Skin deep, p.13
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       Skin Deep, p.13

         Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  Chantel acknowledged that the rush and craziness of her parents' life-style suited Molly just as much as it did Frank. "He did, didn't he? Still, I don't think he should have argued with the director about how to set the scene."

  "Mary has a—a sense of humor."

  "Good thing." For the next few moments, they packed in silence. "Chantel, we're worried about you."

  "Mom, that's exactly what I don't want you to do."

  "We love you. You can't expect us to love you and not be concerned."

  "I know." She slipped a bottle of perfume into a padded travel box. "That's why I didn't want to tell you about what was going on. You had to worry enough about me when I was growing up."

  "You don't expect a parent to turn off the juice just because a child's past the age of twenty-one?"

  "No, I suppose not." She smiled and slipped her set of makeup brushes into their cases. "But it seems like you should have less to worry about after a certain age."

  "I can only tell you that one day you'll find out differently yourself."

  There was that pang again. Chantel's brows drew together as she tried to ignore it. "I don't know about that," she murmured. "I do know I don't want this business to affect the family."

  "What affects one of us affects all of us. That's that." Molly said it so matter-of-factly, Chantel was forced to smile.

  "Your Irish is showing."

  "And why shouldn't it?" Molly wanted to know. "Your father and I think we should come back with you after the wedding."

  "Back here?" Chantel stopped to stare. "You can't. You have a gig in New Hampshire."

  Molly folded a pair of linen slacks by the pleats and said with a little smile, "Chantel, your father and I have been performing for over thirty-five years. I don't think canceling one engagement is going to make much of a ripple."

  "No." Chantel set down the bottles and pots in her hands to reach for her mother. "I can't tell you how much it means to me to know that you would. But what could you do?"

  "We could be with you."

  "You could hardly even do that. Mom, I'll be filming for weeks more. You've seen in the last few days how little I'm home. I'd be a wreck thinking about you sitting around here twiddling your thumbs when you'd want to be working."

  "Sitting around here, as in lounging by the pool?"

  Chantel's lips curved, but she shook her head. "If I could believe you'd be content for more than forty-eight hours, it would be different. Be logical, Mom. If you stayed I'd be worried because you were worried. Pop would drive the staff crazy, and I wouldn't even be around to enjoy it."

  "I told Frank you'd feel this way." With a sigh, Molly touched Chantel's hair. "I always worried about you the most, you know."

  "I guess I gave you the most cause."

  "You did what you had to. And Trace also was going to go his own way, no matter what. Your father refused to see it, but it was there from the time he could walk. Somehow I always knew Abby and Maddy would be all right, even when Abby was going through the mess of her first marriage and Maddy was struggling to keep herself in dancing shoes. But you…" Molly caressed her daughter's cheek. "I was always afraid you'd miss what was beside you because you were always looking so far ahead. I want you to be happy, Chantel."

  "I am. No, I am, really. These past few weeks, even with this other business hanging over my head, I've found something."

  "Quinn."

  Chantel made a restless movement before walking to the windows. "It's obvious to everyone but him the way I feel."

  Molly had formed her own opinion of Quinn Doran. He wasn't an easy man, nor would he often be a gentle one, but her daughter didn't need an easy, gentle man. She needed one who'd give her a run for her money.

  "Men are more thickheaded," Molly commented. She was a woman who knew well just how thickheaded men could be. "Why don't you tell him?"

  "No." She turned back, then rested the heels of her hands on the windowsill. "At least not yet. This is going to sound foolish, but I want… I need him to respect me. Me," she repeated. "For what I am. I need to be certain he's not just passing the time."

  "Chantel, you can't use Dustin Price as a yardstick."

  "I'm not." Anger crept into her voice. She managed to control it only because her mother's eyes remained so steady. "No, I'm not. But it isn't something that's easy to forget."

  "No, it's impossible. But you can't live your life with that as the foundation. Have you told Quinn about him?"

  "No, I can't. Mom, there are so many complications now, why bring up another? It's been nearly seven years."

  "Do you trust Quinn?"

  "Yes."

  "Don't you think he'd understand?"

  She pressed her fingers to her eyes for a moment. "If I was sure he loved me, really sure that what's between us is real, I could tell him anything. Even that."

  "I wish I could tell you there were guarantees, but I can't." Molly crossed to her and gathered Chantel close. "I can tell you that I wouldn't consider leaving you, not for a minute until everything was resolved, if I wasn't sure Quinn was going to protect you."

