The playboy prince, p.12
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       The Playboy Prince, p.12
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  Chapter 9

  It would be a battle of wits, a contest for control. Somehow it was easier for Hannah to think of that when Bennett’s lips pressed down on hers. He didn’t want to make love with her, but to punish, even to conquer. It was anger, not desire that had brought them here. She couldn’t afford to forget it, not even for an instant.

  Yet the kiss wasn’t cruel. Hot and hard he moved his mouth over hers, more taunting than insistent. The hand on her throat didn’t so much threaten as control. The callused fingers reminded her of the strength in his hands even as they stroked to arouse and seduce.

  She made her body lie still and limp beneath his, waiting not just for a chance to fight back, but for a chance to fight and win.

  But her blood was already beginning to stir.

  He knew it. He was a man who understood passions, desires, vulnerabilities and how one would feed on the others. He’d used such things before, all in good humor, to give as much as to take. Now he would use them to wound as deeply as he had been wounded.

  Women had frustrated him, amused him, baffled him and fascinated him. But no woman had ever hurt him before Hannah. That she’d done so not inadvertently, not in a fit of temper, but coolly, passionlessly, made the sin unforgivable. For the first time in his life he held a woman in his arms with the sole intention of bringing her pain.

  Or so he told himself.

  There was only flesh beneath the robe. He knew it before he drew the material down her bare shoulder. There was strength there. He’d felt it once before. Now he felt the softness as well. Both moved him, just as, he discovered, his touch moved her. As she began her first struggles, he shifted so that her loosened robe parted for him.

  She knew better than to panic, but her heart and her needs betrayed her. The moment he’d stroked his palm down her bare skin the flare of pleasure had opened the door to fear. To excitement. To passion. Her struggles took them rolling over the bed, locked in combat. His lean build and easygoing manner made the steely strength she discovered both a surprise and an arousal. Muscles bunched under his shirt as he countered her moves and took her where he wanted her to go. Hannah found herself trapped beneath him again with her arms pinned by the robe that had slipped down her back.

  Breathless, she stared up at him. She was beaten, but far from ready to submit. Moonlight slanted in over her face so that her skin was milky pale, her eyes dark and glowing. The fear in them had turned to condemnation. In a mass of confusion, her hair spread over the bed, making him think of mermaids and witches.

  “I’ll despise you.”

  Something ripped quietly inside him. His heart or perhaps his soul. He ignored it and fixed on the need to punish her for making him love an illusion.

  He lowered his mouth again, but she turned her head away. A small defense, and an unwise one as his lips found the soft, vulnerable curve of her throat. Her breath caught, then expelled again on a moan. The sound had his heart drumming as he found her taste as unique and as dangerous as his feelings for her.

  He wanted to love her, and to hate her. He needed to comfort and to punish. He sought to hurt and to give pleasure. In the midst of his confusion, he forgot everything but Hannah.

  Hardened from work, gentle by nature, his hands moved over her. With the tip of his tongue, he traced patterns, tormenting, tempting patterns over her skin. He could feel it heat beneath him so that the flavor and the softness seemed to intensify. She twisted one way under him, then the other so that her agitated movements only served to arouse them both.

  All at once her body became very still, almost as if even breathing had stopped. Then the trembling began.

  She’d never been more aware of herself, more distanced from rational thought. She wanted to remember why he was with her, why it was wrong for both of them, but could only feel. Reasons no longer mattered, consequences were forgotten. He wanted. She wanted. Right and wrong were for the sane.

  When he brought his mouth back to hers again, she was waiting. He didn’t find pliancy or panic, but the passion she had ruthlessly strapped down most of her life. For him it was free, and she had a fleeting moment to realize it would never fully be disguised again.

  Impatience. Desperation. Together they rolled over the bed again but in a far different kind of combat. Her robe was lost so that her arms were free to capture him. In a move that might have told him everything, she locked him to her.

  Stay with me. Love me. Understand me.

  Then even that was lost in a torrent of heat that left them both gasping.

  Once before he’d sensed a volcano inside of her. Now as it erupted around him, he was rocked by the power, the dark violence of it. The breeze that fluttered the curtains was cool and temperate. In the center of the bed was a furnace each of them stoked higher and higher.

  Frantic for more of him, Hannah pulled his shirt open, scattering buttons over the mattress and floor. When her laugh came, it was low and sultry as he’d heard it before, but now it had an edge of something that might have been triumph. Then it was a sigh as she ran her hands up his chest. Her kiss was hot and hungry on his as naked flesh met naked flesh.

  Something snapped inside him. As a lover he’d always been clever, considerate, caring. Love had never been a game to him, nor had it been a contest. Always, it had been a result of affection, a natural culmination of needs.

