Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

Her soft, teasing laughter followed him as he went to the door. She was truly his sun. His world. She was home. She'd gotten inside of him--into his bones--into his soul. When she smiled at him, the shadows of his other life receded so far he couldn't see them anymore.

  He had to get away from the potency of her company before he ran the risk of making a fool of himself in front of the others. He didn't want to appear vulnerable, and loving Lexi was all encompassing. The men coming to the house were experts at reading others. Loving her left him completely exposed.

  "Don't forget to keep the dogs locked in the bedroom." His voice had gone gruff, emotions too close. "They'll be nervous and protective with the puppies. Drago is very intelligent and highly trained, but this is a new situation for both of us."

  "I have heard that dogs take on the traits of their owners." Deliberately she looked at the male Black Russian Terrier. "I can see the resemblance in that focused stare targeting victims and smiling with his teeth."

  He bared his teeth at her and then left her to go meet the local sheriff. He moved through the house in silence, allowing the familiar man he'd been for so many years to take him over. He slipped into that persona easily, the fit exact. It was easy to blur his image a little as he stepped through the doorway, pushing energy into several directions around him to give him the time to move to the protection of the column before the sheriff and Ilya even knew he was on the porch.

  "You're here early," he greeted.

  Ilya turned slowly. His brother smiled at him and put a hand on Harrington's shoulder, a gesture meant to show Gavriil neither had a weapon drawn and that he was friends with the sheriff.

  "Not that early," Ilya denied. "It's already light."

  "Just barely," Harrington said.

  "You just wanted to stay home with the baby," Ilya accused, as they came up the walkway to the steps leading to the porch. "It's just the fog."

  The sheriff extended his hand toward Gavriil, his eyes steady, trying to read Gavriil. His handshake was firm, but he didn't try impressing with his strength.

  "Jonas Harrington," he said briefly.

  "Gavriil Prakenskii," Gavriil identified himself, watching the sheriff closely.

  His blue eyes flickered just a moment. A muscle jerked in his jaw, but he didn't even glance at Ilya.

  "Of course. I should have known." Jonas glanced at Ilya. "No wonder you were so insistent on joining me this morning."

  Ilya shrugged, clearly unrepentant.

  Gavriil kept his eyes on the sheriff as first Levi and then Thomas emerged from the surrounding foliage and joined them on the porch. Max sauntered nonchalantly around the house.

  "Looks like I'm outnumbered," Jonas quipped. He didn't seem upset, in fact he seemed happy for Ilya, smiling as the other men approached them.

  Gavriil had to respect the man. Five Prakenskiis in the same space was more than intimidating, yet Harrington didn't bat an eye and it was very obvious he knew who they were even though his brothers used different identities.

  Max, Thomas and Levi stared at their youngest brother.

  Levi looked a little choked up. "You grew up," he said. "I'm Lev. I go by Levi Hammond, and I married Rikki Sitmore."

  Ilya took his hand. "The sea urchin diver."

  Levi nodded. "Do you know her?"

  Ilya shook his head. "Rikki has always kept to herself."

  Gavriil kept his attention mainly on the sheriff, who had turned around to watch the brothers introduce themselves. He'd turned his back completely to Gavriil and that told him Harrington, who looked tough as nails, wasn't an operative. He would never have trusted an unknown, not even with Ilya watching his back.

  "Stefan." Thomas was next. "I go by the name of Thomas. Thomas Vincent, and I married Judith Henderson. She owns an art store in the village. I bought the gallery."

  "It's good to see you," Ilya said. "I'm married to Joley Drake."

  "I actually do read the tabloids at the grocery store," Thomas said, nudging Levi. They grinned at one another. "You sure do look pretty."

  Ilya growled low in his throat. Both brothers laughed at him.

  Max stuck out his hand. "Maxim--Max. Airiana is my fiancee."

  "You have the four children Jonas told me about. Your . . . nephew and nieces."

  "That's right."

  "How are the children doing?" Jonas asked.

