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"She's coming out of it."
"Sir, you must step back for a moment and let me examine her. She may just be drifting again."
Over the mists she was swimming in, she heard the voices. Hollow, distant. Fear scrambled through her. Even in her half-conscious state her breath began to catch. She hadn't escaped. But the fear wouldn't show. She promised herself that. As she came closer to the surface, she closed her hands into tight fists. The feel of her fingers against her palms gave her some sense of self and control.
Slowly she opened her eyes. Her vision ebbed, clouded, then gradually cleared. So, as she stared into the face bending over her, did the fear.
The face wasn't familiar. It wasn't one of them. She'd know, wouldn't she? Her confidence wavered a moment, but she remained still. This face was round and pleasant, with a trim, curling white beard that contrasted with the smooth, bald head. The eyes were shrewd, tired, but kind. When he took her hand in his, she didn't struggle.
"My dear," he said in a charming, low-key voice. Gently he ran a finger over her knuckles until her fingers relaxed. "You're quite safe."
She felt him take her pulse, but continued to stare into his eyes. Safe. Still cautious, she let her gaze wander away from his. Hospital. Though the room was almost elegant and quite large, she knew she was in a hospital. The room smelled strongly of flowers and antiseptics. Then she saw the man standing just to the side.
His bearing was militarily straight and he was impeccably dressed. His hair was flecked with gray, but it was still very dark and full. His face was lean, aristocratic, handsome. It was stern, she thought, but pale, very pale compared to the shadows under his eyes. Despite his stance and dress, he looked as though he hadn't slept in days.
"Darling." His voice shook as he reached down to take her free hand. There were tears under the words as he pressed her fingers to his lips. She thought she felt the hand, which was strong and firm, tremble lightly. "We have you back now, my love. We have you back."
She didn't pull away. Compassion forbade it. With her hand lying limply in his, she studied his face a second time. "Who are you?"
The man's head jerked up. His damp eyes stared into hers. "Who"
"You're very weak." Gently the doctor cut him off and drew her attention away. She saw him put a hand on the man's arm, in restraint or comfort, she couldn't tell. "You've been through a great deal. Confusion's natural at first."
Lying flat on her back, she watched the doctor send signals to the other man. A raw sickness began to roll inside her stomach. She was warm and dry, she realized. Warm and dry and empty. She had a body, and it was tired. But inside the body was a void. Her voice was surprisingly strong when she spoke again. Both men responded to it.
"I don't know where I am." Beneath the doctor's hand her pulse jerked once, then settled. "I don't know who I am."
"You've been through a great deal, my dear." The doctor spoke soothingly while his brain raced ahead. Specialists, he thought. If she didn't regain her memory in twenty-four hours, he'd need the best.
"You remember nothing?" The other man had straightened at her words. Now, with his ramrod stance, his sleep-starved eyes direct, he looked down at her.
Confused and fighting back fear, she started to push herself up, and the doctor murmured and settled her back against the pillows. She remembered
running, the storm, the dark. Lights coming up in front of her. Closing her eyes tight, she struggled for composure without knowing why it was so important to retain it. Her voice was still strong, but achingly hollow when she opened them again. "I don't know who I am. Tell me."
"After you've rested a bit more," the doctor began. The other man cut him off with no more than a look. And the look, she saw at a glance, was both arrogant and commanding.
"You're my daughter," he said. Taking her hand again, he held it firmly. Even the light trembling had stopped. "You are Her Serene Highness Gabriella de Cordina."
Nightmare or fairy tale? she wondered as she stared up at him. Her father? Her Serene Highness? Cordina
She thought she recognized the name and clung to it, but what was this talk of royalty? Even as she began to dismiss it, she watched his face. This man wouldn't lie. His face was passive, but his eyes were so full of emotion she was drawn to them even without memory.
"If I'm a princess," she began, and the dry reserve in her voice caused a flicker of emotion to pass over his face briefly. Amusement? she wondered. "Does that make you a king?"
