Authors: Debra Salonen
Charles wasn’t thrilled to put another Radonovic relative on his payroll, but he had little choice. His life had taken an unplanned and complicated turn a couple of weeks ago, and if he had any hope at all of getting things back on track, he needed Grace’s help—and her money. Which, when it came right down to it, was rightfully his.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Supposedly my old man is related to Grace’s mother. I never heard a word from these people until last week.”
“Why is that?”
“I guess dear ol’ dad started feeling guilty. First about being in jail when my mother got hit by a bus and died. And then for simply handing me over to some other family. After all these years this Yetta lady calls me up and says my birth father is sick and I should come to Vegas to meet him.”
“So all is forgiven.”
“Hell, no. Would you forgive the bastard? But my job just got sent overseas, and ex-cons don’t get first pick at new jobs, if you know what I mean. So I figured, why not give Vegas a try?”
The man’s nasal twang almost made Charles smile. On occasion, he could draw up a Southern drawl from his childhood. Both his father’s cultured tones and his mother’s trailer-trash lilt. But he preferred to keep the past in the past. His father had been a weak, mewling man who picked drink over work and died before his fortieth birthday. Charles’s mother had been right when she said they were better off without the worthless piece of shit.
Charles would never forgive his father, either. He still remembered being in bed at night when his father would come home drunk and crawl under the covers beside him. Adoption would have been a godsend. But he didn’t say so out loud.
“What were you in jail for?”
“Bar fight. I got a temper. So sue me.”
Finally. A person with potential. Thank you, Grace.
Charles looked around the mostly empty lounge and restaurant. He detested having his name associated with such a seedy place. Ten years of refereeing petty squabbles between his partners, the battling Salvatore brothers, had convinced him the only way he was going to transform this casino into a viable, moneymaking proposition was by buying them out.
Unfortunately, the past six months had seen too much outflow of cash and not enough income. Start-up costs for his insurance scam had run over budget. The bribes alone had been ridiculous. Damn cops, he thought bitterly. And if Walt and Ralph didn’t pony up to the escrow table soon, Charles would find another way to deal with them. Grace’s money would cover his short-term needs, which included taking care of the person
who was blackmailing him. One thing Charles refused to do was touch the nest egg he’d squirreled away in the Caymans.
“You’ve got an application, I see. Fax it back and you can start on Monday. If anything you put down doesn’t check out, you’re history. Got it?”
“What’s the job?”
“Do you care?”
Charles laughed. “Tough. If you want to work for me, you’ll do what I say, and the fewer questions asked, the better.” He stopped abruptly and turned to look the man in the eyes. “You may have heard the expression ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ Well, the same thing applies to working for me. What happens on the job, stays here. Are we clear on that?”
“Sure. Whatever. Who am I gonna tell?”
The man snorted as if that was the last thing that would happen. Charles was good at reading people. He’d learned from a master how to discern a person’s weakness and make that work for you. Nikolai Sarna wasn’t easy to read. The fact bothered Charles, but he didn’t have time to worry about it. Lydia and Reezira, the Romani prostitutes he’d imported by way of Canada, were waiting in his suite. They were the cornerstone of his plan for an all-new, hip and pleasure-focused Xanadu. Too much money in the hands of twentysomethings who weren’t afraid to test the boundaries of their sexuality was right there for the taking, and Charles wanted his share.
In the meantime, he planned to make sure his girls didn’t lose their edge.
O TELL ME
Grace was trying to concentrate on driving. Unfortunately, her passenger kept distracting her—with his scent, his energy, his presence. She reached overhead to open the moonroof. Street noise intruded, but she found it comforting.
“Did you know more pedestrians are killed in Vegas than any other major U.S. city?”
“If I wanted a travelogue, I’d have hired a tour guide.”
“Just trying to be helpful.”
“Then help me out by telling me about the guy who just offered me a job.” He waved the form he’d brought with him into the car.
“I don’t know what kind of boss Charles is, but you can ask Gregor and MaryAnn. And Uncle Claude. All three of them should be at your welcome-home party.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw him frown. A big-screen, moody frown. The kind that could make a girl’s heart go bing-bang-pow.
