Cesaro spotted her as she came out of the stable on her favorite mare, Sparkle. He waved to her, his face set in grim lines.
"The oldest one has come, hasn't he?" he greeted as he rode up beside her.
Marguarita saw no reason to deny it. She'd signaled by closing the heavy drapes and one of the men had given him the word that a De La Cruz was in residence. It was the only time the drapes were pulled. She nodded her head.
"I knew it. The cattle and horses are uneasy in his presence. Perhaps you should go visit your aunt in Brazil."
She frowned in question.
Cesaro hesitated, clearly not wanting to appear disloyal. "He's difficult, Marguarita. Very different from the others."
She signed a question mark between them.
Cesaro sighed. "I don't know exactly what to tell you. I met him many years ago when I was a boy. He was the only man who frightened my father - frightened all the men on the ranch. And more recently, when we lost your father, when this . . ." He indicated her throat. "He had grown even worse."
She signed the question mark again.
Cesaro shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with the topic. He even glanced toward the main hacienda as if Zacarias might overhear them and - for all Marguarita knew - maybe he could.
"If animals bred as stock horses are terrified when he's around, that should tell you something, Marguarita. When he was here the last time, he saved your life, but he came close to taking mine." He sat for a moment in silence, and then shrugged again. "I would have given my life to save his, but still, there was something not right about him. Even his friend worried. It's best you go."
Marguarita turned the warning over and over in her mind. Had Zacarias tried to burn himself up in the sun because he was close to becoming something he didn't want to be? She ducked her head, unable to look Cesaro in the eye. The idea of running away to her aunt in Brazil was tempting, but she knew she couldn't. She set her shoulders and indicated the animals.
Cesaro sighed audibly. "You're a very stubborn young woman, Marguarita, but I am not your father and I can't order you to go."
She waved toward the horses, ignoring the fact that he was trying to make her feel guilty. She already had enough guilt going. In any case, she noticed that because she couldn't speak, some of the men were beginning to treat her almost as if she were deaf as well. And while annoying, that was somewhat to her advantage in such a male-oriented world.
"Yes, we could use your help settling the horses down. We have three mares close to giving birth and I don't want anything to go wrong. Go into the stable with them and see if you can get them to calm down."
It was highly unusual for a Peruvian Paso to be skittish about anything. They were bred for their calm temperament. Any horse showing signs of nerves wasn't bred. The horses from Hacienda De La Cruz were considered some of the best in the world and yet Zacarias had spooked them all, even their working horses.
She nodded her head, but she feared she'd made a very bad mistake, even as she sent a calming wave to the restless animals huddled in the far corner of the pasture. She gestured toward the sky and made a sign, pointing to her teeth, indicating a possible attack from vampires.
Cesaro understood. He was the best on the ranch at interpreting her strange gestures. "We're aware of the risk of an assault on the hacienda anytime one of the masters is in residence. Everyone is armed, the women and children are under cover - with the exception of you. The moment the horses settle, go into the house and lock it down."
She indicated that she already had done so and she touched the rifle, hand gun and knife she had on her. She was as ready for an attack as she could be, although the thought was nearly as terrifying as knowing she'd disobeyed Zacarias.
Cesaro nodded approvingly. Marguarita, like everyone on the ranch, had been taught to shoot at a very young age. He suddenly stiffened and indicated something over her shoulder, alarm on his face. "Your man has come courting again."
She pulled the pen and paper from her pocket.
"He's your father's choice, not mine. A city man." There was a sneer in his voice. "He's smooth, but he knows nothing of ranch life. You would be better off with Ricco or my son, Julio." He leaned over his horse's neck, standing a bit in the stirrups. "He does not ring true for me. He looks down on us, even you. Ricco or Julio suit you more."
She loved Ricco, one of the men working the cattle; she'd known him for years. And she'd grown up with Julio. It was impossible not to think of him as her brother. She wanted to please Cesaro almost as much as she wanted to please her father.
Cesaro shrugged, the frown still on his face. "You can't bring him into the hacienda. Send him away, Marguarita."
She scowled at Cesaro. She knew her duty. She turned her mare back toward the stables, waving at Esteban Eldridge as he drove up to the corrals in his truck. She had no idea how the vehicle stayed as clean as it did. Esteban wore his wealth easily. He was a powerful figure, very attractive - at least he had been until she'd laid eyes on Zacarias. Even injured and
burning, Zacarias exuded a tough, almost brutal handsomeness, although that seemed too insipid of a description. Zacarias dominated every room he was in. But Esteban didn't scare her, or threaten her in the deep elemental way the eldest De La Cruz did. And she knew when a man was seriously interested in her - Esteban wasn't. But she really enjoyed his sister's company.
