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Skin Deep, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  "And you're such a cad," Chantel reminded Sean.

  Pleased to remember it, Sean brought her up again. "I haven't played a real cad in about five years. I don't think I've properly thanked the writer yet."

  "You can do it later today," Rothschild told him. "He's over there."

  Chantel glanced over to the tall, rangy man who stood, chain-smoking nervously, on the edge of the set. She'd met him a handful of times in meetings and during preproduction. As she recalled, he had said little that hadn't dealt directly with his book or his characters. She sent him a vaguely friendly smile before turning back to the director.

  As Rothschild outlined the scene, she pushed everything else out of her mind. All that would be left was the heartbreak and hope her character felt as her lover slipped away. Mechanically, their minds on angles and continuity, she and Sean went over their brief but poignant love scene.

  "I think I should touch your face like this." Chantel reached up to rest her palm on his cheek and looked pleadingly into his eyes.

  "Then I'll take your wrist." Sean wrapped his fingers around it, then turned her palm to his lips.

  "I'll wait for you and so forth." Chantel skipped over the lines as one of the crew dropped a barn door into place with a clatter. She gave a small, broken sigh and pressed her cheek to his. "Then I'll start to bring my arms up."

  "Let's try this." Sean took her shoulders, held her for a moment while they stared at each other, then placed two nibbling kisses on either side of her mouth.

  "Oh, Brad, please don't go… Then I kiss you until your teeth rattle."

  Sean grinned. "I'm looking forward to it."

  "Let's run through it." Rothschild held up a hand. Women directors were still the exception to the rule. She couldn't afford to give herself, or anyone else, an inch. "I want a lot of steam when you get to the kiss," she told both of them. "Keep the tears coming, Chantel. Remember, deep in your heart you know he's not coming back."

  "I really am a cad," Sean said pleasantly.

  "Places." Extras scrambled to their marks. A few members of the camera crew broke off making plans for a poker game. "Quiet on the set." Rothschild moved over, too, until she had the best angle for Chantel's entrance. "Action."

  Chantel dashed out on the platform, looking around frantically while groups of people milled around her. It all showed on her face, the desperation, the last flames of hope, the dream that wasn't ready to die. There would be a thunderstorm brewing, thanks to special effects. Lightning flashing, thunder rolling. Then she spotted Brad. She called out his name, pushing her way through the crowd until she was with him.

  They rehearsed the scene three times before Rothschild was satisfied enough to roll film. Chantel's makeup and hair were freshened. When the clapper came down, she was ready.

  Throughout the morning they perfected the first part of the scene, her search, the impatience and rush of the crowd, her meeting with Brad. Take after take she repeated the same moves, the same words, at times with the camera no more than a foot away.

  On the sixth take, Rothschild finally gave the signal for the rain. The sprinklers sent down a drizzle that misted over her as she stood facing Brad. Her eyes filled and her voice trembled as she begged him not to leave. Wet and cold, they continued to go over what would be five minutes on the screen until lunch break.

  In her dressing room, Chantel stripped out of Hailey's clothes and handed them to the wardrobe mistress so that they could be dried. Her hair would be styled again, then soaked again, before she could call it a day.

  The roses were gone, but she thought she could still smell them. When Larry came to the door to tell her that the reporter had arrived, she asked him to give her five minutes, then send him along.

  She'd put it off too long, she told herself as she picked up the phone. It wasn't going to stop, and she'd reached the point where she could no longer ignore it.

  "The Burns Agency."

  "I need to speak to Matt."

  "I'm sorry, Mr. Burns is in a meeting. May I—"

  "This is Chantel O'Hurley. I have to speak to Matt now."

  "Of course, Miss O'Hurley."

  Chantel couldn't resist a slight smirk at how quickly the receptionist had changed her tune. Searching a drawer for the pack of cigarettes she kept for emergencies, she waited for Matt to come on the line.

  "Chantel, what's up?"

  "I need to see you. Tonight."

  "Well, sweetheart, I'm kind of tied up. Why don't we make it tomorrow?"

  "Tonight." Some of the panic fought its way through. Chantel lighted the cigarette and drew deeply. "It's important. I need help." She let the smoke out in a slow stream. "I really need your help, Matt."

  Because he'd never heard fear in her voice before, he didn't question her. "I'll come by, what… eight?"

  "Yes, yes, that's fine. I appreciate it."

  "Can you tell me what it's about?"

  "I can't. Not over the phone, not now." She was calming again, just knowing she was about to take a step seemed to help.

