Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "And when he found out?"

  "He would beat me and then lock me in the box for days. Then he'd be afraid I'd die. It was kind of a vicious circle. That man. Benjamin Frost. The Reverend's right hand. He'd come around and tell Caine he'd take me off his hands. He said Caine wouldn't even have to pay him. I think he suspected I had some kind of gift, but Caine knew if I left, the farm would go downhill. The farm's prosperity gave him power and a certain prestige. He didn't want to lose that."

  "And he couldn't break you," Gavriil said, remembering the hatred on Caine's face when he stared at Lexi. He had come looking for her to turn his fortune around again, to punish her for being everything he could never be. Gavriil had seen many men like him over his years in the field.

  "I feel broken," Lexi admitted. She frowned. "At least I did. Now that you're here, I don't know what I feel."

  "Feel beautiful. Feel feminine. Feel as if you're mine, because you are. And I'm yours. That's our world, Lexi, and those people have no place in it. They don't control you and they can't get to you. I'm standing between you and them and I always will. You can count on that. And you can count on the fact that I'm very, very good at my job."

  "Are you going to let Jonas Harrington go after the men threatening me?"

  "Sure. He can look for them all he wants and wait until they commit a crime he can lock them up for. Of course they'll get out again in a few years if that happens." Gavriil knew he sounded complacent--too complacent, but prison for men like Benjamin Frost was simply a revolving door. Frost knew how to work the system and when he couldn't, he got others to take care of witnesses.

  "Basically it's who finds him first, right? And I told you where to look for him." She rubbed her chin on the sheets, her tone thoughtful.

  He shrugged. "You women wanted the chance to clear out the innocents. I'm all for that, and I can wait. I've got eyes and ears on him now. He isn't going to slip through my fingers because you need to wait for a foggy day. He can't sneak up on us. You're safe here on the farm. The fog will come soon enough."

  "What if Jonas gets him first? Ilya might tell him where they are."

  "Ilya is my brother. He's loyal to Jonas and the Drakes, there's no doubt about that, but this is a family matter. We keep family safe."

  "What does that mean?"

  "It means I find anyone who is a threat to our family and I eliminate them. That's what I do, Lexi. I'll make certain I get every last one of them, just to keep you and the others safe." He leaned down again and pressed another kiss into the small of her back. "I'll be right back. I'm going to run you a hot bath. You need to soak for a few minutes or you'll be very sore. You, my little woman, are impossibly tight. And I'm rather . . ."

  Her eyes widened with a hint of mischief in them. "Large?"

  He laughed and made his way to the bathtub, running the hot water while he found bath salts. Dumping in a generous amount, he added cold, checking the temperature. "You're not falling asleep, are you?"

  "Yes. Go away. Feed the pup. I'm exhausted."

  "You're taking a bath and then you can fall asleep."

  "You're just plain bossy. I thought I was supposed to be the boss, wasn't that the deal we had?"

  The drowsy note in her voice drove him crazy. How was he ever supposed to resist her when she sounded sexy and tempting? "As I remember, that was when we were working the farm together. I'm certain I was a perfect helper. I did everything you said. This is my expertise."

  She made a disparaging sound. He was fairly certain she'd rolled her eyes. He found her lying exactly as he left her. "If you don't soak in hot water, you'll be too sore for more lovemaking and I've got ideas."

  "Go away. I'm too tired for lovemaking, or feeding pups tonight. You're on your own. I'm sleeping right here like this, so leave the fire on."

  He rolled her over and lifted her easily into his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Bath time, solnyshko moya."

  "You said that meant your sun. Maybe I could be your moon. As in night. Sleep." She wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her head against his heart, her lashes sweeping down.

  He put her down into the hot, steaming water.

  She gasped and then smiled up at him. "Maybe this was a good idea after all. I didn't realize I was so sore."

  He brushed a kiss on top of her head, standing over her, emotion overwhelming him. "I'm going to always take good care of you, Lexi. I haven't ever loved a woman before. It's a new, raw experience. You're my only. The one." Because the wealth of emotion was overpowering, he turned away from her. "I'm going to get the pup his supplement, and you contemplate how much I love you for the next few minutes. Let it sink in."

