Authors: Debra Salonen
Nick turned to see where she was pointing. A wide variety of vessels bobbed in slips evenly spaced along a shared dock, twenty or so berths on each side. The loud drone of a compressor came from a tin-roofed shed two rows over. The dry dock Grace had mentioned, Nick figured.
“How come your boat is moored in a slip while most of the ones like it are tied to anchors in the harbor?”
“Convenience.” Her tone was put out. They hadn’t talked much on the drive from Vegas. His one-word answers to her questions had had the desired effect. Nick wasn’t deluding himself. He’d crossed the line profes
sionally when he’d slept with her. He was involved emotionally and the only way he could get back on solid ground was to cut his ties with her, do his job and get the hell out of Vegas. Anything else would be disastrous.
At the end of the gangway, he got his first clear view of the two-story houseboats. They did resemble floating recreational vehicles. White aluminum siding. Skeletal frames on the second story where some kind of awning might go. They were bigger than he’d pictured, each filling its entire allotted space.
Grace pointed. “The third from the end. That’s ours. The last one is new. I’ve never seen it before.”
He stopped her when she would have kept walking. “Go back.”
She paused but didn’t turn around as he’d ordered. Instead, she appeared to be studying her family’s vessel. “Everything looks just like we left it. I don’t think she’s here. Nobody’s seen her. Can’t we just leave?”
A woman from the boat-rental place had returned Nick’s call just as they’d turned south on Highway 95 toward Searchlight. She’d told him she hadn’t noticed any activity on the Radonovic boat, but she’d been away on vacation.
“I don’t expect to find her here,” he said shortly. “She’s probably in Mexico by now, but I plan to check this out since we’re here. Go back to the shore and wait.”
Their face-off only lasted a few seconds. Grace gave in. She blew out a huffing sound and stormed off. Nick’s satisfaction was cut short, however, when she stopped about halfway down the gangway and turned, hands on her hips, as if daring him to make her take another step.
He sighed and shifted his focus to the boat. White
with blue-and-teal trim, it bobbed innocently on the calm water. Withdrawing his gun from the holster at his side, he approached cautiously, stepping over the thick chain that had been painted nautical white but was beginning to rust.
A covered patio took up the back quarter of the boat. Bristly green artificial turf made a squeaky sound as he walked to the sliding patio doors. Although his view into the living room was blocked by white vinyl vertical blinds, he could make out a built-in couch and table to his right. Counters and shelves—the kitchen area, he presumed—were to the left.
He tried the door. Locked. The key Grace had given him was for the swinging door at the prow of the boat, which was facing toward the open water. He strained to listen for any kind of noise from inside, but the sound of a revving motor coming from the dry-dock area made it difficult to hear.
Adrenaline kicked in as he moved toward the starboard side of the vessel. A walkway about a foot wide allowed passage to the rear of the boat, where Nick had spotted a circular staircase. The boat bobbed slightly. He thought he detected a movement somewhere else on the vessel, but then decided the rocking was caused by his own shifting weight.
He gripped his gun a little tighter. There wasn’t room between the boat and the dock for him to fall into the water, but the same couldn’t be said for his gun.
At the first window, he bent down to look beneath the curtain. The sun-bleached oilcloth fluttered slightly. Nick thought he spotted something. A figure crouching or a pile of towels heaped on a bench? He couldn’t be sure.
With his back to the wall, he inched to the next window. Its curtain was pinned shut as if something was leaning up against it.
The next two windows were stacked, one a foot and a half above the other. They were ten-by-twelve-inch rectangles that could be opened to allow ventilation. They were considerably lower than the other windows, directly below a patio area that was encircled by a blue-and-teal-striped canvas strung between metal railings.
Sleeping bunks, he guessed.
He bent over to peer into the lower of the two. His heart rate spiked when he spotted a body sprawled on the unmade bunk, but a second later, he realized the form was a neoprene body suit draped over a couple of pillows.
Letting out a sigh mixed with relief and disappointment, he stood up.
As he did, his head connected with something hard. Pain erupted under his skull. Silver spots danced across his vision. Reeling backward, his foot slipped over the edge of the boat and he went down heavily on one knee. He grabbed the railing to keep from falling face forward, but in doing so, his gun clattered to the Fiberglas deck.
Fighting nausea and very close to blacking out, Nick pressed his free hand to his head, trying to figure out what he’d hit. The loud thumping of shoes on the deck made him understand that what had happened wasn’t an accident. He’d been attacked.
Acting instinctively, he lunged for his gun but was too late. A hand snatched it up. Nick closed his eyes and waited for a shot to follow.
Nick tried to shout but the only sound that came was a low, desperate-sounding groan.
