Affaire royale, p.6
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       Affaire Royale, p.6
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         Part #1 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  “No.” His answer was just as brief. He passed the rock into his other hand. “It would be possible, however, to change your position in such a way that would allow you to remain close to Gabriella without causing the wrong kind of speculation.”

  This time it was Reeve who smiled. “As a suitor?”

  “Again you make it easy for me.” Armand sat back, studying the son of his friend. Under less complicated circumstances, he might have approved of a match between Reeve and his daughter. He couldn’t deny he had hoped Brie would marry before this, and that he’d purposely tossed her together with members of British royalty and gentry, eligible men of the French aristocracy. Still, the MacGees had an impressive lineage and a flawless reputation. He wouldn’t have been displeased if what he was now proposing hypothetically were fact.

  “I would, however, take it one step closer than a suitor. If you have no objections, I’d like to announce your engagement to Gabriella.” He waited for some sign, some gesture or expression. Reeve gave him nothing more than what seemed to be polite interest. Armand rubbed a thumb over the rock. He could respect a man who could keep his thoughts to himself.

  “As her fiancé,” he continued, “you can be by her side without raising any questions.”

  “The question might arise as to how I became Her Highness’s fiancé after being in Cordina only a few days.”

  Armand nodded, liking the clean, emotionless response. “My long association with your father makes this more than plausible. Brie was in your country only last year. It could be said that you developed your relationship then.”

  Reeve drew out a cigarette. He found he needed one. “Engagements have a habit of leading to marriage.”

  “Proper ones, yes.” Armand set the stone back on his desk and folded his hands. “This, of course, is only one for our convenience. When the need is over, we’ll announce that you and Gabriella have had a change of heart. The engagement will be broken and you’ll each go your own way. The press will enjoy the melodrama and no harm will be done.”

  The princess and the farmer, Reeve thought, and grinned. It might be an interesting game at that. Before it was over, there might be a few moments to remember. “Even if I agree, there’s another player involved.”

  “Gabriella will do what’s best for herself and her country.” He spoke simply, as a man who knows his own power. “The choice is yours, not hers.”

  A lack of choice. Hadn’t she said that was what she resented most? There was more to being royal than the pretty silver crown and glass slipper. Reeve blew out a stream of smoke. He might sympathize, but it wouldn’t stop him from making this choice for her. “I can understand your reasons. We’ll play it your way, Armand.”

  The prince rose. “I’ll speak to Gabriella.”

  Reeve hadn’t thought she’d be pleased. When it came down to it, he didn’t want her to be. It was easier on him when she was a bit prickly, a little icy. It was the lost, vulnerable look that undid him.

  When Brie swept out of the palace a few minutes before one, he wasn’t disappointed. She’d thrown on a jacket, the same dark, rich suede as her skirt. Her hair fell free down the back and caught every color of the sun. Her eyes, when she tossed her head back and aimed them at him, were gold, glorious and molten. A creature of the light, he thought as he lounged against the car. She didn’t belong behind castle walls, but under the sky.

  Reeve gave her a small bow as he opened the door for her. Brie sent him one long smoldering look. “You stabbed me in the back.” She dropped into the front seat and stared straight ahead.

  Reeve jingled the keys in his pocket as he crossed over to the driver’s side. He could handle it delicately … or he could handle it as he chose. “Something wrong, darling?” he asked her when he settled beside her.

  “You’re joking?” She looked at him again, hard and full. “You dare?”

  He took her hand, holding it though she gave it a good, hard jerk. “Gabriella, some things are best taken lightly.”

  “This farce. This deceit!” Abruptly, and with finesse, she went off in a stream of rapid, indignant French he could only partially follow. The tone, however, was crystal clear. “First I have to accept you as a bodyguard,” she continued, reverting to English without a pause. “So that whenever I turn you’ll be there, hovering. Now this pretense that we’re to be married. And for what?” she demanded. “So that it won’t be known that my father has engaged a bodyguard who isn’t Cordinian or French. So that I may be seen constantly with a man without damaging my reputation. Hah!” In a bad-tempered and undeniably regal gesture, she flung out a hand. “It’s my reputation.”

  “There’s always mine,” he said coolly.

  With that she turned to him, giving him a haughty stare, first down, then up. “I believe it’s safe to say you have one already. And it doesn’t concern me,” she added before he could speak.

  “As my fiancée, it certainly should.” Reeve started the engine and began the leisurely drive down.

  “It’s a ridiculous charade.”

  “Agreed.”

  That stopped her. She had opened her mouth to continue to rage, then closed it again with a nearly audible snap. “You find it ridiculous to be engaged to me?”

