Affaire royale, p.3
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       Affaire Royale, p.3

         Part #1 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  Armand waited until the driver stopped in front of the entrance. “If there were, none of this would be necessary.” He stepped from the car first and turned to assist his daughter himself. “Welcome home, Gabriella.”

  Her hand remained in his and the light breeze ruffled between them. She wasn’t ready to go in. Armand felt it, and waited.

  She could smell the flowers now. Jasmine, vanilla, spice, and the roses that grew in the courtyard. The grass was so green, the stone so white it was almost blinding. There had to have been a drawbridge once, she was sure of it. Now there was an arched mahogany door at the top of curved stone steps. Glass, sometimes clear, sometimes tinted, glistened as it should in palaces. At the topmost tower a flag whipped in the wind. Snowy white with an arrogant diagonal slash of red.

  Slowly she looked over the building. It tugged at her, welcoming her. The sense of peace wasn’t something she imagined. It was as real as the fear she’d felt not long before. Yet she couldn’t say which of those sparkling windows were hers. She’d come to find out, Brie reminded herself, and stepped forward.

  Even as she did, the wide door was flung open. A young man with dark, thick hair and a dancer’s build dashed out. “Brie!” Then he was on her, embracing her with all the strength and enthusiasm of youth. He smelled comfortably of horses. “I’d just come in from the stables when Alex told me you were on your way.”

  Brie felt the waves of love coming from him, and looked helplessly over his shoulder to her father.

  “Your sister needs rest, Bennett.”

  “Of course. She’ll rest better here.” Grinning, he drew back, keeping her hands tight in his. He looked so young, she thought, so beautiful, so happy. When he saw her face, his eyes sobered quickly. “You don’t remember? Still?”

  She wanted to reach out to him. He seemed to need it so. All she could do was return the squeeze of hand to hand. “I’m sorry.”

  He opened his mouth, then shut it again, slipping an arm around her waist. “Nonsense.” His voice was cheerful, but he kept her carefully between himself and their father. “You’ll remember soon enough now that you’re home. Alex and I thought we’d have to wait until this afternoon to see you in the hospital. This is so much better.”

  As he spoke he was easing her gently in the front door, talking quickly, she was sure, to put both her and himself at ease. She saw the hall, wide and stunning with its frescoed ceiling and polished floor, the gracious sweep of stairs leading up and up, to what she didn’t yet know. Because her heart was pounding, she concentrated on the scents that soothed her. Fresh flowers and lemon wax. She heard the sound of her heels striking the wood and echoing.

  There was a tall, glossy urn on a stand. She knew it was Ming, just as she knew the stand was Louis XIV. Things, Brie thought. She could identify them, catalog them, but she couldn’t relate herself to them. Sunlight poured through two high arched windows but didn’t warm her skin.

  Escape. The need for it rolled around inside her. She wanted to turn around and walk out, go back to the safe, impersonal hospital room. There weren’t so many demands there, so many of these unspoken questions that hung in the air. She wouldn’t feel such an outpouring of love, or the need from those around for her to return it. Had she ever? she wondered. When she remembered who she was, would she find a cold, unfeeling woman?

  Bennett felt her tense, and tightened his arm around her. “Everything’s going to be all right now, Brie.”

  From somewhere she found the strength to smile. “Yes, of course.”

  Several paces down the hall a door opened. Brie knew the man to be her brother only because of the strong resemblance between him and the man at her side. She tried to empty herself so that any emotions she might feel would have room.

  He wasn’t as smoothly handsome as Bennett. His good looks were more intense and less comfortable than his younger brother’s. Though he was young, she sensed the same immovable dignity in him as she did in their father. But of course, she reminded herself. He was the heir. Such things were both a gift and a burden.

  “Gabriella.” Alex didn’t rush to her as Bennett had, but came forward steadily, watching her. When he stood in front of her, he lifted his hands and framed her face. The gesture seemed natural, as if he’d done so time and again in the past. The past, she thought as his fingers were warm and firm on her skin, she didn’t have. “We’ve missed you. No one’s shouted at me in a week.”

