Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "Water, lots of it." Rikki blew on the tips of her fingers, and this time it was deliberate. She grinned at Lexi.

  "And earth," Blythe said. "We just need to make certain they get the message that their god is punishing them for their mistaken belief that they can send their enforcers after you."

  Lexi bit down hard on her lower lip. "It's a proactive plan," she agreed, "and more than anything I'd like to be proactive against them for once in my life. The biggest problem I see is getting the right message to them. Whoever is in charge is most likely going to put a different spin on it when things start to happen. He'll say they have to kill me or their god will continue to punish them."

  Judith burst out laughing. "I love you, Lexi. I really do. Is that what you see as our biggest obstacle? That's going to be a piece of cake compared to slipping away from our husbands and getting this done. Do you think Gavriil is going to agree to you leaving the farm without him?"

  Lexi frowned at her. "Well, he really doesn't have that kind of say in my life one way or the other, does he? I do what I want."

  Blythe leaned toward Lexi. "Until you cross him. Honey, you have to be realistic if you're going to be with a man like Gavriil. Like any of the Prakenskiis, and that includes their younger brother, Ilya. If you are the one woman in the world they give up their former life for, do you really think they'll just let you walk into a dangerous situation? It won't ever happen."

  "Well I'm not going to lie to him. If we do this, I'm going to be honest," Lexi said stubbornly. "He's honest with me, and I'm not giving him less than the strict truth."

  "That's fine," Airiana agreed, "I feel the same way, but we're just warning you, be prepared for a battle."

  "How do you think he's going to react when he finds out you know where some of these people are and you didn't tell him?" Lissa asked.

  "He already knows." Lexi smiled at her. "I saw it in his eyes when I told the sheriff the name of one of the men on the tape. I'm certain he thinks he can worm the information out of me."

  "Well if we're really going to do this," Lissa said, "we need to do it in the next few days. I've got a trip planned. You know how I take off a couple of times a year. I'm heading to Europe. I've got a few appointments with customers interested in my chandeliers, and you know how much money they bring in. I've got to firm up the deals. I'm sorry, I didn't know all this was going to happen or I would have put off my trip. I've already made all the arrangements."

  "That's awesome," Judith said. "Where?"

  "Germany, an actual castle, and one in Italy and the last in Russia. I'm excited to see what they want. I sent them my brochure. The estate in Germany is particularly exciting because they've actually invited me to stay in the castle."

  "Who would have thought that in just a few short years our businesses would take off and become international?" Judith said.

  "Blythe." Rikki touched her arm lightly. "You were so right about us being stronger together. Not only emotionally, but definitely financially as well."

  Blythe smiled at them. "We were so lucky to meet."

  "This farm is healing," Airiana said. "I hope it does for the children what it did for us. They all still have nightmares, and I can't say that I blame them."

  "Are they still sleeping in your bedroom?" Rikki asked.

  Airiana nodded. "They try to stay in their own rooms, but they come in one by one. We don't mind. We've made the gazebo our getaway." She turned to Lexi. "Thank you for talking to Lucia. Whatever you said has helped. She's easier around both Max and me."

  "I think the puppies will help too," Lexi said. "She's very interested in them, and I think if you encourage that, she'll be pulled closer into our circle."

  "Did Gavriil have to have the biggest, scariest dog in the world have puppies?" Judith demanded. "Sheesh. Of course Thomas is all over that. The dog might as well be a horse. Can you imagine one racing through the house and knocking over everything?"

  "Like Benito?" Airiana asked slyly. "He spends a lot of time with you and I can't imagine that half your artwork isn't damaged."

  Judith laughed. "He is rather coltish. He's talented, Airiana, and he loves to paint. I've gotten him interested in restoration as well."

  A draft shifted the leaves and they fell silent, exchanging looks. There was no sound, but they knew they weren't alone. Gavriil came through the wealth of plants first, leaning one hip against the bed of tomatoes and crossing his arms over his chest. Max emerged next, with Thomas and Levi following suit until the women were surrounded.

