Zacarias kept his expression blank. He didn't like the sound of "many hopeful callers," or any of it really. Was she casting her spell wide? He would put a stop to that immediately. "You allow her to go off unaccompanied? A young girl?"

"No, of course not. Marguarita is carefully guarded. Someone from the ranch always goes with her."

Zacarias continued to stare at the man, his locked gaze conveying inquiry and disapproval.

"My son often escorts her," Cesaro admitted. "It has been my hope that the two of them make a match of it. Both serve your family and know what needs to be done to keep our alliance safe. It is a good match, but neither seems to be interested."

The floor rolled. The walls breathed in and out. For a moment the pressure in the room was painful as if all the air had been sucked out of it. Cesaro fought for a breath, his throat closing and his lungs burning. Just as rapidly, the sensation vanished as though it had never been. He coughed a couple of times, one hand going to his throat, his eyes widening in fear.

"Tell me about her gift with animals."

Cesaro shrugged. "No one knows how she does it. I don't think she knows, but every animal, including those in the sky, responds to her. When she was just a little girl, she would tell her father that a horse's leg hurt and where. Sure enough, a few hours later, the horse came up lame. She always knows when a mare will give birth or when there's going to be a problem with a birth. The horses trust her and when she's present, the mares are calm no matter what has to be done."

Zacarias absorbed the information. She'd done such things since she was a child. It was possible she was born psychic, but much more likely she was mage-trained in order to cast a spell powerful enough to entrap him. "Go on."

Cesaro looked more puzzled than ever. "When she was fifteen, a jaguar spooked the herd and the cattle crashed through a fence and ran straight for the children playing soccer. Marguarita stepped in front of them and somehow the cattle veered away from everyone there. They slowed down and stopped without direction." His eyes met Zacarias's once again. "She walked right toward the jaguar and waved me off from shooting it. After a couple of minutes with the two staring at one another, the cat slipped back into the rain forest and we never saw it around here again. Not even tracks."

"What do you know of her mother?" If her father had been a cousin of Cesaro's, perhaps the mother had been mage. There had to be an explanation.

"Her mother was a Chevez from the hacienda in Brazil. You know their family."

He did know the Chevez family, better than he knew any of the others. They were definitely not mage-born, nor were any of them trained in casting spells. The Chevez women had protections placed in their minds from birth. They would be impossible for a vampire to possess or manipulate, not without killing them.

Zacarias closed his fist tight once again as his mind reached for Marguarita. He exercised great discipline to stop himself from touching her. His blood called out to hers. Or was it the other way around? The call was so strong. A compulsion. He swore under his breath in his native language. The woman was a menace.

"If she bothers you, we can remove her from the hacienda during your stay," Cesaro offered, obviously hoping Zacarias would agree to his proposition. "She has many aunts who would love to have her visit."

Another tremor rolled through the ground. Zacarias didn't move a muscle. His tongue slid over the sharpened points of his teeth. His body ached. She had so many sins to pay for, yet he didn't dare go to her - not when he needed to see her - to touch her. He refused to allow his mind to wander, to check, to touch. He was too strong and she could not defeat him.

Cesaro flinched. "Se?or," he began uneasily.

"Leave the woman to me."

"I don't understand you. Marguarita is a good girl. She's loved by everyone here. The vampire destroyed her vocal cords, so she can't speak. If that distresses you . . ."

"I do not get distressed."

The very concept of being distressed was foreign to him. But he was disturbed by the need to touch her. To be close to her. To touch all that warm, soft skin and alleviate the terrible craving she had set up for the exquisite taste of her blood.

Cesaro stood up quickly as Zacarias's body began to shimmer and grow transparent. "Wait. Please, se?or, I need to know you will not harm her."

Zacarias turned glacier-cold eyes on the man. "Do not dare to presume to question me. This is my land. She belongs to me to do with as I will. I will not suffer your interference in this matter. What she has done is between us alone. Have I made myself clear?"

Cesaro gripped the barrel of his rifle until his knuckles turned white. He swallowed hard twice before he very reluctantly nodded his head.

Zacarias had no more time to waste on the man. What was wrong with everyone that they felt it was okay to question his judgment? Clearly a De La Cruz had not been in residence for far too long. His people had forgotten their vows of servitude and obedience. This was the very reason why he knew he was obsolete in the world. His ways were long gone. Kill or be killed wasn't fully understood. The world labored under a false illusion that humankind was safe - that monsters such as vampires didn't exist and evil wasn't real. He knew better, but his day was long over.

He dissolved and slipped out of the house, mixing with tear-shaped drops of rain as he made his way slowly back to the hacienda. Even in this form, where he was nearly undetectable, the animals in the stables stamped nervously. Despite his need to find Marguarita, he made himself take a slow sweeping circle around the property, looking for any signs the undead had tracked him to his lair. He needed to prove, not only to her, but to himself, that he was in control, not her.

