The playboy prince, p.14
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       The Playboy Prince, p.14
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “What a lovely spot.” Hannah reined in, but found herself not quite courageous enough to dismount. “Every time I think I’ve seen the most beautiful place in Cordina, I find another. Do you often come here?”

  “Not often enough.” He’d secured his horse and now walked to her. Saying nothing, he held up a hand.

  Here was the choice he’d refused to give her the night before. Perhaps he gave it to her now because he knew the decision had already been made. Hannah curled her fingers into his, held a moment, then dismounted. The silence continued while she tethered her horse beside his.

  “I came here when my mother died.” He didn’t know why it seemed important that he tell her. “Not to grieve really, but because she always loved places like this. See the little white flowers along the bank?” His hand was on hers again as they moved closer to the stream. “She called them angel wings. They’re sure to have a complicated Latin name, but angel wings seemed right.”

  Bending, he plucked one. It was no bigger than his thumb with thin petals cupped around a tiny blue center. “Every summer, before I’d have to go back to Oxford, I’d come here. For some reason it made leaving easier.” He tucked the flower into her hair. “When I was a child, I thought the fairies lived here. I used to look for them in the clover and under toadstools.”

  She smiled and touched a hand to his cheek. “Did you ever find one?”

  “No.” With his hand on her wrist, he turned his head to press his lips to her palm. “But I think they’re still here. That’s why this place is magic. That’s why I want to make love with you here.”

  Their lips were still an inch apart as they lowered to the grass. They remained a breath apart as they began to undress each other. Kneeling, gazes locked, they unfastened buttons. Sunlight dappled over skin as material was pushed aside. Their lips brushed, then clung.

  He couldn’t stop the rush of power, the flood of need. In seconds they were rolling over the grass. He caressed her everywhere, seeking, finding, exploiting until her moans shuddered into his mouth. The need to take her quickly, fiercely, couldn’t be fought down, especially when her fingers were already tugging at the clasp of his jeans.

  They waited only until all barriers were removed, then joined in a rocketing, furious journey that left them both sated.

  Naked, with the grass tickling her back, Hannah looked up at the sunlight filtering through the leaves overhead. It had been moonlight before and she’d experienced a range of feelings from anger, shame, ecstasy and back to shame again. Today, in the sunlight, she no longer felt the shame.

  What was between them could be, for this short time, between the man and the woman. Tomorrow they would be prince and agent again.

  “What are you thinking?”

  She was able to smile and turn her head toward him. “That this is a beautiful spot.”

  He’d wanted to bring her there before. He’d imagined it. How he would slowly, patiently, show her the pleasures of loving. Shaking off the mood, he drew her closer. This was a different day, and a different woman. “Are you warm enough?”

  “Hmmm. But I . . .” she trailed off, knowing she’d sound foolish.

  “But?”

  “Well, I’ve never—” How to phrase it? “I’ve never lain naked in the grass under the sun before.”

  He laughed, not even realizing that the tone and the feeling behind it had come from the woman he’d first known. “Life should always include new experiences.”

  “I’m sure you’ve found yourself naked in all manner of unusual places.”

  The dry voice delighted him. Rolling over, he pressed a kiss to her mouth then drew back just to look at her. Her hair was fanned out over the dark grass. The tiny white flower was tangled in it as though it had grown there. Bruising shadows under her eyes made her look both wanton and delicate, as though she were a virgin who’d just spent a night being initiated into womanhood.

  This was how he had once imagined her, how he had once wanted, how he had once loved.

  “You’re so beautiful.”

  She smiled, relaxed enough to be amused. “Now that I’ve never been.”

  He traced a fingertip along her cheekbone. “How unobservant of you, Hannah. Or how foolish. Making yourself look less attractive doesn’t change the truth. Flawless skin.” He traced his lips over it as if to taste. “These elegant bones that make a man wonder if you’re made of flesh and bone or glass. Those calm, intelligent eyes that drove me mad wondering how they might darken and cloud if I could find the right way to touch you. And this.” He rubbed a finger over her lips. “So soft, so generous.” He lowered his head but only traced the shape with his tongue. “Do you remember the first time I kissed you?”

  Her breath was already shaking, her eyes already closing. “Yes. I remember.”

  “I wondered how it was that such a quiet woman could make my knees weak with just a taste.”

  “Kiss me now,” she demanded and drew him down to her.

