The playboy prince, p.17
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       The Playboy Prince, p.17
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  heart would have stopped. But there was an urgency churning in him, more than the wild night and the scent of blood. Moving with it, he worked his way to stern and slipped into the water.

  The night was rent with shooting and the shouts of men. He saw a man dive from Deboque’s yacht and swim frantically toward a shore that was ten miles off. His hand brushed a body that floated facedown. ISS or the enemy, he didn’t know. While the fighting raged, he swam silently around the yacht.

  Because it was nearly over, Reeve signaled for his men to close in. It was then he noticed that Bennett was no longer beside him.

  “The prince.” His throat went dry with panic. “Where is Prince Bennett?”

  “There.” One of the men spotted Bennett just before he disappeared around the stern of Deboque’s yacht.

  “In the name of God,” Reeve breathed. “Move in fast. Prepare to board.”

  There was no one on the starboard side as Bennett dragged himself on deck. There was the occasional blast and rip of bullets, but the shouting had died. He’d spent an hour during that long, endless day below deck studying Hannah’s diagram of Deboque’s yacht. He went to find her.

  * * *

  She’d managed to knock the gun across the room, but he was faster and stronger than he appeared. Even as she dove after it, Deboque was on top of her. One hand closed over her throat, shutting off her air. Hannah freed one arm and brought her fist into his windpipe. Then both of them were gasping. She reached forward and her fingers scrabbled over the handle of the gun. She swore in both pain and fury as he dragged her back by the hair. For thirty grim and exhausting seconds, they struggled on the cabin floor. Her blouse tore at the seam. Beneath, bruises were already forming. She bloodied his mouth but was frustrated, unable to land a disabling injury.

  Wrapped like lovers they rolled toward the gun again. She reached again, nearly grasping it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the fist coming and dodged. The blow was glancing, but strong enough to send her reeling. Then she was looking into the barrel of his gun.

  She’d prepared herself to die. Struggling for breath, she braced. If she could do nothing else, she could fulfill her vow to spit in his eyes. “I’m an ISS agent. The Bissets are safe, and you’ve nowhere to run.”

  She saw the fury come into his eyes. She smiled at him and waited for the bullet.

  When Bennett broke into the room, he saw Deboque crouched over Hannah, pointing a gun at her head. It happened in flashes, so quick that immediately afterward he couldn’t be sure who had fired first.

  Deboque’s head swung around. Their eyes met. As the gun swiveled from Hannah’s head toward Bennett’s, she screamed and swung out. Two triggers were pressed. Two bullets exploded.

  Bennett felt one whiz by him, so close that his skin shuddered and heated from it. He saw the blood bloom on Deboque’s chest an instant before he crumpled onto Hannah.

  She started shaking then. All the years of training dissolved as she lay trembling under the dead man. She’d prepared for her own death. That was duty. But she’d seen the bullet smash into the wood less than an inch from Bennett’s face.

  Even when he came to her, pushing what had been Deboque aside and gathering her close, the trembling didn’t pass. “It’s over, Hannah.” He cradled her, rocked her, pressed kisses to her hair. “It’s over now.” Instead of the satisfaction, even the glory he’d expected to feel there was only relief. She was safe. And he was going to see that she stayed that way.

  “You might have been killed. Damn you, Bennett, you were supposed to be home.”

  “Yes.” He glanced up as Reeve rushed into the room. “We’ll both go there soon.”

  There were tears on her cheeks. Brushing them aside, Hannah struggled to stand. She faced Reeve, but had to draw several breaths. “I’m ready to make my report.”

  “The hell with that.” Bennett swept her into his arms. “I’m taking her home.”

  Epilogue

  She’d slept around the clock. It wasn’t until over twenty-four hours had passed that Hannah realized that Dr. Franco, the Bissets’ personal physician, had given her a sedative.

  She’d woken rested and resentful. And though she’d hated to admit it, aching.

  The doctor had fussed for another full day, murmuring over her bumps and bruises in his kind but implacable tones. Because his orders to keep her in bed had come from His Royal Highness, neither doctor nor patient had a choice but to obey.

