Koko’s demeanor changed as she directed Julian to her home, finally ending up at the Sjöstrand’s North Tower’s main entrance. She seemed stiff, chattering nervously, but even more, Julian could recognize a little
transitioning to their adult self. He really hoped he wasn’t just seeing what he wanted to see, and for the first time all evening, he wished Liam was with him. He had so many questions for him, like for starters: how did he ask her if she was a little without offending her?
She instructed, “Leave the car at the entrance. I’ll have the valet park it in one of my condo’s spots.”
They walked together, and the doorman tipped his hat as he held open the door. “Miss Koko, you were out very late tonight. I was getting worried.”
“Julian, this is Joe, the evening doorman. Sometimes his wife sends me treats. Joe, this is Julian Van Zant. He is a composer and songsmith.”
Joe looked Julian up and down before saying, “It was good of you to see her home safely. Should we keep the car here? You probably won’t be staying long enough to warrant parking, sir?”
“Joe! Don’t be rude! Julian wrote ‘Carousel’ for me, and I am hoping we can collaborate on my next album. He is my friend, and he is going to stay with me for a bit while it is storming. If I sweet-talk him, maybe he will help me with dinner.” She winked really big. “I know the fire trucks were very scary for some of the residents last time I tried to do everything by myself.”
Joe shook his head. “Koko, Koko, I am going to take you home with me so my wife can teach you how to cook if you don’t hire a chef soon!”
She wrinkled her nose. “The last one didn’t work out, Joe. I’m just not ready to cross that bridge again. You may have noticed I’m not like most people.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Miss Koko. You are a very special girl, and every time I see you, my day is a little brighter because of it. Keep shining, bright star
Julian stared at her like she’d grown an extra head because even though he’d been preparing himself for the inevitability of her speech pattern drifting from four-year-old-tantrum-throwing Koko to grown woman, it still managed to take him by surprise. She’d completely abandoned the baby talk when conversing with Joe, and it was one more brick to ascertain she was very deeply involved in the age-play community, but there was no way to broach the subject without just coming out and asking if she was in a Daddy-and-little-girl relationship with Papa Ollie.
Koko giggled as she walked into the building. “It’s so silly. Joe always calls me ‘bright star.’ Even before I was famous. He says he knew I’d make it.”
“He seems like a very nice man. At least you know you have someone looking out for you. That’s good, right?” Julian smiled, but Koko only nodded and looked pensive. From behind the reception stand, a woman with red, curly hair stood and called out, “Koko! I have something for you, sweetheart.”
Koko’s eyes widened as she hurried over. Seeing a huge vase filled with roses and baby’s breath, she bit her bottom lip, not taking the proffered flowers. “Are you sure these are for me?”
“I am.” Voice lowered, Mikki said, “I asked Joe because he’s been here since day one. He said that name was our secret to keep.”
Reading the card, Koko gasped and Julian glanced to read the card, To Carrie Ann; From Paul.
“Do you want me to carry them for you, Koko?” Julian asked, now concerned he had gotten his hopes up prematurely and she was in a relationship with another, but she insisted, “No, I don’t want them. Keep them here, Mikki. They brighten up the lobby.”
Julian stayed close as they crossed the marble foyer to the elevators and as she entered and selected a floor, Julian decided to let her make the small talk, fearing he might run her off if he asked too many questions.
* * * *
Koko stole peeks from under her lashes at Julian as the elevator ascended. He wore a knee-length, burgundy velvet military coat with silver buttons over a ruffled silk shirt in a pastel watercolor floral, with distressed black jeans tucked into retro combat boots with the tops untied and slightly folded. He appeared to be every bit the middle-aged, never-quite-made-it-big rock star—and he was gorgeous.
I want to keep him.
Oh, this is ridiculous! I’m wanting a Daddy so bad, next I’ll be seeing them on every street corner. The chances he might be into the lifestyle Marilyn told me about are slim to none.
When the elevator opened, she led him down the hall to their corner penthouse.
She unlocked several deadbolts and struggled with the bottom one, finally stomping her foot and shrieking in frustration. “Ohh! Darn lock! It’s new, and it sticks every single time!”
“Let me try.”
She stepped aside so Julian could jiggle the key. He turned it easily and opened the door for her, but she gestured for him to lead, complaining softly, “You could have at least made it look hard, Julian, Sir.”
He chuckled, and she enjoyed the sound as she led him through the open floor plan that combined the living, kitchen, and informal dining areas.