  It wasn’t what she expected. There was tenderness instead of passion, patience rather than urgency. She murmured against his mouth in confusion. Bennett only stroked his fingers over her face and waited for her to relax. More, he waited for her to accept. Even when he deepened the kiss it remained gentle. The fire was there but smoldering rather than blazing.

  He was making love to the Hannah he’d understood, she realized and wanted to weep. There was lust for one, affection for the other. How could she fight another woman when the woman was herself?

  On a trembling sigh, she let her mind empty. She would give him whatever it was he needed today.

  He felt the change—the slow, almost fluid surrender. With a murmured approval, he pressed his lips to her throat. He wanted to show her there could be more than flash and speed. If they only had a few hours, then he would use them to give her whatever sweetness she would accept from him.

  Lightly he stroked the smoothness of her body. What he’d demanded from her the night before, he now requested, coaxed, offered. He took the time to watch her arousal grow as the sun filtered down on her face and the stream rushed by beside them. He murmured to her as he kissed her throat. There were promises, endearments, reassurances. She answered him in words so fragile they almost dissolved in the air.

  She’d never been loved like this before—as though she was precious, as though she was special. Even with her mind fogging over she could hear the gentle hiss of water running over rock. She could smell the grass and the wild sweet flowers scattered through it. With her eyes half-opened, the sunlight seemed gold and bountiful over her lover’s skin. She ran her hand over it, finding it smooth and taut and warm.

  Her lover. Hannah brought his mouth back to hers and gave him everything that was in her heart. If the place was magic, then so was the moment. Dreams hadn’t been a part of her life for too long to remember, but she opened herself to them now.

  She was so giving, so pliant. He’d wanted too badly to feel this kind of emotion from her. It went far beyond heat, far above desire. She touched him as though she’d been waiting for him all of her life. She kissed him as though he were her first and only lover. The more she gave, the more he found in himself to give back. The shadows shifted and lengthened over them as they stroked and offered and discovered.

  Even when he slipped into her, it was slow and easy. The passion that had built was still harnessed by stronger emotions. They moved together in a harmony that seemed almost painful in its perfection while she framed his face with her hands and his lips met hers.

  They glided over the top and settled softly.

  * * *

  “You wanted to see me, Monsieur Deboque?”

  “Yes, Ricardo.” Deboque lifted his teapot and poured. He admired the British habit of tea in the late afternoon. It was so civilized. “I have a little shopping list for you.” With one hand he gestured toward the desk by the window. “I’d like you to supervise it personally.”

  “Of course.” Always pleased to be given tr
ust, Ricardo picked up the list written on heavy cream-colored paper. His brow lifted only a fraction. “Shall I requisition this from within the company?”

  “Please.” Deboque added cream to his tea. “I prefer to keep this at home, so to speak. The delivery should be set up with Lady Hannah on . . . Thursday, I’d say. It’s no use passing the merchandise along to her too soon.”

  “She risks much, smuggling such a—volatile package into the palace.”

  “I have implicit trust in our British friend, Ricardo.” He remembered the way she’d sat across from him that morning. Trim, tidy and cultured. It gave his plans such a pleasant touch when they were carried out by delicate hands. “She has a certain style, wouldn’t you say?”

  “Class, even when so quietly cloaked, is still class, monsieur.”

  “Precisely.” Deboque smiled and sipped at his tea. “I have no doubt she will carry out her objective with class.” He sipped his tea again and sighed. “I do admire the British, Ricardo. So traditional, so resilient. Not as passionate as the French, but so wonderfully pragmatic. In any case, see that the merchandise is shipped from the address on that list. I don’t wish it to come through my hands.”

  “Of course.”

  “I’m preparing an itinerary, Ricardo. We’ll be sailing the end of next week. I’ll see Lady Hannah once more. You’ll see to the details?”

  “As you wish.”

  “Thank you, Ricardo. Oh, by the way, did you see that a wreath was sent to Bouffe’s funeral?”

  “Roses as you requested, monsieur.”

  “Excellent.” Deboque chose one of the little sugared biscuits from the Wedgwood plate. “You’re very dependable.”

  “I try, monsieur.”

  “Have a pleasant evening then, Ricardo. Do let me know if we get any further word on the accident at the theater. I’m very uncomfortable with the current report.”

  “I will. Good evening, monsieur.”

  Deboque sat back, nibbling on the cookie. Ricardo continued to please him a great deal. An intelligent man with sociopathic tendencies was an excellent addition to his staff. Deboque was certain Ricardo would be very grateful to have the assignment of dealing with Hannah when her job was completed. It was tempting, but Deboque discarded it.

