Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "Lexi, it's good to see you," Jonas said. "Hannah sends her regards and said to stop by to meet our baby if you get the chance. She wanted to come but Libby wanted her resting. It was a bit of a tough birth."

  Gavriil respected the man more and more, although he was leery of him. He gave something personal to Lexi to put her at ease. His smile was genuine and he kept his voice pitched low and sincere. He would be hell on wheels in an interrogation room.

  Lexi didn't take a step back, but she leaned into Gavriil's palm even as she extended her hand to the sheriff. "Thank you for coming."

  "I brought you a cup of tea, Lexi," Levi said, closing in on one side of her.

  Thomas stepped close as well, so that when Lexi shook Jonas's hand she was surrounded on three sides by the Prakenskii brothers.

  "We might as well be comfortable," Gavriil said. "Lexi, why don't you sit down over there." He swept his hand toward the chair he preferred she sit in. Take the yellow striped one, Lexi. I have a complete view of the entire room as well as the window from the one beside it.

  Lexi nodded, took the steaming tea mug with a nod of thanks toward Levi, and immediately sank into the chair Gavriil had indicated. "Congratulations on the birth of your daughter, Jonas. You and Hannah must be so happy."

  "She's beautiful," Jonas said. "Although she sleeps most of the time. I hold her anyway." He flashed an engaging grin.

  Ilya leaned toward Lexi. "Someone threatened you? Recently?" His gaze shifted to Gavriil. Clearly it had occurred to him that Gavriil's presence might be the reason for the phone call.

  Lexi shifted her body just a little toward Gavriil. She didn't look at him, but every man in the room caught that small sign of distress and knew she looked toward him for comfort. It was all he could do to remain aloof, to not reach out and put his hand over hers. He kept his face pure stone, his eyes cool and hooded.

  "Yes. On the farm line." She glanced at Jonas. "When I was eight, I was kidnapped, taken out of my home to a compound where a man everyone called the Reverend performed a ceremony marrying me to one of his lieutenants. Basically, he was one of their enforcers. He was in his forties and he was very cruel. I worked on their farm and was held prisoner until I was seventeen. I managed to escape. The compound was raided and many of those in power were arrested. In retaliation, the cult sent their enforcers to murder my family. I wasn't home. They're all dead."

  Lexi didn't look at any of them when she relayed the story she must have told many times to police and prosecutors. She looked into her teacup as if it might save her. Her voice didn't waver, but it was extremely soft.

  Levi curled his fingers into a fist and sat staring in silence at her face. Thomas swore under his breath. Max hit the arm of the couch with exploding rage. Jonas sat very still, his gaze never leaving Lexi.

  Gavriil couldn't stop himself. He had to touch her. She held herself utterly still, as if she feared moving would shatter her. She looked fragile, vulnerable, and he detested that anyone else could see her that way. Both of her hands curled around the teacup. He pressed his thumb into the center of his palm and then stroked caresses over the spot.

  Her gaze shifted toward him just for a moment and then went back to her tea.

  "To make a long story short," she continued, "I think they found me. I don't know how, but they know I'm here on the farm. To make matters worse, I'm in the witness protection program and I don't want to call them and have to leave my life here."

  "That's not going to happen," Levi said.

  "Tell me everything," Jonas prompted, ignoring Levi's declaration.

  "Caine, that's the man who I was forced to marry, called me Jezebel. He said I was a whore and a liar, a bad woman who couldn't be trusted enough to be left alone. In every message I played, the speaker said the farm was harboring Jezebel. I only recognized one voice. They had several compounds scattered around the United States and they moved us at various times. Each compound had enforcers who punished members for breaking rules or perceived faults. They killed when told to. The man whose voice I recognized worked with the Reverend as one of his personal enforcers."

  "The Reverend as in RJ?" Ilya glanced at Jonas. "Is this the same man who came after Joley? He harassed and stalked her." He switched his gaze to Lexi. "He was here, in Sea Haven. Did you know that? Did you see him?"

  Lexi carefully put down the teacup. Her hands were shaking. Gavriil glanced at his youngest brother. Watch your tone. You sound almost accusatory.

