home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add


The dog crawled toward them, dragging its body along the ground. When King saw them approaching, he flopped into the dirt and whined, his dark eyes looking at them with trust.

Paul knelt beside him and ran gentle hands through his fur. "He doesn't have any wounds that I can find."

A chill went down Colby's spine. She leaned closer to stare into the dog's eyes. "He's drugged, Paul."

There was a small silence. Paul shook his head adamantly. "It wasn't me. I swear. I woke up remembering everything this morning, Colby. I don't remember the things Nicolas showed me I did when he was removing the vampire blood, but I knew I lost little parts of time. I haven't this time. I didn't drug the dog. I didn't."

Colby put a hand on his shoulder. "That's not even important right now, Paul. What's important is that King was with Ginny. Take King into the house and leave him on her bed and wake up both of your uncles. Tell them to saddle a couple of horses and follow us, then get out here fast. I won't wait long."

Paul scooped up the dog and raced for the house. Colby pushed down fear. Ginny was probably picking berries near the pond. Ignoring her heightened senses and the alarm skittering down her spine, Colby tore at the tack, hastily bridling the mare. Without bothering with a saddle she flung herself on its hack and rode up to the house. Paul was already waiting for her. Juan stood behind him, his shirt unbuttoned and concern stamped on his face.

"What is wrong? Where's the child?"

"I'm going to go looking for her now." Colby reached herself down and Paul took it, swinging up behind her. "The dog's been drugged and I'm really worried. Get Julio and bring a couple of rifles. I can use, all the help I can get." Not wanting to wait any longer, she dug her heels into the horse's sides, whirling it around and urging it into a dead run toward the spring.

As they topped the rise, Colby slowed the horse while she scanned the area. There was no sign of life. It was quiet, too quiet. Colby's heart slammed against her ribs. Fear choked her. Not Ginny. Colby would not allow any harm to come to Ginny. If anything happened to her, Colby didn't know what she would do. Fighting back a sob, she reined in, practically shoving Paul off the horse. "You look for a sign. If you see anything, anyone, you shout but stay to cover. Understand, Paul? Stay covered. If anything happens to me, go to the sheriff. Go to Ben. Don't trust anyone else."

"But-Colby?" White-faced, he stared up at her. "I couldn't have done this. I couldn't have hurt her, could I?"

"You didn't do this," she said. "You're in as much danger as Ginny. Be careful, Paul, and don't trust anyone. I wish to hell I knew what was going on."

"What if something awful has happened to her? I don't think " He trailed off. He couldn't face a vampire again. Not for Colby. Not for Ginny. Not for anything.

"Do what I say." She kicked at the mare again, riding across the meadow to the far hillside, where she began casting about for a sign.

Meu amor, why are you so afraid? Your terror awakens me from even the deepest of sleeps. Rafael's voice was a soothing caress in her mind. She nearly went to pieces the moment he touched her mind with his. She actually felt his hand brush her face and realized she was crying.

It's Ginny. The dog was drugged and she went alone for a walk. It should have been safe. The vampire is locked in the ground, isn't he? She needed the reassurance.

He is in the ground but he can use puppets. Where is Paul? He asked it carefully, knowing how she would react.

It wasn't Paul. If it had been Paul I wouldn't be so worried-I know he'd fight against it. But I can feel that something is wrong, Rafael.

I will come to you.

No! Colby's gaze was riveted to the ground, looking for signs. You're badly wounded and I can't take care of anyone else right now. Stay where you are and let me find her.

I'm coming to you and the little one. His tone was implacable.

Paul checked the spring first. If Ginny had come this far she would have been thirsty. The first thing they always did when they were out walking was go to the spring for a drink. There was no print of Ginny's small boot in the wet ground, but his heart nearly stopped when he saw the clear outline of a man's boot. A good two sizes larger than his own foot, Paul knew neither Colby nor he had made that track. It might be from one of his uncles, but they wore a distinctive boot with a different tread and neither had such a big foot. Alarmed, he scanned the ground for anything that would give him a clue as to which way the man had gone.

