Skin deep, p.18
Skin Deep, p.18Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
At the whisper, the air clogged in her throat. She had to breathe, she told herself. If she was to get to the door she had to breathe, and the door was so far away. The lights dimmed, and the fear raced along her skin.
"You're so beautiful. So incredibly beautiful. Nothing I could imagine or create could be as perfect. Tonight, we'll finally be together."
He was in the shadows near the rear door. Chantel forced herself to look, but even then she couldn't see who it was. "There are guards outside." She balled her hand into a fist, refusing to allow her voice to quiver. "I could scream."
"There's only the guard at the gate, and he's too far away. I had to hurt the others. Sometimes you have to hurt when you love."
She gauged the distance to the front door. "How did you get in?"
"Over the wall by the tennis courts. You haven't been using the tennis courts. I've been watching for you."
"I took care of the alarm. I have some knowledge. My reputation for careful research is well deserved." Brewster stepped out of the shadows with the music box in his hands.
"James." The air in the poolhouse was sultry, but Chantel began to shiver. "Why are you doing this?"
"I love you." His eyes were glazed, and she could see no emotion in them as he walked closer. "When you first formed in my mind, I knew I had to have you. Then you were there, flesh, blood. Real. I had this made for you."
He held out the music box, and Chantel stepped back.
"Don't be afraid of me, Hailey."
"James, I'm Chantel. Chantel."
"Yes, yes, of course." He smiled at her, then set the box down on a little table beside the tub. It continued to play, romantic and sweet. "Chantel O'Hurley, with the perfect face. I've dreamed of you for months. I can't write. My wife thinks I'm agonizing over my new book. But there is no book. There'll never be another book. Chantel, you wouldn't keep my flowers."
"I'm sorry." Quinn would be back, she told herself. The nightmare would be over. She felt exposed in her brief suit, so she reached for her wrap. Training kept her gestures casual, even as her heart roared in her head. "It was the way you sent them, James. You frightened me."
"I never meant to. Hailey—"
"Chantel," she corrected, a flutter of panic in her voice. "I'm Chantel. James, I think we should go into the house and talk about this."
"Chantel?" He looked momentarily puzzled. "No, no, I want to be alone with you. I've waited too long for tonight. The perfect night, when the moon is full. The song." He looked at the music box. "It was meant for you."
"Why didn't you just talk to me?"
"You would have rejected me. Rejected me," he repeated in a rising voice. "Do you think I'm a fool? I've seen you with those young men, all muscles and smooth faces. But none of them love you like I do. You've driven me mad with waiting. You were obsessed with Brad. It was always Brad."
"There is no Brad!" she shouted. "He's a character. There is no Hailey. You made them up. They're not real."
"You're real. I've seen you with him. I've watched the way you look at him, let him touch you, when it should be me. But I've been patient. Tonight." He started toward her. "I've waited for tonight."
Chantel raced for the front door, knowing that if she could beat him she'd have a chance. Grabbing the knob, she pulled, but it held firm.
"I locked it from the outside," Brewster told her quietly. "I knew you'd try to run away. I knew you'd throw my love back in my face."
Chantel spun around, pressing her back to the door. "You don't love me. You're confused. I'm an actress, I'm not your Hailey."
He winced as if in pain and pressed his fingers to his eyes. "Such headaches," he murmured. "No, don't," he warned when she edged toward the back door. He blocked her way, then stepped back into the shadows to pick something up. "I know what I have to do, and there's no running for either of us now, Hailey."
"It's too late," he said viciously. "Too late. I guess I've always known. I hate what you've done to me." He pressed his fingers to his temple as tears welled up in his eyes. "But as God is my witness, I can't let another man have you. You're mine. From the first moment, you were mine. If you could only understand that."
"James." She was afraid to touch him, but she took a small step closer. "Please, come into the house with me. I'm—I'm cold," she said quickly. "I'm wet, I need to change. Then we can sit down and talk."