  Ilya shook his head. "Lexi, I'm sorry, that came out wrong. I didn't mean to imply that you could have done anything to stop the Reverend."

  "I knew he was here," she admitted in a low tone. "The entire world knew. It was all over television. I never left the farm. I didn't dare. If he or any of the men he traveled with saw me, they would have killed me. I thought about leaving but I couldn't do it. I just stayed out of sight, and when he died, I thought the danger was over."

  "If you had gone to the police then," Jonas said gently, "perhaps we could have arrested him and tried him for his crimes."

  "And the other cult members would have murdered my sisters here on the farm. I lost one family, I wasn't about to lose another," Lexi said. "Even this time, I thought long and hard about whether or not to call you."

  "Why did you?" Jonas asked.

  "Because of the men sitting here in this room. They matter to me. If the cult members try to kill my sisters or me, they'll be the ones trying to protect us and I don't want them in trouble."

  Max shifted toward Lexi. "You should have come to us, honey. We have a fortress here. With Airiana working out of her home, we've got the ability and the sanction to stop anybody who threatens any of you."

  Jonas shook his head. "You aren't sanctioned to kill. Not here in Sea Haven. That's not going to happen."

  Max didn't reply; he sat back and folded his arms across his chest.

  Jonas swore. "Don't tell me the four of you clowns are working for the United States government. You're Russian citizens."

  "Only Gavriil is," Levi pointed out. "At the moment. That could change. You never know."

  "Leave it to the police," Jonas warned.

  Levi shrugged. "If they come here after Lexi or any of us, we have the right to defend ourselves."

  Jonas leaned back in his chair and looked at Lexi. "Do you have a name for me?"

  "Frost. Benjamin Frost. He's about fifty-five and he's been in the service. I think he was a mercenary for a while. They say the Reverend recruited him personally. Whatever these men liked, he gave them and fed their egos until they would do anything for him. He created a world where they behaved in any way they wanted without interference."

  "So if you were a sadist or a pedophile, he provided the women and children and the environment," Jonas said.

  Lexi swallowed and nodded. "This is very difficult for me to talk about. I don't know how many of them are left, but the enforcers and the Reverend's lieutenants were the worst. I don't think too many of the others were violent. They were mostly sheep following the ones they perceived as strong."

  "When you and the others bought the farm with Blythe," Jonas said, "I had you investigated. I couldn't find anything at all on you. Nothing. I even asked some friends who have clearances far beyond what I ever had, and they couldn't find out anything about you. I should have suspected witness protection."

  Gavriil shifted, his cool gaze finding the sheriff. "Clearly she had to change her identity to survive. I think we're done here. She's told you everything she knows. I'll play the messages for you and you can take them with you. Maybe you can find a way to identify the others on the tape." He stood up, towering over Lexi, letting the others know he meant business.

  "The phone's in the other room. Solnyshko moya, I know you prefer to take your morning tea on the front porch. You don't need to listen to those vile messages again. I'll take the sheriff in myself." He held out his hand to her.

  Lexi took his hand and let him walk her to the front door. Gavrii
l's four brothers followed Jonas and him into the kitchen to listen to the threats.


  LEXI immersed herself in the familiar work of nurturing her plants, finding comfort in the familiar rhythm. The soil felt rich with minerals, and each time she pushed her hands deep into the dirt she felt connected to the farm itself.

  Around her, the fog drifted through the trees, a gray smoky mist, looking like fingers threading through the forest. She'd always loved the effects of fog and the feeling that when she was wrapped in it, it was a veiled cloak that sheltered her. She liked to feel the drops on her face, reminding her she was alive. She still enjoyed the sensation, but she didn't need them as much--she had Gavriil, and he made her feel very much alive.

  The soil around her hands rippled in a way she recognized as welcome. She turned to look over her shoulder to see Lissa emerging from the veil of gray. She sent her a welcoming smile.

  "Good morning, Lissa," Lexi greeted. "You look amazing as always."

  Lissa didn't respond but came right up to her and put her arms around her, something out of character for her. Alarmed, Lexi hugged her tightly, trying not to get dirt on her clothes.

