The playboy prince, p.6
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       The Playboy Prince, p.6
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  He said nothing for a moment, surprised and not displeased that she had understood that so quickly. “I was more of an officer and less of a prince then. I can’t say I have the sea in my blood the way Captain Dumont does, but it isn’t something I’ll forget.”

  “What is it you remember best?” she asked before she caught herself.

  “Watching the sun rise at sea or better, riding out a storm. God, we went through one off Crete. The waves were a fifty-foot wall. The wind was like the wrath of God, so loud, so enormous that you could shout in someone’s ear and not be heard. No sky, only water, wall after wall of it. An experience like that changes you.”

  “How?”

  “It makes you realize that no matter who you are, what you are, there’s something bigger, greater. Nature’s a powerful equalizer, Hannah. Look at her now.” With one hand he gestured toward the sea as he negotiated another curve. “Calm, almost impossibly beautiful. A hurricane doesn’t make her less beautiful, only more dangerous.”

  “It sounds as though you prefer the danger.” She understood that, perhaps too well.

  “At times. Danger’s its own seduction.”

  She could say nothing to that. It was something she had learned herself years before.

  With the briefest of signals to the car behind him, Bennett pulled over. “At the moment I prefer the calm.” He got out of the convertible, ignoring the guard who stood anxiously by the hood of the trailing car. “Walk with me on the beach, Hannah.” He opened her door and held out a hand. “I promised Marissa some shells.”

  “Your security doesn’t look pleased.” Nor was she when she noticed how open they were.

  “They’d only be pleased if I were sitting in a bulletproof globe. Come now, Hannah, didn’t you tell me sea air was good for the constitution?”

  “Yes.” She laid her hand in his. He was safe, after all, as long as she played her part and played it well. “You’ll have to find shells big enough that they can’t be swallowed. At Marissa’s age, children tend to eat the oddest things.”

  “Always practical.” With an easy laugh, he lifted her by the waist over the low seawall. He saw her gaze focus over his shoulder and knew a guard would be following at a discreet distance. “You should take your shoes off, Hannah. You’ll only get sand in them.”

  It was the practical thing to do, of course. The logical thing. Hannah tried to tell herself she wasn’t shedding part of her cover along with the pumps. “You must have some fascinating coral formations in these waters.”

  “Do you scuba?”

  “No,” she lied. “I’m not a very strong swimmer. I went to a marine exhibit in London a few years ago. Until then, I had no idea what an incredible variety of shells there were, or how valuable they can be.”

  “Lucky for me Marissa has simple tastes.” With his hand on hers, he walked to the sea edge. “A couple of clam shells, and she’ll be delighted.”

  “It’s kind of you to think of her.” He was kind, she thought. That itself was one of the most difficult things to overlook. “You seem to be a great favorite among your nieces and nephews.”

  “Oh, I suppose that’s because I don’t mind making a fool of myself now and then in a game. How about this one?” Bending, he picked up a long spiral that had broken off a larger shell and been worn smooth by the ebb and flow of the sea. At the top of the curve was a peaked cap that looked almost like a crown.

  “Very suitable,” Hannah commented when he handed it to her.

  “Marissa doesn’t care for suitable. She prefers pretty.”

  “It is pretty.” With a smile, Hannah ran a finger along the curve that went from pale amber to polished pink. “She should have it in her windowsill where the sun would hit it. Oh look.” Forgetting herself, she stepped into the surf and pried out an unbroken scallop shell. It was shaped like a fan, bone-white on one side, opalescent pink inside its shallow bowl. “You could tell her that fairies take their biscuits in it when they have tea.”

  “So Hannah believes in fairies,” he murmured.

  Caught up short, she handed him the shell. “No, but I think Marissa might.”

  Bennett slipped the shell into his pocket. “Your feet are wet.”

  “They’ll dry quickly enough.” She started to step back. He took her hand again, holding her in the shallow, foaming surf.

  “Since we’re here, we ought to try for a couple more.” Without waiting for a response he began to walk along the shoreline.

  The water was warm and soft on her feet and ankles, but no warmer, no softer, than the air that blew in over it. Through the crystal water she could see the bed of white sand and the glittering sparkles of shells that had been crushed by waves. The surf was quiet here, all sighs and whispers.

  There was nothing romantic in it, Hannah warned herself. She couldn’t allow there to be. The line she walked was thinner and sharper than any she’d walked before. One misstep could mean tragedy at least, war at the worst. Determined to keep her place, she concentrated on the guards a few yards at their back.

  “The ceremony today was lovely. I’m grateful you asked me to come.”

  “My reasons were purely selfish. I wanted your company.”

  Struggling not to be touched, she tried again. “In England there’s often satire and criticism of the Royal Family, but beneath it all is a very real affection. I see that same kind of love and respect for your family here.”

