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The Playboy Prince, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Yes, she is. You know, I’ve been to England several times. It’s strange we never met.”

  Hannah allowed the smile to linger. “But we did, Your Highness.”

  “Boris, sit,” Bennett commanded as the dog lifted a paw toward Hannah’s dress. “Are you sure?”

  “Quite sure, sir. Then you’d hardly be expected to remember. It was several years ago at a charity ball hosted by the Prince of Wales. The Queen Mother introduced you to me and my cousin Lady Sara. I believe you and Sara became . . . friendly.”

  “Sara?” His mind backtracked and zeroed in. His memory, always good, was faultless when it came to women. “Yes, of course.” Though he remembered Hannah only as a vague shadow beside her glamorous and bold cousin. “How is Sara?”

  “Very well, sir.” If there was sarcasm, it was well coated with manners. “Happily married for the second time. Shall I send her your regards?”

  “If you like.” He dipped his hands into his pockets again as he continued to study her. “You were wearing blue, a pale blue that was nearly white.”

  Hannah lifted her brow. She didn’t have to be told that he’d barely noticed her. The fact that he hadn’t, yet still remembered the color of her gown gave her a moment’s pause. A memory like that could be useful—or dangerous.

  “You flatter me, Your Highness.”

  “I make it a policy not to forget a woman.”

  “Yes, I can believe that.”

  “My reputation precedes me.” The frown was there, then gone, to be replaced by a careless smile. “Does it concern you to be alone in the garden, in the moonlight with—”

  “The Royal Rake?” Hannah finished.

  “You do read,” Bennett murmured.

  “Incessantly. And no, Your Highness, I’m quite comfortable, thank you.”

  He opened his mouth, then laughed and shut it again. “Lady Hannah, I’ve rarely been put so neatly in my place.”

  So he was quick—another point she’d have to remember. “I beg your pardon, sir. That certainly wasn’t my intention.”

  “The hell it wasn’t, and well done.” He took her hand and found it cool and steady. Perhaps she would prove to be a great deal less dull than he’d anticipated. “I should beg your pardon for baiting you, but I won’t since you obviously hold your own so well. I’m beginning to see why Eve wanted you here.”

  Hannah had learned long ago to block off any form of guilt. She did so now. “I became very fond of her in a short time and was delighted with the opportunity to stay in Cordina for a few months. I confess, I’ve already fallen in love with little Princess Marissa.”

  “Barely a year old and she’s already ruling the palace.” Bennett’s eyes softened as he thought of his brother’s first child. “Maybe it’s because she looks like Eve.”

  Hannah withdrew her hand from his. She’d heard the rumors that Bennett had been half in love, or possibly more than half in love, with his brother’s wife. It didn’t take even so talented an observer as she to hear the affection in his voice. She told herself to file it away. It may or may not have its uses later.

  “If you’ll excuse me, sir, I should go back to my room.”

  “It’s still early.” He found himself reluctant to let her go. It was unexpected that she would be easy to talk to, or that he would find himself needing to talk to her.

  “I’m in the habit of retiring early.”

  “I’ll walk you back.”

  “Please don’t trouble. I know the way. Good night, Your Highness.” She merged quickly with the shadows while the dogs whined a bit and thumped their tails against his legs.

  What was there about her? Bennett wondered as he bent to soothe his pets. At first glance she seemed almost bland enough to fade into the wallpaper, and yet . . . He didn’t know. But as he walked back toward the palace with the dogs at his heels, he resolved to find out. If nothing else, probing a bit beneath Lady Hannah’s quiet breeding would keep his mind off Deboque.

  Hannah didn’t wait to see if he followed her, but walked quickly through the garden doors. She’d been born with the talent to move quietly, so unobtrusively she could easily be missed in a group of three people. It was a talent she’d honed to a skill and which served her well.

  She moved up the stairs without a sound, never looking back. If you had to check whether you were being followed, you were already in trouble. Once inside her own room, she locked the door and slipped out of her practical pumps. Because the woman she professed to be would never leave her clothing scattered, Hannah picked them up, and with only a brief look of distaste, placed them neatly in her closet.

  Checking only to see that her curtains were drawn, she peeled off the unflattering cocktail dress.

  Although she thought it deserved its day in the garbage, she carefully hung it on a padded hanger.

  She stood now, a slimly curved woman with milk-pale skin and long legs in a skimpy lace-edged teddy. Drawing the confining pins from her hair, she let it fall heavily to her waist with a sigh of pure pleasure.

  Anyone who knew Lady Hannah Rothchild would have been stunned by the transformation, so complete, so ingrained was the role she’d played for nearly ten years.

  Lady Hannah had a passion for silk and Breton lace, but confined it to nightwear and lingerie. Linens and tweeds were more fitting to the image she’d worked hard to create.

