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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Eighteen)

Tess slept well for the first time in what felt like a week and in spite of the fact that her head was spinning with thoughts of Dante. He'd been in and out of her dreams all night and was the first thing on her mind when she awoke early that next morning, before the alarm clock on her nightstand had a chance to go off with its usual six A.M. blare.

Dante.

His scent still clung to her skin, even after twenty minutes under the warm spray of her shower. There was a pleasant sort of ache between her thighs, an ache she relished because it called to mind everything they'd done together last night.

She could still feel all the places where he'd touched her and kissed her.

All the places on her body that he'd mastered and claimed as his.

Tess dressed quickly, then left her apartment, stopping only to grab a cup of Starbucks on her way to make the 5:20 train at North Station.

She was the first one in at the clinic; Nora probably wouldn't arrive much before seven-thirty. Tess went in through the back door, leaving it locked behind her since the clinic didn't open for another couple of hours. As soon as she entered the kennel area and heard the labored wheeze in one of the cages, she knew she had problems.

Dumping her purse, office keys, and the half-empty paper cup on the counter next to the washbasin, Tess hurried over to the little terrier Dante had brought in the night before. Harvard wasn't doing well. He lay on his side in the cage, chest rising and falling in a slow pace, soft brown eyes rolled back in his head. His mouth was slightly open, his tongue a sickly gray color and lolled out to the side.

His breath was a dry rattle, the kind of sound that said all the bloodwork and tests she'd run the night before didn't need to be sent out to the lab after all. Harvard would be gone before the samples made it into the mail.

"Poor baby," Tess said as she unlatched the cage and carefully stroked the dog's fur. She could feel his weakness through her fingertips. He was holding on by the thinnest strand of life, probably too far gone even before Dante had brought him in to see her.

Sympathy for the animal curled around Tess's heart like a fist. She could help him. She knew the way…

Tess retracted her hands and clasped them together in a knot in front of her. She'd made a decision about this a long time ago. She'd promised herself, never again.

But this was just a helpless animal, not a human being. Not the vile man from her past who hadn't deserved any pity or her help.

What would be the harm, really? Could she actually stand there and watch the poor dog die, knowing she had the unique ability to do something?

No. She couldn't.

"It's all right," she said softly as she reached back into the cage.

Very gently, Tess brought Harvard out, cradling his little body in her arms. She held him like she would an infant, supporting his slight weight with one hand as she placed her other hand on his gaunt belly. Tess focused on the feel of his breathing, the faint but steady beat of his heart. She could read his weakness, the combination of ailments that had been slowly sapping his life away for probably several long months.

And there was more–her fingertips tingled as she moved down to the dog's abdomen. A bitter taste began to form at the back of her throat as the cancer made itself known to her touch. The tumor wasn't very large, but it was lethal. Tess could picture it in her mind, seeing the web of fibrous strands that clung to the dog's stomach, the ugly bluish clump of disease whose sole purpose was to drain away life.

Tess let the tumor come into her mind through her fingertips as the vibration of her blood began to simmer with power. She concentrated on the cancer, seeing it illuminate from within and then break apart. Feeling it dissolve as she held her hand over it and willed it away.

It came back to her so easily, her unexplainable ability.

My curse, she thought, although it was hard to think of it that way when the small bundle nestled in the crook of her arm whimpered softly and turned to lick her hand in gratitude.

She was so caught up in what she was doing, she almost didn't hear the noise that came from one of the clinic's empty exam rooms. Then it came again: a short, metallic scrape of sound.

Tess's head came up sharply, the fine hairs at the back of her neck tingling with alarm. She heard another noise then: a heavy foot scuffing on the floor. She glanced up at the clock on the wall and knew that it was still much too early for Nora to be arriving.

She didn't think she had anything to fear, yet as she started heading out to the other area of the clinic, she was hit with a sudden blast of memory–a light flicking on in the storeroom, a beaten and bloodied intruder slumped over on the floor. She paused, her feet stopping dead as the vivid image flashed through her mind, then vanished just as quickly.

"Hello?" she called out, trying not to jostle the dog in her arms as she walked out from the vacant kennels. "Is someone here?"

A hissed curse came out of the large examination room off the reception area.

"Ben? Is that you?"

He came out of the room holding an electric screwdriver. "Tess–Christ, you scared the shit out of me. What are you doing here so early?"

"Well, I happen to work here," she said, frowning as she took in his flushed face with the dark rings under his eyes. "What about you?"

"I, uh… " He gestured back to the exam room with his screwdriver. "I noticed the hydraulic lift was sticking on this table the other day. I was up, and since I still have the spare key to the place, I thought I' d come in and fix it for you." It was true, the table had needed some adjustment, but something about Ben's flummoxed appearance didn't sit right. Tess walked toward him, gently petting Harvard when the dog started to stir in her arms. " It couldn't wait until we opened?"

He ran a hand over his scalp, further mussing his disheveled hair. "Like I said, I was up. Just trying to help out where I can. Who's your friend?"

"His name's Harvard."

"Cute mutt; kind of runty, though. A new patient?"

Tess nodded. "Just came in last night. He wasn't doing too well, but I think he'll be feeling better soon. "

Ben smiled, but it seemed too tight for his face. "Working late again last night, Doc?"

"No. Not really."

He glanced away from her, and the smile turned a little sour.

