Skin deep, p.17
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       Skin Deep, p.17

         Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  He could have pushed. He could have won. But the hurt seemed too close to the surface just then. "A very few days. Come here." This time she went willingly into his arms. "I'm not going to let anyone hurt you again," he murmured.

  She closed her eyes, hoping she could promise him the same thing, even if she were speaking of herself.

  Chapter Twelve

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  The day started at six and never let up. Filming began at a shack on the back lot. The interior was no more than that, a small frame building that had been used in a handful of films. For Strangers it had been given a face-lift, a false front that had turned it into a rustic cabin in the woods of New England. In a climactic scene, Special Effects would burn it down, the fire starting under mysterious circumstances with Hailey and Brad inside.

  The interior scenes would be shot later, on a two-story set on the soundstage, but the morning was spent on exteriors. Chantel drove Hailey's Ferrari to the deserted cabin. She was older now, but still caught between the man she had married and the man who had betrayed her. The scene called for her, on the verge of a breakdown, to seek solace in the remote cabin, searching for the roots of her art, which she'd lost in the tangle of success.

  All the scenes were shot out of sequence and then would be edited together. For several hours of this shoot there was no dialogue. She was filmed unloading her art equipment, setting an easel on the narrow porch, walking through the door and out again with costume changes. There was a long, lingering close-up of her leaning on the porch rail with a cup of coffee in her hand. Without words, Chantel could use only her face to show the turmoil her character was feeling.

  She painted on the porch, sketched on the porch steps, planted flowers. Through posture and gestures and by relaxing the set of her face, Chantel showed her character's gradual healing.

  From the sidelines, Quinn watched her and felt his pride in her grow. He didn't know the story, but he understood the woman she became for the cameras. And he began to root for Hailey.

  There was a poignant scene in which Hailey sat on the porch and poured out her heart to a stray dog. It was the examination of a life, with all its flaws, its wrong turns, its regrets. Even when it was reshot to change the angle, the emotion generated remained intense. Quinn saw more than one member of the crew wipe their eyes.

  Before lunch they had wrapped a number of scenes, including a short, vicious argument between Hailey and Brad on the porch. During an hour's break Chantel took a quick, necessary nap, then shored up her energy with fruit, cheese and a protein drink before going to the soundstage for the interiors.

  The set was as rustic as the outside of the cabin had promised, but there were a few of Hailey's paintings on the wall. The props included a large carved music box that had been a wedding present from her husband. The earlier tension was back in her character as Chantel opened the box and let the strains of the Moonlight Sonata out.

  Dissatisfied with the way the scene was going, Chantel and the director went into a discussion on mood and motion.

  "What do you think of our little story?"

  James Brewster appeared beside Quinn. The two of them watched Larry Washington bring Chantel a glass of juice.

  "Hard to say when you see it chopped up this way." Quinn kept his eye on Larry as the young man hovered around Chantel, ready to jump at the tiniest gesture. "But I expect it'll sell. It has it all—sex, violence, melodrama."

  "You don't write a best-seller by leaving them out," Brewster said easily. "Of course, Hailey is the key, the hinge. What she does, what she feels, affects every character. When I started the book, I thought I was telling a tale of betrayal and birth. But it became a story of how one woman—and what happens to her—determines the destiny of everyone she touches." He broke off with a laugh. "It sounds pretentious, and perhaps it would be without Chantel. She is Hailey."

  "She does make you believe," Quinn murmured.

  "Exactly." Pleased, Brewster gave a quick nod. "As a writer, there's no greater reward than watching one of your characters come to life, particularly one you feel strongly about. I nearly killed her in the fire, you know."

  Quinn stiffened. "What do you mean?"

  Brewster laughed again and drew out a cigarette. "You're a very literal man, Mr. Doran. I meant I nearly ended the book here, in this cabin, with Hailey losing everything, including her life, in a fire set by the only man who really loved her. I found it impossible. She had to go on, you see, and survive."

  They both watched as the stage was set for the next take. "An extraordinary woman," Brewster murmured. "Every man here is just a little bit in love with her."

  "And you?"

  A wry smile in his eyes, Brewster turned. "I'm a writer, Mr. Doran. I deal in fantasies. Chantel is very much flesh and blood."

  At the assistant director's signal, the set fell silent and filming began again.

