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Authors: Debra Salonen

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BOOK: Betting on Grace
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Both Nick and Zeke turned to find Yetta standing in the doorway. Nick dropped his head to his hands. Zeke rose and walked toward her. “My name is—”

“I know who you are,” she said dismissively. “You are the police.”

Nick looked up in time to see Zeke’s complexion turn a ruddy hue.

“Ma’am, your daughters—”

suspects,” Yetta said firmly. She had to lift her chin to look Zeke in the eyes. “I involved my family in this investigation because a person I trust promised me that you could remove Charles from our lives without involving my daughters.”

“Mrs. Radonovic, thanks to your invitation, we’ve been able to stay on top of Harmon’s activities, but we still don’t have enough proof to arrest him.”

“That’s your problem, not mine.”

“Actually, until Harmon is behind bars, he’s both our problem…if your hunch is right. For some reason—we’re not clear why—he’s short of cash at the moment. Whatever he’s got going may hinge on him having access to your daughter’s money.”

“Absolutely not. My husband put me in charge of that trust for a reason, and I will be in my grave beside Ernst before I let Charles Harmon touch a dime of it. That money—”

“Mom?” Grace rushed in, looking from her mother to Nick then back. “The nurse needed a couple of minutes alone with Alex so I came back here to wait. Tell me you weren’t just talking about my business to Nikolai. A relative stranger.”

A relative stranger?
Nick felt hurt although he had no right to be.

“And why is everyone suddenly so down on Charles?” She raised her hand to keep Yetta from answering. “Wait, I really don’t care. Because this isn’t about him. It’s about me investing in my future and at the same time doing something good for Kate. Don’t you trust me?”

Nick pushed aside his bruised feelings to try to salvage the operation. He could tell that Yetta was on the verge of confessing everything to her daughter.

“It’s my fault, Grace. I heard a couple of rumors this week at work about some kind of takeover. I asked your mother her opinion,” Nick said, walking away from
Zeke, even though Grace hadn’t shown any interest in the older man. “I don’t want to see you get burned.”

Grace stared at him a moment, her brow gathered. “Well, I appreciate the concern, but this really isn’t any of your business.”

Her tone was haughty. “Sorry. Just trying to help. I knew a guy in the joint who lost his shirt opening up a diner. He told me something like seventy percent of new restaurants fail.”

Grace let out a tired sigh. “Yeah, well, statistics lie. Kate and I beat the odds with Romantique, and I plan to do the same with our new place.” She took her mother’s shoulders between her hands and said, pleadingly, “Can’t you trust me to do the right thing?”

“I do trust you, Grace. It’s Charles I’m unsure of.”

“Why? He was Dad’s friend. If Charles hadn’t been there to call the ambulance, Dad might not have survived the stroke. And Charles helped you recover the money Ian stole. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t go into business with him.”

Yetta looked tormented. Nick sensed he was missing something.

She lifted her chin and said, “Very well, Grace. Your father hoped that money would secure your future. If this is—”

Grace’s hug cut her off midsentence. Nick should have felt relief—the game plan was still in play—but his gut told him something wasn’t right. Yetta was keeping secrets. From her daughter. And from him.


? Pick up the phone. I need to talk to you. I met the big-shot gaujo detective last night who
is working with your son. It’s obvious the man cares nothing about this family. You must talk to Nikolai.”

Jurek forced himself to wake up. The drugs the visiting nurse had given him when she’d come to change the bandage on his incision had left him groggy. He reached deep for the strength to pick up the receiver. Yetta’s voice must have been on his answering machine, but he hadn’t even heard the phone ring. “Yetta?”

“Hello? Jurek? Is that you?”

He blinked against the daylight. The woman had left the blinds open despite his wish to be left in darkness. “I’m here.”

“What’s wrong? You don’t sound well.”

“Um…I was asleep. I had a late night.”

“I tried your cell phone about eleven but there was no answer.”

“I didn’t have it with me. What’s got you so upset? Something about a gaujo detective?”

“Zeke Martini. I met him last night. Not a scrap of humanity. Heart of steel.”

