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Nikolai: Mine to Protect – Chapter 20


“There!” Maddox points to a divot in the dusty field. It is a similar groove to what tires make when the driver brakes hard.

“Does anything around here seem familiar?”

I leave the vehicle to deliberate Trey’s question more thoroughly. The landscape is different than I recalled in my memory, but we did flee in the middle of the night, so the visibility was poor.

“Over here,” Zoran shouts from his post on the edge of a deep gorge.

Rock crumbles beneath my feet when I and thirty of Nikolai’s men lean over a crumbling rockface to take in a burnt-out truck a hundred yards down.

“He’s here,” I whisper when a sense of home overwhelms me.

“Be careful,” Asher demands when I track down a narrow path on the side of the gorge.

“Get rope, water, and a hoist,” Trey instructs him before following after me.

Although Asher isn’t a fan of being bossed around, he takes Trey’s dominance in stride—barely.

Since Trey’s feet are wider than mine, he has to use the vines and trees growing out of the rock sideways to maintain his footing. Watching him trudge through the hostile landscape has my second memory of the day smacking into me. . .

“Don’t move.” Nikolai’s words are separated by painful breaths, but they also can’t hide the urgency of his statement.

My head is thumping so bad, you’d swear I’ve been knocked out for hours, but the Russian accents above my heads prove that isn’t the case. The men responsible for forcing our truck over the edge are shining spotlights down on us, wanting to ensure the gorge did what they couldn’t. If it weren’t for a group of trees growing through the cracked rocks, they would have spotted us.

Unhappy with the crumpled remains of the truck, a thick voice says, “Send someone down there to make sure they’re dead.”

The crunching of rocks underfoot sounds through my ears a few seconds later. A young boy barely of teen years slowly makes his way down a goat track etched in the side of the gorge. He has a rope wrapped around his waist, but that’s as far as his safety measures go.

“Shh.” Nikolai presses his finger to my lip.

When I nod, he sneaks closer to the boy minutes from discovering our hidey hole. I have no clue what his plan is, but I’m reasonably sure it won’t end well for the teen.

Just as Nikolai is about to pounce, a massive explosion lights up the gorge. The blast is so epic, the smell of singed hair lingers in my nostrils.

“Woohoo!” The teen throws his arms into the air. He acts like an A-grade asshole, like the loss of our lives is worth celebrating. He’s lucky the explosion coincides with his exit, or it would have been me pouncing on him unaware.

The flames roaring up the gorge dim to barely a campfire brightness before the spotlights shining above our heads fade. Within seconds, we’re left in silence. All I hear is the noise of Nikolai collapsing.


I race to him, the uneven ground not enough of a deterrent to stop me from reaching him.

“Oh god.” My visual of his thigh bone piercing his jeans is too sickening for a mature response.

“Why didn’t you say something? You’re hurt. You can’t walk with a bone sticking out of your leg.”

My panicked rant stops when Nikolai says, “I had to protect you, Ahren. Nothing will stop me from keeping you safe.”

His sentence ends in a roar from me applying pressure to the top half of his thigh. “You need to suck it up. You’re bleeding from too many areas. You’ll bled out if we don’t stop it.”

I don’t know whether to kiss him or punch him when he laughs, “You can’t get rid of me that easily, Ahren. You’re stuck with me for eternity, remember?”

God, I hope so.

After bracing his back on the wall, Nikolai says, “We need a splint, something to hold the bone straight and stop the bleeding.”

I don’t want to know why he’s so knowledgeable on broken bone management, but unfortunately, I already am. His medical records expose how many horrible injuries he suffered during his childhood.

“Will this work?” I hold up two decently wide sticks lying on the ground next to us.

Nikolai nods. “Now we need something to strap them to my leg.”

I scan every inch of the land visible in the moonlight. There are a handful of vines lying around, but I don’t see them helping. They’re too fragile to knot.

“What about my skirt?” I suggest, waving my hand over the material covered with soot and ash.

“No, Ahren. When my men come, I don’t want to send them packing so they don’t see you like that.” His hot breath fans my lips when he growls, “I don’t share,” in Russian.

“Seriously?” I roll my eyes. “You’re being ridiculous. You either rip it, or I’ll remove it entirely.”

Glaring at him, I shove the hem of my skirt in his hands. I’m cramping and hormonal; now is not the time to mess with me.

Realizing I’ll never scare a man who is fearless into obeying me, I try another tactic. “Come on, Nikolai, don’t act like you haven’t been fantasizing about tearing it off me all night.”

Just when I think he’ll never agree with my demand, the sound of cotton ripping echoes in the silence of the night. He doesn’t shred my skirt off me like he did in the plane earlier this week; he just weakens the hem line enough that a rope-like material hangs halfway down my thighs a few seconds later.

After an additional tug, he hands the shredded material to me. “Now we both win.”

I roll my eyes while circling it around his leg.

