Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "I'm not going to lie to you, Lexi. It didn't bother me in the least to shoot the two bastards. It's what I do. I exterminate rodents. You've been around my brothers enough to know what we did. I've been at it a few years longer than they have. I started when I was fourteen years old. Don't think for one moment that you put me in a bad position. I had a choice, and truthfully, it didn't bother me. They were going to kill you."

  Relief showed on her face. In that moment, he realized just what Levi had been trying to tell him. Lexi had been taken at the age of eight and beaten into submission. Her family had been murdered. Everyone she loved had been taken from her, and her life had been one of subjugation to a criminally insane man. She was more than fragile.

  She'd gone from a government safe house to the farm. She knew no other way of life. Here she was beginning to know who she was and little by little was gaining self-esteem and confidence. Now he came along, and she was going to have to make new changes and adjustments--ones that might be more difficult than he first considered.

  Gavriil sighed. He couldn't change who he was. He was as cold-blooded as a man could be and still actually call himself human.

  "You're very nice to say that. Are you hungry? Do you want to lie down for a while? I can get back to work . . ." she offered, her voice fading shyly.

  She didn't need to be going back to work, not after the trauma of the morning. He ran a hand through his hair. "Stay with me. I haven't talked to anyone for a long time, and I like the sound of your voice."

  He found her soothing, her voice reminding him of perfectly pitched music softly riding on the wind. He held out his hand to her, afraid going into the house would be too intimate. She needed care. Great care. He approached everything logically and intellectually, thinking things through thoroughly so that he could come at a problem or a job from many different angles, and he was prepared for anything. This was going to be his most difficult and, hopefully, his most rewarding challenge.

  She moistened her lips. "I'm not very good at conversation. I've never had company before. Not someone who isn't family."

  He smiled at her. "But I am family in a way." The last thing he needed was for her to see him as a brother. He didn't make the mistake of snagging her wrist, although he could have. He waited, his hand extended, willing her to take that first step toward him and their future relationship.

  Lexi glanced almost longingly out toward the beds of herbs and flowers surrounding her house and then, as if making up her mind, put her hand in his and sank down onto the swing beside him again.

  Gavriil put his feet up on the railing and stared out at all the lush green. So many colors. There was no doubt she was an earth element. No one could grow so many varieties of plants and have them thrive like they were here. The way to her heart was right in front of him. She loved her plants, loved the farm. Everything she was she poured into her home.

  "It's beautiful here."

  "I think so," Lexi agreed, sounding pleased.

  "Who helps you? It's a lot of work to maintain this many acres." He took care to sound casual, to keep his gaze away from her, studying the layout of the farm and wishing the house was positioned just a little bit better. Clearly when it had been built, his brothers hadn't been living there to give them advice on where to build. Still, he could make security work with what they had.

  "In the beginning all of us did the planting. Everyone helps out as best they can. We needed money when we first started, before the farm began to produce, so everyone else worked in businesses off the farm."

  He allowed his lashes to drift down, watching her closely out of the side of his vision. He'd managed to retain possession of her hand. She was very aware of it, but she didn't seem to know how to take it back from him. She moistened her lips nervously, but she didn't pull away. He idly began to draw circles with the pad of his fingers, keeping the patterns feather-light and nonthreatening.

  "I worked on a farm a time or two." That was strictly the truth. Both times he'd assassinated the landowner, but that wasn't really relevant. One had been a fairly large opiate farm and the drug lord had crossed Sorbacov one too many times. The other had been owned by a very successful hit man who had made a try for Sorbacov himself. He'd thought himself safe on his vast and well-guarded farm. "None of the places were as beautiful as this place. It's almost a work of art."

  Some of the tension drained out of Lexi. "Sometimes I think of it that way, a canvas waiting to be painted. I like to put splashes of color here and there to show off all the shades of green. Judith is really our artist, but this is my attempt. I try creating beauty with living plants."

  She turned her head and looked directly at him. He felt her hand tremble and instantly that deadly part of him coiled, went still, ready for anything.

  "Is he really dead? Caine? Is he dead? I'm not certain I can believe it. I've spent most of my life terrified of him. To hear that he's dead and not see it . . ." She shook her head. "He seemed invincible to me. Protected by the devil. I knew he'd find me one day. It's hard to believe he's really dead."


  THIS was the moment Gavriil had dreaded, had feared would come. He had known Lexi would ask about Caine. How could she not? The man had destroyed everyone she loved. He'd turned her life into a nightmare. She couldn't believe he was dead without seeing the body, and that wasn't going to happen. He took his time, trying to think of a satisfactory answer, one he could give her without revealing the fact that another monster sat right beside her.

  "Gavriil? Is Caine really dead?" Lexi asked again. "He was very much alive when I left him. I can still hear the horrible things he called me. I need to know the truth."

  The truth would scare her to death. Gavriil shifted his weight just a little, enough to slide his thigh along hers. He still retained possession of her hand and he continued the lazy, soothing circles, tracing the pattern of the intertwining rings that had sunk beneath her skin right in the middle of her palm.

