Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "I really am sorry, sir," Benito said, the fright fading that fast. "And I want to know what I did wrong. I mean aside from coming here in the first place," he added hastily.

  Gavriil reached behind him without turning, and put his hand over Lexi's, pressing her palm into his buttocks where she held on to his pocket. "Never try sneaking up on me again. Not ever. It isn't safe. You're very lucky I was in the mood to ask questions. Otherwise, you'd be dead and Max would be coming after me. Do you understand? You can't play around with this kind of thing. If you're going to learn, you need to understand the difference between playing and coming after someone like me."

  Benito nodded his head several times, wincing a little. The cut was shallow, but it had to hurt.

  Lexi lifted her head. He felt the warmth of her breath against his skin. Her fingers traced the long, numerous scars crisscrossing his back, a whisper of movement only, barely there, but his body stirred and his gut tightened into knots.

  "Didn't Max tell you to stay away from here?" He caught Lexi's hand and pulled it down, away from his bare skin. She had to stop if he was going to be able to think clearly. All that did was bring her attention back to Benito's plight.

  Gavriil held her still, preventing her from going to the boy. The kid had to learn, and being babied wasn't going to help. "Lexi, would you mind making me that cup of tea?"

  She was silent a moment, clearly making up her mind whether or not to let him handle the situation without her. In the end she capitulated. "Benito, would you like some as well?"

  He shook his head, looking a little apprehensive now that she was leaving.

  "Lexi, I left my war bag just outside the greenhouse, concealed in the brush on the west corner. I wouldn't want a child to find that bag. It also has clean clothes in it. Would you mind getting it for me while I make certain this wound doesn't get infected?"

  Lexi studied his face for a long time, clearly trying to read his stone-cold features. "Benito is very much treasured here, Gavriil. He's trying hard to be a man under difficult circumstances."

  Gavriil had lived through difficult circumstances. He wasn't going to allow that to be an excuse. The kid was spying on them, looking through bedroom windows. That wasn't okay in his book. Benito also needed to know that that kind of behavior could get a person killed.

  "The west corner," he repeated, his tone implacable.

  "See. I knew you'd forget our deal at the first opportunity," she accused.

  He caught her chin, forcing her green eyes to meet his dark blue ones. "Just this one time, solnyshko moya, while I'm seeing to your safety."

  "Well don't shoot him. Or stab him. Or beat him up either. I want him in good condition when we return him to Max and Airiana."

  Out of the corner of his eye, Gavriil noticed the boy squirming. He didn't much like the idea of Max or Airiana finding out what he'd done. "That leaves me a lot of room, Lexi."

  She winked at him. "I'm well aware of that. Just make certain he's alive when I come back. Benito, you do everything he says. He isn't nearly as patient as Max."

  She shot Benito a warning glance and then left the room, taking the tray of needles with her. Gavriil was pretty certain, if he were capable, he would have fallen in love with her right then and there. He had no clue how love felt, so he dismissed the idea and turned his attention back to Benito.

  "Let's get you cleaned up, kid," Gavriil said. He blew out a couple of candles as he went by them on his way to the bathroom. The first aid kit was under the sink. "Sit in that chair over there. You never let a knife wound go. Not ever. Sometimes the germs on the blade are worse than the cut. Always clean it as soon as possible."

  Benito sank into the chair, staring with wide eyes at the massive scars covering Gavriil's body. There was everything from burns to what looked like grated skin as well as bullet and knife scars. There were whip marks across his back and a large shiny indentation from a shotgun. The scars on his chest were the worst, the ridges circular from where the knife had been twisting as it was brought out of his flesh.

  "Yeah. Take a good look, kid. This isn't the high life. You don't want to go into this business and end up with no life, no family and a body like mine. Raise your chin. This is going to sting."

  Gavriil pressed an alcohol wipe to the seeping wound. The boy didn't make a sound. Tears welled in his eyes but he sat absolutely still. Grudging respect had Gavriil hastily applying the soothing ointment that contained a triple antibiotic. He sank into the chair across from the kid.

