Earth Bound by Christine Feehan


  Gavriil sipped at his coffee, studying her face, determining whether or not to give her the information she required. She was patient, waiting for him to make up his mind.

  She loved Lexi. She didn't question that he would stay with her youngest sister. She not only expected it, but wanted him there. "Perhaps, if I am going to give you details about our greatest enemy, I should bring my dogs in for you to meet. Once the introductions are made, they will lie quietly while we discuss this."

  "And they won't eat me when I come to visit."

  "That is the plan. Lexi told me you were uncertain about having dogs on the property. You, of all your sisters, seem most concerned with security and I would think you would want them."

  Lissa smiled at him, but there was no humor in the smile. "I've had a bad experience that colored my opinion. It's silly really. It shouldn't have. We had dogs when I was a child, and our handler betrayed my family. It was a long time ago."

  He felt the difference in the room temperature almost immediately. The warmth was subtle, but it was there. Lissa looked perfectly calm, her hands as steady as a rock around her coffee mug, her eyes as cool and serene as ever, but he knew the memory he'd just brought back was a trigger.

  "Tell me what happened."

  "It doesn't matter."

  "You're asking me to treat you like a sister, to give you information I wouldn't ordinarily share with anyone. Give me that same courtesy. I know your real name isn't Lissa Piner and you aren't from this country. English is your second language, not your first, although your accent is impeccable. I know you've done work very similar to mine. You favor your left leg, just a little when you're tired, although it doesn't hamper your speed in the least, so it's an old injury that has healed but still causes pain once in a while."

  They stared at each other, two warriors who had recognized each other almost immediately. Lissa took another sip of coffee.

  "Your home is a fortress, and you have an arsenal here. You're far better at hand-to-hand combat and self-defense than you let on, and to be with these women, you've lost a family member to murder, which probably started you on your path."

  He was guessing on most of the latter, but it was a fairly safe bet.

  Lissa shrugged. "I guess you did recognize me, and here I was trying so hard to cover my tracks."

  "Not that hard. You needed help for your next project so you let me see what you wanted me to see."

  She smiled for the first time. "So true."

  "So tell me about the dogs that attacked you. It's important to Lexi that you're comfortable here on the farm. My dogs saved my life. I wouldn't want them to frighten you to the point that you felt the need to protect yourself. They make good protection dogs, and Kiss should have six to ten pups. If each family takes at least one, they'll bond with that owner and protect the house and farm for everyone."

  "It's a good plan but . . ." Lissa pulled up the denim covering her left leg.

  The scars were horrific. From her knee to her ankle she carried the evidence of a vicious attack. He waited until she pulled the material back into place.

  "What happened?"

  "My father was born into a certain family. I won't say he was a good man, but he was a good father. I was too young to know that he was mixed up in things he shouldn't have been, but his father before him had been, so he did what most sons did and became part of the family business."

  Lissa put her mug down. Her hands were still and steady as ever, but her eyes went hot. There was no doubt the room temperature rose another degree or two. He felt sweat begin to bead on his skin and he breathed evenly to accommodate the difference.

  "There was a man from a rival family who saw my mother. Their family was much more dangerous than ours, more men, more territory, more money. He went after my mother and she turned him down. I heard her telling my father about it."

  In spite of how casual she tried to appear, her tone grew tighter. He expected the chair beneath her to burst into flames at any moment. The room actually took on a glow, as if the early morning sun had come inside.

  "He told my mother to pack a suitcase fast, that we were leaving the country that night. He told my mother the man was psychotic and all of us would be in danger. His father protected him, and he would come after her for turning him down."

  She pressed her lips together, and for the first time he saw her hand shake as she lifted it to her bright red hair.

  "Northern Italy," he guessed to give her some time. "You don't find red hair often in southern Italy, but it's there in the north and your hair is natural." There was no denying it now. The moment he said it, he could see the fair skin and very red hair, thick and luxurious as Italian hair often was, along with her striking deep blue eyes. The combination was unforgettable, not necessarily an asset in the work he suspected she must have done.

