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Cordina's Crown Jewel

Nora Roberts


  She was a princess. Born, bred and meticulously trained. Her deportment was flawless, her speech impeccable and her manners unimpeachable. The image she presented was one of youth, confidence and grace all wrapped up in a lovely and carefully polished package.

  Such things, she knew, were expected of a member of Cordina’s royal family—at least in the public arena. The charity gala in Washington, D.C. was a very public arena. So she did her duty, greeting guests who had paid handsomely for the opportunity to rub elbows with royalty.

  She watched her mother, Her Serene Highness Gabriella de Cordina, glide effortlessly through the process. At least her mother made it seem effortless, though she had worked as brutally hard as her daughter on this event.

  She saw her father—so wonderfully handsome and steady—and her eldest brother who was serving as her escort for the evening, mingle smoothly with the crowd. A crowd that included politicians, celebrities and the very wealthy.

  When it was time, Her Royal Highness Camilla de Cordina took her seat for the first portion of the evening’s entertainment. Her hair was dressed in a complicated twist that left her slender neck bare, but for the glitter of emeralds. Her dress was an elegant black that was designed to accent her willowy frame. A frame both she and her dressmaker knew was in danger of slipping to downright thin.

  Her appetite was not what it had been.

  Her face was composed, her posture perfect. A headache raged like a firestorm behind her eyes.

  She was a princess, but she was also a woman on the edge.

  She applauded. She smiled. She laughed.

  It was nearly midnight—eighteen hours into her official day—when her mother managed a private word by sliding an arm around Camilla’s waist and dipping her head close.

  “Darling, you don’t look well.” It took a mother’s sharp eyes to see the exhaustion, and Gabriella’s eyes were sharp indeed.

  “I’m a bit tired, that’s all.”

  “Go. Go back to the hotel. Don’t argue,” she murmured. “You’ve been working too hard, much too hard, I should have insisted you take a few weeks at the farm.”

  “There’s been so much to do.”

  “And you’ve done enough. I’ve already told Marian to alert security and see to your car. Your father and I will be leaving within the hour ourselves.” Gabriella glanced over, noted her son was entertaining—and being entertained by—a popular American singer. “Do you want Kristian with you?”

  “No.” It was a sign of her fatigue that she didn’t argue. “No, he’s enjoying himself. Wiser to slip out separately anyway.” And quietly, she hoped.

  “The Americans love you, perhaps a little too much.” With a smile, Gabriella kissed her daughter’s cheek. “Go, get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.”

  * * *

  But it was not to be a quiet escape. Despite the decoy car, the security precautions, the tedium of winding through the building to a side entrance, the press had scented her.

  She had no more than stepped out into the night when she was blinded by the flash of cameras. The shouts rained over her, pounded in her head. She sensed the surge of movement, felt the tug of hands and was appalled to feel her legs tremble as her bodyguards rushed her to the waiting limo.

  Unable to see, to think, she fought to maintain her composure as she was swept through the stampede, bodyguards pressed on either side of her rushing her forward.

  It was so horribly hot, so horribly close. Surely that was why she felt ill. Ill and weak and stupidly frightened. She wasn’t sure if she fell, was pushed or simply dived into the car.

  As the door slammed behind her, and the shouts were like the roar of the sea outside the steel and glass, she shivered, her teeth almost chattering in the sudden wash of cool air-conditioned air. Closed her eyes.

  “Your Highness, are you all right?”

  She heard, dimly, the concerned voice of one of her guards. “Yes. Thank you, yes. I’m fine.”

  But she knew she wasn’t.

  Chapter 1

  Whatever might, and undoubtedly would be said, it hadn’t been an impulsive decision. Her Royal Highness Camilla de Cordina was not an impulsive woman.

  She was, however, a desperate one.

  Desperation, she was forced to admit, had been building in her for months. On this hot, sticky, endless June night it had reached, despite her efforts to deny it, a fever pitch.

  The wild hive of paparazzi that had swarmed after her when she’d tried to slip out of the charity gala that evening had been the final straw.

  Even as security had worked to block them, as she’d managed to slide into her limo with some remnants of dignity, her mind had been screaming.

  Let me breathe. For pity’s sake, give me some space.

  Now, two hours later, temper, excitement, nerves and frustration continued to swirl around her as she paced the floor of the sumptuous suite high over Washington, D.C.

