“My dear, a hundred years ago you might have lost your head, lovely as it is.”
She’d been to the palace before. The first time, nearly seven years earlier, she’d thought it was a fairy tale sprung into three dimensions. She was older now, though she wasn’t sure about wiser. Cordina was a country. The palace was a building, a beautiful one. Fairy tales were for the very young, the very naive or the very fortunate.
Despite the fact that she knew the palace that housed the royal family of Cordina was stone and mortar rather than wishes and dreams, she had to admire it. It glistened white, almost pristine, atop a jagged jut of land that overlooked both sea and town. Almost pristine, yes, but not detached—and not altogether placid.
Towers speared to the sky, piercing the blue with white. Turrets and buttresses attested to its age-old defensive function. The moat had been filled in, but one could imagine it. In its place were high-tech security systems and surveillance. Windows, some clear, some tinted, gleamed. Like any palace, there had been triumph and tragedy there, intrigue and glamour. It still stunned her that she’d had some part in it.
On her first visit she had walked on a terrace with a prince and, as fate had dictated, had had some part in saving his life. Fate, Eve decided as her limo passed through the high iron gates and beyond the red-uniformed guards, was always sticking its fingers into ordinary lives.
Circumstances had led her to the tiny principality of Cordina all those years before, accompanying her sister, Chris, an old friend and schoolmate of the Princess Gabriella. If the circumstances had been different, Prince Bennett might have been with another woman on the terrace that night. She might never have met him or become a part of the closing chapters of the political intrigue that had haunted his sister and the rest of the royal family.
She might never have developed a fondness for the lovely palace in the storybook country. She might never have found herself being drawn back to it time and again. Yet this time she hadn’t been drawn back exactly. She’d been called back. Command performance. She wrinkled her nose at the thought. Wasn’t it too bad the command had to come from the one member of the royal family who annoyed her.
Prince Alexander, eldest son of the reigning monarch and heir to the throne. She watched trees heavy with pink blossoms bend in the breeze as the car cruised by. His Royal Highness Alexander Robert Armand de Cordina. She couldn’t say where she’d learned his full name or why she remembered it. To Eve, it was simply as rigid and humorless a title as the man it pertained to.
A pity he wasn’t more like his brother. Just thinking of Bennett made her smile and look forward to the visit. Bennett was charming and approachable. He didn’t wear that invisible, but somehow tangible crown every minute of the day. Alexander was like his father—duty, country, family. That didn’t leave much time for relaxation.
Well, she wasn’t here to relax, either. She was here to talk to Alexander, and to talk business. Times had changed, and she wasn’t a young, impressionable girl who could be awed by royalty or hurt by unspoken disapproval. No, Alexander was too well-bred ever to speak his disapproval, but no one Eve had ever known could convey it more clearly. If she hadn’t wanted to spend a few days in Cordina again, she would have insisted that he come to Houston. Eve preferred discussing business on her own turf and on her own terms.
With a smile she stepped from the limo. Since she’d given up the first, she’d just have to make sure she won the second. Dueling with Alexander, and winning, would certainly be a pleasure.
The palace doors opened just as she started up the wide stone steps. Eve stopped. Her dark blue eyes took on a wicked light as she dipped into a deep curtsy. “Your Highness.”
“Eve.” With a quick, pleasant laugh Bennett bounded down the steps to her.
He’d been with the horses again, she thought as his arms went around her. Their scent clung to him, earthy and real. When she’d met him seven years before, he’d been a beautiful young man with an eye for the ladies and a good time. Drawing back to look at him, she saw he was older certainly, but little else had changed.
“It’s so good to see you.” He kissed her hard, but the passion was friendship and nothing more. “Too long between visits, Eve. It’s been two years since you’ve been in Cordina.”
“I’m a working woman, Bennett.” She slid her hands down to clasp his. “How are you? If looks mean anything, you’re marvelous. And if the scandal sheets mean anything, you’re very busy.”
“All true.” He grinned and his clean-lined, almost poetic face became irresistible. “Come inside, I’ll fix you a drink. No one’s told me how long you’re staying.”
“That’s because I’m not sure myself. It depends.”
Her arm hooked through his, she entered the palace. It was cool, white and wide. Stairs swept up the side of the main hall, curling up and beyond the lofty ceiling. She’d always felt steady here, secure with the flavor of antiquity, continuity. Tapestries stretched over the walls, swords crossed with blades gleaming. A Louis XIV table held a bowl of distressed silver overflowing with jasmine.
“How was your flight?”