  Lexi stared after him, shocked at his last comment. They danced around the word love. It was put out there a few times when Gavriil told her the difference between making love and having sex, but neither one of them was very good at expressing the emotion.

  She should have told him she loved him. She hadn't actually said it to him. She wasn't certain she could without crying. After her family had been murdered, her "sisters" had saved her life. She had gone to the group therapy as a last resort, and without the women she loved as her family, she wouldn't have made it through those terrible times. But Gavriil . . .

  Gavriil had given her a life, not simply an existence. She didn't know how to feel about his plan to keep them safe. She wasn't exactly happy about it, but she was tired of being afraid. Tired of knowing she didn't dare leave the farm just in case someone spotted her. He was a strong man, a man she could rely on, and there was no doubt in her mind that he would do everything in his power to keep her safe.

  Why had Caine come back? Why was Benjamin Frost threatening her? He hadn't liked Caine. Even as a child she could tell he didn't. Caine had been pompous and vain. He believed himself the ultimate authority and didn't like Frost around because he scared everyone. Caine's congregation seemed more respectful and fearful of Frost.

  The more prosperous the farm became, the more Caine took credit. He wanted the Reverend's attention. Frost suspected Lexi had something to do with the farm's sudden increase in production, although he couldn't understand why, and when it became apparent Caine no longer wanted her, Frost had come to him with a deal. He'd replace Lexi with a young girl if Caine gave Lexi to him.

  She shivered, remembering Frost's vicious stare. He wasn't trying to save her from Caine, that much was certain. She'd learned to get away with a few things and had even begun planning her escape. The last thing she wanted to do was go with Frost. Caine had refused to hand her over, citing the sanctity of marriage. That effectively stopped him from taking another child bride. He'd had to choose between his sexual depravity and his need to be seen by the Reverend as all powerful.

  "You're crying."

  Lexi's eyes flew open. Gavriil towered over her, looking like an avenging angel--a dark one, but still--her guardian angel. His voice was harsh, his features a stone mask. In his arms he cradled Lyutyj. Her heart gave a little stutter at the sight. She could see him holding a child in his arms just as securely. She knew he would never drop that puppy, no matter what happened. He was a big man, a strong man, but that small living creature was totally safe in his arms.

  "I'm not crying because of you. Or us. Never that, Gavriil. Too many memories close. Frost. Caine." She shook her head. "They have no place here in our home. I don't want them to come between us."

  She stood up and allowed the water to drain from the tub, taking the towel he handed her as she stepped out. "Do you want children?" The question came out of nowhere. She shocked herself by asking it.

  He didn't appear thrown in the least. He didn't even blink. He took her hand and led her back into the bedroom. Sinking down into the chair, he began to feed the puppy with the bottle. Since taking his mother's milk, little Lyutyj could use a regular nipple and greedily took the supplement.

  "I had never considered such a thing, Lexi. Me? A father? How could this be when I didn't have a woman of my own?
A woman I loved more than life itself? I didn't really think about it until Lucia came over and I saw the two of you with your heads together and you looked so perfectly right."

  He reached out his hand, the one with the bottle in it, to run his finger over her abdomen. "Look at you. A woman is such a miracle. Her ability to keep a child safe and secure inside of her amazes me."

  His voice made her shiver. His eyes darkened, desire glittering there.

  "Once a certain politician, a friend of Sorbacov's, decided he wanted his wife dead. She was pregnant and he had a much younger mistress. I didn't know why Sorbacov ordered the hit, but when I saw her, I knew there was more to it than I'd been told. She was no spy. She was no threat to our country. I did my own investigation. Now, she and her child live somewhere safe, far away from Sorbacov. She has no worries that her husband will ever pursue her or get his friend to send another operative after her again."

