The playboy prince, p.1
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       The Playboy Prince, p.1
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         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts  
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  Chapter 1

  The stallion plunged over the crest of the hill, digging hard into the earth and kicking up dust. At the peak, he reared, powerful forelegs pawing the air. For an instant, horse and rider were silhouetted against the bright afternoon sky. One looked as dangerous as the other.

  Even as hooves touched earth, the rider’s knees pressed to the stallion’s side and sent them both recklessly racing down the sheer incline. The track there was smooth, but hardly gentle with a wall of rock on one side and a drop into space on the other. They took it at full speed and gloried in it.

  Only a madman rode with such arrogant disregard for life and limb. Only a madman, or a dreamer.

  “Avant, Dracula.” The command was low and challenging as was the laughter that followed. The tone was one of a man who considered fear a banquet and speed the wine.

  Birds, startled by the thunderous pounding of hooves on dirt, flew from the trees and bushes on the cliff above to wheel screaming into the sky. Their noise was soon lost in the distance. When the path veered to the left, the stallion took it without a pause. The edge of the road gave way to cliffs that spilled sharply for seventy feet to the white rocks and blue sea. Pebbles danced off the dirt to shower soundlessly into the empty spaces.

  The rider glanced down but didn’t slow. He never even considered it.

  From that height, there was no scent of the sea. Even the sound of waves crashing was indistinct, like thunder far off and still harmless. But from that height, the sea held a danger and mystique all of its own. Every year she claimed her tribute in the lives of men. The rider understood this, accepted this, for so it had been since the beginning of time. So it would continue to be. At times like this he put himself in the hands of fate and backed his bet with his own skill.

  The stallion needed no whip, no spur to drive him faster. As always, his master’s excitement and confidence were enough. They tore down the twisting path until the sea roared in their ears and the cry of gulls could at last be heard.

  To the onlooker, it might seem the horseman was fleeing from devils or racing to a lover. But anyone seeing his face would know it was neither.

  If there was a gleam in the dark eyes, it wasn’t one of fear or anticipation. It was challenge. For the moment, and the moment only. Speed whipped the man’s dark hair as freely as the horse’s dark mane.

  The stallion was fifteen hands of coal-black energy, wide at the chest, powerful at the neck. The horse’s hide glistened with sweat, but his breathing was strong and even. Astride him, the rider sat erect, his tanned, narrow face glowing. His mouth, full and sculpted, was curved in a smile that spoke of both recklessness and pleasure.

  As the path leveled, the stallion’s stride lengthened. Here, they passed whitewashed cottages where clothes flapped on lines in the sea breeze. Flowers crowded for space in tidy lawns and windows were opened and unscreened. The sun, still high in the sky after noon, flashed its brilliant light. Without slackening, without needing his master’s light hands on the reins to guide him, the stallion sprinted for a hedge as high as a man’s waist.

  Together, they soared over it.

  In the distance were the stables. As there were danger and deadly attraction in the cliffs behind, so were there peace and order to the scene ahead. Red and white, and tidy as the lawns surrounding them, the buildings added another touch of charm to a landscape of cliffs and greenery. Fences crisscrossed to form paddocks where horses were being exercised with far less drama than Dracula.

  One of the grooms stopped circling a young mare on a lead when he heard the stallion’s approach. Crazy as a loon, he thought—but not without grudging respect. This horse and this rider, merged together in a blare of speed, were a common sight. Even so, two grooms waited at attention for the stallion to slow to a halt.

  “Your Highness.”

  His Highness, Prince Bennett of Cordina slid off Dracula’s back with a laugh that echoed the recklessness. “I’ll cool him down, Pipit.”

  The old groom with the slight limp stepped forward. His weathered face was passive, but he passed his gaze over both prince and stallion, checking for any sign of harm. “Your pardon, sir, but a message came down from the palace while you were out. Prince Armand wishes to see you.”

