The playboy prince, p.9
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       The Playboy Prince, p.9
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  At Reeve’s announcement, Hannah sat straight up. “I have to be. If Deboque or one of his men have the slightest clue that I’m not, the whole operation goes up in smoke. I won’t have it.” Now, she rose as well. “I’ve given this two years of my life.”

  “And I intend to see that you live a bit longer,” Reeve said mildly. “We suspect that Deboque has his headquarters in a small villa about five miles from here. We’ll have men watching it.”

  “And they’ll have Deboque’s men watching them.”

  “Leave that part to me, Hannah, and do your job. You have the blueprints and the specs on the security systems?”

  “Yes, of course.” Annoyed, she sat again. “And I know I’m to give them to no one but Deboque.”

  “You also know that at the first sign that things are going wrong, you’re to pull out.”

  She nodded, though she had no intention of doing so. “Yes.”

  “There’ll be two men stationed at the café.”

  “Why don’t you just send up a flare?” Hannah tossed back.

  He understood her frustration, but merely poured a third cup of coffee. “It’s a choice between that or wiring you.”

  “The last agent who attempted to get a wire into Deboque’s organization was sent back to the ISS in three boxes.”

  Reeve moved his shoulders. “Your choice.”

  Again, Hannah rose. “I’m not used to being second-guessed, Reeve.” When he said nothing, she set her teeth. “I realize that you’re my superior on this assignment, so I don’t believe I have much of a choice.”

  “As long as we understand each other.” He rose then, and took her hand. “Hannah, I’m aware of your reputation. Why don’t we just say I don’t want to take any chances on losing one of the best?” Releasing her, he turned back to the prince. “I have a few things to put into motion. I’ll keep in touch.”

  Armand waited until the door was closed again. “Another moment, please,” he said to Hannah. “If you’d sit?”

  She wanted to be alone, to plan each detail out carefully. There was only a matter of hours left. Breeding was as strong as training, so she sat. “Would you like me to go over things with you again, sir?”

  “No.” His lips curved, just slightly. “I believe I grasp the situation well enough. I have a personal question, Hannah, and I ask you beforehand not to be offended.” He sat across from her, militarily straight. “Am I mistaken, or has my son become fond of you?”

  She linked her hands together immediately as her whole body went on alert. “If you mean Prince Bennett, sir, he’s been very kind.”

  “Hannah, for my sake, please dispense with the evasions and the manners. Too often duty has interfered with the time I can spend with my family, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know my children and know them well. I believe Bennett is in love with you.”

  She went pale instantly. “No.” She had to swallow, but the word came out a second time just as strongly. “No, he’s not. Perhaps he’s a bit intrigued, but only because I’m not the kind of woman he’s used to spending time with.”

  “Hannah.” Armand held up a hand before she could continue her rambling denial. “I don’t ask in order to upset you. When I began to suspect this, it made me uncomfortable only because Bennett is unaware of your true purpose here.”

  “I understand.”

  “I’m not sure you do. Bennett is more like his mother than my other children. So . . . kindhearted. His temper has more of a lash, but his feelings are more easily reached. I only ask you this because if the answer to my next question is no, I must request that you tread softly. Do you love him, Hannah?”

  Everything she felt was in her eyes. She knew it, and lowered her gaze quickly. “Whatever I feel for Bennett, for your family, won’t interfere with my job.”

  “I know enough to recognize a person who will do what has to be done.” He felt a stirring for her, a grave kind of pity that twined with empathy. “But you didn’t answer me. Do you love my son?”

  “I can’t.” This time her voice wasn’t strong and there were tears chasing behind it. “I’ve lied to him since the first, and I’ll go on doing so. You can’t love and lie. Please excuse me, Your Highness.”

  Armand let her go. For a moment, he sat back in the chair and closed his eyes. For the next few hours, he could do nothing more than pray for her.

  * * *

  The café wasn’t one of the pretty little tourist spots in Cordina. It was a local waterfront bar that catered to the crews from the fishing and cargo boats. Inside it was cramped with tables, many empty, and smoke and the smell of liquor. Not as rough as they came, Hannah thought as she slipped inside, but neither was it a place where a woman alone would wander unless she was looking for trouble.

  Still, she didn’t cause much of a stir as she came in. In her plain gray sweater and slacks, she nearly blended into the walls. The handful of women who were already there were more interesting fare. If she could get this over with quickly, she might not have to discourage any of the locals.

  Hannah chose a bar stool and ordered a bourbon, neat. By the time it was served, she had sized up the room. If Reeve had indeed planted two agents here, they were certainly good ones. It was a rare thing when Hannah couldn’t spot one of her own.

