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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: French Kiss
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“It sounds like real wilderness. I have a cabin in Tahoe, but the area is getting to be condo city.”

“I only have loons in my neck of the woods. There’s not a condo in sight, nor likely to be any. It’s too far from everywhere. My favorite spot is my screened porch. It’s suspended over the lake with a diving board off one corner, so you can dive in for your morning swim.”

“Sounds nice. Do you get there often?”

“Not as much as I’d like. How about Tahoe?”

He shook his head. “Hardly ever. Business gets in the way.”

“Tell me about it. I’m working five crews and still having trouble keeping up.”

“And now I’ve dragged you away.”

“Hey—extenuating circumstances. Anyone would have said yes.”

He wasn’t so sure about that. “So how’s Buddy doing?”

He remembered her manager’s name; the man paid attention. “Buddy’ll survive,” she said. “He bitches, I listen, he bitches some more, and then we get on with our lives. I told him I’d be home soon.”

“Day after tomorrow. After you check out the museums, maybe we could meet for a late lunch. Jordi tends to sleep in. I’ll
check out some toy stores with her, you could catch your exhibits, and we could compare notes over lunch.”

“I’d like that.”

“Good,” he said, figuring a couple glasses of wine had probably precipitated his invitation for lunch. He hadn’t intended to ask. He preferred noninvolvement—his mantra of late. Maybe her refreshing lack of artifice inspired him to disregard normal procedures. She was like a breath of fresh air in his climate-controlled, synthetic world of make believe. Even her clothes were without pretense. Slacks and a T-shirt.
No name
slacks and a T-shirt. And he knew the difference—labels were de rigueur in his flash and dazzle business.

The first bars of “Vertigo” echoed from his pocket, interrupting his useless speculation, and flipping open the cell phone, he frowned slightly. “Excuse me,” he muttered and turned away to take the call.

“Yes, I said I would,” he murmured, a faint irritation in his voice. “I promise, okay? Yeah, really. Look, Lisa, how about I give you a call when Jordi’s signed up.”

Nick
y
was trying not to listen, but it was impossible at close range. She could hear his ex’s voice, although her actual words weren’t decipherable. But she was going on about something at great length. That much was clear.

“We’re both on the same page,” Johnny said, taut and controlled.

There’s nothing to argue about. I’m with you all the way. Can we talk about this later?” As the monologue continued, the muscles of his jaw clenched and unclenched, his nostrils flared, and he finally said, tight-lipped, “Look, I’m hanging up. I’ll talk to you later.”

Shutting the phone with a snap, he slipped it into his jacket
pocket, turned back, and grimaced faintly. “Sorry. My ex is on some roll, but I doubt she’ll remember anything tomorrow.”

“All’s well with Jordi, though, right?”

Exhaling softly, he shot a glance toward the claw machine and smiled. “Yeah, life’s good.” He met Nicky’s gaze once again. “So—where were we?”

“Lunch tomorrow.” She shouldn’t have said that. She should have said something innocuous and let him remember himself. But she found herself really wanting to go.

He looked surprised for a moment, like she might have said,
My gown for the Oscars is ready to be picked up.
Then he collected himself. “Lunch—right. We’ll go to Dominique Bouchef

s restaurant. Jordi likes the desserts, I like the wine list, and the chef is a friend of mine.”

Oh, shit, he hadn’t remembered. Not that she was so obliging that she’d let him off the hook. It must be the Paris air. Or else she was acting like a fifteen-year-old, dazzled by his drop-dead good looks. Either way, lunch sounded good. “You have lots of personal friends,” she said, repressing any guilt she might have with only a minor qualm.

“It goes with the territory. Not that I’m complaining. I could be working in the Georgia-Pacific mill in Bragg.” He grinned. “If it was still running.”

Fourteen

 

 


H
ere, have a little more. It'll mellow you
out.”

“The man is a total ass,” Lisa Jordan muttered, taking the small glass pipe from Chantel. “He hung up on me.”

The pretty, waiflike woman ran her fingers through her short, black curls and smiled faintly. “He’s not an ass, and you know it. He’s beautiful as sin and hardly ever gives you any grief. Plus, he brought you this fine weed.”

“He’s still irritating.”

“Aren’t they all at times? Look how Yuri sulked when you said you were going to let Johnny come in.”

Lisa shrugged, her lightly tanned shoulders lifting slightly. “But Yuri came around when I told him he could go to my next premiere with me. He likes to part
y
and have a good time.”

“And he also doesn’t mind being part of the international
cinema
scene,” Chantel murmured.

“So that gives me leverage,” Lisa purred. “I
like
having leverage.”

“Johnny never played that game—or did he?”