  “Absolutely.”

  She discovered something else about herself. She had a healthy supply of vanity. “Why?”

  “I generally don’t get engaged to women I barely know. Then, too, I’d think twice about hooking up with someone who was willful, selfish and bad tempered.”

  Her chin came up. From out of her bag she grabbed a pair of tinted glasses and stuck them on her nose. “Then you’re fortunate it’s only a pretense, aren’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  She snapped her bag closed. “And of short duration.”

  He didn’t grin. A man only takes a certain number of risks in one day. “The shorter the better.”

  “I’ll do my best to accommodate you.” She took the rest of the journey in simmering silence.

  It was a short one, but she wasn’t grateful for it. Having something, someone, specific to direct her anger at helped ease the fear of facing people who were only names to her. She would have liked more time to prepare.

  The building that housed the headquarters for the Aid to Handicapped Children Organization was old and distinguished. It had once been the home of her great-grandmother, the thin, efficient Janet Smithers had told her.

  Brie stepped from the car with practiced ease. Her stomach muscles were jumping. As she walked to the entrance, she went over the floor plan in her mind. She wouldn’t have reached for Reeve’s hand, but when his closed over hers, she didn’t pull away. Sometimes it was necessary, even preferable, to hold hands with the devil.

  She stepped inside, into a cool white hall. Immediately a woman who sat at a desk just beyond the entrance rose and curtsied. “Your Highness. It’s so good to see you safe.”

  “Thank you, Claudia.” The hesitation on the name was so brief Reeve hardly noticed it himself.

  “We didn’t expect you, Your Highness. After what—what happened.” Her voice faltered. Her eyes filled.

  Compassion moved Brie, before instinct, before politics. She held out both hands. “I’m fine, Claudia. Anxious to get to work.” There was a warmth here, a bond she hadn’t felt with her personal secretary. Still, there could be no pursuing it until she understood it. “This is Mr. MacGee. He’s … staying with us. Claudia’s been with AHC for nearly ten years, Reeve.” Brie gave him the information he’d given her only that morning. “I believe she could run the organization single-handed. Tell me, Claudia, have you left anything for me to do?”

  “There’s the ball, Your Highness. As usual, there are complications.”

  The Annual Charity Ball, Brie recited to herself. A tradition in Cordina and the biggest fund-raiser for the AHC. She, as president, would organize. As princess she would hostess. It drew the rich, the famous and the important to Cordina every spring. “It wouldn
t be the ball without complications. I’ll get to work, then. Come on, Reeve, we’ll see how useful you can be.”

  Past the first hurdle, she went up the stairs, down the hall and into the second room on the right.

  “Well done,” Reeve told her as she closed the door.

  “I keep hoping …” With a shrug, she let the thought go. She kept hoping that someone would trigger something, would trip the first lock on her memory so that remembrances would come through. Briskly she moved over and drew the curtains.

  The room wasn’t as elegant as her personal office. There was a row of file cabinets along one wall, metal and businesslike. Though the desk was ornate, made of beautiful cherry, it was covered with files and notes and papers. Going over, she sat down and picked one up. It was a note concerning a donation to the pediatric ward of the hospital in her handwriting.

  Odd to see it, she mused. Earlier she’d tested herself by simply picking up a pen and writing out her name, just to see her signature. The writing was big, looping, just bordering on the undisciplined, and very distinctive. Brie set down the note and wondered where to begin.

  “I’ll see about some coffee,” Reeve suggested.

  “And some cakes or cookies,” Brie said absently as she began to sort through the papers on her desk. “I missed lunch.” Looking up, she lifted a brow. “I was too angry to eat, but it appears I’m going to need something before this is done.”

  “Hamburger?”

  “Cheeseburger, no onions.” Then she grinned because it had come out so naturally. “I like them well done.” She could almost, almost picture herself sitting at that desk with a harried, impromptu lunch while she made calls and signed papers. With a burst of enthusiasm, she began to organize.

  She was good at it. It was thrilling to discover she had a talent. Within two hours she’d assessed the situation in her office and had begun, slowly, systematically to cope with details, problems and decisions. It came naturally, as dressing, eating, walking came. She had only to think of the angles, consider them and work her way through. At the end of her two hours, her confidence was strong and her mood high. When she left the office her desk was still cluttered. But it was her clutter now—she understood it.

  “It felt good,” she said to Reeve when she settled in the car again. “So good. You’ll think I’m foolish.”

  “Not at all.” He sat beside her but didn’t reach for the key just yet. “You accomplished a hell of a lot in a couple of hours, Brie. As a cop, I know just how frustrating and boring paperwork can be.”

