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Authors: Debra Salonen

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“Most families go their own ways and don’t mess with each other’s lives,” he said.

Did that observation apply to his own experience? Her mother said he’d been adopted by a gaujo family when he was a little boy. Grace didn’t understand how that could have happened, but the thought made her sad. “Right. Well, that’s the difference between Western thinking and Rom thinking. You may not be your brother’s keeper, but you should be his support system, his conscience when he needs it, his collective memory.”

He made a sound that seemed to embody all the skepticism Grace had heard from her sisters for years. They accused her of placing altruistic values on a way of life she only knew from fables and lore.

She turned the steering wheel harder than necessary and punched the gas to zip across traffic into the back entrance of the casino parking lot.

“Family means everything to the Romani,” she said, tired of constantly defending herself and her heritage. “And because of what my ancestors suffered and what my parents and grandparents went through, I have an advantage. I don’t
expect
the government to do anything to improve my life. If I want to make things better for my family, I have to do it myself.”

She pulled into the parking space Charles had provided her in his underground lot. In the desert, shade was a privilege that usually came at a price. She turned off the engine. “This won’t take long. Do you want to wait here?”

“Hell, no. This is my first time…in a real Las Vegas casino,” he said.

Was that a tiny bit of humor beneath his deadpan demeanor? Grace hoped not. He would be easier to take if she could fit him into a neat little box labeled: rude, self-absorbed, jerk—who was occasionally nice to old women.

She glanced at her watch. “Xanadu isn’t much of a casino by Strip standards, but there’s a bar, if you’re still on Detroit time,” she added with a smile to show that she was over her snit. “But we only have about half an hour. Mother is expecting us at Romantique for your welcome party.”

“I’ll just follow you around. Don’t want to get lost.”

She laughed. “You won’t. Not here. If this were Bellagio or Caesars or the new Wynn, there might be a problem. Even I get turned around when I’m in the big casinos.”

They got out of the car. Without any prodding on her part, Nikolai took off his leather coat and chucked it into the back seat. Darned if he didn’t look just as sexy without it, Grace thought as she waited for him to join her. Black jeans that looked well broken in, a pale blue, long-sleeved cotton shirt that had probably started the morning well-pressed, and ordinary hiking-type boots with thick soles and red laces. Nothing special about his clothes, but on him, everything looked fine.

“Damn fine,” she muttered under her breath.

“Huh?” he asked as they walked to a door marked Employee Entrance.

“Nothing. I just realized how old and run-down the place looks from this angle. Of course, the place
is
old by Vegas standards. It used to be called The Shady Tree
Resort, but my dad told me locals referred to it as the Shady Lady because it was popular with hookers.”

He opened the door for her, and she recalled her granny once telling her that good manners could compensate for a multitude of faults.

She walked quickly to get through the hubbub in the kitchen. “The second owner built this addition,” she said, using her hand to encompass the building at large. “According to Charles, he was a moneyed gay man from back East, who had visions of Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome arising from the desert. He went bankrupt.”

She exchanged greetings with a few members of Charles’s staff, but in all honesty, she didn’t know any of them well. She rarely had time to visit the casino. She’d argued that putting her name on a parking space was a waste, but Charles had refused to budge.

“My partners have two stalls apiece. I’m entitled. If you don’t use it, I’ll park my boat there next winter instead of leaving it at the marina,” he’d replied.

Once they stepped into the casino, the atmosphere changed. No drab white walls. No hushed frenzy or smells of cooking food. Instead, there was noise, red brocade wallpaper, sparkling chandeliers suspended from a much-too-low ceiling and a faint blue haze of cigarette smoke.

To complete the tour she’d started, Grace took Nikolai to the main entrance, which led into a two-story dome decorated in tiny blue-and-gold mosaic tile above a fountain that consisted of four naked cherubs supporting a basin upon which rested two nymphs with long hair strategically placed so there was no need for parents to shield their children’s eyes as they registered
for their rooms. Lush ferns and corpulent goldfish completed the water element.