A few minutes of scouting around and he found a faint trail. Not much, a partial track, a twisted leaf, a snapped twig; once he found a cigarette butt. Suddenly he dropped to his knees beside the imprints in the dirt, a low cry of alarm escaping. His hand reached of its own accord to touch the small boot print. It was definitely Ginny's track; he would recognize it anywhere. The larger boot had covered hers. For just a minute indecision warred in him-he wanted to yell for Colby, but feared whoever had taken Ginny would hear him and hurt her. The tracks were fresh. He began to follow the tracks, staying low, keeping to cover, careful not to disturb the dirt and send dust into the air. He hoped his uncles or Colby would come after him soon.

Rafael burst from the ground. He gave a guttural cry as shafts sunlight raked across his skin like knives. He shape-shifted immediately to protect his sensitive eyes and body from the burning sun. The wrenching of muscles and bones opened his wounds so that droplets of blood sprayed across the sky and settled on the ground. He chose the form of vapor so he wouldn't have to continue to protect his eyes. Holding form in his weakened state was precarious and left him with little energy to provide cloud cover. Nicolas had found healing soil deep in the mountains, but far from the ranch, and put Rafael to ground there, in the hopes that the rich minerals would heal him faster. It had been a perfect healing ground, but it meant traveling a distance with his body already drained of strength. Using his tremendous iron will, Rafael shed aside the clawing pain and streaked across the sky toward Colby, leaving behind a trail of red mist.

Colby dismounted, dropping the reins so the mare wouldn't move far while she studied the ground with a puzzled gaze. There was something wrong but she couldn't put her finger on it. Squatting down, she ran her hand over the dry earth as if that would give her a clue. She made herself take several deep, calming breaths. Hysteria would not help at this point. She had to believe Ginny was off playing somewhere completely oblivious to their concern. She quartered the ground carewfully, frowning as she discovered a clean break in a tiny twig of a small bush. She touched it with her fingertip.

Ginny's height. She would have brushed it running by. But where were the tracks? A bruised leaf a few feet away convinced her Ginny had come this way. She shook her head. This was crazy, there should have been more. Where was the trail? It was too elusive, as if Ginny had flown, and only touched down lightly in obscure spots, like a small wraith. She shuddered, clamping down on her imagination and the error that threatened to consume her any moment.

I am on my way. I do not see why your fear is growing when you see that she has passed that way. Rafael was calm and rock steady. She latched on to his strength as an anchor.

Tracks aren't made like this, Rafael. I see her boot tracks in the dirt, and farther on, a rock kicked over. There would be more obvious signs of her passing. She tried to convey to him what she meant, showing him memories of tracking animals.

Where are Juan and Julio? All of you should be armed and you should stay together. His voice hadn't changed, but she sensed his uneasiness.

They're on the way. She hoped it was true.

"Colby!" It was a cry, a plea, a small child seeking adult reassurance. She hadn't heard Paul use that voice since he was about six years old. She leapt to her feet and spun around to spot Paul. He staggered toward her, his face a pale, twisted mask of anguish. He dropped to one knee, burying his face in his hands.

Colby's mind went mercifully blank as she covered the distance between them in a flat run, flinging herself down beside him, drawing the lean, trembling body against her protectively. "Tell me, Paulo." Incredibly gentle, her voice still held a wealth of authority.

She felt Rafael go still, felt him wrap his arms around her to give her strength.

"The tracks, hers and his. I followed them. There's-there's a-a " He broke off, sobbing wildly, tears coursing down his cheeks. He buried his face again in his hands, refusing to look at her.

Colby gripped his shoulders, shook him hard twice. "Tell me!" Fear was choking her, making it impossible to breathe. "Paul! For God's sake, did you find Ginny?"

Paul lifted his face, staring at her with haunted eyes. Colby held her breath. Rafael held his breath.