  "He makes me feel safe. Until I met him, I didn't know anyone could." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I didn't know I needed anyone who could."

  "We all need to feel safe, Chantel. And loved." Molly stroked her hair, the light silver-blond locks she'd brushed and braided so often in the past. "There's something I haven't told you. Something I should have told you a long time ago." She embraced Chantel. "I'm very proud of you."

  "Oh, Mom." As the tears welled up, Molly shook her head.

  "Now, none of that," she murmured. "If we go downstairs with puffy eyes, your father will be pinching at me to find out why we've been sitting up here crying." She kissed Chantel's cheek and held on for another moment. "Let's finish packing."

  "Mom."

  "Yes, dear."

  "I've always been proud of you, too."

  "Well." Molly cleared her throat, but her voice was still husky when she spoke. "That's quite a thing to hear from a grown daughter. You're going to be all right?"

  "I'm going to be fine. I'm going to be terrific."

  "That's my girl. Now let's be about our business." Turning away, Molly made herself busy. "Look at this." Clucking her tongue, she held up a brief nightgown fashioned of black silk and lace. "It looks like sin."

  Chantel rubbed a knuckle under her eyes to dry them and giggled. "I can't give it an evaluation yet. I just bought it."

  Molly held it up to the sunlight. "I think it speaks for itself."

  "You like it." Pleased, Chantel came over, folded it carefully and handed it back to her mother. "A souvenir from Beverly Hills."

  "Don't be silly." But Molly couldn't resist rubbing a thumb over the silk. "I couldn't wear a thing like this."

  "Why not?"

  "I'm the mother of four grown children."

  "You didn't pick us from under cabbage leaves."

  "Well, your father would…" She trailed off, speculating. Chantel watched a wicked gleam come into her eyes. "Thank you, dear." Molly set the nightgown apart from the rest of Chantel's lingerie. "And I'll thank you for your father in advance."

  By the time they went downstairs again, Frank could be heard picking his banjo.

  "He's practicing," Molly said, "so he can play at the reception. They'll have to knock him unconscious to keep him from performing."

  "You know Maddy wouldn't have it any other way."

  "It's about time, woman." Frank looked up as his family walked in, but his fingers never stilled. "A man needs some backup, you know. This one here—" he jerked his head toward Quinn "—won't sing a note."

  "Just doing you a favor," Quinn said easily as he lounged back on the sofa.

  "Never heard of a body that wouldn't sing," Frank commented. "Heard plenty that couldn't, but never one who wouldn't. Sit here, Molly, my love. Let's show the man what the O'Hurleys are made of."

  Obligingly Molly sat beside him, picked up the count a
nd launched into the song with a strong, practiced voice. Chantel sat on the arm of the sofa beside Quinn and listened to the familiar sound of her parents working together. It was good, it was solid. The tension of the past weeks drained away.

  "Come on, princess, you remember the chorus."

  Chantel joined in, the words and rhythm of the bright novelty number coming easily. She rarely sang on her own. To Chantel, singing was a family affair. Even now, as she added her voice to her parents', she thought of Trace and her sisters and the countless times they'd all sung that same old song.

  She'd surprised him. Quinn sat back, enjoying himself, as Frank merged one tune into another. Chantel wasn't the cool movie star now, nor was she the restless, passionate woman he'd discovered beneath that facade. She was at home with the nonsense songs her father played. She was a daughter, a loving one. The innocence he'd once sensed in her was apparent as she laughed and accused her father of missing a note.

  Her scent was there, dark and sultry, in contrast to her relaxed, playful behavior. He'd never seen her like this. Never known she could be like this. He wondered if she realized how much her family meant to her, if she knew how her Hollywood image faded when she was with them.

  It had been a good week. Chantel didn't know of the letters that had come, because he'd intercepted them. Nor did she know that they had traced one of the calls to a phone booth downtown. Quinn saw no reason to tell her or to hit her with the fact that two of the letters had begged for a meeting in New York.

  He knew her plans.

  Quinn lifted a hand and ran it down her arm. Chanters fingers linked naturally with his. There was no point in telling her. She wouldn't be alone in New York, not for a moment. He'd already arranged for three of his best men to fly to Manhattan. Every step Chantel took would be monitored.

