Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  Fortunately, she lived alone, so nobody knew how truly paranoid she was. There were weapons stashed all over her house, taped under tables and down the cushions of the furniture, so many she was afraid to have the children visit her home--but she wasn't actually certain she could harm another human being. Well--she had--but it had made her sick.

  She lived on the farm with warriors, yet she, the most paranoid of all, felt powerless to harm others. She could barely kill a snail eating her precious crops. She felt weak beside the others, the weak link they all had to rally around and protect. Things were tense on the farm and it seemed as if they needed warriors more than breadwinners.

  The trail wagon was right where she'd left it when she took her early morning walk through the gardens and various crops, the keys still in the ignition. She slipped inside the open vehicle and paused with her hand on the keys to take another long look around her. She was even more uneasy than usual.

  Dread filled her. She could feel the emotion as if it was an actual being, pouring inside her like an insidious monster, robbing her of her ability to breathe, to think, to do anything but sit still, her mouth dry and her heart pounding too fast. She jammed her fist into her mouth for a moment--the absolute wrong thing to do.

  When she was in a full-blown panic attack she couldn't even move. She was frozen to the spot, useless to her family. A liability. She worked out every single day. She went religiously to self-defense training. She could shoot a gun and throw a knife accurately at any target--even moving targets. What was wrong with her that she couldn't be like her sisters?

  She swallowed a sob and forced her mind to work properly. Nothing was wrong. Nothing. No one could get on the farm with their warning system. Each of her sisters of the heart was bound to an element, and the three men residing with them were just as gifted. Should anyone wishing them harm come to the farm, Air would call to Max and Airiana. Earth would tell her. Water would summon Rikki. Judith, bound to spirit, would feel any disruption at all. Fire called to Lissa. And Blythe just knew.

  No one could possibly slip through the power rippling throughout the farm, not with the men, Judith and Blythe amplifying it, she reminded herself.

  She forced air through her lungs, always grateful her family rarely witnessed these moments of weakness. She'd been certain the addition of the men to their family farm as well as all the self-defense and weapons training would help her through the panic attacks, maybe even make them stop altogether. It hadn't happened.

  "What's wrong with you?" she murmured aloud, and started the ignition. "You're such a freakin' baby."

  Straightening her shoulders, she drove determinedly toward the back entrance, the gate that led to the road that came into their property virtually through a forest. She felt as if the towering trees were guardians watching over those living on the farm. She loved that they were surrounded on three sides by forest. Some of their acreage remained part of a mixed forest, but behind them the trees were thick and untouched. She drove down the road to the entrance to the next property. She coveted that acreage--she had from the moment it had come up for sale.

  Lexi turned off the engine and sat for a moment just drinking in the sight of all that beautiful soil, untouched. No one had ever lived on or worked the property, and she'd often pushed her hands deep into the dirt and felt the rich loam just waiting to grow something beautiful.

  Usually when she came to this spot, any residual feelings of fear vanished, but it didn't seem to be happening now. She still felt as if she couldn't quite breathe, as if air was just out of reach. Her lungs burned and her stomach churned. She slipped from the trail wagon and walked to the gate of the property bordering hers, crouching down to push her hands into the rich soil--another trick that helped when her mind refused to calm.

  The moment the soil closed around her hands the peace she so desperately needed slipped into her. She knelt there beside the gate, pushing her hands deep, feeling a connection to the earth that set her heart soaring free. She felt the ebb and flow of the water running beneath the ground, the heartbeat of the earth, the very sap flowing in the trees. The connection was strong--deep--and she knew it would always be her saving grace.

  The ground around her hands shivered, and her eyes flew open in sudden alarm. She moistened her lips and looked down at the soil where she'd buried her hands. Her heart skipped a beat and her mouth went dry. She could see the boot prints stamped into the soft ground. Worse, on the gate was a symbol. She'd seen the symbol hundreds of times. It was burned into the wood, a brand, a sheaf of wheat tied with a cord. The same symbol was burned into her upper left thigh.

