"There is more than servant and master between us as much as you wish to deny it. But for now, that will do. I do not want you to fear my taking your blood. I will be more careful of your fragility."

She blinked several times and would have stepped away but he glided closer, without seeming to move, blocking her escape. Her eyes mesmerized him, going from that sparkling champagne to a dark warm chocolate. The difference was striking to him. "I believe you were about to drink your tea and eat your meal."

She glanced at the food on the counter and shook her head. He got the immediate impression of cold. He waved his hand and steam rose from the cup as well as the plate. Her smile was tentative and almost shy, but he found the contrast of her decidedly pink lips and white teeth beautiful. Her eyes were fully brown now, the color rich and melting. Now he could see intriguing flecks of gold. The gold could have been the stars in the midnight sky of her eyes earlier, sparkling like diamonds before he could discern the true color.

She picked up the teacup and plate and he stepped back, giving her just enough room that she would have to brush his body as she made her way to the table. She was careful, her hand trembling just a bit as she set the stoneware down. He knew he would always see every nuance, the smallest detail, stay focused and aware of her every movement, right down to the flutter of her eyelashes.

She sat down and watched him for a moment, still nervous, as if she were trapped in a cage with a great jungle cat. He prowled closer, unable to resist a rumbling growl, knowing her eyes would go wide, and then she would smile at him. It came, that slow, melting smile that seemed to ripple through his body,gentle at first, and then gathering force until she was all heat and fire rushing straight to his groin.

She took a sip of tea. Stop doing that. You do it to scare me.

For the first time, the impression of laughter was strong, filling his mind. It wasn't just tentative amusement. He had been the one to deliberately tease her and she'd responded. He found great satisfaction in knowing she was aware he'd been teasing her. It was one of a million concepts he'd never understood before, but he wanted her smile and he had to do something to get past her fear.

"You are not really that afraid of me right now," he declared, and continued to stalk through the room.

The kitchen was spacious enough that he had plenty of room, but he had rarely - if ever - spent any real time inside an enclosure other than a mountain, and the walls felt inhibiting to him. He couldn't scent the air. He couldn't continually gather information.

What is it that has you on edge? The shadowed flock?

He stopped moving abruptly. He found it interesting that she had known the birds were tainted by evil and that they'd crossed her mind just after he'd been thinking of them in conjunction with the shadows permeating his own mind and body.

"I am unused to being indoors. Does it bother you to have me moving around?"

She took a bite of her egg, watching him carefully. Eventually she shook her head. You look very powerful and you tend to dominate the room. I think I'm getting a little more used to you and the fluid way you move, like a hunter.

"I am a hunter." He wanted to get accustomed to her ways. There was grace in her hand gestures. In the tilt of her head and the way she sat. He liked the quiet rustle of her skirts and the way her thick hair cascaded like a silken waterfall down her back to her narrow waist. Her hair fascinated him. It seemed so alive, always moving, shimmering, the colors deepening the longer he was in her company.

Are we going to be attacked? The birds were looking for you, weren't they?

He read fear for the others. He could see she refused to think about what was going to happen to her. More than anything else, he read fear for him. She was afraid for him and that made no sense. She should want him to lead vampires far from her and the hacienda, but he could see her reluctance for him to be found. He even caught the impression of himself in the ground, as if he should hide.

He forced himself to cross the room and pull out a chair opposite her. "Do you really wish to know the truth of the birds? Of the De La Cruz family? If you ask me, I will give you truth, so be careful what you wish for."

She took another sip of tea, studying his face thoughtfully over the rim. Her gaze had gone very serious and in her mind, he felt her weigh his words.

Her nod was slow, but quite firm.

"After the attack on you, it was discovered that the masterminds behind the plot to assassinate the prince of the Carpathian people had gathered an army together and they intended to carry out their battle plan against the prince, testing their plans first on one of my family's properties. We were convinced - and we were correct - in thinking it would be on our largest holding in Brazil. Most of my family and their lifemates are gathered there and it was a logical place to try to get us all in one sweep." He bared his teeth. "They did not expect me to be present."

She moistened her lips. Parted them. He lost his train of thought. She blinked several times. Her eyelashes were a thick, long feathery sweep he found himself admiring. He'd never really noticed such details on another being. She frowned at him, her winged eyebrows drawing in, little lines appearing for an instant and dissolving as the indentation in her right cheek was prone to do when her smile faded.

