Skin deep, p.8
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       Skin Deep, p.8

         Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
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  "That's right." He ignored the quick, bitter taste in his throat. "For the moment, you trust me and only me."

  "They'll be calling me soon. I'm going to go lie down." Without looking at him again, she walked to the back of the trailer and through a doorway.

  Quinn had a sudden fierce urge to throw the bottle against the wall. Just to hear it shatter. She had no business making him feel guilty. He was looking out for her. That was what he was paid for. And it was easier all around if she was suspicious. If that meant she shed a few tears, it couldn't be helped. He wasn't worried about it. He didn't give a damn.

  Swearing, he slammed the bottle down on the table beside him. Lecturing himself all the way, he strode through the trailer to the bedroom. "Look, Chantel-"

  She was sitting at the foot of the bed, staring down at an envelope in her hands. He smelled the dark, sweet scent of wild roses before he saw them on the dresser.

  "I can't open it," she murmured. When she looked up at him, something twisted in his stomach. It wasn't just her pallor. It wasn't just the fear he could see in the way her fingers shook. It was the complete and utter despair in her eyes. "I just can't take any more."

  "You don't have to." With a compassion he thought had been erased in him years before, he sat beside her and gathered her close. "That's what I'm here for." He slipped the envelope out of her numb fingers. "I don't want you to open any more of the letters. If they come, you give them to me."

  "I don't want to know what it says." She shut her eyes and hated herself for it. "Just rip it up."

  "Don't worry about it." He stuffed the letter into his back pocket as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. He had questions to ask, a lot of questions as to who might have gone into her dressing room that day. "Part of the deal is that you trust me. Just let me take care of things."

  The head resting against his shoulder shook once in quick denial. "You can't take care of the way this makes me feel. I always wanted to be someone. I always wanted to feel important. Is that why this is happening?" With a dry sob, she pulled away from him. "Maybe you were right. Maybe I asked for this."

  "Stop it." He took her hard by the shoulders and prayed she'd control the tears he could see were threatening. "I was out of line. You're beautiful, you're talented, and you've made use of it. That doesn't mean you're to blame for someone's sickness."

  "But it's me that he wants," she said quietly. "And I'm afraid."

  "I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

  She let out a deep breath as her hand wrapped around his. "Sign that in blood?"

  He smiled and ran a fingertip down her cheek. "Whose?"

  Needing the contact, she rested her cheek against his for a moment. The gesture left him shaken. "Thanks."

  "Sure."

  "Look, I know I haven't been making this easy for you." She drew back again. As he'd hoped, the tears hadn't fallen. "I haven't wanted to."

  "Trouble is my business. Besides, I like your style."

  "White we're being nice to each other, I guess I'll say I like yours, too."

  "A red-letter day," he murmured, and brought her hand to his lips.

  It was a mistake. They both realized it the instant the contact was made. Over their joined fingers, their gazes met and held. She thought she could feel the tension jump from his palm to hers. This wasn't a matter of temptation, or of anger, or of passion flaring quickly, but of need. She needed to feel his arms around her again, holding her tight. She needed to feel his lips on hers, warm, hard, demanding. Everything else would fade, she knew, if only they came together now.

  Their hands were still joined, but she didn't protest as his fingers tightened painfully on hers. What was he thinking? It suddenly seemed imperative that she understand, that she see, what he felt in his mind, in his heart. Did he want her, could he possibly want her as badly this moment as she wanted him…?

  No other woman had ever made him ache like this. Not just from wanting. No other woman had ever made his blood swim. Not just from looking. He thought it would be possible to sit there through eternity and just look at that face. Was it only her beauty? Could it possibly be that he was twisted around inside because of a flawless facade?

  Or was it something else, something that seemed to glow from within? There was something elusive, almost secretive, that showed in her eyes only if you looked quickly and carefully enough. He thought he saw it now. Then all he could think of was how much he wanted her.

  With his free hand he reached up to trail his fingers through her hair. Spun gold, like an angel's. That's what it made him think of. But she was flesh and blood. Not a fantasy, a woman. He leaned closer, then watched her lashes flutter down.

  The knock on the trailer door had her shooting up like an arrow out of a bow. She put both hands to her face but shook her head when Quinn reached for her.

  "No, it's all right. That's just my call to go on the set."

  "Sit down. I'll tell them you're not feeling well."

  "No." She dropped her hands to her sides. "No, this isn't going to interfere with my work." The fingers of her left hand balled into a fist, but he could see she was working to regain control. "I can't let that happen." Turning her head, she stared at the roses on the table. "I won't let it."

