The playboy prince, p.4
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       The Playboy Prince, p.4

         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “It takes a little practice.”

  “I know.” He grinned again. “And I can only practice if I steal it.”

  “Your logic is flawless, Your Highness. May I see?”

  Dorian hesitated only a moment, then graciously handed it over. “Girls usually aren’t interested in such things.” He made a grimace of masculine disgust. “My sisters play with dolls.”

  “Everyone has different tastes, I suppose.” Hannah slid her finger into the loop, wondering how long it had been since Bennett’s had fit there. The string wasn’t as old as the toy itself. By her guess, it would have been replaced more than a dozen times over the years. On impulse, she let the yo-yo slide down, dangle, then brought it neatly up.

  “Oh, nicely done.” Charmed, Dorian watched her with wide eyes.

  “Thank you, sir. I used to have one of my own. It was red,” she remembered with a half smile. “Until my dog chewed it up.”

  “Can you do any tricks? I tried Round the World once and broke a lamp. Uncle Bennett scolded me, but then he tossed out the pieces himself so no one would know.”

  Because she could picture it so well, Hannah smiled. A loud roar, but little bite, she decided and wished she didn’t like him the better for it. “A trick?” As she considered she took the yo-yo up and down. Then, with a quick flick of her wrist took it Round the World. When it snapped back in her palm, Dorian laughed and climbed on her bed.

  “Do another, please.”

  Calling on memory, Hannah Walked the Dog and had the young prince bouncing on the bed and calling out for more.

  “Well done, Lady Hannah,” Bennett said from the doorway. “Obviously you have hidden talents.”

  Hannah had to bite off an oath as she brought the yo-yo back. “Your Highness.” Toy in hand, she curtsied. “I didn’t hear you knock.”

  “I didn’t.” Bennett pushed away from the doorjamb he was leaning on to walk to the bed. Unrepentant, his nephew grinned up at him.

  “Isn’t she wonderful, Uncle Bennett?”

  “We’ll discuss the Lady Hannah’s attributes later.” He gave Dorian’s ear a twist before turning around. “My property, if you will.”

  Fighting to keep a straight face, Hannah handed it to him.

  “This might seem to be nothing more than a simple child’s toy,” Bennett began as he slipped it into his pocket. “But in fact, it’s an heirloom.”

  “I see.” She cleared her throat on the laugh, but it escaped anyway. Hoping she looked contrite, she stared at the floor. “I beg your pardon, sir.”

  “The hell you do. And he was in here all along wasn’t he?” Bennett pushed his nephew flat on the bed and sent him into a fit of giggles. “You let me go running off all over the palace looking for this petty thief when all the time he was hiding behind your skirts.”

  “The bed skirts to be honest, sir.” She had to clear her throat again, but managed to speak calmly. “When you rushed by with so vague a description, I had no idea you were looking for Prince Dorian.”

  “I admire a good liar,” Bennett murmured as he moved closer. For the second time he caught her chin in his hand. But for the first time, she saw all of the arrogance he was capable of and felt all of its attraction. “And I grow only more intrigued.”

  “Lady Hannah can do a double Round the World.”

  “Fascinating.” Bennett slid his hand away slowly as he turned back to his nephew. If he’d listened for it, he might have heard Hannah’s slow sigh of relief. “I thought we had an agreement, Dorian.”

  Dorian’s head drooped, but Hannah didn’t notice that the light in his eyes dimmed in the least. “I only wanted to see it. I’m sorry, Uncle Bennett.”

  “Sure you are.” Bennett hauled him up by the armpits, scowled, then kissed him soundly. “Your mother’s downstairs. Don’t slide in the halls on the way to the drawing room.”

  “All right.” On his feet again, Dorian bowed to Hannah. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Lady Hannah.”

  “And you, sir.”

  He sent her a gap-toothed grin before he dashed off.

  “Sweet talker,” Bennett muttered. “Oh, you might think he’s all charm, but he has a black heart.”

  “Strangely enough I was reminded of you.”

  With one brow lifted, Bennett rocked back on his heels. “Indeed, my lady, that is strange.”

  “He’s a scoundrel, without question. And you love him.”

  “That’s beside the point.” Bennett stuck his hand in his pocket. “As to the matter of the yo-yo.”

  “Yes, sir?”

  “Try to wait until I’m five feet away before you laugh in my face.”

  “As you wish, Your Highness.”

  “It was a gift from my mother when I was ill one summer. I’ve bought the little devil a dozen of them, but he keeps stealing mine. He knows if I don’t get a son of my own by the time he’s ten I’ll make him a gift of it.”

  “I have a redheaded doll my mother gave me when I broke my wrist in a fall. I kept it when I outgrew all the others.”

