The playboy prince, p.11
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       The Playboy Prince, p.11
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “I’d stay close—I have a feeling.” With him it was in the gut. He’d yet to let Gabriella move more than an arm’s span away.

  “I do too. Deboque said something about me staying in the audience. I want to take a walk backstage.”

  He started to object, but Gabriella took his hand and gave Hannah the few seconds she needed to slip out. She made her way toward the ladies’ lounge until she was certain no one was watching. With the ease of long experience, she slipped into a stairway and began moving down. She had ten minutes, Hannah thought as she checked her watch, before anyone would miss her.

  There were costume changes and stretched nerves backstage when Hannah crossed the corridor. Most of the actors were too wound up to spare her a glance. Nothing out of place. Nothing out of synch. And yet, the itch between her shoulder blades persisted.

  Chantel’s dressing room door was half-open. The actress caught a glimpse of Hannah, hesitated, then called out. “Lady Hannah.”

  Because she saw no choice, Hannah stopped at the doorway. “Miss O’Hurley. Her Highness wasn’t able to come down, but you should know she’s delighted with your performance.”

  “Thank you.” Chantel set down the grease pencil she’d been using to touch up her eyes. “And what do you think of the play?”

  “It’s gripping. Your interpretation of Julia is breathtaking.”

  With a nod, Chantel moved toward her. The exaggerated stage makeup only made her look more exotic. “You know, I was born into show business. It’s in the blood, if you get my drift. And I’ve always thought one inveterate actor easily recognizes another.”

  Very cool, almost smiling, Hannah met her eyes. “I suppose that’s true.”

  “Perhaps that’s why while I’m still not sure if I like you, I know I don’t trust you.” Chantel adjusted the cuff of the dress she’d wear in the next scene. “I’ve always been very fond of Bennett. A woman like myself has few men she can call real friends.”

  There was something strong, something honest in the woman who faced her. Hannah gave as much as she could. “I can tell you that Bennett is a special man, and one I care for very much.”

  Chantel was silent a moment, weighing, considering. “I’m not sure why, but I believe you.” She shook her head. “I can’t figure out why you’re playing Jane Eyre, but I imagine you have your reasons.”

  “Places, Miss O’Hurley.”

  Chantel turned to give herself one last check in a full-length mirror. She lifted her chin to a different angle and became Julia. Her voice took on the slightest of drawls, an echo of the American South, as she turned back to walk past Hannah. “Darling,” she said in character. “You must know beige is the worst possible color for you.” Then she winked and walked to the wings.

  Hannah let out a long breath. She’d seen nothing out of place, seen no one who didn’t belong and had learned a lesson. Her cover wasn’t as foolproof as she’d always thought.

  She walked back down the corridor, turned into the stairway and started up. She heard the applause as the curtain came up. Then came the distant sound, the rumble and boom, of an explosion. The lights went out.

  There were scattered screams as the theater plunged into darkness. From here, the warning rumble couldn’t be heard. In the Royal Box, guards closed in like a wedge. Guns were drawn, and held ready.

  “Stay where you are,” Reeve ordered. He gave Gabriella’s hand a quick, reassuring squeeze. “Two of you come with me.” He moved into the hallway with two guards. “We’ll need a light.” Swearing, he dug in his pocket for a lighter. “We’ll need someone to go over the PA and keep the audience from panicking.” Even as he flicked the lighter on, throwing dull and shadowy light off his face, Chantel’s voice came cool and clear through the speakers.

  “Mesdames and messieurs, if you would stay seated for a moment or two. We seem to be having some difficulties with the lights. If you’d like to take advantage of the opportunity by getting to know your neighbor better . . .”

  “Good girl,” Reeve murmured as he heard the nervous laughter. “Let’s get down to the main breakers.”

  Hannah hadn’t come back. The words kept echoing over in Bennett’s mind as he heard Alexander murmuring reassurances to Eve. She was out there somewhere, alone in the dark. Without hesitation, he was moving toward the door.

  “Your Highness.” The looming figure of a guard inched toward him. “If you would please remain seated.”

  “Let me pass.”

  “Bennett.” His father’s voice cut through the dark. “Please sit. This should be over in moments.”

  “Hannah’s not here.”

  There was the briefest of silences. “Reeve will handle things.”

  There was duty, and the honor he’d never questioned. Now there was love. Bennett shoved his way through the door and went to find her.

  * * *

  Hannah had the gun in her hand as she stood in the stairwell. She didn’t move, barely breathed, as she debated whether to go up and check on the Bissets, or whether to go down and check the power. If there had been one bomb, there could all too easily be another.

  Her head told her that the Bissets were well guarded and her job was to find the source of the trouble. Her heart wanted only to see if Bennett was well and safe. Following it, Hannah started up the stairs. She’d climbed no more than three when she heard the sound of a door closing on the landing below.

