Affaire royale, p.1
Affaire Royale, p.1Part #1 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
She’d forgotten why she was running. All she knew was that she couldn’t stop. If she stopped, she’d lose. It was a race where there were only two places. First and last.
Distance. Every instinct told her to keep running, keep going so that there was distance between her and … where she’d been.
She was wet, for the rain was pounding down, but she no longer jumped at the boom of thunder. Flashes of lightning didn’t make her tremble. The dark wasn’t what frightened her. She was long past fear of such simple things as the spread of darkness or the violence of the storm. What she feared wasn’t clear any longer, only the fear itself. Fear, the only emotion she understood, crawled inside her, settling there as if she’d known nothing else. It was enough to keep her stumbling along the side of the road when her body screamed to lie down in a warm, dry place.
She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t know where she’d been. There was no memory of the tall, wind-whipped trees. The crash and power of the sea close by meant nothing, nor did the scent of the rain-drenched flowers she crushed underfoot as she fled along the side of a road she didn’t know.
She was weeping, but unaware of it. Sobs wracked her, clawing at the fear, doubling it so that it sprinted through her in the absence of everything else. Her mind was so clouded, her legs so unsteady. It would be easy to simply curl up under one of those trees and give up. Something pushed her on. Not just fear, not just confusion. Strength—though one wouldn’t guess it to look at her, though she herself didn’t recognize it—drove her beyond endurance. She wouldn’t go back to where she’d been, so there was no place to go but on.
How long she’d been running wasn’t important. She’d no idea whether it’d been one mile or ten. Rain and tears blinded her. The lights were nearly on her before she saw them.
Panicked, like a rabbit caught in the beams, she froze. They’d found her. They’d come after her. They. The horn blasted, tires squealed. Submitting at last, she crumpled onto the road, unconscious.
“She’s coming out of it.”
“Sir, you must step back for a moment and let me examine her. She may just be drifting again.”
Over the mists she was swimming in, she heard the voices. Hollow, distant. Fear scrambled through her. Even in her half-conscious state her breath began to catch. She hadn’t escaped. But the fear wouldn’t show. She promised herself that. As she came closer to the surface, she closed her hands into tight fists. The feel of her fingers against her palms gave her some sense of self and control.
Slowly she opened her eyes. Her vision ebbed, clouded, then gradually cleared. So, as she stared into the face bending over her, did the fear.
The face wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t one of them. She’d know, wouldn’t she? Her confidence wavered a moment, but she remained still. This face was round and pleasant, with a trim, curling white beard that contrasted with the smooth, bald head. The eyes were shrewd, tired, but kind. When he took her hand in his, she didn’t struggle.
“My dear,” he said in a charming, low-key voice. Gently he ran a finger over her knuckles until her fingers relaxed. “You’re quite safe.”
She felt him take her pulse, but continued to stare into his eyes. Safe. Still cautious, she let her gaze wander away from his. Hospital. Though the room was almost elegant and quite large, she knew she was in a hospital. The room smelled strongly of flowers and antiseptics. Then she saw the man standing just to the side.
His bearing was militarily straight and he was impeccably dressed. His hair was flecked with gray, but it was still very dark and full. His face was lean, aristocratic, handsome. It was stern, she thought, but pale, very pale compared to the shadows under his eyes. Despite his stance and dress, he looked as though he hadn’t slept in days.
“Darling.” His voice shook as he reached down to take her free hand. There were tears under the words as he pressed her fingers to his lips. She thought she felt the hand, which was strong and firm, tremble lightly. “We have you back now, my love. We have you back.”
She didn’t pull away. Compassion forbade it. With her hand lying limply in his, she studied his face a second time. “Who are you?”
The man’s head jerked up. His damp eyes stared into hers. “Who—”
“You’re very weak.” Gently the doctor cut him off and drew her attention away. She saw him put a hand on the man’s arm, in restraint or comfort, she couldn’t tell. “You’ve been through a great deal. Confusion’s natural at first.”
Lying flat on her back, she watched the doctor send signals to the other man. A raw sickness began to roll inside her stomach. She was warm and dry, she realized. Warm and dry and empty. She had a body, and it was tired. But inside the body was a void. Her voice was surprisingly strong when she spoke again. Both men responded to it.
“I don’t know where I am.” Beneath the doctor’s hand her pulse jerked once, then settled. “I don’t know who I am.”
“You’ve been through a great deal, my dear.” The doctor spoke soothingly while his brain raced ahead. Specialists, he thought. If she didn’t regain her memory in twenty-four hours, he’d need the best.
“You remember nothing?” The other man had straightened at her words. Now, with his ramrod stance, his sleep-starved eyes direct, he looked down at her.