  She’d been drinking silently for ten minutes when one of the men stood from a table and wandered in her direction. Hannah continued to drink while every muscle tensed. When he spoke, it was in French and thickened by whiskey.

  “It’s a sad thing for a woman to drink alone.”

  Hannah relaxed only enough to be annoyed. She used her primmest British tones. “It’s a sadder thing for a woman not to remain alone when she chooses to.”

  “When one is so plain, she shouldn’t be so picky,” he grumbled, but moved away again. Hannah nearly smiled, then another man came through the doors.

  He was dressed in seaman’s clothes, with his cap pulled low. Beneath it his face was deeply tanned and gaunt. This time she tensed because she was certain.

  Still, she idly lifted her drink as he moved to sit beside her at the bar.

  “You have the time, mademoiselle?”

  “Yes, it’s quarter to twelve.”

  “Thank you.” He signaled for a drink. Another minute passed as he toyed with it. “Il fait chaud ce soir.”

  “Oui, un peu.”

  They didn’t speak again. Behind them a group began to sing a song, in French and off-key. The wine was flowing freely and the night was still young. He finished his drink and left the bar. Hannah waited only a moment, then got up to follow.

  He waited for her at the edge of the dock. There was little lighting here so that he was more shadow than man. Hannah moved toward him, knowing it could be the beginning or the end for her.

  “You have the information.” Again he spoke in English. It was bland and unaccented, just as his French had been. Deboque chose well, she thought and only nodded.

  “We go by boat.” He indicated the small open runabout.

  Hannah knew she had no choice. She could refuse, or she could go on. Though she knew she would have no backup on the sea, she never even considered the first. Deboque was the destination. That was the bottom line.

  Without hesitation, she lowered herself into the boat and took a seat at the stern. In silence, her contact got in beside her, cast off, and started the engine. It sounded like thunder on the open water.

  Hannah took a deep breath. She was on her way.

  Chapter 7

  Reeve would be furious. Hannah rested a hand on the seat for balance as the boat picked up speed. He could afford to be, she thought, but she had to keep her head.

  So Deboque wasn’t on land in the villa as they’d expected. He was, unless the boat made a sudden and dramatic change in direction, at sea. No, there would be no backup now. Hannah drew another deep breath and watched the water wake behind them. She preferred working alone in any case.

  Tonight, she would meet Deboque. She c
ould feel it. Her pulse was slow and steady, her breathing even. The spray the boat kicked up teased her skin as she kept her expression placid. Nerves, what there were of them, couldn’t be allowed to show. Her midnight cruise across the Mediterranean was bringing her closer to the goal she’d worked toward for just over twenty-four months.

  Excitement, not fear, was building inside of her. Even that had to be controlled. Anything that made the pulse beat too fast or tempted the mind to swing too far ahead was dangerous. She couldn’t make a mistake. Over the past two years she’d worked her way up in Deboque’s organization, relying for the most part on her own skill. With the backing of the ISS she’d seen several jobs through to completion. Arms sold, diamonds liberated, drugs delivered.

  The end justifies the means.

  Rungs on the ladder, she thought. If she could continue to climb, it wouldn’t be long before Deboque’s kingdom of misery would come tumbling down on his own shoulders.

  The trickiest rung had been making the well-placed Bouffe look incompetent. Deboque’s senior lieutenant wasn’t a fool and it’d taken a lot of guile and some risk to see that several of his assignments over the last few months had fallen through, without throwing suspicion back on herself. The biggest of these had been the arms deal with a terrorist group known for their lack of patience.

  It had been sticky, but the timing had been perfect. Hannah had managed to make it seem as though Bouffe had nearly botched the deal before she had slipped in to make things right.

  The terrorists had their arms—she had to leave the ISS to deal with that. And Deboque had his five million francs. It would be her pleasure to deal with that. And soon.

  She saw the sleek white yacht anchored majestically in dark water. A thrill of anticipation moved through her. At the wheel, her contact signaled with an electric lantern. There was an answering flash from the ship. The engine was cut, throwing the night into silence as they drifted alongside the yacht.

  Hannah reached out for the ladder and found the metal cool and hard. She knew she would be the same. Without a backward glance, she climbed up, and into the unknown.

  “Lady Hannah.”

  There was a tall, dark-skinned man waiting for her. He took her hand and bowed over it. She recognized him from her last briefing, though she would have placed his accent as Jamaican in any case. He was Ricardo Batemen, a twenty-six-year-old islander, an ivy-league graduate with a degree in medicine. He still used a scalpel, but he preferred to wield it on the healthy and unanesthetized.

  He had become a favorite of Deboque’s.

