Skin deep, p.6
Skin Deep, p.6Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
"For a whole forty-eight hours."
"That's enough for me. I'll pay your fee through today and we'll—" She broke off, the words sticking in her throat as the phone beside the bed began to ring. Without realizing it, Chantel found her hand in Quinn's, her fingers locked tight.
"They'll pick it up downstairs," he murmured. "Don't panic. If it's him, just keep calm. Try to get him to talk, to stay on the line as long as possible. We need time to run a trace." When the intercom buzzed, she jumped. "Pull yourself together, Chantel. You can handle it."
Working at keeping her breathing steady, Chantel spoke into the intercom. "Yes?"
"There's a man on the line, Miss O'Hurley. He won't give his name, but he says it's important. Shall I tell him you're unavailable?"
"Yes, I—" Quinn's hand curled around her wrist. "No, no, I'll take it. Thank you."
"Take it slow," Quinn told her. "Just let him talk."
Her fingers were stiff and cold as she picked up the receiver. "Hello." Quinn only had to look at her face to know she was hearing the familiar whisper.
"Don't lose it," he said quietly, keeping her free hand in his. "Just keep him on the line. Stay calm and answer him."
"Thank you," she managed, despite the block in her throat. "Yes, yes, I've gotten all your letters. No, I'm not angry." She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that the things he was saying didn't make her skin crawl. "I wish you'd tell me who you are. If you'd—" Caught between frustration and relief, she brought the receiver away from her ear. "He hung up."
"Damn." After setting the tray on the floor beside the bed, Quinn leaned over her and punched a few buttons on the phone. "It's Quinn." He swore again. "Yeah, just keep on it. Right. Not enough time," he told Chantel as he hung up the phone again. "Did he say anything that rang a bell, anything that makes you think of someone you know?"
"No." She trembled once before she regained control. "No one I know has a mind like that."
"Drink some coffee." He poured more into her cup, then handed it to her. She drank to ease the tightness in her throat.
"Quinn." She had to swallow again. "He said—he said he had a surprise for me, a big surprise." When she turned her head to look at him, her eyes were huge and dark. "He said it wouldn't be much longer."
"Let me worry about him." He'd always had a soft spot for the defenseless. It had gotten him into trouble before—in South America, in Afghanistan, and in countless other places. Even though he knew it might be dangerous in a more personal way, he slipped an arm around her shoulders and brought her close. "That's what you're paying me for, angel."
"He's going to get to me." She said it with such flat finality that he tightened his hold. "I can feel it."
"He'll have a hard time doing that with me in the way. Listen, I've got two men patrolling the grounds, two others monitoring the phones."
"It doesn't seem to help." She closed her eyes and for a moment let herself lean on him. "Maybe it's because I can't see them."
"You can see me, can't you?"
"Yeah." And she could feel him, could feel the hard, working muscles of his arm and shoulder, the not-so-smooth skin of his face.
"Want to see more of me?"
Cautious, Chantel lifted her face to look into his. There was humor there, but—she was sure she was mistaken—it looked as though there were genuine concern, as well. "I beg your pardon?"
"I like the way you do that. Angel, you could cut a man off at the knees without lifting a finger."
"It's a talent of mine. Explain, Doran."
"Why don't I move in for a while? Now don't let your ego get the best of you," he warned as she started to stiffen. "You've got plenty of rooms in this place, and though I am developing a real fondness for your bed, I can make do with another. What do you say, angel? Want a housemate?"
She frowned at him, hating to admit how much safer she would feel with him around all the time. The house was certainly big enough to keep them out of each other's way, though privacy would go out of the window. The real problem would be remembering just how he'd made her feel during that one sizzling kiss. If he were around twenty-four hours a day, remembering might not be enough.
"Maybe I should buy that vicious dog," Chantel muttered.
That was true. It was. And she knew exactly how to handle it—and him. "Go ahead and get your duffel bag, Doran. We'll find a corner for you to sleep in." Sitting up, she flipped through the script again. She felt better, she couldn't deny it. The icy fist in her stomach had loosened. "How much extra is this going to cost me?"
"Meals—and I want more than a bowl of fruit in the morning—use of the facilities and, since this is going to play hell with my social life, another two hundred a day."
"Two hundred?" Chantel gave a quick, unladylike snort. "I can't imagine your social life's worth more than fifty. Isn't that the going rate in the massage parlors?"
