Julio sighed. "Will you be all right?"

She pressed her lips together tightly and penned a short answer.

She considered telling Julio the truth, but he would go all macho on her and insist on protecting her against Zacarias's wrath. As frightened as she was - she had disobeyed a direct order - she couldn't allow anyone else to be punished for her sins. She'd face Zacarias alone and try to explain. Fortunately she had until sundown to find the right words and she'd write it all down. She didn't expect the Carpathian to understand - she didn't understand herself - but she would do her best to let him see she hadn't meant to be defiant.

She nodded her head and Julio turned his attention to riding through the yards, putting his horse through various gaits, showing off that he could control his horse with his hands and knees. She missed laughing. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged and that took some of the joy away from sharing with Julio.

Only when Esteban's vehicle disappeared down the road did Julio take her back up to the house. He extended his arm so she could dismount easier, but retained possession of her hand when she went to turn away. That same burning sensation snaked up her arm. She looked up at the boy - no, man - who had been her confidante and companion since birth. He regarded her steadily, looking straight into her eyes.

"What's wrong, little sister? I know you too well for you to pretend with me. Did Esteban say something that frightened you? Or is it De La Cruz?"

She swallowed hard. She loved Julio. She refused to lie outright to him. She shook her head slowly as she tried to gently pull her hand from his.

Julio tightened his grip and the burning sensation became more painful, a deep brand that seemed to go to her very bones. She had to fight to keep from crying out and jerking away.

"Tell me."

She pressed her lips together and slowly tugged until Julio allowed her to slip away. She pulled out her pen and paper and scribbled, unknowing if she told the truth or not.

He continued to stare down at her face for a long moment and then he touched his hat. "I love you, too, little sister. If you need me, ring the bell and I'll come running."

She smiled at him, warmth stealing into her cold bones. Of course he would come if she sounded the alarm they'd rigged up. Julio was someone she'd always counted on and she knew he was telling her he would go against the code of their families if necessary to protect her. She put her hand over her heart and watched him ride away, her deep affection for him making her eyes burn and tears clog her throat.

Slowly, she entered the house, her heart beating so hard, she feared she would have a stroke. The empty rooms were silent, accusing, and she wandered around, feeling a little lost in her own home. Eventually, the taste of fear subsided and she cooked herself something to eat and spent the rest of the day writing out long letters to Zacarias, explaining to the best of her ability why she had saved him against his wishes, and then discarding them.

The sun sank and night descended. Insects began their calls in earnest. Frogs chimed in. Horses stamped occasionally and the cattle settled for the night. Storm clouds gathered overhead, dark, ominous roiling masses that blotted out the sliver of moon and stars. Heavy with rain, a few drops fell, a portent of what was to come. Lights went out in windows, one by one, as the workers settled in with their families.

Marguarita took a bath and once again sat at her desk, trying to compose a letter that might save her. The wastebasket overflowed with crumpled paper as she became more and more frustrated. The wind picked up, battering at her window, and Marguarita finally crawled into bed and pulled up the covers, her pen still in her hand.

ightning streaked across the sky, forks zigzagging from earth to sky. The ground rolled, opening a three-inch crevice from pasture to stable. Beneath the master bedroom, in the rich black soil, a heart began to beat. A hand moved, fingers curled into a tight fist and broke through to the surface. Dirt exploded as Zacarias De La Cruz rose. Hunger burned through him, an angry blowtorch, eating through skin and bones to his very insides. It tore through him, relentless, insatiable, a brutal, insistent hunger that was more horrific than any he'd ever felt in all his centuries of existence. Need coursed through his veins and pulsed with every beat of his heart.

She had done this to him. He could taste her life's essence in his mouth, that beautiful innocence exploding against his tongue, trickling down his throat, setting up an addiction, a terrible craving that would never end as long as he existed. His hands shook and his teeth lengthened, saliva pooling along the sharp points.

How dare you!

