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Authors: Debra Salonen

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BOOK: Betting on Grace
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She dashed up the sidewalk and opened the screen, which was made of lightweight metal. The front door was solid wood, but the varnish was peeling.

She knocked once then walked inside. “Hello,” she called. The small, square foyer was dark, thanks to walnut paneling. Family photos of Claude’s three sons oc
cupied one wall, with a couple of newer shots of grandchildren resting on a decorator table.

“You met Greg,” she said, pointing to a framed photo of her cousins. “He’s the youngest. The guy in the middle is Enzo. He lives in Henderson. His daughter works for us at the restaurant. And Damon, the oldest, almost never leaves the ranch.”

The place smelled musty, like old smoke and laundry waiting to be washed. To the right, Grace could see the living room and kitchen. Both looked fairly presentable. She wasn’t surprised that the kitchen stayed neat since Claude took most of his meals out, either with his sons or at Romantique.

“Mom?” she called.

There was no answer, so Grace turned to the left. “Claude’s bedroom is at the end of the hall,” she said. “Mom thought you’d be okay here,” she said, opening the first door they came to. “The two guest rooms share a bath, but since you’re his only company at the moment, you can pretty much make yourself at home.”

She stepped back to let Nikolai pass into the room. His arm brushed against her shoulder and she sucked in a breath to make sure that was the only part of her body that made contact. He glanced sideways as if reading her reaction all too clearly.

“I, uh, hope you’ll be comfortable here.”

Grace looked around the room. A brown tweed rocker. A double bed that looked inches too short to accommodate Nikolai’s frame. Generic tan carpet and a couple of faded posters Grace’s aunt had probably bought at a swap meet. The room didn’t fit him. She
closed her eyes and saw him standing in front of a bank of windows overlooking a green lawn where a young boy was playing fetch with a dog.

“Where’s my coat? It’s not in the closet.” Nikolai’s voice, which held a note of accusation, shattered her vision.

Grace blinked twice and took a deep breath to regain her composure. That hasn’t happened in a long time, she thought.
Was it real? Too much sun? Hormones?

“Well?” He was looking at her strangely. Could he tell she’d had a moment? The kind of moment she refused to talk about—even with her sisters.

“Front-hall closet,” she said, her voice not quite her own.

Grace had been nine when she’d first experienced the odd sensation of seeing a door open to a scene nobody else could see. Had she been with her mother at the time, Grace might have reacted differently, but she’d been at school. Her teacher had acted as though Grace were having some kind of seizure. The school nurse had been called. The principal had come in to frown at Grace. The word Gypsy came up in the whispered conversations among the adults who surrounded her. She’d decided then and there that whatever this was, it wasn’t a good thing.

“Are you okay? You went kinda pale all of the sudden.”

“No. I’m fine. But I have to go.”

He followed her to the door. “What about the fax?”

“What facts?”

“Your mother said you have a fax machine at the restaurant. Charles wanted my application back ASAP.”

Grace opened the door and walked out on the stoop.
“Oh. Well, sure. I can send it to him tonight, if you fill it out before I leave for work.”

His lips flattened pensively. “I might need a little longer. Gotta find a few numbers. He said he takes that sort of thing seriously.”

Grace didn’t know or care. She usually went with her gut when she hired someone to work at Romantique. “Well, drop it off later or we can send it tomorrow. I doubt if Charles will look at it till then. I seem to remember him saying something about some kind of banquet tonight.”

“And you’re not going?”

The question bothered her. Hadn’t he been paying attention when she told him she and Charles weren’t involved romantically? Or hadn’t he believed her? “Well, not that it’s any of your business, but Friday is Romantique’s busiest night. I very seldom take weekends off. Plus, lawyer things are boring and I’d rather stay home and give myself a pedicure than hobnob with Charles’s cohorts.”

He appeared surprised by her frankness.

Before she could qualify her snippy answer, which had mostly been to put him in his place—she actually liked some of Charles’s friends, just not the type that attended the annual I’m-more-successful-than-you-are dinner—a voice hailed her from the street.

“I’m glad we caught you, Nikolai,” Yetta said, tugging on her granddaughter’s hand. “Maya has something to say to you.”

When the pair reached them, Maya took a big breath. Grace could tell her niece was resigned to doing something she didn’t relish. Grace hid a smile.

Dark curls screening her face, Maya stared at the ground and said, “Sorry, Mr. Nick.”