  "Whatever you say. I'll be there tonight."

  "Thanks." She hung up the phone just as the knock came at her door. Chantel carefully stubbed out her cigarette, tossed her still-damp hair back and ushered the reporter in with a gracious smile.

  "Why in the hell didn't you tell me about this before?" Matt Burns paced around Chantel's spacious living room with an unfamiliar feeling of helplessness.

  In twelve years he'd scrambled his way up from mail clerk to assistant to top theatrical agent. He hadn't gotten there by not knowing what to do in any given situation. Now he had a hornet's nest on his hands, and he wasn't sure which way to toss it. "Damn it, Chantel, how long has this been going on?"

  "The first phone call came about six weeks ago." Chantel sat on a low oyster-colored sofa and nursed a glass of mineral water. Like Matt, she didn't like the feeling of helplessness. She disliked having to ask someone else to do something about a problem of hers even more. "Look, Matt, the first couple of calls, the first couple of letters, seemed harmless." Ice clinked in her glass as she set it down, then picked it up again. "With my face plastered all over magazines and all over the screen, obviously I'll attract attention. Not all of it's healthy. I figured if I ignored it it would stop."

  "But it didn't."

  "No." She looked down at her glass, remembering the words printed on the card. I'm watching you always. Always. "No, it got worse." She shrugged, trying to pretend to herself, and to him, that it wasn't as bad as it sounded. "I had my number changed, and for a while it worked."

  "You should have told me."

  "You're my agent, not my mother."

  "I'm your friend," he reminded her.

  "I know." She held out a hand. Real friendships were few and far between in the world she'd chosen. "That's why I called you before I went off the deep end. I'm not a hysterical woman."

  He laughed, then released her hand to pour himself another drink. "Anything but."

  "When those roses—Well, I knew I had to do something, but I didn't know what."

  "The what is to call the police."

  "Absolutely not." She lifted a finger when he started to object. "Matt, I imagine you can write the scenario as easily as I can. We call the police, then the press gets hold of it. Headline: Chantel O'Hurley Haunted by Twisted Admirer. Whispered Phone Calls. Desperate Love Letters." She pulled a hand through her hair. "We might be able to laugh that off, even use it to a point, but it wouldn't be long before a few more unbalanced personalities decided to write me some fan letters. Or camp out at the front gate. I don't think I can handle more than one at a time."

  "What if he's violent?"

  "Don't you think I've thought of that?" She plucked one of his French cigarettes from his pocket and waited for him to light it. "You need protection."

  "Maybe I do." She took a quick, hurried drag. "Maybe I'm just about ready to admit that, but I'm in the middle of a film. You bring cops on the set and people wouldn't
stop talking."

  "Since when has gossip worried you?"

  "Never." She managed an easy smile. "Except when it's about something really personal. My, ah… extraordinary love affairs and hedonistic life-style are one thing. My life, as it really is, is quite another. No police, Matt, at least not yet. I need another alternative."

  He took the cigarette from her and inhaled thoughtfully. Chantel's first job on the screen had been negotiated by him. He'd seen her through everything from shampoo commercials to feature films, and it was rare, very rare, for her to ask for help with something personal. In all the years he had known her, even Matt had seldom gotten beneath the image of the woman they had both manufactured.

  "I think I have one. Trust me?"

  "Haven't I always?"

  "Sit tight. I'm going to make a call."

  Chantel settled back and closed her eyes when Matt left the room. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe she was being foolishly jumpy about a fan who'd taken admiration just a few steps too far.

  I'm watching you… watching you…

  No. Unable to sit, Chantel sprang up to pace around the room. She enjoyed being watched—on the screen. She could accept being photographed whenever she swept in or out of a club, whenever she attended a party or a premiere. But this was… frightening, she admitted. As if someone were just outside the windows, looking in. The thought made her glance nervously over her shoulder. Of course there was no one there. She had the electronic gate, the walls, the security. But she couldn't stay locked in her house twenty-four hours a day.

  She stopped by the antique mirror above the white marble fireplace. There was the face she was familiar with, the face critics had called devastating, incomparable, even heartlessly beautiful. A lucky accident, she sometimes thought, the combination of pearly skin, Nordic blue eyes and ice-sharp cheekbones. She'd done nothing to earn the face, the classic oval shape of it, the full, lush mouth or the thick mane of angel-blond hair. She'd been born with that, but she'd worked for the rest. And worked hard.

