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Authors: Debra Salonen

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A curtain of multicolored glittery beads and tiny bells did little to block the hum of voices coming from the enclave. Nick had yet to see the kitchen, but he could smell it. Garlic, basil, spices like cumin and curry made his mouth water so much that when he swallowed, his lips made a smacking sound.

Grace looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Welcome to Romantique. I guarantee you won’t go hungry.”

The twinkle in her eye made him want something more than food. Satisfaction. Completion. It had been too long since he’d partaken of that particular dish. And, he reminded himself, it was going to be a lot longer. He was here on business and couldn’t forget that.

The noise level within the room went from seventy decibels to two forks clinking the second Grace and Nick stepped through the curtain. He made a quick scan to get his bearings. Five round tables set in the pattern
found on dice. Six adults at two tables. Three to four people—with booster seats and a couple of high chairs at the tables closest to the door. An older woman with silver hair was sitting alone at the table to his left, but purse straps draped across the backs of adjoining chairs told him she wasn’t being shunned.

He concluded almost immediately that the man who had set this particular ball in motion, his father, wasn’t in the group. Not that Nick had been expecting to see him. According to Yetta, Jurek was undergoing some tests for an undisclosed malady and had been told not to travel—even sixty lousy miles.

“Okay, everybody, we’re here. I’m only a few minutes late…” Grace let the word trail as if expecting a response. She got one. Catcalls and whistles, a few stomped feet and jeers. She made a cutoff signal at her throat. “Yeah, whatever. If you want prompt, hire a cab. Anyway, here he is. Drumroll, please.”

Nick gave her his most withering glare, but it was wasted on her back. The noise level rose once again. When it stopped, thanks to a small but imperious hand gesture from the woman he guessed to be Yetta Radonovic, Grace stepped to one side and put her hands out as if ushering in royalty.

“Nikolai Sarna. Son of Jurek Sarna, who most of you know as George. Fresh from Detroit. Please introduce yourself to him, since…I don’t have any idea who you people are.”

She gave Nick a wink then walked to Yetta’s table and dropped her purse strap over a vacant chair. Nick started to follow but was forced to stop when the little
curly-haired angel, Maya, blocked his path. She had something in her hand. A hand-painted card, he realized.

“I made this for you,” she said, motioning him to bend down to see her artwork.

Nick leaned over to admire the bold slashes of color. As he pointed to a word he couldn’t read, he felt a tingle of awareness shoot through him. He glanced under his arm and spotted her two cousins standing very close, almost touching him. Odd, he thought.

Maya shook the card to draw his attention back to her. Nick looked back and that was when he felt it. Tiny fingers lifting his wallet from his pocket. The whole thing happened so fast he wasn’t even sure what he felt was real—until he checked.

He let out a loud noise—something between a hoot of amusement and a cry of outrage. Maya’s eyes doubled in size and her bottom lip disappeared. Her two cohorts started to run, but Nick’s arms were long and he couldn’t let them blow his cover. He hauled them up against his chest and stood up.

The boy cussed and kicked. The girl burst into tears. Maya threw herself at his knees with a loud wail and clung tight as a limpet. The noisy babble around him stopped. Chairs scraped against the floor as people surged forward to protect the children from a madman, no doubt.

First to reach him was a bulldog of a man about Nick’s age. Dressed in a white crew-neck sweater that emphasized the bulk of his shoulders and chest, the fellow was a few inches shorter than Nick. He might have made a formidable opponent if not for the slightly
glazed look in his eyes and smell of alcohol coming from his lips.

Grace, who’d been about to sit down, dashed back to where he was standing. “Take it easy, Gregor,” she said before turning to look at Nick. “What the heck are you doing?” she demanded, picking up her niece.

“Ask them what they were doing.”

Nick lowered the children to the floor and let them go. The boy, Luca, stared at his shoes. His sister ran to the woman Nick had met at Charles’s office. MaryAnn. Their mother.

“Nikolai,” Grace said above the ruckus Maya was making. “What…?”

Nick scanned the floor for his billfold. He’d read a travel warning about pickpockets in Rome. He knew that the standard MO included dropping the evidence if a score went bad.

He lifted the corner of a tablecloth and spotted his black leather wallet resting against the leg of the table. He stretched to grab it, feeling instant relief. His oversight could have blown this entire operation. He needed to be more careful in the future.

“Who knew I’d encounter a roving band of pickpockets in Las Vegas,” he said, keeping his tone light. “Bet they don’t talk about that in the travel brochures.”

Grace’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Her eyes went from surprise to shock to anger. She scanned the crowd, obviously looking for someone in particular. “Uncle Claude?” she growled. “This is your handiwork, isn’t it?”

