The playboy prince, p.10
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       The Playboy Prince, p.10

         Part #3 of Cordina's Royal Family series by Nora Roberts
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  worries that his wife will tire herself while carrying his child.”

  “And you are trusted?”

  “Implicitly. And why not?” she added. “My family is well respected, my breeding without mark. Prince Armand sees me as a young cousin of his dead wife. Your pardon, monsieur, but aren’t these the reasons you enlisted me to find a place at the palace?”

  “Yes, they are.” He sat back. She pleased him, but he was a long way from giving her his full confidence. “I have word that the young prince is interested in you.”

  Something inside her froze at that. “Your network of information is admirable.” Hannah glanced at her empty snifter, then tilted it in question. Deboque rose immediately to refill her glass. It was just enough time to regain her composure.

  “Bennett is, as I’m sure you’re aware, invariably interested in the female closest at hand.” She gave a low laugh and tried not to hate herself. “He’s really only a boy, and spoiled at that. I’ve found the simplest way to handle him is to act disinterested.”

  Deboque nodded slowly. “Then he pursues.”

  “Such men are always more—accommodating under those circumstances.”

  “I beg your pardon if I seem to be getting too personal, my dear, but how accommodating?”

  “He’s a bit bored, a bit reckless. His weakness for women should have its uses. I believe with a certain—flair—information can be drawn out of him. It was he, you see, who took me through the Center, and through the naval base at Le Havre.” She sipped again, lingering over it. Deboque would already know about her tête-à-tête with Bennett at the museum. So, she would use his knowledge and twist the truth.

  “It was a simple matter to ask questions and express interest in how the museum guards its treasures. With that, I was shown the setup, alarms, monitors, sensors.” She paused again to let it sink in. “The more a woman pretends ignorance, the more she learns.”

  Deboque warmed the brandy in his hands. “Hypothetically, you understand, can the security at the palace be broken?”

  At last, she thought, they were homing in. “Hypothetically, any security can be broken. I will say that Reeve MacGee has designed an admirable system, but not an invincible one.”

  “Interesting.” He picked up a small china figure of a hawk and began to study it. The room fell into silence long enough for her to be sure he was trying to unnerve her. “And do you have a theory on how this system can be undermined?”

  “From inside.” She sipped her brandy again. “It’s always cleaner from the inside.”

  “And the Center?”

  “Much the same.”

  “This play the princess wrote, it opens in a few days. It would be amusing to cause a small disturbance.”

  “Of what nature?”

  He only smiled. “Oh, I’m just speaking in theory, you understand. It seems to me that the Royal Family would be uncomfortable if something disrupted the evening. I should hate to miss it. You’ll be there?”

  “I’m expected.” She needed to push him, push him into something definite. “I prefer knowing which door to walk into, monsieur.”

  “Then you might be wise to remain in the audience. I wouldn’t want to lose you now that we’ve become close.”

  She acknowledged this, but realizing he would demand the rest of the stats then dismiss her, Hannah changed gears. “As a matter of personal curiosity may I ask why you have such interest in the Royal Family? It intrigues me because I see you much as I see myself, as a person most interested in profit and personal gain.”

  “Profit is always desirable.” He set the hawk down. He had hands that might have played a violin or written sonnets. They rarely killed, only gestured for others to do so. “Personal gain can have a multitude of variables, n’est-ce pas?”

  “As long as it satisfies,” she agreed. “Using the kidnapping of the Princess Gabriella or the threats on the Bissets as a lever to gain your release from prison was one thing. You’re no longer in prison.” Again she looked with admiration around the room. “I would think you would move on to more profitable waters.”

  “All business needs a completion.” She saw emotion for the first time as his fingers tightened around his glass. “All debts require payment. The interest of ten years is dear, very dear. Do you agree?”

  “Yes. Revenge, or retribution if you prefer. This I understand is as sweet as diamonds.” And looking at him, she knew he would stop at nothing to collect. “Monsieur, you have arranged for me to be in the palace. I intend to continue to remain there until you alter the order, but I prefer to do so with some direction.” She gestured casually, palm up. “The revenge, after all, is yours, not mine. I’ve never worked well blindfolded.”

  “A man who puts all of his cards on the table loses his edge.”

  “Agreed. So does a man who doesn’t sharpen his tools and use them where they’re best suited. I’m in, monsieur. Having a map of some sort would be useful.”

  He intended to use her, and well. Sitting back again, Deboque steepled his hands. His diamonds shot out violent light. He had failed, twice before he had failed to use the Bissets for his own purposes. He had failed to bring Armand to his knees. Whatever had to be done, whomever had to be used, he wouldn’t fail this time. In Hannah, he thought he’d found the instrument.

