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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: French Kiss
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“August fifteenth.”

A fucking month? Was he crazy?
“Are you crazy?” she said, as though her frontal lobes that were charged with self-censorship had gone on vacation.

He smiled faintly. “Probably. But, look, make it small. We can add on to the tree house later. What do you think, baby?” he queried, glancing down at his daughter. “Will you settle for something small to begin with?”

“Sure, Daddy! I don’t care what size it is! I just want a rope ladder to climb up into my
very own
tree house!”

Apparently neither one of them were used to the word
no.
“Even a small tree house takes time to construct,” Nicky cautioned. A month was almost out of the question.

“I could hire whatever men you need—and gofers to fetch and carry for you. Do you need a driver, extra draftsmen? Someone to cater food for the crew?”

Not
only was she in Versailles-on-th
e-hill, but apparently the Sun King mentality that brooked no dissent had come over to
sunny California with the building materials. Not to mention, Jor
di was watching them both intentl
y like a spectator at a tennis match.

“Say yes,” Johnny said, softly, his gaze no longer cool but warm and enticing. “And name your price.”

“Puleeeese!” Jordi pleaded.

Whether it was Johnny Patrick’s sex appeal or his daughter’s pleading, whether she was taken in by his extraordinary good looks or his more or less unlimited offer of money, Nicky heard herself saying, “Okay, I’ll try.”

“Yessss!” Jordi exclaimed, smiling broadly.

“Thanks,” Johnny said. “I really appreciate it.”

His simple reply seemed to strike some pleasure center she hadn’t known existed—somewhere deep in the recesses of her psych
e
. Luckily, her more rational senses took charge a second later and reminded her that this was about building a tree house and making money—not about anything else. “I’ll take a look at the site and get working on a plan, then,” she said in a deliberately neutral tone to compensate for her momentary lapse in judgment. “The design won’t be anything complicated though.”

“Fine. We’re good with that, aren’t we baby?” Johnny said, smiling at his daughter.

“Any kind of tree house will be PER-FECT!” Jordi announced.

Johnny nodded. “Absolutely. We’ll take a look at the site. Then, give us a call when the plans are ready, and we’ll set up a meeting.”

“I need a chair big enough for you, Daddy.” Jordi glanced at Nicky. “So he can watch sports with me. Is that okay?”

“I’ll make sure there’s room.”

The first few bars of U2’s “Vertigo” suddenly resonated in the spring air.

Johnny pulled a cordless phone from his shorts pocket, glanced at the caller ID, frowned, and pushed his chair back. “I have to take this call,” he said, easing Jordi off his lap. “We were thinking a tree house would be good at the end of the terrace. Over there,” he said with a wave toward the bay side of his house. “Do you mind looking it over yourself? Jordi, it’s Mommy. Run into the house and pick up one of the phones.”

He turned and walked away before Nicky could answer, but not before she heard him ask in a pissed off tone, “Where the hell are you? You were supposed to come and see Jordi yesterday. She’s running for a phone, so get your damned story straight. I don’t want you fucking up her head.”

Okaaay. Trouble in paradise, Nicky decided as she came to her feet. Not that the tabloids hadn’t dished out what all the inquiring minds wanted to know ten times over already—like Lisa Jordan’s drug use, her three times in rehab, the rumors of Johnny’s extracurricular women on the side, the last screaming match between the loving couple in Paris, and the details of the divorce settlement that supposedly had Lisa Jordan trying to overturn her prenup she claimed was signed in Bali somewhere and didn’t count.

It made one appreciate the boredom of a normal life where one work
ed nine to five—ostensibly…
and considered recreation a drive up the coast highway or a flavored martini at some new night spot. No paparazzi, no prenups, no rehab—unless she was going to be put in someday for overconsumption of chocolate.

On the other hand, people like Johnny Patrick had enough money to offer her an open-ended contract to build his daughter
a tree house. So rather than make judgments on people’s lifestyles, she should count her blessings, keep her mouth and eyes shut, apropos of celebrity scandals past and present, check out the tree house site, and design Jordi Patrick the best damned tree house possible.

