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15

Rafael moved too fast to be seen, placing himself between Colby and Paul. Savage growls emerged from Paul's throat and he slashed wildly with the weapon. Rafael clamped down hard on his wrist, easily removing the knife, and at once, Paul's expression changed. He blinked rapidly, his eyes clearing, becoming aware, and he gave a startled cry of recrimination that tore at Colby's heart.

"Colby!" He sounded like a lost child, the little boy she had loved so much, had cared for all of her life. "What am I doing? What have I done?" He didn't struggle in Rafael's grasp. Tears filled his eyes and tracked down his face. His entire body shuddered.

"Honey." Colby reached out to him, wanting to comfort him.

Paul jerked backward out of her reach. "It is me! The vampire did something to me when he bit me, didn't he? That's why Nicolas wanted me dead. He knew I was going to hurt you." He turned to look Rafael straight in the eye. "Could I hurt Ginny? Was I the one who did something to the horse to hurt Colby?"

Rafael probed the boy's memories and saw him finding his sister's bra in the barn where it had been forgotten. The undergarment had triggered the hidden compulsion buried deep in Paul to kill Colby. He saw the boy prepare a syringe and shoot the horse full of drugs before saddling it and waking Colby. He pulled out of the boy's mind and let out his breath slowly. "Paul," he spoke gently, "this is the kind of thing vampires thrive on. It is not you. They take someone good and try to get them to perform acts that the person would never conceive of doing. You cannot remember because it is so against your nature to harm either of your sisters. He couldn't twist you into something evil. He can only use you when you are vulnerable."

Paul backed away from the truck. He didn't remember jumping out of the back or tearing open the door behind his sister. He didn't even know where the knife came from. "I love my sisters. I'd rather be dead than hurt either of them."

Colby made a single sound of distress that tore at Rafael's heart. She tried to slide out of the truck and go after Paul, but Rafael caught her hand and held it to him, never taking his eyes from the boy. Querida, allow me to try. He is ashamed of what he's done and terrified he might succeed. "Paul, we know you love your family and that you would never do anything to harm them."

"I did, though. I did." Paul turned as if to run, but Rafael was faster, holding him there, his arms locking around the boy.

"Listen to me." Colby recognized the compulsion in Rafael's voice. "Now that we know what he has done and who he is, we can better stop him. He cannot have you. You belong with us. You are familia, family to us. You will be the one to bring about his downfall if he continues to try to use you."

Paul burst into tears, sobbing wildly, burying his face against the Carpathian. Rafael found himself comforting a teenager, a human boy, his heart reacting right along with Colby's to Paul's unrestrained crying.

"I saw what the vampire did to you. He was hideous. And his teeth going into my skin." Paul shook with revulsion. "I have nightmares."

"I have hunted the vampire a long time. I know you think he is invincible, but I have destroyed more than you can imagine over the years. I was careless, feeling too many emotions, and was not as wary as a hunter should be. The vampire took you with the intention of using you against us, but found you much stronger than he expected. You could have killed Colby in her sleep, anytime during the afternoons." That was not strictly the truth; Paul could have attempted, but Nicolas had provided safeguards to her room while she slept and the Chevez brothers had watched Paul closely. Paul had never made the attempt in spite of the vampire's compulsion. "Your character proved too strong for him. All these days and nights have gone by, yet only now, when I was close to rising, did you succumb to the demands."

"But I hurt her."

"You had to obey him. Paul, look at me." Gently Rafael held him at arm's length until the boy's shattered gaze met his. "You know I am far stronger than you, and far faster, yet you attacked when I was here to stop you. He did not defeat you and yet you are a boy, a human thwarting his plans."

Paul bristled a little at being called a boy, his pride surging forth. "I'm sixteen," he said and stepped back, wiping at his eyes.

"Yes, you are, and I am counting on the fact that you have been shouldering a man's responsibilities. You are definitely mature enough to understand the stakes and what we have to do."

Paul glanced at Colby, a quick, nervous shift of his eyes. He straightened his shoulders. "Tell me how to stop this."

"We have to kill the vampire in order for his hold on you to he completely gone, Paul," Rafael explained. "In the meantime, I can aid you in the same way Nicolas can."

Nicolas hasn't been much help so far, Colby was compelled to point out.

Nicolas prevented him from outright killing. Rafael was gentle, but firm. Without his interference, Paul would be in bad shape.

