Leave me. Go now. He pushed the order into her head, sending the impression of a snarl, of an absolute command.

Marguarita crouched beside him, touching his smoking arm, frowning in concern and then whipping her hand away, blowing on the tips of her fingers.

This is my choice. Leave me to die. He had no idea whether his commands were penetrating. She didn't blink or look at him as if she heard him.

She'd been trained from birth to obey the members of his family. Surely she wouldn't defy him. She knew how easily a Carpathian hunter close to the edge of madness could become vampire. The undead had torn out her throat. He felt her hand tremble against the heat of his arm. She had to have burned her fingers against his skin. He focused on her and pushed at her mind with a compulsion to leave him. She had too much compassion in her, too much daring to disobey one as powerful as him.

His compulsion fell against a mind he could barely understand. It wasn't as if he found barriers - it was as though his techniques simply dissipated like smoke.

She stripped her short, soft jacket from her body and threw it over his head, covering his face and eyes. He felt her take his wrist and begin to pull him across the wet pasture. In his wake the blades of grass turned brown. He heard the breath hiss from her lungs and knew her hand was burned, but she didn't stop.

For the first time in the long centuries a deep-seated rage coiled in his belly and smoldered there, that someone dared defy his direct order. She had no right. She knew better. No one ever defied him - certainly not a human, and definitely not a woman . And not one of his own servants from a family that had been given every protection and wealth beyond imagining.

He had chosen death. He had prepared himself. Was content with his decision - embraced his choice. This was the worst kind of betrayal.

You will regret your disobedience, he vowed.

Marguarita ignored him - or didn't hear him. He honestly didn't know which, nor did he care. She would pay. Rocks dug into his back, and then the bump of wood as she managed to get him inside the stable. The sun stopped burning him alive, although the prickle of needles was still penetrating his skin.

Deftly she rolled him into a tarp, not removing the jacket from his face. She even tucked his arms over his chest before rolling him. He felt like a helpless baby. The indignity of it, the wrongness of her actions awakened something monstrous in him. He pulled back like the wild animal he was, waiting for his moment - and there would be a moment. She had known the fear of a vampire ripping out her throat but it would be nothing compared to the terror of Zacarias De La Cruz extracting vengeance for her sins.

She tried to hook the tarp to one of the horses, he knew by scent and by the drumming of hooves as the animal protested being in close proximity to him. He could have told her that no horse would allow his presence, but he held still, now just waiting the outcome of her mistake. The lack of horsepower didn't deter her. He heard the sound of her footsteps and then she began to pull the tarp herself. He knew she was alone by the sound of her breath bursting from her lungs in several repeated small gasps.

He found it significant that she didn't call for help. One yell - okay, she couldn't yell - but she must have a way to attract attention. The males working the ranch would come to her aid if she signaled them, but she must have known he would command them to allow his death - and they would obey. The fierce burning in his gut grew hotter, hot enough that for a few moments he thought he might have burned through his skin to his internal organs.

He could see nothing at all, but he felt each bump of the rocks and the fierce blaze of the sun as she dragged him from the stable to the ranch house. The searing heat was astonishingly effective, driving out all sane thoughts until he wanted to scream with agony. It came on gradually, a slow charring that seeped through skin and tissue to bone.

Zacarias tried to turn off the pain as he'd done for centuries, but the relentless burn of the sun was something he couldn't compartmentalize as he had so many other wounds. Even with the tarp wrapped around him, he felt the piercing blaze like burning arrows dotting his body. The heat boiled his blood and flames licked at his insides. He couldn't scream, or protest, or do anything but be dragged through the yard to what he presumed was the ranch house.

Marguarita huffed hard as she took his full weight up the two stairs leading inside. The moment he was within the thick, cool walls, she dropped the harness and rushed across the room. He could hear her pull the thick drapes into place, covering the windows.

You will suffer as no one else has ever suffered for your disobedience, he promised, thrusting the words into her brain.

Again he had the impression of words falling through cracks, as if she couldn't grasp what he'd said to her, but it didn't matter. He waited while she carefully unrolled the tarp and when the edges fell open, he snapped his dark eyes open and locked his gaze with hers. A long slow hiss, a promise of brutal retaliation, escaped and there would be no mistaking his meaning.

arguarita Fernandez's breath caught in her throat and she sank back on her heels. What she was doing? She could envision screaming at herself to stop, deep inside where no one else could hear her - but as much as she told herself to let him die, as he demanded - she couldn't. There was no turning back now, and he surely would kill her. She dared to disobey a De La Cruz. Not just any De La Cruz, either. She had disobeyed the one the men whispered about. This was Zacarias, no one mentioned him unless they did so in terms of great respect - and even greater fear.