  She'd been performing since she could walk, traveling endlessly around the country with her family in clubs and regional theater. She'd paid her dues long before she had come to Hollywood at nineteen, not starry-eyed but determined. In the years that had passed, she had won roles and lost them, had hawked shampoo and sold gallons of perfume in unapologetically sexy, often silly commercials. When her first break had come she'd been ready, more than ready, to play the soulless man-eater who stayed on screen less than twenty minutes. She'd stolen that movie from a pair of veterans and had gone on to star in one of her own. There'd been no looking back.

  That first break had brought her the stardom she had always craved. And had, indirectly, nearly destroyed her life.

  Yet, she'd survived, Chantel reminded herself as she faced her own reflection. She hadn't allowed what had happened all those years ago to ruin her. She refused to allow what was happening now to ruin her, either.

  "He's coming right over."

  She turned away from the mirror as Matt strode into the room again. "What?"

  "I said he's coming right over. Let me fix you a real drink."

  "No, I have to be on the set at six-thirty. Who's coming right over?"

  "Quinn Doran. He might just be the answer, and since we go back a ways, I was able to… persuade him to think about it."

  Chantel stuck her hands in the pockets of her white satin loungers. "Who is Quinn Doran?"

  "He's sort of a private investigator."

  "Sort of?"

  "He runs a security business… corporate, small business, whatever. At one time he worked in some sort of covert operation. Might have been for our government, but I couldn't swear to it."

  "Sounds fascinating, but I don't think I want a spy, Matt. A three-hundred-pound wrestler might be more appealing."

  "And obvious," he reminded her. "You could hire yourself a couple of bruisers for bodyguards, sweetheart, but what you want here is brains—and discretion. That's Quinn." He finished off his drink and contemplated having another. "He doesn't do much of the legwork himself now. He has plenty of operatives or whatever they're called to handle that. Keeps himself available as a troubleshooter. But in this case I want you to have the best."

  "And that's Quinn," Chantel mimicked, dropping onto the arm of the sofa. "What's he supposed to do?"

  "I don't have any idea. That's why I called him. He's a moody bastard," he said reminiscently. "Not too, well… polished, but I'd trust him with my life."

  "Or, in this case, mine."

  Matt's expression changed immediately. "Chantel, if you're really that worried—"

  "No, no." With a wave of her hand, she brushed off his concern. "I have the feeling that this Quinn Doran of yours is likely to listen to what I have to say, roll his eyes and give me a lecture on how to handle the obscene phone caller. I don't like him already."

  "You're just nervous." Matt patted her knee as he crossed to the bar. "You're allowed to be nervous, Chantel."

  "No, I'm not." She smiled, determined to lighten her own mood. "Nerves don't fit the image. It's an image you helped me mold."

  "You didn't need any help with that." With a smile for her, he turned back and studied the flow of white satin that suited her so well. "You were born with the talent. I just helped you expand it."

  She tilted her head and gave him a long, luxurious smile. "How'd we do?"

  "I'll say this, no one looking at you today would think that you'd once mended your panty hose."

  She laughed and slid down on the sofa. "You're so good for me, Matt."

  "I've been telling you that for years. There's the bell. I'll get it."

  Chantel picked up her warming mineral water and swirled it. If Matt thought Quinn Doran was an answer, she'd have to take his word for it. But it galled her, it galled her right down to the ground, to tell her personal problems to a stranger.

  Then the stranger walked in.

  If she had had to cast someone in the roll of a spy, a private investigator or an alley fighter, her choice would have been Quinn Doran. He filled the archway to her living room, inches taller than Matt, inches broader in the shoulders, yet with a wiry leanness that made her think he could move fast and move well. The quick flutter of feminine approval she accepted as natural even before she looked at his face. Then she thought it unnatural.

  He wasn't leading-man handsome, but he had tough go-to-hell looks that would make any woman's pulse uneven. Dark, thick hair curled over his ears and trailed over the collar of a denim work shirt. His skin was tanned and taut over strong facial bones, and the pale shade of his eyes seemed almost startlingly cool. His lashes were too long, too thick for a man, but they were anything but feminine. There was nothing about him that wasn't totally masculine. When he walked, he walked with the soft, measured stride of a man who knew how to stalk. His mouth turned up slightly as he crossed to her, but Chantel didn't see humor or appreciation in his eyes. She saw, recognized and stiffened against derision.

  "So this is the ice palace," he said in a surprisingly beautiful voice. "And the queen."

  Chapter Two

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  He'd seen her before, of course. On the screen she looked larger than life, indomitable, untouchable. The face, almost mystically perfect, could rule a man's fantasies. A facade. Quinn understood facades, how they could be formed, altered or hacked away as circumstances demanded. He wondered, as with a casual glance he took in everything about her, how much substance there was beneath that silk-and-satin exterior.