  "It's an adjustment after losing their parents and sister," Max said. "We've gotten them into counseling, although it's a process." He glanced around. "Benito likes to shadow me, so no one shoot him if he sneaks up on us." He looked up at Gavriil as he cautioned them all.

  Gavriil bared his teeth at his brother, his eyes flat and cold, uncaring that Harrington suddenly swung around and caught him in the act.

  "I think Benito learned his manners," Levi said, with a quick grin in Gavriil's direction.

  "Scary kid, isn't he, Gavriil?" Thomas said.

  Gavriil leveled a look at his brother and turned and went into the house, leaving the door open so they all could follow him, all the while keeping the lot of them in his field of vision without appearing to do so. He was acutely aware of the sheriff staring after him curiously.

  When they entered the house, Gavriil waved them all toward chairs, a casual gesture that clearly showed he was comfortable in his role as host in Lexi's home. He wanted to immediately establish that not only did he belong there but he was at home there.

  He took the chair that allowed him the best view of the room. He noticed Levi glancing around, clearly looking for Lexi. Twice he exchanged an uneasy look with Thomas. He deliberately allowed them to consider that the big bad wolf might have eaten the little lamb. He wasn't the least surprised when Levi gave him a cool stare.

  "Where's Lexi?"

  "She'll be right out," he said, noncommittally. "Ilya mentioned you and your wife just had a baby, Jonas. Congratulations."

  Jonas smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. He looked friendly enough, but clearly, with all the brothers showing up, he was suspicious. "Yes. She's beautiful, thank you." He looked around the room at the men who he knew to be highly trained operatives. Five of them, all in the same room. All brothers. "Would someone like to tell me what the hell is going on? Ilya?"

  Ilya shrugged. "If I knew, I would have told you. When I heard you were headed this way, I wanted to come along for obvious reasons."

  "Levi?" Jonas prompted.

  Levi shook his head. "We have a warning system on the property and when someone shows up, we all check it out. I had no idea you were coming."

  Max nodded. "Airiana's work could be considered dangerous, and we wanted to make certain everyone living on the farm would be safe. When the system goes off, we all come running. You probably know more than we do."

  "I see." Jonas didn't sound convinced. "Lexi called me late last night and asked me to come out this morning. She said a threat had been made and recorded on the farm line?" He made it a question.

  Gavriil nodded slowly. "Yes. I answered one of the calls, thinking to take an order, and the man on the other end threatened some dire consequences if we all continued to harbor Jezebel." Gavriil stretched his legs in front of him in a casual pose as if the entire matter was inconsequential.

  Jonas raised his eyebrow. "Did Lexi know this person or why they would be threatening one of the women on the farm?"

  Gavriil heard Lexi come out of the bedroom and stop abruptly. She definitely had overheard Jonas's question. She didn't move. He rose immediately. "Excuse me. I'll go find her. Levi, you know your way around a kitchen, would you mind making coffee? And tea for Lexi? The dog had her puppies last night so we were up very late. I didn't have time to make any this morning."

  Levi pushed himself up, using the wide arms of the chair. "Sure. I can make a decent cup of coffee."

  Gavriil nodded his head briefly and walked from the room, keeping each stride measured and deliberate, although everything in him urged him to run to her. He found her exactly where he thought sh
e'd be--on the floor. Her fist was jammed in her mouth, although she was struggling to breathe.

  He reached down and lifted her into his arms, ignoring the sudden flash of pain from his injured biceps. Cradling her against his chest, he went on down the hall to the back of the house, far from the others. He couldn't use the kitchen door because he'd sent his brother there. The only other exit was through the atrium. He yanked the door open and took her into the wild jungle of plants.

  Lexi drew in deep shuddering breaths, clinging to him.

  He looked down into her face. She was embarrassed, but still having trouble getting her pounding heart and labored breathing under control.

  "If you aren't careful, woman," he said sternly, "you're going to completely blow the image I've worked so hard on." He was very aware of the tiny birds flitting from branch to branch as he moved through the leaves and flowers to the door leading outside to the wraparound porch.