"What do you know about massage parlors?"
She slanted him a look. "Just what I see in the movies, darling."
"How about a hands-on demonstration?" He lifted a finger and slid a strap from her shoulder. Instead of replacing it, Chantel simply studied the script.
"No, thanks. I doubt if there's anything you could teach me."
"I was thinking more the other way around." When he nudged the other strap aside, Chantel lifted her gaze to his. He was baiting her, and she wasn't ready to nibble.
"Try me when I've got a few weeks to spare, Doran. With you, I'm afraid we'd have to start from scratch."
"I'm a fast learner." He slid his hand up her shoulder until his thumb brushed her jaw.
She grabbed his wrist before she could stop herself, but her voice remained steady. "Watch your step."
"If you watch your step, you miss too much."
He'd wanted to touch her again, to feel her skin smooth and warm under his hands. He'd wanted to see her eyes darken, partly from anger, partly from temptation, when he did. She looked ready to rake his face, but the bite of her nails wouldn't stop him from sampling the fire she held so well banked inside her. The fire she let flame so explosively on screen.
When her free hand came up, he grabbed it. She held one of his, he held one of hers. As far as Quinn was concerned, they were even. He thought it was pride that kept her from struggling, pride and the confidence that she could bring him to his knees whenever she chose. He wasn't as certain as he wanted to be that she couldn't.
He was just about to let her go when her chin lifted and her eyes dared him. He'd always been a sucker for a dare.
With his eyes open and on hers, he lowered his mouth. But he didn't kiss her. Chantel felt the impact, both surprised and aroused, when he caught her bottom lip between his teeth. The chilly nonresponse she'd been determined to give him began to heat.
She could have stopped him. Her brother Trace had taught her and her sisters how to defend themselves from overamorous members of the male sex. Chantel was aware that she could take Quinn by surprise and have him bent over double and gasping for air with one quick jerk of her knee. She lay still, hypnotized by the green eyes that watched her.
She wasn't supposed to have these kind of feelings, this kind of hunger. She had blocked them out years before, when her emotions had made a fool of her. She wasn't supposed to have this slow, curling sensation in her stomach. Her bones weren't supposed to liquify at a touch. She'd done love scene after love scene—choreographed, blocked out, shot and reshot for the camera—and had felt nothing that hadn't been programmed into her character. She knew just how little the most passionate embrace could mean to the two people involved.
This light, nibbling sensation on her lip should have done nothing but annoy her. But she lay still, trapped by an urgent desire to absorb the rushing range of feeling it brought to her.
Impossible. It had to be impossible, but he felt innocence shimmering around her. If it was an act, she was more skilled than she had a right to be. If it wasn't—But he couldn'
Desire. Desire was something easily quenched and easily forgotten. It would pay to remember that. Any man was bound to want her. But he wasn't sure any man would be able to forget her. There was too much power in her, the power to make a man hunger, to make him ache, to make him weak. Quinn couldn't afford to lose his hold. With her lips warm and soft under his, he reminded himself that he had two priorities. One was to keep her safe. The other was to look out for himself.
When he felt himself sinking, he pulled back. The ground was too unsteady here. For once he would indeed watch his step. "You pack a punch, angel."
Steady, she told herself, struggling to find a foothold. It meant nothing to him, nothing more than the eternal war of wills men and women fought. He hadn't gone soft inside or felt the need to be loved, the need to believe that maybe, just maybe, this was right. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing she had.
"Next time it'll flatten you."
"You might be right," he muttered, and shifted away. "Your skin's a little pale." He skimmed his gaze over her bare shoulders and cursed himself for the twist of need he felt. "Get dressed and meet me out by the pool.
I'll bring you up to date on what we have so far." He rolled from the bed and, taking the file with him, left her alone. He needed some air, fast.
Quinn cut through the water of the pool like an eel, smooth, fast and quiet. When Chantel came onto the patio, she stood in the sunlight and watched him. She hadn't been wrong about the feel of his muscles. She could see them now, rippling with each stroke of his arm, bunching with each kick of his leg. He'd chosen brief black trunks from the stack she kept in the pool-house for guests. They fit low and snug over his hips.
Still, she imagined he'd picked them for comfort rather than impact. As far as she could tell, Quinn Doran considered himself too irresistible to think about such things. She chose a chair by an umbrellaed table and waited for him to surface.
