Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

"There's no need to call the sheriff," he said gently. "I want you to let me take care of this. You go back to your home and call Levi, Thomas and Max. Tell them what happened, but don't let anyone overhear. I know Max has children. We don't want to frighten them after all they've been through."

  "They'll make me leave," she whispered again, her hand going protectively to her throat.

  "Who? No one can make you leave," Gavriil assured her, struggling to understand.

  "I'm in witness protection. I'm supposed to call a number and they'll come and get me. They'll take me away from everyone, and I'll never get to see my sisters or the farm again." Tears tracked down her face. "He's got followers, others who will come for me. They kill entire families. They killed mine."

  Gavriil felt everything in him go still. It took control not to look back at the man who had kidnapped a child and then murdered her family, forcing her to become his "wife." "Look at me, Lexi. Right now. Don't think about anything else. Just look at me."

  Lexi's tear-drenched eyes met his. He smiled at her, more a showing of his teeth than an actual smile, because he wanted to kill the son of a bitch right then. He watched her take a deep, shuddering breath.

  "We'll handle this. You'll never see these men again. We'll figure out how they found you and we'll make certain it doesn't happen again. The farm is safe. They couldn't get on the farm without any of you knowing."

  She frowned and looked around her, back toward the farm. "But you did, didn't you?" she asked suddenly, comprehending. "You were following me."

  "I belong on the farm," Gavriil said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. Caine was back to shouting obscenities at Lexi, clearly not learning his lesson. "The warning system already in place recognized me--recognized that I belonged here." He reiterated it, wanting her to begin to accept it as fact.

  She nodded slowly. "Thank you for saving my life. They would have killed me."

  "I'm sorry I was slow getting here. I don't move quite as fast as I used to." His body was screaming at him, protesting every step he took, every move he made now.

  Lexi's frown deepened and she leaned toward him, her hand smoothing over his jaw. "You're hurt."

  He stilled inside. No one ever saw his physical pain. He didn't allow it to show on his face or body, in his eyes. Only someone who saw into him, saw beyond the surface, could have seen pain in him. There was no doubt this woman was his. He took her hand and pressed his palm to hers. "Wait for me at your house. I'll come to you. Send my brothers to me and don't think about this anymore. Don't call or talk to anyone else until I've come to you."

  "But my sisters . . . We made a pact to tell one another everything."

  "We'll tell your sisters," Gavriil said. "But I'll be with you. Remember, I'm the one who did all the damage here, not you."

  "Caine has to go to the hospital," Lexi pointed out. "The cops will know for certain then." She looked down at her hand, still enveloped in his.

  "Let me worry about that. You go get my brothers and wait for me."

  "Gavriil, they'll all come to my house. They'll know. We always know when one of us is in trouble."

  He nodded. "That's okay. Just don't allow any of them to call the sheriff." His gaze was steady on her. "Will you do that for me?"

  Lexi's eyes clung to his. "That's the least I can do after you saved my life." She started to look past him to Caine, but Gavriil blocked her view.

  "Don't. Don't give him that satisfaction. He's nothing to you. Just look at me and then go." He tightened his fingers around hers. "Don't see him. Only me."

  Lexi pressed her lips together and nodded. Reluctantly he let go of her and watched as she drove away. He turned back toward Caine, and there was nothing at all left of the warm, gentle man. The one striding toward Caine was utterly stone cold, inside and out.


  "THEY'VE been gone a really long time," Lexi said, looking anxiously around the circle of women gathered on her porch. These five women had become family to her. They weren't bound by birth, but in every other way they had become sisters.

  "Do you think something happened to them?" She pushed her thumbnail between her teeth and frowned, looking toward the back part of the property. "I shouldn't have run away like a coward. This was my mess."

  "You're not a coward, Lexi," Rikki Hammond assured her. "Stop worrying so much about them. I'd know if something happened to Levi."

  Married to Lev Prakenskii, whom they now called Levi Hammond, Rikki was both autistic and bound to water, an element of great power. She loved the ocean and captained her own vessel, diving for sea urchins with Levi to help provide cash for the farm.

