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Authors: Debra Salonen

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BOOK: Betting on Grace
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“Oh, goodness, twenty years, at least.”

His blue eyes reminded her so much of his mother. Beautiful, sweet, reckless Lucille, but there was the wariness of Jurek, too. Jurek, who never took anything at face value, including Yetta’s love for him and his family.

“Ernst was forever bringing home wounded souls. Like a child brings a bird with a broken wing.”

“How’d they meet?”

“Through work. Charles was a young up-and-coming attorney with the firm that represented the casino where Ernst worked. This was during a very turbulent time when unions were making a push for inclusion in the gaming industry.”

Yetta could see him mentally comparing what she told him to what he’d undoubtedly read from some file.

“What do you know about his past? His family?”

“Very little. Charles has never been particularly forthcoming about his childhood. I’ve gathered he had a bit of a rough time. Ernst told me his father died when Charles was quite young. His mother remarried and had another child—a girl—later on.”

“Who paid for law school?”

“I have no idea, but Charles is a very smart man. Cagey, even. He knows how to work the system, and he is most astute when it comes to making the right connections.”

“How did your husband figure into this?”

“That’s a very good question. At first, I thought he spent time with our family because he was lonely. Alexandra and Elizabeth were beautiful—eligible—young women. But, in hindsight, I wonder if I imbued him with too much humanity.”

“What did your husband get out of the relationship?”

She could almost hear Ernst chuckling.
He’s a smart one, Yetta. You may have gotten more than you bargained for when you invited him here.

Or was that her imagination talking?

In her youth, Yetta had trusted the voices in her head, the visions that came to her. Her gift had set her apart, made her special. Ernst had revered her, called her his goddess, but after his stroke, the sight had failed her. She no longer trusted her instincts, which was one reason she’d asked Jurek for help.

And he’d directed her to this man, whom she didn’t know but to whom she felt an overwhelming connection. And she alone knew why that was.

Perhaps it was time to share her secret. “I was the third person to hold you when you were a baby.”

“Hmm. Now, about Charles’s connection to your daughter—”

“Your parents were renting a little mobile home on Mojave. I remember because Jurek always called it ‘Mo Jave’ with a hard
J.
He was teasing, of course.”

Nikolai didn’t appear interested, but she sensed that
was a front. “Your mother was working in a stage review before she started to show.”

“A stage review? Is that another name for a striptease?”

His snide tone made her angry. “No. She’d worked a razzle-dazzle show once, right after she moved here, but this was modern dance. Full of passion and grit. One reviewer said your mother ‘danced with her heart, not her feet.’”

He still looked unconvinced. “Dancers don’t get pregnant and have babies.”

“That is true of many, I’m sure. And I will admit your mother wasn’t thrilled when she found out she was expecting, but your father was over the moon. He was so proud. He thought your birth would make Lucy give up her dream of being a dancer.”

“Obviously he was wrong.” A statement, not a question.

“Lucy tried to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, as was expected of her. But the urge to dance was just too strong. She started doing exercises and fasting to get back in shape. Alexandra was just seven months old when you were born. I love babies, and since I was home anyway, I offered to babysit. What was one more?”

“Uh, double the work,” he said drily.

“Double the treasure. You were a perfect baby. Alexandra was as imperial as her name. From the very beginning she seemed to assume the rest of us were there to serve her,” she said, smiling at the memory. “But you…you were a gift.”

“I doubt that.”

“Don’t. You see, I came from a family that put boys on pedestals. My brothers were young gods. My sisters and I…well, it was different for girls. It’s possible I was
suffering from a little depression because I didn’t give my husband a son, even though he worshipped his daughters and always insisted that he preferred girls.

“When you came along, I could pretend that you were mine. That I’d had twins. I didn’t love Alexandra less—she wouldn’t have allowed it,” she added. “But I had you, too, to feel fulfilled and complete. Which is why…” She couldn’t say it. Even all these years later.

“Why what?”

“Why I did what I did.”

His eyes narrowed. “What did you do?”

“I…nursed you.”

“I was sick?”

She shook her head and looked at her hands in her lap. “No. You were healthy, but you weren’t gaining weight like most babies do. Your formula didn’t agree with you. You’d spit it up every time I tried to feed you, so I gave up trying. I had more milk than Alexandra could take, so I put you to my breast.”

He seemed surprised but not repulsed. “Really?”

Yetta took a deep breath and let it out. “I never told anyone. Even my husband. I was afraid it would seem wrong. That someone might say I was slighting my child in favor of another. A boy child. I might have even thought that myself, but you were so happy when we nursed. Alex…she ate because it was time. You…because you needed me.” She reached for his hand. “And I needed you.”

“Why?”

“You helped me get over my blues. I only had you for six or seven months, then your father lost his job. Although it was unheard-of at the time, he became a stay-at-home father.”

