Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  Gavriil Prakenskii wore his cloak of darkness as casually as another man wore a coat. Airiana wouldn't have been surprised to see him sprout horns. He was the coldest, hardest man she'd ever seen in her life.

  Judith nudged her and indicated Lexi with her chin. The other women had fallen silent as well, staring at the newcomer as if he might be the devil walking up to them in his blue jeans and long, swirling trench coat.

  "He's got a million weapons inside that coat," Rikki murmured. "Maybe more than a million. He's just scary."

  Lexi didn't seem to hear her. She didn't seem to see anyone other than Gavriil. His dark gaze fastened on hers, and she had the strange sensation of falling into him. She didn't like strangers, especially men, yet he didn't feel like a stranger. No one else could see the pain in him, which surprised her. Normally, Lissa and Airiana were very good at using healing energy when it was needed.

  That didn't matter to her. She wanted to go to him, take his hand and lead him to a chair to get him off his feet. He needed to sit down. She was fairly certain he hadn't slept in days, and she hated the exhaustion she could feel pouring off of him.

  "Is there any tea left?" Levi asked, and leaned down to brush a kiss over Rikki's upturned mouth. His hand slipped into hers. "I'm sorry about having to miss a dive day."

  "Oh no, Rikki," Lexi said instantly. "I didn't realize I kept you from diving. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have called you, Levi," she added. "I could have just asked Thomas and Max."

  Levi put his arm around her and gave her a brief, rare hug. "You did exactly what you were supposed to do. And Gavriil tells me you used the kick we worked on like a pro. I'm proud of you."

  Gavriil moved up the stairs straight toward them, and scowled at his brother. Levi instantly dropped his arm and stepped away from Lexi.

  Gavriil ignored the others and went to Lexi, taking both her hands in his. "Are you all right?"

  Lexi nodded and patted the porch swing, feeling sick with his pain. She couldn't understand how the others didn't see or feel it. His pain was so severe it was nearly tangible. She couldn't help stroking a hand down his arm, silently urging him to sit.

  Gavriil allowed Lexi to coax him into the swing, knowing her sisters were horrified that she was standing so close to him. They'd be even more horrified if they realized just what she was to him. He didn't care. Nothing mattered to him but this young woman, so fragile and broken, but with a heart of gold and a steel spine she didn't even know she had.

  He read the compassion in her eyes easily, and knew that was his best "in" with her. She would run at the first hint of interest, of a takeover, but she would be drawn to him if she thought he needed her help.

  He sank into the swing and tugged her hand so that she slowly, almost reluctantly sat beside him. Clearly she wasn't used to being with a man, a stranger, but still, she was more worried about him than about herself in that moment, and he had no compunction against capitalizing on her compassionate nature.

  Her shoulder fit beneath his. His thigh was tight along hers. He wanted to close his eyes and rest, to just sit with her on the porch swing, something he'd never done in his life, but suddenly it was the most important thing in the world to do. He allowed her to feel his exhaustion, even his pain, although he sensed she did so on her own, that she saw far more than he would ever want another human being to see.

  "Did you take Caine to the hospital?" Lexi asked.

  Levi and Thomas exchanged a long glance with Max. Caine had been in no shape to go to the hospital or anywhere else for that matter. He'd been long gone by the time they'd arrived and probably begged for death long before he'd ever seen it coming for him. Gavriil hadn't even broken a sweat. He'd straightened up slowly, looking at them, not with the eyes of a long lost brother, but rather the eyes of a killer, a man long lost to the world of humanity.

  "I'm sorry, honey," Thomas said. "Well, maybe I'm not. He was dead by the time we got there."

  "But . . ." she protested. "He was yelling at me, calling me names. He was alive . . ."

  "He bled to death, Lexi," Max said.

  "I murdered him then." She started to cover her face with her hands, but Gavriil caught her one hand and brought it to his chest.

  "Self-defense isn't the same as murder, solnyshko moya, and you acted in self-defense," he said. He opened her fist and pressed her palm over his heart.

