The playboy prince, p.15
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       The Playboy Prince, p.15
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  She locked her fingers together. “I know, I promise you whatever happens, Deboque will be punished. If you—”

  “I’m not speaking of Deboque now, but of you, and of Bennett.” He held up a hand before she could speak again. “It is a rare thing for me to be able to speak as only a father. I ask you to allow me that luxury now, here in this room.”

  She drew in a breath and tried to be clear. “I realize Bennett is angry and upset because he wasn’t told the reasons for my being here. I believe he feels a certain responsibility toward me because I’m here to protect his family.”

  “He’s in love with you.”

  “No.” The panic set in again, along with the shame and the desperate desire for it to be true. “That is, he thought, before when he believed me to be . . . At one time he began to feel a certain affection, but when he learned who—what I was, that changed.”

  Armand settled his hands on the arms of his chair. The ring of his office glinted in the lamplight. “My dear, are you any more clear on your feelings for him?”

  She looked up. The dark eyes that watched her were kinder than they had been. Hard yes, he could be hard. But she could see now why his family and his country loved and trusted him. “Your confidence, sir?”

  “You have it, of course.”

  “I love him more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone. If I could change things, if I could go back and be what he thought I was, and only that, I swear to you I would.” There were no tears. She had shed them once and had sworn not to do so again. Instead she looked down at her hands. “Of course, I can’t.”

  “No, we can’t change what we are. When we love, and love deeply, we can accept a great deal. Bennett’s heart is very generous.”

  “I know. I promise you, I won’t hurt him again.”

  His lips curved. She was so young, so valiant. “I have no fear of that. When this is done, I ask that you remain in Cordina for a few more days.”

  “Your Highness, I think it would be best if I returned to England immediately.”

  “We wish you to remain,” he said again, and he no longer spoke as a father. He rose then, extending a hand. “You may want to rest before dinner.”

  Left without a choice, Hannah stood and curtsied. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

  * * *

  Dinner was long and formal. Hannah was introduced to the Minister of State and his wife, as well as a German businessman who had interests in shipping and an ancient Frenchwoman who was some vague connection of the Bissets’ and was visiting Cordina for the holidays. The Frenchwoman spoke in a husky grumble that kept Hannah straining to hear enough to make polite answers. The German spoke in short, loud blasts and was obviously delighted to have an invitation to the Royal Palace. Hannah was grateful that he was across the table so that she could avoid direct conversation with him.

  Bennett wasn’t there at all. A late board meeting at the museum had edged into a dinner for the Equestrian Society. Hannah tried to remember that Claude had been joined by two more guards who would keep Bennett annoyed and protected throughout the evening.

  As the Frenchwoman hissed in her ear again, Hannah could only think Bennett the fortunate one.

  Across the table, Eve sipped sparkling water and listened with apparent fascination as the German regaled her with stories of his business. Only when she turned to pick up her dessert spoon did her eyes meet Hannah’s long enough for the humor to come through. Answering a question in low, polite tones, she rolled her eyes once, quickly, in a gesture that said everything. Then she was smiling at the German again and making him feel fascinating.

  Hannah had to lift her glass to hide the grin. The royal were human after all. Not the same, not ordinary, but human. The child Eve carried might one day rule, but he would also laugh and cry and feel and dream.

  She herself had loved a prince. Hannah picked up her spoon and began to toy with the elegant chocolate and cream concoction in front of her. She’d given her heart to a man who was second in line to one of the few remaining thrones in Europe. In a few days, she could very likely give her life for him.

  For that was the truth of the matter, she thought as the woman beside her droned on. It might have started as duty, to her country and to the organization she had chosen, but when it ended, what she did would be for Bennett.

  It would never be possible to tell him, just as it hadn’t been possible to say as much to his father earlier that evening. If she admitted what she felt to a superior, even with all the planning, all the time lost, she could very well be pulled out.

  So she would say nothing, but she would feel. And feeling as she did, she would see Deboque finished, if she lived. . . . And then, Hannah admitted, it would be a choice between her captaincy and retirement. Fieldwork would be all but out of the question now. She didn’t believe that she could ever maintain the pose of quiet, unassuming Lady Hannah again. Not now that she had loved and been loved by a prince.

  * * *

  It was nearly midnight before escape could be politely made. Hannah deliberated over a hot bath or quick oblivion in bed as she stepped into her room. Eve was insistent about returning to the Center the next day, so she would have no choice but to go along. Would the message come the next day, or would Deboque take her right down to the wire?

  She’d walked into the center of the bedroom when the warning signals began to throb at the base of her neck. There was no one in the room. A quick glance showed her nothing had been disturbed. But . . .