“Charles’s partners, two brothers who came from New Jersey right before the boom in the late eighties, bought the adjoining property and built the hotel,” Grace said. “It links to the main facility via a walkway on the second floor, which is where the business office is located.”

At the base of the escalator, she stopped and looked at him. “That’s the end of the docent-guided portion of your tour,” she said breezily. “My meeting shouldn’t take long. Shall we meet by the fountain in, say, twenty minutes?”

“I thought you said you’d introduce me to your boyfriend so I can ask him about a job?”

Grace was beginning to wonder if that was such a good idea. What did she know about this man? Nothing. Heck, he really could be a hit man.

Which, a voice in her head noted cynically, Charles might welcome. At dinner a week ago, Charles had vented at length about his frustration of dealing with his partners. Ralph and Walt Salvatore were the septuagenarian brothers who each owned thirty-four percent interest in the Xanadu. Notoriously competitive, any decision one made was immediately countered by the other. If Charles met Walt’s asking price for his shares, Ralph would ask for more.

“I’m not proud. I’ll do anything.”

Grace didn’t believe him. Nikolai carried himself with pride and self-assurance. Much like her father had.

“Well, I guess you could ask if they’re hiring.”

They rode up the moving stairway without speaking. Grace covertly watched Nikolai scan the casino. He
didn’t just look, he took in, she decided. As if he might be called upon to testify about it someday. The thought made her shiver. Grace didn’t like law enforcement. Probably a result of her Rom background. If one looked back at one’s history and saw nothing but persecution from those in power, one tended to distrust governing bodies of any type.

“By the way,” she said, “for the record, Charles is not my boyfriend. He’s a friend, although he might become more in the near future,” she added without thinking.

Was it her imagination or did the temperature between them just drop a degree or two?

“What does that mean?”

His judgmental tone compelled her to answer. “Not that it’s any of your business, but my sister and I own a restaurant. She’s a chef. An amazing chef and we’ve done well, but I want to branch out. The Xanadu is close enough to the Strip that we’d catch tourist dollars if we opened an ultralounge here. Something hip and chic. Theme bars are big business in Vegas right now.”

She’d been arguing the pros and cons of this endeavor in her mind ever since leaving home for the airport. Her sisters might have legitimate worries, but Grace was certain the potential for success outweighed the risk.

“At the moment, Xanadu’s coffee shop is more like Xanadon’t,” she said. “But with the right decor—something popping, sexy, maybe a little dangerous—we could attract a younger crowd. That means big bucks. The under-thirties drive this market, and I want a piece of it.”

When she’d floated her idea past Charles, the con
cept had been just starting to take shape in her mind. “I want to call it Too Romantique.”

“Ahh, very clever play on words.”

She tried to hide her blush of pleasure by leading the way through the glass doors marked Headquarters. Charles and his partners each maintained an office that included a private bathroom, a bar and a sofa that made into a bed. Not that Grace had ever heard of either brother sticking around the office long enough to need a nap. Charles lived on the premises in a suite on the sixth floor.

She opened the door and stepped inside. The waiting room was large and rather opulent. Grace never tired of studying the collage of black-and-white photos of old Las Vegas that hung on the walls.

“Hi, Grace,” a voice hailed. MaryAnn was at her desk, which always struck Grace as too modern. The chrome-and-glass ensemble matched Charles’s office furniture—the effect he’d been trying for, no doubt.

“Charles is busy at the moment. Do you want to wait?”

Grace motioned Nikolai closer. “No problem. MaryAnn, this is Nikolai Sarna. Fresh from frosty Detroit. Well, I’m assuming it was cold, given your coat,” she said to him, suddenly embarrassed. Did her observation reveal too much interest in him? “Um…MaryAnn will be your neighbor once we get you settled. She lives two doors down from Mom.” She turned to her cousin’s wife. “Is Gregor here today?”

MaryAnn didn’t offer to shake hands. In fact, she didn’t even make eye contact with Nikolai, which struck Grace as odd. “No,” she said shortly. “He’s working the night shift at the legal defense office in North Vegas. A lot of accidents happen at night. Someone has to be on call.”