  With her finger wrapped around the trigger, she pointed the barrel of the gun up and started down again. She saw the beam of the flashlight before she heard the footsteps. Cautious ones. Quiet ones. Like a shadow, Hannah melted into a corner and waited.

  She recognized him from the museum. He was dressed now in the dark blue uniform of the maintenance crew and carried a small toolbox. She almost nodded in approval. Anyone seeing him would simply assume he was assigned to fix whatever had gone wrong. The beam skimmed past the toes of her shoes before she stepped out and pressed the gun at his side.

  “Be easy,” she said in undertones. “I apologize for greeting you this way, but I didn’t want a hole in my head before you recognized me.”

  “Mademoiselle.” She heard the tightly controlled fury in his voice. No man liked to be caught unaware. “I was told you would remain out of the way this evening.”

  Hannah drew the gun back but kept it steady. “I prefer a firsthand look at what’s going on. A dramatic distraction,” she complimented him. “Are there other plans for tonight?” He was prepared to kill, she was certain. But was he armed? She knew if she detained him too long or pressed too hard, her cover would be in jeopardy.

  “Only if the opportunity arises. You will excuse me?”

  “Certainly.” Her only thought now was to see him out of the theater and away before any opportunity arose. The theater was packed with people, the Royal Family was present. Now wasn’t the time for a confrontation. “Can I assist you in making a discreet exit?”

  “It’s been seen to.”

  “Very well. Tell our employer that I won’t be as dramatic, but I’ll be effective.” She turned toward the stairs when she heard the door above open.

  “Hannah?”

  At the sound of Bennett’s voice her blood froze. Even as the man beside her made a move, she clamped a hand over his arm. She knew without seeing that he reached for a weapon.

  “Don’t be a fool,” she hissed. “In this light you could too easily miss and ruin everything. Turn off that beam and let me handle it.” She felt his resistance, but turned quickly and started up the stairs. “Bennett.” She didn’t have to fake the fear in her voice. He was hardly more than a shadow at the doorway but she put her arms around him and let her body block his.

  “What are you doing down here?” he began.

  “I lost my way when the lights went off.”

  “For God’s sake, Hannah. How did you manage to get all the way down here?”

  “I—I’m not sure. Please, let’s go back.”

  “You could
ve broken your neck on these stairs.” When he gave her a slight shake and started to draw her back she shifted to block him more thoroughly.

  “Kiss me,” she ordered in a whisper.

  Almost amused now that he’d found her safe, Bennett tilted up her chin. In the dim light he could only make out the vague outline of her face and the glint of her eyes. “If you insist.”

  Even as he closed his mouth over hers, she gripped the door handle behind him, prepared to shove him through.

  Then his fingers spread over her face, gently. His lips coaxed and comforted and asked so little in return. On the handle her fingers tightened as much in response to him as in fear for him. One hand settled at the small of her back, again to soothe. Hannah felt her heart tear. She loved him, yet knew she couldn’t. She wanted the kiss to be no more than what it was, a merging of lips, a symbol of caring. But what it was, what it had to be was a tool to give the man below them the time to escape.

  Then Bennett would be safe. For seconds only, she put her heart into the kiss. He would be safe, and she could breathe again.

  He felt the change and his heart thudded with it. He had imagined her lost in the dark, alone and in need of comfort and physical contact. So thinking, he had buried his own needs and had kissed her as a friend might, with affection and understanding. Her response was thunder and lightning. His fingers tightened on her face as he murmured her name.

  The lights came on in a flash.

  It happened very quickly then, but Bennett would remember, for a lifetime, each movement, each sound. There was no time for fear, only for surprise, then disillusionment.

  When the lights went on, he stiffened. She knew in that moment that Deboque’s man had not made his escape as she had hoped, but was waiting to take advantage of the opportunity that had presented itself. Without hesitation she whirled out of Bennett’s arms and half shoved him through the door. The man’s gun was drawn, but so was hers. And she was very fast.

  Bennett had seen the man, and his weapon. He had pushed himself off the door to shield her even as she’d fired. For a moment, he simply stared, stunned at seeing the man fall and lay still. Then he saw the pistol in Hannah’s hand. Surprise came and went. His face became very impassive. When he spoke, his voice was neutral.

  “What game are you playing, and for whom?”

  She’d never killed before. She’d been trained to, of course, but had never actually ended a life by her own hand. As she stood looking down, the gun felt foreign and slimy in her hand. Her face was very pale, her eyes very dark when she turned to Bennett. “I’ll have to explain, but there isn’t time.” She heard the sound of running feet and struggled to pull herself together. “Please trust me.”

