I have to clean up.

He looked at the mixture of his seed and her cream glistening on her thighs and the intriguing V of curls at the junction of her legs. "I asked you to go to the kitchen and prepare food for our guests, not argue with me. It is a relatively simple request, Marguarita. As usual you seem to find it difficult to follow instructions."

She pressed her lips together. He saw the flash of fire in her eyes. Her chin went up. Without a word, she turned her back on him and walked away, naked, barefoot, her long hair caressing the curves of her butt. He felt his heart jump. She had courage - and fire. And she kept her word no matter how difficult.

"Marguarita." He said her name softly.

She half turned, her left breast, red and covered with his marks, nipple still hard and taut, peeked out at him through the veil of long hair.

"You forgot your clothes."

She frowned, puzzled, glancing at the shredded strips of cloth on the floor. He flashed a grin and waved his hand. Her feet remained bare, but a long skirt fell gracefully to her ankles and a soft peasant blouse clung to her breasts, the loose neckline nearly off her shoulders. A wide belt cinched her waist. Gold glittered at her earlobes and around one wrist.

She touched the bracelet. It's beautiful. Thank you. Her hands smoothed the full skirt over her hips. Umm. Zacarias. You sort of forgot my underwear.

He flashed his teeth at her. A wolfish smile. "I do not forget - anything."

The blush stole up her neck into her face. She shook her head, her gaze dropping from his. She went on through to the kitchen without another protest. He enjoyed teasing her. He enjoyed the flashes of temper he caught simmering in her eyes - in her mind. As if he'd ever allow another man to look at her body. It wouldn't happen and she should have known that.

Warmth flooded his mind, soft laughter. I knew. The moment I turned and started toward the kitchen and felt your laughter and your smug,arrogant male satisfaction. I knew then that you were teasing me.

Little lunatic of a woman. I am far too possessive of you to let another man see what is mine. You should have known at once. I do like watching you walk away from me naked. It gives me great pleasure.

He sent a fresh breeze through the entire house, and added scented candles burning low. He would have left Marguarita's shredded clothing on the floor, but it would have embarrassed her. Neither visitor would fail to notice that he had made love to Marguarita. The evidence was all over her body. In any case, it wouldn't take them long to realize she belonged to him, because he planned on making that very clear.

He flung the door wide and Julio gasped and took a step back, putting his body between Lea Eldridge and Zacarias. "I didn't know you were here, se?or ," he said, his tone apologetic.

"Come in. Marguarita is making tea and some sort of wonderfully smelling cake," Zacarias greeted, stepping back to allow them entry.

Julio looked more confused than ever and gave a brief shake of his head, slightly jerking his chin toward Lea. His protective instincts toward the De La Cruz family had kicked in. He had been born into a family

that guarded their symbiotic relationship carefully from all outsiders.

Lea peeked around Julio's shoulders, her eyes going wide. Zacarias could read the excitement in her eyes, the appreciation and stark, raw fear. She put her fingers in Julio's back pocket, a gesture Zacarias was certain she didn't even know she'd made. It told him several things without penetrating her mind. She knew he was a De La Cruz and she was very interested in Julio Santos.

Zacarias swept his hand toward the interior, and Julio reached behind him and took Lea's hand in his, before stepping inside.

"Se?or De La Cruz, this is Lea Eldridge. She did us a great favor tonight by flying Ricco Cayo to the hospital. I had no idea you were here. When did you arrive?"

Julio was fishing for Zacarias to set the lead on what to say and how to act.

Zacarias bowed, an old-world, courtly gesture that had Lea blushing. He flashed what he hoped would pass for a smile as he closed the door behind them. "I cannot stay away too long from my woman . . ." He frowned and shook his head. "P?l?fertiilam." Again he shook his head and lifted an eyebrow at Julio. "How do you say this? Esposa. Wife. My wife."

He was very pleased by Julio's shocked look. Zacarias had married her, in the way of the Carpathian people, and it was far more binding than any other species he knew of. They could not live now, one without the other. Marguarita was his wife in every sense of the word.

Lea gasped. "You can't be talking about Marguarita."

"Of course Marguarita," Zacarias said smoothly. "She is mistress here."

"But - " Lea pressed her fingers to her mouth as if trying to hold back her question. She blurted it out anyway. "Why wouldn't she tell me? I'm her friend. Why wouldn't she say anything to everyone around here? You can't be married to her."

"I assure you, Ms. Eldridge, she is mine." Zacarias spoke quietly, but his tone brooked no argument.

Lea looked to Julio, hurt, offended, and excited all at the same time.

Julio shrugged his shoulders, in an effort to look casual. "You can appreciate how this would not be a good thing to get around. Marguarita has to be protected. The De La Cruz family has a great deal of money and many kidnappings take place. It's better if no one knows."

