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Authors: Debra Salonen

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BOOK: Betting on Grace
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Nick nodded because she seemed to expect it.

She pivoted on one heel and walked three steps away then turned dramatically, held up her hand as if just spotting him and called, “Hello. Is that you, Nikolai? It’s me, Grace, your father’s mother’s second cousin twice removed…or something. Here to pick you up and bring you back into the fold.”

He knew she was only pretending. This was just a joke to her. But the words connected with a place he never liked to acknowledge. In that place there lived a little boy who believed he’d been handed over to strangers because his mommy and daddy didn’t want him anymore. Tiny shards of glass pricked along his sinuses.
Cry? Me? Are you out of your mind?
a voice in his head shouted.

Nick’s only recourse was to turn away and march to the baggage claim where he spotted his pathetic, secondhand-store suitcase. Most of his fellow passengers had long since escaped. Only one elderly woman was still at the moving ramp, wrestling with a much too large trunk.

Nick let his beat-up Samsonite weekender continue on its journey while he hoisted the woman’s old-fashioned steamer trunk off the carousel. “Can I call you a porter, ma’am?”

She gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, but no. My grandson is coming for me. He’s always late, but
he’ll be here. He knows his mother will take away his car if he doesn’t show,” she said, winking one watery blue eye.

He nodded then caught up with his bag before it could disappear again. When he turned around to look for Grace, he found her still in the same spot, her expression misty.

He approached her warily. “What’s wrong?”

“That was so sweet,” she said. “I’m a soft touch for kindness. Although I have to say, at first glance, I wouldn’t have pegged you as the type to help an old woman in need. I’m impressed.”

The last was said with a saucy wink that told him she was kidding, but to Nick’s ire a swift, silly rush of pleasure coursed through him. He let out a warning growl. “I’m nobody’s hero. Don’t forget it.”

She made a moue with her plump pink lips. “Ooh, I stand corrected. Well, if you’re ready we can go. Although you might want to lose the leather jacket. This is the desert. We probably have four or five days a year that would warrant a heavy coat like that. Today isn’t one of them.”

Her clothing seemed to support her point. Her short black skirt was made of some material that looked like leather and adhered to her shapely butt and thighs. Above that she wore a relatively demure sweater with sleeves that stopped just below her elbows. Black and white. Her purse and shoes were fire-engine-red.

“Not that the coat doesn’t look great on you,” she said, giving him a toe-to-head perusal. “Wait till Kate sees you. She already thinks you might be a mob hit man, and you do look the part.”

Nick’s antennae went up. As part of his manufactured bio, they’d alluded to underground connections and a history of violence in and out of prison, but surely, Katherine wouldn’t have access to that kind of information.

“So, is this really all your luggage?” she asked. “Wow, talk about traveling light. I thought Mom said you were moving here permanently?”

“You’ve got stores, don’t you?”

“Tons,” she said with an effusive gesture. “I just heard the other day that Vegas had surpassed New York as the current shopping mecca. Art, jewelry, fashion—if you can afford it, you can get it here.”

With that, she turned and started off. Motioning for him to follow, she said, “It’s a bit of a hike. I apologize, but it’s not my fault. Some guy in a Hummer cut me off, and I pulled into the wrong parking lot by mistake and they wouldn’t let me change without paying. Which just isn’t right, is it?”

She went on without waiting for Nick’s answer, which was a good thing since he was having a hard time keeping his mind on her story and off her legs.

“It’s not the money, it’s the principle. And I firmly believe in sticking up for your principles…unless you’re wearing four-inch heels. If I’d known I was going to have to walk a mile, I’d have worn different shoes.”

Nick was glad she’d picked the shoes she had on. They showcased her great calves and ankles. Shapely. Not pencil thin like the models in the magazines. This woman had substance. Hips that made him want to run his hand from her waist to her…
Good Lord, I’m lusting after a perfect stranger, who could be a suspect.
He frowned.

Grace had stopped to extract her keys from her shiny red handbag and was scrutinizing him. She hesitated as if debating something, then told him, “A word of advice. Personally, I think that dark, squinty look is rather sexy, but my sister, Alex, runs a day-care center and there are always a lot of kids around the compound where you’re going to be staying. So you might want to tone it down when we get home. Alex will hurt you if you scare Maya, my niece, or any of her friends.”

Nick gave her a look that always worked on junkies, informants and crooks. Grace’s eyes widened. Her bottom lip disappeared for a moment then she put her hand to her chest and laughed.

“Brilliant,” she said shaking her head. “Oh, my, that was Dirty Harry and then some. Kate’s going to love you. She’s big on wilting glares, too.”

