Skin deep, p.16
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       Skin Deep, p.16

         Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  "I won't be treated like a fool, or a weakling." The lace of the teddy trembled over her breasts as she took an unsteady breath. "You knew he was going to follow me to New York. You knew I'd be no safer there than I was here."

  "That's right. I knew, you didn't. And you had one night when you didn't toss in your sleep."

  "You had no right—"

  "I had every right." The hand in her hair tightened. She wanted to wince, but she didn't seem to be able to move at all. "I have the right to do anything, everything, to keep you safe, to give you some peace of mind. And I'm going to keep on doing it, because there's nothing that matters to me more than you."

  Chantel let out a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. She'd seen it in his eyes, beneath the anger, beneath the frustration, but she hadn't been certain she could believe it. "Is that your—" She stopped, pressing her lips together. It wouldn't do for her voice to tremble now. She wanted to be strong, for him, as well as herself. "Is that your way of telling me you love me?"

  He stared down at her, a good deal more stunned by his announcement than she. He hadn't meant to throw it at her like a threat. He'd wanted to give them both time, to give them both room, so that he could coax her along until she realized she needed him. But he'd never been good at coaxing.

  "Take it or leave it."

  "Take it or leave it," she repeated in a murmur. How like him. "Would you mind letting go of my hair? I need it for a couple of scenes on Monday. Besides, that way you'd have both arms to put around me."

  Before he could, she was pressed against him, holding tight and hard and praying it wasn't a dream.

  "I guess this means you're taking it." He buried his face in her hair and wondered how he'd ever survived without her scent, without her touch.

  "Yeah. I've been trying to figure out a way to make you fall in love with me so you wouldn't be able to walk away." She tossed her head back to look at him. "Tell me you're not going to walk away."

  "I'm not going anywhere." Then he found her mouth and made it a promise. "Let me hear you say it." He took her hair again but drew it back gently until their eyes met. "Look at me and say it. No lights, no camera, no script."

  "I love you, Quinn, more than I thought it was possible to love. It scares the hell out of me."

  "Good." He kissed her again, harder. "It scares the hell out of me, too."

  "We've got so many things to talk about."

  "Later." He was already drawing down the zipper of her skirt.

  "Later," she agreed, tugging his shirt out of the waistband of his slacks. "Want to take a bath?" As she asked, she yanked his shirt over his shoulders.

  "Yeah."

  "Before?" With a laugh, she nipped at his chin. "Or after?"

  "After." And he pulled her with him onto the bed.

  It had been wild before, fierce, violent, passionate, and it had also shimmered with gentleness. But now there was love, felt, spoken, answered. She'd stopped believing that her life would lead her to this—love, acceptance, understanding. In the end she'd only had to open her hand and take it. In a burst of emotion they were caught close, mouths open and hungry, bodies heated and aware. She heard his long indrawn breath as he buried his face in her hair, as if he, too, had just realized what a gift they'd been given.

  She thought he trembled. Her hands, pressed against his back, felt the quick tensing of muscle. She didn't want to soothe it. She wanted him to be as she was, stunned, a little afraid, and deliriously happy. When she pressed her lips to his throat she felt the throb of excitement, tasted the heat. In one long, possessive stroke she ran her hands down his back, then up again. He was hers. From this moment, he was hers.

  She was there for him, soft, yielding, yet strong enough to hold him. He'd never looked for her. Quinn understood himself well enough to know he'd never looked for anyone to share his life. Still, he'd found her, and in her he'd found everything. A mate. There was something primitive yet soothing in the word. It meant someone to tumble between the sheets with on hot, sultry nights. It meant someone to wake with in the cool, lazy mornings. It was someone to confide in, someone to protect, someone to reach out to.

  Just the thought of it made him close his eyes, as if to keep the fantasy trapped forever. With his fingertips he traced her face so that her image hovered there, in his mind.

  "So beautiful," he murmured. "Here…" His finger lingered on her cheek. "And here." Slowly he slid his hand down her body. Then he opened his eyes to look into hers. "And inside."

  "No, I—"

  "Don't contradict the man who loves you." He brought her palm to his lips, watching her. He turned her hand over, kissing each finger. The diamond glittered on one, a symbol of what she was to the world. Cool sex, glamour with a hard polish. Her hand trembled like a young girl's.

  He brushed kisses along her jawline, and her breath came in slow, quiet gasps. She could almost hear her skin hum as his fingers whispered over it. With each touch she drifted deeper into a dark, liquid world where sensations were her only guide.