  Less than three hours to the south was the farm where she’d spent part of her childhood. Several thousand miles east across the ocean was the tiny country where she’d spent the other part. Her life had been divided between those two worlds. Though she loved both equally, she wondered if she would ever find her own place in either.

  It was time, past time, she found it somewhere.

  To do that, she had to find herself first. And how could she do that when she was forever surrounded. Worse, she thought, when she was beginning to feel continually hounded. Perhaps if she hadn’t been the eldest of the three young women of the new generation of Cordinian princesses—and for the past few years the most accessible due to her American father and time spent in the States—it would have been different.

  But she was, so it wasn’t. Just now, it seemed her entire existence was bound up in politics, protocol and press. Requests, demands, appointments, obligations. She’d completed her duty as co-chair for the Aid for Handicapped Children benefit—a task she’d shared with her mother.

  She believed in what she was doing, knew the duty was required, important. But did the price have to be so high?

  It had taken weeks of organizing and effort, and the pleasure of seeing all that work bear fruit had been spoiled by her own bone-deep weariness.

  How they crowded her, she thought. All those cameras, all those faces.

  Even her family, God love them, seemed to crowd her too much these days. Trying to explain her feelings to her personal assistant seemed disloyal, ungrateful and impossible. But the assistant was also her oldest and dearest friend.

  “I’m sick of seeing my face on the cover of magazines, of reading about my supposed romances inside them. Marian, I’m just so tired of having other people define me.”

  “Royalty, beauty and sex sell magazines. Combine the three and you can’t print them fast enough.” Marian Breen was a practical woman, and her tone reflected that. As she’d known Camilla since childhood it also reflected more amusement than respect. “I know tonight was horrid, and I don’t blame you for being shaken by it. If we find out who leaked your exit route—”

  “It’s done. What does it matter who?”

  “They were like a pack of hounds,” Marian muttered. “Still, you’re a princess of Cordina—a place that makes Americans in particular think of fairy tales. You look like your mother, which means you’re stunning. And you attract men like an out of business sale attracts bargain hunters. The press, particularly the more aggressive element, feed on that.”

  “The royalty is a product of birth, as are my looks. As for the men—” Camilla dismissed the entire gender with an imperious flick of the wrist. “None of them are attracted to me but to the package—the same one that sells the idiotic magazines in the first place.”

  “Catch-22.” Since Camilla was keeping her up, Marian nibbled on the grapes from the impressive fruit bowl that had been sent up by the hotel management. Outwardly calm, inwardly she was worried. Her friend was far too pale. And she looked like she’d lost weight.

  It was nothing, she assured herself, that a few quiet days in Virginia wouldn’t put right. The farm was as secure as the palace in Cordina. Camilla’s father had made certain of it.

  “I know it’s a pain to have bodyguards and paparazzi surrounding you every time you take a step in public,” she continued. “But what’re you going to do? Run away from home?”


  Chuckling, Marian plucked another grape. Then it spurted out of her fingers as she caught the steely gleam in Camilla’s tawny eyes. “Obviously you had too much champagne at the benefit.”

  “I had one glass,” Camilla said evenly. “And I didn’t even finish it.”

  “It must’ve been some glass. Listen, I’m going back to my room like a good girl, and I’m going to let you sleep off this mood.”

  “I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.” Toying with the idea, she admitted. Fantasizing about it. Tonight, she was going to make it happen. “I need your help, Marian.”

  “Non, non, c’est impossible. C’est completement fou!”

  Marian rarely slid into French. She was, at the core, American as apple pie. Her parents had settled in Cordina when she’d been ten—and she and Camilla had been fast friends ever since. A small woman with her honey-brown hair still upswept from the evening, she responded in the language of her adopted country as she began to panic. Her eyes, a warm, soft blue, were wide with alarm.

  She knew the look on her friend’s face. And feared it.

  “It’s neither impossible nor crazy,” Camilla responded easily. “It’s both possible and sane. I need time, a few weeks. And I’m going to take them. As Camilla MacGee, not as Camilla de Cordina. I’ve lived with the title almost without rest since Grandpère …”

  She trailed off. It hurt, still. Nearly four years since his death and it still grieved inside her.

  “He was our rock,” she continued, drawing together her composure. “Even though he’d passed so much of the control already to his son, to Uncle Alex, he still ruled. Since his death, the family’s had to contribute more—to pull together. I wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. I’ve been happy to do more in an official capacity.”