“Mmmm. Long.” They turned off the main hall into a parlor where the drapes were open wide and the sun spilled in. The rays had long since beaten into the upholstery and faded it comfortably. There were roses here, rising out of porcelain and crystal. Eve dropped onto a sofa and drew in the scent. “Let’s say I’m glad to be on the ground, glad to be here. Tell me how everyone is, Ben. Your sister?”
“Brie’s wonderful. She’d planned to meet you at the airport, but her youngest has the sniffles.” He chose a bottle of dry vermouth and poured it over ice. One of his greatest charms was never forgetting a woman’s preferences. “It’s still hard, after all these years, to picture my sister as a mother—especially a mother of four.”
“I’ve a letter from Chris and orders to hand-deliver it. She also wants a full report on her goddaughter.”
“Let’s see, which one is that? Ah, Camilla. I can tell you firsthand she’s a scamp. Drives her brothers mad.”
“That’s what sisters are for.” Smiling, she accepted the drink. “And Reeve?”
“He’s fine, though there’s no doubt he’d be more comfortable if they were settled year-round in America on that farm of his. They’ve done some pretty incredible things with the little farm here, but Brie’s still official hostess in Cordina. Reeve would like nothing better than for Alex to marry and shift those duties onto his wife.”
“Or you.” She sipped, watching him over the rim. “If you took the plunge, some of Brie’s responsibilities would shift.”
“I love her, but not that much.” He sprawled on the sofa, kicking his long, booted legs out.
“No truth to the rumors about Lady Alice Winthrop, then? Or was it the Honorable Jessica Mansfield most recently?”
“Lovely girls,” he said easily. “I notice you’re tactful enough not to mention the Countess Milano.”
“She’s ten years older than you.” Her tone took on that of a lecturing aunt, but she smiled. “And I’m always tactful.”
“So what about you, Eve?” When things came that close to the bone, Bennett was the master of evasion. “How does someone who looks like you manage to keep men at arm’s length?”
“Karate. Black belt, seventh degree.”
“Yes, I’d forgotten about that.”
“You shouldn’t have. I decked you twice.”
“Oh, no. It was only once.” He tossed his arm over the back of the sofa and looked as he was, arrogant, comfortable and sure of himself. “And I let you.”
“It was twice.” She sipped again. “And you were furious.”
“Luck,” he said firmly. “Added to the fact that as a gentleman, I couldn’t hurt a woman.”
“Your Highness,” she said, and smiled with him, “you stop being a gentleman the moment there’s competition. If you could have thrown me first, you would have.”
It was true enough. “Care to try it again?”
A dare was something she could never, would never be able to ignore. Eve took a last sip of vermouth and rose. “At your service.”
Bennett stood and with one foot shoved the table away from the couch. After tossing back his untidy hair with one hand, he narrowed his eyes. “Now as I recall, I was to come up from behind and grab … just here.” One tightly muscled arm hooked around her midriff. “Then I—”
The rest was cut off as she knocked his foot out from under him and sent him flat on his back. “Yes.” She brushed her palms together as she looked down at him. “That’s precisely as I remember it.”
“I wasn’t ready.” He propped himself on an elbow.
“All’s fair, Your Highness.” With a laugh she knelt beside him. “Did I hurt you?”
“Only my pride,” he muttered, and gave her hair a tug.
When Alexander walked in, he saw his brother sprawled on the Turkish carpet, his hand intimately twined in Eve’s dark fall of hair. Their faces were close, smiling, their bodies just brushing. His jaw set, then tightened.
“I apologize for interrupting.”
At his voice Bennett looked languidly over his shoulder, and Eve’s shoulders snapped straight. He looked precisely as she remembered, dark, thick hair curling down his neck and over his ears. He wasn’t smiling, though he rarely did that she’d seen, so that his face was rigidly handsome. Royalty suited him. Even as she resented it, she had to acknowledge it. He might have been one of the portraits she remembered from the palace gallery—high cheekbones well defined, the skin tanned and smooth over them. His eyes were dark, almost as dark as his hair, and as disapproving as his full, sculpted mouth, which was drawn now in a tight line. As always, he was militarily straight and impeccably dressed.
She felt mussed and travel-stained and foolish.
“Eve’s been giving me another lesson in the martial arts.” Bennett rose, then taking Eve’s hand, pulled her up beside him. “I’ve come out second best. Again.”
“So I see.” His bow was formal and just this side of polite. “Miss Hamilton.”
She curtsied, but there was no gleam of humor in her eyes this time. “Your Highness.”