  He wanted to overrule her but knew this was the one thing he'd admired about her from the first. She was strong, strong enough to fight back. "Okay. You want a few more minutes?"

  "Yeah, maybe." She walked to the window and drew the curtains aside to let in more sun. It was frightening, much too frightening to think about darkness. At night she was alone with her thoughts and her imagination. The sun was out, she reminded herself, sighing deeply. She had work to do.

  "Would you mind letting them know I'll be out in a minute?"

  "I'll take care of it." He hesitated, wanting to go to her, knowing it would be a mistake for both of them. "I'll be right outside, Chantel. Don't come out until you're ready."

  "I'll be fine."

  She waited until she heard him walk away before she dropped her forehead onto the glass. Weeping would be such a relief. Weeping, screaming, just letting go, would ease the hammerlock her nerves had on her system. But she couldn't let go, any more than she could allow herself to get churned up like this. There were hours more to put in that day. She needed her wits, and her stamina.

  She'd make it, Chantel promised herself. Drawing a deep breath, she turned from the window. The flowers were gone. She stared at the table with a foolish sense of relief. He'd taken them away. She hadn't even had to ask.

  What kind of a man was he? Rude and rough one moment, tender the next. Why couldn't he be easy to understand and easy to dismiss? With a shake of her head, she started down to the front of the trailer. He was impossible to understand. And he stirred things in her. He was anything but the kind of man a woman could be comfortable with. And she felt so safe knowing he was close by.

  If she hadn't known herself so well, been so certain of her own control, she would almost have believed she was falling in love with him.

  Chapter Six

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  It was anything but a quiet, restful week, though Chantel spent a good chunk of it in bed. The bed was big and plush and ornate—and it was on the set, on soundstage D. The major scene to be shot was her wedding night—Hailey's wedding night—not to the man she loved but to the man she wanted to love.

  The props included an ice bucket with champagne, a full-length sable draped over a chair and a table laden with roses that had to be spritzed constantly to keep them fresh under the lights. Don Sterling, a relative unknown, had been chosen to play the man she would marry. He'd been selected mainly because of looks and chemistry. Though his final reading with Chantel had been excellent, his nerves had him blowing the scene a half-dozen times during the morning.

  Locked in his arms, Chantel felt him tighten up. Before he could do so himself, she flubbed the scene, hoping to take some of the pressure off him.

/>   "Sorry." She gave a delicate shrug. "Can we take five, Mary? I'm getting stale."

  "Make it ten," Rothschild ordered, then turned to consult with her assistant.

  "How about a cup of coffee?" Chantel accepted the robe she was handed and slipped into it as she smiled at Don.

  "Only if I can drown myself in it."

  "Let's try drinking it first." She signaled to Larry, then found two seats in a relatively quiet corner. When she saw Quinn start to approach, she shook her head and leaned closer to Don. "It's a tough scene."

  "It shouldn't be." He ran a hand through a mass of thick, dark hair.

  "Look, the order they're shooting this miniseries in, we've only had a couple of scenes together so far. The first thing you know, we're married and on our honeymoon." She took the coffee from Larry. "I don't know about you, but I think it's easier to jump into bed with someone if you have more than a passing acquaintance."

  He held the coffee in both hands and managed a chuckle. "I'm supposed to be an actor."

  "Me too."

  "You could run through this scene with your eyes closed." He sipped the coffee, then, with a sound of disgust, set it aside. "I'll be honest. You intimidate the hell out of me." When she only lifted a brow, he let out a long breath and looked away. "When my agent called and told me I had this part and that I'd be playing opposite you, I almost went into a coma."

  "That makes it tough to work up any passion." She put a hand on his. "Look, your reading with me was great. No one else even came close."

  "The bit in Hailey's art studio." He picked up his coffee with a rueful look. "Not a bed in sight."

  "The first love scene I ever played was opposite Scott Baron. Hollywood legend—the world's sexiest man. I had to kiss him, and my teeth were chattering, I was so scared. He took me aside, bought me a tuna-fish sandwich and told me stories, half of which were certainly lies. Then he told me something true. He said all actors are children and all children like to play games. If we didn't play the game well, we'd have to grow up and get real jobs."

  The tension she'd spotted around his mouth had already relaxed. "Did it work?"

  "It was either that or the tuna fish, but we went back on the set and played the game."

  "You stole that movie from him."

  She smiled. "I've heard it said." She continued to smile as she sipped coffee. "Don't think I'm going to let you steal this one from me."

