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Authors: Debra Salonen

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BOOK: Betting on Grace
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Grace groaned. “Not again.”

Kate put out her hands. “He’s a big boy, Grace. His addictions are not your problem.”

“I swear I just had this conversation with our new houseguest. I know Greg’s an adult and what he does with his life is his affair, but we are all going to pay the price if he can’t make his house payment or if he kills himself in a car accident. Isn’t a little intervention better than the alternatives?”

“When you put it like that, I guess so, but just in case Jo had the wrong guy, would you please not mention my name when you charge in on your white horse?”

Grace stuck out her tongue, but she smiled, too. She was used to her sister’s teasing. “Go study those plans somewhere else. I need to fax next week’s produce order before things start going crazy around here.”

Kate started to leave but paused. “Speaking of faxes,
wasn’t Nikolai supposed to drop something off for you last night? I was sure Mom mentioned a job application.”

Grace shrugged. “Yeah, I thought so, too. Maybe he got lost. Or sidetracked.” She’d been on edge most of the night waiting for him to appear, and she had to admit she’d been disappointed when he hadn’t shown up.

“You like him,” Kate said.

“Do not.”

“Do, too. I can tell by the way your cheeks turned pink when I mentioned his name.”

“It’s hot in here, okay? And I don’t even know him. None of us know him. You could be right. He might be a hit man.”

Kate studied her a minute longer. “Even so, you like him,” she said, walking away. The door shut solidly.

“Do not.”

Do, too.
Grace didn’t like the sound of that voice. Instead of her sister’s, it sounded far too much like her own.

 

N
ICK STARED
at the dark ceiling, unable to turn his mind off. He’d learned plenty today, but nothing very helpful. Normally, he would have accepted that the gathering of information was part of the process and eventually all the pieces would fall into place. But tonight he felt restless.

Maybe Uncle Claude laces his booze with caffeine, he thought. Although when he’d left him, Claude had been dozing in his recliner to the muted highlights from some ridiculous reality show.

Suddenly too wired to lie still, he jumped out of bed and pulled on his jeans. He grabbed his shirt and shrugged it on but didn’t bother with the buttons. Instead
of his boots, he put on the running shoes that he’d set out for the morning. Moving quietly, he slipped into the hallway and walked to the sliding glass door.

The hum of the city was different from Detroit, he noticed. Despite the streetlights in this part of town, there was more visible sky. He was far enough away from the unnatural glow of the casinos to spot a few stars. Scorpius hung low on the horizon.

For the first time in four years, he wished he still smoked. Quitting had been his gift to his mother. She and his father had been smokers until a routine X ray found an ominous-looking spot on her lung. As they waited for the results, everyone in the family made a pact to quit. Fortunately, the biopsy proved benign. Usually, he didn’t miss the cigs. But tonight was different.

A quiet splashing sound caught his attention. He walked to the concrete-block fence that separated the backyards of the housing development. The fence was too tall to peek over but a conveniently placed boulder gave him the extra height he needed.

Grace.
Doing laps. He watched her make a neat underwater turn. Someone should tell her that her pool was too small to support such an activity, he thought. She could bump her head. She might drown.

Swimming in an outside pool in February is just not natural,
he thought as he hoisted himself up and over the fence.

There’d been two feet of snow on the ground when he’d left home. Generally speaking, Nick didn’t mind winter. Especially around the holidays. Fall was gorgeous. He enjoyed the sights and smells. Summer in Michigan was never the same from year to year, and
he loved the variety. In fact, he didn’t know how people who lived in one-season climates could stand the sameness.

A surreal fog rose off the slightly heated water of the pool. A sunken light made the oval shimmer like a lava lamp. He stepped closer. Grace hadn’t spotted him and was still intently pursuing her steady crawl.

“What the—” she said, splashing as if she’d just bumped into Jaws. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

He stepped out of the shadows. He wasn’t sure how she’d seen him, but obviously she had. “Don’t you know it’s not safe to swim alone?”

She’d come to an abrupt stop and was standing in chest-deep water. He could see the straps of her swimsuit, but he couldn’t make out the color or pattern of the print.

“So this is you playing lifeguard? How chivalrous,” she said, her tone dripping with sarcasm.

“I heard the splashing. I was curious. A swim sounded inviting.”

“That’s what gates are for. Gates that go
ding-dong.
More neighborly than hopping the fence and sneaking up on people.”