“Make yourself at home.” She pointed to the bar. “Be a dear and pour us both a whiskey? I prefer mine neat. I’m just going to change. Give me a moment to put on something a bit more comfortable? We have a lot to discuss.”
His eyebrow arched, but he said, “Of course. I’m going to take you up on that whiskey.”
She left him gaping at her and hurried back to her bedroom. She removed her wig, faux eyelashes, and lavender-tinted contacts that made her irises much larger, storing each neatly in their proper receptacles, and then stripped. She folded her pinafore, tsked at the dirt gathered on her ruffles from that darn bus stop, and placed it in the basket marked dry cleaning
before pulling on a pink cotton Henley and gray sweatpants. She scrubbed her face free of her stage makeup and ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. Looking at her reflection, all traces of Koko were gone and a dimpled twenty-two-year-old tomboy with large upturned brown eyes stood in her place.
“Hello, Carrie Ann. You are the adult in this situation. Win over Mr. Van Zant as an ally.” Squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, she left the room. “Here goes nothing.”
* * * *
The storm raged over the ocean, and Julian was out on the balcony watching it. The wind whipped his hair and coattails. Standing and watching him through the open doors that led onto the balcony, all her courage fled.
He is too beautiful for words
She turned away and grabbed the tumbler of whiskey he’d left waiting on the bar top for her and threw it back. What am I doing? This is insane! What if it’s all just a coincidence, and he doesn’t know anything about Daddy Dom Little Girl relationships, and he leaves here believing I’m a pervert?
He could destroy me.
But if my hunch is right…he is perfect.
She turned, faced him, and stretched her arms out from her sides. “Or at least the version of Koko no one except Papa Ollie has ever seen. Consider yourself quite privileged, Mr. Van Zant.”
He approached slowly and said very softly, “I knew I was privileged the moment our conversation went beyond a minute, but do we have to go back to formalities? Please, call me Julian.”
She nodded and offered her hand. “Carrie Ann.”
Julian grasped only her fingertips, lifted, and kissed the top. “Enchanted.”
She snorted. “God, I wish I could keep you.”
He straightened and met her gaze, his eyes twinkling merrily.
Her mouth dropped open, and she said, “Oh my, I said that out loud?”
“You did.” He smiled wickedly, but lowered his gaze, making her feel like she’d blown everything, until he glanced back up and made her heart skip a beat when she saw his raw need. “Want to tell me what happened between you and Papa Ollie as it’s evident he’s no longer in residence?”
She poured more whiskey into her glass, hating that she was shaking, but admitting certain truths was going to be so damn hard. Dr. Shultz is going to kill me.
She led him to a sofa, and they both sat. She took a long swallow of liquid courage, but Julian took the glass from her.
He set it on the coffee table before taking her trembling hand in his. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”
Julian’s touch sent a repercussive vibration up her arm and down her spine to pool in her belly. She jerked her hand free and folded both in her lap as she tried to remember the last time she’d felt anyone’s touch other than Papa Ollie’s.
“Everything we say has to remain confidential,” she warned in a serious tone. She pointed at herself. “Including this
because anonymity out there keeps Koko safe, and you truly are the only person other than Papa Ollie who has seen me sans costume.”
“Your secrets are safe with me, Carrie Ann. Where is Papa Ollie?”
“He’s here with us.” She pointed to the fireplace mantel. She knew the moment Julian realized he was looking at a dark-silver funeral urn. Julian gasped, and she admitted, “He died six months ago. No one knows except the hospital staff who attended him, the crematorium staff, a few select people here at the Towers, my physicians, and now you.”
“Dear God, what happened?”
“You’ve met him. He was a very large man, horrible health, refused his medication most days in favor of wine and cigars. His heart failed, and while the doctors opened him up to perform open-heart surgery, their efforts were too little too late. He’d made prior arrangements that in the event of his death he would be taken immediately to a crematorium. There would be no funeral or public announcements. All his assets transferred to me.”
“The argument with Tanner Banks?”
“Misogynist asshole,” she said under her breath before she thought better of it. “One of our many disagreements stems from the fact I am expected to go on a Eurasian tour next month to promote Carnival Nights
, and I don’t think I can do it, not alone, but I couldn’t tell him the truth, but now I’m out of time and unsure what to do.”
“I’m going to be completely honest with you. The weight of being Koko is too much for me to bear alone. My general practitioner advised me not to embark on a long tour. Since Papa Ollie’s death I’ve lost ten pounds, which, I know, doesn’t sound like much, right? But it’s fifteen percent of my body weight. On a good day, I weigh in at eighty pounds. A few days ago at a doctor appointment I weighed sixty-eight. So physically, I’m worthless. Mentally? Emotionally? I don’t even know where to begin.”