  A small laugh escaped Lexi and she buried her face against his shoulder. Her body relaxed a little bit more, curling into him. He stepped out into the open air. The fog touched their faces and wrapped them in a silvery cloak.

  "Just take a deep breath and look around you. I'm always amazed when I see the plants and the flowers, the crops growing the way they do here. Even the trees are healthy and seem happy." He sank down into a large chair facing the forest, settling her into his lap.

  Lexi lifted her head obediently and looked around her. Almost at once he noticed a difference in her breathing. His thumb moved over her inner wrist, stroking her pounding pulse with little soothing caresses.

  "I can handle the sheriff for you, if you need me to, Lexi, but I don't think you do. I think you can walk into your own living room and tell him about these men--and women--who are a threat to you. Levi, Thomas and Max are here along with Ilya. You're family to them. They will protect you with their lives. And then there's me. We aren't going to talk about what I am or what I'd do to keep you safe."

  She pressed her hand to the side of his jaw, looking at him with her forest green eyes, always so loving when she looked at him. "I'm not afraid of them. It's just memories. They're so terrible and I get caught up in them, like I'm still there, still that child trapped and beaten. I've got this amazing place, my wonderful sisters and you. I'm not beaten down, but it feels the same when I go there in my mind."

  "I can understand that. I rarely allow myself to think of those earlier years of brutal training when there was no hope and no way out." He smoothed his hand down her long sweep of hair. "We're here now and we're dealing with everything together," he reminded her. "Even the memories."

  She lay back in his arms, nuzzling his chest with her face. "You're always so good at making me feel like I'm not alone. I appreciate you sharing your own experiences with me. Very few men would do that."

  "We're in this together. Our way, remember?"

  She nodded. "I'm okay now. I can face this. I knew it might come back on me some day, and I'm glad it did with you and your brothers here rather than just me trying to keep my sisters safe. And now we've got the children."

  He noticed the way all of the women and even his brothers considered the children as if they were a part of every household. He was beginning to understand the infrastructure of the farm and the way they were all connected to make their family work.

  "We've got to go back inside. I don't trust that Drago won't come through the door and eat the sheriff while we're gone, especially if he gets it in his head to wander around looking for you. I think they all have the impression I've locked you up somewhere or worse, murdered you, buried your body in the forest and taken over your house."

  "Gee. I wonder how they could possibly have gotten that idea." She laughed softly and shook her head. "You really were having fun in there playing the part of the big bad wolf, weren't you?"

  "What do you mean, 'playing the part'? I am the big bad wolf and they all know it. You're the only one who doesn't."

  She laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck, looking into his eyes. "You're a wolf, all right, but you're mine and I think you're amazing." She leaned in and kissed him.

  Her lips brushed over his. Once. Twice. His heart stuttered. Her tongue teased the seam of his mouth so that he opened to her. His belly somersaulted. It was the first time she'd voluntarily initiated any contact between them that might be considered sensual--and it was sensual. Her mouth was a hot paradise impossible not to get lost in. Fire raced over him, spread through his veins in a rush toward his groin.

  His fist bunched in the silk of her hair, anchoring her to him, his mouth insistent, possessive, taking command of hers. She didn't pull away in spite of the sudden surge of aggression on his part. If anything, she melted into him, kissing him back, pouring herself into him, giving herself to him.

  Her reaction was so unexpected, so shocking to him, the gift of trust she suddenly gave to him. Love for her flooded his heart and mind, burst through his soul until he felt nearly overwhelmed with emotion. He was in unfamiliar territory with Lexi, but he wanted her trust more than anything else.

  The world around him receded until there was only the woman in his arms, pouring her love into him like some secret crystal stream only she knew how to create. She wiped out every ugly memory of every depravity he'd witnessed over so many brutal years. She was innocence and everything good he had never thought to know and she was his, right there, giving herself to him.

  He kissed her over and over, reveling in the fact that she responded with eagerness. His mouth was hard and demanding, and she kissed him just as thoroughly as he kissed her. She didn't hold back any part of herself, but melted into his skin and bones, hot and wild, every bit on the edge of control as he was.