He nearly smiled. Perhaps the trauma had confused her memory, but she was still his Brie. "Cordina is a principality. I am Prince Armand. You're my eldest child. You have two brothers, Alexander and Bennett."
Father and brothers. Family, roots. Nothing stirred. "And my mother?"
This time she read the expression easily: pain. "She died when you were twenty. Since then you've been my official hostess, taking on her duties along with your own. Brie." His tone softened from the formal and dispassionate. "We call you 'Brie.'" He turned her hand up so that the cluster of sapphires and diamonds on her right hand glimmered toward her. "I gave you this on your twenty-first birthday, nearly four years ago."
She looked at it, and at the strong, beautiful hand that held hers. She remembered nothing. But she felttrust. When she lifted her eyes again, she managed a half smile. "You have excellent taste, Your Highness."
He smiled, but she thought he was perilously close to weeping. As close as she. "Please," she began for both their sakes. "I'm very tired."
"Yes, indeed." The doctor patted her hand as he had, though she didn't know it, since the day she'd been born. "For now, rest is the very best medicine."
Reluctantly Prince Armand released his daughter's hand. "I'll be close."
Her strength was already beginning to ebb. "Thank you." She heard the door close, but sensed the doctor hovering. "Am I who he says I am?"
"No one knows better than I." He touched her cheek, more from affection than the need to check her temperature. "I delivered you. Twenty-five years ago in July. Rest now, Your Highness. Just rest."
Prince Armand strode down the corridor in his quick, trained gait, as a member of the Royal Guard followed two paces behind. He wanted to be alone. God, how he wanted five minutes to himself in some closed-off room. There he could let go of some of the tension, some of the emotion that pulled at him. His daughter, his treasure, had nearly been lost to him. Now that he had her back, she looked at him as though he were a stranger.
When he found whoArmand dismissed the thought. It was for later. He promised himself that.
In the spacious, sun-splashed waiting room were three more Royal Guards and several members of Cordina's police department. Pacing, smoking, was his son and heir, Alexander. He had his father's dark, clean-lined looks and military bearing. He did not, as yet, have his father's meticulous control.
Like a volcano, Armand thought, looking at the twenty-three-year-old prince, that simmers and bubbles, but doesn't quite erupt.
Sprawled across a plush, rose-colored sofa was Bennett. At twenty he threatened to become the newest playboy prince. Though he, too, was dark, his looks reflected the heartbreaking beauty of his mother. Though he was often reckless, too often indiscreet, he had an unflagging compassion and kindness that endeared him to his subjects and the press. As well as the female population of Europe, Armand thought wryly.
Beside Bennett was the American who was there at Ar-mand's request. Both princes were too wrapped in their own thoughts to notice their father's presence. The American missed nothing. That's why Armand had sent for him.
Reeve MacGee sat silently for a moment, watching the prince take in the scene. He was holding up well, Reeve thought, but, then, he'd expected no less. He'd only met Cordina's ruler a handful of times, but Reeve's father had been at Oxford with him, where a friendship and mutual respect had been established that had lasted through the years and over the distances.
Armand had gone on to become the ruler of a small, charming country snuggled on the Mediterranean. Reeve's father had become a diplomat. Though he'd grown up with politics and protocol, Reeve had chosen a more behind-the-scenes career for himself. Undercover.
After ten years of dealing with the less elite portion of the nation's capital, Reeve had turned in his badge and started his own private business. There'd come a time in his life when he'd grown tired of following other people's rules. His own were often even more strict, more unbending, but they were his own. The experience he'd gained in Homicide, and then in Special Services had taught him to trust his own instincts first.
He'd been born wealthy. He'd added to his wealth through his own skill. Once he'd looked at his profession as a means of income and a means of excitement. Reeve no longer worked for money. He took few jobs, a select few. If, and only if, something intrigued him, he accepted the client and the responsibility. To the outside world, and often to himself, he was only a farmer, a novice at that. Less than a year before, he'd bought a farm with thoughts, dreams, perhaps, of retiring there. It was, for him, an answer. Ten years of dealing with good and bad, law and disorder on a daily basis had been enough.
