The playboy prince, p.8
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       The Playboy Prince, p.8
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “Will be busy with Marissa until ten,” Bennett finished.

  How she would love a ride. An hour of freedom and movement. “Yes, but I’ve promised to go with her to the Center. She has appointments there at eleven.”

  “We’ll be back by then if you’re willing to start out early.” He wasn’t willing to lose the opportunity. In her eyes he saw hesitation and pressed his advantage. “Come, Cordina’s at its best in the morning on horseback.”

  “All right then.” It was impulse, she knew, but she could use an hour of relaxation.

  In a matter of days, she would meet with Deboque. Hannah lifted her coffee again and sipped. Or she would be dead.

  Chapter 6

  He hadn’t lied. Hannah had already thought Cordina beautiful, but in the early morning it was exquisite. With the dawn light, Cordina reminded Hannah of a young girl dressing for her first ball. The colors were soft, shimmering. Pinks and roses and misty blues still gathered to the east as they got mounted.

  Settling into her own saddle, Hannah eyed Bennett’s Dracula with a mixture of envy and anxiety. Her father’s stables included some of the finest horseflesh in Britain, but he had nothing to compare with the black stallion. He looked fast and reckless and just a bit angry. Even as she imagined herself on his back, she could also picture Bennett being thrown.

  “A mount like that would have a mind of his own,” she commented when the old groom stepped back from the prince.

  “Of course.” Bennett steadied the stallion as he side-stepped. Then, misunderstanding her, he smiled in reassurance. “Your Quixote’s strong, but quite the gentleman. Brie often rides him when she’s here.”

  Hannah only lifted a brow, recognizing the soothing words for what they were. “Thank you, sir. It eases my mind to know you’ve given me a lady’s mount.”

  He thought he caught a trace of sarcasm, but when he looked at her he saw only calm eyes and a polite smile. “I thought we’d ride to the sea.”

  “I’d like that.”

  With a nod, Bennett turned his horse and started off at a gentle trot. “Are you comfortable?”

  “Yes, thank you.” As she settled into the easy rhythm, Hannah tried not to yearn for a wild gallop. “It was kind of you to invite me. I’m told your morning rides are sacred.”

  He grinned at her, pleased that she sat the horse well and confidently. “It’s often true that I need an hour on horseback before I can be civil. Still, there are times I prefer company.”

  That hadn’t been true lately. Since Deboque’s release he felt he could never stretch his arms out without bumping a guard. And still nothing. His eyes clouded, as much with impatience as with anger. He wanted Deboque to move. He relished the thought of being able to deal with him personally, and finally. Instinctively he touched a hand to his shoulder where a bullet had entered. Yes, he would relish it.

  The look in his eyes made her uneasy. There was something to watch for and defend against there. The man beside her was not the easygoing, easy loving prince she’d come to expect. Whatever, whoever he thought of seemed to communicate itself to his mount for Dracula shied nervously. She saw how easily he controlled the stallion, only a flexing of muscle. He could be kind or harsh, gentle or rough. Her own palm grew damp on the reins.

  “Is something wrong?”

  “What?” He glanced over. For an instant the look was still there, hard and dark enough to make her tense. Then it was gone and he was smiling again. There was no Deboque this morning, Bennett told himself. He was sick of having every aspect of his life and his family’s lives clouded by one name. “No, nothing. Tell me what you do at home, Hannah. I can’t picture you there.”

  “We live quietly in London.” It was partially the truth. She wondered why she thought of it as partially a lie. “I do a great deal of my work at home, which makes it convenient for me to keep house for my father.”

  “Your work,” he repeated. “Your essays?” He was leading her along the easiest route, where the incline was gentle.

  “Yes.” Again, there was a twinge of discomfort. “I hope to have them ready for publication in a year or two.”

  “I’d like to read them.”

  She shot him a look of surprise, then almost immediately felt her muscles tighten. It had nothing to do with fear. Even if he’d demanded to see her work, she had enough that would satisfy him. No, it wasn’t fear but a certainty that if she had to continue to lie to him much longer, she would be physically ill.

  “You’re welcome to, of course, but I don’t think my writing would be of great interest to you.”

  “You’re wrong. You’re of great interest to me.”

  She looked down, but not in the shyness he thought he saw. Once again it was shame. “It’s lovely here,” she managed after a moment. “Do you ride this way often?”

  She wouldn’t allow him to get too close. Bennett fought back frustration and reminded himself he was in for the long haul. “No, actually I haven’t been this way in quite a while.” When they reached the top of a rise, he stopped. Her gelding was content to busy himself with the grass alongside the path. Beside her, Dracula nearly shivered with energy. She thought she felt the same impatience from Bennett.