  Only he could make her forget the boundaries she'd once set for herself. Only he could make her forget that when you loved, you risked. With him she could give without fear, without reservations or restrictions. There would be a tomorrow with Quinn. There would be a lifetime of tomorrows.

  He wasn't sure he knew how to show her how he felt. He wasn't used to pampering. Romance was for books, for movies, for the young and foolish. Yet he had a need, a growing one, to show her that his feelings went so far beyond desire that he couldn't measure them.

  Rising to his elbow, he brushed the hair carefully away from her face, combing his fingers through it as it fell, silvery-blond, over the spread. Gently, as though she might crumble at the slightest touch, he cupped her face in his hand. Could she be more beautiful now? Somehow it seemed so to him as he watched the first beams of daylight steal through the windows and over her skin.

  He ran his thumb over her lips, fascinated by the shape, by the softness, by the flavor he imagined would linger on his own flesh. As if it were the first time—and perhaps it was—he touched his lips to hers.

  Her body went weak. As his lips lingered, the hand she had pressed to his back slipped down, limp. She'd thought she understood possession, but she'd been wrong. She'd thought she could imagine what it was like to be loved, loved fully. But she'd had no idea. Something fluttered through her, so softly that it might have been a dream. But it expanded within her, and a promise was made.

  The heat centered, focused and grew. Strength flooded back into her, and with it a passion so rich that she moaned from the pleasure. Together they rolled until she lay over him. Together they let themselves go.

  His hands were quick, but no more urgent than hers. His lips were hungry, but his desperation had met its match. Sanity was discarded as easily as silk and lace. They came together like thunder, in a storm that lingered into the morning. As dawn rose, they took each other into the dark.

  "I'm so glad it's Sunday." Chantel eased her shoulders down into the hot, frothy water. She picked up a wineglass from the side of the tub and laughed at Quinn over the rim. "You're not supposed to scowl at the bubbles. You're supposed to enjoy them."

  Quinn shifted to reach for his own glass. Chantel's tub was easily big enough for two, and the skylight overhead showed a perfect blue sky. The water that lapped nearly to the edge was layered with white, fragrant bubbles.

  "I'm going to smell like a woman."

  "Darling." She touched her tongue to the rim of her glass. "No one's going to smell you but me."

  "With all the stuff you dumped in here, I'll be lucky if it wears off in a week." He shifted again, and his leg slid over hers. "But it has its compensations."

  "Mmmm." With her eyes half closed, she leaned back. "For both of us. I need this. The shooting schedule next week is murder. There are three scenes in particular that I know will leave me limp. The one where Brad and Hailey nearly die in the fire is the worst."

  "
What fire?"

  "Read the script," she said lazily, smiling when he tossed bubbles at her. "I trust Special Effects, but it doesn't make it any easier to crawl around in a shack on the back lot or on the set on the soundstage while they're shooting flames and pumping smoke in. That's why it's especially nice that it's Sunday and I can lie in the tub and think about making love with you." She looked at him through eyes that were hardly more than slits. "Again."

  "You can lie in the tub and make love with me." He twisted his body, bringing it forward until his face was close to hers. "At the same time."

  Chantel laughed and linked her hands behind his head as water lapped over the tub and onto the floor. "Too much water."

  "You filled it up."

  "My mistake. I usually bathe alone."

  "Not anymore." Bubbles burst between them as he kissed her. "Why don't you pull the plug?"

  "Can't get to it." She tilted her head to change the angle of the next kiss. "It's, ah, behind me. Now I bet a big strong man like you could manage it all by himself."

  "Back here?" His hand trailed over her breast, then slipped to her rib cage.

  "Close. Very close." She felt his fingers slide over her hip. "Getting closer. Why don't we—" The words were cut off as she found herself submerged, his mouth hard on hers. Up again, she drew in air, swiped at her face and squinted at him. " Quinn!"

  "Slipped." He found the lever easily and flipped it down.

  "I bet. Now I've got soap in my eyes." He started to grin, but his mouth went dry when she rose up, magnificent, and let water drain from her skin as she reached for a towel. "Remind me to bring a snorkel next time we take a bath."

  "Chantel."

  She was holding the towel to her face, but she lowered it with a half smile that faded when he stood beside her. Without a word, he gathered her to him. They stood where they were while the bubbles drained beneath them and dried on their skin.

  "I never knew it could be like this," she murmured. "Not like this."

  "That makes two of us." He'd found her. It seemed so incredible that he'd found her, found everything, without looking. "You're getting cold." Feeling the chill on her skin, he took a towel and wrapped it around her. "I guess I'd have a lot to answer to if you went to work tomorrow with a red nose."

  "I never get a red nose." She took a towel in turn and wrapped it around him. "It's in my contract."