“You shouldn’t have come here, Grace. I just needed a few days to figure out what to do. Is that asking too much?”
Nick recognized the voice of a person on the edge. He and Grace were both in danger.
He struggled to get up, but a wave of blackness forced him to lie still. He unintentionally let out a low moan.
Grace appeared at his side. “Nick, are you okay? Nikolai, answer me. Please.”
“Get…” He tried to push her away. “Back up. Shore.”
Her fingers pressed against his scalp. When she neared the spot that felt as if it was about to burst through his skin, he swore.
“My God, MaryAnn, you could have killed him.”
“I just wanted to knock him out so I could leave.”
Grace sat down and gently rolled Nick over so his head was resting in her lap. He couldn’t see her clearly, but he felt her tension. He had to make her leave him. Every movement threatened to take him over the edge of consciousness.
“Go where, MaryAnn? Your family is here. Your kids are waiting for you in Vegas.”
“So are the police, Grace.”
Nick knew what hysteria could do to a person. Grace didn’t appear to be afraid, but Nick wanted her to be. MaryAnn was desperate and obviously unbalanced. And, thanks to him, armed.
He opened his eyes, and although he had to squint to see past the haze of pain, he whispered, “Go. Please.”
She looked down at him and tenderly moved a lock
of hair from his forehead. Her smile said,
You can’t be serious.
Nick saw her take a breath and brace her shoulders as if preparing for war.
“MaryAnn, I brought Nikolai here to help you. I had a vision. A real, honest-to-goodness vision. I saw you crying. You were alone and frightened and confused. You wanted to run away, but the mother in you—the wife in you—couldn’t leave your family behind.”
“They’re better off without me. They’re Roms. I’m an outsider. I always will be, Grace.”
“No. That isn’t true. You’re a part of us. We’d never desert you. If you let me take you back home, I’ll prove it to you. We’ll hire you the best lawyer and get you some counseling.”
Nick silently groaned.
Don’t tell a crazy person you think she’s crazy.
He couldn’t see MaryAnn, but he heard her defeated tone when she said, “That’s what Charles told Amy.”
“Who?” Grace asked.
“Amy. Charles’s sister. He told her she was crazy. That none of the things she remembered him doing to her when she was a little kid had ever happened. That’s called power, Grace. Money buys you power. If you have enough money you can rewrite history.”
His guess had been right—MaryAnn was the blackmailer, but the knowledge brought him no satisfaction.
“I know Amy was your friend, MaryAnn,” Grace said, “but…”
“It happened to me, too.”
“Charles molested you?”
“Not him. But I was raped.”
“By whom? When?”
“Before I married Gregor. While I was a cocktail waitress at the Sands. He was a whale. A big tipper. I went to his room—for a drink. I thought he liked me, but when I tried to leave, he threw me on the bed. Said nobody would believe me because he was rich and I was nothing. In fact, I was less than nothing.”
Nick groaned softly. He knew what recalling deeply harbored resentment could do to a person. He needed to bring her back into the present, but before he could speak, she said, “I got tired of being less than nothing, Grace. Charles was counting on either marrying you for your money or talking you out of your trust fund, but you wouldn’t have had anything to do with him if you knew what a sick pervert he was. That gave me power.”
“But you went to work for him.”
She motioned wildly with the gun. “Somebody has to pay the bills after your cousin blows his paycheck at the casino.”
Nick could tell that all of this baffled Grace. She reached out a hand. “Why didn’t you tell me, MaryAnn? We’re family. We could have helped.”
“Ask him,” she said, pointing the barrel of the gun Nick’s way. “He’ll tell you how reliable family is when push comes to shove. I heard Yetta talking. His mother was like me, an outsider. She never fit in, and she was miserable here. That’s why they moved. You’re Rom royalty, Grace. Your daddy’s little princess. The rest of us are supposed to grovel at your feet.”
Nick felt Grace start to move. He put his hands out to stop her from getting up, but his effort proved useless. She carefully lowered his head to the deck. “It’ll be okay,” she told him. “You’re safe.”
But you’re not,
he tried to cry. His words came out in a garbled slur. He rolled to his side and tried to sit up, but the effort left him panting and dizzy.
Shit. Shit. Shit,
he silently swore. Where was his backup. The answer came to him immediately. Their position wasn’t visible to the cops on the shore because of the taller houseboat moored beside them. He needed to send a signal, but with his gun in MaryAnn’s hands, there was nothing he could do.
“MaryAnn, that isn’t true,” Grace said, stepping away from Nick’s side. “We’re just people. And we love you and your children.”
