Skin deep, p.10
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       Skin Deep, p.10

         Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  "Are you sure you've told Quinn everything you know?"

  "What I don't tell him, he finds out." Nerves had her swirling the brandy around and around in her glass but not drinking. "He's running investigations on everyone I know."

  "Well, that—"

  "Including you."

  He stopped to stare at her. With a grimace, he stuck his hands in his pockets and nervously pulled out his lighter. "He's thorough, anyway."

  "I don't like it, Matt." For the first time, real emotion came into her voice, into her eyes. "I feel… I don't know, sleazy when I think of him poking into the keyholes of people's lives, and on my account."

  Not quite comfortable, Matt slipped an arm around her shoulder. "Look, baby, if rattling a few skeletons in my closet helps get to the bottom of this thing, then it's worth it." He was silent a moment, then cleared his throat. "So, what did he find out?"

  "About you?"

  "That's a good place to start."

  "I don't know." Letting out a long breath, she leaned her head on his shoulder. The sun had disappeared completely, leaving only a hint of color streaking the clouds. "I told him I didn't want to know, Matt. He started to give me reports on people like Larry and James Brewster, and I hated it." She could still remember his cool disapproval of her cowardice. Chantel gritted her teeth against the memory. "We agreed that I'd take the precautions he'd outlined, and that he'd keep what information he had to himself."

  With one hand he flicked on the silver monogrammed lighter he'd been toying with. "That's burying your head in the sand, Chantel."

  "I don't care."

  "Listen, there's no one, certainly no one who's made it past twenty, who hasn't done something they're ashamed of, something they'd prefer to keep covered." He shifted but made himself speak matter-of-factly. "Quinn's got a right to investigate, and because of who he is, nothing he finds out would go any farther."

  "Thanks for the vote of confidence." Quinn paused in the doorway and studied them. Matt still had his arm around her. Chantel's head rested on his shoulder as the dim light through the window behind them settled over her hair. She looked comfortable with him, Quinn realized with a twinge of resentment. She looked as though she'd be content to snuggle up against him and sit for hours.

  "I'm the one who recommended you," Matt said easily. "I'd hate to say I'd made a mistake."

  "You didn't." Quinn crossed to the bar to pour himself a double shot of brandy. "How've you been, Matt? I thought we'd be seeing more of you."

  "I've been tied up."

  Sensing the restraint between them, Chantel took a step forward. "Just stop it," she told Quinn. "Don't start on him."

  "You're telling me how to do my job again, angel."

  "I'm not going to allow you to use your third degree on my friends."

  Quinn tossed back his brandy. "Too bad I left my rubber hose upstairs."

  "Why don't we sit down?" Matt put a hand on Chantel's shoulder. "I appreciate it, babe, but it isn't necessary." His gaze locked with Quinn's. "I guess when I told Chantel to hire you I should have figured you'd dig it up."

  Quinn met the look, but there was nothing to show his feelings. "Yeah, you should have."

  "Dig what up?" she demanded.

  Quinn lifted his glass in a half salute. "Maybe you'd like to tell her yourself."

  "Yes, I would. Sit down, Chantel." When she only looked at him, Matt squeezed her shoulder. "Please, sit down."

  She felt the now-familiar churning in her stomach as she chose a chair. "All right, I'm sitting."

  "A few years back, almost ten now, I ran into some financial problems." He retrieved his brandy and took a deep swallow.

  "Matt, you don't have to tell me about this."

  "Yes, I do." He looked back at Quinn. "I want you to hear it from me.'' He held up a hand before she could protest again. "Just hear me out. When I'm finished maybe I won't feel as though the blade's about to fall on my neck."

  "All right," she said evenly, but her left hand moved restlessly on the arm of her chair.

  "Gambling," he said with a hint of fear in his voice.

  "Matt, that's absurd." She nearly laughed. "You won't even play gin for matchsticks."

  "That's now. This was then. I couldn't keep away from the horses." With a self-mocking smile, he looked back at her. "It's a fever, and mine ran pretty hot until I'd dropped more than I could afford. I was desperate. I'd borrowed money from a certain group of people—the kind who break small bones in your body if they don't get their weekly payment."

  "Oh, Matt."

