Authors: Alison Rose
Off the Record
A rock star’s last tour sees him reunited with his first love. Journalist Kate Armstrong has always known that musical idol Johnson Brand’s platinum-selling first album was written about his break-up with her mother, Alexandra. So she’s pretty intrigued when her boss sends her out to interview the star himself for their paper, and more still when he recognises her immediately and wants to see Alexandra. Assigned to cover Johnson’s UK tour, trying to Johnson’s playboy son Paul’s advances, come to terms with Alexandra and Johnson’s budding friendship, while keeping the two of them out of the public eye, things are becoming pretty flaky, until a threatening figure from the band’s past rears its ugly head. Will love tear them all apart … again?
When Kate knocked at the door of the hotel suite, she heard a muffled ‘It’s open’, and cautiously walked in, closing the door behind her.
The large lounge she entered was lovely, but empty. She stood uncertainly for a moment, surprised. After all the hoops she’d had to jump through, the layers of security surrounding the luxury hotel suite of rock legend Johnson Brand, she’d imagined there would be a gang of lackeys hanging around. But no, apart from the low murmuring of a man’s voice in one of the other rooms, the place was silent.
Just as she was debating the wisdom of following the voice, the door to the suite opened behind her and she whirled round to come face to face with a tall blond man in running gear. At first she thought it was Johnson, but something wasn’t right.
‘You’re too young,’ she blurted, then immediately felt like an idiot. She was a professional journalist for goodness sake! It took her a moment to realise he’d spoken at the same time.
‘I … I’m sorry,’ she stammered, going back as he moved forward, staring at her intently.
‘Who are you?’ He matched her step for step and looked ready to grab her and throw her out.
If there was one thing that was guaranteed to get her back up, it was macho men using their superior height and muscles to intimidate women. And this man did intimidation well. She could smell his musky, just-worked-out scent; see the well-defined muscles in his arms and shoulders, and the tension in his firm jaw. Kate felt a reluctant stirring of feminine interest.
Refusing to let him see how rattled she was, Kate stopped retreating, tilted her chin, and pasted on a cool, professional smile.
‘I’m here to interview Johnson Brand.’ She flashed the press card which had got her past the rock star’s security team. ‘And unless you’ve got an incredible plastic surgeon you’re too young to be him. So who are you?’ As soon as the words left her mouth, she realised she already knew.
Taking her by surprise, he gave a bark of laughter, and bowed in acknowledgement.
‘Paul Brand, the son and heir, at your service, ma’am.’
She should have known immediately that this was the rock star’s only son – the result of his ill-fated marriage to a model in the late 1970s, not long after his first album had shot into the stratosphere. For a moment Kate felt a connection; thought he might understand. But, though he might be smiling politely now, a few seconds ago she’d been in danger of being physically ejected by this man. The urge to blurt out her secret was swiftly killed.
Keep cool, Katie girl. Concentrate on the assignment. This is the chance of a lifetime, so don’t blow it!
Maintaining a calm expression, she simply nodded.
He offered his hand, realised he was still sweating from his run, and pulled it back to wipe it on the running vest stretched over his broad chest. He offered it again with a wry smile. ‘Sorry, I forgot the old man was expecting company.’
Kate accepted his hand and felt a warm tingle of electricity shoot up her arm. His eyes narrowed, and she wondered if he felt it too.
It was as though she’d stepped through a time warp. Paul Brand looked so much like his father. And like his dad he was gorgeous. As she studied him his wry smile changed subtly, his expression became knowing, as he correctly read her thoughts. He would know he was gorgeous of course, a trait which Kate didn’t find attractive in a man. She tended to avoid his sort – far too sure of themselves. But she couldn’t deny he had something, and that having her hand in his was doing strange things to her pulse rate. If the father had half the sex appeal of the son, no wonder her mother and the rest of the female population had fallen for him.
‘You didn’t mention your name,’ he prompted, still holding her hand.
Before she could answer, Johnson Brand stepped silently into the room from another part of the suite. Kate saw him from the corner of her eye. She turned and pulled her hand back as she stepped away from the son to face his father. She raised shaky fingers to push her hair behind her ear, wishing she’d thought to put it up in a more professional-looking style. She knew why she hadn’t of course. With her hair loose she looked just like …
‘Sandy!’ the older man gasped.
