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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: French Kiss
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Six

 

 

J
ohnny was dialing his cell phone again as
Nicky left his car and walked up the path to her front door.

After ransacking her desk and the junk drawers in the kitchen, she eventually found her passport where she’d left it after her Tokyo trip—in the bottom of her carry-on that was still laying on a chair by the door. There wasn’t even time to feel guilty that she hadn’t moved the bag in a month. Grabbing the green leather tote, she ran upstairs to her bedroom.

She jerked open several drawers on her semanier, tossed a couple changes of underwear into her bag, moved to her dresser, and emptied the cosmetics tray—sum total, four items—into the tote on top of her underwear. Sending up a brief prayer that her perfume bot
tl
e didn’t leak, since it cost more than a person from Minnesota would normally pay for frivolity, she pulled two
T-shirts from her closet, added a pair of slacks to complete her minimum packing, and was back downstairs in record time.

Grabbing a chartreuse suede jacket from a hook by the door, she spun around in the foyer of her restored California craftsman cottage, as though one last look would afford her sane counsel, or lacking that, some sign that she was doing the right thing.

The stuffed moose head she’d inherited from her grandpa stared back at her with its usual transcendental expression.

Shit. She needed advice, not a blank stare.

A trumpeting car horn brusquely intruded into her moment of doubt.

Okaaay. If not a sign, it sure as hell indicated urgency.

Probably a kidnapped daughter trumped doubt anytime.

Pulling open the front door, she walked out.

As she moved toward the sleek, black car idling at the curb, she wondered, was this really happening? Was she about to fly to Paris? Was this all insane?

Like seriously?

Just then the car door swung open, and there was Johnny Patrick leaning over and smiling up at her.

What the hell.

How many women had the chance to be up close and personal wi
th the gorgeous, fabulous, more-
beautiful-than-Brad-Pitt Johnny Patrick?

“Sorry for rushing you, but I’m uptight as hell.” He put his hand out for her bag.

“I was just having a moment of indecision,” she admitted, handing over her tote.

“Call your parents, your friends, whomever. Let them know
where you’re going.” He tossed her bag next to his in the small storage area behind the seat. “Give them my phone number. It works everywhere.” He held her gaze as she dropped into the seat beside him and pulled the door shut. “How’s that?”

“What’s the number?”

“Here’s a pen.” Reaching above his visor as he hit the accelerator,
he cranked a tight U-turn in th
e narrow street. Steering wi
th
his knees as he ran through the gears like a race car driver and held out an expensive Mont Blanc with his other hand, he eased them at rocket speed past a delivery truck like a champion multi
-
tasker. Shooting through the stop sign at the corner, he downshifted, grabbing the wheel a split-second later as the gears caught, and he wheeled a right onto the main thoroughfare.

Paralyzed by fear, Nicky braced herself against possible lethal impact. But moments later as Johnny smoothly wove through traffic, she decided perhaps she wasn’t about to die that precise second, and her ability to speak returned. “I don’t need the pen,” she said—something she should have mentioned a block and a half ago, so he could have had two hands on the wheel instead of one or none. “My memory’s good.”

He shot her a skeptical look.

“Keep your eyes on the road. I’m not sure my insurance is paid up. I’m even less sure if I ever changed my beneficiary after Theo took off for Thailand and more or less left me at the altar with ten payments left on my engagement ring. No way do I want him to live in comfort on my dime. So what’s the number?”

It took him a moment to digest her blunt assessment of her former
fiancé
. And another to decide the guy didn’t know when he had a good thing going. Not that any of it was relevant to his
life, he quickly resolved, and recited his
cell phone number— slowly…
just in case.

“Jeez! Eyes on the
road please!

she shrieked. He’d practically taken the paint off a Hyundai as he threaded his way through a very small opening between cars. She wasn’t ready to cash in her chips
yet.

“Don’t worry. I raced Le Mans once.”