He is in bad shape. I'm in bad shape. My ranch is in bad shape. My life is a mess ever since all of you came here. Did that vampire follow you here? Colby trailed off, her mind racing. The accidents on her ranch had started long before the Chevez brothers had come to make their claim on Ginny and Paul. She couldn't blame them for that.

"Whatever it takes," Paul said. "Whatever you want me to do."

"It may mean leaving here, Paul," Rafael said.

Colby stiffened. "We're not leaving, Rafael."

"We have no choice, Colby," he said. "Until the vampire is destroyed, all of you are in danger. Paul, most of all. We need to put distance between them."

Colby suddenly felt trapped. She turned her face away from Rafael and looked up at the craggy peaks of her beloved mountains. "You're talking about sending Paul to Brazil, to the Chevez family, aren't you?"

There was absolutely no expression in her voice, but Rafael felt the surge of adrenaline, of resolve. "There are five of us in South America to protect Paul and his sanity. Across such a distance, the vampire could not so easily direct him when he is vulnerable. He will have his uncles and cousins to look after him during the sunlight hours and all of us when the sun is down."

"Paul, get in the truck," Colby said.

The boy hesitated, but she was giving him her fiery gaze, so he climbed into the back, still unsure and confused and very upset.

Rafael started the truck. "Colby, you cannot run away from your feelings for me. Vampires are utterly evil. This is a dangerous situation."

"I'm well aware we're all in danger," she replied stiffly. His black eyes flicked over her, just once, but sent a shiver down her spine. She was afraid of him, afraid of his control over her. She slid the window back in place to give them a semblance of privacy. "I don't know what my feelings for you are. We have sex. Great sex, but still, I don't really know you. You deliberately seduced me, Rafael. Don't deny it. You did. I'm lonely and I was easy prey."

"I have no intention of denying I seduced you. Why should I? But you would not have responded to me the way you did if I were not your lifemate."

"Rafael, any woman would be seduced by you. You're very sexy and an incredible lover. It has nothing to do with being lifemates."

"I could not be seduced by any other woman," he said quietly. "You belong with me. The rest will have to come later."

"What rest? The part where I do everything you say?"

"No, that needs to come now."

She glanced at him to see if he was attempting a joke. She didn't feel any amusement on his part and she had the sinking feeling he was very serious. "Here's the thing, Rafael: vampires and Carpathians aside, I believe in compatibility. I speak my mind, make my own decisions, and go my own way. I also think things all the way through. You want to make up my mind for me. Why would you think we're even remotely compatible?"

His black eyes slid over her a second time. Hot. Possessive. He robbed her of breath with that single seductive look. Colby had to look away, out the window, her fingers twisting together hard. He could look right through her and own her. Once he kissed her she seemed to lose her own will. Colby pushed at her throbbing temples.

She tentatively touched his mind with hers. Emotions swirled, violent and turbulent and unlike anything she was prepared for. Rafael intended to have her at any cost. He was every bit as ruthless as she first thought, maybe more so. He would have his way and do what he thought best to protect her in spite of her fears and misgivings. Colby pulled out of his head, more afraid than ever. Rafael didn't like anyone telling him no and he believed he had a right to her.

How could she survive with him? He lived so differently, thought so differently. He was a mixture of animal instinct, Latin male and dangerous Carpathian hunter. She was the epitome of an independent woman, yet she could no longer trust her own judgment around him. She wanted to be with him more than she wanted anything, but she was losing herself. She needed to be with him and yet she knew he would rule her. She wasn't the type of woman to be ruled. She closed her eyes, trying to keep her mind blank, not wanting him to read her confusion.

Rafael thought of a hundred arguments, a hundred explanations, but none of them would matter. Colby feared what he was and she feared his hold over her. After she had witnessed his nearly losing control, she had every right to fear him. She didn't even trust his purpose with her brother and sister and he couldn't really blame her. He and his brother had come with the sole intention of removing Armando Chevez's family to the ranch in Brazil and that purpose remained the same. Colby had clearly read that resolve in his mind. She was trying to keep from thinking, not wanting him to read her thoughts, but she planned on calling the sheriff as soon as she was home and talking things out with him. She trusted Ben like no other.

He felt the rising of something dark and deadly. The beast roared and his fangs exploded in his mouth. He kept his gaze fixed on the road, opening the gate with a wave of his hand and closing it behind them with a clang of steel and a rattle of chain as it slipped back into place.

