The playboy prince, p.3
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       The Playboy Prince, p.3

         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  a ticket. Deboque would step from behind bars in a day’s time.

  As she walked, leaving one corridor for the next, Hannah drew a blueprint in her mind. She’d studied the layout of the Center on paper before, but preferred to walk in it, to focus on it, to touch the walls and floor.

  Too many blind corners, she thought. Too many small rooms used for storage. Too many places to hide. Even with Reeve’s expertise, the building could be vulnerable with the right plan of attack. But then, Hannah believed any building could be.

  She turned into Wardrobe, pretending a casual interest in the costumes. Did the guard at the door know everyone by sight? How easy would it be to replace one of the technicians? A photo was affixed to the pass, but makeup and hairpieces could take care of that. How often had she, or another like her, gained access to a place by faked credentials or a clever disguise?

  Once inside, a man could disappear easily. If a man on the security panel could be bribed or replaced, so much the better.

  Yes, she’d put that scenario in her report and let her superiors chew on it awhile. She’d add to that the fact that no one had checked her bag. A small plastic explosive could be easily carried and easily planted.

  She walked from Wardrobe into a rehearsal hall walled with mirrors. With a little shock, she stared at her reflection on all sides. Then, as she had in the garden, she let out a low, easy laugh.

  Oh, Hannah, she thought, how miserably dull you are. Turning to the side, she shook her head. No, maroon did nothing for her, and the high-necked jacket with its bulky belt only made her look unattractively thin. The skirt came well below the knee to hide her legs. She’d braided her hair today, tightly, then had circled the braid at the base of her neck.

  Being a part of herself, it was the best cover she could have conceived. She’d been too skinny as a child, with unmanageable hair, and knees that were forever scraped. Her facial bones had been prominent even then, but in the young girl’s face had seemed too sharp, too angular.

  Then when the other girls had begun to bloom and curve, Hannah’s body had remained stubbornly straight. She’d been bright and athletic and cheerful. Boys had patted her on the back and called her a good sport, but they hadn’t been interested in taking her to any dances.

  She’d learned to ride, swim, shoot skeet and to put an arrow in a bull’s-eye from a hundred paces, but she hadn’t dated.

  She’d learned to speak Russian and French and enough Cantonese to surprise even her father, but she’d gone alone to her own graduation ball.

  When she turned twenty, her body changed, but Hannah hid the late blossoming under dull clothes. She’d already chosen her path in life. Beauty turned heads and in her field it was always best to go unnoticed.

  Now, she looked at the results in the wall of mirrors and was satisfied. No man would desire her. It was human nature to look at the physical shell and draw emotion from that long before you dipped beneath to the intellect or soul. No woman would envy her. Dull was safe, after all.

  No one would suspect a plain, bookish woman of excellent breeding and quiet social manners of deception or violence. Only a select few were aware that the woman beneath was capable of both.

  For a reason she couldn’t name, that thought made her turn away from her reflection. Deception had been with her all of her adult life, and yet she couldn’t quite dismiss the twinges of guilt she felt whenever Eve looked at her as a friend.

  It was a job, Hannah reminded herself. No emotional attachments, no emotional involvements were permitted. That was the first and most important rule of the game. She couldn’t afford to allow herself to like Eve, to even think of her as anything but a political symbol. If she did, everything she’d worked for could be lost.

  The envy had to go as well, Hannah reminded herself. It was a dangerous lapse to let herself look at the love between the prince and Eve and wish something similar for herself. There was no room for love in her profession. There were only goals, commitments and risks.

  There would be no prince for her, royal or otherwise.

  But before she could prevent it, her thoughts turned to Bennett and the way he’d smiled at her in the moonlight.

  Idiot, she told herself and began tightening a few loose pins. He was the last person she should think about in a personal way. If for no other reason, there was his dossier and the astonishing list of women who’d been part of his life already.

  Use him, certainly, her mind went on. But don’t think about him as anything but a means to an end. Romantic fantasies had ended for her at sixteen. Ten years later, in the middle of her most important job, was hardly the time to begin to weave them again. She would do well to remember that the stiff-lipped, proper Lady Hannah would never see His Royal Highness Prince Bennett de Cordina in a romantic light.

  But the woman within dreamed and for a moment strained against the confines she’d built herself.

  Hannah turned to look back at the mirrors when she heard the footsteps.

  Immediately alert, she cast her eyes down and walked from the room.

  “Ah, there you are.”

  At Bennett’s voice, Hannah gave an inward curse, but curtsied. “Your Highness.”

  “Taking the grand tour?” He walked closer, wondering why she looked as plain as a maiden aunt and continued to intrigue him.

  “Yes, sir. I hope it’s all right.”