  But he’d never needed like this.

  Tenderness was forgotten as completely as revenge as he dove his hands into her hair and dragged her against him. His teeth nipped into her lower lip, sending dizzying sparks of pleasure through her. Then he began to move swiftly, leaving her lips unsatisfied while his kisses tortured and tamed wherever they reached.

  There was panic again, but so twined with excitement she could recognize neither. Afraid, aroused, she tried to draw him back when with a suddenness that left her gasping, he drove her up and over. Her body contracted, almost in defense, then filled with a rash of heat that had her blood burning. Release came on a flood, on a cry of his name, and with the knowledge that no one would ever take her there but him.

  She was weak and shuddering. The hands that had clutched the bed clothes went lax. For a moment, she began to float. Then he fanned the flames again.

  This is what he’d wanted for her, from her. Her skin was damp and soft under his hands. Her muscles were limber as she began to move with him again. In the moonlight, he saw her face, dazed with passion, flushed with pleasure. Cupping her hips in his hands, he started a lingering line of kisses up her body. He could feel the moment the strength poured back into her.

  Still shuddering, still breathless, she tugged at his slacks. She’d had a sample, a taste, and wanted more. She wanted all. As she pulled his clothes from him, he skimmed his fingertips over her inner thighs, hampering her progress, arousing her unbearably. He watched her eyes fly open with the shock of the fresh climax as her body arched up and strained toward the power. Then even as her muscles went lax, his mouth was on hers again and urging her along the next journey.

  He was a drug. Her arms felt like lead as she tried to lift them for him. Her head was spinning from the flood of sensations. The ripe scent of passion covered both of them so that their skin was slick and hot. She could hear her own breath come in sighs and moans as she struggled to focus on his face.

  His eyes were tawny, like a cat’s before it springs. She remembered how he’d looked on the stallion, daring, dangerous. She shuddered once, then surrendered. With her eyes open and her heart willing, she gathered him close.

  She opened. He filled.

  The ride was fast and rough. Locked together, they raced. Without slackening pace, they plunged headlong over the cliff.

  * * *

  Silence seemed to last forever. Hannah curled herself into it and waited for him to leave her. Though her mind wasn’t cool, some sanity had returned. Covered by the dark, she could admit to herself that she would never be the same. He’d broken through that carefully polished veneer and had
conquered the inner woman, the woman he hated. She couldn’t tell him that she loved, that she already mourned the loss of what she never really had and would spend the rest of her life wishing for it.

  He wanted to reach out to her, to gather her close and stroke her hair in the moonlight. It wouldn’t be possible to touch her again. He’d taken in anger what he’d once dreamed of taking in tenderness. The guilt was there, real and ripe even as the sense of betrayal crept back.

  The woman he’d fallen in love with didn’t exist. She’d been a lie even more than an illusion. Now he’d done what even in his wildest moments he’d avoided. He’d made love with a stranger. And God help him, he’d fallen just as deeply in love with her.

  Had he hurt her? He wanted to ask, but held himself back. He couldn’t afford to feel remorse or he would end up making a fool of himself over this new Hannah as well. Pride followed honor. Since he’d sacrificed one to temper and pain, he would hold firm to the other.

  As he rose, he dragged a hand through his hair. How could he love her when he didn’t even know her? How could he still love the woman he knew had never existed?

  He dressed in silence while Hannah lay still as a stone on the bed.

  “Now it seems we’ve used each other,” he murmured.

  She opened her eyes then. There were no tears in them. Thank God she still had the strength for that much. He was standing by the bed, naked from the waist up with the ruined shirt balled in his hand. “We can consider ourselves even.”

  “Can we?” His fingers went white on his shirt. He’d nearly taken a step toward her before he made himself turn and leave her alone.

  Hannah lay and listened to the silence until dawn.

  * * *

  “You have questions,” Armand began as he faced his youngest son. The morning light was strong through the open windows and showed, all too clearly, the marks of a sleepless night on both faces. “I prefer it if you wait to ask them until after I’ve finished.”

  He’d been prepared to demand and to rage. The lines of strain and weariness made his father look suddenly old and much too vulnerable. Again, it was love rather than duty that guided him. “All right.” Because he needed it, Bennett poured coffee and left it black.

  “Will you sit?”

  “No.”

  Armand’s gaze sharpened at the tone. Then he, too, let love hold sway. “I shall.” Once seated, he set his untouched coffee aside. “Two years ago, I sat in this office with Reeve and Malori. You and Alexander were also present. You remember?”

  Bennett paced to the window and looked out. “Yes. We were speaking of Deboque and what could and should be done.”

  “Then you remember that Reeve, even then, had an operative in mind to infiltrate the organization.”

