"Good evening, Rafael."

The silken evil in the crooning voice made Colby's breath catch in her throat. She jerked her head around to stare in horror at the monster standing at the edge of the clearing. "Paul!" A low cry escaped when she saw Paul held as a shield in front of the creature.

Her brother's eyes were wild with fear, his breath coming in gasps of dread. There were bruises on his face and lacerations on his knuckles. His shirt was torn and she could see marks on his chest. A powerful hand, corded with steely tendons, clutched his throat in an unbreakable grip. One long sharp fingernail pressed against Paul's jugular and, even from the distance, Colby could see the blood trickling down Paul's neck.

Rafael! Oh, God, what is it? She had never seen anything so unmistakably evil in all her life. It resembled a man, or something that had once been a man, but the tight, mottled purple flesh that clung to its skull appeared more dead than alive. Red eyes gleamed like burning coals out of the hideous face and long terrible fangs flashed in the lipless slash of the creature's terrible mouth. Dozens of serpents coiled around the monster's limbs, seemingly growing out of his flesh. Rows of sharp, piranhalike teeth filled the snakes' gaping jaws and they hissed and undulated with open menace.

One of the serpents, fully extended from the monster's arm, was slowly retracting back toward its master. Bright red blood covered the snake's awful head and Colby's dazed mind made the connection. The mutated serpent had attacked Rafael, its razored teeth slashing through the flesh of his back, driving straight toward his heart.

That is a vampire. Rafael's voice was edged with pain.

How badly are you hurt?

He ignored her question. Do not draw its attention.

Even as he spoke the warning, the vampire's grip on Paul tightened. Her brother cried out and Colby held up her hand, wanting time to stop, wanting her world back the way it had been just moments before. "Don't." She made the plea softly as she got to her feet. Her gaze shifted to Rafael. She had no idea how he was still standing with a gaping hole in his back and blood running down his body.

I was so centered on you I did not feel his presence, querida. I have not made such a mistake since I was a youth. His voice was weary, but calm. Stay behind me where he cannot get a clear field of vision to you.

"Colby?" Paul sounded young and frightened.

The vampire shook him, digging his fingernail deeper so that the boy cried out in terror and pain. More blood trickled. With a small sob, Colby rushed forward. Rafael caught her as she tried to get past him and pushed her behind him.

Oh, God, Rafael, what about Ginny? They were at the house alone together while I was with you. There was guilt and fear in her mind.

Ginny is safe, fast asleep in her bed with her dog guarding her, Rafael reassured her.

"You are Kirja Malinov." Rafael gave a small bow. "It is long since we met."

The creature laughed harshly, the sound grating on Colby's ears. "I knew you would remember. You have grown careless, Rafael."

You know each other? Colby was incredulous, unable to look away from her brother and the hideous vampire who held him.

We were friends once.

"So you have come for justice, Kirja. Had I known, I would not have been otherwise occupied and would have prepared a fitting welcome." There was complete confidence in Rafael's voice. Colby glanced at the blood running down his back and shuddered with terror.

His words, or perhaps his demeanor, seemed to anger the creature. "Look at your sister, boy." The vampire shook Paul. "She's his whore now. She will do anything for him, even sacrifice your life for him." He pointed to a scrap of cloth on the ground and Colby's ripped panties floated toward Paul's face. Her bra leapt from a bush and wound obscenely around the boy's arm.

Paul stared at the silky underwear with a frozen expression on his face.

"He can make her do anything for him. Look at her, see his marks on her, know what he's done to her. I told you he would make her his slave."

There was pain and shock in Paul's eyes, condemnation on his face. Colby gasped at the disgust in his expression. Before the hurt and embarrassment could take her over, she allowed her natural power to flood her body, her brain. She needed to save Paul more than she needed to defend her choice of lovers.

The evil one is using his voice to persuade Paul, she heard Rafael tell her. This is an ancient master vampire, nearly impossible to defeat. Wait until I can align my power with yours.

Rafael sighed aloud. "I tire of your game, foul one."

Tell me what to do to help you. Colby was shocked at how she could speak to him mind to mind. It seemed to come naturally as if they were so connected now they were one person. If Rafael was a killer of vampires, she would let him take the lead, but it had better not take too long. She couldn't always contain the buildup of power when she was angry. Right now she was close to rage. The sight of the evil creature stroking the side of Paul's neck with his sharp talons brought out every protective instinct-and more rage than she'd ever known she was capable of feeling.