To Grace’s surprise, Nikolai moved closer and knelt beside the little girl, who’d plastered herself against her grandmother’s leg after delivering her apology. Nikolai touched his finger to her tiny chin and made her look at him.

“Apology accepted. As long as you promise never to do that again. What you and Luca and Gemilla did could get you in a lot of trouble. I wouldn’t want to see that happen, okay?”

Grace was impressed that Nikolai got all three children’s names right.

“Mom, we both know Maya wasn’t behind this little stunt. Did you talk to Claude about not teaching them any more tricks?”

“Of course,” Yetta said, “but you know your uncle.”

Grace’s phone rang. She wasn’t done talking about the subject, so she ignored it. “Nikolai is right. What if they’d tried that on a stranger? They could—”

“Auntie Grace,” Maya said, interrupting. “It’s Mommy. And I need to talk to her. Please?”

Grace looked at the incoming number. Romantique. Her skin tingled. “Wow, Maya, you’re right,” she said, picking up the child. “How’d you know that?”

The phone rang again.

Maya rolled her eyes. “She always calls Grandma’s after school and we’re not there.”

So she called me looking for you.
Logic, not prescience. Grace felt her face heat up. Hopefully, nobody noticed her silly mistake. She glanced at Nikolai, who was grinning.

The phone rang again.

Grinning. As if he knew what she was thinking. As if he knew
her.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. This was not supposed to be happening. She could not—would not—be attracted to an unemployed ex-con with zero prince potential.

“Hello,” she barked, feeling practically choked by frustration.

“Jeesch. Bite my head off, why don’t you?” her sister complained. “I’m looking for my daughter. Where are you? When are you coming in? You can handle dinner, right? I’m taking the night off.”

Kate’s words sank in. “You’re what?” Grace exclaimed in shock. Kate never took the night off. Never.

“You heard me. I’m going to take Maya to Game-Works. She’s been asking for weeks.”

“But…who’s cooking?”

“Jo. I took your advice and made her our new assistant manager. I’d planned to tell you at lunch, but you split. Where’d you go? What did you think of Nikolai? Quite the hunk, huh?”

Grace blew out a sigh, handed the phone to her niece and lowered Maya to the ground. “I’ve got to get to work before your mother loses the rest of her marbles.” She glanced at Nikolai. Hunk, indeed. What happened to the hit-man theory?

 

J
UREK DEBATED
before picking up the phone to make a call. He was moving a bit stiffly, but outwardly there was very little proof that he’d been violated once again by a doctor’s intrusive explorations. He’d been released with a smile and the reassurance that all was well.

“Go home and relax for a few days, George,” his doctor had said. “I’ll call you when the lab results come back.”

Jurek wouldn’t hold his breath. He didn’t need tests to tell him he was dying. But he hoped to stick around long enough to make sure Yetta and her family were safe.

“Hello,” a cheerful voice said.

Jurek’s heart lifted in his chest. He loved and admired Yetta’s sunny disposition. She’d been through hell the past few years, but somehow she’d regained her spirit and her optimism. Except when it came to her youngest daughter’s affairs.

“Yetta. It’s me.”

“Jurek,” she cried. “Where have you been? I tried several times. I was starting to worry.”

“My battery won’t hold a charge. Haven’t had time to get a new one.”

The pause told him she didn’t buy that excuse, but she was kind enough to let it go. “Nikolai is next door at Claude’s. Do you want to talk to him?” She rushed on without giving him a chance to answer. “I have to say I’ve been picking up some interesting sparks between your son and Grace. Wouldn’t it be something if they wound up together?”

“I wouldn’t count on that, Yetta. From what I know about him, he doesn’t seem to be able to make long-term relationships work. He never gets too close to anyone.” Except his parents, he didn’t add.

Jurek found that comforting, but the realization bothered him, too. If he’d stayed in his son’s life, would he and Nikolai have spent time camping, fishing, hiking the trails of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as Nick and Pete did?
If.
A word that only leads to heartache.

“You could be describing yourself, couldn’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Why are you all alone, Jurek? Is it because of what happened to Alba and Beatrix?”

Jurek squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t believe she’d mentioned their names. No one had talked to him about the accident in more than thirty years. “Let the past stay buried with your sisters, Yetta,” he said, his tone harsh.

“I would, but I don’t think that’s healthy.”

The irony of her statement wasn’t lost on him. “Perhaps not, but I’m fit as a violin,” he lied. Just speaking on the phone had left him exhausted.

She didn’t say anything, but he sensed she didn’t believe him. When she spoke, there was a softening in her tone. “We can’t undo the past, Jurek. But what we do today can amend the future.”