Did they? Catch you all together?

"They thought they had. They had not counted on me or another warrior, Dominic. Nor had they considered that the women would fight - or the humans." Just the brief encounter with Marguarita's wounds after the harpy eagle had carried her through the sky, tearing her flesh with its talons, had made him so much more aware of the fragility of humans - and yet his people there had gone willingly into battle to defend the property.

Did they know what they were facing?

He jerked his head up. "Are you reading my thoughts?"

Your feelings. You feel sorrow for the ones who fell. You admire them.

He shook his head to deny the charge. He felt nothing. His mind turned over his new understanding as fact, storing it away with all the other pieces of information he had collected in his long lifespan. But emotions had no place in his world.

Did they know what they were facing? She urged an answer.

He nodded his head. "Nicolas spoke to them all and gave them the option to leave. It was recommended that women and children be moved. They refused. They stayed, although my brother made it clear that we would suffer casualties and any who left would not forfeit their rights to continue to work for us. A full assault had never been planned and launched by vampires, and we knew the battle would be brutal."

Show me.

"I will not." He said the words quietly.

Slow color slipped under her skin. Her gaze jumped to his. He felt her inquiry and there was a tinge of hurt attached.

"War is not for you. You had an encounter with a vampire and one is more than enough. They will never get close to you again as long as I am alive."

Marguarita put down her fork and studied his face. I work for your family. We are sworn to protect you, se?or, and I will, as will the others who work here. We are every bit as courageous and as loyal as those who serve you in Brazil.

It took him a moment to assimilate the jumble of impressions she sent. He had offended her. "You misunderstand me. I am well aware of your loyalty and courage. I know you have every intention of protecting me . . ." He had thought to find the idea not only ludicrous but dim-witted and simple-minded. A childhood fantasy. But he found his thoughts had changed with knowing her. He couldn't help being secretly pleased that although she feared him, she had in fact raced to call in the hunters to destroy him, that at the thought of vampires coming for him, her thoughts were fiercely protective of him. Feelings were odd things and difficult to accept in himself as well in others. Emotions clearly complicated everything.

She sketched a question mark in the air between them. He shook his head and refused to answer. He wanted her mind firmly in his. He demanded nothing less from her. Their ability to communicate grew each time she formed pictures and impressions of the words she wanted to speak. He would be different than her human companions. With him, she could "speak" without her actual voice. The intimacy of it pleased him.

"You will obey me in this, Marguarita, without question."

He deliberately held her gaze for a moment so she could see there would be swift retaliation if she dared to defy his order outright. And knowing her strange infirmity for doing the opposite of anything smacking of a command, he would be watching her very closely for defiance. He waited until she looked away first before continuing.

"We killed every one of the vampires sent after us, as well as the puppets they created. The masterminds have no time to raise another army to bring against me. Rather, I suspect, they will nip at my flanks to weaken me and then one will come to attempt to destroy me. They will have learned their lesson by now."

This time the question mark was meticulously drawn in his mind. He found that warm bubble of laughter rising. She'd been so obviously annoyed at the word obey . The way she squirmed a little in her chair and tried so carefully to hide her irritation from him was rather endearing. He might just have to throw that word into the conversation often to see what eventually happened. If anyone would dare to surprise him, it was obviously going to be Marguarita.

What does that mean? Their lesson? What did it teach them, sending an army after you and your brothers?

"They like to be safe and sacrifice their pawns. Two of the five masters were destroyed. There are three left. If they want me dead, only a master has a chance of defeating me. Not just any master, one of the Malinov brothers must come for me."

A shiver went through her. Her warm brown eyes went very dark. He leaned forward to peer into those enormous, dove-soft eyes.

"There is no need to be afraid. I welcome his coming. Should he defeat me, he will have too great a fear of my brothers to remain close."

Abruptly she pushed her chair back, rose and took her unfinished meal and the teacup to the sink where she meticulously washed and dried them, her back to him. It was a silly human gesture, turning her back, as if that could possibly keep him out of her mind. There was no way to retreat from him now that he had discovered her - shared her mind and exquisite blood with him.

"I speak only the truth to you."