  "Ferrara. A beautiful city. We had a wonderful home. I loved it. All the classic architecture. Of course there were men, guards, all the time, but I didn't really understand why at the time. They came as we were leaving, four carloads cutting us off from our ride and the men who would have protected us. I'll never forget the sound of gunfire or the smell of blood as the intruders killed everyone. Our servants. Our protectors. Even our gardener and his family. He had four young children."

  Gavriil inhaled deeply. He could almost smell the scent of gunpowder. He could hear the screams of his mother and the cries of the baby. His father calling out his love to his sons, telling them to be strong, making them promise they would always protect and look after the younger ones.

  He lived in Russia, Lexi in the United States, and Lissa in Italy, and all three had been visited by men with guns, men who had destroyed their families. It was no wonder Lissa identified with Lexi and looked after her.

  "Our dog handler, a man who had eaten frequently at our table and even played with me in the gardens, a man my father trusted, betrayed us that night. He was working for the other family and he set the dogs after us. One of the dogs caught up with me and dragged me down. I couldn't keep up with my parents and they both turned back to help me. My father shot the dog but more kept coming."

  "You couldn't run with your leg so chewed up."

  She shook her head. "My father told my mother to keep going, but more dogs came and they took her down. There was a cemetery on the property and he told me to hide in a certain crypt until my uncle came for me. He said to wrap my leg and get there. He pushed a large bag into my hands, kissed me hard and shoved me away from him. I did what he said."

  "You saw them kill your parents."

  She nodded slowly. "I could see the men laughing, watching the dogs tear them apart. I never forgot any of their faces. Not a single one."

  He studied her expression. "Your uncle came for you and he was a hit man for the mob, wasn't he? He taught you how to survive as well as how to hunt."

  "Every last one of them."

  There was a finality in her tone he couldn't help but admire. He found himself not only respecting Lissa, but liking her.

  "I understand why you would hesitate to bring dogs onto the property. But if you were the one training the dog . . ."

  "I wouldn't know how."

  "I'd help you. Let me introduce you to my dogs. They'll be the ones protecting Lexi. I'd like to add them to the security here on the farm. I know we can make this farm impossible to infiltrate in spite of how large it is. We have only to protect, first the homes and then the places anyone works, such as the fields."

  Lissa took a deep breath, her deep blue eyes moving over his face as if looking for something. He knew he wasn't much to look at.

  "First tell me what happened to your arm."

  "Sorbacov sent a couple of men after Ilya, my youngest brother."

  "I know who he is. He can handle himself."

  "Does Lexi know what happened to you? The others?"

  "They know some of it. Enough to know my family was killed, but not what I am, or my real name. I'm not that person anymo
re."

  His eyebrow shot up. "Then why the interest in Sorbacov? Why St. Petersburg?"

  She shrugged again. "Bring in your dogs, but you'd better be able to control them or I'll shoot them."

  Gavriil felt it was very important that Lissa see how well-trained an animal could be and what an asset the Black Russian Terriers would be on the farm. He went to the door and called them in, using only a hand signal. His past didn't allow him to turn his back completely on Lissa, but he tried to be polite about it, presenting a side target.

  Drago and Kiss rushed to him and both sat squarely in front of him, but Drago's eyes were on Lissa, not on him. He was already targeting potential trouble.

  "See how quickly they alert, but he's waiting to see whether you're a friend or enemy because I'm with you," he said, keeping his tone low and matter-of-fact. He gave the dogs the hand signal he used to let them know the person close wasn't to be attacked before bringing them in by his side to meet her.

  "They'll accept you much better if you allow them to smell you."

  "I said I'd do it." Her tone was tight, but she had nerves of steel. She held out her hand to the dogs, allowing them to catch her scent.

  "Call them by their names and when you feel safe enough, pet them. They'll be a little aloof, but that's the way they should be."

