Prince Charming Undercover

         PRINCE CHARMING UNDERCOVER

Betting On Love, Book 1

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Four sisters named after royalty, with dowries fit for a queen. Their Gypsy fortuneteller mother predicted each would marry a prince…of sorts.

She’s a princess with more to lose than her dowry.

Las Vegas restaurateur Grace Parlier doesn’t gamble, but she’s risking her dowry on a new business with her late father’s friend because casino owner Charles Harmon has what she wants: location, location, location. The money may have been earmarked for a wedding, but everyone knows Grace has terrible taste in men. Look at the way her heart races every time her family’s latest Romani rescue comes close. But how could an ex-con from Detroit possibly be the prince she was meant to marry?

He’s a Detroit cop with no skin in the game—or so he wants to believe.

Nick Lightner goes undercover in Vegas for one reason only: to take down scumbag Charles Harmon. Does he believe Lucky Chuck is a human serpent threatening his birth father’s family? Hell, no. Nick knows who he is and where his allegiance lies. Certainly not with a sexy “princess” who makes the few drops of Romani blood in his veins run hotter than a winning streak at the craps table. His heart maintains a safe distance…until the princess takes a bullet meant for him, then all bets are off.

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CHAPTER 1 ( ©LONER LLAMA PRESS)

The noise level within the small, crowded detective quarters was almost enough to mask the sound of the land line, but the flashing light, which blinked in time to the pulse in Nick Lightner’s temple, caught his eye. The beat seemed to say, Going, going, gone.

The festive celebration was in honor of his father’s long and distinguished career in law enforcement. Today was Pete Lightner’s last day as chief of detectives in Clarion Heights, a Detroit suburb that Nick’s family had called home for twenty-eight of Nick’s thirty-four years.

In Nick’s book, “retirement” was a four-letter word. He’d seen too many good cops turn into couch potatoes just months after handing in their badges. From the minute his father announced his plan to step down, Nick had started nagging his parents to plan exactly what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

His nagging had worked. Just last week, Pete had announced, “Your mom and I have decided we’re through with Michigan’s winters. We’re selling the house and moving to Portland, so we can be closer to Judy and the girls.” Judy was Nick’s sister. His parents’ real child.

Nick knew that his adoption played no part in Pete and Sharon’s decision to move. They’d loved him and provided for him as if he were their own child from the moment they’d taken him in. They had every right to want to be closer to their grandchildren. In the offspring department, the best Nick—whose last serious relationship had ended nearly a year earlier—could give them was Rip, a five-year-old collie mix named after Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the Pistons’ star shooting forward.

In his head, Nick knew this move wasn’t about him. But the five-year-old inside him—the little kid whose father had given him away to a friendly cop after Nick’s mother was struck by a bus and killed—hated losing anything, from a silly bet to a major case. This tenaciousness worked in his favor on the job but was hell on relationships.

As was his habit, Nick hid his disquiet behind a short temper and withering scowl.

He picked up the phone and growled, “Nick Lightner.”

The slight hesitation on the other end of the line put Nick’s cop instincts on alert. “Oh, yes, of course,” a woman’s voice said. Unfamiliar, with just a hint of an accent Nick couldn’t place. “I’m sorry. Your name threw me for a moment. I’ve always thought of you as Nikolai. Nikolai Sarna. But you would have a new name, wouldn’t you?”

Tingles of apprehension raced down his spine. No one other than his parents and the attorney who’d handled the adoption in Los Angeles knew his birth name. He’d been Nicholas Lightner since the day before his sixth birthday.

“Who is this?”

“My name is Yetta Parlier.” The name meant nothing to him. “I’m your father’s cousin. Your birth father, I should say. Jurek Sarna. Most people know him as George. He was…is, I mean…my father’s sister-in-law’s nephew. That doesn’t really make him my cousin, I suppose, but he’s family, all the same.”

Nick’s mouth turned dry. He’d seen his birth certificate. His mother and father had been honest with him from the start about his adoption. Partly because they figured at five, he’d remember his past; partly because that’s the kind of people they were. Up-front. Honest. Responsible. Unlike Jurek Sarna and Lucille Helson, the ex-con and the exotic dancer who had given birth to him then handed him off to another family when things turned sour.

“I don’t know about your mother—I never met her—but your father was a Gypsy,” Pete had told Nick when Nick asked about his past.