She sounded upset, Grace thought, but she didn’t want to go into family business in front of a stranger, even if he was family. Sort of. “Will Charles be long? We could wait downstairs.”

“I’ll ring him and ask,” MaryAnn said.

But at that moment, the office door opened and Charles ushered two young women into the reception area. When he spotted Grace, he quickly scooted around the girls, who kept their chins down, making it hard to guess their ages. Young, Grace thought. Early twenties?

“Grace,” Charles said. She couldn’t tell by his expression if he was glad to see her or put out. “You’re early.”

He crossed the room to give her a peck on the cheek—his standard greeting. “Traffic was tolerable.” She heard her guest’s soft snort but ignored it. “Let me introduce you to Nikolai Sarna. He’s a distant relative, newly relocated from up north, and looking for a job. I thought maybe I could send him to Personnel while we talk. But if you’re not ready for me…”

Charles quickly shook hands with Nikolai then turned his attention to Grace. “I’ll be free in a minute. Just let me make sure these girls—our new maids—are squared away. Why don’t we meet in the coffee shop in ten minutes, eh?”

He started away but paused. “Oh, and MaryAnn can give you an application, Nick. She knows what jobs are open.”

He left before Grace could correct him. “Nick” didn’t fit this man at all.

She watched Charles escort the women away. He seemed inordinately friendly with the two. Not that she
blamed him. They were beautiful. Long, nearly black hair. Smoky eyes. Thin enough to be models, but they weren’t dressed stylishly. The two could be sisters, except they looked the same age and weren’t enough alike to be twins.

“Is it standard policy for the boss to meet with all new hires?” Nikolai asked.

MaryAnn glanced up from the file drawer she’d pulled open. After pawing through some alphabetized folders, she withdrew a sheet of paper and handed it to Nikolai. “They’re from Canada,” she said. “Charles needs to be sure there aren’t going to be any immigration issues cropping up.” Looking at Grace, she added, “You know what a stickler he is about following the law.”

Grace sensed some invisible reaction to that statement from Nikolai, but when she looked at him, he appeared to be studying the application. “Do you want to fill that out now?” she asked.

“You can fax it to Personnel. Or give it to me at lunch,” MaryAnn said. “You’re bringing him to Romantique, right, Grace?”

“Oh, yes. We’re headed there after I talk to Charles. Do you want a ride?”

“No, thanks. Luca has a short school day, and Claude wants to take him, Gemilla and Maya to the ranch. He can’t fit two child seats and a booster in the truck, so we’ll switch cars at Romantique.”

As the door closed behind them, Nikolai asked, “How long has she been working for Charles?”

“A year or so, I think.” Her mind was on the two young maids. Something didn’t seem right about them. “She used to be the girl Friday for a dry cleaner that
went out of business. For the first time since she and Gregor got married, MaryAnn was out of work. Normally, that’s what we say about Gregor. He’s a nice guy, but he can’t hold a job for love nor money. Charles hired them both, which was really quite sweet of him.”

“You think he’s a good man?”

Grace found his tone judgmental. “Charles
is
a good man. He was a friend of my father’s, and my father was a very good judge of character.”

He smiled for the first time and some kind of magic took place between his cheekbones and lips. Her gaze became fixed on the sexy slant of his mouth, the hint of even, white teeth. The rakish twinkle in his eye. She was so distracted she forgot she was on a moving staircase. Her heels snagged on the disappearing step. She would have fallen if not for Nikolai, who hoisted her to safety.

His hands remained fixed around her upper arms, as if to make sure she was capable of standing. “You okay?”

She pushed away too soon and wobbled drunkenly, but managed to stay upright. “Yes, thank you. I’m fine,” she said, starting off toward the coffee shop.

But was she? Grace wasn’t certain. She’d never in her life had such a visceral reaction to a man. Especially not with a stranger. Something about him struck her as too perceptive, too familiar. How that was possible, she didn’t know, but she planned to keep tabs on him.

A tough job, she thought, hiding her grin behind her purse, but somebody has to do it.

CHAPTER FIVE

N
ICK SLID
onto a bar stool to wait. Not by choice.