Cesaro sat on his horse and watched her. She could feel his eyes burning into her and it made her upset that he would think she might betray their code of honor to an outsider. She ducked her head a little. She'd already betrayed their code, but not in the way he thought she might and no doubt he would know soon enough of her sins.
She swung off the mare, watching as Esteban strode toward her. He made a striking figure as he covered the ground in long purposeful strides. Her father had introduced them and, clearly, Esteban Eldridge was her father's choice for her. He'd acted as if he was courting her before the vampire attack, but he had never been truly serious. Esteban obviously liked to have fun and he was a city boy. Cesaro was correct when he'd said Esteban looked down on the ranch workers, barely acknowledging them. How could she fall in love with a man like that?
He had been kind after her father died, showing up often with his sister, Lea, although after her "accident" that left her without the ability to speak, he treated her like many of the others, as if she was unable to hear or maybe even see. Lea, on the other hand was very genuine.
She smiled and waved a second time in greeting.
"Marguarita." Esteban rolled her name off his tongue easily, taking her hand and holding it briefly to his mouth. "As usual you're looking lovely."
She drew the pen and paper from her pocket and wrote:
"I've finally decided I would purchase a few horses and I thought you might come by to take a look at them for me."
She frowned. He lived in an elegant home on the outskirts of the biggest town near them. He rode, but he wasn't a big fan of it. He didn't even have a place to keep the animals. Before she could write down her question, asking what he planned on doing with the horses, he looked around, noting the men out in force, all armed.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
Marguarita shrugged and went into the stable where the three very pregnant mares stamped and pawed restlessly in their stalls. She was very aware of Esteban following close to her. She could hear him, feel him, her heightened awareness of Zacarias so vulnerable in the ground making her tense. Ordinarily she welcomed visits from the Eldridge family, especially Lea. Esteban was gentlemanly, but sometimes, his overexaggerated flirtations were annoying when she knew he wasn't sincere. The men she'd grown up with knew she could ride and shoot as well if not better than them. Esteban made her feel very feminine, treating her like a fragile woman, ignoring the fact that she was very capable. Right now, all she could think about was an imminent attack on the ranch from the worst, most vile enemy possible and she didn't want Esteban anywhere near the hacienda.
"Your horses have never acted this way," he observed. "Was there a jaguar close this morning?"
She heard the worry in his voice and it warmed her in spite of the situation. He believed she had survived a jaguar attack, and that her father had died saving her, but she'd lost her vocal cords to the animal ripping her throat. In truth, it had been a vampire attacking, seeking Zacarias's resting place. She shrugged again, not wanting to lie to him. Writing down a lie was worse even than speaking it.
"Lea said to tell you hello and she hoped to see you soon."
Marguarita flashed a smile as she opened the stall door and went right in with the mare heavy with foal. She placed her hand on the outstretched neck and sent her waves of reassurance until the horse calmed. Esteban said nothing, just watched as she went from stall to stall, soothing the animals. His presence began to slowly make her uneasy. She felt a kind of dread begin to grow somewhere in the vicinity of the pit of her stomach. It took great effort not to pass her nervousness on to the animals.
Esteban stood quite still outside of each stall, his gaze watchful. The prickle of unease grew until her skin felt as if a thousand pins and needles stabbed into her. She rubbed at her arms as she stepped from the last stall. The horses were eating peacefully and there was no more for her to do. She turned and faced him, taking a deep breath and forcing a smile.
Esteban took her hand and drew her close to him. Strangely the prickling in her skin grew to a burn under the pads of his fingers. She pulled her hand away from him and ran her palms down her thighs to try to rid herself of the sensation.
"I am always astonished at the way you have with horses. They trust you."
She usually enjoyed his compliments, but right now, with the master so close and vulnerable, she wanted Esteban to be gone. She'd never experienced such unease before, and she was beginning to sweat. She could feel dampness growing between her breasts. The burning on her hand faded, but didn't stop completely. She moistened her lips and took out her pen and paper.
She certainly wouldn't want to sell one of the beloved Peruvian Paso to him. He never so much as patted them.
His smile was very wide, showing his perfect teeth. "I've discovered a love of polo. I've been borrowing a friend's horses and I want my own."
He sounded very excited, like a young boy. She wanted to be happy for him, to share in his excitement, but he really cared nothing for horses as she did. And there was the main reason for her reluctance to take his suit as seriously as her father wanted. Ricco and Julio both rode horses every day. They cared for and understood them, and they appreciated her love and need to be around the animals as Esteban never would. Esteban Eldridge seemed an affable, likeable man, but he didn't quite ring true for her. She was surprised her father hadn't realized that.
"My friend, Simon Vargos, said I could keep them at his hacienda."