  Max exchanged a quick look with his brothers. Gavriil was using a very tender version of "my sun," in Russian, an unusual endearment to call a woman he'd just met. "It isn't any different than when we fought off the men coming to take Airiana away," Max added. "We used every means possible to defend ourselves and those we love."

  "I wanted him dead," Lexi confessed in a little rush. "I hit the ground too hard because I wanted him dead."

  "He was an evil man," Gavriil said. "Believe me, Lexi, I know evil when I see it. I've come across it enough in my lifetime."

  That brought her attention immediately back to him. She tilted her head to look up at him. "You need to rest. You were up all night, weren't you?"

  He nodded his head. "I traveled a long way to find Ilya and to see all of you. Sorbacov put a hit out on Ilya."

  "I didn't expect that," Levi said.

  Thomas shook his head. "Sooner or later one of us is going to have to kill that man. There's no reason to go after Ilya other than pure spite."

  "Why are you using your real name?" Max asked. "That's a beacon for Sorbacov. You know that. Unless you're just using it because you're with family."

  Gavriil shrugged. "I want him to know where I am after I leave here. Once I'm well away from all of you, I'll establish a trail. He'll send someone after me, and I can lead them away from Ilya and this farm." That had been his plan all along. But now there was Lexi. What did a man like him do about a woman like her? He sure as hell had no intention of giving her up, or leaving her to Caine's cult.

  His admission was rewarded with Lexi's swift intake of breath and a quick shake of her head. He felt a spark of energy from the center of her palm through his shirt, straight to his heart.

  "No." A single word. Softly spoken. Just no. He wasn't even certain anyone else had heard her. Her green eyes drifted over his face, and she shook her head.

  His heart reacted as if she'd used an electrical charge on him. He didn't have physical reactions to anything or anyone unless he allowed it. He hadn't given his body permission to feel--not in the middle of so many people--yet there was no denying the almost painful response of his heart to her.

  He had never expected to find himself in such a position, and he needed a plan of action. For that he needed a clear mind, and right now he was exhausted. He was seventy-two hours without sleep and needed to lie down for a short while. He didn't release Lexi's hand, although he made certain there was no pressure, just his hand lightly over hers, pressing her palm gently against his heart.

  "I don't want you to worry anymore about losing your farm," he said, allowing his lashes to drift down as if he might be falling asleep right there.

  What the hell are you doing? Levi demanded. Gavriil, there's no way you'd fall asleep in the middle of this group. Don't play her. She's off-limits. No woman on this farm is to be used for whatever reason.

  Go to hell, Lev. He didn't lift his lashes or look at his brother. His voice said it all.

  "You're welcome to stay with Rikki and me," Levi said aloud, his tone a low whip. There was so sharp of an edge that his brothers and the women looked at him.

  Rikki didn't speak, but she looked as if she might faint. She rocked back and forth, her fingers twisting together in agitation. She had difficulties with strangers, particularly anyone entering her home. It was significant that Levi didn't soothe her or retract his invitation.

  "Levi," Lexi said, "what in the world is wrong with you? You know that wouldn't work."

  Gavriil remained motionless. Absolutely still. Just waiting.

  "Perhaps it would be better if you stayed with us," Airiana v
olunteered, putting her hand gently over Rikki's and frowning at Levi.

  "You have four children," Lexi protested. "He'd never get any sleep there."

  Gavriil let the talk swirl around him, leaving them to debate where he should stay. At least they were giving him an opening to remain on the farm. He studied his brothers through hooded eyes. All three looked fit and happy. All three were happy to see him and yet wanted him gone--away from Lexi. It was very clear to him that they all protected her.

  "It's logical to come to our place," Thomas said. "We have plenty of room, right, Judith?" He put his arm around her.

  "Yes. That would be lovely. Of course you should stay with us, we'd love to have you," Judith said, almost painfully.

  Gavriil shifted his weight slightly, bringing his thigh tighter against Lexi's. Her security and safety was his job now, and he wouldn't be staying at any of their houses. He was staying with Lexi, right where he was. He waited, tempted to suppress a slight groan to galvanize her into action, but Levi might take out a gun and shoot him. The idea was a little amusing.

