Their virgin princess, p.11
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       Their Virgin Princess, p.11
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         Part #4 of Masters of Ménage series by Shayla Black
Page 11

 

  Piper leaned forward. “What happened? Did you get mad because they tried to keep that meeting secret? I don’t think you should blame them. Tal said it was his call. ”

  Because Tal always shouldered the responsibility. “No. This whole plot reeks of Dane, too. I can see him arguing that they needed to get the whole story before they talked to me. He wouldn’t want to worry me until they had a plan in place. He would have taken all the data and come to me with a detailed ‘op,’ as he would say. ”

  Piper’s eyes went wide. “It sounds like you know Dane pretty well. ”

  Alea shrugged. “Cooper and Landon would have argued, but Cooper can be swayed. Landon is the one who would fight him. Cooper would hesitate to tell me bad news, but Lan would just shove it all out there because he doesn’t know how to be dishonest. ” She sighed. “Not that they were intentionally unkind, but, damn it, Piper. It’s my life on the line. I have a right to know. ”

  “I agree,” Piper said calmly. “Obviously Landon did, too. I heard he nearly got his balls kicked in. But you can be very difficult to talk to about this subject. You were the one who asked Tal to keep huge, deeply relevant portions of what happened to you in Colombia out of the reports. You understand how that hampers the investigation?”

  God, she didn’t want anyone to know. She hadn’t even told the therapists everything. “They have all the information they need. ”

  Piper sat back with a long sigh. “No, they don’t, but you’re not going to believe or admit that. You did nothing to be ashamed of, Alea. What happened was a crime perpetrated against you. You didn’t cause it, but only you can give yourself permission to heal from it. Only you can let go of the pain and really beat the bastards who hurt you. ”

  “There are no winners here, Piper. Just a whole lot of losers. ” Alea crossed her arms over her chest.

  “Ah, there’s the bitter girl. ” Piper smiled tightly. “You’ve been almost happy lately. I’ve been wondering if she’d finally left the building, but no. She’s in full force tonight. ”

  Bitter. Yes, that described her. She sat down again. The surroundings were so familiar. She’d been happy here at the palace long ago. Now she just felt stuck.

  Alea let a long moment pass before asking the question that had plagued her for months. “Do you think it would be best if I left the palace?”

  “What?” Piper leaned closer. “How can you think that?”

  “Because you’re having a baby. I’m not the nicest person. I don’t mean to lash out, but I can’t seem to help it. I’m wondering if…maybe it might be best if I went away. This should be a happy time for you. ”

  Piper sighed and shook her head. “You see everything in the worst possible light. I’m not pointing out bitter girl to blame you. I’m simply saying that you’ve seemed more relaxed these last couple of months. You’ve even been smiling when you walk the grounds with Dane or sit in the garden with Lan and Cooper. ”

  Yes, she’d enjoyed all those times, but they were over now. She would likely be assigned new guards. She’d ruined everything. Maybe they’d all just give up on her now, even Tal. He could ask her to leave because she was like a wounded animal and no one knew when she would kick or bray and hurt someone around her.

  “Well, I rather thought the whole sordid kidnapping mess was over. I found out tonight that it’s not. So forgive me if I can’t quite find my charm. ”

  “No. That’s not it. I’d hoped you were healing, but you’ve just gotten more adept at hiding your feelings. Alea, no one wants you to leave. You’re more like a sister to my husbands than a cousin. You’ll be my baby’s aunt, and I want him or her to know you. We love you for the strong woman you are. You say this isn’t a game, but in many ways it is. You didn’t mean to play, but you’re holding the cards now and you have to decide whether or not you want to win or let the bastard behind your kidnapping crush you. ”

  Alea shook her head. “I can’t win. I wouldn’t even know how. ”

  “You win the minute you decide to become a survivor instead of a victim. The minute you accept that you can’t go back and you elect to move forward. You win when you allow the fact that you’ve survived to strengthen you, to make you a better human being than you were before. When you take all the horrible things that happened to you and make something good out of it—that’s a moment of triumph. And you win the minute you let yourself love those three men. ” Piper stood and placed a hand on Alea’s shoulder. “I hope you decide to win, because the rest us of love you and want to feel close to you, like family should. We hate that you’ve isolated yourself. We’re all here for you. You just have to decide to join us in the love and laughter. In the light. This is your home. I hope you start acting like we’re your family, too. ”

  Piper brushed a kiss across her cheek, and it took everything inside Alea not to pull away. Piper must have felt or sensed it because she had the saddest look on her face as she turned away.

  And she’d screwed up again. Alea sank to the couch. It seemed like the only thing she was capable of lately. The doors closed behind Piper ,and Alea suddenly felt how very alone she was. Piper’s words rustled around in her brain.

  “Lea?” a soft voice called out.

  She should lock her doors.

  Alea sighed. “Yes, Yas?”

  Yasmin walked in, still in her perfectly tailored gown. “I heard there was trouble. ”

  “It’s nothing. ” She didn’t want to bring her cousin in on all the problems of the evening. She really just wanted to shut out the world and go to bed.

  “I doubt that. ” She spoke with an upper crust British accent, no hint of her Bezakistani roots at all. Yas had worked for years to fit into the English ideal of perfection. She’d bleached her hair a platinum blonde and maintained a slender figure. She wore the right clothes and the right makeup. She was everything Alea wasn’t. Somehow picking out the perfect outfit for the season didn’t matter so much anymore.

  Find the good. That’s what Piper had recommended. There was no good. She was wrong.

  “Lea? Are you still with me?”