As he walked towards her, she met his gaze. Kate registered the look of shocked recognition in blue eyes so like those of the man standing next to her.
He stopped a couple of feet away from her, frowning. He searched her face, his confusion obvious. ‘Who are you?’
Again, the urge to tell rose up and was stamped down. She looked into the face of the famous Johnson Brand and tried to pull her scattered senses together.
‘Who am I?’
In the background, she heard Paul mutter. ‘Well hell, lady. If you don’t know, we’re in trouble.’ He moved to stand next to his father. The effect of father and son staring at her with such fascination was unnerving. It didn’t help that she had the strongest feeling that neither of them were thrilled by what they saw. Drawing a deep breath to calm her nerves, Kate decided the best form of defence was attack.
‘Did you call me Sandy?’
After the briefest pause, Johnson shrugged, his expression giving away nothing. Next to him, Paul Brand’s eyes narrowed slightly, and if it was possible that firm jaw became harder.
‘Did I?’ The older man gave her an innocent look, as though he didn’t know what she was talking about. ‘I’m sorry,’ he continued smoothly. ‘It must be jet lag. For a moment there I thought maybe you were someone I knew.’
He remembers her, after all this time
, she realised in amazement. Trying to keep her excitement under control, Kate nodded thoughtfully. His reaction had been startling, especially after the number of years that had passed. Startling, and very interesting!
But what of the son?
She glanced at him briefly, and felt herself shiver slightly under his magnetic gaze. He was a good few years older than her own twenty-three. He had been born in the late eighties, nearly a decade after … She wondered how he would react if he knew.
‘An English woman?’ she asked his father, wanting to push just a little more.
Johnson hesitated for a fraction of a second too long, then shrugged again. ‘She might have been. I don’t remember.’
Kate didn’t believe him, but could see he didn’t know how to play this. She saw the barriers come up as she contemplated the wisdom of telling him the connection. But just because she had the opportunity, it didn’t mean that she would take it. After all, that wasn’t why she was here. That was personal and wasn’t strictly her story to tell, however much she wanted to get his side of it. Instead, she was here as a professional journalist and needed to get an interview for the paper. If not, she’d be writing copy for the classifieds or reporting on planning applications for the rest of her career.
In any case she wanted to get to know Johnson Brand before going down that particular path. Gathering her wits, she pulled out her press card again and proffered it.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Brand, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Kate Armstrong. I have an appointment with you to talk about your forthcoming tour, for a feature in
Johnson studied the card and shook her hand. ‘Ms Armstrong, I think the apology should be ours. Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee, tea?’
‘No, thank you. But don’t let me stop you if you want some. I’ll just set up over here, shall I?’ She indicated the twin leather sofas separated by a low, wooden coffee table. He raised a hand, confirming she should go ahead, and he settled himself into the seat opposite.
Paul came to lean over the back of the sofa by his father, watching as she got out her pad, pens, and digital recorder. Kate did her best to ignore the quiet conversation between the two men, but she’d always been blessed with acute hearing, so couldn’t help but overhear.
‘Hey, Pop, you OK with this?’
‘Sure, son. It’s just an interview. All part of the circus, you know?’
‘I didn’t mean that. I meant Ms Armstrong. You looked a little rattled back there.’
‘Yeah, well, for a few seconds there she reminded me of someone I knew way back when.’
‘Mmm. Nice. I was a little rattled myself when I walked in and found her in here. Not the usual she-man journo. This one’s hot!’
Kate felt the blood rush to her cheeks as she realised that Paul Brand, sex on legs, had called her ‘hot’. Well, if she hadn’t been before she was now! She wanted to fan her burning cheeks but didn’t dare. It would be too unprofessional. Instead she gave Paul Brand a cool look, trying to give her best ‘she-man journo’ impression.
‘Are you joining us too, Mr Brand?’
‘No, he isn’t,’ Johnson replied for him.
Kate felt equal parts disappointment, annoyance, and relief. The younger Brand man’s physical pull was a distraction she could do without, and his not-quiet-enough conversation had irritated as well as embarrassed her. But she was also aware that these days he played a major part in the success of the Johnson Brand Band, or the JBB as its fans affectionately called it. It would be quite a coup if she could interview both father and son, but right now his low-voiced comments left her at a disadvantage.