  "You blew that last line on purpose."

  She could become a prima donna with little more than a tilt of her head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

  "You have a reputation for being cold and driven," he mused. "I never expected you to be, well, nice."

  "Don't let it get around." Rising, she offered him a hand. "Let's get this honeymoon off the ground."

  The scene went like clockwork. Quinn didn't know what Chantel had said during her brief huddle with her co-star, but it had turned the trick. For himself, he was learning not to tense up when Chantel was in someone else's arms. It was difficult to work up any resentment when so much technology went into setting the scene. The lights had to be adjusted to simulate candlelight. Chantel and Don lay in the bed, he stripped to the waist, she in a thigh-length chemise. The camera was nearly on top of them. The director knelt on the bed and went over the moves. On cue, Chantel and Don turned to each other as if they were the only two people on earth.

  It was so easy for her, Quinn reflected, to fabricate passion. When he watched her like this, he wondered if she had any real feelings at all. Her emotions were turned off and on as direction indicated. Like an exquisitely crafted puppet, he thought, beautifully formed on the outside, hollow within.

  Yet he'd held her himself. He'd felt passion shimmer in her. The feelings, needs, uncertainties had been there for him to touch. Had that been just part of her act, as well? It shouldn't matter to him, he reminded himself as he lighted a cigarette. He couldn't let it matter. She was an assignment and nothing more. If she stirred feelings in him, as she did with uncanny regularity, he would just have to take a step back. Involvement with a woman like Chantel O'Hurley was suicide for a man who didn't have himself under complete control.

  But when he looked at her, his mouth went dry.

  Just desire, he told himself. Or, more accurately, lust. There was no denying that wanting her was as easy, as natural, as drawing breath. But it hadn't been desire or lust he had felt when he'd held her in his arms moments ago.

  So he had some compassion left in him. Quinn found a chair, then discovered he was too wired to sit. He'd have been pretty low if he hadn't felt sympathy or been able to offer comfort to a frightened and vulnerable woman.

  But it hadn't been sympathy, it had been rage. He recognized it even now, that hot, bubbling fury at the thought of his woman being threatened. His woman. That was the problem. The longer he was with her, the easier it became to think of her as his.

  Take a step back from that, Doran, he ordered himself. And make it fast. If he didn't pull himself together soon, he was going to be in over his head. A man could only hold his breath for so long.

  He crushed out his cigarette and wished the interminable day would end.

  There had been two more letters that week, letters he hadn't shown her. The tone had shifted from pleading to near-whimpering. It worried Quinn more than the subtle menace the earlier letters had contained. The author was about to break. When he did, Quinn was certain it would be like a geyser, fast and violent. Because his own patience was thin, he hoped it would be soon. It would give him some outlet for the fury building inside him.

  "That's a wrap, people. Don't have too much fun over the weekend. We want you alive and coherent on Monday."

  Still in her chemise, Chantel sat on the edge of the bed and held an earnest conversation with Don. Jealousy. Where it had come from and why, Quinn couldn't begin to answer. Quinn had always been a live-and-let-live sort of person. If a woman, even a woman he was involved with, decided to look to another man, that was her prerogative. No strings, no pain, no complications. He'd managed very well that way for years. He'd never experienced this sharp twist in the gut over a woman before. He felt it now, and he didn't like it, or himself. Unable to stop himself, he walked over and drew Chantel to her feet.

  "Playtime's over," he said, and pulled her with him.

  "Let go of me," she told him under her breath as he walked toward her dressing room. Larry started forward with her robe, saw the look on Quinn's face and backed away.

  "Just shut up."

  "Doran, this is my place of business, but if you keep it up I'm going to create the biggest, juiciest scene even your twisted brain can imagine. You'll read about it in the paper for weeks."

  "Go ahead."

  She set her teeth. "Just what is your problem?"

  "You're my problem, lady. For a woman who should be watching her step, you were awfully chummy with that kid."

  "Kid? Don? For God's sake, he's an associate, and he's not a kid. He's two years older than I am."

  "You were steaming up his contact lenses."

  "Don't you get tired of playing the same tune?" She jerked her arm free and pulled open her dressing room door herself. "If you've been doing your job, you already have a report on Don Sterling and you know he's practically engaged to a woman he's been involved with for two years."

  "And the woman in question is three thousand miles away in New York."

  "I know that." As she pushed her hair out of her face the chemise shifted, whispering silkily over her skin. "He was just telling me that he's going to catch the redeye to the east coast so that he can spend the weekend with her. He's in love, Doran, though I realize you might not understand the term."

