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Authors: Susan Johnson

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Eighteen

 

 

H
e didn't say, wow, when he came to pick her
up for dinner, but she saw it in his eyes and decided the much-too-expensive dress she’d bought was worth every
euro.

But he did say, “You look good in green,” which she already knew, because she had green eyes, and this dress matched them exactly.

“Thanks, you look good in”—she was going
to say
anything,
but censored herself—“that shade of blue.”
His
shirt made the gray of his eyes look less cool. Or maybe
it was
his smile that did that.

“I’m told the color’s called gentian.”

Nicky flicked a hand over the front of her short, flirty dress. “Pistachio.”

“Definitely good enough to eat,” he murmured, holding her gaze.

Jordi came racing up, defusing the rising heat that seemed to have reached flash point in mere seconds. “Daddy! Daddy! Look at me! Vernie says I look like a princess!”

Johnny spun around and did a dramatic double take that evoked a giggle from his daughter. “At your service, princess,” he said, sweeping her a bow. “And is this the queen?” he asked, smiling at Vernie who had dressed for the occasion.

“I prefer empress.”

Nicky wasn’t sure she didn’t mean it. Vernie looked serious, and she was wearing real jewelry along with an evening purse that hung from one of those distinctive Chanel chains.

Johnny grinned. “Empress sounds fine to me, Vernie. You run the show better than anyone I know.”

“Years of practice, young man,” Vernie replied with a wink. “Just remember to remind me of my two-martini limit. You forgot last time.”

“With good reason,” Johnny drolly noted. “No way I’m going to cross you after two martinis.”

“I’ll do it,” Jordi piped up. “I’m not scared.”

Vernie smiled. “I’m counting on you, then, sweetie. Especially if we’re going to get up early and go to that cafe that serves those strawberry crepes you like. I need
my rest.” She tapped her wrist-
watch and glanced at Johnny. “We’d better go. You know how long it takes to eat in France. Come along, Jordi, we’ll lead the way.”

“Vernie keeps everyone in line,” Johnny murmured with a smile, as he and Nicky fell in behind. “She’s good for Jordi. I’m a little too lax about rules.”

On the few occasions Nicky had seen Jordi with her dad, there had been no rules in evidence. Johnny was the archetype of doting dads. “Rules or not, Jordi seems to like Vernie.”

“Oh, yeah. They’re buds. Vernie comes to stay with us from time to time, so Jordi doesn’t just see her at Lisa’s.”

“You’re a lucky guy.”

He shot her a look.

“What? I meant finding a nanny you like. Don’t look at me like that. It was a perfectly innocuous remark.” Her gaze narrowed. “You’re superstitious.”

“Let’s just say I don’t like to tempt fate. When it comes to luck, I’ve had more than my share.”

“And you don’t want me to hex you.”

He shrugged. “I suppose. Life’s too unpredictable.”

She wanted to say, the kind of life he’d led was more unpredictable than most, what with traveling around the world constan
tl
y, and paparazzi going through your garbage on a regular basis, not to mention your love life being splashed across the pages of every tabloid on the planet. “It can be, can’t it?” she politely said instead, because he was taking her out to a real nice place for dinner and their heated kiss a short time ago was likely to lead to maybe another kiss or two la
ter tonight. And she was currentl
y feeling as though Jordi wasn’t the only princess in the crowd. Right now, she was empathizing with Cinderella big-time.

Nineteen

 

 

D
inner was everything it should be at a
Michelin three-star restaurant that catered to presidents and rock stars and moguls. The chef was one of the famous super-chefs who had said a short time ago, “I have nothing more to prove. I no longer want to be bothered by restaurant guide books. I just want to please myself and my customers,” and he’d opened a restaurant without the glamorous trappings, but with the same perfectly executed meals. He knew Johnny personally, their rapport when he came over to their table was that of two men who moved in the same celebrity circles.

