The playboy prince, p.16
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       The Playboy Prince, p.16
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “It’s been his pet project for a couple of years. It took him months to find the right architect, one who’d mesh practicality with the essence of what Bennett wanted to do. Then, because the board wouldn’t give an inch, he had the plans drawn up at his own expense. They’re wonderful.” Eve came back into the room carrying a long box. “You should ask him to see them sometime. He wanted it open, lots of windows so that the kids wouldn’t feel closed in. The board mumbled and grumbled when he talked of sculptures the children could make contact with and illustrations from storybooks instead of Rubenses and Renoirs and Rodins under glass.”

  “I didn’t realize he was so . . . involved.”

  “Whatever Bennett does he does with total involvement. His idea was to introduce children to art through media they could understand and enjoy. Then there’s a section that’s reserved for paintings and models the children make themselves.”

  Eve set the box on the bed and smiled. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about it. Usually no one’s safe. It’s taken him two years of planning and six months of fighting to get this project off the ground.”

  “It sounds lovely.” She felt her heart twist and expand and fill with more love. “One often thinks of him as a man only interested in horses and the next party.”

  “He enjoys the image, but there’s more to Bennett than that. I thought that the two of you had gotten quite close.”

  “Bennett’s very kind.”

  “Hannah, don’t disappoint me.” A little tired, Eve sat on the edge of the bed. “He watches you walk out of a room and waits for you to come into one.”

  “He does?”

  “Yes.” Now she grinned. “He does. With all the anxiety and all the tension of the last weeks, at least I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Bennett fall in love. You do care, don’t you?”

  “Yes.” It was almost over. Some deceptions were no longer necessary. “I’ve never known anyone like him.”

  “There isn’t anyone like him.”

  “Eve, I don’t want you to think, or to hope, for something that isn’t going to happen.”

  “I’m entitled to think and hope as I choose.” She lay a hand on the box beside her and patted the lid. “But for now, open your present.”

  “Is this a royal command or a request?”

  “Whatever it takes to get you to open it. Please, I’m dying to see if you like it.”

  “Well, it’s against my principles to open a present before Christmas, but . . .” Giving in, Hannah lifted the lid. She pushed aside the layers of tissue paper, then stood staring.

  It glittered like a jewel and shimmered like fire. The dress was the rich, luscious green of emeralds with thousands and thousands of tiny beads that caught the afternoon light.

  “Take it out,” Eve insisted, then too impatient for Hannah, drew it out of the box herself.

  The silk swayed, whispered and settled. It was cut straight, with a high neck that glistened with its beaded band at the throat. The arms would be bare well onto the shoulders as would the back before the material draped again and followed a long line to the floor. It was a dress made to glitter under chandeliers and shimmer under moonlight.

  “Tell me you like it. I’ve driven the dressmaker crazy for a month.”

  “It’s beautiful.” Tentatively Hannah reached out. The dress shivered with life at the barest touch. “Eve, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what to say.”

  “Say you’ll wear it to the Christmas Ball.” Delighted with herself Eve turned Hannah toward the mirror and held the dress in front of her. “Look what it does to your eyes! I knew it.” Laughing, she pushed the dress into Hannah’s hands so she could step back and take it in. “Yes, I was sure of it. With that skin of yours . . . Oh yes,” she said as she tapped a finger to her lips. “Bennett’s going to take one look and babble like an idiot. I can’t wait to see it.”

  “I don’t think I should—”

  “Of course you should, and you will because I refuse to take no for an answer.” She stepped forward, eyes narrowed to pull free a lock of Hannah’s hair. “My hairdresser’s going to have a whack at you, too.”

  “That sounds a little ominous.” As much as she longed to, she couldn’t let herself go. The plain and proper Lady Hannah Rothchild wouldn’t have had the nerve to wear such a dress. “Eve, it’s lovely, you’re lovely, but I don’t think I’m made for a dress like this.”

  “I’m never wrong.” Eve brushed off denials with a careless flick of her wrist. She may have been a princess for only two years, but she’d always been determined. “I’ve spent too long in the theater not to know what suits and what doesn’t. Trust me, and if that’s too much, do me a favor as a friend.”

  They had become friends, no matter what the initial reasons were or the ultimate goal. What harm would it do to accept? It was very possible that she wouldn’t even be in Cordina for the ball. “I’ll feel like Cinderella,” she murmured, and wished it could be so.

  “Good. And you should remember the clock doesn’t always strike twelve.”

  * * *

  But it did. Hannah remembered Eve’s words as she and Reeve moved silently through the palace. The game was almost up, and so was her time.

  The package had contained the explosives she’d requested and a coded message. She was to make her move that night and meet Deboque’s agent at the docks at 1:00 a.m. The payoff would come then.

