Skin deep, p.9
Skin Deep, p.9Part #3 of The O'Hurleys series by Nora Roberts
"Did it ever occur to you that I might not feel like going out?"
"Where I go, you go." He opened the door and started to nudge her inside.
"Doran, I've put in sixty hours this week and I'm tired. I don't want to go to a restaurant and be stared at."
"Who said anything about a restaurant? Just get in, angel, you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of my man over there."
"I'm not hungry."
"I am." He gave her a quick shove, then shut the door behind her.
"Has anyone ever mentioned that you're totally lacking in manners or any of the other social graces?"
He gunned the motor and sent the car barreling down the drive. Chantel reached for her seat belt. "If you wreck this heap with me in it, the producers are going to have your head on a platter." For a moment she wondered if it wouldn't be worth it.
"You don't make me nervous, Doran, you simply annoy me."
"Everyone's got to be good at something." He turned the radio dial, and loud, throbbing rock poured out. Chantel closed her eyes and pretended to ignore him.
When the car came to a halt, she didn't move. Determined to show nothing but indifference, she sat still as the silence grew. Outside the car she heard the bump and grind of weekend traffic heating up. She had no idea where they were and told herself she didn't care. Quinn's door opened and closed, and she still didn't move. But she did open her eyes.
She saw him stride up to the little fast-food joint and fought back a chuckle. She would not be amused. At home she could have had a nice glass of wine and a crisp salad with her cook's special herb dressing. God knew what Quinn was carrying back to the car in the white bag. She simply wouldn't eat, she told herself. She'd let him get whatever he had in his system out, but she wouldn't eat.
Closing her eyes again, she tried not to react as aromas, really wonderful aromas, filled the car. He glanced over, smiled, then started the car again.
Again she didn't know where he was heading, but the road began to wind and the sounds of traffic faded. She very nearly dozed off as her system absorbed the quiet sunset drive. She hadn't realized how much she'd needed to get away, from work, from her house, maybe from herself. It was going to be hard not to be grateful to him. But Chantel told herself she would manage.
When the car stopped again, she refused to move. Curiosity gnawed at her, but she kept her eyes firmly shut. Saying nothing, Quinn reached for the bag, rattling it so that the scent seeped through the car. Then he stepped out and closed the door behind him.
Chantel's stomach contracted, reminding her that the plate of fruit and cheese she'd had for lunch wasn't enough. The least he could do was force her to eat something, the way he'd forced her to do other things she hadn't wanted to. But no, she thought as her temper began to rise, he would just go off and gobble up whatever was in that bag and let her starve.
Opening her eyes, Chantel pushed open her door. As she let it slam behind her, the noise seemed to echo forever. Astonished, she looked around her.
They were farther up in the hills than she had ever gone before. Below, miles below, L.A. stretched forever, glistening just a bit as lights winked on. She could see the separate levels of color in the sky as the sun went down. Deep blue led to paler blue, and paler blue to mauve and rose and pink, all glistening with gold. The first star blinked to life overhead and waited patiently for others to join it. The breeze whistled through the brush, but the city she knew so well seemed encased in glass, it was so quiet.
"Pretty impressive, isn't it?"
She turned and saw Quinn leaning against a giant H. The Hollywood sign, she realized, and nearly laughed. She'd seen it so often it no longer registered. From the hills it looked white, invulnerable and perhaps immortal. Up close, like the town it heralded, it was mostly illusion. It was big and bold, certainly, but a little grimy, a little shaky. Graffiti was etched in clumps near the base.
"It could use a fresh coat of paint," she murmured.
"No, it's more honest this way." He kicked aside a beer can. "Teenagers come up here to hang out—and make out."
She tilted her head. "And you?"
"Oh, I just like the view." He climbed over a few rocks effortlessly and planted himself on the base of an L. "And the quiet. If you're lucky, you can come up here and not hear a thing, except for a coyote now and again."
"Coyote?" She glanced over her shoulder.
"That's right." Not bothering to hide a grin, he dug in the bag. "Want a taco?"
"A taco? You dragged me all the way up here to eat tacos?"
