Satisfied that she'd done all she could to keep everyone safe, Marguarita went out her bedroom window. She didn't trust the doors or the fact that Zacarias had gone out the front. She was not going to run into him by mistake. She remained crouched under the window, studying the dark sky with suspicion. Zacarias could be anywhere, in any form. The thought was both disturbing and terrifying. For a moment her heart raced, her blood roaring in her ears. She made herself breathe normally, afraid he might hear her thundering heartbeat.
Before she moved, she touched the animals in the vicinity. As soon as she'd pulled the drapes in the house, the ranch had gone on alert. Cattle and horses had been moved in close where they could be better protected. Everyone was armed and patrols had been doubled, but the animals would know before humans if evil were near. The horses were settled for the night. There was no restless stamping that would have alerted her to Zacarias's close proximity.
The rain settled into a steady drizzle and the ferocious wind calmed as she made her way across the paddocks and pastures to the very edge of the rain forest. She'd always loved the way the natural growth continued to creep back to reclaim what had been taken. Roots snaked across the ground in long tentacles. Creeper vines slid over stones and up fences, even wrapping around rocks in an effort to take back the land.
She slipped into the outer edges of the trees, hurrying along a narrow trail she was familiar with. Insects formed a moving carpet on the thick vegetation, centuries of fallen plants and trees. Large spiders clung to the branches and lizards scooted under leaves for cover. Tree frogs peeped out at her as she hurried by.
Marguarita walked with confidence, knowing exactly where she was going. It was easy
to get lost in the rain forest. Most traveling was done on the rivers, but she and Julio had explored the area closest to the ranch almost from the time they could walk and they'd marked their trails with signs both recognized easily. There was a wonderful little cave back behind one of the numerous waterfalls, a small, difficult-to-find grotto where she and Julio had camped several times. It had been their secret place whenever they hid from their parents. Julio often got in trouble in those days. He carried a man's share of work from an early age and traipsing around in the rain forest was frowned upon - especially with a female.
The cave was located on a deep, wide stream that fed the great river. Julio had carved out a canoe from cedar with his machete. The wood was light enough for the craft to float, yet not so soft that it wasn't strong enough to stand up to the river. They had stashed the canoe behind the waterfall. She could make it there, get the boat and take one of the streams that fed into the Amazon. The De La Cruz camp wasn't far from there.
Marguarita accepted her role in the house and reveled in the fact that she was acknowledged for her gift with horses, yet she loved the rain forest and the way it made her feel so free. She knew Julio felt the same things and together they encouraged one another in running off to explore every chance they got. Julio got in far worse trouble than she had, although she had endured countless lectures about a woman's duties. Now, she was grateful for every trip they'd made.
Fireflies flashed tiny sparkles in the various trees providing her with a little comfort. In the trees, the night was inky black, although the rain forest wasn't completely dark. Phosphorescent fungi gave off an eerie glow. Night monkeys poked their heads out of tree holes to stare at her with enormous eyes and their presence offered her a sign that she wasn't followed - yet.
Zacarias could take any shape in his pursuit of her and he was fast. He could use the sky and cover territory in minutes that might take her hours. She had to run to get to the canoe, and that was extremely risky at night in the jungle, but she had no real choice. She had to keep ahead of him until dawn. Once the sun came up, she could make her way to the De La Cruz cabins and hopefully call in help. Zacarias would be away from the hacienda and everyone else would be safe. It all made perfect sense, but she had to get there fast and that meant running.
She picked up the pace, sprinting, needing to get to shelter. She didn't want to be out in the open, even under the canopy. Where the trees were thick, there was little light and she had to use her headlamp, but it also meant there was little vegetation on the floor. Without light penetrating the canopy, it was difficult to grow much. Saplings had to wait for a tree to fall, providing a gap in the canopy, allowing the sunlight through.
She sent out a wave of energy ahead of her, trying to give the insects on the forest floor the heads-up that she was coming through. Hopefully they would clear the trail. Tiny colorful frogs leaped from branch to trunk, their sticky feet clinging to the surfaces as they followed her on her precarious journey.
She tried not to race, knowing she wouldn't have the stamina. She had to set a grueling pace, but one she could continue for a long time. Hours. It was a long time before the sun came up. She sent out a call for aid, her plea strong enough to wake the animals resting in the canopy above her. Immediately answers came. Monkeys went on alert. Flocks of birds called to one another, all looking for a common enemy.
Centuries of leaves and branches concealed twisted roots that would easily trip her up, and her headlamp caught the animals creeping out of holes to sit on the roots, so that as she ran, she could choose a path with the least obstacles. She rounded a bend, winding her way around a thick tree trunk and a capibara stared at her, crouched directly in her way. She swerved to her right, the only possible direction and realized as she flashed by, that the animal had guided her away from a labyrinth of creeper vines that would surely have sent her sprawling.