“Are you kidding? He abhors the limelight. Although,” Lisa said with a small sigh, “he used to be ready for anything—anytime, anywhere.” She wrinkled her nose. “After Jordi was born, he turned into a damned Boy Scout overnight. Boooooriiing.”

“But nice boring, you have to admit. Speaking of really boring, though, what did you think of that little side trip to that museum in the Marais after we got here? The place looked more like some old lady’s apartment to me.”

“It was some family thing Yuri had to do.” Lisa slowly exhaled a mouthful of smoke. “Did you see how hot he was about that old jewelry?”

“I don’t know why
we
had to see it.”

“He was proud of it for some reason; I think it was Russian and some empress’s.” Lisa did a little palms-up gesture. “Whatever—it turned him on.”

“Like those stops at the chocolate stores.”

“That was for his father. Yuri has some—like—shopping list of special chocolates he has to bring down to Nice when we go.”

“Speaking of Nice. We’re going to need some new bikinis for Yuri’s yacht.”

Lisa set the pipe down, stretched languidly, and studied her manicured fingernails for a moment. “No problem. There’s tons of shops in Nice. I’m not sure I like this color. What do you think?” She held her hand out for Chantel to look at.

The women were dressed casually in pastel slacks and little matching barely there tops. Both women affected an ultrafeminine style that accented their ethereal, delicate beauty.

“Try that pink sparkle we saw at Chanel—what was it called— Stargazer Pink?”

“Or maybe the glossy melon…

“You know, I was thinking—”

“You like the pink.”

“No, I was going to say it worked out well that Johnny took Jordi back home. She wouldn’t have had much to do while we were partying. And if we’re enjoying Yuri and Raf’s pharmaceuticals, you wouldn’t have had time to spend with her anyway. Plus, you don’t like that nanny around with her constant sour expression.”

The pale perfection of the film critics’ favorite face took on a studied reflection. “I suppose you’re right.” Lisa sighed. “You
are
right. Not that I’m going to tell my ex that, prick that he is.”

Chantel smiled. “And why should you? So, let’s try some of those chocolates Yuri bought. I’m getting the munchies.”

“I don’t eat chocolate.”

“More for me, then.”

“Be my guest. I’m going to help myself to one or those strawberry tarts”—Lisa waved at a pastry tray that had been brought up by room service—“and then I’m going to help myself to some of those black pearls Yuri has in his luggage.” She flashed a set of dazzling white teeth, thanks to Beverly Hills’s finest dentist. “Yuri won’t miss a few; there must be hundreds there. And they can’t be too valuable, or he would have put them in the safe with all that other stuff.”

Chantel’s azure eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t take any. He might have counted them.”

Lisa made a small moue, like she had so effectively in
Whisper of Life
the year it won the Palme d’Or. “
I’
m sure Yuri can afford to give me one or two. Or if he takes issue”—she half-lifted her slender hand in a negligent gesture—“I’ll offer to pay for them.”

“I wouldn’t mess with
anything
of his. The man has a temper.”

Lisa marginally lowered her delicately colored lashes. “Trust me—I can handle Yuri.”

 

 

W
hile the two
ladies were indulging in chocolates, pastries, and some quality cannabis, Yuri and Raf were seated opposite two
men in the back room of a dingy
warehouse on a largely uninhabited cul-de-sac in Montmartre. The rude graffiti on the boarded-up structure deterred the curious, as did the barbed wire on the wrought iron fence surrounding the property, while the faded sign in Cyrillic characters above the shabby main door lent an air of neglect or possibly risk to those passing by.

Yuri lounged in
his chair with the jeunesse doré
e indolence of a wealthy young man, his hands resting lightly on the arms of an Alexander I Empire-style cathedra that looked wildly out of place in the room. Although if one looked beneath the dust sheets on scattered furniture surrounding the scarred table separating the men, one would have found that more than one item would have borne museum serial numbers. “You have the sketchbook?” he drawled in French, immune to the cold gaze of the heavyset man opposite him who looked like a Bulgarian weight lifter.

“The money first.” An unwavering stare.

Yuri slowly surveyed the man’s shaved head, no neck, and muscled arms that could probably bench press a horse, then shrugged and turned to Rafael. “Show him the money.”

Rafael’s lesser rank was the result of their respective father’s relative status in the hierarchy of global crime. Yuri’s father had prospered in the new Russia, but then everyone who had connections had, organized crime included. Raf came from a South American cartel of lesser scope, their business solely drug-related. Although both families were becoming immeasurably richer since the collapse of the Taliban. Opium production in Afghanistan was at an all-time high.

