Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  That was worse than if she'd walked in and slapped him hard across the face and told him to leave. He couldn't read her. He read everyone. That gift kept him alive, but there she stood, looking so beautiful it hurt, and he had no idea what she was going to do or say.

  "They've had their run this morning," he said. "You don't own a coffeepot nor could I find coffee, so I made tea."

  Her face brightened. "Tea is perfect. I always have a cup of tea before I go out to work. With milk," she added as he poured her a cup.

  He held his breath as she walked into the room, straight toward him. He braced himself. Lexi took the mug, wrapping both hands around it. She stood right in front of him, looking up at his face, her eyes searching his for a long time. He knew what she must have felt like when he put his hand on her throat. She weighed his fate. Force him to leave because he was a monster beyond all hope, or . . . what? What was he thinking?

  She couldn't possibly understand his life or what had been drilled into him and then required of him. The worlds he'd traveled in were far beyond her imagination. Her eyes, a deep forest green, moved over his face, looked into his, and he knew she saw him, not the person she'd believed him to be, a broken man so much like her, but the killer they'd shaped and trained and sent out into the world to do their bidding.

  He had completed every job and he'd grown numb, a survival tactic he knew, his mind trying to save him from the insanity of his life. How far did one go to protect family? As far as he knew, he'd never killed an innocent man. He'd done his research on every job, and he'd spent his life in the underbelly with the men who didn't dare show their faces in the light of day.

  Lexi reached up and cupped the side of his jaw, her thumb sliding along his face in the lightest of caresses. "All this time, Gavriil, I thought I was so broken you would eventually look at me and decide there was no hope. But you . . ." She shook her head and dropped her hand. "I think you need me."

  She turned away from him and dropped into one of the kitchen chairs, curling up in it, sipping at her tea. "I've got tons of work to do this morning. I'll come back around noon and try another session with acupuncture. Please don't do anything to aggravate that wound either. How does it feel?"

  "Like someone shoved a knife through my arm." He put eggs and hash browns onto two plates and added fresh strawberries before carrying the plates to the table. "It doesn't hurt unless I breathe or move." He tried a tentative smile just to see if his face could actually change expression without shattering.

  "That's good." Her answering smile was faint. "You really can cook. That's nice. I can, and I'm good, but I don't always feel like it. Maybe we can share the job."

  "You might want to taste the food instead of pushing it around your plate first," Gavriil suggested.

  Relief was overwhelming. He refused to allow it to register on his face, but emotion consumed him, made him feel shaky both inside and out. He sat across from her, expressionless, looking the picture of a confident, tough man, and yet he barely recognized himself. He had never felt so exposed and vulnerable in his life.

  "We need to get some coffee. And a coffeepot."

  "I never thought about it. I never drink coffee and no one ever comes here except for my sisters and they're happy with tea, even Rikki, who loves black coffee. She'll even drink tea with me. I did ask Judith to pick up chocolate the other day because Lucia came by one day and I didn't have anything to offer her."

  "You don't have much in your cupboards."

  She shrugged. "Mostly I eat what I grow and I pick it fresh. Everyone does that. We do have a communal storage room. There might be coffee and a pot in there. If not, I can go to the store late afternoon." She glanced at her watch. "I might finish up by then. I've tons to do because I didn't work yesterday. It rained though, so I don't have to worry about watering."

  "Aren't your crops on an automatic watering system?"

  "Most are now. And I have a system for the younger fruit trees as well. Some things just don't grow well here on the coast." She frowned and chewed her eggs thoughtfully. "When we bought the farm there were no watering systems. We've had to slowly install them as we've gotten the money for it, but it's a lot of money and we've never had that much extra. The farm is beginning to thrive and pay for itself, but prior to that, we siphoned money from the other businesses."

  "They all benefit from the farm and produce," Gavriil pointed out. "You work the farm. They have separate money. Do you get paid?"

