Marguarita pushed the hand-hewed canoe out into the stream and climbed carefully inside. Always before, Julio manned the oars, but she had learned under his watchful eye and knew how to paddle. She thought she'd be terrified in the dark, but strangely, she could see on the water, just as she had in the rain forest. She knew the stream was deep enough to take her all the way to the Amazon. The ribbon of water grew wider, the current stronger as it approached the main river, and she would feel the difference. It was thrilling when Julio was with her, the canoe sliding over the ripples of white water as it approached the roaring Amazon, but alone, with a vampire possibly tracking her, she felt only a terrible urgency to go faster.
Caimans crouched like old dinosaurs on the banks, their eyes glassy and heavy lidded as she swept past. She swallowed hard and pushed the oar through the water. The canoe glided silently along. Under the dark, rolling clouds, the water glistened like an ebony strip cutting through long, hanging trees and roots forming giant cages. She dipped her oar and pushed harder, all the while reaching for the birds in hopes they'd sound the alarm should they feel a predator before her.
As she traveled downstream a strange uneasiness settled over
her. Not fear or terror, two things she associated with Zacarias De La Cruz, but a reluctance to continue. She was putting distance between them and with each passing yard a dread filled her. Her heart ached, an actual pain. Intellectually she knew it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do, yet her mind refused to believe it. Twice she found herself paddling toward the bank as if her intention was to turn back.
She was fortunate that the rain had swelled the stream so that the current was flowing strong, transporting her even when her arms refused to work to push her faster away from Zacarias. The dread grew in her and the pain spread from her heart to her entire body. Her legs shook. Her arms felt like lead and her mouth went dry.
He was dead. Zacarias De La Cruz was dead, and somehow, by leaving she was responsible. The thought crept unbidden into her mind and once there, she couldn't dislodge it. Grief found its way into her, manifesting itself physically. Her chest became so tight she could barely breathe. Tears swam in her eyes obstructing her vision. There was a terrible screaming in her ears, her own silent protest against his death.
Yet - he was vampire - wasn't he? She was making a desperate run to reach the De La Cruz property ahead of him, to alert the hunters, in effect, call them in to kill him. If he was dead, shouldn't she be rejoicing? Not weeping? Confused, she dragged the paddle into the boat and concentrated on breathing. Zacarias had given her his blood several times. Cesaro had told her that Zacarias had acted fast and saved her life when the vampire had torn out her throat. Was there something in his blood that tied them together in death? He had even forced her to take his blood this last time.
Marguarita pressed her lips together tightly. She was strong, and she would not give in to wild imaginings. She had a mission. Whatever her odd feelings were, they had to be false. The only thing that could matter to her was saving the people she loved at the hacienda. The rain began to pick up again, the steady drizzle turning into a relentless downpour. She had to get to the river and across to the De La Cruz property to call in the hunters. The stream was moving very fast, taking her quickly through the rain forest to dump her into the broad, swollen Amazon.
Her heart began to pound. She had to pay attention if she was going to survive. The sound of the river was thunderous, drowning out nearly everything else. The canoe swept around a bend and the water turned even rougher and faster. She couldn't think about Zacarias or vampires, all that mattered was pushing her paddle into the water to keep from being slung into the series of rocks looming up ahead.
She'd watched Julio maneuver through that treacherous set of drops and rocks leading to the river a hundred times, and she'd laughed with the thrill and danger of the moment. But she relied on his skills and had absolute confidence that he knew every rock position ahead. She wasn't so certain about herself. Julio had allowed her to try it several times, but the water hadn't been flowing quite so fast and it hadn't been dark.
She took a firm grip on the oar and summoned her new reflexes. Her eyes burned with strain as she approached the series of boulders rising through the rushing stream. Forcing her breath out in an effort to relax into the wild ride, she felt the first drop of the canoe as it entered the boulder garden. She called up every intricate maneuver Julio had showed to her. She performed the pattern carefully, as if he was in the boat with her, calling out the moves as she dropped low, shifted her weight back and rounded the first rock to hit the gate perfectly aligned for the next drop.
