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Authors: Debra Salonen

Betting on Grace

BOOK: Betting on Grace
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Praise for

“Debra Salonen captures reader attention with multifaceted characters, layered conflict and fast pacing.”

—Pamela Cohen,
Romantic Times

“People who scoff at romances and accuse them of being
trite, frivolous or too predictable will be very surprised,
pleasantly so, I think—by the intensity, the depth and the
heat of (Debra Salonen’s)
Back in Kansas.

—Linda Mowery,

“…a wonderfully written love story with loveable characters.
The plot is engaging and certainly keeps the reader
riveted throughout the story.
His Daddy’s Eyes
is just the sort of book to curl up with to
while away some lazy afternoon hours.”

—Jenna Richardson,


Dear Reader,

The editors at Harlequin and Silhouette are thrilled to be able to bring you a brand-new featured author program for 2005! Signature Select aims to single out outstanding stories, contemporary themes and oft-requested classics by some of your favorite series authors and present them to you in a variety of formats bound by truly striking covers.

We want to provide several different types of reading experiences in the new Signature Select program. The Spotlight books offer a single “big read” by a talented series author, the Collections present three novellas on a selected theme in one volume, the Sagas contain sprawling, sometimes multi-generational family tales (often related to a favorite family first introduced in series), and the Miniseries feature requested previously published books, with two or, occasionally, three complete stories in one volume. The Signature Select program offers one book in each of these categories per month, and fans of limited continuity series will also find these continuing stories under the Signature Select umbrella.

In addition, these volumes bring you bonus features…different in every single book! You may learn more about the author in an extended interview, more about the setting or inspiration for the book, more about subjects related to the theme and, often, a bonus short read will be included. Authors and editors have been outdoing themselves in originating creative material for our bonus features—we’re sure you’ll be surprised and pleased with the results!

The Signature Select program strives to bring you a variety of reading experiences by authors you’ve come to love, as well as by rising stars you’ll be glad you’ve discovered. Watch for new stories from Janelle Denison, Donna Kauffman, Leslie Kelly, Marie Ferrarella, Suzanne Forster, Stephanie Bond, Christine Rimmer and scores more of the brightest talents in romance fiction!

The excitement continues!

Warm wishes for happy reading,

Marsha Zinberg

Executive Editor

The Signature Select Program



Dear Reader,

Families fascinate me. I start every book I write by investigating the backstory of my central characters. I need to meet their siblings, parents and grandparents. Sometimes, I bump into distant relatives who like to gossip. This “history” helps me understand both my characters and their world. I love this part of the process and am always sorry to type “the end” because it means saying goodbye to the family I’ve come to love. Fortunately, that didn’t happen with Grace because her three sisters will have a chance to tell their stories in my upcoming SISTERS OF THE SILVER DOLLAR miniseries appearing in Harlequin American Romance in 2006. Kate’s book,
One Daddy Too Many,
will be released in May, followed by Liz’s adventure,
Bringing Baby Home,
in August and Alex’s poignant reunion with her tarnished knight in
The Quiet Child
in November.

In researching the setting for
Betting on Grace,
I made several trips to Las Vegas. Marc and Lisa Wolpert graciously opened their beautiful home to me and showed me around Boulder City, Searchlight and Lake Mead. Bob and Joyce Peterson helped me “discover” Henderson. My cousin Carol Gregory and her husband, Kenny, were my guides to Mesquite. Les and Leona Bagby, my dear uncle and aunt, were all too happy to give me an insider’s view of retirement life in Vegas. Many thanks to all. Also, I need to recognize Jan and Mom for introducing me to Ethel M. and nickel slots, and thank Paul for being my chauffeur on our “working” anniversary trip.

For a free bookmark, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Debra Salonen, P.O. Box 322, Cathey’s Valley, CA 95306. For writing tips, a new contest every month and links to other fabulous authors’ Web sites, check out my “blog” at

Wishing you all the best!


To my family, with love.
I’d also like to acknowledge the estimated quarter of a million
Gypsy/Romani who perished in Hitler’s death camps.
From the tears of sorrow may hope and tolerance grow.


the small, crowded detective quarters was almost enough to mask the sound of the phone, but the flashing light, which blinked in time to the pulse in Nick Lightner’s temple, caught his eye. The beat seemed to say,
Going, going, gone.