They rode in absolute silence up to the ranch house. Colby slid out of the truck and made her way up to the house, annoyed that her leg felt completely better. She couldn't ignore that Rafael could heal her, that he had nearly died to save her and Paul from the vampire. That he had come to her when he was in terrible pain, near death, to help find Ginny. But could he be manipulating her mind in some way to believe all those things had happened when they hadn't really? Was it possible everything was an illusion? Standing alone in the living room, she touched the throbbing mark on her neck with her fingertips, stroking a caress over the pinpricks. Both Rafael and Nicolas were capable of powerful mind exploitation; she'd seen them use compulsion and enthrallment on others. Their eyes, their voices, everything about them shouted power.

The nape of her neck tingled. Her breasts began to ache and heat pooled in secret places. She closed her eyes briefly before turning around, knowing he was there in her living room. Rafael leaned one hip lazily against the wall, his black eyes watching her.

"Where's Paul?" Was that her voice? She could barely speak, her mouth was so dry. She couldn't look at him and not want him. It had to be compulsion. She had never been a woman to be obsessed with a man. She kept her hand over the bite mark that never seemed to fade on her neck.

"The Chevez brothers are taking him over to the Everetts'. He can visit with Ginny and calm down. Sean's good for him, a very steady man, and his uncles will watch over him. It will give him a few hours of relief. The vet left a note for you. He's taken the horse back to his clinic. I made certain the chores were done for the evening." He held out the veterinarian's note.

Wary, Colby stayed where she was. It was the way he looked at her. He was so handsome, so tough and hard yet completely sensual, and his gaze was hot and possessive when it rested on her. And so hungry for her. It made her feel as if he saw only her. That only she existed for him. Her body responded to the dark intensity of his look no matter what her brain said.

"I still have some things to get done. I need to make a few calls and go over the bills," she said. Her voice didn't even sound like her own. She felt behind her for the wall and gripped it as tight as she could.

"I am not going to go away."

"If you were just asking for my body, Rafael, I'd give it to you. But you're trying to take all of me, and I don't want that." She spread her hands out in front of her and stared down at the small white scars from repairing too many fences and handling too much barbwire.

"I am not going to go away."

"I have to have room. You aren't letting me think or breathe. I have to try to figure out what we've gotten into. I'm sorry it isn't what you want to hear, but I'm asking you to leave."

He raised an eyebrow. "Why do you persist in thinking I would ever leave you?"

She tried a careless shrug and just managed to pull it off. She didn't want him to go, but he couldn't stay. He devoured her, ate up her personality until she didn't recognize the woman who would do anything for him, be anything for him. "Maybe because you look human and you seem to be a fairly reasonable person. If a woman asks you to leave, I would imagine you would comply."

"I cannot leave you and you do not really want me to go. I can smell your scent calling to me. I am like the great cats in the forest, or the wolf running free. I claim what is mine and I hold it to me. Your fear is of little consequence."

"Does that type of line endear you to women you go out with?"

"I only go out with you so you will have to answer that." He suddenly straightened, a show of muscle and fluid strength.

"No, it doesn't endear you to me at all. I want you to leave." Because if he didn't, if he stood there looking the way he was looking she was going to go up in flames. She was all too aware of her body's reaction to him. She had to figure out whether she believed in him, or even trusted him, before they went any further.

He shook his head. "You think to be rid of me. You have no idea of the power I possess, or the lengths I would go to keep you."

"And you have no idea what a stalking law is," she said. "But you're right, I don't have any idea of your power. How can I trust that any of this is real?"

"You believe this is all an illusion?"

"I don't know what to believe. You came here to get Paul and Ginny. Suddenly they're in danger and my entire world is upside down. Surprise-the big solution is to take them to Brazil with you. How very convenient is that? I'm not going to just accept it all without really thinking it through. That's who I am. Live with that." Her eyes challenged him, dared him even. She needed Ben, needed to talk to him desperately. She was out of her mind, baiting Rafael the way she was.

"I suggest you stop thinking of this other man." His voice was very low, almost a purr, but fear blossomed deep in her stomach and spread.

"Ben is my friend. If you stayed out of my head, you wouldn't know I was thinking about him," she pointed out.

His eyes hadn't blinked once; they were totally focused on her. He was mesmerizing her, as efficiently as a cobra mesmerized prey. She stood her ground because she had no other choice. She would not allow him to take her over.