  Lexi moved behind his chair and circled his neck with her arms, leaning down to hold him close to her. His memories were every bit as horrendous as hers were. She wanted to erase them all for him and replace them with something far different. Laughter. Peace. A home and a woman who loved him.

  "I'm glad you stayed with me, Gavriil," she whispered, and brushed his ear with her lips. "I think we're good for each other."


  "CONDITIONS are perfect tonight," Blythe said, looking back toward the mountainous road. They had parked their vehicles carefully in the trees where they couldn't be seen. "It's definitely a go."

  Levi, perched on the tailgate of their pickup beside Rikki, nodded. "We have numerous recordings and we know the main event takes place each evening at eight o'clock. Everyone is inside the building and sitting by precisely eight. If they dare to be late, there's hell to pay."

  Lexi shivered. Gavriil didn't change expression or even look at her, but he shifted his weight imperceptibly closer and his palm slid down her arm to her wrist.

  We're taking them down, solnyshko moya, there's no need for bad memories.

  Lexi took a deep breath. "Were there any young brides there?"

  "None that we saw," Ilya said. "We were careful to study each of the tapes over and over, Lexi. This compound seems to be operating independently of any others. At least, if there are others, this group doesn't actively interact with them."

  The eleven of them--six women and five men--huddled in a circle under cover of the trees. From the road they were impossible to see, even with four vehicles. They were still a distance from the compound where Frost ruled, but they'd have to get closer on foot to avoid detection.

  "How many enforcers?" Lissa asked.

  "Six," Gavriil answered. "All six men answer to the man by the name of Benjamin Frost, the one who threatened Lexi on the message machine."

  Lexi cleared her throat. Her fingers twisted together. Gavriil noted with a silent curse that each of his brothers noticed the sign of nerves. He laid his hand gently over hers, stilling the action.

  "Frost worked exclusively with the Reverend," Lexi said, her voice strained. "He went around to each compound and gave the leaders their orders. No one made a decision without his permission. His punishments were extremely brutal. Not even Caine wanted to go against him, although he stood up to him when Frost tried to get him to hand me over. Because Caine was supposedly my husband, Frost couldn't just take me, although several key members believed that Frost was the actual leader of the cult and the Reverend was merely his front man, chosen because he had so much charisma. Whether that's true or not, no one knows for certain."

  Max paced under the trees restlessly. "It's clear he's comfortable in the role of leader. He never has to ask twice, and when he enters the meeting hall, there's absolute silence. No one even fidgets."

  "Can we see what's happening in the hall where they meet from the entrance to their compound?" Airiana asked.

  "You can't be there," Thomas said instantly.

  "Anywhere near there," Gavriil added.

  Before any of the women could protest, Thomas continued. "Frost has his own security cameras set up. We've marked them on the map surrounding the compound. Frost is smart though. He set up the night vision cameras he did have to give the maximum amount of coverage surrounding his compound."

  "Clearly they no longer have the money they had when the Reverend was around, or the manpower," Maxim stated.

  "Which is why I think they made the big push to find Lexi," Gavriil said. "I think the cult disintegrated between the arrests, the publicity and the Reverend's death. Their money was gone, and you need money to run the operation. Lexi was a gold mine and they lost her. This wasn't about getting her back to be a wife to someone. They wanted her to turn things around for them again."

  Lexi shook her head. "Caine was going to kill me. He told the others to kill me."

  "Only after you had trapped him in the ground," Gavriil said. "In the heat of the moment, and the others reacted. They weren't soldiers. They were men out of their element, regardless of how tough they thought they were. And remember, it was Frost and Caine who knew you were the moneymaker, no one else."

  "You represented money to them," Levi added. "Frost needs a cover for his operations. We discovered he was running guns and has good connections in the Middle East for his drug business. He had to launder the money and have a good clean operation to present to his congregation and outsiders. Without the Reverend's charismatic nature, and the raids, I'm guessing things went downhill fast."

  "He wants Lexi to grow his crops for him," Blythe said. "That's what you're saying. So they call and try to scare her? That's crazy."

