Earth Bound by Christine Feehan

  "I can see I'm not getting any sympathy from the lot of you," Max said, but his eyes were laughing, and there was no doubt that he was proud of Benito's blossoming abilities.

  "Fortunately for you," Levi said, returning to the porch with a picnic basket filled with food, "it isn't easy to get close to this house. All the ground cover is low, and fireproof. He can't have overheard us."

  "I wouldn't put it past him to have some sort of a listening device," Max said. He frowned as he surveyed the food Levi handed over to Blythe. "Is that a picnic basket? I mean like a real one? With a handle and plates and silverware?"

  "Does it have a checkered cloth as well?" Thomas asked innocently.

  "Go to hell, both of you," Levi suggested, with a rude gesture behind Rikki's back. "You're jealous because I'm civilized and know what a picnic basket is."

  "Is there something wrong with a picnic basket?" Rikki asked, her eyes widening. She turned as though looking to Levi for an answer.

  Levi scowled darkly at his brothers. "They're trolls, baby, of course there's nothing wrong with using a picnic basket."

  "Oh. I thought maybe you bought it as a joke or something," she said, looking serious.

  Thomas and Max nearly fell to the porch floor laughing. Thomas actually held his sides. Levi couldn't help laughing either. It was rare for Rikki to tease him. He definitely hadn't bought the picnic basket. Judith had given it to Rikki, thinking she might use it on her boat when she went diving. Rikki used a cooler, but she treasured the basket because it had been a gift.

  "He's on the roof," Max said suddenly, his head snapping around. He glared up at the rooftop. "Benito, get down from there right this minute."

  "That's awesome," Levi said. "He made it all the way across the open yard and didn't tip any of us off to his presence. He's getting good, Max."

  "Benito, I'm warning you. Get your butt down from that roof right this minute," Max said. "Airiana's about to have a heart attack."

  Airiana raised her eyebrow. Clearly Max was the one worried about Benito's safety, but she didn't contradict him. "Do come down, Benito," she encouraged.

  "Did you come in from the other side of the house?" Levi asked, as the boy shimmied down from the top of the roof to the overhang of the porch.

  Before he could answer, Max reached up and caught the boy around the waist, pulling him down and setting him down beside him none too gently. "Stop scaring Airiana."

  "Sorry, Airiana," Benito murmured, his eyes bright with his accomplishment. He couldn't stop smiling. "I did it, Max. All three of you and the women. I snuck up on you, and no one even noticed me."

  "You used your sisters as bait, keeping our eyes on them, didn't you?" Thomas asked.

  Benito nodded. "Max said to use any distraction that might seem natural. I knew it would tip you off that I was close, but if you weren't looking at them, you might have felt me getting close to the house."

  Max dropped his hand on top of the boy's head and carelessly ruffled his hair. "That was good thinking. What did you use to get up on the roof? There's nothing to climb on to make that kind of height."

  He knew Levi wouldn't keep a ladder that close to the house and there were no trees to use the branches.

  Benito looked smug. "Rikki always sleeps with the window open. I've never seen it closed, not once when I've come around. I just used the windowsill."

  Max narrowed his eyes at the boy. "You're not that tall."

  Benito shrugged, but he looked a little apprehensive. "I jumped and caught the beam and swung my legs up."

  Airiana gasped. "Benito, you could have missed and broken something."

  "I know. I realized it wasn't the smartest idea," he hastily admitted. "I won't do it again. I was going to ask Max what would have been a better way to do it, but I was going to wait until you weren't around."

  Max groaned and looked away from Airiana's darkening frown.

  "Wait until I wasn't around? What exactly do you two discuss when I'm not around?"

  "Man things," Benito said, puffing out his chest. "Not for women's ears."

  Max clapped his hand over Benito's mouth and pulled the boy into him, pretending to strangle him. "You can't say things like that. How many times do I have to have this conversation with you?"

  Airiana made a face at Max. "I see, Benito. How often do you and Max have these little manly talks?"

  "Lucia!" Max raised his voice and signaled to the three children still hiding in the brush. "Now would be a really good time for you girls to join us."

  "Coward," Airiana hissed, and winked at her sisters.