A rotund older man with hair too black for his age stepped forward to stand beside his son. His jovial smile
didn’t appear forced, nor did he look the least bit abashed. “They almost pulled it off, didn’t they?” the man said, reaching out to tousle the little boy’s hair affectionately. “Good try, Luca. I could have sworn you’d gotten away with it. This fellow must have an extraordinarily sensitive butt.”

Claude introduced himself and Gregor to Nick. After repocketing his wallet, Nick shook hands.

“Or maybe this one has the gift,” Claude said. Increasing his volume as if giving a lecture to college students, he turned to face the rest of the group. “Everyone thinks that Gypsy women are the only ones with the sight, but, in fact, it was our forefathers who were the most intuitive.”

He nodded with obvious pride. “They were the first to communicate with animals. They were the original horse-whisperers. And many were in touch with the spirit world.”

“Don’t you dare try to change the subject,” Grace snapped after handing her niece to the older woman. “You taught these babies how to steal, didn’t you?”

Claude threw out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “It’s a lost art, Niece. Part of our heritage.”

She put her hands on her hips, eyes narrowed. “Stealing is not part of
my
heritage and you know perfectly well that my father would never have allowed this. He went to his grave trying to improve the image of the Rom in society and you’re doing your best to undermine that.”

“It’s only a game, dear girl. Good manual dexterity will serve these children well through life,” Claude insisted.

Nick almost smiled. The old man’s sincerity seemed
palpable. A couple of voices in the crowd obviously thought so, too.

“Cut him some slack, Grace.”

“No harm, no foul.”

Grace’s lips pressed together severely. She looked at the mother of the two older children. “Is that what you think, MaryAnn? Am I overreacting? Do you approve of your father-in-law teaching your children how to steal?”

MaryAnn seemed to shrink back from the attention. Now that she was out from behind her desk, Nick saw that she was about twenty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter than Grace. This made her pudgy but not unattractive, although compared to Grace and the two women who flanked her—Grace’s sisters, Nick presumed—MaryAnn looked drab and unremarkable.

“I…um…I guess nobody got hurt. It was a joke. Right, son?”

Luca nodded, obviously hoping to deflect attention away from himself and his sister.

“Gregor? What about you?” Grace asked.

Looking as discomfited as his wife, the man ran a hand through his closely cropped black hair and said, “Aw…Grace, you know Dad. He didn’t mean any harm.”

Grace pulled herself to her full height and turned on one spike heel. She looked at her niece, who was watching the proceedings with hands clutching her grandmother’s suit jacket. “Maya, I want your promise that you will never do this again. Taking other people’s property is wrong. Do you understand?”

The little girl nodded.

“Good,” Grace said softly, then she gave the child a
kiss on the forehead. A second later, she was gone. A word to her mother, a nod to Nick and she left the room, purse and rolled-up plans in hand.

“Is she coming back?”

“Probably not,” the woman he’d decided was Yetta said. “Grace’s heart is easily bruised, and she puts too much of herself into those she cares about. People like that are often disappointed when the mere mortals in their lives falter and fall. She’ll need to lick her wounds in private.”

Before Nick could say anything, a tall, thin woman with cropped glossy black hair approached him. She held out her hand. “I’m Alexandra. Welcome to the zoo.”

The next two hours flew by in a blur of names, faces, histories, connections and amazing food. Each of the four courses was served family style by waitresses in black slacks, mauve shirts and white aprons that came to their shins. Heaping bowls of salad were accompanied by platters of pickled beef tongue, a sampling of olives, the creamiest goat cheese he’d ever tasted and large rounds of chewy bread. Oxtail soup was next with an array of toppings, including cracked pepper, chopped chives and stiff chips of hard Parmesan.

The main course consisted of the best homemade fried potatoes Nick had ever devoured and a delicious stewed pork dish. Pasta primavera was the vegetarian offering. Dessert, which Nick normally avoided, was an airy sponge cake drizzled with a raspberry chocolate sauce that made him want to lick the plate.

“I swear that was the best meal I’ve ever had,” Nick said, pushing back from the table with a satisfied groan.

Katherine, whom everyone called Kate, stood in the doorway, hatless but wearing the standard black-and
white checkered pants and double-breasted shirt he associated with professional chefs. She was drinking a canned cola from a straw. Most everyone else was sipping high-octane espresso from tiny cups.

“I’m glad you liked it. Mom said we should have a typical Romani feast in your honor. Regular patrons get the same stuff only in smaller quantities.”