"Paul." Colby touched the tears on his face. "What is it?"

"A grave!" Paul shouted. "I found a grave."

There was a sudden silence. Shocked, Colby was completely still for a minute, the thudding of her heart slamming in her ears and a scream tearing up from her heart. "I won't believe it," she said, shoving him away, stumbling to her feet. Wait for me. Rafael redoubled his efforts for speed in spite his injuries. She was nearly hysterical. He should have taken the children's blood so he could know where they were at any given time. The thought of that small child hurt, perhaps dead, struck at his heart and soul until he wanted to echo Colby's silent scream.

Colby took off running in the direction Paul had come from. She saw the large boot prints where a heavy man had overtaken Ginny, the broken, bruised bushes where she'd struggled, the deeper imprint of the man's tracks as he'd carried her. The tracks twisted back into the shelter of a dead-end canyon. Off to the left, inbetween two large boulders, was a small mound, fresh earth piled up and more scattered around, small rocks placed carefully on top to prevent animals from digging it up.

Rafael. Rafael. Oh, God I think she's dead. Colby ran forward, screaming a denial, hurling the rocks away in a terrible fury, tearing at the earth with bare hands.

Do not do this yourself. I am so close, meu amor. Let me do it for you.

She didn't stop, couldn't stop until her fingers touched something solid. She stopped breathing, stopped thinking, her mind nearly numb. She became aware of everything then, the tears on her face, the dirt on her clothes, the material in her hands. Burlap. Reluctantly she pushed the remainder of the dirt away to uncover the sack.

I can't breathe, Rafael, I can't breathe. She was going to be sick.

"No, you are not." She hadn't even heard Rafael arrive. He was simply there beside her, a hand on her shoulder, his breath warm and reassuring against the nape of her neck. "Look closely at the bag, Colby."

She could barely see through her tears. Then she was sobbing aloud, wildly, uncontrollably, gratefully, joyously. "It's a hundred-pound sack of oats. Not Ginny. Oats." She turned around into the haven of his arms, buried her face against his chest, and cried with sheer relief.

"She's alive," Rafael said. "I scanned the area and there is something evil here, but she is alive. I feel her presence."

"Not Paul," she whispered, clutching at his shirt.

"Not Paul, querida," he confirmed, his hands gentle as he helped her to her feet.

Colby turned to look at Paul. He was several yards away, clutching a tree for support, his face buried on his arm. "It's not Ginny," she called. "It isn't her, Paul. It's a hoax. Thank God, it's a hoax."

Paul lifted his head, staring at her as if she was crazy, then he ran forward on trembling legs, stumbling over the uneven ground to see for himself. They clung together laughing hysterically, their relief so great they were a little crazy for a few moments.

Colby sobered first, reaching again for Rafael. It was only then that she really looked at him. His face was ravaged and raw from the deep claws of the vampire's mutated creatures. His shirt hung about him in dirty shreds, the skin of his chest angry and lacerated. Blood stained his shirt and seeped from his wounds. His eyes were red and swollen even in the early morning light, a testimony to his loss of strength.

He stood tall and straight and so torn up her tears began all over again. "Rafael, you shouldn't have come." He was so wounded, his great strength utterly diminished, yet still he had come to her aid. She bit her lip, wanting to touch him, wanting to hold him close and soothe the worst of his pain. "You don't even have dark glasses."

"And where are yours?" He took her hand, his thumb moving over her skin as if checking for burns or blisters.

"I don't know, I forgot them. I still have to find Ginny. I should have known. It was right there in front of me, but I was so frightened. That's what they were counting on. I'd be so scared I'd believe the obvious." She touched his face gently. "Rafael, you have to go back. There's Julio and Juan. I'm not alone now." She couldn't help herself, she wrapped her arms around him and leaned into him, careful of his wounds. "Thank you for wanting to be here for me."

"You must go to rest, Don Rafael," Juan said, dismounting. He took in the tracks, the opened grave and sack of oats. Rafael stood very close to Colby, a purely protective gesture. "Have you found young Ginny?"