He looked at her, but saw only what he wanted to see. "You can't lie to me. I created you. You're going to try to leave. You want to see them put me away. My doctor wants to put me away, but I know what I have to do. For both of us. It ends here, Hailey."
He held up the can, and she smelled the gasoline. "Oh, God, no."
"You were meant to die in the fire before, but I couldn't do it then. Now I have to."
He turned the can over as she lunged at him. It hit the floor with a clatter, then skidded, gas soaking into the wood. She fought to get past him. Chantel heard him sob as he shoved her down and her head hit the table. Suddenly there were shooting stars in front of her eyes.
"Chantel's going to want to open a bottle of champagne."
"I think we could all use it," Matt commented as they walked into the house. "Quinn, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me tell her."
"You're entitled." He looked around the cool, quiet hall. "You were entitled to take a swing at me back there."
"You're bigger than I am," Matt said easily.
"I overreacted, Matt. I'm not used to that." He thought about Chantel waiting for him upstairs, and what he would have done, would continue to do to keep her safe. "The thing is I jumped on you with both feet because it was the first solid lead I've had in this whole mess."
"From what you told me, it looks like everything the florist told you fit me."
"What fits you fits someone else. I'm missing it," Quinn murmured. "I'm missing it because I'm too close. You know what the first rule of law enforcement, private or public service, is? Don't get involved."
"A little late for that I take it."
"Way too late. She believed in you," he added. "I think you should know that. Even after I spelled it all out for her she stood behind you."
Touched, Matt fiddled with the lapel of his jacket. "She's a very special woman."
"She's the most beautiful woman I've ever met, inside and out. Integrity. You don't see the integrity when you look at her, or the guts, or the loyalty. It's taken me awhile to get under the surface and see all there is to her." He moved his shoulders, restless, dissatisfied. "Maybe if I'd had a little more of her faith in the people she cares for, I wouldn't have chased down a blind alley."
Matt followed Quinn's gaze up the stairs. If Quinn had overreacted, he thought, then he himself had underreacted. The past few weeks he'd been too involved with his own world to give one of his closest friends the kind of time and attention she needed. He turned the bottle in his hand. He was going to start making up for it now.
"Look, I was pretty steamed before, but I think you're as crazy about Chantel as I am about Marion. I probably would have done the same thing myself."
"Maybe." Quinn glanced at the stairs again. He didn't want champagne. He only wanted to be alone with Chantel, but she needed to see Matt, needed to talk to him. She'd be relieved, and yet he wondered if she would feel the same frustration he was experiencing. They'd come so far, yet they'd gone nowhere. "I hate what she's going through."
"So do I." Matt laid a hand on his shoulder. "The past couple months have taught me that love can drive anybody crazy. I guess it's like Brewster said in that interview."
"It was in the paper tonight. They did an article on Strangers, focusing on Hailey. The way he described her, hell, you'd have thought she was real. But he said something that rang true—about how when a man really loves a woman, he sees her as no one else does, that no matter what he accomplishes, what he fails at, she stays at the center of his life,
"You could tell the reporter got a charge out of that. He played up how Chantel must be turning in an Emmy-winning performance to have the writer confuse the actress with the character."
"Damn." Quinn slammed his fist against the newel post and started up the stairs. "He practically confessed this afternoon. He all but spit it in my lap."
"What are you—" But Quinn was gone. Matt just shrugged and wondered if he had time to telephone Marion.
"Call the fire department." Quinn shouted, taking the steps three at a time. "The poolhouse is going up."
"It's on fire?"
"She's in there." Quinn was at the door before Matt picked up the phone. "He's got her in there."
Chantel shook her head to try to clear it. The room swam, and she struggled to her hands and knees. She smelled the smoke first, thick and pungent, as it had been that afternoon during the filming. But this wasn't special effects, she remembered. She heard the crackle of flames and looked over to see the floor turn to fire.