  Lady Hannah enjoyed reading a pot-boiling thriller in a steamy bubble bath, but she kept a copy of Chaucer on her nightstand and if asked, could quote and discuss a handful of obscure passages.

  It wasn’t a matter of split personality, but necessity. If she’d given it any deep thought, Hannah would have been able to state that she was comfortable with both of her selves. In fact, more often than not she thoroughly liked the plain, polite and marginally pretty Hannah. Otherwise, she could never have tolerated the sensible shoes for extended periods.

  But there was another part to Lady Hannah Rothchild, only daughter of Lord Rothchild, granddaughter of the Earl of Fenton. That part was not quiet and unassuming, but shrewd and sometimes reckless. More, that part had a taste for danger and a mind that absorbed and stored the most minor detail.

  Combined, those parts of Lady Hannah Rothchild equaled an excellent and highly skilled agent.

  Ignoring her robe, Hannah opened her top drawer and drew out a long, locked box. Inside was a strand of pearls handed down from her great-grandmother with matching earrings her father had had reset for her twenty-first birthday. In the drawers of the box were several other pieces of jewelry befitting a young woman of her class.

  Hannah pulled a notebook out of the false bottom and taking it to the rosewood writing desk, began to write her daily report. She hadn’t gone into the garden merely to smell the roses, though she had lingered too long because of them. Now she had the complete layout and no longer had to rely on the information fed her. She took the time to draw a sketch of the palace, including the doors and windows most easily accessible. By the following day, or the day after at most, she would have a schedule of the guards.

  It had taken her little time to form a friendship with Eve. Securing an invitation to the palace in Cordina had been as easy as asking for one. Eve missed her sister and the familiarity of her own country. She’d needed a friend, one she could talk to, one who would share her delight in her daughter.

  Hannah had obliged.

  She felt the quick trickle of guilt again and ignored it. A job was a job, she reminded herself. She couldn’t let the fondness she felt for Eve interfere with a goal she’d begun to work toward two years ago.

  With a shake of her head, she made her first notes on Bennett. He wasn’t completely what she’d expected, Hannah thought now. Oh, he was as charming and as attractive as his dossier had said, but he’d given the dull Lady Hannah his time and attention.

  An egotistical womanizer, Hannah reminded herself. That had been her own conclusion after doing her research on him. Perhaps he was a bit bored and entertained thoug
hts of distracting himself with a vulnerable and accessible woman.

  Narrowing her eyes, Hannah looked back on the way he had smiled at her. A man of his looks, position and experience knew how to use that smile or a soft word to enchant a woman of any age and any class. The fact that he’d done so, with astonishing regularity, was well documented. Perhaps he would try to add another jewel to his crown by seducing her.

  She remembered the way he’d looked in the moonlight, the way his eyes had warmed when she’d bantered back with him. His hand had been firm and hard when it had taken hers—the hand of a man who did more than wave regally to his people.

  With a shake of her head, she brought herself up short. It wouldn’t do to consider a dalliance with Bennett for enjoyment, but for its usefulness. Thoughtfully, she tapped her pencil on the pad. No, a romance with Bennett would only lead to complications, no matter how advantageous it might be in the long run. She’d keep her eyes down and her hands folded.

  Carefully, Hannah hid the notebook again and replaced the false bottom. The box was locked, but left in full sight if anyone searched her dresser.

  She was in, she told herself with a growing sense of anticipation as she looked around the room.

  When Deboque walked out of prison in two days’ time, he’d be very pleased.

  Chapter 2

  “Oh, Hannah, I’m so glad you agreed to visit awhile.” With her arm hooked with her new friend’s, Eve strolled behind the backdrop at the theater. Her body remained slender during the early months of her pregnancy, but her dress was cleverly cut to conceal even the slight weight gain. “Alex doesn’t find it as necessary to pamper me to death now that you’re here. He finds you so sensible.”

  “I am sensible.”

  Eve’s low chuckle flowed into her easy Texas drawl. “I know, that’s the beauty of it, but you’re not always telling me to sit down and put my feet up.”

  “Men sometimes look at pregnancy and childbirth as a traumatic disease rather than a fact of life.”

  “That’s it exactly.” Delighted with Hannah’s dry wit, Eve drew her into her office. With Gabriella so often in America and her own sister visiting only rarely, Eve had indeed yearned for another woman to relax with. “Alex keeps expecting me to faint or get overly emotional. I never felt better in my life, except perhaps when I was carrying Marissa.”

  Tossing back her fall of dark hair, Eve perched on the edge of her desk. Here, at least, she could still claim some measure of the privacy she’d given up when she’d married a prince. Though she never regretted the sacrifice, she always enjoyed stealing a bit of her own back.