Julian gave her a hard look. “You said sixty-eight pounds?”
“It’s a little underweight for my height, but not drastically. I’ve always been small.” She patted his knee. “God, before I forget, help me figure out how to make my debit card work again? It’s ridiculous Koko is worth millions, and I can’t order a cheeseburger and fries. If eating tonight is possible, inviting you here will have already paid off.” She hated the look he was giving her. “You’re trying to imagine me
trying to manage a multimillion-dollar tour?”
“I’m thinking it’s no wonder you’ve lost so much weight. I should have taken you out for dinner, not cookies and hot cocoa.”
“Koko would have declined dinner. When you specifically asked if I would accompany you with a promise of hot chocolate, I crossed my fingers and said a prayer you might understand me
.” She sighed with relief. “You have no idea how grateful I am for you agreeing to come here so I could talk to you in private. You’re actually the first person to approach Koko with kindness and start a conversation with me since Papa Ollie died. It’s been pretty lonely.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“Really? Papa Ollie carefully constructed Koko’s public appearances to make her very unapproachable and difficult to please. Regardless, I’m glad you persisted when you discovered me alone at the bus stop, and if I’m completely honest—you are a very attractive man. I like looking at you, Julian Van Zant. I especially liked the way you looked at Koko in the coffee shop when you didn’t think I was watching you.” She chuckled and ducked her head. “Sorry, way off track. Back to why you are here. I have to step up my timeline.”
“The get-your-ducks-in-a-row timeline?” he asked with an amused expression.
“Yes. In three weeks I leave for my tour. My concert dates and venues are set, but I’ve made no travel plans because Papa Ollie always took care of everything. He was the go-to guy for my publicist, my tour promoter, my tour manager, my travel agent, my accountant.” She started breathing too fast.
“Breathe; you’re okay. You just need a new go-to guy. I can help you find someone.”
She nodded and tried to back away from the panic attack that still felt imminent. “I’m sorry. I become so easily overwhelmed. Being an adult still doesn’t come easy for me, and today was already too challenging by far. I need help, and I don’t even know where to start looking.” She dropped her head back against the pillowy sofa back and stared at the ceiling. “Gah! I’m so stressed out
. I cannot adult!”
She wiped her face with a tissue, and then Julian lifted her hand. He held it, commanding softly, “Sit up straight and look at me.”
She immediately obeyed.
“Look into my eyes.”
She met his gaze and swallowed, absorbing the power in his voice as it pushed through her. Wow. This man is aware of his power and wields it well.
“Now tell me the story of Carrie Ann and Koko, from beginning to today.”
She didn’t even consider not telling him. “I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist in the hope she would help me overcome the anxiety and social issues being an adult causes me. My first visit to her was six months ago, right after Papa Ollie died because I am very good at being Koko, but Koko is horrible at being an adult.”
Julian assured her, “You seem to be holding your own with me.”
“I think you’re just very easy to talk to.” Trying to ignore how hot he was, but ending up daydreaming about Julian kisses, she dropped her gaze and reminded him teasingly, “Story time, remember?”
“I apologize. Please continue.”
“Papa Ollie adopted me, and he’s held my power of attorney ever since. He did everything for me because he didn’t want my artistry to be distracted by the mundane.” Her face crumpled, and she bent over her knees to hide her crying. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Shh, you don’t have to tell me any more.”
She composed herself and sat back up. “I kind of want to. I haven’t told anyone, and I need to practice talking about him before his memorial service, or I’ll never get through it.”
Julian smiled. “You’re very brave. You can practice anything you need to on me.”
Koko gasped and turned away, blushing.
“When is the memorial?”
“Tomorrow. No one knows about it yet.”
“Technically, I called a press conference. The news outlets won’t learn the location is the cemetery until after the invitations are received by anyone I believed would want to tell him good-bye. I arranged to have communiques couriered first thing in the morning to his closest friends, industry VIPs, my band and backup dancers, everyone on the road crew, the sound techs, and everyone involved at the record label. I know it is last minute, but I couldn’t call everyone, and I sent the most tasteful death-announcement cards I could find.”
“That’s a novel approach.”
“I have my reasons, but if anyone ever asks, I’m eccentric verging on bizarre.” She laughed at his expression. “I’m really not insane, just a little playful.”
“I enjoy playful.” He winked at her, and she definitely felt like he was flirting. Confirmed when he added, “I also really enjoy eccentric artists verging on the cusp of bizarre. Your energy is magical.”