Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "I had a real sweet deal here. Whoever you are should be working with me, not against me. There's money and women to be had. Whatever someone paid you is nothing at all compared to what I can show you how to make."

  Using the fog to cover his movements, Gavriil eased his body onto the roof and crouching low, ran across the rooftop and leapt to the next one. He landed softly, but his left foot sank beneath the rotted wood, tearing a hole right through it. He immediately stretched out on what was left of the tiles to distribute his weight. It took a moment to extract his foot.

  He slipped back to the very edge of the roof and allowed himself to drop to the ground. He knew he'd made noise when his foot had gone through the thin, rotted wood, and even with the fog helping to muffle sound, Benjamin must have heard. He'd been a soldier and a mercenary. The fact that he was still alive was a testimonial that he knew his way around combat situations.

  More than anything else, Gavriil was aware of time passing. He didn't want Ilya or Max to join in the actual fight. He'd made that abundantly clear to both of them. They were the cleanup crew, nothing else. But time was his greatest enemy. Jonas Harrington was highly intelligent. He would find out that Airiana and Max had called a trusted friend to come babysit and he would put two and two together--especially if someone happened to report gunfire in the area.

  Gavriil slipped around to the back of the building, back toward heavy woods. The forest ran all the way down the mountain almost to the ocean. If Benjamin Frost was making his getaway, he would run this way. There were trails everywhere through the forest, paths Gavriil had found when scouting, that indicated to him they'd been used often to come and go. Frost had to have a vehicle stashed somewhere along the road, down past the compound.

  If Frost chose not to run, he would use the forest to circle back in order to try to get behind Gavriil. Gavriil moved at a steady pace, covering ground fast, working out in his mind the best places for Frost to ambush him. Frost knew the area far better than he did, and he would have chosen several places he could defend if he was cornered. The man was far too cunning not to set up his escape.

  The forest was thick with fog. Airiana, Max and Rikki had called it from the ocean, so this side of the compound was even more foggy and gray than the other side. Without a wind to disperse it, the mist hung through the trees, heavy with moisture.

  He paused, crouching low to feel around him, looking for movement in the heavy mist, or a large spot where the mist had been dispersed. There was no sound at all. No movement. Gavriil looked upward, toward the tops of the trees. Some of the trees were old with thick trunks and wide, gnarled branches, perfect to sit up in and wait for someone to come.

  It took three precious minutes to spot Frost, and Gavriil was very aware of each of them. There was no way to make it look like an accident, not with Frost up in the tree, and he'd wanted Harrington to have no concrete evidence that someone else was involved in what had taken place here at the compound.

  He swore under his breath as he stretched out in the wet vegetation. He had a clean shot through the foliage, but he'd have to use Bridges's weapon. That meant firing a gun he wasn't familiar with. One hair's breadth off could ruin the shot at this distance. Gavriil went for a body shot, instead of the head, just because he needed to make certain with the distance, the fog and an untried weapon.

  He took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Frost's body jerked and then slowly toppled over, dropping from the branches onto the forest floor. Gavriil waited a couple of heartbeats before he rose and began to make his way toward the spot where Frost had landed. It hadn't been a kill shot. The gun pulled to the left. Still, that fall was going to hurt, if not break bones.

  Gavriil heard Frost cursing long before he came up on the drag marks. A steady stream of blood soaked the carpet of leaves where Frost had hit the ground and then tried to pull his body into deeper cover. He was propped up against a tree, his gun in his hand and blood streaming down his chest. He looked as if the fall had broken his arm and an ankle and very possibly his back as well. Frost's skin was gray, and his breathing ragged.

  Frost spit blood on the ground as Gavriil walked up to him. "Who the hell are you?" He coughed and spit more blood.

  Gavriil didn't answer. Frost was dying and that was good enough for him. He simply wanted the man out of Lexi's life. If Frost had been the brains behind the Reverend's depraved teachings, the world was far better off without him.

  Frost swore again and tried to lift his gun. Gavriil shot him through the throat and then through the eye. He left him there, turning away from the man who had caused so much damage to families and young women.