The festive celebration was in honor of his father’s long and distinguished career in law enforcement. Today was Pete Lightner’s last day as chief of detectives in Clarion Heights, a Detroit suburb that Nick’s family had called home for twenty-eight of Nick’s thirty-four years.

In Nick’s book, “retirement” was a four-letter word. He’d seen too many good cops turn into couch potatoes just months after handing in their badges. From the minute his father announced his plan to step down, Nick had started nagging his parents to plan exactly what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

His nagging had worked. Just last week, Pete had announced, “Your mom and I have decided we’re through with Michigan’s winters. We’re selling the house and moving to Portland, so we can be closer to Judy and the girls.” Judy was Nick’s sister. His parents’

Nick knew that his adoption played no part in Pete
and Sharon’s decision to move. They’d loved him and provided for him as if he were their own child from the moment they’d taken him in. They had every right to want to be closer to their grandchildren. In the offspring department, the best Nick—whose last serious relationship had ended nearly a year earlier—could give them was Rip, a five-year-old collie mix named after Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the Pistons’ star shooting forward.

In his head, Nick knew this move wasn’t about him. But the five-year-old inside him—the little kid whose father had given him away to a friendly cop after Nick’s mother was struck by a bus and killed—hated losing anything, from a silly bet to a major case. This tenaciousness worked in his favor on the job but was hell on relationships.

As was his habit, Nick hid his disquiet behind a short temper and withering scowl.

He picked up the phone and growled, “Nick Lightner.”

The slight hesitation on the other end of the line put Nick’s cop instincts on alert. “Oh, yes, of course,” a woman’s voice said. Unfamiliar, with just a hint of an accent Nick couldn’t place. “I’m sorry. Your name threw me for a moment. I’ve always thought of you as Nikolai. Nikolai Sarna. But you would have a new name, wouldn’t you?”

Tingles of apprehension raced down his spine. No one other than his parents and the attorney who’d handled the adoption in Los Angeles knew his birth name. He’d been Nicholas Lightner since the day before his sixth birthday.

“Who is this?”

“My name is Yetta Radonovic.” The name meant
nothing to him. “I’m your father’s cousin. Your
father, I should say. Jurek Sarna. Most people know him as George. He was…is, I mean…my father’s sister-in-law’s nephew. That doesn’t really make him my cousin, I suppose, but he’s family, all the same.”

Nick’s mouth turned dry. He’d seen his birth certificate. His mother and father had been honest with him from the start about his adoption. Partly because they figured at five, he’d remember his past; partly because that’s the kind of people they were. Up-front. Honest. Responsible. Unlike Jurek Sarna and Lucille Helson, the ex-con and the exotic dancer who had given birth to him then handed him off to another family when things turned sour.

“I don’t know about your mother—I never met her—but your father was a Gypsy,” Pete had told Nick when Nick asked about his past.

“Romani,” Sharon had corrected. “I believe that’s the proper term these days. Linguists have proved that the Romani came from western India. The name Gypsy stemmed from a mistaken impression that the people were from Egypt.” Sharon was a teacher and never passed up an opportunity to share information.

Nick had no time for the past. He knew who he was—a thirty-four-year-old cop, no wife, no kids, no commitments. He lived ten miles from the house he’d grown up in. He loved his job, his dog and the Pistons. He had no interest in the hazy memories that crept into his dreams on nights when he’d had one too many beers.

He hadn’t given his genealogy more than a passing thought since his eighteenth birthday when his mother suggested they try to locate his birth father. Nick had
turned down her offer to help. “He didn’t make any effort to keep me. He just handed me off to you. I don’t have any use for a person like that.”

A truly kind woman, Sharon had mentioned mitigating circumstances. “Your mother had just passed away. A tragic accident. I’m sure your father was reeling from the loss. Plus he didn’t have a home or job to return to after he got out of jail. Maybe he thought he was doing you a favor by giving you to us.”

