Skin deep, p.3
Skin Deep, p.3Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
I parade myself on the screen, I don't dress in burlap and wear a veil over my face, therefore I asked for what I got. And I deserve it."
Her cool beauty was compelling, but her passionate outburst was like seeing fire in ice. Quinn ignored the tightening in his gut and shrugged. "That's close enough."
"Thank you for your time," she said, and turned away. Before she could stop herself, she was whirling back. "Why don't you take a walk into the twentieth century? Just because a woman is attractive and doesn't disguise the fact doesn't mean she deserves to be abused—verbally, physically or emotionally."
"I don't believe I said an attractive woman, or any woman, deserves abuse," Quinn commented.
His careless tone only stoked the fires. "Just because I'm an actress and sexuality is part of my craft doesn't mean I'm fair game for any man who wants a piece of me. If I play the part of a murderer, it doesn't mean I should go on trial."
"You appeal to a man's most primitive fantasies, Miss O'Hurley, and you do it in Technicolor. There's bound to be a little backwash."
"So I should just take my medicine," she murmured. "You're an idiot. You're the kind of man who wears his brain below his belt. The kind who thinks if a woman agrees to have dinner with him she should pay for it with a romp between the sheets. Well, I can pay for my own dinner, Mr. Doran, and I can handle my own problems. I'm sure you can find the door."
"Chantel," Matt began, but she turned on him like a cat. "I'll just have a few more canapé’s," he muttered.
"What?" Chantel spun around to face her tall, aging majordomo, then drew in a long, cleansing breath "Yes, Marsh, what is it?"
It was the tone that had Quinn narrowing his eyes. There was an underlying straightforward quality to it that ignored any domestic caste system and spoke human to human. Though nerves had her body strung tight, she smiled at the old man.
"These were just delivered for you."
"Thank you." Chantel crossed the room to him and took the vase of daylilies. "I won't need you any more tonight, Marsh."
"Very good, Miss."
Stepping behind Quinn, she went to a table by the windows. "Why don't you show your friend out, Matt? I don't think—"
She had the card in her hands and was staring at it. Her fingers trembled momentarily before she crushed the paper. Before she could drop it on the floor, Quinn had her wrist and was slowly drawing the mangled note from her. What he read made his stomach tighten, this time in disgust.
"No more than I deserve?" Chantel's voice was cold, almost detached, but her eyes, when Quinn looked into them, were terrified. He slipped the paper into his pocket as he took her arm.
"Why don't you sit down?"
"Was it another one?" Matt started toward them, but Quinn motioned to the bar.
"Get her a brandy."
"I don't want a drink. I don't want to sit down. I want you to go." When she started to pull her arm away, Quinn merely tightened his hold and led her to the sofa. "How often do you get one of these?"
"Nearly every day." She picked up a cigarette, then put it back.
"All of them as… direct?"
"No." She took the brandy and sipped at it, hating to admit she needed it. "That started a couple of weeks ago."
"What did you do with the notes?"
"I tossed out the first few. Then, when the tone started to change, I was going to burn them." The brandy warmed her but did nothing to settle her. "I kept them. I'm not sure why. I suppose I thought I should have them if things got out of hand."
"Call your servant back in. I want to ask him some questions. And go get the other letters."
His orders did what the brandy hadn't. Chantel felt her spine straighten. "It's none of your concern, Mr. Doran. We've already settled that."
"This just unsettled it." He drew the paper out of his pocket and watched her slight but definite recoil.
"I don't want your help."
"I didn't say I'd give it yet." He let that hang as they continued to stare at each other. "The letters? Unless you've got a better idea what to do about all this."
At that moment, at that one shimmering moment, she despised him. She could have hidden it. She was skilled enough. She didn't bother. Before she could speak, Matt laid a hand on her shoulder. His fingers moved as restlessly as hers.
"Please, Chantel. Think before you say anything."
She kept her eyes on Quinn's. "I wouldn't want to say what I'm thinking." When his lips curved again, she gritted her teeth. "Or perhaps I would."
"Chantel." Matt gave her shoulder a light squeeze. "I don't like ultimatums, but if we can't deal with Quinn, I'm going to call the police. No," he continued when her head shot back, "I mean it. You're a smart woman. Be practical."