  “I’m Ricardo.” His young, smooth face spread into a smile. “Welcome to the Invincible.”

  “Thank you, Ricardo.” She gave a casual look around and counted five more men and one woman on deck. The men were dressed in dark suits and carried machine guns. The woman had a sarong draped over a bikini and looked bored. “Might I have a drink?”

  “Of course.” His eyes, she noted, were pale, an almost translucent green that never seemed to blink. His voice was like rich cream over hot coffee. “But first, you must excuse our precautions. Your bag, Lady Hannah.”

  She lifted a brow and met his eyes straight on. “I’ll depend on you to see that everything in it is returned to me.”

  “You have my word.” He bowed as she handed it to him. “Now, if you would go with Carmine. She will take you to your cabin. You may like to freshen up after she makes certain no one has planted any electronic devices on you.”

  A strip search, Hannah thought resignedly. “No one plants anything on me, Ricardo. But I admire a cautious man.” Hannah crossed the deck to Carmine as though she was going to tea.

  Moments later, Ricardo set Hannah’s black alligator bag on a gleaming mahogany desk. “Carmine is seeing to her. She has a small-caliber pistol, her passport and identification and about three thousand francs along with a few cosmetics. There is an envelope, sealed.”

  “Thank you, Ricardo.” The voice was deep and smoky with its traces of France. “You may bring her to me in ten minutes. Then we won’t be disturbed.”

  “Oui, monsieur.”

  “Ricardo, your impressions?”

  “Attractive enough, more so than her photograph. And cool, very cool. Her hand was dry and steady.”

  “Good.” There was a trace of amusement in the voice now. “Ten minutes, Ricardo.” He picked up the envelope and broke the seal.

  A short time later, Hannah adjusted her sweater. She’d found the search more annoying than humiliating. Carmine had taken her stiletto, but she’d expected that. Ricardo had her pistol. For now, she was alone and unarmed in the middle of the sea. She still had her wits.

  Hannah stood in the center of the cabin when Ricardo opened the door. “My apologies again for the inconvenience, Lady Hannah.”

  “A small annoyance, Ricardo.” He hadn’t brought back her bag, but she said nothing of it. “I hope there won’t be too many more.”

  “None at all. If you’d just come with me.”

  Hannah followed him, walking easily as the boat swayed in the current. It was the size of a small hotel, she’d noted. And there were escape routes if it became necessary. The carpet they walked on was rich red. In the cabin where she’d been searched had been an antique mirror with beveled glass and a bedspread in velvet. There had also been a porthole big enough for a child, or a slender woman to work their way through.

  Ricardo stopped by a glossy oak door and knocked twice. Without waiting for an answer, he turned the knob and gestured her inside. Hannah stepped through and heard the door click shut at her back.

  It was opulent, elegant, even fanciful. Eighteenth-century France seemed to come alive. Now the carpet was the deep shimmering blue of kings and the paneled walls were polished to a mirrorlike gleam. Two delicate, glittering chandeliers sprinkled light over the antique wood and plush upholstery. Brocade had been used lavishly to drape over and around a bed fit for a king. All the colors were vivid, almost shocking.

  There was a scent of something floral and something old that merged together into one strangely compelling and oddly uneasy fragrance. With the gentle sway of the ship, a collection of crystal animals shuddered with life.

  It only took Hannah seconds to absorb this. As grand and extravagant as the room was, the man who sat behind the Louis XVI desk dominated. She didn’t feel the evil she’d expected to. With the truly wicked, Hannah knew you often experienced a chill or a dread. What she saw was a slender and attractive man in his fifties, with steel-gray hair flowing back in a mane from a chiseled, aristocratic face. He wore black. It seemed to accent his almost poetically-pale skin. His eyes were black, too, like a raven’s. They studied her now as his full, rather beautiful mouth curved into a smile.

  She’d seen pictures of him, of course. She’d studied every scrap of information that had been gathered on him in the last twenty years. And yet . . . And yet she hadn’t been prepared for the shock of sensuality which seemed to emanate from him.

  He was a man women had died for. And now she understood it. He was a man who other men had killed for without question. She understood that, too, as she stood ten feet away and felt the power.

  “Lady Hannah.” He rose, slowly, gracefully. His body was trim, almost delicate. His hand, as he offered it to her, was narrow and beautiful with a trio of diamonds on long fingers.

  She couldn’t hesitate, though she felt if her hand touched his she would be pulled out of what she knew into something foreign and frightening.

  Hannah smiled and stepped forward. “Monsieur Deboque.” She was glad to see his slight surprise at her use of his name. “It’s a pleasure.”

  “Please sit. Will you have brandy?”