  "Frost is using intimidation to get his way. Most of his congregation fear him," Maxim said. "I think he's so used to people being afraid of him, he figured we'd hand Lexi over to him, or she'd be so afraid for us that she'd give herself up."

  "He's going to get a taste of his own medicine," Lissa said, satisfaction edging her voice. "We need a place we can work from. Somewhere all of us can do our thing together. With both Blythe and Judith here to boost our power, we'll have to make certain we don't overdo it."

  Judith laughed. "We want believers. Remember the last time things got away from us? That wasn't pretty."

  The women all burst out laughing. Levi and Thomas exchanged sheepish looks.

  "I scouted an area I think will work for you," Gavriil said. "We'll be able to protect you and give you a good view of what's happening in the meeting hall. You'll be traipsing through woods though."

  "That's not a problem," Rikki said, with a casual swing of her foot. "We dressed in dark clothes, warm and thick, tight around the ankles with good hiking boots. This isn't our first picnic."

  Airiana nodded. "We know our way around, Gavriil. We seem like sweet ladies, but we're really not so much that way."

  Lissa suddenly turned her head and looked directly at Gavriil. He knew that look. She was warning him to watch over the other women. They might profess to be badasses, but none of them had the killer instinct. He knew that already, but he nodded just the same, just to let her know he understood.

  "Did you find out the names of the six enforcers?" Judith asked. "We need to be able to identify them to the congregation as the sinners. As the ones their god is most angry with."

  "We've got them," Levi said. "Are you all certain you want to do this?"

  The women nodded.

  "This will give the opportunity for the ones who want out to make up their minds to really get out," Blythe said. "We don't want any innocents hurt."

  Gavriil turned to look out toward the sea where earlier the fog lay in a thick, dark bank far out. The mist had crept in with bony fingers while they were talking, drawing a gray veil over the mountain and shrouding the forest. Moisture hung in the air.

  The women had waited for such a night. The storm would come in shortly, hitting just about the time they needed it. He didn't like that they had called in a friend to watch Airiana and Max's four children. He would have much preferr
ed that one of his brothers stay on the farm with them, but it wasn't his business, not really.

  Airiana had tried to have Lucia and Benito agree to go to the friend's house, but they had steadfastly refused, not yet ready to venture off their sanctuary. In the end, Gavriil had solved the problem by bringing Drago into the mix. He was on alert in the house with the children and he wouldn't allow anyone else in other than the sitter. Gavriil hoped they took his warning very seriously. He'd made certain to put the responsibility on Lucia. She listened to anything they said about the dogs, and they all knew to go to the safe room should anything happen.

  There was minimum risk to the women. He knew that. With his brothers to help protect them, there was even less. Still . . . he didn't want Lexi anywhere near the compound or Benjamin Frost. Watching the tapes of the meetings when Frost spoke, it was obvious that he commanded his congregation through fear alone. His flock didn't like him. They didn't even want to be in the same room with him, yet not a single one dared leave the meeting let alone the compound.

  Ilya had found out the man had been an Army Ranger and had been forced out of the service when it was suspected that he was smuggling weapons and drugs out of the Middle East. He was never convicted because the two witnesses were poisoned before they could testify. Frost had been incarcerated at the time and couldn't have committed the crime himself, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he'd ordered the hits.

  He'd been stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged. He became a mercenary, and spent time out of the States. Within three years, the lead investigator, prosecutor and judge all died of poisoning. There was no trail leading back to Frost, but Ilya's source said they all believed he was responsible, they just couldn't prove it.

  Frost was not a man to be scared by ghosts or gods. He wouldn't back down. If anything, he would come at Lexi even harder. There was no sense in arguing with any of the women over it. Gavriil knew what he had to do and there was no hesitation on his part. Men like Frost had a reach outside of prison.

  The six enforcers were all ex-military as well, men Frost had known in the service or through his mercenary work. They had a cozy little gig, all the women they wanted, men to boss and push around, no real work other than to look scary as well as all the food they could eat. They weren't going to give up so easily either.

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