She hated being backed into a corner. Quinn could see it. She was a woman who insisted on having the choice and the control in her own hands. It was something he could admire, even respect. Maybe, just maybe, there was more to Chantel O'Hurley than met the eye.
"All right, we'll do it your way. For now." She rose, at once regal and strong. "Don't badger Marsh." She met Quinn's eyes levelly. "He's old and getting frail. I don't want him upset."
"I haven't kicked a dog all day," Quinn told her.
"Only small children and kittens," she murmured, then swept from the room.
"Quite a woman, your client."
"She's all of that," Matt agreed. "And she's scared right down to her toes. She doesn't scare easily."
"I bet she doesn't." Quinn took out a cigarette and tapped it idly against the pack. He was forced to admit that he had thought she was simply dramatizing. The few sentences printed on the card had changed his mind. They were just short of vile. For Quinn, the line of demarcation between right and wrong was flexible, but the card fell well on the wrong side. Still, before he decided just how much he wanted to be involved, there were a few things he had to know.
He glanced back at Matt, watching him pace. "Just how close are the two of you?"
"We have a solid, mutually advantageous arrangement." Matt gave Quinn a sober smile. "And she doesn't sleep with me."
"She knows what she wants, and what she doesn't want. She wanted an agent. But I do care about her." He cast a worried look at the doorway. "She's already gone through enough."
"Enough of what?"
With a shake of his head, Matt sat again. "Another story, and nothing to do with this. Are you going to be able to help her?"
Quinn drew slowly on his cigarette. "I don't know."
"Excuse me." Marsh stood in the doorway, still dressed in his black suit and starched collar. "Miss O'Hurley said you wanted to speak with me."
"I wondered if you could tell me about the person who delivered the flowers." Quinn gestured toward them and watched the old man squint. Nearsighted, he thought.
"They were delivered by a young man, eighteen, perhaps twenty. He rang from the gate and explained that he had a delivery for Miss O'Hurley."
"Was he wearing a uniform?"
Marsh's brows knit as he concentrated. "I don't believe so. I can't say for certain."
"Did you happen to see his car?"
"No, sir. I took the flowers at the back door."
"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
"Perhaps. I think I might."
"Thank you, Marsh."
Marsh hesitated. Then, remembering his position, he bowed stiffly. "Very good, sir."
As he walked back into the hallway, Quinn heard Chantel stop him for a brief, murmured conversation. Her voice, he noticed, was soothing from a distance, quiet and easy. Up close, its smoky quality could twine around a man's nerve endings and make him want. She came back in, carrying a small pack of letters.
"I'm sure you'll find it fascinating reading," she said as she tossed them into Quinn's lap. "My guess is it's close to the technique you use to court women."
She'd regained her spirit, Quinn decided a
The first few notes he read were fawning in their admiration and subtly suggestive. And well written, Quinn added silently. The work of an educated person. As he went on, the prose and syntax remained good but the content deteriorated. Even a man who had seen and done what he had felt instant distaste. The writer went into graphic and pitiless detail, outlining his fantasies, his needs and his intentions. The last few letters added veiled hints that the writer was close by. Watching. Waiting.
When he'd finished, Quinn stacked the letters in a neat pile. "You sure you don't want the cops in on this?"
Chantel had seated herself across from him, and now she folded her hands in her lap. She didn't like him, she told herself. She didn't like the way he looked, the way he moved. She didn't like the fact that his voice was almost poetic, so very different from his lived-in face. So why, if all this was true, did she feel as though she wanted, even needed, his help. She kept her eyes on his. Sometimes you made bargains with the devil.
"No, I don't want the police. I don't want publicity on this. What I want is for this man to be found and stopped."
Quinn rose and poured himself another drink. Both the glasses and ice bucket were Rosenthal. He appreciated elegant things, just as he appreciated the cruder things in life. Beer from a bottle or wine from a crystal glass, it hardly mattered, as long as your thirst was quenched. He appreciated beauty, but he wasn't duped by it. An outer shell meant nothing. He'd shed plenty of his own when the occasion had called for it.
Chantel O'Hurley had beauty, had elegance. If he took the job, by the very nature of it he was bound to discover how much was shell, how much was substance. That was what had him hesitating. He understood just how dangerous knowledge of another person could be—to all involved.
