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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: French Kiss
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Thirteen

 

 

W
hile
V
ernie settled into their suite at the
Hotel Castille, Johnny and Jordi showed Nicky to her room. But before Nicky had even checked to see that her carry-on had been brought up, Jordi said, “You gotta come with us to this video arcade. Dad’s taking me, right now. You are, right?” Her gaze swung from her father to Nicky. “You play, doncha?”

“A little."

“Feel free to refuse.” Johnny smiled. “This might not be your idea of fun in Paris.”

He was obviously giving her a way out, Nicky thought. Now that he had his daughter back, she’d probably be in the way. “Thanks for the invite, but maybe next time,” Nicky said.

“Daddy, Nicky
has
to come! It’s funner with more people. We can play Mortal Kombat or Tekken together. I
love
those games.”

He grinned. “It looks like I’m getting some static here. Look, come along,” he offered. “I’ll give you combat pay.”

“You don’t have to pay me. I
like
arcades.”

“See, Daddy! Nicky
wants
to come!”

“Well, then. Are we ready?”

He really shouldn’t smile at her like that. She wasn’t used to that melting smile. He must be walking on air now that Jordi was back. That’s all it was. No point in taking it too personally. “I’m ready,” Nicky said, pleased to hear her voice sounding more or less normal.

“It’s not very far. We can walk,” Johnny said.

As it turned out she and Johnny walked while Jordi skipped and hopped down the street, leading the parade.

“I’m glad everything went smoothly,” Nicky remarked. “Jordi seems in good spirits—no trauma apparently.”

“She’s completely unfazed as usual. I can’t take credit for it, though; she’s always taken everything in stride. She never even cried much as a baby.”

“Maybe her life’s been good. You know that old joke about the little girl who didn’t speak until she was six. When her astonished parents asked her why, she said,
Everything’s been pretty good until now.”

Johnny smiled fain
tl
y. “That would put my therapist at ease— if I had one.”

“I thought every celebrity had one.”

“I’m not a celebrity.”

Ok
a
aay.
And she wasn’t addicted to chocolate. But rather than rain on this very nice parade, she said, “Well, Jordi’s a sweetheart, and that’s a fact.”

“Thanks.”

My God, he really meant it. Johnny Patrick as proud father didn’t hit the headlines, but it was as real as his glitz and glamour image.

He paused briefly at a waste receptacle, pulled out a handful of pills from his pocket and tossed them away. “Those were my backup,” he said to her assessing gaze. “I didn’t know what Lisa might want,” he said, resuming his pace, “so I came prepared.”

“A colorful mix,” she said, in lieu of asking,
Does your ex really take all those different drugs?

“Yeah, well

it’s over. Mission accomplished. And now I have a big favor to ask you,” he added, without warning. “Feel free to say no.”

As if he took no for an answer, she thought, having seen him in action the last twenty-four hours. “What is it?” She tried to disguise her wariness, but failed.

“Seriously, you can refuse.”

“Seriously, you can’t be serious.”

He grinned. “Am I that threatening?”

“Let’s just say if it was a match between you and a bulldozer, I wouldn’t bet on the bulldozer.”

“Then maybe I’ll just
tell
you instead of ask,” he wisecracked.

“Now you’ve done it.” She grinned. “For sure it’s a no, now.”

“You could bill me for your time. How would that be for a compromise?”

“I’m already billing you for my time.”

His smile was candy sweet. “In that case, maybe you could just up your charges. The thing is—I wouldn’t mind catching my breath after pulling an all-nighter to get here. If your schedule in
any way allows”—his smile turned even sweeter, if that were humanly possible—“maybe we could take a day to chill, wind down—whatever—before we head back.”

His request was benign enough, and she did
love
Paris. “You could use some sleep I suppose.” She was mos
tl
y a pushover when it came to accommodating people anyway. That’s what came from being the baby in the family.

“Yeah, probably. Although, I’m not complaining. It was worth the long flight to have Jordi safe. What do you think?”

“Sure, why not,” she said, knowing Buddy was going to scream his head off—but what the hell—she’d deal with it. She was in Paris, after all. “I’ll take advantage of the art scene while we’re here, run through a few of my favorite museums and galleries, stuff like that.”

“Sounds good. Jordi and I’ll just hang out.”

Whether he was being polite or preferred the no-fraternization policy between the boss and the hired help, she couldn’t tell. But she didn’t need company to enjoy Paris. In a way, maybe gypsy fate had taken a hand and given her a short break; her schedule had been nonstop lately. She could use some time off. She’d give Buddy a call when she got back to the hotel, square away another day in the world of tree house construction and then play tourist tomorrow.

 

 

N
i
cky was surprised
to find the arcade was ü
ber-upscale; she’d never seen so many kids in designer clothes. The claw machine didn’t have the usual shiny plastic jewelry and cheap stuffed animals, the soda machine was filled with politically correct juices and fancy bottled water. Even the video games were
posh—embellished with walnut veneers and leath
er seats and wiped down constantl
y by a staff in crisp white shirts and black slacks. The lights overhead were colorful, Italian handblown glass—Murano, no doubt—while t
he plush carpet was devoid of th
e usual sticky gum-spots and soda stains.

This was one swanky place.

She didn’t take more than a second to register the opulence and decide Lyle’s in Black Duck, with its linoleum floors and duct-taped machines, was way down on the list when it came to decor.

Jordi was frantically waving them over to a machine.

Her dad played her first, and Jordi beat him big-time at Off Road Rally. Or maybe he just let her win. Whatever. Jordi was having a ball.