  Frank interrupted Quinn's train of thought as he shot a challenging look at his daughter. "Do you still play that thing? Or do you use it as a doorstop?"

  Chantel glanced at the white baby grand, then examined her nails. "I manage to hit a few keys."

  "With a big, beautiful instrument like that you should be able to do a lot more."

  "I don't want to show you up, Pop."

  "That'll be the day."

  With a shrug, she stood and moved to the piano. Deliberately she fluttered her lashes, sat, then went into a long, complicated arpeggio.

  "You've been practicing," Frank accused, then cackled with delight.

  Chantel shot a look at Quinn. "I don't spend my evenings darning socks."

  Quinn acknowledged the hit with a slight inclination of his head. "Your daughter's full of surprises, Frank."

  "No need to tell me that. The stories I could tell you. Why, there was the time—"

  "Requests?" Chantel interrupted sweetly. "Unless Pop wants me to tie his tongue in a nice, neat bow."

  Always cautious, Frank cleared his throat. "Why don't you do that little number your mother wouldn't let you sing until you turned eighteen?"

  "Abby always did that one best."

  "True enough." Frank's grin was crooked and amiable. "But you weren't half-bad." Molly managed to hide a smile as Chantel's eyes narrowed.

  "Half-bad?" She wrinkled her nose at him as she gave herself a flowing introduction.

  The low, torchy ballad prickled along Quinn's skin. Her voice was as smooth as the Scotch in his hand, and just as potent. The words were plaintive, vulnerable, but with her voice they became seductive. She wore white as she sat behind the glossy white piano. But he no longer thought of angels. The room grew warmer just from the sound of her voice. It seemed to weigh on him, pressing down until he was no longer sure he was even breathing.

  Then she brought her gaze up from the keys to meet his.

  It wasn't a song of love, but of love lost. The thought came to him then that if he lost her there were no words written that could describe his desperation. She'd made him ache before. And she'd made him burn. Now, for the first time, she made him weak.

  She played the last chords with her eyes still locked on his.

  "Not half-bad," Frank repeated, pleased with her delivery. "Now if you'd—"

  "It's late, Frank." Molly patted his hand, loving him for the knucklehead he was. "We should go up to bed. Tomorrow's going to be a long day."

  "Late? Nonsense, it's barely—"

  "Late," Molly repeated. "And getting later by the minute. I have a surprise for you upstairs."

  "But I was just getting—A surprise?"

  "That's right. Come along, Frank. Good night, Quinn."

  "Molly." But he couldn't take his eyes off Chantel.

  "All right, all right, I'm coming. Good night, you two. Chantel, see if that cook of yours can make waffles in the morning, will you?"

  "Night, Pop." She tilted her cheek for his kiss, but her eyes stayed locked on Quinn's.

  As he climbed the stairs with his wife, Frank could be heard demanding what his surprise was.

  "You were right," Quinn murmured when the room was silent again.

  "About what?"

  "You are terrific." He rose and came to her. Taking both her hands, he turned them palm up and pressed his lips to the center of each one. "The more I'm with you," he murmured, "the more I know you, the more I want."

  With her hands still in his, she stood. Light glowed in her eyes. "I've never in my life felt about anyone the way I feel about you. I need you to believe that."

  "And I need to believe it." They were close, very close, to taking that final step. Commitments, promises, dependence. He felt himself teeter on the edge, ready, but was afraid she would pull back and away if he pressed too soon. "Tell me what you want, Chantel."

  "You." She could give that answer truthfully enough without demanding more than she thought he was ready to give. "I only want to be with you."

  For how long? he wanted to ask, but fear stopped him. He would take today, tonight, and fight for tomorrow. "Come to bed."

  Hands linked, hearts lost, they climbed the stairs.

  They left a low light burning beside the bed. Odd, she thought, that her pulse should be hammering so hard, that her nerves should be fluttering so wildly when she already knew what they could bring to each other. Why should it feel so different this time? So special. So much, she realized dimly, like the first time. The only time.

  She offered her mouth, anticipating the hard demand of his.

  He was gentle. He was… tender. As he brushed his lips lightly over hers she felt her muscles go lax and her bones melt. He cupped her face with his hands so that his thumbs traced like whispers, like promises, over her throat. She sighed his name as she felt herself float.

