The playboy prince, p.7
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       The Playboy Prince, p.7
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  her undoing. She could marvel at the fact that he felt something real for her, that somehow, he’d looked beyond the surface and cared.

  She could want it, but she couldn’t accept it. There was only one way to stop what should never have started. She had to hurt him, and she had to do it now.

  “I’m sure I should be flattered.” Her voice was cool and calm again. “But if you’ll forgive me, sir, I’m aware that your tastes are not very selective.”

  He stiffened his fingers on hers before he released her hand. She saw by his eyes that the arrow had hit its mark. “I’d appreciate an explanation for that, Hannah.”

  “The explanation seems obvious. Please let me pass, you’ll cause a scene.”

  “I’ve caused one before.” There was something new in his voice now. It was anger, certainly, but a reckless, heedless anger. Hannah knew that if she didn’t play her game exactly right now, she’d find her name splashed in headlines for battling with Bennett in public.

  “Very well.” Setting her glass down on a nearby table, she folded her hands in her usual fashion. “I’m a woman, and therefore of some passing interest. To be blunt, the interest isn’t returned.”

  “That’s a lie.”

  “No.” Firmer now, she cut him off. “Though it might be difficult for a man like you to understand, I’m a simple woman with simple values. As you told me yourself, your reputation precedes you.” She paused just long enough to see him wince.

  Oh, Bennett, I’m sorry. So sorry.

  “I didn’t come to Cordina to amuse you,” she murmured as she took a step to the side.

  He suddenly lifted his hand to stop her, and she waited. “You don’t amuse me, Hannah.”

  “Then I must beg your pardon.” Knowing it would be more insult than courtesy, she dipped into a curtsy. “If you’ll excuse me now, sir, I’d like to speak with Eve.”

  He held her another moment. Hannah could feel his fury sear through his fingertips and burn her flesh. Then, in an instant, there was ice. “I won’t keep you. Enjoy the evening.”

  “Thank you.”

  Despising herself, Hannah moved into the crowd. The lights were so brilliant, she told herself. That was why her eyes hurt.

  “Lady Hannah, good evening.” Reeve stepped beside her and took her arm. “Would you care for some wine?”

  “Yes, thank you.” Falling into step beside him, she accepted the glass he held out.

  “Have you seen this collection of mirrors? I’ve always found these three particularly impressive. Are you all right?” he added in an undertone.

  “Yes, they are lovely. I’m fine.”

  He cupped his hand around the end of a cigarette, glancing around casually to be certain no one was within earshot. “It looked as though you were having some trouble with Bennett.”

  “He’s persistent.” She sipped her wine, amazed that her nerves had yet to calm. “Surely this is eighteenth-century.”

  “Hannah.” He pointed out another glass as they walked, but his voice softened. “I worked with your father when I first got my feet wet with the ISS. That makes me feel almost like family. Are you all right?”

  “I will be.” She drew a deep breath and smiled as if he’d said something amusing. “I caused him pain just now. I didn’t enjoy it.”

  Reeve brushed a hand over hers in the most casual of gestures. The touch was as reassuring as a hug. “It’s rare to get through an assignment without hurting someone.”

  “Yes, I know—the end justifies the means. Don’t worry, I’ll do my job.”

  “I wasn’t worried.”

  “It would help a great deal if you’d see that Bennett was kept busy over the next week or so. Things should be coming to a head and I don’t need him . . .”

  “Distracting you?”

  “Interfering,” Hannah corrected. She glanced in one of the mirrors and saw him across the room with Chantel. “Though I may very well have taken care of that myself. Excuse me.”

  * * *

  He drove the horse hard, but still didn’t find the level of release he’d been seeking. Swearing, Bennett plunged down the winding path, but neither joy nor excitement rode with him. Fury left little room.

  He ached for her. He damned her to the devil and still ached for her. In the days that had passed since she’d turned him aside, the wanting hadn’t eased. Now it was coated with self-derision and anger, but it hadn’t eased.

  He told himself she was a cold, insensitive prude with no generosity or heart. He saw her as she had been on the beach, with a shell in her hand, her eyes rich with laughter as the wind pulled pins from her hair.

  He told himself she was hard as stone and just as unfeeling. Then he remembered how soft, how sweet her lips had been when his own had tasted them.

  So he cursed her and rode harder.

  The skies threatened rain, but he ignored them. It was the first time in days he’d been able to get away from obligations long enough to take Dracula out for more than cursory exercise. The wind whistled in off the sea and set waves dancing high.