  Quinn watched Brewster carefully. The writer seemed less nervous than he had in the early days of shooting. Perhaps he was pleased with the progress. It was Larry Washington who seemed on edge now. Chantel's assistant was never still for long, was always moving from one spot to the next. Did the tension Quinn felt on the set come from him? It was there. Quinn sensed it sparking the air, something nervy and desperate. Yet, everywhere he looked, people were going about their jobs with the drum-tight efficiency the director insisted on.

  Perhaps the tension was just within himself. There was plenty of cause. Chantel was still just out of reach, not yet ready, or not yet able, to commit herself. When a man who had lived his life avoiding commitments finally found one he wanted, he was bound to be impatient. So Quinn told himself as he watched Chantel listen to the music box with pain and indecision in her eyes.

  Were her thoughts on him, he wondered, or was she in character? Her talent made it nearly impossible to separate the actress from the role.

  Every eye was on her, but she was alone, in a cabin in the woods, at a turning point in her life.

  "Cut. Print. Wonderful." Mary Rothschild straightened from her position behind the camera operator. "Really wonderful, Chantel."

  "Thanks." She drew a deep breath and tried to shake off the emotion that had carried her through the scene. "I'm glad I don't have to do that again."

  "We're going to go to the confrontation with Brad." As she spoke, Mary began to knead Chantel's shoulders. "You know what you're feeling. You still want him. After everything he's done, everything you know, you can't quite remove yourself from the young woman who fell in love with him. You want to love your husband, you've tried, but the only thing you've managed to do is hurt him. You're on the edge of your life here. You know if you go with Brad you'll never survive. Yet you're drawn."

  "I'm fighting myself more than him."

  "Exactly. Let's run through it."

  They worked until six. Before it was over, Special Effects had pumped smoke onto the set. Hailey, dazed by the smoke, terrified of the fire that had begun to roar through the cabin, crawled along the wooden floor in a desperate search for the door. All she carried was the music box.

  "Hell of a day," Quinn commented later when they were in Chantel's dressing room.

  "Tell me about it." Weary, she creamed off the streaks of soot Makeup had smeared her face with. "I don't even want to eat, just sleep."

  "I'll tuck you in."

  She smiled and, after drying her face, swung her bag over her shoulder. "Tuck me in? I prefer having someone to snuggle against."

  "You'll have that, too, in a few hours." They walked out of the dressing room, past the soundstage, where the director and cinematographer were having an impromptu meeting.

  "Going somewhere?"

  "I've got some business." He thought of Matt, his friend, and of Chantel, the woman he loved. "I'll tell you about it when I get back."

  "I'd rather you told me now." When they were outside, Chantel headed straight for the waiting limo. "Quinn, I don't want to be protected this way. Not anymore."

&
nbsp; She was right, and he'd known that sooner or later he'd have to tell her. When she settled into the limo, he slid his arm behind, ready to comfort her.

  "I didn't want to get into it in New York. You had your sister's wedding, and we had our own problems to deal with. Yesterday…" He hesitated, still not sure how to describe what that one twenty-four-hour period had meant to him. "I wanted yesterday for both of us."

  "I understand." She lifted a hand to his. "So, what is it, Quinn?"

  "I got a lead on the man who ordered the flowers." He felt her tense, but didn't try to soothe her. She wouldn't want soothing now. "He paid cash, so there's no record. The florist couldn't give me much of a description. The guy wore dark glasses and a hat. There were a couple things the florist noticed, though." He hesitated, hating to be the one to destroy a trust and a friendship. She was more important than both. Than anything. "He smoked a foreign brand of cigarette and carried a monogrammed silver money clip."

  For a moment her mind was blank. Slowly, the meaning came through. Rather than disillusionment, he saw a quick flash of determination. "A lot of men prefer foreign tobacco and clips."

  "A lot of men don't work closely with you. This one said he did."

  "He could have been lying."

  "Could have been. We both know he wasn't. All along the one thing we could bank on was that this man knows you, and you know him. Chantel, you gave a silver money clip to someone who works with you."

  "It's not Matt."

  "Angel, it's time to separate what you want from what is, or at least what might be."

  "It doesn't matter what you say, I won't believe it."

  "I called Matt while we were in New York." He lifted a hand to cup her face. His grip was firm. "He was out of town, Chantel."

  "So he was out of town." There was a quick flutter just beneath her heart, but she ignored it. "A lot of people go out of town on weekends."

  "He was in New York on personal business."

  She paled, but just as quickly shook her head.

  "Quinn—"

  "I have to go talk to him."

