Earth Bound by Christine Feehan


  Lucia nodded. "I can hardly stand it sometimes, Lexi, and I have to smile and laugh for the girls. Benito tries not to cry, and he won't tell me what happened to him, so I know that it had to be very bad. Nicia cries in her sleep and calls for Sofia. Airiana is so good to us, and I hate adding more of a burden to her by falling apart too, but I am. I'm completely falling apart."

  She began to sob, pushing her fist into her mouth to try to choke back the heartbroken weeping. Lexi gathered her into her arms again.

  "Airiana doesn't think you or your sisters and brother are a burden, Lucia. She knows what it's like to lose someone she loves in a terrible way. I do too. I lost my parents, two brothers and a little sister."

  "Why? I don't understand why. My mother and father were good people. They didn't do anything wrong. It doesn't make any sense to me."

  "Honey, it doesn't make any sense to anyone. There are bad people all over the world. I have no idea what shapes them into the monsters they are, but they ruin lives. They do. We have to fight back by not allowing them to ruin our lives. We're here together, building another family, learning to live all over again without the people we love and with the scars we carry. We're defiant and determined."

  "I'm just sad all the time. More than sad. I feel as if something heavy is weighing me down and I can't get out from under it."

  "That's grief, Lucia, and you're supposed to feel it. You lost your family. Please let Airiana take you to our counselor. She specializes in working with people who have lost loved ones through violence. I know she'll help you through this time."

  "I feel guilty for clinging to Airiana and Max," Lucia admitted in a small voice. "It's okay for Siena and Nicia. They're young. Babies. Little Nicia was assaulted by that horrible man. She talks to Airiana and Max and that's a good thing. She needs to. They both need parents, and so does Benito, but when I find myself clinging to Airiana and Max, I'm so afraid I'm betraying my mother and father."

  Lexi put her arm around the girl and started her back toward the house. "Your parents would want you to be happy and loved. They would want Airiana and Max to be in your lives, loving and caring for you and most of all, protecting you. If you find yourself loving them in return, that doesn't ever mean that you love your parents less. Do you understand?"

  Lucia sniffed and shook her head.

  Lexi kept her walking. Lucia shivered several times. Airiana had told Lexi during the cooking lesson that she was worried about the teenager. Lucia was so busy looking after the younger children that she hadn't really dealt with her own traumas. Lucia was overwhelmed now, the reality of her situation hitting her at once.

  "You love people differently. You love your parents, Lucia, and you love your siblings. You probably even feel maternal toward Nicia and Siena, right?"

  Lucia nodded. "I always wanted little sisters, and when they came along, I pretended I was their mother, especially the twins." She choked up again.

  Lexi settled her arm more protectively around the girl's waist as they made their way up the path toward the house. She felt a little desperate. She didn't know the right thing to say to Lucia, and right now, the child needed to hear something that would help her. Lexi wasn't certain she was the right person to come to.

  "Of course," she said. "That would be so natural to pretend at your age that the babies were your own. The girls love you so much, Lucia, but it didn't lessen their love for their parents. Accepting and loving Airiana and Max won't take away the love you have for your parents. It won't. Love doesn't work that way."

  Lexi had no idea if she was even making sense. Lucia continued to weep, only much more quietly, reminding Lexi of her own terrible grief--a grief so deep she could barely express it.

  "Max makes me feel safe," Lucia said.

  There was guilt in her voice. Shame. Lexi frowned. Now they were in precarious waters. She had to figure out for herself what was bothering Lucia so much. She had made the confession in a little rush, as if confessing her sins.

  Lexi was silent, her mind turning over and over the way Lucia had made her declaration. "Honey, are you feeling angry with Max? You? Or your father?"

  The moment she voiced the question, Lexi knew she was right. Lucia felt guilty because she was angry that her father hadn't protected them. She was angry at herself for feeling that way and angry at Max because she felt he was capable of protecting them--something her beloved father hadn't done.

  A fresh flood of tears was her answer. Lexi stopped again to hold the girl tightly. "It's okay," she murmured softly. "That's natural too. There are stages of grief, and anger is one of them. Max would understand and so would your father."

