver Thurston-Hughes. Get me everything you can. I want to know it all, right down to what the asshole eats for breakfast so I’ll know what to poison.”
“Slow down,” Coop said. “Why are we going to poison that Brit’s oatmeal? Do they even eat oatmeal in England?”
Lan ignored the question, getting right to the point. “He’s a little too interested in the princess.”
Fuck. If he was calling her “princess,” then their conversation had been a clusterfuck. “What’s going on, Lan?”
His pal didn’t look back. Instead, Lan stared across the ballroom, never taking his eyes off her. “That cousin of hers is trying to get her to go to England. The princess walked out onto the balcony to get some fresh air. First Mr. Small Dick followed her, then Crazy Bitch crashed the party. They laid all kinds of guilt on Her Highness.”
“She’s not going to England.” There was no way Dane would allow it. Especially now that he was pretty sure she was still in potential danger. He would talk Talib into putting her on lockdown if he needed to. And if, for some reason, she left anyway, he would have to quit and follow her because he couldn’t leave her unprotected and alone.
“I don’t think she really wants to go,” Landon replied. “But the British fuckwad sure seemed interested in her being a bit more than a traveling companion.”
“I got a shot, boss. I can take him out in one,” Coop said, his voice serious.
“I think that’s a damn fine idea, Coop,” Landon interjected. “Can you aim for his pecker?”
“Don’t know, brother. I suspect that is a mighty small target, but I’m a damn fine marksman.”
Dane hated it when he had to be the voice of reason. “You can’t kill him. Not here anyway. I’ll run a check on him, guys, but seriously, we can’t go around assassinating every man who looks at her twice.”
“I don’t see why not. We’re good at assassinations. If Tal had let us take out Khalil when we wanted to, we could have avoided a whole lot of heartache.” Coop sighed over the line. “Are our ‘friends’ here yet?”
Lawson and Riley Anders were private investigators with the prestigious Anthony Anders firm. It was made up of the brothers, Lawson and Riley, and a badass named Dominic Anthony. They had come with the highest references from the two PIs who had tracked down Alea when she’d been kidnapped. Burke and Cole Lennox were good, but they also had married a really sweet girl named Jessa and now had one son with another on the way. They couldn’t do the kind of twenty-four seven work that Dane had demanded after the death of Khalil al Bashir.
With the prime suspect dead, he had to know once and for all if Khalil had been the one responsible for Alea’s abduction. In fact, he prayed that Khalil had been the guilty fucker. That would set his mind at ease. But it didn’t add up.
The report the Lennox brothers had filed had stated plainly that Alea had been held for months in a state of “training.” She’d been moved from New York to Colombia and housed in a brothel. Yet the physician who had treated her after she’d been returned to Bezakistan had said there was no sexual abuse evident. According to him, Alea remained a virgin.
So he feared the random act of slavery was bullshit. Dane’s guess was that someone had paid for her to be taken. Someone had wanted her to disappear and suffer. Money had been on the line. Money and maybe something else. Revenge? Pride? He couldn’t be sure until he had more information.
Once, Khalil had seemed like the best suspect, but Dane hadn’t been able to connect him yet to the crime either via physical evidence or motive. He prayed that Law and Riley gave him the proof tonight. He would be thrilled to find out that Alea’s abduction had been a random act or that the asshole who had sold her out was dead.
But it felt too fucking easy.
Dane shook off his suspicions and brought himself back to reality, answering Coop about Riley and Lawson. “I have confirmation that they landed about half an hour ago. They should be here any minute. It’s bad timing, but this is the best window they could give us, given the tight schedule Dominic keeps.” Plus, if the perp was still alive, he might well be attending tonight’s event and wouldn’t notice a few more visitors to the palace that might raise suspicion. “We’re going to meet in Tal’s office to go over what they’ve learned.”
“Won’t someone notice if the sheikh disappears from his wife’s coronation ball?” Coop asked.
“Not for a few minutes. We’re going to make this short and sweet. Rafe and Kade will keep Piper occupied.” In fact, Tal planned to give Rafe the signal, who would then make sure their wife was occupied on the dance floor until the meeting adjourned. The goal was to keep the party rolling as normally as possible so as not to alert Piper—or Alea—that anything potentially dangerous might be going down. If the news was bad, as Dane suspected, they would need a whole new game plan.
“I’ll keep an eye on Her Highness,” Lan said.
“What the hell did she say to you, buddy?” Coop asked.
“Nothing I didn’t already know,” Landon grumbled over the radio.
Dane was getting a headache. Nothing was going the way he’d planned. From the moment he and his friends had made a pact to go after Alea as a team, Dane had been sure they would succeed. He’d told himself back then it wouldn’t take more than a few months before she was surrounded by them, before they overwhelmed her. Over a year had passed, and he was starting to believe she would never be ready for a romance, much less one that involved three men.
And he was beginning to understand that he might never be complete without her.
The doors from the main hallway opened, and two tall, well-built men walked through. Law and Riley Anders hadn’t bothered with tuxedos. They were dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. One wore a blazer and the other a leather jacket. Even though the palace was in the heart of the desert, it got cold at night.
The brothers nodded to each other and turned toward Dane. He quickly sized them up. Lawson Anders was just a slight bit taller than his younger brother, but there was a coldness to his eyes that Dane recognized. Law had spent time in the military, likely in black ops, though his dossier claimed he’d only been a communications officer. Bullshit. The man in front of him had obviously seen and done too much. “Communications” was code for “too classified to discuss.”
Riley Anders had gone the college route. Burke Lennox swore Riley was one of the premier hackers in the United States. It was a skill that would mean the world to an investigator. There was a lighter air to him, but Dane didn’t doubt he’d been trained well.
“Lieutenant Mitchell?” Lawson asked.
Dane winced inwardly. How fucking long would it be before he could hear military titles and not have his stomach go south? “It’s just Dane. I’m not in the Navy anymore.”
Law leaned against the wall. “Yeah, from what I hear, you got a bad fucking rap. But I understand. I got out because I couldn’t listen to the brass anymore, either. Now Dominic is the only person who bitches at me. I’m the idiot who gets his ass out of the military, then goes to work for his former CO.”
Riley shrugged. “Well, I’m the smart one who didn’t go into the military in the first place and I still end up getting my ass chewed out on a regular basis by your former CO.”
Dane didn’t have time for the Anders brothers comedy hour. “Do you have the information I asked for? I don’t understand why Dominic wouldn’t just send it to me. I could have saved you a very long flight.”
“Dominic never likes to give bad news over the phone.” Lawson glanced down at the briefcase his brother carried. “Do you have some place where we can set up?”
A knot formed in his stomach, and Dane wondered if he was really braced for the truth.
“Should I give Tal the signal?” Cooper asked him over the radio.
From the edge of the ballroom, Landon looked back. He stood in the shadows, watching over the woman they all loved. The woman who might still be in danger. Dane gave him a nod, and Landon edged closer to Alea. He would keep an eye on her so Dane and Coop could take this meeting.
He was procrastinating. “Yeah. Get everyone into Talib’s office pronto.”
With a nod to the private investigators, Dane began to lead the way to a more private part of the palace. Behind him the brothers chattered on, throwing more annoying digs at one another.
Dane was grim as he unlocked the office and turned on the light. It was past time to find out just how screwed they all were.
Copyright 2013 Lexi Blake