  Not without regret, Bennett handed the reins to the waiting groom. Part of the pleasure of the ride was the hour he normally spent walking and brushing down the stallion. If his father had sent for him, he had no choice but to forgo pleasure for duty.

  “Walk him thoroughly, Pipit. We’ve had a long run.”

  “Yes, sir,” said the groom who’d spent three-quarters of his life with horses. Among his duties had been seating Bennett on his first pony. At sixty, with one leg game from a fall, Pipit remembered the energy of youth. And the passion. He patted Dracula’s neck and found it damp. “I’ll see to it myself, Your Highness.”

  “Do that, Pipit.” But Bennett loitered long enough to loosen the cinches. “Thanks.”

  “No thanks necessary, sir.” With a quiet grunt, Pipit hefted the saddle from the stallion’s back. “Isn’t another man here who has the nerve to deal with the devil,” he murmured in French as the horse began to dance in place. In moments, Dracula settled again.

  “And there isn’t another man I’d trust with my best. An extra scoop of grain wouldn’t hurt him this evening.”

  Pipit took the compliment as no less than his due. “As you say, sir.”

  Still restless, Bennett turned to walk from the stables. He could have used the extra hour to cool himself down as well. Riding fast, riding reckless, satisfied only part of his thirst. He needed the movement, the speed, but most of all, he needed the freedom.

  For nearly three months he’d been tied firmly to the palace and protocol, the pomp and procedure. As second in line to Cordina’s throne, his duties were sometimes less public than his brother Alexander’s, but rarely less arduous. Duties, obligations, had been a part of his life since birth, and were normally taken as a matter of course. Bennett couldn’t explain to himself, much less anyone else, why sometime during the last year he’d begun to fret and chafe against them.

  Gabriella saw it. Bennett thought perhaps his sister even understood it. She, too, had always had a thirst for freedom and privacy. She’d gained a portion of that two years before when Alexander had married Eve, and the weight of responsibility had shifted.

  Still she never shirked, Bennett thought as he passed through the palace’s garden doors. If she was needed, she was there. She still gave six months of every year to the Aid for Handicapped Children while keeping her marriage vital and raising her children.

  Bennett dug his hands into his pockets as he climbed the stairs that would take him to his father’s office. What was wrong with him? What had happened in the last few months that made him want to slip quietly out of the palace some night and run? Anywhere.

  He couldn’t shake off the mood, but he managed to tame it as he knocked on his father’s door.

  “Entrez.”

  The prince wasn’t behind his desk as Bennett had expected, but was seated beside a tea tray at the window. Across from him was a woman who rose to her feet at Bennett’s entrance.

  As a man who appreciated women of any age, of any form, he took an easy survey before turning to his father. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I was told you wished to see me.”

  “Yes.” Armand merely sipped his tea. “Some time ago. Prince Bennett, I would like to introduce Lady Hannah Rothchild.”

  “Your Highness.” Her gaze swept down as she curtsied.

  “A pleasure, Lady Hannah.” Bennett took her hand, summing her up in seconds. Attractive in a quiet way. He preferred less subtlety in women. British from her accent. He had an affection for the French
. Slim and neat. Invariably, the more voluptuous caught his eye. “Welcome to Cordina.”

  “Thank you, Your Highness.” Her voice was indeed British, cultured and quiet. He met her gaze briefly so that he saw her eyes were a deep and glowing shade of green. “Yours is a beautiful country.”

  “Please, sit, my dear.” Armand gestured her back to her chair before he lifted another cup to pour. “Bennett.”

  Hannah, with her hands folded in her lap, noticed Bennett’s quick look of dislike at the teapot. But he sat and accepted the cup.

  “Lady Hannah’s mother was a distant cousin of yours,” Armand began. “Eve became acquainted with her when she and your brother visited England recently. At Eve’s invitation, Lady Hannah has agreed to stay with us as Eve’s companion.”