  It wasn’t until he’d taken her hand that she realized she’d told him something he didn’t need to know, something she’d never told anyone else. Even as she warned herself such lapses were dangerous, his lips brushed her fingers.

  “You, Lady Hannah, have a kind heart as well as a clever tongue. Come, walk downstairs with me and meet the rest of my family.”

  * * *

  Reeve MacGee would be a formidable obstacle. Hannah had thought so before, but seeing him with his family, she was sure of it. She knew his background from the time he’d entered the police force as a rookie through his less publicized work for the United States government.

  His involvement with Cordina and the Royal Family had the ring of romance, but Reeve was no poet. He’d come out of a self-imposed retirement at Prince Armand’s request when Gabriella had been kidnapped. Though she’d escaped, her time in captivity had left its mark. Amnesia had plagued her and Reeve had been enlisted to protect her, and to investigate.

  There had been no doubt that Deboque had been pushing the buttons, but though his lover had been captured and imprisoned, she’d never implicated him. Like other powerful men, Deboque inspired loyalty. Or fear.

  During the time that Gabriella was struggling to regain her memory, she and Reeve had fallen in love. Although Reeve had refused to accept a title when they married, he’d agreed to head security in Cordina. Even with Reeve’s experience and skill, the palace had been infiltrated once again.

  Two years ago, Alexander had nearly been assassinated. Since that time, Reeve had managed to block any and all attempts on members of the Royal Family. But Deboque was about to walk out of prison. With freedom would come more power.

  Hannah watched Reeve now, seeing a quiet, introspective man who plainly adored his wife and children. He would use everything available to protect them from harm. So much the better.

  With her hands folded and her skirts smoothed, Hannah sat and listened.

  “We all know your play’s going to be a wonderful success.” Gabriella, with her hand caught loosely in Reeve’s, smiled at Eve. Her rich red hair was styled with casual chic around a face that remained delicate and lovely. “That doesn’t mean we don’t understand you have to worry about it.”

  “I’m at the point now where I wish it was over.” Eve drew Marissa into her lap.

  “But you’re feeling well?”

  “I’m feeling fine.” Eve let Marissa climb down again. “Between Alex’s pampering and Hannah’s eagle eye, I can hardly lift a finger without a doctor’s certificate.”

  “It’s so good of you to come.” Gabriella smiled at Hannah before she sipped some sparkling water. “I know firsthand how comforting it is to have a friend nearby. Are we keeping you happy enough so that you’re not homesick?”

  “I’m very happy in Cordina.” Hannah kept her back straight against the sofa.

  “I hope you’ll come out to the farm while you’re here.”
  “I’ve heard a great deal about it.” Gabriella had been kidnapped there while it had still been an overgrown plot of land. “I’d love to see it for myself.”

  “Then we’ll arrange it.” Reeve spoke quietly as he lit a cigarette. “You’re enjoying your visit so far?”

  “Yes, I am.” Their eyes met and held. “Cordina is a fascinating country. It has a fairy-tale aura perhaps, but it’s very real. I’m particularly interested in visiting the museum.”

  “I think you’ll find we have some very unusual exhibits,” Armand put in.

  “Yes, sir. I did some research before leaving England. I have no doubt that my time in Cordina will be an education.”

  Marissa toddled over, still a bit unsteady on her year-old legs, and held her arms up. Hannah placed the child in her lap.

  “Your father is well?” Reeve asked her through a haze of smoke.

  Hannah jangled her pearls to entertain the baby. “Yes, thank you. It often seems that the older I get, the younger he gets.”

  “Families, no matter how large or how small, are often the focus of our lives,” Reeve said quietly.

  “Yes, that’s true,” Hannah murmured as she played with the baby. “It’s a pity that families, and life, aren’t as simple as they seem when we’re children.”

  Bennett sat relaxed in his chair and wondered why he thought if he could read between the lines, he’d discover a great deal more than small talk.

  “I wasn’t aware you knew Hannah’s father, Reeve.”

  “Only casually.” When he leaned back, his smile was easy. “I heard that Dorian stole your yo-yo again.”

  “I should have locked it in the safe when I heard he was coming.” Bennett patted the slight bulge in his pocket. “I’d have given the little devil a run for his money, but he had an accomplice.” He turned his head to look at Hannah.

  “I’ll have to apologize for my son,” Gabriella’s lips curved as she lifted her glass again. “For drawing you into his crime, Lady Hannah.”

  “On the contrary. I enjoyed it. Prince Dorian is charming.”