  “But?” Resigned now, Marian lowered herself to perch on the arm of the sofa.

  “I need to get away from the hunt. That’s how I feel,” Camilla said, pressing a hand to her heart. “Hunted. I can’t step out on the street without photographers dogging me. I’m losing myself in it. I don’t know what I am anymore. There are times, too many times now, I can’t feel me anymore.”

  “You need a rest. You need a break.”

  “Yes, but it’s more. It’s more complicated than that. Marian, I don’t know what I want, for me. For myself. Look at Adrienne,” she continued, speaking of her younger sister. “Married at twenty-one. She set eyes on Phillipe when she was six, and that was that. She knew what she wanted—to marry him, to raise pretty babies in Cordina. My brothers are like two halves of my father. One the farmer, one the security expert. I have no direction, Marian. No skills.”

  “That’s not true. You were brilliant in school. Your mind’s like a damn computer when you find something that sparks it. You’re a spectacular hostess, you work tirelessly for worthwhile causes.”

  “Duties,” Camilla murmured. “I excel at them. And for pleasure? I can play piano, sing a little. Paint a little, fence a little. Where’s my passion?” She crossed her hands between her breasts. “I’m going to find it—or at least spend a few weeks without the bodyguards, without the protocol, without the damn press—trying to find it. If I don’t get away from the press,” she said quietly, “I’m afraid—very afraid—I’ll just break into pieces.”

  “Talk to your parents, Cam. They’d understand.”

  “Mama would. I’m not sure about Daddy.” But she smiled as she said it. “Adrienne’s been married three years, and he still hasn’t gotten over losing his baby. And Mama … she was my age when she married. Another one who knew what she wanted. But before that …”

  She shook her head as she began to pace again. “The kidnapping, and the assassination attempts on my family. Passages in history books now, but still very real and immediate for us. I can’t blame my parents for sheltering their children. I’d have done the same. But I’m not a child anymore, and I need … something of my own.”

  “A holiday then.”

  “No, a quest.” She moved to Marian, took her hands. “You rented a car.”

  “Yes, I needed to—oh. Oh, Camilla.”

  “Give me the keys. You can call the agency and extend the rental.”

  “You can’t just drive out of Washington.”

  “I’m a very good driver.”

  “Think! You drop out of sight, your family will go mad. And the press.”

  “I’d never let my family worry. I’ll call my parents first thing in the morning. And the press will be told I’m taking that holiday—in an undisclosed location. You’ll leak Europe, so they’ll hardly be hunting around for me in the U.S.”

  “Shall I point out that what started this madness was you being annoyed by having your face splashed all over magazines?” Marian plucked one from the coffee table, held it up. “You have one of the most famous images in the world, Cam. You don’t blend.”

  “I will.” Though she knew it was foolish, Camilla’s stomach jumped as she walked to the desk, pulled open a drawer. And removed a pair of scissors. “Princess Camilla.” She shook her waist-length fall of dark red hair, and sucked in her breath. “Is about to get a whole new look.”

  Horror, so huge it would’ve been comical if Camilla hadn’t felt an echo of it inside herself, spread over Marian’s face. “You don’t mean it! Camilla, you can’t just—just whack off your hair. Your beautiful hair.”

  “You’re right.” Camilla held out the scissors. “You do it”

  “Me? Oh no—absolutely not.” Instantly Marian whipped her hands behind her back. “What we’re going to do is sit down, have a nice glass of wine and wait for this insanity to pass. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

  Camilla was afraid of that. Afraid it would pass and she’d go on just as she was. Doing her duty, fulfilling her obligations, sliding back into the bright lights and the undeniable comfort of her life. The unbearable fleeing from the media.

  If she didn’t do something—something—now, would she ever? Or would she, as the media continued to predict, marry one of the glossy men deemed suitable for someone in her position and rank and just … go on.

  She set her jaw, lifted it in a way that made her friend gasp. And taking a long lock of hair, snipped it off.

  “Oh, God!” Weak at the knees, Marian folded herself into a chair. “Oh, Camilla.”

  “It’s just hair.” But her hand trembled a little. Her hair had become so much a part of her image, of her life, that one snip was like cutting off a hand. She stared at the long length of gilded red that dangled from her fingers. “I’m going in the bathroom to do the rest. I could use some help with the back.”