Paul flung himself into Juan's arms. "I didn't do this. I know I didn't do this."

Rafael quieted him with a touch. "No, Paul, you didn't do this. There is a puppet at work here, a very evil being. I will not leave until the child is found. She is somewhere in that direction." He pointed back toward the area where Colby had been looking around for sign. "Juan, you and Julio get to higher ground and use the scopes. Make it look as if you're heading of the area to check the cattle."

You think someone is watching us," Paul said. "I don't understand this. Ginny's still missing; he must have her with him." Rafael nodded. "I do not think they are together. Ginny would fight to give his position away. I think the two of you are lured out here deliberately."

Paul met the red-rimmed eyes. "You think they want to hurt Colby. Can the vampire use me to hurt either of my sisters?"

"Paul," Colby objected.

Rafael put a restraining hand on the small of her back. "During daylight hours the vampire cannot give you any orders. He can program you ahead of time, but cannot continue to do so during the day. Nicolas is watching over you. I will not allow anything to happen to any of you."

Paul squared his shoulders. "What do you want me to do? This man has Ginny, we have to get her back."

Colby shook her head firmly. "No, she went off in the other direction. Somehow he lured her over there, I'm not sure, but we'll find her over that way. He erased her tracks and did a darned good job of it too."

"How?" Paul asked.

Colby shrugged. "All he had to do was wait for her to start for the spring and somehow get her to switch directions. Once she was out of sight, he got rid of her tracks on that side and any evidence that she'd passed that way. He left her tracks leading in this direction, covered them with his own, and smashed bushes to make it look like she struggled."

And he used the sack of oats to make his prints deeper in the dirt so we'd think he was carrying Ginny," Paul said.

She nodded. "I should have figured it out right then. It would have saved us a lot of grief."

"Why, Colby?" Paul asked plaintively. "Why is the vampire doing this to us? Where did he come from and what does he want?"

Colby looked up at Rafael. "That's a good question, Paul, and I don't have the answer. It makes no sense."

Rafael sighed. "The vampire has effectively destroyed the man's brain. He's rotting from the inside out. To him, what he is doing may make perfect sense, although to us it is elaborate and vile. He cannot think clearly anymore. He tries to obey his master's bidding. More than likely his master did not say to kill the child so he is concentrating on drawing out his target."

As much as she wanted Rafael there, he was swaying with weariness and she could see blisters rising on his skin. She touched his mind, as soft and delicate a probe as she could make it. Instantly she was driven to her knees, the pain so excruciating her heart stuttered.

Rafael's hands were gentle as he lifted her to him, but his eyes were stern. "Do not do that again."

She blinked back tears. Tears wouldn't find Ginny and they wouldn't stop the pain for Rafael. "Paul, I need my rifle. Take the mare and go back to the house and bring me my gun and extra ammo and a canteen."

"You'll find Ginny?"

"Absolutely. I'll find Ginny"

Paul hesitated. "But what are you going to do with the rifle?"

"I don't know yet," Colby replied honestly, "but this is going to stop. Now go."

He turned away, took two steps, and turned back. "What if you're both wrong, Colby? What if he has her?"

"I'm not wrong, Paulo," she told him. Colby had been reading tracks most of her life; she was certain she could find her sister.

"You know what we are through your link to Nicolas," Rafael pointed out. "I am telling you, Ginny is not with the vampire's servant and for that we can all be grateful. I sense his presence in one direction and hers in another. Colby hopes to send me away because I am not at full strength, but I won't leave her until everyone is safe. You have my word of honor."

Paul hugged Colby, needing to, needing her strength, deriving comfort and reassurance from her the way he'd done most of his life.

Colby watched Paul scramble out of the canyon and begin to make his way back toward the ranch house before she turned back to Rafael. "You look like you're going to fall over. I'm a good shot, Rafael. If it isn't the vampire, I can take care of it."