  He wanted the storm. By God, he wanted the wind and the rain and the thunder.

  He wanted Hannah.

  Imbécile! Only a fool wanted a woman when there was nothing returned. Only a madman thought of ways to have what had already been denied. He’d told himself all this before, but still he caught himself dreaming of ways he could gather her up and take her somewhere until he found the right way to show her. . . . Show her what? Bennett asked himself. Show her that it was different with her?

  What woman would believe it?

  Dozens, he thought, and his own laughter echoed bitterly behind him. He could certainly attest to that. But now when it was true, when it mattered the most, this woman wouldn’t believe.

  Because he’d acted like an idiot. Drawing the stallion to a halt, he stopped at a precipice over the sea and looked out. He’d pushed, too hard, too fast. It was humbling to admit he might have done so because he’d never met with a great deal of resistance before.

  Women were drawn to him—because of the title and position. He wasn’t so vain or so foolish not to know it. But they were also drawn to him beeause he enjoyed them. He liked their softness, their humor, their vulnerabilities. It was also true that he hadn’t been intimate with as many as his reputation allowed, but there’d been enough women in his life for him to understand and appreciate that romance was a two-way street.

  Hannah was young, inexperienced, sheltered. The term “Lady” wasn’t merely a title, but a way of life. As far as men were concerned, it was doubtful she’d taken herself away from her books long enough to form any strong relationships.

  With another oath, Bennett dragged a hand through his wind-tossed hair. And what had he done? He’d tried to seduce her at a dinner party. How could he have expected a woman of her breeding and sensitivity to be anything less than insulted? It had been the clumsiest, and perhaps the crudest of propositions.

  Dracula danced impatiently, but Bennett held him steady another moment as he watched the storm roll slowly from the horizon toward the shore.

  He hadn’t told her, had never attempted to tell her what it was she did to him inside, to his heart. Just talking with her, watching that solemn face and quiet manner excited him in a way the most exotic or flamboyant woman never had. It was something deeper, and so much richer. He’d never said that with her, he was on the edge of finding the love he hadn’t been sure would ever be there for him.

  He could hardly do all of that now that he’d alienated and insulted her. But he could do something else. His smile began as the first drops of water hit the sea. He could start at the beginning.

  Bennett wheeled the horse around. As the first streak of lightning split the sky, they were racing for home.

  Within an hour, in dry clothes and dripping hair, Bennett made his way up to the nursery. Bernadette barred him at the door.

  “Your pardon, Your Highness, but it’s Princess Marissa’s nap time. He
r Highness is resting with the baby.”

  “I’m looking for Lady Hannah.” He leaned into the room, but Bernadette stood her ground.

  “Lady Hannah isn’t here, sir. I believe she went to the museum this afternoon.”

  “The museum.” Bennett calculated a moment. “Thank you, Bernadette.”

  Before she could finish her curtsy, he was gone.

  * * *

  Le Musée d’Art was small and lovely as was the rest of Cordina. It was like a miniature palace itself with its marble floors and carved columns. In the main lobby was a high, domed ceiling of stained glass and a circling balcony that gave the illusion of space.

  Rooms ran off this circular hub like spokes of a wheel. On the floor below was a moderately priced restaurant where diners could enjoy a view of the gardens through a wide glass wall.

  Hannah had arrived early to take inventory of the entire building. Security was tight but people who rested on the benches near the exhibits were largely ignored. Groups of school children were led by, most of them more impressed with an afternoon away from classes than they were with the paintings and sculptures. Tourists, brochures in hands, muddled through with a weaving of French, Italian, British, and American accents.

  On a rainy weekday afternoon, the museum was a pleasant pastime. A healthy number of people flowed in and out. Hannah decided she couldn’t have planned it better.

  At the time she’d requested in her message, she strolled toward a Monet seascape. She loitered there long enough to read the plaque and study the brushwork. Whoever she was going to meet was probably there, making his own study of the building, and of her. In a leisurely pattern, she moved from painting to painting.

  Then she saw the watercolor and both heart and mind raced back to the music room, and Bennett.

  The plaque read Her Serene Highness, Princess Louisa de Cordina, but in small letters in the corner of the painting was the signature. Louisa Bisset.