The vampire hissed between his jagged, brown teeth. "The great Carpathian hunter defeated by his own carnal pleasures. There is some justice in that, I think." His bloodshot eyes glared at Colby. "You can choose which one you want to save. Your lover or your loved one." He cackled as if he'd made a great joke and the sound was so grating she felt her skin crawl.

Gather up handfuls of soil, as rich as you can find, and use your saliva to mix it. My blood flows in your veins so you will carry the same healing agent. Pack the soil into the wound in my back but do not allow the vampire to see what you do. Remember, your power is greater than it was, enhanced by stepping partway into my world. There is no question we must save the boy. Think only of that and not of me.

Nothing Rafael said made sense. Pack dirt she spit on into an open wound? She shuddered to think of the bacteria she would introduce. Rafael should be falling down, not standing there looking cool and calm and completely in control. His mind was firmly lodged in hers, she felt him there, commanding her to do as he bid. Colby tried not to see Paul, forcing her mind away from the sight of that wicked sharp nail poised to kill.

She backed away, shaking her head, stumbling and falling in the deepest of the night's shadows, her hands clawing for fresh soil behind a fallen log. Colby let one sob escape as she bent her head, pretending to be sick while she spit into the dirt she had gathered. Terrified for Rafael, she packed it hastily while the vampire snarled and snapped at her with his ghastly stained teeth.

"Get up!" he yowled. "Get up and make your choice before I do it for you."

Colby staggered to her feet, but kept Rafael between her and the sight of her brother as she advanced. Closing her eyes, she pushed the soil pack deep into the gaping hole in Rafael's back. He didn't wince. He didn't indicate in any way the pain that must have shot through his body. Instead, he sent her warmth and reassurance.

"There is no question of a choice," Rafael said quietly. His voice was beautiful, clear and strong and brushed with magic. "I would never allow anyone to trade the life of a child for my life." He didn't look at Colby, but she felt him stirring in her mind. I will force Paul from his arms. He will expect the attack to come from me, but I will use you. Keep looking at him. The Chevez brothers and Nicolas are on the way so do not despair.

It was the complete confidence he exuded that allowed Colby to keep panic at bay. She had always thought his voice beautiful, but when he spoke to the vampire, she couldn't help but want to hear him speak again and again. There was enthrallment in his voice, conviction. For all of Rafael's faults, she knew she was looking at the difference between good and evil.

"It is not your choice to make. Let us see if your woman prefers to keep you alive," the vampire snarled. His talon traced a line around Paul's throat and left behind a thin trail of blood.

Colby cried out and stepped toward him again, the power sweeping through her, but Paul was in the way and he would get hurt. She didn't dare retaliate.

Paul began to sob, calling out for Colby, begging her to help him.

Reading Colby's agitation, Rafael waved his hand toward Paul. Immediately the boy became quiet, his face slack, his eyes glazed. He does not know what is happening so there can be no fear, Rafael sought to reassure Colby.

What are our chances of saving him? It took every ounce of self-control she had not to hurl herself at the vampire. Strangely, she trusted Rafael to save Paul. She was in his mind and saw his resolve, his absolute determination. He would sacrifice his life for her brother. She swung her head to look at him, her hand going to her throat. It was in his mind. Whatever he was planning more than likely would get him killed, but he intended that Paul would live. A protest welled up.

Look at him. Do not take your eyes off of him. The command was sharp and imperious, a being dictating and used to absolute obedience.

Rafael was far more than human and she felt his power. Colby kept her gaze fixed on the vampire. What was he waiting for? Why was he prolonging the agony?

They feed on terror and the pain of others. He is enjoying his moment of watching the fear in you as you wait to see which one of us he kills. It is the absolute power of life and death, the controlling of others, that feeds him now.

Thunder rumbled and lightning dazzled her, forking across the night sky. Clouds spun dark webs overhead. Her skin prickled and she knew somewhere in the rocks above them were the Chevez brothers. She forced herself to keep from shifting her gaze in inquiry toward Rafael. It was his mind that had provided the information, the knowledge that they had high-powered rifles trained on the vampire.

"Choose!" the vampire snarled, his claw poised over Paul's throat. The mutated serpents immediately became agitated, lusting to kill, lusting for blood, raising ugly heads and undulating in excitement.