  “We call him other things at home,” Reeve murmured. The woman was a mystery, he thought. The harder he looked for chinks, the fewer flaws he saw. “With that in mind, I think I’ll go out and look for the bunch of them. Adrienne’s at the age where you can’t be sure she’ll mind them or urge them to wade in the fountain.”

  Bennett glanced toward the terrace doors. “God knows what havoc they might have wrought in the last twenty minutes.”

  “Wait until you have your own.” Eve rose to take Marissa from Hannah. “You’ll spoil them rotten. If you’ll excuse me, I want to go up and feed Marissa.”

  “I’ll go with you.” Gabriella set her glass aside. “I thought we might talk over the plans for the Christmas Ball. You know I want to help as much as I can.”

  “Thank God I don’t have to beg. No, Hannah, please, sit and relax,” Eve continued as Hannah started to stand. “We won’t be long.”

  “See that you’re not.” Bennett took out the yo-yo to pass it from hand to hand. “Dinner’s in an hour.”

  “We all know your priorities, Ben.” Eve bent to kiss his cheek before she left the room.

  “I could use a walk myself.” Rising, Alexander nodded to Reeve. “I’ll help you round up the children.” They were barely out the terrace doors when a servant appeared in the doorway.

  “I beg your pardon, Your Highness. A call from Paris.”

  “Yes, I’ve been expecting it. I’ll take it in my office, Louis. If you’ll excuse me, Lady Hannah.” Taking her hand, Armand bowed over it. “I’m sure Bennett can entertain you for a few moments. Bennett, perhaps Lady Hannah would enjoy seeing the library.”

  “If you like to look at walls of books,” Bennett said when his father was gone, “you can’t do much better.”

  “I’m very fond of books.” Taking him at his word, Hannah rose.

  “All right then.” Though he could have thought of a dozen better ways to while away an hour, he took her arm and led her through the corridors.

  “It’s difficult to believe that the museum could have finer paintings than you have here in the palace, Prince Bennett.”

  “Le Musée d’Art has a hundred and fifty-two examples of Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, including two Corots, three Monets and a particularly fine Renoir. We’ve recently acquired a Childe Hassam from the United States. In return my family has donated six Georges Complainiers, a Cordinian artist who painted on the island in the nineteenth century.”

  “I see.”

  Noting her expression, Bennett laughed. “As it happens, I’m on the board of the museum. I may prefer horses, Hannah, but that doesn’t preclude an affection for art. What do you think of this?”

  He paused in front of a small watercolor. The Royal Palace was beautifully, almost mystically painted. Its white, white walls and turrets rose behind a pink mist that enchanted rather than concealed the building itself. It must have been dawn, she thought. The sky was such a delicate blue in contrast to the deeper sea. She could see the antiquity, the fantasy and the reality. In the foreground were the high iron gates and sturdy stone walls that protected the palace grounds.

  “It’s beautiful. It shows love as well as a touch of wonder. Who was the artist?”

  “My great-great-grandmother.” Pleased with her reaction, Bennett drew her hand into the crook of his arm. “She’d done hundreds of watercolors and had tucked them away. In her day, women painted or drew as a hobby, not as a profession.”

  “Some things change,” Hannah murmured, then looked back at the painting. “Some things don’t.”

  “A few years ago I found her work in a trunk in one of the attics. So many of them had been damaged. It broke my heart. Then I found this.” He touched the frame, reverently, Hannah thought. She looked from his hand to his face and found herself caught up in him. “It was like stepping back in time, generations, and discovering yourself. It could have been painted today, and it would look the same.”

  She could feel her heart moving toward him. What woman was immune to pride and sensitivity? In defense, she took a small step back. “In Europe, we understand that a few generations are only a blink in time. Our history stands before us, centuries of it. It becomes our responsibility to give that same gift to each new generation.”

  Bennett looked at her and found her eyes almost impossibly deep. “We do have that in common, don’t we? In America, there’s an urgency that can be exciting, even contagious, but here, we know how long it takes to build and secure. Politics change, governments shift, but history stands firm.”

  She had to turn away from him. It would only cloud the issue if she thought of him as a caring, sensitive man rather than an assignment. “Are there any others?” she said with a nod toward the painting.

  “Only a handful, unfortunately. Most were beyond repair.” For reasons he could only be half-sure of, he wanted to share with her things that mattered to him. “There’s one in the music room. The rest are in the museum. Here, have a look.” With his hand guiding her again, he took her down the hall into the next wing, their footsteps echoing off the mosaic tile.

  Leading her through an open door, Bennett took her into a room that seemed to have been fashioned to accent the white grand piano in its center.

  There was a harp in the corner that might have been played a hundred years before, or last week. In a glass case were antique wind instruments and a fragile lyre. The flowers were fresh here, as they were in every room in the palace. Trailing blossoms of jasmine spilled out of glossy, Chinese red urns. A small marble fireplace was swept and scrubbed clean with a pile of fresh kindling stacked as though inviting the match.