  Gavriil felt tired all of a sudden. Weary. He made his way back to the other bodies and put the gun near Bridges's hand. It wasn't a perfect scene, there were a few holes, but it was plausible enough if one didn't have any idea the Prakenskii brothers were around.

  He wanted to go home. To her. Lexi. It didn't matter if she was angry with him or not. She was home. He was done with this chapter of his life and looking forward to the next one with her.

  He hadn't left tracks, but still, it would be better to dispose of his shoes in the ocean. All the vehicles would have to be thoroughly washed and then driven through the forest surrounding the farm as well as the dirt roads and mud on the farm itself. He believed in being thorough, and since he'd met Jonas Harrington, even more so.

  Ilya and Max joined him where they had left the truck. He didn't take the wheel, but slipped into the backseat of the cab and laid his head against the seat.

  "We retrieved all of our cameras," Max said, as he slipped into the driver's seat.

  Ilya handed back a bottle of water. "You hit anywhere?"

  Gavriil shook his head. "No. I'm just plain bone tired."

  Ilya nodded, relief creeping into his eyes. "Frost had every single home bugged. We listened to the tapes and were able to leave all of them behind for Jonas to find." There was a touch of distaste in his tone.

  Ilya clearly didn't like going behind Harrington's back and Gavriil didn't blame him. They were loyal to the ones they considered family, and to Ilya, Harrington was family.

  "Are you going to be able to live with this?" Gavriil asked his youngest brother.

  Ilya shrugged. "Why wouldn't I? They were scumbags threatening our family."

  "I'm talking about Harrington." Gavriil watched his brother through half-closed eyes. Every nuance. Every tick.

  Ilya was as steady as a rock. "Jonas is a good man. My friend. Close enough to call a brother, but this was necessary and he's got a job to do. He might have covered for us if I'd asked him, but it would cost him."

  "He'll be suspicious," Max said.

  "Yes, but he won't ask me any questions. He won't put me in a position of having to lie to him," Ilya said.

  "Stop by one of the cliffs so we can dispose of our shoes," Gavriil instructed.

  "These are damn good hiking boots," Max said. "I should have thought of that, although I think Harrington will be more inclined to find a reason to look in your closet than mine."

  "I don't know, Max," Ilya said. "Those four kids of yours have him pulling out his hair. He knows they came off that ship and that you're in no way related to them, but he can't prove it. All the paperwork is in order. The moment he recognized you were a Prakenskii he knew you were lying your ass off."

  Max turned the truck onto Highway 1, and Gavriil relaxed a little more. He would be very happy once they were home and safe on the farm. Once he was with Lexi.

  "There's a cliff just ahead we can use to get rid of the shoes. They'll go deep," Max said. "Levi and Rikki went over several maps with me and told me the places to use when we need them."

  Ilya glanced at him sharply. "Use for what? The ocean isn't your personal disposal site."

  "Our shoes," Gavriil said without opening his eyes. "What did you think he meant?" There was quiet laughter in his voice.

  "Very funny. He didn't mean shoes," Ilya objected. "Since it
's only the three of us, have you heard from Viktor or Casimir? Did either of you send them a message telling them we're all here?"

  "I sent it," Gavriil admitted. "But neither answered."

  "Viktor's been off grid a long time," Max said. "Far too long."

  "Casimir as well," Gavriil added. "We would have heard if they were killed. Sorbacov would have made sure of it."

  Max pulled their truck into a long drive leading to the cliffs. No one was around and it was easy to change their boots. Max took the dirty ones, filled them full of rocks, hurled them into the sea and watched until they sank. There was no beach to wash up on, not for several miles.

  "Did the women know they had to get rid of their shoes as well?" Ilya said, laughter in his voice.

  "Who knew that was going to be the one thing they would all object to," Max said. "Well, not all. Lissa didn't object. She was the one who convinced the others that we weren't totally paranoid."

  "She's different than the others, not as vulnerable," Ilya said.

  "I wouldn't say she isn't vulnerable," Max protested. "She just covers it better. She's very self-sufficient. And she's damned good with any weapon we've introduced to her. The woman has skills."