He had already warned her. His voice carved the words forever into her heart. You will suffer as no one else has ever suffered for your disobedience. He had warned her repeatedly to leave him. She just - couldn't. There was no way to explain that to him. She didn't know the reason herself. And she had no voice. No way to soothe him other than to treat him as she treated the wild creatures around her.

It took great courage and physical effort to wrench her gaze from the imprisonment of his. Pressing her lips together and ignoring her thundering heart, she yanked at his clothing to get the smoldering mess away from his skin. She gasped, nearly flinging herself backward when she saw his wounds. Congealed blood lay thick and ugly over the mottled burns. He'd been in a terrible battle, wounded repeatedly, and he hadn't taken care to heal the lacerations or, judging by his pale complexion, feed.

There was no time for niceties. He was probably being pursued. The undead would be in the ground as the sun rose, but they had all manner of foul servants. She had been drilled since birth on the readiness for assaults by the undead on their home. She ran through the hacienda, securing every window and door and distributing weapons for easy access before rushing to the kitchen to mix a solution to cool her master's burning skin.

She carried the pitcher back to the man lying on the floor. His gaze followed her, but he made no more effort to push fear into her mind. Maybe because she was already so filled with terror there was no room for anything more. Still, his eyes were ferocious with red flames, and a promise of retaliation. She avoided looking into those eyes, a little afraid he could somehow control her and she wouldn't - couldn't - step aside and allow him to die. Every cell in her body demanded she save his life - even at the cost of her own.

Her hand trembled as she began to sponge the cooling solution over his body. She knew it had to sting the gaping lacerations, but she had to stop the burn before she could attend his other wounds. She tried very hard not to notice his defined muscle and impressive male equipment. She pretended he was a wild animal, and perhaps he really was, but it was difficult to view him that way when she was stroking the soft washcloth over his very masculine body.

Marguarita was used to being in the company of men. She'd worked on the ranch for as long as she could remember, but none had a body like this. Zacarias was all hard muscle, broad shoulders and narrow hips. He had a fearsome reputation. Few ever saw him in the flesh, but the rumors were terrible. Cesaro Santos, the capataz of the ranch, had told her when she'd been attacked by the vampire that Zacarias had saved her life, but she'd never met him, spoken with him or even caught sight of him before. Still, she knew with absolute certainty that this man was the eldest of the De La Cruz brothers and the master of all the ranches.

She carefully cleaned his wounds, all the while soothing him as she would one of her wild creatures, unaware if it helped or not. His body was totally dead, although his eyes remained wide open and fixed on her face. He needed blood. He was far too pale and it was evident from his wounds that he'd lost too much. She could hear her heart begin to accelerate, but she'd come this far already. What would going further matter? He'd already condemned her for her actions.

Taking a breath, she drew the knife from its sheath at her waist and before she could think too much about what she was doing, she sliced her wrist. If she could have screamed aloud, she would have, but even opening her mouth wide, no sound emerged. She positioned her wrist over the master's mouth, allowing her own blood to drip steadily. Silently she demanded he swallow. He could do that much, she was certain of it. When there was no movement, she watched closely and realized his mouth seemed to absorb the blood, as if he was so starved his body took any sustenance it could get. It made sense. He was nearly immortal. His body had been designed to live on regardless of his wounds.

She gave him as much blood as she dared, maybe too much, because she felt a little dizzy when she finally pulled her wrist away and staggered to the bathroom to wrap a bandage around the wound. She had gone past fear and terror now, working on automatic pilot. No one would come into the house now that her father was dead. He had died trying to prevent the vampire from killing her just before Zacarias had arrived. The workers would recognize the signal - the doors and windows locked and covered with the heavy drapes - that a De La Cruz was in residence and must be protected, but not disturbed. Cesaro would put a close guard on the livestock and prepare the ranch for battle.

Marguarita opened all doors between where Zacarias's body lay and the master bedroom where she knew the chamber beneath the earth was situated. She struggled with moving the enormous bed out of the way as it covered the heavy trap door leading down to the darkened chamber beneath the house. She was sweating by the time she rushed back to Zacarias. Her wrist throbbed and burned and her legs felt like rubber.

It was hell dragging him on the tarp through the house. Thankfully, his eyes finally closed and all breath ceased. He appeared as if he were stone-cold dead. Although she knew the basic principles of Carpathian existence, it was still disconcerting to see him lie as if dead when she'd risked so much to save him. For a moment she was in danger of hyperventilating, a condition that often woke her from her nightmares after the undead's attack on her. She recognized panic and forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly while she yanked on the tarp, covering the floor inch by inch until she got to the trap door.

Marguarita bit her lower lip so hard she drew a tiny bead of blood. How in the world was she going to get him down the stairs? She hadn't thought beyond immersing him in the rich dark soil the De La Cruz brothers had brought from their homeland to put in their many resting places. If she called Cesaro to help he would ask questions she didn't dare answer.