She ran with more confidence then, dependent on the animals, feeling comforted by their presence, knowing they would raise the alarm the moment Zacarias came near. They would know he was close. They had to be as sensitive to his presence as the horses and cattle on the ranch. She should have known when all the animals on the ranch had acted so uneasy that evil walked with Zacarias De La Cruz.
Marguarita frowned as she ran. Her lungs began to burn and her legs ached. She swerved to avoid a series of termite mounds her lamp barely managed to pick up before she was on them. Why had she felt so compelled to save him? She couldn't stop herself. Even when he'd demanded her compliance, she hadn't been able to leave him in the sun. She wasn't squeamish. She'd grown up on a working ranch and she did her share of work, no matter how difficult.
She ignored the stitch in her side and jumped over one of the many ribbons of water running downhill to feed into the river system. The ground was muddy as she slipped and slid her way up the slopes, sometimes clawing her way in the mud. All the while her mind continued to puzzle out her strange behavior. She'd been programmed since birth to obey a De La Cruz. It was life or death in their world and one wrong misstep could spell catastrophe for those living on the various ranches. They all knew the danger of vampires. Monsters were very real in their world.
A small sob escaped. Carpathians fed on the blood of humans, yet they didn't kill. Vampires killed. She didn't fully understand the thin line between them, but she knew it was thin and somehow she had pushed Zacarias over the edge. And what had his blood done to her?
She had awakened from the vampire attack with a torn throat, unable to talk, her world turned upside down, but all her other senses were heightened from the blood Zacarias had given her to save her life. Her sight was much better. She could actually spot insects in grass and see birds in the thickest branches of trees. She spotted tiny frogs and lizards hidden in the leaves and creeper vines. Her hearing was even more acute. Sometimes she thought she could hear the men talking out in the fields while they worked. Certainly she could hear the horses in the stable.
With that first blood he'd given her to save her life, she knew he had changed something in her. Her hair, always thick, had grown faster and more lustrous. Her skin had a sheen, almost a glow to it. Her lashes were thicker and longer, everything about her was just more . She noticed Julio stayed closer to her and the hacienda whenever the other men were near, and she was aware of them as men, instead of simply people she'd grown up with. She felt the weight of their eyes and at times was uncomfortable, afraid she was reading lecherous thoughts. None of that had ever happened before. And the changes weren't all physical.
She shouldn't be able to run so fast for such a distance even with animals guiding her on the trail. She used her headlamp less and less and was guided more by pure instinct. She could hear her heart beat and it had settled to a slow, steady rhythm. Her lungs had been burning for air, but the farther she ran, the more they began to work efficiently.
Her skin tingled when there were obstacles near her, much like radar warning her which direction to turn, where to place her feet, how to move and slip through the trees without a misstep. She might not be able to speak, but she certainly had acquired other much sharper senses and skills.
She'd been hearing the stream for some time. The rain had fed the water on the ground so that it ran downhill, taking the least line of resistance until it found its way to the narrow stream, deepening the dark water, swelling the ribbon until the banks were nearly overflowing. The waterfall in the distance sounded like continuous thunder and relief flooded her. That meant the water route was open and deep enough to take her downstream rapidly. If conditions were right, she could make it all the way to the Amazon. That would increase her chances of getting to the De La Cruz pastures before Zacarias discovered her. Marguarita increased her speed, running flat out to the falls.
he harpy eagle swooped through the canopy, ignoring the sloth, its favorite food, and circled back toward the hacienda, driven by some inner compulsion it couldn't ignore. Deep inside the giant bird's body, Zacarias sighed. He was no closer to the truth than he'd been when he set out. The threads binding him to the woman had grown stronger, not weaker, and he couldn't get her out of his mind.
If he hadn't known better, he would think it was possible she was his lifemate. He'd considered the idea, of course, but then discarded it almost immediately. If she'd been the one woman to complete his soul, he would see in colors and feel emotion. If it was emotion he was experiencing, he didn't know enough about feelings to even identify them. Whatever was going on was a puzzle that had to be solved before he returned to his original plan of seeking the dawn. Marguarita Fernandez held great power. She was a potential threat to Carpathians and therefore had to be eliminated. It was that simple.
A piercing pain in the vicinity of his heart brought him up short. He actually looked down at the bird's breast to see if it had been punctured by an arrow. His stomach lurched at the idea of killing her. O jela peje emnimet - sun scorch the woman, she had cast some spell. There was no other explanation for his physical response to the idea of her death. She had tied them together. Or her blood had. Blood was the very essence of life and hers was . . . extraordinary.
He wanted - no, needed - to touch her mind with his. Everything in him urged him to reach out to her, to know where she was, what she was doing. He refused to act on the need. He didn't trust it any more than he trusted the way he had to see her, to touch her, to know she existed. Whatever spell had been cast was a powerful one and it had to be a trap.
He had control and discipline, several lifetimes to develop both and no woman, a human woman at that, could possibly destroy those traits in him. He would take his time, prove to both himself and to her that he was far too strong to be brought down by any spell. Before he killed her he would learn her secrets. Every last one of them. She would know what it meant to betray a De La Cruz and try to entrap one of them.