“Romani,” Sharon had corrected. “I believe that’s the proper term these days. Linguists have proved that the Romani came from western India. The name Gypsy stemmed from a mistaken impression that the people were from Egypt.” Sharon was a teacher and never passed up an opportunity to share information.

Nick had no time for the past. He knew who he was—a thirty-four-year-old cop, no wife, no kids, no commitments. He lived ten miles from the house he’d grown up in. He loved his job, his dog and the Pistons. He had no interest in the hazy memories that crept into his dreams on nights when he’d had one too many beers.

He hadn’t given his genealogy more than a passing thought since his eighteenth birthday when his mother suggested they try to locate his birth father. Nick had turned down her offer to help. “He didn’t make any effort to keep me. He just handed me off to you. I don’t have any use for a person like that.”

A truly kind woman, Sharon had mentioned mitigating circumstances. “Your mother had just passed away. A tragic accident. I’m sure your father was reeling from the loss. Plus he didn’t have a home or job to return to after he got out of jail. Maybe he thought he was doing you a favor by giving you to us.”

Nick hadn’t even tried to see her point. A decision had been made. His father had given him away. Like leftover pizza. Like a stray cat that was too much work to feed. Nick hadn’t wanted to know this man sixteen years ago, and he didn’t want to know him now. He assumed that was what this call was about.

“How did you get this number?” Nick asked the woman who had waited patiently while he collected his thoughts.

“From Jurek, of course. He’s always had connections on both sides of the law that we don’t speak about. I could be wrong, but I believe he’s always known where you were.”

The very notion made Nick’s skin crawl.

“What’s this about?”

“I…I’m not sure that calling you is the right thing to do, but Jurek said you were a policeman. Normally, that would make you…um, suspect. We Romani tend to solve our own problems without involving law enforcement.”

“You don’t trust cops.”

“Exactly. But since you’re family—”

Nick’s bark caught the attention of his father, who was lifting a glass of champagne as someone toasted him. Nick waved to signify the call wasn’t anything serious. “Madam,” he said, lowering his voice for maximum impact, “I am not anything to you or to the man y—”

“Of course you are,” she said, interrupting him. “Just because Jurek made a bad decision thirty years ago doesn’t change who you are. You’re Nikolai Sarna. You’re Jurek’s son, which makes you half Romani. That blood runs through your veins, whether you choose to admit it or not. And right now, your Romani family needs your help.”

Nick started to laugh. The woman’s audacity impressed him. She sounded regal, as if used to giving orders and having people toe the line. “What kind of help? Money? I gotta tell you, I don’t make enough—”

“Don’t be absurd. I wouldn’t call a stranger and ask for a handout, even if I were destitute. The simple fact is my youngest daughter, Grace, is in danger. She’s considering entering a business relationship with a man who I’m convinced wants more than just her money. In my dream, he appeared as a snake that swallowed each member of my family whole.”

A dream snake? What kind of bullshit is this? Maybe it was some kind of prank, he decided. “Where are you calling from?”

“Las Vegas. Where you were born.”

He’d never denied the fact.

“On July twenty-ninth. At four in the afternoon. I was the third person to hold you. You had such fine blond hair, I thought you were bald. My girls all had dark black hair at birth.”

Nick looked at the people grouped around his father. The plan was to move the party to The Grease Monkey, a popular watering hole where Nick’s mother and the other spouses would meet them. He wasn’t in the mood for a party, but at the moment it sounded better than this nonsense. “Yes, well, that’s very interesting, but I’m a cop, not an exterminator and your…um, snake…is two thousand miles away from here.”

His sarcasm must have come through loud and clear. She said haughtily, “Jurek warned me not to expect your cooperation. I thought twice about calling you, but in addition to this matter of Charles Harmon…”

Charles Harmon? How do I know that name?

“…a mutual friend told me that your father is entering the hospital next week for an operation. I’m sure Jurek would rather you didn’t know that, but I learned the hard way that it’s much healthier to clear up unresolved issues before a person dies than wait until it’s—”

Nick sat up abruptly. His feet hit the floor with a snap that made several heads turn his way. “Did you say Charles Harmon?”

He pawed through the files on his desk for a fax that had come through a day or two earlier from his counterpart in Toronto.

“Yes. Grace insists he’s just a friend…and, to be fair, he was my husband’s lawyer when Kingston was alive. Charles also helped me handle some financial matters a few years back. But he’s changed since he bought into that casino. And I’ve seen the way he looks at Grace—like a gambler counting his chips for some high-stakes bet.”

