Affaire royale, p.7
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       Affaire Royale, p.7
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         Part #1 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  He didn’t answer, but they walked back to the car together.

  Chapter 5

  “Brie! Brie, wait a minute.”

  Turning, Brie shielded her eyes from the sun and watched Bennett step into the gardens with two Russian wolfhounds fretting at his heels.

  His Royal Highness Prince Bennett de Cordina was dressed like a stablehand—worn jeans tucked into the tops of grimy boots, a shirt with a streak of dirt down one sleeve. As he drew closer, she caught the earthy smell of horses and hay on him. Like the dogs that fretted around his legs, he seemed to hold great stores of energy just under control.

  “You’re alone.” He gave her a quick grin as he put one hand on the head of one dog and slipped another under the collar of the second. “Easy, Boris,” he said offhandedly as the dog tried to slobber over Brie’s shoes.

  Boris and … Natasha, she thought, flipping back in her mental files for the names Reeve had given her. Even dogs couldn’t be ignored. They’d been a present to Bennett from the Russian ambassador, and with his penchant for irony, Bennett had named them after characters in an American cartoon show—inept Russian spies who found it difficult to outwit a squirrel and a moose.

  Bennett controlled his dogs—barely. “It’s the first morning I’ve seen you out.”

  “It’s the first morning this week I haven’t had meetings.” She smiled, not certain if she was guilty or pleased. “Have you been riding?”

  Did she ride? Her mind worked at the quick double pace that was becoming familiar. She thought she knew how to sit a horse, how to groom one. Brie struggled for the sensation even while she smiled easily at her brother.

  “Early. There was some work to do in the stables.” They stood awkwardly a moment as they both wondered what should be said. “You don’t have your American shadow,” Bennett blurted out, then grinned a little sheepishly when Brie only lifted a brow. “Alex’s nickname for Reeve,” he said, and shrugged off any embarrassment. He generally found it a waste of time. “I like him, actually. I think Alex does, too, or he’d be more frigidly polite and pompous. It’s just harder for him to accept an outsider right now.”

  “None of us were consulted about it, were we?”

  “Well, he seems okay.” Bennett let Boris rub up against him, not noticing or caring about the transfer of dog hair. “Not stuffy, anyway. I’ve been meaning to ask him where he gets his clothes.”

  She felt both tolerance and amusement, and wondered if this was habitual. “So the man might not be easily accepted, but his clothes are?”

  “He certainly has an eye for them,” Bennett commented as he pushed aside one of the dogs’ heads. “Does it bother you to have him around?”

  Did it? Brie plucked a blossom from a creamy white azalea. It had been a week since she’d returned to the palace. A week since she’d returned to the life that wasn’t yet her life. Feelings were something she had to re-explore every day.

  She supposed she was nearly used to having Reeve there, at her side almost every waking moment. Yet she felt no less a stranger to him, to her family. To herself.

  “No, but there are times when …” She looked out over the lush, blooming garden. Looked beyond. “Bennett, did I always have this need to get away? Everyone’s so kind, so attentive, but I feel that if I could just go somewhere where I could breathe. Somewhere where I could lie on my back in the grass and leave everything behind.”

  “That’s why you bought the little farm.”

  She turned back, brows knit. “Little farm?”

  “We called it that, though it’s really just a few acres of ground no one’s ever done anything with. You threaten to build a house there from time to time.”

  A farmhouse, she mused. Perhaps that was why she’d felt so in tune with Reeve when they’d talked of his. “Is that where I was going when I …”

  “Yes.” The dogs were restless, so he let them go sniff around the bases of bushes and beat each other with their tails. “I wasn’t here. I was at school. If father has his way, I’ll be back at Oxford next week.” Suddenly he looked as he was—a boy on the edge of manhood who had to bow to his father’s wishes even as he strained against them. From somewhere inside Brie rose up an understanding and an affection. On impulse she linked her arm through his, and they began to walk.

  “Bennett, do we like each other?”

  “That’s a silly—” He cut himself off and nudged at the dog that trotted alongside him. It wasn’t as easy for him to control his emotions as it was for his father, for his brother. He had to concentrate on it, and as often as not, he still lost. But this was Brie; that made all the difference. “Yes, we like each other. It isn’t easy to have friends, you know, who aren’t somehow tied to our position. We’re friends. You’ve always been my liaison to Father.”

  “Have I? In what way?”

  “Whenever I’d get into trouble—”

  “You have a habit of it?”

  “Apparently.” But he didn’t sound displeased.

  “And I don’t?”

  “You’re more discreet.” He gave her another of those quick, dashing smiles. “I’ve always admired the way you could do almost anything you wanted without making waves. I don’t seem to be able to keep a low profile. I’m still dealing with the French singer fiasco.”