  "Actually, we don't really separate the money. We all contribute. Lissa does the accounting for us all and we're all on budgets. We meet every other month to discuss how we're doing financially and how we can improve. All of us are allotted so much money per month."

  "And when my brothers showed up, they didn't help out financially?" He couldn't keep the low, ominous note from his voice.

  Her gaze flicked to his. "Of course they did. They've put a lot of money toward security and they're purchasing the land that borders ours--another five hundred acres. It's mostly forest, but I've coveted that land for some time, so I'm superexcited about it."

  She pushed her plate away and stood up. For the first time he realized she was nervous and that realization settled him immediately. As she started to turn, he reached out and caught her wrist. She halted the moment his fingers settled around her wrist, but she stared straight ahead.

  "Lexi. Turn around." His voice had gone low. Tender. He felt tenderness toward her. How could he not?

  She turned very slowly to face him. Tears sparkled in her eyes, turning them from a forest green to a deep emerald. He tugged gently until she reluctantly took the two steps to bring her to his side.

  "I'm sorry for what I am. I wish, for your sake, I was a better man."

  She blinked to remove the tears, but one slid down her face in spite of her efforts. "Do you really think I didn't ever wish him dead? I plotted to kill him a million different ways. I wanted him dead. I prayed he would die."

  "But you didn't kill him, Lexi," he pointed out gently. "Wishing him dead was natural under the circumstances. That doesn't make you like me."

  "I didn't kill him because I was too much of a coward, not because I had a great moral conviction that it was wrong," she confessed. "I killed him a thousand times in my dreams. I made him suffer the way he made all of us suffer. I wasn't the only girl they brought there. Three girls ended up committing suicide. One died in childbirth. Do you have any idea what it's like to be chained up and put in a box the size of a small casket you can't move an inch in with the lid closed and locked? I hated him. I wanted him dead and I hated myself for not being strong enough to kill him."

  "You aren't responsible for the deaths of those girls," he said, with sudden insight.

  "If not me, then who? I was in his house. I fixed his food. I had access to knives. When he was asleep, I could have plunged one through his heart. I was too scared and because of that those girls died."

  "Lexi, you can't believe that. You were a child and he stripped you of everything. You were lucky to survive."

  "And they weren't so lucky. Do I think you were wrong for what you did to him, Gavriil? I wish I did. I wish I could sit in judgment and tell you once again, like I did the other day, that killing is wrong. I don't honestly know if it is."

  She sighed. "When you came in and I thought I'd killed him using my gift, I was horrified and I don't even know why. I should have been shouting for joy, but instead all I could think about was how selfish I was, that I killed him to protect myself and not those other girls."

  "You were a child, Lexi, a little girl who should have been playing with her friends, not living with a monster."

  She didn't realize tears were spilling down her cheeks. He wiped them away with the pad of his thumb, wanting to kill Caine all over again for the trauma the man had done to her and so many others.

  "It doesn't matter now, solnyshko moya, we're here and we're starting over. He's gone and he's never going to harm another girl."

bsp; "If I had killed him, Gavriil, if I had just found the courage, my parents, brothers and little sister would all be alive today. I was so afraid he'd catch me and put me in the terrible box. I tried so many times, but I couldn't make myself."

  He pulled her into his arms, standing her between his thighs, and framing her face with his hands. His eyes searched hers for fear, for anything that told him to back off. When there was nothing but sorrow and pain, he bent his head to hers.

  Gavriil kissed her eyes, soft little brushing caresses. He followed the tracks of her tears down first one cheek and then the other, tasting her tears. His lips found the corners of her mouth, brushing gently. He settled his mouth over hers. The briefest of kisses--to comfort not claim--to reassure not arouse.

  He took great care to be gentler than he'd ever been in his life. When he lifted his head, she melted into him, circling his neck with her arms and resting her head on his shoulder, the uninjured side. Even in her time of distress, she was careful of him.