What was that alert about? White slave trade? A possible link to an international drug… “Ha,” he said, snagging the sheet from the middle of the stack.

The woman on the other end of the line made a huffing sound. “Well, if you’re not interested in helping us and meeting your father before it’s too late, then I’ll leave you with my good wishes and say goodbye.” She hesitated for a fraction of a second then added, “You’ve been in my prayers since the day I learned of your mother’s passing, Nikolai.”

The name rattled him, but Nick ignored the odd flutter in his chest. He quickly scanned the bulletin. “Wait. Hold on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t help.”

“Yes, actually, you did.”

Nick started to grin. “Well, maybe I changed my mind.” He couldn’t care less about his long-lost relatives, but a chance to nail a scumbag like “Lucky Chuck” Harmon was too sweet a gift to pass up. “Tell me more about your daughter and the snake.”

* * *

“Grace, Grace, Grace, tell me you’re joking.”

Three Graces. Never a good thing. When her eldest sister Alexa, short for Alexandra, started repeating herself, Grace Parlier knew it was time to change the subject.

“So, what do we know about this long-lost cousin of Mom’s—other than the fact that I’m supposed to pick him up at the airport in an hour?” Grace crammed a too-large wedge of Danish in her mouth. Nervous eating. Not a good sign. But that damn dream had her edgy and discombobulated. “Why can’t he take a taxi? Or call Uber?” she mumbled, chewing and talking at the same time. “You know what traffic is like in February. All the snowbirds in the northern half of the country have descended on Vegas in their giant RVs.”

Alexa reached across their mother’s faux lace tablecloth to grasp Grace’s hand before she could pig out on another piece of pastry. “Sweetie.” Her melted chocolate-colored eyes were filled with gravity and concern—a mixture Grace and her other sisters called Alexa’s preschool-teacher look. The combination always made Grace feel about five. “Don’t change the subject. No one is knocking your ambition, but you have to be realistic, too.”

“She’s right,” another voice said from across the room.

Liz, short for Elizabeth. Sister number two. A true healer, Liz was a physical therapist, who had regularly worked in poor and war-torn countries with WorldRx, an international medical team of volunteers. These days she had a job at DesertWay Medical—a small private hospital in Vegas.

“I can’t believe you’re even suggesting this. We’re spread too thin as is,” a third voice chimed in.

This came from Katherine, or Kate, as she preferred. Third-born, just two years older than Grace. Together, they owned Romantique, a neo-Mediterranean restaurant located in an upscale strip mall on West Charleston Boulevard. Kate, an accomplished chef, ran the kitchen; Grace handled the marketing and bookkeeping.

Not giving up on the hope of deflecting her sisters’ attention from her impetuous—and obviously premature—announcement, Grace said, “Delicious pastry, Kate. Did Jo make it? Maybe we should promote her to assistant chef. I know you’re finicky about who you let work at your side, but she does have a way with cream cheese.” She spoke so fast a bit of raspberry filling lodged in her throat, causing her to cough.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Alexa scolded, giving Grace a look designed to stop even the most fearless four-year-old in his tracks. “Besides, diversion isn’t going to work. You can’t casually toss out, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m thinking of opening a second restaurant with Charles,’ and not expect us to react.”

Grace knew that. She’d planned to share her idea in full once she’d ironed out the details with Charles, but his call this morning had left her wondering if she’d made a mistake by suggesting they could do business together.

Charles Harmon was an old family friend and Grace’s occasional dinner date. He was also a lawyer and part owner of the Xanadu, a small, shabby off-Strip casino where Grace had hoped to locate her new venture. She’d been in the shower when he’d called and he’d left a message asking her to drop by the casino to discuss her plan. Nothing in his tone could have been construed as ominous or threatening, but a chill had passed through her body as if she’d been dunked in Lake Mead in January.

“If you didn’t want our feedback, why’d you say anything?” Liz asked, filling the electric teakettle with water. Four sisters, four beverages of choice: coffee, tea, cola and whatever strange brew Liz currently favored.

“Because…well, because you know me. I have a bad habit of speaking before I think things through, right?”

Her sisters agreed with a combination of groans and sighs.

Before any could comment, she continued. “Last week, I floated an idea past Charles. Why not remodel the Xanadu’s ridiculous excuse for a coffee shop into a satellite operation of Romantique? Can’t you see it as a hip bar with an exposed kitchen where Kate could really show off her stuff? I even came up with a name for it. Too Romantique.”

