Zacarias touched his face and his fingertips came away smeared with blood. He could feel Marguarita in his arms, feel her inside of him, all around him. Her heartbeat was rapid and her breathing ragged. She was crying, and he felt her pain as though it was his own. Startled he looked down at her shoulder. Her blouse had droplets of crimson staining the material. His throat felt clogged and aching. Shocked, he shoved her away from him, throwing her out of his mind, rejecting her, rejecting the memories, rejecting the agony of such of things.
The adrenaline and absolute refutation of the memory - of the emotions - put far more strength in him than he intended, and Marguarita went flying, stumbling back away from him to land several feet in a small heap on the floor. She looked up at him with resignation, making no attempt to stand.
Zacarias took a deep breath and expelled the terrible taste in his mouth - in his mind. He was Zacarias De La Cruz and he was . . . alone. Completely, utterly alone. Without her in his mind, filling those torn, shadowed places, he had never been so alone. He could feel it, that emptiness yawning like a great endless hole threatening to swallow him whole. He backed even farther away from her - this witch who had turned his life upside down.
The agony of remembrance was unbearable. Tremors ran through him. He took another step away from her, putting the length of the room between them. Inside there was a terrible wrenching, as if he was tearing his own body apart in order to separate from her. He couldn't afford her. He was pure predator, born that way, shadowed from birth, encased in ice. She was melting each of his shields, destroying his ability to function properly.
A slow hiss of warning emerged. Fear slid into her expression and instead of the satisfaction he should have felt, his stomach took a plunge and something vicious squeezed his heart.
You asked me to show you.
He felt her plea, although this time he wasn't certain she did. She held out an unsteady hand to him. Zacarias studied her, his eyes flat and cold, his expression deliberately remote. "Of what use is this to me? This memory was never meant to surface and yet you bring up something that has been buried over a thousand years. For what purpose?"
But the memory is still inside of you and so is the pain. You lock it away instead of letting go of it.
"If I do not feel it, it is gone."
She shook her head, dropping her hand. If it was gone, I could not have found it or felt the agony you felt.
He despised her logic. She had uncovered a long-buried secret no one in the Carpathian world, let alone the human world, knew. He took a step toward her, his teeth snapping together in a vicious warning. "I should break your neck for such an indiscretion. You dare too much." He actually twisted his hands together as if he had her neck between his palms.
She tilted her chin at him. I'm tired of being afraid of you. Do it then. Get it over with.
He was on her so fast she had no time to do anything but blink up at him. His fingers wrapped around her throat, dragging her to her feet. Her pulse beat into the palm of his hand. He knew the moment he touched her that he was lost. There would be no killing this woman, no harming her in any way. She was fast losing her fear of him and she had every reason to be afraid. Each time he got near her, inhaled her, looked at her, his body reacted, full and hard and so aching with need it rivaled the hunger throbbing in his veins for her.
"Sun scorch you, woman," he whispered, dropping his hands. "No one controls me. No one ." He turned his back on her, striding from the room.
Zacarias dissolved before he reached the front door. He needed to be outdoors where he could breathe. He didn't belong in any enclosure. The world had long since moved on without him. He was a predator long outliving his time and he understood nothing about the modern world - nor did he want to. Modern houses and conveniences meant nothing to him. He had the rain forest and the caves, the earth itself was his home. He was meant to be alone. He had been born to a different life and he had no place in a world with houses populated by humans.
Marguarita was a complete mystery to him. She was like some beautiful lure he couldn't resist, drawing him deeper and deeper into her spell where he would have to . . . He slammed his mind closed, refusing to bring her with him out of her dwelling. She
would stay there, where he put her and he would return when it suited him. In the meantime, he had other much more pressing problems than a woman who refused to leave things alone that should never be brought into the light - such as Zacarias De La Cruz.
He slipped through the crack beneath the door and streamed out into the night, out into the world he understood where it was kill or be killed. He took the form of the harpy eagle and rose into the sky, circling the ranch several times before retreating into the forest. There was no doubt in his mind that evil was out and spreading through the great forest and down the winding Amazon and all its tributaries looking for him.