When Nicky took her turn, she realized that Johnny might not have let his daughter win after all. It required serious focusing just to keep from being put down in the first round of Tekken. For maybe ten minutes she eluded defeat, before her samurai eventually succumbed to a fatal blow.

The kid was
really
good.

Jordi ran off next to try her luck with the claw machine, giving Nicky and Johnny an opportunity to adjourn to the wine/coffee bar with the other parents and child minders.

“Jordi’s one super-coordinated kid,” Nicky said, smiling, while Johnny ordered them each a glass of wine. “I think she’s ready for the world tour.”

“Sometime
s I think she’s too damned ready for everything.” He smiled wryly. “But then I’m not in charge of the world.”

“Kids are growing up faster than they did in my day.” Nicky shrugged. “Of course, Black Duck is way off the fast track.”

“It’s not as though Fort Bragg is exactly the center of the cultural universe, either,” he said with a grin. Lifting the wine glass the waiter had set before him, he said, “To the prospect of more-sheltered childhoods. And thanks again for your help.”

Nicky raised her glass. “I didn’t do much.”

“You talked
th
e manager of the Ritz into that phone call. That was important.”

She smiled. “To obliging managers, then.”

They each took a sip in a companionable silence.

“This is really good,” Nicky said, indicating her glass with a nod. “Is it something special?”

“Sort of. My friend owns the vineyard.”

Her friends owned economy cars and affordable houses. Maybe an occasional sailboat. He was way out of her league.

But then he suddenly touched her hand and gave her an intimate smile—like friend to friend. “I just want to say again how much I appreciated your company last night. I was stressed to the max. It helped that you were
th
ere—you know

like a sympathetic ear.”

At his touch, her pulse spiked into the stratosphere for no rational reason; she found it impossible to speak for a second, even though she told herself he was just being polite. “No problem,” she finally choked out, wondering if every woman was dazzled by that intimate smile.

He grinned. “You didn’t sign on for this extra duty when you agreed to build Jordi’s tree house. I’d like to get you something in appreciation. Like Hermes? Or Chanel? Maybe some of that perfume by JAR. They’re all close by.”

“God, no. That’s not necessary.”

His brows rose. The women he knew didn’t turn down ex
pensive gifts. “Are you sure?
We could have some things brought up to your hotel room. Those JAR scents, in particular, are supposed to be something special.”

“Please, no. I don’t need anything, and I’d be intimidated as hell to have someone from Hermes come to m
y
room.” She waved a finger downward. “Take note of my clothes. I’m not a Hermes kind of person, or Chanel or anything like that. But thanks—you know

for the offer. I’ll be more than happy just to see some of the new exhibits tomorrow. The Louvre has an Ingres show and one on Bernini’s drawings, or maybe the Turner exhibit would be—”

She was grateful the bartender came over just then, curtailing what was turning out to be a rambling, convoluted, gauche explanation of why she couldn’t take his gifts.

The bartender set a bottle of wine on the marble bar top with a flourish. “Compliments of your friend,” he said, motioning toward a table in the corner.

As Nick
y
followed his gesture, her mouth dropped open. Sean Penn was smiling and giving them a finger-gun wave.

“You know
Sean Penn
!” she whispered, not sure if she should pretend she didn’t see him or stare.

“Yeah. We go way back.” Johnny returned the wave, then turned back to Nick
y
as though nothing unusual had happened. “Are you hungry?” he
asked. “They have good hors d’oe
uvres here.”

“No,
no, I’m fine.” She was still try
ing to digest the fact that
Sean Penn
was maybe thirty feet away having a drink while his kids were playing video games. In her everyday world—rich clients aside—she never saw actual celebrities.

“I’m going to have something. I forgot to eat.” Johnny ordered an assortment of hors d’o
e
uvres, along with some pastries, and while Jordi proceeded to pillage the claw machine, he ate and Nicky tried real hard not to keep looking at Sean Penn. She loved every movie he was ever in.

But of course, ultimately she ate, too. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as bad French food. Even the crepes in the street stands were to die for.

Johnny asked her about
th
e tree house as they ate. She was grateful. Unlike couturier houses and A-list movie stars, tree houses brought her back down to earth. She proceeded to describe the next stage in Jordi’s treehouse—her hands moving rapidly as she talked, her concepts rendered with lifelike clarity. She didn’t do designer-speak or express herself in esoteric terms. She talked about plumbing, lighting, exterior finishes, about satisfying Jordi’s wishes and her own in the bargain.

Johnny found himself charmed. Even though they’d talked last night and he’d seen her a few times at home, he’d never sensed this enormous warmth in her. She was completely different from his usual companions; nice different. He asked her more about Minnesota, wondering if he’d missed something in her background to explain why he was feeling this special rapport. “Does a place like Lake Wobegon truly exist?” he teased. “Where the men are all strong, the women good looking, and the children above average?”

She laughed. “Of course and add to that—we have the biggest mosquitoes known to man and winter temperatures you Californians couldn’t endure. But most of the people are really friendly and nice, and the countryside is lush green in the summer unlike the Bay area. There’s lakes everywhere—ten thousand plus. I have
a cabin on one of those lakes up north—on an island.” She smiled. “No mosquitoes on an island. And no bears.”

“Whoa. Bears?”

“Wolves even. They aren’t endangered anymore thanks to the wolf project started years ago in Ely by one man with a vision. And the eagles are coming back, too, with the help of the local raptor programs. There’s a nest on the lakeshore across from me.”

BOOK: French Kiss
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