 

 

A
s
she braked
her way down the steep drive some time late
r, she was already planning the
house in her mind. And she was thinking, too, how lucky she was to be making a living doing what she liked to do.

She could thank Theo for dragging her out here when she was all set to open a shop in Minneapolis. Although she wasn’t about to forgive him for cleaning out their bank account and selling all their furniture to finance his trip to Thailand.

The jerk.

It had taken her a couple years to move on from a hand-to-mouth existence.

But the gravy train had come into town after the first tree house she’d built for a friend for nothing. She’d had to hire three extra crews lately to keep up with her clients.

It just went to show you, you could plan and plan—six years of nose-to-the-grindstone in college, internship at a top firm, and then voila—gypsy fate hits you over the head, and you find yourself in California—broke, then not so broke—building some of the more creative structures in the universe.

Two

 

 

T
he next time Nicky arrived at Versailles-on-
the-hill, her plans completed, Maria escorted her to the loggia with views of San Francisco Bay and Jordi’s tree house site and left her in the little girl’s care. “Daddy said he’ll be off the phone in a minute,” Jordi explained, gesturing at her father, who was pacing back and forth under a flowering wisteria at the end of the loggia. “We were waiting for you, and then Mom called. Are those the plans?” She jabbed at the roll of blueprints Nicky carried.

“Yup. They’ve got your name on them.”

“Wow! Like for
real
?
My very own
name?”
Jordi’s eyes were huge. “Show me, show me—over here

on the table!” Running to a large teakwood table used for outdoor dining, Jordi shouted, “Hey, Dad! My tree house plans are here!”

The phone still at his ear, Johnny swiveled around and waved.

“He said he’d stop talking when you came, but they’re probably in the middle of a
f
ight. They always fight,” Jordi said with casual acceptance. “My friend Betsy’s parents always fight, too, and she says I have it better ’cause my mom and dad aren’t in the same house, and I don’t have to
listen
to them scream.”

Too much information,
Nicky thought, beginning to unroll
the plans on the tabletop. On th
e other hand, Jordi Patrick didn’t seem distraught by the irreconcilable differences between her parents. The resiliency of youth, Nicky figured, or maybe Jordi had a different comfort level when it came to family discord.

“Ohmygod — there’s my name!” Jordi cried, gesticulating wildly at the heading at the top of the first page. “Jordi Patrick’s Tree House.
A
we-some
!”

“How about we take a look at the drawings, and you let me know what you think?” Quickly flipping over the page, Nicky pointed at one of several elevations on the second page. “This is what the tree house will look like on the side facing the bay.” She slid her finger to a second drawing. “And this view”—she paused as a sharp expletive resonated from the far end of the terrace—“will face the terrace,” she quickly went on, tr
y
ing not to acknowledge the round of curses drifting their way.

Jordi looked up, but instead of registering consternation, she cheerfully said, “O
-kay
!
Daddy’s done now!”

Maybe Jordi was into gratitude therapy—you know, like always looking on the bright side of things, Nicky thought, surreptitiously checking out Jordi’s dad. Johnny Patrick was slipping his phone into his shorts pocket as he strode toward them, but unlike his Pollyanna daughter, he was frowning.

“Sorry about the wait,” Johnny said as he reached them. He
nodded at the plans. “How’s it looking, baby? Is it something you like?”

“It’s awesome, Daddy!” Jordi said, tracing the rope ladder with her fingertip. “Look at the ladder! And look at this!” she added, moving her finger upward. “It even has a fabulous, perfect, pointy-top tower like I wanted!”

Despite Jordi’s exuberance, Nicky could see that Johnny Patrick’s thoughts were elsewhere. While he was doing his best to be attentive, he wasn’t entirely succeeding.

Jordi tugged on her father’s hand. “Hey—Earth to Daddy!”
From the mouths of babes,
Nicky thought.

“I heard everything you said, baby—pointy tower and all.” He squeezed his daughter’s hand. “I love it.”