The water boiled around her, a frothy white in the bleak darkness. Rain pounded the stream and without her heightened vision, she would not have been able to negotiate the tight chute that switched nearly completely back to avoid a particularly brutal stone. The thrill of riding the white water slipped into her frozen veins, easing the terror of vampires. She had always loved the trips into the rain forest with Julio. They'd gone on many adventures and she wished he was with her right then.
The next set of obstacles was the trickiest, the canoe had to go into the gate at the perfect angle to shoot around the surge that could flip the boat. She could hear Julio's voice in her ear, shouting instructions on how to keep the oar in the water to still the canoe for the split seconds it took to turn sharp and then a hard push to send the boat flying forward. She hit the narrow chasm between the two boulders exactly the way Julio had done it, skirting the treacherous roiling water by inches.
The canoe shot into open water and she was on the Amazon. The current caught the canoe and she had to use all of her strength to angle toward the bank. The river was swollen and running fast. It took everything she had to paddle to the edge. As it was, she was slightly downstream from where she wanted to be when she managed to snag a hanging limb and drag the canoe onto the bank.
The slope was extremely muddy and slippery. She was exhausted, cold and wet and miserable. She tried climbing her way up the incline, but kept slipping back. The wind picked up, a ferocious force, slamming into her again and again with such power it tore at the thick braid of hair, tugging out strands so that even her head ached. She gave up trying to climb and crawled instead, clawing her way to the top, sliding back time and time again, until her back and arms ached and she was afraid she'd never be able to lift them again. The rain, driven by the wind, stung her body as she reached the top and lay for a moment trying to catch her breath.
Marguarita didn't bother to get to her feet but crawled across the uneven ground to the shelter of a large kapok tree, trying to get out of the rain. She sank back
against the thick fins that made up the root cage and tried to catch her breath. The memory of the vampire washed over her again. Something about the difference between her attacker and Zacarias eluded her, but she knew it was important.
She had been representing the De La Cruz family for years. Most of the families the ranch supported had never set eyes on one of the brothers. She had been the one to bring food and medicine when needed, to arrange to pay debt or allow families to borrow in times of trouble, earning the family loyalty and good will. She had made the De La Cruz family one of the most beloved in the region. Her generosity - okay, it was their money, but she was the one making the effort.
She stood cautiously, forcing her weak legs to work. Without warning the ground rolled, throwing Marguarita to her knees. Instantly ants swarmed over her boots and hands. She suppressed a small cry, knowing Zacarias wasn't dead after all. Why had she been so ridiculous? He had returned to the hacienda and discovered her gone. She leaped to her feet and began to run aimlessly, a stupid, careless mistake.
Giant moths fluttered around her, drawn by her light as she ran. Bats wheeled and dipped catching the insects her lamp revealed. Large eyes stared at her for a moment just feet from her, then the animal leaped onto the trunk of a tree and raced to higher branches. A snake coiled above her and lifted its head.
The ground rolled again and thunder crashed. For a moment she could barely breathe, once again the frozen prey a monster had cornered. The wind rushed through the trees, bending the smaller ones over until they formed arches. Marguarita took shelter in the root cage of the large kapok tree trying to force herself to think - not panic. Clutching the roots, she glared into the forest.
She had been right to believe him vampire. The insects boiled out of the ground and rushed down the trunks of trees at his bidding. Poisonous snakes slithered through wet vegetation and leeches crawled over leaves in an effort to reach her. Everything she'd ever known about vampires came back to her - along with the memory of the one attacking her.
She shuddered, the need to curl up in a ball and hide nearly overwhelming her. She could still smell his fetid breath, see his rotting flesh, and the ugly, twisted claws he had for fingernails. His eyes had gone completely red as they stared at her, trying to rip the information of Zacarias's whereabouts from her mind. She'd concentrated on keeping her mind blank, the shields strong, refusing to give up the eldest of the De La Cruz family.
The vampire had murdered her father and he would kill her - she knew that with a certainty - but she also knew Zacarias or one of his brothers would hunt the vampire down and destroy him. He would never kill again. She had held out even when the horrible creature had shown her his razor-sharp teeth and threatened to tear her flesh out and eat it in front of her. She shuddered remembering his red eyes and his breath. That horrible smell of decaying flesh.