Telling himself he'd paid his dues, he'd dropped out of public service. A private detective could pick and choose his clients. He could work at his own pace, name his own fee. If a job led him into danger, he could deal with it in his own fashion. Still, during this past year he'd taken on fewer and fewer of his private cases. He was easing himself out. If he'd had qualms, no one knew of them but himself. The farm was a chance for a different kind of life. One day, he'd promised himself, it would be his whole life. He'd postponed his first shot at spring planting to answer Armand's request.
He looked more like a soldier than a farmer. When he rose at Armand's entrance, his long, rangy body moved subtly, muscle by muscle. The neat linen jacket was worn over a plain T-shirt and trim slacks, but he could give them the air of formality or casualness as he chose. He was the kind of man whose clothes, no matter how attractive, were noticed only after he was. His face drew the attention first, perhaps because of the smooth good looks he'd inherited from his Scotch-Irish ancestors. His skin would have been pale if he hadn't spent so much time out of doors. His dark hair was cut well, but insisted on falling over his brow. His mouth was wide and tended to look serious.
His bone structure was excellent and his eyes were the charming, sizzling blue of the Black Irish. He'd used them to charm when it suited him, just as he'd used them to intimidate.
His stance was less rigid than the prince's, but no less watchful. "Your Highness."
At Reeve's words, both Alexander and Bennett sprang to attention. "Brie?" they asked together, but while Bennett was already beside his father, Alexander stood where he was. He crushed out his cigarette in an ashtray. Reeve watched it snap in two.
"She was conscious," Armand said briefly. "I was able to speak with her."
"How does she feel?" Bennett looked at his father with dark, concerned eyes. "When can we see her?"
"She's very tired," Armand said, touching his son's arm only lightly. "Perhaps tomorrow."
Still at the window, Alexander smoldered. "Does she know who"
"That's for later," his father cut him off.
Alexander might have said more, but his upbringing had been too formal. He knew the rules and the restrictions that went with his title. "We'll take her home soon," he said quietly, coming very close to challenging his father. He cast a quick look around at the guards and police. Gabriella might be protected here, but he wanted her home.
"As soon as possible."
"She may be tired," Bennett began, "but she'll want to see a familiar face later on. Alex and I can wait."
A familiar face. Armand looked beyond his son to the window. There were no familiar faces for his Brie. He'd explain to them, but later, in private. For now, he could only be the prince. "You may go." His words took in both his sons. "Tomorrow she'll be more rested. Now I need a word with Reeve." He dismissed his sons without a gesture. When they hesitated, he lifted a brow. It was not, as it could have been, done with heat.
"Is she in pain?" Alexander blurted out.
Armand's look softened. Only someone who knew him well would have seen it. "No. I promise you. Soon," he added when Alexander remained unsatisfied, "you'll see for yourself. Gabriella is strong." It was said with a simplicity that was filled with pride.
With a nod, Alexander accepted. What else he had to say would have to wait for a private moment. He walked out with his brother, flanked by guards.
Armand watched his sons, then turned to Reeve. "Please," he began, and gestured. "We'll use Dr. Franco's office for a moment." He moved across the corridor and down as though he didn't notice the guards. Reeve did. He felt them close and tense. A royal kidnapping, he mused, tended to make people nervous. Armand opened a door, waited until Reeve was inside, then closed it again.
"Sit, please," he invited. "I can't just yet." Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a dark-brown cigarette, one of the ten he permitted himself daily. Before he could do so himself, Reeve lit it and waited. "I'm grateful you came, Reeve. I haven't had the opportunity to tell you how I appreciate it."
"There's no need to thank me, Your Highness. I haven't done anything yet."
Armand blew out smoke. He could relax, just a little, in front of the son of his friend. "You think I'm too hard on my sons."
"I think you know your sons better than I."
Armand gave a half laugh and sat. "You have your father's diplomatic tongue."
"You have, also, if I see clearly, his clear and clever mind."