  “Of course.” He took her hand, willing her to look directly at him. There was something about her eyes. . . . Or perhaps it was her voice, that cool, always composed British tone. “I had some business in town. Alexander suggested I swing by when I’d finished to see if you were ready to go back.”

  “That’s very kind of you.” And oh, how she would have preferred a silent, anonymous driver who’d have given her the opportunity to assimilate her report on the drive back.

  “I was here.” He felt the restlessness layer over him as she drew her hand back to her side. “If you’d like to see more, I’d be happy to take you around the rest of the Center.”

  Hannah weighed the pros and cons in a matter of seconds. Another quick look might add something, but she’d already gone through the main theater twice, once with Eve and once alone. It might begin to look odd if she went through again with Bennett.

  “No, thank you. It is a fascinating place. I’ve never seen a theater from this side.”

  “Eve’s territory. I confess I prefer front row center myself.” He took Hannah’s arm and began to lead her down the hall. “If you hang around her for any length of time, she finds something for you to do. With me, it’s usually moving boxes. Heavy boxes.”

  With a laugh, Hannah slanted him a look. “That’s one of the best uses a woman can find for a man.”

  “I can see why Eve took to you.” He’d come simply to do his sister-in-law a favor, but now found himself glad. Outward appearance aside, Lady Hannah was anything but dull. For perhaps the first time in his life, Bennett was beginning to look beneath the physical. “Have you seen much of Cordina yet, Hannah?”

  She noticed he’d dropped her title, but decided to let it pass. “Only snatches so far, sir. Once I’m a bit more familiar with Eve’s routine, I plan to explore a bit. I’ve heard your museum has some excellent exhibits. The building itself is reported to be a fine example of post-Renaissance architecture.”

  He wasn’t interested in exhibits, but in her. “Do you like the water?”

  “Of course. Sea air is very beneficial for the constitution.”

  With a half laugh, Bennett paused at the top of the stairs. “But do you like it?”

  He had a strange talent for looking at a woman as though he were seeing her for the first time. And looking as though it mattered. Despite her training, Hannah felt her pulse rate accelerate. “Yes. My grandmother has a place near Cornwall. I spent several summers there as a girl.”

  He wondered what she would look like with her hair down and the sea wind teasing it. Would she laugh as he had heard her laugh in the g
arden? Would he see that light flash in her eyes again? Then he realized it didn’t matter how she looked. He went on impulse, knowing he might regret it.

  “I have to go into Le Havre in a couple of days. The drive runs along the coast. Come with me.”

  If he’d asked her to step into the storage room and neck, she would have been no less surprised. Surprise turned quickly to caution and caution to calculation. But beneath it all was the simple pleasure that he wanted her company. It was the pleasure that worried her.

  “It’s kind of you to ask, Your Highness, but Eve may have plans.”

  “Then we’ll check with her first.” He wanted her to go. He found himself already looking forward to spending a few hours with her away from the palace. Perhaps it was for the challenge of it, the challenge of picking away at that prim, proper exterior and finding what, if anything, lay beneath. Whatever the reason was, Bennett didn’t question it. “Would you like to go?”

  “Yes, I would.” Hannah told herself it was because it would give her the opportunity to study him more closely, for professional reasons. She told herself it would give her the chance to see how well security worked away from the palace and the capital. But the truth was as simple as her answer. She wanted to go.

  “Fine, then we’ll fix it, and you can stand through the long and wordy welcoming ceremony with me.”

  “Hate to be bored alone, do you?”

  Laughing, Bennett took her hand again. “Yes, I can see exactly why Eve brought you to us.” Her hand was an inch from his lips when the murmur of voices came from below. Glancing down, more than a little annoyed, Bennett spotted Chantel.

  “The anger has to show,” she was insisting, walking so quickly the director had to lengthen his stride to keep up. “Julia is not a passive woman. She doesn’t hide what she feels no matter what the consequences. Dammit, Maurice, I’ll make it subtle. I know my job.”

  “Of course you do, chérie, that I don’t question. It is simply that—”

  “Mademoiselle.” From the top of the stairs, Bennett looked down. Hannah had a firsthand glimpse of how he smiled at a truly beautiful woman. Without thinking, she drew her hand from his and linked her fingers together.

  Chantel, reaching one hand up to draw back her pale blond hair, tilted her head back. Even so dispassionate an observer such as Hannah had to concede that few women could claim such a combination of glamour, beauty and sexuality. Her lips curved. Her eyes, a deep, dreamy shade of blue, smiled with them.

  “Your Highness,” Chantel said in her rich, smoky voice as she dipped into a formal curtsy. She started up the stairs and Bennett started down. In the middle, they stopped, then Chantel reached up to touch his face before bringing him closer for a lengthy kiss. Above them, Hannah felt her teeth snap together. “It’s been a long time.”