As she hesitated, Paul Brand straightened up to his full six foot plus. Far from being embarrassed by being overheard, he seemed amused. He moved towards one of the bedroom doors.
‘Sorry, honey, I’ll have to take a rain check,’ he said, pulling his running vest over his head as he moved. ‘Right now I need to wash the dust of old London Town off my skin, and make a few business calls. Ciao, baby!’
Kate clenched her jaw to stop from snarling. If there was one thing she hated it was being called ‘baby’ by some testosterone-overloaded male. And did he think he was going to impress her with that display of manly flesh? Not a chance! Well … maybe a little. But he definitely wasn’t her usual type of good-natured, friendly bloke whose masculinity didn’t unsettle her, and anyway, she
to concentrate on why she was here. She made a conscious effort to dismiss him from her mind as she turned her attention to her task, and asked Johnson Brand her first question.
An hour later, she closed her notebook and switched off her digital recorder. Not only had she got plenty of material for an excellent feature, but she’d discovered that she liked Johnson Brand. He’d been reserved at first, probably waiting for her to follow up on his reaction to seeing her for the first time. But Kate had worked hard to keep her questions focused on the tour and his latest album and he’d relaxed after a little while. He’d been charming, funny and interesting.
‘So, Ms Armstrong, do you have everything you need?’
She sat back and regarded him thoughtfully. The official interview was over. Now was her chance. Did she dare take it?
Make up your mind, girl, or it’ll be too late!
‘Call me Kate, please. Yes, you’ve been very helpful, Mr Brand. Thank you’
‘Johnson, please,’ he smiled, returning the compliment.
‘Johnson,’ she repeated, and came to a decision. ‘Tell me,’ she said, leaning forward and resting her forearms on her thighs. ‘Off the record. Who is Sandy?’
Johnson sat back and brought his left foot up to rest on his right knee, seemingly relaxed. But his eyes were alert. She’d definitely touched a nerve.
‘I told you Kate, just someone I knew a while back.’ He shrugged in a gesture she was beginning to recognise as a defence mechanism. ‘It’s no big deal.’ He smiled. A polite, giving-nothing-away smile. ‘You remind me of her.’
‘Are we talking about the girl who inspired your first album,
?’ Johnson kept his smile in place and began shaking his head, but now that she’d started, Kate couldn’t stop. ‘You’ve always refused to talk about her, saying that she was just a figment of your teenaged imagination. But is your refusal really because you left her, and not the other way round? Is the reason you haven’t toured in the UK before because she lives here?’
All semblance of relaxation disappeared as he rose and stood, hands on hips, scowling down at her.
This is it; you’re going to be thrown out on your ear! You’ve blown it, you idiot!
‘Ms Armstrong, I think you’d …’
Paul Brand chose that moment to re-enter the lounge. ‘Everything OK, Dad?’ he asked, as he came to stand next to him.
‘I don’t know, son. Something weird is happening here. We’ve just finished up a good discussion here for
feature, but now Ms Armstrong seems to have a whole raft of new questions, or maybe accusations about something she imagines happened before she was born. I was just going to ask her to leave.’
With a sigh, Kate finished putting her stuff into her bag.
Well, that’s that. Badly handled, girl. No chance of getting anywhere with it now.
‘Hold on, Dad. I think we should ask Ms Armstrong here to explain what the heck is going on.’ Paul turned to her, all trace of amusement wiped from his expression. ‘Just what story are you after? The legitimate one that we’ve agreed, or are you trying to make your name digging up some imaginary dirt? Your boss agreed to give us final approval of anything you print, so you’re wasting your time if you plan on a sneak story, lady.’
Kate bristled at his tone, and refused to accept that her heart missed a beat as she looked up at the two men, one mature and handsome; the other so like him, yet young and somehow more vibrant clad in well-worn jeans and a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt. But she did accept, having gone this far, it was time to come clean.
They were so tall, looming over her. Kate decided it would be better to stand up too. She rose carefully, standing straight with her chin up, but at just five foot two it made little difference. Father and son made a formidable unit, with equally fierce expressions and identical body language.
‘It’s not what you think.’
‘It never is,’ Paul sneered.
Kate blinked at the hostility in those three little words. What on earth was wrong with him? Before she could open her mouth again he stepped round the coffee table to stand in front of her, blocking her view of his father.