  “Let me ask you this. If one man wishes to destroy another, what does he do?”

  “The simplest is to end his life.”

  Deboque smiled, and now Hannah saw the evil. It was coated with class, pampered with elegance, but very real. “I’m not a simple man. Death is so final, and even when it is slow, it’s soon over. To destroy a man, the soul, the heart, requires more than a bullet in the brain.”

  He was speaking of Armand, she knew. It wasn’t time to demand he name names and reveal his plan. He would tell her nothing and trust her less. Hannah set down her glass and tried to think as he did. “To truly destroy, you take away what is most valuable.” Her heart began to beat in the back of her throat, clogging a wave of nausea. Still, when she spoke it was with cool admiration. “His children?”

  “You are intelligent as well as lovely.” Leaning over he placed his hand on hers. She felt it from him, the vile, dark movement of death. “To make a man suffer, to destroy his soul, you deprive him of what he loves best and leave him to live with it. His children and grandchildren dead, his country in chaos, a man would have nothing left but misery. And a country without an heir becomes unstable—and profitable—if one is shrewd.”

  “All of them,” Hannah murmured. She thought of little Marissa, so pretty and soft, and Dorian with his smudged face and bright grin. Fear for them was suddenly so strong, so vital, she thought it had to show in her eyes. She kept them down, looking at his hand as it lay over hers and the cold, hard glint of the diamonds.

  “All of them, monsieur?” When she thought she could trust herself again, she looked back at his face. He was smiling. In the fragile light of the chandeliers he looked wan as a ghost and infinitely more frightening. “Not an easy task, even for someone of your power.”

  “Nothing worthwhile is simple, my dear. But as you said, nothing is impossible—particularly when one is trusted and close.”

  Her brow lifted. She didn’t shudder or draw away. Business, she told herself. Lady Hannah was all business. She was being offered a job, the most vital one Deboque had to offer.

  “You were carefully chosen, Lady Hannah. For more than ten years, I’ve had one dream. I believe you are the instrument to see it to fruition.”

  She pursed her lips as if considering while her mind raced ahead. He was giving her a contract, a royal one. As she said nothing, his fingers played lightly over her knuckles. Like a spider, she thought, a handsome and very clever spider.

  “Such a responsibility is weighty for someone in my position in your organization.”

  “That can be seen to. Bouffe is—retiring,” he said softly. “I will be looking for a replacement.”

She let her hand lie under his as she touched her tongue to her top lip. “A guarantee, monsieur.”

  “My word.”

  She smiled a little. “Monsieur.”

  With a nod of acknowledgment, he rose and pressed a button on his desk. Within seconds Ricardo appeared. “Lady Hannah will be replacing Bouffe. See to the arrangements, Ricardo. Discreetly.”

  “Of course.” The pale green eyes half closed as if with pleasure.

  Hannah waited for the door to shut again. A man’s life was over. “The day may come when you decide to replace me as casually.”

  “Not if you continue to please me.” He lifted her hand again and kissed it. “I have a feeling you will.”

  “I must tell you, monsieur, I have a distaste for killing children.” His fingers tightened, very slightly on hers, but she didn’t fidget. “I believe it will take five million American dollars to overcome this distaste.”

  She saw it in his eyes. He would break her fingers as easily as he would kiss them. Hannah kept her gaze steady on his and hoped she hadn’t pushed her luck too far.

  “Is it money that seduces you, ma petite?”

  “Not seduces, pleases. I like to be pleased.”

  “You have two weeks to please me, Lady Hannah. Then I shall return the favor.” He kept her hand in his as he drew her to her feet. “Now, as a show of faith, you will tell me what you failed to note down here.”

  Hannah walked over to the specs and prepared to lie to him.

  * * *

  She was exhausted. In a decade of assignments, nothing had left her feeling so empty and soiled. As she drove through the palace gates, she could only think about a long hot shower where she could scrub off whatever traces remained of Deboque’s cologne. Reeve was standing a hundred feet beyond the gates. Hannah stopped the car and waited for him to slide in beside her.

  “You were gone a long time.” He gave her a long, thorough study. “It wasn’t in the plans for you to be out of contact for over an hour.”

  “It was in the plans for me to get to Deboque.”

  “And you did?”

  She rolled down her window a bit farther. “I met him on a yacht, the Invincible. It’s anchored about five miles northwest. He has at least six armed guards, double that by a guess. He has the information we wanted him to have. I’m replacing Bouffe.”

