The playboy prince, p.5
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       The Playboy Prince, p.5
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “I’ll take Lady Hannah back in.”

  “All right.” Still, he paused and looked at her again. “I’d like to talk with you later.”

  “Of course.” She would move heaven and earth to avoid it.

  She remained where she was when he left. Reeve glanced over his shoulder before he came closer. “Is there a problem, Lady Hannah?”

  “No.” She drew a deep breath, but didn’t relax. “Why should there be?”

  “Bennett can be . . . distracting.”

  This time when her eyes met his, she made certain they were slightly amused. A layer, the thinnest of the layers of her outer covering was dismissed. “I’m not easily distracted, particularly when I’m working.”

  “So I’ve been told,” Reeve said easily enough. He was still looking for flaws and was afraid he might have found the first in the way she had looked at Bennett. “But you’ve never worked on an assignment quite like this one.”

  “As a senior agent for the ISS, I’m capable of handling any assignment.” Her voice was brisk again, not the voice of a woman who’d been moved, almost unbearably, by a kiss. “You’ll have my report by tomorrow. Now I think we’d better join the others.”

  She started by, but he took her arm and stopped her. “There’s a great deal riding on this. On you.”

  Hannah only nodded. “I’m aware of that. You requested the best, and I am.”

  “Maybe.” But the closer it came, the more he worried. “You’ve got a hell of a reputation, Hannah, but you’ve never come up against anyone like Deboque before.”

  “Nor he anyone like me.” She glanced toward the hallway again, then lowered her voice. “I’m an established member of his organization now. It’s taken me two years to get this close. I saved him two and a half million by seeing that that munitions deal wasn’t botched six months ago. A man like Deboque appreciates initiative. In the last few months, I’ve been planting the seeds that will discredit his second in command.”

  “Or get your throat cut.”

  “That’s for me to worry about. In a matter of weeks, I’ll be his right hand. Then I’ll serve him to you on a platter.”

  “Confidence is an excellent weapon, if it isn’t overdone.”

  “I don’t overdo.” She thought of Bennett and strengthened her resolve. “I’ve never failed with an assignment, Reeve. I don’t intend to begin with this one.”

  “Just make sure you keep in contact. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I don’t trust anyone.”

  “I understand perfectly, because neither do I. Shall we go?”

  Chapter 4

  Hannah’s plans to avoid driving with Bennett to Le Havre were neatly demolished. She’d justified her decision by convincing herself she could detail more useful information by concentrating on the palace. In order to remain behind, she’d come up with the credible, if unoriginal excuse of a headache.

  Hannah had deliberately waited until Alexander had finished breakfasting with his family so that she could speak to Eve alone. It took Eve less than ten minutes to turn it on her.

  “It’s no wonder you’re not feeling yourself.” Eve sipped tea in the sunny nursery while she looked over her schedule. “I’ve kept you cooped up ever since you arrived.”

  “Don’t be silly. The palace is the size of a small town. I’ve hardly been cooped up.”

  “However big it is, it still has walls. A nice drive along the coast is just what you need. Bernadette.” She glanced up at the young nurse who was preparing to take Marissa for her morning walk. “Would you see that Princess Marissa has a hat? It’s a bit breezy out.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Eve held out her arms for her daughter. “Have a nice time, darling.”

  “Flowers,” Marissa said, and laughed at her own voice.

  “Yes, pick some flowers. We’ll put them right here in your room.” She kissed both of Marissa’s cheeks then let her go. “I hate not being able to take her for a walk this morning, but I have a meeting at the Center in an hour.”

  “You’re a wonderful mother, Eve,” Hannah murmured when she saw the concern in Eve’s eyes.

  “I love her so much.” With a long sigh, she picked up her tea again. “I know it’s foolish, but when I’m not with her I think of dozens of things that might happen, that could happen.”

  “I’d say it was normal.”

  “Maybe. Being who we are, what we are, just magnifies everything.” Unconsciously, she rested her hand where even now her second child slept. “I want so badly to give her a sense of normalcy, and yet . . .” Eve shook her head. “There’s a price for everything.”

  Hannah remembered Alexander saying almost the same thing in referring to his wife.

  “Eve, Marissa is a lovely, healthy and happy child. I’m not sure they get any more normal than that.”

  Eve stared at her a moment, then dropped her chin on her open palm. “Oh, Hannah, I’m not sure how I got through the last two years without you. Which brings me right back to where we were.” Briskly, Eve refilled Hannah’s cup. “You came here to visit and so far I haven’t given you a moment’s free time unless you were handcuffed to me. That makes me feel very selfish.”

  “The reason I’m here is to be with you,” Hannah reminded Eve, as she felt herself rapidly losing ground.