  Rikki leaned over and brushed a kiss against Lexi's cheek, a rare gesture of affection from her. "I'll go make tea. It seems longer than it really has been."

  Airiana nodded. "Same with me," she agreed. "I'd know if something happened to Max."

  "Where are the children?" Lexi asked, suddenly aware that if Max was gone and Airiana was with her, the four children Max and Airiana were adopting were alone.

  "I thought it best to leave them at the house. Lucia and Benito know what to do, and they're watching over Siena and Nicia. They know something's wrong, so I'll have to keep an eye out for Benito. He has a tendency to spy."

  That made them all laugh. Benito took protecting his sisters seriously and had become Max's shadow ever since Max had saved them all from a human trafficking ring. He walked like Max and had begun to take on his mannerisms, and he'd been on the farm less than two weeks.

  "It's all right if you need to get back," Lexi assured Airiana. "I wouldn't want them to be afraid. Being alone after losing their parents and going through what they all did can't be good."

  "Lexi," Airiana reminded softly, "they're in their new home. They're aware of all the security we have, and they know we're at your house. They'll be fine. The entire farm is their home. I need to be with you right now."

  Airiana was bound to air, and Max appeared to be as well. The Prakenskiis had a number of gifts, but Max was an element, just as Airiana was, and that made them a very powerful couple.

  Lexi blinked back tears. "I'm glad you are. I should have let the earth swallow Caine." The admission burst out of her unexpectedly and she clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that." But she did. She knew she did. She was terrified that with Caine alive, he would eventually come for her. He wouldn't stop. Nothing would ever stop him.

  Her stomach rebelled at the idea of ever being alone with him again. She touched her ponytail, the one he'd yanked so viciously. "You once asked me why I never cut my hair, Airiana. I grew out my hair after I escaped because Caine cut it off repeatedly to humiliate me when he punished me. He shaved my head once. I promised myself I would wear my hair long if I ever escaped."

  There was a collective gasp from the other women. She didn't want to see the sympathy on their faces--she'd break down. Falling apart wasn't going to help. She didn't understand why she couldn't stop thinking about Gavriil and feeling guilty for leaving him there alone to deal with her mess.

  She turned away from her sisters, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. The memories were too close--on top of her now--and she wanted to vomit, to curl up in the fetal position and hide away. All of her hard-won armor had deserted her and all she could do was feel like a helpless child.

  "Of course you would wish the earth had swallowed Caine," Lissa Piner said. "Who wouldn't? That man was . . . is . . ." She broke off, looking at the other women sitting on Lexi's sprawling porch, annoyed at such a mistake. She was bound to fire, and sometimes her passionate nature rose to the surface when she wanted to protect her youngest sister.

  Lissa had no doubts that the man who had abducted Lexi from the safety of her home and forced her into a life of rape and terror by night and work by day wouldn't ever make it to the hospital.

  Hastily she changed tactics. "What's Gavriil like? I'm amazed that he would actually use his own name so openly, almost as if he was dar
ing Uri Sorbacov or Uri's father to come after him."

  Lexi frowned again, a little distracted, trying to follow what they were all saying. She knew they were trying to divert her attention. She tried to remember who Uri Sorbacov was. He was the son of the man who had murdered the Prakenskiis' parents and abducted all seven brothers, separating them and forcing them into schools to become covert operatives and worse. He also had been the one to order a hit on most of the Prakenskii brothers and had tried to abduct Airiana. He had a litany of sins to answer for, but was safe in Russia, far from retaliation.

  "Aren't they all on a hit list?" Lexi asked, suddenly worried about why Gavriil would use his real identity. Her thumbnail found its way back between her teeth--exasperated, she pulled it out.

  "Not Ilya," Blythe Daniels said. "He's the youngest Prakenskii brother, and for some reason he seems to be able to live out in the open with no threat."

  Lexi found Blythe's voice incredibly soothing. She was always the one who calmed every situation down. She wasn't bound to an element, but she had incredible gifts of her own and always was the voice of reason in the middle of a storm. She had brought them all together and had found the farm for them to purchase. Lexi would be forever grateful for that alone.