  “A little distance changes things,” he murmured.

  Following his gaze, she looked back at the palace. From here it looked like an exquisite child’s toy, a magnificent dollhouse a pampered child might find near the tree on Christmas morning. To the east was the sea, still hidden from view by the cliffs and trees and barely heard. Like the palace, it hardly seemed real.

  “Do you need to get away from it so badly?” Hannah asked him quietly.

  “Sometimes.” It no longer surprised him that she read his moods. With a hand firm on the reins, he controlled the stallion and continued to look at his home. “I had my time at Oxford, and at sea. When I was away, I missed Cordina so badly it was like an ache. In the past six months, past year, I’ve felt a restlessness, a waiting for something to happen.”

  They both thought of Deboque.

  “Often in England, especially at this time of year, I’ll complain about the cold and the damp.” She shifted in the saddle then smiled as she thought of her home. “I’ll look out the window and think I’d almost sell my soul for a week of warm, sunny days. Then, when I’m away, I begin to miss the fog and the mists and the smells of London.”

  They began to walk the horses again while she cast her mind back to England. “There’s a man who sells roasted chestnuts just around the corner from our house. You can buy a little bag and warm your hands on them and smell them, just smell them long before you ever eat them.” Remembering made her smile again, but she had no idea how wistfully. “Sometimes I’d wonder how it could be Christmastime anywhere without roasted chestnuts.”

  “I didn’t know you missed England so much.”

  Nor had she until that moment. “One always misses home. Our hearts are always there.” And what she was, all that she had done, had always been for England first.

  “I’ve often wondered how difficult it was for Reeve,” Bennett said. The sounds of the sea became louder as they moved their way east. “Although he and Brie spend nearly six months every year at their farm in America. I know for Brie it’s as much home as Cordina is.”

  “For many, real contentment comes with acclimation.” Hadn’t it been so for her, all of her adult life?

  “It’s a great deal harder for Eve. She has only a few weeks with her family in America.”

  “Some loves are greater than others. Some needs stronger.” She was just beginning to truly understand it. “Eve would live anywhere as long as Alexander was with her. And I think the same is true for your brother-in-law.”

  Yes, it was true. Perhaps that was a part of the restlessness in him. Over the last few years he’d seen how beautiful, how strong, real commitment, real feelings could be. Somehow they always seemed so remote from him, so unattainable. Now there was Hannah.

  “For love, cou
ld you turn your back on England?”

  Hannah caught her first glimpse of the sea as they climbed higher. She concentrated on that, but saw, in her mind’s eyes, the twisting charm of the Thames.

  Could she? So much of her life, so much of her duty was bound with England. Even her current assignment had been as much to protect her country from Deboque as it had been to ensure the safety of the Royal Family of Cordina.

  “I don’t know. You especially would understand how strong some ties can be.”

  The trees thinned. Those that remained were bent and battered from the wind that swept in from the sea. The path grew rougher so that Bennett put himself between the edge and Hannah. Her mouth twitched at the move, but she said nothing. He could hardly know that she was capable of riding down the path pell-mell without saddle or reins. Besides, she found herself savoring the unaccustomed feeling of being protected.

  Without the trees to break its power, the wind swirled from the sea to the top of the rise, carrying traces of salt. Even Hannah’s tightly pinned hair couldn’t resist it completely. Wispy tendrils escaped to dance around her cheeks. As she watched, a gull caught the current and glided peacefully up on a stream of air. Another, far below, skimmed the water looking for food.

  “It’s breathtaking.” She relaxed enough to sigh.

  He saw what was always in her heart, but which showed so rarely in her eyes. Her love of adventure, of power and of risk. It made her beautiful, arousing, mysterious. The need to reach out for her was so strong, he had to tighten his fingers on the reins to keep them still.

  “I wanted to bring you here, but I worried that the height might bother you.”

  “No, I love it.” Her horse shied a bit and she controlled him with the ease of long experience. “There are so many beautiful places in the world, but so few special ones. This is a special one. I think I could . . .” She trailed off as the full impact struck her. “This is the scene from the painting. There’s no storm brewing, but this is it, isn’t it?”

  “Yes.” He had no idea that her recognition of it would mean so much. Nor did he know what to do with the sudden, inescapable realization that he was in love with her. Completely. Unalterably.

  He tossed his head back as the wind blew his hair into his eyes. He wanted a clear look at her, at this, perhaps the most important moment in his life.

  She sat straight in the saddle, her eyes dark with appreciation of the scene spread out before and below them. Her profile was sharp, sculpted. The plain brown riding shirt and pants did nothing to enhance her pale skin. But when he looked at her, he saw the most beautiful, the most precious thing he’d ever found. And for the first time in his life, he had no words to tell her.