At which point she shut her eyes. He’d switched lanes again, easing the Lamborghini between two cars with barely an inch to spare. A second later, he punched the accelerator, veered right across two lanes of fast-moving vehicles, hurtled up an exit ramp, catapulted out
onto the freeway, and apparentl
y indifferent to California traffic laws, put the speedometer into the red zone.

Johnny was more or less driving on automatic, his mind a tumult of emotion. The thought of his daughter in the hands of that lowlife crowd his ex hung with had him completely unnerved. Jordi might be scared as hell—wondering what was going on. She always called him if they went out of town. But she hadn’t this time, and the fact that she hadn’t disturbed him. If one of his friends hadn’t seen her with Lisa at the Oakland airport, he wouldn’t have even known she’d left San Francisco.

Silen
tl
y running through every expletive known to man, he raged at his ex’s selfish indifference to everyone but herself. She might not even remember Jordi was along once she was strung out. Not to mention the fact that those men his ex had been partying with of late were definitely operating outside the law. He’d had them checked out, and they were third-generation, big-time drug dealing families, Ivy League degrees, custom tailors, and all the right addresses notwithstanding. None of them were the kind of men he wanted around his daughter.

He felt like strangling Lisa.

Sure, she had a drug problem.

Sure, she needed help.

Again.

Three sojourns at Malibu House and the weekly therapy sessions he paid for apparently weren’t doing the job. But, dammit, he didn’t care how messed up she was. She had no friggin’ right to involve their daughter in her druggie life.

This was the BLOODY

LAST

TIME.

No more Mister Nice Guy, no more goddamn shoulder to cry on.

The minute he had Jordi back, he was suing for sole custody.

 
Seven

 

 


V
ernie, the music’s too loud,” J
ordi mum
bled, half asleep.

“I know.” The elde
rly woman grimaced faintl
y. “Try to sleep, sweetie
.”
Lave
rn
e Maxwell was nanny to the stars, so she’d seen it all. But
she didn’t have to like it. Gentl
y massaging Jordi’s small b
ack, she softly
hummed a favorite Disney song and hoped the party in the main lounge would soon wind down. Not that she was overly optimistic, knowing her employer as she did. But they would land in Paris by morning she’d been told. At least then, she and Jordi would be in their own hotel room.

At the moment, they were in a small bedroom on the Gulfstream jet, the door shut—and locked. The nanny didn’t like the look of the crowd outside. But the driving beat of the music echoed through the door, the raucous sounds of voices trying to make themselves heard above the music remained a persistent din.

Pulling the quilt higher, she covered Jordi’s ears and prayed for a speedy landing.

Laverne had first met Lisa Jordan right after her much-reported divorce. She’d been one of two nannies who was nominally interviewed by the beautiful Miss Jordan.
Even that first day, she’d rec
ognized the signs of drug use. Lisa Jordan’s face had been pale, her forehead beaded with sweat; she’d been agitated, constan
tl
y wiping her
nose and sipping water. And w
hile many users had a telltale twitch, Lisa Jordan had them all: pulling on her earlobe, twirling her hair, rubbing her hands. Vernie had felt an urge to lean over, pat her shoulder, and murmur, “There, there, calm down, calm down, everything’s going to be fine
…”

As for Miss Jordan’s mental focus during that first interview, her assistant would bring her back to reality from time to time with a tap on her wrist and a few quiet words. And for a brief interval the conversation would be between three people once again.

As it turned out, Laverne had eventually been hired by the efficient young assistant dressed from head to foot in black Prada. The sleek, cool-as-a-cucumber brunette liked that Laverne had worked long term for one of the major Hollywood producers, who everyone in the industry knew partook of recreational drugs with considerable frequency. She particularly liked that no public gossip had ever surfaced about the producer’s family.

Miss Ingram had made a generous offer, and Vernie had accepted the substantial retainer, with the understanding that she would only work occasionally. At her age, semiretirement held great appeal, a fact Miss Ingram was aware of when she’d approached Vernie in the first place.

