Julio shook his head, crumpling her note. "This is our home. They're never here, especially him. He's the worst of them. He can't just come here and tell us all that you belong to him. We work for him, but you aren't his slave. He's got to go, and you have to get out of there. Now. Before he does something to make it impossible for you to get away from him."

Julio scowled at her. "He's not one of your broken animals to rescue, Marguarita. He's dangerous to you. You can't treat him like a wild animal."

"What if he wants more from you than you're willing to give?" Julio demanded. "Because he thinks you're his woman. Do you have any idea the demands he could make on you? You're playing with fire, Marguarita. If he's a wild animal, then he's the most dangerous one you've ever encountered and you aren't going to tame him. Get out while you can. I'll help you. We all will. He doesn't own you. He doesn't own any of us. We have choices here, and you do as well."

Julio cursed under his breath. "You've always been like this, Marguarita, so stubborn no one could make you see reason." He started to put his shirt back on, but stopped when she shook her head.

Marguarita slipped back into her room and rummaged around until she found the first-aid kit she'd made up years earlier for the workers. Over time she'd become somewhat of a nurse with all the lacerations and accidents that occurred on the ranch. She smeared antibiotic cream over the deep scratches and handed him some tablets.

Julio obediently took them and dragged his shirt back over his head, smoothing it over his chest. "I'm telling you, hon, De La Cruz is no ordinary man. You have to let this one go."

She unwound the bloody rag and gasped when she saw the wound on his arm. She mimicked sewing, frowning at him. Julio shrugged and shook his head.

"It'll heal. Just do whatever you do so it doesn't get infected."

Marguarita had to blink several times. The sun seemed unusually bright and her eyes kept watering. She shook her head and indicated she needed to at least put butterfly strips across the wound to try to close it.

"Get on with it, then. I've got to get back to work. You have to get to the stables tonight and settle the animals down. Someone's really going to get hurt if you don't, Marguarita."

She nodded as she carefully applied the antibiotic cream and then began to meticulously close the wound.

"He can't keep you," Julio reiterated. "You don't owe him your life, honey. Seriously, think about leaving this place."

She had almost written save him. Zacarias needed saving from himself. Perhaps it couldn't be done. She wasn't even certain he wanted saving, but someone had to care about the man. He didn't seem to care much about himself. He was arrogant and had complete confidence in himself, but he also believed he was tainted with evil.

She hoped Zacarias would be cooperative. He knew the ranch work had to be done. If it took her going to the stables to calm the animals, she was certain Zacarias would agree to it. She waved to Julio and resolutely closed the window and pulled the drapes. She was tired, but a few hours to herself sounded good, so she decided to stay up.

In the bathtub, she laid with her eyes closed and allowed herself to think about Zacarias. He was such a mystery - a man who had no real idea of who he was. Her heart went out to him, a man so utterly alone. No one should be so alone. And he had no real idea of his own feelings. He'd buried his memories so deep, never forgiving himself, refusing to acknowledge he even remembered that terrible tragedy in his life.

Marguarita sighed as she sank down into the hot, scented water, soaking the long, thick rope of hair. She felt exhausted, and it was difficult to keep her mind away from Zacarias. In the short time she'd been around him, she'd mostly been afraid, so it didn't make sense to her that she was so determined to help him. She hated that he was so alone. No one should be alone, not like he was, not cut off from anything soft and gentle. He had so little humanity left that he no longer believed he could overcome the predator in him.

She saw inside of him, but every time she tried to show him he was different inside, he rejected her. It was almost as if he was afraid of that softer side of himself. It made him vulnerable and Zacarias De La Cruz had never really been that way - or if he had - he certainly didn't remember it. Nor did he want to remember it.

Zacarias had lived so long as a dangerous hunter, always alone and always apart, that he really had no way to fit into modern society, with humans or even with his own people. He had supreme confidence in himself as a hunter - a killer - but not as a man. And he was wrong. As arrogant and as dangerous as he was - there was someone gentle and loving deep inside him. His tremendous loyalty and sense of duty were admirable. He didn't see it that way. Everything was so black and white to him.