  Thomas leveled his gaze at Judith. "It looks to me as if you six are having a little war meeting without us. What do you think, Levi?"

  Levi studied his wife's face. "Rikki, honey, never play poker. You look as guilty as sin."

  "I don't feel guilty," Rikki said, giving him her haughty little glare.

  "That's too bad, because I'm going to have to work on that one with you long and hard until you do feel guilt. Anytime you plan behind your husband's back, guilt should factor in."

  Airiana snorted in derision. "Like it does with the four of you?"

  Max stirred but he didn't say anything at all, just kept his eyes on her face until she blushed.

  "Seriously, Max, you are plotting every minute."

  "So that is what you're doing," Thomas said. "The minute I realized the six of you were together, I knew you were up to no good."

  "What's the plan?" Levi asked.

  "It isn't quite perfected yet," Blythe said. "But we thought we'd bring the bible down on them."

  Lexi felt Gavriil's eyes on her. He didn't say a word, but she felt the weight, a dark promise that made her shiver. She wasn't afraid of him, but he was intimidating. He suddenly held out his hand to her. His blue eyes didn't waver, not for a moment. He didn't blink, entirely focused on her as if they were the only two people in the room.

  The compulsion to take his hand was stronger than she could resist. But it was more than that. She knew the others were watching. She could either take his hand and seal the relationship in the eyes of her family or blow him off. She wasn't about to do that to him. She put her hand in his and allowed him to pull her to his feet.

  Gavriil wrapped his arm around Lexi, uncaring that his brothers and her sisters would see him. He needed to hold her. She knew more than the others the kind of men they were dealing with. Whatever plan they had devised--good or bad--was not going to be implemented without the protection his brothers and he could provide.

  "We need to get home," he said, keeping his voice low and persuasive. "I didn't like the look of the littlest puppy and wasn't certain just what he needed. Come home and take a look, please. You can talk on the way."

  "Oh no." Lexi immediately turned to her sisters with a small wave. "I think we can do this and maybe avoid harming anyone. You tell them, and I'll fill Gavriil in."

  "That's an excellent idea," Gavriil said, as they stepped out of the greenhouse. He kept her close to him, his arm securely around her waist. "Fill me in."

  "The Reverend used the bible to intimidate and frighten the members of his congregation. He breathed fire and brimstone. We're all elements. We can use those elements against them. We just have to figure out how to make certain they interpret the floods, earthquakes, winds and fires sent to punish them for threatening me."

  "I see." He kept her walking, sheltering her body from the wind coming off the ocean. It was cold, and the fog swirled around them with each step. The mist muffled sound and gave the illusion of walking in another world. He tightened his arm around her possessively. Protectively.

  She glanced up at his face. He felt her eyes drifting over him. It didn't matter that fear had developed the moment he knew she was gone and perhaps making plans to try to deal with the cult members on her own. She warmed something dead and cold inside of him. No one else could breathe life into him the way she did.

  "Are you upset with me, Gavriil?"

  She sounded genuinely puzzled. She hadn't been defiant or trying
to be independent in the face of extreme danger. He didn't understand why she wouldn't come to him first, and she didn't understand the terrible fear of losing her he just couldn't get a handle on.

  Vulnerability wasn't his strong suit. Lexi made him more than vulnerable. She stripped him naked and left his weakness exposed.

  "Gavriil? What is it?"

  "I need a little time to adjust to all this," he said slowly. "I never expected to ever feel this way about a woman. I've fallen pretty damn hard. It doesn't make sense, and I'm a man who questions everything and never trusts what I don't understand. I'm cynical, Lexi. I deal in logic and probabilities. Emotion isn't part of that. I rarely feel emotion. It has no place in my life. And then you came along."

  She leaned her face into his rib cage, a small brush of her cheek against his body. He felt the small touch like an electrical charge. He half expected the fog to light up with tiny little sparks. How did one explain that to her?

  "When a man has had nothing at all, no future, no hope of one and no one to call his own falls like a ton of bricks, it takes a little getting used to."

  "You aren't in this alone," she whispered.

