Alexei (Her Russian Protector #8)(6)

By: Roxie Rivera

His advice given, he returned to his bike and left the street as quickly as he had appeared. I hurried to my car and fished my cell phone out of my purse as I unlocked the door on my dinged-up white sedan. The car was nearly fourteen years old but I had paid cash for it in high school and planned to drive it into the ground.

As I waited for my sister to answer, I slid behind the wheel and tried not to freak out totally. “Come on, Shan. Pick up.”

But she didn’t.

My call went to voicemail and I drummed my fingers on my thigh as I waited for her greeting to end. “Shannon, call me. Like right now. It’s important. Some skinhead creeps were looking for you. I think you should get out of town with Ruben.” I rubbed my forehead and hoped the swirling pit in my stomach would stop spinning. “I don’t know what you’ve done, and I don’t really care. Just call me, okay? I’m really worried about you.”

I dropped my phone in the cup holder and tossed my purse onto the passenger seat. I cranked the engine. It turned over with a little whine. How many times would this old beast light up for me? If I made it through the end of the year, it would be a miracle.

Seatbelt secured, I backed out of the driveway and headed out of our neighborhood. I didn’t miss the nosy neighbors watching my car creep along the road or the way they pointed and shook their heads. There was always some sort of trouble in the park but Shannon and I had never been the source of it. I could only imagine what wild stories would be circulating the neighborhood by sunrise.

As I headed for I-10, I kept checking my rearview mirror and expected to see that truck following me but it never appeared. Where were they? I didn’t believe for one second that they weren’t keeping an eye on me. Those men had come to my house to rattle me—and they had succeeded. I suspected they expected me to head straight for Shannon but the joke was on them. I was going straight to work, just as planned.

What had Shannon done to gain their attention? My thoughts rolled back to her parting words to me. Yeah, things were changing all right but not for the better. I thought of all the little scams she used to run with Ruben when I was still in high school. Stolen credit cards, fake lotteries, fake collection calls…

“Jesus, Shannon,” I murmured as panic rolled through me again. “What have you done now?”

When I arrived in the small parking lot outside the commercial cleaning company where I had worked since graduating high school, I called my sister one more time and sent her a series of texts in all caps.

CALL ME. NOW. 911!

She probably had her cell phone on silent or shoved down in the bottom of her handbag. I could practically hear her response once she did see my missed calls. She would probably laugh and tell me I was overreacting. She would insist that Ruben would fix it.

“You had better fix this, Ruben,” I muttered while gathering up my things and leaving my car. By now, the sun had fully set and the early November chill had me shivering even with my jacket. I scurried inside the small, unremarkable building that served as the headquarters for CleanRite and quickly shut the heavy door behind me.

Even before I reached the main room that served as a meeting and locker room, I could hear the brassy wail and growling ba-da-ba-dum of banda music. When I walked into the room, I spotted a dozen or so of my fellow coworkers grabbing their assignment sheets from the night manager and co-owner Juan.

Pushing aside my concern for Shannon, I smiled and waved at the friendly faces that greeted me. I was just about to swipe my ID to clock in when Juan stopped me with a gentle tap on my shoulder and a confused expression. “Shay?”

“Hey, Juan.”

“Hey,” he replied and started flipping through the sheets of paper on his clipboard. “You’re not on the schedule tonight, Shay.”

“I’m covering for Shannon.” I held my ID ready to swipe but didn’t finish the motion. Something in his voice made me nervous.

His eyebrows arched toward his forehead. “Shannon? She was fired yesterday. She doesn’t work here anymore.”

Now I was the one frowning with confusion. “She told me that she gave notice that she was going to quit.”

Juan’s expression turned stony. “I’m sure she tells you all sorts of things, mi’ja. That doesn’t mean that they’re true.” He shook his head. “After I split you two up and put you on different crews, there were too many complaints from our clients—and not just about her lax cleaning standards.”

“What do you mean?”

He shot me an exasperated look. “What do you think I mean?”

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