For Nicky, the culture shock of such a sophisticated menu was mitigated by Vernie’s down-to-earth conversation and Jordi’s comments about icky foie gras that she was no way going to eat, and when could she have some of that chocolate cake she’d had last time they were here. For those who could afford it, the homey
little bistro was just another neighborhood cafe, with the exception of the limos and bodyguards outside.

Nicky had to admit, the people-watching practically gave her whiplash. There was a table of generals from some South American country, the glitter of their medals blinding, their consumption of champagne prodigious. A discreet corner table held an older married movie star of
considerable fame and a young-
enough-to-be-his-granddaughter
ingénue
playing kissy-face over their coffee and port.
Get a room,
Nicky was thinking. Then there was the table of Brits, most of whom had been in the news lately as diplomats trying to deal with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions. Cable news was really a remarkable font of information. It seemed as though she knew them personally. The Parisians who had come to dine were quiet and refined, taking their time over each course, discussing wines with a nuanced expertise (she could hear the ones behind her) and in general trying to ignore the tourists.

She ate too much, but how could one refuse such beautiful food? The fact that the menu didn’t have any prices made her a little nervous, but Jordi was ordering one of everything, and Johnny didn’t seem to mind, so she figured she could order a couple extra things, too. Like two desserts because it was impossible to narrow the list down to any less.

Jordi forgot to stop Vernie from having a third martini, although Johnny and Nicky exchanged a look as she ordered it.

He mouthed,
no way
, and grinned.

Nicky smiled back and then kept her eyes on her dessert.
She
sure as hell wasn’t going to make any waves.

They ate faster than most, thanks to Vernie, who didn’t brook leisurely meals, and after coffee and some excellent port, they
returned to their limo, which was waiting outside. Johnny’s bodyguards had been dispensed with, now that his crisis with Lisa was over. Ensconced in the luxurious backseat,
Nicky
listened as Jordi, seated on her father’s lap, pointed out all the monuments of note on their return to the hotel.

The only monument from her childhood in Black Duck was the twenty-foot-long fiberglass Muskie wearing a saddle at the Conoco station. Not that it wasn’t impressive to anyone under the age of twelve. She must have ridden it a million times. It just didn’t ring with the same cultural resonance as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe or Cleopatra’s Needle, which had been stolen from Egypt by Napoleon. (Jordi even knew that. Such were the hands-on history lessons of children of wealth.)

As Nicky was musing about the vast gulf that separated her childhood from Jordi’s, and not entirely sure whether she was envious or not, the car came to a stop in front of the hotel. No time for a therapist now. Not that they ever told you anything anyway. They just took your money and nodded their heads at appropriate times. And she knew of what she spoke, since she’d paid for four sessions—with borrowed money from her sister—in the aftermath of Theo’s flight.

Johnny leaned over and murmured, “Let me get these two to sleep”—he nodded at Vernie, who was dozing across from them—“and we can go somewhere for a nightcap.”

“Vernie said I can watch a movie before I go to sleep,” Jordi proclaimed, tugging on her father’s shirt collar.

“Not a problem, baby.” Meeting Nicky’s gaze above his daughter’s head, he mouthed,
Wait for me.

She smiled and nodded. Maybe she should have played hard to get. Maybe if she’d not been utterly infatuated, she might have.

He gave her a dazzling smile that warmed her clear down to her toes in their new, peony pink stilettos. And as he helped her out of the limo and escorted them through the hotel lobby, the phrase
walking on air
would have been an apt and fitting description for Nicky’s mood.

They parted at the door to her room, everyone waving at everyone else, and she surreptitiously watched them through her half-closed door as they traveled the several yards farther to their suite at the end of the corridor.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT????? a little voice inside her head was screaming.

JOHNNY PATRICK—THE ONE AND ONLY SEXIEST MAN ALIVE!!!

COMING TO SEE ME!!!!!

As the trio disappeared from sight, she shut her door, leaned back against it, and trembled. Which would never do.

She had to remain calm, or she’d embarrass herself completely.

“He’s just another man, for God’s sake,” she told herself, speaking out loud and slowly in an effort to compose herself.

ARE YOU KIDDING? that little voice hysterically exclaimed.