Something moved beneath the ground. Colby felt the ripple beneath her feet and knew immediately more of the ghastly creatures guarding the vampire were preparing to attack. She clenched her fists. What are you waiting for? He has more of those hideous things, I feel them moving beneath us.

Rafael ignored her. "Foul one, do you think to take this woman and repair your soul with her? That makes no sense. She would never submit and would cut out your heart someday."

The vampire laughed, the sound ugly and harsh after the purity of Rafael's voice. "She is of no use to me. She does not have the talent I seek. Why would I wish to be like you? Serving others when you should be ruling them?" Contempt sharpened his features and heightened his evil appearance.

"You? Seeking a talent?" There was taunting amusement in Rafael's voice. "Why would an ancient need a human's talent? You are acquiring a certain reputation and if it becomes known you need a human to succeed in your plans, your reputation would be that of a laughingstock."

Colby winced. Rafael was deliberately stirring the vampire to greater heights of agitation. But he was also stalling for time.

"I care nothing for what hunters think of me. I have no respect for those of power who subjugate themselves for lesser beings." The vampire waved his hand to encompass the ranch. "I take humans as fodder, cattle such as they use for prey. I use them and reign over them. They do my bidding as I will it. They live or die as I will it. You are so weak you do not even take your lifemate, willing to put your life, hers, and your brother's life in danger. You do not deserve to live," he sneered. "What became of you, Rafael? You were always a leader, yet you allowed Vlad to send you scurrying to do his bidding."

The sharp-toothed serpents erupted through the ground right at their feet, striking at Rafael and Colby with tremendous force. Simultaneously, thick thorn-covered vines burst through the dirt to wrap around the striking serpents. She could feel Rafael generating the defense through the vines. Colby stumbled back, but Rafael held his ground, still facing the vampire.

Now! He sent her the command, but it wasn't only to Colby. She found she was connected through Rafael to both Chevez brothers and to Nicolas. Vines broke through the surface, hungrily reaching for Paul, dragging him from the vampire and wrapping him up in a thick cocoon. The angry serpents smashed at the plants, eager to get to the boy, but as fast as they broke the fibrous stalks, more replaced them, these covered in thorns that slashed the serpents and embedded deep into the coils.

As Paul went down, Colby felt Rafael and Nicolas take hold of her power, tear it ruthlessly from her, hurl it with terrible force at the vampire. Fire burst through the sky, a blow-torch of white heat and raging red-orange flames, generated by Colby, fed by the De La Cruz brothers. Colby heard her own scream and knew the moment Rafael and Nicolas directed the Chevez brothers to shoot with their high-powered rifles.

The fire incinerated several of the serpents, but the vampire was already gone, leaving nothing at all, not even a vapor trail or a blank spot to mark where he had gone. Rafael waved his hand toward the sky, turning in a circle as he did so. Colby found she was holding her breath, waiting for something terrible she knew was coming.

Lightning forked in a violent display as the clouds spread out, thinning as if a giant veil was stretched across the sky at Rafael's command. Colby blinked several times to try to see what he was so interested in. She thought he should be worried about the snakes slithering across the ground toward him at a rapid speed. Instead, he watched the sky patiently. His hands continued to flow in a graceful rhythm and she heard his voice whispering words she didn't understand.

Something moved at the edge of a cloud, something dark and shapeless. She swore Rafael commanded the lightning, slamming a bolt from ground to sky, streaking like a spear toward the dark spot. A hissing curse signaled a hit, but retaliation was swift. The ground shook. Colby went rigid.

"Rafael, he's stampeding the cattle." The snakes and vines seemed to be everywhere, an obstacle course between her and Paul. She had thought her brother safe, caged inside the thick, fibrous stalks, but he was helpless in the face of the mindless animals thundering toward them.

Rafael turned his attention to the ground, waving his hand so that the vines withered and the creatures blackened, smoking, but still alive, mouths gaping wide, snapping teeth together in frustration as they continued to fight to get to the hunter.

Go, querida, get him clear. Juan, Julio! Help Colby.