“You let me go.”

“I had no choice. I…I was pregnant again. I’d trusted my cousins who said that a nursing mother can’t get pregnant. They were wrong, of course.”

“I…I meant after my mother died. Why didn’t you…anyone…?”

“Come for you,” she supplied, knowing how hard it must have been for a man like him to ask.

He nodded.

“I did, but I was too late. Jurek went into some place no one could reach him after your mother died. Emotionally, I mean. He was in jail for another four months. And the whole time, he wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

She pictured her cousin when she’d visited him in jail. He’d reminded her of photos she’d seen of prisoners of war—hollow cheeks and dead eyes.

“I know he’s never forgiven himself for what happened,” she said. “Lucy didn’t drive and he’d been picked up for writing a bad check, so she had to take the bus to work. She’d just stepped out the door of the bus when some crazy guy ran the light and broadsided another car that struck her.”

Yetta remembered feeling overwhelmed by shock and sadness when she’d learned of the tragedy. “I was back east visiting my parents when it happened. By the time I heard the news, you were gone. Jurek ordered me not to search for you, but I did anyway. Maybe because you’d been adopted by a policeman the authorities were more tight-lipped than usual. It wasn’t until last week that I even knew Jurek had maintained a connection to you.”

“Why didn’t he ever contact me?”

“He said you were with a good family. You seemed well-adjusted and safe.” She sighed. “Maybe he was afraid you’d hate him, and perhaps you do, but one thing I know for certain, the past is part of you, whether you want to admit it or not. You owe it to yourself to meet your father.”

“He isn’t my father.”

She didn’t argue. He was right. She wasn’t his mother, either. She got up. “Nap time should be over at The Dancing Hippo and I need to pick up Maya. That little squirt brought me back to life, just as you did once. Babies are good for the soul.”

He didn’t refute the statement, but Yetta could tell he didn’t believe her. He would. Someday. She’d seen it in his future. But she didn’t tell him that.

CHAPTER EIGHT

G
RACE PULLED
into the carport beside her mother’s eleven-year-old Lincoln. “Dang. If Mom’s home then, no doubt, our guest is, too,” she muttered, looking down at her grubby jeans and work shirt that she still wore.

She’d hoped to get back before the party at Romantique broke up. Fortunately, her home was situated in the rear corner of her parent’s oversize lot. As long as Nikolai and her mother were in the house, Grace could slip through the backyard unnoticed.

Her 1950s era motor home was tiny, but it served her needs. The interior paneling was teak, the built-in features ingenious given the date it was manufactured. The only downside was its lack of insulation. Her father had used steel poles and existing trees as anchors to secure cloth webbing above it to provide shade. Liz likened the look to some of the bunkers she’d seen in Bosnia.

Grace had moved home shortly after breaking up with Shawn. She’d poured her heart and imagination into creating a haven that vaguely resembled the inside of
I Dream of Jeannie
’s bottle. “Too girlie,” her male cousins had decreed. Grace didn’t care.

She quietly closed the car door and unloaded her
gear. Still hoping her mother and their guest were sitting in the kitchen, Grace followed the flagstone path to the rear of the house. She was almost to the patio when she heard her mother’s voice.

She couldn’t make out every word, but Nikolai’s reply was loud and clear. “Don’t you mean stripper?” His question held a rawness that made Grace flatten herself against the rough stucco and slowly inch back into the safety of the garage.

She didn’t approve of eavesdropping, even if she was dying of curiosity. She closed the door and pulled out her phone. A few seconds later, Liz’s voice came on the line.

“Hi, do me a favor and call Mom on her cell and make up some reason for her to go into the house.”

“What are you talking about? Why don’t you call her?”

“Because I’m hiding out in the garage. She and Nikolai are having some big heart-to-heart and I don’t want to interrupt, but the only way to get to my house is past them.”

There was a slight pause. “I get it. You’re attracted to him and at the moment you’re looking less than stunning, but you’re too embarrassed to admit that.”

Grace let out a little yelp. “Nice call, sis. Maybe you
are
psychic.”

Liz snorted skeptically. “And you’re psycho. Just go back out there and breeze past. It’s something you do with flare.”

“You really think so?”

“Uh-huh. Now leave me alone. I’m busy installing my new dishwasher.”

Grace closed her phone and looked around. Liz was
right. Nikolai was going to be here for a long time, most likely. There would be times when she wouldn’t be at her best.

Squaring her shoulders, she opened the door and walked outside. She’d just reached the edge of the house when she heard Nikolai’s laugh, followed by a harsh growl. “So much for your powers of prophecy,” he said, his tone dripping irony.

“Hey,” Grace said, unable to contain herself. “Nobody talks to my mother like that.” She marched to the patio table where the two were sitting. A large ecru-colored umbrella protected them from the sun. Grace ducked slightly to get under it.