He’s just another man, like the Pope is just another German, or Lincoln was just another lawyer, or Bill Clinton was just another devotee of Krispy Kremes, or—you get the picture.

And what was really freaking her out, besides Johnny’s celebrity, was the fact that she’d
forgotten
to buy some really sexy lingerie. She’d been in such a rush to find a dress and shoes and get back to the hotel in time that she’d totally forgotten she only had unbelievably plain cotton underwear! Fuck.

Maybe she could pretend she never wore underwear.

Maybe she’d just go without.

Ee-eew. If they went for a nightcap like he’d said, she’d probably end up getting all hot and bothered, and she’d leave a stain on the back of her skirt. That would be fucking embarrassing. She’d have to walk out of the bar backwards. Even in a nice hotel
like this, she didn’t suppose th
e concierge could find her some sexy silk undies at this time of night. Such a request might be outside the realm of their duties.

So she’d apologize for her cotton underwear, or maybe she’d act like a mature adult and say nothing at all.

In the end, she decided to do nothing. It was just easier.

Let him figure it out for himself.

And knowing his record with women, he’d probably seen it all, from thongs to chastity belts. There actually had been that story that everyone had denied about him and that nun in Italy. Even the Vatican had weighed in.

Now, that was notoriety.

After something like that, how could she possibly do anything wrong? So screw it. She was going to see what the minibar had in the way of drinks. She could use one.

Twenty

 

 

S
he opened one of those teeny, tiny bottles
of champagne that probably cost a fortune and drank it in
two
gulps. Luckily she wasn’t paying for the minibar. And on that note, she took out the other teeny, tiny bottle and sipped it more leisurely. In three gulps.

She needed them for tranquilizers. Okay?

Although she supposed that was the oldest
excuse
in the book—like I need a drink to calm myself down or
make
my very bad day better, or some other lame reason for over
-
imbibing.

But in her case, it was true. A tranquilizer was crucial.

Because she didn’t get a chance to be with Johnny Patrick or a Johnny Patrick type every day of the week—or, hones
tl
y

ever.

Champagne or not, though, she was still wired. Needing distraction, she flicked on the TV and ended up watching
Sky News
because it was the only channel besides CNN in English. Even
better, they were airing a program on Scottish a
rchitecture. Was this her lucky
night—in more ways than one—or what? She
loved
Scottish architecture.

After raiding the minifridge a couple more times—chocolate was her comfort food when sh
e was stressed—she was eating th
e last truffle from the pretty box tied with a blue ribbon when she practically leaped from her chair at the knock.

Could it be that she needed a really heavy-duty pharmaceutical-grade tranquilizer to calm her?

Better planning would be her mantra in the future. Bereft of that pharmaceutical option at the moment, however, her only choice was to at least give an appearance of calm. She smiled pleasantly but not effusively as she opened the door, holding her hands behind her back to hide their tremor. “Jordi must be sleeping.” Oh, Christ, was that a vacuous remark, or what?

He seemed not to notice. “Yep. Fast asleep. Vernie, too.” He smiled. “I’m free for the night.”

He shouldn’t have said that “free for the night” line in that soft, husky tone. It was an instant trigger for a flood of highly creative, salacious images to inundate her mind. All of which she resolutely tried to ignore. But a couple of the better ones wouldn’t disappear—like the one with Johnny’s powerful, nude body poised over hers just before—
STOP! GET A GRIP!

Oh, shit—he must have said something.
He was looking at her expectantly
.

“Sorry, I was thinking about the great dinner we had,” she lied, the bedroom scene in her head resisting her best efforts to dismiss it.

“I was just asking if you wanted to go somewhere for a drink?”

He was leaning against the doorjamb looking sexy as hell, and his cool, wolfish eyes were asking something else entirely. That look suddenly brought her to one of those
forks in the road— you know…
where one made moral choices (the increasingly compelling nature of the bedroom scene in her head putting her at a disadvantage).

Where questions of virtue had to be addressed. (Ditto, above.)

