They were approaching the vine and Zacarias waved both men to a halt, not wanting them too close to the treacherous sap. "Just in the time I have spent with you, the vines have been busy."

"I've never seen anything like it," Cesaro said. "The plant looks alive, eating everything in its path."

Zacarias nodded. "The vampire bends everything to his evil purpose. He knows I am in residence and he will be nipping at my heels in the hopes of weakening me before he shows himself. Do not try to kill this plant yourselves. If anyone spots it, let me know immediately."

Both men stepped well back when Zacarias waved them away from the destructive vines. Above their heads, clouds gathered, churned and boiled, silver veins flickered inside the turbulent patches. Lightning leaped along the ground, forks of white-hot energy traced the path of the thick vines, incinerating the wood, leaves and thick sap everywhere it touched. A foul smell much like rotting eggs permeated the air.

"Do not breathe it in," Zacarias cautioned.

The trail of burning ash grew long and wide, racing over the ground and under it, following the path of the vines back to the original source - the edge of the rain forest. It was clear, seeing the blackened ash, the vine had been traveling toward the hacienda, searching for Zacarias's resting place.

"Tell me about this man you do not like, the one you believe is courting my woman," Zacarias commanded as they turned back toward the hacienda.

Light was just beginning to streak across the night sky, fading the stars and moon. Zacarias quickened his pace. Safeguards would be necessary throughout the ranch now.

"Esteban and his sister, Lea, moved here a few months ago," Cesaro said, glancing at his son for confirmation. Julio nodded with a small frown. "Very wealthy and very arrogant. This is not the kind of man who settles here. He has no real interest in ranching or raising horses. I ask myself, why would this type of man come here to this remote part of the country when he is so obviously a city man?"

"That is a good question," Zacarias affirmed. "Have you an answer?"

Julio sighed and shook his head. "We've talked it over several times. Either they're hiding here, on the run from something or . . ." He trailed off and looked at his father.

"Or they're hoping to get to a De La Cruz," Cesaro admitted. "It is no secret who owns this land. It is far larger than any other holding here in our country, and although on record it looks as if each of your brothers has bought land to put together, one family having so much acreage is unusual. Your family has a certain reputation and many men would wish it to be known that you are friends. And the man, Esteban, often brings up the De La Cruz name, asking questions we do not answer."

"It is possible they have knowledge they shouldn't," Julio added reluctantly.

"Did you express your concerns to Marguarita?" Zacarias asked.

"Marguarita is completely loyal to the De La Cruz family," Julio snapped. "She would never betray you, certainly not to an outsider."

"That is not what I asked," Zacarias said.

Julio hung his head when his father sent him a dark scowl.

"No. Marguarita regarded Esteban and his sister as friends, no more than that," Cesaro said. "She knew he was courting her, but then so were a lot of men. She showed no real interest so we thought it best to just tell her that he was an outsider and didn't belong here. That is as far as it went."

Zacarias nodded. "Do you really need her for the animals - the horses?"

Cesaro nodded. "Especially now. They are . . . disturbed."

Zacarias broke away from the two men, heading back to the main ranch house. "Tomorrow evening then, she will help you."

He didn't wait for their response. It mattered little to him what they had to say. Marguarita was his woman, and for as long as he chose to remain on earth, no one else would direct her but him. He safeguarded the house, paying special attention to the foundation and the ground beneath the house before he added protection to the doors and windows. Only when he was completely certain Ruslan's spies couldn't penetrate his guards did he allow his mind to seek Marguarita's.

She hadn't moved from the floor in the kitchen. He found her sitting with her knees drawn up and her chin resting on top of them. She looked small and forlorn. His heart stuttered when her eyes met his. There was no condemnation in her expression or her mind. She simply looked at him with her dark chocolate eyes, her gaze drifting over his face, as if trying to read his mood.

Are you all right?

He found her warmth filling his mind. She didn't pour into him as she had before, but drifted in just as her gaze moved slowly over his face. His heart found the rhythm of hers, slowed her frantic pace so that they beat in sync. There were tear tracks on her face and the sight offended him. He crossed to her side and reached down to lift her into his arms, cradling her against his chest. She made no protest, but curled into him, resting her head against his shoulder. Her hair spilled around her face, hiding her expression, but she couldn't hide her mind from his.

I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been meddling in things I don't understand. Truly, Zacarias, I'm very, very sorry.

She was worried for him. She wasn't thinking of herself or his reaction, the things he'd said and done to her, she was worried about how the memories had affected him.

"People do not worry about me, Marguarita."

Someone should.

There was a hint of a smile in her voice and it warmed him. He turned her response over and over in his mind. "If I put you in your bed will you stay there?"

This time there was no mistaking the laughter. Probably not, but I'll try.

He laid her on top of the bed and stared down at her for a long time. Her black hair spilled across her pillow, like a fall of silk skeins. Her lashes looked thicker and darker than ever. Color added so much to a world, even the dull colors he was seeing. He wanted to lean down and taste those perfect lips, but he knew it wouldn't end there. The call of her blood beat in his veins and he was done scaring her for the day. Not when she was so obviously worried about him.

"Sleep well, Marguarita."

I almost miss those strange names you call me.

He touched her hair once, feeling a shift in his heart, one he feared would change his life. He moved back away from her without another word, unable to decide what he was going to do about her. He could not remember a time when he hadn't known exactly what he was going to do. Abruptly he left her room, left her fragrant scent and the terrible need clawing at his veins. He was still in control, but for how much longer was anyone's guess.

arguarita rolled over and stared at her window. The heavy drapes were drawn, but a sliver of light told her it was the middle of the day. A rain of pebbles hit the glass and she sighed and pushed herself up. Her body felt leaden, not wanting to cooperate, but resolutely she slipped out of bed and crawled across the floor to the window pushing the drapes aside just as Julio sent another light spray of small rocks rapping against the glass.

Trying not to laugh, Marguarita shoved the window up. Sunlight spilled into her room, burning her eyes. She hastily covered them, shocked at how she was already so used to being up all night. She dragged a pen and notepad from the bedside table.

"He's sleeping. I made certain to wake you well before sundown. I had to make certain you were all right."

She shaded her eyes and looked him over carefully. There was a thick bloody wrap around his forearm and he looked upset.

"The dog went crazy about an hour ago. My dog. He suddenly started snarling and growling. He hadn't made a sound since . . ."

She sketched a question mark between them.

"De La Cruz came to our house last night. Max went berserk. All the animals do when he's around, you know that. He was barking and snarling at the window and then abruptly he went silent. Not a peep until a little while ago and then it was like he went crazy. He started snapping at my horse's heels and one kicked at him. I dismounted to calm him down and he attacked me."

Marguarita climbed onto the windowsill, sitting with her legs dangling, and indicated Julio come closer so she could inspect the lacerations.

Julio took off his shirt to show Marguarita the scratches across his chest. The dog had gone for his throat and he had held him off with sheer strength. Her heart sank. Julio had thrust his forearm into the dog's mouth, sacrificing his arm to prevent the attack on his throat.

She knew the answer before he spoke. Julio had loved his dog.

"Ricco shot him. He didn't have a choice, Marguarita. I think De La Cruz did something to my dog."

She shook her head rejecting the idea, frantically writing on the notepad.

"The animals are terrified of him and you know it. The longer he stays here, the worse it's going to get. Even the horses are upset, Marguarita. They're hard to control when we're out patrolling. I think he's staying here because of you. He's got to go."

She glared at him.