His effort to refocus was so patently forced, Nicky decided the lives of the rich and famous sucked at times like everyone else’s. “I tried to incorporate all the elements Jordi liked best,” Nicky interposed, talking fast to fill the sudden silence. “I’m glad the tower and rope ladder works for everyone, but if you want any changes just say so. The main room is large enough for a chair for your dad, Jordi. So we’re good there. Any questions so far?” Although after one look at Johnny Patrick’s blank stare, she was sorry she’d asked.

“Do I have a TV?” Jordi piped up.

Thank God for children’s egocentric worldview. “Yup, sure do.”

“How big?”

“Whatever you want, altho
ugh I’d suggest something semi-
modest. The rooms aren’t all that big.”

“It’s perfect then. Betsy’s gonna be soooo jealous. She’s my best friend, though, so she’ll really like it, too. Hey, Dad!” Jordi jerked on her dad’s hand. “Do you like it?”

“Absolutely.” Johnny’s smile was more real this time.

Maybe he’d snapped out of whatever weird mood he’d been in, Nicky decided, although she hoped he wasn’t going to be out of things on a regular basis. The tabloid rumors about drug use had always pointed at his ex, but one never knew.

“It sounds as
th
ough Jordi is on board,” he said, his tone all business, like it had been at their first meeting. “And I want to thank you for your promptness. Jordi’s been bugging me mercilessly, so I appreciate your quick turnaround. Let me take a closer look at what you’ve come up with,” he added, leaning over the table and studying the elevations. “Nice,” he murmured a moment later. “Terrific. The design is unusual.” He flipped over another page and glanced at it briefly. “We won’t be seeing a dozen of these anywhere,” he added wi
th
a grin as he stood upright. “Baby, did you thank Nicole?”

“Nicky, please.”

“Nicky it is. What do you say?” he prompted, glancing at his daughter.

“Thank you, Nicky. It’s fab-u-lous,” Jordi declared. “More fabulous than anything!”

“I agree.” Johnny arched his brows. “So when can you start?”

“Don’t you want to see the rest of the plans?” Nicky thumbed the edge of the thick stack of blueprints.

“I’ve seen all I need to see. How about you, Jordi?”

“A birthday party in my
own tree house is gonna be GUUU
R
-
ATE!”

Johnny’s grin shifted from his daughter to Nicky. “I’d say we’re ready to go if it’s okay with you.”

“I knew you were in a rush—so whenever you want to start we’ll schedule you in.”

“Yesterday, if I know my daughter.” His gaze was amused.

“How about tomorrow morning. Then—with luck, if we don’t run into any snafus, we’ll bring this project in on time.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of any snafus.”

He spoke with such assurance, she almost believed he might be capable of such a daunting task. “Things come up sometimes. Unavoidable things,” she cautioned. “Materials don’t come on time, something you’ve ordered has been discontinued, and they forgot to tell you, even the weather can be a problem, although this time of year weather probably won’t be an issue.”

“Whatever crises come up, consider them handled.”

Wow. He sounded positively commanding—like he should be wearing combat gear or general’s stripes instead of shorts and a T-shirt. “Sounds good,” she said in lieu of her reflections. “I’ll have a crew here tomorrow morning. We start early. Will that be a problem?”

“I
always
get up early,” Jordi said. “Don’t I, Dad?”

He smiled. “Oh, yeah.”

“You’re gonna have to get up early, too,” Jordi teased.

“We can manage without supervision,” Nicky quickly interposed, not sure celebrity music producers wanted to be awakened early. “Really—unless we run into a situation that requires a change order you have to authorize, don’t worry about us.”

“I don’t sleep in often. Occasionally I work in my studio all night. When everything’s clicking, I take advantage of it.” He shrugged faintly. “But that’s rare, so assume I’m available should you need me.”

“Will do.” Now, if she weren’t trying real hard to ignore the fact that he was tall, dark, and handsome—not to mention sexy— that
I’
m available
line might have been super-enticing.

“I’m
always
available,” Jordi announced. “’Specially in the summer.”

“Sounds good,” Nicky said, coming back down to earth. “We start at seven. With a rush job like this, I’ll be coming by to check things out more often than usual, but I’ll try not to get in your way.”