She dried herself off slowly, taking her time, enjoying the feeling that she had her home to herself and she could feel as if it belonged to her. She'd been mistress of the hacienda a long time and now, with Zacarias home, dictating to her what she could or couldn't do, where she could go and what she should wear, she had forgotten how peaceful she found the house. It was her sole domain. She kept it clean, decorated it the way she wanted and was in total charge of her own life. She had suitors courting her, which was a nice boost to her ego, but she knew she wouldn't want any of them for a husband.

Zacarias. Thinking of him made her feel alive. She loved riding horses, the freedom of flying over the ground, one with her horses. Zacarias gave her that same thrill only more so. He wasn't peaceful by any means, but being in his company was exhilarating. She sat at her vanity and brushed her long hair into a semblance of submission while she thought about him.

He was handsome in a rough, brutal sort of way. His body was fit, that of a warrior. Physically there was no doubt she was attracted to him, but that wasn't the draw. She imagined most women would be unable to resist his looks. He was mesmerizing and had an animal attraction as well. But still . . . There was so much more to him, right there under the surface, and quite frankly, he intrigued her.

She pulled on her usual house clothes, a blouse and long skirt, frowning a little that she was conforming to what Zacarias liked. It would have been childish to wear jeans just because he'd stated she should wear feminine clothes. She liked her skirts. She wasn't going to change for him - one way or the other. No one had dictated to her, not even her father, and having Zacarias speak in such commanding tones all the time was a little humorous.

Someone walked up onto the porch and knocked on the front door. It was a timid knock, not at all like Julio or one of the other boys would make. Her stomach jumped and she glanced toward the master bedroom. She took a loaded gun from the trunk in the hallway and pushed it into her skirt pocket. They didn't get many visitors, and with Zacarias vulnerable during the day, she was determined to protect him.

She peered out and was a little shocked to see Lea Eldridge, waiting for her alone on the porch. Lea had never once come to the ranch without her brother. She was a tall, blond woman, very chic. Her hair was never out of place, her makeup perfect and her clothes obviously designer. Where Esteban talked down to the workers, Lea always seemed open and friendly. She was a beautiful woman, and Marguarita liked her more than she did the women she'd grown up with. Lea seemed a genuine, giving person. She always had time to speak to the older workers and children, not just the handsome single men. Marguarita liked that about her.

She opened the door and frowned when she saw Lea's face. There was a faint bruise on her cheekbone and obvious signs of tears. Lea's skin was flawless, as porcelain as peaches and cream, and even with her careful application of makeup, it was impossible to hide the purple. She stepped back to allow Lea entrance.

Lea glanced around behind her, a covert, stealthy perusal of the surrounding area and roads before she ducked inside and hastily closed the door. "My brother doesn't know I'm here. No one does."

Marguarita handed her the note and led the way into the kitchen, gesturing for Lea to sit at the table while she prepared tea. It was obvious Lea was very upset. It was times like this that Marguarita was especially frustrated that she couldn't speak. Writing things down took forever. While the kettle was heating, she sank down into the chair opposite Lea, touched her hand and slid a paper across to her.

Lea blinked back tears and shook her head. "You don't understand. My brother's friend, Dan, we call him DS, has found us here. He's . . . awful. Everywhere we go, he finds us, and Esteban does whatever he says. I thought if we came here, he'd never find us, but he's here and he's going to do something terrible. He always does."

Lea ducked her head, touching her cheek with her fingertips. "The truth is, Esteban does whatever DS tells him to do. I thought we'd moved to this place to get away from him, but he was the one who instructed Esteban to come here and get friendly with the people on this ranch." She raised sorrowful eyes to Marguarita. "I swear I didn't know. I really thought we had a chance here to get away from him. He's the devil, Marguarita. Esteban does terrible things around him. And if he's planning something to do with this ranch, it isn't going to be legal or good," she confessed. "I'm so sorry."