  Bennett could only hope he wouldn’t be expected to escort the lady. She was pretty enough, though she dressed like a nun in a gray, high-collared dress that came a discreet two inches below her knees. The color did nothing for her pale, British complexion. Her eyes saved her face from being plain, but with her dark blond hair pulled back so severely from her face, she put him in mind of the old Victorian companions or governesses. Dull. But he remembered his manners and treated her to an easy, companionable smile.

  “I hope you enjoy your stay as much as we’ll enjoy having you.”

  Hannah gave him a solemn look in return. She wondered if he was aware, and thought he was, of how dashing he looked in casual riding clothes. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it immensely, sir. I’m flattered the Princess Eve invited me to stay with her while she awaits the birth of her second child. I hope to give her the companionship and help she needs.”

  Though his mind was on other matters, Armand offered a plate of frosted cookies. “Lady Hannah has been very generous to give us her time. She’s quite a scholar and is currently working on a series of essays.”

  Figures, Bennett thought, and sipped at the hated tea. “Fascinating.”

  The smallest of smiles touched Hannah’s lips. “Do you read Yeats, sir?”

  Bennett shifted in his chair and wished himself back to his stables. “Not extensively.”

  “My books should be here by the end of the week. Please feel free to borrow anything you like.” She rose again, keeping her hands folded. “If you would excuse me, Your Highness, I’d like to see to the rest of my unpacking.”

  “Of course.” Armand rose to lead her to the door. “We’ll see you at dinner. Be sure to ring if you require anything.”

  “Thank you, sir.” She curtsied, then turned to extend the courtesy to Bennett. “Good afternoon, Your Highness.”

  “Bonjour, Lady Hannah.” Bennett waited for the door to close behind her before dropping onto the arm of his chair. “Well, she should bore Eve to tears within a week.” Ignoring the tea, he took a handful of the small iced cookies. “What could Eve have been thinking of?”

  “Eve became very fond of Hannah during her two weeks in England.” Armand walked to a scrolled cabinet and, to Bennett’s relief, took out a decanter. “Hannah is a well-bred young woman of excellent family. Her father is a highly respected member of the British Parliament.” The brandy was deep and rich. Armand poured it sparingly.

  “That’s all well and good, but—” Bennett stopped abruptly as he reached for the snifter. “Oh good God, Father, you’re not thinking of trying for a match here? She’s hardly my type.”

  Armand’s firm mouth softened with a smile. “I think I know that well enough. I can assure you Lady Hannah was not brought here to tempt you.”

  “She could hardly do that in any case.” Bennett swirled the brandy, then sipped. “Yeats?”

  “There are some who believe literature extends beyond equestrian handbooks.” Armand drew out a cigarette. There was a knot of tension at the base of his neck. He forced it to concentrate there rather than allowing it to spread.

  “I prefer the useful rather than poetry about unrequited love or the beauty of a raindrop.” When that made him feel small and ungracious, Bennett relented. “But in any case, I’ll do whatever I can to make Eve’s new friend welcome.”

  “I never doubted it.”

  His conscience soothed, Bennett moved on to more important matters. “The Arabian mare should foal by Christmas. I’m betting it’s a colt. Dracula will breed strong sons. I have three horses that should be ready to show in the spring, and another I think should be taken to the Olympic trials. I’d like to arrange that within the next few weeks so that the riders will have more time to work with the horse.”

  Armand gave an absent nod and continued to swirl his brandy. Bennett felt the familiar push of impatience rising and fought it down. He was well aware that the stables weren’t high on his father’s list of priorities. How could they be with internal affairs, foreign affairs, and the very tricky politics within the Council of the Crown?

  Yet, didn’t there have to be something more? The horses not only gave pleasure, but added a certain prestige when the Royal House of Cordina possessed one of the finest stables in Europe. For himself, it was what he considered his only true contribution to his family and country.