His future was almost over, but he had one thing left to do. “Has Nikolai made contact with your serpent?”

A long sigh preceded her answer. “Yes. Grace introduced them on the way home from the airport. I believe Nikolai is planning to fax a job application from Grace’s office.”

She chuckled softly. “At least, that was the excuse he gave to follow her to the restaurant. Like I said, something is happening between them, even though they’re both pretending otherwise.”

Jurek thought about that statement after he hung up. Pretense had saved his life many times. Self-delusion had kept him from going insane after he lost his wife and son. But nothing was going to help him avoid what was coming. A reckoning. First, with his cousin and his son. Then with God.

CHAPTER NINE

“W
E’RE ALL BASTARDS
,
you know.”

Nick looked at the man sitting across from him. The two were alone in Claude’s kitchen finishing off a pizza they’d brought with them. Nick’s second day in Vegas had flown by in a haze of activity because kind-hearted Claude had taken it upon himself to show Nick around. The guided tour had included four hours at Claude’s beloved ranch where Nick had met more family and lots of hirsute little horses. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not our fault. Happened long before any of us were born.”

Nick had hoped to use the time to pick Grace’s uncle’s brain, but that had proven more difficult than Nick could have imagined. The guy was either incredibly wily or a few marbles shy of a full bag. “Huh?”

“You’ve never heard the Gypsy version of creation?” Claude exclaimed. He stood up and carried the pizza box to the garbage can under the sink. “Pour us another toddy and I’ll tell you the story as soon as I get back from the little boy’s room. Damnable prostate…” His words were lost in a low mutter as he exited the room.

Nick almost groaned. He wanted facts not fiction, but talking to Claude was like reading one of his nieces’ Dr.
Seuss books—there was rhyme and some reason, but mostly fantasy. He picked up the bottle of port.

Claude returned to his padded captain’s chair and rocked back, resting his stocking feet on the cushion of the chair between him and Nick. “Let’s see…where was I? Oh, yes. At the beginning of time.” He took a drink from his tumbler. “Long before the universe settled down into its present comfortable pattern, it was a chaotic place, churning with energy and power. By combining forces, Sky and Earth managed to create a world, and their union produced five children.”

He lifted his chubby hand and rattled off the names starting with his thumb. “Sun, Moon, Fire, Wind and Mist.”

“Sounds like a rock band from the seventies,” Nick said, unable to keep the cynicism from his voice.

“It’s the story my father told me and his father told him. Your father probably told you, too, but you’ve forgotten. Bears repeating so you can tell your children.”

What are the chances of that?
Nick wondered. He’d never even come close to asking a woman to marry him. He’d had several girlfriends. Two had lasted over a year, but eventually they’d left him. And he didn’t blame them. He wasn’t the type to settle down and tell fantastical tales to his kids.

“Sky and Earth were happy, but even in the best of families, some children need more attention than their parents can provide. Such was the case with Kham, the Sun. He had big ambitions. He wanted to rise as high as possible so that everyone could see him and bow down to his glory. But at the same time, he was drawn to the gentle beauty of his sister, Shion, the Moon.”

“He could get arrested for that.”

Claude appeared not to hear Nick’s comment. He had his hands folded on his rounded belly and was looking at the ceiling. “Sky and Earth knew that this attraction was doomed, so they set the two far, far apart in orbits that would never meet. But Sun has never given up his quest to behold his beloved sister, so Kham chases Shion across the sky, day in and day out.”

“Sounds like a page from my love life,” Nick said drily.

Claude looked at him. His bushy white eyebrows reminded Nick of Andy Rooney. “What few know is that Kham and Shion got together once before their parents sent them away.” His tone was more resigned than scandalized, Nick thought.

“When Shion gave birth, her offspring were sprinkled across the earth just as the two lovers were cast into the sky. These were the earliest Gypsies, and like their celestial parents, Gypsy descendents became wayfarers who never stay in one place for long.”

“Really?” Nick said, smiling despite himself. The man looked so serious. “But I got the impression your family has lived here almost thirty years.”

Claude scratched a spot above his left ear. “Ernst and Yetta, yes. Ernst was an odd duck. Happy to stay put. Not me. I tried my hand at a bit of everything over the years. Construction. Ranching. Truck driving.”

He pointed to a framed photograph on the wall that showed a short, burly man in a ball cap standing beside an eighteen-wheeler. “Sold my rig to buy this place when my wife got sick. She needed to be closer to her doctors.”