Marguarita tapped the note again and sketched a question mark in the air between them.

Lea rubbed her temples. "DS hit me because I refused to do what he wanted." A sob welled up. "Esteban just stood there while DS shoved me around."

"He wants to meet a member of the De La Cruz family. He's obsessed with the idea. He wants me to seduce one of them. He says if I don't, that he'll kill Esteban. I tried to talk to Esteban but he just laughed and said I'd better get it done then." Lea wiped at the tears and shook her head. "I don't have anywhere to go and no one to talk to. I can't trust anyone. And I didn't want to betray our friendship, but I don't know what to do."

The teakettle was steaming, so Marguarita rose to pour the boiling water into the teapot. She hastily scribbled a note as she did so and shoved it under Lea's nose.

Lea shoved both hands through her hair and shrugged her shoulders. "Wealth, maybe. Thrills. I don't know. DS runs drugs and weapons though.

Esteban got caught up in all of that. He likes the idea of being on the inside of some underground gangster-type organization. DS talks about some secret society he belongs to - that all the members are in the know, and that kind of thing appeals to Esteban."

"They're both dead. We have a trust fund our uncle controls. Esteban is never satisfied. I keep thinking he'll mellow out, but he keeps looking for that next thrill. Since he met DS, our lives have been insane. DS hangs out with some very scary people."

"You." Lea accepted the teacup and small plate of biscuits. "Your accident. Something that bad was bound to bring one of the owners to the ranch to check on things. Esteban probably sent for DS." She took a sip of tea and regarded Marguarita over the rim of the steaming teacup. "I thought I would have a chance at a real life here. I like it here. And there's . . . Julio." She watched Marguarita's face carefully. "Are you two involved? He's very protective of you."

"He doesn't like us, does he?" Lea asked. "He doesn't even look at me."

She sounded so sad, it wrenched at Marguarita's heart. Julio was right about her, she fell for every wounded thing, man or animal. She sighed and shrugged a little as she wrote.

"I want to stay. Even after Esteban moves on, I want to stay here. I like our home and I'm beginning to love the horses. I know I could make a life here. And Esteban will move on. He gets bored easily. I've done my best to try to save him from himself, but I know I can't. He won't listen to me anymore. If one of the De La Cruz brothers doesn't show up here soon, DS will want to go to another of the ranches where he might have a better chance of meeting one of them and Esteban will do whatever he says."

"Have you met them?"

Lea nibbled at a tea biscuit, a small frown on her face. "I don't honestly know. Esteban won't talk to me about it. He just tells me to do whatever DS says."

Marguarita allowed the tea to slide down her throat. It was hot and sweet and her stomach rebelled a little, but settled after a moment or two. She'd found it difficult to eat food lately. Nothing tasted good, and often, she felt as if she might get sick when she put solid food in her stomach. The scent of meat particularly offended her. She feared it had something to

do with the vampire attack on her and her torn throat. Of course Lea thought a large jungle cat had attacked her as most people did. She touched her throat and immediately felt the throb of the mark Zacarias had put on her. Without thinking, her fingertips brushed a caress over the spot.

"Does it hurt?" Lea asked. "Your throat?"

Marguarita shook her head. It didn't hurt anymore, but it was still difficult to accept that she couldn't speak. Lea had stayed her friend. Esteban had always acted as if he was courting her - until the accident. He continued to come around, but he was careful not to flirt too much with her anymore. She realized he didn't want her to get the wrong idea. Without a voice, she wasn't up to his standards. Perhaps that was judging him harshly, but she had always known he wasn't seriously courting her.

Lea impulsively leaned across the table and put her hand over Marguarita's. "We're such a pair. Me with nowhere to go and you with a torn throat."

Marguarita smiled at her. She raised her teacup and took another sip.

"I don't suppose Julio would have tea with us?" Lea ventured, trying to lighten the mood. "Maybe you could find a secret love potion and slip it to him."

Marguarita smiled and shook her head.