  "Think you could take a break when you finish filming?"

  "That depends." She smiled again. "On where and with whom."

  "With me. We can talk about the where."

  "I should be wrapped in three weeks. You pick the where." She started to step from the tub, then braced herself against the wall. "Careful. We've flooded the place."

  "Just toss down a couple towels." Quinn plucked another from the shelf and let it fall to the floor to soak up the water.

  "My housekeeper's going to love you." Out of habit, Chantel picked up a jar of moisturizer and began to rub a light cover over her skin.

  "After we're married, there's going to have to be a change in the rules of the tub." He was hooking the towel at his waist and didn't notice the way her fingers froze in place on her cheek. "Bubbles are okay, but they've got to be unscented. It's one thing for the staff to sniff, but we can't have the kids wondering if their father wears perfume."

  Somehow she managed to get the lid back on the jar and set it down without dropping it. "We're getting married?"

  He didn't have to look at her to know she'd taken three paces back. He heard it in her voice. "Absolutely."

  Her heart was hammering in her throat, but she'd trained herself to speak clearly over nerves. "You want children?"

  "Yeah." One by one, the muscles of his stomach knotted. "Is that a problem?"

  "I… Things are moving pretty fast," she managed.

  "We're not teenagers, Chantel. I think we both know what we want."

  "I have to sit down." She didn't trust her legs, so she moved quickly back to the bedroom and took a chair. She held the towel together in front of her with hands that had gone white at the knuckles.

  Quinn waited a moment. The steam had fogged the wall-length mirror opposite the tub, but he could imagine her sitting there, her beauty reflected, slim, young, perfect. She was a dream and, more, she was a star, someone who lighted up the screen and created fantasies. His jaw was tight when he walked into the bedroom.

  "Looks like I pushed the wrong buttons." Digging up his shirt, he found his cigarettes. "I thought that's what you wanted, too." Lighting one, he drew smoke in deeply. "I guess a husband and kids don't go with the image."

  She looked up slowly. Her eyes were dry, but he recognized pain, something deep and dull and lasting.

  "Chantel—"

  "No." She stopped him with a gesture of her hand. "Maybe I deserved that." Rising, she went to the closet and chose a robe. With deliberate motions she dropped the towel, then slipped the robe on and belted it. She linked her fingers a moment, then let them fall to her sides. "My career is important to me, but I've never let it interfere with my personal life—or vice versa. My work is demanding. You've seen for yourself that the hours can be brutal."

  "So there's no room for me and a family?"

  Something came into her face again. Pain again, but with a touch of anger this time. "My parents raised four children on the road. There was always room, always time for family."

  "Then what is it?"

  She dipped her hands into her pockets, then took them out again, unable to keep them still. "First, I want to tell you that there's nothing I want more than to marry you and start a family. Please, don't," she said quickly when he started to come to her. "Sit down, Quinn. It would be easier for me if you would sit."

  "All right."

  When he had, she drew a deep breath. "There are things you have to know before we go any farther. It's difficult, at least for me, to admit past mistakes, but you have a right to know. If I'd listened to my mother, I would have told you before. It might have been easier then."

  "Look, if you want to tell me you've been with other men—"

  Her low laugh cut him off. It was strained. "Not exactly. This doesn't fit the image, either, but I only slept with one other man before you. Surprise," she said quietly when he simply stared. She went to stand at the window. "I was barely twenty when I met him. I was doing commercials, going to acting classes. I even had a part-time job selling magazines on the phone. I kept telling myself it was just a matter of time, and I believed it, but it was tough. Oh, God, it was so tough to be alone. Then Matt called and said he'd gotten me a test for a small part on a feature. Lawless, my first real break. The producer was—"

  "Dustin Price."

  Chantel turned back from the window. Her hand was curled in a fist. "Yes. How do you know that?"

  "A lot of movie buffs might, but the fact is, I already know about Price. He turned up when I did a background check on you."

  "You did a check on me?" She found herself braced against the windowsill. "On me?"

  "It's standard, Chantel. I do a run on you, maybe somebody turns up you've forgotten, or forgotten to mention. Like Dustin Price. He's clean, by the way. Been in England eighteen months."

  "Standard," she repeated, letting the rest sift away like sand. "I guess I should have expected it."

  "What difference does it make now? So you slept with him. You needed a break, he could give you a break. It was years ago, and I don't give a damn."

  Every muscle in her body went rigid. "Is that what you think? You think I slept with him to get a part?"

  "I'm telling you I don't care."