  She complained. Even though visitors came often, she fidgeted at the inactivity. Word was delivered through Reeve from ISS headquarters, word that should have delighted her. Deboque’s operation had crumbled. She’d been given her promotion. Hannah sulked in bed and wished for escape.

  It was Eve who ultimately provided it on the night of the Christmas Ball.

  “You’re awake. Wonderful.”

  “Of course I’m awake.” Cranky from two days in bed, Hannah shifted. The fact that her ribs were still sore to the touch only made it worse. “I’m going crazy.”

  “I’m sure you are.” Smiling, Eve sat on the edge of the bed. “And I’m not going to embarrass you by going on again about how grateful we all are for everything you did. What I’m going to do is give you Dr. Franco’s latest orders.”

  “Oh, spare me.”

  “Which are, to get up, get dressed and dance until dawn.”

  “What?” Hannah pushed herself up, wincing only a little. “I can get up? Do you mean it?”

  “Absolutely. Now here.” Rising, she lifted Hannah’s robe. “Put this on. My hairdresser’s expected any minute and she’s going to do her magic on you first.”

  “Magic.” With a sigh, Hannah lifted a hand to her hair. “More like a miracle at this point. Eve, as much as I want to get up and be doing, I don’t think the ball is the best idea.”

  “It’s the perfect idea.” After helping Hannah into her robe, she leaned over to smell the clutch of gardenias by the bedside. “From Bennett?”

  “Yes.” Hannah gave in enough to touch the waxy leaves with her fingertips. “He brought them this morning. I haven’t seen a great deal of him.” Shaking off the mood, she tied the belt of the robe. “I know how busy you’ve all been, with the press conferences and public statements to clear up the entire mess.”

  Eve lifted a brow. She decided against telling Hannah that Bennett hadn’t moved from her bedside throughout the first night. There was enough romance in her for her to want them to discover each other for themselves.

  “Speaking of messes, you should see the east wing. Mostly glass. It’ll take the maids weeks to get it all. Hannah.” On a long breath, Eve took both her shoulders. “I’m going to embarrass you. I know it was an assignment, but whatever reasons brought you to us, you’ve given us peace. There’s nothing I can say or do that can repay that. My child . . .” She smiled a little. “Marissa and this one are safe. I know what Deboque had planned to do.”

  “It’s over now, Eve.”

  “Yes.” Solemn, Eve kissed both of Hannah’s cheeks. “I owe you my life, and the lives of all of my loved ones. If there’s anything I can ever do, and I speak as your friend and as the wife of the heir of Cordina, you have only to ask.”

  “Put it behind you, and me. Eve, I’ve never been able to make and keep friends. I’d like to feel that’s changed.”

  Eve studied the woman she was just beginning to know. “I have two sisters, the one I was born with and the one I was given by Alexander.” She held out a hand. “I’d like to have three.”

  “Your Highness.” One of the young maids hovered at the doorway. “I beg your pardon, but Madame Frissoutte is here.”

  “Wonderful.” Eve hooked her arm through Hannah’s. “Prepare to be transformed.”

  * * *

  It was a transformation, Hannah thought as she studied herself in the glass. Her hair, curled wild as a gypsy’s down her back, was caught away from her face with two glittering combs. The dress sparkled and shimmered as it draped from he
r throat to her ankles. She was clever enough with makeup to have covered the bruises on her arms and face.

  All she needed were glass slippers, she thought with a half laugh. More illusion. But if this was to be her last night with Bennett, she would take it. There would be no regret when the clock struck twelve.

  There was already music in the ballroom. Hannah slipped in, as was her habit, and absorbed the brilliance. Mirrors were polished to reflect the glitter and glamour of gowns and jewels. Chandeliers shone like stars. It was all shimmering silver and icy blue with draping garlands and shiny balls. On a tree that towered to twenty feet were a thousand crystal angels that caught the light.

  He’d been watching for her. Waiting. When he saw her the breath simply left his body. The couple he’d been chatting with fell silent, brows lifting as he walked away without a word.

