Ivan (her russian protec.., p.14
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       Ivan (Her Russian Protector #1), p.14
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         Part #1 of Her Russian Protector series by Roxie Rivera
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  Chapter Eight

  Five Weeks Later

  "We're having breakfast here?" Lena wrinkled her nose. "I'd hoped we were going someplace with mimosas on the menu."

  I shot her a knowing look. She looked rumpled and worse for the wear this morning. "I think maybe you had enough to drink last night."

  "I wish I'd had time to kick back a few shots last night," she grumbled. "This is exhaustion."

  "You're a PR girl for one of the hottest clubs in Houston," Vivi replied. "How hard can that be?"

  Lena shot her the finger. "That hard."

  I snorted with amusement and shoved open the door to the bakery/café I'd come to love. "Dimitri introduced me to this place. The breakfast tacos and pastries here are to die for!"

  "I'm not so sure about all these carbs," Lena said as she tucked her sunglasses into her oversized and ridiculously expensive purse. "I had to suck it in just to get into these jeans this morning."

  "Then maybe you should try buying jeans in your actual size," Vivi suggested. "No one else sees the number but you, Lena."

  She smacked Vivian's tiny butt and made her yelp. "When you finally get out of the toddler section, you can tell me all about buying jeans to fit a donkey booty."

  I laughed but gave the pair a hand gesture to tell them to tone it down. The patrons of Benny's bakery weren't the type of crowd who would enjoy talk of big butts and skinny jeans.

  As Vivian and Lena talked in hushed tones behind me, I glanced around the bakery. The Saturday morning breakfast rush seemed like good business. Most of the tables were full and the line to order was a decent size. Still, I knew from the little bit I'd pried from Dimitri that the place was struggling.

  I caught sight of Benny coming out of the kitchen area. She balanced a huge tray of pastries one hand. Back behind the counter, she handed them off to one of her employees and moved down the line. She noticed me and smiled. Her bright grin infected me with happiness. I don't know that I'd ever met anyone as spunky or fun as Benny.

  Before I could turn to tell Lena and Vivi about her, Lena made a strange sound. "Benny Burkhart?"

  Laughing, Benny hurried out from behind the counter to hug Lena. "Oh my gosh! How long has it been?"

  "Sophomore year at college," Lena said and hugged her back. "I heard you'd left school to help out with the family business. I had no idea it was a bakery!"

  "This is it." Benny motioned around the cozy place. "I'm going to school part-time now. I need two semesters before I graduate."

  "Good for you!" Lena shot me an annoyed look. "Why didn't you tell me Benny owned this place?"

  "I didn't know you two were acquainted."

  "We were in the same dorm freshman year," Benny explained. "We had a pretty good time together."

  "Hell yes we did!" Lena's skilled eye jumped around the bakery. "Looks like you could use some marketing and PR help, Benny. This is a good location but you're not doing nearly as much business as you could."

  Benny swallowed a bit nervously. "Those kinds of skills are expensive to hire."

  Lena smiled warmly. "I'm sure we can work something out."

  Benn looked surprised. "You're in PR now?"

  Lena nodded. "I work at Hillman & Crest where I do mainly night clubs and restaurants but I know I can handle this. Why don't we trade contact info…"

  When the line moved, Vivi and I left the two old friends behind to talk business. We placed our order and found a table. A short time later, Lena joined us with her coffee and breakfast burrito. She seemed rather excited about working with Benny.

  "Isn't this a step down from the usual posh places you promo whore for?" Vivian asked.

  Lena didn't deny it. "I won't do it on company time, obviously, but she's a really nice girl. It's clear she could use some help." She dumped a few tablespoons of sugar into her coffee and gave it a stir. Her gaze held mine. "So—how was it at the jail yesterday?"

  I licked some of the sweet cinnamon filling that had oozed out of my pastry from my finger. With a grimace, I said, "It was okay. Jails are creepy places."

  "Is Ruby doing well in treatment?" Vivi sipped her tea. "She's five weeks into it. That's better than she's ever done, right?"

