Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "That's terrible. Why would they do that?"

  "So we were always in charge of the performance. Sex is used for a lot of reasons." He kept his voice as matter-of-fact as hers had been. "It's a very effective weapon, Lexi."

  She sent him another wan smile. "Maybe we are more alike than you thought."

  He couldn't imagine two people more unalike. He had embraced the underbelly of life, the seedy, dark violence of a different realm. She had embraced a family and found a way to love them without reservation.

  "The doctor, the one who taught you acupuncture, what happened to her?"

  She went very still. Her face froze. The teacup slipped from her fingers. His hand snaked out to catch it in his palm before it could crash onto the tabletop between them. Hot tea splashed, but he barely felt the burn. He never once took his gaze from hers.

  The pain in her was every bit as acute as his physical pain--maybe more. He lived with pain every single moment of his life now, yet he was just beginning to discover once again that emotional pain was far worse.

  "Just before I turned sixteen, her husband decided he wanted to marry someone much younger. She said no. She was told she had to leave. No one left, Gavriil. No one could ever leave. We all knew that. There were too many secrets. She packed just as if she would go, her head up, shoulders straight. When she kissed me good-bye, she told me to be brave, and Caine drove her away. A few weeks later when he was angry with me, he told me she screamed and screamed when he raped her. He used that word. He told me she wasn't brave at all."

  "He preferred children. Why would he touch her?"

  "He preferred power. Sex was power to him. He controlled everyone around him using any means, brute force, sex, his punishments, promises of life in the hereafter. All that mattered was control."

  She had good insight to the man. Caine had wanted control over all of them. He'd hurt Lexi over and over to cower her, to drain her spirit. When she broke away from him and he'd lost control, he'd sought it out again by murdering her family.

  Gavriil had to give her something. He set the teacup carefully on the small table. "I know all about that kind of control. First they beat you and strip you of all dignity. They keep you alone and scared and in pain. Then there's the threat. The only way you can be controlled if you're like us, refusing to give them every part of us. They threatened my brothers--to torture and kill them one by one in front of me, starting with the baby."

  She swallowed hard, her lashes fluttered again and again, but her color wasn't quite as pale. "Is that why, even though you don't want anyone else around, you are able to tolerate me?" Lexi asked.

  Gavriil chose another sandwich. He was far hungrier than he thought. "Have you asked yourself why it's okay for me to stay with you when you don't want anyone else around?" he countered.

  She leaned into him. "I'm the only person you've ever truly been afraid of, Gavriil. Why would you stay here with me?"

  The woman knew how to throw a punch. He was proud of her though. She had recognized the danger she was in. He felt a little mesmerized by her, hypnotized by those eyes that either blazed like the brightest emerald, or, like now, went cool forest green.

  "Sometimes, solnyshko moya, the answer is impossible to explain. The truth is, I don't know. I like your company. You soothe me. You intrigue me. I'm not going to lie to you and say I'm not attracted to you as a man is to a woman. I am. That's a first for me--real physical attraction. Everything about you turns my world upside down."

  She blinked rapidly, and sank back in her chair. "You're a strange man, Gavriil. I would think you would want to stay far away from me."

  "That's the real question, isn't it? Why don't I? I should have turned and walked away the moment I saw you coming out of that cornfield, but I knew then that I was already lost."

  Lexi rubbed her palm as if it might be itching. His was. Discipline kept him from touching it.

  "What did you do to me? To my palm when you zapped me?"

  He remained silent. His sins were catching up with him fast, and he didn't want her to run from him. He was a hunter and giving chase was instinctive.

  "It's some sort of Prakenskii thing, isn't it? I've seen Rikki, Judith and Airiana all rub their palms as if they itched. It can't be a coincidence. I know we're not supposed to know the name Prakenskii, but you all have the same eyes. What did you do to me?"

