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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: French Kiss
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Three

 

 

N
icky didn’t stay long for champagne.

Before she had drunk less than half a flute, Johnny pulled his phone out of his pocket, although it must have been on vibrate, because it hadn’t rung. Glancing at the screen, he said, “Sorry, my phone’s my office; I have to take this call.” Rising to his feet, he smiled at Nicky. “Tomorrow at seven, then?”

“I’l
l be here.”

“Me, too,” Jordi said. “I’m setting my alarm just in case.”

As Johnny walked away, Nicky heard him say, “Your album’s going platinum next week,” and was struck by the casual demeanor of this man who created one successful career after another for musicians on his small indie label. Talk about the golden touch. Yet he seemed immune to the deification syndrome suffered by so many famous people. He was dealing with a tree
house for his daughter like any other suburban dad would. He didn’t have handlers or an entourage, unless Maria counted. And he was raising his daughter to be as unpretentious as he.

“Can I keep these?” Jordi asked, tapping the blueprints. “I’m gonna call Betsy and have her come over. Maybe she can stay with me tonight, and we’ll both be here when you start tomorrow.”

“They’re yours. Keep ’em.” Coming to her feet, Nicky smiled. “And I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”

“I’ll make sure Dad is awake.”

Nicky could have said she didn’t need Johnny Patrick around to begin construction, but maybe his daughter did. “Sounds good.”

“I’ll walk you to your car.” Gulping down the last of her Shirley Temple, Jordi ran around to Nicky’s side of the table. “And if Betsy’s here tomorrow we’ll sing our duet for you.” She fell into step alongside Nicky. “Betsy’s even a better singer than me. It figures though—her mom used to sing in a band. That’s how her dad met her, but now that they’re married, he doesn’t want her to see any of her old friends, Betsy says. He calls them burnouts, her mom says they’re not, and then—”

“Does Betsy write songs, too?” Nicky interrupted, thinking Betsy’s parents would probably prefer not having the troubles in their marriage broadcast to the world.

“Uh-uh. But she plays the piano pretty good—almost as good as me. But no one’s as good as my dad on the piano. He can play anything. He can do just about anything else, too.”

And before they reached Nicky’s car, Jordi had chronicled a formidable list of her father’s accomplishments, including his ability to stand on his head for
“just ages and ages
.

Yoga, Nicky thought. A California lifestyle. That explained his lean, supple body and the way he carried himself. Unfortunately, images of those really sexy Tantric yoga contortions sprang to mind when she thought of Johnny Patrick and yoga. Which would never do. Professionally speaking. With construction about to begin. Struggling to shut down her lurid imagination, she seriously focused on Jordi’s monologue, which had somehow segued into Maria teaching her how to swim.

“She’s from Hawaii, you know, and swims like crazy. I’m getting better all the time, she says. Next year, I’m gonna take lessons in school. Hey, you have one of those hybrid cars,” she exclaimed as they entered the limestone paved car park. “I told dad he should get one, but he likes to drive too fast he says. Hybrids go fast though, too, don’t they?”

Nicky glanced at the flashy black sports car next to hers. “Hybrids probably don’t go as fast as your dad’s cars.”
Nor do they cost the equivalent of some third-world country's domestic GNP,
she thought, quickly scanning the low-slung race car.

“But you’re saving the environment, that’s for sure.”

“I hope I’m making a difference.” Nicky opened her car door. Jordi took a step back and waved. “See ya tomorrow.”

“My crew and I will be here early.”

“I can
hardly
wait!”

Nicky smiled at the young girl as she dropped into her seat. “Me, too,” she said and found she really meant it, although she chose not to examine the reasons why. With a wave, she shut the car door and fired up her lime green hybrid.

She could see Jordi still waving as she drove down the serpentine drive to the street below. If only all her clients were so
personable she thought—and willing to pay the premium price Johnny Patrick was to see that his daughter had the birthday of her dreams.

It looked as though this tree house project might be sunny skies as far as the eye could see.

Fingers crossed.

Four

 

 

T
he next morning when Nicky arrived on
-
site, the pattern for the days to come was set. Johnny Patrick was there to greet her (with both Jordi
and
Betsy that first morning), and after a brief conversation concerning the construction schedule and some friendly comments to the crew, he disappeared into his studio.

Jordi wasn’t so reclusive. She was, in fact, the complete opposite of her father, following Nicky around, continually asking
questions, her curiosity about every facet of the construction more adult than juvenile. On days when some difficult design element was taking form, or there were questions only Nicky could answer, she’d stay at the tree house for more lengthy periods.

They’d respected the site, doing the least possible excavation in order to ensure the integrity of the hillside and old-growth trees. The design itself was an organic concept of cantilevered levels,
suspended from a minimum of large timbers and steel guvlines, the delicate structure giving the appearance of a bird about to take flight. The engineering was complex, but that was the beauty of the design—the experimental and pragmatic coalescing into a single goal.