  I nodded. "She was…difficult during our visit. I could tell that she's depressed and having a hard time facing the consequences of what she's done. Being high as a kite for years made it easy to mask all the wrong she was doing. Now it's staring her right in the face. She's trying, though, and that's all that really matters."

  Lena emptied a couple of creamer packets into her cup. "Has her lawyer finished hammering out her plea deal?"

  "She's going to finish the six months of mandatory in-jail rehab and do another six months in an extended treatment program at the jail. Twelve months total," I said. "Then probation."

  "Wow," Vivi said softly. "That's harsh but I guess she's just lucky to be alive."

  "Absolutely," I agreed.

  "Have you," Lena lowered her voice, "have you had any more problems with you-know-who?"

  She meant the Albanians and the Hermanos. "No, they've left us all alone."

  "Do you blame them?" Vivi asked. "Ivan put one of those guys in a halo brace and the other one had to have his leg rebuilt. I'm sure they're going to avoid you two like the plague."

  "Speaking of Ivan," Lena said with a lascivious smile, "how are things with your big Russian hunk?"

  My cheeks grew hot. "Very good."

  "Oh come on!" She practically begged. "Details? Please! I live with a nun," she gestured to Vivi, "and I'm stranded in a sex desert where there isn't one good penis to be found."

  Now my ears were bright red. I glanced around the tables surrounding us and prayed no one was eavesdropping. "Not here! Maybe later."

  "No maybe to it, Erin. I'm going to get all the juicy, dirty details from you."

  Vivi rolled her eyes and whacked Lena's arm. "Calm down! You're worse than a frat boy."

  Lena looked contrite. "Yes, Sister Vivian."

  I laughed as the two roommates and longtime friends pinched and smacked one another. When they were done with their childish play, they laughed and turned back to me. Both stared expectantly and I realized they wanted to hear more about my relationship with Ivan. I figured now was as good a time as any to tell them.

  "So—Ivan wants me to go back to school in the fall and work on my MBA. I was hoping to turn my part-time gig at the firm into full-time employment but they've made it clear they're going to downsize. I won't be kept on as an accountant. I was toying with the idea of going to grad school but it's so expensive. Ivan offered to help." I hesitated. "And he wants me move in with him."

  Instead of the cries of outrage at the idea of moving in so quickly with him, they both looked rather calm. Finally, Vivi spoke. "Well—are you going to?"

  "What? Go back for my MBA or move in with him?"

  "Both," she clarified.

  I chewed my lower lip and admitted, "I'm leaning toward yes on both."

  "But?" Lena asked.

  "But it's a big step, right? Moving in with him and letting him help me with school?"

  "Dude!" Lena gaped at me as if I were dumb. "The man saved your sister from two bloodthirsty gangs and fought off two armed dickheads with his bare hands! How the heck do you say no to that?"

  "She's right," Vivi agreed. "Look, I'm always the one who says be careful and stay away from guys like Ivan but not this time. I know he's not perfect and he's done some shady things in his past but he's reformed himself. He's a standup guy—and he loves you."

  I couldn't deny that. He hadn't said it outright but I wasn't blind. Ivan loved me just as much as I loved him.

  I put my head in my hands. "Maybe I'm just scared that moving in with him is going to ruin it. What we have is so special. I don't want to lose that."

  "You won't." Lena spoke with authority. "I'm not the sappy, lovey-dovey, fate type, you know? But when I look at you two? It makes me hope that someday I'll have someone like Ivan i
n my life." She paused. "Just without the criminal record."

  I threw a piece of pastry at her, whacking her right in the face. "Bitch!"

  She laughed and brushed the pastry onto the table. "I've got enough male criminals in my life. I don't need one sharing my bed."

  Lena said it with a smile but I could hear the pain in her voice. It couldn't have been easy to have a father who was known as the best fence in Houston or a cousin who was in and out of juvie and now working as her dad's protégé.

  "Sorry, Lena."

  She waved it off. "We can't pick our family."

  I smiled at Vivi and Lena. "No but I think we did a good job picking our friends."

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