  “If you hadn’t come, I’d have had to fight him tooth and nail to continue working. He only agreed because he felt you’d keep a close eye on me when he’s busy.”

  “Then I won’t disappoint him.” Hannah took quick stock of the office. No window, no outside access. With a smile, she chose a chair. “You know, Eve, I really admire you. The Fine Arts Center always had a good reputation but since you took over here, this theater has become one of the most important in Europe.”

  “It’s what I’ve always wanted.” Eve looked down at the diamond-encrusted band on her finger. Even after two years it sometimes astonished her to find it there. “You know, Hannah, some mornings I’m almost afraid to wake up; I think that I’ll find out it was all a dream. Then I look at Alex and Marissa and think, they’re mine. Really mine.” Her eyes clouded a moment with both fear and determination. “I won’t let anything or anyone hurt them.”

  “No one will.” Eve’s thoughts were on Deboque, Hannah surmised. The princess was bound by duty to keep some fears to herself. “Now, not to pamper, but I think we could both use some tea, then you can show me what sort of job I can do around here.”

  Eve brought herself back with an effort. Nightmares of Deboque, a man she’d never seen, continued to plague her. “Tea’s a wonderful idea, but I didn’t bring you to the Center to work. I just thought you’d like to see it.”

  “Eve, you of all people should understand that I need something to do or I’ll be bored to death.”

  “But I’d hoped this could be a vacation for you.”

  The guilt shimmered a bit. “Some people aren’t meant for vacations.”

  “All right then. Why don’t you watch rehearsals with me for an hour or two and give me an honest opinion?”

  “I’d love to.”

  “Great I’m worried about the opening. We only have a couple of weeks left and I’ve had nothing but trouble with this playwright.”

  “Oh, who is it?”

  Eve rose and took a deep breath. “Me.”

  * * *

  Hannah drank her tea and stayed in the background. It didn’t take long for her to see that Eve was respected not only as the wife of the heir, but for her knowledge of theater. She noted too that guards, unobtrusive but in force, were always close at hand. When the princess was in the theater, every entrance was blocked, every interior door was double guarded. Hannah was also aware that a special unit of security checked the Center daily for explosives.

  While seated mid-theater with Eve, Hannah watched the rehearsal. She’d always had an affection and respect for actors, as she understood the effort and skill that went into characterization. Now, while lines were cued and staging set, she matched the members of the troupe with the information she already had compiled on each of them.

  They were certainly talented, Hannah thought as she found herself drawn into the rhythm and emotion of Eve’s play. The sets were still incomplete, but the players needed no more than Eve’s words and their own skill to make a statement. Each one of the actors had a reputation in theater and a complete security check.

  But it had been an actor—Russ Talbot—who’d nearly carried out Deboque’s revenge two years before. Hannah couldn’t forget that it was a strong possibility that someone other than herself had been planted. Deboque was known for covering his bets.

  “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”

  Drawn back, Hannah looked over at Eve. “I beg your pardon?”

  “Chantel O’Hurley. She’s exquisite.” Shifting in her chair, Eve leaned on the seat back in front of her. “She rarely makes a stage performance, so we’re lucky to have her. I’m sure you’ve seen her films in England.”

  “Yes.” Hannah gave her full attention to the curvy blonde center stage.

  Chantel O’Hurley. Hannah paused to recollect everything she’d read in the actress’s file. Twenty-six. American film star. Residence, Beverly Hills. Daughter of Frances and Margaret O’Hurley, traveling entertainers. Sisters, Abigail and Madelaine. Brother, Trace.

  Hannah frowned and continued to watch. She had full background information on the entire O’Hurley family, except the brother. There her sources had closed tight. In any case, Chantel O’Hurley was a talented actress with an impressive list of screen credits and no known affiliation with any political group. Nonetheless, Hannah would keep an eye on her.

  “She’s found the heart of it,” Eve murmured. “I’d finished the play and was trying to work up the courage to produce it, when I saw her in her last film. I knew immediately she’d be the perfect Julia.” On a long breath Eve leaned back again in an unprincesslike slouch. “I can’t believe she’s here, reciting my lines. There isn’t an emotion that voice can’t pull out.”

  “I’m sure she’s honored to be performing in a play written and produced by Princess Eve of Cordina.”

  On a half laugh, Eve shook her head. “If the play had been lousy, I could have been Empress of Europe and Chantel wouldn’t have accepted the part. That’s what I’m hanging on to.”

  “A member of the Royal Family doesn’t write lousy plays.”

  At the sound of the voice behind her, Eve was springing up and reaching out. “Alexander! What are you doing here?”

  “I, too, have an interest in the Center.” He kissed the hand he held before turning to Hannah. “Please, sit, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

  “No.” Eve sighed and glanced back at the stage where rehearsals continued. “You meant to check up on me.”