“You won’t be in
my
way!” Jordi exclaimed with her usual enthusiasm.

“You’d better see that you don’t get in Nicky’s way,” her dad admonished. “But seriously, if you need anything,” he added, turning to Nicky, “and can’t find me, check with Maria. She’ll know where I am.”

“I look forward to the project,” Nicky said, putting out her hand.

Johnny took her hand in a firm grip. “I’m pleased you could fit us into your schedule.”

Nicky wondered how many times Johnny Patrick was denied anything with his money-is-no-object stance. But she knew better than to voice her thoughts. “The pleasure is mine,” she murmured, slipping her hand free.

He was really tall she thought, apropos of nothing, as she took a step backward. And really rich apparen
tl
y. This was one of those win/win situations. With the profit from this tree house, she’d be able to pay off the balance on her office mortgage. How cool was that? Thank God for the world’s love of music and even more for rich music producers. That little Green and Green bungalow she used as her office was gonna be hers free and clear real soon.

Nicky w
as in the midst of building castl
es in the air, and it took a nudge from Jordi to bring her
back to earth. Not that the littl
e girl wasn’t used to adults going off into the ether, she
thought, looking up and trying to figure out what Johnny had said to her.

“Care for a glass of bubbly to close the deal?”

His query was polite as hell, but he was smiling, and rather than explain her lapse by saying something inconsequential— Nicky decided on the truth. “I was counting my money.”

“Reason enough to zone out,” Johnny said with a grin. “Do you have time for a glass? We’ll toast our new project. Jordi’s looking forward to a Shirley Temple.”

“I
love
Shirley Temples—’specially the way Maria makes them with lots of cherries. Come on—sit down.” She pulled out a chair. “Come on!”

Nicky hesitated—not because her life was so busy she couldn’t take time to hav
e a glass of champagne, but mostl
y because she was thinking it would be more prudent to maintain a professional distance with God’s gift to women. Not that she expected to be hit on, but she didn’t want to get too close to his potent force field. Especially if she was going to be around him a lot in the coming month; a certain circumspection would be politic. “Sure, why not,” she heard herself say, as though reason and logic had left town. “I’d love a glass of champagne.”

“Great. I’ll be right back. Jordi, tell Nicky about that song you wrote for me. Not that I’m prejudiced, but my daughter has talent,” he said with a grin.

“And he should know,” Jordi asserted, smiling broadly.

He winked at Nick
y
. “When Jordi makes the charts, then I can start counting my money, too.”

As if he didn’t have accountants keeping busy doing that already, Nicky thought, mentally ticking off his material assets the tabloids loved to disclose: the yacht, the various homes around
the world, the fast cars. But well-mannered, she said instead, “Way to go, Jordi. Tell me about your song.”

 

 

A
s
Johnny strode
away, he was forced to acknowledge he hadn’t planned on extending an invitation for drinks. In fact, he was super-wary of making new female friends for a thousand cogent reasons. So why had he? Good question. Maybe it was because Lisa had pissed him off more than usual. Maybe he needed some time with a normal woman to remind him that every female wasn’t as selfish and demanding as his ex.

One of Lisa’s rants today had been about the price of tea in China. Literally. No shit. She was on some new kick, and apparently she thought it was up to him to find her some rare handpicked tea from some goddamned special mountain in China. As if he fucking cared. But no matter how many times he told her he wasn’t her go
-
to man, she still expected him to take care of every fucking little thing for her. Fortunately, he had people who could handle shit like that. But Christ, when would the constant haranguing end?

Now that he thought about it, he probably needed a drink after talking to Lisa and just didn’t want to drink alone. Maybe it was that simple.

No doubt.

(Male introspection or lack of it at work.)

Before Johnny returned, Jordi not only sang her song, but explained how she’d composed the music first, then the lyrics in the space of an hour. Now, it wasn’t a complicated song, but it was impressive nonetheless. The girl was only nine. And Nicky knew, because she’d asked when Jordi had finished singing.

So much for genetics.

BOOK: French Kiss
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