  Lissa followed his instructions to the letter. He could see she was surprised at how silky and soft their coats were. Both dogs allowed her to touch them, accepting her into their circle because Gavriil had decreed it.

  Gavriil sank into the chair again and waved the dogs to the floor at his feet. Only then did Lissa settle enough to pick up her coffee mug. He knew she'd had one hand on the dogs and the other on her hidden weapon.

  "I told you about my family. I would like you to tell me about Sorbacov."

  "This vacation you're taking to St. Petersburg doesn't have anything to do with him, does it? Because he's surrounded by security at all times. The place where he stays is impregnable. If he could have been gotten to, one of us would have done so."

  "I'm taking a vacation to St. Petersburg to make certain I'm nowhere near the farm or in Sea Haven just in case another of your brothers decides to show up. That, and it's worth several thousand dollars to the farm if I can land this client." She rested her chin on her palm, her elbow on the arm of the chair. "Is Sorbacov in St. Petersburg? I would have thought Moscow."

  Gavriil shook his head. "Not Moscow. Sorbacov is staying in St. Petersburg at the moment while he cleans up his father's mess. He's trying to keep a low profile even while he's moving behind the scenes to become president."

  "Why does he hate your family so much?"

  "I honestly don't think it's personal. At least not until Maxim kept him from acquiring Airiana and her brains to become his own little captive think tank. He can't afford for his father's experiments to ever see the light of day, so he's sweeping the entire special unit of assassins his father created under the rug, so to speak. In order to do that, he has to execute the students who attended the schools his father set up."

  "How did your family get involved?"

  "When my father was alive, he was a very influential man. He had many gifts, and his political opponents feared him. At that time the country was in the beginning stages of unrest. It was all beneath the surface, and several men were trying to orchestrate a change in power. One of those, a man by the name of Kostya Sorbacov, was on the rise. He was very careful to always be in the background. He wanted anonymity to carry out his plans."

  "The power behind the throne so to speak."

  Gavriil nodded. "Yes. Unfortunately for him, there were several very powerful men who were outspoken against his chosen candidate. So he went to work systematically destroying them. One night soldiers broke into our home. We were taken, our parents murdered. Sorbacov didn't want us together. He feared we would be too strong and loyal to one another, so we were taken to separate cities and placed in schools."

  "The spy/assassin schools for children. I heard whispers of them, but no one knew if they really existed."

  "He called us operatives. I was Operative Prakenskii. We had brutal instructors and learned everything from languages to art, but mostly how to kill people. It was . . . difficult and the punishments for failure ranged from beatings to death. It was a big range."

  Lissa sighed. "Let me get you another cup of coffee. Keep talking." She glanced at the dogs, straightened her shoulders and stood up gracefully. Both dogs alerted, watching her closely, but neither moved a muscle.

  "There isn't much to tell. We did our jobs. And then Sorbacov's son grew up, and politics in Russia changed. Uri, his son, doesn't want to be the man behind the scenes. He wants to run the country, but he can't do that if there is any evidence of these schools Russia had been denying all along. So he set out to make certain all evidence of the schools was wiped out. Before he did, Lissa . . ."

  Gavriil took the mug of hot coffee she handed him. "Before he did, Uri and his father went to St. Petersburg to their 'safe' house. To try to get to them would be suicide. It may be possible later, but now they're expecting it and have prepared. They know the faces and identities of everyone who attended the schools, and their security forces are on the lookout for those specific individuals as well as strangers."

  Lissa curled her feet under her. "You're suddenly warning me off, Gavriil, why?"

  "I didn't expect to care one way or the other," Gavriil admitted. "I'm not a caring man. I think Lexi did something to me the other day and ruined my ability to stay distant." He was half joking and half serious.

  Lissa burst out laughing. "That's Lexi all right. She definitely can put a spell on you, and she isn't even aware of it." The smile faded from her face. "You know it won't be easy with her, right?"

  "Do you think she'll have it easy with me?" he countered. He indicated the maps. "Are you really going?"