  Hannah took a cautious step back and opened the drawer of the bedside table. She took out her weapon. The light was low and at her back as she began to move toward the adjoining room. The door was slightly ajar, but that could have been done by one of the maids. Her feet were silent on the carpet as she crossed to it. With one hand she pressed on the panel so that it opened slowly and without sound.

  There was nothing in the room beyond—nothing except the neat sitting room that smelled of the gardenias that lay moist and lovely in a bowl.

  So it had been a maid, she thought, relaxing gradually. One of them had set fresh flowers in the sitting room, and—

  It was then she heard a sound, material against material, and tensed again. Keeping the gun secure in her hand, she slid against the wall and into the room.

  The little settee faced away from the door so she didn’t see him until she was fully inside. Bennett lay sprawled on it, his tie unknotted and hanging, his shoes off and his face buried in a blue velvet pillow.

  Hannah swore, but softly, as she lowered the pistol. He looked exhausted, and very much at home, she thought as she lifted a brow. Her first instinct was to tuck a cover around him, but there was still enough of the proper Lady Hannah in her to know that it would never do for Bennett of Cordina to be found snoozing in her sitting room. She started to bend down to him, then remembered the gun in her hand.

  Almost curiously, she turned it over in her hand. It looked like a toy, but had already proven itself lethal. A part of her job, she thought. A part of her life. Yet she knew it was a part Bennett would find unpalatable. Moving back into her bedroom she secured it. She had to wake him and send him on his way, but she didn’t have to keep a physical reminder of their differences close at hand.

  She went back to him, and kneeling by the settee put a hand to his shoulder. “Bennett.” She shook gently and received a mumbled response. Her lips curved. She had to resist the urge to brush at the hair tumbling over his forehead. In sleep, the energy, the amusement and the temper were put to rest. He looked as though he would be perfectly content to cuddle there, half on, half off the little sofa for days. Hannah bent closer and raising her voice gave him a quick, brisk shove. “Bennett, wake up.”

  He half opened his eyes, but Hannah noted that they focused quickly. Reaching up, he grabbed her earlobe. “Haven’t you any respect for a dead man?”

  “Ow!” She grabbed his wrist in defense, but she was already several inches closer. “If it’s respect you want, I’ll ca
ll a couple of the servants and have them carry you out, in state. Meanwhile, let go or I’ll have to show you how easy it is to cause unconsciousness by applying pressure to certain nerves.”

  “Hannah, you’ve got to learn not to be so flighty and romantic.”

  “It’s in the blood.” She sat back on her heels to massage her ear. “Bennett, why are you sleeping on my settee instead of in your own bed?”

  “I don’t know who designed this thing. Another foot longer and a man could be comfortable.” He dragged himself up a bit so that his feet dangled over the arm. “I wanted to talk to you.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “When I got in, I saw that we still had guests. I took the coward’s way and used the back stairs.”

  “I see. And Madame Beaulieu spoke so highly of you.”

  “Madame Beaulieu doesn’t speak, she hisses.”

  “I know. I sat next to her at dinner.”

  “Better you than me.”

  “How gallant.”

  “You want gallant?” With one swing, he had her off the floor and stretched on top of him. He cupped the back of her neck with his hand, pressing as his mouth took hers quickly, completely.

  “What does that have to do with gallantry?” she managed after a moment.

  He smiled and ran a finger down her nose. “All the other women I’ve known have been impressed by it.”

  Hannah drew back another inch. Smiling, she ran a finger down his throat, then up again. “About those nerves I mentioned.”

  He caught one wrist, then the other. “All right then, tomorrow I’ll look for a puddle to toss a cape over.”

  “A safe enough promise since it hasn’t rained in days.” She started to shift, but he brought her close again.

  “Stay. I haven’t seen you at all today.” His lips were warm and coaxing against her cheek. “Do you know, Hannah, a man has to have you in his arms, has to have his lips against your skin before he catches your scent. Do you do that on purpose?”

  She wore no perfume. It had to do with leaving no traces behind. “You said you . . .” He moved his lips to her ear. “You wanted to talk to me.”

  “I lied.” His teeth closed gently over her earlobe. “I wanted to make love with you. In fact, I had a devil of a time keeping my mind off that thought throughout a long and frustrating board meeting and a noisy dinner.” He drew down the zipper at the back of her dress. “I had to give a speech.” He found silk, thin, fragile silk, beneath the linen. “It was difficult not to babble when I kept imagining myself here, with you.”

  “I don’t want to interfere with your official duties.” With her eyes closed, she pressed her lips to his neck and let herself enjoy the gentle stroking of his hands.

  “But you do, ma mie. I sat listening to the huffing and puffing of ten stuffy men who are more interested in paintings than people, and I imagined you sitting there with your hands neatly folded and your eyes solemn. And you were wearing nothing but your hair.”

  She’d slipped off his tie, but paused now on the third button of his shirt. “In the boardroom?”