Nick reached deep for the strength to move. He made it into a sitting position, his back against the wall of the boat. Yellow dots flashed across his vision and his extremities tingled in a way that told him he might pass out.
“Stay where you are,” MaryAnn warned, shifting the tip of the gun barrel from Grace to him and back.
Grace took another step in MaryAnn’s direction, her hands out imploringly. “What about Luca and Gemilla? Are you going to run off and leave them behind?”
The sympathetic tone triggered a response Nick hadn’t expected. MaryAnn started to cry. Tears streamed from her eyes. “They’re better off without me,” she sobbed. “Everyone is.”
Nick sensed the moment the thought hit her. A gun. A hopeless situation. He grabbed the rope railing and tried to stand up. He made it to one knee, but he wasn’t fast enough to stop Grace from rushing forward.
“No,” she cried, grabbing MaryAnn’s arm with both hands.
What happened next was a blur to Nick. Two women in a macabre dance. He pulled himself toward them, using the side of the boat for support but they moved out of his reach. The pain in his head kept time to the pulse in his veins. Nausea left a coppery taste in his mouth. He staggered toward them just as a shot went off.
The pair froze. Then MaryAnn opened her mouth and let out a terrible cry of anguish. Grace had a surprised look in her eyes. Her gaze sought his.
she mouthed. Then her lashes fluttered like wounded butterflies against her too-pale cheeks. She would have fallen if not for her cousin’s wife, who slowly eased her to the deck.
A violent red smear made a check mark against the white plastic wall.
“No!” Nick bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Help! Somebody call an ambulance.”
HE WAS VERY LUCKY
the young, disheveled emergency room doctor who came to greet the family said. “If you gotta get shot, she picked the right place to do it. We’re only worried about the chance of infection. Since the gun was fired at such close range it might have left microscopic pieces of clothing in the wound. We’re keeping her a couple of days.”
A couple of days. Nick would be gone by then. He’d already cleared his departure with Zeke.
His new friend wasn’t happy to let him go, but he claimed to understand. Which probably wasn’t true since Nick himself didn’t understand completely why he felt such an urgent need to leave. At some level, he figured his motive was tied to the fear he’d felt as he’d watched the trooper who’d raced to the scene apply pressure to Grace’s wound. While the second officer radioed for help, Nick had been unable to do anything but stare in horror as Grace’s blood seeped between the man’s fingers.
He hadn’t let himself imagine what would have happened if she’d stopped breathing, but the despair that had lurked at the edge of his consciousness had served as a warning. To stay would mean becoming a hostage to for
tune. Grace’s well-being would always be the controlling motive in whatever he did. The thought terrified him.
“Can we see her?” Liz asked, walking up to the doctor. The two were exactly the same height and the man seemed a bit surprised when he glanced up from his chart to find her right in front of him. He didn’t step back, though.
“As soon as Admitting finds her a bed. I’ve got her sedated at the moment. She was a little agitated.”
“Well, she’d just been shot,” Kate said, getting to her feet. Liz and Kate had been playing gin rummy together at a low table. “Who can blame her?”
Kate had arrived with her mother about half an hour after Nick got there. Apparently, Alex was at home with Maya and MaryAnn’s children.
The doctor didn’t answer Kate. Still talking to Liz, he said, “She keeps asking how Nikolai is. I checked the patient list. No one by that name was admitted. Should I be worried about brain damage?”
“I would be,” Kate muttered, giving Nick a damning look.
“I’m Nikolai,” Nick said, stumbling over the name. For the first time since he’d assumed the identity he felt like a fraud. “Nick Lightner. I’ve been on assignment with Metro. We had a suspect go missing. I got whacked on the head,” he said, lightly touching the knot on his skull. The drums were overshadowing the painkillers he’d taken. “The EMTs on the scene checked me out and said I’m fine.”
The doctor frowned. “You really should have that X-rayed.”
Nick started to shake his head, but settled for a dismissive tone. “I have a hard head. Just ask these ladies.”
“Very hard,” Liz agreed.
“Rock solid,” Kate said, dismissively.
The man shrugged, then walked away.
“Why were you so grouchy to him?” Liz asked Kate, crossing her arms over the logo on her UNLV sweatshirt. “He was cute.”
Kate scowled at her. “Since when did you start noticing handsome doctors? I thought you were prejudiced.”
Liz shrugged but didn’t reply as the two sat back and continued their conversation in private. Nick walked to the window and watched the flow of traffic on the street. If he strained just a bit, he could see the outline of the Stratosphere. He’d never look at that icon of the Las Vegas skyline without remembering Grace’s life-affirming whoop of triumph when they came to a stop after their thrill ride.
“She’s going to be fine,” a voice said to his right.