The physical exertion helped. Quinn realized he'd pushed himself closer to the limit with her than he'd intended. He still wasn't sure why he'd made a move toward her when he knew she was the kind of woman a smart man kept his distance from. He'd always been smart. That was the way you survived. But he'd also always had a habit of giving in to temptation. That was the way you lived. Though his life had never been dull, Chantel O'Hurley was his biggest temptation so far.
By the time he'd crossed the length of the pool and back thirty times, most of the tension had drained. Under other circumstances he would have used a punching bag to relieve it, but he was willing to make use of whatever was available.
Tossing wet hair from his face, he stood in the shallow end, water lapping at his thighs. And he saw her.
Tipped back in the chair, her face shaded by a big, white umbrella, she was the epitome of cool, gut-wrenching beauty. She'd pulled her hair up and back so that her face was unframed. It needed no framing. The sleek, severe style only accented that fact. The snug top she wore was cut deep at the shoulders and cinched into the waistband of cropped shorts that showed off long, long legs. His gaze lingered on those legs as he hauled himself out of the pool.
"You've got a hell of a foundation, angel."
"So I'm told." Reaching beside her, she picked up a towel. "I see you're finding your way around all right." She tossed the towel to him, but he did no more than sling it around his neck. The sunlight shimmered on the drops of water on his bronzed skin.
"I like it."
"Then you should use it more. Swimming's a great way to keep in shape."
"I'll worry about my shape, Doran." Temper was licking its way to the surface. Chantel coated it with sarcasm. "Is this going to take long? I want to get my nails done this afternoon."
"We'll fit it in."
"We?" She couldn't prevent a smile as he sat across from her. "Somehow I can't picture you in a chi-chi little place like Nail It Down."
"I've been in worse." He shifted the chair slightly, placing himself in full sunlight. "Anything else on your agenda today?"
"Oh, maybe a little window-shopping on Rodeo Drive," she said on the spur of the moment, just to make things tougher. "Lunch at Ma Maison, I think, or perhaps the Bistro." She rested her chin on the back of her hand. "It's been days since I've seen anyone. You do have something appropriate to wear, don't you?"
"I'll get by. Then there's that charity dinner tonight."
Her smile faded. "How did you know about that?"
"It's my job to know." Though he didn't need them Quinn flipped through his notes. "My secretary contacted Sean Carter and explained you had another escort."
"Then she can contact him again. Sean and I arranged to go together to help promote the film."
"Are you willing to get into a dark limo with a man who might be—"
"It's not Sean." After cutting him off, Chantel reached for the pack of cigarettes Quinn had tossed on the table.
"We'll just play this my way." Quinn picked up his lighter and flicked it on. "I'll take you to your little party, and if you like you can cuddle with Sean for the cameras. What about tomorrow?"
Chantel gave him a poisonous look. "You tell me."
Quinn patiently flipped open his file. "You've got a reporter and photographer from Life-styles coming at one to do a story on you and the house. That's all I've got."
She dropped the cigarette in an ashtray and let it smolder. "Because that's all there is. I have some personal things to attend to here at home, then I go to bed early because Monday's a working day."
"Matt said you were practical." Quinn flipped the page over. "Larry Washington."
"Get on with it," she told him. "You won't be happy until you do."
"The kid looks clean enough on the surface. Graduated UCLA last year with a degree in business management. Seems he always had a thing for the theater, but preferred the setups and backstage stuff to the acting."
"Which is exactly why I hired him."
"Apparently he had a pretty heavy thing going with a co-ed until about six months ago. A very attractive blue-eyed blonde. She dumped him."
He didn't have to spell out the implications. "A lot of women have blue eyes, and a lot of college romances break up."
"Amos Leery," he continued, ignoring her. "Did you know his first wife divorced him because he couldn't keep his hands off other women?"
"Yes, I know. And it was fifteen years ago, so—"
"Old habits die hard. George McLintoch."
"That's pitiful, Doran. Even for you."
"He's been a makeup artist for thirty-three years. Has five grandchildren and another due in the fall. Since his wife died a couple of years ago, he's had a few problems with the bottle."
"That's enough." She rose and paced to the edge of the pool. The water was calm and crystal clear. So had her life been only a few weeks before. "That's really enough. I'm not going to sit here and listen to you dissect the personal problems of people I work with." She looked back over her shoulder. "You're in a filthy business."