  Gavriil kept his eyes closed but he felt his brother's stare through the mirror. "Keep your eyes on the road," he reminded mildly.

  "You know something about her, don't you?" Max said.

  "There isn't much to know," Ilya said. "Jonas did background checks on all the women, and seriously, she comes up clean. She doesn't even have a parking ticket."

  "She knows her way around the gym. The other day we were sparring and she nearly took my head off," Max said. "When she didn't, I had the feeling she pulled back. I couldn't prove it, but there's a part of me that thinks she's far more skilled than she's letting on. Levi and Thomas think so as well."

  "It's possible," Ilya said. "Anything's possible with these women. It's no wonder they can manage to live with you. Nothing about them is any more real than it is about us."

  "They're real," Gavriil replied. "All six of them. They're more real than any other woman or man I've encountered in all my years of being alive."

  There was a small silence. Ilya shook his head. "You've got it bad, Gavriil. That woman has you tied up in knots."

  Max gave a small snort of derision, quick to defend his older brother. "And Joley Drake doesn't have you wrapped around her little finger?"

  Ilya shrugged. "I didn't say there was anything wrong with it, but I'm shocked that Gavriil--or you, Max, for that matter--would have found a woman who could make you want to settle down."

  "He's got a point," Gavriil admitted. "I never believed it would happen."

  "Has it?" Max asked, suddenly sobering. "Has it really, Gavriil? I can't always tell with you. You're difficult to read, even for me."

  Gavriil remained silent for a long moment. These two were his brothers. His family. They'd put their lives on the line for him tonight. Still, he didn't know them as well as he liked, especially Ilya.

  He wasn't used to trusting anyone, and Lexi was his one weakness. He had never had anything or anyone in his life he couldn't leave behind in seconds and never look back. That was impossible now. Lexi was . . . his. There would be no leaving her ever.

  He let out his breath slowly, loath to admit having an Achilles' heel.

  Ilya whistled softly. "Oh, man. He's got it far worse than I imagined."

  "Shut up, kid," Gavriil said impolitely. He opened his eyes to mere slits, giving his youngest brother a threatening glare. "The ocean is a huge disposal site."

  Ilya and Max both burst out laughing. Gavriil shook his head at their antics, but he couldn't deny that he was secretly happy to hear his brothers' laughter and be the target of their jokes. It made him feel all the more as if he had a family and a home.

  "I'm going to drop you off first, Gavriil. Ilya's going to help me with the truck. You can try to worm your way out of trouble with your woman," Max said, as they drove in through the back entrance of the farm.

  Gavriil nodded. "Thank you. Both of you. It would have taken me all night to find the cameras and clean the scene. I appreciate it."

  Lexi sat in the swing on the front porch, one foot propped against the railing to idly push herself back and forth. As usual, there were no lights on and she sat alone in the dark. Gavriil focused on her immediately. Every cell in his body. Every heartbeat. The rest of the world just seemed to drop away until there was only Lexi.

  Her eyes met his as he emerged from the truck and then she was looking him over very carefully for any possible damage. It made him feel loved. Welcomed. She didn't smile, but she stood slowly and walked to the top of the stairs. Gavriil deliberately waited for the truck to leave so they were alone in the dark.

  He moved up the stairs until he was on the one just below her. She still wasn't tall enough to be level with him, but it didn't matter. She moved into him, circling his neck with her slender arms and leaning her body against his, melting into him. Gavriil closed his arms around her tightly and just held her there.

  "I was worried," she admitted against his shoulder. "Very worried."

  "I know, solnyshko moya, I'm sorry. It couldn't be helped. I didn't get a scratch on me. Not one."

  She pulled her head back, her eyes searching his. "That's good. I would have been so upset, you don't even know. As it is, I'm still very angry with you."

  "You kicked me in the shins," he pointed out soberly. He was an intelligent man, and smart men knew one didn't make the mistake of laughing when his woman said she was angry.

  "You told me to kick you when I was angry with you, but that isn't near enough of a punishment. You can't just order me around, Gavriil."