Jurek frowned. He’d met Martini a few years back when Jurek helped the police track down a former business associate who’d taken a contract out on his wife. Zeke had been the first person he’d thought of when Yetta mentioned her concerns.

“Are you sure? He struck me as a by-the-book kinda guy, but fair.” Had he lost his ability to read people? That was the one skill he’d credited with keeping him alive all these years.

“Well, he may know his job, but he doesn’t know me or my family. We’re not pawns in his little game.”

He waited for her to continue. Her anger was evi
dent in her tone, and he needed time to find the energy to respond.

“Jurek?” Yetta said. “What’s wrong? You’re not telling me something.”

He closed his eyes. If he took a deep breath, he could still smell the antiseptic cleaner. The scent would follow him to his grave, which seemed to be looming closer every day. He’d returned to the clinic when he’d started passing large globs of blood. An exam had revealed a cut in his bowel wall, which must have happened when the polyps had been removed. The doctors had repaired it and sent him home.

“I’m fine, Yetta. Just tired. I’m on a new medication,” he said, feeling an unexpected surge of energy. This last crisis had scared him, but he was determined to hold on long enough to see his son.

Yetta made a tsking sound. “Which is why I need to visit you. Bring some herbs, some restorative tea. When can I come?”

He looked at the array of pill bottles on his bedside table and the assortment of hospital paraphernalia he’d carted home. “Maybe next week. After my cleaning lady gets back from her vacation. I don’t want anyone to see this mess.”

She didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Even your son?”

“Now, Yetta, don’t start. You know that’s not why I gave you his number.”

“Okay. I’ll let it go for now, but eventually you two have to meet. For both your sakes.”

Jurek didn’t speak. To say anything would reveal how much he longed to see Nikolai.

Yetta sighed in a way that made him smile. “Maybe you’re right about Zeke, but he rubbed me the wrong way.”

“He rubbed you?” Jurek joked. “I might have to come visit you after all. A man can’t go around rubbing my cousin and get away with it.”

Yetta laughed. He liked her laugh. He wished he could be around to hear it more often. But in order for that to happen, he’d have to get well, and Jurek, seasoned gambler that he was, was afraid that wasn’t in the cards.


Charles shove his keyboard off his desk. Too furious even to curse, he leaped to his feet and started to pace.

More money.
The son of a bitch wanted more money.
Money I don’t have.

“Charles?” a voice asked. “Is everything okay?”

He froze. MaryAnn stood in the doorway between their offices, a worried look on her plain, round face. When was the last time anyone had shown him sympathy and concern? He couldn’t remember.

“I just heard from the brothers,” he said truthfully. Bad news always comes in threes, his mother used to say. First, Walter e-mailed to say he was rejecting Charles’s offer but would reconsider if Charles threw in a permanent private suite.
Wishful thinking,
Charles thought scornfully.
As if the doddering old fool really needed someplace to conduct his clandestine affairs.
That blow had been followed by Ralph’s outrageous demand for extra cash
a percentage of the gaming profits for ten years.

But both counteroffers from the Salvatore brothers, although annoying, seemed workable compared to the third e-mail in his private box. Charles had it memorized.

“A hundred thousand or I tell Grace.”

“Bad, huh? I’m sorry,” MaryAnn said. “I was afraid that would happen. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yeah, find me a hit man.”

She startled visibly, then gave a small, uneasy laugh.

Scaring the help probably wasn’t a good idea. Neither was sharing his secrets. But Charles was running out of options. He couldn’t allow this predator to ruin everything he’d worked so hard to achieve.

He remembered all too clearly his mother’s advice. “You gotta look after your own interests first. Nobody else is gonna give a damn, and a bloodsucking leech ain’t gonna just drop off when it gets its fill. It sucks the body dry.”

“What do you know about our new janitor? Nick What’s-his-name.”

“Sarna,” she said. “Nikolai Sarna. He’s living with my father-in-law, but I haven’t really talked to him. I can get you his file.” She started to turn away, eager to help.

“Just refresh my memory. Why was he in jail?”

She swallowed as if uncomfortable saying the words aloud. “Attempted murder. He almost killed a man with his bare hands.”