  Judith Vincent swung her feet up onto the wide railing of the porch. "Tell us about Gavriil. When Thomas or Levi talk about him, it's always with this sort of reservation in their voices. A tone."

  Married to Stefan Prakenskii, Judith was bound to spirit and could amplify all the other elements. Stefan had taken the name Thomas Vincent and the two of them were never far apart.

  Airiana nodded. "Almost as if they're in awe of him--or afraid of him. I can't imagine Max, Levi or Thomas afraid of anyone, but they definitely talk differently about him."

  Lexi scowled at them. "He was gentle and kind to me. He had no choice when he shot those two men. They were going to kill me. I'm sure he didn't want to kill them, but if he hadn't, I'd be dead. And he was hurt. I could see it."

  "Hurt?" Judith asked. "You didn't tell us that. Was he shot? Stabbed? Should we have told Thomas to take him to a hospital?"

  Lexi shook her head. "I think he came here with some injury."

  "That's right," Airiana said, snapping her fingers. "Gavriil was stabbed like seven times guarding my dear old dad, Theodotus Solovyov. Gavriil nearly died."

  Judith sat up straighter. "Thomas told me about him. He should have died. It was really bad. And Sorbacov put out a hit on him because he didn't die, and according to Sorbacov, Gavriil was useless to them. But that was a long time ago, his injuries should have healed."

  "He worked for their government all those years and they just threw him away, threw all the Prakenskiis away. That's so wrong." Lexi's sympathy was entirely with Gavriil and had been from the moment she felt his pain.

  "If he's using his own name, and he knows Sorbacov put a hit out on him," Blythe said, "he came here to say good-bye to his brothers. He's planning to lead them away from Thomas, Levi and Max. That's the only reason he would use his real name."

  Rikki came through the front entrance bearing a tray with a teapot and cups on it. The women turned to her gratefully. They had met one another in group therapy. Each of them had gone as a last resort. It was a special group for women who had relatives murdered and in some way felt they were to blame for the death of their loved ones. They had grown close and realized that together they were far stronger and more powerful than apart.

  "Thank you," Lexi murmured, taking one of the cups and pouring a little milk into it. She turned back to her sisters, her small frown still very much in evidence. "Maybe he just told me his name to reassure me."

  "Whatever the reason, honey," Judith said, "we're grateful to him for saving your life." She put her teacup on the railing and looked out over the farm. "We have to be more careful about listening to the men. We're always rolling our eyes when they give us orders on where we can go and how we're supposed to get there, but we all have too many enemies to pretend we're always going to be safe."

  Lexi sighed. "I may as well tell you the truth. I'm in witness protection. The things I told you about the cult and the kidnapping and the murder of my entire family is all true, but I testified against several key members of the cult and the rest scattered and were able to get away, including Caine, the man who forced me into being his wife. My real name is Alexia Wilson, not Lexi Thompson."

  "I suspected as much," Blythe said. "It was all over the news when it happened."

  "You weren't his wife," Lissa said fiercely. "You were a little girl he beat and raped. There was no marriage, no sacred vows. He was no man of God, and anyone who would perform a ceremony uniting an eight-year-old child and a grown man is certainly no ordained minister."

  Lexi ducked her head. "I know. That's what they told me. The point is, if Caine found me, other members of the cult probably know where I am as well. It was just luck that Gavriil had come here. I saw my family for about three hours, and the feds moved me into a safe house before the trial. While I was there, these people went into my home, murdered my parents as they slept, went down the hall and killed my two brothers and my baby sister. We have children here." Her eyes met Airiana's. "Your children. They've been through far too much already."

  "No." Blythe said it firmly. "You aren't leaving."

  Airiana leaned forward and took Lexi's hand. "I had to ask myself the same question about coming back here. I'm working for the government now, and everyone wants my work. Sorbacov tried to take me to Russia. I've got Evan Shackler-Gratsos trying to kidnap me, and if it hadn't been for Max, I'd be with one of them right now."

  Evan Shackler-Gratsos, Lexi remembered, was a billionaire who had inherited not only a major shipping company from his brother, but his brother's side of human, arms and drug trafficking as well. Lexi hugged Airiana tightly. "I'm so glad Max was there."