"What do you think would happen to you if I disappeared? You have gone through hell without me these last few risings, yet now you are so willing to do so again. Could you have managed without my brother's aid?"

She winced visibly. "There you go, Rafael. No, I wouldn't have managed and that tells me something important. It isn't normal not to be able to go a few days without seeing someone. Or feeling them inside your head. That's where you are, inside my head, and I can't get you out. It isn't right."

"How do you know what is right? You purposely keep our relationship physical. You do not touch my mind to find out who and what I am. You do not want to know."

His tone was mild but her stomach tightened at the way he kept watching her. She suddenly realized she was completely alone in the ranch house and he had arranged it that way. "You keep it physical, Rafael. The way you look at me and touch me. You're a very physical man and you don't take no for an answer, not when you want me."

"Well, at least we understand one another," he said.

"No, we don't," she burst out. She paced the length of the room and then swung back to confront him. "You act so calm, like everything is normal, Rafael. You tried to kill me. Okay, let's just say for the moment we put aside you ripping the heart out of a man's chest and the fireball you pulled from the sky. We'll just shelve that for the moment and go right to the fact that you nearly killed me. I saw it in your eyes. You might have killed Juan as well."

Rafael's dark gaze met hers. "That is true."

"You told me you could never harm your lifemate. If I'm that person, how is it possible? Your own words make you a liar, or very much mistaken about this entire thing." He had scared her to death. Even now, just thinking about it made her go cold with fear.

"In order for you to understand how such a thing is possible, I have to tell you about myself and my brothers. Even when we were young, not yet two hundred years, we knew we were different from most other Carpathian males. We challenged every rule, pushed every limit. We reveled in our power and strength and when the prince gave us orders, we obeyed, but we questioned. Zacarias was our acknowledged leader, first and always before our prince."

"So you were the bad boys of the community."

"More than bad boys. We chafed at the restraints placed on our kind. Our closest friends were the Malinov brothers. They played rough the way we did, reveled in battle, in challenge, and we had long discussions on why our species should be dominant over mankind. We knew we had power and it seemed wrong to us to allow our prince to keep our strengths secret. As we grew in strength, fighting the vampires and learning our craft as warriors, we grew closer together and questioned the authority of our leadership. We even discussed overthrowing the Dubrinsky family and taking over leadership."

Colby sank back into a chair, her legs rubbery. Nothing he had said so far was giving her confidence in him and their relationship. "You actually plotted to overthrow your ruler?"

"In an interesting discussion kind of way. It happened over a long period of time before any of us thought about it seriously. Eventually, the night our prince sent us away from our homeland with no chance of ever finding a lifemate-at least that was what we thought then-we did discuss turning vampire and whether we would be strong enough as a unit to keep from turning on one another as vampires do. We could separate and scatter to recruit others of our kind, using one code name. That way, it would appear as if the same person was in several places at once."

Colby thought of the horrific monster holding Paul in front of him, sinking his teeth deep into her brother, the mutated creatures undulating all around him. She pressed her hands to her stomach. "Where does the part where I understand come in?"

"I am trying to tell you our natures were darker, more animalistic, even more predatory than many Carpathians. It has only been the fact that my brothers and I have remained close, that we had a pact with one another and have kept to it. We did discuss these things, but in the end, it came down to one thing. Honor. We refused to live without honor. The Malinov brothers felt the same way. Our decision did not make it easier for us to conform to the rules. I have a predatory nature. You have not committed your life to mine. I need you as an anchor; I need that commitment from you so that our souls can fully merge."

She jumped up. "Now you're blaming me for what happened. Your predatory nature might just rear its ugly head again and next time you'll kill me, or Paul, or my sister."

A slow hiss of impatience accompanied his exhale. "I have told you things I have never told any other person and yet you do not see that in sharing this shameful part of myself, I was giving you a gift. You would never have found it buried deep inside of me. I chose to be honest. Nicolas is right, there is no other way than force with you."

She moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. He was seething beneath his deceptively lazy demeanor, a swirling cauldron of heat and fire. He made her burn just looking at him. His eyes smoldered one moment, were icy cold the next. Colby let her breath out slowly. "What are you going to do?" She hated that her voice came out a whisper.

"Fortunately for you, your good friend the sheriff has arrived without you calling him. You have gained another reprieve?'