  Lucia shook her head. "How? How could they possibly?"

  "Max grew up in a world of brutality. Every single day of his life, he saw men like those who murdered your parents. He trained to go after them. That was his job. Your father lived in a completely different world, Lucia. You had money and privilege. You went to great schools. That was the world your father grew up in and knew. How could he possibly see the danger? How could he know someone would plot such a heinous crime against him and his family?"

  "I know. I know that. In my heart I know that, but in my head . . ." Lucia trailed off, once more flinging herself into Lexi's arms.

  "It's all right to feel what you're feeling, Lucia," Lexi said, rubbing her back and smoothing her hair. She had to talk around a lump in her throat. "I felt exactly the same way. I wanted my father to protect me and I questioned how he could let such a thing happen to me. It's normal. Intellectually we know they couldn't do anything, but it hurts so bad that our hearts ache and we ask ourselves why."

  There was a kind of cleansing in admitting to another human being that she felt those raw emotions so intensely, just as Lucia did. She knew, more than most could, just how guilty and ashamed she felt for having such thoughts. More and more she identified with little Lucia. How could she not?

  "You did, Lexi?" Lucia asked, lifting her head from Lexi's shoulder. Her eyes searched Lexi's. "You're not just saying that? You were angry at your father?"

  "Sometimes I still am," Lexi admitted. "Most of the time I'm realistic and I know he couldn't have done anything, but then I have nightmares or a panic attack and I'm angry. I freeze and can't move, can't breathe, and it makes me feel cowardly and weak. Then I really get angry. Mostly at myself, but sometimes at him."

  Lucia took a deep breath. "I'm glad you're here, Lexi."

  "Me too, honey. Let's go in and put the teakettle on. Did you tell Airiana that you were coming to see me this morning?"

  Lucia nodded. "She looked . . . sad. I knew she wanted me to talk to her, but I couldn't look at her every day if she knew how angry I was with my father. I didn't want to hurt Max and she would have told him how angry I get with him. Seeing her face I just felt guiltier. I feel ashamed and guilty all the time."

  "I did too, for a very long time, and then I met Airiana and my other sisters. They changed my life and gave me peace. We'll find that for you as well. It may take time, honey, but we'll do it."

  Lucia hugged her hard and then pulled away, giving her a watery smile. "I'm learning how to make tea the way all of you like it. Let me try."

  Lexi watched her run up the stairs into the house, knowing she needed to be alone for a few minutes.

  11

  GAVRIIL dropped his hand on Drago's head, watching Lexi take Lucia into the house--his home. The word tasted strange to him, but was exhilarating at the same time. He had never thought he'd have a permanent home and the thought was daunting. He'd never stayed in one place long and he knew, sooner rather than later, he would become restless. He would have to find a way to deal with that.

  Lucia was as tall as Lexi, all arms and legs, much like a gangly filly. His heart went out to her--another first for him. This place--the farm--was changing him faster than he had thought possible.

  Gavriil spent an hour with Airiana and Max, letting the children fuss over his dogs. Both Drago and Kiss remai
ned somewhat aloof, but tolerant of all the attention. Lucia was very withdrawn, and when she got up abruptly, muttering she was going to find Lexi, he couldn't help but see the hurt flash in Airiana's eyes. Max reached over and took her hand to comfort her.

  Max's gaze met his and he nodded, knowing his brother wanted him to follow the child and make certain she was all right. He waited a few minutes to give her a head start. He didn't have a clue how to deal with the girl's grief and trauma. He counted himself lucky that he hadn't made too many mistakes with Lexi. A fourteen-year-old girl? No way.

  He took several deep breaths and then pressed his thumb into the center of his palm, reaching for Lexi. Is it safe to come inside? Is she still crying?

  There was silence. He felt her warmth first as she came to him, pouring into his mind to fill every lonely place. The intimacy of her entrance stole his breath and sent heat rushing through his veins. He could almost smell her clean, forest scent and see the moss and cool streams. He definitely felt peace stealing into him.