“Charles and I have business to discuss,” Grace had told him seconds after he’d caught her on the escalator. Nick had felt something flash through him—a warning, he was certain. Grace was trouble, he’d be willing to bet on it.

She was also intriguing. And it pissed him off that she was now shutting him out. Not that she didn’t have every right to. They barely knew each other. But even if Nick hadn’t come to Vegas specifically intending to get the goods on Charles Harmon, he would have disliked the man presently standing shoulder to shoulder with Grace at a table across the room.

But Nick had to admit, he could see how someone might be taken in by Charles’s patrician good looks. Just the right touch of gray at his temples. Thin but not scrawny. Rolled-up sleeves on a shirt that probably cost more than most cops made in a week. He exuded confidence and success.

And Grace had greeted him like a savior when he’d shown up at the doorway to the restaurant where she and Nick had been standing awkwardly, not saying anything. Nick had been tempted to apologize but he wasn’t
sure what for. He’d kept her from falling backwards off the escalator—and he hadn’t taken advantage of the situation. Although he had been tempted.

Women, he silently muttered, furtively glancing behind him to keep tabs on the pair standing with heads almost touching, as they pored over some kind of blueprints that Charles had brought to show Grace.

All flash, no substance. That was Nick’s gut opinion of the man. The first thing Charles did—after giving Grace a hug that seemed mostly for Nick’s benefit—was express his regret over not being able to attend the family luncheon at Romantique. “Tell your sister I was tempted to risk contempt of court for one of her meals, but MaryAnn wouldn’t let me.”

His secretary. The one married to Grace’s cousin.
Nick made a mental note to have Zeke run a background check on MaryAnn and her husband.

“What can I get you?” a husky voice inquired. The bartender, a buxom fiftysomething Marilyn Monroe knockoff in a starched white tuxedo shirt and tight black jeans, gave Nick an interested look.

He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the bar. “Tonic with a twist,” he said, laying a five-dollar bill just beyond the video poker monitor embedded in the bar.

“Coming right up.”

The bar was exactly what Nick imagined a 1970s-era Vegas bar must have looked like—a rolled-laminate-and-chrome countertop with a dark brown tufted vinyl knee well. Suspended overhead were cheesy chandeliers. The mirror behind the bar was mottled with gold flecks.
Talk about a candidate for an extreme makeover.
The only modernization that he could see was in the
form of the video poker machine in front of him. It looked state-of-the-art.

Nick wasn’t a big gambler. He’d tried blackjack and craps in Atlantic City but had never won. He eyed the thing, wondering how it worked.

“It takes dollar bills.”

Glancing to his left, Nick saw a tall, angular man in his mid-to late fifties leaning against the bar. His mostly gray hair was trimmed short the way Nick’s father used to wear his. Nowadays, Pete Lightner shaved his head. And looked pretty damn good. This man didn’t seem to have to worry about a receding hairline.

“I’m sure it does,” Nick said drily. “Probably more than I want to give it.”

The man chuckled as he sat down.

Nick glanced at the row of empty stools on either side of him and tensed. Was this some kind of pickup? Before he could discourage the stranger from crowding his space, the bartender returned with his drink. “And what can I get you this fine morning?” she asked the man, with a come-hither wink.

Nick gave the guy a second look. Ordinary. Clothes off the rack at Kmart. A navy windbreaker not unlike the kind the FBI used, except it was lacking the big yellow letters.

“Coffee, please. Black,” the man said.

A tingle of awareness passed along Nick’s spine. The man was a cop. Nick would bet his well-hidden Beretta on it.

“Are you a friend of Zeke’s?”

In profile, Nick saw a smile slowly wrinkle the side of the man’s cheek. His longish face reminded Nick of
a beardless Abe Lincoln, only with a darker complexion. Latino or part black, Nick guessed.

The bartender delivered the mug and picked up Nick’s fiver. “Both?” she asked, obviously assuming the two men knew each other.

“Sure,” Nick said. “Why not?”