  “But when it does something, it’s worth the headache, isn’t it? AHC is a good organization. It doesn’t just preach. It helps. All that equipment in the pediatric ward, the new wing. The wheelchairs, walkers, hearing aids, tutors. They cost money, and we get the money.” She glanced down at the glitter of diamonds and sapphires on her finger. “It makes me feel justified.”

  “Do you need to be?”

  “Yes. Just because I was born to something doesn’t mean I don’t have to earn the right to it. Especially now when …”

  “You can’t remember being born to it.”

  “I don’t know how I felt before,” she murmured, staring down at the elegant little leather purse she carried. “I only know how I feel now. I’ve been given a title, but it doesn’t come without a price, that I know.”

  He started the car. “You learn fast.”

  “I have to.” Weariness was there, but she didn’t relax. She couldn’t. “Reeve, I don’t want to go back just yet. Can we drive? Anywhere, it doesn’t matter. I just need to be out.”

  “All right.” He understood the need to be away from walls, from restrictions. He’d grown up with them, as well. He’d rebelled against them, as well. Without thinking, he headed toward the sea.

  There were places just outside the capital where the road stretched and curved along the seawall. There were places before Cordina’s port, Lebarre, where the land was wild and free and open. Reeve pulled up beside a clump of pitted rocks where the trees grew slanted, leaning away from the wind.

  Brie got out of the car and drank the scene in. Somehow she knew the scent and taste of the sea. She couldn’t be certain she’d been to this spot before, yet it soothed her. Letting the need to know slip away, she walked toward the old, sturdy seawall.

  Tiny springy purple flowers crowded their way up through the cracks, determined to have the sun. She reached to touch one but didn’t pick it. It would die too quickly. Unmindful of her skirt, she sat on the wall and looked down.

  The sea was single-mindedly blue. If it had had its way, it would have consumed the land. The wall prevented that, but didn’t tame it. Farther out she could see ships, big freighters that were on their way to or from the port, sleek sailing boats with their canvas taut. She thought her hands had known the feel of rope, her body the sway of the sea. Perhaps soon she’d test it.

  “Some things are comfortable right away. Familiar, I mean. This is one of them.”

  “You couldn’t grow up near the sea and not find spots like this.” The wind whipped her hair back, tossing it up and away from her face. Its color was nearly gold in this light, with small flames licking through it. He sat beside her, but not too close.

  “I think I’d come to a place like this, just to breathe when the protocol became too tedious to stand.” She sighed, closing her eyes as she lifted her face to the wind. “I wonder if I always felt that way.”

  “You could ask your father.”

  She lowered her head. When their eyes met, he saw the weariness she’d been so careful to hide. She wasn’t back on full power yet, he reflected. And he wasn’t immune to vulnerability.

  “It’s difficult.” Anger and annoyance, strain and tension were forgotten as she felt herself drawn to him again. She could talk to him, say whatever was on her mind, without consequences. “I don’t want to hurt him. I feel such intense love, such fierce protection from him it disturbs me. I know he’s waiting for me to remember everything.”

  “Aren’t you?”

  She looked back out to sea, silent.

  “Brie, don’t you want to remember?”

  It was the sea she continued to look at, not him. “Part of me does—desperately. And then another part pushes away, as if it’s all just too much. If I remember the good, won’t I remember the bad?”

  “You’re not a coward.”

  “I wonder. Reeve, I remember running. The rain, the wind. I remember running until I thought I’d die from it. Most of all, I remember the fear, a fear so great that I would have preferred dying to stopping. I’m not sure that part of me will allow the memory to come back.”

  He understood what she described. The knowledge ate at him, something he couldn’t allow. Something he couldn’t prevent. “When you’re strong enough, you won’t give yourself a choice.”

  “Something inside of me is afraid of that, too. At a time like this”—she shook her hair back and enjoyed the feel of it lifting off her neck—“it would be so easy to relax and let it go, to just allow things to happen. If I weren’t what I am I could do that. No one would care.”

  “You are what you are.”

  “You don’t dream?” she asked with a half smile. “You don’t ever ask yourself, what if? I could sit here now and pretend I had a cottage in the hills and a garden. Perhaps my husband’s a farmer and I’m carrying our first child. Life is simple and very sweet.”

  “And the woman in the cottage could pretend she was a princess who lived in a palace.” He touched a strand of her hair that danced in the wind. “Life’s full of dreams, Brie. It’s never simple, but it can be sweet.”

  “What do you dream?”

  He curled her hair around the tip of his finger, then set it free. “Of tilling my own land, watching my crops grow. Being away from the streets.”

  “You have land in America? A farm?”