With that, she marched away. “Do you mind if we hurry?” she called over her shoulder. “I have to make a quick stop at the Xanadu before your welcome-home lunch. And I thought we’d take the long way around so you can see some of the sights.”

Welcome-home lunch?
Nick’s stomach lurched until his cop sense zeroed in on the first part of her statement. Xanadu was the name of the small casino that Charles owned an interest in.

In one of his e-mails, Zeke wrote that he felt Chuck was positioning himself to buy out his partners so he could introduce a more “exotic” venue for guests, one that included sex for hire.

“What’s the Xanadu? A bar? I could use a drink.”

“It’s a casino. Just off the Strip. My friend is part owner.” She stopped suddenly and looked at him. “You
know what? Charles might give you a job. He has a number of family members working for him. My uncle, my cousin, my cousin’s wife. In fact, MaryAnn is his personal secretary. I should have asked her this morning if she knew of any openings in personnel.”

“Would he hire an ex-con?”

Her smile seemed so compassionate, she reminded him of his mother, who only saw possibilities whenever she looked at a student. “Absolutely. MaryAnn’s husband, Gregor, has had a couple of brushes with the law. Nothing terrible, but not the kind of thing a potential employer would necessarily welcome. Charles put Greg right to work when he opened his insurance center. Most of the work is pro bono, but he pays Gregor very well.”

Pro bono? She actually believes that?
He could tell she did, because she launched into a discourse about how an insurance company had made life more difficult for her family after her father’s stroke. She apparently thought Harmon was some kind of saint who looked out for the little guy when insurance companies tried to bully a victim into settling for less than a claim was worth. Was Harmon that good an actor? Or was she the most gullible woman he’d ever met?

Nick figured he’d find out soon enough.


George. This will be over in a minute. We’ll take the tissue sample and get out of here.”

The gaujos, or non-Romani, all called him George. Only Yetta still used his given name: Jurek.

He closed his eyes and tried to picture Yetta. The image helped block his doctor’s voice, the bright lights and antiseptic environment of the outpatient operating room. The drugs they’d given him that morning had helped take the edge off his fear, but they couldn’t keep him from remembering.

Facedown on a table exposed to the steady hand of a man he barely knew was a bad, bad thing, a voice said.

A bead of sweat materialized along the neckline of his paper gown.
This man is my doctor. I trust him.

But when it came to trusting others, Jurek didn’t. He’d learned at a very young age not to put his faith in anyone.

In a few months—if he lived that long—Jurek would turn seventy-five. The vast majority of those years had been shaped by one childhood lapse in judgment. Guilt—not cancer—was now eating his guts from the inside out. He’d paid dearly for his mistake, first, at the hands of the Nazis, then through his own weakness and
stupidity. Now, the finishing touch would come courtesy of an insidious disease that his body had chosen to host.

“This looks encouraging, George. These polyps aren’t pretty and we’re taking tissue samples, but it’s not as bad as we feared.”

Doctors were good at telling you what you wanted to hear. His doctor, a specialist, was stalling. When the lab reports came back, he would sing a different song. He would say, “I was wrong, George. I’m sorry. You were right. The Nazi doctors did plant a tiny cancerous seed deep in your bowels when they worked on you. Like one of those time-release pills you see in commercials, it was just waiting to erupt. And, now, it’s too late to do anything about it. You’re dying, my friend.”

Jurek closed his eyes and blocked out the sounds of the machines, the ventilation system, and the nurses moving about. He stopped feeling the external stimuli and went to the one place that provided sanctuary—home. The camp where he’d once lived with his mother, father, sister and brother, cousins, aunts and uncles and other Romani relatives. Twenty-five people, perhaps, in their close-knit group. He knew them all and they knew him. They spoke a language that set them apart.

Life wasn’t easy for the Romani. They weren’t liked and they knew it, but in the circle of their campfires, a child felt relatively safe. Which was an illusion.

In the worst moments of his life—when he was being violated by the soldiers who made him march till he dropped, or surrounded by death and despair too harsh to fully comprehend, or, even weeping at his beloved wife’s graveside—Jurek would reflect on how his life
might have turned out if he’d listened to his conscience that morning, instead of his cousin.

The early summer day had begun like any other. The men gathered together talking seriously about grownup matters that didn’t concern a boy who was eight, going on nine. The women were still discussing the birth of two-month-old Yetta. “Child of the north wind,” they called her because of the storm that blew up the night she was born. But when she cried out the next morning, the sun was bright, the day still. Jurek had loved her from the first moment he held her.