On occasion, if her schedule allowed, Nicky would join Jordi for lunch. Maria’s cooking was definitely an added incentive.

On even rarer occasions, Johnny would join them for lunch.

Nicky thought it might have
something to do with the hand-
rolled tortillas and lime-marinated snapper that Maria made on Tuesdays. Maria may have come from Hawaii, but she’d learned the art of fine Mexican cuisine somewhere, and apparently Nicky wasn’t the only one who appreciated her expertise.

Even the wine sangria she served was out of this world, and in Nicky’s opinion, that was hard to do with sangria.

On those infrequent times when Johnny joined them, Jordi carried most of the conversation. Her father would speak if spoken to, but was generally reserved. But not in an intimidating way, Nicky decided, although it might be that she was used to a father and brother who mostly let others talk. With Jordi around, however, no one had to worry about keeping the conversation going. She was an outgoing, gregarious child.

As the construction proceeded, Nicky and Jordi enjoyed an increasingly easy camaraderie. She and Jordi had just clicked, and they’d taken to having a tea party from time to time just to take a break in the afternoon. Nicky collected tea sets, so it was
n
’t a question of indulging a child. She was enjoying herself as much as Jordi.

Johnny had come out of his studio one day to find Nicky and
his daughter laughing hysterically over a SpongeBob SquarePants joke, and at their invitation joined them. He soon became the object of their teasing as he tried to manipulate the tiny teacups with his large hands. He even drank several thimblefuls of tea, although he wasn’t a tea drinker, because Jordi was having so much fun.


Mommy drinks stuff from teacups, but it’s not always tea,” Jordi announced blandly. “I know it’s
something else, ’cause she won’t let me have any.”

A sudden silence fell.

“Maybe your mom doesn’t know you like tea that much,” Johnny quickly noted. “I’ll tell her you do next time I talk to her.”

Jordi rolled her eyes. “I’m not a baby, Dad.”

“You know, I bought the most beautiful tea set in Japan. Why don’t I bring it next time I come?” Nicky suggested, undertaking a politic shift in conversation. “The set was made at a monastery that’s eight hundred years old.”

“No kidding? Wow!”

“We can pretend we halfway understand the Japanese tea ceremony.” Nicky smiled. “It’s kind of complicated.”

“I’ll help out,” Johnny offered. “I have a friend who’s a master of the art, so I’ve sat through one or two.” Or one or two hundred actually. His friend Kazuo had been a fanatic about tea ceremonies at one time.

“Do I know him?” Jordi asked. “Has he been over?”

“Uh-uh. He lives in Japan now. I knew Kazuo when we both lived in L.A. —before you were born.”

“Can we do the tea ceremony thing tomorrow?” Jordi looked from her father to Nicky. “Can we? It sounds super-fun!”

Her father always said yes to her, and today was no excep
tion. “It’s okay with me, if it’
s okay with Nicky.”

Johnny was giving her a look that said she should agree. “Tomorrow sounds fine to me,” she said. “I’ll make sure I bring my tea set.”

Five

 

 

T
he next afternoon when Nicky stopped by,
she found two black Mercedes pulled up to the door—as right up to the base of the entrance stairs.

Things didn’t look quite right.

And apparently for good reason, she realized after seeing Maria standing fixed in the open doorway, a suitcase in her hand and tears streaming down her face.

Jumping from her car, Nicky ran up the steps and took the suitcase from Maria, although the older woman seemed not to notice. Bending low to meet Maria’s vacant gaze, Nicky said, “Is there something I can do to help? Are you going somewhere? Could I drive you?”

Nothing.

The housekeeper was in a trance.

Figuring she’d interrupted some family drama that was no business of hers, Nicky was about to set the suitcase down and continue on to the tree house site in back, when Johnny Patrick’s voice rang down through the entrance hall from the second floor. Looking up, she saw him racing down the massive curved staircase, flanked by two men who looked like bodyguards. Black T-shirts, black slacks, dark glasses, hair cut so sh
ort their skulls gleamed, and h
ulk bodies.

“Let me know as soon as you find out when they took off. If they’re on their way to Paris”—he looked at one of the men, who nodded—“then we’ll be right behind. Get the pilots out to the airfield. We’ll meet
th
em there in an hour. We need Lisa’s flight plan. Pay whomever you have to, to get it. Fucking loose cannon addict. She can’t stay off the dope. A half hour now,” he said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll see you out there. Oh, crap— we need someone who speaks French, too, someone who can be discreet. The last thing I want are the tabloids nosing around.”

As Nicky stepped out of the way of the two burly men racing out the door, Johnny saw her for the first time.
“You
speak French, don’t you?” Familiar with making things happen in an industry that could find itself out of fashion overnight, he reverted to form, intent on making things happen
his way
right now. “You said your grandmother spoke French to you.” The subject had come up one luncheon when they had debated various French wines and their appellations.