Ruslan Malinov, eldest of the Malinov brothers and their acknowledged leader, would not take his defeat lying down. He would need vengeance and he would be unable to pass the task to another, not even one of his brothers. The lesser vampires would be watching, waiting to see if he exacted his revenge. He had to come after Zacarias or lose control of everything he had built. He would come, but he would not come openly.
The harpy eagle soared to the highest point above the ranch and settled into the branches of a tall kapok tree. He had extraordinary eyesight, was able to see anything tiny, even less than an inch, from a good two hundred yards away. As a rule, the harpy had poor night vision, but Zacarias was born to the night and his night vision coupled with the harpy's made for excellent sight. Ruslan had sent the tainted birds, and it wouldn't be the only thing he sent looking for evidence of Zacarias's passing.
Leaving the battlefield in Brazil, he'd been severely wounded. He'd left a blood trail leading straight to this ranch. Ruslan's spies would have had no problem following the scent. It hadn't mattered because he had intended to end his existence and Ruslan would have led the fight away from his brothers. The master vampire would have been satisfied knowing Zacarias was finally dead. But now, because he was alive, Ruslan would come and he would bring every foul thing with him he could possibly conjure up in a short time. Deep inside the harpy eagle, Zacarias smiled, a grim, welcoming smile.
Destroying the undead was familiar territory, one he was very comfortable with. He found he welcomed the coming nights. A game of wits. Ruslan had always been intelligent and arrogant and that had led to his inevitable downfall. He had considered himself far above the Dubrinsky lineage and believed that by assassinating the prince he would become the leader of the Carpathian people.
There had been a time far back when Ruslan and Zacarias had been best friends. They fought together, side by side, watched each other's back as close as blood brothers, but Ruslan had crossed a line impossible to retreat from. Ruslan had never once admitted to making a mistake, and his arrogance had grown over the centuries. Until now, he had avoided direct confrontation with Zacarias, but he would come.
Zacarias glanced toward the house. The pull of the woman was growing stronger by the moment. She crept into his thoughts and refused to leave. He wasn't going to escape, not even within the body of the eagle. She was there in his mind, wrapping him up in her silken web. He wanted to see her, to know she was safe, and his mind kept trying to tune itself to hers.
Marguarita Fernandez was his true lifemate. There was no denying that fact now. He had found her and the danger had increased a thousandfold. His father had been born with that same taint of shadow Zacarias had in such abundance. He had found his lifemate, lived many centuries, but in the end, none of it had mattered. With his lifemate torn and bloody before him, he had turned into . . .
He slammed his mind closed on that atrocity. Sun scorch Marguarita Fernandez. She had opened Pandora's box and there was no closing it now. He was lost no matter what. If he claimed her, if he didn't claim her, and how could he not? He was tied to her irrevocably and the strength of those ties grew with each passing hour. He had to protect her at all costs and the moment Ruslan found out about her he would use every weapon in his arsenal to get to her. He would know the danger to Zacarias's soul. Zacarias was already so close to turning, losing Marguarita would tip him over the edge just as assuredly as it had his father. Ruslan would do everything in his power to bring about Zacarias's downfall through his lifemate.
The moon had begun to wane, although light spilled down, bathing the ground in silvery beams. Stars glittered bright and a few clouds drifted very slowly across the sky, more wisps than real. It took a moment, as he looked out over the ranch, before he realized some of the dull gray of the grass and fences had deepened to other hues. Eagles, like most birds, saw in color, and the harpy was no exception, but even inside the raptor, Zacarias had never been able to distinguish any color whatsoever. He nearly fell off the tree branch peering down at the grass in the field. The gray had taken on both green and yellow tints. Enough that in the gleaming light from the moon, he felt a little dazzled by the sight. The corrals and fences looked a drab wooden brown, but definitely brown versus the gray he was used to. Before, he had begun to see only Marguarita in color. Now the world she lived in was coming alive to him.
He forced his gaze away from the hacienda and back toward the fields. Spies came in all forms and it was good to be prepared. Only Cesaro, Julio and Marguarita had actually seen him and they all knew to go about their daily routines with added vigilance. Every single worker on the ranch had been equipped from birth with protection for their minds. No vampire could penetrate those shields. They were also trained from the time they were toddlers in fighting the undead. The games taught to the children were actually skills needed to slay a vampire.