"Got some beer."
"It's getting warm. You'd better drink up."
"I don't want anything."
"Suit yourself." He unwrapped a taco and bit into it. "Got some fries, too," he said with a full mouth. "A little greasy, maybe, but they're not cold yet."
"I don't know how I can resist." She turned away from him to look down at the city again. As fate would have it, the breeze carried the spicy scents to her. Her mouth watered. Chantel scowled down at the lights and wished Quinn Doran to hell.
"I guess a woman like you turns her nose up if it isn't champagne and caviar."
Spinning around, Chantel stood with the city and the sunset at her back. Quinn felt his heart turn over in his chest. She'd never looked more beautiful. "You know nothing about me, nothing at all." Her voice had an edge to it now, a dull, gritty edge that had his eyes narrowing. "I spent nearly the first twenty years of my life shuffling from town to town, eating in greasy spoons or over a hot plate in a motel room. Sometimes, if we were lucky and the gig was good, we got to wolf down a meal in the hotel kitchen. If we weren't so lucky, there were always hard-boiled eggs and coffee. Don't you sit there in your smug little world and toss stones at me, Doran. You don't know what I am, or who I am. All you know is what I've made myself."
Slowly he set the beer on the rock behind him. "Well, well," he said quietly. "I wouldn't read any of that in your official bio, would I?"
She could only stare. What was it about him that made her lose control? Why had she been compelled to yank herself out and expose her roots to him?
"I want to go back."
"No, you don't." His voice wasn't curt now, but gentle. It was that gentleness that chipped away her defenses. "There's no one here but me, Chantel. Why don't we just sit up here and look down at the rest of the world for a while?"
Before she'd thought it through, she'd taken a step toward him. When he rose and held out a hand to help her up, she reached for it without hesitation. Hesitation came the moment his palm met hers. She remembered the feel of it, the strength of it, and her gaze lifted and locked with his. They stood there a moment with the sky darkening around them. Then he hauled her up.
"I'm sorry." The apology surprised him as much as it did her.
"For what?" She started to draw her hand from his, but he reached up to brush back her hair.
"For what happened before. I don't know why, but something about you makes me edgy."
She kept her eyes level with his. "Then we're even."
The wind tossed the hair back from his face. In every situation, he knew, there came a time for honesty. Perhaps this was such a time. "Chantel, I want you. I'm having a hell of a time dealing with that."
Other men had wanted her, other men had told her so in more beautiful ways. But the words had never made it difficult for her to breathe. "I could fire you."
"It wouldn't matter."
"No, I don't suppose it would." She looked away, surprised at how strong a longing could be. "Quinn, I can't go to bed with you."
"I figured you'd feel that way."
"Quinn." She took his hand again as he started to step away. "I don't know what you think my reasons are, but I guarantee you, you're wrong."
"Not your style," he said, picking up his beer again. "Not your league."
Chantel snatched the bottle from him and he
"Then you tell me." He grabbed her and pulled her against him.
"I don't have to tell you anything. I don't have to explain myself to you. Damn you, I just want some peace. I just want a few hours where the pressure's off. I don't know if I can take being squeezed at all sides for much longer."
"Okay, okay." His hold gentled immediately. As he murmured, his hand stroked up and down her back. "You're right. I didn't bring you up here to fight with you, but you make me edgy."
"Let's just go back."
"No, sit down. Please," he added, brushing his lips over her hair. "Let's see if we can stay here for an hour together and not pick on each other. Have a taco."
He smiled at her as he pulled her down to sit. Chantel took one look at the bag and gave up.
"Yeah, I figured as much." He handed her a wad of paper napkins. For the next few minutes they ate in companionable silence. "Was your childhood rough?"
Chantel stopped in the act of opening a little packet of salt for the fries. "Oh, no, I didn't mean that. It was just different. My parents are entertainers. They've been a song-and-dance team for over thirty years. The six of us trouped around the country, and some of the places we played were dives. But my family…" She smiled, absently accepting a beer. "They're wonderful. Trace did some routines, but he was best on the piano. It always used to frustrate me that no matter how hard I tried I couldn't play better than he did."