  "I'm Gavriil. Gavriil Prakenskii. You're Max's boy?" He crossed his arms across his chest, allowing his legs to stretch out in front of him. He was well within striking distance. Both arms could swing up or down easily blocking any attack, and both feet, in that lazy sprawl, could easily kick a target. The position was very deceptive and one he'd cultivated to look as if he was completely relaxed.

  Benito cleared his throat. "He's adopting us. My sisters and me."

  Gavriil nodded slowly. "I hear you lost your parents."

  "They were murdered." Benito nearly spat the words, rage welling up.

  "Tough. That's tough. My parents were murdered too. You have to be careful, kid. That burn you feel in your gut can be dangerous and lead you down paths you don't want to go. Max is a good man. He's tough as nails and he's a scary son of a bitch, but he's a good man. You listen to him and learn from him."

  "He told me to stay away from here."

  "But you didn't listen. Why?"

  "Something bad happened this morning but they don't want to tell us. I think it happened to Lexi. She's . . . like us. She knows."

  "And that makes her one of you," Gavriil said, making the jump in the boy's thinking.

  Benito nodded. "We wanted to make sure she was all right. If she was alone, I was going to ask her to tell me what happened so I could tell my sisters. Lucia is really upset and having a hard time. She likes Lexi. We all do."

  Gavriil studied the boy's face. There was more to it than what the kid was admitting. He softened his voice, reminding himself he was talking to a child and a traumatized one at that. "You came here to protect her, didn't you?"

  Benito ducked his head. "Yeah."

  "That's why you brought the weapons, isn't it?"

  Benito squirmed, looking extremely uncomfortable. "Yeah," he admitted, looking down at the floor.

  The kid was priceless. He was capable of being a little assassin if Max didn't watch out. "Do you know how to use either of them properly?"

  "Max has been teaching me," the boy mumbled.

  "The fact that you won't look at me tells me you know you were wrong to touch those weapons, Benito. Playing with guns or knives is a really bad idea. Protecting the people you love is a serious business. You don't do silly things. If you take possession of a weapon, you need to know what you're doing. You don't get to be a kid playing a game. The moment you pick up that gun or knife, you're a man making a man's decisions and they'd better be right, they'd better be something you can live with."

  Gavriil felt Lexi's approach. She moved across the ground lightly, a part of nature, but he had her imprint inside of him and he knew the flow of her, the feel of her. The moment she was near, the pull on him was strong, as if they were two magnets drawn to each other. He wondered if she felt the same way.

  He wasn't entirely certain what the Prakenskii connection did in terms of sealing or binding Lexi to him, but he felt that bond in every cell of his body. He knew he would always know when she was close. She wasn't alone either.

  "Lexi's coming back and someone's with her," he announced.

  Benito looked so panic-stricken he thought the kid might try to dive out through the window. "It's not Max."

  The relief told him Max's opinion mattered.

  Benito pushed his hand through his hair. It was shaking. "I really am sorry. If they'd told us what happened and that she had a bodyguard, I wouldn't have come like that." He broke off abruptly and then suddenly looked up, his eyes meetin
g Gavriil's. "I might have come anyway, but I wouldn't have been so sneaky."

  "Never stick your head in a window like that. If the top of your head goes into the room, you're not looking to see what's inside."

  Benito nodded. He rubbed his scalp as if it was still a little tender from Gavriil using his hair to pull him inside. "Will you tell me what happened? Airiana and Max say we live here now, this is our home. But they don't tell us anything."

  "You're children. They're adults and have to make hard decisions."

  Benito shrugged. "I don't feel like a kid, and neither does Lucia. How do we go back to playing like other kids after what happened to us? If this is our home and our family, we need to know what's going on."

  "I think grown-ups want to make you feel safe after what happened, Benito. Telling you about problems outside of your control won't accomplish that."

  "I'd rather know what I'm facing."

  Gavriil sighed. "I can't break a confidence. Each of the women here have had someone they loved murdered. Lexi's story is hers, and it's up to her to tell you. You wouldn't want Max or Airiana telling me what happened to you aboard that ship, would you?"

  Benito turned red. His eyes burned with anger and his fists clenched.

