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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Eight)

The North End stakeout was a bust. There had indeed been a rave at the old, empty building, but the partygoers were just a lot of humans. Not a Rogue in sight, and no sign of any Darkhaven vampires, let alone any misguided Breed youths jacked up on Crimson. Maybe it should have come as a relief that the city was quiet for a few hours, but after a patrol that had netted zero action all night, Dante was a good long way from relieved. He was frustrated, tense, and in severe need of some chill.

The cure for that was simple enough. He knew of about a dozen places topside where he could find a willing female with juicy veins and a warm, welcoming pair of thighs, and after dropping Chase off at his Darkhaven residence, Dante drove to an after-hours nightclub and parked the Porsche at the curb. He dialed the compound on his cell phone and gave a quick recap of the night's nonevents to Gideon.

"Look at the bright side, D. You went seven full hours without killing the Darkhaven agent," Gideon remarked slyly. "That's an impressive benchmark in itself. We've got a pool going over here about how long the guy's going to last. For what it's worth, my money's on nineteen hours, tops."

"Yeah?" Dante chuckled. "Put me down for seven and a half."

"That bad, eh?"

"I suppose it could have been worse. At least Harvard knows how to follow orders, even if he seems the type to prefer being in charge."

Dante glanced in his side mirror, distracted by a wedge of pale female belly and half-exposed, leather miniskirt-clad hips that were currently snaking around the left taillight of the vehicle. Perched on steep platform heels, she rolled toward the closed window with a practiced strut that suggested she was a pro. When she leaned down and shot him a glimpse of fleshy tits, a street-hardened smile, and heroin-vacant eyes, she removed all doubt.

"Lookin' for some company, handsome?" she mouthed at the darkened glass, unable to see who she was propositioning and evidently not caring, based on the quality of his ride.

Dante ignored her. Even a live-for-the-moment libertine like himself had certain standards. He hardly noticed as the prostitute shrugged, dejected, and moved on up the street. "I need you to run a search on something for me, Gid." "You got it," he said, the clack of a keyboard being drafted into action sounding in the background. " What do you need?"

"Can you find anything on some kind of museum event taking place tomorrow night? A dinner or something like that?"

It took only a second for Gideon to come back with a reply. "I've got a social-pages listing for a chichi patrons' dinner exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tomorrow night, seven-thirty."

That had to be the event Tess and her boyfriend were talking about at the produce stand. Their date.

Not that he should care what the female was doing, or with whom. It shouldn't put his blood on a hard boil to think of another man touching her, kissing her. Burying himself inside her body.

It shouldn't register on his fury meter at all, but damn if it didn't.

"What's going down at the MFA?" Gideon asked, breaking into his thoughts. "You got a lead on something over there?"

"No. Nothing like that. Just curious, that's all."

"What, you're suddenly into the arts?" The warrior chuckled. "Jesus, maybe a few hours with Harvard is having an adverse effect on you. Never figured you for the highbrow shit."

Dante wasn't a total cultureless heathen, but he wasn't in any frame of mind to explain himself right now.

"Forget it," he all but snapped into the cell phone.

His irritation was only slightly improved when he noticed he was being sized up again. This time it was two pretty females who looked like they'd come in from the suburbs for a good time. College girls, he was guessing, based on the fresh faces, perky twenty-something bods, and torn, faux-vintage designer jeans. They were giggling and trying to act unimpressed as they approached the car on their way into the club.

"So, where are we, D? You on your way back to base now?"

"No," he said, voice low as he cut the engine and let his gaze trail the women as they passed. "Night's still young. I think I'll stop off for a quick bite first. Maybe two."

Sterling Chase prowled his Darkhaven residence like a caged animal, edgy and anxious. Although the night hadn't exactly been a success by any measure, he had to admit a certain exhilaration his first time out on his mission. He didn't care much for the arrogant, antagonistic warrior he'd been partnered with, but he reminded himself that his purpose in seeking the Order's help far outweighed any of the bullshit he would likely be subjected to by Dante or his brethren these next few weeks.

He'd been home for a couple of hours now. A couple more and it would be daybreak, not that he would feel much like sleeping.

At the moment, he felt like talking to someone.

Of course, the first to come to mind was Elise. But at this hour she would be retired to her quarters, preparing for bed. It didn't take much for him to picture her seated at her delicate little vanity, probably nude beneath yards of gauzy white silk and brushing out her long blond hair. Her lavender eyes were likely closed as she hummed absently to herself –a habit she'd had since he'd first met her, and one that only endeared her to him all the more.

She was fragile and sweet, a widow going on five years now. Elise would never pair with another; in his heart of hearts, he knew that. And part of him was glad for her refusal to love again–the right of every Breedmate who lost her beloved–because while it meant he would live in the misery of wanting her, he would not have to accept the even more crushing blow of seeing her bonded to another male.