  What kind of passion was this that crept in so quietly? Desire was there, already thrumming, but with each caress he soothed it—and stoked it. His mouth was patient, gliding over her face as if he wanted to memorize the essence of her through touch and taste. He strung small, feathery kisses down her cheekbones, then sought her mouth. His tongue traced the outline, then lingered to stroke lazily over her bottom lip. The room began to whirl inside her head.

  She was priceless. This time, he promised himself, he would show her. She had a beauty he knew now reached beneath the skin. He would cherish it. He combed his fingers through her hair, delighting in the silken feel of it. He murmured, and she sighed and pressed herself against him.

  As his mouth continued to explore, he began to undo the row of buttons at her back. When the material parted, he ran his hands along her spine, gently, as a man touches fragile glass. As the silk slithered to the floor, she trembled. She was warm and naked beneath it. His heart hammered in his throat. It was as though she had waited all evening for this moment with him.

  Quinn drew her away to look at her, all of her, in the lamplight. She was so small, so delicate, with skin like porcelain and a form that might have been carved from alabaster. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders, ending just before the curve of her breasts. Her rib cage was narrow. He ran his hands down i
t, amazed that the strength he knew she possessed came from such delicacy. Her waist tapered so that he could almost span it with his hands before flaring out gently to slender hips and long, slim thighs.

  "You're so beautiful." His voice was strained as he brought his gaze back to hers. "You take my breath away."

  She stepped forward into his arms.

  The material of his shirt was rough against her bare skin. With her eyes half closed, Chantel moved against him, urging his mouth to take its fill. Her tongue found his and began a silent, exotic seduction. All the while, his fingertips played over her as exquisitely as hers had played over the piano keys.

  Through the window the breeze stirred, threatening rain. Chantel inhaled the fragrances of the night as they tangled with the musky scent of passion. Slowly, and with as much care as he had shown her, she undressed Quinn.

  She rubbed her palms over the hard, coiled muscles of his shoulders, delighting in the feel. Temptingly she pressed her lips to his chest. There was a power and discipline in his body that urged her to touch, to tease. The ridges of muscles in his torso fascinated her. With a murmur of approval, she bought her lips back to his.

  They lowered themselves onto the bed.

  No hurry. No rush. The moment was drawn out, dreamlike, as they pleasured each other. Chantel shifted to look down at him. How could she tell him what he'd come to mean to her? How could she explain how much she needed him to be with her—now, tomorrow, forever? Did a man like Quinn believe in forever? She shook her head quickly, thrusting the questions aside. She couldn't tell him, she couldn't ask him. But she could show him.

  Softly Chantel brought her mouth to his, then ran her fingertip over it as if to test the warmth she'd elicited. Approving, she brought her lips to his again, to savor.

  He hadn't known it could be like this. Even in the wildest rages of passion they'd incited in each other, he hadn't known there could be such wonder. He'd told himself before that she belonged to him, but now, with her pliant and soft in his arms, he could finally believe it. And what was more, he was hers. Completely, utterly. Love fueled by tenderness was more consuming than any madness.

  He slipped into her easily, naturally. With a sigh, she accepted him. They rose together in a harmony of movement that was its own kind of beauty.

  When there was nothing left to give, they gathered each other close and slept.

  "Don't rush me, don't rush me." With a spring in his step, Frank waltzed in front of the skycap desk. "I'm going to make sure they don't send my banjo to Duluth."

  "La Guardia." With a grin, the skycap showed Frank the stubs. "Don't worry about a thing."

  "Easy for you to say. I've had that banjo longer than I've had my wife." Then, with a chuckle, he squeezed Molly's shoulder. "Not that you mean less to me, my love."

  "But we run neck and neck. Did you take your Dramamine, Frank?"

  "Yes, yes, don't fuss."

  "Frank's a hideous air traveler," Molly put in as she pocketed the tickets and boarding passes. "That's where Chantel got it from."

  Surprised, Quinn stopped in the act of hefting his small carry-on bag. "You don't like to fly?"

  "I'm fine." She'd already downed half a roll of antacids and two air sickness pills.

  Molly glanced at the watch on her wrist. "We'd better get moving."

  "Women. Always rushing." Frank gave Quinn a slap on the back. "Why do we put up with it, boy?"

  "Only game in town."

  "Right you are." Delighted with the world in general, Frank cackled as he strolled through the automatic doors.

  "You're feeling chipper this morning," Chantel commented dryly, refusing to acknowledge the leaden feeling in her own stomach.

 
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