  The idea that he had claimed her without her consent didn't sit well with him. Not after knowing about her life and what Caine had done to her. She had to make that choice, not him. Still, his claim couldn't be taken back, nor would he do so if he could. He was that selfish. He didn't know what he was going to do with her, he hadn't really gotten that far, but no one was going to harm her.

  "Gavriil, you use silence the way others use words."

  She pressed her thumb into the center of her palm. He felt the push on his own skin. He turned his palm over and, keeping the image of her face in his mind, stroked a caress down the center, watching her closely. She gasped and pressed her hand to her face, her eyes going wide.

  "What did you just do?"

  "It's a connection between us. If you needed me, you could easily call me to you through that connection." That was one way to look at it, and very true. He would know the moment she was in trouble if she touched the center of her palm.

  Lexi pressed her lips together, closing her fingers around her palm as if holding it to her. He couldn't read the gesture or her reaction. That was rare as well. He finished the sandwich and washed it down with tea.

  "There's more to it than that, and you don't want to tell me."

  He was grateful for the years of discipline. He kept his face pure stone. "No, I don't want to tell you. I shouldn't have put that mark on you. I don't have any idea why I couldn't overcome the compulsion to do it. It was wrong of me, but there's no taking it back, and I can't say that I even want to."

  Lexi continued to look him in the eye. He'd never had trouble looking anyone in the eye. Never. But her gaze saw far more than others' did, and sitting in the spotlight, knowing she was looking inside of him and seeing things he might not even know about himself, was difficult. He did it because she deserved that window into him. He had tied them together without her consent and she needed to know what kind of man he was.

  Lexi shook her head. "You shouldn't have done it."

  "I couldn't stop myself. Again, that's a first for me. I'm sitting here across from you, and realize how close I am to mimicking Caine."

  Her swift gasp and quick shake of her head were gratifying, but he held up his hand to stop her from speaking. "It's true, angel moy. I'm all about control. Controlling those around me, my environment, everything in my world. I put my claim on you without your consent, and I knew what I was doing."

  "You said you couldn't stop yourself, that it was a compulsion stronger than your discipline and control."

  "So what kind of a man does that make me, Lexi?"

  "A very confused one."

  She tilted her head to one side and her ponytail fell over one shoulder, and all that thick silk tumbling down stirred his body. This time he managed to clamp down on the rush of hot blood coursing through his veins seeking a willing target in his cock. He managed to suppress the savage urge, a small triumph, but he'd take it.

  "Why confused?"

  "I'm not going to lie either, Gavriil. I've never so much as looked at a man in a sexual way, not ever, not until you. Do I find you attractive? How could I not? But I'm terrified of a relationship. Not just a sexual one, but an actual relationship. I could never be with someone as commanding as you are. You're intimidating . . ."

  "I don't intimidate you."

  "Because we're not in a relationship. I don't know how to be in one. I don't know anything about a good relationship between a man and a woman." Her confession came in a little rush, as if she needed to get it over with, as if he might not understand.

  "I don't know how to be in a relationship either, Lexi," he sai
d. "Not at all. Like you, I live alone, and I've always preferred it that way. I don't relate to others. You said yourself I need people skills. How the hell would I know how to be with a woman? You're my first attempt at civilized conversation and I've already made a few mistakes."

  She laughed softly. "You're doing fine, Gavriil. Better than you know." The smile faded, leaving her eyes dark and haunted. "I don't want to be afraid of you. I don't want to worry that you'll try to force me into something I don't want."

  "You want me to give you reassurance? Would you even believe me after I put my mark on your palm?"


  "I would never force you, Lexi, but I can't say I won't try to court you." If he was being strictly honest, he'd already begun.

  "It won't work."

  He shrugged. "Maybe not. I don't know the first thing about courting a woman. I don't even think it's done anymore. Now it's all about seduction, getting a woman in bed as quickly as possible."

  "And you don't want that?" Her gaze slid over his face.