  Matt had known Quinn too long to be disturbed by his cavalier attitude. "Chantel, Quinn Doran."

  Satin slid over satin as she crossed her legs. With a lazy kind of grace, she offered her hand. "Charming," she murmured, stiffening as his fingers curled firmly over hers. He didn't shake her hand, nor did he bring it to his lips in the casual European gesture she suddenly felt he was capable of. He just held it while his pale green eyes held hers. Her skin was l
ike the satin she wore, smooth, fragrant and coolly feminine. His was hard, unyielding and darkened by the sun. They froze for a moment, her on the sofa, him on his feet, with their hands still locked. Chantel had been in combat with men before, and only once had she lost. She understood that the glove had been tossed down, and she accepted the challenge.

  "Is it still vodka rocks?" Matt asked Quinn as he turned to the bar.

  "Yeah." With a slight inclination of his head, Quinn indicated that he knew the game was on. He relaxed his fingers slowly to let her hand slide from his. "Matt tells me you have a problem."

  "Apparently I do." Chantel plucked a cigarette from a porcelain holder on the table, then lifted a brow. When Quinn drew a lighter out of his pocket and flicked it on, she smiled and leaned a bit closer. "I'm afraid I don't know if you're the man to deal with it—" her gaze lifted and held his before she leaned back again "—Mr. Doran."

  "I'm inclined to agree with you… Miss O'Hurley." For the second time their gazes locked, and something not entirely pleasant hummed between them. "But since I'm here, why don't you tell me about it?" Quinn accepted the glass from Matt, then shot him a look before he could speak. "Why don't we let Miss O'Hurley fill me in, since it's her problem?"

  As an agent, Matt knew when to negotiate and when to back off. "Fine, I'll just fill my mouth with a few of these canapés." He sat, leaving them to each other.

  "I've been getting some annoying phone calls." She said it casually, but the tension showed briefly in the way her fingers curled and uncurled. Quinn was used to picking up on small details. At the moment he noticed that her hands were quite small and narrow, with long fingers, the rounded tips painted with clear lacquer. The fingers themselves were never quite still.

  "Phone calls?"

  "And letters." She moved her shoulders and the satin whispered quietly. "It started about six weeks ago."

  "Obscene phone calls?"

  Chantel lifted her chin, unable to resist the urge to look down her small, straight nose. "I suppose that would depend on your definition of obscene. Yours might be quite different than mine."

  Humor touched his eyes and made them strangely appealing. She wondered fleetingly how many woman had stepped into his lion's den and been devoured. "I'm sure it is. Go on."

  "At first—at first you could say I was almost amused. It seemed harmless enough, though annoying. Then…" She moistened her lips and brought the cigarette to them. "Then he became a bit bolder, more explicit. It made me uneasy."

  "You should change your number."

  "I've done that. The phone calls stopped for about a week. They started again today."

  As he leaned back, Quinn sampled the vodka. Like her, it was a quality brand. "You recognize the voice?"

  "No, he whispers."

  "You could change your number again." The ice clinked in his glass as he shrugged. "Or have the police put a tap on it."

  "I'm tired of changing my number." With quick impatience, she stubbed out the cigarette. "And I don't want the police. I prefer to keep this discreet. Matt seems to think you're the answer to that."

  Quinn drank again. The room was done in different shades of white, but it wasn't virginal. The very absence of color, with her at the center, was outrageously alluring. He was sure she knew it. In every one of her films she had acted the role of a woman who deliberately played on a man's needs, his weaknesses, his most private dreams. Quinn could drum up little sympathy for a woman who deliberately projected an image designed to arouse men, then complained about a few harmless phone calls.

  "Miss O'Hurley, you're probably aware that men who make these kind of calls don't do anything but talk. I'd suggest you change your number again, then have one of your servants answer the phone for a while, until he gets tired of it."

  "Quinn." Matt swirled his own drink. He had a habit of keeping in motion when under pressure, his hands, his feet. Now, he cleared his throat and tried to settle. "That's not much help."

  "She can hire a bodyguard if it makes her feel better. Her security here could certainly be tightened."

  "Maybe I need barbed wire, vicious guard dogs," Chantel interjected, and rose.

  "That's the price you pay," Quinn told her coolly, "for being what you are."

  "What I am?" Her eyes, already a vivid, searing blue, sharpened. "Oh, I see.