  “In the boardroom.” Would he ever stop being fascinated by that dry, serious tone and those dark eyes? “You can see why I had such a problem concentrating.” He didn’t tell her he’d also dealt with unexpected tingles of fear as he’d pictured her with Deboque, at his mercy, helpless, alone. It was an image he hadn’t been able to drown out in innumerable cups of coffee or glasses of wine. “So I came in here to wait for you.”

  “And fell asleep.”

  “I’d hoped you’d see the irony and reverse the fairy tale. Wake the sleeping prince with a kiss. Instead I got a shove.”

  With her hands framing his face, she drew his head up. “Let me make up for it now then.”

  She touched her lips to his, brushed, retreated, teased then touched again. She felt him tense his fingers at her back as she toyed with his mouth. Her tongue traced, her teeth nipped as heat built to a flash point. She didn’t object when he pressed her head closer, when his mouth closed hungrily over hers. If he had longed for her through the day, his need had been no sharper than her own. They would take the night hours together.

  She had his shirt unbuttoned and open. Her dress had slipped down, revealing the shimmer of honey-colored lace beneath. Bennett let his fingertips play over it while he absorbed the contrasts and delights that were his Hannah. He drew the pins out of her hair so that it flowed over her shoulders and his. The scent of it was as light and elusive as the scent of her skin. What witchery she had was an innate part of her rather than something that came from bottles and pots.

  Fresh, real, his. Delirious from her, he tugged the dress down her body and let it fall to the rug.

  And his fingers slid over the stiletto strapped to her thigh.

  She stiffened, remembering the weapon the instant he discovered it. Passion cooled so swiftly, she shivered. When she drew away he didn’t stop her.

  “Bennett, I’m sorry.” She’d forgotten there could be no apologies, no regret. His eyes were on hers, blank and flat, as he sat up. Because there was nothing for her to say, no way for her to remove the barrier, she lapsed into silence.

  Her hair was a riot of honey-toned waves that fell over her shoulders and the silk that echoed the color. Her eyes, darkly, richly green, were solemn now as she waited for him to speak. Or to leave.

  Fighting the first stirrings of anger, he let his gaze pass over her, the milk-pale skin, the slender curves, the delicate silk. She was what she’d convinced herself she was not—beautiful, stunning, desirable. On one long slim thigh strapped by thin strong leather, was a knife associated with dark alleys and smoky bars. Saying nothing, Bennett reached for it. She automatically caught his wrist.

  “Bennett—”

  “Be quiet.” His voice was as flat and cool as his eyes. Hannah let her fingers fall away. Slowly, he drew the weapon from its sheath. It was warmed from her skin, small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. Until he pushed the button and the thin blade slid silently, lethally out. It caught the lamplight and glistened silver.

  She wore it intimately, he thought. He wanted to ask her if she’d used it, but a part of him knew it was best to keep the question to himself for now. It weighed nothing, but sat heavy as lead in his hand.

  “Why do you need this in the palace?”

  She pushed a strap back onto her shoulder, then rubbed the skin there that was growing colder and colder. “I’m expecting word from Deboque. I can’t be sure when or where it will come from. Because I may have to respond to it immediately, it’s best to be prepared.”

  “What kind of word?”

  “I think you should ask—”

  “I’m asking you.” His voice carried a lash he used rarely, but effectively. “What kind of word, Hannah?”

  Hannah drew her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them and told him everything. There could be no objection now, she reminded herself. He already knew too much.

  “So we sacrifice a part of the east wing. Camouflage.” He twisted the blade under the light. He knew, without doubt, he could have plunged it into Deboque’s heart.

  “The more genuine things seem, the more easily Deboque will be convinced. He won’t part with five million dollars until he’s sure Cordina is left without an heir.”

  “He would kill the children,” Bennett murmured. “Even Alexander’s unborn child. All for what? Revenge, power, money?”

  “For all three. He would have his revenge on your father, his own power would grow from the chaos, and money would follow. It’s his greed that will topple him this time, Bennett. I promise you.”

  It was the passion in her voice that had him looking at her again. Her eyes were wide and dry, but the emotion almost leapt from them. To protect his family, he thought as he tightened his hand on the handle of the stiletto. To protect herself. As suddenly as he’d fallen in love, he realized the full truth. Whatever she did, whatever she used didn’t matter, as long as she kept herself safe
.

  He pressed the release and sent the blade back home. And he would see to that himself. After setting the knife aside, he reached over to unsnap the strap from her thigh. Her skin had gone cold, he discovered, though the room was warm. It stirred something in him that he recognized again as a need to protect. She didn’t move, didn’t speak and flinched only slightly when he rose. She was waiting for him to reject her, to dismiss her, to leave her.

  He felt both her surprise and her doubt as he gathered her up into his arms. “You should trust me more, Hannah,” he said quietly.