  “I remember, too, that it was decided that the name be kept from Alex and me.” The trace of resentment he had felt then had grown to true bitterness in one night. “And that Malori was not completely satisfied with Reeve’s choice.”

  “Malori has always been one of the most trusted members of the security staff in Cordina. But he’s old-fashioned.” Armand saw no need to add that he, too, had had his doubts. “He was concerned with using a woman.”

  Bennett downed half his coffee. “I felt then, as I feel now, that Alexander and I had a right to know what was being done. More, all of us had the right to know that the woman we accepted as friend was an ISS agent.”

  “I felt then as I feel now—” Armand’s voice, though quiet, held the whip of authority “—that neither of you had a need to know. If I had become ill, Alex, of course, would have been apprised. However—”

  “Do you think because I won’t rule, Cordina is of less importance to me?” Bennett whirled on his father. The fury on his face was lethal. “All of my life I’ve been the younger brother. Alex was born to rule Cordina after you. He was molded for it, just as his son will be. Do you think because of that I cared less, loved less or would have offered less?”

  Armand said nothing for a moment, knowing the words had to be chosen with care, even as they came from the heart. “Bennett, I’ve watched you grow from child to man and have waited for a sign, for a hint that you resented your position. You have been sometimes wild, always reckless and too often indiscreet, but never have I seen anything in you but love and devotion for your country and your family.”

  “Then why, when something threatens both, do you keep your plans from me?”

  There was a headache drumming behind Armand’s temple. He closed his eyes a moment, but didn’t lift a hand to soothe it. “Two years ago, Lady Hannah Rothchild was chosen out of a half dozen highly qualified operatives to infiltrate and destroy Deboque’s organization. We were aware, as she was, of the risks involved, and the time and skill it would take to succeed.”

  “Why her?” Bennett found he didn’t want to think beyond that for a moment. It was an answer he had to have before he could deal with the others.

  “Reeve felt Hannah’s talents were uniquely suited to the operation. She’s been with the ISS for ten years.”

  “Ten years?” Bennett roamed the room again as he tried to take it in. “How is that possible? She’s so young.”

  “She’s second generation,” Armand said mildly. “Her father trained her himself while she was still in school. Lord Rothchild, though semiretired now, is one of the most valued agents in the ISS. He had some part in Reeve’s early training, which was another reason Reeve leaned toward Hannah for this assignment.”

  “Ten years,” Bennett repeated. How many women had she been? How many lies had she told?

  “Apparently she had a natural aptitude for this kind of work.” He saw his son’s jaw set, but went on. “After reading Reeve’s report on her, I had to agree that she was best suited for what we had in mind.”

  “Deboque often uses women,” Bennett murmured.

  “He feels they can be more cunning, even more cruel, than men.” Armand remembered Janet Smithers and the bullet that had been dug out of his son’s flesh. “His preference runs to a certain type, quiet, well-bred, spotless pedigrees.”

  “Hannah.”

  “Yes. It was those qualities in her which weighed the decision in her favor. With the cooperation of the ISS a deep background was created for her. The credentials she was given made it possible for her to slip into Deboque’s company. In two years, she’s moved from messenger to the top of the organization.”

  “The top?” The fear started then, like something foul in the back of his throat. “What do you mean?”

  “She’s met with Deboque himself, and by managing to discredit one of his top men, is now filling that position herself. Reeve explained to you that as far as Deboque knows, she’s here at the palace as his instrument.”

  Bitterness was more palatable than fear. He concentrated on it. “She plays the game very well.”

  “An agent in her position plays the game well or loses her life. You know firsthand that Deboque doesn’t hesitate to kill. Her name and the operation itself were kept in strictest confidence not to protect you or the rest of the family, Bennett, but to protect her.”

  Bennett set his cup down and stopped pacing. “In what way?”

  “Three other agents have been killed trying to do what Hannah has nearly succeeded in doing. The last was butchered.” He watched Bennett’s face pale. He would have spared his son this, as a father. Now, as prince, he could spare him nothing. “By bringing her here in this way, letting you, all of you, believe what Deboque wanted you to believe, Hannah had the only protection we could offer. If she’s discovered, even the ISS can’t protect her. Now that you know all that you know, her risk is greater than ever.”

  In silence, Bennett crossed the room to sit across from his father. Though the turmoil was building all too quickly inside, his face was calm. “I’m in love with her.”

  “Yes.” Armand sat back. “I was afraid you were.”

  “I will not stand still and watch Deboque hurt someone else
I love.”

  “Bennett, there are times, too many times, when our personal feelings can’t influence our actions.”

  “For you.” Bennett’s voice was still calm, but slightly colder. “Perhaps for Alex as well, but not for me. I prefer to kill him myself.”