Alexa and Liz, who were six and a half and five years older than Grace, respectively, exchanged a look Grace had seen many times.

“It’s a very clever name, Grace,” Alexa said. “But I have to go on record as being against this. I’m not comfortable with you doing business with Charles. There’s something about that man that makes me nervous.”

“Yeah,” Grace said, snickering softly. “We know. That’s why you set him on fire.”

The standing joke for years had been that their father, Kingston, had brought Charles home to meet Alexa, who’d accidentally dropped the cherries jubilee and singed Charles’s beard. Charles had been clean shaven ever since.

“I agree with Alexa,” Liz said, tapping her foot as she waited for the water to boil. “You’re talking major remodeling. That isn’t going to be cheap. Where are you getting the seed money? I know Charles is pretty well-off, but he does have two partners. Are they game for this?”

Leave it to Liz to ask the tough questions. Everything about Liz was functional, from short-sleeved denim blue shirt with a rainbow embroidered just above her name to khaki pants and thick-soled shoes. Her shoulder-length ebony hair was pulled back in a scrunchy.

She poured boiling water over several scoops of some greenish powder resting in the bottom of a juice glass. Grace didn’t bother asking what medicinal properties the concoction contained. Liz went through health fads the way some people did diets.

“Well…” Grace said, stalling. “That particular issue didn’t come up. But since I’m the one who brought the idea to Charles…I thought I’d ask Mom to let me invest the money in my trust fund.”

Alexa groaned. Liz choked on her partially swallowed swill. Kate let out a sound of pure disgust.

“Are you nuts?” they said simultaneously.

Grace felt her cheeks burn. “Like I said, this is just in the chatting-up stage. I tossed the idea on the table last week when Charles took me to dinner. His call this morning is the first I’ve heard back from him. Didn’t MaryAnn tell us he was wrapped up in some pro bono insurance claim business?”

MaryAnn Parlier, their cousin Gregor’s wife, had been Charles’s personal secretary for just over a year. Gregor, who was Liz’s age, was the girls’ paternal uncle’s son. In addition to being part of the family, Gregor and MaryAnn were also neighbors, living just two houses down from Yetta.

Liz blew out a sigh and turned to the sink to rinse out the green residue in her glass. “I can’t vouch for the pro bono aspect of his business, but I know we’ve been seeing a lot of referrals from Charles’s group lately at DesertWay Medical.” She’d joined the staff at DWM after her ten-month sojourn in India. “But you’re trying to change the subject again and it’s not going to work. You know what Dad had in mind when he set up the trust accounts.”

Grace knew. A wedding. As old-fashioned as it sounded, Kingston had always referred to the four trusts he and Yetta had established for their daughters as “dowries.”

“Well, none of you used your trust money for that purpose. Why should I?”

Alexa’s money had been earmarked for a wedding until her plans fell apart at the last minute. Instead, she’d drawn from the fund to buy a house and set up The Dancing Hippo Day Care and Preschool. Liz’s nest egg had paid for grad school, several trips abroad and the down payment on her house. Kate’s money had been invested—and lost—by her scoundrel ex-husband. Only Grace’s trust remained untouched.

“Listen,” she said, trying to sound businesslike, “Mom has final say on how I spend the money since she’s the trustee. I just thought I’d feel you guys out first. You know how distracted she’s been lately.”

“Boy, that’s true,” Alexa said. “I wonder how much of that has to do with our new guest.”

“Yeah,” Kate said after taking a swig of Coke, which, as usual, she’d tried to disguise by putting it in a coffee mug. “I have to say I’m not wild about some stranger moving next door.”

“Did anybody do an Internet search on him?” Liz asked.

“I did, and nothing came up. Nada. Which is probably a good sign, right? But I still don’t know why I’m the one picking him up,” Grace said, relieved that the focus of conversation had finally shifted away from her obviously unpopular declaration.

They might not approve of her idea, but, at least, she’d managed to keep mum about the weird dreams she’d been having lately. Talk about disturbing. In one, a sinkhole opened up in the street and was slowly swallowing the entire neighborhood. Grace was frantically trying to talk Kate out of her car, which was slipping trunk first, down the hole, when a stranger grabbed Grace from behind and pulled her to safety. She’d awoken, heart pumping and breathless—not because of the catastrophe but because of the stranger. She came from a long line of Gypsy fortune-tellers and she knew one thing: Strangers were never a good omen.

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