  "Only you can decide who you trust enough to tell things to. Lexi's past came back to haunt her this morning. She's on edge and extremely upset."

  "Is she in danger?"

  "I believe she is, but I intend to stick around and keep her safe. Along with me, Max and the others to watch over her, whoever might wish to harm her doesn't stand much of a chance," Gavriil said.

  Lexi came into the house and moved straight for the kitchen, presumably to make the tea. Airiana knocked on the bedroom doorjamb and stood there regarding her errant son, with a mixture of relief and exasperation on her face.

  Benito launched himself out of the chair where he'd been holding himself together after the fright. His arms slid around her waist and he buried his face against her shoulder, holding her tight. Airiana stroked his hair in little caresses, her gaze meeting Gavriil's as he stood up slowly.

  "It's all right. I trust Gavriil has opened your eyes to the danger of spying on people." Airiana handed Gavriil his war bag with her free hand.

  "Benito had the best of intentions," Gavriil said. "He may have gone about it the wrong way, but he came here thinking he might have to protect Lexi. Apparently his sister, Lucia, is very worried. They know something happened, asked you or Max, weren't satisfied with the answer and decided to try to find out on their own."

  Gavriil shrugged into a fresh shirt.

  Airiana pulled Benito's head back and inspected the raw slice around the boy's neck. Her eyes met Gavriil's. "You did this?"

  Gavriil nodded. "He was very lucky I didn't kill him when he stuck his head through that window."

  Airiana closed her eyes for a moment and then took a deep breath. "You know we're going to have to talk to Max about this, right, Benito? We don't keep things from one another."

  Benito's face darkened. "Yes we do. You refused to tell us what happened to Lexi this morning."

  "Because it wasn't Airiana's place to tell you," Gavriil reiterated, his voice a low whip. He didn't like repeating himself, and he didn't want the kid to shove off his own responsibility. "If you want to know something, don't expect others to gossip. Be a man. Ask the primary source. If she doesn't want to tell you, respect her wishes, but don't blame Airiana or Max for keeping a confidence."

  "You know Max is going to want to have a discussion with you about this," Airiana warned.

  Gavriil sighed. "You tell him I'm not so good at discussions. I've said my piece on the subject. If he has any questions, Benito can fill him in. I trust that the kid doesn't lie to you. He can tell Max what happened and Max can take it from there."

  It wasn't difficult to understand that he was done with the entire matter. The warning note in his voice was very clear and unmistakable. Airiana glanced over her shoulder to look at Lexi, who stood in the hallway. Their eyes met for a very long time, Airiana trying to silently convey her fear for her youngest sister.

  Lexi broke the silence, ignoring Airiana's warning look. "Tea's ready, if anyone wants it. And Gavriil, lunch is ready. We can eat out on the porch."


  "I thought they'd be staying for lunch," Gavriil said, leaning back in the comfortable chair on the porch, his long legs sprawled out in front of him. With great satisfaction he watched Airiana and Benito disappearing down the path that cut through the property up to the road where her car was parked.

  Lexi rolled her eyes. "Really? We're going to have to work on your people skills."

  "I have great people skills." He took a cautious sip of the tea, making an issue out of it as if he thought she might be trying to poison him. "I excel at people skills. I am succinct when speaking and get my point across immediately."

  "If I didn't know better, I would have thought you ran the two of them off on purpose," Lexi said.

  He smiled at her. A deliberate wolf's smirk. "I can't imagine why you would think such a thing."

  She tried--and failed--to look stern. "Perhaps because you look so pleased with yourself."

  "I'm just pointing out I have mad people skills." He picked up a sandwich and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully, waiting for her to settle into the chair opposite him. The tray of food was on the small table between them, the pile of sandwiches facing him.

  Lexi sipped at her tea, regarding Gavriil over the top of the teacup. He appeared invincible and tough to others--she read it in the way they looked and acted with him. She could see pain etched into every line of his face, in the smoky heat of his blue eyes.

  "You're too trusting, Lexi," Gavriil said suddenly.