  With Bennett, she walked across an Aubusson carpet to look back in time. This painting was of a ball, festive in bright colors and bold strokes. Women, gloriously feminine in mid-nineteenth-century gowns, were whirled around a gleaming floor by dashing men. There were mirrors
that reflected the dancers and doubled them while a trio of chandeliers glistened overhead. As Hannah studied it, she could almost hear the waltz.

  “How lovely. Is this room here, in the palace?”

  “Yes. It has hardly changed. We’ll have the Christmas Ball there next month.”

  Only a month, she thought. There was so much to be done. In a matter of hours Deboque would be out of prison, and she would soon learn if her groundwork had been clever enough.

  “This is a beautiful room.” Hannah turned. Keep your conversation light, she warned herself. Keep your mind light, for now. “In our country house there’s a small music room. Nothing like this, of course, but I’ve always found it so relaxing.” She wandered to the piano, not so much to examine it as to give herself distance. “Do you play, Your Highness?”

  “Hannah, we’re alone. It isn’t necessary to be so formal.”

  “I’ve always considered the use of titles as proper rather than formal.” She didn’t want this, she thought quickly. She didn’t want him to close that gap of rank between them.

  “I’ve always considered it annoying between friends.” He walked behind her to touch her lightly on the shoulder. “I thought we were.”

  She could feel his hand right through the neat linen of her dress, through the skinny silk strap beneath and onto her flesh. Fighting her own private war, she kept her back to him. “Were what, sir?”

  He laughed, then both hands were on her shoulders, turning her to face him. “Friends, Hannah. I find you good company. That’s one of the first requirements of friendship, isn’t it?”

  She was looking up at him, solemn-eyed, with the faintest blush of color along her cheekbones. Her shoulders seemed so strong under his hands, yet he remembered how soft, how delicate the skin along her jawline had seemed.

  Her dress was brown and dull, her face unpainted and unframed. Not a hair was out of place and yet he got a flash of her laughing, her hair unbound and her shoulders bare. And the laughter would be for only him.

  “What the devil is it about you?” Bennett muttered.

  “I beg your pardon—”

  “Wait.” Impatient, as annoyed with himself as he was with her, Bennett stepped closer. As she stiffened, he held his hands up, palms out as if to reassure her he meant her no harm. “Just be still a moment, would you?” he asked as he lowered his head and touched his mouth to hers.

  No response, show no response. Hannah repeated it over and over in her head like a litany. He didn’t press, he didn’t coax or demand. He simply tasted, more gently than she’d had known a man could be. And the flavor of him seeped into her until she was all but drunk with it.

  His eyes remained open, watching hers. He was close, so close she could catch the scent of soap on his skin. Something that brought images of the sea. Hannah dug her fingers into her palms and fought to keep from showing him the turmoil within.

  God, she wanted. How she wanted.

  He didn’t know what he’d expected. What he found was softness, comfort, sweetness without heat or passion. Yet he saw both in her eyes. He felt no driving need to touch her or to deepen the kiss. Not this first one. Perhaps he already knew there would be others. But this first one showed him an ease, a relaxation that he’d never looked for in a woman before.

  He was man enough, experienced enough, to know there was a volcano inside of her. But strangely, he had no desire to push it to the eruption point, yet.

  Bennett broke the kiss simply by stepping back. Hannah didn’t move a muscle.

  “I didn’t do that to frighten you.” He spoke quietly, for it was the truth. “It was just a test.”

  “You don’t frighten me.” He didn’t frighten the woman he could see, but the one within was terrified.

  It wasn’t quite the answer he’d wanted. “Then what do I do to you?”

  Slowly, carefully, she unballed her hands. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean, Your Highness.”

  He studied her another moment, then spun away. “Maybe not.” He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck wondering why such an unassuming, placid woman should make him so tense. He understood desire. God knows he’d felt it before. But not like this. Never quite like this.

  “Dammit, Hannah, isn’t anything going on inside of you?”

  “Of course, sir, a great number of things.”

  He had to laugh. He should have known she would put him in his place with logic. “Call me by my name, please.”

  “As you wish.”

  He turned back. She was standing in front of the glistening white piano, hands folded, eyes calm and quiet on his. He thought it the most ridiculous thing, but knew he was very close to falling in love. “Hannah—”

  He’d taken no more than two steps toward her when Reeve walked into the room. “Bennett, excuse me, but your father would like to see you before dinner.”

  Duty and desire. Bennett wondered if he would ever find a full merging of the two. “Thank you, Reeve.”

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