Colby hesitated for only a moment. Rafael was weak, but determined to save them. She hated to leave him, but Paul stood no chance against the stampeding cattle, locked in the vines the way he was. She ran to him, skirting around the slithering snakes as they tried to obey their master even as the heat seared them from the inside out. She knew the terrain, knew the cattle were heading down the steep gully that led right to where they were all gathered. She could hear them now, bellowing in fright, and she could see, off in the distance, just below the ridge, an ominous red-orange glow. "Paul." Heedless of the thorns, she began yanking vines away from her brother.

The attack came from behind Rafael, a rush of wind and flapping of wings. Great unnatural bats darkened the sky, racing toward Rafael, ferociously beating the air around him with outstretched wings, claws extended as they reached for him.

Colby couldn't watch, terrified he was going to go down under the weight of so many creatures. She held on to Rafael's calm reassurance and concentrated on freeing Paul. Rafael had allowed her brother to wake from his enthrallment and he was already trying to dig his way out from the prison made of plants. She focused on the vines, blocking out her fears and thinking only of moving the thick stalks. The vines opened, stretching apart to allow enough space for Paul to crawl out. He staggered to his feet and caught Colby's hand as she tried to drag him quickly out of the path of the oncoming cattle.

As they ran, she screamed for Rafael to get out of the way. The ground trembled under the heavy hooves and she could see the terrified cattle as they thundered over the slope and raced down the gully toward them. Gasping at the sight of the herd maddened with fear as great orange-red flames leapt in between each animal as they ran, she pushed Paul up onto a rocky ledge and turned back for Rafael.

Rafael! Her cry was in her mind, not aloud. He was holding his ground, the hordes of sharp-clawed bats inches from his body, unable to get through some invisible barrier to tear apart his skin and bones. She could feel the terrible strain on him as he held off the creatures, called down rain to put out the fires springing up around the cattle, and battled with the vampire hidden somewhere close by. She took a step toward him, frantically trying to figure out how to help.

Do not distract him. Nicolas was just as calm, just as confident, and just as imperious as Rafael. His voice was in her mind, a reminder of the closeness of the brothers. There was something very chilling about Nicolas and, rather than intimacy, he only added to the threat she felt was all around her.

"Colby!" Paul caught at her, dragging her up onto the ledge as the cattle swept down the valley.

She couldn't take her eyes from Rafael. He exuded power and confidence even in the face of a stampede. His expression never changed as he controlled the elements, his body ravaged by the loss of blood. He never yielded for a moment to pain or fear. She was in his mind, sharing the battle. And she knew Nicolas shared both of their minds. She could feel him there, coiled, waiting to strike. She knew, through Rafael, that Nicolas was moving toward them at a fast speed and that he was flying through the air.

Flashes of light streamed from the cloud cover toward Rafael. He deflected the white-hot spears and launched an attack of his own, sending a hail of silver slivers of lightning rocketing back toward the vampire. A tree uprooted behind Rafael, falling toward him with huge, outstretched branches.

Colby tried to scream a warning, but Paul clapped his hand over her mouth roughly and nearly slammed her into a boulder. She had no time to reprimand him as she caught sight of a flaming spear spinning through the air aimed directly at her heart. She kicked back, struggling against Paul's unusual strength as he held her immobile.

She felt the sudden shift in Rafael's attention as he realized she was in danger. He immediately sent the hidden barrier that protected him from the vampires' batlike creatures in between her and the oncoming spear. The spear bounced off the barrier, but he was instantly swarmed with bats, clawing and digging at his skin and face.

Colby drove her elbow into her brother's ribs with the intention of leaping off the ledge to go to Rafael's aid. The first of the cattle rushed through the gully, others following so that the narrow strip was filled with the large, heavy bodies. She tried to shield her brother from the mass of huge bodies as they rushed past, pressing close to him as the ground shook. The rain poured down, extinguishing the fires and sending billows of smoke into the air. She felt Paul grip her shoulders hard, his fingers squeezing viciously. Before she could cry out in protest, he picked her up off her feet and flung her into the center of the stampeding herd.

Instinctively, Colby curled up in a tight ball, hands over her head to protect herself from the flying hooves. Shockingly, nothing touched her. The ground shook, but not a single animal kicked her as they thundered past. She heard the sound of voices and knew the Chevez brothers were turning the herd, trying to calm them before they reached the steep cliffs rising to the east.

Colby cautiously lifted her head. Nicolas stood beside her, his face a grim mask. He reached down and hauled her to her feet with casual strength. At first her legs were shaky, refusing to hold her, but he paid no attention, dragging her with him almost at a run to his brother.