The man lifted his mug and nodded his thanks. After a tentative slurp, he lowered the cup to look at Nick. “Not bad. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, but you didn’t answer my question.”

“Name’s Zeke Martini. Yes, like the drink,” he added in a tone that said he’d heard the unasked question a thousand times.

“Impressive timing. How’d you know I’d be here?”

“Had a tail on the princess for a week. She’s not the greatest driver in the world, by the way. Hope your life insurance is paid up.”

Nick chuckled to mask his surprise. He’d known Metro was interested in Grace because of her association with Charles, but he hadn’t realized they were watching her round the clock. Would that change now that he was in the picture? “We should talk.”

“We will. I’ll let you get your sea legs first.”

Zeke took another drink of coffee then stood up. Nick stopped him with his foot against his shin. “How do I reach you? Dial nine-one-one?”

“I’ll be around,” Zeke said cryptically. “Nothing’s happening at the moment. Unless you know what that’s about,” he said, nodding ever so slightly toward where Grace and Charles were standing.

The spacious—some might say cavernous—dining room was mostly deserted so the couple had relative pri
vacy in a sunny alcove with floor-to-ceiling windows made of glass block.

“I’m not in that loop—yet.”

“Positive thinking. I like that,” he said. With a nod at the bartender, he tossed down a couple of singles then walked away, melting into the labyrinth of tables, slot machines and gamblers on the casino’s main floor.

So that’s Zeke Martini.
Not quite what he’d imagined, but something about the guy reminded Nick of his dad. A cop thing, he figured. All job, no bull.

Staring into the distorted image of the mirror behind the bar, Nick tried to make out what was happening at the table in the alcove, but the only thing clear was Grace’s frown.

 

“A
ND
I
REALLY LIKE
what he’s done with the restrooms,” Charles said, pointing to a spot on the plans he’d unrolled. “Get this—the only lights would be in the floors and behind the mirrors. Sounds very hip, doesn’t it?”

Grace fought to keep her temper under control. Yes, this was exactly what she’d envisioned when she’d blurted out her idea last week over dinner at Aquaknox, her inhibitions lowered by a glass of primo Chardonnay.

Charles had appeared cautiously interested. Then, not a word from him until now when he shows up with a set of architectural drawings. Created with absolutely no input from her.

“What do you think?”

She stepped back, hands on her hips. “You tell me. Since you’re so good at reading minds.”

Charles’s head went up so abruptly a shock of dark auburn hair dropped across his eyebrows. He batted it
away. His long, classically handsome face took on a troubled frown. “Oh.” His eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, dear. I believe I let my enthusiasm for the project get away from me.”

His look of chagrin seemed real. Was it possible he’d simply been caught up in the moment? Grace had felt the same way when the idea came to her in the middle of the night.

The name, the concept, the location—everything about Too Romantique had made her giddy with expectation. Until that morning when her sisters voiced their concerns. Now, Charles was standing here practically gushing enthusiasm, and she was acting like a spoiled child because he’d taken her ball and run with it.

“I’m sorry, Grace. Really.”

His apology seemed sincere, but Grace didn’t like secret agendas. “If we do this, Charles, I expect to be more than the money man…um, person. It’s my investment, my idea and my sister who will be putting her reputation on the line.”

He nodded somberly. “Of course. You’re absolutely right. I should have talked this over with you. But you’ve been so busy with your family…”

Grace couldn’t argue with that. She’d babysat Maya two evenings last week and had filled in three afternoons at The Dancing Hippo when Alex was feeling under the weather.
But still…

“I appreciate the fact that this is your building, Charles, so you have final say in the remodeling process, but, let’s face it. Too Romantique is my baby. If it fails, you would still benefit from a badly needed face-lift, while I’d be out my entire trust fund.”

“I would never let that happen, Grace.”

Charles put his hand on her bare arm. His touch was cool and light. He wasn’t a hands-on kind of person, which Grace liked. Shawn had proven that touch could lie, and trust was easily abused. “I know this appears as though I usurped your brainchild, Grace, but, in fact, these plans weren’t something I commissioned.”

“Then why do you have them?”