“Sorry,” I apologize on repeat when I use it to constrict the blood flow to his thigh. “Is it too tight?”

Nikolai shakes his head, preferring to lie without words. I don’t need to hear his words to know he’s in pain, though. I can see it in his eyes. He’s hurting badly, both physically and mentally.

I remove a bead of sweat from his brow before asking, “Now what?”

Nikolai leans his back against the rockface he had me pinned to minutes ago before drawing me into his chest. I accept his comfort, but do it without placing any of my weight on him. He has a broken leg and a bullet wound in his shoulder. He shouldn’t be sitting upright, much less sheltering me.

“Now we rest until our men find us.” His low, shallow breaths as he struggles to remain conscious lull me to sleep within minutes. . .

“This way. He’s over here.”

Trey signals to the men watching our every move from above to make sure we’re heading in the right direction before he follows me to the ledge Nikolai and I spent the night huddled on. The only thing is, Nikolai isn’t there.

“Are you sure this is the right spot?”

I nod before all of Trey’s question leaves his mouth. There is a strand of cotton the same color as my skirt floating between the leaves of the tree we camped under, and the blood Nikolai’s shirt failed to absorb is giving the earth-toned rock a red tint.

“He was here. This is where we rested last night.”

“Three nights ago,” Trey prompts, reminding me of the lapse in my timeline.

I nod, truly confused. “Despite our conflicting times, Nikolai should be here. He has a broken leg. He couldn’t travel far.”

Air leaves my lungs in a hurry when Trey says, “He would for you.”

My heart squeezes in my chest. “He would,” I agree. “As I would for him.”

As the low-hanging sun casts hues of orange around me, I return to my earlier memory. It’s just several hours later. . .

“Nikolai.” Not wanting to agitate his wounds, I gently shake his uninjured shoulder. “It’s morning. We need to wake up.”

Fear rains down on me when he fails to answer. Nikolai has been called many things, but ignorant isn’t one of them.

I shake him again, a little harder this time. “Nikolai. Please wake up.”

My hand shakes furiously when I raise it to his neck to check for a pulse. He has one, although it is extremely faint.

“You just need to hold on a little longer, okay? Help is on its way.” I hope.

Peeling his shirt back from his chest, I check his bullet wound. The blood trickling out of the hole is only lukewarm to touch. He’s going into shock.

Oh god. This isn’t good.

With my mind spiraling, I scream, “Help!”

I don’t care if my alerted cries make the men trying to kill us return. Any help is better than none.

“We’re down here! We’re alive! You didn’t kill us!”

Nothing but the echo of my words pierce my ears.

While circling my temples, I pace the minimal ground I have access to while contemplating what to do. Nikolai said we need to wait for his men, but what if they don’t get here in time? He needs surgery and, at the very least, a blood transfusion. They’re not things that can wait. He needs them now.

Recognizing what I must do, I crouch down in front of Nikolai. “I’m going to get help, okay? I know you said we should wait, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I know I’ve made the right decision when I press my lips to Nikolai’s. His mouth is as cold as ice, and his breathing barely registers on my trembling lips.

“I’ll be back soon. I promise,” I say over his lips.

After removing my overshirt to prop Nikolai’s head against the rock, I map my course. Not eager to head in the direction we fled from last night, I cross the gorge via a small track etched on the lip of blasted rock. The terrain is more hilly on this side, but it keeps Nikolai in my line of sight a majority of the way.

I only lose him from my view when I start an eighty-foot climb. I was an adventurous teen, so things like rock-climbing and hiking were regular activities for me, but this is the first time I’ve attempted to scale a cliff edge without safety equipment.

“I know, baby. Just a few more hours,” I promise to the stabbing pain in the lower right quadrant of my stomach. “Once we get Daddy out of here alive, we’ll have every inch of you checked over.”

I could blame a lack of sleep for my delusional state, but I’m reasonably sure that isn’t the cause of me talking to our baby like he or she can hear me. I’m on the verge of a breakdown, my symptoms oddly familiar to the ones I endured after being mauled by a dog.

If Nikolai doesn’t survive this, I won’t either—not mentally, anyway.

A grunt rumbles in my chest when I grip the final rock needed to hoist me over the cliff edge. With recent rains loosening the ground, it isn’t as firmly embedded as I’d like, but it will have to do.

I sigh in relief when the rock maintains it clutch on the ground. Sweat and dirt grinds into my cami when I roll onto my back, relieved I’ve climbed the wall without incident. I take a few minutes to suck in some much-needed breaths before commanding my wobbly legs to commence my mile walk to a line of a trees on the horizon.

Pain spasms in my stomach with every stride I take, but I don’t slow down. A twinge in my gut will be nothing compared to the pain I’ll endure if I lose Nikolai.

Halfway across the grassy field, my brisk pace slows. Noisy engines are zooming my way, the rowdy cheers of their riders indicating their heritage. They’re Russian.