On the other hand this wasn’t the nineteenth century, women were liberated what with birth control and credible professions and salaries. Thank God for a voice of reason. Although, liberated or not, she still wasn’t completely off the hook—morality wise.

What the hell, she decided, if she had to worry about vi
rtu
e, he might as well, too. “It’s up to you,” she said, throwing the ball back into his court.

“Then I’ll come in.”

The man had no trouble making decisions. “Be my guest,” she said, waving him in, giving herself points for handling things with her usual evasion. So it was a bad habit. She’d deal with it tomorrow.

As he eased past, he leaned over and lightly brushed her lips with his.

Was that one of those casual European hellos, or was that an actual kiss? she wondered. Her body apparen
tl
y preferred the kiss option, because it instan
tl
y began revving up—every lit
tl
e cell sending out heated, passionate messages of anticipation.

“Mind if I order a cognac?” he asked, moving toward the phone on the desk in the sitting room.

It was a question that obviously didn’t require an answer. It also suggested he wasn’t in a big hurry, which meant she would be
wise to discipline her sexual synapses to show a tad more restraint. “I’ll have one, too,” she said, like she drank cognac every day, like she drank it at all. Like she might actually have sexual restraint.

Tossing her a smile over his shoulder, he punched the room service button and ordered a bottle.

While she was debating where to sit and what to say, as well as seriously trying to curb her restive desires with his kiss still tingling on her lips, he sat down on the couch, leaned back, and spread his arms along the top in a relaxed pose. “This is the first time I’ve been able to kick back since we took off from San Francisco. Come on over.” He patted the back of the seat. “Sit down. Talk to me.”

He’d been here before, she was guessing. That was definitely not the hard sell.

She didn’t have to worry about resisting a sex fiend from the looks of it. In her current mood, she wasn’t sure that was entirely good. Although, a man like Johnny probably didn’t have to come on too strong. All he had to do was sit back and wait.

She should probably attempt an equal maturity and not fling herself at him like some groupie. Which meant stanching her baser impulses.

“What movie did Jordi watch?” she asked, sitting down, leaving a comfortable space between them, pleased to hear herself sound calm as a cucumber. Maybe she could play hard to get, too.

“She started watching
Fantastic Four
for the umpteenth time. But she fell asleep pretty fast.” He smiled faintly. “She was worn out.”

“After three martinis, I don’t suppose Vernie put up any fuss abo
ut going to bed, either.” Nicky
wasn’t sure how long she could remain calm when the heat from his body was bombarding her
senses. Smile politely and think good thoughts, her voice of reason suggested, loosely paraphrasing the advice Queen Victoria had given her daughter on her marriage—“Lie back and think of England.”

“Vernie was out before Jordi.” He offered her a sympathetic look. “You must be tired, too.”

“I’m oka
y
,” she managed to say. “I slept last night.”

“I didn’t, but I’m too psyched about having Jordi back to be tired.”

Was that a hidden clue; was he saying he was good for all night? Did that mean he wouldn’t take offense if she jumped him? “It’s great how everything worked out with Jordi,” she said, feeling the weight of virtue on her shoulders as she responded responsibly.

“The understatement of the century,” he murmured. “Getting her away from Lisa’s crowd was a relief. Those guys my ex knows have fathers who launder more money than Enron ever did.”

The thought of actual criminal activity was mega-sobering. “They don’t sound like nice characters,” she said, a jolt of apprehension partially mitigating her lust.

“No shit. They’re way the hell out of Lisa’s league. But she likes the drugs, and they have it by the truckload.”

Funny how actual fear could raise havoc with sexual desire. “These guys aren’t run-of-the-mill street dealers, are they?” she asked, nervous now.

He shook his head. “This is big-time worldwide traffic.”

“Jesus.” Her heart did a nervous pit-a-pat. “Like in the movies.”

“Unfortunately, it’s not the movies,” he said, ultra
-
calm, like they were talking about the weather. “No way do you want to fuck with these people.”

“No kidding?” She could feel th
e hairs rise on the back of her neck. “Maybe we should find another hotel. Or another country. Black Duck didn’t prepare me for stuff like this.”