  “Oh?” Interested, she tilted her head up to look at him. God, she realized all at once. He was beautiful. There simply wasn’t another word for it. If a woman drew an image of Prince Charming in her head, it would be Bennett. “A female singer, I take it.”

  “Lily.” This time his smile didn’t look young, but infinitely experienced. No, she realized, he wasn’t really a boy, after all. “She was … talented,” he decided with a flash of irony that was as mature as the smile. “And unsuitable. She sang in this little club in Paris. I spent a few weeks there last summer and we … we met.”

  “And had a blistering affair.”

  “It seemed like a good idea at the time. The press licked their chops, rubbed their hands together and went to it. Lily’s career skyrocketed.” He smiled again, quick and crooked. “She got a recording contract and was—let’s say she was very, very grateful.”

  “And you, of course, modestly accepted her gratitude.”

  “Of course. On the other hand, Father was furious. I’m sure he would have yanked me back to Cordina and put me in solitary confinement if YOU hadn’t calmed him down.”

  She lifted both brows, impressed with herself. The man with the straight back and intense eyes wouldn’t be easy to soothe. “Just how did I manage that?”

  “If I knew how you get around him, Brie, I’d do my best to make it my own art.”

  She considered this, pleased and curious. “I must be good at it.”

  “The best. Father’s fond of saying that of all his children, you’re the only one with basic common sense.”

  “Oh, dear.” She wrinkled her nose. “And you still like me?”

  He did something so sweet, so natural, it brought tears to her eyes. He ruffled her hair. She blinked the tears away. “I’d just as soon you had the common sense. It would get in my way.”

  “And Alexander? How do I—you,” she amended, “feel about him?”

  “Oh, Alex is okay.” He spoke with the tolerance of a brother for a brother. “He has the hardest road, after all, with the press forever hounding him and linking him with every woman he looks twice at. Discretion’s an art with Alex. He has to be twice as good at everything, you know, because it’s expected. And he has this roaring temper that he has to pull back. The heir isn’t permitted to make public scenes. Even private ones can leak out. Remember when that overweight French count drank too much champagne at dinner and—” Smile fading, he broke off. “I’m sorry.”

  “No, don’t be.” She let out a sigh because the tension was back. “All this must be frustrating for you.”

  “For once I’m not thinking of myself.” Then he stopped and took her hands. “Brie, when Father called me at sch
ool and told me you’d been abducted—nothing’s ever scared me like that. I hope nothing ever will again. It was as though someone drained the blood out of me—out of all of us. It’s enough just to have you back.”

  She held his hands firmly. “I want to remember. When I do, we can walk in the gardens again and laugh over the French count who drank too much at dinner.”

  “Maybe you could let your memory be selective,” he suggested. “I wouldn’t mind you forgetting the time I put worms in your bed.”

  Brie’s eyes widened as he continued to look at her. He was bland, innocent and attractive. “Neither would I.”

  “You didn’t take it very well,” he told her, thinking back. “Nanny gave me a tongue-lashing that left me raw for a week.”

  “Children have to be taught respect.”

  “Children?” This time he grinned and pinched her chin. “It was only last year.” When she laughed he hesitated a moment, then gave in to the need and pressed his cheek against hers. “I miss you, Brie. Hurry back.”

  She rested there a moment, drawing in his scents, making him familiar. “I’ll try.”

  He, more than anyone, understood that love had its own pressure. When he released her, his voice was light again, undemanding. “I’ve got to take the dogs back before they dig up the jasmine. Would you like me to walk you back?”

  “No, I’ll stay awhile. I have a fitting this afternoon for my dress for the AHC ball. I don’t think I’ll enjoy it.”

  “You detest it,” Bennett said cheerfully. “I’ll be done with Oxford and back for the ball.” Done with Oxford, he thought again. The idea was nearly too good to be true. “I can dance with you while I look over the girls and decide which one I’m going to devastate.”

  She laughed. “I believe you have all the makings of a rake.”

  “I’m doing my best. Boris, Natasha.” He called for the dogs and strolled out of the gardens with them scrambling at his heels.

  She liked him. It relieved her to know it, to feel it. She might not remember the twenty years they’d shared together as brother and sister, but she liked the man he was today.

  Sticking her hands in the pockets of her comfortable baggy slacks, Brie walked a little farther. The scents from the garden were mixed and heady, but not overpowering. The colors weren’t a rainbow, but a kaleidoscope. As she walked, she tested herself. Without effort, she could identify each plant. The same way, she mused, she’d been able to identify the artists of the dozens of paintings in the Long Gallery in the west wing.

