Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  Gavriil nodded his head. "She's close. Larger breeds take a little longer than very small ones, but you can't predict the exact day. She's restless and she rarely makes a sound, so I think she'll begin to have contractions tonight or early tomorrow morning."

  He pushed a hand through his hair and the action immediately centered Lexi's attention on him. He could see the concern in her soft eyes. Her lips pressed together tightly and a small frown appeared. His heart reacted to her expression with a small stutter of sensation he didn't want to identify. He pressed his palm over his chest, aching with the unfamiliar emotion.

  The first wash of pain always shook him. It came in a wave and set his teeth on edge. He'd learned over the last two years to be able to control pain, an exercise in regulating his breathing and heart, stopping the burn along the damaged nerve endings, but he found it impossible to keep up after a few hours. That was part of the reason he was no longer considered able to do his job.


  Lexi's voice whispered along his nerve endings, quieting the pain, soothing the burn. He glanced up and locked gazes with her. He could get lost forever in her eyes. They beckoned him into the cool of the forest, like the path to another world.

  You can do your job. You choose not to do it. There's a difference.

  How had she caught his thought? I'm tired, solnyshko moya. I think I will lie down for a few minutes. When you can, come in with me.

  As soon as Lucia is safely home.

  He closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall back against the swing. Lexi made him feel as if he had a home--and a woman--of his own. She was magical, a woman of the earth who moved with grace and filled her surroundings with lush plants.

  Lexi sent one more anxious glance toward Gavriil and picked up the tray. She could see the telltale lines etched deeper into his face. The skin around his mouth was a little whiter, as if he'd drawn himself too tight. Drago, the large male, moved closer to Gavriil as if offering protection.

  "What's wrong with him?" Lucia asked, as she rinsed out the teacups. "I can tell something is."

  "Really?" Lexi eyed her carefully. Gavriil was very good at hiding his injuries. "How?"

  Lucia frowned and rubbed her finger over her eyebrow, leaving a smear of soapy bubbles. "His eyes. He's a little scary."

  "Like Max?" Lexi wiped the soap bubbles from Lucia's face with the hand towel.

  Lucia shook her head. "Max isn't really scary when you get to know him. He's kind of tough at first, and he growls a lot like an old bear, but he doesn't even raise his voice to us." She smiled at Lexi. "Max is really good to us. I didn't think I'd like him and I didn't want to like Airiana because . . ."

  "You felt it would betray your parents if you let yourself love them," Lexi finished for her.

  Lucia nodded. "But I also felt if I loved them, they'd be taken away from us too." She took a deep breath. "I argued with my father that day. The day my parents died. Over having a dog. I had asked a million times and he always said no. My mother did everything my father said, so I knew she wouldn't help. I tried to do all my chores without complaining for several months before my birthday because he said when I was responsible enough, I could have a pet."

  "You asked for a dog for your birthday and he told you no," Lexi said.

  Lucia slowly put the last of the teacups on the sink. "I was so angry with him. I called him a liar. He sent me to my room. My mother came in to talk to me, but I was angry with her as well because I knew she wouldn't let me have a pet either. I turned away from her. They were dressed up to go out. They both looked so beautiful, but I didn't tell her that. I didn't even tell her I loved her."

  Lexi put her arm around Lucia. "She knew. Parents know. Your anger didn't cause their deaths. A terrible man rigged the car. He caused them to die, not you. And right now, wherever they are, I'll bet they're happy that when Kiss has her puppies you'll be around to help her with them."

  "I wanted to ask Gavriil if he'd let me come over and help with them, but I can't tell if he thinks I'm a nuisance or not. He looks very scary. His eyes are cold. They never warm up unless he looks at you."

  "Lucia, Gavriil is a good man. He's gone through extremely difficult times and is injured at the moment. You should try to get to know him. I'm certain when Kiss has her puppies, he'll be more than happy for the help. I know it's really important to socialize this breed of dog. We'll be counting on everyone to help us."

  The phone rang again, a jarring note that made Lexi laugh.

  "Why don't you ever answer?" Lucia asked. "That might be important."