“I also said my French accent was pretty quirky.” Her grandmother’s French Canadian patois was essentially eighteenth century. And if she needed another excuse not to go, people who traveled with bodyguards made her real, real apprehensive.

“Got a passport?”

Apparently quirky hadn’t cut it. “I do, but—”

“Look, I’ll make it worth your while. We’re going to Paris. I need someone who speaks French to come with me—someone I trust.”

“I’m really sorry, but I can’t. I mean

I have crews working and an off
ice to run and clients—well…
let’s face it, screaming at me every day.”

“How about fifty grand—a hundred—fuck, I don’t care
!
Don’t you have an office manager?”

“Well, yes…
but.”

“They took Jordi,” he said, grimly. “It’s not as though my fucking ex hasn’t done this before. But she’s never taken Jordi out of the country before, and the people she hangs with aren’t exac
tl
y high-minded, churchgoers. So I’m in a real fucking rush. Can you help me or not?”

His gray eyes were drilling into hers. Despite his cavalier outlook on her business, she
did
have a business that required her presence. Like all the time. But now she was also upset over Jordi’s situation. She realized being a scion of the rich and famous had some serious pitfalls. And despite Jordi’s acceptance of her mother’s habits, sh
e was probably a frightened littl
e girl right now.

“I’ll send my accountants to run your office. I must have ten of them. How’s that?”

The man knew how to negotiate.

“And with satellite phones, you’re never out of touch. You can leave a number with your office. Or two or three. There’s a drawerful of phones on the plane. Look,” he said, his distress showing for the first time, “Jordi might be in danger. I could really use your help.”

“When would you leave?”

His smile lit up the cool, dim foyer. “Right now. And thanks.”

“Don’t say thanks yet. I’m still not sure, and
right NOW
sure as hell doesn’t sound good.”

“How about after we pick up your passport?” he said with a faint smile, feeling as though something might be finally going right in his day from hell.

“I’d have to pack if I went.”

“I’ll buy you whatever you need.”

“I’d have to call my office at least.”

“You could call them from the car and settle whatever you have to s
ettle or call them later from th
e plane. You’d have twelve hours of flight time to talk. Is your passport at home or at the office?”

“Jeez, I don’t know you very well,” she blurted out, voicing her most serious reservation. She’d actually be flying out of the country with a relative stranger—the stories in the
Enquirer
and a few lunches notwithstanding.

“What do you need to know? Tell her I’m trustworthy, Maria. Tell her I used to be a Boy Scout.”

Christ, she’d forgotten the housekeeper was even there. Maria’s soft sobs melted into the background of her own incredulity and doubts.

“Mr. Johnny’s the best, Miss Nicky. Good and kind, the best father—” Maria broke down into racking sobs, her words und
is
tinguishable wails.

The fact that Jordi liked Nicky was
a distinct plus in this fucked-
up situation, Johnny decided. Although he wasn’t particularly keen that Jordi had formed a friendship with a woman he barely knew. But Jordi came before everything. That he
did
know. “Would you come wi
th
me for Jordi’s sake if nothing else? She co
uld very well be scared to death
.” He grimaced. “Her mother hasn’t taken her
out of the country before, so she could be worried as hell. And what with you two laughing a lot—and, you know

getting along so well, you’d be another friendly face, if you know what I mean. Like you’d bring a bit of normalcy to all this bizarre crap.” At the thought of Nicky and Jordi laughing
together he had an uncomfortable moment: Jordi liked people so easily; somehow he’d lost that ability. “Look,” he said, his voice husky and low, “I’d be damned grateful if you’d come.”

“If I went,” Nicky said, slowly,
kn
owing she didn’t actually have a choice unless she wanted to look like the most uncaring bitch, “I couldn’t be gone long.”

He hadn’t realized he’d been hol
ding his breath. He exhaled softl
y. “I’ll see that you’re not. My word on it. Hey, Maria,” Johnny exclaimed, moving toward his housekeeper, feeling decidedly more upbeat. “I’ve got a helper. We’ll be back with Jordi in no time.” Guiding the housekeeper to a chair, he eased her down and patted her shoulder. “Have your mother come stay with you until we get back. Joseph will pick her up. I’ll let him know. Stay here now, and he’ll come for you.” With a last pat on her shoulder, he nodd
ed to Nicky and strode toward th
e door.

“If we had more time, I’d wait until Maria’s mom got here, but”—he shrugged as they moved outside and he picked up the suitcase—“time I don’t have. My car’s over there,”
h
e said, stabbing his finger at a black Lamborghini and pulling his cell phone from his jean’s pocket. “I just have to call my driver, and we’re out of here.”

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