  The artists, yes. But not the subjects. Her own mother’s face would have been that of a stranger if Brie’s resemblance to her hadn’t been so strong. Looking at the portrait, Brie had seen where she’d inherited the color of her eyes, her hair, the shape of her face, her mouth. There was no doubt that Princess Elizabeth de Cordina had been more beautiful than her daughter. Brie could look at the painting and at the big, sweeping portrait of herself objectively and see this.

  Princess Gabriella had been younger, twenty, twenty-one, Brie had decided. And she’d been rather spectacular in the deep violet dress she’d worn, its vivid pink sash a slash of heat. Looking at herself, Brie had wondered how she’d had the nerve to choose those shades for the sittings. And how she’d known they would be so effective.

  But the face in her mother’s portrait had been breathtaking. Heartbreaking. She’d worn creamy white, and had held soft pink roses that had given her a dreamy, poetic sort of beauty. Bennett had her look, as well as the spark of mischief Brie was certain she detected in the painting.

  Alex was like their father—the military bearing, the intensity. She’d seen those qualities both in the flesh and in the official portraits. She wondered if Alex enjoyed the role of prince and heir or merely accepted it. More, she wondered if she and Alex had been close enough that she’d known his feelings, his hopes. She wondered when she’d know her own.

  There was an arbor draped with wisteria and under it a pair of padded chairs and a marble table. Like the spot by the seawall, Brie felt a sense of comfort there.

  It was easier to admit when she was alone that she still tired quickly. Sitting, Brie stretched out her legs, while the shade and muted light dappled over her. The blossoms had a sweet, undemanding scent. The drone of bees had a lazy sound. There didn’t seem to be anything else. She closed her eyes and drifted.

  * * *

  Drowsy. She felt almost foolishly drowsy. It wasn’t the comfortable, relaxed feeling she had come out to the country for. Whenever she drove out to the little farm it was to steal a little time away from Princess Gabriella for Brie Bisset. Time was precious. If she’d wanted a nap, she could have spent Sunday afternoon in her room.

  Brie drank more of the coffee from her thermos. It was strong, the way she preferred it. The sun was warm, the bees humming. Yet she didn’t seem to have the energy to walk as she’d planned. Perhaps she’d just close her eyes for a little while…. She couldn’t seem to hold the coffee steadily in any case. Perhaps she’d just lean back against the rock and close her eyes….

  Then the sun wasn’t warm and strong any longer. There was a chill, as though the clouds had covered the sky and threatened rain. She couldn’t smell the sweet grass, the sun-warmed flowers, but mustiness and damp. She hurt—ached all over, yet she hardly seemed to feel at all. Someone was talking, but she couldn’t really hear. Mumbling, droning, but not bees. Men.

  They’ll make the exchange for the princess. They won’t have a choice. Whispers, just whispers.

  Tracks are covered. She’ll sleep until morning. Deal with her again.

  And she was afraid, terribly, paralyzingly afraid. She had to wake up. She had to wake up and—

  * * *


  With a muffled scream, she jolted in the chair, half springing up before hands closed over her arms. “No, don’t! Don’t touch me!”

  “Easy.” Reeve kept his hands firm as he lowered her back in her chair. She was cold, her eyes glazed. Thinking quickly, he decided that if she didn’t calm within moments, he’d take her back to the palace and call Franco. “Just take it easy.”

  “I thought—” She glanced around quickly, the garden, the sun, the bees. When she discovered her heart was pounding, she made herself sit back and just breathe. “I must have been dreaming.”

  He studied her, searching for signs of shock. Apparently she wouldn’t allow herself the luxury. “I wouldn’t have woken you, but you looked like you were having a bad dream.”

  He released her only to sit in the chair beside her. He’d been there, beneath the wisteria, watching her sleep for five minutes, perhaps ten. She’d appeared so content, and he could look at her knowing the reserve she normally held herself in wasn’t there.

  He’d wanted to look at her, just look. There was no use denying it to himself. When he watched her, he could remember her as she’d been years before, a young girl, pleased with herself, confident, innocently sensual. He could remember her as she’d been in his arms—a woman, arousing, bold, giving. He knew, as he looked at her, that he wanted her there again. And more.

  Beyond that, he was aware that desire for her interfered with his objectivity. And a cop was nothing without objectivity, he knew. But he wasn’t a cop any longer. Wasn’t one of the reasons he’d turned in his badge that the constant struggle to be uninvolved and distant had become distasteful to him? He’d wanted something different in his life. He just hadn’t counted on it being a princess.

  He sat back, waiting until Brie’s breathing steadied. For her sake, he’d better remember the rules he’d lived with during his years on the force. “Tell me,” he said simply.

  “There’s not that much. It’s confusing.”