“I apologize for not being able to meet you at the airport. I trust your flight was pleasant.”
“Perhaps you’d like to freshen up before we discuss the reason I sent for you.”
That brought her chin up. He’d hoped it would. Deliberately she reached down and picked up the small envelope bag she’d left on the sofa. “I’d prefer to get our business over with.”
“As you wish. We’ll go up to my office. Bennett, aren’t you speaking at the Equestrian Society today?”
“Not for a couple of hours.” He turned and gave Eve a friendly kiss on the nose, sending her a wink only she could see and appreciate. “I’ll see you at dinner. Wear something dazzling, will you?”
“Naturally.” But her smiled faded as she turned back to Alexander. “Your Highness?”
Inclining his head, he gestured her from the room.
They climbed the staircase in silence. He was angry. Eve was perceptive enough to understand that without understanding the reason for it. Though two years had passed since they’d been face-to-face, he was as stiffly disapproving of her as he’d always been. Because she was an American? she wondered. No, Reeve MacGee was an American and he had married Alexander’s sister. Because she was in the theater?
Eve’s lips curled a bit at the thought. It would be just like him. Cordina boasted one of the best theater complexes in the world in the Fine Arts Center, but Alexander could easily be disdainful of people in the theater. Tossing her head back, she entered his office just ahead of him.
“No, thank you.”
She did, but kept her back ramrod straight. His office reflected him, with its elegantly conservative style. There were no frills, no flounces. The only scents were coffee and leather. The furniture was old and glossy, the rug thick and faded with age. Tall glass doors led to a balcony, but they were closed now, as if he had no desire for the sound of the sea or the fragrance of the garden.
The signs of wealth didn’t intimidate her. She’d come from wealth and had since earned her own. It was the formality that had her sitting rigidly and waiting for the attack.
“Your sister is well?” Alexander took out a cigarette, then lifted a brow.
Eve nodded and waited as he struck a match. “She’s very well. She plans to spend some time with Gabriella’s family when they return to America. Bennett told me one of the children is ill.”
“Dorian. A head cold.” For the first time his features softened. Of all his sister’s children, it was the youngest who held the strongest grip on his heart. “He isn’t easily kept in bed.”
“I’d like to see the children before I leave. I haven’t seen any of them since Dorian was christened.”
“Two years ago.” He remembered, perhaps too well. “I’m sure we can arrange for you to visit the farm.” When her lips curved, he drew back. He was no longer indulgent uncle or casual friend, but prince. “My father’s away. He sends you his best if he hasn’t returned before you leave.”
“I read he was in Paris.”
“Yes.” He closed the door on state business without ever having opened it. “I appreciate your coming here, as it wasn’t possible for me to travel at this time. My secretary outlined my proposal?”
“Yes, he did.” Business, Eve reminded herself. The amenities, such as they were, were over. “You’d like me to bring my troupe to Cordina for a month’s run of performances at the Fine Arts Center. The performances would be for the benefit of the Aid to Handicapped Children.”
“Forgive me, Your Highness, but I was under the impression that Princess Gabriella was in charge of this particular charity.”
“She is. I am president of the Fine Arts Center. On this we work together.” It was as much explanation as he would give. “Gabriella saw your troupe perform in America and was impressed. She felt that since Cordina has such a strong bond with the United States, using American performers in our country would help bring in desperately needed funds for the AHC.”
“So this is her idea.”
“One, after long discussions and consideration, I’ve decided to agree with.”
“I see.” One rounded nail began to tap on the arm of her chair. “I take that to mean you had reservations.”
“I’ve never seen your troupe perform.” He leaned back slightly and blew out a stream of smoke. “We’ve had American entertainers at the center before, of course, but never for this length of time or as a prelude to the AHC ball.”
“Maybe you’d like us to audition.”
His lips relaxed slightly, interestingly, into a smile. “It had crossed my mind.”
“I think not.” She rose, and noted with pleasure that manners forced him to stand, as well. “The Hamilton troupe has, in less than five years, earned both critical and popular approval. We have a reputation for excellence that requires no auditions in your country or any. If I decide to bring my company here, it will be because I respect the AHC and Gabriella.”
He watched her as she spoke. She’d changed in seven years from a wide-eyed young girl into a confident woman. Yet somehow, astonishingly, she was even more beautiful. Her skin was flawless, pale, with hints of rose at the crest of her cheekbones. Her face was diamond-shaped and just as stunning as the gem, with a full rich mouth and huge poetically blue eyes. Framing it was a mane of luxuriant black hair, a bit mussed now as it tumbled to her shoulders and beyond.
r /> Temper kept her standing straight, but her body was delicate, or so it seemed. He’d wondered, he’d wondered too often, what it would feel like against his.
