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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Five)

Adrenaline poured through her, putting her feet into motion. Tess dodged past him and tore up the hallway, her thoughts racing a thousand miles an hour.

She had to get out of there.

She had to get her purse and her money and her cell phone and get the hell out.

"We need to talk."

There he was again–standing right in front of her, blocking her path into her office.

As though he'd simply vanished from where he'd been standing before and materialized in the doorway she needed to get through now.

With a yelp of alarm, Tess made a quick pivot and launched herself into the reception area. She grabbed the desk phone and punched one of the speed-dial numbers.

"This is not happening. This is not happening," she whispered under her breath, repeating the mantra as if she could make it all go away if she hoped for it hard enough.

The call began to ring on the other end.

Come on, come on, answer.

"Put the phone down, female."

Tess whirled around, shaking with fear. Her attacker moved slowly, with the deliberate grace of a skilled predator. He came closer. Bared his teeth in a harsh smile.

"Please. Put it down. Now."

Tess shook her head. "Go to hell!"

The receiver flew out of her grasp of its own free will. As it clattered onto the desk beside her, Tess heard Ben's voice come on the line. "Tess? Hello… that you, babe? Jesus, it's after three o'clock in the morning. What are you still doing at the–" There was a loud snap behind her, like the telephone wire had been yanked from the wall jack by invisible hands. Tess jumped at the noise, fear coiling in her stomach in the silence that followed.

"We have a serious problem. Tess."

Oh, God.

Now he was pissed off, and he knew her name.

In the back of her mind, Tess registered the fact that aside from her attacker's impossible state of consciousness, he had also experienced a miraculous recovery of his injuries. Beneath the grime and smudged ash that marred his skin, all of his sundry scrapes and lacerations were healed. His black fatigues were still torn and bloodstained from the wound in his leg, but he wasn't bleeding anymore. Not from the likely gunshot wound in his abdomen either. Through the shredded fabric of his black shirt, Tess saw only smooth, bunching muscle and flawless olive skin.

Was this whole thing some kind of sick Halloween joke?

She didn't think so, and she knew better than to let her guard down with this guy for so much as a second.

"My boyfriend knows I'm here. He's probably already on his way. He might even have called the cops–"

"You have a mark on your hand."

"W-what?"

His voice had sounded accusatory, and now he pointed to her, indicating her right hand, which was trembling up near her throat.

"You're a Breedmate. As of tonight, you are mine."

His lip curled at the corner as he said it, like he found the words not at all to his taste. Tess didn't particularly like the sound of them either. She backed up several paces, feeling the blood rush out of her head as he tracked her every move.

"Look, I don't know what's going on here. I don't know what happened to you tonight, or how you ended up in my clinic. I sure don't know how it is that you could be standing in front of me right now, after I gave you enough tranq to knock ten men cold–"

"I am not a man, Tess. I am something… else."

She might have scoffed at that if he hadn't sounded so deadly serious. So deadly calm.

He was crazy.

Right. Of course he was.

Off the chain, raving lunatic, psycho crazy.

That was the only explanation she could come up with, staring in wide-eyed dread as he closed the space between them, the sheer power and size of him forcing her toward the wall at her back.

"You saved me, Tess. I didn't give you a choice, but your blood healed me." Tess shook her head. "I didn't heal you. I'm not even sure your wounds were real. Maybe you thought they were, but–"

"They were real," he said, a faint, rolling accent in his deep voice. "Without your blood, they might have killed me. But in drinking from you, I've done something to you. Something that I can't take back."

"Oh, my God." Tess felt sick, swamped with a sudden wave of nausea. "Are you talking about HIV? Please don't tell me you have AIDS… "

"Those are human diseases," he said dismissively. "I am immune to them. And so are you, Tess."

Somehow, that wacko declaration didn't give her a lot of hope. "Stop using my name. Stop acting like you know anything about me–"

"I don't expect this is easy for you to understand. I'm trying to explain as gently as I can. I owe you that much now. You see, you are a Breedmate, Tess. That's something very special to my kind."

"Your kind?" she asked, growing weary of his game. "Okay, I give up. Just what is your kind?"

"I am a warrior. One of the Breed."

"Right, a warrior. And breed, as in… what kind of breed?"