  "What is it?"

  "Nothing, babe. I just needed to talk to you before the others got here. There isn't any getting around the fact that Ilya and Jonas showed up and the boys all rushed to your house for some big meeting, presumably connected to the incident that happened a few days ago."

  Lexi sank back onto her knees and pushed dirt around her plant lovingly, although she didn't really need to, she just needed the time. The other women showed their emotions easily, hugging one another and Lexi naturally. Lissa always seemed to have a little space between her and everyone else. It was difficult for her to show her affection, although Lexi knew it ran deep. She was touched, and a little alarmed.

  "You aren't worried about me, are you?"

  "Of course I'm worried about you. You let Gavriil Prakenskii into your life after we had a conversation about those men and how we weren't going to fall. You fell. Like a ton of bricks." There was a teasing note in Lissa's voice, but her eyes didn't smile. She looked worried.

  "It was difficult not to fall," Lexi admitted. "He's so gentle and kind. I know he looks scary, but he's not. He reminds me a little of a wild animal, untamed and feral. He just needs someone to care about him."

  Lissa groaned. "A wild animal bites when it's cornered. Where do you come up with this nonsense? You should be the world's most hardened, cynical, bitter woman, but instead you're our Lexi, sweet and kind and gentle. I can see why he would want to be with you, but Lexi . . ." She trailed off as Lexi shook her head.

  "I'm not like that. Inside where no one ever sees, I'm not like that." It was a confession, and she hoped Lissa didn't dismiss it.

  Lissa studied her face. Very gently she touched Lexi's long ponytail, the one Lexi had swept her hair into as she walked to the field. "I understand, honey. I really do. How could you not want the people who took everything you loved away from you punished? When they seem so powerful and invincible and by comparison you're insignificant, you feel powerless, but hatred can grow, the need for justice when you know there never will be."

  Lexi nodded. "I know it isn't right or civilized to think that way, but even if Jonas arrests these men, others will take their place, and how is putting them in jail really punishing them for the things they did to my family? How can they ever pay the price for killing innocent children as well as my parents?"

  "They can't, of course," Lissa said.

  Lexi sighed. "Still."

  "What is it?"

  "I received some threats on the farm line and decided to call in Jonas. It's important to me that Gavriil have the chance to stop what he does."

  Lissa choked and pressed a hand to her mouth.

  "He can live peacefully, Lissa, given the chance."

  "Don't kid yourself, babe, he's the kind of man you never want to cross."

  "Maybe. I hope you're wrong for his sake. Jonas Harrington told Gavriil and the others to leave everything to law enforcement. I was watching Gavriil very carefully. He was wearing his 'stone' face--impossible to read--but he flicked his gaze at his youngest brother, Ilya, the one married to Joley Drake. I barely managed to catch the nod Ilya gave to Gavriil, but I know there was some kind of signal."

  "I can't imagine that Levi, Thomas and Max wouldn't want to go after these people threatening you, but Ilya? That surprises me, but in a good way."

  "Lissa, I don't want them to go backward. All of them are here to change their lives. They can't stop because of me."

  "Baby, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we're all going hunting."

  "What do you mean?" Lexi stood up slowly and looked behind Lissa.

  Emerging out of the fog were her other sisters. Blythe, tall and willowy, a beautiful woman who always appeared soft and feminine even in her favorite running clothes. Judith, a tall woman of Japanese descent, with board-straight hair, shiny as a raven's wing. Airiana, a small little pixie with nearly silver and platinum hair, looking smaller than ever beside her tallest sisters. Rikki, her cap of sun-kissed dark hair framing her face, autistic, yet determined to live life on her own terms. With Lissa, these were her sisters, the women who had come together to help one another--the women who had saved her life.

  "Uh oh. This isn't one of your interventions, is it? Because I'm not giving up Gavriil Prakenskii. I've made up my mind and I'm keeping him," she greeted, in her firmest voice.

  Blythe laughed. "You sound like he's a dog or something of that nature. Not a man."

  "A man?" Judith echoed, exchanging a quick glance with Airiana. "More like a Bengal tiger."

