Ivan (her russian protec.., p.3
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       Ivan (Her Russian Protector #1), p.3
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         Part #1 of Her Russian Protector series by Roxie Rivera
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  Chapter Two

  A few hours later, I climbed out of my car and bumped the door closed with my hip. I glanced around the parking lot of the grocery store and hit the lock button on my key fob. Since leaving the gym, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being followed. I'd said the same thing to Lena when she'd dropped me off at my apartment and she'd looked at me like I was a total loon—but I don't know. Something didn't feel right.

  Even after scanning the well-lit parking lot of the supermarket twice, I didn't see anything. Maybe Lena was right. Maybe I was losing it.

  Though I still couldn’t stop thinking about Ruby, I had to keep living. That meant working and eating. I had the weekend off thankfully but my fridge was totally empty and the pantry shelves were just as bare. The urge to stuff my cart with junk food overwhelmed me. Maybe I could obliterate my fears and worries with a super-sized dose of hydrogenated oils and carbohydrates.

  I grabbed a cart and pushed it down the first produce aisle. My purse started to sing and vibrate wildly. Recognizing the muffled ring tone as the one I'd assigned to Vivi, I stopped and dug around in my purse in search of my phone. "Hello?"

  "Hey! It's me."

  I smiled and rifled through my bag for the short shopping list I'd jotted down before leaving my apartment. "I know. What do you need?"

  "Just thought you'd like to know that Ivan was here earlier."

  "Here? Where? The Samovar?"

  "Yeah."

  "And?"

  "He met with Nikolai at the corner table," Vivi said, her voice soft and conspiratorial. No doubt she was hiding in a linen closet or bathroom stall at the restaurant to make her secret phone call. "I couldn't hear everything. They only wanted tea so I came to the table twice and that was it. I heard your name a few times and Andrei's." She paused. "Nikolai wasn't happy and Ivan left pretty pissed off, Erin."

  My stomach flip-flopped. "You're sure?"

  "Oh yeah. It's that look they get in their eyes. Cold, you know? Just be careful, Erin."

  "I will."

  "Why don't you come stay with me and Lena tonight? We'll feel better if you're safe at our place."

  "I'm fine, Vivi. Stop worrying. You're going to give yourself an ulcer." I pushed my cart forward. "I'm buying groceries and heading home. That's it."

  "Text me when you're safe inside your apartment, okay?"

  I rolled my eyes. "Yeah. Okay. I'll talk to you later."

  "Bye."

  "Bye." I dropped my phone back into my purse and finished my shopping. The store wasn't very busy but there were only a handful of checkout lanes open. I ended up four carts back and smack dab in the middle of the magazine aisle. A home decorating magazine caught my eye. I flipped through the pages of gorgeous interiors and lusted after the beautiful homes. The small two room apartment I shared with Ruby would fit in most of the sumptuously photographed kitchens.

  My cell phone started rattling around in my purse again. Certain it was Vivi calling to see why I hadn't texted her yet, I jabbed my hand in my bag and swiped my finger across the screen while bringing it to my ear. "Look, Vivi, I'm still in line—"

  "Erin!"

  My eyes widened at the sound of Ruby's voice. "Ruby! Where are you?"

  "Oh god. I'm in so much trouble."

  "Just tell me where you are." I pushed my cart out of line and left it near the end-cap of lighters and charcoal. I flashed one of the employees an apologetic smile and mouthed I'm sorry before rushing out of the grocery store.

  "I don't know. It's, um, it's a house. Andrei brought me here to hide out but he left this morning and never came back."

  My stomach lurched. Was Andrei dead? "Can you get to a window? Can you see anything outside? Maybe a restaurant or a building or a store or something?"

  "It's a street. Like a subdivision, I think." She sounded groggy and was probably coming down from a nasty high. "The house across the street is brick. The number is 16114."

  I tried not to get aggravated with her but it was hard to keep cool. "Can you see a street sign?"

  "Um…"

  I climbed into my car, locked the door and stabbed the key into the ignition. "Ruby?"

  "Harmony Fields."

  I scrunched up my face. "What? Is that the street name?"

  "There's a sign on the corner. It's limestone and wood."

  "The subdivision name?" I put her on speaker and Googled the name of the subdivision. The address was clear across town. "Okay. I know where you are."

  "My battery is dying."

  I cursed softly as I backed out of my parking spot. "Okay. Why don't you go ahead and hang up to save battery. I'll be there in fifteen minutes, maybe twenty. Just stay put."

  "What if Andrei comes back?"