Nick stepped back and turned to face Yetta. “I know. The paramedics told me that. I guess I expected her to open her eyes and talk to me, but she didn’t.”
“The body helps out when there’s too much pain to process. I fainted when my husband died. I was at his side, holding his hand. When I felt him leave us, I told my children, ‘Daddy’s gone, now.’ Then I stood up and that’s the last thing I remember until several hours later.”
She frowned as if disgusted with the memory. “I wanted to be strong for my family, but the pain was too much for my mind to deal with. Grace thinks she’s stronger than she is.”
Her expression turned wistful. “Ernst named all the girls. He said it was his right since I’d had them all to myself for the first nine months.”
Nick had to smile. “Did you offer to let him carry the next one?”
“Always. He said he would in a heartbeat, of course.” Her smile held the same look his mother’s did when she was thinking about his father. “Anyway, when he told me that the newborn, who had kicked my ribs till they were black-and-blue, was going to be Grace, I laughed out loud. ‘This child is strong and invincible. Shouldn’t she be an Isabella or an Isis?’”
Nick couldn’t picture Grace as either. “What did he say?”
Yetta took a deep breath and appeared to reflect on the question. “He said, ‘Grace Kelly was the strongest of them all. She left the life she knew to recreate herself as a princess. Can you imagine what strength that must have taken?’”
Nick wondered if she was trying to tell him something. But he didn’t ask. He didn’t even dare to hope. Grace had risked her life to save a member of her family. Nick admired her. Hell, he loved her. Which was why he wasn’t going to make her choose between her beloved Romani family and him.
“I’m leaving in the morning. I hope Grace will be awake before then so I can talk to her, but if not, I’m asking you to make my goodbyes for me.”
“You’re going back to Detroit.”
Nick nodded. “It’s time. Zeke has things under control here even though his primary witness’s mental state might be problematic when this comes to trial.” MaryAnn had been taken to a facility for a psychological evaluation. According to Zeke, she had apparently borrowed a car from her brother-in-law before heading to
the marina. Investigators had found pills on the boat, leading them to assume she’d been considering suicide all along. They also found boxes of Charles’s files. “Fortunately, she’d squirreled away a ton of paper evidence to use as protection in case Charles figured out she was the one blackmailing him. That ought to keep the D.A. on Charles’s case for months.”
“MaryAnn will recover,” Yetta said with confidence. “Gregor is standing beside her. This might be just the thing to make him grow up. As for Claude, he’ll probably move back to the ranch for a while. We’ll help him find a renter for his house.”
“Do you mind if I stay there tonight? I could get a motel near the airport, if you’d rather.”
Yetta’s smile looked sad. “No, of course, not. You’re always welcome here, Nikolai. You’re a part of this family, too.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true. None of this was your fault.”
Even if that was true, Nick knew he’d never forget the look on Grace’s face as the gun went off. When he’d watched her sink to the deck of the boat, he’d felt as though someone had yanked his heart right out of his chest.
“She isn’t going to take your leaving lying down,” Yetta said. “You know she doesn’t give up on people she loves.”
Nick’s heart reacted to the word
but he kept his expression blank. “Then, it will be up to you to remind her that she’s supposed to be looking for a prince. That lets me out. Would a prince go off and leave his princess in the hospital?”
Yetta frowned. “Hmm, that’s a very good point.”
Nick faked a smile and started away. He paused and added, “Listen, if I don’t see her before I leave, be sure to tell her that I hope she finds her prince someday. She deserves somebody worthy of her.”
Yetta’s smile surprised him, but he didn’t dwell on it. He had travel plans to make.
Jurek let out the breath he’d been holding. His gut still burned where the staples had been. His surgeon had been right. The little sample he’d taken from Jurek’s bowel had been cancerous, but the oncologist insisted the variety was slow-growing, and once they had the tumor removed, the prognosis was good.
He wanted to believe the man. He needed to live long enough to hear the final outcome of what was happening in Las Vegas. Which was why he’d been sitting up waiting for Yetta’s call instead of sleeping as the visiting nurse had insisted he try. She’d even given him a sleeping pill, but he’d hidden it under his tongue. He would use it later.
“When?” Jurek asked, adjusting the lamp beside his recliner.
“You haven’t told him anything about my…situation, have you?” Jurek had finally shared bits and pieces of his health saga with Yetta, but he’d asked her not to tell his son.
“No, but I plan to as soon as I get home. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you need to talk to him. Tell him what happened. Explain why you gave him up for
adoption. He’s never going to heal if he doesn’t hear the truth from you.”
Was she right? Was he making matters worse for his son by keeping his distance?