  “I …” Floundering, she said nothing. What should she say? What should she feel? She knew only that this was too much and she hadn’t been as prepared as she’d thought. Then, over Alexander’s shoulder, she saw Reeve.

  Obviously he’d been closeted with her brother but had stood back to watch the reunion. Another time she might resent it, but now she found she needed his calm impartiality. Hanging on to control, she touched her brother’s hand. “I’m sorry, I’m very tired.”

  She saw something flicker in Alexander’s eyes, but then he stepped back. “Of course you are. You should rest. I’ll take you up.”

  “No.” Brie struggled not to let the refusal sound as blunt as it was. “Forgive me, I need some time. Perhaps Mr. MacGee wouldn’t mind taking me to my room.”

  “Brie—”

  Bennett’s protest was immediately quelled by Armand. “Reeve, you know Gabriella’s rooms.”

  “Of course.” He stepped forward and took her arm, but the touch was impersonal. He thought he felt her sigh in relief. “Your Highness?”

  He led her away, up the curving stairs, where she paused once to look back down on the three men who watched. She seemed so distant from them, so separated. The pull and tug of emotion came and went, so that she climbed the rest of the stairs in silence.

  She recognized nothing in the wide, gleaming corridors, nothing in the exquisite wall hangings or draping curtains. Once they passed a servant whose eyes filled as she stopped and curtsied.

  “How is it I’m loved like this?” Brie murmured.

  Reeve walked on, his hand barely touching her arm as he guided her. “People generally want to be loved.”

  “Don’t people generally wonder if they deserve it?” With an impatient shake of her head, she went on. “It’s as if I’ve stepped into a body. The body has a past, but I don’t. Inside this woman, I look out and see other’s reactions to her.”

  “You could use it to your advantage.”

  She sent him a quick, interested look. “In what way?”

  “You have the advantage of seeing the people around you without having your own emotions color what you see. Observation without prejudice. It might be an interesting way to understand yourself.”

  She didn’t relax so much as accept. “You see now why I asked you to bring me up.”

  He stopped in front of a beautifully carved door. “Do I?”

  “I thought only moments ago that I wanted no more strangers in my life. And yet … You haven’t any strong feelings for me and you don’t expect them in return. It’s easy for you to look at me and be practical.”

  He studied her now in the misty light of the corridor. It wasn’t possible for a man to look at her and think practical thoughts, but it wasn’t the time to mention that. “You were frightened downstairs.”

  She tilted her chin and met his eyes. “Yes.”

  “So you’ve decided to trust me.”

  “No.” She smiled then, beautifully. Something of the girl he’d met with diamonds in her hair came through. Too much of the attraction he’d felt crept along with it. “Trust isn’t something I can give so quickly under the circumstances.”

  Perhaps more than the smile, the strength attracted him. “What have you decided, then?”

  Perhaps more than his looks, his confidence attracted her. “I don’t want your services as a policeman, Reeve, but I think your services as a stranger might be invaluable. My father is determined to have you in any case, so perhaps we might come to an agreement between us.”

  “Of what kind?”
r />   “I don’t want to be hovered over. I think I can be certain that’s the one thing that was always true. I’d like to consider you as more of a buffer between me and …”

  “Your family?” he finished.

  Her lashes swept down and her fingers tightened on her bag. “Don’t make it sound so cold.”

  Touching her would be a mistake. He had to remind himself of that. “You’ve a right to the time and distance you need, Gabriella.”

  “They have needs, as well. I’m not unaware of that.” Her head came up again, but she looked beyond him to the door. “This is my room?”

  For a moment she’d looked so lost, so totally lost. He wanted to offer comfort, but knew it was the last thing she wanted or needed. “Yes.”

  “Would you think I was a coward if I said I didn’t want to go in alone?”