Miss Ingram had also said in an undertone as she escorted Vernie from the room, “Miss Jordan is entering treatment again next week. She’ll be more herself next time you see her.”

And Miss Ingram had been right for several months afterward.

But opportunities for relapse were plentiful in the drug-chic world Lisa Jordan inhabited. And only the strong were able to resist temptation.

In the four years since Vernie had entered Lisa Jordan’s employ, she’d become a surrogate mother of sorts to the messed-up young beauty whose own mother was on husband and face-lift number five. And counting.

She’d also become a friend and playmate to Jordi on her infrequent visits. As well as her protector. When Lisa was too spaced out, she kept Jordi as far away from her mother as possible.

It wasn’t that Lisa Jordan hadn’t tried to beat the drugs. She’d been through rehab three times. Hopefully, the fourth time would be the charm.

Meanwhile, Laverne had a vulnerable child in her care. The first chance she had once they landed, she was going to call Jordi’s father.

This perpetual, traveling party with rich-as-they-may-be hoodlums was no place for a young girl like Jordi.

 
Eight

 

 

W
hile
Johnny
ran over the flight plan with
his pilots upon their arrival at the private airstrip, Nicky decided to forgo calling her family. Her mother would have a thousand questions she’d prefer not answering—ditto for her sister. She did call her project manager, though, since he’d be running things while she was gone. After giving him a quick once-over on her immediate plans, she said, “I’ll call you from Paris tomorrow, and we can discuss whatever construction crises have come up in my absence. I shouldn’t be gone long.”

“I hope like hell not,” Buddy Mack grumbled. “We’re up to our ears, babe.”

She’d tried to break him of that “babe” habit when he’d first started working for her, but it was a lost cause. And since he was the best project manager on the north coast, he more than made up for a few “babes” with his on-time or under-deadline wraps on
their tree houses. He was invaluable to her bottom line. “It’s sort of an emergency, or I wouldn’t be going,” she explained.

“I’ll tell that to the client who wants her kid’s tree house ready for his birthday. I’m sure she’ll understand, even though she doesn’t understand anything but ‘I want it yesterday.’ ”

“Sorry, Buddy.”

“Don’t sweat it. If it’s an emergency, it’s an emergency.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem. Call me tomorrow pronto, though. I can’t do this alone.”

“I will. First thing.” But it took her a few moments to reconcile her controlling impulses. She was in charge because she liked it. Maybe needed it. Not that she was going to ask a therapist the reason why. She might not like the answer.

“Ready?”

Johnny had come up and was looking at her expectan
tl
y. “All set,” she said. There was no point in elaborating. Her business was way down on his list of priorities at the moment.

And she didn’t blame him.

 

 

J
ohnny's Bombardier G
5000
lifted off the tarmac shortly after four. Handing Nicky over to a steward who looked like he’d stepped from the pages of
GQ,
he excused himself and walked forward to sit with the pilots.

After being offered a menu and wine list fit for royalty, Nicky was shown to a private sitting room cum bedroom that dramatically demonstrated the opulent taste of some world-class decorator. She’d never seen the inside of a private plane—let alone such luxury. It was fucking impressive—from the hand-rubbed walnut
paneling, to the malachite handles on the doors, not to mention the coral pongee quilt on the divan that had been embroidered by a small village, from the look of the intricate design. Or if only one person had been involved, it had taken him or her a lifetime to complete.

She turned down the offer of champagne, figuring she’d better have her wits about her if she was involved in a possible international kidnapping. But she didn’t turn down the plate of hors d’oeuvres that arrived a few moments later. Really, it was a mouthwatering sight: prawns bigger than she’d ever seen, spiced whole pecans—and you know how hard it is to get them out of the shell without breaking them into bits, rumaki that was so delicately crisp she could tell just by looking at it that it was going to taste like heaven, pretty little crudites made in all those flower and animal shapes that you only see in Asian recipe books, a brie so rich it was oozing calories as it sat on its little lace doily, and the piece de resistance to any woman with taste buds—a tray of truffles decorated with gold leaf, coconut, crushed pistachios, and for those with edgy appetites, chili peppers.

