She tried not to wince at that. Simon Vargos traveled to various countries playing polo. He spent a lot of time staring at himself on videos, drinking in bars and picking up women, but no time caring for his stock. He employed grooms, but cared little whether or not they did their job.

"Let's go up to the hacienda and get something hot and discuss a good date," Esteban suggested. "I don't know what anyone is thinking having you outside if a jaguar is prowling around." He put his hand on the small of her back.

Marguarita's breath caught in her throat as pain jolted through her body. She stepped away from him on the pretense of stroking the mare's neck before once more taking out her pen and paper. She handed it to him.

He frowned, using the same expression on his face when his younger sister, Lea, annoyed him. She'd always thought it rather charming, but now she felt pressured. Nothing seemed right. Her skin was too sensitive, and Esteban was a touchy person.

"Your father would never allow you outside if danger threatened. I need to talk to your man Santos."

His domineering tone annoyed her. She knew Esteban bossed his sister and had a tendency to be just as overbearing with her. Normally she rolled her eyes and ignored him, but she was too worried about anyone discovering Zacarias was in residence - and what she'd done. Esteban had no idea he was encouraging her to enter the very place where the most dangerous predator slumbered.

"You were raised to grace a man's side, Marguarita, not work until your back breaks." Ignoring the fact that she was scribbling fast, he continued, "Tell me about this trick you do with the horses. Do you influence them with your mind? Psychically? Lea tells me you can ride without a saddle or bridle and the horse does everything you ask."

She wasn't prepared for the question and had to scratch out everything she'd been writing, something she detested. In a conversation, dialogue was back and forth, but few people had the courtesy to wait until she wrote down her responses. It was very frustrating. She was trying to learn sign language, but she was working out of a book and only Cesaro, Julio and Ricco were even attempting to understand.

It was more than her presence, but she didn't know how to describe communicating with an animal. She'd always been able to calm an animal, to share her emotions with them and they simply responded in kind.

"Can you influence a human being the way you do horses?"

Her gaze jumped to his. Esteban searched her face intently. She frowned as she scribbled her answer.

She didn't like the turn in conversation. She was always uncomfortable discussing her gift. Her family simply never discussed her ability. They were happy for her to work with the animals on the ranch, but "talking" with horses was not acceptable in a world where many unexplained things could be evil.

Her father had recently become interested in whether or not it might be termed a psychic ability but after his death, she didn't much care what her gift was labeled.

"Don't be defensive," Esteban soothed. "Lea and I had a little argument about this. She said you commmunicate with horses. I thought perhaps it was more a meeting of the minds and you somehow influenced them to do as you wish and that maybe you could do the same with people."

She bit down hard on her lower lip. He was hitting a little too close to the mark.

"Is this some family secret I've stumbled onto?" There was amusement in his voice.

She had many family secrets and this one was minuscule in comparison to the others. She realized she was in a foul mood, not wanting to deal with Esteban and his annoying charm when an impending attack from vampires or their puppets was possible.

To make certain he understood she was finished, she pushed the pen and paper back into her pocket after he'd read her note.

Esteban scowled at her. "I don't think you're behaving very well, Marguarita. Your accident doesn't give you license to be rude."

He was suddenly too close. She could feel the blast of anger pouring off of him. The stable felt too small, and too far away from everyone. He crowded her until she gave way, stepping back before she could stop herself.

"Marguarita." The hard male voice had both of them spinning toward the entrance.

Marguarita breathed a sigh of relief.

Julio Santos sat astride his horse, his piercing dark eyes on Esteban as he held out his hand to Marguarita. "You're needed. Come with me now."

She didn't hesitate, moving around Esteban and catching Julio's wrist. He swung her up behind him. She expected him to start off immediately, but he sat still, regarding Esteban from beneath the brim of his hat. The two men eyed one another for a long, tense moment.

"You good, Marguarita?" Julio asked.

She put her arms around his waist, laid her head against his back and nodded so he could feel the movement. Again she had that strange reaction, her skin burning the moment she made contact with Julio. She jerked her cheek from his back, lifted a hand toward Esteban as if nothing was wrong and, without thinking, silently urged the horse to get out of the stable. Julio was unprepared for the horse's sudden motion, but he was an excellent rider and moved with the animal.

"Next time warn me."

She squeezed her arms tighter to say she was sorry.

"Father sent me. He doesn't like Esteban on the property. He's still shoving the idea of the two of us at me. I got one hell of a lecture, Marguarita, about how I'm allowing such a treasure to slip away." He patted her hands with gloved fingers. "Did

he do the same to you?" There was sympathy in his voice.

She nodded her head, once again against his back. That horrible burn was much sharper this time and beginning to spread through her arms, although her skin was covered with the material of her blouse. Uncomfortable, she loosened her grip, using her knees to hold on. Julio's mount was so smooth she doubted if she had needed to take such a precaution.

Julio always made her laugh. She loved him and she had no doubt that he loved her back just as fiercely and protectively - maybe more so. Julio was one of the best men she knew. But they had been raised from birth together and every time someone suggested they pair up, they laughed hysterically together. Although recently, ever since Esteban had come into the picture, Cesaro had pushed them together until it was uncomfortable.

"I've tried to explain to him, but he worries now that your father is gone.

Esteban doesn't belong in our world."

She pulled out her pen and paper. Luckily the ride was smooth and made writing easy.

If she married outside the ranch, she would have to leave it and she would never be able to pulge her family's secrets to her spouse. Their association with the Carpathians was closely guarded. She knew she wouldn't remember the De La Cruz brothers, all memories would be removed before she left their properties.

"He doesn't belong in this world. Why did he come to our small town, Marguarita? People who come here are desperate for another life. They usually have nothing. He's got money and, to me, that means he's hiding from something."

She thought about it for a moment and then scribbled another message.

"I don't know. I don't like it. The De La Cruz brothers can influence people and have used their abilities to gain more property for themselves and for us than most are able to have here. It's possible he wonders how we were able to get our lands in such large increments."

She trusted Julio's judgment as she always had. Julio wasn't the least bit complicated and he never had hidden agendas. If he tapped on her window in the middle of the night to go riding, it really was to go riding. If he told her he wanted to show her something, it was always something special - usually some wildlife he'd spotted. More than once they'd snuck off together to go into the rain forest to track some animal.

"I'm taking you back to the house once I see him leave," Julio said. "We've got everything settled down, but I'd feel better with you inside. We could be attacked tonight."

The chance of a vampire attacking while a De La Cruz was in residence was far higher than when they were away.

"Did you see him?" Julio asked. "It has to be the eldest or the cattle and horses wouldn't react like they have. I've never actually spoken with him."

She didn't want to lie so she merely nodded her head. Julio glanced at her over his shoulder and raised his eyebrow. He regarded her pale face steadily. She couldn't quite meet his eyes, her gaze sliding away.

"That scary?"

She nodded.