Even in anger her voice carried the slow Texas drawl he’d learned to recognize. It breezed soft over his skin until the muscles in his stomach contracted. Carefully, relying on the control he’d fought to develop all his life, Alexander crushed out his cigarette.
“If you’ve finished, Miss Hamilton?”
“Eve, for Lord’s sake. We’ve known each other for years.” Out of patience she stalked over to the balcony doors and shoved them open. Facing the outside, she didn’t notice Alexander’s brows raise at her breach of protocol, or the slow smile.
“Eve,” he said, then let her name hang on the air a moment. “I think we’ve misunderstood each other. I’m not criticizing your company. That would be difficult, because, as I said, I’ve never seen them perform.”
“At this rate you never will.”
“Then I’d have to deal with Brie’s temper. I prefer not to. Sit down.” When she merely turned and looked at him, he checked his impulse to command and gestured to her chair. “Please.”
She obeyed, but left the doors open. The sea could just be heard. The scent of rose, vanilla and spice wafted up from the gardens. “I’m sitting,” she said, and crossed her legs.
He disapproved of her curt, one-to-one manner. He admired her independence. At the moment Alexander wasn’t sure how the two could be mixed. He was sure that she stirred, as she always did, something more than polite emotions in him. Slowly he took his seat again and faced her.
“As a member of the royal family and as president of the Fine Arts Center, I must be very discreet and very circumspect in whom I choose to perform. In this case I’m trusting Gabriella’s judgment and asking you if we can come to an arrangement.”
“Perhaps.” Eve was a businesswoman first and last. Personal feelings had never swayed her decisions, and they wouldn’t now. “I’ll have to see the theater again, check out the facilities. I’ll have to be assured contractually that I and my company have artistic freedom—and adequate lodging during the run. Because the performances would be for a charity, I’m willing to negotiate our fee and expenses. Artistically, however, there is no negotiation.”
“I’ll see to it that you have a tour of the center. The center’s lawyers and yours can deal with the contract. Artistically …” He linked his fingers on the desk. “Because you are the artist, I’ll respect your judgment, but I’m not willing to toss myself blindly into your hands. The idea is for your company to perform four plays, one week each. The material will have to be approved by the center.”
It was a negligent, imperial shrug. “As you like.”
She didn’t like, and didn’t bother to pretend otherwise. “What are your qualifications?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What do you know about the theater? You’re a politician.” She said it with a faint, very faint, sneer of contempt. “Why should I bring my company here, thousands of miles from home, for a fraction of what we normally earn so that you can pick and choose the material we perform?”
His temper had never been easily harnessed. Through years of dedication and determination he’d learned how to channel it. He did so now without taking his eyes from hers. “Because performing at the Fine Arts Center in Cordina at the request of the royal family would be a career advantage you would be foolish to ignore.” He leaned forward. “I don’t believe you’re a foolish woman, Eve.”
“No, I’m not.” She rose again, but slowly, then waited until he stood on the other side of his desk. “I’ll see the theater first, and I’ll think about it before I ask the members of my troupe.”
“You run the company, don’t you?”
She tilted her head and a lock of hair fell over one eye. With her fingertips she drew it back. “You forget, America’s a democracy, Your Highness. I don’t hand down decrees to my people. If I find the facilities adequate and my troupe agrees, we’ll talk contracts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to unpack and change before dinner.”
“I’ll have someone show you to your rooms.”
“I know where they are.” She stopped at the door, turned and dropped an arrogant curtsy. “Your Highness.”
“Eve.” He watched her chin jut out. One day, he thought, someone was going to take her up on it. “Welcome to Cordina.”
* * *
She wasn’t a rude person. Eve assured herself of it as she chose a dress for dinner. In fact, she was considered amiable by just about everyone. True, she could get hard-nosed in business dealings, but she’d always considered that in the blood. She wasn’t rude. Except with Alexander.
He asked for it, she told herself as she zipped into a snug, strapless dress in vivid blue silk. He was so aloof and condescending. She didn’t have to tolerate that, heir to the throne or not. They were hardly playing prince and the pauper here. Her pedigree might not be royal, but it was unimpeachable.
She’d gone to the best schools. Maybe she’d hated them, but she’d gone. She’d entertained and been entertained by the rich, powerful and influential all her life. And she’d made something of herself. Not through her family, but through her own skills.