"They eat human flesh, Colby," he said, gesturing toward the direction they thought Ginny had taken. "You find your sister and I will destroy the vampire's evil creation."

"What are you going to do?"

"Let him think you are alone. He will come after you. I do not like using you as bait, but it is the only way when I am so weak, meu amor."

"I don't mind being bait to get Ginny back. Are you certain Ginny's alive?"

He took a deep breath, scenting the air. "She's alive." Rafael's large frame shimmered. "It will be easier for me to endure the light in the form of mist. I will be close, Colby."

She knew he would be. Rafael was in excruciating pain, yet he had still come to her when she needed him.

He is taking a terrible risk. Nicolas's voice was harsh in her mind. Soon the lethargy will overtake him and he will be unable to move, and without cover, he will die.

I won't let him. She couldn't change Rafael's mind once it was made up. She could only try to locate Ginny quickly and get them all out of the climbing sun.

Colby began a slow, methodical search of the ground. She kept her eyes glued to the dirt, moving in an ever-widening circle. In a shallow depression behind the boulders she discovered a partial print, the worn left heel, an old rusty shovel. It was one she recognized. She and Paul had discarded it months earlier after the handle had broken.

It took twenty precious minutes to find where the man had lain in wait, his elbows making twin impressions in the grass on the knoll. He had watched the trail long enough to smoke three cigarettes. Conscious of the sun's position, she carefully examined the ground, sure that the vampire's puppet had some method of transportation. Again she used up precious time she knew Rafael didn't have unraveling the trail as she backtracked him. A few hundred yards from his vantage point she found where he had left his horse.

Rafael. I've seen these tracks before. They belong to a man working for Clinton Daniels-his name is Ernie Carter. I ran into him near where I found Pete's body. His eyes were red and swollen and he felt evil. Could he have killed Pete? The idea that this man had been anywhere near Ginny terrified her.

It is likely.

Colby examined the trampled grass, found where the horse had grazed and its droppings, and knew that Ernie had been there for some time. She could see a clear impression where the heavy grain sack had rested against rocks, the weight crushing the grass beneath it. She bit her lip reading the story easily, the short strides taken away from the horse, obviously burdened. Ernie had laid out the scene and had gone back to the knoll to observe his handiwork. She found the telltale tracks, his distinctive heel mark where he'd spotted her tracking him and he'd whirled around, the longer strides indicating he had run to his horse.

He's somewhere close by. He definitely spotted me and could be stalking me now. For a moment her shoulder blades itched, expecting an impact any moment.

He is to your north, on foot now, moving through the brush. Neither Juan nor Julio has a clear shot at him.

Colby flung up her head, an unfamiliar coldness sweeping through her, an iron resolve. The vampire had not only done this to her, he had put Paul through something no one, let alone a child, should have to go through. I can't think about him, Rafael, I have to find Ginny. Please don't let anything happen to Paul. Promise me.

Querida, Paul will not be harmed by this evil creature. I have him now, and I will destroy him. Paul comes now with your rifle.

At once her heart stilled. Rafael was determined to go into battle. He was mortally injured. By all rights he should be dead, not running around hunting for a servant of the undead. She held out her hand for the rifle and Paul tossed it to her. He dropped the mare's reins and swung down, handing her the box of ammunition. "Have you picked up her trail yet?" he asked.

Colby shook her head. "This man's a skilled tracker. He's brushed out her tracks for a good quarter mile through the brush. I want you to work out the trail, Paul, but it will be dangerous. You'll have to pretend you're me and you'll be the bait. I'll work my way through the brush to get a bead on him. Rafael's hunting him, but he's badly injured and the sun is already up. I can feel how tired he is and how difficult moving is becoming for him."

"What if she's" Paul trailed off.

Colby shook her head as she thumbed shells into the rifle. "She isn't, Paul. Rafael says he's certain she's alive. What about you?" She paused, her gaze meeting his solidly. "Can you resist anything the vampire might have programmed into you?"