He told himself a boy should have no feelings for a tiny infant, but he did. He liked her far better than the other pesky girls in camp. Perhaps to reward his attentiveness, Yetta’s mother had asked Jurek to watch over things while she went to an adjacent wagon for some dried herbs. Baby Yetta was asleep in the back of the wagon in a small box that had once held apples. Alba and Beatrix, her older sisters, were playing a game in the dirt not far from the open cooking fire. They ignored Jurek, which was just as well because three of his cousins, all older than Jurek, invited him to sneak off to see the new puppy they’d found.

The dog was a secret because they knew their parents wouldn’t welcome another mouth to feed. The boys were keeping it squirreled away in a small pen by the horses. Jurek knew he should stay where he was. He told them no, but they pressured him. He was a fast runner. He could see the dog and return before the little girls even knew he was gone. Yetta was asleep. She would be fine.

He was only gone a few minutes, but as Jurek
learned, tragedy can strike in seconds. Alba’s skirt caught alight. Beatrix tried to douse it with water from a nearby pot, but the pot contained oil. Both girls became coated in flames. They ran to the shelter of their wagon for help. The wagon caught fire.

Jurek heard the screams and ran as fast as he could. Alba was facedown in the green grass, her back ablaze. He rolled her over and over and left her lying in shock, faceup. Her lovely skin blackened. Beatrix had made it into the wagon, but had ignited the blankets and fabric that made up their bedding. He pulled her out and used the water that she should have used.

The wagon, now totally engulfed, was like a neatly constructed inferno. Adults appeared; several of Jurek’s uncles took hold of the tongue of the wagon to pull it away from the camp circle. His aunt tried to keep Jurek back, but he broke loose and scaled the steps to reach inside for the new baby. The north wind had somehow kept the flames at bay. She wasn’t burned. He pulled her free and they tumbled to the ground. She didn’t cry. She didn’t make any sound.

A gaujo doctor who came to help said Yetta had inhaled the smoke. He couldn’t guarantee that she would live. Alba died a few hours later. Beatrix survived, but all feared she would be too deformed to ever have a real life.

Jurek’s punishment? He was banished to Poland to live with his grandmother, whom he’d never met. Before he left for Poland, Jurek had cradled the sleeping baby one last time, and he’d whispered a promise to make this up to her any way he could. Someday.

He didn’t see his family again for nearly ten years. A few months after he arrived at his grandmother’s, on
September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. The borders were closed. Jurek’s nightmare began.

His grandmother did her best to keep them safe in the countryside, but two years later they were caught in a sweep and forced into a labor camp where his grandmother perished. Eventually, Jurek was sent to Sobibor. Each day was a challenge to stay alive. Many days he thought he’d prefer to die, but his promise to Yetta kept him going.

After Sobibor was liberated, Jurek set out to find his family. Surviving war-ravaged Europe took another set of skills. He learned how to lie, cheat, steal and kill. Eventually, he heard that his Romani family had immigrated to America just before the start of the war. Without funds, he had few options, so he signed up to work on a tramp steamer. His voyage took nearly two years of circumnavigating the southern hemisphere before he made it to New York. He was seventeen by the time he next saw Yetta and her family. And, although they’d welcomed him with tears of joy, Jurek found he’d changed too much to fit into their world. He’d moved to Atlantic City. He kept tabs on the family over the years, touching base with Yetta on occasion, but the only time he’d even come close to rejoining the group had been when he’d married Lucy. After her death, he’d drifted up and down the West Coast doing odd jobs until he’d finally landed in Laughlin eight years earlier.

Now, at the close of his life, he had a chance to make good on his promise to Yetta. When she’d visited him last, Yetta had been upset about a dream. He saw this as an opportunity to reach out, not only to help her, but to connect with the child he’d given up. His son. A boy
with Lucy’s fair hair and blue eyes who had deserved better than to be cursed with a worthless piece of trash for a father.

When a social worker came to the jail and told him his wife was dead, Jurek had understood that he wasn’t done paying for his mistakes. Lucille Helson, the farm girl who dreamed of being a dancer, had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. And, for their son’s sake, he’d made the most difficult decision of his life.

Now, he was dying—despite what his doctor said. A body could only take so much torture for so long, but he couldn’t let go until he made sure that Yetta and her family were safe from this serpent that Yetta had seen in her dream.

And, selfishly, he hoped to see his son one last time.


. I
Detroit had a lot of cars and motor homes, but this place is a freakin’ zoo,” her passenger observed. “Why would anyone live here?”

Grace put on her blinker to turn onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The Strip, as it was known throughout the world. She’d circled around the back of McCarran Airport’s industrial and business park to give Nikolai a bit of a tour, but so far, he didn’t seem too impressed.

“Good question. Maybe you should ask one of the seven thousand new arrivals to Clark County—every month.”