  Even though I wanted to punch that rat bastard in the balls for dragging Ruby into his organized crime mess, I knew she wouldn't come with me unless I protected him, too. "I'll bring him back to our apartment. You'll both be safe there."

  "Promise?" She sounded so childlike and nothing like the big sister I'd once known her to be.

  "I promise, Ruby."

  "Okay. I'll see you soon."

  "Yes. Bye. Be careful." I dropped my phone into the cup holder and left the parking lot. My stomach knotted painfully as I navigated the early evening traffic. On a hot, humid Friday like this the clubs and restaurants would be packed. Vehicles jammed the roadways. I had to cross some of the busiest intersections to reach Ruby. My gaze darted from my dashboard clock to the windshield and back again. I prayed she'd be safe just a little while longer.

  But what the hell was she doing in that part of town? It was a middle-class neighborhood and definitely not one where I would have ever looked for her. Ruby might not have been abusing hard drugs like meth or heroin or cocaine but the places where she and her pill-popping, pill-snorting friends hung out and scored weren't very nice. They definitely weren't two and three hundred thousand dollar houses…

  My gaze flitted briefly to my rearview mirror. A black SUV followed me through a left turn. Paranoia gripped me. Hadn't I seen that SUV in the parking lot of the supermarket? I tried to convince myself that I was crazy. I mean, there were a lot of SUVs in Texas, right? But something wasn’t right about this one.

  As if confirming my worst fears, the SUV turned into the Harmony Fields subdivision and crawled along behind me as I searched for the right house. Did I dare park and run inside to find Ruby? What if this was one of the bad guys? Had I just led them right to her?

  Instead of stopping, I kept right on driving and picked up my cell phone. I dialed Ruby as I drove along the street to the end of the cul-de-sac. Spotting a for sale sign, I parked in front of the vacant house and pretended to be looking at the property. Why wasn't Ruby answering?

  I glanced in my rearview mirror. The black SUV drove slowly by me but I didn't dare make eye contact through my window. I kept my gaze fixed on the house and pretended to be studying it intently. The SUV made the turn of the cul-de-sac and turned off a side street. I waited another few minutes before putting my car in drive again and heading back to the house where Ruby hid.

  I found 16114 and parked across the street at 16115, the house where Ruby must have been. It was a small brick ranch house that looked innocuous enough. I twisted in my seat to check the street. Everything was quiet.

  Phone in hand and ready to dial 9-1-1 at the first hint of trouble, I exited my car and locked the doors behind me. Keys in hand, I suddenly wished I'd done what most of my friends had done on their twenty-first birthdays and treated myself to a concealed handgun class and a small pistol for my purse. A year ago, I'd never dreamed I'd find myself in a situation like this. Now I was silently cursing myself for not being more proactive. What if Ruby wasn't alone in there?

  My finger hesitated just above the doorbell. Should I? Uncertain, I tried the door knob and found it unlocked. Gathering my courage, I pushed the door open. "Ruby?"

  There was no answer so I stepped inside the house. Almost instantly, the ov
erpowering scent of chemicals took my breath away. What the hell?

  "Ruby! Where are you? Hurry up! Let's go."

  The fine hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I slowly crept across the living room. One glance into the kitchen and I had my answer to the strange smell question. The counters and table top were littered with empty bottles and boxes and equipment. Someone had been cooking meth in here. Small batches, it seemed, but just as dangerous.

  I shoved down the urge to throttle Ruby for pulling me into this nightmare. I wasn't sure how volatile the remnants of the drug-making procedure were but I didn't dare turn on any lights as I continued my snail's pace walk toward the rear bedrooms. There was still enough light from the setting sun to illuminate the interior of the house but I walked carefully.

  Worried she'd passed out or gotten high again, I had to check every room and closet and even under the beds. When she was high, Ruby often squeezed herself into tight spaces. I didn't understand it and probably never would.

  I came to the last bedroom in the house and spotted the hot pink phone she carried everywhere. The sight of used syringes, spoons and crushed pills left me cold. Ruby's preferred method of abusing oxy had always been snorting, especially the quick-release form of the drug. Now it seemed she'd made the jump to shooting up the pills.

  I picked up the empty bottle and used the last rays of sunshine streaming through the open blinds to check the label. The name I recognized as one of the aliases she sometimes used when doctor shopping.

  A few months earlier, she'd somehow managed to buy an MRI and took it to pain clinics around town for prescriptions. Even though I'd gone through her things dozens of times, I'd never been able to find the damn MRI. Not that it would have done any good. She would have bought another one or simply scored her pills from some lowlife street dealer.