I sprint faster, praying I’ll reach the safety of the trees before they spot me. My lungs scream for air, and the burn of my muscles is excruciating, but I don’t give up.

I’m running so fast, my break through the line of trees nearly costs me my life.

I step back with barely a second to spare. The double-trailer semi roaring down the highway misses me by an inch.

But that isn’t where my story ends.

My sweat-soaked shoes lose their footing on the uncut grass lining the road’s edge. Add my slip to the pressure of the truck roaring past, and you’ve got the equivalent of a flameless blast.

I land in the ditch separating the road from the field with a thud. Although my body absorbs most of the impact, my head connecting with an exposed rock makes stars dance in front of my eyes, and steals my memories. . .

Air whistles through my circled lips when my hand darts up to cradle the back of my head. I have a bump the size of a baseball covering most of my occipital bone. Its nasty size reveals the reason for my lack of memory of late. I wasn’t drugged or being purposely deceitful. I was knocked out.

“When Nikolai wouldn’t wake, I went to get help.” I point to the exact location I left him. “I left him right there with my shirt as protection for his head.”

“Okay.” Trey rubs his hands together, as unsure as me about where we go from here. “Which way did you travel when you sought help?”

I shift on my feet to face the cliff I scaled.

A whistle rustles Trey’s lips. “Could you see Nikolai the entire time?”

When I nod, Trey moves to stand next to me. “If you could see him, that means he would have been able to see you if he woke.”

Not waiting for me to reply, Trey pushes off his feet. He scales the rock edge with less care than I used days ago. It shouldn’t be odd seeing a roughish, bearded man trek through the wilderness, but it is.

“That’s my shirt.” I nearly lose my footing when I charge for a piece of the blouse I left with Nikolai. It’s tied around a bush halfway down the trail. “He’s leaving us clues.”

I burst into tears. Now is not the time to cry, but if he’s marking his movements, he’s alive. When I say that to Trey, he squeezes the living shit out of me. His firm hold adds to the pain rocketing through my stomach, but my excitement is too blistering to let a little pain dampen it.

We find the other half of my shirt under the rockface I climbed without a harness, but Nikolai is nowhere to be found.

When Trey shelters his eyes to peer up, I say, “He couldn’t climb that. I barely made it, and I don’t have a broken leg.”

Trey looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Nothing would stop him reaching you, Justine. Not a single fucking thing.”

When he hands me his shirt and phone, I thrust them back into his chest. “I’m coming with you.”

“No, you’re not.”

I begin my warning with a glare. “I’m not seeking your permission, Trey. I’m telling you this is what I’m doing.”

After rubbing my hands together to rid them of sweat, I grip the first rock. While grumbling about opinionated woman, Trey stuffs his shirt and cell into the back pocket of his jeans before tracing my steps.

With sheer determination fueling our climb, we reach the summit with minutes shaved off my already impressive time and lungs void of oxygen. I’m not the only one wheezing. Trey hold his ribs while he sucks in much-needed breaths. They’re expelled in a flurry when his eyes sling to the side. There is a blob of black in the far right corner of the grassy field. Although distance makes the person’s features unrecognizable, I know it is Nikolai. I’d sense him anywhere.


I sprint toward him, my legs moving faster than my brain can command. My gallop looks like a newborn foal learning how to stand, and my excitement is delivered with a bucket load of tears.

I lose the ability to breathe when Nikolai spins around to face me. He stares at me as if I’m a mirage, like he too is waiting to be awoken from a dream too surreal to be true.


Crying, I nod before starting my sprint again. In my elation, his injuries are forgotten. I throw myself into his arms, my heave brutal enough to send us hurtling to the ground.

Nikolai’s midair twirl saves my stomach from any unnecessary impact. It does little for his poor lungs, though.

“I’m so sorry. So, so, so, very sorry,” I apologize between frantic kisses. “I shouldn’t have left you. I should have done as you asked.”

“Shh. It’s okay. You’re here now.” He scans my face, seeking confirmation on his wary words. He still thinks he is dreaming.

“I’m here,” I assure him before lowering his hand to my stomach. “We’re here. We’re safe. You saved us.”

“No, Ahren,” he denies, shaking his head. “You saved me. More than once.”

His eyes reveal he means long before this weekend.

I maintain my strength the twenty minutes it takes for paramedics to arrive on scene, gurney Nikolai, and ship him to the closest hospital.

I maintain a brave front while doctors update us on the surgery Nikolai will require to extract the bullet from his shoulder and set his broken leg. I even manage to hide my pain while shadowing Nikolai’s bed to the operating room prepped especially for him.

It is only once he disappears from my view do the cramps ripping through my stomach nearly have me kissing the hard, tiled ground outside of the surgery department.

If it weren’t for Trey, the bump on the back of my head would be the only bump I’d be cradling the next nine months.


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