  I wouldn't mind the help with her. I don't have a clue how to comfort her.

  He remained very still, not moving a muscle. That's your department. You're good at that kind of thing.

  She made a little annoyed sound that didn't bode well for his future. Because I'm a woman? I have no experience with teenagers. You're older and wiser.

  That's going to come back to bite you in your pretty little butt. Rather than bother you right now, maybe I should finish up in the lettuce field. Didn't you have some planting to do?

  It's done. Don't be a coward. Come have tea with us. I already told Lucia you were on your way home. She's expecting you now.

  Treacherous woman.

  There was clearly nothing else for it but to go. It didn't really bother him, not when Lexi was waiting for him as well. He had a need to see her. To touch her. The obsession only seemed to grow stronger the more he was with her.

  She likes the dogs. How did Lissa react?

  She was very brave, Lexi. You would have been proud of her. She had been attacked when she was a child and she's never gotten over it. She does think it's a good idea to have protection dogs on the farm with each family. She will take one of the puppies. I promised her I'd help her train it.

  Lexi came out of the house onto the porch and stood at the top of the stairs, her arm curled around the column, waiting for him. Just looking at her gave him a strange sensation of the earth moving beneath his feet. He wasn't a fanciful man, in fact he was quite cynical, but there was no denying the overwhelming emotions pouring into him when he was close to her.

  Her smile greeting him as he came up the stairs to her made his heart stutter just a little bit. He leaned down and brushed a kiss across her mouth. "Hi. I missed you."

  "I missed you too." She sounded a little shy.

  Lexi touched his face with the pads of her fingers briefly, but she might as well have branded him. He found himself falling into the coolness of her green eyes. The dogs pushed against her in greeting, breaking the spell. Lexi rubbed their coats and murmured a greeting, telling them Lucia was in the house.

  "I've got a tray," Lucia called. "Can you open the screen?"

  Gavriil stepped around Lexi to open the door for her, partially blocking the dogs from the teenager as she came outside with the wooden tray. On it was the teapot and three cups. He smiled at her.

  "I see you found Lexi."

  Lucia nodded. "She was in the lettuce field. Yesterday she mentioned she had to plant." She sent Gavriil a shy smile. "She was dancing around. I think it was some kind of ancient rain dance."

  Lexi burst out laughing, the sound contagious, but there was a hint of color creeping up her neck into her face and her gaze slid away from his.

  What were you really doing? He couldn't help but be curious the way she reacted.

  Dancing because you kissed me and I kissed you back. She was strictly honest.

  He sank onto the porch swing abruptly before he could make the mistake of kissing her all over again. She could have torn out his heart with her admission. Her eyes were soft, almost luminous, and he couldn't quite stop looking at her mouth.

  "I wouldn't put it past her, Lucia," he said aloud. "She's fond of her plants. She talks and sings to them."

  "I talk to them because they like it," Lexi said. "Singing on the other hand might make them wither."

  Lucia poured the tea into the cups, trying to look very adult. Gavriil dutifully didn't notice that her eyes were swollen and red and her skin was splotchy from crying.

  "Plants like people talking to them?" Lucia asked, her voice filled with curiosity. "Really?"

  Lexi nodded. "Yes. They respond to music as well. Not my singing voice, although, okay, I do sing to them, but only when no one's around. But I often play classical music in the atrium and the plants thrive."

  "I love your atrium," Lucia said. "It's the coolest thing I've ever seen."

  "Do the plants thrive because of the music, or because of you?" Gavriil asked, taking the tea from Lucia. She'd added milk to his cup because Lexi drank hers that way. He thanked her and took a sip, nodding to let her know it was good.

  "Maybe both, but the point is, they like positive attention."

  "Did you really mean it when you told Airiana and Max that we could have one of the puppies, Gavriil?" Lucia asked.

  Gavriil noticed that Drago pushed against Lexi's legs again. The dog had definitely taken to her. She evidently liked him as well, because she didn't seem to realize she was petting him. Kiss lay at his feet, which didn't surprise him. She had done her duty, meeting several people, and she wanted to rest.