  "I know I shouldn't say this to you, Gavriil. I know it's wrong of me, but thank you. I'm sorry you were the one who had to do it because I know you have to bear that burden for the rest of your life."

  Gavriil started to protest but then realized she needed to tell him everything just as he had needed to confess to her.

  "He would have killed me, and I still, after all of the training both Lissa and Levi gave me, couldn't find the courage to kill him. He paralyzed me. I just froze. I felt like a terrified child. I'm so sorry." She lifted her head and looked him in the eyes. "I would be a total hypocrite if I told you how wrong you were in what you did. You were able to do what I should have so many years ago."

  To his shock, Kiss rushed over to push her face against Lexi in an attempt to comfort her. The females of the breed were often less accepting of new relationships than the males, who just generally remained aloof. Lexi dropped her hand in the silky coat for a brief moment.

  "I'm all right, Kiss," she murmured. "I just can't stop crying."

  Gavriil signaled the dog back to the corner as Lexi laid her head on his shoulder again. He tightened his arms around her, holding her body close to his, aching for her. He'd done a lot of terrible things in his life and he suffered pain beyond what most could have taken, but being helpless when the one person in the world who meant the most suffered, that was true pain.

  "I'm going to stay, Lexi. We're going to build a life for ourselves. We're going to find a way to be a family and be happy together. You know the worst of me and you seem to be able to accept me the way I am. I'll do my best to make you happy. I can give you my word on that. I know I can keep you safe."

  She pulled back again to look into his eyes. "Will you really be happy cooped up on a farm after all your travels? With a woman so broken she doesn't know if she can have a normal relationship with a man?"

  "I lived alone for two years in the hills and forests of Russia. I've spent my entire existence alone. The farm is the perfect place for a man like me who needs solitude as well as peace. I like the work, and you're the kind of woman who wouldn't mind if I needed space." He couldn't imagine needing space from her, but if so, she wouldn't be upset with him. She was too accepting.

  Lexi moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. "What are we doing here? Are we really discussing trying to have an actual relationship? Like a man and woman? Not just roommates?"

  "Like a real man and a real woman?" A slow smile came out of nowhere. This was what happiness felt like. This was sharing a moment with another human being that counted. She'd given him so many firsts now he could hardly believe it. "Yes. I think that's what we're talking about, Lexi, but I don't want you to panic."

  "I am. I'm totally panicking. I'll let you down, Gavriil, and you deserve so much more than I'll ever be able to give you. I'm a hard worker and I could be a good companion, but the womanly thing totally eludes me."

  He took her hand and gently opened her fingers, exposing her palm. "I can see the panic in your eyes, solnyshko moya. Truly there is no need for it. If the man-woman thing is meant to be, then it will happen. We can live as companions, although, honestly, I will never see you as a sister." He brushed his thumb over the center of her palm, watching her face, watching the hint of desire creep into those forest green eyes.

  She made a face at him. "I think you're the proverbial devil in blue jeans come here to seduce me."

  "You got that right." He brought her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss into the center. "I might point out before you get afraid, that you slept in your bed last night and I was very, very gentlemanly."

  She smiled and this time it reached her eyes, lighting her face. "I did, didn't I? That was my very first night in my own bed. And you were a perfect gentleman."

  "Where will you be working? I've got a couple of things to do here and then I'll catch up with you."

  "You aren't going to rig the house with bombs or something equally as crazy, are you?" she asked, suspicion in her voice.

  He laughed. He couldn't help it. "I'm going to have Levi and Rikki come over and I'll introduce the dogs to them. Then I'll ask Maxim and Airiana to bring the children. I need to make certain they accept everyone on the farm as part of their pack before Kiss has her puppies. She's looking more and more as if she might have them sooner rather than later."

  "When is she supposed to have them?"

  "She's about a week out, but she's already showing signs. I don't want her to be so protective over the puppies that she has a difficult time accepting the others who live here. Lucia and your sisters have to feel comfortable coming to visit."