  Reeve’s brow lifted. “You must have impressed him.”

  “That was the idea.” She wondered how soon she could wash the taste of his brandy from her mouth. “He’s planning something for the opening of Eve’s play.” When Reeve stiffened beside her, she went on. “I don’t believe it’s going to be anything directly against the family. He seemed to think it would be entertaining to confuse matters. He’s very careful how he phrases things. Nothing too direct. Even if I testified against him, it would be difficult to actually convict him of conspiracy. He hypothesizes, theorizes.”

  “Did he give you an idea where he intends to make his move?”

  She listened for a moment to a bird that was singing its heart out. “He seemed most interested in the palace. It’s the biggest challenge. We have two weeks.”

  “He moves in two weeks?”

  “That’s how long he gave me to murder your family.” She turned to him then and saw his face was pale and set. “All of you but Armand, Reeve. The children, everyone. He wants to destroy Armand’s soul and leave Cordina without an heir. If you trust my judgment, he wants this done as much for personal satisfaction as for the profit he might make when Cordina is thrown into chaos.”

  Reeve drew out a cigarette but didn’t light it. “I trust your judgment.”

  “We have two weeks to stop him, or to convince him that I’ve done what he wants.”

  It was his family, his heart, yet he knew he had to think as coolly as she did. “Is he setting you up?”

  She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “I don’t think so. It’s certainly possible that he’d dispose of me after I’ve finished the job, but I think it’s more likely he’d continue to use me. We did a good job of planting information about me, and over the past two years I’ve saved him a bit of trouble and money. If he believes I can give him this, he’ll sit back and wait.”

  “Armand will have to be told.”

  “I know.” But not Bennett. Armand and only Armand.

  “For now, just go on as usual.” He indicated that she should drive ahead. “We’ll need some time.”

  “Eve’s opening is in a few days.”

  “We’ll handle it. You get some sleep. As soon as we have a direction, I’ll let you know.”

  Hannah got out of the car, then as Reeve stood on the other side she stopped. “I want him. I want him for myself. I know it’s unprofessional and stupid. But if I have the chance, if I find the way, I’m going to take him out myself.”

  Reeve said nothing as she walked up the steps. He’d already vowed the same thing.

  Chapter 8

  “I don’t want you to go tonight.”

  “You know I have to.” Eve stood, grim and stubborn, facing her husband. “It’s my play, my troupe, my production. I don’t have a choice, Alex.”

  “Excuses can be made.” He looked at her, dressed in midnight blue that skimmed her shoulders and swirled to her ankles. Her hair was caught up in the back so that it fell over one shoulder like ebony. Even after all the years he’d known her, just looking at her made his pulse race. “You know how dangerous it could be. With the information we have now, we can be sure there’ll be an incident tonight. I don’t want you involved.”

  “I am involved.” She was frightened. Ever since Reeve had told them that he’d received a tip that there would be trouble at the theater on opening night, her nerves had been stretched tight. Yes, she was frightened, but she was no less determined. She crossed to the beveled mirror above the bureau as if checking the arrangement of her hair was of some importance. “I wrote the play, I produced it, and more important than either of those,” she continued before he could interrupt, “I belong at the theater tonight because I’m your wife.”

  The fact that her arguments were valid meant nothing. He wanted her in the palace, safe, untouchable. His heart would rest easy if he knew she was here, in the suite of rooms she’d decorated, tucked high in the palace that had been his family home for generations. Nothing could happen to her here. Anything could happen outside.

  “My love, Reeve is rarely wrong. If he says there’ll be trouble tonight, I want you well away from it. The fact that you’re carrying a child is a very simple reason for you to be excused. I know the play is important to you, but—”

  “Yes, it is,” she interrupted. “But you’re more important.”

  “Then do this for me, and stay home tonight.”

  She tilted her head, holding on to both her nerves and her temper. “Alexander, would you stay behind with me?”

  “If it was possible, of course.” Impatience had him dragging a hand through his hair. It was a ploy she’d used before, and one there was little argument against. “I can’t close myself up every time there’s a rumble from Deboque.”

  “For Cordina,” she said quietly. “And Cordina is now my country, too.”

  “Eve.” He thought he loved her as much as it was possible to love. Every day he learned there could be more. “You are the most precious thing in the world to me. I almost lost you once.”

  She crossed to him then, knowing the first step, the first touch should be hers. When both of his hands were in hers, she looked up into his eyes. “And I you, Alex. I’m going to sit in the Royal Box beside you, where I belong.”