Rafael stood upright, although she couldn't see his body for the hundreds of creatures clinging to him, clawing at his flesh, digging into the wounds on his body. With a cry she tore herself away from Nicolas, reaching for one of the furry animals ripping at his face. Before she could touch it, Nicolas clapped his hands and issued a command. The bats fell to the ground and were incinerated. The noxious odor made Colby gag, but she ran to Rafael.

Rafael staggered. Colby wrapped her arm around his waist. "I'll get you to a doctor." She didn't see how it was possible for a doctor to help him. Most of his skin was scraped from his body. She'd never seen such injuries. She looked around frantically for the vampire, expecting an attack immediately. "Where'd he go? Can you see him?"

"He is long gone," Nicolas said. "He will not fight all of us." His hands were gentle as he reached for Rafael.

Paul ran up to them, swinging a tree branch toward Rafael's head.

"Don Nicolas!" Julio Chevez called out in warning. Nicolas caught the club and twisted it easily from the boy's hands, sending him sprawling to the ground.

"The boy is tainted, Rafael. He reeks of the vampire. He is no more than a human puppet. I will dispatch him quickly and convert the woman for you. You will go to ground and heal properly." There was absolute resolve in Nicolas.

Colby could see he had already dismissed Paul and would kill him without a single thought of remorse. She flung herself in front of Paul. "Don't you dare. Don't you come near him." Paul was taller than she was, but she spread out her arms and called up every ounce of power she had in her. She didn't want to protect Paul, she wanted to go to Rafael, to save him, do anything it took. She hated standing there, shielding her brother, when Rafael was so broken. She felt her heart was shattering into a million pieces as she looked at his ravaged face.

Meu amor, I would not allow Paul to be harmed by my kin. You should know better. The stirring in her mind was weak, as if Rafael was fading, leaving her.

She was frightened, not knowing who to run to, who to protect. "Rafael's dying, Nicolas," she said. "Is that what you want, to have him try to fight you with his last dying breath? What kind of a person are you?"

Rafael's tall, muscular frame crumpled. He went to the ground on his knees, held there swaying a moment, his eyes glazing before falling forward facedown.

Colby had no memory of leaping to catch him, but she was under him, cushioning his fall, his large frame taking her down with him. Surprisingly, she didn't slam into the dirt as she expected. Nicolas floated Rafael gently to the ground, turning him just before his body hit hers, his head pillowed in her lap. She couldn't prevent the shudder of fear when Nicolas loomed over her.

Juan and Julio stepped up on either side of Paul. "Don Nicolas, please do not force us to make such a choice. This boy is familia. He is under Don Rafael's protection, as is Colby. This protection should be yours as well."

There was a small silence. Even the night seemed to hold its breath. Insects ceased their wild calls and the cattle stopped their restless motion.

"The poison can perhaps be driven from his system, but I will have to take his blood." Nicolas made it a threat, staring straight at Colby.

She didn't trust him and wished Rafael was fully awake to tell her what to do. "Rafael says he can't lie to me-can you?"

"Say yes or no," Nicolas replied harshly. "He will suffer with the acid of the vampire's blood and he will crave the taste of human flesh. He will rot from the inside out and the vampire will be able to use him to defeat us all."

Paul burst into tears, his hands pressed to his stomach. "I do burn inside, Colby. And there's a buzzing in my head that makes me feel crazy. Is he saying I'm going to be a cannibal?"

"Then do whatever you have to do, but don't you harm him or I'll hunt you down and drive a stake right through your ice-cold heart," Colby warned.

Nicolas ignored her threat and knelt beside Rafael. She watched in disbelief as he tore open his own wrist with his teeth and shoved the wound against Rafael's mouth. He looked at her with empty black eyes as he forced his brother to swallow the ancient blood. "He should have taken you immediately instead of catering to you the way he did." His voice was a harsh whip, lashing her when she was holding Rafael's head in her lap, her fingers tangled in the long silk of his hair and his blood soaking into her jeans.

"I don't like you very much either," she snapped. "How are you different from that monster? My brother is innocent. He didn't ask to have that horrible creature kidnap him and infect him with poison. I didn't ask to be your brother's lifemate. I have my own life here, my own responsibilities. Why should your rights be more important than mine?"