  He would deal with Hannah himself. After all, the least he could do after she’d given him his fondest wish was to see she died as painlessly as possible.

  Chapter 11

  Hannah appeared very calm as she sipped tea in the library. She listened to Reeve give an updated report to Malori, filling in occasionally when requested to, then lapsing back into silence.

  Bennett had started to show her the library once. Then they’d detoured into the music room. And he’d kissed her. Was that when her life had really begun to change? she wondered. Had it been then, or the day on the beach when he’d given her a shell? Perhaps it had been that first night in the gardens.

  “Do you agree, Hannah?”

  She snapped back, cursing herself for letting her mind wander at such a crucial time. They had only thirty minutes for the briefing, half of which was already gone. Even within the walls of the palace it was dangerous for them to meet.

  “I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?”

  Armand had been watching her, wondering if her shoulders were strong enough to hold the fate of so much. “The last few days have been a strain.” There wasn’t criticism in his voice but concern. Hannah would have preferred the first.

  “The last two years have been a strain, Your Highness.” Then she lifted her shoulders in a gesture that was more acceptance than dismissal.

  “If you’re beginning to wear under it,” Malori said in his clipped, no-nonsense voice, “it’s best we know now.”

  “I don’t wear.” Her eyes met his without wavering. “I believe my record shows that.”

  Before Malori could speak again, Reeve cut in. She was wearing, he knew, but he had to gamble she’d hold out for a few more days. “If we could backtrack? We can assume that Deboque has already ordered the supplies you requested. An educated guess on where he’d procure them?”

  “Athens,” she said immediately. “I feel strongly that he’d draw from within his own organization. He feels totally secure, invulnerable if it comes to that. He wouldn’t want to risk ordering from outside sources. From my other reports, we know that he keeps a warehouse in Athens. He has others, of course, but I think he’d go there because of its proximity to Cordina.”

  “We’ll check our contact there and see if there’s news of any explosives being moved.” Malori noted it down. “With luck we’ll close down his Athens branch once we have him here.”

  “The ISS won’t move on Athens, Paris, London or Bonn until we have an airtight case on Deboque here.” Hannah set down her tea. “That’s a button I push, monsieur.”

  “Bien.” Malori obviously didn’t like it, but nodded.

  “Will the case be strong enough when Hannah receives the explosives?” Armand glanced at Hannah, then at Reeve. “Hannah has taken the contract, requested the supplies. Once they are delivered, can that be the end of it?”

  Hannah started to speak, then subsided. She would let Reeve explain. He was family. “We would have enough for an arrest, possibly for an arraignment. Even with the supplies being traced back to Athens or another of Deboque’s companies, it wouldn’t be enough for a conspiracy conviction. He’s careful enough to divorce himself from business dealings of this kind.”

  Business dealings, Armand thought as he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “And his request that Hannah assassinate my family?”

  “His hypothetical theory of what might happen if such a thing occurred,” Reeve corrected. “Your Highness, I’m aware, very aware, of the frustration of not being able to close in on the evidence we have now. We had him once for over a decade, and it didn’t stop him. If we want to crush Deboque once and for all, sever all these strings and hack away his control in Europe, we have to have solid and indisputable evidence of murder and conspiracy. Hannah will give us that in a matter of days.”

  Armand drew out a cigarette and shifted his gaze to Hannah. “How?”

  “The payoff.” She felt herself on solid ground again. It helped to have Malori there, sharp-eyed and just a bit disapproving. “When Deboque is convinced I’ve completed the job, he’ll pay me off. As soon as money changes hands, we’ve got him.”

  “He’s not a fool. You agree?”

  “No, Your Highness, he’s not a fool.”

  “But you will convince him you have murdered my family.”

  “Yes. If you would look at this diagram, sir?” She rose and waited for him to accompany her to a table. With Reeve’s help, she stretched out a long roll of paper. “The blueprints I smuggled to Deboque show this wing as occupied by Prince Alexander and his family. I gave Deboque the information that Princess Gabriella and her family would also be staying here during the days before the Christmas Ball.”

  “I see. In truth, my son’s family’s wing is here.” He skimmed his finger to the opposite side of the drawing.

  “The night before the ball, I’ll set some charges here, and here.” She laid a fingertip on the areas. “They’ll be much smaller than what Deboque assumes, but with Reeve’s special effects added, it should be quite a show. There will be some damage, sir, but it will appear much worse, particularly from the outside, than it really is. You’ll need to do some replastering and painting.”