He turned around and looked to where she was pointing. Sure enough, midway along the fence was a wooden gate. He’d noticed it the day before when he was talking to Yetta. “Sorry.”

She didn’t look convinced. “So where are your trunks?”

“Are they required?” He meant the question to be teasing, not provocative, but when her eyes narrowed just for a second, as if she were actually picturing him
naked, Nick’s body responded. He muttered a silent expletive and sat down on a nearby lawn chair.

Grace moved into deeper water so only her head was showing. He assumed her shoulders were chilled by the night air. He was glad he’d grabbed his hooded sweatshirt on the way out the door. “Do you do this often? Late-night laps?”

“Usually, I swim in the morning. When Dad was alive, he and I would race. Before his stroke. That’s what made it so hard to believe when he was stricken. He was in such good health, fit and active. Then suddenly, he couldn’t be in the water without help. It took two of us to help him in and out of the pool.”

Nick’s last partner had been in a car accident shortly before Christmas. Through physical therapy he’d managed to recover about two-thirds of his former mobility, but he’d never again walk without a cane. “I have a friend with a brain injury. I know how frustrating it can be for both the patient and the caregiver.”

Grace parted the water in a graceful sidestroke and swam to the edge of the pool. “We were lucky Liz was here.”

“Did he get better?”

“For a while.”

Nick had no trouble imagining how heartbreaking Ernst’s decline must have been for the family.

“Did Mom answer all your questions about your birth family when you two talked?”

He sat forward, shoulders hunched, hands linked. “She volunteered information that doesn’t mean squat to me. It’s ancient history. Who really gives a crap?”

She pushed off and kicked hard enough to create a
large splash. Her skeptical “ha” told him she didn’t believe him. “I came here for work, not sentimental garbage. I have a family. I don’t need another.”

“Tell me about them.”

“Why do you care?”

She turned abruptly and swam quickly back to the side. Without pausing to catch her breath, she stiff-armed a wall of water that broke a foot in front of him. The residual splash dampened his shoes, ankles and jeans, from the knees down.

“Hey…”

“No, hey, you. You’re a guest here. I picked you up from the airport, then didn’t see you for the rest of the day. Would it hurt you to play the friendly chatter game?”

That sounded almost as though she was disappointed. Nick kicked off his shoes and walked to the edge of the pool. Grace looked up, her eyes wide and mouth slightly open. He stepped over the edge and sank down, fully clothed. His feet touched the tile bottom and he pushed off. When he opened his eyes, his face was a few inches from hers.

“How friendly did you have in mind?”

Her mouth opened and closed the way it had when her cousin’s kids and her niece had tried to pick his pocket. Nick had a feeling it took a lot to leave her speechless. Instead of answering, she turned to swim away, but he caught her arm.

She tensed as if he were a threat. Maybe he was—to his own piece of mind, most certainly. To this case, very possibly. He had to stop whatever was going on with his libido before it got out of hand. And he would. After he kissed her.

Just once. Because her lips were too tempting to resist. Even now, when her expression was one of consternation, her lips were ruddy and full. Her upper arm was soft, although the muscle seemed solid and ready to fight him off if necessary. But the slightly questioning look in her eyes told him it wouldn’t come to that if he kept things civilized.

He kicked his feet. His jeans were heavy and cold on his skin even though the water was warmer than he’d expected. When he was close enough to detect the faint odor of garlic and spearmint on her breath, he said, “It would probably be uncouth to kiss you, wouldn’t it? We haven’t even dined together, yet.”

She ignored his question. “I work odd hours. Sort of the split shift from hell.”

“How ’bout breakfast?”

Even in the faint light, he could tell that she’d read more into the offer than he’d intended. “My treat,” he added. “We could meet out front. You can take me to your favorite spot.”

She laughed shortly, confirming her embarrassment. Oddly, this small vanity made her suddenly very human, and real. He knew without a doubt that she wasn’t Charles’s stooge or cohort. She was Grace Radonovic, her father’s princess who was just trying to keep her family together.

He’d never met a woman like her, and if he had, he’d have pushed her away. This time, he pulled her closer. Her chest brushed against his.

“I think you might be crazy,” she said, laughing. “And here we were worried about you being a hit man. You’re really just plain nuts.”

“That’s one explanation. Dazzled by your beauty is another.”