  "I don't want you to accuse—" A look from him cut her off. "All right," she murmured, turning her head to stare out the window. "I'm not supposed to tell you how to do your job."

  "That's right, angel. Look." He took her shoulder and turned her toward him. "Look at me." When she did, he swore under his breath and brushed the hair back from her face. "I don't want this to hurt you."

  "You're telling me that my closest friend is your top suspect. I can't help but be hurt."

  "Go home." He leaned closer and touched his lips to hers. "Go to bed. Stop thinking about it tonight. For me," he said before she could speak. "I love you, Chantel."

  "Stay home and show me."

  "No." He caught her face in his hands. "I won't be long. And this is going to be over. I promise you that."

  They went through the gate and up the long, quiet drive. "I trust you," she told him, and forced herself to relax. "I'm going to wait for you."

  "Wait for me in bed," he murmured, hoping for her sake that she'd fall asleep quickly.

  They stepped out of the limo. "You'll be careful?"

  "I'm always careful."

  She started up the steps, then stopped and turned back. "I hate this, but I can't regret it anymore, because it brought you. Come back soon." She walked into the house without looking back.

  She wouldn't think. The day's work had drained her body, and she would concentrate on that. She'd have a late supper brought upstairs when Quinn came back. For now, she would wind down with a swim and a whirlpool.

  If it was Matt, it could all be over tonight. Over. For a moment, her hope centered there. Abruptly she felt the sickness hit the pit of her stomach. No, she wouldn't wish for that. Running away from her own thoughts, she hurried upstairs to change.

  "I'm glad I caught you in."

  "Even superagents don't party every night." Matt was dressed in a casual sweater and slacks and comfortable boat shoes and was wound tight as a spring. "Actually, I'm having a quiet dinner at home tonight. I didn't expect to see you. Want a drink?"

  "No. Thanks."

  Matt set the decanter down. "How's Chantel?"

  "She's fine." Rather, he was going to see that she was fine, no matter what he had to do. "Funny, I thought you'd be checking a bit more closely on that yourself."

  "I figured she'd be in good hands with you." Matt rocked back and forth on his heels, not sitting, not offering Quinn a chair. "And I've been a little tied up on some personal business."

  "The business take you into New York over the weekend?"

  "New York?" Matt's brows drew together. "What makes you think that?"

  "The florist got a pretty good look." Quinn drew out a cigarette, watching Matt as he lighted it.

  "Yeah?" With a half laugh, Matt finally sat. "What the hell are you talking about, Quinn?"

  "The roses you sent to Chantel. You made a mistake this time. The envelope for the card had the florist's name on it."

  "Roses I sent?" Matt dragged a hand through his hair as he shook his head. "I don't know what you're getting at. I—" He stopped then, as understanding came into his eyes. "Good God, you think I've been doing this to her? You think it's me? Damn it, Quinn." He sprang out of the chair. "I thought we knew each other."

  "So did I. Where'd you spend the weekend, Matt?"

  "None of your damn business."

  Blowing out smoke, Quinn remained in his chair. "You can tell me, or I can find out. Either way, I'm going to see to it that you're out of her life."

  Fury showed in clenched fists. Quinn glanced at them, almost hoping Matt would put them to use. A physical outlet would be more to his taste than this psychologic sparring, hoping to wear down his opponent's resistance. "I'm her agent, I'm her friend. When she hit rock bottom, I was there for her. If I'd had those kind of feelings, I could have acted on them then."

  "Where were you over the weekend?" Quinn demanded, determined to play this through to the bitter end.

  "I was out of town," Matt snapped. "Personal business."

  "You've had a lot of personal business going lately. You haven't shown up at all during the filming. You're such a good friend of Chantel's, but you've only seen her twice since you found out what was going on."

  Guilt flashed briefly in his eyes, but then temper obscured it. "If Chantel had wanted me, she would have called me."

  "I wonder if it's you who's been calling her."

  "You're crazy." But Mart's hands shook a bit as he went to pour a drink.

  "You use a money clip, Matt. A silver one," Quinn continued. "One Chantel gave you. The florist picked up on a couple little details like that."

  "You want to see my money clip?" Furious, Matt reached into his pocket and yanked out a wad of bills held together by a small metal clip. It hit the table with a quiet thud.

  Frowning, Quinn picked it up. It was gold, not silver, with Matt's initials engraved on it.

