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Pain was a strange entity. It could live and breathe, existing in every cell in one’s body. It could cripple, rob one of breath, of dignity, of quality of life. Pain could be the first thing one felt when waking and the last thing one felt when falling asleep. It was an insidious enemy. Silent. Unseen. Deadly. Gavriil Prakenskii had decided some time ago to make pain his friend.
If he was going to survive, if it was even possible with pain as his companion, he would come to terms with it – and he had. Until this moment. Until pain wasn’t about the physical or the mental, but all about the emotional. That was an entirely different kind of pain, and one he was completely unprepared for.
His life was one of absolute discipline and control. He planned his every move, and his contingency plans had backup contingency plans. There was never a moment that he wasn’t ready for. There was never a time when anything shocked or surprised him. He stayed alive that way. He had no friends, and he thought of everyone he encountered as an enemy. The few people he had ever allowed himself to feel even a drop of friendship with had eventually betrayed him, and he simply counted those painful moments as important lessons to be learned.
He was used to deceit and betrayal. To blood, torture, pain and death. He was used to being alone. He was most comfortable in that world because he understood it. He was thirty-seven years old and he’d been in that world since he’d been a child. He knew more ways to kill or torture a human being than he could count. It was instinctive, automatic and a natural part of him. He carried death with him the way others might carry their identities, because he was death. If he came out of the shadows, even for a moment, it was to deliver that killing blow.
Few ever saw him. He lived in a shadowy world, and moved through it like a phantom, a ghost in the night, leaving dead bodies in his wake. He wasn’t real, was nothing more than a shadow someone might catch a glimpse of. Insubstantial. Without substance. He hadn’t been human in years. Yet here he stood in the early morning, dawn streaking long rays of light through the velvet black of night with his well-ordered world crumbling around him so that he felt the earth actually move under him.
His palm itched. Not a small nagging itch, but a full-blown do-something-this-minute-to-alleviate-it itch. Gavriil pressed his hand tightly into his thigh and held it there, his heart suddenly beating hard in his chest. Life sometimes threw curves at the most unexpected times – yet he should have known this might happen.
He had walked into a place of power. Energy rippled in the air and came up through the ground. It was in the wind and in the very water he felt flowing beneath the ground. This place, this farm he had come to, was dangerous and yet he hadn’t heeded the warnings – hadn’t expected the danger would be to him or what form it would take. He had come, and now someone would pay the price.
A young woman came toward him through a field of corn, the stalks taller than she was. She moved with grace, a fluid easy manner, occasionally stopping to pull one of the ears down and inspect it.
He couldn’t take his eyes from her or the way the plants leaned toward her, as if she were the sun, not that bright ball beginning its climb into the sky. She was dressed in vintage blue jeans, frayed, full of holes and faded light from many washings, and a carelessly buttoned dark blue plaid shirt. He knew she’d buttoned it carelessly because the top and bottom buttons were undone, and he had a ridiculous urge to slip them into the closures for her – or maybe open all the rest.
Her auburn hair was very long, probably past her waist, and very thick, but she had it pulled back away from her face in a careless ponytail. Her face was oval and rather pale, but her eyes, as they surveyed the cornstalks, were a striking cool, forest green. Even in the dim early morning light, he could see her intriguing eyes, surrounded by long dark lashes. Her mouth was full and luscious, her teeth white and small.
Even dressed in her working clothes, there was no hiding her figure. Full breasts and a small tucked-in waist emphasized the flaring of her hips. She was a pixie, ethereal, just as unreal as he was, and she was so beautiful it hurt.
He knew her. He had always known her. He’d known she was somewhere in the world waiting, and the itch in his palm and the pain paralyzing his mind told him this woman belonged to him and only him. How completely unexpected and unacceptable was that?
He’d come to the small town of Sea Haven off the northern California coast to warn his youngest brother, Ilya, that he was on the same hit list as the rest of the family and to see his other three brothers who had settled there. Seven brothers, stepping-stones, their parents had called them, torn apart when they were children. They’d been forced to watch the murder of their parents, and then they’d been taken and kept separated in the hopes that they would forget all about one another. Now, all seven were on a hit list. Gavriil had known it was coming, he just wished they’d had more time to prepare.
He watched the woman as she continued toward him. He was deep in the shadows and utterly still so that there was no chance of drawing her gaze. She had just changed his entire plans. His entire existence. As she stepped out of the cornfield and the light bathed her face, he could see her flawless skin, the curve of her cheek and high cheekbones.
She looked far too young for a man like him. It had nothing to do with age and everything to do with who and what he was. Still. His palm itched, and that sealed her fate. He wasn’t about to throw away the only thing in the world he could truly call his own. He didn’t have much to offer her. He was hard and callous and damned cynical when it came to the world around him. He could be ruthless and merciless as well and he would be, he knew, if anyone tried to stand between this young woman and him.