"Ben, are we… okay? I tried to call you the other night, after the museum reception, to apologize. I left you a message, but you didn't call back."

"Yeah, I've been kind of busy."

"You look tired."

He shrugged. "Don't worry about me."

More than tired, Tess thought now. Ben looked strung out. There was an anxious energy about him, like he hadn't slept for the past two days. "What have you been up to lately? Are you working on another animal rescue or something?"

"Or something," he said, sliding a shuttered look at her. "Listen, I'd love to stay and chat, but I really have to go."

He pocketed the screwdriver in his loose jeans and started heading for the clinic's front door. Tess trailed after him, feeling a chill as an emotional distance that hadn't been there before now began to crack open between them.

Ben was lying to her, and not just about his purpose in being at the clinic.

"Thanks for fixing the table," she murmured to his fast-retreating back.

From within the opened door, Ben swiveled his head around to glance at her over his shoulder. His gaze raked her with its bleakness. "Yeah, sure. You take care, Doc."

An icy drizzle ticked against the glass of Elise's living-room window; overhead, the stone-gray afternoon sky was bleak. She parted the sheers of her second-floor private residence and stared out at the cold streets of the city below, at the clumps of people rushing to and fro in an effort to escape the weather.

Somewhere, her eighteen-year-old son was out there too. He'd been gone for more than a week now. One of the growing number of Breed youths who'd disappeared from their Darkhaven sanctuaries around the area. She prayed Cam was underground, safe in some manner of shelter, with others like him to give him comfort and support, until he found his way home.

She hoped that would be soon.

Thank God for Sterling and all he was doing to help make that return happen. Elise could hardly fathom the selflessness that made her brother-in-law devote himself completely to the task. She wished Quentin could see all that his younger sibling was doing for their family. He would be astonished; humbled, she was sure.

As for how Quentin would feel about her right now, Elise was loath to imagine.

His disappointment would be enormous. He might even hate her a little. Or a lot, if he knew that it was she who drove their son out into the night. If not for the argument she'd had with Camden, the ridiculous attempt to control him, maybe he wouldn't have gone. She was to blame for that, and how she wished she could call back those terrible few hours and erase them forever.

Regret was bitter in her throat as she gazed out to the world beyond her own. She felt so helpless, so useless in her warm, dry home.

Beneath her spacious living quarters in the Back Bay Darkhaven were Sterling's private apartments and underground shelter. He was Breed, so while there was even a hint of sun overhead, he was forced to remain indoors and out of the light, like all of his kind. That included Camden as well, for even though he was half hers–half human–he had his late father's vampire blood in him. His father's otherworldly strengths, and his weaknesses.

There would be no searching for Cam until dark, and to Elise, the waiting seemed an eternity.

She took up pacing in front of the window, wishing there was something she could do to help Sterling look for him and the other Darkhaven youths who'd gone missing along with Cam.

Even as a Breedmate, one of the rare females of the human species who were able to produce offspring with vampires–who were solely male–Elise was still fully Homo sapiens. Her skin could bear sunlight. She could walk among other humans without detection, although it had been many long years– more than a century, in fact–since she had done so.

She'd been a ward of the Darkhavens since she was a little girl, brought there for her own safety and well-being when poverty destituted her parents in one of Boston's nineteenth-century slums. When she was of age, she'd become the Breedmate of Quentin Chase, her beloved. How she missed him, gone just five short years.

Now she might have lost Camden too.

No. She refused to think it. The pain was too great to consider that for even a second.

And maybe there was something she could do. Elise drew to a halt at the rain-spattered window. Her breath steamed the glass as she peered out, desperate to know where her son might be.

With a burst of resolve, she pivoted around and went to the closet to retrieve her coat from where it had been since several winters past. The long navy wool covered her widow's whites, falling down around her ankles. Elise put on a pair of pale leather boots and left her quarters before fear could call her back. She dashed down the stairwell to the door at street level. It took her a couple of attempts to punch in the correct security code needed to unlock the door, for she couldn't remember the last time she'd been out of the Darkhaven property. The outside world had long represented pain to her, but maybe now she could bear it.

For Camden, she could bear anything. Couldn't she?

As she pushed the door open, chilly sleet stung her cheeks, carried toward her on a rush of cool fresh air. Elise braced herself, then walked out, down the brick steps with their wrought-iron railing. On the sidewalk below, thin clusters of people passed, some huddled together, others walking alone, dark umbrellas bobbing with their hurried gaits.

For a moment–the smallest suspension of time–there was silence. But then the ability that had forever been her bane, the extraordinary skill that came in unique form to every Breedmate, pressed down upon her like a hammer.

–I should have told him about the baby–

–not like they're going to miss twenty measly bucks, after all–

–told that old woman I'd kill her fucking dog if it shit in my yard again–

–he'll never even know I was gone if I just go home and act like nothing's wrong–

Elise brought her hands up to her ears as all the ugly thoughts of the human passersby bombarded her. She couldn't blot them out. They flew at her like so many winged bats, a frenzied assault of lies, betrayals, and all manner of sin.

She couldn't take another step. She stood there getting soaked with drizzle, her body frozen on the walkway below her Darkhaven apartments, unable to will herself to move.

Camden was out there somewhere, needing her–anyone–to find him. Yet she was failing him here. She couldn't do anything but hold her head in her hands and weep.

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