  “Hannah.” He reached out a hand and waited.

  She turned. He was the most magnificent man she’d ever seen. More breathtaking than the view, more dangerous than a plunge to the rocks below. He sat on the huge stallion, straight as a soldier, as heartbreaking as a poet. In his eyes she saw both passion and compassion, both need and generosity.

  Her heart betrayed her and was lost to him even before she could tell herself it couldn’t be. As duty warred with emotion, she let her hand join with his.

  “I know what you think I am.”

  “Bennett—”

  “No.” His fingers tightened on hers. “You’re not far wrong. I could lie to you and promise to change, but I won’t lie or promise.”

  Before she could stop herself, she softened. Only for this moment, she promised herself. There was magic, if only for the moment.

  “Bennett, I don’t want you to change.”

  “I meant what I said, though I said it badly the other night. I do want you, Hannah.” Like her, he looked out to sea. “I also understand that it would be difficult for you to believe that I’ve never said that to another woman and meant it in the same way.”

  But she did believe him. It was thrilling, terrifying and forbidden, but she did. For one glorious moment, she let herself hope. Then she remembered who she was. Duty was first. Always.

  “Please, believe me, if I could give you what you want, I would. It’s just not possible.” She drew her hand away because the contact was making her weak, making her dream.

  “I’ve always believed anything is possible if you work hard enough for it.”

  “No, some things remain out of reach.” She turned her horse away from the sea. “We should get back.”

  Before she could move, he’d backed up enough to cover the hands on her reins with his own. His arm brushed her arm, his leg, her leg. His face was close, too close, as their mounts stood in opposite directions.

  “Tell me what you feel,” he demanded. The patience was gone, dissolved in need and frustration. “Give me that much, dammit.”

  “Regret.” As she spoke, the word shimmered with it.

  He released her hands only to cup the back of her neck. “Tell me again how you feel,” he murmured, then leaned toward her.

  The kiss was like a whisper, soft, seductive, sultry. Hannah tightened her hands on the reins, then let them go limp as emotion swamped her. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, so encompassing, so heady, so right. The wind ribboned around them. The sea crashed below. For a moment, just one moment, all rational thought fled, leaving only desires behind.

  “Bennett.” She only murmured his name as she started to draw away. He held her, firm, insistent.

  “Another moment.”

  He needed it. He needed every scrap she would throw him. Never had he felt the desire to beg for what a woman could give or withhold. It wasn’t just the passion he wanted; it was more than the physical. He wanted her heart with a desperation he’d never felt before.

  It was that desperation that made him keep the kiss gentle, that made him draw back long before his craving for her was satisfied. If he wanted her heart, he would have to move slowly. His Hannah was delicate and shy.

  “No regrets, Hannah,” he said quietly, then smiled. “I won’t hurt you, or push you further than you’re ready for. Trust me. That’s really all I want for now.”

  She wanted to weep. He was giving her a kindness, a sensitivity she didn’t deserve. Lies were all she’d given him. Lies were all she would continue to give. To keep him alive, she reminded herself as the tears burned at the back of her eyes. To keep him and the people he loved safe and unharmed.

  “No regrets,” she told him, letting the words echo through her mind for herself. Tossing her head, she pressed her heels to the gelding’s sides and took off in a gallop.

  Bennett’s first reaction was surprise. He hadn’t expected her to ride so well or so forcefully. He took a moment to watch her race down the rise before he grinned and let Dracula have his head. Though she’d taken a good lead, Hannah heard them gaining ground behind her. Delighted, she bent lower over the gelding’s neck as she urged him on.

  “We can’t beat them head-to-head,” she called to her mount. “But we might outwit them.”

  The challenge was enough. Spurred by it, Hannah swung off the track and into the trees. The path here was narrow and rough, but what she sacrificed in speed, she gained in maneuverability. Bennett was hard on her heels, but she kept to the center giving him no room to pass. She burst through the trees and onto a field less than two lengths ahead. Instinct had her veering to the left and pounding up another rise so that Bennett had to check his momentum at the unexpected maneuver. Still, he continued to gain so that when the stables came into view they were nearly neck and neck. Laughing, she veered left again and headed for a hedge.

  He felt an instant’s panic as he imagined her flying off her mount onto the ground. Then they were sailing over, side by side. Heels down, knees snug, they thundered toward the stables.