  "I needed ten thousand I didn't have. I forged a check. A client's check." He closed his eyes before he took another swallow. Chantel sat in silence. "Of course, it didn't take long for it to come to light. My client didn't want the publicity, so he didn't press charges. I mortgaged my soul, then hocked the rest to pay him back. You could call it a turning point in my life." This time he laughed, but there was no humor in it. "My career was on the line, so I took a good hard look at myself. Because what I saw left me pretty shaken, I checked into an organization for obsessive gamblers. It's been nearly eight years since I've been to the track. Even though gambling nearly ruined my life, I have to fight the urge every day to place just one bet." He set down his glass and looked at her. "If you want another agent, I'll understand."

  She rose slowly and walked to him. Without a word, she put her arms around him and gathered him close. Over his shoulder she sent Quinn a long, neutral look. "I don't want another agent. You know I insist on the best."

  With a muffled laugh, he pressed a kiss to her brow. "You're a special lady."

  "Someone's always telling me that."

  He gripped her fingers hard, and she felt how damp his palms were. "I wouldn't let you down, Chantel."

  "I know."

  He kissed her again before he drew away. "I've got to get going. You'll call if there's anything I can do?"

  "Of course."

  He turned to Quinn. For a moment the men studied each other across the room. If there was regret on either side, they didn't show it. "Take care of her."

  "I intend to."

  With a brief nod, Matt let himself out.

  Chantel turned on Quinn immediately. "How could you? How could you humiliate him that way?"

  "It was necessary." But necessary or not, it left a foul taste in his mouth. Quinn poured another brandy, knowing that taste wouldn't be so easily washed away.

  "Necessary? Why? What does a gambling debt nearly ten years ago have to do with what's happening to me now?"

  "If a man can develop one obsession, he can develop another."

  "That's ridiculous."

  "No, that's a fact."

  A quiver ran through her, not of fear but of anger. "Matt Burns has never attempted to be anything to me other than my agent and my friend. And he's had abundant opportunity."

  "Would you have let him?"

  Chantel took a cigarette, then flicked the table lighter three times before she managed to get it to flame. "What does that have to do with it?"

  He came closer, curling his hand firmly around her arm. "Would you?"

  "No." Tossing her head, she blew out smoke. "No."

  "And he knows it." When she jerked her arm away, he watched her pace the room. "You're good with scenarios. Try this one. The man works with you for years, he watches you soar straight to the top. He's helped you, layer by layer, to build that illusion of cool, ice-hard sexuality. Maybe he wants what he helped to create."

  A shiver ran down her spine, but her eyes were calm and level when she turned to him. "It doesn't play, Doran."

  "It plays as well as anything else."

  "No, it doesn't." The fear was back. She fought hard to keep it from showing. "Why wouldn't a man I know, a man I'm close to, just approach me openly?"

  "Because he's a man you know, a man you're close to," Quinn countered. "He knows he doesn't have a chance with you on that level."

  Impatient, she stubbed the c
igarette out. "How would he know if he's never asked?"

  Quinn put a hand to her cheek to stop her nervous pacing. "Don't you think a man knows when a woman's interested?" Running a thumb down her jaw, he brought her an inch closer. It was there, as it had been from the first, humming between them. She felt it, damn it, he knew she felt it, even though she refused to show that she did. "Don't you think he can look at a woman, see the way she looks at him, and know if they're going to be lovers?"

  She put a hand to his wrist and carefully drew his away. Her skin felt as though it would stay warm for hours. "I'm tired," she told him. "I'm going to bed."

  When he was alone, the brandy tempted him. Because it seemed too easy a way out, he turned his back on it. He went outside to walk the grounds.

  Chantel was finding sleep harder and harder to come by. In the late hours she would toss and turn, then fall into a light doze, only to awake again, nervous and groggy, to toss and turn some more. Several times she had been tempted to give in and get a prescription for sleeping pills. Each time she remembered her promise never to tranquilize herself against pressure, personal or professional.

  She thought of Matt, of the self-disgust and apology in his voice as he'd told her something she had no business knowing.

  She thought of Quinn, firm and unyielding but offering Matt the chance to explain for himself.

  Oddly enough, she thought of her brother and an argument they'd had when she'd been a teenager. Trace had threatened to knock some boy's block off if he got too familiar with her. Chantel remembered being furious at him for interfering, and telling everyone she could handle things.

