Here’s the second chapter from NIKOLAI (Her Russian Protector #4)! If you missed the first chapter last week, you can find it here.
Though it took all the restraint he could muster, Nikolai managed to muscle down the urge to grip Detective Santos by the wrist and take him to his knees. Only Vivian’s presence kept him from showing her cousin how very much he disliked having a gun pointed in his face. He could appreciate Santos’ desire to keep Vivian safe but keeping the gun on him? That was the detective’s way of reminding Nikolai who stood on the right side of the law in this equation.
“Eric? Really? Lower the gun already.” Vivian came around the bar and into the living room. She unzipped her jacket as she walked and shrugged out of it. When she reached up to tug the fleece band from her head, the front of her shirt lifted up just high enough to give him a tantalizing glimpse of skin.
His gaze lingered longer than it should have but he couldn’t help himself. He tried not to be aware of her enticing shape in those slim-fitting tights or the way the criminally small shorts she wore barely covered the rounded curve of her ass—but it was impossible. She’d long ago ensnared him, rendering him completely helpless when it came to ignoring her nubile body.
Despite his best intentions to see Vivian as a little sister and nothing more, he’d failed spectacularly. Somewhere along the way, he’d fallen hopelessly in love with her.
Unlike Dimitri who swore that he’d fallen in love with his wife, Benny, the very first time she’d laughed, Nikolai couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment he’d fallen for Vivian. It had come upon him so slowly he hadn’t even recognized he was in danger of becoming impossibly entangled until it was too late.
But he couldn’t love her. He shouldn’t love her. Vivian personified sweet, innocent beauty but him? Oh, Nikolai personified the darkness and violence of the world. The stains of his sins would never wash off—and he refused to taint her with his transgressions.
“Do you guys want some coffee or tea?” She toed off her shoes. “Breakfast?”
Eric holstered his weapon. “I’m not staying that long.”
I am. “Tea, please.”
Vivian returned to the kitchen but stayed within earshot. Nikolai glanced at Santos’ busted up mouth. “What the hell happened to you?”
He shot an annoyed look toward the kitchen and self-consciously rubbed his jaw. “I think my cousin has been sneaking into those bare-knuckle fights down at the old meat-packing plant.”
Nikolai stiffened with surprise. “Vee hit you?”
“On accident,” she called out, her back turned to them as she filled a tea kettle.
Nikolai considered the detective’s busted mouth, swollen nose and scratched up cheek. “That doesn’t look very accidental.”
“I had my keys in my hand,” she explained as she returned to the living room. “He caught me by surprise and I just sort of reacted.”
“With a punch to the face?” He closed the distance between them and grasped her left hand. The slightest touch of her warm skin against his caused an electric shiver to zip along his arm and into his chest. Gently, he inspected her swollen knuckles. Already her skin darkened with a bruise. “Why didn’t you ice this?”
She bit her plump lower lip. “Well—Eric was bleeding.”
“And after he stopped bleeding?”
“You knocked on the door.”
Clutching her wrist, he tugged her into the kitchen. He spotted the ice pack on the counter and deduced it had been used by Santos. After trading out the blood-stained dishtowel for a clean one, he pressed the cold pack against her swollen knuckles. Though he generally tried not to touch her for very long, this morning he allowed himself to enjoy the simple pleasure of holding her hand and treating her injury.
They were close enough that he could smell the faint lavender of the shampoo she favored. Her body heat remained high from her run and amplified the feminine scent. Only the sight of Santos stepping into the kitchen stopped him from dipping his head and inhaling the floral hints. He started to reach out to push some of the sweat-dampened strands of her hair behind her ear but he flexed his fingers at his side instead.
“You shouldn’t be punching your attackers. You should make a hell of a lot of noise and run.” He’d tried to give her a concealed handgun course and a gun for her last birthday but she didn’t want a weapon. Instead, he’d finally convinced her to carry pepper spray. “Were you carrying the pepper spray I gave you?”
She refused to meet his questioning gaze. “It’s too heavy and too big for my pocket.”
“Vee,” he chastened softly. “If you insist on running in the dark, you have to carry some kind of protection.”
“Okay.” Frustration edged into her voice. Finally lifting her gaze, she asked, “You’re here about my dad, aren’t you?”