“Well, I happened to mention your idea to the contractor who’s refurbishing some of our guest rooms. He was so impressed by what I described to him—all the things you’d mentioned to me—that he took it upon himself to put these sketches together on his computer.” He used his free hand to make a sweeping gesture toward the thick, bluish white paper. “Nothing is written in blood. You can mark them up all you want.”

Still feeling put out, Grace stepped back, ostensibly to view the plans from another angle. Normally, she felt comfortable with Charles occasionally holding her hand in public or even giving her a good-night kiss, but today, she felt an odd chill pass though her body whenever he touched her. The same feeling she got when she was out on the desert after sunset and the sharp cold of night first made its presence known.

“Well, I guess it’s okay to have the basic size and scale down on paper, but Kate would kill me if I green-lighted a kitchen that she hadn’t personally approved.”

Charles nodded. “I understand completely. Take these sheets with you and show them to her. Use colored pens. Sticky notes. Whatever works. But keep in mind that the more we stay within the existing parameters, the more we can stretch our money.”

Our money.
Grace knew Charles didn’t mean that the way it sounded. They weren’t a couple and never would be. If she’d ever remotely entertained the idea of a more intimate relationship with him, the possibility had been blown out of the water the moment Nikolai Sarna had rescued her at the escalator. Friendship was one thing; wild, unprovoked lust was quite another.

She looked across the bar to where Nikolai was sitting. The silver-haired gentleman in a windbreaker who’d occupied the stool beside him was gone. Probably a tourist asking how to operate the video poker game.

“Is he someone I should be concerned about?” Charles asked, apparently following her gaze.

Grace ducked the implication behind the question. “He’s someone I’m concerned about,” she answered, keeping her tone flat. “Another mouth to feed until he finds a job and moves out on his own. I don’t know what Mom was thinking when she invited him to stay with us.”

“He’s living at Yetta’s? With Kate and the child right down the hall?” His thin eyebrows pulled together, almost touching. Not his most attractive look.

The child?
He knew Maya’s name. Didn’t he? Kate had accused Charles of being self-absorbed and Grace had defended him, but maybe she’d been too hasty. “No. He’ll be staying at Claude’s, but I’m sure he’ll eat at Romantique and borrow Mom’s car and hang out in the backyard, like the rest of the family.”

Charles put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed supportively. “I’ve always admired the way your family interacts. Loud, robust, opinionated. Just like in the movies.” He smiled. “Not what I was accustomed to, but very entertaining.”

Grace leaned over and started to roll up the plans. “Yeah, well, togetherness can get old, believe me. I love my cousins, second cousins and sort of cousins, but this big-family/one-boat thing only works if everyone is rowing together.” She sighed. “And believe me, there are one or two who don’t even have their oars in the water.”

Charles laughed then gave her a quick, one-armed hug before she could protest. “Don’t worry, my sweet. I’ll take him off your hands and put him to work for me. Do you think he can mop floors?”

Grace looked at the man in question. Nikolai’s back was broad, his shoulders obviously well developed. He looked fit and capable. “I’m sure he
could,
but will he?” She shrugged, dislodging Charles’s hand.

“Let’s ask,” she said. A sudden, urgent need for fresh air sent her hurrying across the room. Too late, she remembered Alex’s warning, “Full-bosomed women should strive to glide.”

Nikolai turned when she was halfway across the room—prompted, she was sure, by some innate, male sensory organ that detected bouncing boobs within visual range. She saw his eyes widen appreciably.

Using the rolled-up plans as a pointer, she aimed one end at Nikolai. “Job interview. Don’t blow it. I’ll be in the car.”

She paused just long enough to tell Charles, whose long stride made gliding his natural form, “I’ll give these a look-see. Sorry about the lack of enthusiasm. You just caught me off guard.” As an afterthought, she added, “Don’t keep him too long. Mom would kill me if the prodigal cousin missed his welcome-home party.”

Still responding to an urgent need to be out of the
building, Grace left the restaurant, the word
kill
echoing in her brain. She had no idea why. She had enough on her plate without fantasizing about murder.

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