“You’re truly a culinary genius. I can see why your sister wants to open a satellite operation.”

Kate frowned but didn’t say anything. From the candid exchange over lunch, he’d discerned that Grace’s sisters had reservations about the new endeavor…although he’d gotten the impression they’d toned down some of their opinions about Charles because of MaryAnn’s presence.

Yetta had actually said very little but appeared to watch everything.

“So, what now?” he asked. “Since my ride’s left me stranded—”
And has my suitcase and gun.
“Do I walk the rest of the way? Probably wouldn’t hurt,” he added, patting his belly.

The women all spoke at once, and although Nick couldn’t follow every thread, Yetta seemed to have no problem deciphering. She rose with regal grace. “Alexandra, you take Maya back to The Dancing Hippo. I don’t believe her earlier behavior warrants a trip to the ranch. Elizabeth, you’re on your own when it comes to installing the dishwasher. I still think you should have paid the extra thirty dollars to have a serviceman do the work. And, Katherine, dear, thank you for this. It was lovely. I’ll remind Grace about payroll when I take Ni
kolai home. I’m sure she’ll be over her snit by the time we get there.”

After clearing her throat to gain the rest of the room’s attention, Yetta said, “Everyone, thank you for coming. Nikolai will be staying with Claude, so please do your best to make him feel welcome.”

Nick had been surprised that no one appeared to question his story and no one pressed for details of his youth. And, most surprising of all, everyone seemed glad to meet him.

He might actually have enjoyed himself if Grace had been there. Her absence disturbed him. He tried to convince himself that he was worried she might have run back to Charles. But he knew that wasn’t the whole truth. He found himself watching the door like a teenager with a crush, for God’s sake.

CHAPTER SEVEN

G
RACE BRUSHED
the potting soil from her hands and stood up, stretching her tired lower-back muscles. She used the sleeve of her mother’s faded cotton shirt, which she’d grabbed from the nail beside the gardening tools in the garage, to wipe the sweat from her brow.

“Well,” she said, stepping back to survey the results of her hard work. “Not bad for an amateur.”

Gardening was her mother’s forte, but Grace was the one who tended the plants here at her father’s grave. Which probably explained why she’d needed to replace the two rosebushes that bracketed her father’s headstone.

“Roses are one of the hardiest plants around,” the clerk at the greenhouse had told her. “Even in the desert it takes a lot to kill a rose.”

Somehow Grace had managed to do that. Maybe these two will do better, she thought, eyeing the leafy bushes skeptically.

“Okay, Dad, they’re yours, now. See if you can take better care of them than the last two, all right?”

She’d gotten into the habit of talking out loud during her visits to her father’s grave. Her sisters would have given her a hard time about it, but Grace found the one-sided exchange comforting.

She tossed the empty plastic containers into the gardening bucket she’d brought from home and set it to one side. “I suppose lunch is over by now,” she said, placing the rubber knee pad on the grass near the base of the headstone.

She sat down, back against the marble marker, and stretched out her legs. If she positioned herself just right, the back of her head rested against the silver dollar that was recessed into the headstone. Everyone had warned the family that they’d be inviting vandalism by putting money on a gravestone, but Grace and her sisters had voted unanimously to include the token. After all, one of their most treasured collective memories was of dancing for their father. He’d called them the Sisters of the Silver Dollar and had rewarded them with the big shiny coins he always carried. So far, no one had disturbed the Gypsy King’s resting place.

Grace looked beyond the neat metal and concrete column fence that encircled the cemetery. Traffic sped past on East Las Vegas Boulevard as usual. In the far distance, she could see the purplish outline of the mountains that surrounded the Vegas basin and a few man-made landmarks like the Stratosphere.

Surrounded by warehouses and busy streets, Woodlawn Cemetery was a small oasis in a not-so-great part of town. But Grace always felt safe and peaceful when she visited.

“I ran away, Dad. It was either that or blow up in front of a perfect stranger.” She took a deep breath. The wind, a ubiquitous presence in the desert, held a slight bite, suggesting a change in weather. “Well, not
perfect,
but he is pretty darn good-looking.”

She crossed her legs at the ankles and let her head rest against the stone. During the weeks following her father’s funeral, she hadn’t been able to visit his grave. The thought had been enough to make her physically ill, but eventually Yetta had coerced her into visiting. “Talk to him,” Yetta had said. “It’s good for the soul.”

“Will he answer?” Grace had asked, only half-teasing.

“If you listen hard enough,” her mother had promised.

And sometimes, he did. Whether the voice she heard was her father or her subconscious, Grace didn’t know. Or care, particularly.