In fact, everyone was at this warehouse today because one of the largest drug-transit dealers in Uzbekistan had a penchant for art—particularly Picasso. The stolen sketchbook in the Bulgarian’s hands was rumored to be from Picasso’s early period and would serve as payment for a shipment of opium being relayed to Europe. The sketchbook had been targeted and stolen from a private collection—its worth estimated at five million dollars. Not that the petty thieves with the sketchbook understood its value.

“The money is all here,” Raf said, lifting a small briefcase onto the table and opening it. “Two hundred fifty thousand euros.” Euros had become the currency of choice for drug deals since the dollar’s recent decline.

The Bulgarian’s cohort quickly thumbed through the packets of bills, then snapped the briefcase shut and set it in his lap.

“Here. It’s not much—mostly scribbles,” the weight lifter said, his Fr
ench heavily accented and rough
.

Yuri drew the small sketchbook closer and flipped through a few pages before shutting it. “My father appreciates your fast
se
rvic
e.” He stood and nodded at Raf, who came to his feet as well. “If our client has any other requests, we’ll call you.”

Nei
ther young man looked back as th
ey left
th
e room. They didn’t have to. Their families wielded enormous authority in the criminal world, and their guards were stationed outside the door.

Not that Yuri and Raf were involved in any of the more unsavory aspects of their fathers’ businesses. They only served as couriers from time to time on low-level assignments.

When dangerous missions arose, professionals were employed

ruthless men without the benefit of Ivy League educations or consanguinity to those at the top.

It was left to Yuri
and Raf, heirs to a business th
at had taken on global proportions and with it the requisite accountants and international bankers, to simply enjoy the hedonistic lifestyle of the
ü
ber-rich.

Fifteen

 

 

A
fter several glasses of wine, Johnny was
ready to crash by the time they returned to the hotel. Not that he was about to admit it, but Vernie had seen enough children fighting sleep in her day to recognize the symptoms. Taking charge with the authority of three decades of putting unwilling tots to bed, she said, “You take a short nap, Mr. Johnny, and Jordi and I will see that Miss Nicky is entertained.” Jordi had wheedled and coaxed Nick
y
to come back to their suite and play video games.

“Maybe I should go,” Nicky said, feeling way out of place in this family scene, cognizant of the fact that Jordi, not Johnny, had been begging her to come back to their suite with them.

“You
have
to stay,” Jordi implored. “Tell her, Daddy. Tell her to play Project Gotham with me.”

“I’ll play with you.” Johnny smiled at Nicky. “You’re off the hook.”

See, Nicky thought, really feeling like a fifth wheel now. It hadn’t been a double invitation.

“Not so fast,” Vernie warned, her eyes half -narrowed. “
You’re
taking a nap, Mr. Johnny, and that’s that.”

“Uh-oh, Daddy—you’re in trouble now,” Jordi said, her glance flicking from her dad to her nanny. “Vernie’s giving you the evil eye.”

“No arguments, Mr. Johnny.” Drawing herself up to her considerable height, Vernie pointed toward one of the bedrooms. “Go. We’ll manage fine without you. We three girls will have a chat over tea.”

“Tea with
scones!

Jordi cried.

“And your favorite—clotted cream,” Vernie said, smiling as Jordi hopped up and down. “Lots of Brits stay here,” she explained to Nicky. “So the scones are excellent. You must have some with us.”

“YES, YES, YES!” Jordi exclaimed. “You don’t have to play video games. Tell her, Dad. She doesn’t
have
to play.”

Johnny met Nicky’s gaze, a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “It’s up to you. I have no clout, as you can see.”

Vernie snorted. “As if. But you can barely keep your eyes open. Now skedaddle.”

Johnny grinned. “I’m only giving in because I can’t replace you on short notice.”

“You can’t replace me at all,” Vernie said, bluntly.

“Mommie says she has to put u
p with Vernie because she’s ir-
re-place-able,” Jordi piped up.

Vernie lifted one brow. “I rest my case.”

Having grown up in an area of the world devoid of nannies or even the concept of nannies, Nicky hadn’t realized the degree
of authority they wielded. She was thinking maybe she’d better stay for a scone or she might be put to bed without her supper.

“Enjoy the scones,” Johnny said to Nick
y
, as though reading her mind. “I’ll see you all later.”

The door to his bedroom shut a moment later, and Jordi nudged Nicky’s hand. “Can you play cribbage?”

“Sure can.”

“Yesss! Hey, Vernie, Nicky plays cribbage!”

Vernie smiled. “This is our lucky day. And whenever you get tired, feel free to leave,” she added, turning to Nicky. “Mr. Johnny said you slept on the plane, or I wouldn’t have coaxed you to stay.”

“I
did
sleep—rather well.”

“Mr. Johnny has a nice plane. Now, you two girls go set up the cribbage board, and I’ll fix the tea.”