  For an answer, he opened the door and walked in just ahead of her.

  So, she preferred pastels. As Brie looked around the small, charming sitting room she saw the pale, sun-washed colors. No frills, she noted, rather pleased. Even without them, the room was essentially feminine. She felt a sense of relief that she accepted her womanhood without needing elaborate trappings to prove it. Maybe, just maybe, she’d find she liked Gabriella.

  The room wasn’t cluttered, nor was any space wasted. There were fresh flowers in a bowl on a Queen Anne desk. On the dresser was a collection of tiny bottles in pretty shapes and colors that could have no use at all. They, too, pleased her.

  She stepped onto a rug in muted shades of rose and touched the curved back of a chair.

  “I’m told you redecorated your room about three years ago,” Reeve said casually. “It must be a comfort to know you have good taste.”

  Had she chosen the material for the soft, cushioned love seat herself? Brie ran her finger over it as if the feel would trigger some hint. Anything. From the window she could look down on Cordina as she must have done countless times before.

  There were gardens, a roll of lawn, a jut of rock, the sea. Farther out was the city, houses and hills and green. Though she couldn’t see, she was sure children were still playing in the park near the fountain.

  “Why am I blocking this out?” Brie demanded suddenly. When she turned around Reeve saw that the calm, reserved woman he’d brought upstairs had turned into an impassioned and desperate one. “Why do I block out what I want so badly to remember?”

  “Maybe there are other things you’re not ready to remember.”

  “I can’t believe this.” She flung down her purse on the love seat and began to pace, rubbing her hands against each other. “I can’t bear having this wall between me and myself.”

  Fragility aside, he thought, there was a great deal of passion here. A man could find it difficult to overlook the combination and go about his business. “You’ll have to be patient.” And as he said it, he wondered if he was cautioning her or himself.

  “Patient?” With a laugh she dragged a hand through her hair. “Why am I so sure that’s something I’m not? I feel if I could push one brick, just one brick out of the wall, the rest would crumble away. But how?” She continued to move quickly, with the kind of grace she’d been born with. “You could help me.”

  “Your family’s here for that.”

  “No.” The toss of her head was regal, and though her voice was soft, it held command. “They know me, of course, but their feelings—and mine—will keep the wall up longer than I can stand. They look at me and hurt because I don’t know them.”

  “But I don’t know you.”

  “Exactly.” She swept her hair away from her face with a gesture that seemed less impatient than habitual. “You’ll be objective. Because you won’t constantly try to protect my feelings you won’t pull at them. Since you’ve already agreed to my father’s request—haven’t you?”

  Reeve thought of his land. As he dipped his hands into his pockets, he frowned. “Yes.”

  “You’ve put yourself in the position of breathing over my shoulder,” she continued smoothly, “and since you’ll be there, you may as well be of some use to me.”

  He gave a half laugh. “My pleasure, Your Highness.”

  “Now I’ve annoyed you.” With a shrug, she walked to him. “Well, I suppose we’ll annoy each other a great deal before it’s over. I’ll be honest with you, not because I want your pity, but because I have to say it to someone. I feel so alone.” Her voice wavered only slightly. The sun rushing through the windows betrayed her by revealing her pallor. “I have nothing I can see or touch that I know is mine. It isn’t possible for me to look back a year and remember something funny or sad or sweet. I don’t even know my full name.”

  He touched her. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, but he couldn’t stop. His fingers lifted to her face and just skimmed her cheek. “Her Serene Highness Gabriella Madeline Justine Bisset of Cordina.”

  “So much.” She managed a smile, but her hand reached up to grip his tightly. The contact seemed a bit too natural for both of them, but neither broke it. “Brie seems easier. I can relax with Brie. Tell me, do you care for my family?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then help me give them back the woman they need. Help me find her. In one week I’ve lost twenty-five years. I need to know why. You must understand that.”

  “I understand.” But he told himself he shouldn’t be touching her. “It doesn’t mean I can help.”