The ground rolled beneath the house. The walls rippled, a slow undulation, threatening to buckle the entire structure. His vision went red, and he burst through the trap door, throwing the huge four-poster bed against the far wall. Cracks spiderwebbed along the clay bricks right up to the window.

You have placed every man, woman and child in my care in jeopardy.

He could hear the sound of a heart beating, that distinct rhythm calling to him, driving him into a frenzy of hunger, each separate beat pulsing through his own veins. He knew exactly where she was. Marguarita was her name. The treacherous wench who dared to defy a direct order from her master. He'd warned her she would pay for her disobedience - her deliberate defiance. He'd expected her to run like a little coward, but the foolish girl waited for him in the very house - his house - alone.

The taste of her lingered until he thought he might go insane with craving. He crossed the room

in long, ground-eating strides, shoving air at the door so that it exploded open before him, allowing him to move with unerring swiftness through the long living room to the back of the house where her bedroom was. If he hadn't already known where the room was located, he still would have found her. Her heart pounded in fear, thundering in his ears. He didn't bother to turn down the volume, wanting, even needing to hear her terror.

She deserved to be terrified. If he'd awoken vampire, he would have broken his vow to his brothers. After centuries of honor, his life of emptiness, his struggle to protect his family and his people would all be for nothing. And it could still happen. He was close - too close to turning. He needed - something. Anything. The anticipation of taking her blood was a rush he didn't welcome - a sign of walking that thin edge between honor and the ultimate failure.

His fingers itched to wrap around her slender neck. These people working the ranch had sworn loyalty to the De La Cruz family, served them, father to son, mother to daughter for centuries, yet she had so carelessly risked them all. He slammed his palm against her door, deliberately splintering the wood rather than opening the door.

Marguarita made no effort to flee, her eyes wide with terror, fixing on his face as he kicked aside the broken wood. She huddled in the corner of the room, her hand over her mouth, her face pale beneath her smooth, golden skin. As he approached her, she held out a placating hand with a piece of paper clutched in her fingers - a poor defense when he was starving.

He jerked her to her feet, aware of how light she was. How soft. How warm. How alive. He was vividly aware of her heart calling to his - that rhythmic pulse setting up such hunger - such want. Through the red haze of madness, the softness of her skin registered. Her fresh, clean fragrance was reminiscent of rain forest mist and the unique and beautiful heliconias that grew up the tree trunks and called to the hummingbirds with their sweetness. The scent enveloped him as he trapped her in arms of steel and bent his head toward her slender neck.

She struggled wildly and he pinned her with one arm and caught her thick rope of hair with the other, crushing the silken strands in his fist as he jerked her head back. He lowered his head toward that sweet vulnerable spot where her pulse pounded so frantically. He didn't try to calm her mind or in any way control her knowledge of what was happening. He wanted her to know. He wanted her fear. He intended to hurt her so she would never forget why she should obey.

Rain battered the windows. Wind blasted the hacienda. Lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the roiling black clouds. Thunder crashed, shaking the earth so it rolled beneath his feet, feeding his black mood.

Zacarias sank his teeth deep into that soft, defenseless flesh. He bit hard, without a numbing agent, puncturing her neck deliberately close to her throat. She should have remembered the vampire attacking her. She shouldn't have been so careless as to disobey. She needed another lesson in just what a dangerous, uncaring vile creature could do.

Her skin was warm satin, soft and fascinating, the sensation a shock, her natural fragrance alluring. But it was her blood that truly stunned him. Rich.

Innocent. Fresh. The taste was exquisite. As addicting as that first taste when he'd been so close to death. She fought him, pushing against him, trying desperately to free her arms, but he was enormously strong and nothing got between him and his prey - and make no mistake, this young woman with her addicting blood belonged to him. He became aware that he was growling, a dark warning. There was no way for her to get free and no one could enter the house - his house - without his consent or knowledge. She was completely at his mercy - and he had none.

His every organ soaked up her amazing blood. Every cell sprang to life. There was nothing he'd ever experienced that came close to the perfect richness of her blood. The rush of heat spread through him like an unfamiliar fireball. His veins and arteries sang. Even his groin stirred, filling with the dazzling taste and heat of her blood. He dragged her closer, more animal than man, his arms now bruising bands of steel, his mouth dragging more of that sweet nectar into his starving body.