  “Yes, thank you.” She chose a soft high-backed chair that faced the desk. There was music playing through hidden speakers. Chopin. She listened to the notes as Deboque crossed to an enameled cabinet and withdrew a decanter. “Your ship is exquisite, monsieur.” There was a painting behind his desk. One of six
she knew had been stolen from a private collection only the year before. She herself had helped execute the theft.

  “I appreciate beauty.” He offered the brandy, then instead of going behind the desk again, sat beside her. “To your health, mademoiselle.”

  “And yours.” She smiled at him again before she sipped.

  “Perhaps you will tell me how you became aware of my name.”

  “I make it a habit of knowing who I work for, Monsieur Deboque.” She shook her head as he drew out a cigarette case and offered her one. “I must congratulate you on your security and your staff. Discovering who, shall we say, reigned, was hardly an easy matter.”

  He drew in the smoke slowly, as a man who appreciated fine tastes. “Most have found it impossible.”

  Her eyes were cool and amused on his. “I find little impossible.”

  “Others have found it fatal.” When she only smiled, he let it pass. She was, as Ricardo had said, very cool. “My reports on you are very flattering, Lady Hannah.”

  “Of course.”

  It was his turn to smile. “I admire confidence.”

  “And I.”

  “It appears I’m in your debt for smoothing over an exchange with our Mediterranean neighbors a few months ago. I would have been, to say the least, annoyed to have lost that contract.”

  “It was my pleasure. It would seem, monsieur, that you have a few weak links in the chain.”

  “It would seem,” he murmured. He’d already debated handing Bouffe over to Ricardo for disposal. A pity, Deboque thought. Bouffe had been a loyal and valued employee for over a decade. “You are enjoying your stay in Cordina?”

  Her heart drummed lightly but she sipped again. “The palace is quite lovely.” She moved her shoulders as she let her gaze roam around the room. “I, too, appreciate beauty. It helps compensate for the fact that the Bissets are a bit boring.”

  “You’re not impressed with the Royal Family, Lady Hannah?”

  “I’m not easily impressed. They are certainly very pretty people, but so . . . devoted.” She tinted her voice with derision, lightly. “I prefer devoting myself to something more tangible than honor and duty.”

  “And loyalty, Lady Hannah?”

  She turned to him again. He was looking deep, trying to see inside, trying to see beyond. “I can be loyal.” She touched her tongue to the rim of her snifter. “As long as it’s profitable.”

  It was a chance, she knew. Disloyalty in Deboque’s organization was punishable by death. She waited, outwardly cool while a single line of sweat beaded down her back. He studied her a moment, then threw his lion’s head back and laughed. Hannah felt each individual muscle in her body sing with relief.

  “An honest woman. I admire that. Yes, I admire that a great deal more than sworn oaths.” He drew in the rich French smoke then exhaled again. “It would seem to my advantage to continue to make it profitable for someone of your skills and ambitions.”

  “I was hoping you’d see it that way. I prefer the executive branch, if you comprehend, Monsieur Deboque, but I’m willing to work my way to it. Delegation, organization, is so much more rewarding than execution, don’t you think?”

  “Indeed, yes.” He studied her again, considering. She appeared to be a mild, well-bred young woman of some means. He preferred a quiet, unassuming outer shell in a woman. He thought briefly of Janet Smithers who he’d used and discarded nearly a decade before. Lady Hannah, he thought, might prove to be a great deal more interesting, and more competent. “You’ve been with us two years now?”

  “Yes.”

  “And in those two years, you’ve proven yourself to be very useful.” He rose now and retrieved the envelope on his desk. “You brought this to me, I assume?”

  “I did.” She swirled her brandy. “Though I found the method with which it was delivered irksome.”

  “My apologies. This information is interesting, Lady Hannah, but I fear, incomplete.”

  She crossed her legs and relaxed back in the chair. “A woman who writes everything she knows on paper loses her value quickly. What isn’t there, is in here.” She laid a finger against her temple.

  “I see.” He admired an employee who knew her own worth, and guarded it. “If we say I’m interested in the security systems of the Royal Palace, the Fine Arts Center, the museum, for the purpose of emulating such systems for my own use, you would be able to fill in the blanks?”

  “Of course.”

  “And if I asked how you came by such information?”

  “This was the purpose of my visit to Cordina.”

  “One of them.” Intrigued, he tapped the envelope on his palm. “It was fortunate that you were able to become close to Princess Eve.”

  “Fortunate, but not difficult. She was lonely for female companionship. I’m accommodating. I fuss over her daughter, listen to her fears and complaints. By easing some of her workload, I also earn the gratitude of Prince Alexander. He
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