Affaire royale, p.15
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       Affaire Royale, p.15
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         Part #1 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  know. “To America?”

  “You can stay with me on the farm until this whole business is over.”

  Until. The word reminded her that some things had to end. Just end. She dropped her hand. “This whole business begins with me. I can’t run from it.”

  “There’s no need for you to stay here.” Suddenly he saw how simple it could be. She’d be away. He could keep her safe. Armand would simply have to alter his plan.

  “There’s every need for me to stay. My life is lost here somewhere. How can I find it thousands of miles away?”

  “When you’re ready to remember, you’ll remember. It won’t matter where you are.”

  “It matters to me.” She drew away from him then, backing up until she was braced against the wall. Pride came back, as much a part of her inheritance as the color of her eyes. “Do you think I’m a coward? Do you think I’d turn my back and walk away from the people who used me? Has my father asked you to do this so I won’t ask any more questions?”

  “You know better.”

  “I know nothing,” she retorted. “Nothing except that all the men in my life seem compelled to shield me from what I don’t want to be shielded from. This morning you said we’d work together.”

  “I meant it.”

  She watched him carefully. “And now?”

  “I still mean it.” But he didn’t tell her what he knew. He didn’t tell her what he felt.

  “Then we will.” But she didn’t tell him what she’d learned. She didn’t tell him what she needed.

  She did step forward, even as he did. She did reach for him as he reached for her. They held each other close, both knowing that so much lay between them.

  “I wish we were alone,” she murmured. “Really alone, as we were the day on the boat.”

  “We’ll go sailing tomorrow.”

  She shook her head before she pressed her face harder against him. “I can’t. There’ll be no time between now and the ball for anything. So many obligations, Reeve.”

  For both of us, he thought. “After the ball, then.”

  “After.” She kept her eyes closed for only another moment. “Will you make me a promise? A foolish one.”

  He kissed one temple, then the other. “How foolish?”

  “Always practical.” Smiling, she tilted her head back. “When the blanks are gone and this is over, really over, will you spend the day with me on the water?”

  “That doesn’t seem so foolish.”

  “You say that now.” She linked her hands around his neck. She’d hold him there, if only for a moment. “But promise.”

  “I promise.”

  With a sigh, she melted against him. “I’ll hold you to your word,” she warned.

  When their mouths met, neither of them wanted to go beyond the moment to that last day alone on the water.

  Chapter 11

  “So I told Professor Sparks that a man would have to be made of stone to concentrate on Homer when there was a woman who looked like Lisa Barrow in the same classroom.”

  “Did he sympathize?” Brie asked Bennett absently as she watched the freshly cleaned chandelier being raised back in place.

  “Are you kidding? He’s got the heart of a prune.” Grinning, he stuck his hands in his back pockets. “But I got a date with the divine Miss Barrow.”

  Brie laughed as she checked the long list of notes she had on a clipboard. “I could tell you that you aren’t going to Oxford to thicken your little black book.”

  “But you won’t.” Easily he slung an arm over her shoulders. “You never lecture. I got a look at the guest list. It was a pleasure to see that the luscious Lady Lawrence will make it.”

  That got her attention. Brie lowered the clipboard and scowled at him. “Bennett, Lady Alison Lawrence is nearly thirty and divorced.”

  He gave her his charming choirboy look that had wickedness just around the edges. “So?”

  Brie shook her head. Had he been born precocious? she wondered. “Maybe I should lecture.”

  “Now leave that to Alex. He’s so much better at it.”

  “So I’ve discovered,” she murmured.

  “Has he been giving you a hard time?”

  She was frowning again as she watched the next chandelier begin its journey up. “Does he usually?”

  “It’s just his way.” The loyalty was there, too strong to waver.

  “Prince Perfect.”

  His face brightened. “Why, you remember—”

  “Dr. Franco told me.”

  “Oh.” His arm tightened briefly, both in reassurance and disappointment. “I didn’t have much time to talk to you last night when I got in. I’ve wanted to ask you how you were.”

  “I wish I could tell you—along the windows, please,” she directed as men brought in two twenty-foot tables. They’ll be covered with white linen, she thought as she checked her clipboard again, then laden with little delicacies to help the guests get through the long night of the ball. “Physically, I’ve been given the nod, with reluctance. I think Dr. Franco would like to pamper me awhile longer. Everything else is complicated.”

  He took her hand, turning the diamond so that the facets caught the light. “I guess this is one of those complications.”