  Gavriil had to smile. There was a certain disappointment in her eyes. "Of course I want that. I'm a man, solnyshko moya, it's easy enough to take a look at me and figure that part out for yourself. Still, whether or not it's still in practice, I think you deserve someone to court you. I may be totally inept, but I'm going to give it my best shot."

  Lexi shook her head, but her eyes were soft, the perfect forest green he had come to look forward to falling into. She had found peace on a far different path than he had, and he found he wanted to go there with her.

  "That's such a sweet thing to say, Gavriil, that you want to court me. I don't know if it's old-fashioned or not, because I've never even been out on a date. Not once in my entire life, but I don't want to lead you on, I just know I couldn't be in a relationship, it would be too scary for me."

  He hadn't known until she told him the story of her friend, the Chinese doctor, what he was going to do with Lexi Thompson. He knew now. He was going to keep her. He was going to defend her. He was going to do his best to walk the same path she walked.

  "You're not afraid of me, Lexi, and that gives me more than I've ever had in my life. I'll take that for now and we'll see where we go from there."

  "You deliberately push people away from you by making them afraid, just the way you did with Airiana and Benito," she pointed out. "Others might give you the same chance I have if you let them."

  "I did the same thing with you, but you stood by me," Gavriil said. "In fact, I did worse, and yet there you sit, looking beautiful and quite unafraid."

  "I'm not beautiful, but thank you all the same." Lexi reached for the small teapot beneath the cozy to pour herself more tea.

  "Sure you are. Apparently you don't see very well. I'll overlook that because we have this deal and you get to be bossy for a couple of days."

  She laughed. The sound of her laughter was like music playing, soft and melodic.

  "How do you feel about dogs?" Gavriil asked, watching her face closely.

  Lexi paused in the act of bringing the teacup up to her mouth. "Dogs? Who doesn't love or want dogs? I'm here by myself a lot, so I wish I had one, but we all have to agree. Everyone seems to be in agreement. I don't think Lissa is very fond of dogs, but not because she doesn't like animals. I suspect she got bit at one time, because she isn't afraid of very much."

  "I love dogs and I've been working with them for a while, since I recovered from my last dance with a knife. I couldn't work so I found a little place way out in the middle of nowhere and brought a couple of dogs with me. They're beautiful."

  "Here? In the United States?"

  "In Russia. But I brought them with me."

  "How can you do that? Get them into the country without anyone knowing. I presume they aren't in quarantine somewhere."

  He could see she was getting excited. Somehow the idea that she might like animals, especially dogs, only served to make him want her more. He was falling pretty hard and very fast and it shook him. Still, he was going to stay. She'd offered, and Lexi wasn't a woman to take back an offer. The others couldn't do anything about it.

  "There are all kinds of ways to slip in and out of a country, Lexi, and over the years, I've made a few connections that have helped. Also, I'm very adept at paperwork."

  "You look very smug right now. Where is the dog?"

  "Dogs," he corrected. "I have a breeding pair and the female is pregnant."

  Lexi leaned toward him. "Gavriil, I know you came here to say good-bye to your brothers. You used your real name. You've admitted that you were going to lead any hit man away from your brothers. What would you be doing with these dogs?"

  The more time he spent with her, and saw the expressions chasing across her face, saw the way she became animated, especially when she thought about him leading assassins away from the farm, he found himself falling all the harder.

  "I wanted them safe," he admitted.

  Abruptly, Lexi put down her teacup. For a moment he thought he saw tears swimming in her eyes, but she looked away from him, out toward the farm.

  "What is it, Lexi?" he asked softly. "How have I upset you?" He reached across the small table to lay his hand on her thigh, needing to touch her, to know what he'd done wrong.

  The moment his hand curved along her thigh, she stiffened. He was extremely careful to keep the gesture nonthreatening and platonic. He waited until she relaxed. "If you don't tell me what I do wrong, I'll never know."