“How long ago did your wife pass away?”

“Two years before Ernst’s stroke. Brain tumor. Slow
growing kind. Took her away piece by piece. When I visited Ernst in the hospital and he couldn’t talk…I thought the same thing had happened to him. I mean, what are the chances? I dropped to my knees and started to pray. No man should have to go through that twice in one lifetime.”

Nick took a sip of Claude’s nameless liqueur. It left a sweet but smoky taste in his mouth. He liked it. He liked Claude, too, he realized. Claude was the kind of uncle he’d once wished for. Jovial and irreverent. The kind of relative a kid could let loose with.

Too bad this shirttail uncle had picked the wrong man to work for. “So, Claude, tell me what I’m going to be in for if I start working for Charles….”

 

“A
ND
,
FOR THE BAR
, what if we tried something really off-the-wall, like mix your own drinks?”

“You’re nuts.”

“It was just an idea.”

“Well, it sucks.”

Grace was hurt. She’d come in early on a Saturday to talk with Kate, but her sister was in a bleak mood. From what Grace had gathered, Kate’s outing with Maya hadn’t been overly successful. “Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?”

“What’s bothering me is this crazy idea of yours,” Kate snapped. “I told you before I don’t think we should be talking about expanding right now. I don’t have enough time in my day as it is, and you’re asking for more. What am I supposed to do—clone myself?”

“Good grief. When did you turn into such a drama queen? Running a second place wouldn’t be that different
from running one if we hire the right personnel. Look at Jo. She handled the kitchen very professionally last night.”

Grace had made a conscious effort to observe the older woman in action. Jo had been serious, focused and formidable enough to scare the young servers, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She’d come through like a trouper, although after the rush, Grace had seen her sitting out back smoking, and her hand had been shaking when she put the cigarette to her lips.

“I’m glad you like her, but she’s only one person. To set up a new kitchen, I’d need an entire staff. How long has it taken me to get this place on its feet so I could leave for a few hours?”

Grace didn’t bother answering. They both knew the date of Romantique’s anniversary. Three years in September.

“Are we a fluke or a success? You’re the numbers person, Grace. How can you even think about risking your money on such a shaky record?”

“I’m not gambling on our record, I’m banking on you. You’re the draw here, Kate, and you know it. You’re too good for just one small venue. You have so much raw creative talent it’s scary.”

Kate swore. “Stop trying to stroke my ego, Grace. I know my limitations.”

“Your limitations?” Grace shouted. “You’re Katherine the Great. You may spell your name differently but you can do anything, remember?”

Kate glared. “That was before.”

“Before Ian? Forget Ian, Kate. He was a frog. All princesses have a frog or two in their past. We move on. Look at all you’ve accomplished since he’s been gone. This will
be one more thing that you can look at with pride and say, ‘So, there.’ When…if you ever see him again.”

Kate took a deep breath. “That’s the thing, Grace. A part of me—the biggest part—hopes I never see him again. I pray every night that when he gets out of jail, he takes off for wherever he was headed with his clients’ money, and leaves us the hell alone. But that means I will continue to be sole provider for our daughter. College. Braces. And maybe someday—sooner rather than later—a house of our own.”

Grace closed the gap between them and put her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I know you’re a teeny-weeny bit jealous about how close Maya and Mom have grown since you two moved home, but, sis, it’s not gonna be forever. I went through the same thing when Granny Beran came to stay, remember? She and I were tight as ticks, but my feelings for Gran didn’t change how I felt about Mom.”

Kate sighed and rested her head against Grace’s arm. “I know I’m being ridiculous for letting it bug me, but whenever Maya and I are together, all she can talk about is Grammy this and Grammy that.”

“That’s a good thing, sis. Pretty soon, she’ll be all about boys.”

Kate groaned and pushed Grace away. “You’re a pain. Listen, even if I agree to get behind this project, Mom will never let you invest that money in something so risky. Never.”

“She let Alex use hers to buy a house.”

“That was different. Alex and Mark…well, you know what happened. Mom and Dad didn’t want to see her lose the house. Not after losing Mark. Besides, property
is generally a safe investment in this city. But Charles is only talking about a lease, right? That leaves you vulnerable. Why are you really doing this, Grace? Tell me the truth. No bullshit.”

Grace hesitated. Secrets weren’t easily kept among four siblings. “Promise you won’t tell anyone. I had a…um…a vision. Sorta.”