  He’d worked for the stables as hard and as menially as any groom or stable boy. Over the years, he’d studied everything he could about breeding. To his delight, he’d found within himself a natural skill that had added spark to his education. Within a short time, Bennett had turned a good stable into one of the best. In another decade, he was confident it would have no equal.

  There were times when Bennett needed to discuss his horses and his ambitions with someone other than a stable hand or another breeder. Still, he understood, and always had, that that person would rarely be his father.

  “I take it this isn’t the time to discuss it.” Bennett took another small sip of brandy and waited for his father to reveal whatever weighed on his mind.

  “I’m sorry, Bennett, I’m afraid it isn’t.” The father felt regret. The prince could not. “Your schedule this next week. Can you tell me about it?”

  “Not really.” The restlessness was back. Rising, Bennett began to pace from one window to another. How close the sea seemed and yet how far away. He wished for a moment that he was on a ship again, a hundred miles from any land, with a storm brewing on the horizon. “I know that I have to go into Le Havre at the end of the week. The Indépendance is coming in. There’s a meeting with the Farmers’ Cooperative and a couple of luncheons. Cassell fills me in each morning. If it’s important I can have him type up the highlights for you. I’m sure I’m cutting at least one ribbon.”

  “Feeling closed in, Bennett?”

  With a shrug, Bennett tossed off the last of his brandy. Then the easy smile returned. Life, after all, was too short to complain about. “It’s the ribbons that do it. The rest, at least, seems worthwhile.”

  “Our people look to us for more than governing.”

  Bennett turned from the window. Behind him the sun was high and bright. Whatever he might sometimes wish in his secret heart, the royalty he’d been born with cloaked him. “I know, Papa. The problem is I don’t have Alexander’s patience, Brie’s serenity or your control.”

  “You might need them all soon.” Armand set his glass down and faced his son. “Deboque will be released from prison in two days.”

  * * *

  Deboque. Even the name caused fury to churn in Bennett’s stomach. François Deboque. The man by whose orders his sister had been kidnapped. The man who had planned assassination attempts on both his father and his brother.

  Deboque.

  Bennett pressed a finger to the scar just below his left shoulder. He’d taken a bullet there, and the trigger had been pulled by Deboque’s lover. For Deboque. By Deboque.

  The bomb planted just over two years before in the Paris Embassy had been meant for his father. Instead it had killed Seward, a loyal assistant, leaving a woman widowed and three children fatherless. That, too, had been Deboque’s doing.

  And in all the years, nearly ten n
ow since Gabriella’s kidnapping, no one had proved Deboque’s involvement in the kidnapping, the conspiracies or the murders. The best investigators in Europe, including Bennett’s brother-in-law, had been brought in, but none of them had proved that Deboque had pulled the strings.

  Now, within days, he would be free.

  There was no doubt in Bennett’s mind that Deboque would continue to seek revenge. The Royal Family was his enemy if for no other reason than he’d been held in a Cordinian prison for over a decade. Neither was there any doubt that during that decade, he’d continued to deal in drugs, weapons and women.

  No doubt, and no proof.

  Guards would be added. Security would be tightened. Interpol would continue its work, as would the International Security System. But both Interpol and the ISS had been trying to nail Deboque with murder and conspiracy to murder for years. Until he was gotten under control and the strings to his organization severed, Cordina and the rest of Europe were vulnerable.

  Hands in pockets, Bennett strode out to the garden. At least they’d dined en famille that evening. It had relieved some strain, even though little could be said in front of Eve’s new friend. He doubted if anyone that quiet and prim would have picked up on any tension around the table. She had answered when spoken to and nursed one glass of wine throughout the meal.

  He would have wished her back to England a dozen times if he hadn’t seen how good she actually was for Eve. His sister-in-law was three months pregnant with her second child and didn’t need the additional strain of talk of Deboque. Two years before she’d nearly been killed protecting Alexander. If Lady Hannah could keep Eve’s mind off Deboque, even for a few hours a day, it would be worth the inconvenience of having her in the palace.