  Alea shook her head. “Sorry. I’m really tired. ”

  “I heard about what Tal and those horrible guards of yours did. Is it true that he gave them complete control over your security?”

  “What?”

  Yas leaned in, sympathy softening her face. “Tal released those brutes from his service tonight and dedicated them to your protection full time. ”

  It was the absolute worst outcome. Dane, Cooper, and Landon would be on her case twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And now they had no reason to be nice about it. They would watch and hover, silent and unsmiling, a constant reminder of how awful she’d been. “Are you sure?”

  “Oliver overheard them. You know he’s always been dreadfully concerned about your welfare. It’s very difficult for me to forget that he was interested in you before he was interested in me. ”

  And this was why she didn’t spend much time with Yas anymore. Her cousin was never content to merely talk. She had to find a way to turn the conversation to herself, usually about how terribly she was being treated. It wasn’t that Yasmin was a bad person. She’d simply always felt like a lesser relation because her parents hadn’t lived in the palace. “We’re just friends, Yas. He married you. ”

  “I know. ” Her eyes turned down. “I just always wonder if he regrets not marrying the real princess. ”

  Not that again. “Yas, I only have the title because our uncles legally adopted me, and they only did that to protect me. They were still my aunt and uncles. That’s what I called them, not mom and dad. They made certain I didn’t forget my real parents. ”

  “Still, you’re referred to as a princess and you have the trust fund to go with it. Most men would be interested in marrying into that. ”

  “Well, it’s Bezakistan. Even as a ‘princess’ who isn’t in line to ascend, if I marry, I’ll be expected to take at lea
st three husbands. Our country is modern compared to some of its neighbors, but it’s still steeped in tradition. Be grateful you got a choice to marry exactly who you want and love. ”

  Three husbands. Big and broad men who could protect her and care for her if she would only let them. Dane, Coop, and Landon’s faces swam through her thoughts.

  Yasmin frowned, turning away slightly. “You might be surprised. Sometimes I think Oliver and his brothers would have been happier with the Bezakistani way of life. But that is neither here nor there. I didn’t come here to talk about my problems. I came to help solve one of yours. ”

  Alea wasn’t sure how any of her problems could be solved, but Piper’s advice was still fresh in her mind. If she was ever going to have a life, she had to at least try not to shut her loved ones out. “Which problem are you talking about?”

  “You need a vacation. I can’t imagine how stressful it is for you here. ”

  It would be just as stressful in London, and now, thanks to Tal, a big chunk of the problems she was trying to escape—three big ones—would be on her heels. “I don’t think I want to go to London right now, Yasmin. I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think I would make great company. ”

  “Oliver and I were talking. He’s always the voice of reason. I think you’re right. The last thing you need is to be surrounded by people. But what if you could get away on your own, all alone for a while? Oliver and I were supposed to leave tomorrow morning in our plane for Sydney. ” Yas shrugged. “A little alone time before the baby comes. ”

  “That sounds lovely. ” But she wasn’t sure what it had to do with her. She didn’t want to intrude on their babymoon.

  A weary look crossed Yasmin’s face. “But the thought of getting on another plane makes me sick. I’d already decided to tell Oliver that I would rather stay here at the palace for a few weeks when he suggested a change of plans. Everything is ready to go at the apartment in Sydney. It’s private. It’s well protected. And no one would know who or where you are. Oliver’s brother already hired security for us. They can just protect you instead. ”

  No one would know? Not Tal? Not Dane or any of the others? If she could pull that off, she would be totally alone, without anyone’s expectations weighing her down. Despite what the press suggested, she wasn’t a prisoner at the palace. For just for a few days, she could pretend she was normal and maybe she could sort out her thoughts, find a little peace. With that much tranquility, maybe she could figure out what to do next. It sounded heavenly, but… “I don’t know. Tal would be furious. ”

  “Oh, it’s only for a short while. Oliver and I won’t say anything. So Tal won’t have any idea where you’ve gone. If anyone asks about the plane, I’ll simply tell them that we sent it along with notes and supplies for the Reaching Across Cultures’ Sydney office. We’d planned a vacation, but I was hoping to squeeze in just a little bit of work. I really do need to send some things there, so it’s not a total lie. You wouldn’t mind dropping them off, would you?”

  If it meant she got to escape all the censure and pressure here, if she truly got to be alone to sift through the rubble of her life, she wouldn’t mind. “Just leave me instructions, and I’ll take whatever you need. Oh, Yas, do you really think it could work?”

  A bright smile curved up her cousin’s lips. “Oliver is very smart. Trust my husband. He always tries to do the right thing for his family. ”

  Alea nodded, and they started to make plans. By this time tomorrow, she would be far, far away.

  * * * *

  Landon couldn’t sleep. The events of the evening kept playing out in his head over and over again. He shouldn’t have risen to Alea’s bait and been so hard on her. His first instinct had been to reach out to her, to hold her and try to coddle her back to reality.

  But he’d been doing a version of that for over a year and it simply didn’t work. She was farther from them than ever before.

  He stepped out of the quarters he shared with the full-time guards. Tal had offered all three of them rooms in the palace, but Lan had turned him down. He wouldn’t know what to do with the space. Dane and Coop had made their apartments look something like homes, but Lan felt more comfortable out here with the help. He looked up at the palace, and his stare inevitably drifted to her room.

  What was it about this one female that made him so fucking crazy? He’d seen more beautiful women before, but none of them moved him the way Alea did. It wasn’t just her tragic past. He wasn’t chasing her for the challenge. It was like…his heart recognized her. God, that sounded dumb and girly. Maybe he was a masochist who only craved what he couldn’t have.

 
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