  He caught both her hands even as she dipped into a curtsy. “My God, Hannah.” For the first time in his life his tongue tied itself into knots. “You’re exquisite.”

  “It’s Eve’s doing.” He wore dress whites, with the insignia of his rank and a sword at his side. However many ways she remembered him, and she knew there would be many, she would never forget how he looked just now. “Everything is so beautiful.”

  “It is now.” His hand slipped around her waist as he swirled her into the waltz.

  * * *

  It was magic, she thought. The music, the lights, the mirrors. For hours they danced together, spinning around and around the room, leaving the food and the wine for others. When he circled her out to the terrace, she didn’t object. There were still a few minutes until midnight.

  Drawing away, she went to the rail to look out at Cordina. Lights glowed in festive colors for the holiday. The breeze held a springtime warmth and scent.

  “Do you ever tire of looking at it?”

  “No.” He stood beside her. “I think it means even more now.”

  She understood, but wanted to keep even Deboque’s ghost at bay. “In England, it would be cold, sleeting. There might be snow by morning, or we’d have gray, heavy skies. All the fires would be lit and the rum warmed. The cooks would have all the puddings and turkeys cooking so that you’d smell Christmas everywhere.”

  “We can’t give you snow.” He lifted her hand and kissed it. “But we could offer the fire and warm rum.”

  “It doesn’t matter.” She drew a deep breath. “When I’m home, I’ll remember standing here with Christmas almost upon us. I’ll remember it smelled like roses and jasmine.”

  “Would you wait here a moment?”

  “All right.”

  “Just here,” he said, and kissed her hand again. “I’ll only be a minute.”

  When he was gone, she turned back to look out again at the lights and the sea. She would be home in a few days, and in time, perhaps Cordina would seem like a dream. Cordina, she thought, but never Bennett. She lifted her face to a star but didn’t dare wish.

  “I have something for you.”

  With a half smile, she turned, then caught the scent. “Oh, chestnuts!” With a laugh, she took the bag he offered. “And they’re warm.”

  “I wanted to give you something from home.”

  She looked up. There was so much to say, and nothing that could be said. Instead, she rose on her toes to kiss him. “Thank you.”

  He brushed his fingers over her cheek. “I’d thought you’d share.”

  Hannah opened the bag and with her eyes closed, drew in the scent. “Isn’t it wonderful? Now it feels like Christmas.”

  “If Cordina can be enough like home, perhaps you’ll stay.”

  She opened her eyes, then lowered them quickly to the bag. “I have orders to return at the end of the week.”

  “Orders.” He started to reach for her, but held himself back. “Your position in the ISS is important to you.” He couldn’t prevent the trace of resentment. “I’m told you received a promotion.”

  “A captaincy.” She bit her bottom lip. “I’ll be working behind a desk for a good while. Giving orders.” She managed to smile.

  “Have you ever considered giving it up?”

  “Giving it up?”

  It was the blank, puzzled look that worried him. Was it possible she could think of nothing else but her duty to her organization? “If you had something to replace it. Is it the excitement that pulls you?” He cupped her face in his hand, turning it toward the light so that the bruise Deboque had put there showed in a shadow.

  “It’s simply what I do.” She drew a breath. “Bennett, we never talked about what happened on the yacht. I never thanked you for saving my life. I suppose it’s because I’ve been used to taking care of myself.”

  “I would have killed him for this alone,” he murmured as he traced the bruise on her cheek. She started to step back, but a look from him stopped her. “Don’t back away from me. I haven’t spoken before this because Franco was concerned with keeping you quiet and undisturbed. But dammit, I’ll speak of it now.”

  He stepped closer so she could feel it, the recklessness, the barely controlled fury. “I had to sit and wait and listen to you deal with that man. I had to stay where I was, helpless while you were alone with him. And when I broke into that cabin and saw him holding a gun at your head, I had one hideous flash of what life would be like if you weren’t in it. So don’t back away from me now, Hannah.”

  “I won’t.” She steadied her breathing then lay a calming hand on his. “It’s over, Bennett. The best thing for everyone is to put it aside. Cordina is safe. Your family is safe. And so am I.”