The gaping wounds on his body began to close. The terrible burning ever present inside subsided and the clawing, raking pain in his gut turned to a scorching fire of desperate need. Even the roaring in his head and the red haze banding his vision diminished. Her legs gave out and he held her weight completely, slipping a hand beneath her knees, all the while dragging her life's essence into his body.

Her head lolled back against his shoulder. She felt light. Insubstantial. Her lashes fluttered, two thick crescents, blacker than the gray he normally saw. The lashes lifted and her dark, almost black eyes stared straight into his with both fear and loathing. Only then did he feel her absolute terror. Horror filled his mind, shook his body and crept like icy fingers down his spine - not his horror - hers. She believed him vampire - and he was killing her.

He swept his tongue across the puncture wounds and lifted his head, never breaking eye contact. Blood trickled from her neck to her breast and, without thinking, he followed the precious ruby teardrop to the soft swell of her very feminine body with his tongue.

She looked more shocked than ever, shuddering, terrified.

"You will drink what I offer." It was a decree, demanding she obey without argument.

He sank down onto her bed, still cradling her to him, and with a wave of his hand, his shirt opened. He drew a thin line across his chest, over his heart. Her eyes widened until they were enormous bottomless pools, stark horror staring at him. She shook her head and tried feebly to push him away. He forced her mouth to his chest and she bit him, still struggling.

W?ke-sarna! Zacarias uttered power words, a curse, a blessing - a vow she would not defy him. He took her mind, ripping it from her ruthlessly, forcing what she would not give him. Her mouth nuzzled his chest, her lips warm and soft, sending a jolt of lightning streaking through his body. He felt a live current electrifying every nerve ending, bringing his body to life as she began to suckle, drawing his blood into her body where it would soak every organ and subtly reshape them, where it would connect them together for all time.

He drew her closer, his hand cradling her head, his mind in hers. Only then, when the wonder of the strange phenomenon of her blood eased a bit, did he know she was screaming. He had commanded her to drink, giving her no other option, but she was completely aware. Her mind connected to his on a level unexpected. He was mostly predatory. An animal. Cunning and cruel. Even brutal. Life and death was his world - his struggle. Her mind raced to that part of him, reached out and melded with him.

He didn't hear a sound, yet he felt her screams, her absolute horror and rejection of him, the numbing fear that refused to subside even when he commanded it to be so.

Be calm. He pushed the command at her, and when it did no good, he forced his order into her mind. She only withdrew further from him.

Marguarita was certainly an intriguing puzzle. His brother had strengthened the barrier in her mind that would prevent the undead and other Carpathians from reading her thoughts, yet she had her own secrets. She had been born with that barrier, after generations of De La Cruz creating it in the families, and now it was even stronger than expected.

She was wholly human. He had no doubts of that. Vulnerable. Fragile. Yet her mind had a natural guard, one that didn't allow her to be easily manipulated. His blood exchange would open the line of communication telepathically between them. He wouldn't hear her voice, so much as see her words and know her thoughts. And, he decided, communication with this particular servant was necessary. She had no concept of obedience, and within his territory, he was the absolute ruler. His subjects obeyed one way or the other.

The longer he held her warmth and curves to him, the more he became aware of her feminine form. Man or woman never mattered, and honestly, he couldn't remember anymore a time when it had. He had no sexual urges, no emotions, nothing whatsoever that would make him care. Yet in the space of a heartbeat - she had awakened things in him best left alone. She should never have drawn his attention to her, never have trickled her addicting blood into his mouth, setting up an insatiable craving.

Rain pounded the roof, and lashed the windows, seeking entrance. The wild storm reflected his violent nature. The house shuddered under the ferocious wind. For one moment lightning lit up the room and he could see the desperation in her eyes, the very thing he had wanted. Thunder crashed and the room went dark. He continued to stare down into her eyes.