I need serious help.
“So, you’ve never worked for him. I get that. But you know what kind of man he is, right?”
Did she? Grace thought she did, but two nights ago she’d had a really disturbing dream. Charles had been slithering through the tall grass of a swamp like a six-foot-two-inch python. Grace and her sisters had been camping, and he’d slowly consumed each one of them, headfirst. Grace had been the last. She’d been in denial the whole time, insisting that what she was witnessing wasn’t happening.
A blaring honk startled her. She made a face at the
rearview mirror. “All right, already.” The car lurched forward narrowly missing a man on a bicycle. “Do you know how many people are killed on bikes in Vegas?” she shouted at the closed window.
She quickly checked over her shoulder then shot around the guy with a UNLV backpack. She started to make a comment about student drivers, but when she looked at Nikolai, he was smiling. A real, honest-to-goodness smile.
Her mouth went dry and her fingers tingled on the steering wheel.
Good Lord, no. Not this one. Please don’t let me fall for him. How could I possibly turn an unemployed ex-convict who looks like a hit man into a prince? That’s asking too much.
Nick eased down in the seat of the small car, trying to get comfortable. He was determined to pick Grace’s brain before they reached the restaurant, but she kept changing the subject. Did she know about Chuck’s illegal activities? Was she protecting him?
“What did you do in Detroit before you lost your job?”
“How come you keep changing the subject? You won’t answer my question about Charles. You’re making me suspicious.”
“Suspicious of what? Charles?” Her laugh told him she found the idea ridiculous. “Oh, please. He’s far too…mainstream to do anything dastardly. He was a lawyer in a group practice that handled two of the largest casinos in town. He and my dad met while Dad was head of his union. I remember things being pretty tense around our house. Charles was interested in my older sister, Alex.” Her hair bounced across her shoulders as
she shook her head. “Like that match ever would have worked.”
“It wasn’t love at first sight?”
Her chuckle was low and sexy. She tapped the blinker. “Not even close. I was in high school at the time and I can still remember Alex giving Dad a hard time about trying to make an arranged marriage.” She quickly added, “Not that that’s what Dad was trying to do, of course. He just wanted the best for us. And when Alex started dating a guy who was a cop, I think Dad regretted not having picked her mate.”
“Cops and Gypsies…” Grace made a wobbly sign with her right hand. “There’s bad blood between the two, historically speaking. My dad grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. He had a pretty rough childhood and even got arrested once for something he didn’t do—just because someone said he was Gypsy. An early case of racial profiling, I guess you could say.”
Nick looked around. They’d crossed over a major freeway and were now in what appeared to be a newer neighborhood, blocks and blocks of two-story homes mostly hidden behind stucco fences. The architecture and landscaping reminded him of his last visit to southern California. Hummers and BMWs began to appear in the parking lots of increasingly upscale strip malls.
“We’re here,” Grace said, turning left on an arrow.
Contrary to the glitter and neon that adorned most of the storefronts they’d passed on the Strip, Romantique’s sign was simple and elegant. A flowery font with touches of ivy on a burnt gold background.
Grace pulled into the parking lot and drove by the
canopied entrance. Nick noted the lush plants and small marble fountain near the door. A sandwich-style slate announced the specials of the day, but he didn’t have time to read them because Grace whipped the car into a parking space at the rear of the building below a sign that read Bossy Person With Attitude.
Nick fought to keep from smiling. “Dare I ask?”
Grace’s sigh reminded him of his sister when their mother asked her to do something she didn’t want to do. “Kate’s idea of a joke,” she said. “Notice hers.”
A flamboyant rectangle with palm trees and a Hawaiian sunset read The Big Kahuna. The space was occupied by an older Toyota station wagon, probably from the 1980s. The sun had done a number on its once silver metallic paint job.
Grace grabbed her purse from the back seat, along with the rolled-up plans she and Charles had been poring over in the bar at Xanadu. “We’d better hurry. Kate’s not a patient person. She manages the chaos of a rush-hour kitchen better than anyone I know, but make her reheat something and…” She shook her head. “Well, just don’t.”