“What do you think about Nikolai?” she asked. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable opening a home for wayward Romani. Was inviting him here a mistake?”

The sound of traffic was her only answer.

Grace had learned that no answer usually meant she was asking the wrong question. “Okay, you’re right. Forget that. He’s here. There’s no uninviting him. But can we trust him?”

Is he the one you’re worried about? Or are you afraid you can’t trust yourself when you’re with him?

The question made her eyes pop open. “For heaven’s sake, Daddy, I barely know the man. He’s not my type. I wouldn’t…couldn’t…” She felt her cheeks begin to heat up and she reached for her hat, but at that moment a shadow passed over the sun. She blinked rapidly then felt an odd shiver pass through her. Not a chill, but a tingle of awareness.

Someone was watching her. She sat up straight and looked around.

The cemetery was nearly empty. On the opposite side of the driveway, a handful of mourners clustered
near a freshly covered mound. A number of cars were parked along the side streets, but none appeared occupied. Feeling both foolish and unsettled, she gathered up her stuff to leave.

Her dad was wrong. Yes, she found Nikolai attractive, but she wasn’t attracted to him. And even if she was, she didn’t plan to do anything about it. Still, she was starting to feel guilty about abandoning him. Her sisters could be pretty nosy. The poor man was probably wondering what the heck had happened to her.

 

“Z
EKE
M
ARTINI
, please.” Nick spoke softly into the receiver of the pay phone near the men’s restroom. The family was starting to disperse, but there appeared to be nothing speedy about the process.

The operator connected him. Nick wanted to know where Grace went after she left the restaurant. Was she back at the Xanadu with Charles? He hoped not. His bags were still in her car. He had no reason to think she’d go through his stuff, but that didn’t keep him from worrying.

A recorded message instructed him to leave a message or call Zeke’s cellular number, which wasn’t provided. After the beep, Nick said, “This low-tech communication sucks. We need to talk.”

He replaced the receiver and turned around to find Yetta watching him. “What kind of secret police are you? Anyone could have overheard you. Come along, we’ll go where it’s private.”

Nick felt himself blush. He wasn’t used to being critiqued. “Do you know where your daughter is?”

She made a shrugging motion with her shoulders.
“Probably at the cemetery. She blows off steam by talking to her father. Well, to his grave, of course.”

Apparently interpreting Nick’s look of skepticism, she added, “Grace and her father were very close. After Ernst died—even before that really, because of the stroke— Grace did her best to fill his shoes. She was our rock.”

Rocks have been known to crumble. Maybe she’s involved with Chuck because she’s tired of shouldering the load for her family.

As if reading his mind, Yetta said, “Normally, that burden would fall on the shoulders of the eldest child, not the youngest, but Alexandra wasn’t well at the time. Elizabeth had her hands full handling Ernst’s rehabilitation. And Katherine was a young mother with a full-time job and a husband that—” she sighed weightily “—disappointed us all.”

Nick knew there was more to the story. Zeke had filled him in on Kate’s ex-husband, who’d waited until the family was most vulnerable then tried to abscond with the cash from Ernst’s insurance policy.

“We were all in pretty bad shape, but Grace not only took care of us, she opened this restaurant,” Yetta said, her tone filled with pride. “She’s an amazing young woman, and your suspicions are groundless, as you will see.” She held up a set of keys. “Shall we go? No doubt Grace left your bags at the house before she drove out to the cemetery.”

“What makes you so sure she’s not back with Charles?”

She smiled and a light he hadn’t noticed before in her eyes twinkled. It made her look younger. “I have the sight, remember?”

“I thought you said it was broken?”

She shrugged eloquently. “Unreliable on occasion, but I do feel comfortable saying Grace isn’t anywhere near Charles.”

 

C
HARLES STOOD
at the window of his office and watched the traffic below. The day had proven a challenge in every sense of the word. From an unsatisfying meeting with Grace to the usual teeth-grinding session with his partners. As MaryAnn had predicted, neither brother was impressed with Charles’s latest offer for their shares.

They’d agreed to think over the terms while vacationing in Hawaii, but Charles wasn’t expecting any change of heart. If the two didn’t start playing ball soon, he might be forced to take action of another kind. Accidents were common among the elderly, and something could be arranged pretty cheaply if one had the right connections.

A name popped into his head, followed by a face. Nick, Nicholas…Nikolai. Yes. An intense, edgy-looking fellow who definitely had something to hide.