He confirmed her suspicion with a tight nod and then glanced at Santos. “You’ve heard that he flipped on the Calaveras?”
“It may be worse than that. I’ve heard rumblings that he may have gone so far as to finger the cartel for some killings inside the prison.”
Vivian’s sharp intake of breath pained him. As if she hadn’t survived enough in her young life, now her father had put her in an impossible position. Nikolai didn’t believe for one second that her rotten shit of a father cared one way or the other about Vivian’s life. He’d already used her as a drug mule and a partner in his burglary schemes when she was a child. To put her life in jeopardy now would be nothing to that man.
Santos swore and ran his fingers through his hair. “I tried to get a security detail on her or even have her taken into protective custody, but they shot me down. There’s no credible threat.”
“No credible threat? What the hell do the police want? A head in an ice chest?”
Vivian visibly jerked. Guilt speared his belly. He rubbed his thumb along the underside of her wrist. “I’m sorry.”
Her shoulders bounced. “You’re not saying anything that isn’t true.”
“Look,” Santos said, “I’ll agree that our system isn’t perfect but it’s the best we’ve got. I’m going to pack her a bag and get her out of here until this thing dies down.”
Nikolai’s gut clenched at the very idea of Vivian being out of his sight and beyond his reach. His grip tightened on her wrist as possessiveness overwhelmed him. “She’s not going anywhere unless it’s with me.”
The detective’s eyes narrowed as anger flashed across his face. “You don’t get to make decisions for my family. I’m a cop. I’ll protect her.”
“And what makes you think that the cartel or the club gives a shit about the badge you carry? Have you seen what goes on south of the border? The weight of the Houston PD means nothing to these men.”
“But the Russian mob does?” The detective’s jaw clenched. “How the hell am I supposed to trust a man who makes his living running guns and drugs and whatever the hell else you push out of the back room of that restaurant of yours to protect my baby cousin?”
Despite the fact that Samovar was completely and totally legit, Nikolai didn’t correct Santos about the restaurant. “Whether you trust me or not isn’t the question.” His gaze dropped to Vivian’s worried face. “She can make her own choice.”
Santos scoffed loudly. “Give me a break! You’ve got her wrapped around your dirty little finger so tightly she doesn’t know what she needs or what’s right anymore.”
“Excuse me?” Vivian turned angry eyes on her cousin. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re my cousin—you’re basically all the blood family I have left—but I’m not going to stand here and let you talk about me as if I’m some stupid child.”
“I didn’t call you stupid or a child,” Santos retorted, “but sometimes you do very stupid things.” She gasped with outrage but her cousin talked right over her. “That car outside? You think I didn’t know about that? What the hell, Vivian? Why are you letting this guy buy you a car with his dirty money?”
As if on cue, the tea kettle began to whistle. Nikolai dropped Vivian’s hand and switched off the burner. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the keys to the Christmas gift he’d tried to give her yesterday morning, the gift she’d gently refused on principle. He tossed them onto the countertop where they landed with a clatter. “She didn’t accept the car—and it wasn’t bought with dirty money.”
The detective ignored the facts presented to him. “And your job at his restaurant? The tuition he pays? Your health insurance? The professional art studio he gave you?” He waved his hands. “Do you understand what that looks like to the outside world? Do you realize what everyone thinks about you? About what you are?”
The unspoken words hung in the air between them, the ugliness of it all suspended on the thick tension. Nikolai had a very good idea what Santos thought. He’d done everything he could to keep Vivian’s reputation spotless but he’d clearly fucked up somewhere. What were they saying about her? Were they calling her his mistress or his kept woman—or worse?
Vivian didn’t take the bait. “I know what I am, Eric. That’s enough for me. Everyone else? They’re not my problem.”
Bewildered by her calm reply, Santos stared at her. “Jesus, I never thought you were that naïve.”
“Enough.” Nikolai didn’t like to get involved in Vivian’s family issues but he had to draw the line at allowing her cousin to attack her with baseless accusations.
As if proving his point that Vivian was a kept woman under Nikolai’s thumb, Santos shot her a disapproving look. “So now he speaks for you?”