He could control the attraction he felt for her looks, as long as he chose to. His mood on that could change from day to day. What he wouldn't control, had never been able to control, was his curiosity as to what lay beneath the skin.
Swallowing his vodka, he turned back around. She was sitting back in her chair, and one would have thought from looking at her that she was relaxed, even aloof. The fingers on her left hand moved, just a little, curling together, spreading apart, as if she had managed to center her nerves only there. He shrugged and matched his mood to hers.
"Five hundred a day, plus expenses."
She lifted a brow. It was the only movement she made. With it, she conveyed a range of feeling—amusement, consideration and dislike. What it didn't show was the surge of relief that passed through her.
"That's a princely sum, Mr. Doran."
"You'll get your money's worth."
"That's something I insist on." Leaning back, she steepled her fingers under her chin. Her wrists were slender, and her hands were as delicate as her face. A diamond flashed on her right hand, then became as white and cool as the rest of her. "Just what do I get for five hundred a day plus expenses?"
His lips curved just before he brought the glass to them. "You get me, Miss O'Hurley."
She smiled a little. Sparring helped. She was back in control again, and the fear was ebbing. "Interesting." The look she sent him was designed to pin a man to the wall and make him beg. Quinn felt the punch and acknowledged the power. "What do I do with you?"
"You've got it backward." He walked to her then, stopping by her chair to lean close. She caught a hint of scent, not cologne, not soap or powder, but raw and completely comfortable masculinity. Though she didn't retreat from it, she braced herself, recognizing her own attraction.
"Just what do I have backward, Mr. Doran?"
She looked like a painting, one he thought he'd seen in the Louvre a lifetime ago. "It's what I do with you. Five hundred a day, angel, and your trust. That's my price. You pay it and you get twenty-four-hour protection, starting with one of my men posted as a guard at that gate of yours."
"If I already have the gate, why do I need a guard?"
"Did it ever occur to you that a gate doesn't do a hell of a lot of good if you're going to open it up to anyone who asks?"
"What didn't occur to me was that I'd have to lock myself in."
"Get used to it, because whoever's sending you flowers doesn't have a clean bill of health."
Panic came and went in her eyes. He gave her points for how quickly she mastered it. "I'm aware of that."
"I need your schedule. Starting tomorrow, one of my men goes with you every time you stick your pretty nose out the door."
"No." The O'Hurley stubbornness came through as she rose to face him. "For five hundred a day I want you, Doran. You're the one Matt trusts, and you're the one I'm paying for."
They stood close, very close. He could smell the scent that seemed to seep through her pores, neither quiet nor subtle. The perfection of her face could take a man's breath away. Her hair swept back from it in a glorious cascade, like an angel's. If a man touched it, would he find heaven or be cast from the clouds? When it came to that, Quinn wouldn't worry about the consequences.
"You might regret it," he murmured, then smiled slowly.
So she might. Chantel already knew that, but pride wouldn't let her back down. "I pay for you, Mr. Doran. That's the deal."
"You're the boss." He lifted his drink to her. "Two of my men will come by in the morning to wire the phone."
"I don't want—"
"I don't take the job if you tie my hands." His easy smile was gone as quickly as it had formed. "We tap the phone, maybe he says something to give himself away, maybe we get lucky and trace it. Just think of us as doctors." He smiled at her again, enjoying himself. "If you want to say something intimate to one of your… friends, don't worry. We've heard it all and more."
Temper had always been the most difficult of her emotions to master. It surged up and was fought back down before she spoke again. "I'm quite sure you have. What else?"
"I'll take the letters with me. It's doubtful we'll be able to trace the paper, but we'll give it a shot. Now is there anyone you know who you think could be doing this?"
"No." The answer came immediately and with complete confidence. He decided to run a check on everyone close to her.
"Dump anyone in the last few months that may be carrying a torch for you?"
"Cute." He drew a pad and the stub of a pencil out of his pocket. "I need the names of who you've slept with. We'll go back three months."
"Go to hell," she said sweetly, then started to sit. He caught her by the wrist.
"Look, I'm not going to play games with you. I'm not personally interested in how many men you've had in your bed. This is business."