  “Yeah.” He thought of it waiting for him. Next year, he promised himself. He’d waited this long.
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  “But I thought you were a policeman—no, a detective now, working for yourself. A kind of adventurer.”

  He laughed at the term, not bitter, just amused. “People outside the business tend to think of dark alleys and forget the paperwork.”

  “But you’ve seen the dark alleys.”

  He gave her a look, one hard and calm enough to make her swallow. “I’ve seen them, maybe too many of them.”

  She thought she understood. She knew, without knowing, that she’d traveled a dark alley herself. For a moment she looked at the sea and sky. It wasn’t the time to think of the dark. “What will you grow on your farm?”

  He thought of it. At times like this he almost believed it would happen. “Corn, hay, some apples.”

  “And you have a house.” Caught up, she twisted around to face him more directly. “A farmhouse?”

  “It needs some work.”

  “It has a front porch? A big front porch?”

  He laughed, pleasing her. “It’s big enough. After I’ve replaced a few boards it might even be safe.”

  “On warm nights you’d sit out on a rocker and listen to the wind.”

  He tugged her hair. “The grass is always greener.”

  “So they say. Still, I think I could deal with fifty weeks of demands, of being on display, if only I had two weeks to sit on a rocker and listen to the wind. So you have land, a farmhouse, but no wife. Why?”

  “An odd question from one’s fiancée.”

  “You only say that to annoy me and evade answering.”

  “You’re perceptive, Brie.” He dropped off the wall and held out his hand. “We should be getting back.”

  “It only seems fair that I know more of your life when you know so much of mine.” But she gave him her hand. “Have you ever been in love?”

  “No.”

  “I wonder sometimes if I have.” Her voice was wistful as she looked back out to sea. “That’s why I goaded you into kissing me last night. I thought perhaps it might remind me.”

  He saw the humor in her statement, but he wasn’t amused. “And did it?”

  “No. It wasn’t as though I’d never been kissed before, but it didn’t bring anyone to mind.”

  Was she deliberately challenging him again, or was she just that artless? It didn’t seem to matter. His hand slipped to her wrist. “No one?”

  She heard the change, that gentle, dangerous tone. It was a tone a woman would be wise to be wary of. But she wasn’t just a woman, Brie reminded herself as she lifted her head. She was a princess. “No one. It makes me think no man’s been important to me before.”

  “You responded like a woman who knows what it is to want.”

  She didn’t back away, though he was closer now. His face, she thought, wasn’t one a woman would be comfortable with on long, rainy evenings. It would excite continually. His hands, large, elegant, strong, wouldn’t make a woman dream softly. They’d make her pulse, even in sleep. She already knew it.

  “Perhaps I am. After all, I’m not a child.”

  “No.” He closed the gap. The wind whipped between them as he stepped forward. “Neither of us is.”

  Her mouth was soft, but it wasn’t hesitant. It answered his, as it had the night before. No, life was never simple, he thought as he drew her closer. But God, it could be sweet.

  She gave herself to him. Somehow she needed to just then with the sea thrashing below and the wind moaning. They were so alone it seemed right that they come together, body to body, mouth to mouth. She felt his hand slide up to her hair, firm, strong. As his fingers tangled in it, she let her head fall back. It wasn’t surrender, but temptation.

  His heartbeat was as hard and quick as hers. She could feel it pound against her. The sun was strong, so she kept her eyes closed until the light was red and warm. He tasted … enticing. Male, dark, not quite safe. She felt as if she were walking along the top of a wall, above the rock and water. It was frightening. Wonderful. She ran her hands up over his back. There was muscle there. Security. Danger. She wanted both. Just for a moment, this moment, she could be any woman. Even royalty bows to passion.

  She was soft, but she wasn’t safe. He knew it. He’d known it before he’d let himself be driven to touch her. Just as he knew he’d be driven to touch again and again what he was beginning to crave. The scent she wore seemed to swim around him, lighter than the air, darker than the sea.

  Did she know? Even as he submerged himself deeper in her, he wondered if she knew what she did. The eyes of a sorceress, the face of an angel. What man wouldn’t be on his knees to her? Yet her sigh, quiet, low, was that of a woman. Flesh and blood or fairy tale, she was bound to tempt him. She wasn’t meant to be resisted.

  But he had no choice.

  He drew her away much as he had the night before—slowly, reluctantly, but inevitably. Her eyes remained closed for just a moment longer, as if she were savoring the moment. But when they opened, her look was direct and level. Perhaps both of them knew they had to step back from the edge.

  “Your family will wonder where you are.”

  She nodded, taking the final step back. “Yes. Obligations come first, don’t they?”

 
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