  "Yes, I meant it. Do you like dogs?"

  Lucia nodded. "These dogs are big and their fur is very soft. I wouldn't mind one sleeping in my room with me."

  She sleeps in Airiana and Max's room with all the other children, Lexi informed him.

  The phone rang in the house. Lexi didn't move. "That's the farm line. People leave orders on it," she said. "I take the orders down at the end of the day. It's just easier. If someone needs to talk to me directly, they know to leave their number."

  It was clear to him she didn't like talking on the phone. "That seems like a good system, otherwise you'd be answering all day long and you wouldn't get any work done."

  "That was the idea when I started it," she admitted. "Lucia, the tea is excellent. You really did a good job."

  "So was the pasta," Gavriil said. "I really enjoyed it. Lexi brought some home to me and it was pretty amazing."

  Lucia ducked her head, looking pleased. "It was my mother's recipe. I used to cook with her. I love cooking."

  "Do you do the cooking at your house now?"

  "Sometimes I ask Airiana if she minds, and she always lets me. When she's cooking, I help her."

  Kiss got up abruptly, whining a little, and moved restlessly around the room, drawing Gavriil's attention. Just as suddenly she dropped back onto the floor, this time in the corner, near Lexi's sleeping bag. He glanced at Lexi. She had her eyes on the dog. Suddenly, she looked up and smiled at him directly. It was another first. One of those moments shared between a couple he'd seen from a distance--intimate--closing off the world until it was only the two of them in perfect understanding.

  His body reacted, not with the savage ache he had come to recognize, but with something so much more, a complete and utter giving of himself to this woman. He felt an exchange between them. There were no words to describe the emotion settling over and into him--and in some ways it was more frightening than any job he'd ever pulled.

  I can't lose you, now that I've found you. The thought was terrifying. He would be ferocious in his protection of her, cold and deadly, always her shadow. Just the thought that she could be harmed in any way left his gut in knots and a slow burn spreading through his body.

  Lexi sent him a small smile. Just remember who the boss is.

  Her eyes sparkled at him with a hint of mischief and the knots in his stomach unravele
d just a little.

  "Gavriil, I like your dogs," Lucia said, dragging his attention back to the child.

  "I like them too, Lucia," Gavriil said. "For a long time, I was very ill and they helped me get out of bed and exercise. Dogs are more than just companions or pets. These two have been my only family for over two years. They have protective instincts in their DNA."

  "I always wanted a dog," Lucia confessed. "My father entertained a lot, and he said a dog would be in the way."

  This is dangerous territory, Gavriil. Be careful how you answer her, Lexi cautioned. Her father may not have been an animal person, but he was her father.

  She had a point. He didn't want to say anything that might have Lucia thinking he didn't respect her father's opinions. He nodded his head slowly, aware the teenager was watching him closely.

  "Your father is right in that dogs are not right for all families. And a dog that isn't well-trained can be all kinds of trouble. We live on a farm and these dogs are working dogs, so for us, living here, they make sense."

  The phone rang again, a sharp insistent jangle he found annoying, always a bad sign. When anything mundane disturbed him, he knew he was at the point where he couldn't successfully block the pain. It was only a matter of time before the burning overcame his ability to keep it at bay.

  Lexi must have noticed his discomfort. "I'm sorry about the phone. It's a workday and ordinarily I'm away from the house, so I don't even hear it. I can turn the ringer down." You should lie down for a while. I'll come in as soon as Lucia leaves and work on you again if you don't mind.

  His body shivered in memory of her hands on his skin. Craving took over. He could taste her in his mouth. Smell her scent. She seemed to surround him, so that he breathed her into his lungs and she moved through his bloodstream, heating him. She was fast becoming necessary to him, and both the speed and depth of his need shocked him.

  "Lucia, let's gather the teacups and take them inside." Deliberately Lexi glanced at her watch. "I've got a few things to do that can't wait."

  Lucia nodded and immediately began gathering the cups. She glanced several times at Kiss, who appeared to be asleep. "Do you think she's going to have the puppies soon?"

 
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