  "I know you think that, Lexi," he said soberly, framing her face and looking down at her with serious eyes. "But you're wrong."

  She opened her mouth to protest but he stopped her with a kiss. He'd needed to kiss her from the moment he'd gotten out of the truck. Lexi might have said she was angry with him, but her mouth tasted of passion. Of love. The magic was there, and he allowed himself a brief respite, basking in the exquisite perfection of her love.

  He lifted his head slowly and pressed his forehead to hers, looking into her green eyes. "You order me when it comes to farm work. You know what you're doing and naturally you're the leader because it's your field of expertise. When it comes to threats, violence or danger, I have to take the lead. Isn't that what a partnership is? We both rely on the other's strengths?"

  Lexi scowled at him. "You know, when I first met you, you weren't that good at talking. All of a sudden you've got like the silver tongue or something. Once in a while, much to my bitter disappointment, you actually make sense. I think you were sandbagging it."

  "Is that a farmer's term? Sandbagging?" He brushed her mouth with his all over again because she really was his sun and she'd just made him light up.

  "You know very well what it means," she contradicted.

  He caught her by the waist and lifted her out of his way, so he could gain the porch. "Perhaps I do, but with you, I always have to have my best game on, so it doesn't apply. How are the puppies? Is Kiss taking good care of them?"

  "Yes, and when I got home, little Lyutyj actually seemed to recognize my voice and scent. He stumbled away from Kiss toward me."

  "So of course you held him and gave him more of the supplement." He set her down on the porch and reached past her head to pull open the door. "Have you noticed he's getting a little on the chubby side?"

  "He is not," Lexi defended. "I can't believe you would say that."

  "Next time you sit outside by yourself in the dark, bring Drago out with you. That's what they're for. Protecting you."

  "He'd rather be with Kiss and the puppies."

  Drago greeted them both, pressing close, nearly knocking Lexi down. Gavriil gave the large male a soft reprimand and he was much gentler as they made their way down the hall to the laundry room.

se dogs need to be with people, Lexi. They actually prefer it. In any case, they're working dogs. His job is to protect you. I want him doing his job at all times."

  "Drago and Kiss guard you," she countered. "Lyutyj is going to protect me."

  "Are you going to argue with every safety rule I give you?" He peeled off his clothes and put them in the washing machine. "You did throw your shoes away, didn't you? And put the clothes you wore tonight in the washer?"

  "Yes to all three questions."

  He was stark naked and she wasn't running away. Her eyes moved over his body in a little caress. Her breasts rose and fell with each breath she dragged into her lungs. He felt his cock harden, and instantly her gaze dropped down to his groin.

  He held his breath as her fingers opened and she actually reached a scant two inches toward him, palm out. It was the slightest gesture, and one she barely seemed aware of, but his entire body shuddered with the idea that she might touch him, close her fist around him. Claim that last part of him for her own.

  He turned to face her deliberately, leaning his hip against the open washing machine, looking as casual as possible. "It absolutely amazes me how you can make me want you without even trying, woman." He dropped his hand just as casually to his rock-hard shaft, closing his fist around it. "Look at what you do to me, every time."

  She smiled and shook her head, but she didn't raise her gaze to his. She took a step closer. "You always look so intimidating, Gavriil. When I see you like this, so hard and long and thick, it doesn't seem possible that you fit inside me."

  "You were made for me, Lexi. No one else. I fit perfectly." He stroked his fist down the shaft and then let go.

  Her breath caught in her throat again, and this time she reached out purposely. Right before her fingers found his shaft, she looked up at him as if for permission. He didn't move, didn't say anything at all. She had to make up her own mind. Her palm closed around him, warm and soft. Her touch nearly destroyed him. His legs went weak and his heart pounded in his chest. Blood roared in his ears and thundered through his veins. With just one tentative touch.

  Because she loved him. He held himself very still, fearing to move. His hips, of their own volition, wanted to thrust upward, to feel that silken glide through her fist, but he wasn't going to ruin a perfect moment with sex.

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