Nicolas leaned close to her, his eyes flat and diamond hard. "Because if you don't find your lifemate, you will not turn into a monster that will be absolutely evil and live for the death and pain of others. I will. I am not human. Rafael is not human. We have fought centuries against the darkness. You could relieve his pain so easily. You could ensure that he would never face that moment in time when he might succumb to darkness, yet you are too stubborn, too selfish to give him what he needs. And because of that, you foolishly risk the lives of your brother and sister and your neighbors and others you don't even know. Worse, you risk my brother's very soul and the souls of my familia and myself. In the end, he will have you, so taking this risk is senseless. I would take you, if you were mine, and get it done." There was a distinct snap to his teeth as if he might lean over and bite her neck right there.

Colby's heart pounded harder in her chest, but she faced him squarely, trying to be honest with him. Struggling to understand. She wanted to understand when she saw him giving his own blood to his fallen brother. More, the thought of Rafael turning into such a hideous monster as the creature who had attacked them was inconceivable. "I can see from your point of view. Can you see from mine? I'm not Carpathian. I didn't even know you existed until a short time ago. I don't know Rafael. I don't know much at all about him other than he's different, with tremendous powers, and that he can control me in ways that scare me to death. I have a brother and a sister I love and a ranch that I swore to my father on his deathbed I would keep for them. I didn't have any concept of the consequences you're describing. I haven't lived centuries and I haven't known of vampires other than in movies."

"Now you have seen one. Now you know the consequences to Rafael and you know the things I say are true. What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't even know what you want me to do, Nicolas," she answered honestly. "How do I protect Rafael? He talked of bringing me wholly into his world. What does that mean?"

"Could you not tell the evil one was striking at you? If he succeeds in killing you, he has destroyed Rafael. He used the boy to try to kill you," Nicolas pointed out.

"I didn't try to kill her," Paul denied, his face very pale.

"Yes, you did," Nicolas said calmly. "And if the poison is not removed from your system, you will try again and again until you succeed. Colby, as long as you are human, the vampire knows you are vulnerable and he has a chance to kill Rafael through you."

"How would my death be killing Rafael?" She asked it, but she already knew the answer through her own fears and grief. She struggled to contain it, but she couldn't entertain the idea of losing Rafael. Her mind refused the possibility because her heart knew she wouldn't survive.

"You know," Nicolas said softly.

"Don't even think about it, Colby," Paul snapped. He doubled over in pain, holding his stomach. "Don't let them do anything to you. Can't you see what they are?"

Julio slipped his arm around the boy's shoulders. "They are great men and have protected us from the vampire, Paul. Nicolas is the only one who can save you from the acid inside of you. No doctor could cure the effects."

Nicolas stopped Rafael from feeding, closing the wound in his wrist with a swipe of his tongue. Colby couldn't help the shudder that ran through her body at the matter-of-fact gesture.

"I must take Rafael to a place where he will be safe and I can heal him," Nicolas said. "He has bound you to him and you will suffer greatly for the separation. I can stop that by converting you, but then you would have to rest in the earth with him. Choose now. He needs care immediately."

"If I have to make an immediate choice then I have to stay with my brother and sister and see to their safety," Colby said. There was challenge in her voice.

"You will grieve for him. You will believe he is dead and you will feel a strong call to join him. You cannot harm your-elf, no matter how desperate you feel. Reach for me and I will aid you should it become necessary." Nicolas reached down and easily gathered his brother into his arms.

"Wait!" Colby said frantically. "What about Paul?" Her brother could no longer stand, but had to be supported between his two uncles. Doubled over, he sagged helplessly, groaning in pain.

"I will return to take the poison from him. Know this, sister kin: in doing so, he will be tied to me for all time."

It sounded like a warning to Colby, maybe even a threat. Her hand went to her throat in self-defense. "Should I wait for Rafael?" She kept her gaze fixed on his, refusing to be intimidated, wanting the truth.

"That is up to you." He cradled Rafael in his arms, almost as if his brother were a small child instead of a very large and dangerous man.

Colby reached out to touch Rafael's face. He felt cold. Lifeless. A scream welled up in her mind, but she forced it back down. "He's alive?"

"I will not allow him to die. Do I return this night?"

Colby looked at her brother's face, saw the twisted hatred in his eyes, and shuddered. "Please," she whispered, looking away from Paul. "Hurry."

"Traitor! Whore!" Paul threw himself at her, his fist raised, his expression demonic.