  “My father would tell you that we serve as well as govern. He gives them solidity and confidence. Alex gives them the hope for the future. A continuation of tradition. In Brie they have glamour and intelligence as well as humanity.”

  “And in you?”

  “Entertainment.”

  It annoyed her. She couldn’t say why but his careless dismissal of himself made her stop and frown at him. “You underestimate yourself.”

  Surprised, Bennett cocked his head and studied her. It was there again, that something, that indefinable something in her eyes that had attracted him all along. “Not really. I’m well aware that I do my duty. My father raised all of us to understand that we didn’t simply inherit a title or position. We had to earn it.” He drew her back a bit so that the spray from the surf didn’t dampen her skirt. “I won’t rule. Thank God. That’s for Alex and then for the son I continue to hope Eve gives us all this time around. Because I won’t, I don’t have to take myself as seriously as Alex, but that doesn’t mean I take Cordina or my responsibilities to it lightly.”

  “I didn’t mean to criticize.”

  “I didn’t think you did. I only meant that above my official duties, my official position, I give the people something—someone to talk about over a glass of wine or an evening meal. I’ve been haunted by the title of Playboy Prince since I was in my teens.” He grinned then and tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “I can’t say I didn’t do everything possible to earn it.”

  “I prefer literature to gossip,” Hannah said primly as she started to walk on.

  “Gossip has its place.” Amused, Bennett stopped her.

  “Apparently you enjoy it.”

  “No.” His eyes darkened as he looked beyond her and out to sea. “I’m just accustomed to it. It’s difficult, when you’re twenty, to know that every time you look more than casually at a woman it’s going to be splashed somewhere in bold print, pictures included. I like women.” This time he smiled and looked back at her. “Since I didn’t want to change that aspect of my personality, I decided to live with public speculation. If I’ve sinned, it was in lack of discretion.”

  “Some might say it was the quantity.”

  There was only the shortest of hesitations before he threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Oh, Hannah, what a gem you are. So you have whiled away some time with something besides Yeats.”

  “I may have skimmed a few headlines.”

  Laughing again, he swung her in a circle before she could prevent it. “Priceless. Absolutely priceless.” His eyes were glowing a
s he set her back down. “I adore how you cut me down to size so skillfully.”

  Automatically, Hannah smoothed down her skirt. “I’m sure you’ve mistaken my intent.”

  “The devil I have. That’s what delights me about you.”

  The frustrated look she gave him had nothing to do with the role she was playing. Delighting him had never been part of the plan. She was there to observe, to cement her position and to carry out a plan that was years in the making. Never before had the proper Lady Hannah had to worry about piquing a man’s interest. Even as she calculated how to cancel it out again, he was reaching for her.

  “Your hair’s falling down.” In a casual move he plucked a loose pin that was dangling near her shoulder. “My fault for not putting the top up.”

  “I must look as though I’ve been through a hurricane.” She reached up to put the practical hairstyle back in place. Pins fell out in her hand, loosened by wind and weight. Even as she swore silently, her hair tumbled free, waterfalling past her shoulders to her waist.

  “Mon Dieu.” Before she could twist her hair back, Bennett had filled both hands with it. Twined around his fingers it was deep, honey blond and soft as silk. He stared, thunderstruck, by the transformation. It waved wild and free around her face, accenting the slash of cheekbones that only looked hard and angular without the framing. Her face no longer seemed thin and bony, but exotic. “C’est magnifique. C’est la chevelure d’un ange.”

  With her heart pounding, she tried to ignore what she saw in his eyes. It wasn’t innocent delight or casual attraction now. Now there was desire, man for woman, basic, strong and as dangerous as the sea in a storm. She couldn’t move back from him for his hands were buried in her hair. She couldn’t deny the lunge of her own needs as he kept her close.

  It wasn’t supposed to happen. Even now she could tell herself it couldn’t happen. Yet she wanted to be held by him, to be comforted, to be, though the words sounded foolish in her mind, cherished. Desired, needed, loved. All of those things were against the rules, but she found it hard to pull back.

  “Angel hair,” Bennett repeated in a whisper. “Why does a woman bind beauty up and hide it?”

  No, she couldn’t deny what was happening inside her, but she could, as she’d been trained, deny herself. “It’s more practical worn up.” She lifted her hands to scoop it from his and met resistance.

  Yes, he’d been right all along. There was more, much more to her than she allowed to show on the surface. Perhaps it was that which continued to draw him in, make him want, make him need in a way he never had before. If it had been possible, he would have pulled her to him then. It wasn’t the guards that stopped him, but the trace of anxiety he saw in her eyes.

  “If that was true, my most practical Hannah, why haven’t you simply cut it off?”