He lowered his head to kiss her, but she slipped, mermaid-like, from his hold and swam underwater to the far end of the pool. She pulled herself up and out of the pool, grabbing a towel from the back of a lawn chair. Even in the misty lighting. Nick could tell her breathing was shaky.

She started away but stopped and turned slightly. With a smile that made him groan, she blew him a kiss and said, “See you at breakfast. Any day but Saturday— I sleep in on Saturdays.” Then she disappeared into the darkness.

As he sank under the water, he heard the sound of a door closing. Submerged, eyes blinking against the sting of the chlorine, he shook his head. She was right. He was crazy.

CHAPTER TEN

“H
IT ME
.”

Nick watched the play at the blackjack table he was sitting at with minimal interest. He’d been in Vegas a week. Charles’s reply to Nick’s faxed application had been instantaneous—Nick could start bright and early that Monday morning. Which had meant no breakfast with Grace. Which had been a good thing, he told himself. In the clear, crisp light of day, Nick had no excuse for his behavior. None. He was here to do a job. And since he no longer considered Grace a suspect, there wasn’t any reason to spend time with her. There would be no repeat of their near-miss in the pool.

“Is this table hot?” a voice asked from over Nick’s shoulder.

Zeke.
Nick felt a quick tingle of adrenaline but didn’t shift his gaze from the pair of cards he’d been studying. Blackjack wasn’t his thing, but he’d been trying to bond with two of his fellow janitors, who were sitting to his left.

“Not particularly, but feel free to change our luck,” he said, nodding at the empty spot to his right.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Nick pretended to study his cards: a jack of spades and a six of hearts. Not a good hand when the dealer had
a ten showing. He eased them flat, indicating he planned to hold. Only then did he glance at his new neighbor.

Today, Zeke was wearing a gray windbreaker with broken-in jeans and a black golf shirt. The slogan on his cap read Golfers Do It On Par. Nick had to bite his lip to avoid smiling.

Zeke set out a small stack of chips and made eye contact with the dealer, a small, Asian woman whose name tag read Kim, Seoul, South Korea.

When Nick was sure the others at the table were distracted by giving advice to the beginner sitting in the wheel position, he said, softly, “Trash detail this morning. Caught a glimpse of some handwritten notes. But his secretary put them through the shredder before I could make copies.”

In the five days that Nick had been working, he’d only been to Charles’s office twice. Most of the time, he was emptying garbage in the casino proper or the public restrooms. He’d had worse undercover details, but his patience was being taxed. Particularly since nothing seemed to be happening at any level of the investigation.

According to Zeke, who had the ability to pop out of nowhere then disappear after a quick briefing, the two cops who were suspected of collusion had both been on vacation for a week. No new insurance claims had been initiated. Charles appeared to be lying low, almost as if he was aware of something.

“And the ladies?”

Zeke was referring to the women Nick had pegged as prostitutes the first day he arrived. He shook his head. “Nothing.”

The dealer flipped over her hole card. A six. She had
to take a hit. Her next card was an eight. She went bust. The other three players—Nick’s janitor pals and the stranger—cheered as the dealer passed out chips.

Nick’s next cards were a six and a five. He turned them right side up and doubled his bet. His pals responded with loud hoots.

Since he’d started hanging around with the members of the janitorial staff, Nick had heard rumors galore, mostly about Charles’s sex life: “He’s a closet fag.” “Charles is a trust-fund baby. Work is just a hobby for him. Sex is his real passion.” “Charlie-boy likes little girls. He only dates women like Grace Radonovic for show. She’s too old for him.” “Charles is physically deformed in his privates—that’s why he hires hookers.”

The last had been from a woman who was reputed to have slept with both of Charles’s partners, whom Nick had yet to meet. MaryAnn had told Nick the Salvatore brothers were in Maui for a family wedding. They were due back any day.

Nick watched as the dealer took hit after hit to finish with seventeen. He held his breath as she turned over his down card. A five of diamonds. He lost his bet. His pals groaned sympathetically.

He pocketed his remaining couple of chips and told his friends he’d see them later. When he turned to leave, Zeke did the same.

Before Nick could ask Zeke to run background checks on his co-workers, the detective asked. “What’s happening with the princess’s plans?”

Nick was embarrassed to admit he didn’t know. They hadn’t really talked since that night in the pool. Zeke wanted to know if she was still going through with her
plan to open a nightclub with Charles, which meant Nick was going to have to swallow his pride. Because this was business. Just business.