  “Too long.” Bennett cupped her hand in both of his. “You’re lovelier than ever. It’s astonishing.”

  “It’s genes,” Chantel claimed, and grinned at him. “My God, Bennett, what a beautiful man you are. If I wasn’t a cynic, I’d propose.”

  “If I wasn’t terrified of you, I’d accept.” They embraced again with the ease of old friends. “Chantel, it’s good to see you again. Eve was turning handsprings when you agreed to take the part.”

  “It’s a good play.” Chantel gave a matter-of-fact shrug. “Even though I adore you, I wouldn’t have come all this way to take a role in a bomb. Your sister-in-law’s a talented woman.” Chantel cast a look over her shoulder at the director waiting respectfully at the bottom of the stairs. “You might mention to her that I’m fighting to preserve the integrity of her Julia.” As she turned back, she spotted Hannah standing on the landing. “Friend of yours?”

  Glancing back, Bennett held out a hand. “Hannah, come meet the incomparable Chantel.”

  The stiffness in her movement only suited her character, Hannah told herself as she started down. All unremarkable women tensed up when slapped in the face with great beauty. She stopped on the step beside Bennett, but kept nearly a foot of space between them.

  “Lady Hannah Rothchild, Chantel O’Hurley.”

  “How do you do?” Formal and proper, Hannah held out a hand. Chantel kept her face passive as she accepted it.

  “I do fine, thank you.” As a woman, as an actress who understood angles and role-playing, she wondered why someone with such good bone structure and a flawless complexion would deliberately make themselves appear plain.

  “Lady Hannah is keeping Eve company for a few months.”

  “How nice. Cordina’s a beautiful country. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”

  “Yes, I already am. I also enjoyed watching you rehearse.”

  “Thanks, but we have a way to go.” Chantel tapped a finger on the banister and wondered why she felt such instant distrust. Dismissing it as overwork, she turned back to Bennett. “I have to run. Try to make some time for me, darling.”

  “Of course. You’re coming to dinner Saturday with the rest of the cast?”

  “Wouldn’t miss it. I’ll see you there, Lady Hannah.”

  “Goodbye, Miss O’Hurley.”

  After giving Bennett a quick pat on the cheek, Chantel descended the stairs again and let the director trail behind her.

  “She’s quite a woman,” Bennett murmured.

  “Yes, she’s very beautiful.”

  “There’s that, too.” Without looking at her, Bennett took Hannah’s arm again. “I suppose I’ve always admired her willpower and ambition. She’s determined to be the best and isn’t afraid to work for it. Every time I see her on the screen, it’s breathtaking.”

  Hannah dug her fingers into her purse and reminded herself she was supposed to be unassuming. “You admire ambition, Your Highness?”

  “Nothing’s changed for better or worse without it.”

  “Some men still find ambition in a woman unflattering, or at least, uncomfortable.”

  “Some men are idiots.”

  “I couldn’t agree more,” Hannah said dryly, dryly enough that he lifted his brow as he gazed at her.

  “Why am I never quite sure whether or not you’re insulting me, Hannah?”

  “I beg your pardon, sir, I was simply agreeing with you.”

  He stopped again. From the stage came the murmur of voices, but the hall was deserted. Bennett took her chin in his hand, ignoring her jolt of shock, and studied her face. “Hannah, why is it when I look at you I’m not convinced I’m seeing all there is?”

  Alarm bells went off in her head. Her face paled a bit. She knew it, but thought, hoped, he would take that as natural. Not by another blink did she show concern. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “I wonder.” He moved his thumb over her jawline, then just beneath where the skin was softer yet, and warm. “Yes, I wonder more than I should about you, Hannah. Do you have an answer for that?”

  There were amber flecks in his eyes, turning what might have been plain brown into something tawny and compelling. He had the mouth of a poet and the hands of a farmer. Hannah wondered how it was possible to combine the two as her heart, always so steady, began to drum against her ribs.

  “Your Highness—” It was both the lady without and the lady within who fumbled.

  “Do you, Hannah?”

  He saw her lips part. Strange, he hadn’t noticed how attractive her mouth was before—soft, just a bit wide and beautifully shaped without cosmetics. He wondered if it would taste as cool as her voice or as rich as her eyes.

  She had to stop this, here and now. The yearning building inside her could only be destructive. Even as she longed to reach out, she cast her eyes down. “No, sir, except that many times men are intrigued with a woman simply because she’s not what they’re accustomed to.”

  “We’ll see.” He backed off, though the effort it cost him was a surprise. “I’ll take you back now, Hannah, and we’ll both give it some thought.”