I am with him. It was all Nicolas said, but it was enough to reassure her.

Paul nodded. "I won't hurt Ginny. Nothing could make me hurt her." He put the canteen strap around his neck. "And Nicolas De La Cruz is in my mind. He's awake, so I guess it will be all right."

"Take my hat and my long-sleeved shirt. Stay in the brush so he thinks you're me. He has to believe that, Paul, can you do that?"

Paul took the hat and shirt, frowning as he did so. "You're already burned."

Colby ignored his comment. "I'm counting on you, then." She took off running, her body low to the ground, using as much available ground cover as she could, working her way north. She knew Ernie was working his way toward her in the hopes of killing or capturing her. He was good, but he made mistakes and one of them was his continual need for nicotine. She could smell the cigarette burning as he smoked it somewhere ahead of her.

Without long sleeves to protect her arms, branches scratched her skin and, even with the cloud cover overhead, she could feel blisters forming. Her eyes burned, tearing continuously, and she knew Rafael was suffering even worse. She flattened her body in the midst of brush, crawling along an animal trail through the branches.

What do you think you are doing? There was a distinct snap to Rafael's voice, as if he had bared his teeth.

I'm protecting you. Paul is playing me and he's nearly as good a tracker as I am. This man isn't going to get close to either one of you.

I forbid this.

"Forbid away," she muttered aloud. He was weak, nearly the walking dead, his body so ravaged and torn, but he was too stubborn to admit it. He needed help whether he knew it or not. She crawled closer to where her quarry had settled into the rocks, waiting for her. Waiting to kill her. A chill went down her spine as she realized that was the man's single goal-to get to her.

Colby There was a warning note in Rafael's voice, a promise of retaliation.

Just do your thing and let me do mine. This is who I am, Rafael, so if you're thinking about hooking up with me for any length of time, get used to it.

This is who I am, Colby. You put yourself in danger at any time and I will wrap you up in an impenetrable barrier where nothing can touch you. It will take a great deal of my strength when I need it elsewhere.

She muttered an imprecation under her breath, calling him several names, none of which were complimentary. The man was impossible, even when he was on the verge of death.

She had pushed through the bushes a little farther and saw the vampire's puppet. It was definitely the same man who had been with Tony Harris on her property near the mines. Her stomach lurched as the thought came unbidden that he had tried to feed on Pete's body, that he must have been the one to kill him. Ernie Carter looked enormously strong, but disheveled, his clothes torn and rumpled. He was drooling and one eyelid drooped over his eye. He watched Paul through a pair of binoculars, but continually wiped at his streaming eyes.

Colby felt sick that she had to do the same. She was somehow related to the man. Once, he'd been just like Paul, innocent, until the vampire had taken a hold of him.

Not so innocent, Rafael denied. His mind and memories are rotten. Stay still, he is suspicious. Paul does not move as you do and he is noticing something is not right.

Ernie suddenly cursed aloud, tossed the cigarette to one side, and lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aiming at Paul.

Colby tucked her rifle into position, finger on the trigger. She was an excellent shot, but she'd never killed anyone before. With a sinking feeling, her finger began to tighten. She knew she didn't have a choice. The sun blinded her, coming out from behind the cloud and striking her in the face. It was all she could do not to cry out in pain as thousands of needles seemed to penetrate her eyes. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision, desperate to get off a shot before the stalker could hurt Paul.

"Paul! Get down!" She screamed the warning, knowing she was giving away her position, but uncaring.

Ernie immediately turned toward the sound of her voice and fired off several shots. The bullets whined through the air, thudding into the dirt feet from her. Colby squeezed the trigger, half blinded by the sun but determined to lay down covering fire for her brother.

Simultaneously, she heard the rifle fire from two other guns and knew Julio and Juan were doing the same. The vampire's servant slipped back into the trees, crawling on his belly through the brush toward his horse. Colby caught glimpses of him, but couldn't get a clear shot. Her heart nearly stopped when Rafael stepped into her line of fire, his back to her. Fresh blood was a giant pool on the back of his shirt.