He had fought vampires and destroyed them, the foulest, most vile creatures imaginable; a small slip of a woman had no chance against him. He ignored the way his mind continually reached for hers. The way his blood heated at the thought of her. It wasn't the spell so much as the fact that she actually intrigued him - something that hadn't happened in a thousand years or more. That was all. Interest. Intrigue. Who could blame him when nothing had been a surprise to him - until her. The woman. Marguarita.
He flinched. The moment he thought her name - gave her life - he could taste her on his tongue all over again. His heart gave a strange stutter, and for a moment, deep inside the bird, he thought his body stirred with life. He went very still, a dark predator hunted. His breath felt trapped in his lungs. That was impossible. A trick. An illusion. She was far more powerful than he'd first imagined.
That particular trick would buy her time. He had not been a man for far longer than he could remember. He was a killing machine, nothing more. Nothing less. He didn't have desires of the flesh. He couldn't feel. The strange things taking place in his body and mind weren't real, no matter how good the illusion was, but he closed his eyes and savored the hot lick of need rushing through his veins. Just as fast he snapped open his eyelids, looking suspiciously around. Was this illusion the way to tip him over the edge, allow him to feel, just for a moment, and then take it from him so that he would forever crave the rush?
The harpy eagle slipped out of the canopy and flew high over the hacienda. He refused to give into the ever-present urge to touch Marguarita's mind. Now, more than ever, he had to show strength - and he had to find out everything he could about Marguarita Fernandez.
He spotted the house he was looking for tucked into the mountainside. There were several houses scattered on the property, but Cesaro Santos was the foreman and his status showed in his house. The eagle floated to the ground, shifting at the last moment into human form. Zacarias strode straight to the porch, his body shimmering into a trail of vapor that poured beneath the crack in the door.
The house was immaculate, like most of the dwellings of the humans coexisting with his family. He knew Cesaro to be loyal to a fault. He had offered his blood, even his life, to save Zacarias. The man was above reproach and there was no taint of evil anywhere on the ranch that Zacarias could detect. Cesaro would never steal from the De La Cruz family, or betray them in any way, and if he found one of those working for him to be doing so, Zacarias had no doubt that man - or woman - would be buried deep in the rain forest at Cesaro's hand.
Come to me. Blood called to blood and every trusted employee had been given Carpathian blood - enough that each De La Cruz could read thoughts, protect minds and extract information when needed.
Zacarias knew the instant Cesaro wakened, reaching for his gun. There was satisfaction in knowing he had chosen the family well. Loyalty was the strongest trait within the Chevez and Santos families, both connected through blood. He took his solid form as the capitan of the hacienda came out fully dressed and armed heavily in a matter of minutes.
Cesaro bowed slightly and stood, almost stiffly. Zacarias knew no human or animal was ever relaxed in his company. He couldn't hide the killer in him; that was the biggest part of him so he didn't bother. He gestured to the sofa positioned in a strategic location where the occupant could easily see anything approaching his home.
"How can I be of service, se?or ?"
"I wish to know everything you can tell me of the woman." Zacarias kept his gaze on the other man's face, watching his expression carefully, holding a part of himself in Cesaro's mind to ensure he was getting the truth. He read puzzlement and confusion. His question was the last thing the capitan expected.
"Do you mean Marguarita Fernandez?" At Zacarias's silent nod, Cesaro frowned. "I have known her since the day she was born. Her father was my cousin. Her mother died when she
was quite young and she was raised right here on the ranch along with my son, Julio."
A frisson of something very lethal slid into his veins, a dark shadow protesting the closeness of a man growing up with Marguarita. How close were they? Something very ugly rose up to settle in the pit of his stomach at that thought of Julio alone with the woman. His teeth lengthened and he closed his fingers into two tight fists. Nails like talons punctured his palm.
Cesaro took a firmer grip on the rifle in his lap, his face visibly paling. "Have I said something to upset you?"
Blood trickled across his palm and Zacarias, never taking his gaze from Cesaro's, licked at the line of drops. "Continue."
Cesaro shivered. "She is a good girl. Loyal."
Zacarias waved that away. He didn't want to hear what Cesaro thought of her. "Tell me about her." About any men in her life. Anything he needed to know. The important things.
"She takes care of the hacienda and represents the family with all the workers. She does the ordering and she is invaluable with the cattle and horses." Cesaro clearly didn't understand what Zacarias was looking for. "Has anything happened to her?" He half rose.
Zacarias pushed his palm toward the man in an abrupt motion, not meaning to shove quite so hard, but air slammed Cesaro back onto the cushions. "She is fine. Tell me what I want to know. Is she with a man? Does she often leave the ranch?"
Cesaro's frown deepened. "She has many hopeful callers, some from outside the ranch and some right here. She does not step out with them, especially since the attack on her. She stays close to home, although she does represent the family at charity events as well as going to local dances and events."