  "It's just that I don't want you to ever compare yourself with Caine again. Not ever."

  She turned and looked at him, straight in the eye. He felt the impact of her gaze like a dagger to his heart. Her eyes swam with tears. A few sparkled on her lashes. Several others tracked down her face. He couldn't stop himself, he reached over the table and brushed them from her face.

  "I don't understand."

  "You're willing to sacrifice yourself for your family, but before you do, you need to know your dogs are in good hands." She shook her head. "Gavriil, do you have any idea how truly lost you are? I'm broken and I know it, but I also know better than to throw away my life. I'm not afraid of death, and it's not like I have tons to live for, but life is something precious. A gift. I've learned that much. You're so ready to throw it away."

  "I don't have much to live for either, Lexi. My brothers have a life here. I knew that. I was happy for them. I want them to thrive here, but they can't do that with a death sentence always hanging over their heads. I would go after Sorbacov, but I'd never get close to him or his son. They both have to die for all this to stop."

  "Your brothers wouldn't want you to sacrifice yourself, Gavriil. And I don't want you to. You're far more broken than I am. You don't see yourself at all."

  He sank back into the chair. "You persist in thinking I'm a good man."

  "I know you are. Good men make certain their animals are cared for. Good men rescue women who are strangers to them."

  He didn't know what to say to her. Good men didn't go around killing for a living, but he didn't want to remind her of that. Something, a small ripple in the air near them, disturbed him. He let his gaze move from Lexi to the surrounding forest. Someone was close to them, had moved into hearing distance. They were good at stealth, barely moving the air around them. It smacked of a professional.

  "Lexi." He said her name softly.

  A woman emerged from the brush near the pathway, hopping a couple of steps as if she might have a pebble in her shoe. She dropped to her knee, nearly out of sight again as she tugged at her left shoe to remove it. The sun turned her hair into a blaze of glory, a wealth of fiery red.

  Lexi stood up immediately, a smile of greeting on her face. "Lissa! Are you all right?"

  Soft laughter floated toward them. "I took the shortcut and got a little rock in my shoe for my efforts. I came over to see if you might go to this thing Lucia's putting on. The cooking class. I know you've got to be shaken up by everything, but she's especially asked for you an
d so I thought maybe going might help you as well."

  Lissa's head popped up above the bushes as she stood. Gavriil watched her come toward them through narrow, hooded eyes. He kept his expression blank, but suddenly, Lissa intrigued him. There was something about the way she moved, an awareness about her.

  "Who is she?" he asked softly.

  "Lissa Piner. One of my sisters. She was here earlier."

  He had seen her of course, with her red hair, how did anyone miss her? But he hadn't noticed her. Not like this. Not with his warning system blaring at him.

  "What does she do?"

  "She's a glassblower. She's an amazing artist."

  Lissa Piner might be an amazing artist, but he would bet his last dollar that she was far more than that.

  "How long have you known her?" he asked. Even as the woman approached, the way she moved intrigued him. She didn't make a sound. She wasn't just light on her feet, it was more than that. She moved with absolute grace, a flowing rhythm that spoke of stealth and shadows. She'd triggered his alarms and yet, the expression on her face when she looked at Lexi was very real, very open. Lissa genuinely loved Lexi.

  Gavriil realized all the women had secrets just as his brothers did. Whatever those secrets were didn't seem to matter on the farm. They accepted one another for who they were. They'd formed a tight-knit family and their loyalty to one another ran deep. For the very first time he longed to be a part of that.

  Lexi stepped to the edge of the railing, so close to him he caught that faint scent she gave off of the forest and the earth itself. She smelled clean and fresh, the air after a rainstorm.

  "I've known Lissa for five years," she answered. "She's wonderful."

  Gavriil stood too. He needed space and felt crowded all of a sudden. There were too many people here with too many secrets, all trusting one another, yet he trusted none of them--with the exception of Lexi--and that was unexplainable.

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