Nikolai sat at an angle to the table, one booted foot propped on his knee. Despite his casual pose, he seemed tense.

“You’re back,” he said.

Grace pretended to salute. “Yes, sir. Mission accomplished. No lives lost, although knowing my brown thumb there are no guarantees the new recruits will last long in the desert sun.” A powdery shower of sand drifted across her nose. She blinked and blew out a puff of air, sending her bangs haywire.

Her mother pulled out a chair for Grace to join them. “Hello, darling. Nikolai was worried about his belongings.”

Grace doubted that. Who would be crazy enough to take something of his?

“I dropped off his suitcase and coat at Uncle’s before I left.”

“For where?”

Something in his tone made her defensive. “I was
giving lap dances at the cemetery,” she said breezily. “It’s just something I do.”

Her mother made a tsking sound. “Stop teasing the man, Grace. He doesn’t know you, yet.” Yetta stood up. “After I pick up Maya, I’ll stop at Claude’s to make sure he’s prepared a room. He’s such a pack rat the place is always a mess.” She looked at Nikolai and said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Before Grace could say that she’d already checked on Nikolai’s accommodations, her mother was gone. Yetta took her hosting duties a lot more seriously than Grace did, so perhaps it was best that she sign off on Claude’s arrangements.

Instead of sitting down, Grace walked to the outdoor sink her father had built. She turned on the tap and washed her hands, using a little pink brush to clean beneath her nails. There wasn’t a towel, so she wiped her hands on the back of her jeans.

When she turned around, Nikolai was standing a foot away watching her. The sun was bright and Grace squinted, wishing she hadn’t left her sunglasses in the car. “How was lunch?”

His eyes didn’t seem bothered by the strong light. And they looked even bluer than she remembered.

“Best I’ve had in a long time. They don’t serve that kind of food in jail.”

Grace wanted to ask what he’d done to land in the slammer, but she didn’t want to embarrass him.

“I got in a fight. Put a guy in the hospital,” he said, his tone mocking, as if he’d read the question in her hesitation.

“Oh.” She couldn’t think of anything to say. She started to walk toward her corner of the yard.

“You’ve never broken the law, have you?” he asked. His tone was serious and contained an element she couldn’t quite define. Did he think she held his arrest against him?

“Actually, I once stole some nail polish from a drugstore. I’d left my wallet at home and I really, really wanted a new color of nail polish to impress this boy I liked.”

“Did you get busted?”

“Oh, yeah. Big time. Not by the store, but when I got home, Mom and Dad were both waiting for me.” She would never forget the look of disappointment on her father’s face. “I didn’t even bother trying to lie. Dad marched me right back to the store and made me replace the polish
and
pay for it. Then I was grounded for a month. I never broke the law again.”

“How did they know?”

Grace laughed. “At the time, I thought Mom must have seen it. You know, her second sight. But years later I found out that Dad had been in the pharmacy picking up a prescription for my grandmother when I came in. I was so intent on my crime, I never even noticed him. He waited until I left, then drove home. Since I was on foot, he and Mom had time to talk about how to handle the situation before I got there.”

He snickered softly. “Sounds like something my father would have done.” Apparently as an afterthought, he added, “He was pretty ticked off when I went to jail.”

Grace was curious about his adopted family. “Tell me about them. Your parents. Were they good to you? Do you have siblings?”

“One sister. My parents’ real child. They’re in the
process of moving to the West Coast so they can be closer to her.”

Although his tone remained blasé, Grace sensed some hurt feelings. Probably something he’d never admit. “Are you looking forward to meeting Jurek?”

His forehead wrinkled in a way that made her want to touch his face. “Who said I plan to?”

“I guess I figured that was the real reason you came. After all, you don’t have that look most newcomers have when they first move here. That giddy, we’re-gonna-hit-the-jackpot kind of look. But then when things don’t work out—and they generally don’t—many of them can’t take the heat, both literally and figuratively. They stay a few months, then move to Los Angeles or someplace on the Coast.”

“Like my birth parents,” he said under his breath.

“I guess so,” she said. “How’d you end up in Detroit?”

“Gotta live someplace.”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s okay.”

Grace laughed at his evasive answers. “If I’m being nosy, just tell me.”

“You’re being nosy.”

Instead of being offended, she agreed with him. “I know. My sisters claim it’s my worst fault. I doubt that. I have several contenders.” She resumed walking toward the path that led to her trailer but only took two steps before stopping. She turned to look at him and said, “Listen, I’m sorry about running out on you earlier. My family—God love ’em—can drive me crazy at times. It’s either split or blow up. I didn’t want to ruin your lunch. Which was great, right?”

His expression softened. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much at one time.” He pulled at the waistband of his jeans. If there was an extra pound of fat around his middle, she’d have had a hard time finding it. Although the hunt might be worth it, a devilish voice suggested.