Just my kind of guy.
Charles stifled a smile.

“Do you want to talk to him?”

Perversely, Charles found a certain poetic justice in the idea of getting one Gypsy to off another Gypsy. He was convinced the blackmailer was a member of the Radonovic family. His money was on Liz, who had been a classmate of his sister’s and was struggling to make ends meet. Although everyone thought of her as the altruistic do-gooder, Charles had sensed something
dark about her since she returned from Eastern Europe. He wouldn’t put it past her to resort to blackmail.

As MaryAnn started to leave, he asked, “You and Liz and my sister were in the same high school class, right? Did you know her?”

She appeared surprised by the question. “A…Amy? We…um…had a couple of classes together. I was really sorry when I heard she passed away. She seemed like a nice person.”

Nice? Tragic would be more like it. Amy was one of those people who couldn’t handle the cards they were dealt. Charles had had the same pathetic parents. A father who drank himself to death, and a mother who worked three jobs to keep food on the table—and fund her slot-machine habit. His life wasn’t any bed of roses, but he hadn’t taken the easy way out.

“Did you know she was a drug addict?”

“No. Not in high school, anyway. I heard rumors later on. That’s how she died, right?”

He pictured her body on the table at the morgue where he’d been called to identify her. Emaciated. A thousand years old. Stringy hair and bad teeth. No trace of the beautiful child he’d once loved so dearly.

“Charles, are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”

He shook his head. This was his problem. He would handle it. Or, rather, he’d find someone to do it for him. His new janitor, for instance, he thought with a smile.


? Where?”

The sisters were grouped around their mother’s table on the Tuesday after Alex got out of the hospital for a breakfast meeting.

“On the lips, of course,” Grace answered, making a face at Kate, who’d asked the question.

“She means where did this kiss take place?” Liz said, her tone impatient. She’d been reluctant to agree to this meeting, claiming she had other things to do, but Grace had made her feel guilty about not attending.

“And when?” Alex asked. “Before or after my little scare at the hospital? If he knew you were upset about me, it might have been a sympathy kiss.”

Grace shook her head and groaned. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. I can’t believe I said anything. Why did I? I must be a glutton for punishment.” When no one contradicted her, she went on, “Nikolai is…well, gorgeous. I’m wildly attracted to him. You know that’s what I do—fall for handsome men who are totally wrong for me.”

“Why is he wrong for you?” Alex asked. “He seems okay to me. He went right to work within a couple of days of arriving here.”

Liz nodded. “Yeah. He didn’t sit around for three months feeling sorry for himself the way Gregor did the last time he got laid off.”

“But he’s been in prison,” Grace argued. “For fighting. That isn’t good.”

“No, but he paid his debt to society,” Alex replied. “There are worse things, you know.”

Grace guessed Alex was referring to Mark, her ex-fiancé. A cop. A terrific guy by everybody’s standards—until he got his partner pregnant and broke Alex’s heart.

“His record isn’t the problem so much as all the blank spaces in his life story. If you were interested in a girl wouldn’t you open up about your family, friends, goals, ambitions, likes and dislikes? That’s what peo
ple do when they want to start a relationship, right?” She didn’t wait for a unanimous vote. She’d thought this through and although Nikolai had shared a few things about his past, including that incident with his sister, he remained an enigma. And the fact that she was drawn to him despite this scared her.

“Maybe he had a lousy childhood,” Alex said. She put her hand up. “Wait. Haven’t we been down this road before? I swear I already said that. Am I losing my mind, or is it this new drug the doctor has me on?”

Grace got up and walked around the table to where her big sister was sitting. She leaned down and put her arms around Alex’s narrow shoulders. “The pills seem to be working well. You look fabulous.”

“She’s right. Your color is almost back to normal, Alex,” Liz added. She looked at Grace. “But when it comes to men, I think the Radonovic sisters are doomed to have this conversation again and again and again. What are the odds? You’d think at least one of us could pick a winner.”