  “The reason you’re here is because we’re friends. As a favor, take the day, relax, enjoy the sea air. I promise you Ben can be wonderful company. I guarantee that five minutes after you’re in the car, your headache will disappear.”

  “Someone have a headache?” Ben asked as he strode in. He was wearing the white dress uniform with the red insignia that stated his rank as officer in the Cordinian Navy. On the left breast pocket was the royal seal that proclaimed him prince. Hannah had always considered the opinion that women fell for men in uniform nonsense. Until now.

  He looked so . . . dashing, she admitted, though her practical side searched for a less dramatic word. The snowy white jacket accented his tan and the dark contrast of his hair. He grinned at her, making Hannah aware that he understood his effect. Automatically she rose to dip into a curtsy.

  “Bennett, I’d forgotten what a heartbreaker you are in dress whites.” Eve tipped her face up for a kiss. “Maybe I should tell Hannah to take an aspirin and stay behind after all.”

  “I think Lady Hannah can take care of herself. Can’t you, chérie?”

  Hannah decided then and there that if she had to fence with him, she would wield her foil well. “It’s always been the case.”

  “You are a bit pale.” He touched a finger to her cheek. “Are you really not well?”

  “It’s nothing.” She wondered if he could feel her blood stir at the casual contact. “And Eve assures me that a drive along the sea is exactly the right prescription.”

  “Good. I’ll bring her back with roses in her cheeks.”

  “If you’ll give me a moment, I need to get my bag.”

  “Bennett.” Eve stopped him before he could follow Hannah out. “Am I wrong, or did I see something just now?”

  He didn’t pretend to misunderstand her. “I’m not sure.”

  “Hannah’s lived a very sheltered life. I suppose I don’t have to tell you to be . . . well, careful?”

  Though the sunlight streamed in behind him, his eyes cooled. “No, I don’t have to be reminded who a man in my position can and can’t have an affair with.”

  “I didn’t say that to annoy you.” Instantly Eve was on her feet, taking his hands. “We were friends long before we were family, Ben. I only ask because I’m fond of her and I know how irresistible you can be.”

  He softened, as he always did with Eve. “You always managed to resist.”

  “You always treated me like a sister.” Eve hesitated again, torn between two loyalties. “Would I be pushing if I said she’s not your usual type?”

  “No, she’s not. Perhaps that’s what baffles me. Stop worrying.” He bent to kiss her brow. “I won’t dam
age your proper British friend.”

  “It could be I’m just as concerned about you.”

  “Then don’t be.” Giving her cheek a careless stroke, he walked to the door. “Tell Marissa I’ll bring her some seashells.”

  Calm and resigned to her decision, Hannah met him at the top of the stairs. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”

  “We’ve plenty of time. I can promise the drive will be worth the pomp and speeches on the other end.”

  “I don’t object to pomp and speeches.”

  “Then we’re fortunate. Claude.” Bennett nodded to the tall, sturdy man who waited beside the main doors.

  “Good morning, Your Highness. Lady Hannah. Your car is ready, sir.”

  “Thank you, Claude.” Bennett steered Hannah through the doors knowing the simple statement meant that the road between Cordina and Le Havre had been secured.

  Hannah saw the car the moment they stepped outside. The zippy little French convertible sat at the foot of the steps flanked by two solid sedans.

  “Do you drive that?”

  “Looks like I should wind it up, doesn’t it?” Bennett touched the shiny red hood with affection. “Handles like a dream. I’ve had her up to one-twenty on a straight.”

  She thought of how it would feel, speeding beside the sea with the wind on her face. Hannah pushed aside such wishes and tried for an uneasy look. “I hope you don’t intend to try to break your record today.”

  With a laugh, he opened the door for her himself. “For you, I’ll drive like a grandfather.”

  Hannah slipped into the seat and nearly sighed with pleasure. “It is rather small.”

  “Big enough for two.” Bennett rounded the hood. Claude already had his door opened.

  “But surely you don’t travel without your security or an assistant.”

  “Whenever possible. My secretary will be in the car behind us. Let’s give them a run, shall we?” He switched on the ignition. From the rich sound under the hood, Hannah decided it was filled with engine. Before she could draw a breath, Bennett sent the car speeding down the long, sedate drive. He drove the way he rode a stallion. Full speed.

  “They’re muttering already, I imagine.” He gave the guards at the gates an easy salute. “If Claude had his way, I’d never go over thirty kilometers. I’d also be closed up in a bulletproof limo wearing a suit of armor.”

  “It’s his job to protect you.”

  “A pity he has so little humor about it.” Bennett downshifted, then sent the car squeaking around a curve.