But without a male of the Breed to nourish her with the time-altering gift of his blood, Elise, born human like every other Breedmate, would one day grow old and die. This was the thing that saddened him the most. He might never truly have her, but it was a certainty that one day, probably no more than a scant sixty or seventy years from now–a blink of time, to those of his kind–he would lose her completely.

Perhaps it was that idea that made him want so badly to spare her every hurt that he could.

He loved her now, as always.

It shamed him, how much she affected him. Just thinking of her, his skin felt tight and too warm. She made him burn inside, and she could never know the truth of that. She would despise him for it, he was sure.

But that didn't stop the clawing itch to be near her.

To be naked with her, even just once.

Chase stopped his pacing and dropped down onto the large sofa in his den. He sat back, thighs spread, head back on his shoulders, staring up at the tall white ceiling some ten feet above him.

She was there, in that bedroom over this very space.

If he breathed deeply enough, he could catch the faint rose and heather scent of her. Chase sucked in a long draft of air. Hunger coiled in him, stretching his fangs from his gums. He licked his lips, almost able to imagine the taste of her.

Sweet torture, that.

He imagined her padding barefoot across the carpeted floor of her room, unlacing the ties of her flimsy nightgown. Letting the silk fall near the bed as she climbed onto cool sheets and lay there, uncovered, uninhibited, her nipples like rosebuds against the paleness of her skin.

Chase's throat was desert dry. His pulse kicked into a hard drum, blood flowing hot through his veins. His cock was stiff within the confinement of his black jeans. He reached for the ache of his sex, palming his erection over the thick fabric and straining buttoned fly. Stroking himself the way Elise never would.

He rubbed more urgently, but it only made the need worse.

He would never stop wanting…

"Jesus Christ," he muttered, disgusted with himself for his weakness.

He yanked his hand away and got up with a hiss of anger, denying himself even so much as the fantasy of bedding his perfect, unattainable Elise.

Heat licked along the length of Dante's bare legs. It climbed higher, over his hips and torso, snaking up his spine and around his shoulders. Relentless, consuming, the heat pressed deeper, like an unstoppable wave crashing over him in slow-motion torment. It burned ever stronger, growing ever hotter, all but engulfing him.

He couldn't move, no longer in control of his limbs or even his own thoughts.

All he knew was the fire.

And the fact that it was killing him.

Flames were twisting all around him now, smoke churning black, searing his eyes and scorching his throat with every futile, gasping breath he tried to take.

No use.

He was trapped.

He felt his skin blistering. Heard the sickening crackle of his clothing–his hair too–catching fire while he registered it all in stark, debilitating horror.

There was no way out.

Death was coming.

He felt the dark hand descend on him, pushing him down, toward a vortex of seething, endless nothing —

"No!"

Dante came awake with a jolt, every muscle tensed to fight. He tried to move, but something held him down. A slight weight draped across his thighs. Another lying limply across his chest. Both females stirred on the bed, one of them making a purring noise as she nestled against him and stroked his clammy skin.

"What'sa matter, baby?"

"Get off me," he muttered, his voice raw and thready in his parched throat.

Dante extricated himself from the tangle of naked limbs and put his bare feet on the floor of the unfamiliar apartment. He could hardly catch his breath yet, his heart still hammering hard. He felt fingers running up the small of his back. Irritated by the unwanted touch, he got up off the sagging mattress and began searching for his clothes in the dark.

"Don't go," one of them complained. "Mia and I aren't finished with you yet."

He didn't answer. All he wanted right now was to be moving. He'd been still for too long. Long enough for death to come looking for him.

"You okay?" asked the other girl. "You have a bad dream or something?"

Bad dream, he thought wryly. Far from it.

He'd been seeing the same vision–living it in vivid detail–for as long as he could remember.

It was a glimpse of the future.

His own death.

He knew every agonizing second of his final few moments of life; all that remained unanswered was the why, the where, and the when of it. He even knew who to credit for the curse of his vision.

The human woman who bore him in Italy some 229 years ago had seen not only her own death but that of her beloved mate, the Darkhaven vampire who had been Dante's scholarly, aristocratic father. Just as she'd envisioned it, that gentle female met a tragic demise, drowning in an ocean riptide after she' d swum out to pull a child from the same disaster. Dante's father, she had predicted, would be slain by a jealous political rival. Some eighty years after her death, outside a crowded meeting hall in the Rome Darkhaven, Dante had lost his father just as his mother had described.

His mother's unique Breedmate gift had passed down to her sole offspring, as was often the case among the Breed, and now Dante was the one damned with death visions.

"Come back to bed," one of the young women pleaded from behind him. "Come on, don't be such a drag."

Yanking on his clothes and boots, Dante strolled back over to the bed. The females pawed at him as he came near, their movements drowsy and fumbling, their minds still sluggish from the thrall of his earlier bite. He had sealed their wounds right after he'd fed, but there remained one thing to do before he could make his escape. Dante reached out and put his palm against the brow of one girl, then the other, scrubbing all recollection of this night from their thoughts.

If only he could do the same for himself, he thought, his throat still dry with the taste of smoke and ash and death.

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