  “But you can. You can because you have no need. Don’t be patient with me, be harsh. Don’t be kind, be hard.”

  He continued to hold her hand. “It might not be healthy for an American ex-cop to give a princess a hard time.”

  She laughed. It was the first time he’d heard it in ten years, yet he remembered. And he remembered, as she didn’t, the swirl of the waltz they’d shared, the magic of moonlight. Staying wasn’t wise, he knew. But he couldn’t leave. Not quite yet.

  Her fingers relaxed in his. “Do we still behead in Cordina? Surely we have more civilized methods of dealing with rabble. Immunity.” Suddenly she looked young and at ease. “I’ll grant you immunity, Reeve MacGee. Hereby you have my permission to shout, probe, prod and be a general nuisance without fear of reprisal.”

  “You willing to put the royal seal on it?”

  “After someone tells me where it is.”

  The intensity was gone. Pale and weary she might be, but her smile was lovely. He felt something else from her now. Hope and determination. He’d help her, Reeve thought. Later, perhaps, he’d ask himself why. “Your word’s good enough.”

  “And yours. Thank you.”

  He brought the hand he still held to his lips. It was a gesture, he knew, she should be as accustomed to as breathing. Yet just as his lips brushed her knuckles he saw something flicker in her eyes. Princess or not, she was a woman. Reeve knew arousal when he saw it. Just as he knew it when he felt it. Cautious, he released her hand. The step back was for both of them.

  “I’ll leave you to rest. Your maid’s name is Bernadette. Unless you want her sooner, she’ll be in an hour before dinner.”

  Brie let her hand fall to her side as if it weren’t part of her. “I appreciate what you’re doing.”

  “You won’t always.” When he reached the door, he judged the distance to be enough. Then he looked back, and she was still in front of the window. Light rioted in, flowing across her hair, shimmering over her skin. “Let it rest for today, Brie,” he told her quietly. “Tomorrow we can start knocking at that brick.”

  Chapter 3

  She hadn’t meant to sleep but to think. Still, she felt herself drifting awake as groggy and disoriented as she’d been that first time in the hospital.

  Gabriella, she told herself. Her name was Gabriella and she was lying in her room, on the soft blue-and-rose-colored quilt that spread over her big carved oak bed. There was a breeze fluttering over her because she’d opened the windows herself when she’d explored her bedroom.

  Her name was Gabriella and there was no reason t
o wake up afraid. Safe, she repeated over and over in her head until her muscles believed it and relaxed.

  “So.”

  At the one indignant syllable, Brie sat up abruptly, panicked. An old woman was seated neatly in a straight-backed chair across from the bed. Her hair was pulled back into a knot so tight that not a single wisp escaped. It was gray, stone gray, without a hint of softening white. Her face was like parchment, thin skinned, a bit yellowed and generously lined. Two small dark eyes peered out, and though her mouth was withered with age, it looked strong. She wore a dignified, no-nonsense black dress, sturdy Mack shoes and, quaintly, a cameo on a velvet ribbon around her neck.

  Since Brie had no memory to rely on, she used instincts. Reeve had told her to observe without prejudice. It was advice she saw the wisdom in. There was no fear as she stared back at the old woman. Relaxing again, she remained sitting. “Hello.”

  “Fine thing,” the old woman said in what rang to Brie as a Slavic accent. “You come home after giving me a week of worry and don’t bother to see me.”

  “I’m sorry.” The apology came out so naturally she smiled.

  “They gave me this nonsense about your not remembering. Bah!” She lifted a hand and slapped it against the arm of the chair. “My Gabriella not remembering her own nanny.”

  Brie studied the woman but knew no sense of connection would come. It just wasn’t time. “I don’t remember,” she said quietly. “I don’t remember anything.”