Each man and woman working on any of the ranches knew if a De La Cruz was in residence, the danger was very high and they took precautions. Animals were moved into protected areas and all riders carried both modern and ancient weapons, usually concealed so any spy watching wouldn't realize they were armed with more than the usual ranch tools.
The rain forest had a way of continually creeping back to reclaim its own territory and already, in spite of the ranch workers fighting to hold back the growth, creeper vines snaked their way along the ground to sneak beneath the fences and take root in the fields. Some of the woody vines wound their way up posts and around fencing. In the corner of the far field, where cattle roamed, several thick plants broke through the ground in places. The harpy eagle took to the air and circled above the field, his sharp gaze fixing on the plants.
The vines were twisted, thick braids of wood, dark and running with a thick sap. They appeared to be growing at a rapid rate, eating through everything in their path. Even as the eagle watched, a curious mouse scurried across the grass and ventured too close. The sap beaded along the vine and dripped into the ground. The mouse sniffed the substance curiously. The sap seemed to reach for the inquisitive rodent, splashing up, surrounding the little mouse, encasing it in the dark, oily substance.
The mouse screamed, lifting its head for air as the sap encased it, eating the hapless creature alive, right through the fur, through the walls of skin and tissue, to devour the tiny bones. That sap could devour a steer, horse or human - just as easily. Zacarias noted every place the vines had grown and headed toward the small home where Cesaro and his family lived. It would be necessary for the humans to recognize the plant and mark it without going near it as well as ensuring all animals stayed away from it.
Cesaro answered his call immediately, coming out onto the verandah, still buttoning his shirt and closing the door hastily on the growling, cowering dog behind him. "Is something wrong, senor ?"
He looked as uneasy as his dog acted. Zacarias stepped off the porch to put a little distance between him and the dog now at the window, snarling and nearly foaming at the mouth. There was no doubt animals were disturbed by his presence.
"Unfortunately I have found evidence of evil creeping onto the ranch. I want you to come with me so you can identify the plant to all those working under you before I destroy it. It will kill, not only plant and animal life, but human as well."
Cesaro immediately nodded his head. "Do you need my son?"
Zacarias first thought to shake his head. As a rule he avoided contact with the workers, knowing he made them every bit as uneasy as he did the livestock, but maybe he needed to spend some time with Julio. Zacarias knew he was far too much of a predator to allow his woman to be with a man she felt genuine affection for, so to keep Cesaro's son safe, it was best to ascertain his intentions toward Marguarita.
"Yes. We want to make certain there is no place on the ranch that this plant grows. Your son spends a good amount of time in the saddle and he covers a good deal of territory."
"I'll just be a moment." Cesaro disappeared into the house.
The dog was annoying. Zacarias put up with the irritating snarling a couple more minutes and then he waved his hand and the noise ended abruptly. The dog continued to stare out the window, but when he opened his mouth to bark or growl, no sound emerged.
Cesaro hurried out followed by Julio. The boy looked younger than Zacarias remembered. In truth, he'd barely glanced at the kid when he'd yanked him through the window, intending to kill him for daring to put his hands on Marguarita. Julio touched his neck and then straightened his shoulders.
"We won't take the horses," Cesaro told his son, shooting a quick glance toward Zacarias. "Not until we've seen everything Se?or De La Cruz needs to show us."
Zacarias led the way toward the back field. Already, the vines had circled the fencing and had grown thick along the back corner. He waved his hand toward the plant. "That is deadly to anything living that comes near it. I will incinerate it, but you will have to be very vigilant. All of you. It will continue to return as long as I am in residence."
"How long do you plan to stay?" Cesaro asked.
Zacarias pinned him with a cool gaze. "Indefinitely." The man paled beneath his bronzed skin, so Zacarias took pity on him. It had to be said eventually. "There is an unforeseen complication."
Cesaro glanced at Julio.
Zacarias sighed. "I do not like it any more than you do. As much as you are disturbed by my presence, I am disturbed by yours."
"You misunderstand, se?or. This is your home and certainly you should stay as long as you wish," Cesaro corrected hastily. "It is just that Marguarita is needed with the animals and our regular routine is important to keep to. We have a couple of mares ready to give birth any day now and with you present, the cattle have to be watched continually. She's good at soothing all the animals."