Confused and fighting back fear, she started to push herself up, and the doctor murmured and settled her back against the pillows. She remembered … running, the storm, the dark. Lights coming up in front of her. Closing her eyes tight, she struggled for composure without knowing why it was so important to retain it. Her voice was still strong, but achingly hollow when she opened them again. “I don’t know who I am. Tell me.”
“After you’ve rested a bit more—” the doctor began. The other man cut him off with no more than a look. And the look, she saw at a glance, was both arrogant and commanding.
“You’re my daughter,” he said. Taking her hand again, he held it firmly. Even the light trembling had stopped. “You are Her Serene Highness Gabriella de Cordina.”
Nightmare or fairy tale? she wondered as she stared up at him. Her father? Her Serene Highness? Cordina … She thought she recognized the name and clung to it, but what was this talk of royalty? Even as she began to dismiss it, she watched his face. This man wouldn’t lie. His face was passive, but his eyes were so full of emotion she was drawn to them even without memory.
“If I’m a princess,” she began, and the dry reserve in her voice caused a flicker of emotion to pass over his face briefly. Amusement? she wondered. “Does that make you a king?”
He nearly smiled. Perhaps the trauma had confused her memory, but she was still his Brie. “Cordina is a principality. I am Prince Armand. You’re my eldest child. You have two brothers, Alexander and Bennett.”
Father and brothers. Family, roots. Nothing stirred. “And my mother?”
This time she read the expression easily: pain. “She died when you were twenty. Since then you’ve been my official hostess, taking on her duties along with your own. Brie.” His tone softened from the formal and dispassionate. “We call you Brie.” He turned her hand up so that the cluster of sapphires and diamonds on her right hand glimmered toward her. “I gave you this on your twenty-first birthday, nearly four years ago.”
She looked at it, and at the strong, beautiful hand that held hers. She remembered nothing. But she felt—trust. When she lifted her eyes again, she managed a half smile. “You have excellent taste, Your Highness.”
He smiled, but she thought he was perilously close to weeping. As close as she. “Please,” she began for both their sakes. “I’m very tired.”
“Yes, indeed.” The doct
Reluctantly Prince Armand released his daughter’s hand. “I’ll be close.”
Her strength was already beginning to ebb. “Thank you.” She heard the door close, but sensed the doctor hovering. “Am I who he says I am?”
“No one knows better than I.” He touched her cheek, more from affection than the need to check her temperature. “I delivered you. Twenty-five years ago in July. Rest now, Your Highness. Just rest.”
Prince Armand strode down the corridor in his quick, trained gait, as a member of the Royal Guard followed two paces behind. He wanted to be alone. God, how he wanted five minutes to himself in some closed-off room. There he could let go of some of the tension, some of the emotion that pulled at him. His daughter, his treasure, had nearly been lost to him. Now that he had her back, she looked at him as though he were a stranger.
When he found who— Armand dismissed the thought. It was for later. He promised himself that.
In the spacious, sun-splashed waiting room were three more Royal Guards and several members of Cordina’s police department. Pacing, smoking, was his son and heir, Alexander. He had his father’s dark, clean-lined looks and military bearing. He did not, as yet, have his father’s meticulous control.
Like a volcano, Armand thought, looking at the twenty-three-year-old prince, that simmers and bubbles, but doesn’t quite erupt.
Sprawled across a plush, rose-colored sofa was Bennett. At twenty he threatened to become the newest playboy prince. Though he, too, was dark, his looks reflected the heartbreaking beauty of his mother. Though he was often reckless, too often indiscreet, he had an unflagging compassion and kindness that endeared him to his subjects and the press. As well as the female population of Europe, Armand thought wryly.
Beside Bennett was the American who was there at Armand’s request. Both princes were too wrapped in their own thoughts to notice their father’s presence. The American missed nothing. That’s why Armand had sent for him.
Reeve MacGee sat silently for a moment, watching the prince take in the scene. He was holding up well, Reeve thought, but, then, he’d expected no less. He’d only met Cordina’s ruler a handful of times, but Reeve’s father had been at Oxford with him, where a friendship and mutual respect had been established that had lasted through the years and over the distances.
Armand had gone on to become the ruler of a small, charming country snuggled on the Mediterranean. Reeve’s father had become a diplomat. Though he’d grown up with politics and protocol, Reeve had chosen a more behind-the-scenes career for himself. Undercover.
After ten years of dealing with the less elite portion of the nation’s capital, Reeve had turned in his badge and started his own private business. There’d come a time in his life when he’d grown tired of following other people’s rules. His own were often even more strict, more unbending, but they were his own. The experience he’d gained in Homicide, and then in Special Services had taught him to trust his own instincts first.