Relief swept through her instantly. She sank back down into the chair. She had no idea the tension in her had coiled so tightly. She blinked and he was no longer at the wall near the doorway, but crouched at her feet, looking up at her. "Be very careful with this man, Colby. I am angry beyond your imagining and I need you in more ways than you think. I would not want an innocent man to suffer because you push me too far."

She twisted her fingers together. Perversely, a part of her was disappointed and she was honest enough to recognize the fact. She was drowning in her body's need for him. Her mind wanted to touch his. She ached for him and wanted his arms around her. Holding herself apart from him was difficult and wearing. "Don't hurt Ben," she whispered.

His fingers caught her chin in a firm grip. "Then do not do anything to set me off. Admit I am not human. Let yourself admit that much and it will become easier to accept that I do not have entirely human characteristics. I was born and bred a hunter, a seeker of prey. It is what I do and what I live to do. Every instinct I have is that of a predator."

"Okay." Her gaze shifted away from him. "You aren't helping your cause. Why do you deliberately try to scare me? I'm already afraid."

"Because you should be afraid. You are not facing a civilized man who understands the laws and abides by them. Our own laws, based on our predatory makeup, rule us. If I do not do what my instincts tell me I must, I endanger too many people. Weighing that against your reluctance, when I know in the end the outcome will be the same"

"You don't know that," she interrupted, attempting to jerk away from his tight grip. She was always astonished at his strength, yet he never seemed to hurt her, even when he was rough. His touch sent butterflies winging in her stomach.

"I do know it. The only way it will change will be if I am dead."

His words took her breath. Sent a dark dread creeping through her body. She blinked away tears, hating that just the thought of his death tore at her emotions.

The knock on the kitchen door was loud but brief. Ben's voice called out to her. "Colby? You home? Doc said you had a bad cut on your leg and the vet said the horse was drugged." He was walking through the house.

Rafael scowled his distaste at the easy familiarity of the other man. He reluctantly allowed Colby to pull her chin away from his hand and stood up, looking more a jungle cat than ever.

"I'm in the living room, Ben," Colby answered, her gaze on Rafael. She couldn't look away if she tried. He was too overpowering, filling the room with his presence, breathing all the air and taking up all the space.

"How bad is it this time, honey?" Ben asked as he entered the room. He paused for a moment when he saw Rafael lounging against the desk with his arms crossed and his legs stretched out in front of him lazily. Immediately the tension in the room went up several degrees.

Colby rubbed her hand over her face. "I'm fine, Ben. Thanks for worrying about me. Paul and Ginny are at Sean Everett's ranch at the moment and I'm just resting." Why not just say something? Have Rafael arrested for stalking her? She pressed her fingers to her throbbing temple and shook her head at her own foolishness. She didn't have the kind of strength it took to get Rafael out of her life. Maybe she could do it for her brother and sister, but not for herself. She was beginning to despise herself.

Querida. His voice was soft, compelling. Terribly intimate whispering in her mind. You are beginning to understand, to accept. You face so much for others without fear and yet you cannot accept anything for yourself.

When he did that, when he spoke in that voice in her mind, she turned inside out and wanted to burrow inside of him and be everything he wanted and needed.

"We've got trouble around here, Colby. I should have listened to you when you were talking about all the accidents happening on your ranch and old Pete's disappearance." Ben removed his hat and sank into her one good rocker. "I've had three people disappear from town and another two from a couple of ranches."

Colby glanced at Rafael. The news obviously didn't surprise him.

Vampires have to feed and when they feed, they kill their prey.

A chill went down her spine. He was so calm about it, so accepting and matter-of-fact. So removed. As if his feelings weren't involved.

I have not had emotions for centuries. I do not feel when I hunt the vampire. I would not be able to kill that which was my friend over and over.

"Was there evidence of foul play?" Colby asked, watching Rafael. Did he even feel for the victims? For their families? She couldn't see evidence of it. What did you feel when you tore out that poor unfortunate man's heart? Because it could have been Paul's heart. He could have been hunting her brother. The vampire had bitten him, tried to use him in the same way as a puppet.

I felt nothing at all. He would not lie to her. She insisted on scaring herself and making her life so much more difficult than it needed to be.

Would you have been so dispassionate had it been Paul? It was not Paul.

"Colby, are you listening to a word I'm saying?" Ben demanded.

"I'm sorry, yes, it's just so awful. We've never had murders and disappearances here before."