"Sure. Life would be pretty dull without it. Trace and I were always so much alike that we couldn't stay off each other's backs for very long. There was never much of that between my sisters and me. We were just too much a part of each other." She sipped the beer straight from the bottle and looked down at the city below. "We still are. God, sometimes it's so hard to be away from them. When we were little we made all these plans for keeping the act together forever." She remembered them with a little pang of regret. "Then we grew up."
"What kind of an act?"
Laughing, she licked salt from her fingers. "You never heard of the O'Hurley Triplets?"
"You'd probably be sorrier if you had heard of us. Three-part harmony, show tunes and popular music, a few old standards thrown in."
"Doran, I don't just sing, I'm terrific."
"You never sing in your movies."
She shrugged a shoulder. "It hasn't come up. Matt keeps saying we should give the public a surprise one of these days and get a guest spot where I can do a few numbers, and dance, maybe too. Yes," she added when he slanted a look at her, "I can dance—my father would have died of shame otherwise."
"Why don't you do it?"
"The time just hasn't been right. Besides, I've been concentrating on what I'm best at."
He balled up the empty bag and set it beside his feet. "What's that?"
She gave him a quick, mocking look. "Playing roles."
Instead of smiling back, he tucked her hair behind her ear. "My guess is you're not playing one now."
She turned her head quickly and looked out. The sky was nearly dark, but there was only a smattering of stars. "You can't be sure. I'm not sure myself half the time."
"I think you're sure."
When she turned her head back, his mouth was close. Close and tempting. "Don't. I told you I can't—" But his lips brushed over hers, light as a whisper, and stopped her cold.
"Do you know how I felt when you were lying on that bed with Sterling today?"
"No. I don't want to know. I've told you, it's my job."
She was already half seduced; he could hear it in her voice. There was a thrill of anticipation along his skin as he thought of taking her beyond the next step. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to put my hands around his throat or yours, but I did know I wanted you to look at me the way you were looking at him.''
"It's just a part. I'm supposed to—"
"There aren't any cameras here, Chantel. Just you and me. And that's what I think you're afraid of. No one's here to tell you what you're supposed to be feeling. No one's going to yell 'Cut' before things go just a little too far."
"I don't need anyone to tell me what to feel. I don't need anyone," she repeated, and tugged his mouth back to hers.
She wanted it. She wanted to experience the wild flood of sensation he could bring her. No one else. She could tell him there'd been no one else who had touched her just this way, but he'd never believe her. The image, her image, was all but carved in stone, and she'd polished it herself. What she was inside belonged to her. She was determined that no one would ever share that part of her again.
But she could have this, the heat, the need, the desperation. She could take this, and she could give it back to him as long as she promised herself she wouldn't give him too much. As long as she didn't give him everything.
The sky darkened above them, and the wind whistled through the brush.
She was pulling something from him, drawing something out of him. He couldn't seem to stop her. His hands weren't steady as they reached up to tangle in her hair. His mind was swimming in a mist of his needs, but the needs weren't as simple as he'd told himself they had to be. Desire could make you ache, but it shouldn't be allowed to slice you open.
He wanted to take her there, there in the rocks and dirt. He wanted to treat her like porcelain, delicately and with intense care.
His body was coiled tight, ready to explode. God, he had to touch her, even if it was only once. In one smooth stroke he brought his hand along her leg, over her hip, until he found and cupped her breast. She was small, incredibly fragile, and as soft as water. Compelled, he flicked open the two buttons on her jacket to feast on the warm flesh inside.
It had been so long, so long since she had allowed herself to be touched, since she'd felt the need for intimacy. She wanted his hands on her, his lips on her, his body hard and demanding against hers. The hell with where they were, who they were. The hell with the price she would surely pay for allowing herself to love him.
In an act of surrender that left him shaken, she brought her arms around him and buried her face against his throat.
"Chantel…" He started to tilt her face up, longing, for reasons he couldn't be sure of, to see what was in her eyes. Then he heard it, a rustling in the brush that came once, then twice, and had him tensing.