Nick opened the door and got out. He started to retrieve his belongings, but Grace rapped on the hood of the car. “Just leave your stuff. I’ll probably be the one to drive you home.”
He hesitated. His gun was in his bag, but he didn’t want to make an issue over a cheap suitcase. She didn’t wait to see if he complied with her order. With her back to him, Nick allowed himself a smile. He wasn’t ready to write off her involvement with Charles, but he couldn’t help liking her. She was bright, gregarious and adorable. She reminded him of Rip as a pup.
A puppy? You wish.
Grace paused beneath the arched navy-blue canvas canopy. “Brace yourself for total chaos. We’re a loud, noisy bunch. Always a dozen or more people talking at once. Lots of hugging and kissing. But, trust me, you’ll get used to it.”
Nick doubted it. Even holidays at his parents’ home had never usually amounted to more than four people, although that had changed after his sister got married and moved to Portland. Now, a family meal consisted of Nick and his folks.
He took a deep, fortifying breath as he followed Grace across the threshold into a lush, shadowy foyer that smelled achingly familiar yet looked totally unlike any place he’d ever visited. His mouth started watering even before his vision adjusted to the dim light.
The decor cried
Faux paint on the walls gave a warm antique feel. Broad-leaved plants in rusted wash buckets. Church pews upholstered in copper-and-green-striped silk.
“Auntie Grace,” a high-pitched voice cried with an excited shriek that reminded Nick of his nieces. Instead of the pitter-patter of little feet, he heard the squeaky thunder of sneakers against slate-gray tile.
Grace bent low to scoop a tiny munchkin into her arms. The child possessed a mop of chocolate-brown ringlets that framed her huge coal-chip eyes and round face. Nick felt something melt in his heart. His sister’s children were fair-haired, blue-eyed clones of Judy and her husband. They’d never really warmed to Nick, who was slightly terrified of them. This child smiled as if she’d known him her whole life, which was probably no more than three years.
“Maya, this is Ni-ko-lai.” Grace spoke slowly and distinctly. “Nikolai, I’d like you to meet my niece, Maya Grant. She’s Kate’s daughter. Can you tell him how old you are, Maya?”
“Four,” the child said, as clearly as an adult. “Are you my uncle?”
“No, I’m sorry to say, I’m not.”
Her tiny pink lips pouted prettily. “I need an uncle. Luca and Gemilla have two uncles.”
She made the deficiency sound just plain awful. After a heavy sigh, she wiggled free of her aunt’s arms. Once on the floor, she turned to the two older children who had followed her and whispered something. With a laugh, the group raced away.
“Hey, wait, I didn’t introduce…” Grace’s voice trailed off. To Nick, she said, “The other two are Luca and Gemilla. They’re Gregor and MaryAnn’s kids. Like I told you, they live on the other side of Claude’s house, so they’ll be your neighbors.”
“One big happy family, huh?”
She paused, as if considering his words. “Big, for sure. Happy? Probably no more or less than other people, but since we live in close proximity to each other, we’re privy to everyday ups and downs. Sometimes,” she said with a wistful air, “we know way too much about each other.”
Nick disagreed. He wanted to know more, but she didn’t give him a chance to ask. “Let’s go in.”
Nick did a quick check in his head—like an actor getting into character. Nikolai, not Nick. Sarna, not Lightner. Unemployed.
Oh, crap. My ID.
He’d forgotten to give his driver’s
license and police ID to Zeke. He’d needed the permit to get his gun through security and had planned to ditch the real stuff as soon as he hooked up with his local contact.
“Something wrong?” Grace asked.
Nick didn’t like it that she’d picked up on some involuntary signal. “Nice place. I like the ambience.”
She gave him a funny look then shook her head slightly and turned away. Nick’s
sense told him he’d need to stay on his toes around her.
He followed her through the main dining area, which seemed filled to capacity. A marked difference to the dining room at the Xanadu, he noted. Grace waved greetings and paused every so often to exchange a word or two with both patrons and waitstaff until they reached what he assumed was a private dining room.