No! No, Rafael. He was too weak. She could feel the terrible drain of energy. Nicolas! Oh, please, tell me what to do! She screamed for his brother in her mind. Colby got her feet under her and ran, clutching her weapon, determined to help Rafael. She could see Juan and Julio sprinting down the slope, converging from two directions, trying to get to him. She hit something solid and fell backward, finding herself seated on the ground, a barrier blocking her. She could touch it, but she couldn't see it.

Ernie lumbered to his feet, his red-rimmed eyes swollen nearly shut, but his head snapped around as he located his target. He brought the gun to his shoulder, although Rafael was only an arm's distance from him. Rafael caught the barrel and twisted the weapon from the man's grasp, tossing it away.

The vampire's puppet screamed, a ghastly sound of rage and hatred, and rushed Rafael like a linebacker. He managed too wrap his arms around Rafael, sinking his teeth into the hunter's chest and his fists into the wound in his back. He tore a chunk of flesh from over Rafael's heart and spit it out.

Colby tried the rifle, shooting at the barrier, hoping to shatter it, but it remained in place. She could only watch in horror as the mutated human tore at Rafael a second time.

Rafael didn't flinch away, but rather caught the man's head in his hands and wrenched hard. The sound of Ernie's neck snapping was loud in the early morning air. Colby drew air into her lungs in relief, but to her horror, Ernie didn't fall. Rafael shoved him backward. The zombielike creature lurched forward, his head twisted at a peculiar angle. He roared, spewing spittle as he attacked.

Colby's heart pounded in her chest. Her fists gripped the rifle so hard her hands went numb. She'd never felt so helpless in her life.

Surprisingly, the vampire's servant was fast, but Rafael sidestepped, slamming his fist deep into the man's chest. He stood there, eye to eye with the puppet, his hand buried deep, then he withdrew it. The sound was loud in the still morning air, a sucking sound that made Colby sick. Rafael stood there with Ernie's heart in his hand, blood running down his arm. The body swayed and folded in on itself in slow motion.

Colby turned her head away from the sight, her heart slamming in her chest. She didn't belong in a world where men tore the hearts out of chests and bit each other in the neck and turned human beings into cannibals and puppets. She felt faint and dizzy, pressing her hand to her forehead, wiping the beads of sweat away.

I am sorry you had to witness such a destruction of life, meu amor.

Rafael's voice brushed along her nerve endings, a sensuous touch of velvet over her skin, in her mind. Seducing her senses. She shook her head, wanting to think clearly. Needing to think clearly. Part of her felt she might be going insane.

A flash of lightning drew her attention. Rafael drew from the sky the same orange-red ball of energy that Nicolas had manipulated, incinerating the man who had once been a human being. He tossed the heart to the ground and did the same to it, also bathing his hands and arms in the energy.

He took a step toward Colby and staggered. Gasping, she slammed at the barrier with the rifle butt. "Get it down now!" Her third swing met with no resistance and she ran to him. "Damn you! Don't you ever do that again. Don't you ever take away my choices like that. I could shoot you myself."

Juan and Julio were nearly to them. "Find Ginny," she yelled and caught at Rafael. "You take my blood right now. This second."

He shook his head. "It is too dangerous, meu amor. I need too much. Hunger claws at me. I could hurt you. I will not take the chance."

Colby was so angry adrenaline surged through her blood-stream. She yanked the knife from her belt and slashed her wrist. "Damn you, don't say no to me" It hurt like hell, and turned her stomach over so she had to fight against the waves of nausea. She thrust her arm to his mouth. "Take the blood before I pass out or get so mad I stab you and finish the job."

The smell of blood hit him hard, and before he could stop himself, Rafael grasped her wrist and latched on. The adrenaline-laced blood hit him like a fireball, rushing through his system, giving him a false high instantly. He gulped at the liquid, his cells crying out for sustenance. The red haze spread through his mind and the beast rose up, roaring for more. His ravaged body demanded the means of regeneration and the blood poured into him, hot and sweet and addicting.