"What? What is it?" She had heard it, too, and she dug her fingers into his arm. "An animal?"
"Yeah, probably." But he didn't think so. His nerves were humming as he drew her aside.
"Where are you going?"
"To take a look. Just stay here."
"Quinn—" She was already standing.
"Just sit tight. It's probably just a rabbit."
It was no rabbit. She heard it in his voice. He wasn't nearly the actor she was. Fear made her want to cringe away. Pride had her matching him step for step. "I'm going with you."
"Chantel, sit down."
"No." She held his arm and scrambled over the rocks.
Resigned, Quinn helped her regain her balance. "All right, then, be careful. You get any scratches on that skin and I'll get blamed for it."
Because the light had faded, he went to his car and found a flashlight. "Why don't you just sit—"
Swearing under his breath, he took her by the arm again. He walked slowly toward the brush, casually angling his body to shield hers. "Lot of game up here," he began, but his muscles were coiled and ready. He moved softly, quietly pushing brush aside as Chantel hung on to his hand.
"I remember, coyote."
"Yeah." He crouched down when he spotted prints in the soft dirt. The beam of his light swept over them, then held.
Chantel pressed her lips together. "I guess coyote don't wear shoes."
"None that I've seen." He ha
"No. You don't believe that and neither do I." She stared down at the scuffed prints. The brush where they were wasn't more than five yards from where they'd been sitting a moment before. "Someone was watching us, and I think we both know why. God." She pressed her fingers to her eyes. "He was here. He was right here, just watching. Why doesn't he stop? Why doesn't he—"
"Get a hold of yourself." Quinn took her by the shoulders and shook. She took a deep breath, then nearly screamed when the sound of an engine starting echoed back to them.
"He followed me." She stopped trembling. Her body felt too numb even for that. "How many other times has he been there, watching me?"
"I don't know." Frustrated, Quinn stared out at the darkening road. Even if he dared leave her there alone, he'd never catch up with the other car now. "Just remember, he's watching us now. I'm not going to let him get to you."
"For how long?" she said quietly, then turned away. "I want to go back."
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"It just doesn't seem like we're getting anywhere." Chantel poured herself a brandy, then freshened Matt's glass.
"I'm sorry, Chantel. I'd have sworn if anyone could dig up an answer it would be Quinn."
"I'm not blaming him." Cupping her brandy in both hands, she walked to the window. The sun was setting. It reminded her of another dusk. With the snifter at her lips, she watched night fall.
"You've changed your tune from the first time we talked about him."
More than you know, she thought, but shrugged her shoulders. "I can't claim he's not doing everything he can, that's all."
"Then maybe I have to," Matt returned, hating to hear the tired resignation in her voice. "He hasn't come up with anything solid. What about the letters?"
"The stationery the letters were written on could have come from any of dozens of dime or drugstores in the L.A. area. There's no way for him to trace it."
"But the flowers." Restless, Matt walked to the white baby grand, then back to the fireplace, his cigarette trailing expensive smoke behind him. "There has to be a way to trace where they were bought."
"Apparently not. Most of the time they just appear in my dressing room or somewhere on the set. So far no one's seen who delivers them."
"Florists keep records."
"If you pay cash and pick up the flowers yourself, there wouldn't be any reason to ask for ID." She pressed her fingers to the back of her neck, pressed and released, fruitlessly working at a knot of tension.
"Someone might remember who—"
"Quinn tells me his men have done a sweep of the florists in the area. There's nothing."
"The phone calls."
"They haven't been able to get a trace."
"Damn it." If something—or someone—existed, Matt felt there must be a way to find him. "Chantel, maybe you should reconsider the police."
She turned back. With him, she could allow the weariness to show. "Matt, do you really think they could do more than Quinn's done?"
"I don't know." The quiet desperation in her eyes was difficult to face. He scowled down at his brandy. "I just don't know." Setting down his drink, he crossed to her. "I was sure this thing would be tied up in a matter of days."
"It's not as simple as that. It seems he's clever, or cautious, at any rate."
Skin Deep by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.4 out of 5 / Based on43 votes