  “That’s an interesting request at this point.” He started to brush by her to go to the man below.

  “Bennett, please.” Grabbing his arm, she drew up beside him. “I’ll tell you whatever I can later. You can verify it all with Reeve or your father.”

  She felt his muscles tense. “My father?”

  “Please, for his sake, the sake of your family, play this out with me.” She pushed the gun into his hand just as Reeve arrived with five guards on his heels. Now she let reaction set it. Again, truth was often the best cover.

  “He tried to shoot the prince.” Hannah let her voice shake and leaned heavily against Bennett. “He was going to kill him. If Bennett hadn’t . . .” Trailing off, she buried her face against Bennett’s shoulder.

  He didn’t move, though he didn’t contradict her, there was no comforting hand now, no murmured reassurances. Reeve bent over the body, then lifted his gaze and met Bennett’s. “It’s fortunate you were quick—and accurate.” The .45 lying beside the body hadn’t been fired. His eyes shifted over briefly to rest on Hannah. “We’ll handle this quietly.”

  Bennett’s lips curved, but it wasn’t a smile. “Of course.”

  “If you’ll go back to your box.” Reeve signaled two of the guards to accompany him. “We’ll say nothing of this to the family until we can be private.” With a pencil, he lifted the .45 automatic by the trigger guard. “The police will come in the back way.”

  Bennett brushed the guards aside with a gesture. It was the first time Hannah had seen him use true royal arrogance. “I want to talk to you. Alone. Now.”

  “All right.” He’d seen too much, Reeve knew. It had to be handled quickly. “Eve’s office then. If you’d give me a few minutes to deal with this first.”

  “You have ten,” Bennett said, and turned his back on all of them.

  “I’d like to go back to the palace.” Hannah stood on the steps, alone now. Her hands, white at the knuckles, clutched her bag. “I’m not feeling well.”

  “See to a car and driver,” Reeve ordered one of the guards. To another he gave the dead man’s weapon before he climbed the stairs to slip an arm around Hannah. “I’ll walk you out.” The moment they were out of earshot, his voice became curt and professional. “What happened?”

  Her knees were shaking, but she schooled her voice to the same tone. Briefly, she gave him her report. “The entire thing couldn’t have taken more than five minutes.” It had seemed like hours.

  “It was just bad luck all around that Bennett found you. Still, the story will hold. He has a reputation for being an excellent shot. All I have to do is calm him down.” Reeve let out a long breath at that. He knew his brother-in-law well, just as he knew all the Bissets. Once their temper was lost, it wasn’t easily regained. “We’ll go over this in the morning so that the story you pass on to Deboque is the most advantageous one.”

  “He’ll never forgive me.”

  Reeve was intuitive enough to know she wasn’t speaking of Deboque now. “Bennett is neither unjust nor hardhearted. He’ll be angry at being kept in the dark, but he won’t blame you.”

  “Won’t he?” Hannah walked through the doors and into the night air without looking back.

  * * *

  She sat by the window looking out at the garden. An hour had passed, then two while she watched the moonlight. The palace was quiet. Perhaps the others had come back, but she wouldn’t have heard because her rooms faced the back. Guests were always given the loveliest views and the quietest spots.

  She could imagine all too well how Bennett would have reacted to Reeve’s explanations. But it wouldn’t be Reeve he would blame. Hannah knew the blame would be hers and had accepted it. In the morning he would probably demand to speak with her privately.

  She wouldn’t apologize. Hannah lifted her chin a fraction higher. She would accept his anger and his coldness, but she wouldn’t apologize for being who and what she was.

  She loved him. He would hardly believe her now if she had the right to tell him. She would have died for him tonight, not only for duty, not only for honor, but so much more for love. He would never understand or believe that now. Perhaps it was best. If her feelings for him had gotten beyond her control, it was wiser, and safer, if his for her had deadened.

  She still had an assignment to complete and two years of work to finish.

  Hannah laid her head on the windowsill and wished she were in London where the night would be cold and damp and smell of the river.

  He didn’t knock. The time for manners, formalities and small kindnesses had passed. She was curled on the window seat with her arms folded on the sill and her head resting on them. She’d loosened her hair so that it fell over the shoulders and down the back of a plain white robe. A man could almost believe she was a woman lost in the night. Bennett no longer believed what he saw and little that he felt. When he shut the door behind him, she was up and standing quickly.

  She hadn’t expected him that night. Looking at his face, Hannah saw that she should have. Because she knew the worst when she faced it, she braced.

  “You spoke with Reeve?”

  “Yes.”

  “And your father?”

  His brow lifted. Though he had discarded his formal jacket, he could be very much the
prince when he chose. “We talk tomorrow, though that doesn’t concern you.”

  She acknowledged this with a slight nod. “Only inasmuch as it affects my position at the moment.”