  “This has to work,” Hannah muttered as she carefully set the first charge. The equipment she used now was ISS-approved. The package she’d received was already being traced. Deboque would soon lose Athens and very much more.

  “From outside the walls, it’ll look as though the fire’s burning out of control,” Reeve said, working as quickly and competently as she. “The blasts are rigged for more noise than power. We’ll blow out a few windows and put on a hell of a show while Malori and his men will remain here to bank it if necessary.”

  “Is the prince with them now?”

  “Yes, Armand is filling the rest of the family in. Malori objects, but I think you’re right. No harm can come from them knowing what’s under way at this point, and a lot of anxiety can be relieved.” He thought of Gabriella. After tonight, perhaps even the nightmares would fade.

  “I couldn’t bear to think of Eve waking up to the explosion and thinking it Deboque’s doing. And Bennett? He’s safe in the family wing?”

  “Bennett’s safe,” he said, and left it at that. “I’m giving you ten minutes. That’s enough time for you to get off the grounds. The dock’s secure, so that if anything goes down there, we’ll be on top of you. I’ll be on the boat that has Deboque’s yacht under surveillance. We’ll move in the moment we have your signal. Hannah, I know the wire’s risky. If you’re searched—”

  “If I’m searched, I’ll deal with it.” The mike was an ISS masterpiece that resembled an intricately worked locket that rested inches below the pulse in Hannah’s throat.

  “If he sees through this, he’ll move fast.”

  “I’ll move faster.” She laid a hand on his when he started to speak again. “Reeve, I have a stake in this too. I don’t want to die.”

  He looked at her for a moment as a woman. “I have a reputation for keeping my partners alive.”

  She was grateful he could make her smile. “I’m counting on it. But if something goes wrong, would you give Bennett a message for me?”

  “Of course.”

  “Tell him . . .” She hesitated, unused to trusting her feelings to anyone. The clock struck the hour, midnight, and she prayed the magic would hold. “Tell him I loved him, both parts of me loved him. And there are no regrets.”

  She left through the main door and drove slowly toward the gates. In minutes, the guards who’d not been informed of the camouflage would react in precisely the way it was expected. Anyone watching the palace would see the shock and the action. For now, she passed through the gates with only the briefest of checks.
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  She kept an eye on her watch as she drove, hearing the minutes tick off and thinking of Bennett. He would be safe now. Whatever happened that night, he and his family would be safe. If Deboque paid her, he would be arrested for conspiracy. If he killed her, he would be arrested for the murder of an ISS agent. The end justified the means.

  Hannah stopped the car, waited and heard the explosion. Malori had promised loud, and had delivered. She opened the door and stood beside the car a moment. The palace was a dim white blur against the night sky, but the east wing was lit like day. The fire was impressive from here, and knowing that none of Deboque’s men could get much closer, she was satisfied. Within twenty minutes one of Malori’s men would leak word that the Royal Family, save Armand, had perished in the explosion.

  By the time she arrived, the docks were deserted. Word of trouble had already spread this far. Hannah parked her car in the shadows, then left it behind to wait in the light. She made an excellent target.

  * * *

  The boat anchored off the coast appeared to be a small, expensive pleasure yacht. Several times during the day, a dark-haired woman had appeared on deck, to sun, to read. From time to time, she’d been joined by a man, bare chested, young, bronzed. They’d sipped wine, cuddled, slept. The watch on the Invincible had kept it under surveillance, and had taken bets as to whether the two lovers would have sex under the sun. They’d been disappointed.

  Below deck, the ISS had everything from television monitors to grenade launchers. Eight men and three women crowded into the hulled-out cabin and waited.

  Bennett had been confined to the cabin since an hour after dawn. For the past three hours, he’d swallowed nothing but coffee and impatience. He’d watched the monitor until his eyes had blurred. Not once had Deboque appeared in the focus of the long-range camera. He wanted to see him. By God, he wanted to look into his eyes as the trap snapped shut. But more, so much more, he wanted to hear over the transmitter that it was done, and Hannah was safe.

  “MacGee’s boarding.” The man with the headphones spoke, and continued to smoke. Seconds later, Reeve slipped into the already crowded cabin. He was dressed in black from head to foot. Even his face and hands were smeared with it. He took off his sailor’s cap and tossed it aside.

  “First stage is finished.” He nodded toward Bennett. “From beyond the gates, it looks as though the east wing is devastated. The ISS is theatrical.”

  “The family?” Bennett asked as he looked back to the monitor.

  “Safe.”

  He reached for the bitter, cooling coffee beside him. “Hannah?”

  “Word should be coming in within minutes. Some of our best men are on the docks as backup.”