“You know he doesn’t. Stop being such a jerk. This isn’t like you, Eric.”
Her words seemed to hit home. With a ragged exhale, the detective shook his head. “It fucking kills me to say this, but you need to stick with him until this thing blows over. I’d do anything to protect you, Vivian, but I don’t have the power he does. I can’t save you from this.”
“Maybe no one can,” she replied sadly, her soft voice barely above a whisper.
An invisible band squeezed Nikolai’s chest at the thought of her being hurt.
“Maybe,” Santos reluctantly agreed, “but he’s your best chance.”
Vivian turned those worried blue eyes of hers on him and it was all he could do not to slide his arms around her petite frame and drag her into his embrace. He wanted to whisper that it would be all right, that he would keep her safe and out of harm’s way.
But he didn’t. He’d lied to her once—and only once—and the gut-gnawing pain of it had never left him. He’d sworn after that first lie there would never be another between them.
“I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”
Her expression softened. “I know you will.”
Whether he deserved her trust or not, she’d willingly placed her life in his hands—and he’d give his own before he betrayed that trust.
Santos’ phone started to ring. He plucked it from the pocket of his jacket and frowned before answering. “Santos here.” His eyes widened briefly. “When? Yeah. Okay. I’ll be there in ten.”
“What’s wrong?” Vivian asked as her cousin ended the call.
“Looks like the Hermanos and the Albanians are at one another’s throats again.” He pulled a knit cap emblazoned with the police department’s logo from a different pocket and slipped it onto his head. “They just found Afrim Barisha’s body stuffed in the trunk of a car in one of the park-and-ride lots. He had the Hermanos gang sign carved into his chest.”
Vivian recoiled. “That’s awful.”
She didn’t know the half of it. Nikolai had brokered a peace between the two outfits earlier in the summer, right after that mess with Erin’s sister had been settled. He kept his finger on the pulse of Houston’s underworld so he was fully aware of the beef between the Hermanos gang leader Diego Montoya and Afrim over the loan shark’s refusal to lower the interest on a debt incurred by one of Diego’s captains. Though Diego could be a hothead, the man wasn’t an idiot. It made no sense for the Hermanos to take out the Albanian’s highest earner.
As a detective in the special gang unit, Santos would know that. They shared a look but neither spoke aloud what they were thinking. This wasn’t a simple cut-and-dried case of gang-on-gang violence—and it wasn’t going to end with one man’s death.
Santos stepped closer and pecked Vivian’s cheek. “I’ll check in with you later.” He headed for the front door and Vivian followed him. When he reached it, he turned back to face her. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled and gave him a quick hug. “Apology accepted.”
Nikolai marveled at her ability to forgive and forget so quickly. After the way she’d been treated by her mother and father, he would have expected her to be so mistrusting and an expert at holding grudges but she seemed determined to never let the ugliness of her childhood define her. He envied her kindness. God only knew there was very little of that about him.
She shut and locked the door before slowly spinning to face him. Leaning back against the door, she stared at him. “Do you really think the people my dad has pissed off will try to hurt me?”
“Yes.” He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Whether it would actually affect your father or not isn’t the issue. Their motivation is fear. They’ll want to make sure that no one else in the organization gets any funny ideas about stepping out of line.”
She inhaled a slow, steadying breath. “What happens now?”
Nikolai shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over a nearby chair. “You shower and get dressed while I make breakfast. Pack a bag or two. You’ll need them.”
She blinked. “I have to leave the apartment?”
“It’s impossible for Sergei or Kostya to keep an eye on every entrance here. There are too many blind spots.” He slashed his hand through the air. “You’ll come stay with me so I know that you’re watched around-the-clock.”
Shock filtered across her face. “At your house?”
Panic brightened her eyes. What scared her so much about being alone with him? “But—”
Because she could negotiate him better than anyone else on the damn planet, he put his foot down. “This isn’t up for debate, Vee. Take your shower and pack your bags.”
Her shoulders tipped back. Her fiery gaze warned him to watch his step. “Saying please would be nice.”
He eyed her carefully before inclining his head toward her. “Please don’t fight me on this.”
Her full lips slanted in a smile that seemed to be a mix of amusement and annoyance. “As if I’ve ever been able to fight you on anything.”