  Lexi shook her head. "It's the farm line. My family would call on my personal cell. I have a little mini tower in the house to boost the signal, although truthfully, I don't even know where my phone is."

  Lucia laughed. "The farm phone rings all the time. Doesn't it make you crazy not answering it?"

  "Seriously, I'm never home when it happens. We sell our produce to specific stores and homes and we give quite a bit to the food bank. I never realized just how many calls come in throughout the day. At night I just listen to the messages, write down the orders and call it good. I rarely have to actually talk to someone."

  The smile faded from Lucia's face. "I don't want to talk to anyone right now either. I wish I was an adult and could do what I want. Airiana says all of us have to talk to this counselor she knows. Benito is being really awful about it."

  Lexi caught the note of worry in the child's voice. "Come on, I'll take you home in the trail wagon. I think all of us are getting used to Benito's ideas on what men and women do and their roles. No one gets upset with him."

  "Gavriil did. Benito showed me his neck."

  "That was an accident. Benito stuck his head inside the house, and Gavriil had no way of knowing who he was. He could have been someone trying to hurt me."

  "I don't think Gavriil has accidents," Lucia said shrewdly. She climbed into the trail wagon and looked back at the dogs sitting on the porch beside Gavriil.

  "You're probably right about that," Lexi admitted, with a little sideways grin. "He didn't really hurt Benito, but he scared him. Maybe he was trying to make a point. I know he's worried about him. Counseling would be good for that boy." She started the trail wagon.

  "You're saying if I go to counseling without protesting, maybe Benito would as well." Lucia hung on to the sides of the vehicle as Lexi drove through the narrow trails leading back to Airiana's home.

  "Exactly. All of you need it, of course. Did you know that's how we all met? My sisters and me? We went to a group therapy meeting for women who had a family member or loved one murdered. The counselor really helped all of us to realize we could still find a way to be happy. I can't say we all came away from it guilt-or issue-free, because unfortunately trauma doesn't work that way, but the point is, we found a way to live again."

  Lucia's small teeth bit into her lower lip. "I don't want to disappoint Airiana or Max. Telling someone I feel guilty for having new parents would really hurt them."

  Lexi drove the wagon up Airiana's drive almost right to the steps. "No, it wouldn't. Airiana and Max both know what it's like to feel guilt, even though the guilt is misplaced. They want you to be happy. You need someone safe to discuss how you feel, Lucia. Your counselor isn't going to tell them anything unless you want them to."

  Lucia smiled at her unexpectedly. "Thanks, Lexi. You make me feel grounded. I'm glad you're here."

  Lexi flashed her an answering grin. "I always wanted to be the favorite aunt."

  "Definitely," Lucia said, and jumped out of the wagon to run up the stairs.

  Lexi glanced up to see Airiana framed in the window. Max stood behind her, his arms around her. Airiana looked as if she'd been crying, but she lifted a hand and waved to Lexi. Lexi blew her a kiss. It had to be difficult to bring four children into one's home and try to integrate them into a family when they were all traumatized. She was proud of her sister for making the decision to bring the children home with her.
r />   Lexi drove back to her house thinking of Airiana and Max. Airiana was brilliant and worked for the defense department in some capacity Lexi didn't want to think too much about. Still, Airiana had insisted on working out of her own home so she could be present in the lives of the children.

  The wind picked up in a little rush off the ocean, bringing the scent of the sea with it. The trees around her swayed gently. A storm was coming in fast. Immediately she turned the wagon and drove out to her fields. She stopped her vehicle and got out at each field and, crouching low, rested her hands on the ground.

  From his vantage point on the small rise above the fields, Gavriil watched as Lexi drove around the farm. Each time she came to a different crop, she did the same thing. She touched the ground for a few minutes, so gently, almost as if she were touching a child. He imagined her talking softly to the crops, giving reassurance to them to remain calm in the wake of the gathering storm.