  “I won’t accept your risking your life again for anyone.”

  “Bennett—”

  “I won’t.” He caught her hair in his hands and kissed her, but this time with a force and power that left her breathless. He dragged himself away, reminding himself he had a plan and meant to see it through. “Are you going to try those chestnuts or just stand there smelling them?”

  “What?” She had the bag locked in a viselike grip. She swallowed and opened it again. “I’m sure they’re wonderful,” she began, knowing she was going to babble. “It was so thoughtful of you to . . .” She broke off when she reached in and touched a small box. Puzzled, she drew it out.

  “There’s an American tradition. A box of candied popcorn with a prize in it. I had an urge to give you your Christmas present early.”

  “I’ve always been very strict about waiting until Christmas morning.”

  “I could make it a command, Hannah.” He touched her cheek again. “I’d rather not.”

  “Well, since it is the Christmas Ball.” She opened the lid and for the first time in her life felt faint.

  “It was my grandmother’s. I had it reset but it meant more to me to give you this than to choose another from a jeweler.” He touched her hair, just the ends of it with his fingertips. “She was British, like you.”

  It was an emerald, fiery, stunning, made only more brilliant by the symphony of diamonds that circled it. Just looking at it made her light-headed. “Bennett, I couldn’t take something like this. It belongs in your family.”

  “Don’t be thick-headed.” He took the bag from her to set it on the wall. The scent of chestnuts mixed with the summer fragrance of roses. “You know very well I’m asking you to marry me.”

  “You—you’re carried away,” she began, and this time did step back from him. “It’s everything that’s happened. You’re not thinking clearly.”

  “My mind’s never been more clear.” He took the box from her, slipped the ring out and tossed the container aside. “We’ll do it my way then.” Taking her hand, he pushed the ring on. “Now, I can drag you back inside and announce our engagement—or we can talk about it reasonably first.”

  “Reasonably.” How was it she needed to laugh and cry at the same time? “Bennett, you’re being anything but reasonable.”

  “I love you—unreasonably then.” He pulled her into his arms and covered her mouth with his. He
could feel her heart thud, hear her breath shudder, taste both need and fear. “I’m not letting you go, Hannah, not now, not tomorrow, not ever. You’ll have to exchange captain for princess. Believe me, it can be every bit as wearing.”

  Was it magic, or was it a dream come true? Her head was still spinning as she tried to get a grip on common sense. “You know I’m not the woman you cared for. Please, Bennett, listen to me.”

  “Do you think I’m a fool?” He spoke so mildly she was deceived into thinking him calm.

  “Of course I don’t. I only mean that—”

  “Shut up.” He caught her face in his hands, and she saw by his eyes he was anything but calm. “I thought the woman I first fell in love with was an illusion.” He gentled as he brushed his lips over her cheeks. “I was wrong, because she’s right here. There was another woman who made my mouth dry every time I looked.” His kisses were more urgent now, more possessive. “She’s here as well. It’s not every man who can love two women and have them both. And I will have you, Hannah.”

  “You already have me.” She was almost ready to believe it could be real, and true and lasting. “But even you can’t command a marriage.”

  He lifted his brow, arrogant, confident. “Don’t be too sure. You told me once you wanted me. Was it a lie?”

  “No.” She steadied herself with two hands on his chest. She was crossing a line in her life, one that allowed for no deceptions. He was offering her a chance to be herself, to love openly and honestly. “No, it wasn’t a lie.”

  “I ask you now if you love me.”

  She couldn’t speak. From deep within the palace the clock began to strike. Midnight. She counted off the gongs and waited for the illusion to fade. Then there was silence and she was still in his arms. Looking down, she saw the ring glow against her finger. A promise. A lifetime.

  “I love you, and nothing’s ever been more true.”

  “Share my home.” He caught her ring hand in his and pressed his lips to the palm.

  “Yes.”

  “And my family.”

  She twined her fingers with his. “Yes.”

  “And my duty.”

  “From this moment.”

  She wrapped her arms around him. She lifted her face for his kiss. Below and as far as eyes could see, Cordina spread out before them and prepared to sleep.

 
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