“Let me bring him to you, Jurek. Before it’s too late.”
“He’ll think I’m trying to play on his sympathy.”
She gave a small chuckle. “I’m not totally convinced he has any. Nikolai has built a wall around his heart, and believe me, if Grace couldn’t pull down that barricade, you probably don’t stand a chance, either.”
“When would you come?”
“Tonight. The doctors have told me Grace is going to be fine. Elizabeth is taking me home, then coming back. Katherine will remain here in case anything happens. I’ll pick up my car and your son.”
“Okay,” he said. He hung up the phone and closed his eyes. The hum of the heating unit filled his ears. In a few short hours, Jurek would see the boy he’d turned his back on thirty years earlier. He swallowed the lump in his throat and closed his eyes.
A thousand images flashed on the screen in his head, but none was clearer than seeing his son holding Lucy’s hand as they boarded a city bus. Not the bus that had cost Jurek the love of his life. Just an ordinary day when Lucy and Nikolai were going exploring.
His bold, adventurous child with curly blond hair and a smile that could make a believer out of the most damaged soul. Like Jurek’s. He’d seen too much, experienced the worst life had to offer. He’d given up on hope until the day he’d met Lucy and fallen in love.
Rosy cheeks and a laughing smile that breathed life
into his jaded heart. He’d believed her when she said anything was possible. Of course they could have a home and a family, even while she pursued her dream.
But it had been a fantasy. An outright lie. And he’d been so damn angry, so consumed by bitterness, after learning that his wife had died while he was stuck in jail, he’d let his fury and grief blind him to the gift she’d left behind.
Now, he had to face his mistake. The child who had haunted his dreams all these years. And in his son’s face, he knew he’d see Lucy.
OU AREN’T GOING
to like this, Grace. Nick’s leaving.”
Grace heard her sister’s voice, but the words didn’t mean anything.
She opened one eye and looked around. Hospital. MaryAnn. Gunshot. A surprisingly loud gunshot. Nikolai.
She tried to speak, but her mouth felt as if someone had packed her cheeks with cotton balls. She looked with longing at the dull pink plastic pitcher on the movable table and almost as if someone read her mind, a cup and bendable straw appeared in front of her lips.
She took a sip. “Uck,” she said, grimacing as she swallowed the water. “Leaving?” she asked. “The hospital?”
Kate took the cup away and sat down. She looked serious. Dead serious. “He’s leaving town, kiddo.”
The dryness in her throat came back. “When?”
“In the morning.”
Liz, who was sitting on the end of Grace’s bed fiddling with the television remote control, looked over her shoulder and added, “Mom said he’s staying at Claude’s tonight then catching a flight home in the morning.”
“No way. He can’t leave without talking to me first. My God, we made love. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Liz dropped the remote. Her gaze went to the other bed in Grace’s room. Grace craned her neck to peek around the curtain at her neighbor. A white-haired woman with a protruding belly winked at her.
Grace blushed and smiled, then carefully turned onto her good side. Every movement set off knife pricks of pain, but these were a mere nuisance compared to the gnawing fear in her belly. “I need to see him. Take me home. Now.”
Liz started to laugh. “You really believe that princess nonsense, don’t you?”
Grace tried to pull back the blankets. Her sister’s expression turned serious. “Whoa. Stop.” Liz hurried to Grace’s side. “You can’t leave. Doctor’s orders.”
She gently pressed Grace’s shoulders flat to the mattress. “You just had surgery to repair a bullet hole in your side, Grace. People die from those kinds of things.”
Grace knew she wasn’t going to die. Not from what happened at the lake, but a broken heart could be fatal, too. “He can’t leave, Liz. He’s the one. My p…p…prince,” she admitted raggedly.
“Oh, come on, Grace. That’s what you said about Shawn. How do you know Nikolai is any different?” Kate asked.
Normally, Grace would have found a more convincing way to answer her sister’s question, but her mind was still fuzzy from the drugs she’d been given. “I saw it. While I was in the helicopter that picked me up at the marina.”
“You had a vision?” Liz asked. “Like Mom’s?”
Grace turned the hand that wasn’t attached to the IV palm-side up. “Maybe. I saw myself walking on a path. Alone. All of you were calling me to come back, but I knew if I kept going I’d run into Nikolai.”
“Him specifically?” Kate demanded.
Grace nodded. “I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was somewhere up ahead. Waiting for me to choose.”
Her sisters looked at each other, their skepticism obvious.
“Before this happened, Nikolai asked me to go back to Detroit with him, and I said I couldn’t.”
“Which is true,” Kate said firmly. “You can’t.”
“But what if he really is my prince, Kate? My soul mate?”