  Chapter 3

  Hannah was given free run of the palace an
d the grounds. She had only to ask and her bath would be drawn or her bed turned down. If she developed a craving for hot chocolate at 3:00 a.m., she could pick up the phone beside her bed and request it. As a guest of the Royal Family, she was afforded every amenity the palace could offer.

  And as a guest of the Royal Family, she was afforded her own guards.

  Hannah considered them only a slight nuisance. It was a simple enough matter for someone of her talents to make them think she was tucked safely away in her rooms while she was somewhere else entirely. However, the fact that she was being watched made it difficult to set up a meeting with her contact on the outside.

  Using the palace phones was out of the question. Too many extensions made it a risk that even a casual, coded conversation could be overheard. She’d briefly considered smuggling in a transmitter, then had rejected the notion. Transmissions could be traced. She hadn’t spent two years of her life to get to this point to see it all wiped away because of some electronic foul-up. In any case, she preferred meetings of such importance to be face-to-face.

  Two days after she arrived in Cordina, she mailed a letter. It was addressed to an old family friend in Sussex who didn’t exist. Its destination was one of Deboque’s many branches throughout Europe. If for any reason the letter was intercepted and opened, the reader would find nothing more interesting than a chatty note describing Cordina and the weather.

  Once the letter reached its destination and was decoded, it would read differently. Hannah had given her name, her rank in the organization and had requested a meeting, detailing the time, date and place. The information would be fed back to the Cordina contact. All she had to do was get there, alone.

  One week, Hannah thought once the letter was on its way. In one week she would well and truly begin what had been started so long ago. She had plenty to do to keep her busy in the meantime.

  Princess Gabriella and her family were visiting the palace that evening. The staff had been in an uproar for the better part of the day, more, Hannah guessed, because the children were descending than for any other reason. Hannah had heard that the priceless collection of Fabergé eggs was to be put out of reach.

  She spent the day quietly enough, visiting Eve and Marissa in the nursery, lunching with several members of the Historical Society, and in the lull of late afternoon, exploring the cellars for vulnerabilities.

  Now, she clipped on her pearls and prepared to join the family in the main drawing room. It would be interesting to see them all together, she thought. In that way she could judge the interactions as well as the individuals. Before too much time had passed, she had to know them all as well as she knew herself. One mistake, one bad judgment call, and all could be lost.

  “Come back here, you little demon!”

  Hannah heard a loud laugh, a thud, then rushing feet. Before she had a chance to open the door to see for herself, it burst open. Barreling through it was a small boy with a thatch of dark hair that may or may not have been combed in the last week. He gave her an amazing grin, showing more than one gap before he scooted under her bed.

  “Cachez-moi, s’il vous plaît!” His voice was muffled by the skirt of the spread before he disappeared.

  Hannah opened her mouth again only to see Bennett filling the doorway.

  “Did you see a small, miserably mannered boy?”

  “I, ah—no,” she decided on the spot and folded her hands. “I did think I heard someone go running past. What are you—”

  “Thanks. If you see him, lock him in a closet or something.” He started off down the hall. “Dorian, you nasty little thief, you can’t hide forever.”

  Hannah walked to the door and looked out to see Bennett turning the corner before she closed it. Moving back to the bed, she crouched down and lifted the skirt. “I think it’s safe now,” Hannah told him in French.

  The dark hair poked out first, then a sturdy little body dressed in short pants and a white linen shirt that were streaked with dirt. If Hannah hadn’t already seen his picture, she would have taken him for one of the servants’ offspring. But he was royal.

  “You are English. I speak excellent English.”

  “So you do.”

  “Thank you for hiding me from my uncle.” Young Prince Dorian bowed. Though he wasn’t yet five, he executed it perfectly. “He was angry, but he doesn’t stay that way long. I’m Prince Dorian.”

  “Your Highness.” Hannah curtsied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Lady Hannah Rothchild.” Then unable to resist, she bent down to his level. “What did you steal?”

  Dorian glanced at the closed door, back at Hannah, then grinned. Digging into his back pocket he pulled out a yo-yo. It might once have been blue, but now it was the gray of old wood with a few chips of brighter paint still holding. Hannah studied it with appropriate respect.

  “This is Bennett’s—His Highness’s?” Hannah corrected.

  “Merveilleux, n’est-ce pas? He’s had it since he was five.” Dorian turned the toy over in his hand, marveling that it had once been new and shiny when his uncle had been just the age he was now. “He gets angry when I go into his room and play with it, but how else am I going to be able to make it work?”

  “Good point.” Hannah barely resisted the urge to ruffle the royal head of hair. “And one would doubt he plays with it himself very often.”

  “He keeps it on a shelf. It isn’t that he really minds me looking at it,” Dorian explained, loyal to the core. “It’s just that when I try to make it work, the string gets all tangled and knotted up.”

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