 

G
RACE HESITATED
before opening the door of her trailer. She’d put off talking with her mother about Too Romantique for a week, but Charles wouldn’t wait any longer. “You told me Kate would be done with the plan last night,” he’d said just minutes earlier on the phone. “So? Are we going to do this or not?”

Grace had finally pinned down some design specifics from her sister by talking hypothetically. “
If
we opened a second place, what would you like to see—kitchen-wise?” she’d asked Kate and Jo. The two had bounced ideas off each other until they came up with a workable layout. Costly, Grace suspected, but one that even the Iron Chef would have drooled over.

Now, Grace just needed her mother to release the funds.
Not a problem.

Grace took a deep breath for courage and stepped outside. The blue sky was dissected by contrails left from Nellis Air Force Base pilots. “Hi, Mom, what’s up?” Grace called when she spotted her mother kneeling beside a small patch of exposed dirt. From the tools at her side, she appeared ready to plant petunias, a flower Yetta said reminded her of her childhood.

“Hello, dear. You’re here late today.”

“Comp time. I helped Jo steam-clean the walls last night after Kate went home.”

“This Jo person seems very nice and helpful. I’m glad your sister found her. You should invite her to dinner some Sunday.”

Romantique was closed on Sundays and Mondays.

“I could do that. You know she has a partner, right? Another woman,” Grace added, feeling a bit embarrassed. Sexuality of any kind wasn’t a subject she and her mother had discussed much. Growing up, that area of Grace’s education had fallen to her sisters.

“Yes, I know. I’d like to meet her, too.” Yetta sat back on her heels and rolled her shoulders. “You’re not homophobic, are you?”

Grace nearly dropped the water bottle she was carrying…until she spotted her mother’s playful wink. “No, Mother, I just didn’t want to spring any unnecessary surprises on you, the way you did when you invited Nikolai to move in.”

“But he’s turned out to be such a delightful surprise. Don’t you think?”

Delightful?
Not the first word that popped up when she thought of him. Sexy. Worrisome. “I try not to think about him,” she lied. Their almost-kiss had been on her mind the whole week. “I’m too busy. And I need to talk to you about this new project I have in mind.”

“The spin-off restaurant. I heard some murmuring about it.”

“I want to call it Too Romantique.”

“Very clever name. You’ve always had a way with words.”

The praise was nice, but Grace rushed on now that the ice was broken. “Thanks. I think it will attract a lot of attention and we can play up our heritage in the press release. Two sisters of Romani descent opening a hip bar and grill. We’ll make back our investment in no time.”

Yetta pushed the trowel into the powdery gray soil.
“Speaking of which, where are you entrepreneurs getting this money?”

Grace felt her cheeks heat up. “Um, well, I thought I might be able to use the money in my trust.”

“No.”

Grace scooted her chair a little closer. “Mom, you don’t understand. This is a great opportunity. Charles will be matching my investment, dollar for dollar. He’s even willing to sign something that reimburses me every penny if the restaurant goes belly-up.”

“What if he goes belly-up?”

“Charles? Bankrupt? Never happen.”

Yetta smiled. “So now you can see into the future, huh?”

Grace let out a sigh. “Mom,” she said gently, “I’m a college-educated businesswoman. I’ve crunched the numbers. I know a good opportunity when I see one.”

“And what does Charles see when he looks at you?”

Her tone made Grace blush. Surely her mother didn’t think Grace was romantically inclined toward Charles, whose tepid hugs seemed almost fatherly when compared to a man like Nikolai who could start a fire in her veins with one brief touch.

“He sees a potential business partner, of course.”

“Or an untapped bank account.”

The sour tone surprised Grace. “Mom, Charles is one of Dad’s oldest friends. Didn’t he help Dad set up our trusts?”

Yetta looked away. “Don’t presume to know what Ernst was thinking back then. Your father came into some money and wanted to insure that it would be there for you girls if anything happened to him. He and
Charles were not in agreement on how the money should be invested, which makes me wonder if Charles has an ulterior motive for supporting this idea of yours.”

Grace frowned. Was that true? How come her father had never mentioned such a thing to her? “Mom, Charles has been good to you. He didn’t charge you a dime to recover your money after Ian was arrested, remember?”

Yetta sighed. “I know you don’t put much faith in my visions anymore, but, dear, I just don’t completely trust Charles. You, of all people, should understand.”