  Pipit stood with his hands on his hips. He’d watched them since they’d barreled over the rise with the gelding in the lead. Since they’d taken the jump, the stallion had pulled ahead with smooth, easy strides. To be expected, Pipit thought as he rubbed his han
ds on the thighs of his pants. There wasn’t another horse in Cordina—or in Europe as far as he was concerned—that could match the stallion.

  But he thought as he watched the woman keep the distance close that Prince Bennett had at last met his match.

  Bennett reined in and slid from the horse’s back with excitement still drumming in his head. She was only seconds behind him. Her laughter was low and a bit breathless as she started to swing down. Bennett was there to take her by the waist and turn her to him before her feet hit the ground.

  “How did you learn to ride like that?”

  She lifted her hands to his chest, as much to keep the distance as her balance. “It’s the one thing I excel at other than literature. I’d forgotten how much I’ve missed it these last few months.”

  He couldn’t take his eyes off her. It was pure desire now, basic, vital. The ride they could have together would be as wild, as reckless as the ride they’d just completed. Somehow he knew it, could almost taste it. For reasons he couldn’t name, he felt that he was holding two women. One calm, one passionate. He wasn’t sure which one drew him more.

  “Ride with me tomorrow.”

  Once had been a risk and a delight. Twice, Hannah knew, would be a foolish mistake. “I don’t think that’s possible. With Eve’s play about to open, there’s so much to be done at the theater.”

  He wouldn’t push. He’d promised himself that he would give her the time to become accustomed to having him with her. From the moment on the rise when he’d realized just what that meant to him, he’d been more determined than ever to court her properly.

  A first for the Royal Rake, he thought as he stepped back to kiss her hand.

  “The stables are at your disposal whenever you find the time to use them.”

  “I appreciate that.” She reached up a hand to her hair to be certain her pins were in place. “I enjoyed this, Bennett, very much.”

  “So did I.”

  “Well, Eve will be waiting for me.”

  “Go ahead. Pipit and I will see to them.”

  “Thank you.” She was stalling. The moment she realized it, Hannah drew herself in. “Goodbye, Bennett.”

  “Hannah.” He nodded, then watched her walk back toward the palace. A smile tugged at his mouth as he patted his horse’s neck. “I’m getting to her, mon ami,” he murmured. “It’s just going to take a bit of time.”

  * * *

  Time moved so quickly. Locked in her room, Hannah held the letter from Sussex. Inside, she would find Deboque’s answer to the demand she’d made only days before in the museum. Her hands were steady as she sat at her desk. With the ivory-handled letter opener provided her, she slit through the envelope. Inside was a casual, even uninspired letter from an acquaintance in England. It took Hannah less than fifteen minutes to decode it.

  Request granted. December third, 23:30. Café du Dauphin. Alone. Contact will ask for the time, in English, then comment, in French, on the weather. Be certain your information warrants the exception to procedure.

  Tonight. The next step would be taken tonight. Hannah folded the letter back into the envelope, but left it in plain view on her desk. Beside it was a single white rose Bennett had sent to her that morning. Hannah hesitated, then gave herself the pleasure of touching the petals.

  If only life were as sweet and as simple.

  Moments later, she was knocking on Prince Armand’s office door.

  It was opened by his secretary who bowed stiffly to her before announcing her to the prince. Armand stood behind his desk as he gave permission to admit her.

  “Your Highness.” Hannah made a deep curtsy. “I apologize for disturbing you.”

  “Not at all, Hannah.”

  “But you’re busy.” She stood just inside of the door, hands folded. “I only wished to ask your advice on something. If it’s convenient, I’ll come back later.”

  “It’s convenient now. Please come in and sit. Michel, if you would see to those few matters now, I’ll have a private word with Lady Hannah.”

  “Of course, Your Highness.” Michel bowed his way out of the room. When the door was closed, Hannah dropped her hands to her sides. Her stride firm, she walked to the desk. “We’ve gotten a break. You’ll have to call Reeve immediately.”

  * * *

  “I’m not easy about this,” Armand said some time later when his son-in-law sat across from him. “How can we be sure Deboque will be fooled by the information Hannah will feed him?”

  “Because it’s so nearly the truth.” Reeve downed his second cup of coffee. “Unless Hannah can give him something important, something he has no other way of getting, she’ll never get close to him.”

  “But will he believe her?”

  “It’s my job to make sure he does,” Hannah said quietly. “Your Highness, I know you’ve had objections to this operation all along, but up to this point it’s worked exactly as we’ve wanted.”

  “To this point,” Armand agreed, and rose. He gestured them both back into their seats so that he could pace in peace. “Now I’m in the position of asking a woman, a woman who both my family and myself have become very fond of, to go alone to meet a man who kills as much for pleasure as for profit.”

  “She won’t be alone.”

 
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