  Bile rose and she fought it down. She would not lose it, not now when everything she had fought for was at stake. Levi, Rikki's husband, had told her not to leave the farm--that it wasn't safe yet. Her sister Airiana had a madman after her, so the farm was virtually on lockdown. Their combined gifts protected the farm itself, but not them if they went off the property.

  "Did you think I wouldn't find you, Alexia?"

  Her body froze. The air rushed out of her lungs. She closed her eyes briefly. She knew that voice--she would never get it out of her head. Sometimes when she rocked on her front porch swing in the middle of the night, wide awake, she would hear his voice--that hated, horrible, holier-than-thou voice commanding her to her knees. Commanding her to pray for forgiveness, commanding her to perform unspeakable acts to atone for her sins and then flogging the skin off her while demanding she thank him for saving her from her corrupt, disgusting body.

  She lifted her head slowly, keeping her hands buried in the soil, trying to find her breath, her resolve. She'd trained for this moment, and yet now that it was here, just his voice alone had her body solidly frozen. Her mind refused to compute beyond terror.

  "While you're there on your knees, you might consider begging forgiveness."

  She closed her eyes briefly, terrified to look up, but knowing she had to. A thousand plans were formulated and then discarded. Duncan Caine. He always made her feel so powerless. His punishments were the worst. He was enforcer to one of the branches of the cult the Reverend RJ had started. The Reverend, who had started the cult, and Caine were cousins and cut from the same depraved, sick cloth.

  She swallowed hard, desperate not to give him the satisfaction of her being sick all over his polished boots. She was not going back with him. She'd told the police all along to look for Caine, that he was still alive, but they assured her he was killed in a shoot-out when they'd raided the farm and arrested several key members of the cult.

  This man had crawled through her bedroom window in the middle of the night with her parents right down the hall. He'd held a knife to her little sister's throat and told her he'd kill her sister if she didn't come with him. She'd gone, and she was grateful she didn't struggle. Caine's men surrounded her home, ready to murder her parents, older brothers and her little sister. She'd gone quietly with him to protect her family.

  She'd been eight years old, and her life had changed forever. She'd been beaten, starved and raped, forced to "marry" Caine and become his "wife." The one saving grace had been the farm. He'd forced her to work from sunup to sunset, and she'd loved every second of her hands in the soil, coaxing the plants to grow. She could forget her life and pretend she was a girl on a farm with no endless nights of hell to worry about.

  Caine and the other cult members had learned that with her working the farm, they prospered. That didn't stop the beatings or the cruelty; if anything, Caine wanted her cowered and completely under his thumb. He'd dug a hole in the ground and forced her into it several times after beating her senseless. The problem with the punishment, he found, was that she healed fast and didn't seem to mind being in the ground with the soil all around her, so he'd found a metal box and when he was especially drunk and feeling mean, would force her into it.

  "Did you really think anyone could keep you from me? Your betrayal has brought God's wrath down on you and you will be punished. I've searched f
or you, a cheating, betraying wife. Jezebel. God sent me to save you in spite of yourself."

  He reached down and grabbed her ponytail, yanking her head up so that her eyes were forced to meet his. He wore his beard bushy to cover his weak chin and his eyes blazed fire like a madman's. He'd been the demon in every one of her nightmares. He was the devil, evil incarnate.

  He leaned close to her, pressing his foul-smelling mouth next to her ear. "I killed them all, one by one. I told them you wanted them dead in order to be with me. I knew that's where I made my mistake. You didn't cleave to your husband as you should have because the sins of your former life were too great for you to overcome as long as those sinners lived. You had to be shown the way. You had to be punished."

  He slapped her face hard, knocking her backward, bringing tears to her eyes. When she would have been driven back by the blow, his hand holding her ponytail kept her from falling. He rained blows on her, using his fist as well as his open hand.

  Lexi barely felt the attack after the initial slap, managing to kick out with her legs, as she'd practiced over and over in the gym with her brothers-in-law. She hit him hard in one knee and a thigh with the heels of her boots. He cursed at her as he fell into the gate. She rolled, astonished that the move actually worked.