  "I am terrified of allowing Evan to get anywhere near the children, after what they've been through--and he was responsible," Airiana admitted. "But, and you have to listen to me, baby, we're better and stronger together than apart. Even if you disappear, they would still come here to us. You know that. You were in protective custody and they went after your family. They'd still come after us."

  Lexi shook her head. "I froze. After I trapped Caine in the ground, and realized there were others, I couldn't move."

  Lissa hugged her tightly. "You saved yourself. Caine obviously beat you. Look at you, all covered in bruises, but you still saved yourself. You executed the moves Levi taught us in class, and you broke away from him just like you were supposed to."

  Lexi chewed on her thumbnail, wishing she could be more like the rest of them. They all had confidence in themselves in spite of the things that had happened to them. "If it hadn't been for Gavriil, I'd be dead right now. I don't want to be the weak link. What happens if I'm here alone on the farm with Lucia and the younger children and they come?"

  "I have no doubt that you would protect the children," Airiana said. "No doubt at all. Max said women often are much more willing to fight for their children than themselves."

  "Do you really want to take that chance?" Lexi persisted, terrified that they couldn't see inside of her.

  She was a mess--a terrible, unholy mess. No amount of practice in the gym or on the gun range made her feel any different. She was afraid all the time. Now, she feared, she would always remember that she'd nearly killed a man with her most precious, sacred gift. She felt inadequate and more terrified than ever.

  She'd stopped being afraid for a moment when she'd looked into Gavriil Prakenskii's eyes. She secretly hugged that moment to her. She'd felt--alive. For the first time she really felt she could breathe. She could see the world in his eyes. She could see herself there, strong like she wanted to be.

  It was peculiar and a little crazy--he was a complete stranger--but maybe she'd connected with him because she sensed he was as broken as she was. All she knew for certain was that she wasn't going to a
llow Gavriil Prakenskii to throw away his life, and she was fairly certain that's what he'd come here to do.

  "Yes," Airiana answered the question firmly. "Absolutely yes."

  "I think your Gavriil was right," Lissa said. "I don't think we need to call anyone over this little incident. The boys can handle it, and we'll just keep working on security and watch you a little closer."

  "Maybe Gavriil will stick around and help you with the farm," Judith added. "He was your guardian angel. Maybe he won't mind being your bodyguard."

  Lexi shook her head. "I don't want him in danger. He really has something physically wrong with him. If I can get him to let me take a look, I might be able to help, and if I can't, Libby Drake is back in town. I can ask her . . ." She trailed off when she realized the other women were staring at her in astonishment. "What?"

  "You're going to take a look at him?" Blythe echoed. "Honey, you don't even talk to people let alone take a look at them."

  Airiana gave a little snicker. "Presumably without clothes. You know, just for an inspection."

  Lexi felt her color rise, her skin turning bright red. "Well, if I'm going to help him, I'll need to see the problem, won't I?" She glared at them, daring them to contradict her.

  "Of course," Lissa soothed. "We're only teasing you."

  "But honey," Judith reminded, "the stabbing was some time ago, and it may be impossible to help him after all this time. In any event, he's no wounded creature for you to look after."

  "Of course he is," Lexi said. "You didn't see him."

  "We're about to," Blythe said. "The men are coming back and your Gavriil is right in the middle of them."

  Lexi stood up, slowly putting the teacup down. Gavriil moved over the ground with a dancer's fluid step rather than a fighter's, which was how she always saw Levi and Thomas. Max was just out there for the world to see, a tough, rough man anyone would think twice before messing with. But Gavriil . . .

  "Oh, my God," Judith whispered, her hand going defensively to her throat. "And I thought Levi was frightening. Airiana, are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

  Airiana touched Judith's hand to quiet her. She saw the aura, dark and dangerous and extremely violent, surrounding Gavriil Prakenskii. The thought of him ever being alone with their little fragile Lexi was almost shocking. Truly horrifying. What made the situation so much worse was the fact that he was walking with his brothers, all very dangerous men, and yet his aura was fully colored in violence, outdoing every one of theirs.

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