  "He's dead, Lexi. I can guarantee you that." He made it a statement. His eyes met hers, allowed her for one moment to see a brief glimpse of who he was, what he could be, when he wasn't sitting on the porch swing with her.

  Her eyes went wide with shock. She saw him all right. Again she surprised him. She didn't flinch or move away, she just continued to look at him with her steady gaze. "Did you kill him?"

  Gavriil shrugged. "He's dead, isn't that enough?" It was impossible to look away from her vibrant green eyes. She was earth all right, cool and steady and stubborn. She was beautiful, there was no doubt about it, but he realized it was the brightness in her he was attracted to.

  She continued to look at him without blinking, one eyebrow raised.

  "I'm not going to lie to you," he said, his voice dropping low and harsh. "The rest of the world, maybe, but not you. Be very sure you want an answer before you ask me a question."

  He was her exact opposite. Their childhoods were somewhat comparable, but she'd gone one way and he another. She had retained compassion and the softer emotions, while he had had every emotion beaten out of him.

  "Did you kill him?" she repeated.

  "Yes." He wasn't going to lie to her. He might skirt the truth, he might plot to win her over, but he wasn't going to lie to her. "I killed him. And no, it didn't bother me to kill him. He was evil and he would never have stopped coming after you. His legs were broken and we would have had to take him to a hospital, and you would have lost your home and family once again because of a monster. He needed killing."

  Lexi sighed softly, chewing on her lower lip while she turned over and over in her mind what she was going to say. Gavriil was very lost, but he didn't know it. He was so much like her, so shrouded in his past, shaped by monsters and then forced to live in a civilized world.

  Truthfully, Gavriil had never lived in a civilized world. He knew nothing about it. He'd never had the chance to stay in one place or forge a relationship with anyone else, including his brothers. There was weariness and pain i
n every line of his face. He was a big man, solid and muscular, yet he flowed like water over the ground. When he stopped moving, he was utterly still, like a great jungle cat. She thought of him that way. Feral.

  She looked down at her hand in his. There was a connection between them, perhaps because they shared a similar past and understood each other. Instinctively, she knew Gavriil was acting out of character with her. He wasn't a man to sit on a porch swing and take a woman's hand so gently. Normally he would have slipped back into the shadows and been long gone.

  He needed help. This was probably his only chance at any kind of a life. She had found peace on the farm and she'd learned how to trust a few people as well as bond with them. She was happy here. Her past hadn't let go of her, and she knew it wouldn't, but that hadn't stopped the magic of the connections the six women had created together.

  She bit her lower lip, and looked down at her hand in his. "Gavriil, you do know that killing is wrong, don't you? You know it is."

  He frowned as if thinking over her statement. She wasn't surprised when he shook his head. "No. I think there are mistakes, people who are twisted and evil and go through life hurting others. I don't think they should be allowed to survive."

  How was she supposed to respond to that? His world had been one of violence. His job was to find and eliminate targets. She doubted if he knew and liked a single family. He wasn't in one place long enough to get to actually know real people. Good people. In his world, everyone was violent and depraved and greedy.

  "Still." How did she put so much denial into one word without it sounding preachy? Or holier-than-thou? "Taking a life should be difficult, Gavriil."

  "I'm not going to tell you the things I've seen in my life, but I've looked at pure evil and known there was no way to redeem or save them. Caine was a man like that."

  "Yes, he was. But we don't get to judge who lives and who dies," Lexi said.

  He smiled at her and brought her palm to his mouth. Her heart jumped and began to beat a little wildly. She wasn't certain if her response was to his smile or to the feel of the gentle, featherlight brush of his mouth on her palm.

  He was physically beautiful. His face was carved from stone, a masterpiece in masculinity. His eyes were absolutely gorgeous, a dark midnight blue, heavily fringed with black lashes. His hair was glorious, an unruly, thick glossy mop of black waves streaked with silver she was tempted to try to tame.

  Looking into Lexi's eyes, Gavriil realized for the first time that there was a chink in his armor. He'd worn armor his entire life; it had been forged in hell. No one could get to him. No one could get inside of him. Or touch him. He knew more ways to hurt or kill than most men could conceive of, and he could disappear in the blink of an eye. But not here. Not with her.

  Lexi saw him. She saw into him. Hell. She probably knew every secret he had. If he had a brain in his head, he'd kill her and be done with it, but she kept looking at him with those big green eyes filled with compassion and invitation. She was far too innocent and naive to realize what that look could do to a man like him.

  "I might be one of those monsters, Lexi, the kind that shouldn't live. I've asked myself that a few times," he confessed, telling the strict truth, making a half-hearted attempt to save her. "I judge who lives and who dies all the time. The people I go after aren't human. But then, I doubt I am either."

  She did the most unexpected thing. She brushed back his hair, her fingers moving along his scalp with a whisper of a caress. Gentle. Soothing. She ripped his heart out with the small gesture. He felt the actual pain and couldn't help himself. He pressed the hand he was holding hard over his heart, to try to keep the dried-out organ inside his body. It was too late. She had it. It belonged to her.