  * * *

  In the end, Marian came through, as friends do. By the time they were finished, the floor was littered with hanks of hair and Camilla’s vision of herself with long flowing hair had to be completely adjusted. A snip here, a snip there. A glass of wine for fortification. Another snip to even things up. And she’d ended up with a cap short as a boy’s, with long spiky bangs to balance it out.

  “It’s awfully—well … different,” Camilla managed to say.

  “I’m going to cry.”

  “No, you’re not.” And neither, Camilla vowed, was she. “I need to change, and pack some things. I’m already behind schedule.”

  She packed what she felt were essentials and was both surprised and a b
it ashamed that they filled a suitcase and an enormous tote to bursting. She put on jeans, boots, a sweater and topped them all with a long black coat.

  She considered sunglasses and a hat, but decided the addition would make her look like she was in disguise rather than letting her pass unnoticed.

  “How do I look?” she demanded.

  “Not like you.” Marian shook her head and walked two slow circles around Camilla.

  The short hair was a dramatic change, and to Marian’s surprise an intriguing one. It made Camilla’s golden-brown eyes seem bigger and somehow more vulnerable. The bangs concealed the regal forehead and added a youthful edge. Without makeup, her face was rose and cream, maybe a bit paler than it should be. The high cheekbones stood out, and the long mouth seemed fuller.

  Rather than cool, aloof and elegant, she looked young, careless and just a little reckless.

  “Not like you at all,” Marian said again. “I’d recognize you, but it would take me a minute, and a second look.”

  “That’s good enough.” She checked her watch. “If I leave now I can be well away before morning.”

  “Camilla, where are you going to go?”

  “Anywhere.” She took her friend by the shoulders, kissed both Marian’s cheeks. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll keep in touch. I promise. Even a princess is entitled to a little adventure.” Her long mouth bowed up in a smile. “Maybe especially a princess. Promise me you won’t say anything to anyone before eight in the morning—and then only to my family.”

  “I don’t like it, but I promise.”

  “Thanks.” She hefted the tote then walked over to pick up the suitcase.

  “Wait. Don’t walk like that.”

  Baffled, Camilla turned back. “Like what?”

  “Like a princess. Slouch a little, swing your hips a little. I don’t know, Cam, walk like a girl. Don’t glide.”

  “Oh.” Adjusting the strap of the tote, she practiced. “Like this?”

  “Better.” Marian tapped a finger on her lips. “Try taking the steel rod out of your backbone.”

  She worked on it a bit, trying for a looser, easier gait. “I’ll practice,” she promised. “But I have to go now. I’ll call in the morning.”

  Marian rushed after her as Camilla headed for the bedroom door. “Oh, God. Be careful. Don’t talk to strangers. Lock the car doors. Um … Do you have money, your phone? Have you—”

  “Don’t worry.” At the door, Camilla turned, shot out one brilliant smile. “I have everything I need. A bientôt.”

  But when the door shut behind her, Marian wrung her hands. “Oh boy. Bonne chance, m’amie.”

  * * *

  After ten days, Camilla sang along with the radio. She loved American music. She loved driving. She loved doing and going exactly what and where she wanted. Not that the interlude had been without its snags. She knew her parents were concerned. Especially her father, she mused.

  There was too much cop in him, she supposed, for him not to imagine every possible pitfall and disaster that could befall a young woman alone. Especially when the young woman was his daughter.

  He’d insisted she call every day. She’d been firm on offering a once-a-week check-in. And her mother—as always the balance—had negotiated between the two for every three days.

  She loved them so much. Loved what they were to her, to each other. What they were to the world. But it was so much to live up to. And, she knew, they would be appalled that she felt so strongly she had to live up to anything, anyone, but herself.

  Other snags were more practical than emotional. It had struck her the first time she’d checked into a motel—and what an experience that had been—that she couldn’t risk using a credit card. If any clever clerk tagged the name Camilla MacGee and realized who she was, with one call to the local papers she would be—as her brother Dorian would say—busted.

  As a result, her cash was dwindling quickly. Pride, stubbornness and sheer annoyance at her own lack of foresight prevented her from asking her parents to front her the means to continue with her journey.

  It would, after all, negate one of the purposes. A few precious weeks of total independence.

  She wondered how one went about pawning an item. Her watch was worth several thousand dollars. That would be more than enough to see her through. Perhaps she’d look into it at her next stop.

  But for now it was glorious to simply drive. She’d headed north and west from Washington, and had enjoyed exploring parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.