"I talked to Tony Harris." Ben's hard-edged gaze fell on Rafael.

Colby had to admit Rafael didn't look impressed or in the least bit remorseful. "I have no idea what got into Tony. He was far worse than usual."

"Luckily for Mr. De La Cruz, he admitted he had assaulted you," Ben said. "I felt like giving him a good beating myself."

"Tony admitted it?" Colby was shocked. She glanced suspiciously at Rafael. Had he planted a compulsion in the man to tell the truth? Rafael's dark features remained expressionless.

Ben nodded. "I had a long talk with him about all the things going on here. I've been suspicious that his boss wanted your ranch and that he was the cause of some of your accidents here"

"I thought of that, Ben," Colby said, "but as much of a bully as Tony is, he's rancher. He's one of us. I couldn't see him doing that to the kids and me. I've known him my entire life."

"And you've always looked down on him."

Colby spread her fingers out in front of her. "Maybe that's true. He's always been such a bully. I hate the way he talks to me."

"He's had a crush on you for years, Colby," Ben said.

She glanced at Rafael. She couldn't help herself, although she didn't want to look at him. She could feel his gaze, hot and possessive, on her body. Stop looking at me like that. The plea burst out of her before she could stop it. He made her want him without touching her. Standing across the room, looking cool and nearly bored, he could look at her and reduce her to raging hormones. I hate it. I hate what you do to me.

"I don't believe that, Ben. He was always nasty to me. Nasty and sarcastic. He always calls me the ice princess."

"Everyone knows he's had a thing for you, Colby. And he is nasty and sarcastic. I'm not saying Tony Harris is a great guy-he's meaner than a snake-but he seems to think you should be with him and he's damned angry that you're not. It was fine when he didn't feel he had a rival, but everyone knows you're carrying on with De La Cruz "-Ben jerked his thumb toward Rafael-"and Tony's nose is out of joint."

"That doesn't give him the right to put his hands on me."

"No, it doesn't, and I would have arrested him if you'd made a complaint. And if I'd seen what he did to you I would have done what De La Cruz did." He looked at Rafael. "You've made an enemy for life. Tony doesn't hold too much with the law."

Rafael shrugged, uncaring. "Did he have anything to do with the accidents happening on Colby's ranch?"

"I think so," Ben said. "He skirted the issue, but he didn't altogether deny it either. I think his worm of a boss tried to get her place cheap and Tony went along with it. Twice, in the course of the conversation, he said maybe Colby wouldn't be so high and mighty when she realized she needed a man to help her. I think in his twisted way, Tony thought he could force Colby to ask him for help."

"As if!" Colby all but snorted. "I'd never ask that rat for help. You should have seen him when he thought I was alone out by the mines. He and that" She trailed off, biting down hard on her lip. She didn't want to talk about Ernie Carter, or think about Rafael standing, covered in wounds, his fist buried in the man's chest. She closed her eyes, feeling sick.

Ben shrugged. "Tony has delusions, Colby, but I think he had opportunity and in his own twisted way, motive."

She sat up straight. "You don't suspect him of killing Pete, do you?" Tony was many things, but he wasn't a murderer. She didn't want to try to tell Ben there were vampires and puppets in his county. He would lock her up in a padded cell, but she couldn't have Tony arrested for murder.

"Tony isn't smart enough to commit murder and get away with it. He drinks too much and he talks when he's drinking. No one would help him cover up a murder."

Colby let her breath out slowly. "If it's that worm Clinton Daniels causing all the accidents to my ranch, how are we going to catch him? He'd send Tony or one of his other men-he'd never dirty his own hands."

"Whatever you're thinking about doing, Colby," Ben warned, "don't."

"Well, someone has to stop him. I'm not going to be happy putting Tony in jail if Daniels put him up to it."

Rafael, always a shadow in her mind, touched on her plans, irritated that Ben could read her so easily. He caught her thoughts, meeting Daniels casually for a drink, flirting with him, trying to get information on tape from him. Could she kiss him? She wasn't certain she could go that far.

I do not think so. I would have to kill him. Rafael was matter-of-fact about it. And then you would have to deal with my wrath.

Spare me the male drama. This is serious. Clinton Daniels is a snake. I've struggled for months trying to hold things together.

"You stay away from Daniels, Colby," Ben said. "I'm not putting up with your shenanigans in the middle of dead bodies and disappearances."