  He had gone up to the ridge above the farm to watch over her. He hadn't been able to help himself. The pain didn't matter, or the fact that his arm was on fire. The compulsion to protect her was far too strong. Now, he was grateful he'd followed her outside. Seeing her communing with her crops was worth the hard run up to the ridge and his vantage point.

  She was beautiful, like a young goddess, her hair flying in the wind, but her movements gentle, tender even. The earth seemed to welcome her, every living plant bending toward her rather than with the wind. She touched the ground, and on impulse, he crouched low and put his own palms on top of the soil. Almost immediately he felt the sweep of her influence, a calm, soothing warmth that invaded through his palms.

  Gavriil felt the water beneath the ground, running in small veins. He felt the richness of the minerals, the smaller insects, worms that tunneled and aerated the soil. He knew the connection between Lexi's palm and his enabled him to feel what she felt. The earth itself spoke to her. The plants murmured softly, a different language, but he felt their energy directed toward Lexi. Everything on the farm was connected to Lexi--especially him.

  Gavriil stood up a little reluctantly and once again looked down at the woman who had cast her spell so successfully. She wasn't getting a prize by any means, but she didn't seem to mind. She saw him for what he was, both the outside shell and the inner man he protected so carefully, and she accepted him.

  In his wildest dreams he'd never thought he would find acceptance. She had somehow found the key to unlock his frozen emotions. It wasn't just being with Lexi. He had been genuinely happy to see his brothers, especially his youngest one. And he found he actually liked Lissa. Little Lucia tugged at his heartstrings. He wasn't quite the cold-blooded machine he thought himself. All because of one woman.

  He saw she had entered the greenhouse and knew her next stop would be the orchard and then home. He began to jog back, and this time his body felt every jarring step. Still, he wouldn't have missed seeing her taking care of her plants for anything.

  Drago greeted him instantly when he entered the house, but Kiss wasn't at the door waiting for him. She'd paced through the house and was just returning, unable to settle. He scratched under her chin and looked into her eyes, murmuring reassurance. This was her first litter and she was anxious.

  The phone rang again. He felt the jarring jangle right through his body, tearing at his already burning nerve endings. He had the impulse to rip the thing from the wall and toss it away. He really needed to lie down. He started toward the bedroom when awareness hit him. The need to rip the phone from the wall had nothing to do with the pain coursing through his body.

  He had accepted pain a long time ago. He didn't allow pain to influence his mood. Once it got to that level, he removed himself from anything distracting so he could focus on bringing his pain under control. He wasn't there quite yet. He turned and looked at the phone.

  Without hesitation he lifted it from the cradle. "Harmony Farms," he answered.

  There was a small, startled silence as if the person on the other end hadn't expected him to pick up--or had expected a woman.

  "You harbor Jezebel, a woman of great evil. The innocent blood will be shed along with the guilty," the disembodied voice intoned.

  "It isn't Jezebel you have to worry about," Gavriil said in a low tone. "It's the devil she's with, and he'll be waiting for you." He hung up the phone and turned as Lexi entered the room.

  She had heard--her face was as pale as a ghost's. He had known she'd come in, but he wasn't going to hide anything from her, he wasn't that kind of man. He had made a commitment to this woman and he wouldn't disrespect her by trying to hide information from her, even if he knew it would be upsetting to her. He didn't know the right thing to do in a relationship, and no doubt he would be making her life difficult many times, but he would give her honesty.

  "Caine has a few friends out there."

  "I knew it was them when you referred to me as Jezebel. He called me that whenever he was going to punish me in front of his congregation. Which one called?" Her voice quivered, but she tried hard to sound matter-of-fact.

  "He wasn't brave enough to leave his name. A man. Deep voice. Trying to sound tough. It threw him off his game a little to have a man answer."

  "He probably left a recording or two on the machine," Lexi said, stepping all the way into the room. Her hands were shaking and she put them behind her back when his gaze dropped to them.

  "Would you recognize his voice if you heard it?"

  "Only if he was one of the men from our farm. They had more than one. There was a man they referred to as the Reverend who started it all. He would come to the various work farms and preach. Mostly he would 'save' the younger girls by forcing them to have sex with him. After he died, I'm certain Caine and his brother took over what was left of the cult. Caine's brother was arrested, but all of them had lieutenants and enforcers. This man could be anybody."