  "I'd better go check on Lexi," Blythe said, tucking her arm through the handle of the picnic basket. "I'll call as soon as I've spoken with her and know what's going on."

  "She's safe with him," Max said. "I'm certain of it."

  "Who's safe with who?" Benito asked, looking from one to the other.

  Blythe laughed. "You have your hands full, Max."

  Siena, the youngest child, ran to Airiana and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs. Nicia raced to leap into Max's arms. Lucia sauntered after them. At fourteen, she was trying hard to be grown-up for her younger sisters and brother. Benito and Max had a bond, forged on the ship when Max rescued him, the same with Nicia. Siena naturally gravitated to Airiana, but Lucia hadn't quite made up her mind yet.

  Airiana knew she wanted to stay, but she'd trusted the man who had betrayed them and sold them into the human trafficking ring. She was more reserved, watching everyone closely and keeping her sisters and brothers very near to her. This was the first time she'd ever participated in one of Benito's plots to spy.

  Lucia seemed to feel most comfortable when she was close to Airiana. She enjoyed being around the others, but she was always very quiet and watchful. Airiana couldn't blame the girl. She'd barely had a chance to process her parents' murder when the man claiming to be their uncle had turned them over to be used and discarded by sex traffickers. Then Nicia's twin sister was murdered and Nicia and Benito assaulted.

  How did a fourteen-year-old girl ever trust again? Or smile or laugh? Lucia was trying for the sake of her younger siblings, but more than once, when she was alone with Airiana, she broke down completely.

  Airiana held her hand out to Lucia, smiling in welcome. "Lucia is giving me a lesson in making pasta the way her mother made it. I'm very excited about it. When we finish, we're going to put on a big spaghetti feed for everyone."

  Lucia nodded a little shyly.

  Judith's eyes lit up. "I would love to learn. I bought a book on it, but failed miserably. Is there room for me? I'm not going into work today, so it would be a perfect day for it."

  Lucia glanced up at Airiana, who shrugged. "It's up to you, honey. If it would be difficult with an audience, we'll just do it together."

  Lucia was silent a moment, and then she looked up at Judith with her very large, dark eyes. "It would be nice if you could join us. When my mother made noodles, we always had a big group of women all working together. It was fun."

  "Then I'll come for certain," Judith said.

  "I want in on this," Lissa said. "I can bring fresh sourdough bread to the spaghetti feed if you'd like."

  "She gave me a starter," Lucia said to Airiana. "For the sourdough bread. She made it for us when you and Max were gone."

  "Of course Lissa can come," Airiana said.

  Airiana liked having Lissa around Lucia. Lissa was an outgoing personality and she seemed to enjoy being with the children. She loved board games and often dropped by the house to play with the children in the evenings. She managed to get Benito, Nicia and Siena laughing, but Lucia rarely even smiled. Airiana hoped being in the kitchen, where Lucia excelled, would make Lucia much more comfortable.

  Rikki pushed Levi toward the women. "Levi cooks. He's a great cook. I'm . . . um . . . working on gear this afternoon, but Levi could join you."

  Everyone knew Rikki didn't cook. Levi had to do the cooking if he wanted to eat. She would have bee
n quite happy living on her beloved peanut butter, something she considered the perfect food.

  "He looks good in an apron," Rikki added.

  Thomas and Max snorted and the women burst out laughing. Benito pointed at him and roared with laughter.

  Levi scooped Rikki up in his arms. "Woman, you're just getting out of hand. Keep it up and you'll be the tender on the boat and I'll be the diver."

  "As if." Rikki sniffed disdainfully. "I'm captain always."

  "You're a pretty cute captain, so I guess I'll follow you around," Levi said, putting her back on her feet. He kept his arm around her. "I would love to learn how to make pasta noodles, Lucia, if you'll have me in your kitchen." He gave her a courtly bow, ignoring his brothers and Benito as they laughed wildly.

  For the first time, Lucia gave a small, brief smile. She gave Levi a little curtsy. "You are most welcome in my kitchen, Levi. Benito, you and your two friends can eat out of a box tonight. No fresh pasta for you three," she scolded.

  Instantly all three males sobered. "Whoa, now," Thomas said. "We need to rethink this. I look pretty darn good in an apron."

  "Is that true, Judith?" Airiana asked. "I can't picture Thomas in the kitchen let alone with an apron on."