  “Although you’re obviously unaware of it, I’m not a fool. Your position remains.” He took the small pistol from his pocket. After crossing to the stand beside her bed, he set it down. “Your property.”

  No, she would not be forgiven. She’d thought she’d been ready to accept it. She’d been wrong. “Thank you.” As coolly as he, she walked to the stand, then placed the pistol in the drawer.

  “You’re an excellent shot, Lady Hannah.”

  The drawer shut again with the slightest of slams. “I’ve been well trained.”

  He caught her chin then, not gently. “Yes, by God, you have. What other talents do you have, I wonder? Deceit is certainly the sharpest. How many women can you be?”

  “However many it takes to do my job. If you’d excuse me, I’m very tired.”

  “Oh, no.” With his other hand, he gathered up her hair. He thought of what she’d put him through in one evening. Anxiety, outright terror and betrayal. “I’m afraid I won’t fall for that again. With me, at any rate, the quiet, well-bred English lady is quite done. Cards on the table, Hannah.”

  It was fear, she realized, that had her stomach heaving. Not fear that he would hurt her physically, not fear that he would do something in temper that would jeopardize the operation, but fear, deadly and cold, that he would always look at her the way he was now.

  “I doubt there’s much I can tell you that Reeve hasn’t. The operation was put in effect just over two years ago. The ISS needed an agent on the inside, so—”

  “I’ve been apprised of the basic details.” He let her go, dropping his hands to his sides. There, they balled into fists. “A bit late, but the information seems fairly complete. After establishing yourself with Deboque’s organization, you pretended an affection for Eve so you could gain access to the palace.” He saw the flicker of emotion cross her face at that but wasn’t ready to interpret it. “In this way, Deboque would be deceived into believing he had one of his own on the inside. By playing both ends, you would be privy to his plans, and once he makes a move, the authorities would be able to close in and destroy his organization. I’m told I should be grateful you’re so good at what you do.”

  “I don’t need gratitude, just cooperation.”

  “Then perhaps you should have asked for it from the beginning.”

  She lifted her head. No, there would be no apologies. “I had orders, Bennett. You’re no stranger to duty.”

  “No, but neither am I a stranger to honor. You played me.” Anger broke through the ice so that he held both of her arms. “You used my feelings for you.”

  “You weren’t supposed to have any,” she snapped back.

  “We can’t always choose what we feel. But there are other choices. Did you need to use how I felt for you, Hannah?”

  “I had a job to do.” Her voice wasn’t steady now because she couldn’t be sure if she’d done what she’d done coolly or because of her own needs. “I tried to discourage you.”

  “You knew I cared, that I wanted you.”

  “I didn’t want you to.”

  “You still lie.”

  “No.” She yanked, but he held her firm. “I did nothing to attract you. Then again, perhaps a woman only has to exist for you to be attracted.” She saw the fury bloom but ignored it. “Perhaps by refusing to sleep with you, I became more of a challenge. There are a lot of women who would gladly sleep with royalty.”

  “Do you believe if all I had wanted was you in bed that you wouldn’t have been there a half-a-dozen times already?”

  “I go nowhere I don’t take myself.” She tossed her head back. His voice had been too low, too precise, but she was past caring. “If you’re angry because I’m not what you thought I was, it’s because your ego’s been bruised.”

  The rest of her words and her breath were knocked away as she fell under him on the bed. Before she could counter the move, her arms were pinned at her sides. She’d been warned about his temper. There had even been some documentation of it in his dossier. But none of that was nearly as awesome as seeing it firsthand.

  “Ego?” He gritted out with his face only inches from hers. “So to you I’m still only what you’ve read, only what you’ve been told.” It hurt, how it hurt. He could feel it shimmer inside of him until the only recourse was to turn it into anger. “I won’t disappoint you then.”

  She scissored her legs and nearly succeeded in rocking him off. He shifted until her body was pressed flat against his. One hand rested dangerously on her throat. It gave him grim pleasure to feel her pulse flutter rapidly beneath his fingers.

  “This won’t prove anything.” She managed to free one arm, but he caught it at the wrist. Her pulse beat there as well, fast, uneven. “You’ll only demean both of us.”

  It didn’t matter. He’d gone beyond right and wrong, truth and lies. “There was a time when I believed you to be shy and precious. That was a woman I only wanted to show tenderness to. For her I had such patience, such sweet feelings. But for you, we can dispense with such things, can’t we?”

  “Bennett, don’t do this.” She said it quietly, knowing it was already too late.

  “Why not?” The recklessness was back, in full force, driven by betrayal. “It’s a night for lies and passions.”

  She prepared to do battle, for herself and for him. “You won’t rape me.”

  “No, I won’t. But I will have you.”

 
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