  It was, of course, the truth, but Alexander only shrugged. In the dim light, Hannah saw his gaze sweep over his wife’s head to the guards placed at several strategic points. “You forget, ma mie, that I am still president of the Center. In addition to that, my wife’s play is in rehearsal. I have a small interest there as well.”

  “And you came to be certain I wasn’t staying on my feet.” Over the frustration came the tug of love. Eve rose to her toes to kiss him. “Thank you. Hannah, tell His Highness I’ve been taking care of myself in the four hours and forty minutes since he last saw me.”

  “Your Highness,” Hannah began dutifully, “the princess has been taking excellent care of herself.”

  A smile softened his features, but he continued to stand protectively near his wife. “Thank you, Hannah. I’m sure the credit goes to you.”

  With a low laugh, Eve tucked her hand through Alexander’s arm. “Hannah, you can see that I wasn’t joking when I said that Alex thinks I need a keeper. If you hadn’t come I have no doubt he’d have hired a two-hundred-pound wrestler with tattoos.”

  “I’m glad I could save you from that.” What was this? Hannah wondered. A tug of envy? Ridiculous as it seemed to her, she recognized the emotion as she studied Alexander and Eve. So much in love, she thought. The power of it all but cast an aura around them. Did they realize, could they realize, how rare a thing they’d found?

  “Now that I’ve interrupted,” Alexander was saying, “I was hoping to convince you to join me for my luncheon with the American senator.”

  “The Yankee from Maine.”

  With a smile, Alexander stroked her cheek. “My dear, it continues to fascinate me how your country divides itself into sections. But yes, the Yankee from Maine. We should be finished by three and be back at the palace when Marissa wakes from her nap.”

  “But you had a meeting this afternoon.”

  “I canceled it.” He brought her hand to his lips. “I wanted to spend some time with my family.”

  The glow of pleasure all but lit up the theater. “Give me five minutes to get my things. Hannah, you’ll join us?”

  “If it wouldn’t inconvenience you, I’d really like to stay and watch the rest of the rehearsal.” Her mind was already shooting ahead. Alone, she could take a casual tour of the complex. If there were vulnerabilities, she’d find them.

  “Of course, stay as long as you like.” Eve bent down to kiss her cheek. “We’ll have a car wait for you at the stage door. Five minutes,” she repeated to Alexander before she dashed off.

  “What do you think of the play?” Alexander asked Hannah as he took the seat beside her.

  “I’m hardly an expert on the theater, Your Highness.”

  “In private, please call me Alexander.”

  “Thank you,” she murmured, aware that this gave her an intimacy rewarded to few. “There’s an intensity, an immediacy in the dialogue that makes one care deeply about the characters. I don’t know the end, but I find myself hoping Julia wins even while I’m afraid she won’t.”

  “Eve would like to hear that. The play—and other things—have her very tense right now.”

  “You’re worried about her.” In a gesture that was pure instinct, Hannah placed a hand on his. “She’s very strong.”

  “I know that, better than most.” But he’d never been able to block off the memory of how her body had stiffened, then gone limp in his arms when a bullet had struck her. “I haven’t told you before how very grateful I am that you came to be with her. She needs friendship. I changed her life, selfishly perhaps because I couldn’t live mine without her. Whatever can be done to give her a sense of normalcy, a sense of peace, I’ll do. You understand the obligations of royalty. The limitations. Even the risk.”

  “Yes, I do.” Hannah left her hand on his another moment before removing it. “And I understand a happy woman when I see one.”

  When he turned to her then, Hannah saw the strong resemblance to his father. The lean, almost scholarly face, the aristocratic lines, the mouth that was held firm. “Thank you, Hannah. I think perhaps you’ll be good for all of us.”

  “I hope so.” She looked back at the stage, at the players, at the roles. “I do hope so.”

  * * *

  Alone, Hannah watched for another half hour. Yes, the play was good, she decided, even gripping, but she had other games to play.

  The guards remained, but with no royalty present they were more for the purpose of keeping others out than monitoring those already in. Lady Hannah was already established as the princess’s confidante and companion. Trusted by Prince Armand himself, she wasn’t followed when she rose and slipped through a side door.

  There was a miniature camera concealed in a lipstick case in her handbag, but she didn’t use it now. Her training had taught her to rely on her powers of observation first, her equipment second.

  A building the size of the sprawling Center wasn’t easily secured. Hannah found herself giving Reeve MacGee a nod of respect as she walked through. Heat sensors as well as hidden cameras. But the sensors were activated only when the Center was closed.

  Security passes were required at the door for members of the cast and crew. On the night of a performance, however, entrance could be gained for the price of