  “Did your grandfather live a long and fruitful life?”

  “What?”

  “Your grandfather,” Hannah repeated as she folded her hands neatly in her lap. “I wondered if he lived a long life. It seems unlikely if he drove like this.”

  The wind was blowing his hair around his face as he turned his head to grin at her. “Trust me, ma belle, I know the roads.”

  She didn’t want him to slow down. It was the first time she’d felt true freedom in months. She’d nearly forgotten how sweet it tasted. The sea shimmered blue and white beside the road as they traveled down from the heights of the capital. Palms twisted their way toward the sky, bending and swaying in the stiff breeze. Lush red flowers burst out of bushes that grew helter-skelter along the roadside. The air smelled of sea and perpetual spring.

  “Do you ski?” Bennett asked her as he noticed her watching a man glide over the water behind a low-slung boat.

  “I never have.” It looked wonderful. “I’m sure you have to be fairly athletic. I’m more at home in libraries.”

  “One can’t read all the time.”

  She watched the skier take a somersaulting tumble into the water. “I think perhaps I can.”

  Bennett grinned and roared though a lazy S-turn. “Life’s hardly worth the trouble without a few spills. Don’t you ever have the urge for adventure, Hannah?”

  She thought of the last ten years of her life, of the assignments that had taken her from castles to ghettos and everywhere in between. French alleys. Italian waterfronts. She thought of the small-caliber pistol she carried in her bag and the pencil-slim stiletto tucked like a lover against her thigh.

  “I suppose I’ve always preferred my adventures vicariously, through books.”

  “No secret dreams?”

  “Some of us are exactly what we seem.” Suddenly uncomfortable, she shifted away from the topic. “I didn’t realize you were a naval officer.” Another lie, she thought. But her profession was built on them.

  “I served a couple of years. At this point, it’s more of an honorary rank. Second sons are traditionally bound for the military.”

  “So you chose the navy.”

  “Cordina’s surrounded by the sea. Our fleet is smaller than yours, certainly, but it’s strong.”

  “And these are uneasy times.”

  Something came and went in his eyes. “In Cordina we’ve learned that all times are uneasy times. We’re a peaceful country, and because we want to remain so, we’re prepared always for war.”

  She thought of the pretty white palace with its exotic gardens and fairy-tale turrets. Inaccessible by sea, with a cliff-top view that scanned miles with the naked eye. She sat back as the sea rolled by. Nothing ever was as simple as it seemed.

  Le Havre was charming. Nestled at the base of a long hill, it clustered together with small white-washed buildings and clapboard cottages. Fishing and sail boats swayed quietly at neat docks at one curve of the harbor. Around the seawall of old stone, hardy blue flowers pushed their way through cracks. There were lobster traps and nets spread and drying in the sun. The scent of fish was heady and oddly pleasant in the early morning air.

  At a glance, it could have been taken for any tidy fishing town that survived on and with the sea. But as they rounded the harbor the docks became more expansive, the buildings larger. Cargo ships with men hauling freight down gangplanks flanked an ocean liner. Like much of Cordina, Le Havre was more than it seemed. Through location and the skill of its people, it was one of the finest ports of call in the Mediterranean. It was also the center of Cordina’s naval base.

  Negotiating the narrow, winding streets, Bennett drove through a set of gates. He slowed only long enough to be acknowledged by the guards with snappy salutes. There were bungalows here painted a faded pink that reminded Hannah of the inside of a seashell. Palms and flowers grew in profusion, but she recognized the structure and order of a military facility. Moments later, Bennett drew up in front of a stucco building where seamen in whites stood at attention.

  “For the next few hours,” he murmured to Hannah, “we’re official.” Bennett reached in the back and picked up his hat. Even as he set it on his wind-ruffled hair, one of the seamen reached the door to open it for him. With the brim shading his eyes, Bennett returned the salutes. He knew the sedan had already pulled up behind him, but didn’t look back as he guided Hannah into the building.

  “First, we have a few formalities,” he warned her, tucking his hat under his arm.

  The formalities were a group of officers, from admiral down, and their wives and attachés who were waiting to greet and be greeted by His Royal Highness.

  Hannah acknowledged the introductions and pretended not to see the looks of speculation. Not the prince’s type. She could read it easily in every eye that met hers. She fully agreed.

  They were given tea and a tour of the building—for her sake. Hannah feigned an ignorance of the equipment shown her, asking the proper questions and looking properly polite at the simplistic answers. She could hardly mention that the radar and communication systems were as familiar to her as they were to the trained operators. In a pinch, she could have rigged the equipment to contact the ISS base outside London or Deboque’s headquarters in Athens.