  "I'll need to tell Lissa about them," Lexi said. "She's skittish about the subject."

  "You said she was bitten?"

  Lexi frowned. "I actually can't remember if she said that or not, but she acts like she may have been. Lissa isn't afraid of much."

  "I imagine she isn't," Gavriil said.

  "What does that mean?"

  "Only that she's fierce," he said. "Has she ever kicked one of my brothers' butts in training?"

  "She says they're always just a little faster, but she comes close."

  He nodded. "Why don't you let me talk to Lissa this morning? I like her. I don't want to alienate her in any way. She's seems closest to you."

  Lexi stepped away from him, shrugging. "I love them all, but Lissa seems to know I'm not the sweet, fragile child the others see me as."

  "You are sweet, Lexi, and whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, you're fragile. That doesn't mean you can't be strong or courageous, both of which you are. It means this hard-won peace that you found can be ripped away. You need to stay here, on the farm. You've made a home and life here. Your sisters obviously worry about Rikki having to move, but they should be worried about you as well."

  "I could do it."

  "Of course you could, but that doesn't mean you should. In any case, it isn't going to happen, so put that worry to rest. I've spoken to Ilya and we've come to an understanding. I think he'll make certain the Drakes will be accepting of us. After all, in a way, we're all family or will be soon."

  She shot him a quick look but refrained from asking what he meant. "I'm heading out to check the lettuce field. I had to replant this last week and I want to finish up there."

  "Kiss me."


  "Before you go, kiss me. Isn't that the accepted practice when the woman of a man's heart and soul exits the home to go to work? I'm fairly certain I'm right. If you don't know the answer, we can always call one of your sisters and ask."

  Her eyes had gone wide with shock, dark with excitement and maybe a little fear. "You wouldn't dare."

  "Of course I would." He forced innocence into his voice. "How else are we going to learn anything?"

  Lexi stalked back across the room. He could almost hear her heart pounding. Her breath came a little too fast, her breasts rising and falling in agitation. She stood in front of him for a long time, staring down at his face, h
er hands behind her back.

  "What is it, dusha moya?" he asked gently. She looked so lost his heart nearly broke for her.

  "I don't know how."

  He frowned. "What do you mean, you don't know how?"

  "He made me do things to him, but kissing wasn't one of them."

  He had never hated a man in his life. When he killed, he killed dispassionately. It was a job, and he did his job and left. But Caine . . . The man had taken a child and abused her in every way possible, stripping her of dignity and humanity in order to control her completely. He hadn't shown her a single kindness and he'd never tried to prepare her body for the brutality of what he would do to her.

  "That's good. It's a good thing that man didn't subject you to a disgusting pretense of love. I was taught how to kiss. Like a damned robot, Lexi. No feeling. No purpose other than to arouse a woman I needed information from. I've never kissed a woman I felt affection for." Hell, he'd never felt affection--until now. "I guess this will be another first for both of us."

  "What if I do it all wrong? Or worse? I totally freeze up and both of us will know for certain I'm not capable of any kind of kissing?"

  "What kind of kiss are we talking about here? I'm all for diving straight to it if we want to figure this thing out fast, but I was taking the slower, much more careful approach. Letting you get to know what an all-around great prize you're getting. I come with an arsenal, two killer dogs and skills on my resume few others can ever claim."

  The anxiety slowly left her face to be replaced by a small smile. "You're impossible, do you know that? I'll bet no one else knows you have a sense of humor."

  "It's been a well-kept secret, so much so, even I didn't know."

  She burst out laughing and the sound was prettier to him than any music he'd ever heard.

  "Come here, woman." He stood up and pointed to the spot in front of him. When she complied, he caught her chin in his hand and leaned down to brush his mouth across hers. His heart nearly stopped and then began beating hard in his chest. He had intended to let it go at that. A chaste kiss, nothing to frighten her, but he couldn't stop, not after seeing her fears.

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