Colby grinned at him. Ben had used his sternest voice on her. "Ben, darling, no one says 'shenanigans' anymore."

She felt the darkness then, heard the roar of a beast. Rafael turned his face away from her, staring out the window, his back to them, but she knew fangs exploded in his mouth. He was fighting a dark instinct that seemed to be riding him hard.

What? She pushed a hand through her hair, irritated all over again.

You call this man by an endearment when you will not even contemplate the possibility of caring for me. How do you expect your lifemate to react?

It was almost a snarl. Her heart thudded hard against her chest. Ben? You're jealous of Ben? Are you nuts? Ben thinks I'm loony. He loves me like a sister or something. And I love him back the same way.

Do not speak to me about loving another man when you refuse to love me.

Rafael, Ben does not try to take over my mind and rule me like I'm some brainless sex toy. Maybe you should try to learn a little something from him.

Ben does not try because you do not belong to him.

"Oh, for God's sake!" Exasperated, Colby jumped up. "Men are idiots. I can't take this. I really can't. Ben, go away and take Rafael with you."

Ben looked completely confused. "You never make any sense, Colby."

"I make perfect sense, Ben. Men don't make sense. I need rest. I'm upset and I'm cranky and frankly if you don't get out of my house, I'm setting the dog on the both of you." She glared at Rafael, her hands on her hips.

He straightened slowly. It was a lazy movement, but catlike and sensual. Or predatory and sensual. Colby couldn't decide which. Whatever it was, she could hardly breathe with him staring at her. Devouring her. Stripping off her clothes and claiming her with his black hungry eyes. He took one step toward her and stopped abruptly, the smoldering intensity riding from his gaze, replaced by ice-cold calculation. She instantly felt the darkness creeping through the sky, invading her lands.

What is it? But she already knew. It was out there, maybe watching, maybe after Paul again. The vampire had risen.

He knows I am not yet at full strength and he wishes to test me in battle. The vampire will always take the advantage.

'"Then don't go. Stay here with me." Colby crossed the small distance between them, catching his arm. "Wait until you're stronger." It was perverse, and totally an about-face, her motions swinging wildly out of control at the thought of Rafael in danger. She couldn't stop herself from clinging to him even though she'd wanted him gone only moments before.

Ben threw his hands into the air in exasperation. "Two minutes ago you were throwing us out and setting the dog on us, now you want us to stay. Colby, get a handle on your emotions."

Rafael bent his head toward Colby. He framed her face with his hands. "You know I have to go, meu amor. Paul is in too much danger to let this pass."

"Then call Nicolas."

He pressed his forehead against hers, blocking out Ben, the vampire, everyone, until there was only them. Colby and Rafael. "You know I cannot. He is too weary, too far gone. He fights the darkness every moment."

"He'll fight it more if anything happens to you," she whispered. "Rafael, don't go alone. That's what he wants."

"Do you know something about these disappearances, De La Cruz?" Ben demanded. "If you're meeting someone dangerous, I'll go with you."

Rafael didn't turn his head, but kept his gaze fixed on Colby's. "I thank you for your concern but I must handle this problem alone. Perhaps you could drive to the Everett ranch and take Colby with you. Tell Juan and Julio to watch the boy."

He kissed her. Took possession of her mouth the way he did with no coaxing, no light foreplay, instead claiming her, branding her, his mouth hot and hungry and demanding a response. Colby wrapped her arms around his neck, her body melting into his, completely oblivious to Ben's presence.

Rafael put her from him and turned and walked out. Colby went to the window to watch him go. He simply dissolved, was no longer there, but she caught sight of a harpy eagle winging across the sky.

"I hope to hell you know what you're doing, Colby," Ben snapped.

"I hope so too," she said absently.

"Come on, I'll take you to the Everett ranch."

"I can't go, Ben, but will you make certain Paul and Ginny are safe?"

"Are you sure?" He shoved his hat on his head.

"Very." She didn't turn her head, just watched out the window until the giant bird had disappeared behind the foliage of the trees. Her heart sank. "I have too much to do."

"Be careful, Colby, and take care of that leg."

She'd all but forgotten about her leg. Rafael had healed the cut. Long after Ben had driven away Colby continued to stare out the window into the night, blinking back tears. She finally put her hand into her pocket and pulled out the crumpled piece of paper with Natalya's cell phone number.


| Dark Secret | c