"That's right." She tossed her head back. "My business."
Her skin was warmer than it looked. That was something he filed away to think about later. "One of them might just have gone off the deep end. Maybe you slept with him a couple times and it gave him delusions of grandeur. Think about it. This all started six weeks ago, so who were you with before that?"
Annoyance covered his face as he tightened his hold. "Give me a break, angel. I haven't got all night."
"I said no one." She yanked her arm away. For a moment she wished she could rattle off a dozen names, two dozen names, just to see him sweat. "Believe whatever you like."
"I tell you what I don't believe, and that's that you spend your evenings alone, darning socks."
"I don't jump into bed with every man who passes within five feet of me." In a calculated move, she dropped her gaze down as if measuring the distance between them.
"It looks like about ten inches to me," he murmured.
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I have to be interested first, and I haven't been. Besides, I've been working, and it tends to take up a great deal of my time." Unconsciously she rubbed at her wrist, w
"Come on, Quinn, ease off." Feeling trapped in the middle, Matt moved over and put an arm around Chantel's shoulders. "She's had it rough enough."
"It's not my job to hold her hand." Quinn scooped up the letters, annoyed by the twinge of self-disgust he felt. "I'll be back tomorrow. What time do you get up?"
"Five-fifteen." She couldn't resist a smirk when he only stared at her. "I leave for the studio at five forty-five. That's a.m., Mr. Doran. Can you handle it?"
"You just write the check. Fifteen hundred in advance."
"You'll have it. Good night, Mr. Doran. It's been unusual."
"Do yourself a favor and don't answer your phone any more tonight." With that, he nodded to Matt and strode out. Chantel waited for the sound of the door closing behind him. She went to the coffee table and drew out another cigarette.
"Your friend's a bastard, Matt."
"Always has been," he agreed. "But he's the best."
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Chantel had thought she wouldn't sleep. The house had seemed so enormous around her, and so enormously quiet. But she had climbed into bed with a vision of Quinn Doran hovering in her mind. Just the thought of him made her furious, insulted her intelligence, nipped at her ego. And made her feel safe.
She slept only six hours, but she slept deeply.
Music woke her, pouring from the wall unit beside the bed. She rolled over, surrounded by pillows, covered with ivory linen sheets and nothing else.
The bed had been one of the first luxuries she had indulged herself with, almost before she could afford it. It was huge and old, with a carved cherrywood headboard that had made her think of princesses waking up from a hundred years of sleep. Growing up, she had invariably slept in hotel beds, and she'd decided that a sinfully beautiful bed was something she deserved to indulge herself in when she signed her first film contract. A small part in a full-length feature had been enough to pin her hopes on. Years later, when she awoke in the antique four-poster it still gave her the same satisfaction.
She thought back to the time when she had still lived in the small apartment in L.A. The bed had taken up the entire room, and she had had to crawl over it to reach the doorway. Her two sisters had visited once, and the three of them had stretched across it and talked and giggled for hours.
She wished they could be with her now. The feeling of safety would be more tangible.
She'd nearly told Maddy about the letters and calls when she'd gone to New York a few weeks before. Part of her had wanted to, needed to, but Maddy had been so preoccupied. She'd been entitled, Chantel reminded herself as she sat up and stretched. Her play had been nearly ready to open, and her heart had been wrapped up in the man who was backing it. All for a good cause, Chantel thought with a smile. The play was a smash, and Maddy was planning her wedding.
He'd better be good to her, Chantel thought as the old protective instinct rose up in her. She had had to watch one sister go through a miserable marriage. She couldn't bear it if Maddy was hurt, as well.
Maddy would be fine, she reassured herself. Just as Abby was fine. They had both found the right man at the right time. So she had one sister planning a wedding and the other preparing for the birth of her third child. She couldn't spoil all that by dumping her problems on them now. Besides, she was the eldest triplet, if only by a matter of minutes. To Chantel, that meant that she had the responsibility to be the strongest. They would be there for her, of course, just as she would be there for them. But she was the oldest.
They'd come so far. Chantel sat in the middle of the lush bed and looked around a room that was larger than the whole of her first apartment in California. Why was it she felt as though she still had so far to go?
Skin Deep by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.4 out of 5 / Based on43 votes