  "I know. I'm aware you're struggling too, but we've got to talk these things out. You know those panic attacks of yours? I think they're contagious. When you're out of my sight, and I don't know that you're safe, I can't breathe."

  She was silent a moment. He waited. Lexi was a fair woman and more, she was compassionate. She recognized the struggle in him. He believed in her, in her sense of fairness. In her caring. She would put him first always--it was in her nature. His nature was dominant and one of absolute confidence. He knew he would always have to take precautions never to take advantage of her.

  Lexi looked up at his face. It couldn't have been easy for a man like Gavriil to make such an admission. She could see raw pain etched into the lines of his face. More, she could feel his confusion and irritation with himself. He didn't understand what was happening to him--to both of them--but he was doing his best to figure it out.

  He wasn't a man who ever allowed himself excuses. Not pain. Not injuries. He certainly didn't have panic attacks no matter what he claimed. He functioned no matter what condition he was in. His emotions for her, as intense as they were, and as quickly as the feelings had developed, had taken him to an unfamiliar place, one in which he didn't know how to maneuver.

  There was honesty there. Stark truth. He physically reacted when he didn't know where she was. "I didn't mean to worry you, Gavriil. I have to work. Running the farm isn't easy, even though I'm bound to earth. When I'm upset, I find it comforting to get my hands in the soil. It's habit."

  "I've had a little time to think things over. I know it won't be easy for you to tell me where you're going. You've been independent so long and to feel as if you're answering to someone will be . . . difficult." He raked his fingers through his hair. "If you tell me where you are, maybe over time I'll get rid of this panicky feeling when you disappear."

  Gavriil detested feeling the way he was. Naked. Exposed. Completely vulnerable. He hadn't expected such a visceral reaction to her just leaving without telling him where she was going. He had known. On some level he had known she would seek something familiar after the sheriff had questioned her, but there had been that moment, walking the others back out onto the porch and finding her gone.

  He didn't want to ever relive that moment. He hadn't cared if he'd covered his panic in front of his brothers or not. He only cared that he find her and fast.

  "I don't mind telling you where I'm going," Lexi said. "But I'll be honest with you. It will take some time for me to always get in the habit of it. My sisters have their own places. We aren't together twenty-four/seven. I'm used to being alone and never answering to anyone. I suspect you'll find it just as hard to have to tell me where you're going and what you're doing."

  Air moved a little easier through his lungs. The constricted feeling eased in his chest. A few of the knots in his belly loosened. There was just something about her that moved him--that set up a need and a hunger, a drive he was unfamiliar with. He'd never believed in heaven or hell until he met her. She turned his world upside down, and he'd known from the moment he set eyes on her that she would. She was the one.

  "Lexi, I want to be the perfect man for you. I do. I want to give you everything you've ever wanted or dreamt about. I want you happy every minute of the day. But I'm not perfect, and I don't know the first thing about making a woman happy. I do know the kind of man I am--the one I've been shaped into."

  She sighed. "Gavriil, I know you'd never hurt me. I just know it, deep inside. There's no doubt, and you shouldn't have doubts either."

  He stopped abruptly, right before the first stair of the porch to their home. "I have no doubts that I'd never hurt you." His hand brushed her hair, all that soft silk, once more pulled back into the inevitable ponytail. "But you can't ignore the fact that I'm a violent man. My mind goes there first when I'm threatened. Everyone around you is going to be in danger when I'm in that state of mind."

  He waited, hearing his heart beating, the thunder of his pulse in his ears. She looked up at him, her cool green eyes searching his face for a long time. He hadn't wanted to make the admission. It went against his logic. Against his code. Against who he was, but there was no denying one of his biggest fears was that he would harm an innocent in trying to get to her or protect her.

  She had every right to condemn him. She'd lived in a violent world. His greatest fear was that she would associate him with Caine. He didn't want her to feel as if she was a prisoner tied to him. Or that he dictated her every move. He didn't know how to smooth out his rough edges.