Charles prided himself on being able to read people. He’d known the instant he met Ernst Radonovic that the man would prove an invaluable resource. To the world at large, Ernst had presented a model of honesty and propriety. He’d worked his way up to pit boss with one of the largest gaming consortiums in Vegas. During the great union wars in the mid 1980s, Ernst had been one of the few who’d been respected by both sides. But Charles had sensed the Gypsy King’s weakness—his family. And when the opportunity to make a little
money under the table came during labor union negotiations, Charles had argued that as a man with four daughters—and four tuition payments and four weddings to look forward to—Ernst had no choice but to play ball.

Charles had intended to take his half up front, but a politically ambitious district attorney at the time had been keeping tabs on Charles. Any sudden windfall would have brought an immediate investigation, so Ernst, whose gaming skills bordered on legendary, had claimed the entire amount as winnings—no questions asked.

Distracted by…um, personal matters at the time, Charles didn’t find out until too late just what Ernst had planned for the money. Four trust accounts in his daughters’ names. Charles had been furious, but Ernst—a most charming and likable man—had placated him with promises of larger profits down the road—when any hint of impropriety was gone.

Charles’s patience—and trust—had been taxed as first one daughter then another was given access to the money. His money. He’d finally confronted Ernst. Tempers had flared. Charles had snapped, and a pushing match ended with Ernst unconscious on the floor.

The only reason Charles didn’t let the old man die was the fear that he’d lose access to his money. He’d called 911 and Ernst had been rushed to the hospital. A stroke, the doctors said. Everyone assumed that the stroke had caused Ernst to fall and hit his head. Only Charles and Ernst knew that the “fall” had come first.

And Ernst, although he recovered to some degree, had returned home with no memory of the argument that had triggered his decline. Charles had remained close
to the family, never giving up hope of one day gaining access to the remaining money in Grace’s trust account.

When Grace suddenly suggested using the money to go into business with him, Charles had been so shocked he hadn’t been able to reply. The irony made him want to do a jig on Ernst Radonovic’s grave, but he didn’t dare show his enthusiasm. Yetta still controlled the account, and she was the one woman who made him nervous. There’d been times when he was certain she could see every black mark on his soul.

Speaking of black marks, he thought, grinning at his reflection in the glass. Wasn’t it time for another?

Lydia and Reezira, the prostitutes he’d “rescued,” were waiting in his suite.

He’d read about the plight of Eastern European Gypsies on the Internet. Many had fled to Canada, where the immigration laws were more welcoming than in the United States. Although these young women were accommodated, in some cases, their lot in life was not much improved over the hardships they’d endured in their native lands. Some turned to prostitution.

Charles had put word out on the underground that he was looking for healthy, ambitious young women to work in his casino. And he didn’t mean waiting tables or serving cocktails. He wanted women who knew how to pleasure men.

Once he was sole proprietor, he’d turn this place into a destination spot for people who knew what they wanted and didn’t mind paying for it. Prostitution was illegal, but there were loopholes in the system if a person knew how to find them, and Charles had always been good at skating past trouble on lies, diversion and
bribery. He didn’t expect to have any trouble once he’d cleared up two small problems: his blackmailer and his pesky partners.

But both headaches could wait till tomorrow. Right now, he planned to lose himself in a world that met his very specific needs.

“Hello,” he called, his anticipation growing. “Daddy’s home, little girls.”

 

Y
ETTA INHALED
deeply. For her, every breath was a gift. She’d struggled with breathing problems all of her life. As a child, her frequent colds and debilitating coughs had been shrouded with whispers and looks she didn’t understand. Until she’d turned ten. Then her mother told her the story of the fire that had cost their family so dearly. One daughter killed. One deformed and destined to die young. Yetta’s life had been spared, but her lungs had been permanently damaged.

Over the years, Yetta had slowly unraveled the threads of the story. An accident, for sure. But the person who’d shouldered the blame for it was Jurek Sarna, who had been just a child himself at the time. It broke her heart to think about the injustice done to him.

Now she had Jurek’s son in front of her. Nikolai. The person who would help her rid her family of a threat. But Nikolai was more than that. He was the only one who could bring peace to a man Yetta had long since forgiven. A man who believed he was dying.

“Would you like me to tell you about your father?”

The question obviously annoyed him.

“I know my father. He’s alive and well and recently retired from the police force.”

They were sitting at Yetta’s patio table protected from the sun by a large canvas umbrella that Nick had unfurled for her. Nice manners, she thought, but no trust. None whatsoever. Everyone was a suspect, including her.

Which meant Yetta would need to move slowly to build a connection between Nikolai and the very distant past. “You have questions for me about Charles, then?”

The change of topic seemed to surprise him, but he shifted position in the padded lawn chair and faced her, resting his elbows on the glass-topped table. “How long have you known him?”

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