  Bennett shot him a look that held for a long moment. He’d wanted to be at the docks, as close by as possible. He’d run into the stone wall of his father, Reeve and Malori on that, and eventually had had to concede. If he’d been spotted, the entire operation would have been put in jeopardy.

  Now it was only Hannah, he thought, only Hannah who risked it all.

  “Deboque hasn’t been seen all day.”

  “He’s there.” Reeve lit a cigarette and prepared to wait. “He wouldn’t want to be too far away tonight.”

  “Contact.” An agent on the port side of the cabin lifted a hand to his headphones. “She’s made contact.”

  * * *

  The breeze off the water was cool and the night was clear. Hannah recognized the man who approached her as the one who had come into the smoky little bar. He came alone and empty-handed.

  “Mademoiselle.”

  “My part of the bargain is met, monsieur. You have the compensation?”

  “It’s a nice night for a ride on the water.”

  The yacht. She felt a ripple that was both unease and excitement. “You understand I’m no longer in a position to return to Cordina?”

  “This is understood.” He gestured toward a small motorboat. “Your needs will be seen to.”

  As before, she had a choice. She could draw her weapon now and take him in. If luck was with them, he would trade his own freedom for Deboque’s. She couldn’t risk Bennett’s safety to luck. Without a word, she stepped into the boat and sat.

  Her life was in her own hands now, Hannah thought, and folded them. However the night turned out, Deboque would be ruined.

  Her contact didn’t speak again, but his gaze shifted back and forth over the dark water. They were all waiting and watching now. Because the night was clear, Deboque’s yacht stood out white and stark on the sea. She could see three men on deck, Ricardo and two others. It was Ricardo who assisted her onto the yacht.

  “Lady Hannah, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

  There was something in his eyes, something smirking and self-satisfied. She knew then, as surely as if he’d held a knife to her throat, that she wasn’t meant to leave the Invincible. Her voice was cool and calm when she spoke, and she hoped, clearly received across the span of water.

  “Thank you, Ricardo. I hope this won’t take long. I’m forced to admit I’m uneasy in Cordinian waters.”

  “We sail in an hour.”

  “For?”

  “A more comfortable climate. The radio has announced the tragic deaths of several members of the Royal Family. Prince Armand is grieving in seclusion.”

  “Of course. Cordina is left without its heart, and without its heir. Monsieur Deboque has been informed?”

  “He waits for you in his cabin.” Ricardo reached out a hand for Hannah’s bag.

  “Are employees always searched, Ricardo?”

  “We can dispense with that, Lady Hannah, if you will allow me to hold your weapons.” He drew out her pistol and pocketed it. “And your knife?”

  With a shrug, Hannah lifted her skirt to her thigh. She watched Ricardo’s gaze dip and hold there as she drew out the knife. She pushed the release. On either side of her guns clicked.

  “An admirable weapon,” she said mildly as she held the blade up to the light. “Quiet, stylish, utilitarian.” She smiled and sent the blade sliding back into place. “And one I would hardly use on the man who is about to give me five million American dollars.” She dropped the knife into Ricardo’s palm, knowing she had only her wits as defense now. “Shall we go? I enjoy the smell of money when it’s still warm.”

  He took her arm in his surgeon’s hand and with considerable panache, led her belowdeck to Deboque’s cabin.

  “Lady Hannah.” The cabin was lit with a dozen candles. It was a Beethoven sonata this time that poured gently through the speakers. He wore a burgundy jacket and rubies. Blood colors. A magnum of champagne sat nestled in a silver bucket. “How prompt you are. You may leave us, Ricardo.”

  Hannah heard the door shut behind her. She didn’t have to be told Ricardo would be stationed outside it.

  “A pleasant ambience,” she stated. “Most business isn’t transacted in candlelight.”

  “There’s no need for formalities between us now, Hannah.” He was smiling as he moved to the champagne. “The announcements from Cordina are a bit hysterical and tragic.” The cork rushed out. Wine bubbled to the lip. “I felt a small, tasteful celebration was in order.”

  “I rarely refuse champagne, monsieur, but its taste goes down so much more smoothly when I have money in my hand.”

  “Patience, my dear.” He filled two tulip glasses and offered one. His face was marble pale in the dim light, his eyes almost black and full of pleasure. “To a job well done and a rich, rich future.”

  She touched her glass to his then sipped. “An excellent vintage.”

  “I’ve come to understand you prefer the excellent, and the expensive.”

  “Precisely. Monsieur, I hope you won’t be offended if I say while I appreciate the wine and soft light, I would appreciate them more after our business is completed.”