  She tensed, then relaxed. He could feel it. “Only temporarily. Things are bound to fall into place soon.” She thought of the dreams, of the thermos. “Bennett, I’ve been wanting to ask you about Nanny. Do you think she’s well?”

  “Nanny?” He gave her a quick look of surprise. “Has she been ill? No one told me.”

  “No, not ill.” Brie hesitated because the war of loyalties confused her. Why didn’t she simply tell what she suspected about her old nurse? Tell and be done with it? “But she’s quite old now, and people often become odd or …”

  “Senile? Nanny?” This time he laughed as he squeezed her hand. “She’s got a mind like a brick. If she’s been fussing around you too much, it’s only because she feels entitled.”

  “Of course.” Her doubts didn’t fade, but she kept them to herself. She’d watch and wait, as she’d promised herself.

  “Brie, there’s a rumor running around that you and Reeve are the love match of the decade.”

  “Oh?” She only raised a brow, but her thumb came around to worry the diamond on her finger. “Apparently we’re playing the game well.”

  “Is it—a game, I mean?”

  “Not you, too?” Impatient, she walked away from him toward the terrace doors. “I’ve done this round with Alexander already.”

  “It’s not a matter of pushing my exalted nose in.” Equally impatient, he followed her. Though they were close to an argument, they kept their voices low. Servants were notorious for their excellent hearing. “It’s only natural for me to be concerned.”

  “Would you be so concerned if the engagement were genuine?” Her voice was cool, too cool. That alone gave Bennett the answer to his question. But it didn’t tell him whether he should be relieved or disturbed.

  “I feel responsible,” he said after a moment. “After all, it was more or less my idea, and—”

  “Yours?” This time she set her clipboard down on a table with a snap.

  Bennett fumbled a bit, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. If there was one thing he avoided, it was an argument with a woman. He was bound to lose. “Well, I did point out to Father that it would look a little odd for Reeve to be escorting you everywhere, living here, and … Hell.” Frustrated by her calm, icy look, he dragged a hand through his hair. “There had been all kinds of talk. Commérage.”

  “What do I care for gossip?”

  “You’ve never had to deal with that kind before.” His voice wasn’t bitter, but resigned. “Look, Brie, I might be the youngest of the three of us, but I’m the one with the most experience with the tacky little tabloids.”

  “Justifiably, it would seem.”

  He, too, could become very dignified. “Yes, quite justifiably. But wh
ile I’ve chosen to live my life a certain way, you haven’t. I couldn’t stand seeing your name and picture splashed all over, sneered over. You can be angry if you like. I’d rather have you angry than hurt ever again.”

  She could have been furious with him. Brie understood it was her right to be. She could have told him, stiffly and finally, to stay out of her affairs. That by interfering, he’d made her more vulnerable than any scandal would. The ring on her hand was a prop—a support. One day she’d look down and it would be gone. It would be over.

  She could have been angry, but love poured through her, warm and sweet. He was so young, and so inherently kind. “Damn you, Bennett.” But her arms went around him. “I should be furious with you.”

  He rested his cheek against her temple. “I couldn’t know you’d fall in love with him.”

  She could deny it and save some pride. Instead she shook her head and sighed. “No, neither could I.”

  Just as Brie drew back, she saw a footman escort two women into the room. She’d left instructions that Christina Hamilton and her sister were to be brought to her as soon as they arrived.

  From the photos and newspaper clippings she’d been given, Brie recognized the tall, striking brunette in the St. Laurent suit. She felt nothing but a moment’s blank panic.

  What should she do? She could rush across the room or smile and wait. Should she be polite or warm, affectionate or amused? God, how she hated not simply knowing.

  “She’s your closest friend,” Bennett murmured in his sister’s ear. “You’ve said you had brothers by birth but a sister by luck. That’s Christina.”

  It was enough to ease the panic. Both women had begun their curtsies, the younger with an eye on the prince, the older with a grin for Brie. Falling back on instinct, Brie crossed the room, both hands outstretched. Christina met her halfway.

  “Oh, Brie.” Laughing, Christina held her at arm’s length. Brie saw that her eyes were soft, but full of irony. The mouth was lovely in a smile, but it was strong. “You look wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” Then Brie was caught in a hard hug. Christina smelled expensive and feminine and unfamiliar. But the panic didn’t return.