Kate, who’d seemed unnaturally quiet, let out a long sigh. “Speaking of bad choices, I got a letter from Ian on Saturday. I didn’t want to upset everyone after Alex’s scare, but apparently there’s a good chance he’s going to be released early. Soon, in fact. He wants to meet with me…regarding Maya. He wants to see her.”

Alex sat forward. “Oh, Kate, no. Don’t do it. He abdicated his parental rights when he stole Mom’s money and tried to cheat our family and friends. You don’t owe him anything.”

“Surely he doesn’t think we’d welcome him back into the fold, does he?” Liz asked.

Kate threw up her hands in a gesture of frustration. “I don’t know what’s going on in his head. I never did.”

Grace frowned. “Do you know where you stand legally?”

“We’re divorced and I have full custody of Maya, but apparently in this state unless you’ve signed papers saying you give up any claim of custody, you’re a father till you die. He says he can petition the court for visitations.”

The very idea made Grace queasy. Her ex-brother-in-law had a history of taking off. What if he grabbed Maya? “Have you contacted a lawyer?” she asked.

Kate nodded. “I’ve set up a meeting with Jo’s son. He’s new in town and Jo said he’d give me a discount since she works for me.”

“Good,” Alex said. “Hopefully, he’ll find out Ian’s threat is just wishful thinking. Personally, I don’t blame him for wanting to meet Maya—she’s the most amazing child on the planet, but naturally I’d never tell him that.” Absently dunking her tea bag in the cup in front of her, she looked at Grace and said, “So, Grace, ’fess up. What’s happening with your plans? I assume that’s the real reason you called us together this morning.”

She was right. Charles had phoned last night to tell her his contractor had a small window of opportunity and if they missed out, they’d wind up paying thousands more down the road.

“Um…Mom’s agreed to give me the money.”

Alex groaned.

Kate shook her head.

Liz pushed back her chair and walked to the sink.

Nobody said anything. They didn’t need to. Grace could sense their unanimous disapproval. “It’s a wonder
ful opportunity, guys,” she said. “Primo location. The market’s hot, and Charles is gung ho to make it happen.”

“What about Charles’s partners?” Alex asked.

At least this time Grace had an answer. “Charles said he’s in the final stages of buying them out. And in case you’re curious, I asked him how he can afford to purchase a multimillion-dollar property
remodel it at the same time and he said that’s what loans and private investors were for. He’s even drawn up a contract, although I haven’t actually seen it.”

Seeing the skeptical look on Liz’s face, Grace blushed. She didn’t want any of them guessing where her mind had been the past few days—far away from business. With Nikolai.

“It still sounds iffy to me,” Liz said. “Contract or no contract, you’re handing over a huge chunk of change to a man who
own the place by the time you open your doors
everything falls into place.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t that strike you as a little risky?”

Put that way it sounded downright foolish. Was she a fool? Not only where business was concerned, but in her personal life, as well. Both areas seemed to be headed in the same direction—expansion based on a leap of faith. Hadn’t she done the same thing with Shawn? Jumped into a relationship without heeding the red flags? Hadn’t her sisters tried to warn her that time, too?

“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re just trying too hard to make something positive happen,” Liz said, her tone surprisingly gentle. “We’ve all been there.”

Grace heard something sad behind the admission.

“You need to buy some time until we get an outside
opinion,” Alex said. “Put off Charles for a week. If this offer is legitimate, it will still be doable in seven days.”

“She’s right,” Kate said. “Give me a copy of the proposal and I’ll show it to Jo’s son. Jo claims he was top of his class in contract law.”

Grace didn’t look forward to breaking the news to Charles. She’d already suggested having an independent counsel represent her in the deal and he’d acted hurt and offended. “Your father trusted me—why don’t you?” he’d countered when they spoke on the phone.

Grace looked around the table. She knew her sisters. They’d hound her for life if she made this deal without listening to them. And Lord help her if something went wrong, they’d hound her in the afterlife, too.

“You win. I’ll tell Charles after lunch.”

“Great,” Alex said. “Now…about that kiss, where were his hands?”

Kate snickered softly. “More importantly, where was his tongue?”

Grace shook her head and groaned.

BOOK: Betting on Grace
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