Marguarita sat up straighter. As scared as she'd been by Zacarias, he hadn't been the same. There was no terrible rotting smell. Didn't vampires rot from the inside? He had frightened her - no - terrified her. She touched the mark he'd made, rubbing it with the pad of her finger. The attack hadn't been the same. He hadn't felt evil. Or vampire. He'd felt like a dangerous, scary predator, but not evil.
The revelation shocked her. Zacarias was a wild animal, a feral creature that hunted and killed for survival. He was no vampire, not that it mattered. She wasn't going back to the hacienda. Not as long as he was around. She feared few creatures, but Zacarias was an altogether different proposition. The mark he'd left on her throbbed, burning a little, reminding her that no animal in the rain forest was as unpredictable or as violent.
The way he'd come at her, so purposeful, his face an expressionless mask, his mouth set in a cruel, unrelenting line, his eyes flat and cold and without mercy. Her mouth went dry and her heart began to pound again. She couldn't have moved if she'd wanted to, frozen in place like cornered prey. That was exactly how she felt - his prey. She knew he had deliberately frightened her. She'd tried to connect with him in the way she did wild things, and for a moment she thought he'd responded, but then he was worse than ever. He was dangerous, but no vampire.
She had to make it to shelter and determine her next move, and that meant finding the marks on the trees Julio had carved to show the way. She had to backtrack and make her way to the point where they usually pulled the canoe from the water.
She waited for the ferocious wind to die down a little and she pushed herself to her feet to step cautiously away from the shelter of the tree. The branches overhead groaned and creaked and she looked up. Bats hung from every limb, and darted around the tree, vying for space. At first she thought they had come there to eat the fruit, but they weren't eating. More and more settled in the branches, hanging upside down, wings folded, tiny eyes bright - watching her.
A chill went through her. Had she fled from Zacarias only to stumble into a vampire's lair? She knew they used bats and insects as puppets at times. She backed away from the tree and nearly fell over a rotting log. Termites poured out of the wood. She pressed her lips together, refusing to panic. She had to think - make a decision - and she couldn't do that if she allowed herself to go to pieces.
She looked up at the bats. Very gently she reached for them, sending a warm wave of greeting, careful not to push too hard. Her touch was very delicate, but she connected. She should have been able to feel evil if they were commanded by the undead, but they seemed ordinary bats, anxious to go out about their business. They were hungry, needing
to feed but something had stopped them - used them - commanded them.
He was using insects and bats to keep an eye on her. He wanted to know what she was up to and had sent spies. An idea took root and she assessed the situation, trying to think logically. Perhaps the bats were the wrong kind of spies to use against her. She had her own gift with animals and insects and it was very possible she could turn them all to her side.
She looked up at the bats again and sent another warm, welcoming wave, urging them to go ahead and eat. She'd slow down so they could do both, follow her and yet eat along the way. Some of the bats gave the impression of fruit while others insects. He'd even mixed species. She smiled up at the little creatures, feeling the kinship that came whenever she touched an animal with her mind. They were connected to Zacarias through fear, through his commands, but she actually formed a bond with them, a kind of empathy that was mutual. Most animals and even some insects strengthened the relationship, feeling the deep tie between them. She wanted to form that affinity with the bats Zacarias had chosen to spy on her.
Marguarita kept the flow of warmth and the invitation to eat. One bat took the initiative, perhaps he was hungrier than the others, but he flew to the nearest fruit and settled to eat. Immediately bats filled the air, many settling on fruit to feast while others went after insects. She didn't make the mistake of hurrying away - that would trigger the need to follow whatever orders Zacarias had given them. She was elated when she found the point where Julio and she usually beached their canoe.
Water was everywhere, dripping from leaves, running down the slopes and mountainsides creating hundreds of small, cascading waterfalls. Water collected in puddles and stood on the forest floor, eventually finding its way to drain in the Amazon River. The sound of it running was ever present - just like the continual hum of insects. She angled away from the loud flow of water heading toward the interior.
Julio had marked branches - as children they'd tried that - but eventually plants anchored themselves to everything - stems, branches, trunks, even leaves of other plants wrapping themselves around the trees. The vegetation was so thick the bark was mostly hidden so there was no point in cutting into the trees. It didn't take long for any marks to be covered. Climbing up the trees were woody lianas, using the trees as gateways to the light above the canopy. Ferns only added to the mix, embedding themselves in the bark as well, climbing toward the sunlight.