He’d been born wealthy. He’d added to his wealth through his own skill. Once he’d looked at his profession as a means of income and a means of excitement. Reeve no longer worked for money. He took few jobs, a select few. If, and only if, something intrigued him, he accepted the client and the responsibility. To the outside world, and often to himself, he was only a farmer, a novice at that. Less than a year before, he’d bought a farm with thoughts, dreams, perhaps, of retiring there. If was, for him, an answer. Ten years of dealing with good and bad, law and disorder on a daily basis had been enough.
Telling himself he’d paid his dues, he’d dropped out of public service. A private detective could pick and choose his clients. He could work at his own pace, name his own fee. If a job led him into danger, he could deal with it in his own fashion. Still, during this past year he’d taken on fewer and fewer of his private cases. He was easing himself out. If he’d had qualms, no one knew of them but himself. The farm was a chance for a different kind of life. One day, he’d promised himself, it would be his whole life. He’d postponed his first shot at spring planting to answer Armand’s request.
He looked more like a soldier than a farmer. When he rose at Armand’s entrance, his long, rangy body moved subtly, muscle by muscle. The neat linen jacket was worn over a plain T-shirt and trim slacks, but he could give them the air of formality or casualness as he chose. He was the kind of man whose clothes, no matter how attractive, were noticed only after he was. His face drew the attention first, perhaps because of the smooth good looks he’d inherited from his Scotch-Irish ancestors. His skin would have been pale if he hadn’t spent so much time out of doors. His dark hair was cut well, but insisted on falling over his brow. His mouth was wide and tended to look serious.
His bone structure was excellent and his eyes were the charming, sizzling blue of the Black Irish. He’d used them to charm when it suited him, just as he’d used them to intimidate.
His stance was less rigid than the prince’s, but no less watchful. “Your Highness.”
At Reeve’s words, both Alexander and Bennett sprang to attention. “Brie?” they asked together, but while Bennett was already beside his father, Alexander stood where he was. He crushed out his cigarette in an ashtray. Reeve watched it snap in two.
“She was conscious,” Armand said briefly. “I was able to speak with her.”
“How does she feel?” Bennett looked at his father with dark, concerned eyes. “When can we see her?”
“She’s very tired,” Armand said, touching his son’s arm only lightly. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
Still at the window, Alexander smoldered. “Does she know who—”
“That’s for later,” his father cut him off.
Alexander might have said more, but his upbringing had been too formal. He knew the rules and the restrictions that went with his title. “We’ll take her home soon,” he said quietly, coming very close to challenging his father. He cast a quick look around at the guards and police. Gabriella might be protected here, but he wanted her home.
“As soon as possible.”
“She may be tired,” Bennett began, “but she’ll want to see a familiar face later on. Alex and I can wait.”
A familiar face. Armand looked beyond his son to the window. There were no familiar faces for his Brie. He’d explain to them, but later, in private. For now, he could only be the prince. “You may go.” His words took in both his sons. “Tomorrow she’ll be more rested. Now I need a word with Reeve.” He dismissed his sons without a gesture. When they hesitated, he lifted a brow. It was not, as it could have been, done with heat.
“Is she in pain?” Alexander blurted out.
Armand’s look softened. Only someone who knew him well would have seen it. “No. I promise you. Soon,” he added when Alexander remained unsatisfied, “you’ll see for yourself. Gabriella is strong.” It was said with a simplicity that was filled with pride.
With a nod, Alexander accepted. What else he had to say would have to wait for a private moment. He walked out with his brother, flanked by guards.
Armand watched his sons, then turned to Reeve. “Please,” he began, and gestured. “We’ll use Dr. Franco’s office for a moment.” He moved across the corridor and down as though he didn’t notice the guards. Reeve did. He felt them close and tense. A royal kidnapping, he mused, tended to make people nervous. Armand opened a door, waited until Reeve was inside, then closed it again.
“Sit, please,” he invited. “I can’t just yet.” Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a dark-brown cigarette, one of the ten he permitted himself daily. Before he could do so himself, Reeve lit it and waited. “I’m grateful you came, Reeve. I haven’t had the opportunity to tell you how I appreciate it.”
“There’s no need to thank me, Your Highness. I haven’t done anything yet.”
Armand blew out smoke. He could relax, just a little,
“I think you know your sons better than I.”
Armand gave a half laugh and sat. “You have your father’s diplomatic tongue.”
“You have, also, if I see clearly, his clear and clever mind.”
Reeve wondered if his father would appreciate the comparison, and smiled. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“Please, in private, it must be Armand.” For the first time since his daughter had awoken, his emotions slipped. With one hand he kneaded the skin just above his eyebrows. The band of tension there could be ignored for only so long. “I think I’m about to impose on your father’s friendship through you, Reeve. I think, because of my love for my daughter, I have no other choice.”
Reeve measured the man who sat across from him. Now he saw more than the royalty. He saw a father desperately hanging on to control. In silence, Reeve took out a cigarette of his own, lit it and gave Armand just a few more minutes. “Tell me.”
“She remembers nothing.”