He was still blocking the back door, standing there as if hypnotized by the fire, which was spreading fast. He wasn't trying to leave. He would die here, he wanted to die here. And he would take her with him.
Chantel stood, choking on smoke as she looked around frantically. Her head throbbed and spun, but she couldn't allow herself the luxury of passing out. The windows were too high. She'd never get out that way. The front door was barred. There was only one exit. She had to get past him before the fire closed it off.
Her breath came in a fit of coughing, but he didn't hear. The flames held his attention as they ate greedily at the far wall. The heat was growing, visible in waves that shimmered between her and the door. Moving fast, Chantel grabbed a towel and dumped it in the tub. Then, draping it over her face, she looked for a weapon.
The music box sat on the table, playing though the tune was muffled by the sound of flames. She took it and, on legs that threatened to buckle, walked behind Brewster.
He was crying. She heard it now as she raised the heavy wooden box over her head. Tears were streaking her own face, blurring her vision. It was so much like the scene she had studied, rehearsed, tried to understand.
Hailey, she thought as smoke clouded her brain. It was the cabin, her New England retreat. She was Hailey and she'd brought tragedy on herself, on those who had loved her. Past mistakes, past loves, past lives. If only she hadn't given her love and her innocence to Brad… To Dustin?
Her vision went gray, and she fought to clear it. There was no Brad. Only Quinn. Quinn was real and she was Chantel. An O'Hurley. O'Hurleys were survivors.
Weeping, she smashed the box down on Brewster's head.
When he crumpled at her feet, she could only crouch, panting, struggling to find air in a room consumed by smoke and flame.
Had she killed him? She looked at the doorway, framed now by flames. Her only way out. Survival. She took a step forward, stopped, then bent over Brewster.
He'd loved her. Mad or sane, whatever he'd done had been tied to her. Somehow, later, she would sort it out, but she couldn't save herself without trying to save him.
She snatched off the towel and covered his face with it. The ceiling gave an ominous crack, but she didn't dare look. She didn't think. Everything was centered on living. Hooking her hands under his armpits, Chantel began to drag him toward the door and closer to the flames.
She was losing. There was no air to fill her lungs as she dragged the deadweight of Brewster's unconscious body. The fire was winning, edging closer. She felt the furnace blast of heat on her skin and wished desperately that she'd taken the time to wet some towels.
Inches from the door, she stumbled and fell, lightheaded from lack of oxygen. A little farther, she demanded, dragging herself and Brewster across the floor. Oh, God, just a little farther.
She watched, too dazed to be frightened, as a beam fell, flaming, into the hot tub.
She heard the shout dimly as her consciousness started to waver. Somehow she managed to gain another two inches.
Quinn kicked in the front door and saw nothing but a wall of flame. He screamed for her again and heard nothing but fire. The roof was going. He ran for the doorway, but the heat drove him back. It was then he saw her, or thought he did, slumped by the far wall, with the flames separating them.
Coughing on the smoke he'd swallowed, he raced around the building, praying for the first time in his adult life.
She'd almost made it. That was his first thought as he saw her, collapsed against Brewster near the door. Burning wood showered from the ceiling as he hurled his body over hers. He felt it hit and sear his hand before he dragged her out onto the grass.
"In the name of God—" Matt began as he raced to them.
"Brewster's in there," Quinn managed. "Take care of her."
Quinn fought the heat again, nearly giving way at what had been the back doorway. Crawling on his belly, he inched closer, until he managed to grip Brewster's wrist. If there was a pulse, he couldn't feel it, but he dragged him back. As the roof collapsed inward, he left Brewster lying on the grass and rolled onto his back to draw in air.
"Chantel." Still coughing, he crawled to her. Her face was smeared with soot. He heard the sirens as she opened her eyes to look at him.
"I got him out. Don't try to talk now." She began to shiver, though the heat was still intense. Quinn stripped off his shirt and covered her. "She's in shock," he said tersely. "Smoke inhalation. She needs the hospital."