  Armand felt a ripple of fear, a tingle of pride and controlled both. “If you do anything to interfere with the operation at this point, you could be responsible for Hannah’s death, not Deboque’s.”

  Pushed to his limit, Bennett leaned forward. “Do you understand, I’m in love with her? If you were in my position, could you do nothing?”

  Armand studied his son’s face and remembered the only woman he’d ever loved. “I can only say that I would do whatever was necessary to keep her safe. Even if that meant doing nothing.” He rose and went to his desk. “Read these.” He lifted a small stack of files that carried the stamp of highest security. “These contain background information on Hannah, some of her own reports concerning certain assignments and most recently, her progress with Deboque. I’ll leave you so that you can read them here. They mustn’t leave this room.”

  Bennett rose to accept the files. “Where is she now?”

  He had hoped the question wouldn’t be asked. “She received a message early this morning. She’s gone to Deboque.”

  * * *

  She had to play this one very carefully. Hannah sat with her hands folded on her lap in the elegant salon of Deboque’s rented villa. Though the meeting was on land this time, she knew if her cover hadn’t held up, she was just as much alone as she had been on the yacht.

  If he had a hint of the part she’d played in the events of the evening before, her throat would be slit before she could voice a denial. A risk every agent takes, she reminded herself. To test herself, she lifted the small china pot on the table in front of her and poured coffee. Her hand was steady.

  It was imperative that her mind stay sharp and focused on the assignment.

  Every other thought in her mind was of Bennett.

  “Lady Hannah.” Deboque walked into the salon then shut the double doors at his back. “How delightful to see you again.”

  She added a careful dollop of cream. “The message I received this morning left little option.”

  “Ah, I was brusque.” He crossed to her, taking her hand and brushing his lips over it. “My apologies. The events of last night caused me some distress.”

  “And me.” She drew her hand away. Instinct told her annoyance was the wisest course. “I find myself wondering if I’ve chosen wisely.”

  Deboque chose the seat beside hers, then taking his time, chose a cigarette from a crystal holder. He wore emeralds today. “Meaning?”

  “Only months ago, I found myself in the position of having to clean up for another of your employees.” She sipped coffee. It was hot and Turkish. “Last night, another of them nearly ruined every carefully laid step I’ve taken toward the Bissets.”

  “May I remind you, mademoiselle, you were advised to stay out of the way?”

  “I’ll remind you, monsieur, that I haven’t reached my current position by not looking toward my own interests. If I hadn’t followed Bennett, you and I might even now be sitting in less agreeable quarters.”

  Deboque blew out smoke. “Explain.”

  “Bennett was a bit bored with the play and thought to wait in the American actress’s dressing room until the curtain. Because I was aware that there were plans of some sort in the works, I decided it best to keep close. When the lights went out, I had to decide whether to go back or keep Bennett within reach. If I’d gone back, monsieur, the prince might indeed be dead.”

  “And for that you wish my gratitude?”

  “He might be dead,” Hannah repeated, “and a member of your organization would even now be in custody. Shall I pour you some coffee?”

  “Merci.” He waited patiently while she filled a second cup. At his nod, she added cream.

  Hannah sat back again and folded her ringless hands. “MacGee and the guards were already on their way. I spotted your man.” She made a look of disgust. “He was bumbling his way around with a flashlight. I managed to distract Bennett by playing the hysterical female, but the idiot didn’t take the opportunity to make good his escape. The lights came up again. Bennett saw him and his weapon. You should be flattered that since your release the prince has carried a small-caliber pistol with him. He used it, and for personal reasons, I’m grateful he used it well. Dead men can’t name names.” Playing up the role, she rose. “I ask you now, was the man under orders to kill one of the Bissets? Do you or do you not trust me to complete the contract?”

  Say it! she ordered silently. Say it out loud, say it plainly so that this can be over.

  Smoke curled up in a column toward the ceiling as he tapped the cigarette into an ashtray. “Please, my dear, be calm. The man you speak of may have been told to use initiative, but was never given a specific request. I have confidence in you, of course.”

  “We agreed. I would dispose of the Bissets in return for five million dollars.”

  He smiled, like a generous uncle. “We agreed that if such a thing were to happen, there would be some compensation.”

  “I’m tired of playing games.” As if to prove it, Hannah picked up her bag. “If you won’t speak frankly, if you won’t honor our arrangement, there’s no reason to go on with this.”

  “Sit.” The order came sharp and clear as she walked to the door. Hannah stopped, turned, but didn’t walk back. “You forget yourself. No one who works for me leaves until they are dismissed.”

  She knew there would be men outside the door, to detain or dispose of her at Deboque’s whim. She gambled that he would respect audacity. “Perhaps it’s best if I find other employment then. I’m not accustomed to being dealt only half the
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