  She’d titled it simply La Mer. It was indeed the sea, but from a view Hannah had yet to see in Cordina. There was a jagged fall of cliffs that gave way to a sheer incline and ended in a jumble of rocks. From there, the beach spread white to the blue verge of water. But it wasn’t peaceful. In this painting, the artist had looked for and captured the power and the danger. The spray rose high, and on the horizon a storm was brewing.

  He found this stored in a trunk, Hannah thought and had to resist the urge to touch the frame as he might have done. He’d found it, she thought again, and perhaps had seen part of himself in it.

  “An interesting subject.”

  The voice beside her was French, brusquely accented. Contact was made.

  “Yes, the artist is very skillful.” Hannah dropped her brochures. As she bent to pick them up she glanced around and was satisfied that no one was close enough to hear or even notice them. “I have information.”

  “You are to pass it through me.”

  She turned to smile at him as though they were exchanging a few pleasant remarks about the painting. He was of medium height, dark complexion with no scars. She gauged his age at fifty, though he might have been younger. Certain professions tend to age people quickly. He was not French by birth. The Germanic tone was faint, but she caught it and filed it away.

  “There are certain aspects to some of my information that I feel must be given directly to the man who pays me.”

  “That is against the organization’s policy.”

  “So I was told. However, I’m aware of what nearly happened six months ago because of policy. It wasn’t looked on unfavorably when I used my own initiative and saved the organization, shall we say, certain embarrassments.”

  “Mademoiselle, I’m only here to receive your information.”

  “Then my information is this.” Before speaking again, she moved toward another painting. Again, she took her time studying it. She lifted a hand as if to show her companion a certain combination of colors. “I have unlimited access to the palace. Neither my person nor my possessions are searched. I have already compiled the complete statistics on the security system both there, and at the Fine Arts Center.”

  “That will be most useful.”

  “And will be given to the man who pays me. That is my policy, monsieur.”

  “You are paid by the organization.”

  “And the organization is run by men. I know who I work for and why.” She turned to him then, her smile very cool, very calm. They might have been discussing the weather. “I am not a fool. The . . . organization has certain goals. So do I. I am more than happy to have them merge to our mutual satisfaction. I will meet and speak with the highest authority. See that it’s soon.”

  “Some people take a step and find themselves falling from a cliff.”

  “I’m surefooted. Pass this on, s’il vous plaît. What I know is worth a great deal. What I can find out is worth even more. You’ll find enough to prove it in here.” Hannah let her brochure fall to her feet, but this time she left it there. “Bonjour, monsieur.”

  She turned, knowing that such demands would either take her to the next stage, or end in her being summarily disposed of. Nerves tingling, she began to wander toward the exit. Her heart stopped when Bennett walked in.

  A dozen thoughts ran through her mind in a matter of seconds. Had she been set up? Had they used her to get him out in the open at a certain time and place? Had he come for her because Deboque had already struck somewhere else?

  It took her only seconds more to dismiss them all as irrational. It was simply coincidence and bad luck that he should show up now on the tail of her meeting.

  “I hope you don’t mind company,” Bennett said before she could think of a plausible opening.

  “Of course not.” She didn’t dare look behind her yet to see if her contact was still there. She smiled, not quite sure how to behave since both she and Bennett had done an excellent job of avoiding each other for days. “The museum is even more beautiful than I’d been told.”

  “Have you seen everything? I’d be glad to show you around.” He took her hand in a casual, friendly way that she realized could only cement her position if Deboque’s man was watching.

  She let her fingers curl into his, hating herself for using Bennett’s generosity against him. “I could spend days looking, but I’m a bit tired.”

  She saw him then. He’d moved into her peripheral vision. The brochure she’d passed him was in his hand, and though his back was to them, she knew he was listening.

  Bennett didn’t notice the man, but only her. “Let me give you coffee up in my office. I’d like to talk with you.”

  She felt the unexpected prick of tears. Everything he said, and the way he said it, only made her claims more plausible. “I’d love some coffee.” Hannah let him take her arm and lead her out, knowing every detail would be reported back to Deboque.

  With a silent and stone-faced bodyguard, they stepped into an elevator. Bennett used a key to send them up to the third floor.

  They crossed pale gray carpet, past uniformed guards to a suite of rooms. Two secretaries, one manning a bank of phones, the other working on a state-of-the-art computer, rose as Bennett entered.

  “Janine, could we have some coffee, please?”

  “Yes, Your Highness. Right away.”

  With his hand still on Hannah’s arm, Bennett opened a door. The moment it shut behind them, the whispers started. His Highness had never brought a woman to his office before.