  “I’m glad you’re here.” Brie let her cheek rest against Christina’s expertly swept-back hair. It wasn’t a lie, she discovered. She needed a friend—simply a friend, not family, not a lover. “You must be exhausted.”

  “Oh, you know flying leaves me wired for hours. You’ve lost weight. How unkind of you.”

  Brie was smiling when she drew away. “Only five pounds.”

  “Only five.” Christina rolled her eyes. “I’ll have to tell you the horrors of that pricey little spa I went to a few months ago. I gained five. Prince Bennett.” Christina held out her hand, casually expecting it to be kissed. “Good God, is it the air in Cordina that makes everyone look so spectacular?”

  Bennett didn’t disappoint her. But as his lips brushed her knuckles, his gaze shifted to Eve. “The air in Houston must be magic.”

  Christina hadn’t missed the look. Like the kiss, she’d expected it. After all, Eve wasn’t a young woman any man could ignore. That’s what worried Christina. “Prince Bennett, I don’t believe you’ve met my sister, Eve.”

  Bennett already had Eve’s hand. His lips lingered over it only seconds longer than they had over her sister’s. But a few seconds can be a long time. He noted the long fall of rich, dark hair, the dreamy, poetic blue eyes, the wide, full curve of her mouth. His young heart was easily lost.

  “I’m happy to meet you, Your Highness.”

  Her voice wasn’t that of a girl, but of a woman, as rich and dark as her hair.

  “You look lovely, Eve.” Brie took Eve’s hands herself to ward off her brother. “I’m so glad you could come.”

  “It’s just the way you described it.” Eve sent her a sudden, alarmingly effective smile—alarming because it was as natural as a sunrise. “I haven’t been able to look fast enough.”

  “Then you should take your time.” Smoothly Bennett brushed his sister aside. “I’ll give you a tour. I’m sure Brie and Chris have lots to talk about.” With a half bow to the other women, he led Eve from the room. “What would you like to see first?”

  “Well.” Not certain if she should frown or laugh, Brie looked after them. “He certainly moves fast.”

  “Eve doesn’t creep along herself.” Christina tapped her foot a moment, then dismissed them. After all, she couldn’t play chaperone forever. “How busy are you?”

  “Not very,” Brie told her, mentally rearranging her schedule. “Tomorrow I won’t have time to take a breath.”

  “Then let’s take one now.” Christina linked an arm through hers. “Can we have tea and cookies in your rooms, the way we used to? I can’t believe it’s been a year. There’s so much to catch up on.”

  If you only knew, Brie mused as she moved down the corridor with her.

  * * *

  “Tell me about Reeve,” Christina demanded as she plucked an iced pink cookie from the tray.

  Brie ran her spoon around and around in her tea, though she’d forgotten to put any sugar in. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

  “Everything,” Christina said dramatically. “I’m eaten up with curiosity.” She’d tossed off her shoes and had her legs curled under her. The excitement of the flight was beginning to ease into relaxation. But she’d already noticed that Brie wasn’t relaxed. She dismissed it—almost—as tension over the ball. “You certainly don’t have to tell me what he looks like.” She gestured with the half cookie, then nimbly popped it into her mouth. “I see his picture every time I pick up a magazine. Is he fun?”

  Brie thought about the day on her boat, about the drives they sometimes took along the coast. She thought of the dinner parties they attended when he would murmur something in her ear that was rude and accurate. “Yes.” It made her smile. “Yes, he’s fun. And he’s strong. He’s clever and rather arrogant.”

  “You’ve got it bad,” Christina murmured, watching her friend’s face. “I’m happy for you.”

  Brie tried to smile, but couldn’t quite pull it off. Instead she lifted her cup. “You’ll meet him soon and be able to judge for yourself.”

  “Hmmm.” Christina studied the tray of elegant cookies, lectured herself, then chose one, anyway. “That’s one of the things that’s bothered me.”

  Instantly alert, Brie set down her tea again. “Bothered you?”

  “Well, yes, Brie. Where did you meet him? I can’t believe you met this wonderful, clever, arrogant man last year when you were in the States, then stayed with me for three days in Houston without breathing a word.”

  “Royalty’s trained to be discreet,” Brie said offhandedly, and pretended an interest in the cookies herself.

  “Not that discreet,” Christina said over a full mouth. “In fact, I remember you telling me specifically that there wasn’t anyone in your life, that you weren’t interested in men particularly. And I agreed heartily, because I’d just ended a disastrous affair.”