  "I've been using that for two months, since you're so interested. Ever since Marion gave it to me." He picked up his drink and tossed it back. "If it wasn't for Chantel, I'd take a shot at tossing you out."

  "You're entitled to try." Quinn dropped the clip again. "Maybe you'd be smarter to level with me. Where were you over the weekend, Matt?"

  "New York." Swearing, he walked to the window and back. "Brooklyn. From Friday night until Sunday afternoon—I was meeting Marion's parents. Marion Lawrence, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher. Twenty-four," he repeated under his breath, rubbing a hand over his face. "I met her about three months ago. She's twelve years younger than me, bright, innocent, trusting. I should have walked away. Instead, I fell in love with her." After sending Quinn a furious look, he fumbled for a cigarette of his own.

  "I've spent the last three months thinking about how I relate to houses with picket fences. This young, beautiful woman is going to marry me, and I spent the weekend trying to convince her conservative and very
concerned parents that I wasn't some Hollywood playboy out to take their daughter for a ride. I'd rather have faced a firing squad." He puffed on his cigarette without inhaling.

  "Listen, Quinn, if I haven't been around as much as Chantel needed, it was because I've lost my head over an elementary schoolteacher. Look at her." Matt flipped a photograph out of his billfold. "She looks like she could still be in school. I've been living on nerves for weeks."

  Quinn believed him. With a mixture of relief and frustration, Quinn shut the billfold. It could have been a lie, but one man in love easily recognizes another. "What the hell does she see in you?"

  Matt gave a shaky laugh. "She thinks I'm terrific. She knows about the gambling, about everything, and she thinks I'm terrific. I want to marry her before she finds out any different."

  "Good luck."

  "Yeah." Matt put the billfold away. His temper was gone, as were his embarrassment and his nerves. But guilt remained. "If we've got that straightened out, I'd like you to fill me in about Chantel. This character sent her flowers in New York?"

  "That's right."

  "He looked like me?"

  "I don't know what he looked like."

  "But you said—"

  "I lied."

  "You always were a bastard," Matt said without heat. "How's she holding up?"

  "She's struggling. She's going to be better knowing you're clear."

  "Let me ride out with you." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I would've told her about Marion before, but I felt—I guess I felt like an idiot. Here lies Matt Burns, agent of the stars, knocked unconscious by a woman who helps kids tie their shoelaces all day."

  With her hair wet and loose, Chantel came into the poolhouse after a quick swim. The water and exercise had helped clear her head. Now all she wanted was to soothe her body. Hitting the switch for the whirlpool, she sent the bubbles gushing. A sigh of gratitude purred out as she lowered her body into the hot, churning water.

  Quinn would be back soon, and one way or the other they would work things out. She had to concentrate on that, and not on the circumstances that had brought them together. Not on the circumstances that had taken him away tonight.

  Beams from the setting sun came through the ribbon of high windows. The skylights above were deep blue with early evening. Chantel let the jets of water beat the fatigue out of her muscles and soothe the lingering tension from her limbs.

  She was on the verge of having everything she wanted. She had only to say yes to Quinn. He loved her. Chantel closed her eyes on that thought. He loved her for what she was, not what she appeared to be on the surface. No one but her family had ever accepted her totally, with her flaws, her insecurities, her mistakes. Quinn did. A woman could live a lifetime and not find a man who loved what she was on the inside.

  What held her back from taking what she needed was the fear that she might not be able to give him everything—not a family of his own.

  She wanted children. His children. What if she ultimately disappointed him that way? What if he, too, had to pay for her past mistakes? If she didn't love him so much, it would be so easy to say yes.

  She wanted him to come back, to be with her now. If he could just hold her now, she'd know, somehow, the right answer to give him. Chantel closed her eyes and let herself sink a little deeper. When he came back to her she would know, and whatever she did would be right for both of them.

  She heard a sound, a soft one, at the back of the poolhouse. Straightening, Chantel pushed the wet hair away from her face. "Quinn? Don't say anything now." She closed her eyes again. "Just come here."

  Then she heard the music, and her heart shot to her throat.

  It was quiet, lovely, with the bell-like quality only the best music boxes achieve. The sky was nearly dark as the strains of the Moonlight Sonata flowed over the sound of churning water.

  "Quinn." But she said his name knowing he wasn't there. Her hand shook as she reached over and turned off the jets. In the silence, the music box continued to play. Putting the heels of her hands behind her, Chantel pushed herself out of the tub.

  "I've waited so long for this."

 
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