  He beckoned her to him, pointing to the spot right in front of him. She looked a little lost and very vulnerable. She tugged at his heartstrings with her pale face and large eyes and hands that wouldn't stop trembling.

  Lexi walked slowly across the room to stand directly in front of him, her gaze held captive by his. Gavriil took her chin in his hand and bent his head to hers. "I won't let anything happen to you or anyone else on this farm."

  Her lashes fluttered, veiling her forest green eyes.

  "Lexi, I'm a straight-up cold-blooded killer, we both know that. I'm not your average nice guy. These people who are coming for you can't possibly have any idea of the life my brothers or I have lived. They're pedophiles and sex offenders. They beat up women and children. They murder in the middle of the night, helpless people who are asleep in their beds. They have no concept of dealing with men who have been trained practically from birth to kill."

  He brushed her mouth with his. Gently. Tenderly. With no passion when passion welled up like a volcano inside of him.

  "Do you think I want to keep showing you what I am? Every time I reiterate what I am, I'm afraid of losing you, but it's important to me that you feel safe. I can make you safe. I'm not ever going to be the sweet man who remembers flowers and candy, or flowery words. I'm going to be rougher than either of us wants sometimes and I'll make mistakes, but I can promise you, absolutely promise you, I'll keep everyone on this farm safe. I can do that."

  Her eyes searched his for what seemed an eternity. He found his breath refused to leave his lungs. She went up on her toes and brushed his lips with hers. Her gesture was just as gentle, just as tender, but he felt the hint of passion and tasted it when she drew away from him.

  "Don't ever worry about showing me who or what you are, Gavriil. I don't want you to have to be anything you're not. Not for me and not for anyone else. I do feel safe with you, and that's a gift beyond measure. I haven't felt safe since I was ten years old." She touched his face, traced one line down to his jaw. "You need to lie down for a while. I'll work on you to help with the pain."

  "You get the ro
om ready while I contact my brothers to give them a heads-up. I want everyone to be alert until these idiots make their move."

  "I'll give Blythe a call as well," Lexi said. "She can contact Jonas Harrington." She leveled her gaze at him. "I'm certain he'll be able to help."

  It went against everything he was to contact a member of law enforcement, but he nodded his head. "Kiss is very close to giving birth. I'm guessing by the way she's acting that it could be tonight or tomorrow morning." The dog had pressed close to him for a moment and then continued wandering through the house. Drago paced alongside her, not understanding why she wouldn't settle.

  Lexi left him before he could kiss her--and God knew he wanted to. He ached with the need to hold her close to him and taste the cool, deep forest he knew was waiting for him. Still, he had to be careful, to take his time with her, not push her too far from her comfort zone.

  He made the calls to his brothers and Lissa, and then went into the bedroom. Already the room smelled of incense and aromatherapy candles. She had turned down the bed so that he could strip and easily slide beneath the sheet. He smiled when he noted the gun was still beneath the pillow where he'd placed it. Out of habit, he checked to make certain it hadn't been compromised and was still fully loaded.

  Lexi had her tray of needles as well as a first aid kit ready and a pitcher of water beside the bed. "Come lie down, Gavriil. I want to look at your arm."

  Keeping his gaze on hers, he pulled his boots off and then stood, dragging his shirt over his head. His arm protested the movement, but he refused to allow it to show on his face. She didn't look away from him, not even when he dropped his hands to the waistband of his jeans. He hadn't realized just how awkward the position was or how much his biceps would burn when he tried to unbuckle his belt.

  Without a word, Lexi stepped close to him and pushed his hands out of the way. His heart jumped and then began a slow pounding. Her gaze was on his. Steady. Shy. Determined. He lifted his hands out and away from her, then spoiled his clear sign to her that he wouldn't take advantage of her when his biceps exploded with pain and he had to drop his arm to his side. His hand brushed her shoulder and slipped down her arm to bare skin. The feeling of her was exquisite.

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