  How many times had she nearly done so then pulled back at the last minute? Drawing a deep breath she offered the simple truth because truth was often the best cover of all. “Even I have some vanity.”

  “It makes you beautiful.” He dragged his hands through her hair again, hardly able to believe it had been hidden by a handful of pins.

  “Only different.” Her smile hid the tension that was pulling her in two directions.

  “Any man would approve of such a difference.” She was stiff beneath his hands. With reluctance he acknowledged it and released her. “But then, you don’t look for a man’s approval, do you?”

  “I’ve never found it necessary.” With a few expert twists, she had her hair at the base of her neck again. The pins were pushed in until it was secure. She could almost, just almost feel secure herself. “We should be getting back. Eve may need me.”

  With a nod, Bennett began to walk back to the car with her. There would be another time and another place. He found in himself something he experienced rarely, particularly when it had to do with a woman. Patience.

  “You can pin it up, Hannah. But now that I know what it looks like down, I’ll see it that way whenever I look at you.” When they reached the seawall, he again lifted her over, but this time stood, his hands around her waist and the wall between them. “Knowing this one secret makes me wonder how many others you have, and how soon I’ll find them.”

  Anxiety and desire were a powerful combination. She felt her heart thud with both. “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, Bennett. I have no interesting secrets.”

  “We’ll see,” he said, before he vaulted easily over the seawall.

  Chapter 5

  It wasn’t often Hannah yearned to be beautiful. Her work had given her a fine appreciation for the beauty of being unremarkable, even forgettable. Over the years, she’d experienced a twinge now and then, but only a twinge when she thought of soft colors and filmy dresses. It had always been possible to release the urge when she was off duty and out of the country. Then her appearance could be changed with a more discerning choice of color and cut and a few clever strokes with a makeup brush.

  There could be no release now, and no yearning.

  Hannah knew everyone would look wonderful for Eve’s dinner party. An affair at the palace was meant to be elegant, even extravagant. Hannah had no doubt every woman who attended would strive to live up to the occasion. Every woman, of course, except her.

  She’d already seen Eve’s glittery black dress with its swirls of material from waist to ankle and its daring draping back, Gabriella would no doubt wear something delicate that would accent her fragile, feminine looks.

  Then there was Chantel O’ Hurley. Hannah was certain the actress would be stunning whether she chose silk or sackcloth. Remembering how Bennett had looked at her as he’d started down the stairs in the Center took no effort at all.

  It shouldn’t have mattered.

  It mattered too much.

  Lecturing herself, Hannah chose the best of the worst in a pale lavender gown with a fussy bodice that played down her curves. With her hair unpinned, it gave her the look of a wanton puritan. An image, she knew, that wouldn’t go unnoticed. With only the smallest of sighs, she drew her hair back to begin the laborious job of braiding it into submission.

  When it was neatly coiled at her neck, Hannah was satisfied that all traces of sexuality were tamed. She looked presentable, perfectly proper and sexless.

  There could be no regrets, Hannah told herself as she slipped her pistol into her evening bag. Duty came above personal desire, and certainly far ahead of vanity.

  * * *

  He’d been waiting for her. The guests were being entertained in the Salle des Miroirs where they were served aperitifs by short-coated waiters. Both the cast and the crew of Eve’s production had been invited so that conversation was a babble of noise underlaid with excitement.

  Though impatient and distracted, Bennett performed his duty without a ripple. There were always polite questions to be asked, a hand to kiss and a joke to laugh at. Under usual circumstances, the party would have amused and entertained him, but . . .

  Where was she? He found himself straining against the evening clothes he usually wore without a thought. All around him women glittered. Their scents mingled and mixed into one exotic fragrance that did nothing to tempt him. He wanted a moment alone with Hannah. He hadn’t the least idea why it was so important, but he wanted it desperately.

  He kept one eye on the doorway while he spoke with the wardrobe mistress. His gaze paused briefly on the ormolu clock while he listened to the director expound on the potential of Eve’s play.

  “Looking for me?” The sultry voice sounded in his ear just ahead of a cloud of scent.

  “Chantel.” Bennett kissed both her cheeks before drawing her back for a survey. “Stunning, as always.”

  “I do what I’m best at.” Smiling, she accepted a glass from a passing waiter. Shimmering white left her shoulders bare, then dipped low enough to be tantalizing before it closely followed the subtle, feminine curves. “Your home is everything it’s rumored to be.” She lifted the wine to her lips as her
gaze passed over the dozens of antique mirrors that graced the walls. “And how clever of you to choose such a room to entertain a group of narcissistic actors.”

  “We have our moments.” He looked beyond her for a moment, but still saw no sign of Hannah. “I saw your last movie. You were extraordinary.”