  It was a room that reflected a man who loved beautiful things. Grays and blues blended softly with ivory walls. Deep-cushioned chairs invited long stays and easy conversation while an ornamental lemon tree thrived in a corner. Glass shelves held small treasures, a china bowl, a T’ang horse, a handful of shells she imagined he’d gathered himself and a chipped demitasse cup that might have been picked up in a flea market.

  Though there was a very businesslike antique desk and chair, the essence of the room was relaxation. Hannah wondered if he came here wh
en he needed to escape the palace and his title.

  “Sit down, Hannah. If you’ve gone through the whole museum, you’ve been on your feet for hours.”

  “Yes, but I loved it.” She chose a chair rather than the cozy lounge and folded her hands over each other on her lap. “I’ve always loved the Louvre, but this is so much more personal.”

  “The Board of Directors and the Chamber of Commerce will be delighted to hear it.” He remained standing, his hands in his pockets, wondering just how to begin. “If you’d let me know you were coming today, I’d have enjoyed showing you through myself.”

  “I didn’t want to disturb you. In any case, I rather liked just wandering.”

  Why, he’s nervous, she realized. It might have pleased her in some secret place if she hadn’t discovered she was nervous herself. It was the meeting, she told herself. No, it was Bennett. It was foolish to deny it.

  “Do you work here often?”

  “When necessary. It’s often more convenient to work out of my office at home.” He didn’t want to talk about the museum. Bennett dug his hands deeper in his pockets. Since when had he had trouble talking to a woman? Since Hannah, he thought wryly, and tried again. “Hannah—”

  The knock on the door had him biting off an oath. Bennett opened the door for Janine and the coffee tray. The pot was silver, Hannah noted, while the cups were violet bone china edged in gold.

  “Yes, just set it down there, Janine. I’ll see to it.”

  “Yes, sir.” She set it down on the table in front of the lounge then curtsied.

  Aware he’d been terse, Bennett smiled at her. “Thank you, Janine. It smells wonderful.”

  “You’re welcome, sir.” The door closed behind her with a discreet click.

  “Looks like we’re in luck.” Bennett lifted the pot and poured. “These little pastries are from the restaurant downstairs. They’re wonderful. Cream?”

  “Yes, thank you. No sugar.” How polite we are, she thought, as the tension began to spread from her neck to her shoulders. Like two strangers on a blind date.

  “Will you come sit over here if I promise to behave?”

  Though he said it lightly, Hannah heard the strain. She lowered her gaze to her hands. He couldn’t know it was shame and not shyness. “Of course.” Rising, she moved over and joined him on the lounge. She lifted her coffee while he left his alone.

  “Hannah, I apologize for my behavior the other night. It’s no wonder you were offended.”

  “Oh, please, don’t.” With a distress even her training couldn’t smother, she set her cup down and started to rise. His hand reached for hers and held her still. “I don’t want an apology.” Fighting for control, she forced herself to look at him. “I wasn’t offended, really. I was just—”

  “Frightened then? That’s just as inexcusable.”

  “No—yes.” Which answer was the right one? In the end, she gave up. “Bennett, the truest thing I can say to you is that no one has ever confused me so well.”

  “Thank you.”

  “That wasn’t a compliment, but a complaint.”

  “Hannah, thank God you’re back.” Laughing, he pulled both her hands to his lips. When she stiffened, he released them but continued to smile.

  “Friends?”

  Still wary, she nodded. “I’d like to be.”

  “Then friends it is.” Satisfied the first hurdle was successfully negotiated, Bennett sat back. He would wait and be a great deal more cautious before attempting the second. “What did you like best about the museum?”

  She didn’t trust him. No, Hannah was far too good at game playing not to know when one was afoot. “The airy, unrestricted atmosphere, I think. Too often museums are solemn, serious places. Oh, I did see another of your ancestor’s paintings. The one of the sea. It was stunning.”

  “One of my favorites.” He was careful not to touch her again. “I was tempted to keep it locked in my room, all to myself, but . . .” With a shrug he picked up his cup. “It didn’t seem fair.”

  “And you are fair,” she murmured, knowing she’d used him.

  “I try to be,” he returned, knowing he would use fair means or foul to win her. “Hannah, you ride, don’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Ride with me tomorrow morning. It has to be early as the rest of my day is full, but it’s been a long time since I had any company on a ride.”

  “I’m not sure I can. Eve—”

 
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