  "A man could be in love with another woman and still want you."

  She slammed the dressing room door and leaned back against it. "What would you know about love? What would you know about any genuine emotion?"

  "You want emotion?" He slapped his palms on the door at eit
her side of her head. Though her eyes widened in shock, she stood firm. "You want a taste of the kind of emotion you push out of a man? The real thing, angel, not something out of the pages of a script. Think you can take it?"

  Her heart was beating in her throat. It was crazy to actually want to be dragged against him, to be plundered, drained and weakened. She could see nothing but raw fury in his eyes, but somehow she relished it. If it was all he could feel for her, it was almost enough. She'd be willing to settle, and that scared the hell out of her.

  "Just leave me alone," she whispered.

  "You're smart to be scared of me."

  "I'm not scared of you."

  He leaned a little closer. "You're trembling."

  "I'm furious." She pressed her damp palms against the door.

  "Maybe you are. And maybe that's because you're not quite sure of what happens next. It's not written out for you, is it, Chantel? Not so easy to turn the switch off and on."

  "Get out of my way."

  "Not just yet. I want to know what you feel." His body pressed lightly against hers. "I want to know if you feel."

  She was losing ground, and what she had left was shaky. If he touched her now, really touched her, she was afraid she would lose everything. How could she tell him what she felt, when what she felt was against all the rules? She wanted to be held, protected, cherished, loved. If she told him that, he'd only smile and take what he wanted. She'd been left empty before, and it would never, never happen to her again.

  Chantel lifted her chin and waited until his lips hovered an inch from hers. "You're no better than the man I hired you to protect me from."

  He stepped back as if she'd slapped him. The stunned look on his face made her want to reach out to him. Instead, she pressed back against the door and waited for his next move.

  "Get some clothes on," he told her, and turned aside. As she walked away, he reached into the refrigerator for a beer. She was right. Quinn twisted off the top and took two long swallows. He'd wanted to frighten, to weaken, then take her there, on his terms. If he could have proven to himself that what happened between them was cold and calculated, he might have believed she meant nothing to him.

  He'd wanted to hurt her. She was threatening his peace of mind, and he'd needed to strike back. He would have used sex to purge himself and to repay her for the restless nights. The wave of self-disgust was as unfamiliar and as unpalatable as the surge of jealousy he'd felt earlier.

  He'd told himself to take a step back, yet he'd taken a leap forward and had landed in the mire. He'd done things and seen things in his life that would have left others pale and speechless. Yet, for the first time in his life, he felt truly soiled.

  When he heard her coming back, he tossed the bottle into the trash. She wore rose-colored linen slacks and a jacket with a muted floral design. She looked cool, composed and nothing like the restless, questing character she'd played all day.

  Without a word she walked by him and put her hand on the knob. Before she could open the door, Quinn placed his hand over hers. He cursed himself when she stiffened and sent him a cool, disinterested look.

  "You're entitled to take a few shots," he said mildly. "I won't even duck."

  For a moment she said nothing. Then, as the anger dissipated she sighed. She was tired, drained from the constant play and replay of emotion. "I'll take a rain check."

  As she twisted the knob, he tightened his hand on hers. "Chantel…"

  "What?"

  He wanted to apologize. It wasn't his style, but he wanted badly to tell her he was sorry. The need was there, but the words wouldn't come. "Nothing. Let's go."

  They rode home in silence while guilt ate at him. It would fade, he assured himself. It was just one more of the odd emotions she drew out of him. She looked exhausted now, though he remembered she'd looked fine—in fact, she'd looked wonderful—before he'd…

  Damn it, he couldn't waste his time worrying about things like that. He had a job to do, and if he'd stepped out of line, it wouldn't happen again. Case closed. He'd see her into the house, make certain the doors were locked and the alarm on. Then he'd relax. He needed to go over the report from his field man, though he was already aware they'd turned up nothing on the stationery. They needed a mistake. So far, no matter how mentally unstable Chantel's admirer was, he'd been smart.

  Quinn sat back as the limo cruised through the gates, wishing he could say the same thing about himself.

  He preferred to act on impulse. As he stepped out of the car, he didn't hesitate or think twice. Taking Chantel by the hand, he began to lead her around the side of the house.

  "What are you doing?"

  "It's Friday night and I'm sick of being cooped up in that house. We're going out to eat." He stopped by his car and nodded to one of the men who patrolled the grounds.

 
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