  A woman who was accustomed to absorbing all of a man’s attention knew instinctively when she had only a part of it. Still, Chantel only smiled and speculated. “I’m still waiting for you to come back to Hollywood.”

  “You seem to be keeping busy in the meantime.” He reached in his pocket for a box of matches to light her cigarette. “How do you manage to divide your time among tennis stars, oilmen and producers?”

  Chantel tilted her head as she blew out a thin stream of smoke. “Oh, much the same way I imagine you divide yours among countesses, marchesas and—was it a barmaid in Chelsea?”

  Laughing, Bennett dropped the matches back in his pocket. “Ma chère amie, if either of us enjoyed all the incredible and innumerable affairs the press gifts us with, we’d be hospitalized.”

  With the true affection she felt for few men, Chantel touched a hand to his cheek. “To anyone else, I’d say speak for yourself. However, since we’ve never been lovers, regardless of the headlines to the contrary, I’ll ask you how things are for you, romantically speaking.”

  “Confusing.” At that moment, in the oval glass over Chantel’s shoulder, he saw Hannah slip into the room. She looked like a dove lost in a group of peacocks. “Very confusing. Excuse me a moment, will you, love?”

  “Of course.” She’d seen which direction his attention had taken. “Bonne chance, Bennett.”

  A lifetime of experience allowed him to slip through the groups of people, exchanging a quick word, a smile or a murmured excuse without leaving any offense behind. Less than a minute after Hannah had settled into a corner, he was beside her.

  “Bonsoir, Lady Hannah.”

  “Your Highness.” She used his title and curtsied as protocol demanded. He caught her hands as she straightened, negating the formality.

  “It’s usual, when a woman is late, that she makes an entrance rather than slip into a corner.”

  Damn him for making her pulse skittish. Even as she tried to calm it again, she noted that more than one head was turned in their direction. So much for going unnoticed. “I prefer watching to being watched, sir.”

  “I prefer watching you.” He signaled a waiter, then took a glass from the tray for her himself. “You move well, Hannah, as though you wouldn’t make a sound in an empty room.”

  That had as much to do with her training in tae kwon do as her childhood lessons in ballet. “I was raised not to make disturbances.” She accepted the glass because it freed one of her hands. “Thank you. This is a lovely room.” She said it casually, as casual as the glance she sent sweeping over the guests. Her reflection was thrown back at her a dozen times. Hers, and Bennett’s, close together.

  “I’ve always been partial to it.” Now that she was here, he was content. He’d almost heard the click of things falling into their proper place when he’d taken her hand in his. “As it happens it was another Bennett, some generations back, who started the collection. It seems he was miserably vain without much cause and continued to buy mirrors in hopes one would tell him a different story.”

  She had to laugh. For a moment she felt almost as though she belonged there with the gowns and the glass and the glamour. “I’d say you made that up, but it sounds foolish enough to be true.”

  “You have the most alluring laugh,” he murmured. “It’s a laugh that reminds me how you look with your hair down and your eyes dark.”

  She couldn’t allow this. Hannah told herself she was foolish to be moved when she knew how clever he was with women. She was more foolish to be caught off guard when she knew what a dangerous game was being played. This time her voice was cool and formal.

  “Shouldn’t you see to your guests?”

  “I have been.” He passed his thumb gently over her knuckles. It was a small gesture and an intimate one that made her wish once again she could have been lovely for him. That she could, very simply, have been for him. “While I was waiting for you.” He stepped closer. Because she was already wedged into a corner, there was no place to go. “You smell wonderful.”

  “Bennett, please.” She almost lifted a hand to his chest before she remembered eyes were on them. In defense she lifted her glass instead.

  “Hannah, I can’t tell you how it pleases me to see you become unnerved. The only time you become at all unsure of yourself is when I’m just a bit too close.”

  It was true, and a bitter pill to swallow for a woman who survived by being sure of herself. “People are watching.”

  “Then walk in the gardens with me later, when we can be alone.”

  “I don’t think that would be wise.”

  “Are you afraid I’d seduce you?”

  There was both amusement and arrogance in his tone, but when Hannah looked back at him, she saw desire as well. She sipped again to moisten a throat that had gone bone-dry. “Not afraid. Uncomfortable seems a better word.”

  “It would give me great pleasure to make you uncomfortable, Hannah.” His voice was low, a caress to accompany the brush of his lips over her knuckles. “I want to make love with you in some dark, quiet place. Very slowly and very gently.”

  The need sprinted inside of her until she had to fight off a shudder of anticipation. It could be like that, with him, it could be. If only . . .

  There could be no “ifs” in her life. They meant uncertainty and uncertainty was lethal. Hannah, pulling herself steady by nerve ends, looked at him. He meant it. There was desire in his eyes—but more a kindness, a sweetness that was almost
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