  Judith raised her eyebrow at her husband. "You've never actually worn an apron that I've ever seen."

  "But I'm in the kitchen all the time," Thomas pointed out. "It's one of my favorite places."

  "Lucia!" Benito burst into a spate of Italian, talking rapidly, trying to get himself out of trouble. He was at his most charming when he spoke his native language. He had no problem using his eyes and good looks to get his way.

  "Advocate for both of us," Max reminded.

  Lucia threw her hands into the air. "Fine. But stop picking on Levi. He's a brave man to come to my cooking class."

  "Yes. Yes, very brave," Benito agreed.

  "What time are you giving everyone the lesson?" Blythe asked. "I'm just going to take some lunch to Lexi and talk to her for a few minutes. I'd like to come if I have time."

  "We thought we'd start the lesson around one," Airiana answered, glancing at her watch. "I still have to feed the children lunch and then we'll be ready."

  "I'll definitely be there," Blythe said.

  As Blythe turned to walk away, Lucia stepped forward. Her fingers clutched at Airiana's hand. "You can invite Lexi to join us as well," Lucia managed to get out, her voice painfully shy.

  "I'll be happy to, thank you, Lucia," Blythe said. "It's kind of you to include her. Lexi stays too much to herself."

  It would be natural for Lucia to recognize Lexi had gone through a similar experience. She had to have noticed how they all checked on Lexi often.

  Blythe waved to the others and set out briskly to walk to Lexi's home. She ran several miles every day and the distance wasn't far enough to bother her. She needed the time to think. Gavriil Prakenskii was family. There was no getting around that. His brothers would be upset if he was asked to leave the farm, yet clearly, in some way, they recognized that he was different from them. That worried her.

  Without conscious thought she ran her palm down her thigh. Doing the kind of work the brothers had done for so many years would take its toll. Men could go either way. Levi had wanted a different life, and he'd grabbed it with both hands when he'd met Rikki. Thomas had done the same. She hadn't known Max long enough to tell which way he'd gone. He seemed rougher than both Thomas and Levi, but no one could observe him with the children and Airiana and think anything but that he was a family man.

  So what was different about Gavriil that had his brothers tense and anxious for Lexi? Had they believed her life was in danger, Blythe was certain they never would have left her alone with the man. She'd been a little shocked that Lexi had insisted Gavriil stay with her. As far as Blythe could remember, Lexi was never alone with any of the men, not even the ones she'd come to consider her brothers.

  When they all worked out together in the gym, or practiced self-defense moves, the doors were always open and there was always at least one other woman in the room. Blythe knew Lexi felt affection for Levi and Thomas. She'd only just met Max, but she accepted him on the farm. Still, she stayed away from the men as a rule. She probably was closest to Levi than the others, and even with him, Lexi held herself apart.

  Blythe went through the fields of various crops, taking a shortcut to get to Lexi's house. She was surprised at the variety of vegetables that were growing. She hadn't really been paying attention to the farm and how much it had grown.

  Lexi sat in her porch swing watching her approach. Blythe waved at her and then gestured around her. "How in the world do you do everything by yourself? You need help. I had no idea the farm had gotten so big."

  Lexi smiled in welcome. "It's really doing well. But you're right, it's getting to be too much for me. I've been working longer hours, but sometimes my back hurts so bad I can barely straighten up."

  Blythe paused, frowning. "You should have told us, Lexi. You work too hard, and we need to get you help."

  Blythe set the picnic basket on the railing and sank into one of the large, comfortable chairs on Lexi's porch. The wraparound deck had been important to Lexi. She'd wanted it large and spacious, but covered from the weather. They spent more time on Lexi's deck when they all visited than in the house.

  "Levi sent lunch. He thought you might not be up to cooking yet, after this morning."

  "That was thoughtful of him," Lexi said.

  "And before I forget, Lucia is giving a lesson on making pasta noodles around one today at Airiana's if you're up for that. She especially asked me to invite you. It seemed important to her."

  Blythe studied Lexi's face. She'd been crying. Weeping silently. Lexi rarely made a sound when she cried. Blythe was certain that when she was a child, Caine had beaten her if she made a sound. It always broke her heart when Lexi cried so quietly.