“We’re out of here soon. It’s not a problem anyway.”

She must have seen too many movies about drugs that had bad endings. “You’re way more cavalier about this than I am.”

“In my business I run into big money that isn’t always on the up and up. People like that are always looking for legitimate investments. They like the glitz and glamour of the entertainment world; they can get rid of some money legitimately and also rub shoulders with—” He glanced up at the knock on the door. “Excuse me,”
he said, coming to his feet. “
The cognac’s here.”

Or maybe drug dealers with guns,
Nicky thought, the knock on the door ultra
-
discreet like maybe it was some cunning artifice, and seconds from now she’d be blown away by an automatic weapon with a silencer.

But as Nicky was bracing herself against the worst-case scenario playing in her head, Johnny opened the door to a young waiter with a dusty bottle of cognac. After politely
bon soir
ing
them, he set about opening the bottle and pouring them each a glass of an obviously very old liquor.

Johnny handed the man a large bill, then glanced at Nicky. “Tell him we appreciate the quick se
rvic
e.”

She did, the man told her to tell Johnny how much he liked his record label, and after a few minutes more of translating a conversation about specific artis
ts the waiter favored along with
a ton of effusive praise for Johnny, the man left.

“I suppose you get that a lot. Adulation.”

“More than I need, that's for sure,” he said, sitting down again
and handing her a cognac. “I’m only the producer. I don’t make the music. Cheers.” He lifted his glass. “This is usually good.”

It was, in a sligh
tl
y fruity, high-octane way. Her previously heated senses revived, her close proximity to a man who no doubt featured in thousands of women’s dreams was not without its potent effect. And since no killers had materialized, her morbid fears had been dispelled. Also, he smelled
divine
, not something she usually noticed—then again, maybe the men she dated didn’t buy their cologne in the same high-end shops as Johnny Patrick.

She found herself thinking she’d like to lick him all over he smelled so good, the fragrance kind of vanilla-ee with a hint of— really

she had to say chocolate. Was that possible? If she hadn’t had wine at dinner, two
small
bottles of champagne, and now cognac, she might not have said, “Is that chocolate I smell in your cologne, or am I crazy?”

“Dunno,” he said like a guy would. “I get it at a shop in San Francisco. I
t’
s French, though. I forget the name.”

“I
adore
chocolate.” Oops, that was open to a possible subtext, and she’d warned herself about openly drooling over him. “I mean I eat it all the time. Oh, shit,” she muttered, flushing pink at his smirk. “Strike those last inanities. I just like your cologne, that’s all.”

“Don’t get bent out of shape. I like a helluva lot more than your perfume, or I wouldn’t be here.”

That was nice. Succinct, yet sweet. “So this isn’t any port in a storm.”

“No storm here, babe. I know what I’m doing.”

“I
t’
s good one of us does.
I’m
not so sure.”

His brows rose. “Of?”

She blew out a breath. “Celebrity types like you.” Her anxieties about assassins giving way to more basic, everyday doubts.

He grinned. “That’s all bullshit. I’m as ordinary as the next guy.”

“Puleese.”

“Okay, so I know a few more people than you.”

“A-list people who are all infinitely familiar with the red carpets of the world.”

“What’s that got to do with this?” His dark gaze was suddenly intense. “Seriously?”

She held his gaze for a moment, then melted under his boyish smile, which appeared like sunshine after the rain and effectively obliterated the red carpets of the world in one fell swoop. He looked like a kid from some small California town.

“So can we dispense with the celebrity shit?” he murmured.

“Yeah, I guess.” It was incredible
how he could transform himself
with that fucking sweet smile.

“And we’re not going to get hung up on anything more than having a good time?”

“I guess.”

He laughed. “You’re gonna give me a complex.”

She grinned. “Maybe it’s about time someone did.”

“So, you’re gonna take me on?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Not as long as I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Betcha.”

“Since I first saw you,” he said smoothly, not an amateur with women.

“Okay

we’re even. You looked damned nice in that Speedo.”

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