Julio caught him and dragged him away from her. "Shall we take him to the house, senhorita?"

Paul fought his uncles, growling and snapping his teeth at them. Then he suddenly subsided, looking around him, blinking his eyes to clear his vision. "Colby?" He sounded young and confused. "What's happening to me?"

"You're ill, honey." She tried to comfort him, but tears were clogging her throat and burning behind her eyes. She could no longer touch Rafael's mind. She felt the loss deeply, as if someone had ripped out her heart. She could barely breathe, let alone think. She wanted to scream and claw at the earth, dig her way down to where his body would rest. Instead, she lifted her head to find the Chevez brothers watching her with compassion. "Let's get him home," she said wearily.

"Juan will see to the cattle," Julio said. "I'll watch over you and Paul and Ginny."

Colby stumbled after him. She could see better in the darkness than she'd ever been able to see, yet she was off center, feeling blind and deaf. "Does this kind of thing happen often?" What were those terrible creatures and how badly was he hurt, Nicolas? He was so torn up, lost so much blood. She hadn't kissed him. Hadn't tried to hold him to her. What if Nicolas was more monster than man?

I am more monster than man, Nicolas confirmed. His voice was soft in her mind, distracted. She could hear a chant repeated, old ancient words with a soothing rhythm of power. I am healing him, giving him more blood, and then I will put him in the arms of the earth to heal.

Julio glanced back at her as he propelled Paul forward. "Do you need my help, Colby?" When she shook her head, he continued, "Yes, I've witnessed many battles between the vampire and the hunters. This vampire is not like the others. He is much more powerful and cunning."

Colby wrapped her arms around her waist as she walked along the trail back toward the ranch house. Rafael had walked this path with her, holding her hand, making her feel the most beautiful and desired woman in the world. When he focused on her, nothing else seemed to matter. She tried to replay what Nicolas had said about conversion, but her mind was too scattered.

"Do they often get hurt?" Colby asked.

Julio shook his head. "Vampires are all different. The hunters are very powerful, very experienced. Rafael is a great fighter-together with Nicolas, or any of his brothers, they rarely sustain injuries. This one"-he shook his head-"this is one they call a master vampire, an ancient who has escaped justice many years. Zacarias, the eldest of the De La Cruz brothers, thinks a master vampire is an ancient of their kind. One long in the world and experienced in battle who finally succumbs to the dark call. The master will not stand and battle, but he'll use human puppets to do his bidding. He'll call lesser vampires to him and use them as pawns. And he mutates other species into evil incarnate. You saw a sample of his work."

"You're very nervous. What aren't you telling me?"

Julio looked at her with dark, worried eyes. "Nicolas can take the blood and help with the pain, but until the vampire is dead, Paul will be connected to him. He can still try to use Paul. Nicolas will be the only one standing between Paul and what the vampire wants from him. Nicolas is powerful and ancient, but he is very close to the end of his time. He also must rest during the daylight hours. It is dangerous for him to do this thing you ask. If he does not, Paul will eventually die and you will be thankful."

Colby pressed her fingers to her pounding head. She needed Rafael's reassuring touch. He is safe beneath the soil. I have fed and will meet you in the barn. I do not want the child to see what we must do to aid her brother. You must be certain. He can and will harm you if the vampire reaches him and programs him. I can run interference, and I can remove the pain, but I cannot break the tie between them.

He was offering to kill her brother. It was his voice, so flat and empty, that made her ill. Made her feel Rafael's barren existence starkly. She could almost see the darkness creeping inside of him, staining his soul, taking him over. She closed her eyes but she couldn't block out what was in her mind.

I will watch him until you have a chance to kill the vampire. She made her decision.

Rafael has much to answer for. There was a bite to Nicolas's voice.

Rafael has tried to give me time. Is that truly such a terrible thing? Tears burned in her heart. Had she caused all of this? Was it her fault Rafael lay as the dead beneath the earth?

I feel his love for you. It has sustained me, yet it cannot soften me. He has given me hope by sharing his feelings for you. His emotions are intense and difficult to manage. He is uncomfortable with the presence of other males near you, myself included, yet he tries to ignore those dangerous emotions and allow you the space you need to come to him.

Is it my fault? she persisted.

Silence answered her question as she pulled open the door to the barn and faced Nicolas and his black, merciless gaze.