Nick hadn’t even tried to see her point. A decision had been made. His father had given him away. Like leftover pizza. Like a stray cat that was too much work to feed. Nick hadn’t wanted to know this man sixteen years ago, and he didn’t want to know him now. He assumed that was what this call was about.

“How did you get this number?” Nick asked the woman who had waited patiently while he collected his thoughts.

“From Jurek, of course. He’s always had connections on both sides of the law that we don’t speak about. I could be wrong, but I believe he’s always known where you were.”

The very notion made Nick’s skin crawl.

“What’s this about?”

“I…I’m not sure that calling you is the right thing to do, but Jurek said you were a policeman. Normally, that would make you…um, suspect. We Romani tend to solve our own problems without involving law enforcement.”

“You don’t trust cops.”

“Exactly. But since you’re family—”

Nick’s bark caught the attention of his father, who was lifting a glass of champagne as someone toasted him.
Nick waved to signify the call wasn’t anything serious. “Madam,” he said, lowering his voice for maximum impact, “I am not anything to you or to the man y—”

“Of course you are,” she said, interrupting him. “Just because Jurek made a bad decision thirty years ago doesn’t change who you are. You’re Nikolai Sarna. You’re Jurek’s son, which makes you half Romani. That blood runs through your veins, whether you choose to admit it or not. And right now, your Romani family needs your help.”

Nick started to laugh. The woman’s audacity impressed him. She sounded regal, as if used to giving orders and having people toe the line. “What kind of help? Money? I gotta tell you, I don’t make enough—”

“Don’t be absurd. I wouldn’t call a stranger and ask for a handout, even if I were destitute. The simple fact is my youngest daughter, Grace, is in danger. She’s considering entering a business relationship with a man who I’m convinced wants more than just her money. In my dream, he appeared as a snake that swallowed each member of my family whole.”

A dream snake? What kind of bullshit is this?
Maybe it was some kind of prank, he decided. “Where are you calling from?”

“Las Vegas. Where you were born.”

He’d never denied the fact.

“On July twenty-ninth, nineteen-seventy. At four in the afternoon. I was the third person to hold you. You had such fine blond hair, I thought you were bald. My girls all had dark black hair.”

Nick looked at the people grouped around his father. The plan was to move the party to The Grease Monkey,
a popular watering hole where Nick’s mother and the other spouses would meet them. He wasn’t in the mood for a party, but at the moment it sounded better than this nonsense. “Yes, well, that’s very interesting, but I’m a cop, not an exterminator and your…um, snake…is two thousand miles away from here.”

His sarcasm must have come through loud and clear. She said haughtily, “Jurek warned me not to expect your cooperation. I thought twice about calling you, but in addition to this matter of Charles Harmon…”

Charles Harmon? How do I know that name?

“…a mutual friend told me that your father is entering the hospital next week for an operation. I’m sure Jurek would rather you didn’t know that, but I learned the hard way that it’s much healthier to clear up unresolved issues before a person dies than wait until it’s—”

Nick sat up abruptly. His feet hit the floor with a snap that made several heads turn his way. “Did you say Charles Harmon?”

He pawed through the files on his desk for a fax that had come through a day or two earlier from his counterpart in Toronto.

“Yes. Grace insists he’s just a friend…and, to be fair, he was my husband’s lawyer when Ernst was alive. Charles also helped me handle some financial matters a few years back. But he’s changed since he bought into that casino. And I’ve seen the way he looks at Grace—like a gambler counting his chips for some high-stakes bet.”

What was that alert about? White slave trade? A possible link to an international drug…
“Ha,” he said, snagging the sheet from the middle of the stack.

The woman on the other end of the line made a huffing sound. “Well, if you’re not interested in helping us and meeting your father before it’s too late, then I’ll leave you with my good wishes and say goodbye.” She hesitated for a fraction of a second then added, “You’ve been in my prayers since the day I learned of your mother’s passing, Nikolai.”

The name rattled him, but Nick ignored the odd flutter in his chest. He quickly scanned the bulletin. “Wait. Hold on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t help.”

“Yes, actually, you did.”

Nick started to grin. “Well, maybe I changed my mind.” He couldn’t care less about his long-lost relatives, but a chance to nail a scumbag like “Lucky Chuck” Harmon was too sweet a gift to pass up. “Tell me more about your daughter and the snake.”