Grace looked away. She could lie and say she still believed in her mother’s abilities, but even without extraordinary skills, Yetta would have sensed the truth.

Her mother touched her hand. “I understand, honey. I don’t trust myself much anymore, either. But I can’t agree to let you use that money for this purpose.”

Grace jumped to her feet. “Mom, if this is about Dad’s original intention for our trusts—as a dowry—I think that’s a bit archaic. I’m twenty-eight years old. My flower-strewn-wedding days are just about over. Prince Charming disappeared down the rapids with a different princess in his raft. Now, my focus is on making money, and that trust fund could do me a lot more good if I put it to work in a new restaurant.”

Yetta rose, as well. “Darling girl, you joke about what Shawn did to you, but I know how much it hurt. You pretend your heart is healed but it isn’t. Not yet. It will be soon, though. I promise. You picked the wrong prince, sweetheart. That’s all.”

That’s all? Like they grow on trees?
“Mom, about the money. What if I borrowed against it? The way a person does with a life-insurance policy? I could slowly
pay it back, and then when I’m forty or fifty, if my gray-haired prince shows up, we could throw a heckuva grand affair.”

Yetta laughed, as Grace had intended. But her mother was right. Grace still felt betrayed by Shawn and fearful of putting her heart on the line. Maybe, subconsciously, she was using work and family to fill a void.

“I will think about it…if you do something for me.”

“What?”

“Take Nikolai out on the town. He’s had a humdrum life. Very little glamour. That can make a person bitter. I want him to have fun, live it up a bit. Can you do that for me?”

“You want me to show him a good time?” Grace asked, barely able to contain the shiver that raced through her body. She knew what kind of good time she’d like to show him.

Her mother looked at her, eyes narrowing. “Would that be so hard?”

Hard?
She’d felt a certain hardness for a fleeting second in the pool. “No,” she said, her voice squeaking.

“Are you well, dear? Your cheeks are flushed.”

“I’m fine. Really. I just…well, I was thinking about where I’d take him. So many choices. A dozen great restaurants to pick from. All the sights, of course.”

“Perhaps a show. His mother was a dancer, you know.”

Grace nodded, but she recalled some of the conversation she’d overheard the day Nikolai had arrived. He hadn’t seemed too happy about his mother’s career. “I’ll put something together, if you promise you’ll think about letting me use my trust for this project, deal?”

Her mother put her arms around Grace and squeezed
her warmly. Yetta nodded, but Grace knew that a hug was not the same as a handshake.

 

N
ICK SLOWLY MADE
his way back to the employees’ break room after his plan to do a little private cleaning up in Charles’s office failed. The door had been locked and one of Charles’s regular security goons had been loitering in the hall. Neither Charles nor MaryAnn had been in the office.

He was halfway down the escalator when he spotted Grace. She’d started through the lobby with a purposeful stride then stopped suddenly and veered toward the restaurant where she and Charles had conversed the day Nick had arrived. Instead of going in, she pivoted on one heel and marched toward the elevator, a look of grim determination on her face.

He pushed off the wall and trotted across the foyer to catch her before the elevator door opened. Luckily for him, the elevators were as run-down as everything else in this place. He sidled up beside her and cleared his throat.

Grace was staring at the brushed-chrome doors and didn’t look his way, so Nick nudged her. Her brows knotted and she turned as if to scold him.

“Nikolai,” she exclaimed. “I was going to look for you next.”

Nick couldn’t get over how strange it was to hear her say his birth name. It sounded sexy and exotic. And he liked it. “I’m only second on your list, huh?”

Her cheeks colored slightly. “Better than last, isn’t it?”

“Maybe. Who’s first?”

“Charles. I have to tell him I need more time before
we can close our deal on Too Romantique. My mother is being extra cautious about money these days. I shouldn’t complain after what happened with Kate’s ex-husband but still—” She made a sound that told him she was embarrassed about having shared that piece of personal information with him.

She tried to escape his scrutiny by dashing into the elevator when it arrived but had to wait as five people, including Zeke, exited. Nick followed her in.

“Don’t you have a job to do?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.
I’m doing it right now.
The thought served as a reminder that he needed to keep his head on task—unlike the last time they were alone together. In the pool. He pushed the dangerous image away. “But I’m on break. I thought Charles was pretty generous with downtime until one of my co-workers pointed out that the frequent short breaks meant you had no time to go anywhere so would probably spend money in the casino. Clever, huh?”

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