  "Are you all right? This morning must have been a nightmare for you."

  Lexi nodded slowly. "It certainly brought everything back again. All those memories I try so hard to lock away. I think I close the door and lock it and I won't think about it ever again, but that never works. Somehow, every night that horrible man haunts me. Now, he's taken away my feeling of safety here on the farm. Worse, I'm worried about all of you."

  Blythe nodded. "Of course you would be worried about us after what happened to your family, Lexi. It's natural. I've seen the same thing in Lucia. She's so traumatized that she can't let her siblings out of her sight."

  "Poor babies. All of them. I hope we can give them some peace here. Although now . . . with Caine finding me . . . I don't know if it's fair to them to have me stay. I've been thinking about that a lot. I don't want to leave, but I can't be selfish either. Those children need stability, and Max and Airiana will give it to them. With Levi and Thomas here, I think they'll be safe."

  Blythe leaned toward Lexi. "Is that why you wanted Gavriil to stay with you? Does he make you feel safer?"

  Lexi looked surprised. "No. No, I wouldn't use him like that. He's been through enough and it was bad enough that he had to kill someone to save my life. I feel terrible about that, although he just dismisses it like it wasn't anything. But it is, Blythe. Taking a life is always difficult."

  Blythe nodded. "That's true. I'm sorry he had to do that too, but I'm grateful to him that he did. I'd much rather have you alive."

  Lexi smiled at her. "Thanks, Blythe. I'm grateful as well."

  "Is that why you've got him here with you?" Blythe persisted. When Lexi frowned, she continued. "I'm just worried that you're uncomfortable. We all are. We know you don't like being alone with men, and I wouldn't want you to think you have to take him in if you'd rather one of us give him a place to stay. He could even stay in the community building. We could easily make up a room for him there."

  Lexi shook her head. "I didn't ask him to stay because I felt beholden to him, Blythe. I wouldn't do that. You know me better than that. I want him
here because I feel he needs to be here. I can't explain it any better than that. I'll let him know he has other options, and if he prefers to take anyone else up on their offer or he wants his own place--which he might--I'll call you."

  Blythe nodded her head, her gaze steady on Lexi's. "You're certain this is what you want to do?"

  "Yes," Lexi said firmly. "I hope that when he's rested, he'll choose to stay. He's worked on farms before." A note of eagerness crept into her voice. "I could use the help, especially if he knows how to run the equipment."

  "I thought Thomas volunteered."

  Lexi rolled her eyes. "Thomas doesn't know a vegetable from a flower. He wouldn't know a weed if it jumped out of the ground and bit him. And he certainly isn't touching my tractor." A brief smile came and went. "I've had to keep the keys with me at all times since Benito has come to live with us. That boy is curious about everything."

  "I'll have Max talk to him."

  "Max is the only person he listens to. If Gavriil stays awhile, I might be able to get by without hiring anyone else this year. I'll need more equipment and someone else to work with me for certain, especially if we get that other piece of property. And llamas."

  "You and your llamas."

  "I want a dog too. I know we're all supposed to vote on that, but I'm here by myself a lot. Dogs would help alert if strangers were around."

  The conversation had gotten away from her and there was no way for Blythe to bring it back to Gavriil. She sighed and stood up, conceding the sparring victory to Lexi. She wasn't going to get her younger sister to reveal the real reason she wanted Gavriil to stay with her, but it was clear she was determined that he remain exactly where he was.

  "Don't forget we'll be trying to learn how to make pasta at one," Blythe said. "Enjoy your lunch."

  "I doubt if I can make it, but I'll try," Lexi said. "I have tons of work to do, and I want to make certain Gavriil gets plenty of sleep."

  "He can sleep while you're with us," Blythe pointed out, but kept walking away with a cheery little wave. She'd done her best. As far as she could see, not only was Lexi all right, but she was going to be stubborn about anyone trying to force Gavriil Prakenskii out of her home or off the farm.


  GAVRIIL lay listening to the voices out on the porch. The window was open and he could hear the conversation easily. Lexi's sister had come to get him out of her house, but somehow Lexi had diverted her from the main subject, and Blythe couldn't do much about it. He found himself smiling in spite of the electricity zinging through his body. His nerve endings felt on fire.

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