Grace didn’t know why she took his rhetorical question so personally. Usually—at least whenever she got stuck in traffic—she agreed with his assessment. But something about this man got to her.

Good thing he isn’t my type, she thought. She’d al
ready done tall, blond and gorgeous—and had paid dearly in the tender of a broken heart. Shawn Bascomb taught her that shoulders made for portaging canoes over rocky shoals were not necessarily broad enough to carry a relationship of any substance.

Grace had been so sure that Shawn, a self-professed ski bum with a penchant for white-water rafting in summer, had been the one from the moment they met. Although he’d proven as reliable as the seasonal snow he lived for, Grace had been determined not to give up on her errant prince.

After graduating from Mesa State College in Grand Junction, she found a job in Ouray, Colorado, to be near Shawn, who gave ski lessons at Telluride. Grace took her responsibilities seriously; she had a need to excel at her job. Shawn partied. Kate, who was working as assistant chef at one of the resorts, heard all the rumors Grace had turned a deaf ear to. She finally told Grace, “Face it. Shawn’s a frog, and no amount of kissing is ever going to change him into a prince.”

“So, is it safe to say that you like living here?” Nikolai asked, leaning forward slightly as they passed the Welcome To Las Vegas sign, which she’d just read was one of the most recognizable icons in the world.

Startled out of her time warp, Grace stepped on the brake for no reason, soliciting a nasty honk from the car behind her. Flustered but determined not to show it, she said, “Yes, I do. Most of the time. Vegas is several cities in one. You have this,” she said, indicating the canyon of hotels they were approaching. “Touristy glam and lots of jobs, but if you cross over the freeway and
head west, you hit Red Rocks and Mount Charleston. See that snowcapped peak?”

He looked around her to where she was pointing. This brought him close enough for her to breathe in his scent. A wholly masculine smell of leather and aftershave that made her mouth water.

Swallowing, she hastily inclined her head in the other direction. “Go that way and you run into Lake Mead and Boulder City. Hoover Dam. Well worth the trip. And sprinkled in between are neighborhoods, like the one my family lives in, which have a kind of small-town feel.”

She checked to see if he was listening. His presence filled the car. Not just his body, but his energy. Something about him was edgy and exciting. He seemed attuned to what was going on around him. He probably never zoned out, she decided. “Most locals don’t come down here unless they have out-of-town guests or want to see a show,” she added.

“All these people are tourists?” he asked, as she slowed to avoid a crowd of pedestrians starting to cross the street in front of the glittering gold towers of Mandalay Bay.

“Oh, yeah. And snowbirds.”

At the stoplight on Trop—short for Tropicana, she had a chance to study his profile. Long, slender nose. Thick but finely shaped brows a few shades darker than his hair. Lower lip was fuller than the top and sexy as hell, she realized.

Sitting up a bit straighter, she asked, “So, if you find the right job, do you plan to stay here permanently?”

The shoulder closest to her lifted and fell. “I guess.”

She frowned. He didn’t appear to have much ambi
tion. But the cost of living here was reasonable, if one didn’t have a gambling problem. “Do you gamble?”

His chin turned slowly, and the look he gave her made a shiver pass down her spine. “Do you?”

His response told her to back off, but as her sisters knew, Grace never let a little thing like privacy keep her from poking her nose into other people’s lives. “Now and then. When I have out-of-state visitors to entertain,” she said, returning her attention to the road. “Fortunately, my father taught me how to play. Most people don’t do it right. Which, of course, is what casinos count on.”

When he didn’t respond, Grace kept up the chatter. Silence shared with Nikolai Sarna was not comfortable. “I’ll warn you ahead of time, though, if you ask people that question, you probably won’t get an honest answer. Gamblers have a tendency to fudge. My father used to say that gambling is like drinking. If you can’t stop, then you shouldn’t start.”

As she slowed to turn at the next intersection, she caught the look of bemusement on his face as he tilted his head to gaze up at the replica of the Eiffel Tower.
Maybe I could take him up to the observation level sometime. It’s got a great view. And it’s romantic.

The thought made her cut the corner a bit too sharply, drawing glares from several sightseers poised to cross the street.
No romance. Nix. Nada. None.
Especially with a perfect stranger.

“What do you do if someone in your family is spending too much time at the tables?” he asked, leaning forward to peer at the vast white complex that made up Caesars Palace.

Something about his question struck her as odd.
Maybe it was his use of the phrase “at the tables,” which Grace recognized as gaming lingo. He was a player, she decided. “We try to be aware if someone in the family is losing too much. Then we talk to him or her.”

BOOK: Betting on Grace
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