Thick roots snaked across the forest floor, anchoring the large trees to earth while the tops reached high into the clouds. The giant buttress roots stabilized and fed the enormous trees, some twisting into elaborate shapes while others formed great wooden fins. Regardless of how they looked, the roots dominated the floor, claiming large spaces and housing bats, animals and hundreds of species of insects.
Julio and Marguarita had slashed marks deep into the roots and both knew where to look, even in the event creeper vines and ferns managed to weave themselves among the branching fins. She swept the brilliant green ferns aside and sure enough, the root had been chipped, leaving a weathered scar.
She moved slowly, continuing to send her communications to the bats. Warmth. Regard. Kinship. No commands. No demands. Zacarias would need to seek the darkness of the soil before the sun came up. It was only a few more hours. She could trick him that long. The bats were very receptive and wouldn't raise an alarm, not when she wasn't running or trying to hide from them.
She tapped into the bats for her own warning system, hoping she would recognize their alert when a predator was close. A fallen emergent with a giant trunk lay in her path, years old, saplings already filling in the void it left. The rotting trunk was covered in insects, fungus and creepers. She studied it carefully, aware of the dangerous snakes and poisonous frogs she could easily touch when climbing over it.
There was nothing else she could do, not without veering from her path, something she didn't want to do at night in a rain forest. She stepped forward and reached up, determined to climb, pushing at the poisonous insects and frogs with her mind in hopes they would move away from her.
Hands caught her waist and jerked her back against a hard body. "Are you dim-witted, woman, or do you simply enjoy placing yourself in danger?" Zacarias's voice purred in her ear, a soft menace that chilled her to her very core.
arguarita went very still. What if she'd been wrong? What if he was truly vampire? The mark Zacarias had left at the side of her throat throbbed and burned. His breath stirred the hair at the back of her neck . . . She stiffened. His fingers brushed her skin, moving aside the heavy rope of her hair. His body was tight against hers so that she could feel every breath he took. He smelled feral, a wild, dangerous creature trapping her far from all aid. His every muscle imprinted on her, every beat of his heart.
His question penetrated her mind. Dim-witted? Had he really just asked if she was dim-witted? Fury burned through her, mixing with fear.
Warmth poured into her mind, heralding Zacarias. Earlier when he'd struck, he had penetrated deep, invaded and conquered. This was different. This time he used a slow assault, a heat spreading like molasses, filling her mind with - him. Her breath caught in her throat and she bit down hard on her lower lip. The warmth didn't just stay in her mind, it spread through her body, a thick lava that took her veins an inch at a time, moving lower and lower. Her breasts felt heavy and aching. Her nipples peaked. Her core grew hotter.
Her physical reaction to his invasion was more than disturbing - it was every bit as horrifying as his biting her neck. Every instinct screamed at her to run, but she didn't even struggle, horror and fury holding her in place. His hands caged her, settling on her waist, large hands, shaping her hips, feeling too possessive. Flames licked her skin right through her clothes where he touched her.
She had never had such a female reaction to a male in her life. She'd been told how danger could mask itself in seduction and now she could bear witness to those rumors. Zacarias was as sensual as a male could be, igniting a slow-burning fire inside of her. Marguarita shivered, fearing for her very soul. She made the sign of the cross in a silent attempt to save herself.
"I know you can hear me - whether I speak aloud or inside your mind. Your blood calls to mine. Mine answers. Do not pretend you cannot hear me."
She moistened her lips. I am not dim-witted. A little thunderstruck maybe, but she understood him. She just didn't understand herself or what was happening to her body.
She trembled, wanting to wrench herself from his hand, yet she burned for him. She could hear his heartbeat, the sound echoing in her own veins.
He leaned closer until his lips touched her ear. "If you are not dim-witted . . ." One hand slipped from her hip back to her waist, burning through her clothes until her skin was branded with his palm imprint. The other hand slowly wrapped around her throat, one finger at a time. He forced her head back until she rested against his chest, until she had no choice but to stare into his dark, merciless eyes. They stared at each other, locked together in some strange combat she didn't understand.
"Then do you have a death wish?"