Kate groaned and put her hand to her forehead. “I figured as much. Go on.”

“Plan A—Too Romantique is a smash hit and we earn back our investment in six months to a year. You make enough money to buy that house you want so badly, and I…”

Kate’s eyes narrowed. “And you?”

“I meet someone. The right someone.” Kate made a sound of pure dismay, so Grace quickly added, “It was hazy, but I had a sense of real need—on both our parts. I know it sounds crazy, but I did my homework, too. I promise you this imaginary someone is not the reason behind my plan. I’m a business major, Kate. I know how to crunch numbers and this makes perfect sense, given the economic climate at this time.”

Her sister didn’t appear impressed.

“If by some stretch of the imagination, our success is less than I’m picturing, we would still own the fixtures and our name. We could always sell the business and recoup most of our investment.”

“Maybe if we owned the building, but Charles and his partners own the Xanadu. Wouldn’t they have some say in the matter? There’s a little thing called a lease.”

Grace frowned. She had to admit she might have
glossed over certain details of this project. “If we make as much money as Charles thinks we can make—”

A crashing sound similar to the noise Grace imagined a gunshot would make ripped through the room stopping her midsentence. When she opened her eyes, she saw that her sister had thrown a fourteen-inch stainless-steel lid onto the floor.

“Listen to me, Grace. And listen well. You’re not Mom. And even if you were, we both know how accurate her mystical powers have been lately. I can’t believe you’d risk your trust fund on a crapshoot like this.”

Grace, who’d been sitting on the counter, hopped to her feet to face her sister. “But the money is nothing compared to family and happiness. I know how hard you’ve worked to repay what Ian took. You refused my offer to help, but you can’t refuse this. I’m investing in the future for all of us. And for Maya.”

Kate didn’t say anything for a minute, then she spoke softly. “I thought I was investing in the future with Ian and look how that turned out.”

Suddenly Grace understood. She should have known what was at the root of her sister’s unwillingness to take a chance on this project. Kate’s ex-husband had stolen more than money when he made off with his investors’ funds; he’d also robbed Kate of her ability to take risks.

“Kate, Charles isn’t Ian. I don’t love him and I sure as heck don’t trust him. Or any other man, for that matter. Not after Shawn cheated on me.” Grace knew Kate understood, but she still looked unconvinced. “If we do this, I intend to supervise every aspect of the remodeling and account for every dime. Yes, it’s a gamble, but I’m willing to take it.”

Kate let out a sigh. “Why now? Why can’t we wait a year or two? Maybe when Maya is in school full-time.”

Grace couldn’t talk about the feeling she had that something bad was going to happen. Partly because she and Kate both had reason not to trust feelings, and partly because she was afraid that by opening her mind to the dark omen, she’d somehow let the catastrophe take place. To change the subject, she said, “Speaking of Maya, you still haven’t told me how your mother-and-daughter night went.”

Kate snickered softly. “Turns out the daughter half of that equation had other plans.”

“She’s four. What kind of plans can a four-year-old have?”

“Heather—Damon’s youngest—is having a sleep-over birthday party at the ranch tonight. Mom insists I okayed it. If I did, I don’t remember. We spent most of our time together shopping for the perfect present. You know how much I love to shop.”

Grace gave Kate another hug then suggested, “So how about a real girls’ night out tonight? We could go dancing and scout out the competition.”

Kate smiled weakly. “Thanks. I know this sounds stupid, but I think I’m going out to the ranch to see how the party’s going. I won’t stay, but…”

“It doesn’t sound stupid. She’s your baby. I’m sure there’s room if you wanted to spend the night.”

“Why don’t you call MaryAnn?” Kate asked. “She’s home. I saw her car when I left, and she told me Gregor had to work late.”

Grace felt a sharp sting, like a bug bite, on her shoulder. She scratched it absently, frowning. “I don’t think
so,” she said. “She’s been acting kind of weird lately. I can’t explain it, but every time she talks to me, I get the impression her mind is somewhere else.”

Kate leaned over to peruse the plans. “Well, what do you expect? Gregor’s a sweetheart and a good father, but he’s about as reliable as a slot machine. Which he plays far too much, if what Jo told me is true.”

“What’s Jo got to do with Greg?”

Kate frowned. Grace knew she wasn’t one to gossip. “Jo’s son is relocating here from California. He was in town last weekend to close escrow on his new house. Jo took him to the comedy show at the Riviera. They bumped into Gregor. He was pretty drunk, and he told them he’d just dropped a bundle at the casino.”

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