, G
, Grace, tell me you’re joking.”

Three Graces. Never a good thing. When her eldest sister Alex, short for Alexandra, started repeating herself, Grace Radonovic knew it was time to change the subject.

“So, what do we know about this long-lost cousin of Mom’s—other than the fact that I’m supposed to pick him up at the airport in an hour?” Grace asked, cramming a too-large wedge of Danish in her mouth. “Why can’t he take a taxi?” she mumbled, chewing and talking at the same time. “You know what traffic is like in February. All the snowbirds in the northern half of the country have descended on Vegas in their giant RVs.”

Alex reached across their mother’s faux lace tablecloth to grasp Grace’s hand. “Sweetie.” Her melted
chocolate-colored eyes were filled with gravity and concern—a mixture Grace and her other sisters called Alex’s preschool-teacher look. The combination always made Grace feel about five. “Don’t change the subject. No one is knocking your ambition, but you have to be realistic, too.”

“She’s right,” another voice said from across the room.

Liz, short for Elizabeth. Sister number two. A true healer, Liz was a physical therapist, who had regularly worked in poor and war-torn countries with WorldRx, an international medical team of volunteers. These days she had a job at DesertWay Medical—a small private hospital in Vegas.

“I can’t believe you’re even suggesting this. We’re spread too thin as is,” a third voice chimed in.

This came from Katherine, or Kate, as she preferred. Third-born, just two years older than Grace. Together, they owned Romantique, a neo-Mediterranean restaurant located in an upscale strip mall on West Charleston Boulevard. Kate, an accomplished chef, ran the kitchen; Grace handled the marketing and bookkeeping.

Not giving up on the hope of deflecting her sisters’ attention from her impetuous—and obviously premature—announcement, Grace said, “Delicious pastry, Kate. Did Jo make it? Maybe we should promote her to assistant chef. I know you’re finicky about who you let work at your side, but she does have a way with cream cheese.” She spoke so fast a bit of raspberry filling lodged in her throat, causing her to cough.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Alex scolded, giving Grace a look designed to stop even the most fearless four-year-old in his tracks. “Besides, diversion isn’t
going to work. You can’t casually toss out, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m thinking of opening a second restaurant with Charles,’ and not expect us to react.”

Grace knew that. She’d planned to share her idea in full once she’d ironed out the details with Charles, but his call this morning had left her wondering if she’d made a mistake by suggesting they could do business together.

Charles Harmon was an old family friend and Grace’s occasional dinner date. He was also a lawyer and part owner of the Xanadu, a small, shabby off-Strip casino where Grace had hoped to locate her new venture. She’d been in the shower when he’d called and he’d left a message asking her to drop by the casino to discuss her plan. Nothing in his tone could have been construed as ominous or threatening, but a chill had passed through her body as if she’d been dunked in Lake Mead in January.

“If you didn’t want our feedback, why’d you say anything?” Liz asked, filling the electric teakettle with water. Four sisters, four beverages of choice: coffee, tea, cola and whatever strange brew Liz currently favored.

“Because…well, because you know me. I have a bad habit of speaking before I think things through, right?”

Her sisters agreed with a combination of groans and sighs.

Before any could comment, she continued. “Last week, I floated an idea past Charles. Why not remodel the Xanadu’s ridiculous excuse for a coffee shop into a satellite operation of Romantique? Can’t you see it as a hip bar with an exposed kitchen where Kate could really show off her stuff? I even came up with a name for it. Too Romantique.”

Alex and Liz, who were six and a half and five years older than Grace, respectively, exchanged a look Grace had seen many times.

“It’s a very clever name, Grace,” Alex said. “But I have to go on record as being against this. I’m not comfortable with you doing business with Charles. There’s something about that man that makes me nervous.”

“Yeah,” Grace said, snickering softly. “We know. That’s why you set him on fire.”

The standing joke for years had been that their father, Ernst, had brought Charles home to meet Alex, who’d accidentally dropped the cherries jubilee and singed Charles’s beard. Charles had been clean shaven ever since.

BOOK: Betting on Grace
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