“You fought me on the car and won.” He tried not to let his disappointment in her rejection of his Christmas gift infiltrate his voice.
“One time in all the years we’ve been friends,” she reminded him. “And I didn’t say I didn’t like the car or appreciate the offer. I just said that it was too much.”
“Nothing is too much for you.”
Their gazes clashed as the words he’d meant to keep silent escaped his mouth. To her credit, she didn’t push the subject. Instead, she shoved off the door and strode by him toward her bedroom. At her door, she paused and glanced back at him. “There are some of Benny’s pastries in the refrigerator.”
While she showered and dressed, he prepared a simple breakfast and steeped tea in two different mugs. As he scrambled eggs, he attempted to ignore the yearning within him. This quiet domestic scene reminded him of all the things he’d denied himself with Vivian. They continually danced around their mutual attraction, both of them pretending the easy smiles and playful teasing they shared amounted to little more than a platonic friendship.
He told himself she was too young, too innocent and too good for him, but the fact remained that from the first moment he’d really opened his eyes and viewed her not as the child he’d assumed guardianship toward but as a woman, there had been no one else for him. He couldn’t look at another woman without comparing her to Vivian. With that dark hair and those pale blue eyes, she’d enthralled him—irrevocably and completely.
When he heard the bathroom door open, it took every ounce of his self-control not to glance down the hallway in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of her in a towel or a robe. His mind wandered along a rather lascivious path.
What if he walked down that hall right now and knocked on her bedroom door? Would she tell him to go away or would she invite him inside? The very idea of her wrapped in a fluffy towel and nothing else sent heat rolling through his belly.
He’d slide his fingers through her wet hair and cup the back of her head—and then he’d kiss her. And she would let him. She would welcome the sensual touch of his mouth against hers. She would welcome the erotic tangle of their tongues until—
“Do you need any help?”
Guilt seized him. He had no business fantasizing about her, not now when her whole damn world seemed to be crashing in on her. Right now she was vulnerable and needed to be protected—not seduced or corrupted.
He glanced at her, taking in the sight of her damp hair and low slung jeans. The tiny peek of skin between her cotton tee and the top of her jeans did little to cool his raging lust. “No. Your tea is ready.”
She slid next to him and picked up the two mugs. After placing them on the table, she grabbed milk from the refrigerator. She’d served his tea enough times at the restaurant to know exactly how he liked it. By the time he’d plated the eggs, she’d already grabbed silverware and the pastries.
When they took their seats, he waited patiently while she said her quick, silent prayer of thanks. Though she’d only been introduced to her Russian Orthodox faith when she moved into her grandparents’ home, Vivian took her beliefs very seriously and seemed intent upon living her life accordingly. Unlike some hardcore believers, Vivian never pushed him on the subject. For that he was eternally grateful.
Finished with her prayer, she smiled at him. “Thank you for breakfast.”
“It’s only eggs.”
She shrugged and picked up her fork. “It’s nice to share a meal with someone again. I’d gotten so used to having Lena here every morning. It’s still very strange to eat without the news blaring in the background or her cell phone ringing off the hook.”
He eyed the box on the other end of the table. She’d labeled it with Lena’s name. “Have you spoken to her since she and Yuri jetted off to Moscow after Dimitri’s wedding?”
“Last night,” Vivian said. “Apparently Yuri went totally overboard with Christmas gifts. She still hadn’t opened all the boxes when we’d talked.”
“I’m not surprised. He’s absolutely infatuated with her.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Confusion colored her voice.
“It’s a weakness.”
She sat back and stared at him. “How can you say something like that, Kolya?”
The sound of his nickname falling from her lips did crazy things to him. The familiarity of it made him ache for all the things he couldn’t have. “I know it’s not a popular sentiment but it’s true. Love is a weakness that’s easily exploited.”
She dropped her fork and it noisily bounced on her plate. “That is such bullshit—and you know it.”
His brow arched at her surprisingly angry display. “That infatuation—that love—that Yuri felt for Lena nearly got her killed when his past came knocking at his front door.” He didn’t mention that it was only his contacts back in Russia and light traffic that enabled him to save the two lovers before they’d been killed. “It was the same thing for Benny and Dimitri and Ivan and Erin.”