The nanny had said “nice plane” casually, like most people would say, You have a nice lawn, or maybe a nice couch. Was she outside her normal venue or what? Ooooh yeah.

On the other hand, private jets and five-star hotels aside, these people had the same problems as everyone else—albeit in more posh surroundings. But they fought just the same (this rushed trip to Paris a case in point) and probably cried as hard, and happiness wasn’t guaranteed them any more than it was to those who lived in Black Duck.

Okay, so she was trying to maintain her perspective, find some balance in this rarefied world of nonstop sycophancy and personal bodyguards—not become overwhelmed by the sheer economics of all this affluence.

“What color pegs do you want?” Jordi called out from across the room.

“Green.” So much for seeking enlightenment; the mundane always had a habit of butting in.

“That’s
my
favorite!”

“Yellow then,” Nicky said, moving toward the table where Jordi was setting up the game.

“Perfect, cause Vernie doesn’t like yellow,” Jordi muttered, arranging the pegs into three different piles.

Nicky had learned to play cribbage from her grandmother, who was not only a great cribbage player but could also win against God himself at gin rummy. Nicky could hold her own in both those games, which came in handy a short time later, when she came up against Vernie, who liked to play for blood when confronted with a worthy opponent.

It felt like old-home week for Nicky, since her grandma didn’t like to lose, either. Having honed her skills against cutthroat competition, Nicky enjoyed the game, although wouldn’t you know it, Jordi, novice that she was, won in the end.

The young girl was all smiles, as the two women exchanged conspiratorial glances.

“Another scone?” Vernie asked, offering the cake plate to Nicky.

“I shouldn’t, but what the heck,” she said, reaching for one. “They're really good.”

“A woman needs a little flesh on her bones; those models look like they’d blow away in a good wind.”

The reference might have been about women like Lisa Jordan, Nicky reflected, although she herself wouldn’t blow away even in a typhoon. But having nary a single anorexic bone in her body, she piled on the clotted cream and strawberry jam and ate another deliciously flaky scone with great relish.

While Nicky was tending to her scone, Vernie had taken a moment to sli
p in a DVD and Jordi was currentl
y enthralled in the adventures of a sci-fi heroine dressed in skintight silver-studded leather to match her platinum hair.

“Jordi could use a litt
l
e downtime,” Vernie murmured, flicking a glance toward the young girl. “Her sleep was interrupted last night.” She rolled her eyes. “The party never stopped.”

“Johnny was so worried, I doubt he slept at all. Jordi’s mother had never taken her out of the country before, I guess.”

“And she won’t again.” Vernie nodded at the closed bedroom door. “He’s pretty grim about this. Not that it shows now,” she added, sof
tl
y, “but he was furious when he showed up at the Ritz. I could tell.”

“It’s always hard when parents can’t agree.”

Vernie snorted. “There’s no agreeing with a drug addict. Once they're on a roll, you might as well just get out of their way.” While Jordi watched her movie, Vernie and Nicky visited, or more aptly, Nicky answered Ve
rn
ie’s questions. How had she met Johnny? Did she have a boyfriend? A smile when Nicky had said, no. Where was her family? Did she see them much? Was she close to her siblings?

And after hearing that Vernie had little family of her own, only an elderly aunt who lived in Aberdeen, Nicky understood her curiosity. If you come from a large, extended family, solitude and personal space sometimes trump family ties. On the other hand, a person like Vernie—more or less alone in the world—might tend to value family more.

But after having been raised by a mother and grandmother who talked your ear off, Nicky was perfec
tl
y comfortable with a chatty woman who asked personal questions.

Jordi fell asleep before the platinum-haired heroine had killed off more than three bad guys. Although that might have been influenced by something about the lack of dialogue that dulled one’s brain sensors. Background soundtrack or not, two cups of tea or not, Nicky was having trouble keeping her own eyes open.

Not that she’d actually had a full night’s sleep last night.

Not that it wouldn’t be heavenly to shut her eyes for
just
a minute.

Or mayb
e
just
a second…

 

 

V
ernie smiled faintly
as Nicky’s eyelids closed, her head lolled back, and she gently dozed off.

After finishing her tea, Vernie gazed at her sleeping charges with a satisfied smile, and rising from her chair, she covered Jordi with one of the numerous throws in the richly appointed room. Then moving to the couch where Nicky was half-sitting, half-lying, she gently eased her down, slipped a pillow under her head, and covered her, too. After thirty years of practice, she could shift a sleeping person without them so much as fluttering an eyelash.

Then taking a chair that would give her a view of the two sleepers as well as the closed bedroom door, she sat down. Picking up her knitting—all the rage again—she proceeded to add several inches to the argyle sweater she was making for Jordi.

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