She felt the drain, actually felt the blood rushing from her body into his. Her wrist burned and throbbed and she could feel the puncture of his teeth. She couldn't prevent the involuntary tug as she tried to get her hand back. His grip tightened painfully, fingers digging into her skin with bruising force. Colby closed her eyes and tried not to look or feel anything at all.

Stop him. Nicolas's voice was so distant and faint Colby could barely catch it. Force him to stop before it is too late.

"Rafael." She yanked at her wrist hard, trying to break loose from his grip. "Let go of me. You're hurting me." Her legs went out from under her and she sank down.

"Don Rafael." Juan Chevez shoved the barrel of his rifle beneath Rafael's jaw. "Let her go or I will shoot."

There was a moment of silence. Colby's heart pounded. Inside, she could hear herself screaming a denial. She'd rather be dead herself than lose him, but fear lived in her as Rafael stoked his tongue across her wrist and lifted his head to look at Juan. There was death in the black eyes and little else.

Colby's arm fell free of his grip. Before she could think she leapt to her feet and shoved the rifle away from Rafael. "No, Juan. He doesn't know what he's doing." She tried to touch Rafael's mind, but she could only hear a strange roaring and, very distantly, a wrenching cry of sorrow. Rafael's fingers wrapped around her throat. Time stopped. Her heart beat too fast and the air rushed from her lungs.

Without warning Rafael collapsed, going down hard and taking her with him. He was gone from her mind. Colby frantically took his pulse. "Is he dead? Juan, there's no pulse. He can't be dead." She tried to roll him over to give him CPR.

Juan stayed her with a hand on her shoulder. "It is the sun. He is too weak and he must be protected, put in the ground. We have to attend his wounds as best we can and cover him with earth. When Don Nicolas rises this evening, he will take him somewhere safe."

She lifted Rafael's head and to her shock, his black eyes stared at her, filled with intelligence and remorse. He seemed paralyzed, unable to move. His heart and lungs appeared not to be working, but he was alert. "Should I pack his wounds like I did last night?" She didn't want to look into Rafael's eyes and she didn't want to touch his mind.

While Juan dug a place in the cool earth near the pond, she packed the wounds with soil and her own saliva. He never spoke and she felt numb. His wounds were terrible. It didn't seem possible for anyone to recover from such a thing. She hated helping Juan roll him into the shallow grave and had to look away when his body was covered.

Colby staggered to her feet and began to run through the brush, uncaring that the jagged branches and prickly thorns tore at her skin and clothes. She needed to find Paul and Ginny. She needed to be with someone sane, someone normal. Her mind couldn't accept what Rafael could do. He should be dead, yet he had ripped out a heart with his bare hands. He had nearly killed her and might have killed Juan. Instead of taking him to a doctor, she had packed the gaping holes with dirt and saliva and buried him on her ranch.

Paul and Ginny sat in the small grove of pine trees, Julio standing guard. Both looked tired and dirty and so familiar she burst into tears.

Rafael couldn't comfort her, locked beneath the earth, his body already leaden and his heart ceasing to beat. He could hear her crying, knew he had nearly killed her and that she knew it as well. Juan had obeyed him, putting her protection above all else, and for that he would always be grateful. He was so close, the monster growing in him when the ritual words should have made him safe. Had he waited too long? He wanted to reach out to her, hold her, kiss the tears from her face and reassure her he would never harm her, but he no longer knew if that was true. Lying beneath the earth, he found his anguish over Colby hurt far worse than any of his physical wounds.

Aboveground, Colby clung to Paul and Ginny, desperate to get them away from a world she didn't understand. Ginny began to tell her all about her frightening experience, following the sound of a hurt animal and being trapped in a deadfall. The sound of her voice did nothing to help the terrible dread that invaded Colby's heart.

| Dark Secret | c