  Nanny hadn’t lived for seventy-three years, raised a nurseryful of children and buried one of her own without being prepared for any shock. After a moment’s silence, she rose. Her face might be lined, her hands curled slightly with arthritis, but she pulled herself from the chair with the grace and ease of youth. As she stood over Brie’s bed, the princess saw a small, birdlike woman in black with a stern face and rosary beads hanging from her belt.

  “I am Carlotta Baryshnova, nanny to the Lady Honoria Bruebeck, your aunt, and Lady Elizabeth Bruebeck, your mother. When she became Princess Elizabeth of Cordina I came with her to be nanny to her children. I have diapered you, bandaged your knees and blown your nose. When you marry, I will do the same for your children.”

  “I see.” Because the woman seemed more annoyed than upset, Brie smiled again. It occurred to her she had yet to see herself smile. She’d have to go back to the mirror again. “And was I a good child?”

  “Hmph.” The sound could have meant anything, but Brie caught a tiny hint of pleasure in it. “Sometimes worse, sometimes better than your brothers. And they were always a trial.” Coming closer, she peered down at Brie with the intensity of the nearsighted. “Not sleeping well,” she said briskly. “No wonder. Tonight I’ll bring you hot milk.”

  Brie angled her head. “Do I like it?”

  “No. But you’ll drink it. Now I’ll run your bath. Too much excitement and too many doctors, that’s what’s wrong with you. I told that silly Bernadette I would see to your needs this evening. What have you done to your hands?” she demanded abruptly, and snatched one up. She began mumbling over it like an old hen over a backward chick. “Only a week away and you ruin your nails. Worse than a kitchen maid’s. Chipped and broken, and with all the money you spend on manicures.”

  Brie sat still while Nanny fussed and complained. There was something, something in the feel of that dry, warm hand and scolding voice. Even as she tried to hold it, it faded. “I have manicures often?”

  “Once a week.” Nanny sniffed, but continued to grip Brie’s fingers.

  “It appears I need another one.”

  “You can have that stiff-lipped secretary of yours make an appointment. Your hair, too,” Nanny said, scowling at it. “A fine thing for a princess to run around with chipped nails and flyaway hair. Fine thing,” she continued, as she walked into an adjoining room. “Fine thing, indeed.”

  Brie rose and stripped. She felt no invasion of privacy at having the woman fuss and hover around during her bath. Even as she drew off her hose, the woman was there, bundling her into a short silk robe.

  “Pin up your hair,” Nanny said grumpily. “We’ll do what we can with it after your bath.” When she saw Brie’s hesitation, she went to the dresser herself and opened a small enameled box. Hairpins were jumbled inside. “Here now.” And her voice was more gentle. “Your hair is thick like your mother’s. You need a lot of pins.” She was nudging her along, clucking, into the room where water ran. Stopping a moment, Brie just looked.

  There was a skylight, strategically placed so that the sun or rain or moonlight would be visible while looking up from the tub. The floor and walls were all tiled in white with flowering plants hanging everywhere in a room already steamy. Even with them, the tub dominated the room with its splash of rich, deep green. Its clover shape would accommodate three, she mused, and wondered if it ever had. Bemused, she watched the water pour out of a wide glistening faucet that turned it into a miniature waterfall.

  She saw both the pristine and the passionate, and wondered if it reflected her. The scent rising out of the tub was the same that had been in the little glass bottle the prince had sent for that morning. Gabriella’s scent, Brie reminded herself.

  Letting the robe slip away, she lowered herself into the bath. It was easy to give herself to it as Nanny disappeared, muttering about laying out her clothes.

  The water flowed hot around her. This was something she’d need, Brie discovered, if she were to make it through the evening ahead. She must have relaxed here countless times, looking up at the sky while thinking through what had to be done.

  There would be dinner. In her mind she could imagine a complex, formal place setting. The silver, linen, crystal and china. It wasn’t difficult for her to conjure up a menu and choose which wines with which course. That all seemed basic somehow, a knowledge that remained like knowing which articles of clothing to put on first. But she had no idea what pattern the china would have any more than
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