Having been raised in northern Minnesota, she wasn’t sufficien
tl
y edgy to have a totally sophisticated palate, and the chili pepper truffles were one of the few items left untouched when she finally pushed the tray away and collapsed in a beige linen chair.

Could she turn on the TV she wondered, or would the pilot go into a tailspin should an electronic device be activated? She was never quite sure, having been suitably intimidated by numerous flight attendants over the years. There seemed to be stark danger in turning on a switch while in the air.

Surveying her other entertainment options, her gaze fell on a rack of magazines and books. Finding it delightful that she wasn’t
buckled in as she would have been on a commercial flight, she perused the books—all serious nonfiction—helped herself to several magazines instead, debated calling for a cup of tea, and decided against it—not wishing to appear too forward.

After all, Johnny Patrick was concerned for his daughter’s safety.

This wasn’t the time to be even remotely demanding.

Two magazines later, she was thinking about getting a drink of water from the bathroom to assuage her thirst, when the door opened and she was dazzled by the smile that had graced hundreds of tabloids under various titillating headlines having to do with women and sex.

“Care for some coffee or tea?” He indicated a tray he was carrying with a dip of his gorgeous head.

“I’m about to become a believer in extrasensory perception,” she said, smiling. His good looks were even more striking at close quarters. Maybe it was just that she’d not seen that dazzling smile up close and personal, or maybe that old canard about movie and rock stars being America’s royalty was true.

“So I guessed right.”

Her stomach lurched at his remark, considering her mind was curren
tl
y consumed with thoughts having to do with his outrageous physical beauty, their proximity, and various other completely shameful possibilities.

STOP!
she commanded herself. It was just plain
WRONG
to be thinking of anything but his daughter’s possible peril at a time like this.

“Tea or coffee?” He shoved the decimated hors d’oeuvre plate aside to make room on the table for the tray.


Tea, please.” There. That was better. An appropriately businesslike tone to match her purified state of mind.
Remember why
you’re here,
she cautioned herself. Because you speak French and Jordi likes you. Not for any other reasons. And more pertinen
tl
y in terms of possible humiliation, remember how many women have been dogging Johnny Patrick’s heels for the past decade or more.

He’s not looking for a relationship at thirty-five thousand feet. He wouldn’t be even if the circumstances were more normal.

Which they weren’t.

They were so far from normal, this entire, surreal scenario was more like fiction than reality.

For a second she considered pinching herself—just to make certain.

But he was handing her a cup of tea, and she didn’t want to spill it. Nor could she surreptitiously pinch herself when he was no more than two feet away. Get a grip. Like seriously.

Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he sat down across from her, drank half of it down in one long draft, and said with a long, drawn-out sigh, “Now we just have to wait.”

“How many hours?”

“The pilots are pushing it, and we have more speed than the Gulfstream G450 my ex is in, but even then”—he shrugged—“we won’t land for another ten hours. So you might want to sleep.” He nodded at the museum quality artwork covering the divan. “Feel free.”

While she was trying to refrain from thinking inappropriate thoughts involving Johnny Patrick, she found a ready reply to allusions about beds to be damnably difficult. As her brain discarded all the unsuitable, generally salacious comments that kept popping up, she pretended to drink her tea and look—if not thoughtful and serene—at least not half-witted. “Maybe later,” she managed to say.

“So tell me about your family,” Johnny said, smiling. “Since we’ll be together for a while. I know a little about your grandmother and the long ago Quebec connection, but how about your mom, dad, brothers, sisters? Are you from a small town, big town? Do you like cats—dogs, et cetera?”