Lea flashed him a look of pure annoyance, but she was obviously intimidated by Zacarias and didn't say another word until they were in the kitchen.

Zacarias entered first and stopped, his gaze on Marguarita. She stood by the stove, pouring water into the teapot her mother had made. To him, there was no more beautiful sight in the world. The colors of her skirt were vivid and bright, her skin gleamed and her hair was a shiny waterfall of blue-black silk. Her movements were graceful and fluid. He knew his blood had enhanced her already beautiful looks when the humans looked at her with such awe, as if they were seeing her for the first

time. He could see appreciation in Julio's eyes. He would have to teach her how to turn down her allure.

His blood also enhanced her senses. She couldn't have failed to hear the conversation, not with Carpathian blood running in her veins, and her face was very still as she looked at him, not at their guests. He went to her side and lifted her left hand, remembering the human tradition of wearing a circle of gold. He lifted her fingers and kissed the ring he'd fashioned for her.

She pressed her lips together and frowned a little, looking at the band. What are you doing, Zacarias? What game are you playing?

He detected hurt in her voice. He'd done something to hurt her. His fingers tightened around hers and he tugged, pulling her into the shelter of his larger frame, uncaring what their guests might think. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and held her locked against him.

"Have you tea ready for our guests?"

He had made certain the kettle boiled so there would be no waiting. He brushed his mouth over the top of her hair. The contrast between her brightness and the way he saw Julio and Lea was astonishing. Lea was an attractive woman and he could see her in color, but those colors were dull in comparison. Julio's colors were there, but again not rich and vibrant, and he could see his beating heart, the arteries running like a road map through his body. Lea's heart and arteries were there, but much fainter.

Soft amusement poured into his mind. Targets, my man. You're identifying targets. He's a friend, not a target. That's how you always see everyone. Even me at first. You don't see them as people, they're all potential enemies.

He realized it was true. He hadn't thought about anyone as human or Carpathian in centuries. He lived in a kill or be killed world. Julio's skin and features were the dullest because he was the biggest potential threat. It was those broken connections Marguarita had filled, the shadows, so many, so large, throughout his mind, that she had provided bridges for that allowed him to recognize Julio was more than a potential enemy. He was a man. Maybe someone who would not be a friend, Zacarias had few in the world, but someone he could respect.

Zacarias realized how he saw the world without Marguarita. There hadn't even been knowledge of identifying others as targets, it was so ingrained in him. He knew every pressure point on a body, every place one could deliver a mortal blow. He had been that disconnected from civilization.

Marguarita's hands suddenly crossed over his tightly, as if holding him. She was reading emotion in him that he wasn't aware of. He searched for it. Shame. He was ashamed that men like Julio, good, courageous men had fought for his family, some dying for his family, and he had never acknowledged them. Not once. Not to himself.

Marguarita wrote and invited.

Julio's gaze jumped to Zacarias's face and he took another step back, toward the door as if he might flee, his grip on Lea tightening.

Zacarias took another deep breath to draw Marguarita's scent into his lungs. He didn't need any others in his life, but she did. He made an effort to feel her emotions toward Julio and Lea. They were important to her - so that made them important to him.

"Yes, please sit." He indicated a chair, looking straight at Julio. It was a clear order, couched in polite words.

Julio immediately held a chair for Lea and sank into the one next to her.

Try not to sound so intimidating, Marguarita advised.

Sun scorch them both, woman. They are taking up my time with you, he said, but there was a teasing note in his voice that surprised them both.

He toed a chair around and straddled it while Marguarita put the tea and cakes on the table. She started to sit opposite him, but Zacarias caught her wrist and tugged her down beside him. She blushed at Julio's raised eyebrow.

What are you doing? This isn't a good idea. Seriously, Zacarias, you shouldn't be here and you shouldn't let anyone know that we're . . . It isn't safe for you.

You are lucky I do not make you sit in my lap where I can feel your soft body against mine, he teased wickedly. He rather enjoyed this part of company. His woman wasn't embarrassed around him, but she was shy about their relationship in front of others. That made no sense to him, but he enjoyed her fussing at him.

"Why didn't you tell me that you were married, Marguarita?" Lea asked, hurt in her voice. "I thought we were good enough friends that you could have confided in me. And you let Esteban think you were available."

Marguarita drew the notepad to her and began to write. Zacarias put his hand over the pad the moment he saw the apology.

"I know you do not wish Marguarita to apologize for something that is a safety issue. Your brother was never seriously entertaining the idea of courting her, and she knew that. I am a very wealthy man and I have many enemies. Marguarita would have told you if she could. If you need to be angry, please be angry with me. I put her in the position of secrecy. And certainly, Julio is not to blame. He knew I was in residence, but he was not privy to our marriage."

We are not married.