  “So mercenary.” He ran his fingers down her cheek. The candlelight flattered her, he thought. In time she would bloom under his hands. A
pity he couldn’t take the risk and keep her with him for a few months. He had only an hour for her. But much could be accomplished in an hour. “You’ll forgive me, but my mood is very light. I find myself wanting to celebrate your success, our success.”

  His hand roamed down her throat, within inches of the microphone. She caught it at the wrist and smiled. “You set the mood, monsieur, first by taking my weapons. Do you prefer defenseless women?”

  “I prefer amenable women.” He lifted his hand to her hair, digging his fingers into its richness. Hannah steeled herself for the kiss. She could show resistance, but not revulsion. “You’re strong,” he murmured and brought his mouth to hers again. “I prefer that as well. When I take you to bed, you’ll give me a fight.”

  “I’ll give you more than that. After I’ve seen the money.”

  He tightened his fingers, bringing pain quickly enough so that she gasped. Then they relaxed with his laugh. “Very well, mon amie cupide. You will see your money, and then you’ll give me something in return.”

  When he turned his back to reveal a hidden safe, Hannah scrubbed her lips with the back of her hand. “I’ve already given payment for payment.”

  “The lives of the Royal Family.” He spun the dial as Hannah’s heart began to drum. “Five million dollars to assassinate the Bissets. Five million dollars to give me a full plate of revenge and the sweet dessert of power. Do you think it so much?” His eyes glittered as he turned back to her with a large case. “My dear child, you could have asked ten times as much. For over ten years I’ve plotted, and twice very nearly succeeded in killing a member of the Royal Family. Now, for the paltry sum of five million dollars, you have disposed of them all for me.”

  * * *

  “That’s it,” Reeve announced as Deboque’s voice came over the receiver. “Move in. Slowly.”

  Bennett’s hand closed over his brother-in-law’s. “I board with you.”

  “It’s out of the question.”

  “I board with you,” Bennett repeated in a hard, icy voice. Moment by moment, he had listened and sweated as Hannah stood alone with Deboque. As Deboque put his hands on her. As Deboque prepared to pay her for the murder of everything and everyone he loved. “Give me a weapon, Reeve, or I go unarmed.”

  “My orders are to keep you here.”

  “If it were Brie?” Bennett’s eyes were hot and reckless. “If it were Brie, would you stay behind and let others protect her?”

  Reeve looked down at the hand closed over his. It was strong and capable. And young. Then he looked into the eyes that were darker than his wife’s but that held the same passions. Rising, he took a. 45 automatic from the arsenal.

  * * *

  They would move now, Hannah thought and struggled to keep her voice impassive. “Do you tell me this now so I can regret?” She laughed and walked to the desk. “Five million will do me nicely. I plan to invest and to live quietly in Rio for the next few years.”

  He kept his eyes on hers as he unlocked the case. The money was there, but would be for his own uses. “You have no desire to continue in my employment?”

  “Unfortunately, that would be risky for both of us after the events of tonight.”

  “Yes.” His thoughts exactly. But he opened the lid so that she would at least have the pleasure of seeing the money before he killed her.

  “Lovely.” Clinging to the role, Hannah stepped forward and lifted a thick stack of crisp hundreds. “Do you know how sensual new money smells?” She fanned the stack.

  “Indeed.” He slid the top drawer of his desk open. Inside was an elegant pearl-handled revolver. He thought it just to kill her with style. He closed his fingers over it when the first shots were heard from above.

  Hannah swung toward the door, hoping he would take excitement for alarm. “What game is this?” she demanded. She slammed the lid on the case, and taking the money headed for the door. Her hand closed over the knob.

  “Remain still.” Deboque warned. The gun was in his hand now and pointed at her heart. A fine film of sweat pearled over his brow as the sound of running feet pounded over their heads. He held the trigger lightly, but didn’t press home. Whatever trouble was on deck, he didn’t want to draw it down to him. “The case, Hannah.”

  “A double cross?” Her eyes narrowed as she calculated how much time she dared stall him. “Yes, you would easily have paid me ten times this if you never intended to pay me at all.”

  “The case.” He started toward her, slowly. Fear was blossoming inside him, not of death, not of defeat, but of prison. He would never survive behind bars again.

  Hannah waited until he was two feet away, then with both hands on the handle, swung the heavy case at his gun arm.

  * * *

  Deboque’s men, whether in loyalty or fear, fought madly. Gunfire exploded back and forth from the two boats. A spray of bullets from a machine gun smashed in the wood above Bennett’s head and sent splinters raining down his back. He watched a man fall over the rail of the yacht and into the water below.

  Already the firing from Deboque’s side was coming more sporadically, but time was speeding by. And Hannah was still with Deboque. Alive, Bennett told himself as he aimed and fired. She was alive. He’d know if it was otherwise because his
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