It would have helped her regain her composure if he hadn’t been leaning forward with his elbows on his knees so that the width of his shoulders under his Sierra Club T-shirt looked enormous and the muscles in his shoulders and arms were like practically bulging. Nor did it help that his heavy-lidded gaze was framed by dark lashes so long any woman would weep with envy. She forced her brain to function by sheer will. “My mom and dad, a brother and sister live in Black Duck, Minnesota. I may have mentioned that before. Did I say, population six hundred ninety-five?” There was something about being alone with the killer-face and rippled-body Johnny Patrick that was making her feel an attraction she’d rather not feel.

Considering the reason she was here.

And about a thousand other reasons that made any relationship between them—other than business—about as unlikely as marriage domesticating Russell Crowe.

“Did you have a school in a town that size?”

Jerked back to reality, she quickly rewo
und Johnny’s question and abruptl
y thought—how did he know? “Are you from a small town?” she blurted out. The conso
lidation of Black Duck and Be
midji schools during junior high had been one of the major traumas of her life.

“Yep. Population seven thousand—a mill town in northern California that’s seen better days. There was always talk of closing down the high school and busing us over the hill to Ukiah.”

“So your small-town roots kept you in the Bay area instead of L.A.”

“More or less.” He didn’t say the drug scene in L.A. had almost taken him down when he first started out in the music business. Berkeley gave him the distance he needed to maintain a normal life.

She felt more of a rapport with him from that point, their small-town backgrounds overcoming some of the showbiz dazzle that had been rat
tl
ing her since she’d boarded the opulent private jet. Although, being alone with Johnny Patrick in this tiny little space was definitely a factor, too.

But she found herself relaxing as they compared small-town memories and exchanged brief histories of their families—he had a mom and dad who lived in Napa now, a brother in Colorado.

“We get together on the holidays,” he said. “At my place or in Napa—in the ski season we’re more apt to go to my brother’s place in Denver. He has kids; they’re younger than Jordi, but they all get along. How about you? Do you go home on the holidays?”

“Pretty much. My folks and brother and sister operate a tree farm, so Christmas is a big deal. Once the trees are shipped in early November, everyone relaxes and starts baking. The whole family cooks, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are one gargantuan feast.”

“You cook, too?”

“’Course. I make candy.”

His brows rose. “No kidding.”

She smiled. “It was a matter of taking what was left on the seasonal menu. Not that making candy is oppressive in any way. But my dad makes the sausage and smokes the bacon, my mom handles the Scandinavian coffee breads and lutefisk, my older sister
opted for the Christmas cookies before I was big enough to complain, and my brother makes the best egg rolls and scalloped potatoes in three counties. And actually, it helps to have an engineering degree when it comes to candy making. It’s a very precise art. The rest of my family are biologists and wing it more than I do.”

“So you’re odd man out.”

“Like the houses I build,” she quipped. “Tell me, are you in step with your family?”

He laughed. “Not really. My dad worked in a mill and listened to baseball on the radio, not music. My mom’s a librarian, retired now, and her idea of music is hymns. My brother’s a math teacher. But no one ever gave me any grief for taking the route I did. Even when things were sort of rocky.” Those days when he was partying so hard he forgot what day it was, for instance.

“How did you get your own label?”

“Probably the way you started your own business. I just went for it.” He grinned. “I had a garage band that was pretty damned good, for starters.”

“How did you know they were good?”

He slumped back in his chair and gave her that practiced smile—the one he could turn on and off effortlessly. “It’s a gut feeling. Believe me, a music degree from Berkeley isn’t the key, although I don’t discount it. But mos
tl
y, I learned by trial and error.”

“When did bodyguards enter your life?” So maybe it wasn’t a good segue, but those guys were intimidating.

His eyes widened for an almost imperceptible moment, and then he smiled. “They bother you?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Barry and Cole are just along for backup.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

“You’re not in any danger.”

She frowned. “Then what does backup mean?”

“Just general assistance,” he calmly said, apparent
l
y picking up on the bris
tl
e in her tone. “Like sometimes they help me out when I go to some red carpet thing; they get me through the crowds. Or if I’m out clubbing, which I rarely d
o these days, they help keep…”
He hesitated.

“The women away?”

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