  Slamming her fists as deep as possible into the soil, she directed the seismic energy straight at the man who had turned her life into a living hell. She put every ounce of fear and anger, helplessness and despair he'd made her feel into the blow. All the pain. The grief at the loss of her family. All of it went into the terrible strike directed at him.

  The earth shook beneath her fists, the ripples spreading out, rushing beneath the ground straight at its target. Caine struggled to his feet, dragging himself up using the fence post.

  "You bitch. You're going to pay for that." He winced when he tried to take a step, and his knee crumpled out from under him.

  A vein appeared in the ground, zigzagging like a snake, widening as it approached Caine. Her eyes widened in horror and she pulled her fists out of the earth fast, but it was too late. The crack became an abyss, opening directly under Caine and the gate, dropping them both into the fissure. The crevice wasn't extraordinarily deep and it slammed closed on Caine's legs, crushing them, trapping them in the ground. He screamed and screamed.

  Horrified, she stumbled backward. Two men raced toward her from the other side of the fence, leaping over it, one breaking off to try to aid their leader while the other rushed her. He held a very large knife in his fist. She recognized both men. They had been training under Caine, doing enforcing and punishing of members who committed any infraction against the cult when she'd been there.

  Peter Rogers was the man desperately trying to dig Caine free while Darrin Jorgenson came at her with a knife.

  "Kill her. Kill the bitch," Caine screamed over and over, tears running down his face. His upper torso flopped over the ground, his face suddenly buried in the dirt.

  She tried to make her brain work, tried to remember what Levi had told her to do, but she couldn't think, couldn't move. She stood waiting for the death blow, thankful that at least she'd managed to stop Caine from taking her away with him.

  There was no sound. None. Later, when she thought about it, she felt as if the very earth had taken a breath. Time slowed down. She saw each step Darrin took as if he was in slow motion. She literally could see every breath he drew and the lines of fanatical hatred on his face.

  She didn't take her eyes from him, watching him come closer and closer, waiting for him, relieved now that it was over.

  A hole blossomed in the middle of Darrin's forehead, a bright red crater that knocked him backward, the blow hard enough to jerk his head back and send his body flying through the air to land in a heap on the ground.

  Lexi stared at the body, uncomprehending. A hard arm circled her waist and dragged her backward, thrusting her behind a man she'd never seen before. He was tall, with axe handle shoulders, a thick chest and shaggy hair. At first she thought it was Levi, Rikki's husband, but he moved differently and he was . . . bigger. More muscular.

  He strode toward Caine and Rogers, covering the ground as if he moved above it rather than on it. He was smooth and fluid and something out of a movie with his long coat swirling around him. He raised his hand as he approached the two men and squeezed the trigger of his pistol just once. Peter Rogers dropped to the ground like a stone. Lexi jammed her fist into her mouth to keep from making a sound.

  Gavriil crouched down beside Caine, lifting his head by his hair, staring into his eyes. Evil stared back at him malevolently. Caine's legs were crushed, but Lexi had managed to keep the crevice from killing him. Caine looked past Gavriil to Lexi and spat on the ground.

  "You whore. You're dead. I'll kill you slow. Your devil won't save you. No one can save you. Your name is written in the book of the reaper in blood."

  "Save it for your parishioners in hell." Gavriil kept his voice soft, so there was no way Lexi could hear. Deliberately he dropped Caine's head harder than necessary so that his face landed in the dirt. He leaned down, putting his mouth close to Caine's ear. "I'll be coming back without her, and I know more ways to make you welcome death than you can possibly imagine. Stay alive for me, will you?"

  Gavriil rose, turning back to Lexi. Her face was stark white, her eyes enormous. "Are you all right? Any broken bones?"

  She still couldn't move, not even when he reached her, holstering his gun in the shoulder harness and reaching out to run both hands over her, searching for damage. Terrible tremors wracked her body and she couldn't catch her breath. She didn't dare look at him or she'd cry. If she looked at Caine or the two dead men, she'd throw up.