"I told them to send an ambulance." Matt peeled off his sweater and added it to Quinn's shirt. "She's going to be all right. She's tough."
"Yeah." Quinn cradled her head in his lap. "Yeah."
"He thought I was Hailey." She groped for his hand as she wavered in and out of consciousness.
"I know. Shhh." He took her hand and squeezed. The pain from his burns was real. She was real. And they were alive.
"I… for a little while in there, so did I. Quinn, tell me who I am."
"Chantel O'Hurley. The only woman I've ever loved."
"Thanks," she whispered, and drifted off.
By the time he was allowed to see her, Quinn had gone twenty-four hours without sleep. He'd refused to leave the hospital to change, and his clothes were streaked and reeking of smoke. Throughout the night he'd paced the halls and driven the nurses crazy.
She'd been treated for shock and smoke inhalation. The doctors had assured him that all she needed was rest. He intended to see and speak to her himself before he went anywhere. And when he went, she was going with him.
At dawn the day after the fire, Chantel awoke from a drugged sleep. When the doctor came out of her room, he was shaking his head. He looked at Quinn, noting his bandaged hand and singed clothing. "You can see her now. I'm going to process her discharge papers, though if you have any influence you should talk her into staying one more day for observation."
"I can take care of her at home."
The doctor sent a dubious look in the direction of the door. "Maybe you can. Mr. Doran?"
Quinn stopped with his hand on the knob. "Yes?"
"She's a very strong-willed woman."
"I know." For the first time in hours, Quinn smiled. He opened the door to see Chantel sitting up in bed, frowning into a mirror.
"I look horrible."
"Beauty's only skin deep," he said as she lowered the mirror to look at him.
"It's a good thing, because you look worse than I do. Oh, Quinn…" She spread her arms wide. "You're really here," she whispered as she used all her strength to squeeze. "It's all right now, isn't it? Everything's going to be all right."
"It's over. I should have taken better care of you."
"I'll dock your pay."
"You saved my life," she told him as she drew away.
"When I think of what might have happened—"
"No." She put her fingertips to his mouth. "I don't want to think of 'what ifs' anymore, Quinn. I'm safe and so are you. That's all that matters now. And… and James…"
"He'll live," Quinn said, answering her unspoken question. He stood and began to prowl the room. "He's going to be put away, Chantel. I'm going to help see to that."
"Quinn, he was so pathetic, so confused. He created something that overwhelmed him."
"He would have killed you."
"He would have killed Hailey," she corrected. "I can only pity him."
"Forget him," Quinn told her, knowing he would have to if he didn't want to be eaten alive by bitterness. "Your family's coming."
"Here? All of them?"
"Your sisters, your parents. Nobody knows how to reach Trace."
"Quinn, I don't want to disrupt Maddy's honeymoon. And everyone else—"
"Wants to make sure you're all right. That's what families are for, right?"
"Yes." She folded her hands. "It is. Quinn, you deserve a family, your own family."
He turned to her, ready to fight for what he needed. "I know what I want, Chantel."
"Yes, I think you do." She'd made her decision when she'd opened her eyes on the grass and seen his face. "Quinn, before all of this happened last night, I was waiting for you. I knew when you came back and held me I'd make the right choice, for both of us." She glanced around the room, then into the mirror. With a grimace she set it facedown on the table beside her. "This isn't exactly how I expected things to be, but it would help a lot if you'd come here and put your arms around me."
He sat on the bed beside her and gathered her close. "Listen, I have to tell you this. When I got there last night and the poolhouse was burning, I knew you were inside because my heart had stopped. If I had lost you, it would never have started again."
"Quinn." She lifted her head, searching for his lips. Finding them, she found all the answers she needed. "I'd like a short engagement," she said, smiling. "Very, very short."
Skin Deep by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.4 out of 5 / Based on43 votes