“And us?” She dared him to deny that he cared for her. “We care about each other as friends do. There’s friendly love between us. Does that me weak? Does it make you weak?”
Friendly love? No, what he felt for her was so much more profound.
He ignored her furious gaze and tucked back into his breakfast. “You should be careful asking questions like that. I doubt very much that you’ll like the answer.”
When he refused to meet her intense stare, Vivian shoved back her chair and started to leave the table. He pinned her in place with one look. Gesturing to her plate, he ordered, “Sit and eat.”
She glared at him. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Then don’t hurt yourself by trying to punish me. I’m not the one who will spend the rest of the morning hungry if you storm off.”
She gritted her teeth but flopped back down in her seat. Snatching up one of the fruit-filled pastries, she took an obnoxiously large bite. “Happy now, Warden?”
Rather than reprimanding her for chewing with her mouth open, he shrugged. “I’m not unhappy.”
She growled and reached for her tea. After swallowing, she said, “You’re impossible, you know that? Like straight-up impossible!”
He bit his tongue. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if he told her how maddening she was and how badly he wanted to leap across the table and claim that wicked little mouth of hers to kiss her into submission.
Certain they needed to change the subject, he asked, “Are you painting today?”
“Is everything ready for the upcoming show?”
“The gallery is sending over a truck tomorrow for the last few pieces. I’ll do a final walk-through in a few days but I doubt anything will need to be changed. The layout Gustavo showed me was amazing.”
He loved hearing the excitement in her voice whenever she talked about her art. Of all the things he’d ever done for her, renovating that warehouse into studio space had been the one that meant the most to both of them.
“Would you mind if Kostya stays at the studio?”
“Do I have a choice?”
His lips settled into a grim line. “This doesn’t have to be difficult, Vee. You have to adjust to a new normal.”
“For how long?”
“As long as it takes,” he said, unwilling to give her a timeline that might have to be continually changed. “After your shift at the restaurant, I’ll take you home.”
She shook her head and sipped her tea. “I’m not working tonight.”
He frowned. “You’re on the schedule.”
“I traded last night with Sveta. I’m going out tonight.”
His gut clenched as her words registered. “To a club?”
“After we have dinner,” she confirmed. “Faze has a new DJ that I’ve heard awesome things about and I’m slated to work New Year’s Eve so this is the closest I’ll get to dancing in the new year.”
“You’re going out in a group?” He phrased his question carefully and desperately hoped she’d say yes. He’d seen that bodyguard that worked for Dimitri sniffing around the last few weeks. The former Marine looked like he wanted to do more than just guard Vivian’s body.
“Just some single friends,” she said. “You know—me, Bianca, Nadya, Kelly, one of his brothers and some guys they know.”
“And Sergei,” he decided. “He actually likes the club scene so you’ll take him with you tonight.”
“Fine.” She shot him a mischievous smile. “Do I have a curfew?”
He grunted and reached for his tea. “You’re a grown woman. I trust you to know when to pack it in for the night—but just remember that Sergei has to work tomorrow.”
“Doing what exactly?”
He caught and held her gaze. Right after she’d started working at Samovar, Vivian had dared to ask him if he really was the Russian mob boss of Houston. He’d told her the absolute truth, a truth that he’d never confirmed to any other outsider. Though everyone knew what he was, it wasn’t something he publicly owned.
“I think this falls under the heading of questions you might not like the answers to, Vee.”
She rolled her eyes and rose from her chair. “Like I don’t already know?”
Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. He wasn’t about to tell her more than she needed to know. “I’ll get the dishes. You finish packing.”
“Yes, sir,” she returned rather saucily.
He watched her leave the kitchen, his gaze glued to the sultry swing of her hips. She didn’t even realize the effect she had on men. If she had, Nikolai had no doubt she would have found a way to use it to her advantage. Instead she flitted through life without ever truly understanding what one of her sweet smiles did to a man.
As he gathered up their dishes, Nikolai wondered what was more dangerous to him. Was it the very real possibility of trouble with the Calaveras motorcycle gang and the Guzman Cartel or Vivian living in his home and sleeping two doors down from him?
He’d put his money on Vivian.