  Lexi cupped the side of his face with her palm, a curiously tender gesture, and it made his heart turn over. "I didn't think of that, Gavriil, and I'm sorry. I don't understand any of this, what's happened between us, but clearly we're both going to have to deal with each other's issues. I'm actually a little glad it isn't just me." She gave him a tentative smile and went up on her toes to brush a kiss along his chin. "We'll be okay. It's not that hard to learn to tell you where I'm going. I'll make every effort."

  He should have known she would react that way. Lexi didn't have an ego. She looked past words to the man. Whatever she saw in him--and thank the universe she saw something worthwhile--she made her judgments based on what she saw. He felt more love for her than he thought possible.

  He turned abruptly and went up the steps, unable to express to her what she meant to him. He took her with him because he wasn't quite ready to let go of her.

  "I wasn't making it up about the puppy," Gavriil told her, as he nearly thrust her into the house. He was grateful he could change the subject and give her something else to think about. "Would you take a look at him?"

  "Of course." She hurried down the hall to the bedroom.

  He allowed himself to lean weakly against the wall, just for a moment. He was more of a monster than he'd ever considered himself. He'd known it the moment he'd emerged from their kitchen to find her gone. Every belief he'd held about himself shattered right there.

  He had always known he was far gone from humanity. He'd crossed a line years earlier and there was no going back, but he had a code he didn't break. It was the only thing keeping him from becoming worse than those he hunted. He would have broken his code in a heartbeat to get to her.

  Love wasn't only painful for a man like him, it was damned dangerous. He glided down the hall to the bedroom to lean one hip against the doorjamb, just watching her--drinking her in like some lovesick idiot. She sat on the floor, tailor fashion, concentration on her face, while her hands cradled the weak puppy. Drago nearly dwarfed her, crowding close, his nose anxiously pressed against her.

  He could almost feel the warmth emanating from her hands as she held the puppy close. She was beautiful there, her head tilted down, every line in her body one of intense concentration. He waited, watching her, his world right again because she was

  She turned her head slowly to look at him. There was worry in her eyes. "I don't think he's strong enough to eat properly. He won't latch on. Would you call Blythe and see if we can get some goat's milk? I might be able to feed him with an eyedropper just to make him strong enough to eat properly."

  "Blythe?" His eyebrow shot up.

  "Her number is there on the kitchen counter in my address book. Kiss is being very patient with me. I've been trying to stimulate the puppy to eat and she's lying there and occasionally licking him to give him encouragement." She held the tiny creature close. "We'll have to give him a name."

  His heart lurched. "Solnyshko moya, it is better not to get too attached in case you lose him. He's very weak."

  "I know. But he needs a name. Something brave, because he's really trying, Gavriil."

  He shook his head. He didn't want heartbreak for her. "I'll be right back. I'll make the call and also ask her to see if anyone can order us puppy formula. When I come back we have to discuss this plan of yours to scare this cult away from you. I also would like an explanation of why you didn't tell me you knew how to find them."

  She turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. She looked so beautiful he would have wept if he were that kind of man. There was sheer tenderness on her face. Pure love. An expression so terrifyingly beautiful his eyes burned and his throat threatened to close on him. "I was protecting you from yourself, of course."

  He turned away from her. He had no other choice. She disarmed him so easily with her caring. He had no idea what to do or say when she was like that. He had command of every situation no matter how dicey, until it came to his woman. There, he was completely at a loss. How did one fall so hard and make it work? He didn't have a clue but it didn't matter. He'd never been happier.

  Blythe was eager to help and said she'd get the goat's milk or formula and bring it right over as soon as she found some. He went back to Lexi.

  She was sitting in the chair nearest the closet, holding the puppy close to her. She looked so sad his heart ached.

  "You're right, Lexi. He needs a name. Lyutyj. We'll call him Lyutyj. It means fierce. He'll be a fierce warrior and he'll fight to survive."

  She had the puppy close to her heart, wrapped carefully in a soft blanket. "That's a perfect name, Gavriil, thank you." She kissed the little dog's head. "I'm certain he'll pull through. His mother and father are both brave and strong. He will be too."

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