For a long moment, he just looked at her, like he was weighing his answer. "As in vampire, Tess."

Holy Moses on a pogo stick. He was beyond crazy.

Sane people did not go around pretending to be bloodsucking fiends–or worse, actually acting out their perverted fantasies, like this guy had with her.

Except there remained the fact that Tess's neck bore no trace of injury, even though she was certain– really, bone-chillingly sure–that he had chomped into her throat with razor-sharp fangs and swallowed quite a bit of her blood.

And then there was the incredible fact that he was standing here, walking and talking with no effect whatsoever of the tranquilizer that should have laid him low well into next week.

What could possibly explain any of that?

Distant police sirens wailed from someplace outside, the steady whine seeming on the approach to the clinic's section of the city. Tess heard them, and so did the psycho-ward escapee holding her hostage. He cocked his head slightly, his whiskey-colored eyes never leaving her for a second. He smiled wryly, just the barest curve of his broad mouth, then cursed low under his breath.

"Sounds like your boyfriend phoned in some backup."

Tess was too anxious to answer, uncertain what might provoke him now that he knew the authorities were on the way.

"Brilliant way to fuck up an evening," he growled, seemingly to himself. "This isn't the right way to leave things between us, but right now it doesn't appear I have much choice."

His hand came up near Tess's face. She flinched to evade his touch, expecting the crush of a hard fist or some other brutality. But she felt only the warm press of his large open palm against her forehead. He leaned in to her, and she felt the feather-soft brush of his lips against her cheek. "Close your eyes," he murmured.

And Tess's world went dark.

"No signs of any suspicious activity, folks. We checked all points of entry around the building, and everything looks tight and in order."

"Thank you, Officer," Tess said, feeling like an idiot for creating all the fuss at such a late–or, rather, early–hour.

Ben stood next to her in her office, his arm slung lightly around her shoulders in a protective, if a bit territorial, stance. He'd arrived a short while ago, not long after police sirens woke her out of an unusually deep sleep. She'd been working too late, evidently, and had dozed off at her desk. Somehow, she had knocked the phone and activated the speed dial for Ben's cell. He'd seen the clinic number come up on caller ID and worried that she was in some kind of trouble.

His subsequent three A.M. call to 911 sent two officers out to the clinic on a drive-by.

While they had not found any cause for alarm as far as break-ins or late-night intruders, they did find Shiva. One of the cops had questioned them on where the tiger had come from, and when Ben insisted that he'd found the animal, not stolen it, the officer was quietly skeptical. He allowed that with it being Halloween night, advertising mascots were unusually high targets for adolescent mischief, a fact that Ben was quick to assure him must have been the case with Shiva.

Ben was lucky he hadn't ended up in handcuffs. As it stood, he'd gotten off with a warning and a stern suggestion that he return Shiva to the gun shop first thing in the morning, just so nobody got the wrong idea and wanted to press charges.

Tess slid from under the weight of Ben's arm and held her hand out to the officer. "Thanks again for coming by here. Can I get you some coffee or hot tea? I've got both, and it will only take a few minutes to make it."

"No, thank you, ma'am." The policeman's comm device gave a short burst of static, followed by a coded string of new orders from Dispatch. He spoke into a mic clipped to his lapel, giving the all-clear on the veterinary clinic. "Looks like we're all set here, then. You folks take care now. And, Mr. Sullivan, I trust that you'll get that tiger back where it belongs."

"Yes, sir," Ben agreed, his smile tight as he accepted the officer's hand and gave it a brief shake.

They walked the police to the door and watched as the squad car eased out onto the quiet city street.

When they were gone, Ben closed the clinic door and turned to face Tess. "You sure you're okay?"

She nodded, gave a long sigh. "Yes, I'm perfectly fine. I'm sorry I worried you, Ben. I must have fallen asleep at my desk and bumped the phone."

"Well, I still say no good can come from you working such late hours. This isn't exactly the best part of town, you know."

"I've never had any problems here."

"There's always a first time," Ben said, his expression grim. "Come on, I'll take you home." "All the way to the North End? You don't have to do that. I'll just call a cab."

"Not tonight, you won't." Ben picked up her purse and held it out to her. "I'm wide awake, and my van is right outside. Let's go, Sleeping Beauty."

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