With a shrug of her shoulders she went in front of him, pulling him down the stairs on the tarp. She kept his head from hitting each step, but his body thumped all the way down. Although his eyes were closed and his breathing seemed to have ceased, she was certain he was aware of what was happening to him because when she touched his mind with warmth, she felt as if she'd connected to that wild part of him in the way she did with animals. It wasn't as if she could talk as she had no voice, but she sent him the impression of sorrow, of being sorry. Of being afraid. She knew it wouldn't be enough to appease his rage, but it was all she had.

Once she got him on the ground, she began to dig. She wanted the hole deep enough to cover him so the earth could heal him. She could have gone to the tool shed for a shovel, but she didn't dare run into anyone. She didn't lie, not even with her sign language. She wasn't all that adept at it yet and few understood her, so mostly she wrote on paper. Her hands would shake and Cesaro would know something was wrong.

She dug with her hands. The soil was rich and fertile, a black loam abounding with minerals and nutrients. She knew it was so just from the feel of the dirt. It took most of the morning and she was sweating and covered in grime by the time she was satisfied with the depth of the hole. His body needed to be completely surrounded and covered by the soil if he was going to heal properly.

Marguarita dragged the tarp to the very edge of the hole, her stomach churning a little. It did feel as though she was trying to cover up a murder. She could add this day to her nightmares for certain. Crouching, she placed her hands firmly on his shoulder and hip and pushed. Fortunately, she was strong from handling horses since she was a child, but it was still a difficult task to roll him into his resting place.

Zacarias landed awkwardly on his side, like a rag doll - or a dead body. She pressed a dirty, trembling hand to her mouth, feeling limp herself. She rested for a few minutes before she began covering him with the dark soil. When he was completely buried, she sank to her knees beside him and allowed herself a few minutes to have a panic attack.

What had she done? The De La Cruz family made few demands on their people. Very few. Everyone who worked for them was wealthy by any standards. All owned their own lands adjacent to the De La Cruz lands, all because one of the family members had purchased it for them. Cousins, aunts, uncles - everyone related was taken care of. Fathers passed the legacy to their sons. Mothers to their daughters. All had obeyed until Marguarita. She'd disgraced her family name by her disobedience and she had no doubt that she would pay dearly.

She lifted her chin and forced herself to stand. She was a Fernandez, her father's daughter. She would not run from her crime but stay and face whatever Zacarias De La Cruz deemed fit for her punishment. A shudder went through her and icy fingers crept down her spine. He barely seemed human. Or Carpathian. He was terrifying.

She couldn't change what she'd done. She didn't understand it and put it down to her compassion for all things hurt, but that didn't explain why she'd defied him after he'd told her to allow his death. Why would he choose to burn in the sun? It was a horrible death, and how could he think that she could stand by and watch him burn?

He'd saved her life. She touched her mangled throat, stroking dirt-smeared fingers over the scars. Sometimes, at night, when she woke in a sweat, trying to scream but nothing would come out, she thought she had called to him to save her. She could hear the echo of his name faintly in her head, as if she'd managed just his name. Now he was here and he wasn't at all the fantasy figure she'd conjured up in her mind.

Zacarias frightened her in an elemental way, deep down in her very blood and bones. In her soul. She pressed a clenched fist over her heart while it beat frantically out of control. He was handsome, had a rock-hard body, seemed everything a woman might dream of, but his eyes . . . his face. He was terrifying and every girlhood fantasy she'd secretly harbored vanished on encountering him.

Marguarita climbed slowly out of the chamber, dusting every grain of dirt from her clothes and body. She couldn't leave tracks. If a vampire's puppet penetrated the ranch's defenses, there could be no trail leading to Zacarias's resting place. She lowered the trap door and again swept the floor and even washed it, afraid the scent of Zacarias's blood would be detected. It was extremely difficult to push the bed back into place, but she managed, smoothing out the covers carefully.

She refused to dwell on her behavior or the fear building insidiously in her mind. She had work to do and she would remove every single bit of evidence that Zacarias had been outside or inside. Because she desperately needed it, she made herself a cup of mate de coca , a tea made with coca leaves. She took her time, savoring the tea for the pick-me-up she needed to keep going.

Marguarita cleaned the entire house, every room, mopping and dusting and permeating the house with a strong cinnamon scent. She

armed herself and went outside, following the trail of the tarp back to the stables, carefully removing all signs that something heavy had been dragged through the wet grass. Close to the stable where Zacarias had sat and then laid in preparation for death, she found some of the grass scorched. She very carefully removed every blade.

Exhausted, she had another cup of tea and then showered and changed her clothes again, meticulously washing and drying the outfit she'd been wearing, using perfumed soaps to remove and cover any lingering scent. When she was fully satisfied that she'd done all she could, she went out to help with the stock.