  "Lexi, talk to me. Look at me. Look at my eyes." His fingers smoothed over a bruise already marring her cheek. The pad of his thumb removed a small trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth.

  There was something commanding, compelling in his voice--not at all like Caine, but more in a velvet soft, mesmerizing, worried tone. As if her health was the most important thing in this man's world. Lexi forced her gaze upward, over his broad chest where the thin black shirt he wore beneath his open coat was stretched tight over well-defined muscles. Her gaze continued upward, past his strong, shadowed jaw and straight nose until she found herself staring into eyes as dark as midnight. Beautiful eyes. Eyes she was certain she'd seen before. Her breath caught in her throat.

  She let herself fall into his dark blue gaze, her only refuge. The world around her receded until there was only this man and his amazing eyes holding her safe.

  "Do you know who I am?" His voice was infinitely gentle. A wisp of sound with no impatience, no threat, only concern.

  She shook her head mutely. She couldn't find her voice. Her hands trembled, and she twisted her fingers together to try to get the shaking under control. She was definitely in shock. Violence was abhorrent to her, although she had defended herself. She just couldn't look at the dead bodies, or Caine, still alive, still a threat.

  Her gaze, in spite of it all, began to shift toward him.

  "Have you heard the name Gavriil before? Or Prakenskii?"

  Gavriil deliberately spoke softly in a Russian accent as he framed her face with his hands. "Look only at me, angel moy, nowhere else. Only at me."

  He watched her eyes widen. She nodded, some of the shock receding. "I'm here, and I'm going to take care of this. Don't look at them. Don't look at him. I need to know if you're hurt."

  She swallowed hard, her breath still shallow and labored, her eyes still bouncing a little, but she didn't pull away from him and her gaze was steadier on his.

  "No. No broken bones. He's very good at beating up a woman but making certain she can work the next day."

  "You know this man?"

  "I'm the whore's husband," Caine shrieked. "She's a Jezebel. Look what she's done to me. She made a deal with the devil. She's a witch, worshiping Satan, holding him hostage between her legs."

Her face went completely white. She looked as if she might faint. Gavriil held her head firmly to prevent her from looking at the man claiming to be her husband. "Don't look at him. He's nothing. He can't hurt you, not ever again," Gavriil said, keeping his voice as gentle as ever. "I need you to go sit in your wagon there for a moment. I'll be right with you. Can you walk?"

  She nodded, and Gavriil turned her around, away from Caine and the obscenities he continued to shout in between screaming and crying and desperately digging at the dirt holding his legs captive. Gavriil waited until she had crossed the road to slip into the trail wagon before once more crouching down beside Caine. He gripped Caine's hair in a vicious grip, dragging his head up.

  "We'll have a conversation very soon, you and me, but not right now. Never call yourself her husband again. Not out loud and not in your mind." As he held up Caine's head by his hair with one hand, the other took a fistful of dirt, shoving it in, packing it tight and then holding his hand over his mouth and nose. "I don't have soap with me, so this will have to do."

  Gavriil was strong and he made certain Caine could see the casual way he cut off all air one-handed before he dropped the man's head on the ground again and left him to try to pry and spit the dirt from his mouth. He kept his body between Lexi and Caine so she couldn't see the man or what he'd done to him. He leaned into the trail wagon.

  "He's not my husband. They told me the marriage wasn't legal. I was eight years old and he kidnapped me. He's not my husband," she denied, tears shimmering in her eyes. A few trickled down her face.

  "I'm well aware of that," Gavriil said, and used the pads of his fingers to brush the tears away. "I don't want you to think about him ever again. He's totally insignificant. A worm. Less than that."

  "He'll never stop coming after me. He won't. I have to call the sheriff right away and tell him what I've done," Lexi said. "They'll send me away from here and I don't know what I'll do. I can't start all over again. I just don't . . ." She trailed off, tears swimming in her eyes.

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