  Brie felt herself getting in deeper. “I suppose I wasn’t entirely sure of my feelings—or his.”

  “How did you work it out long distance?”

  “There’s a connection through our fathers, you know.” She dug back to something Reeve had said to her once, something she’d nearly forgotten. “Actually, we met years ago, here in Cordina. It was my sixteenth birthday party.”

  “You’re not going to tell me you fell for him then?”

  Brie merely moved her shoulders. How could she confirm or deny what she didn’t know?

  “Well.” Christina poured more tea in her cup. Because she found the idea so sweet, she forgot about details. “That certainly explains why you didn’t have much interest in all those gorgeous men in Paris. I’m happy for you.”

  She laid her hand over Brie’s lightly, briefly. It was a very simple, very casual touch of friendship. Brie’s eyes filled so that she had to fight to clear them.

 
I’m glad he was here for you after …” Christina trailed off, no longer interested in her tea. When she set her legs down, she touched Brie’s hand again, but the touch was firmer. “Brie, I wish you’d talk to me about it. The press is so vague. I know they haven’t caught the people responsible, and I can’t stand it.”

  “The police are investigating.”

  “But they haven’t caught anyone. Can you rest easily until they do? I can’t.”

  “No.” Unable to sit, Brie rose, linking her hands. “No, I can’t. I’ve tried to go on with the daily business of life, but it’s like waiting, just waiting without knowing.”

  “Oh, Brie.” Chris was at her side, hugging her. “I don’t mean to pressure you, but we’ve always shared everything. I was so frightened for you.” A tear brimmed over, but she brushed at it impatiently. “Damn, I told myself I wouldn’t do this, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about what it was like to pick up the paper and see the headline—”

  Brie took a step back from the emotion. “You shouldn’t think about it. It’s over.”

  The tears cleared, but now there was puzzlement. “I’m sorry.” Hurt, but unsure why, Christina looked down for her bag. “It’s too easy to forget sometimes who you are and what rules you have to live by.”

  “No.” Torn between instinct and a promise, Brie hesitated. “Don’t go, Chris. I need—oh, God, I do need to talk to someone.” Brie looked at her then and chose. “We’re very good friends, aren’t we?”

  Puzzlement and hurt became confusion. “Brie, you know—”

  “No, just tell me.”

  Christina set her bag back down again. “Eve’s my sister,” she said calmly. “And I love her. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her. I don’t love you any less.”

  Brie closed her eyes a moment. “Sit down, please.” She waited, then sat down beside Christina. Taking one long breath, she told her friend everything.

  Perhaps Christina paled a bit, perhaps her eyes widened, but she interrupted Brie only twice to clarify. When the story was finished, she sat in absolute silence for a moment. But, then, volcanoes often sit quietly.

  “It stinks.”

  She said the words in her soft Texas drawl so that Brie blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

  “It stinks,” Christina repeated. “Politics usually does, and Americans are the first to say so, but this really stinks.”

  For some reason, Christina’s sturdy, inelegant opinion made her comfortable. Brie smiled and reached for a cookie without thinking. “I can’t really blame politics. After all, I agreed to everything.”

  “Well, what else were you going to do, for heaven’s sake?” Exasperated, Christina rose and walked over to a small cherry wood commode. She discovered she wanted badly to break something. Anything. “You were weak, disoriented and frightened.”

  “Yes,” Brie murmured. “Yes, I was.” She watched Christina rummage and locate an exquisite little decanter.

  “I need a brandy.” Without ceremony, Christina poured. “You?”

  “Mmmm.” Brie only nodded an assent. “I didn’t even know that was there.”

  Christina spilled a bit of brandy over the side of a glass, swore and blotted the drop with a finger. “You’ll remember.” She walked back, and her eyes were bright and strong when she handed Brie a snifter. “You’ll remember because you’re too stubborn not to.”

  And for the first time Brie believed it, completely. With something like relief she touched her glass to Christina’s. “Thanks.”

  “If I hadn’t let myself get talked out of it, I would have been here weeks ago.” With an unintelligible mutter, Christina sat on the arm of the sofa. “Your father, that Loubet and the wonderful Reeve MacGee should all be rounded up, corralled and horsewhipped. I’d like to give all three of them a piece of my mind.”

  Brie laughed into her brandy. This was what she’d needed, she realized, to counterbalance that fierce protection from the men who cared for her. “I think you could do it.”

 
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