  He had to be the one to stop, to make certain neither of them pushed too far. The wildfire was already pushing to the very edges of control, spreading through both of them like a storm. He heard the roar of thunder in his ears, felt the burn along every nerve ending, a sizzling hot need that rushed from every part of his body to center in his groin.

  "Lexi." He breathed her name. "You have no idea what you mean to me." Or what she did to him--and he didn't want her to know--not yet.

  Her gaze drifted over his face, and for the first time he saw a hint of possession there, and that look only fed the fire in his body. She was beginning to stake her own claim on him whether she realized it or not. He hadn't known until that moment how important it was to him. He'd never seen that look in a woman's eyes before. From a predatory temptress--yes--but not out of love.

  "Are you even going to acknowledge that you know me when we go back inside?" Lexi asked, a mischievous light gleaming in her eyes.

  "That's a good question," he replied, deliberately thoughtful.

  She leaned forward and unexpectedly bit him on the earlobe. The small sting traveled like an arrow straight to his cock. She was dangerous now, a sensuous woman who had no idea how tempting she was. She was being playful, and all he could do was try to tamp down his sexual response.

  "Ow." He massaged his ear. "Fine, I suppose I can give you a nod or something, but don't expect kisses. That's out."

  She raised her eyebrow. "Really? None? Not even a stolen one?"

  She made a little moue with her lips, and instantly he had the urge to kiss her all over again. "You really are dangerous, woman." He caught her upper arms in a hard grip and shoved her backward. "Get off my lap."

  She gave a little shocked cry and grabbed him with both hands, clutching his shoulders to keep from falling. He laughed and dragged her closer.

  "Stop playing with fire, solnyshko moya, we've got company and we're neglecting them. Right now I can guarantee you, the lot of them are trying to find excuses to go through the house and make certain you're still alive."

  "Your brothers won't think that." She slipped off his lap to stand close to him, between his thighs, her hands on his shoulders. "Don't worry so much about your big bad reputation. If someone ever sees the truth about
you, I promise to protect you." She brushed a kiss along his forehead. "You're a good man, Gavriil Prakenskii, and I'm crazy about you."

  She wasn't near enough crazy about him, but he intended to see to it that she had every reason to become more so with each passing day. She moved him like no other person had ever done in his life. He had never spent five minutes alone with another human being unless it was absolutely necessary. He couldn't get enough of spending time in her company--just one more sign that he was that far gone.

  "Come on," he said abruptly, too overloaded from emotion and needing to shut down for a few minutes. "We've got work to do."

  She flashed him a smile but took his outstretched hand and tugged as if she was really helping him up. He found her fingers threaded with his and wasn't certain how to gracefully take his hand back before he was anywhere near his brothers.

  They slipped back through the atrium into the main part of the house. As they started down the hall, he felt the slightest tremor go through her body. Glancing down, he could only see the top of her head. Her hair spilled around her face and her lashes veiled her eyes.

  "Lexi, seriously, you don't have to do this," he murmured softly.

  She let go of his hand. "Of course I do. And so do you. You don't like it any more than I do, you're just better at knowing how to keep your feelings a secret."

  "It's an art form." She was absolutely correct in her assessment. He was either slipping up or she was so connected and in tune with him that she was becoming adept at reading him. "Go ahead of me. I'll be right behind you."

  Lexi would take the attention away from him if she went first. His brothers and the sheriff would be assessing her health and state of mind instead of watching him look at her. It would give him the moments needed to slip back into his much more familiar role.

  Jonas Harrington stood up the moment Lexi entered the room. Gavriil's brothers followed suit. Lexi looked a little startled at the sign of respect and she glanced nervously back at Gavriil. He suppressed a groan, but kept his features expressionless, even when he reached out and skimmed a finger down her back to steady her.

  Levi, Thomas and Max were all watching him, not Lexi. He should have known. He gave them his stone face, but kept his hand in the small of Lexi's back to remind her they were in this together.

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