  He needed to talk with Reeve. Bennett drove his balled fists into his pockets. Reeve MacGee was more than his sister’s husband. As head of security, he would have some answers. And Bennett certainly had the questions—dozens of them. More was being done than the placing of extra guards. Bennett refused to go through the next weeks blindly while others worked to protect him and his family.

  Swearing softly, he looked up at the sky. The moon was cloudless and half full. Another time, with the scents of the garden wafting around him, he would have itched for a woman to watch the sky with. Now, filled with frustration, he preferred the solitude.

  When he heard the dogs bark, his body stiffened. He’d thought himself alone; he’d even been sure of it. In any case, his aging hounds never barked at family or familiar servants. Half-hoping for a confrontation, Bennett moved quietly toward the sound.

  He heard her laugh and the sound surprised him. It wasn’t quiet and prim, but rich and delighted. As he watched, Hannah leaned down to stroke the dogs, which pressed against her legs.

  “There now, what a lovely pair you are.” Smiling she bent farther still to nuzzle. The moonlight slanted over her face and throat.

  Instantly, Bennett’s eyes narrowed. She hardly looked plain and subdued at the moment. The moonlight accented the hollows and contours of her face, enriching the soft English skin and deepening the already deep green eyes. He would have sworn that he saw both strength and passion there. And he was a man who recognized both in a woman. Her laughter floated out again, as rich as sunlight, as sultry as fog.

  “No, you mustn’t jump,” she cautioned the dogs as they circled her. “You’ll have mud all over me and how would I explain that?”

  “It’s usually best not to explain at all.”

  She snapped her head up as Bennett spoke. He saw surprise, or thought he did, but it passed quickly. When she straightened, she was the calm, unremarkable Lady Hannah again. He chalked up the passion he’d thought he’d seen to a trick of the light.

  “Good evening, Your Highness.” Hannah took only a moment to curse herself for being caught unaware.

  “I didn’t know anyone else was in the garden.”

  “Nor did I.” And she should have. “I beg your pardon.”

  “Don’t.” He smiled to put her at ease. “I’ve always felt the gardens aren’t enjoyed nearly enough. Couldn’t you sleep?”

  “No, sir. I’m always restless when I travel.” The dogs had deserted her for Bennett. She stood beside the flowering jasmine and watched him stroke them with strong, capable hands. She was well aware that numerous ladies had enjoyed the same easy touch. “I’d seen the gardens from my window and thought I might walk awhile.” In truth, it had been their scent, exotic and alluring, that had urged her to loiter after she’d noted the layout of the space.

  “I prefer them at night myself. Things often look different at night,” he continued, studying her again. “Don’t you think?”

  “Naturally.” She linked her hands together just below the waist. He was marvelous to look at, sun or moon. When he’d strode into his father’s office that afternoon she’d thought that riding clothes suited him best. The dogs came back to press their noses against her joined hands.

  “They like you.”

  “I’ve always been fond of animals.” She unlinked her hands to stroke. He noticed for the first time that her hands were delicate, long and slender like her body. “What are their names?”

  “Boris and Natasha.”

  “Suitable names for Russian wolfhounds.”

  “They were given to me as puppies. I named them after characters in an American cartoon show. Spies.”

  Her hands hesitated only a heartbeat. “Spies, Your Highness?”

  “Inept Russian spies who were forever after a moose and squirrel.”

  He thought he saw it again, the flash of humor that lent something special to her face. “I see. I’ve never been to America.”

  “No?” He moved closer, but saw nothing but a young woman with good bones and a quiet manner. “It’s a fascinating country. Cordina’s become closely linked with it since two members of the Royal Family have married Americans.”

  “A fact that disappointed a number of hopeful Europeans, I’m sure.” Hannah relaxed enough for a cautious smile. “I met Princess Gabriella several years ago. She’s a beautiful woman.”

 
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