  She didn't take her gaze from his face. She loved to look at him, but wasn't certain why. She should have been intimidated like everyone else, especially because he had had his hand around her throat at one point and definitely had been considering ending her life. She wasn't certain how she knew that had been in his mind, or why she was just as certain that he wouldn't do it.

  "Because I'm sitting here with you?" She especially loved his voice. She'd never heard that particular combination before, of smoke and edginess. There was a sensual intimate quality to his tone that mesmerized and intrigued her.

  "That and you would have rushed to save that boy without ever checking for weapons on him. Three times you had your back to him."

  "He's twelve and traumatized."

  "He had a gun and a knife on him." Gavriil took another bite of his sandwich. "You never ran across fanatical children? Not ever?"

  She knew she went pale. She felt the blood draining from her face. Her stomach lurched. Memories crowded too close. Once, she'd confided in a girl she thought was her friend. They'd worked together for over a year, and Lexi told her she detested Caine. The girl had rushed right to him, eager to please him with the bit of news that his "wife" hated him and wished he'd die.

  "Yes." Her mouth went dry and she tasted blood, a faint coppery taste that sometimes haunted her dreams. In the early days, after she'd managed to escape, that horrible reminder was often in her mouth.

  Gavriil's eyes went dark. He leaned toward her, holding her gaze so that it was impossible to escape. She had the feeling he could see right into her--into all the ugliness that she tried desperately to hide away.

  "Tell me."

  She shook her head. She didn't tell anyone. Not details. She'd always gotten away with it because she could tell herself she was in witness protection and no one could know, but his eyes didn't blink. His silence was as compelling as his command.

  "Most of the children in the compound were as fanatical as their parents." She moistened her lips. Her throat felt as if it was closing, swelling on her so that she had to clear it several times. "If you were stupid enough to confide in them, they told everything you said to the leaders. The punishments were terrible."

  His expression didn't change
, but somehow, with her last four words, she felt a difference in him. He'd been relaxed, sprawling out in front of her, eating his sandwich and asking questions. Now, darkness swirled in him. In his eyes, maybe, but certainly in his heart, and in his soul.

  "What kinds of punishments?"

  "I don't want to talk about this, Gavriil. I don't ask you personal questions. I don't for a reason. I can't talk about this."

  "Who better than with me."

  "I don't even know you."

  "You know me." He sank back against the thick cushion, his dark blue eyes never leaving her face.

  His gaze was unrelenting, merciless even, yet his eyes were so dark blue she felt as if she might be falling into the night sky. How could he look both lethal and attractive at the same time?

  "I thought she was my friend. Carla Shore. She was my age and we'd worked and played together for over a year. Caine liked to be rough and sometimes it hurt just to move the next day. I told her I hated him. She immediately told him. Of course, it's a sin to hate one's husband."

  She shrugged, and a small smile briefly touched her mouth. "I hated him even more after his beating. You know those whips marks you have on your back? I've got them too. He shaved my head, stripped me in front of the congregation and flogged me."

  Lexi did her best to sound matter-of-fact, but Gavriil could see the pain in her eyes and hear it in her voice. She had shoved her past behind a door and locked it, but she wasn't healed. Neither was he, and he was a lot older than she was.

  "I would have to say it would be a sin not to hate that man in those circumstances. The man was no husband cherishing his wife, he was a child molester drunk on his own power." He folded his arms just to be safe. He wanted to kill something--or someone.

  She was so damned young. Inside of her was a brightness that even Caine with all his evil hadn't managed to obliterate. Why hadn't the man wanted to protect her? Caine had wanted to destroy her. That was why he couldn't give her up, why he obsessed over her. He had to have seen that light in her and it must have sickened him every time he looked in the mirror. He needed to destroy her and he hadn't been able to. No matter what he'd done to her, she hadn't become as ugly as Caine was.

  "I wish my many beatings had been for as good a reason as that," he confided, because he had to give her something, offer something of himself back to her. "I fought them quite a bit. I tried to leave the school, to go find my brothers. Viktor and I promised my father that we'd watch over the others. The worst beating came when I failed to control an arousal. The girl was punished if she couldn't arouse me, and I was punished if she could. Control and discipline." He shrugged.

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