  She walked by display cases, listening with apparent fascination as an admiral explained to her the difference between a destroyer and an aircraft carrier.

  The pomp and circumstanc
e continued as they were escorted outside to await the docking of the Indépendence. The band, their white uniforms blinding in the sun, struck up a rousing march as Bennett stepped onto the dock. Crowds of people cheered from behind the military barricade. Babies and small children were held up so that they could catch a glimpse of the prince.

  Hannah counted off a dozen security people mingled with the crowd in addition to the two men who were never more than an arm’s span from Bennett’s elbow.

  Deboque is out, she thought. Everything is a risk.

  The battle-gray destroyer maneuvered into position while the crowd applauded and the band continued to play. Seamen on the dock stood at attention as did seamen on deck. After six months at sea, the Indépendance was home.

  The gangplank came ponderously down. The pipes were sounded. The captain strode down to salute the officers and bow to his prince.

  “Welcome home, Captain.” Bennett offered his hand, and the crowd cheered again.

  There was, as there always was on such occasions, a speech to be made. Hannah kept her face attentive while she slowly scanned the crowd.

  It was no surprise to find him there. The small, slightly stoop-shouldered man was on the edge of the crowd holding a small Cordinian flag. In his plain work clothes and quiet face, he would never be noticed or remembered. He was one of Deboque’s best.

  There would be no move on Prince Bennett today, she thought, though the back of her neck itched. Her successful planting at the palace had been one of her highest contributions to Deboque’s organization. The working order now was for care and cleverness rather than a rash assassination attempt.

  In any case, she knew Deboque wasn’t as interested in Bennett as he was in Alexander, and in Alexander not so much as in Armand. He wouldn’t settle for the second in line to the throne after so long a wait.

  Still, she closed her hand over the handle of her bag. She shifted, only a matter of inches, but Bennett’s body was now more than half shielded by hers.

  Had the man been sent with a message for her? Hannah wondered. Or had he simply been ordered to stay close and watch? Instinct told her it was the second. Casually, she swept the crowd again. Her eyes met his and held for only a fraction of a second. There was an acknowledgment, but no signal. Hannah let her gaze move on, knowing they’d meet within a few days at the museum.

  The pretty ceremony with its brisk military music and banners continued with a tour of the ship and an inspection of the crew. Hannah walked with the admiral’s wife as Bennett was led down the line of officers and seamen. Now and then he stopped to comment or ask a personal question of one of the men. More, she saw that he listened to the answers. Even a casual observer could have seen that he was given more than respect due his rank by the men he greeted. There was love, the kind Hannah was aware only men could give men.

  Though she was certain Bennett had seen enough of ships to last a lifetime, he toured the bridge, the officers’ quarters and the galleys with apparent fascination. The ship was as neat as a parlor, utilitarian certainly, but freshly scrubbed and without a sign of peeling paint or rust.

  Bennett moved quickly through the ship, without seeming to hurry over the decks. There were questions that had to be asked, compliments that were deserved, but he knew duffel bags were packed and waiting. He clasped hands with the captain again, aware that the man had every right to be proud of his ship and his men. As he started down the gangplank, the cheers rose up again. Bennett had to wonder if they were for him or because the ceremonies were finally over and the men could go ashore.

  Protocol demanded that he be escorted back through headquarters. It was here that Hannah began to sense his impatience to be off. Still, he was gracious, shaking hands, kissing hands, exchanging a last pleasantry. It wasn’t until he was seated in his own car again that he let out a low oath.

  “I beg your pardon, sir?”

  Bennett merely patted Hannah’s hand before he started the engine. “Four hours was a long time to keep you on your feet. Thank you for bearing with me.”

  “On the contrary, I found it fascinating.” Nothing had ever seemed more wonderful than the wind blowing on her face again as the convertible picked up speed. “The tour of the ship was particularly educational. It was clever, wasn’t it, for the ship’s cook to frame a recipe for crepes where the flour was measured in pounds rather than cups?”

  “Food becomes a priority after a few months at sea.” He glanced over, surprised she’d been so well entertained by a ship and several pompous speeches. “If I’d known you were really interested I wouldn’t have hurried things along quite so much.”

  “I suppose it becomes all routine and a bit boring for you after a while.”

  “I was thinking of the men. All they really wanted was to get ashore to their wives or lovers—or both.” He was grinning when he turned his head toward her. “You can’t imagine what four months at sea is like when the only woman you see is in a glossy photo with staple marks in the middle.”

  Her lips twitched, but she managed to hold the smile to a bare acknowledgment. “No, I’m sure I can’t. But I think you enjoyed your time at sea, Bennett. It showed in the way you spoke with the men and looked at the ship.”

 
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