  He took out a cigarette. “Tell me, anyway.”

  She sent him a look that he interpreted, correctly, as half resentment, half exasperation. It was better than neutrality. “I thought you were here as bodyguard, not analyst.”

  “I’m flexible.” He
lit the cigarette, watching her over the flame. “Are you?”

  “Not very, I think.” She rose. He’d already learned she rarely sat still when she was nervous. After she plucked off a spray of wisteria, she ran it lightly down her cheek. Another habit he’d noted. “I wasn’t here, but someplace quiet. There was grass. I could smell it, very strong and sweet. It seemed I was sleepy, but I didn’t want to be. It was annoying, because I was alone and wanted to enjoy the solitude.”

  This was accompanied by a look of pure defiance. Reeve merely nodded and leaned back. There was very little satisfaction in insulting him, Brie observed, and tucked the spray of wisteria in her hair.

  “I was drinking coffee to try to stay awake.”

  His look sharpened, but she didn’t notice. “Where did you get the coffee?”

  “Where?” She frowned, finding it a foolish question when they were discussing a dream. “I had a thermos. A big, red thermos with the handle gone from the top. The coffee didn’t seem to help and I dozed off. I remember the sun was very warm and I could hear the bees, just like now. Then …” He saw her fingers tense before she stuck them in her pockets. “I wasn’t there any longer. It was dark and a bit damp. It smelled musty. There were voices.”

  He tensed, as well, but his voice was calm. “Whose?”

  “I don’t know. I didn’t really hear them as much as sense them. I was afraid.” Turning away, she wrapped her arms around her body. “I was afraid and I couldn’t wake up and stop the dream.”

  “Dream,” he murmured. “Or memory?”

  She whirled around, her eyes passionate again, her hands balled into fists inside her pockets. “I don’t know. How can I? Do you think I can snap my fingers and say, ah, of course, I remember now?” She kicked at the little white stones along the edge of the path. “I walked with Bennett in the garden and all I could think was what a charming man. Damn! Is that the way I should think of my own brother?”

  “He is a charming man, Gabriella.”

  “Don’t patronize me,” she said between her teeth. “Don’t you dare patronize me.”

  He smiled at that, because whether she knew it or not at that moment, she was all princess. Royalty flowed through her—somehow admirable and amusing to a man who’d seen his share of aristocrats. Still, he rose and spoke gently. “Who thinks you should snap your fingers, Brie? No one’s pressuring you but yourself.”

  “I’m pressured by kindness.”

  “Don’t worry,” he said with a shrug. “I won’t be kind to you.”

  “I can depend on it.” She paused a moment, frowning at him. “You said once before that I was selfish. Why?”

  Without thinking, he ran a finger between her brow where the line of temper formed. “Perhaps the word should be ‘self-absorbed.’ You may have a right to be at the moment.”

  “I’m not sure I like that any better. You also said spoiled.”

  “Yes.” He let his hand fall away so that they faced each other without touching.

  “I refuse to accept that.”


  Her eyes narrowed. “You’re sorry because you said it?”

  “No, because you refuse to accept what you are.”

  “You’re a rude man, Reeve MacGee. Rude and opinionated.”

  “True enough,” he agreed, and rocked back on his heels. “I also said you were willful.”

  Her chin came up. “That I accept,” she told him coolly. “But you haven’t the right to say it to me.”

  He gave her a very slow, very arrogant bow. It wasn’t difficult when she chose to play the princess for him to play the pauper. “I beg your pardon, Your Highness.”

  Fire flared, in her blood, in her eyes. She found the fingers in her pockets itched to make solid contact with his face. Breeding hampered her, and she found she didn’t care for the restriction. “Now you’re mocking me.”

  “We’ll add ‘astute’ to the list.”

  Amazed at how quickly the anger rose, she took another step toward him. “You seem to be going out of your way to insult me. Why?”

  There was something irresistible about her when she was haughty, angry, icy. Reeve took her face in one hand, holding it firmly when her mouth dropped open in surprise. “Because it makes you think of me. I don’t give a damn how you think of me, Gabriella, as long as you do.”

  “Then you have your wish,” she said evenly. “I do think of you, but I don’t think well of you.”

  He smiled slowly. She found this made her throat dry and her skin hot. “Just think of me,” he repeated. “I won’t strew roses on the floor when I lead you to bed. There won’t be any violins, and satin sheets. What there’ll be is you and me.”

  She didn’t step back. Whether it was shock or excitement that kept her still she didn’t know. Perhaps it was pride. That’s what she hoped. “You seem to be the one in need of the analyst now. I may not remember, Reeve, but I feel certain I choose my own lovers.”

  “So do I.”

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