  "Don't touch me." She whipped away from him as he reached for her. "I don't have to sleep with anyone to get a part, and I never have. I may have made compromises, I may have given up more than I should, but I never prostituted myself."

  "I'm sorry." This time he took her arms, ignoring her resistance. "I'm trying to tell you that whatever happened between you and Price does
n't matter."

  "Oh, it matters." She pulled away and poured wine into a fresh glass. "It matters. When Matt called me to tell me I had the part, I was so happy. I knew it was the beginning. I was going places, I was going to be somebody." She pressed her fingers to her lips until she was sure she could speak calmly. "Dustin sent me a dozen roses, a bottle of champagne and a lovely letter of congratulations. He said he knew I was going to be a star and suggested we have dinner to discuss the film and my career."

  She drank because her throat was dry, then set down the glass, refusing to rely on wine to get her through the story. "Of course, I agreed. He was one of the top producers, riding on a wave of three box-office smashes. Of course, he was married, but I didn't think of that." The derision was in her voice again, self-derision, self-disgust.

  "Chantel. It was years ago."

  "There are some things you never stop paying for. I was going to be sophisticated. We were just having dinner, colleagues. God, he was charming." The memory still hurt, but the pain was dull now, covered with scar tissue. "The flowers kept coming, the dinners. He knew so much about the business, the people. Who to talk to, who to be seen with. All of that was so important to me then. I thought I could handle it. The truth was I was just a naive young girl on her own for the first time.

  "I fell in love with him. I believed everything he said about him and his wife living together for appearances only, about the quiet divorce that was already in the works. About the two of us making the best and brightest team Hollywood had seen since the golden age. The whole thing might have run its natural course as I got a little smarter, and he a bit bored, but before all that happened, I made a mistake." She ran her damp palms down her robe, then linked them. "I got pregnant." She managed to swallow. "You didn't find that in your background check, did you?"

  Rage hit, and he smothered it. "No."

  "He had enough money, enough influence, to keep it quiet. And it wasn't an issue for very long."

  He was struggling, fighting desperately to understand. "You had an abortion?"

  "That's what he wanted. He was furious. I suppose a lot of men would be when their mistress—and that's what I was, really—turns up pregnant and threatens his very comfortable marriage. Of course, he'd never planned on getting a divorce or marrying me. All of that came out when I told him I was going to have his baby."

  "He used you," Quinn spit out. "You were twenty years old and he used you."

  "No." Strange that she could say it so calmly now. "I was twenty years old and I pretended I knew all the rules. I pretended very well. I made one mistake, then I made another mistake. I told him he could go to hell, but I was keeping the baby. Things got ugly then. He threatened to destroy my career if I didn't play his way. Well, there's no use going into what was said, except that the affair was over and my eyes were wide open."

  "You're still hurting," Quinn said quietly.

  "Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. I thought I loved him, but as soon as the glitter washed off I knew I never had. I called my parents. I was ready to run home and leave everything behind. I bought plane tickets. Quinn, I don't know what I would have ultimately done once I was thinking clearly. That's the worst of it, not knowing. There was an accident on the way to the airport." She took a deep breath, struggling to finish. "Nothing major, the taxi driver had a couple of broken bones, and I—I lost the baby."

  With a broken sob, she pressed her fingers to her eyes. "I lost the baby, and I tried to tell myself it was for the best. But all I ever could think was that it had never had a chance. I was only six weeks pregnant. Six weeks. Here, then gone. Matt pulled me out of it, got me back to work almost as soon as I was out of the hospital. Everything clicked for me then, the parts, the people, the fame I'd always wanted. All I had to do was lose a baby."

  "Chantel." He came to her, running his hands over her face, her hair, her shoulders. "There's nothing I can say. Nothing I know how to do."

  "There's more."

  "No more." He started to gather her close, but she backed away.

  "When I lost the baby, there were complications. The doctors told me, well, they said it was possible I could have other children, but it wasn't something they could guarantee. Possible, just possible, not even probable. There might never be another baby, another chance. Do you understand?"

  He took her hands. "Are you going to marry me?"

  "Quinn, aren't you listening? I just told you—"

  "I heard you." His fingers linked with hers and held firm. "You might not be able to have children. I want them, Chantel—yours, mine. If we can have them, that's great. But first, always…" He bent to touch his lips to hers. "I want you. I need you, angel. The rest is up to chance."

  "Quinn, I love you."

  "Then let's get married tomorrow."

  "No." She put her hands to his chest to hold him off. "I want you to think about this, really think about it. You need some tune."

  "I need you," he corrected. "I don't heed time."

  "I feel I owe it to you. Let's leave things as they are. A few days."

 
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