He had no doubt that one of the Malinov brothers would seek to retaliate after losing so many of their expendable soldiers in their attack on his ranch in Brazil. If they despised anyone more than the prince of the Carpathian people, it was Zacarias. The Malinovs would always believe that the De La Cruz brothers had betrayed them. Instead of turning on the prince and helping to assassinate him, the De La Cruz family had sworn allegiance to him.

Zacarias knew that to kill Mikhail Dubrinsky was to send their people plummeting into extinction. They were as close as a species could get, brushing that fine line, so close to tipping over where recovery would be impossible. With Mikhail alive, Solange's blood and the news of finding out why their women were miscarrying, Zacarias was certain they had every chance now. It was the perfect time to let go of his responsibilities. And he had - until Marguarita Fernandez interfered.

Satisfied that Ruslan Malinov, master of the undead, hadn't had time to find out the reason his soldiers hadn't returned, Zacarias made his way to the main house. His heart accelerated strangely, which only put him on edge. He circled the structure, not once allowing his mind to touch hers. Very slowly he approached the front door, shimmering back into human form and walking inside.

He was not going to give in to the rush of heat, the need riding him harder than he had ever imagined possible. He didn't need. He didn't crave. He had been to the top of the highest mountain, traveled to the farthest corners of the earth - looking for - something . He had walked the earth for centuries, far longer than most of his kind, killed more undead than imaginable. He had seen treachery at its worst and bravery at its greatest. There were no surprises left to him. Nothing that could change the beat of his heart like this. Nothing that could drive him with such burning need because he simply didn't need .

O jela peje emnimet - sun scorch the woman. There was an answer and he would find it. No one controlled him. He would not touch her mind or go looking for her. But he found himself striding through the dark house straight to her bedroom. The door was splintered, hanging on the hinges, the door cracked entirely in half. He frowned, studying the damage he'd done. Wood hung in a series of pieces, the fragments sharp to the point of dangerous.

He waved his hand, mending the mess, not to protect her, or for any other reason such as others looking into her sleeping chamber, but because the sight was not aesthetic. He realized the moment he stepped into the room that her scent lingered behind, but she was in another part of the house, hopefully remembering her duties as a servant in his home.

He looked around her room. It seemed very feminine. It smelled female, but the wash of fear was still present. Although neat and tidy, the wastebasket was overflowing with crumpled paper. He had a sudden memory of her huddled in the corner of her room, her hand out, a piece of paper fluttering in her hand. He looked around. He was almost certain he'd knocked it aside when he'd yanked her to her feet.

A single slip of stationery lay just under the bed. He picked it up and scanned the missive. She had been trying to tell him what happened, why she had been unable to leave him to die in the sun. His gut settled. He couldn't hear the tone of her voice and judge whether she was telling the truth or not by that, but her letter certainly pleaded her case well for her. Like Zacarias, she had felt a compulsion she couldn't possibly resist.

What did that mean? Was someone - something - manipulating both of them? Perhaps he needed to reevaluate Marguarita's motivation. If she was being manipulated, just as someone was trying to do with him, she was far weaker and would succumb much quicker than a seasoned Carpathian warrior.

He poured the contents of the wastebasket out onto the bed and one by one smoothed each sheet, scanning the contents. Her earlier tries to explain were shaky and lacked confidence, but she kept trying, which told him she was stubborn and determined - and brave. She hadn't gone running to Cesaro who clearly would have been foolish enough to try to protect her. She'd faced up to her crime and waited for him - hoping to explain.

He sighed. It wasn't altogether her fault that she had disobeyed. Compulsions were dangerous and nearly impossible to ignore - as he well knew. He had come to the ranch without reason - the need driving him - and he was experienced in mage treachery. She had no such skills to draw on to save herself.

He shoved the slip of paper into his pocket and waved the others back to the wastebasket before picking up her pillow and inhaling her scent. He breathed her deep into his lungs, giving in to the craving. Her feminine fragrance enveloped him. In truth, it shook him. He smoothed her covers, his hand tracing the image of her on the bed. The source of power had to be close. He could almost feel the warmth of her skin and once again he could taste her exquisite blood on his tongue - better than the finest of wines.

He should have visited every single dwelling on the extensive property and tested each inpidual. They would all know he was in residence, just by the heavy drapes being pulled. No one would come near the house without an invitation - or they shouldn't. So how was the spell staying so powerful when he was aware of it?

He inhaled the woman's fragrance again, drawing her deep into his lungs. His body responded with a strange tingling, an electrical current that ran through his veins and awakened responses in his body best left alone. He sighed and went to find Marguarita. He'd fought off the compulsion and proved to himself he was in absolute, total control.