“She doesn’t remember who kidnapped her?” With a faint scowl Reeve studied the toe of his shoe. “Did she see them at all?”
“She remembers nothing,” Armand repeated, and lifted his head. “Not even her own name.”
Reeve took in all the implications, and their consequences. He merely nodded, showing none of the thoughts that formed and raced through his mind. “Temporary amnesia would be common enough after what she’s been through, I imagine. What does the doctor say?”
“I will speak to him shortly.” The strain, having gone on for six days, wore on him, but he didn’t allow it to come through in his voice. “You came, Reeve, because I asked you. Yet you never asked me why.”
“As an American citizen, you’re under no obligation to me.”
Reeve blew out a thin stream of Virginia tobacco to mix with the French of Armand’s. “No.”
Armand’s lips curved. Like his father, the prince thought. And like his father, Reeve MacGee could be trusted. He was about to trust him with his most prized possession. “In my position, there is always a certain element of danger. You understand this.”
“Any leader lives with it.”
“Yes. And, by birth and proximity, a leader’s children.” For a moment he looked down at his hands, at the ornate gold ring of his office. He was, by birth, a prince. He was also a father. Still, he’d never had a choice about which came first. He’d been born, educated and molded to rule. Armand had always known his first obligation was to his people.
“Naturally, my children have their own personal security.” With a kind of controlled violence, he crushed out his cigarette. “It seems that it is inadequate. Brie—Gabriella—is often impatient with the need for guards. She’s stubborn about her privacy. Perhaps I’ve spoiled her. We’re a peaceful country, Reeve. The Royal Family of Cordina is loved by its citizens. If my daughter slipped away from her guards from time to time, I made little of it.”
“Is that what happened this time?”
“She wanted to drive in the country. It’s something she does from time to time. The responsibilities of her title are many. Gabriella needs an escape valve. Until six days ago, it seemed like a very harmless one, which was why I permitted it.”
The very tone told Reeve that Armand ruled his family as he did his country, with a just, but cool hand. He absorbed the feeling as easily as he did the information. “Until six days ago,” Reeve repeated. “When your daughter was abducted.”
Armand nodded calmly. There were facts to be dealt with; emotion only clouded them. “Now, until we’re certain who abducted her and why, she can’t be allowed something so harmless. I would trust the Royal Guards with my life. I can’t trust them with my daughter’s.”
Reeve tapped out his cigarette gently. The drift was coming across loud and clear. “I’m not on the force any longer, Armand. And you don’t want a cop.”
“You have your own business. I understand you’re something of an expert on terrorism.”
“In my own country,” Reeve pointed out. “I certainly have no credentials in Cordina.” He felt his curiosity pick up another notch. Impatient with himself, he frowned at Armand. “I’ve had the opportunity to make contacts over the years. I could give you the names of some good men. If you’re looking for a royal bodyguard—”
“I’m looking for a man I can trust with my daughter’s life,” Armand interrupted. He said it quietly, but the thread of power lay just beneath. “A man I can trust to remain as objective as I myself must remain. A man who has had experience dealing with a potentially explosive situation with … finesse. I’ve followed your career.” He gave another quick smile at Reeve’s bland look. “I have a few connections in Washington. Your record was exemplary, Reeve. Your father can be proud of you.”
Reeve shifted uncomfortably at the mention of his father. The connection was too damn personal, he thought. It would make it more difficult for him to accept and be objective, or to refuse graciously—guiltlessly. “I appreciate that. But I’m not a cop. I’m not a bodyguard. I’m a farmer.”
Armand’s expression remained grave, but Reeve caught the quick light of humor in his eyes. “Yes, so I’ve been told. If you prefer, we can leave it at that. However, I have a need. A great need. I won’t press you now.” Armand knew when to advance and when to retreat. “Give some thought to what I’ve said. Tomorrow, perhaps we can talk again, and you can speak with Gabriella yourself. In the meantime, you are our guest.” He rose, signaling an end to the interview. “My car will take you back to the palace. I will remain here a bit longer.”
* * *
The late-morning sunlight filtered into the room. Vaguely wanting a cigarette, Reeve watched its patterns on the floor. He’d spoken with Armand again, over a private breakfast in the prince’s suite. If there was one thing Reeve understood, it was quiet determination and cold power. He’d grown up with it.
Swearing lightly, Reeve looked through the window at the mountains that cupped Cordina so beautifully.
Why the hell was he here? His land was thousands of miles away and waiting for his plow. Instead he was in this little fairy-tale country where the air was seductively soft and the sea was blue and close. He should never have come, Reeve told himself ruthlessly. When Armand had contacted him, he should simply have made his excuses. When his father had called to add weight to the prince’s request, Reeve should have told him he had fields to till and hay to plant.
Affaire Royale by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 4.7 out of 5 / Based on42 votes