"That's right." Not by a flicker did he reveal his feelings on the subject. "James Brewster. Seems like a pretty stable family life. Married twenty-one years, one son studying law in the east. Interesting that he's been in analysis for over ten years."
"Everyone in this town's in analysis."
"I will be if I keep you around."
He smiled briefly, then turned the page. "Your driver, Robert, is an interesting character. Young Robert DeFranco has himself a string of ladies."
"Just your kind of man."
"Can't help but admire his stamina. Matt Burns."
She turned all the way around then. This time he saw not anger but revulsion. It ripped at something inside him. "How could you?" She said it quietly and painfully. "He's your friend."
"This is my jo
"It's your job to spy into the personal lives of people you're supposed to care about?"
He kept his eyes on hers. "I can't afford to care about anyone but my clients when they're paying me. That's the service."
"Then keep this part of it to yourself. Whatever you dug up about Matt, I don't want to know."
He wouldn't allow her to make him regret what he'd done. He'd done worse, much worse. He wondered how she'd look at him if she knew. "Chantel, you're going to have to consider all the possibilities."
"No, you are. And at this point you're getting seven hundred a day to do it. It's your job to find whoever's hounding me and to keep me safe while you're doing it."
"This is the way I do it."
"Fine. Since it is, all I want to see from you is the bill."
She started to storm back into the house, but he blocked her path. "Grow up." Taking her by the shoulders, he held her still. She was hurting, he realized, really hurting for the people she cared for. He had to convince her that she couldn't afford to. "Anyone at all could be making those calls. Maybe it's someone you've never even met, but my instincts tell me different. He knows you, lady." He gave her a quick shake to accentuate his point. "And he wants you real bad. Until we find him, you're going to do just like I say."
That morning's call was still too fresh in her mind. If a compromise had to be made, she'd make it. But she wouldn't like it. "I'll do what you say, Doran, to a point. I'll have my phone tapped, I'll have the damn guards at the gate and you in my house, but I won't listen to this garbage."
"In other words, you'll make a good showing, but you don't want the details."
"You got it."
He dropped his hands. "I thought you had more guts than that."
She opened her mouth to yell, then shut it again because he was right. She just didn't have the stomach for it. "Dry off, Doran."
She turned on her heel and walked away. As he stood watching her, Quinn decided his instincts were as reliable as ever. When push came to shove, she wouldn't crumble.
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When they got through the weekend without chewing any pieces off each other, Chantel decided they might make it. It hadn't pleased her to go to dinner with him and pretend, in front of three hundred other people, that she enjoyed being with him. Chantel had told herself to look at it as a job—a particularly difficult and unappealing job. Then Quinn had thrown her a curve. He'd been charming.
Surprisingly, black tie suited him. Though it didn't quite disguise his rough edges, it made them all the more appealing. He would never be suave or smooth or glossy. For some reason, Chantel found she was pleased to know that. He might wear a silk tie and the trappings of sophistication, but you knew—at least if you were a woman you knew—that a barbarian lay underneath.
Before the evening was over, he had drunk champagne with this year's top box-office draw and had danced with a three-time Oscar-winning actress. The seventy-year-old veteran had patted Chantel on the knee and told her that her taste in men was improving. Though that had been difficult to swallow, not once during the evening had Quinn given Chantel the opportunity to smirk at him.
On Sunday he left her to herself. When the reporters came and she gave them an interview and a tour of her home, it was as if he weren't even there. She knew he was around, somewhere, but he didn't infringe on her privacy. She was free to get back to her reading, to indulge in a long, soothing whirlpool bath and to catch up on correspondence and a few niggling business matters. By the time they left the house on Monday morning, Chantel was almost ready to revise her opinion of him.
She felt rested and eager for work. The night before, she had finished the script she'd begun on Saturday morning and was more enthusiastic than ever. She'd woken Matt out of a sound sleep to tell him to go after the part. It might have been shy of 6:00 a.m., but Chantel felt wonderful.
She glanced over at Quinn beside her, legs stretched out, eyes closed behind tinted glasses. From the look of him, he hadn't shaved since Saturday. It seemed unfair that the slightly dissipated aura suited him so.
Skin Deep by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.4 out of 5 / Based on43 votes