  Why wasn't she in control now?

  She always had been. Even Trace had known then she hadn't needed him to stand up for her. Perhaps because she'd been one of three in the womb, she'd been born ready to handle her own problems. She'd faced tragedy, personal loss and disillusionment but had always managed to fight her way back. She wasn't fighting now, and she should be. It had never been necessary for her to look to a man for protection, and yet…

  Then she thought of Quinn again and his promise to protect her. She wanted to believe him. When he was there, right beside her, she did.

  But it was the middle of the night, and her brain was hazy. She only wanted to sleep. The sheets twisted around her as she turned again and finally drifted off.

  When the phone rang, she groped for it. Half dreaming, she thought it was her mother calling to scold her for being late for rehearsal. "Yes," she mumbled into the receiver. "Yes, I'm coming."

  "I can't sleep. I can't sleep for thinking of you."

  The whisper had a low, desperate edge to it that shocked Chantel fully awake.

  "You have to stop this."

  "But I can't. I've tried, but I can't. Don't you know what you do to me? Every time I see you, every time Pro near you, I—"

  "No!" she shouted into the phone. Then, to her disgust, she began to weep. "Please leave me alone. Please. I don't want to hear any more."

  But she could hear him as she turned her face into the pillow. She could hear him still as she fumbled to hang up the phone. Even when she had the receiver cradled, she could hear his voice echoing in her head. Chantel curled into a ball and let the tears come.

  Quinn was staring out his window when the phone rang. Cursing, he dashed across the room, hoping to get to it before it awakened Chantel. But the whispering had already started. For a moment he thought he recognized something—a speech pattern, accent, or turn of phrase. He tried to focus on it, block out the words themselves and Chantel's terror. Then his mouth tightened to a grim line as he heard Chantel plead, then begin to cry. He heard her hang up, then heard a man sobbing before the connection was broken.

  After slamming down the receiver, Quinn plunged his hands into his pockets, his fingers balling into fists. He'd lost something, maybe something vital because his concentration and his objectivity had been broken when she'd begun to cry.

  The woman was making him soft. He couldn't allow it. Wouldn't allow it. He had to leave her alone. She'd want to be alone, he told himself. She wouldn't like to have him see her now that she'd lost control. A woman like Chantel would shed her tears in private. Even if she looked for consolation, the last person she'd want it from was him. Struggling against an overpowering sense of rage and helplessness, he stalked back to the window.

  She'd sounded so frightened.

  He couldn't leave her alone now. Not now, he thought as he pounded his clenched hand lightly against the windowsill. She might want to be alone, but she needed to be with him. He only hoped he could figure out what to do once he was with her.

  There were a few slashes of moonlight coming through her windows. They turned everything to silver. He came in quietly, hoping she'd fallen asleep again and that he could just check on her, maybe sit with her awhile without her being aware of it. If she knew how badly he wanted to be with her, protect her—damn it, cherish her—wouldn't that give her all the more reason to push him aside?

  He'd never had to use caution with a woman before. Because, he was forced to admit, no woman had really mattered until her. And she mattered too much.

  She wasn't asleep. Quinn could hear her muffled weeping as he crossed to the bed. He stopped where he was, terrified by the small, helpless sound. He knew how a grenade sounded when it exploded in the dirt and sent shrapnel hurtling through the air. He'd heard the horrific noise of gunfire and the unspeakable sound of a bullet striking flesh. Those were things he'd faced with more confidence than he faced Chantel's quiet sobbing with now.

  If she had been angry, he could have played on it. If she had merely been frightened, he could have insulted her out of it. But she was weeping.

  Soundlessly he went to the side of the bed and crouched down. Wishing he knew the right words but knowing he didn't, he laid a hand on her hair. At his touch she sprang up, screaming.

  "It's me. It's only me." He took both her hands and squeezed. "Relax. No one's going to hurt you."

  "Quinn." Her hand went limp in his, then tensed again as she fought for control. "You startled me."

  "Sorry." The moonlight was strong enough that he could see her face, and the tears damp on her cheeks. "You okay?"

  "Yes." Her chest was hurtfully tight, her throat raw from unshed tears. "Yes, I'm fine. I guess you heard the phone."