Her cheeks turned hot. “Good. I’m glad. I have to get ready for work, but I’ll take you next door first.”

She reversed directions and led the way past the garage. It wasn’t the most glamorous route, skirting the trash cans and recycling.

“What do you do?” he asked, sticking close to her.

“Meet and greet.” Her mind was already racing ahead to what she expected the night to bring.

“Tell me more about your mother’s clairvoyance. Is that for real?”

The unexpected change of topic nearly caused her to swallow what was left of the breath mint she’d been sucking on. “Well…she’s had her moments.”

“What kind of moments? Like that John Edwards guy on television? Can she contact the dead? Can she tell me what horse to bet on? Or who will win next year’s Superbowl?”

Grace sighed. She’d tried over the years to explain her mother’s abilities to nonbelievers. Most remained doubtful, to say the least.

“Nothing so practical, I’m afraid.”

He waited for her to go on.

“A hundred years ago, Mom would have been called Puri Dye—the wise woman of our tribe. Even when Dad was alive, if someone had a problem, they’d come to Mom for guidance. Sometimes she’d warn someone
not to travel, like when my sister Liz was going to board a plane for Costa Rica.”

“Did it crash?”

“No. But it was delayed and she would have missed her connecting flight in LAX. Mom was sure something bad would have happened. There was no way of proving whether she was right or wrong because Liz took a different flight.”

His half smile seemed to appreciate the irony. Grace gave him credit for not laughing.

“But after my dad’s stroke, she didn’t trust herself anymore because…well…we were all blindsided when it happened.”

“Shit happens. Why should you get any warning?”

Outsiders had said the same thing in the past. Usually, she didn’t bother trying to explain. “Because we’re Romani. We’re different. We’ve retained access to a metaphysical connection that the rest of the world gave up and doesn’t trust. If we’d known about the stroke…”

His broad shoulders lifted and fell. “If I’d stopped after two beers, I wouldn’t have gotten in a fight and landed in jail.”

Grace had a feeling he was poking fun of her, and she resented it. “Listen, you don’t know what it was like around here before this happened. Dad was healthy. Robust. He wasn’t a candidate for a stroke.” She looked away, feeling tears beginning to prick behind her eyelids.

“We were all devastated, of course,” she continued after a few moments. “But Mom got hit the hardest. She not only lost her husband but all faith in herself. She’s just now starting to come back.”

“So who’s head of the family? Claude?”

Grace shook her head. “Uncle is a sweet man, but you saw for yourself at lunch that he isn’t particularly savvy about the world. Dad used to call him a throwback to another generation.”

She checked her watch. She had hoped to go over Charles’s plans with Kate before the kitchen geared up for dinner. Walking a little faster, she said, “Claude still believes it’s okay for Gypsies to bend the rules.”

“And he works for Charles.”

“Off and on. He does odd jobs to support his ponies.”

“Ponies? As in Thoroughbreds?”

“Ponies. As in four-foot-tall hay burners.”

His half smile sent flutters where flutters didn’t belong. She picked up the pace. “He puts on performances for children’s groups and lets classrooms visit his stables. It’s pretty neat to see the children interact with the pygmy goats, ducks, chickens, dogs…”

“He runs a petting zoo?”

Grace nodded. “Sort of.”

“He makes a living at that?”

“Enough to augment his social security and disability check. Dad used to say that money washes through Claude’s fingers like rainwater.” She ran the backside of her nails along the four-foot-high chain-link fence that outlined Claude’s small front yard. Instead of grass, Claude’s lawn was nickel-sized chunks of white rock held in place by bender board. Two elongated diamond shapes of red bricks encircled a pair of stubby-looking Joshua trees. “Fortunately, his eldest son has taken over the ranch and makes sure all the bills get paid.”

The home itself was a 1960s ranch-style, three-bed
room structure, with an attached single-car garage that was full of junk. Grace couldn’t remember ever seeing a car parked in it.

“What kind of disability?”

The question seemed a bit nosy, but since he’d be living with Claude, she answered truthfully. “He served in Korea. Got a Purple Heart. Has a steel plate in his head. When I was little, I’d tap around trying to find it.” Grace paused, picturing her uncle, who at times seemed as much a child as his grandchildren.

“Hmm. I knew an old guy inside who had a head injury from the war. Sometimes he’d black out for no reason.”

Inside.
Grace didn’t like the sound of that. “Claude gets really bad headaches occasionally. Mom treats him with herbs.”

“Your mother is an herbalist?”

Grace smiled. “The Romani traditionally lived close to the land and knew what plants held medicinal values. And Liz is a physical therapist. She went to India to study holistic medicine and hopes to open her own practice some day.”

Grace looked over her shoulder. She could almost see more questions forming. She gestured for him to hurry. “I forgot my hat and my SPF is overdue for a touch up. Come on.”

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