  "Sometime in the next couple of weeks, when I know Lexi is safe from these cult members. I really love to get away now and then. It inspires me." A slow smile teased her mouth. "I wasn't kidding when I said I'd feel safer there than here. I'm not the kind of woman who could put up with an overbearing man. I can't imagine anything else in a Prakenskii, and it's down to two of us now. Blythe and me. I'd rather not take any chances."

  "I see your point. I'd love to stay and chat more, but I need to make certain Airiana and the children have been introduced to the dogs. It seems Benito likes to sneak around spying."

  "He does," Lissa agreed. "I've caught him a time or two lurking in the trees. He hasn't figured out a way to cross the open area to the house."

  Gavriil laughed as he stood up. "He's industrious if nothing else."

  "Their parents were killed, just like ours. They lost a little sister as well. Maxim is worried Benito is going to go down a wrong path. None of us want that for him, so we're all trying to redirect his rage and feelings of helplessness into a more protective mode." She shrugged. "Who knows if it will work?"

  "One thing I do know for certain, Lissa," Gavriil said, "this farm is a place of healing. If there's any way that boy can put his life back together and become something other than a killer, it's here."

  "That's a nice thing to hear," Lissa replied. "We tried hard to make new lives for ourselves and to build not only a haven of peace, but something productive."

  "I think you've accomplished that. Before you make up your mind to go on this trip, give it a little more thought, given the things I've told you. If you really feel you want to try, I can give you the schematics I have on the Sorbacov estate as well as all information I've accrued. Which isn't as much as I'd like. But you have to promise me that you'll think about this."

  Lissa nodded. "Thank you, Gavriil. And I wouldn't mind knowing how to train a dog the way yours have been trained. Do they scare me? You bet."

  "I don't think much scares you, Lissa." He signaled the two dogs to his side.

  "Don't kid yourself. Dogs terrify me, but I'm willing to try to
get over it for everyone else's sake."

  *

  SHE'D kissed Gavriil Prakenskii. Lexi looked up at the sky, expecting it to fall. A miracle had happened and no one was around to witness it. Not that she wanted anyone to see her kissing Gavriil, but really? She'd kissed him. She touched her lips. She was smiling like an idiot and couldn't seem to stop.

  She wasn't going to ruin the morning by thinking of anything that came next. She'd achieved a milestone, more than that. She'd actually kissed a man, and she hadn't panicked or thrown up. She threw her arms out and did a slow circle, happiness blossoming. Her feet did a little happy dance right there in the lettuce field.

  "Lexi?"

  She whirled around, her heart in her throat, jerked back to the present, to reality, to her life. The breath rushed from her lungs and her throat closed. Adrenaline poured through her body, paralyzing her. She could only stare at the young girl who had come up behind her. It took many long moments before panic receded and her mind allowed her to recognize Lucia.

  The girl was crying, tears pouring down her face. She looked so young and lost, Lexi stepped up to her and gathered her into her arms, holding her close while she wept. She didn't ask what was wrong, or what had triggered the storm. She knew. How could she not?

  When Lucia finally began hiccupping and clearing her throat in an effort to stop, Lexi pulled back, her hands on the girl's shoulders. "Do you want to go up to the house and I can make tea for us? We'll talk."

  "I can't stop crying this morning," Lucia admitted. "I didn't want the kids to see me. Siena and Nicia both fall completely apart if they see me crying. I just can't stop thinking about my little sister Sofia and what she suffered before she died. I couldn't stop them from taking her. I tried, Lexi, but they knocked me down and dragged her out." She pressed both hands over her ears. "I can't get her screams out of my mind. I've never heard anything like that, so frightened. So . . ." She broke off, staring at Lexi helplessly with her enormous dark eyes.

  Lexi had screamed. She'd heard other girls scream, and she knew exactly the sound Lucia was trying to describe. She nodded slowly. "It seems as if those screams will never fade and leave you alone, leave you in peace, even for a moment. And then you worry they will fade and that means you're forgetting and the guilt and shame come."

 
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