  "I heard it." He dropped her hands because he was afraid he'd break her fingers. "Why don't I get you something? Water." He stuck his hands in his pockets again. "Something."

  "No. I don't need anything." She brought the heels of her hands over her face to dry her tears. "I couldn't keep him talking. I just couldn't do it."

  "It's all right."

  "No, it's not." Bringing her knees up, she dropped her head on them. "It's my problem, and as long as I keep running from it it's not going away. Everything you've said so far has been true, everything you've done has been right, and I haven't been holding up my end."

  "Nobody's blaming you, Chantel." He started to reach out for her again, to touch her creamy shoulders, which were slumped in despair. Catching himself, Quinn clenched his hand. "You should try to get some sleep."

  "Yeah."

  He strained against his own helplessness. Where had he gotten the stupid idea that she needed him? He didn't know the way to comfort and soothe. He didn't have the pretty words that would relax her and help her sleep again. He had nothing but a rage boiling inside him and a fierce desire to keep her safe. Neither of those would help her now.

  "Look, I can get you something. Go downstairs and make, I don't know, some tea."

  With her face still pressed against her knees, she squeezed her eyes tight. "No, thanks. I'll be fine."

  "Damn it, I want to do something." The explosion ripped out of him before he could stop it. "I can't stand seeing you like this. Let me get you some aspirin, or sit in the chair until you can get to sleep. Something. You can't ask me to just leave you alone."

  "Hold me." The words came
out in a sob as she lifted her head. "Could you just hold me a minute?"

  He sat beside her and, gathering her close, pressed her head to his shoulder. "Sure. As long as you want. Go ahead and let go, angel."

  She didn't have the strength to stop it, and she no longer wanted to. With his arms strong around her, she let the full force of the tears come. Quinn cradled her close and murmured things he hoped would help, things he wasn't even certain she heard. When she began to quiet, he stroked the hair back from her face and said nothing at all.

  "Quinn?"

  "Hmmm?"

  "Thanks."

  "Any time."

  "I don't make a habit of it." She sniffled. "Got a handkerchief?"

  "No."

  Reluctant to shift away even slightly, she reached for a tissue on her bedside table. "I guess I figured a man like you would head for the hills when a woman started—" she sniffled again "—blubbering."

  "This is different."

  She tilted her head back. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks tear-streaked. "Why?"

  "It's just different." He brushed a tear from her lashes. Then, though he felt foolish, he let the moisture linger on his thumb. "Feel better?"

  "Yes." She did, unaccountably, for she'd never believed tears solved anything. Now that they were shed she felt drained and embarrassed. "I'd, ah… appreciate it if we both forgot about this lapse in the morning."

  "Never give yourself an inch, do you?"

  "I hate to cry."

  She said it with such bitter finality that he knew she'd shed hot tears over something before. Or someone. "Me too."

  That made her smile. "You're a nice guy when you put a little effort into it."

  "I try not to let it happen often." He stroked her hair again before he shifted her closer. It hadn't been so hard to comfort, he discovered. It wasn't so hard to be needed. "Think you can sleep now?"

  "I guess." She closed her eyes, discovering it felt enormously good to let her cheek rest against his.

  He ran a comforting hand over her back, then tensed when he felt silk give way to flesh. "Tomorrow's Sunday. You can stay in bed all day."

  "I have a photo session at one." With her eyes still closed, she explored the muscles of his shoulders with her fingertips.

  "You can cancel it."

  "I'll be okay. The photographer's accommodating me because of the shooting schedule."

  "Then you'd better get some rest or you'll look like hell."

  "Thanks a lot."

  "You're welcome."

  When he drew her back, she tilted her head up and smiled at him. His fingers tensed on her shoulders, and hers on his, and her smile faded. The need vibrated between them so urgently that it set the air humming.

  "I'd better go."

  "No." The decision had already been made, she knew, perhaps before they'd even met. Her heart had just accepted it. She loved. There was no changing it. Until now, until him, she hadn't known how much she needed to have the chance to love again. "I want you to stay." She slid her hands over his shoulders. "I want you to make love with me."

  The ache that had begun to throb just from looking at her turned sharp and stabbing—a painfully sweet sensation. Her hands felt so cool on his skin. Her eyes looked so warm and dark. The moonlight dappled over her like a dream, but he
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