  "That's just silly," Lexi said. "I've got a huge house and it wouldn't be inconvenient for him to stay here. He needs rest, and I'll feel much safer with him close. Gavriil, if you want to stay here, you're welcome. You'll have plenty of peace and quiet."

  He'd noticed the sleeping bag rolled up in the far corner, tucked against the railing. He was fairly certain she spent most nights on the porch and not in her house. In her mind, she figured she would just let him have the house. He let her think it. "If it would make you feel safer," he said, opening his eyes and looking directly at her, "of course I'll stay. I don't want to be any trouble though. A couch is good."

  Levi snorted, and Max made a growling sound deep in his throat.

  Gavriil, she's very fragile, Levi said again. What the hell are you doing?

  What the hell was he doing? He didn't know. He didn't even care. He sent his brother one hard look telling him without words to back off. He couldn't reassure Levi that he'd leave Lexi alone because he didn't know exactly what he was going to do with her. He only knew he couldn't leave her. She belonged to him, and nothing, not a single person, had ever belonged to him.

  More than that, he'd never had anyone look at him the way she did. Or see inside him the way she saw him. Her safety was paramount to everything else now. He'd never had anything in his life he cared about. That was dangerous. He didn't get attached. He didn't have a home or an expectation of one.

  His life consisted of hotel rooms and apartments that had nothing in them. He stashed money and passports all over for emergencies and never stayed long in any one place. No matter how grave an injury, he moved locations every few days, not leaving so much as a fingerprint behind. Until now. Until Lexi. He was going to stop here--at least for a while.

  Lexi stood up abruptly, taking matters into her own hands. "I know you've all got work to do. If we're not calling the sheriff and I don't have to leave, then we need to let Gavriil rest. I have plenty to do."

  The others had no choice. Airiana gathered up the teacups and took them inside while the women started down the steps, clearly reluctant to leave. His brothers hadn't budged.

  I'll need some kind of answer, Gavriil. She's family.

  I'm your family. And you know you're treading on very thin ice.

  Levi shrugged but he didn't move, and Gavriil admired him for that. Levi was well aware Gavriil could kill them all from his position, just sitting there on the swing, but he didn't so much as flinch. He stared at Gavriil with steady, watchful eyes.

  Gavriil reached out almost lazily and caught Lexi's wrist, tugging until she turned. She smiled at him. Innocent. Sweet. Her green eyes soft and too trusting. She had no idea that he was a monster rocking gently back and forth on her porch swing. She saw him as her broken bird and she was determined to make certain he was safe and secure. He lifted her palm into the air facing him. Her small, delicate hand, roughened from so much work.

  Gavriil lifted his own palm and pressed it toward hers. His palm pushed energy against hers and he felt a rise of power from his deepest core, the very essence of who he was. It was strong, extremely so, his spirit, his will, the man he was forged in hell. Electricity leapt between them, sparks dancing like fireflies in the air around their palms. It hit her hard, a jolt that sank through flesh to bone.

  "No," Levi and Thomas both said simultaneously. Max took a step toward him and halted abruptly when sparks arced in the air between the two palms.

  Lexi yelped, pulling her hand back, pressing it tightly against her body as if she'd been injured. "You zapped me." There was a mixture of laughter and tears in her voice, telling him it hurt more than she wanted to let on.

  It was too late for all of them. Gavriil had no idea why he gave into the compulsion to answer his brother in such a way. He hadn't thought about it, he hadn't even considered or planned for it. Energy rose from somewhere deep inside him. That onetime gift that couldn't be taken back and was never given lightly.

  A commitment. A vow. Binding brands, embedded deep, more than bone deep, sinking into flesh, sinking into his soul, her soul. They would be forever bound together. That rise of energy from a Prakenskii to the one woman he claimed as his own, weaving that connection tight from his soul to hers.

  "Let me see." He tugged at Lexi's wrist until she reluctantly allowed him to examine her palm. Satisfaction rose when he saw that faint brand, two circles intertwined, embedded into her palm, under her skin, already disappearing from prying eyes. It was an intimate, private mark that was for no one else to see but the two of them.