  "Don't worry, honey, no one is going to try to talk you out of staying with Gavriil. You're a grown woman," Lissa said. "If you want to live on the edge, far be it from us to stop you. But we did think we could find these idiots and put a stop to their attacks."

  Lexi shook her head. "You don't understand how dangerous they are. You can't go anywhere near them."

  "That wasn't exactly the plan," Blythe said. "We were thinking more of creating a biblical answer to their threats."

  Airiana rubbed her hands up and down her arms. "I forgot my sweater again, darn it. I had to sneak out of the house and avoid Benito. He's gotten as bad as Max and thinks the women in his family need an escort everywhere we go."

  "Maybe we should take this into the greenhouse," Lissa suggested. "I don't trust any of the men not to be listening."

  "Good idea," Judith said. "Thomas can get a little out of hand when it comes to personal security."

  "Tell me about it," Rikki said, rolling her eyes. "Levi is so bossy sometimes I've had to push him overboard more than once."

  Lexi couldn't help but laugh with the rest of them at the thought of Rikki shoving her beloved Levi into the sea. There was no doubt in any of their minds that she'd done it. "Come on. I couldn't come up with a solution. I hope you did."

  "We think we can take care of the problem," Lissa said, as they all began to make their way to the greenhouse, "but don't think this will stop the men from going after them as well."

  "Your Gavriil scares all of them just a little bit," Airiana said. "But they want to do this because they love you, Lexi. You're family to them. They aren't going to let anyone take their family from them ever again. You can't blame them."

  "Doesn't he scare you?" Blythe asked. "Just a little bit?"

  Lexi shook her head. "He's so kind and gentle with me there's no way I could be afraid of him. I'm afraid for him at times, but not of him. You should have seen him with Lucia, Airiana. He was so caring, and later he thought about ways to involve her with the puppies in order to try to help her."

  "He was pretty blunt with Benito," Airiana pointed out.

  Lexi bit her lip. "Benito had a gun on him."

  "That's the only reason I didn't get upset with Gavriil and I kept Max from losing his temper over the incident," Airiana said. "You'd j
ust been threatened, and Gavriil had no way of knowing Benito belonged to us all."

  They entered the greenhouse and instantly were in a cocoon of warmth. They rarely came together in the greenhouse, but when they did, they instinctively headed to the very center of it, and sat on the floor in a tight circle, hidden among the giant leaves and jungle of vegetation.

  "Can you find any of their compounds, Lexi?" Blythe asked. "Do you know where they are? I would guess it would be the one closest to us. I know the Reverend established more than one in this area."

  "Maybe," Lexi hedged. "Why?"

  "I would guess, if they suddenly found you, it was by chance. You nearly always stay on the farm and you're out of the spotlight, but somehow they figured out that you were here. The only place you really go is the farmer's market. If someone who could recognize your face was shopping there, they probably would live close," Blythe replied.

  Judith nodded. "We looked at everything you've done in the last few months, and the only other place you went was to Elle Drake's wedding. Someone might have spotted you there, but they couldn't connect you with the farm. Had we been followed, we would have known. At least I think we would have."

  "I've been to a place tucked back into the mountains between Booneville and Manchester. It's way out there and heavily guarded. It was on the list to be raided but the police told me it had been abandoned when they got there. Word went out after the first couple of raids, and I think the people left to escape arrest," Lexi said. "They may be using it again, but there can't be many of them left."

  Her sisters exchanged pleasant smiles.

  Lissa reached over and patted Lexi's knee. "That's perfect. Mountains. Oceans. Wow. We couldn't ask for a better scenario."

  "You didn't tell Levi, did you? Or Gavriil?" Rikki asked.

  "Or Jonas?" Blythe asked.

  Lexi shook her head. "I did give them the name of one of the Reverend's enforcers though."

  "No, that's good," Airiana said. "It will give them something to do while we put our plan into action."

  "What's the plan?" Lexi asked.

  "Well, they're all about the plagues and pestilence, aren't they?" Judith asked. "We can give them what they deserve."

  "Winds," Airiana said.

  "Fire," Lissa added.

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