"I am afraid you will have to get along without her."
Julio glanced at him sharply. He pulled his hat down closer over his eyes. "Is she all right?"
"Why would she not be all right?" Zacarias challenged.
"She is always out with the horses," Cesaro explained. "It is worrisome that she hasn't gone to the stable and at least checked the mares."
"She is fine." That wasn't altogether the truth. He had thrown her across the room and hadn't even checked her out. He was always forgetting how fragile humans were.
"I'd like to see her," Julio said.
Zacarias halted abruptly. He felt the familiar cold sweep through his body. His gaze focused on the younger man, a direct, predatory stare. He felt the need to kill building, that raw desire to remove every obstacle from his path. "Why?"
Cesaro edged closer to his son but Zacarias stopped him with a flick of his gaze. Tension stretched. Julio refused to be intimidated, ignoring his father's restraining hand.
"Marguarita is like a sister to me. I love her and I need to know she is safe and well and happy. She would never willingly avoid checking the horses. The horses are her passion and the fact that she hasn't come out to the stables is not a good sign."
"Marguarita is my lifemate."
Cesaro drew in his breath, shaking his head in denial, his shock plain. Julio frowned and looked to his father for an explanation.
"That can't be, se?or ," Cesaro protested. "She is one of us, not Carpathian. There is some mistake."
"What does that mean?" Julio demanded. "I don't understand what that means."
"It means she belongs to me. She is my woman. My wife. And that puts her in more danger than you can possibly imagine. If it becomes known that she is my lifemate, every vampire and his puppet the world over will be looking to kill her. It is far safer for her to be inside the dwelling until I can remove the immediate danger to her."
Julio shook his head. "You can't just come here and decide that Marguarita is your woman. She may work for you, but she has rights. What does she say about this?"
"Julio," Cesaro hissed in warning.
"She has no say in the matter," Zacarias said, pitching his voice low - a velvet warning. "In our world, the man claims his woman and she is bound to him. There is no going back for either of them."
"It's a mistake."
"It is impossible to make a mistake," Zacarias said. "She is mine."
"You don't sound happy about it, se?or ," Cesaro said quickly, interrupting his son before Julio could speak. "Perhaps in this instance, something could be done to free her. Surely you don't want to be saddled with a human woman - one that can't speak."
There was a short silence while Zacarias turned the idea over and over in his mind. All along, he had been thinking that exact thought - he didn't want to be saddled with a human woman - any woman - but especially one who didn't know the first thing about obedience. He had considered walking away from her, just leaving her without a word. He'd thought to stay a few days just to see color and feel just a little before ending his days. Hearing Cesaro give voice to his own thoughts changed everything.
He felt his gut tighten, his body react physically to the thought of losing her. His mouth went dry, something viselike squeezed his heart hard in his chest. Everything he was rebelled against the idea of breaking the ties between them. Marguarita was his woman. He wasn't about to find a way to be free of her. He didn't believe there was a way, but even so, she belonged to him and he would never give her up willingly. Not to the humans, not to the vampires and certainly not to another man.
So there it was. He had a lifemate, as crazy as the woman was, she belonged to him and he was keeping her. He flashed his teeth at Cesaro, allowing a flare of absolute predator to show in his eyes as a warning.
"I will not give her up. There is no discussion. If you both care for her as you say you do, this will stay between us. No one else can know, not even other members of your family. It is the only way to keep her safe."
"Is she a prisoner?" Julio dared to ask.
Zacarias touched his mind. The man's barrier was intact, but Zacarias had taken his blood and pushed harder to gain entry. Julio pressed his fingers to his temples, shaking his head.
"Just tell me what you want to know."
Zacarias was already getting the impressions he needed. Julio did love Marguarita as a sister. It was a relief to know he wouldn't have to kill Cesaro's son. "Who is this man you do not like that keeps coming around to visit Marguarita?"
Julio looked startled. "Was I thinking about him?"
"You do not like the idea of Marguarita being my lifemate, but you like the idea of her being with this strange man even less," Zacarias said. "Tell me about him."