  He lifted a brow, but she couldn’t tell if he was amused. “There are areas of the palace that could do with some redecorating.”

  “It will be imperative, of course, to clear this wing. Discreetly.”

  “Of course.”

  “Ten minutes before the explosion, I will leave to meet with Deboque or his agent. The payment will be made after he considers the job done.”

  “Have you considered that he would want to have the deaths verified before he pays you?”

  “Yes.” Hannah straigh
tened away from the diagram. “To some extent we’ll use the press. In addition, I’m making it clear that payment must be made that night, as well as arrangements for my passage out of the country. Deboque has invited me to sail with him. I shall accept.” She pressed her lips together as Malori grumbled. “The money will change hands because he’ll believe I’ll be easily accessible if anything has gone wrong.”

  “And will you be?”

  “I’ll be with him.”

  “The ISS will be covering both Deboque’s villa and his yacht,” Reeve cut In. “The moment we have Hannah’s signal, we move.”

  “There is no other way?”

  Again there was concern. This time Hannah found herself laying a hand on the prince’s arm. On the arm of Bennett’s father. “We could perhaps tie him to other crimes. With the information I’ve been able to dig up in the last two years, we would have something, but it would take months, even years and we would have no guarantee. This is the only way, Your Highness, to stop him once and for all.”

  With a nod, the prince looked over at Reeve. “You agree?”

  “Yes.”

  “Malori?”

  “It is more dramatic, and certainly more risky than one would like, but yes, Your Highness.”

  “Then I will presume that you two will see to whatever details have yet to be seen to. I will expect reports every four hours.”

  Recognizing dismissal Malori bowed. Even as Reeve rolled up the diagram again, Hannah was preparing to curtsy.

  “Hannah, I’d like another moment, please.”

  “Yes, Your Highness.” She stood by the table, stiff and tense as the two other men left them alone. He would know of her feelings for Bennett, Hannah thought. Even in the brief time she’d been in Cordina, she’d learned that Armand was both astute and observant. He didn’t merely rule from a throne, but behind a desk and in boardrooms. If his country was at peace and prosperous, it was largely because he knew how to govern, how to make choices and how to remain objective.

  Yes, he would know, she thought again. And he would not approve. She was European. She was an aristocrat. But she was by choice and by profession a spy.

  “You’re uncomfortable,” Armand began. “Sit, please.”

  In silence she took a seat and waited.

  She looked like a dove, he thought. A small gray dove who expected and accepted the fact that she was about to be mauled by a fox. Studying her, he had difficulty believing she would be the one to end the turmoil that had haunted his family for more than a decade.

  “Reeve has confidence in you.”

  “I can promise it’s not misplaced, Your Highness.” She nearly relaxed. It wasn’t about Bennett, but Deboque.

  “Why did you agree to take this assignment?”

  Her brow lifted because it seemed such a simple question with such a simple answer. “I was asked.”

  “And had the right to refuse?”

  “Yes, sir. In such matters an agent always has a choice.”

  A prince didn’t. He understood the difference, yet still didn’t envy her. “You took the assignment because your superiors requested it.”

  “Yes, and because what Deboque does here has affected and could continue to affect my country and the rest of Europe. A terrorist, in whatever garb he chooses, remains a terrorist. England wants Deboque’s hands tied, tightly.”

  “Your first consideration is country.”

  “It always has been.”

  He nodded again, knowing this could bring both joy and misery. “Did you choose your profession because you looked for adventure?”

  Now she relaxed completely and laughed. The moment she did, Armand saw what had captivated his son. “Pardon, sir, I realize that the word ‘spy’ conjures up all sorts of glamorous images: foggy docks, Parisian alleyways, nickel-plated revolvers and fast cars. In truth, it’s often tedious. In the past two years, I’ve done more work on telephones and computers than the average secretary.”

  “You wouldn’t deny the danger involved.”

  “No.” She sighed a little. “No. But for every hour of danger, there’s a year of legwork and preparation. As for Deboque—Reeve, Malori, the ISS, have taken this plan step-by-step.”

  “Still, in the end, you’ll be alone.”

  “That’s my job. I’m good at it.”

  “Of that I have no doubt. Under normal circumstances, I would worry less.”

  “Your Highness, I assure you everything that can be done is being done.”

  He was aware of the truth of it and that, for the moment, his hands were tied. “And if a mistake is made, how will I comfort my son?”

 
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