  He lifted his gaze to his brothers. He knew what they saw, and it wasn't going to give them much reassurance. He wouldn't pretend he was anything but who and what he was. But they'd better heed his warning. He wouldn't give them another, not now that they knew.

  Levi cursed under his breath and turned away abruptly. He'd been on the farm the longest and he clearly loved Lexi as a sister. Thomas scowled at him but didn't say a word. He turned on his heel and took the steps two at a time.

  Max stood there looking at him. "I hope you know what you're doing, Gavriil. I really do."

  Gavriil didn't bother with a reply. Of course he didn't know what the hell he was doing, he was in brand-new territory, but he'd figure it out. He had time. Ignoring Max, he pressed his mouth to the center of Lexi's palm, brushing his lips over the wound in a brief kiss.

  "I'm sorry, solnyshko moya, I didn't mean to hurt you."

  "Lexi," Levi commanded her attention, forcing her to look at him. "If you need anything at all. If you want help, just call."

  She smiled at him. "I may be asking for you to cook after a day or two. You're awesome, and I'm sort of mediocre in that department."

  Clearly she didn't comprehend the danger she was in. Gavriil realized she was still thrown by what had happened earlier. He'd already dismissed the incident, clearing his mind of Caine and his associates. They were dead and gone and no one would ever find the bodies, but Lexi hadn't dismissed them.

  Levi shook his head and reluctantly followed his brothers and Airiana, leaving them alone.

  Lexi stared after her brothers-in-law, realizing for the first time that her safety net was gone and somehow, without knowing how or why, she'd insisted Gavriil Prakenskii stay with her. She turned away from him to give herself a moment to think. Her sisters were frequently at her house, running in and out, and lately, Airiana's children often did the same thing. But no one stayed.

  She spent long hours alone and wasn't certain she knew how to talk to anyone without being awkward.

  "Lexi." Gavriil spoke softly. "If you don't want me to stay, I can find somewhere else to sleep. I'm not really picky about where. I'm a stranger to you. You don't owe me anything, and I'd never want you uncomfortable."

  She spun around to face him. Exhaustion was in every line of his face. He looked . . . alone. Pain clung to him like a second skin. The pain was so severe, she couldn't und
erstand how Airiana and Judith hadn't seen or felt it.

  "I don't want you to leave, Gavriil. I know it's a little awkward because we don't know each other, but I think we can get past that. I do have to say something to you though." She bit down on her thumbnail and then her eyes met his.

  He felt the impact like a physical blow. It was almost terrifying the way his body and his mind reacted to this woman. He had no idea it was even possible for him to react to a woman, to another human being, the way he did to her. She moved him. She moved the earth beneath his feet. There was something very satisfying in knowing he still had a few human qualities left in him. There might not be much in the way of humanity, but if he had anything at all, if there was something left of his soul, it belonged to this young woman.

  "Tell me, solnyshko moya." He kept his tone soft, coaxing, as gentle as he knew how to be. He'd never felt gentle or tender toward anyone, he hadn't known he was capable outside of faking it, yet he actually felt those softer emotions toward her.

  "I'm sorry you had to shoot those men. I know you did it to save me. You had no idea who I was. I didn't mean a thing to you, but you still shot them both and you didn't have to. It must have been terrible for you. I'm sorry I put you in that position." Her apology came out in a little rush.

  He didn't even know how to respond. She meant every word, he could hear the sincerity in her voice, and see it on her face. She left him speechless. Completely enamored. She was winding herself around his little finger, his heart and probably his soul. That brand had been stamped into his bones, not just hers.

  "Levi warned me not to go outside the existing boundaries of the farm, but I just couldn't help myself," she continued. "I wanted to really take some time and look over that acreage to see what I could do with it. By being so selfish and careless, I put you in a terrible position, and I'm really very, very sorry."

  He had the unexpected urge to kiss her. The compulsion welled up strong and was nearly impossible to ignore. He was grateful for all the years of discipline. Lexi Thompson would run like a rabbit if he made one wrong move. He held himself still, his gaze drifting over her, more possessive than he would have liked, but then she was shifting her weight anxiously from one foot to the other, waiting for him to say something and not paying attention to the fact that he was a tiger with teeth and not the lamb she thought him.

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