  One small act of kindness and he was gone. Shredded. Taken over. He wanted to curse. Weep. Fight. There was a part of him that coiled tight, ready to attack. He'd been shot, beaten, tortured and stabbed numerous times. This was far worse. With one touch she had disarmed him. She'd destroyed him. Utterly destroyed him.

  "You're just tired, Gavriil. Like me, everything that mattered to you was ripped away from you and with it, your heart. Maybe even your soul."

  He winced. She was striking far too close to the truth, and she'd already gotten under his skin, taken his heart and now she was looking into him. No one did that. No one. He protected himself at all times, yet her green eyes saw right through his armor and now she'd turned the spotlight on him.

  His hand slid up her arm to her throat, his fingers sliding around her neck. She was so small. So vulnerable. He felt her pulse fluttering in his palm. One movement and she would be dead. It was that simple. To save himself he simply had to crush her throat. It would be so easy. So simple. He could be back in the shadows, in the wind and no one would ever find him. No one would ever see him.

  She didn't move. Didn't pull away from him. Her eyes never looked away from his. If she saw danger--or death--in his gaze--and he was damned sure that she did--she didn't flinch. She just accepted him.

  "What the hell is wrong with you, Lexi? Do you have any idea what I am?" He bit the question out harshly between his teeth, wanting to shake her. She was so close to death but she didn't realize it--or she didn't care. "I'm a fuckin' monster. I don't belong anywhere near you. Take a good look."

  He was strong, enormously so. He was twice her size, his palm wrapping around her delicate throat easily. She stood still, one hand locked over his heart, the other resting lightly on his shoulder. Not once did her incredible green eyes waver from his. He realized in that moment she was fighting for him.

  Once more her hand slipped into his hair, her fingers combing through the unruly strands. "Gavriil, you were forced to work for monsters. I know how that feels. I know what it's like to know you can't ever see the world or the people in it the way others do."

  Her fingers continued to move through his hair, stroking him, taming him with her gentle hand. His hand, wrapped around her throat, was all about violence. Hers, moving through his hair, was calming, even caressing. He felt fear. Real fear.

  He'd never been afraid of dying. He didn't have anything to lose. They'd taken everything he cared about from him. But she was asking him to live. To come out of the shadows where he'd existed and actually live.

  "I stay here on this farm because I can live a fantasy life. I have my sisters who love and protect me. And they do. Without them, I wouldn't survive."

  His entire being rebelled at her revelation. He actually had a physical reaction to her words. She had to survive. She had to be in his world. He might be so far gone that he was not redeemable, but if he had one chance, it was with the woman beside him. In any case, with or without him, she was worth far more in the world than he was. He allowed his hand to slip from her throat, back down her arm to her wrist.

  "Never make the mistake of thinking we're the same, Lexi," he cautioned. "I'm capable of terrible things. You're not."

  "I'm trying to learn," she admitted.

  He shook his head. "You be who you are. It isn't necessary to learn anything but defense."

  "Levi told me every defense is an offense."

  She wasn't running, screaming for help. She hadn't even condemned him and she had known what had been in his mind when his hand circled her throat. He had seen the knowledge in her eyes. Knowledge, not condemnation. "Levi's right, solnyshko moya, a good defense should be an offense as well."

  His body was beginning to signal he'd had enough. Pain could be pushed back for only so long. He had forgotten the pain wracking his body every second of every day, just for a while, just while he was with her. Now it was coming back full force and he could do nothing but allow it to wash over him.

  "I need to lie down for a few minutes."

  He needed to try to formulate a plan, to consider his best course of action and what to do about Lexi. He was terrified for her. He understood why Levi and the others were so protective of her. Like him, she didn't fear death. She'd had too much taken from
her, and she was willing to put herself in harm's way to give him a chance.

  She wasn't as naive as he'd suspected. She knew he was the devil. She knew he was a wild animal capable of destroying her, yet she stood there in front of him with her wide-open, all-seeing eyes and invited him inside. Invited him to do his worst and promised silently that she'd stand by to catch him.

  No one had ever done such a thing for him. No one. He was humbled by her. Shocked. Outraged. He feared her complete power over him--and she had all the power whether she knew it or not.

  "Of course. Come into the house."

  Lexi found herself nervous all over again--this time not because she was bringing a stranger into her home--but because she was attracted to him. She'd never been attracted to any man. She hadn't thought it possible. He was lost just as she was. Maybe worse. He'd gone down a path she so easily could have gone down without her sisters.

  He'd thought about killing her. She saw him, the wounded animal that he hid from everyone else, and he'd been so fearful that he actually had considered striking out at her. Just the way a cornered, wounded animal would. She'd stayed very still, breathing for both of them, accepting his decision. Waiting for him to make up his mind. Was he going back to the shadows, or was he going to try to live.

  Gavriil Prakenskii was a man worth fighting for. He needed someone to throw him a lifeline. Everyone saw the violence in him, but no one seemed to see his pain--or his worth. She did. She identified with him.

  She knew Gavriil had to be more uncomfortable than she was and that helped her to move with confidence through her house, pointing out the bathrooms and showing him each bedroom so he could choose the one he'd feel safest in while he slept--if he could actually sleep.

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