  From outside the door, Hannah heard the conversation clearly enough. It was moments like this that made it difficult to think of what she was doing, what she had yet to do, as merely another assignment. There were people beyond the door who she’d come to care about. The Bissets were no longer names or symbols, but friends. After ten years of playing dangerous games, she knew how risky it could be
to make friends.

  She closed her eyes and drew her breath deep before she knocked.

  “Entrez.” It was Alexander who answered, the impatience in his voice ripe. Hannah opened the door but didn’t cross the threshold.

  “I’m sorry. I’m disturbing you.”

  “Of course not.” With the warmth that was so much a part of her, Eve smiled and gestured her inside. “I see you’re ready for the evening.” She felt a little twinge of regret at Hannah’s severe beige dress and hairstyle. She’d hoped with a little time she could urge Hannah to soften her image. Tonight, however, there were more immediate matters of concern. “We were just about to come down ourselves.”

  Hannah saw Eve take Alexander’s hand again. “I thought you might need some help.”

  “No, there’s nothing.” But the cloud of concern didn’t leave Eve’s eyes. “Hannah, I don’t want you to feel obligated to go with the family. Knowing there’s a possibility of an—incident,” she began. “Well, it might be more comfortable for you here at home.”

  “Of course I’m going.” With the hated secret tucked inside of her, she shifted the wrap on her arms. “And I really believe everything’s going to be fine. If you don’t need me then, I’ll just go down.”

  “Please, let’s not talk about it anymore,” Eve said when Hannah shut the door behind her. “Let’s go say good night to Marissa before we leave.”

  “Eve.” Alexander gathered her close. He could feel the slight swell where another child lay. “I love you.”

  “Talk’s cheap,” she murmured, and tried for a laugh. “Promise to show me later, after the play.”

  He let his cheek rest on her hair. “You have my word.”

  Bennett was already waiting in the main hall. Even with the distance separating them, Hannah could feel the impatience coming from him. Impatience, she thought, mixed with a recklessness that the elegant evening clothes couldn’t disguise. He was looking for trouble, Hannah realized. More, he was hoping for it.

  “There you are.” Though he smiled up at her, his mind was already on the evening ahead. Instinctively he took her hand, holding it as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “You don’t have to go tonight, Hannah. I’d be happier if you didn’t.”

  Guilt came so quickly that she had squeezed his hand in reassurance before she could stop herself. “Now even you sound like Eve,” she said lightly. “I want to be there. A vague tip from an anonymous source is a foolish reason to miss a night at the theater.”

  He touched the pearl cluster at her ear. “Is that what we call British pluck?”

  “It’s what we call common sense.”

  “Whatever it’s called I want you to stay close. There’ll be enough guards to smother us, but I prefer to keep an eye on you myself.” Before she could stop him, he was leading her toward the doors.

  “Eve and Alexander are nearly ready. I said I’d wait for them.”

  “Security feels better splitting us up.” He acknowledged Claude with a brief nod. “You’ll ride with me. Father will come along after Alexander and Eve.”

  “All right.” She walked out into the star-studded night, calmly holding the .22 that lay within her beaded evening bag.

  * * *

  The theater was sold out. Long before the first curtain, the seats were filled so that the babble of conversation rose up to the Royal Box. There was thunderous applause when the Bissets entered. From the background as bows were made, Hannah held her breath and studied the sea of faces.

  If Deboque had been there, she knew she would have found him.

  “The Center’s been swept twice,” Reeve murmured in her ear. “There’s nothing here.”

  She nodded and took her seat as the curtain rose.

  The play was everything Eve had hoped for, though Hannah doubted anyone in the box had their full attention on the drama and pathos onstage. More than once, she cast a sidelong look at Bennett to find him studying the audience.

  Deboque wasn’t there. Hannah hadn’t expected him. Whatever happened, whenever it happened, he would be far away with an alibi as solid as Cordinian rock.

  So they would wait. And watch.

  When the lights came up for intermission, Hannah could almost feel Eve relax. A false alarm? No. Though she preferred Eve believing it was so, Hannah knew better. There was an itch between her shoulder blades, vague but persistent. Some called it a hunch. Others called it instinct. Hannah had been in the game long enough to know when to wait and when to go with it.

  “Would you like something to drink?”

  She turned to Bennett, set to refuse. For personal reasons, she wanted him close at hand. “Yes,” she heard herself saying, knowing this would be just one more deception. “I’d love something cool.”

  The moment he was through the doors behind them, Hannah leaned toward Reeve. “I’m going to look around.”

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