  The prescription had been filled the day before and was already empty. Ninety pills gone. Had Ruby taken them all in forty-eight hours? Had she shared some with Andrei? Gut clenching so hard I couldn't breathe, I bravely pushed open the door of the bathroom, fully expecting to find Ruby passed out on the cold tile—or worse.

  But the bathroom was empty. I shoved aside the shower curtain and discovered only a filthy tub, the tile and grout so stained with mildew they were an unsightly greenish-black. I let the curtain fall and left the bathroom. Where the hell had Ruby gone?

  The second I stepped back into the bedroom I spotted him. A strange man, short and stocky, stood in the doorway of the bedroom. He held a very long, very sharp knife. Heart beating in my throat, I croaked, "Who are you?"

  "I should ask you same question." His accent sounded so different than the Russian I'd heard earlier today. Was it Albanian? I couldn't tell. "What you do here?"

  His broken English came through loud and clear. "I'm looking for my sister."

  He chuckled menacingly and took cautious strides my way. "Red-haired slut, yes?"

  I gulped in fear and backed into the corner. Ruby had recently dyed her normally straw-blonde hair a vibrant shade of red but she most definitely was not a slut. "Her name is Ruby and she's missing."

  "Not missing," he said, his vicious smile almost stopping my heart. "Just misplaced."

  "Misplaced? What does that—?"

  Heavy footsteps in the hallway interrupted us. In a flash of grey fabric, Ivan appeared in the doorway behind the man. He took one look at me and flew at the knife-wielding man. With the skill and practice of a man used to the hard life of the streets, Ivan expertly rid the shorter man of his weapon and tossed him into the wall. He popped the man twice in the temple and once in the nose, leaving him dazed and bloodied. The brutal strength Ivan displayed shocked me.

  As the man grunted and tried to climb to his feet another man ran into the room behind Ivan. I recognized the thin, dark-haired man from the gym. He spoke quickly to Ivan in Russian. Whatever he'd said, it wasn't good.

  Ivan grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him. His hand moved to my hip, the gesture simultaneously possessive and protecting. The sound of footsteps echoed in my ears. More men spilled into the bedroom. Hidden behind Ivan, I silently prayed that we'd make it out of here alive.

  "Ivan."

  "Besian." His fingers bit into the flesh of my hips. I didn't dare move. The man had just put his body between mine and danger. I wasn't going to do anything to risk his. "We were leaving."

  "I have business with the girl."

  "Not this one."

  The man, Besian, laughed. "You're the second person today to tell me to keep away from her. What's so special about this one, huh?"

  "She belongs to me." His words, spoken so cold and calm, shocked me. Belonged to him?

  "I see." Besian sounded surprised. That made two of us. "I have to ask her questions, Ivan."

  "Then you go through me." His voice remained steady as he delivered his threat. I wasn't sure how much weight it carried but apparently it was enough.

  "Hey, Ivan," Besian said with a nervous laugh, "we're old friends, yeah?" Ivan said nothing. "Look, we don't have to escalate this, okay? Just ask her how she knew her sister was here."

  "Erin, how did you know your sister was here?" Ivan's tone warned me not to lie.

  Voice trembling, I answered them. "She called. She said Andrei had abandoned her. She wasn't here when I arrived."

  "There. Satisfied, Besian?"

  "For now," the other man said. "You understand that Andrei and the sister are in blood with us now. If that debt isn't settled…"

  The man's threat hung in the air. The chilling words spilled over me and left me shaking. I didn't know what in blood meant but I figured it was bad. Really bad.

  Ivan didn't say anything. He simply grasped my hand and tugged me along behind him. His friend, the dark-haired man who had come running in to warn us, flanked me. The men kept me surrounded and safe as we left the house. I spotted four black SUVs parked outside and my small silver car in the center. One of the SUVs had two men waiting in it. Ivan flicked his fingers and the man in the passenger seat quickly came to the sidewalk.

  Ivan spun around and stuck out his hand. "Keys. Now."

  I could hear the anger in his voice and didn't dare tell him no. I slapped my keys into his palm. He tossed them to the man he'd summoned from the waiting SUV and gave him instructions. Still holding my hand, Ivan led me to the other SUV and opened the rear passenger door. He picked me up like a small child and dropped me in the seat. "Seatbelt."

  With shaking hands, I buckled up. The dark-haired man climbed into the driver's seat and Ivan hopped onto the passenger seat to my right. His annoyed expression didn't bode well.

  Vivi and Lena's warnings circled round and round in my head. There was no escaping the consequences this time. I was in big fucking trouble.

 
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