  When she relaxed against him, when she let her head rest on his shoulder, he carried her to bed.

  Chapter 12

  The package was delivered in the most pedestrian of ways. It was carried by Dartmouth Shippers, one of Deboque’s less profitable but most useful tentacles. It was marked with the return address of Hannah’s aunt in England and stamped FRAGILE.

  The only difficulty came from the fact that Eve was present when it was delivered.

  “Oh, what fun!” Eve hovered around the package. “It’s a Christmas present, isn’t it? Why don’t you open it?”

  “It isn’t Christmas,” Hannah said mildly, and set the package on the shelf in her closet. She would turn it over to Reeve at the first opportunity.

  “Hannah, how can you be so casual about it?” With nerves just below the surface, Eve poked around the room. “Didn’t you ever search under beds and in closets for packages at this time of year?”

  “No.” Hannah smiled and went back to arranging the flowers Eve had brought her. “I never wanted to spoil Christmas morning.”

  “It doesn’t spoil it, it only adds to the excitement.” Eve glanced back at the closet. “Couldn’t we just peek?”

  “Absolutely not, though I can tell you the package probably contains five dozen homemade cookies—as hard as bricks. Aunt Honoria is nothing if not predictable.”

  “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.” Moody, Eve wandered to the window. She laid one hand protectively over the swell of her belly and fidgeted nervously at the curtain with the other. “The ballroom’s being scrubbed and polished for the holiday, the tree’s already trimmed. If I walk by the kitchens there are the most glorious scents, but it just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”

  “Are you homesick, Eve?”

  “Homesick?” Puzzled for a moment, she turned around, then smiled. “Oh, no. Alex and Marissa are here. I do hope my sister manages to get away from her art gallery for a week or two, but I don’t miss the States really. It’s just that everyone tries to pamper me, protect me by hiding things.” Sighing, she moved to Hannah’s dresser to toy with the little enameled box Bennett had admired. “I know how tense and worried Alex is, no matter how hard he tries to pretend everything’s fine. Even when I talk to Bennett, his mind only seems to be half with me. It has to stop, Hannah. I can’t bear to see the people I love torn apart this way.”

  She too would pamper, and protect by hiding things, but it was the only comfort Hannah could allow herself to give. “It’s this Deboque, isn’t it?”

  Eve set the box down again. “How can one man bear so much hate? How can one man cause so much pain? I know, though after years I still can’t really understand, I know that he won’t be satisfied until he’s destroyed us.”

  “It isn’t possible for most of us to understand real evil,” Hannah began, though she could and did understand it. “But I think we only add to it when we let our lives be affected so strongly.”

  “You’re right, of course.” Eve held out both hands. “Do you know how grateful I am that you’re here? Without you I’m afraid I’d be moody and brooding all of the time. Brie’s coming later today with all the children. We still have florists and musicians to deal with.” She squeezed Hannah’s hands as she drew a deep breath. “I hate being helpless. What I’d like to do is to go up and spit in Deboque’s eye, but if all I can do is make things easier here, then I’ll have to be content with that.”

  Hannah vowed, at the first opportunity, to spit in Deboque’s eye for her. “Why don’t you take me up to the ballroom and show me what’s been done? I’d like to help.” She wanted to help—and she wanted Eve away from the package that sat on the shelf in the closet.

  “All right, but I want you to come to my room first. I have a present for you.”

  “Presents are for Christmas,” Hannah reminded her as they walked to the door.

  “This one can’t wait.” She had to get her mind off the undercurrents that were pressing on them all. Dr. Franco had already warned her that her tension could affect the child. “Pregnant princesses must be indulged.”

  “How clever of you to use that to your advantage when it suits you.” They climbed a short flight of stairs and crossed to the next wing. “You said Gabriella would be here soon. Is the whole family coming today?”

  “In force, this afternoon.”

  Hannah relaxed a little. It would be easy to transfer the package to Reeve and continue on with the plan. “Has Bennett put his treasure in the vault?”

  “Treasure? Oh, his yo-yo.” With her first easy laugh of the day, Eve entered her bedroom. “He adores that child, you know. I’ve never known anyone quite as good with children as Bennett. He puts an enormous amount of time into the Aid for Handicapped Children even though it takes away from his free days with his horses.” She walked into the adjoining dressing room as she spoke. “Another reason I suppose I’ve been moody is that I know Bennett should be on top of the world right now, and he looks as though he rarely closes his eyes.”

  “On top of the world?”

  “It’s taken him six months and a lot of frustration to get approval for the children’s wing in the museum. He finally pushed it over the top at the board meeting the other night, but not without a lot of work and fast talking. He didn’t mention it to you?”

  “No,” she said slowly. “No, he didn’t mention it.”

 
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